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Archives for Ingredients: What Goes In

Outside the Food-Shed

Apr
17
2009

I’m a great fan and promoter of eating food produced locally: something called eating in the “food-shed.” A food-shed isn’t one of the wooden buildings that I helped my father build while growing up on a farm, it’s more akin to a watershed, which refers water flowing through a specific geographic area to on its way to the ocean. “Food-shed” is a bit more arbitrary in that it’s usually defined as a set of geographical coordinates (say, everything within a 100- or 200-mile radius of a given home) as opposed to a natural topographic feature.

The concept of a food-shed was created to promote the idea of eating locally, and as I said, I think this is a good idea. Local food is usually fresher and so it tastes better. Growers don’t have the incentive to pick under-ripe fruit or veggies to give them more leeway in shipping and so time-to-market is minimized. The ultimate in local eating at this time of year visiting a pick-your-own strawberry or asparagus farm, coming home, and eating the fruits (or stalks) of your harvest for supper that night. The difference in flavor between asparagus picked and cooked immediately and asparagus cooked a day later is an order of magnitude.

Then there’s the industrialization issue. Producing animals and vegetables on an industrial scale requires some use of petroleum-based herbicides, pesticides, and fertilizers. Probably not to the degree Big-Ag uses them, but some. Small, local production requires much less external input because harvesting is hands-on – the farmer inspects each fruit or vegetable to at least some degree. It’s less demanding of soil nutrients because crop/animal rotation is feasible.

For lack of a better work, I really have a “belief” in the importance of agriculture as a personal instead of an industrial endeavor. I like the idea of rewarding people who’s names I know by buying from them and by telling them what I did with those Cherokee Purple tomatoes or that Maine Musk canteloupe. We both, buyer and seller, benefit from that genuinely personal exchange of value for value. Commerce can and often should involve far more than handing over greenbacks for green beans.

However, in planning my Easter dinner this year I called MarxFoods in New Jersey and asked them to send me an evaluation package of their Wild Produce Sampler that is harvested in the rain forests of Oregon and Washington. Not exactly local. But, I’ve had contacts with MarxFoods before and I think they are believers in offering something special to their customers – I went outside my food-shed to get something special. It’s not unlike me buying shrimp here in land-locked Knoxville.

Frankly, the idea occurred to me because I had a hankering for some fiddlehead ferns. I’ve had fiddleheads before when I lived near their native habitat and almost liked them, I wanted to try a new approach to flavoring them. The sampler includes stinging nettles and miner’s lettuce so it offered an opportunity to try some new things as well as revisiting an old one.

The wild veggies were shipped overnight and arrived absolutely fresh. The next day I fixed them as a feature of my Spring/Easter dinner. One of my guests had eaten fiddleheads and nettles before but the other four guests were eating something brand new. When I cleaned up on Monday morning there were a few leaves of miner’s lettuce on a couple of plates – a true complement. If the people you’re feeding say the food is good it’s one thing but when the plates look like they were licked clean, you know they meant it.

The Kenny Rogers song goes, “Know when to hold them, know when to fold them.” When it comes to cooking, know when to stay close to home, and when to step outside of your food shed and munch on the wild side.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:03 AM | Permalink

DIY – Making Lard That Lasts

Apr
6
2009

My stomach is rumbling. Well, not really rumbling so much as gurgling, burbling, growling, and I could swear it just made a barking kind of noise. (Frankly, the barking has me a bit worried.) You see, my house is innundated with the smell of porcine protein and fat – and has been since 9:00 this morning, five hours ago. It’s got about two hours to go.

I’m rendering lard.

Once or twice a year I get some pork fat, render it down, and freeze it. Then come fall I can make an apple pie crust worthy of the effort of making the crust from scratch, or fry to-die-for chicken for a summer picnic, or roast some fresh green beans that will make your mouth sing.

But in the process I get a few puzzled looks. The first time I approached Laurel Creek farms owner Tracy Monday about getting some pork fat was weirder than I expected. I’d been buying from Tracy for awhile and this was right after I’d bought Charcuterie and learned that the best lard, something I’d made once before, is made from what’s called “leaf fat,” the fat found around the pig’s kidneys.

First, the idea that I wanted to buy pork fat was weird to Tracy. This was about five years ago and the concept of making one’s own lard or sausage was still unusual here in Knoxville (it probably still is for most people). Also, he had no idea what leaf fat was and given that I’d never seen it I had trouble describing it to him. I eventually ended up with about a pound of fat that, if I remember correctly, rendered down to about a cup of lard.

These days Tracy knows what leaf fat is and his commercial customers get most of it. So I make do with trimmings which make fine lard and are completely suitable for sausage. But the odd looks don’t really stop. When I picked this lard up at Tracy’s new retail outlet the poor young tattooed clerk was as puzzled as Tracy had been years ago.

Why make lard? I can cruise into the nearest Latin American mercado and buy a pound or a gallon of Armour Manteca. That’s what the wife of the guy mowing my condo’s lawn does and then she uses it to make gorditas just like her grandmother’s and the tamales her husband swears by. But that lard is processed; it’s adulterated with preservatives and partially hydrogenated to make it shelf-stable. It’s nowhere near as good as lard can be.

Today’s rendering will produce about four cups of which I’ve promised two to friends. The remainder I’ll use mostly in the four or five pie crusts I make a year. I’ll likely roast potatoes in some of this rendered lard and sauté greens in some more. Try brushing a chicken with lard and then roasting it – beats butter by miles. With potatoes (and anything else you might deep fry) add a quarter cup or lard to the oil for a richer flavor. And spread a bit of melted lard on a grilled cheese sandwich instead of butter for an obscenely good treat.

Making lard isn’t hard, but it takes a strong stomach. You begin by cutting the fat up into 3/4-inch square chunks – more or less. This should fill your pot by about two thirds- figure a four quart pot for four pounds of fat. Then add an inch of water and place the pot over a burner on low.

For the first couple of hours, as the fat stews in the water, the odor is funky. It doesn’t smell bad, but it doesn’t smell good either. This is the easy part. After a couple of hours the water has all evaporated and the fat is melting in fat and it starts smelling good. Crazy good. Mouth-watering good. Chew your arm off good. It’s torture. You sit there, trying to ignore that wonderful pork aroma so that some evening you can make a wonderfully flakey, richly flavored shells for Cornish pasties or make Maine Fries that even John Thorne would relish.

And you start thinking, “I should add some salt to that,” or, “A few sprigs of rosemary would be perfect,” or, “Maybe a few juniper berries would help.” In short you start wanting to cook. But you’re not cooking, you’re producing an ingredient. Anything you do now will come back to haunt you in later pie crusts, french fries, or turnip greens.

The lard isn’t a painting, it’s the white gesso on a canvas – the foundation the painting relies upon – and if you color to the white the final painting will suffer.

Lard

4 pounds pork fat, cut into 1/2 – 3/4-inch pieces
1 1/2 cups water

Pour water into a 4 quart soup/stock pot. Add fat. Place over low heat and cook, stirring occasionally, for 6 hours until fat browns. (Note: Water will evaporate, don’t replenish.) Filter through cheese cloth, cool and freeze. Keeps 6 – 9 months in freezer.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Cheap Eats

Feb
16
2009

I made fondue a few weeks back. The gruyere and emmentaler cheeses cost $9.00 and $6.00 respectively for a half pound of each. I used a California Sauvignon Blanc at $13.00 a bottle. The bread (a good artisan French loaf from a local bakery) was $4.00. Kirschwasser (cherry brandy) was $8.00 but I only used a bit – call it $2.00. Assorted pickles, olives, and sliced sausages on the side – $5.00. So altogether I spent $39.00 on dinner for a dinner for two. There was a bit of fondue and bread leftover, so let’s assume it was more like $35.00 for two. Not so cheap, but cheaper than the $70.00 the Melting Pot charges – and probably better tasting.

fondueAnd yet, fondue is actually a peasant meal. Herders in the Alps would melt the cheese they made (probably the cheese that wasn’t quite up to commercial quality) over a fire in the wine their neighbors made. Then they’d dip the bread their wives made in the cheese and munch on homemade sausages and pickles. Such a meal wasn’t exactly free. Making cheese, wine, sausage, pickles, and bread all require a great deal of work and skill. But such meals probably didn’t cost the herder a single Swiss centime. Peasant food. Cheap eats.

It strikes me as supremely ironic that some of our most-renowned dishes – dishes you can pay a fortune for in three-star restaurants – are ultimately peasant food. Bouillabaisse, Boeuf Bourguignon, Choucroute and even sushi, like fondue, all began as poor peoples’ foods. But here’s the kicker: These deservedly famous foods began as peasant food because the ingredients, cooking techniques, and cooking equipment were indeed cheap in their place of origin. Bouillbaise is made from the fish that didn’t sell, which is cheap if you’re a fisherman in Marseilles but expensive if you’re a middle manager in Kansas – same with sushi. When you can trade the cheese or sausage you made from your own cows for a bottle of wine from your neighbor’s fields, wine is a cheap ingredient, but not when it has to be shipped in from California or the Rhine Valley.

Cassoulet is another famous French dish that began as peasant food. It includes duck confit, pancetta, and garlic sausage – expensive ingredients where I live. But it’s basically just another bean dish and it’s essence can be captured with a few deft ingredient choices for a fraction of the cost and effort. And for that matter, Boston Baked Beans (or the Southern Barbequed Beans) are home-grown and absolutely delicious local peasant foods. I adore macaroni and cheese, made from scratch with quality ingredients. I made that fondue because I owed a friend a special meal, and I’m too chintzy to take anyone out to dinner. Or for a fraction of the cost of fondue, try Welsh Rabbit. Same idea, another imported peasant food, but using domestic cheese, beer, and toast makes it cheap eats.

Want to go all-American? Make your own burgers – America’s ultimate peasant food. Burgers have moved into upscale restaurants and, if you wish, you could once blow $125 on ground meat on a bun at the Boca Raton Resort. Make your own and it will beat the hell out of any fast food joint. Ground beef, pork, turkey, even lamb are relatively cheap. Add a few spices and herbs and pay attention to what you’re cooking and you can eat a burger worth writing about.

I have the luxury – like agrarian peasants of yore – of working at home so I can devote time to cooking and slow-cooking intensifies flavors and tenderizes tough meat – pot roast is a classic American example. But these days you can buy a slow cooker pretty cheap and cook supper while you’re at work.

The lesson to be learned here: Make the best of what you can afford. Peasant food isn’t about eating fancy, it’s about eating well.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

The Trouble with Truffles

Jan
26
2009

Editor Chris Nolan recently sent me a link to a contest being conducted by MarxFoods, a gourmet mail-order company specializing in fresh foods. They’re giving away 1/4 pound of fresh truffles – worth about $250. Nolan’s subject heading on the email was, “…while Rome burns?”

As it happens, I was arranging a visit to a truffle farm. Was I fiddling while Rome burned? Nolan’s snark aside, I don’t think so.

Click to enlarge.

The farm/orchard belongs to Dr. Thomas Michaels (Dr. Tom as his customers call him) is a fanatical fool for fungi and, in particular, truffles. He spent most of his professional life as a professor at Oregon State University studying truffles – figuring out how to cultivate this supremely wild and uncooperative (and therefore outrageously expensive) organism. In 1999 he moved to upper East Tennessee (because of it’s climate and soil) to try his hand at making a commercial venture of his obsession.

I learned of Michaels two years ago in a New York Times article and immediately called him, but by then the harvest season, which runs from December through January, was over so we chatted and discussed a visit the following season. For various reasons that trip didn’t pan out, but this year – last Monday in fact – it happened.

I’m a pseudo-chef, a genuine food lover, and someone who is as fascinated by the details of raising a great tomato as by a recipe for Ciopino or the history of the Dutch oven. Who cares if Rome is burning? I arose especially early on Monday morning and drove for two hours through flying snow to freeze my ass off tramping around chasing a bunch of curly-haired dogs who were cuckoo for truffles – or at least the treats their trainer fed them with each success.

Truffles are ugly, knobby little things. Fresh from the soil and covered with mud you might wonder how anyone could imagine eating one. But even fresh from the soil and covered with mud the smell is deeply sensuous – to me they smell like sex. Musty, musky, and deeply desirable. So deeply desirable that in 2007 a Macau casino owner paid $330,000 for a huge 3.3 pound specimen (over $6,000 an ounce). Now, admittedly, the size of the “truf” (as we pseudo-chefs sometimes call them) was the primary reason for the outrageous price, but even a one-ounce French Perigord truffle sells for about $90 an ounce. Outrageous? Perhaps.

But a one-ounce fresh Perigord truffle will make an unmistakable mark on a dish that serves eight people. It’s still an expensive ingredient, but nowhere near as bad as it sounds; a little goes a long way. Dr. Tom’s truffles sell for half that price and, according to the (genuine) chefs I’ve spoken to and who have more experience with this ingredient than I, the Tennessee Truffles are superior to the French variety because they’re only days, instead of a week or more, old.

Does this sound like a sales pitch? In the interest of full disclosure, I did come home with a free truffle, but I was quite willing to buy it. Having tramped around in the snow and having my olfactory nerves assaulted with that miraculous scent every time one of the dogs found a nubbin there was no way I was going to come home without a sample.

In my first column here, “Belly Battles“, I began with Brillat-Savarin’s statement: “Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you who you are.” As I noted then, this isn’t the common misquotation which is, “You are what you eat.” Instead Brillat-Savarin is noting that what we eat describes our cultural and personal background, our economic circumstances, and even our religion and philosophy.

I can feed myself six to eight extraordinary meals for $40 and yet I was willing to pay that much money for a single ingredient (albeit for multiple dishes/meals). I do hope to earn some income in articles from the trip, but that’s still speculative. No, the main thing this says about me is that I love exploring food – Rome afire or not. But it also reflects my upper-middle-income/academic background, my general openness to foreign foods, and the lack of any personal religious or philosophical objections to any food. Some may well turn up their noses at the idea of a truffle that’s not logged a few miles on trans-Atlantic flight but, well, those are the same folks who wouldn’t touch domestic caviar either, I’ll bet.

The opportunity to see Dr. Tom’s efforts to make this rarified treat more affordable and available appealed to the populist in me; even firemen have to eat. How could I not go? And by the way, the truffles are awesome.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Review: Domestic Caviar

Dec
8
2008

I had an odd conversation with my mother the other day. We were talking about my father’s third volume of memoirs (not published, a purely personal project of his) and my mother commented, “We were rich!”

“Rich?!” That’s not what I recall. Sure, we were comfortably middle-class, and, with two well-educated working parents in the 1950s and 60s, probably upper middle class. But I still remember my mother borrowing back the allowance she’d just given me in order to buy groceries for supper that night. And that allowance? I had to pull weeds, dig post holes for fences, split firewood, and generally work far more energetically than I ever had any mind to in order to earn it. I didn’t grow up lacking anything, but I didn’t grow up vacationing on the French Riviera either – I think we went to Cape Hatteras three times, once in January – and it snowed.

I don’t know how old I was when I first tasted “caviar”, perhaps 9 or 10 – and it wasn’t real caviar. It wasn’t Beluga, Sevruga or even Osetra from the Caspian Sea. It was lumpfish roe, dyed black and salted. I don’t recall if I liked it, but my guess is not. Nevertheless, this ersatz caviar became a regular canapé (on a cracker with cream cheese and a thin slice of lemon) at our family’s holiday gatherings – along with the California sparkling wine.

With Christmas on the way, I’ve been wanting to try some high quality domestic caviar and when I learned about Collins Caviar I figured this was my chance. I picked up the phone, called, and got the owner, Rachel Collins. I didn’t have an expense account, she offered to give me the caviar if I paid the shipping costs (which came to $51), I agreed. Wednesday afternoon my parents joined me for a tasting.

Now, good caviar – regardless of source – should taste distinctly of fish but should do so in the way a breeze off the ocean smells of fish. Not overwhelming, just clear. It should be salty, but again, not overwhelmingly so. Think salt spray on your lips. And the “berries” should burst in your mouth (it’s a textural thing), which is why Beluga’s large eggs are so famed.

I had Collins decide what to send me and she chose salmon, whitefish, and hackleback sturgeon roes. She also has paddlefish roe as well as some specialty products such as smoked salmon row and what they call a Caviar Margarita flavored with tequila. I tried a small spoonful of each before my parents arrived and liked the salmon best. When they got here I sliced a baguette very thin and offered the bread with a small round of excellent domestic chèvre thinking it’s tartness would complement the caviar. My parents contributed a bottle of Domaine St. Michele sparkling wine.

Our conclusions…

All were lightly salted allowing the flavor of the eggs to shine. This is very different from the stuff you get at most grocery stores, which is over-salted and pasteurized to make it shelf stable. In each case the eggs were perfectly whole – very well cared for during processing and another mark of good caviar.

The Great Lakes Chinook salmon caviar was our unanimous favorite. It had a gorgeous salmon color and the eggs were large (Beluga-sized) and burst perfectly between the teeth – an important textural aspect of caviar. It also had the most distinctive flavor: I could have easily eaten 4 or 5 ounces of it all by myself – and at only $18/ounce that’s not a far-fetched idea. In fact, given shipping charges, the more you order the cheaper the price.

Our least favorite was the whitefish caviar. It was almost flavorless with eggs the size of pinheads and even at $10/ounce I wouldn’t order it again. I wish she’d included the paddlefish caviar (paddlefish is a close relative of sturgeon), but beggars can’t be choosers.

The sturgeon (hackleback) was a surprise. It’s the most expensive of the lot at $48/ounce and the taste I ate plain wasn’t impressive. Nor are the eggs impressive, also the size of pinheads. As with the whitefish roe this means getting the full flavor is mitigated because many eggs simply aren’t broken when chewing due to their size. But I found that using a heaping spoonful made a difference. The flavor is light and supple and really stood out against the tartness of the chèvre.

I would love to do a side-by-side comparison of domestic and imported caviars, but that’s an unlikely event and really isn’t my point here. What I wanted to know is if premium domestic caviars, a wild food-stuff that is managed to at least some degree and that doesn’t require shipping from 6000 miles away was a reasonable alternative to $300/ounce beluga. My conclusion was: absolutely!

The hackleback and salmon roe were excellent with an edge to the salmon because of the large eggs (and lower price). If you have a foodie on your Christmas list – or are trying to decide on an hors d’oeuvre before Christmas dinner – domestic caviar is a great option. Even the domestic stuff isn’t really cheap, but at least you’re supporting a nice lady in Indiana instead of a member of the Russian mafia.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Yo! Nick! – A Cook’s Christmas List

Dec
1
2008

Polls are indicating that people are eating out less, and when they do it tends to be at fast food joints. For example, Applebees sales are reportedly down about 15 percent while McDonalds are up by eight. But people are also doing more of their own cooking in order to economize. So this Christmas, I thought I might offer some suggestions for practical gifts to make home cooking more economical, easier, or both.

Few of the items mentioned below are actually inexpensive, but they cover a gamut of prices points and degrees of economy and I’ve either used or own most of them. So I know where-of I speak.

CrockpotFirst on my list is to reduce costs by eating less meat and eating tougher (cheaper) cuts of meat. A great tool for this approach is a slow cooker. Toss a chuck roast, some red wine, and a few vegetables and herbs in a Crockpot in the morning, set it on low, and come home to the most marvelous pot roast you can imagine. Or mix some dried beans, canned tomatoes, a smoked ham hock, and a few herbs and vegetables in a slow cooker and again, you come home to a meal packed with flavor. The trick here is the slow cooking, a technique that gently teases the flavors out and melds them. You can do the same thing using a Dutch oven (which is what I use).

Gelpro matNext on my list is a Gelpro kitchen mat. I spend way too much time standing on a tiled kitchen floor and not only do my feet get sore, but at the end of a full day of cooking everything is sore and stiff. I’d settle for one, but a couple of these would make my life far less painful – and I think making my life less painful is a good idea. At $125 for a small mat or $150 for a large one, they’re not cheap, but they are cheaper than the commercial mats. And if a mat like this makes you more inclined to cook then it’s a good idea.

Food LoopsFood Loops are a home cook’s substitute for kitchen twine. They’re made of silicon and are used to tie up rolled roasts. I’ve used them and they don’t hold as tightly as properly tied twine, but they’re a good substitute for someone who doesn’t know how to tie a roast and they make a nice stocking stuffer.

Vacuum SealerWhen the vacuum food sealers first came out the reports on them indicated they were expensive and not particularly effective. But since then the prices have dropped and the reliability improved. I just threw away a couple of pork chops that had migrated to the back of my freezer and avoided my notice for six months. Despite double-wrapping in plastic and storage in a zippered freezer bag, they were badly freezer-burned. A vacuum sealer solves this problem by eliminating air from around the food. Less wasted food means lower food costs.

Stock PotThere is no one more cognizant of food costs than a chef. Chefs waste nothing if they can avoid it because food costs are the bane of a chef’s existence – well, one of them. A great way to use up things like carrot peels, leafy celery tops, onion skins, bones, shrimp shells, and so on – stuff that most of us would think of as garbage – is to make this detritus into stock. Homemade stock is not only cheaper than anything you can buy, it’s usually far better-tasting as well. So I think a good, big stock pot is a great investment in better and cheaper meals.

Elements of CookingI spent last week answering questions by panicked home cooks about their Thanksiving meal. In many cases I had answers from my own experience on tap such as “How do I cook a beef tenderloin?” But in other cases they were facing difficulties I hadn’t personally encountered like, “I burned Food Lovers Companionthe turkey gumbo, how do I fix it?” In these cases I fell back on both personal experiences and a general knowledge (book-learning) of food and cooking. Michael Ruhlman’s Elements of Cooking is a great source of information on fundamental cooking techniques and processes, if all you own are cookbooks, you need this book. I also highly recommend Food Lovers Companion, an essential reference I can’t imagine living without – my copy is almost worn out.

So far I’ve remained practical in these recommendations, but I have a contrarian nature and when I know I should economize my inclination is to splurge (on the other hand, when I know I can splurge my inclination is to splurge), so I have a couple of suggestions along those lines. After all, Christmas is a celebration and some festivity is called for. How better to celebrate than enjoying a special treat?

TrufflesThe first treat is domestic truffles. These come from Tennessee and are the famed Perigord black truffles of France. They are reportedly an excellent alternative to European imports at a fraction of the cost. The second splurge is domestic caviar. I recently tried this product and wrote a review.Caviar

I’ll be reviewing both of these foods before Christmas so if you want to hold off on ordering I’ll be providing more information to go on, but for the right person caviar from the Great Lakes, country ham from Tennessee, or truffles from Oregon are a wonderful gift.

If you’re short on cash this Christmas, you’re short on cash and there’s probably little you can do about the fact. So I’ll be cooking up gifts again such as my grandmother’s Bourbon Cake and the pancetta I sent out last year. But if you have a little flexibility in your budget some of these gifts can go a long way toward making economizing a pleasure, not a curse.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Your Government Makes You Fat!

Sep
15
2008

Sounds like a headline from the tabloids, eh? But in fact it’s to some degree accurate – although it’s not a deliberate act – to say your government makes you fat. It’s another one of a case of unintended consequences that so bedevil our increasingly complicated world. But in this case we know who to blame: former Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz.

HFCSButz was born and raised on an Indiana farm and once he entered office as Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture he fundamentally changed what we call the Farm Bill. Prior to Butz the government funds provided to commodity farmers (corn, cotton, soy beans, rice…) were intended to tide them over from a year when prices were below the cost of production to a year when they could sell their products at a profit.

They were loans that began under Franklin Roosevelt which many economic conservatives decried as “socialist,” but that were actually just a form of insurance. It wasn’t a bad policy and its primary (and intended) effect was enabling some farmers to keep their farms during bad times. Butz changed the policy from one that provided insurance to one that created price supports. He wanted farmers to grow as much as they could every year and if that resulted in more product than the market could bear, then the government in effect bought the excess. The result was to almost completely remove market forces from those commodities.

But here’s where it bites us and the government supports obesity. Because price supports encourage farmers to grow as much corn as possible by making it profitable even when it wouldn’t ordinarily be, products made from corn are dirt cheap and there are a lot of them. (Check out my review of King Corn.)

Nature and market abhor a vacuum so, a surplus of corn created a search for ways to use the excess. Ethanol fuel was one solution and high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) was another.

The first significant use of corn syrup was in soft drinks. It was (and still is) cheaper than cane or beet sugar and so Coca-Cola and Pepsi jumped on it. Within short order the syrup was the sweetener of choice in most sweetened beverages. Initially this was simply a swap from sugar (sucrose) to fructose and while it had a huge impact on the sugar industry for consumers it was (apparently) no more than swapping one form of nutritionless calories for another.

But it may not be that simple. Since the introduction of HFCS in 1970 and 2000 the consumption of fructose has increased 100 times while the consumption of sucrose has only declined 50%. In other words, we’re getting a lot more calories from sweeteners than we ever have. Furthermore, fructose isn’t metabolized in the same way sucrose. The result that our bodies and brains don’t recognize the calories (as they do with sucrose) in the sweetener. The consequence of this is that in addition to the calories gained from the soft drink, people are inclined to eat as much as they did in the past and so consume more calories than they did in the past.

But that’s not all.

Corn syrup has also became a popular sweetener in foods such as cookies and granola bars where it has the added advantage of keeping such products moister than sucrose. And, in addition to adding sweetness, HFCS also enhanced some savory flavors much as monosodium glutamate does. A couple of decades back MSG got a bad rap for the so-called Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. And while it’s probably true that a lot of Chinese restaurants in this country relied too much on MSG to make up for poor ingredients and bad technique, subsequent studies have largely debunked the allergy myth. Nevertheless, in response to the MSG backlash, food processors began adding HFCS to everything from tomato sauce to frozen hamburger patties to TV dinners. In doing so they bumped up the calorie count in each of these foods. And those additional calories are empty calories offering no nutritional value.

Although additional studies are needed, the evidence that HFCS is contributing at least indirectly to obesity in this country is strong enough to consider seriously. In the meantime continuing subsidies for corn insure that the federal government is at least in the business of indirectly promoting the use of high fructose corn syrup – and so quite possibly obesity as well.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Kitchen Spirits

Aug
11
2008

I came home the other day with a bottle of grappa. If you’re unfamiliar with it, grappa is a sort of clear Italian brandy made from the grape skins and pulp left over after making wine. Until recently it was thought of as a peasant drink, but it was “discovered” by someone – probably a marketer – and rapidly went upscale. I had my first taste on an Air Italia flight to Rome and quickly acquired a liking. It tends to be harsh, but the better grappas offer subtle complexities. I’ve found I like it better than brandy.

Liquor CabinetI’d bought the bottle not to drink but to make a dessert I’ve been meaning to try involving grappa, grapes, and mascarpone. I drink very little, but I can’t imagine cooking without booze. Whether wine, brandy, whiskey, or a liqueur, all can bring richness, depth, and even cultural elements to a dish.

Take the French classic, Coq au Vin. This traditional peasant dish is supposed to be made with a rooster (coq) past its breeding days. It’s tossed into a pot with some vegetables and red wine and slowly braised until tender. Why red wine? Because an old chicken is gamey and red is a better match for that gamey flavor than white. With a young hen or pullet white wine would work as well and might even be a better match for the meat, but, of course, it would lack the cultural connection.

The photo is of my liquor “cabinet.” When cooking, my most common “white wine” is dry vermouth. It works with most of my dishes and keeps me from having to open a whole bottle of white wine when I only need half a cup for a reduction sauce. To the right of the white vermouth is a three to four year supply of Kirschwasser, a cherry brandy. Kirschwasser is a key ingredient in cheese fondue, and in front of both is a bottle of Calvados, a French apple brandy that I often use in apple dishes. (There’s another bottle of Calvados in back, I’m not sure why I have two bottles.)

Grand Marnier, an orange liqueur, is great in a lot of different desserts and can make a nice addition to an orange vinaigrette. My editor points out that bitters – like grappa often considered a digestif – also do well in salad dressings. Bourbon is very Southern and can be a great addition to a pork marinade or barbeque sauce and I even have a recipe for sweet potatoes with bourbon and truffles that’s amazingly good. Rum is also a great addition to sweet potatoes and marinades, adding a Caribbean element to the dish.

In the background are bottles of cognac, vodka (I make a mean shrimp pasta with vodka), Amaretto, and Fra Angelica. I’m not sure why I have a bottle of sweet vermouth, I don’t recall what I bought it for, but it’s been around awhile. What you don’t see in the photo are two decanters on top of the bar containing sherry and port – favorites for pan sauces – nor do you see the rack of wine directly above the liquor.

Wines, beers, liqueurs, and whiskeys all have a important place in cooking. They bring interest, flavor, savor, and history to our meals whether you’re making Beef Carbonade with Belgian beer, Chicken Picatta with Italian Vermouth, or Lamb Daube with French wine.

And in the event you’re interested, here’s what I did with the grappa…

Grapes with Grappa and Mascarpone

3 cups seedless grapes (red, green or both)
5 tbsp grappa, divided
2 tbsp honey
3 fresh tsp lemon zest
6 oz mascarpone cheese – at room temperature

Puree 1 cup of grapes in a food processor or blender, transfer puree to a strainer over a small bowl and press to extract juice. Discard pulp. Add 2 tablespoons grappa, honey, and lemon zest and whisk to mix well. Add mascarpone and mix well. Chill for three hours.

Cut remaining grapes in half and add remaining grappa. Cover and allow to sit for 3 hours.

Spoon grapes into individual small, chilled bowls. Top with mascarpone and drizzle with grape juice.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 8:00 AM | Permalink

Urban Farming

Apr
7
2008

What makes someone tear up his front yard and plant vegetables? Why do people want to grow vegetables a mile from the White House or raise chickens in Brooklyn?

I mean, it’s gotta be ugly during the winter and early spring, and I can tell you from experience that a vegetable garden is an order of magnitude more work than a lawn. The reasons are probably different for everyone, but I think part of it is a desire for connection with the living world and perhaps a desire for control – at least over what we eat. Which is may be why, in 2002, my friend Ed Brusk started a garden in front of his house in Washington, D.C.

Clike to view larger image.He and his wife Lane reacted to the 9/11 bombings by gathering with friends to share meals. Although Ed is a journalist by training, he’s currently a personal chef and cooking seemed a good way to reaffirm life, human connections, and survival. He tells me that the group dinners prompted him to start a few vegetables as summer approached and, living on a corner lot, he didn’t have a back yard. The garden had to be up front. He was so pleased with his initial results that, “the next year I started digging again, tearing up sod, pulling tons of rocks and broken glass and strange pieces of metal out of the soil.” What began with a few tomato plants, cucumbers, and radishes has, in the years since, expanded to a full-blown kitchen garden and taken over the yard.

The Brusks are now growing enough food to can some for the winter months and they’ve joined a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) to provide what they can’t grow. Ed is even teaching urban kids to cook and garden.

Ed and Lane aren’t the only one’s going agrarian in the middle of the city. The DIY Network did a segment on a woman named Rani Jacobs who is growing food on the roof of her house as well as her yard. Novella Carpenter raises chickens in Brooklyn – for eggs and eating (in fact Carpenter has raised rabbits, turkeys, and pigs). And there’s a Web site, The City Chicken devoted to the topic. Perhaps the strangest urban agricultural venture is David Graves’. He has seven beehives on apartment building roofs all over New York City.

When I lived in the D.C. suburbs I regularly drove past a community garden. It was an irregular patch of land, perhaps two acres in size, occupied by small personal plots farmed by perhaps 50 different individuals. I mentioned this to Ed and he noted that the communal gardens so popular that getting access to a plot is, “as hard as getting Red Sox tickets.”

But an urban garden is not necessarily as simple as digging up your lawn. Ed’s gotten complaints from some neighbors who consider vegetables inappropriate in a front yard. And, according to Ed, “Lane is the real gardener” in the family and she had detailed plans for landscaping their property. But in his search for a mess of greens, Ed and his handy spade were making hash of those plans. S the pair have “reached an accommodation” and her landscaping plans have adapted to include Ed’s veggies.

My own gardening efforts have primarily been limited to herbs and tomatoes in pots. Full-blown gardens are more work than I’m interested in. Nevertheless, habits and sensibilities die hard. When I moved into my condo I was excited about the balcony on the south side because (in February) it got plenty of sun for herbs. Sadly, in June the 50 foot tall oaks and poplars shade the balcony too effectively and I can’t get herbs to do anything beyond survive.

But, still, as I sit here typing I’ve found myself developing a plan to enhance what sun I do get in the summer and create a year-round indoor herb garden. Please excuse me, I need to take a few measurements…

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

Fat, Fabulous Fat

Mar
31
2008

Like most (all?) humans, I love fat. And there’s good reason at the root of that love. Fats are essential to our metabolic process. They’re the way plants and animals store energy for future use. Because we can readily and quickly convert fat to serve immediate energy needs, it appeals very strongly to us.

There are many kinds of fat with even more tastes and flavors. So we’ve evolved to enjoy fat primarily by its feel in our mouths. This enables us to recognize both animal fat and vegetable fat; Saturated fat and unsaturated fat or bacon grease and avocado oil.

Even within those classifications, there are differences. Olive oils come from Spain, Italy, Greece, and California in hues of gold, some with a green patina reminiscent of oxidized copper, other glowing like sunshine on a fall vineyard. They come in flavors from the lightest hint of something almost lemony to assertive proclamations of their birth as Kalamata, Arbequina, or Manzanillo olives. They come packaged in two liter tins and elegant eight ounce bottles.

Butters, too, have personality. Whether the grassy notes of an Amish butter from Ohio or the creamy tang and bright yellow color of Ireland’s Kerrygold, each offers its own interpretation of deliciousness. But because fats don’t share a common taste humans needed another means of recognizing them – mouth feel worked.

Recognizing fat by mouth feel is an intriguing process. For the most part we rely on tastes to tell us if something is good for us or bad for us. Evolutionarily, sweets were almost always good for us in the form of fruit and a few other foods. Bitter tastes are often a sign of the alkalines that are part of many plant poisons — a warning taste. Salt is the only mineral we need in large quantities and so requires a source other than the trace amounts found in food.

Most people (at least those who pay attention to what they eat) have probably changed their fat intake over the past few years. My adaptation has been to pay a lot more attention to the fat I use and it’s function. I’ve cut back somewhat on all fat, but primarily on saturated fat – the stuff that comes from animal fats, like butter and lard. For instance, I now often sauté ingredients in a neutral olive oil and then add a bit of butter just before serving for flavor as opposed to sautéing entirely in butter.

Out of curiosity, I took a moment to list the fats I have on hand and found I had six bottles of various olive oils (my primary fat); a bottle of fresh canola oil and a bottle of canola oil I’ve used twice for deep frying; spray oil; sesame and peanut oils; salted and unsalted butters; bacon grease; homemade lard; duck fat; shortening; and pork fat back. Sometimes I have a few more kinds, sometimes a few less. But these are typical of my pantry – enough variety for almost any everyday cooking situation.

This list may be longer than the one you have. But keep in mind that fat doesn’t make you fat. It doesn’t cause your arteries to harden. It’s not bad for you. Eating too much fat makes you fat, causes your arteries to harden, and is bad for you. Some fat, whether olive oil or bacon grease is important to health. Olive oil is a healthier choice, but sometimes bacon grease is the right choice.

Posted by Kevin Weeks at 5:00 AM | Permalink

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