Saturday, December 27, 2008

Art. Food. Give.

Add to the list of most sought after inauguration events, Alice Waters will be "cooking" a dinner for 80 people on January 19th; the tickets are $500. We all know, however, that Alice doesn't actually cook herself (way to do your research NYT); she just tastes and tells her cooks if it tastes good. In addition, other renowned chefs, who do actually cook themselves, have also agreed to participate in the event and will be cooking dinners for 20-30 people in homes around DC on the same night. In addition, several arts related guests will be in attendance, including Maya Lin.

The event is called Art. Food. Give. and proceeds will benefit D.C. Central Kitchen and Martha's Table, which both operate soup kitchens and help to run FarmFresh Markets, which gave 17,000 pounds of food to emergency food providers during its first year. In addition, in keeping with Water's rhetoric for locally produced foods, the ingredients for the dinners will come from local and sustainable farms. In addition, Alice Waters' organization of this event is significant considering her role in trying to persuade President-elect Barack Obama and Mrs. Obama to plant a victory garden on the White House front lawn. Her role in "cooking" this inaugural dinner indicates her possible role in shaping food and agricultural policy in years to come. Let's hope at least.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Why WASPs should never try a Jewish Christmas

This, my friends, is what I ate for Christmas dinner. My parents decided to do the whole Christmas thing differently this year. Usually, in an effort to not cook two dinners at home, we spend Christmas Eve dinner at an inn-type place and have good ol' New England cuisine. Most often, it's overpriced and almost never as good as the meal we cook the next night. So, realizing how ridiculous it is to spend so much money on not such great food, the parents decided that this year, we would spend Christmas Eve at home cooking and do Christmas Jew-style. We spent the morning opening presents and doing our usual big Christmas morning breakfast, and, when this was all done, went to a movie. All great so far. Once the movie was over, however, we went to a Chinese/all-types-of-Asian-food restaurant, and the day just went down hill from there.

As I have had pretty adverse reactions to Chinese food and MSG in my lifetime (ie. face blowing up and dizzy spells) I decided to go with something I knew I liked and that was going to be simple: sushi. So I picked out the Maki triad, whose description on the menu read something along the lines of yellow tail, tuna, and salmon maki rolls decorated with festive rice paper. Festive decoration, that could be good, right? It's Christmas, after all. Um yeah, bad idea. That description apparently meant this lovely (read, utterly horrible) entree pictured above where the seaweed had been replaced with Easter colored rice paper. As much as these cheery colors would be lovely decoration for "festive" Easter eggs, I by no means wanted to consume them, especially on Christmas. What? Are we celebrating Christ's death before he's even out of the manger yet? And for serious, Christmas is my most favorite day of the year and I consume this? Um, gross. And um, I have indigestion now too. Chinese restaurants should not try to do all Asian cuisine. It doesn't work.

Anyways, so no Jewish Christmas for me next year. I'll eat left overs.

And, just for the record, this is not meant to be insulting an any way to any religion. Please forgive me if I have offended any of you.

Ruminations on Christmas Cookies

So this Christmas, my lovely roommate and I decided to get our bake on just a bit. Our bake on as well as our drink on, evidenced by the Knob Creek in the background of this photo. (Actually that second bit is a joke; I can't drink bourbon with a straight face for the life of me.) Anyways, the five batches of cookies we baked required a disgusting amount of butter, somewhere north of 12 sticks; I'm not going to say exactly how many north as many of the readers of this blog ate the cookies we baked. Sorry for those of you who have hereditary tendencies towards high cholesterol.

The two cookie types I baked were white bark balls and chocolate chip cookies, which would eventually have white chocolate covering and fleur de sel topping respectively. In the above photo, the initial batters are sitting in the fridge to cool down for their respective times.

After the bark ball batter (love the alliteration) had cooled in the fridge for 24 hours, I took the balls out one by one and covered them each with melted white chocolate. I would like to point out at this time the smaller than normal "sheets" of wax paper I used; I realized around 8:45 at night that we didn't have any wax paper left. By 9 I was out the door, only to find that almost every grocery store in Cole Valley/Upper Haight/Ashbury Heights was closed or didn't sell wax paper. As a last resort, I went to the wine shop just off the Carl and Cole intersection, and asked the man behind the counter, "I know this is a long shot, but do you have any wax paper?" To which he responded, "You mean something like this?" as he pulled out the used backs of UPS labels. "Well, yes I responded. But a few more. I'm baking cookies." The wine merchant then proceeded to take the UPS labels off all the wax covered backs he had and said, "I don't care, it's just UPS that's paying for it." Ha. A man after my own heart...and a man that allowed me to finish baking my white bark balls.

And here they are, the finished product! On some of them, I sprinkled little mint crumbles, which made for nice decoration.

And so now, back to my chocolate chip cookies. So after, 72 hours of refrigeration, I took the batter out, made little golf ball sized balls, sprinkled salt atop each ball, and put them into the oven at 350.

And here, my friends, is the glorious results of possibly the most delicious chocolate chip cookies you have ever tasted. For serious. Especially when they were fresh out of the oven. I would like you all to pay note to how the chocolate chips melt into the batter itself. The recipe I used called for dark chocolate disks rather than chocolate chips so the chocolate morsels have a larger surface area and thus exposure to heat so they melt that extra little bit. YUM! And the salt on top makes these by far the most complex (in a good way) chocolate chip cookies I have ever eaten.

My lovely roommate Nikki took a different approach to her baking and baked two types of cookies that were rolled out and cut with cookies cutters as well as a batch of oatmeal, cranberry, white chocolate cookies that I unfortunately didn't get any pictures of. In any event, above is pictured her sugar cookies just about to go into the oven.

Here are her sugar cookies just after they have left the oven and are cooling. Please note the delightful golden brown edges that are evidence of a perfectly cooked sugar cookie.

So every year around Christmas time, there is an onslaught of sweets and other tooth rotting treats, some of which are delicious and some of which (like say fruit cake) are horrible, but in the end, all of it looks good. So after Nikki's and my little adventure in cookie baking, I think the point of Christmas cookies isn't if they actually taste good or not (although, all of ours were amazing, of course) but if they look good.

Case in point.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tom Vilsack to be Secretary of Agriculture

Over the last few weeks, there has been much buzz over and speculation about who President-elect Barack Obama would choose as the next Secretary of Agriculture; yesterday, Obama choose Tom Vilsack, a two-term governor of Iowa. To be blunt, I'm not pleased, but my opposition is a bit more nuanced than total rejection.

Leading up to Obama's choice for Secretary of Agriculture, an online letter had been circulating that encouraged the Obama administration to choose an Agricultural Secretary committed to reform, or, appropriately dubbed, change. Leaders in sustainable agriculture, such as Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, stepped forward to speak about their ideas on the role for the next Secretary of Agriculture. Pollan specifically suggested the position's title be changed to Secretary of Food to reflect the changes in our food system since the position was first created, when the majority of Americans were farmers, in comparison to now, when our system is based upon enterprise farms using machinery for farm labor. It is no longer our agricultural system we need to protect but rather the food these enterprises create for Americans to consume. All this advocacy and excitement created an air of hope for change.

Tom Vilsack is not the choice for change. He is from Iowa, a state focused on corn; he is part of the very system that is the problem in our food chain. Corn is a problem for a lot of reasons. Both Obama and Vilsack are supporters of using ethanol as a way to reduce our dependence on foreign oil; while using ethanol does reduce our use of foreign oil, it also raises the cost of corn (most ethanol in the US is made from corn), which in turn raises the cost of food as so much of our food includes corn and corn bi-products. Corn-based ethanol is also not a sustainable energy source in comparison with other bio-fuels such as sugar cane ethanol. In addition, corn farmers currently receive large subsidies to raise corn, which has led our agriculture system to become a mono culture and the majority of our food to be processed corn bi-products, due to the surplus corn produced. Nutritionally, this means Americans are not eating a diversity of foods, which leads Americans to not consume the diversity of nutrients their bodies require. This diet based on corn bi-products also means Americans are eating unhealthy corn bi-products such as hi fructose corn syrup; most of Americans health problems can be traced back to their unhealthy, corn-based diet. And again, I will say corn is a problem for many reasons.

Being from Iowa and a supporter of ethanol, it is quite probable that Tom Vilsack will be more of the same. Obama's choice of Vilsack is also considered a thank you to Iowa for the state's support of Obama in the election. To be fair, however, as Michael Pollan commented in this morning's interview of NPR Morning Edition, Vilsack has suggested caps on corn farmers subsidies and supports more food production on a local level. In addition, it is important to acknowledge Obama's choice for Secretary of Energy, Seven Chu, who is considered an early leader in alternative energy and, importantly, is opposed to ethanol as an alternative fuel. It is thus possible that Valsack's support of corn-based ethanol will be trumped by the Nobel prize winning Chu's opposition. I believe Pollan's statement of being "cautiously hopeful" is a good one.

And yes, the picture above is indeed of Tom Vilsack, our future Agricultural Secretary.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Tao Cafe does Thanksgiving-stylin' dessert

On Saturday I went to Tao Cafe and enjoyed a pleasant meal with friends. Nothing special, but tasty and across the street from Lone Palm. What was stupendous, however, was the special pumpkin creme brule, served in a pumpkin! This choice of serving vessel was not only pleasant to look at but was also tasty to eat as the creme brule had been baked in the pumpkin thus making the sides of the pumpkin soft enough to eat. The added pumpkin to the already tasty dessert gave each bight an awesome texture and interesting flavor. The coconut ice cream is also a must :)

The Anti-Restaurants, Bay Area Style

In a recent New York Times, I read an article about the underground eating clubs, which I only vaguely knew about before. These "anti-restaurants", as dubbed by the New York Times, work to challenge the way we eat food. The eating club highlighted in the NYT article invited eaters, mostly from Brooklyn, up to a farm town 30 minutes outside of Ithaca, NY for an all day affair that began with butchering a boar at an ungodly pre-brunch hour and ended with a six course meal. Throughout the day, the participants learned how to make pasta, use hydrocolloids to make fluid gels, and improved their knife skills, strengthening the farm to table connection.

When I read this article, I got incredibly excited about the idea of these eating clubs and signed up for the listserve of the Bay Area based Ghetto Gourmet and two Sundays ago I participated in my first underground eating experience. I went with three friends and a tasty bottle of Honig wine to the address we were emailed two days before the event, just to add to the mystic. Each dinner the Ghetto Gourmet does is at a different location, which on one hand adds to the adventure and mystery of it, but on the other stops the organizers from getting in trouble with the food and wine board. Anyways, upon entering a stranger's home and taking our shoes off, we were greated by the host and told to take a seat at oneof the low lying tables around which the other guests were already sitting indian style.

At our table were several other guests already, and we began chatting with one woman from Minneapolis and a 20 year old tween from Westchester, NY along with some other folks. Eventually the food started coming out. The first course was a beet salad with a light vinaigrette. The second and third were a spicy pumpkin broth based soup and a polish chicken dish, respectively and dessert were thin, crepe-like pancakes with rose petal syrup (yes, with rose petals still in the syrup--the chef for the night had picked the petals from his in-laws bush and put them in simple syrup a few weeks before). All were tasty, but truthfully nothing really wowed me.

What was amazing and wonderful though was the random people you meet while sitting at your table. Half way through the meal, the tables were switched up and you were at a table with entirely new people. It was a wonderful experience talking to total strangers about their lives, about how they got to San Francisco and this underground meal, and about the meal itself. What was anti-restaurant about this meal was the deliberate strengthening of the community formed over the meal; at the end of the night, I ended up driving a couple home, along with the three other people I already had in my car.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

More on the Aviary System for Raising Chickens

Two weeks ago, on Tuesday November 4, Proposition 2 passed in the state of California, making one of the first state wide steps towards positive reform of our food system. I thought I would take this opportunity to explain more in depth the aviary system for raising chickens I had mentioned in November 3rd's post.

As I stated in my last posting, the basic premise of the aviary system is a multi-level chicken coup in which the same amount of space on a farm is converted into more area for chickens via the addition of floors; think of it as an apartment building for chickens. The aviary system, however, is a little more complicated. One of the main problems with the way chickens are presently raised now is waste disposal. In an aviary coup, there are specific aisles designated for litter. These areas are cleaned via a manure belt, which eliminates the problem of sickness due to feces (god, that would stink...bad joke; couldn't resist.) In addition, aviary coups are equipped with soft nesting areas that reduce the cracking of eggs.

The big advantage of aviary systems is the amount of space they provide per bird. In a paper published in Poultry Science in 1998, the effects on bone characteristics of raising chickens in cages or in aviary chicken coups is compared and the results show that chickens raised in an aviary system have stronger bones. In the aviary system, chickens have the ability to flap their wings, walk, and perch as well as other dynamic and static activities, which all increase bone strength and thus the chickens' health. In addition, there is some correlation between bone strength and calcium depletion in egg shells. Because much of the opposition to Prop 2 focused around hens laying eggs, it is interesting to realize that the aviary system would likely reduce the amount of egg breakage both by the soft nesting areas as well as by increasing the strength of the egg shells themselves. Of course, installing an aviary system will require an initial capital investment and it has been shown that there will be a brief pause in egg laying due to the stress of moving the chickens from one place to another. All in all, however, the aviary system will improve the lives of our chickens and improve the quality of the chickens and eggs that we eat. A feel good proposition, yes?

Monday, November 3, 2008

Prop 2: A Little Pre-Election Day Advice...

As we head into election day tomorrow, I thought I should write about Proposition 2, a bill designed to stop cruel and inhumane treatment of animals, specifically regulating the conditions under and spaces in which farm animals are raised in California. One of the significant things to keep in mind with this California bill is that California comparatively produces less pork and beef than it does chickens, so much of the debate for this bill is around the treatment of chickens. When I first heard about this proposition, I immediately jumped to the opinion that I was going to vote yes on Prop 2, but read a few opinions that have made me think a little more about this decision.

In the most recent Center for Urban Education about Sustainable Agriculture (CUESA) news bulletin, the feature article addresses Prop 2, specifically asking the Saturday farmer's market's egg producers their thoughts on the proposition, and the farmer's were surprisingly divided. Steve Mahrt of Pataluma Farms is against Prop 2 as he believes it is a well-intentioned bill but bad for business. Pataluma Farms produces both cage-free and caged chickens and is a small farming operation in the North Bay. What made me think twice about Mahrt's comment about this proposition being bad for business is that he is not part of a large, industrial farm, but rather a small, family operated one that serves the local community. Mahrt continued that Prop 2 would likely raise the cost of producing eggs by more than the 1 or 2 cents Yes! on Prop 2 suggests, and feels that long term this would mean that eggs would be shipped into California from other US states as well as Mexico. For me, this idea is a problem as shipping eggs that could be produced locally over long distances is not sustainable and would also negate the good of this bill if eggs were just produced elsewhere where the laws are different.

CUESA's feature article also presented the opinion of another farmer who is in favor of Prop 2 and who brought up a lot of good points to Mahrt's opinions. Nigel Walker of Eatwell Farms is an outspoken advocate of Prop2, believing it is a "modest measure" that will require caged chickens to go from having a space of 2/3 a sheet of letter sized paper to two sheets of letter sized paper. When listening Walker's opinion, it is important to realize that his farm will not be directly affected as Eatwell Farms raises 3,000 free range laying hens that roost in mobile coops that are moved every 2-3 weeks. In this manner, his chickens have space indoors as well as the freedom to go outside their coops to forage for food. Walker, however, does mention some creative solutions to Mahrt's concerns, saying that European egg producers, after a similar bill was passed in Europe, switched to an aviary system, where multiple levels of habitat are available, but the overall density of the house is the same. In this manner, chickens would have more room, but the farmer would still be able to produce the same amount of eggs per square foot of land.

In addition, it is important to realize that California is often considered to establish the beginnings of many, more progressive, national movements. It is thus conceivable that with a Prop 2 California victory, this law will ripple through the rest of the country. This would thus mean that it would likely not be cheaper to produce California's eggs out of state, but likely to continue producing them in state, in more humane conditions long term. In this manner, Mahrt's concerns about Prop 2 are both, for the most part, solved.

If you were wondering, I am voting yes on Prop 2, and I do strongly encourage you to do the same. With this blog posting, I simply wanted to present both sides of this bill. While Steve Mahrt's concerns with Prop 2 are valid and important to consider, I believe the long term goal as well as affects of the bill are significant and incredibly beneficial to our food system. Proposition 2 is a step in the right direction to reform the policy around the production of our food.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

They Eat Food in London too...

Here is a sampling of my food photographs in London; the food both in London and in Berlin focused a lot on meat, and has made me very happy to be back in my vegetable and fruit friendly San Francisco.
New British cuisine seeks to reinvent traditional British foods (read meat and potatoes) to become something along the lines of haut cuisine intended to rival French Cuisine. Needless to say, um, it doesn't quite rival French Cuisine, but it was better than bangers and mash with a side of mushy peas. Photographed here, is liver (I think) covered in Japanese breadcrumbs.

So this I believe is London's attempt at "healthy" "California-style" nouriture. It was good, but well, not amazing. It sort of felt like beginner vegetarian cuisine. Still, it was nice to see vegetables on the menu :)

One thing that I thought was terribly cool were these wooden "sustainability" spoons, personally dubbed as such. While our corn spoons are nice and might not have a woody taste, our dependability on corn is not exactly the best for the world food economy. So, way to go Europe!

So, this is the top of the tastiest hot chocolate I have had to date. I believe it cost over 5 American dollars, but was well worth it. The top was frothy foam and the bottom consisted of a rich chocolate/milk mixture that still had some of the chalky texture of good chocolate.

Brixton Market dubbed as both the "whole cow market" and the "smelly fish market". Both definitions are true.

Whole cows...with cow hooves in background.

These pretty fish weren't the smelliest, but sure were lovely to look at...

Dried catfish carcasses. There were three types of dried catfish, each used as different spices and these did smell a bit fowl.

One of my most favorite fall plants is squash, specifically butternut squash. Here is a photo of a meal of butternut squash and mushroom pasta I made for my friends Phil and Tamara.

These are Cornish Pastries. They are quite the tasty buggers, but were initially designed for mine workers rather than fancy London-ites. The crust was intended for mine workers to hold onto the pastry as they ate down, the pastry containing all the parts of a complete meal, from vegetables and potatoes to meat at the bottom. At the end, they threw out the crust. Today, the crust is the best part :)

Dim Sum, London style! (sorry, SF is till better...)

Beautiful cupcakes in Covent Garden.

A surprise farmer's market in Central London...

A funny little sign that I thought was good to end this posting on...

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Berlin Essen! (Berlin food!)

Writing from London (writing that sort of makes me sound like a slightly fabulous world traveller...) after having spent the last five days in Berlin. I had an amazing time in Germany and have so many stories and photos to share, but, before I get to those, I thought I would quickly post a survey of photos of the food I ate while in Berlin. There were some amazing markets, tasty restaurants, and lovely meals shared with new friends. So, here is just a sampling:

Bulk olive oil AND liquor; take that Rainbow Grocery!

First night in Berlin and feeling a little nostalgic for San Francisco, so I went to Dolores for a buritto.

While note quite a burrito from El Feralido, it was tasty in its own right. Also, please note that I was reading "Tale of the City" while eating my meal. ha ha.

Amazing mushrooms at the Wednesday farmer's market.

Big, juicy raspberries...2 euros a box! damn. Take that Ferry Terminal Market.

Really delicious pasta with truffles and saffron; first full meal with my Israeli friends Matan and Noa!

Tasty souffle with mango sauce...

Turkish Market; swoon!

They even clip off the thorns for you!

prickly pears....

Grape leaves, not wrapped over rice and cheese...

There was an impressive selection of fish across the market...

Feta never looked so good...I also bought some amazing, clear, yes clear, honey that will go os so very tastily with Bodega Bay feta upon return to the Bay.

Kepern means caper, and yes, they are huge.

Dragon fruit was 2 euros for 2; at Rainbow it's $20 for on. Dear god. I wish I could take fruit across international boarders outside the EU.