Thursday, May 24, 2007

Food Miles and Sustainability

Last week the Monterey Bay Aquarium hosted its 2nd annual Sustainable Foods Institute panel about what 'sustainable' actually means. Food writers, organic farmers, and even a few folks from Walmart participated in panels on the future of food production, both on land and at sea. With an official government definition and enforceable guidelines about what 'organic' means, sustainability is destined to be the next hot button issue. But can we ever completely and absolutely define sustainability? Some are skeptical:

"Sustainability is a term like truth or beauty," said Fred Kirschenmann, a senior fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. "We struggle but never get there." It means something different to different communities. "When asked if my farm is sustainable, I say, no," he said. "We're working on it. I have to keep changing, keep trying new things, keep adjusting.

"Sustainability is not something we can accomplish and be done with it. It is a matter of conscience, a moral commitment to a way to live," Kirschenmann told the group. Without question, the Earth's energy supply will dwindle, water resources will shift and the climate will change. "If we are serious about sustainability," he said, "we've got to think about it in [the context of] this future."

Tangentially, yet heavily related to sustainability is the term "food miles." Food miles is "a calculation of the environmental costs of transporting food long distances." Michael Pollan discusses this concept in The Omnivore's Dilemma, saying that when you eat that organic asparagus you buy from Whole Foods in January, you are consuming a fair amount of petroleum, as well. That's bound to make your pee stink.

Most people, I think, intuitively grasp this concept when it comes to produce and meat, but what about processed foods? Are you willing to give up that bottle of San Pellegrino or that sixer of Czech beer you love at Trader Joe's? How about French wine? And how the hell are you supposed to find locally grown coffee? I mean, here's a product that celebrates that it's Costa Rican or Ethiopian. A few years ago, some bloggers I was reading at the time were participating in the Eat Local Challenge. There were exceptions made in the challenge for food products not indigenous to the local geography. Things like coffee, chocolate, and wine could be brought in from far off locals, just as some food from the local region would undoubtedly be shipped out to places where they don't have Vermont maple syrup or whatever it is your area produces. This still leaves things like San Pellegrino on the outs. Maybe that's the price we have to pay for reducing our ecological footprint. I'll be honest -- I'm not sure I'm ready to become a food miles purist. I'd like to be, but it seems like a big sacrifice. So I put the question to you. How far is too far when it comes to eating locally? What are you willing to sacrifice, and what will they have to pry from your cold dead hands, to borrow a phrase from our gun-toting brethren?

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

How do You Roast a Chicken?

As it says in the Bible, "There are many ways to light Europe." So, too, are there many ways to roast a chicken. For a few years now, Edan and I have been experimenting with different roasting techniques and ingredients, trying to find the perfect roast bird. We started off using Edan's family's recipe, which calls for an incredible amount of salt, garlic slipped under the skin, and some lemon juice (stuffing the lemons into the cavity of the bird, of course). After reading Anthony Bourdain's constant warnings not to break the skin of the chicken, we stopped cutting little slits for the garlic. We tried Bourdain's recipe, which has butter, onions, garlic, and white wine, and it was good, but I missed the lemon juice. In the past few months, we've set out on our own, taking a little hints from one recipe while stealing ingredients from another. Once, I put rosemary, sage, and thyme all over the chicken (not bad), while another time, I filled the cavity with raw chorizo (not good, the chorizo never cooked). Last night, I think, was about the best we've done (although we can do better).

We started by squeezing some a lemon all over the chicken, thoroughly soaking it in the juice. Then we salted the shit out of the bird (this is imperative; the first time I made this recipe alone, Edan told me, "You'll think it's too much salt, but it isn't."), and gave it a good whack with fresh crushed pepper, as well. Next, we took some garlic and slipped it under the skin (being careful not to tear or cut the skin). Into the cavity went the lemon halves, the garlic, and some salt and pepper. Edan had gotten a big, thick piece of prosciutto from her work, one that was too thick to eat on a sandwich, so we chopped it up into little cubes, sprinkled some atop the bird, and threw the rest into the cavity (Isn't it great eating food that has a body cavity? Mmm.). Finally, we stuffed a few whole sprigs of rosemary into the chicken and trussed it.

We cooked the chicken for 30 minutes at 375, turning it several times so that it would cook evenly. After the 30 minutes, I jacked the oven up to 450, poured about 3/4 cup of white wine over the bird, and cooked it for another 30-35 minutes. What resulted was a terrific blend of our old salt/garlic/lemon recipe, Anthony Bourdain's classic roast chicken recipe, and some unique flavor from the prosciutto. The only change I would make is to sprinkle some fresh rosemary over the bird, rather than just stuffing it into the cavity. There really wasn't much rosemary flavor at all.

Which brings me to the titular question -- how do you roast a chicken? What great tips do you have? What strange and exotic ingredients do you use?

(I wish I had better pictures for you, but they all came out blurry; I need a better camera. You'll have to trust me when I say that the chicken looked like the hand of God descending to rub my belly.)

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

How is Culinary School Like Film School?

I've often wondered how recent graduates of culinary schools make ends meet. You pay something like $60,000 to go to culinary school and graduate to a physically demanding job making $10.50 an hour (and it's invariably on the night-shift, to boot). According to today's New York Times, the answer is simple -- they don't make ends meet. Culinary school grads -- their numbers ever ballooning thanks to the celebrity chef phenomenon and the Food Network -- are defaulting on student loans at a rate of 11%, more than twice the national average:

Although the restaurant industry is expected to create two million new jobs in the next decade, the Department of Labor reports that in 2005, the latest year for which data were available, the average hourly wage for a restaurant cook was $9.86.

“The problem isn’t getting a job, the problem is getting a high-paying job,” said Susan Sykes Hendee, a dean at Baltimore International College and a member of the American Culinary Federation Foundation Accrediting Commission, which accredits many culinary schools...

Many culinary students come from blue-collar families and do not have the financial experience to navigate the world of college costs, Ms. Sykes Hendee said. “The majority of students are the first people going to college in their families,” she said. “It’s not the rich and famous going to culinary school.”

Once I got my haircut at a fancy barbershop in Los Angeles, and the woman cutting it had gone to some high-end cosmetology institute. She said she owed more than $20,000 from that experience. In her words, "That's a lot of $10 haircuts." I tipped her well.

As a film school graduate, I can sympathize with people swimming in debt with no real prospects of getting out, short of exceptional professional success. It can make you feel hopeless. I'd tell anyone considering going to film school to work on a few movie sets to make sure they enjoy it. Then I'd ask how they are at real politik, since that's the most important skill necessary to earn a living in the film industry. Then I'd tell them that it is the equivalent of going to a $100,000 trade school to learn a trade that nobody really needs. You're not learning something useful, like how to perform ligament transfer surgery, or how to probate a will. People actually need someone who knows how to do those things, and there's no (legal) way to learn how without going to medical school or law school. Anybody can make a film, even a good one. In other words, when you get out of medical school or law school and you pass your board exams, you are a doctor or a lawyer, and you have the marketable skills necessary to pay back $130,000 worth of student loan debt. When you get out of film school, you are merely unemployed and in debt. You might be a filmmaker, but then again, you might have been one before you started school.

Since my experience only applies in an analogous way, I recommend that anybody considering culinary school read David Lebovitz' fine post on the subject.

(Thanks to Apronite Kiki for the link. Kiki!)

Monday, May 7, 2007


Friday was my six-month wedding anniversary, meaning that I've been married five and a half months longer than most celebrities. Edan and I had been preparing for the anniversary for a while now, and we'd decided that Providence would be the restaurant of choice for this particular celebration. We'd read rave reviews on Chowhound and the LA Times, reviews calling Providence "the most ambitious new restaurant to open in Hollywood in a long, long time," and we had to go. Luckily, we'd been saving. Since moving into our apartment we've been dropping any spare change we have into a mason jar. After about eight months, it was pretty full. $75 dollars full, it turned out. This was good, since our meal at Providence was not to be cheap. What it would be was an experience that I won't soon forget.

Providence sits on an unassuming block of Melrose Avenue, farther east than the more fashionable section where you can buy leather chaps and vintage T-shirts. I've passed it many times and never even knew it was a restaurant. Hard wood slats form a sort of exoskeleton around the building, and a small, very subtle sign announces that this is, in fact, Providence. Inside, the restaurant is divided into several small rooms, each one fitting a half dozen tables. The room they seated us in featured a view of the impressive wine cellar. The ceiling of the room had a series of flat glass lamps overlapping one another that I thought vaguely resembled the hull of a ship seen from beneath (not that I've ever seen the hull of a ship from beneath, but you know what I mean). This effect was enhanced by small paper "barnacles" that haphazardly covered the upper parts of the walls and ceiling. The subtle "under the sea" theme continued on the tabletop, as a candle nestled in a bed of "sea anemone," small orange and red beads on wire strands. It was a little elementary school art project-ish, but if you squinted, it was beautiful.

Once seated, the sommelier (a dead ringer for Ewan McGregor) came and helped us each choose a wine we would like. I got a glass of nebbiola from Paso Robles that he described as having subtle Coca Cola tones. Finally, somebody understands what I really want from a wine. Edan got a malbec that was very fruity (We tend to have different tastes in wine, but I sipped hers and like it as well).

The menu at Providence is divided into a tasting menu, a section of market specials, and then the the main menu, which has appetizers and main courses. While the tasting menu looked very tempting, we ended up choosing a main course each, and two appetizers. Before any of our food arrived, they brought us the amuse bouche, Mexican shrimp in creme fraiche with tiny cubes of mango gelatin accompanied by a tiny beer stein of blood orange yogurt and champagne foam. The blood orange yogurt was a little sweet for before dinner, but it was still a very good taste that pointed towards a good meal to come. Another good sign was the bread, which was warm and fresh and came with excellent butter and sea salt. Our first appetizer was the kampachi, which came centered on the plate surrounded by a soy gel lime espuma and tiny balls of avocado shaped like little peas. This is one meal I wish I'd taken photos of because the visual component of it was so important. Each dish as it came out looked like a work of art. It's nice to eat a meal like this and be reminded that food can be as appealing to the eye as it is to the tongue...which is the long way to saying, the kampachi tasted as good as it looked.

Next out was the chowda (sic), which came unassembled. The server placed a bowl before us, containing a handful of chunks of potato, clams, diced carrots, and slivers of bacon. She then produced a carafe of creamy clam broth and poured it over the veggies and clams, creating a steaming hot soup as we watched. At the risk of sounding like a total rube, it was frickin' cool. And the chowder was the best I've ever had. As Edan pointed out, the veggies and bacon were so much crispier than if they'd been stewing in the broth the whole time. I've never tasted anything quite like it.

For a main course, Edan got a Hawaiian tuna dish with purple haze carrots and vadouvan butter, while I had the Japanese tai snapper, cooked with sweet peppers, cipollini onions, and chorizo, with a chorizo espuma (that's chorizo foam, for those scoring at home). The snapper was seared, skin side down, creating a crispy crust that had the consistency of the hard sugar atop creme brulee. It cracked apart when I put my fork to it, revealing an incredibly tasty, buttery white fish. Edan's tuna had a consistency I've never seen in a piece of fish. It almost looked like a piece of beef. Cooked rare, it was perfectly smooth and beautiful in its simplicity. It was just a tad salty, and Edan felt the vadouvan butter was wasted (she called it a visual pun, a little green pile like the wasabi you'd get at a sushi place), but it was still an exceptional dish.

Originally, we'd thought we might skip dessert, since that's usually the easiest way to shave a few bucks off an expensive dinner tab, but we saw the menu anyway. You can probably guess that we couldn't resist getting something. I got a glass of calvados, and we split the milk chocolate-whiskey panna cotta, a cookie crumble topping, and coconut raviolo. Let's say I'm glad we did. In the end, unless there's nothing to your liking on the menu, it's always better to stay for dessert at a really nice restaurant. It completes the meal the way it was meant to be completed. When the server brought our check, it came with some petite fours, as well, which is a nice touch. Including tax and tip, we ended up spending $210, which ain't cheap. We each had a glass of wine. I had a drink after dinner, and we got dessert. Was it worth it? Absolutely. The visual artistry of the food at Providence was unlike anything I'd seen, and the flavors and textures were so complex, I swear I'm still tasting them now.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

Russia -- A Real Place 3: Homefried Food

Here's the third in our continuing series on the wonder that is Russian cuisine:

In uninspired times, it’s best to stick with the basics—efficiency, sustenance, food in patty form. This needn’t be a death sentence for the connoisseur in you, the one sulking in the corner of your consciousness as you plunge a fry into mayonnaise or sip your cola through a licorice straw. Someone’s grandmother pushed you getting onto the metro, you saw a pregnant dog sprawled on the pavement, the nation’s leader attended a “no-rules” cage match with Jean-Claude Van Damme and Silvio Berlusconi while protesters were mauled in the street. You need a meal you can cradle in your hands.

Let’s complete the pancake trinity. In fact, this sphere of the Russian diet is an elegant multi-pointed star, but bliny, oladi and seerniki are empresses supreme. Before bowing under the third sister’s heavy touch, it’s necessary to delve deeper into dairy. I’ve mentioned kefir, the falsetto in oladi’s song, but there’s also tan, another digestive ally that I find tongue-numbingly salty. Open-mindedness aside, that stuff is gross. Smetana is numero uno. When I translated it as “sour cream” for some of my students, they were justifiably appalled. Smetana is light and simple in flavor, more than a guest-star on taco night. Russians dollop it into soup and tomato, cucumber and radish salads freshened with dill. Tvorog, on the other hand, is “curd” according to my dictionary. Sometimes it’s like cottage cheese, but it can also be sweet, packaged like cream cheese, fruit-flecked and eaten on its own, on a little plate, with a little spoon, topped with smetana, so I don’t know what that is. Anyway, the cottage cheese version is the launch pad for a seerniki wakeup call and looks like this:

The recipe is easy and best forgotten before eating. Eggs, sugar, salt and flour. Whip it into a curdy batter and fry in thick blobs (sorry, I’m still working on the foodie lexicon). Afterwards it will be golden and good, and I bet you can guess what to dress it up with...duh...smetana! This is no pre-jog snack.

Ready for lunch? Another classic you might nestle with your nose were you some furry animal fattening for winter is the cutlet. I’ve been eating them all week, so I’ll now try to resurrect the wild pleasure with which I anticipated that first Sunday serving. Having beheld the keystone in the triumphal arch of Russian cuisine, I wonder if we didn’t sell ourselves short crowning the ground beef patty our national mascot. The cutlet is more of a concept than a physical entity, an equation flexible enough to allow fish as a potential x-variable. We happened to choose regular-old pork, which went into the electric meat grinder/food processor (What, you don’t have one?), along with some onion, milk-soaked bread, and salo (don’t ask). Egg is essential, but only after cutlet consistency has been achieved. Now fry it, son!

Maybe you prefer some clearer semblance of nature’s design in the food you eat. But who will save us in that cold final hour? Hot dogs?