My Views on the Sustainable-Organic-Local Food Issue from a restauranteur's perspective.
Ah, Marketing, Marketing...everybody wants to be on the right side of the consumer's conscience these days. So, how does it feel to be a consumer? Do you feel---Confused? Guilty? Perplexed? Bombarded? Folks, let me tell you that as a chef the simple notion of buying clean food is frighteningly complex! The complexity has increased tenfold over the last five years. Sourcing real food---unprocessed, that is---is a full time effort.
We chefs are approached by waves of salespeople---some innocent though ignorant and some bordering on diabolical---with hundreds of "Money Saving" or "Value Added" items. When the name of the game is survival, many restaurant operators are blinded by the initial price of the food they purchase. The industry press has us all in a state of fear, and for the uninformed operator, the panacea is CHEAP FOOD!
The idea that cheaper is better has divided the industry. Fine restaurants are offering a greater selection of locally grown, free range and organic items because they have an informed and well heeled customer base that appreciates their effort and will not cringe when buying a conscientiously created menu item. On the other hand, those who are not informed, either through naivete or willful ignorance, have ventured much further from fresh and clean food than ever before. Dangerous chemicals and genetically modified ingredients are in EVERYTHING! The shiny produce items we all see on the shelves at the supermarket are coated after harvest with preservatives and pesticides. I know this because, though this is not listed on the actual apple that is displayed in such a fine still life pose under nutrient sapping florescent lights in the store, it is stated in small print on the packing case it was shipped in. Unless you are an investigator, you are sold and are reselling poison.
I wish that every person who is not in the food service industry could attend just one corporate "Food" show. There are many types of product expos---fine foods, fancy foods, health foods, etc. But the Industry "Food Shows" are at once fascinating and ghastly. Imagine a conference center filled with rows of tables sporting plastic tablecloths and disposable serviceware laid out for you to taste the latest in portion control wedding fare? How about the "Grab and Go" line--pastries that stay "Soft for a week!" Folks, of the thousands of items on display, my guess is that fewer than 10% of them are products that you would pick up if you saw them in a supermarket. The saddest picture, though, is the army of fervid sales reps vying for your attention to sell you their latest concoction. As you walk by any given table you're bound to see a tired looking guy in a polyester suit holding out a plastic fork with a sample of something scary like a new heat and serve Cajun Sausage popover while he looks past you into the freckled cleavage of the Uneeda Bicuit lady across the aisle!
My feeling is that the dumbing down of America has made it into the food chain. Food service buyers are being sold on the concept that the consumer is clueless. Operators who have been groomed (and intimidated) into thinking only of immediate cash savings serve these unseemly victuals to contain costs so they can stay in business.To assuage their fear of demise, they have resorted to the lowest of the low. And believe me it is low.
Ah, but there is a catch---and it is a catch that doesn't affect the corporate factory food producers who are designing this arsenal of unhealthy slop. The catch is that when a restaurant or diner degrades the product that they sell, they also degrade the quality of patron that their establishment draws in. And the lower they go, the lower the expectations become---including an expectation of unrealistically low prices. And then--poof---the little guy who bought the cheap processed food to save a few bucks is out of business because he could not survive selling at the low prices his customers have come to expect. So now the corporate food producer's sister company---the cheap food chain shop--moves in and thrives. Because of their deep pockets, they have the ability to market and purchase on a grossly larger level. They also have the financing to sustain lower profits for a longer period of time. Bye, bye Mama Mia's. Hello Olive Garden!
So there you have it---the food you might eat is all in the hands of a few publicly held corporate giants who must show quarterly growth or their portfolios will shrink and their CEOs will lose their heads. WOW--and I thought I was just going out for lunch! Look at this simple chain of events --the chemical makers sell products to the food producers who use them to create cheap but diminished ingredients. These products are sold to the food wholesalers who turn it over to the food retailers. You buy and eat this food which is not wholesome or nutritious and ultimately over the years you develop diabetes or worse from all of the processed food in your diet. Your doctor prescribes you a few medications that you have to take for the rest of your life----Have you looked at your stock portfolio lately?
Chemicals, Processed Food, Fast Food Chains, Drug Companies--- all working in harmony.
Well---it doesn't have to be so bleak. My hope is to get everyday people to think about this. Let's talk to the kids and the moms and pops of the world. Many of us chefs are preaching to the converted at these wonderful conferences and retreats. That is good for networking and brainstorming but we need to address this on a more populist level. This is MY MISSION. I believe that we as humans want clean food and we want to be healthy. And I believe that if I can convince people that cooking in itself is not a chore or a skill left to the star chefs, even those with little means could begin to enjoy a healthier lifestyle.
The following are my basic rules for survival
1. As often as you can, buy sustainable, free range, local or organic, or what I like to refer to as CLEAN FOOD. Make one of the most important statements in your life--- and keep yourself and your family healthy by buying CLEAN food. The more we use our consumer dollars to buy clean food, the louder the message is to big business: WE WANT CLEAN FOOD.
Remember that businesses respond to our demands. In the 1950's and 60's when we decided that we wanted year round access and simplicity in the kitchen, the huge commercial food producers responded by forcing production, limiting the variety available in the market place and lowering the standard of flavor in our food.
2. Our food supply has become so driven by chemicals that it isn't even as nutritious as it once was. Greens raised in depleted soil don't bring anything to the table. It is the minerals from well composted soils that make greens a desirable form of food. Though there is conflicting information in the lobbyist-polluted American information system,
The Organic Retailers and Growers Association of Australia have recently completed an extensive study comparing organically raised vegetables from well composted soils to commercially grown "supermarket" tomatoes. Their study concluded that the organic tomatoes were "20% higher in vitamin C, higher in beta carotene, ten times higher in potassium, seven times higher in calcium and six times higher in zinc. Higher levels of vitamins and minerals were also found in beans, silver beet and capsicum." It is reasonable to believe that naturally composted soil and rotated crops will provide better nutrients than dirt pumped with Round-Up and steroids.
As they say in Woodstock, You don't have to be an Einstein to figure that one out! Organic farming brings healthy food back to the table. In order to grow organic, composting and crop rotation are essential. When the soil is made healthy, the plants are actually stronger themselves and are more resistant to pests and diseases. On the other hand, the more artificial the growing procedure, the more the producers rely on pesticides and chemical growth stimulants to keep bringing food to market.
Remember that the word pesticide includes sprays for weeds, insects and other vermin. Many of these are WWII-era neurotoxins and are notoriously destructive and carcinogenic, regardless of what the bought FDA has to say.
Check back for a quickie on availability and price issues.
Don't disturb the rice,
Ric the chef
Some Global Pumpkin Recipes
By Ric The Chef
Hey everyone--Didja get your Pumpkins for carving yet?
Well now, be green kiddies, be green!
In the words of most of our elders who were around during the depression--Waste not want not.
All of the pumpkin "guts" get made into stock and roasted pumkpin seeds and the eyes, noses, ears and grins that are cut out of the pumpkin are good edible stuff, too.
When I was a little kid, I remember "Little Nonni"--my father's mother Mary, all 4'9" of her stoic Sicilian self, taking the pieces of pumpkin face that we kids were cutting out from the newspapered floor. In a few minutes there was golden, breaded and fried chunks of pumpkin on a field of warm tomato sauce, blanketed by the snow of grated Romano cheese.
I have recreated that simple recipe and have added three more--goin' round the world, using pumpkin as the centerpiece of these recipes.
To make “pumpkin stock" remove the membranes and seeds from the squash you are using. Put in a heavy pot, and cover with water by at least 2 inches. Add a pinch of salt and bring to a boil. Cook at a moderate boil for 15 minutes and reduce to a simmer. Cook for one hour, adding a little more water if necessary to keep the squash covered. Strain, squeezing the flavor out of the pulp. Use for soups, stews and making risotto.
El Locros is a South American Stew that always features Pumpkin, squash and corn and sometimes also has potatoes pork and even cheese, Tonight’s rendition will be vegetarian, hearty and rich. If you want to add a couple of pigs feet or ham hock, I won't stop you, in fact, I will cheer you on!!
olive oil as needed
2 cups pumpkin, peeled and seeded
(You may use any winter squash here)
2 cups potatoes, peeled and diced
1 medium onion, chopped
2 clove garlic, smashed
1 red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and chopped
1 fresh hot chile of your choice, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon paprika
1 can (16 ounces) white beans, drained and rinsed
1 can 28 oz Posole ( Hominy) or fresh or frozen corn
1 can (16 ounces) whole peeled tomatoes, crushed in a bowl
8 cups water or “pumpkin Stock” see below
1/2 cup cilantro, minced
Salt and black pepper, to taste
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 cup cheddar or jack cheese, grated
Using a box grater or the grating attachment on a food processor, shred the 2 cups of squash set aside. Dice the rest into large stew chunks, about 1” square.
In a Dutch Oven coat the bottom with a olive oil. Heat olive oil to medium. Add the onion and bell pepper. Cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes. Stir in garlic, jalapeno and paprika. Continue cooking, stirring, for 2 minutes or until the spices mellow. Add the squash, white beans, posole, potatoes, tomatoes, water, salt, and pepper. Bring the mixture to a boil. Lower the heat, set on the cover askew, and simmer the stew for 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally, or until the squash is very tender.
Add the cilantro and cream. Stir in the cheese a little at a time to melt. Serve Hot!
Pumpkin Fritters Fra Diavolo
My Grandmother Mary was a true Sicilian--she loved to fry vegetables. As kids, when we cut our Jack'o' lanterns, the noses, eyes, mouths and other dismembered sections were deftly encrusted in lightly seasoned breadcrumbs, kissed by the oil and allowed to steam in the delicate casing. Yes, pumpkin is one of my favorite veggies to fry alla Nona! Serve these on a pool a zesty tomato sauce and hit them with a quick grating of Locatelli Romano while they are still hot.
Ricter scale 4
1 medium 3-4 pound Pumpkin
flour, eggs and plain bread crumbs as needed
grapeseed or vegetable oil for frying
salt and pepper
1 16 oz can Organic tomatoes, crushed
1 small hot pepper or a pinch of crushed red pepper
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 pinch of dry oregano
2 tablespoons chopped parsley (optional)
Locatelli Romano cheese or other very sharp grating cheese
In a medium pot or large skillet, add the olive oil, garlic and hot pepper. When the garlic begins to sizzle and get golden edges, add the tomatoes and oregano. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat and gently simmer until you have finished your frying. This can also be made in advance and stored in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
Cut the top off of the pumpkin and scrape out the seeds and guts. Reserve for "stock".
Wedge the pumpkin and carefully shave off the skin with a sharp knife. Slice into ¼ thick slices.
Set up a breading station:
one pan of flour seasoned to taste with salt and pepper
one dish with 2 eggs scrambled with ¼ cup of cool water
one pan of unseasoned bread crumbs
Working with one hand, dip and coat a piece of pumpkin in flour and shake of excess. Now dip in egg wash, shake off and finally coat in breadcrumbs. Lay on parchment or waxed paper. Continue until all pumpkin is breaded.
In a cast iron skillet, heavy wok or Dutch oven heat 1 inch of oil to about 325-335 degrees. Keep a lid on hand to snuff out any flare-ups.
Fry pieces until golden on one side, carefully turn and finish for about 60 seconds. Line a cookie sheet with paper towels and put each piece on the paper to absorb any remaining oil.
Line each of four plates with hot tomato sauce. Arrange hot pumpkin slices on the plates attractively and garnish with a generous grating of Romano cheese and parsley--Amazing!
This most popular Indian lentil soup has been made so many ways, one never really knows how authentic their version is. The recipe I have been preparing for the last 7 years is based on the soup made at India Pavilion in Central Square in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The soup there is smooth with red lentils and has a nice lemony accent. Chunks of Pumpkin add texture and brightness.
1 medium onion, diced
2 1x1 cubes of ginger
5 medium garlic cloves
1 tsp curry powder
1 tsp black pepper
2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 cup ghee or vegetable oil
juice of two lemons
3 cups red split lentils
3 cups cubed pumpkin about 1"
1/2 gallon water with a touch of chicken or vegetable bouillon or...
chicken stock, vegetable stock
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
Puree first ingredients in processor with 1/4 cup of water to make a paste.
In a heavy pot add ghee or oil and heat gently.
Add paste and saute until a beautiful aroma is released . Do not brown.
Add lentils and stir to coat thoroughly. Add stock and bring to a boil. Add the pumpkin. Reduce to a simmer and cook until lentils turn golden and begin to melt. Add cilantro and lemon juice. Adjust salt of needed.
Serve in bowls with grilled pita or nan.
Thai Pumpkin Curry
This is one of my all time favorite dishes. It is real Southeast Asian comfort food, mildly spiced, nicely perfumed and rib sticking at the same time.
4 cups pumpkin cut into large 1 1/2” chunks
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1 large shallot, chopped
2 cloves garlic chopped
4 tablespoons Thai Masaman curry paste ( available in Asian markets or online)
1 large carrot, peeled sliced onto coins
1 sweet bell pepper, seeded and medium dice
2 cup peeled, cubed potatoes
3 cups packaged vegetable or chicken broth
2 14 oz cans coconut milk
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 kaffir lime leaves (optional)
juice of one lime
1 small bunch fresh cilantro, rough chopped
1 small bunch of mint, roughly chopped
4 scallions, sliced into rounds.
In a heavy casserole, add the onions, crushed pepper, shallots, garlic, carrot , bell pepper and curry paster. Saute and stir until it all is wilted and coated with curry. Add the pumpkin and potatoes and toss to coat. Add all remaining ingredients except the herbs. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat o a gentle simmer and cook covered for 35-40 minutes or until pumpkin is cooked through. Serve in bowls, garnished with cilantro, mint and scallions
Jamaican Pumpkin Rice
This is the ultimate side for Jerk, oxtails and curry.
1/4 stick butter
2 tbls vegetable oil
2 cloves garlic minced
1 white onion finely chopped
1/4 cup chopped scallion, white and green parts
3 cups water or chicken stock
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper freshly ground
1 1/2 teaspoons ground allspice
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 cups pumpkin cubed and peeled
1 cup water
1 scotch bonnet pepper, left whole but scored
1 1/2 cups long grain or basmati rice
In a Dutch oven, melt the butter with the oil and saute the garlic, onion, and scallionuntil they are limp. Add a cup of stock (water may be used in stocks place) and bring to a boil. Add the salt, pepper, allspice, thyme sprigs, and pumpkin (yam or squash may be substituted). Lower the heat and simmer, covered, for about an half an hour, stirring occassionally. The pumpkin should be tender. Add more stock if necessary.
Remove the thyme sprigs and add the remaining stock and water. Bring to a boil and add the rice. Stir once. Put the hot pepper on top of the rice. Cower the heat and cover. Simmer for approximately 25 minutes or until the rice is fully cooked and all the liquid has been absorbed. Let rest covered for 10 minutes before serving.
You can remove the pepper or serve it to your best “friend”.
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