Michael Pollan’s Nightmare, His Autograph & Some Thoughts From Slow Food Nation

Omnivores

I left Slow Food Nation feeling inspired yet overwhelmed by the many issues facing this country (and the world) regarding food production.

Perhaps what I thought was most interesting, however, was hearing the many speakers collectively criticize both Obama and McCain for failing to discuss reformation of our food system. The panelists noted that if politicians could pass laws that promote sustainable agriculture, they would solve (or begin to solve) many other problems along the way.

But the “slow food” or “local food” movement has always been driven by the people. Wendell Berry described the ongoing revolutions as a “leaderless movement.” Below I have summarized what I learned from the various Food For Thought sessions I attended.

Slow Food: ‘A Leaderless Movement’

When asked how our presidential candidates stand on the subject of food and agriculture, author Michael Pollan responded frankly: “They don’t stand.”

Among the many challenges the next president of the United States faces, three remain at the forefront: limiting our country’s dependence on foreign oil, reducing the high costs of health care, and fighting global warming. Senators Barack Obama and John McCain have proposed various solutions to these problems ranging from off-shore drilling to universal health coverage to cap-and-trade policies. Absent from any discussion thus far, however, has been a plan to reform our food system.

But food, noted Pollan at the Slow Food Nation event in San Francisco over Labor Day weekend, is the common link among all of these subjects. If we want to become energy independent, if we want to reduce health care costs, if we want to reverse climate change, we must reform our food system. Today it takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce one calorie of food energy; today an abundance of cheap, nutrient-deficient food has caused a national obesity epidemic; today 25 to 30 percent of global warming is caused by industrial agriculture. Food production, energy, health and the environment are indisputably connected.

The many activists, including authors, chefs and farmers, speaking at Slow Food Nation criticized Obama and McCain equally for failing to recognize the far-reaching effects of our food system. Pollan acknowledged that elected officials have always had a political interest in keeping food cheap.

Ironically, cheap food — created largely by a system of subsidy payments to corn and soybean farmers, a dated policy the new farm bill continues to allow — is the chief cause of our dependence on foreign oil, elevated healthcare costs and increasing global warming, the very problems our politicians aim to solve.

If keeping food cheap is an axiom politicians continue to heed, then the push for sustainable agriculture, it seems, will continue to be, as described by Wendell Berry, “a leaderless movement.” Berry, a farmer and author, has been a principal thinker influencing the Slow Food movement in this country.

But if Slow Food International is any example, in spite of the absence of political leadership, agricultural reformation has gathered momentum. What began in 1986 as a demonstration in Rome to protest the building of a McDonalds near the steps of the Piazza di Spagna has grown into a worldwide movement with over 85,000 members in 132 countries. Slow Food Nation drew over 60,000 supporters to San Francisco over Labor Day weekend. More and more Americans are shopping at farmers’ markets, participating in CSAs (community supported agriculture) and advocating fair trade and sustainable farming practices. A revolution is taking place thanks to the many people “voting with their forks,” as Michael Pollan says.

While Wendell Berry confessed to having given up on the political system in 1990, today he has faith in a “growing cooperative spirit” and believes that “if the right thing has a loud enough voice, [politicians] will do the right thing because they have to.”

Alice Waters, who dreams of installing a victory garden on the White House front lawn, said, “We need to feed the politicians.” Waters recounted filling the lunch boxes of Obama’s campaign staff with the juiciest peaches and plums, food she claims “awakens the senses.” If political leaders could only taste this local, organically grown food, believes Waters, perhaps change will happen more quickly.

Time will tell if a political leader will find the gumption to make agricultural policy the forefront of a national discussion. But until a Slow Food chapter exists in central Iowa, the responsibility for driving an agricultural revolution will remain with the people. As author and activist Dr. Vandana Shiva said during the final panel discussion at Slow Food Nation, “Every one of us has to be the Rosa Parks of food.”

Vintage posters lining the walls of the bread stalls at Slow Food Nation’s Taste Pavillion:

Meeting Michael Pollan

I had waited in line for one hour with six books in hand, when I saw him stand up. He’s leaving, I thought. Michael Pollan is leaving. My heart sunk. I considered jumping out of line like a crazy woman to beg him to sign one more book before he left. An act of craziness, fortunately, was unnecessary.

Michael Pollan, who, next to Wendell Berry, was receiving little action at the book-signing table, had stepped out to meet the people in line. One by one, he greeted Slow Food devotees, engaged in small talk and signed books. When he reached me, I could hardly utter a word.

“Who should I make this out to?” he asked.

“Well, I’m Ali,” I said. “And, I love your books,” I blurted out.

“Well, Thanks Ali,” he replied.

And that was it. A 30-second conversation. My heart was racing. But I’m not going to lie — I’m pretty psyched to have my copy of The Omnivore’s Dilemma signed by Michael Pollan. (See picture below. In case you cannot read his writing, he wrote: “For Ali, Vote With Your Fork.”) Click here to see more photos from Slow Food Nation including a blurry picture of Pollan from the event described above. What can I say, my hands were shaking.

Now, about the above-pictured corn burger. I recently finished an intro graphic design course at UCLA Extension. One of our projects was to create a teaser movie poster. Teasers are the posters released months before a film hits the studios — the ones that include little written information about the film (no credits, no photos from the screening, etc.). Often even the title is absent from the poster. I chose King Corn, a documentary released in 2007 about corn production in this country. Corn, the two college friends and movie protagonists learned, is ubiquitous in our food supply, from the burgers and breads we eat to the beer and soda we drink — an idea Michael Pollan explored in depth in the Omnivore’s Dilemma. (The corn burger is something I imagine starring in a Michael Pollan nightmare.) King Corn is very interesting and can be rented at Blockbuster or purchased from the movie’s Web site.

Farmers’ Market Quesadillas

vegquesadilla

I found corn masa! Real corn masa. Like freshly made every day corn masa. El Toro Rojo (in my town, San Clemente) receives a delivery of this tortilla base every day precisely because real corn masa perishes that quickly.

Tonight, I made quesadillas following a method prescribed in Rick Bayless’ Mexico One Plate at a Time cookbook.  In this method, the freshly pressed, uncooked tortillas are placed on a hot griddle. The filling gets placed atop the side facing up (the uncooked side), and the tortilla is folded over and pressed to create the traditional half-moon shape. The tortilla gets flipped back and forth every minute or so and cooks in less than five minutes. I worried about the uncooked side tasting, well, uncooked, but it doesn’t — it becomes wonderfully crispy and golden on the outside while the cheese melts and the filling all melds together.

Now, if you can’t find fresh corn masa, don’t fret. This vegetable sauté will taste delectable in any tortilla. Just use whatever variety of flour or corn tortillas you prefer. In fact, while I am thrilled with the results of the fresh corn masa tortilla, this recipe is all about the filling: quickly sautéed farmers’ market veggies mixed with chopped fresh basil and topped with grated cheddar cheese. I used corn, zucchini, poblano peppers, onion and cherry tomatoes, but use whatever vegetables you find. I am loving the taste of corn with basil right now. Such a good combination.

Once the vegetables are all chopped, this sauté takes five minutes to complete. Use high heat and cook the peppers and onions first. Add the corn with the zucchini once the onion bits look a little brown. Cook for another minute or so, and add the chopped cherry tomatoes and basil at the end with the pan off the heat.

So, I made this filling for quesadillas, but this quick sauté could be served over rice or mixed with orecchiette pasta (the perfect shape for vegetables this size) or served with polenta or whatever. I have a feeling a poached or fried egg atop this vegetable medley would only enhance its deliciousness. Try it! It is so yummy.


Farmers’ Market Quesadillas
Serves Two

1 onion, diced
1 poblano pepper, diced
1 ear corn, kernels scraped from cob
1 zucchini, diced
1 cup cherry tomatoes, quartered
basil to taste, chopped

olive oil
kosher salt
Tabasco, optional

Tortillas, corn or flour
Cheddar cheese, grated
Salsa, sour cream and lime for serving, optional

1. Over high heat, sauté the onion and pepper together until the onion looks slightly browned. Add the zucchini and corn and cook for one to two minutes. Season the whole mixture with salt to taste. Turn off the heat and add the cherry tomatoes and basil. Taste, adjust seasoning as necessary. Add a splash of Tabasco if desired.

2. Proceed with your preferred recipe for quesadillas. (See below if using fresh corn masa.) Here is a good method: Brush a cast iron or non-stick pan with a thin coating of olive oil. Place a flour tortilla in the pan and brush it lightly with olive oil. When the underside starts to get little light brown bubbles, turn the tortilla over and top it with the cheese and vegetable mixture. Fold the tortilla in half so it looks like a half moon. Place a smaller cast iron pan on top to weight down the tortilla. When one side is brown, flip over the tortilla and brown the other side. Make sure that the tortilla cooks until it almost could crack like a bisquit. You’ll have to play with the heat — it should be hot enough to brown, but not to burn.

3. Rick Bayless’ method for using freshly made masa tortillas: (Note: see below for instructions on how to make the tortillas themselves.) Heat a well-seasoned or nonstick skillet over medium heat. Turn the oven on to its lowest setting. One by one, make the quesadillas. Lightly brush one side of each tortilla with oil, then lay it oiled side down on the hot griddle. Spread with a thin layer of cheese, leaving a 1/4-inch border all around. Spoon the vegetable filling into the center of the cheese-covered tortilla. When the cheese begins to melt, but before the tortilla begins to crisp, fold the tortilla in half to create a half moon. Cook, flipping the tortilla every minute or so, until the cheese is completely melted and the tortilla crisps, about five minutes. (I only flipped once, and my quesadilla probably cooked for about 3 minutes.) As each quesadilla is done, transfer it to a baking sheet and keep warm in the oven.

4. Serve with salsa, sour cream and lime wedges.


Making tortillas. Rick Bayless’ method:

1. Knead the masa with just enough water to make it soft (like cookie dough) but not sticky. The softer the dough, the more tender the tortillas — but don’t make it so soft it sticks to your hands. (Note: I purchased my fresh masa at El Toro Rojo, and I didn’t need to add any water to the mixture.)

2. Open the tortilla press and lay one square of plastic wrap on the bottom plate. Scoop out a walnut-sized piece of dough, roll it into a ball and center it on the plastic. Cover with a second sheet of plastic wrap. Close the press and use the handle to flatten the ball into a 5- to 6-inch disk. Turn the plastic-covered disk of masa 180 degrees and press gently to even the thickness.

3. Open the press and peel off plastic. Proceed with quesadilla recipe (above) or line a sheet pan with parchment paper and top with your pressed tortillas. Cover with plastic wrap until ready to cook.

One Peach, One Tart, A Favorite Recipe, Simplified

peachtart

As the title suggests, the tart featured in this post is based on a longtime favorite recipe printed in Fine Cooking several years ago. The original recipe calls for making a frangipane — an almond-based filling — to spread in a thin layer across the dough. The fruit lies over this creamy base and the combination of dough, frangipane and fruit in every bite is absolutely delicious. The addition of frangipane to any free-form tart — from plums, peaches and apricots (really all stone fruit) in the summer to pears and apples in the fall — seriously raises the bar of the classic fruit tart, adding a most subtle flavor, but a dimension that pure fruit tarts lack.

That said, in the tart pictured above, the frangipane has been omitted, and had I never known frangipane existed, I wouldn’t have missed it. A dessert of warm peaches in a flaky, buttery crust topped with a little scoop of vanilla ice cream alone is pretty damn good. And whereas frangipane requires almond paste, rum and room-temperature butter, this simplified fruit tart can be made with pantry items in no time.

All I’m saying is this: If you have the time and the ingredients, make the frangipane. You won’t be disappointed. If you don’t have the time or the ingredients, however, make this tart anyway. You will still produce an elegant and delectable dessert. You won’t be disappointed.
This recipe yields two small tarts each of which will serve three or four people. I used only one peach in the tart I made and froze the remaining portion of dough. I love love love this dough recipe. I’m not quite sure how it differs from a traditional pie dough but it without fail produces a perfect crust.
 It should be noted that while this tart probably tastes best when warm, I am discovering that it complements morning coffee very nicely as well.

Galette Dough
Yield=Two mini tarts (each tart yields 3-4 small servings; double recipe to yield two 9-inch tarts)

1¼ cups all-purpose flour
1 T. sugar
¼ tsp. table salt
8 T. unsalted butter
¼ C. + 1 T. ice water

Whisk flour, sugar and salt together. Cut butter into flour and using the back of a fork or a pastry cutter, incorporate butter into flour mixture until butter is in small pieces. Add ice water and continue to stir with fork until mixture comes together to form a mass. Add more ice water if necessary, one tablespoon at a time. Gently form mass into a ball and divide into two equal pieces. Shape each piece into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least 30 minutes and as long as overnight. (Dough can be frozen, too.)

Frangipane
Note: I did not use a frangipane in the above pictured tart. This frangipane makes for a truly special tart. If you’re pressed for time, however, or don’t feel like making frangipane, the peaches and the galette dough alone will make a wonderful dessert.

¼ C. almond paste
2 T.. sugar
2 T. butter at room temperature
2 tsp. rum
1 small egg

In the bowl of a stand mixer or food processor, combine almond paste, sugar and butter. Beat until combined, then add rum and egg and beat until smooth, or until only small lumps remain. Set aside.

To Assemble:

1 peach, sliced (If making two tarts, use two peaches.)
pinch sugar, pinch salt
1 T. butter, melted
1 tsp. sugar
parchment paper
vanilla ice cream

1. Toss peach slices with the pinches of sugar and salt. Set aside. On a lightly floured work surface, roll one disk out approximately into a 9-inch circle, using flour as needed to prevent sticking. Line a rimless cookie sheet (or upside-down jelly roll pan) with parchment paper. Transfer dough to parchment paper. Spoon 1-2 tablespoons of the frangipane (if using) into the center of the tart and spread toward the edges, leaving a 2-inch border all the way around. Arrange the fruit in concentric circles over the frangipane.

2. Preheat the oven to 400ºF. Finish the tart by folding the exposed border over the tart onto itself, crimping to make a folded-over border. Chill tart in the refrigerator for 10-15 minutes. Brush dough with butter and sprinkle sugar over entire tart. Place in the oven for 30-35 minutes or until crust is golden. Let cool for five minutes on tray then slide parchment paper and tart onto a cooling rack. Let cool another 20 minutes before slicing.

Serve with vanilla ice cream.


Roasted Tomato Soup Thickened with Bread (Pappa Al Pomodoro)

At an adorable café in San Clemente, a bowl of tomato-and-bread soup sent four ladies knocking on the kitchen’s door. Through an open window, the women praised the chef for his creation, swooning over the soup’s deep, rich flavors, begging him to disclose any secrets. Flattered and unafraid to share, the chef rattled off the ingredients: tomatoes, basil, onions, bread, salt.

The women stared in disbelief. They wanted something more. They wanted to hear that the soup was drizzled with white truffle oil; that it was lightened with a goats’-milk foam; that it was finished with an 80-year Xeres vinegar. Alas, simplicity, it seems, triumphs again.

Several of you out there recommended I roast or dry my small tomato harvest and store the tomatoes indefinitely in my freezer or fridge to be used as I please. I did in fact follow these instructions, but upon hearing this exchange between the chef and patrons at Cafe Mimosa last week, I couldn’t resist pureeing my tomatoes into a soup. Roasting, I discovered, sweetens and intensifies the tomato flavor, making the need for any exotic, unexpected flavorings unnecessary. Chef Tim Nolan surely wasn’t holding anything back. This rustic soup originates in Tuscany and, like so many traditional recipes — panzanella salad, bread pudding, bruschetta, French toast — was created as a way to prevent day-old bread from going to waste. Simplicity (as well as bread) is the common denominator of all of these recipes.

Whether the soup at Cafe Mimosa is vegetarian or not, I do not know, but my vegetables certainly needed some sort of a stock to bring the mixture to soup consistency. I used chicken stock and coarsely pureed the mixture with a large bunch of basil and a few dried out pieces of a French boule. Many of the recipes I found on the web for pappa al pomoodoro called for a fair amount of olive oil, but I didn’t think this soup needed any more than what was used while roasting them. Adjust this recipe, however, according to your liking — this batch of soup has been made completely to taste. If you start with a base of slow roasted tomatoes, onions, garlic and shallots, I assure you your soup will be a success. Served with a few shavings of Parmigiano Reggiano and a piece of crusty bread, pappa al pomodoro makes a wonderful late summer meal.


Slow roasted tomatoes, onions, shallots and garlic form the base of this Tuscan tomato soup.

Roasted Tomato Soup Thickened with Bread
Inspired By Café Mimosa’s Tomato Bread Soup
Yield = 1½ to 2 quarts

Notes: I now use water, not stock, in this recipe. See updated recipe here.

tomatoes, halved if large, left whole if cherry or grape, enough to fill a sheet tray
1 onion, peeled and chopped into big chunks
1 shallot, peeled and chopped into big chunks
1 head garlic, cloves removed and peeled
a few carrots, peeled and cubed
olive oil
kosher salt
fresh cracked pepper

3-4 slices bread (French or Italian)
about 2 cups chicken stock (or water), preferably homemade or a low-sodium variety
1 bunch fresh basil
crushed red pepper flakes
Shaved Parmigiano Reggiano and crusty bread for serving, optional

Note: This recipe is all done to taste. Adjust as necessary.

1. Roast the vegetables. Preheat the oven to 300ºF. Line a rimmed sheet tray with all of the vegetables. This tray should be filled in a single layer. Use whatever vegetables you have on hand — I threw in the carrots because I had them, but leeks, celery, thyme etc. would all make nice additions. Drizzle olive oil over top. Season with salt and pepper to taste, and roast for about three hours until vegetables are soft and slightly caramelized.

2. Meanwhile, toast the bread. Slice the bread into ½-inch thick pieces. Place on the counter to dry or toast briefly in the toaster. You just want to dry out the bread; you’re not trying to brown it.

3. Puree the soup. When the vegetables are done, place them in a pot with chicken stock. To give you a rough idea, I had about 5 cups of roasted vegetables and used about 2½ cups of chicken stock. Bring to a simmer. Season with a pinch of salt and crushed red pepper flakes if using. Add the bunch of basil. Break two slices of bread into medium-sized cubes and add to the pot. Using an emersion blender or food processor or traditional blender, puree the soup roughly. It should be slightly chunky. Taste and add more salt or bread if necessary. Add more stock until soup reaches desired consistency.

Note: If you leave this soup relatively chunky, it would make a wonderful sauce for pasta.

Buttermilk Panna Cotta: Simplest Dessert Ever

PannaCotta

This dessert takes five minutes to make. Ten minutes tops. And it’s a great way to use up leftover buttermilk.

For example, I opened the fridge a few days ago and spotted a carton of buttermilk dated August 13. It smelt a little funky and I noticed a few lumps, but doesn’t buttermilk always kind of look/smell this way? I gave the carton a good shake, poured the buttermilk into a clear, glass measuring cup to inspect for anything looking particularly threatening and proceeded with the recipe. Success. I have now eaten panna cotta three nights in a row and have yet to feel a tinge of sickness.

Even if you aren’t trying to use up a half-empy carton of buttermilk, this is a great recipe to have on hand for several reasons:

1. It can and should be made the night before serving — perfect for entertaining.
2. It is made in individual servings — perfect for entertaining.
3. It is light and summery.
4. It literally takes no time to whip up.
5. It is delicious.

Also, you don’t need fancy ramekins or custard cups. I have them, (and love them, obviously), but for the sake of demonstration, I poured this batch into various-sized glass cups including an old-fashioned mason jar. It looked precious. The panna cotta doesn’t even really need to be inverted onto a plate, and if you chose to use glasses, in fact, I wouldn’t recommend inverting. Just eat it right out of the glass. Yum.

Note: If you do have a set of ramekins, invert the panna cotta onto plates and serve with fresh fruit or a raspberry coulis, as my grandmother does.

What is panna cotta? Panna cotta, meaning “cooked cream,” is an Italian dessert made by simmering milk or cream and sugar together. It is thickened with gelatin and must chill for a few hours to set. According to Wikipedia, panna cotta originates from the Piedmont region of Italy.

Buttermilk Panna Cotta

Update 05-01-2012: I no longer make this recipe. I find it to be way too sweet. This is my go-to panna cotta recipe. It’s a Claudia Fleming recipe and it’s just about perfect.

If you have 1½ cups buttermilk on hand:
1½ tsp. unflavored gelatin
½ cup milk, not skim, but 1% and up
½ cup sugar
1½ cups buttermilk
¼ tsp. vanilla extract

If you have 1 cup buttermilk on hand:
1 tsp. gelatin
6 T. milk
6 T. sugar
1 cup buttermilk
1/8 tsp. vanilla

1. In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin over ¼ cup (or 3 tablespoons if using 1 cup of buttermilk) of water. Let stand until softened, about 5 minutes.

2. In a saucepan, heat milk and sugar over medium heat until sugar dissolves and mixture is hot but not boiling, 3-5 minutes.
Remove from heat, stir in gelatin mixture, then buttermilk, and vanilla. Pour into 4 or 6-oz ramekins* and chill until set, 3 hours.

3. To serve, run a knife around edge of ramekin, place a plate on top, flip over and gently shake to turn out onto plate.
Garnish with some fresh berries.

*Note: Pour into any vessel you have. If using tall, narrow glasses, do not worry about inverting. Serve right in the glass. Keeps well in the fridge for at least a week.

Grilled Corn and Cherry Tomato Salsa

Cornsalsa

I haven’t quite nailed down this whole gardening thing yet. My cherry tomato plant grew so tall that most of its branches, weighed down by the bundles of fruit at the ends, ended up snapping in two. In an effort to alleviate some of the stress on the rest of the plant, I pruned the broken branches and lay them over the railing outside my apartment.

Amazingly, in just a few days, the little green teardrops turned bright red. And now, I have more cherry tomatoes on my hands than I know what to do with. This salsa has helped deplete the supply somewhat, but I’m going to have to get a little more creative if I want to enjoy these sweet treats before they shrivel on the vine and fall to their death in our carport.

I served this tonight over a piece of pan-seared cod. Yum. And, I ended up eating the salsa more as a side dish than a condiment. This salsa almost could be served as a salad itself. Or, tossed with some bulgur or quinoa or any grain really, it could be made into a meal.

I have about a cup of it left which I am going to stir into some scrambled eggs manana. I cannot wait.


Grilled Corn and Cherry Tomato Salsa
Yields enough for two people. Serve with pan-seared fish or chicken

2 ears corn, shucked
2 cups cherry tomatoes
½ red onion
fresh basil
1-2 hot peppers, such as Thai bird chilies, jalapenos or serranos
kosher salt
olive oil
½ a lemon or lime

1. Preheat the grill to high. When ready, grill the corn very briefly on each side, just enough to leave a few kernels charred. Remove corn from grill and let cool briefly. Cut kernels from cob and place in a mixing bowl. (Note: The corn will taste very crunchy still. The grilling is just to add a nice, smoky flavor.)

2. Meanwhile halve the cherry tomatoes through the stem and place in the mixing bowl. Peel and finely dice the onion to yield a scant half-cup. Add to the bowl. Tear basil leaves into the bowl. Finely dice the chilies, seeds and all, and add to the bowl. (Obviously, add according to what heat-scale you prefer.)

3.Season the mixture with a pinch of kosher salt. Drizzle about a tablespoon of olive (maybe more, maybe less) over the mixture. Juice the half lemon or lime over the mixture. Toss gently with a large spoon. Taste, adjust seasoning as necessary, and leave at room temperature until ready to serve.

This salsa is particularly delicious served over a pan-seared filet of fish such as cod, halibut, trout, striped bass, etc.


Broken branches of cherry tomatoes ripening in the sun on my railing.

Trying To Understand The Food Crisis and Artisan Bread In Five Minutes A Day: Corn Bread

abi5

In a May 19th New Yorker article, Bee Wilson wrote: “As of 2006, there were 800 million people on the planet who were hungry, but they were outnumbered by the billion who were overweight. Our current food predicament resembles a scenario largely created by overproduction rather than underproduction. Our ability to produce vastly too many calories for our basic needs has skewed the concept of demand and generated a wildly dysfunctional market.”

This confused me. How could so many people in the world — 100 million people currently are at risk of joining the one billion people on the planet living on $1 a day — be hungry if there is no overall shortage of food? The answer, I learned, is complicated.

China, India, Europe and the United States are all to blame. Trade officials in these nations (and other wealthy nations), of course, design policies that will protect their farmers. What’s so bad about that? Well, when governments intervene in markets by imposing import tariffs and subsidies, for example, markets do not operate as they should and false equilibriums are reached. This, in turn, leads to market failures — such as food shortages — and the consequences can be dire: misery, malnutrition, starvation.

I’ve been trying to understand this food crisis for the past few months now, and I have summarized below what I have learned. Links to all of the articles I have read regarding this matter can be found at the end of the post (before the recipe.)

The issues:

• Usually food crises are localized, but for the first time in 30 years, food protests are erupting in many places at once: 33 countries (including Haiti, Bangladesh, Cameroon, Egypt, the Philippines, El Salvador and Pakistan) are at risk of social upheaval because of the high food prices.

• Human suffering is vast. Food inflation could push 100 million people into poverty, wiping out all the gains the poorest billion have made during almost a decade of economic growth.

• The era of cheap food is over.

What is causing the high food prices?

1. The growing middle-class in China and India: A half-billion consumers in these countries are increasingly emulating rich Western diets. (They are eating more meat.)

2. High oil costs have sent diesel fuel, fertilizers and farm chemical prices sky-high. Industrial agriculture has become so dependent on fossil fuel — for fertilizer, for pesticide, for processing and transportation. Today it takes 10 calories of fossil-fuel energy to produce one calorie of food energy.

3. Western biofuel programs converting cereals into fuel. This year, one-fifth of the American corn crop will be devoted to Ethanol. High corn prices have led farmers to plant more corn and less soy and wheat, leading to the surge in the price for all grains.

4. Arable acreage is continually being cut back due to environmental regulations, water scarcities and urban development.

5. Government interference in markets. In a perfect world: the response to higher prices is higher output; with farming, however, this isn’t the case. For one, it always takes a season to grow more food (unlike a toy factory, which can respond immediately). And second, by imposing export quotas, price controls, consumer subsidies, export restrictions and lower tariffs, governments muffle signals to farmers and further delay their reaction to price signals. In a free market, imbalances get smoothed out naturally.

What is the solution?

First: Get food and help to the famine-ravaged places. In the short-term, humanitarian aid, social protection programs and and open trade policies will alleviate the suffering. To achieve this, the World Food Program (the world’s largest distributor of food aid) needs an extra $700 million. Though the importation of American and European surplus harvests could damage domestic markets in poor nations, given the widespread food shortages, this is the short-term solution.

Second: Open up trade. Governments need to liberalize markets not intervene. Victor Davis Hanson writes: “The best thing  that the United States could now do is to stop interfering with its own farmers, let markets and need determine what they grow and how they farm — and then by such a principled American example, persuade the rest of the world to do the same.”

Long-term solutions:

• Reduce modern agriculture’s dependence on oil. Michael Pollan writes that “agriculture is the original solar technology, and sustainable farmers have shown us how we might put our food system back on a foundation of sunlight. For example, when you take cattle off their typical feedlot diet of grain and allow them to eat grass, those hamburgers put less pressure on the prices of both oil and grain.”

• Pollan continues: “Most of the world’s grain goes to feed animals, not people, and meat is a very inefficient use for that grain — it takes 10 pounds of grain to make one pound of beef. There would be plenty of grain for everyone if we actually ate it as food and didn’t use it to make meat. Reducing world meat consumption — or feeding our food animals differently — would leave more grain for the world’s hungry.

The Economist asserts that the way to feed the world is not to bring more land under cultivation, but to increase yields, and science, thus, is crucial. (The Economist: The quickest way to increase your crop is to plant more, but in the short run, there is only a limited amount of fallow land. Food increases thus need to come from higher yields.)

Sources: “The Silent Tsunami” and “The New Face of Hunger,” both printed in the April 19th Economist, “Harvesting Money In a Hungry World” by Victor Davis Hanson printed in the August 1st New York Times; “How To Feed The World” by Michael Pollan printed in the May 19th Newsweek, and “The Last Bite: Is the World’s Food System Collapsing?” by Bee Wilson printed in the May 19th New Yorker.

Oh and P.S.: This bread, like all of the other loaves produced from recipes printed in Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day, is delicious. As the pictures show, this isn’t the typical, sweet, cake-like creation most often associated with the word “cornbread.”


Broa (Portuguese Corn Bread)
From Artisan Bread in Five Minutes A Day by Jeff Hertzberg and Zoë François

Yield = four 1-lb. loaves

3 cups lukewarm water
1½ T. granulated yeasts (1½ packets)
1½ T. kosher or other coarse salt
1½ cups stone-ground or standard cornmeal
5 cups (22.5 oz.) unsifted, unbleached, all-purpose white flour, measured with the scoop-and-sweep method

Mixing and Storing the Dough

1. Mix the yeast and salt with the water in a five-quart bowl, or preferably, in a resealable, lidded (not airtight) plastic food container or food-grade bucket. Don’t worry about getting it all to dissolve. (I added the yeast, then the flour and then the salt on top of the flour to avoid killing any of the yeast, but apparently this is unnecessary.)

2. Mix in the cornmeal and flour. Mix with a wooden spoon. If necessary, reach into your mixing vessel with very wet hands and press the mixture together. Don’t knead! It isn’t necessary.

3. Allow to rise: Cover with a lid (not airtight) and allow the mixture to rise at room temperature until it begins to collapse (or at least flattens on the top), approximately two hours. You can use a portion of the dough any time after this period, but fully refrigerated dough is less sticky and is easier to work with. So, the first time you try this method, it’s best to refrigerate the dough overnight before shaping a loaf.

On Baking Day:

4. Sprinkle the surface of your refrigerated dough with flour. Pull up and cut off a 1-pound (grapefruit-size) piece, using a serrated knife. Hold the mass of dough in your hands and add a little more flour as needed so it won’t stick to your hands. Gently stretch the surface of the dough around to the bottom on all four sides, rotating the ball a quarter-turn as you go. The correctly shaped final product will be smooth and cohesive. The entire process should take no more than 30 to 60 seconds.

5. Place the shaped ball on a cornmeal-covered pizza peel. (If you aren’t planning on baking the bread on a pizza stone, just let the dough rest on a cornmeal covered cutting board. Allow the loaf (uncovered) to rest on the peel for about 40 minutes.

6. Twenty minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 450ºF, with a baking stone placed on the lowest rack. (If you don’t have a stone, don’t worry.) Place an empty broiler tray for holding water on any other shelf that won’t interfere with the rising bread. (This helps to make the crust crispy, but you’re bread will still be delicious if you omit this step.)

7. Dust the top of the loaf liberally with flour, which will allow the slashing knife to pass without sticking. Make several ¼-inch-deep slashes across the bread. (Again, an uncritical step.)

8. With a quick forward jerking motion of the wrist, slide the loaf off the pizza peel and onto the preheated stone. (Alternatively, butter a Pyrex dish or baking pan and place the bread in the pan.) Quickly but carefully pour about one cup of hot tap water into the broiler tray and close the oven door to trap the steam. Bake for about 30 minutes, or until the crust is nicely browned and firm to the touch. Allow to cool completely, preferably on a wire rack.

How to Roast Peppers

RoastedPeppers

On Wednesday, I found the dollar bin at the Santa Monica farmers’ market. Well, a dollar bin of sorts. One of the stands was selling bell peppers, a mix of yellow and red, for $1 a pound. I picked up eight, slightly misshapen, on-the-verge-of-spoiling peppers for $2. That’s crazy. I basically had hit the jackpot. I took them home, roasted them, and now I have a stash in my fridge to be used as I wish. For dinner tonight, I made scrambled eggs and ate them with warm bread topped with some slivers of roasted red peppers. Yum.

So it seems, even with crazy-high food prices — the Washington Post recently reported that since March 2007, the price of eggs has jumped 35 percent; a gallon of milk, 23 percent; a loaf of white bread, 16 percent; and a pound of ground chuck, 8 percent — deals can be found. And “green,” delicious deals at that.

I know, I know. It’s not always so easy. But seriously, a simple way to buffer the sting of these high food prices is to eat more vegetables. These peppers, which taste so sweet when roasted, can be used in so many ways. Meat will not be missed. At least for a few days.

Here are some other tasty locations to place your roasted peppers:
• Sandwiches with cheddar cheese, mustard and red onion.
• Salads.
• Paninis filled with sautéed Swiss chard and Gruyère.
• Pasta or pasta salad.
• On pizza.
• In omelets.
• As a dip when coarsely puréed with feta and parsley.
• Quiche.
• A savory, summer tart.


Roasted Red Peppers
Yield = As many as you like. Estimate about half a pepper per person.

bell peppers, a mix of red, yellow, orange and green is pretty, but red are the sweetest and the best
parchment paper, makes for easy cleaning, but a thin coating of olive oil does the trick, too
olive oil
kosher salt or fleur de sel
fresh cracked pepper
basil
or parsley

1. Preheat the oven to 450ºF*. Line a rimmed sheet pan with parchment paper (for easy clean up — make sure it extends over the edges).

2. Meanwhile, cut peppers in half lengthwise. Remove seeds and white veins. Place peppers cut-side down on parchment paper. (Alternatively, rub a small amount of olive oil on the sheet tray.) Place pan in the oven for about 30 to 40 minutes, until the skin is blistery and charred. Don’t be impatient here: If the skin isn’t blistery enough, the peppers will be difficult to peel.

3. Place the peppers in a large bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Let sit for at least 20 minutes and up to 4 or 5 hours (or longer.) When cool enough to handle, remove the skin and discard.

4. Store in an airtight container in the refrigerator until ready to use. You can also store the peppers with the skins still on — I do this when I can’t get around to peeling them right away.

*Note: You could also broil the peppers. If you prefer broiling, which takes less time, do not line your baking sheet with parchment — it will burn. The peppers take about 20 minutes under the broiler.

Note: Bring to room temperature before serving — the cold masks their flavor. For a simple appetizer, slice the peppers into slivers. place on a platter. Taste. Sometimes the peppers are so sweet that they don’t need anything. If they need a little seasoning, however, drizzle lightly with olive oil, sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper, and top with fresh herbs. Serve with warm bread.

Wedding Cake, Desconstructed

cake

Somebody please come save me from myself. I am home alone with this now 2/3-eaten cake. Every morning I tell myself I’m going to throw it into the compost bin*, but somehow I talk myself out of it and find a reason to cut myself another “sliver.” This isn’t even the kind of dessert I really adore. I much prefer a dense almond torte or chocolate souffle cake or fruit galette. Alas, it’s still too good to trash or turn into soil for my garden. (*Yes, I purchased the Back Porch ComposTumbler!)

Why do I have this cake all to myself? Well, on Sunday, Ben and I celebrated with cake and champagne the recent marriage of two friends. Because the bride had to jump on a plane shortly after the festivities and the groom would be out of town for a month, the cake remained with the Staffords. And the reason I say I have this cake all to myself is because Ben never pulls his weight when it comes to sweets. Blast him!

Anyway, this recipe can be multiplied and turned into a real wedding cake. Last November, I made this exact cake with the exception of the frosting, strawberries and assembly for two dear friends. The lemon-buttermilk cake bakes evenly and is both moist and light. The lemon curd adds a nice tang and helps keep the cake moist. And the bright-white, Swiss Buttercream frosting (made in place of a cream cheese frosting) gives the cake a really festive, professional feel. If you don’t feel like making a Swiss buttercream, which really is not too difficult, a cream cheese or whipped cream frosting will work just as well.

Emily and James’ & Ibeth and James’ Wedding Cake
Adapted From This YouTube Video

Lemon (or Orange) Buttermilk Cake
Yield = 2 9-inch cakes (the amount used in this four-layer cake)

3 cups all-purpose flour
¼ tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1 T. baking powder
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
2 cups sugar
4 eggs, whisked lightly
1¼ cups buttermilk
1 T. freshly squeezed lemon juice (or orange juice)
1½ tsp. lemon extract (or vanilla extract)
¼ tsp. lemon zest (or orange zest)

1. Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Sift together the flour, salt, baking soda and baking powder.

2. In an electric mixer, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, about five minutes. Slowly add the whisked eggs to the mixture and beat until combined. Alternate adding the flour mixture and the buttermilk to the mixer. (The recipe says to start and end with flour, but I’m not sure there is any science behind that.) Add the lemon juice, extract and zest, and mix just until combined.

3. If making this layer cake, coat a 9-inch cake pan with nonstick spray (or butter liberally). Pour half of the batter into the pan and bake for about 35 minutes or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Cool in pan for 15 minutes before inverting onto a cooling rack. Note: If you have two pans, bake the cakes simultaneously. If you have only one pan, repeat with remaining batter. Alternatively, bake all the batter at once. The cake will take longer to bake and might not bake as evenly, but it certainly can be done.

Filling for the wedding cake:
Lemon (or Orange) Curd

¼ cup sugar
7 egg yolks
½ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (or orange juice)
6 T. unsalted butter, room temperature (butter really must be at room temperature)

1. In a double boiler (or a stainless steel bowl over a pot of simmering water), whisk sugar and yolks together until pale yellow. Whisk in the juice. Stir constantly until mixture starts to thicken, about 8 – 10 minutes. (This is always a little tricky to gauge, but you’ll know it’s ready when it starts to thicken.) Remove bowl from heat and slowly whisk in the butter about a tablespoon at a time. This is sort of tedious, but only add more butter once the previous tablespoon has been fully incorporated. Cover with plastic wrap (place the wrap right up against the curd) and chill until ready to use.


Frosting for wedding cake:
For Emily and James’ wedding cake, I made a cream cheese frosting, which I love. For this layer cake, I took a stab at making Swiss Buttercream following the method described on Smitten Kitchen, which worked perfectly. This recipe produces a bright white, more professional looking icing, but either frosting tastes great.

Cream Cheese and Butter Frosting

2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
8 oz. cream cheese, room temperature
½ tsp. vanilla extract
confectioners’ sugar to taste

Beat cream cheese and butter together until light and fluffy. Add vanilla. Add confectioners’ sugar to taste. Chill if not using right away or frost cake immediately. (It’s easier to use if you use it right away.)

Smitten Kitchen’s Swiss Buttercream

For a 9-inch cake (plus filling, or some to spare):
1 cup sugar
4 large egg whites
26 tablespoons butter, softened (3 sticks plus 2 tablespoons)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Whisk egg whites and sugar together in a big metal bowl over a pot of simmering water. Whisk occasionally until you can’t feel the sugar granules when you rub the mixture between your fingers.

2. Transfer mixture into the mixer and whip until it turns white and about doubles in size. (Here’s a tip: when you transfer to the mixer, make sure you wipe the condensation off the bottom of the bowl so that no water gets into the egg whites. This can keep them from whipping up properly. Ali’s note: I whipped the egg whites in the bowl that fits into my stand mixer so that I didn’t have to transfer anything.)

3. Add the vanilla. Finally, add the butter a stick at a time and whip, whip, whip.

Note: If you refrigerate the buttercream, leave it at room temperature for at least 10 hours before using. Also, the icing has now held up perfectly (on the cake) for three days. I’m not sure if there is any health risk here, but so far it still tastes good, there is no sign of mold, and I have yet to get sick.

Assembly:

If I were to make this cake again, this is what I would do: I would reserve enough of the Swiss Buttercream to swirl all over the top of the cake. Then, I would whisk together equal parts lemon curd and buttercream to spread in between each layer. I find the buttercream to be a tad rich and think the lemon curd would cut it nicely. So, cut each cake in half with a serrated knife. Spread center with lemon curd-buttercream mix, frost top with buttercream, top with strawnberries and serve.

Tomatoes: Breakfast, Noon & Night

Tomatoes3

Oh, to live in New York in August. And late July and early September. To have access to New York bagels during tomato season would just be a dream. I’m not trying to dis Bagel Shack (my local bagel shop, which I love) or anything, but there really isn’t anything like a New York bagel.

That said, however, the tomato here is the star. Subpar bagels are just fine when meaty, heirloom tomatoes sit on top of them. This has been my breakfast now for three days in a row: A toasted sesame bagel spread with chive cream cheese (purchased from bagel shack but which could easily be made from scratch) topped with a slice of tomato and sprinkled, of course, with sea salt. Amazing.

Also, I feel I must clarify something I said last post. I do feel that tomatoes, when being prepared for Caprese salad, should be cut into irregular chunks, for reasons explained here. That’s not to say, however, that tomatoes should always be cut this way. The heirloom tomato varieties, in particular, look stunning when cut into rounds, which is a practical shape for certain dishes, namely this breakfast.

Also, it should be noted that tomato rounds look completely different depending on which way the knife passes through the fruit. Cut the tomato crosswise (not through the stem) for the prettiest slice. (In other words, if a tomato is sitting just as it would on a board, you would cut the tomato holding the knife parallel to the board. Does that make sense? Or, turn the tomato on its side, then cut down, perpendicular to the board.)