In Pukka’s Promise, The Quest for Longer-Lived Dogs, (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, NY 2013), Ted Kerasote’s decision to feed his puppy Pukka an AAFCO-certified raw food diet has one major caveat. In his wonderful, memoir-like guide to caring for a dog to ensure a long life, he describes testing commercial kibbles, as well as commercially available raw-food diets (frozen and dried ones) for lead, and found no detectable level of lead in only three. His concern about heavy metals in foods for dogs, confirmed by this testing, reinforced the wisdom of what Dr. Joe Bartges, on the faculty of The College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Tennessee, told Kerasote: to rotate a dog’s food so as “minimize the risk of feeding the same heavy metals year after year.”
This wisdom also applies to humans and especially babies. Like puppies, the body weight of babies increases substantially over time, and the effect of heavy metals on a small baby is disproportionally greater than on weightier adults.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has recently acted on this concern. Along with its recent proposal to set limits for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal of 100 parts per billion, the FDA has “urged parents to vary the kinds of iron-fortified cereal they feed their babies by using those made of oat, barley and multigrain” according to an article, F.D.A. Offers Arsenic Limit In Rice Cereal For Babies by Catherine Saint Louis in the New York Times (4/2/16). In support of its action, the FDA emphasized that “national intake data show that people consume the most rice (relative to their weight) at approximately 8 months of age.”
According to reporter Saint Louis, the FDA tested 76 rice cereals for infants “and found that about half had more inorganic arsenic than the proposed limit.” She notes that the FDA’s limit of 100 parts per billion earned the approval of Keeve Nachman, a professor of environmental health sciences at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, who studies arsenic in food. According to Prof. Nachman, “having a line in the sand where there wasn’t one before at least gives companies something to work with.”
In addition, FDA officials recommended that pregnant women also vary the grains they consume. As rice plants grow, they absorb more arsenic than other crops. According to Plant Biologist Jody Banks of Purdue University quoted in Deborah Blum’s The Trouble With Rice (NY Times, 4/18/14), “The issue with the rice plant is that it tends to store the arsenic in the grain, rather than in the leaves or elsewhere.” In its press release, the FDA noted that although arsenic occurs naturally in soil and water, fertilizers and pesticides also contribute to arsenic levels.
In its “Advice for Consumers,” included in the FDA press release, like Dr. Joe Bartges’ recommendation to Ted Kerasote on his dog’s diet, the federal agency advises “all consumers to eat a well-balanced diet for good nutrition and to minimize potential adverse consequences from consuming an excess of any one food.” In sum, rice cereal shouldn’t be the only source, and does not need to be the first source, of nutrients for your baby.
The website Momtastic Wholesome Baby Food offers “easy, fresh & nutritious homemade baby cereal recipes” using whole grains, including a rice cereal made from brown rice. In making the various baby cereal recipes, the whole grains are first ground (in a blender or food processor) into a powder. It would be advisable to use organic whole grains since as noted by the FDA, fertilizers and pesticides contribute to arsenic levels.
(Frank W. Barrie, 4/22/16)
When the sap begins to run and boiling kettles start producing sweet and savory maple syrup, my mind turns to waffles, hot off the iron, topped with maple syrup. I love the combination of sweet and sour, and maple syrup and tart cranberries are a perfect combo. This recipe for cranberry pecan waffles is a special treat in early spring.
In the late fall, just after Thanksgiving, I stock up on fresh organic cranberries and over the years have been able to obtain Cape Cod cranberries at my local food co-op. Unfortunately, this year the Honest Weight Food Co-op in my hometown of Albany never offered cranberries from the Cape and I settled for organic Canadian cranberries from Notre-Dame de Lourdes in the Lanaudière region of Quebec marketed by Fruit d’Or.
By early April, I was down to one 8 ounce package of fresh cranberries, out of the dozen or so purchased at the end of 2015. With a handful sprinkled into my morning oatmeal as it cooks on the stovetop, cranberries are a part of my daily diet in season and my cache of fresh cranberries goes fast. (Off season, if the craving strikes, I settle for a handful of Stahlbush frozen cranberries, “sustainably grown in the United States,” also sold at the Honest Weight, sprinkled in the oatmeal as it cooks.) A light bulb moment provided the perfect way to utilize my remaining fresh cranberries by cooking up a batch of cranberry pecan waffles topped with this season’s maple syrup.
I take special care in sourcing the few ingredients needed for these delicious waffles and though a sweet treat, they have nutritional value from the organic, stone ground whole wheat pastry flour from Farmer Ground in Trumansburg (Tompkins County, NY), organic raw pecans from The Green Valley Pecan Company in Sahuarita, Arizona, Cowbella plain kefir (cultured milk with its probiotics) from nearby Jefferson (Schoharie County, NY), and Skyhill Farm Eggs from Seward in Schoharie County, NY (no gmo, no soy, certified organic feed from heritage hens hand-raised and free-roaming in garden and pasture). For vegetable oil, I like to use sunflower oil with its mild flavor and Spectrum Organics’ sunflower oil is a 100% mechanically (expeller) pressed refined high oleic oil (with higher concentrations of healthier monounsaturated fats). This naturally refined variety has not been exposed to chemicals like cheaper oils, and has a high “smoke point” making it ideal for the high heat of the waffle iron.
Cranberry Pecan Waffles (makes 7 or 8 waffles)
2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 and 1/2 cups plain kefir cultured milk
2 large eggs
6 tablespoons vegetable oil
3/4 cup pecans (broken up)
3/4 cup of whole cranberries
Heat up 1/4 to 1/2 cup of water in a small sauce pan and add the whole cranberries to cook down into a sauce (about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally).
Place other ingredients in a large mixing bowl and combine until smooth. Add the cranberry liquid/sauce and stir. Batter should sit for a few minutes before using.
Heat up the waffle iron. I use setting 3 of the 5 settings on my iron and cook the waffles for 2 minutes or so until they are golden brown.
Serve topped with seasonal maple syrup and not just any maple syrup! Maple syrup has terroir and there is no doubt that there is variation in its taste and flavors. According to Rowan Jacobsen in his American Terroir, the only suitable terroir in the world for maple syrup is the Greater Northeast, described as a triangle running from Michigan to New Brunwick (Canada) to West Virginia. He explains in fascinating detail how only sugar maples have flowing sap with a “miraculous formula of high sugar content, a few flavor compounds and nothing nasty.”
At the Honest Weight, there are 3 or 4 maple syrups sold in the bulk food department; all produced by Bruce Roblee Adirondack Maple Farms of Fonda (Montgomery County), New York. and the friendly co-op workers, if asked, permit a tasting of the varieties. One always stands out as preferable to my taste buds.
This maple sugaring season, a beautiful drive from my home in Albany, over the Petersburg pass to Williamstown in the Berkshires of western Massachusetts, ended at Sweet Brook Farm and a short hike through the farm’s sugar bush before stocking up on a couple bottles of the farm’s delicious maple syrup. How satisfying to know where the syrup for my latest batch of cranberry pecan waffles was sourced!
The northern Berkshires are one of the most scenic spots in the Greater Northeast and Sweet Brook Farm is in the heart of maple syrup country. An added benefit of the farm’s location: just down the road is the renowned Clark Art Institute in Williamstown.
A little over ten years ago, the Institute mounted a memorable exhibit called Sugaring Off, The Maple Sugar Paintings of Eastman Johnson. Johnson, who lived in Fryeburg, Maine, as a child, used the sugaring off season to celebrate New England ingenuity, ruggedness, independence, and community spirit.
Check out our webpage for maple syrup producers and for information on maple syrup festivals. Enjoy knowing where the syrup for your waffles and pancakes comes from.
(Frank W. Barrie, 4/13/16)
While the newspaper business in the 21st century may still be struggling to find a solid financial footing, the New York Times, at least, seems to have found one revenue stream that entertains, enlightens, and also brings home the bacon: TimesTalks, live and webcasted conversations (now in its 18th year) between its journalists and “21st century talents and thinkers.”
In a recent TimesTalks held last month at the Directors Guild of America Theater (an auditorium somewhat larger than The TimesCenter) in midtown Manhattan, best-selling author (and America’s advocate for eating food, mostly plants, and not too much) Michael Pollan and documentary film director Alex Gibney revealed their thinking behind the new Netflix documentary series, Cooked (general admission: $40). The lively, wide-ranging, and nearly 90 minute conversation which included some Q and A, on the pleasures and politics of cooking in an industrial age was time well spent, and well-worth the price of admission.
The four-part Netflix series, based on Pollan’s book, Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation (Penguin Group, New York, NY 2013), makes the case for a return to home cooking and homemade foods by examining and comparing the health implications of several traditional food cultures against our own industrialized food system, in a narrative woven together with Pollan’s detective-like voiceover and scenes from his own journey to become a better cook. In the book, Pollan explored the four classical elements of fire, water, air, and earth, to transform “the stuff of nature into delicious things to eat and drink.” Pollan masters four recipes: (1) pork shoulder barbecue (fire); (2) Samin Nosrat’s meat sugo, a classic Italian meat sauce, and pasta (water); (3) Chad Robertson’s whole-wheat country loaf (air); and (4) Sandor Katz’s version of sauerkraut (earth).
The series similarly explores this process of transformation through in-depth interviews with a handful of artisans who are still making foods in traditional ways; some even came to the talk: the cheese-making nun from episode four, Sister Noella Marcellino; Berkshire Mountain Bakery’s Richard Bourdon from episode three, and South Carolina BBQ master Ed Mitchell from episode one (who would be BBQing with the kitchen crew at Manhattan eatery, Blue Smoke, the next day). And like the book, the Netflix series has a very serious focus, spending significant time showing how the industrialized food system has worked for half a century to make us equate a successful modern life with the freedom from the labors of cooking. But Pollan asks, what better way to spend time is there? What good is saving all that time if we just use it to watch TV and fill ourselves with processed food as we get disconnected from the world and people around us?
In asking such questions, the book and the series arguably can be viewed as equating Pollan’s cause with an almost Buddhist philosophical stance on the nature of mindful living. The audience, a roomful of about 400 New Yorkers, were attentive to the stimulating and thoughtful conversation on the forces that have led to Americans cooking less than half as much as they did in the 1960s, and sympathetic to the need for change.
Moderator and New York Times Food Editor, Sam Sifton, emphasized this main theme early in the night, asking Pollan what those of us with long commutes and long work hours are to do even if we recognize the benefits of returning to the less-processed and more traditional food preparation methods that the series espouses. Pollan’s response was characteristically thoughtful and holistic, showing that he’s spent a lot of time wrestling with the topic and that its answer really is central to tackling many of the crises we face as a society and actually as much about our culture as our cuisine.
Beyond the familiar facts that Pollan is so adept at pulling from disparate fields and weaving into strikingly coherent arguments (and not to mention, catchy mantras) for weaning ourselves off factory farmed and processed food and all its deleterious health effects, Pollan’s latest effort to reach the mainstream differs vastly from his previous works in that it’s anchored in his own effort to be a better cook and it’s focused on the pleasures—not just the health wisdom—of home-cooked foods.
It came as some surprise that someone as food-focused as Pollan, wouldn’t already be a master chef in the kitchen. But from his attempt to feed his friends by slow smoking a pig in an oddly rigged backyard barbeque in episode one to scenes about making beer with his son and overcoming his fear of making bread, Pollan shows us that he practices what he’s preaching and that we too can joyfully retake our kitchens, led by nothing more than our animal senses and humble curiosity. By pushing for a kitchen renaissance rooted in experience and process, he’s not only demonstrating how to reclaim some of the power we’ve handed over to industries that aren’t always looking out for our best interests, but he’s also subtly arguing for a new poetics of living.
To make the series, Pollan entrusted Gibney and his all-star team (who’ve recently produced a string of acclaimed documentaries on Scientology, Steve Jobs, and Enron among others) to find ways to capture these pleasure principles and quite literally bring us back to our senses through evocative and artistic cinematography (not to mention some expert investigative work).
Gibney explained to Sifton that his team intentionally avoided a lot of gratuitous eating shots and standard editorializing, opting instead for a quieter approach that let powerful visuals of the cooking processes leave an impression and give the viewers a chance to make their own conclusions. “The beautiful landscapes and shots of food speak for themselves–as do the industrialized landscapes created by our own unwillingness to cook,” Pollan added, noting that it’s far more effective to lure people into cooking than to lecture them into it.
Despite the many inevitable glamor shots (like the slow movements of smoke wafting from a barbecue in a verdant southern forest that still lingers in my mind), Sifton noted that the series was decidedly not your typical “food porn” style cooking or culinary adventure show. Far from it, Pollan and Gibney said they intended to throw off the usual balance and neatness by including some less filtered moments like the vegetarian who awkwardly tried meat at Pollan’s BBQ along with more visceral footage like the gutting and cooking of a lizard in Australia in episode one, or the Peruvian women, in episode four, who make their traditional alcoholic beverage by chewing yucca root and spitting the pulpy mash back out into fermenting pots (also the subject of a recent National Geographic article by Mollie Bloudoff-Indelicato). In doing so, the series leaves many loose ends but this kind of untidy approach gets precisely at the sometimes contradictory and strange things one encounters on the kind of personal journey and transformation Pollan is espousing.
During the talk, Pollan seemed genuinely pleased by the results of the Netflix documentary and how the material was given a new life and opportunity to expand in the hands of talented filmmakers. For example, he marveled how in episode two, the filmmakers were granted unprecedented access to Nestle’s food labs in India, where they were able to witness the “willful destruction of a great food culture” as food technologists simulate tandoori chicken in a powder.
The breadth of the series gives Pollan ample opportunity to explore and investigate all kinds of food research and traditions, including a few touchy topics that sometimes got him in hot water. Case in point: when “hackles were raised across the nation” (as he put it) when he claimed in episode three that many of the people who believe they are gluten-intolerant would probably be fine if they just switched to eating traditional long-fermented sourdough breads. The logic behind the statement is that, during long ferments, more of the hard-to-digest long-peptides break down than they do in modern fast-fermented breads. Some research suggests these kinds of compounds may be causing digestive inflammation and allowing more gluten to pass into our blood than ever before. One can certainly understand the sensitivity at his self-assured directness but by positing a honest interpretation of the new research, Pollan advances the conversation.
Pollen deftly handled another potentially thorny topic broached by one audience member: the gender implications of Pollan’s call for a return to the kitchen. Would going back to the kitchen represent a step back for women and the decades long struggle to get equal pay and opportunities in the workforce? Foregoing the kind of measured talk I would have expected (given how close the question was to an accusation), Pollan engaged with the topic and also brought up some relevant and revealing bits of oft-overlooked advertising history.
His answer went something like this: It was precisely when the women’s liberation movement was gaining momentum that the food industry began to double down with their pitch for processed foods–positioning them as the solution for working moms to keep their families fed even while their work lives took on increasing prominence (and time). The success of this sales pitch essentially let men off the hook and stopped a new conversation about the division and allocation of household labor from ever really happening. Challenging one of the traditional definitions of male masculinity, Pollan contends that everyone needs to cook–men and boys included (and not just at the primal temple to manly meats that is the grill).
In response to one audience member who asked if he’d ever run for political office, Pollan demurred and offered some persuasive reasons for avoiding the political life and remaining an independent voice for change. After watching Obama’s tenure in office and the tremendous efforts the first lady has made to promote gardening and healthier eating in schools despite “extraordinary” opposition [Editor’s note: Michelle Obama’s American Grown is a book we love], Pollan thinks that there just isn’t enough political capital to fix the problems facing our food system at the deep level that they need right now because, essentially, the game is still rigged.
For example, he explains that someone as seemingly influential as the Secretary of Agriculture is actually captive to the industrial food system because the agriculture committees in Congress that set the department’s budgets and priorities are still exclusively populated by people from states producing food and receiving farm subsidies. Until those committees have representatives from both the food making and the food eating states, the government won’t have much power to change its contradictory status quo of both subsidizing the making of cheap and unhealthy foods on the one hand and subsidizing the treatment of its health effects on the other. It’s a paradoxical and frustrating situation that Pollan explains has resulted in the cost of most processed foods having actually gone down since the 1980s, while the cost of fresh produce has risen by around 40%. Pollan seems content being the outsider voice and making his waves in other more personal ways.
But the night wasn’t all heavy stuff. As a moderator, Sifton kept things moving along with silly asides and by finding ways to lightly rib Gibney and Pollan about some of the series’ controversies and contradictions.
In Cooked, Pollan has yet again succeeded in bringing critical food issues to a much wider audience, who are compelled to confront the modern dependence on industrially processed foods. And, while it’s a tad ironic that he’s telling people to get off the couch and start cooking from the pulpit of a TV show, he makes a powerful case that the myriad problems that Cooked addresses all have one simple solution that we can all do: cook for ourselves. It may seem simplistic but it’s really not: The logic being that when you do, you’ll tend to make healthier food, you’ll tend to eat less, you’ll tend to use better ingredients, and you’ll tend to appreciate your food more.
Far from being mindless drudgery that enslaves us, Pollan wants us to see that growing, preparing, and eating real foods are among the most mindful and meaningful activities we, as humans, can engage in. “We’ve been led to think that these things are in the way of life, but in fact,” Pollan says, “they are life.” After all, Pollan asked the TimesTalk crowd, “Who gathers around the microwave?”
CLICK HERE to link to a video of the Pollan/Gibney/Sifton conversation on the TimesTalks website
(Matt Bierce, 4/1/16)
A bill sponsored by Kansas Senator Pat Roberts, preventing individual states from requiring labeling of genetically engineered (GMO) foods, has been rejected after full Senate consideration. Wenonah Hauter, the Executive Director of the Food & Water Watch noted that Senator Robert’s bill, best described as “the Denying Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act,” would have also stopped pending state laws, that require labeling of GMOs, from going into effect.
The three states of Vermont, Connecticut and Maine have laws pending that require labeling of GMOs. The effective date of Vermont’s law is July 1, 2016. Connecticut’s law contains a trigger that allows it to go into effect when Northeast states, with a combined population of 20 million, adopt similar laws. Similarly, Maine’s law becomes effective only if five contiguous states pass labeling laws.
The Center for Food Safety on its website, maintains a map that details the status of legislation on the state level to require the labeling of GMOs. It’s simple and easy to learn the current status of similar labeling of GMOs legislation in each of the fifty states by clicking on the Center’s State Labeling Legislation Map.
Wenonah Hauter summed up the status of the attempt in Congress, well funded by Monsanto and other industrial agriculture corporations, to bar states from acting to require the labeling of GMOS in the press release just issued by the Food & Water Watch:
“Many Senators properly noted that this bill fails to solve the problem it claims to fix. Instead, by blocking state laws from going into effect and replacing them with voluntary measures and impractical alternatives to labeling, it would have ensured that big food processing companies and the biotechnology industry continue to profit by misleading consumers.
“Another common message from many Senators was the need to continue negotiating about the contents of this bill. But more compromise will not fix the problem at the core of Senator Roberts’ approach: Blocking state laws that require GMO labeling will strip away the ability of states to protect the public’s right to know what is in its food. Any version of this bill that would result in anything less than mandatory on-package labeling is unacceptable.
“People want to know if the food they buy contains GMO ingredients. It’s time for Congress to create a mandatory on-package labeling requirement so people can decide for themselves whether they want to eat a food that has been produced using genetic engineering.
“The majority of Americans support labeling for GMOs and will hold their elected officials accountable if they vote to strip away transparency about how their food is produced. We urge the Senate to continue to reject bills that would block state labeling laws.”
The Organic Consumers Association emphasizes that today’s failure to pass the DARK Act was “an exciting preliminary victory.” The few Democrats who voted for the DARK Act [Sen. Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.), Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.), and Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.)] were balanced out by a few Republicans who broke ranks [Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) and Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.)]. OCA notes further that after the vote on the DARK Act failed today, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) flipped his vote from yes to no, a procedural maneuver that allows the Senate to bring an amended version of the DARK Act back into the realm of the “un-dead.”
OCA asks, “How soon could the DARK Act be resurrected?” and suggests it may be “As early as this week, or perhaps in two weeks, after the Senate returns from its recess.” OCA suggests reaching out to thank those Senators who voted for consumers, not Monsanto, today.
Click here to see how your Senators voted and then call the Capitol switchboard at 1-202-224-3121 to voice your opinion.
(Frank Barrie, 3/16/16)
You’d be hard pressed to find a more inviting and well-considered breakfast cookbook than Breakfast: Recipes to Wake Up For (Rizzoli, New York, NY, 2015), by George Weld and Evan Hanczor, the founder and chef, respectively, of Williamsburg, Brooklyn’s renowned farm-to-table restaurant, Egg. With a focus on classic southern staples (think grits, greens, bacon, eggs, and country ham) and quite a few unusual ideas for breakfast (parsnip and apple soup, broiled tomatoes, and smoked trout salad, anyone?), the book is a homage to the power of good ingredients simply prepared and the fun of learning to cook new things.
Gorgeous photos by Bryan Gardner accompany recipes for making everything from humble scrambled eggs to more advanced fare like duck confit and fried oysters. There are recipes for dressings, desserts, sides, and plenty of egg dishes. And if you’re up for a real challenge, there are even directions for making your own cured bacon, sausage, and scrapple.
But no matter how seemingly complex the dish, the book’s clear directions take you by the hand to clear up common confusions, noting when the authors’ preferred methods differ from standard approaches and what experience–whether it was restaurant experimentation or the expediency needed for home preparations–led to the recommended divergence. The book is also intimately personal, with reminiscences of Weld’s southern childhood, family meals, and tales from the restaurant. With his evocative and casual writing style, Weld paints pictures that makes you want to head to the nearest log cabin, whip out the cast-iron skillet, and start cooking!
If you’ve ever been to Egg, you’ll recognize many of the book’s dishes from its menu. Having enjoyed and reviewed a delicious meal there, I can attest that they’ve mastered the art of simple preparations of quality foods like heirloom meats, local organic flours, local eggs and dairy, and fruit and veggies from Goatfell Farm, their own upstate NY farm. While fairly straightforward, the dishes I had were all winners: unassuming yet perfectly satisfying bacon, fluffy scrambled eggs, pancakes dripping with Vermont maple syrup and peppery biscuits and gravy. With fare so basic, some of the recipes in the book come off as humorously simple at first glance, but as with the restaurant, the book’s methods are carefully crafted to step out of the way and let the quality of ingredients shine in ways you didn’t know possible.
As I read through the recipes, it dawned on me that many of the most important roles in the book are supporting ones. Weld’s description of his preferred ingredients and spices, like molasses, black pepper, apple cider vinegar, turbinado sugar (unlike refined white sugar, turbinado retains some of the molasses flavor from the cane), and when and how to use these simple but powerful partnering flavors, turned out to be the key to understanding the magical directness of his dishes.
So, to road test a handful of the book’s more tempting recipes and methods (and to see if they could work with a cook as inexperienced as me), I made a trip to the store. First up: eggs. Weld tells us that cooking eggs is one of his restaurant’s first tests for new chefs–a way to determine if they’re humble enough to relearn or unlearn bad techniques. As someone who never much cared for eggs (beyond the standard scrambled variety), I took the cookbook as a challenge to try and broaden my horizons in that department by attempting its recipe for poached eggs–the dish that Weld claims brought him back to the egg fold after years of being served poorly executed eggs–and see if they could entice me back too.
Having never made them myself, I was impressed by how easy it is if you take the time to follow the book’s few simple directions. I made mine as part of an eggs benedict with spinach, basil, bacon, and homemade hollandaise. Even though I lacked the helpful slotted spoon for transferring the egg from the boiling water, it ended up as one of the best breakfast dishes I’ve ever whipped up. (A second attempt fared even better with a friend’s tip to stir the water and create a vortex to hold the egg together.)
The recipe for scrambled eggs was also illuminating in that it advised adding the butter to the pan with the eggs–not before–so that the water in the butter would inflate the egg with its steam to make it fluffier. And it totally was. Not content to end the egg journey there, I also attempted the book’s beet-pickled hard-boiled eggs, which turned out not only as beautiful as the book’s photos (thanks to the bright red beets) but much more delicately flavored with tangy, cidery garlic than I had imagined. Quite the treat. And as Weld notes, when “sliced open, so that the dark yellow yolk is exposed (against the vivid fuchsia), they’re one of the prettiest foods you can put on a plate.”
For sides, I tried the roasted squash with sage (using a farmers market butternut), the pickled cucumber relish, the mustard caraway vinaigrette, the baked grapefruit, roasted carrot salad with yogurt, and the mustard fig jam. The squash was nothing fancy but with sage and salt, the bite-sized cubes added a savory sweetness to the morning feast. The pickled cuke relish was a nice complement to the cool and creamy yogurt carrot salad, but was definitely too spicy to eat much of (more on that below).
The caraway mustard vinaigrette (which I served on an arugula salad with pickled beets) veered a little close to chimichurri in its heavy use of parsley and cilantro for my tastes and my attempt at the baked grapefruit (with turbinado sugar and mint) was delicious but a little soupier than the restaurant’s version. The mustard-fig jam, on the other hand, turned out quite well, and made a pleasant, hearty, and not too sweet topping on warm bread.
The real standout from my meal was the fried chicken (which, in the book’s recipe, is served in a homemade biscuit, but which I opted to eat on its own). The recipe hails from Pies n Thighs, another southern-styled cookery in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge. After making the clove, allspice, and pepper brine the day before and then brining two chicken breasts for 10 hours, it was a relief to find that the final product was totally worth the wait. The chicken was moist inside, lightly crunchy outside, and completely flavorful in its simple whole cream and egg breading under a glaze of honey hot sauce. If you have any doubts about the effect of brining, this dish will handily brush them aside.
With two rather complex new dishes under my belt (and loads of ideas for other seasonal treats), I can attest to the fact that Breakfast’s recipes work and can turn even a relatively inexperienced cook like me into a passably decent southern one. But the cookbook is not without a few issues. In several of the recipes I tried, the ingredient amounts don’t seem like they were super accurate. For example, the brine and breading for the fried chicken was easily enough for 5 times the chicken than the recipe called for. The recipe for squash called for 5 leaves of sage without really specifying how much squash (weight or volume) was used. Meanwhile, the overdose of red pepper flakes called for in the pickled cukes left them nearly inedible (and that’s coming from someone raised on fairly spicy Mexican food).
But as I stood back from the fray that my kitchen became during this road test, it became clear that the book’s goal is not to dutifully prescribe methods, spices, and amounts. Rather, it seeks to empower readers by giving us new skills to find what works for us, by helping us to know and enjoy these classic foods on far a deeper level, and by challenging our notions of what normal breakfast dishes are.
As George Weld explains in the introduction, In defense of morning, thanks to our hectic culture, breakfast is a fairly debased meal that most of us breeze through with whatever we can grab. This rush to simply fuel up in the morning leaves us at the mercy of the processed food businesses that offer options aplenty loaded with things we don’t need and devoid of the nourishment we do. But worse, this situation keeps us blind to the possibility all around us. Paying attention to the foods that grow in season near you and learning the simple and timeless ways to make hearty and delicious meals from them, can not only improve your health and energize your days, but it can begin the process of acquiring a new, more present mindfulness of life, your relationship with food, and the planet itself. With the subtitle recipes to wake up for, Weld isn’t just talking about getting up in the morning to eat better in this terrific cookbook, he’s talking about the power that cooking real food has to awaken a personal and philosophical transformation.
(Matt Bierce, 3/2/16)