Exploring Four Dimensions Of Flavor With Samin Nosrat’s Senses-first Approach in Netflix’s Four-Part Series: Salt Fat Acid Heat

Is it really possible to boil cooking down to balancing just four elements that, when understood, can make anyone a great cook?

Well, that’s the premise and purpose behind chef, author and now documentary host Samin Nosrat’s four-part Netflix series, Salt Acid Fat Heat, based on her similarly titled cookbook, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking (Simon & Schuster, New York, NY, 2017)After watching the show, I’m pleased to confirm that Samin Nosrat is onto something of consequence for cooks, experienced as well as novices.

This documentary-style Netflix series, directed by Caroline Suh and produced by Alex Gibney, is filmed in a similarly rich and artistic format as recent releases like Chef’s Table and Michael Pollan’s Cooked (another Suh/Gibney productions in which Nosrat also makes an appearance) and takes viewers on a globe-trotting journey to explore the nuances of each of Nosrat’s four elements. Through gorgeous aerial shots, intimate kitchen scenes, al fresco grillings, market meanderings and indulgent tastings, we meet masters of each element making dishes and preparations that epitomize and showcase their expression across northern Italy, Japan, Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula and finally, Berkeley, California where Nosrat’s culinary career originally began as a chef at Alice Waters’ seminal local/seasonal-eatery, Chez Panisse.

And while Nosrat may focus on the elements of salt, acid, fat and heat in cooking, the tone of the series is decidedly sweet and intimate. If nothing else, the show will leave you with an indelibly playful view of cooking. It’s abundantly clear that, for Nosrat, cooking is a joyous and tactile affair dominated by a sensual interaction with every element. She appears fully in love with the experience of food. All of it: ingredients, shopping, preparations, cooking, tasting and ultimately sharing it. Her laughter permeates nearly every minute of the four-part show and nary a scene passes without her doubling over, naughtily stealing a bite of something being prepared, oohing and aahing over a new dish or her eyes bulging with the delight of discovery as she utters this is so good in language after language. For her, cooking seems not so much about precise technique but a decidedly organic journey guided more by her well-honed senses and intuition than any recipe.

The first episode focuses on fat and introduces viewers to the ways this element carries flavor to food through the lens of Northern Italian cuisine. Here we meet olive farmers, we learn the patience needed for truly flavorful pesto, we meet a butcher of aged heirloom pigs (from whom Nosrat steals an apparently delectable slice of pure fat), we watch Nosrat learn to prepare a traditional Genoese focaccia and a simple egg pasta, and finally see how parmesan is made and aged into its finest, nearly crystalized form. The lessons? Use the right fat for the dish and you’ll be rewarded with rich and sumptuous results. The final scene of the first episode, like the other three, ends with the kind of glorious feast of friends that epitomizes the true spirit of Italian cuisine and the purpose behind it: sharing.

Episode two goes to the other side of the world to explore the ways that salt draws out and lifts the flavors of food in Japan, the nation with a stunning 4,000 types of salt. We meet traditional miso and soy sauce producers as well as the makers of a fine kelp-infused salt called moshio and get to see how these simple salt-driven ingredients are all that’s needed to bring out the flavors inherent in fresh sashimi, fish soup and a soft-boiled egg seasoned with miso. One thing that becomes apparent in this episode is that not all salts are created equal. Matching the right size and shape of the salt crystals to the dish is a critical part of balanced cooking in Japan. At the end of the episode, we witness the transformative power of salt as Nosrat shares her recipe for braising short ribs with a soy, miso and ginger marinade and a dashi braising stock (made from seaweed and bonito flakes).

The star of the series’ third episode is my own personal favorite of the four elements: acidity. The one that brings mouth-watering balance to heavy dishes and offers brightness for cutting through fat, sweet, starchy or salty dishes. It’s also coincidentally the element most conspicuously lacking in many traditional American dishes. And what better place to see it in action than the citrus-dominated dishes of Mexico’s Yucatan?

There, under the tutelage of abuelas and chefs carrying on centuries-old Mayan traditions, Nosrat learns to make pavo escabeche, a traditional turkey and meatball dish where the meat is marinated and cured a lá ceviche in a sour orange juice before being stewed. She also learns how to make a steamed fish in banana leaves dish, tastes a variety of salsas and curtidos made with pickled vegetables, joins a crew of elder tortilla makers, and tastes rare and unusually acidic honeys of different tropical plants from a species of bees without stingers called Meliponia.

The final episode, Heat, brings viewers full circle — from gathering inspiration in world travels back into the home kitchen where Nosrat shows us how to bring all the elements together in the crucible of the stove, oven and fire which have the power to chemically transform food and release all kinds of additional flavors. After a visit to Chez Panisse where one of her early mentors explains her secrets for cooking steaks on the open flame, Nosrat uses the rest of the episode to share practical cooking tips and make some of her favorite dishes for (and with) friends and family, including some that she says are perfect examples of the balance of the show’s four elements, like a buttermilk-brined roast chicken and a bean, Brussel sprout and carrot salad balanced with tangy feta, olive oil, zatar and cilantro and, of course, salt.

Through all these adventures, we see that while Nosrat is clearly an expert ready to teach and share her skills, she’s also still a student and an eager taster, adjusting her own cooking styles and techniques and tweaking her mental cooking math as she encounters new foods and approaches. It’s essentially an adaptive mode that, at its core, is highly artistic and in its rejection of dogma and tradition, somewhat radical. Her easygoing nature, joyful wonder and frequent laughter belie the fact that she is actually pointing viewers towards a rather experimental backdoor to great cooking.

And why not? When you really love something, you should share it. And the truth is, once you do know the basics of these four elements and get to know the world of flavors out there, cooking isn’t some kind of mysterious alchemy. It’s a simple science of balance that can be easily adapted to any taste or ingredient and lead to an endless variety of culinary adventures, tasty discoveries and flavorful possibilities. Just learn the basics and follow your taste buds.

(Matt Bierce, 1/18/19)

A Most Perfect Union: Vermont’s Sterling College Offering Future Farmers Tuition-Free College Education in Wendell Berry’s Henry County, Kentucky

The Wendell Berry Farming Program  of Vermont’s Sterling College (ranked #1 for food and dining three years in a row in Sierra’s Cool Schools rankings) based at The Berry Center in New Castle (Henry County), Kentucky, has received a $2.5 million grant from The NoVo Foundation, which shares the farming program’s vision of educating a next generation of farmers to farm sustainably and build prosperous rural communities and healthy regional economies in the words of Mary Berry, the executive director of The Berry Center founded in 2011. Mary Berry is the daughter of Wendell Berry, the distinguished farmer and writer, whose words are spotlighted in our mission statement: Every time you make a decision about food, you are farming by proxy, The Art of the Commonplace, edited by Norman Wirzba (Berkeley, CA, Counterpoint, 2002).

This financial recognition by The NoVo Foundation is wonderful news to start off the new year. And the foundation is also behind a $500,000 fundraising challenge for the Wendell Berry Farming Program, which we encourage our readers to support. No student in the program will pay tuition for the farming program.

Inspired by the lifework of Wendell Berry, the Wendell Berry Farming Program was designed in partnership with The Berry Center, to train graduates in the skills and resources necessary to practice ecologically mindful and economically viable agriculture on a human scale. With classes taught by Sterling College faculty, the program serves students who have a strong desire for an education that prepares them to come home to farm and build strong rural communities. Through their work, graduates of the program are expected to embody an ethic of environmental stewardship, and contribute to the revitalization and renewal of rural agrarian communities in Kentucky and beyond.

A two-year program, students earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sustainable Agriculture from Sterling College. According to information on the college’s website, admission is highly competitive. Only twelve students will be accepted for enrollment. Applicants must have a strong work ethic and demonstrate a desire to farm and a commitment to working to strengthen rural communities. In addition, applicants must have completed 60 college credits by August 25th, 2019, when the program begins.

Typically, admitted students will have a strong liberal arts and sciences academic background and demonstrated experience of work and community service.  While applicants must demonstrate a commitment to sustainable agriculture, there is no requirement the applicants have studied agriculture in their first two years of college. And applications from students who are residents of Kentucky are encouraged.

Review of applications will begin on April 1st, 2019, and first offers of admission will be shared with applicants on April 15th, 2019. Enrollment commitments will be expected by May 1st, 2019. Information on applying for admission is available on Sterling College’s website.

Included in the profile of Leah Bayens, Dean of the Wendell Berry Farming Program, are three books recommended by Dean Bayens, including Wendell Berry’s Jayber Crow, reviewed on this website a few years ago, which in good part centers on the sad demise of a 500 acre Kentucky farm. It is inspiring news for the new year that the Wendell Berry Farming Program will provide the opportunity tuition-free for a dozen college students to become next generation farmers, who will see and appreciate a farm’s patterns and cycles of work, which permit all of its lives to flourish (in Wendell Berry’s words) and not ask of the land . . . all that it has in order to produce as many easy dollars as possible, in the way in which the family farm in Jayber Crow was exploited.

(Frank W. Barrie, 1/11/19)

Juicy & Tender Burgers Served Up At Grazin’ Hudson: Simply THE Best

Grazin’ in downtown Hudson (Columbia County), NY is serving up the best burger (local, sustainable, grass fed) money can buy

Grazin’ Angus Acres, the home to a herd of well-cared for angus beef cattle, raised on open pasture and 100% grass fed, on a nearly snowless late December day in NY’s Hudson Valley (click on photo to better see the cattle)

A long view of the bucolic Grazin’ Angus Acres in late December

Inside the not-so-busy Grazin’ diner for a late 2:30-3:00PM lunch

Simply the most delicious, tender & juicy burger imaginable with an organic side salad in lieu of fries

Grazin’ Hudson on Warren Street, the lively main street in downtown Hudson (Columbia County), New York, is grilling up what is hands-down the very best burgers money can buy. This small diner in New York’s Hudson Valley should be a destination for anyone hungering for a flavorful, juicy and tender beef burger.

A mindful eater would have to agree with the conclusions of a recent new study issued by the World Resources Institute, which spotlighted the drastic changes needed in the next few decades in order to feed billions more people without inciting a climate catastrophe, as reported by Brad Plumer in Can We Grow More Food on Less Land? We Must (New York Times, 12/6/18). Reporter Plumer notes that in the past, researchers have suggested that the key to a sustainable agriculture system is to persuade consumers to eat far less meat and waste far less of the food that’s already grown.

This new study also emphasizes that there must be a focus on a major shift in farming practices worldwide. One example of needed change emphasizes that the best-managed grazing lands can produce four times as much beef per acre as poorly managed lands and could help satisfy rising meat demand while lessening the need to clear broad swaths of rain forest, now under threat, in Brazil.

Dan and Susan Gibson, the owners of Grazin’ Hudson, deserve praise, for their Grazin’ Angus Acres, a 500 acre farm in Ghent (Columbia County), New York, the source for the beef used in their family’s Grazin’ Hudson diner. Their nearby farm employs a holistic, synergistic, rotational grazing system combined with numerous eggs mobiles to produce great tasting and healthy animal proteins while also restoring the land as noted in Our Story on the Grazin’ Hudson’s website. They trumpet their laudable standing as the first completely Animal Welfare Approved restaurant in the world.

On a wintry day, unexpectedly snowless in upstate New York, this occasional meat eater, who maintains a mostly vegetarian diet, decided to indulge in Grazin’ Hudson’s basic burger, The Grazin’, noted on the menu as the original, lightly seasoned 6 OZ. burger with fresh greens & tomato (when available). Other options included The Uncle Dude, chipotle mayo, organic cheese, Grazin’ Angus Acres bacon, jalapeño relish & fresh greens and The Cowboy, country ham, over easy egg, organic cheese.

These creative and indulgent examples of added ingredients to a burger motivated this diner to customize his basic burger with one of the Customize Your Burger options, Ardith Mae Goat Cheese, which made the basic burger an extra delicious cheeseburger. Ardith Mae Farm is a small Animal Welfare Approved goat dairy in Stuyvesant (Columbia County), New York, which is renowned locally for its fresh chèvre. With the help of Columbia Land Conservancy’s Match Program for farmers and land owners, Ardith Mae Goat Cheese made a home about five years ago for its goats at Monkshood Nursery where there was an empty barn and in the words of Todd & Shereen Wilcox (the cheesemakers), big, beautiful pastures just screaming for some animals

How satisfying was my Grazin’ basic burger topped with Ardith Mae Goat Cheese on a top-notch organic bun, custom made by Hawthorne Valley Farm Store bakery? Deliciously tender and juicy, even when served at the requested medium well which on the diner’s menu noted it would be pink center. In contrast, rare was noted as red throughout; medium rare, rare center; medium, pink throughout; and well done, no pink.

No surprise that even the bun was light, tender, and perfect. And the extraordinary mindfulness of the sourcing of ingredients for Grazin’ Hudson burgers is also reflected in Hawthorne Valley Farm Store bakery’s certified organic standard: all of the bakery’s flours, grains, nuts, seeds and fruits used are organically or Biodynamically®-grown and for added freshness, the bakery grinds and sifts the wheat and rye on-site.

In short, Grazin’ Hudson is cooking up THE BEST burger money can buy.

(For vegetarians, Grazin’ offers The Veggie burger, made with its own blend of white beans, beets, carrots, onion and cashews topped with buttermilk aioli.)

Grazin’, 717 Warren Street, 518.822.9323, Lunch & Dinner: Mon-Thurs 12:00PM-8:00PM, Fri 12:00PM-9:30PM; Brunch, Lunch & Dinner: Sat 9:00AM-9:30PM (brunch until noon); Brunch: Sun 9:00AM-6:00PM, www.grazindiner.com

(Frank W. Barrie, 1/5/19)

Happy New Year and ONWARD in 2019 With Great News On Connecting Farmland & Next Generation Farmers

Reckoning with the calendar becoming 2019, this Class of 1972 college graduate thought it was clever to e-mail some greetings for the new year with “Best wishes for 2019, Ouch!” A good and intelligent friend set me straight on that superficial wit. He wrote: NOT Ouch, but Onward!

And Onward! it is for www.knowwhereyourfoodcomesfrom.com in 2019 and our mission of getting more people to really know where there food is coming from by becoming a farm share member of a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) family-scale organic farm near home. If you cannot grow your own organic food, nothing comes closer to ensuring good food for your household than participating in a farm share in a CSA farm that is committed to organic agricultural practices.

This moment of staying positive and helping the good food movement to advance forward is strongly rooted in the work of farm preservation organizations, notably American Farmland Trust, which recently spotlighted the alarming news that America’s farmland is disappearing at the rate of three acres every single minute. Its report, Farms Under Threat, notes that 31 million acres of farmland were lost between 1992 and 2012, nearly twice as much as previous datasets have shown.

But on this first day of 2019, there is good news to share about an innovative program to preserve family scale farming in New York State, which can become a model across the U.S. and Canada.

Coordinated by American Farmland Trust, in partnership with the State of New York, agricultural organizations, land trusts, and others, Farmland for a New Generation New York includes easy to use listings of land available for farming in New York. The Find A Farm page currently includes information on 120 available farms and farmland across the state organized geographically, which also may be filtered by applying various factors such as total acres, infrastructure & equipment, crops permitted, livestock permitted, and tenure arrangement.

Farmland for a New Generation New York also has a Find a Farmer page which currently lists over 200 new generation farmers searching for farmland. This list of farmers can be filtered by factors such as desired acreage, primary crops, livestock, tenure options desired and infrastructure and equipment.

And there are also clear directions on how to Create A Profile for landowners to create Farm Profiles and land seekers to create Farmer Profiles.

Onward! And hats off to American Farmland Trust for sparking this innovative program to connect farmland and the next generation of farmers.

(Frank W. Barrie, 1/1/19)

Farm Share Red Beets Used To Sweeten Up Apple Cakelets

How to use up all the red beets in a CSA farm share?

One bowl combining organic brown rice flour (gluten free), baking powder & soda, spices & salt and a second blending mashed red beets, homemade apple sauce, an egg & melted butter

Microplane used to freshly grate nutmeg & allspice to add spicy flavors, along with organic Sri Lanka cinnamon

The beet red batter in the Nordic Ware Apple Cakelet pan before baking

Out of the oven, cakelets faded in color but buttery & savory with spicy flavors

Les Collines (small batch & locally sourced) sour cherry preserve (for added sweet & sour flavor) between two apple cakelets to form the apple shape: a buttery & delicious 3-D breakfast!

For nearly a dozen years, a full vegetable farm share from Roxbury Farm in Kinderhook (Columbia County), New York has meant 24 weeks of biodynamic veggies during the season, running from early June to mid November. Next year, in 2019, the full vegetable share at a cost of $630.00 means for approximately $25.00 each week, the bounty from a local, small farm will again be at the center of a healthy diet.

In addition, the option of getting veggies from the farm until February (a winter share) was always taken too because three boxes of 30 pounds of organic root and storage crops including potatoes, sweet potatoes, celeriac, watermelon radish, carrots, onions, parsnips, cabbage, rutabaga, winter squash and, of course, beets was an offer too good to resist. In 2019, the cost will be $130.00 or a little more than a dollar per pound for organic veggies, to be delivered the first week of December, January, and February. A great deal.

But what to do with all those beets, which make up a substantial part of the winter boxes of veggies? I was familiar with using applesauce as a sweetener, instead of sugar, in baked goods and a fellow farm share member mentioned that mashed cooked beets could be used like applesauce to sweeten up baked goods instead of sugar or some other sweetener. Hmmm. Chocolate cake made with mashed red beets as the sweetener, she said, was a possibility.

What about apple cakelets? A couple months ago, perusing the King Arthur Flour website, the Nordic Ware Apple Cakelet Pan (Made in America, Family Owned) caught my eye. How nifty to bake a little cakes in the shape of a small apple, by using this magical pan, fourteen halves or seven 3-D cakes at one swoop!

Unused so far, wouldn’t this be a fine time to try out the pan and substitute mashed beets for the 1/2 cup brown sugar called for in the recipe, included with the pan for Apple Cakelets. Apples, interestingly, were not a specified ingredient in the recipe, only the 1/2 cup of applesauce. And for some reason, my brain saw “applesauce” and I thought “use up some mashed red beets too.”

Five tablespoons of butter meant the applesauce was not a substitute for “fat” or “oil” but was for the apple flavor. Red beets would serve to add sweetness and also to add color at this green and red time of year, and aren’t apples RED? With a dozen roasted beets chilling in the fridge, it was time to give it a whirl or, more exactly, mash and use up some of those beets from my farm share.

Apple Cakelets

1 and 1/2 cup Morgan Mills organic sweet brown rice flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground allspice
1 egg
1/2 cup mashed red beets
1/3 cup melted butter (2.5 ounces or 5 tablespoons)
1/2 cup applesauce
3/8 cup water
dash ground nutmeg
dash salt

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Prepare pan with oil. (I rubbed organic sunflower seed oil into the apple shaped compartments.)

Stir together flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices and salt. I used a microplane to grind a nutmeg and allspice. (Allspice earned its name because it has a flavor like that of several spices combined and as noted by Spiceography, allspice tastes like a mixture of nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon and black pepper and boasts more health benefits than cloves.)

The recipe which came with the pan specified “gluten-free” flour. Although, I typically use whole grains locally grown and gluten free is not a guiding light, brown rice flour is rich and nutty tasting and is useful for making cakes, muffins and breads according to the National Co+Op Grocers’ All About Flour brochure on Flour. (The brochures are available at my hometown food co-op, Honest Weight Food Co-op in Albany, NY.) I considered using oat flour, which is also gluten free, but decided to use the organic sweet brown rice flour available at the Honest Weight.

In another bowl, whisk together the melted butter and the mashed beets and continuing stirring while adding the applesauce, egg, and water.

Slowly add flour mixture until all ingredients are combined.

Pour the batter evenly into the apple shaped compartments but not to the brim to avoid overflowing. (I had a small amount of batter left to bake up one muffin in a separate pan.)

Bake 15 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into center of cakes comes out clean.

Let cakelets cool for 10 minutes and unmold.

(Frank W. Barrie, 12/24/18)

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