Thoughts on the Foodie Backlash

ImageThoughts on the Foodie Backlash

Happy New Year everyone. I read a lot of food blogs and articles. Lately, I’ve come across more and more people who seem annoyed with the growing foodie culture. Even I have become confused with the sheer number of food-based reality shows and I understand there are more to come this year. Others are tired of waiting for tables at popular restaurants that have been well-reviewed online and in the press, and they’ve vowed to never wait for a meal again. Others still are tired of food that they believe has become too complicated, and they want only “simple” dishes. I understand and I’ve certainly found lots of menus pretentious. I also don’t go to restaurants only because they are trendy or popular, and there are many nights when I can’t imagine eating anything more complicated than a simple bowl of pasta. These critics seem to be saying that they are tired of food talk, food entertainment, and are asking quite simply, ‘Why can’t we just be happy with regular food?’

Fixing our food system is one of the most important things we can do for our country. The current system of mainstream food production is devastating to the environment, the lives and safety of its workers, animals, and to the health of consumers. I’m hearing from people who are ‘over’ organic and local foods and are even becoming annoyed when restaurants talk about their sourcing with diners. Don’t get me wrong; I love making fun of foodie culture. A lot of it is silly. When I first heard that an upscale restaurant here in NYC served two different olive oils, one for men and one for women, I was certain it was a joke or an SNL sketch. I’m not sure I could listen to a waiter explain ‘feminine oil’ to me without saying something wildly inappropriate. I also can’t get enough of the Portlandia scene where the waitress gives the diners the name and photo of the local chicken they are about to eat. If you haven’t seen it, it’s hilarious and really worth watching.

But I don’t think the pretension and occasional silliness of the language of the sustainable food movement should be used as a reason to minimize the movement all together – because we’re making progress. The fact is, many restaurants and home cooks are far more concerned with sourcing and sustainability than they were even a few years ago. There is more pressure on big companies to improve farming practices and people are, at the very least, discussing the role that soda plays in our national health crisis. Mark Bittman did a great piece last year that outlines the recent progress we’ve made in the food movement  Bittman, and nearly everyone else involved in improving our food system, is fully aware that fixing our food problems will be neither quick nor easy.

Establishments that make efforts to source responsibly need to inform their customers that they’ve done so. It can indeed be a lot to process on a menu. I might not want to read a lengthy description of the farm where a restaurant gets its eggs, but I can skim it and then at least acknowledge that the establishment went out of its way and probably spent a substantial amount of money to buy a product that wasn’t produced on a factory farm. I read a post recently by a diner who is tired of burger places making a big deal about serving grass-fed beef and just wants a ‘regular burger.’

The problem is that ‘regular’ food is in many ways more complicated than more sustainable food. While a ‘regular’ restaurant certainly could describe in detail how its chickens were raised, it would take lots of space (probably more space than the chicken was afforded most of its life) and it would not make for nice pre-dinner reading. Mass-produced food is still the norm and if a restaurant wants to let us know that it went out of its way to source animals from a specific farm or eggs from a specific breed of chicken, it needs to say so or add a label like ‘heritage,’ ‘pastured,’ or ‘local.’ The labels may be annoying to some people but to immediately peg them as pretentious misses the point. Restaurants are not required to tell diners when meat has been raised on a feedlot or processed with a new ammonia-based cleaning product. We assume that’s the case. They only need to say ‘beef.’ No label and no pretension. It’s just beef and it’s what’s for dinner. And unlike in the UK, eggs don’t need to be marked with a specific label letting the consumer know if the chicken spent its entire life in a battery cage. So we look for ‘cage-free’ eggs because without the label, the eggs are almost certainly not cage-free. The labels are simply giving us information about where the food came from.

Agribusiness has the best marketing I’ve ever seen. They’ve been able to convince people that a Wendy’s burger is ‘Old Fashioned,’ that pork is a white meat and that tomatoes are juicy and delicious 365 days a year regardless of where in America you live. From that perspective, a hamburger from a cow that wasn’t fed corn-based feed or antibiotics is a trendy new dish. Pork from a pig raised outdoors, is a food snob item. And tomatoes grown nearby in the summer rather than picked green and shipped 5000 miles are a luxury.

One recent online critique claimed that the food movement is “only relevant to rich white people” — everyone invested in the food movement needs to do more to make sure that’s not true – and that people from every background benefit from a move toward less processed and more affordable healthy options. Encouraging restaurants to source more responsibly is only one part of the larger effort to improve our food system. There are plenty of neighborhoods with no fresh food available at all. There are also people who simply can’t afford to buy responsibly produced products because they are too expensive. And there are thousands of children who can’t recognize fresh garlic or potatoes let alone worry about how they were grown or harvested. There is far more work to be done.

If you’re fortunate enough to be able to choose more sustainable products, there is no shame in patronizing restaurants that focus on better ingredients or in thanking a farmer who is raising a new type of heirloom plant or animal. Recently, I visited a cheese shop here in NYC that’s pretty high up on the hipster food scale. A very cool employee described in great detail the farm that a new goat cheese had come from. He even talked about how fun it was to visit the farm and share dinner with the farmer after milking the goats. To be honest, I was in a rush and not that interested in the whole story. But I thanked the employee. And I felt thankful again that night when I enjoyed the cheese knowing it had come from a real farm with good people who treat their animals and their surrounding environment well.

I hope this year we can continue to give our food more – not less – thought. Thinking about where our food comes from is not pretentious or out of touch. It’s real. And perhaps it’s the most honest thing we can do as we choose what to eat three times a day.

Balcony Omelettes

Balcony Omlettes!

I always thought that a garden on a 10th floor balcony would be protected from squirrels. But no. Even though we have only a few small plants, squirrels are willing to climb the 10 stories for a shot at some organic vegetables. I always knew squirrels were serious about their health and diets and had high standards for local produce, but this is a little much. My wife planted garlic chives and marigolds, which actually repel them.

But because we made such efforts to protect our crop, I find myself savoring every bit of produce we get from our tiny garden and making sure nothing goes to waste. Now and then we have some extra herbs and vegetables that are more than we need for dinner. Sometimes there are extra eggplants or hot peppers but most often, we have extra cherry tomatoes and basil. They are of course good on their own or in pasta but if they need to be eaten the next morning, they work well in omelettes.

There is something energizing about having such fresh herbs and vegetables in the morning and there are very good local eggs available all over now. I’ve also been cooking with crème fraiche from Ronnybrook Farms. (I love the crème fraiche from VT Butter and Cheese Company as well). It’s tangy and rich and works really well with the bright taste of fresh tomato. Obviously, there are endless combinations of fillings that work here but I find this to be the most simple and satisfying. It works.

Omelette with Balcony Tomatoes and Basil ($2.50/serving)

In a small cast iron skillet, heat  1.5 teaspoons of butter and a teaspoon of olive oil over medium heat

Beat 3 eggs together with a pinch of salt and pepper

Pour egg mixture in skillet and let cook for about a minute

When bottom of omlette just starts to firm up, spoon two teaspoons of crème fraiche into middle of egg mixture

Cook for another 30 seconds or so and add a few halved cherry tomatoes and some basil leaves

Fold omlette and plate with some extra basil leaves on the top.

Check balcony for squirrels.

Grilled Cornish Hens with Garlic Scape Pesto

Grilled Cornish Hens with Garlic Pureed Garlic Scapes and Lemons (farmers market bill $18/2 servings= $9/serving)

When I say Cornish, surely you must think of everyone’s favorite Celtic language. Or maybe a taste that reminds you slightly of corn.  Not corn entirely but corn-ish. But when I hear the word, I think of the Cornish Game Hens that are popping up at farmers markets all over  the place. They are really just small chickens but their meat is delicate, they cook quickly, and they can take bold seasonings. I’m also seeing lots of garlic scapes hanging out at the farmers markets these days often for a dollar or 2 per bunch. And if there is a better way to blast a dish full of garlic flavor, I’m not sure what it is.

I like to puree the scapes in a food processor along with some lemon juice and salt. Herbs are great here too if you have any hanging around. Also, I love grilling some dandelion greens or even chard right alongside the birds.

Cook well and see you in Cornwall!

Grilled Cornish Hens with Garlic Pureed Garlic Scapes and Lemons

The night before:

Puree 4 garlic scapes, 2 cloves of garlic, and the juice from 1 lemon (reserve lemon halves for later) in a food processor.

Add 3 tablespoons of olive oil and a pinch of salt and pulse to blend together.

With a chef’s knife or kitchen shears, split hen down the middle

Put the halves in a large bowl and pour garlic scape puree over

Cover and refrigerate overnight

Preheat a gas grill with the flame on as high as possible

Remove hen from marinade and pat dry

Grill hens skin side down for 5 minutes and then rotate and cook for another 3

Turn heat to low and flip hen over

Baste with marinade and place lemon halves on top of hen

Close grill top and cook for 12-15 minutes and then check thigh temperature

When the thigh temperature reads 175

Remove hen from grill and let it rest for 10 minutes so juices have time to reincorporate.

New Haven Style Clam Pizza (from Behind Enemy Lines)


New Yorkers are proud of their pizza. There are good slices to be had on corners in the Village, amazing pies to be found throughout most of Brooklyn and upscale pizzas served in trendy restaurants with hipster waiters promising that their crusts are ‘bold and festive.’

But 90 miles away in New Haven, there is an even more intense, albeit smaller pizza pride movement. Indeed the clam pies at New Haven’s legendary Pepe’s are truly remarkable. The pizza is not cheese-heavy and the flavor hints of the very best Pasta alle Vongole you’ve ever tasted. Garlicy, buttery and briny at the same time but with a chewy crust. I’m afraid to sing the praises of New Haven’s pizza while only 3 blocks away from one of New York’s most intense pizza joints which has had a line out the door for the last 25 years but sometimes, I prefer New Haven style pies. And I like them even more when they’re made at home with local ingredients.

I had been playing around with Mario Batali’s pizza crust recipe using local honey to add the tiniest bit of sweetness to the dough. And don’t get me started on local clams. They are one of most affordable ways to make a top-tier local meal at home. And because a good clam pie has only a little cheese, it’s an ideal way to showcase firmer, sharper, local cheeses.

So get that pizza stone in the oven and get ready for what could be…hang on…someone’s coming. I mean “New York has the best pizza in the world! I love it. I don’t like anything else.”

New Haven Style Clam Pizza (from Behind Enemy Lines)

Farmers Market Bill $7/2 servings = $3.50/serving

Make enough pizza dough using your favorite recipe to make 2 large or 4 small pizzas

Roll out pizza into an 8-9 inch round

Preheat pizza stone to 500 (or 550 if possible) for half an hour

Coarsely chop 3 cloves of garlic

Steam a dozen small clams in a half-cup of water and reserve cooking liquid

Remove clams from shell and set aside

Add 1 and 1/2  tablespoons of butter to clam cooking liquid and stir in chopped garlic

Grate a half-cup of firm, local pecorino or other sharp cheese

Dust pizza peel with a small handful of cornmeal

Place crust on pizza peel

Sprinkle cheese on top along with a pinch of salt

Spoon clams on top of cheese and drizzle butter/garlic mixture over the top

Place pizza on stone

Bake pizza for 6 minutes or until brown on top

Serve with a local IPA or red ale

Overheard at the Farmers Market

Woman: Do you have mackerel?

Fisherman: Yes we do. It’s great today.

Woman: Ok, but is it really fresh?

Fisherman: Absolutely, take a look, it’s right here. It’s great sautéed or baked in the oven.

Woman: Ok, I want to make sure it’s fresh though because my cat is a really picky eater.


Interim Salad with Apples, Red Onion and Goat Cheese: It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Cold Storage Fruits and Vegetables

Interim Salad with Apples, Red Onion and Goat Cheese: It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Cold Storage Fruits and Vegetables

Have you ever upgraded to a nicer version of something and then missed the old one a little bit? The new video games are impressive but I do occasionally miss the days when  Mario and Luigi were two-dimensional. My father recently got a Smartphone and remarked that it had ‘an awful lot of buttons compared to the old one.’

Most of the farmers markets in the US are about to be flooded with what most people consider the best vegetables of the year. It will start with pea shoots and some greens and then move into peas, asparagus, and artichokes. The corn and tomatoes will come in for the finale and stay for some time before local eaters go back to cold storage fruits and vegetables.

I’ve certainly eaten my fill of parsnips and potatoes this year and I was ready to splurge on some of the beautiful greenhouse greens at the market to tide me over until the spring veggies come out. In a way, I wanted to speed up the arrival of spring. I found amazing microgreens and fresh goat cheese from Lynnhaven, my favorite goat cheese producer in NY. But on the way out of the market, I started to notice the bins of onions and apples. They weren’t as pretty as the greens I had in hand but I couldn’t get myself to leave without some cold storage action.

Together, they make a ‘sort of spring’ salad that is fresh and light but with a little nod to the delicious fruits and vegetables of fall and winter. The apples and onion also add a more serious crunch that really holds up to the richness of the goat cheese.

I am very excited for the spring foods to come out but in the meantime, I plan to enjoy the comforting local foods of the past few months. I may even try to unlock the lost levels in the 4-4 fire world in Super Mario Brothers. Does anybody remember how to do that?


Interim Salad with Apples, Red Onion and Goat Cheese

Farmers Market Bill $12/4 Servings= $3/Serving

Mince small clove of garlic and place in mixing bowl

Add 2 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar and a half a teaspoon of Dijon mustard

Whisk in a 3 tablespoons of good olive oil

Add a pinch each of salt and black pepper

Peel and slice a large red onion

Core and slice 2 tart apples (granny smith work well)

Place onion and apple in bowl with dressing and add 6 oz. of baby greens

Toss to coat well and plate

Check salad for seasoning again and adjust if necessary

Break apart 3 oz. of local, fresh goat cheese and spoon on top of salad

Good Tomatoes in Great Gratin

Good Tomatoes in Great Gratin

I found a Vanilla Ice CD on Ebay for $.01. I can’t think of anything else that costs so little, but apparently that’s all a recording of a past-his-prime pop star can command these days. The tomatoes hanging around the farmers market this time of year in the Northeast, if there are any at all, are not as pretty as they used to be. They are like old pop stars now past their primes, and upstaged by the fresh heirloom kale and beets now making their way up the charts. But I sometimes take pity on the little guys. And while I probably wouldn’t serve them plain (as I might in the summer), they have great potential that can be easily realized in the right dish.

A Tomato Gratin is a great way to welcome the cooler weather. Last year, I wrote about different ways to use leftover breadcrumbs in The Breadcrumb Diaries and one of my favorite uses to this day, is to use them to top gratins of different kinds.

This gratin is very simple to make and very easy to shop for. If you don’t see tomatoes at your market, try asking your farmer. She might have some in the truck waiting for a good home. If she does, grab 5 or six of them, preheat your oven, and get ready to play that funky music.

Tomato Gratin

Preheat oven to 400

Heat a tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat in a small skillet

Chop a large onion and sauté for 10  minutes or until very soft

Slice 5 or 6 large tomatoes and set aside (these can be red, yellow, or even green)

Grate 4 ounces of firm, sharp,  local cheese into a bowl and add ¾ cup of breadcrumbs

Drizzle olive oil into a 9 x 9 inch baking dish

Layer tomatoes along the bottom

Add a teaspoon of the sautéed onions

Sprinkle the first layer with a pinch of salt, a bit of pepper, and a tablespoon of the breadcrumb mixture

Drizzle with a bit more olive oil

Repeat until tomatoes reach the top of the pan

Use remaining breadcrumbs and cheese to top the tomatoes and finish with a final drizzle of olive oil

Bake gratin for 15 minutes

If top is not brown, increase heat to 450

Bake for another 10 minutes

Let cool for at least 20 minutes before serving

Heritage Tryptophan

Most things worth doing in life will leave you tired at the end. That goes for working out, finishing the Sunday crossword puzzle or watching the six Star Wars movies in one sitting. Now that I think about it, doing that crossword may not be worth the fatigue that follows. But the drowsiness that follows a great turkey dinner should be worth it.

I’ve read more food articles in the last month talking about how the turkey can be only a supporting player alongside a cast of stuffing, gravy and potatoes. But there are great turkeys to be found and they are well worth a trip to the farmers market or even to the farm itself.

For the second year in a row, I’ll be roasting a turkey from Frantzen’s Scenic Acres in Berne, NY. The turkey last year was rich and meaty and needed no gravy or anything else to liven it up. It would be a lie to say that I didn’t enjoy the sauce that came about from a quick deglaze of the pan with local apple cider and some chopped onions, but the turkey more than holds its own.

Heritage turkeys are a bit more delicate and shouldn’t be cooked at very high temperatures. But we all love the dark and crispy skin so I like to pre-salt the turkey the night before cooking and also add a little bit of apple cider mixed with butter and baste the outside near the end of roasting. That assures you the color and crispy texture that you want without any chance of overcooking.

So have a wonderful Thanksgiving and by all means, write in if you have a turkey recipe or even a great farm you want to mention and I’ll put it up…As soon as I wake up from my post-Thanksgiving nap.

Cider Glazed Heritage Turkey

The night before the meal, sprinkle Kosher salt liberally over the turkey and leave in fridge uncovered overnight

Thanksgiving Day

Preheat oven to 325

Peel 4 carrots and 4 parsnips and place in roasting pan

Place an 8-10 pound Heritage turkey on top of vegetables and put pan in oven

Roast for 1 and ¼ hours

In a small saucepan, add a cup of apple cider and 4 tablespoons of butter

Cook on low, stirring to blend

After turkey has been roasting for 1.5 hours, baste the outside with the cider mixture

Sprinkle the outside again lightly with salt

With a meat thermometer, check the thickest part of the turkey thigh. Temperature should read around 165.

When bird has come to temperature, remove from oven. Remove turkey from pan along with parsnips and carrots.

Pour out all but 2 tablespoons of drippings from pan, place pan over 2 burners on stove and add a large chopped onion

Sauté for 5 minutes or until onion softens

Pour in a cup of cider and a half a cup of white wine and scrape bottom of pan with a wooden spoon

Simmer for 5-10 minutes

Season with salt and pepper to taste

Carve turkey and serve roasted veggies and pan sauce alongside