Sunday, December 11, 2011

Oregon Oysters are Delicious

A few years ago I learned about Oregon oysters and decided that I must learn to eat oysters.  I'd never had an oyster before. Although I really like clams, I avoid mussels because I don't like a big gush of mushy guts in my mouth when I'm eating.  Remember Tidal Wave Bubble gum?  That juicy center?  Disgusting. No thank you.

But if you are going to eat local, then a part of that is eating what grows well here, not just what you can get to grow here.  Acceptance, not imposition.

Oysters grow well in Oregon (and the PNW in general), so I tried to eat oysters.  Tried is the main word, because whatever I did was absolutely disgusting.  I tried frying them.  I tried breading them.  I tried raw.  And then I was done.  Oysters were something that I caulked up to a long term objective and an acquired taste--something I'd have to work at over time and eventually learn to tolerate.  But at the time, all I could do was gag.

Fast forward a couple years.  The desire to learn to eat oysters is still there, and I have not made any progress. Then I find a place on N. Williams called Eat, An Oyster Bar.  The only reason I went into this place is because I heart Cajun food.  And with oysters so close, how could I not try them again.  This time different.  The server even offered to give me a couple for free just to give it a shot.

So I did.

I ordered their Oysters Rockefeller.  Baked oysters with creamed spinach and cheese melted over the top.  Browned under the broiler.  My life changed.  They were delicious.  The oysters were petite.  The spinach was mild and the cheese just sharp enough and browned enough to bring texture and substance.  It was a revelation.  Finally. Finally. Finally, after several years of hopes and disappointment I'd found the key to a truly local treasure.

Then the server brought me a couple raw oysters.  The smallest Tillamook Sweets they had.  On the house.  Just to try.

With great trepidation I poured one into my mouth and braced for the disgusting gush of shellfish mush I'd experienced with dread so many times before.  But this time was different.  The oyster was soft, but not an exploding shit bomb of guts in my mouth.  It was briny, and sweet.  It was something I did not need to fear.  In fact, I wanted some more of them. They were delicious, and I was amazed.

All of this is a big lead up to the actual point of this blog post, which is that I am making oysters as an appetizer for this year's solstice dinner. Normally, for the appetizer, I put together a charcuterie and fromage plate.  But this year I'm trying to increase the amount of seafood in my diet.  Plus solstice dinner always has a local focus.  Plus I have finally found the path to the mysterious Oregon oyster, and it is delicious.

So this weekend I tested some recipes.  Next Saturday (6 days away! Yikes!) we will be doing solstice dinner, and I need to know if the oysters will work.  After reading far too many recipes and opinions, I narrowed it down to two finalists.  Here they are.

Oysters Rockefeller
Based on a recipe from The Best of Gourmet.  I've written about this splendid cookbook before and I'll do it again here.  Here is my version of the recipe in a nutshell:

  • Saute spinach, parsley, watercress, and scallions in butter. Chill.
  • Shuck your oysters,then set in salt.
  • Sprinkle bacon over the top of the oysters.
  • Put some of the spinach mix over the top, sprinkle shredded  and bake.

Now, I changed their recipe a bit because I didn't use Pernod and bread crumbs in the spinach mix.  Instead I kept it to greens and then added a layer of Parmesan over the top. This is how Eat does it, and that's good enough for me.  It was good.  And very attractive.  But next time I think I'll add some cream to the greens.

Baked Oysters with Leaks and White Wine Cream Sauce
Based on a recipe from Fish and Shellfish by James Peterson.  James Peterson just writes the best cook books.  This was a much more mild recipe than the Rockefeller.  It was luxurious and buttery.  It was delicious.

Saute fine julienne leaks in butter.
Shuck your oysters.
Put the leaks in the shells, then oysters on top.
Spoon the white wine and cream reduction over the top.
Bake and then broil to finish.

I left out all the details of Mr. Peterson's instructions on how to cook the oysters.  There were a few steps involved.

These were very tasty. Rich and buttery.  Not as picturesque as the Rockefeller oysters though.

Not sure what way I'll go for Solstice dinner next weekend but its outstanding to finally be able to do oysters.

By the way, Eat also sells oysters direct. If you are looking for a good place to get local, sustainably farmed Oregon oysters, stop by Eat and see what they have.

Friday, November 25, 2011


No turkey.
No cranberries.
No candied yams.
No green bean casserole.
No cornbread.
No pumpkin pie.

What we did have was one outstanding dinner.  We broke from tradition and made a new meal that was a welcome relief.

This year it was a conglomeration of the best flavors we could come up with.  Instead of sticking to the Thanksgiving script, we decided to make this food holiday about the food that we love rather than the food we are supposed to eat.  Each person brought something different; each person shared a little of themselves in the process.  They were small gifts to each of us, from each of us, enjoyed together.

There were, of course, a lot of meats.  Jamie called it a "meat-fest" and it pretty much was.  Dave laid out an amazing collection of charcuterie and cheeses as an appetizer.  Delicious cured salamis--thin and fat--from Olympic Provisions and imported cheeses from New Seasons--soft and hard--one of which was the best blue cheese I think I've ever eaten.  By the end of the night, I realized that in the hurley-burley of getting dinner ready, we did not spend enough time with this part of the meal.

When dinner did get on the table, it looked like a winter feast of foods.  I brought a sirloin tip roast. Dave brought a full king salmon fillet topped with pesto and laid on a bed of parsley. Tiffany brought her infamous champagne mushroom risotto as well as yams with yogurt.  Jamie provided the beet salad.  I made chard packages filled with sausage stuffing.  There was fruit salad.  There was a lot of wine.

Desert was no different.  Pumpkin pie is wonderful, but custards are more wonderful.  So, pumpkin creme carmels it was.  Pecan pie also showed up, as well as a beautiful apple pie.

Sitting around a table of food made by people who are sharing from themselves, and enjoying that experience with those same people has to be one of the great experiences of life.  We do several big meals a year--birthdays, holidays, etc.--but none is a holiday really devoted to breaking bread together the way Thanksgiving is.  It's a unique time.  It's a wonderful time.  Thank you to all my friends, for sharing.

In the interest of continuing the sharing, here are the recipes for a couple things:

Packing not Stuffing
Stuffing is good stuff.  I actually wish we ate more of it the rest of the year instead of reserving it mainly for holiday times.  With no turkey to stuff, I had to come up with something different.  This worked perfect.

Chard Packages Filled with Sausage Stuffing
Chopping Leaks
This is a cosmetic variation on the recipe from The Best of Gourmet, 20th anniversary edition.  The original calls for the chard leaves to be drawn up into a "purse" shape.  However, I found this impossible to do.  What was much easier--just fold the chard leaf over the stuffing and use the leak strips to tie it closed.

The flavors of the stuffing are simple and down to earth.  The bread is a nice medium for the salty, sage-y sausage and the earthiness of the only 2 vegetables.  Add salt and pepper and it is a nice uncomplicated stuffing.

  • Pork breakfast sausage
  • Dried bread cubes then soaked in milk
  • Red chard stems and leaks chopped and sauteed in the sausage fat.
  • Mix together and use egg (to bind)

For the packages use blanched chard leaves.  Plop a half a cup of stuffing in the middle and fold the leaf over.  Use strips of leak to tie it closed.  Bake with a little bit of chickstock to keep them from drying out.

WWROD (What Would Richard Olney Do)
I made a sirloin tip roast, but I knew it would need something to help it. There was a good chance I would mess up the roast (it did come out a little over cooked) and a good sauce can help bring almost anything back to life.  But what kind of sauce?  In these moments of culinary confusion, I frequently turn to The French Menu Cookbook by Richard Olney.  Once again, i found what I needed to find.  As an accompaniment to a formal autumn dinner, he puts Poivrade Sauce with a leg of venison roast.   But does it only go with game?  I checked in with my Larousse Gastronomique and found that no, Poivrade Sauce goes with most red meats but as some well known variations for game meats.

Poivrade Sauce
One thing to know about Poivrade Sauce, is that it is an old school (1700's) french meat sauce. What that means is the flavor profile will be more vinegary.  It also means you will be able to find 100 variations of this sauce because everyone does it differently.  Given those circumstances, you can really bend the flavors of this sauce to be whatever suits you.  Poivrade sauce is in the general family of sauces that use black pepper as a main flavor. I stayed pretty close to Olney's formula.

  • Carrots and onions and soup bones all sweaty and browned.
  • Flour roux for thickening.
  • Wine vinegar to deglaze (and some white wine)
  • Beef stock, tomatoe juice, herbs and juniper berries simmered for a few hours and reduced.
  • Add crushed black peppercorns at the end.
  • Add some butter to make it shine.

I also used more flour at the end to thicken it up like a gravy.

Pumpkin in a Cup
Pumpkin pie is delicious, not for the pie, but for the pumpkin.  Custard is delicious, for every reason.  What better time of the year to get two great tastes that taste great together?  I checked in with my buddy Alfred Portale.  In 12 Seasons of Cooking he has a nice recipe for Pumpkin Creme Brulee.  However, I had just eaten creme brulee a couple weeks ago.  So, it had to be creme caramel instead.

Pumpkin Creme Caramels
Of course, for the definitive recipe for custard anything, I have to check in with my other buddy, James Peterson.  In chapter 46 of Glorious French Food, he gives the best overview of each kind of custard and how to make them I have ever read.  Basically one egg will set 2/3 cup of milk.  After that come the variations, and there are a ton of them.  I used his orange creme caramel as the starting place and infused pumpkin flavors instead.  

  • whole milk infused with pumpkin puree, cinnamon, nutmeg, and sugar
  • whole eggs
  • more sugar melted to make the caramel sauce

Here are a few random pictures from the night.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Waiting for Local Tuna

A few weeks ago I wrote about having a more balanced diet.  This mainly included eating more grains, vegetables, fruits, and fish while eating less cheeses, eggs, and animal meats (esp. fatty meats like bacon...sigh, just kill me now).  This doesn't seem like it should be that hard, and technically it isn't.  But there are so many delicious ways to cook up animals that it really involves ignoring a universe of edible delights.  Or it involves making totally unacceptable substitutions (i.e. vegetarian "breakfast sausage").

Getting back to the point, one meat that the Old Ways Mediterranean Diet says we should eat more of is fish.  Not just any fish, but fatty fish full of Omega-3 fatty acids, vitamin D, calcium, and minerals.  Some great examples of these fish are salmon, tuna, halibut, and trout.  Coincidentally ALL of these are available either locally or close by.  Wonderful!  No problem!  Support the local food economy AND eat a more balanced diet.

Yeah, not so easy.  Vegetables are a no brainer.  Go to the farmer's markets.   Go to Pumpkin Patch farm on Sauvie's Island. But finding fresh local sustainably caught fish at a reasonable price is an entirely different story.

Can I Get A Fish Monger Please?
Of the places I went, the guys behind the counter usually had very little knowledge of the fish they were selling.  They knew what kind of fish it was (usually).  They knew where it came from (for the most part).  Mainly they knew when the distributor dropped it off.  Surprisingly, Newman's Fish Market on 21st was the absolute worst even through they are located in upscale City Market NW.  The workers there were clearly  just day labor hired to wrap and tag fish they knew nothing about.  Questions seemed to irritate them and they  didn't even do a good job filleting the whole fish I bought.   On the other hand, the guy at The Flying Fish cart knew a lot about the fish he was selling and where it came from.  Unfortunately, he was out of stock of what I was looking for that day.   I was looking for was fresh tuna.

In the end I went with some nice fresh tuna I bought at Fred Meyer.  Not local fish, but the rest was pretty local.  I'm still working on finding good, sustainable sources for local fish.

Fresh Tuna with Tomato Stew
Mediterranean: A Taste of the Sun in Over 150 RecipesThe recipe I used was from a book I have: Mediterranean, A Taste of the Sun in Over 150 Recipes.  Although this is a kinda cheesy theme book, the recipes inside are actually really good.  In fact, I've used this book many times over the years and never has a recipe turned out bad.  Just remember that an aubergine is an eggplant and a courgette is a zucchini.

This recipe is a pretty simple one.  It's just cubes of tuna cooked in stewed tomatoes and onions with some herbs.  This also makes substitutions easy.  I, personally don't like sun-dried tomatoes, so I left that out.  It had the effect of making the sauce thinner.  Also, since there were no baby onions in the house, I used chunky normal onions and it worked out fine.

Here is how I did it:

  • Tuna
  • Tomatoes (I used canned tomatoes but the recipe calls for stewing your own)
  • Onions
  • Olive Oil
  • Garlic
  • White wine
  • Clam juice 
  • Herbs--fresh sage, rosemary, and thyme.

I laid this over some cous-cous with a fresh cherry tomato and lemon cucumber salad on the side.  Overall it was real good.  A nice light summer meal.

Epilogue: Local Fish Ain't Beef
What a pain in the ass it is to find fresh, sustainable, local fish in Portland!  You want grass fed beef or buffalo or "pastured" chickens--no problem.  But you want local fish on a Tuesday night, WTF!

Part of the reason I haven't posted in a while is because I've been looking for local fish to write a very nice and informative post on how to find local, sustainable fish.  But to tell the truth, it's been a huge pain.  There are very few places to get reliably local and sustainable fish in town. This just confounds me because fish, especially salmon, is so iconic in the PNW.

Fred Meyer has fresh tuna.  I went there because if good fish is going to be a normal part of my diet, then it has to be accessible.  I walk up to the fish counter at the Hawthorne location.  There is a wide display of fish and shellfish laid out, everything looking like it just came in that morning.  On the far right are stacks of pink tuna steaks, each one looking exactly like what I was hoping for.  James Peterson gives a great list of items to look for when choosing fish steaks and fillets in Fish and Shellfish on page 3. 
    Fish & Shellfish: The Cook's Indispensable Companion
  • No slime. Check.
  • No off color. Check.
  • Should be slightly translucent.  This tuna is mostly opaque.
  • Tuna should be big chunks wrapped in plastic.  Big chunks yes, plastic no.
  • Tuna should not have a rainbow-like opalescence. Check.
  • No spaces between the flakes. Check.
There are other factors but they didn't apply to me this time. 

Then I looked at the tag.  "Product of Indonesia."  Seriously? It's frickin tuna season in Oregon and you can't get a nice piece of tuna from our own home-grown Fred Meyer grocery store.

I have to admit, I didn't check New Seasons. They are just too expensive.  I'm over New Seasons.

Back to Fred Meyers' tuna.  It was wild caught Indonesian tuna. Besides the "not local" factor, is it bad?   According to Seafood Watch, this Tuna had a 50-50 chance of being either something to "avoid" or a "good alternative". Unfortunately, I will probably never know exactly which it was.  Seafood watch lists and grades 29 variations for tuna.  Of these, 17 are not US or Atlantic specific.  Of these, 10 are rated "avoid", 5 are "good alternatives", and 2 are "best choice".  Of these, there were 6 that seemed the most likely category that this fish could be.  I had about a 50-50 chance of destroying the planet with my purchasing decision.   Here's to rolling the dice.

Fishformation Overload
Seafood Watch has a very lovely fish app that you can get for free. This makes it easy to look up the fish you are thinking of buying to see if it is:

  • "green" fish (sustainably caught and responsibly harvested)
  • "red" fish (avoid--if you buy this fish you are financing the death of the oceans)
  • "yellow" fish ("good alternative")
This seems great, but it has some practical usability issues.  Take the tuna example for example.  There are 29 different listings for tuna, and it is a mixed bag of red, yellow, and greens.   Much of the distinction lies in how the fish was caught.  Nets are bad, hooks are good (sometimes).  But the package never says how the fish was caught, and the 22 year old behind the counter usually has no idea either.  So unless you are buying direct from the fisherman, who knows what the heck you are buying?  

One Spot of Fishy Light, Unexpectedly
There was only one time that the Seafood Watch fish-o-matic was actually usable.  I was at Costco, looking over the fish section at stacks of lovely coho salmon and stealhead fillets.  I decided to see how this stuff rated.  I knew these were wild-caught, Alaskan salmon.  This was great, because according to the Seafood Watch app, all the wild caught salmon is either green or yellow.  Only the farmed stuff comes up as red.  At $7.99/lbs, Costco is one of the most affordable places to buy big fillets of responsibly harvested salmon.  This is actually a way to make fatty fish and all it's Omega-3 goodness a normal part of a daily diet.  Big box stores can do somethings right, it seems. 

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Eating With Your Wallet and Some Imagination

I had this idea that the way we eat is killing us.  I don't think I made this up. It seems like there are warnings all over the place about foods.  Shows like The Biggest Loser and Jamie Oliver's Food Revolution really hit home the fact that obesity and diabetes are on the rise like never before.

Although refined sugars and empty calories are primary culprits in our ill-health epidemic, another aspect is that we eat too much meat.  Meat gets a bad rap by all kinds of people.  Meat takes more resources to produce, the meat industry uses insane amounts of antibiotics in really unsafe ways, etc.  Also, eating more red meat (and cured meats) is related to increases in cancer and heart disease. Here are some fun facts about meat:
Meat is devoid of the protective effects of fiber, antioxidants, phytochemicals, and other helpful nutrients, and it contains high concentrations of saturated fat and potentially carcinogenic compounds, which may increase one’s risk of developing many different kinds of cancer.
Eating one serving a day of processed meat -- or the equivalent of a single hot dog or two slices of salami -- was associated with a 42% increased risk for heart disease and a 19% increased risk for diabetes in the study, conducted by researchers from the Harvard School of Public Health.
High red meat intake was also associated with increased risk of esophageal and liver and a borderline increased risk for laryngeal cancer. And high processed meat consumption also was associated with borderline increased risk for bladder cancer and myeloma, a kind of bone cancer...In addition, both red meat and processed meat consumption were associated with increased pancreatic cancer risk in men, but not women.
Take this chart for example:
Or this chart:
Americans are eating a lot more meat than we used to.  If the research on disease is right, than we are all increasing our chances of cancers, etc.  
Given the plausible epidemiologic evidence for red and processed meat intake in cancer and chronic disease risk, understanding the trends and determinants of meat consumption in the U.S., where meat is consumed at more than three times the global average, should be particularly pertinent to researchers and other public health professionals aiming to reduce the global burden of chronic disease.
Now, I'm not advocating not eating meat.  Anyone who knows me knows that I like a good barbecue as much as the next guy.  But what I am trying to get to is the idea of a balanced meal. 

I had developed this theory that the subsidy system and food industry was producing more of the foods that are bad for us, driving price down on those items, and making us sicker at the same time all in the name of profits.   It sounds crazy, but I had some time to kill so I thought I'd look into it.

What is a Balanced Meal?
First, let's understand what a balanced meal is.
In 2011 the government  got rid of the pyramid and now have a much better way of showing you what you should be eating.  This is an outstanding info graphic.  If you go to the website, this graphic is interactive.  Clicking on the different sections will take you to drill-down information on vegetables, fruits, grains, etc.  
I was surprised at how much protein they recommend eating.  By protein they mostly mean meats, but also include fish, nuts, and beans.

This is the original food pyramid which was designed in 1992.  It replaced a much simpler graphic that showed all food types as equal--four squares.  Interestingly, it was very controversial when it first came out because the food industry did not want the government telling people they should eat less meat than vegetables.  Nutritionists also had a problem with it because of the emphasis on grains (huh?). 

Just for giggles, I also included the revamped federal food pyramid for reference.  Released in 2005, this is an information visualization disaster.
Oldways is my personal favorite.  Old Ways is an organization that promotes traditional diets from cultures historically known to be more healthy than everyone else.  They are doing some really interesting work in the areas of diet research and promotion.  

"This pyramid continues to be a well-known guide to what is now universally recognized as the “gold standard” eating pattern that promotes lifelong good health. It has been widely used for years by consumers, educators, and health professionals alike to implement healthier eating habits...
The pyramid was created using the most current nutrition research to represent a healthy, traditional Mediterranean diet. It was based on the dietary traditions of Crete, Greece and southern Italy circa 1960 at a time when the rates of chronic disease among populations there were among the lowest in the world, and adult life expectancy was among the highest even though medical services were limited."
Comparing them, the Oldways pyramid is much more clear about getting more of your protein from fish, dairy, and vegetable sources.  Red meats are the most limited kind of protein.  The USDA plate, although the easiest of all to use, is much more ambivalent about where your proteins come from.  This would allow a diet high in red and processed meats to fit the model, even though these are some of the most likely suspects for various kinds of cancers.

Also, the Oldways pyramid includes a glass of red wine with dinner.  Allllriiiighhhttt!

Comparing Prices--Are there different ideas at work?
The costs of buying local food has also been on my mind.  Is local food really more expensive?  So many people are in favor of higher prices for local food because they claim it is more accurate price of what the food actually costs, plus it keeps more dollars in the local economy.  I think these are great points, but if local food is ever going to be anything more than a dinner party braggable for the bourgeois, then the pricing really needs to be able to compete with mainstream foods.  Josh from Stone-Buhr understands this.  Few others do.

My conspiracy theory goes along these lines: Americans eat more meat because meat is cheap and this is bad for us.  Why would this be?  I don't know. I've read that, sociologically, meat played a symbolic role in American culture, especially after WW2.  It represented success. It also represented affluence and something to aspire to after the hard times of global warfare.  The decadent, juicy steak at a swanky restaurant.  The good times of hamburgers on the grill with friends in the summer time.  The elegance of marinated, thinly sliced flank steak layered over a bed of baby greens with blue cheese crumbles. Etc. In order to make the most money, the meat industry played these ideas up while also bringing prices down. Everyone could partake of the good life.  The combined effect of this bought a flood of money to the meat industry.  The birth of the fast food industry in the mid 20th century exacerbated this trend.  Maybe the health implications were unknown at the time, but the profit motive certain was not.

I went to two grocery stores and the farmer's market to see how things priced out.  I was looking to see how meat prices compared to other products.  My thinking was that pricing structures that support a healthy diet would make meat more expensive than vegetables, grains, etc.  My suspicion was that the pricing structures did not support a healthy diet by making meats artificially cheaper than they should be thereby encouraging people to skew the balance of their diet toward meat.

My unscientific methodology was pretty simple. If you bought 10 items and spent $10 on each, how much could you get?  
  • I went to New Seasons (premium grocery store), Fred Meyer (normal grocery store), and the St. Johns Farmers Market.  
  • I compared items as close as I could but admittedly did not get apples to apples (the farmer's market had a different selection than the grocery stores, especially in fruit).
  • No sale prices
  • No premium products
  • No preference for organic or local foods
  • Just looking for low, everyday prices on standard items.
My own notion was that corporate pricing in the grocery stores would lend itself to a less healthy diet, and the farmer's market pricing would be more true to a healthy diet.

As it turns out, I was totally wrong.  You could get more vegetables, less meat, and a middle portion of eggs and beans from all of the vendors.  The pricing scheme at each place was roughly in line with the food pyramids above.

Despite New Season's healthy image, their price structure was almost exactly the same as Fred Meyer, just a little bit more expensive overall.  And the farmer's market was not much better, just a lot more expensive overall.    
Relative volumes of food purchased with $10 each based on averaged pricing. 
The only thing that can be said, is you'd probably be less likely to over-eat if you shop at the farmer's market because you simply get less for your money (perhaps helping with overnourishment and it's associated health problems).

Compared to the Old Ways pyramid, all of these vendors fall short in that:
  • Fish is too expensive.  Old Ways encourages more fish eating than red meat, but at these prices beef is the more affordable option.
  • Beef should be much more expensive to discourage purchasing.  Beef was most expensive at the Farmer's Market (but so was everything else). 
  • Fruit is over priced.  This changes with the season and is an average, but it should probably be closer to the price of vegetables (apples actually were, but anti-oxidant rich berries were super expensive).
  • Eggs could be a little more expensive, just to get them more in the proper place.
Because my initial price gathering was pretty limited, I will probably continue to test pricing.  In the process of collecting this information I realized just how much variability there could be and how much more research would be needed to give a truly accurate picture. But it's interesting anyway.  What it did do is get me thinking in other directions.

Chef de Cuisine (a.k.a. The Protein Dealer)
If the problem isn't the pricing structures themselves, then maybe it is something else.  Maybe is it just the way we choose to spend money.  If our purchasing habits reflect the way we think about food, then the problem may be just the way we think.

Imagine you are going to cook dinner.  If you are like me, you think of the main item first, then build out the things that go around it.  For instance, for dinner tonight, I could cook pork chops, then put a simple garlic pan sauce over it.  Some boiled baby potatoes would go nice with that.  For greens, I can use either the asparagus I bought at the market or go trim some lettuce from the garden for a salad.  This is how I think through cooking dinner for the family.  

What is wrong with that way of thinking?  Most of the food groups are represented.  It's home cooked with local, (mostly) organic ingredients.  It's not overloaded with fats, processed oils, or sugars.  It leads to the whole family sitting down together and eating together.  Everything that a meal is supposed to be is here.  

But what it also is is centered on a single chunk of meat that becomes garnished with all the things that are good for you.  Potatoes are chosen because they match the flavor of the pork chop.  The greens are chosen because they don't conflict with the flavor of the pork chop.  Had I started with a salad as the first thought, then I probably would not have ended up adding a pork chop.  At most, some slices of very lean pork tenderloin might have shown up.  

It's this way of imagining what we eat that drives us to have unhealthy diets.  To avoid the pitfalls of excessive meat consumption, create balanced meals that are more in line with the recommendations, and truly treat food as a primary means to good health, we need to upend the way we envision the plates of food we prepare and how we see ourselves eating them. 

I was hoping to see a more informed perspective from the professionals in this world. If anyone should understand the nature of meal and menu preparation, I thought it would be them.  But unfortunately, this is not what I found.  At least not in the way they talk about their food and describe it on the menus.  

Here are some examples:
As an example of affordable, mass-market dining, Denny's really focuses on the meat in the meal. Their descriptions and pictures are all very clear about what the priority is.  If red meats and proteins were supposed to be 90% of the meal, Dennys would be right on.

Denny's Steak and Shrimp dinner.  The name says it all. This is almost the exact opposite of what the food guides recommend.

The LePigeon dinner menu for June 20th.
Meat, meat, meat, meat, mushrooms, meat.

LePigeon is an upscale french restaurant here in Portland.  I was hoping that price would influence perspective but that didn't happen.  Again, the meats are the focus at dinner time.    

Granted, LePigeon is devoted to excellent food.  My understanding is that they source as much of their ingredients as locally as possible.  They make no mention of this on their website, however, because their focus is quality and deliciousness.  To people not familiar with preparations inspired by rustic french cooking, some of the dishes may seem "out there".  But they are delicious.  Unfortunately, they are also totally unbalanced.  The menu continues to use language that favors proteins over everything else. 

Paley's Place is one of my favorite restaurants in Portland.  Vitaly Paley is regularly recognized as one of the top chefs in Portland and his restaurant gets all kinds of awards.  The Paley's Place cook book is also very good.

Paley also has a focus on local, organic, sustainable ingredients, which I really appreciate.  But when we look at how the dishes are characterized, it is the same problems.
Paley thinks meat first.  In the entree list, 4 out of 5 of the dinner entrees focus on the meat and only secondarily mention the accompanying vegetables.  There is a seafood section that comes after this where everything is meat based.  We are supposed to be eating more fish than red meat, but it is still the psychology of "proteins first."

I would like to point out an interesting disconnect. Take for instance this beautiful image of what looks like seer'd tuna and a spring salad that I stole from the Paley website.  Not doubt this dish was described as a tuna entree that also happened to come with some greens.  But if you look at the actual portions, the tuna is not so dominant as the name implies. The photographer, like the menu writer, is focusing on the tuna, but the chef that composed the meal actually gave a lot of balance to the accompanying vegetables.  In fact, the greens provide a physical foundation for the main attraction--the tuna.  

I have to say, that through the course of my investigations, I really didn't find anything that provided  a nice contrast to the repetitions I was finding.  This was a bummer because I was hoping to have an example to contrast with.  But, whether cheap eats or fine dining, the language of food is very similar everywhere.  If language is thought, then there is a lot of similarity in the way corporate menu planners and executive chefs think about food.  Most of that thinking gets focused on the "main" item of a dish which is normally the big protein.  This way of thinking about food is in sharp contrast to the way we are supposed to be actually eating based on the food pyramids. 

How did we start thinking this way?  I don't believe the meat industry created this phenomena.  They just capitalized on it.  

The Modern Meal is a Super-Condenser
Here is my theory on how this came to be:  In the past the wealthy and the common folk ate differently.  The common folk could not afford as much meat and ate only one course meals mainly.  The wealthy could get whatever they wanted to eat (mostly) and took more time at home to have leisurely multi-course meals with all their smelly friends.  What else would you do without movies and internet and cars and video games?  

Circle of Frans Francken the Younger, (1581-1642) Belshazzar's Feast.
These aristocratic meals were probably something like what Richard Olney describes in The French Menu:
"A dinner that begins with a soup and runs through a fish course, an entree, a sherbet, a roast, a salad, cheese and desert, and may be accompanied by from three to six wines...the movement through the various courses should be an ascending one from light, delicate and more complex flavors through progressively richer, more full-bodied and simpler flavors." (p 22)
If you were a peasant, your meals were much simpler.  Depending on the era and the location, peasants had access to better or worse foods, but in general:
Medievalists agree on certain characteristics of medieval diet such as the overwhelming importance ascribed to cereals generally and bread in particular, or the great disparity in protein consumption between an upper class that enjoyed vast quantities of meat and fish and a lower class more dependent on grain, dairy products and vegetables.
If you were an English peasant: 
The main meal was vegetable pottage. Again, if the family was lucky there might be some meat or fish to go round. Bread would be available and ale.
German peasants seem to have had it better than most:
But the German peasants, workers, and the many poor made do with their homemade beer and filled their stomachs with kraut and bacon, lentils and peas, firm satisfying breads and light dumplings. By the 1800s more than four-fifths of the German population were peasants, and their own pigs were the mainstay of their diet. Thanks to Frederick the Great, it could be said that by the end of the 1800s, "potatoes were such a regular item that smoke coming from a cottage chimney at night was almost a certain sign that inside, potatoes, bacon and onions were frying."

The poor ate closer to the food pyramid (less meat and more vegetables and grains) in one course.  The wealthy at closer to the food pyramid but spread it out across many courses.

Our current diet has roots in classical, aristocratic dining. The hotels adopted it, Escoffier codified it, and we live it.  And, thanks to government and industry, it is made up of foods that only the wealthy could afford in years past.  But, in our modern, democratic disdain for the hoity-toity aristocracy of the past, we eat like peasants--usually only eat a single entree plus maybe a desert or appetizer.  Because of that, we are jumping straight to the main course (the big protein), bypassing the other courses that provide for an overall balanced meal.  

The occasional exception is that even though the language may not be that much different, sometimes in fine dining the actual meal may not be as unbalanced as in lower cost establishments.  Compare the Paley's tuna meal to the Denny's Steak and Shrimp.  Denny's is clearly the meal with a higher percentage of red meat and heavy fats.  And it is cheaper.  And obesity is linked to social class.  No kidding.

How do we fix this?  I think a good place to start is quiche.

Quiche Will Save Your Life
What is in quiche?  Almost anything you want.  Is quiche a meat or a vegetable?  Probably both. Does it give primacy to a big protein? Well, besides the fact that it's mostly eggs, no.  We've often had frittata at home filled with only vegetables.  And they were wonderful.  

Gratins would fit the bill also. So would salads.  So would soup. So would stir-fry.  So would gumbo. So would a calzone.

There are a lot of meals we could make that are not formed around language the reinforces an unbalanced view of what a meal should be.  When eating a simple dinner after work, maybe it's best to conceive of meals that are "one pot" style meals.

Soup with crusty bread could be perfectly balanced, and it gets us out of mentality that you build a dinner by starting with a slab of meat then adding some veggies.

A summer salad of fresh greens, baby sweet onions, lentils, cucumber, goat cheese crumbles, a few flank steak slices, and a light vinaigrette would perfectly balanced.

A calzone filled with spinach, garlic, some bacon crumbles and gruyere with a side of pear slices would be delicious.

Quiche could be a perfect surprise.  Lots of veggies.  A little chicken.  Some cheese sprinkled on top.  You just ate the food pyramid properly and your chance of getting cancer is theoretically lower.

When several courses are involved, it makes more sense to have a big steak and shrimp plate in there somewhere.  But the rest of the food pyramid shows up also.  It's just exploded out across several plates.  

By changing the way we talk about food, and consequently the way we conceive of our meals, maybe we can start having intrinsically better meals for the health of us all.

Hello Pot, My New Friend
In the interest of practicing these ideas, I've been trying to bend my thinking to this new model.  It is hard.  Like the example I gave before, my normal way of imagining meals is to start with a main ingredient and build out.  In this new model, it is easier to start with the pot you cook with and add in.  

Pretty similar to my fish stew.
I've found that the way I describe even one-pot meals tends toward old habits.  I'm making a simple seafood stew.  

  • 16 oz can of tomatoes, drained
  • Two cups clam broth + one cup water
  • carrots
  • celery
  • onions
  • garlic
  • 6-8 shrimp
  • some clams
  • 1 cod filet
  • spices

By volume, the dominant ingredient is tomatoes and clam broth.  However, I call it seafood stew.  Why don't I call it tomato and clam broth stew?  I don't know, but proteins are powerful things and it's going to take some practice to break out of their hold.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Lobsterfest: Eating Local in Rhode Island

Although Rhode Island is only 37 miles wide and 48 miles long, it has 400 miles of coastline.  If you like seafood, that is outstanding.  Eating local in The Ocean State means eating from the ocean, and that was exactly what we intended to do.

Every summer my wife's family in Rhode Island has Lobsterfest.  This is exactly what it sounds like.  You eat lobster, and a lot of it.  A month in advance her Uncle Nino sent out an email asking for people's orders so he could order the lobsters in advance just to make sure there would be enough.  These people are serious about lobster.

Monster Lobsters of Yore
For those of you that don't know, the lobster has not always been something to celebrate.  Lobsters used to to be so abundant in New England, the Native Americans in the area used them for fertilizer.  After a big storm, piles of lobsters could be found washed up on the shores around Boston and Cape Cod, sometimes several feet deep.  The new European settlers didn't even need traps to get lobster.  They just walked out to the tide pools or out the beach after a storm and grabbed lobsters by hand.  The lobster industry became strong, but really didn't take off until the mid-19th century when canning made it possible to ship lobster meat greater distances.  In the 1880's, the lobster industry was pulling in over 130 million pounds of lobster per year.  However, during this time, lobster was always considered a poor-man's food reserved for indentured servants and anyone who could not afford something decent to eat.  Kids who brought lobster sandwiches to school got beat up regularly and no one wanted to trade lunches with them.  In the jails, the criminals would riot and refuse to eat if they were served lobster for dinner more than twice a week.

But all that changed in the mid 20th century as the lobster population got crushed from over-fishing and people discovered how delicious fresh lobster with melted garlic butter and a sprinkling of flat-leaf parsley can be.

In 1977 the largest live lobster on record was caught off Nova Scotia.  This 44 lbs monster was over 4 feet long!  A 42 lbs. giant caught in 1935 is on display at the Museum of Science in Boston.  To get an idea of how freaking huge that is, take a look at this measly 17 lbs lobster:

At my wife's family's house, Lobsterfest is a more reasonable affair and normally doesn't involved monster lobsters.  But it does involve t-shirts.  Everyone gets lobsterfest t-shirts.  Even the babies.

Then there were the clams.  Half a bushel (apx. 15 lbs.) of little neck clams steamed in a giant pot of white wine, garlic, onion, parsley and butter.

Then there was the steaks.  If you are the sort that does not like lobster, you're covered.  T-bones and ribeyes were ready.

Then there are the sides.  Most sides are brought by guests.  Pasta with shrimp and artichokes.  Chips.  Potato salad.  

The main show is the lobsters themselves.  This year Nino got twenty-two 1.5-2 lbs. lobsters.  Mike went and picked them up from the dock that morning.  Talk about fresh! These would not last long.

After all that comes the deserts and hanging out with family and friends.  

That's how you eat local in Rhode Island.  Thanks to all of Kim's family for the great time!