Thursday, September 25, 2008

Renewing America's Food Traditions

A casual look around our country’s food supply reveals little more than a mix of sprawling, commercialized monocultures. Plants are grown and animals are raised with an eye to efficiency and profit. The nation’s highways swarm with worker-ant trucks that shuttle our agricultural products 1400 miles, on average, between the farm and the plate.

But take a close look, and you’ll see something different on the edges: The last remnants of America’s native foodstuffs and our pre-factory-farm agriculture. These are foods with real flavor, not the stripped-down blandness of food raised more for shippability than taste. Heritage turkeys have enjoyed the spotlight of the food press, but these are only the beginning if you know where to look.

If you don't know where to look, however, Renewing America’s Food Traditions is a good place to start. The book divides the United States into “food nations” (a practice already in place at Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT) the organization, which birthed the book). A large swatch of California, for instance, is Acorn Nation — a name that rings true to someone like me who learned about acorn grinding holes at summer camp in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Alaska, not surprisingly, is Salmon Nation. The southeastern coast is Crab Nation. And so on. The names evoke the food patterns of the cultures who lived off the native bounty long before semis and trains connected every point in the U.S. with every other point.

Each of the book’s small and well-written vignettes focuses on one particular “heritage” food from the food nation that defines each section, focusing on one or two people deeply involved in preserving that food. Some, such as Honey Drip Cane Sorghum, I had never heard of. Some, such as the Olympia Oyster, are treats that I already seek out. Lovely photos and simple recipes accompany each piece. And — you other research-happy food writers will appreciate this — each two-page essay gives a list of resources where you can learn more about the food.

But not where to buy it. This is my only complaint about this book, which could live on your reference shelf or your coffee table with equal ease. I can understand why there aren’t instructions for poaching leatherback sea turtles. But where do I buy a Silver Fox rabbit?

It could be that the authors don’t want to contribute to the shuttling of food around the country — the editor is locavore founding father Gary Paul Nabhan, after all — but it seems unfair to build up interest in these foods and then snatch away the chance to find them.

But this is a must-have book for any food lover who cares about the more interesting ingredients available throughout our country.

This book was sent to me for review.

Hey all, there’s still room in my upcoming UCB Extension wine class. Sign up soon!


Monday, September 15, 2008

Really Perfect Roast Potatoes

I’ve written about my roast potatoes before, but after making some last night, I thought it was time to resurface the technique. They’re dead simple and super delicious.

Preheat the oven to 425°. Cut waxy fingerling potatoes — say a generous handful per person — into halves or quarters. Chunks of onions make a nice addition. Place on a metal cookie sheet. Sprinkle generously with kosher salt and a woody herb: Rosemary is an obvious choice. Drizzle with a generous helping of olive oil, and use your hands to toss the potatoes with the salt, herbs and oil. Using your hands ensures an even coating. Cook until the cut surfaces of the potatoes are light to dark brown, 20-40 minutes. Don’t stir more than once, as the sides touching the metal sheet will get an extra thick crust if left undisturbed.

Serve with a thick, rare steak. And if you’re going to eat that, you should also serve a luxurious Cabernet Sauvignon or Bordeaux (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc): The tannins and intense flavors of the wine will stand up to the flavorful meat. I poured a 2002 Volker Eisele Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon, and though its fine-grained tannins had softened a bit, the deep fruit and remaining tannins still held their own against the meat.


Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The Genius Of Zuni's Bread Salad

On a recent rare day-off — a short calm before the twin storms of Spore’s launch and the re-release of — I decided to make a dinner of roast chicken and bread salad. I thought it a spontaneous idea, but any Bay Area foodie knows that it is Zuni Cafe’s most famous dish. And, like many of the restaurant’s biggest hits, the recipe appears in the must-have Zuni Cafe Cookbook.

Judy Rodgers’ detailed bread salad recipe, modified to embrace seasonal ingredients, makes a delicious dish. But that’s not what struck me about it.

The bread salad pairs so well with the chicken because of the texture contrast. Even a good roast chicken has only two textures: tender flesh and crispy skin. The bread salad covers the whole spectrum between soft and crunchy. Her technique has you toast a few big chunks of bread and then tear them into pieces from bite-size to bread crumbs. Then she has you toss your 4 cups of bread with 1/4 cup vinaigrette: a scant amount. The result, as she says, is “a mixture of soft, moist wads, crispy-on-the-outside-but-moist-in-the-middle wads, and a few downright crispy ones.”

Cooking with texture seems like graduate-level cooking technique, but in fact we all know texture combinations that work well: crispy cones with smooth ice cream, crunchy cole slaw with tender barbecue, and crackling crust around creamy risotto in a rice cake. By triggering different sensations, these pairings keep our mouths interested in each bite. Still, it’s one thing to follow established traditions and another to pursue and explore this interplay. I wouldn’t say that I had incorporated texture at a conscious level, but now I plan to and see where it takes me.

Spore has shipped! Our new website is live. That means I may be able to return to life as a writer: I spent today researching an Art of Eating article, and I hope to get back into the blogging habit. Thanks for hanging on.