Food for Thought

by Flynne O. Wiley   

I Scream for Ice Cream

Last modified on 2013-07-16 12:42:05 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

IMG_2240_revisedRemember when our choices of frozen treats used to be so simple: vanilla, chocolate, or strawberry? Nowadays, even 31 flavors seems a puny offering when you can find frozen confections in every imaginable flavor, one more outrageous than the next, and with a variety that is able to satisfy every eater from strict vegans (try avocado-coconut) to adventurous foodies (think strawberry and jalapeno).

But for those of us who still wonder at the basic differences between ice cream and gelato or sorbet and sherbet (and how to correctly pronounce each), here’s the lowdown on frozen desserts, no matter the flavor:

Ice Cream: In the U.S., by labeling regulations, ice cream is a dairy product made with at least 10% milkfat. (Note that frozen treats made with alternative nondairy milk, such as coconut milk or soy milk, cannot be labeled ice cream.) Traditionally, ice cream is made with simply cream, sugar, and eggs. Though air is not labeled as an ingredient, it does make up nearly half the volume of this whipped delight.

Gelato (juh-LAH-toh): This smoother, softer cousin of ice cream has a lower milkfat than ice cream and has less air and usually a higher sugar content than ice cream, that yields stronger, more concentrated flavors than ice cream.

Frozen Dairy Product: This is reserved for those reduced or nonfat frozen desserts that cannot be legally labeled as ice cream because of their low level of milkfat. With so many other delicious options, really, why would you?

Frozen Yogurt: Okay, if you must…. Fro-yo, which had a boom in the days of low-fat everything (and seemingly still holds strong, proved by the Saturday afternoon lines around every New York City block), is interestingly enough, not defined under U.S. federal regulations (which actually makes me think, What’s in that Pinkberry swirl?) It is, however, defined by some states as a frozen dairy product made using at least some milk that has been fermented by active cultures of bacteria. Well, that clears it up.

Sorbet (sor-BAY): This is a fruit or juice-based frozen dessert. Sorbet is churned, the same way ice cream is made, but it does not contain dairy and eggs. (Eat up vegans!)

Sherbet (SHER-bit): Made in the same fashion as sorbet, but with the addition of a small amount of milk, which makes it oh-so-creamy.

Granita (gruh-NEE-tuh): Very similar to Sorbet, but crunchier and coarser in texture. Granitas are frozen juice or (other beverage, such as coffee) that is blended by hand or in a blender rather than churned in an ice cream machine. It is then poured in a container and stirred at intervals to create an icy, flaky texture.

Where in the World is CAMBOZOLA?

Last modified on 2013-05-22 03:10:56 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

While CAMBOZOLA has always made special appearances on our recipe posts—from soups and salads to sliders and ice cream—it turns out this unique cheese has also been hitting menus from coast to coast. And not just on cheese plates.

While Cambozola burgers appear in countless pubs across the country, check out just a few of the other creative ways chefs are using the distinct yet versatile Cambozola. (I know what I’m having for lunch.)

The Burger: Grass-fed beef, arugula, bacon jam, and Cambozola. Skillet Truck, Seattle, WA.

Cambozola, pear, and red onion sandwich on German rye. Landbrot, New York, NY.

Roasted acorn squash with fresh berries, hazelnuts, Cambozola, greens and brown butter. Huckleberry Pub, Portland, OR.

Lola Rosa and apple salad with Cambozola and pumpkin seed vinaigrette (seasonal). The Marrow, New York, NY.

Cambozola cheese and shitake mushroom panini. Eatcetera, Galveston, TX.

Belgian endive and frisée salad with shaved green apple and Cambozola. Proof, Washington, DC.

Poutine, fresh cut tempura fries, Cambozola, short rib gravy. Biergarten, Los Angeles.

Spinach Salad Cambozola, with poached chai tea pears, Cambozola, spiced pecans, apricots, and champagne vinaigrette. Stoneys Bread Company. Oakville, ON, Canada.

Black Garlic Fondue, a warm wedge of Cambozola, black garlic cloves, roasted peppers, caramelized onions, Red Trolley Ale cream sauce, and grilled bread. Karl Strauss Brewing Company, San Diego, CA.

CHAMPIGNON

Last modified on 2013-04-19 02:03:40 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

So you might have wondered why the French word for “mushroom” has come to represent cheeses produced in Germany. Although CHAMPIGNON mushroom, creamy and flecked with mushrooms, may give you a clue, it also may belie the tale.

Käserei Champignon (Käserei meaning “cheese maker”) was not named after CHAMPIGNON mushroom cheese. In fact, the first type of cheese Käserei Champignon produced had no mushrooms at all.

In the 1900s, an enterprising Bavarian cheese-maker by the name of Julius Hirschle studied the techniques of creating Camembert in France. When he returned to Bavaria, he decided to try cultivating this type of cheese using milk from Allgäu cows, or Swiss Brown cows. The result of his experiment was a creamy Camembert with the aroma of mushroom—a flavor-profile that set it apart from other cheeses produced in the Allgäu at the time. So when Hirschle began to sell this cheese, he partnered with Leopold Immler, a cheese merchant, and the two settled on the distinctly named Käserei Champignon. Today, the name now represents more than just the flavor of the original cheese, but a mark of quality cheese.

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Garlic

Last modified on 2013-03-13 19:33:13 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

Rare is the day that I do not have garlic, so it’s no wonder that Champignon Garlic has me daydreaming. This cheese calls for a crusty baguette, a cold Chardonnay, and a picnic blanket on the Seine. Or to decorate beef wellington on a wintery night…Or to top a grilled Portobello for a veg barbecue…hmm…or a cheesesteak at a tailgate party…See I told you it induces daydreaming!

I know that some of you alliumphobics out there might be hesitant to eat garlic-flavored cheese unless you are a party of one. But, like Limburger, its fellow room-clearer, I’ll defend it to the bitter (or garlicky) end. Besides, there are easy measures that can be taken to reduce the oft-feared garlic-breath phenomenon.

A recent study published by the Journal of Food Science found that drinking milk before or with garlic reduces the concentrations of the compounds that cause bad breath. In fact other dairy products like cheese and yogurt may also help (hence garlic-flavored cheese lets you enjoy garlic without adverse effects!) Other remedies include eating parsley, mint, fennel seeds, and basil.

So add a pinch of parsley to your picnic basket and keep on daydreaming…

 

Cheese Making History

Last modified on 2013-01-31 00:36:20 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

Cheese-making classes may be all the rage today, but cheese making is nothing new. In fact, recent evidence found at an archaeological site in Poland reveals just how old this tradition might be.

Shards of pottery with holes punctured in it, dating back 7,000 years, were found to have residue of milk lipids. This sign of dairy processing suggests that Neolithic farmers were using the pottery to separate curds from whey.

Prior to this discovery, cheese making was only known as far back as 4,000 years ago, based on archaeological evidence from Egyptian murals, which appear to depict the cheese-making process. Although archaeologists had previously found pottery dating back even further that appeared to be used as strainers, they did not have evidence of its use. Advances in the technique of detecting milk lipids on artifacts is what led to this most recent discovery.

Aside from making milk easier to keep and transport, cheese was most likely a way for people of this time to consume the milk. Researchers point out that people living in that area at that time would have been largely lactose intolerant. Cheese would have been a way to reduce the lactose and provide a sustainable source of protein for these early farmers.

Cheese Lover’s Gift Guide

Last modified on 2012-12-17 14:49:08 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

So I know many of you organized individuals have checked your list twice already, but if you are like me (leave everything to the last few days, stay up late roaming the stores, browsing the Internet and become familiar with the term expedited shipping), some of you may still have a few unchecked items on your list. And, if those unchecked items are for food lovers, boy do I have the gifts (and links) for you.

Lessons For the over-achiever whose appetite for cheese cannot be satiated by mere tastings, send them back to school with a cheese lesson. These days many cheese shops offer classes from pairings to cheese-making. If local lessons are not available, Mastering Cheese provides a useful and comprehensive DIY guide.

Boards Reserve your plates for dinner and serve up your cheeses across a beautiful backdrop from Brooklyn Slate. These elegant slates come along with soapstone chalk for labeling. Guests will never again confuse a Gorgonzola for a Cambozola.

The Knife Though I have certainly seen more attractive cheese knives, this cheese knife has an edge over specialized cheese knives. It  easily slices through cheese no matter the firmness of the cheese and without the cheese sticking to the knife, which is essential in maintaining the structure of the cheese. Be amazed as event soft cheeses slide from its blade. A handy all-in-one cheese knife.

Storage Fortmaticum cheese papers and bags are excellent for the cheese party host/hostess to aid in post-entertaining clean-up. You can also keep leftover party platters fresh with a nifty containers from RIG-TIG. I especially like that it prevents the scent of stinky cheeses from permeating the fridge and maintains the integrity of the cheese. (I find it best for a single cheese or for a few mild cheeses that do not have aromas that would interact with one another.) With a cutting board on the bottom, it can also can be brought directly to the table and uncovered. Voila! 

Tools on the Go For the cheese lover on the go, here are a few gifts that will fill their stocking stuffer wishes. A Swiss Army pocket cheese-knife keeps one prepared to slice through any cheese, any time, any where. If a board is also in order, this mobile 6” storage cheese board creates a cheese plate in an instant. Accompanied by a bike wine-bottle belt, you’re cheese lover is a bicycle ride away from a romantic déjenuer sur l’herbe.

A Menu for All

Last modified on 2013-01-02 18:23:51 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

Thanksgiving should be one of my favorite times to cook. Each year though, it seems guests have come to the table, not with a healthy appetite, but with a list of things they can’t eat. From the vegan to vegetarian to dairy-free, gluten-free, and the curious-sounding “paleo,” meeting so many limitations while creating a something the omnivores would also find appetizing is quite a challenge.

My best advice is to first find out if there are any dietary restrictions. After an embarrassing faux-pas a couple years ago when I had new friends over and served Spanish-style chorizo only to find out they were vegan, I now make it a habit to ask friends, old and new, if there’s anything they don’t eat. The responses are sometimes surprising, but always helpful.

In case you’re unsure of the ever-changing dietary trends, below is a list of general guidelines for some current types of diets. I’ll be honest, that some of these do induce a reflexive eye-roll, but I do at least, admire their discipline.

Vegan: No foods containing animal products. This means no dairy, meat, fish, eggs, but also excludes not-so-obvious products like honey and gelatin.

Vegetarian: No meat or fish.

Pescatarian: No meat.

Gluten-free: No foods containing gluten, a storage protein found in wheat, barley, rye and hybrids thereof. Be aware that many thickeners and flavoring agents also use some of these ingredients, and therefore packaged foods may  contain gluten. Check the package to be sure. Anything also processed in places that process wheat, such as oats, may also contain gluten.

Dairy-free: No dairy (cheese, butter, milk). Again, processed foods may include dairy by-products so be on the lookout.

Lactose-free: No products containing lactose, a sugar found in milk. Note that some dairy products may be naturally lactose-free, while other processed foods that do not appear to contain lactose, do. (Lookout for whey in the ingredient list.)

Macrobiotic:  No meat, dairy, animal fat, tropical fruits, hot spices, or any refined or processed food. There’s much more about cooking process in this diet, so if you have a die-hard macrobiotic, ask for a recipe!

Paleo: I am new to this one, but apparently it’s been trending allover the country. It’s a diet that supposedly mimics the diet of our caveman ancestors, that is to say a contemporary hunter-gatherer diet. It includes fresh meat, vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts, but no dairy, cereal grains or processed foods.

Locavore: Restricted to foods grown locally (generally less than 250 miles; some may be stricter in their radius).

These are only some of the many categories of eaters out there, so like I said it’s best to ask your guests directly.

And as you plan your Thanksgiving meal, keep in mind you don’t have to make a different dish for each person. Veggies are basically a staple for all (I haven’t met anyone yet who is on a vegetable-free diet, though those that only eat raw food pose a particular challenge). You can also divide and conquer, dividing a recipe in half before you add a particular ingredient (let’s say cream to those mashed potatoes). Finally, try making some dishes à la carte, so that your guests can add a dab of butter, a drizzle of gravy, or a slice of cheese, should their diet allow.

A Hungry Man Walks Into a Bar…

Last modified on 2012-10-19 03:43:53 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

While gastropubs may elevate bar food to new heights, there’s something comforting about traditional American bar fare.

Cheese, spice, and basically anything fried are staple options. But here are just a few standbys of American bar menus—some pervasive and well-known, some local and unusual—and how to get them.

Buffalo Wings
Buffalo wings are ubiquitous bar food, but can be as diverse in flavor as you can imagine. The original deep-fried, spicy, and notably vinegary chicken wings came about reportedly from a little late-night kitchen magic in Buffalo, New York, in 1964. The story goes that Teressa Belissimo of Frank and Teressa’s Anchor Bar fried up some extra chicken wings, doused them in hot sauce, and served them up with blue cheese dressing and celery. Depending on who tells the story, she either whipped these up for her drunken son and his friends or to satisfy demands from hungry patrons. Little did she know she was creating a hot-wing sensation that continues to this day.

Fried Curds (or “Squeak”)
Unless you are lucky enough to live near a cheese-making facility, it’s likely you’ve never eaten curds. Curds are formed during the cheese-making process, after the milk has curdled (hence the term “curd”) through acidification, causing the liquid whey and solid curd to separate. When making cheddar, after the curd is separated from the whey, the curds are not molded as are most cheeses, but are left to draw together into what is called a curd cake. The “cake” is then cut and stacked in layers to press out the whey and left to acidify further. This whole process is called “cheddaring.” After this, the curd mass is milled, or cut into small pieces. The milled curds are then salted, put into molds and pressed.

In Wisconsin, especially, the scraps of the milled curd tend to become snacks as well as cheese. There, they can be found at farmer’s markets, fairs, and—you guessed it—bars. The slightly soft, chewy curds have a very short shelf life (they should be eaten within a day), and hence don’t travel far from their hometowns. These curds are also known as the diminutive-sounding “squeak” for the squeaking sound they make when you bite into them. Breaded and fried, however, the curds become both crunchy, and chewy, two favored features of any bar food.

For where to find the very best in curds, check out these thorough reviews, dedicated solely to cheese curds.

(Curds , by the way, make another appearance north of the border, in a dish called poutine. This Canadian bar food concoction consists of fries, curds, and gravy. That’s right…with gravy…. Not exactly light fare.)

Louisville Hot Brown
Do not be scared off by the unfortunate name of this open-faced sandwich. Created at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Kentucky during the Roaring ‘20s, a hot brown is a slice of toast layered with tomato, roast turkey, Mornay sauce, and bacon, which is actually altogether unlike a bacon-topped Welsh Rarebit. Although most people outside of Louisville have likely (and unfortunately) not heard of it, beware that it may make an appearance on menus masked by other, less-offensive aliases. I always knew of it as the more enticing Cheese Dream. This one is not to be missed.

Beer-battered Pickles
Think salt-and-vinegar fried zucchini. Fried pickles begin to appear on menus as you travel south from Tennessee and Virgina. They seem to be especially prevalent through the Carolinas, where you might see them called chicken-fried pickles, alongside other bar food snacks like fried okra and boiled peanuts. For a treat, if you’re ever in Raleigh, North Carolina, try them at the Raleigh Times.

Oysters
I wouldn’t call them pretty, but they are pretty delicious. These bivalves don’t just get featured on a bar menu, they often get their own bar. And unlike other bar food, they don’t have to be fried or served with a sauce to be tasty. From the eastern seaboard to the west, briny to buttery, blue points to hama hamas,  oysters in their purest form run the gamut in flavor. These little guys certainly have terroir of the sea.

But the beauty of any oyster bar is that if you prefer to dress them up, you can add as little or as much as you like: A mignonette to add a tang to your briny half shell; bacon (angels on horseback) or breadcrumbs (Rockefeller); individually breaded, fried, and sandwiched in a baguette (po’ boy), or rolled into a patty and deep fried (rolled oyster). You pretty much have your choice of how you’d like to serve them up—or, you might say, the world is your oyster.

A Taste of Place

Last modified on 2012-09-11 00:03:07 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

The term terroir is oft-used in the wine industry to describe the elements of a place that contribute to the taste of a wine. That is, the geography, climate, and soil and how these elements affect and interact with the grapes that grow in that particularly area. As some put it it, terroir is “the taste of a place.” The term has also been broadened to incorporate local traditions, reflecting the cultural approaches to viticulture.

In the last several years, this term has also begun entering the nomenclature used in other food industries. In the cheese industry,  it has been used to describe the affect that geography, climate, soil, type of vegetation, and breeds of animals  have on the taste of a type of cheese. Though this term is sometimes saved for farmstead cheeses, characteristics of cheeses produced from the milk of local dairy farms may also be considered terroir.

Although the methods used to produce a cheese will inevitably vary from one producer to the next, ultimately it is the taste and quality of the milk that goes into the cheese that will influence what connoisseurs have dubbed terroir. For example, cows that graze at a higher elevation will produce milk with different characteristics than milk produced from cows that graze at lower elevations, due to the variance in the vegetation. In addition, variances in cultural practices, such as when cows are let out to graze and whether farmers use silage (fermented grass) in a cow’s diet affect the resulting taste and quality of the milk.

In addition, the term terroir can also convey a what some call a “mystical” and unquantifiable element of “a sense of place.” To me, this aspect of the term correlates strongly to the memory of a taste of a place. There is no substitution for tasting a wine or food with the sensory experience that comes with that particular place, from the scent in the air to the angle of the sun, the colors of the landscape, and the tone of the native tongue. These are cues that cannot be quantified, labeled, or conveyed in simple tasting notes, but can impart a taste as invisible and as strong as any aroma.

The Allgäu region of Bavaria, which supplies the milk that goes into Käserei Champignon cheese, has a long tradition of dairy farming, which is unsurprising when you see the landscape. The grass is vibrantly green and grows so well that it can be cut five times a year (most climates only produce 3 cuttings). The milk comes from 800 local family farms, none of which use silage in feed for their cows. Instead, cut grass is specially dried to extend through the coldest months of the years. The cows are playful and friendly, and given room to graze (a hectare for every two cows). Dairy farmers of this region, as well as consumers, take a special pride in their milk and cheese.

Though the term terroir derives from the French word for “land,” there is much more to the taste of a cheese than what is imparted by the physical environment. The taste of place involves the people as much as the land. Those who produce a cheese and those who appreciate its flavors invariably shape its quality.

 

Can It!

Last modified on 2012-08-06 11:00:11 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

Camping food typically evokes images of hot dogs, beans, and s’mores smothered in campfire smoke and char. And although I’ll admit I do like a little smoke and char now and again, I’m afraid the camping menu is in need of a expansion. So along my merry camping way, I have discovered that you can indeed bring a little Jean-Georges to your Johnnycakes. Aside from delicious crêpes with Camembert, I’ve found these tasty treats to be perfect camping companions. (Just don’t forget your can opener.)

Sally Sells Sealed Seashells

I usually like my seafood by the seaside, but with these delicacies, the best of the sea can come to me, from Yosemite to The Mojave. The mussels in marinade are plump with just a touch of tang; the octopus in oil needs only a dash of pepper; and the cockles in brine will leave the salt of the sea on your lips.

The Big Atún

I would certainly be remiss if I did not include the famous Spanish canned tuna, but be forewarned that it could break the bank (not to mention that it will forever ruin any memories of Mom’s tuna salad). You may have to forego a hotel room to afford this treat, but it’s worth the splurge.

If you are seeking a somewhat less expensive, more campfire-quality fare, go for canned smoked trout in oil. Layer the trout on slices of avocado and some plain ‘ol crackers. You’ll soon have yourself a cocktail party around the campfire.

Canned Cuisine

A French colleague of my husband’s once catered to his craving of cassoulet by surprising him with cassoulet in a can. Yes that’s right, it’s a one-can meal. One wintery night, we opened it up, poured it in a pan, and popped it in the oven. The beans were creamy, the duck small, but sufficiently rich in taste, and the Toulouse sausages surprisingly good. (Kudos to the French for bringing the entire range of canned cuisine up a notch). Though this is by no means a replacement for traditional cassoulet, it certainly elevates franks and beans. Just make room in your pack for a Bordeaux.

It’s Just Wine In a Box!

Speaking of which…what will you wash it all down with? In the past, boxed wines have been pretty limited, especially in terms of quality, but there are, in fact, more choices for the mobile oenophile these days. Owing to innovation (and clever marketing), we now have a variety of wines and a variety of packages to stuff in our duffle. Add a cabernet in a pouch, an award-winning boxed Bordeaux (for that cassoulet), or a canned cuvée blanc to your camping gear list.

So light a fire, crack open a can, and toast to dining off the grid.

The Ice Cream Parlor

Last modified on 2012-07-04 14:59:36 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

Ice cream holds a special place in my culinary heart. Around the prime ice-cream-eating age of 6, my parents opened up an ice cream parlor in my small hometown. The ice cream parlor was “conceived in insanity” as my father likes to say, but truly the idea was inspired by the local family-run businesses my parents had frequented. With their own growing family, they figured they, too, might find a source of supplemental income and success.

Ice cream was also a choice offering in the beach-town, that is of course during the short summer season one finds along the shores of Lake Michigan. And with only one other ice cream store in town, there was certainly potential.

Not long after they set their minds to it, they found a space in an old building downtown that was close to the park overlooking the lake and walking distance to the beach. With its tin-ceilings and corner lot, the place had just the right feel for an old-fashioned ice cream parlor. But that wasn’t the only draw. It was rented by a landlord who was interested in getting a commercial occupancy to make the building more valuable for sale. So he made my parents a sweet deal: He offered them a lease with rent based on a percentage of the profits. They jumped at the opportunity.

Now at the time, my parents were no experts on ice cream, but they did their research. They packed their five children into a van and visited ice cream parlors all over the state, purchasing equipment, talking to owners about their ingredients and methods, and sampling (though that was mostly left to us kids). Though they hadn’t set out to make natural ice cream, when they saw some of the additives and colorings that went into some ice cream flavors, they decided they couldn’t serve what they wouldn’t want to feed to their own children.

After less than half a year of preparation, Constellations, Home of the Big Dipper, opened to the public. They offered on average 12 flavors of old-fashioned ice cream and sorbet, written on a chalkboard in my mother’s handwriting. My father poured milk into the huge ice cream maker and lugged away tubs of whipped ice cream into the flash freezer. Those kids old enough (or with long enough arms to reach the tubs) helped serve.

Venturing beyond the average vanilla and chocolate, my mother concocted recipes including such flavors as toasted almond, rum raisin, and cinnamon. They even found some of their mistakes, like speckled chocolate, turn into hits. One mistake, a personal favorite for this six-year-old, was ice cream with M&Ms that had turned into swirls of orange and pink with black chocolate dots. My mother, playing a marketing joke, added this flavor to the daily board, which resulted in curious customers requesting two scoops of “Eye of Newt.”

The flavors were only part of the shop’s charm. They hosted a local artist to paint in their front window and they offered myriad specialties. They had Uncle Sam Sundaes on the Fourth of July, a waffle-sailboat filled with a crew of your favorite ice creams, and a tasting sampler made of a waffle shaped into an artist’s palette and dotted with colorful scoops of various flavors.

The ice cream parlor was certainly successful during peak season, with lines forming around the block. On more than one occasion, they kept their doors open well past closing time to satisfy all those who waited for a taste.

Business boomed each summer, but the other seasons were unsurprisingly lulls. In their second year, after their building had been sold, they had to consider whether it was worth keeping open. Challenges with the change of owners as well managing their regular day jobs and family on top of the shop had become a strain that their small profits could not offset. They decided to close.

Though they had only a short run, my parents still look back nostalgically on those days of waffle cones, ice cream scoops, and customers, and until only recently, they even maintained their commercial ice cream machine, breaking it out on occasion to delight their friends with flavors from the past.

Despite the fact that it did not take off, I am always inspired when I think about the story of Constellations. The ice cream parlor venture exemplifies my parents’ entrepreneurial spirit, creativity, and hard work. No doubt that their love of food and willingness to experiment are also their legacies. Though they might wonder at the thought of blue-cheese ice cream, I am sure they would have added it to the daily board.

A Dairy Endeavor

Last modified on 2012-05-24 02:57:28 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

How one man’s vision transformed a region

Limburger, commonly associated with German fare, actually originates from the monasteries of Limburg, Belgium. In 1830, the cheese was brought to a special region of southern Bavaria called the Allgäu by Carl Hirnbein, an innovator and agricultural reformer. At the time the Allgäu region was a poor area. Flax was its main crop, which grew well there, covering the landscape with a blue hue. Flax was used for the production of cloth, but after the invention of the cotton gin in 1794, flax began waning in demand. From his travels, Hirnbein saw this shift on the horizon and was willing to take a risk on his land. He decided to pull the flax from his lands and plant grass instead, on which he could raise cows. The cows’ milk would provide a critical source of protein that could be preserved as cheese.

So Hirnbein started to produce Limburger and Romadur with the milk from his cows. He then packaged the cheese in a sellable portion and began to market it. Hirnbein’s enterprise began to slowly change the region, as he bought up small farms and transformed them from hectares of flax to hectares of grass, and expanded his dairy business. He influenced others to start planting grass by offering to pay farmers for the milk they produced from their nascent dairy farms. He gave people of the region a motivation to transform their land. By planting grass which grew well in the region, farmers could keep their farms and, more importantly, provide a form of sustenance to the region.

Today, a visit to the Allgäu region yields breathtaking views of a vibrant and verdant landscape. Unlike the green, yellow, and brown patchwork of land that I associate with American farms, here you see rolling hills of green pasture for miles. It needs no irrigation, no pesticides, no replanting. It is a perennial crop that yields potentially perennial outputs of milk as long as the quality of the cows that graze upon it is maintained. And although the land is dotted with farms, villages, industries, it remains a healthy land. (Notably, the government regulates the number of cows that can be kept on a hectare of land, so that the amount of animals does not exceed the amount the land can sustain both in input of feed and in waste.)

The history of this region’s transformation I see as a model for how we in America can transform the agricultural landscape of the future. Carl Hirnbein was a visionary and he took a risk in converting his land for new and different agricultural purposes. We may have visionaries among us today that can do the same here and abroad. In Kansas, we have Wes Jackson’s Land Institute, experimenting with agriculture based on natural systems, such as prairie polyculture. In Minnesota, Philip Rutter is promoting “woody agriculture” through the production of treenut crops such as hazelnuts and chestnuts, with the hope that these might one day become staple food crops. In Virginia, we have Joel Salatin, whose farm is an American success story of sustainable farming practice. A recent study even shows that pasture-management could be a sustainable alternative use of cropland. Perhaps there are greener pastures in our not-so-distant future.

Brand-Ed

Last modified on 2012-04-18 02:06:34 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

The recently revived controversy over a stomach-turning term used to describe a certain beef product got me thinking about branding, consumer perceptions, and the power of celebrity and social media. A strong brand is what marketers hope for: an image or association in the minds of consumers that will keep them coming back for more. But what happens when that brand is a mar rather than a star?

I’ll spare you the all the details which I am sure by now you’ve heard (and in case you just ate) but the controversy over— okay, I’ll say it this once— “pink slime” arose after celeb-chef Jamie Oliver brought consumer attention to a filler used in ground beef— what the industry calls “Lean Finely Textured Beef Trimmings,” but which Oliver called by its now-infamous name (originally termed by a USDA microbiologist). After making headlines throughout all outlets of media and social networking sites, the public uproar reached a frenzy that resulted in the product being pulled from shelves and a shutdown of 3 factories.

Now as you know from my last post, I am not a big beef purchaser, and here may yet be another reason for me not to purchase a beef product, but what struck me most about this latest headline is how quickly and efficiently this term was able to bring down a product once it reached the gateways of social media. If the controversy had been brought up against, say “Lean Finely Textured Beef Trimmings” or the generic “fatty beef offcuts” I doubt such a horrified outcry would have been heard. After all defenders of the beef industry cite that it is in fact all beef and has been deemed to be safe (albeit by the USDA—not by all countries).

Don’t get me wrong— I am thrilled to hear consumers start to demand transparency of process, accountability, and higher quality food products. However, the backlash is an exemplar of the power public perception has in branding— how a name can both positively and negatively affect a product (and in this case the latter). This is not a new phenomenon of course, as spikes and declines in consumption of certain products generally follows food stories and studies. What is notable to me is the the swift take down of a product that was not tied to safety concerns or fraudulent claims. Interestingly, the BBC points out this may be one of the first examples of consumers demanding a recall of a product not because of a safety concern but because it just sounded gross. A tweet with strong imagery can be enough to rally the masses.

Once out in the ether, it’s hard to “take back” an image seared into the minds of readers. We “consumers,” from foodies to connoisseurs, have a great memory for products we love—but equally memorable are those we’ve turned away.

A Food by Any Other Label…

Last modified on 2012-03-18 22:02:04 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

So what’s on your plate today?

You think the answer would be so simple when it comes to our most basic foods. But a carrot is not just a carrot these days. Now it is commonplace in any grocery to find a variety of categories and labels applied to them. A food might be “conventional” “local,” or “organic.” It might even be “grass-fed,” “cage-free,” or the enigmatic “all-natural.” The average consumer is bombarded with a variety of marketing labels on foods that need not be “marketed.” While some might find that the labels of these different food types have made their food shopping more confusing, I think that the labels do still have a place. They offer us choices that we might not otherwise know that we have.

For example, when I make a recipe with beef, I choose to look for beef from cows that have been pasture-raised. I recognize that until widespread consumer preferences and current policy changes, the choice to eat beef (or any other animal) raised in a particular way and fed a certain diet is strictly a personal food choice. To me, knowing where my food comes from and what it has eaten along the food chain is important to me. Sadly, I still hear people scoff at the notion that I might seek out “grass-fed” when the beef they eat is “perfectly good.” But strangely I do not hear any scoffs if I voice preference over a certain wine over another. I believe that, like a particular climate and soil affects the grapes for wine, so too do the inputs into the food chain, from pesticides on a plant to the type and quality of grain fed to livestock. If the butcher did not label the food, I would not be able to make an informed choice, nor be able to support a particular product or affect change in food policy.

This brings me to the debate over the labeling of genetically modified foods. Currently, there is no mandatory labeling for these types of foods. True, that by law producers must label all materials in a product, but the gray area begins around the definition of “material.”  The FDA says that “material” means something that can be detected by the senses—taste or smell. So if a genetically modified or engineered food does not differ in sense from a conventional food, it would not merit a mandatory label, or so the argument goes. But genetically modified or engineered products do enter the market without such labels, consumers like me are no longer able to make an informed choice between products.

Opponents to labeling argue that there would be a high cost to consumers for the regulation and verification of products that are non-genetically engineered. It is true that this process would not be easy to implement and would not be cheap. However, we consumers must ask ourselves if the knowledge is worth the extra cost. Most Americans are willing to pay high costs to ensure a good education. It remains to be seen whether we are willing to pay to know what we eat.

 

A Slow Season

Last modified on 2011-12-06 04:16:22 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

The holiday season always seems to sneak up on me. My calendar quickly fills, weekend after weekend (even weeknights!) and soon enough I am welcoming in not just guests, but a new year. Perhaps it is the fewer hours of daylight that seem to snap the days shut too soon. Or perhaps it is the momentum of the year that builds to a fast pace. Whatever, the reason, the last few weeks always seem to race by.

A recent read of James Gleick’s book “Faster” got me thinking about this annual phenomenon. Gleick examines the passage of time on a greater scientific, cultural, and psychological level. He cleverly presses pause to make readers see how we measure time, impose time, value time. He forces you to notice the current of time as it moves us about our hours, days, weeks. We look at our watches, more likely these days at our cell phones, wishing for more hours in the day to finish our work, hoping that between the two embracing arms of the clock, we might squeeze in a few mere moments.

I recently stopped mid-chop one evening and realized that it was here, in the kitchen, that I find the rare moments where time seems to pass without a care. Hours could wind by before a plate has been perfected, and unless the growls of a stomach sound the alarm, I wouldn’t notice if it was 10 or 2. Of course, that’s not to say that I negligently leave my crusts to crisp. What I mean is that there is no hurrying a pot of water to a boil, no speeding a bread to rise, or finding a shortcut to make a reduction. The laws of physics cannot be bullied into the 21st century rush. There is no immediate gratification. One is forced to wait.

While some might squirm at the notion, I must say, the wait is part of the dining experience, the anticipation and the tease. The oven warms, the smells tantalize.  The cozy climate prompts any guests to take off their coats, pocket the time-tracking cellphones. Stay a while.

So while the winter days may close early, the kitchen is open late. If you come on by, don’t mind the wait.

 

Season to Taste

Last modified on 2011-11-17 12:01:38 GMT. 0 comments. Top.

Yes, it seems such a simple sense. But the seemingly simplest things are never so simple. Taste, like many of our other senses, changes over time. But unlike most other senses that seem to slowly deteriorate with each passing year, taste can develop, become keener, more refined. How you ask? Expand your horizons.

Few of us are born gourmands. While some might be genetically disposed to discerning tastes, most of us grew up with a forkful of foods we were exposed to. Me? I grew up in a meat-and-potatoes household where garlic was exotic and marinara sauce came from a jar. But my taste and love of food has drastically and fortunately changed—and still does.

What is so striking about the  in our present culture is how a sense so transcendental can be so often and so negligently overlooked. Food is amazing in how it can transport you, how it can open doors, how it can be an ambassador, how it can speak a language even when you don’t know the native tongue.

To celebrate, to enjoy, to discover⁠—this is what developing your taste can be. So this is to encourage these moments: try something new, try a different spin, try an old favorite and wonder how you might improve it. Expand your horizons.

Here’s to discovery. Here’s to taste.