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Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The East-West Divide on Organic and Natural Meat

After reading "The United States of Arugula", a history of what made the U.S. a gourmet nation and speaking to friends in Eugene, Oregon recently, I have concluded that the Western United States is light years ahead of the East Coast when it comes to organic products, in particular organic and natural meats. I plan to write another article about the differences between organic and natural meats, but for the purposes of this article I will use the term natural as a catch-all phrase for organic, natural, grass-fed, free range, and/or hormone-free and antibiotic-free meat.

Why is it that after each food scare, most recently the recall of 180 million pounds of beef from a slaughterhouse in California, the renewed clamor about going "organic" or back to the "old-fashioned" ways of farming rises to, at best, a distant thunder. And then subsides! Why are so many people willing to risk their health on a product that even under the best of circumstances shouldn't make up the large portion of our diet that it does? And finally, why do residents in West Coast outposts like Eugene OR, Seattle WA and San Francisco CA and all localities between them seem to embrace natural meats so much so that natural meat can be found in corner stores at relatively reasonable prices? It's time that the East Coast, mainly Boston to DC also known as the Northeast corridor, gets its act together. This will require producers, middlemen, retail outlets and consumers to create a supply chain as distinct, entrenched and seamless as that of conventional meat. Eventually, the East Coast's demand for, consumption of and dedication to natural meat will rival that of the West Coast's.

There will be three phases of this trend or movement; Economies of scale phase, Trickle-down phase and the Protest of the Proletariat phase. In the Economies of Scale phase, the educated and affluent will be targeted. They already make up the majority of natural meat consumers, but they are still a largely untapped market. Right now the net is cast so wide with many small producers and literally millions of advocates. Unfortunately, most of these advocates can't afford to buy enough natural meat and most of the producers have no scale to lower prices nor an integrated system to get their products to the necessary number of retail outlets. This catch-22 can only be overcome by increasing demand from the segment of consumers with the most money to spare. As they demand more product and pay the associated premium for that product, producers will start producing more and eventually reduce their costs as they create economies of scale.

However, even when the price of natural meats becomes competitive, many "resisters" will continue to believe that the meat is too costly, too snobby or too earthy-crunchy. This won't last long, though. In the Trickle-Down phase, many consumers in the upper-middle and middle classes will determine that they are missing out on something special. Whether it's keeping up with the Jones' or simply becoming more aware of the benefits of natural meat, this group will add more money and muscle to the supply chain. People will choose to eat less meat so they can afford better meat or they will simply sacrifice elsewhere in order to make natural meat a regular part of their diet. At this point, somewhere between 50 - 75 % of the population will become net natural meat consumers. In other words, they will make natural meat 51% or more of the total meat they consumer. This trend will eventually meet with resistance by those who are only willing to buy meat at the lowest possible price. This is true regardless of quality or even if the price differential is just pennies per pound.

Fortunately, the cries of injustice will break down this final barrier. Meat, regardless of quality, is considered a staple of the American diet. When 150 million Americans start eating organic and natural meats on a regular basis and the media coverage of the benefits of these meats over conventionally produced meats becomes omnipresent, the other 80 million Americans will begin to cry foul, shouting "Food Injustice!"

"Food Justice" has become quite a buzz phrase over the past 20 years. According to Bryant Terry, the founder of the youth-based, not-for profit B-Healthy,food justice assumes access to healthy food is a human right and enforcing this right requires organized responses that are locally driven and owned. Perhaps I’m naïve, but once the word gets out that half of our population is eating inferior and possibly toxic meat while the rest of us stay healthier and live longer, capitalism will do all the heavy lifting from that point on. Intervention from within and without by a laundry list of activist groups to end this injustice won’t be necessary.

This article assumes that everyone, at some point, will become net natural meat consumers in the United States and perhaps 100% natural meat consumers. This may seem "pie-in-the-sky", but meat is a staple of the American diet and access to it is considered a birthright. Something so important to the American way of life should be of the highest quality. Right now consumers confuse specific breeds and USDA quality grades with quality. Breeds offer marginally different flavors and grades offer degrees of tenderness, juiciness and flavor as well. But what about the quality or healthfulness of the fat itself? What about residual traces of hormones and antibiotics in meat? What about the treatment of the animal, the environment and the farmer for that matter during the lifecycle of one head of livestock? None of these questions are answered when you buy Certified Angus Prime Beef. Organic answers some of these questions and a new formalized certification for natural meat may answer even more. I hope you want to know those answers as you begin your journey from conventional meat to natural meat.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Why Do Chain Restaurants Persist?

The other night a friend and I were eating sushi at a local Media restaurant, Margaret Kuo's on State Street. We had a lot of time on our hands to talk as is typical when you sit at any bar, sushi or otherwise, and our discussion turned to chain restaurants. My friend was particularly perplexed why people would wait two hours to eat at a P.F. Changs instead of some quality Chinese restaurants in the immediate area. P.F. Chang's is trendy and has a nice atmosphere, for sure, but what is the allure of an eating establishment that has no real connection to the area, doesn't compete on price except with other chain restaurants of its caliber and requires long waits on weekend nights? Naturally, I started to think about Wal-Mart and Home Depot and what those stores mean to shoppers and the communities they serve.

Communities resisted the entrance of these Big Box stores vehemently when there appeared the possibility that civic resistance could stem the tide of these "local small business" wreckers. In the end, though, we have all accepted their presence and only squawk occasionally about their treatment and pay of workers. These stores are where we all shop now for hammers, blankets, convenience food, music, toiletries and lumber among other things. And yes, small businesses did close, but for good reason. They couldn't compete on price and selection. This argument doesn't apply, however to chain restaurants.

Chain restaurants like Friday's, Appleby's, Cheesecake Factory, P.F. Chang's and others aren't considered fast food restaurants, but their business model isn't much different. In fact, they have standardized the formula for success so much that once the SYSCO semi pulls away from one, it backs up into the next one 100 meters away in the same shopping center. Ironically, no one protested the entrance of these restaurants over the past 25 or so years. They embraced them with enthusiasm and outright worship. This even though they put many local, good restaurants out of business, but not for the obvious reason; price. Let's face it, these restaurants are no bargain. Additionally, they tend to overfeed you, an unfortunate selling point, and serve food that only appears to be gourmet or 'home-cooked' when, in fact, it's assembled with most of the same ingredients you'd find at cheap hotels and institutions such as schools, hospitals and company cafeterias.

I think the American people have been duped. The same protesters that tried to block Wal-Mart and Home Depot from setting up shop in their communities happily dine at these pseudo-fancy restaurants and measure success by the amount of food they heap on a plate. Unlimited bread sticks, soup and salad anyone? While at the same time the local restaurants which have only improved over the past 25 years as the overall demand for better food has increased, struggle, then wilt, then die. It is our duty to patronize these fine restaurants. By doing so we are supporting our neighbors and communities and not paying any more to do so. Low Prices Always is irresistible to the consumer particularly when the products we purchase are so mundane to our lives. Necessities, if you will. This even goes for food as we seek bargains at supermarkets.

But dining out is a totally different experience for us. For many, it's a special occasion, a treat, a luxury. That's why the big chains don't compete on price. They have dedicated most of their revenue to marketing, location selection, interior decorating and some gimmicky theme. This is duplicated 100's of times, producing economies of scale that bring in big corporate profits. Good for them, but they are killing those local business so many of you cried for when those businesses were pharmacies, hardware stores and lumber yards. No one seems to care if it's the local Italian, Chinese, Mexican or Continental restaurant that goes out of business even though many offer better food, often at a better price and with a personal touch that can't be duplicated by large chains. Taking this to an extreme, have you ever felt special ordering a Big Mac and fries and a McDonalds? I doubt it.

So before you go wait for two hours at P.F. Chang's spending even more money at the bar out of boredom, consider a local eatery. At best, the big chains should be one of many restaurants you choose from when making dinner plans. If you want to save your downtowns, main streets or local neighborhoods, find a new BYOB that's received good reviews from friends and the media and spend your 'two-hour wait' beer money on a couple good bottles of wine, call a couple friends and have a meaningful, intimate dinner for four at your very own community's very own restaurant.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Apple Pie




Recipe Ingredients

Crust

2 1/2 cups all-purpose, unbleached flour
2 sticks / 1/2 pound unsalted butter, cut into small pieces and refridgerated
2 T sugar
1 t salt
ice cold water

Process all dry ingredients until mixed
Add butter and pulse until mixture resembles coarse bread crumbs. Just remember, less is more.
Drizzle into feed tube 1 T of cold water and pulse.
Continue this step until dough begins to gather together and pack along the outside of the processor bowl.
Dump dough onto counter top and divide in two. Smear sections of the dough with the heal of your hand until all dough has been smeared. This creates ribbons of butter throughout the dough and results in flaky crust.
Wrap each half of dough in plastic, flatten into a disc and refridgerate.

Filling

Peel 7 apples and cut all four sides away from core. Discard core.
Slice each chunk into this pieces. The thinner the slice, the more likely the apples will soften as fast or faster than the crust cooks. Don't get carried away, though. 1/8" slices will work fine. Just avoid 1/4" or fatter.
Place in bowl and mix with apples,
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 t vanilla
2 t cinnamon (In video I say 1T, but I think cutting this down to 2t is better. A subjective decision, though. Go with what you like.)
Juice of 1 lemon.
Toss thoroughly.

Remove dough from refridgerator and unwrap.
Place dough on floured surface and flour a rolling pin.
Roll out 1 dough into a circle approx 1/8" thick. Halfway through the rolling, flip over dough to minimize risk of dough sticking to countertop.
Drape dough over 9" pie plate and trim away excess.
Prick bottom of dough several times with fork.
Pour apple mixture into dough-lined pie plate. Apples can mound up higher than top of pie plate, but don't try to pack in too many. The apples will shrink so you don't want too few apples.
Roll out second dough and lay over apples. Crimp top and bottom crusts together.
Cut steam vents into top of dough. Feel free to be decorative when doing this.
Bake pie in oven at 375 degrees for approximately 1 hour.
When you can really smell a delicious apple pie throughout your house and the crust is a beautiful golden brown, the pie is done.
Allow to cool and serve plain or with your favorite vanilla icecream. Garnish with a mint leaf. Enjoy.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Moussaka



Moussaka just out of the oven. Smells as good as it looks!



Recipe (differs in proportions from recipe in video)

Ingredients

3 # eggplant
1 # ground lamb
3 T olive oil
1 yellow onion, peeled and chopped fine
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 T tomato paste dissolved in,
1/2 cup white wine or 1/4 cup white wine and 1/4 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 cup chopped canned whole tomatoes
1 T dried oregano
salt

Bechemel sauce
8T (1/2 cup, 1/4 #) butter
1/2 cup flour
4 cups whole or 2% milk
2 egg yolks (optional)
2 oz kasseri cheese or other gratable mild greek cheese (optional)

Instructions

Trim ends off eggplant and slice lengthwise into 1/2 inch slices.
Sprinkle with kosher salt and set aside in a colander for 1 hour to leech out bitter juices.

Meanwhile,

Heat olive oil in large saute pan and saute onions until softened.
Break up ground lamb into pan and brown, periodically breaking apart large chunks with back of wooden or metal spoon.
Add garlic and stir into meat.
Add tomato paste/wine mixture and saute for 5 minutes.
Add chopped tomatoes, lower heat and allow to simmer for 30 minutes.
Meat mixture should be quite sticky and dry at this point.
Add salt and pepper to taste.
Clean out pan.

Rinse eggplant and layout on paper towels. Cover with another layer of paper towels and press out as much water as possible.
Add 1/4 cup olive oil into pan over medium high heat.
Saute eggplant slices until golden brown on each side, adding oil as necessary. Remove from pan to paper towels to absorb excess oil.

Instructions for bechemel sauce

Heat butter in heavy bottom sauce pan large enough to hold 2 qts of sauce.
Once butter is melted, add flour to make a roux, stirring continuously until flour begins to brown or you can smell the flour cooking. If you want darker bechemel, feel free to brown the flour more to make a darker roux, but this optional.

Pour milk in slowly and stir continuously until all the milk is in pot and the roux is completely dissolved in mixture.

Bring sauce to a slow boil, stirring all the while. Once boiling, lower heat to simmer and stir bechemel until desired thickness is achieved.

Remove from heat and mix 1/4 cup of sauce into the two egg yolks and grated cheese. This will temper the yolks, preventing them from curdling when poured into the rest of the bechemel.

Add tempered yolk/cheese mixture back to sauce in pot and stir constantly with a whisk until cool. Or after mixing, transfer sauce from pot to bowl.

You want to be able to pour the sauce, but you don't want it runny. A consistency similar to runny pudding is a good rule of thumb.

Assembling the dish.

Place alternating layers of eggplant and ground meat into a 8" x 8" dish coated with non-stick spray.
The first and last layer should be the eggplant. This recipe should give you enough for three layers of eggplant and two layers of ground meat.
After finished, pour as much bechemel sauce over the dish as you can without letting it overflow.

Place dish on a foil lined cookie sheet and bake at 375 degrees for approximately 45 minutes. I always judge the doneness of these dishes by smell. Once I can smell the moussaka, I know it is very close to being done. The top will be browned and there will be bubbling along the sides and in the corners.

Allow to cool for 15 minutes and serve directly out of dish with a good crusty bread. Use the bread to mop up you plate.

Credit Card Company Perpetuates French Food Myth

There's a new ad on television and the total premise rests on the misguided notion that fine (read French) dining means tiny portions and patrons leaving the restaurant hungry. The couple in this particular credit card ad looks down at their plates, look up at each other and then run out to a convenience store of all places to load up on a bunch of snack foods. Apparently, it’s just as easy to buy a bag of potato chips with your credit card as it is to pay for a $300 French dinner.

When I dine at a fancy French restaurant, such as Le Bec Fin in Philadelphia, I barely can sample the desserts that are wheeled out on a cart and included with the prix fixé meal in unlimited amounts. The appetizers and entrées at lunch, no less, are exquisitely prepared and presented dishes that taste like they were delivered direct from Paris.

True, you don't get a mountain of pasta or rice with a slab of beef or overcooked boneless chicken breast. Is our goal, though, to feel full from a distended stomach full of carbos? That isn't worth even the price tag at Friday's or McDonald’s for that matter. Why turn a special occasion into another day at the trough no different than any dinner you can prepare blindfolded at home? One goes out to eat, I hope, to enjoy a nice meal, service, atmosphere and company.

Of course, there is always the question of money. Yes, fine dining is an expensive endeavor. For those who can afford it, there is no excuse not to take advantage of it. For those who are a little less flush with cash, I have a few suggestions.

First of all, you can limit dining out so the fewer times you do dine out you can splurge more. Second, learn how to cook a few special meals. Staying at home to eat will become a more enticing option and learning how to cook will also make you a more discriminating restaurant patron. Knowledge is power. Finally, with a little research and word of mouth you can substitute fine for authentic and seek out small ethnic restaurants. You may sacrifice atmosphere and location, but many of the traditional dishes at these restaurants have become the foundation of so many other tony restaurants ‘downtown’.

I don’t begrudge the credit card companies trying to drum up business by getting you to use your plastic more. I just don’t think there is any need for them to perpetuate myths. We must eat for sustenance, but we also eat for pleasure. Discover the true pleasures of eating well and check all of your preconceived notions with your coat and start rediscovering great food.