Archive for January, 2010

Rice-A-Roni Co-creator Judges Ultimate Chef America, Shares Granola Recipe

January 28, 2010

Lois De Domenico knows a thing or two about food.

Lois is the co-creator of Rice-A-Roni, the iconic convenience food remembered around the country as The San Francisco Treat.

That’s why the folks at Brookdale Senior Living, one of the nation’s largest operators of senior living communities in the U.S., asked her to act as a judge for  Ultimate Chef America, a series of cook offs showcasing Brookdale chefs in several retirement facilities around the country this year.

The focus: Healthy cooking for elders. Think Iron Chef for the senior set.

The first event is today in Phoenix and you can watch the competition, which kicks off at 4:30 P.M. MST, right here.

I know Lois will return from Arizona full of stories. She’s a natural storyteller. I know this because for the past year I’ve spent most Thursday mornings interviewing her for a memoir she’s writing for her four children, five grandchildren, and great-grandchild.

It was during one of these sessions that she recounted the story behind the birth of Rice-A-Roni. She first learned the recipe for this pilaf dish (rice, vermicelli pasta, butter, and chicken stock) in 1946.

Then a 19-year-old Canadian immigrant, she had recently married Tommy De Domenico, who hailed from an Italian pasta-making family. The couple rented a large room in a San Francisco apartment from an elderly Armenian, Pailadzo Captanian, who years earlier fled the genocide in her country in search of a better life. They shared a tiny kitchen.

Mrs. Captanian made yogurt, baklava, and chicken soup. And Armenian rice pilaf. Lois learned how to make the pilaf and, to this day, still makes it from scratch. She served up the side dish to the De Domenico brothers of the Golden Grain Macaroni Company, who put it into a box and, with hard work and the help of some pretty savvy marketing, well…the rest is food history.

To hear more about the back story behind the Armenian-Canadian-Italian Treat, listen to an interview with Lois by the Kitchen Sisters as part of their wonderful Hidden Kitchen series for NPR.

A major Bay Area philanthropist, Lois is also an avid yoga practitioner and instructor. Every Monday she teaches a group of women at her home and, later the same day, she holds a class for middle school students at Northern Light School in Oakland, in what she refers to, glowingly, as hands-on philanthropy.

How many other octogenarians can claim such impressive physical feats and second acts?

She credits yoga and a nutritious diet to her continued good health.

And part of her healthy eating regimen involves starting the day with a bowl of homemade granola. Since this is Lois we’re talking about, there’s a story to go with this dish.

I’ll let her tell you the tale in her own words:

“About 40 years ago I was going on a hiking trip and I needed some hiking boots. I went to a store in Berkeley and I sat next to a young girl. Today you’d call her a hippie. Somehow we started talking about food and she gave me her recipe for granola. Well, I’ve been making it ever since and I think it’s about the best granola in the world. It has five kinds of grains and three kinds of nuts, as well as sesame and sunflower seeds, wheat germ, sesame oil, and honey. It’s just delicious.

In 1965 or so I approached Tommy and his brothers with the idea of making this granola at the plant and packaging it as Golden Granola. They said no. They didn’t think it would be a big seller. Well, look how popular granola is now. It wasn’t so well known back then. But I couldn’t convince them to try. I’m not so sure they were right.”

Golden Grain’s loss is our gain. Lois shares her granola recipe below.

What do you think: Did the De Domenico brothers pass up another surefire supermarket success?

Lois De Domenico’s Crunchy Granola

(Note: This recipe reflects revised measurements, updated on January 29, 2010. Lois says she mixes the dry ingredients and stores half in the refrigerator, unbaked, for future use.)

Ingredients:

1 pound rolled oats
1 pound rye flakes
1 pound wheat flakes
1 pound barley flakes

1/2 pound bran flakes
1/2 pound wheat germ

1 pound chopped almonds
1 pound chopped cashews
1 pound chopped walnuts

1 pound sesame seeds
1 pound sunflower seeds

1 cup sesame oil

2 cups honey

Method:

1. Mix grains, seeds, and nuts altogether.

2. Bake in two pans at 300 degrees F for at least one hour, while slowly adding sesame oil and heated honey.

3. Bake until golden brown.

Book Giveaway: Food Rules

January 27, 2010

Does the award-winning, best-selling author Michael Pollan and his new eater’s manual Food Rules need any introduction?

The haiku version: Eat food. Mostly plants. Not too much.

For more on the evolution of Pollan’s latest book, read my recent blog post on Berkeleyside, reprinted yesterday by Civil Eats.

Or tune in today when the good food guru makes an appearance on Oprah, on a show devoted to food issues called, Before You Shop Again: Food 101 with Michael Pollan.

Here’s what I like about this little guide: It’s full of common sense. It’s not preachy or dogmatic.  It’s doable. And it’s all delivered in “cultural blips that stick in your head,” to quote the New York Times Magazine contributor and University of California, Berkeley, professor himself.

Think short, simple, catchy, often funny, nuggets of nutritional wisdom for consumers about consuming:

#18: Don’t ingest foods made in places where everyone is required to wear a surgical cap.

#36 Don’t eat breakfast cereals that change the color of the milk.

My 11 year old read Food Rules over dinner, got it, agreed with most of it, and it got us talking about food and meal times in a different way.

That’s the beauty of this book. It’s just a slip of a thing, a glorified pamphlet really, but it could be the starting point to a healthy, lifelong relationship with food.

Do you have a food rule you think belongs in this guide?

Share your idea for a chance to win an autographed copy of Food Rules.

Alternatively, come up with a different title for this manual. When I hear the word “rules” my rebellious nature kicks in. Why not “pearls” or “gems” or even “wisdom”? Got a better title? Bring it on below.

Comments close at 10 p.m. Pacific Time next Wednesday, February 3. Winner chosen at random.

If you’re stuck for suggestions, here’s a tip: While researching this book, Pollan asked readers of the Times blog the Well to pass on ideas. He got, oh, about 2,784 responses (and counting), some of them quite funny:

Only put one meat on the pizza.

Don’t eat anything bigger than your head.

Never eat sushi from a convenience store.

Don’t buy your food where you buy your gas.

Bonus points if you pass on some kitchen wisdom that makes me laugh.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, what’s Pollan’s guiltiest pleasure?

French fries. But don’t sweat it, he’s got it covered with:

#39 Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.

Update: Apologies for my tardiness in following up on this contest. I was out of Internet range for three days and then felled by illness. But I’m back in the saddle today (sort of) and happy to announce that the randomly chosen winner of Food Rules is Heidi Bokor, #14 of more than 40 entrants. Thanks to all for playing — and for great title suggestions, such as Small Bites and Bites of Wisdom, along with all the food rules folks shared below. Look for future food book giveaways coming soon.

Haiti Bakesale Benefit Update

January 25, 2010

Kudos to Samin Nosrat and her crew for raising $22,421.09 at a bakesale for Haiti in the Bay Area last Saturday.

An outpouring of cupcakes and cash came from professional chefs and home cooks in events held at three community-minded food venues: Pizzaiolo in Oakland, Gioia Pizzeria in North Berkeley, and Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco’s Mission District.

On offer: Sweet treats from current and former chefs of local eateries, including Chez Panisse, Pizzaiolo, Dopo, Oliveto, Lalime’s, Cafe Fanny, Bar Jules, Bacar, and Boot & Shoe Service. Their cakes and cookies got snapped up by folks eager to find a way to help Haitian relief efforts in the aftermath of the recent devastating earthquake.

My son and I stopped by Pizzaiolo.

We said hello to familiar faces, met Samin, and did a little sugar shopping for a good cause.

We chose these saffron cardamom beauties by anand confections. Divine.

Also Ici chocolate chip meringues, Tartine Bakery shortbread, and Bakesale Betty cookies.

And (we shared, honestly) brownies with mint-chocolate chips of unknown origin, and vanilla bean creme brulee baked by Kafe Kevo. Allegedly all good, not that I tasted everything, just reporting back, you understand.

In a quick phone chat today, Samin, who had just picked up a check for Partners in Health, a nonprofit medical aid organization long active in Haiti, expressed gratitude for folks’ contributions, both big and small. She made mention of chef-owner Charlie Hallowell at Pizzaiolo, who kicked in $5,000, which included donated tips from restaurant staff. Samin’s Anusara yoga teacher, John Friend, contributed another $5,000.

Buddy Jennie Schacht mobilized a bunch of Bay Area pastry chefs through the group The Bakers Dozen, and cookbook author Romney (Nani) Steele added her trademark granola to the mix.

At the amateur end, the girls JV Soccer Team at Sacred Heart Preparatory School in San Francisco made dozens of cookies, rice crispies, brownies, and cupcakes “all beautifully wrapped,” Samin says, “with lovely little notes that read: ‘made with love.'”

Samin is not new to cooking or fundraising bakesales. She’s held similar events outside Eccolo, a favorite Berkeley restaurant (now closed) where she worked, and netted about $2,000 to help victims of both Hurricane Katrina and the tsunami in Asia. “I thought they were pretty good takings for a morning’s work,” she says,  “but I’ve been overwhelmed with the display of generosity for the people of Haiti.”

And for Samin, linking fundraising to food is key. “It’s my experience that people really want to help but a lot of people are stuck. They literally don’t know what to do or how to take action,” Samin explains.

“What better way to bring people together than food?  It’s such a natural community builder.”

Do you know of other similar edible fundraisers to help Haiti? Please share your stories below.

Michael Pollan Talks Food Rules in San Francisco

January 23, 2010

Find out what the affable, ethical epicurean had to say today in my post on Michael Pollan for Berkeleyside.

And check back here next week for this month’s book giveaway, a signed copy of Pollan’s Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual.

Fancy Food Show Winter 2010 San Francisco

January 22, 2010

I was a Fancy Food Show virgin. And I wasn’t well prepared. Had only a couple of hours on the last day to do a quick spin through the halls, with a vague notion of sampling whatever took my fancy and then diligently reporting back from the field about hot, new finds.

I failed miserably, mostly due to information and food overload. A few themes emerged. Natural, gluten-free goods out in force. Cheese and chocolate rule. Gussied up, grown-up snacks all the rage.

Sponsored by the National Association for the Specialty Food Trade, a non-profit trade association, the Winter Fancy Food Show in San Francisco’s Moscone Center is a massive marketplace showcasing niche food products. And, yes, we’re talking processed food here, folks.

And large as in 184,00 square feet, 1,300 exhibitors, and 17,000 attendees from 30 countries.  It’s like throwing a Specialty Foods Olympics.

My far-from-thorough list of intriguing offerings, not necessarily hot or new.  Blue cheese from Rogue Creamery, including the rugged sounding Rogue River and Cave Man, Pan Forte Crostini from Rustic Bakery (good with all that cheese), and Secret Stash Sea Salts, with flavors like Almond Cardamon and Bloody Mary.

On the sweet side: Granola from The Bunnery made by a French family in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Happy Goat caramels, made locally with, yep, goat milk, and handmade Belgian chocolates by Rogue Confections (These vintage inspired rounds are almost too beautiful to eat, don’t you think? Almost.)

And to drink: Belvoir‘s elegant, English, elderflower presse.

Some people love trade shows. Me, not so much. What won me over at this event? The international array of people along with their international array of products.

The Italian cheesemakers were adorable with their divine cheeses wrapped exquisitely in grape leaves.

The down-to-earth Aussies gave me good-natured grief, including one who sells quite lovely lemony, gluten-free cookies for the Byron Bay Cookie Company, and another from The Tasmanian Honey Company, who imports honey that tastes and smells like home.

No surprise, the Peruvians serving pisco sours from La Mar knew how to throw a party. And the European women exhibited European chic.

Here’s what else I learned on my maiden voyage:

1. It’s way more fun and educational to attend such events with fellow food folk. Thanks Nani and Dianne for leading the way.

2. You can, indeed, eat too much cheese and chocolate. (Brought to mind that Monty Python skit: ‘Where’s my bucket?”)

3. It’s a trip to go beyond the Berkeley locavore bubble and explore a whole wide world of wonderful food out there, even if we mostly source it close to home.

4. In the end, it’s the people and their pride and passion for what they produce or peddle that you remember, as much as their product.

5. Next year: Be prepared. Have a game plan. Don’t try to taste it all at once — or at least not in two hours.

Serving People, Serving Food, Days of Service: Help Haiti

January 20, 2010

Seem to have a food-related volunteer theme emerging this week. Not my intention but just going to run with it.

If ever there was a time to ignore the imperative Think Global, Act Local, this is it. Don’t you agree?

As I explained to my son on this week’s MLK Day of Service, we’re thinking and acting globally and locally. How can you not help Haiti?

For ideas with a food focus, check out my friend Nani Steele’s blog here or Kim Severson at the New York Times. Or learn more below.

But first, some background. Not a fan of government-initiated calls to duty. It’s my rebellious spirit. Still, the Day of Service I can get behind.

Last year, the event got a huge, historic turnout, fueled by almost-Prez Obama. But we arrived home from a trip Down Under that day, jet-lagged, discombobulated, and, basically, no use to anyone.

This year, I vowed, things would be different. We’d step up and do good.

I’m not new to volunteering. I used to read to kids in hospital when I first landed here. One child, David, was in a coma following a car accident.

Notes above his bed instructed his “book buddies” to read Dr. Seuss, his favorite author. At first it felt odd reading to a kid who couldn’t respond or move. But nonetheless every Monday night I read to that beautiful little boy, even though I doubted he would get better.

Well, of course, he did. I got to enjoy his sweet smile when I tickled him, by request, with a peacock feather. And I was, frankly, a teensy bit devastated when he was moved to a rehab hospital. I never knew what happened to him. He’d be 24 now.

Years later, following another major life change, this time back across the pond to my homeland, I took on another volunteer gig.

I lived in Sydney and taught English to a new mom, who happened to be a former art critic for a Korean daily paper.

I don’t know if her English improved but I know she appreciated contact with a local, chats about journalism, cultural differences, and where to find food from home.

Upon our return to the States I began volunteering in Berkeley public schools, including, as noted previously, at the Edible Schoolyard.

For the record: I’m not some charity groupie with too much time on my hands and no need to, you know, earn a living. On the contrary.

I’m a self-employed writer; code for often anxious, underemployed and underpaid. Major plus: flexible schedule. Mostly works. Except the anxious part, due to under bits.

And honestly folks, it’s not a huge time investment. Less time than most people watch TV in one day. Ninety minutes at Edible; two hours tops if I stay to help with clean up.

This may be my last year in my child’s classroom. What middle school kid wants his parent hanging around? SO EMBARRASSING. And so I am savoring the task assigned by his teacher, a departure from previous years, when I’ve helped small groups of kids with the 3 Rs.

I’m working one-on-one with a child to help improve her comprehension and reading and raise her confidence so she believes she can do both these things. Small success last week had us both jazzed. When it works well, giving feels good on both sides of the equation.

While I know I’m modeling worthwhile values that I hope my son will pursue, I also want him to directly participate in charitable acts.

Back to: What to do on this year’s Day of Service? I got inspiration from an unlikely source, none other than George Bush Jr. Finally heard something come out of his mouth I could agree with: “Lots of people want to send supplies to Haiti. They need money. Just send money.”

So we did. We did the text thing. Took barely a minute, hurt a little (there goes the allowance), and that was our global contribution.

Then we bagged up pantry goods to take to a local food bank, along with a bag of Meyer lemons from our abundant tree. You know that many food banks will take fresh produce, right?

This Saturday, we’ll combine global & local at a bakesale benefit for Haiti, organized by chef Samin Nosrat and hosted at Oakland restaurant Pizzaiolo, which, as you might imagine, makes a mean pizza but also divine donuts. (Two other participating Bay Area locations: Bi-Rite Market in San Francisco and Gioia Pizzeria in North Berkeley. All $$$ goes to Partners in Health.)

Because when all is said and done, it is money that matters most to the people of Haiti right now. Much of that for critical medical care to stave off death. But, equally important, for sustenance to live.

So what better way to funnel money where it’s so urgently needed than connecting cash to another basic human need. To eat. Food.

What say you?

Cultivating Controversy: In Defense of an Edible Education

January 18, 2010

I was so royally peeved by Caitlin Flanagan’s hatchet job on Alice Waters and the Edible Schoolyard in her Atlantic piece “Cultivating Failure” that it’s taken me a week to simmer down enough to write about the matter with some decorum.

The snarky article takes a swing at public school gardens everywhere and it made me choke on my chard for professional and personal reasons.

Thankfully, lots of thoughtful –and less riled up — writers rushed to Alice’s defense — and called Caitlin on her strident screed, which begins with a weird fantasy sequence to set up her story. That’s fantasy folks.

If you missed the whole Flanagan flap last week (what one tweeter dubbed Garden Gate) here’s her thesis in bite-size chunks:

  • Public school gardens enslave kids in back-breaking labor and deprive them of valuable instruction time at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley and elsewhere in the nation.
  • Students would be better served spending an additional 90 minutes in algebra or English class rather than tending tomatoes or cooking carrots.
  • The achievement gap that plagues so many public schools would vanish if only Alice Waters would stay in her kitchen and out of our schools.
  • School kids, especially migrant ones, who dig in the dirt will likely wind up illiterate sharecroppers.
  • Folks in the ‘hood can find healthy food if they really want to (in Compton anyway).

Crazy stuff, huh?

I was appalled by the inaccuracies and false assumptions running through Flanagan’s polemic like water through a colander full of freshly-harvested lettuce.

For well-reasoned rebuttals read what slow food chefs, food policy wonks, garden teachers, and sustainable ag advocates had to say over at Civil Eats, Serious Eats, Grist, ChewsWise, Salon, and La Vida Locavore.

Or check out the self-styled Renegade Lunch Lady, Ann Cooper on her blog. The Atlantic even gave their own Corby Kummer a chance to refute much of Flanagan’s inflammatory rantings. And Ruth Reichl spoke.

Meanwhile, my friend and fellow PTA parent Andrew Leonard, also at Salon, penned the wittiest retort with the most humorous header “Rage against the vegetable garden: Caitlan Flanagan declares war against public school foodie propaganda, exposes evil Alice Waters plot.”

Here’s a taste of what Andrew had to say: “When I dismiss Flanagan’s thesis that the time spent tending vegetable gardens is preventing disadvantaged Berkeley kids from getting the rigorous education that would enable them to successfully reach for the American dream as laughably absurd, I could be accused of having an axe to grind, or at least an organic garden row to hoe.”

While many writers weighed in, I have a unique P.O.V. to add to the mix.

For the past five years I’ve been a volunteer in the kitchen at the Edible Schoolyard. No surprise, then, that on a personal note I was completely offended by Flanagan’s mean-spirited characterizations of those of us who donate our time to the program.

When I moved to Berkeley I didn’t know much about the place, other than it was a gown town with a gourmet ghetto and a population that favored sensible footwear. I chose to get to know my new community by helping out on the school food front and Edible was an obvious place to show up.

Clearly Caitlin hasn’t spent much, if any, time in the Edible kitchen, run by head chef teacher Esther Cook since its beginnings 14 years ago.

But I have.  And I’ve seen a lot of wonderful things take place in that cooking classroom, not least of which is the making of fabulous, school-grown, organic feasts.

Here’s what I’ve witnessed:

  • Kids from diverse backgrounds working together to cook food.
  • Middle schoolers who might not excel in conventional classes discovering other talents such as knife skills or cooking chops.
  • Teenagers discussing everyday events, controversial topics, or answering a thought-provoking question over a shared meal.
  • Students absorbing a healthy dose of curriculum along with healthy food.
  • A whole lot of love. As a cynical reporter, I don’t type those words lightly.

While many kids leave the Edible kitchen classroom with recipes, culinary skills, or a new appreciation for a previously unfamiliar dish or piece of produce, they also receive a warm welcome, respect, attention, hugs, and encouragement from Esther and, until recently, former assistant chef teacher Nicole Thomas. (The very capable chef Joyce Lin-Conrad recently stepped into that slot.)

I’ve stayed as long as I have as a volunteer at Edible in large part because of how Esther and Nicole work that kitchen.

Caitlin got this right: There’s seduction going on in that room but it ain’t Alice Waters who’s doing it. Flanagan argues Alice has an “almost erotic power she wields over a certain kind of educated, professional-class, middle-aged woman (the same kind of woman who tends to light, midway through life’s journey, on school volunteerism as a locus of her fathomless energies.)” Please. Enough. Alice is an icon, so such attacks, however misguided, come with the territory.

For the record, I’ve run into the Chez Panisse founder just a few times at ESY, including when Prince Charles came to call. (I served Alice a bowl of bean soup…the woman was hungry…but that’s another story.)

This is what really put me off my food: Flanagan disses what Esther and the rest of the Edible Schoolyard staff does every day, and she’s never even met these folks.

It’s the day-to-day work of teachers like Esther, along with the garden crew Geoff, Ben, and Jonah, that engages students — and volunteers — in the world of where real food comes from.

By the way, the  folks who donate their time to ESY aren’t mostly like me (middle-class, middle-aged, white-as-whipped-cream women).  Currently I volunteer alongside a keen as mustard male chef, my previous partner was a young, Asian, female student. So much for Flanagan’s stereotypes. And, um, we do paid work too.

Oh, and if Ms. Flanagan had done her research, she would know that though Alice is the most famous figure in today’s school-garden movement she was by no means the first, not even in Berkeley, not by a long shot, to introduce kids to amaranth, sour sorrel, and kale.

Just wrong, wrong, wrong on so many counts Caitlin.

Here’s where I do see eye-to-eye with the contrarian with a capital C: California’s public schools face many challenges. I know this first hand as a parent of a 5th grader in a Berkeley public elementary.

Wanna really find ways to fix this problem? How ’bout addressing more funding, smaller classes, or doing away with the anachronistic three-month summer for starters? But blaming the state’s school woes on Alice Waters and her passion for sustainable produce is just silly.

I do need to thank you, though, Caitlin, for giving me the opportunity to write a long overdue mash letter to my friend and mentor Esther Cook.

And it’s not even Valentine’s Day yet, her favorite holiday, natch.

Cool Cuisine Author Advocates Green Grub to Save Globe

January 14, 2010

Laura Stec combines her passion for the planet with a love of food in her efforts to promote green cuisine — eating healthily and well while treading lightly on Mother Earth.

And she’s got the cred to back up her good intentions.  Laura trained at the Culinary Institute of America, School of Natural Cookery, and (now closed) Vega Macrobiotic Study Center, and did stints at several restaurants before launching her own Bay Area-based personal chef/catering business.

Her green-cuisine clients include Google, Harvard University, Ralph Nader, and the Environmental Defense Fund. Kaiser Permanente Medical Group hired Laura as a culinary health instructor and she’s worked for more than a dozen years with Acterra, a local environmental organization.

Laura believes that we can help our fragile planet by paying attention to what’s on our dinner plates. In classrooms and corporations she educates eaters of all ages on how to make eco-friendly food choices.

Last month’s book giveaway Cool Cuisine: Taking the Bite Out of Global Warming generated lots of entries; I thought readers might like to learn more about the author’s philosophy and how to limit their carbon footprint in the kitchen.

1. What exactly is a cool cuisine?

Cool cuisine reduces your overall impact on the earth’s ecology by using less animal products, processed foods, bottled water, and food and packaging waste, and using more fresh, organic, seasonal, and locally grown foods such as vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.

2. What prompted you to pen Cool Cuisine?

I had an “NPR driveway moment” in 2006, when I heard about a report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, called Livestock’s Long Shadow. I learned that conventionally raised cattle are responsible for 18 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, making livestock a substantial part of the global-warming problem. I couldn’t get out of my car until I heard the whole report.

Then the words, “Global Warming Diet” popped into my head. I ran into the house to Google the term and found only one reference.

3. Many readers already take environmentally-conscious measures on the food front — buying from farmers’ markets, growing their own, composting, recycling, carrying a reusable tote, and eschewing bottled water. What can people do to step it up a notch?

A lot of people are over-educated about this issue and undernourished. By that I mean most people’s culinary knowledge is limited, so I recommend that they focus on learning more about what and how TO eat, such as how to cook different whole grains, instead of getting caught up on what NOT to eat, like eliminating meat from their diet.

Learning techniques such as how to cook vegetables correctly to maximize taste and nutrients, which means keeping water far away from vegetables, so roast, grill, or saute rather than boil or steam, can help increase motivation, satisfaction, health, and culinary joy.

It’s also important to learn how to flavor foods with herbs, spices, artisanal salts, and other seasonings in place of animal fat. And experiment with less common whole grains like quinoa, buckwheat, amaranth, or millet and different cooking methods for these grains, such as baking, toasting, or pressure-cooking.

Stock a condiment plate with seasonings such as toasted sesame oil, nori shakes, nutritional yeast, green Tabasco Sauce–whatever you like. I call a condiment plate salt and pepper with a college education.

4. What’s your biggest eco-unfriendly guilty pleasure?

Travel by airplane.

5. Can you care about the future of the planet and still eat meat?

Absolutely. Hooved animals have a vital role in the health of the environment. I was a vegetarian for 17 years and I basically still am for environmental reasons. I rarely eat meat but I don’t judge others’ choices. I do recommend people cut their meat consumption and buy local, grass-fed, pasture-raised meats and dairy products for their health and the health of the planet.

6. Where do you see hope that we may actually be able to, as you say, take the bite out of global warming?

The average eater is motivated by pleasure. As unfortunate as it is, many of us don’t like being involved in environmental or political issues, but ALL of us like food. Not everyone votes, but everyone eats.

By choosing cool cuisine, people are getting better tasting, more nutrient-dense food, with a side dish of environmental caretaking. Food is a powerful tool. Having said that, people do feel a broader connection to the earth and their role in protecting it these days. Both these things give me hope for our future.

7. Any final advice for folks interested in adopting a cool cuisine approach to eating?

Don’t guilt trip yourself — or anyone else — out of doing things; instead explore cooking and eating in new ways. And “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” wise words from French philosopher Voltaire.

Take small steps when making changes in your diet as you learn what foods you enjoy eating and cooking, two of our most primal human pleasures. Along the way, you’ll get even more satisfaction knowing it’s good for the earth as well. Have fun with it.

Readers: Would you agree?

School Produce Stand Feeds Families in Oakland

January 12, 2010

Care to sample a strawberry or scoop up salad greens for supper when you pick up your child from school?

Since school went back last September you can do just that every Tuesday at Glenview Elementary School in Oakland, California.

Led by garden coordinator and parent Delana Toler, a small core of volunteers — some without kids at the school — work a PTA-initiated produce stand for two hours after classes are dismissed in the front yard of this public school, which serves a diverse group of families in the foothills east of Lake Merritt.

Unlike Windrush School farm stand profiled here previously, Glenview’s goal isn’t to raise school funds by selling produce. Instead, this stand serves simply to educate parents, students, and staff about seasonal, organic fruits and vegetables, and offer such produce at competitive prices, thanks to the generosity of Farmer Joe’s, a natural grocery store in the community, which supplies the stand at close to cost. (The grocer has also donated a greenhouse for the school garden.)

Parent volunteer Mark Halmi mans a tasting table to encourage folks to try unfamiliar produce. Last week Mark sauteed Swiss chard with garlic and raisins; a recent tasting made purple potato converts out of many pupils and their parents.

There’s a free piece of fruit to any child who comes equipped with a reusable tote to take produce home. (The PTA received a grant to distribute a Glenview produce bag, complete with an eye-catching mosaic design, above, to every child in the school.) Last-minute gleaners snap up whatever produce is left after most folks have long gone home.

On a visit last Tuesday I picked up a punnet of raspberries for $3.89 (they currently retail for $6.99 at my local grocer), along with rainbow chard, kiwi fruit, Arkansas black apples, and French fingerlings. Delighted that my son has recently discovered potatoes, these creamy tubers were delicious thinly sliced, sauteed & seasoned.

Depending on the season and the variety of local, organic produce available, Delana spends between $300 and $500 to stock the stand each week. And the better part of her Tuesday is consumed with stand duties.

Delana grew up on a farm in Oregon; pretty much everything the family ate came off their land. She sees the school’s vegetable garden and produce stand as a way for kids in more urban settings, including her daughter Dylan, to connect with food and where it comes from.

On a recent visit one teacher opened a window and called out: “I’m ready for you to take my order.” If principal Deitra Atkins can’t stop by the tasting table a sample is delivered to her office. Parents and kids cruise pass as school gets out with bags in tow.

Glenview is one of 10 farmers’ markets opened this fall in Oakland public schools. The other stands, the result of a partnership between the school district and East Bay Asian Youth Center, are mainly located in low-income areas in so-called “food deserts,” parts of the city in which fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to find, writes reporter Katy Murphy in a recent story for the Oakland Tribune.

What do you think of such programs operating on school grounds? In a week when school gardens in California have come under attack from some pretty snarky quarters, I’m curious to hear what others have to say about schools getting into the business of growing and selling food on campus.

(For a well-reasoned rebuttal to The Atlantic‘s “Cultivating Failure,” penned by the frequently contrarian Caitlin Flanagan, check out this Civil Eats story by slow food chef Kurt Michael Friese.)

Given my background, perhaps I’m biased, but I see tremendous benefits in an edible education and few downsides to feeding kids fresh food.

What say you?

Photos: Joseph Bansuelo

Granola: A Sweet Start to the Day

January 8, 2010

Fresh starts. New adventures. The whole unexplored landscape that is the year ahead. I welcome January, when anything seems possible.

Except, of course, when there’s transition week. Anyone else having a transition week? Come on, you know you are.

I can see it in my son as he struggles to get back in synch with the school schedule. (And not just him; it was tough to return to the early morning, make breakfast, pack lunch, check homework hustle). I can see it in other kids at school as they squirm in their seats during reading or space out during lessons.

I can feel it in myself as I scramble to set up work systems for the year, finish writing projects that didn’t quite get squared away before the holidays, and pitch new stories for 2010.  All in a week when the Los Angeles Times reports that the freelance writer’s life is in dire straits.

But right now, just for today, I refuse to give in to doom, gloom, and ennui. It’s a new year. Ripe with potential. Let’s begin at the beginning.

And where else to start but breakfast, that first meal of the day? I’m a big fan of brekkie, though I’ve yet to embrace the au courant trend of eating lunch or dinner foods first thing in the morning.

Good luck to all those folks who chow down on pho, pizza, or korean barbecue for breakfast, that stuff leaves me cold when I’m still shuffling around in my slippers. For my money, granola makes a great early morning, gotta-hightail-it-out of the house breakfast.

Discovering granola after growing up with sawdusty muesli ranks high on my list of culinary discoveries in my move from Sydney to San Francisco. Some sniff that granola is just a fat-, calorie-, sugar-laden treat, but it’s got serious hippie pedigree: old-fashioned oats, nuts, and dried fruit, along with maple syrup or honey and oil or butter.

Of the grocery store granola offerings, I’m partial to local, handmade, unfussy Cafe Fanny Granola, and Partners Gourmet Multigrain Granola, which comes in toasty chunks of nutty-grainy goodness.

My boy likes the Arrowhead Mills Breadshop Organic Vermont Maple Granola and, ever since I attended a granola tasting hosted by 18 Reasons, he’s become obsessed with the exxy and excellent 18 Rabbits Gracious Granola with pecans, coconut, and pumpkin seeds. (It was one of his fav stocking stuffers.) He likes to fix a bowl for dessert.

In our house, we prefer our granola served with yogurt; it makes for a pretty parfait, layered in a long glass with berries adding visual zing along with vitamins. And while some cafes serve their granola sprinkled on top of a generous mound of yogurt, we like to layer granola, yogurt, and fruit in equal measures. How ’bout you?

Everyone’s got an opinion about the best tasting granola on the market; for a comparison of other commercial brands check out this Serious Eats review. And feel free to let me know yours.

Truth is, though, it’s easy and cheaper to make your own granola and custom it to suit your palate. You can often significantly lower the amount of sweetener in recipes, I’ve found, without sacrificing flavor.

When I’m not feeling lazy, I make the Crunchy Fruity Granola from Mollie Katzen‘s Salad People cookbook, a simple, satisfying recipe popular with kids in the cooking classes I’ve taught.

Recently, I sampled a delicious batch of granola, recipe to follow.

But first, the back story.

I am fortunate to have a good friend, also a fellow freelancer, who covers the travel beat. Specifically, healthy, eco-travel on her blog Health * Conscious * Travel, mostly geographically centered in the Wine Country.

To do her job, my pal Melanie Haiken has the tiresome task of checking out high-end spas and resorts which she then writes about for her readers. Someone has to do it, right?

She visits said spas and resorts as a perk of the profession, and she’s often invited to bring a guest, known in the biz as a “plus one”. Do you know how delightful it is to be the plus-one person? You enjoy all the facilities without having to take the hard-hat tours or copious notes. And, if you’re lucky, you might eat some very good granola.

That’s exactly what happened recently when we stayed at the ultra-sleek Hotel Healdsburg, where we enjoyed a room with a super groovy green-tiled bathroom and — full disclosure coming — a comped breakfast that included granola that made us both happy.

It’s concocted by the chefs at the Dry Creek Kitchen, adjacent to the hotel. They graciously agreed to give me their recipe so I’m sharing the swag with my readers.

It’s very moreish. As in you’ll want to eat more of it. Trust me.

Let me know if you agree — or if you have your own granola recipe you want to add to the mix. Enjoy.

Dry Creek Kitchen Granola

Ingredients:

6    cups    oatmeal
2    cups    sliced almonds
½    cup    pecan pieces
½    cup    walnut pieces
½    cup    peanuts
½    cup    shredded coconut
1    tbl        ground cinnamon
1 ½ tsp     salt

¼   cup   brown sugar

½   cup   honey

4    oz       butter

½  cup    maple syrup

Method:

1. Combine first 8 ingredients in a bowl.

2. Melt brown sugar, honey, butter & maple syrup in a pot.

3. Mix until well combined.

4. Pour over dry ingredients and toss until everything is coated.

5. Spray a sheet tray with non-stick coating.

6. Spread granola evenly on sheet tray.

7. Bake at 300 degrees F for approximately 30 min.

8. Toss granola every 10 min.

9. Bake until golden brown and all moisture has evaporated.

10. Continue to toss granola as it cools to avoid large clumps.

Photo: Courtesy Dry Creek Kitchen