Archive for March, 2010

Lettuce Eat Kale Celebrates First Birthday

March 31, 2010

Humor me here, dear readers, as I take a moment to look back on a year of lettuceeatkale.

Can you believe 12 months have passed — give or take a day or so  — since my first post?

LEK has gone from birth to barely sitting up, to crawling and walking. No night terrors along the way. Just one post shy of 100 and over 1,000 comments.

Slowly but steadily I’m building an audience for my musings on school foodkids and cooking, urban homesteads and growing greens.

As well as posts on food in books, films, politics, on the street, and in our homes. Food foraging, food justice, frugal food folk — all here as well. And giveaways too. And a bunch of other stuff.

Fittingly, yesterday I saw my traffic reach it’s highest numbers yet. I suspect my post on Jamie Oliver might have had something to do with that. Timely and all. My pieces on choosy chowhounds and lunchbox suggestions have been popular. So was my defense of Alice Waters against unfair attacks in The Atlantic.

But sometimes there’s no rhyme or reason to which blog offerings attract a following. Musings on granola, favorite food films, and how to be a good dinner guest generated a wave of interest. Go figure. (‘Fessing up to food indiscretions, on the other hand, people eat that stuff up.)

I’ve had fun writing about my friends, making new ones in the food and blogging world, and meeting food folk doing worthy, interesting, and downright groovy things.

Since I started this online experiment I’ve been asked to contribute to the food politics blog Civil Eats and the hyper-local site Berkeleyside.

I’ve received kudos for posts on persimmons, growing the next generation of chefs, and professionals who pursue their culinary passions after hours, among other subjects, over at Food News Journal.

The New York Times Bay Area Blog even had nice things to say about me.

Enough horn tooting. I’m sure some of my posts have missed the mark but let’s not talk about those today.

Today, we celebrate. You can start singing now.

Coming this year for Lettuce Eat Kale:

  • My own hosted site. Honestly. Truly. Any day now. Just you wait and see. You’ll be the first to know I promise.
  • A Lettuce Eat Kale Facebook Fan Page (Mostly so my professional friends don’t have to wade through photos of my kid to get to the food stuff.)
  • A six-figure book deal, movie contract, and my own reality TV show. Doubtful. Just making sure you were paying attention.

Now it’s your turn. I’d like to hear (I think) what you have to say about this site. Why you come here, what you’re looking for, what you like, what’s missing, or what you want to see more of.

Not fishing for compliments here (though I’ll happily, and hopefully graciously, accept them) just want to spend some time mulling over how my baby might look a year from here, with a little help from my friends.

Blowing out the candle now…

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What’s On Your Plate? Food for Thought for All Ages

March 31, 2010

While we’re on the subject of kids, school, and food this week, here’s a shout out for a film I’m going to have to find room for on my top ten food documentaries list.

What’s On Your Plate? features two New York City middle school students, Sadie Rain Hope-Gund and Safiyah Kai Russell Riddle, taking viewers on a food tour that’s as entertaining as it is educational as they set out on a mission to figure out where their meals come from.

The 76-minute film is part of the current Whole Foods Let’s Retake Our Plates film series and has run on Discovery Channel’s Planet Green. Click here for screenings and watch a trailer here.

This doco is directed by veteran social justice film-maker Catherine Gund, mom to one of the budding food activists. The dynamic diet-conscious duo spend a year in front of the camera as they explore their place in the food chain, and ask questions about where the food they eat comes from, how it’s grown, and how far it travels from the farm to their fork.

Pitching this flick to a Hollywood agent you’d sum it up as two urban Nancy Drews meets Food, Inc., as The Atlantic did.

The girl guides talk to friends, family, food activists, farmers, food sellers — and each other — as they investigate issues around health, environment, nutrition, food security, and access. The interviews with politicians and public school food officials are classic. The break beat poet is fresh and funky.

It’s packed with so many teachable moments in bite-sized bits that I suspect it will engage many kids in a conversation about eating. And the tone is matter-of-fact and non-judgmental. We learn Sadie has genetically-linked high cholesterol controlled by diet, and that Safiyah’s family is vegetarian.

On a recent tour of a middle school in my neck of the woods, I saw a sign for a class called “What’s On Your Plate?” and I wonder if it’s based on the film’s 64-page companion curriculum guide on school food, health and access, and local food. (It’s spring break in Berkeley this week, so I can’t confirm).

I hope so. What’s On Your Plate? is a terrific teaching tool, told in the cadence of 11-year-old kids. Pretty savvy and sophisticated multi-racial city kids with deep connections on the food front. But kids nonetheless. Concepts like high fructose corn syrup get equal billing with a popular edible food-like product known as Funyuns.

The film works best when we meet people the tweens find organically. Like the folks who front the CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) in their area, the Latino Angel family farmers, who struggle to make a living on the land in upstate New York, and the school dad who had a heart attack that proved a wake-up call for his family’s eating habits.

I was less jazzed to see the typical talking heads of the good food movement. But I’m a somewhat jaded adult and many kids won’t know Anna Lappe and Bryant Terry, both of whom, to be fair, bring important ideas to the table.

The film ends, fittingly, with a wrap party where food plays a central role. There’s even cute animation and cool music too.

Less scary than Food, Inc., less sensational than Food Revolution, and less sad than both these edible exposes, What’s On Your Plate? does what children have always done best. It offers hope, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.

Who knew you could grow raspberries in a window box in Manhattan?  You can! The kids even help the Angel family organize a CSA to fund the farm. Clearly, the youngest generation of edible entrepreneurs can bring about change in their communities.

A good choice for family movie night, I’m looking forward to watching it with my own 11 year old. I know he’s going to love that school science experiment involving marshmallows, walnuts, and those Funyuns.

Playful, positive, personal, and political without being preachy, What’s On Your Plate? is worth watching. So kudos to the kids and the movie-making mom, who made a wise decision to let the children tell the story.

Photos: Courtesy Aubin Pictures

Jamie Oliver: School Food Revolution or Reality TV Rubbish?

March 29, 2010


It’s time to talk about the Limey lad’s Appalachian invasion.

Unless you’ve had your head in a school lunch garbage bin for the last week surely you know Brit wonder boy Jamie Oliver has landed on American shores to save our children from the food we feed them.

The kind of food mind, the mopped-topped megastar tells us, that is killing our kids — or at least leading them to an early grave.

In case you missed him on Oprah, Letterman, or Hockenberry, Jamie jetted into Huntington, West Virginia, to film Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution for ABC. (You can catch the first two episodes on Hulu.)

The six-part series is a hybrid of two similar programs Oliver fronted in England, Jamie’s School Dinners and Jamie’s Ministry of Food, the former resulted in sweeping school lunch reform, though even the mastermind himself admits it’s not yet a resounding success.

Stylistically the shows couldn’t be more different, if reflective of their respective cultures. Think British public television documentary versus American network TV reality pap. Food Revolution is produced by American Idol‘s Ryan Seacrest.

Why West Virginia? Two years ago Huntington got gonged as the country’s unhealthiest area, courtesy of CDC data. That means fattest. Let’s not sugar coat things, most obese, and sickest on such measures as heart disease and diabetes. But Huntington is just the first stop in Oliver’s national nutrition mission. He wants nothing short of radical reform on Americans’ plates.

The celebrity chef favors fresh food from scratch or stripping food down to its bare essentials, as he likes to say, (hence his Naked Chef nickname), versus reheated edible food products. (Did you see the footage of the packaged “mashed potato pearls” served at school? Scary stuff.)

His premise is, as you might expect, a simple one. If you teach people to cook a handful of dishes, you’ll get them hooked on healthy eating.

Locals chafe at the TED prize award-winner‘s campaign for change. The cultural disconnects are cringe worthy. The thirtysomething refers to the middle-aged school cafeteria staff as “lunch ladies,”  “darlin'” and “sweetheart”. Jamie is gobsmacked that school kids eat pizza for breakfast. For breakfast! And aren’t given knives and forks to eat their food at lunch. Those American barbarians!

Here’s what I know: The show is entertaining, if scripted, garnered good ratings, and generated big buzz. It’s prime fodder on foodie listservs, such as the Association for the Study of Food and Society‘s, where one academic wag likened canned and processed food to masturbation. (“It’s easy, convenient and gets the job done….but I’m guessing most people, given the opportunity, would prefer the messy, complicated, time-consuming, delightful option of the real thing.”)

But I digress. Stripped of its sensationalism, Food Revolution is simply sad. There’s the pastor flicking through photos of townsfolk he’s buried prematurely due to dietary decisions. There’s the super-sized family fueled only on fat-fryer food. There are school kids who eat chicken nuggets for lunch AND dinner and can’t identify ANY fresh vegetables when Jamie quizzes them in class.

Here’s what I’m not sure of: Once Oliver wings his way home to his own family, will his food revolution make any difference to those he set out to help Stateside? Or will things stay the same here while the self-described hyperactive, dyslexic chef jumps to his next pet project under the umbrella of his multimillion dollar international food emporium?

Here’s what I want to find out: What do American school food advocates such as, oh, I don’t know, Michelle Obama, Alice Waters, and Ann Cooper, for starters, think about a foreigner getting his hands dirty in the American school food debate?

Debra Eschmeyer of the National Farm to School Network noted in a recent Civil Eats story that absent from Food Revolution to date is any acknowledgment of the homegrown edible educational experiments happening around the country. Responding to such criticism, the program’s producers have encouraged viewers to share video of local food heroes here.

Few can argue with the fact that Jamie is cooking up trouble at a critical time.  Congress is considering legislation to toughen rules that regulate school lunch and increase funding for better food. The First Lady just launched her Let’s Move initiative. A school teacher in middle America is garnering gobs of interest for her blog documenting the horrors of U.S. school lunch.

Jamie Oliver reminds me a bit of another successful British TV export. Bob the Builder anyone? Parents may recall the plucky truck driver’s catchphrase: Can we do it? Yes we can!

So, what say you readers: Can the cheeky British chef take on American agribusiness behemoths whose food products fill school freezers across this great land and tackle Byzantine government bureaucracy that threatens to stymie school lunch reform — not to mention address most Americans’ undying love affair with fast food?

Will Jamie Oliver win the Battle of the Bulge?

And can the school food revolution be televised?

Stay tuned.

A Culinary Confession

March 23, 2010

I blame Bakesale Betty.  If the blue-haired Aussie-American Alison hadn’t lured me into her store with lamingtons and sticky date pudding I would never have succumbed to the charms of her legendary fried chicken sandwiches, which cause perfectly sane people to line up on Telegraph Avenue in North Oakland. For a sandwich. I kid you not.

It also doesn’t help that Bakesale Betty is on my way home from my editing gig and I’m often ravenous as I drive by, doing a quick scan to see if there’s 1. a line snaking down the street or 2. any parking.

If the parking gods and queue karma are on my side, I’m in and out with one of her sandwiches before you can say hello hypocrite.

Let me explain. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 17, when I gave up meat in what my mum, a good cook, viewed as just another one of my rebellious teenage acts. Despite growing up in a meat-loving land, where the backyard barbie rules, I became a greens and legumes kinda gal.

For more than a quarter of a century, I lived the veg life. To be precise, I guess I’m technically a pescatarian, as I sometimes eat seafood. Especially in my hometown, Sydney, because — news flash — fabo fish to be had Down Under peeps.

So how to explain the recent chicken sandwich obsession? What can I say? I think I’m having a middle-aged meat crisis. Some 20 years ago I introduced the man who would become the father of my child to the virtues of a vegetarian diet. Hell, I married him at Greens. My 11-year-old kid has never, ever eaten an ounce of animal flesh.  (His choice. I’m no zealot.)  My blog is called — duh — Lettuce Eat Kale. I’ve watched Food, Inc. I frequent farmers’ markets. You get the idea.

I should be a poster girl for a pro-produce life.

And yet…a couple of years ago around a certain time in my cycle I began craving protein. No worries, fish usually did the trick. Then I started to slip a bit when sharing food at ethnic restaurants around town. Chicken raised with love, care, good feed, and bucolic views began to find its way into my mouth. What the heck was happening?

I wasn’t sure, but I suspected hormones played a role. I also knew I wasn’t dealing with this particular omnivore’s dilemma on my own.  My friend Connie was a vegetarian — until she got pregnant with her first kid 16 years ago. Then it was off to the steak house for her and she’s never looked back.  My dance instructor, Amara Tabor-Smith, eschewed animal protein for decades — she didn’t like the texture — and is now tentatively getting reacquainted with meat.

I’d always assumed, along with many others I suspect, that vegetarian cookbook superstars Deborah Madison and Mollie Katzen didn’t eat meat. Not so, I discovered in the past year during chats with both chefs. Mollie describes herself as a “meat nibbler,” and Deborah’s not opposed to the occasional piece of grass-fed, local beef.

Their most recent books, Get Cooking by Mollie, and What We Eat When We Eat Alone by Deborah, include meat recipes. Still, both women favor a diet where greens, grains, and legumes dominate the dinner plate.  Mollie supports the Meatless Monday campaign and both believe most meat eaters would do well to eat less animal and more plant foods.

Eating meat after years — or even a lifetime — of a solely plant-based diet seems to be something of a trend. For people who chose vegetarianism for ethical or environmental reasons, sourcing meat sustainably is now often a viable alternative to factory-farmed animals, and so some have decided to include it sparingly in their diet.

(Bucking this seemingly female shift, is wonder boy writer Jonathan Safran Foer, who dabbled with vegetarianism for years but fully committed after he became a pet owner. He will probably convert masses to the cause with his description of chicken fecal soup and other horrors of industrial animal slaughter in his recent book, Eating Animals.)

In this confusing time, I feel I’ve found a kindred spirit in Tara Austen Weaver, the warm and witty writer who blogs about meat and many other food matters at Tea & Cookies.  I can so relate to the mental tug-of-war that underlies her recent book The Butcher and the Vegetarian: One Woman’s Romp through a World of Men, Meat, and Moral Crisis.  Tara didn’t have a choice in her vegetarian childhood — she was raised that way by a Northern California hippie mama.

Several years ago, she started exploring eating meat for health reasons.  Her descriptions of buying, prepping, and cooking meat resonate with me because I haven’t actually ever gone and purchased a chicken or, um, chicken bits and made dinner. That notion makes me feel nauseous, to be honest. I don’t even like looking at raw meat.

I know, I know, I’m the worst kind of turncoat. I leave the house to get a bit of hot flesh on the side. When my son stopped by home unexpectedly the other afternoon, I found myself hiding aforementioned cluck, cluck sandwich before opening the door. Clearly, I have some conflicted feelings about my dietary changes.

So what to call myself: A lapsed vegetarian?  A vegetarian who cheats?

I thank the funny Adair Seldon of Lentil Breakdown for introducing me to the term flexitarian, which seems to fit for now, loathe as I am to saddle myself or anyone else with a label.

For the record, I seem to have no desire to move on to “harder” meats, like beef, pork, or lamb.  (An aside: Why isn’t it cow, pig, and sheep? I suspect it’s a way for many of us to remain in denial about where meat actually comes from.) Speaking of denial: No pics of meat in this post! The hypocrisy continues.

And I’ve never had any interest in eating creatures I see on hiking trails such as ducks, rabbits, quail, deer, elk, and the like. But since chicken is becoming a somewhat regular fix (once or twice a month), I’ve learned never to say never.

My vegetarianism stemmed in part, from my inability to kill an animal, hence my healthy respect for folks like Novella Carpenter, who don’t flinch at taking responsibility for ending the life of an animal they’ve raised for food. I feel cowardly in the carnivore arena by comparison.

Penning this post has probably blown my chances of ever writing for Vegetarian Times or VegNews (though I do think this topic is one such mags would do well to cover.)

But you won’t find meat recipes on this blog, although I’m sure some veggies will unsubscribe in disgust at my wishy-washy vegetarianism.

That would be a shame. Because I am still the girl who obsesses about eating greens. Nothing makes me happier than a meal packed with produce. I am, to borrow a term Mollie Katzen used in a recent Civil Eats story, very much a pro-vegetable person, a vegetabilist.

And I view healthy eating in much the same way I see sexuality.  In my mind, most humans are basically bisexual, it just depends where on the spectrum you fall in terms of how you define your sexual orientation.

Similarly, we’re probably all on an omnivore continuum, with some of us falling firmly on the carnivorous end and others of us way down on the other end of the line very much in vegetarian or even vegan territory.

In the end, come dinner time, it’s a personal choice what we put on our plate and the justifications we make with ourselves and our sometimes contradictory culinary choices are our own to live with as we figure out our place on the food chain and what our bodies need to stay well.

I welcome your thoughts below.

How to Host a Dinner Party so Everyone Enjoys It

March 17, 2010

Who knew that a post on a drunken dinner guest would garner so much attention — and elicit both hilarious horror stories and great tips?

Several readers, including regular Ruth Pennebaker, suggested that a host has responsibilities as well to ensure an enjoyable evening for all.

Below, find advice gleaned from regular dinner-party throwers, etiquette experts, and personal experience.

(Note: It’s never a good idea to put your hand in the blender while it’s still running, no matter how much of a hurry you’re in to make the pesto before the guests arrive.  Even if these guests are family, trained nurses, don’t mind staunching the blood flow, or checking to see if stitches are needed. I still have the scar as a memento from this night when I was, indeed, the high-maintenance host.)

Think of these suggestions as hints from Henry, not Heloise. And, as always, feel free to add your own. Here’s to stress-free entertaining.

1. Relax. Easier said than done, my anxious self knows, but no one really wants to spend an evening with a friend who is freaking out about what’s going wrong in the kitchen. Truth be told, it’s the pleasure of your good company — undistracted and attentive — your posse crave, not so much what you’ve got cooking.

2. Give the guest list careful consideration. Do we even need to go there? (See post on this subject for details.) I so appreciate Sean Timberlake’s sound advice on this score. Here’s what the man who writes a food blog called Hedonia, for heaven’s sake, and frequently flings open his doors to diners, has to say about a good guest mix:

For a dinner party of 8, we generally include one couple from our regular rotation (our “anchors,” we call them) who can help set a tone of familiarity; a second couple with whom we’ve socialized but perhaps not entertained frequently; and a final couple who are relative if not total newcomers, but whom we feel would be a good match. And we insist that couples not sit next to each other. This makes for a fun dynamic.

I would add: Think beyond couples; singletons like to eat too. And pay attention to balance. A dinner party consisting of work buddies talking shop all night may not induce yawning, but too many friends prattling on about one aspect of your life can get a wee bit tedious for those who don’t share your passion for stamp collecting. I’m just saying.

3. Plan ahead. Give some thought to menu, guests dietary constraints, shopping, and house tidying a day or two before your dinner. Then you can spend the day of focused on prepping and cooking, thus having a better chance of achieving #1 status. Commonsense, yes, but how many of us have waited until the last minute to figure out what to make, realized an ingredient isn’t on hand at the 11th hour, or recoiled in horror at what’s growing in the loo and run off in search of the toilet brush right before the guests are due to arrive?

4. Keep kitchen time to a minimum. That’s especially true if this room is cut off from the rest of your home and there’s nowhere for guests to hang out and chat with you while you whip up a souffle or whatever you’ve got going on.  Of course, completely ignore this advice if the whole point of your dinner party is to cook together with friends. In such cases, I appreciate having a job (anyone who knows me will tell you I’m an obsessive veggie chopper), if the host is the kind of casual soul who’s comfortable with her guests helping out.

5. Think simple. I’m the type who likes to prep and cook as much as I can before anyone even sets foot in my door. I like order, quiet, and concentration when I’m cooking. It helps me reach that #1 state. If you’re the sort who can whip up an eight-course meal while yakking away with your pals without getting flustered, good for you. And where’s my invite? For the rest of us, a couple of courses, one-pot dishes, even accepting an offer from a guest to bring salad or dessert is perfectly acceptable.

6. Save the experiments for later. As a general guide, a dinner party is usually not the time or place to try a new recipe. It can be hard to aspire to that #1 state when you start flirting with disaster with an unfamiliar dish. Know what I’m saying? Anyone?

7. Pace yourself. Learn from the pesto incident. Give yourself ample time to cook. Leave yourself a window in which to shower, dress, or even take a minute to chill before the doorbell rings. You don’t want to be worn out when your guests arrive.

8. Designate a wing (wo)man. No host need go it alone.  Solicit your partner or a fellow guest (save this task for close friends).  Check in ahead of time so this person knows it’s his/her job to freshen drinks, clear clutter, include an introvert in the banter, or whatever else you think you’ll need help with over the course of the evening.

9. Set the tone. Introduce guests, offer drinks and nibbles, and get the conversation started. Once things start flowing you can attend to last-minute details.  Hosts who fret about the food or the red wine stains on the white carpet don’t put guests at ease. Remember, it’s just stuff.

10. Have fun. No one wants tension over the table. The best thing you can do to ensure everyone has an enjoyable evening is to have fun yourself. Be your gracious, good self and people will have a good time, which, after all, is what throwing a dinner party is all about.

Professionals by Day Pursue Culinary Arts by Night

March 12, 2010

This is the first in a series of occasional posts profiling people with regular day gigs who pursue their culinary passions after hours.

This week, two Bay Area men who hold down demanding day jobs and craft high-end sweet treats in their down time.

Meet Anand Chokkalingam, UC Berkeley professor by day and chocolatier by night.

This cancer epidemiologist pursues his passion for high-end confections in his off hours and puts his scientific sensibilities to sweet use by hand-crafting artisanal chocolates with top-notch ingredients. He says the skills he brings to his day job — scientific rigor, preciseness, attention to detail — also stand him in good stead in his chocolate-making operation.

Anand is a Sanskrit word that refers to a state of pure joy and divine bliss, which is an apt description of Anand Confections.

Parlaying a fondness for making sweets into a chocolate following that started by word-of-mouth, Anand’s small-batch business got a boost last December when Town & Country paired one of his exotic candies with a tawny port.

This writer discovered his inspired offerings at a recent bakesale benefit for Haiti. Anand enjoys playing with flavors from his Indian heritage, which give his concoctions their signature tastes, such as cardamom and saffron, and Darjeeling tea.

He cites legendary local chocolatiers Michael Recchiuti of San Francisco and Alice Medrich of Berkeley as early influences on his own creations.

Anand, 37, concedes it’s tough to find extra time to devote to his nascent chocolate business. A father of two young children, early on his wife set ground rules around how many hours he could spend in the kitchen to protect both his health and family time. These included not working past 1 a.m. more than three times a month during high production times, such as in December’s busy holiday period, when he made some 5,000 pieces, each one cut by hand. They sold out.

And it’s also a family affair: His youngest daughter is a taste tester; his school-age child likes to help in the production process. His wife helps with all aspects of the business. Family and friends lend a hand during peak production times. Sometimes, like prior to Valentine’s Day this year, traditionally a chocolate makers prime retail period, life and work intervened and scaling up production just wasn’t possible.

Anand is mulling over what business model could work well with his current life. He’s toying with the idea of a chocolate club, similar to a wine club, shipping his tasty tidbits to subscribers every month or two. That way he could have some control over the hours he devotes to his chocolate obsession, experiment with new flavors, and continue to enjoy his craft. Currently his confections are available online.

“I love working with my hands and the sense of order I feel creating chocolates,” he says. “My desire to create sweets trumps everything else in the kitchen.”

Read more about Anand in my Berkeley Bites column today over at Berkeleyside.

During a routine business day Michael Winnike works long hours as a paralegal specializing in patent law for top San Francisco firm Fenwick and West.  Off the clock, the 26-year-old churns out goat milk caramels under the Happy Goat label.

These unique goodies with all natural ingredients were a big hit at the recent Fancy Food Show in San Francisco and can be found in upscale confectionery stores around the Bay Area and beyond. Happy Goat caramels are also available online.

“I fell in love with goat milk as a confectionery ingredient. It elevates a simple treat into something more complex and savory,” says Michael, who lives in San Francisco’s Mission District and describes himself as the founder and chief executive goat of his fledgling business.

Another self-taught sweet chef, he began focusing on his cooking hobby about three years ago after falling for a friend’s sheep milk truffles. He started gearing up on the goat milk caramel front about a year ago.

Michael and his partner Kyle Pickering (he calls himself a strategy dork by day and director of marketing, media, and, ah, braaaaanding by later that day) have outsourced the making of their tangy treats to keep up with demand. But Michael still presides over the batches of bubbling caramel to ensure quality control. By year’s end he says he hopes the caramels will be available in 100 stores nationwide.

Michael admits that being single and unencumbered helps with his second job, as he’s free to keep his own schedule with little time for extracurricular activities. It’s not uncommon for him to quit his “day job” around 10 p.m. and then work in the kitchen until 2 a.m. on Happy Goat business.

He doesn’t hide his budding after-hours business from his employer as he’s careful to make sure one doesn’t interfere with the other.  And he reaps the rewards of making tempting morsels at his workplace. “Sure, it can be tiring, but I get a lot of pleasure out of creating these delicious indulgences — and my coworkers love them.”

[Photo Anand Chokkalingam: Radha Seshagiri. Photo Anand Confections: Guy Poole. Photo Goat Milk Caramels: Courtesy of Happy Goat.]

Dinner Guests: What Makes a Good One?

March 10, 2010

Regular readers of this space may recall that my New Year’s resolution was to host more dinner parties. Heck, host a dinner party. Check.

We’re talking a casual soiree with an interesting mix of adults around a table dining, wining, conversing, laughing, and generally having a convivial time of it.

That was the idea. Let’s just say that it didn’t prove to be the reality for my first attempt at dinner party fun in 2010 and leave it at that, okay?

How boring. Let’s not.  Where to begin? It started with a health scare, cold feet, a dropped dessert, a man shortage, and angst on my end when I realized I’d be feeding three really good cooks, one of whom showed up almost an hour late (to be fair she did call), thus seriously messing with the meal timing.

So by the time all my guests arrived I was just grateful that this group of women made it to my house.  And I had a hunch they’d all like each other and hoped they’d overlook any deficiencies on the food front and we’d all just have a good time.

My mistake. The latecomer asked if she could bring a friend. Feeling generous and in the spirit of growing community I said yes.

Here’s the kicker, and there’s no way to sugar coat it: The ring-in showed up absolutely hammered. Who does that?

We’re not talking tipsy and chatty, we’re talking unable to see straight, about to pass out in the plate, please-don’t-throw-up-at-my-dinner-table kind of plastered.

It was uncomfortable and awkward, with my confused friends wondering why I would invite such an inebriated soul to my home for dinner.

I’d like to say I went all Miss Manners and ignored the situation. That would be a lie. I had a brief, terse exchange in the kitchen with my friend who’d brought the offending guest. I said something compassionate and understanding like: “What the %##& were you thinking?”

After devouring almost all the hand-made toffees (but who’s counting?), burping several times at the table (truthfully, yes), and announcing she didn’t feel well (oh, no!), my friend had the good sense to skedaddle out the door with her woozy, boozy buddy in tow. (To be fair, she apologized repeatedly the next day for her friend’s inappropriate behavior.)

Their departure was followed by a sigh of relief, much giggling, and, natch, a discussion about what had just transpired.

Here’s what we learned from the experience: More than food, music, and mood lighting the most important ingredient to a successful dinner party is the guest list.

I’m not the only one in my circle who has had misadventures at the table. At a recent dinner hosted by a friend we’d both tried to redirect conversation when a couple who were a tad boorish talked about themselves a little too much.

While such mishaps make for good blog fodder, we’d all like to avoid such scenarios again.

So my friend and I started mulling over what makes a good guest — aside from arriving without too much alcohol on board.

Here’s our list:

1. RSVP. Do let your host know in plenty of time that you’re delighted to attend her dinner party. Not responding makes meal planning tricky and can hurt feelings.

2. Arrive on time. That means not too early and not too late. As a guide, if you’re asked to come at 7, then, ah, 7 is good. Later than 7:15 and you should call. Earlier than 6:50 expect to find your host scurrying around in her skivvies doing final prep and be prepared to fix your own drink and amuse yourself for a few minutes.

3. Bring a hostess gift. And choose something that doesn’t make work for the hostess. Wine, chocolates, homemade preserves, are all lovely. Flowers are also fine but offer to arrange them, as my friend did, while your host is busy with the business of looking after her guests. Or drop them off the next day as a thank you gift.

4. Offer to help. Dinner parties = lots of dishes so be prepared to pitch in. But do take no for an answer from folk who like to control clean up in their own kitchen.

5. Explain dietary restrictions in advance. Even if your host forgets to ask she’d much prefer to know ahead of time if you’re a lactose-intolerant, gluten-free, vegan, who shuns root vegetables and has a nut allergy. Honestly. She really, really, really wants to know this stuff before she plans her menu.

6. Take a polite bite. Unless you’re going to go into anaphylactic shock, be at odds with your god, or suffer an immediate, unpleasant reaction to what’s put in front of you, then your job is to try what the host may have spent hours making for the night. Or at least cut it up and move things around the plate. You don’t have to eat it all but you may actually find that those veggies you thought were disgusting — say, mushrooms or brussels sprouts — can taste divine when cooked well.

7. Come with an appetite. If you have an event in advance or after that precludes your partaking in the meal, take a raincheck for a time when you can eat what your host has gone to time and effort to prepare.

8. Avoid critiquing the chow. Trust me on this one: The cook will know only too well if the potstickers are a tad burned, the rice a little on the crunchy side, the soup overspiced…you get the idea…find something complimentary to say like “I love butternut squash,” and move on.

9. Show your best self. Plan on having fun. Hold up your end of the dinner-time banter, avoid too much work talk, don’t dominate the discussion, and include everyone around the table, especially shy types who may need some encouragement to join in.

10. Give thanks. A gracious thank you at the end of the night is the least a guest can do. A follow-up phone call, note, or email is extra nice, especially if you mention something specific about the evening that you found enjoyable.

Now it’s your turn: Do you agree with this list? What would you add or subtract? Bonus points for sharing stories, good, bad, or downright ugly. Oh, and if you have words of wisdom about what makes for a good dinner party guest mix, bring ’em on.

10 Top Documentary Food Films

March 6, 2010

Since Food, Inc. is up for an Oscar on Sunday, it seems as good a time as any to compile a list of documentary food films worth watching.

A recent post on favorite feature films that focus on food garnered a lot of comments — and sparked a movie mystery that remains unsolved. For cinematic sleuths, check out the comments by “can’t remember,” and see if you can put your finger on the name of the mystery flick.

Thanks to regular readers Susan Rubin and Margaret Phillips for input for this post.

In alpha order, a list of ten real food films worth viewing while noshing on a modest-sized serving of organic, non-GMO popcorn.

1. Dirt: The Movie (2009)

A funny, thoughtful, and, um grounded look at the fundamental ingredient vital to everything that feeds us.

2. Food Fight (2008)

An amusing account of modern American ag policy and food culture that sprouted a counter-revolution among veggie-obsessed Californians.

3. Food, Inc. (2008)

The rock stars of the ethical eating movement — Michael Pollan and Eric Schlosser — weigh in on all that is wrong in America’s industrialized food system. Methinks my son summed up this film best: “Sometimes the scariest films are the ones that are real.”

4. Fresh (2009)

Down with the corporate behemoths of the American food economy who threaten the country’s food security, livelihood of small farmers, and our choices as consumers. This doco features fresh thinking from urban farming activist Will Allen and sustainable farmer Joel Salatin.

5. Killer at Large (2008)

This film tackles the giant-sized topic of America’s obesity epidemic with talking heads and the story of a 12-year-old who undergoes liposuction.

6. King Corn (2007)

Two friends head to the heartland to learn a thing or two about how food is farmed and where food comes from.

7. Super Size Me (2004)

Cult classic with Morgan Spurlock eating his way to bad health on a month’s worth of Maccas. Required viewing for fast food fans.

8. The Garden (2008)

A group of mostly working class, Latino South Central Farmers fought the good fight — and they’re still at it — for the basic human need to grow food, in this Academy Award nominated film.

9. The Future of Food (2004)

Deborah Koons Garcia reveals the unappetizing truth about genetically modified foods: Do you really know what you’re dishing up for dinner?

10. The Real Dirt on Farmer John (2006)

A flamboyant farmer turns his family’s dying farm into a thriving CSA (Community Supported Agriculture). Bonus: He flaunts a feather boa while driving his tractor.

11. Food Stamped (2010?)

Special mention to a work-in-progress: A film-and-food couple reveal how hard it is to eat well on a really tight budget.

Okay, what’s missing — or doesn’t deserve to be in this line up? You know you have an opinion, oh yes you do. Let me know below.

Mollie Katzen: Get Cooking Author Dishes

March 4, 2010

Mollie Katzen is perhaps best known for her whimsically-illustrated, hand-lettered vegetarian classics Moosewood Cookbook and The Enchanted Broccoli Forest.

The author of a trio of popular children’s cookbooks, Pretend Soup, Honest Pretzels, and Salad People, Mollie played a major role in mainstreaming a plant-based diet in modern American kitchens.

Inducted into the James Beard Cookbook Hall of Fame in 2007, Mollie’s most recent book, Get Cooking, was recently nominated for an International Association of Culinary Professionals Award.

I’ve interviewed Mollie for articles about feeding children, where her trademark warm and wise approach to cooking comes through.

She hopes her latest book will encourage eaters everywhere to fall in love with the fine art of making a home-cooked meal.

To enter the Get Cooking giveaway leave a comment here.

1. What inspired you to write a cookbook for beginners?

Lots of people asked for it and I like to write books people need.  My son, who is 25, had just moved to his own small apartment in New York City and he and his friends wanted to know how to make simple but satisfying dishes.

So I wanted to do a book that would appeal to young adults who are just setting up their own homes and older adults who hadn’t learned to cook but wanted to now. This book has also found an audience with both the newly married and the freshly divorced. Sometimes you fill a need you weren’t expecting to find.

Learning to cook is key to many human needs: nourishment, health, economic and environmental sustainability, and a quality social life.

A lot of people simple can’t afford to eat out but they want to enjoy the pleasures of the table with a delicious home-cooked meal, a good bottle of wine, and great company. I wanted to help make that happen.

2. This is your first solo cookbook with meat dishes. Why that departure for you?

I include beef, chicken, and fish recipes in Get Cooking because people asked how to cook some classic meat recipes. Beginning cooks often want to know how to roast a chicken, make hamburgers, or pan-fry fish.

I’m not an ethical vegetarian or a crusader for a no-meat diet. I have eaten small portions of animal protein for quite some time. I’ve never prescribed a vegetarian-only diet or spoken out against eating animals.

I do eat a mostly vegetarian diet and I do think most Americans need to learn how to eat less meat in their diet. But I’m not dogmatic about it.

3. I’ve noticed you’ve recently embraced social media. What do you think of Twitter?

My book publisher wanted me to tweet, to reach a younger, wider audience. I resisted it for a long time and then I grumpily, reluctantly started to do it.

It took me a while to find my voice but now I tweet about five times a day. I see it as a way to be of service to my readers. I like to offer useful information, cooking encouragement, and share recipes.

I see my role as a kind of cheering squad for home cooks everywhere. I don’t write tweets telling people I just made a cup of coffee.

And I’ve found Twitter a very supportive community. In January I was featured in a Newsweek story about people who betrayed their vegetarian base. But I was never interviewed for the story and there were a lot of mistakes and misconceptions about my beliefs in the piece.

I received a bunch of hate mail following its publication. The Twitter community provided a lot of support and understanding during a very difficult time for me.

4. What’s next?

I’d like to do a Meatless Monday cookbook. Most Americans do need to find ways to reduce the amount of animal protein in their diets.

I’d also like to do another cookbook illustrated with my graphics or drawings.  For me, the visuals are as much a part of the recipe as the words. My son tells me, rather bluntly, that today’s generation of cooks don’t want to see hand-lettering like in the Moosewood Cookbook.

But I think there’s still room for me to express myself in my preferred visual mediums. I’m working on an idea for a book with recipes that have just five ingredients. There are similar books out there, but I’d put my own spin on it. It would feature a lot of vegetables and it might be the perfect forum for my art.

5. What motivates you, after almost 35 years of publishing cookbooks, to keep writing them?

I really care about people being able to cook. It’s so important to have those skills.

That’s why I like the work I do at Harvard University with young students as part of the Food Literacy Project.

Part of the thinking behind the project is that the university wants to turn out bright, well-rounded, citizens who have cooking skills and know how to be at a table.  A lot of what happens in the world happens at the table, whether it’s business, or the sharing of ideas, beliefs, and values, or simple social interaction.

It’s really important to me that we keep the table as part of home life.

Photo: Lisa Keating

An Edible Education in Thailand

March 3, 2010

Kyle Cornforth was up for a challenge. So when the founder of a cooking school in the outskirts of Chiang Mai asked Kyle, who was working at the Edible Schoolyard at the time, if she’d like to come on board as director of The Prem Organic Cooking Academy and Farm, she leapt at the chance. She wanted to share what she’d learned about local, sustainable, organic cooking at a public school in north Berkeley with students and staff at an international school in northern Thailand.

So last summer, Kyle and her husband Jay, a teacher at Martin Luther King, Jr. Middle School in Berkeley where Edible is based (the two actually met in the garden, cue a chorus of awws), packed their bags and headed off on an adventure in Asia with their daughter Zorah.

“It was an opportunity we just couldn’t pass up as a family,” says Kyle via video Skype. (Full disclosure: We met at Edible, where I’m a volunteer.)

“Professionally, it was also a privilege to work with teachers and children from other parts of the world,” Kyle adds. “We knew it would be uncomfortable at times. We were pretty set in our ways in our lovely little Berkeley life. We thought it would be good for us.”

That’s proven to be the case. Going to live in another continent sounds super cool. And, for the most part, it is. Kyle loves the liveliness, colors, sounds, smells, sights, and tastes of Thailand. She even loves that simply getting into town, about 45 minutes away, is its own adventure.

But as anyone who has ever done it will tell you, moving out of your comfort zone, setting up shop in another country, and navigating an unfamiliar culture is not without its challenges.

Even something as seemingly banal as the weather can take time to get used to. Kyle finds the heat and humidity in Chiang Mai tough after the temperate, foggy Bay Area.

She pines for simple foods from far away. (She wrote a lovely blog post about how much she missed her daily bread.)

A soft-spoken woman with a kind demeanor, Kyle finds it incongruous that at times she feels like the loud, brash, opinionated American. Her gentle but direct manner and problem-solving approach doesn’t always serve her well here — it can offend — and so she’s figured out how to communicate to better suit local tastes.

The family is thriving in their temporary Thai home. Kyle, 30, describes her daughter and husband as being “Thai in their past lives,” pointing out, as evidence, that they happily eat rice for breakfast.

Kyle is learning about the principles behind traditional Thai cooking, with its emphasis on food as medicine.  And its key flavors: sweet, salty, buttery, bland, astringent, bitter, spicy, cool, and sour.

She says she has adopted a new, favorite way of thinking about meal planning, the Thai concept known as grom grawm or contrast, surprise, and balance.

She’s on a personal mission to perfect making Khao Soy, a popular street dish, comprised of crispy egg noodles, pickled cabbage, shallots, lime, meat, curry sauce, and coconut milk.

And she is following the advice of a wise friend who encouraged her “to go slow and go deep,” in her new environment. So she makes a point of frequenting the same vendors at local markets or street stalls, developing relationships with these people and their food as she goes.

Founded in 2008 by the San Diego restauranteur Su-Mei Yu, the Prem academy teaches traditional Thai cooking and farming techniques to visiting school kids from international schools around the globe.

Yu grew up in Bangkok, moved to the U.S. as a teen, and opened the first Thai restaurant in San Diego some 25 years ago. The cookbook author wants to help preserve and pass on the customs she learned as a young child, both in the kitchen and on the land.

Yu discovered that children growing up in cities in Thailand — and other Asian nations –often have little knowledge about where food comes from or how to cook, not unlike many American children.

Yu is friends with Mom Luang Tridhosyuth Devakul, the founder of the Prem Tinsulanonda International School (known as the Prem Center), who planted a vast organic garden that was so prolific it wasn’t long before the farm was feeding students at the K-12 boarding school. Adding the cooking academy felt like a natural progression.

At Prem, students learn how to prepare authentic Thai food using traditional tools.

They make coconut milk using a little wooden stool with a sharp blade known as a kratai. They also use a mortar and pestle to grind spices for curries.

Kyle is expanding the program’s reach. Prem has begun offering intensive cooking classes aimed at adult travelers interested in experiencing real Thai cuisine. Participants explore Thai flavors with local chefs and make seasonal dishes using fresh organic ingredients such as Kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal, and sweet basil all harvested from the Prem Academy’s garden.  Coconut, papaya, and bananas, are grown on site as well.

The program combines cooking and culture: Participants prepare alms trays, or offerings of food, to Buddhist monks at a nearby temple. Longer courses offer the chance to cook in local homes and meet village elders.

The classes are starting to find an audience.

This month AFAR includes Prem in a round-up of cooking schools around the world.

Last year Travel and Leisure featured a profile of the program by Karen Coates, who blogs beautifully on culinary travels at Rambling Spoon.

Kyle looks forward to bringing back a repertoire of Thai recipes to try out on family and friends in the Bay Area.

Below, she shares a simple noodle dish popular in northern Thailand.

Prem chef teacher Khun Nid learned this recipe from her mother.

It is considered a well-balanced, one dish meal.

In keeping with Thai principles it has salty, sweet, spicy, crunchy, and soft tastes and textures.

Enjoy.

Photos: Courtesy of Cornhens in Thailand

Pad Kanom Jeen

Northern Thai Style Rice Vermicelli

Makes 1- 2 servings

Ingredients:

2 cups room temperature rice vermicelli noodles, cooked

(can substitute soba, somen, or thin egg noodles)

1 teaspoon dark soy sauce

1 tablespoon soy sauce

1 tablespoon sugar

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 tablespoon minced garlic

1 tablespoon thinly sliced fresh red chili

2 stalks green onion, thinly sliced across

2 to 3 stalks cilantro, minced

Condiments:

1 egg

½ cup vegetable oil

1 slice firm tofu (1/4 by 3 inches), sliced into eighths

a handful fresh bean sprouts

¼ teaspoon dried chili powder (more or less according to taste)

Method:

1. Put the rice vermicelli in a mixing bowl and toss gently with the soy sauces to combine, being careful to not break up the noodle strands.

2. Sprinkle the sugar over the noodles and mix again. Set aside.

3. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a wok over medium-low heat. Wait for 30 seconds and add the garlic.

4. Stir-fry garlic until golden and then add the noodles. Stir to mix until hot and fragrant.

5. Add the chili and stir to mix for about a minute.

6. Transfer to a serving plate.

7. Garnish the top of the noodles with green onion and cilantro.

Preparing the condiments:

1. Crack the egg into a small mixing bowl and beat it with a fork.

2. Add 1 tablespoon of the oil in a wok and heat over medium-low heat.

3. Spread and swirl the oil around the wok. Heat until hot, about 30 seconds.

4. Beat the egg vigorously and add to the hot oil. Swirl around into a thin sheet.

5. Carefully flip the egg over to cook other side when the bottom is slightly brown and the top congealed.

6. Transfer to a plate to cool once both sides are cooked.

7. Roll into a tight cylinder and slice across into thin strands. Set aside.

8. Add the rest of the oil to the wok, on medium-low heat.

9. Wait for a minute or so until the oil begins to smoke.

10. Add the tofu and deep-fry until crispy and golden, about 2 to 3 minutes.

11. Transfer to a plate lined with paper towels.

12. Surround the noodles with mounds of omelet strands, crispy tofu, bean sprouts, and dried chili powder and serve.