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.

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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.


Book Giveaway: Get Cooking

February 27, 2010

What vegetarian doesn’t have a dog-eared, food-stained copy of the Moosewood Cookbook in her cookbook stack?

I’m also a fan of best-selling, award-winning author Mollie Katzen‘s  cookbooks for kids: Pretend Soup, Honest Pretzels, and Salad People.

So I was pleased to hear that the warm and whimsical writer has penned a guide to getting started in the kitchen called, aptly enough, Get Cooking: 150 Simple Recipes to Get You Started in the Kitchen.

In her introduction, Mollie notes the irony that interest in cooking is at an all-time high. People everywhere love watching cooking shows and competitions. (Michael Pollan covered this phenomenon in a piece for the New York Times Magazine called “Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch.”)

Folks are eating up a steady diet of food blogs and food films. Talk about takeout, new restaurants, street eats, food produce and products permeates everyday conversations.

What’s missing in all this chatter? The art and craft of cooking.

So in her latest book, Mollie, a natural food chef  before the term was even coined, hopes to fill that void with what she calls “150 delicious, doable recipes that even the most inexperienced person can walk into any kitchen right now and make for dinner.”

She’s also moved beyond the produce stand and includes chicken, fish, and meat dishes (though there are oodles of veggie offerings and many recipes can be adapted for vegetarians or vegans.)

So, calling all wannabe cooks: This is the book for you (or the wannabe cook in your life, or perhaps even the person you want to be a wannabe cook). Lots of non-intimidating ideas to get the kitchen newbie — or even a seasoned home cook — going, with sound advice about recipe reading, basic gear, and knife skills.

The author covers simple soups, salads, main meals, sides, and desserts designed to expand a beginner’s repertoire. And her “get creative” sidebars offer loads of options for playing with the basic recipe.

I particularly like the sound of Roasted Butternut Squash and Apple Soup, Wilted Spinach Salad with Hazelnuts, Goat Cheese, and Golden Raisins, Chickpea and Mango Curry, and Cherry Clafoutis.

One quibble: The photos don’t do the food justice; they’re a bit bland and lifeless. They’re not the kind of food shots we’re accustomed to seeing in cookbooks, food sites, or glossy mags. Perhaps the author was going for authenticity over visual excitement. (I attended a food photography session where folks were advised to use fake cream over the real thing ’cause it looks better in a photo. Oh my.) Regardless, Katzen’s enthusiasm and passion for food shines through on the page.

Read a review. Visit the get cooking website. Check out sample recipes, such as Vegetable-Tofu Stir-Fry with Orange-Ginger Glaze.

To win a copy of Get Cooking leave a comment below about what skill, technique, or dish you’d like to learn. Entries must be received by Friday, March 5, PST by 10 pm. Winner chosen at random.

Update: Wow! Mollie Katzen is clearly onto something. It seems like loads of folks want to get cooking, judging by the response to this giveaway, my most popular to date. The copy of Get Cooking, chosen at random, goes to Karen Pochodowicz. But wait — for all you budding chefs who want to learn knife skills, take a look at Mollie’s video tutorial and find sample recipes from the book here. And check back later this month for my March book giveaway.

What’s Cooking at Berkeley’s Kitchen?

February 25, 2010

The Cal Cooking Club at UC Berkeley has spawned more than one non-profit culinary entity with international reach.

Earlier this month I wrote about Sprouts Cooking Club, which offers classes to budding young chefs. Sprouts is the brainchild of Berkeley graduate Karen Rogers.

Newcomer Berkeley’s Kitchen, founded by another UC-Berkeley alum Cristina Lau, aims to offer adults an edible education at affordable prices with an emphasis on showcasing the rich diversity of ethnic cuisine in the local community.

Lau, 23, grew up in Tijuana and San Diego, and recalls peeling shrimp and washing dishes at the Chinese restaurants her parents owned. She speaks three languages, considers herself mostly Mexican with Chinese roots, and enjoys cooking Mexican-Chinese fusion food. (Think stir fry with chillies.)

To learn more about Berkeley’s Kitchen, its classes, and charitable work, read my post on the program over at Berkeleyside.

A Daughter’s Memories of a Beloved Father’s Food

February 24, 2010

Dear Readers:

In my last post I asked you to share a favorite family food memory. I received this response from new friend and frequent Lettuce Eat Kale commenter Julie Cleeland Nicholls, a fellow Australian living in Singapore. I met Julie through my oldest friend in the whole wide world Jane Rogers, who was wise enough to say yes when I asked her whether she wanted to be my best mate in second grade.

Julie wrote this homage to her father and his food on the second anniversary of his death. I’m sure you’ll agree it is a lovely remembrance of a man and his meals.

It is an honor and a pleasure to publish it here as the very first guest post on Lettuce Eat Kale.

I’ve retained the Australian spellings in Julie’s prose. A couple of cultural references explained: A magpie, for those who may not know, is a noisy black-and-white bird native to Oz.  Max Brenner is an over-the-top chocolate shop originating Down Under.

Julie grew up in Melbourne, in the state of Victoria, Australia. Her father, Peter Robert Cleeland was an Australian Labour Party politician, a doting dad, and an awesome cook, an unusual feat for an Aussie bloke of his generation.

“I miss my Dad every single day,” Julie tells me. Read on to learn why.

Dad’s Kitchen Song

Special Guest Post by Julie Cleeland Nicholls

When I reach back for memories, I invariably remember food…It’s the food itself, the taste of things shared and, most often, the meals the dead used to prepare…Death has its particular relationship with food. It is, by its nature, symbolic and metaphysical. The dead are beyond succour and hospitality. We eat, and particularly drink, in remembrance.A. A. Gill

Dad never cooked for us when we were little; that was Mum’s province. From the vantage point of later years, after Dad revealed himself as a talented cook, this division of labour seems odd, because Mum disliked cooking.

After a hard day teaching, she’d hastily direct her children to assemble strange concoctions with some very borderline ingredients indeed. “Just cut that green bit off the chicken, Julie,” she’d say.  “It’ll be fine when it’s cooked.” Mum’s approach combined a breezy tendency to scoff at use-by dates, and bursts of desperate creativity, resulting in memorable dishes like her infamous sausage and curry casserole. I eat now at the dodgiest roadside stalls around the world without fear of illness and attribute this to my early food experiences at my mother’s hands.

When my Dad set up home for himself at a later stage in his life, he took to cooking, discovered he was good at it, and realized he liked it.  And he shared that discovery with me. Now some of the warmest memories I have of him are in the kitchen. The soundtrack to these memories is provided by Dad himself, singing loudly and with emphasis, “As I WANder along through the hills, MAG-gie, where once the roses BLOOMED.” He didn’t know any of the other lyrics, so he’d just repeat, pause, and then hum the rest of the tune while he chopped, sauteed and basted. We called it “Dad’s Kitchen Song” and it was always a harbinger that good things were on their way.

What would Dad cook?

  • Lush winter soups with a rusty silk wash of paprika and spices skimming the surface.
  • Sweet roast spring lamb with root vegetables: “I love parsnips; not everyone does. I don’t know why not. They’re so earthy. Here, Jule – smell this,” and he’d present a specimen he was peeling so I could share his pleasure in its good, raw scent.
  • Wonderfully fragrant Thai curries. He fussed about finding authentic ingredients, tracking down bitter little pea aubergines and grinding his own spices. He experimented with frozen, imported kaffir lime leaves before he and his wife Jan decided to grow their own. They tracked down a nursery in New South Wales that grew kaffir lime trees and on their next trip to Sydney to visit me, they spent the better part of a day driving to the outer Western Suburbs to buy a tree. Successfully transported back to Melbourne and nurtured it in a sheltered corner of their windy garden till the leaves were ready to harvest whenever they needed.
  • Dad’s Christmas specialty was a whole salmon poached with sliced lemons picked that morning from his garden tree, and big handfuls of dill, coriander, and any other fresh herbs that took his fancy. It was the centrepiece of the family lunch – enough to feed his and Jan’s blended families, their spouses, and growing numbers of grandchildren. The salmon was moist, cool and light on the days when it was a sunny celebration; and when the Melbourne Christmas weather turned grumpy and unseasonal, its slick and melting texture was a fine consolation for the spattering rain outside.  Dad would stand watchfully over the hooded barbeque, wine glass in hand, making sure the fish was cooking perfectly. At the same time, he managed to remain front  and centre of every passing conversation going on around him; the perfect example of a holiday multitasker.

For Dad, a meal wasn’t complete without a vigorous debate going on at the same time; words, food, wine, and ideas were the ingredients he most valued at a family feast.

On the first Christmas after his death, my husband Andrew agreed to supervise the salmon, following Dad’s bit-of-this-splash-of-that recipe as well as he could. The pressure was extreme, and Andrew admitted to some feelings of fishy inadequacy in the lead-up. But with advice, input, and cheerleading from the rest of the family the task was accomplished.

We ate the Christmas salmon as we’d always done – with just one great and terrible difference: The creator of the dish was missing from around the family table.

I learned respect for the ingredients that make up a meal from Dad. He loved markets, frequently shopping at Preston Market in the northern suburb of Melbourne, where he’d grown up. In addition to debating every green-grocer and deli owner who’d engage in repartee with him, he took deep delight in the smells, sounds, and sights of Melbourne at its most multicultural.

From the second-generation Australian shopkeepers selling Italian, Greek, and Turkish foods; to first-generation arrivals from India, Vietnam, Africa, and the Middle East, he’d talk about how wonderful it was to shop in a place where the cultures, languages and cuisines of the world came together to take part in the everyday yet transformative miracle of choosing, preparing, and serving good food.

The last meal I shared at my father’s table was not cooked by him. In the final days of his swift and fatal six-month illness he couldn’t walk and had increasing trouble moving his arms. He was sensitive and proud about not being able to eat with ease, so we carefully didn’t watch him as he painstakingly maneuvered the sushi that Andrew and I had brought over for lunch. With the meal, we opened bottle after bottle of red wine from his “cellar” – really just a converted corner of the laundry.

He joked that his goal was to finish every bottle before motor neurone disease had its inexorable way with him. That became one of the few life goals that Dad didn’t fulfill. We’re still drinking wine from his cellar two years later.

After the sushi, I opened a box of hand-made chocolates from Max Brenner to have with coffee. I’d included each of his favourite flavours, and was rewarded by his smile. He managed to eat a couple then, and I hope more after we left.

There’s a photo taken from that day, I’m standing behind my Dad’s chair with my arms around him after we finished our meal. I’m smiling too brightly, and Dad’s eyes are their usual beautiful, denim blue but his smile is tired. Even the simple act of sharing lunch had exhausted him. On the empty plate in front of Dad is a smear of soy from his sushi, and you can just see the corner of the chocolate box, still a quarter full.

For Dad, the art of selecting, cooking, and sharing food was an extension of his enthusiastic, generous, and big-hearted personality. As with everything he did, he expected acclaim and extravagant compliments to be showered on him as he presented his meals. But the results of his efforts were always shared with such hospitality and joy that this demand for approval was simply part of his incomparable charm.

The praise was always given to him, unstintingly, sincerely, and with love. I hope that made him as happy as his kitchen songs made us.

In memory of Peter Cleeland, May 31, 1938 – September 16, 2007

A Taste of Justice

February 22, 2010

Think of agents for change in American eating habits, and Berkeley’s Alice Waters and Michael Pollan come immediately to mind.

Indeed, eat-more-greens advocates can appear as white as Wonder Bread.

On the menu at the local La Pena Cultural Center last night: some much-needed color in the conversation about good food matters.

Read my entire post on the foodcentric performance piece Visceral Feast over at Berkeleyside.

I first learned about the evening from accomplished choreographer Amara Tabor-Smith. (Full disclosure: I’ve taken Amara’s Rhythm & Motion dance class for almost two decades. The girl knows how to inspire joy and shake her booty like nobody’s business. Believe me when I say she raises the roof. There’s a reason I think of dance class as my church.)

Well, turns out, Amara, artistic director of  the Oakland-based Deep Waters Dance Theater, has been investigating edible issues, such as where food comes from and its impact on the community and the environment, in performance pieces that address the soul and spiritual connections to eating and cooking.

Last year she showcased a work in progress, “Our Daily Bread,” as part of an artist in residency at CounterPULSE, a non-profit theater in San Francisco.

Amara describes herself as “mostly vegan” not initially for political reasons but because she doesn’t care for the taste of meat. But she cooks meat for others and acknowledges her roots as a child growing up eating her mother’s gumbo.

She’s planning several food parties as part of her exploration of eating this year. One she’s dubbing Raw Meat, where she hopes raw food folk will dialogue with confirmed carnivores.

Find Amara’s Recession Root Stew recipe, inspired by the times and in the spirit of African American food traditions, right here.

It’s vegan, can feed lots of folks, and includes dinosaur kale, cilantro, and coconut milk. Sounds just the dish for a cold winter’s night.

At last night’s performance the audience was asked to share a favorite food memory.

I listed my sister’s pavlova and family barbecues with the proverbial “shrimp on the barbie” (Aussies call them prawns). And Vegemite on white toast, comfort food when you’re sick. All of these foods remind me of home.

The man seated next to me wrote simply, “I miss my mom’s chai.”

Now it’s your turn.

Photo credit: Alan Kimara Dixon

Favorite Food Films

February 19, 2010

How many fabo feature flicks can you think of where food is the focus?

My friend Jim Kahn and I were mulling over this very matter recently as we chatted about the marvelous Meryl Streep.

While Julie & Julia was obviously a meal of a movie, the pleasures of the table also got more than a cameo role in another recent Streep vehicle, It’s Complicated. Check out what my friend Cheryl Sternman Rule has to say about the latter movie’s memorable food moments over at ivillage.

Jim and I started rattling off a list of food films that deserve fanfare.

Five Easy Pieces, When Harry Met Sally, Joy Luck Club, and Moonstruck all have stellar food scenes but arguably aren’t food films per se.

Here’s what our Top Ten Food Flicks looks like in alpha order:

1. Babette’s Feast (1987)

The Danish do dinner in the desolate countryside courtesy of a young housekeeper who turns out to know a thing or two about French food.

2. Big Night (1978)

Larger-than-life characters consume the screen in this funny family caper about an Italian restaurant on the brink of bankruptcy.

3. Chocolat (2000)

Sexy single mama Juliette Binoche shares the sensual delights of chocolate with the rural French who resist its charms–and hers–but not for long.

4. Eat Drink Man Woman (1994)

Ang Lee loves a wedding banquet. This meditation on food and family, culture and cooking, features a Taiwanese chef who loses his sense of taste and his picky eater daughters.

5. Fried Green Tomatoes (1991)

An American story about enduring female friendships, Southern hospitality, and the regional specialties served up at a local café.

6. Julie & Julia (2009)

Meryl Streep eats up the screen as Julia Child. Amy Adams plays the frustrated office worker and fledgling blogger channeling her inner Julia.

7. Like Water for Chocolate (1992)

A young Mexican couple barred from marrying express their passion through cooking and eating.

8. Pieces of April (2003)

Ultimate oddball Thanksgiving dinner film featuring a wonderful performance by Katie Holmes before Cruise control killed her career.

9. Ratatouille (2007)

Animated Pixar pic stars Remy the rat who aspires to be a great chef despite family opposition — and the obvious obstacle of being a rodent in a rat-phobic profession. But follow those food fantasies: Remy sets the French cooking scene on fire.

10. Tampopo (1987)

Jim calls this the ultimate Japanese noodle Western. Widow seeking to make the perfect bowl of ramen gets help from an unlikely source.

11. Waitress (2007)

Sweet American indie featuring the late Adrienne Shelly who bakes her way to a better life.

Okay, that’s 11, but who’s counting?

Clearly cinematographers love to get in the kitchen.  Find other food film lists here, chef pics here, reader raves here.

Coming soon: Eat, Pray, Love, based on the book of the same name, which will no doubt feature Italian, Indian, and Indonesian fare.

What do you think of this list? Granted it’s skewed towards recent rom-coms pairing culinary pursuits and passions of the hearts. Hence all the chocolate.

Did I give your favorite foodie film the flick? What’s missing? Racked my brain for a great Aussie food film, alas I couldn’t come up with one.

Where’s the golden oldie featuring food — even if it’s in black and white? Where’s the Indian feast flick? A French food film classic, actually made in France? A soul food big screen treat?

I’m sure I’m leaving out loads of other sumptuous cinematic offerings.

Feel free to correct the record below.

Marvelous Mushrooms

February 17, 2010

Regular readers may recall that every so often I get a bee in my bonnet about a particular kind of produce.

Persimmons come to mind. Brussels sprouts too. No surprise that a blog named Lettuce Eat Kale showcases a certain dark, leafy green, whether roasted or dehydrated.

Today, mushrooms get their due. Recently, I’ve become a tad obsessed with these forest favorites as they show themselves, post-rainy season, in my neck of the woods.

First, I felt compelled to make Mushroom Risotto. Compelled. So at a farmer’s market I stocked up on a big, brown bag full of crimini, shiitake, and oyster mushies. And I made a big, brown batch of risotto, its inherent creaminess offset by the earthy flavors of the three fungi.

My recipe is similar to this one, sans cream, from Simply Recipes. But I have nothing against cream, cream and I are firm friends, so I’ll definitely give Elise Bauer’s version a go. And I encourage you to, as well.

Then I read Barbara Kingsolver’s love poem to the mighty morel in Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, her lyrical account of a year living off the land.  This exotic edible, which defies attempts at domestication, sells for a small fortune during its short season.

With a little local help, Kingsolver uncovers the mystery of where Molly Mooches (morels to the rest of us) pop up on her very own property and her family set out to hunt and gather this prized wild delight.  She finds a perfectly good home for them in Asparagus and Morel Bread Pudding, from Deborah Madison‘s Local Flavors (downloadable here).

Next up, the forageSF Wild Kitchen Chinese New Year dinner, where fungi was featured in not one but two of the seven courses, made up of mostly sustainable, foraged, local, wild ingredients, natch.

The communal dinner kicked off with the smoky subtlety of Black Trumpet Mushroom and Wild Radish Dumplings and ended on a high note with Ginger Candy Cap Ice Cream. The candy cap mushrooms offered a deep, rich, maple-syrup like sweetness to this delish dessert.

I know, mushroom-infused ice cream. Who knew it could be so good?

Then just last week, I was wowed by the dreamy creaminess of Scott Howard’s reinvented macaroni & cheese, at his restaurant Five, in downtown Berkeley. This mac&cheese only marginally resembles the American classic mama used to make. And that’s a good thing.

Little ramekins of loveliness ooze with orzo, cream, and smoked gouda, topped with sliced, braised morels, a dollop of tomato jam, and a smattering of bread crumbs. A decadently divine dish.

Ready for a recipe?

Today’s offering, Chanterelle Pate, comes courtesy of chef Mary Kuntz, whom I met while reporting on the Sprouts Cooking Club.  Kuntz has worked in many acclaimed local restaurants and taught cooking to teens in Richmond public schools for about a dozen years.

She recently ran a four-week cooking class for Sprouts attended by Kaiser Permanente employees and their families at the Westside Cafe in Berkeley.  The mushroom pate was a big hit with her students.

For a primer on choosing, caring & cleaning mushies, whether wild or cultivated, start here.

Enjoy experimenting with these woodsy wonders.

Mary Kuntz’s Chanterelle Pate

Ingredients:

1 lb. cleaned, sliced chanterelle mushrooms

1 stick butter

3-4  finely chopped shallots

2 cloves minced garlic

½ cup finely chopped Italian parsley

2 Tablespoons chopped fresh thyme (or lemon thyme)

1-2 cups dry white wine

2 cups peeled almonds (blanch & slip skins off)

salt and lots of freshly ground black pepper

Method:

1. Sauté the sliced mushrooms, shallots, garlic, parsley and thyme in the butter in a large frying pan.

2. When tender, pour over the wine, add almonds, and simmer till most liquid is absorbed.

3. Pureé in a processor in batches, add salt and pepper to taste, and some more soft butter to make richer, if desired.

4. Place in serving terrine and sprinkle with a little more minced parsley.

5. Cover and refrigerate for at least a few hours (or overnight) to allow flavors to develop.

6. Serve with toasted baguette, dark rye bread, or wheat crackers.

Valentine’s Day Dining Out: Just Say No

February 12, 2010

Allegedly, this coming weekend is a good one for amore.

That’s debatable, of course, depending on how your love life is looking.

What’s indisputable: It’s a great weekend for restaurants. This year, Valentine’s Day falls on Sunday, so presumably there’s a wider window (tonight might be a tad early, but tomorrow or Sunday works) of possibilities for the coupled to express their devotion over dinner.

If you’re not part of a dining dead duo (have nothing to say to each other, for those unfamiliar with the term, illustrated above) or go solo while you sup, then the thought of taking your main man (or woman) out for a bite to eat this weekend has probably crossed your mind.

I have three words for you: Don’t do it.

Here’s why:

  • High-expectation holiday  = Recipe for disappointment. No restaurant, no matter how fabo, can live up to this kind of pressure.
  • Restaurant kitchens and wait staff tend to be stretched thin on Big Night Out nights. Too much tension in the air. Who needs it?
  • Chances are you’ll wind up spending more than you would on a regular night out. You just will. Trust me on this one.
  • Food served up on a major holiday night tends not to taste as good as on a garden-variety evening. Little time for that careful attention to detail.
  • Lingering over a meal may not be possible if an eating establishment is trying to squeeze in two or three seatings for the night.
  • Tables tightly crammed into a small space to accommodate more people can preclude intimate conversation.
  • Other diners may engage in behaviors you’d rather not witness, be they proposals or displays of passion.

So stay home. Cook. If you can’t cook, serve an awesome cheese platter and a stellar bottle of vino, spread a blanket on the floor and call it a picnic. Or find inspiration for special dishes for the day by entering the words “Valentine’s Day recipes” into the Food Blog Search directory.

Spontaneous. Private. Mood managed. What could be sexier? And what says I (heart) you more than taking the time to plan a celebratory meal for the person you (heart)?

Don’t take my word for it. Restaurant industry insider and food service professional Food Woolf says V Day dining out is a really bad idea.

Canada’s Globe and Mail reports that restaurant wait staff consider V Day one of the least romantic evenings of the year with more bickering, hostility, awkwardness, and tension on table 2 than on other nights. Not to mention the fact that some fellow diners perform sex acts others would rather not see. So sez the paper. I kid you not.

Are you a lover or a hater of dining out on Valentine’s Day? Got a V Day eating out story — good, bad, or ugly that you care to share? Bring it on.