Sunday, July 29, 2012

What is Real Food?

While riding the tube through London last month, I mentioned to my father-in-law that my favorite restaurant in Arizona is True Food Kitchen.

“What makes it so special?” he asked

I paused, playing a game of mental chess in my head. They serve food, I thought. But, doesn’t every restaurant? No, like real food. As opposed to fake food? Well, yes.

We emerged from the Underground around Saint Paul’s Cathedral and popped in at a little cafe called EAT. With the slogan, The Real Food Restaurant, perhaps EAT could articulate my perspective better. We ordered sandwiches, wraps, and salads. As everyone turned over the packages to read a short list of ingredients, I smiled. Nothing we couldn’t pronounce. Nothing you couldn’t pick up at the local farmer’s market. Just food, the definition of which still remained amorphous. 

With modifiers such as honest, real, whole, and true multiplying faster than yogurt cultures, a consuming public should square up with what exactly we’re eating if not food. And what should we expect from a restaurant, market, or product claiming to provide us real food?
In his book, In Defense of Food, Michael Pollan recounts the first time he heard the advice to “just eat food.” He was baffled. “Of course you should eat food--what else is there to eat?”
Quite a bit, it turns out.

“Today there are thousands of other edible foodlike substances in the supermarket,” Pollan writes, “novel products of food science.” Designed to resemble food, these products seduce us with their health claims and deceive our senses into eating more of them while a profiteering industry churns out new ones each year.
Gulp.

So what is real food? The grassroots movement Real FoodChallenge provides a thorough albeit cumbersome definition:
Real Food is food which truly nourishes producers, consumers, communities, and the earth.  It is a food system--from seed to plate--that fundamentally respects human dignity and health, animal welfare, social justice and environmental sustainability.

Okay, so what does that mean? We need something a little more tangible. Something we can tuck into our reusable shopping bag, recycled from a vegetable-ink-dyed, burlap sack of fair-trade, green, Guatemalan coffee beans.
Pollan provides a set of guidelines in In Defense of Food that moves us past the theoretical and into the practical:  
·         Don’t eat anything your great grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.

·         Avoid food products containing ingredients that are unfamiliar, unpronounceable, more than five in number, or that include high-fructose corn syrup.

·         Avoid food products that make health claims.

·         Shop the peripheries of the supermarket and stay out of the middle.

·         Get out of the supermarket whenever possible.
So let’s put Pollan’s real food rules to the test with a random sample from the local super market. 

It should come as no surprise that a box of toaster pastries with a shelf life extending well into the next congressional term is not food. Assume for a moment that your great grandmother would recognize the frosted brown sugar cinnamon treats as sustenance. That feat aside... (continue reading)

Originally published on Under the Tuscan Gun, the website of the Cooking Channel's show Extra Virgin.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Roasted Vegetables and Quinoa with Orange Basil Vinaigrette and Pepitas


With only pennies remaining in our savings account, I decided to revisit The Veganomics Project, a venture I began while living in Europe to save money on groceries by eating a plant-based diet. The exchange rate crippled my plan, which made its chief ambition to spend only $50 a week to feed our family of four. But as we're back in the United States, I'm back in business.

This week, I'm trying all new recipes. It makes cooking and eating vegan so much more fun. Last night we kicked off the week with a recipe borrowed--and modified beyond recognition--from one of my favorite local restaurants, Windsor. Its Mixed Grain Salad combines black quinoa, kamut, and pearled barley with roasted vegetables, baby beets, currants, and fresh salad greens all tossed in an orange basil vinaigrette, topped with goat cheese and served with warm pita bread. It's a masterpiece.

My adaptation is gluten-free, vegan, and produces one sink-full fewer dishes than the original. But, it's still a masterpiece. Savory roasted vegetables sit atop a bed of greens and pillowy quinoa, perfectly offset by the delicate crunch of pepitas and sweet currants. It's a perfect summer dish because you can prepare many of the ingredients ahead of time and enjoy the dish cold or at room temperature. Enjoy!

Serves four 

Roasted Vegetables
2 zucchini, julienned
2 carrots, shredded
1 cup grape tomatoes, halved
Olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup currants (raisins are acceptable)
¼ cup fresh basil chiffonade

Orange Basil Vinaigrette
1 tablespoon shallot, minced
¼ cup red wine vinegar
Zest and juice of one orange
¼ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon granulated sugar
1/4 Serrano pepper, minced
2 tablespoons fresh basil, minced
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper

1 cup quinoa, rinsed and drained
1 head red lettuce, rinsed, dried and roughly chopped   
¼ cup pepitas 

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. To make the roasted vegetables, toss the zucchini, carrots, and grape tomatoes with olive oil in a 9x13 glass pan. Season generously with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Roast for about 40 minutes. Remove from the oven and toss with the currants and fresh basil. Set aside.


While the vegetables are cooking, cook the quinoa in a 1 1/2 cups salted water. Bring to a boil, cover, and simmer until cooked through, about 15 minutes.

Whisk together all of the dressing ingredients, using as much or as little Serrano pepper as you desire. About 1/4 of the pepper will produce a very mild and agreeable heat. Season to taste with sea salt and black pepper.

To serve, toss the quinoa with half of the orange vinaigrette. Toss the lettuce with the remaining dressing. Plate the lettuce first. Top with quinoa and roasted vegetables. Sprinkle each with 1 tablespoon of pepitas.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Espinacas con Garbanzos


There is no such thing as too much smoked paprika. You either agree with me or you haven't tasted it. Or you're doing it wrong; like my friend Kyle says, "The last time I smoked paprika, I tried to eat some guy's face." 

A far better application for this quintessential Spanish spice is in the vegan classic espinacas con garbanzos.  Translated: spinach and garbanzo beans. It sounds so much more exotic in Spanish, doesn't it? It combines smoked paprika with two other classic elements of the regional cuisine: red wine vinegar and cumin. 

We eat espinacas con garbanzos here almost weekly over a bed of quinoa and with a glass of Rioja or Tempranillo. It's simple, vegan comfort food, so good you won't be hungry for flesh at all. 

serves 2-4 

extra virgin olive oil
2 bunches fresh spinach, thoroughly rinsed and roughly chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/8 teaspoon red chili flake 
2 cans chickpeas, rinsed and drained
1 tablespoon smoked paprika
1 tablespoon cumin
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
pinch of sugar
2 plum tomatoes, diced 
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

4 cups cooked quinoa 

Heat a two-count of olive oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and chili and cook for about 30 seconds. Add the spinach and cover the pan with a lid, stirring infrequently until the greens are wilted. 

Add the chickpeas, vinegar, and spices and cook until heated through. Remove from the heat. Toss in the plum tomatoes and season to taste with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. 

Serve over quinoa. 

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Watermelon and Serrano Gazpacho


Finally we're settled in the United States again in the sweltering Arizona desert. On our way out of London, we enjoyed one last dinner out at a small French brasserie in Kensington where we both huddled under an awning in sweaters while the rain fell sideways, speckling our table with English summer. Thus, like a huge block of ice, we're thawing slowly, melting into a puddle in the blazing sun.
But we couldn't be happier.


As of Thursday, we have a dining room table and chairs, a couch, and an oven that works. I can't tell you how excited I am to cook and entertain again. So excited, in fact, that we've had dinner guests every night since. Last night, our friends Anna and David joined us. It was the first time all four of our kids played together. It's good to be home. 


Last night we celebrated the summer with grilled salmon and this amazing raw, vegan watermelon and serrano gazpacho, for which I can take absolutely no credit. Tyler Florence is the one chef who I can follow blindly and have every recipe turn out perfectly. He is a genius. I think you'll agree when you taste this cold soup that marries the traditional gazpacho ingredients of cucumber, tomato, and red wine vinegar with the surprising complexity of Serrano chili, dill, and fresh watermelon. 

3 cups seedless watermelon, cubed
3 cups ripe tomatoes, cubed
1/2 Serrano pepper (or more if you like it hot)

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar

2 tablespoons red onion, minced
2 tablespoons dill, minced
1 cucumber, peeled, seeded, finely diced
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
fresh dill for serving
Puree the watermelon, tomatoes, and chili in a blender until smooth. Add the olive oil and vinegar while the blender is still running.
Add the onion, dill, and cucumber and pulse once or twice, just until evenly distributed. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve garnished with a sprig of dill. Serve immediately or chill before serving.