Elmo Talks Nosh in the White House Kitchen
by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer
Everybody’s favorite red Muppet took a tour of the White House kitchen this week, bantering with assistant chef Sam Kass about the virtues of eating melons and whole-wheat lasagna. This guest appearance happened on the heels of President Obama authorizing the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010 (fact sheet, PDF), which includes $4.5 billion in new funds for schools whose nutrition standards meet updated guidelines and enables communities to create local farm to school networks and school gardens.
A Visual Feast at Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
After hearing chef Dan Barber describe his dishes as “unconstructed,” we wanted to experience the beauty that he and so many other people describe. Unfortunately, we’re based in Minnesota and we’re a public radio gig, which means we don’t quite have the funds to fly to the Pocantico Hills for a gourmet meal. Fortunately, we found a set of wonderful photos documenting the ulterior epicure’s nine-course meal in the early autumn of 2007, along with his review. His set up and conclusion are reason enough for reading why Dan Barber matters in this food-to-table movement. Bon appetit!
Moments and reminders of how humans ought to live are, in our world, scarce. Having grown up on the prairie plains of the Midwest amidst fields of corn, wheat, and cattle, there wasn’t a day that I went to school without passing by my dinner.
I was quite shocked to discover that for many Americans, hundreds of miles, if not infinitely more, conceptually, separated the farm from their table. Some, sadly, lived just down the street from me. At the age of 6, I was confused and frightened by my friend Tommy’s unintelligible disconnect from the beef he ate and the cows that could be heard lowing in the distance from his swing-set out back.
Cows didn’t have bones, he insisted — there were none in his meatloaf, tacos, or burgers — and neither did chickens, which always came in the form of “tenders,” or, ironically, “fingers.”
As an avid fisher-child, I knew very will how to navigate the pin-boned-riddled bass my dad and I used to haul home on weekend trips. For Tommy, fish were amorphous, water-bound creatures that ended up on his plate as deep-fried “sticks.”
What does all this have to do with Blue Hill at Stone Barns?
Quite frankly, a lot.
While a farm-raised kid like me is tempted to roll my eyes at the trend-supported “slow foods” and “sustainable” mindset/lifestyle, I am reminded of Tommy, and those like him.
When chefs like Dan Barber, owner and executive chef of Blue Hill at Stone Barns, dawned on the American food scene like demi-gods from the corn fields, I couldn’t help but snicker with a dose of cynicism… I mean, this is basically how my parents and I grew up eating.
Regardless, I have come to immensely appreciate what Chef Barber, and chefs like him, are doing for our food culture: bringing us back to the land.
I won’t belabor this point anymore, or details about the restaurant, which can easily be skimmed from its website. The only thing I will say is that it’s tucked away just 40 minutes (on a good traffic day) outside of New York City on the old Rockefeller estate at Pocantico Hills, in a part of our world that I wished more of it could be like. A visit to the farm itself, if not for the food (which would be a pity to miss out on), is worth the trip.
We put ourselves in the capable hands of the kitchen and ordered the “Farmer’s Feast” — a multi-course progression of dishes assembled at the whim of the chef.
The food at Blue Hill at Stone Barns is special. It’s fresh, the compositions are well-balanced, the flavors are nuanced, and everything is cooked perfectly. Even more impressive — all of the produce, and most of the meats, including the chicken (Stone Barns “Barred Silver” chicken) and Berkshire pork served to us, were from the farm surrounding the restaurant.
Take, for instance, our flights-upon-flights of amuses bouche that march out in rapid-fire to welcome us to the table. The most interesting, perhaps, were miniature “tomato burgers” served on a bed of sesame seeds. What appeared to be a straightforward sandwich, however, turned out to be an exciting exercise in unexpected flavor combinations. The the “buns” were actually sweet buttery financiers. The filling was a tangy sweet mix of tomatoes and onions.
Having caught the tail end of an Indian summer, heirloom tomatoes, summer corn and green beans lingered around to delight us. As well, a peek into the coming autumn yielded an abundance of mushrooms — nearly a dozen, which our server proudly paraded out to use during the meal — and various beans.
These, and many farm-fresh (literally) items were spotlighted in various forms on our succession of plates, like a jewel-like salad of heirloom tomatoes. It featured a refreshing combination of tomatoes — raw, sun-dried, in foam and sorbet form — with grilled stone fruits, melons, and shaved fennel.
The most memorable dish of the evening, for me, was a salad showcasing those green beans. The composition included raisins, green and wax beans, and bits of pistachio. It was dressed with a pea-green vinegar-kissed “garden gazpacho” and topped with broad, tissue-thin shavings of matsutake mushrooms and a fresh farm egg crusted with hazelnuts. The oval orb, which at first glance appeared to be a Scotch egg, turned out to be simply a soft-boiled egg skinned in a thin cry shell of hazelnut dust and deep-fried. Piercing the egg yielded a delightfully runny yolk that blanketed the salad with a warm velvety coating. The flavor combination — creamy, tart, sweet, grassy, and nutty created — was truly extraordinary.
This course was followed by another successful dish which featured a coral-coloured fillet of local brook trout resting on a bed of summer corn and local chanterelles. The fish was barely cooked — in wonderful silky limbo between flaky and raw. The fillet glistened with a light but flavorful and naturally sweet tomato-based sauce flecked with smoky coriander seeds and briny capers (one of the only non-local ingredients I spotted). This was satisfyingly simple, yet extraordinarily sophisticated.
While nothing failed, not everything worked, either. The “Embryonic Pasta” was the low point for me for two reasons. This cleverly-named dish was composed of all-egg yolk pasta and a nice, slightly warmed and cooked medley of tomatoes and shiitake mushrooms in a light tomato cream broth.
The first disappointment was the pasta itself. Our server had told us that using all egg yolks gave the pasta an extremely peculiar texture. I had imagined it to be silky, creamy, and very velvety. Instead, it was rather firm and toothy — more like a grain-based pasta.
That being said, I loved the flavors of this dish. It was a strange mix of Italian and Asian flavors. I can’t recall whether it had any heat to it, but I do remember the composition to be slightly sweeter (as most dishes turned out) than I had expected. This sweetness wouldn’t have been bad, per se, if it were cut by a nice dry wine (like a Sauvignon Blanc, which I’ve enjoyed especially with shiitakes before). However, (the second disappointment of this course), the sommelier had paired a too-sweet Riesling Kabinett with this pasta course, a pairing which was slightly more successfully with the brook trout course. The wine was so unenjoyable that it ruined this pasta dish for me. Despite how good the flavor was, I didn’t finish it.
This brings me to the wine program. I’m sure Blue Hill at Stone Barn’s servers are very well-versed in wine. It is unfortunate that our server’s taste didn’t match mine. I had told the sommelier that I didn’t want to do a full pairing. I requested a glass of white and a glass of red, and perhaps a beer pairing, if he/the chef thought that there was a course with which beer would pair particularly well with.
Sadly, I didn’t enjoy the beer — a very “hoppy” Victory Prima Pils — that was paired with the our two salads, although I did feel that it went better with the green beans and egg than with the tomatoes and fruit. And, as stated, the Riesling was excruciatingly sweet for both the already sweet pasta and fish courses (the tomato sauces).
Our red wine, however, paired with chicken, and later pork belly, was excellent.
Desserts were accomplished, but rather unexciting. For some reason, I find myself liking pre-dessert courses more than the dessert course, proper. I haven’t quite thought through the reasoning, but I bet it goes something like this: pre-desserts tend to be more refreshing than satisfyingly (often cloyingly) sweet, they also tend to be smaller, and more often involve fruit and/or sorbet.
And, so it was with the desserts at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. We were reminded of summer once again in both of our sweet courses. Our pre-dessert featured a neon-red pool of watermelon soup and small dices of watermelon topped with a tiny quenelle of ricotta sorbet. The combination of these two elements far out-paced what was to follow: a rather ordinary lemon cheesecake with blueberries and creme fraiche ice cream.
A phalanx of petite fours, including a bowl of darling ruby-coloured fraises du bois, were sent after dessert was cleared. Coffee was served (another non-local product), and the bill was settled.
Blue Hill at Stone Barns is one of the most novel and special restaurants I have ever visited. And yet, what makes the restaurant special are practices and elements that seem highly intuitive and familiar to me, a product of the Midwest and an American consumer: eat what you grow.
That, sadly, is easier said than done these days.
The tenants of Blue Hill at Stone Barns (much like those of the mother ship, Chez Panisse, where I had a spectacular meal last year) require and restrict the restaurant to serving a certain subset of foods. Due to seasonal and regional limitations plus Chef Barber’s insistence that only the best of the garden is served, a number of the same items showed up repeatedly throughout our dinner. Tomatoes figured in somewhere on nearly all of our savory courses, as did mushrooms and beans to a lesser extent. Corn appeared on both our fish and pork dishes.
While this may seem monotonous or redundant, it really isn’t. It’s simply a matter of understanding, appreciating, and celebrating the abundance of what is before us.
Blue Hill at Stone Barns is very much a restaurant of the here and now — in terms of its situation vis-a-vis our nation’s restaurant trends, the current food culture in the world, and the food it serves every day. It captures the best of each day and serves it to its guests. In today’s world, this is tremendously exciting.
I hope to return to Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Maybe in the spring, or the dead of winter. I trust the kitchen and the staff will feed and take care of us with as much passion as on this visit.
This review of Blue Hill at Stone Barns was originally published on October 6, 2007 and reprinted, along with all photographs, with the permission of the ulterior epicure.
Chef Dan Barber on Emerging from the “Dark Ages” of American Food Life
by Krista Tippett, host
Dan Barber is one of those voices who stays with you and changes the way you move through ordinary time — the vast ordinary time, that is, that we all spend thinking about what we will eat, buying food, storing it, preparing it. His knowledge is as infectious as his passion. He wants us to enjoy our food. And if we become “greedy” for flavor, he says, we will also reform our agricultural ecologies and economies.
This is an irresistible proposition, of course. And what is strange, he helps us realize, is how far-fetched it sounds. As I told him when we began to speak, I grew up in the 1960’s and 1970’s, an era Dan Barber calls “the Dark Ages” of American food life. My grandparents grew their own vegetables, and we found that quaint but a bit puzzling. Buying supermarket food that emerged from boxes and cans was progress.
And yet, the transcendent food memory of my childhood remains the enormous, red, delicious tomatoes that were available at a ramshackle store on Main Street for a couple of months each summer. It needed nothing added to be the most gorgeous meal in itself. When I mentioned those tomatoes, an audible sigh went up in the audience. We all remember those tomatoes. Dan Barber — and others like Michael Pollan and Barbara Kingsolver — would have us ask this: Why did we abandon that pleasure, and how can we reclaim it as part of our ordinary food lives?
That question becomes more urgent, relevant far beyond the matter of pleasure, as we learn what Dan Barber knows about the nutrition that comes with flavor, the potential that maximally flavorful, nutritious food is now being shown to have even in the fight against cancer. The processes and distribution systems that have leached the flavor out of seeds and produce — processes that also mean I can’t grow those transcendent tomatoes in my home garden even if I try — have made them inexpensive and available in all seasons. But in this generation or the next, the ecological costs of this will become unsupportable.
This is a good news story, though, for a change. Because this crisis, if Dan Barber is to be believed, will bring us home. The “great social movement” of which he is part is forcing us to re-learn where our food comes from. It is helping us internalize the natural connection between what is ethically grown and healthful and what is delicious. It is helping us discover the particular flavors and bounty of where we come from. You will learn more about root vegetables — especially carrots — in this conversation than you ever realized could be fascinating. Who knew, for example, that sweetness that forms in root vegetables in the hard freezes of northern climates is the vegetable telling you, as Dan Barber tells us, that it does not want to die.
Dan Barber’s cooking is about storytelling too, and it is fascinating to take in his approach to cooking that points “the vectors” at the brilliance and art of farming rather than the flourishes of his cooking. Though the gestalt of his two restaurants is by all accounts extraordinary. Food & Wine has called Blue Hill at Stone Barns one of the world’s “top 10 life-changing restaurants.”
If there is a challenge to the rest of us in Dan Barber’s delightful mission to put pleasure back at the center of our food lives, it is that we will all have to take up our boning knives and cast iron skillets again and begin again to cook. Some will be uncomfortable with his provocative and impassioned explanation of why he is not vegetarian. He is also not a purist in the local food movement. He confesses to loving citrus on his menus all through the year, and insists that we must make the same distribution systems that have alienated us from flavor begin to work for the regional agricultural economies we must create.
I have cooked more, and with more pleasure, since this conversation. I have had conversations with my children that Dan Barber gave me ideas and words to have. I continue to savor and tease out the unexpected link he offers between what is pleasurable, what is ethical, and what is life-giving, and it is a great gift that I am delighted to pass on to you.
(Photos of dishes from Blue Hill at Stone Barns by Ulterior Epicure/Flickr.)
Chef Dan Barber and Mindful Eating in the 21st Century (Live Video)
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
date: Friday, November 5th, 2010
time: 7:30 p.m. Eastern
duration: 90 minutes
From Atlanta we take you to Indianapolis to bring you a New York chef who is a game-changing voice of the farm-to-table movement. Tonight at 7:30 pm Eastern, we’ll be streaming live video of Krista’s interview with Dan Barber, of Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns fame, from the Spirit & Place Festival in Indianapolis.
Barber is a James Beard Award winner, who is using his New York restaurants to highlight the distinct quality of locally grown, seasonal, and sustainable agriculture. His approach to mindful eating and the values surrounding food in contemporary lives is something you don’t want to miss.
How this public event came about has been serendipitous. A number of years ago Krista interviewed Rabbi Sandy Sasso for a show on the spirituality of parenting. It so happens that she’s been deeply involved in an annual, 10-day festival called Spirit & Place, Indiana’s largest civic festival, which promotes “civic engagement, respect for diversity, thoughtful reflection, public imagination, and enduring change through creative collaborations between arts, faith-based, and civic institutions.” She invited us to come down and we accepted!
This venue is an ideal forum for our conversation, which will enlarge and deepen our understanding about sustainability issues through discussing core human values of beauty and living in relationship with one another. Dan Barber stresses that, for him, a core value of sustainability is expressed through an age-old tradition: “The sustainability stuff comes in through the stories. The thing that the industrial food chain will never have is the ability to tell stories.” I look forward to hearing him tell some of those stories and share his imagination about how those narratives enliven his experiences as a grower and chef and thinker.
While preparing for this public event, I can’t help but hear echoes of Krista’s conversation with Ellen Davis — specifically, about getting to know your farmer and understanding where your food comes from. He seems to be one of those bridge people whose appreciation for food and the land was cultivated by working Blue Hill Farm in the Berkshires as a teenager, where he spent most summers “bailing hay and moving cows, pasturing them from field to field.” His Know Thy Farmer effort reminds me of a fabulous film campaign out of Maine called Meet Your Farmer, which emphasizes the values in understanding the struggle of people producing food, the joy of working intimately with others, and celebrating a table of locally grown produce and meat and its flavors even more.
He’s also a businessman. Dan Barber builds on the idea of interdependency but applies it in a fresh way through his fine dining restaurants — that both businesses and livelihoods of the people who work there are mutually dependent. In effect, his farm depends on the viability of his restaurants and his restaurants rely on the quality of the food produced at his farm.
In ten short years, Barber has impacted public consciousness about our everyday food choices and perhaps even agricultural policy. In 2009 he was named to the annual Time 100 list. In 2010, the World Economic Forum invited him to Davos, Switzerland to participate in their annual meeting, and President Barack Obama appointed him to serve on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness, Sports and Nutrition. And his TED2010 talk has become a sensation that has been forwarded to more than one of our producers’ email in-boxes.
Please join us right here or on the Being LIVE page and watch the live stream of this public conversation. For those of you who can’t make it, not to worry. We’re recording it and video will be immediately available for playback after the event.
Catching a Carp on Rosh Hashanah
by Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
It’s now officially 5771. Last night’s sunset marked the beginning of Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish New Year. The holiday typically falls in September (163 days after the first day of Passover). For me it always signals a shift from the light, fruity days of summer to a brisker and and more sober season.
It’s common for Jews to celebrate Rosh Hashanah with apples and honey and other sweet foods to usher in a sweet new year. I grew up eating gefilte fish, which my mother prepares mostly from scratch with carp and pike from the local fishmonger.
Gefilte fish evokes a childhood memory of reading Barbara Cohen’s classic, The Carp in the Bathtub. It’s the story of a girl and her brother in Flatbush, Brooklyn who become attached to a live carp their mother intends to use for gefilte fish. The children try to save the carp from its fate. I won’t give away the ending but let’s just say it’s bittersweet.
Apparently I’m not the only one with a fond memory of gefilte fish and Cohen’s book. Last night, a friend posted on Facebook that she’d rediscovered A Carp in the Bathtub; she and her son planned to catch a carp and keep it for a few days until the creature fulfilled its gefilte fish destiny with some help from grandma. But things did not go according to plan. The carp evaded capture and stole off with the family fishing rod. They ate salad at Rosh Hashanah dinner instead of gelatinous fish balls. There was one bright spot: everyone got to use the bathtub this week.
For those of you who observe Rosh Hashanah, how are you continuing or adapting family traditions during these Days of Awe? What Rosh Hashanah memories do you cherish and carry forward into this new year?
What’s for (Vegan) Supper?
by Anne Breckbill, associate web developer
Exhaustion. A tough day and I was late leaving work when I realized that it was my night to cook for my vegan housemates. What easy, go-to meal did I have in my repertoire that I could whip up quickly without shopping ahead or thinking too much? Chili? Nope, meat. Omelet? Nope, eggs. Quesadillas? Cheese. Spinach soufflé? Eggs, milk and cheese! Arriving home, I glanced at the newly constructed cooking schedule to find that it was not my night to cook after all. A reprieve.
Sometimes work and life collide unexpectedly and serendipitously. This week, as I migrated comments from previous releases of “The Ethics of Eating” show into our current commenting system, I learned, of course, that our listeners are thoughtful, passionate, and diverse. While many expressed appreciation for Barbara Kingsolver’s reflection on her year of eating locally, some were outraged at the fact that she referred to slaughtering animals for food as “harvesting” them. Some found her yearlong experiment to be steeped in economic privilege. Still others considered it to be an impractical if not unsustainable way of life given limits of time and energy.
As I read these comments, I couldn’t ignore the fact that my current situation roots me centrally in these ideological and spiritual questions. Two weeks ago, I welcomed two new housemates into my home for the coming year. Our intention is to not only share expenses and responsibilities, but to share meals together as well. It won’t be simple. They are vegans; I am not. They buy only organic products and shop exclusively at the co-op; I shop sales at a large supermarket. They are home much of the day; I have a full-time job.
Suddenly I find myself challenged with the very questions and decisions that Kingsolver and SOF listeners invite me to face. Some of these challenges expose a lack of clarity in my own belief system, while others expose a misalignment between my held and lived values. So as I embark on my own yearlong experience with (at least partial) veganism, I open myself to these challenges and the myriad questions that accompany them:
- Is killing a sentient being for food cruel or is doing so simply playing my part in a carnivorous food chain?
- Am I able to integrate my love of animals and the bond to my pets with eating animal meat and loving a good steak?
- Am I willing or able to spend the extra money it takes to eat organically and locally?
- Where will I find the time and energy it takes to work full time and prepare healthy meals?
As I settle into the messiness of these questions, I’ll start planning ahead about what to serve the vegans this week.
Speak with Farmers
Chris Heagle, producer
Joel Salatin, the farmer featured in this clip (jump to the 4:20 mark) from the 2008 documentary Food, Inc. and owner of Polyface Farms, has found a way to be profitable while staying true to his family’s ideal that nature’s design is still the best pattern for the biological world. After hearing Ellen Davis speak so eloquently about stewardship of land, I couldn’t help but think of his words and Professor Davis’ advice on getting informed about how our food is produced:
Ms. Tippett: So apparently my senior editor, Trent, is Tweeting this conversation we’re having, and he has had a question come in from a student of yours who loves you …So it is how do city dwellers, urbanites, relate to an agrarian mindset without romanticizing it?
Prof. Davis: I think the best way to do that is to listen to farmers and to meet farmers. As we’ve been talking about, that’s easy to do now because there probably isn’t an urban area —
Ms. Tippett: Right. They’re in your city. Right.
Prof. Davis: Yeah, exactly. They’re in our city. So talk to them and find out what they’re doing, what their hopes are, and also what their struggles are. And I don’t know any farmer who isn’t struggling.
And it doesn’t matter what model of farming they’re using. If they’re using small farming, trying to get off the grid, or if they are involved in industrial farming, I don’t know any of them who are not struggling and to some degree suffering. So I think that’s the most important thing that we can do in order not to romanticize it. I’d also suggest that you can read some of what is happening in new modes of agricultural research.
Because some people think that when I or others are talking about agrarianism, we’re sort of talking about going back a hundred years, if not 2,000 years. But it’s not an exercise in nostalgia.
Reflections of a Fair-Weather Faster
Nancy Rosenbaum, associate producer
Monday was Yom Kippur and this year I decided to fast. Most of my life I’ve been a fair-weather faster. My immediate family in New Jersey gathers each year for a meal to mark Rosh Hashanah, but Yom Kippur and the breaking of the fast that follows it hasn’t been part of our tradition.
When I moved to Minnesota, I was touched by how Jewish friends — and sometimes strangers — reached out to include me in their holiday gatherings. This year, my colleague Molly asked if I wanted to break the Yom Kippur fast at her parent’s house. She promised there would be a lot of food and she did not disappoint.
Celebrating the Jewish holidays away from home has meant experiencing them anew — with different foods, people, and rituals. I felt motivated to fast this year knowing that, by sundown, I would have a welcoming place to go and break my fast with others who had done the same.