August 25, 2014

Choice products from Spain's Growing Organic Movement

The best kinds of trips are those that continue to yield pleasures and surprises long after they are over. Our March break trip to Spain turned out to be exactly that type. Last week, five months after our return, a connection made in Spain boomeranged back into my life in a happy way.

The  story centers on chocolate, a delicious dark organic chocolate made with olive oil by a boutique company in Madrid, Chocolate Organiko. I came upon it at a small shop in the enchanting Barrio de las Lettras neighborhood of Madrid. It was meant as a gift but you know how it goes--I ended up devouring it before I could bestow in on another, and fell in love.

Chocolate Oganiko started in 2006 when husband and wife Carlos Ortiz and Eugenia Pozo set up a small chocolate workshop. The venture may have been an expression of Carlos's genes, or at least of the family's underwear: his grandfather bought and sold products from the Spanish colonies, roasting his own new world coffee beans and transforming his cocoa beans into chocolate. His grandmother, meanwhile, made underwear for her children out of the soft sacks used for cane sugar, cocoa, and coffee beans.

Ortiz and Pozo decided their product would be completely organic, sourced Trinitario cocoa beans from small growers in the Dominican Republic and Trinidad, and set to work. When I tried to find out if I could buy the brand in the U.S., I found one of the company's European distributors, Inés Arteaga. While her Barcelona-based company, Organic Gourmet, will ship to the U.S. only for special requests made by snail mail, she informed me that the online shop La Tienda does handle online U.S. orders. (I've since found an even more complete selection of the Organiko line at Inés and I  struck up a friendly correspondence, and I gave her some advice on jazz clubs in New York for a trip she was planning with her family.

This week, I met the Arteaga family at the Metropolitan Museum: Inés, husband Manel (Manuel in Catalan), daughter Clara and son Pablo. Inés's passion for organic products stems from her upbringing in Navarra, in northwest Spain. Her father tended to a small organic farm, but instead of following her love for the land, Inés at first pursued careers as a pharmacist then winemaker. It was after those experiences that she decided she wanted to return to the ideal of organic farming, but on the retail end. Her Organic Gourmet mail-order business, launched in 2012,  is dedicated to promoting and selling the finest organic products of Spain.

As in the U.S., many conventional farmers in Spain are gradually going organic. But while the rich agricultural soil of Spain and the know-how of its farmers has made it the number one producer of organic vegetables in Europe and the fifth in the world, almost all of the country's organic bounty is exported. It's a little like what writer Paul Greenberg has been telling us America does with its high-quality wild fish catch.

In Spain, the growth and export of its best organic produce is driven by two factors: outside consumer demand from wealthier EU countries, and a Spanish economy that has been in crisis for the last six years. Unemployment hovers at 26%, and if we think millenials have it bad in America, the unemployment rate is 50% for the 6 million Spanish youths under 24. Buying organic is not in the average person's budget in a country where everyone from PhD holders to sex workers have had to leave the country to find work. While we were in Spain, protests erupted in Madrid, and everywhere we saw the graffitied slogan "22M Marcha a Madrid" raising awareness before a March 22 "March of Dignity" to protest austerity measures, evictions, unemployment and widespread poverty.

So you can see why Inés's business, which is supporting small producers who are trying to help their country go green, might have had a rocky start. In any case, her excellent products are carefully selected for quality and taste, from jamón ibérico, honeys, olive oils and vinegar to seaweed chimichurri salsas, these delicious sweet and savory biscuits from Paul and Pippa, and of course Chocolate Organiko. If you are living anywhere in the EU, check out the website and do your part to invigorate Spain's economy!

July 25, 2014

More Things on the Menu in Calgary

If you liked reading about what people are cooking and eating in Calgary in my last post, I applaud you (non-Canadian) readers for your broad interests and offer all of you another look at the scene there.

The one Japanese-owned place I tried, Carino Japanese Bistro, was hardly traditional and in fact pretty quirky. Owner Toshi Karino is a wine lover who's worked in the local restaurant business for years and leapt at the opportunity to take over a wine bar located a short drive north from the city center.

Toshi Karino, in front of his bistro's logo;
he's really more welcoming than his t-shirt.

Small and friendly, the place feels like any number of eating and drinking establishments you'd find throughout Japan: an abbreviated bar, an equally small dining room; this is a joint you'd feel comfortable dropping in on every night. Unlike most Japanese places, though, it comes with its own back story: "Carino" is an Italinization (I may have made this word up but you know what I mean) of Karino's last name, and the logo he selected involves  the silhouette of a traditionally dressed Japanese woman--complete with elaborate hairdo and flapping kimono--zipping around Roma on a Vespa.

Duck! Duck!! Duck!!!

As in many a Japanese casual restaurant, you'll find some great Japanese-Italian mashups, although here perhaps pumped up several notches to satisfy our extreme eating times. There's mentaiko ravioli gyoza (made with pork and spicy pollock roe), a wagyu burger with your choice of a traditional or all-rice bun, and pizza harumaki (mozarella and basil spring rolls). I loved chef Asae Yanagisawa's Duck! Duck!! Duck!! dish, which takes its name from the tale of a medieval Catholic bishop on his way to visit the Pope in Rome. The cleric sends an emissary ahead to source the best wine along his route, and when the underling identifies superior wine at a Montefiascone inn, he excitedly scrawls "Est! Est!! Est!!" on the inn door to mark it for his boss. Air Canada's in-flight magazine, En Route, an influential arbiter when it comes to dining, had the same enthusiastic reaction to Carino's duck dish, which helped land the restaurant on the magazine's list of top new restaurants for 2013.

Karino noted that the dish was several incarnations into its life on the menu, this one involving a crispy confit leg, a ramekin of silky gnocchi studded with duck and foie gras, and rosy slices of duck breast. The most Japanese element of the dish, the breast, is seared well on the skin side  to crisp it, then finished in a steamer over a mixture of soy sauce, sake and mirin.

At CharCut.

Pig head mortadella cross-section.

At the downtown magnet for adventurous carnivores CharCut, the star of the evening was co-chefs and co-owners John Jackson and Connie DeSousa's beautiful pig head mortadella, which is shaved paper thin and served with a miniature cast iron skillet filled with whole-grain mustard. Local lore has it that DeSousa can debone a pig's head in no time flat (helpful, considering how good and in-demand this dish is), and she thriftily uses the skin as the casing for her mortadella. Head and shoulder meat are ground, mixed with spices, truffles, and pistachios, brined for twenty-four hours, stuffed back into the skin and then steamed for another nine hours. It's pretty wonderful tasting.

Farm sandwich: Ewe-phoria!

Some stuff you can't get in the U.S. at Janice Beaton Fine Cheese.

I can't forget the charming spot Farm, which does a great roast chicken sandwich with cilantro slaw, pickled jalapenos, aged cheddar and chipotle garlic mayo. The chicken comes from a place called (somewhat painfully) Ewe-nique Farms in Champion, Alberta, which is better known for its lamb. Farm the restaurant is co-owned by Janice Beaton, whose adjacent shop Janice Beaton Fine Cheese must be a province-wide beacon for cheese lovers. The pretty shop is an impressive showcase for Canadian and international cheeses, and worth a detour if you're anywhere near the city of Calgary.

I've run out of time and space haven't even mentioned Banff! That will have to wait for another time and place.

July 19, 2014

What's on the Menu in Calgary

I'm in the vast and varied Canadian province of Alberta now, taking in some great sights, food and drink. Our first stop was Calgary, a boom town set between the prairies and the tall peaks of the Canadian Rockies.

Perhaps predictably, in a hard-working, hard-playing town full of cowhands (this year's Calgary Stampede ended just before we hit town), ranchers and oil and gas tycoons, you'll find ambitious and adventurous chefs who are feeding them. 

At Catch, 34-year-old executive chef Kyle Groves tends to a rooftop garden, a beehive and a network of local farmers and seafood suppliers to create seasonal menus built around the daily catch. It seems foolhardy to create seafood-themed restaurant in a landlocked province, yet when it opened 12 ago under chef Michael Noble, Catch was named the best new restaurant in the country. Since then, it has retained its edge and become something of a factory for up-and-coming kitchen talent, all while weaning Calgarians off their beef-centric diets. 

Chef Groves shows off  beautiful Lethbridge shelling peas.
The night we visited, Groves, a native son of Calgary who trained in Scotland and at two Michelin-starred restaurants in London,  had on hand fresh, sweet shelling peas from a farm in nearby Lethbridge. One of his favorite ways of serving them is grilled and salted, to be eaten out of hand edamame-style. He also loves the organic Lethbridge rhubarb he gets. One favorite use is to juice them with a bit of lime, combine with sliced jalapeno, balance with a little honey, and throw in some fresh humpback shrimp, scallops and hearts of palm for a delicious ceviche.

All the seafood Catch serves is certified by the Vancouver Aquarium's Ocean Wise sustainability program, similar to America's Marine Stewardship Council's designation.  Oysters are flown in from both East and West coasts, and Catch has started to share its daily shipment of seafood with customers. Arrivals are posted each week day on Twitter, and customers can call in to place their order, which will be filleted, de-boned, or de-bearded before pick up. Like any good fishmonger, they also offer cooking suggestions and answer questions. Over the years, Groves has seen locals' growing willingness to venture beyond the safe choices of salmon and halibut to embrace more challenging sea fare like gooseneck barnacles, octopus and razor clams.

Edamame-style grilled shelling peas, smoky and delicious.

Mushrooms every which way!
Mushrooms in Alberta are some of the best we have tasted, and sous chef Jenny Kang impressed us with this dish of grilled king oysters, morels braised in clarified butter and tempura-stye deep fried shiitake, served with little orbs of Fairwinds Farm goat cheese ricotta and a fresh pea puree. 

Oh, and for a chef, here's the joy of living in these northern latitudes, where at the height of summer it can stay light until close to 11 pm: After dinner service,  Groves can go for a 10K run along the Bow River. I didn't have the heart to ask how it fares through the short days and long nights of winter! 

Stay tuned for more on Calgary and beautiful Banff...

July 2, 2014

Hello, Columbus, Part Two

A year ago, I visited Columbus and was impressed with its emerging food and drink culture and the enticing selection of vendors at the centrally located North Market.

Last week I dropped in on the city for the second time. It was kind of like when you revisit relatives and find a confident young adult in place of the gawky teenager you remember from before. In this filled-out version of Columbus, there were great coffee houses, brewery-restaurants galore, Korean joints, fried chicken and ramen, too. 

Rick Harrison Wolfe, director of North Market and my guide to the good-tasting nooks and crannies of Columbus, noted, for example, that in the three years since he's been back in the city, the number of food trucks has leap-frogged from three to fifty. There are suddenly eighty breweries in the state of Ohio, plus well-attended beer and wine festivals (twenty-one Ohio wineries will be at the latter this year; who knew?)  that help boost interest in those growing industries. 

Rick Harrison Wolfe, keeping tabs on the Columbus scene
from his perch at North Market.

In addition to The Columbus Dispatch's food and drink quarterly Crave and of course Edible Columbus, I spotted another food and drink spin-off quarterly on this visit, Stock & Barrel, started by city magazine (614) Columbus. Intriguing fact gleaned from this publication: brewer Scott Francis of Columbus Brewing Company, the first microbrewery in the city, started a side business opening breweries for country clubs. This is not something you'll find in Brooklyn.
Outside view of North Market

And inside, where you can buy goat shanks and hearts.

Heading up to Wolfe's office, I passed a cart carrying goat shanks from the vendor Bluescreek Farm. Specializing in locally grown grass-fed beef, hog, lamb and goat, Bluescreek also offers whole-animal butchering and sausage-making classes. Jamie Smith, daughter of founders Cheryl and David Smith, told me that the restaurant Alana's Food and Wine near Ohio State University has driven demand with its delicious braised goat shank dish, and it seems that the classes have been a good way of converting students to believers in whole animal cooking. In this interesting Nola Studiola post, Jamie talks about the student who cooked stuffed boneless lamb breast as a result of taking several Bluescreek classes and doing its "butcher for a day" program. Let's see if this dish pops up on our neighborhood nose-to-tail restaurant menu!

View from the bar at Seventh Son Brewing Co. 

OYO refresher in a Mason jar.
I especially loved the concept at Seventh Son Brewing Co., a bright and airy indoor-outdoor brewery/bar in the city's Italian Village district. Since it doesn't have a kitchen, a different food truck parks outside every night, so you can order good, cheap grub to buffer the effects of a personality-filled beer and cocktail list. The night we were there, it was hot and savory Dutch Indonesian food from Aromaku. The above cocktail of OYO Honey Vanilla Bean vodka (from Columbus-based Middle West Spirits) was a winner, too.

June 25, 2014

Nose-to-Tail Dining at the Beard House with San Francisco's Bluestem Brasserie

On Friday, I attended an especially lively and fun Beard House dinner, full of fizz and crackle. If you've never been to one of these West 12th Street extravaganzas, imagine the book-lined library of a Victorian eccentric who was also partial to mirrored surfaces and pineapple-patterned wallpaper. Then imagine that room crammed with tables, each place setting packed with so many wine glasses and pieces of silverware that you feel like you're at a tableware trade show. That's what dinner at the townhouse once inhabited by American culinary icon James Beard feels like.

What made the night so special were our hosts, paragons of hospitality Adam and Stacy Jed, owners of Bluestem Brasserie in San Francisco, and the dinner that their gifted kitchen team, headed by chef Francis Hogan and pastry chef James Ormsby, sent out.

It was a perfect, mild summer evening for drinks and hors d'oeuvres in the garden, and the restaurant's signature Bluestem Smash cocktail, made with St. Germain, vodka, seasonal fruit, mint, lime and sparkling wine, provided the aforementioned fizz. The first crackle came courtesy of morsels of smoked salmon belly, paddlefish caviar, and crème fraîche on, yes, cracklings of salmon skin.

The other notable crunch of the night came on the outer edges of a cleverly conceived dish of slow-cooked Fallon Hills Ranch lamb belly. Like many dishes at Bluestem, this one was inspired by the self-imposed challenge of grass-fed, nose-to-tail whole-animal cooking. When four lambs and two pigs a week are delivered to your kitchen, as they are at Bluestem, what do you do with off cuts that other kitchens might discard? If you're Hogan, you stack lamb bellies six at a time,  rubbing them with olive oil, sea salt and rosemary, then slow cook the pressed blocks for twenty-four hours.  Lamb belly, he explained, is not fatty like that of pork, and only about three-quarters of a centimeter thick. Yet prepared his way and served with a blueberry agrodolce, preserved citrus yogurt and Douglas fir pine-scented Himalayan red rice, the layered, geological-looking lamb belly tasted just a succulent as its porcine counterpart.

I also liked the playful sweet-savory desserts that Hogan and Ormsby came up with. The first was a play on milk and cookies with a trio of goat and sheep's milk cheeses from Pennyroyal Farm in Mendocino sitting in for the milk. A chocolate shortbread Oreo-style cookie was filled with a whipped chevre-style Laychee and red wine-soaked cherries; a plush-rinded camembert-style cheese called Velvet Sister came balanced atop a crispy cornmeal biscotti made with a grassy olive oil, and a mission fig-filled shortbread accompanied a nutty aged goat and sheep's milk cheese called Boont Corners.

Hogan was so happy to be in a state where it's legal to purchase foie gras, that he requested that Ormsby build a second savory-sweet dessert around a torchon of Hudson Valley Foie Gras. He created a"PB and J" constructed of toasted, vanilla-soaked brioche, a peanut-cocoa nib tuile, caramelized white chocolate ganache and the disc of foie gras.

Asked what the difference was between cooking on the West Coast compared to our side of the country, Hogan who grew up in New Jersey and has cooked in restaurants in Philadelphia and Seattle as well, said, "The East Coast is more technique driven, and the West Coast is more ingredient driven--you can source so locally in San Francisco." Grrr. But we have the beauty of the changing seasons here, right? Appetite whetted for all that hyper-local sourcing, I'm counting the weeks before I can make another trip to the Bay Area.

June 18, 2014

At Shelburne Farms in Vermont, Steel Cut Oat Risotto

Can they look more content? Shelburne's Brown Swiss Cows.

This time of year makes me think of Shelburne Farms, the dynamic, progressive farm disguised as an idyllic retreat on the shores of Lake Champlain. It's a picture-perfect getaway as well as a working farm and a not-for-profit dedicated to educating for a sustainable future.

The 1,400 acre Vermont spread is what's left of a sprawling model farm and country retreat of the granddaughter of railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt and her family. Now overseen by a board composed of educators, environmentalists, farmers and philanthropists, the not-for-profit helped launched the Farm-Based Education Network and is a leader in Vermont’s Farm to School program. It also offers onsite educational programs for young people and professional development sessions on sustainability, food and agriculture.

Peonies in the garden.

While there to attend the farm's annual weekend-long cheese making workshop, Pasture to Palate, I stayed in the Inn at Shelburne Farms, which has been restored to its 19th-century glory with many original furnishings, and is fronted by a formal garden that has likewise been shaped according to Lila Vanderbilt Webb's original design.

The steel cut oat risotto, dressed up with a garden flower. 

What stands out in memory, besides the many delicious Vermont cheeses I tasted, learning the cheddar-making process, and the beauty of the farm and its lovable animals (which children and adults are reminded will eventually feed us), is executive chef David Hugo's beautiful and satisfying steel cut oat risotto.  Hugo, a Vermont native who trained at the Culinary Institute of America and has cooked in kitchens from Paris to San Francisco, was named Chef of the Year in April by the Vermont Chamber of Commerce.

To make this dish, Hugo explains that he cooks two parts oats to one part whole milk risotto style, slowly adding the milk and stirring for about 20 to 25 minutes. He then adds a sauté of onions and bacon, a little more milk, and grated Shelburne Farms clothbound cheddar. The risotto is plated in a bed of sautéed farm-grown spinach, and finished with two poached eggs, also from the farm. You can't get more local, or delicious, than this mashup of Italian technique and farm-grown ingredients. 

May 12, 2014

Edible Institute 2014 Wrap-Up

Anna Lappé

Some quick thoughts about the wonderful and thought-provoking Edible Institute 2014 that I attended over the weekend. When Brian Halweil, who publishes four Edibles, in Manhattan, Brooklyn, East End and Long Island, opened the conference, he said one of his goals was to "draw a new path for the food and drink" community.

The conference, put on by Edible Communities Publications, did that, and more. New York Times columnist Mark Bittman, the day's keynote speaker, elaborated on his recent provocative Times op-ed piece asserting that good food advocates would do well to lay off the anti-GMO campaign and focus on issues of sustainability (including banning the prophylactic use of antibiotics on livestock and better pay for farmworkers) and banning marketing of junk food to kids under 19.

Nevin Cohen, a professor of environmental studies at The New School, teaches courses on food systems and is working on a book titled "Kale of Two Cities" (with apologies to Dickens and Mayor de Blasio, he said). He called out the "good food movement" for "being largely white," but pointed to activist groups like La Finca Del Sur, an urban farm cooperative in the South Bronx run by Latina and Black women.

A rollicking panel on seafood posed the question "How will small-scale fishers save East Coast seafood?" Moderated by writer Paul Greenberg, it was filled with great storytellers: Sean Barrett of Dock to Dish, Mike Martinsen of Montauk Shellfish Company and Newfoundland fisherman Bren Smith. Smith has invented something he calls "3-D ocean farming," which I love for it's economy and emphasis on raising the profile of seaweed in the pantheon of sea foods. Martinsen told a moving story (involving Buddhist chanting and the magical appearance of pilot whales as far as the eye can see) about how he lived through the collapse of the oyster and then lobster fisheries, then took a detour to get a degree in biology before partnering with one of his professors to start an oyster cultivation business. Because of these mighty bivalves' ability to filter estuaries and harbors and provide clean, sustainable sources of protein, Martinsen said somewhat incredulously, "I can't find anything wrong with what I'm doing."

Poet-famer Scott Chaskey of Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett, one of the country's first CSAs, talked about how he couldn't find a single earthworm on the farm's four acres when he started farming the land 30 years ago. Today, the farm has grown to over 30 acres and it's teeming with worms, thanks to sustainable practices that have allowed 500 varieties of vegetables and flowers to thrive.

Anna Lappé one of the founders of The Small Planet Institute and the daughter of Frances Moore Lappé opened day two with her keynote speech, an impassioned call for a kind of activism that can stand up to the might of deep-pocketed food and agriculture corporations and their lobbyists. Her practical advice included showing individual members of the community how small actions (a garden, a neighborhood coop) can add up, and quashing the oft-heard criticism that the fight for real food is led by "elitists." Chèvre eating aside, it's the multinationals that cynically push sugary junk foods on children who are the true elitists driving the majority of food sales in this country, she said, choking up with emotion at one point.

There were many more speakers to learn from but instead of relying on me, why not livestream it yourself?