September 20, 2013
You have to hand it to Chipotle. Not only has the company released a captivating and buzz-worthy viral ad/video game package, with The Scarecrow, but it has also managed – in just a few short years – to position itself as a viable alternative to other fast food menus leaden with industrially produced meals.
Indeed, a slick dystopian storyline and a heart-wrenching soundtrack do go a long way these days. And Chipotle made a smart choice when they hired MoonBot Studios, a meticulous, craft-obsessed media firm, which apparently spent two years developing nearly 200 incarnations of the brief story before landing on the current scarecrow-as-farmer-who-bucks-the-system narrative. The final product has been called hauntingly beautiful, brilliant, and amazing by more some of the most influential voices online.
Now that the dust has settled, and nearly 6 million people have seen the video on YouTube, some viewers may be left wondering: Could it really be that simple? Does Chipotle really represent the “other side of the food debate,” as this article from Midwest-based food and farming reporting collaborative Harvest Media implies? As I see it, the answer is: Yes. And no.
On the one hand, Chipotle has built its brand — and taken a significant business risk — by sourcing higher quality ingredients. In addition to buying some locally sourced produce, the cornerstone of this effort has been a commitment to serving meat raised without subtherapeutic (or growth-promoting) antibiotics. But that hasn’t always been easy to do, and finding a consistent source of this meat can be difficult. In Chipotle’s 2012 Annual Report, the restaurant acknowledges this fact, saying:
Some of our restaurants served conventionally raised beef for short periods during 2012 and the beginning of 2013, and more of our restaurants may periodically serve conventionally raised meats in the future due to supply constraints. When we become aware that one or more of our restaurants will serve conventionally raised meat, we clearly and specifically disclose this temporary change on signage….
More recently, the company has been in the spotlight for considering a switch to less-stringently produce “naturally raised” meat, and acknowledges that it may take less of a hardline approach to antibiotics. The company, says NPR, is “evaluating if this strict ‘never-ever’ antibiotic protocol is best for the animals, or whether animals can be treated when necessary and allowed to remain in the herd.”
We’ll go a little further into these supply constraints later, but for now, it’s worth acknowledging that these practices (and the company’s expressed interest in remaining transparent about it) has legitimately set Chipotle apart from many competitors.
On the other hand, let’s not forget that Chipotle is, ultimately, a giant company that does many things on what is more-or-less an industrial level. According to the latest annual report, Chipotle has close to 1,500 restaurants and, by the end of2012, it employed about 37,000 people, including about 34,000 who work hourly. Their average starting salary is $10.50 an hour, or a little higher minimum wage. In 2012, AOL reported on their employment practices:
A crew member is paid an average of $8.51 an hour, according to Glassdoor.com, compared to $7.63 at McDonald’s, $7.69 at Wendy’s, and $7.80 at Burger King.
Still, some Chipotle employees gripe anonymously on Glassdoor.com that they’re underpaid, given the intensity of the grind.
“Full-time effort for part-time pay,” wrote one crew member in Brunswick, Ohio. “The amount of pressure for a burrito joint is unheard of!” chirped another in Austin, Texas. And true enough, most Chipotle employees work full-time hours, Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold said, although schedules can vary.
None of these employees are unionized or covered by a collective bargaining agreement. Last year, after refusing to do so for six years, the company finally signed on to a fair food agreement that provides tomato pickers in Florida with one penny more per pound.
Chipotle’s business model also requires a few other departures from the scarewcrow’s quaint little taco stand sourced with produce fresh from his farm. For one, the average restaurant sales were $2.113 million, meaning it sells around 3 billion dollars of food every year, resulting in revenue of over $800 million.
Of course, none of these factors mean that Chipotle can’t, or shouldn’t be sharing its interpretation of the realities of our food system. But “The Scarecrow” raises other, bigger questions about just how far a private business can truly go to change that system on their own.
In a corporate statement released by the company on the day the video went live, Mark Crumpacker, chief marketing officer at Chipotle said:
In a system that is so heavily dominated by industrial agriculture and factory farms, we are committed to finding better, more sustainable sources for all of the ingredients we use and to helping build a better food system, much the same as the character in ‘The Scarecrow’ is taking important steps to fix what he perceives as being broken in his world.
Providing a larger market for sustainably raised food has its value. But as the shortage of antibiotic-free meat mentioned above implies: That’s not all there is to it. Companies like Chipotle can help drive a small wedge into, say, the highly consolidated livestock industry (where in four companies—Tyson, Cargill, JBS, and Smithfield—process more than half of the meat we eat). But they’re much less likely to get involved when it comes to say, helping new farmers access the land or capital required to start the kind of antibiotic-free and pasture-based operations that many consumers are asking for. Food industry consolidation has also resulted in a great deal of political power for the industry in the states where the nation’s farm policy is decided, so that efforts like The Beginning Farmer and Rancher Opportunity Act in this year’s Farm Bill, for instance, often lack a solid base of support.
This is not an argument for Chipotle to start lobbying in Washington (although things could get interesting if they did). But let’s not pretend that three minutes of dramatic, well-scored animation (nor the upcoming “TV show-length Big-Food-busting dark comedies, Farmed and Dangerous, that Chipotle will post online sometime in 2014”) is enough to single-handedly turn a huge, entrenched industry on its head. And we shouldn’t expect it to. But this ad – and the response it has generated – certainly says a lot about the increased expectation on big businesses to solve the problems other big businesses have wrought. Or, maybe that’s just what we tell ourselves — as we wait for the next sleek video to be released.
April 30, 2013
In April, most seasonal restaurants tend toward green foods. As the weather shifts, and new crops come to life, plates are decorated with tender young peas, asparagus, green garlic, and spring onions. And now, the green strawberry is joining the ranks.
Picked earlier than their red cousins (and abundant this time of year), green strawberries have been popping up on high-end menus for the last several years. And they show no sign of going out of style any time soon. Evan Rich, chef at the new San Francisco hot spot Rich Table, decided to take the plunge this year after noting the presence of green strawberries on a number of menus he admired. Then the underripe berries made an appearance at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Yerena Farms, a small organic berry grower based in California’s Monterey County was promoting the unusual item, and selling them to a number of prominent local chefs.
Rich bought several flats of the berries and pickled them using a simple brine of champagne vinegar, sugar and salt. Now he’s serving them with yogurt atop a scallop chip (the result of a process wherein the inventive chef purees, flattens, dehydrates and fries a local scallop).
So far, Rich been pleased with the results — a tart, perfumy flavor that catches diners just a little off-guard. “They have all the qualities of a strawberry without the sweetness,” he says. “They also provide a little hint of the sweet summer fruit to come.”
In cities like Portland, Oregon, where spring goes on a little longer, chefs have been seen pairing green strawberries with things like duck confit and rhubarb well into May. But green strawberries aren’t just for savory dishes. Brooklyn’s hipster pizzeria Roberta’s makes a green strawberries shortcake and at San Francisco’s Perbacco, pastry chef Laura Cronin regularly incorporates this unusual ingredient into her desserts this time of year.
“They have a more acidic flavor than red strawberries. I candy them or toss them in a sugar syrup seasoned with bay leaf and other spices and herbs,” she said recently. “I love the crispness they bring to the dish as well as the kiwi-like flavor they take on when macerated in sugar.”
Cronin’s latest creation? Candy cap mushroom donuts filled with green strawberry compote.
Unless you grow them yourself, finding a regular supply of green strawberries might be tricky for the average consumer. But it’s worth asking the vendors at your local farmers market if they’d considering picking a few flats of the fruit a week or so earlier than planned. Of course, green strawberries probably won’t ever ripen up to peak sweetness, so if you do pick or buy them at this stage, be sure to have a plan on hand for how to use them, like this simple pickling recipe that Yerena Farms has been handing out at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.
For the pickling:
1 part rice wine vinegar
1 part sugar
½ part water
¼ part lime juice
For the flavoring:
Dissolve the sugar into the vinegar with water. Cool completely. Combine strawberries, flavorings, and brine in a mason jar. Refrigerate for 2+ days. Get creative with flavorings. Have a pickle party and pair with cheese!
April 11, 2013
No one knows exactly when they’ll come out of hiding, but if you live on the East Coast – anywhere form North Carolina to Connecticut, to be precise – you might start thinking about the brood of cicadas scheduled to make an appearance this spring.
Yes they’ll be loud and inconvenient, but they’ll also be a free, plentiful source of protein (and one that’s not generated in a factory farm).
Here’s what you should know about foraging and eating this extremely rare food.
1) First off, don’t pick up or eat dead cicadas. Gathering live ones shouldn’t be very hard, especially if you pick them up “early in the morning when the dew is still on the ground and the cicadas are still drowsy,” says one expert. The easiest way to kill them is by placing them in the freezer.
2) Gather twice as many as you and your family think you can eat. Van Smith, who wrote about his experiments eating cicadas for Baltimore City Paper, explains why: “Females are preferable for their protein-filled abdomens, while males offer little substance. When hunting them, though, I found it nearly impossible to tell the difference–until cooking, when the males’ bodies shrivel up. Marinating live bugs in Worcestershire sauce also helps weed out guys (the vinegar in the sauce slow-cooks them, so they start to collapse) while tenderizing the ladies.”
3) Think of them like “land shellfish.” Like shrimp, lobster and crabs, cicadas are
anthropods arthropods. Gaye L. Williams, an entomologist from the Maryland Department of Agriculture told the Baltimore Sun: “They’re in the same animal group as shrimp and crabs, and people don’t think twice about that.” (If you’re allergic to shellfish, exercise caution when experimenting with cicadas).
4) Like many things, cicadas taste best fried. Here’s a simple recipe that only requires living cicadas, flour, eggs, salt, pepper, and oil. If they’re newly hatched, you can fry them as-is, but after they’ve been alive for several hours (or few days), their wings and legs might need to be removed, as this recipe for deep dried cicadas calls for. In Asia it’s not unusual to find the pupa, or young cicadas fried and served on a stick like this.
Kirk Moore, who calls himself the “Cicada Chef” also recommends marinating them overnight in Worcestershire sauce in this YouTube video from 2004.
5) Dry roasting them – on a cookie sheet at a low heat — is another popular approach. If they get too crispy to eat as-is, they can be crumbled to add crunch to a dish or even ground into a high-protein (gluten free!) flour.
6) Young cicadas can also be used in a “low country boil” or a “spice boil” in place of shrimp.
7) Have leftovers, go fishing! Cicadas are rumored to make excellent fish bait.
Editor’s Note, April 15, 2013: Entomologist John Cooley of the University of Connecticut chimes in with a note of caution: “We actually try to discourage eating cicadas. There’s a body of literature showing that periodical cicadas are mercury bioaccumulators and some can have relatively high mercury levels.”
March 26, 2013
These days, the classic wedge salad—wherein the chef smothers a chunk of crisp Iceberg lettuce with creamy blue cheese dressing, and crumbles bacon all over the top—is seen as a cornerstone of American “comfort food.”
The dish is also often credited with single-handedly causing an “Iceberg comeback.” All of this raises the question: Did this crisp salad green, the “polyester of lettuce,” really go so far away that it needed to come back? And if so, can one menu item really make a difference?
But first a note—for those who aren’t old enough to remember—about just how ubiquitous Iceberg lettuce once was. Introduced for commercial production in the late 1940s, Iceberg (or crisphead) lettuce was the only variety bred to survive cross-country travel (the name Iceberg comes from the piles of ice they would pack the light green lettuce heads in before the advent of the refrigerated train car). Therefore, throughout the middle of the century, unless you grew your own or dined in a high-end establishment, iceberg essentially was lettuce.
Most of the nation’s lettuce is grown in California, and in 1974, leafy green “non-crisphead” varieties of lettuce still made up only around five percent of the total acres grown in California. Then things changed. For one, consumers became more aware of the nutritional value of greens that are, well, greener. (Made of a high percentage of water, iceberg has only around 1/20th the amount of vitamins as the darker leafy greens, says David Still, a plant science professor at California State Polytechnic University at Pomona.)
America’s everyday lettuce for half a century was losing market share. By 1995, other lettuce varieties made up to around 30 percent of the lettuce American’s ate, and it has been rising steadily since, according to the California Leafy Greens Research Programs (a salad industry group). That’s precisely why, by 2007, the Salinas, California-based Tanimura and Antle—the nation’s largest lettuce supplier—decided it needed to start promoting Iceberg. And rather than compete with varieties that have more flavor or nutrition, Tanimura and Antle went straight for nostalgia, and opted to draw a connection to steaks, fathers, and sports. A press release from the time reads:
Mother’s Day has strawberries, Thanksgiving has celery, but historically no holiday has been associated with Iceberg lettuce,” says Antle. “What better product to claim ownership of Father’s Day than the cornerstone salad of steakhouse menus?
Wal-Mart, Albertsons, and several other big retailers hung signs and banners promoting the campaign, and sales got a boost. The company also planted wedge salad recipes around the food media world, in hopes that they would inspire chefs to return to this American Classic.
It’s hard to say whether the Father’s Day angle made a difference, but the larger effort to reconnect to Iceberg to simpler times with fewer complicated health choices appears to have worked. Sort of.
On the one hand, chefs like the fact that Iceberg is a completely neutral way to add crunch and filler to an otherwise flavorful medley of ingredients. So it appears that this classic salad will be sticking around on menus for a while. (Last fall the San Francisco Chronicle ran a list of nearly a dozen upscale restaurants serving some variation on the wedge salad, including everything from croutons, to apple, walnuts, and avocado. One Napa restaurant even serves it with the Iceberg frozen for extra crispness.)
On the production level, however, Iceberg may never return to it’s reigning position. It’s a little cheaper to grow and has long been easy to ship and store (the name Iceberg is said to come from the way the round lettuces were shipped by train in big piles of ice), but it has a hard time standing up to romaine, butter, and all the other specialty greens that have become popular in recent years.
This also appears to be true outside the U.S. In 2011, for example, UK-based Telegraph declared: “The era of Iceberg lettuce is over,” as “bagged leaf varieties such as [arugula] and watercress are up by 37 per cent compared to last year.” Of course, it may never be hard to find Iceberg lettuce in fast food tacos and Sizzler salad bars. But the decline of Iceberg might also signal some good news for Americans’ diets.
“Iceburg sales have gone down, but romaine has gone up,” says Mary Zischke from the California Leafy Greens Research Programs. “Tastes have changed. And the darker, leafy greens have a better story to tell from a nutrition standpoint.”
Compared to 20 years ago, Zischke added, “there are a lot more choices. Especially in some parts of the country, like the Midwest.” Overall, she’s glad to report that: “The product mix has changed, but our [greens] industry has also gotten bigger.”
February 19, 2013
In the culinary world, it’s clear that the last decade has been a fairly salt-centric one. In the early 2000s, chefs returned to the tradition of salting meat several hours to several days in advance of cooking it. And Thomas Keller, famed French Laundry chef, called salt “the new olive oil.”
“It’s what makes food taste good,” said Kitchen Confidential author Anthony Bourdain. And they’re right, of course; salt is an easy win, whether you’re cooking at home or in a professional setting. But has our love for the stuff gone too far?
In this meditation on American chefs’ love of salt for TIME Magazine, written around the time a New York state legislator proposed banning it from restaurant kitchens, Josh Ozersky wrote:
The food marketplace is under constant pressure to make everything tastier, more explosive, more exciting, and salt is everyone’s go-to flavor enhancer because it opens up the taste buds. It’s basically cocaine for the palate — a white powder that makes everything your mouth encounters seem vivid and fun … The saltier foods are, the more we like them. And the more we like them, the more salt we get.
How do we slow down the treadmill? Well, for some, it’s not a choice. Take Jessica Goldman Foung – a.k.a. Sodium Girl. She’s been on a strict low-sodium, salt-free diet since she was diagnosed with lupus in 2004 and faced kidney failure.
“I didn’t have much of a choice,” she recalls. “I could be on dialysis for the rest of my life, or I could try to radically change my diet. I already knew food was very powerful healer, so I figured I would try that first.”
Using the few low-sodium cookbooks she could find, Goldman Foung taught herself to cook. The books were helpful, but they were also written for an older population.
“They looked like text books, there was no color photography,” she says. “These were recipes that would prevent congestive heart failure, but they weren’t what you’d pull out before having dinner guests over.”
When she started blogging and writing her own recipes (and occasionally finding ways to visit restaurants, with the help of some very generous chefs), Goldman Foung decided to take a different approach. “I didn’t want to apologize for the fact that it was salt-free. I wanted to make something so good, the fact that was salt-free would be an after-thought.”
So Goldman Foung went about experimenting with ways to build flavor without sodium, all while keeping a detailed record on her blog. And this month, as collection of recipes and tips called Sodium Girl’s Limitless Low-Sodium Cookbook will appear on shelves, where she hopes it can impact the larger conversation around sodium.
Rather than just getting rid of the salt, Goldman Foung has also developed a finely-tuned sense of how sodium work in all foods.
Goldman Foung has experimented with a range of spices, but before she does that, she looks to whole foods for a variety of flavors. “You don’t even have to go to the spice rack. You can get peppery taste from raw turnips and radishes, you can get bitter taste from chicories, and natural umami from tomatoes and mushrooms. And you can get actual saltiness from a lot of foods themselves.
“Understanding where the sodium comes from helps you reduce it, but it also helps you utilize it to really increase flavor in your cooking,” she says. Beets and celery, for instance, are naturally higher in sodium than other vegetables, so Goldman Foung began using them to impart a “salty flavor” in things like Bloody Marys, pasta sauces, and soup bases. But they’re not the only foods have some that contain sodium. Take cantaloupes; it has 40 mg of sodium per serving, “which is probably why it pairs so well with Proscciuto,” Goldman Foung adds.
She also recommends playing around with other unlikely ingredients – oils, beer, etc. — and modes of cooking (think roasting or smoking) if you’re looking to eat less salt. Her latest fascination has been tamarind paste, which she uses to make a low-sodium teriyaki sauce (see below).
As Goldman Foung sees it, most Americans have developed a dependence on salt, and other high-sodium ingredients, without realizing it. But a gradual decrease in their use can open up a sensory realm many of us are missing out on.
“Once you really do adjust to less salt and actually start tasting your food, it’s a pretty stunning experience,” says Goldman Foung. “After tasting, say, grilled meat or a roasted pepper for the first time after losing the salt, you need very little else.”
The recipe below has been excerpted from Sodium Girl’s Limitless Low-Sodium Cookbook.
Tamarind “Teriyaki” Chicken Skewers
Long before I discovered my love of sashimi, I fell in love with the viscous, sweet taste of teriyaki. With anywhere from 300 to 700mg of sodium per tablespoon, however, teriyaki chicken from the local takeout is now out of the question. So, to meet my cravings, I let go of the original dish and focused on finding a substitute with a similar color, thick coating, and unique flavor. The low-sodium answer lay in tamarind paste — a sweet and tart concentrate made from tamarind seed pods. It is popular in Indian, Middle Eastern, and East Asian cuisines, and can even be found in Worcestershire sauce. Its acidic properties help tenderize meat, and in Ayurvedic medicine it is said to have heart-protecting properties. Or in Western medicine speak, it may help lower bad cholesterol.
While it is no teriyaki, this tamarind sauce sure makes a convincing look-alike. The savory sweetness of the tamarind will delight your palate. If you have any leftover herbs in your kitchen, like mint, cilantro, or even some green onion, dice and sprinkle them over the chicken at the end for some extra color and cool flavor. And to make a traditional bento presentation, serve with a slice of orange and crisp lettuce salad.
1 tablespoon tamarind paste (or substitute with pomegranate molasses)
1 tablespoon dark brown sugar
2 teaspoons unseasoned rice vinegar
2 teaspoons molasses
1⁄4 teaspoon garlic powder
3 garlic cloves, diced
3⁄4 cup water plus 2 tablespoons
1 tablespoon corn starch
2 teaspoons sesame oil
8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into 1⁄2-inch-wide strips
White toasted sesame seeds, for garnish
2 green onions, thinly sliced (everything but the bulb), for garnish
+ In a small pot or saucepan, mix together the first 7 ingredients (tamarind paste to 3⁄4 cup water). Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, then reduce to low and cook for 10 minutes.
+ In a separate bowl, mix the cornstarch with the 2 tablespoons of water until it is dissolved and smooth. Add the cornstarch mixture to the pot and stir until it is well combined and the sauce begins to thicken like a glaze. Continue to cook and reduce by one third, 2 to 3 minutes. Then turn the heat to the lowest possible setting and cover the pot with a lid to keep the sauce warm.
+ In a large skillet, heat the sesame oil over medium-high heat. Add your chicken pieces and about a quarter of the sauce and cook for 5 minutes without stirring. Then toss the chicken pieces, doing your best to flip them over, adding another quarter of the sauce. Cook until the inside of the meat is white, 6 to 8 minutes more.
+ Remove the chicken from the heat and allow it to rest until the pieces are cool enough to handle. Weave the chicken onto the bamboo skewers, about 4 per skewer, and lay them flat on a serving dish or a large plate. Drizzle the remaining sauce over the skewers and sprinkle with white toasted sesame seeds and the sliced green onions. Serve and eat immediately.
+ Sodium count: Tamarind paste: 20mg per ounce depending on brand; Molasses: 10mg per 1 tablespoon; Chicken thigh (with skin): 87mg per 1⁄4 pound.