December 4, 2013
Italian culinary doctrine – a constitution held up by Italian home matriarchs where infractions can be punishable by no supper or death – is very clear on the subject.
Cheese and seafood shall not be mixed. Ever.
Yet, if you stumble around France long enough you’re bound to find someone who prepares mussels in an earthy blue cheese broth spiked with white wine and garlic. In Chile, you’ll find both millennials and retirees ordering plates of Machas à La Parmesana, clams baked in wine, butter, and a mild-tasting Chilean version of Parmesan. And who can forget social gatherings in the nineties where no party was without oyster dip packed with enough cream cheese to send a marathon runner into cardiac arrest?
If the idea of combining seafood and cheese is such a widely-accepted global phenomenon, why is the concept so distasteful to so many Italian home cooks? And, hey, let’s not just point fingers at Italians here. A lot of people in the United States have adopted this notion, if for no other reason that they’ve heard it since birth.
So where did this commandment originate? One explanation may stem from gustatory common sense: seafood tends to have a more delicate constitution, and those subtle flavors can be drowned out by a heady, assertive cheese. Since cheese is produced by fermenting milk, microbial factors such as molds, enzymes, and friendly bacteria cause drastic changes to the milk’s chemical components and their flavors often become more intense. Cheese also loses moisture as it ages, further concentrating its complex flavors and fatty texture. It’s no wonder cheese can easily overpower seafood’s understated qualities.
Some ocean dwellers are especially delicate — such as flounder, haddock, clams, oysters, and Atlantic shad — and they should be carefully seasoned when cooked. This is why many recipes involving these proteins rely on simplicity; a sprinkling of green peppercorns, a quick lashing of lemon juice, perhaps a pat of tarragon butter. The stronger personalities of some cheeses would stomp out those subtle sweet and salty notes, leaving no flavors behind except for, well, cheese.
Another explanation for this taboo may lie in Italy’s geography. Major cheesemaking regions such as Piedmont, Trentino Alto Adige, Lombardy, and Veneto are all largely landlocked. Their regions have a terroir that makes for easy grazing for livestock and, thus, their cuisines are largely accustomed to the addition of cheeses such as Grana Padano, Bra, or Asiago as both a primary and supporting ingredient. Given their distance from the sea, few people in these regions had ready access to a steady supply of fresh seafood (rivers or lakes notwithstanding, and not necessarily always a source of abundance). So, recipes may likely developed over the centuries without giving seafood any consideration.
As always, though, rules are meant to be broken. We’re not saying that you shouldn’t pair fish and cheese. Rather, we’re enthusiastic advocates for smartly coupling seafood and dairy, and in the hands of a skilled chef, recipes combining the two can raise the roof, elevating both ingredients to new heights. “When used correctly, cheese can enhance the flavors of many seafood dishes,” says Dennis Littley, a chef and culinary instructor with decades of experience under his belt. “Those old customs are falling by the wayside as chefs have become more creative with the blending of flavors. One of my most popular specials was a seafood alfredo that included shrimp, scallops and lump crabmeat. It was amazing!”
You don’t need to be a classically trained chef to pair cheese and seafood at home. Consider pizza, where cured fillets of oily, briny anchovies mingle their oils with those of melted mozzarella. Or look to classic dishes such as sea bass with fresh chevré and chopped herbs, bagels with cream cheese and lox, and our personal dinner party favorite, salmon fillets dredged in a Parmesan-bread crumb mixture before being seared in butter. Theses dishes work, and they work well.
And so it seems that seafood and cheese can indeed play nicely. “It’s really about finding a balance,” says Kirstin Jackson, trained chef and author of It’s Not You, It’s Brie: Unwrapping America’s Unique Culture of Cheese. “Fish and cheese can be a touchy pairing, but when done right they can be as endearing as an eighty year-old couple walking down the street holding hands.”
Stephanie Stiavetti and Garrett McCord are the authors of MELT: The Art of Macaroni and Cheese, available now on Amazon and local retailers.
Brigante with Tilapia, Shallots, Spring Herbs, and Fusilli
Tilapia’s subtle sea-life sensibilities are easily drowned out by complicated flavors, though a traditionally seasoned Béarnaise sauce play up the fish’s gentle nature. Here we’ve echoed that experience by pairing shallots, tarragon, and chervil – all classic herbal flavors – with Brigante, a smooth, buttery sheep’s milk cheese that contributes a touch of tang to the dish. Shredded tilapia makes this creamy stovetop mac an incredibly decadent experience without extra weight; a perfect marriage of cheese and seafood.
4 tablespoons butter, divided
1⁄4 cup minced shallots
1 tablespoon chopped fresh tarragon
4 teaspoons chopped chervil
1⁄2 teaspoon coarsely ground black peppercorns
1⁄4 cup dry white wine, such as sauvignon Blanc
2 small tilapia fillets, about 1⁄2 pound total
8 ounces fusilli
2 cups milk
2 tablespoons flour
1⁄2 teaspoon sea salt
1⁄4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
7 ounces Brigante, rind removed, grated
Lemon wedges to garnish
1. In a sauté pan, melt 1 tablespoon of butter over medium heat. Add shallots and cook until soft, then add tarragon, chervil, and pepper. Cook for 1 minute, stirring constantly, then add white wine. Cook, still stirring constantly, until a good amount of the liquid has cooked off—about 2 minutes. Transfer shallots and herbs to a small bowl and return the pan to the stove.
2. In the same sauté pan—do not rinse it—add 1 tablespoon of butter and turn heat to medium. Sauté tilapia fillets for 3 minutes on each side, making sure to get a nice, crispy layer where the fish touches the pan. Transfer to a bowl and shred coarsely with two forks. Set aside.
3. Cook the pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water until al dente. Drain through a colander and set aside.
4. To prepare the mornay sauce, heat the milk in a small sauce pan over medium heat. As soon as the milk starts to steam and tiny bubbles form around the edges of the pan, turn off the heat. Place the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in a medium saucepan and melt over medium flame. Add the flour and stir with a flat-edge wooden paddle just until the roux begins to take on a light brown color, scraping the bottom to prevent burning, about 3 minutes. Slowly add the milk and stir constantly until the sauce thickens enough to evenly coat the back of a spoon—a finger drawn along the back of the spoon should leave a clear swath. Lower heat to medium-low, add salt, pepper, and sautéed shallots and herbs. Remove from heat and add cheese to sauce, stirring until completely melted.
5. In a large bowl, add pasta to the mornay and toss to coat. Gently fold in the shredded fish; you don’t want to smash it. Serve hot and garnish with lemon wedges.
Alternative cheeses: San Andreas, Berkswell, Shepherd’s way Friesago, Young Mahón
Wine pairings: Musca- det from the Loire Valley (Melon de Bourgogne grape), French Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Grechetto or Vermentino from Italy
Additional pairings for the cheese: Lucques or picholine olives, roasted red peppers with olive oil, smoked paprika
Mussels in White Wine Broth with Fourme d’Ambert
Light, tender, and briny, mussels love the spotlight when they’re onstage. In the supporting role, we recommend a flavorful broth that gently hugs each chunk of meat without acting like a prima donna. Here we buddy up our shellfish with Fourme d’Ambert, one of France’s oldest cheeses, to provide licks of earthiness and sweet cream, both of which play up the mussels gently salty qualities. Whoever said blue cheese and seafood don’t mix?
2 pounds Prince Edward Island mussels
8 ounces spiral pasta
2 tablespoons butter
1 yellow onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 cups dry white wine, such as Sauvignon Blanc
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
6 ounces Fourme d’Ambert, crumbled
Juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup parsley, chopped
Dash of finishing salt such as Kosher, Maldon, Sel Gris (do not use iodized table salt)
A loaf of crusty bread for serving
1. Soak the mussels in a large pot of cold water for about 30 minutes to coax them to spit out any sand or grit they may have. Toss out the water and cover the mussels again with fresh cold water for another 30 minutes to encourage them to cleanse themselves a bit more.
2. De-beard the mussels by taking their byssal threads (their “beards”) and giving them a good yank until they come off. Discard the beards and set the mussels aside. Toss any mussels that aren’t closed, as these are already dead and not edible.
3. Cook the pasta in a large pot of salted boiling water until al dente. Drain the pasta through a colander and set aside.
4. While the pasta cooks, place a large pot over medium-high heat. Add the butter and allow to melt. Once the butter begins to bubble a bit add the onion and garlic. Cook over medium-high heat and stir occasionally until the onions have softened a bit.
5. Add the white wine and pepper. Bring to a boil and add the Fourme d’Ambert. Once the cheese melts into the wine, lower the heat to medium and add the mussels. Cover the pot with a tight fitting lid and cook for about 6 or 7 minutes, being sure to give the mussels a stir after about 4 minutes. Discard any mussels that are closed as these were dead before cooking. (Some may be only slightly open; if you have to debate about whether it’s good to eat or not, toss it. Better safe than sorry.) Remove from heat.
6. Squeeze lemon juice over the mussels and toss together with the parsley and the finishing salt. Spoon the pasta into wide bowls, ladling mussels and broth over them and serve.
Alternative Cheeses: Gorgonzola Dolce, Cashel Blue, Roquefort, Cambozola
Wine pairings: dry Chenin Blanc, sparkling Chenin Blanc, dry Rosé
Additional pairings for the cheese, outside of this recipe: membrillo, quince jam, apple butter
November 27, 2013
Americans consume 5,062,500 gallons of jellied cranberry sauce—Ocean Spray’s official name for the traditional Thanksgiving side dish we know and love that holds the shape of the can it comes in—every holiday season. That’s four million pounds of cranberries—200 berries in each can—that reach a gel-like consistency from pectin, a natural setting agent found in the food. If you’re part of the 26 percent of Americans who make homemade sauce during the holidays, consider that only about five percent of America’s total cranberry crop is sold as fresh fruit. Also consider that 100 years ago, cranberries were only available fresh for a mere two months out of the year (they are usually harvested mid-September until around mid-November in North America making them the perfect Thanksgiving side). In 1912, one savvy businessman devised a way to change the cranberry industry forever.
Marcus L. Urann was a lawyer with big plans. At the turn of the 20th century, he left his legal career to buy a cranberry bog. “I felt I could do something for New England. You know, everything in life is what you do for others,” Urann said in an interview published in the Spokane Daily Chronicle in 1959, decades after his inspired career change. His altruistic motives aside, Urann was a savvy businessman who knew how to work a market. After he set up cooking facilities at as packinghouse in Hanson, Massachusetts, he began to consider ways to extend the short selling season of the berries. Canning them, in particular, he knew would make the berry a year-round product.
“Cranberries are picked during a six-week period,” Robert Cox, coauthor of Massachusetts Cranberry Culture: A History from Bog to Table says. “Before canning technology, the product had to be consumed immediately and the rest of the year there was almost no market. Urann’s canned cranberry sauce and juice are revolutionary innovations because they produced a product with a shelf life of months and months instead of just days.”
Native Americans were the first to cultivate the cranberry in North America, but the berries weren’t marketed and sold commercially until the middle of the 18th century. Revolutionary war veteran Henry Hall is often credited with planting the first-known commercial cranberry bed in Dennis, Massachusetts in 1816, but Cox says Sir Joseph Banks, one of the most important figures of his time in British science, was harvesting cranberries in Britain a decade earlier from seeds that were sent over from the states—Banks just never marketed them. By the mid-19th century, what we know as the modern cranberry industry was in full swing and the competition among bog growers was fierce.
The business model worked on a small scale at first: families and members of the community harvested wild cranberries and then sold them locally or to a middle man before retail. As the market expanded to larger cities like Boston, Providence and New York, growers relied on cheap labor from migrant workers. Farmers competed to unload their surpluses fast—what was once a small, local venture, became a boom or bust business.
What kept the cranberry market from really exploding was a combination of geography and economics. The berries require a very particular environment for a successful crop, and are localized to areas like Massachusetts and Wisconsin. Last year, I investigated where various items on the Thanksgiving menu were grown: “Cranberries are picky when it comes to growing conditions… Because they are traditionally grown in natural wetlands, they need a lot of water. During the long, cold winter months, they also require a period of dormancy which rules out any southern region of the U.S. as an option for cranberry farming.”
Urann’s idea to can and juice cranberries in 1912 created a market that cranberry growers had never seen before. But his business sense went even further.
“He had the savvy, the finances, the connections and the innovative spirit to make change happen. He wasn’t the only one to cook cranberry sauce, he wasn’t the only one to develop new products, but he was the first to come up with the idea,” says Cox. His innovative ideas were helped by a change in how cranberries were harvested.
In the 1930s, techniques transitioned from “dry” to “wet”— a confusing distinction, says Sharon Newcomb, brand communication specialist with Ocean Spray. Cranberries grow on vines and can be harvested either by picking them individually by hand (dry) or by flooding the bog at time of harvest (wet) like what we see in many Ocean Spray commercials. Today about 90 percent of cranberries are picked using wet harvesting techniques. “Cranberries are a hearty plant, they grow in acidic, sandy soil,” Newcomb says. “A lot of people, when they see our commercials think cranberries grow in water.”
The water helps to separate the berry from the vine and small air pockets in the berries allow them to float to the surface. Rather than taking a week, you could do it in an afternoon. Instead of a team of 20 or 30, bogs now have a team of four or five. After the wet harvesting option was introduced in the mid to late 1900s, growers looked to new methods of using their crop, including canning, freezing, drying, juicing berries, Cox says.
Urann also helped develop a number of novel cranberry products, like the cranberry juice cocktail in 1933, for example, and six years later, he came up with a syrup for mixed drinks. The famous (or infamous) cranberry sauce “log” we know today became available nationwide in 1941.
Urann had tackled the challenge of harvesting a crop prone to glut and seesawing prices, but federal regulations stood in the way of him cornering the market. He had seen other industries fall under scrutiny for violating antitrust laws; in 1890, Congress passed the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which was followed by additional legislation, including the Clayton Act of 1914 and the Federal Trade Commission Act of 1914.
In 1930, Urann convinced his competitors John C. Makepeace of the AD Makepeace company—the nation’s largest grower at the time—and Elizabeth F. Lee of the New Jersey-based Cranberry Products Company to join forces under the cooperative, Cranberry Canners, Inc. His creation, a cooperative that minimized the risks from the crop’s price and volume instability, would have been illegal had attorney John Quarles not found an exemption for agricultural cooperatives in the Capper-Volstead act of 1922, which gave “associations” making agricultural products limited exemptions from anti-trust laws.
After World War II, in 1946, the cooperative became the National Cranberry Association and by 1957 changed its name to Ocean Spray. (Fun Fact: Urann at first “borrowed” the Ocean Spray name and added the image of the breaking wave, and cranberry vines from a fish company in Washington State from which he later bought the rights). Later, Urann would tell the Associated Press why he believed the cooperative structure worked: ”grower control (which) means ‘self control’ to maintain the lowest possible price to consumers.” In theory, the cooperative would keep the competition among growers at bay. Cox explains:
From the beginning, the relationship between the three [Urann, Makepeace and Lee] was fraught with mistrust, but on the principle that one should keep one’s enemies closer than one’s friends, the cooperative pursued a canned version of the [American Cranberry Exchange] ACE’s fresh strategy, rationalizing production, distribution, quality control, marketing and pricing.
Ocean Spray still is a cooperative of 600 independent growers across the United States that work together to set prices and standards.
We can’t thank Urann in person for his contribution to our yearly cranberry intake (he died in 1963), but we can at least visualize this: If you lay out all the cans of sauce consumed in a year from end to end, it would stretch 3,385 miles—the length of 67,500 football fields. To those of you ready to crack open your can of jellied cranberry sauce this fall, cheers.
November 14, 2013
Rene Redzepi was 25 years old when he opened his first restaurant, Noma, in Copenhagen, and 32 years old when it was crowned the best restaurant in the world. Noma, which stands for nordisk mad, or Nordic food, held that title from 2010 to 2012, serving a scrupulously seasonal menu of local and foraged ingredients including sea buckthorn, ramson flowers, puffin eggs and ants—a far cry from the meatball platter at Ikea. Redzepi is singlehandedly responsible for putting Nordic cuisine on the map, but after ten years at Noma, his influence extends much further than that. He has used his worldwide celebrity as a platform to promote innovation in food, from new culinary techniques developed at the Nordic Food Lab to shifts in food policy discussed at the MAD Symposium, an annual gathering of chefs, farmers and food professionals. In 2012, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world—and just last week anointed him a “god of food,” alongside his friends and fellow chefs Alex Atala and David Chang.
Tonight, Redzepi speaks at a Smithsonian Associates event about his new book, A Work in Progress, which documents one year behind-the-scenes at Noma. We asked the chef about creativity, the role of food in society, and the state of female chefs in the restaurant industry.
The new book includes a copy of the journal you kept in 2011, your daily recap of how things were going at Noma. What was your process in writing that journal?
It was quite a painful thing. In an everyday life that’s filled with so much discipline—waking up and cooking breakfast and lunch for the kids, and then going to work and being organized and being disciplined, and then coming home—you really just want to have a drink and go to sleep. But then you had to be disciplined again. I never intended it to be a book, actually. I did it for myself, to see if I could find some sense of who are we, why are there good days, why are there bad days and what type of restaurant are we, basically. Then my book editor read parts of it, she liked it and then it became a book.
At the same time, it was also a weird experience because I’m used to working in teams, and doing this thing, you’re all alone. It was a very lonely thing to do. It’s tough, standing there at the end of the night, looking at a screen, just waiting for the words to come out. But it really did give me a lot of new insight. This idea of coming home and being able to distill the day, understanding what made it a good or bad day, really has given me a better understanding of why I do the things I do.
You’ve said that you felt “restricted” after Noma was crowned the world’s best restaurant and that this journal was a quest to understand creativity and where it comes from. What were some of the conclusions you drew from writing the journal?
One of the conclusions is that success is a fantastic, smashing thing, especially accolades—but the accolade is not the mountaintop. It’s not the highest thing to achieve. That was what I needed to shed off in the process of writing the journal—that it’s a great stepping-stone, something you can use on the way. But if your only goal is to achieve accolades, you will quickly find yourself out. I thought maybe we had reached that mountaintop. That’s what people were telling me: “What now?” And there I was, 32 years old, thinking, “What do you mean, what now? I’m 32 years old!” To me, it wasn’t the mountaintop that everyone was telling me [it was]. But it confused me for a while. So writing the journal, the conclusion was let’s just play around again, be fearless. There’s nothing to lose; don’t get attached to the thing. That’s the most important thing I got out of it—just being open to breaking the mold that made your success.
How do you stay creative on a day-to-day basis?
Today it’s very much team-minded. Before the journal, it wasn’t so much; it was mostly decisions that I made all the time. But in trying to understand the process, I could see that the team was a good way of exhilarating everything. You’re also making it easier, if you have people to rely on and sort of comfort you at bad moments. It’s very much built on team effort now—conversations, brainstorm sessions. And, of course, ever-changing seasonality and weather—that’s also a big guiding force.
How would you describe your management style in the kitchen?
I used to be a control freak. I grew up thinking that as a cook, you are the big control freak who doesn’t care about anything besides the prosperity of your kitchen—and anybody who doesn’t follow along, just fall behind and leave. But once you go back and read everything [that happened] during a year, you can see that what really makes the good days good is when you actually feel good. When there’s fun involved. And the bad days are always the ones where you don’t handle situations well. There will always be bad moments. There will always be big failures. But you just need to deal with it well, as opposed to being a little angry idiot. So the journal made me change my management style quite a bit. It was a big step to me, from being trained in a very old way of cooking and stepping into a new thing. But it changed the restaurant, and I could never see myself going back to the traditional kitchen style.
You have a lot of career changers on your staff—an ex-banker, a Hollywood dropout, a lawyer and others who didn’t come in with culinary experience. What do they bring to the table?
There are so many fantastic aspects to gain from people who are somewhat involved within food culture. Right now, in the Nordic Food Lab, we have a graduate of the Yale Sustainable Food Project. It’s certainly not cooking, but his understanding of issues that surround the meal adds different layers to the research and to our base understanding of what food can be. It makes our restaurant better. The way I understand innovation today is that the more we are open to new, valuable information, the more we study history, memories or these new experiences, and bring them into the now—that’s when something new really happens. I try to be as open to all these factors as possible.
Food seems to be everywhere these days—in TV, politics, symposia like your own. Is it possible to take food too seriously?
No. I don’t think we take it too seriously at all. On the contrary, sometimes the discussion is a little bit stupid and not serious enough. But the thing is that food is not just food. If you want to say that, you’re kidding yourself. It’s a bit of an old-fashioned statement, even—a classic, Westernized, Protestant statement [of] food as sustenance and please don’t try to make it anything more than that. If that’s the level we choose to look at it, then what do you really need? To me, food is one of the things that makes life most livable—just like having a comfortable place to live in. Do we really need it in order to stay alive, in the same way that we just need to food to sustain us?
At the same time, there are so many critical issues, such as sustainability and agriculture, that surround food all the time. I think we are also realizing, more and more, how important the meal is. I know that now that I have a family. It’s easy to come across as some sort of romantic, when you talk about the importance of the meal and the family aspect, but I really believe that it’s important and I can see that it is.
So I don’t think it’s a bad thing that you take food seriously. When it’s treated as a fashion or as a way of generating huge revenue through bad TV programs, then it’s probably a bit too much. But putting food in a cultural light and valuing it as an important part of our cultural upbringing, I think that can’t be taken too seriously. I think it’s a good thing.
What are some of the ideas and innovations in the food world that you’re most excited about right now?
In the past five years, the exploration within fermentation is definitely the most exciting thing. That’s going to continue for a long time and maybe just become a natural, integrated part of any cuisine in the future. We forget bread and brewing coffee are fermentation. There are new explorations happening that might give us some new flavors on par with those.
I want to ask you about the Time magazine story in which you were named a “god of food.”
Yeah, I haven’t even seen it yet!
But you’ve heard the criticism?
No, I haven’t! Ever since I arrived in America, people have been talking about it. But it’s a typical American thing that everybody in America thinks that everybody [else] understands what’s happening in America. But no, I haven’t. I actually saw [the issue] on the airplane coming here. I arrived here yesterday and then this morning somebody said that there’s been criticism of it. But in Denmark they didn’t even talk about it, nobody wrote about it. What’s going on? I’d love to understand what’s going on.
Basically, the article profiles important leaders and innovators in the food world—people who are changing the way we eat and think about food worldwide. The controversy is that only four of the people profiled are women, none of them chefs, so people are asking, where are the female chefs? I know you weren’t involved in writing the article but—
I didn’t even know they were going to put us on the cover! They don’t tell you these things. They say, “Ah, we can see you [and Alex Atala and David Chang] in town at the same time, can we take a picture of you? We’re writing about friendship.” And then, two months later, you’re on an airplane and somebody tells you you’re on the cover of Time magazine.
Which female chefs do you think should have made Time’s list?
I can tell you that I met yesterday, for the first time, Alice Waters. I was totally starstruck. I was almost—I didn’t know what to do. To me she is a definite food “hero,” food…god, if you will.
But there are so many extraordinarily powerful women who deserve credit and attention. Last year at the MAD symposium, we had Vandata Shiva [who was featured in the article], but of course she’s not a cook. Then there’s Margot Henderson, who runs very quietly a restaurant called Rochelle Canteen in London, but she gave a very powerful talk. And I read the memoir by Gabrielle Hamilton but I’ve actually never visited the restaurant. Every time I come to America, it’s always an in-and-out trip. . . . If there’s one girl who will be [a “god of food”] in the future, it’s my pastry chef, Rosio Sanchez [also briefly mentioned in the article], who’s from Chicago but of Mexican descent. She’s extremely good.
When I started 21 years ago, women in kitchens were a total novelty. Now, 8 out of 24 chefs in our kitchen are women. I’ve stopped thinking about it so much. Although if there are periods where we get too male-dominated in the kitchen, I always try to create a balance and get more women in the kitchen.
Because they add something different?
Yeah, there’s no question about it. It’s very important, that balance. In many ways the style of cooking that we do fits more with the sort of delicate touch of a woman as opposed to this big, rumbling male with his big, clumsy hands. I’m exaggerating here, but you know what I mean. And the sensibility in flavor—women are a bit sharper in finding these small, delicate tones here and there, when tasting stuff. Kitchens are also notoriously macho. It’s a good thing to have more females in the kitchen to add balance and to take that a bit away, not to soften things up but to bring the discussion to a more serious tone.
Do you think there are more women now because the culture in the kitchen has changed, or because there are more opportunities for women? Why do you think it’s changed so much in your lifetime?
I don’t know. I think there are more opportunities. It’s not so much of a blue-collar trade that it used to be, ten years ago. When we started operating Noma, it wasn’t unusual that at least once a year, somebody would come to me and say, “Hey, I’m not coming to work for the next six months, I’m going to jail.” It sounds crazy, but that’s the way it was. It was like seeing one of those old-fashioned movies of steel plants, where men were working with fire and shouting dirty jokes at each other, fighting and drinking. Not that long ago, kitchens were very much like that. I think things are slowly changing—from guys leaving to go to jail, to having a Harvard dropout in our cuisine. So I think the whole environment has become more friendly—for anybody, really. It used to be you’d become a cook because you can’t be anything else.
Now that you’ve met Alice Waters, do you have any other food heroes that you still want to meet?
One that made me very sad that I never met was Charlie Trotter [who died last week]. I never got to meet him; I only texted with him. That’s another thing about the trade that we’re horrible at—celebration of icons and people who really did something. If they don’t have the latest, freshest new thing, then they just get forgotten. I remember in the 1990s there were two things you read. One of them was White Heat, by Marco Pierre White. The other was books by Charlie Trotter.
Where will you be dining while you’re in the U.S.?
I’m going to Alinea for the first time. [Alinea owner Grant Achatz] and I are actually old-time pals, but we never visit each other’s restaurants, so I’m an Alinea virgin and I’m really looking forward to it.
Redzepi will speak at the S. Dillon Ripley Center on Thursday, November 14, at 6:45PM, with book signing to follow. The event is sold out, but tickets may become available. Visit smithsonianassociates.org for more information.
October 21, 2013
It was the second day of autumn term at a small boys’ school in South London in 1979. Without warning, 78 schoolboys and a handful of monitors simultaneously fell ill. Symptoms included vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain and, in severe cases, depression of the central nervous system. Several patients were comatose with episodes of convulsive twitching and violent fits of fever. In many patients, there were signs of peripheral circulatory collapse. Within five days of the initial outbreak, all patients recovered in full, though some hallucinated for several days, Mary McMillan and J.C. Thompson report in the Quarterly Journal of Medicine. But what could cause such a sudden and mysterious illness?
Turns out, a bag of potatoes left in storage from the previous summer term.
After careful analysis of the sequence of events, the onset of symptoms was pinpointed to about four to 14 hours after the boys had eaten boiled potatoes that had a high concentration of the toxin, solanine, a glycoalkaloid that was first isolated in 1820 in the berries of a European black nightshade. Nightshade is the term used to describe over 2,800 species of plants in the scientific family, Solanaceae. Eggplants, tomatoes, and some berries are common members of the nightshade family—many of them contain highly toxic alkaloids.
That said, the potato is the most common cause of solanine poisoning in humans. But how do you know when solanine is present in a potato? The tuber is turning green.
Though the green color that forms on the skin of a potato is actually chlorophyll, which isn’t toxic at all (it’s the plant’s response to light exposure), the presence of chlorophyll indicates concentrations of solanine. The nerve toxin is produced in the green part of the potato (the leaves, the stem, and any green spots on the skin). The reason it exists? It’s a part of the plant’s defense against insects, disease and other predators.
If you eat enough of the green stuff, it can cause vomiting, diarrhea, headaches, paralysis of the central nervous system (as evidenced by the incident above) but in some rare cases the poisoning can cause coma—even death. Studies have recorded illnesses caused by a range of 30 to 50 mg of solanine per 100 grams of potato, but symptoms vary depending on the ratio of body weight of the toxin and the individual’s tolerance of the alkaloid. The following cases recorded in various medical journals include examples of some of the most severe cases of solanine poisoning (many of which resulted in death):
1899: After eating cooked potatoes containing 0.24 mg of solanine per gram of potato, 56 German soldiers experienced solanine poisoning. Though all recovered, in a few cases, jaundice and partial paralysis were observed.
1918: In Glasgow, Scotland, 61 people from 18 separate households were affected at once by a bad batch of potatoes. The following day, a five-year-old boy died of strangulation of the bowel following extreme retching and vomiting. According to “An Investigation of Solanine Poisoning” by S. G. Willimott, PhD, B.Sc. published in 1933, the case was investigated by scientists, R. W. Harris and T. Cockburn, who concluded in their article, “Alleged Poisoning By Potatoes” (1918), that the poisoning was the result of eating potatoes which contained five or six times the amount of solanine found in normal potatoes. Willimott cites this particular occurrence as an example of the toxin’s prevalence: “A review of the literature reveals the fact that authentic cases of solanine poisoning are not so rare as authorities appear to believe.”
1925: Seven members of a family were poisoned by greened potatoes. Two of them died. According to reports, symptoms included vomiting, extreme exhaustion, but no convulsions like that of the schoolboys in London. Breathing was rapid and labored until consciousness was lost a few hours before death.
1948: A case of solanine poisoning involving the potato’s nightshade relative, the berry, was recorded in the article “A Fatal Case of Solanine Poisoning“ published in the British Medical Journal. On August 13 of that year, a 9-year-old girl with a bad habit of snacking on the berries that grew along the railroad tracks by her house was admitted to the hospital with symptoms of vomiting, abdominal pain, and distressed breathing. She died two days later. An autopsy found hemorrhages in the mucosa of stomach and middle section of her small intestine. The stomach contained about one pint of dark brown fluid.
1952: According to the British Medical Journal, solanine poisoning is most common during times of food shortage. In the face of starvation, there have been accounts of large groups eating older potatoes with a higher concentration of the toxin. In North Korea during the war years of 1952-1953, entire communities were forced to eat rotting potatoes. In one area alone, 382 people were affected, of whom 52 were hospitalized and 22 died. The most severe cases died of heart failure within 24 hours of potato consumption. Some of the less severe symptoms included irregular pulses, enlargement of the heart, and blueing lips and ears. Those who displayed these ailments died within 5 or 10 days. Authors John Emsley and Peter Fell explain their book Was It Something You Ate?: Food Intolerance: What Causes It and How to Avoid It: ”In the final stages [of the illness] there were sometimes a state of high excitability with shaking attacks and death was due to respiratory failure.”
1983: Sixty-one of 109 school children and staff in Alberta, Canada, fell ill within five minutes of eating baked potato. Forty-four percent of those affected noted a green tinge and a bitter taste in the potatoes.
Not to worry though, fatal cases of solanine poisoning are very rare these days. Most commercial varieties of potatoes are screened for solanine, but any potato will build up the toxin to dangerous levels if exposed to light or stored improperly. Often, the highest concentrations of solanine are in the peel, just below the surface and in the sprouted “eyes”—things that are typically removed in cooking preparation—though Warren would argue even boiling water in potato prep dissolves only a little of the alkaloid. Emsley and Fell continue:
Most people can easily cope with the solanine in the average portion of potato and show no symptoms of poisoning because the body can break it down and rapidly and excrete the products in the urine. But if the level of solanine is as high as 40 mg per 100 g of potato, symptoms include diarrhea…even coma.
The best way to prevent solanine poisoning is to store tubers in a cool, dark place and remove the skin before consumption. A general rule for avoiding illnesses like the ones described above? Green and sprouted? Throw it out.
October 8, 2013
Pasta is a staple in most of our kitchens. According to a Zagat survey; about half of the American population eats pasta 1-2 times a week and almost a quarter eats it about 3-4 times a week. Needless to say, we love pasta. Seriously, who wouldn’t want a big bowl of spaghetti and meatballs or Bucatini all’Amatriciana.
The popularity of pasta in America dates back to Thomas Jefferson, who had a pasta machine sent to Philadelphia in the late 18th century after he fell in love with the fashionable food while dining in Paris. He was so enamored by pasta that he even designed his own pasta machine while on a trip to Italy. The pasta dish he made infamous in the United States is something we like to call macaroni and cheese. But, America’s true love affair with pasta didn’t heat up until the 20th century, with a boom in immigrants hailing from Italy. When the first Italians arrived, one of the only pasta varieties available in the United States was spaghetti; that’s why it is so iconic to Italian American cuisine. Now, of course, it is hard to find a grocery store today that doesn’t have at least half an aisle dedicated to different pasta varieties. For a clear view on the number of varieties, check out Pop Chart Lab’s chart of 250 shapes of pasta, The Plethora of Pasta Permutations.
Over the past few decades, pasta has been given a bad reputation by many low carb fad diets such as the original Atkins diet. On the flip side, the touted Mediterranean Diet includes pasta as a staple. Part of the confusion over the merits of eating bread draw from the conflation of durum wheat, which pasta is traditionally made from, and wheat used for baking bread. Durum pasta has a low glycemic index(GI) of about 25-45. To compare, white bread has a high GI of about 75 and potatoes have a GI of about 80, as do many breakfast cereals. According to the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, eating foods with a low GI has been associated with higher HDL-cholesterol concentrations (the “good” cholesterol), a decreased risk of developing diabetes and cardiovascular disease. And, case-control studies have also shown positive associations between dietary glycemic index and the risk of colon and breast cancers. Pasta made with even healthier grains, such as whole grain and spelt, do add additional nutrients but do not necessarily lower the GI.
The way pasta is cooked also affects its healthiness. For the healthiest and tastiest way, you want to cook the pasta al dente, which means “to the tooth” or “to the bite.” If overcooked, the GI index will rise, meaning pasta that is cooked al dente is digested and absorbed slower than overcooked mushy pasta. So to make your pasta healthy and delicious, follow the tips below.
Use a large pot: Size matters. The pasta should be swimming in a sea of water because it will expand while cooking. If there is not enough water than the pasta will get mushy and sticky. The average pasta pot size is between 6 and 8 quarts, and it should be filled about 3/4 of the way or about 4-5 quarts with water for 1 pound of pasta.
Fill the pot with cold water: This goes for cooking anything with water. Hot water dissolves pollutants more quickly than cold, and some pipes contain lead that can leak into the water. Just to be safe, always use cold water from the tap and run the water for a little before using.
Heavily salt the water: Adding salt to the water is strictly for flavor. You want to salt the water as it is coming to a boil. While the pasta is cooking, it absorbs the salt adding just that extra touch to the overall meal. Do as Mario Batali does and salt the water until it “tastes like the sea.” To get that saltiness, Mark Ladner, executive chef at Del Posto, advises to use about 1 tbsp. of salt per quart of water.
There is an old wives tale that says salt will also make the pasta water boil faster. This is not completely the case. Adding salt to water elevates the boiling point and to increase the boiling point of 1 quart of water by 1 degree Fahrenheit you would need 3 tablespoons of salt. And, that is way too much salt for anyone’s taste buds.
Olive oil is said to prevent the pot from boiling over and prevent the pasta from sticking together. But, the general consensus is that it does more harm than good. It can prevent the sauce from sticking to the pasta. Since oil is less dense than water and is composed of hydrophobic molecules, it creates a layer across the top of the water. When the pasta is drained, it is poured through this oiled layer and leaves a fresh coat of oil on the pasta.
However, if you are not using a sauce or are using an olive oil base, then the oil has little effect.
Make sure the water is boiled: For all the impatient cooks out there, just wait that extra minute until the water is boiling with big bubbles. The boiling temperature is what prevents the pasta from getting mushy. That first plunge into the boiling water is critical to the texture of the final product. It will also help you time the pasta better.
Stir: Do not forget to stir. It may sound obvious, but this simple step can easily be forgotten through everyday distractions and the rush of cooking dinner. Without stirring, the pasta will for sure stick together and cook unevenly.
Take the lid off: Once you add the pasta, wait for the water to come back to a rolling boil and then remove the lid. This is just so you don’t have that white foam exploding over the edges of your pot like Mt. Vesuvius. An alternative tip from Lidia Bastianich is to leave the lid on but keep it propped open with a wooden spoon.
Cook, Time & Test: Yes, you can follow the timing on the box or package of pasta. But, the best timer is your mouth. Chef and cookbook author Jacob Kenedy says in his book The Geometry of Pasta to “start tasting the pasta at 15-20 second intervals, from a minute or two before you think the pasta might be ready.”
If serving the pasta with a sauce, Chef Michael Chiarello recommends taking the pasta out at about 4 minutes before the package time. Then add it to the sauce and let it finish cooking for a minute or two until it is al dente. This method should be used with only a proportionate amount of sauce. You do not want to have a huge pot of sauce for a pound or less of pasta. It is a great idea to make extra sauce, especially to put some in the freezer for another day or to serve on the side.
For a completely different take on cooking pasta, follow this rule from Mary Ann Esposito:
“My rule for cooking dry store bought pasta is to bring the water to a rapid boil; stir in the pasta and bring the water back to a boil. Put on the lid and turn the heat off. Set the timer for 7 minutes. Works beautifully for cuts like spaghetti, ziti, rigatoni and other short cuts of pasta.”
Don’t drain all of the pasta water: Pasta water is a great addition to the sauce. Add about a ¼-1/2 cup or ladle full of water to your sauce before adding the pasta. The salty, starchy water not only adds flavor but helps glue the pasta and sauce together; it will also help thicken the sauce.
The way you drain the pasta can also affect the flavor and texture. If cooking long pasta such as linguini or spaghetti, try using tongs or a pasta fork to transfer the pasta from the water to the sauce. You want to marry the sauce and the pasta as quickly as possibly. With short pasta, it is ideal to have a pasta pot that has a built in strainer or use a colander in the sink. Just make sure you don’t let the pasta sit too long or it will stick together.
Don’t rinse cooked pasta: Adding oil to pasta is not the only culprit to preventing the sauce and pasta from harmoniously mixing. Rinsing the cooked pasta under water does just the same. According to Giada de Laurentiis in her cookbook Everyday Pasta, “the starch on the surface contributes flavor and helps the sauce adhere.” If you rinse the water, you rinse away the starch.
Do you have any secrets to cooking the perfect pasta?