Monday, September 21, 2009

How do we eat now?

“Vegetarian doesn’t have to suck!”
-Anthony Bourdain

He should know. An avowed carnivore, Bourdain became swayed on a recent episode of No Reservations by an Indian vegetarian meal served in a Hindu temple in a Queens basement, no less. The variety of dishes and flavors convinced Bourdain that given the right attention vegetables can hold their own and satisfy a hardcore meat eater.

There are so many ways we are being encouraged to eat these days. Local, organic, gluten-free, dairy-free, grass-fed, hormone-free, sustainable, natural; these are terms swirling around the markets. But at this point they are just words, some with good ideas behind them, some still meaningless. I believe that proper food labeling is the next crucial step towards clarity in the marketplace. We need real information on packaging and store signs which allow us to make our own healthy choices, not the ones the food industry decides for us.

To minimize confusion I like to stick to some basic food guidelines that work for me:

•Seasonal ingredients- Yes, no fresh strawberries for me in January, ever. There is no point. They wont taste good, they will cost too much and they just don't belong on a winter menu in the North East.

•Variety of flavors-I could never be a true locavore.  Give up olive oil and coffee? No way. Certain things are perfect for exporting and I still have to satisfy my global palate. Organic coffee is delicious and follows Fair Trade practices. Herbs and spices travel really well and give you a glimpse of world cuisine (I've always had a thing for Marco Polo). Variety can come from the colors of food, the texture, the sweetness vs. savory. Not too much of any one thing. A balance is what I am always seeking.

• A basic interest in knowing where my ingredients are coming from- It is not always easy to tell. I read a lot of labels, and I look for a lot of labels and don't always find them. Other times I just don't bother or don't have time. But when I do look I always find something of interest.  During a recent purchase of heads of garlic in a supermarket I glanced at the label to see they came from China! Well, that is plain silly. Whole Foods does a good job of labeling their fish and I really appreciate that. Not so good on labeling their produce. At my local supermarket in early May I saw corn on the cob labeled "local". I knew this was not possible and asked the produce manager who responded to me "It's just a sign".
Garlic on drying racks at Hook Mountain Growers, Nyack, NY August '09

•Skepticism of anything that comes pre-made in a package - Convenience is great, but it comes at a price. I make as much as is practical from scratch. Not everything is practical. I compromise. My kids would flip out if I stopped bringing home Gatorade and frozen pizzas (%#*!@).

The question then becomes how does one shop?

Fantastic Plastic Tree by Megumi Tomomitsu at Socrates Sculpture Park, August 30, 2009

This blog features among other things, my passion for farmer’s markets. I love to see what is fresh and growing in any area I visit. Stopping at farm stands has been a lifelong pursuit. I was exposed to this early on as a child summering every year on the East End of long Island. My family feasted every summer on corn, tomatoes, potatoes and cantaloupes from the local farms, anticipating the harvest of each crop. It is a passion I can't resist.
Falkowski's Farm Stand, Scuttle Hole Road, Bridgehampton, NY,  August '09

But farm stands can be expensive and they are not the only game in town. NYC has many ethnic markets that carry all kinds of wonderful produce. Bodegas are great for plantains, yams, limes and chayote. Mexican markets always have cilantro, mangoes and avocados. The Indian markets in Jackson Heights, Queens are regularly plundered by my cooking enthusiast friends and me for the freshest garlic and ginger. Chinatown always has fresh greens for sauteing.

Traditional supermarkets are also on my radar. Any produce the supermarket may feature at a good price can be counted on to be seasonal and probably local. I also am not above checking out the “quick sale” section for produce. I often find excellent buys of items placed there not because they are spoiled but because they are perfectly ripe and must be used right away. I always look there for apples to make pies or apple sauce, and tomatoes to cook down and freeze for winter stews and soups. Lemons and limes can also be a great bargain when slightly soft or starting to turn brown. And softened, wrinkled bell peppers are the best ones to roast according to Marcella Hazen.

Fresh herbs come out of my backyard garden. I grow thyme, sage, dill, mints, tarragon, chives, basil, you name it. A small pot on a window sill can offer a bit of herbal cheer, but the quantities you need to add to a recipe will pretty much leave the plant for bare. If you have any access to outdoor growing space herbs are a very easy and rewarding crop.
Basil growing in my Queens, NY backyard,  July '09

Labels are just labels, unless they contain real information. I am a true omnivore with an inclination towards fresh, seasonal and local. I eat organic chicken, eggs and coffee. When I can, I buy all organic ingredients,  but it is not an imperative for me. Flavor, value and integrity of ingredients guides me more. And yeah Tony, vegetarian doesn’t have to suck. Vegetables are a wonderful and healthy way to eat. The more we eat them the better. We don’t need the experts to tell us that. If something comes from a package in a supermarket we have to be prepared to read the fine print or accept that there will be things in it we don’t need or want. Eating low on the food chain makes sense for our health and the environment. Until our food industry gets straightened out we need to do the best we can to make the choices that we decide are right for us.

If you are interested in other voices from the sustainable food movement, check out this Newsletter from Roxbury Farm and this wonderfully passionate case for humane farming practices by Pamela Yee of Hook Mountain Growers.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for clarifying all the new eco-conscious agricultural terminology for everyone. It certainly gets muddled and like most things that become fashionable to do, say or eat, the meaning and intention gets lost. Say, for example selling canvas reusable shopping bags at Target yet everyone leaves with all their items in plastic bags. I agree with the limitations of the words and though I try my best to be a locavore, I too cannot relinquish olive oil, green tea, or olives. Where I think the concept is important and appliable is where you have a situation where things can be grown and eaten locally but that the product available in front of you at the grocery store comes 5000 miles away. Case in point: Garlic. The US produces 500 million pounds per year and New York is the biggest producer east of the Rockies. Why must Whole Foods stock garlic from Argentina? I suspect it all boils down to cost to distributor and retailer not cost to the environment or for local farmers.


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