adventures in craft beer and real food

Sunday, August 27, 2006

Nina Planck Recap and Response

For those of you who missed it, author Nina Planck spoke about her new book Real Food yesterday at Cafe Soleil. Planck grew up on an ecologically minded vegetable farm eating what she now calls real food: the traditional all-American diet. No, not that one, the other all-American diet of meat, whole milk, pies made with lard, and vegetables aplenty. She rose to some prominence in founding and operating fifteen farmers' markets in London with her company London Farmers' Markets. She was also the director of New York's famous Greenmarket.

From her teenage years to her writing of The Farmers' Market Cookbook, Planck practiced strict veganism on the basis that it was the healthiest diet. At the same time, she put on twenty five pounds (despite running six miles a day, six days a week), came down with colds and the flu, felt moody and irritable, had dry skin, and bad fingernails. As she gradually added eggs, butter, meat, and fish back into her diet, these symptoms quickly went away. She lost "at least" twenty five pounds and generally felt healthier. Surprised by these results, Planck was inspired to do her own research into the healthiness of traditional diets.

And we all know that traditional foods are much maligned by nutrition professionals. Margarine is recommended over butter, vegetable oil is recommended period. Eggs yolks and organ meats are to be avoided at all costs. Processed milk is recommended over farm fresh milk.

Planck's book demarcates an alternative perspective on nutrition, apart from that of the traditional professionals. Her aim, then, seems bold and subversive, but Planck intimates that the government's dietetic standards are always out-of-date and are possibly "bought off" by the food industry anyway. Her talk focused on referencing historical data that would indicate that when a community's consumption of "real food" declines in favor of "industrial food," three diseases of civilization (obesity, diabetes, and heart disease) always increase. She also makes an attempt to rationalize these trends by referencing voices from outside of the science nutrition mainstream. In particular, Planck blames so-called diseases of civilization on the increased consumption of trans fat, corn oil, and sugar.

At the present, no health-oriented organization has supported Planck's heretical views.

Before I respond to Planck's ideas, please understand that I haven't read her book and that my views are purely that of an analytical chemist listening to an author's talk. I am not a nutritional expert, so it is not my place to support or refute her thesis that real food is good for you while industrial food is bad for you.

On the whole, Planck presented an interesting and bold case for real food. However, I found Planck to have made some points that have only the most tenuous of support, and some other points that seemed downright disingenuous. Allow me to explain:

1. Correlation does not necessitate causation. Much of Planck's argument has us believe that heart disease, obesity, and diabetes have increased because of the rise in "industrial foods." She makes this claim by showing how in our grandparents' generation, people supposedly ate a greater percentage of real food and that diseases of civilization afflicted a lesser percentage of the population. If we accept, for the moment, that "real food" really has declined to the degree that Planck believes, she does nothing to logically connect the decline of "real food" to the increase in diseases in civilization. There are a myriad of other factors that could be causes, co-causes, or generally play a facilitative role, such as less exercise (as fewer Americans perform physical labor, either at work or for recreation), environmental factors, the volume of food consumed, or specific chemical properties of the foods that we eat – to name but a few.

And speaking of which, it's difficult to believe that the house is burning when you don't smell smoke or see fire. Perhaps Planck provides this information in her book, but she did nothing to demonstrate that "real food" has been eclipsed by "industrial food" to the degree that she claims.

2. Hasty generalization. Listening to Planck, one would think that she would still consider McDonald's guilty of dietetic sin if they served organic, grass-fed, free range, cruelty free beef, served with freshly baked whole wheat buns, organic tomatoes, onions, lettuce, and ketchup -- with a side of organic fries cooked in beef tallow.

Her tagline is "real food is good for you, industrial food isn't." It catches your attention, yes, but upon further inspection you see that she has no basis for bringing down all industrial food. Just those that contain trans fat, corn oil, and sugar.

If industrial scale producers of food were able to eliminate trans fat, cut back on sugar, and use different oils, Planck would have no further argument against "industrial food" except that it's not as socially conscious or energy efficient as buying food that was locally grown and raised. Planck presents her argument as a purely dietary one, but one readily understands that her argument isn't based so simply. If she doesn't like industrial food companies in part or whole because they spite local and ecologically-minded farmers with bland substitutes and try to subvert legislation designed to protected these very people and their high-minded principles to the detriment on the consumer, that's fine. But her lack of transparency on the matter is suspect.

3. Appeal to authority. Planck is constantly dismissive of the dietary mainstream and the corpus of scientific work that I imagine went into crafting current dietary guidelines. At the same time, she seems to place complete trust in "new research" whose conclusions differ from the traditional authorities in the field.

4. Ignoring root causes. Planck comes out heavily against the pasteurization of milk. In general, milk is pasteurized because the udder is so close to the anus, making sanitation both extremely important and extremely difficult. As a result of modern mega-scale milk processing facilities, the improper sanitation of one udder could result in thousands (or tens of thousands) of gallons milk becoming contaminated. Without pasteurization, this milk would be passed directly to the consumer. Pasteurization thus allows the milk industry to certify that their product in safe to consume. Milk is also pasteurized to give it a much longer shelf life, which consumers both expect and appreciate.

Now, pasteurization of milk results in a myriad of chemical changes. Maillard reactions take place, which give pasteurized milk a subtle cooked flavor. Gases are allowed to escape (which happens when you heat any liquid) which improves shelf life. Lactose is partially degraded into lactulose and organic acids. The concentration of colloidal calcium decreases. And the concentration of vitamins, including vitamin C, decreases significantly.

So, while Planck is correct in arguing that we wouldn't "have to" transport oranges across the country if milk wasn't pasteurized, her argument is disingenuous. We'd still have to transport oranges because people in Wisconsin like eating oranges and we can't grow them here. There would also be the constant threat of sickness from consuming contaminated milk, which would drive consumption way, way down.

Planck takes aim at pasteurization of milk when she should be critical of the mega-scale processing and distribution of milk.

Moreover, the nutrient content of most foods is diminished by cooking. So if you're planning on cooking those green beans, or stirring that milk into anything hot from a béchamel to a cup of hot coffee, you're destroying most of the vitamins and anti-oxidants present. Her failure to note this fact when she is critical of pasteurization was most disingenuous.

Planck's lecture was interesting, insightful, and fun. She does good work in promoting local foods, but for the moment I'll have to remain skeptical of her conclusions.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Sopa de Huitlacoche

Last year, I had the good fortune to attend a cooking class at the French Culinary Institute by none other than Aarón Sanchez (Paladar, Mixx). It was one of those transcendent culinary experiences where I pushed my boundaries of what's "good to eat" way back. Chef Sanchez served up two things that I otherwise might be afraid to try: corn smut and worms. True, he did give everyone a shot of artisanal mescal, but I was awestruck by the dishes he made. They were a combination of French technique, Mexican flair, and truly fantastic flavor combinations. After a year and a half, the thing I remember most vividly about that class -- besides being outrageously thirsty by the end of the four and a half hour demonstration -- was his huitlacoche soup.

Huitlacoche is rendered into english rather ingloriously as corn smut. It's the result of Ustilago maydis, which is present wherever corn is grown. The end result, the part that cooks are interested in, is greatly enlarged kernels. The taste is an amalgamation of mushroom and corn.

Why are you looking at me like that? Yes, it's safe to eat. The Aztecs ate it, and Mexicans have been eating it continuously ever since. Huitlacoche has always been sold at a higher price than sweet corn, being considered a delicacy. Nowadays, many growers infect maize intentionally which has helped to keep the price under control as demand has steadily increased in the United States. Which is an interesting turn of events in itself, since the USDA has spent considerable time and money trying to eradicate corn smut. With the attention of Gourmet magazine, the Slow Food movement, and the James Beard Society, huitlacoche has made some cursory inroads over the last twenty years.

Speaking of the James Beard Society, you might also have heard the term "Mexican truffle" used to denote huitlacoche. This term was coined by the Beard Society in 1989 when they hosted a high profile huitlacoche dinner. The use of this phrase should be avoided, in my opinion since huitlacoche is completely different than a truffle. Truffles are foraged; huitlacoche has been grown since ancient times. Truffles are tubers; huitlacoche grows above ground. A single truffle in a room and can fill it with a pleasant scent; huitlacoche has no scent at all (this is how you can tell if it is huitlacoche and not something that might be poisonous). Truffles grow in the wild; huitlacoche grows among a staple crop (maize is the new world equivalent of wheat in the old world). Truffles are said to invoke passion; huitlacoche doesn't. Because of the almost comical lack of similarities between the two foods, it makes little sense to confuse things by associating one with the other.

Back to my story. I had been so eager to make chef Sanchez's soup that I was prepared to use canned huitlacoche until I read that Rick Bayless compares them to canned asparagus. As luck would have it, the Troy Community Garden in Madison had a farm festival last weekend. The highlight of the festival was, for me, the huitlacoche cooking demonstrations and the sale of fresh huitlacoche for the bargain price of $2 per ear. The huitlacoche was harvested earlier than would have been ideal, but I wasn't about to complain.

That night, I made a batch of sopa de huitlacoche, which is one of the simplest soups to make.

Simply heat some vegetable oil (or home-rendered lard, if you want to be authentic) in a skillet until very hot. Sauté one onion cut into half moons and two cloves of minced garlic until the onion is translucent. Add two roasted Anaheim chiles and one roasted poblano chile, all of which have been peeled and seeded. Cook for three minutes while stirring. Then add the huitlacoche of at least three ears of corn along with fresh epazote or cilantro. Reduce heat to medium and allow to simmer for five minutes.

Blend with a little chicken stock (about three cups) to create a smooth puree that has a thin consistency. Stir in half a cup of heavy cream, and bring to a boil. Simmer for five minutes before serving hot.

What stuck chef Sanchez's huitlacoche soup in my mind was the unique flavor experience of it all. Initially, you tasted an earthy-mushroom-corn flavor from the huitlacoche before being hit with a gentle dose of heat. I've never had a soup that had multiple ingredients mixed together that you still experience distinctly. If that's what I was trying to accomplish, I unfortunately fell short.

My version, while good as its own product, didn't have the interesting parade of flavors that I experienced last year in New York. The result was that of a simple corn-mushroom soup, which was still tasty. The huitlacoche was immature, and I used cilantro instead of epazote (the fresh epazote at the store didn't look terribly fresh).

In the end, I think this exact situation is what makes cooking so interesting. An expert can write down exact step-by-step instructions on how to make a dish, but an amateur can still only approximate the results of the expert. It makes every dinner a discovery.

Fortunately, this one turned out to be delicious.

The onion I used was from Tipi Produce (Evansville, WI) and the heavy cream was from the Blue Marble Family Farm (Barneveld, WI).

Friday, August 11, 2006

On the trail of Saveur

We who cook often find ourselves trapped in our kitchens, nose to the cutting board. We eschew travel, loath to squander the opportunity to reprovision our pantries with the fresh bounty that we dream of as Yeats dreamed. Loath to miss the fleeting smells of cherry tomatoes wafting from a farmer's stand, the grittiness of loamy soil on our fingers having run them over a pile of carrots each beautiful in their uniqueness, and the quiet reverence of our fellow parishioners as our feet carry us to a place where we get a brief burst of reality as we shuck an ear of corn, undressing it to the shoulders to admire its pulchritude for a moment, knowing that there is no ear like this one that's so close, so vulnerable, so fleeting, and so dear. It is the ear that we have lusted over when we wanted to stay home from work as a refuge from a deluge of snow, when we were having an affair with ramps while flirting with asparagus, and we will dream of it again as we bootycall a pumpkin to rekindle that old flame potage de potiron. But now is the time when we revel in corn, longing to expose it completely and enjoy every last kernal before it leaves us with fond memories of companionship and resentment that it couldn't stay, like the zucchini, driving us to ever higher plateaux of ecstasy as we try dish after dish of it. But in the end, you realize that it was just another tease like everything else that you can touch but not grasp, a longing without consummation.

We have our escapes. We read about food and about its Götterdämmerung and apotheosis in becoming cuisine. We subscribe to food magazines and eagerly await their arrival the way a lesser man anticipates the coming issue of Maxim. But every once in a while, these magazines don't whisk us away on a culinary exploration of field hands' dinners in Bordeaux or fold us into the midst of street markets in Melaka, but pipes us back home into liaison with our lives as cooks and as eaters.

That was the case when I opened up the September 2006 edition of Saveur to find the Milwaukee Friday night fish fry as the cover story. It highlights the midwestern tradition as faithfully as one could expect of the writer, Milwaukee native but expatriated Daphne Beal. I would have liked a bit more mise en scene to set the tradition against the backdrop of a city with a rich but troubled history, trying to find its identity without the glory of the now defunct Blatz, Pabst, or Schlitz breweries that still stand as drab monuments to an antiquated belle epoque in the city's history. It is a city recovering from a real lack of joie de vivre that so characterizes other Wisconsin cities. I can forgive the lack of historical depth as the length of copy was surely limited, and it might have been viewed as "off topic" by the more mainstream editors. I am also grateful that Beal managed to tell the story without the usual "quaint" or "provincial" descriptions.

To me, though, the real test of the article was to visit one of the restaurants it featured. Because of its prominent downtown locale, I went to the Historic Turner Restaurant for Friday night fish fry. A striking 1883 building greets the hungry diner as he opens the door to enter into a wide hall. After ascending a few stairs, the guest is immediately greeted by the pleasant smell of food and the decorous clatter of dining. Elegant wooden walls extend to a ceiling so high that you could hardly imagine any modern building being made that way. Historic photographs garnish the walls, adding character. Unfortunately, the restaurant has gone the "sports bar" route and has deleteriously affected its historical charm by hanging large televisions all over the restaurant. Although I tried to appreciate watching the Brewers play as a cultural element essential and perhaps inseperable from the experience itself, I found it distracting.

The menu features pretty much what you'd expect: a partnership of stripped-down cornerstones of many cuisines, mostly American and German. The prices are very reasonable, given the quality of the food. But I didn't really need the menu since I was there for the fish and the potato pancakes. The beer menu was sadly uninspiring for Milwaukee. It lacked many of the staple beers that one could expect: Riverwest Stein Beer, Sprecher Black Bavarian, New Glarus Spotted Cow, or Capital Special Pilsener. It did have some beers from the Water Street Brewery Bavarian Weiss. I was also disappointed in the service as the waitron only understood the "weiss" pronunciation instead of the more beer savvy and accurate "veiss." Never having sampled the Water Street Brewery's offerings, I was pleasantly surprised with the beer. It matched the style, possessed some complexity while avoiding the cloying flavors of other "wheat" beers. They served it in the correct kind of glass, which was also a nice touch.

The cod was tasty to be sure, having been well browned on all sides. It had the pleasing flaky-tender quality of a well-cooked fish. But the potato pancakes are what really stole the show. The pancakes were made by finely grating the potatoes, which gave them a nice smooth mouthfeel as opposed to the somewhat hashbrownie mouthfeel that potato pancakes sometimes possess. They were also cooked much more evenly than we've been able to achieve in my home kitchen, which was impressive even though I know the "secret" here is just using more butter.

My only complaints about the food are the quantity and the bread. They provide much more than one person could possibly eat, which demonstrates poor portion control. Second, the rye bread was extremely uninspiring. It didn't have the deep rye flavor or the heft that bread should possess. In the restaurant's credit, the butter was served warmed instead of refrigerator cold, which demonstrated an appropriate level of attention to detail on their part.

In all, the meal was excellent. I strongly recommend getting a table at the Historic Turner Restaurant. Going there might not have been the introduction to Irish folk cooking that I've come to expect from the editors of Saveur, but it did provide introspection into my own food culture.

That and the company of good friends gathered for a great meal.