Last Thursday night, I saw Ana Sofia Joanes's documentary Fresh at an advance screening in Cambridge. The screening was followed by a panel talk that included the filmmaker; two of the "characters" from the movie, Joel Salatin and Will Allen; Cambridge City Council member Henrietta Davis; and Chef Michael Leviton of Boston's Lumière Restaurant.
Fresh shares much with Michael Pollan's book, The Omnivore's Dilemma. The subject matter and perspective are quite similar. Both the film and the book address the problems with grain and meat agribusiness, and present sustainable alternatives. Beyond that, Michael Pollan appears several times in the film, and Joel Salatin, who is profiled deeply in The Omnivore's Dilemma, is also profiled in Fresh. This overlap between the film and the book was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, the film broke no deep new conceptual ground for me. It often felt like more of the same. On the other hand, I feel very aligned with Pollan's and Joanes's perspectives, and it's great to have another able artist join the party, especially one who is so good at capturing the color and genius of her subjects.
It was inspiring to learn about the urban farming work of MacArthur Fellow Will Allen in Milwaukee, and his organization Growing Power. I was struck by his energy, vision, purpose, drive, and contagious enthusiasm—not to mention his awesome presence. Joel Salatin, a maverick family farmer from Virginia and a sustainable farming celebrity (due in part to his appearance in The Omnivore's Dilemma), had a completely different, low-key energy, but was similarly visionary, inspiring, articulate, and incisive. Michael Pollan spoke with the authority, vision, and conceptual clarity that one would expect, and more of his personality came across to me on camera than did in his books.
It was great to see Allen and Salatin at the panel afterwards, along with Joanes, without whom none of us would have been there; Davis, who is a huge ally of real food in Cambridge politics; and Leviton, whose humility and commitment to food sustainability made me want to visit his restaurant.
Fresh is an excellent introduction to food sustainability for those who aren't already drinking the kool-aid. It has the potential to reach many people who would never pick up a 400+ page book. The more tickets it sells, the more theatres will show it, the more publicity it will get, and the more people will question the problematic food status quo. So let's make Fresh the next Fahrenheit 9/11!
A week or two ago, I was with a friend who ordered Kimchi Stew at a Korean restaurant. I tried some, and it was tasty. This inspired me to do some reverse-engineering.
Without looking around at other people's recipes, here's what I came up with. I aimed for taste rather than strict authenticity. Serve it on its own, or with rice, bean threads, little boiled potatoes, or the starch of your choice. Makes 1 significant serving.
1/2 cup of dashi, fish stock, vegetable stock, or meat stock from animals of known origin
1/4 lb of sliced MOKO (pork works well) (I don't believe in eating large amounts of tofu)
a handful of dried shiitake mushroom pieces
a generous teaspoon of miso paste (the kind from a tub, not from an envelope)
The goal of BPMA is to establish a year-round, indoor farmers market serving Boston, selling vegetables, eggs, dairy, meat, and value-added products from local sources, year-round, and regardless of the weather.
Some other cities in the US have markets like this. (San Francisco has the Ferry Building Marketplace; Seattle has Pike Place Market; etc.) More cities elsewhere in the world have markets like this; they serve as hubs for sellers, buyers, and community. Even more cities used to have markets like this. Over the course of the last 60 years, supermarkets have supplanted these public markets.
The BPMA project is vitally important; it is important to us eaters, to greater Boston, to New England, and to the world, for many reasons, including (but not limited to) the following:
Public markets reduce or eliminate intermediation, making it possible for small-scale sellers to get a fair price for their goods, and making it possible for buyers to meet small-scale sellers and understand where there food is coming from.
Public markets reduce transportation and distribution needs, which leads to fresher food.
Public markets keep money in the local economy, rather than sending it to who-knows-where.
Public markets can foster positive interaction among people of different ethnic and economic backgrounds, as well as among folks of different urbanization backgrounds (country, suburb, and city folks).
Public markets can make fresh food available to underserved communities.
Public markets are likely to be more resilient than supermarkets in the face of precipitous social infrastructure change (increased fuel/transportation costs, currency or bank failures, terrorist attacks, and so on).
Public markets are FUN!
(If you would like to hear more about the importance of local food, I'd encourage you to read pretty much ANY of the books that appeal to you in the sidebar to the right.)
I think it's likely that BPMA will achieve its goal within a few years.
Technically, sushi is acidulated rice. When this rice is served with a topping, the assembled dish, confusingly, is also called sushi.
The original sushi topping was raw fish. Today, people use raw and cooked fish, vegetables, raw and cooked meat, egg, and nearly everything else you can think of. The toppings can be placed on or over the rice (nigirizushi or chirashizushi); the toppings and rice can be wrapped in seaweed or in edible paper in various ways (makizushi); or they can be pressed in a box or mold (oshizushi).
The rice is typically sticky short-grained white rice, although other kinds of rice are sometimes used, with varying degrees of success.
Sushi in its oldest form (narezushi) emerged as a by-product of a fish preservation strategy. Raw fish were cleaned and gutted and then packed in cooked rice, and the warm rice was allowed to ferment (or rot, depending on your point of view). The acidity of the fermenting rice preserved the fish. The rice was then either discarded or eaten, depending on how strong it had gotten.
When vinegar became popular, people discovered that they could quickly and conveniently use vinegar to preserve rice, and to mimic the flavor of fermenting rice. So "sushi rice" nowadays is seasoned with vinegar, salt, and sugar, to simulate the properties and flavor of rotting rice!
Served with fresh fish or other ingredients, this vinegared rice is sushi as we know it today, officially known as hayazushi (quick sushi) or Edomaezushi (Tokyo Bay sushi).
Sushi has been popular in Japan for some time. In the past few decades, it has also become very popular in the rest of the world, and has been adapted to suit local tastes and ingredients (tuna, avocado, raw beef, kimchi, Spam, etc.).
Sushi and Health
Sushi has many health-giving qualities. Fermented foods such as soy sauce, fermented rice, and pickled vegetables are excellent and easily-digested sources of vitamins, and they contain enzymes that help digest proteins and fats. Fish, shellfish, and nori (seaweed) contain minerals essential to the human body that may be difficult to get from other sources. Raw seafood contains enzymes and vitamins that are destroyed by the heat of cooking. Fish, egg, and avocado are excellent sources of healthy fats. Finally, fish and egg are great sources of protein.
4 lbs of vegetables: mostly Napa cabbage, plus any combination of mustard greens, bok choy, daikon, burdock root, and whatever other vegetables catch your fancy
1 head garlic
2 or 3 good-sized onions
some more chlorine-free water
1 inch ginger root, peeled (a spoon works well for peeling ginger)
1 cup red pepper powder, available at Korean and other Asian grocery stores
2 tablespoons sugar
1 small bunch scallions
In a big bowl, dissolve 3/4 cup salt in 2 cups of water to make a brine.
Cut up all of the 4 lbs of vegetables. Cut leafy vegetables into 1" square pieces. Peel root vegetables and cut them into thin diagonal slices. Slice and include as much of the cabbage core as you like.
Put the chopped vegetables into the brine and mix. Hands are an excellent tool for this. Leave the vegetables in the brine for 4-6 hours. Cover it to keep it free of foreign objects. Uncover it and stir it up every once in a while.
Drain the vegetables pretty thoroughly in a colander.
Peel the onions and garlic, and mince the ginger.
Blend the onion, garlic, and ginger in a food processor with as much water as is necessary to form a smooth paste.
Mix the red pepper flakes and sugar into the paste.
Cut the scallions diagonally into 1" lengths, and add them to the paste. Then let the paste sit for 10 minutes.
Move the chopped vegetables from the colander into a large bowl. Add the seasoning paste. Mix it up well with a wooden spoon, your hands, or whatever falls readily to hand.
Pack your kimchi tightly into Mason jars. Close the jars loosely. Leave the jars on the counter at room temperature for as long as you dare, but at least 1 day. Open them every day or two to check their progress. (Or, optionally, seal the jars in plastic bags and bury them in your back yard.)
Taste your kimchi periodically. When you think it's "done", close the jars more tightly and put them in the fridge. (Or bury them in the ground, or keep them in a cool root cellar.)
Kimchi Recipe Concepts
New England Kimchi Canapés (bite-sized cracker, cheddar cheese, apple, kimchi)
Kimchi Reuben Sandwich (rye bread, corned beef of known origin, kimchi, mayo, optional wasabi)
Sandor Ellix Katz hosted a fermentation workshop on Friday, 8 May 2009, as part of the Boston University Future of Food conference. Here are my notes from that workshop, rearranged a bit, with some interpolation.
Sandor is the author of Wild Fermentation and The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved, and is a self-declared “fermentation revivalist”. The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved has influenced my own thinking about food and food systems more profoundly than anything else I’ve read or seen; each page is better and more fascinating than the last, and the book is a masterful blending of intimacy and rigor. Many of the concepts in the book landed so well and deeply in my brain that I can no longer remember how I looked at things before I read the book.
In the workshop, Sandor described fermentation, for our purposes, as the transformative action of microorganisms. He points out that fermentation is very easy to achieve, and we are all familiar with it: it is the path of least resistance for a piece of cabbage left out on the counter, for instance.
So if your goal is to ferment a cabbage into a puddle of slime, you don’t need to do anything in particular. If, on the other hand, you seek something edible, you must employ some art. This art is the deliberate manipulation of environmental conditions to favor desired microorganisms—conscious fermentation, if you will.
He made a further distinction between cultured fermentation, which involves the intentional introduction of microbes for the purposes of fermentation; and wild fermentation, which relies on whatever microbes may already be present on your vegetables and in your air, and sometimes a pinch of serendipity. Adding some of your old yogurt to milk in order to make a new batch of yogurt, is an example of cultured fermentation. Chopping up cabbage, salting it, and leaving it to its own devices is an example of wild fermentation.
Historically, the need to preserve food has led people to ferment food, including vegetables (sauerkraut and friends), dairy products (yogurt-type things, cheese, sour cream, some kinds of butter), grain products (bread, porridges, and some alcoholic brews), and meats (sausages, hams).
Since the 19th century, canning, refrigeration, and freezing have emerged as alternative methods of food preservation. They are convenient in some respects, but nutritionally speaking, they are a step backwards from fermentation.
Refrigeration and freezing do not increase food nutritiousness, and can degrade it slightly; canning degrades it significantly. Canning uses heat to kill any bacteria present in the food, and while this gives canned food a potentially very long shelf life, it also reduces heat-sensitive vitamins like C and some of the Bs, along with enzymes. In some sense, canning is the opposite of fermentation, since canning involves eliminating bacteria entirely, while fermentation involves guiding and benefiting from the work of the bacteria.
Fermentation can enhance the nutritional value of food, often in ways that we are only now beginning to understand. Among the potentially healthful compounds created via fermentation are B-vitamins; isothiocyanates (possible carcinogenesis inhibitors); dipicolinic acid (which may help in the elimination of heavy metals from the body); and nattokinase (which may counteract cardiovascular disease and Alzheimer’s). The fermentation bacteria themselves aid digestion and the immune system.
Beyond that, fermentation can be used to make water drinkable, by shifting its bacterial balance and introducing small amounts of alcohol. Similarly, fermentation allows us to eat foods that would otherwise be problematic; for instance, eating a big pot of soybeans leads to serious indigestion, but soy is easy to digest in its fermented forms like miso, soy sauce, natto, tempeh, and fermented tofu. Furthermore, fermentation can break proteins into their constituent amino acids, increasing their usefulness to our bodies. Fermentation can transmogrify lactose, which many people cannot digest. And fermentation can make minerals more bioavailable.
Sandor talked about raw (unpasteurized) milk. An interesting note is that pasteurization was originally developed for the commercial wine-making industry. The old way of making wine was to juice the grapes and hope for the best; the new way was to juice the grapes, sterilize the juice, and then add specific yeasts, in order to have control over the direction of its fermentation.
Sandor characterized milk pasteurization as “an excellent salvage protocol for milk from animals raised under substandard conditions”—animals feeding on inappropriate diets, standing knee-deep in their own excrement, and/or forced to overproduce milk by means of artificial hormones. That describes most of the cows in the US.
Wendell Berry, noted poet-farmer, spoke of the correlations between the modernization of agriculture and the deterioration of society.
Sandor observed that along with the War on Terror and the War on Drugs, we are waging another war that is seldom explicitly named—the War on Bacteria. The battlefields range from our (antibacterial) handsoap to our (antibacterial) socks to our cows (injected with antibiotics) to our (pasteurized) milk. It is a war that we can’t possibly win; and if we did win it, we would be in trouble. In the meantime, we are being hoisted by our own petard. We are selectively breeding harmful new bacteria, harming our own bodies, and destroying our planet.
There are a surprising number of fermented foods we sometimes forget are fermented. Sandor invited us to imagine a stroll through Zabar’s, the famous gourmet deli in New York City. Olives, (most) cheeses, sausages, corned beef, pastrami, ham, pickles, sauerkraut, and so on are fermented. We don’t usually think of bread as being a fermented food, but without the activity of yeast, bread would not be bread. Coffee, (most) tea, chocolate, and vanilla depend on fermentation. Most of the condiments we know and love, from ketchup to vinegar to Worcestershire sauce to fish sauce, also rely on fermentation in one way or another.
Fermentation has in fact always accompanied culture and agriculture. Some of the earliest human writings have mentioned fermentation—hence it is likely that fermentation dates back to prehistory. And more recently, fermented foods have played key roles in specific cultures.
Fish sauce has been used in Asia for millennia, and was used in ancient Rome, where it was so important that it was used as a form of currency (garum).
The original kefir grains, legend has it, were brought from Allah to humankind by Mohamed.
Other culture-specific ferments can provide a test to distinguish insiders from outsiders—or, at the very least, are acquired tastes. Natto, for instance, is a trademark Japanese soy ferment that is stringy, slimy, smelly, and notoriously unappealing to most non-Japanese. Iceland has hákarl, a fermented shark preparation that I will charitably describe as “pungent”. More than one group of people has a beverage made by chewing a plant, spitting the chewed plant and saliva into a large vessel, and leaving it all to ferment.
In his volume The Raw and the Cooked, the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss distinguishes among raw food, rotten food, and “cooked” food (including fermented food), and characterizes cooked food as the triumph of the human over the rotten.
Enough theory. Time to ferment!
After noting that English does not have its own word for “fermented vegetables” and settling on the borrowed German word sauerkraut, Sandor demonstrated his method:
Chop up your vegetables. Use cabbage, carrots, onion, whatever. You can use anything you would consider eating raw (so no potatoes). You can use herbs and spices if you like.
Add salt. In his book, he suggests 3 tablespoons of salt for 5 pounds of cabbage. He emphasizes that this is not a prescription, just a possibility. According to Sandor, commercial sauerkraut operations use between 1.5% and 2.5% salt, by weight. The salts in my cabinet right now range from 10g/T (for kosher salt) to 18g/T (for coarse sea salt). Doing the math, 30-54 grams of salt for 2300 grams of cabbage puts us in the 1.5%-2.5% range.
The salt pulls the water out of the vegetables, via osmosis; narrows the variety of bacteria that can grow, favoring lactic acid bacteria; slows down the action of all the bacteria, including the lactic acid bacteria; and makes the vegetables crunchier by hardening the pectins they contain.
Mix it all, and squeeze it with your hands. The squeezing accomplishes two things: it helps the salt pull the water out of the cells in the vegetables, and it softens up the vegetable fibers a bit.
Pack it tightly into pint-jars. Use your hand or some other instrument to push it down so that the liquid rises above the top of the vegetables, to forestall surface mold (by “drowning” it).
Leave the jars out at room temperature for as long or as short a time as you like. Every day or so, open the jars and push down on your kraut so that the liquid rises (again, to prevent mold).
If mold grows on it, skim it off.
Taste your sauerkraut regularly, and eat it whenever you think it’s ready!
Sauerkraut is a good choice for a first fermentation project—it is easy, it is satisfying, it is delicious, it has a high success rate, and it doesn’t require any special equipment.
Sandor was signing copies of Wild Fermentation at the workshop. If you are interested in fermenting food, I definitely recommend this book—even if you can’t get it signed!
As a final note, Sandor encouraged us to consider that fermentation is a great activity for farmers and food artisans, allowing them to take inexpensive, perishable raw materials (cabbage, milk) and transform them into more expensive, more durable products, while at the same time building the local economy and increasing local food security and self-reliance.
Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, by Weston A. Price: Rather that theorizing abstractly about human nutrition, the author sought out isolated groups of healthy people around the world (this was in the 1930s, when there were still isolated groups of people), and documented their foodways. Price's book is jaw-dropping (literally). He describes group after group of people who are healthy in isolation, and become sick, miserable, and toothless when they adopt a "modern" diet. Aren't you curious what they were eating when they were healthy? Full write-up coming soon.
Japanese Cooking: A Simple Art, by Shizuo Tsuji and Yoshiki Tsuji: A masterwork on the subject of Japanese cuisine, and by extension, Japanese culture.
Winning Bicycle Racing, by Jack Simes: A short, fascinating book on the subject of bicycling, published in 1976, when the majority of men still wore moustaches. And as with any bicycling publication, there are some great facial expressions.
The Secret History of the World: As Laid Down by the Secret Societies, by Mark Booth: A truly fascinating, meticulously documented look at the evolution of human consciousness and religion. What are some of the connections among different religions' creation myths and pantheons? Why are there astrological and other "pagan" symbols in Christian rites? Did you know that "elohim", the Hebrew word in Genesis typically translated as "God", is actually a plural noun? And so on. N.B.: the book describes an almost exclusively male experience. I think Booth could have done more in the front material to explain this, or at least to notify the reader of the orientation.
The Sushi Economy: Globalization and the Making of a Modern Delicacy, by Sasha Issenberg: The history of sushi and the sushi supply chain, detailing the journey that your fish takes from the cold ocean to your neighborhood sushi bar, often by way of Tokyo. Sasha Issenberg focuses on the lives of the people involved in the sushi trade. Fascinating and well-written.
The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice, by Trevor Corson: The story of some students at a sushi academy—and more generally, the story of sushi itself. A wonderful book, entertaining, thorougly and carefully researched, and instructive. It makes me want to eat sushi. Or write about it. Similar, but only a bit, to The Making of a Chef, by Michael Ruhlman.
Any statements or claims about the possible health benefits conferred by any foods or supplements have not been evaluated by the Food & Drug Administration and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.
I am not a doctor, nor do I play one on TV.
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