The Food Almanac: Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Food Almanac: Tuesday, October 15, 2013

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Our Superstar Chefs
Emeril Lagasse was born today in 1959. He arrived in New Orleans after working and schooling himself in his native New England. Not long after he arrived, in 1982, he took over as executive chef of Commander's Palace, where he made as big a splash as his predecessor Paul Prudhomme had a few years earlier. "Emeril is a gem!" said owner Ella Brennan, who encouraged him when he went out on his own. In 1990, he opened Emeril's, on the corner of Julia and Tchoupitoulas. By that time he'd been discovered by the media as an extraordinarily likable and engaging presence on television. He started with a show called "How To Boil Water" on the Food Network. But it was clear that he could do much more than just a basic cooking show. He became the network's biggest star. The recent cancellation of Emeril Live--his combination cooking and talk show--is less evidence of declining popularity than of the fact that the Food Network is replacing real chefs with pretty boys and girls whose contrived fame can be harnessed at less expense, to the detriment of the product.

Emeril's greatest dish, in my opinion, was his new appraoch the barbecue shrimp. He makes the sauce by creating a shrimp demi-glace (so to speak) and stirring it into the butter and pepper.

Annals Of Kosher Food
Today in 1662, one Asser Levy was licensed as a butcher in the town of New Amsterdam (later renamed New York). He was the first person to sell kosher meats in the American colonies, at a time when Jews were not often granted religious freedom. In 1671, Levy became the first Jew to serve on a jury in North America.

Today's Flavor
Today is National Roast Pheasant Day. Pheasants are a prized quarry for the hunter; the picture of a Golden Retriever with a pheasant in his mouth has been painted more than once. If a friend comes home with a pheasant for you, you're in luck. If not, you may be able to find a farm-raised pheasant in a store or restaurant (wild game is illegal in both). The farm-raised bird will probably be better, because it's younger.

Pheasant was dismissed decades ago by a lot of diners and restaurants as pretentious foolishness. (Anybody remember pheasant under glass?) But it's a wonderful bird. It meat is almost entirely white, and it has a magnificent rich flavor. The only problem with pheasant is that it’s difficult to roast without drying it out. Unlike most of the other game birds, pheasant has very little fat, and needs marinades and barding and sauces to bring out the flavor.

Brining is essential. A cup of salt dissolved in a gallon of water, used as an overnight, refrigerated bath for a pheasant, makes for a very moist meat. Also, using rich stuffings like foie gras results in the magnificent (and non-dry) classic, pheasant Souvaroff. Covering the bird with slices of bacon and other techniques along those lines helps, too. It's all worth it to enjoy one of the finest-tasting birds in the world.

Gourmet Gazetteer
Pheasant Hill is in the northeast corner of Oklahoma, seventy-two miles northeast of Tulsa. It rises 840 feet above sea level, about 150 feet above the bed of Big Cabin Creek, which runs along its western flank. Two cemeteries are on the broad top of Pheasant Hill. This is an oil drilling area, with numerous wells nearby. It's unlikely that you'll dine of pheasant nearby (unless you shoot and cook it yourself). But a hunger can be sated five miles south the Pheasant Hill at the Hornets Corner Diner in Vinita.

Edible Dictionary
chukar, [CHUCK-er], n.--A variety of partridge, native to Europe and western Asia, that was imported to North America as a game bird and has formed wild populations. It's related to the pheasant. The name comes from its call, which it repeats until you want to shoot it just to make it stop. It is currently stocked in hunting preserves, including a few in the Louisiana Florida Parishes. Chukar are a bit over a foot long and weigh about two pounds. They are good to roast and eat, with white meat similar to that of a pheasant.

Deft Dining Rule #871
The cost of silver duck presses, glass bells, gueridons for flaming and assembling dishes tableside, and other accoutrements of elaborate dining room service will be reflected more in the prices of wine and cocktails than in those of the food.

Food And Wine In Music
Today in 1977, the group UB40 released the first reggae song to make it to Number One on the American pop charts, Red Red Wine. It's UB40s theme song now.

Annals Of Beer
Today in 1993, the one billionth bottle of Amstel Light beer was capped in the brewery giant's factory in Curacao. The man who drank it said, "Wait--I wanted beer, not water!" (Maybe.)

Food Namesakes
It is the birthday of long-time CBS newsman and analyst Robert Trout, in 1909. His career spanned decades, from the 1930s well into the 1970s. . Mickey Baker, the front half of the pop-music duo Mickey and Sylvia, was born today in 1925. Their famous song was Love Is Strange. It's rare that we find food in the names of TV stations, but we have two of them today. WLOX-TV in Biloxi began telecasting on this day in 1962. And in Johnstown, PA, WFAT-TV signed on the air today in 1953 (as WJNL). . Ron Cherry, NFL tackle, was born today in 1972. . Sara Josephine Baker was born today in 1873. She was a physician who spent most of her career preventing illnesses in newborn children. . Varian Fry, an American journalist who helped develop a rescue network to evacuate Jews from Nazi Germany, was born today in 1907.

Words To Eat By
"The only time to eat diet food is while you are waiting for the steak to cook."--Julia Child.

Words To Drink By
"I had been able to observe that there was a sprightly sportsman behind the counter mixing things out of bottles and stirring them up in long glasses that seemed to have ice in them, and the urge came upon me to see more of this man."--Bertie Wooster,the upper-class twit in the stories of P. G. Wodehouse, born today in 1881.

Soulmass Bread.

The second of November is a special day of observance in some branches of the Christian Church. It is “The Commemoration of All the Faithful Departed” or “The Feast of All Souls” - more commonly known as “All Souls’ Day”, or, in Spanish-speaking countries, the Day of the Dead. Many of the traditions of the day have ancient pre-Christian roots, as do many other church feast days (Christmas being particularly notable.) Naturally, there are some special foods associated with the day.

In some part of England, special breads called Soulmass loaves (Sau’mass or Solmas-Loaves) were made – perhaps to be eaten, but some to be kept, for luck (a similar tradition existed for Easter hot-cross buns). A mid-nineteenth century glossary of Yorkshire words describes them:

I doubt that the bread was anything other than the baker’s basic everyday dough, and that there were more than a token number of currants in this special bread. So, for today’s recipe I give you a much richer, fruitier version of currant bread, from The New Hydropathic Cook Book (1854) by Russell Thacher Trall.

Currant Bread.
Take three pounds of flour one pound of currants one pint and a half of new milk and one gill of yeast. Warm the milk, and mix it with the flour and yeast cover with a cloth and set it by the fire. When risen sufficiently, add the fruits and mold it then put it intoa baking tin or deep dish, rubbed with sweet-oil or dusted with flour after it has risen for half an hour longer, bake it in a moderately hot oven.


I have decided to move the entire recipe archive from the Companion blog to its rightful place here. The reason for their location on the "other" site is historic (and related to my gross ignorance of blog-things when I started my little experiment). It might take me a little time to change all the links to this archive from various posts. The recipe archive up to October 2007 will stay on the Companion blog.

Recipes from posts to the end of OCTOBER 2007 have been added to the archive so far. It is the world's most boring job, so I have let it lapse. I will try to keep it up to date from now on.

NEW recipes will be added to the bottom of each list, so if you haven't stopped by for a while, that's the place to look. Yes - in some ways an alphabetical list would be easier - but the old recipe names do not lend themselves to alphabetising that would make a great deal of sense today, and besides, it would be very time consuming.

A list of freely available Online Historic Cookbooks is also available to download as a pdf, from the link in the sidebar, if you are interested. If you would rather have the list in the form of an Excel spreadsheet, email me at theoldfoodieATfastmailDOTfm and I will send it to you.

Genetically modified foods: What is and isn’t true

Welcome to Unearthed, an effort that will dig deep to try and figure out what’s true and what isn’t in the debate about our food supply.

“Debate” is a nice name for it. Sometimes it’s more like a melee — a meme-driven, name-calling free-for-all. Hackles, and voices, are raised. Rotten fruit is thrown. And all kinds of things pass for fact. Did you hear that Monsanto doesn’t serve genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in its cafeterias?

It’s not just genetic modification. We’re arguing about organics, honeybees, factory livestock, fishery depletion, aquaculture, yields, antibiotics, monocrops and chemicals. Some of these can be as polarizing as the most difficult social issues there’s as deep a schism in the food community as there is in Congress. On the right, there’s the insistence that biotech is the only way to feed a growing population, and the reluctance to admit the shortcomings of industrial agriculture. On the left, it’s just the opposite. Monsanto, the avatar for Big Ag, is evil incarnate.

Unearthed is an attempt to negotiate the schism and nail down the hard, cold facts. The challenge is that, too often, facts are warm and slippery evidence has a maddening way of being equivocal. Look at any current scientific question — any at all — and you can cherry-pick evidence to support the position you happen to like.

Case in point: the impact on human health of genetically modified crops, Unearthed Issue No. 1. Are they safe to eat?

There’s a great deal of research on the subject, but parsing the hundreds of studies done on GMO safety requires more time and expertise than most of us have. Instead, we look to someone else, someone we trust, to do it for us. And so the question of whether GMOs are safe becomes a very different question: Whom do you trust?

Most of us are already leaning one way or the other on GMOs, and it’s natural to trust the source we agree with. And there’s the problem. We talk to people who share our worldview (it’s a nicer word than bias), dig our heels in deeper and before you know it we’re shutting down the government.

To figure out how we all might make better decisions about charged issues, I talked with James Hammitt, director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis and a professor of economics and decision sciences. “Risks that are uncertain and dreaded tend to be more feared,” he said. GMOs are relatively new, poorly understood by many consumers, and in violation of our sense that food should be natural. Not only are those risks uncertain and dreaded, they’re visited on people trying to feed their families healthfully and safely while the benefits accrue to farmers and biotech companies. All of that adds up to an atmosphere that makes a reasoned debate difficult.

Reasoned debate requires that we weigh risk against benefit, and GMOs undoubtedly have both. Hammitt suggests looking for sources that discuss the trade-offs rather than just one or the other. The tip-off to your source’s, ahem, worldview? “If everything’s on one side of the ledger,” he says, “that’s a pretty good clue.”

So let me suggest a simple impartiality test: Does the person or organization you trust admit to both risks and benefits? If not, chances are good that your source has a dog — financial or ideological — in the fight. Read through Earth Open Source’s “evidence-based” position on genetically modified crops, “GMO Myths and Truths,” and you’ll find 123 pages of “no.” Go to GMO Answers, a Web site run by the biotech industry, and it’s hard to find any suggestion that there have been, or could be, disadvantages to genetic modification.

That doesn’t mean that either of those organizations is inevitably wrong. It’s just a tip-off that neither is impartial.

The impartiality exercise eliminates some of the organizations often cited in this debate. I couldn’t find the American Association for the Advancement of Science discussing GMO risks (although its journal, Science, does), and the Union of Concerned Scientists doesn’t talk about benefits.

The organizations I found that pass, though, form a compelling coalition. The National Academies, the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization, the Royal Society and the European Commission are all on the same side. Although it’s impossible to prove anything absolutely safe, and all of those groups warn that vigilance on GMOs and health is vital, they all agree that there’s no evidence that it’s dangerous to eat genetically modified foods. Even the Center for Science in the Public Interest is on board, and it has never been accused of being sanguine about food risks.

I’m not the first journalist to notice the consensus. Science-oriented publications including Nature and Scientific American have taken a hard look at safety and also concluded there’s no evidence that GMOs are bad for us. Nathanael Johnson, who’s doing yeoman’s fact-finding work at Grist.org, concurs.

There are dissenters, but I couldn’t find one that passed the test. Joining Earth Open Source and the Union of Concerned Scientists are the Non-GMO Project, the Center for Food Safety, the Institute for Responsible Technology, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine and GMWatch.

The relative clarity of this issue exposes deep fissures in the debate. Read an article on GMO safety and you’re almost guaranteed to find that the comments section comes to virtual blows. The anti-GMOs call the pro-GMOs Monsanto shills. The pro-GMOs call the anti-GMOs anti-science Luddites. And that’s over an issue where the science is fairly clear! When we get into areas where the evidence is more equivocal, what hope can there be?

The Earth has 7 billion people to feed, and we need to figure how to do it efficiently, affordably and responsibly. Can we make this discussion more constructive?

NYU psychology professor Jonathan Haidt might be able to help. His recent book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” describes the two ways we humans look at issues: “We effortlessly and intuitively ‘see that’ something is true, and then we work to find justifications, or ‘reasons why,’ which we can give to others.” His metaphor is that our intuitive understanding is an elephant, and our reasoning is the rider. The GMO debates features riders sparring about research methodology, gene insertion techniques and mutagenicity while our elephants, responding instead to a gut-level moral sense, go placidly along their chosen route.

It’s hard to wrangle elephants, our own or other people’s, but we can start by trying to understand motives. Talk to a biotech opponent and you might find his opposition rooted in fear that GMOs are compromising the variety and long-term viability of our food supply. Talk to a biotech backer and you might find her support based on the promise that GMOs show for increasing the efficiency and nutrient levels of our crops. Surely there’s enough common ground there to start a discussion.

Elephant wrangling, like charity, begins at home. I find it takes effort to compensate for my elephant’s affinity for biotech. It took me a while to understand that, if you believe that GMOs are contributing to monocrops, endangering small farmers, entrenching industrial agriculture, laying waste to the environment and securing corporate admittance to the corridors of power, it’s hard to see the point of parsing the evidence on human health. Although I don’t hold with all of that, I don’t think anyone can, in good faith, dismiss it out of hand. And so I think we should talk.

Here at Unearthed, I’d like to do that. I’ll be trying to get at the facts, without losing sight of the context in which we process those facts. I welcome participation: Express your opinion in online comments, respond to someone else’s (or to mine), ask a question, suggest a topic. The goal is constructive engagement. The rule — the only rule — is civility.

Barefoot Contessa

Ina holds a party for the team that helped create her dream barn. The menu includes recipes for smoked salmon with herbed butter a huge steaming pot of ribolitta open mozzarella, pesto and basil sandwiches and pear, apple and cranberry crisps.

Weekend Lunch

One weekend, two easy elegant light lunches. On the menu, lunch number one, warm duck salad followed by blueberry crumb cake. Then the following day, saffron butternut squash and chocolate sorbet.


Ina a makes an anniversary dinner for Jeffrey with all his favourite foods. Coq au vin, garlic mashed potatoes and chocolate buttercream wedding cake.

Baby Shower

Nothing beats a surprise party except a surprise baby shower - everyone's in the mood to celebrate. So here's the story: the expectant mom thinks she's coming for a quiet supper, her friends are bringing the decorations and Ina's cooking. Greek gazpacho, baked salmon nicoise and pecan shortbread for dessert and favours.

Friends of Friends

Ina's friend Michael has proposed a get together with a gang of his girl friends who are crazy about food. He is doing the table and Ina is making the food: striped bass, cous cous with pinenuts and meringues Chantilly with stewed berries and orange liquor flavored cream.

Festive Fun

It's festive fun with the Barefoot Contessa who is throwing a dazzling holiday dinner party for friends. A luxurious seafood gratin of lobster, halibut and plump pink shrimp in a golden saffron sauce is served. To follow, there's a creamy pumpkin mousse then spicy mulled wine and festive s'mores stuffed with French chocolate bark round a burning brazier in the garden.

Home Comforts

Jeffery is back in town after a long haul trip so here's Ina's plan -- a mix of great, fast, comfort food with lemon curd tart, grown up mac and cheese served with a salad dressed with a creamy vinaigrette, and for his homecoming dinner, mussels in white wine.

Dinner Date

Ina is holding a joint party with a friends . She is doing most of the cooking, crab strudel, maple baked beans and poached fruit. Her friend is providing the setting, doing the table and buying a spiral baked ham to serve with the beans. This is entertaining shared made fun and easy.