To salt roast or not?

If food is fashion, then there must always be a new “it” dish. This season, salt-roasted root vegetables are the Olivia Wilde of the culinary world.

They grace menus in Copenhagen (salt-baked beet with smoked marrow, pickled onions and elderberry capers), New York (salt-baked celery root with leek, ash and citrus cream) and, of course, Washington, where you can find salt-roasted carrots at Fiola and salt-roasted beet salad with spiced Virginia peanuts and goat cheese at Blue Duck Tavern.

But it is worth it? I found out the hard way.

Read all about my verdict — a definite no — in my latest story in the Washington Post Food section, where you’ll also find this great recipe for plain old roasted beets with ricotta salata, chives and chervil.

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Farming 2.0: Tech and tractors

Quick! Picture a small farm. There might be a big red barn, chickens running in the pasture; maybe even the stereotypical white picket fence. Whatever the particulars, that imaginary small farm is probably pretty low tech. After all, small farms are supposed to be the antidote to “industrial” agriculture, where farmers sow thousands of acres of corn or soybeans from the comfort of air-conditioned tractors.

But if small farms are going to be truly sustainable, experts say, they need technology too. And until recently, there hasn’t been much available.

My latest story on WNYC looks at how tech companies, such as AgSquared, are filling the gap, providing web-based software that helps farmers plan crops, keep records and find new customers for their produce. For many of today’s new farmers, they didn’t return to the land because they love spreadsheets, but the latest web technologies can be as important as their tractors.

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Is Gustu the world’s next best restaurant?

A cauliflower trio at Gustu

If you had asked me last year to guess where the next great destination restaurant would pop up, my answer would not have been La Paz, Bolivia. The second-largest city in one of South America’s poorest countries, La Paz is not on the tourism circuit. Getting there from New York City required a journey of close to 20 hours, and once I arrived, it took a few days to acclimate to the altitude. At 12,000 feet above sea level, the air there is so thin that, for my first 24 hours, I felt as if an invisible vise had been secured to my temples and was being slowly, mercilessly tightened.

And yet, La Paz is the city that Claus Meyer, the visionary co-owner of Noma in Copenhagen, chose as the setting for his next and perhaps most ambitious project: Gustu. Like Noma, Gustu is a cutting-edge restaurant that uses avant-garde technique in the service of extreme locavorism. But in Bolivia, Meyer is facing an added degree of difficulty. Here, he doesn’t just want to engineer a world-class restaurant. He wants to “combat poverty with deliciousness.”

For my story for Food and Wine, I traveled to La Paz to see if Meyer can hit gastro-tourist gold twice. The food certainly was delicious: a salad of amaranth grains, plump dried cherries from the central valleys and watercress stems, all tossed in Bolivian brown butter; a shallow bowl of choclo, the big-kerneled Andean corn, topped with shredded rabbit confit and a dusting of lime zest; and llama meat: thin slices, sautéed in a syrup made with red bananas from the Amazonian jungle and topped with a creamy Brazil nut sauce. Read the rest here and tell me what you think.

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How sell-bys steer us wrong

Food waste has reached record levels. In the United States, an estimated 40 percent of food is thrown away. It happens at the farm, in transport, at supermarkets and in people’s homes. Last year, a study estimated that the average American family of four wastes $1,560 worth of food annually.

But there may be a simple solution to help solve the problem: clear expiration date labels. As I write in my final Smarter Food column, a new report argues that revising the convoluted system of date labels would be a simple and straightforward way to slash food waste.

“What we have now is an ineffective, ridiculous system that isn’t serving anyone,” says Dana Gunders, a staff scientist at the Natural Resources Defense Council and one of the authors of the report, set to be released Wednesday. It costs manufacturers money. It costs consumers money. It leads us to throw food away unnecessarily.”

To solve the problem, the study, co-authored by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic, suggests making sell-by dates invisible to the consumer. Those dates are designed to help retailers manage their stock; they offer no useful guidance once the consumer brings the food home. Instead, the authors recommend a uniform dating system with clear language. Wording such as “safe if used by” is clearer than “use by.” “Peak quality guaranteed before” is better than “best by.”

The report also suggests that dates should no longer be used on items that don’t deteriorate as much over time, such as chips, pretzels and beef jerky (which probably never goes bad). In its place, manufacturers might put the more useful “best within XX days of opening,” which would better guide consumers on how to judge the food’s freshness. The authors emphasized that any language should undergo consumer testing before being placed on packages.

What do you think? Should date-labels be changed?

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Is big always bad?

Buffers with native plants on Tony Thompson's Minnesota farm

In high summer, fields of wildflowers bloom at Tony Thompson’s Minnesota farm: gray-headed coneflowers, phlox and white prairie clover. Those plants are designed to do more than just beautify. They prevent water runoff and block nutrients, such as nitrogen and phosphorus, from spilling into and polluting the Mississippi River.

It’s just the kind of farming that inspires the kind of folks who shop at Whole Foods. That is, until you tell them that Thompson grows 3,000 acres of corn and soybeans from genetically modified seed. That classifies Thompson as an “industrial” farmer — and in today’s debates on agriculture, big usually equals bad.

Size, as I argue in my latest Smarter Food column, isn’t everything. As shorthand, the big-equals-bad equation is convenient. But it obscures an inconvenient truth: Plenty of small farmers do not embrace sustainable practices — the Amish farmers I know, for example, love their pesticides — and some big farmers are creative, responsible stewards of the land. “Tony’s is a fantastic operation,” says Helene Murray, executive director of the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture. “And he just happens to grow a lot of corn and soybeans.”

What do you think? Can big farming be good?

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New York chefs in short supply

Simon Doggett/Flikr

New York City has long been considered the nation’s epicenter for all things culinary. The borough of Manhattan had more than 6,000 restaurants at last count. And the city has the most three-star Michelin-starred restaurants in the country — closing in on Paris.

But lately, some cooks have begun to go elsewhere to make names for themselves. Among the reasons for the exodus: Chefs’ obsession with local ingredients is making smaller communities a lot more appealing.

My first piece on NPR explores where New York cooks are going and why. As a longtime NPR obsessive, this is a big moment for me. So listen in!

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  • About Me

    Jane BlackI am a Brooklyn-based food writer who covers food politics, trends and sustainability issues. My work appears in the Washington Post, (where I was a staff writer), the New York Times, Slate, New York magazine and other publications. On this site, you will find my blog and links to my written work and my Washington Post column, Smarter Food.
      

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