Hand-crafted goat cheeses. Lavender lemonade. Braised beef potstickers. Pork tongue (it was delicious!). Tonight I sampled foods from a variety of noted restaurants and chefs at the 2010 Food & Wine Celebration at the Culinary Vegetable Institute in Milan, Ohio. The event raises money to support Veggie U, a farm-centered, hands-on experience for children designed to teach them healthy living–and eating.
While I’ve been to tasting events before, what impressed me about this event was how fresh the ingredients were and how committed each chef was to using sustainable, local products. Take Chris and Veronica Laramie a husband-wife team who were showcasing their food–and philosophy–from their restaurant, eVe, in Berkley, California. “We make everything from scratch, in small batches, and we take classic flavor combinations and turn them on their head,” said Veronica in a recent interview with fellow foodie blogger, Sarah Henry of LettuceEatKale. Veronica pointed out eVe’s cantalope gazpacho as an example of classic meets fresh ingredients plus culinary creativity.
Reinvented classic combinations. I like that. Here’s just some of the lessons I took away from the event:
Veggies meet fruit. My favorite dish of the night (and this surprised me!)–a simple combination of watermelon, cucumber and feta. Fruit salad is getting a little boring around our house. Why not toss some veggies and strong cheese in the mix?
Flowers meet dessert. As a kid, my mom often used edible flowers with savory dishes and desert. There’s something decadent about eating flowers–and I’m not talking mint or herbs. Try adding a pansy on top of your next cupcake, a chive blossom served alongside rice, or bread and fry squash blossoms (note: you should make sure your flowers are edible and thoroughly washed before eating).
Meat meet vegetables. Sometimes I get in the habit of thinking of veggies as a side dish–not the entree. Juicy heirloom tomatoes, meaty squash and savory corn relish have left me reconsidering my dinner menu.
Supertaster too? If you tried the little paper test back in high school biology class–also know as phenylthiocarbamide (yeah, I can’t pronounce it either) or PTC–you either got a wallop of bitterness drenching your tongue or you tasted nothing. For me, I felt like I’d just licked the edge of a rancid, sour lime. Yet among a classroom of students, I still remember that supertasters weren’t in the majority. If you don’t happen to have PTC paper around, you can take a look at your tongue to give you some clues about your tasting ability–or lack of it. Not surprisingly, more tastebuds=more tasting. Your gender may also give you some clue as women tend to be supertasters more so than men. One in four people (among Caucasians anyway) are supertasters.
And what exactly is a supertaster? As the name implies, for supertasters flavors are stronger and more layered than for a non-taster. So when Penn State and the University of Connecticut researchers began looking in to who craves salt more, they expected that nontasters would be the obvious choice. Not quite. Turns out that supertasters reach for the salty foods with greater frequency than their nontaster friends, according to the research, but nontasters tend to salt their food at the table more. So, for example, a supertaster would indulge in a pile of Pringles and maybe skip salting her piece of pot roast. Whereas a nontaster might find the Pringles too salty, but generously salt her grilled chicken breast because it seemed bland without the extra sprinkle.
So why the need for salt? The researchers aren’t sure exactly, but their best guesses are that supertasters perceive flavor to the point that they need a little intensity to keep food appealing. They also point out that salt tends to cancel out the bitterness in foods so food manufacturers can easily up the salt to even out the flavor.
“This all raises some interesting questions. First, since most people aren’t supertasters, why do food manufacturers add so much salt to their products? Hayes says it’s because salt is a really cheap way to add flavor.
‘It’s the third-cheapest ingredient, after air and water,’ Hayes says. ‘Chefs know that salt enhances sweetness and blocks bitterness. So if you want to push up your score in a consumer test, you just push up that salt content.’”
In the end, Hayes says it’s probably harder–but not impossible–for supertasters to suppress their genetic predisposition for salt and cut back the sodium in their diet. And there’s plenty of good reasons to limit salt intake as I’ve been learning from women’s health blogger, Sheryl Kraft. So what about the rest of you? Saltaholic supertaster or nontaster that can control your need to reach for the shaker?
I’ve tried everything from peas to never-fail zucchini and so far that only thing I’ve been able to grow in abundance is mint—and I didn’t even plant that! Instead of pining over my lack of gardening skills, I’m investing my energy in finding the best farmers markets in my area. I’ve been surprised by what I’ve found.
The two closest farmers markets to my neighborhood include vendors that didn’t grow their products from seed—unless organic skincare products and gourmet popcorn have suddenly started sprouting up on trees somewhere in Colorado’s eastern plains. Fresh produce booths are outnumbered 2 to 1 at our nearby market, which also includes booths for pre-packaged steaks, bakeries, and more. The presence of non-farm goods has lead me to question whether the produce that is available is actually from local farms—and if so, whether the person selling them is affiliated with a farm at all.
I’m not the only one noticing that something doesn’t seem quite right at area farmers markets. Wall Street Journal writer Lauren Etter reported last week that some “real” farmers are being undersold at area markets by resellers. These resellers buy bulk produce at auctions for cut-rate prices and then pass them off as their own at markets. Farmers who are selling their own goods are feeling the pressure to drop their own prices to compete.
The national Farmers Market Coalition is now taking steps to define what can receive the “farmers market” label. Posting on the FMC website in January, Jeff Cole, chair of the Farmers Market Coalition ad hoc Definition Task Force and Executive Director of the Federation of Massachusetts Farmers Markets, wrote that “the definition of a Farmers Market must be simple and clear: that it must include the words ‘farmers selling directly to the public products they have produced;’ and that a farmers market must define, and make public, what it means by ‘local.’”
When I first started frequenting farmers markets that’s what I expected to find. By allowing other vendors, the whole notion of what a farmers market should be becomes a mixed message. I want to support locally grown produce, but I don’t want to stumble over the skincare booths and artisan bread vendors to get to them.
Have you noticed your local farmers market has become less about produce and more about products? And how do you decide where to shop for locally grown goods?
Chocolate causes depression? And here I thought it offered a cure!
So far researchers aren’t really sure what comes first—a chocolate fixation (and consumption), which then leads to depression or conversely, that depression comes first, followed by a big dose of self-prescribed chocolate cure. A recent study, which appeared in last week’s Archives of Internal Medicine, involved a group of 931 adults who were surveyed on their chocolate habits, along with their emotional state. Those who tended toward depression also consumed the most amounts of chocolate. When researchers tried to use other foods to mimic the emotional-food link they found with chocolate, none had quite the same effect (I could have told you that fish wouldn’t give you the heavenly high that comes with an ounce of dark chocolate).
The lead author of the study, Beatrice Golomb, an associate professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego, seems to have put her findings in perspective: “It’s possible chocolate has an antidepressant effects and that’s why [people with depression] are eating chocolate,” she said, as reported in the Wall Street Journal. “I think many of us believe chocolate consumption, at least in the short term, makes us feel better.” (Amen!)
Dr. Golomb offers some other insights that I need to point out at my next physical when my PCP asks if I eat enough fruits and veggies. “I tell all my patients: Chocolate is a vegetable,” says Dr. Golomb. Ah, I think I need to start eating more veggies!