by Nicki Sizemore
on Aug 25, 2008
It was a perfect seventy-five degrees outside, with just the faintest whisper of fall in the evening breeze. Turning on the stove was not an option, not with only a few more hours of sparkling sunlight left. Luckily, I happened to have a half baguette in the freezer, a load of market goodies, and a can of tuna on hand—but this was not your ordinary canned tuna. This was American Tuna, a brand comprised of 6 fishing families in San Diego who hand-catch and inspect their fish. As the company states on their website (www.americantuna.com):
All the albacore that we catch and process from the colder Pacific waters are specifically between the ages of 2-5 years old. Using the ‘hook & line’ methods allows us to monitor and inspect each catch. Mercury levels in such fish are at minimal trace levels, some non-detectable. The albacore we catch from the northwest has a very high oil content.
That’s my kind of company, and it’s my kind of tuna. A clean, pure, flavor unlike any other canned tuna I’ve tasted, and unmarred by worries of mercury contamination or environmental degradation. The sandwich was delicious, paired with a glass (actually, a paper cup) of Rosé and a gentle sunset in the park.
Serves: Makes 2 sandwiches
- 1 6-oz. can American tuna
- 1 tablespoon freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar, plus additional for serving
- 2 tablespoons cold pressed extra virgin olive oil, plus additional for serving
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/4 small sweet or red onion, thinly sliced, rinsed in cold water and drained
- 1/2 French baguette, cut in half then sliced open horizontally
- 2 small handfuls organic baby arugula
- 4 slices heirloom tomato
- 2 hard-boiled cage free eggs, sliced
- 2 tablespoons chopped niçoise olives
4 anchovy filets (optional), rinsed and patted dry
- Put the tuna with its juices (there is no oil or water added to American Tuna; if you’re using regular tuna, drain most of the liquid first) into a medium bowl and break up the chunks with a fork. Add the lemon juice, Dijon mustard, red wine vinegar, extra virgin olive oil and salt and pepper to taste; stir gently to combine. Fold in the sliced onions.
- Line the 2 bottom bread halves with a layer of arugula, followed by overlapping tomato slices and a few slices of egg. Sprinkle a bit of salt and pepper over the eggs. Divide the tuna among the sandwiches. Top each with chopped olives and 2 anchovy filets, if using. Sprinkle a few extra drops of vinegar and oil over each sandwich, then top with the remaining bread.
- Wrap the sandwiches tightly in parchment paper; press down gently. Let the sandwiches sit for 15-30 minutes to let the flavors meld, just enough time to grab a blanket and get to the park.
by Nicki Sizemore
on Jul 30, 2008
Last week the American Cheese Society (ACS) held its annual conference in Chicago, celebrating the organization’s 25th anniversary. (The existence of such a society confounded many of my friends: you’re going to a cheese conference? American cheese?). Founded in 1983 by a gaggle of “academics and hippie goat people” the society has since grown to 1,400 members, including cheesemakers, retailers, distributors, educators and enthusiasts. Its mission is to promote an understanding and awareness of artisanal, farmstead and specialty cheeses made in the U.S. and Canada. This year there were over 800 people in attendance, and I was floored by the passion and depth of flavor on exhibit. We’re not talking Kraft singles here, people, we’re talking incredible farmstead cheeses made around the corner by producers hell-bent on promoting sustainability, community and local food systems.
A highlight of the conference was the chance to meet and speak with the cheesemakers, who, like most winemakers, are skilled farmers and artisans with a deep love for their craft. But the cheesemakers in the US haven’t yet received the same level of recognition or acclaim as their grape-growing friends. They face a vat of challenges (the need for a strong industry identity, lack of government support, increasing costs, seasonality and the perishable nature of their product, to name a few), and have to sway shoppers away from the less expensive (and, may I inject, lifeless) industrial stuff lining grocery shelves on the one hand, and the recognized European labels on the other hand. It’s like convincing consumers from a decade or two ago to try a present day Russian River Valley Pinot Noir or Finger Lakes Riesling instead of their standby two-buck-chuck or French Bordeaux.
But to taste is to believe. And taste I did. While an early departure meant that I had to miss the Award Ceremony (which judged 1,149 cheese entries from 181 producers in 30 states and 3 Canadian provinces!) and the Festival of Cheese (where literally over 1,000 cheeses were on display for sampling!), I still managed to savor more than my fair share of spectacular cheese. And I have no doubt American cheesemakers will soon see the spotlight they deserve. I’ve listed below just a light dusting of some cross-country highlights. I’d love to hear about your local favorites.
Beehive Cheese Co., Uintah, UT
Unpasteurzed cow’s milk aged 3 to 6 months. Pure, pastoral flavor with a buttery start and slightly sharp finish. Try their Coffee and Lavendar rubbed cheese as well; a bit crazy on the palate but surprisingly balanced and certainly interesting.
Cowgirl Creamery, Point Reyes Station, CA
Triple cream made from organic milk. My notes read “I could bathe in this cheese” (alright, I admit, this was after a glass of wine). Sumptuous and yet delicate with a hint of mushrooms and a creamy yet firm texture.
Cypress Grove Chevre, Arcata, CA
While you can’t beat their Humboldt Fog and Purple Haze, I swooned over the Fromage Blanc. Such purity and simplicity with a flavor that is as fresh as spring.
Old Chatham Sheepherding Company, Old Chatham, NY
Hudson Valley Camembert Square
Blend of sheep’s milk, cow’s milk and cow’s cream. Very sexy and lush with just enough backbone to stand up to a good red wine. Humane certified production. Their delicious sheep’s milk maple yogurt is also a must-try.
Otter Creek Organic Farm, Black Earth, WI
Raw cow’s milk cheddar from pasture-raised cows. Each season produces cheeses with slightly different flavors and aromas according to the changing flora and fat content of the cows. The Spring Cheddar is mild with a slight floral undertone and a smooth curd.
Prairie Fruits Farm, Champaign, IL
Bloomy rind, made with goat milk from their own herd. Luscious and gooey in a Camembert style and yet light on the palate—well deserving of its name. Seasonal production and local distribution only.
Sweet Grass Dairy, Thomasville, GA
Raw cow’s milk from pasture-raised cows. Crowd pleaser with buttery flavor and hint of sweetness.
Uplands Cheese Company, Dodgeville, WI
Pleasant Ridge Reserve
One of my new favorites. Unpasteurized cow’s milk from pasture-raised cows, with a gruyère style. The 9-month old has a nutty flavor with notes of dried fruit, while the 14-month old has a deeper complexity with aromas of caramel and some crystallization in texture.
by Nicki Sizemore
on Jul 23, 2008
Take advantage of summer’s vibrant organic produce with this easily adaptable dish (great for outdoor dining or potlucks). Sweet roasted red peppers are stuffed with nutty barley, sautéed vegetables, fresh herbs, pine nuts, balsamic and Parmigiano, then finished off with an oozing layer of melted Comté cheese (mozzarella would also do the trick). Serve the stuffed peppers as an appetizer or as a main course with a light to medium style red.
Serves: 2 as main course, 4 as appetizer
Prep time: 45 minutes (includes cooking barley and roasting peppers)
Cooking time: 15 minutes
- 1/2 cup pearled barley
- 1 tablespoon olive oil, plus more for brushing pan
2 red bell peppers
- 1/2 small yellow or sweet onion, diced
1/2 yellow bell pepper, seeds and ribs discarded, diced
- Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
- 3 cloves garlic
- 1 very small or 1/2 medium zucchini, diced
- 3 tablespoons pine nuts
- 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
- 2 tablespoons mixed chopped fresh herbs, such as basil, rosemary and oregano
- 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmigiano cheese
- 1 large egg
- 1/2 cup (heaping) shredded Comté cheese
- In a medium saucepan, combine 1/2 cup pearled barley with 1 1/2 cups water. Bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer and cook 15-17 minutes, or until water is just absorbed. Transfer to a large bowl.
- Preheat the oven to 425˚F. Brush a small pan or casserole with oil. Cut the red peppers in half lengthwise (through the stem). Remove and discard the stems, seeds and ribs. Bake cut side down for 15 minutes; turn the peppers over and cook an additional 15 minutes. Set aside (keep the oven on).
- Meanwhile, in a large skillet, heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions, yellow pepper, and a pinch of salt and pepper and cook until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the zucchini and cook 3 minutes. Add the garlic and pine nuts and cook, stirring, until fragrant, 1-2 minutes. Stir in the balsamic vinegar and cook 30 seconds. Scrape the mixture into the bowl with the barley. Add the chopped herbs, grated Parmigiano, and salt and pepper to taste. Mix in the egg.
- Sprinkle the pepper halves lightly with salt and pepper, then divide the barley filling among the halves. Do Ahead: The peppers can be stuffed one day in advance then covered and refrigerated. Bring to room temperature before baking.
- Sprinkle the shredded Comté evenly over the top of the peppers and bake for 15 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and lightly toasted in spots. Serve warm.
by Nicki Sizemore
on Jul 9, 2008
On June 15, The New York Times ran an article titled That Buzz in Your Ear May Be Green Noise by Alex Williams about the confusing and often contradictory “green” messages that are found everywhere from food packages, to billboards, to, ahem, blogs like this. Consumers are confused. Myself included.
My husband and I just bought our first home, and although it’s been exciting, it has also been stressful trying to navigate among our commitment to sustainability, our strict budget (which we’ve seen fly out the window faster than spawning salmon), and different notions of what it means to go green. Take our beloved new kitchen, one of the smallest but most energy guzzling rooms in the house. The existing appliances are outdated, but while I’d love gleaming new energy-efficient models (not that we could presently afford them), would the energy saved in their daily use offset the energy that went into the making of them, the transporting of them, and, most importantly, the discarding of the old appliances, which work just fine? Is the gas stove that burns fossil fuel more or less damaging than an electric stove that relies on coal-burning power plants? What about the old banged up pots and pans that we want to get rid of, not to mention the Tupperware that has been collecting dust but that our recycling service won’t pick up? From the appliances to the paint down to the lighting and trim, there are hundreds of choices that have to be made, and not all of them are black or white, in the green sense.
The article from The Times goes on to say that in the face of all the “green noise,” experts from organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council and Greenpeace are simplifying and prioritizing their messages so as to not overwhelm consumers.
Aha. What I needed to do was prioritize. Going green is a spectrum rather than a definitive solution, made up of increments of change. Rather than become overwhelmed with the amount of information and choices at hand, I’ve come up with 3 simple strategies to help us focus on greening our kitchen in a way that’s feasible and straightforward. It’s an ongoing list, and one that that can be expanded in time. But for now, it’s a manageable, and even enjoyable, path. Clearing a trail through our mountain of boxes, on the other hand… now that’s another story.
1. It starts with the food.
- Buy mostly seasonal and local foods.
- Buy as few packaged products as possible (packaging means energy and resource consumption).
- When suitable, buy in bulk to reduce packaging.
- Opt for organic and biodynamic whenever available.
- Buy food directly from farmers.
- Plant a small garden.
- Spend a decent portion of income on good food (think of food as a healthcare and environmental protection plan).
- Take time to make delicious meals and eat well.
2. Don’t throw it away.
- Start a compost pile for food scraps.
- Freeze leftovers or reuse them in new dishes.
- Reuse glass jars and storage containers.
- Use reusable canvas bags at the market.
- Give away, donate or sell old furniture, cookware and dishes.
3. Go for used, recycled, and/or energy efficient whenever possible.
- Look to flea markets, tag sales, Craig’s List, etc. for unique used furniture, dishes and even appliances.
- When buying cookware, shop for things that will last a lifetime, such as cast iron and stainless steel pans, quality utensils, and good knives.
- Use reclaimed regenerative materials for renovation projects whenever possible.
- Buy recycled home products and energy efficient lightbulbs.
- Use environmentally friendly, non-toxic cleaning products, such as a simple vinegar solutions or plant-based detergents.
by Nicki Sizemore
on Jun 13, 2008
For seasonal eaters, nothing is more delicious than the very first strawberry of the season, eaten straight from its container. Except, perhaps, this. Strawberry shortcake tastes even better than you remember with a moist, almond-scented (and surprisingly easy) biscuit, berries that have been macerated in a splash of sweet wine, toasted almonds, and a generous billow of whipped cream. Spring (or shall I say, summer?) has officially arrived.
Prep time: 20 minutes
Cooking time: 14-16 minutes
- Parchment paper
- 2 pounds strawberries, hulled and sliced
- 2 teaspoons natural cane sugar (such as Florida Crystals)
- 3 tablespoons sweet dessert wine (optional)
- 1 cup sour cream
- 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
- 1 3/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1/4 cup natural cane sugar (such as Florida Crystals)
- 4 tablespoons cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
- 1 tablespoon heavy cream
- Scant tablespoon turbinado or demerara sugar
- Toasted sliced almonds
- Lightly sweetened whipped cream
- Preheat the oven to 450˚F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
- In a large bowl, stir together the strawberries, sugar and sweet wine (if using).
- In a small bowl, mix the sour cream with the almond extract. Refrigerate. In a food processor, pulse together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt and sugar. Add the butter and pulse until the butter is evenly distributed and cut to the size of small peas (alternatively, cut the butter into the dry ingredients using a fork or pastry cutter). Scrape the dough into a bowl. Using a fork, mix in the sour cream until the dough starts to come together. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gently knead until it just holds together, about 4-6 turns.
- Divide the dough into 6 roughly equal portions. Very gently shape each portion into a 3/4-inch thick disc (a light touch makes for flakier biscuits). Line the discs on the parchment-lined baking sheet leaving 2 inches between each. Brush each biscuit with cream and sprinkle with turbinado or demerara sugar.
- Bake for 14-16 minutes, or until the biscuits are golden with dark brown peaks.
- Cool the biscuits for about 4-5 minutes (or until you can handle them without burning your fingers). Carefully cut each biscuit in half horizontally. Place the bottom halves in the center of each plate. Top each half with berries and some of their juice, followed by a sprinkle of toasted, sliced almonds and a dollop of lightly sweetened whipped cream. Perch the other biscuit halves on top and serve. Do Ahead: The biscuits can be made 2 hours in advance and left at room temperature. Reheat in a 450˚F oven before serving.
by Nicki Sizemore
on Jun 4, 2008
The box of red velvet cupcakes that I received last night couldn’t have arrived at a better time. This morning’s news revealed that The Center for Science in the Public Interest has petitioned the FDA to ban eight artificial food dyes that have been linked to hyperactivity and other “disruptive behavior” in children (Bloomberg News). The Daily Green notes that, according to British researchers, artificial dyes are as damaging to children’s brains “as lead in gasoline.” And CBS reports that the dyes are shown to push children who are pre-disposed to behavioral problems “over the edge.”
While countries in the EU have taken measures to eliminate artificial dyes from food and several British food companies are removing them from popular candies and snacks, there has been no regulation in the US, where artificial dyes abound in foods from cereals, to candies, dips, soda, and, of course, red velvet cake.
Although I had a longtime love of red velvet cake (starting as a child with a penchant for the color red and continuing as an adult with my love of anything with cream cheese frosting), I’ve kept my distance ever since making it at home for the first time several years ago. The recipe called for an astounding 8 vials of red food coloring, and all I could think about as I stirred the batter was my brother Chris, who couldn’t eat or drink any foods with red dye as a kid because his lips would inexplicably swell up like little balloons. I still served the cake I made (with trepidation), but my affair with red velvet ended then.
Until last night.
My good friend Vanessa Cantave, owner of YumYum Chefs, surprised me at dinner with a box of her signature red velvet cupcakes, which she hand-delivers to customers in Manhattan and Brooklyn. I couldn’t resist giving one a taste in the bumpy taxi ride home, even though it was close to midnight and I had just eaten dessert. Luscious and moist with a perfect cake-to-frosting ratio, I was soon left with only a dusting of red crumbs. But they weren’t your standard red-dye-number-40 soaked crumbs. YumYum’s cupcakes are made with organic ingredients and plant and fruit based coloring. They’re even baked in recycled parchment paper cups. I’m hooked.
The FDA has claimed that there is no link between food dyes and child hyperactivity, despite the evidence to the contrary. For me, I have all the evidence I need. I’d simply rather not eat an artificial “food” derived in a factory from petroleum and coal. After all, where’s the “yum” in that?
Acclaimed organic chef Akasha Richmond has been catering to Hollwood’s A-list for over fifteen years, but one doesn’t need to be a celebrity to eat at her new restaurant, Akasha, in LA. We chatted with the chef about her commitment to sustainability, the challenges of opening a restaurant, and why she would never go 100% organic.
What inspired your passion for sustainable cooking?
I grew up in Florida, and my mother got into natural cooking when I was in Junior High. She was one of those people that made her own bread and yogurt. I started cooking when I was 10 and taught myself out of cookbooks. I later went to college in San Diego and came to LA in the early eighties to study yoga. This was before I really thought about food as a profession. I ended up working at a vegetarian restaurant that was frequented by many celebrities. Michael Jackson used to eat there every day, and I took care of him. He was my first celebrity client. The year Thriller came out…
That’s quite the first client.
He was into the whole healthy thing. Now it’s called the organic movement; back then it was called was called the “natural foods” or “health foods” movement. The word organic used to have a really bad connotation: i.e. restaurants that served brown rice and sprouts. But organic has gotten major branding in the past couple of years. As you know, it’s now good.
Are you working towards an organic certification for your new restaurant, Akasha?
No, I wouldn’t even consider it—no one would want to pay those prices. We’re not a high-end restaurant; we’re an everyday restaurant. But we are committed to sustainability: from the organic waitstaff uniforms, to eco-efficient equipment, LED lighting, biodegradable containers, local ingredients… even down to the salt and organic pepper. We source as much as we can from California, but obviously coffee, sugar and chocolate aren’t. I start with the local, seasonal produce as a base and we build around it.
Things must be easier to source today than they were when you started your catering business back in the eighties.
Oh my god, it’s night and day. What’s great now is that a lot of products are available for food service that weren’t available before, like 50-lb sacks of organic sugar. But it’s still the beginning—there are certain things that I have a really hard time getting. Whole Foods has made foods accessible for retail, but for foodservice not everything is readily available. So there are things you can get, but you have to buy them in retail packages, like corn syrup, frozen French fries, certain cheeses.
And Akasha isn’t exactly a small operation—you’re doing as many as 300-400 covers on weekend nights with 150-200 covers for lunch.
It’s a lot. It’s been a learning process. We just opened so I’m still working out things that I think are problems… like this chicken salad that I’m eating right now which has way too much chicken in it. In the beginning, there’s something else every day.
What inspires you as a chef?
Ingredients. I am so excited for corn to come into season. I love corn. I love sautéed corn, I love creamed corn, I love corn fritters, I love corn in frittatas; I like all kinds of corn. I love corn on the cob. Don’t you love corn? I love corn.
I do love corn. But it’s not summer yet. What are your favorite things on the menu right now?
Pan Seared Wild Halibut; Sheep’s Milk Ricotta & Spinach Gnocchi; and Baby Artichoke, Morrocoan Olive and Plum Tomato Sauté.
Akasha’s wine list features a good selection of organic, biodynamic and sustainable wines. What’s your favorite?
My favorite wine is Zind Humbrecht Tokay Pinot Gris and anything Robert Sinskey.
Do you feel that LA is a leader in the organic/sustainable movement?
I think that LA is maybe the leader in the produce section, but honestly there are great restaurants all over the country. New York, San Francisco. Unbelievable.
Any fun stories about working with celebrities?
Can’t share—I’m still in business in this town.
9543 Culver Blvd.
Culver City, CA 90232
by Nicki Sizemore
on May 14, 2008
This spring salad is picnic fare at its finest—rustic yet refined, scrumptious yet simple. If you haven’t yet tasted farro, you’ll definitely want to give this a try. Farro is an ancient Italian whole grain with an irresistible nutty and slightly sweet flavor. Bianco Sardo is a hard sheep’s milk cheese from Puglia that is salty and a tad floral—if you can’t find it, Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano Reggiano will make a good substitute. Enjoy this salad on its own or as a side dish with poultry or fish. It’s best savored outside on a warm spring day, preferably with a chilled glass of Italian Pinot Bianco close at hand.
Prep time: 25 minutes
Cooking time: 25 minutes
- 2 cups farro
- 1 bunch asparagus (about 1 pound), tough ends cut off
- 1/4 medium red onion, thinly sliced
3 medium yellow beets (about 1 pound without greens), roasted, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch dice*
1 cup freshly grated Bianco Sardo cheese (about 1 ounce)
- 1/3 cup fresh lemon juice (1 1/2 – 2 lemons)
- 1 plump garlic clove, minced
- 1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
- In a large bowl, cover the farro with cold water and soak for 25 minutes. Drain, then place in a medium pot and cover with 2 inches of water. Bring to a boil; reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, 25 minutes, skimming any foam from the surface. Drain and rinse with cold water. Transfer to a large bowl.
- Meanwhile, prepare the asparagus. Fill a large bowl with ice water. Bring a medium pot of salted water to a boil. Add the asparagus and cook 2-3 minutes, or until vibrant green and crisp tender. Transfer to the ice bath. Once cool, remove (reserving the water) and pat dry. Add the onions to the ice water and soak for 10 minutes.
- Slice the asparagus into 1/2-inch pieces and fold them into the farro, along with the red onions, beets and cheese.
In a small bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, garlic, salt and pepper. Drizzle in the extra virgin olive oil while whisking. Pour the dressing over the farro salad and toss well. Preferably, let the salad sit covered at room temperature for 30 minutes or up to 2 hours to let the flavors meld. Do Ahead: The farro, beets, asparagus and dressing can be prepared the day before and stored separately (covered) in the refrigerator.
*To roast beets, place the cleaned beets (green stems removed) in a small oven-safe dish and drizzle with olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and pepper; cover tightly with aluminum foil and roast in a 400˚ F oven for about 1 – 1 1/2 hours, or until tender when pierced with a paring knife. Cool, then peel.