I am not a gardener, a farmer, a fisherman, or even a restaurant chef. I just work hard to be a better me on this planet, in and outside of my kitchen.
Last month I went to a talk/book signing with the chef and book writer Dan Barber moderated by the public radio host of “This American Life,” Ira Glass. Dan is the very celebrated chef of the New York restaurant Blue Hill at Stone Barns and has written a book called The Third Plate. I’m a cook and the kid of a farmer... I gobbled it up.
It is a really important book for the future of our land, our seas, our soil, our dinner tables, and our children. One of my biggest take aways is that the best way to create change is to think small. Yes, there are grand ideas about agriculture. Yes, there are huge obstacles in food production to overcome in our nation. It gets overwhelming. We feel like, how can little ol’ me effect something so much greater than me? By thinking small and exercising our small consumer choices. I’ll share some of the nuggets I learned from Dan's book.
1. Farm-to-table means cooking with the entirety of the farm, not just the choice crops, prime cuts of meat, or what’s in season. We tend to covet the special ingredients, but it takes a lot of sacrifice and waste to get those to our tables. The promise of farm-to-table cooking is that menus take their shape from the constraints of local agriculture and celebrate them.
2. Our menus need to support the landscape, not just what is in fashion. The celebrated foods of Italy, China, France and Spain were peasant cuisines that were created from the question, what can the land provide? America is greedy for delicious food, so we grow the cream of the crop whether our land is up for the job or not. We are more focused on abundance than quality. This makes us compromise on nutrition and flavor at every turn. We conquer and tame nature instead of working in concert with it.
3. The only true food we can call our own is Southern and Creole Cuisine because it was rooted in delicious flavor: Hoppin’ John (rice and beans), cow peas, collard greens, all seasoned with a little bit of bacon.
4. Speaking of bacon…in Spain there is Jamón ibérico. It is a very celebrated pork product prized for the flavor it imparts from the pigs feasting on acorns. The Spanish pigs forage for the most delicious acorns and have to root around and trot from tree to tree to find them. This exercises them, oxygenates their muscles, which results in great flavor. The bulk of pig farmers in America think that pig exercise is wasted energy, which is expended calories, resulting in the need for more feed. So our pigs are confined to small spaces for the most part and have un-oxygenated un-flavorful meat. We overcome our dry stringy hams with sweet glazes and candied pineapple.
5. Great seafood is aggressively fished and, as consumers, we put the most glamorous and appetizing looking fish on a high priced pedastal. So much of commercially caught fish is bruised from nets or badly mangled and thrown back because the fishermen can’t sell it. There are nets full of shrimp where only 1/3 of the catch is used because the other 2/3 are decapitatied. (Everyone knows the most flavor in a shrimp resides in its head.) So those shrimp go unsold, thrown back. A waste of effort for the fishermen and a waste of life of an animal. All that waste makes the price go up on the steaks and filets we all clamor to buy.
6. Farm-to-table cooking involves a relationship between a farmer and a chef, connection between a community and an ecology. The story behind the food can be more important than the actual food itself.
7. We, as a nation, eat ‘high on the hog’ and ‘high on the cod.’ We cherry pick the best parts of an animal, the breast, the chops, the filet, and the steak. We mindlessly discard the bones, blood, scales, skin, hocks, and legs. These overlooked parts contain great nutrition and flavor for cooking.
I could go on and on about crop rotations, whole grains, whole foods, soil fertility, profits for farmers... I won’t. I learned a great deal from The Third Plate. My brain is full of new things to think about.
I read an article this week about a solution for the food that is wasted and thrown away because it is not beautiful or uniform or ideal looking. It is completely Third Plate thinking! These are gifts of nature. There’s goodness in everything, no matter the bruises, the narrative or blueprint. What we eat, our land, our seas, our skies; gifts of nature. Knowledge is power and the more we know, the more informed choices we can make for our homes and in our families. I start small. I start with me. So can you. Here’s to being kind and generous with our gifts.
I don’t really have a recipe to share that truly partners with my subject this week but after I finished reading this book, I couldn’t wait to make this salad. Pinzimonio is an Italian shaved vegetable salad that can adapt to each season and really shine light on what produce is in harvest. Pinzimonio is just a fancy name for raw seasonal vegetables served with an olive oil and lemon dressing. Here is my Summertime version.
~6 cups thinly shaved seasonal vegetables (I used a mandoline to slice baby golden/red beets, radishes, fennel, and a vegetable peeler for the tiny carrots.)
~6 tablespoons Lemon Vinaigrette
~2 cups croutons-( saute torn pieces of bread in olive oil until crispy and golden)
~1 cup of fresh mozzarella or burrata cheese roughly broken apart
~salt and pepper
Season vegetables with salt and pepper in a large bowl. Pour on the dressing, add croutons and cheese, toss, and serve immediately.
Yield: 1 cup
1⁄4 cup lemon juice
Pinch of ground chili flakes,
3⁄4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons honey
Salt + pepper
Mix lemon juice and chili flake in a bowl. Whisk in olive oil slowly. Whisk in honey and continue stirring until honey is completely dissolved. Season generously with salt and pepper.
Pictures of the food, beautifully captured by Cheryl Stockton of Stockshot Studio.