Mirepoix -- From the French, a mix of aromatics that provide the savory foundation of a recipe. From The City Cook, a periodic report on things that have been collecting on my desk.
It was a hot, hot summertime. For weeks I've not wanted to cook, although I have. And I've not wanted to write about it. And I haven't. Plus how much more can be said about tomatoes and grilled chicken? But I've tried to not be too petulant about it all since soon we'll be really sorry that summer's produce will have come to an end and we'll be back to green beans from Peru.
The Disappearing Frozen Orange Juice Market
A couple of weeks ago The Wall Street Journal had an article about how the frozen concentrated orange juice market had almost disappeared. For those of you who think that frozen concentrated orange juice is a punch line from an Eddie Murphy movie, you're right. In 1983's "Trading Places," frozen orange juice futures played a supporting role. But in reality, the disappearance of frozen orange juice concentrate says much about the goings on in our food world.
For anyone who has never heard of frozen concentrated orange juice, it was invented in the late 1940's as a way to bring vitamin-rich orange juice to the military after World War II. Facilities were built near Florida's bountiful orange tree groves to squeeze the juice, pasteurize and filter it, then concentrate it using heat-based evaporation, and then freeze it in cans. When ready to resuscitate the juice, you'd defrost a can of concentrate, dump it into a pitcher, and add to it three empty cans' worth of water. Give it a stir and voila -- orange juice.
Orange juice concentrate wasn't just a handy vitamin C boost for soldiers. This being the 1950s when convenience was king, it also became an essential part of the daily American breakfast, replacing the otherwise too labor-intensive task of squeezing your own juice. As concentrate went mainstream it became a commodity and in 1966, futures contracts began traded at the New York Commodity Exchange. Eddie Murphy and the Dukes brothers can explain the rest.
But this is 2016 and Americans no longer sit down and have breakfast together. Plus we now know that fruit juice has too much sugar (a can of frozen orange juice concentrate is 65% sugar); it's better to just eat an orange. Fresh is better than frozen. Unadulterated is better than concentrated. And to top things off, an incurable bacterial disease called "citrus greening" has been destroying Florida's orange groves, leading to 130,000 acres of citrus trees being abandoned.
The end of orange juice concentrate is a metaphor for much in our food world, as food technology, environmental blights, and consumer behavior up-end entire industries. It also proves that we can indeed change big food by deciding where to put our grocery dollars.
The Booming Meal Kit Industry
Speaking of up-ending entire industries, I'll admit it. I was a skeptic. I didn't think that folks would pay a premium for someone else to buy their groceries and chop their carrots. But more and more of us are finding the convenience of planned, shopped, and prepped meals irresistible.
The meal kit industry has already reached $1.5 billion and it's still growing. There are about 150 meal kit companies, some of the better-known ones being Hello Fresh, Blue Apron, and Plated. According to a recent report called "Today's Specialty Food Consumer," 15% of consumers use apps from meal kit companies and if you break out the millennial segment, it's 23%. Blue Apron alone is delivering 8 million meals per month in the U.S.
The appeal? It's been reported that already only about 50% of the meals eaten at home are actually cooked there, with most of this being take-out food so consumers are already comfortable with the idea of having some of their daily dinner at home made at least partially, if not completely, by others. Meal kits take this a step further by addressing the drudgery, time, and organization challenges of planning and shopping for home cooking. Plus more of the meal kit companies are offering specialized kits that are exclusively vegetarian, vegan, paleo, gluten-free, ethnic, made with organic and sustainably produced ingredients, and other preferences that otherwise might be hard to source.
In addition to the food, the kits often include detailed information on the sources of the ingredients -- such as the farms where the produce was grown and animals grazed, the sources for rice and spices, and other details to give the customer reassurances as to the food's quality. Some of the kits are portioned and prepped ingredients that the customer then assembles and cooks using recipe cards while others are already cooked and only need to be re-heated and served.
More players are getting into the business including national grocery chains, some of which already sell prepared foods that can be eaten in-store or taken home to be reheated. Likewise restaurants are exploring ways to move take-out food to a new level like Boston Burger Co.'s BurgaBox. Then there are the partnerships with established cooking personalities: a company called Marley Spoon recently joined with Martha Stewart to turn her 18,000 recipe database into meal kits, and Mark Bittman left The New York Times to join Purple Carrot, a California company that offers vegan meal kits, although after less than a year he left the company (but retains an ownership stake).
Meal kits are not without issues. The first is cost. A study by NPD Group found that the average cost per in-home meal is $4 whereas the average cost per person for a meal kit is $10. The next is packaging waste that comes from the need to keep fresh food safe and tasty, using materials like cardboard, shrink wrap, Styrofoam, and gel-filled ice packs. The companies are working on this but in the meantime, every sprig of thyme gets its own little plastic bag. And finally there is the inevitable shake-out when too much venture capital money is thrown at a rapidly developing new sector that has razor-thin margins and must spend a lot to get every new customer.
It's likely that like other new businesses that are disruptors to the status quo, some kind of new model will finally emerge, a mid-point between take-out and the planning-shopping-cooking method that we all learned. But remember that you'll still have to do the dishes.
To help the rest of us who still rather invent our own food kits, there is always an inspiring new crop of cookbooks. This fall is no exception.
I'm looking forward to Ina Garten's new cookbook due out in October, Cooking for Jeffrey. I consistently find her books appetizing, accessible but not dumbed-down, and at a time when chef cookbooks can usually be counted on for ego and failed recipes, Ina's are reliable for producing delicious and convivial food. This new one is about cooking for her husband, Jeffrey. I think the two of them are quite adorable and while there are times when we may think that it's shtick, I saw them once at the airport, having just landed on the same plane from Paris that my husband I had taken (I'm assuming they were in first class; we, however, were not, so I only saw them at the luggage carousel, one of life's great equalizers). Anyway, seeing them waiting for their bags, exhausted post-flight, they were as sweet with one another as they are on her television series so I'm going to guess that they are the real deal.
But if you're not interested in what Jeffrey Garten is having for dinner, here are a few others coming out this fall that might appeal to you.
Brooklyn Bar Bites By Barbara Scott-Goodman
This is a charming, fun, and completely useful book: Useful for anyone who lives in Brooklyn or crosses the bridge to drink, eat, and celebrate the whole vibe of this food-centric borough and wants a new and reliable road map. Useful for amateur mixologists who are adventuresome when making cocktails and want some new ideas plus the classics. And useful for home cooks who love to entertain but want alternatives to whole meals, including what might otherwise be called tapas or bar food or small plates.
I stress the useful part because all so often, books like these can get you humming the theme song to "Cheers," but when you try to take the bar crawl or bring it home, it doesn't deliver.
The photography by Jennifer May is outstanding, not just of the food and drink but also in how it captures the vibe of a place. I especially love the close-up cocktail portraits that show the allure of a meticulously mixed and poured drink.
Organized by eleven neighborhoods, from Williamsburg to Red Hook, it has a bar-by-bar collection of 60-plus recipes for thirst-inducing specialties like Fried Cheese Curds with "French Onion Dip" (their quotes, not mine), gin-cured Gravlax, Korean Tacos, Grilled Shishito Pepper Skewers, Bacon Mac 'N' Cheese, Ricotta Crostini, Guacamole, Muffuletta, and more.
Of course there are also the cocktails: Naked Condessa, Tokyo Fir, Black Wing, Scottish Dew, Lucky Dog, Margarita de Toronja Picante, Deep Mountain Sazerac, Cold Toddy, Manhattanite, Evening Falls, The Erin, Empire State Sour, and 33 others, including the Laura Palmer.
Brooklyn Bar Bites by Barbara Scott-Goodman, photography by Jennifer May, Rizzoli © 2016, hardcover, color photography, 192 pages, $29.95.
Samarkand: Recipes & Stories From Central Asia & The Caucasus by Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford
"In all other parts of the world light descends upon earth. From holy Samarkand and Bukhara, it ascends." The stunning new cookbook opens with this local saying about Samarkand, a modern city in Uzbekistan and a UNESCO World Heritage Site that is one of the oldest inhabited places in Central Asia. Uzbekistan is located between Iran and China, and Samarkand was a fabled stopover on the Silk Road as centuries of traders made their way from the Mediterranean to China.
Over these same centuries as armies and traders passed through this captivating city, seven ethnic groups occupied and influenced Samarkand -- Tajiks, Russians, Turks, Jews, Koreans, Caucasians, and the Uzbeks. It is the food and culinary traditions of these seven groups that form the focus of this book and its stories and recipes. It also makes a powerful case for how food can reveal our history and our culture.
Authors Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford are friends, travelers, writers, and photographers. They also cook and eat. They created this book as curious and enthusiastic adventurers with appetites -- seeing beauty, exploring new cultures, visiting and cooking in the homes of local residents, and appreciating the amazing flavors of a relatively unknown place. It is very beautifully written and photographed and for those of us who have never visited Samarkand, it creates an allure and craving to visit -- even if only from an armchair -- what is clearly a magical and storied city.
There is more photography than text but this is a case of quality over quantity for Caroline Eden's essays will transport you.
While it is a cookbook, it is as much a book about exploration. Still, the 100 recipes created by Eleanor Ford are accessible both in their making and in their ingredients (although based on what is written, I am certain that the fruits and vegetables if bought in Samarkand would be more explosively flavorful). There are such recipes as Green Olive and Mushroom Salad; Grilled Lamb Kebabs With Cinnamon, Cloves and Hot Hummus; Salmon Kulebyaka; Buckwheat Kasha With Caramelized Mushrooms; Samarkand Plov (a layered pilaf that is the "king of Uzbekistan cuisine" that legend said was first created for Alexander The Great); Melting Potatoes With Dill; Grape and Pistachio Orzo; Rhubarb, Apple and Clove Kompot (a tea-like beverage); and Roasted Peaches With Marzipan and Rose Syrup; and so many more.
For an example of Samarkand cuisine, see our link to Spicy Meatballs with Adjika and Yogurt (adjika is a spicy red pepper paste from Abkhazia, a region of Georgia).
The gorgeous food photography is by Laura Edwards.
Samarkand: A Culinary Journey Through Central Asia by Caroline Eden and Eleanor Ford, published by Kyle Books, © 2016, hardcover, color photography, 224 pages, $34.95.
Julia Reed's South: Spirited Entertaining and High-Style Fun All Year Long by Julia Reed
Food and lifestyle writer Julia Reed has long been one of the south's best ambassadors. Her biography reads a bit like a mash-up between Eudora Welty, Joan Didion and Holly Golightly: like Welty, she's a literate and observant daughter of Mississippi; like Didion, she writes often about the convergence of life and lifestyle; and she is like the fictional Holly Golightly only in that Reed seems to know everyone and live a completely festive life filled with fashionable friends.
I was a fan when Reed wrote for Vogue and for whenever she'd appear on one of the Sunday political talk shows as a thoughtful voice that also had some glamour. These days she lives in New Orleans, is a contributing editor for Garden & Gun (if you've never read it their website is highly recommended, if only for the food and décor articles) and Elle Décor. Julia Reed's South is her fifth book, the others being collections of entertaining essays boosted with recipes that are added almost as utility footnotes; you're glad to have them but they're not the centerpiece.
This time she brings us an elegant volume about stylish and generous entertaining and cooking, mostly of food that meets her mother's admonition, "why don't you just serve something that tastes good?" While decidedly southern, a Yankee would not feel out of place at any of the eleven fêtes that Reed seems to have created from her lifetime of throwing and attending grand parties: It's Finally Spring Lunch, "Tomatopalooza," A Fall Hunt Breakfast, A Christmas Cocktail Supper, A Mississippi Sandbar Picnic, A Jeffersonian Evening, Summer Celebration on the Lawn, and others. For each event there are stories, recipes, cocktails, and tablescapes. And it is all great fun.
Because Reed is an engaging storyteller, the book is irresistible to read, plus it's packed with content and about 80 completely accessible recipes, organized into menus for each of the eleven events with such temptations as Almond Polenta Cake, Bruschetta with Fig Relish and Buratta, and Lamb Bourguignon, plus cocktails and lots of southern favorites like Crab Norfolk, Creole Crab Soup, Mock Cheese Soufflé, Duck Confit Étouffée, and Horseradish Mousse. Many of the recipes are deemed special and intended for guests, but others like Barbecued Pork Shoulder (originally by Lee Bailey) or Haricots Verts with Shallot Vinaigrette can easily become family favorites.
When I first received this book, summer berries were bountiful and I made her recipe for Mary Mack's Blackberry Cobbler (nearly every recipe has a story, often about its provenance) and I loved its simplicity -- both in its flavor (the crust plays more than a supporting role) and in its making. Some of the recipes have rather old-fashioned ingredients, as the three cans of Campbell's beef consommé in her Consommé Rice Pilaf or the Pepperidge Farm bread and Ritz crackers used in Nancy Peterkin's Summer Squash Casserole. It's a reminder that everything of the past isn't necessarily to be discarded or replaced if they still taste great.
Paul Costello's 150 color photographs capture the food, cocktails, and dreamy tabletops, plus the sense of celebration that is felt throughout the book. There are cocktails, tips for arranging tables and flowers, planning menus, and other ways to set the mood for a memorable party. The book's quality is reflected in its price; the book lists for $50, which is high for cookbooks; it's the same price as last year's hit The Food Lab, but like a per-wear-cost when buying clothing, I judge the value of a cookbook by how often I'll reach for it and cook from it, which I'm already doing often for Reed's.
We have two recipes from the book -- a cocktail called The Evening Storm that has an origins narrative you'll have to read in the book, and for either breakfast or with drinks, there's Brown Sugar Bacon. See our links.
If you or someone you know wants to be a better hostess and have fun at the same time, I can't imagine anyone who could be a better teacher than Julia Reed.
Julia Reed's South: Spirited Entertaining and High-Style Fun All Year Long by Julia Reed, published by Rizzoli New York, © 2016, hardcover with jacket, color photographs, 224 pages, $50.
The Food & Wine of France by Edward Behr
For you Francophiles out there who can't get enough about the regional splendor of French cooking, author Edward Behr has brought us a volume that if left for bedside reading will have you making a midnight run to your refrigerator hoping to find a piece of Brie to sate the cravings you're guaranteed to have.
That's because The Food & Wine of France, Eating and Drinking From Champagne To Provence, is a wish-you-were-here travelogue of the country's superb regional and national ingredients and cooking.
Mr. Behr, founder of The Art of Eating magazine and a well-published food writer, had to have had one splendid time doing the research for this book. Consider the chapter subjects: bread, the croissant, Champagne, sausage, vinegar, snails, wines, cheese, sea salt, goose fat, and much more, written about in context and on location -- in small towns, stinky cheese caves, fabled kitchens, village markets, bakeries, cow fields, and vegetable gardens. Mr. Behr writes with knowledge, gusto, and ardor and you will be wishing that he were your friend, or at least an available travel partner to lead you to such gastronomical treasures. You'd gladly pick up the check for wherever he'd lead you.
He had access to places and people we would never have, and was able to visit, participate, and observe the craftsmen and women who turn such things as the making of Alsatian kugelhopf into a profound art:
"Christine [Ferber, famed pâtissier-confiseur in Niedermorschwihr, in Alsace] turned to the machine and added cubes of butter, saying cold butter 'keeps its butter texture. It doesn't reach its melting point. If you add butter at the start, the dough takes much, much, longer to stop being stock.' She added macerated raisins and only then, as the mixing continued, did the dough stop sticking to the sides and cling instead to itself. She stopped the motor and wrapped the bowl of the mixer in one of the linen cloths used in breadmaking, pushing the cloth down until it almost touched the dough, to keep it warm."
Mr. Behr has been a witness to such producing, growing, cooking, and baking of the foods that continue to enable France to have such a rich and meaningful food culture. If you've eaten in France, are planning a trip there, or are just dreaming about how an entire country can create and sustain such an amazing cuisine, you will love this book.
The Food & Wine of France by Edward Behr, published by Penguin Press, © 2016, hardcover, no photographs, 320 pages, $28.00.
Eat The Wrapping
Although much of our food packaging can be recycled, some of it remains unsustainable. Specifically the plastic wrap that cheese comes in, or that seals the little trays of raw chicken we buy at the market. Plus the wrapping doesn't particularly always function that well. There's promising news in that scientists are working on a new biodegradable wrapping that is up to 500 times better at keeping oxygen away from our food. And you can eat it! Here's an article about it from a recent article from Bloomberg.
Do you like to live dangerously? Do you get a high from random risk? No, not Russian roulette as in "The Deer Hunter," but shishito peppers. Similar to padrón peppers, they are mostly mild but about every ten peppers (and their appearance gives no clues), you'll get a scorcher. I personally think shishitos are so worth the risk. They are sweet but with a hovering (mostly) mild heat and they cook quickly to have an ever-so-subtle almost-lemon flavor.
How do you eat shishitos? In Food & Wine magazine I saw them used in an appealing tuna and chickpea salad. Others recommend them in scrambled eggs. But I like them best simply sautéed whole with a tiny bit of olive oil and a pinch of coarse salt. Cook the peppers with their stems still attached in a fry pan (or your cast iron skillet) with just enough oil so that the peppers don't stick, at medium high heat until the surface blisters and begins to char and the pepper collapses. It's a favorite side to any pan grilled or broiled meats, especially a rib eye steak because the bite of the peppers is a perfect counterpoint to the unctuous meat. You can also served sautéed shishitos as a snack with a cocktail or beer.
Look for them at farmers markets and often, but not always, at Whole Foods.
Orwashers on the Upper West Side
Orwashers has just about the best bread in New York City. They first opened in 1916 and it took them 100 years to open their second outpost, this one on Manhattan's Upper West Side. This superb bakery, best known for its handmade rye and whole grain breads, has opened at 440 Amsterdam Avenue, at West 81st Street.
If you prefer to visit them on the east side, the original store is at 308 East 78th, between 1st and 2nd Avenues.
My favorite is their Levain Locale, which they call the "ultimate French table bread." I love it fresh, eaten in thick slices with a gloss of good butter, or toasted for breakfast when it's stale, and also turned into the best ever croutons. East side or west side, Orwashers is worth a journey.
Although it opened quite a while ago, it's taken me this long to visit the Le District marketplace in the World Financial Center. It's promoted as a place to get French grocery items, French butchered meats, French pastries and bread, and French quelques choses. Quel disappointment. The space is dark and hard to navigate, the selection is thin and très cher (French for "I can't believe what this costs"), and there's actually not much that's French about it or the items it sells. I can imagine that if you're a French ex patriot living in NYC and craving the American ex-pat equivalent of Skippy peanut butter, you might find it here, but even that's limited to things like cookies or bouillon cubes that you can also find at markets like Zabar's. Since it opens into the huge lobby and shopping mall that anchors the World Financial Center and its thousands of office works, it's probably mostly frequented by folks at lunchtime. Otherwise, it's not worth the journey.
I recently published an article at TheCityCook.com about JB Prince, an excellent cookware store located in Manhattan's east 30's. Chefs and some home cooks have known about JB Prince for years but others are still discovering its enormous inventory of all kinds of cooking and bakeware. You can shop at their showroom (I recently replaced my sheet pans for less than $8 each) or shop online -- and they ship internationally. Look for our link to the article to learn more about another only-in-New-York treasure.
Last week the NYC food world lost a dynamic innovator. Dorothy Cann Hamilton, the founder and CEO of The International Culinary Center, formerly known as The French Culinary Institute, died in an automobile accident while on holiday at her family home in Nova Scotia. She was 67. Twelve years ago I spent some of the happiest months of my life toiling in the kitchens of the FCI, a place that she created, led, and grew into an internationally-regarded school that has produced a remarkable roster of some of our best chefs. She was a woman of grace and a lifelong educator, a rare force in an industry often known more for its bravado than its substance. Dorothy Cann Hamilton was one of the people that made our world decidedly more interesting. In case you missed it, you can read her obituary here.
Enjoy the last days of summer. Autumn in all its glory is on its way.