Let’s Talk About Food, 2011

(I meant to post this yesterday but I didn’t finish it before I went to bed.)

Along the DCR Cambridge Parkway today, the Museum of Science and its sponsors held the “Let’s Talk About Food” festival.

I didn’t go last year. I had never even heard of it until about two weeks ago when I saw an ad banner for it inside a Red Line subway car.

The blurb on the official homepage says this about the festival:

We all eat. Rich or poor. Several times a day –– if we can. Food is the central feature of human society.  Food forms the basis of our cultural traditions, creates community, optimizes or sabotages our health, affects our environment, provides livelihoods, impacts our global economy, and nourishes the next generation.
Food has become a major focus in our society. And what we’ve learned is: People want to talk about it. They want to know. They want to learn. And they like to eat.
Launched in Boston 2010, in dynamic partnership with the Museum of Science, Let’s Talk About Food Initiative hopes to become a national, educational, event driven, organization that creates programs to increase the level of public literacy about all aspects of our food system – from sustainability, to cooking, to obesity and other food-related health issues, to fishing and farming, food access, food justice, food safety, environmental concerns, agriculture and nutrition policy, and at the same time celebrates the richness that good food brings to our world.

I went with my sister and my mom. After some discussion, we decided that we wanted to be there by 10:40a for the main stage demo called “In the Spotlight: Cooking with Honey” which was led by Chef Charles Draghi (Erbaulce) and Christy Hemenway (Gold Star Honeybees). Due to our bus schedule, we ended up at the festival at about 10:15a. Even though it technically opened at 10am, an early morning storm seemed to slow everyone down. We probably should have hit up more vendor booths at that time, most of them were set up, but it was so muddy that we just headed over to the main stage tent. Over there, we spent some time at the Whole Foods tent sampling a biscotti-looking snack made from dates, raisins, and other wholesome goodness. The Whole Foods tent was also giving out organic apples and re-useable Whole Foods backpack (it’s the kind of tote where you pull the cords to close it and then slip your arms through to cords to wear as a backpack).

During “Cooking with Honey,” we were shown a couple of ways to work raw honey into recipes. The first recipe was a Parmesan snack. First, you grate some Parmesan rind and fry it in a pan until it cooks into a wafer (and flip to quickly cook the other side). Then, you top the wafer with fresh apples or fresh pears (feel free to spice up the fruit with nutmeg or anything you’re in the mood for). Finally, spoon some raw honey on top to finish, and serve. Chef Draghi said that this snack would pair well with a nice rosé. The second recipe given (but not demonstrated) was a summer drink: 2T raw honey and 1 tsp lemon juice mixed into 16 oz fizzy water, served with mint leaves muddled/crushed.

I got to sample the Parmesan wafer. It was good but I’m not a huge cheese lover so I found the parm flavor to be a little too strong. Also, noticed that I was allergic to the raw honey since I do not consuming it regularly enough to build up a tolerance to the pollen inside it.

Next to take the stage was Chef Jody Adams of Rialto! She and Governor Deval Patrick showed us a way to serve lobster (which smelled divine even from the audience seats… trust me). They were a lot of fun to watch – friendly interactions and humor.

Here’s a photo of Jody Adams after putting a Rialto chef’s jacket onto Deval Patrick. Sorry it’s a crappy photo. I forgot to grab a camera on my way out so this is picture was taken with a phone.

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Harvard SEAS lecture, 11/15/10, Dan Barber, part 2

[Whoo-hoo! Part 2!]

After biochar and lobster charcoal, Dan talked about the Stone Farms greenhouses. The Northeast is on the same latitude as Spain and southern Italy. Yes, it is colder here but we get the same amount of sunshine. During the colder seasons, their greenhouses are filled with sun-determinate plants instead of temperature-determinate plants (like tomatoes or mango). It’s something I’ve thought about but never *really* thought about. It makes me think that I should search for some plant ideas for my little container garden at home. Also required of their winter salad greens? What they grow must be able to go from seed to maturity in 6 to 8 weeks. The water in the greenhouses are kept warm by the heat given off from their composting. They also seep compost soil in water to create a “compost tea” which is used to water plants. The “compost tea” discourages bacterial growth on the plants. (Stone Farms cooks their compost to appropriate temperatures to kill off anything bad in the soil. They have a large machine for it, and the machine can also turn the compost over to provide even heating. This is not a cheap endeavor!)

The natural heat from composting? Blue Hill has been experimenting with cooking food, like potatoes, in a compost (don’t worry, the potatoes for eating are sealed in a bag).

So, big deal, right? Compost and biochar and selective gardening, it’s all going to taste the same right? Well, *no*. Stone Farms, again with the crazy data compiling, measures the Brix levels in their produce. what is Brix? In the food industry, it’s a way to measure the approximate amount of sugars in fruits, vegetables, juices, wine, soft drinks. The higher the Brix level, the higher the sugar/sweetness concentration. The farm has been breaking common Brix levels every year. Let’s take carrots as an example. The Northeast naturally produces some of the sweetest carrots. Why? Freezing temperatures for carrot plants to convert their starches into sugar for survival. Stone Farms has been able to measure 13.8 on the Brix scale. Out of curiosity, they measured the Brix level of good quality organic carrots not from their farm. The measurement? 0.0 on the Brix scale. Not sweet carrots at all.

Dan again emphasized that the farm and the restaurant were seeking out the best tasting ingredients that were raised right. So you might think that Dan is very pro-heirloom tomatoes. It’s all the rage these days in farmer markets, heirloom plants. Dan sounded kind of “meh” on them. He showed slides entitled “Magic Mountain Tomato” and showed us the unnamed hybrid tomatoes that the farm and restaurant were getting from Cornell University.

Probably one of the slightly weird food experiments at Stone Farms is “hazelnut celtuce.” The experiment started with carrots, actually. They tried seeing if they could infuse the aroma of hazelnuts into carrots by using residue hazelnuts in the soil. It failed because the cell walls of carrots are too thick. They tried again with celtuce (which is a type of lettuce) which has thinner cell walls. The answer was yes, the aroma can be absorbed.

Dan ended the lecture with a blurb on the Angiogenesis Foundation. The foundation is a non-profit organization that strives to reduce diseases by restoring balance to blood vessel growth. Somewhere in there is the idea that foods can battle cancer. Dan believes that food through the Stone Farms’ sustainable methods are more nutritious than their supermarket counterparts, and therefore more likely to have greater value to fighting against sickness.

It was a very fascinating lecture from a scientific and nutritional standpoint, and it appealed more to me than I originally thought it would. In my own personal food quest, I have realized that while I eat pretty decently (I don’t eat too much junk), I’m eating things that should or could have more nutritional value. It’s hard to think that “yes, there is such a thing as good fat with a nutritional purpose.” It’s a departure from what I’ve heard growing up. I’m starting small – I’m moving from store bought milk to grass-fed raw farm milk. This is hard to do in the state of Massachusetts when you don’t have regular access to a car, and the state forbids the selling of raw milk in stores or via buying clubs. However, I’ve discovered that raw milk freezes/defrosts pretty well and I have a full-size freezer, so I’m hopeful about my efforts. Plus, I can’t hate the idea of helping my local economy when I can.

Anyway, only one lecture left this semester! I’m looking forward to it!

~Mikan

Part 1 here: https://awesomesauceeats.wordpress.com/2010/11/16/harvard-seas-lecture-111510-dan-barber/

And related links for your curiosity:

http://www.bluehillfarm.com/food/blue-hill-stone-barns

http://www.stonebarnscenter.org/

Harvard SEAS lecture, 11/15/10, Dan Barber, part 1

[This particular write-up is taking me time, so I’m going to split it up.  Here’s part 1. ~Mikan]

Last night’s lecture with Dan Barber of Blue Hill/Stone Farm was very different from the previous lectures.  Whereas the lectures so far have been about manipulation of ingredients and cooking technique, Dan was there to talk to us about everything that happens before the ingredients even get into the restaurant kitchen.

To start off, Mike introduced the theme of the lecture as “Microbes in Food and Cooking.”  There was no recipe of the week – it was listed as “final presentation.”  But the lecture wasn’t really about microbes.  It was about sustainability.  There was a mini-presentation by Roberto Kolter, the co-director of Microbial Sciences Initiative (MSI) at Harvard, where he explained that there was a finite amount of room on our earth to support life and the human population grows exponentially so we should take better care of the environment.  (Kind of cool and random, MSI helped equip the lab students of this class so that they could do DNA sequencing of pork.)

Mike made the audience think about bacterial population homework problem (ie. how long will it take for the mass of Salmonella to equal the mass of steak?), and then Dan got up to speak.

Dan described himself as the “purity guy” as opposed to the Ferran Adrias of the world.  He was interested in the “manipulation” of food before harvest, and the pursuit of flavor in the ingredients themselves.

Regarding Blue Hill at Stone Barns, here’s the blurb on their official website:

“In spring of 2004, Blue Hill at Stone Barns opened within the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture in Pocantico Hills, New York. The Barbers helped create the philosophical and practical framework for Stone Barns Center, a working four-season farm and educational center just 30 miles north of New York City, and continue to help guide it in its mission to create a consciousness about the effect of everyday food choices.

Sourcing from the surrounding fields and pasture, as well as other local farms, Blue Hill at Stone Barns highlights the abundant resources of the Hudson Valley. There are no menus at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. Instead, guests are presented with a list of over a hundred ingredients, updated daily, which contains the best offerings from the field and market.”

The amount of research and development at Stone Barns, by Dan’s presentation, is insane.  And all of it, in the pursuit of great food.

Dan’s first “recipe” was lamb.  How do you get the perfect rack of lamb?  Stone Barns starts with Finn-Dorcet sheep, a crossed-breed sheep that is half Finnsheep and half Dorset breed.  Then you give it room to graze.  Now, it’s not free to roam per se.  A farmer fences in a large area of grass for the sheep to graze in (“free range” is a bit of a misnomer – they are free to roam within an alloted area).  Over the course of the day, the fence and the sheep are moved.  There’s a variety of reasons here.  First off, grass-fed livestock is going to be superior over grain-fed livestock.  Sheep and cow are herbivores and herbivores have a part in their digestive system called the rumen which is specifically designed to process grass.  If the herbivore is put on a grain diet, the rumen does not function as it is supposed it.  (Explained to me by a nutritionist once, the digestion system goes from alkaline to acidic, and it’s the acidic digestive system that encourages bacteria growth.)  A grain fed animal will suffer increased likelihood of sickness which in turn increases antibiotics/steroid use for animal health.  A grain fed animal will also see fast growth, increase in wrong fats, and diluted flavor on the palate of the diner.  Dan showed us a slide of two racks of lamb, one grass fed and one grain fed.  The eye of the meat was essentially the same size, but the grass fed rack suffered from twice the amount of fat and thereby looked two times larger than the grass fed rack.  Gross and fascinating, right?  Throwing out all that extra fat is like “throwing out Iowa” and just increased waste.

So what about the grass grazing rotation?  Sheep search for the sweetest grass to eat and the sweet grass is embedded into their memories.  Grass at about 4″-6″ tall and are sweet will have the best nutrient density for the animal.  If given a choice, a lamb will return to the same spot of sweet grass over and over again.  However, this will exhaust the grass, discourage it from growing back, and create empty spots on grazing land.

After the sheep are forced to move, chickens are allow to roam around the spot just vacated.  Chickens will eat bugs around the manure (ewww!) and scratch/distribute the manure around more evenly which will encourage better fertilization (still kind of ewww even if I know it’s nature/necessary).  Even spread of manure will also mean less empty spots of grass on grazing land.

Stone Barns determines their grade of meats via a sonogram on the 12th and 13th rib.  Why bother, you might be asking.  Aren’t you just going to kill the animal for meat?  Well no, not necessarily.  If you know a particular animal has superior meat for cooking, wouldn’t you want to try to breed it and re-create its fine features?  Stone Barns does.  And so they use a sonogram.

Dan also explained a bit on the science of slaughtering.  Government guidelines require that meat be stored/hung at a temperature of 31.5F after slaughter.  This works ok for grain fed animal meat.  The increased amount of fat works like a winter coat and keeps the meat from getting ruined.  Not so for grass fed animal meat.  A grass fed animal could be as healthy and as happy as possible, and you can still ruin your meat if you don’t slaughter it and age the meat correctly.  If grass fed meat, which has less fat, is stored at 31.5F after slaughter, it will produce unwelcoming chewy results.  Meat that is “fed right, slaughtered right, and hung right is like buttah.”

The next “recipe” was cured meats, meaning pork.  Stone barns will be crossbreeding Berkshire pigs (which can live in colder Northeast conditions better than other pigs) with Ossabaw boars (closest thing to a wild boar and has good fat distribution).  It’s almost crazy the amount of data that the farm is compiling.  Controlling the pig diet within the free range category means manipulating the forest floor where the pigs will graze.  Stone Farms has thinned out a forest area on its property and is growing a variety of grass that will be nutritious to their pigs.

But what of all the trees that were cut down for the pigs?  No worries, Stone Farm given purpose to the wood.  Half of the wood is used for grilling (so Dan and the Blue Hill restaurant has been doing a lot of grilling recently as opposed to a couple of years ago) and half of the wood is dedicated to biochar.

What is biochar?  According to the International Biochar Initiative:

“Biochar is the carbon (C) rich product when biomass, such as wood, manure or leaves, is heated with little or no available oxygen. In more technical terms, biochar is produced by thermal decomposition of organic material under limited supply of oxygen (O2), and at relatively low temperatures (<700°C). This process often mirrors the production of charcoal, which is perhaps the most ancient industrial technology developed by humankind. However, it distinguishes itself from charcoal and similar materials by the fact that biochar is produced with the intent to be applied to soil as a means to improve soil health, to filter and retain nutrients from percolating soil water, and to provide carbon storage.”

From what I can tell, it is a charcoal like product that is meant to be mixed into the soil like a super fertilizer or like an extreme vitamin boost to the system.  It sounds like it can do other environmentally awesome things (on cursory glance), but we’ll keep this conversation within the use of Stone Farms.  Stone Farms pulverizes the biochar and mixes it with their soil.  This along with their composting methods means that their dirt has a huge retention of water and nutrients, and a positive impact on their farmland and environment.  Dan showed us a slide of artichokes growing in dirt with biochar and in dirt without.  It’s not a formal science experiment by any means, but the artichokes growing in the dirt with biochar were growning faster and larger.

Char doesn’t stop at wood.  Blue Hill and Stone Farms have started carbonizing leftover items from the kitchen.  Pork bones used in stock?  The leftover corncobs?  Leftover lobster shells?  They’ll carbonize it all, and then use it for grilling.  And the carbonized products DO carry over the original aromas.  Dan passed around a tray of carbonized pork bones, cobs, lobster shells and the smell was smoky with hints of flavor.  So, you can perhaps imagine a chef at Blue Hill grilling lobster over carbonized lobster shells.  Dan called it “lobster times two.” 

Part 2 here: https://awesomesauceeats.wordpress.com/2010/11/17/harvard-seas-lecture-111510-dan-barber-part-2/

And some links if you are curious!

http://www.bluehillfarm.com/food/blue-hill-stone-barns

http://www.stonebarnscenter.org/

http://www.biochar-international.org/