Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Back at the End of the Line

The cover story of Time Magazine this week asks the question, "Can farmed fish feed the world?" Bryan Walsh makes the case for the future of integrated aquaculture, but it sounds better than it really is. It seems ironic to me that he uses the same title as Charles Clover's 2004 novel The End of the Line: How Overfishing is Changing the World and What we Eat. In Walsh's version, farmed seafood is the latest chapter in human control of the natural world. In Clover's version, modern technology and a growing population have wiped out world seafood stocks faster than we knew they were there. Can they both be right?

Introducing Aquaculture

There is no question that seven billion people eating seafood cannot be satiated by the natural world. In Charles Clover's book, he first talks about the total collapse of the cod population in the once bountiful waters of Newfoundland. He then makes a nearly decisive case for the total collapse of bluefin tuna within the next decade. However, the limits of wild seafood fishing are already being supplemented. People around the world are already eating more farmed fish than they realize. As the techniques and efficiency improve, some of it actually tastes good, too. Over 90% of Atlantic Salmon is farmed, over 1.4 million tons annually, and more than 40% of the shrimp consumed globally is farmed.

Basic Math Skills

If there is one glaring hole in Bryan Walsh's optimism, the math doesn't add up. The United Nations says that food production must increase by 100% in the next 40 years to keep up with current demand. That is a startling statistic for seafood. The studies of professor Daniel Pauly are featured in Clover's book, where he finds that global seafood harvest is several years past its peak. That means next year, we will have less wild seafood than this year. However, even in the best possible examples, it takes 2 pounds of wild fish, ground up and fed to farmed fish, and in the end you only get 1 pound of farmed fish, which leaves the ocean at a net loss. So, as Josh Goldman, founder of Australis Aquaculture observes, "the question of what the fish will eat is central to aquaculture. We can't grow on the back of small forage fish." Indeed, since the more realistic conversion rate is 5 pounds of wild fish to produce 1 pound of farmed fish.

Just Add Water

Clearly, the big question is "Can aquaculture technology develop fast enough to keep up with demand?" It will certainly not be able to do so without using resources from the wild. We are learning rapidly which fish are effectively farmed, such as barramundi, tilapia and carp. They have good conversion ratios and their habitat can be effectively simulated in integrated aquaculture systems. Ultimately, the question will be answered by economics. For example, when I started my culinary career, fish like skate, monkfish and black cod were very affordable because they were relatively abundant and underutilized, selling for eight dollars a pound wholesale. Now, fifteen years later, those numbers have doubled. If that trend continues, in 2025, wild salmon could cost $40 a pound at the retail counter. Most Americans will not be able to afford that. In Bryan Walsh's closing arguments, he concludes "if we're all going to survive and thrive in a crowded world, we'll need to cultivate the seas just as we do the land. If we do it right, aquaculture can be one more step toward saving ourselves." Let's hope that step is taken in stride.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Pimientos de Padron

Padron peppers have taken America by storm. They originated in the municipality of Galicia, Spain, where they have long been a popular tapas dish simply sauteed in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt. They were first brought to the Pacific Northwest by Manuel and Leslie of Viridian Farms, and have since been grown by a dozen other farms on the west coast. In Galicia, they have a saying, "os pementos de Padron, uns pican e outros non," a rhyme that translates as "some are hot and some are not." Manuel and Leslie say that only one in twenty is spicy, but I find it to be more like one in seven!

At Park Kitchen, I like to cook them with all sorts of accompaniments, from chanterelles and cherry tomatoes, to gnocchi or octopus. They also make a lovely side dish for a pork roast or braised beef. Their size and mild heat are so versatile that they deserve a versatile presentation. You can find them at many farmers markets from July to late September or early October. They are quick and easy to cook, so give them a try.

Considering Dessert

I have enjoyed my subscription to Art of Eating for years. It is an opinionated quarterly, and a rare kind of food magazine in today's publishing world, a work of diligent food journalism that has thus far not diluted its content to the full color photography driving most monthly magazines. When I received the latest issue with several articles addressing desserts and pastry, it was as if Edward Behr and his team had peered into my recent thoughts on the sweet subject.

Mr. Behr himself wrote A Point of View in Pastry, describing the talents of Shuna Lydon. In writing about her work history, he is able to discuss the differences between east and west coast sensibilities regarding the final course. I like what he has to say about Lydon, and his observations of the craft. His conclusion particularly resonated with me. "A dessert has to fit the whole of the restaurant. It has to mesh with the savory part of the menu; the waiters have to be able to describe and sell it; the time between order and pickup can't be too long." As usual, his observations extend beyond creativity, and place it within the context of the logistics of a restaurant.

I started my career in cooking as a baker and pastry chef. Now, after many years of savory cooking, I am once again directing the pastry program at Park Kitchen. My perspective has changed, and my approach to desserts are more of an extension of the savory meal. I think this makes my menu more consistent, and the transition from savory to sweet is more seamless. I also set out to make the desserts complete without fussy garnishes and inedible decorations. I was inspired by influential pastry chefs like Claudia Fleming to make desserts as seasonally focused as the rest of the menu. So I was eager to read Mitchell Davis' well written article, Where is Dessert Headed? and see what he thinks of American desserts in the twenty-first century.

Mr. Davis begins by proposing that American tastes have evolved over the last half century, but "our dessert tastes are for the most part stuck at a five year old's birthday party circa 1952." I suppose this is true inasmuch as America loves comfort foods. He proceeds by asking the question "what makes a dessert great?" Is it innovation or is it satisfaction? It really depends on the audience. Mr. Davis describes a recent meal at the James Beard House in which Matt Lightner served his creative seasonal cuisine with mixed responses. Although Mr. Davis enjoyed the meal immensely, "it felt as though half the dining room was in rapture and the other half wanted their money back." This is usually the response to very personal creations. They may seem like a revelation to some, while being completely lost on others.

This is especially the challenge of restaurant desserts and pastry. In the restaurant industry, desserts are a loss-leader. The ingredients cost a lot, perishable fruits and fine chocolates, and the techniques require a lot of time and skill. The price of desserts rarely covers the cost of their own production. This is perhaps the reason why the world's most innovative pastry chefs have abandoned their posts, and in many cities, pastry chefs are becoming as hard to find as sommeliers. In Spain, Albert Adria, former pastry chef at El Bulli is now the owner of a tapas bar. In America, Alex Stupak, former pastry chef of Alinea, now owns a Mexican restaurant, and Sam Mason, former pastry chef of WD-50 is now a bartender. This seems to me to be at the heart of the question "Where is dessert headed?"

America will always love apple pie and cupcakes. The classics endure for two reasons, because their flavors and textures are simple pleasures, and because they are affordable. Fine dining desserts require extravagant bells and whistles to entertain, whether they are the old world spun sugar cages and towering spires of chocolate sculpture, or the new world liquid nitrogen and high tech chemistry. They are less likely to have the endurance of the classics. Mr. Davis recalls his most memorable dessert, a simple "slice of lemon tart served unadorned" at the legendary restaurant of Fredy Girardet. Although that perfect simplicity might exhibit a certain sophisticated restraint, it was the conclusion of a $250 lunch that few can afford.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Outstanding in the Field

Twelve years ago, Jim Denevan had a vision. As an artist composing designs in sand and earth and ice, his energies are poured into the grand scenery of nature. He turned this creative vision toward hosting dinners at farms around Santa Cruz, California. While growing up, he spent time at his older brothers organic farm, and hosted one of his earliest alfresco dinners there. After a few years of cooking these meals himself, Jim assembled a crew and took the show on the road. He has published a cookbook with photos of their famous bus travelling the country, and recipes of favorite Outstanding in the Field meals.

For the past eight years now, Outstanding in the Field has travelled the country serving these dinners at farms and orchards, wineries, dairies and ranches, bringing people closer to the people and the products they strive to celebrate. Each dinner is now prepared by a chef from the region, and the travelling crew set up the now familiar family table stretched through these beautiful landscapes of American agriculture.

Over the past decade and across the country, this kind of farm dinner has become increasingly popular, and many others have begun hosting similar events. The hard work of our farmers and ranchers, cheesemakers and winemakers are once again being praised. It takes a lot of work to set up these dinners and serve great meals in rural settings, but if the guests take away some appreciation of the beautiful scenery and some insight into the origins of great food, its worth the effort.

This year, I had the opportunity to work with them at Cameron Winery, cooking alongside my friend and OITF alumnus, Troy Maclarty. He had spent the previous summer on the road with them. Our friends John and Teri at Cameron Winery have a beautiful property, and have hosted several special gatherings here, so we felt right at home cooking at the winery, which is all you can hope for at events like this!

Red Fruits of Early Summer

Sometimes the patterns of nature are a thing of beauty. In the early days of summer, the last of the strawberries and the first of the stone fruits take on a common motif of blushing tones. Raspberries and tayberries, which are a cross between the red raspberry and loganberry, blush with crimson ripeness, and the sweet and tart varieties of cherries come in a wide range of reds. The red currant is the first of the currants to ripen. The fruits of summer do not stay red for long before the berries and drupelets darken into purples and blacks. For a few weeks, the summer landscape is sweetly scarlet.