King Corn: The Movie

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It turns out you really are what you eat.

Hey folks, if you’re in Los Angeles I’m really encouraging you to catch the premiere of King Corn, a thoroughly entertaining (and perplexing, I might add) documentary by Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis.

The premise: two best friends from college on the east coast reconnect with their Iowa roots and decide to learn where their food comes from. They take one acre, get some help from neighbors, grow some corn and learn some pretty interesting lessons about this subsidized, genetically modified crop. The real fun happens when they try to follow their pile of corn into the food system. An eye-opening experience to say the least.

My friends at Culinate sent me a screener a few weeks ago — incidentally one of the filmmakers is blogging there as a special guest — and after watching King Corn it really left me scratching my head.This corn questions started for me when I read Michael Pollan’s Omnivore Dilemma, and if these guys don’t get you thinking in real-world terms about our food supply and government subsidies and the farm bill, well, I just don’t know what to tell you. It’s a brilliantly entertaining piece of work, and watching these guys make a homemade batch of high fructose corn syrup might make you think twice before reaching for that bottle of soda.

I sure hope it does.

King Corn opens in Los Angeles on October 26th at Laemmle’s Music Hall 3, 9036 Wilshire Boulevard, Beverly Hills and in San Francisco and Berkeley on November 2nd. Visit the King Corn website for additional openings across the country and please please please support these guys!

FREE TICKETS! FREE TICKETS! Did that get your attention? Visit Culinate to win a pair of tickets for the King Corn premiere in Los Angeles.

Chatting With Amelia Saltsman

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It’s not often that I fall in love with a cookbook. When I do, it usually shares time between the kitchen and my library, shuttling back and forth as I use it. However, it’s rare when a book stays with me in my bag, going between the market, my home and my office. That’s what’s happening with Amelia Saltsman‘s book The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market Cookbook: Seasonal Foods, Simple Recipes and Stories from the Market and Farm.

I’ve mentioned and plugged this book before, and with good reason. Part cookbook, part educational lesson, Alice Waters calls Amelia’s book "an amazing resource to have with you, a complete season-by-season handbook to guide you through the bounty of the market." I couldn’t have said it better myself. Not only does it focus on seasonal recipes that are right up my alley (simple, ingredient-focused dishes that highlight seasonality and flavor), it also shares insights about farmers’ markets and what it takes for the farmer to bring you his fruits and vegetables directly. But perhaps the most valuable for me is its ability to be a guidebook, taking me throughout the market and giving me ideas, tips and background about the foods I buy when I visit the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market. Or any farmers’ market, for that matter.

Since the book’s release we’ve become friends and, if you’ll allow me to borrow a corny phrase, to know her is to love her. Her passion beams through and her enthusiasm is infectious. She gets me excited about food! I recently sat down with Amelia to ask her a few questions about her book before joining her on a quick tour of the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market.

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Q. Your book has really affected me in so many ways. It’s given me kitchen tips, educated me about so many fruits and vegetables, but also drawn me in about the farmers you write about. Not to mention I carry my book with me to the farmers market weekly. Can you explain why you wrote this book?

A. It’s simple — when you’ve got a story you’ve got to tell it. You see it, you’re excited about what you’ve learned, who you’ve met, what it’s done for you as a consumer, how it’s changed your life as a cook, and how you think that life could be easier for others. I wanted to let people know that in our harried culture that the best tasting food is right here. No compromise, no sacrifice. It’s the ultimate fast food! Well, not for the farmer, though — they do all the work and we reap all the benefits!

Q. How long did it take to complete the book?

A. It was in the making for years and years. Years of development, a year of writing and a year of production.

Q. How has your experience as a shopper at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market changed your outlook on food?

A.  I get my culinary inspiration from the  Santa Monica Farmers’ Market. If I can’t get to the Farmers’ Market I’m in disarray! But it’s not just about inspiration — it’s about education and safety, too. I find that when I’m at the Farmers’ Market and I know the grower I feel very confident about the food. I don’t worry about all the things we’ve been worrying about and reading in the news lately. The person growing the food is growing it for his or her own family directly. Once you’re feeding your family your own food you become more responsible. When you look the buyer in the eye you have to be honest and responsible. It makes you do the right thing.

Q. Why Farmers’ Markets?

A: I always knew from an early age that I could learn a lot about a place by going to the farmers’ market. I could see the people, meet the people, see what they value, what they can grow and experience a little bit of daily life. In fact If I’m in a town or traveling I’d choose a farmers’ market over a museum if I only had one day to visit.

I really believe that the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market tells us about a place even if the farmers end up coming from 100 or 200 miles away. It tells us a lot about the culture. It also tells us that people are really hungry for a connection and community.

And by the way, that connection is just as important to the farmers as it is to us. It’s very core.

Q: You always make it a point to mention flavor — I love that!  Why is this? And would you consider it one of the most important qualities in selecting food?

A: If I had to use one word to describe the book, it’s flavor. If you use flavor as your primary marker you’ll find it’s a great cue as to how food was grown.

You don’t get great flavor by accident; you have to grow varieties that are designed to taste good. Then you must grow them well, you have to care for them and you must tend to them. For example, I talk about Mike Cirone of Cirone Farms in my book.The reason his apricots and apples are so packed with flavor is because he dry farms, leaving an intensified flavor in the fruit — it’s not all water.  It’s the same with a big giant strawberry packed full of water versus a small berry loaded with real flavor. Flavor means someone cared enough to leave it on the vine or in the field until fully ripened. This is another reason to shop farmers’ markets — if you’re buying your produce from a supermarket it must travel and be stored for quite some time before it gets to you and there’s no way it can be picked ripe. That means it cannot have much flavor.

Harold McGee recently wrote about fully ripe, sustainably grown fruits and vegetables and discovered that they are indeed more flavorful. I say yay yay yay! We’re beginning to discover that if we depend on chemicals we don’t flourish. Not just in food but in life. So you can see why flavor is IT for me.

It’s the simplest, happiest, most visible and tangible clue for quality, sustainability, and seasonality.

Q: Ok, so many of my readers may not live in Southern California. Is your book only about shopping at the Santa Monica Farmers’ Market?

(Matt says: I cannot do justice to Amelia’s animated response with flailing arms when she answers this question!)

A: So what? Really! So what? The big message here is to shop locally, support your local ecosystem, and see what’s in season in your neighborhood. It’s not a religion! You don’t have to be in Santa Monica, you can do this anywhere you live! Even if we bought some portion of seasonal and local goods, even just 20%, we’d make a huge difference in the issues we’re having.

My intention was to tell the story of these farmers and these crops as a specific metaphor for a bigger picture. It was about making it about real characters that come to life. My hope was that someone reading this book who shops at a farmers’ market in Austin might think about the life that their local farmer was living and the struggles they encountered to get that local produce to market. It’s my hope that people everywhere will think more about flavor, where their food comes from and to cook in a simple, ingredient driven way.

There were choices I needed to make when I was writing this book. My way of narrowing my scope was to think of foods and dishes that showcased how much can come from the farmers’ market. You don’t need a big pantry to do this. That’s why there’s the barest whisper of chocolate in the book.

Q: What is your idea of comfort food?

A: I would say that my favorite, most comforting meals would be after a trip to the market. Simple roasted vegetables, everything fresh, lots of savory flavors. Something so simply roasted with a little olive oil, sprinkled with some crunchy sea salt. I think that the dinners that are the most satisfying to me are the ones where I look at the plate and see that everything came from the farmers’ market. The chicken, the vegetables, the fruit. It’s just so simple.

Q: What types of food did you grow up eating? And could you share some of your family food background?

A: Sort of an interesting story! My parents came to this country just before I was born. Both my grandmothers were amazing cooks and bakers, but that didn’t help because my mother was here and the family was in Israel. But I had a very eclectic childhood. One one hand I had a lot of fresh salads and vegetables as my mother was busy experimenting with new techniques but she also made family recipes that were quite different than what the rest of the country was eating, you know, white bread and steak sort of thing.

But the other thing I remember growing up was that we used to be able to go to the corner grocery store and buy local produce.

Q: You gave a presentation last week with the Culinary Historians of Southern California where you showed images of Los Angeles at the beginning of the century. The variety of fruits and vegetables that were grown 80 years ago smack dab in the middle of town was unbelievable – not to mention the fact that people paid attention to who was growing their food and where it was from. You even showed us a menu from 1906 that listed the food’s origin with the farm it came from right underneath the menu item. Now we’re seeing a return to those interests. Care to weigh in on why this is happening? Is it just history repeating itself?

A: In my research for this book I discovered that in everything there is a season. There’s nothing new under the sun and while we may think we discover new things and it’s never been done before that’s simply not the case.

I discovered that we were cooking like the way we are today at the turn of the century. When the rest of the country was using pork, we were using olive oil. It’s what we had in abundance and our diets adapted to the ingredients we were finding locally. The similarities are more striking today than the differences.

As far as why we moved away from this, I think it was due to several influence. Once we had the railroads and refrigerated cars and California became the main supplier to the supermarket chains across the country there was a a shift of focus. The agriculture industry needed to pay attention to how they supplied food to the masses. Produce was picked green and held, people moved out to the suburbs and further away, there was a curiosity and desire for what was new and shiny. New and improved was how we shopped; people didn’t want to be in a dirty place with cut leaves on the floor, it had to be spotless. These are not necessarily new things post World War II, they all started with the Industrial Age, it’s always been a movement. A perfect example was frozen foods. Who didn’t think it was a bold, wonderful new concept? It was all about convenience.

Q: Apart from the touchy-feely loving-mother-earth sensations I get from shopping my farmers’ market, there really is a true importance than runs deep about supporting the farmers. I appreciate you and your book for really explaining it to me.

A. Remember, it takes time to build a market. The Santa Monica Farmers’ Market is 26 years strong, but it didn’t start anything like it is today. You didn’t get all this variety, but you did get the fresher, better-tasting versions of what you found in the supermarkets. The farmers were growing for the packing houses, but then realized they could pick up and head to the market with the standard offerings. And back then it was potatoes, grapes, your everyday fruits and vegetables. But the market changed and developed by communication, learning, and time. Farmers learned what customers wanted, customers learned what grew best from farmers. Farmers would dare to grow a row or two of this or that and find there was a market for it. I think that as I’ve been talking to people across the country this is one of the biggest messages I need to convey: it takes time and patience to grow a great farmers’ market. It takes time to educate the manager, the farmer and the customer about what the real values are.

Thank you Amelia!


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Amelia will be making a few appearances over the next week and I encourage you to visit and say hello. Especially in Austin. And have a Shiner for me, won’t ya?

HOLIDAY ENTERTAINING IDEAS FROM THE FARMERS’ MARKET WITH AMELIA SALTSMAN
Cooking Demo & Book Signing
Thursday, October 25, 2007
7:00 p.m. to 9 p.m.
Santa Monica Public Library
601 Santa Monica Blvd
Santa Monica, CA
(310) 458-8600

AUSTIN FARMERS’ MARKET
Cooking Demo & Book Signing
Saturday, October 27, 2007
9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m.
4th & Guadalupe
Austin, TX
(512) 236-0074

FINO RESTAURANT, PATIO & BAR
Harvest Dinner and Book Signing with Boggy Creek Farm
Monday, October 29, 2007   
7:00 p.m.
2905 San Gabriel St.
Austin, TX
For reservations: (512) 474-2905

Now That’s A Lotta Yogurt

The Los Angeles Times calls it a welcomed jolt for the frozen yogurt chain. Fortune magazine calls it a big boost. However you look at it, the $27.5 million that was just infused into the Pinkberry Chain by Howard Schultz’s venture capital firm is bound to cause overexposure and give me an even larger frozen yogurt headache.

I like Frozen Yogurt. I really do. But living in LA (or NYC, for that matter) has taken a bit of the luster off of an otherwise shiny scoop. You can’t go anywhere without seeing new frozen yogurt shops opening up, and today’s news is no doubt going to make that green tea scoop with various toppings as ubiquitous as the green siren’s lattes and venti coffees.

But hey, If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Having said that, I’m thinking we shouldn’t rest until a million yogurt shop knock offs litter every strip mall, gas station, and co-branded KFC/Taco Bell from here to Orlando. And in an effort to make it just a wee bit easier for you out there, I’m throwing my marketing brain into to the mix.

Ladies and gentleman, I give you the Mattbites 3-Point Froyo Chain Name Selector®. 

Use as you’d like, you can thank me later.

Nameselector


A Roisin In The Sun

Or

"I always order my breakfast like that…don’t you?"

Or

"This Lady Walks Into A Diner…"

Folks, how about a little pop music to get your day started? As a fan of Irish pop chanteuse Roisin Murphy (you may know her from her days with Moloko), I’m obsessed with her latest single called "Let Me Know". It’s pure retro 90’s house and keeps it pretty poppy and happy without veering too far into the artsy experimental dance stuff her solo work sometimes does. Besides, any woman who can wear an outfit like this AND dance around a diner while waiting for her food will always have me as a fan. Forever!

p.s. Why can’t I have a spotlight on me when I hit my local greasy spoon?

Winter Squash

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White acorn. Red Kuri. Turban. Carnival. Names as colorful as the squashes themselves. And if you’ll excuse me for saying this, sometimes they look as if they landed on earth from outer space. No offense meant towards other galactic life forces!

Welcome, winter squash.

A few years ago I made it a point to familiarize myself with these hefty gourds. Until that point they were only gorgeous table decorations to me (trés gay, I know I know), and also made nice ammo during food fights. Then butternuts because the popular choice and began showing up everywhere. I wasn’t complaining, I love the sweet, nutty mild flavor they bring to stews, soups and purees. But then I began to wonder about the others, and in time began to learn that even though they’re awkward, fugly, and heavy, they really are wonderful and delicious. I look forward to this time of year.

Unlike summer squashes with their soft, edible skins, winter varieties must be peeled and cooked. But it’s really easier than you think. The toughest part for me is cutting into the larger varieties like turbans and hubbards — you’ll need plenty of power (and a sharp knife!) to open those babies up. But once open, scooping out seeds and strings are easy and then it only takes some heat to get them going. Bake, boil or steam — they’re great on their own or added to other veggies and even used in place of sweet potatoes.

Perhaps my favorite thing about winter squashes is that they can walk the fine line between sweet and savory. Dress them up with a sprinkle of cheese, add them to risottos or even top with tomato sauce (as with spaghetti squash), or bake with cinnamon, butter, and honey for a sweeter, lighter flavor.

Recently I had a few boxes of squash that I needed to photograph.. Normally I’d be excited about it but have you ever tried to move around boxes and boxes of them? The suckers are heavy. But luckily they last quite a long time in the right conditions and this allowed me to spend a few afternoons in the kitchen experimenting. Adam made an amazing lamb and butternut squash stew (pictured), but it was no quick affair. I opted for faster, simpler recipes and in the process discovered one of my favorite things to do with winter squash. Try it — it’s simple and sublime.

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Winter Squash Puree with Shaved Parmesan from Amelia Saltsman’s The Santa Monica Farmer’s Market Cookbook: Seasonal Foods, Simple Recipes and Stories from the Market and Farm

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Seriously people, this is easy. And the results are fantastic. And yes, consider this a plug for my friend’s book. Why? Because she is lovely, gorgeous and wonderful and cares about flavor and farmers — and she gets me excited about food!

Ingredients
1/2  cup finely chopped onion
1 large garlic clove
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
1 dried arbol chile, or pinch of red pepper flakes
kosher or sea salt
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 cups roasted winter squash
about 1/2 cup vegetable or beef stock
2-4 tablespoons Parmigiano Reggiano or Winchester Sharp Gouda Cheese, plus cheese for shaving
1 tablespoon pumpkin or extra virgin olive oil

Method
In a skillet, sauté the onion, whole garlic clove, sage, chile, and a little salt in the olive oil over medium low heat until the onion is translucent and soft, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the squash, a little more salt, and 1/4 cup of the stock. Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook to a thick puree, about 15 minutes, stirring frequently and adding stock as needed to keep the mixture smooth and prevent sticking. If the mixture seems too wet, uncover during the last few minutes of cooking. Remove the pan from heat, discard the chile, and mash the garlic clove into the squash. Stir in the grated cheese and salt to taste along with the pumpkin seed oil. The puree can be made a day ahead and refrigerated. Top with cheese shavings and serve at room temperature.

To roast the squash:
Matt says: Face down, squash up, that’s the way we… Oops, nevermind. But seriously folks, I’ve always been perplexed until I decided on Amelia’s method which involves roasting squash cut side down after it’s been drizzled with oilve oil and sea salt. Roast at 375 degrees for about 40 minutes. You’ll notice the skin will become shiny and soft and you can check by piercing with a knife.  Make sure you leave at least an inch between the cut squash pieces on the baking sheet. Give them space.

I’m not making any friends with this post, for sure.

Stars

Did you know that the fate of fine dining rests on a select few who publish books and give stars and take them away? It’s true! I’m serious! I read it somewhere!

Apparently food tastes better if people give it more stars.

And here I thought it was talented chefs? I sure have a lot to learn.

Oh brother.

Haute Cheee-Kin

Hotchicken487

I do my best not to disparage my fellow human being through bad
thoughts, gossip or mean words. In fact, I’m a pretty nice guy with no
known enemies and try to be likeable on most days. Most times I think I
succeed, and on those other days I rely on my bevy of good friends to
let me rant and rave about whatever is currently distressing me. They
help me get the bad stuff off my chest and move on. I appreciate and
love them.

(That means you, Kev.)

I am also the type of guy who is known for making
lemonade out of lemons and for taking less-than-glorious moments and
turning them around. It’s what I do. So perhaps you’ll appreciate this
story from my crazy years living in San Francisco. I was dating the
strangest of men, a guy I’ll only refer to as "D", and Bobby, if you’re
reading you’ll know exactly who I’m talking about. Anyway, this was a
beautiful, successful handsome man with a gorgeous home in Noe Valley
and the world was at his feet. He was really going places. Naturally I
enjoyed our time together and the old-fashioned courtship. That is
until we got behind closed doors, where all semblances of success and
sanity disappeared and he became a sloppy, annoying, needy , angry
drunk who would say the strangest things — all of which I cannot
repeat here. I file it under "nightmare dating experiences" and move
on. In fact, just writing this entry brought up a bunch of sad and
funny memories, and it made my heart hurt just a little bit. I’m sure
he’s doing better and he’s happy wherever he is…. at least that’s
what I tell myself. And god knows I couldn’t be happier now myself.

But
it wasn’t all bad. There was one brilliant thing about this man, one
thing that made the experience worthwhile and something I shall never
ever ever forget.

It was known as "Hot Chicken".

As it
turned out, "D" grew up in Quebec and introduced me to something he
grew up eating in Canada. It was called Hotchicken, or commonly known
as Hot Chicken. In its most simplest terms it’s an open face hot
chicken sandwich, but the addition of peas and sometimes french fries
make it stand alone in the sandwich world. And then there’s the sauce.
While we may refer to it as brown gravy, I learned that the true way to
enjoy a Hot Chicken (pronouced "haute cheeee-kin" with an accent, of
course) is with actual Hot Chicken Sauce which can be found in regional
grocery stores. Unfortunately I have no access to this magical potion
(read: brown gravy)  and must rely on my own.

At its worst, Hot
Chicken is a wet, salty sandwich free from anything fresh and good for
you. At its best, Hot Chicken is a wet, salty sandwich free from
anything fresh and good for you. And it’s for all these reasons that I
love it so.

Who says Poutine should get all the glory?

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Hot Chicken

It’d be senseless to actually use measurements for this. It’s simply
too intuitive. Layer chicken on top of a slice of bread, top with
another slice, douse generously with brown gravy and top with mushy
peas. Yes, seriously. I’ll have another.

And here you thought we only ate truffles and locally-harvested snails. Hmpfh.