Archive for the ‘Food Network’ Category

Food or Art? Do I really eat this?



What is the world coming to, where certain festive food preparations are so intricate and elaborate that our guests are afraid to sink their teeth into them, for fear they will disturb a masterwork of fine art? A trade publication aimed at caterers arrives in the mailbox every month, laden with glamorous photos of the latest and greatest trends in celebration foodstuffs. Many of these companies must have legions of prep cooks spending days, even weeks, manipulating food into incredible shapes, forms and colors. The novelty of it all is an obvious draw, but somehow, behind this eye-catching façade, the food looks somehow tortured. It is as if it is screaming to get out, begging to take its original form.
The food scene today is a mirror of affluent society. The public persona is far larger than life. Everything is engineered to be exceptional, flawless, or at least appearing to be, morphed into a garish sameness. Our homes, our cars, even our bodies and our faces are rearranged to fit the girdle of current fashion. The same is true of our food. Food has become a lifestyle accessory. Magazines urge you to be the first on you block to try the latest restaurant, to prepare the ingredient of the moment, to host the party of the decade. It is as if we are all supposed to have an army of food stylists in our pantries, turning out dishes that would make Martha Stewart green with envy! Chefs are the new stars, with televisions shows, signature endorsements, fan clubs and even sporting events. Leisure time is spent pursuing the latest darlings of the food and wine publicity machine. As a chef and food writer, I can’t help but wonder which item from my compost bin will become the new ingredient du jour. This spring it is fava bean leaves, yes, fava bean leaves! Now how am I going to augment the nitrogen in my garden beds if my fava bean sprouts are going into the salad rather than being hoed back into the soil? My gardening catalogs call it “green manure” and I am sure that this label is not going to be showing up on restaurant and catering menus any time soon! Nor am I saying that these little green tidbits are not delicious in their own right, but what angst-ridden chef, attempting to create yet another new menu extravaganza came up with this one? I read today that Thomas Keller of the French Laundry never repeats an ingredient more than once in a menu, with the exception “…of course…” of such luxury staples as the truffles, lobster, caviar and foie gras on which his restaurant’s reputation is built. Try that at home? I don’t think so.
Below the surface, economic rumblings are echoing across continents and oceans. Can we continue to feast on the latest and greatest while Rome (or Wall Street) burns? It has been portended that this recession may reset the sensibilities of our nation and the world, ending the mad rush of unconscious consumerism and waste. In this spirit, I would like to challenge the food world to go back to its roots as well. I would like to call for an end to food as entertainment; and a return to food as nourishment and pleasure. I would love to see one of these glossy lifestyle magazines speak of entertaining and eating for personal enjoyment, rather than as an outward manifestation of an idealized life. To that end, I have chosen to take the path less trodden, breaking my own way as if wandering across a meadow full of spring grass. The menus I will develop for this summer’s catering season will reflect food for food’s sake. Rather than steaming, pureeing, freeze-drying and reforming a carrot into a sheet of paper in which to wrap carrot tops, I will trim them and roast them whole with a sprinkling of warm spices reminiscent of North Africa. Rather than cutting my potatoes into perfect ¼” dice and poaching them in goat butter with fennel fronds, I will toss them, unpeeled, with new olive oil and kosher salt, and bake them until their skins are crisp and the insides are creamy, splitting them open to absorb a light dressing of mustard vinaigrette. Instead of braising my carefully turned artichokes for hours in lobster stock and mashing them through a drum sieve with mascarpone to stuff ravioli, I will steam them, halve them and sear them on a griddle until caramelized and sweet. Spring onions and leeks will not be transformed into thin green ribbons with which to wrap a terrine of foie gras, but will actually be grilled and dipped in a spicy, smoky Romesco sauce, to be eaten whole.


The menus themselves will be patterned after what the Italians call “la cucina povera,” the poor foods. These are not the recipes of the de Medicis and the Renaissance, but the recipes of the villages, the farms, and the fields of the Mediterranean. In keeping with the economic times, these menus will also be more affordable and accessible. In order to understand our future, we must understand our past. Often the simplest preparations are the most flavorful. 
When I brought the heaping platters of carrots and onions to an event recently, eyebrows were raised and heads wagged. Yet when the wrappings were removed, the aroma of roasted vegetables and savory spices filled the room. The guests’ first bites were tentative, almost afraid to believe that something so simple could possibly be satisfying, much less exciting. Yet one by one, their faces lit up. Smiles stretched and eyes rolled up in pure bliss.  Lips were licked and words were offered up like “wow” and “incredible.” The food transformed those who ate it from bystanders to participants. Fingers were finding their way into people’s mouths as they wiped the last specks of sauce from their plates. A small crowd gathered around the platters, not dispersing until the last morsel was gone. The beauty of these foods were in their honest simplicity, recognizable, and yet in no way mundane. Somewhere, in the back of people’s minds, memories were awakened; a warm tomato eaten while standing in the garden, a slice of freshly baked bread, still hot from the oven, the first bites of the season’s earliest sweet corn. Basic foods, honest foods, satisfying and nurturing foods and, if we are honest, the foods we remember when all else fades away. These are the foods we can choose to prepare and to enjoy, and most of all, to share.


Post by Julia Conway on April 11th, 2009