Tom Philpott

Tom's Kitchen: A Chili to Unite Vegans and Purists (in Anger)

| Wed Dec. 3, 2014 6:00 AM EST
Bowl of red? You could call it that—at your own risk.

During a recent frigid snap, I found myself with a cold chill I couldn't get rid of, a pound of (grass-fed, local) ground chuck thawing in the fridge, and a fierce appetite. The thought of burgers didn't hit the spot, nor did pasta with meat sauce. My mind reached to the depths of my Texas childhood and found a primordial craving I hadn't thought of in years: chili.

Now, chili is as bitterly contested and regionally variegated a dish as cassoulet in France or paella in Spain. Like those dishes, its origin is in dispute. Some partisans insist it must not contain beans (the Texas "bowl of red" school); others demand that it do. Tomatoes are another flashpoint. Serious chili requires chunks of beef, not the ground stuff. Etc.

I usually have patience for such debates. This time, I cast them aside and got busy. I decided to add beans, critics be damned, to stretch the dish out, because I wanted plenty of leftovers. I considered starting with a mirepoix—the French trinity of onions, carrots, and celery—but decided that carrots in chili would be too hippie. (I stuck with celery though, on the theory that it would be barely noticeable).

I knew that to distinguish it from a generic meat sauce, I'd need lots of cumin and paprika, and was relieved to find both in my cupboard. But in another affront to chili tradition, I decided to ignore regular paprika and tap my little jar of that wonderful smoked Spanish version known as Pimenton de la Vera, which added a nice dimension to the mix.

And to complement my main dish, I was happily surprised to find that I had all the ingredients for a simple cornbread—to me, the ultimate accompaniment to chili. (Cornbread is another highly divisive topic, and one for another column.) What follows is a recipe that I predict will unite in fury two disparate groups: vegans and chili partisans. It's also a really good quick dinner. Enjoy!

Quick Chili

Enough high-quality fat, such as olive oil, lard, or bacon grease (I used the latter) to generously cover the bottom of a large pan
1 medium onion, chopped
2 stalks of celery, chopped
3 cloves of garlic, smashed, peeled, and minced
1 pound ground beef, preferably grass-fed
(At least) 1 teaspoon of cumin, freshly ground if possible
1 teaspoon oregano (thyme works to, as does the combination of thyme and oregano)
1-2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon of paprika, smoked or otherwise
1 teaspoon of sea salt
½ 28-ounce can whole plum tomatoes (reserve other half for another use, like salsa)
1 regular 15-oz can of red beans, such as kidney beans, or a cup of dry beans, cooked
Plenty of fresh-ground black pepper
A dash of apple cider vinegar, optional
Something green, like chopped green onion tops or chives, to garnish

Place the pan over medium heat and add the fat. When it's hot, add the onions and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until they're soft. Add the garlic, cumin, oregano, bay leaves, paprika, and salt, and let it cook, stirring to prevent the garlic from burning, for another minute or two.

Add the meat, and cook, stirring occasionally, until it's brown, around 10 minutes. Add the half-can of tomatoes (along with juices) and cook, stirring, and using a wooden spoon to break up the tomato chunks.

Turn the heat to low, and let the tomatoes simmer, gently, for 20 minutes or so. After it's thickened a bit, add the beans along with about half of their liquid, bring to a boil, and let it simmer, again for 20 minutes or so. Give it a veritable cascade of fresh-ground pepper. Taste for seasoning. (I like my chili highly flavorful, but not spicy-hot—just spicy enough to tickle the back of my throat. Then I serve fiery condiments at the table.) After adding a little salt, I found that a dash of apple cider vinegar balanced the flavor.

Classic chili garnishes include chopped green onions (white and green parts) as well as grated cheese. I decided against cheese, on the grounds that the chili seemed rich enough, and I had no green onions on hand. Garlic chives from the garden did the trick.

Serve with cornbread, a green salad, and your favorite hot sauce. I used my beloved home-made salsa macha.

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Watch Jon Stewart Skewer Chris Christie's Absurd Endorsement of Cruel Pig Crates

| Tue Dec. 2, 2014 1:08 PM EST

Satriale's Pork Store aside, New Jersey isn't exactly a powerhouse of hog production. Iowa's (mostly factory-scale) hog farms hold more than a million breeding sows—pigs that exist to give birth to baby pigs, that in turn get funneled into enormous facilities to be transformed into bacon, ham, and chops. New Jersey? The state houses fewer than 1,000 breeding sows. So why did the state's famously pugnacious governor bother to veto a bill—overwhelmingly passed by the state legislature—that would ban the egregious practice of housing pregnant sows in crates so tight they can't turn around (a topic I've explored here and here). Jon Stewart has answers. Spoiler: Christie's absurd maneuver has to do with presidential ambition and a key early primary held in a certain hog-heavy state. 

The Looming Olive Oil Apocalypse

| Wed Nov. 26, 2014 4:02 PM EST

The world's most celebrated olive oil comes from sun-drenched groves of Italy. But Italy is also a hotbed of olive oil subterfuge, counterfeit, and adulteration—and has been since Roman times, as Tom Muellar showed in an eye-opening 2007 New Yorker piece (which grew into a book called Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil.)  Next year, getting real olive oil from Italy is going to be even harder than usual. Here's the LA Times' Russ Parsons:

As a result of what the Italian newspaper La Repubblica is calling “The Black Year of Italian Olive Oil,” the olive harvest through much of Italy has been devastated—down 35% from last year. 

The reason is a kind of perfect storm (so to speak) of rotten weather through the nation:

When the trees were turning flowers to fruit in the spring, freezing weather suddenly turned scorching, causing the trees to drop olives. Summer was hot and humid, leading to all sorts of problems. Then in mid-September, there was a major hail storm, knocking much of the fruit that remained onto the ground.

Other major olive oil-producing nations suffered similar calamities; Parsons reports that in Spain and Mediterranean neighbors, production is also "forecast to be far below last year's." And California, that big chunk of Mediterranean-like climate on our west coast, where excellent olive oil is produced? Parsons says the epochal drought is pinching production, and he quotes Muellar to the effect that "frankly, I hear about a lot of games being played there too, with labels and quality alike." Sigh.

I find all of this distressing. I came of age as a cook in an era of olive oil hegemony. I treat it like the oil that powers my car, as something to be relied on casually, as if it appeared by magic from nowhere. (Nearly all my Tom's Kitchen columns feature it.)

Once a staple of Mediterranean polyculture—farms and households would feature olive trees in mixed groves along with a multitude of other crops—olive oil production has long since industrialized. Here is The Ecologist from 2008:

Industrial olive farms grow their olive trees, planted at high densities, in massive irrigated orchards on lowland plains. The olives are harvested by machines that clamp around the tree’s trunk and shake it until the olives fall to the ground. Oil is then extracted by industrial-scale centrifuge, often at high temperatures. In contrast, small, traditional farms are often ancient, their trees typically planted on upland terraces. The farmers manage their groves with few or no agrochemicals, less water and less machinery. Olives are picked off the ground by hand and the oil extracted by grinding the olives in a millstone and press. Demand for cheap, mass-produced oil is making it a struggle for the smaller, traditional farms to be economically viable, however.


Intensive olive farming is a major cause of one of the biggest environmental problems affecting the EU: widespread soil erosion and desertification in Spain, Greece, Italy and Portugal. In 2001, the European Commission ordered an independent study into the environmental impact of olive farming across the EU. The report concluded: ‘Soil erosion is probably the most serious environmental problem associated with olive farming.

I fear that next year's olive oil crunch is a harbinger of things to come. I am officially in search of alternative cooking fats. One I've come to appreciate: lard from pasture-raised hogs. Lard's rotten nutritional reputation is the result of outdated and discredited science. And it makes food taste really good, too.

Tom's Kitchen: Gratin of Hearty Greens

| Wed Nov. 26, 2014 10:22 AM EST

I'm a greens fanatic: mustards, kale, collards, chard, you name it. I eat them in some form more or less every day, sometimes more than once. At this point, a meal—even (or especially) something as simple as a fried egg for breakfast—just seems naked, incomplete, without them. Their ubiquity in my daily life can make them seem unexciting for a special feast like Thanksgiving. Really, again, greens made like I always do them, sautéed with onion until tender and then finished with a lashing of vinegar? At the same time, there was no way I could imagine Thanksgiving without leafy greens—especially since they reach their peak of flavor in the fall.

So rather than forsake them or serve them the same old way, I decided to dress them up into something richer and more elegant: a gratin. To get ideas on how to pull it off, I dug into James Peterson's excellent 2002 tome Glorious French Food. Along with recipes for the three classic gratins—potatoes, leeks, and squash—it also includes advice on how to improvise one: merely pour cream and cheese over the desired vegetable, and bake in the oven until a "savory crust forms on top." That's when I knew that I not only had a winning side dish for the holiday table, but also something dead simple and yet tasty: perfect fodder for a Tom's Kitchen column.

Peterson advises that in most cases, vegetables should be cooked before the baking stage, "so that the moisture they contain is released during the precooking instead of remaining in the gratin, where it would dilute the surrounding sauce." So I started the dish in the same way I usually cook greens—which gave me the chance to work in onions and garlic—before finishing in the oven with cream and cheese. The result was magical—sweet, creamy, tender greens, mashed up with a snap of caramelized cheese. Note: there's also a vegan variation below.

Gratin of Hearty Greens

Enough extra-virgin olive or butter to generously cover the bottom of a large pan
3 medium onions, halved and sliced thin
3 bunches of hearty greens such as kale or collards (I used two kale, one collards)
4 cloves of garlic, smashed, peeled, and minced
Sea salt
1 pint heavy cream
4 ounces grated cheese, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano (which I used) or Gruyère
Plenty of freshly ground black pepper

Place a large heavy-bottom pot over low-medium heat, add the onions, and let them sauté, stirring occasionally, until they are very soft.

Meanwhile, prep the greens. Remove the stems that run down the center by holding the leaf in one left hand and slicing down each side of the stem with a knife. By the time you're done, you'll have two piles: one of stems and one of leaves. I apply a whole-beast ethos to vegetables, and consider greens stems to be highly flavorful. So bunch the stems in a pile and slice them finely, crosswise. Set aside. Now chop the greens and set them aside, too. The point of separating them is to give the stems a head start cooking, as they take a little longer.

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Now the onions should be soft. Add the chopped garlic and stir for a minute or so, until it has released its fragrance. Add the chopped stems and a pinch of salt, stir to mix them with the onions and garlic, and cover the pot. Let them cook for about five minutes, stirring occasionally. Now add the greens and another pinch of salt, using tongs to carefully mix in with the sautéed veggies in the pan. Add about a half cup of water (or stock) to the pan, and turn heat to high until the water begins to boil. When it does, turn heat down a little bit, and let the greens simmer, covered, stirring occasionally until they're nearly tender but still a little al dente. At that point, remove the lid and let them cook, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid in the pan has evaporated.

Turn off the heat, taste, and add a little salt if necessary. Arrange the cooked greens in a casserole dish large enough to comfortably fit them all. Pour the cream over. Sprinkle the cheese all over the top. Give it a vigorous lashing of black pepper. Bake until the top is well-browned (30-45  minutes). Serve hot. This dish can be made a day or two in advance and reheated in a 350 F oven just before serving. Better yet, cook the greens until they're tender and then store them in the fridge until the big day, when you bake them off with cream, cheese, etc.

Vegan variation: Replace the cream with coconut milk and replace the cheese with bread crumbs (or slivered almonds) .


Brazil's Dietary Guidelines Are So Much Better Than the USDA's

| Sat Nov. 22, 2014 12:00 AM EST
Say no to pyramid schemes.

As anyone who has read Marion Nestle's Food Politics or Michael Pollan's In Defense of Food knows, the US Department of Agriculture's attempts to issue dietary advice have always been haunted by industry influence and a reductionist vision of nutrition science. The department finally ditched its silly pyramids a few years ago, but its guidelines remain vague and arbitrary (for example, how does dairy merit inclusion as one of five food groups?).

In Brazil, a hotbed of sound progressive nutritional thinking, the Ministry of Health has proven that governmental dietary advice need not be delivered in timid, industry-palatable bureaucratese. Check out its plain-spoken, unimpeachable, and down-right industry-hostile new guidelines (hat tip Marion Nestle):

1.    Make natural or minimally processed foods the basis of your diet
2.    Use oils, fats, salt, and sugar in small amounts when seasoning and cooking natural or minimally processed foods and to create culinary preparations
3.    Limit consumption of processed foods
4.    Avoid consumption of ultra-processed products
5.    Eat regularly and carefully in appropriate environments and, whenever possible, in company
6.    Shop in places that offer a variety of natural or minimally processed foods
7.    Develop, exercise and share culinary skills
8.    Plan your time to make food and eating important in your life
9.    Out of home, prefer places that serve freshly made meals
10.   Be wary of food advertising and marketing

Meanwhile, over on Civil Eats, the dissident nutritionist Andy Bellatti places Brazil's new approach on a fascinating list of five food-policy ideas the US could learn from Latin American nations.


Is Dianne Feinstein Crafting a Secret Water Deal to Help Big Pistachio? UPDATED

| Thu Nov. 20, 2014 6:00 AM EST

UPDATE: Sen. Dianne Feinstein has called off her backroom negotiations to push a California water bill through the current, lame-duck Congressional session, The Fresno Bee reported late Thursday afternoon. But she's not finished trying to make a deal with Big Ag-aligned GOP reps. She vowed to "put together a first-day bill for the next Congress, and it can go through the regular order,” the Bee reported. 

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) is negotiating a behind-closed-doors deal with Republican lawmakers to pass a bill that would ostensibly address California's drought—an effort that has uncorked a flood of criticism from environmental circles.

Feinstein's quiet push for a compromise drought bill that's palatable to Big Ag-aligned House Republicans has been in the works for six months, Kate Poole, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me. And it has accelerated recently, as the Senator hopes to pass it by year end, during the "lame duck" period of the outgoing Democratic-controlled Senate.

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Will This New GMO Potato Take Off? McDonald's Has Spoken

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 3:28 PM EST
Which spud's for you? The Innate, left, is engineered not to turn brown soon after cutting.

Would you be excited to pluck a bag of precut, gleaming-white potato slices from supermarket produce bin—fresh not frozen, and ready to throw in the pan or the FryDaddy?

Your answer may decide the fate of the "Innate" potato, which has been genetically engineered to resist browning and to contain less of the amino acid that turns into acrylamide—a probably human carcinogen—when potatoes are fried at high temperatures. Developed by the agribusiness giant J.R. Simplot, a major player in the $3.7 billion American potato market, the product won approval last week from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). The reason you can currently only buy frozen precut potatoes is that they turn brown quickly. The Innate solves this, uh, problem.

To understand why the success of the new potato will hinge on your desire for convenience, a little background is in order: Simplot is one of the three massive companies (alongside ConAgra and McCain Foods) that buy potatoes from farmers, process them into French fries—as well as tater tots, spiral fries, and wedges—freeze them, and distribute them to companies ranging from fast-food giants to supermarket chains.

Obama and the GOP Congress Unite to Push US Meat Overseas

| Fri Nov. 14, 2014 6:00 AM EST

The US meat industry has a problem: American consumers have been eating less flesh. The solution is straightforward: find meat-ravenous people overseas. The opening of the China market to US-grown pork and poultry has helped stabilize the industry through a rough decade of waning domestic demand and elevated feed prices.

But now the meat giants want more. As a new report by Ben Lilliston of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy shows, the industry is licking its chops at the prospect of a massive trade proposal called the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would dramatically lower trade barriers among a group of nations that includes the US, Canada, Chile, Peru, and Mexico on this side of the Pacific, and Australia, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Vietnam on the other. " The TPP would establish a free-trade bloc stretching from Vietnam to Chile and Japan, encompassing about 800 million people and almost 40 percent of the global economy," Reuters reports.

"Wild-Caught," Eh? 30 Percent of Shrimp Labels Are False

| Thu Oct. 30, 2014 9:44 AM EDT

Shrimp is America's favorite seafood—we eat more of it than any other kind, by a wide margin. And the tasty crustacean still (more or less) thrives near our ample shores—from the Pacific Northwest to the Gulf to the Carolinas. That's why it's deeply weird that 90 percent of the shrimp we eat comes from often-fetid farms in Southeast Asia, which tend to snuff out productive mangrove ecosystems and have a sketchy labor record. But it gets worse. Even when we do try to choose wild-caught US shrimp, we're often fooled. That's the message of a new report by the ocean-conservation group Oceana.

In New York City, 43 percent of the wild shrimp samples proved to be misleadingly labeled.

The researchers sampled 143 shrimp products from 111 grocery stores and restaurants in Portland, Ore., New York City, Washington D.C., and along the Gulf of Mexico, and subjected them to DNA testing. Result: 30 percent of them were misrepresented on labels.

They found the most deception in New York City, where 43 percent of the samples from supermarkets and restaurants proved to be misleadingly labeled. Of those, more than half were "farmed whiteleg shrimp disguised as wild-caught shrimp." Oof. D.C. shrimp eaters have also have cause for doubt about what's being served them: Supermarkets there showed better than in ones in New York, but nearly half of shrimp samples from D.C. restaurants turned up mislabeled.

Even in the Gulf, still the site of a robust shrimp fishery despite the occasional cataclysmic oil spill and vast annual dead zones from agricultural runoff, the researchers found that "over one-third of the products labeled as 'Gulf' shrimp were farmed." On the other hand, "nearly two-thirds of the samples simply labeled as 'shrimp' were actually wild-caught Gulf shrimp," the report states, "possibly a missed marketing opportunity for promoting domestically caught seafood."

Only Portlandia emerged virtually unscathed from Oceana's scrutiny: Just one sample in 20 turned out to be mislabeled—a dish presented as “wild Pacific shrimp” turned out to be farmed.

Beyond rank mislabeling, the report also reveals that consumers indulge their shrimp habit from within a generalized information void. "The majority of restaurant menus surveyed did not provide the diner with any information on the type of shrimp, whether it was farmed/wild or its origin," Oceana found. As for supermarkets, "30 percent of the shrimp products surveyed in grocery stores lacked information on country-of-origin, 29 percent lacked farmed/wild information and one in five did not provide either.

This overriding lack of transparency does more than lull us into accepting an inferior product. As Paul Greenberg argues in his brilliant 2014 book American Catch, it also makes our coastal areas—home to 40 percent of the US population—vulnerable to climate change.

That's because treating treasures like the Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery as an afterthought allows us to disregard the ecosystems that make them possible: the region's wetlands, which are vanishing at the rate of one football field-sized chunk per hour, largely under pressure from the oil industry. These coastal landscapes don't just provide nurseries for shrimp and other seafood; they also provide critical buffers against the increasingly violent storms and rising sea levels promised (and already being triggered) by a changing climate. Greenberg argues that a revival of interest in US-caught shrimp could rally support for wetland restoration, "conjoining of the interests of seafood and the interests of humans."

These Maps of California's Water Shortage Are Terrifying

| Thu Oct. 30, 2014 5:00 AM EDT

Just how bad is California's water shortage? Really, really bad, according to these new maps, which represent groundwater withdrawals in California during the first three years of the state's ongoing and epochal drought:

Images by J.T. Reager, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, from "The Global Groundwater Crisis," Nature Climate Change, November 2014, by James S. Famiglietti

The maps come from a new paper in Nature Climate Change by NASA water scientist James Famiglietti. "California's Sacramento and San Joaquin river basins have lost roughly 15 cubic kilometers of total water per year since 2011," he writes. That's "more water than all 38 million Californians use for domestic and municipal supplies annually—over half of which is due to groundwater pumping in the Central Valley."

Famiglietti uses satellite data to measure how much water people are sucking out of the globe's aquifers, and summarized his research in his new paper.

More than 2 billion people rely on water pumped from aquifers as their primary water source, Famiglietti writes. Known as groundwater (as opposed to surface water, the stuff that settles in lakes and flows in streams and rivers), it's also the source of at least half the irrigation water we rely on to grow our food. When drought hits, of course, farmers rely on groundwater even more, because less rain and snow means less water flowing above ground.

The lesson Famiglietti draws from satellite data is chilling: "Groundwater is being pumped at far greater rates than it can be naturally replenished, so that many of the largest aquifers on most continents are being mined, their precious contents never to be returned."

The Central Valley boasts some of the globe's fastest-depleting aquifers—but by no means the fastest overall. Indeed, it has a rival here in the United States. The below graphic represents depletion rates at some of the globe's largest aquifers, nearly all of which Famiglietti notes, "underlie the world's great agricultural regions and are primarily responsible for their high productivity."

The navy-blue line represents the Ogallala aquifer—a magnificent water resource now being sucked dry to grow corn in the US high plains. Note that it has quietly dropped nearly as much as the Central Valley's aquifers (yellow line) over the past decade. The plunging light-blue line represents the falling water table in Punjab, India's breadbasket and the main site of that irrigation-intensive agricultural "miracle" known as the Green Revolution, which industrialized the region's farm fields starting in the 1960s. The light-green line represents China's key growing region, the north plain. Its relatively gentle fall may look comforting, but the water table there has been dropping steadily for years.

All of this is happening with very little forethought or regulation. Unlike underground oil, underground water draws very little research on how much is actually there. We know we're siphoning it away faster than it can be replaced, but we have little idea of how long we can keep doing so, Famiglietti writes. He adds, though, that if current trends hold, "groundwater supplies in some major aquifers will be depleted in a matter of decades." As for regulation, it's minimal across the globe. In most places, he writes, there's a "veritable groundwater 'free for all': property owners who can afford to drill wells generally have unlimited access to groundwater."

And the more we pump, the worse things get. As water tables drop, wells have to go deeper into the earth, increasing pumping costs. What's left tends to be high in salts, which inhibit crop yields and can eventually cause soil to lose productivity altogether. Eventually, "inequity issues arise because only the relatively wealthy can bear the expense of digging deeper wells, paying greater energy costs to pump groundwater from increased depths and treating the lower-quality water that is often found deeper within aquifers," Famiglietti writes—a situation already playing out in California's Central Valley, where some low-income residents have seen their wells go dry. In a reporting trip to the southern part of the Central Valley this past summer, I saw salt-caked groves with wan, suffering almond trees—the result of irrigation with salty water pumped from deep in the aquifer.

All of this is taking place in a scenario of rapid climate change and steady population growth—so we can expect steeper droughts and more demand for water. Famiglietti's piece ends with a set of recommendations for bringing the situation under control: Essentially, let's carefully measure the globe's groundwater and treat it like a precious resource, not a delicious milkshake to casually suck down to the dregs. In the meantime, Famiglietti warns, "further declines in groundwater availability may well trigger more civil uprising and international violent conflict in the already water-stressed regions of the world, and new conflict in others."