Tom Philpott

Tom's Kitchen: Latkes for Hanukkah

| Mon Dec. 15, 2014 1:31 PM EST

I'm a lapsed Catholic and confirmed anti-cleric, but that doesn't stop me from savoring religious culinary traditions. Judaism brims with them—and now, with Hanukkah upon us, it's time to think about one of that holiday's signature dishes: latkes.

Latkes to me are the ultimate potato pancake: hash browns goosed up with onions and an egg. They couldn't be simpler: You just grate potatoes and drain as much water as possible out of them, mix them with chopped onion and a beaten egg, and fry them on a hot skillet. From Cook's Illustrated—a journal upon which I confer near-Talmudic authority—I picked up an interesting tweak. If you let the potato water drain into a bowl, a clingy layer of pure potato starch will develop at the bottom—just pour off the water and it will be revealed. You'll want to beat the egg in that bowl and incorporate the starch—it gives the finished latkes a more robust texture.

Latkes
(About 10 pancakes)

 

3 medium potatoes, grated
1 small onion, minced fine
1-2 spring onion or scalion, white part and green part minced fine
1 egg
1 teaspoon of salt
Plenty of freshly ground black pepper
Oil that can withstand high heat with smoking, such as peanut or grapeseed

Place the grated potatoes in a fine-mesh strainer over a bowl. Press them with your fist or a wooden spoon to force as much water as possible out of them. Let the potato water sit in the bowl for a few minutes, and then pour it off. Marvel at the layer of starch that's left over. Crack the egg into the bowl and whisk it with a fork, making sure to incorporate that starch. Add everything else (except the cooking oil) and stir to incorporate with a wooden spoon.

Find your largest heavy-bottomed skillet  (preferably cast iron) and heat it over medium-high heat. Add enough oil to quite generously cover the bottom of the skillet. When the oil shimmers, grab a smallish (about a quarter cup) handful of the potato mixture and give it a squeeze to release any lingering liquid. Carefully place it on the hot skillet, and then gently press it down with a metal spatula. Repeat until the skillet is full, allowing a bit of space between each latke. Flip them as they turn golden brown, and cook until brown on both sides. When they're done, allow them to drain on a wire rack over a cookie sheet. Repeat until you're got no more batter.

They can be served just off the skillet, or reheated later in a medium-hot oven. Enjoy with apple sauce and sour cream. Happy Hanukkah!

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This Glimpse Into Mexican Fruit and Vegetable Farms Is Heartbreaking

| Mon Dec. 15, 2014 1:19 PM EST

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The ongoing LA Times investigation of conditions on the Mexican farms that grow much of our produce (latest installment here) got me digging around for more information. That's how I how I found the above short documentary, Paying the Price: Migrant Workers in the Toxic Fields of Sinaloa, by the Mexico-based Tlachinollan Human Rights Center, a MacArthur-funded group that "defends the rights of the indigenous and poor people living in the mountain and Costa Chica regions of Guerrero, Mexico."

Paying the Price traces the movements of a group of workers from a tiny village called Ayotzinapa, in the southern state of Guerrero, north to a large produce farm in the ag-heavy state of Sinaloa, which churns out huge amounts of food for export to the US. (Ayotzinapa recently gained infamy after 43 students from a rural teachers college based there were kidnapped and probably massacred, under circumstances that are shaking the foundations of the Mexican state.)

The film—about 36 minutes long, subtitled in English—is extraordinary, because it includes in-depth interviews from a variety of players on a big farm that grows vegetables for the US and Canadian markets: everyone from the farm owner to several workers to the labor contractors that bring them together. The farm owner claims the workers get a good a good deal; the workers complain bitterly of pay so low that they leave the several-month stint of hard labor with little to show. Two highlights:

• Starting about at the 18-minute mark, there's a detailed and sensitive exploration of child labor. The LA Times piece reported that child labor has been "largely eradicated" at the mega-farms that directly supply huge US retailers like Walmart, but that it's still common on mid-sized farms, some of whose produce "makes its way to the US through middlemen." That's the case with the operation depicted in this video. The farm owner basically throws his hands up on the topic, claiming that the workers insist on having their children toil in the fields. By the end of the section, though, you realize that people wouldn't choose to commit their children to hours of hard labor if they weren't living in poverty and desperately trying to earn enough to survive.

• Starting about 25:50, there's a chilling section on pesticide use. We see crop dusters roaring over fields amid chemical clouds; men whose faces are covered in in little more than rags operating backpack sprayers; women complaining that nearly all the children in the camps are sick, some of it possibly linked linked to pesticide exposure, and that medical services are woefully inadequate; and worker advocates claiming that regulation of pesticide use is weak and enforcement nearly nonexistent.

In all, Paying the Price is essential viewing for anyone who wants to know what life is like for the people who grow our food.

The Horrifying Reason Why Your Fruit Is Unblemished

| Wed Dec. 10, 2014 6:00 AM EST

Back in 2010, I visited a labor camp that houses some of the migrant workers who grow America's fruit and vegetables. I found people living densely in shantylike structures made of scrap metal and cinder block, surrounded by vast fields and long rows of greenhouses. Strangers in a strange land who didn't speak the language, hundreds of miles from home, they lived at the mercy of labor contractors who, they claimed, made false promises and paid rock-bottom wages. Like all Big Ag-dominated areas, the place had a feeling of desolation: all monocropped fields, mostly devoid of people, and lots of billboards hawking the products of agrichemical giants Monsanto and Syngenta.

Laborers are required to use hand sanitizer and keep their nails trimmed so that they don't damage the fruit.

You might think I had made my way to Florida's infamous tomato fields, or somewhere in the depths of the California's migrant-dependent Central Valley. Those places remain obscure to most Americans, but the gross human exploitation they represent has at least been documented in a spate of excellent recent books, like Barry Estabrook's Tomatoland, Tracy McMillan's The American Way of Eating, and Seth Holmes Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies. But I was somewhere yet more remote and less well-known: Sinaloa, a largely rural state in Mexico's northwestern hinterland.

If most Americans have heard of Sinaloa at all, it's because of the state's well-earned reputation as a center of Mexico's bloody drug trade. But in addition to the eponymous drug cartel, Sinaloa also houses vast-scale, export-oriented agriculture: farms that churn out the tomatoes, melons, peppers, and other fresh produce that help fill US supermarket shelves. And the people who do the planting, tending, and harvesting tend to be from the indigenous regions of Mexico's southern states, Oaxaca and Chiapas, where smallholder farming has been ground down by decades of free-trade policies pursued by the Mexican government, which left millions in search of gainful work to the north.

In my brief time there, I found Sinaloa overwhelming: a scary cauldron of labor exploitation, industrial agriculture, and drug violence. Now, Los Angeles Times reporter Richard Marosi and photographer Don Bartletti have documented the grim conditions faced by workers on Mexico's export-focused megafarms in a long-form investigation, after 18 months of reporting in nine Mexican states, including, most prominently, Sinaloa. The Times plans to publish it in four parts; the first, here, is stunning.

Marosi found that Mexico's megafarms adhere to the strictest standards when it comes to food safety and cleanliness, driven by the demands of big US buyers. "In immaculate greenhouses, laborers are ordered to use hand sanitizers and schooled in how to pamper the produce," Marosi writes. "They're required to keep their fingernails carefully trimmed so the fruit will arrive unblemished in US supermarkets."

While the produce is coddled, the workers face a different reality. Pay languishes at the equivalent of $8 to $12 a day. Marosi summarizes conditions that often approach slavery:

  • Many farm laborers are essentially trapped for months at a time in rat-infested camps, often without beds and sometimes without functioning toilets or a reliable water supply.
  • Some camp bosses illegally withhold wages to prevent workers from leaving during peak harvest periods.
  • Laborers often go deep in debt paying inflated prices for necessities at company stores. Some are reduced to scavenging for food when their credit is cut off. It's common for laborers to head home penniless at the end of a harvest.
  • Those who seek to escape their debts and miserable living conditions have to contend with guards, barbed-wire fences, and sometimes threats of violence from camp supervisors.
  • Major US companies have done little to enforce social responsibility guidelines that call for basic worker protections such as clean housing and fair pay practices.

The piece includes excellent photography and is chockfull of stories straight from the mouths of farmworkers. And it shines a bright light on a hugely important source of our food. The US now imports nearly a third of the fruit and vegetables we consume, and Mexico accounts for 36 percent of that foreign-grown cornucopia, far more than any other country. And we're only growing more reliant on our southern neighbor—imports of Mexico-grown fresh produce have increased by an average of 11 percent per year between 2001 and 2011, the USDA reports, and now amount to around $8 billion. The Times investigations demonstrates, with an accumulation of detail that can't be denied or ignored, that our easy bounty bobs on a sea of misery and exploitation.

Watch What It's Like to Be a Factory-Farmed Chicken (UPDATED)

| Thu Dec. 4, 2014 4:00 AM EST

UPDATE: North Carolina farmer Craig Watts heard from the Perdue, the gigantic chicken processor for whom he grows his birds under contract, just hours after the below video early Thursday morning release, reports the veteran agribusiness journalist Chris Leonard. And Perdue isn't pleased—on Thursday, "Perdue employees arrived at Watts’ farm and informed him that he was the subject on an internal animal welfare audit," Leonard writes.  "If he [Watts] fails the audit, the company could cancel his contract and effectively put him out of business." The company confirmed the move, pointing the finger at Watts for the rough conditions of the birds in the video, Leonard reports. He adds: "Farmers like Watts have little freedom in choosing how to raise their chickens, and they have no control over the kind of bird that is delivered to their farm." His whole piece is worth reading.

The US meat industry maintains a strict code of secrecy over what goes on within the vast facilities where animals are fattened for slaughter, as Ted Genoways showed in a Mother Jones feature last year (which he expanded into an excellent full-length book). So the glimpses we get of these fecal-laden dungeons tend to be in the form of grainy videos, shot by undercover animal-welfare activists posing as workers—for example, the very recent, and quite gruesome, footage from inside a Seaboard Farms hog facility that supplies Walmart, captured by Mercy For Animals.

The above video is a different breed. In this one, Leah Garces, US director of Compassion in World Farming, got North Carolina farmer Craig Watts, who raises chickens on contract for poultry giant Perdue, to allow her to walk around freely, with a film crew, while he describes the scene. There's nothing shadowy about it—just a farmer talking openly about the conditions under which he's required by contract to raise chickens, over clear footage. Watts is clearly a dissident cog in the Big Ag machine. Most contract farmers walk the omertà line, for fear that the big meat packers they rely on will cut them off, leaving them holding massive debt they can't pay—a story Chris Leonard laid out in great detail in the recent book The Meat Racket. Watts, though, is speaking freely. He was a major source in a recent Reuters exposé of antibiotic use on poultry farms. It will be interesting to see how Big Meat handles this rare blast of sunshine.

How Monsanto's Big Data Push Hurts Small Farms

| Wed Dec. 3, 2014 6:00 AM EST

Ask an agribusiness exec about sustainable agriculture, and you'll likely get an earful about something called "precision agriculture." What is it? According to Yara, the fertilizer giant, it's technology that "enables farmers to add the specific nutrients needed for their crop, in exactly the right amount, at the right time."

That is to say, instead of using intuition and experience to decide how much fertilizer or pesticides to apply, farmers rely on sensors, satellite data, and the Internet of Things to make such choices. In addition to selling farmers agrichemicals, Yara also sells a "knowledge platform, supported by tools for precision farming," including "an online service providing advice on the physical mixing characteristics of Yara's foliar products with agrochemicals."

Yara isn't the only industry titan to move into the information-peddling business. Genetically modified seed/pesticide giant Monsanto envisions itself transforming into an information-technology company within a decade, as a company honcho recently told my colleague Tim McDonnell. A year ago, Monsanto dropped nearly $1 billion on Climate Corp., which "turns a wide range of information into valuable insights and recommendations for farmers," as Monsanto put it at the time.

But will Big Ag's turn to Big Data deliver on the environmental promises made in the press releases and executive interviews? McDonnell lays out the environmental case succinctly:

The payoff for growers can be huge: Monsanto estimates that farmers typically make 40 key choices in the course of a growing season—what seed to plant, when to plant it, and so on. For each decision, there's an opportunity to save money on "inputs": water, fuel, seeds, custom chemical treatments, etc. Those savings can come with a parallel environmental benefit (less pollution from fertilizer and insecticides).

These are real gains. No one who has seen fertilizer-fed algae blooms in Lake Erie—or had their municipal tap water declared toxic because of them—can deny that the Midwest's massive corn farms need to use fertilizer more efficiently. Des Moines, Iowa, surrounded by millions of acres of intensively fertilized farmland, routinely has to spend taxpayer cash to filter its municipal drinking water of nitrates from farm runoff. Nitrates are linked with cancer and "blue-baby syndrome," which can suffocate infants.

But as Quentin Hardy suggested in a recent New York Times piece, Big Data on the farm can also steamroll an extremely effective conservation practice: crop diversification, which can slash the need for fertilizer and herbicide, as a landmark 2012 Iowa State University study showed. Big Data, Hardy argued, gives farms incentive to both get bigger and plant fewer varieties of crops.

His argument is twofold. First, the precision ag tools being peddled by the agribusiness giants are quite pricey:

Equipment makers like John Deere and AGCO, for example, have covered their planters, tractors and harvesters with sensors, computers and communications equipment. A combine equipped to harvest a few crops cost perhaps $65,000 in 2000; now it goes for as much as $500,000 because of the added information technology.

When a farmer invests that much in a technology, there's an "incentive to grow single crops to maximize the effectiveness of technology by growing them at the largest possible scale," Hardy writes. "Farmers with diverse crops and livestock would need many different systems," and that would require yet more investment in information technology.

Hardy finds evidence that the shift to information technology is already accelerating a decades-long trend of ever-larger Midwestern farms focusing more and more on churning out just two crops: corn and soy. "It's not that smaller farms are less productive, but the big ones can afford these technology investments," a US Department of Agriculture economist tells him.

One farmer Hardy talked to owns a family farm in Iowa that grew from 700 acres in the 1970s to 20,000 acres today. "We've got sensors on the combine, GPS data from satellites, cellular modems on self-driving tractors, apps for irrigation on iPhones," the farmer tells Hardy. 

The recent plunge in corn and soy prices might only exacerbate the trend. All that gear and information allows the farm to operate at a high level of efficiency and at a vast scale, making it more likely to eke out a profit than smaller operations in a time of lowball crop prices. As a result, over the next few years of expected low crop prices, the farmer with 20,000 acres in Iowa expects his farm to expand at the expense of "farmers who don’t embrace technology," he tells Hardy.

But economies of scale and efficiency don't automatically translate to less use of toxic chemicals and pollution. Big Data may help monocrop farmers use less fertilizer and pesticides per acre harvested than they had been before, but if they drive out more diversified and less chemical-intensive operations, the result might not be as clear-cut as the agribusiness companies suggest.

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.