Tom Philpott

Tom's Kitchen: Halibut With Garlic and Bay Leaves

| Wed May 16, 2012 5:59 AM EDT

Tom's Kitchen has evolved into a kind of rough diary of my culinary life, reflecting what I'm up to and where I am. So when I'm cooking for the Maverick Farms crew in North Carolina, it typically features food that can easily be served up for a crowd. When I'm in Austin helping out my mother, as I am now, fast dishes for two. Currently, I'm reading through the UK chef Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's excellent new River Cottage Fish Book (written with Nick Fisher) for a review, so I'm playing around with something I don't normally cook much of from my inland perches: fresh fish.

Not that I have anything against fish. In fact, I adore it. It's just that I usually try to stick to what the surrounding foodshed has to offer, and there just isn't much oceanfront in the depths of North Carolina's western mountains or the central Texas scrublands. When I do use fish, I typically turn to canned sardines, which need no refrigeration and can be stacked efficiently, and thus have a tiny carbon footprint compared to fresh fish.

But to dig into a cookbook for a review—especially one as devoted to conscientious eating as all of Fearnley-Whittingstall's are—I'm willing seek out some good fish from far-flung places. In the spirit of Tom's Kitchen—and because I prepared this column ahead of two weeks of travel—I combed River Cottage Fish for the simplest, most straightforward recipe I could find. I settled upon one for mackerel filets sautéed with garlic and bay leaves. Fearnley-Whittingstall is pretty obsessed with mackerel, and I've become fond of it, too, over the years for the same reasons: It's not overfished, it has a wonderful rich flavor, and it has beautiful oily flesh packed with omega-3 fats.

The Whole Foods seafood counter brandished gorgeous whole Spanish mackerels, and Fearnley-Whittingstall would have been the perfect guide to breaking them down into filets, as one of the major themes of the book is working with whole fish. But I was strapped for time and didn't have the crowd of people to cook for that a whole mackerel would have required, so I picked up a couple of Alaskan halibut filets and applied Fearnley-Whittingstall's mackerel recipe to them. (Alaskan halibut draws a "best choice" rating from Monterey Bay Aquarium's "Seafood Watch" program.)

The recipe is so minimalist that each of its few ingredients shines through. Luckily, in central Texas, the farmers markets are full of fresh, uncured garlic—my favorite time of all for the pungent allium, because now is when it delivers a pure, powerful flavor.

I served it over that Tom's Kitchen staple, sautéed kale. A grain like rice or quinoa would go nice alongside.

Halibut Filets With Garlic and Bay
(Adapted from The River Cottage Fish Book)
Serves two.

Olive oil
2 halibut (or mackerel) filets
3 cloves of garlic, peeled and sliced thin
4-5 bay leaves
Sea salt
Black pepper
2 slices of lemon
Optional garnish: My homemade version of salsa macha, a puree of chili peppers and olive oil that I have become addicted to.

Heat a heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat, and give it a slick of olive oil. Tamp the filets dry with a towel, and season them generously with salt and pepper on the skinless side. When the oil is hot, lay in the garlic slices and bay leaves and give them a couple of stirs with a spatula to flavor the oil. Add the filets to the pan, skin-side down, right over the garlic and bay. Let them cook there for a few minutes, until the flesh near the bottom of the pan begins to turn white. Flip them, letting them cook another minute or two. (There is no need to fuss over the garlic and bay—as it sizzle with the fish, it will impart flavor to it.) When a sharp paring knife easily pierces the flesh, the filets are done.

Lay the filets on serving plates skin-side down (discarding the garlic and bay, which will have begun to burn). Squeeze a slice of lemon over each filet, and spoon a bit of salsa macha (if you are using) over each one as well. Serve.

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VIDEO: Syngenta Has an Orwellian Herbicide Ad, Too

| Fri May 11, 2012 3:01 AM EDT

It's all the rage these days for gigantic agrichemical companies to release creepy videos touting the benefits of dodgy products languishing under the regulatory microscope.

Yesterday, I posted Dow Agrosciences' video on the wonders of its new genetically modified corn product, currently under review by the USDA for deregulation, that would have farmers dousing fields with a cocktail of herbicides.

And today, I point you to this even more elaborate and Orwellian one from Syngenta on its lucrative herbicide atrazine, currently under review by the EPA for its presence in drinking water. The video portrays atrazine as the best thing for water since the advent of the rain cloud. Just in case you miss the video's point, Syngenta has made it easy for you with the title: "Saving the Oasis: Atrazine Saves Soil & Water."

VIDEO: Dow's Orwellian New Herbicide Ad

| Thu May 10, 2012 3:25 PM EDT
In Dow's new promotional video, a farmer contemplates the specter of 2,4-D/Roundup cocktails raining down on his corn.

Monsanto's Roundup Ready weed-killing technology, which has conquered corn, soy, and cotton country, stands at the brink of failure, choked by a spreading thicket of Roundup-resistant weeds. But industrial-scale farmers should have no fear, for Dow Agrosciences has hatched a product that will set all of that right. Dow's novel corn product Enlist, engineered to resist not only Roundup but also another herbicide called 2,4-D, will make fast work of those "superweeds" and restore order to the farm belt.

I know that's true, because I just watch this Dow-produced video:

That's the pitch, anyway, for the product, which is currently under review by the USDA for approval. But as I reported a while back, Dow's new technology will likely be much better at selling herbicides and pricey new seeds than it will be at solving the superweed problem. Indeed, it will ultimately probably accelerate the superweed problem. It's based on the premise that the problems caused by genetically modified industrial agriculture can only be solved by an intensifying genetically modified industrial agriculture.

Like many a marketing pitch before it, the one in the video topples under examination like a weed under a mist of 2,4-D—a nasty chemical that once made up the (less toxic) half of the infamous Vietnam-era defoliant Agent Orange.

Here's why. Roundup-resistant weeds developed because for years farmers doused millions of acres each year with the same herbicide. Dow proposes that by planting corn that can resist  a second herbicide, and then raining down a cocktail consisting of both herbcides, farmers can kill all their weeds in one go, and never have to worry about resistance. They insist that since the two herbicices have different "modes of action"—that is, they kill plants in radically different ways—it's extremely unlikely that weeds will develop resistance to a mix of the two.

How Your College Is Selling Out to Big Ag

| Wed May 9, 2012 3:01 AM EDT

Last week, the University of Illinois' College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) in Champaign-Urbana made a momentous announcement: it has accepted a $250,000 grant from genetically modified seed/agrichemical giant Monsanto to create an endowed chair for the "Agricultural Communications Program" it runs with the College of Communications.

The university's press release quotes Monsanto's vice president of technology communications giving a taste of its vision for the investment:

With the population expecting to reach 9 billion by 2030, farmers from Illinois and beyond will be asked to produce more crops while using fewer resources. At Monsanto we are committed to bringing farmers advanced ag technologies to help them meet this challenge. Effectively communicating farmers’ efforts to feed, clothe and fuel a rapidly growing population is a major part of the solution.

A cynic might translate that statement this way: In order to maintain our highly profitable and hotly contested business model, we'll need a new generation of PR professionals to construct and disseminate our marketing message.

Tom's Kitchen: Making a Hash of Breakfast

| Wed May 9, 2012 3:01 AM EDT
I made a hash of it—and it was really good.

I've been spending time in Austin this spring for family reasons. On a recent Saturday, I visited the remarkable Downtown Farmers' Market. I got there late, past noon, and almost all of the vendors had mostly sold out and begun packing up. One stand still had a look resembling bounty, despite the late hour and the blistering heat: Johnson's Backyard Garden.

I later learned from a friend that Johnson's still had produce not because of any lack of popularity, but because in addition to its original backyard garden, it has since 2006 been organically farming a 20-acre plot of land within Austin city limits—which produces enough volume to keep the bins replenished all day. (Remarkably, Johnson's is one of at least three highly productive farms within Austin, a group which includes the pioneering Boggy Creek Farm and Springdale Farm.)

Is "Meat Glue" As Gross As It Sounds?

| Mon May 7, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Three strips of beef that have been bound together with "meat glue" and rolled into a log, in preparation for being sliced into steak-like pieces.

Update (Friday, June 8): Tom Philpott joined Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air to discuss "meat glue", "pink slime", and other issues affecting the meat industry. Listen to the interview here.

Broadcast news and social-media sites have been aflame with reports about something called "meat glue."

"If you were disturbed to hear about 'pink slime' in your burger, you'll want to know about 'meat glue,' because a fat, rare-cooked filet mignon may not be what it seems," ABC News' Bay Area affiliate gasped last week.

First reaction: Ooh, gross. Reaction upon a bit of reflection: Meat glue, an enzyme known as transglutaminase, is indeed a trick up the meat industry's sleeve, but a relatively minor one in the grand scheme.

A couple of weeks ago, I named four common industry practices that are "grosser than pink slime." (Pink slime itself is pretty gross.) Here's a fifth: Every year, dairy and beef cows are fed around 2 billion pounds of chicken litter—chicken shit, dead chickens, and leftover feeds, which contains cow protein. Cows being fed chicken shit is deeply gross; cows eating cow protein is downright scary.

But using transglutaminase to glue pieces of meat together? It can be a dodgy practice, but it doesn't make the cut.

Transglutaminase is an enzyme, naturally found in blood, that can bind proteins together. Food scientists figured out how to synthesize it from bacteria, and a Japanese company called Ajinomoto markets it in the United States under the brand name Activa.

As far as I can tell, there are no health problems associated with consuming transglutaminase itself. Environmental Working Group's "Skin Deep" cosmetics database lists it as an ingredient in six hair-care products and categorizes it as a "low hazard" substance.

The dodgy part lies in how the meat industry can put it to use. Meat purveyors can use it to bind together disparate scraps of meat that can be sliced into cuts that look shockingly like whole steaks—thus passing off cheap scraps as pricey cuts. The Ajinomoto site has an image, captioned "Sample Beef Application," that illustrates how four thin strands of beef can be bound together into a piece resembling a fat beef tenderloin, which can then be sliced into cuts that look a whole lot like pristine filet mignons.It's what's for dinner: "Sample Beef Application": Ajinomoto Food Ingredients LLCIt's what's for dinner: "Sample Beef Application." Ajinomoto Food Ingredients LLC

Beyond deception, there's a food safety angle here, too. I've written a lot about how US meat is routinely tainted with pathogens, often strains that are resistant to antibiotics. These bacteria appear only on the surface of meat; so when you sear a real steak on both sides, you're also killing those bacteria, even if the meat inside is cooked rare. (Ground meat, of course, is different—since surface area gets ground into the final product, you have to cook it all the way through to ensure that you're not risking illness.)

But in a "steak" made up of several pieces bound by meat glue, surface meat (and any pathogens like salmonella clinging to it) ends up inside the final cut—so searing on both sides won't do the trick. A rare real steak can be a pleasure to eat; rare meat-glued "steak" presents a potential health hazard.

Happily, the USDA's meat inspection service decreed in 2001 that cuts that have been cobbled together with transglutaminase have to add a label indicating "that it has been formed from pieces of whole muscle meat, or that it has been reformed from a single cut." Such a labeling requirement, while important, doesn't warn consumers that the cuts should be cooked all the way through, though.

And anyway, such labels only inform consumers when they're shopping at the supermarket. But according to ABC News' reporting, consumers are more likely to encounter transglutaminase-bound cuts when eating outside the home.

Pinning down who is using transglutaminase isn't easy. One meat company owner told KGO-TV that gluing meat is common practice, and the most glued product by far is filet mignon destined for the food service industry. An industry trade group also said meat glue is most often used where filet mignon is served in bulk—at a restaurant, banquet, cafeteria or hotel.

God forbid, if I ever find myself at some cursed banquet where they're serving "filet mignon," I'll eat around the entree—whether or not it's cooked to the leather stage to kill pathogens. But honestly, I'll probably be thinking more about the cow's awful life and deplorable diet than I am about the meat glue.

Now, the other way consumers might find themselves eating glued meat is at a very different kind of meal: at a high-end restaurant run by a creative chef. The standard bearer for such chefs in the United States, Wylie Dufresne of Manhattan's WD-50, loves the stuff. According to Meat Paper, he has "concocted all manner of playful and bizarre food products with meat glue, including shrimp spaghetti, which he made by mixing salt, cayenne, deveined shrimp, and meat glue in a blender."

Would I eat Dufresne's famous "shrimp spaghetti" if confronted with a plate of it?

Honestly, yes. I trust chefs on Dufresne's level to use top-quality raw materials and cook them properly—even if I can rarely afford to eat their food. I guess, in the end, it's not the glue itself I find particularly gross; it's when it's used to bind together industrial meat that that it gets me.

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Revenge of the Lunch Ladies

| Fri May 4, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
Chicago's cafeteria workers took to the streets—and won.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about how our public school lunch program has been systematically starved of both money and time—to the point that kids now get a median of 25 minutes, and often quite a bit less, to wolf down lunch.

If they're lucky, the meal they're being forced to inhale as quickly as possible will have been prepared by actual cooks working with fresh ingredients. More likely, though, they're getting reheated prefab fare. Fewer than half US schools operate working kitchens, The New Yorker reported in 2006—and the Great Recession and the resulting pullback in public spending has only accelerated the trend toward school cafeterias as reheating centers for industrially made food. Last summer, for example, the city of Philadelphia shuttered 26 school kitchens in a budget-cutting move.

The city of Chicago, steered for years by privatization-happy Democrats Richard Daley and now Rahm Emanuel, has been heading down a similar path. Of the 11 new schools the city has built under a $1 billion program since 2006, 9 have no kitchen facilities and serve food based on what the Unite Here union, which organizes Chicago's cafeteria workers, calls the "frozen food model."

Time to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love Industrial Agriculture?

| Wed May 2, 2012 6:00 AM EDT
At a grain elevator in Illinois, corn is loaded into trucks, on the way to being turned into meat, ethanol, or corn syrup.

Like a good buffet, Nature's recent meta-analysis comparing the productivity of industrial and organic agriculture offered something for every taste.

For enthusiasts of large-scale, chemical-intensive agriculture, there was this headline finding: Yields on organic farming—the amount of crop produced per acre—are on average 25 percent lower than those of industrial farming.

And for biodiversity fans like me, the study had a caveat: Most of organic's so-called yield penalty lies in grain crops like wheat; for fruit and some vegetables, organic ag is nearly (but not quite) as productive as its chemical-laced counterpart.

Tom's Kitchen: Roasted Sweet Potatoes, a Baked Egg, and Parsley-Onion Salad

| Sat Apr. 28, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

When I'm constructing a quick meal, I typically try to balance a protein, a complex starch, and some richly colored vegetables and/or herbs. (I buy into the nutritional school of thought that says the more colorful the food, the more nutrition it packs).

For this low-fuss, high-flavor, minimalist lunch, I did just that. Hit it with your favorite spicy condiment—like my own choice, salsa macha—and you've got something fun to eat that won't take up lots of time or dirty lots of dishes.

Roasted Sweet Potatoes, a Baked Egg, and Parsley-Onion Salad
(Serves one; can easily be doubled—if you do, use the largest skillet you have.)

1 large sweet potato
Olive oil
Sea salt
Freshly ground black pepper
A bit of butter
1-2 eggs (I can never eat more than 1 fried or baked egg at a time)
1 good handful of parsley
2 slices of a big red onion (the rest reserved for another use)
A little fresh lemon juice or vinegar

Preheat oven to 475°.

Slice the sweet potato crosswise at a slight angle into quarter-inch rounds, then stack the rounds into two piles and slice them into sticks (see photo, above left). Drop them into a bowl, give them a few good drizzles of olive oil and a good lashing of salt and pepper, and toss them to coat. Now lay them out in a single layer in a cast-iron or other heavy skillet, and bake in oven. After about 10 minutes, turn the heat down to 300° and flip the potato sticks over with a spatula. Return them to the oven for another 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, chop the parsley and onion and add them to the same bowl that you tossed the potatoes in. Give them a drizzle of olive oil, a squeeze of lemon or a bit of vinegar, and a pinch of salt and pepper. Toss to combine, taste, and adjust seasoning as you like. Set aside.

The photo came out fuzzy, and I ate the evidence before I could retake it. But the flavors were sharp and clear. The photo came out fuzzy, and I ate the evidence before I could retake it. But the flavors were sharp and clear. After the potatoes have had their second 10 minutes in the oven, remove the skillet and make a clearing in the middle with a spatula. Add a little pat of butter and let it melt, using a spatula to coat the clearing. Crack your egg or eggs to the sizzling butter in the clearing, season the egg(s) with salt and pepper, and return the skillet to the oven. Cook until the whites are set and the yolk(s) are as you prefer (I like them a bit runny).

Slide the sweet potatoes onto a plate with a spatula, slide the egg on top of the potatoes, and top it all with the salad. Enjoy.

Why You Should Be Worried About the California Mad Cow Case

| Fri Apr. 27, 2012 1:50 PM EDT

Move along, nothing to see here.

That sums up the USDA's public reaction to news that a downed California dairy cow was discovered to have contracted bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease. The cow had an "atypical" case of BSE, one that likely doesn't come from BSE-infected feed, but rather from a genetic mutation, the agency insists.

Moreover, it never came close to entering the food supply, USDA stressed—it had shown up dead at a rendering facility, where it was randomly chosen for testing as part of the USDA's BSE-testing program. USDA chief Tom Vilsack, ever ready to jump to the meat industry's aid at a time of need, declared on CNN, "I'm having beef tonight for dinner. And that's no lie."

Global food and health agencies echoed the USDA's assessment, Bloomberg reports: "The U.S. finding of a case of mad cow disease shows the country’s surveillance system is working, according to the United Nations' Food & Agriculture Organization and the World Organisation for Animal Health."