Ideas in Slow Food

Slow Food is all about local and traditional food, right? Right –
mostly. Slow Food does encompass and embrace the locavore movement and
the preservation of traditional foods and techniques is of paramount
importance to Slow Food, however, Slow Food encompasses even more than
either of those elements, as important as they are. So long as food is
"good, clean and fair," it falls within the parameters of the
organization.

What is good? "Good" food is food that is delicious and contains real
nutritive value. "Good" food is generally made with good, wholesome
ingredients. Many, many foods fall within the aegis of "good," even
foods that in excess may provide too much nutritive value. This
particular criterion is relatively easy to fit. So long as the food is
not devoid of nutritive value, is not poisonous and is enjoyed by the
eater, a food can conceivably fall under this banner.

"Clean" starts raising the bar. This is where much of the debate lies.
"Clean" foods are basically foods that are Earth friendly. That means
foods that are made with sustainably raised products and produced in a
fashion that is responsible and unlikely to cause significant harm to
our planet. In addition, they should be produced in humane ways with
respect for our planet and the animals we share it with. There is
obviously much room for debate as to what fits under this banner. Some
guiding principles include using time tested agricultural stewardship
practices such that land is regenerated and not abused as well as the
promotion of biodiversity. Clearly agricultural practices that pollute
or degrade arable land do not qualify nor do practices that promote
homogeneity within the global food supply. Maintainance of farmland
viability speaks for itself, but promotion of biodiversity is perhaps,
less self-evident. Certainly from a diner's perspective having a
greater variety of foods to eat is far preferable to a limited pantry.
While that is not unimportant in itself, the greater reason for
maintaining and promoting biodiversity is that it offers greater safety
to our planet. Should a calamity occur, the presence of more diversity
would seem to increase the likelihood of long term survival by limiting
the potential reach and scope of any particular calamity. A propensity
towards homogeneity of some modern agricultural practices as well as
uncertain long-term consequences make extremely questionable their
ability to fall within the confines of the term "clean." Large scale
Monoclonal farming and genetic modification practices are examples of
these types of questionable practices. It should be obvious why large
scale factory livestock farming is problematic given the likelihood of
pollution and environmental degradation at many farms of that type, not
to mention ethically questionable animal husbandry practices.

"Fair" is also somewhat complicated in reality, though it is based on
reasonable wages and the concept that no one in the process of getting
food onto a table or into a mouth should be taken advantage of. That
runs the gamut from the most basic farm worker to anyone involved with
a product all the way through to the consumer. While this concept is
difficult to quantify, ultimately, the bottom line is that people
involved in the process do not feel and are not exploited. It is easier
to determine what is not fair sometimes than what is. Clearly slave or
subsistence labor is not fair.

One  advantage local foods have is that it is easier to gauge where
they fall within the spectrum of "good, clean and fair" and thus how
well they fall under the banner of Slow Food. What then, does technique
in preparing food, have to do with Slow Food. While the organization is
rightfully committed to supporting and preserving foods, recipes and
techniques that have withstood tests of time and culture to become part
of traditions, there is nothing that demands that new techniques and
new traditions and new recipes and creations can not be "good, clean
and fair" and thus incompatible with Slow Food. New and traditional
techniques are simply not mutually exclusive, especially when they are
used with care, attention and the desire to put food that is good,
clean and fair on the table.

To illustrate this concept, the Saratoga Region convivium of Slow Food
USA combined forces with two modern, creative chefs, Aki Kamozawa and
H. Alexander Talbot, the wife and husband team behind arguably the
internet's most creative cooking blog, Ideas in
Food
. Aki and Alex are both classically trained cooks who have
harnessed their creativity and married it to some of today's most novel
and interesting cooking techniques to create a unique cuisine that
utilizes  various techniques, traditional and new, to bring out
specific elements to highlight their clear, ingredient-driven food.
Alex and Aki donated their time and effort to travel from their home
base in Queens, N.Y. to travel up to Queensbury, N.Y. in the shadows of
Lake George,  Saratoga Springs and some of the finest farmland in the
state to hold a benefit hands-on workshop and dinner followed by a
demonstration of some of their techniques to some of the Saratoga Slow
Food faithful. The idea was to use ingredients garnered from area farms
and Farmers Markets to create a meal that was both "Slow" and
completely modern. The weekend was billed as "Slow Food Goes Modern."

Prior to their North Country arrival, we had conversations about
sourcing specific proteins so that they would be ready to work with
over the weekend. After a particularly delicious suckling pig sampled
at the Starchefs International Chefs Congress in NYC several weeks
earlier, Alex had a hankering for suckling pig and asked if I could
source a small one of about 10-15 pounds. It turns out that while the
demand for such small and young pigs is strong in Spain and other
countries, it is atypical within the United States. The best that I was
able to do was to order a thirty pounder from Bornt Family Farms in
Troy, N.Y. It was larger than ideal, but would still be of top quality
and would simply have to do. The area of Washington County, N.Y. is
strong in any number of meats with sourcing directly from farmers easy,
straightforward and definitely consistent with the Slow Food credo. I
ordered three free-range Muscovy ducks from The Garden of Spices in
Greenwich and lamb necks from Elihu Farms. The ducks I picked up ahead
of time directly from the farmer. The piglet would be delivered and the
lamb necks along with all the produce, I would pick up with Alex and
Aki that Saturday morning at the Saratoga and Glens Falls Farmers
Markets depending on what was available and enticing.

Aki and Alex arrived Friday afternoon in the midst of perfect crisp,
sunny early October weather. Over a dinner with some friends, we
discussed a game plan for the following day. Other than knowing the
main proteins that we would have to work with, the specific menu for
the following evening's benefit dinner and thus the specific approach
to the preceding hands-on workshop were still up in the air depending
on what would prove irresistible in the market and the creative process
stemming from that. That they had brought with them some of their
contemporary kitchen tools, gadgets and ingredients to supplement the
few already in our kitchen promised a creative approach, though
specificity remained elusive at this point. The one thing decided upon
that evening was a slow roasting of the ducks in our high-tech,
slow-cooking, precise-temperature and humidity controlled CVap oven.
The ducks were prepared and seasoned to cook for approximately 20 hours
at 135º F and left to that end. The rest would have to wait until the
next day.

IMG_8641 - 2008-10-04 at 09-25-25
Sunny and bright, the following morning proved perfect for a trip to
the Saratoga and Glens Falls Farmers markets to explore and shop for
the produce with which to fill out the menu for the weekend's
festivities. In the meantime Slow Food Saratoga Vice President and
Schenectady Community College Culinary Professor, Rocco Verrigni, drove
down to the Troy Farmers market to pick up our piglet. The Saratoga
market brimming with producers and customers, overflowed with produce
at the height of the harvest season. The temperatures remained warm
enough that an abundance of high summer products such as tomatoes and
corn remained excellent and abundant despite the lateness of their
seasons, while autumn products like heirloom pumpkins and root
vegetables such as celeriac called out loudly. Accumulating a larder of
vegetables, fruits, cheeses and meats from the various vendors was not
difficult. The hard part was not buying everything and limiting
ourselves only to those things we might use. These included  an
heirloom French "peanut skin" pumpkin, a large pink banana squash, new
red potatoes and fresh corn donated by Sheldon Farms to fresh chevre
from Sweet Springs, Belle de Bosque apples from Saratoga Apple, fresh
feta from Mt. View Farms, hen eggs from Brookside Farm, arugula,
shiitake mushrooms and a variety of heirloom tomatoes from New
Minglewood Farms
, sage, edamame, leeks, fairy tale eggplants and
collards from Denison Farm and even strawberries from Scotch Ridge
Berry Farm
. We also picked up the whole lamb necks that we had ordered
from Elihu Farm. In Glens Falls we purchased hot Italian sausage and
apple-wood smoked bacon from Saratoga Apple, jalapeño and Anaheim
peppers from The Alleged Farm and onions, zucchini and celery from
Pleasant Valley Farm, while snacking on fresh cider donuts from
Saratoga Apple.

We made it back to my house with our load in time to meet Rocco, who
arrived with the piglet in a cooler filled with ice. After unloading my
car, Alex and Rocco began cleaning the whole piglet with a hose in
front of my garage, before carting it back to the kitchen. Aki and Alex
began organizing the kitchen to catalog the ingredients and tools we
had as well as those we could still use to supplement what had been
purchased. Aki and I went to pick concord grapes from vines we have in
front of our house, while Alex harvested parsley seeds and lavender
from our garden. We also delved through our spice bin to see what might
be useful. In the meantime, Mark Crescent, a former culinary student
from Schenectady who had volunteered to help when he heard what Alex
and Aki were doing, showed up to begin help with the preparations. He
would assist with the workshop and the dinner preparation as well as
service and clean-up in order to get a first hand taste of how Alex and
Aki work.

The hands-on workshop would not begin until 3PM at which time the
attendees were scheduled to IMG_8678 - 2008-10-04 at 12-18-39
arrive. Prior to that, however, there was
much to be done. Aki and Alex did not have a set idea of what the menu
would be before the day began other than the dinner would include
suckling pig, duck and lamb neck in some form or another. Now that we
had all our ingredients in front of us, their creative thinking went
into overdrive. Their process really did not start to a significant
degree until they explored the market's offerings and had a sense of
what was available and the quality of those materials. Now piled on a
table in a screened porch was all the produce that we had purchased.
Alex had tasted the corn at the Sheldon Farm stand and immediately
decided that he would serve it in its most basic state – raw, with the
only adornment being a little sea salt – and this not in August, but in
October!.

Rocco and Mark started on some of the basic mis-en-place, peeling the
husks from the corn, washing IMG_8717 - 2008-10-04 at 13-47-41
the collards, destemming shiitakes,
separating the bacon slices, etc. while Alex began preparing a braising
liquid for the lamb necks, cooking tomatoes and celery with coffee in a
modern pressure cooker. Aki set up a circulating water bath to cook
some eggs, while my wife worked on setting the dining room and I
started a charcoal fire in my Weber grill. With the braising liquid
ready, Alex, strained it and added it to a large hotel pan with
seasoned whole lamb necks before putting the pan into the convection
oven to braise. Aki cleaned out the pressure cooker to re-use it for
the concord grapes that would be cooked down with a bit of lavender and
spice ultimately to produce a hydrocolloid stabilized grape puree. With
the grill ready, we charred the Anaheim peppers and then placed the
whole French pumpkin on it and covered it with the lid so that it would
bake there slowly.

With the piglet cleaned, it needed to be broken down into more
manageable parts, a process handled by Alex with help from Rocco and
Mark. A reward for the work incurred so far was a quick stove-top
grilling of the pig's hanger steak that was shared by all those in the
kitchen at the time.

Three o'clock arrived quickly and so did the guests for the hands-on
workshop. All the guests were 
intrepid food enthusiasts, who enjoy a
wide range of culinary adventurism and the majority were accomplished
home and beyond cooks in their own right, which meant that they brought
a fair range of skills to the kitchen with them, skills that were put
to good use during the workshop. While the pig continued to be broken
down, the hams were put in the oven to roast, while the thorax and
abdomen were de-boned, stuffed and rolled into porchettas. Two
porchettas were made, each highlighting a 
different style of
preparation. One, was prepared in a traditional way tied with twine,
while the other was rolled up into a tight cylinder and wrapped in foil
before both were roasted. Each was stuffed similarly with a sausage and
spelt flour mixture. Everyone chipped in with some of the still tedious
chores like peeling the edamame, cutting the collard leIMG_8883 - 2008-10-04 at 17-21-48aves into
triangular pieces, peeling the roasted peppers, culling the seeds from
the parsley flowers, peeling tomatoes, de-seeding the banana squash and
sundry other items and then some preliminary cooking chores. Mark used
a vegetable peeler to shave long ribbons from the banana squash, which
were then blanched. The lamb necks were done braising, but needed to be
de-boned. This job naturally fell to a member of the group who happened
to be a neurosurgeon. Throughout the process as individuals handled
specific jobs, discussion and dialogue ensued on various techniques and
the creative process. With preparations now taking shape, Alex and Aki
began to hone their ideas to a point and began to visualize and
finalize their menu. Though a number of modern  tools and techniques
were used throughout the dinner, it was apparent, that these techniques
did not replace hard, dedicated and even at times tedious work – the
backbone of any quality kitchen. Instead, they illustrated that these
elements were all tools to achieve particular endpoints and that in the
end dedication and creativity remain necessary components to any
kitchen, traditional or contemporary, a point that would become
magnified that much more once we sat down to eat. Two hours after the
workshop started the prep work was done and the workshop was completed.
The guests were invited to relax, though a few chose to go to their
homes to freshen up and return for the scheduled start of dinner
service at 7PM. Alex and Aki had determined their menu and I was now
able to create wine pairings from my cellar.

As the time for the actual dinner approached my wife set the table
for ten people in the dining room, I selected wines and printed a menu
and Alex, Aki, Mark and Rocco rearranged the kitchen into one suitable
for their needs with the main work area as well as using the kitchen
table for the plating of the dishes before service. Gone was anything
extraneous to their needs. Present and well ordered there was
everything that they would need, once they had finally decided the
final composition of their courses. I know that I was excited and I
perceived that the guests were too as they began to return after a
brief period for refreshing themselves. There was one guest that came
just for the dinner, who was unable to make the workshop. The first
wine of the evening, 1990 Bollinger Grand Anee Rosé was popped and a
toast was made to our new Saratoga Region Slow Food convivium and to
food that was good, clean and fair! With everyone seated the courses
and wines started parading to the table. BelleIMG_8929 - 2008-10-04 at 19-59-57
de Bosque apple with
ground parsley seeds harvested that afternoon from parsley in our
garden that had gone to seed, baby arugula and maldon sea salt proved
refreshing and balanced with the seeds adding a distinctive touch to an
impeccably balanced dish. The next course could not have been more
simple nor more delicious, as it highlighted the beauty of impeccable
product. A piece of raw corn from Sheldon Farms was serve with nothing
more than a little sea salt as accompaniment. It worked beautifully
with a 1999 Durell Vineyard chardonnay from Kistler. The piglet
followed, making its table side debut as "slow roasted suckling hams
with 'Fairy Tale eggplant, sage and cracklings," a dish all about
elegance and succulence, traditional, but paired and plated with
imagination and deft palates. This was simply sensational and did not
suffer at all from a pairing with the 1997 Goldert Gewurtztraminer from
Zind-Humbrecht.

The next dish was the first to really highlight
the couple's technical creativity and playfulness as well asIMG_8935 - 2008-10-04 at 20-27-15
to
incorporate some contemporary techniques. It was a novel interpretation
of the classic pasta carbonara. In this case the "pasta" was a
pappardelle made from blanched shavings from a big, pink banana squash
served with eggs cooked in an immersion circulator to a final
temperature of 65ºC and bacon, chives and a sauce incorporating
parmiggiano cheese (?). This was served with a 1998 Hirsch Vineyard
pinot noir from Kistler.

A dish fascinating to observe being
prepared and astoundingly delicious was braised Elihu Farm lamb neck
with ribbed zucchini, vadouvan and amazing, creamy mashed potatoes.
This dish was comfort food with an haute sensibility and a modern
presentation. It was paired with a 1982 Chateau Cos D'estournel,
arguably the wine and the pairing of the evening. Lamb neck is a rarely
seen and used part of the animal, that in this rendition, raised the
question, "how could that be?" Duck slow roasted over 20 hours to a
temperature of 135ºC proved a little too cooked for most, though it was
served with two wonderful sauces, a Concord grape puree made with the
grapes from our vines harvested that afternoon and a bright green,
celery puree. Both of the sauces were made with a combination of
classic and contemporary techniques including some hydrocolloids for
texture and effect. The Allegrini Amarone from 1996 was not unpopular.

Though
everyone was beginning to get sated, the porchetta was too delicious to
ignore. The elegant presentation included the charcoal-grill roasted
peanut squash and collard greens. It was paired with an appropriately
big 1997 Clos de Truffieres. Perhaps the most astounding and
surprisingly delicious dish of the evening ws brought out next. The
dish combined tomatoes that had been skinned with fresh feta from the
nearby Mt. View Farm and local honey. The dish was surprising, because
no person at the table had any inkling that tomato and honey would
work so well together. The feta proved to be the perfect foil and
balance that brought everything together including the acid and flavor
of the tomato, the sweetness and texture from the honey and the salt
and cream from the cheese. Further balance was provided by a 1995
Cabernet Sauvignon from Ch. Montelena
. The meal was brought to a lovely
close by another dish wonderfully simple, delicious and surprising. The
surprise was such delicious local strawberries in season in October.
These were belended with creme fraiche also from Mt. View and paired
with a 1988 Sauternes from Ch. Rieussec.

The meal was a great
success, but the weekend was not done. The following day we had
arranged for a demonstration at a nearby restaurant, Farmhouse at Top
of the World
, for twenty people. Alex and Aki would demonstrate some of
the techniques and ingredients that with the right approach married the
sometimes disparate notions of traditional and novel. We brought the
immersion circulator, a Vita-Mix blender, a contemporary Cuisinart
electronic pressure cooker and Alex and Aki's supply of hydrocolloids
along with some food from the prior night that was prepared with the
demonstration in mind including a porchetta. Alex and Aki demonstrated
how one can make a delicious and creamy IMG_9036 - 2008-10-05 at 13-37-51
risotto by par cooking the
risotto rice in the immersion circulator in a fraction of the time and
with less direct involvement than the traditional method of continued
stirring; cooking the piglet's head in the modern pressure cooker to
make a traditional head cheese; and  the effects of different
percentages of the hydrocolloid Xanthan Gum in plain water (the water
would become more viscous with no apparent change in its taste). Many
of the hydrocolloids in use in contemporary restaurant kitchens like
elBulli, The Fat Duck, WD-50, Alinea and others are naturally derived
and have been long used in various cooking traditions such as the
seaweed derived agar-agar, which has been used in Japan for ages.
Xanthan gum, used in those same kitchens, is an industrial product
produced by fermentation of glucose or sucrose by the Xanthomonas
campestris
bacterium. This hydrocolloid possesses a number of
interesting properties including pseudoplasticity or the ability to
thin with shearing and stability at a wide range of temperatures and
pH, properties simply not found to these degrees in other products.
This offers the chef or cook a tool to achieve specific effects that
may be desired in the presentation of a dish. That the product is made
industrially does not inherently prevent it from being "good, clean and
fair." Though of limited nutritive value, extensive testing has shown
it to be harmless to humans. It is good, because it enhances the
pleasure of foods when used well and properly for specific effects not
otherwise achievable such as has been used by the kitchens mentioned
above and Alex and Aki. Like any product, it can be used simply as a
shortcut to subvert better techniques and with lesser results. Though
produced industrially, there is no evidence to suggest that the
production is environmentally unsound or unsustainable and the fact
that there is no evidence of exploitation in its production or use,
makes it fair. Though it is unlikely that many or even any of the
attendees of the demonstration will incorporate these techniques in
their cooking, that is unimportant and was not really the purpose of
the demonstration. The purpose was to show that traditional and
contemporary cooking techniques can co-exist with respect for each
other. They are not mutually exclusive. The demonstration, workshop and
dinner were all to show that Slow Food is not defined by specific
techniques or foods. It really is more of an approach to cooking and
life. The best elements of any tradition are to be preserved and
supported, whether they are old or new, so long as they adhere to the
tenets espoused by the philosophy of Slow Food which is all about
enhancing life and preserving the best parts of it for future
generations regardless of the traditions from which they arise. What is
worthwhile must be preserved for its inherent value as well as for the
ultimate benefit of the world and all its population. The weekend's
events proved a great success in demonstrating how the traditional, the
contemporary and the creative can be well married and truly "Slow."

For more photos please see here.


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One Response to Ideas in Slow Food

  1. Matthew Kayahara says:

    Great post, John. And it sounds like it was a great event to be at!

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