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You don’t know Jack

24 May

Picking up some tofu bun at Pho n’ Rice, I see a little note posted near the cashier’s telephone:





How many of these micro-economies exist in any city?


TEDx Conference Cambridge: A Bird’s-Eye View on Innovation in Food

16 May

I heard about this conference from Scott, who heard about it through the tech media world. I don’t think there was a lot of outreach to the usual suspects in the Boston food media. TED conferences are always great for inspiring big ideas. Here are a few that grabbed me:

1. From Dan Ariely, behavioral economist at Duke.

Humans are bad at resisting immediate tempatations for long-term rewards. This is why diets don’t work.What we need are strategies to work around our lizard brains.

Reward substitutions. You want the cake. Give yourself an immediate reward (fresh flowers) to substitute for the long-term one (weight loss).

Self-Control Contracts. aka “Ulysses and the Sirens.” Temptation will get you in the moment. Ward it off in advance. Maybe you remove the cake from the house. Maybe you make an accountability contract with your kid and promise you won’t eat it. You figure out a way to be accountable and prevent yourself from acting against your long-term interest.

Larger point: If you believe will power alone will save you, you’re setting yourself up for failure.

2. From Edgar Blanco, Director of MIT Center for Transportation and Logistics

Questions of Local vs. Organic vs. Fair Trade are too complicated to answer with a slogan. When you’re talking about carbon footprint, there are too many variables to answer the question easily. In the future, food products may be required to carry labels that identify their carbon footprint, much as they now carry nutritional information. A website in development at MIT, Sourcemap, is one good source.

3. David Gracer, entomophagist

We should all eat more insects. They’re good for us, cheap, tasty, and sustainable. Whether or not we will do so remains to be seen. My guess: Barring famine, not in this generation.

4. Alissa Hamilton, author of Squeezed: What you Don’t Know About Orange Juice

“Not from concentrate juice” is made from fresh-squeezed juice that must be stored in huge for up to a year. It’s stripped of oxygen to allow it to keep, which kills most of the flavor. Manufactured flavor packets are added later. North Americans flavor packets contain lots of ethyl butyrate.

5. Jennifer Hashley, Farmer and Director of the New Entry Sustainable Farming Project at Tufts.

“Farmer” is not listed on the U.S. Census as an occupation.

1 to 2 percent of Americans grow all the food in this country. Average age of a US farmer is 60. If we don’t train more small farmers, we’ll hand production over to conglomerates. Thus, we’ll lose diversity, quality, and food security.

School gardens will help, K-University.

6. Ayr Muir, CEO, Clover Fast Food

Fast food is good. Not all fast food is KFC. Good fast food is cheap, tasty, and convenient. It can even be healthy.

Clover Food Truck serves more people in an average day than an average McDonald’s does.

To learn the business, he left McKinsey and took a job at a Burger King in Winchester (after being turned down from multiple McDonald’s around the city). Factoid: According to Muir BK Ranch dipping sauce (1 ounce) has 140 calores and 15 grams fat.

I’m going to publish this now and add to it as the day goes on…

7. Glynn Lloyd, CEO, City Fresh Foods

Community development is a design problem. You can design cities to be more self-sufficient.

One example: There’s so much vacant land in Roxbury. In the 40s and 50s, you had migration of whites out to suburbs. As left devalued property, there were many “suspicious” fires. So, challenge now is to see if you can make a living by farming a 1-acre, 1/2-acre, 1/4-acre urban plot. Answer appears to be yes, at least on paper, as long as you can get the land very cheap (or free). Test farms now in operation on Blue Hill Ave. and in Milton.

8. Fiddlefoxx, Musical Guest

Turns out you can combine fiddle, acoustic guitar, and beat box.

9. Kenji Alt, Recipe Developer, Writer, MIT Alum

[Kenji is a former Bostonian and a Cook’s Illustrated, No. 9 Park, and Clio alum (he also wrote some pieces for BMag). He’s an expert on the science of cooking —  the next Harold McGee.]

That classic technique for cooking meat isn’t the best. Traditionally, we sear meat in a hot pan, then finish it in a hot oven until it comes to temp.

Problem: Most meats behave the same way when you cook them — from the outside in. The notion that searing meat “seals in juices” is popular, but it’s not true. Liquid can come up through seared meat.

Really, the best way to cook steak is in a medium that’s the same temperature as the final temperature you want your meat to reach. So if you want your steak at 130°, you’d cook it sous vide at 130°, sear it, and you’re done. But sous vide cooking isn’t accessible to the average home cook, at least using a high-tech circulator. So what can you do? Fill a standard Thermos-style cooler with 130° water, put the meat in a bag, drop it in the cooler, then 45 minutes later, take it out, sear it, and it’s done. Problem solved.

10. Francisco Migoya, Associate Professor, Culinary Institute of America

Chocolate has properties we haven’t even yet tapped. It’s as malleable as clay. Why not think of it as an art object?

We think of chocolate with coffee, with caramel. What about foie gras, grapes, and eucalyptius. Foie gras has the same fat percentage as butter (82%), so you could replace the butter in ganache with the foie.

Or, how about maple, bacon, and french toast with white chocolate? There will be samples of this later. Sadly, I won’t be here by then. Poor Amy.

11. Dan Barber (via video), Chef/owner of Blue Hill and Blue Hill Stone Barns, NY

On foie gras: “The problem with us chefs, is that it’s so friggin’ delicious.”

Barber shares his discovery of Eduardo Sousa, who makes foie gras without gavage (force feeding) in the Extremadura region of Spain. It’s the best foie Dan has ever had, made without the usual cruelty. Sousa knows that geese naturally want to gorge themselves in the fall, in anticipation of winter. Gavage isn’t needed. Barber observed wild geese actually joining the Sousa’s flock while he was there. They were flying past in formation, and the farm geese called to them. They came down and settled in to stay.

Interesting: Jews invented foie gras as an alternative to schmaltz. Rather, they observed it occurring naturally in fall geese, and harvested it. They later invented gavage was invented as a means to supply large volumes of foie to their Egyptian captors. Barber sees this as a metaphor for industrial ag: rooted in extraction to satisfy outsized demand. Take more, sell more, waste more. In the future, it won’t service.

12. Wylie Dufresne, Chef, WD-50

“I’m gonna let you in on a secret that I think some chefs would rather I not reveal: We really have no idea what we’re doing. We don’t know how to cook, and we haven’t known how to cook for a really, really, long time. And we’ve been fooling you guys. I want to thank you for not noticing.”

It’s an exaggeration, yes. In cooking school, Dufresne learned the vocabulary to get a great kitchen job. He learned the classical technique. After working with his head down for years, he got to a point where he was finally allowed to ask a few questions.

“Why are we doing it this way?”

“Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.”

“Because when we do it that way, it works.”

“Because I said so.”

He knew how to cook, but not why.

The idea was that he wanted to create a restaurant where he could keep learning. WD-50 was about his search for answers. He reached out to food scientists. In 7 years, he’s begun to get some answers.

Consider the egg: It’s his favorite food. It’s in virtually every kitchen. Used to leaven, to emulsify, to thicken. At WD-50, they’re looking at how time, temperature, and ph affect the way they behave. And they’re using this knowledge to create dishes like deep-fried hollandaise, or ravioli in which the wrapper and filling are both made of eggs.

We’re beginning to have some answers.

13. Don Katz, Associate Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Brandeis

Why do some things taste good and others taste bad?

Rats respond very consistently to sweet vs. bitter flavors. These different tastes activate different pathways to the brain. Why? Before supermarkets, we relied on our taste system to guide us to what we should and shouldn’t eat, and so this knowledge was encoded into our senses of taste.

However, our senses of taste can be modified by experience and by social cues. The thinking is that there is a switch in the brain that decides whether the stimulous should be funneled into “bad” or “good” categories.

14. Coco Krume, Wine Economist, MIT Media Lab

On a mission to cut some of the bullshit from wine marketing (and maybe help winemakers sell their product more effectively.

She looked at reams of wine reviews and compiled a database of common descriptors. Looked at how words are used to describe cheap versus expensive wines. “Expensive” words tend to fall into a few categories: dark (smoky, velvety), precise (ash, cacao), and exclusive (elegant, old).

These uses are so common that you can predict the cost of a bottle of wine based on the use of these words.

And with that, I’m out.

Food Trends I’d Like to See Die in 2010, Part 2

17 Dec

Getting back to the Scroogery…

3. Cupcake Bakeries

Sure, cupcakes are cute, fun, and tasty. I have no problem with the product. In fact, I enjoy the occasional swing by  Kickass when I’m over in Davis Square. But we’ve reached saturation and there’s no more need for a bakery devoted solely to one product. Because guess what? Cupakes are made with sugar and butter just like every other pastry. They are not a separate class of baked good. Eating mini-cakes at a “cupcakery” doesn’t make them any more fun or virtuous than a brownie or lobster claw.

Hypocritical confession: I’m actually psyched that a new fro-yo place moved in down the street from me. I know we’re saturated there, too, but what can I say? It’s dessert without guilt.

4. Fake Locavorism

Word to the wise: When a restaurant tells you it serves “local, organic produce when possible,” or makes a big show of a single Verrill Farm tomato on the menu, be suspicious. Chances are, they’re not really walking the walk. The local/seasonal/sustainable mantra is hot stuff, but it’s a tough road to walk, much harder than just getting all your veg from a single distributor. Despite the efforts of many, New England lacks really efficient farm-to-table networks. Chefs like Tony Maws and Tim Weichmann spend a lot of time on the phone with individual growers, tracking down ingredients. Chefs already work crazy hours, and many aren’t able/willing to scout free time scouting. Others can’t afford the price differential.

So fine. Don’t do it if you can’t. But don’t try to snow us, either.

…to be continued.

Food Trends I’d Like to See Die in 2010, Part One

16 Dec

A new year, a new decade, and a good time to vent about all the overcooked food trends that have become a source of torment for anyone who eats out on a regular basis.

1) Comfort food

Until, say, 2 years ago, I liked mac n’ cheese, short ribs, and steak frites as much as the next emotional eater. Before they achieved ubiquity, these high-fat indulgences were a lovely, naughty, occasional treat. Now they’re just your typical dinner at an average mid-price restaurant.

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