- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Last summer, Christine Keff had an epiphany about how her food was grown. From almonds to zucchini, she dumped conventional ingredients and replaced them with environmentally sensitive organic alternatives.

“It was a personal choice, an awareness of what fertilizers and pesticides were doing to other life forms,” says Miss Keff, chef and owner of Flying Fish restaurant in Seattle. “I could not stomach the arrogance of that anymore. Oddly, it was almost a religious conversion.”

From the temple of all things eco-green, Americans increasingly are hearing a food calling, making choices based not just on how foods will taste for dinner, but on how they are raised and their consequent impacts on the environment. The trend has been there and it is getting stronger all the time.

Consider it a culinary wake-up to reports of global warming, fossil fuel diminishment and fish contamination.

“We are beginning to see the limits of our natural resources, energy and water,” says Arlin Wasserman of Changing Tastes, a food-industry consulting firm that specializes in sustainability issues. “We need better practices on Earth to feed a growing population.”

The Organic Trade Association reports that consumers spent $14 billion on organic foods last year, up $1.8 billion over 2004 from $1 billion in 1990. Meat (55.4 percent), condiments (24.2 percent) and dairy products (23.5 percent) grew the fastest.

Wal-Mart has announced its intention to boost organic offerings. Safeway stores recently launched a line of private-label organic foods, and Hunt’s has introduced canned organic tomatoes and sauces.

The nation’s greening isn’t limited to grocery aisles. Xanterra Parks and Resorts, which operates concessions in national parks such as Yellowstone, touts its use of local and sustainable ingredients in dishes such as organic red lentil ragout and wild Alaskan salmon pinwheels.

The Boulders resort near Scottsdale, Ariz., recently announced it would be the first all-organic resort in the country, harvesting its own produce on property, pouring organic wine and stocking minibars with organic drinks and snacks. Celebrity-obsessed Vanity Fair magazine produced a “green issue” in May, proving environmentalism’s emergence from hippie fringe to popular concern.

“The food tastes better and it’s fresher and people believe it’s better for them,” says chef Michel Nischan, whose new health- food show, “Pure and Simple,” launched on cable’s LIME TV in the same month he opened the organic and sustainable-focused restaurant the Dressing Room with partner Paul Newman in Westport, Conn.

Mr. Nischan cites the rise in obesity and diabetes rates as fueling the interest in better ingredients. “It has been a slow reawakening, driven by flavor,” he says.

Those motivated by flavor and health are at entry levels of ecology, says Samuel Fromartz, author of “Organic, Inc.: Natural Foods and How They Grew” (Harcourt). “Among green consumers, there are all gradations of green from light to dark,” beginning with the supermarket shopper who buys bagged organic lettuce because it’s already cleaned and appealing, he says.

“As green gets darker, then you get concerns about who produced it and how many food miles it traveled. The dark green end asks, ‘Is it coming from a small farmer I know and have a relationship with?’ Darkest is, ‘I want to grow my own food and reduce my ecological footprint.’”

As Kermit the Frog once lamented, it’s not easy being green. The choice between an organic tomato trucked from California to Minnesota and a local, conventionally grown one, when available, is a green-conscious shopper’s dilemma: Go with the chemical-free option or one that doesn’t consume massive amounts of fuel to ship?

“Something organic could come from New Zealand or Australia,” says chef Bruce Sherman of North Pond Restaurant in Chicago. “But by the time it’s flown to me and reaches my restaurant, it’s still organic but not sustainable because it comes from halfway around the globe, which requires fossil fuel that we can’t replace.”

To some consumers, buying green is a social act, too, a choice to pay more to a local strawberry farmer who can’t compete on price with big agribusiness. “You used to give money to the farmer you knew who used it to buy equipment in the local hardware store and the hardware store owner used it to buy tickets to the movies,” says Mr. Nischan, the chef. “It was about supporting a community. Now it goes to Chile and nothing comes back.”

Miss Keff of Flying Fish says some customers have expressed appreciation for her eco-efforts, but her following hasn’t changed, disproving the cynics who see economic green behind green food. “We’re still who we are, which is a lot more than organic,” she says. “But it fits who we are. We needed to be honest about our ingredients.”

Watermelon and arugula salad

This recipe is from Michel Nischan from “Homegrown: Pure & Simple” (Chronicle). Mr. Nischan buys these organic ingredients from farmers markets.

1 small watermelon (about 6 pounds)

Salt

cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided

1/4 cup balsamic or cider vinegar

Freshly ground black pepper

3 ounces arugula leaves (about 4 cups loosely packed)

2/3 cup slivered blanched almonds, lightly toasted

1/4 cup sliced scallion, white and green parts

12 red radishes, thinly sliced (about 11/4 cups)

Peel watermelon and reserve a few chunks from the heart (or sweet middle part) of the watermelon, as well as the rounded ends to make 1 cup of watermelon juice.

Cut remaining watermelon into 2-inch-thick diamond shapes (or any shape you prefer) to line the serving platter or dishes you plan to use. Season each slice with salt and using 1/4 cup olive oil, brush one side of each slice.

Heat a large skillet or griddle to medium heat.

Working in batches, place watermelon slices, oiled side down, on hot skillet or griddle for about 45 seconds, or until heated. With a large spatula or tongs, remove slices, heated side up.

Put reserved chunks from the heart and rounded end pieces in a sieve over a bowl and smash with your hands or a stiff whisk, forcing juice into bowl.

Measure 1 cup juice into saucepan. (Drink the rest or freeze into ice cubes.)

Add vinegar to saucepan containing watermelon juice. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, reduce heat to medium and simmer, uncovered, for about 15 minutes, or until reduced to about 1/4 cup.

Pour reduced juice into a serving bowl and whisk in remaining 1/4 cup oil.

Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Place arugula, almonds, scallion and radishes in a salad bowl and toss with enough dressing to moisten.

To serve, place watermelon slices on serving platter or individual plates, mound arugula salad over and serve.

Makes 6 servings.

Alaskan halibut, snap pea puree and organic carrots

This recipe is adapted from one by chef Bruce Sherman of North Pond Restaurant in Chicago.

Water

Salt

16 ounces miniature carrots, peeled, most of stem removed

8 ounces sugar snap peas, cleaned

4 to 6 tablespoons olive oil, divided

1 small shallot, peeled, thinly sliced

White pepper

3 stems fresh mint, leaves only

4 skinless halibut fillets (24 ounces)

1/4 cup vegetable or chicken stock

4 ounces butter, divided

Herbs of choice and tiny cooked beets for garnish, optional

Bring medium pot of water to a boil and salt generously. Meanwhile, get a bowl of ice water ready to quickly chill vegetables after cooking. Dump carrots into boiling water and as soon as it returns to boil, count 2 minutes. Remove with strainer and dump carrots into ice water.

When carrots are chilled, strain, set aside and reserve ice water. Next dump snap peas into the boiling water. Boil 2 minutes. Remove with strainer and dump into ice water. When snap peas are chilled, strain, set aside and reserve ice water.

In a small nonstick pan, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil and add sliced shallot. Salt and pepper shallot and stir gently for 2 minutes, or until softened but not colored. When softened, place sauteed shallot and chopped mint leaves in blender, along with snap peas.

Add about 1/4 cup of the ice water and blend 1 to 2 minutes, or until smooth. Pass puree through a fine strainer and set aside.

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in non-stick skillet. Salt and pepper fish on both sides and add to pan. Cook for 5 to 8 minutes (length of time will depend on thickness of fish) then gently turn fish over and cook until no longer opaque in the center, adding remaining 2 tablespoons oil if fish starts to stick.

While the fish is cooking, in another pan heat vegetable or chicken stock and add reserved carrots. When liquid comes to a boil, add half of the butter and salt and pepper to taste. Place over a low flame to keep warm.

Heat reserved pea puree in another pan and when it starts to simmer, add remaining butter, and salt and pepper to taste. Drizzle warm pea sauce onto serving plates and top with carrots and fish. Garnish with herbs and tiny cooked beets, if desired. Makes 4 servings.

Sea scallops with goat cheese vinaigrette and radishes

This recipe is from chef Christine Keff of Flying Fish restaurant in Seattle. Look for sustainable sea scallops such as those labeled “wild caught” from the Northeast and Canada.

cup blanched and sliced almonds

16 large sea scallops

Salt and pepper

3 tablespoons canola oil

Goat cheese vinaigrette (recipe follows)

Sliced icicle radishes and lemon zest for garnish

Place almonds on baking pan and toast 7 to 10 minutes, or until golden, in preheated 350-degree oven, stirring once or twice. (Watch carefully since they can burn quickly.) Cool thoroughly. Grind to powder in food processor.

Dust scallops with ground almonds to coat top side. Season with salt and black pepper to taste. Heat canola oil in a saute pan until just below smoking point. Add scallops, crusted side down, and sear to golden. Turn over and continue cooking until scallops are cooked almost through, about 3 minutes. Place scallops on plate, drizzle with vinaigrette and garnish with icicle radishes and lemon zest. Makes 4 servings.

GOAT CHEESE VINAIGRETTE

1/4 cup goat cheese

1 tablespoon chopped shallot

1 teaspoon chopped garlic

2 tablespoons white wine vinegar

3 tablespoons heavy whipping cream

Salt and black pepper

Place goat cheese, shallot, garlic, white wine vinegar and cream in a food processor and blend until smooth. Season to taste with salt and pepper.


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