Wednesday, December 31, 2014

6 Smart Food Trends to Watch in 2015

Labels that tell you whether the water's been fracked? No, not really, but I have some real predictions for six food trends to watch in 2015.

This article originally appeared on Zester Daily and MSN Food & Drink.

This year not only beckoned all things local, organic and sustainable, it begged for transparency in our food supply. From growing concerns about GMOs and factory farming to the films “Fed Up” and “Food Chains,” people may finally be waking up to the fact that our food system is as much political machinery as tractors and plows.

Here are six developments that prove consumers want more healthy, sustainable and humane options. 

1. Organically growing
Once thought of as a niche movement for flower children and pretentious yupsters, organics is now as marketable as Taylor Swift. With 81% of U.S. families choosing organic food at least sometimes—and restaurants, food companies and grocery stores acquiescing to customer demand—it comprises about 4% of food sales in the U.S. (about $38 billion). Sales of organic products at Costco have doubled in the last two years (to about $3 billion a year), and Walmart is promising to sell organics at the same price as conventional food through an arrangement with Wild Oats. Where will all this new organic food come from? Will the industrial-scale Walmartization of organics weaken organic standards and squeeze out the family farmers who helped commercialize the movement? There are already storm clouds on that horizon. 

2. Non-GMO labeling
As consumers are getting hip to Big Food’s genetically engineered ways, the majority of Americans want GMO labeling. But as the big chemical and food companies continue to dump millions into defeating state labeling initiatives, smaller food companies and restaurants are taking matters into their own hands by touting non-GMO ingredients. In fact, Non-GMO Project verification may be the future for GMO labeling. In November, not only was Colorado’s Prop 105 defeated, Oregon’s Measure 92 was so close, there was a Bush-Gore-style recount before being shut down over a technicality. Vermont is the only state that has successfully passed a labeling law, but it could be held up for years by appeals. Not to mention anti-labelist, corporate-backed politicians have introduced H.R. 4432, a bill that would prevent states’ rights to have mandatory food labeling and would also prevent the FDA from creating a national GMO labeling standard.
But you can’t put the pesticide genie back in the Roundup bottle. The more these companies try to hide what’s in our food, the more we want to know.

3. Locally sourced 
People not only want to know what’s in their food, they want to know the chicken’s middle name and the arugula’s forwarding address. This new farm-curious mentality stems from the rise of farmers’ markets all over the country that’s fostering familial, Main-Street communities. USDA data shows the continued growth of farmers’ markets for every region in the country. Five of the states with the most growth were in the South—Tennessee, Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, and North Carolina. Since this region has some of the highest obesity and poverty rates in the U.S., success here is great news. Community-supported agriculture (CSA) farms are also on the rise, including community seafood that sells sustainable seafood directly from local fishermen to consumers. Expect more artisanal companies to crop up, as well as restaurants touting their chickens’ favorite bedtime lullabies. 

4. Vegan and Gluten-free Menu Items
Restaurants jumped on the “V” and “GF” bandwagons, kowtowing to the cow-less and wheat-less among us—not simply to indulge the trendier-than-thou set. People with real food sensitivities want dishes that are safer than thou. Restaurants are getting serious about allergen training and many have separate menus for top allergens in order to mitigate potential emergency room visits and even fatalities. By law, Massachusetts and Rhode Island require restaurants to provide allergen training to their employees, and similar laws will probably appear in other states or even at the federal level. That way, diners will be less litigious than thou.

5. Dairy-free milks
Many conscious Americans are swapping cow’s milk for plant-based alternatives, and almond milk beats out soy, rice and coconut by a wide margin. However, 80% of the world’s almonds are produced in drought-afflicted California, and 10 percent of California’s water goes to almond farming (it takes 1.1 gallons of water to grow a single almond), so where does that leave almonds on the sustainability meter? Hazelnuts from Oregon could be poised to respond to the nut milk demand. Oregon grows 99% of the country’s hazelnuts, which use less water, are drought-resistant and can thrive with minimal maintenance. Some high-end café owners actually prefer the taste and are already asking is hazelnut milk the new almond milk

6. Pasture-raised meats and grass-fed beef
As consumers are getting savvier about factory-farmed animals that eat GMO grains, we’re seeing more pasture- and grass-fed meats at farmers’ markets from small producers. Grass-fed and grass-finished beef are seeing a greater share of the consumer beef market, and larger producers are selling through chain grocery stores and restaurants. Steve Ells, CEO of Chipotle, says “Over time, we hope that our demand for grass-fed beef will help pave the way for more American ranchers to adopt a grass-fed program, and in doing so turn grass-fed beef from a niche to a mainstream product… Most of the U.S. grass-fed beef that meets our standards is simply not produced in sufficient quantities to meet our demand. That's why we want to encourage more American ranchers to make the transition to raising cattle entirely on grass.”

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Happy Farm-to-table Holidays!

Have a latke-licious Chanukah, and don't skimp on the onions! 

May the season bring warmth to all your chilly days.

Here's wishing you a bounty of beautiful farm-fresh food. 

With gratitude to farmers and farmworkers everywhere, happy holidays from the bottom of my farmers' market bag.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

10 Farm-to-table Centerpieces

You can tell a lot about a person from their table's centerpiece. Mine says I have an eco-chic sensibility. Think hippie chick with a fine art degree and a razor. I did say chic. To me, a bunch of fresh veggies is every bit as sexy as a bouquet of flowers. They might not look all dolled up sitting in a produce bag, but with a little bit of fluffing, you'll have some oooh-baby, come-hither carrots.

It's superficial to look at produce from strictly a nutritional aspect. What's on the outside counts, too. Inspired by the juicy couture of fashionista farmers, I created these farm-to-table centerpieces that you can throw together for any occasion and eat the next day. You can't put yesterday's tulips between your two lips. But you can chow down on these beauties while leaving a light carbon footprint. But make sure to eat your handiwork. Wasting food is neither eco or chic.  

Now presenting my sustainable, eco-chic, farm-to-table centerpieces. Nutritionally filling. Creatively fulfilling. No landfilling.

1. Come-hither Carrot Medley

2. Radiant Radishes

3. Posh Squash and Herbs

4. Glass of Chard

5. Moroccan Herbal Tea Glasses

6. Ravishing Radish Greens

7. Green and Pearl Onion Ensemble

8. Pot de Carrot 

9. Colander Couture

10. Radish-ista Fashionista

Want 10 tips for creating your own centerpiece? Then read my piece, Farm-to-Table Centerpieces for Eco-Chic Entertaining

Related Links:
Ode to a Radish

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Farm-to-Table Centerpieces for Eco-Chic Entertaining

This article originally appeared on Zester Daily and MSN Food & Drink.

If you ask me, perfection is overrated. I give it an 8.2. You can obsess and compulse until you’re just the right shade of blue in the face, but to create an artful eyeful that requires little primping, preening or pruning? That’s a 10. 

Store-bought flowers in a vase are fine—I love the blooming things as much as the next hibiscus hugger. But when you make the meal with your own two hands, shouldn’t your centerpiece complement your handiwork? You don’t have to Martha-size it and grow your own tulips, turnips and twine. But why not throw together something quick and fresh that says, “I am an eco-chic entertainer.” 

Farm-to-table centerpieces that you can eat the next day are creatively fulfilling and less landfilling. Seasonal root vegetables, fruits, herbs, pumpkins and squashes will do all the heavy lifting for you. Well, most of it, anyway. You need at least one good eye. But don’t let it stray into OCD territory. Think fashionista farmer, not perfectionista mogul. Remember, Martha’s not invited. 

Believe it or not, Martha’s not the originator of ornamental fuss. Holiday centerpieces go way back before the decline of carbon civilization.

Centerpieces Through the Ages           

The Romans used decorative leaves, branches and foliage in elaborately designed containers often made of ceramics and rock crystal. 

Aristocratic tables in the Middle Ages were said to be so crammed with food, there wasn’t room for centerpieces, although at Christmas, centerpieces may have included pastry and marzipan shaped like people, animals, scenes or decorative objects.

17th-century tables featured silver or gold platters that showed off the host’s wealth and status with whole animal heads or a cooked peacock with its colorful feathers adorning the platter. 

While the 18thcentury introduced silk and porcelain flowers, the 19thcentury donned fresh flowers, foliage, fruit, candelabras and molded puddings and jellies. Throughout both centuries, centerpieces were often vertically constructed using pyramids of food on tiered dishes called epergnes. 

By World War l, decorative objects began to replace flowers and foliage, but during the 1960s and 70s, flowers and grasses made a comeback.

Today, in the era of climate change and environmental consciousness, I proclaim it the age of the sustainable table with the eco-chic, farm-to-table centerpiece. 

10 tips for creating a farm-to-table centerpiece:

1.   Don’t buy food for a centerpiece that you won’t eat afterwards. Wasting food is not eco chic! (Note: make sure to add water to a vase if you’re using leafy greens.) 
2.   Celebrate the season with local, seasonal produce. Don’t even think about buying fruit from Chile!
3.   Don’t make the arrangements so tall that you can’t see your guests (except for the uninvited ones, so keep some long fennel or chard in the fridge, just in case).
4.   You can line up multiple small (and short) arrangements along the center of the table. Who says a large, dominant one is always the best choice? I think Maria Shriver would agree.
5.   Use glasses, jars, vases and vessels you have around. They don’t have to match. 
6.   Don’t spend money on crap you don’t need (or won’t eat)! Remember those landfills!  
7.   If you’re going to add store-bought flowers, buy them at the farmers’ market and make sure they were grown without pesticides. Cut flowers full of pesticides at the table may spur someone’s allergy. Just sayin’.
8.   Don’t do doilies. You might as well wear an Elizabethan collar. Trust me. Neither are the eco-chic look you’re going for.
9.   No stacked cookies with twine around them. Can you lay off the Pinterest for one lousy day?
10.If someone admires an arrangement, be generous and gift it. Less pressure to use up all those rutabagas (see tip #1).

When you create your own farm-to-table centerpiece, you’ll be an eco-chic badass. And that’s a good thing.

See all 10 centerpieces here.

Monday, November 10, 2014

More Food Network Pitches (the Out-takes)

In my recent Zester Daily piece, Kale Wars? Dumpster Divers? Must See Food TV!, I came up with three Food Network pitches for more nourishing television. So if you haven’t yet savored every scintillating word, please hop over there, savor, scintillate and come back for the out-takes that were a little too out-there for a respectable food site. 

If you liked my "Food Activist Star," "Dumpster Divers" and "Kale Wars" concepts for more filling, yet thrilling television, I hope you'll enjoy this wacky, tacky twosome, too. Here goes:

Skid Row Kitchen

Nice guy Tyler Florence mentors six homeless people from LA’s Skid Row as they vie for a culinary school scholarship. We see them briefly before they are cleaned up and given housing.

Each week, the “culinarians” are taught a basic cooking skill, ending in the preparation of a communal dish that will be served at a homeless shelter. The kitchen scenes will be intercut with scenes of them in their communal housing environment. They are judged on both their kitchen performance and interaction with fellow culinarians. There are two judges—a chef and a mental health expert who will provide as-needed counseling, plus onscreen commentary. Each week, the culinarian who is eliminated will be assigned a social worker who will help find that person housing and a job.

The final two must cook a meal for the judges. The winner gets free housing for a year and a scholarship to attend culinary school.

Knife-wielding, unpredictable street people playing with fire? That's hot!

The audience will have a deeper understanding of the homeless as they attempt to re-enter society and turn their lives around.

Chef Africa

This adaptation of the "Iron Chef" franchise pairs two celebrity chefs each week in a different ebola-free African country who are assigned a local ingredient for a timed cook-off.

Each week, we see the chefs being chaperoned through the local market, interacting with the people. Cut to the chefs in the kitchen studio, each with two local assistants. They have one hour to cook and improvise a multi-course meal around one ingredient that must be in all the dishes. Alton Brown gives the blow-by-blow account, and we also hear commentary on the ingredients’ history, culinary traditions and nutritional information by agronomists, farmers and a nutritionist. The two judges are Ethiopian-born, New York celebrity chef Marcus Samuelsson and one local chef. 

Sample episodes and promo dialogue:

Week 1 
Paula Deen and Sandra Lee in Ethiopia; Ingredient: bambara beans
Paula: "You’re gonna love these bambara beans, y’all!"
Sandra: "Dried bambara beans are inexpensive and make festive tree ornaments."

Week 2
Martha Stewart and Ina Garten in Angola; Ingredient: egusi
Martha: "Egusi seeds. They’re a good thing."
Ina: "Egusi soup. How easy is that?"

Week 3
Rachael Ray and Giada De Laurentiis in Botswana; Ingredient: marama
Rachael: "30-minute marama in a little EVOO? Yummo!"
Giada: "This easy marama dish will be perfect for Jade's lunchbox. And Todd's gonna love it, too!"

Week 4
Bobby Flay and Guy Fieri in Guyana; Ingredient: lablab
Bobby: "Lablab. I can't wait to get grillin'."
Guy: "Hey, it’s Guy in Guyana. I'm gonna make a fierce lablab chili."

The winners from the previous shows return and are assigned to two final teams. The winning team donates the prize money to an African food nonprofit of choice.

Fish-out-of-water celebrity chefs. Foreign ingredients. Paula Deen in Africa. It’s a Neilsen bonanza! 

It will enlighten viewers about different farming practices and cuisines of the world, promote multiculturalism and help eradicate xenophobia.

These out-takes may be a little out there, but trust me. They're completely doable. 

Food Network execs: Have your people call my people. My personal assistant will pencil you in.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Kale Wars? Dumpster Diving? Must-See Food TV!

This article originally appeared on the food site Zester Daily.

I haven’t watched the Food Network since kitchen turned coliseum. The old shows served up a relaxing, aspirational escape, but once they got all Cutthroat, I cut the cord. Instead of relaxing and aspiring, I was stressing and perspiring. Sheesh. If I wanted that kind of anxiety, I’d cook dinner myself. 

With guys full of tats and swagger and show themes like Superstar Sabotage, the Food Network has perfected its junk-food formula to a T. Must-see-testosterone-TV. 

According to The Atlantic, the five most-watched primetime shows on Food Network this year are competitions: Food Network StarWorst Cooks in AmericaChopped TournamentCutthroat Kitchenand Guy’s Grocery Games. According to Nielsen, the 20 most-viewed primetime shows on the Food Network pulled in a median of roughly 1.1 million viewers per episode in 2014, compared to 255,000 viewers per episode in 2000.

Sure, the Food Network has its salt-sugar-fat formula down, but what if it could provide content that both entertained and nourished—edgy and educational—while keeping the ratings intact? Who says suspense, conflict, humiliation and ring-molded entrées with Jackson Pollock-inspired plating can’t have a higher calling? So before the Food Network goes from offal to worse, I propose it start feeding viewers something more nutritious.

Here are three ideas for more filling, yet thrilling Food Network shows. 

#1 Food Activist Star

Former Congressman Dennis Kucinich mentors six “food fighters.” They each have a cause they fight for, whether it’s stopping a retail grocery chain from carrying meat with antibiotics, getting a processed-food company to stop using GMO ingredients, getting a fast-food company to stop sourcing pork from pigs raised in gestation crates or getting a school district to stop sellingsoda in vending machines. 

Each week the food fighters have an assignment, from crafting a strategy and creating a campaign to getting media attention and planning a rally. At the end of each show, one food fighter is eliminated. The three judges are Woody Harrelson, Michael Pollan and activist blogger Vani Hari, aka Food Babe. There will be additional commentary by experts in the field. 

The final two fighters meet with corporate execs from two companies that represent the opposition. The winner is judged on both the effectiveness of the meeting and the campaign as a whole. The prize is the winner’s choice of seed money to start a nonprofit or a year’s salary to work for an existing nonprofit.

The feisty Kucinich gives planetary do-gooders a tough-love education in food politics. Think Donald Trump with a bigger brain and smaller comb. And live wire Woody Harrelson as a judge? ‘Nuf said. 

Viewers will be inspired to work toward a food system that is healthier for people and the planet, while learning how politics influences our food supply.

#2 Dumpster Divers

Jeremy Seifert, filmmaker and star of the film Dive!, hosts two teams of “divers” who hunt for food in dumpsters behind grocery stores. We witness vast amounts of wasted food as they forage through garbage and collect their unspoiled spoils.

Each week, two teams (two divers per team) collect edible food from grocery store dumpsters in shopping carts (a la Guy’s Grocery Games). The second half of the show takes place in a studio kitchen equipped with showers, where the teams emerge squeaky clean and reveal their bounty. They are allowed certain swaps so that it’s even among both teams, and we watch them prepare a meal in a set time. Upon dramatic, heart-thumping music, the “taster” emerges to test each dish to ensure the food is not spoiled before three celebrity chef judges try the dishes. Each week one team is eliminated. There will also be commentary by food waste experts and a lawyer.

The winners from previous shows return and are assigned to two final teams. They must dive at two locations—a grocery store and a bakery—and the meal must include dessert.

Stealthily dressed characters in protective gear and flashlights enter gross-out zones so vivid, we can smell it. And celebrity chefs eating trash? Bon appétit!

The audience will learn eye-opening statistics about food waste in this country that will awaken and empower them to reduce waste.

#3 Kale Wars

Four chefs park their kale carts next to anonymous fast-food chains in inner city food deserts. Each chef hands out samples of a kale dish he/she has made to introduce the fast-food eaters to a healthy alternative with the goal of starting a movement that demands more grocery stores and fresh produce be brought to the area.

Each week takes place in a different food-desert city, from New Orleans and Memphis to Detroit and Chicago. The chefs must get passersby to taste their dishes and to join the “kale revolution.” The recruits sign a petition and agree to write letters, make phone calls to local government officials, go to city council meetings, etc. With chefs strategically staked out in different regions throughout the series, the revolution will spread as cities compete against each other. Each week, the four kale revolution chefs are judged by two chefs and one politician on their kale dishes, as well as the number and quality of recruits they sign up. The winner of each show donates money to a local food bank. 

The winning chefs from previous shows and cities all compete for the grand prize money that the winner will donate to a nonprofit related to food deserts.

Kale pushers on inner city streets gettin’ all up-in-your-face with burger-hungry folks? Hot dog!

The audience will learn about the millions of people in America who live without access to healthy food options, resulting in high levels of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular diseases.

And there you have it.

Food Network execs: Have your people call my people. I’m giving you first dibbs before I shop these gems around. 

Related Link:
More Food Network Pitches (the Out-takes)