Thursday, October 28, 2010

Trends in Food for 2011

The Huffington Post published their 2011 Food and Restaurant Trends and I was really excited to see what they came up with.

This past year, macarons surpassed cupcakes and we traded huge, unseemly portions for small plates. There was a huge movement toward simple cooking, using minimal but high quality ingredients and emphasizing which farm they came from. We wanted comfort food, but we wanted it exactly as we remembered it AND revamped in new, interesting ways. We called Mom about her macaroni and cheese recipe, but we also tried pumpkin penne with Gruyere, truffle oil mac, and macaroni and cheese with cauliflower puree. It seems 2011 will, at least for awhile, continue this trend, as well as branching out into new territory.

HuffPo predicts the dessert for 2011 will be pie. It'd be great to see restaurants trade out dense chocolate cake (it's at every restaurant! the same one!) for airy lemon meringue pie. Small plates and slimmed-down menus should stay for the majority of the year, and we'll see an upswing in single-ingredient restaurants (like this one devoted entirely to peanut butter).

The list also includes various meat bellies, which is wonderful, because pork belly (which gained popularity this year) is delicious. It's usually found in Asian and some Southern cuisine. I don't think neck will fare as well as they do, however I thought the same about cod cheeks last year and was dead wrong.

Hummus was mentioned, which could go one of two ways. If they mean simple, as-God-intended-it hummus, I agree with the list. Hummus never goes out of style. If they expect to see crazy variations a la 2009/early 2010, they're barking up the wrong olive tree. They also claimed hay would become an integral ingredient for smoking and roasting, which I'd never heard of before. A quick Google search shows there are plenty of meat-enthusiasts who have already tried various ways of flavoring with hay. I'd be up for a hay-infused dish -- I imagine hay would lend an earthy and sweet flavor. If Nick and I were the type to grill, we'd do it ourselves, but I'll leave it up to someone who has done it before. Hay is probably insanely flammable.

All in all, I'm thinking it was a good list. There were several more predictions, which you can check out in the slide show here. I don't entirely understand what they meant by 'dirt', because they then clarified by saying "dried, crumbled, and powdered ingredients" instead of sauce. I understand seeking different texture combinations, but I just don't get 'dirt'.

What do you expect to see in 2011's spotlight? What do you hope falls out of favor?

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Homemade Food Isn't Special -- It's Normal

(Sorry for being gone for so long!)

Homemade? I'll Take It!
It's unfortunate that we commend people on making 'homemade' anything. One of the selling points about our desserts at my restaurant are that they, like our soups, are homemade. People ooh and ahh and decide then and there, that since it's so different, they want it. That's sad.

It's understandable that since women have entered the workforce, they have less time to spend in the kitchen. In the past, women spent over an hour cooking daily when today, you can only catch the family cook in the kitchen for an average of 27 minutes. It doesn't help that the supermarket and the media has made it much more attractive for busy men and women to simply pierce the plastic with a fork and microwave on high for three minutes. Voila, dinner!

The Kitchen as a Sports Arena
And even on cooking shows, the emphasis is on saving time. Semi-Homemade by Sandra Lee and 30-Minute Meals by Rachel Ray make this evident. Dump in a bowl, stir, and heat. When any sort of expertise or craftsmanship is shown, it's entirely too quick for an amateur to emulate: Iron Chef, for instance. On Iron Chef, beautiful, unique meals (most of which get high ratings for flavor) are created and then judged within an hour. Because of the time constraint and Alton Brown's football commentator persona, there is little to no educational value -- knife work and other nuances are lost.

The Price
Our wide-eyed fascination with food and our complete lack of interest in cooking are in no way compatible. With less and less time spent on making meals (and marveling at the people that do find time), the fatter and fatter a nation becomes. Our nation, to be specific. Food corporations know that people are hard-wired to love sugar, fat and salt -- guess what those prepared meals are chock full of? These ingredients keep you coming back, time and time again, as you and your children grow heavier. It's easy, it's literally addictive, and it's killing us.

I honestly feel as though today's men and women have more resources available to them than their parents and grandparents did concerning making homemade meals. Sure, they copied what their mothers did, but we have the ability to cook across cultural barriers. There are thousands of cookbooks in bookstores (ranging from burgers to beef shawarma) and YouTube tutorials on things as simple as dicing a tomato or roasting spices. Our food options are limitless now, but sadly we tend to reach for what's easy and fast instead of what is interesting and delicious.

Demystifying Food
Cooking may be magical at times, but it's not magic. Food blogs are a fantastic way to find real-life recipes made by regular people with normal schedules, kids, and often no formal training. I found this recipe, this one, and dozens more that are now part of our regular meal rotation. Use the resources at your fingertips: the internet, the library, and your friends and family. The only way to break our dependency on boxed meals is to educate ourselves and spend more time in the kitchen.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

You're Fat Because You're Poor

A family-sized box of Kraft Mac n Cheese in my local grocery store is 89 cents. A bunch of organic carrots costs $2.76.

When families are faced with making dinner on a budget (and honestly, how many families aren't?), often times the Blue Box wins out over vegetables.

And who can blame them? I wouldn't just serve carrots to my (non-existent, future) children.And if I had to choose how to best stretch my dollar, 89 cents to feed three people sounds a whole lot better than nearly $3 for a side dish.

Saving Money, Losing Health
However, saving money on cheap, processed meals means costly health problems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have found that in our obese nation, our poorest citizens are also our fattest. Obesity isn't just coupled with low self esteem or poor body image -- it also brings diabetes, heart disease, and even cancer to the dinner table. In Texas alone, the high availability of nutrient-poor, high-calorie processed food is costing the state $15.6 billion in health care costs.

The problem, again, goes back to the subsidization of corn. Corn is able to add calories to just about any and all processed foods. Calories are cheap -- nutrients are not.

Nutrients are also sometimes difficult to keep shelf-stable. In many urban areas, which are also referred to as 'food deserts', the only place to buy groceries is at the convenience store on the corner. The lack of space and inability to keep fresh products means no fruits, vegetables, or sometimes even milk. Minorities are especially hard hit: besides predominately inhabiting urban areas, the food seems to have more detrimental effects. African-Americans are 1.8 times more likely than whites to be diabetic, and a whopping 25% of African-Americans between 65 and 74 are diabetic. Diabetics, especially, need constant access to real food -- those that have to survive in a food desert have five times as many visits to the doctor as diabetics with access to adequate food.

Some states have proposed 'fat taxes', taxing foods that are calorie-dense and fat laden. This could potentially even the playing field in the supermarket -- coupled with education, consumers on a budget may choose carrots over chips.

Legislators are hesitant to promote a 'fat tax', however, because it suggests that overweight people are being penalized. This isn't the case -- it's making food that has no redeeming value less attractive in terms of price.

Another idea is to offer a 'thin subsidy', which would reward healthy food choices. Of course, no one is going to be calling your house to see if you've eaten your fruits and veggies every day -- the subsidy would be based on your grocery bill. This too isn't gaining much political ground, since offering incentives to better the lives of Americans isn't popular among some members of Congress.

More importantly, I think, is making it known that in most states, EBT cards (formerly known as food stamps) can be used in farmers markets. It may be easier to push legislation allowing the use of EBT cards at the farmers market than implementing fat taxes or thin subsidies.

In the meantime, please keep in mind that the only people who are profiting from your thrifty attitudes toward food are the food corporations and the insurance companies.