Tuesday, August 26, 2008

We Are What We Eat

Common sense dictates that we are what we eat. It's also widely accepted that what a mother eats when pregnant and, later, when breast feeding, greatly influences a baby's health and well-being.

Additionally, some (myself included) think that a baby's taste buds and eating habits develop in relation to the mother's diet.

Read more in an interesting Op-Ed piece in The New York Times.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Fruits and Vegetables: I Want a Lemon Cucumber!

Unfortunately, the variety of fruits and vegetables available at local supermarkets is startlingly limited. Sure, there is a bevy of produce on display--carrots, plums, summer squash, peppers, etc.--but, for the most part, only one or two types of each are for sale.

In reality, dozens (and sometimes hundreds) of varieties of every fruit and vegetable exist. Yet, the economics of modern agribusiness have conspired to leave us with the one or two kinds of (fill in the blank) that grow, travel and store the best, with little regard for flavor and nutrition.

Thus, most of us will never see (or taste) a Green Gage plum, a lemon cucumber (photo, above right), an 8-ball zucchini or a husk tomato, which is truly a shame. Instead, supermarkets proffer peaches that are the exact same shape (perfectly round), size (a little smaller than a tennis ball), color (hues of orange, yellow and red) and flavor (none). It’s really quite disturbing; do Homer Simpson and Ned Flanders look anything alike?

During the summer months, I try to bring uncommon produce to my cooking lessons. Lemon cucumbers (yellow and round) are consistently a crowd pleaser. After the initial “What are those?” reactions, the cucumbers are sliced and eaten. In addition to the novelty factor, the crisp, citrusy flavor is always a hit.

Where to go for these different varieties? Your best bets are farmers markets and farm stands. This past Monday at the Union Square farmers market in New York City, Red Jacket Orchards was selling five kinds of (ripe) plum--Prune (purple), Sugar (yellow), Green Gage (green), Castetla (reddish/purple) and Red (uhh . . . red)--which all had distinct, succulent flavors.

That same day, Food Emporium on 68th & Broadway had two kinds of plums--red and black. All were hard as rocks, despite the attached stickers proclaiming they were “Tree Ripe.” I’ve got a better chance of beating Michael Phelps in the 200-meter individual medley than you do of finding a tree-ripened plum at Food Emporium.

Also at the farmers market, Maxwell’s Farm was selling (by my count) seven different types of yellow and green summer squash (photo, left). You’d be amazed at the varied shapes and sizes. Food Emporium, by contrast, had two: the omnipresent, 6-inch, torpedo-shaped zucchini and yellow squash.

Granted, some of the uncommon varieties may not be eye candy to everyone, but Marge Simpson did think Homer was hot at one point.

Two recent articles from The New York Times (about endangered culinary items and bananas) touch on the subject of our limited food choices.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Tremblay Apiaries' Honey: An Unrefined Sweetener

One of my new favorite foods is honey.

Pure, raw and unfiltered honey is a wonderful treat--it’s sweet, flavorful and nutritious.

Honey is made from the nectar of flowers. Bees collect the nectar, return to their hives and reduce the nectar’s moisture content by beating their wings near it, turning it into honey. Beekeepers then morph this product into room temperature honey that is bottled in its liquid, syrup form.

Honey is not a uniform product; it appears in countless flavors and colors, depending on the flower from which the bees collect the nectar.

All honeys, though, have great nutritional and health properties. Honeys made close to your home can help in allergy relief, since the local plant pollen found in the honey acts as a natural shield against seasonal sneezing, itchy eyes and stuffed noses. Try a spoonful of local honey in lieu of over-the-counter allergy medicines.

In addition to being rich in antioxidants, honey can also help in the healing of minor scrapes and burns (because of its antibacterial and antifungal capabilities). Try using honey instead of over-the-counter triple antibacterial cream.

On Fridays at the Union Square (NYC) farmers market, Tremblay Apiaries sells up to ten varieties of honey, depending on the season. Tremblay’s website cautions that if you should “find a variety that you simply adore, buy a stock of it since we may never have exactly that combination again!”

My latest purchase from Tremblay was Linden honey (from the Linden tree). It’s light in color and has minty overtones, and is completely different from the Japanese Knotweed I bought over the winter. That is much darker in color and has a deeper, richer flavor. Trust me; they are both delicious.

(FYI, I’ll personally guarantee your purchase. As long as you don’t double dip, I’ll buy your Tremblay honey from you if you don’t like it.)

Pricewise, Tremblay’s honey is a bargain. A one pound jar is only $4, half the price of other farmers market honey and cheaper than most commercial honey found in supermarkets.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Great Ice Cream - Van Leeuwen Artisan (Part 2)

Ben Van Leeuwen loves food. Mr. Softee, meet your grass-fed, synthetic-free match.

Van Leeuwen is the boyish-looking founder of the eponymous company that started offering ten flavors of premium ice cream in late June, sold from two trucks in Manhattan.

Business is brisk, especially on summer nights, and customers seem hooked on the ice cream’s flavor and quality ingredients and intrigued by the old-fashioned truck.

“It’s going great,” Van Leeuwen said from his usual evening spot on University Place between 11th and 12th Streets. (The second truck, manned by either Ben’s brother, Pete, or Dan Suarez, travels from neighborhood to neighborhood on a rotating basis.) “People’s reactions are perfect.”

And well they should be, since the ice cream tastes clean and not too sweet, with a proper balance of flavors. The chocolate is complex and deep, the espresso tastes like coffee, the strawberry tastes like strawberry and the ginger tastes like ginger. Small cups (the choice of most people) are $3.95. Pints, a better buy if you are on your way home, are $8.

Van Leeuwen’s motto is written on the two trucks:

“Welcome to Van Leeuwen Artisan, the original gourmet ice cream truck. We make our ice cream with fresh hormone free milk and cream from local farms, cane sugar and eggs. Our flavors come from the finest small producers all over the world.”

In addition, most of the milk and cream comes from grass-fed cows.

Van Leeuwen is no novice to the ice cream business--he drove a Good Humor truck during summers in the Connecticut suburb where he grew up--and his passion for food is palpable.

“It gave me the idea for the business,” he said of his Good Humor experience. “Selling food out of a truck is a good model for New York City. The ice cream truck was waiting to be reinvented.”

Why the avoidance of the usual stabilizers, emulsifiers, refined sugars and hormone-ridden ingredients found in most commercial and many high-end ice creams?

“It just tastes good,” Van Leeuwen said. “Since I was a kid, I thought junk food was disgusting.”

According to Van Leeuwen, even the premium ice creams employ--in addition to fresh milk--condensed milk or milk powder to help thicken the final product. Van Leeuwen eschews such techniques, and the results are obvious.

“Ours has a lighter taste,” he said. “But it’s still creamy and the flavors come through.”

Whole Foods will start selling pints in a limited number of area stores toward the end of the summer.

Van Leeuwen may be soft-spoken and have a pacific demeanor, but he isn’t bashful about his capitalist business goals.

“I want to have lots of trucks and be in stores all over,” he said. “My greed is limitless.”

Friday, August 1, 2008

Great Ice Cream - Van Leeuwen Artisan

I’m eating ice cream again and not worrying if I’m going to grow a third ear in the process.

I recently had my first taste of Van Leeuwen Artisan ice cream, which is available from the company’s two trucks in Manhattan. One of the trucks was in my neighborhood and I was immediately drawn in by the writing next to the side service window.

“Welcome to Van Leeuwen Artisan, the original gourmet ice cream truck. We make our ice cream with fresh hormone free milk and cream from local farms, cane sugar and eggs. Our flavors come from the finest small producers all over the world.”

Eureka! No more need to worry about the stabilizers, emulsifiers, refined sugars and pesticide-ridden milk and cream which will spring the extra ear I don’t need.

I bought a small cup for $3.95, split between coffee and chocolate. (A pint--the best deal--is $8.)

The tastes were clean and not too sweet, and the texture was dense. Real ice cream! I also tried the ginger, strawberry and mint chip. They were all delicious.

I introduced myself to the guy in the truck, Dan Suarez. (You'll also find company founder Ben Van Leeuwen, and his brother, Pete, selling cups and cones.)

I asked Dan about the genesis of the milk and cream.

“Most of it is grass-fed, and all of it is hormone-free,” Dan said. “The ice cream is made in Boonville, New York according to our recipes.”

Boonville is just west of Adirondack Park, in Oneida County. The ice cream’s milk and cream come from farms in the area.

The guys started selling their ice cream from the two trucks at the end of June, after extensive recipe testing. Whole Foods will begin selling pints later this summer.

“Ben and Pete, when they were younger,” Dan said, “sold Good Humor in the ‘burbs over the summers. Ben said, ‘I hate giving out Good Humor; I don’t eat Good Humor ever. Why not do the same thing with real ice cream?’”

Just then, a cabbie parked his taxi and handed two $1 bills to Dan through the truck’s back window.

“Ice cream?” the driver asked.

“Yea,” Dan answered. “It’s $3.95.”

The cabbie snatched his $2 back.

“It’s the real stuff,” Dan said, to no avail.

The taxi sped away, presumably to find a Mr. Softee truck and its chemical-ridden product.

The money saved will come in handy when the cabbie pays to have his body detoxified.

In the meantime, wear your seatbelt; toxic shock syndrome can strike unexpectedly, at any time, on any avenue.