cooking for revolution

the New York Times had a nice piece yesterday on Chez Panisse's Alice Waters and her new cookbook, which reportedly focuses on simplicity, and local, organic ingredients ("Lunch With Alice Waters, Food Revolutionary"). having recently rejoined a CSA in California, i've been thinking a lot myself about how i prefer to cook around good fresh ingredients than get caught up with complicated multi-step concoctions. since my first box of produce arrived last week, i've made a simple leek and cauliflower soup with vegetable stock (which i make in batches and keep on hand in the freezer), a very basic tomato and butter sauce with two pounds of perfect plum tomatoes (according to Marcella Hazan's recipe in The Classic Italian Cookbook), a white bean soup showcasing my partner's homemade beef stock (and not much else, though it did take an afternoon to prepare, and a trip to Prather Ranch Meat Co. for their phenomenal organic, pasture raised beef), and this week, a tomato eggplant saute, with a little red wine and olives, ladled over semi-pearled farro. i'm sure i could invest time in more complicated recipes and serve more sophisticated meals, and when i invite company for dinner, maybe i'll plan something more involved. but the produce from our new CSA has been reminding us of why local and seasonal makes such a marked difference. the tomatoes have been deep red and nearly bursting, with intense, sweet flavor. the eggplant had a tenderness and delicate flavor that buoyed the saute it went into, the sweet peppers have been crisp and sweet and abundant, and the salad lettuces have been fresh and leafy and needed just a little olive oil and fleur-de-sel salt to become a lovely side dish. even the cauliflower tasted good.

anyhow, the article about Ms. Waters reiterates the increasingly visible connections between the food system, individual health, and the quality of what we eat everyday. it also touches on the Slow Food movement and the ideas behind "eco-gastronomy," though they haven't taken hold in the US as much as in Europe. the article also discusses shopping at a local Manhattan "greenmarket," and preparing a deceptively simple late summer lunch with locally procured ingredients. the menu is alluring, but in the end, the article trails off somewhat ineffectively, echoing its portrayal of Ms. Waters as an influential figure in a growing movement against the conventional food system whose methods are quaintly and sadly out of step with the times, and therefore doomed to make little lasting impact.

still, articles like this indicate a growing attention in the mainstream media to holistic concerns over food production and consumption, and how everyday shopping, cooking and eating habits cannot be disconnected from the broader system under which food is grown, processed and distributed. though as a fact this connection may seem obvious enough, the centralization of food production has largely cut most of us off from how and where our food is produced, so that for most of us, food comes from a supermarket, not a field. as a reminder, the US Farm Bill is up for renewal this fall (which, as Professor Kenneth Dahlberg notes, is really a food bill, not just a farm bill, "Proposed Farm Bill Falls Short on Food Security," Detroit Free Press, September 20, 2007). this, among other things, is that bill that determines farm subsidies, which have buoyed overproduction of corn for many years, depressing its market price and thereby inducing the food industry to create all kinds of products to act as vehicles for its cheap excesses of corn -- high fructose corn syrup, corn starch, corn-fed beef and chicken, etc. unfortunately, it may already be too late to contact your representatives to reform the farm bill, but it's an issue well worth following anyhow (for Californians, OrganicConsumers.org had a campaign for taking action).

and lastly, because this blog is about food from production to consumption, here's my recipe for a Proven├žal-influenced late summer tomato-eggplant saute:

Tomato Eggplant Saute Proven├žal

1 cup onions or shallots, diced fine
2-3 garlic cloves, peeled and minced
1 large or 2 medium eggplants, diced into small cubes
2 cups fresh or canned tomatoes, diced
1-2 teaspoons olive oil
red wine (about 1/2 cup)
1 tsp dried thyme
1/2 tsp dried tarragon
1/2 tsp dried marjoram
1 tsp dried basil or a few tbsp fresh, rinsed and torn
10-12 pitted black olives such as kalamata, sliced lengthwise

In a large seasoned iron skillet or heavy-bottomed sauce pan, heat the olive oil on medium-high and add the onions or shallots. Sprinkle with a little salt to release the juices, and stir frequently, or lower the heat and cover to sweat. When the onions are translucent (about five minutes), add the garlic, and saute until pale gold. Then add the eggplant and more oil if necessary, to coat. Add a little more salt, and cover, stirring occasionally, until the eggplant release their liquid and start to brown, about 5-10 minutes. Stir in the tomatoes and red wine, and increase the heat, bringing the pan to a rapid simmer. Add in the dried herbs, crumbling between thumb and forefinger as you do so. Cook uncovered for about five minutes, until the liquid has reduced, and then cover and simmer on lower heat another 5-10 minutes, until the eggplant are tender. Stir in the olives, and add salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste. Serve over pasta, farro or other whole grain, and top with grated parmesan.

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