Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend part of the [ New York City Meat Hackathon ], a three day brainstorming event that brought together programmers, entrepreneurs, policy experts and farmers with the aim of solving some of the problems surrounding the ethics of eating meat in the US. As its name implies, the idea behind a Meat Hackathon was to use extant technologies to create tools for the various parties involved in sustainable meat production, from the farmers themselves to home cooks who, if they’re privileged enough, have the choice of buying it.

Several institutions, dubbed the “steak-holders,” were invited to present challenges  to teams of tech- and food-oriented enthusiasts who would come up with ideas to address them. It was interesting to see the variety of entities represented, which ranged from food-production corporations like  [Applegate ] to representatives from non-profit advocacy groups like [ Food and Water Watch ]. The teams would then have a day to formulate ideas and create prototypes for tool that would be presented to a panel of judges. The team that produced the best idea would win an award. You can read more about the challenges [ here ].

In my capacity as a fly on the wall I was able to observe some of the planning sessions on Saturday afternoon. I was particularly drawn to the challenges presented by the Vermont Meat Processing Working Group. In brief, the challenge was to help farmers raising sustainable meat in Vermont better communicate with processors and consumers and hopefully turn better profits in doing so. It was interesting, although not surprising, to hear that while demand for sustainably raised meat is on the rise, the interest doesn’t always translate to good business for small-scale farmers on the production end. The issues involved were complex, ranging from farmers’ inability to schedule appointments at slaughterhouses to the consumers’ lack of understanding just what went into producing meat sustainably and, thus, the rationale behind higher costs in markets.

I was curious to see what the groups came up with and returned Sunday evening to find out. There were three pitches presented for tech tools related to the Vermont Meat Processors’ challenge. First was the cleverly-named [ Slot for Slaught ], a website allowing farmers to find and schedule appointments at slaughterhouses months in advance. Second was another web-based tool called FarmStamp, which acts like a FedEx tracking system for animals moving from farm to processor to market. Finally, there was a smart-scale called [ CARV ] that would allow data related to cuts of meat passing through the slaughterhouse and processing facility to be quickly digitized and stored on a server. CARV ended up taking first place over all, and Slot for Slaught came in second.


As a decidedly not tech-savvy person, I was impressed. But I think the true value of the event for me was that it raised more questions than it answered. One question I was left with is whether it is truly sustainable for people who live in major cities to eat sizable portions of meat on a regular basis. Is it really cost effective for a farmer in Vermont to export meat to farmers’ markets in New York? Even if this problem is surmountable, will the increasing demand eventually lead farmers to cut corners and produce bigger, faster?

I’m not an expert these issues, but from the perspective of an urbanite on a budget, I think the answer is probably eating less meat of better quality, maybe even far less. In order for quality and ethics to be ensured, the cost is going to be high and the amount produced lower than what we’re used to seeing on the shelves of supermarkets, even places like Whole Foods, where sustainability is pushed.

I’m not the first to advocate the “less of higher quality” approach by any means. This principle is encoded into some of the oldest and complex cuisines in the world. Next time you’re eating a bowl of Vietnamese noodles, assess how much meat is in there. There might be a few slices of meat, far less than you’d get at an American steak house, and yet it still tastes satisfying and meaty because it contains a broth that was extracted from other parts of the animal that often go in the trash.

There is a deeper, more systemic attitude that we in the US will eventually have to change if we’re going to “make meat more democratic,” in the words of the Hackathon’s sponsors. Namely, this will be accepting that eating less animal protein may not necessarily mean eating less well. I’ve always been a “sides” person, and I believe more and more that balanced meals of costly but ethically-produced meat not just supplemented with but complemented by vegetables on the plate is a conceivable way forward.

Steak for two

Comb your supermarket, butcher or farmer’s market to assess your options. Read labels and talk to people who know more about meat than you. Ask the opinion of your butcher about what cuts are cost effective and choose something that is within your range but you feel good about buying. Ask about the differences between top loin, tenderloin, Porterhouse, T-Bone, ribeye and flat iron. Feel empowered with the information you now have. Buy half the amount of a sustainably-produced cut you’d usually buy per person and feed two for one. Trust that your side dishes will pick up the slack for you.

Take your cut home, season with salt and pepper and sauté in lots of butter in a cast-iron skillet until it’s cooked to the consistency you prefer, which should be medium rare or below if you’ve got quality meat. Each side should be browned but the center should still be pink. Let it sit for ten minutes after frying so that you don’t lose all the juices.

But before you even cook the steak, start your sides.

If it’s fall or winter, get colorful potatoes, squashes, kale, shallots. Make the potatoes into oven fries and garnish with tabasco, or pan fry onions until they caramelize. Steam kale the Italian way: in olive oil and chili flakes, or turn it into a more decadent gratin with béchamel sauce and parmesan cheese, baked until bubbling in the oven. Squash likes to be roasted or gratinated. I prefer the latter.

If it’s summer, get juicy tomatoes and [ slow roast them with rice ]. Nothing could be better alongside a steak than good tomatoes, seasoned with salt and pepper and slow cooked until the point of collapse . Make salads of sweet zucchini dressed in oil, vinegar, chili, or prepare some creamed spinach with pearl onions.

In spring, buy a big head of iceberg lettuce to make an old-fashioned wedge salad. There is nothing more simple and yet so decadent as a wedge of iceberg lettuce covered with bleu-cheese dressing.

Plate everything nicely. You might even cut your steak into nice slices or place it to one side of the plate and one of your sides in the center. Avoid the blue-plate special hunk of meat in the forefront and two sad lumps of veg in the back approach. Relish the fact that you can enjoy all of this luxury.


Now that I’m about halfway through a fall CSA, I want to post some thoughts here about how it has affected cooking, shopping and eating. On average, I’m still going out to eat as much as I cook (about 1 in 3 meals out). That’s fine with me because I enjoy eating in a restaurant as much as I do eating in. This is for another post, but there are some things I believe should not be prepared by home cooks. Pizza, for example.

I’ve commented before that I don’t think costs have changed much. I still spend about as much on groceries as I did before, including the cost of the CSA per week.

One thing that has changed, however, is the amount of planning I do. Getting a weekly shipment of vegetables dictates at least some of the things I’m going to make. I’ve found that this constraint can be either a nagging annoyance or an unexpected pleasure. This depends on the amount of planning you are willing to put in and fun you are willing to have with it.

It doesn’t require much time, actually, just a few minutes with your vegetables. I like to array them on my desk or on top of a flat shelf behind the couch. I clear everything else off and let them sit there silently. A few dull moments and then the ideas come. I use this as an excuse to write with pen and paper, something I rarely do otherwise these days. I jot things down. Raw materials I have and must use within the week are underlined. Arrows are drawn from one to the next, boxes go around the names of complete dishes, showing the way ingredients can fit together to form something greater than the sum of the parts. Then in the margins, those ingredients that I don’t have are listed. An instant shopping list for the week and a chance to ask myself it all of those extras are really necessary.

This is something I am starting to look forward to ahead of time. Both productive and enjoyable, it’s a way to use my hands and eyes to come up with wild ideas when the stakes are low. The worst that can happen is that a meal doesn’t taste as good as you thought it might.

I’m not advocating spending an hour (unless you want to and then I’d say go for it). Just ten minutes with a clear surface, an array of ingredients you want to use, and some writing utensils.


Two purple-topped rutabagas are currently staring me down and I’m feeling a bit intimidated. I could peel them, chop them and roast them in a pan but that feels like an easy out. I turn to my bookshelf for support and pull off two of my standbys: Nigel Slater’s Tender and The San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook. I like them each for different reasons: the former for its taxonomy by vegetable (in alphabetical order!) and the latter for its regimen of straightforward and sensible dishes that are vegetable-heavy but never bland. Another thing I like about this practice: ten minutes with vegetables results in more cookbook reading.

I thumb through the pages. Slater has an entire section devoted to rutabaga. One recipe immediately stands out. It’s titled “A baked cake of rutabaga and potato.” The recipe calls for very thinly slicing rutabagas and potatoes, layering them in a pan with a sauce made from butter, garlic, Dijon mustard, thyme and vegetable stock, adding plenty of salt to taste, and baking until golden brown. According to Slater, “Rutabaga’s ability to sponge up liquid is shown to good effect when it is baked with butter and vegetable stock.” I have potatoes in my share this week, and Dijon mustard in the fridge. One should always try to have butter and stock kicking around. I’m sold.

Tonight I have to spend some more time planning how to use the rest of this week’s veg, and I have leftovers to use up from last week, but I’m already looking forward to making that rutabaga and potato cake in a couple of days. I’m going to update this post when I do.

photo copy


Update [Dec. 16, 2012]: I did eventually make Slater’s cake of rutabaga and potato and, as promised above, am posting it here now:

A baked cake of rutabaga and potato (From Nigel Slater, Tender: A Cook and His Vegetable Patch)

Notes: I made this twice- it was a great way to use rutabaga. Good-tasting mustard is key since you will be putting 2 tablespoons of this in the sauce. I had a vinegary grain mustard on hand, but the recipe calls for dijon. Either way would work, just make sure you like the taste of whatever you choose. I didn’t have butter so I used olive oil. This was also fine, and lightened the taste substantially. Next time I’ll try butter though.


1 lb potatoes

1 lb rutabaga

4 cloves garlic

7 tbs butter or olive oil, or a mix thereof

Dijon or vinegary grain mustard

1/2 cup vegetable stock

Salt and pepper to taste


Preheat oven to 375 F.

Peel the rutabaga and wash the potatoes well. Fill a large bowl half way with cold water.

Slice the washed and peeled veg into very, very thin disks (you want them to be semi-transparent). Put the rutabaga slices in the cold water while finishing so that they don’t turn brown.

Peel and thinly slice garlic. Melt butter over medium heat in a pan, add the garlic and sauté until fragrant. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in mustard.

Now pat the rutabaga and potato slices dry and arrange them in a layer in the bottom of a smallish baking dish or casserole. Over this layer, pour about a third of the butter/mustard mixture. Add salt and pepper – be liberal with both. Then repeat this step twice more. Finally, pour the 1/2 cup of stock over the top.

Cover the dish tightly with aluminum foil (I didn’t have any, so I just got another dish and made a lid out of it) and put it in the oven. Cook until the vegetables have become soft – about an hour. Then remove the foil and turn up to 425 F, browning the top.

Serve with a crisp salad or simple omelets with chunks of bacon.

Here’s a thought: the days after Thanksgiving are just as exciting as the day of. When else during the year are leftovers so exciting? I loved our Thanksgiving dinner, but I might remember even more fondly the flautas with turkey and salad we had on Saturday with hot cocoa. Then there were days-after-Thanksgivings long ago with Turkey-salad sandwiches and glasses of champaign with family friends.

Even after the sandwiches, there’s more enjoyment to be had. If I had made my own this year (I didn’t) I’d have made a light soup out of the carcass like I do sometimes with leftover roast chicken.


After you make sandwiches or flautas or whatever with the choice meat of your bird, cut up the carcass  into several large pieces. In a large pot, bring a couple of tablespoons of olive oil up to heat, and cook the pieces of bird until fragrant. If you have an onion and celery you can add these too, but if not that’s fine. Fill the pot with water so that it almost but not quite covers the solids, add lots of salt and a handful of peppercorns and bring to low boil. Then simmer for an hour and a half or so. Remove the solid pieces and let them cool.

Meanwhile, make long-grain rice with a few ladles of the now chickeny broth.

After the pieces of chicken/turkey are cooled, strip off any remaining large chunks of meat and throw it back in the pot. They should really fall right off the bones by this point, and there will be more than you thought. Let all of it simmer while the rice cooks. Serve the hot broth with a few pieces of meat over the rice. Garnish with more salt and olive oil.

Food isn’t the only thing I look forward to in the time surrounding but not on Thanksgiving. On Thanksgiving nights and following afternoons I like long walks in the cold and look to see who has put up lights already. Or just enjoy the cold.


The Friday after is always a great night for drinking. And for karaoke.

What do you do on the Days After?

This week I was reminded how much I love to read cookbooks. It is a simple but deep pleasure that has been consistent since as long as I can remember.

My parents had a good many cookbooks. There was a shelf in our kitchen, and the bottom two racks were occupied with cookbooks. A large number of them were part of a series titled The Good Cook published by [ Time Life in the 70s and 80s ]. Each volume (I seem to remember there being around 20?) was dedicated to a specific food group – cheese, poultry, eggs, wine, etc. How many a Saturday afternoon did I spend thumbing through the pages of those books, wondering at the still-life-like images of cheese boards, all labeled meticulously, or photographs of aspics studded with hard cooked eggs, ham and pickles, like savory loaves of bread from an another planet.

There must have been recipes that we actually made from these books, but I mostly remember the experience of looking at them resolutely, over and over.

Nothing satisfies me more than acquiring and thumbing through an old fashioned cookbook. These are the only books I still buy in paper-and-binding form, in fact. Everything else- from fiction to the purely academic- is alright scanned or downloadable.

The problem is that throughout my adult life, I have never allowed myself to actually enjoy reading cookbooks. Sure, I have quite a few and I do read them and use them, but there’s a voice in the back of my head telling me I should be doing something more productive. This week it dawned on me as I was thumbing through a new cookbook with my morning coffee that maybe these pleasures are more productive than I previously thought. Sometimes I feel a glaring disconnect between what I do for most of the day and what I love to do – I assume most people do. What if that gap could be shortened? How to go about doing so?

This month I bought two cookbooks that I had been wanting to read for a long while. It’s great to have them and they have made my mornings and evenings a great deal more pleasant.

The first was The Canal House Cooks Everyday, by Melissa Hamilton and Christopher Hirsheimer, of the [ Canal House ]. Just like their photo-blog, “The Canal House Cooks Lunch,” these women present straightforward cooking with just the right amount of elegance and indulgence. It gets me excited about a lunch of tomato sandwiches but also encourages me to invest in a good bottle of wine every now and then. I plan to make their chestnut and pearl onion stuffing tomorrow for Thanksgiving. My mouth waters just thinking about it.

The second was Tamar Adler’s [ An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace ]. So far, this has been worth every cent. I don’t remember reading a cookbook with so many ideas packed into each page or that made me more excited about using what I have in my fridge. There are relatively few full recipes and no pictures in this book (at least in my paperback version), and yet I’ve made more use of it than most of my favorite recipe-and-picture cookbooks. The underlying message is that great cooking can be very simple and frugal and that the best meals begin “on the tails” of the last. It’s a waste-not want-not approach to truly eating and living well, and I highly recommend it.

Last week’s CSA delivery seems to have been cosmically aligned to respond to my mini-epiphany that I should indulge my cook-bookery. More squash and root veg arrived, including Jerusalem artichokes, which gave me the opportunity to turn to the books to figure out what to make.

Until very recently, I have to admit that I thought a Jerusalem artichokes were regular globe artichokes  pickled in brine and sold in a jar. I think somehow my wires got crossed, and I mapped “Jerusalem” onto canned artichoke hearts of the Mount Olive Brand (because the Mount of Olives is in Jerusalem?). I had the Mount Olive logo in my mind, but had replaced the words with “Jerusalem.” Every once and a while, a touch of Alabama rears its head in ways I can’t suppress.

Anyway, as I’m sure you all know, Jerusalem artichokes aren’t artichokes and they aren’t pickled. They are delicious, however, and do taste strangely of artichoke. Ever since I read Nigel Slater on the subject, I’d been wanting to cook them, but I just never got around to buying them. Slater’s book is another cookbook that I turn to again and again just to read. I was inspired by a recipe in Tender for braised Jerusalem artichokes with onions and sausages, which I modified slightly to suit what I had around:

1 large onion

3-4 hands-full Jerusalem artichokes, chopped in half

1 lemon, cut into thick wedges

4 pork sausages – mine included fennel seed, which Slater’s recipe called for

Olive oil

A bunch of parsley, leaves removed from stems and stems saved

Salt and Pepper to taste

Brown the sausages in a large dutch oven and then remove, leaving behind a couple of tbs of grease. Meanwhile, chop the onion in medium to large dice – think caramelized bratwurst onions – you want them to keep their shape. Then cook the onions in the grease and some olive oil over low heat until they caramelize and can be smashed with a wooden spoon. Salt and pepper them. Then add the halved Jerusalem artichokes and stir around until they’re coated with the onions. Add sausages and lemons, and enough water to cover. Bring to a simmer, taste for salt and pepper again, and then cook until the artichokes are soft enough so they almost melt in your mouth, add parsley, stir a few times and serve.

Delicious, but not photogenic, so I do not include a picture here.

Following the advice of Adler, I used the leftovers from this dish to make a quick sandwich that I ate on my way out the door to LGA- she recommends this for any leftovers of roasted vegetables. I used the parsley stems and onion husks to make a vegetable stock. I also got 4 full meals out of my squash by making her end-of-the-week vegetable curry. I’m a convert.

This week I was late to pick up my CSA, but it went to a food pantry and I’m in Chicago anyway, so it’s all good.

Happy thanksgiving to everyone.

The first week’s produce from our fall CSA is officially used up – I’m very pleased that we went through all of it. The peppers and eggs mostly went to make omelets. We ate the small turnips raw, cut up in a salad with raw kale massaged with avocado in a dressing of soy sauce, olive oil, lemon juice and salt. The rutabaga and sweet potatoes were used in a soup flavored with leeks, garlic olive oil, salt, red chile flakes and some very dry white wine that was pretty good but needs further experimentation.

I think the most memorable recipe this week was the squash. First of all, they were just nice to look at.

I wanted to do something different than I usually would, so I searched around for polenta and squash recipes. I found this one from [ Food and Wine ]. I halved the recipe. I  substituted my squash (a carnival squash – about 1 lb), left out the pine nuts and sage (too fussy) and substituted the Gouda style cheese for a Cheddar style (I used 1/4 pound of Cheddar and Parmesan). It turned out great – actually like a less mushy version of the squash casseroles I remember from my childhood. And it makes great leftovers.

Baked polenta with winter squash and salty cheese (adapted from


1 lb winter squash (butternut, acorn, carnival, etc.)

1/2 a large onion

2 cups polenta (dry)

A good deal of butter (3-4 tbs)

1/4 lb Parmesan-style cheese

1/4 lb aged Cheddar-style cheese

Salt and red chile flakes to taste


This is a bit fussy, but it’s best if you plan a few hours for this and take it step by step – otherwise you’ll be caught stirring the polenta and peeling the hot squash at the same time like I was, and that is no fun. It’s mostly low maintenance so put on a podcast and make an afternoon of it.

Step one: prepare and the squash and onions. Preheat oven to 375 F. Cut the squash in half, remove the seeds and stringy interior and then chop into fourths. Put these on a baking sheet and splash with olive oil, salt and red chile flakes. Bake until completely soft, at least 30 minutes if not more. When the squash is done, remove it and let cool.

While the squash is cooling, sweat and brown the onions in butter over medium heat until caramelized and fragrant. Take off the heat and set aside. When the squash is cooled, scoop out the flesh, discarding the skins, and set aside as well.

Step two: cook the polenta. First, butter a mid-sized pyrex or ceramic casserole and set aside. In a large saucepan, heat 6 cups of water. When almost boiling, add salt and taste (it should be flavorful). Then add the 2 cups polenta. For the next 15-20 minutes, watch the mixture and stir frequently so that the polenta doesn’t stick to the bottom and burn. When it starts to get thick, add 2 tbs or so of butter. Continue stirring until the mixture is relatively thick.

When thick but still not too hard to stir, add the onions and squash and stir until evenly mixed. Next, grate in the two cheese and stir until evenly mixed. When cheese, squash and onions are incorporated, take the mixture off the heat and poor it into the buttered casserole/pyrex. Let this set in the fridge for a couple of hours.

Step three: bake the dish: Bring the oven back to 375. Put the casserole into the oven and let cook for around half an hour until the top is browned. You can add extra cheese and butter to the top if you’d like before you put it in the oven.

To serve, slice into wedges. It is excellent with sauteed broccoli rabe, collards or any other bitter green with vinegar and chile.

Yesterday a nor’easter came to town, covering everything in a premature swath of snow. I left the museum early, with the second head-cold I’ve had in so many weeks, hoping to get back to my apartment before the bad weather really hit. I didn’t quite make it and got stuck waiting for a crosstown bus as the snow started to really come down. The view from my window back at home says it all:


Yesterday also brought the first shipment of a CSA Cesar and I joined. I was very excited to get it. I’ve never joined one before and always depended on a mix of produce from farmers’ markets, supermarkets and corner stores to get through the week. The decision to join was an ethical and financial experiment: would receiving a weekly shipment of produce (and in our case eggs and cheese) force us to cook more seasonally, and would it end up saving money? Only time will tell: the weekly cost of this CSA is $18 for each of us (a half share of veg, a dozen eggs and 1 lb of cheese). Not exactly cheap, but I could easily spend that amount on a trip to Mr. Melon to buy chips, sparkling water and broccolini (at $3.99 a head, those greens are neither cost effective nor local).

And now for the first shipment: this week’s share was 1 carnival squash, a bag of sweet potatoes, turnips, a large rutabaga, a romanesco cauliflower, and a bag of small, sweet peppers.

The produce does look lovely, and so far it tastes good too, especially the eggs, which are rich and yolky in comparison to the ones we buy at the supermarket. I’m thinking up dishes as I type. Tonight I’m hoping to use the carnival squash and have something decent to report back about – something with cheese and hot red chili pepper. The sweet potatoes will be more of a challenge: I never loved them as a child, but I recently tasted a sweet-potato dish (in Berlin of all places) that made me want to revisit this one.

Eggs “CSA”

I still have my cold today so I’m staying in and avoiding the snowy outside. This morning, after reading for pleasure for several hours, I went for a second helping of our CSA eggs. The best way to use up stray vegetables (or CSA vegetables you have no other plan for) is in an egg dish. I like to cook eggs in the form of a thin pancake, so that both sides cook but aren’t folded over like an omelette:

First, I browned a quarter of a sweet onion in a cast-iron skillet with olive oil over low-med heat. Then I chopped up and cored several of the sweet peppers that came with this week’s share. I added these to the skillet and let them cook until just soft. Meanwhile, I whisked two eggs together with salt and red chili. I poured these over the cooking vegetables, turning the pan around so that the eggs slid across every inch of the hot surface. Every now and again as the bottom cooked through, I lifted an edge with a spatula and tilted the pan toward me so that the runny egg on top would slide into the crevices and cook. When I could do this no more, I turned off the heat and covered the skillet with a tight-fitting lid and let the eggs “steam” for 3 minutes or so, until they were cooked through but not browned. 

Today I biked to work (in Manhattan) for the first time since last week, before the storm hit town. It was the most memorable ride I’ve had since I’ve been here and I wanted to put it out there in the ether, to make sure also that I don’t forget.

It sounds truly awful to wax poetic about seeing the entire lower end of Manhattan pitch black so let me explain myself: there’s nothing nice or beautiful or cool about hundreds of thousands living without power, heat and telephone service. It would be especially lame for me to say that, since I’m sitting in a well-lit apartment now typing away just across the river, barely affected by the whole thing. But what was striking to me was that the city seemed so malleable and adaptable on my commute today – a place where people are set on moving forward despite the setbacks.

Some sights were encouraging, like the hundreds of bikes streaming over the bridges from Brooklyn and Queens and down the arterial avenues. In the morning, there was a group handing out coffee, and in the evening, Second Avenue was flickering with hundreds of tail lights as commuters pedaled themselves home.

It’s nice to know that so many people are willing and able to bike, even if it takes partially suspended subway service to make it happen. Maybe this will encourage more people to do it on a regular basis.

Some sights were  jarring: old women in Chinatown filling large plastic buckets of water at public fountains to carry them up flights of stairs for cooking or cleaning. All of this blocks away from the world’s financial center. First Avenue and Grand with barely any cars to block the way, most shops closed.

In the evening, crossing 34th street and going in a second from the usual bright lights to a dim world, and experiencing the opposite half way over Manhattan Bridge, where the uphill from Canal Street was pitch black and the downhill to Sands Street in Brooklyn was brightly lit.

Then there was the awe-factor. There was the eerie flicker of the flairs lit by traffic control guards on the corners of major intersections as the sun was going down in lower Manhattan. Rows of completely darkened buildings and hundreds shadows milling about on the sidewalks.

But the most memorable thing to me was seeing how the food service industry was dealing with the situation. Most restaurants and groceries of course had to shut their doors, but on many corners portable food carts – some that I had never seen before- had their generators running and were dishing out coffee, kebabs and stir-fries to eager customers.


And every few blocks, there was one bar or local restaurant that had managed somehow, whether through a generator or just with a few old fashioned candles, to keep its doors open for people to eat, read, and sit and talk.

It’s a determined and inventive group of people that can make such an awful situation seem not as awful as you initially thought.