So I jumped the gun a little on spring, but who cares when you're eating a strawberry-rhubarb parfait? Alice Waters might give me the stink eye, but she's on my bad list these days anyway. Did anyone catch her on Sixty Minutes the other weekend? Talk about being out of touch.
I saw Alice Waters at a big charity food event about a year ago. The guests attending paid lots and lots of money to eat lots and lots of dainty little hors d'oeuvres made by famous chefs. There were tables full of raw oysters, foie gras, tuna belly, fancy cheeses, locally-raised grass-fed organic pork from such-and-such farm—all very high-end stuff. And there was Alice Waters, tossing a gigantic wooden bowl of mixed greens. Everyone got a little plate of salad and a beatific smile from the lady herself. The salad was just lettuce leaves and nasturtiums on a (recycled) paper plate. But somehow it tasted magical, sprinkled with her fairy dust. Which was precisely her point: that really, really good lettuce can be just as tasty and interesting anything else. Well, almost as tasty. I remember going back to the oyster bar many times that night.
Don't get me wrong, I think Alice Waters is extremely commendable for launching school gardens and being a tireless advocate for local farmers. She helped put local, sustainable food on the map in the U.S., forcing people to actually think about where their dinner comes from. But I think Saint Alice is in need of some Real Talk. Like on the whole Nikes vs. grapes issue. She thinks it's a matter of priorities, of valuing Nikes, or an iPhone, or your daily Frappucino over good, healthy food. I think it's a matter of access. It's nice if you live in bountiful California like she does, but let's say you live in the inner city of Chicago, or North Dakota, and don't have organic grocery stores or farmers markets in your neighborhood. How can you follow her "local, seasonal, organic" mantra? And that's not even taking into consideration how expensive organic food is. Lots of people can't afford grapes or Nikes, perhaps more now than ever before.
To me, the main goal is to make healthier choices. To cook at home more often, to use natural ingredients when possible, to avoid processed foods. I try to buy organic as much as I can, but when I feel a little strapped for cash or money is actually tight, I reach for the broccoli that is cheapest. I even eat--gasp--out of season sometimes. Sometimes you just want pineapple, you know? And I'm not hopping on a plane to Hawaii anytime soon to eat one that's local.
Take this strawberry-rhubarb parfait for example. Sure, it would probably taste better with locally-grown fruit that is in season. It would be better for the environment too, requiring less shipping and carbon emissions, not to mention pesticides. But we all make choices every day. Is eating this dessert healthier than eating some cookies? Yes. Is cooking with fresh ingredients good for you? Yes. When you're held to the standards that Alice Waters and other like-minded food advocates believe in, you can never measure up. But if you try to make the best decisions for yourself and your budget and lifestyle, you usually can't go wrong.
There are endless ways to eat this tangy and sweet fruit compote: over ice cream or plain yogurt, topped with cookies or meringue, baked in a crisp, or simply layered with whipped cream, to name a few.
(Serves 6 to 8 people)
3/4 cup water
1 cup sugar
pinch of salt
1/2 lemon, juiced
1 bunch rhubarb (about 5-6 stalks), trimmed and washed
1 pint strawberries, washed and cut into quarters
Place the water, lemon, sugar, and salt in a saucepan. Bring to a boil, then turn down the heat and simmer for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the the rhubarb and strawberries, stirring until the fruit is evenly coated. Let simmer for about 10 to 15 minutes, until it is tender but still holds its shape. Taste and add extra sugar, if necessary. Remove from heat and let come to room temperature. It will thicken slightly.
To make parfaits: Fill a tall glass with layers of whipped cream and the compote. Top with toasted almond slivers, crushed cookies, or a drizzle of caramel sauce.