Wednesday, March 25, 2009

springing forward (part deux)

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.

Strawberry-rhubarb parfait
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.


Colin P. Delaney said...

Your position on Waters was brilliantly put -- I saw the 60 Minutes piece and couldn't help but wonder if Waters had the barest understanding of the curse of the starving class. It isn't about iPhones, it's about -- like you said -- making better choices with your (limited) food budget.

Daniel said...

So I suppose you don't cook eggs over a roaring fire in your breakfast nook, Colin? I guess making eggs on a range is OK--if you have no self-respect and don't care about your loved ones.

Vanessa said...

Everyone's sick of her jibber-jabber! (Just kidding, I just wanted to write that.)

Janice said...

I did catch Alice Waters on 60 Minutes, and I agree with you she is out of touch, in her beautiful and fey way. I live in California where the produce is wonderful, but buying organic is expensive. When you are trying to put meals on the table for a family of four, buying everything organic is almost cost prohibitive, at least for my budget. I did have to laugh when she was cooking breakfast for Leslie Stalh, and broke an egg into a spoon, and carefully held the spoon over a roaring fire to cook the egg. If I cooked eggs like that, they would no longer be sustainable. My dog would enjoy the fallout though.

I can’t wait to try your strawberry rhubarb parfait. It looks fantastic!

Anonymous said...

I think Alice should come to Missouri in January and try to eat only locally grown. Umm... Good luck with that. Unless she wants something made of grapes grown right here in Mid-Missouri. Alice, can I interest you in a nice glass of table wine.. perhaps the 2007 Les Bourgeois Riverboat Red?

Anonymous said...

Alice Waters was a pioneer. I dreamt about going to her restaurant when it first opened and there was nothing else like it (there still isn't in West Palm). When I was your age, young things, I thought I was a gourmet because I used fresh parsley. How things have changed. She's like Martha, something to aspire to.

That being said, I'm not one to worry too much about the environment or my health. I don't buy organic food unless it looks tastier and fresher than the regular stuff.

Oh, it's brunch time. Have to run. I need to build a fire.

Lisa said...

CPD: Thank you!

Daniel: Will you still love me if I cook your eggs in a pan?

Vanessa: Ha!

Janice: I loved watching her cook that egg too--as if it was a perfectly normal thing to have this huge kitchen fireplace. Thanks for reading!

Laura: I'd love to share a glass of Mizzou wine with you.

Judy: I love your comment, especially the Martha comparison. Except that Martha doesn't really try to "convert" anyone to her fab lifestyle. Keep Buster away from the fire!

Megan and Butch! said...

I think this might be my favorite post of yours, even better than the one in which you featured my bizarre pet. There's a real disconnect between people like Alice Waters and all the other "natural, local" advocates and everyone else out there just trying to feed their families something reasonable on a budget. Instead of suggesting that everyone in the Bronx turn the local tire fire into fields for spring peas and dandelion greens, maybe we should make actual fruit and vegetables of some kind available. Who cares if they're shipped from Peru or Mexico or whatever? There are neighborhoods in our own city that rely entirely on bodegas for groceries because all the grocery stores have closed down. Their residents would probably kill for a GMO, Argentinian peach.
Great post.

Lisa said...

Thanks, Megan! I'd kill for a GMO, Argentinian peach myself.


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