The authors of two new sushi books separate the facts from the fishy. Time Out New York summarizes all you need to know about eating sushi, or as they put it, "must-have intel for your next fish-and-rice repast."

The trick with asparagus, besides just-cut freshness, is to cook them so they are somewhere between firm and limp. While it used to be overcooking that was the problem, Marian Burros argues that too often chefs today undercook asparagus. Getting it just right is certainly a matter of preference. And there's nothing like fresh asparagus cooked just right.

In these isolated times, people yearn to break bread with neighbors. Communal tables are all the rage at Bay Area restaurants. Though the article points to NYC's Asia de Cuba as the trendsetter, I can't say communal tables are all the rage here. Of course, most tables are packed so close together in Manhattan that it seems like you're sitting with the folks next to you anyway.

Remember I told you about Meatpaper, a cool new magazine "of art and ideas about meat" awhile back? Well subscriptions are now available The first issue will ship at the end of summer, 2007. So go sign up now!

Photo by Peter Menzel

What's on family dinner tables in fifteen different homes around the globe? From the new book "The Hungry Planet" by photographer Peter Menzel. The above photo shows a week's worth of food for an Ecuadorian family in Tingo. A fascinating look not just at how much people eat, but what they eat. The processed food in some diets is incredible, especially in contrast with the above photo. [via Jason]

On a fruit shortcake bender

Freshly picked strawberries at my grandparents' house
Delicious berries awaiting conversion to strawberry shortcake.

Prompted by a tasty looking quart of strawberries I picked up at the Greenmarket on Saturday, I've been eating shortcakes with various fruit. Saturday evening I made my favorite shortcake recipe (Shortcakes for strawberries and other fruit) and had two biscuits worth of strawberries and whipped cream. I garnished with some fresh basil and that added a delightful touch. Sunday I had biscuits left, but no more strawberries, due to my greedy eating Saturday. So I took some frozen wild blueberries (usually reserved for pancakes and smoothies), thawed them and tossed them with a bit of sugar. What do you know?! Blueberry shortcake (this time garnished with fresh mint) is pretty tasty too.

So last night I was going to use some frozen peaches I had, but then I spied some California peaches in the market that seemed soft and smelled pretty good. Alas, they didn't have much flavor, even after maceration with sugar and basil for an hour. My third batch of shortcakes was a bust. The biscuits had gotten too soft and mushy, the peaches were flavorless (reminding me again why I only buy local fruit in season), and the whipped cream was good. You can't screw up whipped cream, can you?

I think I may be on the verge of a shortcake bender though. It was so good (and healthy, right? All that fruit, and the calcium from the cream?) and easy and tasty. I want some kind of fruit and shortcake dessert every night!

Shortcakes for strawberries and other fruit

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled and cut into small pieces
3/4 cup heavy cream
2 mashed hard-cooked large egg yolks
2 tablespoons butter, melted

More sausage makers less bakers

We need more investment bankers becoming butchers and sausage makers. I think we have enough cupcake bakers in this country. Ed Levine on the demise of family-run artisanal food shops and the rise in cupcake baking. "Every time we lose a sausage maker, a bread baker, or a mozzarella maker, we lose a little piece of our food heart and soul, our gustatory generosity of spirit. Those are precious commodities in our culture, and we should do everything we can to preserve them."

I agree, but I don't see it happening. The thing with baking cupcakes is, it's easy. You don't need to spend years learning to do it, you don't even need to go to culinary school to make cupcakes. And you can get away with selling mediocre cupcakes that people will still adore simply because they're sweet and better than store-bought. But to be a butcher? Or a sausage maker? That's so much more work, and it's not cute and pink and fun. It's back-breaking and bloody and dangerous.

Photo from the New York TimesThe let’s-wait-in-long-lines-for-a-cupcake trend has arrived in the West Coast. Cupcake shops are popping up all over Los Angeles, with many folks quitting their white-color jobs to open bakeries, even without food service experience. I can't say I love cupcakes enough to want to see anymore of this trend. Ice cream and pies are my passions, though shortcake (strawberry, blueberry) are high on my list these days too.

Steve Cuozzo's got some things to say about the Shake Shack in the New York Post, a handful of which I am going to respond to. Burger blogger Adam Kuban responds to the "shacklash" with some valid points. I still [heart] the Shack, but I never go at prime time and I never wait longer than half-an-hour in line. So that's probably why I still [heart] it so much.

Argh, swamped today with other things. But here's some information on the benefits of grass feeding animals. "Animals raised on pasture live very low-stress lives. As a result of their superb nutrition and lack of stress, they are superbly healthy."

Also, there are some interesting comments happening in the If we want to save the animals we must eat them post. When I get a moment, I'll share my thoughts. Feel free to pop in with yours.

Heritage meat statistics

OK, it was a short day looking at heritage and heirloom links, so maybe I'll keep this going tomorrow, since I didn't really have time to dive into veggies at all really, nor enough time to dig into the meat (ha ha ha) of this issue. For those wondering what the big deal is, or why diversity matters, I'll leave you with this information from Sustainable Table:

In the US, a few main breeds dominate the livestock industry:

  • 83 percent of dairy cows are Holsteins, and five main breeds comprise almost all of the dairy herds in the US.
  • 60 percent of beef cattle are of the Angus, Hereford or Simmental breeds.
  • 75 percent of pigs in the US come from only 3 main breeds.
  • Over 60 percent of sheep come from only four breeds, and 40 percent are Suffolk-breed sheep.

More sobering information: "Within the past 15 years, 190 breeds of farm animals have gone extinct worldwide, and there are currently 1,500 others at risk of becoming extinct. In the past five years alone, 60 breeds of cattle, goats, pigs, horses and poultry have become extinct."

Modern commercial turkey varieties have also lost much of their natural ability to forage for food, fly, walk normally, and to escape predators. Wikipedia has lots of information about domesticated turkeys.

fountain_prairie_highland_.jpgIf we want to save them, we must eat them! "Just as the Bald Eagle and Panda Bear are on the brink of extinction in the wild, so are numerous varieties of livestock like Bourbon Red turkeys, Red Wattle pigs, Tunis sheep, Barred-Plymouth Rock chickens and Iroquois corn flour...Heritage Foods USA exists to help accomplish this goal by selling foods from small farms to consumers and wholesale accounts." You can buy Six-Spotted Berkshire pork, heritage turkeys, French Dewlap Toulouse Geese, American Kobe Beef, and even bison. It's strange to think that in order to save nearly extinct species we need to eat them, but if there's no market for these varieties, no one will farm them.

cranberry_bean.jpgSeed Savers Exchange is a nonprofit organization that saves and shares the heirloom seeds of our garden heritage, forming a living legacy that can be passed down through generations. It was started by a couple after the wife received seeds from her grandfather "that his parents brought from Bavaria when they immigrated to St. Lucas, Iowa in the 1870s." The seeds were for Grandpa Ott's Morning Glory and German Pink Tomato. You can learn more about their organization and order seeds for all kinds of stuff. Just check out the lists of eating beans they've got for sale. Wonderful. [thanks Jason!]

Today’s commercial turkey is selected to efficiently produce meat at the lowest possible cost. "It is an excellent converter of feed to breast meat, but the result of this improvement is a loss of the bird’s ability to successfully mate and produce fertile eggs without intervention. This means that turkeys marketed as 'heritage' must be the result of naturally mating pairs of both grandparent and parent stock." The definition of heritage turkey will help you understand what you're getting when you shell out the extra dough at Thanksgiving for your bird.

Heritage meats are like four-legged versions of the heirloom tomato -- old strains of rare breeds that are being cultivated anew by independent farmers using traditional methods, free of hormones and chemical pesticides. The Food Section's report from a heritage meats discussion back in 2003 at the French Culinary Institute has lots of information about breeds and tasting.

Heritage and heirloom day

Me about to enjoy some roast suckling pig at Daisy May's BBQ in New York City

Today's going to be a kind of heirloom/heritage day here on Megnut. One thing I never thought much about until I got into food and doing this site was the effect of industrial farming on genetic diversity. From tomatoes to turkeys, agribusiness selects breeds based on qualities such as rate of growth, color, and suitability for shipment. Hence giant California strawberries, beautiful red apples with mealy faint apple flavor, and chickens and turkeys bursting with breast meat that's dull and dry.

Though such practices result in consistent products and less expensive food, we are losing our culinary heritage. If you frequent farmer's markets, you can see a resurgence of variety. Potatoes and tomatoes are two very common heirloom products on the scene right now, and you can usually find six or eight varieties of each in season, from Green Zebra tomatoes to Russian Banana potatoes.

And then there's the issue of taste. I never cared for pork much, I always found it bland and dry. Then I tasted pork from small farms, places like Flying Pigs Farm here in New York who raise Large Blacks, Gloucestershire Old Spots, and Tamworths. And now pork is probably my favorite meat. So look for links throughout the day about the "new" old way of farming and anything interesting I can turn up about the issues.

The everpresent kids' menu

America is in the grips of a nefarious chicken-finger pandemic, in which a blandly tasty foodstuff has somehow become the de facto official nibble of our young. "Far from being an advance, I've concluded, the standard children’s menu is regressive, encouraging children (and their misguided parents) to believe that there is a rigidly delineated 'kids' cuisine' that exists entirely apart from grown-up cuisine."

I never understood this. When I was little, we all at the same thing for dinner. No one got a special meal. I don't remember having a different menu when we went out to dinner either. For those readers with kids out there: is it possible to get your children to order off the adult menu? Or do they resist?

Milk-fed chickens? But a bird’s not a mammal. Adding powdered milk to chicken feed produces a "richer flavor" and "softer, more tender flesh," depending on the breed of the bird.

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