Dispatches from the food front
Sliced horse lung in chili oil. Hot pot with goose esophagus. Bamboo fungus soup. You won't find those "specials" on the menu at A Single Pebble in Burlington -- yet. Last month, Chef-owner Steve Bogart led a culinary trip to China that left no animal organ untasted. What's regular R&D for the Burlington chef, who has been studying classical Chinese cooking for more than 30 years, is a rare eating adventure for his fellow travelers -- in this case, a group of 17 that included Vermont restaurateur Robert Fuller. They learned first-hand that in China, camel's hump comes on a plate.
This is the fifth food group Bogart has directed East -- by now, the forays are annual. Working with numerous in-country contacts, he meticulously plans the travel around the meals, dictating elaborate, authentic menus up to six months in advance: lunch at the original "Peking Duck" restaurant, for example, or dinner cooked by the descendents of Forbidden City chefs. One 12-taste hot-pot extravaganza was particularly memorable. The dipping items included ox throat, goose intestine and goat stomach.
The vegetables can be wacky, too. Orange taste lotus? You won't find that at City Market.
Tofu, too. Bogart goes where they make their own -- "the most flavorful, spicy tofu you could imagine," Bogart says. "I pick up a lot of techniques, a lot of combinations," he adds, noting a recent special at the restaurant, beef and tofu in chili oil, was inspired by a meal in the capital of spicy Szechuan province.
Nobody else in the world is leading eating tours of China, Bogart claims, so "They treat us pretty special. At almost every restaurant, they were completely blown away by the menu we ordered and also by the fact that there was nothing left on our plates."
Remarkably, nobody on the trip put on weight -- a phenomenon Bogart attributes to the absence of dairy and desserts in Chinese cuisine. Plus, he notes, "Everything is on a lazy Susan, and you have this tiny little plate -- exactly the way I have it at the restaurant. You kinda pick. It's a neat way of eating."
The next best thing to eating innards on the other side of the world? Doing it in New York's Chinatown with award-winning cookbook author Joan Nathan. She and Steve Bogart have been dim-sum buddies "for quite a while" says Bogart, who is featured in her latest book, The New American Cooking. A number of other Vermont chefs, food producers and bakers are also in there. As Nathan explains in the intro, they're all "people who have made helped to make American food what it is today."
The bread section leads off with a quote from artisan bread pioneer Jules Rabin, of Marshfield. A recipe for "Vermont Anadama Bread" -- made with maple syrup -- is attributed to Carol Reynolds, a teacher in East Hardwick. Executive Chef Steve Obranovich left Greensboro's Lakeview Inn and Restaurant in January. But not before Nathan sampled his "Baby Spinach Salad with Blue Cheese, Bacon, Grapes and Balsamic Vinegar." The Lakeview has since closed down, and Obranovich is currently the sous chef at Michael's on the Hill in Waterbury. Speaking of blue cheese, Nathan was just as impressed as every other food writer with Jasper Hill Farm's. In September, Katie Couric of "The Today Show" followed the well-worn track to visit Andy and Mateo Kehler.
Nova Kim, who collects mushrooms and other wild edibles, rarely leaves the Northeast Kingdom. But she's providing the key ingredients for a "Wild for Vermont" dinner in Nathan's honor at the Inn at Essex on Saturday night. Wild ginger figures prominently in a particular salad dressing in New American Cooking credited to Executive Chef Tom Bivins of the New England Culinary Institute. Nathan writes, "Wild ginger, if you can find it in the wild, has a fairly pronounced flavor, with a peppery, floral scent."
Bogart was a little disappointed that Nathan published his recipe for Green Mountain Egg Foo Yung -- it's not "classical" enough for his tastes. But his Szechuan Red Oil Vegetarian Dumplings, one of A Single Pebble's swiftest sellers, also made the book. He's cooking them up for a reception at the restaurant this Sunday, following Nathan's noontime book signing at Barnes & Noble.
An experiment in indigenous eating kept Bill McKibben busy last winter. The Ripton-based writer -- a scholar-in-residence in environmental studies at Middlebury College -- allowed himself spices, but otherwise stuck to local fare for seven months. "Eating like this is precisely how almost every human ate until very recently, and how most people in the world still do eat today," he wrote in the July issue of Gourmet magazine. "But in contemporary America, where the average bit of food travels 1500 miles before it reaches your lips, it was an odd exercise."
And one perfectly suited for McKibben, whose interests range from global warming and genetic engineering to marathon cross-country skiing. He's partial to extreme first-person experiences that illustrate larger issues.
McKibben found plenty of root vegetables, dairy products and maple syrup to eat within the Champlain watershed, which is how he defined "local." He also learned a peck of a lot about apples: which varieties ship best; high-tech storage techniques, pesticide problems. Cider became a staple. McKibben reports, "I started drinking well north of two gallons a week, and I'm not sure I'll ever go back to orange juice."
When he needed something stronger, McKibben popped open an Otter Creek wit bier, made from raw, organic wheat grown down the road in Bridport. Lucky for him one farmer, Ben Gleason, grows and mills grain in Addison County. He's a throwback to a time before the opening of the Erie Canal, when "the Champlain Valley was the nation's granary." Gleason was McKibben's crucial carb connection -- his ticket to beer, bread and pancakes.
But it was oats, not flapjacks, that McKibben craved in the middle of winter. So he tracked down the once-ubiquitous crop to a farm in Quebec, only to discover that transporting cereal across the border was likely to involve customs agents. "By the time all was said and done, my 'local' oats had traveled on a truck from Canada to the lower Hudson Valley, and then back to Vermont in a UPS sack," McKibben writes. "Not precisely an ecological triumph."
In an entertaining and brainy way, McKibben uses his own story to touch on all the major food-production challenges facing Vermont. He even takes a swipe at the ag department, noting it "talks a good game . . . but in the opinion of many small farmers . . . spends most of its time and money propping up the state's slowly withering dairy industry, not supporting the pioneers trying to build what comes next."
On the optimistic side of Vermont agriculture, McKibben notes that the number of farms around Burlington has grown 19 percent in the past decade -- mostly small operations that are growing food for local consumers. That'll come in real handy when the price of oil goes up for good.
It takes a lot of moola to FedEx 50 perishable pounds of organic butter from Vermont to the West Coast. But when Diane St. Clair of Animal Farm in Orwell dispatches her weekly supply of fabulous fat to The French Laundry in Napa Valley, Chef Thomas Keller pays COD. That's the way it's been since he first tasted her butter, in 1999. "He wanted all the butter I could send him," St. Clair explained in a recent article in The New York Times. And no wonder: It's 87 percent butterfat, "richer even than most European butters," the Times writer asserts. "When her cows are grazing on fresh grass, the butter is almost as bright as the dandelions in the fields."
When Keller opened a second restaurant, Per Se, in New York, he convinced St. Clair to add another cow to the herd. But even with five -- her absolute limit -- demand way exceeds supply. The small amount she supplies the Middlebury Natural Foods Co-op, at $60 a pound, disappears on arrival. Departures magazine just published a story that lists St. Clair's handmade butter among the 10 most coveted delicacies in the world. It's right up there with Alaska birch syrup, white strawberries of Puren, Kyoto tofu and Quebec foie gras.
"I've had to say no to many, many people because of The New York Times article," St. Clair says, noting someone actually tried to outbid Keller. But she has no interest in getting bigger or making more money. She's trying to find time, between milking and making butter, to write a book. Author Michael Ruhlman, of The Soul of a Chef, The Making of a Chef and The French Laundry Cookbook, has offered to shop her proposal around. Like that better butter of hers, she's in good hands.
When it comes to food, Middlebury College puts its money where its mouth is. Along with Yale University, the small liberal-arts school has a big reputation for its enlightened approach to institutional eating. Milk comes from nearby Monument Farms Dairy. The chicken cacciatore can be traced to New Haven's Misty Knoll. Dining Director Matthew Biette suggests, "Some of the cooking styles are closer to the restaurant side of the spectrum than the traditional cafeteria end."
Last March, Middlebury hosted a conference of the National Association of College and University Food Services, and 250 food-service honchos from around the country got a taste of the college's winning recipe for local sustainability. They also experienced a traditional Vermont church supper, complete with servers brought in from the Cornwall Congregational Church. Biette says the family-style dinner was "the icing on the cake."
Judging from the winter-term course catalogue, the college's food philosophy is starting to infuse its academic offerings. Local organic vegetable farmer Will Stevens is teaching "Eating Locally, Thinking Globally" again this year. He's a second cousin of Williston cookbook author Molly Stevens, who won a James Beard Award last spring.
The kids at U-32 High School in Montpelier might not be able to pronounce bok choy, but they're eating it, thanks to food-service director Rick Hungerford. He buys produce from nine local farmers, and five years ago installed a salad bar in the cafeteria. Formerly a cook at commercial restaurants, Hungerford regularly serves up kale, seitan and hummus. "I go through 12 pounds of tofu probably every two days," he says. "When you can eliminate the meat and still make the meal, we do it."
The school's innovative selection of healthy lunchmeat alternatives recently earned Hunger- ford $500 and a second-place "Golden Carrot" award from the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. And no, he's not a vegetarian, although a lot of U-32 students are.
Hungerford had to meet a slew of criteria to get the doctors' nod -- everything from reducing fat and dairy to starting up composting and recycling programs. But the hardest part of the job is still "getting the kids to try something new," Hungerford says. "Some of the younger ones are stuck on pizza and milk."
Five years is a long time to wait for marinated homefries. That's how long it's been since Betsy Bott served them at Richmond's Daily Bread Bakery & Cafe. Now, at last, Bott has come out with the company cookbook -- a self-published, spiralbound tome that is as funky and full of love as the legendary eatery once was.
"After years of promises, here are the recipes and reminiscences," Bott writes in the prologue to Made From Scratch, a satisfying mix of food-flavored memoir, local hippie history, practical cookbook, company scrapbook and employee tribute. In the same community spirit that distinguished the Daily Bread, Bott tells her story via the people who came through. "I had a lot of help from former employees who verified the provenance of certain recipes," says Bott, who now lives in Maine and works in a library.
What took her so long? One problem was the final chapter. "The Daily Bread didn't work out as we hoped it would when it was sold," Bott says. In the book, she notes that under new ownership, the place "started to use mixes for their baked goods. The 'professional' baker threw away the old recipes; she had to call up for the Orange Tea Cake recipe to avoid a local revolt." Two years after Aaron Millon took it over, the Bread was dead.
It seems like Bott was just waiting for an acceptable successor -- so she could end her book on a happy note? Along came On the Rise. Rich-mond's newest bakery makes breads, sweets and soups across the street from where the Daily Bread -- now Toscano Cafe Bistro -- once was. Proprietors Ben Bush and his wife Raechel Barone are both former Daily Bread employees. Bush is the son of Bott's partner, Jeb. Clearly pleased, she notes, "It's very similar in spirit, and they've got a lot of the same food."
What's missing are tables and community space. Along with hearty, healthy fare, the Daily Bread provided a place to hang out. Bush and Barone are cooking up something along those lines with Kristen Micelli, who operates Richmond's Vermont Green Grocer Fresh Market. The former manager of the Richmond Corner Market ran an online grocery delivery service for a while, but now has a 650-square-foot retail store. Specializing in local produce, Micelli says, "I'm the closest thing to a natural-foods market."
The two businesses would like to be closer to each other -- word has it the old Richmond Creamery space behind Blue Seal may one day accommodate them. Like Bott before them, "We have similar missions in that we try to make our food with as much local and organic stuff as possible," Barone says. "It's a nice fit."
Suburbia and supermarkets are symbiotic. But some consuming commuters may be rediscovering the pleasures of picking up a little something on the way home. First Essex Junction solicits City Market. Now Shelburne's Tennybrook Square sprouts a small, full-service market specializing in organics, naturals and gourmet. A trip to Terra Linda, owned by San Francisco transplants Tim James and Linda Birkenbach, may have just what you crave on the Shelburne Road strip. Birkenbach describes it as a "hybrid natural and convenience store," where you can park easily, find what you want and be on your way. No gas, though. "I didn't want to have anything to do with that," James says. "The only oils we have here are flax oil and olive oil." Mornings, look for freshly brewed organic coffee.
There's no stopping the Starbucks coffee chain, which now has four links in the Burlington area. Since they first started serving the coffee at Barnes & Noble, the company seems to have added a new venti-latte outlet every year: first, on the Church Street Marketplace, then at Maple Tree Place in Williston and in Mall 189 on Shelburne Road. The latest, on Williston Road, opens this Friday with all the varieties, including the new "holiday" iced eggnog chai latte. Meanwhile, Koval's Coffee is closing at the end of the month, after 19 years in the business at Taft Corners Shopping Center in Williston. Coincidence? A recent Williston Observer article noted, "Most of the patrons were older than 40, and the lack of wireless Internet access and mocha lattes seemed just fine with them." Along with coffee, Koval's also made donuts and sandwiches. "It's a great community spot," David Koval told the Observer. "We offered something you don't see anymore. It's not a conglomerate. It's what Williston was."
Restaurants shut down for a lot of reasons. Being "too busy" is not one of them. But that was the official explanation the New England Culinary Institute gave for closing NECI Commons on Burlington's Church Street. Savvy food folks say the restaurant was losing money; its initial capital investment was too great to recoup. Word has it NECI is asking $2.2 million for the place . . . Tara Vaughan-Hughes isn't planning to spend quite that much on an Eat Good Food franchise in downtown Middlebury, in the retail space formerly occupied by the dada kitchen store. But she is expanding the deli-plus concept that's working so well in Vergennes. The appropriately titled Eat Good Food Grill, Bar & Deli will include a full-service dining area. Vaughan-Hughes considered a new name, but she's built a trusted brand. "People in Middlebury already know us . . . why confuse them?" she asks. Just give them a taste of those scones.
Everyone's a critic — especially when it comes to edible expenditures. Now there's a place for your unsolicited "feedback" on the new, improved 7 Nights website at http://www.sevennightsvt.com. Sorry, we won't pay for your meal, but we'll let you "review" of any of the restaurants listed. The database is now fully searchable by region, cuisine, price range and everything else you need to know. Directions are part of the deal. Dig in.