Archive for ‘Markets & Stores’

January 24, 2012

Food Labeling and TEDx Manhattan: Changing the Way We Eat

This past weekend, TEDx Manhattan hosted a day-long symposium on our food system.  If you’ve been following my twitter feed, you’ll know that I attended a viewing party hosted by Boston University’s Gastronomy program.  The event has given me many things to think about, and much to share with you here on the blog.  Today I want to start with something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time: food labeling.



Urvashi Rangan is a senior scientist and director of Consumer Reports’  Her talk focused on why labels mean close to nothing in the United States, and here are some of the main points that I took away:

To preface, I consider myself an excessive label reader.  I probably spend twice as long in the grocery store as the average person because I’m not only trying to figure out what to buy but also analyzing labels and trying to figure out the marketing tactics behind them.  I am fascinated by labels. And I am constantly confounded by them.

Rangan stated that research shows consumers will pay more for better (i.e. clearer) labeling, but that they are also easily and constantly mislead by the labeling that exists.  Case in point: a consumer’s goal may be to purchase the best quality food that won’t make them sick.  Due to the way labels are promoted, people confuse “natural” and “organic” all the time, and many will even value the term “natural” over “organic.”

Here’s the clincher: the label “natural” has no industry guidelines.  Any company can use the term with whatever intended definition they want.  However, the label “organic” has been defined by the USDA in 600 pages.  So why are we still even paying attention to “natural?”  Because marketing companies have created a value in the term, and we’ve fallen for it because we (understandably) don’t have the resources available to us to know not to.

Rangan also told an example of Creekstone Beef requesting the use of clarifying labeling that was denied by the USDA.  A few years ago, Japan refused to import US beef because it was not being tested for Mad Cow disease.  Creekstone wanted to test its beef and label it tested in order to continue export to Japan.  The USDA refused, saying the test Creekstone wanted to use was not sufficient to determine the presence of the disease.  Guess what?  It is the exact same test the USDA uses to determine the presence of Mad Cow Disease in the US market.

The takeaway here is that we need more clarification, and laws, on labeling our foods.  It should be clear to me what the difference is between a carton of eggs that says “free range” and one that says “cage-free.”  Furthermore, if a carton shows a picture of a hen in a pasture, this should be an accurate visual description of the conditions in which these eggs were laid.

The question I pose today is: aside from paying  a premium for foods labeled “organic” (a term which Rangan says is the most reliable label we have, but which still has its own problems and limitations), what can we consumers do to ensure that we are not being ripped off by labels?

September 25, 2011

Bread and Hen of the Woods

I’ve been working on a big project over here at Beyond Burgers and Bratwurst.  You may have noticed on the right-hand navigation that I’ve added a twitter account (I have entered into the world of twitter, it is no longer safe!).  If you’re on twitter, you can follow me @beyondburgers.  I’ll see you there!

But even more exciting (I know, what can be more exciting than twitter??) is what I’ve been up to in my kitchen this weekend.  I really want to share with you.  But I can’t.  Not yet.

Tomorrow, I promise!

In the meantime, I will leave you with some delicious photographs I took this week.  My sister flew in from Germany on Wednesday.  She brought along a surprise:

Brezeln!  But that’s not all.  My sister knows I love German bread.  So she also brought my favorite bread from one of my family’s favorite German bakeries: Fünf Korn Quark Brot from Gauker!

This bread is a whole wheat bread, with a moist crumb thanks to a fresh cheese called quark, and a delicious crust covered in seeds (sunflower, poppy, and sesame seeds mostly).  It is so flavorful and delicious.  I can eat it with just cheese and be happy as a clam.

Also, yesterday I went to the farmers market to pick up my monthly meat CSA.  I saw these mushrooms and couldn’t resist!  Hen of the Woods are native to North America (and Japan, where it is known as Maitake).

It also goes by the name of Signorina mushroom in Italian-American communities.  It is delicious.  The farmer said that it grew on their farm, and although it was pricey ($20 a pound!) I decided it was okay to splurge.  And besides, my local coop sells shiitake mushrooms for $17 a pound.  This isn’t much more, and certainly a lot fresher!

Hen of the Woods are incredibly hard to wash, and I’m afraid it was still a bit gritty when I was finished cooking with it.  But who can blame me?  It even came with a bit of moss!  It was still excellent.

I hope you’re all enjoying your Sundays too.  I promise to share more details tomorrow!

March 9, 2008

Farmer’s Markets



An interesting article was printed in today’s Los Angeles Times about the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market. It’s probably one of the most important community markets in the US, one which many other markets nationwide try to emulate. However, this latest trend doesn’t seem like something that should be emulated. Or should it?

When the market opened in in 1981 it was a lifesaver for small farmers in the area. They were finally able to bring their fresh produce to a centralized place and sell it directly to the consumer, eliminating the middle-man. When chefs caught on with the idea, some home cooks seemed to grumble, saying that the best vegetables were going to those buying large quantities, and they were left with the extras. Over the years the two groups have found a way to coexist, and some even swap recipes and tips on how to serve up all the delicacies like stinging nettles and green garlic that are included in the market’s cornucopia. Now, the chefs have their own competition to contend with.

November 13, 2007

The Butter Bonanza

You all are probably groaning at the sight of the picture on the right. After one month all she could come up with was a post about butter? Well call me uncreative but yes. My defense: butter is probably one of the most important ingredients to most Western and even some non-Western cuisines (think India’s ghee, a very popular version of clarified butter). Although many Americans have been trained by our neurotic society to cringe when they read a recipe that states to sauté mushrooms in butter, Julia Child had the right idea when she said something like: if you don’t want to use butter, use cream. In other words, there’s nothing to replace the flavor of fats, and if you use them within reason they can do wonders to your food.

It’s around this time of year when people begin to think about cooking (if they manage not to think about it any other time of year). Thanksgiving is not too far off, and aside from finding the right turkey, you have to think: how much butter am I going to put into my mashed potatoes this year? Furthermore, with the arrival of Thanksgiving, the baking season is officially open. For me, this means I get to try out new recipes I’ve learned in pastry classes recently, such as Sable cookies. This translates to “Sand Cookies” from the French, and they are incredibly crumbly and scrumptious sugar cookies, perfect for a cup of tea or coffee on a cold afternoon (or accompanying a batch of other holiday cookies).

Clockwise from top left: Key lime bar, chocolate macaroon, lime pistachio shortbread, sable cookie

I digress. Back to the butter: One important thing to do when wanting to use butter is to buy the right kind. Each brand will be different. Butter is typically made up of 80% butterfat, 15% milk solids, and 5% water. Clarified butter is made when melting butter to separate out the milk solids and water, leaving pure butterfat. Many restaurants use this when cooking (which is one reason why eating out tastes so good!). There is one brand of butter, though, that is expensive but delicious called Plugrá Butter*, which has 82% butterfat. Apparently Cabbot has a higher water content, and one of my pastry chef instructors told me that she prefers Land o Lakes butter as a cheaper and more available alternative to Plugrá.

When buying butter to cook with, make sure to buy unsalted butter. This is vital, because every brand uses a different amount of salt and we consumers have no idea how much is in any of it. This can mess up salt measurements in both baking and cooking. Salt originally was put into butter as a preservative, and since the invention of refrigerators we can now eat butter faster than it goes rancid, making salted butter obsolete (except on toast). Butter can also be frozen indefinitely without sacrificing flavor or composition, which is great when butter goes on sale and you want to stock up. One tip: butter usually becomes expensive right around the holidays, so you can buy your butter in the summer when it’s cheap, and freeze it until winter when you want to bake warm cookies to stave off the cold.

This is precisely what I tried to do the other day when I was at the grocery store. I saw that Cabbot was on sale, and although I know it has a higher water content, I like the flavor of it. I read the tag: $1.88 unsalted butter. I looked: only three pounds left! I grabbed them, threw them in my basket, and rushed home to prepare dinner. Only as I was unpacking did I read the label on the butter closely: it was salted. Upon returning to the store the next day, the clerk informed me that due to the sale they had run out of unsalted butter. As she gave me a refund, she also asked me to fill out a form “So I can give you a rain check.” I got very excited. My first, very own rain check! I’d always heard that grocery stores hand them out, but I’d never experienced it myself. And now I have a precious rain check I can use in the next 60 days to buy my coveted unsalted butter.

* Plugrá Butter is available at Trader Joe’s and other specialty stores. Plugrá is apparently a play on the French words plus gras meaning “fattier.”

Sable Cookies
adapted from The French Cookie Book by Bruce Healy and Paul Bugat

4 ¾ ounces (or ½ cup plus 1 ½ tablespoons) unsalted butter, softened
2 ounces confectioner’s sugar
1 tsp pure vanilla extract (or ½ a vanilla bean or any other extract you fancy)
6 ounces all-purpose flour (measured out by weight!)
1 egg, lightly beaten
¼ cup crystal sugar (this is sugar with larger crystals)

Put the butter on a clean counter and sift the confectioner’s sugar over it. Cream the two together by smearing it away from you with the heel of your hand, then scraping it back with a bench scraper. Once it’s smooth quickly add the vanilla so you don’t melt all the butter. Sift the flour over the dough and cut it with the bench scraper or tossing it with your fingertips until you it becomes crumbly. Finish mixing it by smearing it in small portions across the counter again with the heel of your hand. Form the dough in a ball and roll it into a cylinder about ten inches long. Cut this in half and form each half into 8” long cylinders. Refrigerate for two hours or overnight.*

Preheat your oven to 375F.

Brush each cylinder with egg wash and roll in crystal sugar. Cut the dough into ¼” thick slices with a sharp knife and place them carefully on cookie sheets (lined with parchment to prevent sticking and for easy cleanup). Press down on each cookie lightly with your thumb to make a small impression and so the cookies stick to the sheet (pressing too hard though will cause the cookie to crack, you don’t want this!).

Bake until bottoms and edges are browned but the centers are still pale. Depending on your oven this can be anywhere from 14 to 16 minutes. Remove the cookies from the sheet carefully and let cool on a cookie rack.

*Note: whenever the dough becomes too difficult to handle, this probably means the butter has become too warm. Stick it back in the fridge to solidify the butter, then take it back out and try again.

October 12, 2007

Darwin’s Limited: Cambridge’s Living Room

There are some places that are an institution. They’re cozy and comfy and people return day after day because they know they’ll be recognized, they like the food and drink, or they think the chairs are cozy. At Darwin’s Ltd. it seems it’s a little bit of everything, despite its draw-backs.*

People are lured in by the promise of good sandwiches, and they often wait upwards of half an hour in line to order their ten minutes of bliss. After they have ordered they arrive at the register and realize (until last week) – what? No credit cards?** After they’ve paid with trusty greens, they turn around and go to the other side of the store to find a seat. If they are lucky they will get one of the benches along the coffee bar or outside the store, leaving the chairs, tables, and soft seating for the extra lucky ones.

So why, you ask, do people still come back? Because once you’ve had a bite of a Darwin’s sandwich, you have to go back for more. On each subsequent visit you will find other treasures in the store – the beer and wine selection is great, and you’ll make it to the coffee side and find their coffee and espresso to rival if not beat out most other joints in town. Someday you’ll discover the Lakota sandwich cookies and macaroons, $1.25 to extend those ten minutes of bliss by one too-short minute, but totally worth it. If you return often enough, you will one day be recognized. Finally, the big moment will come when you get one of those comfy soft chairs to sit in and you’ll realize that the chairs really are cozy, the music is good, the food and drink splendid, the service as speedy and helpful as they can be, and the ambiance perfect for an afternoon of studying, good conversation, or a pleasant little nap – or all three.

Darwin’s is quirky. Its sandwiches aren’t named the traditional way by using their ingredients. They’re named using street names around the store (with the second store open now each store has the same sandwiches, but different names). We don’t have a BLT or a grilled cheese but there are amazing other options: one with hummus and vegetables; a sandwich of prosciutto, tomatoes, pesto, and mozzarella; a roast beef with boursin cheese sandwich; a turkey sandwich with avocado and an herb vinaigrette; a smoked salmon, cream cheese, caper, cucumber and red onion sandwich; and countless more concoctions to choose from. As if that weren’t enough, daily sandwich specials (with a vegetarian option) and soup specials are also available, along with countless salads and some to-go dinner choices.

Some people at Darwin’s come not only once a day, but they’ll be there throughout the day several times. One customer comes in in the morning for a large dark blend in a double cup, only to return at least two more times in the day ordering subsequently smaller cups. A dog walker comes in every evening to order coffee, and one architecture firm’s employees came in so often that a sandwich was named after them. One wonderful customer stops by every evening and calls Darwin’s the perfect living room and Darwin’s a great big family. I have to say, there are definitely days when I wish I could be in the living room and enjoy the scenery around me. However, it’s also fun and rewarding being behind the scenes at Dawrin’s, making the living room as pleasing for everyone as possible.

You can find Darwin’s Ltd. at 148 Mt Auburn Street or 1629 Cambridge street, both in Cambridge, MA near Harvard Square. Hours are 6:30-9pm Mon-Sat and 7-9pm Sun. Mt. Auburn’s phone number is (617) 354-5233 and Cambridge Street’s number is (617) 491-2999. Both stores accept sandwich orders over the phone but must be picked up in person at the store.

* Disclaimer: I work here, so this “review” may be a bit biased. But I have tried to be as fair as possible and am aiming to capture all aspects of Darwin’s, including the food as well as the atmosphere and culture surrounding it.

**Darwin’s has recently started accepting Visa and MasterCards but with a ten dollar minimum. This is due to the exorbitant fees credit card companies charge on each sale.