What is good? "Good" food is food that is delicious and contains real nutritive value. "Good" food is generally made with good, wholesome ingredients. Many, many foods fall within the aegis of "good," even foods that in excess may provide too much nutritive value. This particular criterion is relatively easy to fit. So long as the food is not devoid of nutritive value, is not poisonous and is enjoyed by the eater, a food can conceivably fall under this banner.
"Clean" starts raising the bar. This is where much of the debate lies. "Clean" foods are basically foods that are Earth friendly. That means foods that are made with sustainably raised products and produced in a fashion that is responsible and unlikely to cause significant harm to our planet. In addition, they should be produced in humane ways with respect for our planet and the animals we share it with. There is obviously much room for debate as to what fits under this banner. Some guiding principles include using time tested agricultural stewardship practices such that land is regenerated and not abused as well as the promotion of biodiversity. Clearly agricultural practices that pollute or degrade arable land do not qualify nor do practices that promote homogeneity within the global food supply. Maintainance of farmland viability speaks for itself, but promotion of biodiversity is perhaps, less self-evident. Certainly from a diner's perspective having a greater variety of foods to eat is far preferable to a limited pantry. While that is not unimportant in itself, the greater reason for maintaining and promoting biodiversity is that it offers greater safety to our planet. Should a calamity occur, the presence of more diversity would seem to increase the likelihood of long term survival by limiting the potential reach and scope of any particular calamity. A propensity towards homogeneity of some modern agricultural practices as well as uncertain long-term consequences make extremely questionable their ability to fall within the confines of the term "clean." Large scale Monoclonal farming and genetic modification practices are examples of these types of questionable practices. It should be obvious why large scale factory livestock farming is problematic given the likelihood of pollution and environmental degradation at many farms of that type, not to mention ethically questionable animal husbandry practices.
"Fair" is also somewhat complicated in reality, though it is based on reasonable wages and the concept that no one in the process of getting food onto a table or into a mouth should be taken advantage of. That runs the gamut from the most basic farm worker to anyone involved with a product all the way through to the consumer. While this concept is difficult to quantify, ultimately, the bottom line is that people involved in the process do not feel and are not exploited. It is easier to determine what is not fair sometimes than what is. Clearly slave or subsistence labor is not fair.
One advantage local foods have is that it is easier to gauge where they fall within the spectrum of "good, clean and fair" and thus how well they fall under the banner of Slow Food. What then, does technique in preparing food, have to do with Slow Food. While the organization is rightfully committed to supporting and preserving foods, recipes and techniques that have withstood tests of time and culture to become part of traditions, there is nothing that demands that new techniques and new traditions and new recipes and creations can not be "good, clean and fair" and thus incompatible with Slow Food. New and traditional techniques are simply not mutually exclusive, especially when they are used with care, attention and the desire to put food that is good, clean and fair on the table.
To illustrate this concept, the Saratoga Region convivium of Slow Food USA combined forces with two modern, creative chefs, Aki Kamozawa and H. Alexander Talbot, the wife and husband team behind arguably the internet's most creative cooking blog, Ideas in Food. Aki and Alex are both classically trained cooks who have harnessed their creativity and married it to some of today's most novel and interesting cooking techniques to create a unique cuisine that utilizes various techniques, traditional and new, to bring out specific elements to highlight their clear, ingredient-driven food. Alex and Aki donated their time and effort to travel from their home base in Queens, N.Y. to travel up to Queensbury, N.Y. in the shadows of Lake George, Saratoga Springs and some of the finest farmland in the state to hold a benefit hands-on workshop and dinner followed by a demonstration of some of their techniques to some of the Saratoga Slow Food faithful. The idea was to use ingredients garnered from area farms and Farmers Markets to create a meal that was both "Slow" and completely modern. The weekend was billed as "Slow Food Goes Modern."
Prior to their North Country arrival, we had conversations about sourcing specific proteins so that they would be ready to work with over the weekend. After a particularly delicious suckling pig sampled at the Starchefs International Chefs Congress in NYC several weeks earlier, Alex had a hankering for suckling pig and asked if I could source a small one of about 10-15 pounds. It turns out that while the demand for such small and young pigs is strong in Spain and other countries, it is atypical within the United States. The best that I was able to do was to order a thirty pounder from Bornt Family Farms in Troy, N.Y. It was larger than ideal, but would still be of top quality and would simply have to do. The area of Washington County, N.Y. is strong in any number of meats with sourcing directly from farmers easy, straightforward and definitely consistent with the Slow Food credo. I ordered three free-range Muscovy ducks from The Garden of Spices in Greenwich and lamb necks from Elihu Farms. The ducks I picked up ahead of time directly from the farmer. The piglet would be delivered and the lamb necks along with all the produce, I would pick up with Alex and Aki that Saturday morning at the Saratoga and Glens Falls Farmers Markets depending on what was available and enticing.
Aki and Alex arrived Friday afternoon in the midst of perfect crisp, sunny early October weather. Over a dinner with some friends, we discussed a game plan for the following day. Other than knowing the main proteins that we would have to work with, the specific menu for the following evening's benefit dinner and thus the specific approach to the preceding hands-on workshop were still up in the air depending on what would prove irresistible in the market and the creative process stemming from that. That they had brought with them some of their contemporary kitchen tools, gadgets and ingredients to supplement the few already in our kitchen promised a creative approach, though specificity remained elusive at this point. The one thing decided upon that evening was a slow roasting of the ducks in our high-tech, slow-cooking, precise-temperature and humidity controlled CVap oven. The ducks were prepared and seasoned to cook for approximately 20 hours at 135º F and left to that end. The rest would have to wait until the next day.
Sunny and bright, the following morning proved perfect for a trip to the Saratoga and Glens Falls Farmers markets to explore and shop for the produce with which to fill out the menu for the weekend's festivities. In the meantime Slow Food Saratoga Vice President and Schenectady Community College Culinary Professor, Rocco Verrigni, drove down to the Troy Farmers market to pick up our piglet. The Saratoga market brimming with producers and customers, overflowed with produce at the height of the harvest season. The temperatures remained warm enough that an abundance of high summer products such as tomatoes and corn remained excellent and abundant despite the lateness of their seasons, while autumn products like heirloom pumpkins and root vegetables such as celeriac called out loudly. Accumulating a larder of vegetables, fruits, cheeses and meats from the various vendors was not difficult. The hard part was not buying everything and limiting ourselves only to those things we might use. These included an heirloom French "peanut skin" pumpkin, a large pink banana squash, new red potatoes and fresh corn donated by Sheldon Farms to fresh chevre from Sweet Springs, Belle de Bosque apples from Saratoga Apple, fresh feta from Mt. View Farms, hen eggs from Brookside Farm, arugula, shiitake mushrooms and a variety of heirloom tomatoes from New Minglewood Farms, sage, edamame, leeks, fairy tale eggplants and collards from Denison Farm and even strawberries from Scotch Ridge Berry Farm. We also picked up the whole lamb necks that we had ordered from Elihu Farm. In Glens Falls we purchased hot Italian sausage and apple-wood smoked bacon from Saratoga Apple, jalapeño and Anaheim peppers from The Alleged Farm and onions, zucchini and celery from Pleasant Valley Farm, while snacking on fresh cider donuts from Saratoga Apple.
We made it back to my house with our load in time to meet Rocco, who arrived with the piglet in a cooler filled with ice. After unloading my car, Alex and Rocco began cleaning the whole piglet with a hose in front of my garage, before carting it back to the kitchen. Aki and Alex began organizing the kitchen to catalog the ingredients and tools we had as well as those we could still use to supplement what had been purchased. Aki and I went to pick concord grapes from vines we have in front of our house, while Alex harvested parsley seeds and lavender from our garden. We also delved through our spice bin to see what might be useful. In the meantime, Mark Crescent, a former culinary student from Schenectady who had volunteered to help when he heard what Alex and Aki were doing, showed up to begin help with the preparations. He would assist with the workshop and the dinner preparation as well as service and clean-up in order to get a first hand taste of how Alex and Aki work.
The hands-on workshop would not begin until 3PM at which time the attendees were scheduled to arrive. Prior to that, however, there was much to be done. Aki and Alex did not have a set idea of what the menu would be before the day began other than the dinner would include suckling pig, duck and lamb neck in some form or another. Now that we had all our ingredients in front of us, their creative thinking went into overdrive. Their process really did not start to a significant degree until they explored the market's offerings and had a sense of what was available and the quality of those materials. Now piled on a table in a screened porch was all the produce that we had purchased. Alex had tasted the corn at the Sheldon Farm stand and immediately decided that he would serve it in its most basic state - raw, with the only adornment being a little sea salt - and this not in August, but in October!.
Rocco and Mark started on some of the basic mis-en-place, peeling the husks from the corn, washing the collards, destemming shiitakes, separating the bacon slices, etc. while Alex began preparing a braising liquid for the lamb necks, cooking tomatoes and celery with coffee in a modern pressure cooker. Aki set up a circulating water bath to cook some eggs, while my wife worked on setting the dining room and I started a charcoal fire in my Weber grill. With the braising liquid ready, Alex, strained it and added it to a large hotel pan with seasoned whole lamb necks before putting the pan into the convection oven to braise. Aki cleaned out the pressure cooker to re-use it for the concord grapes that would be cooked down with a bit of lavender and spice ultimately to produce a hydrocolloid stabilized grape puree. With the grill ready, we charred the Anaheim peppers and then placed the whole French pumpkin on it and covered it with the lid so that it would bake there slowly.
With the piglet cleaned, it needed to be broken down into more manageable parts, a process handled by Alex with help from Rocco and Mark. A reward for the work incurred so far was a quick stove-top grilling of the pig's hanger steak that was shared by all those in the kitchen at the time.
Three o'clock arrived quickly and so did the guests for the hands-on workshop. All the guests were intrepid food enthusiasts, who enjoy a wide range of culinary adventurism and the majority were accomplished home and beyond cooks in their own right, which meant that they brought a fair range of skills to the kitchen with them, skills that were put to good use during the workshop. While the pig continued to be broken down, the hams were put in the oven to roast, while the thorax and abdomen were de-boned, stuffed and rolled into porchettas. Two porchettas were made, each highlighting a different style of preparation. One, was prepared in a traditional way tied with twine, while the other was rolled up into a tight cylinder and wrapped in foil before both were roasted. Each was stuffed similarly with a sausage and spelt flour mixture. Everyone chipped in with some of the still tedious chores like peeling the edamame, cutting the collard leaves into triangular pieces, peeling the roasted peppers, culling the seeds from the parsley flowers, peeling tomatoes, de-seeding the banana squash and sundry other items and then some preliminary cooking chores. Mark used a vegetable peeler to shave long ribbons from the banana squash, which were then blanched. The lamb necks were done braising, but needed to be de-boned. This job naturally fell to a member of the group who happened to be a neurosurgeon. Throughout the process as individuals handled specific jobs, discussion and dialogue ensued on various techniques and the creative process. With preparations now taking shape, Alex and Aki began to hone their ideas to a point and began to visualize and finalize their menu. Though a number of modern tools and techniques were used throughout the dinner, it was apparent, that these techniques did not replace hard, dedicated and even at times tedious work - the backbone of any quality kitchen. Instead, they illustrated that these elements were all tools to achieve particular endpoints and that in the end dedication and creativity remain necessary components to any kitchen, traditional or contemporary, a point that would become magnified that much more once we sat down to eat. Two hours after the workshop started the prep work was done and the workshop was completed. The guests were invited to relax, though a few chose to go to their homes to freshen up and return for the scheduled start of dinner service at 7PM. Alex and Aki had determined their menu and I was now able to create wine pairings from my cellar.
As the time for the actual dinner approached my wife set the table for ten people in the dining room, I selected wines and printed a menu and Alex, Aki, Mark and Rocco rearranged the kitchen into one suitable for their needs with the main work area as well as using the kitchen table for the plating of the dishes before service. Gone was anything extraneous to their needs. Present and well ordered there was everything that they would need, once they had finally decided the final composition of their courses. I know that I was excited and I perceived that the guests were too as they began to return after a brief period for refreshing themselves. There was one guest that came just for the dinner, who was unable to make the workshop. The first wine of the evening, 1990 Bollinger Grand Anee Rosé was popped and a toast was made to our new Saratoga Region Slow Food convivium and to food that was good, clean and fair! With everyone seated the courses and wines started parading to the table. Belle de Bosque apple with ground parsley seeds harvested that afternoon from parsley in our garden that had gone to seed, baby arugula and maldon sea salt proved refreshing and balanced with the seeds adding a distinctive touch to an impeccably balanced dish. The next course could not have been more simple nor more delicious, as it highlighted the beauty of impeccable product. A piece of raw corn from Sheldon Farms was serve with nothing more than a little sea salt as accompaniment. It worked beautifully with a 1999 Durell Vineyard chardonnay from Kistler. The piglet followed, making its table side debut as "slow roasted suckling hams with 'Fairy Tale eggplant, sage and cracklings," a dish all about elegance and succulence, traditional, but paired and plated with imagination and deft palates. This was simply sensational and did not suffer at all from a pairing with the 1997 Goldert Gewurtztraminer from Zind-Humbrecht.
The next dish was the first to really highlight the couple's technical creativity and playfulness as well as to incorporate some contemporary techniques. It was a novel interpretation of the classic pasta carbonara. In this case the "pasta" was a pappardelle made from blanched shavings from a big, pink banana squash served with eggs cooked in an immersion circulator to a final temperature of 65ºC and bacon, chives and a sauce incorporating parmiggiano cheese (?). This was served with a 1998 Hirsch Vineyard pinot noir from Kistler.
A dish fascinating to observe being prepared and astoundingly delicious was braised Elihu Farm lamb neck with ribbed zucchini, vadouvan and amazing, creamy mashed potatoes. This dish was comfort food with an haute sensibility and a modern presentation. It was paired with a 1982 Chateau Cos D'estournel, arguably the wine and the pairing of the evening. Lamb neck is a rarely seen and used part of the animal, that in this rendition, raised the question, "how could that be?" Duck slow roasted over 20 hours to a temperature of 135ºC proved a little too cooked for most, though it was served with two wonderful sauces, a Concord grape puree made with the grapes from our vines harvested that afternoon and a bright green, celery puree. Both of the sauces were made with a combination of classic and contemporary techniques including some hydrocolloids for texture and effect. The Allegrini Amarone from 1996 was not unpopular.
Though everyone was beginning to get sated, the porchetta was too delicious to ignore. The elegant presentation included the charcoal-grill roasted peanut squash and collard greens. It was paired with an appropriately big 1997 Clos de Truffieres. Perhaps the most astounding and surprisingly delicious dish of the evening ws brought out next. The dish combined tomatoes that had been skinned with fresh feta from the nearby Mt. View Farm and local honey. The dish was surprising, because no person at the table had any inkling that tomato and honey would work so well together. The feta proved to be the perfect foil and balance that brought everything together including the acid and flavor of the tomato, the sweetness and texture from the honey and the salt and cream from the cheese. Further balance was provided by a 1995 Cabernet Sauvignon from Ch. Montelena. The meal was brought to a lovely close by another dish wonderfully simple, delicious and surprising. The surprise was such delicious local strawberries in season in October. These were belended with creme fraiche also from Mt. View and paired with a 1988 Sauternes from Ch. Rieussec.
The meal was a great success, but the weekend was not done. The following day we had arranged for a demonstration at a nearby restaurant, Farmhouse at Top of the World, for twenty people. Alex and Aki would demonstrate some of the techniques and ingredients that with the right approach married the sometimes disparate notions of traditional and novel. We brought the immersion circulator, a Vita-Mix blender, a contemporary Cuisinart electronic pressure cooker and Alex and Aki's supply of hydrocolloids along with some food from the prior night that was prepared with the demonstration in mind including a porchetta. Alex and Aki demonstrated how one can make a delicious and creamy risotto by par cooking the risotto rice in the immersion circulator in a fraction of the time and with less direct involvement than the traditional method of continued stirring; cooking the piglet's head in the modern pressure cooker to make a traditional head cheese; and the effects of different percentages of the hydrocolloid Xanthan Gum in plain water (the water would become more viscous with no apparent change in its taste). Many of the hydrocolloids in use in contemporary restaurant kitchens like elBulli, The Fat Duck, WD-50, Alinea and others are naturally derived and have been long used in various cooking traditions such as the seaweed derived agar-agar, which has been used in Japan for ages. Xanthan gum, used in those same kitchens, is an industrial product produced by fermentation of glucose or sucrose by the Xanthomonas campestris bacterium. This hydrocolloid possesses a number of interesting properties including pseudoplasticity or the ability to thin with shearing and stability at a wide range of temperatures and pH, properties simply not found to these degrees in other products. This offers the chef or cook a tool to achieve specific effects that may be desired in the presentation of a dish. That the product is made industrially does not inherently prevent it from being "good, clean and fair." Though of limited nutritive value, extensive testing has shown it to be harmless to humans. It is good, because it enhances the pleasure of foods when used well and properly for specific effects not otherwise achievable such as has been used by the kitchens mentioned above and Alex and Aki. Like any product, it can be used simply as a shortcut to subvert better techniques and with lesser results. Though produced industrially, there is no evidence to suggest that the production is environmentally unsound or unsustainable and the fact that there is no evidence of exploitation in its production or use, makes it fair. Though it is unlikely that many or even any of the attendees of the demonstration will incorporate these techniques in their cooking, that is unimportant and was not really the purpose of the demonstration. The purpose was to show that traditional and contemporary cooking techniques can co-exist with respect for each other. They are not mutually exclusive. The demonstration, workshop and dinner were all to show that Slow Food is not defined by specific techniques or foods. It really is more of an approach to cooking and life. The best elements of any tradition are to be preserved and supported, whether they are old or new, so long as they adhere to the tenets espoused by the philosophy of Slow Food which is all about enhancing life and preserving the best parts of it for future generations regardless of the traditions from which they arise. What is worthwhile must be preserved for its inherent value as well as for the ultimate benefit of the world and all its population. The weekend's events proved a great success in demonstrating how the traditional, the contemporary and the creative can be well married and truly "Slow."
For more photos please see here.