Kansas City Originals

Between July 2011 and December 2012, I photographed 19 chefs and restaurant owners and wrote profiles about them for KC Originals. During that period, I also photographed numerous dishes with accompanying recipes for the web site.

The brief profiles explore the subject’s culinary background, training, influences, and philosophy. The purpose is to inform diners about chefs and local owners at these independent restaurants in the greater Kansas City area. The recipes and profiles assist diners when scouting out local places to eat or dishes to try.

What I loved about these assignments was meeting professionals in the restaurant industry and supporting Kansas City’s local businesses and culinary scene.

Pictured above: Chef Charles d’Ablaing, Chaz on the Plaza.

Chef Profiles

Chef Debbie Gold from The American Restaurant

Chris Carle, co-owner of Coach’s Bar & Grill

Phil Bourne, owner of Waldo Pizza

Chef Steven Cameron from Gaslight Grill

Chef Stefan Haney from Rumors Steakhouse

Chef Matthew Arnold, The Webster House

Chef Glenn Bindley, The Phoenix

Chef Tom Legg, La Bodega Leawood

Broadmoor Technical Center, Broadmoor Bistro

Chef Grant Wagner, JJ’s

Chef Kathy Fiorello from Carlo’s Copa Room

Chef Michael Smith, Extra Virgin

Chef Brian Aaron, Tannin Wine Bar and Kitchen

Owner Greg Hunsucker, V’s Italiano Ristorante

Chef Carl Thorne-Thomsen, Story

Chef Charles d’Ablaing, Chaz on the Plaza

Co-owner Victor Cascone, Cascone’s Restaurant

Chef Reed Plumb, Waldo Pizza

Sushi Chef Koji Sakata, Nara


Louisiana Crawfish Salad
by Chef Julio Juarez, Starker’s Restaurant

Buttermilk Poached Campo Lindo Chicken Breast and Spring Fiddlehead Ferns
by Chef Debbie Gold, The American

Fried Paella with Mixed Greens and Creme Fraiche
by Chef English Renshaw, La Bodega

BBQ Pulled Pork Nachos
by Kokopelli Mexican Cantina

Champagne Fish and Chips
by Chef Vito Tovar, The Phoenix

Sweet Potato and Leek Soup Recipe
by Chef Charles D’Ablaing, Chaz on the Plaza

Ancho Chili Coffee-Rubbed Steak with Grand Marnier Butter
by Executive Chef Patrick Williams, Pierpont’s at Union Station

Mussels and Pernod Cream
by Chef Robert Padilla, Trezo Mare

Ahi Tuna on Bruschetta
by Chef Amy Presson from Marina Grog & Galley

Sicilian Sfinge
by Chef Victor Cascone of Cascone’s

Shrimp in Mustard Sauce Appetizer
by Chef DeDe Shields, Shields Manor Bistro

by Anthony Spino, Anthony’s Restaurant and Lounge

Snow & Company Frozen Cocktails

I shot a series of photographs this afternoon at Snow & Company, which serves frozen cocktails using premium ingredients, for a KC Magazine assignment. The story, due out in August, is about cool sweet treats from local establishments. It is definitely a fun assignment.

Snow Camry 3 low res

rockefeller low res

purple rain low res

mallory rockefeller low res

mallory peach low res

Snow Sailor lowres
These shots are outtakes from my visit. Camry Ivory and her friend Mallory Taulbee were kind enough to sit in and sample some delicious (and potent) cocktails such as Purple Rain, A Kick to the Peaches, Sailor’s Gold, and my favorite The Rockefeller. The menu includes a half-dozen other drinks (including a non-alcoholic option) and a few of them use local ingredients ranging from Christopher Elbow’s spiced chocolate to Boulevard Wheat Beer.

Hot weather slowing you down? Cruise over to 18th Street and Wyandotte, order up a frozen cocktail, and sip responsibly.




EBT Restaurant

Recently, EBT Restaurant General Manager Adam Horner invited local writers and foodies to sample dishes from the menu updated by Chef Tate Roberts.

adam horner
Adam Horner

Renovated in 2006, the restaurant’s decor and atmosphere reflect its rich history and contemporary touches that offer a classy setting for drinks and dining.  Here’s a description from the restaurant’s website:

Much of the decor for the restaurant comes from the Emery, Bird, Thayer Department Store that operated in downtown Kansas City until the 1960′s. EBT Restaurant was opened to honor that department store, which has ties to Kansas City history dating back to the late 1800s. The stained glass, much of the masonry, wrought iron archways and most notably, the two brass elevator cages were all salvaged when the EBT Department store was demolished in 1971.

Guests can reserve a table in one of the two elevator cages for a touch of elegance and novelty or secure a table in the refined dining room.

The draw for this gathering was Chef Tate Robert’s additions to the classic repertoire of dishes on the menu. Roberts has been with the restaurant for a number of years as it has undergone change to revitalize its offerings and attract new clientele under the stewardship of Adam Horner. Roberts cuisine presents classic dishes with a contemporary touch. Nothing too cutting edge that will discourage traditionalists seeking comfort or so revered that it can’t be reinterpreted for modern adventurous palates.

New dishes under the heading of contemporary include pan-roasted duck breast brushed with sweet currant orange glaze and served with sweet corn and Yukon gold potato hash, and bacon green beans; rosemary studded Colorado lamb T-bone; and grilled vegetable Napoleon. Classic entrees range from peppercorn beef tenderloin medallions to pan seared Chilean sea bass.

Other new items on the starters menu are grilled flatbread pizzas (truffle-dressed spinach, ricotta and candied Shallots; hummus, roasted red peppers and mint infused goat cheese) and my personal favorite, bacon wrapped tiger shrimp. For a list of menu items, check www.ebtrestaurant.com/menu.

pizza 2

Among the new signature cocktails, I tried the Pimm’s “New” Cup and The Original (Old Fashioned). The Pimm’s ‘New’ Cup (Pimm’s Cup) blends Pimm’s No. 1 with cucumber-infused lemonade and is served on the rocks with a lemon twist and cucumber slice. Refreshing and crisp, this drink is the perfect antidote to a busy summer day when it’s time to relax.

pimms cup
The Original (Old-Fashioned) is a pour of Woodford Reserve Bourbon over an Angostura bitters-soaked sugar cube and muddled fresh peach and blackberries served on the rocks with a splash of soda and peach flag. While it was a fruit-filled alternative to the citrus and cherry flavors often found in an Old Fashioned, the execution was not quite as satisfying as the Pimm’s. The drink was too strong and the flavors were not clean and distinct.

I look forward to returning to the restaurant to explore the cocktails, wine list, and other dishes on another visit. Conveniently located at I-435 & State Line, the restaurant also houses a lounge with live music Thursday-Saturday.

Contacts:  www.ebtrestaurant.com | on Facebook @ www.facebook.com/EBTKansasCity || on Twitter @ www.twitter.com/EBTKansasCity |Book on OpenTable www.opentable.com/EBT |

Red Mesa Grill

red-mesaRecently, Pam Taylor and I traveled to Chicago and Boyne City/Traverse City in northern Michigan for a week’s vacation with the kids. We ate a few places that were easy to find if you’re in the area and were not touristy at all.

A standout discovery was Red Mesa Grill with locations in Boyne City and Traverse City. The menu features foods with Latin American flavors from Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. The atmosphere was upbeat and cordial with bright decor. The Boyne City location seemed to have plenty of locals dining there, but I’ll bet this is a popular spot during the summer tourist season.

Pam had a Sour Cherry Margarita that was sweet, tart, and refreshing. I enjoyed a couple of lightly hoppy pints of Will Power Pale Ale from Right Brain Brewery, based in Traverse City.

The food had distinct flavor combinations and presentation that didn’t feel Americanized at all.

Subtly spiced ground beef empanadas were perfect light pastries with a chipotle cream dipping sauce. Peruvian armadillo eggs are not what they seem, but they are delicious as an appetizer. I tried the masa dusted sauteed whitefish which was sourced locally and prepared to perfection – light crust and flaky, tender filet. Served with steamed vegetables and a chile sauce, the whitefish was a pleasant change from heavy breaded fish and chips. The Cuban black bean cakes were a hearty vegetarian dish. And the Costa Rican garlic steak was a winner as well. We savored the variety of housemade sauces served with dishes as well as bottled sauces on the table.

Other dishes I want to try on some future visit include corn Roasted walleye, wild mushroom fajitas, and roasted pineapple quesadilla. We did leave room for dessert which was a good call. The coconut bread pudding was insanely tasty. The kids enjoyed trying habanero fried ice cream which sounded adventurous, but was more cinnamon and fried dough than peppery.

Service was friendly and attentive. The only drawbacks to visiting Red Mesa Grill were that we had to leave the area soon for the return trip home and that we couldn’t celebrate Cinco de Mayo there.

Until next time, I’ll settle for this recipe from the Red Mesa Grill’s website.

Roasted Tomato Salsa


5 lbs    Red Ripe Roma Tomatoes
6 each    Fresh Jalapenos
6 each    Fresh Garlic Cloves
1 tbls    Salt
3 tbls    Cider Vinegar
1 lb    White Onion Small Diced
1 bunch    Fresh Cilantro, rough chopped
1 ea 15 oz can    Salsa Diced Tomatoes


1)  Wash tomatoes and place on baking sheet, and roast in a 500 degree oven until well charred on the outside.

2)  At the same time on a separate baking sheet roast garlic, and jalapenos until charred.

3)  Place roasted garlic, jalapenos, vinegar, and salt in blender and puree

4)  Add charred tomatoes to jalapeno mixture and slightly puree, leaving salsa slightly chunky.

5)  Add onions and rough chopped cilantro to salsa

6)  Finish salsa with diced tomatoes.

Raquel Pelzel, Cookbook Author and Former Senior Food Editor for Tasting Table

Raquel Pelzel small imageRaquel Pelzel is an award-winning food writer and has written and collaborated on more than a dozen cookbooks. Her work has appeared in Saveur, The Wall Street Journal, Cook’s Illustrated, Fine Cooking, and many others. At the time of the inteview, she was senior food editor for Tasting Table. She writes the blog raqinthekitchen.com.

Sofia Perez, editor-at-large for Saveur, recommended that I contact Raquel for the next installment of my series where I ask food writers, “What is Good Food Writing?” Sofia wrote the first thoughtful response. Stay tuned for more to come.

Since Raquel’s expertise and experience lies in cookbook writing and recipe development, she proposed discussing that area of food writing as an alternative to examining my central question. I gladly accepted her offer.

Food + Writing
Turns out that Raquel’s food writing career began in her hometown of Chicago with a few twists and turns.

“In college, I became a vegetarian. I didn’t know how to cook,” she says. “I had a college internship at an advertising agency for food-based businesses, but I spent more time talking to the house chef than writing copy.”

Following her instincts, she decided to attend culinary school and headed to the School of Natural Cookery in Boulder, Colorado. She learned about cooking healthful whole foods to sustain a vegetarian diet. Afterward, she returned to Chicago to finish college and then landed a job in publishing as an assistant editor at Consumers’ Digest Magazine where she wrote about health and travel. She met her future husband and they moved to Boston, his hometown on the East Coast.

While working for a healthcare newsletter, Raquel nursed second thoughts about a baking career. She worried about earning enough money to make a living, but decided to go for it anyway.

“I kept having a romantic vision of being a baker or pastry chef. I quit my job in publishing and started pastry school at Johnson & Wales University in Providence. I worked as a baker in a kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts from six in the morning until noon, then drove an hour to Rhode Island where I was in school until seven at night. I’d drive home, eat a peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich and pass out from exhaustion!”

She left Johson & Wales to take a job at a small artisanal bakery in Brookline and then moved on to work in pastry at Barbara Lynch’s No. 9 Park. “It was hard and the pay was dismal, and soon enough I began to miss my old life as a writer with semi-sane hours, vacation time and holidays off. While I loved cooking and working with food, I missed writing.”

Raquel wanted to marry her interest in food with writing. Opportunity knocked when she saw a job opening at Cook’s Illustrated. She wrote a story and made multiple versions of a dish for the interview. Tuna noodle casserole, no less. She got the job and began her career as a professional home cook, developing and testing original recipes and cross-testing and vetting recipes from some of the best chefs in the world.

Developing Recipes
The process of writing recipes and developing a cookbook is complicated and involves several areas of expertise. Raquel offers several pieces of advice for aspiring cookbook writers or anyone writing a recipe for publication.

Consider the audience. “Speak to the audience and lifestyle. Is it urban, hobby, cooking for a family, working parents, or casual?” she asks. “The audience and lifestyle affects the ingredients, writing tone, and cooking techniques.”

Have the recipe(s) tested. “At Tasting Table [where Pelzel currently works], we prepare recipes from chefs and cookbooks constantly. It’s pretty amazing how many recipes don’t work—it’s my job not just to fix them, but to make them an accurate representation of the chef and the food he or she serves,” says Raquel.

Have a keen eye. “Hire a copywriter. Small typos and details can destroy a lot of hard work. Watch the process during the book’s layout and pay attention so instructions don’t drop off the page.”

Lessons Learned

One of Raquel’s first cookbooks was a project for Williams-Sonoma, Williams Sonoma: New Flavors for Dessert (Oxmoor House, 2008). She was hired to develop the recipes and write the book. The publisher was very involved as were the executives at Williams-Sonoma, and before going into the kitchen, Raquel had to have all of the ingredients and techniques for her recipes approved. She learned to be flexible with recipe development.

Always be flexible. “”There’s always something new to learn and consider. Be adaptable and nimble to requests,” she advises. “I was pushed to come up with more interesting ideas and learned a lot that way. Plus, as a freelancer, it’s a good thing to be easy to work with if you want to get hired again!”

Originality. “”To truly develop an original recipe, you have to start at ground zero with an idea. ”Think about possibilities and flavor combinations and sketch out a recipe. I consult other recipe sources, take notes on interesting details and techniques. It’s a lot of research, and not just switching out an ingredient here or there.”

Test and experiment. Raquel sketches out a framework for the recipe. She cooks it and changes out ingredients while testing at the counter. “Then I put the ingredients and method aside and just cook. Paper can tie you down,” she says. “Cooking is unique to you. What makes it interesting is that it speaks to your style.”

Cite sources and inspiration. “Give credit where credit is due. I know people spend lots of time developing recipes,” she says. “If inspired by something someone else has done, say so as an acknowledgement.”

Keep trying. “If you have an idea, go for it. You will have failures. Cook through all of the possibilities.”

Check out Pelzel’s other work including Masala Farm, a collaboration with Chef Suvir Saran (Chronicle, 2011), and Preserving Wild Foods with Chef Matthew Weingarten (Storey, 2012).

Preserving Wild Foods

Springtime Cooking Class for KC Home and Gardens Magazine

Nebraska Furniture Mart roped off its Kitchen Design Studio for Kansas City Home and Garden magazine’s March Cooking School, featuring Cowtown Cheesecake owner Chef Terry Mille and Last Bite cookbook author Pete Dulin. We prepared a light, fresh four-course menu for the season — using lots of ingredients from local vendors — with recipes for guests to take home. Somerset Ridge co-owner Cindy Reynolds paired her wines with each course. Photo: Matt Kocourek

For more photos and recipes, head to www.kchandg.com/springtime-soiree.

mint pea soup

The Menu:

Salad of spring greens (from Cultivate KC), strawberries and fresh sheep’s milk cheese (from Green Dirt Farm) with lemon-honey vinaigrette

Mint Pea Soup with Mint Whipped Cream

Baked chicken meatballs (using Local Pig sausage and chicken from Steve’s Meat Market in Desoto, Kan.) with pepperonata

Cowtown Cheesecake’s Kansas Cream Cheesecake (made with Shatto cream)


Ventana Gourmet Grill

April/May 2012, Home in the Northland Magazine
Story By: Pete Dulin
Photography By: Brad Austin

A row of local shops line each side of the main strip in old downtown Excelsior Springs. Guests tour the Hall of Waters and Cultural Museum. Afterward, they pop into stores selling antiques, curios, spa services, and arts and crafts. When hunger arises, a good bet is Ventana Gourmet Grill where tourists will find locals proud and pleased to patronize the bistro.

Before Ventana existed, downtown had Ray’s Lunch and Diner (opened in 1932) and some specialty shops. Fast food and chain restaurants encroached on the commercial outskirts of the growing city. Sisters Jill Rickart and Wendy Baldwin decided that their restaurant could fill a need for an “upscale casual dinning experience” sorely lacking in the community.

Circa 2002, Rickart’s kids had started school. She wanted work that would allow her to have some family time. She and Baldwin, who had years of restaurant experience, committed to opening their first establishment together. This past February marked the tenth anniversary of Ventana Gourmet Grill, quite an achievement for any restaurant to survive through the upheavals of the economy over the past decade.

Baldwin knew this vocation was the right choice. She says, “Part of my gift is that I love people. I love creating and serving others. It’s something I really enjoy.”

Ventana, which means window in Spanish, is housed in a building that dates back to the 1890s. The building has seen its share of change. Former residents range from the Boston Mercantile to dime stores to a Ben Franklin retail shop in the Seventies.

Ventana’s aesthetic warmth draws from classic details. Original tin on the ceiling, red brick walls, and polished but weathered dark wood floors evoke a timeless presence. Wooden cafe-style tables and chairs suggest an European bistro’s ambiance. The atmosphere is relaxed and friendly as sunshine paints a glowing mural of light in late afternoon.

Touches of yesteryear give Ventana a familiar coziness. A candy display holds bins of gargantuan jawbreakers, malt balls, Pixie Stix, Slow Poke, and other treats. In the corner, a Steinway piano with yellowed keys looks like it might hail from the era of Jesse James when a shifty-eyed musician banged away a tune in a saloon. Ventana does feature live piano music on Friday and Saturday nights, adding to the bistro flair.

People in the community come here to meet as much as to eat. Ladies lunch, business men and women entertain clients, couples celebrate with a romantic night out, and families mark special occasions such as wedding rehearsals and anniversaries with a trip to Ventana. The community’s pride and appreciation for having a nice place to gather is evident. “Customers get excited to come in, bring their friends, and introduce them to the staff,” says Rickart.

Ventana hires students from local and area schools for their serving staff. Cooks Josh Gall, Ambrose Alberts, and Jason Hallmark have worked in the kitchen for many years. Rickart adds, “We instruct our staff to learn customer names and their dining preferences so they can order ‘the usual.’ It makes customers feel important.”

Not surprisingly, the bistro’s regulars enthusiastically support this local business. “We have regulars come in on certain nights,” says Baldwin. “They call us if they can’t make it or go on vacation because they don’t want us to worry if we don’t see them. It’s amazing.”

This embrace of a local business goes beyond the adoration of hometown boosters. The food is a sure draw. Before Ventana opened, the city lacked a place to eat quality steak, pasta, and seafood. Not any longer. Ventana Gourmet Grill was also featured on KCPT’s food program Check, Please! Kansas City two years ago with favorable reviews.

The kitchen prepares its dishes from scratch including pasta and cheesecakes. The food is so popular that the sisters have not been able to change the menu in any substantial way.

“Everything is ordered so much,” says Baldwin. She cites a cheesy baked potato soup served on Fridays that has been on the menu since the second week of the restaurant’s opening ten years ago. “People like to have their favorites.”

Baldwin favors the shrimp scampi and Burgundy steak on the menu. Rickart likes to eat the 16-ounce rib-eye and gourmet veggie sandwich. The restaurant serves food to suit vegetarian, low-carb, and gluten-free diets.

Steaks are cut fresh from the local grocer are a popular entree as well as the Tuscan pasta, a colorful dish loaded with sun-dried tomatoes, artichokes, mushrooms, and spinach tossed with spinach fettuccine and feta cheese. The Sugar Burger is a six-ounce serving of ground Black Angus beef cooked to order, brushed with a smoky brown sugar glaze, and topped with sauteed onions, cheddar cheese, and bacon.

The menu offers an extensive array of appetizers, salads, and daily soups that could double as a weekly calendar for customers. Lobster bisque is the soup? It must be Thursday. The bounty of burgers, sandwiches, sides, and hearty entrees of pasta, steak, and seafood means never getting bored with the options. Homemade cheesecakes and bread pudding are worth loosening the belt and unsnapping the button on the waistband to indulge.

Ventana stocks a full bar, specialty beers, teas, and an array of wines from around the world to complement meals.

After a visit or two, don’t be surprised by the friendly smiles as the folks at Ventana Gourmet Grill make you feel at home. Whether it’s a short jaunt or a longer venture, it’s worth the drive to downtown Excelsior Springs to experience this crowd-pleasing local place of pride.

Mon.-Sat. Lunch & Dinner
Historic Downtown
117 W. Broadway
Excelsior Springs, Mo 64024

More photographs:  http://homeinthenorthland.com/index.php/ventana-gourmet-grill/

Judith Fertig and Karen Adler, authors of The Gardener and the Grill

The Gardener and the GrillSelf-titled BBQ Queens and prolific cookbook authors Judith Fertig and Karen Adler will release The Gardener and the Grill for publication (Running Press) in late April 2012. In this interview, they discuss their latest cookbook and share recipes such as Grilled Peach Halves with Lemon Balm Gremolata.

The Gardener and the Grill is a grilling guide for gardeners, seasonal eaters, and anyone eager to learn how to grill vegetables and even fruit–not just during the summer months but all year long. In addition to seasonal recipes, the book offers tips on grilling for preserving, a burgeoning “griller’s pantry” of rubs and versatile sauces, and more than 100 vegetarian recipes.

The authors are experts on grilling and barbecuing as demonstrated by their numerous cookbooks such as BBQ Bash, 300 Big & Bold Barbecue Recipes, and Weeknight Grilling. The duo has appeared on the Food Network and Better Homes & Gardens TV, and they both share their skills in grilling classes that have reached over 75,000 students.

Pete:  What’s behind the premise of your latest cookbook, The Gardener and The Grill?

Judith:  Both of us love to garden and both of us love to grill, so putting the two together in a book was a natural.

Pete:  What inspired the idea for this book?

Judith:  As women in barbecue, we think about what we like to eat that is beyond the parameters of meat and potatoes. Our Fish and Shellfish, Grilled and Smoked; 25 Essential Techniques: Grilling Fish; and 25 Essential Techniques: Planking feature more “finesse” barbecue. We love fresh flavors and colors, so grilling from the garden became our current project.

Pete:  What recipes do you suggest for the grill in fall, winter, and spring as produce availability changes with the season?

Karen:  In fall, it’s wonderful to grill apples and pears as well as root vegetables, winter squash, and hearty greens like Swiss chard and kale. There’s a way to grill just about everything. In winter, it’s more closing the lid on the grill or smoker and smoking potato dishes, grilling brussels sprouts (which are fabulous) or grilling greens to serve with a warm cranberry vinaigrette. In spring, it’s all the wonderful asparagus, leeks, snow peas and edamame in the pod, green onions, and fingerling potatoes.

Pete:  What are some items in the “griller’s pantry” that you recommend having on hand?

Karen:  The essential ingredients are olive oil, salt and pepper.  Beyond those, you can stock Dijon mustard, bottled hot sauce, wine vinegars, dried herbs and spices.

Pete:  Can you share some background about how you develop, test, and refine recipes?

Judith:  We both save recipes that we come across and keep a stash of them. We’ve also written quite a few books, so we have a body of work on which to draw. We both seem to like the same flavors and the idea of maximum return for ease of preparation, so we’re on the same page with that. We sit down and make a list of ingredients or recipe concepts we want to feature in a book, then create or tweak a recipe, then test it. With The Gardener and the Grill, we wanted to make sure we included as many herbs, vegetables, and fruits from the garden as we possibly could in ways that made sense and tasted great.

Pete:  What does this book offer for the novice gardener and/or griller or someone completely inexperienced in either/both areas?  Is this book a good entry point or do you suggest another title in your catalog?

Karen:  The Gardener and the Grill is for the novice as well as the experienced gardener or griller.  If you only have a pot of cherry tomatoes on your patio and have only threaded them on a skewer to grill, you can use this book.  If you have a big garden, you can extend your gardening repertoire by growing and grilling new varieties.

Pete:  Favorite recipe in the book?

Judith:  That’s hard to choose.  I have a new one every day.  Today, it’s Grilled Summer Slaw with Gorgonzola Vinaigrette. But I also have a hankering for Warm Honeyed Blackberries with Grilled Pound Cake.

Pete:  Where can the book be ordered and purchased besides Amazon, locally and nationally?  Is it available as an eBook?

Karen:  The Gardener and the Grill is at Pryde’s, A Thyme for Everything, The Kansas City Store, Kitchen Thyme, Webster House, Williams-Sonoma, Anthropologie, Barnes and Noble. It is available in ebook format.



From The Gardener and the Grill by Karen Adler & Judith Fertig
Running Press, 2012

Charred Green Beans
Photo credit: Steve Legato

Charred Green Beans with Lemon Verbena Pesto
If you grow pole beans, you know that at first glance, you have only a few beans, and then suddenly there is an onslaught. That’s when bean varieties like the green Blue Lake or the yellow wax beans can be stir-grilled with a bit of olive oil for a very simple yet satisfying dish to use the surplus of beans. When you’re in the mood for a more robust sauce, try this lemony pesto tossed with the grilled beans right before serving. Serves 2 to 4.

Green Beans
1 1/2 pounds slender green beans
2 teaspoons olive oil

Lemon Verbena Pesto
1 cup fresh lemon verbena leaves (substitute fresh lemon balm leaves)
2 garlic cloves
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup pine nuts or English walnuts
1/2 cup olive oil
Fine kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Prepare a hot fire in your grill.
Toss the beans with olive oil and place in a perforated grill basket or wok set on a baking sheet.

For the Lemon Verbena Pesto, combine the lemon verbena, garlic, cheese, and nuts in a food processor and pulse to puree. Slowly add the olive oil with the processor running until the mixture thickens and emulsifies, about 1 minute. Season to taste with salt and pepper. The pesto will keep in the refrigerator for 7 to 10 days or it may be frozen for up to 3 months.

Place the grill wok or basket directly over the fire and stir-grill tossing the beans with wooden paddles or grill spatulas until crisp-tender, about 5 to 8 minutes. Transfer the grilled beans to a large bowl and toss with about 1/4 cup of the Lemon Verbena Pesto or to taste.

Grilled Peach Halves with Lemon Balm Gremolata
This recipe is very simple, yet full of flavor. A traditional gremolata has parsley, lemon zest, and garlic, but this is a sweeter version, delicious with fruit. If you don’t have lemon balm in your garden, substitute mint and add more lemon zest. If you use a Microplane grater, you get the flavorful yellow part of the lemon rind without the bitter white pith. By chopping the herbs with the lemon zest, the flavors blend together better. Serves 4.

1/4 cup packed lemon balm leaves
1 tablespoon packed mint leaves
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
Pinch kosher or sea salt
4 peaches, halved and pitted

Prepare a medium-hot fire in your grill. Chop the lemon balm, mint, and lemon zest together until very fine. Sprinkle a pinch of salt over the leaves and chop again. Set aside in a small bowl.

Place the peach halves cut side down on the grill. Grill for 4 to 6 minutes, turning once, until the peaches are tender and blistered. To serve, place 2 peach halves in each bowl and sprinkle the Lemon Balm Gremolata over all.

Cooking, Eating, Philosophizing About Food

Ferran Adria Lately, I’ve been reading Ferran: The Inside Story of El Bulli and the Man Who Reinvented Food written by Colman Andrews (Gotham Books, 2010). The book is an informative (and over-the-top, at times) read for those interested in cuisine and one of the industry’s notable names. The book fixates on El Bulli restaurant owner and chef Ferran Adrià, but it also examines the succession of people driven to create, refine, and serve cuisine at the famed Spanish restaurant that existed in obscurity for years.

A passage in chapter nine prompted thought about the nature of cooking, eating, and philosophizing about food. An excerpt follows:

The job of the cook has always been to change food physically:  first to separate it from its natural environment, either himself or through the agency of a forager or farmer or the like — to uproot it, cut it down, pluck it, catch it, slaughter it; then to shape it for further attention by peeling it, seeding it, gutting it, cutting it up, discarding its inedible or infelicitous portions; then — and this is as good a definition of “cooking” as any — to alter its molecular structure, either through a process like drying, soaking, salting, smoking, or marinating (or through the actions of induced fermentation), or, more commonly, especially in the modern age, through the application of heat; and finally to combine it with other, complimentary, foods and/or to add seasonings or flavorings to render it more palatable. It wasn’t until sources of food supply became regularized, though, and we were able to exercise some control over the growing of plants and animals, through agriculture and husbandry, that we had the luxury of actually thinking about how to make food taste better instead of how to just get our hands on it in the first place. And it almost certainly wasn’t until certain societies, or segments of society, found that they had an abundance of food on a consistent basis that they began to philosophize about it — to appreciate it as something more than a mere (mere?) adjunct of survival; that gastronomy was born.

That well-written passage covers an immense span of human culture. It touches on hunter/gatherer approaches to sustenance. It alludes to the agrarian and manufacturing processing, production, and distribution of food. It lists different techniques to prepare wild and domesticated ingredients. And it addresses consumption of food physically and intellectually.

I’m stuck on this notion of philosophizing about food and what that means exactly in today’s environment of foodie-ism and social/media coverage. Is it a luxury for people to philosophize about food when they don’t have to expend time, energy, and money to procure it for survival? Or is that a misguided notion? How is this appreciation of food’s value, socially and aesthetically, influenced by economic class, culture, race, and tradition?

The term “philosophy” evokes images of academia, erudite scholars, daydreamers, and self-appointed experts espousing schools of thought. At a gut level, I think that food itself and the appreciation of its value and role has been used historically to provoke thought, express ideas, uphold culture, and illuminate issues in many forms – art, song, film, oral tradition, poetry, etc. –  Further, that expression intersects with education, class, wealth, and other real-world social earmarks not limited to airy philosophical notions.

For instance, the heart of the Slow Food movement is based on considering local food sources, choosing sustainable and heritage foods, taking time to eat food as a social practice, and so forth. Its core tenets actually are a reminder of man’s relationship with food before industrial manufacturing and marketing and our go-go lifestyle came along.

In his passage above, Andrews doesn’t mention the modern accelerated pace of documenting food through media as another form of consumption.  Such consumers contribute to the appreciation, marketing, craving, and repackaging of food as experience. We’ve become an audience of product, service, and entertainment consumers to be marketed to. Aided by the internet and cable television fostering the Age of Celebrity Chef and Food Personalities, the appreciation of food and the cook has evolved over the past 40 years (thanks Julia Child and Galloping Gourmet!) into something that seemingly connects us to, but feels removed from, our food supply. (Insert sarcasm here.) Thank goodness for today’s mobile apps so we can post our location, thoughts, and photos while at our favorite restaurant, farmer’s market, or food truck.

Andrews’ observation about food philosophy suggests a parting between the professional cooks that procure and prepare food and the rest of us that “philosophize” or appreciate it on many levels. Foodie has become a ubiquitous shorthand for those who enjoy cooking, eating, and seeking out good food at their retail fingertips.  That is to say, a foodie is anyone with the disposable income and inclination to be one whether they adopt the moniker or not.

Meanwhile, the role of the modern cook (or chef) has gone beyond physically changing food and serving it in palatable form. Those cooks willing (and sometimes those who are not) to play the role of ambassador and social/media personality serve up a palatable presence for a (hopefully) appreciative audience. This loosely symbiotic relationship between foodie/customer/consumer and cook/social experience producer creates a full circle appreciation, if not outright celebration, of food as an extension (representation? expression?) of lifestyle.

To each their own. However, I have this gut feeling that there’s something much deeper and more powerful to how food can be more than a gastronomic indulgence, warm and fuzzy philosophy, or manifestation of an experience subsequently documented via social media. Are there examples of how food was and is integral to the state of our well-being as individuals and as a society? That food can play a pivotal role in larger events?

Take Upton Sinclair’s examination of the meatpacking industry in his 1906 novel The Jungle. His nonfiction reporting examines the mechanized processing of food and also taps into critical social issues of that era regarding poverty, poor working conditions, and corruption by those in power. The book was a catalyst for change where the public and government took stock of what was happening in this food-based industry and made changes to reassert more control over food.

Here is a current pop culture example. The Hunger Games, a book series that spawned a movie, touches on vital social themes. The novel’s premise addresses the great relationship of food between individuals and a society. A post-apocalyptic world gets to the heart of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs regarding food with a Machiavellian twist – procuring it, controlling it, lording it as a luxury for those in power, and using it as a device to develop social entertainment by subjugating those without access to food as recreational pawns. Despite its popularity, I don’t know that a book or movie like The Hunger Games will get anyone to think or act about food in philosophical terms any more than one of Michael Pollan’s books.

When it comes to food, we live in a weirdly connected/disconnected time. A significant portion of society in a First World country like the U.S. struggles to feed itself, as food policy expert Mark Winne or the folks at Harvesters can attest. At the same time just a few zip codes away from neighborhood food deserts, fellow citizens celebrate local cooks, farms, food-based businesses and locavorism. We’re getting back to the old ways of shopping at farmer’s markets, foraging, canning, and using traditional methods to make the most of food not simply for survival but to taste even better.

Far from concerns about procuring food for survival, foodies use social media to communicate their experiences with and about food – buying it, cooking it, seasoning it, celebrating it. To borrow from Andrews, certain segments of society have the luxury to philosophize about and appreciate food and the cooks, both professional and at-home, that prepare it. And other segments of society different than ours might be doing the same through the arts, passing on culinary traditions, and supporting establishments that foodies don’t know about yet.

With so many layers to our relationship with food distributed unevenly in society, it makes me wonder how these disparate experiences surrounding food will be expressed in our 21st century culture. Will the cooks, eaters, and philosophers from various segments of society grow closer or further apart?


Image courtesy of ElBulliFoundation.