Plain is Beautiful: Let True Flavors Shine on Earth Day
BY DEBORAH SALOMON
"And God said behold - I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the face of the Earth and every tree with seed in its fruit. You shall have them for food." Genesis: 1:29.
Genesis did not mention Tater Tots, Corn Chex or V-8. These days, who wants a plain, oven-baked potato with crispy skin tasting like the good Earth when the menu douses it with sour cream, bacon bits, chives and cheese?
Adam did not take his fateful bite of apple pie.
We are eating technology. Hybridizing, packaging, processing, transporting, adulterating, modifying, enhancing has made food unrecognizable while tricking consumers into believing that cooking real food takes more time than ordering out or zapping frozen.
Then along comes Berkeley, Calif., chef Alice Waters, Earth mother of the organic food wave, who helped create and sustain Edible Schoolyards (one at the Greensboro Children's Museum) and the Slow Food movement. Waters encouraged Michelle Obama to plant an organic garden on the White House lawn; she also wrote "The Art of Simple Food," which illustrates how the most gratifying dish may be the least complex.
Ironically, restaurants - with access to the best produce - feel compelled to gild the lily.
"People do expect a little more than they get at home," says Ashley Van Camp, chef-owner of Ashten's in Southern Pines. "We present things for what they are, let (the produce) speak for itself, without much embellishment."
Ashten's sponsors farm-to-table dinners and won a Best Dish in North Carolina award using locally sourced ingredients.
From a practical standpoint, plain food is less expensive and quicker to prepare than multi-ingredient preparations.
But plain only works with best quality produce (meats and seafood also). Seasonings and sauces mask weary broccoli. Dips hide limp celery sticks.
Asparagus offers a suitable example. Stalks that emerged from the Earth overnight and are steamed within an hour of cutting taste nothing like journeymen from South America.
Instead, says Jan Leitschuh, co-founder of Sandhills Farm to Table Cooperative, "They taste like fresh peas."
Iceberg lettuce, maligned as common and bitter, can be magnificently crisp, sweet and refreshing straight from the garden, adorned by a slice of sun-ripened tomato, at room temperature, and nothing else.
"Chilling a tomato is -sacrilegious," Leitschuh adds.
Ironically, these food movements mimic how Southerners ate for generations; those who didn't have gardens bought at Saturday tailgate markets. Maybe the corn had a few bugs, but everything delivered flavor.
Two generations ago, a good summer meal might simply be corn, greens and tomatoes - fried okra if you were lucky. Compare that to the ticky-tacky packets of bite-sized frozen veggies that steam in their own wrappings.
In order to appreciate plain food, a person's receptors must be desensitized and re-educated.
"People who have never been exposed cannot -appreciate a freshly dug carrot. They don't have the same expectations," says Sheri Castle, the Chapel Hill author of "The New Southern Garden Cookbook." Castle admits to digging into a bag of -arugula on the way home from the farmers market, as though the peppery leaves were potato chips.
Others must learn to taste the broccoli, not the cheese. Appreciate greens minus the salty meats. And always cook to maximize natural flavor.
Sometimes nearly raw works best: Blanch broccoli and cauliflower florets in boiling water for not more than three minutes. Broccoli will be bright green and still crunchy. Roast asparagus and squash, to concentrate -flavor.
Snow peas spread on a paper towel need but 10 -seconds in the microwave. Spinach wilts instantly. Kale stir-fries in several minutes, retaining its curl instead of turning to mush.
Baking intensifies a sweet potato's natural sweetness, making butter, brown sugar and marshmallows superfluous.
Earth Day is for exploration. Try fennel, broccoli rabe or broccolini, mangoes (the world's most eaten fruit), baby bok choy, celery root, Meyer lemons and Key limes, fingerling potatoes, -yellow beets - most available organic or conventional on specialty produce counters like Fresh Market.
Discover intensely -flavored, nutrient-dense sprouts: Pea, broccoli and radish can be grown at home, in a jar, with seeds from a natural foods store.
Expand your grain -vocabulary with various rices, quinoa, barley (great in soups), jumbo couscous. Appreciate a bowl of plain regular oatmeal cooked until thick with nothing more than a few raisins or berries.
The latest headlines -proclaim sugar is toxic. Believe it or don't - but do bring out all the natural sweetness in fruit by -proper ripening. Place underripe peaches, plums, nectarines, pears, tomatoes or melon in a brown paper grocery bag with a ripe banana. Close bag securely.
In a few days the -ethylene released by the bananas will ripen fruit to maximum sweetness. Then slice into plain yogurt - so much better than artificially flavored and sweetened.
Purists believe Americans' treatment of salad greens approaches blasphemy. Maybe a -main-course salad needs eight ingredients. But the classic French appetizer or side salad consists of washed and well-dried curly garden lettuce, a film of olive oil (sprayed, not poured) and a pressed garlic clove. Freshly ground pepper, optional.
All three Moore County Farmers Markets opened last week. Early season -lettuces, radishes and -scallions look just -gorgeous, and taste even better.
Pure. Plain. Simple. Eat them straight from the Earth, today and beyond.
Contact Deborah Salomon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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