Today, I’m the guest speaker for a class called “Table Talk: Food, Culture and Development” at the University of Washington in Bothell. I invite the students to start a conversation with me here about their thoughts on the topic of sustainability — or anything related to food. Below, I’ve attached my lecture notes in case anyone is interested seeing my thought process.
— Chef Maria
University of Washington, Bothell Lecture
A. Perspectives on the aesthetics for composing a dish.
We’ll discuss balance, texture, flavor combination, quality of ingredients, umami, terroir, and scourcing.
B. Sustainability and Organics
We’ll explore the farmer-chef connection, sustainability definitions, eating local, bioregions, biodiversity, food shed security, marine ecosystem safety, and organics.
A. Perspectives on the aesthetics for composing a dish.
I. The Aesthetic
– A composed dish is a dish that has multiple components on one plate.
– (Ex: steak, mashed potatoes, gravy, and green beans).
– In order for a composed dish to feel holistic, it needs to be sensual, thoughtful, creative, and delicious. There are several things that need to happen simultaneously to achieve this.
– Start with high quality ingredients that are carefully sourced, usually local, in season, and are organic or wild. It’s important to know where your food comes from and provide a sense of place through the dinner table.
– Let the ingredient’s flavor shine through without masking them heavily in spices or sauces. This style of cooking seems very honest to me. It allows the cook to show their genuine love and respect for the product itself, the farmer, fisher, forager, rancher, or artisan who stewarded the product, and the environmental elements (sun, soil, water, air, etc.) that nurtured the product into existence.
– Showcasing only a select few ingredients on one dish is another way to let the ingredients shine on their own with out making the dish muddy, murky or confused with flavors.
– Utilize all parts of the product, whether it shows up on the dish or not. Again, this shows a sense of respect of all that went into the raising of the product. A lot of times we’ll utilize different parts of the same product in a single dish in order to extenuate it’s diversity.
– (Ex: Savory Corn Flan with sautéed corn kernels, corn foam, and popcorn shoots). In this example, the corn flan has been made with corn cobs, egg, cream, and fresh juiced corn. This provides a silky, creamy mouth feel, full of corn flavor. The corn kernels have been cut off the cob and are sautéed with a little butter, garlic, shallot, & chive. This provides a toothy texture. The corn foam is made of juiced corn, butter, corn broth. This provides an effervescent texture of corn. Than the popcorn shoot that garnishes the plate are the first sprouts of corn and provide a fresh crisp texture.
– Composition of the plate also plays an important role. We tend to eat with our eyes. So if the plate presentation is beautiful, colorful, with architectural differences, and has contour, you’ll begin to feel excitement for eating the dish. Your mind begins to tell you “this will be delicious”.
II. Texture in relation to mouth feel.
– We like the crispy outside of a French fry and the creamy inside that it finishes with. We like the crunchy, creamy, chewy experience of some candy bars. Think of the wonderful toothy ness of a pasta noodle with a creamy sauce.
– Or sometimes we like the experience one texture. Such as the silkiness of ice cream.
– There are also ways to change the original textures of food. Think of the textural difference between a potato chip and mashed potatoes.
– There are all sorts of cooking techniques that are applied to change texture. (Ex: blanching, roasting, braising, sous-vide, spherification, poaching, freezing, etc.)
III. Balance of flavors
– The balance of flavors is what makes your taste buds send happy signals up to your brain. We all know what that joyous experience feels like. It’s up to the cook to create that experience. The four FDA approved taste senses include sweet, bitter, salty, and sour. There are some basic flavor combinations that can show up in a number of different foods. Flavors that tend to go well together are sweet and salty, sweet and savory, bright acidity cuts through rich fattiness, etc.
– An example of great flavor combinations would be a cheeseburger. The beef provides meaty, iron, earthy, and smoky. Ketchup provides sweet, acidity, spices. Mustard provides sourness. Cheese provides rich, sharp, nuttiness. Lettuce provides a touch of bitterness and freshness.
– Acidity will lengthen the flavor finish in food.
– Salt will heighten flavors in food.
– You can combine these tastes creatively anyway you want. (Ex: candied bacon provides a sweet and salty experience).
– What is umami?
– Umami is the fifth basic taste discovered in the early 1900’s. In 1990, umami became widely accepted as the fifth flavor taste, but not by the FDA.
– It’s a Japanese word that roughly translates to “robust” or “savory.”- Umami is the flavor sensation caused by the presence of free glutamate in food. Glutamate is the most widely occurring amino acid in nature and main component of proteins.
– Umami can blend with other tastes to create a new level of flavor.
– Since it’s difficult to taste on its own, it is identified better with the presence of other tastes.
– Foods high in umami are parmesan cheese, ham, salami, dried foods, cured foods, fish sauce, msg, mushrooms, tomatoes, soy sauce, steak, chicken, etc.
– Being able to create the feeling of umami in a composed dish is to create the biggest flavor sensation that encompasses a sense of smell, emotions, and taste.
– What is Terroir?
– Terroir is literally being able to taste where your food comes from.
– Think about how wine has so many different flavors. Some flavors are contributed from the barrels or stainless tanks they are aged in, but the majority of the flavor is coming from the land the grape vines have grown on for generation after generation. It’s the flavor of the soil, the stone, gravel, slate, limestone, ocean breeze, neighboring fruit orchard, etc. that helps define the flavor of that grape to make the wine.
– When you eat Skagit River Ranch Grass Fed Beef, you can actually taste the grassiness in the beef. This is experiencing terroir.
– When you eat Juniper Grove’s, Tumalo Tomme cheese, from Oregon, you can taste the fern & pine in the cheese because of the neighboring evergreens in the area.
– Creating dishes using local products provides a sense of place which connects you deeper to the land you live on. It’s to be protected, cared for, and celebrated.
B. Sustainability and Organics
I. The Farmer-Chef Connection
– This relationship is vital. It brings you closer to the food and establishes a feeling of interconnectedness.
– Buying from farmers keeps farmers farming which ensures farmland to remain farmland.
– It is a privilege to cook with beautifully produced food. Getting to know the people who produce these products, draws you closer to the source of your food shed.
– A sense of community is developed when harvesters and cooks, meet, talk and get to know one another.
– The food is better in quality because it’s generally harvested a few short days prior to receiving it.
– At Tilth, I design the menu around what’s coming out of the ground. To give ourselves the flexibility to do so, we change the menu every month, sometimes even more often.
– Farmer’s markets is a way to source out new products, meet new farmers, ranchers, foragers, artisans & fishers.
– Farmers teach us what grows best where in our region and why.
– You learn what foods are growing in your region seasonally by what is being sold at the farmers market. Cooking seasonally gives you a sense of moving with the earth. Together with the land, you celebrate the bounty that each season has to offer.
– It’s also important to visit your artisan producers such as cheese makers, chocolate makers, coffee roasters, etc. Learning about the creativity, thought, care, effort, and attention that goes into their craft allows you to carry that feeling when composing a dish or cooking with their product.
– Touring the farms, ranches, woods, and waters provides incredible inspiration in cooking in the kitchen.
II. Sustainable Definitions
– see hand out for definitions.
– How does sustainable food affect you personally?
– Who and what benefits from sustainability?
– What’s the benefit of organic food systems?
– Why are heirloom products important?
III. Sustainable Marine Ecosystems
– The Monterey Bay Aquarium website provides seafood watch cards that can help us make better decisions when cooking or eating sustainable seafood.
– Seafood sustainability is defined in a number of ways.
– The number of species that are in existence allows us to make choices as to weather we should be fishing them. If the species are low in stock, than naturally the best choice is to not fish them into extinction. Some regions are better than others in protecting the marine wildlife stock.
– The stronger the fishery management that is in place provides the fishermen a better chance of continuing to fish in the area for future generations. This will continue fishing as a viable part of the local economy, ensure food security, and keep the traditions of the area alive.
– The method of catching wild seafood is an important role in the sustainability of the marine ecology and a lower death count in bi-catch.
– Farming fish can be harmful. For instance, farmed salmon that are caged in the ocean can contaminate wild salmon. If the farmed salmon has a decease that is unnatural to the wild salmon that are swimming in the area, and the epidemic spreads to all the wild salmon in that location, than there will be no more wild salmon to return back to the same river they have been spawning in for generations. The bears that rely on coming back to this river every season to eat the salmon will now having feeding issues, and the local ecosystem has a chain reaction that can no longer support the life in the area that it once did.
– Diver Scallops is a sustainable method that is used when divers literally dive down and harvest scallops. Sometimes, scallops are dredged up by a machine that tears up the marine floor which is not considered sustainable.
V. Eating Local
– Why is eating local important?
– Eating local cuts down on pollution caused from fossil fuels. The average food you buy at the grocery store has traveled 1,500 miles.
– It creates community when you buy from your local producers.
– Buying anything local supports are local economy.
– Food tastes better when it’s local because it’s picked at ripeness and wasn’t picked so far ahead to make a long travel distance.
– It creates a sense of place.
– What is bioregional?
– A bioregion is largely mapped by watersheds and in our bioregions case, the ecosystem that is supported by the evergreens. This is a way of mapping that is not bound by politics, state lines, etc.
– Our bioregion is called Cascadia.
– There are a lot of people who have challenged themselves by going on a “localvore” diet. A localvore will choose a parameter, such as a 100 mile radius from where they live, and strive to eat only foods that are grown, produced, or foraged within that boundary.
– Eating local create a need for variety in the area which increases biodiversity.
– Biodiversity helps slow down monoculture which in turn prevents thing like the potato famine, etc.
– Buying certified organic ensures accountability against genetically modified, synthetic fertilizer, or chemicals used in food.
– Sustainability or Natural are not USDA certified labels. So you can’t always be sure that everyone who labels their package with these words are truly sustainable or natural. There is no organization that regulates these labels.
– Unfortunately, organic does not always mean sustainable. For instance, if you buy baby carrots at the grocery store that is over packaged in energy consuming plastic, flown or driven from another state utilizing fossil fuel, and the baby carrots are monocultured, leaving no room for biodiversity on the land it came from, than it may indeed be organic, but not very sustainable.
– For more information on organics, check out the Organic Consumer Association web site.
VII. Individual Actions you can take to improve Sustainability in your life and your bioregion
– Eat Local Foods
– Buy from locally owned business’s
– Shop at Farmer’s Markets
– Eat foods you know are sustainable, natural, or organic as much as you can
– Join a local CSA (community supported agriculture)
– Visit the Organic Consumer Association web site
– When buying, ask questions about your food was produced