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Flavors and Ingredients : Seasonal Method (part 4) - Genetically Modified Foods

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Tim Wiechmann’s Beet Salad

Chef Wiechmann is the chef and owner of T.W. Food in Cambridge, MA. He creates his menus using local organic produce with a classic French approach.

How you go from planning a dish to putting it on the table?

I start with the ingredients—they all have to be in season. I came up with a dish that was made with leftover cheese from the Pyrénées. Black cherries and beets are in season, so how can I dress up a beet salad? In the Pyrénées, they have cherries with sheep’s milk cheese. Most of my stuff comes from cultural things, from traveling all over and having a sound grasp on food in Europe. I study what people make from all over—they do this here, they do that there. And these things are done for thousands of years. I try to have a knowledge of these things and then I just look at my own ingredients here, and I draw them together.

What is your approach in the kitchen and what thoughts do you have on technology in the kitchen?

My menu is actually really difficult. My employees start out with this picture that we just dig out a carrot and boil it. We don’t do that. Everything goes through a rigorous, precise set of cooking parameters. With certain preparations, time and temperature are everything. There are things like the water circulator you can use to cook all the meats and fishes perfectly every time. Even for cutting things, we use rulers and metal caramel cutters.

Observation is critical, as is getting experience in knowing what looks good. If you’re cooking an onion, it changes color over time. There are certain stages where you want to pull it because the bitterness increases as the caramelization increases. Onions in a tall pot will sweat differently than onions in wide pot. In a tall pot, they release their own water and cook evenly because the water doesn’t disappear. We have specific pots that are good for certain things—sweat the onions in this pot; don’t use that pot—but a new cook will just grab any pot.

How do you know if something is going to work?

You just try. When you start to play the piano, you don’t know where the notes are. You have to have the technique, then you can think about putting the notes together. If I hit this note, then I’ll get this sound; if I want onions to be sweet, I’ll caramelize them. The technique follows the knowledge. I keep a log of my own recipes and times for each thing. How long to put cherries or apples in a bag and cook in the water circulator, that comes out of experience.

My big thing I always say: “Get into it and go for it.” Just buy it and try it. Every time you cook something—even if you burn it and it goes in the trash—it’s not a failure, it’s just: next time I’m not going to burn it.

Out of all these criteria that make for a good evening, clearly food is an important one, but what do you think people underestimate?

Little things. Maybe they don’t know why they don’t like something. You know what I mean? “Well, I’m not sure. I just didn’t like it.” I think very few people know what they like and can identify what they like. That’s why I’m pretty good at what I do—I really know what I like. Do you know what you like?

I’ll have to give it some thought.

I don’t know what I like in the visual art world. I just haven’t spent enough time on it.

I can answer that one on the visual art world. Anything that prompts an emotional response. It might not be a positive emotion, but it should stir an emotion or create an experience. Have you seen Ratatouille?

Yes.

The scene where the camera zooms into the critic’s eye and goes back to his childhood as he’s eating ratatouille. He has an experience. For me, food needs to touch on emotions.

Everybody is geared with that, but I think a lot of people don’t know how to identify that. They’ll say, “I don’t like cauliflower.” One really great French chef taught me that you don’t have to like it, you just have to make it good. He said, “taste this,” to which I said, “I don’t like it; I don’t want to taste it.” He yelled at me. “You’re going to be a chef and you can’t taste it? You have to taste it.” I’ll never forget him screaming at me.

I think this would apply if you’re cooking for friends: keep in mind what your friends are going to enjoy.

That’s right. My job is to make something that people will enjoy.

Roasted Red and Candystripe Beet Salad with Almond Flan, Black Cherry Compote, and Ossau-Iraty

Serves 8; Prep time: 2 hours.

Prepare the cherry compote. In a container, measure out and soak overnight:

4 cups (600g) pitted black cherries

1 ⅔ cups (340g) sugar

1 tablespoon (10g) apple pectin

2 vanilla beans, sliced open lengthwise

After soaking overnight, transfer to a pan, add the zest and juice of a lemon, and cook over medium heat for an hour, until the mixture reaches a jam-like consistency. Transfer to a plastic container or jar and cool.

Prepare the flan. In a blender, combine:

1 cup (150g) almonds, toasted

1 teaspoon (5g) almond extract

6 medium (330g) eggs

2 cups (480g) heavy cream

Nutmeg, salt, pepper to taste

Pour onto a quarter sheet pan (9″ × 13″ / 23 cm × 33 cm) lined with a Silpat or parchment paper and bake at 300°F / 150°C until the custard sets, about 45 minutes. Cool on the sheet in refrigerator.

Prepare the beets. Preheat oven to 450°F / 230°C. Create a foil pouch containing:

6 medium (500g) red beets

6 medium (500g) candystripe beets (also known as chioggia beets)

Salt, olive oil, and pepper to taste

Roast until tender, about 45 minutes, depending on the size of the beets. Remove from pouch and peel with a knife. Cut the beets into attractive circles or cubes.

To serve. Make a quick salad dressing with oil and vinegar, salt and pepper. Toss the beets and 1 cup / 90g of toasted slivered almonds in the dressing.

Arrange the beets and almonds on large plates. Place a nice slice of flan somewhere among them and drop a few scoops of the cherry compote in various places.

Using a vegetable peeler, shave into long strands (about 4″ / 10 cm):

½ pound (225g) Ossau-Iraty (a medium-soft cheese from the French Pyrénées, creamy and complex)

Decorate the salad with the shaved Ossau-Iraty.

RECIPE USED BY PERMISSION OF TIM WIECHMANN


Genetically Modified Foods

Regardless of your feelings about or definition of GMO (genetically modified organism) foods, the topic is an intensely charged political and social minefield. Fear of the unknown has a long record of helping to guarantee the survival of our species, so avoiding things until they’ve established a history of being safe does certainly seem prudent. But this view doesn’t consider the potential harms that a GMO-based food might be able to avert.

What if a strain of rice could be produced that was more resilient in the face of floods and droughts? Such a strain of rice would increase crop yields for families in impoverished countries, and the need is only going to increase. The United Nations’ food agency expects that worldwide food production will need to increase by 70% between 2010 and 2050. Or how about strains of rice or corn that need fewer pesticides to remain viable crops? Worldwide, some 300,000 deaths a year are attributed to pesticide poisoning.

Then there’s “Golden Rice,” a golden-yellow rice that has been genetically modified to produce increased amounts of beta-carotene as a way of addressing Vitamin A deficiencies that impact the extremely poor in some nations. Everyone agrees that Vitamin A deficiencies are a serious problem: an estimated 1 to 2 million children die every year due to Vitamin A deficiency, according to a 1992 World Health Organization report. Still, Golden Rice has not yet been approved for human consumption; organizations like Greenpeace have opposed it, saying that it’s an unproven solution and that other, better solutions exist.

More personally, would you accept genetically engineered cows guaranteed to be free of prions, which cause Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (a.k.a. “mad cow disease”)? Or how about a GMO banana that was able to withstand the fungus Fusarium oxysporum that threatens to wipe out the banana as we know it? Related to GMO foods, would you accept irradiated chicken if it was guaranteed to be free of salmonella?

This isn’t to suggest that you should seek out GMO-based foods; but at the very least you should recognize that there are very real trade-offs. Hundreds of Americans die annually from salmonellosis, and while those deaths can be avoided with proper cooking, perhaps we as a society shouldn’t blindly fear technologies that could prevent those deaths just because they’re unfamiliar.

Sure, it might be reasonable to fear corporate overlording—the idea that our food chain might become reliant upon a corporation with a patent on the very food we need to survive—but this is a separate issue from GMO food itself. Another argument against GMO foods claims that the money spent on GMO research would be better spent on other areas of agricultural technology; but again, this is a separate issue from whether genetically modifying food itself should be done.

I personally do not enjoy burgers served by fast food chains, but I recognize that they are able to feed literally millions of American families every day. Around the world, advances in technology have increased crop yields and improved the quality of life for many, although there are still many in starving conditions. What happens to those families who are just barely making ends meet when the prices of food exceed what they can afford?

Non-GMO foods are not inherently more expensive, but the economics to date have tended to make the price of GMO foods cheaper. The quick-serve industry is not saying “we want GMO foods”; they’re simply buying what’s most economical, because in a price-sensitive market, the chains need to keep prices down to remain in business.

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