What a whirlwind of events this past weekend. Because of a meeting arranged by best HMG friend Anne H. with her nephew Michael from South Dakota, we were asked to partake in a lower Hudson Valley local food gathering with Anthony Bourdain, host of the reality food show No Reservations. And because of an interesting set of connections, Michael and his brother-in-law Cody, visiting from Alaska, both gifted in skinning and grilling wild game and other animal meats, were asked to prepare local goat and venison for Anthony Bourdain as he made his way up the Hudson Valley on a boat. We were asked to join the festivities and bring along some local Hudson Valley vegetables along with Camp Hill Farm. Hook Mountain Growers not only brought a beautiful bounty of vegetables to show, but prepared the night's side-dishes from our homestead to feed 20 people including Anthony and the show's staff, the boat's crew, and the few others involved in assembling this laid-back but momentous night. The two of us had less than 48 hours to prepare, squeeze fours hours of seeing patients in our medical offices that morning, and fly home to harvest and prep the vegetables and cook the meal and transport it 30 minutes north of our kitchen. Somewhere in between, we had to water and care for the farm which is not an inconsequential chore. May seem like a lot of time considering cooks on Top Chef are able to produce a first course meal from 3 ingredients in 40 minutes. Remember, we're medical doctors by day, farmers by night and food fanatics during all hours.
I first became aquainted with Anthony Bourdain after reading his first tell-all book, Kitchen Confidential (2000) followed by A Cook's Tour (2001). Bourdain's sarcastic humor and cocky insouciance made me a fan from the start. The rare times we do watch television, we usually like to view programs about food, culture and cooking (OK, and Heroes too) and Bourdain's show No Reservations tops our list. As Bourdain explores almost every corner of the world he quickly becomes part of the local scene whether it be in Laos or in the home of a Hindu family in Queens, New York. His ability to listen to and easily bond with people enables them to open up to him and his devil's advocate questioning always bring intelligent conversation to the table. When we met Bourdain, he was the man you see on screen; there was no off-screen persona or ego. You get what you see, which is a New Yorker's charm.
On the food end, Cody and Michael procured the goat the night before, slaughtered and disemboweled the goat that afternoon and hung it on a tree in preparation for the skinning. A large grill pit was started with washed up pieces of oak from the shores of the Hudson River. The Bear Mountain Bridge was in the background and combined with the crisp sunny weather set the stage for an incredible evening. It's hard to imagine that such a well put together show, one that won an emmy for cinematography, was so quickly and almost haphazardly put together. Whatever my concerns, the evening turned out to be a laid-back scenic event that made you feel like you were at a friend's BBQ on the beach.
While the goat was being prepped, the only thing to munch on was the green and purple roasted tomatillo salsa I made and watching Bourdain go back again and again to sample more made me feel like an Italian grandmother watching her family heartily eat and enjoy her cooking. At one point, after repeating dippings into the salsa, Bourdain called it "irresitible."
As serving time came along, I was ready to start grilling the Adirondack blue and Nicola white Potatoes I pre-roasted at home. The idea is to make the potatoes crispy as I had done in the past with the recipe. This grill pit was a bit challenging. It was a rectangular area of cinderblocks with what looked like a subway grate on top and wood slowly burning and smoking underneath. The result wasn't crispy as I had hoped but instead, it became deliciously smoky. Once done, I added it to a pan with red currant and sungold cherry tomatoes, blanched green beans and tossed with a basil-garlic vinaigrette.
The other dish we served was a braised rainbow swiss chard with garlic, anchovies and parmesean all made by my sous chef farmer Charlie before leaving home. It was simply heated on top of the grill and served right out of the pot. Bourdain was seen tearing off bread we brought from Amy's Bread in Chelsea Market, dipping in the chard and throwing his head back in delight.
When we finally sat down, as Bourdain often does with a local family at the end of each episode, we were asked to join his table. While everyone was getting settled and the goat meat gathered, one of the boat crew members injured his eye when a top flew off unexpectly from some locally-brewed beer lacerating his conjunctiva and causing some mild blood loss. Luckily they had us, 2 docs on the scene for a medical evaluation. Thankfully, there was nothing serious.
So in addition to providing the only non-meat items on the menu, we were pretty handy medically as well! As the cameras tried to remain as inconspicuous as possible while filming our conversations, Bourdain made the comment down the table to me that usually he doesn't really get excited about vegetables but he was sure digging ours. Ahh, maybe this is the start of my culinary second career...
As the conversation got underway, Bourdain played his usual devil's advocate stance, teasing out the issues at hand and making the topics much more complex and interesting. The talk that night was about Hudson Valley food and eating locally and what it all means. Alexandra Spadea of Camp Hill Farm and one of the founders of the Rockland Farm Alliance spoke of the importance of preserving farmland -- RFA's mission. Bourdain asked, what is local Hudson Valley food? I think the term "local" no longer implies the particular area's known crop like Idaho is potatoes and Ohio is corn nor is it a set of specific foods that make up a particular cuisine, like Mediteranean fare which is fish, olive oil, tomatoes etc. I think it's whatever it is that you can grow in the particular climate or zone. For example, the lower Hudson Valley of New York is at the same latitude as southern Italy, so in terms of sunlight strength, we have similar growing conditions. At HMG, we grow whatever we like to eat (except sub/tropical veggies and fruits). To me, growing Hudson Valley food means the usual varietals of tomatoes, bell peppers, beans etc and their unusual heirloom varieties but the more esoteric vegetables as well: Chinese bitter melon (see earlier blog entry), Vietnamese fava beans, puntarelle, and lemongrass. Bourdain also broached the topic of accessibility and palatability of local fresh fare to people who were raised on cheap meat and include iceberg lettuce as their entire day's vegetables intake. I think it's a really valid point. In my last journal entry on eating local pasture-raised beef and the evils of the factory farm, I advocated a few things like paying more for quality meat from small farms and eating less of it to compensate the expense of doing so. Sounds like good advice especially if it creates less disease and illness saving untold millions in health care costs. Bourdain brought up a legitimate point: How do you convince the person who has eaten cheap meat all their life to suddenly change their eating routine. Or, how do you asking the working mother or father to come home after a long day of work and a possible long commute and cook up a meal when fast food options are so quick, cheap and easy. I agree that this is a hard sell but it starts with education and creating an awareness of actions and consequences. This is something that we see time and time again in our medical practices. How do you help someone who is obese, comes from a long family history of diabetes and heart disease, to finally make choices that are not easy. To lose weight. To stop drinking soda. The family unit has changed so dramatically over the last few decades. Where we used to rely on our extended family for help, we are more and more isolated thus making tasks like cooking a low priority. I grew up with a grandmother who lived at home with us while both of my parents worked full time jobs. She cared for my brother and I and shopped, grew and prepared all of the food for our family. But my brother and I were crucial in the household as well; there were chores. I helped peel vegetables. My brother fertilized the garden (See blog entry "Origins"). The household today doesn't have a grandma typically so closely involved in the daily cooking and children's activities consist of internet browsing and computer games, 5 different afterschool activities and TV. Families may have to look to the past to be able to make the necessary changes we desperately need. I'm glad Bourdain brought these points up because these are the questions that will need to be answered before we are able to become a healthier, more responsible nation.
RECIPE: SWISS CHARD with ANCHOVIES, GARLIC and PARMESEAN
1 bunch Swiss Chard
2 garlic cloves, sliced
3-4 anchovy fillets
1-2 tsp lemon juice
1/4 cup parmesan cheese, grated
salt and pepper to taste.
Prepare chard by removing the stems or ribs from the leaves and cutting them into 2” ribbons. Chop stems to 1/2-3/4” size and reserve.
Heat olive oil in pan and saute garlic in oil for 30-45 seconds, do not brown. Remove garlic with a slotted spoon and set aside.
Add anchovies to hot oil and stir until they break down. Add chard stems and cook for about 5 minutes, then add leaves and cook until tender (about 5-8 minutes).
Remove from heat and add in garlic, lemon juice and parmesan. Stir to combine and serve warm.
Adapted from Gourmet July 2009