- Becoming a Master Sommelier was a necessity for Alpana Singh
- The shifting popularity of fish throughout American history
- Studying the flavor of a landscape: foraging with Pascal Baudar
- Antibiotics and the future of Big Chicken
- The beets go on: America's Test Kitchen reimagines beet salad
The path to become a Master Sommelier is not for the weak of will or unprepared of palate. The certification exam literally goes on for days and includes portions on theory, practical knowledge and tasting. Those taking the exam must be able to taste wine at random and be able to name the grape, the place it's from, and the year it was made. Restaurateur Alpana Singh -- owner of Chicago restaurants The Boarding House, Seven Lions, and Terra & Vine -- made a name for herself in the wine world when, in her mid-20s, she became the youngest woman to ever pass the final level of the Master Sommelier exam. She talked with contributor Shauna Sever about what drove her to dedicate her life to passing the exam. Learn more about Alpana Singh and her restaurants at her website.
Shauna Sever: What was your first restaurant job?
SS: The last time I checked Bakers Square does not have much of a wine program.
SS: How did you become interested in wine? What led to take the Master Sommelier exam?
SS: For people who aren't familiar with the Master Sommelier exam, it's quite an undertaking. It's a monster of an exam and it takes a special kind of personality to even want to pursue it. Can you walk us through it?
SS: I believe there are now 149 master sommeliers in the world?
Barton Seaver is an award-winning chef whose work now focuses on sustainability in the fish and seafood industries. He is the author of more than a half-dozen books including the essential American Seafood, a deep dive into the past, present and future of America's emotional and economic relationship with seafood. He talked with Francis Lam specifically about the ways that certain species of fish come in and out of favor with fisherman as well as professional and home cooks. Seaver also shared his recipe for Shrimp al Ajillo from his book Two If By Sea.
Francis Lam: You have this magisterial book on American seafood. I never realized the history of the American taste for seafood was so fascinating. For instance, certain fish became fashionable but then we forgot about them. I'm hoping you can walk us through it a little bit today.
FL: Compared to chicken?
FL: It's funny you say that. It is obviously cultural. I come from a culture that reveres seafood; it's the highest form of food. And over the years, we still eat 15 pounds per person per year, so that's a lot of fish, a lot of seafood. And as I understand it in your history, there are definitely fish that become extremely popular through the years. What are some reasons that certain fish might become popular and why do some fish stop being delicious to us?
FL: Some of these individual species have some pretty crazy stories about why they became popular one day and not the next. Can you tell us about tilefish?
American Seafood by Barton Seaver
FL: As you said, there are so many biomass fluctuations and changes of water currents that can cause a population of fish to explode or decrease. But that also gets me thinking about seasonality. Most fish do have seasons, right?
FL: Right, because they've already spent a lot of the fat they built up over the winter.
FL: That's cold, man.
Forager Pascal Baudar wildcrafts plants, herbs and fungi from the wild, then uses them as ingredients to create food and beverages that he says express the true flavor of the environment. He is the author of two great books on the topic, The New Wildcrafted Cuisine and The Wildcrafting Brewer. Contributor Russ Parsons talked with Pascal about his passion for foraging and the restorative result of recent destructive California wildfires on some of his favorite foraging spots. Try your hand at making Pascal Baudar's recipes for Nasturitum and Watercress Hot Sauce and No-Fermentation Soda.
Russ Parsons: Tell us a little bit about the foraging you do and how you got into it.
RP: Can you give us some examples? Like here in southern California, what are some of the things that you collect?
Pascal Baudar teaches classes on foraging and fermentation (left, top right) and creates recipes such as Forest Beer (lower right) from the ingredients gathered in the wilderness in Southern California. Photos provided by Pascal Baudar
RP: What are some of the other ways that you capture and preserve these flavors?
RP: Where do you collect these things? Do you have favorite hunting grounds?
RP: Are you on the coastal plains? Are you on hills?
RP: All those hillside properties. Everybody knows this winter was just horrible as far as wildfires. Were you affected by that?
RP: Can you tell us the first time you went back after the fire, what did you see?
RP: That's fascinating.
Maryn McKenna is a journalist who specializes in superbugs – bacteria that have evolved to survive antibiotics. Her book, Big Chicken, focuses on research involving the use of antibiotics in modern agriculture and how they changed the way the world eats. McKenna says the chicken industry is largely to blame for our enormous overuse of and exposure to antibiotics. But, as she shared with Francis Lam, as she followed the story of Big Chicken, she also found a real reason for hope.
Francis Lam: You have this idea that once raising chickens stopped being about growing animals and became more about growing meat, the industry basically became this laboratory of technological innovation. I love this story about how 50 or 60 years ago there was a contest to create what they were calling the "chicken of tomorrow." What, in their minds, was the chicken of tomorrow?
FL: To get to that point, where you have chicken as the number one meat, they had to make all these technological innovations to keep making the growing of chicken faster, more efficient and cheaper. Maybe the most important one you write about is that the chicken industry was the first industry to introduce antibiotics to the animals, which no one had done before. Why did they start doing that?
FL: Why do antibiotics make the chickens grow faster? They're not growth hormones.
FL: Why is it a problem?
Big Chicken by Maryn McKenna
FL: But you also write in your book that – I don't know if it's a happy ending, but maybe a hopeful ending – the chicken industry which started this may actually be helping to lead us out of it. Can you tell me about that?
FL: It really was that hopeful? I hate to think it would be naive to have hope, but it enough people just said, "I don't want to eat chicken with antibiotics. I don't want to feed that to my kids." And that's why they changed?
FL: The hope here is that through our – meaning us, the people, the consumers – continued demands, producers will respond and they can show how you can have these industries without this practice. Thank you so much, Maryn.
Beets just may be the king of vegetable world. No other vegetable gives you the same mix of sweetness and delicious earthiness as a good beet. But no matter how good they are, there is a limit to how many formulaic beet and goat cheese salads one can enjoy in life, right? To that effect, Managing Producer Sally Swift talked with Molly Birnbaum from America's Test Kitchen about their great new take on the beet salad - Charred Beet Salad.
Sally Swift: Have you noticed how many pre-packaged cooked beets are showing up in produce departments? They are everywhere. I'm going to make a prediction: beet salads are back big time.
SS: And it seems to me the thing that makes a beet salad great is the cheese. Do you have a theory on why that works?
SS: What makes a beet sweet?
SS: That is a crazy story; I never knew that.
SS: I've experienced that in my own garden. I want to go back to beet salads. I know America's Test Kitchen took on a beet salad recipe in effort to make it perfect. Tell me about that.
SS: If you have a sous vide stick, this is what you need to be doing with it.
SS: The thing that I noticed about your recipe that I found interesting is that you're re-roasting the cooked beet. Did I read that right?
SS: Which pairs amazingly with that cheese as you mentioned.
Try the America's Test Kitchen recipe for Charred Beet Salad. Photo: Steve Klise
SS: What do you use to dress those charred beets?
SS: You also pair some wonderful green herbs at the end of cooking. You use both dill and tarragon, which never would have occurred to me.
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