Plus: The best grain of them all, nuclear plant dangers, and food pesticide ratings
Kate is on vacation this week, and we’re trying to let her take an actual vacation, so we thought it’d be fun to revisit our very first episode — almost two years ago now — of Food with Mark Bittman, which kicked the show off in a pretty great way, considering the universal appeal of our guest, Nigella Lawson.
I’ve known Nigella for 20 years, maybe longer; we were co-columnists at the Times for a bit. There are few people who talk more articulately about home cooking than her. When I originally interviewed her for this episode, she had a new book out called Cook, Eat, Repeat; we talked about that, of course, and we talked about what we ate like during early Covid (we were just barely a year in at that point), and we talked about the terms “guilty pleasures” and “celebrity chef,” both of which are pretty interesting.
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THIS WEEK’S MARKSISMS
THE GRAIN THAT’S GOT IT ALL
I was sick with food poisoning, of all things (not from my cooking, mind you) for part of this week, so my cooking took a bit of a hit. Early in the week, I was reminded of pasta with lentils, and recalled that until meat became the dominant form of protein in wealthy countries, almost everyone used some form of grain as a vehicle for some form of protein. Pasta with lentils, a classic example of this, should be in more repertoires.
I thought about this again when I got my hands on some Koda Farms rice, and made a little stir-fry with that and garlic, chile, eggplant, and fish. And how, when I was growing up, our grain staples, if they really qualified as either of those, were breakfast cereal, a paradigm of junk food, and white bread, another P. of J.F. Spaghetti was overcooked, and served with meatballs; rice was Minute Rice and, around 1963, when Rice-A-Roni made its first appearance (in our house at least) it was a revelation: Rice with flavor!
There was the occasional oatmeal, yes, and even Wheatena (which is essentially bulgur), but 90% of our grains were white bread and, like, Sugar Pops.
Obviously I came to appreciate real bread at some point, but in the long run rice is the real revelation. I remember realizing that, just as there was a time when a meal without bread was rare in the United States, a meal without rice is rare in much of Asia and elsewhere. A friend’s father, an immigrant from China, once said to me, “I just can’t stop eating rice; it’s just the basis of everything.”
There is the whole thing about brown vs. white rice, as there is about every grain, whole or partly processed or processed to death. I’m going to leave that argument aside for the moment and just say that there is something about rice that makes it crave-able, and that goes for short- and long-grain, and brown and white. It happens that that Koda Farms brown rice is so delicious that we had it at lunch and dinner yesterday; but I had commodity basmati last week and, though I dressed it up a bit, I could not believe how much flavor was in those little specks. And then Toya’s talk about rice and eggs, and just that simple, two-ingredient (three if you use onion, four with soy sauce, etc.) “recipe” … I’m a little obsessed.
Wheat also has flavor, as do all grains. But most are ground, I think because the berries do not develop as much flavor as rice does when they’re cooked straight. And it’s work to grind, and then ferment, and then bake bread, work that is for sure worth it, but if there is a shelf-stable staple that you can work into almost any meal and enjoy, rice is it.
Ok, so even if you’re an advocate of nuclear power, you have to recognize that older plants are dangerous and decommissioning them is imperative – and challenging. Indian Point, in Peekskill, NY, is a scary-as-hell example of this, and activists and citizens of Peekskill, the Hudson Valley in general (which includes several counties in both New York and New Jersey), New York City – which is less than fifty miles away – finally had it shut down in 2017.
But that leaves decommissioning, a lengthy and controversial process of getting rid of decades of accumulated radioactive material. And the company charged with doing that – an entity called Holtec International – is scheming to simply discharge an undetermined amount of tritium-laden water directly into the river.
Our friends at Riverkeeper and other organizations are fighting this, needless to say, and if this struggle interests you, I suggest you read this and this, from the Highlands Current (our excellent local weekly), and this, which includes a letter you can sign, from Riverkeeper.
SHOPPER’S PESTICIDE GUIDE
Finally, the annual Shopper’s Guide to Pesticides in Produce, from Environmental Working Group, is here. (It’s a downloadable PDF.)