Ready to put down the whisk for a minute and geek-out with me, foodies? I just finished Dan Barber’s “The Third Plate,” the foodie book a the top of my summer reading list because of its focus on sustainability and because it got fantastic reviews from everyone from iconic food writer and editor Ruth Reichl to the Washington Post, who said “Not since Michael Pollan has such a powerful storyteller emerged to reform American food.”
Barber, the recipient of several James Beard Foundation awards including Top Chef in 2009, has long advocated farm-to-table, local eating. His articles on food and agricultural policies have appeared in Food & Wine, Saveur, and Gourmet and his restaurant, Blue Hill at Stone Barns serves seasonal produce grown on-site at Barber’s Tarrytown, NY Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture or other Hudson Valley farms.
I stumbled across Stone Barns about a year ago on Facebook and it’s one of my favorite feeds. The classes it offers alone are enough to make me wish I lived a lot closer to the Hudson Valley – think organic gardening, honey bees and cooking with kids – but it’s the weekly pictures of its CSA take that really leave me breathless. The lists of heirloom vegetables they offer sound like poetry: Ping Tung eggplants, Romance carrots, Little Baby Flower watermelon, Music garlic, Baby King Richard leeks, and Rose deBerne tomatoes.
But in the “The Third Plate” Barber asks us to look past heirloom tomatoes, which much be grown in rotation with other crops in order to be ecologically sustainable. Farm-to-table, he says, often “celebrates a kind of cherry-picking of ingredients that are often ecologically demanding and expensive to grow.” The first plate – traditional American cuisine – features meat and sides, and the second, more “farm-to-table” plate features free range meat and locally-sourced vegetables.
The problem, Barber says, is that farm-to-table eating hasn’t changed the way that we eat. It requires farmers to grow boutique crops driven by what the consumer wants, instead of growing crops that are good for the land. Barber envisions a third plate where good farming and good food intersect, focused primarily on vegetables on grains that don’t harm the soil or the rest of the environment. Think a parsnip steak with meat sauce and a risotto made from rye.
Barber takes us all the over the world to illustrate his points — this books goes some wild places and walks us through some complicated concepts through his travels to the Spanish dehesa, a region producing high-grade olives, acorns, cork, wool, and the renowned ham, jamón ibérico, and to an aquaculture farm off the Straits of Gibraltar. (Check out Barber’s TED talks on foie gras and aquaculture for more on why these matter – plus they’re just great stories for anyone who loves food).
But what does “The Third Plate” mean to the home cook, and how can we practically support the future of sustainability from home, one meal at a time? Here’s my take.
- Be an adventurous cook. Be willing to buy foods from local farmers that aren’t necessarily trendy or at the top of the food chain. Buy vegetables you’ve never heard of. Cook legumes or grains like emmer farro or millet that are part of a healthy crop rotation. Continue to eat humanely raised meats and poultry, but use it in smaller quantities, for flavor instead of the main dish. Use cuts of meat you haven’t considered before. Instead of salmon or tuna choose smaller, less sought-after fish like anchovies or fluke.
- Be an adventurous diner. Support chefs who cook locally sourced, diverse foods, and order food you haven’t tried before.
- This is kind of squishy, but it’s important, so I’ll put it out there. Everything is connected. Keep in mind that healthy food comes from a healthy ecosystem, so be a good citizen of the world. Take advantages of opportunities to improve the environment in general. Recycle. Support clean water policies. Conserve energy. Use native plants in the garden.
Hungry yet? This recipe was developed by Barber and published in Cooking Light magazine in 2006. It’s been a good year for cucumbers – maybe too good if you have more than a plant or two. If you’re overrun with them, this is the recipe for you. It uses an astounding 11 cucumbers in a creamy, dairy-free concoction that tastes – unsurprisingly- like a bowl of fresh cucumbers. Served chilled and garnished with dill, this soup is a show stopper for summer brunches because of its beautiful deep green color.
This recipe is labor intensive and has to be started early in the day or the night before it’s served because two parts of the recipe have to chill in the refrigerator for at least eight hours. Though there are easier recipes for cucumber soup that taste as good, I think this recipe is worth the time because of its color, which comes from pureeing five of the cucumbers with the skins on and then running the mixture through a sieve lined with cheesecloth, resulting in a thin, bright green, lightly sweetened cucumber juice. My 5 cucumbers yielded a little more of the cucumber juice than the required 1 3/4 cups, so I ended up saving it to make cucumber mojitos. Bonus!
- 11 large cucumbers (about 8 pounds), divided
- ¼ cup honey, divided
- ¼ cup rice wine vinegar
- 1 ripe avocado, peeled and seeded
- 2 teaspoons chopped fresh dill
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- ¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Dill sprigs (optional)
- Cut 5 cucumbers into 3-inch chunks. Place half of cucumber chunks and 2 tablespoons honey in a blender or food processor; process until smooth. Pour pureed cucumber mixture through a cheesecloth-lined sieve into a bowl. Repeat procedure with the remaining chunks. Cover and chill at least 8 hours.
- Peel, seed, and thinly slice remaining 6 cucumbers; place slices in a bowl. Add vinegar and remaining 2 tablespoons honey; toss well to coat. Cover and chill 8 hours or overnight.
- Place half of marinated cucumber slices, avocado, and 1¾ cups cucumber juice in a blender or food processor; process until smooth. Pour cucumber mixture into a bowl. Repeat procedure with remaining cucumber slices and 1¾ cups cucumber juice; reserve any remaining juice for another use. Stir in chopped dill, salt, and pepper. Place 1½ cups soup into each of 6 bowls. Garnish with cracked black pepper and dill sprigs, if desired.