Wilton, Conn. — It seems that home cooks and restaurateurs alike are becoming more concerned with making "greener," cleaner, safer and more socially responsible choices when it comes to buying and cooking food.
One measure of this increased concern is that more Americans are buying organic products, for which new U.S. Department of Agriculture standardized labeling is in place.
On another influential tack, that of "sustainable" eating and cooking, also described as "earth friendly," chefs are leading the way.
The message of the day seems to be: Our food can benefit from a dash of idealism and eating well isn't incompatible with respect for earth's resources.
Take the example of members of Chefs Collaborative, a national network of more than 1,000 members of the food community. They believe their work can reflect that care for earth's resources at a very direct local level: They practice "sustainable cuisine," by supporting local food producers, and by seasonal and artisanal cooking, aimed at improving the taste and quality of the food people eat.
Chefs have a huge affect on the marketplace and on consumers' food choices. They are, of course, in a unique position to educate the dining public, act as role models, and inspire home cooks.
For instance, chefs have created a new demand for products such as olive oil, heirloom tomatoes and the mixed leafy salads known as mesclun, all of which have become more mainstream.
Chefs choose such ingredients not only because they are considered earth-friendly, but because they are always looking for new flavors and textures. While not confining themselves only to organic ingredients, many say they believe that produce and animals raised organically taste better.
Members of Chefs Collaborative were interviewed and offered recipes for home cooks to try, using ingredients from local suppliers, when in season.
Jesse Ziff Cool, chef-owner of the Flea St. Cafe and JZ Cool Eatery in Menlo Park, Calif., also writes cookbooks, among them "Your Organic Kitchen."
Cool's recipe for vegetable gratin makes excellent use of produce that is abundant during the fall. Following is her recipe and one from Chris Douglass, chef-owner of Icarus restaurant in Boston.
Autumn Vegetable Gratin
1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 cup (4 ounces) shredded Cheddar cheese
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 1/2 pounds winter squash (for example, butternut, buttercup or acorn), peeled and thinly sliced
1 onion, peeled and thinly sliced
2 golden-flesh potatoes (such as Yukon gold), peeled and thinly sliced
1 fennel bulb, peeled and thinly sliced
2 to 3 cups milk
1/2 cup (2 ounces) grated Parmesan cheese
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Oil a 2-quart baking dish.
In a small bowl, combine the flour, brown sugar, Cheddar cheese, salt and pepper. Set aside.
Layer one-third of the squash, onion, potatoes and fennel in the prepared baking dish. Dust with one-third of the flour mixture. Continue layering all 3 layers, finishing with the flour mixture. Pour the milk over all. Sprinkle with the Parmesan.
Bake for 1 1/2 hours, or until the vegetables are very tender and the gratin is golden brown. If the top browns too quickly, cover loosely with foil. Let stand for 15 minutes before serving.
Makes 8 servings.
Roast Pork Loin With Raisin Bourbon Sauce
4 pound pork loin, center-cut, chine bone removed
1 cup kosher salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh sage
1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
30 grinds fresh black pepper
1 cup fresh bread crumbs
Trim the pork loin, leaving a thin layer of fat.
Dissolve sugar and salt in 7 cups of boiling water. Add enough ice to bring total measurement to 8 cups. When brine has cooled submerge pork in brine and refrigerate for at least 12 and up to 24 hours. Remove from brine and pat dry.
Combine mustard, herbs and pepper. Smear mustard over pork in an even layer. Sprinkle and press on the bread crumbs.
Allow the roast to temper at room temperature for 45 minutes to 1 hour.
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place the roast on a rack in a roasting pan and put it in the oven. After 15 minutes reduce the heat to 325 degrees. and let roast until the internal temperature measured on a meat thermometer reaches 150 degrees, about 45 to 60 minutes. Remove the roast from the oven and allow to rest for at least 10 minutes before carving.
Serve with Raisin Bourbon Sauce (recipe follows).
Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Raisin Bourbon Sauce
1 cup raisins
1 cup bourbon
Salt and pepper
The day before, soak raisins in the bourbon. In a small saucepan, bring the mixture to a boil. In a blender puree the raisins, adding just enough water to make a smooth sauce. Season to taste with just a splash of sherry vinegar, and salt and pepper. Push the mixture through a fine strainer and reblend. Keep the sauce warm until ready to serve.