[Photographs and video: J. Kenji Lopez-Alt] Let’s talk about egg fried rice. Egg fried rice in its absolute purest form—nothing but eggs, rice, cooking oil, soy sauce, and scallions—is one of the simplest stir-fries around. But like all simple foods—pizza, grilled cheese, a roasted chicken&mash;it’s…
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Much has been written during the pandemic about the increased popularity of community supported agriculture, commonly referred to as CSA. On this week’s Special Sauce, we had a far-reaching conversation with Maggie Cheney, one of the owners of Rock Steady Farm, which is part of a special kind of CSA.
Rock Steady describes itself as a women and queer owned cooperative farm, rooted in social justice, growing sustainable vegetables, flowers, and herbs for our upstate and NYC communities. As you will hear, Maggie and her partners have withstood the many challenges they have encountered during the pandemic with sheer determination, a lot of hard work, and the support, both financial and otherwise, of the communities they serve. But it has not been easy.
Rounding out the episode is another Ask Kenji segment. This time Kenji answers a Serious Eater’s question about the whys and wherefores of salting vegetables like cucumbers and eggplant before cooking them. I don’t want to give away too much of his answer, but I will tell you that water balloons are repeatedly mentioned.
So there you have it, our very first all-vegetable Special Sauce, and it’s inspiring, surprising, and informative.
Please stay safe and healthy, Serious Eaters. And I hope you don’t mind me reminding you yet again that the pandemic dictates that we should do everything we can at this perilous moment to support both local restaurants, like Kenji’s Wursthall in San Mateo, CA, and farmers like Maggie Cheney. So long, we’ll see you next time.
Production note: With everyone hunkered down in place we are no longer able to record Special Sauce in a fully equipped studio with an experienced and skilled engineer. So if the sound quality of this episode isn’t up to snuff, know that we are working on all aspects of the production within the context of the new reality we’re all living in. Better things and better sound lie ahead.
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Ed Levine: During the pandemic much has been written about the increased popularity of CSAs (Community-Supported-Agriculture).On this week’s Special Sauce we had a far-reaching conversation with Maggie Cheney, one of the owners of Rock Steady Farm, which is part of a special kind of CSA. Rock Steady describes itself as a women and queer owned cooperative farm, rooted in social justice, growing sustainable vegetables, flowers and herbs for our upstate and NYC communities. As you will hear Maggie and her partners have withstood the many challenges they have encountered during the pandemic with sheer determination, a lot of hard work, and the support both financial and otherwise of the communities they serve. But it has not been easy. Rounding out the episode is another Ask Kenji segment. This time Kenji answers a Serious Eater’s question about the whys and wherefores of salting vegetables like cucumbers and eggplant before cooking them. I don’t want to give away too much of his answer, but I will tell you that water balloons are repeatedly mentioned. But first Serious Eaters, meet the extraordinary Maggie Cheney.
EL: So, first of all, tell us who you are and what you do.
Maggie Cheney: So my name is Maggie Cheney. I am one of the co-owners and vegetable farmers at Rock Steady Farm. So Rock Steady is a LGBTQ-owned and operated farm. We’ve been around for five years, so we’re still a pretty infant farm when it comes to a lot of other farms. We’re babies. We grow sustainable vegetables for a 380-person CSA in New York City as well as upstate. We also have creative partnerships with nonprofits, food pantries, and health clinics so that we’re serving lower income people as well as HIV/AIDS people in New York City. We also sell wholesale to large scale restaurant groups. We are also in a lot of intentional kind of community building within our own staff and trying to create a space where LGBTQ people can come from all over the country and feel like they can be themselves in a workplace. I think that that mission work of centering the farmer is something we’re really intentional about and leaning into more and more so that we’re not just constantly thinking about the consumer, the consumer, the consumer, but also, what are opportunities for each other and the cooperative model built that way so that there can be a lot of professional development and skill building.
EL: You have a sliding scale, right? You have people that don’t pay anything for their CSA boxes, right?
MC: Yes. Yeah. We have a sliding scale that’s made possible through higher income consumers paying more for their boxes, and that offsets the boxes for lower income people. So there’s that as well as we receive donations through a fiscal sponsorship so that we can get 501(c)(3) grants and individual donations. That goes into a food access fund and allows us to give fully subsidized shares to even broader amount of people. So some of our sites are completely subsidized, and some of them are partially.
EL: Can you give me a succinct explanation of how CSAs work? I know, but it’d be great for Special Sauce listeners to understand.
MC: Yeah. Sure. Yeah. So Community Supported Agriculture, CSA. The more traditional understanding of it is that there’s an upfront commitment from the consumer to receive weekly vegetables for 20 to 30 weeks, depending. That relationship is built on mutual trust where the consumer pays the farmer either all upfront, and so there’s a trust like, “Okay. I’m going to trust you with my money. I’m going to trust that you’re going to deliver every week.”
MC: Then, also, there’s different models like ours where we have payment plans. So there’s ways that you can get paid monthly, but there’s still that commitment. There’s still a signed contract that you can trust that we’re going to sign up and receive your food all year round. What they receive on their end is weekly a box of vegetables and fruits. Sometimes there’s eggs and meat. We do a full-diet CSA, so we collaborate with other farmers who provide the eggs, meat, cheese, yogurt. They usually get, depending on the size box, they can get six items, diversified items in their box or eight to 10 items with a larger share.
MC: What’s great is that it’s up to the farmer traditionally what goes in those boxes, so it’s very farmer-friendly in that way. If we have a crop loss in the field of radishes, we can substitute for the next best looking thing in the field and cater the box each week. There’s a lot of different takes on that model. There are some that each customer picks and chooses every single item in the box. But the general theme of it is commitment for a whole season of produce and the farmer chooses what goes in those weekly shares.
EL: You were practically born into this CSA or farm-to-table movement, right? Tell us. Your dad was involved, right? Tell us about the Cheney family and how you all got involved in this stuff.
MC: So my dad is still involved. He’s a farmer through and through, and I did grow up farming on and off since I was a baby. I remember just hanging out in the fields and spending most of my childhood wandering around, tagging along with everyone else, and then eventually, being old enough to do tasks, and weeding projects, and then full-time jobs in the summertime and stuff. But my dad founded and co-founded a project called The Food Project outside Boston. So that was a CSA farm, but also, very much a nonprofit farm that integrated food justice work and education job training programs for high school youth in Boston as well as the outside surrounding towns. So I grew up in the world of not just farming, but I think social justice lens to farming. Currently, my dad is working at a larger scale farm than I am. I’m at 13 acres, and he’s at 200-plus acres doing mostly tractor work and production for a large farm outside Boston right now.
EL: So really truly, and this pun is just too luscious for me to ignore. The apple didn’t fall far from the tree?
MC: Correct. Yeah. There are definitely lots of similarities, my dad and I. Yeah.
EL: Did you fall in love with farming and what your dad was doing right away, or did you arrive at it through a more circuitous path?
MC: I think I never thought I will be a farmer when I was growing up. I really thought I would go more into teaching. I was really passionate about special education. I grew up in the Special Ed system and wanted to work with kids. But as soon as I started doing that, I really got antsy, wanted to be outside, and kept getting drawn to outdoor work, and also just felt really powerless when it came to being in school systems where the food was so horrific.
MC: Seeing that happen to so many different youth in different cities and different parts of the country where the food that they were eating was impacting them so greatly in their academics and their access at home and just seeing that first-hand, especially in the Special Ed community, I just knew that probably the most impact I could do is by growing food and trying to get creative around food access and connecting a really broad group of people to fresh food and organically-grown food as best as I could. I continue to weave education and farming throughout my life. Now, I’m at my late 30s, so I’ve been doing it since I was a kid.
EL: You even went to school in it right?
MC: I did do a program at UC Santa Cruz. I was there for two years. It’s a certificate program in sustainable agriculture.
EL: So tell us about Rocky Steady Farm and tell us about your history of dealing with CSAs.
MC: Sure. So I worked on a number of CSAs throughout my life, and my dad ran another CSA farm, Lindentree Farm, outside Boston as well. So I had familiarity with it, and then when my co-founding team, Angela, and D, and I, started Rock Steady five years ago, we actually took it over from a previous farm, and we converted it into a cooperative farm with a more justice-based mission, but we continued the CSA model that the previous farmer had when we did the transfer of ownership. Then, we expanded the CSA from there. So that was definitely a core piece to how we wanted to farm. There was a lot in the CSA that appealed to us as farmers, but definitely a different style of CSA farming than I think a lot of farms in the states, and country actually, and the world have. I think that’s because we’re going at an angle that we’re not just trying to cater to the people who can afford that upfront cost. We’re trying to cater to a really broad group of people, so we have a sliding scale to our CSA.
MC: Right now, 55% of all of our food goes to lower income people in the Hudson Valley and in New York City. Then, we also have close partnerships with a lot of community organizations, health centers in New York City that serve HIV/AIDS patients, LGBTQ community. We work with food pantries upstate. So the CSA model is applied to these partnerships in a new way, so we kind of cater each of those partnerships a little differently. But I mean, big picture Rock Steady, we’re doing a lot, but we’re incredible group. I’m just one farmer out of all of us. We’re a group of nine total, and we’re a social justice farm, run and owned and operated by LGBTQ community. We serve primarily that community as well. We’re certified or non-certified organic, so we’re sustainably growing food, and we do both CSA and wholesale. So we do have some connects to some great restaurant groups in New York City that keep us going in another direction. But this year and COVID, it’s been really helpful to have a CSA model because of the restaurant decline.
EL: Right. So tell us about when the pandemic hit. What happened to business? What happened to your employees? What happened?
MC: Yeah. I mean, it feels so long ago at this point. March.
EL: I know.
MC: So much has happened since then, but it was a really stressful time. It was really scary as a business owner to have something like a global pandemic happen.
MC: Our concerns were first and foremost with our staff, and that meant quarantining people as a joint. In April, we had delays from some of us farmers who were coming from out of state. They were caught up quarantining in different locations. There was a whole revamping of all of our hygiene and safety protocols, cleaning protocols so that we could address the needs of the farmers right then and there because unlike a lot of other businesses, we’re essential workers, and nothing stopped. We didn’t take one day off. So we had to pivot, and adjust, and build all these new systems within hours of the new quarantine legislation that was coming out.
MC: So that took a lot in and of itself, and then also in that, there were so many unknowns about what was going to happen and we had to do a lot. We basically redid our entire budget. We reconfigured all of our outlets. We expanded our CSA. We dropped wholesale. We added different CSA partners, did tons of communication with our partners in New York City because New York City was the epicenter. We now box all of our shares instead of the more farmers’ market style bulk bins that people choose from. Within all of that, we were dealing with the financial implications of it on the backend. So not only all this time and labor spent that where we were multiple people in the office navigating these changes and not in the field. So there’s that stress on the farm, but also, applying for the PPP, applying for the SBA loans on top of the farming.
MC: It was absolutely ridiculous. It was a lot of work and incredibly stressful, but very, very grateful that we were able to throw down. We did get support, and I think that was really made possible through networks of farmers in the Hudson Valley who were communicating with each other with listservs, and Zooms, and technical support, but also, as a cooperative, we have technical support with another whole world out there who is providing technical support for not farmers, but other small businesses. I really feel like because we were receiving those two, we were able to actually get the PPP, and apply for those, and know the nature of the ruling and bank connections as well as receive information from other farmers about their practices and pivots that they were doing. But that has not been the case for a lot of farmers who didn’t have both of those kind of support networks.
EL: One of the things that I found in talking to a lot of farmers, and chefs, and restaurant tours, and purveyors is that people talk about something that most people don’t realize is what you just described is you basically had to pivot to a new business model while you’re going full-bore and trying to survive.
MC: On very slim margins. Yeah.
EL: Right, with slim margins to begin with, and now, all of a sudden, your new businesses, your restaurant business, I assume, just fell off a cliff. Right?
EL: You had to… and who knows how much of it will come back, but did you manage to keep all of your employees employed?
MC: Yes. Yeah. Yeah, that was our number one priority is no matter what, we weren’t cutting ours. So we would do whatever it took, and I think because we were a CSA model, we could do that because the nature of that type of income stream that comes in the beginning of the year, which was right along the same time that this whole pandemic hit, we had that cashflow. So even though all these other government supports were not yet known, we could still keep people on our payroll.
EL: Got it.
EL: So what do you think is going to happen short-term to not only Rock Steady, but CSAs in general, and then what do you see moving forward?
MC: I do think short-term, the CSA model for farmers who already had that in place and had the systems to take on members this year, I think they’re doing really well. I think we’re seeing a lot of learning in wholesale farms who are trying to make that shift and learning all the challenges of it. So for farmers who already were doing the CSA model, I think they’re in a good place to continue that, but what we’re seeing is a really big impact on wholesale farms and even farmers’ market farmers. It depends on the area. Those are challenged as well, some places, to make that shift to a diversified CSA box. So there is learning that’s happening, there’s growing pains, and I do think that we’re going to see a huge uptick in the next year because corona is not going away, and you’re going to see more people wanting to do that model for their own consumption.
MC: I do think that there will be an uptick. So the question is, “Okay. How do we support these farms to transition to that model successfully because the restaurants are going downhill? How can we get really creative on two fronts in terms of collaboration with other farms and aggregating so that if you’re a spinach farmer, you don’t have to then, all of a sudden, grow 60 different crops? Can you be working with other farms and using aggregation and delivery methods, which we’re seeing real time all over the country? Also, how do we make sure that that food that is now going into a CSA model is not just getting to the highest income bracket of the community? Can we teach this model of sliding scale? Can we redirect some of that produce also to a broader spectrum of people?”
EL: I mean, what’s fascinating is that your work has always focused on this intersection of CSAs and social justice, which is a very unusual combination, right, because we associate CSAs generally with people of privilege. It’s incredibly exciting to see somebody tackling this problem, which is not a small problem.
EL: It’s a big problem, and it probably requires people like yourself with a missionary zeal. Do you think that there’ll be labor shortages? One of the things that Ted Barber is trying to do is connect out-of-work cooks with farms. So they’ll get closer to the food that they’re making, and so he’s like he imagines like a young core of cooks turned farmers. What he was saying, and it doesn’t sound like you are experiencing this, is that ultimately, the pandemic is going to put so much pressure on so many farms that there’ll be labor shortages and there are going to be costs associated with the pivoting that will make it difficult for many farms to sustain.
MC: It’s interesting. We’re a small scale farm in an area that has a lot of small scale farms. I think in many ways, I’m in a bubble of communication and administrative support in this area, and I think… Yeah. I don’t really know how to answer that question. I think what came to mind when listening to you was, “Who are those people that were employed by restaurants, and why are they the ones who are then going to do the farm work?” I think often because those are two of the lowest paying wage jobs in the country and just noting that, that to me… Okay. So there could be these shifts back and forth and oftentimes, if there are immigrant communities who were coming from other countries, they may have those farm skills, which is really valuable to then have shifting to the agricultural sector. How can we uplift agricultural sector and the restaurant world so that those jobs are valued in the way that they need to get valued, and that those are fair wages for those people, and that there are enough incentives for leadership, and career development, and all of these things? Not just, “Okay. Let’s displace one group of people to another group of people,” but let’s talk about actually what are the daily lives of those people, and how can we support that? How can we support farms in general to start paying people what they deserve? That’s the bigger issue to me. Yeah.
EL: Right. For sure. No, and I think you raised a really good point. Just because a cook who was making $18 an hour can work at a farm to farm workers that are… I’m sure you’re paying your farmers at least $15 an hour. I assume.
MC: I mean, we’re barely there.
MC: A lot of farms don’t pay $15 an hour. I mean, majority of farms are just above living wage state requirement, so $12.
EL: Right, right.
EL: Yeah, and $12 to $15 really isn’t a living wage, right? Let me get…
MC: It’s not. Yeah.
EL: I guess that’s what keeps you up at night.
MC: Yeah. Very much so. I mean, we started our farm with no financial support of our own. We didn’t have any of our own personal inherited wealth, so we each brought $500 to our farm, and we started Rock Steady on loans. So we are, right now in year five, paying back large loans, trying to stay in our business and operations, and buying supplies, and pivot, and added new supplies in a COVID year, but also, trying to increase our wages for employees every year as much as we can humanly possible do. But the margins are so tight because we don’t have that padding. We don’t have any safety net, except for our social safety net, which is huge, which we lean on, and that’s part of our identity is to build community. But financially, it’s really tight, and we’re not alone. We’re not getting the subsidies that big farms get. We are barely making it, and 99% of all farms in the country exist because there are people who are working at the top who also have other jobs.
MC: So they either have other jobs or they have inherited wealth, and that’s how it works. But if you’re trying to sustain a business as a business, the food system doesn’t support that. The prices of food haven’t gone up, but the price of labor has gone up as it should.
EL: So in a lot of ways, obviously, the pandemic has just exacerbated a lot of the problems that you’re talking about.
MC: Yeah, yeah. I think about the way that urban community are fleeing the city right now and going to live in rural spaces, but what is that doing to housing access for farm labor in those rural spaces now that we have higher income people coming into our communities and taking up all the housing? Because we are a low-income group, now we don’t have any housing. So this is that, like just one micro example of the disparities that exist within the food system that are now exasperated.
EL: These are really big problems you’re wrestling with, but you sound pretty determined.
MC: Yeah. I think I definitely am optimistic. I have to be or else I wouldn’t be doing this work. It’s hard every day in so many different levels. I’m optimistic because I think that it’s a shaking-up of a system and it’s a rebuilding moment. I am very excited about coalition building, and partnership building, and thinking outside of the box, and trying to address these regional and national issues because we’ve seen… Now, everyone’s seen the failures in a system that I’ve known that’s been failed for my whole life. Now, people are like, “Okay. How do I address that?” I think it’s a place for collaboration, which is what we need right now. I think that there is opportunity in that in terms of… especially for LGBTQ community, like BIPOC community. That amount of organizing, and support networks, and mutual relief work that’s going on all over the country, I mean, using that incredible energy and working it into different sectors of our society. Where is the change that we need to see happen in the food system given the systemic racism that we have seen? Where is the change that we have to see in education? Where is the change that we have to see in zoning and housing? I think people are shifting. There’s real shifts happening. I think if there is that overlap with identity, and movement building, and trying to really, really support those communities that have been pushed to the side for so many years, I think that is what I’m hoping for.
MC: I think in those communities, we’re resilient. The world needs to learn from us. Queer LGBTQ people. We’ve been resilient from existence for…
EL: Yeah, because you’ve had no choice. Right?
MC: Yeah. Exactly. I think there’s a lot to be learned from these communities because we have such structures of support networks and resiliency that I think we need to be uplifting and continuing. So that’s no different in the farming world.
EL: They’re mirror images, right, the farming world and the other worlds that you’re trying to merge, right? The problems are somewhat the same, and it sounds like one way or another, you feel like as long as you get to the other side.
MC: We’re definitely tackling the challenge every day, and I think what’s important for anyone who’s doing this type of work, regardless of what field you’re in and what passion moves you, is that you’re taking care of yourself while you do it and really thinking about self-care and healing during this time. I think farmers historically do not have self-care practices. It’s bred into the farming culture to overwork, to work 75-hour weeks using heavy machinery that’s incredibly dangerous, pushing your body and your mind to the max, and that’s just the expectation. I think that there needs to be a shift in both the mentality of farm work and self-care, but also in movement building, and fighting systemic racism, and white supremacy. In both of those worlds, we need to make sure that we’re taking care of ourselves because I think there’s so much risk at a time like this even though there’s these opportunities and ways, but it’s also… It’s very touch and go. Each day, it might feel impossible one day and possible the next day. It’s just getting through those days that it feels impossible and being able to wake up the next day and do it over again. That’s a real thing. The highest rates of suicide in our country are farmers, and that is… There’s a lot of reasons for that.
MC: To be doing this work, it’s not easy.
EL: No. You have not chosen an easy path, Maggie.
MC: No, no, but the little things help a lot, like just eating the food that you grow, which some farm workers aren’t even able to do, but that’s really meaningful. Then, taking walks, resting, sleeping a lot, being in community as best you can in a COVID year. You know those. I think because we saw that isolation this year, it made all those self-care goals harder. Yeah. That’s just something that I think about a lot.
EL: You regard the CSA movement can be part of the meaningful change you’re trying to affect?
MC: Yes. Yeah. It centers the farmers’ needs, and I think that that… It doesn’t center all consumers. It’s not going to work for everyone, and I definitely believe that all types of food distribution are important. But I think in a time like this where people want direct farmer-consumer relationships that they can trust and that serve a purpose in their life, I think that more people are more interested in CSA model. But I think the part of the CSA model that really works right now is the fact that it’s good for farmers. The upfront money, that is a real important piece to farmer mental health and being able to go into a season and know that there could be a flood, or a drought, or a tornado and, “Okay. I still have money in the bank.”
MC: That is big. I think the more that that type of transparency and communication can get to the people who are eating that food, the better. I think a lot of people don’t understand the life of farming who are eating the food because we live in a world where there are very few farmer-consumer interactions. So that’s part of what drives me also is just trying to build that understanding and communication with our community that we feed, and that’s another way that we like the CSA model is because we can talk to the people who eat our food.
EL: Yeah. What’s fascinating about it also is that I don’t think people understand. I’ve done so many stories where I’ve spent two days in a farm. They don’t understand just how precarious the life of a farmer is. You must exist on four hours of sleep a night.
MC: Some do. Yeah, some farmers do. That is definitely what I was talking before.
EL: The other thing that I noticed is if you’re dependent on farmers’ markets and you get torrential rain the day before, you don’t have much.
MC: No, it’s a loss.
MC: You just lost $2,000 of products.
EL: Right. I don’t think people really understand that there are so many things that are out of control. It’s not like someone’s going to become… Like when people say, “Oh, but they’re charging $25 a pound for greens,” I said, “That person that charges $25 a pound for those microgreens is not going to their house in the Hamptons by helicopter every weekend.”
MC: Exactly. I mean, exactly. I think every farm… we don’t choose our prices out of nowhere. We choose it based on either market comparisons if you’re at a farmers’ market, but also just the cost that it takes to grow that product. I think the wholesale market is really, really hard in that way. Dairy industry is really hard in that way because farmers don’t have control of those wholesale prices that are set often at the industrial scale. We can get a lot more money per bunch at a farmers’ market or CSA than we could trying to compete with thousand-acre farms.
MC: I do think that even though farming is something that has all these unknowns and has all these risks, inherently, you’re trying to do something with no predictability whatsoever. You’re working with nature, and nature is not predictable, and it’s becoming more and more not predictable with climate change. I think that for many farmers, just the act of farming, and the brain, and skill, and passion for it is what keeps them going. It’s like people could be doing all these other things with their time and getting paid way more, but there is a real beauty in the actual work itself, and how diverse it is, and being outside, and being physical with your body. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t give you the amount of money that you need, and so therefore causes that stress every day that you wish didn’t exist.
MC: But the actual act of farming is incredibly enjoyable for a lot of people, I think.
EL: Do you think that CSAs, whether it’s during the pandemic or after the pandemic, are they scalable? Is the idea of a CSA scalable? I’m sure you’re not trying to replace grocery stores, but is it scalable at least on some level?
MC: Yeah, definitely. I think that’s where you get into collaborative models where larger scale farms or growing certain crops for the CSA, and then today, aggregating those and boxing them. I think that there is a… In California, there are some CSAs that are 8,000 members, and that’s been happening for years pre-COVID and that works. That is a scalable model. I think the food system itself needs to scale up in every way. Food is critical for everyone.
MC: So figuring out what is the farmer-friendly version to do that is great. I think not every farm has the capability of delivering door-to-door, but maybe they can… Many farms can do a couple hundred chairs, and then deliver it to a drop-off point that some other entity could deliver it door-to-door for them.
MC: So I think there are these creative ways, but I do think it’s scalable.
EL: It sounds like that the key to not only surviving during COVID, but in general is this collaborative effort between farms, right? Without that, it doesn’t sound like it would work.
MC: No. I think collaboration is key. Yeah. I think with climate change, it’s key. Farmers are having to adjust, and learn from each other, and take guidance from farmers who have been doing this much longer, and trying new techniques. I think that’s key, and we’re looking to other farmers who are more experienced than us to look at their practices and learn from them before we trial them. I think you’re, as a farmer… and especially if they’re people who are new to farming, you need as much support as you can get to exist. It’s a very hard business.
MC: So I think that that in and of itself, and I think that that’s also a cool thing around bridge-building in rural locations I think… Because farming is so collaborative and a lot of farmers lean on each other for use of tractors, equipment, sales, I think that there’s some really interesting bridge-building between us as LGBTQ people and the farmer next door who is a Republican who has very different politics from us, but we still want to share the same equipment. So that’s an interesting thing I think now in the time of like leading up to the election. It can be very, very heightened in rural areas leading up to such a polarized election, but these little collaborations along those political lines are great. Yeah, and interesting.
EL: Yeah, for sure. Thank you so much, Maggie, for sharing your special sauce with us. It’s been great talking to you.
MC: Thank you so much.
EL: We’ll talk soon.
EL: Thanks a lot.
MC: Have a great one.
EL: All right. Now, it’s time for our question of the week that people send in for our Chief Culinary Consultant, author of The Food Lab, Mr. Kenji López-Alt. Our question of the week comes from Kim Edge who is wondering, “Salting squash, eggplant, cucumbers, in each case, they draw off liquid, but then the salt gets washed off with water. How does the water not get reabsorbed again during this process?”
Kenji López-Alt: Okay, so you’re talking about… So when you want to reduce the moisture of, yeah, an eggplant.
KLA: So you salt it, and then you wash it off. Then, when you fry it, it fries well better because not as much moisture comes out or when you roast it, et cetera.
KLA: So the reason that works is because plants are made of cells, right, which are like little, teeny water balloons that are glued together. They’re all filled with mostly water and have a bunch of other little things, little organs, and stuff. All those stuff that plant cells have in them. It’s mostly water though, and so what happens is when you salt a vegetable, the osmosis ends up pulling that water out. So osmosis is the force that holds the liquid from an area of low-solute concentrate to high-solute concentrate. So when you salt the outside of a vegetable, you create an area of very, very highly saturated water, and then that pulls water from inside the cells out across the cell membrane.
KLA: So yeah, the salt ends up drawing the liquid, drawing the water out of the cell membrane. That’s an active force that’s pulling the water out. There’s nothing that’s going to push the water back in. There’s no real force that’s going to push the water back in other than diffusion. Diffusion is the kind of thing that happens back and forth across the membrane as opposed to a directional thing. It’s very similar to think about it like literally as water balloons. If you put a little pinprick in a water balloon and squeeze some of the water out of it like that, you’re going to get the water out. But then, if you take that same balloon and pour a bucket of water over it, it’s not like the water is going to go back in through that pinprick because there’s nothing pushing the water back in.
EL: Right. Got it.
KLA: So that’s really the answer. It’s because, frankly, there’s no force that’s pushing the water back into the cell. A vegetable is not a sponge. A vegetable is more like a series of water balloons as opposed to a sponge.
EL: So how does that explanation affect water balloon fights?
KLA: I don’t know. You need it for, I don’t know, stand by the hose.
EL: All right. I think Kim is in good shape, Kenji, and so is her squash, and her eggplant, and her cucumbers.
KLA: Sure, hope so.
EL: We’ll talk to you next week.
EL: So there you have it, our very first all-vegetable Special Sauce that is inspiring, surprising, and informative. Please stay safe and healthy, serious eaters. And I hope you don’t mind me reminding you yet again that the pandemic dictates that we should do everything we can at this perilous moment to support both local restaurants like Kenji’s Wursthall in San Mateo, CA, and farmers like Maggie Cheney. So long, Serious Eaters. We’ll see you next time.
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“Every home kitchen, every abuelita uses bouillon,” says Mexican-American chef Edgar Rico of Nixta Tacqueria in Austin, Texas. “Just like you would find dried chile, avocados, onion, and garlic inside a pantry, bouillon cubes are in both my grandmothers’ pantries. It’s always the Knorr brand, the little baby cubes.”
In Mexico, like much of Latin America, Knorr’s “caldo con sabor de pollo” is the preferred brand of bouillon, easily spotted thanks to its iconic yellow-and-green packaging with a chicken on the front. Rico’s grandmother uses it for mole, braised pork with chile verde, and soups.
Elsewhere in the world, other brands of bouillon may reign supreme, and their products may instead be labeled “stock cubes” or “broth cubes,” but oftentimes the MSG-heavy concentrate is no less a pantry staple. Thanks to its relatively low cost, ease and speed of use, and intense flavor, bouillon is a popular ingredient in kitchens on virtually every continent, where powders and cubes are used to season soups and stews, and in some cases, are even sprinkled directly over cooked plates of food.
To understand how bouillon achieved such international popularity, you have to consider the central role that broths and stocks have played in human history. Using water to stretch ingredients into a full, and filling, nutritious meal is a survival-based innovation that has come to define culinary traditions around the world. In Japan, the term for a classic teishoku meal, ichiju-sansai, literally translates to “one soup, three sides.” Elsewhere, soup is an essential side dish, like the small bowl of broth always served with Hainanese chicken or Thailand’s khao man gai. And while soup is more commonly a lunch or dinner in some countries, it’s also still a common morning meal in many others: pho in Vietnam, menudo in Mexico, and lablabi in Tunisia to name just a few. And in previous centuries, it was also a fixture of military campaigns everywhere. French military leader Napoleon Bonaparte once said “an army travels on its stomach. Soup makes the soldier.” The peace treaty in Switzerland in 1529 between the Catholics and Protestants concluded with soldiers from both sides sharing a “milk soup” from the same pot. For centuries, daily pots have simmered over fires and stoves around the globe.
It was out of this ubiquity that the bouillon cube was born.
Humans have been attempting to make soup into convenience food for millenia, and portable soups—essentially concentrated stocks—were a feature of nomadic cultures for thousands of years. In the 14th century, the Magyar warriors of Hungary boiled salted beef until it fell apart, cut it into pieces, dried it in the sun, ground it into a powder, and carried it around in small bags—something of a forerunner to the packets of Lipton’s Cup-o-Soup. Early British cookbooks included recipes for homemade dehydrated soups, like the “veal glew” in The Receipt Book of Mrs. Ann Blencowe from 1694, and a beef-leg version in Hannah Glasse’s 1747 The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. In the late 18th century, Benjamin Thompson, also known as Count Rumford—a British loyalist who fled New England—invented a forerunner to the bouillon cube: solidified stock of bones and meat trimmings to feed the Duke of Bavaria’s army. He later established meal centers for the poor where he served his mass-produced dehydrated stocks, adding grain for a hearty meal, essentially creating “soup kitchens.”
The invention of the bouillon cube as we know it took place at the turn of the century in Europe, with three companies—Maggi, OXO, and Knorr—puzzling through how to create inexpensive portable soups. In 1847, the German chemist Justus von Liebig developed an industrial method for concentrating beef solids into an extract, but the cost of European meat made it too expensive for commercial production. After locating cheaper meat sources in Uruguay, his company, Liebig’s Extract of Meat Company, came out with a liquid bouillon under the brand name Oxo in 1899. Meanwhile, in Germany, food manufacturer Carl Heinrich Theodor Knorr, who was experimenting with dehydrated foods, launched dried soups in 1873.
In the early 1880s, Swiss food manufacturer and miller Julius Maggi, whose company also produced packaged soups, used a process known as acid hydrolysis to extract meaty flavors from wheat. Adding hydrochloric acid to plant matter at a warm temperature breaks it down and separates free amino acids, resulting in an ingredient called hydrolyzed vegetable protein, or HVP. One of the amino acids in HVP is threonine, which imparts the flavor of meat at a lower cost than meat itself. Maggiwurtz, Maggi’s readymade soups and sauces, were the first to use it. He then used HVP to invent bouillonwürfel, the bouillon cube, which also included a meat extract, likely beef, and introduced it commercially to Europe in 1908.
That very same year, in Japan, chemist Ikeda Kikunae, inspired by his wife’s miso soup, derived monosodium glutamate (MSG) from kombu—a building block of the Japanese stock, dashi— and also used acid hydrolysis to extract amino acid from soy beans around the same time. Kikunae coined the term “umami,” a portmanteau of the Japanese words “umai” (delicious) and “mi” (taste), for the flavor derived from the amino acids, including glutamate and threonine, in meat, mushrooms, and fermented foods.
In 1910, the British company OXO introduced its bouillon cube, as did Knorr (which today uses a combination of autolyzed yeast extract, which frees amino acids using its own enzymes, and MSG) in the French market that same year, following with a liquid bouillon extract in 1912 in Switzerland—all of those bouillon products chock full of umami.
It wasn’t long before these European bouillon cubes started proliferating in countries around the globe, penetrating indigenous foodways in the process. During World War I, OXO provided 100 million bouillon cubes to the British armed forces, and launched one of the world’s first global marketing campaigns, with the foil-wrapped cubes spreading throughout colonized countries in the early 20th century. Early advertisements, boasting that they would “improve meat dishes” and “made good dishes better,” also claimed that “digestion is assisted” and “development of a healthy physique and an active mind is promoted.” Today, Knorr sells 600 bouillon cubes per second globally, with 10 of those in the US. During the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, bouillon cube sales jumped by 70 percent, according to Knorr, between February and March.
Perhaps the bouillon cube has had no greater success than in the Central and West African market, where Maggi, which is also a top seller in Brazil, India, Germany, and the Middle East, has become synonymous with classic dishes from the region, like jollof and poulet braisé. The company has tailored its product to cater to local preferences, with different flavors (a Côte d’Ivoire cube incorporates cassava) and textures (in some countries, the consistency is made so that cooks can crumble it over dishes while cooking), and today sells more than 100 million cubes in Central and West Africa daily.
“As far as I can remember, there was always a jar full of red and gold wrapped cubes in most of the West African kitchens that I’ve visited,” says Dakar, Senegal native Pierre Thiam, who owns the Brooklyn-based West African food company Yolélé. “They are so popular that I’ve even seen people crumbling bouillon cubes directly on their plates for added flavor.” He’s dubbed the prevalence of Maggi “cubism,” with the bouillon cube mixed into the national Senegalese dish, thieboudiene, a fragrant rice and vegetable dish with fish stuffed with a piquant parsley mixture called “rof,” and yassa, charcoal-grilled chicken or fish smothered in a caramelized onion and lime sauce. Maggi has aggressively advertised in Senegal, using popular wrestling champions—wrestling is more popular than soccer there—on billboards, alongside the country’s national dishes.
It’s a similar story in Nigeria, where Maggi markets its products to busy working women like it did in post-industrial Europe, and has made its way into restaurants, home kitchens, and cooking blogs. “The Maggi is more widely available than iru,” says Simileoluwa Adebajo of Eko Kitchen in San Francisco, referring to the fermented locust bean paste used by the Yoruba and Edo people. “The capacity of a company like Nestlé [which owns Maggi] or Unilever [which owns Knorr] to distribute cross-country, you can go to the most remote part of Nigeria and still find someone selling Maggi cubes. If a company is making enough money in a country no matter how underdeveloped it is, they will get their product to every single corner of that country.”
Likewise, in Mexico, Rico told me that in his grandparents’ small villages in San Luis Potosi, where most people have their own gardens and chickens, cows, and pigs, there are no grocery stores, but there are little convenience stores, and they always keep the cubes in stock. Even when his grandmother made chicken stock from scratch, “she would always want more flavor from it so she would add a couple cubes of that to her chicken stock just to give it a deeper flavor in the mole,” says Rico.
While Rico nixtamalizes corn for the handmade tortillas at Nixta Tacqueria, he’ll also “bust up” a Knorr cube at home when cooking for himself and his girlfriend. “MSG works wonders and it does what it’s supposed to. That whole Chinese Restaurant Syndrome is bullshit,” he says, referring to the myth that the flavor enhancer, which is the second ingredient in a Knorr bouillon cube, causes adverse health effects. “It’s racism in a way. [MSG] just makes things more delicious.”
West African–made bouillon cubes, like Doli, Adja, and Bongou, are also growing in popularity in their home countries. But in previous generations, a wide variety of fermented pastes provided the umami flavor to West African cooking, including iru (also called dawadawa or nététou or sumbala), yett (fermented conch), toufa (fermented sea snail), guedj (dried fermented fish), ogiri (fermented bean paste), among many others. Unlike the odorless bouillon cubes, these indigenous products have a strong, pungent smell, and preparing them can be a “process on its own,” including soaking and cleaning, according to Adebajo. “Sadly, the convenience of cubes has come to the detriment of these wonderfully funky ingredients which are now threatened of disappearing,” says Thiam.
Adebajo believes there’s a generational difference attributed to multinational corporations socially conditioning consumers into thinking “that they need the cube,” with marketing campaigns like the YouTube show Yelo Pepe, which follows the lives of five women for recipes and “drama.” “A lot of older women in Nigeria don’t like Maggi cubes in their food,” she says. “The older generation that prefers that natural indigeous flavor, and the younger generation that just wants the meals to be ready in the next 45 minutes.” Her grandmother was upset upon learning that Adebajo was using bouillon cubes in ayamase, a local stew from her village of Kenar, until Adebajo tracked down some people to bring her iru and ogiri from Nigeria to replicate her grandmother’s method. Still, she concedes that “the maggi cubes are great for beginner cooks” who are just dipping into Nigerian recipes, which often employ time-consuming techniques.
In addition to displacing traditional umami products, there’s also the question of salt content. “Unfortunately, the general thinking for many is that the more bouillon cubes there are in the pot, the more flavorful the dish,” says Thiam. “However, bouillon cubes generally have a high sodium content. There needs to be more education on how bouillon cubes abuses can be detrimental to our health.” In 2017, Senegal did just that by limiting the salt content of all cubes to 55 percent. And that may be the key with the concentrated umami seasonings: restraint.
Maggi started importing to China in the 1930s, and Knorr has also established itself in other parts of Asia, as well as its diaspora; Lee Kum Kee is also known for making a bouillon powder. “For me, I thought of it as an immigrant thing,” says chef Thomas Pisha-Duffly of Gado-Gado in Portland, Oregon. “Everyone was using bouillon in the ’50s. When we moved here, that’s what they had. I don’t think of bouillon cube as an Asian ingredient. I guess it’s colonialism.” His grandmother, like Rico’s, incorporates it in traditional Indonesian dishes: “any chicken dish, and her perkedel, her fritters, all have bouillon in it.” While Indonesia is now the top market for Knorr bouillon cubes, Pisha-Duffly’s grandmother only discovered it once she immigrated to the US. When he recounted making stock with beef bones, his grandmother would react in astonishment, “she says, ‘Thomas, that’s crazy, who has time to do that? We used to do that when I was a kid when we were poor but now you can just buy this thing that tastes better.’”
Many Indonesian dishes just don’t taste the same without it, says Pisha-Duffly, echoing a common refrain around the world where bouillon cubes have been adapted in classic dishes. But Pisha-Duffly, who enthusiastically maintains that even a perfectly made dashi is improved with a touch of MSG, doesn’t see a problem with that. “If I’m going to make my grandmother’s babi kecup, which is pork braised in sweet soy, we’ll take the time to make a really nice pork stock,” he says. “But then we’ll augment it with bouillon.”
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Biryanis comprise a category of highly aromatic rice and meat dishes, typically served during special occasions; when I was growing up my family would eat biryani during the festival of Eid or at other celebrations. From a cook’s and a science standpoint, I find biryanis to be interesting because their emphasis lies in carefully building up layers of aromas and flavors and celebrating combinations of textures and colors—in a good biryani, every aspect of the dish is splendidly executed. Let’s take a closer look at what makes a biryani so special.
What Is Biryani?
Biryani is a South Asian one-pot dish in which lamb, mutton, beef, chicken, seafood, or a mixture of vegetables is layered with rice. The layering technique is what differentiates biryani from other rice dishes, like a pilaf or pulao.
There are a couple of different ways to prepare biryani. Sometimes the raw meat is cooked with the rice; this is called the “kacchi” method (kacchi is Hindi for “raw”). In others, the meat is cooked separately, as I do in this recipe; this is called the “pakki” method (pakki is Hindi for “cooked”). Regardless of the method, aromas are infused into the meat and the rice using a combination of spices, herbs, and extracts, while saffron threads and turmeric add bright hues of orange and yellow to the otherwise white backdrop of long-grain rice. The result is a highly aromatic and colorful dish of meat and rice. There are a lot of variations of biryani—like Bombay biryani, Hyderbadi biryani, etc.—as recipes and taste preferences can be quite different from region to region and even household to household.
Building Flavors in Biryani
The Yogurt Marinade
The first step in preparing my lamb biryani involves marinating the meat in a mixture of yogurt, salt, ginger, and garlic in the refrigerator overnight. Yogurt is a mixture of lactic acid, fat, enzymes, and proteins, all of which work in concert to tenderize the meat and imbue it with flavor. Some recipes will utilize raw papaya as a meat tenderizer for tougher cuts of beef, mutton, or lamb, as it contains the tenderizing enzyme papain, but I have found it unnecessary.
When testing the recipe, I was curious to see if marinating the meat in yogurt affected the time needed for the lamb to become tender, and, on average, marinating the meat in yogurt and salt overnight in the refrigerator cut back my cooking time by at least an hour. You can use either Greek yogurt or regular plain yogurt for marinating the meat; I haven’t noticed any differences between the two, but you will need to add about an extra half cup of water or stock if you use Greek yogurt to ensure you have enough cooking liquid.
The next important stage of flavor development is the browning of the onions. As the onions heat, caramelization (a flavor-producing reaction that involves sugars like fructose and glucose) and the Maillard reaction kick in, which help produce bittersweet notes and brown colored pigments in the sugars. (Onions are rich in long chains or polymers called fructans, made up of the sugar fructose, and also contain glucose and fructose.) The darker the browning, the stronger the flavor of the onions, but be careful: if they turn dark black, they will taste unpleasantly bitter.
For the layer of rice, it’s important that you use basmati, a long-grain, aromatic rice variety commonly used in the subcontinent. Basmati rice brands will often describe their product as “aged,” which gives a sense of the quality. One of the aroma molecules responsible for the aroma of basmati rice is 2-AP (2-acetyl-1-pyrroline), and the aroma of basmati tends to get stronger as the uncooked grains of rice are stored; typically basmati rice is aged for up to a year or more. (Interestingly, 2-AP is also present in the pandan water used to add aromatic complexity to biryanis). Aged basmati rice also absorbs water much better: the grains don’t stick as much when cooking, and the cooked grains are firmer.
Basmati rice will expand in length as it absorbs water and cooks, but it won’t get as puffy as short-grain rice or turn sticky (this is because at least 73% of the starch content in basmati rice is made up of amylose, which is present at very low levels in short-grain rice varieties). When I cook the rice, I add a little bit of citric acid, in the form of lemon or lime juice, and fat to the water to further help the rice from overcooking and splitting— the citric acid works primarily on the starch while the fat helps coat the grains and prevents them from sticking.
Adding Aroma and Color
Aromas and colors are a very important component of biryani preparation. Spices, like cardamom, cinnamon, and mace, and fresh herbs, like cilantro and mint, imbue the meat with their aromas as it cooks. There are two more aromatic ingredients of significance added to the biryani: rosewater and pandan (also called screwpine or kewra) water. These are sprinkled over the rice just before it steams, and the combination results in a highly fragrant biryani.
For color, the curcumin pigment in the turmeric that’s added to the meat will stain some of the rice grains yellow. A second source of color comes from the delicate threads of saffron, which contain crocetin, a fat-soluble pigment that is extracted by the fat present in hot milk; the milk is also sprinkled over the layer of rice along with the rosewater and pandan water. To get a richer color from the saffron, I grind a few threads separately and then add them to the milk to get a stronger extract.
The Final Steam
Once the meat and rice are layered together, the entire pot is sealed tight with a double layer of aluminum foil. This technique is called “dum pukht,” which means “breathe and cook” in Hindi; the idea is that the steam produced by the various aromatic liquids and from the marinade and the meat rises, further tenderizing the meat and rice, and then condenses, keeping everything in the pot from drying out. The classic method involves creating a seal by caking a simple dough around the cooking vessel’s lid, but the foil method (which is what I’ve shared here) suffices (and, admittedly, this is the method I use often). A thick layer of cloth wrapped around the mouth of the pot can also be used to create the seal. A heavy Dutch oven or saucepan with a heavy bottom with a heavy lid works great; however, a clay pot with a lid can also be used.
In this version, which might seem a bit restrained, I reserve some of the browned onions and add those as a garnish over the rice before I steam it, but you can do a lot more. Biryanis can be studded with various toppings, including quartered or halved hard boiled eggs, thick quarters of fried potatoes, or fried nuts such as cashews or almonds.
One final note on biryanis: take time to appreciate the reveal as the pot of rice is unwrapped. I find that first breath of the perfume emanating from the pot as it’s opened to reveal the colorful dish within to be the most exciting and magical part of the biryani experience.
How To Serve Biryani
I like to serve biryanis straight out of the pot because I enjoy using a spoon to reveal the cooked meat under the layer of rice. However, a biryani can be served on a large platter; just make sure not to overmix the rice before serving, since doing so obscures the variety of color the rice acquires during the cooking process. While the biryani can be served with plain unsweetened yogurt, my carrot raita would also be a wonderful accompaniment to this dish. I prefer to leave the whole spices in the cooked biryani, but if you like you can fish them out before serving.
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