Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Full Story of My Vinigarette

When I was in high school, I thought salad dressing had to come from a bottle. I whole heartedly believed that aside from oil and vinegar (which seemed relatively easy to comprehend), a major company and an industrial kitchen were necessary for making salad dressing. Not that I knew what an industrial kitchen was… When I had my first job at a bakery with a full service kitchen I finally learned that vinaigrette was a humble mixture of vinegar, mustard and oil with maybe a couple of other flavorings, garlic, herbs, mayo if you are so inclined. That was an important moment for me. It was humble salad dressing that made me realize that everything (or nearly everything) that one could buy in the grocery store could be made at home. But when one doesn’t know HOW to make salad dressing, even something as EASY as salad dressing is just a big mystery. Like it has a big wall up blocking its history.

I was thinking about how easy this recipe looks from the outside. It seems so easy, but yet when you think about it, it is quite complex. I recently made a salad dressing from lemon juice, my preserved lemons, some garlic, my homemade mustard and olive oil. Just a few ingredients, but where everything came from is amazing to consider.

The preserved lemons I made myself. I know that weeks went into their preparation. The organic lemons came from California. The whey used to preserve them was strained from yogurt that came from Hawthorne Valley Farm in Columbia County, NY. The salt that aided in their preservation came from France according to the package of Baleine. The Cinnamon? That’s anyone’s guess. The preserved lemons sat on my counter for 10 days until being transferred to my fridge to sit for a month before I used them in this dressing.

The lemon juice is from my new favorite organic company Lakewood Juices. I have reached out to their Miami, FL based company but have not heard back from them in regards to where their fruit is grown. I assume Florida, but maybe it isn’t good to assume.

The mustard too seems like such a simple ingredient. But it requires painstaking work to get it to a useable condition. Mustard seeds are harvested and ground into a powder, packaged and sent to my beloved Fairway. I asked them where the seeds come from but haven’t heard back… I bought the seeds ground and mixed them with whole brown mustard seeds, steam distilled water (that came from Pawco Mt Pocono, PA), garlic from California, the same salt from France and more whey that came from that same batch of yogurt from Hawthorne Valley as the lemons. After fermenting and before I stored in the fridge I put in a little French White Wine for flavor (And don’t forget the wine was made up of grape juice and most likely SOMETHING else, but for the sake of this exercise I am counting wine as one ingredient).

The Olive Oil is labeled as being from Puglia in Italy. But that wasn’t good enough for me, so I reached out to Fairway markets for more information. Sadly, they have not written me back.

I also purchased the garlic from Fairway. I am assuming it is from California, but I am not sure. But in the case of garlic, I do know that most domestic garlic is from good ole CA. I added to the dressing a little more of the French sea salt and pepper of unknown origin. So that makes, including all the separate ingredients, and not counting any ingredient more than once (like the salt that was used in the mustard, preserved lemons and the final product) I count twelve ingredients altogether in this seemingly simple dressing recipe. And of the twelve ingredients, five are domestic: one is local to me (the whey); the lemons and garlic came from California, the lemon juice from Florida and the distilled water for the mustard from Pennsylvania. Three are definitely international: the salt and the white wine in the mustard are from France, the olive oil is from the south of Italy. And four are of unknown origin: the ground yellow mustard, the brown whole mustard seeds, the black pepper and the cinnamon sticks, though likely they are international too.

I am not bragging (really I am not) but I am trying to do most of the prep myself in my ingredients. There is something to be learned from preparing items from super scratch. I have knowledge of what went into my mustard and how it was made, which to me makes any recipe I use it in (or sandwich I use it on) appear more complex. If I had the opaque veil of “store bought” hanging over my mustard, I think I might think of it as one ingredient, rather than six separate ones. Maybe that is our biggest problem in motivating people to think about their food choices. To most people, mustard is mustard, one simple ingredient. Except that unequivocally, mustard is not mustard. Neither is it simple nor one ingredient. But the acknowledgement of complexity often comes from perspective. And when people envision ‘mustard’ as being only one ingredient they don’t read labels or ask questions. That is why I highly recommend making foods from super scratch. Know your farmers, make jokes with them at the markets, call them by their first names. Reach out to your supermarkets, tell them what you want as a consumer, ask them questions about a particular item, be an active shopper.

I am not opposed to non-local food. Things like pepper and spices have long since traveled great distances to get to the plates on which they were consumed. If the bulk of one’s calories are coming from local sources, like your meat, milk, cheeses, and most of your grains and veggies are local, I say don’t sweat some exotic grains like quinoa, or even some fruits and veggies from California. This is a modern world we live in. But knowing where the bulk of your calories come from, well, that I think is priceless. And always always remember, nothing is as simple as it seems.

Every one of these twelve ingredients started out as something in a field somewhere. The mustard grew on a mustard plant; the garlic grew underground, the lemons on a tree. They all took in nutrients from the soil, were rained upon and saw sunlight. They all grew at an actual address. Some person in the world(with a name and a story) harvested it, washed it, packaged it in a crate, shipped it, tied it with twine or bagged it or bottled it and put a label on it to sell. So when I see my salad dressing, I can’t exactly congratulate myself on how easy it was. So many items came from so far away in so many different ways to end up on my plate today.

Yet the moral of the story is that I am able to tell the real story of my vinaigrette at all. Had I picked up a bottle of Wishbone Zesty Italian for example (an old pre-blog favorite), I would surrender my knowledge at the register. Besides my objections to the actual ingredients, it would be impossible for me to find out where the soybeans were grown and how they were processed into soybean oil. It would be hard to know what kind of vinegar they had used. Hell, it’s be hard to even know what are all those red bits floating around in the dressing and can I assume that they are adding flavor, or it is the added ‘natural flavors’ and what factory production line did they come down?? No, the customer service department at that conglomerate food company won’t be able to tell you. They would rather lose your business than tell you the origin of the food you are eating, if they even could.

So again, I urge you, be a skeptic. Ask questions. Eat local. Make friends. Food is love and food is life.

This post is part of Real Food Whole Health's Fresh Bites Fridays and Food Renegade's Fight Back Fridays

1 comment:

  1. I hae this one cookbook for traditional Mexican food that I love and hate at the same time. Half of the ingredients for most of the recipes are actually a recipe for something else earlier in the book. So in order to make the one thing, first you have to make all the components from scratch. I find that this is where the "practical" part starts to play a bigger role. I want to eat whole food, I really really do. But I also only have 30 minutes or so to get dinner on the table most nights. So these kinds of recipes have to be saved for weekends and/or planned for very carefully way in advance. It becomes very intimidating and stressful when you think of the several days worth of labor that must go into one meal. 50 or 100 years ago, most women stayed home for lots of reasons, one of which was that food preparation consumed so much time that a woman could not do much else (besides clean and raise the kids of course, but you get my point right?) Now we all have fulltime jobs and we're trying to fit all this stuff back into the packed schedule. This will require some very serious time management and a big dose of practicality.