Arugula, fig, carrot, shallot-cardamom vinaigrette

Engineering the Perfect Produce

This article originally appeared on Frontdoors.

By Chef Joshua Hebert

Where does your food come from? Unless you buy direct from the source – your local farmer or producer – the answer to that may be hard to trace. Part of the reason is because of the growing use of genetic engineering. More than 85 percent of the nation’s corn and soy come from genetically modified seeds.

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are defined as any living organism that possesses a novel combination of genetic material obtained through the use of modern technology. Sounds tasty, right?

While genetic engineering is used in a variety of applications – everything from medical research to pharmaceutical drugs and modifying mammals – we most commonly associate it with agriculture. This is because it is so widely used in our produce, packaged foods and even meats.

Why? In most cases it’s to create a desirable trait and controlled outcome. For instance, in crops many have been modified to resists pests, herbicides, and harsh environments and increase shelf life.

History of GMOs
Biotechnology was first applied to agriculture in the early 1980’s by Mansanto, the company also behind the herbicide glyphosate (weed killer), Roundup. They developed the modified seeds to actually be resistant to herbicides so Roundup could be applied without potentially killing off the crop. The company later introduced GM seeds that makes its own crystalline insecticidal protein from Bt (Bacillus thuringiensis). How does all this impact our health?

That is the topic at the center of debate and it’s still widely unknown. Some studies have linked GM foods to altered metabolism, inflammation, kidney and liver malfunctions, and fertility problems. Many are also worried that new allergy strains will become more common as genes are transferred between plants.

Most alarming though, is the belief that gluten intolerances may be tied to GM crops. The argument is that our bodies don’t know how to process the super proteins that have been engineered into these seeds that allow them to fight tremendous amounts of poison. Case in point: dent corn. This corn, also known as field corn, is genetically modified and makes up the majority of the nation’s corn crop. It’s inedible and has to be processed before humans can eat it. Yet it’s in nearly everything we eat from packaged foods to meat (most U.S. beef comes from corn-fed cattle).

Many countries, particularly in the EU, have banned certain GM products or require they be labeled, and legislation is currently underway in the U.S. to regulate this. Despite the impending banning or labeling, an increasing amount of genetically enhanced seeds are being planted and there’s even a genetically engineered salmon in the works that grows twice as quickly as its natural counterpart. Currently, GM versions of corn, wheat, soy, cotton, canola, sugar beets, and alfalfa are already being produced.

While the powers that be debate over the health implications of GM products, the choice is up to you. If you want to reduce your exposure, there are few things you can do:

  • Buy local, buy organic – the use of GM seeds is not allowed in certified organic products. Of course there’s no guarantee that crops haven’t been cross-fertilized via nearby GM crops. By shopping local and getting to know your farmer, the risk is reduced or eliminated.
  • Read labels – look for “Non-GMO Project Verified” labels. While this hasn’t hit the masses, a number of brands have adopted the practice.
  • Get technical – there is a smart phone app and websites that list products that avoid GM ingredients.

Bottom line, you are what you eat, so know what you are putting in your body.


The Graceful Orchestration of Japanese Cuisine

This article originally appeared on Frontdoors.

By Chef Joshua Hebert

Umami factor aside, the fresh, top quality, pure simplicity of Japanese cuisine, makes even the most seemingly boring ingredients incredibly exciting. No culture relishes in pure perfection like the Japanese, and in the culinary world they have mastered the delicate balancing act of allowing nature’s perfections and imperfections to guide the cuisine.

They are an attention-to-detail, food-obsessed culture. Everything from their street food, to their execution, raw ingredients, and kaiseki multi-course dining experiences are all top notch.

Japanese staples
The Japanese have long followed a practice that only recently became a popular term in the U.S. – farm-to-table. The only difference is the ingredients coming from their farms are a little different. There are various types of ginger we’ve never had in America, varieties of edible bamboo, sea plants, and exotic, flavorful fish we often cast aside.

Vegetables and seafood have traditionally played major roles in Japanese eating with meat taking a back seat. In fact, for most of its history, it was considered taboo to eat meat in Japan.

Their coastal proximity made for easy access to some of the freshest fish available and they developed a palate for some of the world’s most exotic fish – everything from eels to potentially deadly blowfish. They relish in the oiliest of fish like mackerels and bluefin tuna that we tend to steer clear of. They also utilize every part of the fish from the bones to the skin and guts.

As for seasoning, the Japanese prefer to keep things as close to natural as possible. They do, however, commonly use miso (soybean paste), sho yu (soy sauce), mirin (saki), dashi (broth), konbu (seaweed) and dried bonito (dried fish) to flavor their dishes – all components of umami.

Tradition at the table
Traditionally meals in Japan were served on zen, individual portable tables, chairs weren’t used, and chopsticks were the utensil of choice. While certain traditions have been displaced by modern society, much of it remains today.

With the exception of street food, people take time to enjoy their meals, even if it’s only for 20 minutes. It’s a moment. It’s a place in time. And it’s a sign of their respect for the food.

This respect is also seen in the presentation of the food, which reflects their view of nature and not adding anything artificial to the plate. The way the ingredients are displayed on the dish represents how they might be seen in nature, the season, and even the imperfections of nature, which leads me to the art of kaiseki-ryo¯ri.

Orchestrating kaiseki
Kaiseki is a traditional multi-course Japanese dinner that evolved from the Japanese tea ceremony. It is like a ballet. There is a very precise order to it and it is served bite by bite with each building upon the next.

In a kaiseki meal, the first course might be a raw vegetable, the second a cooked vegetable, the third a raw piece of fish, the fourth cooked fish, the fifth cooked fish with a vegetable, and so on. There is a very deliberate progression through the most delicate flavors to the most extreme, and everything from the dinnerware used to the position of the food on the plate has meaning.

It embraces the notion of wabi-sabi, in which the imperfections of say an heirloom tomato are preferred over a perfectly shaped hothouse tomato that has been genetically altered. It’s all arranged based on how it might look in nature, or how it looks by season. There’s a lot of the thought that goes into it and it’s very gracefully orchestrated.

Next time you plan, prepare or sit down for a meal, why not take an extra few minutes to savor it and think about where, why and how your ingredients came to be. Better yet, if you have the opportunity, take part in a kaiseki dinner.

The Periodic Table Meets the Dining Table

This article originally appeared on Frontdoors.

By Chef Joshua Hebert

We’ve all been there – feeling sluggish, dehydrated, a lack of focus, maybe a bit of anxiety. Sometimes it’s the result of a cold, food poisoning, or a hangover, and sometimes it’s unknown. Regardless of the culprit, it’s never a pleasant experience. But there is trick to remedying this, and I’m not talking menudo or pho. This actually requires a trip back to your sixth grade science class when you learned about the elements of the periodic table.

I never thought I’d be writing about magnesium, but my research on the mineral actually came out of necessity, so I figured why not impart my knowledge. The night before a trip to San Francisco I ate something that gave be a severe case of food poisoning. Not what you want when you’re en route to one of our nation’s food meccas. Holed up in my hotel room with a stomachache, the sweats and exhaustion, I began feverishly researching a possible remedy.

All searches kept leading me back to magnesium.

Magnesium (Mg) is a chemical element and its ions are essential to all living cells. It’s one of the most vital minerals for the human body and is necessary to more than 300 biochemical reactions, including normal muscle and nerve function, steady heart rhythm, a healthy immune system, and regulating blood sugar levels. It even plays a role in energy metabolism and protein synthesis. Have I bored you yet? Try to stick with me.

Though it seems more like a miracle mineral, it’s actually more commonly referred to as “the forgotten mineral.” Magnesium deficiency has been linked to heart disorders, fatigue, insomnia, high blood pressure, anxiety, irregular heartbeat, and eye twitching. Any of those sound familiar?

While differing studies about magnesium intake abound – some say most Americans don’t get enough magnesium, while other studies show we do – we do know the body works extremely hard to keep magnesium levels in the blood at a constant.

Though it may be rare to be truly deficient in the mineral, the body’s magnesium balance can easily be thrown off by way of intestinal viruses, vomiting, dehydration, or in my case food poisoning. Too much coffee, soda, salt, or alcohol, excessive sweating without replenishing the body, and prolonged stress can also lower magnesium levels. Pretty much everything we subject our bodies to on a daily basis.

Symptoms aside, magnesium also regulates calcium, potassium and sodium, which we all know do a body good. For those who care, magnesium is actually really good for your skin too.

So how does this all tie into food? Well there are a number of foods that are tremendous sources of magnesium. Some include, dark green, leafy vegetables like spinach and broccoli, as well as bananas, avocados, almonds, cashews and Brazil nuts, seeds (namely pumpkin and squash seeds), legumes, soy, and whole grains like brown rice and millet. Of course there are a ton of supplement options out there too.

If you’re feeling any of the aforementioned symptoms, you might try turning to Mother Earth to fill your belly and replenish your body.