Cooks feel drought’s limits

Posted by Christine, July 8, 2015

The NYTimes reports:

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — Andrea Nguyen, who writes cookbooks for a living, knows that making pho in a pressure cooker is not the solution to California’s drought. Still, developing a reasonable version of the Vietnamese noodle soup that can be made in less than an hour, with half the water, matters to her these days.

“We’re all trying to do what we can,” she said. “It’s all about consciousness.”

Across California, home cooks and restaurant chefs are adjusting to a new reality in kitchens where water once flowed freely over sinks full of vegetables, and no one thought twice about firing up a big pot of water for pasta.

The state is in the fourth year of a severe drought, but the reality of living with less water began hitting hard in the spring. For the first time, state officials ordered residents of every city and town to conserve water or face consequences.

Some residents had already taken the punishment into their own hands with drought shaming, using social media to call out people with well-watered lawns or other outward signs of excessive water consumption.

A culinary equivalent has yet to pop up, probably because running a kitchen is not as water-intensive as maintaining a yard or using the bathroom, where a bucket to collect water as the shower heats up has become an accepted part of home décor.

Yet the drought’s impact is being keenly felt in culinary matters, from how Californians cook and clean, to how they shop and even what foods they can find at the market.

“There is no such thing as putting your vegetables in a colander and letting the water drain through it anymore,” said Margo True, the food editor at Sunset magazine and the former executive editor of Saveur.

She and other cooks report that people are steaming more than boiling, and cooking with fewer pots and pans, a practice that she says fits nicely with the current popularity of entire meals that can be prepared on a sheet pan. “It’s marginal,” she said, “but it makes people feel better.”

Food producers have been forced to change, too. Cheese makers who rely on milk from animals used to eating lush grass have had to contend with radically different flavors in the milk. Hodo Soy Beanery, in Oakland, had to find a way to streamline its process for making tofu, a food that takes lots of water to wash and chill.

In fields everywhere, the drought (along with a particularly mild winter and unusually cold spring) has changed the quantity, quality, predictability and price of the state’s best produce.

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Andrea Nguyen in her kitchen in Santa Cruz, Calif. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

The cherry crop was small, and gone in a flash. Strawberries and basil showed up at the market earlier than anyone can seem to recall. The first peaches — whose prices rose 11 percent last week, according to a United States Department of Agriculture market report — arrived two weeks early.

Cooks are bracing for more shortages. About 30 percent less rice will be planted this year, the California Rice Commission reports. Farmers, who in June were handed sharp new limits on water use, have to decide which crops they aren’t going to grow.

Shoppers in other states are starting to feel the effects. Philadelphia Cousins, Julia Child’s niece, can’t seem to find a California avocado in Colorado, where she lives.

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A dead tomato bush in a garden in Monson, Calif., last month. Credit Mark Ralston/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“I think in coming months we’ll start seeing a shortage of a lot more than avocados,” said Ms. Cousins, who works closely with her aunt’s culinary foundation. “It really breaks my heart witnessing this, having grown up in California, which, in my childhood, was lush and fruitful.”

There is an upside: Some produce has become heartbreakingly delicious.

“I have definitely noticed some really exceptional ingredients this year,” said Suzanne Goin, who runs four restaurants in the Los Angeles area, including A.O.C. and Lucques. “The fruit is smaller and there is less of it, but it’s super-tasty and more intense. Of course, it’s also more expensive.”

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Lettuce grows in a hydroponic garden at Plantronics in Santa Cruz, Calif. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

Chefs have changed protocols both in their professional and personal kitchens. “I boiled some beets last night at home, and I poured the water onto my tree,” Ms. Goin said.

At restaurants, cooks defrost food in the walk-in refrigerator instead of in several changes of water. Ice is dumped on plants at the end of the shift rather than melted with hot water. Dishwashers are scraping plates instead of spraying them, and packing dishes more tightly into machines.

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A sign explains why patrons of cafes run by Bon Appétit Management Company may be seeing less beef on the menu.

John Cox, a chef at the Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, became an instant folk hero among chefs on the hunt for water-saving techniques in April, when word spread that he had rigged up an air compressor to blow the food off plates before putting them in the dishwasher. He estimated that he has saved about a thousand gallons a day with the practice.

For diners, the most noticeable difference comes when they sit at a table. New state rules forbid waiters to serve water without asking first. After an initial hello, a waiter at Octavia, in San Francisco, the newest restaurant from the chef Melissa Perello, announced that “due to the shortage, we offer water only upon request.” If she hadn’t, the restaurant could have been fined $500.

In the kitchen, signs remind employees to make sure the faucets are off, and Ms. Perello said price increases and the shorter, earlier seasons have forced her to be more creative.

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Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

Drought-stressed produce cooks differently, said Joyce Goldstein, a Bay Area chef, restaurant consultant and food writer who has cooked with California produce for decades. “It goes dead ripe really fast,” she said. It is softer and tends to lose its texture when cooked too long, a point she made in a recent column on canning she wrote for The San Francisco Chronicle.

Early peaches were so soft that she didn’t cook them at all when she canned some. Instead, she just poured hot brine flavored with ginger, clove and cinnamon over the peaches.

“You really have to be vigilant these days and pay attention to what you have in front of you,” she said.

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Maisie Ganzler, whose company runs the Plantronics cafe. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

The smaller fruit that results from less irrigation can be a challenge for farmers. David Masumoto, whose family produces a boutique crop of organic stone fruit on 80 acres south of Fresno, had a difficult time selling their petite Gold Dust peaches, which they intentionally grew using as little water as possible.

Consumers too often view the drought as something abstract, said Nikiko Masumoto, his daughter. “Here we were trying to do something good by conserving water and still farming with the intention of producing something with exceptional flavor, and no one was buying them,” she said.

She was so frustrated, she started a social media campaign using the hashtag #SmallFruitRevolution to change the minds of shoppers who equate size with quality.

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Ms. Nguyen’s broth is still rich and perfumed, but not quite the same as pho that has simmered gently for hours. Credit Jason Henry for The New York Times

A new mind-set is creeping into cafeterias at several large technology firms in California. Maisie Ganzler, a vice president at Bon Appétit Management Company, which runs more than 650 cafes for art museums, universities and corporations like Google and Plantronics, said its clients are starting to embrace water conservation as part of a larger movement to reduce food waste.

The company is exploring hydroponic gardens run on solar power, and recently created posters for some clients’ cafeterias that compare the amount of water it takes to grow various fruits and vegetables. It is cooking with imperfect vegetables that farmers might otherwise plow under. One client has stopped serving beef on Fridays, a nod to the large amounts of water used to raise grain-fed cattle.

“Controlling your food is a way of feeling powerful in a world we often feel powerless in,” Ms. Ganzler said. “And everyone feels pretty powerless about what’s happening with the drought.”

Not every cook in California believes that radical change in the kitchen is going to help. People want to believe they are doing the right thing, but the impact is a drop in the bucket, said Nicolette Hahn Niman, an environmental lawyer and author whose husband, Bill Niman, pioneered the modern American grass-fed beef industry

Still, she too feels better by conserving. This year she is not planting anything new, just watering her perennials, like kales and her giant cape gooseberry bush.

Cooks who garden debate whether growing one’s own food is a good way to ease the pressure on the water supply that feeds the state’s $46.4 billion agricultural industry, or whether a garden is too expensive and wasteful.

Marcy Smothers, a Sonoma County food personality who hosts the radio show “At the Table With Wolf and Smothers,” had for years celebrated Mother’s Day with a trek to the Kendall-Jackson estate winery to buy 10 new heirloom tomato plants at an annual sale. This year, she abandoned her home tomato patch.

Ms. Smothers nourishes her flower pots with the water she uses to boil artichokes. And she has gone back to using a pasta-cooking method popularized by the author Harold McGee that starts with cold water (about half the amount traditionally used) and requires a lot of stirring.

“I’m Italian, so I eat pasta a couple of times a week,” she said. “We all do what we can do.”

Ms. Nguyen, the Vietnamese cook working on a drought-friendly pho, feels the same way. Traditionally, meat and bones are blanched for the soup, then that water is discarded. More fresh water is used for a three-hour simmer.

To compensate for the intensity of pressure cooking and the truncated cooking time, she has tinkered with the amounts of star anise, ginger, cinnamon and salt, and has added a bit of apple, using fish sauce for fortification after the pho is cooked.

The broth is still rich and perfumed, but not quite the same as pho that has simmered gently for hours. The recipe will be featured in Ms. Nguyen’s fifth book, to be published in early 2017.

“I think it captures the notion of what pho means to people, but it has this extra twist,” she said. “You can feel like maybe eating a bowl of pho is contributing to the greater good.”

Recipe: Pressure Cooker Beef Pho