by John Moretti
When is a vegetable not vegetable? How about when it comes in a shampoo bottle or test tube and you slurp it down like pudding? Containers of vegetable puree and vegetable juice that are all the rage these days may or may not have very high nutritional values, but when weighed on the “real food” scale, I’d say they score close to zero.
Last night I was watching “Bizarre Foods,” a program that, if you’ve never seen it, usually focuses on curiosities like deep fried tarantulas in Cambodia, bull-testicle soup in Nicaragua and fermented fish guts in Chinatowns all over the country. But last night there was one segment bordering on nauseating, in a program filmed in the Seattle area.
The intrepid host, Andrew Zimmern, was visiting a Bellevue, WA, laboratory that, among other things, enjoys fooling around with food. His guest, Nathan Myhrvold, an ex-Microsoft physics protege who also reckons himself a foodie, decided to take his talents and capital from Intellectual Ventures and proceed to destroy some produce.
One of the laboratory’s goals is to find the “essence” of vegetables and other edibles by spinning them around in a centrifuge. In this particular episode, a chef-turned-technician took a plate of peas and spun it into three layers: a sediment, a paste, and an oil. The paste he squirted onto toast in a very Frenchified fashion, and the oil he and the host gulped out of a glass.
“Wow,” said Zimmern, as he always does when he doesn’t know what else to say. After he collected his thoughts he described a “buttery” taste of peas and every other flavor associated with them, but low and behold, the peas never came. The chef beamed.
Wait a minute. We are applauding a pea taste without peas? What is the point of this exercise, and haven’t we been here before? I hope this is not going where I think it’s going.
Indeed it is. Myhrvold is not an unknown entity in the food world. He has received a lot of attention for his 2,438-page cookbook “Modernist Cuisine” that the marketers hope “is destined to reinvent cooking.” Think centrifuges and blowtorches.
Using such tools as “hydrocolloids, emulsifiers, and enzymes,” Myhrvold and his henchmen can take a piece of lettuce and make it taste like hickory smoke, can give a piece of cheese a wheat ale flavor, and vacuum-press an heirloom tomato into a perfect parallelogram if they want to.
In short, they can take a round apple and make it taste like an orange and shape it into a square. The question is: why? Why not eat the orange itself? Cut it into a cube if you must.
In a roundabout way, this brings us to the issue of these squeezable vegetable purees for kids. They taste like veggies but don’t look or feel like them. It’s a hot topic because apparently they are getting snapped off the shelves by the millions by moms. Are they a sensible replacement for the real thing?
Many doctors and mommy bloggers don’t think so.
Whatever the nutritional value – and in many cases, the substitutes are severely lacking in vitamin content – child nutrition experts argue that the vegetable purees create a vicious cycle. Kids complain they don’t want to eat their vegetables. Mom gives them a fun filled pack of veggies. Mom and kid are happy. The next time the child won’t eat his vegetables, he asks for a puree. Eventually he will eschew vegetables altogether in favor of a juice or paste and will never learn to appreciate the texture or crunch of real food.
No one is arguing that pureed organic carrots for babies are a bad idea, or even that the occasional juice or puree treat is a healthy snack. But let’s not go down the road of hiding the identity of food – that an integral pea is something to be avoided or that a carrot needs to masquerade as a beverage.
There are delicious, healthy ways to eat real, local produce. All you need to do is find the right recipe.
John Moretti writes for designmymeals.com, an online meal planning service that taps into thousands of healthy recipes for farmers market produce, and allows you to see how personalized nutritional values change for each recipe.
To find local food in your area, check Pick-A-Pepper.com!
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