Imagine this: You’re hungry and you have three plates set before you —
Plate number one has a huge, delicious-looking steak from a corn fed beast, a baked potato and a few steamed carrots;
Plate number two has a huge, delicious-looking steak, a baked potato and a few heirloom vegetables, but you know that the steak comes from a grass fed, antibiotic free animal and that the vegetables are all organic;
Plate number three contains a large carrot “steak”, a selection of organic vegetables and a sauce made from secondary cuts of lamb.
Oh yes, and by the way, you must pay for the dinner — and, of course, number two is going to be much more expensive.
Well good for you if you chose the carrot steak. Plate number three, according to writer Dan Barber, not only will taste more delicious but is also the choice that is better for your health and much easier on the earth. And this is the main thesis of his book “The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food“, written as a result of ten year survey of food and farming systems around the world. The widely reviewed bestseller has been compared to Michael Pollan‘s famed “The Omnivore’s Dilemma“, but this book takes us a step further and, according to the Chicago Tribune reviewer, might be termed “The Omnivore’s Dilemma, 2:0”.
Barber uses the metaphor of the “plate” to represent the type of cuisine offered by three different systems of agriculture. As foodies, we all know that the traditional meal of the first plate with its huge cut of meat and few vegetables is both hard on our health and not ecologically sustainable. So most of us have moved, by now, to plate number two, which is what we know as the locavore or the farm to table movement, where the meat is from free range animals and the vegetables are organic and locally sourced. Barber concedes that this produces food that tastes better and is better for the planet but claims that it still is too disruptive of ecological balances The local food movement has not really changed the way we eat, he asserts, and what we need to change is our eating habits. He proposes that the third plate presents us with an integrated system of vegetable, grain and livestock production that is fully supported by what we choose to have for dinner.
To illustrate his points, Barber travels all over the world, examining a southern Spanish “dehesa”, a sustainable agricultural area built up in a region which produces acorns and cork, wool and the famed “jamon iberico” (ham); he investigates a revolutionary aquaculture system in the straits of Gibraltar and a mixed crop farm in upstate New York. And I believe that he could have gone to our own ManoRun Organic Farm near Hamilton which is attempting to create this same ecologically sustainable model. His prime objective is to demonstrate how land, communities, taste and cuisine benefit when ecology informs how we source, cook and eat.
This is not a quick and easy read. The issues are incredibly complex and the web of relationships require a certain amount of critical thought, some lengthy pondering and perhaps even some extra reading from the excellent bibliography that is provided. But the ideas are paradigm shifting and, fortunately, Barber writes well and vividly. The book is filled with fascinating characters, amusing anecdotes and amazing insights. As chef of a Manhattan restaurant called Blue Hills and another restaurant in upstate New York called Blue Hills at Stone Barns, his writing about food and flavour is entirely convincing — which is significant because I, for one, am very dubious about ever preferring the carrot steak to the big, fat meaty one. I am, of course, also not a scientist so I can only accept some of the assumptions that the book is based on — the not-quite-proved belief, for instance, that organic vegetables are more nutritious than vegetables arising from monoculture farming, or even that this sustainable model of farming will ever produce enough food to feed the hungry people of the world. But obviously we are not going in the right direction right now and as people who are concerned with food issues, I think that Barber’s book falls under the heading of “essential text.”
Anyway, if you’re curious about how one ends up with a carrot steak, here’s a recipe for Carrot Cutlets. The recipe was given by Barber to Toronto Star food editor and columnist Jennifer Bain who was experimenting with a third plate menu.
from Chef Dan Barber
6 medium carrots (about 8 inches, 20 cm long and 3/4 inc/2 cm wide), peeled
2 tbsp (30 ml) olive oil
1 tsp (5 ml) each: granulated sugar, kosher salt
generous grind black pepper
1/2 cup (125 ml) each: panko (Japanese breadcrumbs), whole wheat panko or other dried breadcrumbs
1/4 cup (60 ml) white rice flour
2 tsp (10 ml) ground cumin
2 eggs beaten
about 1/2 cup (125 ml) all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (125 ml) vegetable oil
1) Lay 3 large pieces aluminum foil on counter overlapping slightly. Place carrots on top in single layer. Drizzle with oil. Season with sugar, salt and pepper. Wrap tightly; place on baking tray. Roast in preheated 400 F (200 C) oven 1 hour. flip foil package. Roast 1 hour or until carrots are very soft. When cool enough to handle, unwrap carrots.
2) Line baking tray with parchment paper. Lay carrots on tray, leaving some space between each. Top with another piece of parchment paper and another baking tray. Place a heavy weight, such as several cans of food, on top of tray to press down carrots. Let press 10 minutes. If carrots are cooked properly they will press into “cutlets” instead of breaking. (You can make ahead to here if desired and refrigerate until ready to cook.)
3) For coating, create a breading station:
On large plate, stir together panko, rice flour and cumin. Put egg on second large plate. Put all-purpose flour on third large plate.
4)Dredge carrots in flour, turning to coat all over and shaking off any excess. Roll next in egg. Finally, roll in panko mixture until coated on all sides. Place carrots on cutting board until ready to cook.
5) In large frying pan, heat oil over medium. In 2 batches, carefully add carrot cutlets and fry until golden, about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer to paper towel-lined plate to drain.
Barber realizes that “you have to like to cook.” He serves this with a lamb sauce. Recipes for the entire menu can be found at http://www.thestar.com/life/food_wine/2014/07/31/dan_barbers_third_plate_wants_us_to_rethink_our_dinner.html
I admit that I have not cooked this and would love to hear from anyone who attempts it.