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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

Kelp burger. Sounds like something I'd find in Bikini Bottom; a Krabby Patty alternative. But, no, this is not SpongeBob fare. A non-traditional seafood company called Akua is following up on the early success of its Kelp Jerky in 2020 by launching this concoction of farmed kelp (think seaweed), cremini mushrooms, black beans, quinoa, crushed tomatoes, and pea flour.

There's a lot to admire about kelp and kelp farming or harvesting. Akua says that kelp is very environmentally friendly because it sequesters carbon. And kelp provides a lot of "good fats." Moreover, making kelp burgers is a low carbon process in part because it is a "zero-input" food; it just needs sea water and sunlight.

Other than the kelp, this burger seems like the kind of burger alternative you might find at a restaurant with a relatively progressive menu. Which makes this kelp burger approachable to someone like me who is looking to eat from a broader range of protein sources, and who is also interested in experimenting with different flavors. But how fishy is this farmed seaweed? I'm staring at a picture of long, yellow-green, slimy, thick stalks waving in the current. How unfamiliar is kelp's squishiness on the tongue?

The co-founder claims, in a Fast Company profile, that their kelp burger has no fishy taste. But if the main ingredient is seaweed, and most of the environmental and health benefits of the product derive from the kelp, I'm thinking this burger will be an acquired flavor and texture. This doesn't seem like the mild, salty crunch of seaweed in sushi, or the mellowed rubberiness of fried calamari.

Kelp burger and kelp jerky are just two of a growing number of products being offered up as food to address the real threat of accelerating population growth and the challenges this is creating to feed everyone. Out of necessity, we have put ourselves in a position of exploring the fringes of what the majority of us in America have deemed edible.

Out of necessity, 2 billion people around the world have been eating, no, downright enjoying insects forever. We in the U.S. are only starting to nibble at the idea of eating insects. (I explored entomophagy in my first Talk to Me About Food podcast).

Sustainability-minded chefs in this country are promoting nose-to-tail dining to both reduce food waste and to introduce, or reintroduce our finicky palates to the full range of animal cuts and parts that can be made not just palatable, but delicious.

Rotation risotto is a recipe (and a symbol in regenerative agriculture circles) created by Dan Barber, Chef and co-owner of Blue Hill restaurants. It is an idea as much as a recipe. The idea is to approximate a rice-based risotto featuring cover crops; ALL of whatever is in season locally, not just the most precious crop. Instead of rice, this risotto uses grains like millet, barley, and buckwheat; stuff we don't value enough to eat ourselves but that are key to sustainable agriculture. Many are saying we don't have a choice but to reintroduce sustainable practices. In a virtual book club meeting the other day, Michael Pollan, who writes about the socio-cultural impact of food, stated that we've only got 60 harvests worth of soil left if we don't build up soil health and fertility. Sixty years! Out of necessity we will likely need to regularly eat more than wheat, corn, and rice.

Back to the sea. The space occupying 70% of the earth's surface.

"All the fish in the sea" is a poetic metaphor for plenty. Not so much anymore. Not for the prized fishes. You've already heard and read plenty about the plight of the oceans and most of the their inhabitants. And still, beyond the swaying kelp forests, there are many living things swimming the seven seas, or slithering about sea beds that are, and will continue to be served up as new seafood for us to consider.

The jellyfish might be one of them. It's a scourge. A shoreline pest that's multiplying all around the world as climates warm. A few months back I read an article in The Smithsonian about an intriguing effort to make jellyfish appetizing. The starting point is the preparation of the jellyfish. Chef Jozef Youssef, at Kitchen Theory in London, removes the tentacles, then cures, seasons, and cuts the jellyfish "fillet" into strips. The resulting, unique combination of crunchiness and springy chewiness is what makes this jellyfish "meat" stand out. There's more to the experience. While you chomp on it you listen to a soundscape - underwater bubbles, waves breaking, and crunching layered over dreamy synthesizer chords - while observing images of fish projected on your table. All to seduce the diner into relinquishing squeamishness.

Another thing that there's too much of is the sea urchin. Like the jellyfish, this spiny, spiky creature can also do damage, if you step on one. But more than that, it apparently mows down kelp, so you get a double whammy by harvesting sea urchins in order to harvest the seaweed. The most familiar use of sea urchin is as "uni" in sushi. I think we'll have to find other ways to prepare the sea urchin to make it a steady, tasty source of protein in our diet.

We don't love seafood - not the wide variety of possible food in the oceans anyway - the way other peoples do. If we must have our salmon, cod, tuna, shrimp, and clams, but their stocks continue to be depleted, we may at some point in the future be able to turn to seafood cultivated from cell cultures taken from these fishes. There are a handful of companies working on this right now. Finless Foods is trying to create bluefin tuna in the lab. Wild Type is attempting to do the same with salmon. This is not the stuff of science fiction anymore, but these well-funded start-ups haven't unlocked all the secrets of life yet. In the meantime, you can start adjusting your palate to plant-based seafood alternatives, like smoked salmon made from algae or carrots, or tuna derived from a special tomato species. There are quite a few companies working this space with real products on the market.

Or, you can start experimenting with what's on the fringes of what's socially desirable to eat today. Maybe a kelp burger with a side of fried jellyfish tentacles and fried urchin rings. Or, wash down a fistful of kelp jerky with a Mountain Dew to drown the fishiness.

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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

There are four unopened bags of white flour taking up space on a shelf in our compact pantry. They've been there since March when we, like many Americans, stockpiled non-perishable household essentials. We made lots of pizza in the spring and early summer, so we used up the case of tomato sauce, but we kept finding fresh-made pizza dough and shredded cheese in the store so we didn't need to break into the all-purpose flour. Worse hasn't yet come to worst. Bread has been also readily available, along with all of our food provisions. We thought we would get into baking, that it would be a fun family activity or distraction during the lock-down, but we haven't the way many others have.

Numbers released this week from IRI, a company that tracks sales of packaged goods, show that we keep buying baking ingredients at a faster clip than last year. Not the +99% from early Spring, but still impressive growth given that per capita flour consumption has been declining for a very long time.

We're buying more stuff to bake with despite the "pandemic fatigue" assigned, among other things, to the time and effort making meals at home, day after day, with no definitive word on when we will be able to eat out without restrictions. I suppose baking is different from pulling together a meal. The rewards of baking sweets are always fresh and maybe more encompassing than what you get out of, say, making an Instant Pot meal. Baking bread is maybe different still from baking treats. I got a taste of that this week too.

There is now half a bag of fresh bread flour in the pantry, sitting on top of the other flour. We made several loaves of ciabatta this week. The motivation was neither need nor boredom. It was inspiration and curiosity. I discovered the Bread Lab while researching regenerative agriculture (the topic of an upcoming Talk to Me About Food podcast episode).

No, the Bread Lab is not a how-to blog, or a purveyor of bread-making stuff, or a space where you can learn how to bake incredible or uncommon bread. It is a real lab at Washington State University: "The Bread Lab is a combination think tank and baking laboratory where scientists, bakers, chefs, farmers, maltsters, brewers, distillers and millers experiment with improved flavor, nutrition and functionality of regional and obscure wheats, barley, other small grains and beans."

What really got my attention is the focus on taste and nutrition. Most of the bread we buy is made with wheat that's been bred for superior yield and packaged for long shelf life. Not surprisingly, taste and the full nutritional potential of wheat have been sacrificed in the industrialization of flour-making. Significantly.

Stephen Jones, the Bread Lab Director, suggests we need not make that sacrifice. What's more, we shouldn't, in any event, be growing the same monoculture wheat on immense farms, regardless of topography and climate, in poor soil bolstered by synthetic fertilizer. By cultivating a variety of wheat breeds, and grains specific to local conditions, the Bread Lab is promoting both a sustainable approach to growing these grains, as well as better tasting, better for you bread.

The other thing I'm learning is that to realize the full potential of a loaf of bread it takes a community of folks who together collaborate on creating the flour you and I buy. The Bread Lab, and others - breeders, millers, and chefs around the country - are reminding us of the true, fuller gift encapsulated in each kernel of wheat. They are resurrecting heirloom breeds, refining some, even concocting new types of wheat that are even more nutritious and make you expand the description of what bread can taste like. The variety of wheat possibilities is eye-popping.

I didn't seek out one of these more exotic flours bred for a specific flavor or texture, or tailored to our regional soil and climate. Using a national brand of bread flour, a well-known brand of yeast, coarse salt, cool water, a mixing bowl, a rubber spatula, and 475 degrees of oven heat for 20 minutes we made as good a loaf of bread as I've purchased from the store. On the first try.

There's more to it. Making bread tickles the senses. The dough sticks to your hands. You watch it rise. Then rise some more towards the top of the bowl. The bread takes shape and color in the oven while its aroma seeps around the oven door's edges. There's also the act of making bread. You're taking part in the simplest of rituals at the core of civilization-making. Fire. Water. Mineral. Fungus (yeast). And an edible kernel of grass co-created with nature's will.

At the end of the day, you can survive on a piece of bread and water.

Apparently, bread can be much more in terms of taste, texture, and nutrition if we, as consumers, invest time and effort that we don't have to if we buy Big Bakery, packaged bread built on high-yield grains. We have to give up the added convenience of a long shelf life too. Then again, after making our first loaves of ciabatta I was wondering what meals would best accompany the bread, not the other way around. The bread disappeared before we had time to even think about preserving it.

I hope the Bread Lab, Blue Hill restaurants in New York (Hudson Valley and Manhattan), Anson Mills in South Carolina, and The Land Institute in Kansas, among others, open more eyes to the possibilities of sustainably-grown grains bred for a much wider range of flavors and textures than most of us can find today (at an affordable price). Imagine craving "plain, simple" bread the way you crave a chocolate chip cookie or a bowl of ice cream.

Imagine a loaf of bread featured at Thanksgiving alongside the best homemade pies and your secret recipe dressing. Bread even more fulfilling than dinner rolls and cornbread. I'll be giving thanks for this most humble food when we break bread this Thanksgiving.

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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

Change Foods is setting up shop in the U.S. with the goal of manufacturing cheese using microbes and a bit of magic. No need for the real deal; cow's milk, goat's milk, or sheep's milk. This news got me thinking about a couple of things.

There's no doubt we love cheese, so it's an interesting space to build a better mousetrap. I mused about this a few weeks ago when I came across the latest dairy consumption data from the USDA which shows that annual per capita consumption of cheese was 38 lbs in 2019, the highest level recorded. Compare this to 14 lbs per person per year in 1975.

The other day I had a long conversation (which is the basis for an upcoming Talk to Me About Food podcast episode) with someone who has been following a strict whole food, plant-based diet for almost three years. I was impressed with how quickly, and relatively smoothly Michelle and her family transitioned from a typical, animal products-based diet. What's also interesting is that their favorite whole food, plant-based dish is a lasagne, the hero of which are soy curls which she insists are almost indistinguishable from dairy cheese. And Michelle lives in Wisconsin, where they know something about cheese...

So, what is Change Foods doing? They say they are using microbial fermentation to create compounds that are "bio-identical" to what's found in dairy cheese. Change Foods sees a big opportunity because plant-based cheese alternatives don't have the stretch and meltability of real dairy cheese. Here's what it says on their web site; "Using bio-engineering innovations to create real animal-free cheese and dairy products that are better for you, with no compromise on taste, function or texture. All lactose free, hormone free and hypoallergenic. Our mission is to deliver sustainable, healthier and more ethical food supplies for the future."

Stressing sustainability and ethical sourcing should crack open the door for some cheese eaters to consider trying this product. But "bio-engineering," which in this case means inserting DNA into a mix of bacteria, yeast, and filamentous fungi, and "microbial fermentation" conjure images of "Frankenfood" for many, and will make it difficult for that door to swing open.

On the other hand, consumers will likely accept this fake real cheese more easily than meat grown in a vat from animal cells. Real cheese is already a manufactured product; a derivative of what's milked from an udder. It doesn't take much to cultivate cheese from milk. No artificial ingredients are needed, or a complicated, convoluted process, but it is one step removed from food as mother nature created it. It takes some tinkering. Growing a steak through a fermentation-like process, from bovine cells adhering to an artificial scaffolding, is more than a step removed from nature's way, which I think will delay mainstream acceptance of clean, or cell-based meat. There is mystery in meiosis, in the development of an embryo in the cow's uterus, and the maturing of a newborn into a calf and steer. Maybe many of us will not want to let go of Mother Nature's still-awe-inspiring process. We will want to continue traditional husbandry and harvesting of animals.

On the other hand, substituting the wonder at how cheese emerges from traditional cheese-making practices with the magic of genetic manipulation of microbes feels like a trade-off some of us will be willing to make to keep eating cheese without degrading the environment any further.

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