Eat Beef, Save the Planet? Nicolette Hahn Niman Fights Back | Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street

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Episode 604
February 4, 2022

Eat Beef, Save the Planet? Nicolette Hahn Niman Fights Back

Eat Beef, Save the Planet? Nicolette Hahn Niman Fights Back

Nicolette Hahn Niman was an environmental lawyer and vegetarian. Now, she’s a rancher who believes there’s a case to be made for sustainable meat production. She tells us why she believes the environmental impact and health effects of eating beef have been misunderstood. Plus, Kim Severson shares predictions for what food trends will emerge in the next year, Dan Pashman reviews popcorn kernels, and we learn a recipe for spicy and citrusy fish tacos.

This episode is brought to you by Matter of Fact.

Questions in this episode:

"I belong to a group that sends baked goods to soldiers overseas, and we’ve recently had a question come up: Is it safe to ship cookies or bars with sweetened condensed milk?"

"Restaurant falafel has such a nice crispy exterior and soft interior, but all of my at-home attempts pale in comparison. How can I improve my recipe?"

"I’ve gone to my local grocery store in Texas in search of steak tips and they look at me like they don’t know what I’m talking about. Is there another name for steak tips and if so, what should I ask for at the butcher counter?"

"I have come across a few recipes that call for British pepper and I have no idea what that is. Help!"

Nicolette Hahn Niman credit Mitch Tobias

Christopher Kimball: This is Milk Street Radio from PRX. I'm your host Christopher Kimball. Today Nicolette Hahn Niman author of Defending Beef tells us why she's skeptical of the health risks associated with eating red meat. And also explains how grass-fed cows can actually benefit the environment.

Nicolette Hahn Niman: Grazing actually stimulates and triggers this healthier soil teeming with all different types of microorganisms. Those microorganisms are essential to the whole ecosystem, because they're the ones that sort of mediate what happens with photosynthesis, and with carbon going into the soil and with the plant to getting the nutrients that are contained in the soil. And the microorganisms are more abundant and more diverse, where you have the animal impact.

CK: Also coming up we make chili and citrus marinated fish tacos, and Dan Pashman tells us about the best kernels to use for making popcorn. But first, it's my interview with New York Times food correspondent Kim Severson about her predictions for the hottest food trends of 2022. Kim, welcome back to Milk Street.

Kim Severson: It is always my pleasure, Chris.

CK: I love having you on about future predictions like what's going to happen this year? Not because you're always right. But you're always interesting. So, I thought to start off and don't get mad at me. I want to go back a couple years last couple years. And some of these are your predictions. Some of them are not. But let's just see how good they were. So, mood food, basically CBD foods. I guess that came true.

KS: It did, and more and more people know what the word adaptogen means, although I'm not sure I do. And with CBD and everything. A lot of herbs supplements in drinks now and certainly supplements it. People are taking like vitamins but mood food. It's a winner.

CK: So that was a winner. How about Japan being country of the year in the last couple years does that? I guess that's pretty true.

KS: Well, I think that came from the Olympics were happening. And also, for a minute, you know, I've been in the game for a while here and chefs will get, they'll all run to one country for reasons that we cannot figure out. Spain was a place for a while. (Right) Everybody went to Italy back in the day whenever it was first going to Paris and then Italy and then regions of Italy. So, Japan happened to be I think the year that prediction came out was the that happened to be the year a lot of chefs were heading to Japan plus you had the Olympics and certainly a lot of cooking styles and some ingredients were showing up your Japanese knives were very popular. So, I think that faded. So, it may have been you know, there's fads and trends, right trends have legs and last for a while. fads come and go. I would say Japan, it was a fad.

CK: I feel terrible for Japan.

KS: Now all the other Japanese aficionados will write in.

CK: Here's one that was really hot, but I don't think ever happened, which was bot delivery. I don't think that ever really came to pass.

KS: No, it didn't. And I've gotten a little shy about tech predictions because robots who are flipping your burgers or delivering your food, it still has yet to come to fruition. I think there are still lots of experiments with that. Domino's Pizza has a pizza delivery bot that, you know, they're trying still on some college campuses. But I think I think that one I would say was a miss.

CK: Okay, so now the rest of your list for 2022.

KS: You know, I think the thing to remember that's influencing a lot of the trends is climate change and people who are interested in carbon neutral food and packaging and delivery. I think that social justice concerns are still part of the picture for what people are reaching for. But I think the environment is sort of one of the quiet heartbeats driving trends particularly for those elusive Gen Z eaters who so many food companies are focusing on. But that's why I named mushroom the ingredient of the year in 2022. I think you've got the vegan plant-based piece coming in. There's a lot of money being pumped into the small urban farms that are growing mushrooms in shipping containers or that sort of thing. Mushroom fibers are big. I was at a conference at Glasgow the Cop 26 conference and Stella McCartney was talking about mushroom leather for fashion and we're seeing a lot of compostable mushroom fibers being used for packaging.

CK: So, coffee. You now think we're going to sort of a lower grade of coffee that's got more caffeine.

KS: This is a controversial call, Chris. You know, robusta coffee is always been this cheap copy that they put in Maxwell House cans or in instant coffee. It's heavier caffeine, it's bitter. It's inexpensive. But now, there's an argument that robusta coffee in the hands of roasters who know what to do with that will become popular among those people who have a real affection for particular kinds of coffee. Part of it is because robusta grows better in certain climates. And because climate change is really impacting some of the more delicate mountain regions where you might have coffee grown robusta is going to be able to grow in places where it's getting hotter. Vietnam is one of those places, it's the predominant coffee bean in Vietnam, and sort of sub trend that's coming and driving this are Vietnamese coffee shops, which are popping up in all kinds of new forms. I mean, we people who have either been to Vietnam or who like to eat in Vietnamese restaurants here know the coffee that drips in from the little metal filters called a fin and they get sweetened with sweetened condensed milk. Well, that concept is now getting blown out in the way that bubble tea was or other beverages that we're going to see new kinds of Vietnamese coffee shops that are selling robusta coffee so robusta coffee could be the next thing.

CK: Might I comment from afar that it might have something to do with price?

KS: Well, there's that too, there's always money at the bottom of all these trends, Chris

CK: Tswicy, twalty What does that mean?

KS: Oh my gosh. The way that certain people in the food world like to butcher the English language always hurts me deeply Chris, as you know. But here we go. So last year, you know, you had the kids were serving their charcut, and you had you know, this is started with sammies, and we moved into charcute and eeboo and ci sal for Caesar salads. So that is all very old now we're into new mashups like a Tswicy, twalty which are a combination of salty and spicy or where you have sweet and salty or sweet and heat as flavor profiles that are very popular now. There's a Korean based fried chicken chain that I think opened in Canada now is making its move I think into the US that actually has a sauce flavor called tswicy. It's a little bit like, you know, the spicy honey is a thing you're seeing hot honey. So, I think that's the spice profile coupled with that sweet is getting to be popular.

CK: Last question. Hyper regional. I was in LA in June and went around with Javier Cabral and had lots of tacos and similar food. And in his point was the food trucks in LA serving Mexican food served hyper regional like food that sits in a small area and like Jalisco, or something from Mexico. And I found that to be true. And I found that interesting that a very specific subset of particular cuisine being popular. Does hyper regional, you think become a long-term trend?

KS: Oh, absolutely. And part of it is, I think an awakening on the part of a lot of people that there are other kinds of foods beyond the seven dishes at an Indian restaurant or, you know, the tamales or whatever you might have in a Mexican and that's just America, I think changing with immigration, second and third generation people who are cooking. And also, you know, frankly, the more diverse food media gets we're writing about different kinds of food. Some of the those of us who've been the game for a long time or are constantly learning more and writing about more regional foods, but I also think we're just much more interested in different kinds of food. We're going very hyper regional in the US during the pandemic because no one was going anywhere. And now I think we're really looking outside of our own borders for regional food, hyper regional food.

CK: Well, if we ever see each other again in person,

KS: Can you imagine? I can't wait

CK: I’ll take you out for coffee, coffee. Oh, how about just a big mushroom? We will split a really big mushroom.

KS: Look forward to sharing a mushroom with you, Chris.

CK: Kim, it's been a pleasure. Thank you. As always

KS: Chris. Thanks so much.

CK: That was New York Times food correspondent Kim Severson. Now it's time for my co-host Sara Moulton and I to answer some of your cooking questions. Sara is of course the author of Home Cooking 101 and star of Sara's Weeknight Meals on public television. Sara, I assume once in a while you go through social media, like Instagram. Is there something you've seen on Instagram in the last few weeks that either just incredibly annoys you or you just think it's just amazing and you just love it. Surprising.

Sara Moulton: Well, no, there's nothing surprising about what I follow on Instagram. I follow a lot of my friends in the food industry and try to like every last thing I can because I want to encourage them but what floats my boat? What makes me happy? I'm obsessed with dachshund since I think because when I was a little girl growing up, our next-door neighbor had a dachshund named Arabella, who wasn't even a very nice dachshund but for whatever reason I'm dying to own a dachshund and I think they're adorable. Maybe because they've got short legs and I'm short, Doxy I think it's the Instagram. And I just love it. The dachshund doesn't even have to do any

CK: I was not expecting that answer. I was expecting something about cake decorating or something.

SM: Oh something highfalutin.

CK: Yeah, like French pastry. You tell me you like dachshunds.

SM: No no no well, no, well now I have to turn around now and ask you is there something that I wouldn't expect or what I expect that you follow on Instagram?

CK: I'm just fascinated by the fact their whole channels devoted to planes taking off and landing I mean,

SM: Oh, I wouldn't do that oh god

CK: Strange things. But what I like the best is I like old 50s and 60s music clips from like the Beatles, or oh, you know, Johnny be Good or something. And they have these wonderful clips I've never seen before of these performances, where it's sort of they're laughing or it's a bad take or something. I enjoy the behind-the-scenes music stuff a lot. That's really fun. Oh, okay. Okay, time to take some calls.

SM: Yes. Welcome to Milk Street. Who's calling?

Caller: This is Deb Scheer. How are you?

SM: I'm good. Where are you calling from?

Caller: I'm calling from the ___ Springs, Florida.

SM: How can we help you today?

Caller: I belong to a baking group. And we send baked goods to our soldiers overseas. And one of the questions that's been asked is, is it safe to send baked goods, whether it's baked or you know, one of the unbaked bar cookies that use the sweetened condensed milk because it's very hot overseas right now?

SM: Yes. First of all, how nice that you're doing that? What a lovely thing. As for this question, it makes me a little nervous. Because this is one of those things, it's, you know, you don't want to kill anybody, particularly our troops. So, my question is, if it's not baked into the cookie, my educated guess would be not a good idea. However, every state has an extension service that you can reach out to. And they're the kind of people that you ask these kind of questions. They have the answers, and they can help guide you. But let's see what Chris has to say,

CK: Well, I'm confused. Are these sometimes actually baked goods and sometimes they're not baked?

Caller: Yes.

CK: I would think if they're baked, you're fine. I mean, sweetened condensed milk is so sweet. And so condensed. I’m so quick. I wouldn't have a problem with that

SM: In it, but not is it like a cream layer?

CK: I mean, even if it was a cream layer. If it was baked, I think you'd be okay. If it's not baked. If it's a raw cookie of some kind, I would be a little more concerned about that. Give us an example or two of a recipe with sweetened condensed milk.

Caller: One of them was making magic bars. And that just uses sweetened condensed milk as a layer I believe.

CK: Is it like a lemon bar? There's a layer on top, or is it sandwiched in or what?

Caller: I've never made them personally because I don't like coconuts. But I believe it's an oatmeal base. Right. And then you layer the sweetened condensed milk on it. And then I believe it has coconut on it. And some m&ms on it and some nuts, right.

CK: Yeah, I don't know. You know what I would call, I never say this, but I would just call Bordens or whoever makes it and ask. Yeah, they don't want a lawsuit. Yeah. And they also have people actually answer these.

SM: Yeah, that's a great idea.

CK: You don't want to be wrong. Yeah. Anyway, Deb, you're a great true spirit. Thank you for doing that.

SM: Yes, absolutely.

Caller: Oh I've loved doing it. Absolutely. Love it. It's a great organization. And I love to bake. So

CK: Good for you. Yeah. Giving’s better than receiving

Caller: Can’t eat it all can you?

SM: No, no,

CK: We may try.

SM: Yeah.

CK: I do my best. Yeah. Thanks for calling.

Caller: Thank you very much.

SM: Yes. Ok bye bye

CK: You know, it's really heartening. I mean, the news is so awful these days. Yeah. Once someone call up and they're doing that, yeah. Maybe human civilization will survive.

SM: Yes.

CK: There's a possibility.

SM: Yep.

SM: Okay. This is Milk Street Radio. If you need a hand in the kitchen, give us a call any time. The number is 855-426-9843 one more time 855-426-9843 or email us at questions at Milk Street radio.com. Welcome to Milk Street is calling

Caller: ____. This is Ben from Barron, Wisconsin.

CK: How can we help you?

Caller: I've been on a bit of a culinary journey through the Middle East for the last five years or so. And I've been making falafel for a while now. And the issue I keep running into is that restaurant falafels got this beautiful, brown, crisp, crunchy coating and a fluffy interior. When I make it at home, it comes out as a rather dog poop colored nugget that doesn't exactly resemble what you get in the restaurant. I've tried playing with multiple things, what could be going differently than from how they do it in the restaurant world?

CK: Are you starting with canned chickpeas, cooked chickpeas?

Caller: I do dry chickpeas, soak them overnight with plenty of water and a little bit of baking powder in them

CK: And then drain him and grind him.

Caller: Yes.

CK: Well, that's exactly the right answer. You're frying this at what temperature?

Caller: 325 According to the oil thermometer that I have.

CK: That's also sounds right. How large are they?

Caller: Usually I make him at about two inches or so in diameter. And I'll kind of make them in the paddy form. So probably about an inch thick.

CK: You're feeling that the outside is too dark and not crispy enough? Is that the problem?

Caller: Yes, the interior is so nice and marshmallowy. It's just the outside that I've got the problem with.

CK: The only thing I could think of is, you might try lowering the temperature a little bit and cooking it longer to get a crispier exterior. But I don't know, Sara, what do you think?

SM: You know, even at Admony she has several restaurants in New York City. Her recipe actually cooks them at a higher temperature at 375. And she also grinds up some onion with it too. And some spices inside. Maybe you know something you might want to do to make sure it's not wet, is drain it in a colander a bit to press out any extra water. And then she shaped them into balls. You said you shave them into patties? I wonder if that makes any difference? I don't really think it should. But all I know is she cooks them at a higher temperature. And since it's not working at 325 Maybe you want to try that.

Caller: Excellent. I'll take a look at a recipe. Yep, thank you guys so much.

CK: Thanks for calling in. I think the higher temperature now Sara mentions is probably something worth testing and also I'd try making balls instead of patties. Yeah, might also help

SM: I think so too Ben let me just say please try it out and let us know how it goes.

Caller: Oh, absolutely. One other thought I was having is I know some recipes I see you want the chickpeas dry you want to dry or mixture some of them say add water to get the right consistency. Do you think that would have any impact?

CK: Yes, I think the moisture content would make a big difference in terms of what kind of coating you get, etc.

Caller: Well, I'll tell you guys what I'll be your guinea pig. I'll just do everything exactly the same in a controlled environment. And I'll just test the different amounts of water using the higher heat and I'll report back to you guys and let you know what I find. That's a

CK: That's a deal. Thank you. Take care.

SM: Thank you. Okay, bye bye.

Caller: Thank you guys so much. Bye.

CK: You're listening to Milk Street Radio up next we're chatting with Nicolette Han Niman about her book Defending Beef, the ecological and nutritional case for meat. That's right up after the break. This is Milk Street Radio. I'm your host Christopher Kimball. Right now, it's my interview with Nicolette Han Nyman. Her book Defending Beef offers a revisionist look at the beef industry from environmental impact all the way through to biodiversity. Nicolette welcome to Milk Street

Nicolette Han Niman: Thank you. Pleasure to be here.

CK: We should start with a Caveat emptor, you were a vegetarian for over three decades.

NN: That's correct.

CK: You are now are a defender of beef. (Yes) I think you're also married to Bill Niman (Correct). Nyman ranch. So, we should just get out of the way and say that there is a, you know, a personal interest in this topic. But let's summarize your point of view, you say nothing about livestock is inherently damaging to the environment. (Correct) The problem lies instead with today's methods of raising them. So, in short, what does that mean?

NN: Well, there was a pretty radical transformation in the way animals had been raised for food in the industrialized world, you know, in the United States and other countries like Canada and parts of Europe and so forth that started probably mid 20th century, and essentially, it was taking animals, you know, who had been historically fairly, widely dispersed, you know, not concentrated not in large populations, and basically raised outdoors, you know, with plants and all different types of animals together. And that shifted, starting around 1950, it began really happening first in the poultry industry, and then in the pork industry. And it basically brought the animals indoors. And like everything else in farming, it started getting bigger and more specialized. So, you know, what would have been historically diverse mixed farm became a pig farm, you know, and it was with the animals indoors, and in very large populations. So, it really shifted. And I would call that kind of the industrialization of farming and specifically of animal farming, and it had pretty radical implications, both environmentally, and for the quality of the food and for the animals, of course.

CK: So, red meat has been given very bad marks by environmentalists. And you mentioned, this started or in part by United Nations report, entitled Livestock’s Long Shadow that claimed that meat was causing 80% of human caused greenhouse gases. I gather that report was flawed in some way.

NN: Well, I would say that there are many things wrong with it. I mean, for one thing that the figure is, is out of date, it was updated a few years later to lower to about 14.5%. But almost half of the figure that that report created, saying, you know, this much comes from the livestock industry of the world was actually due to land use changes that were taking place in the developing world. So, countries like Brazil and Sudan, where they were clearing large areas of rainforest in forested areas in order to do farming operations. And that was attributed to animal production. So, when you're looking at a place like the United States, where, you know, we're not deforesting, we're not importing very much beef at all, from those parts of the world, it's a really tough argument to say that American beef is in any way connected to that activity. So that's my objection to that figure.

CK: What about their two other complaints or accusations? One is, meat is relatively inefficient, given the amount of resources required to bring us steer to whatever 1200 pounds, two years old, and that there are more efficient ways of providing protein for people, you seem to say almost the opposite that meat is such a highly concentrated protein actually, it's pretty efficient. So where do you stand on that argument?

NN: Yeah, that's a very important question. Because when you look at the Earth's land surface, almost half of it is non farmable land. And the vast majority of the grazing animals in the world are on those areas. So, when you talk about their efficiencies, that has to be understood right from the start, and what the grazing animals are doing, and cattle in particular are really good at this is they're taking very low-quality cellulosic vegetation, that cannot feed humans. And in fact, it can feed very few types of animals. But they can convert the essentially grass and other very low-quality vegetation that occurs naturally into meat and milk.

CK: In this country, however, that formula doesn't really apply, right? Because of the current nature of how we raise beef?

NN: Well, again, you have to get specific and look at that particular operation. So yes, I mean, all cattle like all mother, cows, and bulls and calves are pretty much on that situation I just described. They're on a grassy type surface a pasture or range land. And then unfortunately, that it's the dominant model in the United States now that most cattle that are raised for meat, so that'll be like the steers and the heifers that are slaughtered for meat. They will then go to a feedlot. And they're they're in a concentrated environment physically and they're fed a concentrated feed. And that's where we get into I think the more legitimate complaints about beef. And in terms of resource usage and environmental impacts.

CK: You also said, this is interesting. You said that some studies have found that eating processed meat, bacon, Baloney, whatever, was associated with a slightly higher risk of heart disease and diabetes, but there was no increased risk from eating unprocessed red meats.

NN: That's right. And, and that's something that that study was done by Harvard School of Public Health, actually. And that was a very important study, because almost every study that's been done about meat and health, they simply clump every type of meat together. So if you're eating a piece of grass fed steak that you've just prepared yourself, that would be exactly the same as a piece of bologna, according to these studies, you know, and so, basically, what that one study did, and there have been a few others that have done this, too, but that one was a pretty important study is it went through all of the studies have been done on meat and health, and it took out every study that did not make a distinction between fresh meat and processed meat. And when they did that, they found there was absolutely no evidence of any negative health effects from the fresh meat.

CK: So, if beef is raised properly, is it a question of, of no environmental impact, or simply mitigating environmental impact?

NN: It starts from the soil biology, grazing actually stimulates and triggers this healthier soil teeming with all different types of microorganisms, those microorganisms are essential to the whole ecosystem, because they're the ones that sort of mediate what happens with photosynthesis, and with carbon going into the soil, and with the plant to getting the nutrients that are contained in the soil. And the microorganisms are more abundant and more diverse, where you have the animal impact. And it's both in these, you know, sort of open grassy areas I was talking about. And also in mixed farming systems, you really want to have the animals to have the ecologically healthy system, when you don't have the animals, the systems not as healthy.

CK: Let's assume you had really, a plus organic farming processes, we are turning under crops and you're building the soil. Can't you build the soil without grazing animals?

NN: Well, I've had that conversation with a number of different people. And basically, the answer I've gotten is no, you cannot, because these are sort of unique biological processes. These are unique impacts that animals have, that don't don't occur if you don't have the animals. In nature there's always this complexity, you have animals, and you have plants, and you have fungi. And they work together all the time. So, they provide a unique value to a farming system and to an ecosystem that does not exist if you don't have them.

CK: What about cost? Some people would say they just can't afford to go out and buy this premium meat that's been raised so well and treated so well on all grass fed. This is a rich person's game, right? I mean, you have to have a lot of household income to go afford the good stuff. And everyone else has to buy the factory farm meat. Well, how do you how do you deal with people with that objection?

NN: Well, there certainly are people who legitimately and genuinely are, you know, on a very limited budget, and every dollar every penny matters in terms of food. But part of it is a shift in mindset. We spend a lot less per capita on food here in the United States than almost anywhere else in the world. In fact, in the United States in 1950, we spent about 31% of our per capita income annually on food. And that's gone way down to below 10%.

CK: Now 6% now,

NN: Yeah, so it's just so low, that part of it is just expectation about what meat should cost?

CK: What about this idea of that book in the 70s? Animal Liberation, you probably know, this idea of raising beef for animals well. I mean, you talk about giving them a good life. People at the other end of the spectrum would say Yeah, but you know, it's short. So, talk about how you feel about animal husbandry and, and treating animals well, even though they're being grown for meat.

NN: This is something obviously I've thought about a lot on a personal level, because it was probably the main reason I became a vegetarian. I had sort of bought into this idea, you know, when I first stopped eating meat, that it was not the healthiest kind of food. And I also just was sort of bothered by the idea of taking the life of an animal when I thought, well, it's not really necessary. And of course, when I first began dating, you know, Bill Niman and the founder of the Diamond Ranch meat company, and a cattle rancher himself. Some of my friends were surprised because I was a vegetarian. But it was something that I already was kind of convinced you know, if you do it well If you raise animals well you provide them a good life, and you're attentive to how they're slaughtered, then you're doing something that is ethically appropriate. And when I look at nature and how it works, everything is connected, and everything is related. And there's a huge cycle that happens, where animals are eating other animals all the time, and plants are eating animals, you know, through the process of nutrient cycling, and, you know, becoming part of the soil and then being consumed by the plant. And so it just didn't make any sense to me to say, well, but humans aren't part of that cycle. And it's wrong for a human to kill an animal for food, even though you know, it happens everywhere in nature. And I realized for myself, I was comfortable eating meat that was well raised. And I think that we have a lot of work to do as humans in terms of how we raise animals. But there's so much nourishment in meat and the foods from animals and there are so many ecological benefits to having animals’ part of our food system, that I think the challenge is not to move away from eating meat, I think it's to doing it better.

CK: Nicolette thank you so much for being on Milk Street.

NN: Thank you.

CK That was author Nicolette Han Niman, her book is Defending Beef the Ecological and Nutritional Case for Meat. In the book Pig Tales by Barry Estabrook. He takes us inside the modern world of American pig farming, a place perhaps recognizable from Dante's Inferno. In many large-scale operations animals are treated like meat, not mammals, and pigs, let it be known are smarter than dogs have the cognitive skills of a three-year-old and some can even operate a modified computer. He also introduces us to a Danish farmer who treats pigs with respect, and then he sells pork at a competitive price. Raising animals for meat is not just a matter of dollars, it's also a matter of sense. You know, many argue that raising animals for meat is inherently immoral, a very powerful argument. In the meantime, however, our obligation to the animals that we do raise for food is a very heavy burden. So, if pigs can operate computers, perhaps they deserve even a short life worth living. You're listening to Milk Street radio, it's time to chat with JM Hirsch about this week's recipe chili and citrus marinated fish tacos. J.M, how are you?

J.M. Hirsch: I'm doing great

CK: Fish tacos have been around. And I think of them as being fairly plain and simple. Maybe with a citrus, you know, marinade or dressing or something. But you discovered when you were Mexico, Mexico City, that actually these can be complex and really interesting.

J.M. I mean, That's putting it mildly. I got to tell you these fish tacos just completely blew me away. I was working with two home cooks actually, Jorge Fitz and Beto Estua. And they just flipped my whole notion of a fish taco on its head. And it all started with kind of, I’ve got to say, the cooking method. I mean, I'm used to kind of a baked fish that you know, you season it, you throw it in the oven, you bake it off, and then you throw it into a tortilla and first themselves on and call it good. But they actually made a really complex, a really citrusy and herbal sauce that kind of marinates the fish very briefly, but then the fish cooks in it and the sauce reduces down coating the fish in just this amazing explosion of flavors. And then they make a kind of like a salsa on it that is fruit based in many ways. And it's a caramelized pineapple and onion and celery and carrot sauce that they put on top. I mean, it's just so much going on. That's what I love about Mexican cooking, is that there is so much going on. It's not just a fish taco by any means.

CK: So just when I thought I knew something about fish tacos, it turns out I didn't know anything, right?

J.M. Well, you know, I mean, there can be as simple fish taco, but this is anything but and they don't need to be simple. They can be real explosions of flavor and texture. And I just okay, I've never been excited by a fish taco before. These fish tacos excited me.

CK: So, this recipe like so many Mexican recipes, probably started in a blender, right?

J.M. Yeah, exactly. So, you know, they toast up some guy, Hilo chilies and then they throw those into a blender along with some onion and having Yarrow, some orange juice, some lime juice, some garlic, oregano, cumin little salt and pepper. And then they puree that until it's nice and smooth. Then that goes on top of the fish. Now they used red snapper, but we found that you could use any number of white fish and you let that sit for a little bit and then you throw that whole thing in a skillet. And it just comes together so beautifully and so well-seasoned. Now meanwhile, you're going to make your topping. And they start with pineapple, which they throw into a skillet. And they brown it, I mean, they're actually caramelizing, the sugars in the pineapple. So, this and I'll use the term loosely this salsa that's going on top of it, it becomes so rich and sweet and deep in flavor. And then they add to that onion and carrot and celery and some more habanero. And the result is just like a powerhouse of flavor, that this goes on to your fish after it's cooked and stuffed into a tortilla. And the result is really just amazingly good.

CK: So, you can cook the fish in a skillet, or you could boil it, I assume, or bake it

J.M: Yeah, yeah. You know, when I had it in Mexico City, they did it in a skillet. And it came together really fast, we found we could do it a little bit easier and with less mess, frankly, by just popping it under the broiler. And you don't lose anything in terms of flavor.

CK: So just as a takeaway, is there something you learned? Was there a cooking lesson from this that really struck you?

J.M: Yeah, you know, I kept seeing this over and over in Mexico City, our notion of salsa, and again, I'm using that term really loosely. But our notion of salsa is so limited, you know, we think of maybe tomatoes, onions, garlic, and some chilies. Or maybe we think of a salsa verde with some tomatillos. But in Mexico City, boy, anything goes and this one, for example, you know, they're using caramelized pineapple. I mean, I immediately want that no matter what it's being put on, or what else is going to accompany it. I mean, they just have such a more creative approach to how they season and how they top their dishes. And it adds and lends so much to the dish. You know, we had charred salsas that were you know, the onions and the garlic and the chilies. were put in a dry skillet of a really high heat actually, until almost crumbling apart they were so charred, but that's because it becomes a wonderful flavor. And in this case, it was caramelized fruit caramelized pineapple, that adds just so much and then they add orange juice and lime juice. I mean talk about big, bright, wonderful flavors. That just it was a lesson I saw over and over again. It made me really rethink how we approach salsa.

CK: You know, it's too bad. There wasn't a TV show about Julia Child in Mexico City. I would love to see the French because it's so different. One isn't necessarily better, but it's just a totally different take. Chile and citrus marinated fish tacos. Thank you so much.

J.M: Thank you. You can get this recipe for chili and citrus marinated fish tacos at Milk Street Radio.com.

CK: This is Milk Street Radio coming up Dan Pashman tells us which kernels make the very best popcorn, we'll be right back. I'm Christopher Kimball, you're listening to Milk Street radio. Right now. Sara Moulton and I will be answering a few more of your cooking questions.

SM: Welcome to Milk Street, who's calling?

Caller: Hi, I'm Jennifer from Houston, Texas.

SM: Hi, Jennifer, how can we help you?

Caller: I have a question about steak tips. Steak tips are kind of popular on the east coast. But I'm down here in Texas and I've gone to my local grocery store and asked for steak tips, and they look at me like I don't know what I'm talking about. I did a little research and what I found is is also maybe named flap meat.

SM: Yes, it comes from the bottom sirloin. It's a kind of meat that's pretty cheap. It's got a thick grain. You can almost pull the grain apart. It's almost like there's holes between each strip of grain, and it's got great depth of flavor. It's got a wonderful chewy texture but like other meats with grain like flank steak or skirt steak, you must cut it very thinly and across the grain. And it's best not to overcook it will dry out like crazy. So, you want to go with medium rare, rare.

Caller: Okay

CK: Yes, Sara I’ve found the same thing. Steak tips can come from anywhere on the animal. Just look at the grain. And if you see, as Sara said, a very coarse grain. That steak tip and great

SM: It's really yummy. And it's really cheap.

Caller: I asked for flat meat and they didn't have it. They didn't know what I was talking about when I asked flat meat. The Butcher pointed me to something called beef inside skirt steak. And it fit the description of like the coarse grain on it, but they were like, kind of flat pieces of meat stacked up on each other.

CK: Skirt steak’s great

SM: Yeah, but it's not the same thing.

CK: We should say one other thing about butchers in supermarkets though. There are some great butchers out there. But in supermarkets, it's a little hit or miss sometimes the great but yeah, so if they say they don't know what flat meat is, that doesn't mean right. Yeah. Yeah, so skirt steak would be great.

SM: Skirt steak would but it's much more expensive

CK: and it's thinner.

Caller: Anyway. Okay. And then I would just cut that up into like one-inch cubes.

CK: Well, the skirt steak should be pretty thin.

SM: Well, she's trying to make it tip like she's saying,

CK: Well, you could get a top sirloin roast and cut it up. I guess

Caller: And just cut it. Yeah, it's good. So top sirloin roast, and I can cut it into a one-inch chunks. Is that about the size?

CK: I would definitely marinate it with something salty. You know, it's the salt that's going to help out and so let that sit at room temperature for a while.

Caller: Like soy sauce.

CK: Yeah, soy sauce is full of salt. So, a couple hours with a marinade would really help out a lot and then dry it off before you cook it.

Caller: Right. Well, thank you.

CK: Thanks.

SM: Thank you.

Caller: It's great talking to you.

SM: Take care. Bye.

CK: Bye. This is Milk Street Radio. If you're stuck in a cooking rut, give us a call anytime. Our number is 855 -426—9843 one more time 855-426-9843. Or simply email us at questions at Milk Street Radio.com. Welcome to Milk Street who's calling?

Caller: This is Jill Wetzel.

CK: How can we help you?

Caller: Well, first of all, I have a couple of things. One is I'm a good cook, and a pretty adventurous cook. But I will tell you Milk Street magazine has made me a better cook and a more adventurous cook.

CK: Well, thank you. Me too by the way. I'm also a better cook. Yeah, thank you very much.

Caller: My question is, I have a couple of things that call for British pepper. I'm thinking is that sweet bell pepper like English peas or sweet peas. I have no idea what British pepper is.

CK: I think British pepper is just a name brand. And they produce you know, spice blends and stuff. It's not a form of pepper. In the UK, a bell peppers a bell pepper. I think British pepper is referring to a specific brand of spice blends

SM: sort of like McCormick's or something

CK: Yeah. It would be like Laurie seasoning salt or something. It's not a genus of pepper, as far as I know.

Caller: Oh okay. Well, I was trying to figure it out. Because the the spice that it was in was a sweet spice. And then it had a list of ingredients and it said British pepper. And then I was looking at a recipe and these are from Israel, looking at another list and it called for British pepper in the recipe, and I thought what is British pepper

CK: I wonder if they just have a basic pepper blend, they call British pepper

SM: Or it is actually just black pepper from the company called British pepper

Caller: And so we would just call it McCormick's pepper.

SM: Yeah,

CK: or pepper

SM: Or pepper. Black pepper

CK: Just get rid of British it’s just pepper. Oh, by the way, how much are they adding like a quarter teaspoon or teaspoons or what?

Caller: it was not much. Yeah,

CK: I bet you that. I bet it's just black pepper.

SM: Just black pepper. Yeah, we agree.

CK: Actually, that I've just never really thought about that. But that's a good question.

SM: Yes.

Caller: Well, if you ever find out differently, you can say oh, remember that British pepper.

CK: Yes. Thank you so much for calling in for your support as well. Thank you.

SM: Yes

Caller: Thank you guys.

CK: This is Milk Street radio. Next up its regular contributor, Dan Pashman. Hey, Dan, what's up?

Dan Pashman: Well, Chris, I've been thinking a lot lately about popcorn. One of my favorite snack foods. Do you like popcorn?

CK: I like popcorn.

DP: How do you like your popcorn? I bet you have some really annoying way of making your homemade popcorn or you probably like brine the kernels in unicorn tears or something?

CK: Is that what you really think of me, now I know. No, I make it into like a two quart you know with some oil and okay, the usual I just made some last week.

DP: And what type of kernels do you use?

CK: Uh, my wife buys them. It's probably some expensive gourmet, you know, picked at the solar eclipse or something.

DP: Because this is something that I feel like popcorn lovers should be given more thought to, which is that there are actually different types of kernels that produce different shapes of popcorn. Did you know about this?

CK: No, this is this is a whole new world.

DP: So, there's two that are the predominant varieties, generally called butterfly kernels and mushroom kernels, the butterfly kernels they’re are a little bit sort of oblong with kind of a skirt with pointy bits that juts out. This is like movie theater popcorn. And the thing that that has going for it is that it got a lot of surface area. So, it picks up a lot of the salt and whatever else seasoning is going to put on it. Then there's the mushroom kernels, and those are the round ones. They look almost like little miniature Death Stars, you know. And those have those like very kind of like small grooves and channels on them. They're especially good for like caramel corn or any kind of coated popcorn where you want the coating to stick but you don't want too much of it.

CK: So this is like pasta, then you're talking about shapes that attract certain kinds of coatings,

DP: Geometry and engineering are big focuses in mind. It's true. Yes. So yeah, no, you're right. Certainly, there's a similarity here. And popcorn being one of my favorite snack foods, I like to pick out each kernel and really look at it and observe the differences and crunch down on them. But lately, I've been experimenting because there are other kernel shapes out there. Besides the butterfly and the mushroom. In particular, there's a variety of a bunch of different smaller ones. Smaller kernels are a totally different eating experience, you get more in a handful, they tend to be crisper, and some of them are even bred to not have holes, they don't have those kind of dark brown plasticky bits that get stuck in your teeth.

CK: So, could I just stop you

DP: Please

CK: Have you been unhappy or dissatisfied with your popcorn consumption experience over the years, I mean, something is driven you to this research. Right?

DP: You know when I did my pasta research, I was driven somewhat by an unhappiness with the shapes out there. In this case, I love popcorn, but I just feel like

CK: there was more, there was more

DP: I'm always in pursuit of higher planes of existence, Chris.

CK: Okay, so the little, tiny ones, right.

DP: So, these smaller kernels that a lot of artisanal popcorn places sell. First of all, the fact that it has no holes. I mean, in my high school yearbook, my pet peeve was getting popcorn stuck in my teeth. So, the idea that there's popcorn out there that doesn't have the bits that get stuck in your teeth is revolutionary. But then the higher surface area in relation to volume that the smaller kernels kind of get you the best of the mushroom and the butterfly because they're a little bit jagged so they have those crunchy bits of surface, but they're also a little bit rounded. And so, they kind of have the right amount of coating and then the right amount of crunch. It's very interesting experience

CK: Now I'm confused. I would think the part that gets stuck in your teeth is the outer hull of the corn. How do they breed popcorn so that you don't get that outer hull?

DP: That I don't know,

CK: That's really interesting

DP: I don't know how they do it. But there's I ordered some of this popcorn from a place called Boulder popcorn in Boulder, Colorado, this small shop, and they have popcorn without hulls on it really. And they have all different kinds of flavors. They have different color popcorns made from different kinds of corn. You know, I usually my point is here, you know, if you learned about like celery there, you know, there used to be like 100 varieties of celery. And then as our food system got industrialized, we ended up with one and the supermarket's same as bananas. There's a lot of different varieties of bananas. But we're the only one in the supermarket. And it saddens me to learn that we essentially do the same thing with popcorn. But there are these artisanal shops that are bringing back flavors, colors, shapes, varieties of popcorn, and I just want to say let's have more of that.

CK: So, Thomas Jefferson in 1820 was sitting around eating all of these non-hull popcorns in different colors. And now we're reduced to butterfly and mushroom shapes

DP: Yes, you know, it's like the cave parable. Now we're going to come out of the cave and eat all the other kinds of popcorn and look back into the cave and say, how could we ever live like that?

CK: So okay, so you’ve got me interested now. I'm actually interested in this. So, after all of your research, was there a particular style or genus of popcorn you really liked the most?

DP: Well, the ones that were nontraditional colors and flavors, I like those for a change of pace. They did have maybe a little bit more of a grainy flavor some were a little more sweet. But really, when push comes to shove, I like the ones that are closer to the traditional flavors, a yellow creamy flavored popcorn, but just the different shapes and then it's the seasonings and how they interact with the shapes where I like to play and experiment.

CK: So, was there one like, beyond caramel that you really liked?

DP: So, things that I'd like to put on popcorn, like brewer’s yeast is good on popcorn. Somebody said I just want oil and salt. I've never made homemade like caramel corn or anything like that. I've tried Parmesan cheese in there. That's very yummy. One of the other areas that I experiment with a lot is the actual delivery system. How are you going to get the popcorn in your mouth? I don't like getting oil on my hands. So sometimes I'll eat popcorn with chopsticks.

CK: Dan Pashman does not eat his popcorn with a knife and fork, right?

DP: Oh, no, I put on a tuxedo just like you taught me, Chris.

CK: It’s like I do every night. Yes, I

DP: Yes, I just, you know what you wear to bed. That's what I wear when I'm going to have my popcorn feast. And it's delectable.

CK: Well, okay, so Are any of these varieties available in supermarkets? Or are these are all special order, I assume.

DP: The ones that I got I ordered online, but I think that smaller kernel popcorn is due for like an artisanal Renaissance, I can see some sort of like, crafty movie theaters wanting to have different kinds of popcorn. And, you know, popcorn has been around for 10s of 1000s of years. It's a food with a lot of history and a lot of variety and culture. And I just think we want to diversify our popcorn experience.

CK: Well, you've invented a new type of pasta. I just hear it coming six months from now. The sportful Lilliputian tiny pop that makes a difference.

DP: Well, let me know if you want to invest, Chris.

CK: Dan, thank you so much. A fresh look at old popcorns. Thank you

DP: Thanks, Chris. Take care.

CK: That was the host of The Sportful podcast Dan Pashman. That's it for this week's show. If you tune into later just want to binge listen every single episode, you can download Milk Street Radio, on Apple podcast, Spotify, wherever you find your podcast. To learn more about Milk Street please go to 177 Milk Street.com. There you can download each week's recipe. Watch the latest season of our television show. Or learn about our magazine latest cookbook Vegetables. You can also find us on Facebook at Christopher Kimball Milk Street on Instagram and Twitter at 177 Milk Street. We'll be back next week with more food stories and thanks as always for listening.

52:06
Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Radio is produced by Milk Street in association with GBH executive producer Melissa Baldino. Senior audio editor Melissa Allison, producer Sarah Clapp and Jason Turesky. Production Assistant, Amelia McGuire, and production help from Debby Paddock. Additional editing by Sidney Lewis audio mixing by Jay Allison at Atlantic Public Media in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. The music by Toubab Krewe. Additional music by George Brandl Egloff. Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Radio is distributed by PRX.

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