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BBQ tempeh sandwich + the cost of food


I work in a recently opened fine dining establishment that prioritizes locally and ethically procured food in a somewhat busy, high volume, tourism affected area. The costs are going to be high from the start, from the rent, the taxes, the ingredients, the staff to make it work etc. This isn’t unusual though. Restaurants deal with the juggle of a million costs as a way of life. It’s a whole lot to consider when local and sustainable is thrown into the mix too. Sourcing from the community means snubbing a considerably cheaper big-time food distributor that sells everything from hydroponically grown cherry tomatoes to frozen sea bass to punch-in time clocks. Would you buy vegetables, eggs, fish etc from the same place you buy floor cleaner and mop heads? Probably not. Why would you offer your patronage, your hard-earned money, to a restaurant that does?

These questions and underlying concepts are super sensical to me, sure, but the equation and price tag is shocking to many. French fries are a really good example here. Ours hit above the five dollar mark. A common reaction: “But it’s just potatoes..!” It totally isn’t. Yes, the potatoes themselves cost money, but filling an industry kitchen-sized fryer will run you about $75 or more for oil. Someone (with food and safety training) has to be paid for the hours they spend cleaning, cutting, frying, seasoning and plating those potatoes (in a rather quaint paper cone, all tossed with minced thyme for your enjoyment I’ll add). Oh, and the server that handles your order and takes care of you for the evening factors in there. The table where your fork lays. The chair you’ve perched yourself on. The lighting in the room, water, linens (rather than cheaper throwaway paper napkins), you get the idea. There’s a lot to consider.

So when I saw that a blogger visiting the restaurant tweeted about the experience and cried “Overpriced!,” I was annoyed. I kind of stepped back and considered that a large portion of the population may feel this way about dining out though, especially within establishments that prioritize the community and minimal environmental impact. It takes a whole lot of principle to stick to your guns on that front, it isn’t always cheap to do on a large scale. It is well documented how hard it is to make money in the restaurant business anyway, without all of the measures to ensure that guaranteed fairness on all sides. Fifty dollars for a simple shirt made out of cheaply grown cotton with minimal labour? Sure. Thirteen hundred for a 60 inch flat screen made in Taiwan? Absolutely. I don’t want to convey that the production of these items is simple, but rather ask why there is so much pause and criticism when food is at stake, something that nourishes all aspects of our being, brings community to the table and ensures a part of our very survival. There’s a huge lack of regard for the power that it brings, from production to plate.

It’s a lack of education certainly and a conditioning of cheap food (which means crappy ingredients and underpaid employees in shitty working conditions) over such a long period of time. The times have changed though. Any information is constantly available for the taking thanks to the internet. Those who have access to good food and the opportunity to dine out should know better. The outrage and blind criticism has no place if you have an internet connection and 15 minutes to spare prior to your reservation, like none. Assuming that you’ve read this blog before, you probably care at least a little bit already (is that a big assumption?) and that certainly means a lot. I think a slow and gentle tide of understanding is beginning to turn and a greater sense of gratitude is coming to the table, but it does take time and a few grumbles along the way.

None of this ties into the recipe du jour per se. Given my constant stream of busy-ness and frustration over this sort of thing in the past few weeks, a super sticky, spicy, sweet, messy, mega satisfying sandwich with tempeh, sprouts, avocado and other goodies was looking pretty, pretty good. This combination is largely inspired by one that I enjoyed at Candle Cafe last time we were in NY. I’m a big fan of sweetness in barbecue sauce, but I also enjoy a bit of convenience at times. When fixing up the sauce, I reach for an all-natural ketchup that has all of the ingredients I would be using in a homemade sauce anyway (tomato paste, vinegar, evaporated cane juice, spices, salt) and cut down on simmering time pretty greatly. A prefab convenience that probably costs more than the sum of its parts, yes, but totally worth it when messy, barbecue sandwiches are at stake. Pretty high value for the cost in the grand equation. And I’m all about that grand equation lately.


bbq tempeh and sweet potato sandwiches + barbecue sauce recipe
sauce adapted from Everyday Food, Issue 44, July/August 2007
serves: 2 (with extra sauce woohoo)
notes: I always simmer/steam tempeh for a bit before I apply a final cooking treatment just to guarantee some quality toothsomeness. I don’t think it’s totally necessary though if you’re in a pinch for time. Oh, and tofu would also apply beautifully here if tempeh is unavailable.

tempeh, sweet potatoes + sauce:
1/2 block tempeh (4 ounces), cut into 4 triangles or rectangles (depending on your bread surface shape)
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch slices
1 tsp grapeseed oil
1/4 onion, grated
1 small clove of garlic, minced
3/4 cup natural ketchup (Trader Joe’s and Annie’s are fantastic)
2 tbsp apple cider vinegar
1 tbsp sriracha (or other hot sauce)
2 tbsp maple syrup
1 tbsp worcestershire sauce (Annie’s brand to the rescue again!)

assembly:
2 lightly toasted rolls of your choosing (I went the crusty multigrain route)
1/2 an avocado, peeled and sliced
big handful of sprouts
thin red onion slices
etc etc, go wild!

Make the sauce: heat the grapeseed oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the grated onion and garlic and saute until very fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the ketchup, vinegar, sriracha, maple syrup and worcestershire sauce to the pot and stir to combine. Bring mixture to a light boil, stirring here and there. Simmer until mixture thickens slightly, about 7-10 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside (leftover sauce will keep for one week in the fridge in a sealed, non-reactive container).

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. Place the tempeh pieces and sliced sweet potatoes in a medium-large saucepan. Cover with water by about an inch and simmer until sweet potatoes are soft, about 7-8 minutes. Carefully remove tempeh and sweet potatoes to a plate. Pat dry with a kitchen towel. Place tempeh and sweet potatoes on lined baking sheet.

Heat your barbecue to medium-high or set your oven to broil. Brush tempeh and sweet potatoes with barebecue sauce. Place under the broiler or onto the barbecue. Flip and baste with sauce every minute or so, until coated to your liking and there’s a bit of char on the outside.

Place warm tempeh and sweet potatoes on to bread of your choice with desired toppings. Enjoy!

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Michelle25/04/2012 - 4:36 pm

Here here sister!

I eat out waaaaaay less than the average New Yorker, but when I go out I want it to be for a special meal, prepared with great ingredients, care and thought. So much of that cheap, poor quality food I can prepare better myself, at home, for even less money (and I am no way an expert chef). Better to shell out a bit more for something of quality has always been my attitude.

Also that sandwich looks amazing and I am going to make it ASAP. BBQ sauce is the bees knees.

Amanda25/04/2012 - 4:42 pm

Our obsession with cheap food and our unwillingness to pay for good food and food experiences is precisely what has us in such trouble. What it comes down to is a lack of respect – for food and those that produce it (farmers and restaurateurs alike). Now, that sandwich – that’s something I could totally respect.

Erin25/04/2012 - 4:53 pm

Before I got my current job, I was well on my way to purchasing a coffee shop that I was going to turn into a cafe with only locally sourced products. The current owner couldn’t understand why I would want to do something like that when it was “cheaper” to continue on with his distributor. I also believe there is a statistic (which if I wasn’t almost out the door I would look up) that Americans spend far less of their paycheck on food than any other country. Our priorities are terribly skewed. Great post, Laura!

Jeanine25/04/2012 - 5:14 pm

Yum, I love bbq sauce and ketchup and the Candle Cafe!

I’m with you on this one – I’d rather pay more quality food (and sanitation) than go somewhere where who knows what corners have been cut…

Amanda25/04/2012 - 6:57 pm

I could not agree more. I think there is a definite lack of education about the true cost of our food, but also an “ignorance is bliss” mentality. As you said, the information is readily available, but it’s a tough reality and many people don’t want to be informed. On the positive side, I think more and more people are taking it upon themselves to learn about where their food comes from and taking steps (although often small) in the direction of buying local, organic, and so on.

Great post, and your sandwich looks awesome!

Nico('s Tiny Kitchen)25/04/2012 - 7:07 pm

Oh I so agree with you here. When the food we buy is particularly cheap, I think we all need to question the why and the how because they are so often artificially cheap. We need to vote with our dollars, which should mean understanding where those dollars are going.

Katrina @ Warm Vanilla Sugar25/04/2012 - 7:51 pm

This sandwich sounds so lovely, and I really enjoyed reading this post. It really got me thinking!

Meister @ The Nervous Cook25/04/2012 - 9:01 pm

Agreed on all points here: As a specialty coffee industry professional, I’m also super aware of people’s perception regarding price, quality, value, cost of production… It’s a difficult hurdle for people to overcome, that change in thinking, that reevaluation of what it takes to make something carefully, deliberately, with taste and integrity and health in mind. But it’s not impossible!

I also agree with that delicious sandwich and everything about it: I, too, recently ate that very thing at the Candle Cafe (new favorite restaurant, am I right?), and love the sweet-smoky mix of BBQ and sweet ‘tater. Perfect. Messy. Happy.

Kate King25/04/2012 - 9:38 pm

Totally understandable why you were upset. I get very agitated when I hear others say that it is too expensive to eat “healthy” and their rationale behind buying the horrible cheap products they do. There is a reason why it is cheap and there is a reason why I would definitely fork over more money for food. You are what you eat and I rather support my body, the environment, and community who helped produce those more expensive products then save money and eat like crap. I agree that most people are uneducated about the matter at hand and that you vote every single time you shop. You rock girl.

Robin25/04/2012 - 10:18 pm

This is great. We recently moved to a plant based diet and with summer coming I’ve been thinking a lot about what to put on the grill besides vegetables. Definitely going to give this a try. Thanks!

Elenore Bendel Zahn26/04/2012 - 2:38 am

Laura! Word! Awesome!

Firstly, I have to say this sandwich looks delicious. I love tempeh, especially when smothered in BBQ sauce.

I think this notion of “over priced” goods extends to many areas, photography specifically. Digital camera’s have convinced everyone and their dog they are a professional photographer. That being said, it’s very difficult to make a living at it these days. Amateurs charge pennies and produce sub par images. People now want their weddings to be shot for next to nothing, which is beyond frustrating for someone who actually has a university degree in the field.

Back to food costs though, I totally agree with you. Restaurants that produce quality meals using local ingredients have to charge more. I don’t mind shelling out extra money because I know the quality of food will be that much better. Recently, Dallas (where I live) has seen an influx of farm to table restaurants. Their popularity is so great that many competing restaurants (that don’t use local fare) can’t compete. It’s a great trend and I’m so excited about all the new dining possibilities in this city.

Anyway, sorry for writing a novel. Your post just really spoke to me. Now I’m off to make your sandwich! Thanks for sharing your thoughts Laura.

Kelsey26/04/2012 - 1:05 pm

I feel like my last three or so comments may seem somewhat trite or non-expressive, leaving simple punches like “Preach or Amen,” because I find it difficult to really affirm how much I appreciate your perspective, and I wish we could all just mull it over in person. I have a few stories of this sort that I think would make you giggle. Do you giggle? laugh? See. This is what I mean. Internet-land can only help us so much. In any case, I say throw out the TV, folks, and feed your belly the best.

Sarah26/04/2012 - 1:22 pm

It’s true of non-restaurant food—and even a more common complaint.

My best comeback to the local/ethical/organic/hand-crafted – food-is-too-expensive argument:

Just turn it around and ask, “Why is everything else so cheap?”

Carrie | acookgrowsinbrooklyn26/04/2012 - 1:55 pm

I love that you wrote on this topic – it’s near and dear to me and needs to be highlighted again and again and again. And, I’m not a huge fan of tempeh, but you are close to converting me with this sandwich – feast for the eyes.

Ashlae26/04/2012 - 4:15 pm

I totally agree with you! I’m also the person who will (stupidly) spend $100 on a simple cotton dress.. and I did the whole 60″ flat screen thing for my boyfriend. But you will never hear me complaining about the cost of food – ever. Especially in a restaurant. No one is forcing anyone to buy $5 french fries.

It also irks me when people complain about how expensive it is to eat healthy (compared to unhealthy, overly processed foods). I laugh at them, because they don’t understand that eating healthy food can (and usually does) reduce medical bills. In my case, having a chronic bowel disorder, it has saved me thousands upon thousands of dollars. Not to mention, a countless number of surgeries.

Oh, and I would love to bite into that sandwich right about now. Yay for being able to tolerate gluten, again!

Yui27/04/2012 - 1:56 am

I always love tempeh. You may believe it or not but I ever made this tempeh sandwich, with my own sauce recipe of course lol. I need to say they turn so great! I love it. I really do. Thanks for the recipe anyway. Will try it soon.

Lia28/04/2012 - 1:00 pm

Sorry I’m a couple days behind! This week was a busy one at work.

To state the obvious, I think all of us agree because we’re interested in this blog. People who balk at $5 french fries don’t usually ooh and ahh over tempeh sandwiches. Not that our agreement is a bad thing! It’s great to interact with like-minded people, especially when it comes to food.

I’d like to add my two cents regarding restaurants that focus on local, sustainable eating. I haven’t been to many of them, but the ones I have been to, frankly, weren’t very good. I’m more than happy to pay $20 for roasted organic chicken with local potatoes etc. but it has to be perfectly executed. If not, I’d probably choose the $10 chicken that isn’t local, but tastes good. I think that’s the same tradeoff many Americans make. Hopefully, restaurants like yours will alter that norm!

Lastly, I want to challenge everyone here who accepts that eating healthy is more expensive than processed foods. Mark Bittman wrote an excellence article last year that focuses this exact myth. Take a look at the “Comparison Shopping” graphic, it was pretty eye-opening for me (not that I eat McDonalds ever). Granted he wasn’t focusing on organic, local food, but getting more Americans to eat healthy foods at home is the first step to that goal.
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/25/opinion/sunday/is-junk-food-really-cheaper.html?_r=2&ref=opinion

Awesome topic! And that sandwich looks delicious. I’m OBSESSED with Trader Joe’s ketchup, haha.

Cookie and Kate30/04/2012 - 1:09 am

I hear you on this one. I’ve worked in the food industry and I’ve seen the low quality of food that comes from the big suppliers and gets arranged nicely on a plate to disguise it. I’m so much wiser for it. I almost never eat out, for several reasons, but I’m much happier forking over a bunch of money for a meal meets my quality standards.

Oh and that sandwich looks mega tasty.

Courtney30/04/2012 - 3:10 pm

I completely agree with you! People don’t really understand all that goes into making them that plate of food, especially when it is something that is locally and sustainably sourced. Yes, you may be paying more for those fries, but you are getting better quality and a product that didn’t have to travel too far from farm to table. Plus, they will probably be the best fried you have ever eaten! By the way, this sandwich looks awesome!! (that’s coming from a Texan who was raised on good brisket and barbeque!)

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emily31/05/2013 - 7:18 pm

thank you for your words abt cost structures in restaurants that CARE about paying employees fairly, purchasing QUALITY foods, and PREPARING foods on site. I would LOVE to see this kind of insight hit the MAIN MEDIA> as the common public (especially in the Midwest where we are) does not know how expensive it is, nor do they think they need to know. and that NEED is why we are so unhealthy + over-weight as a society! I am right next to you on that Soapbox! Thanks!

javadivawithdogs26/07/2013 - 2:55 pm

I live in a similarly priced food market. Part of the expense that is absorbed is that the minimum wage is about 10.50/hr. Ethically I support a living wage for all. But I sometime long for inventive cheap fast eats. The thing that is unfortunate to me is that I can’t really say I have developed favorite go to places that I enjoy eating at. It really saddens me that the added expense had not translated to a better dining experience. Rushed slack and borderline rude staff. Inconsistently prepared food. All add up to a consistently less than satisfactory experience. On the flipside I have had some $5 fries that were AMAZING. One with truffle that I still dream about and recently a side of fries with a lentil burger while on vacation driving thru Palm Springs. Drizzled with herbs oil and garlic, they powered us thru the rest of our driving for the day. Restaurant work is a fleeting mad science, keep at it. Quality and consistency are worth it.

Leslie DeBlasio19/09/2013 - 7:18 am

Nice to expand my repertoire of vegan recipes!

Jeremy04/11/2013 - 9:58 pm

This was fantastic! Like eating a good ol’ fashioned BBQ, but so much healthier and happier!

Beautiful site and wonderful recipes. Cheers,

jH

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[…] BBQ tempeh sandwich […]

Dennis01/03/2014 - 7:02 pm

This looks amazing! Can’t wait to make it. I am also glad you avoided the standard BBQ sauce with High Fructose in it! I have a Trader Joe’s near me and they have some great Tempeh options.

I also love your photography!

[…] Recipe Source […]

[…] whatever type of BBQ sauce you like (we used Seersucker Chef). If you feel like making your own, this recipe looks […]

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green goddess pizza + broccoli stem pesto


I needed a bit of goddess-y feeling in my life lately. Had a weird, mega busy week that was ample in frantic running around and silliness, but kind of lacked for quality sleep, green vegetables, me-time, and overall goodness. End result on my day off? I’m super sniffly, fiery throated, head full of grossness and just kind of cranky in general. Pizza to the rescue! Oh, and lots of ginger tea and rest. Those are important too.

Ask me today what my favourite food is and you’ll probably get a wide-eyed, dragged out, hands gesturing upwards “PIZZAAA!,” spoken like a true 10 year old. I have a lot of favourite actual-composed dishes, ingredients etc, but I eventually always come back to pizza with the widest open arms. The dough recipe here is the focus of The Food Matters Project this week (I’m a little late to the party, oops). The original recipe is mostly whole wheat flour cut with a bit of all purpose. My version is half whole wheat and half rye flour. I also allowed for a 24 hour chilled fermentation (as opposed to the recommended 6-12 hours) to ramp up the sourness and overall flavour of the dough.

The broccoli stem pesto was born out of resourcefulness. I don’t always enjoy the stems sliced and steamed up with the florets like some, but it always seems like such a large bit to throw away. Saving food from the compost for the win.

A few words on using a pizza stone: it is advantageous if you’re after crisp, but still pillowy crust i.e. you should probably get one soon. I’ve read in various publications that the ideal temperature for cooking up proper napoli-style pizza ranges from 700 to 900 degrees Fahrenheit.  Like yours (probably), my oven doesn’t run that hot and I would be a touch nervous taking it over 550 anyway. So! I light up the barbecue and place the stone on the grates. It usually hits around 600 if you have the patience, which is close enough for me.


green goddess pizza with broccoli stem pesto
serves: 2
notes: Definitely try to act quickly once you open the lid of the barbecue to slide the pizza onto the stone. The heat will escape pretty quickly.

1 recipe of Mark Bittman’s pizza dough

pesto:
2-3 thick broccoli stems, cut into small pieces
1/2 cup toasted walnuts
1 clove of garlic, peeled and crushed
2-3 sprigs of thyme, leaves removed
5-6 sprigs of flat leaf parsley, tough parts of stem removed
zest of 1 lemon
salt and pepper
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil

toppings, etc:
5-6 asparagus stalks, peeled into ribbons
3 stems of kale, leaves removed and finely chopped
juice of 1 lemon
1-2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
handful of finely chopped chives
1/2 cup crumbled sheep’s milk feta
cornmeal for pizza stone

Heat your barbecue up to 500-600 degrees F (or put your oven to 500). Place a pizza stone on top of the grates to heat up (or on the bottom rack of the oven).

Make the pesto: place chopped broccoli stems, walnuts, garlic, thyme, salt and pepper into the bowl of a food processor. Pulse a few times to finely chop ingredients. Add oil and continue to pulse until a smooth paste is achieved. Set aside.

Roll the dough out to about 1/3-1/2 inch thickness. Dust pizza peel with cornmeal and transfer rolled out dough to the peel. Spread pesto on top of crust. Top with half of the feta.

Toss together the asparagus peels, chopped kale, lemon juice, extra virgin olive oil, chives, salt and pepper. Set aside.

With the pizza peel, quickly transfer the pizza to the barbecue on top of the pizza stone. Close the lid and cook for about 5 minutes, until bottom is lightly browned and dry. Lift the lid and place the asparagus and kale mixture on top along with the remaining feta. Close the lid and cook for another 2 minutes. Remove pizza from the stone with the peel. Cut into slices and serve.

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Erin18/04/2012 - 7:52 pm

I love your comment about sounding like a 10 year when it comes to pizza because that is totally me. I usually jump up and down, clapping my hands together chanting “pizza! pizza! pizza!” I also have to say, love the use of the broccoli stems!

Stacy18/04/2012 - 11:28 pm

I just recently made a broccoli pesto, and it was delicious. Thus I affirm your choice wholeheartedly. This pizza looks wonderful! Hope all of its green goodness brought you right back to normal!

[...] Green Goddess Pizza from Laura of The First Mess [...]

Katrina @ Warm Vanilla Sugar19/04/2012 - 9:38 am

This is so full of goodness! Yum!

Hannah19/04/2012 - 12:22 pm

This looks delicious and fresh! Very beautiful. Xx

Margarita19/04/2012 - 2:08 pm

Never would have thought of using broccoli stems for pesto. I hate tossing them out, now I know better! :) Love all the healthy goodness in this pizza!

Kate19/04/2012 - 5:37 pm

I’ve been reading Tamar Adler’s An Everlasting Meal, where she advocates using every last bit of vegetables and I love the idea of using the broccoli stems for a pesto. I’ve made pesto out of so much…. beet greens being my most favorite…. and recently took the stems from a whole box of rapini and sauteed them with onion to make a pilaf. It was delightful.

But…. I’m off topic from pizza. From broccoli. And now I’m hungry for pizza, and for broccoli.

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kels20/04/2012 - 1:33 pm

I used to snub the stems too until I had a chef here locally tell me to peel the outside skin and then shave the stem into ribbons, steam, and mix with pasta. Huge improvement. I’ve tried this method too with pasta, but not on pizza. Very, very cool.

Kasey23/04/2012 - 8:00 pm

I love my pizza stone! I feel like I can tell a significant difference when I use it to bake up pizzas. Your recipe feels so SPRING. Pizza solves so many of the world’s problems (or maybe just my own, and yours too heheh)

Shelley24/04/2012 - 8:20 pm

First off.. YUM! I am in a pizza kind of mood and I think this would be an amazing recipe to try. Secondly, I have never thought of putting my pizza stone on the grill, but now I want to try. Question… is it safe to let the flame touch the stone? Is it silly that I am even asking that? I would love to know if there are any special tricks to ensure the stone doesn’t crack. Let me know if there is something special that needs to be done.

Beautiful, as always! xo

Denise | Chez Danisse25/05/2012 - 1:27 pm

It looks wonderful. This is what you create when you are super sniffly, fiery throated, head full of grossness and just kind of cranky in general? I am impressed. Hope you are feeling much better.

[...] Broccoli Stem Pesto (vegan) [...]

Kate01/10/2013 - 11:25 am

Can you freeze the pesto?

Laura Wright01/10/2013 - 12:31 pm

Hi Kate, you can certainly freeze the pesto as long as your pour a little layer of oil on top of it before you pop the lid on and freeze it. The oil helps to maintain the colour and integrity of it.
-L

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[…] Green Goddess Pizza – Who ordered the green pizza? This is a monochrome pizza that brings plenty of different textures, and a host of superfoods to the table. The dough is made fresh, and there’s pesto here, plus an assortment of green foods that are going to lend their phytonutrients and flavor to make this a pizza you won’t soon forget. Asparagus and kale. ‘Nuff said. […]

[…] Green Goddess Pizza – Who ordered the green pizza? This is a monochrome pizza that brings plenty of different textures, and a host of superfoods to the table. The dough is made fresh, and there’s pesto here, plus an assortment of green foods that are going to lend their phytonutrients and flavor to make this a pizza you won’t soon forget. Asparagus and kale. ‘Nuff said. […]

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farro with grilled endives + realness


I inadvertently took a week off from this little spot, oops. But I’ve made up for it with 287438634972 words worth of text and a lovely spring salad with farro and grilled stuff. Oh yes, get ready.

I caught myself doing something really weird the other day (not like in a feel-super-awkward-after-reading kind of way, don’t worry), but ultimately I laughed at the whole thing. I do a little bit of photography for a food magazine here and there. Just little jobs, yes, but something to take a bit more seriously and work at, which I love. Anyway, I had made one of the dishes they requested, plated it up, brought it over to my lighting rig (a giant window with a tinfoil-ed sheet of bristol board–super advanced), and set everything down.

Then I started meticulously fluffing a pristine, bright white kitchen towel gathered next to the dish, as if it were a pillow on a sofa. And then I placed a serving spoon just so on top of the towel, gleaming from the vinegar polish I gave it prior to–purely for appearance. The whole thing was getting tupped (term of endearment for placing food in tupperware) immediately following this exercise. Looking at a few initial shots, the image seemed bare so I considered a casually calculated placement of some raw ingredients or knick knacks in the background. But did I  have enough perfect-specimen raw ingredients left? Do I even have knick knacks that are rustic-chic enough? I do not want to look like a try-hard with, like, anything remotely new-seeming and non-antiqued. My kitchen twine is pure white! Not even remotely burlap-y and how am I going to even fray this stuff for a picture and… WHY IS THIS HAPPENING TO ME.

Actual life situation: None of my kitchen towels are virginal white. Nor are they ever fluffed/futzed with pre-service. Sorry in advance if you were looking forward to that. They hang haphazardly on the oven door handle, like everyone else’s. Oh, and they generally have a couple of avocado fingerprints on them, you know, the ones that start bright green and then change to gross brown in 5 minutes. My serving spoons probably all have water spots. I say probably because a soup spoon seems to work fine for serving on most nights. I’ve never made a habit of artfully arranging raw ingredients on the dinner table to fill in the white space between plates so that my peeps can get a real sense of the meal’s contents. “Can you pass the roasted potatoes, but PLEASE! DO NOT adjust those thyme sprigs and lemon slices nearby. Dude, I spent a lot of time arranging those to enhance your dining experience!!” I don’t own knick knacks. I do not aspire to own knick knacks.

Not that there is anything wrong with having clean kitchen towels, polished silverware, sprawling food-based arrangements and rustic-chic-but-slightly-modern-urban-sophisticate items in the home. There really isn’t! I honestly have a bit of envy for that dedication to ambient, gorgeous home-dwelling, but I’ve accepted that it will never work for me in a practical way. It’s not an accurate reflection of what happens in our warm, slightly disorganized and sunny kitchen, so it will never appear that way in this space, which is essentially a food-focused journal of sorts. It’s a little bit of life right here.

I like imperfections in a non-lazy way, realness if you will. After being annihilated (in the best way) by this post, I started thinking about that a lot more. I started a blog because I wanted to make-contagious my love of cooking whole food at home, however clumsy or ho-hum at times; not to make home cooks feel like shit because they couldn’t stack, drizzle and present table-side something in the exact manner that I did. I want the cooking masses to have reverence for leafy greens, ripe fruit in season, and whole grains like I do. Seriously. There’s a vibrance in spring time, when out from the cold dirt comes fresh and delicious things we can all eat together to remind us of greater systems at work. It evokes the big mystery that you can’t always explain with words but you feel completely. I know that antique cans wrapped in twine with blossoms inside, food props and perfectly clean and pressed table linens with adorably quaint non-hemmed edges (beautiful as they are) don’t bring me to that place. A garlic scape just poking out of some straw-covered dirt in the shadow of a decidedly unglamorous tractor shed is always ready for its close up around here and I hope you can appreciate the honesty in that as much as I do.

And today’s recipe? It’s pretty awesome if you’re a super-bitter greens lover. You can throw the salad portion together well in advance, then grill the endives last minute, drizzle the reduction on top and you’re golden. This makes a wonderful lunch or a side attraction to some protein, maybe a maple and hot mustard glazed piece of tempeh, a couple of poached eggs, whatever you like. It’s nice to have outside on the still slightly cool evenings, all bundled in a warm sweater, with wine or a beer or whatever. I love the chewiness of farro, but since we’re all about approachability you could use any grain that you have lying around. That principle applies to all of the other add ins as well. Go wild and go forth with realness.

farro and white bean salad with grilled endives
serves: 6-8
notes:  I really mean it on the bitterness, the grilling brings out that strong flavour in the endives, kind of bringing it into love or hate territory. Also, I like to slightly undercook the farro to retain some of the chewiness and deep brown colour. If you like your grains softer, cook about 10 minutes longer than I’ve specified.

1/2 cup balsamic vinegar (doesn’t have to be baller-level quality)
1 cup farro (whole grain spelt or spelt berries), rinsed
1 cup cooked white beans
1/3 cup raw almonds, toasted and chopped
1/3 cup dried currants
2.5-3 ounces arugula, chopped
1-2 belgian endives (probably 2, mine was crazy huge), trimmed of rough outer leaves and cut in half lengthwise
1 head radicchio, trimmed of rough outer leaves and cut into quarters
1 tbsp grapeseed oil
salt and pepper

dressing:
juice of 1 orange (about 1/2 cup-worth)
splash of apple cider vinegar
1/2 shallot, minced
1 tbsp maple syrup
salt and pepper
1/2 cup grapeseed oil (or olive, sunflower etc)

Place the balsamic vinegar in a small saucepan over medium heat. Simmer until vinegar is reduced by half and it coats the back of a spoon, about 15 minutes. Once adequately reduced, remove from the heat, scrape into a separate container and place in the fridge to set up.

Place farro in a medium saucepan with 2.5 cups of water over medium high heat. Bring to a boil and simmer for 12-15 minutes or until slightly tender but still chewy. Drain, rinse with cold water and dump into a large bowl. Set aside.

To the cooked farro, add the white beans, chopped almonds, currants, chopped arugula, salt and pepper. Set aside.

Make the dressing: whisk together the orange juice, apple cider vinegar, shallots, maple syrup, salt and pepper. Slowly drizzle in the oil while quickly whisking the mixture. Taste for seasoning. Pour over farro and bean mixture and toss to combine.

Heat a grill to medium high. Brush the endive and radicchio pieces with the grapeseed oil. Season with salt and pepper. Place the endives on the grill on their cut sides. Grill for 2-3 minutes or until you see some charring/browning of the leaves. Flip them over and repeat cooking process. Remove from the grill when charred a bit on all sides and slightly tender to the touch.

Place dressed farro and bean mixture in a serving plate. Arrange grilled endive pieces on top. Drizzle balsamic reduction over the whole thing and serve.

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la domestique09/04/2012 - 1:11 pm

I love grilled radicchio and endive (which is what I made for chicory week at la Domestique) and cannot handle how fantastic your salad is with the farro! I think keeping it real is also about having a point of view, a personality, and that’s what makes things interesting.

Kelsey09/04/2012 - 1:11 pm

Cheers to ALL of this.

Sarah09/04/2012 - 1:47 pm

Keep on keeping it real Laura! I think you can take pretty real photos. I love the photos with your hands touching the food, or fiddling around in the garden. I also have started to find the over-styled food posts meh. (Or even posts all about food overly pretty food. SOME DAYS I DON’T WANT TO COOK!) It’s pretty, but it’s not real.

Have you read Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott? It’s a great writing book, and she has a chapter on perfectionism.

“Perfectionism means that you try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up. But clutter and mess show us that life is being lived.”

Eileen09/04/2012 - 2:12 pm

I agree completely! I waver between wanting to improve my inconsistent food photography and wanting to avoid presenting cooking as this perfect unattainable art. There must be some happy medium involving a couple of good lights and an ordinary dinner table. The photography in Nigel Slater’s cookbooks comes to mind.

And those grilled endives look fantastic!

sara09/04/2012 - 4:18 pm

first off, hellooo delicious. second, and more importantly, I love you’re point. Recently creating a book with few props and like you a reflector made out of poster board, you constantly feel like you are “taking away” from someone’s impression on a dish you made. They won’t think it’s good if it’s not beautiful! That is the thing about food photography, we think the perfection seems to drive people to make these foods, but I’m not sure it is. I make things that look approachable, doable, something I can pull off without professional frosting or poaching skills etc. You create stunning work, Laura. Don’t let the expectation get in the way of your truth. You make wholesome goodness, and to see it in context of your everyday life, is ENOUGH. xoxo

adrienne10/04/2012 - 5:25 pm

You (and Brian) read my mind. I’ve been having similar, frustrating thoughts lately that make me want to hit delete instead of publish. Who defined this world of perfectly styled food? That isn’t the kind of world that most of us live in or actually practice. I’ve become almost numb to food photography…everything looking so similar. But it’s the people like you—with real and honest writing and photos—that stand out. Keep on keeping on, my friend.

Erin10/04/2012 - 5:43 pm

Love all of this! I’ve learned that whatever I do, I need to be me and have it come through my photos because like you, my towels all have spots and most of my cutting boards look like they’ve been put through hell and back. I find myself simplifying how I shoot and I’ve really been into photography raw ingredients (with dirt and all) because I know it freak people out :)

Cookie and Kate10/04/2012 - 7:03 pm

Yes yes yes yes yes! That’s what I was thinking as I read this post. I’ve been thinking about this subject a whole lot lately, and how it applies to the way I photograph food. I think what happens is that people want to learn to take better photos (and for good reason, a bad photo can make a delicious dish look totally unappetizing!). So they buy books and study other blogs (I’ve done a lot of both) and eventually their photos look like everyone else’s, cookie crumb placement and all.

I was interesting in photography long before I got serious about cooking, so I do want my food photos to look artful, but in a totally approachable way. I like to think that my food prep photos help visitors visualize making the dish themselves, and it perpetually amazes me that people actually DO cook my recipes quite often, so I must be doing something right. I’m definitely in the process of changing the way I do things, though, evolving more into my own style… like recently, I looked at my tabletop and decided it looked good naked, without burlap. Who uses burlap for a tablecloth, anyway?!

Cookie and Kate10/04/2012 - 7:05 pm

Oh yeah, and this salad looks seriously amazing. I haven’t tried endive yet but I’m an arugula freak so I’m pretty sure I’d love it.

Munchin with Munchkin10/04/2012 - 7:38 pm

First, this salad looks incredible. I love endives, especially when they’re grilled. I have yet to give farro a try, it’s on my list though.

Secondly, it’s so refreshing to hear that other bloggers are feeling this way too. I’ve been so frustrated lately with food photography and the trend of perfectly placed food with rustic antique props. I think it’s a style that has emerged from food porn sites. I’ve started to count how many images of mine get accepted because there is a burlap table cloth, and how many are denied because it doesn’t have that stylistic feel.

I’m going to make a conscious effort to change things up. I feel like I’m in a food photography rut, and nothing but a good change can help me get out of it. Thanks so much for sharing! It’s comforting to know someone else feels the same way.

Kasey10/04/2012 - 8:00 pm

Keepin’ it real! I love this. And, I also think about this..oh…all the time! It totally stresses me out when s*** isn’t perfect on my site, and sometimes I just want to yell really loudly: “I DO NOT EAT FROM RUSTIC METAL BOWLS!” also: “MOST DAYS, I EAT NOODLES OR SAUSAGES FOR DINNER!” I think we do this because we love it, but at the end of the day, you gotta keep it real and stay true to who you are. I’ll continue to try working on my photos, and I’ll still try to make them pretty, but I won’t freak out if some of them start looking more ‘real.’

sarah11/04/2012 - 9:51 am

I really appreciated this post. I’ve found that while I love looking at pretty, well–styled and accessorized food photos, when I’ve tried to take photos like that it just doesn’t feel right. I love a bit of mess and realness to shine forth. My pictures only feel ‘right’ to me when I’ve used my own, personal used dishes and utensils – things I know and use and am comfortable with.

I read that post you linked to last week, too, and have been mulling it over.

Thanks for all your thoughtfulness.
And your photos are lovely, as always!

[...] photo. It’s a bowl stacked on top of another bowl. Who uses two bowls when one does the job?! Laura’s latest post really drove home how silly food photography can be. I want my food to look real, like you could [...]

[...] This Farro with grilled endives from Laura over at The First Mess. (Seriously, go over to her blog and say hi.  I love how real she is and one of my goals is to meet her in real life some day.) [...]

Sarah12/04/2012 - 10:18 am

Thank you for writing this. I couldn’t agree more. So often I feel like we as bloggers lose sight of what’s really important to us, and almost become selfish about it. Making readers feel good means more to me than a perfect picture. Bravo!

Shannalee12/04/2012 - 5:22 pm

This is my first time finding your site and can I just say, it is GORGEOUS. Love your layout, love your design, love your font choices. The photography is icing on the cake.

Carrie13/04/2012 - 10:34 am

First off – I am a super-bitter greens lover, so I dig cooked endive and this recipe. And, as long as your kitchen is warm and sunny, it doesn’t really matter if it’s slightly disorganized. Love your words in this post (and the pics).

Kate15/04/2012 - 1:37 pm

Why do people LOVE quaintly frayed, but perfectly pressed linens? Especially ones that look like they were cut from a burlap bag? My mother would look at that and snort ‘Ridiculous!’ and quite frankly, that’s what I think when I come across them. No one does that, really. Especially people with young children because we all know what bored little fingers do to frayed edges.

And AMEN to ALL of this. AMEN to the annihilation of Brian’s post; I read that and thought ‘Ok world, get ready because this is going to ROCK it hard.’ and that’s why I don’t photograph that way, or diffuse it all with antique white light that looks like it belongs in a museum. I want to see photos of food and think “I would eat that.” and instead, I think “Nice art work!” and that’s really not the goal, at all.

So cheers to you. And to this recipe. Both are necessary, and delightful.

[...] reading pieces from Laura, Kathryne, and many others, I’ve realized that without even knowing it, I’ve developed [...]

Anna @ the shady pine17/04/2012 - 3:28 am

I’ve only recently tried grilled endive….it is just lovely. I am yet to try faro however so am saving your recipe here to give it a go.

Karen28/03/2013 - 9:09 am

Grilled radicchio is one of my favorite things – something about that slight char seems to tame its bite and soften the texture, and I love the contrast of smoky brown color with the interior, still that jewel-like magenta. I love your site; I want to jump in and taste everything here!
Cheers, Karen

[...] Enn-dive? On-deev? Who cares, let’s eat. Recipe here. [...]

[...] Farro & White Bean Salad with Grilled Endives via the first mess [...]