It’s a Moosewood world. We’re just eating in it.
Consider granola: The word used to be a derogatory term. Now it’s a supermarket category worth nearly $2 billion a year. Kombucha was something your art teacher might have made in her basement. Yet GT’s Kombucha brews more than a million bottles annually and sells many of them at Wal-Mart and Safeway.
And almond milk? You can add it to your drink at 15,000 Starbucks locations for 60 cents.
Just as yoga and meditation have gone mainstream (and let’s not get started on designer Birkenstocks), so have ideas and products surrounding health, wellness and eating that play like a flashback to the early 1970s.
Co-op staples of that time — the miso, tahini, dates, seeds, turmeric and ginger that were absorbed from other cultures and populated the Moosewood restaurant cookbooks — now make appearances at some of the most innovative restaurants in the country, where menus are built around vegetables and heritage grains.
Vegetarianism and veganism are on the rise, and kale — the bacon of the clean-eating moment — is now routinely heaped on salad plates across the land.
The hippies may not have won the election, but they are winning the plate — or, should we say, the bowl.
“The counterculture is always ahead of what’s happening in mainstream culture,” said Peter Meehan, editorial director of Lucky Peach magazine. “It’s as true in any creative field as it is in food.”
Deborah Madison, the author and chef who made vegetarian cooking sophisticated with her 1987 cookbook “Greens,” has seen this food before: She cooked it in the 1960s and ’70s, as one of “a growing number of people who were trying to cook differently from our parents,” she said.
“Our intentions were good,” Madison said. “We were using wholesome foods in contrast to our mothers’ new reliance on cake mixes, white flour, TV dinners and that sort of thing.”
The problem, she said, was that her generation didn’t know much about cooking.
“What we cooked was very much on the stodgy side,” she said. “Today, the same foods are now seen as interesting and delicious and worth eating. We can appreciate their flavors, textures and general possibilities because we — that is, the big collective we — know so much more about cooking foods of all kinds.”
The current food mood may also be a reaction to the more exhausting aspects of life in the digital era.
“It’s a weird mixture of technology and palo santo” — iPhones and incense — said chef Gerardo Gonzalez of Lalito in Manhattan, suggesting that people who live online may be moved to seek out the restorative properties of natural foods. “You’re constantly in this thing that’s not reality, and eating food can be the most real act you can partake in.”
Growing up with chain restaurants and living with the “mental fog” that comes from regularly eating meat, dairy and starch have led Gonzalez, 34, and his peers to seek an alternative.
“I think people are now more likely to turn to açai bowls than a bacon cheeseburger for their hangover,” he said. “For a lot of people who gravitate toward this lifestyle, it’s not hypocritical.”
As one of the owners of Dimes, a restaurant that opened three years ago in Manhattan, Alissa Wagner is partly responsible for bringing those açai bowls to the Instagram set. Wagner believes that diners are a lot more knowledgeable about where and how to eat better than they were when she graduated in 2010 from the Natural Gourmet Institute, a mostly vegetarian cooking school in Manhattan.
“There was a huge awakening that happened in the last couple of years with the way that New Yorkers approach food,” she said. “The meat-heavy, super-masculine style restaurants that were ever-present became outdated and were overtaken by a much more vibrant and produce-driven menu.”
Despite the often extragavant price tag attached to many haute hippie staples and the Vitamix required to prepare them, this is food that is easy to make at home, with plenty of cookbooks for guidance.
The past several months have seen the release of many vegetable-rich and rawfood cookbooks, including ones from Lucky Peach, Martha Stewart, Wolfgang Puck, vegan website Thug Kitchen; Sarah Britton of the website My New Roots, whose Instagram feed of bowls and sprouts has over 330,000 followers, and Amanda Chantal Bacon of Moon Juice, a small chain of juice shops that started in Venice, Calif.
Recently Madison released “In My Kitchen: A Collection of New Vegetarian Recipes.” Her elegant earth-motherhood has given rise to a generation of chefs, cookbook authors and bloggers focused on vegetables and whole foods, like Anna Jones, who wrote a vegetarian cookbook, “A Modern Way to Cook.” (Madison, like a baby boomer who is both tickled and horrified to see bell-bottoms come back in style, said she always found it “amusing that foods like the once abhorrent brown rice have come around to being seen as good to eat, and preferable even to white rice.”)
For amateur picklers and kimchi-makers, there is a new edition of “Wild Fermentation,” a 2003 manual that helped its author, Sandor Katz, become a heroic figure among cooks who ferment their own foods.
Like the back-to-the-landers and Whole Earth Catalog readers before them, a new generation is once again becoming interested in fermentation, especially do-it-yourself projects, a shift that Katz attributes to people becoming more critical of the industrial food system and seeking alternatives.
“Once you start asking questions about how this food was produced, then fermentation is just part of the answer,” he said.
He also cited recent scientific findings on the microbiome and the notion that health may be affected by bacteria and other microbes living in your intestinal tract, which are in turn influenced by what you eat. “People are recognizing that this important biodiversity inside of us has been diminished and are seeking strategies to restore it for immune function, digestion, mental health and everything else,” he said. “So people are seeking out bacteria-rich foods.”
In fact, a kombucha- and tempeh-making business just opened near Katz’s home in Cannon County, Tenn., population 16,000. “It’s not just happening in New York, San Francisco and Portland,” he said.
(For the record, Katz bristles at the association of fermentation with hippiedom. “In terms of countercultural movements, I feel like punk is much more resonant,” he said. “The punk movement was all about DIY and publishing your own ’zine, and figuring out how to make things yourself and improvise.”)
Gonzalez has noticed a change in diners’ palates toward flavors that are brighter and more acidic, like those produced by fermentation, as well as earthier and umami-rich flavors, like nutritional yeast.
“People are starting to realize that these ingredients are a whole new color palette,” he said.
This group of Americans has also developed a less-sweet tooth and an appreciation of the textures imparted by grains like buckwheat and rye.
“I was in a meeting last night where one person suggested making a chocolate cake recipe with fermented cabbage in it,” Madison said.
As with anything counterculture edging toward the mainstream, the threat of co-optation looms.
Alice Waters, the Berkeley queen of local and seasonal cooking, applauds the movement away from fast and processed food, but said she was wary of how its language had been appropriated by mainstream brands.
“There’s a lot of hijacking going on right now that is very disturbing,” Waters said. “I mean, they can’t quite take ‘organic,’ but they’re taking everything else.”
At the restaurant level, though, hippie fare has long been “a lifestyle and a brand,” Gonzalez conceded.
“You’re not just selling food,” he said. “You’re giving the promise of a healthier life, or a more enlightened meal.”
Pan-Griddled Sweet Potatoes With Miso-Ginger Sauce
Note: Think of this miso-ginger sauce as a universal sauce, because it’s so good on so many things: tofu, tempeh, winter squash and napa cabbage salads, for starters. This recipe, adapted from “In My Kitchen” by vegetarian cookbook author Deborah Madison, spoons the dressing over sweet potatoes, and suggests serving them with spicy Asian greens or stir-fried bok choy, and maybe soba noodles or brown or black rice. Not surprisingly, the sauce is good on them, too.
• 4 sweet potatoes (about 6 oz. each), scrubbed
• 1 garlic clove, chopped
• 1 (1-in.) knob of fresh ginger, peeled and grated
• A few pinches of sugar or 2 tsp. mirin
• 1 heaping tbsp. white miso
• 1 tbsp. unseasoned rice wine vinegar
• 1 tbsp. toasted sesame oil
• 1 tbsp. light sesame oil or other neutral oil, plus more for the pan
• 2 tsp. toasted black sesame seeds, for garnish
Add about an inch of water to a stovetop steamer or a pot fitted with a steaming basket. Add sweet potatoes and steam until tender, 30 to 40 minutes, depending on their size.
While sweet potatoes are cooking, make the sauce: Pound garlic and ginger in a mortar until very smooth and then stir in the sugar, miso, vinegar, sesame oil and 1 tablespoon water.
Halve steamed sweet potatoes lengthwise and score the cut sides in a crisscross pattern with a small knife.
Heat a large skillet or grill pan over medium-high heat. When hot, add a swirl of light sesame oil (about 1 tablespoon), then add sweet potatoes in a single layer, cut side down, and cook for 3 minutes, or until their natural sugars caramelize and turn an appetizing golden brown. (Depending on the shape of your potatoes, you may have to work in batches.)
Arrange sweet potatoes on plates or a platter and spoon sauce over them. Garnish with black sesame seeds and serve alone or with any accompaniment.
Nutrition information per serving:
Calories 220 Fat 11 g Sodium 280 mg
Carbohydrates 27 g Saturated fat 1 g Total sugars 8 g
Protein 3 g Cholesterol 0 mg Dietary fiber 4 g
Exchanges per serving: 2 carb, 2 fat.