lentil and zucchini cakes with rice pilav at Mint

Yesterday evening at Mint Restaurant in Waitsfield (Vermont) I had something especially delicious. The photo below unfortunately doesn’t do the colors justice at all as it was an overcast sky: the harissa sauce is much more vivid in reality, a deep, just slightly orangey red; the green sauce (which looked similar to traditional Indian mint chutney but was in fact made of spinach, subtly sweetened with agave) came out a little garish in the automatic flash; and the cakes (lentil, zucchini, onion, and spices) and rice pilav lack a lot of the warm colors of the real thing. But I thought I’d add my photo in any case to give a hint of what the dish looked like. It was wonderful: the cakes and rice pilav each moist and richly flavorful in complementary ways, the harissa adding a lovely, bright heat, the spinach sauce balancing it with its fresh coolness and dab of sweetness.

A starter of butternut squash soup with leeks, coconut cream thyme, pumpkin seeds, and (for flavor, not so much for sweetness) pears, completed the meal, along with a summery salad with lots of sweet basil.

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I reviewed Mint earlier here. It continues to be my favorite place to go to get nourished and inspired at the same time. All the more now that the weather is warm and I can sit outdoors (see below – though again not our more typical Vermont clear summer sky!):

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And while I’m at it, here’s another meal I had there earlier in the summer, a mezze plate with the best falafel I’ve ever had – light, soft, and deliciously herby in the middle. (And everything else was as good as it looks too…)

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bottom of the barrel

The more I’ve learned about genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and their dangers, the more convinced I am that their prime promoter and beneficiary – Monsanto – has got to be reckoned one of the most recklessly, fiendishly destructive entities on the face of the earth.

I read Seeds of Deception, by Jeffrey M. Smith, shortly after it came out, along with a couple of other shorter books on the subject. I’d already had a great deal of skepticism on the subject from my understanding of how thoroughly interdependent are all phenomena and how cataclysmically powerful and dangerous human manipulation of the natural world can be (cf. nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons; a great many pharmaceuticals; pollutants of all kinds). The argument that genetic engineering is just another form of what nature itself has done all along has never washed with me: nature is simply not capable of forcing genetic material from a salmon into tomato DNA. (Or spider into goat, jellyfish into pig, human into corn and rice, hepatitis into corn…)

But as a non-scientist, the study of scientific papers takes me a great deal of time. It’s not very cost-efficient, as it were, and furthermore – at least in the case of real “science” science as opposed to social “science” – I simply lack a deep enough background to feel comfortable, much of the time at least, forming fairly certain conclusions. (What I am capable of doing, as is anyone with the interest, is asking the larger philosophical questions about scientific paradigms of one sort or the other. And querying certain more general assumptions, aspects of design and methodology, and the basic health and integrity of scientific culture today.)

Taking all of this into account, my judgment has been that GMOs have already been shown unsafe in at least several important respects to both humans and other species, along with the earth as a whole, with much more evidence of further danger likely to come over time. Leaving all this aside, it’s been incomprehensible to me how the US still doesn’t have GMO labelling laws in place, given the newness of this technology, with all of its long-term unknowns.

But gradually, also, I have been forced to conclude that the Monsanto Corporation is more-or-less at the bottom of the barrel. They have already given us Agent Orange and DDT, and for decades now have been producing more and more of our food, promising complete safety in their technology, yet exercising all kinds of veto power over research into this (see the 2009 Scientific American editorial reprinted here).

There is a wealth of important information on GMO health risks here (see in particular the eye-opening articles under the headings “GMO Education” and “Fraud.”)

According to the ETC Group, Monsanto owns 23% of the global proprietary seed market, far and away the largest share (DuPont is second with 15%; Syngenta, another chemicals company, is third with 9%) – the article is here).

Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, our government believes Monsanto’s assurances every time, despite a mountain of evidence of serious health risk and ecological danger in this technology.

I can’t think of any issue more important than the very integrity of our food. A good starting point to understanding what is at stake is this FAQ page.

Mint Restaurant

About a year ago I discovered Mint Restaurant in Waitsfield, a lovely village in Vermont’s Mad River Valley. It’s about a 45 minute drive for me but I try and make it down whenever I can. (The drive is beautiful too.) Savitri and Iliyan are the creators, and do it all! They came to Vermont from the opposite corner of the US in just about every way (LA), and before that from Hungary and Bulgaria respectively. And they bring a love of inventive, richly and complexly flavorful, and healthy dishes inspired by cuisines from all over the world.

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(photos from the Mint website except where noted)

What makes for a truly special restaurant? I think you have to start with environment. It’s true that I’ve occasionally had great food in “hole-in-the-walls” – remembering a South Indian restaurant in South London which was a few formica tables stuck in what felt like a 1950s kitchen, harsh lighting, mostly bare white walls, but whose food was out of this world.

But an uplifting, restful, warm environent raises a meal to a whole other level. And I appreciate spaces in which all the details – materials, colors, design, lighting, music – are carefully chosen and thought through. When I step into such a room, something inside instantly relaxes and feels it is at home. I actually feel more nourished, and definitely more cheerful and peaceful, after such a meal.

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Moving on to food, Mint is special in several ways. Firstly, it is actually vegetarian! That exclamation point is there because, as someone who has been a veggie since high school, a vegetarian restaurant in and of itself is a MAJOR EVENT. At least it is here in Vermont (I believe Mint is the only such restaurant in the state). Meat-eaters take for granted that when they pick up a menu they have the choice of the whole thing. Vegetarians take for granted that when they do the same, usually at least 3/4 of it, often more, has to be filtered out immediately in order to focus on the 2 or 3 choices there will be for a main course. And for some reason these will often be fairly unimaginative, alas. So it’s such a luxury to know that literally everything is orderable. To not be a second-class citizen for a change!

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Secondly, the menu changes every week. There is one starter that is a regular feature, the fabulous “Mint salad” (baby spinach, baby arugula, snow pea sprouts, pears, toasted almonds, shaved Parmigiano Reggiano and fruit juice sweetened cranberries, tossed in a mint vinaigrette), and one main course (a large bowl of curly kale steamed and braised in tamari, garlic, orange juice, fruit juice sweetened cranberries, steamed broccoli, black turtle beans, brown rice and creamy tofu sauce). Apart from these, four new starters and four new main courses appear each week. So there is always something different to try.

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Ingredients are, of course, at peak freshness, and organic and local whenever possible. But what’s best about dinner at Mint is that every dish has been created, with artistry. Nothing is taken for granted, neither flavors, textures, or colors. The dishes are just consistently delicious, often with deep, rich flavors, and beautiful to look at. Even in the case of more familiar items, there are often one or two touches that surprise me – some idea or ingredient or variety of sauce I hadn’t come across in that context.

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(photo taken by me – though I only had the idea after starting to eat, hence that half stuffed grape leaf…)

And then it’s the sheer range of styles too that’s special. Have a look at a few of their menus from week to week. Only those meat-eaters who feel they simply need to have meat at every meal would miss it at Mint. And even then, if part of that craving is textural, I would recommend checking out what Iliyan can do with tempeh, which involves part-baking (along with marination) and is really special. Or seitan for that matter.

The menu is rounded off with a few desserts – equally distinctively Mint – and an extensive selection of excellent teas. Coffee, beer, and wine are also available.

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Mint survived major flooding damage due to Hurricane Irene in 2011 despite failing to receive any compensation from their insurance company. Savitri and Iliyan reopened a year ago, on New Year’s Eve, and I’m very glad they did. I find a great meal to be such a celebration of life, bringing much good cheer.

So if you live in or visit Vermont, I do recommend stopping by. And to Mint a big thanks for all you do – joyful New Year!

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(my photo)

hops and grapefruit

At The Farmhouse just now, sampled an especially nice double IPA called Hill Farmstead Society and Solitude #5 (for the name alone…) The first linked review there does it justice I think. There’s no actual grapefruit in it, but it does smell remarkably like. The hops are from New Zealand.

And brewed in Greensboro, home of Caspian Lake, Willey’s Store, and the very special Greensboro Garage. (Strange to contemplate, but the late Chief Justice Rehnquist owned a summer home in the town also.)

It’s only been recently that I started drinking beer again. One of the treats of travel in England when I lived there was sampling the local bitter, and I got into continental beers there also–Belgian Trappist Ales, Pilsner etc. But on returning to the States, for some reason it took awhile to realize just how good and extensive the local beer scene has become in Vermont.

The Farmhouse carries around 20 rotating draught beers, many of them local, and then quite a few dozen more in bottles. It’s an amazingly successful place, always packed, as is the other new(ish) restaurant opened by the same owners, El Cortijo (“The Farmhouse” en espaƱol). The latter I’ve come to appreciate since a) it serves genuinely out-of-the-ordinary Mexican-inspired food, with mostly locally sourced ingredients, and four different vegetarian options, all nice and creatively thought-out; b) the menu is flexible, with individual tacos about $4, so you can have as many or as few as you like; and c) it’s open late–till 12 or 1–which is welcome in a town that largely goes to sleep mid-evening.