The Perennial Plate, the web documentary showing where our food comes from, has been the hit of HP's Food page and has been tweeted about by the likes of Michael Pollan. But what's driving chef and host Daniel Klein is "social change," says his stalwart cameraperson Mirra Fine. It's certainly changed her. When Klein killed a turkey for dinner in episode #1, Fine swore off meat. Immediately. "I can't kill animals and I can't watch them being killed."
It's raised some issues in the filming process and personally -- Fine is also Klein's solid gold girlfriend. But more on that later.
Born and raised in Minneapolis, Fine has a complicated relationship with food. She's both a recovering junk food junkie and a picky eater. "I've never really been connected to my food at all. In college, I lived on Campbell's minestrone soup with Minute rice and Kraft parmesan cheese mixed together. I'd eat it every single day," she says, wistful. Gone are the days of innocence, processed food, excessive sodium. . . and meat.
"I've always loved animals," says Fine, who often blogs about her five beloved pet chickens. "I'd never connected it in that way. I feel badly that I didn't. Now with Daniel, it's really opened my eyes how food affects our whole world."
Fine's relationship with food has changed but it's still complicated -- she's a vegetarian who's just starting to like vegetables. "I'm really liking kale," she says. "I've been trying hard to eat better, and kale is really good. She misses Pop Tarts and innocence, but not meat. "Every time I see meat, I think, that was an animal with a life and feelings and a mother." Fine still hasn't watched the turkey-slaughtering video and it's not on her To Do list. And by the way, Perennial Plate's Bunnies Parts 1 and 2 is not suitable Easter viewing for kids, either.
Not every Perennial Plate episode is a thrill kill special. Many feature "small farmers who are trying really hard and struggling," says Fine. "That's very cool. It's not just food, it's the people behind it."
After a year of documenting Minnesota's sustainable farmers, foragers and CSAs, Klein and Fine are taking their show on the road next month, seeking out and filming the country's great food stories. Though excited about the project, Fine is sweating over the details -- like what to eat. It's been hard weaning herself off junk food and it'll be harder while traveling. She also has to deal with chicken separation anxiety. Her pets will be looked after by neighbors who've vowed to take good care of them, "but I don't think they feel the same way about them as I do," says Fine. "I didn't realize I would end up loving the chickens so much."
And there's the continuing issue of Fine trying to film Klein as he kills the animals he's going to prepare and eat. "That's hard for me to see, that's something I'm going to struggle with, meeting an animal and knowing that --" Fine breaks off, takes a deep breath. "We're trying to figure out how it can be done. I think I'm going to have to wait in the car."
Klein had been meatless once, but as Perennial Plate shows, is back to killing, cooking and eating it. You'd think Fine's compassion and conviction would bring him back to the meatless fold, but, she says, "I'm not comfortable telling people how to be." What keeps her committed to Perennial Plate is "showing people the realities behind what they're eating. Even though it completely breaks my heart."
She wants The Perennial Plate to have the profound effect on others it's had on her, to approach what we eat with compassion and consciousness. The alternative she says, "is to be living inside a humongous McDonalds."
So what's her advice to others? "To be open to hearing about it -- it isn't easy. And a really important first step is to care."
Sicilian Spring Pasta With Kale and Fennel for Mirra Fine
The sweet spring anisey taste of fennel marries beautifully with kale's slight bite. And tomatoes and chewy pasta tie it all together. Quick to make but not processsed, it has flavor echoes of Fine's college favorite, but is fresher and healthier (and yes, Mirra, you can add parmesan, if you like).
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided use
1 pinch red pepper flakes
1 onion, chopped fine
1 young fennel, bulb plus feathery fronds, chopped fine
1 big bunch of kale, stemmed and torn into bite-sized pieces
2 15-ounce cans diced tomatoes
1/3 cup white wine
16 ounces tubular whole wheat pasta, such as penne or rigatoni
2 tablespoons pine nuts
sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
In a large skillet, heat 3 tablespoons of the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the red pepper flakes. When they start to sizzle, add chopped onion and fennel. Stir for a moment, till vegetables glisten with oil, then reduce heat to medium-low.
Cover and cook for 20 minutes.
Add kale by the handul, stir gently to combine. When the greens start to wilt, about 5 minutes, add tomatoes and white wine. Cover and continue cooking for another 10 minutes or so, or until greens are tender and flavors get happy together.
In the meantime, preheat oven to 350. In a shallow pan, toast pine nuts for 6 minutes or so. Watch carefully, they can go from pale to burnt within a few minutes.
In a pot for your pasta, bring water to a rolling boil. Add pasta. Cook according to package directions, anywhere from 8 to 12 minutes, so noodles are al dente. This means you bite into them and meet a little resistance. Gummy is not the goal.
Drain well. Return pasta to pot. Pour tomato, kale and fennel mixture on top and toss gently to combine.
Season with sea salt and fresh pepper. Drizzle on remaining tablespoon of olive oil and top with toasted pine nuts.