City fits in among nation's healthiest

Cooking Light magazine ranks Baltimore 11th on food and lifestyle list

January 03, 2007|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun reporter

Good news, Baltimore. You're hip and healthy.

Cooking Light magazine, due on newsstands this week, lists our charming city among the top 20 that are both food-forward and lifestyle-light.

The magazine, celebrating its 20th year, used a variety of measures and statistics to rate the cities, but editor Mary Kay Culpepper said the city's crab cakes are a gift to the world.

"Baltimore has so much going for it," she said. "I think you know it if you live there, but I think many of our readers will be surprised.

"It's a town where real people make real food."

The attention should not be a surprise -- not after Charleston restaurant owner and chef Cindy Wolf put Baltimore on the food map with her James Beard nomination in 2006.

"I think people recognize that they can get great food, wine and service when they come to Baltimore now," said Wolf.

Baltimore is ranked 11th on a list that starts with Seattle and ends with Kansas City, Mo., and includes surprises such as Pittsburgh and Colorado Springs, Colo.

The profile of Baltimore in Cooking Light features Donna's, the chain of restaurants that has been serving fat-free and veggie-filled menus for 15 years, as an example of good food that's good for you, too.

"One of the biggest surprises to me," said owner Donna Crivello of her signature roasted vegetable salad, "was that it would be so popular. And all these years later, it is still the most popular item on the menu."

In taking a measure of the city's fitness -- Baltimore was rated No. 1 by Men's Health magazine last year -- Cooking Light noted the walking tours that draw tourists and the bike paths that draw residents.

The magazine also credits the city's proximity to the Chesapeake Bay, which is not only a source of recreation but provides the backbone of the city's culinary identity.

"I had one of the best meals ever at Obrycki's one night," said Culpepper. "I had a steamer pot that would not end. It was incredibly fresh food that was prepared very quickly."

Culpepper said the city's farmers' markets -- there are six inside the city limits -- influenced the editors' choice of Baltimore. She also mentioned the spice trade represented by Vanns and McCormick.

Ellen Trusty, vice president of Vanns, said she isn't surprised Baltimore is gaining attention. The city was mentioned favorably during a recent food conference in California's Napa Valley, she said.

"And it wasn't just Baltimore people. It was people from outside Baltimore who are traveling to the city now for the food."

Carole Simon, market manager of the state's largest farmers' market, which has operated under the Jones Falls Expressway from May until December for 30 years, was gratified by the attention. "We not only have 39 farmers," she said, "but they are very helpful, telling the home cooks how to prepare unusual vegetables like arugula and broccoli rabe."

Wolf builds many of her tasting menus around the produce available from local farmers. "As a chef, I am very happy to work in this farming community," she said. "There are many wonderful fresh products to work with, whether they come from the sea or the land. And the use of fresh products on a menu is, of course, a very healthy way to work."

Chef Sonny Sweetman, who changes his menu at Abacrombie Fine Food frequently, agrees, saying he uses local produce as a platform for his cuisine.

"The foods that are regional -- corn, tomatoes, rockfish, crab, oysters and melons in summer -- these are part of the seasonability that really plays into the food here," he said.

Paul Jarrett, executive chef at Oceanaire Seafood Room, where the staff can give you the detailed pedigree of every fresh fish it serves, said Baltimore has labored too long under its old reputation as an ethnic-food city.

"There is still Broadway Market and the Polish delis, but young professionals are moving back into the city and they are more health-conscious," he said.

Diane Neas, a Baltimore food consultant, said the city has a growing number of small, urban bistros with chefs who frequent local produce markets and fish markets. "Bistros are what is happening, and they are happening here," she said.

The small portions and healthful Mediterranean underpinnings of their menus contribute to Baltimore's reputation for flavorful, healthful cuisine, she said.

"I used to want 97 courses and everything in three sauces," Neas said. "Now I want food that is healthy and full of flavor, and smaller portions. I think that's very reflective of the times and of Baltimore."

Sun reporter Kate Shatzkin contributed to this article.

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