Thursday, March 31, 2011

The Fish Matrix

Another Bittman cooking matrix... this one for fish: broiled, sautéed, roasted, and poached. I think I'm actually going to try this one, since I almost never cook fish and I've been meaning to check out several of my local fishmongers (for years at this point). Trying to work my way through this chart while keeping within sustainably fished... fish... should be a good summer project.

"Classic" French Omelet

Classic French Omelet Attempt
Ever since I saw that YouTube clip of Jacques Pepin making omelets I've been anxious to try and make the classic French omelet myself. It's not a style of omelet you see at brunch in the States very often... and while I'm sure they're out there at fancier events... I've never had one served to me. The principle differences between the "country style" omelet and the "classic" is a) whether the butter is browned or not, and b) how big the curds are. In a country omelet (i.e. what we typically make in the US) the butter is browned and the curds are very large, whereas with a classic omelet has no browned butter and very, very small curds. The size of the curds is determined by how long you let the egg set before moving and how vigorously you move them around as they cook. A small curd looks a bit like runny scrambled eggs. Unfortunately, these small curds are pretty hard to make... or at least it seems so to me... I can make a tri-fold country omelet pretty much perfectly every time, but the fork and pan movements shown in that Jacques Pepin video frankly scare the bejezus out of me. Luckily I recalled that I had seen a Cook's Illustrated recipe a while back that claimed to make it "easy" and "fool proof" or something to that effect so I dove into my archives for the recipe you see below.

The keys here are using chopsticks (or skewers) so that you can vigorously break up the curds without worrying about scratching your non stick pan... and covering the partially cooked eggs with a lid off the heat to get them  a little more done without browning the bottom. In addition, little frozen butter cubes added to your eggs helps them keep a creamy texture.

I wouldn't say this is the easiest recipe to pull off... but it does seem to reduce the difficult technique parts to more manageable steps. Presumably using chopsticks to scramble your curds won't impress any of your chef friends, but whatevs. As you can see above my rolling was a bit of a disaster... so I don't have any tips for you on that end. It'll still be delicious even if it's not perfect and presumably practice will help.

Recipe adapted from Cook's Illustrated (January 2009 issue - subscription required).

  • 1/2 teaspoon vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon butter, cut into 2 pieces
  • 3 eggs, cold
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 tablespoon Gruyère, grated
  • 1 tablespoon of herbs (chives, chervil, and/or parsley), minced
  1. Pour the oil into your omelet pan (a pan about 8-10" and non-stick) and put it over low heat while you work on the eggs and butter. You want it to heat up for about 10 minutes.
  2. Take one of the pieces of butter and cube it, put it in a bowl, and place it into the freezer for 10 minutes.
  3. Crack two of the eggs into a bowl, but the third you want to separate off the white (reserve for another use) and use only the yolk. Season with a little salt and pepper and whisk with a fork until there is no trace of egg white... they say about 80 strokes at a medium pace, but I'm not counting, are you?
  4. When you are ready to go... herbs and cheese ready... pan heated for 10 minutes and butter frozen for ten minutes... take your butter cubes from the freezer and mix them into the eggs.
  5. Wipe out the oil our of the pan with a paper towel so there is a thin coating on your pan.
  6. Add the remaining piece of butter to the pan and swirl it around until it stops foaming... making sure to not let it brown. Add your eggs and turn the heat up to medium high.
  7. Holding two chopsticks in one hand, move them in a circular motion around the pan, scrambling the eggs and pulling the egg away from the sides of the pan. When you've got what looks to be runny scrambled eggs, take the pan off the heat and smooth down the eggs into an even circle with a spatula. Sprinkle your cheese and herbs over the eggs and then cover with a lid. Let it sit for 1-2 minutes covered depending on how you like your eggs.
  8. Put the pan back over low heat and use a spatula to go around the edges and help free the omelet.
  9. Slide it gently onto a plate and carefully roll it up into a tight roll.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Flavor Without Browning?

I don't really find browning meat before braising to be a big hassle... at least if you own a Dutch oven... but it's still interesting to see someone examine conventional wisdom.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Hip Hop and Cooking: Together at Last

I haven't had a chance to check out Crazy Legs' "Lunch Breaks"... beyond a minute or two and reading the New York Times article... but it certainly combines two things that this humble blogger has some interest in:
Thirty years ago, Mr. Colon — better known as the B-boy, or break dancer, Crazy Legs — propelled hip-hop culture to the world stage as a member of the seminal dance troupe known as the Rock Steady Crew. Today, he remains a global ambassador for B-boying, and his kitchen here is the embassy. While Mr. Colon and his manic sidekick, David (D-Stroy) Melendez, serve up an eclectic set that includes Ray Barretto, Roberto Roena, Biggie Smalls and Chic, they challenge their guests — established artists and hopeful newcomers — to cook a healthy lunch.
A pretty cool hook and from the few minutes I've seen, Crazy Legs seems a skilled DJ with deep crates... though I have no idea about how good the cooking aspect is. The timing is a little inconvenient for me to watch regularly, but they've got full archives online.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Do not make this recipe. [UPDATED!]

Assemble Salty Sandwich
I have to specifically not recommend the General Tso's Tofu sub from the New York Times.

A 1/4 cup of salt... really? It's insanity. Unfortunately I didn't listen to Anna's skepticism like I should have, and we just forged ahead. I like salt a good bit, but this was inedible. It strikes me as a good idea overall (otherwise why would we make it?), but I wouldn't put any salt on the tofu and would cut back on the salt in the pickles if I was trying to make this a non disaster.

The Fries Were Good At Least

I made good French fries though, so the weekend's cooking extravaganza wasn't a total bust.

[UPDATE: After leaving a comment on the recipe itself I received a note from an editor over there that they changed the wording in the recipe to make clear they only wanted you to use about a tablespoon of salt mixture for each piece of tofu. Anna was in charge of that part, so I can't really recall how much she used per piece of tofu...  but there is still just as a large proportion of salt to other spices in the mixture...  so even if you only use a tablespoon of the mixture it still seems your tofu will be salty. However it's possible if you make them this way the sub will be as good as it sounds.]

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Screaming Eagle?! I'd call it a Steak Bomb

I might have to break up with Sam Sifton after he slanderously gave Boston College credit for a sandwich any New England resident would know instantly as a variant of the classic steak bomb. Now I'll grant you he's talking about a specific sandwich drunk college kids eat, but still... can't be confusing people into thinking that some dude in BC's dining hall invented it or something. The indignity!

Looks like a good recipe though.

Pommes Dauphinoise

Pommes Dauphinoise

Pommes Dauphinoise and potatoes au gratin are pretty much the same thing. Both have thinly sliced potatoes baked in cream and/or milk and generally (though not always in pommes Dauphinoise's case) get a nicely browned topping of cheese. The differences manifest mainly in, say, an the choice of cheddar over Gruyère for a Midwestern potatoes au gratin... and maybe in the amount and type of cream... but otherwise they are functionally identical. It's an extremely simple dish in preparation, and the primary difficulty comes from the possibility of curdling the milk or cream while baking. It seems this is mainly an issue if you are using milk with a low fat content and baking at high temperatures... and this can be ameliorated by making a béchamel sauce with some additional flour and butter... but for this Dorie Greenspan recipe, we're using heavy cream and baking at 350 so that is not much of a worry. The other, very much related issue, is uneven and incomplete cooking of the potatoes which, for those of us without uber knife skills, is mainly a result of not using a mandoline/v-slicer. I hate to be all "kitchen gadgety" but... along with making french fries at home... a gratin is one of those dishes that can basically make the case for owning a mandoline all by itself. Peeling and thinly slicing two pounds of potatoes is good knife practice, certainly, but it also takes a hella long time and makes the dish less appealing to prepare on a regular basis... however, given the amount of calories in a serving of pommes Dauphinoise, you may find that to be a feature not a bug. I've used a food processor to do this kind of slicing in a pinch, but I've found our slicing attachment to not be very reliable in getting uniform pieces... and if I'm not getting uniform pieces I feel like I might as well get some knife work in. However you may have a much better food processor than me (not at all unlikely) and find that to be the best choice. Probably worth a shot at any rate.

Also, as a specific note for this recipe, Dorie Greenspan called for a 9" deep dish pie plate or 2 quart baking dish. That's going to be a very deep and thick gratin, which is not my personal preference, so I went with a 3 quart dish (a 9x13x2 pan) to give a little more surface area (and browned cheese!). From what I've read I don't think you really want to go more than 3 or 4 rows deep if you want uniformly cooked potatoes, and we were best able to accomplish that with a larger area pan. As always, YMMV.

So, as mentioned above, this recipe is from Dorie Greenspan's Around My French Table.

  • 2 lbs of high starch potatoes (e.g. russet), peeled, sliced 1/8" thick
  • 1 3/4 cups heavy cream
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • Salt and Pepper
  • Light cream or whole milk, as needed
  • Small sprigs of thyme and/or rosemary
  • 4 oz Gruyère, grated
  1. Put a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat said oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Butter at least a 2 quart baking dish (see dish conversions here) and put it on a cookie sheet (for spills/overflow and ease of maneuver).
  3. Bring the heavy cream and garlic to a simmer over low heat and keep warm, but not simmering, while you prepare the baking dish.
  4. Place potatoes in overlapping rows/concentric circles, salting and peppering each layer, spooning over the cream and garlic mixture until it laps the sides of the potatoes. Continue this until you've placed 4 layers of potatoes. 
  5. If you run out of heavy cream, use light cream or whole milk to make sure liquid is just peeking out at the edges of the pan.
  6. Separate the herbs from their woody stems and sprinkle over the potatoes. Top with the cheese.
  7. Bake for 45 minutes. If a knife pierces the potatoes easily to the bottom (in several spots) it's done, otherwise bake until the potatoes are tender: 15 to 30 more minutes. If you notice the top is starting to get too brown at any point, just cover it with foil.
  8. Once the potatoes are tender enough, turn off the oven and open the door, allowing the gratin to rest 5-10 more minutes in the warm oven.  
Pommes Dauphinoise - Close Up

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Are Veggie Burgers No Longer Lame?

Black Bean Veggie BurgerJeff Gordinier, at the New York Times, lays out why (generally speaking) meat eaters and vegetarians alike disdain veggie burgers:
For meat-lovers, the veggie burger was long seen as a sad stand-in that tried to copy the contours and textures of a classic beef patty while falling pathetically short of the pleasure. And for meat-refusers, the veggie burger served as a kind of penitential wafer: You ate this bland, freeze-dried nutrient disc because you had to eat it (your duty as someone who had forsaken the flesh) and because at many a restaurant or backyard barbecue, it was the only option available.
I think that pretty aptly and succinctly describes the situation facing anyone ordering a veggie burger for as long as I can remember. Since I eat meat, I've always been more likely to order a veggie burger with cheese and a couple of slices of bacon (aka The Hypocrite), but even I know that... unless the place is well know for making their own patties in house... a vegetarian is best ordering anything else on the menu.

So what does Gordinier say has changed?
If there is a primary reason they are improving, it comes back to the force that drives just about anything in the marketplace: demand. According to Mintel, a market research firm, there was a 26 percent increase in menu items labeled vegetarian or vegan between the last quarter of 2008 and the same quarter in 2010.

With more and more people pledging themselves to vegan and vegetarian modes of dining, it seems self-defeating for restaurants to ignore them — or to pretend that those diners will be satisfied with yet another droopy grilled-vegetable platter. The signs are clear enough that two high priests of the global burger gospel, Burger King and McDonald’s, have for years given veggie burgers a run, although only Burger King currently has one on menus in the United States.
Well that's encouraging, and rings pretty true to me... it's hard not to notice how much better "the vegetarian option" has gotten over the last decade, and especially in the last few years. But how much have veggie burgers improved? I have to say that I'm not entirely convinced that it's been very significant. Gordinier supplies quite a lot of anecdotes about NYC chefs taking it seriously... and a quick Google brought up this relatively recent Chowhound thread endorsing a number house made options here in the Boston area... so maybe I'm being overly reticent to embrace this new wave of veggie burger innovation... but I keep coming back to the question he asks, but doesn't effectively answer:
But with thousands of flora-based recipes in the world, why the compulsive return to the burger genre? “There’s something really satisfying about a hand-held food that’s served on a bun,” said Lukas Volger, the author of “Veggie Burgers Every Which Way,” a cookbook that was published last year. The patty-bun-condiments format of a burger holds sway over us the same way the dependable verse-chorus-bridge structure of a perfect three-minute pop song does.
I guess I've just never had a good veggie burger... and because I eat meat, I still can't help but feel like they're a waste of time. There are so many better things to do with vegetables... that aren't simply aping a meat dish that they can never really even vaguely resemble... that I have trouble believing that improving them is worth the effort. Now granted, I love me some falafel and vegetable fritters...  and what are they, really, other than mini-veggie burgers? So I guess I'll have to take my pessimistic self and try the supplied recipe or... at the very least... one of the house made options in Cambridge (topped with bacon and cheese naturally)... and see if I can be made a believer.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Some Bread Success for a Change

Pictured above is the first boule... of many attempts... that I've made that hasn't involved lots of burning. As mentioned previously, this is mainly because I'm a stubborn idiot who has refused to change his baking tactics even when it's clearly not working.While I do fine with baguettes and smaller loaves, the large size of a boule, and thus longer cooking time, has always done me in. Eventually I became frustrated enough to look for tips and settled mainly on the (fairly obvious) solution of moving the baking stone up from the bottom of the oven. As you can see, this worked pretty well... though it started to get a little over browned while still not nearly done, so I needed to scale back the temperature quite a bit (from 475 to 350) after about 15 minutes and cover the top with foil to avoid burning. Next time, once it's clear that a good crust has formed (10 minutes?) I would probably pull back the temp to something like 400 degrees... maybe cooler.

Close Crumb
I used the same formula for Pain a l'Ancienne that I've used successfully in the past, but simply shaped it into a boule, instead of baguettes, after the dough spent two days in the fridge. It's still not quite as airy as I would like, but the higher hydration relative to your basic French bread recipe did make a difference. I think I'll just keep pushing the limit until I figure out the wettest dough I can handle and effectively shape into a boule.

Monday, March 21, 2011

More Grilled Cheese

More Grilled Cheese
While I did a fair bit of cooking this weekend, I don't have any posts ready to go for today... so I figured I'd just throw up this picture. I guess I've been on a bit of a kick with the whole grilled cheese thing... I, uhm, promise to be more varied in the future... but I thought this was a nice picture and wanted to share.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Decadent Grilled Cheese

Beaufort d’été
One of the benefits of working in science is collaboration with colleagues in foreign countries (young post docs take note: make friends will the people from countries you want to visit!). Thus my boss goes twice a year to France to work with an MD over there collecting data on sleep apnics. Good for him, eh? Unfortunately this collaboration has yet to call for a biomedical engineer to cross the pond, but it is not without some benefit for moi; which you see pictured above.

When my boss learned about our newfound interest in cheese, he promised to bring back some real French cheese for Anna and me.

Enter Beaufort d’été. David Lebovitz will give you a better rundown on this cheese than I ever could, but I'll give a quick summary. It's an alpine cheese sharing many of the characteristics (nuttiness, complexity, great for melting, etc.) with its cousins Comté and Gruyère, though it is widely regarded as the best of the three. However there are actually three varieties of Beaufort as well: Beaufort, Beaufort d’été, and Beaufort d'Alpage. Both Beaufort d’été and Beaufort d'Alpage are made from the milk of cows pasturing on summer grass, but d'Alpage is specifically made in chalets in the Alps. Not really sure if there is significant difference between d’été and d'Alpage in flavor (the internet seems strangely silent on this issue), but both are certainly superior to regular Beaufort, which comes from the winter milk of non-pastured cows.

Beaufort Grilled Cheese

So I admit we did nothing fancy with our first taste of Beaufort, just making humble grilled cheeses. Anna brought home fresh bread from Hi Rise and we just grilled it simply with no accoutrement. If we were in the height of summer I would go with tomato, but a watery winter supermarket tomato would seem like an insult to the cheese. So how was it? As a cheese n00b, but a great lover of Comté and Gruyère, I would say that Beaufort's reputation is well deserved. It is sharper than either with a distinct aroma. Maybe a bit creamier and nuttier. I felt a little guilty at first that we did such a simple preparation, but have since come to believe that it's a very solid way to go. It's really not much different than having a slice with a grilled piece of baguette, but you get to experience its... uhm... "meltiness." It seems like Beaufort would probably make the best fondue in the world, but quite an expensive one.

For those who don't have bosses who make biannual jaunts to Grenoble, you can find Beaufort in the States... though it seems pretty rare... it's probably easiest to ask your local cheese shop about it. However, you can order it here, here, here, and here... but price and availability seem to differ quite widely, and I've not ordered from any of those sites (though I do visit the brick and mortar version of Formaggio Kitchen), and thus can't testify to their speed, reliability, etc.

Despite the hassle of obtaining it, if you're a big fan of Comté and Gruyère, or cheese in general, I think you won't regret giving Beaufort a try.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

D.I.Y. Kitchen Projects

The New York Times has a pretty snazzy interactive interface for some homemade condiments, cheeses, and pickles.. None of them require anything fancy like a canning setup, so they seem pretty approachable. I've made kimchi myself... and want to do so again... but the Chinese Chili-Scallion Oil and Preserved Lemons are most attractive to me. The oil because store bought varieties don't match the stuff at my favorite pho place, and the lemons because I've never really cooked with them before and they intrigue me.

What should a restaurant owner do about a bad online review?

From The New York Times:
“We attempted to eat at the restaurant on 12/30/10. We waited a total of two hours and were finally told that they were out of nearly every entree and “would we consider sampling what they had left?” When they couldn’t confirm how long it would take to get “tastings,” we left NEVER TO RETURN TO THIS HORRIBLE PLACE — And the owner came up to us to say it was a “bad night” He was arrogant and didn’t apologize or offer us the opportunity to return comped or discounted. AVOID THIS RESTAURANT.” –Alex C.

This review has now appeared on Yelp, TripAdvisor, and will soon be showing at a local Web site near you. If we ever get on Zagat. it will be there too. If the reviewer — who also identifies himself as Alex Cohen — ever uses OpenTable, it will be there too. It will follow us to the cyber cemetery. Mr. Cohen is on an upper-case mission.

How should we play this? Respond on each site? Let it be? Respond with vigor? Kill Mr. Cohen with kindness? Hope that a preponderance of good reviews will bury this one, or at least dilute its impact? Ignore Mr. Cohen completely? (I guess it’s too late for that, showing up here and all.)
As they say, read the whole thing... but he goes on to apologize for Mr. Cohen's experience and relay his side of the story. Assuming you believe the restaurant owner, the harshness (and the internet stalker aspect) of the review is indeed unfair... so should he respond?

Now, of course, publishing this on the NYT website is a significant response...  so the question is probably moot... but in general I think the obvious answer is "hope that a preponderance of good reviews will bury this one." Maybe it's my science background, but I can't imagine looking at a rating based on four Yelp reviews and taking it seriously. If it was thirty reviews dominated by complaints of bad service and long wait times then that's another story... but that's not the case here. Honestly, this kind of thing is why I still rely as much as possible on professional reviewers... and why it's impossible for me to envision "crowd sourcing" ever really replacing it. For neighborhood places that may never warrant a big time reviewer, Yelp can be invaluable, but you have to know how to filter out the "people with an ax to grind" to read it effectively. Anna likes to use Chowhound to find restaurants generating buzz, but even there you have to know how to filter out the "back in the day" foodie/hipsters who think everything popular/not obscure is overrated.

I suppose there are people who would see that one review and not go... but places like Per Se get one star reviews... and if people are that dumb, then do you really want them eating at your restaurant in the first place?

Though this is definitely a good reminder that I never want to be in the restaurant business... one review like that, even from a guy on the internet, and I'd probably sulk for a week.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Vegetarian Reductio ad Absurdum

I can't tell whether this is a serious issue for the author, or some way to justify meat eating by pointing out plants want to live too (probably serious since it's in the Science section)... but the New York Times has an article on the ethical quandaries of eating plants:
When a plant is wounded, its body immediately kicks into protection mode. It releases a bouquet of volatile chemicals, which in some cases have been shown to induce neighboring plants to pre-emptively step up their own chemical defenses and in other cases to lure in predators of the beasts that may be causing the damage to the plants. Inside the plant, repair systems are engaged and defenses are mounted, the molecular details of which scientists are still working out, but which involve signaling molecules coursing through the body to rally the cellular troops, even the enlisting of the genome itself, which begins churning out defense-related proteins.

Plants don’t just react to attacks, though. They stand forever at the ready. Witness the endless thorns, stinging hairs and deadly poisons with which they are armed. If all this effort doesn’t look like an organism trying to survive, then I’m not sure what would. Plants are not the inert pantries of sustenance we might wish them to be.

If a plant’s myriad efforts to keep from being eaten aren’t enough to stop you from heedlessly laying into that quinoa salad, then maybe knowing that plants can do any number of things that we typically think of as animal-like would. They move, for one thing, carrying out activities that could only be called behaving, if at a pace visible only via time-lapse photography. Not too long ago, scientists even reported evidence that plants could detect and grow differently depending on whether they were in the presence of close relatives, a level of behavioral sophistication most animals have not yet been found to show.
Yeah, I dunno: I think I'll stick with the idea that if it doesn't have a central nervous system, then it's ok to kill it. I suppose that might make me History's Greatest Monster to my hypothetical grand kids who eat some sort of nutrient paste (though the fact that I eat meat seems a larger issue), but it feel like there are enough things to worry about in life that are significantly more important than that.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Jacques Pepin on Omelets

Saw this over at Diner's Journal. Intriguing, since I've heard and read about the classic French omelet, but had never seen in demonstrated.

Sustainable Farming: Can it feed the world or not?

First, James McWilliams over at Slate details a recent study on organic farming:
To its credit, organic does quite well in many cases: Sweet potatoes, raspberries, canola, and hay all yielded higher nationally than their conventional counterparts. At the state level, organic squash did better in Oregon than conventional squash; in Arizona and Colorado, organic apples yielded slightly higher than conventional ones; and in Washington state organic peaches beat out conventional varieties. In essence, there's a lot here for organic supporters to cherry-pick as evidence of organic's yield potential (but not cherries, which yielded much lower).

Unfortunately, there's little hope in feeding the world with higher yields of sweet potatoes, peaches, and raspberries—much less hay. What matters most is the performance of basic row-crops. As it turns out, yields were dramatically lower for these commodities: 40 percent lower for winter wheat, 29 percent lower for corn, 34 percent lower for soy, 53 percent lower for spring wheat, 41 percent lower for rice, 58 percent lower for sorghum, and 64 percent lower for millet. Canola was the only row-crop with greater yields with organic farming.
What we might call "secondary staples" did poorly as well. The organic option yielded 28 percent lower for potatoes, 21 percent lower for sweet corn, 38 percent lower for onions, 19 percent lower for snap beans, and 52 percent lower for bell peppers. Perhaps most distressingly, some of the healthiest foods on the planet yielded comparatively poorly under organic production: 42 percent lower for blueberries, 23 percent lower for broccoli, and almost 40 percent lower for tomatoes.
But Mark Bittman just extolled the prospects of sustainable farming in the New York Times:
On Tuesday, Olivier de Schutter, the United Nations’ special rapporteur on the Right to Food, presented a report entitled “Agro-ecology and the Right to Food.” (Agro-ecology, he said in a telephone interview last Friday, has “lots” in common with both “sustainable” and “organic.”) Chief among de Schutter’s recommendations is this: “Agriculture should be fundamentally redirected towards modes of production that are more environmentally sustainable and socially just.” (To access a press release about the launch of the report, click here (pdf). To read the full report click here (pdf).)

Agro-ecology, he said, immediately helps “small farmers who must be able to farm in ways that are less expensive and more productive. But it benefits all of us, because it decelerates global warming and ecological destruction.” Further, by decentralizing production, floods in Southeast Asia, for example, might not mean huge shortfalls in the world’s rice crop; smaller scale farming makes the system less susceptible to climate shocks. (Calling it a system is a convention; it’s actually quite anarchic, what with all these starving and overweight people canceling each other out.)
So what gives? Truth is, these two articles are not in conflict. While, as of yet, there is no way we could replace all of the United States food production with organic farming practices... the UN report is about how much we could use what we've learned about sustainable farming practices to improve the farming output in places like Africa. Using "agro-ecology" in such undernourished and under producing areas increases yield, costs much less, and reduces environmental damage.

Pesticide and GMO-free farming is never going to replace high technology farming in the Western World, but it can supplement it... and the advances we make in organic farming can be used to develop low cost/high yield techniques for poor farmers on marginal land.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Cooking Word of the Day: Nixtamalization

Nixtamalization is the Nahuatl word for the cooking and steeping of corn in alkaline water. The steeping liquor, known as nejayote, is drained off after the process is complete and the remaining corn is washed to remove a portion of its skin and excess alkali. At this point the batch of corn is known as nixtamal. Nixtamal can be ground to produce the dough known as masa –from which we make tortillas, tamales, tlacoyos, etc; or it can be left whole and boiled again to produce the puffed up boiled corn used in posole.
If you've ever wanted to make tortillas with "fresh" masa (as opposed to making them from masa de harina) - allegedly so superior that they deserve a different name - Cooking Issues has your bible. A pretty amazing post. Unfortunately it doesn't look like a trivial undertaking... the most difficult issue seems to be grinding the wet nixtamal, which not all appliances can handle. It does appear that there are hand crank wet grinders on the market that aren't super expensive, but apparently grinding nixtamal is all they do (i.e. they're no good for regular grains). Not sure I need to make an authentic tortilla quite that much... though, granted, it would make for some epic blog fodder. Frankly I just wish I could buy fresh masa... let a tortilla factory do all the simmering, steeping, and grinding... but, at least last time I checked, there was no such place in Boston. Not surprising really (there is only one in New York after all), but disappointing nonetheless. Maybe the Cooking Issues post will inspire some budding Boston culinary entrepreneur?  One can only hope.

Ruhlman reviews Modernist Cuisine

I'm fascinated by the 6 volume set, but have no desire to own it or cook from it (that sound was Anna sighing with relief). However I never get tired of hearing about it, and this review by Michael Ruhlman is a wonderful piece of food writing to boot. The pressure cooker chicken stock looks interesting as well, though it's not exactly an unknown method.

Bittman's "No Recipe" Soups

I really like this concept for teaching people how to cook... and how to think about cooking. Reminds me a bit of Ratio, but a little more approachable for someone who is a complete novice in the kitchen. I feel like if you did work through that matrix... and tried some variations... you'd really understand the building blocks of a good soup. I kinda wish this is how I started cooking, instead of going the recipe-by-rote... route. (Sorry I couldn't help myself) Not too shabby for his first New York Times Magazine piece...  you'd almost think he'd done this sort of thing before.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

"Stealing" Recipes

Will Write For Food interviews Amanda Hesser on the concept of attributing/adapting recipes. The title of her blog post is a little overstated, since Hesser the reference to stealing is fairly mild. The two key questions:
Q. This blog has had heated discussions about what constitutes recipe writing and adapting. What is your definition of an adapted recipe?

A. There are two definitions.

At the New York Times, any recipe that comes from another source will always say “adapted from” because it goes through the copy-editing department, and there are little tiny changes that have to do with the stylebook. It means it’s not a word-for-word replica.

The other definition is when it’s someone’s own recipe has been inspired by another’s, for instance, if someone has cooked Alice Water’s Braised Leeks enough times that they’ve personalized it. A lot of people read recipes for inspiration, looking for a flavor combination to play around with. Then they go in the kitchen and do their own thing. But it’s important that they credit the source from which they adapted their recipe.

Q. What about the idea that if you change three ingredients, it’s now your recipe?

A. You can do that, but is that really what you want to call a creative endeavor? Is that what you want to put your name on, as a creative author?

Over the long term, bloggers or anyone who does that kind of thing is not going to gain a lasting following. Personal voice, experience, and conviction are what come through. If you’re just tweaking to legally call something your own, that lack of genuineness will surface.
This is the main reason you won't find many recipes on this blog. I am not a skilled enough cook to really write recipes that I could reasonably call my own. I can execute them, talk about my experiences doing so, and take (hopefully) pretty pictures of the results. So I post a link to an online version if I can find it, or otherwise make sure it's clear where it's coming from. I guess that means I'll never get a cookbook deal, but I at least hope it has some utility and I don't think anyone could reasonably call me a recipe thief.

She also makes some other points about writing with a clear voice that I probably could stand to work on.

I feel like I've been posting too much meta food blogging stuff lately... I really need to get back into the kitchen. 

Monday, March 7, 2011

Fat Myths

Not much of the information presented in this Civil Eats article is new if you've read Pollan or Taubes, but the idea that calories from fat are particularly bad for you is a stubborn myth... so it's good to see it attacked yet again:
This past December, the Los Angeles Times reported that excess carbohydrates and sugar, not fat, are responsible for America’s obesity and diabetes epidemics. One of the lead researchers in this field, Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition and epidemiology at the Harvard School of Public Health, said, “The country’s big low-fat message backfired. The overemphasis on reducing fat caused the consumption of carbohydrates and sugar in our diets to soar. That shift may be linked to the biggest health problems in America today.” Another expert, Dr. Walter Willett, chairman of the department of nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health, said, “Fat is not the problem.”

Last month, Martha Rose Shulman of the New York Times Recipes for Health section, wrote that she’s taken the “no low-fat pledge.” Shulman writes, “I took a pledge the other day that will surprise my longtime followers. It even surprised me. I pledged to drop the term ‘low-fat’ from my vocabulary.”
Worth a read.

Friday, March 4, 2011

FDA planning to ruin American cheeses (more)?

Could be:
Kehler and other artisanal cheesemakers swear by "raw" milk -- straight-from-the-udder and unpasteurized -- saying it gives their products personality and depth of character by retaining the good bacteria that otherwise are killed during pasteurization. Selling raw milk is illegal in most states, but federal law allows cheese made from raw milk as long as it is aged for 60 days, a period intended to kill harmful bacteria.

But the Food and Drug Administration is re-examining its regulations, a move that has caused concern among cheese makers. They worry that the agency will lengthen the mandatory aging period or, possibly, ban raw milk cheeses altogether. FDA officials are meeting next week in Washington with members of the American Cheese Society to discuss the issues.

"We'd like to know more about any pending regulatory changes that may occur and how we can help prepare our cheesemakers," says Christine Hyatt, president of the 1,200-member group. "I would hope that we can work together to create some standards and safety protocols for cheesemakers that would not require additional regulatory changes."

An outright ban would remove some of the world's most famous cheeses from American shelves: Parmigiano-Reggiano, Gruyere and Roquefort all are made with raw milk. But even extending the aging period, cheesemakers and experts say, could leave a notable hole on your cheeseboard.
If they ban Gruyere I'm leaving.

Does anybody in France need a Biomedical Engineer who doesn't speak French? I'm very good at charades so it should be fine.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Original iPad for $399

Noticed this tidbit at the end of Farhad Manjoo's impressions of iPad 2. Tempting, but alas I spent any "fun money" I had available in the short term on new lamps and plates (adulthood - boo! hiss!)... still, might be useful info for others out there.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Food Photography and Plates

Grilled Cheese and Pea Soup
If you ever look through my food photos in my Flickr photostream, it won't take long to notice that I mainly only use one type of plate for my photos (at least in the last year or so)... not that we only have one type of plate, but that I've found that the colored and patterned types of dishes we own... that are pretty pieces in and of themselves... don't display food to its best effect. Kind of a bummer that boring white plates show food so much better, but there it is. If I was an artist, and I knew more about color, I could probably match up colors in my plates with the colors I want to accentuate in the food I'm photographing, and work it that way... but fact is I'm a novice who just wants to take nice pictures of the food he makes before it gets cold... and really, who has the budget to own a vast array of specialty plates that I only pull out if "I want some more red in this shot?" Makes more sense to me to have a small variety of white plates that you can use in any shot.

To that end Anna and I went up to China Fair to supplement our one set of white plates with a few more interesting shapes. I've always felt I haven't be able to do much justice to soups and stews (which are one of my favorite things to make), so hopefully this will expand the number of dishes I can photograph reasonably well... and help me with making my composition a little more interesting. I suppose we shall see once I get back in the kitchen.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Name of the Wind Summary

For any nerds out there that are looking forward to picking up The Wise Man's Fear today, but haven't read the first one in a while... Patrick Rothfuss has thoughtfully provided a pictorial summary of the first book.

Massachusetts Pizza

I've been a little under the weather this week, so I haven't been able to put together a decent post... and instead I'm just going to link to the pizza situation in Massachusetts according to Serious Eats. I don't think I've heard many people praise the pizza here, and it is something I generally tend to want to make at home... so I've never really been on much of a quest for the best pizza in New England. I've certainly eaten at the iconic Pizzeria Regina, but most of these places I've never even heard of... probably because I don't spend a lot of time in the North End... despite working right next to it. Kind of shameful when you think about it. But I think I might actually be more interested in Gran Gusto in Cambridge... only a 20 minute walk from my apartment, and offering the Neapolitan style of pizza that I prefer.