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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Flatbread physics

“You must use a bread machine.” 

That’s the most common response when I reveal that I bake bread. Though I do have a bread machine, I seldom use it any more. For many, though, the limitation to making bread is the absence of an functional oven (I have heard anecdotes of ovens being used exclusively to store kitchen paraphernalia). In many parts of the world, owning an oven is a luxury - but that does not exclude one from exploring the range of flatbreads. 

Flatbreads can run the gamut, from pancake-like injera native to Ethiopia, to large towel-sized lavash of Armenia, but the main  point is the breads did not need the enclosed space of an oven to be baked. In fact, one could easily make naan or pita bread at home with little more than a broiler or even just the gas stove top and a concave pan. 

Physically speaking, naan and pita are very similar; the key differences are mostly cultural. Naan often incorporated ghee and yogurt for flavor. And both are subject to numerous variations depending on the situations. 

I have found, though, that one should start with a high hydration dough, about 50%. Regular all purpose flour will work just fine. Resting the dough is important to allow the gluten to form. While it's possible to do a chemical leavening (i.e., yeast-free naan), the required rest period means there’s little convenience in using chemical leavening. I advocate the use of yeast not just for the rise, but also the flavor. 

After the first rise (which isn’t strict - I usually allow for 8 hours), a second rise isn’t necessary. Scrape out the dough onto a working surface, dust with flour, divide into portions, and roll into spheres. Flatten out the dough with some kind of frissage - resulting in oblong flat shapes. Lay on a greased pan, and put under a hot broiler for 1-3 minutes, and flip over for another minute. Yes, it’s that fast. 

Flat breads can also be cooked on top of a grill, or even on a hot pan in a pinch. Come to think of it, pizza is just topped flat bread…

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Not all Vanilla is vanilla

Only one major food product comes from orchids: it's vanilla. Though also used as a synonym for being plain, the ubiquitous flavoring agent (I guess technically a spice) is complex, rich, fragile, and the object of great study. So today, as this press release from Xinhuanet trumpeting "China completes vanilla genome sequencing" starts percolating through the internet, I'm going to head the hype off at the pass.

First off, the article speculates about the creation of synthetic vanilla - but we already make that. We know the main component of vanilla is vanillin, and that is already synthesized in industrial scales. And in some applications, the artificial vanilla is actually better suited.

But all this talk of vanilla is actually a misdirection. The press release does not link to an actual journal article or database, so we cannot verify that this genome project was indeed completed, but it also talks about it being the genome of Vanilla shenzhenica. 

Commercial vanilla is produced from V. planifolia

Despite sharing the same genus name of Vanilla, this plant has nothing to do with vanilla. In fact, it was only first described in 2007 - hardly of great commercial interest. So, writers who want to find some interest piece about vanilla, don't use this as the jumping of point. It's not a floral opportunity - it's rather fishy.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

When is an experiment not an experiment?

Online video is a great teaching tool, but even great teaching moments can potentially mislead. One of the fun staples of chemistry "wow" is the reaction of concentrated sulfuric acid and plain sugar (sucrose). In this friendly video, Bucky uses pretty good cinematography to show the dramatic effects of sucrose breaking down in the presence of concentrated sulfuric acid. And kudos for emphasizing the safety gear to have around when working with a concentrated acid.

While entertaining, he makes the repeated mistake of calling these "experiments". This is one of those situations where the trappings of science are used in stark opposition to the process of science. Bucky vaguely makes some observations about the surface area of the different forms of sugar, but doesn't really formulate any hypotheses. His "experiments" lacked appropriate controls (after all, without a hypothesis to be tested, what's the point of a control?), and were imprecise (no measurements are taken) so replication is not even a consideration.

These serve to illustrate a known observation in science (the breakdown of sucrose), but doesn't really educate viewer about the scientific method - or why it is trustworthy. It is no different that doing magic tricks, and naive viewers can conflate the two.

For a better understanding of the scientific process using cooking, following Bethany Brookshire's Cookie Science postings is a much better bet.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

What makes a ma-po?

For the last 30 years, Houston has been host to a Caesar Salad Competition, where different restaurants send their chefs to do celebrated riffs on the ubiquitous salad. The end result can look nothing like a salad - notable reinterpretations included cupcakes and jello shots. But the key there is to capture the essence of the "classic" dish - from lettuce to anchovies - and rearrange the ingredients in another imaginative way which hewing to the original.

This is by no means unique to Caesar salad - various deconstructions are still trendy in upscale restaurants to use highly sophisticated techniques to (often) recreate a familiar flavor and texture combination. One dish that I think deserves some celebration and reinterpretation is ma-po tofu. Loosely translated as "pockmarked old woman's bean curd", it's the unofficial poster child of Sichuan cooking - a contrast of intense flavors and cooling soft tofu. The commonality seems to be a thickened umami rich sauce base (often with fermented bean paste and bit of meat - yes, this tofu dish is not usually vegetarian), ample amounts of spice and ma - that numbing sensation from the headlining Sichuan peppercorns, mixed in with a bland contrasting item. Usually, that's silken tofu, but versions can be made from poached white fish.

So, how imaginative can you get with ma-po? Different sources of umami? Nuts? Ma-po turkey breast may be the right thing for next Thanksgiving. Or the sauce items can be embedded in tofu to be cooked and served like xiaolongbao.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Bite Highlights of 2014

As 2014 draws to a close, I look back at some of the more memorable food experiences of the past year. With travel, I got to expand my culinary horizons a bit, as well as revisit some old favorites. So, let's reminisce. 

Mary Macs is an institution of Southern cooking in Atlanta, and a tourist attraction. But most notable for first timers is a bowl of pot likker with the excellent corn bread. The salt pork suffused liquid from cooking greens was quite welcome on a rainy day. 

I finally got to try Pig Wings at the Old German Beer Hall in Milwaukee. I'm surprised we don't do this in Houston. 

What we do do in Houston are these creative fish chicharrones at Tampico on Airline. Basically tilapia cooked to crispy chip consistency, the spicy picked onions was a genius accompaniment. 

At Rangoon Ruby's (with branches around Northern California, this one was at the Palo Alto location), I got to try the fermented tea leaf salad (thoke on Burmese). Excellent and unique flavors, with a large dynamic range of textures and flavors. 

Here in Houston, however, getting to eat an egg custard tart from ECK bakery fresh out of the oven is in itself a pretty unique treat. 

Al-Aseel is probably best known for fried chicken, but the restaurant serves up dishes designed to encourage people to linger. Pillow lined corner tables beckon, and this beautifully plated and delicious hummus denotes meals of sharing and community. 

The loco moco is an iconic dish of Hawaiin adaptability, and at Ma'Ono in Seattle, it's elevated to high art. 

Bambu opened a new branch in the Greenway Plaza area, and the icy che preparations are refreshing in the Houston heat.  I returned often to try the different combinations, but settled on the basil seed rich "black and grey" as a memorable combination. 

The venerable Mala Sichuan collaborated with Blacksmith Coffee on a one time  popup brunch this year. On a packed menu of old Sichuan comfort breakfast items, the beautiful and crispy gold coin omelet stood out in my mind. 

Steve Marquez opened my year with a bang by crafting this complex and complete dessert - a spicy chocolate cake  topped with fish sauce caramel. 

I believe the restaurant Spicy Sichuan has closed, but I did get to try this unique dish there: a roulade of sticky rice "pasta" filled with spiced meat and vegetables. 

By way of introduction from Javier Fadul (@inspired12 on Twitter) of Culture Pilot, I went to try the very rich and flavorful uni carbonara at Tea Bar Organics (normally, I'd stay away from any place that primarily hawks the organic food fallacy). But this dish was indeed quite memorable.

The bakery/cafe Tout Suite opened in downtown Houston this year, and in addition to have an overall strong coffee and tea program, the pastries were on point. This Paris brest illustrated to me the mastery of choux in that kitchen. 

On deficiency in Houston is in the area of hot chocolate, more notably, the sipping chocolate variety. I had to travel to Durham, NC, to find Bean Traders, and their nicely done sipping chocolates drinks. 

And finally, a bit of international flair. In Vancouver, the very busy JapaDog establishment serves up these Japanese hot dogs. But unlike the usual trend of topping the same hot dog with different things just to create variety, each type had the careful consideration of a sushi chef. Down to the obsessive manner the bread is heated, to the pairing of sausage with (in this case, grated radish or shaved bonito), a Japadog stood out in the competitive Vancouver dining scene.