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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Raw and baked

As Gulf oyster season is winding down, I had a chance to go dining with some friends at Pappas Seafood House in the Sharpstown area. While the cheapest oysters in town is the Happy Hour special at Ragin' Cajun which is $3 for a dozen, the Pappas chain sells theirs for $4 for a dozen all the time. I'm no Gulf oyster expert like Robb Walsh is (and I recommend you defer to his expertise in the matter), but I'll attest that the oysters I had were sweet, delicious, and beautifully presented. The last is important as earlier reports in other Pappas branches described a goofy presentation that resulted in loss of the oyster liquor.

Like most typical seafood restaurants, the Pappas menu is heavy on fried items and boiled shrimp, but one thing did stand out in my eye: a relatively inexpensive sushi selection. The sushi menu comprised entirely of either "sashimi" or ornate multi-ingredient "maki" rolls. Mostly the latter. And the fish used are either tuna, hamachi, salmon, shrimp, or scallops. Pretty safe, stereotypic stuff.

I tried the scallop roll, and the hamachi sashimi. The scallops were barely seared, and rolled into these enormous maki rolls, but were layered with a number of flavorful ingredients, from wasabi to other unidentifiable elements, but I did take away a certain sweetness to it. The sashimi wasn't so much sashimi as modern "carpaccio" - slices of pretty tender and fresh hamachi was topped with garlic oil, and chopped basil, alongside a sweet seaweed salad and these (superfluous) deep fried wonton skins. The fish was fine on its own, but all the distracting seasonings took away from enjoying the clean fish flavor. Maybe I can ask for "less is more" in the future.

In my opinion, though, the one thing they nailed that night, the thing that will make me come back, we didn't even pay for. The bread service was stellar. The bread itself was crusty, with a chewy interior, served warm and wrapped simply in some insulating cloth. The butter dish was generous, whipped, and at the correct spreadable texture; restaurants with much fancier calibers can't seem to get this part right. Had they served it with a side of coarse salt, and some perfectly ripe tomatoes, and I would munch on it for hours. In fact, we forwent dessert to munch on more bread.

It was that good.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Preserving Eggs

Eggs are among the most nutritious and versatile ingredients we can find. After all, they're the energy packed payload for a fetus. However, they're also incredibly perishable. The ancient Chinese have developed at least a couple of methods of preserving eggs before the advent of refrigeration.

One method is through salting. Duck eggs are significantly richer than chicken eggs, and when they are brined, they become another entity altogether. Boiled and salted duck eggs are a unique ingredient; the yolk is intensely rich and seasoned, used often as the "treasure" in mooncakes and other treats. The best ones are said to ooze orange oil when cut. The whites are intensely salty, and probably compare with feta cheese.

Another way of preservation are the so-called "century" or "millenium" eggs - pidan -, prepared by wrapping eggs in alkaline clay for extended periods of time. The eggs transform dramatically, the whites turning in to a transparent brown jelly, and the yolks into creamy greenish gray, smelling faintly of ammonia and sulfur. Stuff is delicious cooked into congee, and there's a place in town that batters and deep fries them.

I've see pidan offered on "Fear Factor". How wimpish can you get? Jeez, I'll have two.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

HFCS siding

Warning - this is a long one.

Much is written about high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), and a lot of if accessible on the internet. Some of it is true, some are hyperbole, and others downright bunk. But I'll summarize a few salient points and sentiments:

  1. Conventional table sugar is sucrose, and is purified from sugar cane or sugar beets. It is a disaccharide, meaning that it is a sugar molecule made up of two simpler sugars. It consists of a molecule of glucose bonded to a molecule of fructose; digesting sucrose breaks the bond. Thus, sucrose is effectively 50% glucose:50% fructose.
  2. HFCS is a product of processing corn, and is a mixture of 55% fructose to 45% glucose (the "high" fructose here is a mere 5% more), but not molecularly bonded together. Due to the complex politics of food subsidies in the US, corn is cheaper to grow here, and thus, HFCS is cheaper for food processors to purchase.
  3. America has a major sweet tooth when it comes to processed foods - HFCS is found in all sorts items, from soda to salad dressing and even processed meat products. Common media implicate consumption of HFCS (in any quantity) to coincident explosion in obesity and diabetes - and even cancer.
  4. Marketers have jumped on the increasingly unfavorable view of HFCS to remarket sucrose as a healthful alternative, leading to such things as "throwback" sodas, obfuscating the issue of increased total sugar consumption as being deleterious. See "manufactured demand". After all, fewer people profit when the message is consume less.

Okay, all caught up now?

A recent paper out of Princeton University is being heavily touted by several media outlets (and various bloggers, and Twitter posts) as the scientific proof that HFCS is inherently much worse than regular table sugar (sucrose) healthwise, specifically as a causative agent in obesity. Of course, most of them link back to a press release by Prince University itself, complete with posed pictures of students measuring out orange soda pop, rather than to the original paper itself (sadly, though the paper is often behind a paywall). Amongst the hue and cry, Marion Nestle appears to be the lone voice of reason. She was wise enough to actually read the paper, including posting a link to the actual PDF. [Correction, Karen Kaplan of the LA Times also calls the study to question. And is getting lambasted by her commenters.]

And she comes to the same conclusion I did - that this is such a poorly designed and described series of experiments that really, the conclusions derived are hyperbole at best, and misleading at its worst. 

Based on this paper, a number of claims are been made about the effects of HFCS on the lab rats in the study:

1. HFCS affects the rats physiologically differently than sucrose, causing increased weight gain, even though the concentration of HFCS fed is less than the sucrose.

2. Male animals fed HFCS gained 48% more weight than those who didn't, comparing it to a 200 pound man gaining 96 pounds

3. That the increased weight gain attributed to the HFCS even though the rats were fed a more dilute amount compared to sucrose, implying that HFCS calories convert to fat more efficiently.

But does the study really support these results? Let's take a look at just one summary figure:

Okay, that's kind of tough to interpret. Let's just look at the first two experiments - here, the scientists started with a bunch of male lab rats, starting with an initial weight from 300-375g. Then they gave them food ad libitum - that means unlimited, or until the animal decides to stop eating. Essentially, let's give the rats an all you can eat buffet for 2 months. One set of rats just got water with the bonanza. A second set got 10% sucrose for 12 hours a day. A third one got 8% HFCS for 12 hours a day, and a fourth set got 8% HFCS for 24 hours a day. 

Here is already a problem with the design - there are three factors being mixed; concentration of sugar, identity of sugar, and period of administration. We can't tell their effects apart from this design.

Okay, at the end of 2 months, lo and behold, the mice went from around 350g to 460g with an unlimited diet. Big surprise. Throw in some 10% sucrose 12 hrs a day, and the weight goes to about 480g. Change that to 8% HFCS, and whoa, it's up to 500g. So, that's considered significantly different, right? But if HFCS is made available 24 hours a day - wait, it drops to 470, no different that sucrose. That's a headscratcher, right? 

But the experimenters blithely move on - they state this conclusively proves that sucrose has no appreciable effect - and remove it from the long term study, where they extend exposure to six months. After six months of unlimited chow, basically, the rats doubled in weight with water, and with added HFCS to their diet they tack on another 100-150g of weight - huge by rat standards. But at this stage, the comparison with sucrose is moot. 

So, where did this 48% figure come from? I think it's from the long term study, where rats essentially gained 250g more on chow alone, but with HFCS, they gained 400g more. Fudging the numbers a bit there, I can see how a 48% number can be derived - but the correct analogy is more like a 200lb man gaining 200lb without HFCS, and 300lb with HFCS - if  they were eating all the time. The real problem being, of course, the unlimited diet, not the HFCS. 

The results from the female rats are even more  confusing. 

I don't want to be it the position of defending HFCS, but I do want to defend good science, and studies like this besmirch the hard won reputation of well designed scientific studies, specially when it gains mindshare through press releases and congruency with running political passions. Bottom line - this study neither supports or debunks the contention that HFCS is metabolically different that sucrose in a long term dietary situation. It provides observations that can build new testable hypotheses, but that's it. 

Please stop spreading the mindjunk around. 

Monday, March 22, 2010

The real layer cake

In a recent visit to Huntington Beach, I paid a visit to Cake Box Pastries, one of the few bakeries in the US that make baumkuchen. It's a pretty unique cake - the name derives from German with roughly translates to "tree cake". It's a hollow cake, with small individual rings running through it.

Here you can see the finer layers throughout the cake.

This unique look is a direct consequence of how it's baked: it's cooked on a spit. A rotating spit beside a roaring flame, and batter is basted over the cake as each layer develops a crust. The result is a cake that is more crust than most, firm, and quite delicious. Specially when it's coated in a coating of chocolate.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Items of texture

Usually, when food is reviewed or written about, flavor is mostly spoken of in terms of the sensations of taste and smell. However, texture is a powerful component of that dining experience. Many people who profess to not liking tomatoes, for example, have no problem consuming it in sauce or salsa form - they simply object to its texture (probably from a bad experience with mealy refrigerated tomatoes).

I liken texture to a drummer in a band - it may not be in the forefront of your experience, but it forms the framework in which the song comes together. In the processed food heavy world of the Western diet, thickeners and other texturizing elements are often used in packaged foods, and may not be immediately obvious to the home cook. For example, just about all packaged heavy cream incorporate carageenan, a seaweed derived thickener that confers a fuller "mouthfeel". So that lower butterfat content doesn't appear that way. Probably why American cream is less rich than say, British cream.

On the other hand, numerous ingredients in Chinese cooking are revered simply for their textural properties. In fact, two of the most expensive items in Chinese cookery - shark's fin and bird's nest - don't have flavor of their own at all, but are used purely for their textural capacity. Other ingredients prized for their textural contribution include sea cucumber (may be an acquired taste for the Western palate), and silver fungus.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Travel food

Now that Continental Airlines has stopped serving "complimentary" meals on domestic flights shorter than six hours, participants in the nickel and dime parade is complete. Passengers seeking food on planes either have to pay extra for a meal, or upgrade to First Class. Remember when they scoffed at how low budget airlines would charge for every single amenity?

But this is one cut which may not be so bad. After all, it's not like as if they served particularly good food. Most cases, it's some kind of industrially processed stuff (although I've seen folks wolf down the pre-packaged Cheerios on the some flights while discarding the banana alongside); I fear that the "food for purchase" will devolve further into "Snack Paks" and other synthetic ilk.

This does present an interesting problem of bringing home prepared foods that:

1. Pack easily
2. Keep without refrigeration
3. Require minimal utensils
4. Pass TSA regulations with regards to gels and liquids

Funny thing is, humans have had to deal with similar problems for many years living in a nomadic lifestyle, and perhaps modern day nomads can learn from their predecessors. Dried fruit and nuts are certainly an excellent choice to bring, although they do tend to become expensive. I think perhaps more apropos for when one is actually hiking or traveling with physical exertion. Meat cooked and then stuffed into dough before baking or steaming into bao or pies or manapuas are an excellent travel resource. Some fresh fruit travel well, cherry tomatoes, grapes, clementines, as well as home made fruit "leather".

Then again, perhaps I'll bring a tiffin next time, and just start dining on a warm rogan josh in an enclosed space.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The cost of processing?

I found this in the local supermarket last night. A jar of egg whites selling for $7 (approximately equal to 12 eggs by weight). Right next to cartons of eggs selling for $1.60 per dozen. The math boggles my mind - why would anyone with a shred of practicality purchase this? It is near highway robbery. Separating eggs is very easy, and even if one were just to discard the yolks, it's still more economical.

In related news, Nature publishes the resequencing of the chicken genome, this time attempting to trace the key genetic differences that underlie the diversification of the domestic breeds into broilers and layers. The data is released, but the analysis is still ongoing. Nonetheless, it should contribute significantly to how breeds in the future can be even better engineered for human purposes.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Cooking evolves

Discussions among the louder local food aficionados (my genteel term for "foodies") are heavily biased around dining out. Couple with a predilection to hyperbole, and debates can rage over such small things as subtle differences in how steaks are cooked, or how salads are dressed, or eggs are prepared. Never mind the fact, of course, that most dishes discussed can be easily prepared at home. But many of the discussions don't address the discontent by simply cooking, instead choosing to bemoan the poor availability or access to a particular foodstuff already prepared in its final form.

It's as if there's a reversion to the hunter-gatherer mindset.

I just finished watching a BBC documentary called "Did Cooking Make Us Human?", a fascinating look a the anthropology, biochemistry, and paleontology about the origin of cooking, and its coincidence with the change of diet, and the rise of modern human characteristics. One notable change is the evolution of consuming meat - earlier ape-like ancestors likely lived on purely vegetarian diets, and spent quite of a bit of their time chewing just to get the enough calories. An interesting experiment should be illustrative for the proponents of a raw foods diet - when volunteers are asked to eat raw fruit and vegetables equivalent to the required calorie intake, they spent so much time chewing, they ended up never finishing the provided food. Which was good for the period of the experiment, as they ended up losing weight. The narrator, however, extrapolated that in the wild, they would have simply starved to death - the conclusion being that modern human physiology was ill equipped for such a diet of raw vegetation. Coincidentally, volunteers also experienced some rather drastic gastrointestinal problems, and complained of a lack of satiety.

One thing to note about this documentary is how beautifully lush the shots were of people eating the food. The slow motion tearing of a steak, or the barehanded consumption of a pineapple looked opulent rather than disturbing. On the other hand, one of the weaker aspects of the film Julie and Julia was the cinematography of people eating. While the food itself was well lit and photographed, footage of people sloppily eating quickly dispelled any desire to eat.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Lemony sweetness

Professional beach volleyball player (and former Houston resident) Alicia Polzin sent me a box of Meyer lemons off her tree in California. These lemons were beautiful, floral, juicy, and seedless. Some of them I used to make the lemon cream loaf cake pictured above, but I wanted to send her some of the lemons back to enjoy. So, I made candied lemons.

I believe her exact words were: "Holy chewy yummy nummy!" Then she threatened me with bodily harm if I don't send her the recipe. Well, this posting is all about avoiding getting hurt :).

sliced up lemons

First, we start by slicing the lemons into thin slices, rind and all. Not that there isn't a seed in sight. Then I prepared a simple syrup by dissolving two parts of sugar to one part of water, and heating it until it is warm. Slide the slices into the syrup one at a time to ensure that each piece is completely surrounded by syrup. It's easy to end up with two pieces sticking together, and then not getting candied. Keep simmering for about 15-20 minutes. Then turn off the heat, and let it cool in the syrup. Be patient. I left mine in the syrup all day. 

The tricky part is drying the slices. I didn't have the room for a proper dehydrator, so I just laid the slices out on a Silpat sheet, and stuck it in the oven at 150F overnight. 

The next morning, you have candied lemons. If they're sticky, you can roll them in sugar, but, really, they should come out like lacy stained glass windows.

Oh, don't throw away the resulting syrup. So much pectin will be leached out that you have this great lemonade base. I like dissolving some in soda water for a quick refreshing beverage.

Friday, March 5, 2010

The tragedy of flying foods

Traveling with wonderful food finds has been seriously curtailed with advent of the ban on carryon liquids, gels, pastes and their ilk. This article at the Washington Post detail a heartbreaking series of anecdotes of jams, jellies, and other preserved foods lost and discarded simply because of this odd security policy. Often, the situation is nonsensical - the detailed story about how soft cheeses have to be discarded while the hard cheeses remained is one that flies completely at the face of common sense. Moreover, if such liquids are suspected of being possible explosive ingredients, confiscated substances seem to be discarded with little regard for their potential explosive nature.

I'd like recruit volunteers to conduct an experiment, bringing along half a dozen eggs through airport security - two of them raw, two of them soft boiled, and two of them hard boiled - thus, bridging the range from liquid, to gel to solid. And see how they fare. It's a fairly cheap thing to do, and you end up with a snack to eat while waiting for your flight.

Of course, the flaw here is that the volume of the egg may be below the detectible limit. Perhaps if I had goose eggs?

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Not quite on the mark

We recently did a return trip to Umai, and for me, it was ostensibly to try their rendition of the classic Japanese shoyu ramen. On their menu, it's simply listed as Umai ramen without further explanation, although our server verbally expounded that there are two versions - one with pork, and the other just soy sauce broth. I asked for the pork version, thinking that it's the tonkotsu ramen (broth prepared from pork bones); I was then quietly informed that there'll be an additional $1 charge for the pork version.

The Umai Ramen (pork version)

By way of backdrop, I've had the fantastic Santuoka ramen out in LA, and can't help comparing the two. Also, bear in mind that this is a $10 bowl of noodle soup; I expected a lot. Good points: the noodles themselves had a good chew and weren't overcooked. But that's about it - the rest of the bowl was okay to borderline mediocre. The pork was a bit tough, the vegetables were overcooked, and the broth - ah, that's the downfall - it tasted "fishy". I'm not sure if it was some synthesis of the shoyu and the bamboo shoots in there, but I could swear I tasted mussels in there...and not fresh ones at that.

Shame, I was so looking forward to this. Do try the agedashi tofu here - the kitchen has a way with fried items. There's at least one other noodle dish that piques my interest at the Umai menu, but that'll have to wait for another day.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

I went a-visiting

The folks over at Revival Meats asked me to write a blog post about the effects of nitrites/nitrates on human health, particularly in light of their interest in making salumi.

So, I obliged.