Standard Pages (they don't change often)

Monday, February 28, 2011

Liquid refreshments

This is a Vampiro - a drink made by layering beet juice atop fresh orange juice. I had this at La Guadalupana Bakery during breakfast. Some people my find the vegetal notes of fresh beets off putting but it isn't overly sweet, and goes well with the excellent food there.

Recently opened, but unreviewed, the Tea Bar in Bellaire offers this pleasant brown sugar milk tea with tapioca. It's not too exemplary from other milk tea offerings, but was by far the best thing I had the night I visited. The food was bland, boring, and a tad expensive for what you get. The place does tout "organic" products as a benefit - which isn't a great selling point if you ask me.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Chocolatey color

On a posting on industrially made champorado (Filipino chocolate rice porridge) at the Houston Press, I was struck by this comment:

"I would have enjoyed my bowl of champorado more had it not come from that pouch, however, as it was mostly quite bland despite its dark, rich color."

A lot of folks judge chocolate by its color; the necessary thought being that the darker it is, the richer the flavor should be. Well, not really. Chocolate is a naturally acidic product (perhaps as a part of the fermentation of the beans), which is why raw chocolate has a bit of an astringent edge to it. You may notice that the next time you taste very high percentage artisinal dark chocolates. Much of industrially made cocoa, however, has been through a Dutching process, where an alkali is used to neutralize the acids. This results in a mellowing of the flavor, improved solubility, and a darkening of the color. The more heavily a cocoa is Dutched, the darker it gets, but it also tends to diminish the flavor. 

Pictured above are two grades of chocolate, one a highly regarded brand, and the other more industrial. Despite the darker color of the industrial brand, it is actually less "chocolatey" than the lighter brand. When cooked, though, it confers an almost coal black darkness. 

I suspect that the pouched champorado chose to use a cheaper grade cocoa, which, upon heavy Dutching, will provide a deep color, while actually using less chocolate. I wonder if this trick is also used in other industrial chocolate products. 

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Maybe it really reads アイスクリーム. :)

That's Japanese for ice cream. Because there's something really fun about how the Japanese interpret ice cream (and pizza, but that's a different story). To the point that someone can have a whole blog just on Japanese ice cream.

From where I got this fantastic illustrated guide to making ice cream stuffed mochi. Recipes for this are easily procured elsewhere, but there's nothing like pictures to seeing it in action.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Ingredients and their match

I received a very thought provoking comment on a recent posting about genetically modified organisms. The writer (the author of the interesting WTF Am I Cooking blog) writes:

"Take factory farmed chickens for example. I do know that output in a factory farm is higher compared to that of a traditional farm, 6 weeks of maturity compared to ~ 3 months. Yet, it's hard to deny the quality of taste of a well farmed bird. And in being the most obese country in the world, should high output be our end game?"
Good question. But I think it hinges on a couple of assumptions that aren't necessarily taken into account. Firstly, the decision of what is food, and what is to be produced isn't really entirely decided on a country government basis, at least here in the US, although it is dramatically affected by such things as the Farm Bill and other regulations. But I'd like to point out that the nature of "quality of taste" is one of perspective and preparation, and not an absolute.

Take, for example, my recent visit to esteemed old/new Vietnamese restaurant, Cafe TH. Pictured above, I had ordered the bo kho, which is the Vietnamese style beef stew praised by the Houston Press article. Compared to other, perhaps more traditional preparations, this broth was more delicately flavored, but by no means a wimp. But a few things struck me as odd. First, carrots are part and parcel of this dish, and here, Cafe TH opted to use baby carrot sticks instead of the traditional hunks of older, cheaper carrots. Secondly, that the meat used was indeed, "good meat" - mostly muscle, and trimmed of fat. These are not elements that fit well in a preparation that will be stewed for extended periods of time. The carrots were mush. The meat came across as being dry, and I was missing the unctuousness evident from gelatin extracted from bone and gristle. I wanted to praise the balanced spicing of the dish, but, in retrospect, it was a disaster in terms of texture.

(One tangent - the chef opted not to serve the traditional selection of Vietnamese herbs and mints with soup. I was uncertain if this was an attempt at non traditional service, but I know the soup could have used the herbal zing.)

Which returns me to the point about the chicken. We can't evaluate the quality of an ingredient independent of the targeted preparation. There are preparations where a factory farmed bird is more appropriate than free range bird. And vice versa. And perhaps the real skill of a cook is no better demonstrated than a less than optimal ingredient is converted into a delectable dish.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Ghetto bite

I finally has the opportunity to sample the cooking over at the Ghetto Dinners. They are sort of a supper club - two items, usually every other Monday, at the Grand Prize bar here in Houston. People usually tweet raves about it, and it's such an in-crowd thing, I wasn't even really sure how to order a dish (as it turns out, you go into the kitchen, say hi, ask for what you want, and drop some cash in the pot). The night I went featured a Thai curry, of sorts, some with some beautiful prawns, and a vegetarian version. I opted for the latter.

Vegetable curry, Ghetto Dinner, Grand Prize Bar, Houston, TX
When I first saw the plates, I was impressed, thinking that the chefs had paid an homage to the Indonesian tumpeng by creating conical mounds of rice to be surrounded by the curry. Turns out that they were just using a funnel to portion out the rice. Overall, I enjoyed what I had, but it was by no means a rollicking success. My biggest issue is the rice itself - I recognized immediately that this was short grain glutinous ("sticky") rice. That was boiled

Glutinous rice is certainly quite traditional in Thai cuisine. Served in little baskets, one pinches off little knobs of them to eat the food, as one would with African fufu. But it should be steamed; boiling creates this pasty goop that was just a textural failure. The vegetarian curry itself was all right, I certainly tasted the inclusion of pineapple in the mix, and I suspect cubes of kohlrabi. I wonder why pineapple is so prevalent in Thai cooking, considering that the plant itself originated from South America? Another discussion for another day. 

Would this win over Thai traditionalists? Certainly not (I spotted the clever use of Marmite as an umami agent in the vegetarian broth), but it was a decent and flavorful curry. The rice, though, could use a lot of work. 

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Spring is the air

After a week of freezing temperatures, highly unusual in Houston, temperatures have returned to balmy and mild conditions more typical of the Gulf Coast, inciting thoughts of spring. And the traditional meat of spring, as many think, is lamb.

Now, in general, I don't like lamb. I find that goat-y, gamey aroma (or fetor, depending on your predilection) offensive, but others treasure it. And to the aficionados of lamb, nothing is quite like the product from Elysian Fields. So called, the "Kobe" of lamb, the product of this Virginia farm is so beloved that Grant Achatz created an entire dish celebrating the entire farm as a course in the tasting menu in Alinea (yes, we've returned there).

The dish itself was molded to represent the landscape of the farm, with a pond of lovely corn soup, and rare lamb served skewered in rosemary (there's a natural affinity of lamb and rosemary). For those who can't get enough, two small knobs of deep fried lamb fat are included, each about the size of a pencil eraser. I could get through only half a lump of lamb fat - as my companion described it, chewing it was like having the goat walking through your nose. Through this meal, this may be my least favorite, but largely because my peculiar distaste.

That's not to say I never like lamb.

Here is a lamb shank tagine prepared with prunes and onions, from the Moroccan restaurant Casablanca here in Houston. So tender it falls apart at the poke of a fork, this was unctuous, sweet, lush, spicy. It didn't so much mask that muskiness of lamb, but complemented it so well with ingredients and preparation, it came across as delicious. So, context can very much overcome distaste, and that is skill.

Previously on this series:

Alinea 7: Architecture
Alinea 6: The Stacked Sphere
Alinea 5: The Ikea Course
Alinea 4: Clarity
Alinea 3: Chinky Chicken
Act 2: Green
A symphony in 21 acts

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Organic Orthodoxy

Recently, the USDA approved the planting of sugar beets that are genetically modified to resist the weed killer RoundUP (patented by Monsanto), and the usual hue and cry of complaints to the use of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are all over the interwebs. In this case, the objections are patently weird; almost no one consumes sugar beets directly. Sugar produced from beets, once it gets to the supermarket, are chemically 99% sucrose, and indistinguishable from sucrose made from sugar cane, or non modified beets. None of the products of gene modification even make it there.

Ah, but the crux comes from the idea that cross pollination from GMO plants will results in the contamination of organic crops, thus, endangering them. What exactly are organic crops, anyway?

I've struggled a bit to find a definition for it. Most of the material I find are marketing stuff espousing the benefits of organic food (some of which, by the way, are proven incorrect in side by side studies), but getting to the definition of the term has been difficult.

The best I found is

Simply stated, organic produce and other ingredients are grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones.
The property of "organic" is not so much defined by what it is, but by what it is not. Thus, the categorization excluding "genetically modified organisms" is one not based on science, but something more arbitrary. After all, scientifically speaking, just about every organism in agriculture, when domesticated, is genetically modified by man.  Moreover, the very idea of contamination from GMO pollen stems from a myth of purity of the "organic" stock. Truth is, genetic flux is the norm in nature; classification into species and breeds is one of human convenience, not one of biological stricture. The puritanical demands of the "organic" label is blurrier than that of kosher or halal, yet carries fewer concrete benefits.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Grains in a jar

Few things are quite as comforting as oats on a cold morning. Well, maybe not that oversweetened pasty microwaved glue that most people think of as oats.

The oat grain itself, the groat, cooks up into a chewy, nutty, rib sticking meal, with little more than water, and carries more character than a porridge, although not quite as dry as a pilaf. Problem is, the groat is so well bound that it takes a long time to puff up, and the sticky nature of the cooking process runs the risk of burning. Procedures like steel cutting, where the groat is chopped, to rolling, are all intended to speed up the cooking process, but if you ask me, the groat is the poster child of low and slow cooking. Particularly for breakfast.

I've taken to cooking groats in jars. You can use ramekins or Mason jars, but I found plain old recycled jam jars to be just fine. Put some washed groats at the bottom of the jar, and about 3 times as much water on top. You can substitute a bit of milk or cream for the water. Heck, I'm thinking chicken stock, miso, or dashi. Sweeten if you wish, or put in herbs, or other spices. Put the whole jar in a slow cooker, and pour hot water outside, as much as you can, until about half an inch from the top of the jar. You can actually get away with less, but it depends on the size of your jar.

Turn it on, and go to bed. In the morning, take the jars out. If you aren't eating it right away, put the jar lid on, cool, and store in the fridge or freezer. The rest, stir it up, and enjoy.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Lapin ou chat

Today rings in the lunar New Year for many East Asian cultures. Most will probably say it's the Chinese New Year, but really, many Asian cultures follow this calendar, and its requisite cycle of astrological animals in the 12 year cycle. While the Chinese call it the Year of the Rabbit, in Vietnam (for the feast of Tet) celebrate the Year of the Cat (a sign missing from Chinese astrology).

Which sort of reminds me of an anecdote. I had observed that, in France, rabbits dressed for sale in butcher shops are cleaned and skinned, save for the head and paws. You have these furry bunny heads attached to ready to cook meat. When I inquired from a French colleague about this rather macabre, custom, he explained (read with a heavy French accent):

"Because if you don't keep the head, you cannot tell a rabbit from a cat."

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The fuss over GMOs

Recently, the US government approved the planting of Monsanto patented genetically modified alfalfa, and this has ignited a furor about alleged collusion between big biotech and government bodies approving the crop. Concern over pollen contamination with producers of "organic" products, and a number of issues become conflated together, when memes are spreading indicting genetically modified organisms as simply being bad.

Calm down. Almost all agriculture involves genetic modification. Alex Berezow, editor of RealClearScience, has written a very good concise summary outlining the invalidity of the arguments against genetically modified organisms. True, there may be problems with regards to ethics of how the technology itself is carried out, but objections to the supposed problems behind the technology are a distraction from the real problems.

In simplistic terms, agriculture evolved to address the problems of uncertainty in a hunter-gatherer set up. The main goal is to be able to provide consistency and reliability to the food supply, to free up our time to pursue other goals as a society. To attain that, agriculture narrowed the definition of what species makes up food (subject to cultural acceptance), and developed the means of exploiting the genetic potential to increase the efficiency of producing what is desired from that species. Modern corn, for example, looks nothing like the ancestral teosinte, being both aggressively efficient at producing grain from a small plot of land, and absolutely reliant on human intervention to propagate. Thus, just about anything grown for modern agricultural consumption, fruit, grain, animal, is genetically modified. Recombinant DNA and transgenics are simply more refined tools to what we did before in transferring desired traits and selecting them. It's the difference between carefully picking out songs for a mix CD versus mashing everything together and randomly choosing out chunks in hopes of finding something that sounds good. The former is more efficient at attaining a designed goal, the latter has the potential of discovering something unexpected (if you're VERY lucky).

But, I hear, what people object to is the lack of labeling, that GMOs should be labeled allow consumers a choice. That's a straw man argument, and an impractical solution to an undefined problem. Labeling items as non-GMO (whatever that means) imbues a certain emotional cachet, and returns the burden of the task to those who demand it the most.