Standard Pages (they don't change often)

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Moffle, revisited

My congratulations to BBQDude for bagging the mochi beast on his latest cooking adventure. Double kudos for using yuzu. The use of pounded glutinous rice is common in Southeast and East Asian cuisine, both in sweet and savory applications, although due to the relative paucity of sweet applications in Asian cooking in general, the short grain glutinous rice is itself often called sweet rice. Despite the name, glutinous rice does not have gluten, but derives its texture from amylopectin.

My own fascination with mochi centers around the "moffle" - mochi cooked in a waffle iron. Now that I have a waffle iron convenient to me, I revisited the idea. You can use store bought prepared mochi - or in this case, I used brown sugar nien-gao, popular in the local Chinese and Vietnamese communities during the lunar new year. This version of the sticky rice cake is meant to be cooked a second time, kind of like second generation polenta. Versions include being dipped in egg before being deep friend, or simply grilled over a fire. Perfect fodder for a hot waffle iron.

Here, the moffle is genius. Allow it to cool slightly, or have hot napalm stuck inside your mouth. But the outer crust is crunchy, the inside is chewy, soft, and the sesame flavor is a great counterpoint.

I should try this with Korean tteok sticks.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Halwa and halvah

Halwa as a technique is under appreciated by western cooks. The term halwa or halvah appears in a lot of middle eastern to south Asian cuisines, referring to a sweetened paste or cake or some sort, often additionally spiced with other flavors. Halwa is a common accompaniment to tea and other hot drinks. Multiple ingredients can be used as the basis of halwa, from vegetables, to grain, and nuts and seeds. In Israel, sesame seeds form the basis of halwa, optionally found chocolate covered for more decadence. In India, the true carrot cake, a carrot halwa, can be prepared by cooking down carrots with ghee and sugar. Or, as pictured above, doodhi - the bottle gourd. Also known as upo, the bottle gourd is eaten as a vegetable in many other cultures, in China, the Philippines, and Korea. Additionally, the dried gourd can be hollowed out and used as a bottle, hence the name. Making it into halwa, however, appears to be the purview of the Indian/Pakistani traditions. The vegetal notes and textures make for a delicious and interesting dessert. This one was purchased from Bombay Sweets.

Monday, March 21, 2011

I, O' Dine

There's a bit of chatter on the interwebs inquiring about iodine and its protective effects against radiation. I think it's time to clear some things up about it, as a number of myths have cropped up around iodine as a micronutrient.

Iodine is an essential nutrient for humans, and many animals, but best understood function for it is in the making the hormone thyroxine in the thyroid gland. Thyroxine is one of those master regulatory hormones; with insufficient thyroxine, mental retardation, listlessness, and poor immune response are among the myriad systemic problems that emerge. Insufficient iodine causes a condition known as goiter, where the thyroid gland swells dramatically as the cells try to scavenge as much iodine as possible.

Seafood are the primary rich source of iodine for the human diet, but in the past era of poor food transport, inland areas suffered from high rates of goiter due to iodine deficiency (so much for locavorism). To combat this public health problem, iodized salt was introduced - this is salt where small amounts of iodide is added. In some countries, all commercially sold salt must be iodized. However, some cooks decry that iodizing confers some off flavors, and favor non-iodized salt.

Because of its link to seafood, many equate an allergy to seafood to an allergy to iodine. However, studies over the years have pretty much ruled out iodine as an allergen.

How does this relate to radioactivity? Iodine only has one stable isotope, I-127, the others are radioactive. The radioactive isotope I-125, for example, is commonly used as a tracer in research. Because iodine accumulates so specifically in the thyroid gland, even small amounts of radioactive iodine can cause dramatic damage by being concentrated in one spot. Thus, consuming increased amounts of non-radioactive iodine serves to dilute radioactive iodine out. However, this is pretty specific for radioactive isotopes of iodine - it has no protective effects from uranium, plutonium or any number of radioactive elements out there.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The pink, the blue and the yellow

On a recent NPR Science Friday episode, they explored the molecular basis of how we taste sweet things (Did you know that cats have lost the receptor sometime in their evolutionary past, and thus, cannot taste sweet?). It reminded me of the answer that Shirley Corriher did on the radio after she was asked what was the best sugar substitute: that it wasn't quite so simple. I have alluded to this in an earlier blog post, but sugar performs a lot of tasks in cooking beyond just making things sweet.

Aside from serving to tenderize baked items, sugar degradation products during heating provide properties that we take advantage of. The monosaccharides glucose and fructose are easily created, and interfere with premature crystallization, and further breakdown products, in the form of caramel, provide perhaps the most recognizable flavor of cooked foods. Substitute sweeteners are mostly targeted at just activating sweet receptors - thus, they tend to taste a lot sweeter gram for gram relative to sucrose, but don't convey the chemical advantages of sugar.

Perhaps one of the earliest sugar substitutes is the sodium cyclamate (30-50x sweeter than sucrose), but with a significant off taste, and controversial reports of causing bladder cancer, was actually banned from sale in the US. Currently, the most popular artificial sweeteners are:

Saccharin - that's the stuff in the pink packets. It's about 300x-500x sweeter than sugar, but not particularly heat stable, and does have off flavors. Still, to some, it's what's familiar.

Aspartame - that's in the blue. Aspartame is actually linked molecule of two amino acids - building blocks for proteins. Being rather unstable in elevated heat, or acid or alkalinity, it's nonetheless developed a strong use in processed foods. It's about 160x sweeter than sugar, and there's some concern that it's digestion releases a molecule of methanol per molecule of aspartame. That's not usually a problem, except the mindless consumption of diet sodas of the typical American (and arguably more of the world) results in ridiculous quantities that perhaps should concern people. One of the amino acids is phenylalanine that people with a genetic condition called phenylketonuria cannot process cleanly, hence the warning on products that are sweetened with aspartame.

Sucralose - the packets in yellow is the youngest of the compounds, a chlorinated sugar derivative that is 600x sweeter than sugar. It's main advantages are that it's biologically inert, meaning humans can't digest it, and that it's heat stable, so people can actually cook with it. It won't caramelize the same sucrose does, but it'll retain it's sweetness after baking, unlike aspartame.

So, that's a quick survey of those packets. Probably be okay for your coffee, but I don't think we'll be making taffy with them soon.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Mock Turtle

In this case, mock turtle bread. I found this specimen at the Six Ping bakery in Houston's "new" Chinatown. The attention to detail is quite amazing, down to the hatch pattern on the back, and the selective wash on the bread to promote browning in the right spots. Inside, it carried a payload of sweet adzuki bean paste.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Curry curry

Curry is more a concept than a recipe. You can get wet curries, dry curries, mild curries, and even curry powder. The origin of the word curry simply refers to a sauce, but different cultures have come up with different interpretations of the curry, and sometimes, they can be confusing.

The Indian curry is predominated by the use of a mixture of dried spices. Often the spice mixture or masala is heated in oil or toasted prior to use, to activate the flavors. The combinations are myriad, and if whole spices are used, the shelf life of the basic ingredients can be very long indeed.

The Thai curry also has a complex combination of flavors, but it stems from a much heavier use of a fresh herb base, such as lemongrass, ginger, kefir, and galangal. Equally important, though, is an undercurrent of umami conveyed by the use of fish sauce. I've witnessed the clever use of yeast extract in its place for vegan interpretations of Thai curry.

The Japanese curry is a curious creature. It obviously stems from an Indian heritage, using dried spices, but has a couple of new twists thrown in. First, it is roux based; a convergent cousin to the gumbo and étouffée. Secondly, the Japanese palate is accustomed to a sweeter undertone to the curry, and thus incorporate some kind of sweetening ingredient, such as fruit, into the curry base. Served atop hot rice, it conveys the kind of comfort that wards off a cold day.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Wasted food and red tape

What's pictured above is contraband. This is but a small sample of the good food being thrown away during breakfast at an Houston Independent School District (HISD) classroom, retrieved from the garbage bag. While it's wonderful that HISD provides free breakfast to our children, what's uneaten or unwanted must be thrown in the trash; the volume of perfectly edible food discarded every morning is heartbreaking. Technically, city health ordinances forbid serving this food, donating it, or repurposing it in any way.

Teachers and administrators are caught in an unfortunate conflict of rules; in order for a school to be reimbursed by the Federal funds, all the food served must be taken by a child, even if the child has no intention of eating it. This is not an new problem, however, that article exploring this issue was written in 2004. Clearly, after seven years, nothing much as changed.

In a country as prosperous as America, the issue of hunger is largely one of distribution, and quite often, is somewhat divorced from the issue of malnutrition and starvation. The idea of serving breakfast to kids is predicated on the idea that one learns better on a fed stomach, yet we are obviously either serving too much food, or that our children as so well fed that they can afford to discard good nutritious food rather than consume it later. You can lead a child to a banana, but rarely can you force her to eat it (although I hear the juices get consumed).

What's sad is that this is almost purely a failure of legislation.

I acknowledge and dedicate this posting to the unnamed and noble workers in the HISD system.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Guilty Indulgences #2 - Milo (updated)

Part of an ongoing series about processed foods that get my approval. This post was originally written in March, 2009. Updated in 2011.

Upon reading this weird tangential posting comparing Milo with Astros announcer Milo Hamilton, I had to revisit my old posting about Milo, the drink, written 2 years ago, and brought forward. I have fond memories of having Milo (can't really say it's a drink, as it can be consumed in myriad forms).

I'm not really sure where to categorize Milo. It is a product by Nestle is that is pretty popular the world over, except in the US (or maybe the UK). The Wikipedia entry on Milo says that the stuff originated in Australia, although the can I pictured above comes from Canada. In Malaysia and Singapore, it's so popular that Milo is practically synonymous with chocolate drinks. It's a malty chololatey powder in its default form, which is supposed to be mixed into milk or water to make an old fashioned energy drink (high calorie vitamin fortified stuff - not the caffeinated canned stuff most energy drinks are today), but it gets used in other products - I have baked Milo bread, and made Milo ice cream. Milo can be sprinkled on oatmeal, blended over ice cream, mixed into coffee, made into milkshakes. You can get Milo pressed into bars and coated in chocolate. The canned ready to drink stuff - boring pablum.

Do I really know what went into Milo? No, not really. But it's damned good stuff, and I'm loyal to it (don't even bring up Ovaltine as a comparable product - it isn't). I understand that there are subtle differences in the regional manufacture of Milo (for example, I've never seen Ghanese Milo but I hear it comes in pellets). I've met other people (usually expatriates) who drink Milo, and we get together to chat excitedly about the stuff like junkies who found long lost brethren.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Guilty Indulgences #4 - Happy Hippos (updated)

This is an update to a posting that was originally written in May, 2009. It's part of an irregular series of posts about processed food that get my approval.

As I walked through Pike's Place Market in Seattle, I was awed by the mounds of fresh salmon lying about -- all of them missing heads, like a macabre mass decaptitation. You know how some people have a problem eating fish with the head still attached? This somewhat American (maybe North American) peculiarity is often attributed to a revulsion from a food item that can stare back at you

Well, leave it to the geniuses at Kinder to come up with a candy that can look at you. And taste great, too.

The Kinder Happy Hippo is a cookie shell filled with this hazelnut chocolatey stuff. Apparently, a version also exists that is filled with vanilla custard, but I have not tried that. This is not something I'd try to replicate at home. For the longest time, I would scour Houston, looking for shelves that would stock them in a poorly seen corner. Lately, though, they've become more easily available - I found this specimen in Phoenicia.

The question I ask then, is if people would eat this heat first...or tail first. Why, yes, the attention to detail is such that they have tails.