Standard Pages (they don't change often)

Friday, April 29, 2011

Exploiting threes

Ever wonder how seedless fruits are propagated? Or for that matter, how could they come to be? A simple lesson in genetics is in order.

Most plants and animals of dietary consequence to us are diploids. That means that, like humans, they each carry two sets of their genetic material in their cells. When procreating, each parent has to make sex cells which carry only one set of genetic material - so that the progeny doesn't get a doubled set. This process of halving the DNA content is called meiosis, and is a system full of checks and balances. Should anything go awry, in most cases, the resulting sperm or egg cell is infertile.

So, if you want to make a seedless plant, you have to set up a situation where this process doesn't go as planned. One common strategy is triploidy.

The little black specks are the abortive seeds.
Unlike the diploid state, triploid organisms have three sets of the genetic material in their cells. This makes things simple - three just doesn't divide neatly into two. Consequently, triploid organisms tend to be sterile. Added bonus is that since there's one extra set of genes, many triploids produce bigger fruit than their diploid cousins. The most common example of a triploid is the banana. We take it for granted, but just about all commercial bananas are clones (the Cavendish), and they are propagated as such because they can't make seeds. Diploid bananas do exist, and they are so chock full of peppercorn sized seeds, you'll have a hard time eating them - and they are so much smaller than the Cavendish, too.

Not to say that triploidy can only be applied to plants. One of the animals that we take advantage of triploidy in: oysters. Unable to make viable sex cells, the decreased gonad sizes mean that triploid oysters become larger and devote more their resources making, well, themselves. Think of them as molecular eunuchs.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Reheated: Flat and quick

One of my regular stocked items for cooking once, and eating over the course of several days are the various incarnations of flat breads or pancakes. They're easy to make, can be sweet or savory, freeze well, defrost quickly, are preportioned, and reheat rapidly, making them ideal for any time of the day. The technique is easy to master, and really, very forgiving. Once made, depending on how they were flavored, pancakes can be used to hold a filling, and these combinations fight the potential monotony of eating a single meal item for an extended period of time. Plus, they're portable.

I've found that yeast risen wheat pancakes an easy way to get started. The base I usually start with is an egg, a couple of healthy pinches of salt, about 2-3 Tb of sugar, 1.5 cups of milk or water, 1 cup of flour (I like using bread flour, but regular all purpose will do), half a tsp of quick rising yeast, and a couple of Tb oil or melted butter. Mix this together into a thick liquid batter.

Then cover, and leave it at room temp overnight.

Next day, you can add more spices, or sugar, or dried fruit, or some liquid to thin it out, or even cheese, before cooking it on a hot pan. Some spices will inhibit the growth of yeast, though, so add it after the rise. I find that the yeast risen dough just tastes better, and the overnight autolysis of the gluten makes for a very forgiving batter. I also prefer the crust that forms on a standard stainless steel or iron pan than that on a nonstick surface, but either one will do.

To cook, just pour some batter into a hot pan, wait couple of minutes (it'll bubble), then flip, and cook the other side a couple of minutes. The Korean pahjeon technique stuffs the batter full of vegetables or fish (scallions are normal), and pours the whole batch into the hot skillet to make a massive pancakes that's tricky to flip. I just stick the whole thing in the oven to bake, and under the broiler to brown before cutting into wedges.

Friday, April 22, 2011

The Passion of Bt

Chief among the precepts in the organic foods movement is a condemnation of synthetic pesticides in crops. Thus, "natural" means of controlling insects and pests of agriculturally important plants are very important. The bacterium Bacillus thuringensis produces a protein interferes with the digestive system of most insects, but doesn't affect other animals. Behold, a "natural" solution.

Plants can then be sprayed with B. thuringensis to reduce an infestation, and the crop can still be considered "organic". Then, scientists introduced the gene that makes the Bt protein directly into corn and other crops, effectively obviating the need to spray the plant at all - but because it used a transgenic technology, it loses the cachet of the organic label.

Ironic, isn't it.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The seder orphan

One thing I appreciate about the Jewish Passover is that it's centered around a meal. The seder meal itself is a thing of organizational beauty - every item has its place, and every portion has some significance to the Exodus story. Every item, except one.

Stir fried bitter melon. May be a good substitute for maror.
The bitter herbs signify the bitterness of slavery. The charoset represent the mortar used by the slaves to build the storehouses of Egypt. The matzoh was the unleavened bread because the dough didn't have time to rise before the exodus. And the roasted lamb bone represents sacrifice.

And then there's the roasted egg.

Despite the name, the roasted egg is really hard boiled, but then lightly roasted. Unlike the other items, the egg isn't Exodus specific - alternate interpretations call it a stand in for the usual offerings the Israelites bring to the temples, or as a symbol of mourning. Some rabbis affirm that the egg is optional in the seder meal (usually, it's eaten as an appetizer of sorts after being dipped in salt water).

Archeologically, we can interpret this as just another remnant of the usual fertility symbol during spring - essentially a distant, somewhat scorched and less dressed up cousin to the Easter egg.

The best explanation I have heard about the roasted egg came from a colleague of mine, and it's Exodus specific. The story goes that when Moses parted the Red Sea, the path ahead wasn't dry land. Rather, there was still enough water such that people had to wade across hip deep. And the dipping of egg in salt water reminds us that Moses had to have his cojones in seawater during the escape.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Reheated: Secret Veg Weapon

Part of an ongoing series about dishes meant to be reheated.

One of the problems of planning a dish that is meant to be reheated over time is that fresh green vegetables get left out of the mix. Reheating spinach, for example, simply reduces it into green slime. Delicate vegetables are out, but more robust vegetables hold up well to reheating. Bok choy, for example, reheat well, as do kale, cauliflower, and carrots. And legumes. Which leads me to my secret weapon to bringing something green into a dish but allowing it to be reheated.


That's the Japanese name for young green soybeans, which are now readily available, shelled and frozen, in most grocery stores. They're very versatile: you can boil them for 5 minutes (straight from the freezer bag), salt them, and they're ready to eat. Or they can be stir fried, tossed into a stew, or ground with some lemon juice and olive oil for a green "hummus". Cooked whole, though, they hold up very well to reheating.

Friday, April 15, 2011


Alton Brown once famously declared that the only singletasker allowed in his kitchen is a fire extinguisher. And it's a basic good rule to follow - so many kitchen gadgets are built for a single purpose, and so often, they're not even that good at that. Fifteen examples are in listed here - imagine a little doodad whose only purpose is to help you get that banana peel started. Oh, and that egg cracker: by the time it takes to even load the device, you could have already been cooking.

That's not to say I haven't entertained the idea of a single tasker in my kitchen. I've yet to find an alternative purpose for say, the ice cream maker. And while the waffle iron gets plenty of alternate uses:

waffled grilled cheese pan de sal sandwich

I must say I am still stymied by a bit of nostalgia: the waffle dog. While people in America are mostly familiar with the concept of a corn dog (a hot dog covered in cornmeal batter and deep fried - usually on a stick), the waffle dog is a hot dog cooked in a waffle. But to accomplish this, you'll need a waffle iron specifically designed to hold a waffle dog. Near as I can tell, the concept is peculiarly Filipino, although the product itself seldom seen outside of the Philippines. I've read of waffle dogs being experienced in Thailand, and there's certainly a waffle dog franchise based out of Hawaii (no doubt catering to the local ethnic Filipino population). Perhaps a waffle dog maker can make for an interesting single tasker in one's kitchen one day.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Convenient and reheated

Some of my friends who are professional athletes posed a challenge to me: like many of us, they have very busy days, training and practicing. The problem is the need to make large batches of food that can be reheated or eaten over the course of several days, bonus points if prep time can be minimized. Of course, the menu needs to be compatible with the dietary requirements of a professional athlete - high in protein and nutrition, mindful of fat and sugar.

The concept here is strategy, not recipes. Dishes that can be prepared early, parceled out, and reheated does take a bit of planning to do. But can be a real time saver during the week, and if we stagger them correctly, won't appear boring as the cycles go through. Perhaps one of the most important tools to this arsenal is the slow cooker, and I'll explore more dishes using the slow cooker in future postings. For now, I'd like to rehash an earlier concept - that you can do make ahead whole grains in jam jars in a slow cooker. Just add your whole grains (I like groat oats, or barley...or any number of these grains) into individual clean jars, add the liquid you want to cook them in (broth, water, milk), put into the slow cooker, and fill the outside with water. Slow cook overnight, and in the morning, you'll have individually packaged precooked breakfasts for a few days. The approach can be used for sweet or savory items (in the above, I mixed in some strawberry compote into whole cooked oat groats).

Get creative here. Quinoa cooks very nicely in this approach, and can be eaten with a hearty salad for nutritious meal. Pearled barley with bits of meat make for hearty lunch. I'll experiment with couscous, and report back in the results.

I'll be continuing to write about this topic in future blog posts. Watch for the tag "better reheated".

PS: To my Canadian readers - Happy National Poutine Day. Not exactly sure that is reheatable or healthy for athletes, though.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Moving the goalposts of "Fresh"

I've recently been bombarded with these ads about visiting the nearby Target store exhorting the new "Fresh Groceries" section. For those who are unaware, Target is a large chain of general merchandise stores selling all sorts of things from automotive maintenance equipment to diapers. Many such Target branches have long had "grocery" sections, but the merchandise there tended to focus on packaged shelf stable processed foods, and frozen stuff. I decided to pay a visit to the target Target in the billboards to find out what's going on.

Well, this is it. One new aisle. And despite the vibrant pictures of produce seemingly dancing in the air, and the word "fresh" repeatedly emblazoned in large letters, almost everything here is wrapped in plastic.

Thank heavens at least the bananas (priced per piece instead of by weight) were sitting open, despite the recent news of Del Monte selling individually wrapped bananas.

Because it gets worse.

Behold, your plastic packaged, pre-sliced apples. With caramel sauce. For $4.39 a bag. Absolutely ridiculous. I'll hear from folks saying how it's an important time saving device, but really, this is a parody of "fresh". Don't let advertising sway you from reality.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

On community and learning

Sometimes, it's worth stepping back, and looking at the big picture.

I am often puzzled by the strenuous attempts people go through to recapture certain tastes and dining conventions. Like how often vegetarian cuisine is defined by how well it can mimic meat or meat based diets, or the inordinate hoops that shrines to authenticity some restaurants become. Because despite the biological implications of eating, dining, in general, is really a cultural phenomenon, building community through communication, and, yes, discriminating against those whose mores don't conform. Some effects are universal (such as the predilection for sweet flavors), while others emerge from agreement, debate, and conformity.

This is the root of fear when dining outside of the comfort zone of cultural acceptance. And those who venture beyond these lines can be seen as equal parts foolish and adventuresome, and most of us watch in fascination. Or in my case, I applaud these mavericks of dining.

Take, for example, the grand project by Daniel Delaney, called What's This Food? (cheekily abbreviated WTF). Every day, Dan takes a different foodstuff, something that may be sitting in the border of the American dining consciousness, and brings it into focus for a few minutes in a video segment, cooking or preparing it with humor and aplomb. The segment on Kiwano melons is inventive to say the least.

Speaking of community, no doubt you'll notice the addition of the new gadget for ChipIn. Linda Salinas of Houston had an accident, and the community is rallying to support her in her time of need. P. Cook of Houston Food Adventures is helping organize fund raising activities. Please help spread the word. Thanks for helping.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Culinary Rick Rolling

What kinds of foods would be appropriate to celebrate April Fools' Day? I should think that the most obvious are the foods that are meant to fool people into thinking they're something else. Take for example, tofu dogs. Which aren't made from any kind of meat, much less dog meat.

Then again, how about some salad?

A proper dessert would be Dirt Cake. Imagine, cake that fools you into into thinking it's dirt. Brilliant. But what better way of fooling your diners into thinking that it's dessert - when another dessert shows up?

Perhaps the most appropriate thing for April Fool: Raspberry Fool. Well, technically, a fool is just pureed fruit tossed into whipped cream, so I hope we can rename some fruit into april, and then there'd be a dish called april fool. Until then, we may have to settle for aprium fools instead.