Standard Pages (they don't change often)

Thursday, June 30, 2011


I was having a conversation recently with a friend who had a complete misunderstanding about the use of pesticide resistance genes in crops. Apparently, they had this idea that you can just sprinkle on genes on plants, and thus, they can poison people who eat them. A great deal of the fear mongering around the use of transgenics (including the recent legislative move to block the US Food and Drug Administration from approving the marketing of transgenic salmon).

You get a lot of comments repeated over and over again, about all the potential risks of using transgenic technology (more commonly filed under the broader and inaccurate term genetically modified organisms - GMOs), despite repeated refutation of these claims. Over 30 years worth of unfounded claims, and yet, the political machine that runs on this dogma can sway whole governments.

This recent NPR interview is worth a listen. You can hear the exasperation in the voice of the scientist. While the idea of "genes leaking out" is indeed so preposterous, it belies the hubris that somehow an ignorant misunderstanding of genetics and evolution can serve as an political equal to informed scientific study.

Fact is, one day we'll have to deal with feeding 9 billion people on this planet. And transgenic technology will be part of that.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Less is less

When I picked up milk and orange juice at HEB the other day, I noticed that there was a difference in the labeling. Although both were house branded, and were in the same sized containers, the OJ was labeled in quarts, and the milk was in liters. Of course, unless my metric to American unit converter is wrong, 59 ounces do not half a gallon make. In fact, I do believe it is a full 5 ounces short - more than half a glassful.

This is part of a phenomenon dubbed the "Grocery Shrink Ray" over at the blog The Consumerist, where manufacturers subtly alter the packaging to sell you less product without perceptibly increasing the unit price - even though in the long run, the price has gone up. In fact, the reduction from 64 to 59 ounces was predicted after bad weather resulted in a less than stellar orange crop this year in Florida. The big worry for some is that once cheaper oranges are available, do you think manufacturers will return to 64 ounces in the carton?

Shaving off small amounts of product have affected a large number of grocery items, from peanut butter, to ice cream, to baby formula and soap. Next time you have a beer (say a Red Stripe or Tsingtao), check to see if the bottle lists a full 12 ounces.

But the cleverest one I've seen yet is from Hershey, introducing the whole line of "Air Delight Kisses" aerated chocolate. A quick calculation reveals that they are able to shave off 25% of the chocolate, replacing it with air - and touting it as a feature. Brilliant.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Waffled tostones

Plantains are the versatile fruit/vegetable relative to the Cavendish banana. Although it resembles a banana in appearance, it is starchy, and almost never eaten raw. The most common method of preparing it is deep frying of some sort. Depending on the stage of ripeness, the texture of the resulting fried plantain varies. When fried somewhat green, you get something called tostones, and the very ripe fruit (the skin turns black), you get the sweet side dish maduros. In fact, for making tostones, the plantains have to be fried twice: once to parcook the chunks, then they are flattened, and fried again to crisp them up.

I decided to forgo the heavy use of oil in the traditional prep by using a waffle iron. Also, I chose to use somewhat ripe fruit - the skin is yellowed, but not black. These, technically, would still be tostones.

As it turns out, the cooking method couldn't be simpler. I was worried that the parcooking would be required, but if the pieces were cut small enough, it didn't matter. Plantains caramelized (Malliardized?) beautifully on the waffle iron, and we get this cross hatched pattern, alternating crispy with chewy. A sprinkle of kosher salt, and these are addictive.

Maybe as movie food?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Maybe the wrong day

After hearing such rave reviews of young restaurant Pondicheri here in Houston, I decided to check it out with a friend. Set in a posh up and coming neighborhood in the Upper Kirby district (the only parking were this well manicured metered spots - rather unusual in parking abundant Houston), the theme is Indian food. Well, Indian reinterpreted to Houston mores. We dropped in for lunch, and most of the dishes pretty much focused on sandwiches, salads and and wraps, with some inventive bakery items. While what we had was by no means bad, I'll have to admit that the flavors lacked the verve and pop I've come to expect from Indian cooking. Wraps were a bit on the greasy side, like mutant burritos. In most cases, we spent most of the meal discussing what little tweak we would like to do to the dishes to bring it to top form.

Chicken tikka masala wrap was spare, and rather uninspired. At least they didn't use white breast meat, and thus it stayed moist. But could have used chutney or a pickle to bring it up a notch.

Fish masala burger was fine, albeit unwieldy. But the fries were a disappointment. The spicy coating was inventive, but the potato itself was mealy and chalky, as if the wrong kind of potatoes were used. 

The famed kachumber salad, a mix of cucumber, peanuts and mangos, was again, just short of greatness. Seasoning was bland (I kept wishing for a dash of toasted cumin). Cucumber dominated the flavor profile, the mangos tasted like an afterthought, and the peanuts appear to have been soaking the salad juices and came across as mushy. This need not be the case.

Peanut coleslaw from Cherry Creek Grill, in Denver, uses freshly toasted peanuts in their salad, which conveyed a very pleasant crunch while highlighting the dish. 

I did enjoy the inventive Coconut Chocolate Almond Basic cookies, which boasted plenty of basil flavor. Other spiced cookies were available.
After speaking with others, I got the impression that breakfast is where Pondicheri serves up its strongest hand. Maybe someday, I'll get to check it out then (not that awesome breakfast options are particularly abundant in Houston save for breakfast tacos). In the meantime, I'll have to rate it a so-so experience.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Dinner in a Movie

Munching appears to go hand in hand (or mouth) with the movie watching experience. With ticket prices at an all time high, and the usurious pricing of movie concession snacks, going to a movie is no cheap affair. Faced with affordable technologies that enable people to build home theaters, movie theaters are attempting gimmicks, such as diversifying from popcorn and snacks into offering full bore meals. Places like the Alamo Drafthouse and Movie Tavern offer essentially a contemporary American bar menu to be served to patrons before and during the movie feature. Both tout the relative advantage of being able to order a beer and having it brought to you. Given the premium charged for typical sodas in conventional movie houses, paying that much for a beer seems more palatable to the movie going public.

In reality, though, the experience is seldom smooth. Movie style seating, for example, does not really work well to allow waiters to come through to bus tables without disturbing someone. Summoning a waiter or ordering items a la carte as the main feature is in progress is also at best a tricky proposition. But the biggest failing, in my opinion, is the selection of food itself. Popcorn succeeds as a near ideal movie food for a number of reasons: it offers texture without being loud, ample seasoning, can last an extended period of time, can be eaten with one hand, and perhaps the most of important thing, does not require vision to eat it.

A big juicy cheeseburger? A salad? Cheesecake? These items are a disaster waiting to happen when the lights are out. They are foods that demand their share of your attention, rather than just supplementing your experience while your attention is focused elsewhere. Not to mention they are difficult to clean off when a kid throws a handful at you.

I daresay it's time to put some thought into foods that hold up better to the movie watching experience. For example, nice thick milkshakes would work well. Especially those supplemented with tapioca balls. Krupuk will hold up well, or maybe shelled edamame, onigiri, and macarons. Green mango slices are popular in Southeast Asia, although I suspect the addition of fermented fish paste may limit the popularity in American. Do you have any ideas to supplement the selection?

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Waffles, My Liege

"Original" Waffle, topped with kiwi, Waffle Brothers, Denver, CO. 

I'll admit to being mystified by the automatic association of butter and maple syrup with waffles. Even when I broke out the moffle, the pounded glutinous rice cake mochi cooked in a waffle iron, people tended to ask for butter and syrup. Turns out that I am not alone in being perplexed. Is this hand in hand with the idea that waffles are no more than reshaped flapjacks? Don't people understand the flexibility of the waffle iron?

Speaking with one of the proprietors of Denver's Waffle Brothers, I learned that they had revise their menu to prominently explain that their "original" waffles didn't require the butter and syrup treatment. And they had to come up with an alternate recipe which was meant to be doctored up with maply liquid.

The Waffle Brothers premise was simple - bringing in the Liege waffles from Belgium to the American masses (albeit modified slightly). The Liege wafels are notable for being made with a thicker, dough-like batter, yeast risen, on a deeper iron, and studded with pearl sugar - a large crystal form that doesn't dissolve in the wet dough, and this, caramelizes on the hot iron, resulting in a waffle is coated with patches of candy and burnt sugar. It's truly an addictive combination of flavors and texture - ruined by dousing the confection/bread/cake with liquid. Best enjoyed with a simple, non soaking topping, like fresh fruit, and some whipped cream, it's excellent walking food.

As I've been on the search for a domestic source of pearl sugar, I inquired where they got theirs from. He said they order it by the ton.

From Belgium.

Monday, June 13, 2011

The blunting of the beak

The act of eating out, in my opinion, is a special occasion thing. Unless you do it as part of your profession, dining out is small indulgence that serves to celebrate or soothe. Not that everyone shares in this opinion. But this reasoning is why I tend to order items in restaurants that are too much trouble to prepare at home or are special occasion foods (and why I let nutrition worries slide for these infrequent meals).

Chiles in nogada are the quintessential Mexican celebratory meal. Originating from Puebla, they not only require the harmonious blending of disparate seasonal ingredients (walnuts, poblanos and pomegranates), but is a laborious assembly that has a prescribed presentation to represent the Mexican flag. I've had great luck in the past having chiles in nogada at Pico's Mex-Mex, which are stuffed with a melting melange of pork. On a recent visit, I decided to try the vegetarian version.

It was a disaster.

What it was.

What we got.

The vegetarian stuffing consisted of brown rice, raisins, and olives, and somehow, the mixture tasted vaguely of turpentine. But it wasn't the stuffing alone that let the dish down. With fresh pomegranates out of season, they opted to use dried cranberries, and it just did not bring the requisite pop and acid to the dish. Moreover, the walnut sauce reeked of some kind cloying sweetness, as if from cooking sherry that wasn't cooked off. I could go no further than two bites.

Had this been my first time eating at this restaurant, I would've been afraid to order anything else on the menu, but this is the first bad item I've ever gotten. I was pretty honest with the waiter who inquired how the meal was - I told him I didn't like it. But I didn't expect him to do much about it; perhaps this was how it was meant to be. In which case, I'd advise everyone to steer clear.