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Friday, December 28, 2012

Favorite Food Experiences 2012

When I introduce myself as a food blogger, conversations seem to center immediately on restaurants. Indeed, in my survey trying to understand the archetypal food blog, I found that the restaurant experience seemed central to a lot of them. In fact, many consider food blogging an extension of the ancient (by Internet standards) art of restaurant critique — bloggers exist as an amorphous entity between and among formal critics and Yelp complainers. 

I make it a point that I do not review restaurant reviews exclusively. In fact, I am trying to understand the gist of what provides a favorable restaurant experience. So eloquently illustrated in the movie Ratatouille - the most powerful restaurant experience seems to tap into a private memory of the diner. And that is almost an impossible challenge for a chef, to understand and empathize, perhaps to educate, complete strangers expecting something designed for them. Which is probably why as the stakes go up, most restaurants become less daring. To hedge the bets, a restaurant tends to aim for the lowest common denominator. 

But dining is also an act of communication; reviewers often forget the social aspects of the dining experience that can overshadow nature the food itself. In that sense, the reason why so much writing focus is on restaurants is that it offers an asynchronous and a reproducible experience. It's the DVR of food, one need not only vicariously experience it, but a reader can go and recreate the experience. 

Here is my end of year list of memorable food experiences - my mix tape, to stretch the metaphor. Some of these will not easily recreated, but I share my memories in memory of the year past, and in anticipation of the year to come.

2012 opened with a delicious offering from Chef Steve Marques, at the time working at the Tasting Room Uptown, Houston. Here is his "best chocolate ice cream in the world" - luxuriantly nuanced with duck egg yolks, accented by thyme. Timeless. 

White ramen, Menya Musashi, Singapore. Perhaps the richest ramen broth I have ever encountered. Not the perfect ramen experience, but quite good. 

Bo ssam in the air. I wouldn't have thought that an airplane meal would count among the memorable dining experiences of the year, but Asiana Airlines proved me wrong. This savory and generous combination of pork belly and fresh herbs and leaves is a standard that would do well on the ground.  

On my visit to Santa Monica, CA, the most interesting food I had came from the varietals in the farmer's market. Here is a variety of tomato that was the sweetest I have ever had (it rivaled a strawberry). And the avocado was simply stunning in flavor and texture. 

Steve Marques also opened my eyes to the delicious decadence of chicken fried bacon, so much so that I had to try my own hand at beer battered bacon.  

Already showered with accolades, I must admit that Uchi Houston has finally come into its own. I  think they carry the most interesting desserts in Houston, in a town so bereft of interesting dessert items. But I was treated to this nigiri sushi of meat off a flounder fin. Notoriously difficult to procure, comprising but a fraction of the flesh off the fish, this is a treat rarelyserved.
This torchon of foie gras with cucumelons and pear is one of the most amazing things I've tasted this year, and was also an offering from Uchi Houston. Both sweet and savory, it illustrates why foie gras is such a celebrated ingredient. 
While the food in Banana Leaf Malaysian food in Houston can be tepid, this crispy duck dish on curry is a must try. Practically boneless, it is expertly fried with an ethereal crust, and is complemented by complex curry sauce. 
Salted duck eggs are a surprise to those unused to these savory flavor bombs. I was fortunate enough to have this beautiful specimen earlier this year on a trip to Aklan, the Philippines. Not the very best possible, it's still heads and shoulders better than the shrink-wrapped specimens common in Houston's Chinatown. 

I tried to share some of the diversity of cuisine found in Singapore, so I'll just relay a few of the delicious dishes I tried there. Here is a colorful bowl of cendol, tapioca noodles flavored with pandan, in a bed of ice with gula melaka.  

Then there's the iconic Peranakan dish of chicken cooked with buah keluwak. From the restaurant Chilli Padi. 

But really, few things are so memorable, so comforting, as charcoal grilled toast, smeared with the coconut custard kaya, and a slab of butter. I still bake bread just to make kaya toast at home. It's worth it. 

There you have it. 2012 kind of whizzed by. Looking forward to a prosperous and delicious 2013.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Creamy jackfruit cookie

Jackfruit, the largest tree born fruit in cultivation, is pretty popular both in sweet and savory applications, and, fortunately, canned jackfruit is easily gotten here. Last year, for the holidays, I prepared a jackfruit and coconut ice cream. This year, I tried out a new method: a two toned cut cookie bar.

First, prepare the housing: I used a square cake pan, which I lined with parchment paper. I find this is best accomplished by laying two layers intersecting in the middle.

The cookie layer starts by creaming a stick of butter with some ratio of white and brown sugar. The more brown sugar, the softer the resulting cookie layer. I used about a cup of sugar, with about 25% brown sugar. After creaming, beat in a room temperature egg, and about 2 tablespoons of milk. Then 2 cups of flour and some shredded coconut, until it comes together into a sticky cookie dough. Chilling the dough will make it easier to work with, but just press it into the pan into an even layer.

Bake this for about 20 minutes at 175°C (350°F) , and allow to cool to room temperature.

Meanwhile, drain a can of jackfruit, cut across the strings, and puree in a food processor. Beat some room temperature cream cheese or neufchâtel cheese until soft, mixing in sugar (be careful as the jackfruit would be sweet already), an egg, the pureed jackfruit, and a 2-3 tablespoons of tapioca starch. Pour this over the cookie layer, and bake it in a 150° C (300° F) oven until the top layer sets. I found this took around 30 minutes. Allow to cool in the refrigerator overnight before cutting into cookie-sized slices. These bars are fairly rich.

Should go well with strong tea.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Vanity colors

Around Texas, you'll find these purplish (ok, maroon) carrots labeled "beta-sweets", which were developed at Texas A&M University (TAMU). Allegedly sweeter and "healthier", the more significant effect is likely to be around the color. TAMU and University of Texas at Austin (UT) have a historical football rivalry, and fans of each school rally around the school colors: TAMU maroon, and UT orange. And, no doubt, that rivalry extends to carrots. 

The funny thing, though, is that this may just be an evolutionary throwback: purple carrots predated the orange. In fact, orange carrots were a horticultural engineering feat as well. You can learn a lot about the history of carrots in the online Carrot Museum. Carrots used to be these thin bitter roots that came in colors from yellow to purple, and patient Dutch plant breeders selected for the orange sweet roots we know ubiquitously today. And, not quite coincidentally - orange is the color of the Dutch Royal House

Speaking of orange: many mistake orange pekoe tea to be flavored with orange peel, akin to how Earl Grey tea is flavored with bergamot. Actually, the orange pekoe grading likely comes historically from Sri Lankan tea destined for the Dutch Royal house, and was thus, labeled orange. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Digging deeper


I hold out hope for good science journalism, although that may be in vain.

The headline: Stinky Cheese makes you live longer (from the LA Weekly). No conditionals, definitive. So, let's dig a little deeper.

The blog post is simply a shortened retelling of an article that appeared in The Telegraph in the UK, titled: The secret to why the French live longer: Roquefort cheese.  The article, by one Andrew Hough (notable for "quirky Internet stories) didn't link to the original paper, although it did name the journal where it was published in: Medical Hypotheses. That should be an immediate alarm bell. It's a journal meant to publish ideas with observational support but little or no experimental evidence. Meaning it's a forum for speculation; the journalists shouldn't be reporting this with a definitive tone. At best, it is correlative, but this particular publication does not even quantitate the correlation. So, it is speculative: basically, the French seem to live longer, and they eat a lot of moldy cheese - could one be causative of the other? That's an old news - no, it's not even news.

Is there a story here, then? Yes - do a search on the author's names: Dr Ivan Petyaev and Dr Yuriy Bashmakov, and we find that they are part of a company: Lycotec, which has a business model making nutraceuticals. And their latest product - something made from fermented cheese. Coincidence? Sad thing is, all they could justify it is a speculative paper in a journal that doesn't require scientific evidence.

The story is in the paper itself: the authors declared no conflict of interest. I think they very much had a conflict of interest in this, that this publication is nothing more than a publicity stunt - and shoddy journalism just pushed it forward.

So, go ahead, enjoy the Roquefort - life may be too short to worry about bad cheese.

PS: Besha Rodell - just a little critical thinking and some internet research would elevate your reporting.  Stop regurgitating pablum.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The demonization of purity

White and brown sugar. All together in harmony.

Recently, I walked into a newish bakery to check out their offerings. The enthusiastic person behind the counter quickly pointed out that their cakes don't use sugar, just natural sugars, making them "healthier". Apparently, unaware of the contradiction in the terminology, I pressed to get clarification, but we were at an impasse - after all, why shouldn't I understand the difference?

The issue stems around two different issues: first is the word "sugar" itself. There's a chemical definition of sugars, which are a class of short unit carbohydrates, not all of them sweet. But there's the colloquial definition, which is specifically table sugar - which is 99% pure sucrose in chemical parlance. As it stands, the when "sugar" is used to mean one or the other, plenty of confusion arises. But the other is the assertion that somehow, sucrose is considered unnatural. Let's understand where table sugar comes from.

The sweet stuff can be made from a number of plants - usually sugar cane or sugar beets - by squeezing out the juices, and boiling it down, while progressively removing crystals of sucrose. As the sucrose becomes more pure, it gets whiter - hence, white table sugar. Impurities concentrated into the syrup is what becomes molasses. In the past, brown sugar is sugar in the intermediate stage of purification, but in streamlined more modern production, brown sugar is made by mixing some molasses back into white sugar. This, of course, allows for overall consistency in brown sugar production.

Once we get to the root of a particular ingredient, purification enables consistency and reproducibility. Yet, somehow, the pure stuff is treated with suspicion while the unpurified form is more trustworthy. Inherent sucrose (and it's components fructose and glucose) comprise the majority of the sweet flavor of fruits - the so called, "natural sugar". One is chemically no different from the other.

And this cultural misdirection happens elsewhere - take, for example, self-righteous condemnation of table or kosher salt by some in favor of "gourmet" salts, despite the the preposterous pricing of the latter. All of which, incidentally, are just sodium chloride, with gourmet salts retaining different trace contaminants respective of their source (the primary differentiator with salt is primarily with the crystal structure, but that's a different discussion). And then, there's monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is the dehydrated form of the amino acid responsible for the umami flavor - and so culturally reviled that Chinese American restaurants need to prominently display a denial of that ingredient. Yet cooks will rely on glutamate-rich ingredients - tomatoes, mushrooms, yeast, meats - to imbue the foods with umami "naturally". The defining characteristic of "natural", it would appear, stem from unnamed and unknown impurities.

Strangely, people draw comfort from items being unknown. Take, for example, the question of ultrafiltered honey. A great deal of objection arises from the point that honey, once filtered of pollen and clarified, just doesn't meet the definition of honey any more, even though these are not central to the role of honey as a sweetener. In fact, the sweetness of honey derives from the sucrose found in flower nectar, which is cleaved into fructose and glucose by invertase in the bee's gut. And though honey carries such a cachet of health, in a sense, this chemical composition reflects that of a less desirable ingredient: high fructose corn syrup.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Armchair Cheffing

I used to be an avid viewer of Top Chef. When it first came out, with an eclectic mix of self taught cooks and seasoned kitchen veterans, it was quirky and entertaining. I would immediately follow up each episode reading the blog recaps of the judges, as intrigued as I was with the challenges thrown at the varied group. But, with success, the show evolved a pattern that has become formulaic, and I became less likely to follow the series.

But the most recent episode, set in Seattle, caught my attention.

Spoiler alert: I will discuss the outcome of the show after this point. Stop reading if you do not want to be spoiled.

This episode centered around Pike Place Market, without a doubt the culinary heart of Seattle. What took them so long? I love visiting the Market; the labyrinthine structure is replete with ingredients and culinary creations. And the elimination challenge involved taking artisanal ingredients, and making a dish highlighting it.

This is a difficult challenge - the list included cardamom bitters, curry coconut chocolate, spicy dill  pickles, rose petal jelly, cheese curds, salmon candy, and truffle popcorn. So difficult, in fact, that the contestants all pretty much bombed - no winner was announced, and two chefs were sent off.

But I have to ask myself, given the challenge, what would I make of them?

Cardamom bitters - like the contestants, I would have used these in a curry, just not on seafood. Duck curry would be more in line.

Curry coconut chocolate - not having tasted the chocolate itself, I don't know how sweet it is. But if it were darker - mole I think. Although there may not be enough time to carry it out. If it is sweeter, then an Indian sweet of some kind, like a burfi,

Spicy dill pickles - my immediate thought would be a creamy cold soup with hot meatballs. Maybe lamb.

Rose petal jelly - this would be the most difficult ingredient. I am still wrestling with a bottle of roasted garlic and jalapeño jelly I got from the Market a while back. For a savory application, pork belly perhaps. Or perhaps a scented panna cotta.

Cheese curds - This should be inspirational - I would go Sichuan style salt on cheese curd age fry. Or maybe a ma-po sauce.

Salmon candy - I liked the use of this in a salad, but I think perhaps an empanada or a tortellini.

Truffled popcorn - I'd make dessert. Ice cream, in fact. With ginger snaps, or cherry cake.

What would you do given the same ingredients?

Monday, December 10, 2012

What brown can do

Ever heard the saying that you taste with your eyes first? Humans are usually very visual creatures, and color and appearance fundamentally affect how we judge food, or even if we are willing to eat it. For example, the rarity of blue pigments in nature is thought to go hand in hand with the appetite suppressing properties of food colored blue. Unless you're a kid.

On the other hand, brown is ubiquitous. A by product of the Maillard reaction, many cooking methods center around trying to develop that appetizing shade. Take, for example, the de rigeur sear on meat cooked sous vide, or the boiling of bagels in lye (the increased pH promotes the browning). But this is different from browning of cut fruits and vegetables, like that of apples, pear, and avocado. That is formed by the activity of an enzyme called polyphenol oxidase (PPO) in the presence of oxygen.

In some cases, the browning is desirable - PPO is responsible for the brown color of coffee, tea and chocolate during fermentation. But in cut fruit, this may be considered visually unpalatable - fortunately, PPO can be inhibited by acid. That's why you are supposed to sprinkle lemon juice on these surfaces to slow down the browning.

Or you can just take the PPO out - a fruit lacking PPO just cannot brown. And that's the situation in an engineered product called the Arctic Apple. One common misunderstanding is that non-browning apples conceal rotten fruit among the fresh - this, of course, is a non sequitur. As you can tell, the action of PPO does not really indicate rot at all - the browned surfaces are simply not esthetically pleasing. Or, as Kevin Folta cleverly points out, this is by no means the first time a PPO-free fruit will hit the market: sultanas are non-browning grapes.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Send in the clones

With the cold nip air arriving in Texas, we begin to forget the somewhat tropical climate we usually enjoy here. Certainly tropical enough to cultivate bananas. Many folks plant banana plants around Houston, usually for decorative purposes, but something about last year's climate has triggered many of these plants to produce fruit. Even local food writing legend Robb Walsh is ripening his own harvest.

These, however, are not the Cavendish variety commonly seen in the supermarkets; there are many other different banana varieties. In common American parlance, the dividing line between bananas and plantains is that the latter requires cooking. Truth is, plantains are also bananas. And just about all the bananas I've seen around Houston are of one variety, plump fruit that benefits from cooking.

Harvested bananas
This should come as no surprise: this is a seedless variety, most likely a triploid. But that also means that all the banana plants in Houston are clones, taken as shoots from an original transplant to the area (bananas originated in Southeast Asia). The spread is remarkable, considering that the only way these particular seedless varieties can spread is by human intervention. But this is a quiet invasive species, taking vigorous incursion in the Gulf Coast area - a model immigrant so to speak.

What to do with a harvest? First of all, bananas are climacteric fruit - so freely harvest them green and hard, and allow to ripen in an enclosed area. This variety resembles plantains in that they won't have a uniformly yellow skin, and black is not a sign of rot. Then, cook them. Baked, boiled, they make great fritters or banana bread.

I experimented in making a crepe crusted banana palm sugar pie. Enjoy the clones.

Crepe crusted banana palm sugar pie. 

Friday, November 16, 2012

Big Breasts

Did you know it's oyster season? It'll be a good foil for the bird. 
Because the American Thanksgiving tradition centers around the ready availability of a whole turkey, farmers need to anticipate the demand at this one point of the year. Not only that, but with the premium placed on the breast meat require turkeys to have consistently huge breasts: male or female. To the point that the birds are, well, too top heavy to mate. 

Not to worry - artificial insemination is the solution to both these problems

Gobble gobble. 

Monday, November 12, 2012


What's the correct term for something or someone with origins in Myanmar? Myanmari? Myanmarese? Myanmarian? Fortunately, Burma is still an acceptable name for that country.

I must admit, I know remarkably little about the cuisine of Burma. I know it has significant influences from both China and India, but you could say the same for Singaporean or Malaysian food, and those seem remarkably different from Burmese cooking. 

Khausa. From Nikoz Fusion Grill, Sugarland, TX.
I first encountered Burmese cooking in the form of curry khausa, which apparently a pasta dish with two sauces - and spaghetti or fettucine are acceptable. Fortunately, Naomi Duguid recently published her book on the cooking of Burma, and from there, I learned that the predominant dishes are salads called thoke. There are myriad variants of thoke, as these are prepared from whatever ingredients are available - unlike the pampered First World, people of Burma don't necessarily have the luxury of on demand produce.

For Foodapalooza 2012, I decided to prepare my version of thoke. Near as I can tell, thoke carries a refreshing range of textures, and a blend of flavors that range from spicy to savory and a hint of herbal aroma.

I based the thoke on daikon radish. I shaved the daikon with a vegetable peeler into long "noodles", and did a quick 15 minute pickle with julienned ginger, salt, vinegar and sugar. While this was marinating, I prepared the rest of the ingredients: chopped cilantro, toasted sesame seeds, pan toasted peanuts, and a bit of sesame oil. Drained the daikon, tossed these together, and topped with a healthy dusting of bonito flakes* (katsuoboshi), and a fried lotus root chip. Tangy, crisp and crunchy.

Daikon thoke. Foodapalooza 2012 style.
* I originally wanted to use small dried anchovies for the umami component, but was cautioned that the small fish heads may freak people out. Katsuoboshi was a compromise. 

Friday, November 9, 2012

Onion bits

"Convenience". Really?

Over at Epicurious, someone surveyed the NYC grocery shelves in the aftermath of hurricane Sandy, and was surprised to find that stocks of onions were depleted. After all, as the saying goes, everything starts with an onion. Then I discovered these packs of prechopped onions in a local store.

I am appalled by this. Firstly, ounce for ounce, these pre chopped onions are almost 10 times the cost of the whole onions. Not 10%, but a whopping 900% . There's nothing to cutting up an onion - there's no seed to deal with as is the case of a mango or an apple, and just about the entire plant is edible (one should be so lucky as to find onion flowers). I've heard arguments that it takes too much time, or that it would require a food processor.


About the only things you need are a sharp knife and a chopping board, and even for a novice, cutting up an onion should take less than a couple of minutes - you'll spend about that much timing waiting for a pan to heat up. Of course, I advise not rushing for any novice in knife skills for safety purposes. But the real secret: despite the admonitions of needing even slicing and dicing, most recipes will do just fine if the onions were just roughly cut up any which way. No food processor needed.

Perhaps then, with the money saved, you can donate it to the Red Cross for Sandy relief.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Tasting with the eyes

Huitlacoche and monkfish chowder
Over at Foodapalooza 2012, BBQDude requested a dish made from huitlacoche, corn kernels infected with the fungus Ustilago maydis. In American agricultural circles, it's considered the pathogen corn smut, but in Mexican cuisine, it is as prized as truffles. Indeed, the comparison is apt, as it has that range of complex flavors reminiscent of truffles.

The challenge of cooking huitlacoche is the alarmingly black color and the misshapen distended corn kernels filled with spores. Traditionally, this is hidden in an enchilada or an empanada, but our past project involved using it as a savory cheesecake - which at one point was compared to dirty dishwater in appearance but fortunately not in taste. This time around, I wanted celebrate the color of the ingredient, and hopefully make it attractive as well. I chose to make a soup - a chowder in fact to celebrate the New England fall.

We found some nice monkfish tails, which I took fillets off of. The trimmings and bones go into a pot with slices of ginger and water to make a fish stock. In a second pot, chopped onions are sautéed, and then the canned huitlacoche, then clarified fish stock. Pass this through a blender, and then a sieve to remove any small bits. Meanwhile, in a second pot, I made a roux from butter and flour, cooking this to a blonde stage. The soup is then added back in, and cooked to a thick soup. Finally, cream is added to taste. Seasoned, of course, with salt and pepper.

One challenge is that the only sweet corn available was canned. So I drained it, and laid it out on a sheet pan and put it under the broiler until slightly charred. This livens up the texture and flavor.

For service, I brought the monkfish fillets to room temperature, dried them off, and seasoned liberally with salt and pepper (Sichuan peppercorns would be good here, but I didn't have any available at the time), and a little oil. Get a heavy pan really hot, put in some heat stable oil. Lay the fish in the pan, and finish in a hot oven.

To serve, a few ladelfuls of soup, a few spoonfuls of corn, and lay the sliced fish on top. Serve with spoon and camera.

Thursday, November 1, 2012


Classical French cooking puts a great deal of significance to sauce cookery. The working French kitchen dedicates a cook on sauce preparation; in fact the saucier is ranked only behind the sous chef in the cooking brigade. Classically, there are five "mother sauces" from which others are based on. But we gleefully threw all these conceits out the window while cooking for Foodapalooza 2012

The challenge was to prepare sauces from quintessentially New England ingredients: blueberries, rhubarb, and cranberries, and pair them in savory preparations. Both the berries involved the same basic sauce direction: heat the berries (straight out of the freezer, I might add) on a sauce pan, adjusted with sugar for sweetness, and add complementary spices. For blueberries, I chose chipotle pepper and cumin. I wanted smoky overtones, with a gentle back heat. The cranberries, however, were a platform for fall sunshine: lemon peel and lemongrass, and a touch of maple syrup. I wish I could post an exact recipe, but the quantities will vary depending on the flavor the berries harvested. 

Rhubarb, I went a different route - I roasted it. Laid the chunks on a sheet pan with a sprinkle of sugar and a touch of olive oil and a hot oven. After I got little bits of char, I dumped it into a bowl, and mashed it while it was warm with slivers of raw ginger, tasting to adjust with more sugar or salt. 

Not that the item we were pairing the sauces needed much help: beer battered bacon. 

Beer battered bacon with New England Sauces.
To make, start with good bacon. We had some amazing stuff. Cut it into thicker slices. The beer batter is 50% rice flour, 50% AP flour, egg whites we had left over from making ice cream, baking powder, salt, paprika, cayenne pepper, and enough beer to make a thick batter (we used the hoppy Harpoon Ale). Allow it to rest in the fridge for 30 minutes minimum. Bacon slices can be dipped directly into the batter (it'll stick), and then into hot oil and fry until golden brown and delicious. Try not to burn yourself. Dip chunks into the sauces.

The blueberry chipotle sauce did double duty in a second dish:

Duck, blueberry sauce on sourdough.

What's great about dishes like these is that it's all about technique. Duck breast is scored, seasoned with salt, and put into a searing hot pan skin side down. The fat will render out, and make a nice crispy skin. Sourdough was inoculated the day before, and baked earlier in the day. We toasted it, buttered, laid the duck slice, and a dollop of blueberry sauce.

Chives are there to make it look like we have green stuff on the plate. 

Monday, October 29, 2012

Everyone loves a dumpling

At the invitation of BBQDude over at Indirect Heat, I recently headed out to the Boston area for a collaborative cooking session (aka, Foodapalooza 2012) where we cooked up and served an epic 12 course tasting dinner. Photos and a brief overview of the meal is adequately described there; I'll be writing about small details of the individual courses.

One thing we had decided on was making 8 hour smoked pulled pork butt, but serving it in a different fashion. After a short debate over two different presentation approaches, we settled it easily by choosing to do it both ways (the other way was pulled pork fish sticks).

I elected to make potstickers with the pulled pork. The idea was easy enough: I mixed the pulled pork with ample amounts of chopped scallions, some sesame seeds, and seasoned it with a little mirin and salt. I kept it simple to keep the nice smoky flavor. The real challenge is that pulled pork has various textures, including some sharp edges that can poke through the wonton skins. I ameliorated this by carefully chopping bigger chunks.

Freshly stuffed pulled pork potstickers
Stuffing potstickers is a very zen routine, and worked well while watching Jiro Dreams of Sushi. Service was simple, of course. The dumplings could be boiled, or pan fried/steamed. To accompany, A sprinkle of fresh scallions, and a vinaigrette made from olive oil, mustard, and the juice from sweet pickled serrano chiles.

The finished product with accompanying sauce.

A small anecdote - I accidentally burned a batch of these dumplings before making this replacement batch, but they proved so popular with the crowd, our guests gladly stomped into the kitchen, and devoured the burnt specimens. Potstickers also freeze easily.

Bonus: I also served a more traditional dipping sauce of soy sauce, mirin and sesame seed oil which proved very popular as well. I do think the vinaigrette allowed more of the smoke to shine through, though.

The 12 courses of Foodapalooza 2012.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Loyalty to Milo

One of the fun things about a trip to Singapore is that the Singaporean love of Milo is evident and assumed. 

Embiggen to see the details. But Milo is as common as aguas fresca would be in Mexico. 
The coffee shops (kopitiams) readily carry drink items made with Milo, such as this Milo frappé 
The Singapore original, however, is the Milo dinosaur, which is the Milo drink itself, fortified with sweetened condensed milk (as is the preference), iced, and then topped off with generous portions of the Milo powder itself. May be one of the best drinks on earth.
Milo makes its way into other products. Like breakfast cereal. 
And then not much further to Milo ice cream. 
Milo originated in Australia, and the version sold in Singapore differs a bit from the original. I have tasted the original Australian version against the localized version, and true enough, it's less sweet, and creamier. And I do prefer the Australian version, although it is quite a bit more expensive.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Climacteric fruit

Among the many tales in Barry Estabrook's book, Tomatoland, an alleged expose of the industrial tomato farming practices in America, he describes this practice of tomatoes being picked hard and green, and then "artificially gassed until their skins acquire a marketable hue". Choosing words evocative of Nazi execution of prisoners, this is a carefully orchestrated illustration of the "appeal to nature" fallacy.

Truth is, tomatoes are just climacteric fruit; like bananas and persimmons.

Ripening hachiya persimmons
Climacteric fruit continue to ripen after they have been picked; the trigger for ripening is the gas ethylene. Ethylene is a small hydrocarbon, and can be the by product of oil processing; but plants also endogenously produce ethylene gas as a hormone. Make no mistake - regardless of source, the two are chemically identical. This is why adding a banana can speed up ripening in other fruit - bananas react to ripening by producing more ethylene (in biology, this is called a positive feedback loop).

So, at an industrial scale, climacteric fruit ripening can be sped up by increasing the ethylene concentration in the atmosphere. Nothing fancy, nothing nefarious. No comment, however, on the fact that cheap supermarket tomatoes taste ... well, bland. That's a genetic change linked with why the tomatoes are slow to ripen in the first place.

PS - A couple of non-climacteric fruit: strawberries and most grapes. These do not continue to ripen post picking.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Bread Science

Malted milk buns
I love baking bread. Many find it intimidating, but in reality, it is one of the more forgiving things one can undertake. Unlike pastry baking, you can pretty much improvise, and something edible and delicious will come out on the other side. You may never be able to replicate it again if you're not careful about note taking - but even with notes, you may not be able to replicate it exactly either, as is the wont of fermented foods. Treat it like an enjoyable summer fling.

At its most basic, you only need four ingredients: flour, water, salt, and yeast. Well, not that really. There are versions of bread with no salt (Tuscan bread, which has split critics), bread unleavened or chemically leavened, and even bread with no flour. Varying how these ingredients are mixed, incubated, and baked pretty much accounts for most varieties of bread, from pita to fougasse. And ultimately, whether you're doing something "right" or not is entirely a matter of tradition.

For many, the entry to breadmaking will be the "no knead" bread recipe popularized by Jim Lahey. There are now numerous variations of this recipe posted all over the internet, but the basic idea is to have a very high hydration dough, with a small amount of yeast, and a long incubation time.  The point of kneading is to develop gluten, but it turns out that given enough time and water, autolysis will take care of gluten formation for you. Plus, the added benefit of long rises produced a wonderful flavor profile.

The other trick comes in the baking technique. The no-knead bread is baked in a hot heavy pot for 30 minutes, and the last 15-30 minutes with the lid off. When a high hydration dough hits a hot oven (and you need a really hot oven), the water inside the dough starts to turn into steam, and form the bubbles inside the bread. However, the heat of the oven will also cook the surface of the loaf to form the crust, and this can impede the expansion of the bubbles for that open crumb highly prized in rustic breads. The key is steam - professional baguette bakeries employ ovens that inject steam into the oven at the start of the baking process, and the sealed pot replicates this process. The steam slows down the crust formation so that the crumb bubbles can form. The lid is taken off to allow the steam to dissipate - the dry heat will continue to set the crust, and lowered moisture will encourage the Maillard reaction that results in the delicious browning.

This is all right for things like boules or large loaves, but presents a larger challenge when one is making smaller items like buns. For those, I have learned that brushing on a generous layer of milk just prior to baking slows down the crust formation long enough, and also creates a beautiful brown coat from the cooked milk. I'm leaving room to experiment with alternate flours and flour admixes, which I hope to report in the future. Here are some other observations I've already made:

  • All purpose flour makes perfectly acceptable bread, if bread flour isn't available. 
  • You can buy gluten as "bread enhancer" to add to AP flour and increase its elasticity.
  • You can replace the water with any number of liquids. Adding dairy into the dough softens it. Yogurt bread is like a gentler cousin to sourdough. 
  • You don't have to be too strict about the rising times. Some doughs can be stuck in the fridge for a week, and still bake up fine. Do allow it time to come to room temperature and a second rise before baking, though. 
  • High hydration doughs make excellent pizzas. And those can be baked on a grill. 

Thursday, October 11, 2012

False equivalences

I came across this article about people in Tanzania getting chemical-free water. The term bugs me greatly - after all, water itself is a chemical, fearsome in its guise as the pervasive dihydrogen monoxide.  But if you think that is is some quirk of reporting in Africa, behold: "carbon free sugar".

You get these blanket terms thrown around: Chemicals. Preservatives. Pesticides. Antibiotics. Hormones. Causes cancer. And people embrace this as sufficient justification to avoid or condemn certain foods or food practices without breaking down the facts.

Aside from considering that toxicity depends on amount and circumstance, one should not fall into the trap of considering all substances of a class equivalent. It's a logical fallacy, one that can be used to drum up an emotional response to swamp out the intelligent evaluation. Take the term pesticide. The key here is understanding that one person's pest is another person's valued commodity (huilacoche, for example - AKA corn smut). So, not all pesticides are equivalent, and many are virtually inert to human physiology.

I take particular exception to the idea of "hormone-free" milk. First of all, hormones are signaling molecules, and are regarded as such depending on the biological context. For example, ethylene is a plant hormone, but is also a simple hydrocarbon. Milk is a complex substance that includes hormonal products from the mammary glands - so there is really is, technically speaking, no such thing as hormone-free milk. The hormone rBST (a specific one) can be injected into cows to increase production, but resulting milk is not appreciably different in composition. The advertising serves to propagate this image that the milk itself has become dangerous, when it is no different. Other than the fact that it costs less due to the increased production.

Addendum: one other catchall word: "Proteins". Used as a politically catchall term for - well - meat. And it's requisite substitutes for those who must indulge in a meat-centric tradition without actually eating meat. Aside from being scientifically inaccurate - after all, the meat portion isn't the only one providing protein - it reinforces the stereotype that this "meat centric" meal set up is the one valid way a meal is constructed. Not all proteins are equivalent, either. Take, for example, hair or feathers, which are primarily composed of the protein keratin. That humans will find almost completely indigestible.

Thursday, October 4, 2012


Our local alt-weekly paper the Houston Press does regular restaurant reviews, and I truly enjoy reading them. And this week, they reviewed Straits, which is the Houston outpost of a chain of restaurants serving Singaporean food. In the blog post announcing this review, they call Singaporean cuisine "as diverse as Houston".

I haven't eaten at Straits yet, but I have eaten in Singapore. To get an idea of the diversity in Singaporean food, here's a very tiny tour of Singaporean food:

Charcoal toasted toast with kaya and tiny slabs of butter. Usually served with strong coffee and soft boiled eggs seasoned with pepper and soy sauce.
Cockle laksa

Otak. Spiced fish paste grilled in banana leaves. 

An Indonesian style lunch plate, with okra, tofu, and bitter melon. 

The Peranakan dish of chicken with buah keluak, famous for being poisonous if not prepared properly. 

Just one of the plethora pastries from bakeshops and kopitiams that dot the city. 

Cendol, pandan scented tapioca spaetzle, served in crushed ice, basil seeds, coconut milk and gula melaka. 

Black garlic ramen. Yes, that's in the broth; it's incredibly rich. 

Crispy duck pancake wraps. Related to the the Peking duck, it's far crispier, and the sweetness of the sauce is toned down in favor of a more savory profile. 

Roti cone with te halia (ginger tea) - a traditional snack. At 10pm, the streets of this tropical city state still teems with activity, and meals like this are not unusual late into the night. 
As international a town Houston is, I fear we may have a bit of a overblown idea of our own diversity. Every Japanese restaurant here is a sushi joint, every Spanish restaurant does tapas - and nearly every Vietnamese restaurant that gets talked about will be compared on the basis of banh mi and pho. Even our easy access to Mexico has not lead to a good representation of the diversity of cuisines of our Southern neighbor. At least some regionalized Chinese cuisine is making a small appearance. And we are doing better than places like Boulder, CO, which seems to require some version of pad thai in any East Asian restaurant, be it Vietnamese or Chinese.

Singapore represents a dizzying array of multiple ethnicities, with a pulsing continuous work ethic, and people that seem to enjoy eating all the time. To call that cuisine as diverse as Houston may be a bit of a disservice to Singapore - but it's an admirable goal to aim for.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

"Cooking" with acid

Cebiche from Concepcion, Houston, TX
A number of dishes are basically fish "cooked" in acid - from ceviche/cebiche which uses citrus juices, to the Filipino kilawin which uses vinegar. But is it really cooking? What really happens?

When the fish (or sometimes meat) is soaked in the acidic solution, it loses the translucency and takes on that opaque and firm character associated with meat treated with heat. That's because what happens when the fish is heated is that the proteins coagulate - think how egg white turns, well, white when it's heated. Heating denatures the protein strands, and makes them reform new bonds.

Now, proteins hold on to water because they have a bipolar nature - they have positive and negative charges on the molecules. There is a point, though, under the right circumstances, when you can neutralize those charges. This is called the isoelectric point, and when it's hit, the protein loses solubility in water - because the charges are gone. "Cooking" in acid involves bringing the proteins in a target ingredient to the isoelectric point, where they coagulate as they lose the ability to hold on to water.

While this works well in meat or fishes, it's really quite evident with milk. When acid is added to milk, the casein in the milk hits the isoelectric point (around pH 4.6), and starts precipitating out. Filter it out, and, voila! paneer cheese. Or ricotta. Or if you rely on bacteria to make lactic acid - yogurt.

But you can also leverage the isoelectric coagulation of milk with lime juice to thicken condensed milk and cream to make this trifle pie.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Of Straw Men and Misdirections

I've been in a number of discussions about the upcoming Prop 37 in California, which proposes to require mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods. I'm fairly clear about my opposition to proposed law on a number of grounds, particularly because it isn't based on science, gives legal teeth to quasi-religious ideology, and that it carries an unreasonable fiscal burden. And my concerns stem from Prop37 setting a legal precedent that has repercussions into the future.

I am trying, however, to understand the point of view of supporters of the proposal. The most common rebuttal I've had is the question: "Why do you oppose labeling?"

Let's put that straw man out. On the contrary, I (and others of my position) do not oppose labeling at all. Nothing in current law forbids truthful labeling - and in the case of things like homeopathy, in fact allows some misleading labeling. It's the mandatory labeling aspect that is the problem, and the built in exceptions in the way the law is written.

The second misdirection is the accusation of defending Monsanto - a non sequitur argument. As frequently as Monsanto is invoked, I fail to see how it is even connected to the discussion. Could it be that in the all encompassing rebellion against the multinational company, any way to strike back must be good? Except, of course, no one thinks of the collateral damage. Mandatory labeling will be an inconvenience to Monsanto, but will levy heavier tolls on smaller farmers who cannot participate in Organic Certification.

The third is an accusation of concealing information, of denying consumers "the right to know". Far from concealing the truth, scientists are adherent to reality. Fact is, even without the law, producers can already put on consumer demanded labels - and pass on the costs of that. And we have protections in place against fraudulent labeling already.

I understand that passionate defenders of Prop 37 are doing so because they believe that they have the best interests of society at heart. And I can sympathize. But make no mistake, for all the fancy flyers and propaganda, they are being distracted from logical evaluation of the consequences of Prop 37.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Biryani Power

Spotted in a neighborhood in Singapore.
Driving around Houston, I noticed an increasing number of restaurants touting biryani as their signature item. Indeed, I do think that biryani is rising in popularity, even if ceviche seems to get all the press and notice. What is this wondrous dish? Basically, it's a cooking technique of layering rice (must be basmati, my experiments using shorter grain rice have yielded poor results), spices, vegetables, sometimes meat or fruit, and even yogurt in a pot, and cooking it slowly. The final dish is a one pot meal fragrant with the mixed spices, and revealing treasures as the diner digs therein.

Beef biryani, Nikoz Fusion Grill, Sugarland, TX
A standard in Indian/Pakistani kitchens, a meat-based biryani is an easy crowd pleaser, specially if bringing novices to the powerful flavors of the subcontinent. But biryani, like casserole, is as much a technique as it is tradition, and I think it is wide open for more modern interpretations. Varying the meat would be a start - pork is verboten in the kitchens of its origin, so pork belly biryani would be a daring variant. The long slow cooking time would make it amenable to dried ingredients like machaca, smoked fish, or mushrooms. And the range of spice variations beckon - long peppers, sichuan peppercorns, oregano, or cheeses. 

Lamb biryani in a dum, Great W'kana Cafe

One last thing: dessert biryani, anyone?