Standard Pages (they don't change often)

Friday, March 30, 2012


Fresh onions, Santa Monica Farmers' Market, LA
As spring rolls into the Northern Americas, advocates of seasonal eating are all abuzz about ramps, asparagus, tarragon and lamb. Even here in Houston, where we seem to be having a bumper crop of loquats and mulberries, but I'm not seeing much use of these ingredients in restaurant menus. Perhaps, in large part, because the major suppliers don't carry these crops, as trees all over Houston produce fruit to be plundered by birds and squirrels

Loquats ripening in the sun, Tampa, FL
I have to wonder, though, have the planned merits eating seasonally backfired?

In a sense, the drive to eat seasonably evolved as a backlash against the enormous efforts we take to preserve and transport produce from different climates to ensure consistent availability in all markets. But all that effort is driven by the demand for consistency and predictability - such that it's unimaginable for a cheeseburger in Alaska not to have lettuce and tomato in it.

"Fresh" produce at Target. 
So, advocates of eating seasonably must contend with a dining populace that demands predictability - even from the changing seasons. Which is to say that people expect seasons to be predictable: a set of prescribed crops must come into being regardless of how things really turn out in the field. It's tomato season, it's pumpkin season, it's turkey season. But, despite the dewy pastoral vision people paint of farms, crop loss and overproduction are more common problems than not, and dealing with hiccups of predictability is part of the challenge. As we learned here in Houston, we had to make do without a proper oyster season.

Phenomena such as climate change and genetic drift are altering what we can predict from our crops. True respect for seasonal eating includes the flexibility to adjust to unpredictability; adopting a narrow definition of edibility is simply fueling the demands that underlie the giant factory farming process.

Pindo fruit, another commonly grown local crop on ornamentals. 
Retaining a large and flexible enough repertoire of techniques to improvise should define seasonal cuisine. That's why innovation thrives in pauper cuisine - when locusts ate the crops, people cooked the locusts. We find morbid fascination with contests where chefs are forced to come up with dishes within an hour of being presented with a strange wriggling ingredient, maybe in part schadenfreude, and in part the wonder of seeing a new cooking tradition being born.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Under pressure

I came across this question posted on the Kitchn: How do you keep a store bought bag of ice from becoming on big block? We've all encountered this before - somehow, as ice is stored in the freezer, the little chunks tend to merge with each other, such that you have to resort to chipping, slamming or some other violent method to break them apart again. What exactly in going on? Is it the frost-free cycle?

Naengmyun, SuperH-mart, Houston, TX

It goes back to our friend, colligative properties. Remember, in earlier posts, that the freezing point of water is decreased the more things dissolved in it - and we can take advantage of this as a way of concentrating solutions without having to heat it up to boil off the extra water. Well, there's another thing: the freezing point of water is also decreased under increasing pressure. That's how ice skates work: by putting the full weight of a person under thin blades, the space under the blades are under high pressure, and the ice temporarily melts - allowing skater to move on a thin film of water as lubrication. As soon as the pressure is off, the water then refreezes.

And this is what's going on  in the bag of ice. A piece of ice sitting atop another will exert enough pressure to allow a little bit of ice to melt, until the point when the pressure is low enough to permit refreezing. Eventually, the two pieces will merge.

So, the best way to keep the ice as separate pieces? Keep the place really cold. So cold that even pressure induced melting will not happen.

Or just freeze water in ice cube trays.


I have to thank Dr. John Coupland on Twitter for referring me to this review article on the physics of phase transitions of ice. Basically, what I described above on nature of water ice is a bit of an oversimplification. In fact, the slippery nature of ice has long been postulated to be due to a layer of liquid water on ice - well below the freezing point. Experiments exploring this extend as far back to the 1800s. But to the point of merging ice chunks - looks like nothing short of absolute zero is going to keep the ice from merging with each other given water's tendency to form this liquid skin.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Ode to a biscuit

Steinbeck's, Atlanta, GA
A well made biscuit is a thing of beauty, and emblematic of American Southern hospitality. I used to dislike these biscuits, preferring the British biscuits (what we in America would call "cookies"), but then again, I was having mediocre biscuits. And they are so easy to do wrong. 

I've since learned that biscuits, like pie crusts, need a deft hand, and a respect for the fickle nature of flour. Warm from the oven, fluffy, tender and crusty, a good biscuit practically falls apart at the touch. A key ingredient to this character is the use of low gluten flour - almost always from the White Lily line. The robust chew of developed gluten, prized in regular yeast bread, is anathema to the biscuit. I wonder if biscuits were developed in the South from flour that were deemed too inferior to making into more expensive bread. Nonetheless, one should not take away from the skill of the baker with hands quick and gentle enough to craft good biscuits.

Black pepper biscuits with uni, Moneycat Brunch, Houston, TX
Related to the biscuit in the more sweet domain are scones. Also quickly assembled, the main difference is the higher proportion of fat in the scone recipe, usually in the form of cream or butter. This really tenderizes the crumb, as gluten development relies on the presence of water. Conceivably, scones and biscuits could be made entirely gluten-free, possibly using tapioca, milk powder, or eggs as the unifying matrix.

Scones with keffir lime butter, Moneycat Brunch, Houston, TX

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Walking around my local supermarket, I noticed an expansion of bottled water brands touting "Alkaline". What is it, and where did this come from? What the heck does it mean? Aside from the predatory pricing of bottled water, it is so unregulated that producers can make so many health claims without any scientific backing.

The emphasis on alkalinity stems from health claims of the alkaline diet. Not delving into the difference between alkalinity and basicity, at least for the moment, what it is is the opposite of acidity. It comes down to the structure of water - H2O. It really looks like this:


Where one oxygen atom is bounded on each side by hydrogen atoms. But in reality, it breaks up into charged chunks or ions:

H-O-H  <--> H+  + OH-

When a substance dissolved in water makes more of the H+ ions, that makes it acidic. And when it's the opposite, where there are more OH-, that makes it alkaline. You may hear the term pH - that's a numeric measure of how acidic or alkaline a solution is. pH7 is neutral. Below that is acidic, and above that is alkaline.

Important point - the pH scale is logarithmic. That is, pH5 is ten times more acidic than pH6.

Okay, that's probably more chemistry than you wanted to learn. Here's the deal - the claim of the alkaline diet is that what you eat affects the pH of your blood directly, and that has a full set of effects on health. This is nonsense. The pH of bodily fluids are more of a function of the buffering capacity than what you eat (besides, the stomach is naturally very acidic - necessary for the digestive functions). The little bit in the bottled water? Insignificant.

In short, nothing about more alkaline water is more healthful. Unless you consider spending more money for the plastic bottle more healthful.

Another thing are these claims of bottled water that hydrates better than regular water due to added stuff. That defies all logic. Truth - nothing hydrates better than pure water. And the more stuff you add to the water, the less water there is per volume. 

I saved the most preposterous for last. This brand touts the addition of fulvic acid - which, along with humic acids, are small molecules associated with soil contamination. Basically, it is advertising impure water - stuff that wouldn't pass muster out of your tap due to government inspections - and people will pay a lot more for it.

Monday, March 19, 2012


A menu that pairs with root beer is an auspicious sign. 
Some days, it's great to be the guinea pig. Specially when you get to test out the new items on the menu. Steve Marques, chef at Tasting Room Uptown, invited me over for a working lunch to try out some items he's developing. 
Not many lunches begin with an appetizer. In this case, head cheese (here, properly served warm, although the gelatin has pooled around it), rabbit pate, mustard, bread and butter pickles, and oil cured olives, with warm crusty bread. 
Here, Steve presents his idea of the ultimate BLT: pickled green tomatoes from the newly opened Underbelly restaurant (doncha love collaborations?), chicken fried bacon, and an aioli made from the pickling liquid of the green tomatoes. But what about the lettuce?
That's in the form of a butter lettuce salad, with baby radishes so mild, they'd convert radish haters, and little tender zucchini. And Green Goddess dressing.
Perhaps I am a purist when it comes to a BLT, but I loved the fact the Steve didn't add more distracting items to the primal elements of the sandwich, instead melding the best qualities and forms of each ingredient. The only improvement I could ask would be of the bread itself, but the slices they served it on was pretty good. 

As a nod to St. Patrick's day holiday, a reuben made with house cured corned beef, slaw, sheep's milk brie (Steve said it wasn't funky enough - I can see his point), and old school Russian dressing, with caviar.

I called uncle after these hefty sandwiches, although one more had been planned. I hear that the reuben was a hit over the St. Patrick's weekend.

Disclaimer: all food was provided gratis. Thank you for the lunch. 

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Let's talk lactose

Italian Cream Sodas, Agora, Houston, TX

With a hat tip to @EatingOurWords on Twitter, I learned about the creation of the capriccino- basically, a cappuccino made with goat's milk as a way of accommodating lactose intolerant cappuccino drinkers. Except, well, goat's milk has lactose, too. Almost as high as in cow's milk. But not as high as in human milk - which is nearly double the concentration in cow's milk

So, how did lactose-intolerant humans survive being breastfed?

Breakfast custard, Peppersoup Cafe, Houston, TX

Let's clear up some of misunderstanding about the basic chemistry and biology of lactose in the diet. What is lactose? It is the primary carbohydrate in milk - the milk sugar so to speak. Lactose itself is a disaccharide, that is a sugar made up of two simple sugars connected together - those two are galactose and glucose. Glucose, you may have heard of - it's the primary sugar in corn syrup (the regular kind, not the high fructose kind). Galactose is an isomer of glucose - has the same basic atoms, but arranged differently.

The first step in digesting lactose is breaking it into these two simpler sugars, and that is accomplished by the enzyme lactase. Most human babies produce lactase to help digest lactose while being breastfed, but progressively stop making lactase as they mature, and milk becomes less a part of the diet. So, in fact, lactose intolerance is the normal state of most humans - it is the condition of lactase persistence that is the novel evolutionary event that permitted the creation of milk-based cuisines in Europe.

A lot of folks falsely think that any kind of digestion problem is due to the lactose, as lactose intolerance is quite common, but more than likely, if goat's milk can be digested, it's due to some other sensitivity that is specific to cow milk.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Fried foods

At the Florida State Fair, Tampa, FL.

A while back, the cafeteria where I work would serve these things called "veggie sticks" - basically leftover vegetables mixed in with mashed potatoes, shaped into logs, crusted and deep fried. It was considered the "healthy" option. I used to think that the fascination with battering and deep frying various things was peculiar to the American South, but I see that it's become a staple of carnivals and fairs. After all, once deep fried candy bars entered the picture, well, things got out of hand.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with deep frying things, some of the items chosen for battering in deep frying are more for novelty than taste. Deep fried beer? or Kool-aid?  The problem with these ideas is that both items are things that don't taste good when consumed hot - and deep frying just heats things up fast.

So, I propose making deep fried hot chocolate - a beverage that actually is good warm. And I'll suggest how to do it: the cocoa, sugar and milk mixture could be solidified with a low concentration of agar, before being chilled and battered and fried.

What is agar and why use it? Agar is a mixture of carbohydrates from some algae that can gel liquids - this is also known as kanten jelly or gulaman. But agar has a really interesting property - it exhibits hysteresis. This means that it's gelling state at a certain temperature depends on the state where it was before it got to that temperature. Agar melts at about 90°C, but it does not gel until about 40°C. That means that between 40°C and 90°C, agar can exist as either solid or liquid depending on how it got there. While agar is being heated up, it stays solid until it hits 90°C. But cooling down from 90°C, it will stay liquid until it hits 40°C.

So, an agar solidified block of chocolate will be solid until it is deep fried, where it will melt in a bag of crispy batter. But it will stay liquid as long as it stays warm, and thus, delivering the messy hot chocolatey goodness when you bite into it. Although I don't think you can serve this on a stick.

All right, gastronomists? You're welcome.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Cooking (with) leaves

Rice cakes and herb salad, Moneycat Brunch, Houston, TX

As spring rolls into Houston, leaves are sprouting out all over, and if you grow leafy vegetables, now is a good time to harvest time (unless, of course, you are an avowed carnivore). In the average supermarket, most of the focus on leaves are in the typical salad greens. Here in the Southern US, collard greens are also somewhat popular, usually cooked to a green mush with salt pork. More sparingly used are the fresh herbs, which are by and large in the form of leaves.

Mint and oregano

There are leaves which are to be avoided, however, such as the green part of the rhubarb. But this may be undeserved in the case of tomato leaves. Harold McGee investigated this: as the tomato and the potato are related to the deadly nightshade, parts of the plant are thought to contain the toxic alkaloid tomatine. Indeed, almost no cuisine uses the tomato leaves, despite their strong aroma. Despite the reputation, one would have to consume almost a pound of tomato leaves to have enough tomatine to be toxic to the average human adult; McGee added leaves to a number of dishes to bring up that "fresh picked" punch with no ill effects.
Bibingka, cake cooked in charred banana leaves.

One need not consume leaves directly, though. Cooking in avocado leaves brings an irreplaceable flavor to Oaxacan dishes. Bay leaves should be carefully fished out of stews, lest they be accidentally swallowed to potentially lodge into the gut lining inviting infections. And wrapping things in banana leaves is a time tested method of bringing flavor to the contents. Tamales, suman, zongzi can all be wrapped in banana leaves before steaming to infuse in a floral and herbal aroma. And few things can replicate the scent of charring the banana leaves: in the dish bibingka, cake batter is poured into boats of banana leaves, before being cooked between two braziers of hot coals. Beyond simply protecting the food, the burning leaf is essential to the bibingka flavor, something notably missing when the cake is simply baked in an oven. 

"Kare-Kare" as interpreted by Steve Marques, Tasting Room Uptown, Houston, TX
Then again, banana leaves aren't the only leaves used to infuse flavor into food by wrapping around it. Lotus leaves, bamboo leaves, oak leaves, fig leaves, grape leaves, taro leaves have all served this purpose and more in cuisines around the world.