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Thursday, August 30, 2012


My workplace cafeteria recently opened a juice/smoothie bar, replete with nutricentric literature about "organic", "superfoods" and antioxidants. I like a good smoothie like anyone else, but on my first visit, I ordered my version of a vampiro - a mixture of beet and carrot juices I discovered in the popular La Guadalupana restaurant in Houston. All would have been well as the server handed me the glass but he was intercepted by the manager.

"Did you know that you would have to eat a whole bushel of carrots to get the nutrition in that one glass of juice?"

And he continued to regale me with all sorts of pseudoscientific drivel - about how discarding the fiber makes the nutrients vastly more available to the body, and how it helps to lose weight. I stared at him perplexed - how could this establishment peddle such informational nonsense when it is frequented by prominent biomedical research scientists?

Living in the first world, with the array of inexpensive and readily available foodstuffs, achieving significant malnutrition requires a concentrated effort. For the most part, many of the "nutritionism" advice and testimonials derive from post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacies, assigning instances of reported feeling better after consuming some item directly to that item. But this is not evidence, though taken as such. It isn't rigorously replicated or studied, yet somehow, people lend greater credence to it.

Something that does work, that improves health, is calorie restriction (CR) - or, in simple layman's terms, eating less. Not substituting more protein for carbs, not indulging in the latest superfood fad, simply cutting down the amount of food. In the original studies, animals that are fed less lived longer. Or so we thought. A recently published replication of the CR studies in monkeys did not replicate this original longevity result; this, thus, demonstrates the value of replication in scientific studies.

But what did come out consistently is that CR results in all around healthier animals, by most any measure other than longevity.

In then end, it's the simple reduction of food that may be behind the health benefits from "cleanses" or "juicing diets - but that knowledge won't help sell juicing machines, books, or videos.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Pet Peeve: Perfectly Ripe

One of my pet peeves is the term "perfectly ripe", because the ripeness ideal of a fruit is a culturally relative term. Certainly there's unripe, and there's ripe, but there's also a continuum between and beyond. Some fruits, like chile peppers and grapes, do not continue to ripen after being picked, while others, such as tomatoes and bananas react to accumulating ethylene, and will ripen. Put your chemophobia aside - ethylene gas is the endogenous hormone or signal produced by plants to induce and coordinate ripening. So no conspiracy if it is used to hasten fruit ripening. It's no different than adding yeast to dough rather than waiting for the errant spore to drift along and ferment the flour.

Local burro bananas, 3 days post picking.
But what's ripe and overripe? Well, that's a matter of perspective. Americans accustomed to yellow cavendish bananas, have been trained to regard brown spots as a sign of poor quality, and regularly discard bananas deemed "overripe", although they are fine to consume (in fact, perhaps more flavorful). Chinese scientists are taking advantage of this to develop a chitosan aerogel spray that retards ripening.
Same bananas, 6 days post picking. 

Remember, though, in the case of hachiya persimmons, pudding soft ripeness is the guarantee to avoiding the mouth puckering astringency of the underripe fruit. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012


I have a dear friend who was recently diagnosed with a chronic condition that introduced a number of dietary restrictions, which excluded, among other things, dairy, soy and gluten. And my experience is that people newly enforced in a dairy free regimen miss the creamy mouthfeel that comes from using dairy products like milk, yogurt and cheese - so much so that there's a plethora of products outright imitating these items.

I came up with a simple recipe that leverages the beautiful creamy mouthfeel of hydrated corn starch; truth be told, this can be served as either dessert or side dish. I made these in individual cups as the former. 

Creamy corn and coconut pudding 
As sweet corn is in season, I roasted up a couple of ears of corn. This is done by simply putting the corn, husks and all, into a hot oven for 15 minutes. Allow to cool a bit, and remove the husk and silk. Cut the kernels off the cob, and "milk" the remainder of the cob. Put these in a blender with a can of coconut milk (use the good stuff from Thailand - I've had some bad luck with cheap brands), and process until liquified. Pass through a strainer into a pot. You'll need to work on this a bit, but it'll be worth it. 

Simmer in low heat until it thickens up. The natural corn starch should do it, but just in case, you can add a little bit of corn starch slurry to firm up the texture. It'll come out thicker than creme anglaise. Adjust the sweetness (I like using palm sugar), and a bit of salt. Pour into individual cups, and refrigerate overnight. Sprinkle on a few leaves of thyme before service. 

Hypothetically, one could leverage frozen sweet corn for this purpose, or spice it up a bit with tarragon or star anise. I've read that nutmeg would be a good complement; experiments for the future. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


Kusshi oysters with yuzu sorbet, Uchi Houston. Much improved from an earlier rendition, particularly in taking advantage of the cold temperature contrasts. 
Although aroma and flavor (which are neurologically interlinked) take the bulk of the attention when judging food, texture and temperature are important, albeit less discussed, components of the dining experience. Temperature, in particular, is such a fleeting characteristic - as time proceeds, whatever food served, eventually equilibrates to the room temperature.  Thus, optimal service, from plating to the uncontrolled moment when the diner actually eats the product, is a delicate balancing act.

All the more reason why this type of precision and planning should be lauded. Take sushi, for example. In many American restaurants, to promote the illusion of safety, sushi is often served cold, just barely above refrigerator temperature. At some places, even the rice is cold. But the masterful sushi chefs of Uchi Houston, they present their sushi warm (the rice held as small batches in tortilla warmers - a clever repurposing of the common local implement). Thus, the full flavor and texture of the fish and condiments bloom in chewing, intermingling with texture of the expertly cooked rice.

Hirame fin nigiri, Uchi Houston. Taken from around the fin, this cut of the flounder is rare indeed, comprising but a tiny fraction of the available flesh on the fish. 

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

An ode to dessert

I once read that if you knew 100 magic tricks, but only had two ways of demonstrating them, you'll appear to know only two tricks; while if you know only two tricks, but 100 ways of demonstrating them, you'll appear like a genius. As the endcap, dessert can represent the most memorable portion of a meal. For ill or good, the final impression may indeed be the most indelible. 

Which is probably why desserts in Houston tend to be remarkably staid and safe. Using croissants as the basis of bread pudding is already daring enough to be worthy of awe. But reaching beyond the pecan pies, the ice creams (often proudly labeled as factory created by the nearby favorite Blue Bell), the red velvet cake - that's territory rarely tread upon by Houston restaurants. Why rock the comfortable boat? 

Because the range of potential desserts, sweet and otherwise, present an opportunity. 

Sago and gula melaka, Chilli Padi, Singapore

Ais kacang
Uchi Houston is one of the few restaurants that put multicomponent complex flavors into desserts. I hold out hope that perhaps dessert becomes less of an afterthought, but a planned crescendo and denouement to meals. Things don't always have to end the same way.

Poached pear dessert crafted by Chris Leung at Kata Robata, Houston, TX. Paired with preserved lemon, white chocolate, nasturtium leaves, and sesame seeds two ways. 

Friday, August 10, 2012


Crab is such an interesting animal for many diners. For one thing, there's the challenge of getting the edible parts of the animal. Confronted with a large crab, many first time diners are more perplexed than solving a Rubik's cube. I'll bet there won't be a hue and cry when someone reveals mechanically separated crab meat.

For simplicity, some crab species are marketed from just the easy to eat body parts. Alaskan king crab are harvested primarily for the legs, and Florida stone crabs for the claws. Given that crabs can regenerate limbs (albeit slowly), maybe one way to domesticate the animals is by keeping them in dense factory coops, lopping off limbs as we need them. After all, just catching Alaskan king crabs is a dangerous job. I'm not sure even PETA would object to this. Maybe we can bribe them with sushi. 

Texans unaccustomed to manually digging through the nooks and crannies of the animal often opt for soft shell crab. What is it, exactly? As it grows, the crab has to discard its hard outer shell. If you catch the animal just after it removes the old shell but before the new one has hardened - you can eat the whole thing. It's a self-fileting system.

A shell-less crustacean is very vulnerable indeed, and the molting process is carefully regulated by a series of hormonal checks and balances. You can bet, however, that once we get a good handle on this, we will make captive crabs molt on command - and thus, soft shell crabs need not be a seasonal item any more. In fact, why stop at crab? Soft shell spiny lobster, anyone?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Fishless fish among the furniture

Most folks don't think of shopping at Ikea for food. The Swedish purveyor of home assembled inexpensive furniture actually has a pretty wide selection of processed food items, most famously Swedish meatballs, and may be the prime supplier of lingonberry preserves to the American market. The meatballs are remarkably bland tasting, and actually do require an accessory sauce or gravy to complement it.

But the Swedes have this thing for fish, though. The refrigerated section of Ikea in Houston has a wide array of bottled herring, but I couldn't pass up some rather inventive items:

Vegetarian faux caviar. Near as I can tell, alginate beads of seaweed extract.  Which makes it seaweed extract encased in seaweed extract. Not bad on crackers and a little cream cheese. Kind of like umami micro-boba. 

Salmon in a tube. Well, this stuff was awful. And it shows from the ingredient list: salmon itself is a minority component. But the star tip lets you make decorative squiggles. 
All right, enough factory exotica for the day. Here's a little something to cleanse your virtual palate with: real fish.

The summer fried seafood platter from Max's wine dive. Grilled lemon is a nice touch. Simple playful stuff. 

Friday, August 3, 2012

Origin of the chicken

My uncle expounds on the neutrality of the chicken:
"Muslims do not eat pork. Hindus do not eat beef. The lesson?" 
He pauses for dramatic effect. 
"Don't be a chicken." 

A highly politicized storm is raging over the fast food chain Chick Fil-A, propagated by the admittedly Christian ownership for their support of opponents of same-sex marriage. LGBT advocates are staging a same sex "kiss day" as a form of protest. But what kind of power does a chicken fillet sandwich hold to engender such passion? 

Prawn stuffed chicken wings, Singapore
The chicken itself has a long storied history of domestication with humans. Numerous breeds exist, from the miniature Cornish game hens to the common layers and broilers bred for docility and factory farming. As with other domesticated animals, its evolution traces closely with human evolution and migration.

Roasted "native" chickens, Cotabato, Philippines
All modern breeds descended in large part from the red jungle fowl from Southeast Asia, which is still extant in the region from India to Indonesia and the Philippines. In fact, although media report the chicken as the first bird genome sequenced, in fact, the investigators wisely chose to map the genome of the red jungle fowl, not a modern derived breed.

Filipinos refer to the more ancestral phenotypes as "native" - which is quite accurate. Meat from native fowl is much leaner, but more flavorful. Modern broilers were also bred for increased meat to bone ratio. Feral escaped chickens  in the Micronesian islands reportedly revert to a jungle fowl like appearance and behavior. 

Wednesday, August 1, 2012


Hard to believe a year has gone by.

Today, voting opened for the 2012 Houston Culinary Awards. Last year, this blog was lucky enough to be nominated in the "Foodie Star" category. And today, I received a postcard informing me that, once more, this blog has been named a finalist in the "Favorite Houston Food Blog" category.

There's quite a bit of overlap between this year's finalists and last year. Repeat finalists this year are:

Eating Our Words (Houston Press, 2011, 2012
Guns & Tacos (Jay Rascoe, 2011, 2012
Houston Foodie (J.C. Reid, 2011, 2012
Texas Eats (Robb Walsh, 2011, 2012

In fact, I have reason to think that both Jay and JC's blogs are repeat nominations across many years. Last year's winner, the Houston Chronicle's, cannot be be nominated as per award rules. New additions to this year's list of finalists are:


Eater Houston (

Again, I find myself in illustrious company, and I thank you the readers for the honor. Realistically, I doubt if this blog can compete for the popular vote against some powerful and historical blogs in the city, but I am truly humbled and grateful. 

Incidentally, a point of clarification - though the HCAs are awarded in a gala dinner event in October, finalists do not get to attend it for free. They have to purchase tickets, just like everyone else, at $150 a head. The number of industry talent contributing to the meal, however, is massive, and this event should sell out as others have in the past. 

Purple. Naturally.

Americans tend to use the terms yam and sweet potato interchangeably, but truth is, the two are very different plants. The sweet potato genus Ipomea traces to the Americas, and is related to the morning glory family. True yams belong the the genome Dioscorea, and are found throughout Africa and Asia, in various forms and preparations. One notable one is the Japanese mountain yam nagaimo, one of the few eaten raw, and treasured for its slimy texture (which, incidentally, is even more than overcooked okra).

In Southeast Asia, and all the way to Hawaii, the winged yam Dioscorea alata, known variously as ube, ubi, or uhi, depending on location, is an important root crop. It's notable for this strong purple color, which confuse a lot of folks into thinking that it's artificially created. Note that this is not to be confused with the Okinawan purple sweet potato - which is an Ipomea.
Ube in its raw form.

Ube makes a fantastically beautiful ice cream. 

Halo-halo, Shangri-La, Boracay
Ube Ice Cream