Standard Pages (they don't change often)

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.