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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.