Standard Pages (they don't change often)

Wednesday, January 30, 2013


Seems that food blog reading can be as formulaic as writing :). I couldn't help finding this listicle amusing on the types of food blog posts that attract traffic. I don't think this is scientifically vetted, but certainly listicles in general attract discussion since they are almost invariably incomplete. By the way - it's "bare your soul", not "bear your soul".

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Small change

I've been writing this blog for over three years.

When I tell others that I write a food blog, they often ask me about restaurant recommendations. In the explosion of food blogging, writers seem to fall into three main categories:

  • There are those who write about restaurants, and perhaps travel. 
  • There are those who write about cooking, and recipes. 
  • There are those who photograph food. 

But what I wanted to write about didn't fall exactly into these categories. I knew I wanted to write about science and food, but it wasn't just about hydrocolloids and enzymatic digestion. It's taken a number of years, but I've finally coined the term: science-based cuisine.

This cause matters enough to me for me to make some small changes to the blog. There's a new domain name: - I'll be making additional changes to the brand identity in the coming weeks.

It's simply acknowledging what I've been writing all along. Science-based cuisine is a frame of mind about food and food practices that incorporates scientific reasoning. It'll be fun.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Fuel to the fire

I often get challenged by people dogmatically adhering to the anti-GMO position - despite patient and careful explanations (and Lord knows, I am not as patient as Kevin Folta), opponents cling on to the same arguments, despite evidence to the contrary.

Or maybe they're not so crazy after all. Among the problems with GMO technology activists rattle off are the potential for genetic "pollution" as modified organisms breed into the wild population, or that genes encoding toxins are being used, or the "terminator" technology that renders the modified organisms effectively sterile so they can't be propagated, bringing farmers back to the supplier (presumably Monsanto) for more.

Well, there's a biotech company out of Oxford, UK, that is precisely doing all these things. And thank goodness.

Oxitec is commercializing genetically engineered sterile insect techniques. How this works is they engineer a gene producing a toxin into insects, but this is under control of a suppressor (I believe in this case, it's tetracycline). So, as long as the insects are fed tetracycline, they're fine, but withdraw it, and the engineered bugs die. They also made a specific version which is primarily active in the females, such that a population will only produce males if the inhibitor is withheld. In this way, insect factories can be built that produce volumes of insect males that are, effectively, sterile. When released in large enough volumes, the sterile males competes with wild populations, bringing down the population of a problem insect species. And while they are currently targeting mosquitos (colluding with major governments like Brazil), nothing stops this same technique to be applied to major crop pests like bollworms or animal insect parasites.

Then again, the sterile insect technique is not exactly new - it began back in the 90s, when sterile insects were produced by irradiation. Unfortunately, irradiated insects were also sickly, and didn't compete against healthy ones as well. Even so, this has been a standard technique of insect pest control for a long time. It's specific, non polluting - and improved with genetic engineering.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Soft Pairings

"Tasting menus" are a standard way of showing a chef's (and kitchen staff's) versatility and range, and a common upgrade are the drink pairings, where each course is paired with a different wine. I've decried the enforced twinning of food with wine; I feel that often it is a crutch to a chef's vision. Moreover, the alcoholic nature of wine excludes a lot of people; surprisingly, most restaurants would rather hew to the wine pairing rather than explore beverages beyond that range (well, beer comes in once in a while). Charlie Trotter's non alcoholic pairings in 2004 created enough of a stir, but I think the teeototaler's drink pairing with a multicourse meal remains a rare beast.

A beast that Chef Steve Marques took on recently. Formerly of Tasting Room Uptown, Steve is now executive chef of Coal Vines in Sugarland, and presented tasting adventure for sans alcohol, by drawing upon his unexercised repertoire of home made sodas and phosphates.

The meal started with an amuse bouche, pairing of in season oysters with home made ginger ale. This pairing was sheer genius. The minerality of the oysters popped with the spicy zing of the ginger ale. There was a clear story in this bite, with layers of texture and flavor that flowed with the bite and the sip.
Gulf oysters, saffron mignonette, celery leaves. A bit large for an amuse bouche, but we weren't complaining. 

House made ginger ale. 
The salad course was simplicity itself: celery, olives, goat cheese, black pepper, and some fruity olive oil. No vinegar was used - the olives themselves provided the requisite acidity. This was an appropriate follow on the oyster course, as it gently brought back the memory hinged on the celery leaf flavor.

Celery, olive, goat cheese salad. 
The fish course paired a Meyer lemon phosphate with salmon cooked en papillote. This is a great technique for cooking fish, and leveraged the strength of having a powerful brick oven in the kitchen. The salmon was beautifully cooked, herbal, moist and flaky. I feel that Meyer lemons are one of those ingredients which have more of a reputation than they deserve - mainly because most people can't take advantage of the distinct and delicate flavors. In this case, though, pairing the fish with a Meyer lemon phosphate cemented the baseline lemon flavors, but kept the delicacy of the herbs from being swamped.

Salmon, thyme, bay, Meyer lemon cooked en papillote. 
Meyer lemon phosphate
The main course was pheasant, a silky smooth Japanese sweet potato puree, and a lightly spiced cranberry compote, paired with a cranberry birch beer. When all the components are eaten in one bite, the flavors harmonize. This is no truer than in the case of the drink and the compote. Separately, the cranberry birch beer tasted a bit flat, lacking the tart vibrancy of the cranberry component. However, it all made sense when tasted with the compote, the flavors completed each other.

Pheasant stuffed with pistachios, Japanese sweet potato puree, cranberry relish. 
Cranberry birch beer
A side note: I made the mistake of sipping the Meyer lemon phosphate with the pheasant course. The clash of flavors was as jarring as an electric shock; I definitely knew I picked up the wrong glass. But it also highlighted how carefully Steve had mapped out the matching of drink with dish. 

Dinner was capped by the "best chocolate ice cream in the world", redolent with thyme, salt, dried cherries and pistachios, accompanied by a salted caramel ice cream with candied cashews. 

Steve has some great ideas in the works for the sodas (the ginger ale is definitely a keeper, even if it is served alone); and he conquered the rare beast. Convention relegates nonalcoholic pairings as kid stuff, but I was fortunate enough to witness (and taste) one that is fun, sophisticated and mature. 

Friday, January 4, 2013

Hydrocolloid and Foam

My favorite New Year's traditional food stuff is mochi. Or it's various incarnations. Particularly when it's a waffle. To recap, mochi is made from pounding short grain glutinous rice, so called because of the very high amylopectin content. This gives the rice starch a notably sticky quality highly prized in many East Asian cuisines. Despite the name, glutinous rice does not contain gluten, and flour prepared from it can be used to make gluten free baked goods. Like many other newfangled hydrocolloids, amylopectin use is actually quite old. One disadvantage of mochi, though, is that it loses its chewy quality after a day or two of storage in low humidity - I suspect this is due to dehydration. Seems that wheat starch, or maybe the accompanying gluten, retains water longer. And happily, glutinous rice flour forms a synergistic gel with wheat flour, and by blending the two in various ratios, you can accomplish a product that has the mouthfeel of mochi, with the staying power of wheat flour (although, understandably, this is no longer a gluten-free product).

So, I took this hybrid hydrocolloid, and made a messy heat stabilized foam with it: mochi brownies. Truth be told, a brownie is no more than a delicious failed chocolate cake, so I am not going to worry about proper measurements. You can make these brownies using all mochiko if you prefer, but it'll have a different chew.

Preheat the oven to 350F (which is the standard here in the US).

Melt some chocolate with some butter. I used the microwave for this. Of course, the quality of the chocolate depends on what your tastes are. I used most of a bar of 88% dark chocolate with a little less than a stick of butter.

Meanwhile, beat an egg with about 1/2 cup of sugar - more sugar if you have a stronger sweet tooth, and 1/2 cup of milk.

Mix together mochiko flour with regular AP flour - I used a ratio of about 2:1 - with about 1 tsp of baking powder and some salt. If you want more chocolatiness, add cocoa at this stage. Mix this into the egg mixture, and then incorporate the melted chocolate. Pour into a shallow pan, and bake for 15 min, turn off the oven, and leave it in there to finish cooking with the residual heat.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

All the same?

Food is rife with traditions. French bakers were outraged to learn about outsourced croissants, but it doesn't come from objective tasting of the industrial bread. Rather, it is just the idea that the boulangerie would not take the effort to create it the old fashioned way. Notwithstanding, sometimes the disruption of a tradition can create one that is as entrenched as the original. For instance, most Americans don't know that the wasabi they get in sushi restaurants isn't real; that it's a colored blob of powdered horseradish and mustard. However, when presented with the real stuff, hon-wasabi, the average aficionado may actually find it disappointingly delicate. They've grown accustomed to the sinus clearing mix with soy sauce -- something that may horrify sushi traditionalists, but really, is it any less valid when the diner enjoys it?

One Thanksgiving, I went through the trouble of baking pies from scratch. As I served them with a modicum of pride, one of the diners asked for Cool Whip. I said, I had some freshly whipped cream, but was quickly rebuffed.

"It's just not the same."