Standard Pages (they don't change often)

Friday, March 22, 2013


Quite trendy among the orthorexic folks is the concept that dietary carbohydrates should be reduced or eliminated. I've heard preposterous claims that carbohydrates directly cause cancer; some practices advocate not just the reduction of "carbs", but the complete elimination from the diet - which, of course, is followed by a meat-heavy (if not exclusive) regimen.
Do you know what carbohydrates are?
Sardines, seaweed salad, and fried pork belly. It's "no carb". Not really.

Carbohydrates are chemicals.

Ok, being facetious aside, carbohydrates are molecules made from just carbon, hydrogen and oxygen - and that comprises a huge range of compounds. Take for example, cellulose, the stuff that is the primary component of wood and paper: it's a carbohydrate. But it isn't a dietary carbohydrate

Dietary carbohydrates stem from three basic simple units: glucose, fructose and galactose. These all have the same basic composition, but are isomers of each other - meaning that the main difference is how the individual atoms are arranged in these simple carbohydrates. The fun thing is that these can then be hooked up in combinations like interlocking bricks, to become more complex carbohydrates. Sucrose (table sugar) is made up of a fructose and glucose (which is, of course, very similar to high fructose corn syrup). Lactose is a glucose and a galactose.
But you can go way beyond two. In organismic biology, the simple carbohydrate glucose is a direct feed into the energy production of the cells. Plants, in particular, make these very long chains to store their glucose - and these are the starches. If you can imagine the variety of ways six carbons can be arranged to make molecules of many different properties, when hundreds are arranged in these long chain carbohydrates, you get things with different properties - hence the variety of cooking starches available. Which is why wheat starch is different from potato starch, and how glutinous rice starch is different from long grain rice starch.

Now, there are people who are even stricter than low carbing — they go for the "no carb" diet, avoiding even fruits and vegetables that may provide a hint of sugar or starch. And they tend to eat meat-heavy diets. Well, this is where that incorrect use of the word "protein" comes into play. It's become commonplace to hear cooks call a piece of meat, fish, poultry, or tofu "the protein" of the dish, when in scientific parlance, protein means a very specific chemical situation. And meat, despite this practice, actually contains carbohydrates.

Animals store glucose subunits, too, in the form of glycogen. In a sense, you can think of glycogen as "animal starch". And depending on the cut of meat, it can be a rich source of glycogen (liver, in particular). In fact, I propose the most expensive sweetener in the world, just out of ridiculousness: extract glycogen from foie gras and oysters, break it down into glucose, convert a little over half of it with isomerase into fructose - and voila: High fructose oyster and foie gras syrup (HFOFGS).

And absolutely not vegan.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Browning bread

I've mentioned before that I love baking bread. In part because it is such a fine art balancing out the sciences of microbiology and biophysics in getting a good product out - and there really aren't that many failures. In general, for bread baking, a hot oven is needed. That's because race is happening: the heat causes the carbon dioxide bubbles and water to expand within the loaf to create the holes, but at the same time, the crust is also hardening to hold it in. The crust also browns - providing additional flavor. The browning, of course, is the product of the Maillard reaction, and is promoted by heat and inhibited by moisture. Thus, as the bread dries out on the surface, that's the hardening and also the browning.

Two other things promote the browning: increasing the pH (the opposite of acidity - alkalinity) and increasing the protein content. I like brushing on a layer of milk to do so. For bagels and pretzels, those breads are first boiled in a pot of alkali (it could be as harsh as lye, but baking soda will work), and that results in the distinctively brown and chewy crust.

Or, you can make the two phenomena happen at different times. In Asia, there's a tradition of steamed breads. Often stuffed with fillings savory and sweet, these breads eschew the crust altogether, prizing instead the fluffy texture that steaming affords. But who says you can't create a crust when it is desired?

The deep fried mantou.
Steamed bread dropped into a deep fryer will develop a nice crisp crust, while retaining that fine crumb and fluffy texture therein. This is, in a way, no different from how sous vide cooking of meat is done in two parts, where the moist cooking is done first before the final dry high heat is used to finish the dish with Maillard complexity.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Here we go again

So, posting in the Houston Press blog Eating Our Words, Molly Dunn reports
researchers at Granada University in Spain have discovered that beer can hydrate your body after a workout better than drinks like Gatorade, water and chocolate milk.

With, a link to the Washington Times article citing exactly that. Well, except for the chocolate milk part.  That seems to be a casual addition - certainly, though, the original scientific article would have compared beer and chocolate milk. Except, the Washington Times article does not link to the original scientific paper either. Instead, it cites a report from The Telegraph, reporting on a conference in Granada. But no link to the article itself. Or any specifics about this report. Surely, this should raise alarm bells.

Well, it's the age of Googling, after all. A quick search for Manuel Garzon and Beer reveals this article from The Telegraph. Written in 2007. As well as enough links to other articles that point to the "beer better hydrator than water" claim as an urban myth.

Seems that The Telegraph isn't exactly the best source of scientifically vetted information — very often, a claim that is too good to be true, is.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Breakfast Cereal

"What's your favorite breakfast cereal?"

That's one of those common questions that make up online surveys, and comprise these "listicle" articles online to stir up discussion among the fooderati. After all, it's a safe thing, to wax nostalgic about perhaps the earliest act of childhood independence - having a choice at the table, and the perhaps even the act of putting the dish together.

My favorite breakfast cereal? Rice. Because it comes in so many myriad forms. But for breakfast, it shines.

In Dumaguete City, freshly cooked glutinous rice (and let me reiterate - there is no gluten in glutinous rice) is served alongside some hot cocoa. The cocoa here is made from cacao harvested nearby, cooked simply with sugar and water. The two (called potomayo) are eaten together, making a satisfying and filling breakfast. The leftover rice, incidentally, is wrapped in banana leaves, with a shot of chocolate, to make portable, fragrant, temperature stable snack packets for later. 
But odes could be written about the joys of breakfast nasi (rice) in Malaysia.

The king of breakfast is the packet of nasi lemak - rice cooked in the rich and aromatic mix of coconut milk and pandan. Healthy lumps of the stuff is served with various viands, here, an egg, fried fish, some cucumber, chicken rendang, peanuts and ikan bilis (small fried anchovies).  

This version of nasi lemak incorporates goat and squid. The ever present sambal - a chile paste  redolent with lemongrass and dried fish - rounds out the meal, providing foil with the sweet milky tea served alongside. 

But perhaps the most curious thing I encountered was nasi biru - literally, blue rice. Although you may guess that a Smurf may have been cooked in it, this rice is colored by the juice from the flowers of the bunga telang plant (Clitoria ternatea).; one of the rare times of a true blue food. Heck, blue is usually considered unappetizing, yet, here it is. Incidentally, the bunga telang only conveys color - it still tastes like regular rice.