Standard Pages (they don't change often)

Friday, September 20, 2013

Sweet and deadly

Kushi oysters, Uchi Houston
Another descriptor to be added to the list of words vague and virtuous - "single source". Or sometimes "single origin". You'll see it on things like chocolate or coffee or wine - items that are often the product of blends from various sources to maintain a consistent product. That's the case, for example, of milk - industrial milk is sourced from a number of farms and blended together. People who trumpet the superiority of "single source" items tend to ignore the fact that production quality and volume can vary dramatically over time and geography. True that blending mutes particularly outstanding specimens, but in the long run, it also dampens the volatility of the products, making them more predictable.

And sometimes, this can be lifesaving. Honey produced from some rhododendron flowers contain significant levels of gryanotoxin - a fact used in ancient Greek warfare (perhaps an early bioweapon?). Contrasting the "health halo", in fact, some single source honeys are downright poisonous, and we will be hard pressed to police which flowers the bees harvest from. In places like Turkey where rhododendrons grow, the potential for widespread gryanotoxin poisoning is stopped by blending, since the toxin becomes diluted by other honey sources.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Serious Eating

On a recent trip to New York City, I was privileged to be invited to lunch by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, one of my favorite online writers, the mastermind behind Serious Eats The Food Lab. And with that came an opportunity to see the behind the scenes activity at Serious Eats. And the term serious is only partly tongue in cheek.

Computing workstations are not unexpected of an operation that is a rapidly evolving online magazine. The writers of Serious Eats (pictured here is Max Falkowitz) are prolific and have prodigious writing goals.

But not often are these workstations positioned around a working kitchen. A beautifully appointed working kitchen of this size very rare to find in Manhattan no less. 
Lunch consisted of a comparison of Italian subs from all over lower Manhattan. These were procured by 3 different missions before congregating in the Serious Eats headquarters. 

Sandwiches were rapidly unwrapped and photographed in various iterations, before being put on handy cutting boards. Notice the small yellow sticky notes that serve to highlight the source of each particular sandwich.

We bolstered lunch with some pizzas. On the right is a potato with truffle honey pizza. It wasn't that good. 

Wash the hands...

The knives come out...

And now we eat. Everyone takes small slivers of each sandwich and pizza, tastes them, makes comments. The banter is at once intense and lighthearted - it is a lunch, after all, but a working lunch. Comments make for inspiration to writing. And just like that, lunch is over.
Yes, it's a dog friendly place to work.
I bade the crew a good by as the Kenji tackled the next project (I spotted a lobster).  Lunch cannot, after all, be too big or too long at a place where eating itself is the job.  
This was one of the most unique meals I had in New York City, which is saying a lot for the diversity of dining in that place. I thank the crew of Serious Eats for letting me intrude in their day, and letting me catch a brief glimpse of the fast paced operation of a professional food blog production joint.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Jigglin' gels

A special custom dessert by way of Chris Leung, Kata Robata, Houston, TX
Gels are sort of trendy the haute cuisine world, although most modern diners are no stranger to the colorful gelatin cups found in supermarket. Transparent, jiggly, gels seem like solidified liquid - but not frozen. What are gels anyway?

In cooking, the gold standard gel forming agent is gelatin, although gels can be made from a number of different compounds, from agar to gellan to alginate. In general, compounds that make gels tend to form long stringy molecules. Gelatin, for example, is derived from boiling animal bones (yes, it isn't vegan), which dissolves out collagen - the long stringy protein responsible for cartilage and making the matrix for bone to grow in. As long as the liquid is hot, the proteins stay dissolved - at a high enough concentration, this provides viscosity to the liquid, and a pleasant mouthfeel that is the hallmark of slow cooked stock. The long stringy nature of collagen is also why powdered gelatin needs to be "bloomed" in cold liquid first, it takes some time for water to penetrate the molecules. Incidentally, in chemistry parlance, this state is called the sol state, when the water surrounds the collagen molecules.

But as the liquid cools down, the collagen molecules start tangling with each other, forming a really fine 3-D meshwork - something like a molecular scale sponge. The little gaps in the mesh holds small bits of water, and now the situation is reversed: the water is surrounded by collagen molecules. This, then, is the gel state. In the case of gelatin, the two states are interchangeable depending on the temperature - at a high enough temperature, it's a sol, and at low temperatures, it's a gel. Other gels, like alginate, the tangling is catalyzed with calcium, and is not reversible. So, once an alginate gel is formed, it's not going back to the sol state even if heated.

Gelatin is highly desirable because it reverts to a sol state at body temperature, literally melting in the mouth to release flavor from the trapped liquid. Also, since it is made of protein, it is simply digested. But, being so digestible is also it's weakness - certain fruits like pineapple and papaya are rich with protein digesting enzymes (wrapping meat with papaya leaves is an old meat tenderizing technique), and they will destroy the gel-forming capability of gelatin. Fortunately, these enzymes can be inactivated by heat, so cooking the pineapple (or using canned pineapple) will permit its use in those jiggly fruit cups.