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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The science of sweet corn



The most commonly grown crop in America is no doubt corn, but that isn’t the variety most people are accustomed to. In fact, the majority of corn harvested in America isn’t fit for direct human consumption; what people usually think about, particularly in the summer, is sweet corn. Sweet corn itself has a storied and scientific history. 

You’ll recall that there’s a direct relationship between sugar and starch. Both are chemically carbohydrates, but starches are made by stitching sugar molecules into larger molecules - hence, sugars are often called simple carbohydrates, and starches are complex carbohydrates. Starches are primarily made by plants (the animal cognate is glycogen), and can have varying properties depending on the sugar composition and arrangement. But primarily, starches don’t taste much (hence, the term “starchy” isn’t a compliment when it comes to cooking). Sugars, on the other hand, is what we perceive as sweet, but make for poor storage as they are quickly degraded by microorganisms. Plants wanting to store carbohydrates for the long term enzymatically convert the sugars into starch. Sweet corn has a genetic alteration in their ability to complete the conversion of sugar to starch; it is slowed down dramatically. Thus, when harvested quickly and cooked to kill off the enzymes, the corn kernels taste sweet.

The problem with sweet corn was that the sugar to starch conversion didn’t stop completely - it was just slowed down. But not slow enough. Early sweet corn crops had very narrow harvest window, perhaps a day, before the flavor deteriorates. Hence, the notion that to get the best corn flavor, one must first set the pot to boil before going out to harvest it. A couple of additional gene variants were later discovered that increased the sugar content (hence the term “supersweet”), lengthened this harvest window, and softened the hull for eating purposes - but this also made for a more fragile product and more fastidious growing conditions.

Modern sweet corn crops now come from the various combinations of these genetic traits. Corn is a particularly complicated item, as each kernel in a cob can be a different combination of genetic traits, apart from the primary features of the plant itself.

So, as you much on those dewey cobs, or the smokey cups of elotes, remember that what we enjoy now is the cumulative work of genetic engineering and agricultural innovation. 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Smokey Intermezzo

Summer is in full swing. Lots of people traveling, lazier days, hotter temps. Perhaps we'll take a break from the weightier topics and just gaze on pictures of smoked meat.

Tea smoked duck. Lao Sze Chuan, Chicago, IL

Brisket, Smoque BBQ, Chicago. Granted, it's a little weird to order Texas style BBQ while in Chicago, but this cut, unfortunately, needed the sauce (not the deckle side, dry). 

Needed to bring it back home. BBQ chicken and pulled pork, TGFR BBQ cook off, Houston, TX. 


Monday, July 22, 2013

Antibiotics in Agriculture 2

Trio of tacos, Yelapagain pop up, Houston, TX

In my previous post, I described the concept of what antibiotics are, and how people are generally wrong when they worry about it as a toxicity issue. The problem is far more difficult to parse - the promotion of antibiotic resistance. But even that gets oversimplified; we can expand on that later.

Why are antibiotics used in farming?

(Found another excellent blog post on this issue).

The statistic often quoted is the 80% of all commercially produced antibiotics are used in farming. The exact number varies depending on the sourcing, but the basic conclusion is the same - an enormous amount of antibiotics are used on farm animals (antibiotics used on plants are seldom a concern for humans). However, one problem with this statistic is that it lumps all antibiotics together, as if they are all equivalent. Some are indeed more equal than others, but in general, antibiotics used in agriculture are related to, but not the same ones used in common medical prescription.

The animals we like to cultivate and eat (pigs, cattle, chicken) are genetically quite related to humans, and thus, share many of the common disease vulnerabilities to the same microbes. Consequently, we end up using the same therapies when our livestock get ill - an antibiotic used to treat an infection in a human is just as likely to work on a pig infected with a related bacterium. The worry here is that since we are indeed so closely related, genetic information can jump between bacteria that infect livestock to those that infect humans - carrying with them any resistance mechanisms that are selected by use of the antibiotics. Thus, the same antibiotic may lose effectiveness when prescribed to a human patient.

The practice of subtherapeutic dosing with antibiotics can exacerbate the problem. Basically, when animals are treated with small doses of antibiotics, they fatten up faster. This is thought to be due to a change in the microbiome makeup, the cohort of microbes that live among different animals -- including humans. This effect is so significant that our mass produced meat industry has grown dependent on it. Implementing outright bans on this practice can have massive economic repercussions.

This problem is a thorny one indeed - controlling commercial antibiotic use is far from trivial, and the microbes all around us are constantly producing potential antibiotics (and defensive systems) anyway. But note that cultivated plants are not a problem - I propose that a better solution is the promotion of the move away from vertebrate meat sources. After all, bacteria that infect mealworms are less likely to be related to those that trouble humans, and classes of antibiotics used to raise those can be used with impunity. One possible solution to this brewing crisis: entomophagy.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Antibiotics in Agriculture

Trio of sliders, FlipBurger, Atlanta, GA

One of the selling points of Pecking Order is that their chicken is sourced from FreeBird, a company dedicated to "antibiotic-free chicken". In fact, you'll see this increasingly strident and righteous decrying of the use of antibiotics in animal husbandry (to a much lesser extent among plants). This, however, is accompanied by an awful lot misconceptions mixed in with factually correct but incomplete statements. The issue is incredibly complex, but exasperated calls to simply ban the use of antibiotics in livestock is shortsighted and ultimately costly (if only in enforcement issues).

So, perhaps we need to walk though this in small steps. I won't complete everything in one post, but I'll try to address some of the poorly understood matters involved.

Why is there even a concern about antibiotic use in livestock? 

Sadly, the public outcry about antibiotic uses seems to be tied to chemophobes, who project the idea that meat is contaminated with antibiotics, and this is somehow toxic to humans - thereby parlaying the manipulation of disgust to accomplish public misconception. The scientific concern, however, is far more subtle that that - after all, antibiotics enter commercial use because they are relatively safe for humans while being harmful to bacteria. It stems from promoting antibiotic resistance.

What are antibiotics anyway?

In general, antibiotics are weapons microbes use against each other, which we humans have coopted for our purposes. Think of it this way - in the competitive arena of microbiology, each type of microbe is scrabbling for survival against all other species for limited resources, just like the rest of the larger life forms. One way to compete is to produce chemicals that impede other species from growing - but, of course, the producer will need an antidote to keep it alive. This arms race is constantly going on all over the biosphere. What we call antibiotics are, to an extent, the subset of these chemicals that we humans have purified, tested, characterized, and then used against bacteria.

Of course, no livestock is ever raised in a sterile environment - all of them are teeming with myriad microbes that are using these chemical weapons against each other. Strictly speaking - there is no such thing as antibiotic-free meat. While we may not have characterized, patented, bottled and leveraged these compounds, in all likelihood, antibiotics are being produced by the different microbes already living in and among all animals (including humans).

Fortunately, humans are genetically distant enough from bacteria that the same compounds have minimal, if any, effects on us, while killing the targeted bacteria. Or does it? Remember that antidote? For every antibiotic produced by a microbe, in all likelihood, a resistance mechanism already exists. In fact, antibiotic resistance was documented with the earliest uses of antibiotics - and predates even our discovery of DNA as the hereditary molecule.

The key is how prevalent this resistance mechanism spreads. The genius of evolution as a concept is that we can predict that the more often an antibiotic is used by humans, the less effective it is the next time around. The microbial world is like a defective Borg population - they don't resist after one try, but they eventually get there. So, we want to curb antibiotic use to extend the useful life of particular classes of antibiotics.

In future postings, I'll tackle why antibiotic resistance can be such a scary phenomenon, why it's being used in animal husbandry - and why banning may not be as simple as people make it sound.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Chicken Fusion

Among the practically meaningless words that pepper the culinary world, "authentic" inspires and infuriates. There are those who hew to the demonstration of authenticity - sometimes at the expense of enjoyment. But perhaps the most difficult thing about making authenticity a gold standard - is that there is no such thing. Cuisine, as is life, evolves. Regional practices become entrenched with tradition, but even that changes as people migrate, cultures adapted, and ingredients innovate. And, often, authenticity is just a nostalgic call for a time and place that no longer exists.
Clever graphics

On the other hand, authenticity also creates barriers that exclude the naive from exploring new cuisines. It's a brave chef that decides to break authenticity just enough make the unfamiliar friendly, but so much as to enrage the traditionalists. Over in Chicago, classically French trained chef Kristine Subido tries her hand at bringing flavors of her Filipino ancestry to America - though in a carefully orchestrated manner. Formerly a chef in the W Lakeshore Hotel, her restaurant Pecking Order just focuses on chicken. And though decidedly Filipino in inspiration, it does so in an understated manner.

Pecking Order never explicitly mentions the Philippine derivation of the restaurant, but it has the subtle overlay of the Philippine flag on the logo, and these framed spoons and forks - an homage to traditional eating utensil setup in that country. 
The menu makes mention of many classical Filipino flavor combinations, including cocktails made from the microcitrus calamansi (aka calamondin). I eagerly ordered a "limeade". 

Sadly, Pecking Order doesn't have sourcing for actual calamansi juice or pulp, instead relying on bottled premixed calamansi with honey or syrup. The result is a scented sweet item which has lost much of the tartness. I can imagine that this will be disappointing for people ordering the cocktails, and explains why the savory dishes do not leverage the bright flavors of the fruit. 

Garlic fried rice isn't really fried. An interesting interpretation, where fried garlic and oil is simply poured over fresh rice. There's a lot of garlic used, no shortage there, but I think it puzzles the newcomer, and doesn't evoke the memories of sinangag
Chicken and the Egg noodles was a playful update to a classic. Sous vide eggs play with greens and roasted chicken and noodles, amidst richly flavored chicken broth. It's a bit too salty, but quite good. The chicken itself was masterfully cooked - despite being white meat. 

Served as a side dish, fried plantains with jackfruit chutney. This is a tribute to the Filipino dish turon, a kind of fried egg roll stuffed with saba bananas, and jackfruit, and studded with bits of burnt sugar. Here, it's updated with the more readily available plantains, and the jackfruit as chutney is a clever idea. I just wished the actual combination worked flavor-wise. But I'll be experimenting with jackfruit chutney as inspiration.
All in all, I liked what Pecking Order is trying to do (and I don't know if they chose to do an all chicken restaurant by accident, but it's also a very clever homage - the domesticated chicken originated in the Philippines/Indonesia region), but I don't think they've hit that fine line between authenticity and daring just yet. The flavor profiles are dedicated to neither direction, coming across as undecided. But it's worth a try.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Farming the market

"So, how much did they cost?" she asked me as I handed over the two dozen eggs I purchased at the Eastside Farmer's Market in Houston. She nearly choked when I told her: $14. About the cheapest eggs I found at the market were around $5 a dozen, and that was still nearly triple what supermarket eggs cost regularly. True, these were labeled cage-free, and came in a range of colors from brown to white, but I could tell my friend was reevaluating if it was worth it to spend that much on eggs.



On occasion, I take a stroll through our local farmers' markets, but I find that I do not tend purchase anything for myself.

Variegated and different shaped summer squashes. These are pretty large, though, a bit past prime harvesting stage. Each basket is $5.
Rarely, I encounter a varietal that looks interesting, but most of the time, our farmers don't seem to plant or harvest crops that are too far from the norm. In effect, they are in direct competition with the supermarket produce. Moreover, due to "seasonality" constraints, most vendors sell the same items! I do like talking to the farmers, but I am more likely to find a range of greens from an ethnic market than the farmers' market. So, the question is - is this heritage breed, or some such, worth the price premium?

This vendor had brussels sprouts, which is pretty impressive in the June heat of Texas. 

Mushrooms here are also the standard varieties you'd get in the markets. Only about 3x the price. FYI - portobellos are just the mature form of creminis. And white mushrooms are a sport (mutation) of creminis. 
That's, of course, a personal decision, depending on what one understands as valuable. Personally, I'm hoping for varietals that are impractical to enter the supermarket system. When I visit farmers' markets on my travels, I've encountered amazing peaches, strawberry, avocado, and tomato varieties that can never leave the local area, because they are too fragile, too difficult to cultivate - but have unique flavors worth paying extra for.

Local honey is a valid option for displaying the distinctiveness of the region. I just wish it didn't come with pseudoscientific claims about curing allergies
What I did find all over the market, are labels. Lots of labels with adjectives virtuous and vague: "Sustainable. Local. Natural. Organic. Free range. Humanely raised.". These labels have no scientific basis, and lack enforceable definitions - but near as I can tell, serve the bulk of justification for the exorbitant pricing. This cavalier attitude about labeling is perhaps why lots of the same folks don't understand the difference between this and legally enforced mandatory labeling (as proposed for GMOs). But the emotional reaction elicited by these terms is as powerful a value determinant as esthetics is for art.

Or in this case, way beyond organic. Whatever that means.
Largely, I think our farmers' markets aren't so much for the farmers as they are for the artists who labor to produce these illusions. Farmers can make it so much easier for themselves by leveraging modern technology, producing crops more reliably, but artisan farmers eschew this for the challenge. And a consumer community has grown around this idea.


I'll bemoan the enshrining of pseudoscience in these markets, but the self-delusion is part of the fabric of community that makes these weekly rituals fun to go to, despite the heat and parking. In a sense, it's quite an anthropological wonder to observe.