Standard Pages (they don't change often)

Monday, March 23, 2015

Seeking chepiche

The Mexican dish menudo is a stew of organ meats (usually stomach and tendons) with chiles, and sometimes hominy, often eaten as curative for hangovers. Eating Mexican stews demonstrates convergent evolution with Vietnamese soups: the hot bowl is presented with uncooked vegetables and herbs to doctor up as one eats.

But a distinct flavor comes from the herb chepiche. It is ubiquitous in the Oaxacan market areas, and is intensely aromatic. So, is there a substitute? Sadly, according to Gourmet Sleuth - there isn't. So, it's a novel ingredient worth looking for - the aromatic profile is pretty unique.


Saturday, March 21, 2015

Travelogue 1: Quick notes on Oaxacan cuisine

Grasshoppers (chapulines) can be tasty. Don't eat the old bottled ones, the freshly cooked ones in the market are better, and can come spicy or not. And in three different sizes. 

Chocolate prepared with water as a drink delves more deeply into the flavors. And I have to think that the newfangled trendiness of foams arose from the traditional foaming of the chocolate drinks in Oaxaca.

A favorite snack in Oaxaca is a combination of an ice cream (more like an ice milk) of leche quemada (burnt milk) and a sorbet of prickly pear. I used to think that leche quemada is a kind of milk caramel, but it's quite different. The ice milk has a distinct smokiness of food that was burned, and it does pair well with the sorbet. The nieves (sorbets and ice milks) aren't very sugary, and thus will not keep in the freezer long before ice crystal growth degrades the mouthfeel. But if you sacrifice long term storage, very nice flavors not clouded by too much sugar can emerge.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Drug contamination in milk?

Or how to read statistics.

Goat milk ice dessert, Dosi Restaurant, Houston, TX
On NPR’s The Salt blog, Dan Charles painted an ominous tone about antibiotics in milk

“…a new report from the Food and Drug Administration reveals that a few farmers are slipping through a hole in this enforcement net.”
Appropriately and responsibly, he provides a link to the FDA report, “MILK DRUG RESIDUE SAMPLING SURVEY”. Reading the report itself, however, one comes away with a more optimistic tone:

“ the small number of positives in both the targeted and non-targeted groups is encouraging and the FDA continues to be confident in the safety of the U.S. milk supply”
So, what is going on? 

Let's dissect what's in the report.  What is the difference between “targeted” and “non-targeted”? The targeted group are farms known to have already violated drug residue tests in tissues from culled dairy cows at slaughter. The non-targeted group are controls - farms that don’t have violations against them. Milk from each group are tested for the presence of any one of 31 antibiotics - but even these tests aren’t all equal. For the ones with agreed safety levels, the test registers a violation if it exceeds that level - which is measured in parts per billion (ppb). For example, bacitracin has a tolerance limit of 500 ppb, while ampicillin has a tolerance limit of 10 ppb: these tests are highly sensitive. For antibiotics with insufficient information about their tolerance limits, just being able to identify them is sufficient to trigger a violation: that is, the tolerance limit is set at 0 ppb. Potential false positives should be expected for tests this sensitive. 

But the survey was good about population sizes - 953 farms were in the targeted group, 959 farms in the controls. And even among the targeted groups, only 1 sample had more than about 30 ppm in gentamicin. The 1% figure used by Charles is likely  by computing the 12 positive results/953 samples in the target group. 

This is a misleading use of the data, because it is really a matrix of 953 x 31 tests - or actually, 12/29543 = 0.04%. And most of those were in those 0 ppb tolerance drugs, the majority of which are are single positives for drugs set at 0 bpp acceptable limits. The main one was for the drug forfenicol, which turned out 6 positives. Guess what, 4 samples in the control groups also turned up positive for florfenicol. For numbers this small, they are really insignificant in a statistical sense. These could very well be just noise in the system. 

But the rest of the story tries to imply intentional use of banned antibiotics in the dairy industry - a desperate (IMHO) attempt at drumming up drama over data that could just be noise, experimental error that is normal in the course of large sampling surveys. 

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Pricing Houston BBQ

It's Rodeo season in Houston, when everyone tries to be as stereotypically Texan as they can be around here, and when it comes to food, that means Texas BBQ. Like other cuisines with a strong entrenchment, people adhere to a certain propriety to the art of slow cooked smoked meat, even when the camps about which flavors are proper shift with history. But one of the fun things about such an entrenchment in cuisine is that people begin to expect a core set of dishes, and brook relatively small deviations from it.

And people get downright tribal about BBQ. BBQ Cookoffs are practically a spectator sport in Texas - well, more than most because the spectators get to eat. And people regularly judge for the best BBQ - anything less is unacceptable. Or is it? Such judgements, specially BBQ sold to the public, seldom take into account price. And as a consumer, one should consider the relative quality to cost ratio. For some, having the best may not be worth it if the close competitor is half the price.

So, I built a spreadsheet looking at the prices of BBQ around the Houston area, mainly as a way to explore the data. And found some interesting observations. This sheet looks primarily at meat that can be purchased without accoutrements - as straightforward as BBQ gets. Smoked brisket is the constant - just about everyone offers that, although the option to choose a fattier ("better" *wink*) cut at a nominal price change muddies the comparisons a bit. Rudy's BBQ may come as a good buy here; it is a well regarded chain for BBQ, not the very best, but pretty good - and is priced the lowest per unit weight. Comparing rib pricing is more difficult - some price by weight, others by the rack. Pricing for a whole BBQ chicken is fairly consistent, but smoked turkey is a remarkably popular option, present in more menus than pulled pork. Perhaps the pork shoulder market is saturated by carnitas.