Saturday, December 23, 2006

tempering chocolate... pepperoni?

For the cooking club last weekend I got to try a new (to me) cooking skill -- tempering chocolate. Chocolate is an interesting beast, as far as temperature goes. Let stored chocolate get too warm, and the cocoa butter melts and recrystalizes, forming that chalky-looking bloom on the surface. Get chocolate too hot and it burns. Melt it, then let it cool rapidly, and the result is greasy, soft, and unpleasant.

Harold McGee explains in the new version of On Food and Cooking:
Cocoa butter can solidify into six different kinds of fat crystals! Only two are stable kinds that produce a glossy, dry, hard chocolate; the other four are unstable kinds that produce a looser, less organized network, with more liquid fat, and crystals whose fat molecules readily detach and ooze away.

To temper chocolate, the chocolate is carefully melted, then reduced to about 90 degrees Farenheit, and stirred at that temperature while the right kind of crystallization happens. Adding some chopped chocolate to the mixture when it's about 95 degrees helps, as it adds "seed crystals" to the mixture and helps tempering occur faster. Cooking for Engineers has some good recommendations on how to temper chocolate relatively easily.

My excuse for learning this process was a pizza-themed dinner. I volunteered to do dessert, along with Jen, so for one of our dishes we made a strawberry chocolate dessert pizza. (The other dish was salted caramel ice cream, another dish that requires very careful control of temperature and crystallization, but I had nothing to do with it this time...) We made a cream cheese crust, cut into wedges, then spread strawberry jam over the crust, drizzled white chocolate sauce over the top, then topped with chocolate pepperoni and candied lime zest peppers. The full recipe is here, but I just want to talk about the chocolate pepperoni!

Learning how to temper chocolate was only half the battle! (And that half of the battle was not a cakewalk. One of the five times I tried to temper that weekend, it failed and I had to start over. Unfortunately, that was when I was under some time pressure...) The other half of the battle was figuring out how to make the tempered chocolate into perfect little discs.

For this, based on a suggestion from a pastry chef friend, I turned to power tools. I needed to make a plastic mold that would allow me to put the chocolate into that disk shape then let the chocolate harden. Initially, I used the lids from some takeout containers, but they turned out to be too thin. I then ransacked the apartment, looking for some thicker plastic, and ended up finding an old plastic photo frame I was going to throw away anyway. In a process that ended up spraying plastic dust all over the hallway, I then drilled 1/2" holes into the plastic with a spade bit, scraped the holes clean with a utility knife, then sanded everything relatively smooth with 600 grit sandpaper. The result looked like this, a small piece of hard plastic with nice circular holes in it, ready to be used for chocolate making.

Next was the chocolate. I melted it over hot water, let it cool to 95 degrees, stirred in some seed chocolate, then let it cool as I stirred some more to about 88 degrees. I then used a rubber spatula to spread the chocolate over the mold (taped to a piece of parchment paper), then scraped off the top some.

I then let the chocolate discs cool, carefully popped them out of the mold (about 80% survived that process!), then used them to assemble the final dessert.

The dessert was tasty, although if I made it again, I would have used less jam and about twice as much chocolate pepperoni. And if I had to make the plastic mold again, I'd use a larger piece of a slightly thicker hard plastic, so I could make more discs at once and more of them would survive, and I would have tried harder to make the walls of the holes beveled in one direction (like this: \ /, not this: > <), which would have helped them release better from the mold. Additional hardening time would have helped too, as the crystallization is a slow process, and fully tempered chocolate shrinks a few percent as it cools. All in all, though, it was a successful experiment!

And a preview of coming attractions and my next experiment... dairy-free truffles...

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Thursday, December 21, 2006

Movie Review: Fast Food Nation

Eric Schlosser's Fast Food Nation was on the early side of the current boom in food books. Published in 2001, it described in sometimes gruesome detail the process by which cows, corn, soybeans, wheat and potatoes get turned into Happy Meals. The New York Times said "Not only will it make you think twice before eating your next hamburger … it will also make you think about the fallout that the fast food industry has had on the social and cultural landscape."

The book has been loosely adapted into a film by Richard Linklater, the director of character-driven dialogue-heavy films like Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Before Sunrise, as well as School of Rock (which disappointed me) and the Bad News Bears remake (which disappointed nearly everyone). I, along with R., saw the film a couple of weeks ago. While the book was a non-fiction expose without a plot, the adapted film is fiction, with, if not a plot, at least characters who make choices and face difficult situations. It's an interesting combination of fairly heavy-handed criticism of the industrial meatpacking industry and Linklater's witty realistic conversations among his characters.

At its core, the criticism of industrial meatpacking in the movie is focused on one issue -- that the production line moves to fast and sanitary conditions can't be preserved. Personally, although that's certainly an issue, it's not one that's very controversial. The FDA doesn't like bacteria on the meat any more than consumers do, and companies in this age of lightning-fast dissemination of news have pretty good economic incentives to treat their product with care. Their employees and their suppliers are a different matter, and here the film takes a more hedged stance, showing both the pros and cons of being an undocumented worker in the industry. Other issues are noted briefly, including land use and the treatment of cattle on the range, but the major criticisms are leveled against the plants where cattle are slaughtered and the meat processed. And much of the film was about the characters involved -- immigrant workers, fast-food-assembling teenagers, an inspector for a burger company, a rancher, and others.

In general I liked the movie. Although preachy in some ways, at other times it went out of its way not to take the easy road. Characters make bad choices sometimes, and... nothing happens. Refreshing, and it rescues the film from being more moralistic than it needs to be.

There were many aspects of the book that the movie did not address. The agricultural effects of fast food were not covered (but see Omnivore's Dilemma for a comprehensive take), and some of the remarkable innovations in the fast food industry were also not shown. In particular, the amazing robotic french-fry makers that peel and quality-check potatoes before firing them at high speed through razor wire to make fries, now that I would have loved to see!

Two other notes. First, the movie has some gruesome moments, although the director is to be commended for working the audience up to seeing them, rather than shocking us right at the beginning. And second, my viewing companion had a totally different view of the film, describing it as boring and aggressively preachy.

For myself, though, I give it three out of four lamb chops.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

NYC good news roundup

There have been several bits of news about NYC in the last couple of days that make me happy.

First is another hint of actual putting-bricks-together at the trade center site. They'd started regular work on the foundation of the Freedom Tower building a couple of months ago (after laying a cornerstone, now safely off-site, about a year ago), and now as the New York Times reports, the first steel I-beam is about to be installed:
Scores of relatives signed their names, wrote messages and taped photographs on the beam, more than 30 feet long, which was available to be signed for five hours yesterday in a vacant lot in Battery Park City. Gov. George E. Pataki, who leaves office at the end of the month, wrote on the beam, as did Daniel Libeskind, the architect overseeing the master plan for the ground zero site.
(Speaking of skyscrapers and the Times, the new Times building on 8th Ave. is substantially complete... And it's ugly. Drat.)

Second, New York City is still the safest big city in the nation, with another 7.2% drop in crime in the first half of this year. The murder rate is up a little, though, as it is nationwide.

Third, the mayor's office announced a new Third Way plan to reduce poverty in the city.
The city is planning to spend an extra $150 million a year in public and private money on the core priority of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s second term: combating poverty that is hidden beneath New York’s vast wealth.

The effort would involve the creation of a new city office that would operate in part like a philanthropic foundation and in part like a venture capital company. The program, called the Center for Economic Opportunity, would administer a $100 million fund to support experimental programs, like giving cash rewards to encourage poor people to stay in school or receive preventive medical care, or matching their monthly bank deposits to foster greater savings.

The office would also oversee a program giving tax credits to impoverished families to offset child care costs. Programs are to be constantly evaluated, and those that cannot show success will be terminated.

Interesting. I do think that Bloomberg and centerist Democrats like Bill Clinton have a lot in common, in that both believe in active government action in social justice and equality, but tend to prefer more innovative free-market approaches than do traditional liberals. It'll be interesting to see if this new program can show results. Say what you like about Bloomberg, but he does believe in measurement, evaluation, and statistics...

And lastly, the Federal government yesterday pledged $2.6 billion in transportation money to finish the East Side Access project, which will extend the Long Island Railroad to Grand Central Station on the East side of town. My subway commute to work every day goes right over the construction zone for that project, which started up again about six months ago, well before most of the money had been found. So far they've just been preparing the site and pushing dirt around; in coming months they'll be digging a big ramp to connect the existing rail yard with the existing tunnel under the river. And speaking of subways, the Feds also pledged nearly $700 million for the Second Avenue Subway which will relieve congestion on the East Side (congestion that would be made worse by the completion of the East Side Access project).

As I've said before, NYC is growing rapidly (aided by the low crime rate), and the infrastructure
needs to grow with it. I'm looking forward to seeing real progress soon...


Friday, December 15, 2006

two Chinese dolphin stories, one good, one bad

This week there were two science stories about dolphins in China. In one case, a freshwater river dolphin called the baiji, which has long been endangered due to industrial pollution and habitat pressure from humans, has been declared extinct by a multinational survey team.
The small, nearly blind white dolphin, also known as the baiji, was nicknamed "the goddess of the Yangtze."

"It's possible that we missed one or two animals [during the search], but we can say the baiji is functionally extinct," August Pfluger, a Swiss economist-turned-naturalist who financed the expedition, said... If Pfluger's team is correct, the baiji will be the first large aquatic mammal to have gone extinct since hunting and overfishing killed off the Caribbean monk seal in the 1950s.
Sad news. There aren't many river dolphins left, and they're all severely endangered. On the other hand, people can save dolphins too. The tallest person in the world, a seven-foot nine-inch Chinese man, was recently asked to help save a captive dolphin who accidentally ate some shards of plastic. They first had tried using tools to reach into the dolphin's stomach, but its muscles clenched up when they stuck the metal things down its throat. (Wouldn't yours?) So the man, with his long gangly arms, reached down the throat of the dolphin, pulled out the plastic, and saved the day. National Geographic has photos here.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

What's with all of those books on food?

It's been pointed out that this year has been a particularly good year for food books, and this after several years of particularly good years for food books. This year, we had Omnivore's Dilemma, which was one of the New York Times' 10 best books of the year (I agree) and The United States of Arugula, which made their 100 notable books list (I'm halfway through it, and it's very enjoyable!). But there have been cookbooks for many many years, as well as writing about food from many different viewpoints. What's changed?

Yesterday, the NYU library held an event with two goals, one of which was to answer this question. The other goal was to celebrate the donation of a huge library of food books and cookbooks to their food studies archive. Dalia Carmel, a collector of food books from all over the world, donated something like 8,000 volumes (I forget the exact number) to the library, to be pored over by generations of students and faculty for clues to gastronomic culture. I attended the panel discussion, and here are some highlights from my notes, along with this horrible cell-phone-camera photo of the panelists:

From left to right, we have Amy Bentley, a professor of food studies, Bull Buford, the New Yorker writer and author of Heat, about how he got sucked into professional cooking as part of his journalism, Laura Shapiro, a writer and journalist for a number of publications including Newsweek and Gourmet, Lidia Bastianich, the NYC chef, cookbook author, and television personality, and Dalia Carmel, the collector.

The moderator, the remarkably charismatic Clark Wolf, asked each panelist to talk about their experiences about books on food.

Amy Bentley gave the academic's perspective. She noted a "critical mass" of food books, but also said that in some sense writing about food is nothing new. Even the highly researched academic books about food are not a new thing, but in the past they would have been categorized as "political economy" instead of "food studies". This said, four factors have led to the current explosion in popular (and academic) interest in the topic in the US. First, food is very abundant now. This has led to pros (much less hunger, much less of income is spent on food), and cons (see the first section of Omnivore's Dilemma), but importantly it's led to the luxury that we can now talk about food and make choices about food. In the past, without abundance, we had very few choices. Second, the 30-40 years of counterculture has been a major effect. The environmental movement and what she describes as the "delicious food movement" have joined forces to support, for example, locally grown, seasonal, organic, heritage produce. The result is what she calls a "good food movement", which includes taste, environmental consequences of food production, and social issues of production and culture, all as components of how food decisions are made. Third, the relaxation of immigration laws in previous decades has let to a large increase in immigrants from all over the world. Some of these people opened up restaurants, and led to a wide increase in the types of food available to Americans. The multiculturalism of food is a new phenomenon. (The United States of Arugula has some great anecdotes about this, including a citation of a 1939 newspaper article that has to explain to readers how to pronounce that very foreign word: "pizza".) And fourth, all of these factors have led to a much greater interest in food by consumers, and publishers are following the money and pushing writers to write books about food.

Bill Buford then talked about how his interest in food was "drive by [his] ignorance and curiosity." He noted that while previous generations of food writers have asked "how" questions (how do you make a souffle, or how do you pair wine with food), current generations of food writers are much more asking "why" questions (how did Joy of Cooking get to be so popular, or the question that is the title of the panel).

Laura Shapiro noted that we needed a variety of food to get good food writing, and that food quality and variety has been steadily increasing for decades. In the 1980s, good food got attached to money and lifestyle in a new way, which led to attention from (advertiser-supported) magazine editors and writers. She argued that the current interest in food books started in journalism (e.g., Steingarden at Vogue), and has moved into other media only recently.

Lidia Bastianich gave her life story, talking about immigrating from Croatia (in an Italian family) to the US as a child. (She grew up in Astoria!) She originally wanted to study science and children, but ended up in food as a way to tie people to her culture and the people that were left behind.

Dalia Carmel then talked about how, as a young adult who just immigrated to New York from Israel, she realized needed to learn to cook. She joined a cookbook book club, and they kept sending her cookbooks. She became obsessed, particularly with small cookbooks from the Middle East and the Jewish Diaspora worldwide. Much of her collection are those small cookbooks published by churches and synagogues as fundraisers. She talked about her compulsion to have unique books, and how she would travel around the world and go to used bookstores looking for rarities. In the Middle East, as an Israeli-American, she would have to use all sorts of subterfuges and middlemen to get books. Apparently, only one book that she wanted to buy from a bookstore got away, over her decades of collecting.

There was then a series of questions to the panel. One set of interesting questions was about why there is so much writing now. Bill Buford said that "people write books because they have something to say." Laura Shapiro noted that journalists are now doing real research in a way they haven't previously, and that current books are having real social and political impact in a new way. Lidia Bastianich noted that her audience is now demanding more depth than previously, and so she is putting more depth into her writing than before.

There was food and wine afterwards, but I had to run off to buy groceries for dinner, so I didn't get to have any of it...


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

"saltimbocca seasoning"???

OK, this is weird. This blog's page view stats have spiked in the last couple of days, and something like half of my visitors are coming from Google. And not just any random search, but for the string saltimbocca seasoning. WTF? First of all, there isn't such a thing. If you search for the same string in quotes, so that Google looks for the entire phrase, you get no hits! And second, the only reason "saltimbocca" and "seasoning" show up on the same page for me is that I wrote a post about (fusion) saltimbocca, and on that page in the side bar is a link to a more recent posting about Italian seasoning. Google's usually smarter than that.

So why are dozens of people (and yes, I checked, they appear to be real web browsers, not a web spider) searching for "saltimbocca seasoning"? Did Emiril just mention the phrase on his show? And why are they ending up looking at this blog instead of the hundreds of other sites that Google ranks higher for that search?

Completely bizzare.

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The color of garlic

Harold McGee has a new occasional column in the New York Times, called The Curious Cook, and dedicated to the chemical properties of food and how cooking works. McGee, of course, wrote the essential book on food chemistry, On Food and Cooking. In today's column, in addition to recounting his personal history of how he got into writing about food science, and noting some interesting new theories about smell, he tackles the interesting colors of garlic and onions.

Now that grocery stores have started selling containers of whole peeled garlic cloves, I've been buying them, thankful for the end of the tedious chore of peeling off the skins. But a container of garlic in the fridge, uh, "ripens" rather quickly. After a couple of weeks in a closed container, the moisture causes the garlic to become pungent, its odor permeating through the rest of the fridge. Storage in an open container is hardly better. So I started looking into preserving garlic. First idea: store in olive oil! Bad idea! Dangerous! It turns out (as I learned through Google research, not through personal experience, thankfully), garlic in olive oil is a prime way to grow Salmonella bacteria in your own home! The oil seals out air, while the garlic has the optimal pH to grow the toxic anaerobic cultures. So don't do that. Instead, to preserve garlic, you have to soak it in an acidic solution, like a 1:1 vinegar/water mixture. This is safe and lasts for a long time. To use preserved garlic, just rinse it, dry it off, and mince normally; it has a higher liquid content then dried garlic, but seems to taste similarly.

But, the garlic sitting in the vinegar sometimes turns blue. And that's what McGee wrote about today:
I hear every year from cooks who have been alarmed at seeing normally pale garlic turn bright green and even blue, sometimes when the cloves are pickled whole, sometimes when they’re chopped and cooked with other ingredients. I’d often been puzzled by little blue-green specks when I made garlic bread with loaves of sourdough, but I was really rattled the first time I puréed raw garlic, onion and ginger together in a blender to make chicken in yogurt from Madhur Jaffrey’s “Invitation to Indian Cooking.” When I fried the purée the entire mass turned turquoise blue.

...a strong green color develops in [Chinese preserved] garlic only with acetic acid, the main acid in vinegar (also found in sourdough), because it’s especially effective at breaching internal membranes and mixing the cell chemicals that react together to create the green pigment. The pigment itself turns out to be a close chemical relative of chlorophyll, which gives all green leaves their color.
Interesting, I just went to look at my blue garlic, and the color has faded! McGee doesn't talk about it, but perhaps the "multipyrrole" molecules he talks about that give the color are unstable. In any case, I am relieved to know that the blue and green chemicals are perfectly safe to eat.

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

spaghetti sauce and Italian seasoning

Another one of those family hand-me-down recipes (like the hot dog casserole I wrote about earlier this year) is my dad's spaghetti sauce recipe. He's been tweaking it for decades, and it's reached a level of flavor that far surpasses any of the marinara sauces you get in a jar, and a level of richness that, in my opinion, far surpasses the simple-and-elegant fresh tomato sauces you make in August and September with garden-ripe tomatoes. Instead, it's one of those 1960s-style recipes where you dump about eight cans of stuff into a big pot and simmer it for two or three hours. Nothing fresh except onions and garlic. At least, that's where its origins lie. Over the years, the amount of garlic has increased, some wine has been added, and the parmesan is now freshly grated instead of from a green plastic box. But still: four types of canned tomato products, a jar of mushrooms, and only dried herbs and spices. Here's the recipe. And here's what it looks like spooned over some al dente rigatoni:

(click the photos for larger views)

One small change I made yesterday, when I made this spaghetti for R. and me, was to use homemade spice mixtures. The recipe calls for seasoned salt (Lowry's is usual), seasoned pepper, and Italian seasoning. I used seasoned salt I'd made before, just used fresh ground black pepper (a step up from the pre-ground stuff the recipe originally called for), and made my own Italian seasoning. The latter was new, and definitely worth doing.

McCormick brand Italian seasoning has the following ingredients: marjoram, thyme, rosemary, savory, sage, oregano, and basil. But as with any herb or spice mixture, who knows if the ratios are good for a particular dish, and who knows how long that bottle has been sitting on the shelf (not to mention in the back of your spice rack). It's better to buy small amounts of high-quality dried herbs and spices, to make your own mixtures, and replace them relatively frequently when their potency starts to lapse. For my homemade Italian seasoning, I turned to Google, and found several suggestions. One used just four ingredients, while another used five herbs, garlic and onion powders, and black and chile peppers. I ended up making a variation of that second recipe, as follows:

Italian Seasoning
  • 2 t dr. basil
  • 2 t dr. marjoram
  • 2 t dr. oregano
  • 1 t dr. sage
  • 1/2 t dr. thyme
  • 1/2 t dr. rosemary
  • pinch black peppercorns
  • pinch crushed red pepper
1. Combine everything in a spice grinder and grind until desired fineness.

Makes about 2 T.

This mixture worked very well in the sauce, and the chile added a pleasant kick. In fact, the mixture may have worked a little too well, as it was considerably more intense than the usual blend! In the future, I may use rather less of this homemade version in the pasta sauce... Oh, and I used the same Italian seasoning to make a good, simple salad dressing, with minced shallot, white wine vinegar, and olive oil.

It's also worth noting that this pasta sauce is also very good as the sauce to make for eggplant or veal parmesan, and it's very good with meatballs as well. (Does anyone have a favorite meatball recipe? I've been looking for a good one...)