Thursday, October 26, 2006

Science of Cooking talk report

Well that was rather a treat. The New York Academy of Sciences has a new series(*) of public lectures on the Science of Food, and I went to see the first event tonight. Shirley Corriher was the guest this evening. She's a chef with a chemistry background, she's written a couple of books on the science of cooking (CookWise from 1997 won a Beard award; BakeWise is not yet available), she's been a guest star on Good Eats, and she's a complete character. An unstoppable talker with a Southern accent, she talked without notes or a break for nearly an hour about the science of food in an enthusiastic, clear, and entertaining manner.

She started out by talking about her background and an early lesson she learned. When younger, after quitting chemistry as a profession, she took a job as a cook at a boys boarding school. Her first educational mistake was trying to fry eggs by breaking them into a cold pan then heating the pan. If you do that, the proteins in the eggs soak into tiny fissures in the cold metal and then literally cook into the pan as you increase the temperature. If instead you drop the eggs into a hot pan, they cook (specifically the proteins denature and link up) before they soak in and don't stick as much.

Her talk was rambling, a series of amusing anecdotes and cooking chemistry lessons that hopped from one topic to another. Here, from my notes, are some other particularly interesting or amusing things she said...
  • Sugar makes wine taste bad; sour makes wine taste mild; salt makes wine taste smooth and kills bitterness. If you ordered the fish and the person who ordered the steak got a Cabernet for the table, to prevent the strong flavor of the wine from clashing with your dinner, eat a bite of something with lemon and salt on it before taking a sip.
  • On average, meats lose 30% of their moisture during cooking. If you brine the meat (1 c salt per gallon water) it loses only 15%. If you cook it sous vide, you lose almost none.
  • Dried beans would fall apart if you cooked them for a really long time. Sugar and calcium both prevent a substance in the beans from dissolving and keep the beans intact. Molasses has both sugar and calcium, which is why molasses lets you cook baked beans forever without them turning to mush.
  • The pastry chef for the White House used a technique where strawberries are quickly boiled in a strong sugar solution before being incorporated into a shortcake. The sugar (by the same process as above) prevents the berries from turning to mush when they're cooked. Bill Clinton ate half of one of these shortcakes one night when he was "dining alone."
  • The metabolic byproducts of asparagus smell very bad to some people but not to other people. To those who smell the byproducts, the term "asparagus pee" makes sense. To me, it doesn't.
  • Acid makes most vegetables turn brown when cooked (by changing the chlorophyll's structure). So don't cook green veggies in a vinaigrette. Roasting asparagus under a broiler works great. Use lemon zest instead of lemon juice to flavor vegetables.
  • Acid also prevents potatoes from cooking. So don't cook potatoes in a vinaigrette either. Or with tomatoes, which are pretty acidic.
  • On the other hand, Dutched cocoa powder is alkaline, and prevents eggs from setting in baked goods. If you're baking with eggs and cocoa, use normal cocoa.
Whew! And then we got hors d'ouvres in the lobby. Speaking of the lobby, the NYaS just moved from their old location on the Upper East Side to the 40th floor of the brand-spankin'-new 7 World Trade Center. (I blogged about the building in April.) The building is amazing. The views to the East (Woolworth Building) and North (the rest of Manhattan) from the NYaS's offices are completely spectacular. The lobby is gorgeous and modern. The elevators are a technological marvel. You type in the floor you want to go to before you enter the elevator, and it tells you which elevator to take so that it can optimize travel. And the interior of the elevators with frosted glass covering mirrors, and intelligent display screens are fantastic. I'm telling you, it's worth a visit just for the elevators.

(*) The other events are on the Science of Wine, the Science of Beer (both with tastings), the Science of Taste (hosted by Hervé This!) and the Science of Cheese.

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Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Streetsblog: a great NYC urban planning blog

I've been really impressed by a newish blog about the streets of NYC, Streetsblog. It's a project of the New York City Streets Renaissance Campaign, and it covers the (slow) improvement of NYC streets as modern urban planning takes over from the (in my opinion) mostly misguided highway-centered development of the mid-20th century. Unlike my other favorite NYC blog, Curbed, it focuses on pedestrians and street culture rather than architecture and real estate.

Here are a few recent Streetsblog posts I noted:

Today, the Straphangers guild reported on the worst bus lines of the city, including the M14 crosstown bus that's slower than walking, and the M1 bus that tends to travel in herds instead of evenly spaced. (The bus I use the most, the M60 bus that runs between Columbia, Harlem, Astoria, and La Guardia, is actually quite punctual and evenly spaced most of the time.) Streetsblog notes the MTA's defensive statement that says that traffic = vibrancy, and then shows two photos of city streets, one of traffic-jammed taxis in Manhattan and the other of pedestrians in Copenhagen, and asks us readers to decide which is more vibrant. Nice. (Link)

A few days ago, Streetsblog posted a story about a plan in the works to redo a minor intersection, 9th Ave. and Gansevoort in the Meatpacking district. The interesting thing about the plan is the process by which the grassroots project looked at the problems at that intersection (horrible crosswalks, too many circling taxis, no street life) and figured out how to solve them. The solution involves restricting traffic by reducing four lanes to two, creating on-street areas for cafes to put seating, and adding public seating in the middle of the intersection. Looks great, and I hope they do it, that it works well, and becomes an example to others. (Link)

And then, in an example of the raison d'etre of blogs, spreading rumors, Streetsblog noted last week that Bob Kiley, the architect of London's highly successful congestion-pricing system (cameras take photos of your license plates and automatically bill you a few bucks for driving into downtown during business hours), will be moving to New York and will be heading up a study to see if/how this should be implemented here. (Link)

All this and nice visual design too...


Thursday, October 19, 2006

Freeman Dyson reviews matho-Francophile history

In last week's New York Review of Books the great physicist and thinker Freeman Dyson reviews a book called The Best of All Possible Worlds: Mathematics and Destiny by Ivar Ekeland. (link) The book doesn't seem particularly worth reading; Dyson says it "gives a slanted and partial view of history." But the review is worth reading. Here's the first couple of paragraphs.
Ivar Ekeland has a Norwegian name and teaches at the University of British Columbia in Canada, but the style and spirit of his book are unmistakably French. The book is a rapid run through the history of the last four hundred years, seen through the eyes of a French mathematician. Mathematics appears as a unifying principle for history. Ekeland moves easily from mathematics to physics, biology, ethics, and philosophy.
After describing the contributions to science of Pierre de Maupertuis (1698-1759), who notably described mathematical axioms that can be used to derive Newton's laws of motion given just the assumption that things move as little as possible, Dyson describes how Ekeland then frames the history of modern thought in terms of both earlier and later thinkers who also thought about optimization and conservatism (in a technical sense, not a political sense). Those thinkers include Galileo, Descartes, Lagrange, Poincare, Darwin, Rousseau, and others. Noting that the majority of those names are French, Dyson comes to the heart of the essay. What does this French perspective say about how the world works, and how science works?
The characters in [Ekeland's] story are mostly French, and the dominant role of mathematics in their thinking is a hallmark of French culture. Nowhere else except in France do mathematicians command such respect.
Ekeland's book puts mathematical optimization at the focus of history. Optimization means choosing the best out of a set of alternatives. Mathematical optimization means using mathematics to make a choice. Maupertuis is the central character of the history because he claimed that the universe is mathematically optimized.
And what would happen if you thought about history in another framework, say, that of English scientists instead of French scientists? Dyson considers another book that could be written, a similar framing of the history of Western modernity, but by Akeland instead of Ekeland.
In Akeland's version of history, the scientist who personified eighteenth-century enlightenment is Benjamin Frnaklin rather than the Marquis de Maupertuis. Instead of the mathematicians Lagrange and Poincare, the scientists who bring us into the modern world are the nineteenth-century British physicists Michael Faraday and James Clerk Maxwell, who set out the basic laws of electricity and magnetism. Bacon, Franklin, Faraday, and Maxwell, the chief characters in Akeland's narrative, are nowhere mentioned by Ekeland.
For Akeland, things are more important than theorems. Experiments are more important than mathematics. The great scientific achievement of the Age of Enlightenment was the experimental study of electricity.
Instead of mathematical optimization, Akeland postulates maximum diversity as the governing principle of the universe. His title is The Most Interesting of All Possible Worlds: Electricity and Destiny.
Dyson concludes with the fairly obvious point, obvious given his insightful discussion summarized above, that science and modern thought requires both mathematics and the experimental work that lead to an understanding of electricity. His review is well worth reading for its consideration of how national culture, in this case the culture of the scientific and philosophical community, can strongly affect how people view history and their own place in the world. Presumably, American scientific culture (which Dyson does not address, aside from Franklin, who lived much of his life in Europe), and its competitive and practical aspects, also view how we think about the world and human nature, and vice-versa too I imagine.

(Edited 10/23/06 to reflect that the full text of the review is now available.)


Thursday, October 12, 2006

Restaurant recommendations

The new Zagat's guide to New York Restaurants was released yesterday. Despite the fact that they sent me a free copy in the mail Tuesday (my first blog perk!), I'm not all that thrilled, and it's got me thinking a bit about restaurant recommendations.

There are lots of ways that people hear about restaurants. Sometimes you're just walk or drive past something and go in based on the name. In some markets restaurants advertise on TV or on billboards. Word of mouth is of course a big one. If someone you know mentions a place they like you might trust that as a particularly valuable recommendation. Or then again, you might not. Now, in the age of the Internet, there are new ways of getting reviews. Web sites like citysearch allow ratings and reviews for restaurants as well as hotels and movies and what-not. Menupages takes the ratings and reviews and adds (sometimes out of date) menus for many restaurants as well. Each of these typically have a few to a few dozen ratings and reviews, of people who may or may not have good taste in food, or for that matter your taste in food.

Two more prominent sources for ratings and reviews are Chowhound and the Zagat guide (in paper or online). Chowhound has very informal reviews and comments about all sorts of restaurants, focusing on the out-of-the-way ethnic restaurants and hidden gems. Now that they've updated the software, it's actually possible to search and find reviews of a specific restaurant or ethnicity, but it's organized as a discussion board, not as a database. Zagat, of course, wins in terms of comprehensiveness. According to the press release they sent out (probably to every blogger they could find), the 2007 edition reviews 2,014 restaurants (out of perhaps 10,000 licensed eating establishments in the city), and their iconic 1 to 30 ratings are based on an astonishing 2,100 ratings per restaurant! So there's lots of reason to think that their numbers are meaningful, more meaningful than the average of a dozen ratings on Menupages.

But this is the post-Internet-boom, Web 2.0 age! We expect better now! When we go to, we don't just get a star rating for the books we're looking at, we also get that list of personalized recommendations. Our TiVo knows we like reality TV and automatically records American Idol. Netflix just announced a million dollar prize to whomever can develop an algorithm that beats their current (already rather decent) automatic recommendation system. But for restaurants? We just get aggregate numbers! Pathetic! Old school! Zagat has something like 5 million ratings on three criteria (food, service, decor) by more than 31 thousand reviewers, and they're throwing away their most valuable data, the covariance matrix that allows the individual recommendation systems to work.

I should be able to create an account on, rate a few dozen restaurants, and have Zagat tell me what other restaurants people with my taste (moderate cost, lots of Thai, Indian, French and Italian, higher on food ratings than decor) also liked. It would know that I don't spend a lot of time at expensive seafood restaurants, and wouldn't recommend Le Bernedin. It should take into account my neighborhood, and recommend stuff nearby and for special occasions. It would do a better job of figuring out what I like than I could do. It could find restaurants that me and my three friends, all with accounts on Zagat, will agree on.

Maybe next year.


Tuesday, October 03, 2006

hops burn, lentil export banned; beer and Indian food in peril!

Two more cases of imminent food shortages in the last couple days! On Monday, about 4% of this year's US crop of hops burned in a fire. And last week, the Indian government banned export of lentils to "ease inflation in the Indian domestic market." Relevant quotes:

The United States produces 24 percent of the world's hops, and about three-fourths of the U.S. crop comes from the Yakima Valley. Hops were a $77 million crop in Washington state in 2004. More than 40 families grow hops in the valley, which is dotted with orchards, vineyards and farms.

Fires have long been an expensive danger at hop warehouses, largely because of the potential for spontaneous combustion from heat buildup in bales of resin-loaded varieties.

And on the lentils:

To understand the nature of the crisis, you have to understand how lentils fit in to the cuisine. Each dal has an important culinary role in traditional dishes. For all Indians, a warm bowl of dal complements the meal, but for vegetarians -- in fact, for a substantial percentage of the population, who shun meat for religious reasons -- dal is the main source of protein.