Thursday, September 28, 2006

Summer's Colors and Variety

It's easy to get carried away as a shopper at the Farmers' Market. And clearly, some farmers get a bit carried away when planting their vegetables.

Who knew that there were so many kinds of summer squash? The photo above shows eight different varieties, and does not include the standard green one, nor three or four others that I saw at the market today: an offwhite variety (destined to be a Martha Stewart paint color?), the French Rond d'Nice (a pale green egg-shaped squash with dark green mottling). Although the local Farmers' markets have all sorts of tasting events, I don't recall seeing one for summer squash. But perhaps they should, as each squash variety has its own profile: some sweeter, some with more fiber, and so forth.

The diversity of eggplant can also be surprising. The photo below shows six varieties, but there are several more, including a long green variety, several Thai varieties (available at the Tuesday market). There are plenty of uses for these beauties. This week I was in the mood for South Indian food, so I made a paste of fresh coconut, tamarind, and spices, stuffed it into slits I cut in the eggplant, and then braised them until they were tender (and, unfortunately, all the same color: a dull purpley-brown). I usually use a recipe from Dakshin by Chandra Padmanabhan.

Indexed under Ingredients, India
Technorati tags: Food : Cooking : Vegetarian

Monday, September 25, 2006

Technological Optimism and Pessimism

In the September 25th New Yorker magazine, Elizabeth Kolbert has a great Talk of the Town piece about optimism and pessimism. I had written similar thoughts a while ago--though not nearly as elegantly--and they had been gathering electron-dust until now.

Ms. Kolbert starts writing about transformers, those very boring but very necessary things that help bring electricity into your life. Like the old saying "you need to have money to make money", you need to use electricity to get electricity. All transformers convert some of the useful electricity into useless heat, but different designs have different efficiencies:

Last month, more than fourteen years after Congress mandated transformer standards, the Bush Administration finally got around to proposing them. (The original deadline was missed during the Clinton Administration.) To prepare the proposal, the Department of Energy assessed six possible levels of efficiency, ranging from the highest, known in bureaucratese as Trial Standard Level 6, to the lowest, Trial Standard Level 1. According to the department's figures, the ideal balance between the up-front costs and the long-term gains was achieved at Level 4. Nevertheless, the department turned around and recommended a much lower transformer standard, Level 2. The decision obviously makes no sense on environmental grounds---—in effect, the department is proposing to squander some twelve billion kilowatt hours per year, or roughly enough electricity to power all the households in Iowa---and also no sense on financial ones: the D.O.E.'s own analysis shows that the net cost of the lower standard will actually be higher over the life of the average transformer, which is estimated to be thirty years. The proposal leaves "billions in savings just sitting on the table," is how Steven Nadel, the executive director of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, put it to the Christian Science Monitor.

[... two paragraphs about California's Climate Change laws ...]

President Bush likes to portray himself as a man of unwavering optimism. "“And so we move forward---—optimistic about our country, faithful to its cause, and confident of the victories to come," he declared at the close of his most recent State of the Union address. "“Ours is an agenda that is optimistic," he told the Republican National Governors Association the following month. "We believe in America. We believe in the ingenuity of the American people."


Just about every decision that the Administration has made on energy policy belies these claims. If you examine Bush's record, you find that the technologies he supports are either those which were developed in the past---—coal mining and oil drilling---—or those which lie securely in the future: cars and buses that zip around on hydrogen. When presented with new technologies that could actually change the way Americans live in the here and now, the White House wants nothing to do with them. Methods currently exist, for instance, to cut mercury emissions from power plants by as much as ninety per cent; the Administration is uninterested. Similarly, there are already (Japanese-made) cars on the road that comfortably seat a family of five and get more than fifty miles to the gallon. Yet it is only in recent months that the White House has begun to investigate the possibility of raising fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles, which have languished at twenty-seven and a half miles per gallon for the past twenty years. The new transformer rules are the first efficiency goals the Bush Administration has proposed; meanwhile, the D.O.E. has missed deadlines to raise standards for equipment ranging from dishwashers to fluorescent-lamp ballasts (and has been sued by fifteen states for its negligence). This is not the record of a technological optimist, of someone who believes in the "ingenuity of the American people."” This is the record of a pessimist.

(read the whole thing)

I think she gets it exactly right. Those arguing against the toughest standards on appliances, or transformers, for example, are saying "It's too hard, we can't do it cost effectively." Sure, installing pollution controls requires industry and consumers to spend money in the near term, but over the long term the investment can pay for itself in terms of lower health care costs, increased worker productivity, and creation of new industries and jobs. One example is a 2003 study by the Office of Management and Budget (PDF) which found that although the total annual quantified costs of EPA regulations between 1992 and 2002 were about $25 billion, the total annual quantified benefits to the U.S. were between $120 and $193 billion --- a payback of 500% or more!

Renewable energy and pollution control can create jobs, technology, and a potentially huge export industry. The San Francisco Bay Area is a good example. Manufacturing has been leaving the area in droves, but back in June the company Nanosolar, Inc. announced that it would build a new photovoltaic solar cell plant in San Jose or San Francisco. And Silicon Valley is starting to become a leader in another use of silicon: photovoltaic solar cells and the electonics needed to support the technology.

Contrary to what you might have heard from the Bush Administration or electricity industry front groups, the money spent to remove pollution and improve efficiency doesn't get buried in a hole in the ground. It goes to the people who engineer, manufacture, install and maintain the equipment. The products made by these people not only improve our air, water and land, but could become a key part of our export economy. As other countries develop and modernize (think about China and India), the U.S. could have a tremendously valuable portfolio of products and know-how to help those countries create a clean energy and transportation portfolio.

But not if the current pessimistic policies of the Federal government continue. Those policies will make the U.S. the world leader in importing oil and maintaining outdated coal power plants (see New Source Review, for example) instead of in pollution control, energy efficiency, and alternative energy.

The same could be said about a sustainable, local food system. That's a subject for another day....

Image credit: Smokestack image from tEdGuY49's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.

Indexed under Politics and Policy
Technorati tags: Energy

Friday, September 22, 2006

Tlacoyos - An Antojito for Football Season?

Just in time for football season, a (American) football-shaped snack: the tlacoyo. Tlacoyos are another in the family of antojitos ("little whims"), the delicious and diverse masa-based items from Mexico. Diana Kennedy, in From My Mexican Kitchen, writes

Tlacoyo is the common name, a variation of the Nahuatl words tlatlaoyo and claclaoyo, given to an antojito typical of central Mexico: corn masa formed into a flattish elongated oval and stuffed often with ricotta, requeson [a fresh cheese similar to ricotta], or a paste of fava beans. They vary enormously in size from very large---about 5 or 6 inches, in Santiago Tianguistenco, Estado de Mexico---to medium---about 4 inches in Xochimilco---to very small---about 3 inches in Sierra Norte de Puebla.
The process for tlacoyos is relatively straightforward:
  • Mix the dough
  • Make a 1/8" (3 mm) thick circle
  • Add the beans
  • Pull up the dough to enclose the beans
  • Flatten the seam
  • Bake on a dry griddle
  • Shallow fry in oil
  • Top and serve

Step-By-Step Instructions
To make the dough, you'll need corn masa (ideally from fresh masa, but a dough made from reconstituted masa harina might be acceptable. If you have a choice between tortilla and tamale masa, choose tortilla as it has finer texture), beans which have been seasoned and mashed (so that they are easily spreadable), salt, and some soft butter.

Combine the masa, butter, and salt, and knead lightly until the mixture is homogeneous. The proportions I use are roughly 8 ounces masa, 1 T. butter, and 1/2 t. salt. Line your tortilla press with thick plastic (a freezer bag has a good thickness for this). Place a lime-sized piece of dough (diameter of about 2") on the plastic sheet lining the bottom part of the tortilla press, then place the second piece of plastic on top of the dough. Lower the top of the tortilla press, and gently flatten the dough. Lift the top, rotate the plastic 180 degrees (to encourage evenness). Gently press again, until the dough is about 1/8" thick (3 mm). Lift the top piece of plastic.

Place a heavy skillet on a burner over medium low heat, and let it preheat while you work on the dough.

Now it is time for the beans. Using a knife or fork, spread a thin layer of beans on the masa circle, leaving space around the beans as shown below.

Placing the bean paste before forming

The next step is to wrap the masa around the bean filling. This is the trickiest step, and the one for which I could have used a photography assistant or videographer. Rotate the circle 90 degrees so that the axis of the beans is parallel to your line of vision (i.e., the above photo rotated 90 degrees). Take hold of the plastic sheet on the right and left of the dough, then lift it up to bring the edges of the dough together in the middle. Lightly press the dough together so that it sticks, then carefully peel back the plastic. You'll end up with something like the photo below. Push the dough together to seal the package. Sometimes the bean puree spills out, but that is not a problem--the escaped puree turns into a crust of sorts as the beans cook.

After rotating 90 degrees, pulling up the sides, and pinching the seam

Next, lightly press the newly-formed dough joint to make a fairly flat surface.

To place the tlacoyo on the griddle, slide one hand under plastic sheet, then gently invert the tlacoyo onto your other hand. Carefully flip the tlacoyo onto the griddle, so that the side touching the plastic is now touching the griddle (it is not necessary to reflip the tlacoyo, but I find it works best for me).

Flattening the tlacoyo

The tlacoyos are baked in two stages: first on a dry skillet, then in a shallow layer of oil. The first stage is over medium-low heat, and takes about 10 minutes overall. Flip the tlacoyos now and then to allow each side to become light brown. Remove to a mesh grill to cool. Note that after griddle baking, the pieces can be put aside for a while.

First cooking - on a dry griddle over medium-low heat

Just before you are ready to eat (this food is best eaten within minutes of being finished), place a heavy skillet or griddle over medium heat, pour in some oil, and let it get hot. Cook the tlacoyos on each side until crispy. Drain on a paper towel, then top with your favorite salsa (e.g., roasted tomatillo, or one using dried chiles), pieces of avocado, crumbled queso anejo (or cotija), chopped cilantro, whatever.

If you love masa-based foods like corn tortillas, be sure to read Tom Philpott's Tortilla Spat over at Grist Magazine. It tells the tragic tale of how big industrial interests, self-dealing and cronyism in Mexico have switched the masa supply from one based on whole dried corn to dried corn flour, with significant degradation in flavor, aroma and texture.

Previous posts on antojitos at Mental Masala: sopes, enchiladas.

Indexed under Appetizers and Snacks, Mexico

Technorati tags: Food : Vegetarian : Mexico

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Revenge of the Orchard?

The 1982 movie Poltergeist told the tale of a family that was haunted by ghosts because their house had been built on an ancient burial ground. These days, other burial grounds are extracting some revenge. But the dangers are not nearly as obvious.

The scientific journal Environmental Health Perspectives is not on many food bloggers' reading lists. I keep up with it for work, and while looking for an article (about how ultrafine particles can pass through cell membranes and cause health problems) I came across something food related. The Apple Bites Back: Claiming Old Orchards for Residential Development, by Ernie Hood (PDF version) is an article about how previously used pesticides linger in our environment, and the potential implications for human health. Mr. Hood begins with this:

As the U.S. population continues to grow, increasing demand for housing and related community resources means more land is being converted from agricultural uses to residential applications. According to the revised 1997 National Resources Inventory conducted by the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, more than 6 million acres of American farmland were converted to developed uses between 1992 and 1997. That is an annual conversion rate of roughly 1.2 million acres per year—a 51% increase over the average annual rate reported for the preceding decade.

Naturally, many of these areas were routinely treated with pesticides and other chemicals during their agricultural lifetimes. Although this legacy has been problematic in a wide variety of land conversion scenarios, one in particular seems to have attracted the attention and concern of environmental officials and property buyers in several states across the country: the residential development of historic orchard properties. In state after state, these old orchards (which most often produced apples, but also peaches, cherries, pears, and other tree crops) are metamorphosing into highly desirable subdivisions—desirable, that is, until it emerges that the soil beneath the feet of the proud new residents may be contaminated with lead and arsenic. These toxic by-products are left from the days before DDT and before organophosphates, when arsenical pesticides, particularly lead arsenate (LA), were the treatment of choice to prevent the ravages of insect damage.

Lead and arsenic. That can't be good. But surely they have washed away by now, right? Not really:
LA and the other arsenical pesticides were designed to be persistent, and it is that persistence that is causing environmental contamination problems decades after their use ended. "These chemicals have just tremendously long half-lives in the ground," says North Carolina state toxicologist Ken Rudo. "They bind very tightly to the soil."

Once LA reached the soil through overspray, spillage, rainfall wash-off, or simply fallen fruit and leaves, the lead arsenate underwent hydrolysis, separating into lead and arsenic bound to organic particles in the soil. The lead, being poorly soluble, was immobilized, typically within the top 12 to 18 inches of topsoil. The fate of the arsenic was similar, but a bit more complicated. "Arsenic, as arsenate, even though somewhat sparingly soluble, is soluble, and it will move in water," says Washington State University soil scientist Frank Peryea. "I've seen some sites where almost all of the arsenic is still in the topsoil, in the tillage zone, and I've seen sites where I've measured arsenic movement as deep as a meter or so."

But even though the lead and arsenic are highly toxic, the danger to human health is not clear, and "hot spots" of sickness are not appearing (yet):
The potential danger posed to human health by lead and arsenic contamination in historic orchards is a complex issue, fraught with scientific uncertainties and competing interests. Arsenic is a known human carcinogen. Exposure to lead, especially prenatally and in childhood, can lead to neurological damage. There is no doubt that excessive exposure to either substance can adversely impact health, but in this case any risks are almost exclusively long-term—virtually no instances of acute adverse health effects have been documented in people living on historic orchard properties.
The risks involved may be modest and long-term in most cases, but low risk is not the same as no risk, and regulatory agencies across the country are finding themselves in a thorny situation as more and more contaminated historic orchard properties are developed. They are caught between their duty to protect public health and the environment, and the fact that the risks presented by most of these properties pale in comparison to those associated with other, more acute contamination sites, such as lands near smelters or toxic waste dumps. Naturally, budgets are limited, and priorities must be set. Yet the orchard situation cannot be ignored, and several states have been wrestling with how to deal with this issue for several years.

The sheer scope of the phenomenon adds another layer to the challenge of how to most effectively deal with it. "The magnitude of the problem is just staggering," says Peryea. Millions of acres across the nation are involved. In the state of Washington alone, Peryea says, some 188,000 acres are affected. In Wisconsin, 50,000 acres may be affected, and in New Jersey, up to 5% of the state's acreage is estimated to be impacted by the historical use of arsenical pesticides. Both New Jersey and Washington have had multistakeholder task forces examine the problem and issue recommendations and guidelines.

The author summarizes the situation thusly:
Despite the large scale scope of the problem, it appears that living on a historic orchard property contaminated by lead and arsenic does not constitute an immediate threat to human health. So it is still an open question whether it's really necessary to spend huge amounts of money, often from tax dollars, to ameliorate these sites.

Peryea thinks that what is needed is a solid epidemiologic study to document whether there really is a problem with people living on these arsenical pesticide–contaminated soils. "If that sort of study was done," he says, "and it was to show that there's no problem, or that the problem is controllable by setting up some sort of engineering controls or behavioral controls, like they do with urban lead nowadays, that would probably take care of a lot of the problem. The response—rather than trying to force a cleanup that would probably be wildly impractical, very expensive, and potentially ruin property values—would be that people would change their behavior a bit and end up minimizing the risk."

In the last sentence above, I interpret "people" to mean the residents of these former orchards, and that "change their behavior" refers to things like wearing gloves in the garden, rinsing produce grown in the contaminated soil. But I think that behavior changes need to be taken by more than just the residents of these areas: farmers should cut down on use of long-lived pesticides, consumers should increase purchases of organic produce. Because even if an agricultural field or orchard is never converted to a residential area, We all live downstream.

I have quoted a small part of the article, so if you are interested in such topic, go read the whole thing.

Indexed under Miscellaneous, Politics and Policy
Technorati tags: Food :

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Embracing Bitterness For A Day

Bitter Memories of Momordica Charantia
My first three experiences with bitter melon were unpleasant. The first was before I knew anything about it and so I just tried a Thai recipe. It was inedible. The second was in a Bangladeshi restaurant in Los Angeles (New Pardes). A little better, but I didn't finish the serving. And the third was in the form of bitter melon greens, which I added to a soup, raising the bitterness level beyond my limit.

But the bitter melon's appealing green hue and my lack of shopping willpower at the Farmers' Market made me try it again last weekend. This time I tried two relatively simple preparations.

Baked Slices
I thinly sliced the vegetable in rounds (thickness of 1-2 mm), removed the large seeds that I found, then tossed it with some salt. I let it steep for 30 minutes, then rinsed the slices in cool water and put them into a drainer. At this point, the vegetable had a pleasant aroma that reminded me of apples. The salting, steeping and rinsing process is theoretically a way to remove some of the bitterness. After draining, I tossed the rounds in some vegetable oil and salt. Finally, I arranged the rounds onto a Silpat non-stick sheet and then baked them in a preheated 450 F oven for a few minutes until they were golden brown.

The results were actually good. In the first hour after the slices came out of the oven, they were nicely crisp and not excessively bitter. The flavors are subtle, but the overall impact is not---it jolted my tastebuds and left behind a mild lingering bitterness like [insert trip down memory lane here].

Fried Slices
I sliced the bitter melon in the same way as above, but did not mix it with salt and steep it. Given salt's propensity to remove liquid from objects, that would have led to trouble in the frying step. I heated some quite a bit of oil in a pan until it was hot enough (I'm a rookie at deep frying, and did not follow the temperature guidelines). I fried about 6 or 7 pieces at a time until they were nicely brown in the middle. However, because of the annular shape of the slices, the inside turned nicely brown before the outside was done.

The deep-fried slices were a textural disappointment, displaying crispness only on the inner edge, and a soft outer edge. But they tasted good (don't most deep-fried things?) and the bitterness was not excessive.

Putting Bitterness Behind Me
Will I buy this vegetable again? I doubt it. The flavor of the bitter melon was pleasant enough, but overwhelmed by the cooking treatment. Furthermore, both preparations took a fair amount of time---time that I would rather be spending on other vegetables (especially this time of year).

Indexed under Ingredients, Vegetables
Technorati tags: Food :

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Unusual Greens, Part 4 - Purslane

Update: the New York Times article about purslane referred to below is now available to all, freed from the shackles of the late "Times Select."

Lost and Found
According to Elizabeth Schneider's book Vegetables from Amaranth to Zucchini), purslane (Portulaca oleracea) is a lost-and-found vegetable. Native Americans ate the plant for centuries, it was popular in renaissance England, and Thoreau even wrote about a dinner of purslane he gathered in the field in Walden (in the chapter entitled "Economy"). Although it has not been forgotten in most of the world, in the United States it was hard to find until recent events brought it back. One event was its appearance on high-end menus as a "wild vegetable." So popular was it in the late 90's in New York that Ruth Reichl wrote about it in a New York Times article called "The Weed That's Wowing New York" .

Another event that led to purslane's reemergance in the U.S. is the discovery that it is one of the few plants that contains omega-3 fatty acids. According to this page at the Prairieland CSA, the particular compound is alpha linolenic acid.

The Oxford Companion to Food says that the plant is native to Central Asia, and had been eaten for thousands of years, including ancient Egypt and classical Greece and Rome.

Little Jade Plants
The greens have a distinctive appearance: a sparse collection of thick, soft leaves on reddish-brown stems. The upper side of the leaf is more richly colored than the underside, which also has a ghostly white hue to it. They remind me of a miniature jade plant.

The purslane I purchased had a distinctly grassy flavor when raw, so although there are recommendations to use it in salad, I decided to cook it. After all, I was inspired to buy this green by an interview with author and tour-guide Nancy Zaslavsky on KCRW's Good Food radio show, in which Ms. Zaslavsky described her Mexico-inspired method of cooking it. Following her 10 second overview, I removed the tough stems from the purslane (this vegetable is too new to me to be sure how to tell which ones are "too thick"), washed the greens, chopped them roughly, and set them aside to drain. Then I cooked some sliced white onion in oil in a skillet until was soft, added a clove of minced garlic and a minced serrano chile, stirred a few times, then dropped in the purslane. I cooked the mixture over medium-low heat for about 5 minutes until the greens were done. After adding a bit of salt, I served them with some masa-based fritters, garden-tomato salsa, avocado and crumbled queso cotija as part of my Labor Day lunch.

The cooked greens were tender and the stems were not stringy. The flavor improved upon cooking---the grassiness dissipated and was replaced by hints of lemon and spinach.

The only place I have seen purslane for sale is at the Farmers' Market. The farmer who sells roses, kiwifruit, greens and local avocados at the Berkeley market has it regularly, and Catalan Farms brings it now and then. Since it is popular in Mexico, you might also find it at a Mexican market, possibly under the name of verdolaga.

The Prairieland CSA page has a few more recipes, as does Epicurious.

Indexed under Ingredients, Vegetables
Technorati tags: Food :

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Gaining My Temper - Chocolate with Praline

In a moment of intense bargain-hunting brought on by the bulk bounty of Surfas (a long-established restaurant supply shop in Culver City, California, and which might be closing or moving), I bought an 11 pound block of Callebaut bittersweet chocolate on my last trip to Los Angeles. I bake a lot of chocolate things, so it seemed like a good idea, especially at their price. It's pretty easy to run through a lot of chocolate, with one of my favorite cookies using seven ounces in a batch, another favorite using 10 ounces per batch, and so forth.

I decided that I should try to make my own chocolate bars, with my own favorite flavors. The first thing I needed to learn about was tempering. If you work with chocolate in the kitchen or watch food programming on TV, you've probably read or heard the term "temper". Basically, the tempering process changes the crystal structure of the chocolate, resulting in a more attractive appearance, a "snap", and a slightly higher melting point. Simply melting chocolate and pouring it into a mold will result in inferior properties like a dull sheen and more bending than snapping. Chocolate expert David Lebovitz has a brief explanation of the science behind Tempering Chocolate and a method for at his blog (his chocolate book probably also has even more).

My first flavoring attempt was very simple. Make some almond-pecan praline, crush it, and pour tempered chocolate over top. Shuna of eggbeater has some great words and photos of the process of making praline, which is basically created by mixing nuts into molten, carmelized sugar.

Start by toasting some nuts, and then chop them roughly. Prepare the surface onto which the very hot mixture (definitely above 212 F) will be poured. A silicone mat, parchment paper, or foil on a baking sheet works nicely.

Stir water, sugar and cream of tartar together in a sauce pan, then cook until syrup is a light amber. To get an accurate view of the caramel's color, carefully extract a small amount and put it on a white plate. Add the nuts, and stir until mixture is a deep amber color. Scrape the mixture on the parchment, silicone, or foil. Some recipes for this addictive sweet can be found at Epicurious: Almond Praline and Hazelnut Praline. After the praline cools, you can either break it by hand, chop it with a knife, or pulverize it in a food processor.

As the praline was cooling, I went about tempering the chocolate. The process is relatively simple, but requires patience and careful observation. A few degrees on either side of the targets can significantly degrade the final product.

Lacking a full kit of chocolate making equipment, I had to improvise to make the molds. I tried two approaches: free-form blobs and plastic biscuit cutters (shown below). Neither worked terribly well. The biscuit cutters were too deep for accurate chocolate pouring. The blobs were, well, blobbly and hopelessly irregular in all directions. The end result of using these methods were chocolate bars that were too thick for me, but the flavor of the pralines in dark chocolate and texture of the tempered chocolate was amazing. It's hard to go wrong with chocolate, caramel and nuts.

Indexed under Ingredients, Dessert

Technorati tags: Food :