Tuesday, August 29, 2006

The End of the Bees

The kitchen window beehive is no more. The bees moved in to my kitchen wall space about 6 weeks ago, and built a significant piece of comb onto the wall of the house. They even started depositing some honey into the cells on the upper end of the structure (and perhaps in lower cells too, but those were always covered with bees). But as far as I know, the queen never emerged from the wall space, so the colony was doomed.

Last weekend the bee expert who built the one-way device (a Frank Gehry-like structure) brought his vacuum and removed the bees and their beautiful cone.

During the bees short residence, I read The Little Book of Bees by Karl Weiss (Copernicus Books) to get some background information on these extraordinary insects. Below are some interesting items I found in the book.

Many Jobs in a Life
The life of a worker bee is relatively short (about 30 days), but during that time they manage to do all of the duties in the hive (except laying eggs or mating with the queen, of course). The book describes their duties like this:

0-8 days - The early days of a worker bee are spent in the hive, around the queen (who lives for a few years). The bees clean the empty brood cells, and feed the older larvae pollen and honey. Between the time an egg hatches and pupation (transformation into an adult bee), the larva lives in a cone chamber with an open end. When pupation time arrives, the chamber is closed.

9-12 days - The bee spends her time in the hive, receiving nectar from returning collector bees, then passing it to other bees in the hive for further transfer, processing and storage. One item that caught my attention is a method of communication between the hive bees and collector bees. When collectors return (with water, nectar or pollen), the hive bees that greet them communicate the needs of the hive through enthusiasm. If it is a hot day, for example, and the hive needs water to cool down, any bee returning with water will be greeted more enthusiastically than bees with pollen or nectar. The collectors get the message, and change their collecting strategy to please the greeters.

13-21 days - The bee is one of the builders and defenders of the colony. She patrols the entrance, and builds and maintains the comb.

22 days and beyond - After 21 days or so, she goes far out into the world to collect nectar, water and pollen from the surrounding area (which can be a few square miles).

I seem to remember that a bee can switch jobs if the hive needs more collectors, or larvae tenders, or so forth, and that probably happened at my house. At the beginning, there was no comb, and thus no larvae, so all efforts were put on building and collecting.

Chemical Harmony
Another interesting thing in the book was about how bees recognize their hive by scent, and how chemical signals help keep harmony within the hive. The agent of harmony was called "queen substance" in the book. The queen produces a chemical from a gland that she spreads onto her body. The bees in her court lick off the substance, and spread it around through the hive. A certain amount of this "queen substance" is needed to maintain a contented hive. If the level drops too far, emergency queen rearing commences (i.e., the bees feed the special food to larvae in order to convert them to a queen). There are two main reasons for a drop in queen substance: a dying queen, or too many bees. When the former occurs, the bees wait for the new queens to emerge. When the latter occurs, the bees get ready to swarm.

Before the colony divides itself through swarming, the bees build several "queen cradles" on the edges of the combs, into which the queen lays one egg each. After the eggs have hatched and the larvae have grown to a certain size, they are sealed into the cell for to pupate and turn into queen bees. When the sealing occurs, the colony's current queen takes off. She brings part of the colony with her, and they find a safe place to wait until a permanent home is found. A tree branch, for example, or a powerline. While the swarm is waiting, scout bees fly around looking for a suitable place to nest.

Back in the colony, several queens emerge at different times, and flies off with a group of workers to form their own new hive (these are called "afterswarms"). The last queen to hatch sticks around with the "inheritance" and starts doing her thing.

Sleepin' Bee
As I was writing the first draft of this post, I happened to be listening to jazz vocalist Johnny Hartman's I Just Stopped By To Say Hello (Impulse! records, 1963), which includes the infectious tune "A Sleepin' Bee" (words by Truman Capote, music by Harold Arlen). I couldn't find a full free and legal copy on the net, just this sample. For an entirely different sound, enjoy these two free and legal downloads with the word "bees" in the title:

Indexed under Nature

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Thursday, August 24, 2006

SHF 22 - Preserving Summer with Plum Jam

It's the middle of summer, and one of the plum trees in my backyard (the youngest one, the one that the squirrels can't climb) was so heavy with fruit that the limbs are sagging. However, much of that weight seemed to be skin and pit, not flavor or flesh. So what to do with this bounty of free fruit? Find a jam recipe that doesn't require pitting or peeling.

My neighbor had the recipe (from an old copy of Joy of Cooking, as the newest editions have dropped many of the preserve recipes) and the necessary experience (years of jam making) to make it happen. It was simple: ingredients of plums, sugar and water. And no special equipment was required.

We started by washing the fruit (4 kg) and sterilizing some jars (we used boiling water; placing the jars in a 250 F oven for 30 minutes is another approach). We then put the plums into a heavy sauce pan, poured in water until we could see the water through the top plum layer, then cooked them over medium heat until they had softened.

Cooking the plums

The next step was to press them through a strainer. For maximum pulp extraction, we chose the one below which had relatively large holes.

Removing the pulp and juice

Then, we added some of the cooking water to the plums to achieve the appropriate consistency, and combined four cups of this mixture and three cups of white sugar in a heavy sauce pan. We turned up the heat, and brought the mixture to a boil.

Cooking the mixture -- heat level is a bit too high

The heat level in the picture above was a bit too high. We lowered the heat, and let the mixture bubble for a while, until it was "right." Although it is possible to use a thermometer to determine when the mixture is ready, my thermometer was not the right shape to give us valid readings (and is also probably out of calibration). This is where experience (which my neighbor provided) can save the day. If you don't have experience, The Joy of Cooking and other books offer tricks to identify when the mixture is right, generally involving spoons or plates and the freezer. And if you stop cooking too soon and the mixture doesn't set, you will have an outstanding sauce for ice cream or pound cake (or perhaps even an ingredient for cocktails).

Cooking the mixture -- heat level is correct

When the mixture was done cooking, we poured them into jars, screwed on the tops, and started to think about toast.

The backyard plums aren't very exciting when fresh, but after being 'jammed,' their flavor was transformed into a complex confection with flavors of plum, rhubarb, strawberry, and cherry. Flavors I'll enjoy for many months to come.

Indexed under Ingredients

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Okra Without the Slime

Photo of okra pods

Inspired in part by Shuna of Eggbeater, I have been cooking okra since it started appearing at the Farmers' Market in Berkeley

Okra's Oozing - Why Okra Makes Slime

Okra is one of those "binary foods" where people seem to hate it or love it (also in this family are mushrooms, seaweed, and tofu). The hate is usually because of the gooey slime that coats the okra, but it doesn't have to be that way.

My experience to date is that okra becomes slimy when cooked in a watery environment---in a stew or a steamer basket, for example. Stir-frying or sauteing in hot oil, in contrast, keeps the slime within the okra pieces, or perhaps causes the moisture in the mucilage to evaporate, thus improving the pods' texture.

Before I get to the cooking methods, a little bit about okra and its slime. Okra is in the mallow family (Malvaceae), a group of plants that have exude a gelatinous substance when sliced. This substance is called mucilage. At the time of this post's publication, McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science & Technology Online has this in their free preview of the mucilage entry:

Mucilages are not pathological products but are formed in normal plant growth within the plant by mucilage-secreting hairs, sacs, and canals, but they are not found on the surface as exudates as a result of bacterial or fungal action after mechanical injury, as are gums. Mucilages occur in nearly all classes of plants in various parts of the plant, usually in relatively small percentages, and are not infrequently associated with other substances, such as tannins. The most common sources are the root, bark, and seed, but they are also found in the flower, leaf, and cell wall. Any biological functions within the plant are unknown, but they may be considered to aid in water storage, decrease diffusion in aquatic plants, aid in seed dispersal and germination, and act as a membrane thickener and food reserve.
More about mucilage here.

Cooking Okra

Certain cooking techniques will prevent your okra dish from being overly slimy. Stir frying is one of the techniques. The cuisine of India has many methods of okra preparation, and I tried three from my Indian cookbook library, and also tried an improvised stir-fry based on advice from a farmer at the Berkeley Saturday market.

Julie Sahni's Classic Indian Vegetarian and Grain Cooking contains a recipe for whole okra braised with tomatoes, onions and spices. This recipe resulted in mostly unslimy okra, but was very messy because trimmed, whole okra pods are fried in a shallow pool of oil in a frying pan until tender, thus leading to many splatters across the side of the kitchen that houses my stove.

Indian Home Cooking by Suvir Saran and Stephanie Lyness has two okra recipes. The first (Okra in a Spicy Tomato-Onion Sauce) started off in a bad way. The recipe requires that you slice the okra into rounds, and as I did so, slime was pouring out of the cuts. But cooking the okra in a mixture of sauteed onions and spices prevented that slime from ruining the dish for me. My adaptation of the recipe is listed below.

The second Saran/Lyness recipe (Crispy Okra with Spices) used whole okra, which were coated in spices and sauteed in oil. It was very easy to cook, but eating was another matter. Some of the larger okra pods were exceptionally slimy, and quite unpleasant to chew. I think that perhaps my okra pods were too large for this treatment, and that 3-4 cm long pods would be preferable.

My most recent attempt was a simple stir fry. I prepared some vegetables: okra in 1/2" rounds, onions in slices, long beans in 1" lengths, and red bell pepper in thin rectangles (1" by 1/4"). I combined minced garlic, minced green chile, and minced lemongrass in another bowl. Heat some oil in a wok or large skillet. When hot, toss in the garlic, chile, and lemongrass. Stir for 30 seconds, then add the vegetables. Stir fry until the vegetables are about one minute from being done to your liking. Add some soy sauce, water and perhaps a mixture of water and cornstarch (to thicken the sauce), saute for a minute, and then serve. The okra I made using this approach had a pleasant and non-slimy texture, but the sauce was one-dimensional. Perhaps next time I'll try using a curry paste as the flavor base.

Okra in a Spicy Tomato-Onion Sauce

Adapted from Indian Home Cooking: A Fresh Introduction to Indian Food by Suvir Saran and Stephanie Lyness

1/3 cup oil
1 t. cumin seeds
1 medium onion, halved, then sliced thinly
1 T. ground coriander seeds
1 t. ground cumin seeds
1/2 t. turmeric powder
1/4 t. ground red chili (or cayenne pepper)
1 pound okra, trimmed, then cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 T. minced or grated ginger root
1 t. salt
2 tomatoes, diced medium size
1 fresh hot green chili, minced
1 T. lemon juice
2 T. chopped cilantro

(Unit conversion page)

Have all of the prepared ingredients ready next to the stove.

Heat the oil and cumin in a large wok or skillet over medium heat. Cook the mixture, stirring frequently until the cumin seeds are fragrant (1-2 minutes after oil is hot).

Add the onion, increase the heat to medium high, and saute for a few minutes, until the onions are wilted.

Reduce the heat to medium then add the ground coriander, ground cumin, turmeric and ground chile. Stir for 30 seconds. Add the okra, and stir to coat the okra with spices. Cover the pan, and cook for 5-10 minutes or so, stirring every few minutes, until the okra starts to brown lightly. Adjustment of the heat might be needed here to find the point that allows the okra to brown without burning the spices.

Stir the mixture. Add the ginger, stir, and cook for 30 seconds, then pour in the tomatoes, salt and chopped green chile. Stir well. Reduce the heat to low, cover the pan, and cook for 5 more minutes.

Remove the cover, increase the heat to high, and cook, stirring often, until the okra is tender and the sauce has been slightly reduced (about 5 minutes). Stir in the lemon juice and cilantro, check for salt, and serve.

Related posts

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Hey buddy, wanna buy some dal?

Last December, I wrote a series of posts about Indian dal. This year, I might not be so interested in repeating the series. Wednesday's Inside Scoop column by Amanda Berne in the S.F. Chronicle included an item about a reduction in the supply of Indian lentils:

A recent halt of lentils imports from India has many local Indian restaurateurs, shops and consumers flustered. Due to poor crops and rising prices, India banned exports as of June 30, in hopes of stabilizing prices in India. Lentils are the main source of cheap protein for vegetarians there, especially in lower income communities. The ban is expected to last until March.

In the Bay Area, that means short supplies of legumes, especially the pigeon peas, or toor dal, and urad dal, a black lentil. During the past few weeks, wholesale prices have jumped, from 50 cents per pound to more than $4 per pound.

The Times of India has more:

The Indian government's decision to ban the export of dal (lentils) has hit Indian Americans hard.

The ban, imposed in June, has resulted in the commodity getting scarce in Indian grocery stores in the US, with prices almost doubling at some places.

"The minute (the ban) was announced, wholesalers put up the price," Jalil Hay, owner of an Indian grocery store in Stockton, California, told India New England , an ethnic newspaper. "(Prices) have almost doubled and tripled."

Mahendra Patel, owner of Raja Foods in New York, told the Newsday newspaper that he increased the dal prices after the Indian ban came into effect.

Normally, he charged his customers 50 to 60 cents a pound, but now prices have shot up to $1.10 to $1.20 a pound.

Patel supplies groceries to more than 300 Indian, Pakistani and Bangladeshi stores in the New York area.

A staple in Indian meals, the commodity comes in different varieties. Though lentils are produced in other countries too, the Indian lentils are regarded as being of superior quality.

"No other country processes lentils like India," said Kavita Mehta, owner of the Minneapolis-based Indian Foods Company. "Many (lentils) are split and hulled and (India) does it the best."

"It's a basic food item. It's like if the US (government) would say you can't get salt in America," said Neil Soni, owner of House of Spices, a New York-based Indian food wholesale company.


The Indian government's decision came in the wake of a drought that severely affected agricultural output.


According to the report, since early July, Kaushal has had to double the price, which is currently at $2 a pound. With the ban expected to stay in place at least till March next year, Indian Americans are faced with the prospect of little 'dal-chawal' at home.

Perhaps I should take Sukanya's suggestion and focus on domestically produced beans and lentils this winter...

Indexed under Ingredients, India
Technorati tags: Food : Cooking

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Preserving Summer - The "Sin Pot"

Emily Luchetti's Stars Desserts has been one of my favorite dessert books for many years. It was one of the first all-dessert books I ever owned, and it taught me a lot in my early days of baking. Some of my favorites are the caramel pots de creme (p. 19), orange spice cake (p. 164), chocolate hazelnut crepes (p. 49), or the pear frangipane tart (p. 142). And then there was the Tuscan cream cake (p. 177), a rich and volatile creation of sponge cake layered with zabaglione (a foam of eggs and Marsala wine), coated with vanilla-infused whipped cream. The first time I made it for my sister's high school voice recital in her senior year. It was quite a hit with a few of her teenage friends...

As I tried various recipes in the book, a recipe called "Hollyce's Sin Pot" always intrigued me. The "Sin Pot" is a naturally fermented fruit compote intended to be served over ice cream or mixed with club soda in a drink. To make it, you need only a big jar, a lot of fruit, a lot of sugar, some cheesecloth (to allow airborne yeasts to enter and act as a fermenting agent), patience, and some optimism (or, perhaps, recklessness). The ingredients are minimal: 11 cups of sugar and 11 cups of peeled, sliced, ripe fruit (peaches, nectarines, plums, or cherries). This summer, inspired by a glut of plums in a backyard tree, I decided to try it.

At the beginning

The 22 cups of fruit and sugar don't all go in at once. The initial batch is four cups of each. And then for the next 14 days another cup of each ingredient goes into the jar every other day, with a daily stir. My mixture was roughly 25% backyard plum (the little things are very tedious to peel and pit, and nearly impossible to slice), 25% nectarine, 25% peach, 15% commercial plum, and 10% cherry. After the first two weeks, the 22 cups of fruit and sugar have gone into the jar, and it is time to wait for one month.

The first mixture - 4 cups sugar, 4 cups fruit

After a few days, the mixture was about half fruit, and half liquid (the plums I used were very juicy). As time passed, the liquids leached out of the fruit, and the liquid deepened in color. But after about 10 days, mold started growing in places on top of the fruit. Perhaps this is natural, and flavor enhancing, but the recipe is rather sparse, and does not provide guidance about such things. So, to be cautious, I scooped out the top layer of fruit. More frequent stirring (and not placing the jar near my compost "staging" container---i.e., the holding area for fruit and vegetable trimmings before going into my worm box) might have prevented the mold from forming.

After two weeks

My sin pot has been fermenting and transforming for over a month. At this stage, the mixture is not noticeably alcoholic. It's quite sweet, with a strong peach flavor at the start, and subtle plum flavors on the finish. It still has four weeks to go, and I'll post an update around that time.

Emily Luchetti was pastry chef at the landmark Stars restaurant for many years. Stars was founded by Jeremiah Tower (one of the originators of "California Cuisine") in 1984 and was a favorite of San Francisco's elite. It closed in 1999, after lawsuits, expansion pains, and the impacts of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. These days, Luchetti is executive pastry chef at Farallon restaurant in San Francisco.

The Stars Desserts book is out of print, and apparently has become a collector's item: I saw a copy for sale in a used bookstore with a price of $150 for a first edition! My copy of Stars Desserts is also a first edition. However, unlike the copy at the bookstore, mine has hand-written notes on many pages, butter and chocolate stains here and there, and a broken spine (on the Sin Pot page, coincidentally). As much as I love this book, I would be willing to part with my copy for $150....

Indexed under Desserts

Technorati tag: Food

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Pasta Caprese - A Dish Inspired by Airplane Food

This is a story about a great dish inspired by airline food. Sort of.

A few years ago, I took a trip to New York City, and flew Jet Blue's non-stop service from Oakland to JFK. Jet Blue is famous for their real-time TV, and the Food Network is one of the offerings. In between the seemingly endless stream of Emeril programs, there was some kind of show about visiting San Francisco. At one of the stops (the location of which I forgot), a chef demonstrated some kind of baked pasta dish that was comprised of layers of pasta, cheese and vegetables. Perhaps it was because I was flying on a low-cost airline or because the alternative TV offerings were dull, but this not exactly earthshaking concept of layering pasta, vegetables and cheese really caught my attention.

A few weeks after I returned home, I gave it a try, and after making if a few times, wrote down the instructions (which I have included below). The process is simple: cook some pasta (penne is a good choice), mix ricotta cheese with a few eggs and garlic, cook a few different vegetables, cut up some tomatoes, and layer it into a baking dish, being sure to arrange the vegetables and cheese in discrete areas.

My favorite vegetables for this dish are eggplant (sliced, then roasted in the oven), zucchini (sliced and roasted), and tomatoes, with basil as a flavoring herb. A definite summer combination, so if you live in a less mild place (i.e., less fog blessed in the summer), you'll need to pick a cool summer day to make this, as the oven runs for a while.

The potential variations for this dish are endless and can be adapted to the seasons (i.e., times when one hour of oven operation is acceptable). You could try different herbs (rosemary, parsley, thyme, fennel greens), capers, dried wild mushrooms, canned tomatoes, frozen roasted tomatoes, winter greens, and pretty much any non-starchy vegetable.

Pasta Caprese - Baked Penne with Vegetables and Ricotta Custard

1 lb. dry penne or other shaped pasta (i.e., not spaghetti or linguine)
1 lb. ricotta cheese
1-2 eggs
A few cloves of garlic
A few Japanese, Chinese or Italian eggplant (long and thin). Globe eggplant will work too, but will have lots of seeds
6-8 fresh tomatoes, cored and cut into eighths or sixths (whole canned tomatoes might also work)
1/2 - 3/4 lb. white or brown mushrooms, cut into 1/8-1/4" slices
A few zucchini
1/2 cup grated parmesan or grana cheese
Fresh Basil, sliced, a little reserved for garnish

Unit conversion page

Mix the ricotta with the eggs, some salt and pepper, a chopped garlic clove, and a 1/4 cup grated parmesan. If you like, add some chopped herbs to the cheese (I prefer the "pure" ricotta experience).

Cook the vegetables
  • Eggplant - Preheat oven to 450 F. Cut the eggplant in 1/4" thick slices, then toss with olive oil, salt and pepper. Spread onto a baking sheet and roast for 15-20 minutes, turning at the halfway point. When done, put it in a bowl. Alternatively, fry the slices in a skillet.
  • Mushrooms - Slice and bake with the eggplant, or saute in a skillet.
  • Zucchini - Slice into 1/4" thick slices, and bake with the eggplant, or saute in a skillet.

Cook the pasta as directed. Drain and rinse, or toss with olive oil (to prevent sticking).

Assembly and Baking
Preheat the oven to 350 F.
Lightly oil an oven-proof baking dish (I haven't decided whether a deep or shallow dish is best.)
Place a layer of pasta on the bottom of the dish. In a capricious way, lay down "blobs" of each item (how do you say "blob" in Italian?): a blob of cheese here, then some pieces of eggplant, some mushroom, some pasta, a few pieces of tomato, some fresh basil. The items should each have their own area---the goal is to have distinct areas of flavor.
When the bowl is full, sprinkle the remaining parmesan on top.

Bake, covered with foil (or the oven-proof lid that came with the bowl) for 40-50 minutes, or until the center is hot and cheese is set.

Indexed under Main Dishes

Technorati tag: Food