Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Name that food

Here's a photo quiz: what food do these pictures show?

Hint 1: Almost the entire U.S. crop is grown in California.

Hint 2: They are currently caught up in controversy at the USDA.

If no one puts the right answer in the comments, I'll have a long post about the mystery food in a few days (OK, maybe a few weeks...).

Random link from the archive: Japanese Noodle Soup

Technorati tags: Farms : Food

Friday, August 24, 2007

Food Bloggers on the Farm in San Francisco

The surroundings of Alemany Farm in San Francisco do not bring forth feelings of pastoral tranquility. On one side is 12 lanes of high speed traffic (Interstate 280 and Alemany Blvd), which showers the area with waves of noise. On another side, a large housing complex---a vast space of buildings, cars and concrete. Layers of litter from inconsiderate drivers cover the fence at the edge of the farm.

photo of the edge of Alemany Farm in San Francisco

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Geographically challenged real estate developers

Update: It appears that the James Fallows article about China that I linked to below is available to Atlantic Monthly subscribers only (of which I am one). The reason I could see the whole thing on my home computer is because the cookies kept me logged in to the site. Sorry about that. (I thought it was odd that the entire article was available on-line, but since China is in the news so often these days and the article was in last month's issue, it was not completely out of the question.) Although the article is locked away, the Atlantic has a slideshow narrated by James Fallows that is available to all.

Update 2: The archives of the Atlantic Monthly from 1995 until the present are now available on-line for free, so everyone has access to the great article by James Fallows about China that I cite below. In a more recent issue, he has an interesting article about dollars, trade deficits and China (amazing factoid from Fallows: "
In effect, every person in the (rich) United States has over the past 10 years or so borrowed about $4,000 from someone in the (poor) People’s Republic of China.")

Shanghai-based journalist James Fallows (author of a piece about China's industrial revolution in the Atlantic Monthly (subscription required)) also blogs a bit at the Atlantic site. One of his recent posts includes a photo of an impossible real estate advertisement in Macau, the Prague Harbour View Hotel.

When I visited Hong Kong two years ago, I saw similarly odd advertisements in Kowloon, somewhere near the north side of Kowloon Park. The signs said "The Pacifica," but the photos screamed "Paris." For example, a photo of I.M. Pei's pyramid at the Louvre Museum:

And a photo of the Eiffel Tower:

Perhaps "The Atlantica" didn't rate as well in focus group sessions, or the developers meant to call the building the "Pacifier" but the sign-maker made a mistake.

Random link from the archive: Insects as Food (October 2006)

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Choc-ing the Rubicon

I had the pleasure of figuratively immersing myself in chocolate for an afternoon at Rubicon Restaurant in San Francisco last Sunday. The occasion was the launch of a new recipe contest sponsored by food-website tuttifoodie and Scharffen Berger Chocolate (tablehopper also helped make the event happen). Called the Chocolate Adventure Recipe Contest, it challenges you to bring chocolate into a delicious partnership with one or more of twenty specified ingredients. The options include lavender, curry powder, mastiha (a Greek delicacy made from the resin of the lentisk tree) and amchur powder (powdered dried green mango).

The Evolution of Chocolate
To start the event, company co-founder John Scharffenberger gave a short talk about the evolution of chocolate. Unlike most fruits, cacao fruits grow on the trunk of a tree ( has a nice photo), down at the level of a very large herbivore, but too close to the ground for a monkey (they prefer the safety of the forest canopy--no jaguars up there!). Therefore, the current evolutionary theory is that the cacao tree's unusual form was intended to provide its fruit to now-extinct megafauna (giant sloths, giant tapirs, etc.), that would eat the sweet fruit but spit out (or pass undigested) the bitter seeds, thus spreading them around.

Eventually, humans discovered that the fruit of the cacao pod is good to eat. It took a while longer before someone learned how to process the seeds to remove the bitterness and make them into an edible form (perhaps a pile of pods was left fermenting in the sun, causing some of the bitter compounds to break down). In areas now called Mexico, the metate was used to grind corn for daily meals; it also works well for cacao pods. People living in those areas thus bred their trees to have larger and better tasting seeds (Crillio variety). Mr. Scharffenberger pointed out that pre-Columbian South American cultures did not eat the seeds of the cacao tree--perhaps they didn't have the grinding technology--so the trees endemic to that region have been bred to have more fruit pulp (Forastero variety). A third variety is called Trinitario, and is a hybrid of Forastero and Crillio.

The story of chocolate's evolution and adoption by humans is a fascinating one. I'll have to pick up a comprehensive book one of these days (David Lebovitz thinks highly of Mort Rosenblum's history).

We first tasted chocolate in a "unprocessed" form: roasted nibs that had been ground and then somehow compressed into a bar, without any sugar. It was a novel and intense experience, quite unlike eating unsweetened chocolate because of the roughness and brittleness of the pieces, which would quickly fall apart upon chewing. We had samples from Venezuela, Bali and Ghana (I don't recall the cacao variety). The three samples were had significantly different flavor profiles, one more fruity, one more smoky, each one interesting.

Then we moved on to pieces of finished product with cocoa content of 82%, 70% (Mr. Scharfenberger said that this offering is intended to "show what the flavors of chocolate are"), and 62%. Finally, we tasted a limited edition 75% from Antilles that has not yet been released (snap it up if you see it, it won't be around for long).

The vast majority of the cacao purchased by Scharffen Berger is used to make their standard bars through a process of blending. They pick and choose among the current crop to obtain the flavor profile that defines each standard variety. Now and then, they come across a spectacular crop that deserves special attention in the form of a limited release chocolate bar. A good analogy for this is the practice of declaring vintages in Champagne, France. Most sparkling wint from Champagne is a blend of wine from many different years, with occasional harvests having the grapes are fine enough to stand on their own and be declared a vintage.

Choc-ing the Rubicon
After the tasting, Rubicon's pastry chef Nicole Krasinski presented three desserts that use chocolate in innovative ways.

The first dessert was a rethinking of a s'more (a classic campfire dessert consisting of a fire-toasted marshmallow, Hershey's milk chocolate, and graham cracker). It was a nugget of thyme-infused chocolate mousse on a dusting of cookie crumbs, a piece of ripe fig, and a streak of meringue that had been browned with a torch. I had never eaten thyme and chocolate together--it was delicious at low levels of thyme, but less so when I ran across an entire leaf. Bites taken with all three components, the subtly-herbed mousse, the vibrant ripe fig, and the sweet, smooth meringue were splendid. An element of crunch would have raised this dessert to hall of fame levels for me.

The second dessert was perhaps the most daring because it featured a sorbet made with Japanese pickled plum (umeboshi) and chocolate. Umeboshi is distinctive, assertive and relatively salty, and is not something I would consider for a desserts. But in combination with a mellow chocolate-nib panna cotta and a chococolate-chip wafer, it worked quite nicely. This one was my favorite of the three.

The final dessert was a ganache-filled dumpling floating in a pool of lemon-infused milk sauce, with a bit of coffee gelee, topped with powdered sugar and Madras curry powder. Chef Krasinsky recommend that we try to have each bite be a mixture of each element, but I found that to be difficult because of the fragility of the dumpling. A single-bite size might have better, but probably not practical. The ganache filling was quite delicious because of something good that happened to it while the dumpling was being deep-fried (sugar caramelization?).

All in all, it was an inspiring afternoon. The conversations between presentations and after the tastings bubbled with creative commentary about the day's offerings. It certainly put my brain into motion, percolating dessert ideas in case I decide to enter the contest. (entries will be accepted between September 1 and December 1)

One idea that will definitely stick with me: if I ever visit Rubicon while Nicole Krasinski is running the pastry kitchen, I'll be sure to save room for a dessert (or two!).

More commentary on the event from Ladle & Whisk.

Random link from the archive: Eating the Whole Thing

Technorati tags: Chocolate : Food

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Let the sunshine cook your dinner -- building a solar oven at Ethicurean

Photo of a solar oven, solar cooker

I recently built a solar oven out of easily obtainable materials like cardboard boxes, aluminum foil, and Elmer's glue. I posted a story about how I built the oven and how they work over at Ethicurean. Check it out...

Random link from the archive: Frittata, Beet-orange salad

Technorati tags: Food

Sunday, August 05, 2007

Save the basil! A tip to keep it fresh

Believe it or not, the bunch of Thai basil in the photo below is three or four weeks old (it's been so long that I don't remember). And yet it is almost as bright green and lush as it was on the day I bought it.

I don't remember where I heard this tip, but since it works so well and it is basil season, it's worth sharing.

When you bring your basil home, trim the stems with a clipper, remove the rubber band or twist tie, and place the bunch in a glass or vase. Add a few inches of water to cover the base of the stems. Then take a plastic bag and cut a few holes in it (the fresh shiitake mushrooms I buy come in a bag with holes pre-made, so I often re-use them for this purpose). Place a plastic bag over the basil leaves and place the assembly in a well-lit location, but out of the direct sunlight. Check the water level daily and add more as needed. If all goes well roots will start sprouting from the basil, converting it into a pseudo-hydroponic system. The photo below shows how it looks at the end.

I think this works well because the plastic bag provides a moist environment for the basil leaves; the holes in the bag prevent too much moisture from building up (which can cause rotting); the water, although nutrient free, keeps the basil alive; and storage at room temperature allows the plant to function normally.

Another example of the success of this method: a bunch of basil that I finished last weekend had been on my counter for at least six weeks.

Random link from the archive: Summer's Colors and Variety (stuffed eggplant)

Technorati tags: Food