Tuesday, September 30, 2008

When the locusts swarm, can we feed them to fish and poultry?

A few weeks before the Olympics started in Beijing, Northern China was hit by a enormous swarm of locusts that affected over 5,000 square miles of farmland and pasture. In response, the Chinese government deployed over thirty thousand workers and 200 tons of pesticide. This made me to wonder if instead of blasting the locusts with tons of poison (which will affect other creatures and ecosystems), could the locusts be captured and turned into food for farmed fish, poultry or other livestock?

Collecting the Swarm
Clearly, 'harvesting' locusts from a wide area presents major logistical problems. Could you use helicopters or ground vehicles to catch them? Or would it have to be done by hand? And the question of nutrient density would need to be answered. That is, for each unit of effort, how many units of nutrition can be collected? And how does that number compare to traditional animal feeds like corn, wheat, and fish meal?

While researching my first piece about insect eating, I ran across a study that had this to say about Mormon crickets in the American West:
Madsen also investigated the rate of return per unit of effort expended in collecting Mormon crickets (Anabrus simplex), another food of early Native Americans. Crickets were collected from bushes, grass, etc., at rates of 600 to 1,452 per hour, an average of nearly two and one-third pounds or, at 1,270 calories per pound, an average of 2,959 calories per hour. The crickets often reach greatest densities along the margins of streams or other bodies of water which lie in their line of march and which they will attempt to cross. In two such situations, they were collected at the rates of 5,652 and 9,876 per hour, an average of nearly 18 1/2 pounds of crickets or 23,479 calories per hour. The first number (2,959 calories per hour) surpasses the return rate from all local resources except small and large game animals, while the latter compares favorably even with deer and other large game.

Madsen places cricket collecting in a modem context by saying, "One person collecting crickets from the water margin for one hour, yielding eighteen and one-half pounds, therefore, accomplishes as much as one collecting 87 chili dogs, 49 slices of pizza, or 43 Big Macs." He concludes, "Our findings thus showed that the use of insects as a food resource made a great deal of economic sense."
The Food Insects Newsletter contains some news clippings from the Philippines about responses to locust outbreaks. After failing to control with locust outbreaks with toxic chemicals, the Philippine government tried to encourage people to harvest insects as food for people, cattle, farmed fish and even fighting roosters.

Are Locusts Nutritional?
The next big questions are whether insects would provide the necessary nutrition for efficient fish or poultry raising and if they contain toxins that would injure or kill the fish or poultry. Not being trained in aquaculture or livestock raising, I haven't read the classic textbooks and handbooks, nor do I know what sources of information are used in the industry, so I simply performed some searches of the biological databases at the UC Berkeley library. I didn't find much, but what I find seems to indicate that the answer to the question of nutrition is "maybe."

For example, in Animal Feed Science and Technology (volume 135, pp. 66–74, 2007), a trio of Chinese researchers examined the nutritional value of a Chinese grasshopper (Acrida cinerea (Thunberg)) as a feed for broilers (a class of chickens raised for meat). After analyzing the nutritional properties of the grasshopper and comparing it to a standard broiler diet, they concluded that about 15% of the standard diet could be replaced by grasshopper meal "without any adverse affects on broiler weight gain, feed intake, or gain:feed ratio from 8 to 20 days posthatching."

Poultry Science (volume 66, pp. 1367-1371, 1987) contains an article by three researchers (including the legendary Professor Gene R. De Foliart (Emeritus) of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who set up the food-insects website many years ago) that describes an experiment involving Mormon crickets (Anabrus simplex Haldeman) as a food for broiler chicks. They fed three groups of chicks different diets: corn and soybean meal (the National Research Council "standard" diet) and two diets with ground-up crickets making up part of the diet (unfortunately, my notes are rather incomplete — it was late in the day — so I can't be more specific). The analysis indicated that although the cricket-based feeds were lacking in certain amino acids, the two cricket diets caused more weight gain for a given input of feed than the standard diet.

While a locust swarm could be a great feed source for a fish farmer or chicken raiser, they are probably too unpredictable. And so it could make more sense to try to raise insects specifically as fish and animal food (there are already many operations raising crickets and other insects as pet food) — "micro-livestock" or "mini-livestock." Although I can't find the reference at this moment, I have seen reports that some insects are far more efficient at converting plant matter into protein than mammals or birds. Of course, if mass rearing of insects ever takes off, it will be necessary to think carefully about their feed and living conditions — although I personally don't have much concern about treating insects humanely, they may act as concentrators of toxins like heavy metals or become breeding grounds for pathogenic bacteria.

Photo of grasshopper from touterse's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.

Random link from the archive: Ethereal Orange Sabayon

Technorati tags: Insects : Farming : Food

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Ready for a Chocolate Adventure?

Ever tried a wattleseed chocolate truffles? Or chocolate-laced curry paste with coconut milk? How about chocolate pudding with tapioca pearls and caramelized plantain? If combinations like these get your creative gears turning, the Chocolate Adventure Contest might be for you. This contest, sponsored by Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker and the weekly web newsletter TuttiFoodie, challenges its entrants to pair Scharffen Berger chocolate or cocoa with at least one of the adventure ingredients (the full list is on the contest page).

Last week I had the pleasure of attending one of the kick-off events for the contest at Orson in San Francisco, the acclaimed (and polarizing) venture from Elizabeth Falkner. The event was organized by the contest sponsors with help from the tablehopper.

John Scharffenberger on sparkling wine and chocolate
After some preliminaries, co-founder John Scharffenberger gave an impromptu talk about chocolate. Last year, at one of the Chocolate Adventure kick-off events at the (now-closed) Rubicon, he gave a fascinating explanation of the evolution of the cacao tree and how humanity learned to use it.

This year he focused on taste, starting by connecting chocolate making with sparkling wine making (he used to run Scharffenberger Cellars). Many sparkling wine companies try to maintain a consistent style through the years which means that their product is a blend of many inputs — wine from different vineyards, different percentages of grapes, and so on. Scharffenberger recounted that on some days his staff would taste 30 or 40 different blends in their quest for the right blend for that year. Most chocolate is also a blend — Scharffenberger said that the cacao beans in a Scharffen Berger bar come from 6 to 11 different sources. He also said that the chocolate industry should follow the sparkling wine industry when it comes to single-origin bars (in which the cacao comes from a relatively small geographical area). In many sparkling wine companies, "declaring a vintage" is a big deal, reserved only for years with exceptional quality. Similarly, the sale of single-origin bars should be done only when the cacao from that year's harvest is exceptional, not simply because the cacao was available.

Inspiration from Orson
Scharffenberger's remarks were followed by culinary inspiration from Orson's kitchen. Ryan Farr, chef de cuisine at Orson, presented three small tastes that included chocolate or cacao nibs.

The first was a salad of mango, avocado, cherry tomato, arugula, chocolate shavings and violet vinaigrette. I wasn't able to detect much chocolate flavor among the ripe mango, lucious avocado and bright Spring-like dressing.

The second taste was a small dumpling of Parmesan pudding along with mounds of roasted red peppers and cacao nibs with popping candy (how they work at HowStuffWorks, and how they didn't kill Mikey from the Life commercial at Snopes.com). I've been thinking about savory puddings and custards for a while (and even have a recipe for one in my "to blog" queue), so this one excited me. The pudding and cacao nibs were very adult flavors — rich and slightly bitter — while the popping candy brought back childhood memories.

The final savory item was a small piece of roasted pork set on a mole sauce that contained ancho chilies, ginger, other spices and almonds (both ground and chopped). Based on my hazy recollections of Ryan Farr's comments, this one had little (if any) chocolate in the sauce, so as to provide a slight break to our palates.

As a finale, pastry chef Luis Villavelazquez offered a surprising dessert combination: black olives and chocolate. Villavelazquez placed small ice cream sandwiches of black olive-speckled ice cream and dark chocolate cookies, on a rich chocolate sauce that was dosed with popping candy (and, I think, a butterscotch sauce).

The black olive bits played with my expectations about ice cream, causing bursts of saltiness in a silky, not too sweet background. The chocolate cookies — alone or with the ice cream — were brilliant: crispy but not brittle and deeply flavored. (Apparently, this dessert appears on the regular Orson menu now and then.)

The Contest
Entries can be submitted to one of three categories: savory, sweet and beverage categories. In each category, entrants will compete for first and second prizes (first: $5,000 plus a stack of books and chocolate, mention of your recipe in Saveur magazine; second: a stack of books and chocolate).

Inspired by the Orson's event, I've already tried two adventurous pairings. Both, however, were unsuccessful and probably didn't point me to better ideas. I'll keep trying (January is a long way away) and hope to come up with an entry or two. (Last year I submitted a recipe that paired chocolate with pomegranate and cardamom in a black and white brownie.)

Entries will be accepted between October 1, 2008 and January 4, 2009. Complete rules are on the Chocolate Adventure rules page.

An Unfortunate Postscript
A day after the joyous event, the New York Times reported some sad news about the other founder of the Scharffen Berger company:
Dr. Robert Steinberg, a food-loving doctor who threw himself into the chocolate business, eventually joining with a former patient to make the Scharffen Berger Chocolate Maker brand into one of the most highly regarded fine American chocolates, died Wednesday near his home in San Francisco. He was 61.

The cause was lymphatic cancer, which Dr. Steinberg had battled for nearly two decades and which spurred him to shift careers, his sister, Nancy Steinberg, said.

"He knew medicine would be difficult with his illness and he always loved cooking, his hobby," Ms. Steinberg said - so much so that her brother stood almost daily by the antique blender machines he had imported from Germany so he could do his own taste testing.

Cookbook author and chocolate wizard David Lebovitz has an appreciation of Steinberg and his influence on American chocolate.

Random link from the archive: Finally heeding the call of Lahey's "no knead bread"

Technorati tags: Baking : Chocolate : Food

Saturday, September 13, 2008

My visit to the Slow Food Nation Taste pavilions

Updated below

My Slow Food Nation experience started well before Labor Day weekend, as I attended several panels and lectures at the Commonwealth Club, wrote a few posts for their blog, and attended the opening of the Victory Garden. During the Slow Food Nation (SFN) weekend itself, I was only able to attend the Taste pavilions at Fort Mason and take a quick look at the Victory Garden.

Before I comment about my experience, I'd like to say "Bravo!" to the Slow Food Nation staff and their partners. They dared to try something unprecedented and ambitious on a large scale, something that would educate, stimulate, and provoke. For the most part they succeeded. Sure, there were logistical glitches and topical gaps in the programs, but the event managed to create wide-ranging discussion about our food system, what we want it to look like, and how to get there. A conference of activists and experts at the San Francisco Airport Hilton or a special edition of the Slow Food USA magazine would not have had nearly the same impact.

The Taste Pavilions
I visited the Taste pavilions on Sunday afternoon. Overall, it was an enjoyable experience for all of my senses, but ultimately unsatisfying. While it was pleasurable to taste great chocolate, preserves or cheese, I left wanting to know much more about the how and why behind the products. How are they made? Why are they special? Why are they worthy of inclusion in the pavilion? How do they fit into the Slow Food world? And so, although I'm glad I went to this unique event, I might have been happier if I had attended a number of the workshops instead, where a single topic was covered for one hour (like beer and cheese pairing). (To be sure, some of the pavilions provided limited opportunities for more learning and some of the artisans were at the event, but it was not easy to absorb the material and the artisans were often too busy for extended conversation).

The Taste pavilions were visually and conceptually remarkable. Constructed from reused material (like pallets or packing crates) or symbolic objects (paper umbrellas in the Spirits pavilion), they were wonderful to visit. The designer of the Honey & Preserves pavilion, for example, used fruit packing crates and wooden planks, to 'write' the word HONEY on one side and JAM on the other. (The reason there aren't many people in my photos is that I took them after the tastings had ceased and people cleared out.)

The Pickles & Chutney pavilion was a wondrous creation, as my photo below hints. A floating array of canning jar lids was suspended overhead by transparent cable, so the lids shimmered as air currents moved through the hall. The wall in the background was made from pieces of wood separated by canning jars with labels from various pickles and chutneys from around the country.

Although I didn't taste the olive oil, I appreciated the pavilion with my eyes. The netting evokes the harvest, the array of bottles let us appreciate the beauty of the product.

The cheese pavilion was constructed of milk crates and hay bales. The second photo shows the small speaker area where cheesemakers gave short talks throughout the day.

You can see more of my photos on my Flickr page or see hundreds submitted by other attendees at the SFN08 tag on Flickr.

Final Thoughts
Overall, from my perspective, Slow Food Nation was a complicated, messy success. Even though there was plenty of "preaching to the choir," the bold statements like the Victory Garden introduced many to great organizations like City Slicker Farms and hopefully will inspire local action on urban food production. Ideally, the local excitement will help build new coalitions or catalyze changes in local and state policy.

In Jen Maiser's "Looking Forward" piece for Serious Eats, she suggested that future SFNs should have a major community service component. That's a great idea. When I attended the Victory Garden opening ceremony, I could sense that the attendees wanted to do more -- they wanted to build more gardens, help more people grow their own food, use their time and energy to find solutions to the food problems facing people. A series of garden ground-breakings, or workdays on an urban farm (Sam wrote about volunteering at the Alemany Farm at Becks & Posh) or even some classes on political activism.

Slow Food Nation Link Pavilion
A lot has been written about the weekend. As I've been procrastinating on this post, I have been collecting posts and articles, and here is a 'link pavilion' for you to peruse:
For those of you who weren't able to attend the events in person or missed one of the talks, some of the Commonwealth Club events are available for streaming from their archive or download with a podcasting software like iTunes.

Update: The Slow Food Nation "Food For Thought" videos are now online for your viewing pleasure.

Random link from the archive: Mexican Sopes

Technorati tags: Food

Monday, September 08, 2008

Pie blogging - Meyer lemon meringue and Mission Pie

Meyer Lemon Meringue Pie
About 18 months ago, I purchased a small Meyer lemon tree from the local nursery. It was healthy and adorned by a handful of blossoms. "I'll have lemons within weeks," I thought.

I thought wrong.

After I repotted it into a larger container, those first blossoms either fell off or turned into tiny incipient lemons which fell off a few days later. I waited and waited for fruit to grow. Eventually, after over a year in my backyard, I was able to harvest a few small lemons.

The first recipe that featured my slow-growing lemons was a Meyer lemon meringue pie from Chez Panisse Desserts (1st Edition). It's an amazing thing: the unique flavor of Meyer lemon in a rich curd on a buttery crust, with an ethereal meringue topping it all.

However, the lemon curd recipe has some annoying parts (at least to me). First, it calls for half salted and half unsalted butter. With the amount of salt varying from brand to brand (and possibly even throughout the year), that adds some uncertainty. But it's not a fatal flaw, as one can add salt at the end if it is needed. Second, it calls for the juice of two lemons, not a specific quantity of juice. Although I'm sure the Chez Panisse lemons were always plump, juicy and light on seeds, the lemons from my tree are mostly seeds, pith and peel. So how many of those lemons equal a Chez Panisse lemon? Beats me (I used a few tablespoons). Whereas one can add salt to the curd after it has been cooked to correct the balance, I have a feeling that lemon juice added at the end it might not be incorporated properly.

For this pie I tried a new crust recipe, the "foolproof" crust from Cooks Illustrated (posted at Serious Eats). The "magic" in the pie crust recipe is vodka. By replacing some of the water with alcohol, you reduce the activation of the gluten in the flour, thus avoiding a tough crust. Furthermore, water-alcohol mixtures have a lower boiling point than water, so as the crust bakes, there will be more complete evaporation of the liquid, which can help improve the flakiness of the crust. I'd say it was a success, despite some shrinkage when I baked it blind, so I'll be trying it again soon (for peach pie, perhaps).

Mission Pie
If you are ever in San Francisco and want a great piece of pie (or a whole one), check out Mission Pie in the Mission District. Every day they offer a few selections -- the day I visited, I ordered peach-blackberry (pictured below) and my friend had walnut. The peach-blackberry was great; the walnut even better.

Mission Pie is also an organization that helps San Francisco youth learn new skills. Their website states:
Mission Pie is a business venture that collaborates with the non-profit Pie Ranch, a diversified small-scale educational farm one hour south of San Francisco. Through hands-on work and collective reflection at Pie Ranch, San Francisco teenagers discover new competencies and insights that benefit them as individuals and in community.
Helping the community by eating pie -- what a great formula!

Mission Pie, 2901 Mission Street at 25th, (415) 282-4PIE, open 7 days a week.

Random link from the archive: Temple Guardians in Thailand

Technorati tags: Baking : San Francisco : Food

Monday, September 01, 2008

Recipe - Roasted Eggplant with Tomato and Basil, or "Basil Ghanouj"

In late summer, when eggplant, tomatoes and basil are in season, one of my favorite quick dishes is something I have been calling "Basil Ghanouj." That name, of course, is a play on the Middle Eastern classic baba ghanouj (also spelled "baba ganoush"). In the classic preparation, eggplant is roasted in a bed of coals or on a grill until the flesh is tender and the skin lightly charred. After removing the skin, the smoky-sweet eggplant flesh is mixed with various flavorings (tahini, garlic, lemon juice) to make a versatile side dish or dip. To make "basil ghanouj," I flavor the eggplant with sauteed onion, garlic, tomato and basil.

This is my second variation on roasted eggplant -- I posted an Indian-style recipe in a post titled "Vegetarian Primeval" (that was almost three years ago...it's amazing how time flies).

Roasted Eggplant with Tomato and Basil, or "Basil Ghanouj"

3 thin Chinese, Japanese or Italian eggplant (or 1-2 large globe eggplant)
1 onion, finely chopped
Salt to taste (start with about 1 teaspoon)
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped, or pulverized in a mortar and pestle
2 medium tomatoes, chopped
1/4 cup chopped basil

Roast the eggplant: Rinse the eggplant. If you have a gas stove, place them directly on the burner or on a grill device with the burner heat on medium. Turn often for about 10-15 minutes, until the skin is completely black and the eggplant are soft. If you have an electric stove, preheat it to 500 F then roast the eggplant on a cookie sheet until the skin is blacken in places, about 20 minutes. After the eggplant are roasted, set them aside to cool.

When the eggplant have cooled, cut off and discard the stem, then use your fingers, a spoon, or a knife blade to scape and pull off the charred skin. Chop the eggplant coarsely. Set aside.

Cook the base: Heat some vegetable oil in a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the onion and salt and saute until the onion softens and gets a bit of brown around the edges. Add the garlic and stir for about 30 seconds. Next, add the tomatoes, and cook for 1 minute stirring often. Add the eggplant. Reduce the heat to medium and cook the mixture for about 5 minutes, stirring to fully mix the ingredients.

Finish and serve: Scoop into a serving bowl, then mix in the chopped basil. Sprinkle the remaining basil on top to garnish.

Random link from the archive: Negative Space in Asian Art and Cooking

Technorati tags: vegetarian : Food