Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008 resolution review

With today being December 31, I thought it would be fun to have an 'accountability moment' on my 2008 resolutions, which I had posted at The Ethicurean early last year.

Learn how to bake whole grain breads: I was superficially successful in meeting this one — I baked a few loaves of Vollkornbrot (a dense bread made from cracked rye kernels and other whole grains held together by a sourdough batter), baked my favorite sunflower seed loaf a few times (the recipe is in Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone) and many batches of whole-grain crackers — but never found the time to read Peter Reinhart's latest book or do any serious learning. Perhaps in 2009 I can be more serious with my whole grain baking. 

Use my solar oven more frequently and learn new techniques: This one was a bust — I barely used my cooker during the year. Sunny days happened to coincide with my busy weekend days and whenever I had nothing on the schedule, the famous San Francisco summer fog wouldn't burn off until noon and would then roll back in at 2 or 3 PM, thus preventing any serious solar cooking. I managed to build a prototype dehydration module, but only got one chance to try it out. (It was flawed and needs major modification.) In 2009, I need to find a better place to store the cooker so I can quickly set it up every weekend day that I'm home to at least heat water for dish washing.

Try a wider variety of fruits and vegetables: Although I didn't keep track of my purchases, I have a feeling that I did well on this one. On most trips to the farmers market, I'm looking for new offerings or trying items that I haven't done much with. In my resolution text, I specifically mentioned collard greens, and in 2008 I came to love these leafy greens braised in a little bit of sauteed garlic.

I don't know if I'll formally make any resolutions in 2009. If not, I'll keep last year's ideas in the back of my mind as I strive to improve.

Random link from the archive: Ciabatta
Technorati tags: Baking : Food

Friday, December 26, 2008

Earthrise, 40 years later

Photo of earthrise from Apollo 8, NASA GRIN collection

On December 21, 1968, three NASA astronauts in a small space capsule were propelled out of Earth's atmosphere by a 363 foot tall, 3350 ton Saturn V rocket. It was the Apollo 8 mission, and it was ambitious: the astronauts would be the first humans to orbit the moon while also performing numerous tests of equipment in preparation for a moon landing in 1969 (including the lunar module). As they orbited the moon, astronaut Bill Anders took the photo shown above, which was the first photo of the entire earth from space. Satellites and previous missions had photographed parts of the earth, but none had covered the whole planet. Because of this photo and others from that mission, some have we ended up discovering the Earth on our mission to the moon.

Although later photos and video, like the bootprint, astronauts walking on the moon, or the moon landing itself, were also iconic, this photo might have had more long-term significance because of the way it gave humanity a new perspective on our condition. Some have even argued that the photo was one of the critical stimuli that made the first Earth Day happen.

Living on Earth recently had an interview with Robert Poole, the author of Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth about this photograph.  You can read the transcript, stream the audio, or download an MP3 of the segment here. At the New York Times, the Dot Earth blog by Andrew Revkin has some comments on the photo and a much more recent video of an earthrise; the on-line archives of the Times have an appreciation of the photo from 1998. NASA, of course, also has plenty of commemorative material.

With a new year just around the corner, it's worth remembering this photo as we think about how we might try to lessen our impact on our fragile home.

More coverage of Apollo 8
The Apollo 8 mission has also been covered in documentary form by portions of the feature film In the Shadow of the Moon (I wrote very positive things about the film here) and an episode of the American Experience called "The Race to the Moon." The mission was dramatized in episode 4 of From the Earth to the Moon (a miniseries that offers a new look at the people that made the space program happen, including the engineers who designed the lunar module, the wives of the astronauts, and the journalists who covered the space race).

Earthrise photo is image 68-HC-870 from the Great Images in NASA collection, rotated 90 degrees clockwise.

Random link from the archive: Ocean Park through my Own Eyes

Monday, December 22, 2008

Crystals in Gruyere, Parmigiano-Reggiano, and grana cheeses

Photo of Parmesan cheese from THOR on Flickr

My personal food philosophy has room for both local foods and artisanal foods from far away. Parmigiano-Reggiano — the magnificent cheese from Northern Italy — and Gruyere — an AOC cheese from western Switzerland — are two of the latter. A little bit of Parmigiano can vastly improve a bowl of pasta or salad; and I could probably eat an open-face sandwich consisting of good bread, a little spicy mustard, melted Gruyere cheese, and a slice of ripe, juicy heirloom tomato every day during the summer.

One of the distinctive features of Gruyere and aged hard cheeses (like Parmigiano-Reggiano, Italian grana cheeses, and fine aged cheddars) is the presence of tiny, hard crystals. I've been curious about them for a while, so I dove into the library to find out where they come from and what they are made of.

After the curd has been salted and formed into the appropriate shape (and perhaps salted on the outside or coated with something, like ash or cloth or wax), the 'pre-cheese matter' starts to undergo a transformation. Bacteria in the mixture consume milk sugars to produce lactic acid, enzymes snip apart proteins, fats are chopped up, and other chemical reactions occur to create the distinctive flavor of that particular cheese. And, it seems, substances fall out of the solution to form crystals.

The cheese chapter of Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking says that the crystals in aged cheddar are calcium lactate, which is created by interactions between beneficial bacteria in the cheese and lactic acid. When enough of the chemical is in one place, a crystal can form. In parmesan-type cheeses, Gruyere, and other aged cheeses, he writes, the crystals can be either calcium lactate or tyrosine, an amino acid that is insoluble in low-moisture cheeses. Tyrosine crystals result from protein breakdown during cheese ripening.

Photo of Parmigiano Reggiano aging room by Scott Brenner on FlickrThe Manufacture of Extra-Hard Cheeses entry in the Encyclopedia of Food Sciences and Nutrition has a few paragraphs about cheese crystals. In grana-type cheeses, a first type of crystal appears in the first hours of ripening. These spherical crystals are calcium phosphate, and like calcium lactate, are the product of bacteria interacting with the cheese. They are about 10 micrometers in diameter (a human hair ranges from about 20 to 180 micrometers in diameter).  A second type of crystal is needle-shaped and occurs at the end of the ripening period, with dimension of about 5 micrometers long by 1/2 micrometer wide. These are calcium lactate. (The dimensions of the crystals provided in this reference seem a little small to me, based on my experience with cheese crystals, so perhaps I'm detecting clusters of crystals.)

The official site of the Consorzio del Formaggio Parmigiano-Reggiano (the trade organization that governs production and marketing of the cheese) talks about the crystals in their FAQ:

What are the small grains you feel under your teeth when you eat a piece of Parmigiano-Reggiano?
Unlike what many people think, they are not grains of salt nor grains of calcium. They are crystals of an amino acid, called tyrosine, which, owing to its molecular conformation, crystallises if it is free and in high concentrations. Together with other amino acids, it is released during the process of protein breakdown triggered by enzymes. Therefore the presence of tyrosine is definitely a practical indication (since it can be experienced by every consumer) of a good degree of maturation of Parmigiano-Reggiano.

To sum up, the transformations that occur during cheese ripening — protein fracture, fat splitting, bacteria consuming sugars — can create localized concentrations of certain chemicals that can coalesce to form insoluble crystals.  I'm certainly not bothered by them, and usually think of them as a sign of a cheese that has been produced in the traditional manner.

Photo Credits
Photo of Parmigiano Reggiano cheese from THOR's Flickr collection, photo of Aging Parmigiano Reggiano cheese from Scott Brenner's Flickr collection, both subject to a Creative Commons License

Random link from the archive: Dried Red Chiles

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Ubuntu's innovation brings relief to this vegetarian's jaded palate

photo of peach panzanella at Ubuntu in NapaAlthough the S.F. Bay Area is close to being a vegetarian paradise — with its glorious bounty of vegetables, fruits and cheeses, and vegetarian items on almost every restaurant menu — I'm often disappointed with my restaurant experiences. Perhaps it's a lack of interest in vegetarian cooking in restaurant kitchens, or possibly the financial realities of running a restaurant, or maybe even the tyranny of Alice Waters, but it seems that most places offer vegetarian options that are generally well executed but usually not very interesting — like a risotto with seasonal vegetables and classic flavorings, pasta with seasonal vegetables and classic flavorings, or something along those lines.

Not so with Ubuntu in downtown Napa.

While generally following Northern California's focus on local and seasonal, the kitchen staff manages to create amazing and innovative combinations. Or, they explore a single ingredient, like cauliflower, presenting it in roasted, pureed and "couscous" form (i.e., the tiny florets around the edge of the vegetable) in the same dish.

Icy September
On a visit in September, my companions and I shared olives marinated in carrot top puree; panzanella with grilled peaches, peach leaf and basil oil, green beans, and burrata (pictured above); the famous cauliflower in a cast iron pot; a potato salad (pictured at right) consisting of quenelles of smoked potato, roasted blue potato, crisp fried potato slices, borage flowers, and ficoïde glaciale (a type of ice plant that I'll describe below); and polenta with 3-day sofrito, padron peppers. The potato salad contained a variety of contrasting and complementing flavors and was also an experiment in texture, bringing silky, crispy, sour, smoky and crunchy.

Dessert is not to be missed. Our first choice was the justly lauded cheesecake in a jar. The layers of a rich, slightly tart creamy base with fruit and a crunchy topping provided plenty of pleasure. Our second dessert that night consisted of dollops of rich chocolate ganache, roasted figs, coffee-chicory ice cream, and a disk of crispy chocolate. This disk was something between a cookie and a piece of chocolate, not like anything I've had before.

photo of ficoide glaciale from stumptownpanda's flickrIn this excellent meal, one ingredient stood out: ficoïde glaciale, a succulent that has somewhat of a following in France. Ubuntu grows their own in their biodynamic gardens (ingredients grown in Ubuntu garden are highlighted on the menu). Ficoïde glaciale is crunchy, slightly sour, a bit salty and full of moisture. Unfortunately, I forget what the crystals covered with salty crystals tasted or felt like. Pim has a good photo of young plant growing in the Manresa restaurant garden.

Living in California for a long time, I'm quite familiar with another kind of ice plant, an imported succulent that sprawls across coastal dunes and alongside freeways, choking out native plants and creating biological deserts (and also, I must admit, displaying gorgeous magenta flowers which add to the beauty of the Californai coast). This plant, sometimes called the "freeway ice plant," is probably Carpobrotus edulis, and apparently both the fruit and vegetation are edible. I don't plan on trying it, and if you think about taking a bite of the freeway ice plant, it's probably a good idea to double-check that it is edible before doing so.

Novel November
I went back to Ubuntu a few weeks ago. For a starter, I had a piece of burrata with wild fennel crackers and 3 slow-cooked condiments: caramelized fennel (with chunks of lightly-cooked fennel), a remarkable green tomato marmalade, and stewed greens (chard and mustard). For a main course I considered the carrot: homemade carrot gnocchetti with tarragon and mimolette cheese, topped with carrot pulp and a spiced "crumble" of freeze-dried carrot, almond and mace.

For dessert, I chose the rice pudding (which also happened to be vegan). On a large plate, the pastry department placed two scoops of the pudding, a cylinder of fuyu persimmon sorbet, some slices of fuyu persimmon, a few dabs of date puree, and a few translucent jellies. It was a stunning presentation, a far cry from much of the Bay Area's dessert offerings of a one-dimensional creme brulee or fruit crisp. And it was delicious: the rich pudding screamed 'coconut', the persimmon sorbet was subtle and lightly acidic, the date puree a new way to experience that fruit. The jellies were beautiful, but I found them to be somewhat flavorless (they were intended to be rum-flavored).

Also on the menu that night was fregola (pearl-shaped pasta) with quenelles of sweet onion and leek ash; local grits smoked with hickory, fried brussels sprouts, kohlrabi and lemon, and apple bbq sauce; and a pizza topped with house-made sauerkraut, vegetarian boudin noir sausage and an egg (the S.F. Chronicle printed Jeremy Fox's recipe for vegetarian boudin noir sausage, but since I didn't have it at the restaurant I don't know if it is the same).

Not everything at Ubuntu is perfect, of course. Service on my first visit was substandard. The polenta with sofrito in September was somewhat pedestrian. The crepes in a dessert on my first visit were cool and rubbery (but accompanied by a divine bay laurel ice cream).

I hope that Ubuntu has a long run, never rests on its laurels as the "go to vegetarian restaurant" in the wine country, and inspires other chefs to be more daring with their vegetarian offerings.

Props for Piccino
I'll also take this opportunity to give praise to Piccino, a tiny place in the Dogpatch area of San Francisco. A friend and I were driving through the neighborhood on our way to another restaurant when Piccino popped out at us, reminding us both that we had been intending to visit for a while. We were both quite impressed. The antipasto plate, for example, had a variety of delicious bits like house-made pickles, lightly cooked carrots in spiced oil, bean puree, and crispy flatbread. One of the salads showed some spark too, with a quince-based dressing and other goodies that I can't remember. The pizza was good, but perhaps a bit thin on the crust so that it became soggy within seconds.

Photo of ficoide glaciale from stumptownpanda's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.

Random link from the archive: A Spider Sheds Its Skin

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Understanding the mind of a litterbug

Littered sidewalk in Louisville, KentuckyI've often wondered about the minds of litterbugs. What makes someone drop a piece of garbage on the ground instead of disposing of it properly?

A recent article in Science magazine shows that a litterbug might be responding to signals from the surroundings. The article itself and a short summary require a subscription to the magazine, but the San Francisco Chronicle published a story about the research.

The researchers — Kees Keizer, Siegwart Lindenberg, and Linda Steg from the University of Groningen in the Netherlands — aimed to test the famous "Broken Window" theory of George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson (the Atlantic Monthly has an article from March 1982 from the pair). Although the theory has been embraced by many police departments and municipalities, attempts to definitively prove it have been mostly unsuccessful.

The authors of the paper designed several experiments that could test if people would be more likely to steal or litter in an environment where other rules were being broken — litter in an area with lots of graffiti, for example. In these cases the norm-breaker is not exactly copying a behavior but instead is allowing inappropriate behavior reduce his or her interest in following societal norms. The authors call this the "cross-norm inhibition effect," and claim that it causes a spread of disorder within a society (more "broken windows").

Several field experiments were conducted in Groningen, Holland using the general public as their subjects. In each case, the 'subjects' had no idea that they were part of an experiment.

Study 1 involved a wall with a "No Graffiti" sign, parked bicycles, and a lack of trash cans. The researchers attached a flyer advertising a non-existent store to each bicycle. During one period, the wall was graffiti free; during another, the wall was covered with graffiti. When the wall was clean — that is, the "no graffiti" norm was being observed — only 33% of the subjects littered. When the wall was covered with graffiti in defiance of the "No Graffiti" sign, 69% of the subjects dropped the flyer on the ground.

Photo of anti-litter billboard
Study 2 was a bit more complicated: the researchers blocked the normal entrance to a parking lot with a temporary fence that had a 50 cm gap in it. They posted two signs on the fence, one that said "don't attach your bike to the fence," and one that essentially said "don't go through the gap in the fence; instead use alternative entrance 200 meters to the right." In the orderly condition, there were no bikes attached to the fence, and 27% of the subjects went through the gap in the fence. In the disorderly condition, several bikes were chained to the fence, and 82% of the people went through the gap.

The paper describes four other studies involving whether a failure to return shopping carts causes littering, whether the sound of illegal fireworks causes littering, whether litter would cause people to take an envelope showing that it contained a 5 euro bill that was half-inserted into a mailbox, and whether litter and graffiti would cause people to take the envelope. In each study, the disorderly condition led to more disorder (by a factor of two or three).

The authors conclude that if one norm-violating behavior becomes common, it will increase other types of norm-violating behavior, thus spreading disorder. Therefore, it's important to address bad behavior as soon as it is observed, otherwise it can spread to other behaviors. In other words, it might not be enough to simply fix the broken windows, but might require additional work to remove graffiti, pick up litter, reduce illegal parking, and so on.

The "cross-norm inhibition effect" demonstrated by the studies seem to explain a fair amount of the littering I see, but not certainly not all of it. There could be other factors, like the number of people that pass through the area each day (e.g., 16th and Mission in San Francisco), or whether the residents have an ownership stake in the area. An example of the "no ownership stake" condition is the student-dominated neighborhood south of the U.C. Berkeley campus, which is always strewn with litter, abandoned couches, and so on. Very few of the students are property owners or long-term residents, and therefore might not care about keeping the area clean. But I doubt it's that simple and someday I'll need to go digging in the library for other research on this subject (while also striving to keep the area in front of my apartment litter free — if everyone kept the area around just their home or business clean, we'd have far much less of a litter problem).

Photo Credits
Littered intersection in Louisville, KY (September 1972) from U.S. National Archives's Flickr collection, photograph by William Strode, no known copyright restrictions.

Anti-litter billboard along I-580 near San Francisco (circa 1972) from U.S. National Archives's Flickr collection, photograph by Erik Calonius, no known copyright restrictions.

Random link from the archive: Unusual Greens, Part 7 - Lamb's Quarters

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Introducing the Carteachoc, a super antioxidant drink

In the days before I took Shuna Lydon's caramel class a few months ago, I studied the sugar chapter in Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking so I could have a foundation that would help me absorb her teaching. I was surprised to learn that caramel is not only delicious and a culinary challenge, but also contains antioxidants, which seem to be one of today's miracle nutrients. On page 657 (of the latest edition), McGee writes (my emphasis):

The aroma of a simple caramelized sugar has several different notes, among them buttery and milky (from diacetyl), fruity (esters and lactones), flowery, sweet, rum-like, and roasted. As the reactions proceed, the taste of the mixture becomes less sweet as more of the original sugar is destroyed, with more pronounced acidity and eventually bitterness and an irritating, burning sensation. Some of the chemical products in caramel are effective antioxidants and can help protect food flavors from damage during storage.

Some time after reading that, I thought I could use this new knowledge about caramel (as well as some of the skills I learned in Shuna's class) to make a super-antioxidant drink. Other ingredients could be the hot chocolate mix provided at my office — which "Contains natural antioxidants! (95 mg per serving)" — and company-provided black tea — which has "175 mg protective antioxidants." The caramel would come in the form of home-made caramel sauce.

Perhaps this wild combination of tea, hot chocolate mix, and caramel sauce will give me super-office powers — or at least help me stay awake during marathon engineering meetings (if the initials FMEA mean anything to you, you know what kind of meeting I'm talking about).

But probably not, because the drink is pretty bad: too sweet and reeking of an instant hot chocolate aroma that I don't enjoy.

Here's what I did to make my first (and only?) Carteacho:
  1. Make a caramel sauce (cook water and sugar together until the sugar carmelizes, turn off the heat, and then very carefully — and while wearing long sleeves and from an arm's length — pour in some warm water, turn on the heat again and stir until the liquid is smooth and it has thickened a bit).
  2. Brew a cup of Lipton tea in hot water.
  3. Stir in part of a packet of Nestle instant rich chocolate flavor mix.
  4. Stir in one or two spoonfuls of caramel sauce.
  5. Enjoy the super-antioxidant elixir!

Although it is conceivable that caramel, black tea and cocoa/chocolate could be combined into a delicious drink or snack — Recchiuti Confections, for example, makes a delicious Earl Grey chocolate — when it comes to antioxidants, I think I'll take McGee's advice:
Each plant part, each fruit and vegetable, has its own characteristic cluster of antioxidants. And each kind of antioxidant generally protects against a certain kind of molecular damage, or helps regenerate certain other protective molecules. No single molecule can protect against all kinds of damage. Unusually high concentrations of single types can actually tip the balance the wrong way and cause damage. So the best way to reap the full benefits of the antioxidant powers of plants is not to take manufactured supplement of a few prominent chemicals: it is to eat lots of different vegetables and fruits. (page 257, emphasis in original)

McGee's latest edition of On Food and Cooking is sprinkled with word histories. For caramel, he writes that the word first appears in French in 19th century and appears to be borrowed from the Portuguese word caramel, which referred to both an elongated loaf of unrefined sugar and an icicle. The Portuguese word derives from the Latin calamus, which means "reed." There are other connections between this word and vegetation: in Greek, the word kalamos meant "straw", and the original Indo-European root for the word means "grass." So it seems that the shared color of dried reeds and cooked or unrefined sugar led to the word that we use today.

Random link from the archive: Masala Chai