Monday, February 23, 2009

Teff: the world's smallest grain?

"Teff is the smallest grain in the world," said the sign on the wall in the Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurant. I had no reason to doubt it — I had never seen teff in any form other than a pancake the size of a manhole cover or in a tightly rolled cylinder.

I don't remember where I saw the sign — perhaps at one of the many Ethiopian/Eritrean restaurants in Berkeley and Oakland, California, or one of the Ethiopian/Eritrean places in the Adams Morgan section of Washington, D.C. -- but it was one of those quirky restaurant quotes that I haven't forgotten.

Teff (Eragrostis tef, also spelled tef and t'ef) is the staple grain of Ethiopia and Eritrea, where it has been cultivated since prehistoric times.  It makes its most common U.S. appearance as the flour for the spongy, slightly sour flatbread called injera, which is used in Ethiopian and Eritrean restaurants as an eating implement. 

I got my first introduction to whole teff from a recipe in Heidi Swanson's Super Natural Cooking for polenta-style teff squares. The local Whole Foods had it in stock, and when I opened the bag I was amazed at how small the grains were.  So  I got out the camera, tripod, some white paper and a collection of grains from my pantry to document it.

The first photo shows teff next to rye kernels, long grain rice, and amaranth.  Tens of teff grains could fit into a grain of rice! (But probably not enough to write your name on a grain of rice, mosaic-style.)

Upper left: rye kernels; upper right: teff; lower left: long grain rice; lower right: amaranth

The next photo shows teff with short-grain rice, amaranth, and millet. 

Upper left:  teff;  upper right:  short grain rice; lower left: amaranth; lower right: millet

Returning to my experience with whole teff, I followed Swanson's simple and healthful recipe, by bringing three parts water to a boil, then stirring in 1 part whole teff and some salt.  I cooked it for a little while, stirring occassionally, then poured the cooked grain into a oiled baking dish. After it solidified into a mass, I cut it into shapes (much like polenta — hence the recipe's name).  I topped the squares (reheated in a lightly oiled skillet) with Ethiopean-influenced lentils (using a tried-and-true recipe from Sundays at Moosewood).  Tasty and nutrious.

More Teff

Photo of Injera from VirtualErn's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.

Random link from the archive: What's the Best Way to Store Coffee

Technorati tags: Teff : Ethiopia : Eritrea : vegetarian : Food

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The great California sardine boom and bust

While doing some research for my next "Eating by the Numbers" piece for Edible San Francisco (subscribe on-line today!), I ran into some fascinating documents about the now-gone California sardine industry. Today's tourist destination of Cannery Row occupies land and buildings that were once a huge industry, employing thousands and providing a significant fraction of the U.S. seafood [see note 1 below].

But it was just a blip in history.

In only a few decades, it boomed and busted, and by the 1950s the fishery and canneries were wiped out. The first figure below shows the annual Pacific sardine (Sardinops sagax) catch from the waters off the Pacific coast of the U.S. [Note 2].  The second shows Monterey's annual output of canned fish during the mid-20th century [Note 3].

 (click on the image for a bigger and clearer version)

 (click on the image for a bigger and clearer version)

Much has been written about the collapse of the fishery. One source that I consulted, a UC Berkeley dissertation by Kathryn Davis [Note 3], gave a succinct summary of the reasons for the collapse. They included overfishing, changes in ocean temperatures, the natural cycle of the fish, and pollution in Monterey Bay. The pollution came from many places, including post-World War II munitions dumping by the navy off the California coast, use of DDT in agriculture (starting in 1944), extensive dumping of dead fish and offal into Monterey Bay, and run-off from urban areas.

A chapter in a book about fishery management [Note 4] offers another factor for the sardine collapse: the innate behavior of the fish. Sardines are a schooling fish, meaning that they travel together in large numbers. This behavior was probably evolved as a defense against predators: a fast-moving mass of individuals causes confusion and protects those on the inside of the school from a marauding shark or swordfish. But against fishing nets and sonar, it's not so helpful. It takes a lot less effort to find and catch fish when they are all clumped together in a school than when they are spread across miles of open ocean.

There are theories that the sardine population is cyclical, running in a 30 or 40 year cycle, so the massive schools may return to Monterey Bay.  The California Department of Fish and Game considers the California sardine fishery to be fully recovered (strict catch limits are in place).  In 2002, over 80,000 tons of sardines were landed in California, according to the Seafood Watch report on the Pacific Sardine (PDF).

Considering the world supply of sardines, the picture is fairly bright, with the fish having a "Best Choice" rating from the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Program.

Notes on the sources
Note 1: One source that I consulted (I can't remember which one) said that the Pacific coast sardine catch accounted for something like 25% of the total seafood catch in the U.S. in the 1940s.

Note 2: Catch data for 1916-17 to 1962-63 from the Proceedings of the California Academy Of Sciences, Vol 34 (1966-67) and data for 1963-64 to 1967-68 from Resource Management and Environmental Uncertainty (full citation below).

Note 3: Sardine oil on troubled waters : the boom and bust of California’s sardine industry, 1905-1955 / by M. Kathryn Davis, UC Berkeley, 2002, Department of Geography. Available for reading in the Earth Sciences library on campus and will also be coming out as a book someday. Davis is currently on the faculty at San Jose State.

Note 4: "The collapse of the California sardine fishery - what have we learned?" by John Radovich, in Resource Management and Environmental Uncertainty (M.H. Glantz and J.D. Thompson, eds.), John Wiley & Sons, 1981

Photo of Sardines at the top of the post is from nugun's's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.

Random link from the archive: 7 Year Bread (pumpkin pecan spiral)

Technorati tags: Fish : Monterey : California

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Recipe: Kabocha squash simmered with lemon

One of my 'go to' recipes in Elizabeth Andoh's marvelous Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen is a simple preparation of kabocha squash in a lemon-infused sauce. It can be prepared with little and made ahead of time because it is excellent when served at room temperature.

 The method for cutting the squash is somewhat confusing, so I provide a graphical interpretation below. The upper drawings (1 and 2) show two ways of cutting the squash half.  Picture 3 shows how the wedges are cut to get pieces that are relatively flat on the bottom (this will help them cook more evenly). The fourth drawing shows how the edges of each wedge are cut off :  leaving a portion of skin in place helps to prevent the wedges from falling apart during cooking.

Recipe: Kabocha squash simmered with lemon
Adapted from Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen, by Elizabeth Andoh

1/2 of a kabocha squash, unpeeled
1 cup sea stock (recipe below)
2 tablespoons mirin
1 lemon
1 1/2 tablespoons soy sauce

Grated lemon zest for garnish

Wash the lemon, peel off a few strips of zest using a vegetable peeler, and juice it. If you want a more assertive flavor, save one or two of the lemon halves to add to the simmering liquid.

Thoroughly wash the outside of the squash. Scoop out the seeds. Cut the squash into wedges that are about 1-inch thick at their widest point. Using a paring knife, carefully cut off a portion of the skin-side edge of each wedge to convert the wedge from a four-sided object to a six-sided object.

Bring the stock, mirin and lemon juice (and juiced lemon halves, if using) in a wide skillet to a simmer over medium heat. Remove the lemon halves. Add the squash in a single layer, skin side down. Reduce the heat and simmer, partly covered.* After a few minutes (it's hard to say how long it will take, as each squash is a little different), check the doneness by piercing it with a toothpick or skewer. At this point, you should feel some resistance.  Turn the pieces over so that the skin side is facing up. Simmer for a few minutes more, until a toothpick or skewer easily pierces the flesh.  Add the soy sauce and agitate the pan to distribute it.  Cook for about 30 seconds more.

Let the dish cool with the cover in place (this helps the flavors meld).

Serve the squash pieces at room temperature or warm with some of the liquid remaining in the pan and a sprinkle of lemon zest.

* Andoh recommends using a Japanese otoshi-buta, a double thickness of parchment paper that is 1 inch smaller in diameter than the pan, or a pot lid that is smaller than the pan to cover the squash as it cooks and keep it submerged. I'm not sure why it is so important in this recipe because the sauce barely covers a third of the squash. A lid that covers the whole pot might do the job and help cook the squash more thoroughly.

Recipe: Vegetarian dashi stock
Adapted from Washoku: Recipes from the Japanese Home Kitchen, by Elizabeth Andoh

To make a vegetarian dashi stock, place a piece of kombu sea vegetable and several dried shiitake mushrooms into some cool water. The ratio that Andoh uses is 15-20 square inches of kombu and three mushrooms to 4 1/4 cups of water. Let this mixture steep for a few hours or overnight in the refrigerator. A long soaking allows the natural glutamates (flavor enhancers) to develop and dissolve into the water. When ready to make the stock, put the mixture in a pan over medium heat. Bring it almost to a boil, then reduce the heat slightly to keep it at a low simmer. Keep it at this point for 5 minutes, then turn off the heat. Let the mixture steep for 5 minutes more, and then strain into a saucepan.

Random link from the archive: Curry, Japanese Style
Technorati tags: Japan : vegetarian : Food

Wednesday, February 04, 2009

"Your drink looks like it's alive!"

During lunch the other day, a coworker at a neighboring table asked me about my drink: "What is that? It looks like it's alive!" It wasn't alive, it was just a glass of sparkling water with a spoonful of Korean yuja cha (citron-honey preserve) at the bottom.

What made it look alive was bubbles of carbon dioxide that carried the fruit from the bottom to the top. At the top, the bubble either popped, detached from the fruit, or reduced in size, causing the fruit to sink back to the bottom. It was almost like a lava lamp (though in this case the forces driving the motion are chemical and physical, not thermal).

In this first video (10 seconds long), a piece of fruit on right side of the glass bobs up and down.


In the second video (15 seconds long), a few pieces of fruit move up and down while a group of bubbles try in vain to carry a large piece of pulp to the surface.


Here's what I think is happening: sparkling water is a solution of carbon dioxide (CO2) dissolved in water. The concentration of CO2 in the water is higher than what would be allowed at atmospheric pressure, so some of the CO2 comes out of solution as bubbles, which are buoyant and rise to the surface. In situations like these, bubbles tend to form on scratches and other inhomogeneous places that are called "nucleation sites" in technical lingo (the ability of roughness to cause bubbles is why some sparkling wine glasses are artificially roughened at the bottom of the glass). In my drink, the fruit pieces provide these "nucleation sites." Sometimes a piece of fruit spawns enough bubbles to make it float to the top of the liquid.

It took me a few tries to get these short, low-quality videos (using my Canon Powershot SD600 and a strangely ornery Picasa 3 that never seemed to do what it was supposed to do). As I crouched next to my counter, waiting for the bubbles to do their thing, it made me think of the rigors of nature photography, where the camera operator might sit in a tree for days, tormented by insects, buffeted by rain and wind, punished by the heat, waiting for a bird to do its courtship dance, a rare rodent to leave its nest, or some other rare occurrence, just to get a few minutes of footage. I'm grateful that there are such dedicated people out there to bring the magic of nature to our DVD players. The bonus features in "Life of Mammals" and "Life in the Undergrowth" have some stories about the trials the job of a documentary camera operator, including a harrowing tale of filming in a cave with thousands (or was it millions?) of bats, a floor covered with untold amounts of their droppings, an atmosphere rich in noxious gases, and all sorts of creepy-crawlies.

Random link from the archive: Snacks for the Ears

Technorati tags: Food : Drinks