Monday, June 29, 2009

Snakeskin fruit: a tropical fruit with bite

Although the world of food is continuously getting smaller — name an exotic cooking ingredient and I can probably find it in Bay Area markets — when it comes to fruit, the world is still quite large. Many fruits just can't travel more than a few hundred miles without a severe degradation in quality.  Others, like most of the scores of edible banana varieties, are too fragile for economical shipment. And others, like the mangosteen, can harbor pests that prevent their import (into the United States, at least until recently, and then often requiring irradiation, as a 2006 article by David Karp in the NY Times explains).

So, when traveling, local fruit is one of the culinary highlights.

On this most recent trip, which took me to South Korea, Singapore and Indonesia, I sampled some old favorites (perfectly ripe mangoes), got a new perspective on some others (like bananas, which I never liked as a kid), and tried some new fruits. The photo above from a roadside stand in Bali shows a small sample of what we saw. In the bottom row, from left to right, there are mangosteens, oranges, tamarillos (which actually grow in Bay Area backyards), and more oranges (an interesting fact about oranges: cool nights are required to turn their skin orange, so many tropically-raised oranges are partially or full green).  The top row, from left to right has green mangoes, tamarillos, a fruit that I can't identify, snakeskin fruit (the eventual subject of this post), and bananas.

Snakeskin fruit (salak in Bahasa Indonesia and Malay, also called snake fruit), are the fruit of small palm trees. Grown in many countries of Southeast Asia, they are available most of the year.

A close-up of the fruit reveals how it got its name: the skin is scaly like a snake's.  They are roughly the size of a small pear, about 15 cm long and 10-15 cm in diameter.

The peel is just a millimeter or two thick. And can be dangerous:  a careless fruit peeler (like me), can easily cut a finger on the sharp scales, each one of them like a knife-tip.

Underneath the peel you'll find a few hard white orbs that each contain a sturdy pit. The fruit tasted somewhat like a combination of apple, pear, and lychee, with a bit of astringency and a surprisingly dry texture. Overall, an interesting fruit to look at, but not so interesting to eat.

Random link from the archive: Royals See Organic Garden

Technorati tags: Indonesia : Fruit : Food

Saturday, June 27, 2009

From the marketing time capsule: "Sugar renews energy fast!"

Here's something from the marketing time capsule.  An old, empty bag of sugar appeared in the workshop at my office, on a workbench between bolts, wrenches and various pieces of metal tubing.  I asked around, and found out that the bag came from  a nearby parts supply store that uses surplus bags to package the hardware they sell.

The slogan in the middle of the bag — "Sugar renews energy fast!" — quickly caught my attention.  Based on the slogan, I'm guessing that it is several decades old, possibly from the early 1970s, just before healthy eating started to become more mainstream.  The "18 calories per teaspoon" message at the top of the bag, however, is somewhat contradictory to the energy renewal idea, so perhaps there was a compromise in the marketing department or one philosophy was going out while the other was comng in.

There are no dates, copyright or anything like that, only a "Patent No. 2,978,164" near the top of one side of the bag.  Patent number 2,978,164 was issued to the Bemis Bro. Bag Company of St. Louis on April 4, 1961, with an expiration date of 1978, which makes it highly unlikely for the bag to be from before April 1961.  The lack of any nutritional information might be another indication of when it was printed (but I don't know when foods were first required to have such information on the label).

I happened to buy a bag of C & H sugar the other day, and, except for clearly stating that it contains cane sugar,  it was free of slogans or other sugar marketing information.  The "cane" specification is somewhat interesting, given that all refined sugar is basically the same if the refinery is worth its salt (so to speak). In any case, any information is welcome, as it helps the eater make a more informed decision.

Random link from the archive: Organic demand up
Technorati tags: Sugar : Food

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Bali by bicycle

On my recent trip to Asia, my family chose Bali as one of our side trips for several of reasons — its distinctive culture, the beautiful scenery, and accessibility from Singapore among them.  Beaches were not one of the reasons, so we gravitated towards the inland town of Ubud, one of the cultural centers of the island and a magnet for expats for decades. Tourists have certainly discovered it and so much of the commerce along the main streets is geared to keeping them fed or meeting their shopping needs. When it came time to eat, that was certainly convenient, as it provided us with delicious food, good food safety practices, and menus in English. However, I found it a little disconcerting to have so much of the main street and side streets be dedicated to the tourist trade.

Fortunately, we got to spend part of a day far from the tourist paths, on a bicycle tour run by Banyan Tree Cycling Tours.  We learned about them through the internet, and I'm really glad that we did.  It was an excellent day and gave us a glimpse of the island's 'real' culture.

The company picked us up from our hotel in Ubud at a relatively early hour and then took us on a one hour drive to the village of Pecung.  This long drive was necessary to raise our elevation and enable the tour to be mostly downhill.  We ate breakfast at a restaurant overlooking rice fields and slopes of mountains. Then, back in the van for a short trip to the start of the bike ride.

For the most part, we rode on quiet rural roads like the one below, where you'd go for long periods without seeing a car or truck.

During the several hour bike ride, we made a few stops to learn about Balinese culture, rice cultivation, and religion.  The first stop was at a "typical" Balinese family compound to see an everyday residence.  Their garden really caught my attention:  it included a cacao tree, a nutmeg tree, vanilla bean vines, and other tropical delights.

This next photo shows part of a temple, decked out for a special celebration (the nature of which I don't recall). The fluttering flags were quite beautiful against the lush greenery and blue sky.

Rice is an important part of Balinese culture — a significant portion of the island is used for rice cultivation, often in dramatic hillside terraces — and so the tour guide explained how they grow rice on Bali. They typically practice a wet method, where the rice seedlings are transplanted into flooded fields, one by one.

After the rice has been harvested, the stalks are often burned in the fields, and so parts of the island can be have localized air pollution and a strong smoky aroma. Burning the stalks greatly accelerates the decomposition process, returning nutrients to the fields.  Another way that fertility is provided to rice fields is through flocks of ducks, which are set into the fields after harvest to dig for bugs, worms, and other edible things. This reduces pests, loosens the soil, and, of course, the ducks leave their droppings in the field, providing more fertilizer.

The tour ended with a home-cooked Balinese meal at the home of the leader of the Banyan Tree company, cooked by his wife and family. The setting was peaceful — on a raised patio in the family's garden — and the food was interesting and tasty — satay, tempe, various vegetable dishes, unusual rice-based desserts, and strong coffee.

Two final photos. First, a shot of one of the rice terraces that we passed.  Although it's not as spectacular as the terraces shown in the tour guides (or marked on the Periplus Bali map), we also weren't being bothered by people shoving merchandise in our face as we gazed at the engineering and agricultural accomplishment. (On the previous day we visited the terrace marked on the Periplus map and were swarmed by people selling postcards, batik, wooden carvings, T-shirts, and many other things.) 
Second, a shot of a temple (or perhaps it was a family compound) decorated for a wedding. The Balinese calendar indicated that it was an auspicious day for weddings, so there were plenty of these decorations on the island.

There are apparently a few bicycle tour companies on Bali, but I don't know anything about them. What I do know is that the Banyan Tree tour was well organized, staffed by exceedingly helpful people (some of the riders had trouble with the few steep hills on the route, and a staff person always stayed behind to help out and offer encouragement), and follows a mostly downhill and quiet route. It's a great way to see the inside of Bali, far from the tourist shops. Highly recommended.

Random link from the archive: Three California Cheeses

Technorati tags: Indonesia : bicycling : Bali : rice : travel

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

An amazing chocolate chunk cookie, if you are very patient

I'm always on the hunt for an interesting cookie recipe, but somehow I missed an article by David Leite (of Leite's Culinaria) in the New York Times last July that included a recipe adapted from one by dessert genius Jacques Torres.  A few months after publication, the recipe was brought to my attention by the Splendid Table's interview of David Leite about the cookies, in which he revealed the recipe's mark of distinction: the mixed dough rests in the refrigerator for 24 to 72 hours before baking to allow the flour to fully absorb the liquid in the batter. But I didn't take any action; I just let it sink into my mental filing cabinet. Eventually, I came across a discussion of the recipe on the Accidental Hedonist, and I knew that the time had come to try them.

They come together fairly easily (thanks in part to the extensive use of weights in the recipe*).  But then comes the test of patience — a container of several pounds of delicious cookie dough in the refrigerator, calling to you for a day or two, like sirens to a hungry sailor. Operation-wise, shaping the cookies is the most challenging because of the combination of cold dough and large chunks of chocolate, but I'm not terribly picky about the shape of the final cookie, so I just carve out blobs of dough using a heavy spoon and smooth them by hand.  Other, like Pim, who shared her thoughts about the recipe, is a lot more precise about her cookies. (Her post and the comments have some interesting discussion about why the recipe calls for cake flour and bread flour. The short story: cake flour is bleached with chlorine dioxide or chlorine gas, which has effects on the starch granules in the flour, making them absorb more water, and also increases the acidity. This makes for a better cookie.  In any case, be sure to read Pim's post.)

Every other week or so, I have been baking a half-batch of these cookies. And my opinion, after much ponderous deliberation, is that they are really good. Perhaps it is the overnight rest, or perhaps there are other, more important items that make these great chocolate chip cookies, like the use of brown sugar, or the sprinkling of salt on the cookies just before baking.

You read that right, a sprinkling of salt.

In addition to the salt that goes into the dough for flavor and to react with the leavening agents, the recipe also calls for sprinkling some salt on top of the cookies before baking. Salt has its place in desserts (think salted caramel candy or ice cream) and this is one of them. The shape of the chocolate is yet another reason for these cookies' superiority. Instead of puny chips, the recipe calls for wide and thin disks (feves**), which give the cookie a somewhat geological appearance, as if the Grand Canyon was made of alternating layers of chocolate and dough.

These cookies — and my wondering about why they are so good — got my analytical wheels spinning and I went a little off the deep end, which I'll write about in a future post. But for now, go get the recipe, gather up the ingredients — and all of your patience*** — and give these cookies a try.

* An aside about weight:  I love it when recipes for baked goods list the weights of ingredients, like the outstanding Pure Desserts from Alice Medrich.  The Best Recipe cookbook from Cook's Illustrated, however, doesn't list weights for ingredients, which makes me wonder how could an organization that prides itself in careful technique not include flour measurements in weight? In the yellow cake recipe, for instance, they call for 2 1/4 cups of sifted cake flour. Every sifter is different, every measurement technique is different, as Michael Ruhlman explained in the L.A. Times ("I got weights for a cup of flour as high as 6 ounces and as low as 4 ounces"), and what might be "The Best Recipe" when your cup of flour weighs 4 ounces could be inedible when your cup of flour weighs 6 ounces.
** I get my chocolate disks at a fabulous store called Spun Sugar in on University Avenue in Berkeley. They  break down professional-sized packages (5 kilograms) into more manageable amounts like one or two pounds. They sell products from Guittard, Callebaut and other makers in varying cacao contents (e.g., 61%, 72%). Besides chocolate, they have lots of cake decorating goods and specialty baking ingredients.
*** Speaking of food and patience, check out this fascinating podcast from Radiolab and this article in the New Yorker about an experiment involving a marshmallow (or two), a timer and a young child.

Random link from the archive: Recipe - Zucchini Fritters
Technorati tags: Chocolate : Baking : Food