Saturday, April 24, 2010

Kasha crashes my chocolate chunk cookie dough

IMG_5089-1 Two years ago, I reported on a failed experiment: an unholy alliance between nutrition and cookies in which I added amaranth seeds (little nutritional powerhouses*) to chocolate chunk cookie batter before baking. The unpleasant results made me wary of such experimentation.

Many months later, I received Robin Aswell's "The New Whole Grains Cookbook" as a gift and found that it contained a chocolate chunk cookie recipe with a health boost in the form of toasted buckwheat groats (also called "kasha"). Whether or not these cookies are much healthier than a standard cookie is hard to say — and is probably irrelevant, they are cookies after all — but I gave them a try because I think that buckwheat and chocolate make an superb pair.

On one level they were a success: the flavor was excellent and the crunchy groats were an interesting change of pace. But on another level, the texture never turned out quite right — perhaps it is the recipe's specification of room temperature butter and baking soda instead of slightly chilled butter and baking powder, or perhaps I didn't adapt my baking habits to the batter's special needs.

I liked the combination of toasted buckwheat and chocolate so much that I brought flavor pair to my favorite chocolate-chunk cookie, pouring in about 1/2 cup of roasted buckwheat groats along with the chocolate chunks.

They were a great success — thanks in part, of course, to the underlying recipe — with the crunchy buckwheat pieces offering a foil to the soft cookie matrix and an interesting flavor contrast to the chocolate. In the end, it's clear that the reason they were a success while the amaranth experiment was my motivation: it was about flavor, not purely a nutritional boost.

If you like the taste of buckwheat, try adding a handful of kasha to your next batch of chocolate chunk cookies, cocoa cookies, or brownies.**


* A piece by Don Lotter at Rodale's New Farm looks at the potential of amaranth to improve the lives of poor Guatemalen peasants. Lotter summarizes the nutritional benefits of amaranth:

Amaranth enjoys a protein content of a remarkable 16 percent and is two to three times higher in lysine than most other grains. In fact, this important amino acid is low in most other grains and is perennially deficient in the diets of the rural poor in countries such as Guatemala. Amaranth is also 4 to 8 times higher in calcium and 3 to 5 times higher in iron-both critical elements for nutrition-than other common grains such as corn, wheat, and rice. In fact, when rated by nutritionists for general nutritional quality, amaranth scores significantly higher than other common foods such as milk, soy, wheat and corn. Amaranth's digestibility score is an impressive 90 percent, much higher than problematic foods such as soy, milk and wheat.

** Or try this recipe for “Buttery Buckwheat Nibby Cookies” from Alice Medrich’s remarkable Pure Dessert, posted on The Purple Foodie, which pairs buckwheat flour and cocao nibs.

Random link from the archive: A Pickle's Comeback

Saturday, April 17, 2010

The fish stick as post-war food icon

Gorton's fish sticks from zonalpony on FlickrThe humble fish stick — staple of school lunches and quick weeknight dinners — tells the story of American food since World War II. It tells us about technological innovation, the suburban explosion, America's love with "the new," and the major influence of government policy on what we eat.

That I learned all of these things about fish sticks is the result of one of those wonderful library coincidences: I was in looking for something or other and I ran across an article called "The Ocean’s Hot Dog: The Development of the Fish Stick" in the journal Technology and Culture (sub. req'd). Paul Josephson, a professor of history at Colby College, gives an overview of the development of the fish stick and how it became a success, giving special attention to Gorton’s company. I'm much more interested — and suspect that you are too — in the fish stick than in corporate history, so in this post, I’ll focus on the article's coverage of the fish stick as an example of the post-war food landscape (or, perhaps, seascape).

Born from Blocks

After World War II, the technological capability of fishing vessels greatly improved. Ships had stronger engines and longer range, more capacity, and more powerful winches. Nets were less costly and more durable. Military-developments like sonar helped find fish. And, perhaps most importantly, the new ships were able to process and freeze their catch at sea. So, the fleet of huge ships could catch vast quantities of fish, they could process the fish into fillets and freeze them into blocks at sea. Although the quick-freezing techniques were able to freeze fish without damaging it, when the blocks were thawed, the fillets were too damaged to sell as whole fillets. So what do you do with a huge block of frozen fish?

One of the first ideas was the "fishbrick":

quick-frozen filleted fish packaged like blocks of ice cream. The main selling point was that “the housewife can cut the fish into any shape and be confident that the shape will be retained even after cooking”; no defrosting was necessary. But the First National and Kroger’s grocery stores could hardly sell the product, and moreover, most stores lacked frozen-food display cases to accommodate the bricks.

Eventually, someone realized that the blocks of fish could be a valuable product if most of the cooking was done by the manufacturer, making it a convenience food. Although it took plenty of research and development to get the details right, the basic process for all fish stick was something like this:

solid blocks of clean, white, frozen-fresh fillets were cut into stick sizes with as little waste as possible, using modern band saws. ... After cutting, the fish sticks were covered with “just the right percentage of breading for maximum taste appeal.” Next, conveyors conducted the fish through automatic fryers where they acquired an “appetizing light golden-brown hue” in fat heated to between 375 and 400 degrees Fahrenheit. From there, it was on to packaging, labeling, freezing, and shipment.

A great idea to be sure, but it took much more than a band saw, some breading and a brightly colored package to make the fish stick a mass-market food.

Putting the Pieces in Place

As promising as the fish stick seemed, several things had to be in place before the product could really take off:

  • Grocery store display cases: Until the 1930s, grocery stores didn't the display cases that we are used to seeing, and so were unable to move much frozen merchandise. General Foods — owner of the Birds Eye brand, a pioneer of frozen food — was an innovator here, helping to design display cases and get them installed in grocery stores, thereby creating the frozen food market.
  • Distribution network: To get food from the factory to the store required a new network of refrigerated trucks and rail cars.
  • Kitchen appliances: The U.S. population in 1952 was 152 million, but only 4 million families had freezers. By 1960, the number of families with freezers had quadrupled. One reason for this is that the houses build during the post-war boom had kitchens that were large enough to hold a freezer or refrigerator–freezer unit.
  • Consumer acceptance: WWII was important here. The war sent many women into the workplace, and convenience foods allowed Rosie the Riveter to work in the shipyard all day, come home, and quickly have dinner on the table for her family. In addition, war rationing of canned goods drove consumers to frozen foods, laying the groundwork for the introduction of the fish stick after the war.

Government subsidies were also a major factor in the fish stick's development and success. Canada, the U.S. and other governments helped pay for new processing plants and new fishing vessels. The 1950s saw a major expansion of the federal highway system, enabling trucks to more easily deliver product across the country. Federally-funded research in such things as freezing technology led to product improvements. Eventually, the school lunch program became a major buyer of the product.

A Success Story

After years of development Birds Eye, Fulham Brothers, and Gorton’s introduced the fish stick in 1953*, emphasizing "their wholesomeness, modernity, and time-saving qualities: the 'harried housewife' could 'heat and eat' fish sticks, which were nutritious, based on scientific standards, and used only such wholesome ingredients as potatoes, salt cod, shortening, and meal." They were a big hit: within months of their launch, they had claimed 10% of non-canned fish sales. In 1953, 13 companies were making 7.5 million pounds of product. In the first quarter of 1954, 55 companies were making 9 million pounds of product.

To conclude this post, I'll let the article's author have the final remarks:

Like many processed foods, the fish stick occupies an important place in the American diet and the American marketplace. A visit to any neighborhood supermarket reveals no fewer than a half-dozen companies producing fish sticks. Still, it is not a staple of the diet. To most Americans, fast food means beef, not fish, and even when fish is chosen it is more likely to be breaded fillets than fish sticks. Among the factors that prevented the fish stick from becoming as celebrated as the hamburger were the American palate, which often suffers from landlubbers’ taste buds, and the declining quality of many fish stick products after their initial introduction. As more and more companies entered the market, many of them sought to cut costs by producing an inferior product, one with more breading and other nonfish substances. The fish stick became the “hot dog” of the ocean; many Americans continued to feel that fish sticks were a mediocre food, and companies that strove to keep quality (and fish) at the forefront of production suffered the consequences. This may have been because producers created demand for a product after fortuitous technological innovations and social pressures had combined to create the fish stick. Ultimately, the “piscatorial engineer”—part advertiser, part salesman, and part food-product innovator—could only put fish sticks on the table, but couldn’t make consumers fill their plates.

Reference: "The Ocean’s Hot Dog: The Development of the Fish Stick, by Paul Josephson (of Colby College), Technology and Culture 49 (1), 2008. doi 10.1353/tech.2008.0023

* The article is not completely clear about when the first fish stick was actually introduced. In one place, the Josephson writes that "Birds Eye, Fulham Brothers, and Gorton’s — all Massachusetts companies — introduced fish sticks in the spring of 1953." In another place, he writes "Birds Eye ... introduced fish sticks to national fanfare on 2 October 1953." How did Birds Eye introduce the product in the spring and autumn of 1953? Or was the spring introduction a regional one (e.g., New England) and the autumn introduction a national one?

Photo of Gorton's box from zonalpony's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.
Random link from the archive: My visit to the Slow Food Nation Taste pavilions

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Recipe: vegetable-cheese pies

There are many wonderful things about savory pies: the contrast between a sharply flavored filling and a mellow crust, the crisp edges and soft middle, their portability, and their flexibility, to name a few.
One of my favorite pies is an adaptation from a recipe in Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant, the Moosewood Collective’s book about cuisines from around the world. On Sunday, it turns out, the restaurant’s menu focuses on a particular part of the world, like Armenia and the Middle East, China, or the British Isles. Although they might not be as anthropologically exciting as a recipe collected in the field by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid (Asia specialists), Diana Kennedy (Mexico) or Paula Wolfert (the Middle East), in my years of cooking from the book I have found it to produce delicious food.

To create my pies, I adapted the dough recipe for “Beurek with Parsley-Cheese Filling” and the filling recipe from the previously blogged-about torta verde: feta cheese, potato, and chard. The filling for the Beurek in the Moosewood book is certainly delicious – four kinds of cheese, basil and parsley – but I usually prefer a greener filling.

Most savory pies take a fair amount of work – making a crust, making a filling, and making the pies – but the work can be spread out over an afternoon or two days. In this recipe, the vegetables in the filling can be made ahead, with the cheese and egg added just before assembly. As I mentioned earlier, savory pies are flexible. You can replace the chard with spinach, dandelion greens, or other green; use a combination of cooked mushrooms and cheese; replace some of the potato and greens with grated winter squash that has been steamed; or try other cheeses, like a soft goat cheese.

Leftover filling can be used to make a frittata or fritter: just add a few more eggs to any extra filling, mix well, then cook in a skillet.

The pies are fabulous right out of the oven, of course. They also can be part of portable meals – on a hike or urban adventure, for example – because they are delicious when at room temperature. They also freeze well, so thoroughly wrap a few and put them in the freezer for a future meal.

Recipe: Vegetable-cheese pies
Adapted from Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant and Saveur (May/June 1998)

3/4 cup warm water (105-110 °F)
2 T. olive oil
2 1/2 t. instant yeast*
1 t. salt
2 c. all-purpose flour
2 cloves of garlic, finely minced
8-10 large Swiss chard leaves, washed
1 medium potato, boiled, peeled and cut in 1/4" dice
2 T. minced fresh parsley or dill
1 1/4 c. crumbled feta cheese
1/2 c. grated mozzarella cheese
2 eggs, lightly beaten, divided (see below)
Wash and garnish:
Part of divided egg mixture mixed with 1/2 T. water
Sesame seeds or poppy seeds

(Unit conversion page)

Make the dough: Place the flour, yeast and salt in a bowl of a stand mixer with the dough hook attached**. Operate on low speed until dry ingredients are combined. Pour in the water and olive oil. Mix on medium-low speed until the dough starts coming together (you might need to mix with a spoon or the detached dough hook to get all of the flour into a mass). Process at medium speed for 4 minutes. Remove dough hook and cover the bowl. Let rise in a warm place for 1-2 hours, or until doubled.
Make the filling: Remove the chard leaves from the stem. Chop the leaves roughly and place in a large bowl. Cut the stems through the middle towards the base. Chop the stems into thin slices (a few millimeters).

Heat some olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add garlic, stir and let it cook for 30 seconds. Add chard stems and sauté for a few minutes. Add the chard leaves, stir, reduce heat to medium-low, and cook covered for a few minutes until chard is tender. Turn off heat, remove cover and let cool. When it is cool, squeeze the chard to press out excess liquid.

Combine potatoes, parsley (or dill), cheeses, and drained chard in a large bowl. Reserve about 1/4 of the beaten eggs in a small bowl (this will be used to glaze the pies before baking). Stir in the remaining 3/4 of the beaten eggs and set aside.

Make the pies:
Preheat the oven to 375 °F. Get out two baking sheets. Line one with a sheet of parchment paper or a non-stick sheet (like Silpat). Lightly dust the other with flour.

Punch down the dough. Divide it into 10 pieces. Roll each piece into a ball and place on the flour-dusted baking sheet. Cover them with a dry towel while you work.

Using flour as necessary (but not too much), roll each ball into a circle with an approximate diameter of 6 inches (it is also possible to stretch the dough by hand). If a piece resists your rolling, set the piece aside to rest for a few minutes and begin working on another piece (or re-rolling a piece that has been resting).

Spoon one-tenth of the filling into the lower half of a circle, leaving a border around the bottom. Fold the top half of the dough over, then seal the pie. You can use a folding technique or a crimping technique to seal. (A video from Greek Food TV shows how to roll a crust at the 4:30 time point. Proper crimping technique is shown by Alton Brown in a Good Eats episode posted on You Tube during the first minute of the video.) After each pie is finished, place on the Silpat/parchment-coated baking sheet. Gently bend into a half-moon shape if you like, or leave them as half-circles.

Just before baking, brush each pie with the egg wash, sprinkle with sesame seeds, poppy seeds (or nothing), then prick each pie with a fork in several places to allow steam to vent. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, turning the baking sheet 180 degrees once during baking. Serve hot or at room temperature.

* Instant yeast — also labeled "Bread Machine Yeast" — does not need to be dissolved in water before use and so can be combined directly with dry ingredients. If you only have regular yeast, pour it into 1/4 cup warm water (105-110 F), stir until well combined, and let rest for 5 minutes. It should be foamy and fragrant after that time. Pour into the flour along with the other 1/2 cup warm water and olive oil.

** To make the dough by hand, pour the water and oil into the dry ingredients. Stir until it becomes somewhat of a shaggy mass, then turn out onto a surface for kneading. Knead for 5 minutes, adding flour when necessary (but as little as possible).

Random link from the archive: Chocolate Chunk Cookies