To the Gastronomes

Food Reviews and Related Observations

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Note: Hydrate with a Homemade Bread Humidor

Cookies, cakes, and other baked goods will quickly dehydrate. You can use ordinary, mega-mart bread to keep them fresh, or to repair slightly overdone goods that are dry and crumbly from the start.
Simply toss a slice of bread in the tupperware or ziploc with whatever it is you're trying to keep moist. The water in the bread will gradually evaporate and your baked goods will absorb it.

You can take advantage of this same principle in order to soften up clumpy brown sugar. Place a slice of bread in a closed tupperware container with the sugar and microwave it for a few seconds to steam the sugar into submission. Of course, you could do the same thing with water, or probably just by putting the sugar in the microwave by itself... but that wouldn't be awesome.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Note: Off-Season Tomatoes

The Tomato. Lycopersicum. The Wolf-peach.
Although tomatoes are among the top three vegetables consumed in the U.S. (sources vary), their growing season is painfully short. Furthermore, interstate import of tomatoes is inhibited by the impracticably rapid rate at which they decay. Here's a few observations that will help you get the most out of what the Chinese call "foreign eggplant".

1) Don't Refrigerate Tomatoes that aren't Fully Ripe
When tomatoes are kept below 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the further maturation of the fruit is inhibited. The color and flavor of the tomato will stagnate. This means, unless your tomato is already perfectly ripened, you want to keep it on the counter. Unfortunately, even if you leave your tomatoes out, they may remain somewhat under-ripe. This is because:

2) Tomatoes Don't Really Continue to Ripen Once They're Off the Vine
The really bad news is, tomatoes don't continue to undergo all the same, delicious, strucutral trasnformations off the vine as they do on. And, if you pick them ripe off the vine, the window during which they will remain edible is prohibitively short. Thus, the tomatoes that are available at supermarkets are picked while they're still green and are exposed to artificial "ripening agents" subsequent to transport. Typically, they are exposed to ethylene (the chemical which causes tomatoes to ripen naturally) in the form of a gas. However, the ethylene doesn't effectively penetrate to the interior of the fruit. Therefore, ripening agents may only redden tomatoes rather than truly ripening them. Sadly, most of us are left with only one option for ripe tomatoes, year-round:

3) Buy Canned Tomatoes
For many cooks, the idea that canned food trumps fresh food in terms of quality may seem anathema. But for canned tomatoes, the emphasis on quality over durability makes the difference. Canned tomatoes are often of varieties that are sweet and flavorful, but which have little shelf-life. They're picked off the vine right at the height of ripeness and immediately canned. Therefore, if you're cooking with tomatoes (rather than using them in their unadulterated state), canned is the better option. You can further add to their complexity if you:

4) Roast Your Canned Tomatoes
Two of my favorite cooking gurus, Mark Bittman and Alton Brown, both recommend this technique. I used it making a tomato soup the other night and the results were fantastic. I put the tomatoes in a 375 degree oven for about 30-35 minutes, until they were browning and caramelized. It was both easier and tastier than preparing them on top of the stove. OK, one more tip:

5) Add Alchohol to Tomato Sauces and Soups
Tomatoes contain chemical compounds that only release their flavor in the presence of alcohol. A little bit of wine or vodka can go a long way toward enhancing the complexity of ordinary tomato dishes.

Monday, April 21, 2008

News: Huge Bounty on Science Fiction Meat

PETA has announced a one million dollar prize for the “first person to come up with a method to produce commercially viable quantities of in vitro meat at competitive prices by 2012.”

Even if someone is successful in developing the technology to cheaply grow muscle tissue cultures, the prospect of such products resembling natural meat products is slim. There is simply no viable way to reproduce the complex, mammalian physiology that results in the blend of tender meat and fat that comprises familiar meat products. Undoubtedly, companies marketing in vitro meat will be forced to turn to artificial flavorings, tenderizers, and other additives in order to even superficially imitate ordinary meat.

Given these predictable flaws, there is a serious question as to who the market for this product will be. The New York Times article linked to above notes that the prize caused a rift within PETA, many of whose members who remained opposed to the consumption of animal flesh on principle. I suspect that many vegetarians and vegans share this sentiment, and will continue to abstain from consuming meat regardless of the availability of in vitro products. The prize's spokeswoman, Ms. Newkirk, referred to in vitro meat as a "godsend", claiming that the product will decrease animal suffering. This position presupposes that there are a substantial number of consumers who are morally troubled by the consumption of natural meat, but who are only committed to action on their feelings insofar as a mediocre, superficial meat substitute is available. I would argue that most people who are significantly morally opposed to natural meat are already vegetarian. Furthermore, if a narrow subclass such as that Ms. Newkirk alludes to exists, it is already served by the availability of similarly mediocre, soy-based, imitation meats.

I think PETA's cause would be better served by promoting the dietary benefits and culinary enjoyability of vegetarianism than by a convoluted scheme to spur the development of high tech quasi-meats. Only time will tell whether anyone is tempted to make the research investment necessary to pursue the prize.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Essay: The 5 flavors

One topic that seems to come up often in discussions about cooking is the notion that the holistic experience of flavor is comprised of five distinct elements. The theoretical origin of this concept is rooted in Chinese philosophy; however, modern physiology has confirmed what premodern Chinese cooks intuited, save for one discrepancy. Today, the traditional Chinese model remains prevalent in various cuisines throughout Asia. Additionally, many western chefs and sommeliers turn to the updated theory as a basis for dishes and pairings.

Throughout the Shang and Zhou dynasties (1600-256 BC), material philosophy based on 5 elements (not entirely dissimilar from those theorized by Aristotle) became increasingly prominent in China. The concept supplemented the older, bicategorical perspective of T’ai Chi. As far as cooking was concerned, this development resulted in movement away from the understanding of foods as balancing agents of Yin and Yang. Rather, many cooks sought to synthesize representative flavors in order to achieve elemental harmony.

The following chart shows the elements, their flavors, and examples of foods that correspond to them:



Sweet potatoes



Chard, collards



Salt, Soy sauce





Spicy; pungent

Garlic, chili

According to Chinese tradition, each element acts upon two others, either drawing it out or controlling it. For example, wood draws out fire and controls earth. Understanding this, a cook can create dishes that dramaticize the effects of a particular ingredient or suppress unwanted flavors. Alterantively, the five flavors can be balanced in order to excite the entire palate. A familiar example of this technique is five-spice powder, which often contains clove, fennel, star anise, peppercorns, and cinnamon.

Modern anatomical research has revealed that our tongues contain multiple varieties of taste receptors (contained within our taste buds), each of which are discreetly stimulated by different chemical compounds. These receptors correspond to flavors that vary only slightly from those charted above. Foods that are spicy are not categorically distinct, and a branch of foods dubbed "umami" (savory) are separately recognized. The unique character of umami was originally uncovered in 1908 at Tokyo Imperial University, where a researcher sought to demystify the particularly strong flavor of seaweed broth.

Flavors physiologically detectable by taste receptors and examples of what they respond to:


Salt (NaCl)


Acids (H+ ions in solution)


Many compounds



Umami (Savory)

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

Instinctively, the brain responds very postively to salty, sweet, and umami (a type of flavor strongly associated with meat) foods. Bitter, which is characteristic of many poisons, and sour, which corresponds to rotting fruit and meat, typically induce a negative reaction. As such, ingredients that are sour or bitter are best used more sparingly than those that are salty, sweet, or savory. The flavors are also contrastable in a manner that is roughly analogous to Chinese tradition; when one food or ingredient is especially sour, it will make sweets taste sweeter.

Both the Chinese concept of elemental cooking and our modern understanding of the gustatory system are helpful when we think about dishes with complex flavor. Additionally, keeping some of the general principles of these schools of thought in mind can help take improvised dishes from the fridge or the pantry to the next level.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Review: Dagoba Xocolatl Chocolate

The market for gourmet chocolate has grown more than 10% annually during the past 5 years. As a result, alternative grocery stores have been flooded with new chocolate bars of both domestic and European origin. Extravagantly marketed and costing as much as 5 or 6 dollars a piece, many such bars seem to offer more bark than bite. Frederick Schilling, an accomplished chef and the founder of Dagoba Chocolate, crafts extraordinary chocolates that are a notable exception to the underwhelming masses.

Perhaps the boldest of Schilling's adventurous creations is the Xocolatl (zoh-koh-la-tl) bar, presumably named for the cacao-based, Aztec beverage that was the predecessor to chocolate. The bar is based on an intense, 74% cacao dark chocolate. However, it also includes numerous unconventional additions that relate both to the bar's precolonial theme and contribute rewardingly to its rich flavor. Most prominently, the Xocolatl contains a substantial amount of chili. Although the concept of a spicy chocolate bar might sound like a gimmick, the result is fantastic. The earthy flavor of the chili blends perfectly with the bitter taste of the cacao and lights up the entire palate. Even the tinest bite off the bar provides a suitably volcanic eruption of taste.

The bar contains two additional ingredients that offset the sweetness of the chocolate and help to develop its robust flavor. Cacao nibs, roasted beans that are removed from their husks and crumbled, are sparsely distributed throughout and contribute an occasional crunch. Maca, a Peruvian root vegetable reminiscent of radish (and which is said to enhance the libido), is also listed among the ingredients. It has a nutty, buttery flavor that rounds out the rest of the bar well.

In addition to tasting fantastic, Dagoba's Xocolatl chocolate bar is fully organic. More information about the company's impressive commitment to sustainability is available at their website. The bar retails for 3 dollars online.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Note: Marcona Almonds

Hawaiian macadamia nuts are apparently known as the "king of nuts". On similarly arbitrary grounds, marcona almonds are often advertised as the "queen of nuts"; or, far less prestigiously, as the "queen of almonds". Although the proposition that anyone thought analytically about the nut royal lineage is dubious, a comparison between macadamia nuts and marcona almonds isn't unwarranted. Like macadmia nuts, marcona almonds are unusually high in fat. Consequently, they have a smoother, more oily consistency and a sweeter taste than ordinary almonds. Crisp, milky, and delicious, they make a perfect snack with a glass of wine.

Marcona almonds are native to spain. They're perhaps best known for their usage in the historic nougat candy turrĂ³n (depicted enticingly on the right). Now, they're generally sold roasted, skinned, and tossed in olive oil and salt. Frankly, I can't imagine any cooking or snacking situation in which they wouldn't be superior to regular almonds. You can get some online or at an upscale grocery for around $18-20 a pound.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Buzzkill: Gourmet Salt

The explosion of popular interest in edible culture that has occurred over the course of the past few decades has spurred the development of vast quantities of new, high-end consumer food products. Salt, seemingly the simplest of all spices, is no exception to this trend. However, it also stands out as an example of how these products play purely on the momentum of gourmandism in the abstract. As a preliminary example of how deep the bullshit-hole goes, consider this $110 Bamboo Sampler Chest, which features 24 one-ounce jars of "the world’s most fabulous salts." The chest is recommended as a gift for someone with a "truly discriminating palate"; indeed, discriminating would be a severe understatement.

The salt we eat is approximately 99% pure sodium chloride. The remaining 1% consists of a variety of secondary minerals in trace amounts. Typically, salt will contain as many as 10 or 15 additional minerals in varying quantities. The discriminating palate of the true salt lover, presumably, would be identifiable on the basis of a capability for assessing the interplay between the microscopic quantities of obscure rocks that comprise this single percentile. Realistically, human taste buds are simply not sophisticated enough to make such a distinction. I
n the context of a dish where salt contributes only a minute percentage of what is eaten in the aggregate, the idea that a person could distinguish between different "varieties" of salt is even more ludicrous.

This conclusion is borne out in an essay from Jeffrey Steingarten's second book, It Must've Been Something I Ate. Steingarten conducted an elaborate salt-tasting experiment, subjecting 20 participants to a 13-round study. Private booths kept at room temperature housed the tasters as they evaluated saline solutions in which a representative spectrum of different kinds of salt had been dissolved. Ultimately, the results suggested that none of the participants were able to coherently distinguish bottom-of-the-line table salt from fleur de sel (which ranks among the world's most expensive salts).

So, does any reason remain to give more than cursory consideration to the particular salt we purchase? Instead of thinking of salts in terms of taste, it would be more rational to think of them in terms of texture. Table salt is finely and uniformly ground and often contains additives that prevent it from clumping. It consists of tiny flakes that easily adhere to food. Kosher salt is coarsely ground and forms in a larger, block structure, making it ideal for extracting the blood from meat in accordance with Jewish law. Rock salt will prove invaluable when you find you driveway frozen by winter's icy kiss. $15 jars of portugese finishing salt, however, would probably be best left on the shelf.