Thursday, July 27

Petal Lust

Flowers look great on the dining table--deep fried, dragged in melted butter, or arranged on a field of salad greens or a cool frosting plateau.

Prickly Situation
Artichokes, also known as Globe Artichokes, belong to the same family of flower as the Scotch Thistle. The base of the inner leaves and the cup-like structure that supports what eventually matures into a giant thistle-like flower (the heart) are the parts you eat. The mass of filaments packed on top of the heart, the choke, is the part that blossoms, and has to be scooped out in larger specimens before eating. In small artichokes, you can simply trim off the fibrous leaf ends and eat the entire thing, choke and all.

Squashed Hopes
Squash blossoms are the flowers of the zucchini and summer squash. These vegetables are technically fruit, just like the tomato, because they are the seed-bearing structures of the plant. There are also male blossoms, which can be harvested and eaten without reducing your crop. You can tell the male blossoms by their thin stems. Female blossom stems are thicker. Squash blossoms are often lightly battered and deep fried, sometimes with a stuffing of some kind. But they can also be sauteed simply with butter. They have a delicate, fresh squash-like flavor and aroma.

Fast Food
Technically not part of the lily clan (such as tiger, easter, etc.), daylilies bear a superficial resemblance to their more ornate doppelgangers. Daylilies open their flowers during the day only to have them wither at night and replaced the next day by fresh ones. Their dried flowers are used in Chinese medicine as well as cuisine such as hot and sour soup and mu shu pork. True lilies such as the tiger lily are poisonous to cats. Daylilies are not.

Strike the Posie
There are a bunch of flowers that you don't cook, don't have a lot of flavor, but sure dress up that bag of prewashed salad greens you're serving to the wife's boss. Nasturtium, pansies, rose petals (white part removed), and pot marigold petals are just a few of these varieties. One warning: although they look gorgeous, pesticides are employed with reckless abandon on flower farms, which is bad for both the environment and the people who have to work there. So be sure you're buying organic flowers to feed your family and friends, not the kind from the local flower shop.

Saturday, July 22

Love Me Tenderized

It's grilling season and, although I've vented my spleen on gas grills already, as my friend Bob pointed out, "roasted meat is roasted meat, and it tastes good." No doubt.

To make that grilled dish even better, many believe that marinading is the logical pre-step. After all, bottles of the stuff line store shelves and you can even find devices to inject marinade literally into the roast or chicken breast. On top of all that, recipe after recipe for grilled food calls for marinading with the word "tender" sprinkled liberally throughout. Not so, say the's time for some tough love about tender.

The Truth About Tenderizing
Marinades—at least the acidic kinds—don't tenderize protein foods like meat, they actually cook it. You know how fish turns white in lime juice (think Ceviche)? Acid denatures the protein, which basically means it busts up the natural, tidy structure leaving behind a chaotic mesh of protein strands.

Depending on how much acid is involved, this bramble bush of protein can become tough. Cooking with heat also denatures protein, and like the acid in the marinade, it's a matter of degrees. Too much acid, like too much heat, renders meat tough. So go easy on the acid in the marinade...there's really no tenderizing happening there. What's more, unless you're injecting your meat, all the action is really taking place only on the surface anyhow.

Tropical Teasers
But what of pineapple and papaya juice? Doesn't all that exotic tropical fruit work magic on meat to make it tender? While you could say meat treated with the natural enzymes in pineapple and papaya definitely make meat softer, tender would be a stretch. Subjecting meat to an enzyme bath is more like leaving your cake out in the rain...definitely softer, but not very appetizing. Yuck.

Dairy Delusions
Another popular tenderizer—for chicken, at least—is yogurt, milk, and buttermilk. It's theorized that if any tenderizing is taking place at all, it may be from calcium in the dairy triggering enzymes already present in the meat. Questions remain about whether this is really what's happening. The only other obvious component that could be doing anything would be lactic acid in yogurt or buttermilk, and as we've already seen, acid doesn't really work.

Isn't the proof of the pudding in the tandoor? Tandoori chicken is marinated in yogurt, and there's no doubt that texture on the skewer didn't arise from the tandoor alone. The reason, however, may not be the yogurt. These marinades usually call for lots of ginger, a root that contains enzymes (a la pineapple and papaya) that could be doing the same softening.

Are Marinades Good for Anything?
Chris Schlesinger chef of the East Coast Grill, ex-chef of the Blue Room (both Boston favs) and author of "The Thrill of the Grill" advocates dry rubs over marinades. The reason is simple: dry rubs impart more intense, concentrated flavor without any of the negative side effects associated with acidic marinades. You'll use a bunch more oregano in a dry rub than you would ever put into a marinade.

However, if you keep the acid level low enough to avoid toughening your meat, marinades can certainly flavor grillables. And a small amount of acid sets the stage for a more productive, voluptuous browning to occur in the heat of the grill, oven, or pan.

Monday, July 17

Brown All Around: From toasting to tanning.

Brown food is all around us, from toast to roasts, coffee, tea, and chocolate: we associate rich brown color with delicious, complex flavor. This fact is not lost upon General Foods and its friends occupying the supermarket freezer case; if there was ever a phrase wheezing from the strain of marketing fatigue, it has to be "golden brown" (followed by "zesty").

But apples also turn brown after being sliced (without any benefit to flavor), as do potatoes. Sugar, on the other hand, can become brown and delicious. Tea leaves (black tea, at least) are green when harvested, but they're brown in the tin, and certainly delicious. Browning, it turns out, is the result of at three separate processes which can also contribute to flavor.

The fortune of the French fry.
Bread, raw meat, coffee beans, potatoes, and raw cocao (to name just a few) undergo changes when heated that make them brown as well as more delicious. This process is called the Maillard reaction, named after the not-widely-known French physician and chemist, Louis Camille Maillard. In addition to figuring out some important things about how your kidneys work, Maillard also discovered that amino acids and sugars found in food react with each other (under certain conditions, as, for example, when heated to between 300 and 500 degrees Fahrenheit in your oven or dunked in hot fat) to produce a whole bunch of new components, some of them brown in color.

Fortunately, these same processes can also make foods taste better. Roast beef, maple syrup, and hash browns all benefit in both appearance and flavor. The next time you put that burger on the grill or take a sip of coffee, you can thank Maillard for figuring out why your food looks and tastes so rich. The burger alone will be throwing off about 600 separate aroma components after undergoing Mr. Maillard's reaction. While you're in an appreciative frame of mind, you may as well thank him for your that fake tan you got for your best friend's wedding...the chemicals in spray-tan react with amino acids in your dead skin cells, turning you--like your toaster waffles--golden brown (fortunately no heat is required for that particular reaction to take place).

Not so good browning...but still, nice tan!
Ever noticed how unappealing your artichoke, apple, and potato slices look after just a moment or two of sitting out on a plate? The yellow-brown color these foods quickly take on is the result of another process called enzymatic browning.

Oxygen reacts with chemicals in fruits, vegetables, tea, and even tobacco leaves, called phenols (phenols are the healthful anti-oxidants that we're hearing so much about, although I wouldn't go looking for them in tobacco) to produce new brown compounds called melanins. On apples, this oxidation doesn't help the flavor, but on tea, it does. And yes, you guessed it, melanins produced during enzymatic browning are in the same family as the melanin you learned about in high school biology class, the one your body makes more of during sun-tanning.

Fortunately, it's relatively easy to control undesirable enzymatic browning. Adding lemon juice to your apples or avocado pieces destroys the browning pre-cursors, as will depriving your food of oxygen by throwing those sliced artichokes into a bowl of water. Industrial salad bars take the same oxygen-deprivation approach by liberally sprinkling sulfites onto their shredded lettuce. If you think wine's bad, consider that salad bars have literally thousands of times more sulfites added to prevent browning.

Carmelization, no tanning involved.
This type of browning does not involve oxidation and enzymes, but it does involve sugar voo-doo, making it more akin to the Maillard reaction. Unlike the Maillard reaction, no amino acids are required to make carmelization happen. The sugar takes leave of itself, producing melanins and new flavor components, just by adding heat.

Friday, July 7

Chocoluv Part 2: Tasting everything.

Temper, Temper...
In part 1 of Chocoluv, we traveled the road (briskly, mind you) from cocao pod to cocoa and chocolate. And while we're on the subject, notice the swapping of the last two letters from [c-o-c-a-o] to [c-o-c-o-a]. Cocao (pronounced ka-Cow) refers to plant and its parts, while cocoa (pronounced Co-co) refers to the food product either in the form of powder or as a component of chocolate, as in 'cocoa butter.'

Once the fermented, roasted chocolate nib has been super-finely ground in the chocolate manufacturer's conch, it's essentially ready to be made into bars: both eating bars, and ingredient-for-other-confections bars. However, there's one last thing you need to know before we get to the actual eating, and that's the process of tempering. Although it wouldn't kill you to remain unaware of tempering, knowing about it will explain both why professonal chocolate bars are glossy, snap nicely, and melt in your well as why the chocolate covered strawberries you make at home always turn out so damn sticky and dull.

Tempering involves the controlled warming and cooling (and warming and cooling again) of chocolate in a way that encourages the cocoa butter to become uniform in structure. Cocoa butter, the fat that holds the ground up nib in suspension, forms crystals as it cools to room temperature. There are several kinds of crystals that it can form, but the best for chocolatiers are those that happen at around 88 degrees farenheit, but only after all the other types of crystals have been melted thoroughly away. Once the right sorts of crystals get a solid start, subsequent cooling (and crystal formation) should spawn more of the same. If done correctly, the end product has a melting temperature that's just slightly below body temperature, perfect for creating that 'melt in your mouth' experience, and as an aesthetic side benefit, leaves a glossy shine and satisfying snap.

Those sticky strawberries? The chocolate got too hot in the double boiler and broke the temper of the chocolate. To avoid that problem, heat your chocolate very slowly and gently and remove it from the heat before the last few lumps melt completely. Keep stirring. Most likely, the last few lumps will melt eventually, but even if they don't, go ahead and coat your strawberries...this slow, gentle method preserves the temper.

Now to the Good Part: Tasting
This is the part of the blog that you can crib for hosting your friends over for a chocolate tasting. There are many resources for chocolate tasting wheels, charts and tables, but here's a short and sweet guide, cribbed itself mainly from McGee:

Remember all those complex reactions I mentioned in part one that take place during fermentation? Well here's how they manifest in your mouth:

Taste for bitterness and astringency. Those characteristics come right along with the bean. They're from compounds that the bean produces naturally, in part to fend off pests. Some of these get destroyed or removed by the fermentation, roasting, and conching processes, but not all. Caffeine, it turns out, is one of those (whew!).

Taste for fruit, wine, and vinegar flavors. These complex undertones result from the sweet pulp having been fermented. The acids and alcohols that are produced as the pulp transforms from plant food to chocolate pre-cursor leave behind complex flavors, just as they do when wine grapes are fermented. As the bean itself is decomposed and digested by the various helpful microbes in the fermentation process, almond and dairy or flowery notes may arise.

Finally, check your taste buds for the nutty, carmel, earthy and charcoal flavors that arise from the roasting process. Just like coffee, nib that has been roasted more intensely will taste more burned and charcoal-like with stronger caramel overtones. There are roasting styles for nib, just like there are for coffees.

What to Taste, or Who?
There are lots of great new producers out there to sample. My advice is to try a few of the big names like Scharffen Berger and Callebaut for reference. These are the bars that will be very consistent from year to year, and probably not too challenging. Then move on to more focused, interesting micro-producers whose tastes and the character of their cocao sources really come through.

Here are a few names. Get a bar from each when you shop:
El Rey (Venezualan single origin beans)
Michel Cluizel (French maker)
Grenada Chocolate Company(organic and fair trade maker)
Valrhona (single origin bars)
Casa Don Puglisi (vegan and beautifully presented)

Simple Tasting Steps
These steps were first revealed to me by SF local chocolate purveyor Adam Smith, who runs a fantastic little shop called Fog City News. I was lucky enough to attend a staff tasting, and here's what I learned:

1. Unwrap the bar and check it for shine. You're seeing the results of tempering
2. Snap a piece off...did it snap nicely?
3. Smell it. Can you detect any of the flavor notes mentioned above? Think about flowers, fruit, spices...see if the chocolate reminds you of anything.
4. Take a bite and let it melt. As the chocolate temperature rises in your mouth, it will melt and throw off even more aromas. How intense is it? How sweet?
5. Repeat!

Where to find it?
Chocolate trade is surging, so it's easier to find high quality product than ever. In San Francisco, where I live, Fog City News and Bittersweet Cafe are two great places to try. Fog City carries over 200 bars and they do chocolate tastings on a regular basis with the staff so they're well stocked and informed. Bittersweet also has a wide selection and performs organized tastings. I attended a tasting that was really interesting and informative. If you're in SF with a group, I recommend it.

I invite you to join the chocoluv party...where do you get chocolate in your town?

Thursday, July 6

Chocoluv Part 1: What's in the pod, man?

Like almost every aspect of the discretionary food marketplace, the roving spotlight of attention and global commerce has lighted upon chocolate. Not unlike the way that coffee went from donut companion to centerpiece, chocolate has matured from waxy drug-store candy "treat" into a full blown lifestyle option. Aficionados regularly discuss varietals, single origin products, and celebrity (minor, though they may be) producers.

But What is Chocolate?
Chocolate as we know it is really nothing more than super-duper finely ground, fermented, roasted beans (seeds) of the cocao tree suspended in cocoa butter (fat) with sugar, and sometimes flavor like vanilla or milk.

That statement, accurate though it may be, is akin to saying that wine is nothing more than fermented grape juice. The road from pod to bar is a long one with twists and turns that will leave you scratching your head wondering how anyone ever found the way. And the truth is, of course, that nobody figured it took many people quite a long time.

Pod Love
The cocao tree, a shade-loving amazon forest floor native, produces very unpromising, mini-football-size-and-shape pods that look, smell, and taste like they have little to offer in the way of good eats. There are mainly two types of cocao trees fueling the chocolate trade: criollo, and forastero. Criollo, though finicky and relatively lean producers, yield the most complex flavors in the finished product. Think of them as the Pinot Noir of the cocao world.

Forastero trees, on the other hand, produce the most reliable and bountiful crops. They're the Chardonnay of the chocolate world: they grow in a variety of conditions quite well, and they don't have that much flavor on their own. Hershey, Nestle, Cadbury, and Mars buy this cocao from plantations in West Africa, eventually making its way into your favorite vending machine.

The Process
After harvesting, pods are literally gutted of their pulp and seed contents which are piled into heaps. Soon, wild yeast ferments the natural sugars in the pulp into alcohol. Alcohol level rises causing the yeast to die off, and setting the table for bacteria which then consumes the alcohol, converting it into lactic acid. The lactic acid is transformed yet again by another sort of bacteria into acetic acid--a miraculous chain of events that roughly follows the pattern that grape juice does as it first turns into wine and then finally to vinegar.

Fermentation awakens flavor pre-cursors dormant in the pulp and seeds by exposing them to the alcohol and acid. Without fermentation, chocolate simply isn't possible. Squiring this process to success requires skill and attention, and it also has to be stopped at the right point. Arresting unwanted microbial activity is accomplished by spreading out the transformed beans in the sun to dry.

From Beans to Bar
Dry, fermented cocao beans must be roasted and their casings discarded. This produces 'nib,' which is really the first product along the way that begins to taste like actual chocolate. Nib is ground and refined into a paste called chocolate liquor. At this stage, producers can go in two directions: they can extract away the cocoa butter, leaving behind cocoa powder, or they can add cocoa butter to create a richer paste that can be transformed into the chocolate we know and love.

To make chocolate, the enriched chocolate liquor is ground even further in a machine called a conch (because it looked, in its first incarnation, roughly like the shell of the same name). The conching process tumbles the chocolate liquor much the same way that concrete gets tumbled in a cement truck. Ball bearings in the conch pulverize the beans into particles so tiny that our tongue can no longer detect them. The heat created from the friction of all that tumbling further transforms the chocolate liquor by encouraging unsavory volatile organic compounds to waft away.

Unlike industrial producers, or even small makers in Belgium and Germany, there's a whole crop of producers in South America who are growing their own pods and manufacturing the finished chocolate all in one place. This is a relatively new phenomenon, and one that's great for chocolate lovers. Although the europeans developed what we now think of as chocolate, the confection, small producers have gone to chocolate school and they're doing it for themselves.

Stay tuned for Part 2 where I'll talk about what to taste for, who the players are, and where to lay your paws on a bar or two.

Sunday, July 2

The Trouble with Truffles

One of my most treasured memories is having mushroom soup at a restaurant in Reading, Pennsylvania called Joe's. After the soup was served, the waiter garnished it with a ribbon of crème frâiche in the shape of a mushroom. Hokey no doubt, but the soup, which was made with wild mushrooms expertly harvested from the local Reading hills, was aromatic, earthy, and intense.

The origin and evolution of Joe's restaurant is a fascinating slice of American culinary history, and the latest of Joe's progeny, grandson Jack—along with wife Heidi, now run the Joel Palmer House in Oregon. They carry on the great fungi food tradition that began in Reading by harvesting their own mushrooms. And the soup? It's on the menu for eight bucks. I don't know if they garnish anymore.

What's a mushroom?
Mushrooms are the "fruiting body" of certain types of fungi, and by fruiting body, I mean the nibbley bit: stem and cap. The biological purpose of the mushroom is to cast spores to the prevailing wind from gills located on the underside of the cap, or in the case of morels, from the many folds on its surface.

The 'mother fungus' that produces the mushroom lies beneath the surface in the form of a network of delicate filaments (called hyphae) that interlace with the soil, extracting nutrients. According to Harold McGee, there can be as many as 2000 meters of hyphae in a single cubic centimeter of soil beneath the visible mushroom...that's a lot of hyphae.

Unlike plants that photosynthesize their energy from the sun, mushrooms take it from the soil, from the decomposition of other plants, or from host plants. Shitake mushrooms are cultivated on oak logs, for example, which also accounts in part for their distinctive flavor.

Many mushrooms are poisonous, proving that the best defense is a deadly offense. By deterring animals from eating their spores, these fungi stand a better chance of scattering them to good effect. Paradoxically, the safely edible ones taste good to us because, in part, they naturally produce the flavor enhancer most often associated with chinese take out, MSG.

Truffles, A Whole Other Matter
Truffles are related to mushrooms in that they're both fungi, but rather than casting spores to the wind, truffles use their intoxicating aroma to call almost anything with a nose to the dinner table. When they're most ripe, these hard-shelled fungi release a powerful mix of chemicals that rodents, deer, pigs, and even dogs find (as we do) hard to resist. They eat the truffles, taking the spores on board, and deposit them elsewhere.

Interestingly enough, the siren smell of truffle includes androstenone, a male hormone found in armpit sweat (this also according to McGee), which might be why some of us find it so fascinating, while others literally turn up their noses.

Unlike other mushrooms that feed on decomposing plant matter, truffles grow within the root systems of oak and other varieties of trees. In exchange for minerals extracted and shared by the truffle, the tree returns the favor with energy produced from photosynthesis. It's symbiotic: everybody wins.

The most valuable truffles, the Italian white Alba and French Perigord black varieities, are definitely the bling of the well stocked larder. White Albas can go for as much as $1500 per pound, while Perigord blacks often fetch $900. For most of us, both the money and connections you need to get your hands on fresh truffles are well out of reach. And that, in a nutshell, is the trouble with truffles.