Maple-brined Roast Pork Tenderloin, or adventures in amateur meat preparation

low lighting apparently makes food look like it comes from the 70s

I stopped eating meat when I went to college. I also changed my name. Both were pretty obviously acts of adolescent self-definition coinciding with the start of a new life chapter, which I basically knew even at the time, although of course I had other justifications. If you’d asked me then whether or not I thought the changes would be permanent, I’m sure I would have given vegetarianism better odds than "Margot." My parents still called me Stephanie, all my friends from high school still called me Stephanie, and even some of my new friends, on learning that "Margot" was a semi-adaptation of my middle name "Mariko," were insisting on using the Japanese version, as if my identification as if "Margot" was a sad capitulation to Western Culture that they were going to prove to me I didn’t have to make. Plus, there was no good reason for me to change my name; Stephanie wasn’t really that objectionable. Vegetarianism, on the other hand, seemed like a moral or socially responsible choice, and unlike the name change, it didn’t require anyone else to change their behavior.

I didn’t really consider the likelihood that if I just kept introducing myself as "Margot" to everyone I met for years, eventually the majority of the people I interacted with would think of that as my name—and, perhaps more importantly on the self-definition front, I would too. Which is precisely what has happened. Nor did I realize just how complicated the ethical implications of meat-eating were or give much thought to the idea that my vegetarianism would actually require people to change their behavior—that in fact, it might occasionally be a social imposition. And unless I somehow remained as autonomous as most college freshmen are, it would eventually me to either find a vegetarian to share cooking and eating duties with or require pretty behavioral changes on the part of any omnivore who I might cook for or who might cook for me on a regular basis.

So a decade later, my name is Margot, and I’m an omnivore.

But I’ve only started cooking and eating meat again in the last couple of years, and for most of that I was a pescetarian, so I’m really still a beginner at cooking meat. This was my first attempt at doing something, anything with pork tenderloin. I decided to brine it, because Alton Brown says that’s helps keep lean cuts like loin moist. As for the actual cooking, I decided to roast it because there’s a lot to be said for the ease and convenience of recipes that involve just throwing a piece of meat the oven for a long time so you can get on with doing other things. The various recipes books I consulted all suggested a blast of high heat to brown the outside and then long slow heat to cook the inside evenly, so that’s what I did.

like for real, this picture belongs in a 40-yr-old cookbook. i promise it was more appetizing in person.I didn’t get any Maillard reaction going on (which is what causes browning on the exterior) even thought the oven was preheated to 500F for half an hour. Maillard frequently escapes me. But other than, it was pretty delicious. You could taste the maple syrup, and it was perfectly pink and juicy and salty. I only had ground allspice, so I took it down from 1.5 T to 1 t. but I think that was still a little too much, so in the future I’d either get my hands on some whole allspice or cut it to 1/2 t. ground.

Served it with a quick colcannon-like dish I made by steaming unpeeled new potatoes whole while I chopped and then sautéed some cabbage and leeks in butter. When the potatoes were tender, I added them to the buttery cabbage and leeks with a generous splash of milk and some salt and pepper.

Pork recipe and instructions after the jump.

Recipe: Slow-roasted maple-brined pork tenderloin (adapted from the Joy of Cooking and Real restaurant recipes)

  • ~2 lbs pork tenderloin
  • 1/3 cup + 2 T.maple syrup
  • 1/3 cup + 2 T. kosher salt (do not substitute regular salt or it will be way too salty–or reduce significantly, possibly 1/4 cup?)
  • 1 1/2 cups hot water
  • 2 1/2 cups cold water
  • 3 bay leaves, crumbled
  • 1 t. ground allspice (or 1/2 T. slightly-crushed whole allspice)
  • 1/2 T. cracked black peppercorns
  • 1 t. whole yellow mustard seed, slightly crushed
  • 5 medium garlic cloves peeled and crushed

Dissolve the sugar and salt in hot water in a pot big enough to hold the cuts of meat and enough liquid to cover them. Crush, crumble, or crack the whole spices, add them along with the cold water, and stir. Add the pork loin, cover and refrigerate 6-24 hrs.

in the brine 

Preheat oven to 500, remove the meat from the brine and, and pat dry with paper towels.hog tied. ha! i kill me.

I decided to tie the two pieces of loin meat together to make one even cylinder because I was afraid they wouldn’t cook evenly otherwise and it seems like a lot of the roasts I’ve seen on television have some sort of twine action. I don’t have twine, but unwaxed dental floss seems to work just as well.

Let sit for 30 min while the oven preheats so the meat comes to room temperature before cooking.

Roast at 500F for 10 min, and then lower the oven temperature to 200. Cook until the internal temperature reaches 145F, which could be as little as 20 minutes for a very small (2″ diameter or less) tenderloin or as much as 80 min. A 3 lb loin should take about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours total. After you take it out of the oven, tent a piece of foil over it and let it rest for 10 min.

Voila. Pork tenderloin roast.

Home-cultivated Yogurt: Part 1 in the “Culture This” Series

teeming with my little pets

If yeast strains had feelings, which are really easy to project onto them once you start giving them names, I suspect my 15-month-old sourdough starter "Ezekiel" would be seriously cheesed about losing out on the first "culture this" series to yogurt. But turning milk into yogurt is (very marginally) easier than turning flour and water into a starter, and life is busy in the fall when you work in education and watch an absurd amount of college football every weekend. Lame excuses, I know.

Why culture?

Lots of people will claim that home-cultured things taste better or are healthier for you, but those are either entirely subjective or up for serious debate. The main reasons I like culturing things are

  1. It’s cheaper. Milk is cheaper than yogurt, so even though you have to start with a little bit of yogurt the first time, even your first batch will cost less than it would to buy the same amount of yogurt someone else cultured. And it’s not like that’s a complicated or labor-intensive process. As Harold McGee noted in his recent NYTimes article on yogurt, the bacteria are doing all the work here. Why pay someone else premium for something that takes no effort or skill to do yourself?
  2. It gives you more control over the process, which is part of why people often end up thinking it tastes better. You get to decide how tart, how thick, how rich, and how voluminous you want your yogurt to be. You can start with soy milk if you prefer soy yogurt or skim milk if you want it to be fat-free. You can strain it if you want something closer to Greek-style yogurt at a tiny fraction of the cost. You are the master of your yogurt kingdom.
  3. It’s like having a science experiment/pet in your kitchen. With both yeast and yogurt cultures, you’re basically cyclically growing more by feeding them and putting them in a hospitable environment. They multiply like crazy, and when you have enough of them to suit your purposes, you crush their little yeasty or bacterial dreams of total world domination by putting them  back in a less hospitable environment. There’s a nurturing appeal, too, which probably seems to conflict with the idea of thwarting their imagined imperial ambitions, but it’s true: I like the sense of ritual and continuity. For yogurt, I like saving the last few tablespoons of every batch for the next one, swaddling the container in towels to keep it warm, and knowing when I eat it that it’s something I fed and grew

Sold? If so, I welcome you to "culture this" part 1:

How to make some milk and a little bit of yogurt into a lot of yogurt

I know it doesn’t sound super impressive when I put it that way, but it’s not super impressive once you’ve done it. If you’re looking to impress, you can call it "Homemade Yogurt" and not really be lying, but this not like a "wild" sourdough starter* where you’re cultivating yeasts in the flour or in the air that will thrive in precisely the conditions you set up in your personal kitchen. If that kind of sourdough is growing from seed, or raising volunteer plants, yogurt is planting a seedling you picked up at the local nursery. Basically every recipe I’ve seen for "homemade yogurt" involves a starter culture. This is also probably why I haven’t named mine—I sort of feel like its proper name is "Mountain High Yogurt," because that’s the brand I started with.

The whole process goes like this: you heat some milk until it steams, you let it cool back down until it’s warm but you can put your finger in it without too much discomfort, you stir in a few tablespoons of yogurt, and then you let it sit for 4-24 hours.

The specifics: eh, that looks like about how much yogurt I want

Step 1: Heat approximately the volume of milk you wish to culture to 180F

I use a ceramic crock I picked up for $2 at a re-use store, and generally just measure out the amount of milk I want by filling the crock up most of the way and then pouring that into a pan. Not super scientific, I know. If you want to make a specific amount of yogurt, measure out that much milk less 1 oz per cup for the yogurt you’ll stir in as a starter. If you’re planning on straining it, use approximately twice as much milk as you want to end up with in yogurt. 

Step 2: Let it cool to 110-120F (takes about 30 min for me, will vary based on the volume and vessel)featuring the waterproof thermometer I got after destroying three non-waterproof ones in about a year

Don’t skip this step, or you’ll kill all the bacteria. I did that the second time I tried this because I thought I remembered how to do it and didn’t need to look it up again and ended up throwing it out, although I probably could have just added more yogurt, but I didn’t have any at the time and this is all sort of contrary to the whole economical argument but the point is, don’t forget to let the milk cool back down. Just like yeast, temperatures over 120F will kill it. Apparently the reason for heating it to 180F  rather than just taking it up to 120F in the first place is that the higher heat changes the whey proteins and, McGee says, "helps create a finer, denser consistency."


Step 3: Whisk in approximately 1 oz. yogurt for every cup of milk you’re using

You can use any kind of yogurt with active cultures, and like McGee, I’ve found that the cheaper the yogurt I start with, the better my own stuff turns out. The more expensive unsweetened, organic, or Greek-style yogurts often only have one or two kinds of bacteria in them whereas the cheap stuff generally has a lot more and they’re apparently super active. Sure, those brands also tend to have sweeteners and additives, but all of that will get diluted so much in your end product that they won’t affect the taste much, if at all. Certainly not by batch #2.

McGee recommends 2 T. per quart, but I tend to use a little bit more. The amount of starter culture and length of time you let it sit are what will determine the tartness and consistency, so you can play around with both to figure out your own "perfect" yogurt.

Step 4: Put in an insulated airtight container and seal

This is where the crock with the airtight seal comes in handy, but I imagine plastic wrap and a rubber band would do just as well. Whatever your vessel, you’ll want to wrap it in a few towels. I secure mine with mega rubber bands like so: the kitchen towels du jour involve men in toques and a towel I suspect was "borrowed" from a gym at some point

Step 5: Taste every 4-hrs or so to see how it’s coming along

Try not to stir it, as you want to keep the milk still until it sets, but you can take just a little off the top to see how tart and creamy it is. McGee says four hours will do it, but I’ve had better luck letting it sit 12 or more hours, usually overnight. Earlier than that and I’ve gotten really mild, milky results.

What’s happening as it sits is that lactic acid produced by the bacteria causes the protein and fat in the milk to form a continuous network, which the water gets suspended in (well, except for the part that leaks out or pools on the top, which is whey). Those networks are what make yogurt thick and creamy.

Skim and soy milks will never set up as thick as whole milk, which is what I generally use. Commercial manufacturers often add gelatin or starch, which I imagine you could do at home. Using starch, I would probably start by making a paste of 1-2 T. corn starch or arrowroot powder and an equal amount of milk, and then I’d whisk that into the rest of the milk before heating. Using gelatin, I’d just sprinkle a package or two over the cold milk before heating and let it sit or "bloom" for 5-10 min and then heat as usual, stirring constantly and making sure the gelatin dissolves. I can’t say for sure that would turn out great, but if you’re a soy or non-fat yogurt eater and you want to try making your own at home for cheaper, it might be worth a try.

Step 6: Refrigerate and enjoy

The yogurt will continue to set once in cold storage and the lactic acid production will slow to a halt. Kept cold, it should last for weeks—the acid helps preserve it much longer than fresh milk.

I love it for breakfast sweetened with Grade B maple syrup (which is cheaper, more flavorful, and more nutrient-dense than Grade A) and topped with fruit and granola. I also love it salted and mixed with vegetables and/or herbs as a sauce with fish. And strained, sweetened, and frozen it makes a great dessert.

Optional Step 7: Strain

If you want a thicker, Greek-style yogurt, pour it into a cheesecloth-lined colander or a fine mesh strainer and suspend over a bowl for several hours. The yellowish liquid that drains out is whey, which contains protein and a number of vitamins and minerals. Some athletes drink whey, often sweetened or salted, as a workout-recovery drink (whey powder is also part of many supplements). If you’re not into drinking it straight, you can also use it as some or all of the liquid in most baking recipes. Processed foods sometimes contain whey, so I’m sure food product developers could tell you what difference it makes but so far, I haven’t been able to tell.

*Scare quotes for "wild" because I’ve been convinced by Aaron Bobrow-Strain that even sourdough starters cultivated without the use of packaged yeast or a pre-made starter aren’t really "wild." Much like corn and dogs and modern chickens, yeast and human civilization co-evolved, so even seemingly "wild" strains of s. cerevisiae yeast are the product of agriculture and human-yeast interaction. That said, there ought to be a way of distinguishing between starters that rely on booster yeast or heirloom yeasts and the ones that you grow in your own kitchen to fit your personal rhythms of baking. Apparently Bobrow-Strain has been working on something for publication about baking and yeast ecology with Melanie DuPuis so I’ll try to keep an eye out and post the reference for anyone interested in that sort of thing.

Things that won’t kill you Vol. 2: Fruit juice

This may seem like a strange thing to argue about, because the popular consensus still seems to be that juice is healthy. Jamba Juice markets itself as "the category-defining leader in healthy blended beverages, juices, and good-for-you snacks." They even use Jamba as an adjective to mean the opposite of high fructose corn syrup and trans-fats (adding those things to juice ""just wouldn’t be Jamba"), which again, constructs the brand as healthy vs. the demon poisons that make people fat. Even if it’s foolish to go looking for truths in advertising, I don’t think Jamba Juice’s branding generally occurs to people as a massive irony or lie. Advocates of banning or restricting soda vending machines in schools often claim that the soda should be replaced with 100% fruit juice with no added sugars, and for many people, a glass of orange juice still represents "part of a nutritious breakfast" strongly with desirable nutrients like Vitamin C.

The Case Against Juice

But a number of health trends have begun cast suspicion on juice, especially the (impartial and incomplete) shift from primarily low-fat to primarily low-calorie and low-carb dieting in mainstream weight-loss culture, and the growing concern about the role sugars (especially fructose) play in personal and national obesity.

On the low-calorie front, people who believe that losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight is all about the basic algebra of calories-in vs. calories-out often end up axing all caloric beverages from their diets because they have a bad satiety-to-calorie ratio—I mean, obviously, right? Fruit juice is just fruit with some or all of the filling fiber removed. If the goal is maximum satiety on minimum calories, you’re better off eating whole fruit and drinking water or artificially sweetened beverages.

On the low-carb front, people who believe that what’s important is not how many calories you eat but what kind are also going to see juice (and sometimes most fruits and vegetables as well) as "unhealthy." It does seem to be true that diets high in carbohydrates drive up insulin levels, slowing metabolism and encouraging the body to store fat. And the overwhelming majority of the calories in most fruit juices are in the form of carbohydrates. Some green vegetable juices have protein content approaching 50% of the carbohydrate content, but that just makes it 75% bad rather than 100% bad, at least as true carbophobes are concerned.

And finally, there are some non-carbophobes who might avoid juice because they’re wary of sugar qua sugar, rather than sugar qua carbohydrate. The carbohydrates in fruit juice primarily take the form of fructose—wikipedia has a handy chart of the kinds of sugars in common plant foods. It doesn’t seem like there’s a true consensus yet about whether or not fructose is especially bad—despite recent studies linking fructose to obesity, even within the medical community, some people still advocate fructose as a "low glycemic" sugar that’s better for diabetics. It basically all comes down to whether you think the fact that fructose is digested in the liver and doesn’t trigger insulin production is a good thing or a bad thing. To link it to other sugar purveyors: pro-agave nectar people should also think that fruit juice is healthy and people who think hfcs is bad because they think it’s "high fructose" compared to other sugars are, well, a) wrong, but b) should also be advocating hfcs-sweetened sodas over fruit juices, which are even richer in sugar.

Personally, I think the evidence that fructose in large amounts causes equivalent blood sugar spikes to other sugar, increased "bad" cholesterol and triglycerides and signs of insulin resistance compared to glucose, and can cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease consumed in vast quantities suggests that it is certainly no better and possibly much worse for human health than glucose or sucrose. But "worse for human health" is relative, not absolute, and depends a lot on amount, kind, and context. 

What is health?

I’m generally convinced by the argument made by people like Gary Taubes that a diet composed of almost-exclusively proteins and fats might better represent the pre-agricultural, hunter-gatherer diet (as would cyclical feast and famine) and prevent carbohydrate-induced insulin resistance and fat storage. Jared Diamond makes some of the same points in Guns, Germs, and Steel. But the benefits of agriculture ultimately outweighed the costs—both for the species as a whole and measured by individual health metrics. In the immediate aftermath of the transition to agriculture, lifespans and average height decreased, but after a few thousand years, people depending on rice, corn, and wheat began to get healthier again

Does that mean carbohydrates are a healthier basis for a diet than proteins and fats? No. But it does mean that people can (and do) live very long lives uninterrupted by diet-based disease during which they are strong and energetic enough to physically do anything they want to do while eating a diet consisting substantially of carbohydrates. And I think that’s not a bad working definition of "healthy."

It seems to me that the debate comes down to a difference between ideas about nutritional "health" based on what might be theoretically optimal (for a very limited set of criteria), ideas about health based on potential pathology, and ideas about health based on actual health outcomes

Fear of juice is based on the first two—the idea that either people should eat as few carbohydrates as possible in pursuit of some sort of optimal diet, or that the fructose in juice will cause fatness (an aesthetic problem, not a medical problem) or disease and eventually death. Based on actual health outcomes, I think it would be almost impossible to make a case for the claim that drinking fruit juice—occasionally or regularly—is categorically unhealthy or the direct cause of disease or death.

In fact, things like fruit juice and hamburgers and Doritos, which can each be constructed as "unhealthy" are hard to entirely rule out of a "healthy diet." Even proponents of a soda tax generally agree that the only reason soda is a reasonable target is because it has no identified nutrients (what would happen if they fortified them, I wonder?).

The nutrient-density of juice is the primary reason for the long tradition of juice being regarded as a health food. If your concern is about essential vitamins and minerals (like many older models of nutrition, which people like Marion Nestle stand by) or consuming carbohydrates for fuel, which many physically active people still do, it’s hard to argue with the healthfulness of juice. I agree with Michael Pollan’s claim that popular beliefs about health often fall prey to "nutritionism," or the attempt to reduce food and nutrition to scientifically-identified nutrients and vitamins. At the same time, I don’t think you have to be brainwashed by the continued prevalence of nutritionism to believe there’s good evidence that many of the nutrients that scientists have identified are actually valuable or promote health and well-being (even if they’re not the only valuable aspects of food).

All juices are not created equal

The person who requested this entry was concerned specifically about fresh juices being portrayed as unhealthy, because they seem to have been smeared by concerns about packaged juices being just other source of dietary sugar.

While not all fruits lend themselves as readily to the production of refined sugars as sugar beets, some like apples, pears, and grapes can be turned into a nutrient-poor sweetener without most of the fruits’ color, flavor, or minerals and many fruit juices marketed as 100% natural fruit juices, like Juicy Juice, are sweetened with fruit juice that’s basically been turned into a sugar syrup. The nutritional distinction between those drinks and hfcs-sweetened soda is probably negligible regardless of whether your primary concern is calories, carbohydrates, sugar, or vitamins.

But the reason packaged juices often combined with fruit-based sugar is that many fruit juices aren’t actually that sweet on their own, or their sweetness is offset by the intensity of the flavor, as anyone who’s ever tried 100% cranberry or concord grape or cherry or blueberry juice knows. The fresh juices you can get at juice bars or make at home are calorie-dense, but they’re also extraordinarily nutrient dense and not likely to be consumed in quantity or alongside meals. They’re more often enjoyed on their own, like a snack, particularly after a workout—basically just like fruit. When you leave in some of the pulp, it becomes even less nutritionally distinct from fruit, and when you include vegetable juices or the juices of things like wheatgrass and ginger which are difficult or unpleasant to eat raw, you may be enjoying something that could, by some criteria, be healthier than a piece of fresh fruit.

Some juices even have pretty well-established medicinal uses. Cranberry juice, for example, can help prevent and cure urinary tract infections (that study notes the existence of "diet" cranberry juice, which I’d never heard of, but now that I have I wonder why there aren’t more "diet" juices sweetened with artificial sweeteners rather than pear or grape juice-sugar. Not that those would necessarily be "healthy" by everyone’s standards, especially given the links between saccharin and cancer and suspicions about the healthfulness of aspartame and sucralose…)

Ultimately, while I don’t think even the occasional hfcs-sweetened Capri Sun is incompatible with a "healthy" diet and life, I think it’s unreasonable to conflate fresh juice without added sweeteners with juices sweetened with refined juice-sugar. I guess people trying to eat an "optimal" diet a la Gary Taubes should avoid all juices, fresh or no, but I don’t envy them their carbohydrate-less life, nor am I convinced that the total deprivation of many foods that have aesthetic, gustatory, social and/or cultural value is necessarily "healthy" or "optimal" either. For the vast majority of people who think fruit and vegetables are part of a healthy diet, fruit juice and especially fresh fruit juice should also pass muster as a "healthy" choice especially when consumed in moderation, which I suspect fresh fruit juices usually are.

Battle Tomato Course 2/5: Crab salad napoleons and a green salad with roasted tomato vinaigrette and fried tomato skins

and because we are nothing if not classy in kitchen stadium canada, it's paired with labatt blue light. in a can.

Finally getting back around to the epic battle of tomato before tomato season is over for another year. After I scrapped the idea of doing BLT sliders for my lunch plate because I didn’t want to over-use bacon, I decided to try something that would use the slices of tomato as a structuring agent rather than bread.

Although "napoleon" used to refer exclusively to a dessert composed of layers of puff pastry and pastry cream (or whipped cream), it’s being used now to refer to anything with repetitive layers of differing textures—i.e. more layers than a "sandwich" and more differentiated than layers of gelatin or lasagna. From what I can tell from watching competitive cooking on television (and not as a substitute for cooking either—I so wish the Balzer data Pollan was ranting about in the NYT a few weeks ago had accounted for traditional indicators of social class and suspect that many people watching food television are actually cooking but that’s a topic for another post), napoleons usually have at least three layers of whatever’s playing the roll of the puff pastry and at least two layers of semi-solid filling.

The layers were already a given. For the filling, I decided on a mayonnaise-based crab salad because I knew I had seen crab-stuffed tomatoes on menus and tomatoes love mayonnaise almost as much as they love salt. And indeed, I thought the combination worked really well. I’ll definitely make the salad again, perhaps to use as a sandwich or wrap filling when tomatoes are out of season. Recipes and instructions for making fried tomato skins after the jump, now that jumps are working. Yay for jumps.

Recipe: Crab salad napoleons, adapted from

(for 6 servings, but easily scaled)

  • 6 medium-to-large tomatoes
  • 1 lb crab—lump or canned, or a surimi product (like imitation krab)
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 2 shallots diced
  • 1 cup fresh breadcrumbs
  • 1/2 cup diced celery
  • 2 T. sour cream
  • 2-3 T. chopped fresh dill
  • 1 t. Old Bay seasoning
  • 2-3 hard boiled eggs, chopped
  • salt and pepper to taste

Core the tomatoes and cut each one into four slices horizontally.

Drain crab and check for cartilage and shell fragments. Combine with remaining ingredients.

Spread a few tablespoons of salad between the layers of tomato and garnish with a sprig of dill.

I served the napoleons with a side salad of fresh greens tossed with a roasted tomato vinaigrette that I can eat by the spoonful I love it so much, goat cheese, diced kalmata olives, and fried tomato skins.

The fried tomato skins were a sort of experiment. I knew I was going to blanch and skin the tomatoes for my soup course and decided that rather than throw them out, I should try to do something with them. Points for creative use of ingredient and all that. So I tossed them in some flour seasoned with salt and pepper and then fried them until golden brown in some hot olive oil, and gave them another sprinkle of salt just after frying. Tomato skins don’t have a ton of flavor, but it’s hard to go wrong with fried flour and salt—they were a hit. I would do it again if I ever, ever bothered to blanche and peel tomatoes when I cook at home. 

The easiest way to get nice big pieces of tomato skins is to cut an "x" on the bottom of your tomatoes before blanching them in boiling water for about 1 min. Transfer them to a bowl of ice water, and then you should be able to remove each tomato skin in four big pieces.

Recipe: Roasted tomato vinaigrette, from Erik Markoff

  • 8 roma tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup champagne or white wine vinegar
  • 1/2 cup + 1 T. olive oil
  • 1/4 cup fresh parsley
  • salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 400 F. Halve the tomatoes and place them on a foil-lined baking sheet. Pour about 1 T. olive oil over them and toss gently to coat, sprinkle with salt and pepper and roast for 40 minutes.

Puree roasted tomatoes with remaining ingredients in a food processor or blender until smooth and season with salt and pepper to taste.

It Came From Outside: lessons from novice gardening

imagine, if you will, a classic 50's horror flick soundtrack with some woozily needling theraminLesson 1: If you leave a tiny, innocent-looking baby zucchini alone for a day or two, it turns into a giant, bitter, watery monster. The penguin is there for the crazed expression,not for scale. The wine bottle is for scale:

a 750 ml bottle, not a split, I swear

I think, salted and drained, it might make its way into some bread or soup, or both? I thought about asking my advisor if I could take a picture of it with his baby (again, for scale) and then thought perhaps I could offer the squash as a trade for the photo op, but as Brian pointed out, that much squash is a burden, not a gift or a valuable commodity to be traded.

Too bad I missed "Sneak Some Squash Onto Your Neighbor’s Porch Night".

Another illustration of its might and girth:

depth sort of unclear--the squash is bigger than the CD at the fat end

Lesson 2: If you wish to harvest your squash blossoms, perhaps under the mistaken impression that you can prevent the inevitable glut of giant bitter watery monster squash even a single plant will produce if you’re not vigilant, try to pluck them when the flowers are open. Fortunately, I was too busy trying to corral the bee that flew out of one into the kitchen window to worry much about the spider that was crawling out of another one. The spider was gone by the time I got the bee taken care of and the remaining two only contained innocuous-seeming little beetles, but it was still a hectic few minutes. And the goat cheese-filled, tempura-battered result was good, but not quite good enough to inspire me to try it again.

Lesson 3: Cilantro is the herb equivalent of that one girl in high school who couldn’t wait to have babies and doesn’t seem to have any other ambitions, which might be more media cliche than real-life personality type, but either way is an easy target since working outside the home has become so conflated with women’s "liberation" and gender equality that some people have actually hailed the disproportionately high job loss men have experienced in the current recession as a victory for feminism. I’m sure the Institute for Women’s Policy Research president’s quote, "It was a long historical slog to get to this point," was completely taken out of context, but the really insane thing is that I’m sure the journalist isn’t the only one to think this can be construed as progress for women. As if being a primary breadwinner because your male co-breadwinner is out of work is every little girl’s dream. Anyhow, what was I saying? Oh, cilantro goes to seed faster than anything else I’ve ever planted, and then it just dies. Fortunately, I do use coriander seed in curries and such, and I get a vague kick out of having my spice jar filled with "home grown coriander," but if you’re not part of the doomed 15% of the population who think it tastes like soap and you relish the thought of having cilantro leaves to complement the great tomato glut of August, you should plant a second bunch after the first stuff comes up.

But I did discover something lovely about the seeds: they crackle like Rice Krispies if you get them wet

Lesson 4: Mulch is fantastic, and scattering it around your plants once they’ve come up is a great way of preventing weeds from growing (apparently lawn clippings also work). However, it also seems to attract ants when left in a semi-moist bag against the side of the house. Probably shouldn’t have been a surprise. Fortunately, there is a solution: if you pump the half-full bag of ant-mulch full of water and then leave it in the sun for a day or so, the ants either die or go elsewhere and the mulch becomes much more pleasant to use again.

BLT-bound Lesson 5: Heirloom tomatoes are pretty and delicious, but they just don’t seem to produce as much fruit as the standard varieties. "Mr. Stripey" only yielded three tomatoes this year, and just seemed to struggle all summer despite being fertilized and kept in a self-watering planter. Ditto for the "Mortgage Lifter," and I think I’ve gotten four or five plum-sized "Green Zebra" tomatoes off that plant. Compared to pints and pints of unbelievably sweet cherry tomatoes on the non-heirloom sungold plants and perhaps as many as a dozen beefsteak tomatoes, with many more green ones still to ripen. Like so many heirloom things, they must need special care or simply not be designed for everyday tomato needs.

Lesson 6: Baby cucumber plants are apparently the very most delicious thing I grew to whatever eats the plants in my garden, probably rabbits. No doubt eager to dispel years of speciesist stereotypes, they avoid the carrots entirely and chewed every cucumber seedling I managed to grow down to a tiny leafless nub. I had even scattered used kitty litter around, which is supposed to be a rabbit repellent. So it seems like if cucumbers are on the planting agenda, it might be best to cover them with chicken wire until they’re no longer quite as tender and sweet.

And finally, a few more monster zucchini pictures and a tiny Dr. Seuss tribute:

 in a hat! with a cat!

Stovetop sourdough naan

naan, anon!

I mostly chalked up my seeming inability to make decent naan to my lack of a tandoori oven or any other means of emulating solar fusion in my kitchen. non-naan non-naan, non-naan non-naan, hey hey hey...

Not that I didn’t try. I’d crank the oven as high as it goes and preheat it forever with a baking stone inside seeming to absorb and radiate all the heat my kitchen could muster up. But my little circles of dough would just poof up like pitas, and brown modestly and taste, unsurprisingly, like pita bread. Which is fine and all, it’s just nothing like the pillowy soft, flaky wedges of seared, blistering flatbread that’s basically the best part of eating at Indian restaurants.

Every time I have naan like that, I’m reminded of the first time I ate in the Desi corridor on Devon Ave in Chicago with my friend Rachel. A minute or two after we sat down with plates loaded from the buffet, she started nodding as she chewed—not looking at anyone or anything, just: yes. Then she stopped eating for a minute, turned to me and said, "This bread is pretty awesome."

I finally achieved what I consider to be "pretty awesome" naan by baking it on the stovetop in a dutch oven. I’d tried that before—both in a normal nonstick skillet and in a dutch oven–but it just ended up underdone in spots, sometimes burning but not blistering, and chewy instead of pillowy. It was also always, for lack of a better way to describe it, too bready. Apparently the problem goodbye, pastry brushwas that I was just too shy about letting the dutch oven get hot enough to melt my pastry brush into a solid nub of smoking black plastic. If you don’t want to sacrifice a pastry brush to the cause, the traditional way to gauge whether it’s hot enough or not is that the oil will be smoking, and not like a little modest smoking, full-on, disable-the-smoke-alarm-and-turn-on-any-fans-available smoking. My mistake, it turns out, had been turning the heat down when the oil started to smoke, thinking it would impart an unpleasant burnt flavor to anything cooked in it. I was obviously forgetting that naan often has a quite pleasant burnt flavor.

The recipe I sort-of used, which I found at Porcini Chronicles (and which they credit to Yamuna Devi’s book The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking) was was also slightly different than the ones I’d tried before. If I’d actually looked at the recipes I’ve used before—not just for naan, but any bread I’ve ever made with my sourdough starter, I would have known right away that there was no way it was going to work as written. My starter is roughly equal parts flour and water by volume, so it’s about the consistency of a thick pancake batter. The one they used must have been 90% water–or they just copied the amounts wrong. (Notes below about how to substitute for starter if you don’t have one, and a post soon about how I cultivated mine).

To explain, the ratio of starter:flour for a typical, slightly sticky dough is 2:3. This recipe called for 1/2 cup starter and half cup yogurt for 3 cups of flour, or a liquid:dry ratio of roughly 1:3. Instead of thinking about that for the ten seconds or so it would have taken for me to figure that out, I just dumped all the ingredients into the bowl. Whee! I am so smart.

sticky like a ninja

There was obviously too much flour. Scraps were flying out of the bowl as I mixed. I had doubled the recipe, so I checked again to make sure I hadn’t done it wrong…and I hadn’t. So, I just kept mixing and then started kneading it into a dough the best I could, but, I mean, the recipe actually said you could add flour if the dough was too sticky.

your face is sticky. wait, what?

I did manage to get it to start to come together like a dough, but too sticky? It wasn’t even sticky enough to keep the seeds in the dough—they were scattering all over the place. And it was so stiff it was almost impossible to knead.

There was a moment when I wondered if maybe this was the key to delicious, soft, flaky naan: a super stiff dough that only a real Indian grandma would know how to handle. Maybe, I thought, I should just go with the recipe no matter how crazy it seemed.

But the recipe was telling me two different things: on the one hand there were the amounts, on the other the suggestion that it might be sticky.

I choose sticky. I ripped a gap in the dough and poured some more sourdough starter into it. And I kneaded that in. And then I did that again. And a third time. I probably added another cup of starter, and none of the flour I’d left out. Eventually I had a supple, smoothstrangely looks like biscuits and gravy dough.

Each time I added more starter, the ball would initially be a big sticky mess. Rolling up the stray nigella seeds, I felt like a giant with a tiny katamari. This, I thought, is not "a science." The whole idea that cooking is "an art" and baking "a science" relies on so many flawed assumptions: the idea that science can’t be improvisational and cooking is, the idea that art isn’t often extraordinarily, painstakingly precise, the idea that you can’t just throw some flour and water and yeast together and come up with great bread.

So, I think the following is roughly what ended up in my dough, but if you’re looking to recreate it, just aim for something dough-like, get a pan really, really hot, and don’t get too caught up in the details.

Recipe: Sourdough Naan

  • 1 c. sourdough starter*naan6
  • 5 T. ghee or vegetable oil, divided**
  • 1/2 c. yogurt
  • 2 1/2 c. bread flour
  • 2 t. sugar
  • 1/2 t. baking soda
  • 1/2 t. baking powder***
  • 1 1/2 t. kosher salt (1 t. reg)
  • 1/2 t. kalonji/nigella/black onion seeds, or poppy seeds (optional)

Combine everything but 1 T. of the ghee or oil and knead until it forms a smooth, elastic dough (at least 6-8 minutes). Place in an oiled bowl, turn to coat, cover and let rise 4 hrs. or until a depression doesn’t heal immediately.

Preheat a cast iron pot on high with the lid on. Add about 1/2 t. ghee or oil and spread around a little—I recommend a spatula rather than a pastry brush. The oil will smoke. You want it to smoke. You probably also want to use the kitchen exhaust fan if you have one.

Divide the dough into 6 pieces, and roll into a circle approximately 1/4" thick—you can roll them all first or roll each one as the others bake. Either way, keep the on deck balls/circles covered with plastic wrap so they don’t dry out too much.

Remove the lid of the pot and drop the dough flat onto the bottom. Cover and bake for 30 seconds. Flip and bake 30 seconds more. Remove, and repeat with the remaining circles.

You could try baking it super hot too, but don’t blame me if it comes out like pita.

naan8 naan9 naan7

I also threw half of the dough in an oiled zip-top bag and left it in the refrigerator for a week, removed it an hour before baking so it could warm to room temperature, and made another batch that was just as great. A little more sour, because my yeast were faithfully producing acid and alcohol the whole time, although slowly because of the cold temperature. You could probably let it go up to 10 days, or maybe more, which means you can make the dough anytime and have beautiful, fresh naan with very little immediate effort any night of the week.

*You can always substitute equal parts flour and water and some instant yeast. For 1 cup of starter, use about 2/3 cup flour, 2/3 cup water, and 1 t. yeast.

**Don’t substitute butter or olive oil. The milk solids in the butter will burn and olive oil has a lower smoke point than vegetable oil.

***The original recipe called for 1 t. baking soda, but I’ve had too many bad experiences with my acids not being adequate, especially when doubling recipes so I used half baking powder. Chemical leavening isn’t strictly necessary in yeast breads, but I think it’s part of what made this recipe so soft and light. I nearly forgot it in a second batch I made—I had already started kneading, and as soon as I sprinkled the soda and powder on and kneaded it in I could feel the change in the dough. I imagine much of the chemical leavening is lost in the kneading, shaping, and rolling and in the long rise, but I’m sure there’s still some left by the time you bake.

Things that won’t kill you Vol. 1: High-fructose corn syrup

Confession: I not only avoided high-fructose corn syrup (hfcs) until about a year ago, I was actually skittish about fresh corn for a while after my first encounter with Michael Pollan in The New York Times Magazine (or it might have been this article). I stopped eating corn tortillas and frozen corn kernels and felt vaguely panicky about the possibility that I was consuming hfcs in condiments and sandwich bread when I ate out, even if it would have only been tiny amounts.

Now that I’m over it, I sometimes have a hard time remembering what was so scary about the idea that there was corn in everything I was eating, an idea that was obviously ludicrous anyway because I was a vegetarian who mostly ate food prepared at home from whole, fresh, non-corn ingredients. But looking back at the articles linked above, they are pretty ominous. Even though Pollan notes that a corn-based diet has been the norm in Mexico for centuries without any apparent ill effects, and the story he tells about the "cornification" of the American diet is too complex to be a nefarious plot designed to kill us all, it’s clear that he thinks the amount of corn Americans eat on average is a Bad Thing. Sure, it may rely on innocent accidents of nature, like the uniquely efficient way corn fixes carbon during photosynthesis and and the great distance corn pollen has to travel to reach the style, but it’s also reliant on much more insidious developments: synthetic pesticides and fertilizers, an arcane federal farm subsidy systems that turned corn into "a welfare queen," agribusiness giants with seed patents on genetically-modified strains, giant livestock feeding operations that use antibiotics to keep cows alive because eating corn makes them sick, and food manufacturers who profit from getting people to buy cheap food in ever-increasing quantities. Eating corn in any form may seem like a way of giving in to all of that or even supporting it.

So although I did a fair bit of eye-rolling when I read about people avoiding sweet corn at their farmer’s markets this summer or feeling "corn guilt" when they eat popcorn, it’s worth remembering that I was one of them not so long ago.

HFCS paranoia is not primarily an issue of ethical consumption

It’s not that many of those concerns are invalid—it’s true that most corn relies on a lot of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides, that much of it is grown using genetically modified seeds with patents held by huge corporations that have been known to sue farmers when corn with their patented genes end up in their fields, that cows fed diets of corn get sick and are more susceptible to diseases like e coli that can threaten humans. But it’s also far from clear that refusing to eat ketchup containing high fructose corn syrup is an effective means of changing any of that or even primarily motivated by the desire to change those things.

Although people like Pollan have made a big deal about corn sweeteners being artificially cheap due to farm subsidies, the actual farm cost of hfcs in the food products we buy is so minimal that even if subsidies were eliminated entirely, it might not affect portion sizes or consumer demand at all. Even in soft drinks, which are by far the most demonized hfcs delivery system, hfcs represents just 3.5% of the total cost of manufacturing. The corn content, the only part actually affected by farm subsidies, is only 1.6 percent of the price (based on US Department of Commerce data). A comparison between the U.S., Australia, the UK, and France, all of which have different sugar policies but similar consumer prices, show no pattern in the relationships between how cheap sugar is, how much of it people eat, or how fat on average they are (which most people wrongly assume is a reliable measure of health outcomes, but I’ll tackle some other time).

Pollan’s formal case against hfcs relies primarily on arguments about price and prevalence, but that doesn’t really explain the kind of paranoia his books and articles have helped inspire about eating corn and/or hfcs. Not buying and eating something because it’s too cheap just isn’t the kind of consumer behavior that spreads the way hfcs-phobia has. Nor is this some sort of mass avoidance of all added or refined sugars, or brands like Snapple and Pepsi wouldn’t be running huge campaigns to advertise soft drinks containing only "natural sugar."

Instead, people have latched on to the implication, which isn’t supported by any data I can find, that hfcs is nutritionally worse than other sugars. The hfcs paranoia isn’t caused by the idea that hfcs might be unwisely or unfairly subsidized or that pesticides used to produce corn are poisoning waterways or anything related to feeding corn to cows. The fear is that hfcs might be some kind of demon poison that makes people fat.

The confusing part: "high fructose" isn’t actually high fructose

The idea that hfcs is worse than other sugars seems to be primarily reinforced by research about how fructose is metabolized. Just last April, an article about a study comparing drinks sweetened with fructose and  glucose in the New York Times began:

Some research has suggested that consumption of high-fructose corn syrup, used as a sweetener in a wide variety of foods, may increase the risk of obesity and heart disease. Now, a controlled and randomized study has found that drinks sweetened with fructose led to higher blood levels of L.D.L, or "bad" cholesterol, and triglycerides in overweight test subjects, while drinks sweetened with another sugar, glucose, did not.

Things like this get reported all the time. However, the very last sentence of the article quotes another biochemist:

The study did not test high-fructose corn syrup, he said, and judgments should not be made about it from the findings.

Not that that stopped the author from leading with the useless, ambiguous claim about a supposed link between hfcs and obesity, but surely this deserves a little more attention: yes, fructose alone seems to cause more insulin resistance and weight gain in both rats and people than glucose alone. But high fructose corn syrup is only "high fructose" relative to normal corn syrup, which is 100% glucose.

The kind of hfcs used in most food processing, including soft drinks, is hfcs-55, which is approximately 55% fructose and 45% glucose, or almost identical to sucrose, which is about 50/50. Another kind, hfcs-42, is used in the manufacture of some baked goods, and if fructose is really worse, that would make that kind of hfcs healthier than cane sugar. Indeed, studies comparing the consumption of hfcs to sucrose have shown no differences in metabolic responses (or energy or macronutrient intake) at all.

The argument that hfcs is somehow responsible for the obesity epidemic relies entirely on correlations between the rise of hfcs in food manufacturing in the 1980s and the rise in national rates of overweight/obesity (and the exponential rise in concern about fatness). Pollan’s case against hfcs amounts to a gut suspicion that:

It’s probably no coincidence that the wholesale switch to corn sweeteners in the 1980’s marks the beginning of the epidemic of obesity and Type 2 diabetes in this country.

Of course, this fails to account for the simultaneous increases in obesity in many other countries, perhaps most notably Australia, where obesity rates rival or even exceed those in the U.S., but sugar is the primary sweetener. It’s not that he’s totally wrong; it does seem probable that U.S. farm subsidies and the cheap price of highly-palatable, nutrient-poor, calorie-rich, primarily carbohydrate-based foods is one factor driving the relatively small increases in the average American’s weight since the 1970s. And the history of corn cultivation and agricultural policy has something to do with that. But there’s no reason to think that hfcs is uniquely responsible for the "obesity epidemic." After all, if it weren’t for subsidies and tariffs that keep the price of sugar artificially inflated, which are the result of a different set of biological, historical, and political contingencies, it would be just as cheap. 

Ultimately, hfcs is just another source of sugar, nutritionally no different from cane sugar, and way better than agave nectar if you’re concerned about fructose. It might be slightly worse than things like honey (esp. raw) and maple syrup (esp. grade B or lower) if you’re interested in vitamins and minerals. (This is all assuming the hfcs in question contains mercury, but that’s sort of another story altogether).

That doesn’t mean hfcs is  "natural," a word which has virtually no meaning when it comes to food labeling anyhow, but then, if "natural" is the alternative to "processed," no sweeteners are. Agave nectar must be filtered, hydrolyzed, re-filtered, and concentrated before it can be used as a sweetener. Refined cane sugar is purified with phosphoric acid and calcium hydroxide, and sometimes whitened using bone char which is why some vegetarians and vegans refuse to eat it.

The upshot is there’s no reason to believe that hfcs is any worse for you than sugar or much worse for you than any other sweeteners, and there’s certainly no reason to believe that a little bit here and there in a favorite condiment or even the occasional soda is going to hurt you.

Later in this series: I’ve gotten a request to weigh in on fruit juice, and will try to do that soon. And someday I’ll get around to msg, as promised before.

Ground cherry galette and no-churn vanilla bean soft serve

this "ice cream" melts so fast it's only by the grace of autofocus it survived plating and posing

I’ve never made a galette before, but it seemed like a good idea because pies are one of the primary traditional applications for ground cherries, and I didn’t have nearly enough to make a traditional double-crust pie filling. Since galettes are free-formed around their fillings, they can be as big or little as you want to make them. And so much easier than pies—there’s no delicate procedure to get the crust into a pie pan without cracking, no par-baking and hoping the sides don’t droop or shrink. No crimping or lattice.

But I was wary of just following a normal ground cherry pie recipe and changing the shape, because the lack of shaping and par-baking means the crust can get soggy if the filling is too wet, which is why fruit galette recipes often call for a layer of crushed cookies or cubes of pound cake or a frangipane to help soak up the juices. Rose Levy Beranbaum’s suggestion to let cut fruit sit with sugar for 30 min and then drain off and reduce the syrup sounded like a good idea, but unnecessarily fussy. Instead of going to the trouble of draining off the juice, I just simmered the halved ground cherries with some brown sugar and limoncello (a desperation substitution when I realized I didn’t have any lemons) until the liquid had reduced a bit, basically making a quick ground cherry jam. And then I entirely forgot to add the butter most of the pie recipes called for. C’est la vie.

It turned out like a big ground cherry pop tart, basically. Just a simple buttery pastry crust filled with a thin layer of rich, sweet ground cherry preserves. Lovely with ice cream, perfect for breakfast. I may still try to pick up enough at the market this weekend to do a proper pie, but this galette definitely sated my somewhat-batty obsession with the fruit, which is good in case the two pints from last week are all I get for the summer. It probably goes without saying you could do this with any other kind of berry, and most stone fruits too, but there. I said it anyway.

simultaneously rustic and bejeweled

Recipe: Ground cherry galette

(crust adapted from Alton Brown’s I’m Just Here for More Food, filling adapted from Allrecipes and Vesey’s)according to The Yuppie Handbook (published 1984), I get 4 points for owning a marble rolling pin

For the crust: 

  • 8 T. butter (Alton uses 6 T. butter and 2T. lard, I don’t usually have lard around and didn’t feel like digging out the shortening)
  • 1 1/4 c. (6 oz) all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 t. salt
  • 2 T. sugar (optional—leave out for a savory galette)
  • 2-3 T. ice water

For the filling:

  • 1 1/2 cups ground cherries, husked and halved
  • 2 T. brown sugar
  • 2 t. tapioca
  • 1 T. limoncello or the juice of 1 lemon
  • a pinch of grated nutmeg
  • 2 T. butter (also optional, apparently)

Cut the butter into 16 or so chunks and freeze while you get the other ingredients together. Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a food processor bowl and pulse (or just whisk together). Add the butter and pulse 10 or so times (or cut in with a pastry blender or two crisscrossing knives) until the biggest lumps are the size of small peas.

 also a reason why forgetting to add butter to the filling wasn't a big deal though not quite the *shape* of peas

I decided to try Alton’s recommendation of using a spray bottle to distribute the ice water evenly, but it also misted the sides of the bowl (and I can’t imagine how that could be avoided entirely), so when I hit "pulse" again, the mist attracted flour and formed a thin layer of moist paste on the side of the bowl, which is about as awesome as most things you describe as "moist paste." So I gave up on that and just fed the ice water through the opening in the top, pulsing until the dough just barely started to come together.

 thumbs down  thumbs up!moist paste. say it quickly and it starts to sound like "myspace" with a slight brogue: "moispace"

Then, dump the contents of the food processor onto a piece of plastic wrap (or into a large zip-top bag). Use the plastic to help you press it into a disk about 5" in diameter and 1" tall. Chill for 30 min.

Meanwhile, husk the cherries and slice them in half into a sauce pan, setting aside any that are still tinged with green. Sprinkle with brown sugar, tapioca, and lemon juice or limoncello. Grate in a pinch of nutmeg. Stir over medium heat until the cherries release their juices and the juice thickens into a glaze.

filling3 filling1

Preheat the oven to 400.

Roll out the pastry on a piece of parchment paper—leaving the plastic wrap on top helps. Doesn’t have to be a perfect circle because the whole idea here is a rustic, uneven sort of charm, but the best way I’ve found to get a roughly even circle-like object is to roll from the center of the dough directly away from your body, or up towards 12 o’clock. Then, turn the parchment about 30 degrees and do it again, and repeat, turning it in a circle and always rolling in the same direction with roughly the same amount of pressure.

Spread the filling in the center, leaving at least a 2" border or up to 4". Then, fold the edges up, letting them pleat naturally or attempting to bend them to your will or some combination of the two.

galette3 galette4

Bake for 35-40 min.

A few minutes after I’d put it in the oven, I remembered that I’d seen Thank God It’s Pie Day sugar her galettes before baking, which gave them sparkle and a little crunch. So I pulled it out of the oven and did that. Bonus for being forgetful: I didn’t having to brush the pastry with water to get the sugar to stick.

Recipe for the no-churn, no-whisk, ice-cream-or-semifreddo-like dessert object will have to wait. I’m tired.

Meet the ground cherry: a wish fulfilled.

like little paper lanterns, but, you know, less tacky

I’ve been dying to try these for what feels like forever. They’re basically just a tiny husk tomato*, and according to James Beard, they used to be quite common in many parts of the U.S. But now, for some reason, few people seem to have heard of them and I’ve certainly never seen them at any supermarket or on any restaurant menu. Perhaps, despite the fact that they supposedly grow well even in poor soil, they don’t take well to industrial-scale cultivation or don’t hold up well over long distances. Or maybe their scarcity has something to do with the idea that some varieties are believed to be hallucinogenic, which is apparently the reason there’s a law in Louisiana that says you can only grow smooth groundcherry for ornamental use. would louisiana let you grow "ornamental" marijuana?

The feeling of “forever”  is so variable. Ten consecutive hours of driving. Ten minutes waiting in line. Apparently, in time spent waiting to taste a ground cherry, forever is just over a year.  I first heard about them last summer when a friend from Ohio got some in his weekly CSA share. I went looking for more information, and the descriptions I found were unbelievably tantalizing: a fruit that tastes like a cross between strawberries, pineapple, and vanilla custard. They sounded like they might be the most delicious thing ever found in nature.

I kept an eye out at the farmer’s market, but must have missed their window last summer, or maybe no one was growing them for sale yet. Then, in February when Brian went to Egypt, he had something that fit the description perfectly, as improbable a place as that seemed to find an almost-completely unknown husk tomato cultivar. They wouldn’t have survived the trip, even if he’d been able to smuggle them past customs, so I waited and waited for summer which never comes fast enough in Michigan anyways. And for most of this year, too, I searched the farmer’s market in vain. I started to feel like they were some mythical creature, and I was Molly Grue.

But then this weekend, I spotted a handful of pint baskets full of what looked like the tiniest tomatillos I’d ever seen. At first, Brian thought I was pointing at the actual tomatillos, slicing-tomato-sized on the shelf below, as if my desperation had made me delusional. But no, there they were.

and the clouds parted and rays of brilliant light shone down and an unseen choir sang a C major chord

Are they the most delicious thing I’ve ever tasted? Okay, probably not. But I’m not disappointed; they’re pretty great. The tiny seeds and mild acidity are definitely reminiscent of strawberry or kiwi, but with this rich perfume that is a little like vanilla but also entirely its own thing.

what if the "ornamental" marijuana also grew adorable paper-lantern fruit?When we got back from the market, I husked a small handful and ate them with some of the raspberries with plain yogurt and a little bit of maple syrup.

You can tell from the picture that some of them are a little green, which apparently means they’re not quite ripe, and just like  unripe tomatoes, those ones had a bit of crunch and bitterness. But left at room temperature, preferably with their husks on, they get sweeter and more golden every day.

A recipe coming soon, not that you need one if you do manage to get your hands on some. I totally agree with with James Beard: “When eaten raw [ground-cherries] are refreshingly sweet and rich.  It is mystifying to me that they are not more prized.” (from Cooking Books)

*which aren’t technically tomatoes, someone just pointed out to me. Husk tomatoes are in the same family, but a different genus than other tomatoes. And all of them related to nightshade, and someday I’ll write something about why so many people used to think tomatoes were poisonous.

Feeling “umami”: On taste, subjectivity, and metaphor

The Modern Four Taste Orthodoxy

The idea that there are four basic tastes—sour, salty, bitter, and sweet—was widely taken to be gospel truth until 2002, when the taste receptors for glutamate were identified. Glutamate, and the "umami" flavor it imparts to foods like seaweed, bacon, parmesan cheese, and Doritos, was first identified and isolated by a Japanese chemist named Kikunae Ikeda in 1908. But the four-taste model was so dominant that umami’s status as a distinct taste was considered "controversial" until its molecular basis was confirmed almost a century later. Here’s the description of umami in a book titled Sensory Processes published in 2002 (before the taste receptors were identified):

Umami originated from a glutamate derived from seaweed. The chemical substance is commonly known as MSG, monosodium glutamate, and, by itself, has no odor and an unusual taste that is approximated, so they say, by appropriate combinations of the four primary taste qualities. Whether umami is a result of the unique combination of the four tastes or an independent classification of is own is open to debate (176).

Oh, they and the things they say.

Umami’s been gaining traction—Kikkkoman’s current advertising campaign is "discover umami"(.com)—but it hasn’t quite arrived. This past Sunday on Iron Chef America, one of the judges said he detected some "umami" in a coconut-based soup, and then he had to define it for the other judges (and perhaps the audience?). His first stab was to call it an "illusory" taste, although he did follow that up by ranking it with "sweet, salty and sour," so perhaps he actually meant something more like "ineffable." Either way it shows how dominant the classical four tastes still are.

Except "classical" isn’t quite right word, because it turns out the idea that we only experience four distinct tastes is actually a pretty recent invention—more recent than Ikeda’s "discovery" of umami, actually. Traditional Chinese medicine named five tastes: sour, bitter, sweet, pungent, and salty, each one corresponding with one of the five elements or movements that are omnipresent in early Chinese thought. Aristotle claimed there were only two, which doesn’t come as that much of a surprise given his characteristic love of dualities. Just as he divided visual perception into the "fundamental colors" black and white, which contain all the elements of all the other colors we perceive, Aristotle thought the whole range of gustatory sensations derived from the "fundamental tastes" of sweetness and bitterness. He also proposed a second-order classification of seven "primary flavors" that corresponded with his rainbow of seven "primary colors": sweet (which included fatty or oily), bitter, salty, harsh, pungent, astringent, and acidic or sour. Hard to say now what exactly the difference was between harsh, pungent, and astringent—I suppose the latter might be something like the tannins in tea and red wine while "pungent" instantly evokes blue cheese although it often just acts as a modifier rather than a descriptor—a pungent smell is strong, not necessarily strongly any particular thing. It’s hard to even think of those things as taste categories on the same level as "sweet" or "sour."

But one question that raises is whether or not it’s hard to think of them that way because there’s some objective difference between sweetness and astringency or because it’s just unfamiliar to think of "astringent" as a primary taste category. Certainly tannins cause a particular reaction on people’s tongues—is that less of a distinct taste experience than the reaction caused by sugars?

Colors are a useful parallel, again. A linguistics professor I had at NYU told us about this experiment that my casual googling is not coming up with, but here’s the gist: if you give children a set of colored tiles and tell them sort them into as many piles as they want, by color, there are predictable, reliable differences between the number of piles they make that correspond to the number of primary colors in their primary language. So, for example, English-speaking kids generally put all hues of blue in one pile while Russian-speaking kids usually separate lighter blues from darker blues because they have two "primary color" words for those shades. It’s one of the classic examples of how language can shape how we perceive the world rather than just reflecting it. Also a reason why translation is always imperfect. 

Henning taste tetrahedronGetting back to the four taste orthodoxy, that was something a German psychologist named Hans Henning  came up with in 1916. He devised a ""taste tetrahedron" with each of the four tastes he thought were primary at the four vertexes. The idea was that flavors could be conceptually mapped onto geometric plane based on which of the primary flavors they were comprised of—a flavor relying on two of the primary tastes would be located on the edge between those two vertexes. Flavors that used three would be on the surface between the relevant three points. And the tetrahedron was hollow, according to Henning, because no substance could produce all four taste sensations. So while taste itself was three-dimensional, tastes were two-dimensional at best.

Minor digression: I suspect Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, the eighteenth century French gourmand who’s responsible for the cliche "you are what you eat" (well, ish, the problem of translation rears its head again; what he wrote was Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es, which is closer to, "Tell me what you eat, I will tell you what you are") would disagree, and name as exhibit A something involving veal stock (a sweet-sour-salty-bitter cabbage soup maybe?). Speaking of veal stock, Brillat-Savarin also sought to identify the special savory quality of "the purely sapid portion of flesh soluble in cold water," or functionally, umami. His word was osmazome. And surely Brillat-Savarin wasn’t the first to muse on the particular deliciousness of dashi, truffles, and tomatoes—especially after they’ve been cooked down into a rich sauce. So the 1908 "discovery" of umami turns out to be, like so many "discoveries" (*cough* America *cough*), basically a trumped-up (re)-christening.

Henning pruned away tastes like "astringent" and all the shades of flavor produced by the almost infinite variety of aromas we can detect because those aren’t, strictly speaking, "taste" sensations. The prickling and burning sensations caused by capcaicins (which make peppers "hot"), the puckering induced by tannins, and the palpable richness of unctuous or viscous foods are all tactile sensations. And aromas, obviously, are processed by the separate-but-related chemical sense of smell. As most people know, particularly if they’ve ever been seriously congested, smells are what turn functionally one or two-dimensional taste sensations into much more complicated (and enjoyable) perceptual experiences. Laboratory experiments in the early twentieth century that involved delicately swabbing the tongues of blindfolded, noseplugged subjects confirmed Henning’s taste quartet. In those conditions, the only things most tasters could reliably identify were sour, salty, sweet, and bitter.

More science to the rescue?

Setting aside for a moment the question of whether or not "taste" should actually be seen as a multi-sensory experience, those experiments were also limited by the descriptive vocabularies of the participants and the kinds of compounds applied to their tongues. Did the researchers try compounds that would have tasted alkaline or metallic or umami to most people? Even if they did, maybe people wouldn’t identify something like "umami" (or "osmazone") because they didn’t have a word for it, not because they didn’t taste it. Or maybe if they did, they called it "savory," and that was conflated with "salty."

Umami is, if not illusory, still notoriously difficult to isolate when tasting food and even harder to characterize. Perhaps part of that is because the compound itself has no smell, although neither do sugar or salt, and perhaps another part is that its description always ends up sounding more evaluative than descriptive—I mean, the Japanese term literally means "delicious." On the Iron Chef America episode I mentioned earlier, another judge playing with his new vocabulary joked, "Ooh, mommy!" which was dumb and irritating, but not actually completely off-base in terms of trying to describe the particular sensation imparted by glutamate. Try eating msg plain sometime (it’s available as Accent(tm) in the spice section of most grocery stores and in bags ranging from a few ounces to multiple pounds in Asian markets. And no, it won’t kill you, which is a post I’ll get to some other time)—it tastes like the exact intersection between Doritos, instant ramen, and Heinz ketchup. How do you describe that? It’s like the taste of tastiness.

More recent research, most of it enabled by the sequencing of the human genome, suggests that four tastes is far two few. While scientists haven’t identified them all yet, they now estimate that there are probably about 40 distinct taste receptors (and 300 distinct olfactory receptors), at least half of which are devoted to detecting bitter tastes. They’ve also discovered a number of complications in terms of how chemicals react with those receptors, and how the response triggered by different chemicals is perceived and processed in the brain. Even with other senses muffled, it now seems that people can indeed identify metallic, alkaline, and umami in addition to the big four. If we have trouble differentiating between all the different kinds of "bitter" we can taste, that’s probably because we tend to be averse to those tastes and have little practice trying to distinguish or name them, not a lack of complexity at the level of the tongue.

Additionally, tastes interact, even without the "interference" of smell or feeling. Sour flavors dampen bitter flavors (the role of the lime in a gin and tonic) and if you have a lot of something sour, it may make other foods or even relatively "neutral" substances like water taste sweet. There are also substances in specific foods that can mess with your taste receptors, which is why artichokes give anything else you eat for a while after an additional subtle sweetness (part of why it’s a great appetizer ingredient). The most dramatic example is the "miracle fruit" people got all excited about last year that contains a protein that temporarily binds to "sweet" taste receptors and reacts with acidic compounds, meaning you can eat plain raw lemons and they taste like the sweetest candy. (Note: it is kind of cool to be able to scarf down lime wedges like potato chips, but eating that much acid turned out to be sort of a regrettable decision for a lot of the people at our miracle fruit party. The remainder of the tablets we bought have languished in a drawer for over a year.)

To complicate matters even further, not all people taste the same things the same way. "Supertasters" are highly sensitive to bitter and spicy compounds, and some people really do have a "sweet tooth" that makes them inclined like sweeter foods more than most people, which could reflect a different perception of sugars anywhere between their tongue and their brain. Related: some fifteen percent of the population thinks cilantro tastes like soap.

And, as most people know from personal experience, the way people respond to the same foods may change over time—I drank about a hundred mochas when I was fifteen and had an irrepressible crush on a Starbucks employee, which stopped me from ordering the hot chocolate I actually wanted because I didn’t want to seem like a little girl. Gradually, aided no doubt by the fact that mochas are as close to hot chocolate as a coffee drink can possibly be, I came to like the coffee flavor. Within another year or so, I honestly preferred my coffee black (and personally delivered by a particular waiter at my local Denny’s).

But all that said, I can’t quite get behind the idea that we’re all special snowflakes and taste is an entirely, or even primarily subjective, individual experience. I just don’t buy that in five years or so, I will be able to "tell [a restaurant] my flavor type on the Internet at the time I make my reservation and [have them] design a meal just for my DNA," the way this Gourmet magazine article suggests.

Fill in the blank: My, you’re ____________! A) sour B) salty C) bitter D) sweet E) umami

Surely it’s not a purely arbitrary coincidence that the four tastes Henning settled on were part of basically every attempt to classify the primary tastes from ancient China to ancient Greece to Restoration England. Would anyone, ever, propose a four-taste system that included only harsh, pungent, astringent, and sour? Or metallic, umami, spicy, and oily?

It seems odd, and potentially significant that the four tastes Henning canonized are also the tastes with the most widespread metaphorical use. They’re not just taste sensations, they’re part of our basic descriptive currency for emotional states, facial expressions, personalities, reactions, gestures, and the things that prompt those things. Sourpuss. Salty humor. A bitter pill. A sweet smile. And they’re used similarly in other languages—the French refer to someone being overly polite or affable as "Etre tout sucre tout miel," or "being all sugar all honey," and the phrase "sweet as sugar/honey" in Arabic (ahla-mina s’sukkar/l’asal) means the same thing it does in English. I’m sure there are a million more examples, but foreign languages aren’t my strong suit.

Other flavors can be, and often are, used metaphorically, especially "spicy" (which, remember, was a common candidate for the fifth spot in many pre-20th C. classification schemes), but few of them have permeated to the point of idiom and cliche the way the big four have. You might describe a person as astringent or a prospect as savory, but both involve a taking a little poetic license. Others are even further afield—I guess I can imagine a metallic facial expression or alkaline feeling, but I think you’d need other context to help you out there and I’m really not sure what it would mean to describe something other than food as "umami."

At least one thing the metaphorical use of taste seems to suggest is a minimum amount of shared taste perception. When Shakespeare used the phrase "honey tongue," no one in his audience needed to have heard the phrase before to understand what he was getting at. With all due respect to individual genetic and cultural differences, it seems to make more sense that  people would largely share the same taste experiences than that they would differ, at least in extreme ways. It seems only natural that we should all be repulsed by the bitter poisons that would kill us, and that our understanding of what sorts of feelings are involved in and communicated by a "bitter glance" is part of that common taste experience.

So, by way of explaining the title of the blog, I didn’t leave out tastes like umami and metallic and alkaline (and however many more have yet to be named) because I wanted to reify the outdated idea that we only have four basic tastes. Instead, I wanted to invoke the dimensions of taste that seem most central to our experiences with food and also impart clear metaphorical connotations. The twinned subjects of this blog—the food I make and eat and my experiences and concerns as a cook and an eater—will both be sour sometimes, salty often, bitter occasionally, and hopefully sweet at least from time to time. I would try to be and feel and say umami things too, but I’m not sure I know how.

References not linked above:

Aristotle and William Alexander Hammond. 1902. Aristotle’s psychology: a treatise on the principle of life (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press). Digitized 2006 by Google.

Brillat-Savarin, Jean Anthelme. 1825. The Physiology of Taste or Transcendental Gastronomy, trans. Fayette Robinson. Digitized 2004 by ebooks@Adelaide and Project Gutenberg

Korsmeyer, Carolyn. 1999. Making Sense of Taste: Food & Philosophy. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.