Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The tyranny of the recipe

If you're like me, you've delegated a lot of your food decision-making to supermarkets. So too have I bowed my head to the recipe.

I need a recipe just about for everything. Last Thanksgiving I wrote all my recipes out in my computer, developed a timeline and then printed out a little book, much to the humor of my guests.

We've come to treat recipes like crutches, limping through cooking a dish, rather relying on our own experience and judgement.

The purpose of a recipe is to instil confidence, to inspire and allow ideas to be shared.
Recipes are not culinary chemistry formulas. We live with the fear that if we tamper with the ingredients or the proportions we are tampering with the something precise and ordered. Chaos and disaster will surely arise out of the pot.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Methylthiomethyl butyrate

I'm not making it up.

Methylthiomethyl butyrate is the name of a flavor ingredient used in processed foods delivering a tropical, exotic fruit flavor.

Eat fresh tropical fruits and veggies rather than relying on chemicals.

Flavor trends for the New Year, yeah tropical is big

The history of flavor
Flavor exists to entice animals - including us humans - to eat fruits, plants and other foods that have the necessary nutrients to survive and reproduce. Humans throughout history add to this 'agenda' by combining great tasting flavors to make less tasty foods more palatable. Today creating new flavors is considered the height of culinary expertise.

Back at the scientific level, nutritionists have recently discovered that certain flavors have unique and beneficial phytochemicals. The art of flavoring is taking a big step forward (or backward considering flavor's original purpose) with flavoring's increased used as an enticement to better nutrition. Go flavor.

For 2009, functional flavors are in
Combine flavor's increased value with the consumer trend of wanting not just tasty food but wanting food that gives an 'experience' of something beyond the physical location of the table, and it's why the Food Network is more popular than ever, why one in every five Americans have taken a tropical cruise and why we are more aware of where a food has come from.

Eating locally is great if you live in California
Does eating locally buck this trend? Not really. Yes when we pick a vacation destination we'll often desire a tropical setting but when we pick where we live, the agrarian background deep in our souls will desire a rural setting even though we could be circling ads in the NY Times' 'apartments for rent' section

It's true the die hard 'locavore' (combo of local and carnavore) in Boston will need to put to good use their canning skills in the summer and talk their landlady into letting them dig a deep enough root cellar in the basement to weather New England's bitter winters. But most folks prefer fresh fruit, even crave fresh fruit in the darkest days of winter. Ever notice how most locavores live in California where year round farming is possible? Even in Florida it's not doable, yesterday I help my church's teenage youth group to pick strawberries at the local 'U-Pik-It' to sell at today's service. Three months from now it'll be too hot for strawberries, lettuce, corn (and the list goes on). Few exceptions exist: avocados are one.

So for all the great publicity given buying locally (and indeed I do highly recommend buying straight from the farm produce - the strawberries are delicious), we will still have increased demand for high-quality fruits and vegetables with unique flavors and colors year-round. And it's because as North Americans our palates - with the help of the Food Network and our Caribbean cruise last year - will continue to become more sophisticated and adventurous.

Countries of Origin
The interest in flavor is driving the demand for a broader range of plants than ever before. We are seeing produce from geographically diverse areas, including Asia, Central and South America and Africa. All to feed the trend for flavorful combinations of exotic tastes that will deliver 'experiences' and feed our deep down inside urges to be healthy.

Traditional fare and instinct
So what about traditional flavors? The hidden driver behind traditional dishes is an instinct for health. It's no coincidence that grains and beans - tremendous sources of amino acids - are the center of countless ethnic dishes. The same is true for many traditional dishes and flavors.

Meeting this overall flavor trend, chefs and cooks alike will often take popular and familiar flavors and put them into nontraditional applications or select exotic fruits and vegetables and put them into more traditional dishes. Think of how many ways mangos, avocados and papayas have invaded traditional fare. Restaurants are touting snapper topped with a papaya salsa as a special of the day. Meanwhile avocados are topping sandwiches and salads on both coasts. And was that a bite of mango I just popped into my mouth as I ate from my grocery store's ready-to-eat fruit salad? Yes it was.

Taste drivers
The number one driver for what's being eaten is taste. Chefs often use the bold flavors of tropical fruits to fill the void left when fats or sugars are reduced. Combining new tastes with familiar favorites brings excitement to a functional dish without creating an eating concept that the eater may be hesitant to try.

As we continue to fight the obesity epidemic, the search continues for healthy alternatives. Better taste, lower calories and healthy side benefits attract consumers which in turn will reward the artisans of flavor, whether chef or home cook. Tropical fruits and vegetables can help this fight, ever so flavorably.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Mango rash

I've heard this countless times, mangos can cause a rash like poison ivy. I'll let Dr Knowledge from the Boston Globe handle this one.

The mango is in the same plant family as poison ivy and its peel can indeed cause allergic skin rashes similar to poison ivy. That's especially true for people who are particularly sensitive to urushiol, the chemical involved. For this reason, it's best to peel a mango before eating it!

Friday, February 6, 2009

World history thru rum cocktails

I'm a sucker for books that look at history from a less than professorial viewpoint. Here's one for the books. 'And a bottle of Rum, a history of the new world in ten cocktails' by Wayne Curtis is topping my new read list.

I mention it here because of his compassion of using ingredients that are true to how and where rum is distilled.

"Because rums created in one place on one island are developed in a certain way, they are well-suited to be blended with a wide variety of fruits, particularly those from the same area in which it was distilled."

The most famous of rums, Bacardi is distilled in the Caribbean so it could easily be paired with tropical fruits from the area.

On this cold day in Florida, I share with you an example of a drink recipe from his book. Normally this drink is not known for its tropical overtones, the rum toddy.

Rum Toddy

  • 1-1/2 oz rum
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 2 whole cloves
  • 3 thin kumquat slices
  • pinch of cinnamon
  • boiling water

Put rum, sugar, cloves and kumquat slices in a mug, top with boiling water. Sprinkle cinnamon on top.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Papaya, the meat tenderizer?

My last post about papaya being a meat tenderizer, got a lot of comments.

Papaya has an enzyme found in both its fruit and leaves called papain. You won't find it in the spice or herb section of the grocery store.

The enzyme is a protease, that is, it breaks down protein. It's why papayas are great for people watching their weight.

It is often used as a meat tenderizer. You can marinate tough meat with chunks of papaya, or wrap meat in papaya leaves. But using too much, or leaving it on the meat too long, can make meat soft and mushy. The heat from cooking the meat will stop the enzyme action, so don't cook soon after the marination has started.

For a great papaya marinated meat dish.

What's organic may not be organic

When something has the word 'organic' on it, you'd think it's better for you.

Unfortunately, that's not the case. Ask the families of the people who died from organic spinach a couple of years ago. Think twice when you see an organic avocado packing house that is open to the elements with packers not wearing hairnets and gloves but wearing labels around their necks and jewelry.

And now the supposedly stalwart foundation of all things organic-fertilizer- is being investigated.

This week federal agents raided a Californian fertilizer company testing for its use of aqua ammonia.

Organic means very little to me. Look for produce that has gone through food safety audits.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The papaya fixer upper

Things aren't so good following the health tip to eliminate high blood pressure by eating papaya on an empty stomach and not eating anything else for two hours.

Day 1, I ate a Caribbean Sunrise papaya (the small one) and it tasted great. I was so full. About an hour and a half in, my stomach was telling me something. Not that I was nauseous. The best way to describe it: my stomach was in motion. Which when you think about it, having eaten a papaya on an empty stomach and thus eating a fruit that is also known as a meat tenderizer, it's not surprizing it was doing something.

The great news, unlike my normal breakfast of fruit and oatmeal, I wasn't hungry for four hours later. Keep in mind, my normal breakfast normally includes papaya as a part of it.

Day 2, same thing. Not so alarmingly the second time around. And yes I was full past my normal lunch time.

Day 3, I don't eat breakfast before church and after church I go to brunch with friends.

Today, the store was out of Caribbean Reds or Sunrises and only had another brand that I don't like the musky smell of. I was back to normal breakfast again.