Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Tempura: tasty fried things

So, I know I promised this over the weekend, but Saturday was too nice to stay indoors so I worked on getting my garden ready for full planting, did some misc. outside housework, and went for a good long bike ride. Sunday I was unfortunately in my lab all day and didn't have the desire to write a blog post afterwards. I don't even want to get into the past two days.... But this is a sort of double recipe post to make up for all that!

Anywho, two weeks ago, while everyone was busy planning for an upcoming conference that the bulk of the lab went to, we all accidentally forgot one of my lab-mates' birthday. After finding that out, we organized an impromptu trip to his favorite Korean restaurant (he's Korean, so you know it was authentic and good). I ordered the tempura lunch box (essentially a bento box) as something different from my usual. Since then I've been wanting more, but haven't had the time or money to go to lunch and order it. Time to dig out the dutch oven and frying oil!

Tempura is simply a method of lightly frying pretty much anything. Its not dense like many fried foods in America, and it often consists only of vegetables and shrimp. Its light, puffy, and you don't feel loaded down after eating a couple of pieces. The key to all of that is the batter. Tempura batter is made quickly using a low gluten flour (sorry, no whole wheat tempura) and kept cold. This lack of gluten causes the batter to puff when fried, not become chewy and dense. Served with traditional dipping sauce (you can find it bottled in your local asian market) and its near heaven (if you're on a tempura bender like I was last week).

Tempura shrimp and vegetables:
1.5 cups flour (preferably pastry, but AP will do)
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
1 cup ice water
3-4 ice cubes
1 egg
stuff to fry (see tips below)
2 quarts oil for frying
  1. Divide the flour, adding 1/2 cup to a shallow bowl (for coating the pieces before dipping) and the rest to a mixing bowl. Add the salt to the coating flour and mix with a fork to combine. Add the baking powder to the mixing bowl and mix. Start heating the oil to 375F in a dutch oven or fryer.
  2. Coat the food pieces to be fried lightly with the coating mixture and set on some paper towels. This and the salt will remove some of the moisture from the pieces which will help them fry better.
  3. After everything is coated, quickly wisk the egg with the ice water and add that and the ice cubes to the mixing bowl. Mix for only a few seconds. Your batter should be lumpy as in the picture below.
  4. When the oil is at the right temp. dip the pieces, shake off some excess batter and carefully add to the fryer. Like most fry jobs, they'll sink first and float to the top as they cook. Depending on the size of the piece and what it was (raw seafood vs. vegetable) you'll need to time it accordingly, just remember that if the sizzling stops, then you've gone too far and oil is going in instead of water(steam) coming out. Remove finished pieces to a cooling rack laying on top of paper towels and then serve asap or keep warm in a 100F (toaster)oven.

Shrimp will tend to curl when cooked, so skewer them before dipping in the batter. Save anything raw like the shrimp for frying last as well so you don't have any cross contamination issues. Slice your veggies thinly (or fruits, you can do bananas from what I've read) so they cook quickly and don't get mushy. Your batter may separate a little, just give it one or two quick stirs to pull back together. Use a fine meshed strainer to remove all of the little bits of batter that come off so they don't burn and cause nasty flavors. After your fry session, pour the oil back into the original container through a coffee filter to remove any small bits you don't want staying around. The oil should be good for 3-4 more uses, just don't try using it in cakes.

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What I used, lotus root, zucchini, bell pepper, eggplant, and shrimp.

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See how the batter is lumpy, thats what you want. Keep it cold!

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Tempura eggplant and zucchini, notice how the batter is thin and puffy?

So, restaurant tempura will probably always trump my own, simply because it's a bit of a hassle (deep frying is always a chore at home). But for those times when I really feel like I can't live without tempura for dinner, I have my own method that works pretty darn well. I'm also excited because I've got a recipe in mind for using up the extra lotus root and eggplant that I didn't use, so look forward to that assuming all goes well.

Ok, so I promised a second recipe, and here it is... although I'll admit it's barely a recipe.

Rasberry Acai sorbet:
2 33 oz. bottles Tropicana Pure rasberry acai juice
2 cups sugar
1 cup water
  1. Add the sugar and water to a saucepan and bring to a boil. Boil for 5 minutes and then cut the heat and cool. You've just made standard simple syrup!
  2. Combine the simple syrup and juice in your ice cream maker and let it go.
  3. Enjoy the awesome deliciousness that you've just created, or pack it into a container and freeze to harden.

Told you it was barely a recipe. But I got two bottles of the juice on managers special for a grand total of $5, the sugar probably cost me 50 cents, and I came out in the end with a half gallon of sorbet that if you bought pre-made would cost a lot more and have a lot more "stuff" in it. So those of you who don't have an ice cream maker yet.. GET ONE! Because I've got a bunch more ice cream recipes in the pipeline and you'll only feel sad if you can't make them yourself.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Mac & Cheese, finally...

Ok, so as I noted in my last post, I had originally intended to post this recipe last Monday. But now I am. So yay for a recipe and not an essay! Anywho, this recipe really started as a mistake. I had bought some steak on mangers special that I was cooking up to make a cheesesteak, but when I looked in my fridge I saw I didn't have any Cheese-Wiz left. (Side note, the true Philly was to do a cheesesteak is with the Wiz.) So, having a big block of cheddar and a basic knowledge of french sauce making, I set out to make a Wiz replacement. That failed miserably (too thin), so I put it in a container and froze it till I could think of what to do. (Another side note, I was forced to use straight cheddar for my cheesesteak, boo...) Eventually, I figured out that if I bought some macaroni, I could probably use my cheese sauce as part of a mac and cheese. So how did it turn out? Considering that it started as a mistake, pretty darn well. I'd probably switch straight cheddar with a mix of cheeses, but I would make it again as given below any time.

Mac and Cheese
1 lb macaroni
2 cup pankos bread crumbs, divided
4 roma tomatoes, sliced
3 tbsp. butter
2 tbsp. flour
1.5 cups milk
1 lb sharp cheddar cheese, grated
1/4 tsp. salt (the cheese carries a lot with it, so you don't need much more)
1 tsp. pepper
1 tbsp. chili powder
2 tsp. mustard powder
1 tsp. coriander
  1. Heat your oven to 350F. Cook the macaroni till just cooked, drain, reserving 1/4 cup of the liquid with the pasta to keep it from drying out.
  2. Put the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. When completely melted, add the flour and stir continuously till slightly browned. Slowly add in the milk and stir till lump free. Add most of the cheese in multiple batches, stirring till creamy (reserve some cheese to sprinkle on the top before baking). Add the spices and remove from heat.
  3. Mix the macaroni, panko, and cheese sauce in a 9x13 baking pan. Add the tomatoes to the top and sprinkle on the remaining panko and cheese.
  4. Bake till the cheese and panko topping is nice and brown, ~30-45 minutes (I didn't time it, my apologies)

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Whole grain macaroni

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Pre-Oven shot

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Post-oven shot

This recipe keep and re-heats pretty well. The cheese I used, however, was more oily than what proper cheese should be, so subsequent meals were a little greasy after visiting the microwave. As I said above, replacing the cheddar with a mix of other cheeses, such as some fontina, gruyere, jarlsberg, etc. would give a different, possibly spectacular results. But since I was able to turn a mistake into pretty good, I'll take it.

I'll be back with another recipe this weekend, so stay tuned!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Meat reality:

Ok, so I was originally planning on doing a post about Mac & Cheese, but I happened to be going through my Serious Eats feed over lunch on Monday and noticed this post by Ed Levine: Trichinosis in Free-Range Pigs: Cause for Concern, or Sloppy Editing and Writing?. It refers to an article in the NYT Op-Ed section last thursday (the 9th) by James McWilliams that you can find here. The McWilliams piece itself covers the results of study recently published in the journal Foodborne Pathogens and Disease. The research article, titled Seroprevalence of Trichinella, Toxoplasma, and Salmonella in Antimicrobial-Free and Conventional Swine Production Systems by Gebreyes et al. is currently freely available to anyone from the journal's website.

Now that I've gone through all that, I'll get to why I felt compelled to write this. To summarize, in reverse: the Geberney paper reported that pigs raised conventionally (i.e. in confinement pens) had lower exposure to potential human pathogens (including Trichinella spiralis, the parasitic worm that causes trichinosis) than pigs raised in "free-range" systems. McWilliams took the stated results of the Gebreyes paper and repeated them to a much wider audience (the readership of the NYT is bigger that any scientific journal, sadly). He then used the results to put forth the position that the current rush by many "foodies" to free range animal husbandry can actually be hazardous to public health. Levine on Monday posted his own opinion (a re-buttal of sorts) stating that many of the conclusions McWilliams reaches about the hazards to public health are overstated and that his position is biased by his association with the pork industry. Unfortunately, the whole set of articles have serious flaws that need to be made clear before people rush to judgement. If you'll allow me the chance, I'm going to go through each article sequentially and try to give a balanced assessment of the strengths and weakness thereof.

I'll start with the Gebreyes paper as it somewhat started this whole mess (although to be fair, this has been a festering issue for both sides). Before actually getting into the meat of the paper, so to speak, I'm going to touch on what is probably the biggest issue many people have. The researchers, in this case 2 from Ohio State, 2 from Iowa State, and 1 from Wisconsin, were funded by a grant from the National Pork Board. So yes, it was "industry funded research". As far as most people are concerned, that means that any results that get published, no matter how good and/or bad they may be, are automatically biased FOR whatever group funded the project. Speaking strictly as a graduate student, who's research is funded partially by industry, there is absolutely no inherent bias from that fact (yes, bias can occur, especially in the medical field, but its due to flaws in the researchers' ethics and not the money itself). Science is expensive, very very expensive. The US government simply can’t provide enough funding to keep all of us researchers busy, let alone happy. Thus, industry support is a very important part of the US research system, whether the general public likes it or not.

Now that I've just defended the funding of the research, I can address the quality... and to be honest, its just not very good. The paper itself has a number of errors in grammar and structure, which is never a good sign and reflects not only on the quality of the research but also the people who were supposed to properly review it. The researchers took blood samples from pigs raised under conventional or free range systems and analyzed them for anti-bodies to three primary pathogens. Unfortunately the number of pigs was not the same for each system or each location, which means the statistical analysis gets complicated if you do it properly. Unfortunately, as they have it written, I can only assume it wasn't done well enough. Comparisons and conclusions are drawn on sample sizes that are too small or skewed. Ignoring their analyses and using my own, the results can be summed as such: pigs in Wisconsin raised in either system have a higher prevalence of Salmonella exposure than those in North Carolina or Ohio, Toxoplasma exposure is low in either system, and Trichinella was only seen in 2 free range and no conventional pigs. My conclusions: fully funded (i.e. major USDA grant type) research should be conducted to examine if free range systems really do have higher rates of pathogen exposure than conventional systems. As bad as the paper is, the authors had the same conclusion: " The finding in this preliminary study warrants the need for a robust epidemiologic study to determine the role of various production-associated risk factors in the two production systems on the safety and wholesomeness of pork products, particularly on the persistence of bacterial (Salmonella) and potential reemergence of parasitic (Trichinella and Toxoplasma) pathogens." (emphasis added)

So what did Mr. McWilliams take from the same research paper I just graciously summed up for you? The same skewed view that anyone would if they didn't actually think while they read the research. Mr. McWilliams firstly states that the pigs were infected with certain pathogens. This is simply wrong as Gebreyes et al. measured anti-bodies and not actual pathogen presence. Yes, anti-bodies are created to fight an infection, but they can also be present after an infection has cleared or due to exposure to similar but non-pathogenic agents. Secondly, Mr. McWilliams talks only in percentages. While percentages can be useful, they often disguise the true results because you don't know what the raw numbers are. To see what I mean, I refer you to these posts here and here. McWilliams says "The study,[...] discovered not only higher rates of salmonella in free-range pigs (54 percent versus 39 percent) but also greater levels of the pathogen toxoplasma (6.8 percent versus 1.1 percent)". Unfortunately the true results are that Salmonella exposure was observed in less than 30% of all pigs sampled, and depending on which state they were from the level was actually higher in the conventionally raised pigs. The biggest issue of contention though arises not from his blindly trusting the researchers but from his misuse of their data to support his own agenda.

That agenda is to attack those who attack conventional animal husbandry. By alluding to rats and other potentially disturbing imagery, McWilliams manages to distract from the validity of his main argument and instead polarize the reader for or against him. The main argument, that free range animals face the risk of higher exposure to disease and thus can represent a higher risk to public health is absolutely correct. One of the primary reasons the pork industry embraced confined production was to minimize potential pathogen exposure, especially for Trichinella. While many free range advocates (of which Ed Levine is one) state that this in fact increases the spread of pathogens amongst the herd (as evidenced by the necessity to feed sub-therapeutic levels of antibiotics to maintain animal health) its also greatly reduced the most risk of the most serious pork-associated pathogens to human health. Mr. McWilliams then goes on to suggest that "foodies" who desire free range pork because they believe it tastes better are deluding themselves because free range is an arbitrary middle ground between the standard confinement paradigm and true wild meat. Its a valid point, but he loses himself when he suggests that safe food and ethical production are diametrically opposed. The answer wouldn't be to give up pork completely as he suggest, but for scientists to conduct more research to find a better way. That way may cost more than conventional production, but may also cost less than current free range.

So what exactly did Mr. Levine do to warrant my writing up this long and involved post? Quite honestly he read the McWilliams piece and over-reacted, and like many a blogger, wrote up a post vehemently rebutting McWilliams. Now, that in and of itself isn't a bad thing (its sort of what blogs are for right?), but Levine makes some serious misrepresentations in his post in order to refute the misrepresentations in the McWilliams piece. To start with, Mr. Levine states that his initial reaction to reading that pigs may still harbor Trichinella was that he was possibly misinforming others about the possible danger that undercooked pork poses. He then talks to a free range pig producer (Levine refers to them as "designer pigs", by which he really means one of the heritage/old-world breeds that are generally only raised in small groups, often but not always as free range) and concludes that not only is McWilliams wrong but that he was right all along about the limited danger of trichinosis. To support his claim, he cites the National Pork Board's website (remember that they're supposedly evil by the way) to state that Trichinella is killed at temperatures above 137F. Thats true. But it leaves open the chance some bacterial pathogens won't be killed. What's worse though is that free range production, while not entirely new, provides only a small fraction of the total demand for pork. This means that the opportunity for infection is currently very small, but could grow if production/consumption increases high enough.

The biggest misrepresentation in Levine's piece though is this quotation of Jennifer Small from Flying Pigs Farms: "Confined pigs need huge doses of antibiotics, more than humans are ever given, and the diseases we can get from ingesting too much of those antibiotics are much scarier than trichinosis." While its true that the overuse of antibiotics in animal industry is a bad thing, you absolutely DO NOT ingest the antibiotics fed to the animal itself. Furthermore, any "disease" that could occur would be a simple chemical imbalance and not an incurable parasitic infection. I understand, and partly agree with those who wish to lessen or eliminate sub-therapeutic feeding of antibiotics in animal production, but to suggest that they can cause illness in humans is being just as alarmist as Levine says McWilliams is about trichinosis.

I hope this write up was worth not only my time and effort in writing it, but also your own in reading it. The issue of "ethical" animal production is a complex and emotional mess. Supporters of any side of the debate (yes, there's more than two sides, as there rightly should be) often have strong biases and prejudices for and against production system X vs. Y. Unfortunately, this often causes the real underlying "facts" to be manipulated and/or ignored. I tried to give you those underlying facts so you can now make an informed decision about whether or not free range pork poses a higher public safety risk than conventionally raised.

As a result of doing this post I'm contemplating possibly doing one next month on industrial agriculture vs. organic. If you absolutely hated this one and would rather I stick to recipes, let me know. If you loved it and have other topics you think I should write on, let me know. This blog is a dictatorial republic (everyone gets a say but ultimately its my call...) so let me know what you want more of and/or less of.


Wednesday, April 15, 2009

I'm ahead of the Times

The New York Times that is...

From this weeks Dining and Wine section: For Chileans, Passion Translates to Empanadas

For those of you who are eagerly awaiting my next recipe, it will probably be next week. I got myself side-tracked on an issue that I feel compelled to do a formal post on, so I'm writing that up and will hopefully have it posted by Friday (my goal is tonight, but with Lost on we'll see how productive I get). Anywho, if you want to try something fun and most likely great tasting, check out this post about making your own yogurt at home! Its pathetically easy and will make you think why you're paying 50 cents (or more!) for 6 oz. of the stuff at your local grocery store. And if you're fortunate enough to own an ice cream maker, take your yogurt, add some green tea powder, and say goodbye to Pinkberry forever...

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Empanadas: a sweet version

The empanada is a curious thing. By name they're unabashedly hispanic, but the reality is that they're really small pies, variants of which you can find littered throughout most cultures in the world. They can be either sweet or savory, and make an acceptable breakfast, lunch, dinner, dessert, or anytime snack. You can bake them, pan fry them, or even deep fry them. So with all of those options, just what is it that makes an empanada an empanada? Well, to be honest, the only common tie is that its a filled piece of dough. So with all the possibilities in the world seemingly open to use, I looked around my kitchen looking for things that needed to get used or thrown out. I happened upon some apples that I had bought a week earlier but ended up not eating because I prefer firm apples and these were unfortunately too sugary for my tastes. I was tempted to make a traditional apple pie, but decided it was too much effort to find my pie plate (strangely it was in my bedroom, and no I wasn't eating pie in bed). Empanadas to the rescue!

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The finished products, you know you want one.

I decided to fill my empanadas with an unusual apple filling comprised simply of honey, balsamic vinegar, cardamom, and apples. The honey provides sweetness and a depth of flavor sugar can't. The balsamic gives a little bite from the acidity (which also keeps the apples from browning) and a tangy flavor that contrasts with the honey. The cardamom provides an oddly warm and subtle flavor that meshes well with everything else. As things often go with my cooking, that combination was completely unplanned, but I highly recommend you try it once because its really good (and people think anything with cardamom is impressive, and thus are impressed with you). But I'm going to present this so you can substitute any filling that you want (yesterdays beef stew?, home-made tomato jam?, curried whitefish?). So lets get on with it...

Empanada Dough: Adapted from Alton Brown's recipe
9.5 oz. flour (I split 1/2 & 1/2 "white" wheat and AP)
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
2.5 oz. shortening
3/4 cup milk (I used 1/3 cup non-fat dried milk and 3/4 cup water)

  • Sift together the flour, salt, and baking soda (if using non-fat dried milk, that too).
  • Cut the shortening into the flour mixture till you get fine crumbs.
  • Add the water and bring together using a silicon spatula.
  • Kneed the dough thoroughly for ~5 minutes, then form into a disc.
  • Roll the disc out on a floured work surface till ~1/2 inch thick. Cut out small circles using a cookie cutter or, in my case, your #0 half-cup Rubbermaid storage container.
  • Ball-up and re-roll the extra dough until you've used it all up. Keep circles under a moistened paper towel while you make the empanadas.
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Honey-balsamic cardamom apple filling: Can be made ahead of time
2 large apples, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch cubes
1/2 cup honey
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
1.5 tsp. freshly ground cardamom
1 tbsp. corn starch
1/4 cup cold water

  • Put the apple pieces into a 1 qt. saucepan over medium heat.
  • After the apples have given up some liquid, add the honey, balsamic, and cardamom. Mix the cornstarch in with the cold water to hydrate.
  • After the honey is very viscous and some of the apples have broken down, pour in the cornstarch slurry and heat till thickened.
  • When thick, remove from heat and cool to room temperature.
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Empanada assembly:
1 egg-white
dough circles

  • Roll out one of the dough circles on a floured surface till about 2 millimeters thick. You should flip it over and turn ~90 deg. as you roll it out to keep the circle shape.
  • Apply a thin coat of egg-white to one half of the circle. Add ~1 tbsp. filling to that side near the edge of the circle.
  • Pull the side with the filling and egg over onto the other side. Squeeze out as much air as possible and then use your fingers to press both sides together.
  • Using a fork, crimp the edges to form a tight seal. Using a knife or kitchen scissors, make three small slits on the top to allow air and water to escape during cooking.
  • Depending on cooking method (oven in my case) glaze the outside now with egg-white and then sprinkle on some demerara sugar.
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Cooking Empanadas:
  • Oven: 350F, bake for ~25 minutes on a parchment or silicone baking mat lined sheet pan.
  • Pan Fry: Heat ~2 tbsp. shortening over medium heat. Fry for 3-4 minutes per side. Sprinkle on sugar after removing from pan to cooling rack.
  • Deep Fry: Heat oil to ~375F. Fry for 3-4 minutes total. Sprinkle on sugar after removing to cooling rack.

The traditional cooking method for empanadas is to pan fry them. But if you're like me and don't feel like frying at 10pm, the oven works great just as well. It takes longer on a per pie basis, but you can cook the whole lot all at once if you have two sheet pans and an oven that keeps an even temperature. If you don't have an oven available, because you're living in the middle of the jungle (for example), then by all means pan fry these babies. I'm sure they're just as delicious (possibly more so) and easy if you try making them at a reasonable time.

So, call these what you wish (empanadas, pocket pies (the Alton Brown name), mini-pies, yummy filled dough thingies) they're good. And with the wealth of of fillings available, they're extremely versatile. The best part though, as far as I'm concerned, is that I've finally done a recipe for something that can> be made with out any fancy ingredients, requires no refrigeration, and can be made on a camp stove deep in the middle of the Panamanian jungle. The use of shortening and non-fat dry milk means the egg-white is the only thing that would normally required to be kept refrigerated (a fresh egg will keep at least 2-3 days if simply kept cool, ~50-55F). The good news there is that the egg isn't necessary, it just helps glue things together and promotes browning when you bake them. All this proves is that the empanada is an extremely useful food delivery system, and deserves as much respect and experimentation as you can give it.