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The International Culinary Center's Tech 'N Stuff Blog

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Tokyo Tales: $300 of sushi in 30 minutes

June 8th, 2012 · Uncategorized

By Dave Arnold

The Park Hyatt Hotel in Tokyo asked me to come over and make Booker and Dax style cocktails at their New York Bar. Nastassia and I made drinks and taught techniques for four nights, overlooking the city from the 52nd floor. If they ever offer to fly you over and set you up in a room, say yes immediately. It is the most baller hotel I’ve ever stayed in. Huge rooms, fantastic views, crazy good service. The Park Hyatt’s concierge is a serious bad-ass. In a city know for excellent service, he is one of the top concierges. He and his colleagues compete to see who can perform the most impossible tasks. For us he did the truly impossible: reservations for three non-Japanese people at Sukiyabashi Jiro with one day’s notice. Sukiyabashi Jiro is owned and run by Jiro Ono, who, at 86 years old, still works every day and doesn’t let anyone else mold the rice for his sushi. He won three Michelin stars at the age of 82. (Jiro and his restaurant are featured in the film Jiro Dreams of Sushi). If you don’t know about Jiro, read more here.

I don’t normally comment on restaurants on the blog, but I’m making an exception.

I wasn’t allowed to take pictures of the chef or restaurant, but shooting the sushi was OK — so here you go:

Here are the courses we received in order. I forgot to photograph a few of them (sorry). The menu on the lower right has the names of the dishes highlighted. Check out that spork in the melon shot. Click on the picture to get a much larger, readable version.

The meal that day was 19 pieces of sushi plus a slice of fancy melon.

Our party:

Me, Nastassia, and Mark Ladner, of Del Posto. This is after the meal but before we paid. Mark and I tried to look as dumb as possible while Nastassia had to pretend to disapprove.

My thoughts in no particular order:

Melons:

I detest melon, but have been itching to try a fancy Japanese melon for a long time, just to see what the hubbub is about. Usually, the better a melon is, the more I hate it, because the more like a melon it tastes. I was able to tolerate this musk melon because of the absurd juiciness and high sugar level (apparent in the photo) that counterbalanced any strong melon flavor. The best part about the melon course was the spork. Jiro’s sporks are the finest I’ve ever used. He deserves his three Michelin stars on the sporks alone. I later found out they are available to anyone who makes the trip to Tokyo’s kitchen district, Kappabashi, in the Asakusa section of town.

Kappabashi kitchen district. The chef's head marks the spot.

The Timing:

The sushi courses came out at a rate of one per minute. 19 courses in 19 minutes. No ordering, no real talking –just making sushi and eating sushi. After the sushi is done you are motioned to leave the sushi bar and sit at a booth where you are served your melon. We took that melon at a leisurely 10 minute pace, leaving us with a bill of over $300 per person for just under 30 minutes time. Nastassia and Mark thought the pace was absurd and unpleasant. They felt obliged to keep up with Jiro’s pace. I didn’t feel obliged, but kept up anyway. I didn’t mind the speed. I could have easily eaten even faster, but I’m an inhuman eating machine –or so I’m told. At the end of the meal, Jiro went outside the restaurant and stood guard at the entrance, waiting to bid us formal adieu. This made Nastassia even more nervous about rushing to get out. Not me. At over 10 dollars a minute I have no problem letting an 86 year old man stand and wait for me to finish my melon if he wants to.

The Sushi:

Jiro’s sushi wasn’t what I expected. The vinegar level in the rice was much higher than what I’m used to. This is not a knock, just a statement. I presume the higher level of vinegar corresponds to an older style of sushi. The rice was as vinegar-ed as overnight rolled and pressed Kyoto-style saba (mackerel) sushi. Many of the courses also had a briny, ocean-like taste that I liked a lot.

Every piece of sushi was cut and prepped by Jiro’s son, then handed over to Jiro for the rice molding and sushi finishing. Jiro painted every piece with a glaze — his secret sauce. It went on everything but the anago, which, as expected, got a thicker, sweeter, glaze. I used no soy.

The cutting was a joy to behold. If you look at the sardine course (second row right side) you’ll get an idea of the skills. The skin gives way to two different presentations of muscle in one small piece. Two slicing things I picked up on: when cutting the squid, the chef’s yanagi (slicer) entered the flesh at an extreme angle –the cutting style I’m used to. Just before the squid was cut all the way through, he righted his knife perpendicular to the cutting board. It struck me that this prevented ragged edges. The other trick for which I have not figured out the reason is Jiro’s slicing of the large prawn pieces. Jiro molded the prawns as one big piece of sushi and then cut them in half. He cut about two-thirds of the way through and then stopped. He slapped the top of his slicer to finish the cut. Must be important, but don’t know why. Could it be to prevent smearing the rice?

The fish was impeccably fresh –as it should have been — but the mantis shrimp course was not tasty and the anago was just OK. The mantis, or squilla mantis, as it is sometimes called, was mealy and thoroughly unpleasant. Somebody else made the same comment on the web. I have have never had a mantis shrimp I thought was good, and I don’t think my western taste buds are to blame –I think they just mostly suck. Mark, however, had one the next day that he liked a lot. I was looking forward to the anago, as I am a fiend for eel in almost any form, but this one was a bit mushy. Still good — but not great. The rest of the meal was fantastic.

The Book:

Jiro has a book. You should try to find it. Even without understanding a single Japanese character you’ll learn a lot. Here are some pages.

The cover of Jiro's book. I can't even tell you the title.

Hell yes.

More hell yes.

Next stop… Tsukiji Market

 

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I Was Away

June 8th, 2012 · Uncategorized

But now I’m back.

by Dave Arnold

Sorry for the 7 month pause. Excuses are lame, but I’ve been swamped with opening a bar, starting a business, writing a cocktail book…

I’m starting fresh. I’m proud of this site and my (overly lengthy) posts to date but — so that I can once again send you new information on a regular shedule — I am switching to a shorter format. I won’t compromise on accuracy, but I will post on subjects that I’m still in the midst of researching rather than just ones I feel I’ve completely exhausted.

Comments will take me a long time to sort through. I have 26,000 — most of them spam. I will get to your legit comments, I promise. In the meantime, the best way to ask me a question is through my weekly radio show, Cooking Issues, on the Heritage Radio Network, or possibly on my Twitter handle, @cookingissues.

The French Culinary Institute has asked me to change our header — Nils is no longer part of the FCI (he is busy doing other cool stuff) and the name of the FCI’s parent company is now called “The International Culinary Center.” Henceforth this will be the “International Culinary Center’s Tech N Stuff” blog.

Thanks for your patience; stick with me —

Dave

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To Salt or Not To Salt –That’s the Searing Question

October 12th, 2011 · Uncategorized

by Dave Arnold

Should you salt meat before you sear it? I thought the answer was always yes. But the answer is: it depends.

My secret slicing station to hide what is going on during taste tests.

My secret slicing station to prepare taste tests.

My Previous Position:

Some cooks don’t like to salt before they sear because, they say, salted meat loses juices. But who cares? Losing juice does not mean the meat won’t be juicy. Extra juice makes meat taste watery and bland. Moisture isn’t necessarily your friend; delicious is your friend –and salting meat before you sear it makes it more delicious.

My Position Changes:

I have found an exception to my salt-before-searing rule that should have been obvious to me –low-temperature cook-chill meats. With low temperature cooking you use very precisely controlled temperatures to cook to exact levels of doneness. If I want a medium-rare steak with an internal temperature of 55⁰C (131⁰F) I cook it in butter at exactly 55⁰C, not in an oven or pan at 200⁰C (392⁰F). Wanna know more about low-temp cooking and all its advantages? See my unfinished primer here.

There are two main types of low-temperature cooking –direct-serve and cook-chill. For direct-serve you cook foods and serve them right away. For cook-chill, foods are cooked, chilled, stored, and rethermalized* at service time. Here is a typical sequence for cooking a steak:

  • Sear the raw rib-eye. This step kills bacteria on the surface, starts the browning reactions that contribute to good meat flavors, and ensures that a nice crust will be formed quickly later when the meat is seared again.
  • Put meat in a bag with butter.
  • Cook the steak for 1-4 hours at 55 C. The optimum length of time depends on how tough the particular steak is.
  • Now, either:
    • Pull the steak out of the bag, sear it (to make a nice crust) and serve it. This is Direct Serve.

Or:

    • Chill the meat and store.
    • Retherm it at 52 C.
    • Pull the steak out of the bag, sear it and serve it. This is Cook-Chill.

My direct-serve meat has always been delicious, but I had noticed that my cook-chill meats were never quite as juicy and delicious, and the color was a little strange. I thought about the fact that I always liberally salt my meat before I cook it, and came to believe that salt might be the culprit. Maybe the pre-sear salting was curing the stored meat even though it was cooked –rendering it firmer and less juicy.

To check the theory I ran a test, cooking rib-eyes three different ways:

  1. A rib-eye was salted, seared, placed in a vacuum bag, and cooked at 55 C for 1.5 hours, chilled, stored for two days, rethermed at 52C for one hour, seared, and served (Salted Cook-Chill).
  2. A rib-eye was seared without salting, placed in a vacuum bag, cooked at 55 C for 1.5 hours, chilled, stored for two days, rethermed at 52C for one hour, seared, salted, and served (Unsalted Cook-Chill).
  3. A rib-eye was salted, seared, placed in a vacuum bag, and cooked at 55 C for 1.5 hours, dropped to 52 C and held for one hour, seared, and served (Salted Direct-Serve).

You’ll note I salted the unsalted meat before service, because if I didn’t, it would be too easy for my tasters to distinguish.

I called in a three-person tasting panel (our Chef Hervé (who did the actual cooking on this one), Chef Annette, and Chef Angela).

The Panel: Chef Annette, Chef Angela, and Chef Herve

We used a triangle-taste-test protocol. In a triangle test, I serve two pieces of meat that have been prepared the same way, and one that is different, and see if the panelists can detect the one that is different.

Triangle test: One of these steaks is doing its own thing, two of these steaks are kinda the same.

Results:

The panel easily and unanimously correctly distinguished between the salted and unsalted cook-chill meats. As expected, the salted meats were firmer, and had a more cured color than the unsalted. Everyone preferred the unsalted meat. The panelists were also all able to distinguish between the salted direct-serve meat and the unsalted cook-chill. Here, the panelists also preferred the unsalted cook chill, because the direct-serve steak, although juicier than the cook-chill steak, had a stringier texture. The differences between these two steaks were not as stark as with the salted and unsalted cook-chill meats. In my opinion, the differences between these two could simply be due to inter-steak variation. More tests are in order.

The Upshot:

If you are serving your meats within a couple of hours, salt before you sear –it’ll be great. If your service is many hours or days away, lay off the salt till service time.

*I use rethermalize instead of reheat not because I like useless fancy words, but because the food code requires very high temperatures for “reheating,” but has no standards for “rethermalizing.” Dumb but true.

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Spin Doctor: Looking Inside My Centrifuge

September 18th, 2011 · Uncategorized

by Dave Arnold

It's hard to tell whats happening inside a centrifuge when it is running. This one has its safety interlock defeated. NEVER DO THIS!

Centrifuges spin quickly, using centrifugal force to separate mixtures based on density: separating lighter oil from heavier nut solids, for instance, or separating clear delicious juice from heavier pulp. Don’t have a centrifuge yet? What are you waiting for? It is the must-have kitchen gadget from 6 years in the future. If you make a lot of juices in a bar or restaurant, it will pay for itself very quickly .

It is hard to know how fast or how long you really need to spin the centrifuge to get good separation. I figured the best way to know would be to watch it while it spun, so I shot a video using a hand-held strobe light tachometer I got cheap on eBay.

My centrifuge video rig with bullet-proof lexan and strobe-light.

This video lets us examine the separation parameters — speed and time — of my most common centrifuge task: enzyme assisted centrifugal clarification (see here). The enzyme I use for clarification is Pectinex SP-L. It’s other magical properties include french fry augmentation, and citrus auto-supreming. The two liquids I test are orange juice and Gin Justino (banana blended with gin) Here it is:

The next centrifuge post will reveal my latest breakthrough in lime-juice clarification. I’ll tell you this: with the centrifuge and two magic ingredients you can source from any home-brew shop you can clarify fresh lime juice without heat in under an hour with greater than 95% yield and very little labor! Go buy one already.

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Voiding Your Warranty: Hacking Electric Pressure Cookers

August 12th, 2011 · Uncategorized

by Dave Arnold

Warning! I do this for a living. Following my path will void your warranty and expose you to possible injury or death.

Messing with pressure cookers.

I love pressure cookers. They were designed to cook quickly and save energy, and also to sterilize and can foods. But that’s not why I love them. Pressure cookers can create new flavors, amp up old flavors, mollify harshness, and alter texture. I’ve done many dozens of pressure cooker demonstrations. At every demo, someone asks me what I think of electric pressure cookers –specifically, the well-known model from Cuisinart. And then I am forced to admit that I have never used one. And then friends like Jeffrey Steingarten (who loves his Cuisinart pressure cooker) chide me mercilessly.

No more!

Someone from the Cuisinart corporation heard my sad story and sent me a unit to test (thank you, kind patron –I lost your note, so please send me your info).

Pressure cookers in a nutshell:

The boiling temperature of any liquid is dependant on pressure. The higher the pressure, the higher the boiling point. Pressure and boiling temperature are inextricably intertwined: tell me one and I’ll tell you the other. Pressure cookers elevate cooking temperatures by increasing pressure in a way that isn’t entirely obvious. In an oven set at 400 F, the inside of a piece of meat will never go above the sea-level boiling point of water –212 F (100 C). In a pressure cooker, the inside of the food can get to much higher temperatures.

There is a worldwide standard for pressure cookers: since the early 1900’s they have had a high-pressure setting of 15 pounds per square inch (psi) over atmospheric pressure. At sea level, water at 15 psi boils at 250 F (121 C ) instead of 212 F (many pressure cookers also have a lower pressure setting between 5 and 8 psi at 227-235 F or 108-113 C).

What’s so special about 15 psi?

Both temperature and pressure affect the way your food cooks. Most pressure cooker recipes are written for 15 psi. If a cooker can’t reach 15 psi, those recipes won’t work. If you are using your pressure cooker simply to reduce cooking times, dealing with pressures under 15 psi is no big deal — just increase the cooking time a bit. But I rely on the pressure cooker for more than faster cooking. Many of the pressure cooker recipes I’ve developed rely on the 250F that you get at 15 psi to produce special effects, like obliterating the stink from garlic and onions, and taming the pungency of mustard seeds and horseradish. These recipes don’t work at 9 psi. If you eat 4 heads of garlic that have been pressure cooked at 15 psi or higher for 20-30 minutes, you can have a discussion with your friends about it the next day. At 9 psi, don’t subject them.

A pressure cooker at 15 psi makes stocks and meats taste… well, meatier. I have run tests of chicken stock made at 8 psi versus 15 psi; I definitely prefer 15 psi. Wondering if even higher pressures would produce better results, I ran a series of tests a while back on stocks with the huge, expensive, pressure-accurate All American Pressure Sterilizer from WAFCO to see. I tested to 24 psi. Turns out, 15 psi is the magic number; see here. Pushing pressures to an extreme, I’ve sealed potatoes in a pipe and thrown them in my deep-fryer set at 365 F, generating 148 psi. Wow, did those potatoes taste bad. Brown all the way through and gross. Possibly the worst stuff ever (see here).

The Problem With Electrics:

The main problem with many electric pressure cookers: they don’t follow the 15 psi standard. This deviance has nothing to do with the fact that they are powered by electricity.

The Cuisinart has both low and high pressure settings, but unfortunately the manual doesn’t tell you what those settings mean. I needed to figure out the pressures and temperatures myself. I couldn’t find a good way to measure pressure directly without drilling holes in the cooker, so I decided to measure temperature, instead, by inserting a thermocouple into the unit through the vent hole and then sealing it up. I measured a low pressure temperature of 230 F (110 C), corresponding to 6 psi. At high pressure the unit reached 237 F (114 C), corresponding to 9 psi — below the magic 15.

Measuring temperatures.

There are Many Good Things About the Cuisinart:

  • It is non-venting. Most pressure cookers vent steam from their lids to regulate pressure. The Cuisinart doesn’t. Some of my tests show that for certain applications, like making stock, pressure cookers that vent while cooking produce drastically inferior flavors. See here. (PS, you can follow a tip from Modernist Cuisine and make small quantities of good and sterile stock in mason jars –even in a venting pressure cooker). This is a big plus for the Cuisinart.
  • It heats up the house less than a stovetop unit.
  • It doesn’t take up a burner.
  • For something that cooks, it isn’t an electricity hog (1000 watts max).
  • It doesn’t scorch — a constant danger with a stovetop unit.
  • It is easy to clean because of the non-stick cooking surface.
  • It is bonehead simple to use, and, unlike any stovetop unit, it’s foolproof. It shuts itself off when it is done, and goes into a keep-warm mode.
  • It has good capacity (up to 16 cups, but I’d never add more than 12).
  • You can simmer, brown and saute in it.
  • You can buy it for under 100 bucks (my stovetop Kuhn Rikon is over $200).

Cuisinart features.

OK, I Like Those Benefits; But I Want 15 Psi, I Need 15 Psi. Now What?

Warning: Technical Section

Here is the part where I void my warranty. I flipped the unit over, took out the two screws and popped off the protective plate. The temperature sensor was located on a spring-mounted button in the center of the unit and had two black wires coming out of it. I popped the connector off the circuit board and measured the resistance of the sensor as I changed the temperature with hot water. Boom. It was a simple temperature-dependent resistor (RTD), and the resistance went down as the sensor got hotter. So far, so good.

I filled the (unplugged) pressure cooker with oil and put in an immersion circulator set to 238 F. After the circ reached temperature, I measured how many ohms the sensor was reading: 5080. I then set the circulator to 250 F and read the resistance after the oil got to temp: 4110 ohms. I figured if I added 970 ohms to the circuit I’d be gold. I soldered in a 10 turn trimming potentiometer (variable resistor) into the circuit, set it to 970, and began testing.

Hacking a Cuisinart pressure cooker

Testing:

I figured I’d just let the pressure cooker heat the oil with the lid off, and the temperature sensor would tell the machine to shut off once it reached 250 F. Wrong. The temperature went to 290 F before I pulled the plug. After much testing, wailing, and gnashing of teeth, I discovered that to regulate temperature the machine must be under pressure. I don’t really understand it. I don’t know how the unit knows it is under pressure (I could find no easily accessible pressure sensor), but it does. I had to go back to measuring the temperature through the sealed lid, which I did with an improved thermocouple rig (a piece of wine cork and a hypodermic probe). The temperature was higher than before -244 F (118 C) but not high enough. I cranked the potentiometer to 1500 ohms and got a temperature of 254 F (123 C). I dialed it back to 1270 ohms and got a friendly 249 F (120 C). Close enough for me.

New temperature rig.

Success.

End of Technical Section

Real World Cooking Tests:

I decided to test the Cuisinart against my old stalwart Kuhn Rikon stovetop model in making Hamine eggs. Traditional Hamine eggs have been cooked for a day or so and take on a brown color due to low temperature Maillard reactions. Years ago, we figured out you can make them in a pressure cooker (see here). Let the eggs come to boil in the pressure cooker, simmer for 5 minutes, seal the cooker and cook at 15 ps from 40-60 minutes. The longer and hotter you cook, the browner the eggs and the more intense the Hamine egg flavor.

Eggs cooked for 50 minutes in my Kuhn Rikon were slightly browner than those cooked in the Cuisinart at high-pressure. Either I hadn’t fudged with the temperature properly in the Cuisinart or my Kuhn Rikon was running a bit high –I think the latter. You regulate the Kuhn Rikon’s pressure by adjusting the heat on your stove till you see the red rings on its spring-loaded valve. I always push the valve a little past the second ring, so I probably go slightly above 15 psi. The 60 minute Cuisinart eggs were as brown as the 50 minute Kuhn Rikon eggs. The 40 minute Cuisinart eggs were, duh, lighter than the others, as was the 50 minute low-pressure Cuisinart Egg.

Kuhn Rikon valve.

Success.

With the modifications I made, the Cuisinart might be my go-to pressure cooker. In fact, I’m cooking turkey thighs in it right now. I do, however, have some reservations:

The Negative Points of the Cuisinart:

  • You have to modify it to get it to cook at 15 psi.
  • It doesn’t tell you the temperature at which it’s running.
  • There is no way the Cuisinart it is as tough as my Kuhn Rikon. My Kuhn Rikon pot is built like a high quality stockpot; the cooking portion of the Cuisinart is basically a non-stick coated rice-cooker insert. I use metal utensils in my Kuhn without hesitation.
  • It beeps at me.

Time Will Tell:

I am unsure how durable the unit will be. Two points of concern: overheating because of my modifications, and the possibility that the insert will get damaged by typical use. My similar rice-cooker insert is OK after years of hard service (Zojirushi makes good stuff), but pressure cooking queen Miss Vickie dislikes non-stick pressure cookers, presumably because of durability. She also says that the reason electric pressure cookers are set to a low pressure is that they can overheat. Time will tell.

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Tropical Treats Tasting Time Part One: February in Florida

August 8th, 2011 · Uncategorized

by Dave Arnold

If you hate things that are awesome stop reading now.

If you are still reading: do whatever it takes to get to the Fruit and Spice Park in Homestead Florida, an hour south of Miami. South-Dade is the Mecca for tropical fruits in the continental US, and the Fruit and Spice Park is the public park where you can sample a bajillion of them.

I discovered the park in February when Chris Young (of Modernist Cuisine fame) and I were doing a gig at the South Beach Food and Wine Festival in Miami.

You enter the park through the gift shop, where you’ll find a table filled with whatever fruit the park staff think you should sample. Definitely sample them. If you want to want to eat more while you’re wandering in the orchards, you need to arrange a special guided tour in advance. If you show up unannounced they discourage you from eating fruit off the trees – it is a public park, and if everyone ate fruit off the trees it would be stripped bare lickety-split. Fruit that has fallen on the ground is OK to pilfer, but is often full of bugs (don’t be a wimp –eat around them) or, worse, over-ripe. We had arranged for a special tour and our intrepid guide, Rose Kennedy, picked fruit for us to taste.

Nastassia and I with Rose Kennedy, our tour guide.

Tropical fruit is weird. Forget everything you know about how fruit works –tropicals are different. Some highlights:

Canistel:

The canistel (Pouteria campehiana), which hails from Central America and southern Mexico, is a fruit I can get behind. It is picked hard and then allowed to soften off the tree into a delicious sweet fruit confection. Canistels are very dry as fruits go – similar to an avocado but without oil. The texture is likened by some to cooked egg yolks –a custard of which the canistel’s taste resembles; in fact, the canistel is sometimes called the eggfruit. It makes a fantastic ice cream or sorbet (and doesn’t require added cream). If I had easy access to canistel I would make it into ice cream all the time.

Canistel: outside and in.

Jaboticaba, Tree Grape:

Jaboticabas (Myrciaria cauliflora, M jaboticaba and other related species) are South American fruits that look like perfectly round grapes but grow on the bark of their trees in a most peculiar way (see the picture at the beginning of the post). There are many named cultivars, but I didn’t keep a record of the ones we sampled (idiot!). Most were delicious –sprightly with a muscadine grape/musky twang to them. One version had a bit of Concord grape flavor. A variety I didn’t favor was more yellow than purple and tasted like sucking on freshly soldered circuit boards.

Jaboticabas

Sapodilla:

Many tropical fruits don’t change their appearance as they mature. Even more problematic for the picker: fruits of widely differing maturities may be found on the same tree with roughly the same appearance. Half the trick of eating tropical fruits appears to be learning when and how to pick them. Take sapodilla (Manilkara zapota), a fruit of Mexican origin. Immature sapodillas look and feel like mature ones. How do you know when they are ready to pick? Simply scratch the skin with your fingernail. If you see green, leave it where it’s been. If you see yellow-brown, take it down. Many of the sapodillas on the trees we saw showed signs of finger-scratch testing. A mature sapodilla will soften up a couple of days after it is picked.

Sapodillas: scratch the skin with your fingernail. If it shows green it isn't ready to pick.

All the sapodilla cultivars we tasted were extremely sugary – more like brown-sugary. On their own they are sickeningly sweet. The first bite is nice, but the second has to be forced down. Add acid to a sapodilla in the form of lime, however, and you’ll want to eat them by the bushel. Fully ripened sapodillas are soft. Some of the ones we tried were smooth textured and some were a bit grainy, like a pear.

Sapodilla. Just add lime.

The sapodilla tree and other related species produce chicle, the original chewing gum. People called chicleros make cuts in the tree bark, collect the latex that drips out, and then boil the latex till it reaches the proper consistency – at which point it is known as chicle. Although most modern gum is now made from cheaper synthetic bases, you can still easily get chicle (try www.terraspice.com) and make your own gum — it’s great fun.

Chicle --processed latex from the sapodilla tree. Natural chewing-gum base.

Guavas can be Interesting:

It turns out that Guavas, a fruit I had thought was uninteresting and not so tasty, range radically in flavor, size, color, and texture. My previous guava judgment is akin to judging all of apple-dom based on a supermarket Red Delicious. The most interesting guava we tried is the cas (Psidium friedrichsthalianum), a tiny super-tart guava. Your first taste makes you pucker your lips like you were sucking on a lemon –but you are compelled to take a second taste. It would make a most refreshing drink.

Pretty guavas that I don't care for.

Cas: an ugly guava that I really like. Tart and refreshing.

The Much Maligned Starfruit:

Everybody seems to have a tropical fruit they don’t like, and starfruit, or carambola (Averrhoa carambola), is one that most of my chef friends deem useless. Even though carambolas are low on flavor, I find a them quite pleasant: watery, mildy acidic, not hard –yet crunchy. I sampled around ten types of the park’s starfruit to see if there were some butt-kickers I could take home and rub in my buddies’ faces. Sadly, no. While I had some of the best starfruit I have ever had at the park, I tasted no game-changers that I could leverage into a starfruit proselytizing campaign.

Like Starfruits? They got plenty.

In case you were wondering, I save my tropical-fruit enmity for the dragon fruit (Hylocereus undatus) –one of the showiest fruits in the world. It tastes like crunchy, off-flavored water. Somebody please tell me I’m wrong and send me a good dragon fruit.

A Sapote by any Other Name:

Ask a tropical fruit expert about sapotes and they roll their eyes. Sapote, they will tell you, is a catch-all term for any sweet, roundish fruit from south of the border. You have to specify which sapote you are discussing. Who knew? Well, I want to discuss the black sapote (Diopyros ebenaster), or, as it was described to us, the chocolate pudding fruit. Pick them when they are green and when sepals are starting to pull away from the fruit, and let ‘em soften up a week or so — you’ve got a fruit that tastes like carob pudding. Everyone says chocolate pudding, but to me it tasted more like carob (remember in the 80’s when people were all trying to convince themselves that carob tasted like chocolate?)

Top right: a black sapote that is ready to pick --the sepals are pulling away from the fruit. Top left: a black sapote ready to eat. Bottom: the inside of a black sapote.

Carob or chocolate, this fruit is pretty damn good. As good as the fruit is, the ice cream is better. All you need to do is blend and freeze, nature does the rest. In the Miami area you can purchase a commercially made black sapote ice cream from Gaby’s Farm Tropical Fruits and Ice Creams. I recommend it.

Gaby and her ice creams.

Spices and Leaves and Such:

Fresh allspice leaves (Pimenta dioica). I want them, I need them. They smell like allspice, but fresh and green. Why can’t I buy them in New York? Even more important: Lemon Allspice leaves (aka Lemon Bay Rum, Pimenta racemosus). Why had I never heard of them, and why aren’t they in everybody’s kitchen? A leaf with the aromas of allspice and lemon!

Close-up of crushed lemon allspice leaf and Chris Young sniffin and munchin.

Achiote (aka Annato, Bixa orellana) –the fresh stuff. Beautiful. Don’t know if it tastes any different, but sure is purty.

Different varieties of achiote pods on top, and an opened one on the bottom. The seeds are covered in a red mucilage that dyes your skin instantly.

The Guiana Chestnut (Pachira aquatic) is another cool tree from Cental and South America. The nuts taste somewhat of chestnuts and can by boiled, roasted or fried (yes, I fried mine).

Guiana Chestnut. The seeds are cooked and eaten. They taste a little like chestnuts (duh).

You Have To Keep Going Back

There is no best time to visit the park. There are always some fruits in season, and many trees bear fruit throughout the year in sporadic cycles that are difficult to predict. In the tropics, where there is no killing frost, trees aren’t necessarily tied to annual cycles the way our temperate plants are. The Monstera deliciosa takes over a year to go from flower to mature fruit. The odds that you’ll get to taste one on any particular visit are low.

Immature Monstera deliciosa fruit at the Park.

On our February visit Rose often described the amazing fruit of some tree, how pretty it was, how delicious — and then told us it wasn’t available just then. Salivating, we would ask when it was available, and she would usually say, “oh, you just missed it,” or “oh, in a couple of weeks.” Rose described the product of one sporadic bearer, the ice-cream bean tree (Inga edulis), as a fruit that tasted like cotton-candy-flavored ice cream. From the description, it sounded like a life-changing fruit –a fruit that could launch a thousand ships –a fruit you’d cheat your mom to get. Chris in particular was disappointed he didn’t get to taste it (here is the good news Chris: Nastassia and I tasted it on a later trip: it was good, but I wouldn’t cut off my pinky-toe for regular supply).

Ice Cream Bean: the sweet part is the fluffy white stuff (the aril) around the seeds. It does taste like cotton candy ice cream; but not great cotton candy ice cream.

While the availability of some fruits are just the luck of the draw, some have definite seasons. The most important of these fruits is the Mango. Mangos are in season only in the summertime. The Park has over 140 mango varieties. I also learned that a couple of miles away from the park lies the Fairchild Farm, a division of the Fairchild Botanical Gardens, with over 400 mango cultivars — the greatest collection of mangos in the country. I love mangos, and who doesn’t? Harold McGee and I had been trying for several years to organize a mango tasting trip to India, one of the centers of mango diversity, but Nastassia and I decided that our first mango-thon should be in Florida. Stay tuned for part 2 of this post: Mango Madness.

Hey Dave, I’m Gonna be near Homestead, but don’t have time for the Park. What Should I Do?

  • Rearrange your schedule to make time.
  • Visit Robert is Here, a nearby famous fruit stand featuring loads of locally grown tropical fruits.

Hey Dave, I wanna know more. What books should I read on tropical Fruit?

I’m glad you asked.

If you go to the Fruit and Spice Park, purchase their slim guidebook at the gift shop and peruse it before heading outside.

The guide book from the Fruit and Spice Park.

For free reading you can’t beat the online version of Julia F. Morton’s out-of-print classic, Fruits of Warm Climates.

Published in 1987, Fruits of Warm Climates is still considered a go-to book by tropical book enthusiasts. If you want a more comprehensive list of plants, try Margaret Barwick’s Tropical & Subtropical Trees: A World Encyclopedic Guide.

Tropical and Subtropical Trees: the cover and a sample page.

The book is fantastic, but it doesn’t deal exclusively with fruit trees, and focuses on the trees themselves rather than the taste and use of the fruits. Still worth a read.

For the “Completely Useless for a New Yorker but Still Extremely Coveted” award, I present my favorite of the lot: Brazilian Fruits & Cultivated Exotics (for consuming in natura) by Harri Lorenzi, et al. Holy crap. Makes me want to move to Brazil. It contains a brain-busting array of fruits along with taste descriptions, usage, and beautiful shots of the plants and the fruits. By the way, in Brazil, an apple counts as a cultivated exotic but the rare mendubi-guaçu (the red fruit that looks like a flower on the cover) does not.

Brazilian Fruit & Cultivated Exotics: Cover on left, sample page on right. Notice the nifty blue grid the fruit is shot on.

My wife occasionally tries to stanch the steady stream of new books coming into my small apartment — it must be admitted that the ones I already own are fitted into every crevice like tetris pieces. She agreed that room needed to be made for this book. All the fruits are shot on a crazy blue background with a 1×1 cm grid pattern for scale. As the parenthetical part of the title suggests, this book only deals with fruits that are consumed without preparation. From the preface to the book:

We will not address fruits or parts of fruits that need some type of preparation (cooking, roasting or seasoning), before they can be consumed, like the palm fruit known as pupunha, the pepper, the red sweetsop, the mirliton, pumpkin, Brazilian nightshade (gilo), the cucumber, the olive, the scarlet eggplant, the elephant apple, the Ceylon cinnamon, etc.

Badass. The authors have so many awesome fruits to choose from that they won’t even deign to eat a cucumber raw! The book is hard to find at a reasonable price. I got my copy from a tropical fruit website in Hawaii.

Up next: Mango Madness!

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I’m Back.

August 8th, 2011 · Uncategorized

by Dave Arnold

Sorry for the delay fine readers. I’m back and ready for bidness.

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Raw Deal

June 17th, 2011 · Uncategorized

by Dave Arnold

Because I lost a bet I went raw vegan for a week. No meat, fish, egg or dairy, and nothing that had ever been raised above 118 degrees F.

The Bet:

A while back on the radio I was trash-talking raw chocolate –chocolate whose component ingredients have never been heated above 118 F.  I contended that good raw chocolate was an impossibility because many of the characteristic flavors of chocolate develop during roasting, a process perforce over 118 F. I was so confident, I boasted I would eat raw-vegan for a whole week if someone could produce a raw chocolate even resembling real chocolate. I got hosed.  My ex-intern Grace brought me a bar of Fine & Raw Chocolate.  It wasn’t my favorite chocolate, and the texture wasn’t right (too soft), but it was clearly chocolate.

The chocolate that lost me the bet.

What I Thought Would Happen:

Any constraint you place on yourself is an opportunity to grow and learn.  Learning to prepare raw vegan food, I figured, would make me a better overall cook.  Problem is: raw vegan food is really hard to do well. I read ten different raw vegan cookbooks and very quickly realized that most recipes take a loooong time to make –like days — and have enough steps to make my sous-vide/rotovap/liquid-nitrogen and centrifuged concoctions seem simple. A typical recipe calls for sprouting wheat (a several day process) then soaking those sprouts in water for an additional day. That water takes on a fermented taste and forms a basic raw ingredient called rejuvelac. The rejuvelac is then blended (in a vita-prep, mind you, not your crappy home blender) with raw cashews that you’ve soaked for 12 hours. The resulting mixture is then allowed to strain and set up for another 24 hours in your fridge. What you are left with is cashew cheese. It tastes pretty good, but it should not be called cheese –it should have its own name. Yummy cashew paste?  Recipes like this aren’t technically difficult, but the time management was a pain  —  I usually allot about 15 to 30 minutes to produce dinner.

Though I had grand visions of the miraculous dishes I would create, only two came to pass.

Stuff I thought I would be great but didn’t try:

The rotovap: The rotary evaporator lets me do distillations well below 118 F.  I can take a raw vegan wine (wine was my savior on the week long raw stint), and turn it into a raw brandy to make honest-to-god raw cocktails.  I had a small amount of raw brandy lying around from an old experiment, so I took a swig, but because my rotovap is packed up right now, I couldn’t make any more. Drat. For more on rotary evaporation, see here.

The centrifuge: The centrifuge lets you clarify juice without ever heating it –another great plus for raw vegan cocktails.  I’m sure most raw foodists are used to consuming mass quantities of blended stuff, but give me a pure clear beverage any day. The centrifuge also excels at making nut milks (see here). Although we use hot water for our nut milks, you wouldn’t have to.  The yield is high — a huge plus when using expensive ingredients like raw organic nuts.  Raw foodies…. go buy a centrifuge!

Stuff I did try that I liked:

“Earl Grey” White Tea: I knew giving up caffeine cold-turkey would be problematic. I typically begin my day with two double espressos, and without them I am an ornery mess with a headache. You can’t have coffee on a raw diet even if you cold-brew because coffee is roasted. Ditto with most teas, which are fired at temperatures well in excess of the raw magic numbers — with one exception.  Silver needle white tea is the least processed tea,  sun- dried and then lightly fired at extremely low temperatures (like 110 F).  I bought some at Harney & Sons.

Two left photos: Silver Needle White Tea. On right: the custom ISI cream whipper given to me by Chef Jeremiah Bullfrog that I used for the infusion.

White tea is so delicate that even using conventional brewing temperatures, the beverage is light and not very robust.  Cold brewing does almost nothing.  Maybe the leaves are difficult to hydrate because they are less mechanically damaged than most tea leaves? I turned to N2O infusion, a technique I developed last year, to solve this problem.  It works like this: pressurized nitrous oxide (N2O) forces liquids into porous foods –in this case tea leaves– inside a whipped cream maker. That pressurized infused liquid picks up flavor quick. After a short amount of time you suddenly release the pressure in the whipped cream maker. The nitrous then bubbles violently and carries the flavor back out of the food again. More on the technique here. I didn’t measure the amount of tea I used per quart of water (I was too rattled by my lack of caffeine), but I can tell you that I used two N2O chargers per quart of water and let it infuse for 2 minutes under pressure. After I vented the the pressure I allowed the tea leaves to stay in the liquid for 1 hour, after which I drained the leaves and pressed out the liquid.  I got a pretty delicious tea.

The N2O infused White Tea.

I then added some raw honey and some funky lemon. What is a funky lemon? Some lemons in my fridge accidentally froze. I pulled them out, allowed them to thaw on my counter, and forgot about them for two days. I was going to throw them out, but when I gave them a sniff they reminded me of bergamot, the characteristic citrus flavor of Earl Grey tea. To see if I could replicate this result I froze some lemons on purpose and allowed them to thaw for a day and a half. Yep, bergamot.  What is happening: the freeze-thaw cycle damages the tissue in the lemon, allowing part of the juice an oil to “degrade” into stale juice, but the stale/fresh combo is somehow pleasant.  I did some preliminary research, and one of the four major aroma compounds in bergamot –(Z)-limonene oxide, is also a breakdown compound of air-aged lemon oil.  I need to do more experiments;  I have had interesting results with frozen and thawed fruits (apples, pears, persimmons, quince) for years but have never studied them in depth.

Funky freeze-thaw lemon. Note the tissue damage on the rind and the overall translucency of the fruit.

N2O infused silver needle white tea+raw honey+funky lemon=Raw Earl Grey=Dave not a complete monster.

Rapid infusion in general: Many raw food recipes for vegetables call for an extended soaking time in a flavorful liquid, like vinegar or sauerkraut juice, followed by a low temperature dehydration step.  The soaking does two things: 1. adds flavor; 2. removes some liquid from the vegetables through osmosis, making them less crisp and giving them more of a “cooked” texture, which is further accentuated by the low temp dehydration.  Mushrooms respond particularly well to this treatment, though many vegetables benefit –onions, peppers, zucchini, etc.  Flash infusion, either with a vacuum machine or with N2O infusion (if you don’t have a vacuum), or even Vacu-Vin flash infusion (see here) really accelerates the process.  I was able to prepare mushrooms in 1.5 hours instead of the 5 the recipe called for.  Win.

Stuff I tried that I hated:

Flax crackers: Man did these suck.  I soaked and blended flax seeds, sauerkraut juice (I didn’t have rejuvelac), and some other junk I can’t remember into a smooth paste and dehydrated them at 110 F for 24 hours.  Flax seeds are the go-to cracker-and-crust-making ingredient for raw foodists because the seeds grind to form a gummy paste that sets up stiff enough to dehydrate into a cracker. They were crispy enough when dry, but they were beyond bad when used as the base for raw vegan nachos.  They lost their texture and took on an unappetizing bleach-y aroma when wet. Now I know why all the commercial raw cracker manufactures over-flavor their wares with spices — gotta cover up the nasty flavor.  I  bought one brand of raw vegan cracker that I truly enjoyed and would eat anytime — Go Raw Flax Snax. Their stuff is all-sprouted.  Maybe that is why it’s better?

This brand actually tastes good.

Sprouts: I really dislike raw sprouts.  Nastassia and I sprouted 8 different seeds.  I hated them all.  They all tasted vaguely of poison.  I fed some to a health-loving chef-friend, and he said they were OK.  I made him taste twice to be sure he didn’t detect the poison flavor I was noting.  He didn’t. Please never bring an alfalfa sprout into my house, as they are a magic combo of probable contamination, poor texture, and bad taste. Crap on raw sprouts.

I hate sprouts.

So what did I eat most of the time?

Unless you are

-rich and can buy many prepared foods and go to nice raw restaurants all the time, or

-have enough time to go through the raw-food time-consuming recipe rigamarole, or

-someone for whom food is merely fuel

you are in for a shock when you go raw vegan.  Most mornings I  pounded all sorts of fresh fruit, which gave me a sugar high but sent me crashing hard mid-day.  I ate a lot of avocados.  A lot.  Avocados are the Jesus-fruit for raw foodists –they taste great and are high in fat.  My go-to meal was avocado/tomato (not in season, greenhouse grown, Campari tomatoes)/raw sauerkraut (another life-saver)/chopped onion/extra-virgin olive oil salad.  Because I own a vita-prep, I was able to make a corn soup and cauliflower soup from the Charlie Trotter/Roxanne Klein Raw cookbook.  Both were quick and ok, but left me wishing I had a big hunk o bread.  I eventually became so distraught at the food I was eating that I took the whole family out to Pure Food and Wine, Sarma Melngailis’ raw restaurant in New York.  It was the one good meal I had that week.

My first post-raw-vegan meal was a plate of barbecue brisket and ribs from Black’s Barbecue in Lockhart, outside of Austin, Texas.   A healthy meat-detox after that week of veggie-binging.

Black's Barbecue: meat detox.

Raw Veganism, My Take:

Adherents of raw vegan-ism believe that food that hasn’t been cooked and is minimally processed contains active enzymes that are vital to our health and well-being. Typically, cooked food is seen as a form of poison to be avoided. Typical claimed benefits of this diet are an increase in energy, facility of weight loss, and the appearance of a healthy glow. Here are some specific claims, my responses, and some gripes:

  • Enzymes and the 118 F (or 106F, or whatever) rule: Almost all raw literature sites a temperature in this range as one at which enzymes are broken down.  This notion is simply not true. Some enzymes are denatured at those temperatures but many are not. Even enzymes that will denature at 118 F typically take a while to do so. Take beer as an example. To make beer you need malted barley –barley that has started to sprout, activating the enzymes (alpha and beta amylases), that break starches into sugars. Malted barley is invariably kiln dried well above 118F to develop flavor and preserve its enzymes. When it comes time to actually use those enzymes to make sugar, in a process called mashing, the temperature is usually between 140 and 158 degrees F.  Down at 118 F they just aren’t active enough.
  • It is a good idea to eat all sorts of active enzymes: First, your body makes all of its own enzymes. Secondly, even if you lacked enzymes, they, like all proteins, need to be broken down into short polypeptides to be absorbed through your small intestine.You can’t increase the enzyme count in your cells by eating enzymes because they aren’t absorbed into your bloodstream.  All the influence an eaten enzyme can have, therefore, happens in your mouth, stomach, and intestines. Some eaten enzymes are destroyed by the acid in your stomach and the native protease enzymes in your stomach and small intestine.  Those that make it through might have some beneficial effect, but I haven’t seen any (real) studies that show why.  Your intestines are teeming with living bacteria that produce loads and loads of enzymes that help break things down in your gut. The way I see it, obsessing over the few extra enzymes you get from raw food is like dumping water in the ocean to raise the tide.
  • Raw food is better, and everyone would eat that way if they knew enough or had enough willpower: I couldn’t disagree more. I don’t feel raw food is healthier in any way to cooked food.  I think you should eat what tastes good and is well prepared in moderate quantities.  Eating 3 pints of fresh blueberries because it is all you can find at the corner fruit stand that looks remotely appealing and you can’t sate your hunger ain’t healthier than having a piece of delicious baguette. Even if eating raw was not an imposition I would not do it.  I don’t see a valid health advantage, plus I am guided solely by taste.
  • Raw food helps you lose weight: I feel this is true.  You don’t digest raw food well. I don’t know how to put it politely. I’ll just say my body didn’t alter the raw food I ate very much; plus it made me an intestinal transit-time race car driver.
  • Raw food gives you energy: Not in my experience.  My energy took a steep nose dive during my week of raw food.  Even though I am 40 and non-athletic with two small kids, I am a pretty high energy guy.  Many people think I take meth-amphetamines because I get so wound up.  Raw food left me feeling like I had lead in my legs all the time.  I was told by a raw food friend that I have to do the diet longer than a week to see the benefits.  I suspect that after a couple of weeks your body goes into a starvation euphoria where you think you have a lot of energy.
  • Raw Food is more Natural: Not so fast. Most raw food recipes are highly processed, using dehydrators, high speed blenders, and expensive juicers.  That’s not a negative thing, but it isn’t “natural” either.  Furthermore, the raw diet isn’t natural for anyone that doesn’t live in a tropical or semi-tropical climate where good things that can be eaten raw grow year round. The raw diet, as it is now practiced, is elitist. It requires many expensive or difficult to source ingredients that usually can’t be sourced locally year round by most people.  Elitist diets aren’t bad, but they aren’t “more natural” than normal diets.  How can they be natural if they rely on modern transportation and farming techniques to make them possible?  As an aside, prepared raw food is preposterously expensive.  Almost everything I bought cost eight bucks.  A tube of cashew “cheese?” Eight bucks.  A tiny bag of raw chips? Eight bucks.  Miniature raw chocolate bar? Eight bucks.  And so on.

These 16 ounces juices cost more than 8 bucks. I'm not saying that the company is gouging. I'm sure their costs are high. I'm just saying raw food is expensive.

  • The Raw Glow: I am loath to put any credence into this claim but I will relate this incident 5 days into my raw diet.  I am a glow-in-the-dark translucently white guy who prefers the troglodyte life and avoids the sun like the plague it is. I was walking through the farmers market perusing the raw-food possibilities when a woman handed me a flier for a white water rafting company saying, “take this, you look out-doorsy.” Holy crap.  The raw-food glow.

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The Trials of Transglutaminase—The Misunderstood Magic of Meat-Glue

May 20th, 2011 · Uncategorized

by Dave Arnold

Hey folks, this isn't what we are talking about! Meat glue is a food-grade enzyme.... not really a glue.

Transglutaminase (TG) –aka meat glue, the stuff that allows you to bond proteins together –has been taking a pounding in the blogosphere recently and, as a proponent of the enzyme, so have I.  At the risk of preaching to the converted (sorry, loyal readers) I’m setting the record straight.  TG is a great tool used by conscientious cooks to achieve fabulous and fantastic culinary results. It is also natural. Don’t know about meat glue? Read my primer.

In March an Australian TV tabloid show called Today Tonight did an “expose” on meat glue.  Here’s  the lead in:

The industry wide secret butchers don’t want you to know about. Major suppliers have been caught using a special product known as meat glue to stick together scraps of meat to sell as prime cuts. But while this product has been banned overseas, there’s no law prohibiting its use here.

This video has gone somewhat viral over the last month. I encourage you to watch it.  It is horse hockey.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ydzIlKJmwV4]

In this video you’ll see some classic bad journalism techniques –like getting a butcher who doesn’t like the idea of meat glue to demonstrate it wearing a face mask. The reporters make some nutty claims.

Claim: Meat glue is an industry wide secret butchers don’t want you to know about. Major suppliers have been caught using a special product known as meat glue to stick together scraps of meat to sell as prime cuts.

Truth: Many of the hundreds of horrified comments are reactions to this allegation that companies are defrauding customers by selling glued together scraps of meat as “prime cuts.”  This phrase has been repeated so often that everyone takes it for fact. The Australian show did not point to even one case of a company committing fraud using meat glue. I searched the internet  looking for a documented case of fraud and was unable to find one.  The segment does show a commercial restructured piece of meat, but they don’t show the label because it could not possibly have been sold as a prime cut. That would, indeed, be fraud (in the US anyway) for which the perpetrator could do jail time.  In the US, any meat that has been glued or restructured must be labeled “formed” or “reformed.” See the FSIS ruling on the subject here (this page really cuts through the crap. Ajinomoto fought to make sure that glued meats are clearly labeled as restructured, but not for altruistic reasons: they wanted to to use TG without being required to add “enzyme” to the ingredient label — which they can, because it is used in minute quantities and is considered a processing aid). Furthermore, TG is only one of many, many methods companies could use to bind meats together and defraud customers if they so chose (such as alginates, carrageenan, salt with tumbling, gelatin, compression).

Restaurants don’t have the same stringent labeling requirements than meat packers do. It would be possible for a disreputable restaurant to TRY to pawn off scraps of meat as whole-muscle cuts.  The restaurant would likely be unsuccessful in the long run because their customers would know (see the next claim). Any restaurant using meat glue to cheat their customers should be shut down –but I have never seen or heard of such a case.  The chefs I know who use meat glue care about their customers and the quality of their food.

Claim: Even an expert can’t tell if meat has been glued. You are getting ripped off without knowing it.

Answer: Anyone that has used meat glue knows this is untrue.  The bonds in a glued piece of meat are clearly visible. The smaller the scraps of meat that are glue together, the more obvious the glue-job. Unless I am trying to produce a special effect –like the mokume-gane fish dish I created a while back, I try to keep the number of glue joints in a piece of meat to a minimum –usually one or two.  Why? Because I’m not using meat glue to rip someone off, but to create a piece of meat that will cook better, more evenly and more consistently. I’m trying to make it better for the diner.

Mokume-Gane fish. Meat-glue special-effect technique.

Claim: Meat Glue has been banned in the EU, and might be made from pig’s or cow’s blood.

Answer: False. Tranglutaminase is being legally used in the EU right now. The TG all the chefs use is produced by a naturally-occurring microbe.  There is a second type of meat glue derived from animal sources (thrombin) that was banned in the EU, but not for safety reasons.  It passed the safety test and was rejected because EU regulators didn’t understand the purpose of it and saw the potential for fraud. God help us if regulators get to choose what makes good food. Safety and preventing fraud: important , and a politician’s job. Telling me what it takes to make good food –stay out. See this article on the ban and Ajinomoto’s response.

Claim: Meat glue is unsafe because of the high bacteria count in meat-glued products.

Answer: This is the only claim with a shred of truth.  The most important information I give chefs in meat glue training is: be aware that using TG can introduce bacteria into the interior of your product. The interior of whole muscle meat is relatively sterile. Most contamination is on the outside.  When we cook a traditional rare steak, the searing kills the bacteria on the outside and we are left with uncooked, but fairly safe, rare-meat at the center.  The danger with TG is that a cook might bond two pieces of meat together and treat them like a whole muscle cut without any further precautions… a serious error. Here are the safety guidelines I follow:

*IMPORTANT*

  • If a meat is going to be thoroughly pasteurized (such as chicken or short ribs, which can’t really be cooked to most consumers’ taste and visual satisfaction until they have been thoroughly pasteurized), meat glue is adding no further risk to normal food preparation.
  • If meat glue is used only on the outside of a large muscle cut (such as gluing chicken-skin to skirt steak or bacon to filet mignon), the outside must be thoroughly seared. The inside is just as safe as an unglued cut.
  • If meat glue is used on a product that cannot be pasteurized (most fish, for example), three things must be true:
    1. You must be willing to serve the product raw.  If you wouldn’t hack off a slice of that meat and eat it, don’t glue it and serve it rare.
    2. You must treat the product as if you were serving it raw — wear gloves, practice scrupulous hygiene.
    3. Here is the trickiest part of all, and one with which I am still grappling: you shouldn’t make your customer assume an extra risk (even if you don’t believe it to be a risk) without their knowledge. I once asked a food scientist why it is OK to serve rare hamburgers and sushi, etc.  He said, as far as he is concerned, consumers ordering those products have enough education to understand that they are assuming certain risks –which makes the risks OK. Therefore, if you serve meat that looks basically raw, then the customer isn’t being exposed to risks they aren’t already assuming, and there is no duty to provide extra warnings. If you are in a steak house and you glue two pieces of meat together that had been cut at the packing plant and possibly exposed to contamination, and you then throw that glued meat on a grill and cook it bloody rare, there is definitely a duty to warn.  It is still OK to cook that way, but the consumer must be aware that they are ordering the equivalent of a rare hamburger (it isn’t really that bad, as I’ll explain below). An interesting case is serving a piece of rare fish that has been butchered in the kitchen, meat-glued with one joint, seared, and sliced in the kitchen. Each serving slice is a potential source of contamination just as grave as the slice that preceded the meat gluing.  Is there an extra risk here that requires warning? Dunno.

The vast majority of the products I meat glue are thoroughly pasteurized with low temperature cooking before I serve them and are entirely safe. For those that aren’t pasteurized you need to assess your bacterial risks. The possibility for contamination increases with:

  • The initial bacteria present on the product when it shows up in your kitchen (called the bacterial load)
  • The cleanliness of your kitchen
  • The amount of time a product is exposed to the environment
  • The temperatures at which your products are stored
  • The amount of surface-area exposed to the environment.

The first four considerations are typical ones –the last one is a kicker.  The reason hamburger is so dangerous is that it has a huge surface area exposed to the potentially contaminating environment of meat grinders, kitchens, hands, etc.  All that contamination is thoroughly mixed into the center of the product.  Hamburger is easy to abuse. A piece of meat that is brought into the kitchen whole and sliced once with a very clean knife on a very clean board has a much lower increase in potential contamination than meat you grind.

Randomness in the Blogosphere:

Some random doozies on meat glue are being bandied about. Here is the real deal.

  • Transglutaminase is not an unholy abomination. It is produced in large quantities by a naturally occurring bacteria. No GMO necessary. Bacterial and yeast fermentation have brought us many of life’s great things: bread, wine, and cheese to name a few. By the way, you have different types of TG in your body right now, as part of the blood clotting pathway, the skin synthesis pathway, etc.  The TG from bacteria is a related enzyme.
  • Meat glue does not contain, nor is it related to, MSG. MSG is the sodium salt of glutamic acid (an amino acid). Meat glue is a mixture of enzymes, maltodextrin, and protein (casein or gelatin).
  • I have found no evidence of meat glue being dangerous when handled properly –and I have read and searched a lot.  I invite feedback on this point.  I have heard anecdotal claims from two (unrelated) cooks who claimed to have gotten a contact dermatitis (rash) from occupational exposure to meat glue.  This seems possible, but I haven’t read anything in the literature.  I always tell people not to inhale the powder (which is common sense), but have never found any record of someone who has inhaled it and been hurt (please forward data to me if you have it).
  • The FSIS limits the use of pure tranglutaminse in meat products to 65 parts per million (except in chicken breast where you may use more).  This number seems to contradict the usage statements for meat glue, which is used at up to 1 percent by weight (usually much, much, less).  In fact, pure TG enzyme represents only a tiny percentage of Activa RM, the meat glue we use.  Activa RM is mostly maltodextrin and casein.  Ajinomoto specifically  formulated Activa RM to add less than 65 ppm of pure enzyme when used at one percent by weight of meat.
  • The relationship between coeliac disease and microbial Transglutaminase (mTG) is still being sorted out.  There is no doubt that extra antibodies to human tissue transglutaminase (tTG) are found in coeliac sufferers. I have seen research that supports that mTG can cause problems for coeliacs, and research that says it doesn’t. I have not found any acute cases of problems had by coeliac sufferers linked to mTG in the literature, but prudence says coelicas should avoid large quantities of TG till the data is in.
  • Excess tTG is found in the tissue of people with horrible diseases like Huntington’s and Alzheimer’s. That doesn’t mean consuming TG causes those diseases any more than drinking water causes pulmonary edema. I personally detest the sort of argument that infers (illogically) that because a product is found alongside or in something horrible, it is horrible.

In conclusion: Glue with caution, but glue with pride!

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Tea Time: Cooking Issues as Art

May 3rd, 2011 · Uncategorized

by Dave Arnold

Should you find yourself in the Morningside Heights neighborhood of Manhattan in the next month please stop by the Common Love show at Columbia University’s Wallach Art Gallery, where you can see some of my images from this blog alongside the work of 12 other alumni of the Columbia University School of the Arts. I got my MFA from Columbia in 1997, and performance sculpture was my forte (see this NY Times article for a taste).

The Images:

“Tea Time”  2010, time lapse photograph montage

The difference between brewing tea in a slowly stirred cup (left), an unstirred cup (middle), and a quickly stirred cup (right). The entire steep time is 2 minutes.

This image is from a post I never got around to writing. Here is the mini post-in-post:

About a year ago, Nastassia, Harold McGee and I went on a mega citrus tasting. On that same trip we visited Roy Fong, the owner of San Fransisco’s Imperial Tea Court , for a lesson in Gong Fu Cha with some delicious and rare Pu-erh teas. In Chinese, gong fu means “skill derived from effort and practice” and cha means “tea.” Gong fu cha, therefore, is the practice of deeply focusing and practicing the art of brewing, drinking, and enjoying tea.   Here in America, when we are talking about this same sense of focus, skill, and training aimed towards kicking someone’s butt, we usually call it Kung fu — which is the same Chinese word spelled differently.  Gong fu cha is tea for badasses. See here. Pu-erh tea is tea pressed into cakes and aged — sometimes for decades.  It is collected and traded like fine wine, and commands similar prices and respect. Fong is an expert in choosing and aging Pu-ehr teas. He has his own aging warehouses where he carefully rotates the cakes of tea in response to changes in season and the needs of individual lots.  Good news: he is starting a tea farm in California, an unprecedented idea. I asked him what he wanted the tea to taste like.  His reply: “whatever California wants the tea to taste like.” Wow. We left knowing that there was a lot to know.

I noticed that Roy watched and stirred his tea as it brewed. When I returned home I ran a small experiment to examine the effects of stirring.  I set up three identical glasses with identical amounts of tea and added identical amounts of water.  The glass on the left was slowly stirred with a Teflon coated magnetic stir rod. The glass in the middle wasn’t stirred at all. The glass on the right was stirred quickly with a Teflon coated magnetic stir rod (notice the vortex). The upshot: any stirring at all greatly accelerates brewing, but stirring quickly doesn’t speed the process much more than slow stirring does. Duh.

“Carrot Cardamom Oyster” 2009

This photo is from an early post, “Carrot and Cardamom Oysters,” describing a technique I developed to flavor live oysters  by feeding them hyper-blended flavored sea water.  I got the idea while reading the book “A Geography of Oysters,” and thinking about Michael Keaton’s character in Night Shift, who wants to feed mayo to tuna while it is still alive.  I can’t do tuna, but I can do oysters.

“The Principles of Rotary Evaporation”  2006 (posted 2009), photo illustration

This image comes from my primer on the art of distilling under vacuum with a rotary evaporator.

“The Egg Chart”  2006 (posted 2010), photo illustration

From my as-yet unfinished primer on Low-Temperature and Sous-Vide cooking.

“Breaking Down a Tuna Spine” 2009, photo illustration

From my post on … you guessed it! Breaking down a tuna spine to get the delicious spinal jelly, which tastes like seawater gelee, and preserving the bones to use as serving dishes.

Martini Cucumber, 2007

This image predates the blog. It is a cucumber that I vacuum infused with gin and vermouth. Yum.  I used a chamber vacuum machine to suck the air out of a porous piece of cucumber sitting in a bath of ice-cold gin and vermouth with a hint of simple syrup to counteract bitterness. When air is let back in the chamber the liquid is injected into the resulting voids and a martini pickle is instantly formed. It’s garnished with dill, celery seed, and salt. You can see the procedure in this NY Times video.

Art Stuff:

I was extremely happy, and a little surprised, to be selected for the alumni art show. I don’t consider what I do to be art. This might be a good time to mention that I can’t think of a more boring discussion than the distinction between art and craft, and where different types of cooking fall on that spectrum. If this sort of debate interests you, you might take a look at the worst book I ever read, Cooking: The Quintessential Art, by Herve This and Pierre Gagniere.

The curators of the exhibition asked me, “as a cook who used to be a visual artist, how would you compare the ways you approach projects in each discipline?” I find this to be a much more interesting question. Here is my video answer:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zm-fbNPYNW0]

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