Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Fruit tattoos

Starting this winter (2007), you should start to see citrus fruits at your grocery without those annoying little adhesive labels. The Sunkist company will be the first distributor in this country to label their fruits using a new technology called Natural Light Labeling. The technology was introduced over a year ago, but it has taken this long to be certified by the FDA.

I was fascinated by this idea, so I called the guy who developed the technology. His name is Greg Drouillard and he kindly spent a good bit of time with me on the phone explaining how it works. The way a fruit or vegetable gets labeled is with a teeny, short-duration laser pulse. It removes about .005% of the skin's pigment. This does not in any way affect the shelf life of the produce, because the amount of skin removed is on the cellular level. You would need an electron microscope to even see any depression in the skin. In the case of light-skinned produce (like lemons), a very small amount of food-grade pigment is added to make the label legible.

In addition to being of interest to consumers who are tired of scraping off those pesky little labels (or, in my case, forgetting about them and ending up with them in the recipe), it is apparently also of interest to Homeland Security. They're interested because food can easily be tracked and identified because there is no way to alter the label since it's integral to the skin.

According to Drouillard, only nonedible-skin produce has been approved so far, but edible-skin produce should be approved in a couple of months. Rats, I forgot to ask him how they were going to label raspberries…

Thursday, January 18, 2007

King Arthur Whole Grain Baking

The Vermont-based King Arthur Flour Company is America's oldest flour company--it was founded in Boston in 1790—and has always been a good source of fine baking ingredients and equipment, largely through The Baker's Catalogue, their online/mail-order business. Among the 1,000 items that King Arthur sells are their own home-grown baking books, including their most recent effort called King Arthur Flour Whole Grain Baking (The Countryman Press, $35).

I was really impressed with the attitude of the folks that developed the more than 400 recipes for this book, because I share their sentiments exactly about whole grain baking. Here's what they say in the intro to the book:

"This book is about flavor. It's not a lecture on why you ought to eat more whole grains, because you know that already. We set out to make whole grains taste great...We were determined not to accept any recipe with a comment something like, 'Tastes good for whole grain.'"

The book is filled with traditional baked goods that you would never expect to have whole grains in them: pound cake, eclairs, puff pastry, sticky buns. This is really what it's all about, learning how to improve the health profile of the foods you eat without turning them into drudgy health food.

Of course "good-for-you" foods can be a tough sell to kids, and the authors have addressed that: "If [your kids] try our brownies, cookies, cupcakes, breads and muffins, they'll never know (unless you tell them) about the whole grains in the recipe....We're not advocating hiding whole grains; however, many of us are parents and we know how hard it can be to get picky eaters to eat what's good for them."

Though clearly the recipes in the book have had a nice health makeover, the bonus is that they also sound delicious. Here are some that have tempted me: Chocolate Caramel Bread Pudding, Cheese Coins, Maple-Walnut Oat Bread, Pull-Apart Cranberry-Pecan Buns, Fudge Pudding Cake and Blueberry Cream Pie.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Do you know what a bombilla is?

Well, since you asked, a bombilla is a metal straw, sometimes of gold or silver, that is used in South America to drink yerba mate. Mate is a tea brewed from the leaves of an evergreen tree (as opposed to the tea plant) and is traditionally sipped out of a carved gourd. The decorated gourds and bombillas are really quite beautiful. Take a look at the collection at Patagonia Gifts.

One reason that yerba mate has its own drinking paraphernalia and is treated with such affection and reverence is that it is astonishingly high in caffeine. One website noted that pre-Columbian Indians liked the tea because it provided "an increased resistance to fatigue" and it had "thirst and hunger mitigation powers." A fancy way of saying that it is astonishingly high in caffeine.

Anyway, this is just my long-winded way of getting to a book that has been recently published by Elvira de Mejia, assistant professor of food science at the University of Illinois. The book, which is called Chemistry and Flavor of Hispanic Foods (probably not a bestseller title), investigates the nutraceutical value of the Hispanic diet, from Mexican beans to Margaritas. One of the book's main focuses is on mate, which de Mejia says "has the highest antioxidant capacity of the ethnic teas we have studied in my lab. There is evidence that three to four cups of this tea per day could have a protective effect against chronic diseases."

It will be interesting to see if yerba mate gives white, green and black teas a run for their money in the healthy drink market, though frankly 3 to 4 cups of mate would have me bouncing off the walls.

Tuesday, January 9, 2007

German carafemanship

There is a German company called Alfi that specializes in carafes. In fact the motto on their website is "Home of Hot & Cold" (must sound more interesting in German).

What's cool about Alfi is that they have taken a fundamentally functional object and elevated it to art object by asking a number of international designers to come up with distinctive carafe designs. The results are beautiful and strikingly different. We had a really hard time trying to pick our favorite, but ultimately we were influenced by price.

We chose the La Ola Carafe (left) and the Avanti Carafe (right) because they were in the $30-$40 range. You can buy the carafes online direct from Alfi or through their toll-free number: 1-800-966-3009.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Turning down the volume on the musical fruit

I happened to stumble across a study done in spring 2006 in which a group of scientists in Venezuela were looking to find the secret to gas-free beans. The problem with beans in the human digestive system is that bacteria in the large intestine actually ferment the beans in order to make them more digestible down the line (so to speak). As anyone who has ever made bread or beer knows, one of the by-products of fermentation is gas (C02). So the scientists were looking to find the specific bacteria that could be used to pre-ferment beans as they cook, thus reducing the gas problem.

Now what interested me about this story was not the actual findings (the research was geared to the food industry) but a remark made in passing--no pun intended--by the Reuters reporter, to wit: "Smart cooks know they can ferment beans, and make them less gas-inducing, by cooking them in the liquor from a previous batch."

So, OK, I guess I'm not a smart cook. I've never heard this theory. Has anyone out there ever done this? And did it work?

Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Morning Food

I've been in a breakfast/brunch kind of mood recently, so I've been thumbing through a revised version of a wonderful little cookbook called Morning Food (Ten Speed Press). The recipes are from a California chef named Margaret Fox, who for years was chef/owner of a famous restaurant in Mendocino, California, called Cafe Beaujolais.

The title of the book, and its contents, are a reflection of Fox's philosophy that there are lots of foods that people don't ordinarily associate with breakfast, but that she thinks many people do want to eat in the morning. As she puts it, you shouldn't have to "rationalize anything you choose to put in your mouth before noon."

Here are some "morning food" recipes from the book that illustrate her point: Posole (with pork ribs), Crunchy Country Fries, Sausage-Stuffed Baked Apples, Pumpkin Pie, Artichoke & Prosciutto Strata. Of course the book has plenty of regulation breakfast food, too, like Mocha Walnut Wonder Muffins, Tropical Waffles with Macadamia Nuts & Toasted Coconut, Blueberry Cream Cheese Coffee Cake.

In addition to delicious recipes, the book is also eminently readable, thanks, we assume, to both the book's co-author, John Bear, and to Fox's sense of humor. In her acknowledgments, Fox credits Rocky and Bullwinkle and The Dick Van Dyke Show for their "indelible influence on my young and impressionable sense of humor." If you want to read more about Margaret Fox, check her website.