January 21, 2010
A few weeks ago, I wrote about making sushi at home and mentioned that I was upset when all I could find at the grocery store was imitation wasabi. I decided to look up a little more information about the green stuff and found out that it has some interesting characteristics I wasn’t expecting.
Wasabi (wasabia japonica) is a cousin of horseradish; both are rhizomes (root-like stems) in the mustard family. Fresh wasabi is extremely perishable, which accounts for the popularity of imitations. (The version we bought was a mix of horseradish, mustard and food coloring.) It’s also very expensive.
Further research revealed that although wasabi is hot, it isn’t the same spiciness that results from capsaicin, the source of the heat in chili peppers. While capsaicin produces a burning sensation on the tongue and in the mouth when it’s eaten, the active ingredients in wasabi, isothiocyanates, affect the nasal passages more.
It turns out that wasabi is more than just a sushi flavoring. Its place in sushi culture is rooted in the fact that wasabi is believed to have antimicrobial properties that can reduce the risk of food poisoning—a nice perk when eating raw fish. Studies have shown that wasabi root as well as the leaves can prohibit the growth of bacteria that cause food poisoning.
Compounds in wasabi might also help scientists develop a new treatment for pain. Researchers at the University of California at San Francisco studied isothiocynates in wasabi that trigger a reaction in the TRP receptors in nerve cells in our tongues and mouths. These receptors are ultimately responsible for sending a pain signal to the brain. One of the scientists, David Julius, bred mice that lacked one type of TRP receptor and found that the mice didn’t react to compounds that contained isothiocynates. Julius also has evidence that the receptor is responsible for to inflammation. A drug that blocked that receptor could conceivably be a powerful painkiller.
But wasabi’s potential usefulness doesn’t stop there. Japanese scientists harnessed its pungent smell to create a prototype of a smoke alarm for the hearing impaired. The alarm sprays a wasabi extract into the room when smoke is detected. In a preliminary study, 13 out of 14 test subjects awoke within two minutes of the alarm being triggered—one woke up in 10 seconds. Another participant said the alarm reminded him of a bad sushi experience.
January 12, 2010
I love pasta as much as the next person. It’s easy, it’s cheap and it’s convenient. But it’s not exactly packed with nutrients. I think I have found a great alternative to the simple pasta dish. Don’t get me wrong, I will eat pasta, but subbing in a healthier alternative once in a while can’t hurt.
What is this mysterious vegetable that I plan on replacing spaghetti with? Spaghetti squash, of course. I’ve seen it on restaurant menus for years and have always marveled at its long strands and pasta-like texture. I had always assumed, however, that the flesh was manipulated in some way to get it to act like noodles. I was wrong. It’s as simple as running a fork through the cooked squash.
Spaghetti squash (also known as vegetable spaghetti, noodle squash, spaghetti marrow in the United Kingdom, squaghetti, gold string melon in Japan or fish fin melon in China) is a winter squash—a cousin of butternut and acorn squash. It’s a large yellow squash, averaging from 4 to 8 pounds, though I’ve seen some as small as two pounds in stores around D.C., with an intriguing flesh. After cooking, the flesh pulls away from the peel in long strands. The mild-flavored spaghetti-like strands can be mixed with a sauce or eaten as a side dish.
Spaghetti squash packs quite a healthy punch, too. Today’s most common varietal, the Orangetti, was developed in the 1990s and is darker orange in color than other versions which tend to be pale ivory to pale yellow. This variety is higher in beta carotene and is slightly sweeter than the paler versions. Spaghetti squash also has folic acid, potassium and vitamin A. A four-ounce serving of spaghetti squash has only 37 calories. (You can probably burn that off by washing dishes after the meal.)
My favorite way to eat it is with shrimp scampi and asparagus tossed in. I poked some holes in the squash—a simple, but essential step, lest the whole thing explode in the oven. I baked the squash at 350 degrees for about an hour, let it cool, cut it in half and forked out the flesh. I sauteed shrimp and asparagus with some garlic, butter, white wine and lemon juice. If that’s not your style, a quick internet search reveals dozens of interesting recipes. Fabulous foods has a recipe for spaghetti squash pancakes; they look similar to potato pancakes. Fabulous foods also has tips for buying, storing and cooking spaghetti squash.
In addition to being an easily prepped food, spaghetti squash is also an easy-to-grow food. Hearty winter squashes, like pumpkins, require a lot of space but not a lot of attention. The University of Illinois Extension has some tips for growing all types of winter squashes if you’re feeling adventurous. Someday, if I ever get out of small rental units, I’d like to think squash would be one of the residents of my backyard garden.
January 7, 2010
On New Year’s Eve, my boyfriend and I decided to try our hands at sushi. We eat sushi out pretty frequently, but something about making it in my own kitchen seemed terrifying. It was easier than I had expected, albeit time consuming. Definitely something I recommend trying for a sushi eater. If nothing else, it’ll give you more respect for the sushi chefs at your regular haunts.
Sushi actually refers to the rice, not the raw fish, and I had read that cooking the rice properly is the hardest part. We bought sushi rice, a short-grained white rice, from a regular grocery store. Step one, according to the package, was to wash the rice until the water ran clear. Some manufacturers coat rice with a talc powder for packaging and washing removes this. Step two was to soak the rice in the cooking liquid for 30 minutes. This allows moisture to permeate the entire rice kernel so that the rice cooks more evenly. After soaking, we were to bring the water and rice to a boil, then turn down the heat, cover and simmer for 30 minutes. The stove in my house is on the older side, and it has all but lost its finesse. It can boil a pot of water but it lost the ability to simmer ages ago. When turned down lower than medium, the flame will extinguish within a few minutes.
I tried my best to maintain a simmer, but when I took off the top after the 30-minute simmer and 10-minute rest, I found a lot of fluffy white rice and a layer of burnt rice at the bottom. We were able to salvage most of it, so the sushi experiment continued. We added sushi vinegar, a mixture of rice wine vinegar, sugar and salt. The rice turned out well considering the earlier mishap, though it was a bit gummy, probably from overcooking.
As for the fish, we opted to buy sushi-grade fish from BlackSalt in D.C. We had eaten there before and gawked at all the fish in the fish market on the way to our table. We bought half a pound of salmon, a quarter-pound of yellowtail and a quarter-pound of tuna. (My apologies to Amanda, but the issue of sustainability only crossed my mind after we had made the order.) We learned a valuable lesson this time around: Buy less fish than you think you’ll need. We ended up with way too much sushi and enough leftover fish for a salad the next day.
The other integral sushi elements—soy sauce, wasabi and nori (dried seaweed)—we bought at the regular grocery. We were excited to find a wasabi imported from Japan only to find on closer inspection that it was horseradish. Imitation wasabi is very common because the real thing is so expensive and perishes quickly—the reason why chefs put the wasabi between the fish and rice. I mistakenly assumed that imitation wasabi was less potent than the real thing and globbed it heavily on our nigiri. I was wrong. Apparently it’s just the opposite.
We made a few nigiri—just rice and fish—so we could taste each fish, and then a few rolls: spicy salmon, salmon with avocado and lemon, yellowtail with asparagus and tuna with cucumber. Although I had expected the first roll to end up as a misshapen mess, the result looked like a smaller version of what you would get at a real sushi restaurant. We learned here, too, that less is better. Because sushi gets rolled up, it isn’t necessary to cover every last bit of nori with rice. In fact, if you do that, your rolls will have too much rice and not enough filling. We also learned that wetting your hands with ice cold water helps when handling the super sticky rice. We tried the same trick with the knife when cutting the rolls, and it worked. It wasn’t as hard as I had though, but it certainly took more time. We started at about 7:30 PM and finished just in time to clean up and watch the New Year’s countdown.
December 30, 2009
We’re jumping on the end-of-the-year-list bandwagon at Food & Think. Today we have an offering of some of the biggest food trends of the decade. This was the decade in which organic became a household name, chefs became celebrities and exotic ingredients became ordinary.
Organic: Perhaps the decade’s biggest culinary buzzword was organic. The concept is nothing new: before the introduction of chemicals into agriculture, all farming could have been considered organic. Nevertheless, organic became big business with stores like Whole Foods leading the way. In 2002, The USDA released its national standards for organic products, officially bringing the movement into the mainstream. In the first half of the decade, organic food sales grew by 17 to 20 percent a year, while conventional food sales grew by about 2 to 3 percent a year. By 2003, organic foods were available in about 20,000 natural food stores and 73 percent of conventional grocery stores in the United States.
Locavore: Another success was the locavore trend. The word itself was created by Jessica Prentice in 2005 and seen in print in the San Francisco Chronicle. Prentice came up with the word to describe those who eat food from within a 100-mile radius of where they live. The concept has taken on a more broad meaning now, but eating more food that traveled fewer miles is still a key point. The trend has traveled to the restaurant scene as well, with some menus going so far as to lists where the specific ingredient came from. In 2007, the New Oxford American Dictionary named “locavore” the word of the year.
Molecular Gastronomy: A trend that stayed mostly in restaurants, save for the occasional adventurous home chef, molecular gastronomy is an oft-used but poorly understood term. Technically the term refers to studying the physical and chemical processes that occur while cooking and discovering the best way to prepare a certain food. (Think: 6 minute egg.) But the term is also applied to cooking using those techniques. (Think: Infused foam.) Ferran Adriá, famed Catalan chef at El Bulli in Barcelona, is one of the best-known chefs said to be working within this movement. The menu at his restaurant features such concoctions as tapioca of Iberian ham, spherical egg of white asparagus with false truffle and frozen gnocchi. Heston Blumenthal, a British chef at The Fat Duck in Bray in Berkshire, U.K., is another chef famous for his scientific approach to food. His menu includes snail porridge, sardine on toast sorbet and salmon poached with liquorice.
Obscure Cocktails: Remember when ordering a martini was simple and didn’t involve a menu of dozens of fruity creations? Another trend that took off this decade was the inventive cocktails. While the decade started with simple fruit flavors, cocktails with more exotic ingredients such as bacon and wasabi were featured as well.
Small Plates: While the dishes in fine dining restaurants have always been on the skimpy side, small plates made for sharing became popular in the past 10 years. The concept has been around in other cultures for centuries—tapas in Spain, dim sum in China, mezze in Greece and sakana in Japan. But the small plate idea idea has extended past the traditional Spanish and Chinese joints. This trend has been popular with diners as well as restaurateurs, who can earn a hefty profit from serving multiple smaller courses.
Offal: We saw a movement away from the New York Strip steak and pork tenderloin this decade. The less-often-used parts of the animals made a comeback. Tongue, livers, sweatbreads and headcheese made their return to the plate. While these traditional foods have been eaten for centuries, Americans diners tended to stay away from the more exotic bits of meat. This one might be with us into the new decade; it made an appearance in the food trend predictions for 2010. (I challenged my palate by eating the “Pig Plate” at New York City’s The Spotted Pig.)
December 21, 2009
Recipes, like songs and poems, are passed down from generation to generation. But some holiday recipes seems to have fallen through the cracks; they’re passed on through songs and poems, but have become a thing of holiday lore rather than practice.
The famous poem “The Night Before Christmas” makes reference to sugar plums: “The children were nestled all snug in their beds, While visions of sugar plums danc’d in their heads.” When reading this poem growing up, I always pictured some sort of fairy, most likely the influence of the Sugar Plum Fairy from the Nutcracker. Turns out, sugar plums are a type of Christmas sweet. (They’re also a specific type of small, sweet plum.) Use Real Butter has a recipe for sugar plums that calls for toasted almonds, dried apricots, honey and plenty of cinnamon. She concludes that the confection was named for its shape, not the specific ingredients. Miss Ginsu (who unfortunately has stopped blogging) posted a similar sugar plum recipe that called for dried figs and cocoa powder.
Another treat that lives on in song instead of practice is wassail from the Christmas Carol “Here We Come A-Wassailing.” Wassailing simply means caroling. In the Victorian era, beggars and orphans would go door to door singing and hoping to get a bite to eat or a drink. The name comes from the Middle English phrase wæs hæil, which means “be healthy.” Wassail is a drink made from ale or beer and spices, kind of like mulled wine. Other versions includes hard alcohol such as brandy or even rum. Most wassail recipes call for some kind of fruit, generally apples, which makes wassail remind me of a British version of sangria. Epicurious has a version made from sherry, brandy and plenty of spices. Chow‘s recipe includes cranberry juice, apple cider and an apple brandy.
Of course, perhaps the most famous Christmas food item that no one has ever eaten might be figgy pudding, known, of course, from “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” Unlike the sugar plum, figgy pudding actually has figs in it. But the name still manages to be misleading as figgy pudding is more of a cake than a pudding. While it was popular from the 15th to the 19th centuries, figgy pudding’s long cooking time (at least a three-hour steam) and high saturated fat (most recipes include suet, a form of fat found near an animal’s kidneys) has curtailed its popularity in modern times. Good Housekeeping has a simplified recipe that uses boxed cake mix and bakes rather than steams the pudding. Dorie Greenspan, author of Baking: From My Home to Yours, presented her more traditional, steamed recipe on NPR.
If you’re feeling adventurous and in the Christmas Spirit, try one of these recipes. If not, at least you’ll know what figgy pudding is next time you hear “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.”
Read more articles about the holidays with our Smithsonian Holiday Guide here