March 13, 2013
Guinness sells about 10 million pints a day across 100 countries. On St. Patrick’s Day, that number hops to 13 million. When Arthur Guinness set up shop in Dublin back in 1759, he never would’ve guessed that his stout would become the unofficial beer of the Irish and the go-to beverage to shout to the bartender come March 17 (besides Jameson). Even Obama honored his Irish lineage with a highly-publicized Guinness at a pub in Ireland last year. But the classic brew isn’t for everyone. For the hardline vegetarians and vegans out celebrating this St. Paddy’s Day: there could be traces of fish bladder in your Guinness.
Isinglass, a gelatine-like substance made from the air-bladders or sounds of fish like the sturgeon is added to cask beers like Guinness to help any remaining yeast and solid particles settle out of the final product. As the finings pass through the beer, they attract themselves to particles in the fermented beer that create an unwanted “haziness” in the final product and form into a jelly-like mass that settles to the bottom of the cask. While beer left untouched will clear on its own, isinglass speeds up the process and doesn’t affect the final flavor of the beer once removed.
The word isinglass most likely comes from the corruption of the Dutch word huisenblas which translates directly to “sturgeon’s bladder,” but its history goes back a little further. Its archaic, Latin root, ichthyocolla, comes from the Greek words ikhthus (fish) and kolla (glue)—defining the mucous-like substance as “fish glue.”
According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica Volume IX, originally published in Edinburgh in 1797, the method of using isinglass as a clarification agent was long a secret in the hands of the Russians who were known for their exceptionally strong isinglass-made glue. The entry, which draws heavily from Humphrey Jackson’s 63rd volume of the Philosophical Transactions, cites the principal research of Pomet on the process of making isinglass:
“As to the manner of making the isinglass, the sinewy parts of the fish are boiled in water till all of them be dissolved that will disolve; then the gluey liqur is strained and set to cool. Being cold, the fat is carefully taken off, and the liquor itself boiled to a just consistency, then cut to pieces and made into a twist, bent in form of a crescent, as commonly fold: then hung upon a firing and carefully dried.”
Pomet’s experiments with the sounds of fish and its chemical properties lead him to discover the fish membrane’s ability to clarify beer. Adding an ounce and a half of “good isinglass” to a gallon of stale beer to steep for a few days, he found that the bad beer “was converted into good fining, of a remarkably thick consistence.” When he tried this with the same quantity of glue, the experiment yielded only “mucilaginous liquor, resembling diluted gum water which instead of clarifying beer, increased both its tenacity and turbidness.”
Combining the insinglass with malt liquor, he found that a “vast number of curdly masses became presently formed”, became attracted to the “feculencies of beer,” and, with the “well known laws of gravitation,” the unwanted particles combined with the isinglass and fell to the bottom of the barrel.
The process is simple: Remove the membranous parts of fresh-caught fish, scrape off the mucosity with a knife, roll, twist and dry in open air. The thicker the sounds are, the better the isinglass. The air-bladders of fresh water fish are preferred because they are more flexible and delicate. Swim bladders from sturgeon—especially that from the Beluga sturgeon which yielded the greatest quantity of sounds—were used to make isinglass until the 1795 invention of a cheap cod substitute by William Murdoch. Summer is the best time to collect, as frost interferes with the fish’s gelatinous principles. After the drying process, “good” isinglass, once held up to a light, exhibits prismatic colors.
Guinness first used isinglass in its Dublin brewery in the mid to late 19th century. A young fermentation scholar by the name of Forbes Watson, the son of an Edinburgh solicitor, was a pioneer in the experimentation and examination of the mineral constituents of Guinness beer. Within six weeks of being hired at the brewery, Watson discovered a way to recover beer at the bottom of the vat saving Guinness 6,000 pounds a year. Very early in his career, he toyed with pasteurization and introduced new methods of breaking down isinglass finings that would increase the lifetime of the stout. In 1909, Watson was killed in an accident with a machine he had helped create at age 37. After he died, little scientific ground was broken for the company until the 1930s.
With the presence of modern gelatin, isinglass is rarely used today with the exception of British “real ale” cask beers. Generally, British beers still use isinglass, gelatin, glycerin or casein. According to a recent statement made by Guinness:
“All Guinness brands are free from animal matter and from contact with animal matter. However, isinglass, which is a by-product of the fishing industry, is used as a fining agent for settling out suspended matter in the vat. The isinglass is retained in the floor of the vat but it is possible that minute quantities might be carried over into the beer.”
For many strict vegetarians and vegans even “minute quantities” of an animal product is enough to abstain from eating a particular food. Much like the honey debate (Does it hurt the bee? Or does it not count as an animal product? What about silkworms and cochineal bugs?) flexitarians and militant vegans may disagree on how to classify the potential traces of isinglass in beer.
For those who are on the anti-isinglass side of the spectrum, carrageenan, a type of red algae, also called Irish Moss, (an appropriate title for St. Paddy’s Day) also works as a fining agent in beer, but doesn’t yield the same results as isinglass. The k-carrageenan interacts with the proteins that create cloudy beer and form the molecular equivalent of marbles in syrup at the bottom of the batch. Vegan brands like Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon use carrageenan while others like Odell Brewing Co. use centrifugation for clarification.
Strict vegetarians and vegans often choose German or Belgium brews which abide by “purity laws” (first enacted in 1516) which require that breweries use only ingredients of water, grain (barley or wheat), hops and yeast. The ruling was officially lifted in 1987 by the European Court, but the tradition of the law remains.
So, before you step out on the town in your green get-up and order an Irish stout this St. Patrick’s Day, remember: Pescetarians, rejoice—Guinness is still “good for you“. Vegans, stick to whiskey.
September 14, 2012
The summer days are wasting away and there are roughly 15 weeks left until Christmas. It feels a little strange to already turn one’s attention to the winter months; however, as some of you may recall, I made a few food-themed New Year’s resolutions, and with my colleagues beginning to celebrate Rosh Hashanah this weekend (that’s Jewish New Year to my fellow goyim), it’s a perfect time to take stock of how I’ve done so far. Here’s the original post with all the self-imposed benchmarks. Now, let’s review.
Resolution 1: Add new meals to the repertoire. By and large I still stick to the same core meals that I’ve happily lived on for the past couple years. Tried a few that I need to make up again—a fab vegetarian artichoke and potato soup—and have put the Crock Pot through its paces with a couple new recipes. I’m also trying to be a little more resourceful, occasionally scrap the cookbook and try on the fly to figure out what foods will work together. Most recently, a few sauteed summer squash with tomatoes, fresh herbs, a little onion and garlic made a fine meal when paired with a bag of tortellini hiding in my freezer. All in all, I think I can do better on this resolution—and I’ve still time to do that.
Resolution 2: Bake more. 2012 was the year where I finally got a handle on making a solid pie. Crafting crust was always my Achilles heel, but America’s Test Kitchen’s foolproof recipe involving vodka allowed me to up my game. Four cherry pies later, I’m feeling very zen with the baking. I’ve also dived into bread making. Dad used to make beautiful, round loaves of pagnota—white, crusty Italian bread—and when you grow up around that, it’s difficult to subsist on the squishy store-bought loaves. While two loaves of homemade wheat bread require a fair investment of time—I have to make the starter and soaker the night before and the next day it’s two hour-long risings and about an hour to bake off—the results are worth it. Flavorful bread that doesn’t back any of the fillers or preservatives that I find on the store shelves. As god is my witness, I’ll never buy Wonder again. At least that might be my goal for 2013.
Resolution 3: Entertain more. Have I done a ton of entertaining in my home? No, but I started off with a fondue party with just a couple buds (see Resolution 4), which went off pretty darn well. Everyone seemed to enjoy the Swiss/avocado appetizer, the red wine-based braise for the meats course and a dessert of macerated oranges with zabione. (Why be predictable and do three courses of fondue?) I also recently hosted a board gaming night where the fare was simple—hummus for appetizer, rolled out a few pizzas, key lime pie (see Resolution 2), DIY orange sherbet for dessert, bourbon-laced sangria to wash it all down—but all in all it went off well. It was also the gathering that let me know that, at most, I can comfortably accommodate 5 people in a 530 square foot apartment with one air conditioning unit in the window. But the other plus of entertaining? I found that I plan for gatherings like the rest of my family: convince yourself you’ve nearly enough food, overdo it at the grocery store and then find yourself with gobs of leftovers. While it may have been a slog to do all the prep work, there are a few post-party days where I can coast and graze off what’s left in the fridge. I can totally make a meal off a veggie platter.
Resolution 4: Use the fondue pots. One of my pots was a family hand-me-down, the other was a Goodwill find. It’s a shame people seem so willing to part with their fondue sets—it’s a wonderfully social way to enjoy food. While waiting for one person to dunk a bite of food or waiting for said food to cook, the conversation flows freely. I’m not knocking the standard dinner plate, but with that presentation, people might be more inclined to sit down and shovel their meal. If you still have yours kicking around in the closet, I encourage you to crack it out. Of course, now that I’ve used them once, the trick is to make sure they remain in use.
All that said, how are you all doing on any resolutions you made this past January? Let’s celebrate (or commiserate) in the comments section below.
February 29, 2012
During my last trip to the grocery store, I chucked a bag of dried green lentils into my shopping cart. Not that I had any specific ideas about what to do with them. Flipping through my cookbooks, there was a noticeable lack of lentil-centric dishes outside of the old-standby lentil soup recipe that I’m guessing every general cookbook is obligated to carry. And really, if the little green pulses in my pantry were capable of thoughts and feelings, they might have an existential crisis upon thinking that they were predestined for one thing and one thing only. I won’t suffer neurotic legumes, so to spare them distress and spare me culinary monotony, I found five ways to work with lentils.
1. Use them in a soup. It’s an old standby for a reason: It’s just flat-out good, especially on a cold day. The classic iteration usually combines lentils with root vegetables—but the fun thing about making soup is playing around with the ingredients. Try different varieties of lentils—such as red for a Moroccan version of the soup—or add in meat, seafood or some of your favorite small pasta.
2. Use them in fillings. This is how I’ve usually worked with lentils in a non-soup setting. Spiced and mixed with tomatoes and tofu, they help make for a great meatless burrito filling. Yellow lentils with other legumes make for delicious-looking stuffed capsicum. You can also use them for snack foods like paratha, an Indian flat bread that is stuffed and topped with yogurt and chutney, or samosas, deep-fried pastry shells with savory fillings.
3. Toss them. No, not out of your kitchen, but rather use lentils in your salads either as a sidekick to other veggies—such as wild rice, squash and bulgur—or enjoy them on their own merits with a bit of oil and vinegar.
5. Use them for sweets. Don’t think that lentils are strictly for savory dishes—they have a place (albeit a small one) at the dessert table. Combine with oats, spices and dried fruits to whip up a batch of cookies, or use the red variety to make a rosy pudding for a breakfast or after dinner treat. You can even use them in pies, combining lentils with nuts, apples or even just a little vanilla extract and sugar to create fiber-rich fillings.
November 14, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about thanksgiving, with or without the capital T. Stories about the holiday, being thankful for a certain food, or edible expressions of gratitude. Our first story comes from Hope Yancey, a freelance writer in Charlotte, North Carolina. She is thankful for a relationship that thrives in spite of food.
The Bacon is Faux, but the Love is Real
By Hope Yancey
The smell of vegetarian bacon aromatizing our kitchen as it steams up the microwave is enough to send my husband running the other way fast. He would probably classify the assault on his nostrils as a pungent odor rather than a mere smell. I heat my strips of veggie bacon for breakfast, sometimes enjoying them accompanied by eggs or arranged on a sandwich roll with a little Miracle Whip and dash of black pepper. Served over toast and sliced tomatoes and topped with prepared cheese sauce, it makes a nice version of Welsh rarebit for an easy lunch or supper.
We have a long and storied history with veggie bacon in our relationship. It was one of the first meals I cooked for my husband after we met about 11 years ago. He kindly pretended to savor it, only confiding much later how truly unpleasant he found my morning meal of choice. I’m sure he wondered what other gustatory delights awaited him in his future. Maybe it’s an acquired taste, but I like the stuff. I harbor no delusions that it tastes like real bacon, though I wouldn’t really be qualified to say because that’s a flavor I haven’t experienced for myself since at least 1990. It doesn’t particularly bother me that veggie bacon’s texture is such that it fails to crisp, hardening instead. No matter: What it lacks in authenticity, it compensates for in other ways.
Veggie bacon served its purpose, as it proved to be the gateway to a string of other meat substitutes my generous husband would go on to bravely endure in the name of love. There’s been veggie sausage (patties and links), veggie hot dogs, veggie burgers and much more. He views some products more favorably than others. Veggie corn dogs, like veggie bacon, are decidedly not a favorite of his, but for different reasons in each case: “The veggie bacon definitely smells the worst. It’s just outright offensive. And the corn dogs taste the worst,” he said recently. Harsh. Fortunately, he does have an affinity for some of the veggie meatballs he’s tried. All is not lost.
Carnivorous lunches with one of his brothers represent a brief but regular weekday reprieve for him. He indulges in foreign meals that are scarce in our household—things like turkey sandwiches, ham and sausage calzones and delicious Teriyaki chicken, all made with actual meat. While he’s toiling away at the office, I’m able to luxuriate in my veggie bacon with abandon. As I pull the familiar, slim package from the freezer, I can be secure in the knowledge that the aroma in the air should have ample time to diminish before his arrival home. It was a revelation for me that there also are homemade versions of veggie bacon out there; that’s a whole new delicacy waiting to be discovered. It could be a game-changer.
In the meantime, I’m thankful for a husband who tolerates my self-imposed dietary restrictions so gracefully and occasionally even joins me in a meat alternative. I feel like a wife ought to do more to demonstrate her gratitude. I should really bake him a cake. Was that a recipe I saw online for frosted maple-bacon cupcakes garnished with pieces of veggie bacon?
August 3, 2011
After a deal to raise the debt ceiling passed the House of Representatives, Representative Emanuel Cleaver, Democrat of Missouri, declared on Twitter that the resolution was “a sugar coated satan sandwich. If you lift the bun, you will not like what you see.” It’s a turn of phrase that has since lit up the Internet with people asking: what exactly is a Satan sandwich? If one were to go down to the crossroads at midnight and call the devil’s name three times to make him appear, what dish would appear before you in a poof of fire and brimstone? Different bloggers have different ideas about what might best illustrate the concept, and they’re thinking beyond your basic deviled ham sandwich. Here are three ideas—one to skewer on each tine of a pitchfork—that might qualify as fiendish food, be it in name or in execution.
Seitan Sandwich: Why not kick off this list with a little wordplay, eh? Seitan is a wheat gluten-based meat substitute used in vegetarian cooking. You can use it in several ways to make a sandwich: dripping in barbecue sauce, sauteed and paired with lettuce and tomatoes, or a faux po’ boy that is appropriately hot and spicy. It’s the sort of food that might do you harm if you have a gluten allergy or if you have a penchant for really fatty sandwich fixins. And until a restaurant somewhere out there decides to craft a politically inspired kitchen concoction, this is probably the closest you’ll come to eating a Satan sandwich.
Luther Burger: Between its construction and the fat and calories swimming around in this decadent dish, this might be the embodiment of a sugar-coated Satan sandwich. Legend has it that the all-beef patty topped with bacon and cheese and nestled between two glazed doughnuts was a favorite dish of the late R&B singer Luther Vandross. At the very least, the dish is named after him and was likely invented at Mulligan’s Bar in Decatur, Georgia. With reportedly over 1,000 calories and 45 grams of fat per serving, this might better be referred to as a Lucifer Burger between the dietary havoc it will wreak and the hours you’ll have to spend burning up on a treadmill in order to work this thing off.
Cheesecake Factory Grilled Shrimp & Bacon Club: On the outside, this sandwich seems innocuous enough. Charbroiled shrimp—good ol’ fruit of the sea—paired with bacon, lettuce tomato and special dressing. But open this puppy up and it’s a veritable Pandora’s box with 1,930 calories waiting to be unleashed onto your arteries. Earmarked by Yahoo as the worst sandwich in America in 2010, it trumps the approximately 1,228 calories found in KFC’s Double Down, which debuted that same year amid much media attention. Of course, you could lighten your load if you decided to share.
This discussion is incredibly open-ended and the above ideas are only meant to start the conversation. What is your idea of a Satan sandwich, sugar coated or otherwise?