Research: The Pepper Heat Index

Friday, March 24, 2017 0 comments
People are always competing to set some extreme record or other. Who’s built the tallest building? Who can swim the farthest? Who can live the longest? Competitions are not confined to the human race, though. For example, every time we think we’ve discovered the hottest pepper on Earth, another upstart comes along to set an even more painful fire on our tongues. In the past few years, the Ghost Chile, the Naga Viper, the Trinidad Scorpion Moruga, and the Carolina Reaper have all held the coveted title of Hottest Pepper. There are so many different types of pepper, though. Where do they all fit in? And how do we go about comparing heat levels from pepper to pepper?

Until recently, the traditional method has always been the Scoville scale, named after a test that Wilbur Scoville devised in 1912. That scale measures Scoville heat units (SHU), which is a function of capsaicin concentration in each pepper. Way down at the bottom are our friends the bell peppers, which have a SHU of zero. Then come the milder zings like paprika and pimiento, which won’t crack a SHU of 1,000. In the 1,000-3,500 SHU range, you’ll find Pam’s and my current pepper of choice, the poblano. Jalapeño is the level above that, in the range that goes up to 10,000 SHU.

From 10,000-30,000 SHU, you’ll find serrano peppers and peperoncino. Cayenne and tobasco peppers lie in the 30,000-50,000 SHU range, while 50,000-100,000 SHU contains lesser known peppers, such as piri piri and malagueta. My painful experience with habanero makes sense, because it shares the 100,000-350,000 SHU range with Scotch bonnets. A specific type of habanero called “Red Savina” lies between 350,000-580,000 SHU, but even that pales in comparison to the peppers I mentioned in my opening paragraph. None of those peppers is less than 855,000 SHU.

All that SHU measurement is nice, but there’s a fatal flaw in the Scoville scale. It’s completely subjective, which I was shocked to learn. Decreasing concentrations of the extracted capsinoids are given to a panel of five trained tasters, until a majority (at least three) can no longer detect the heat in a dilution. OK, but... People’s taste buds differ from each other, and even on the same tongue, a taster’s receptors can be worn out or overused with multiple tastings, changing the results. Can you imagine if the official daily temperature was taken by people wandering outside and saying “Eh. It feels like it’s about 56° F today.”

Fortunately, these days, there’s a system that’s a lot more scientific. Using high-performance liquid chromatography, it can be determined how many parts-per-million of alkaloids (the heat-causing agents) are present in any given pepper.

Tastes in pepper heat vary across cultures (Asians seem to favor a sharp punch of heat at the beginning, while Americans favor a lower heat that sustains for a longer period of time), and some people have made it a personal mission to find the upper limit of what their taste buds can handle. I’ll leave all that record-grabbing to them, and just enjoy the gentler wallop of a dish spiked with cayenne.
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Research: Goulash

I love paprika, but I am far from its only fan. Paprika is especially popular in Hungary (the plant that yields it has been grown in Budapest since 1529), and frankly, I don't have a lot of experience with the best-known use of it: Goulash. Goulash is the national dish of Hungary, though it’s a popular dish worldwide. Paprika is the sole defining feature of goulash – all of its other components are variable. Paprika was used from the very beginning; the first recorded goulash recipe in 1748 specifically recommended its use. Hungary loves paprika so much that they haven’t even restricted its use to the culinary world. During the 1831 cholera epidemic, Hungarians used red paprika powder, red paprika schnapps, and red paprika wine as medicine. I can’t recommend following this treatment regimen for any illness you might contract, though, so let’s stick to paprika’s use in goulash.

There seems to be some internet confusion over whether it’s more properly referred to as a soup or a stew, so let’s indulge in some research history. Let’s see… Goulash is eaten hot, served as a main dish, and though paprika is the most important ingredient, its flavors center around the meat and vegetables. Survey says: Stew.

Goulash traces back to the 9th century, to stews eaten by Hungarian shepherds. Cooked and flavored meat was dried with the help of the sun, and packed into bags made from sheep stomachs. Just add water, and the meal is complete. In fact, the word goulash derives from gulya, which is Hungarian for “herd of cattle”. Goulash can be made from pretty much any meat, from beef to veal to pork to lamb. It’s typically made from shank, shin, or shoulder cuts. Those cuts are rich in collagen, and when they break down, the collagen converts to gelatin, giving goulash its thick texture. This may be why goulash is one of the few stews that does not rely on flour or roux as a base.

The meat is cut into chunks, seasoned with salt, and then browned with sliced onion in a pot with oil (or lard, if you’re going old-school). Paprika is added, along with water or stock, and then left to simmer. Then you add garlic, whole or ground caraway seed, and vegetables such as carrots, parsley roots, bell peppers, or celery. Other herbs and spices are also generally added (chili pepper, bay leaf, and thyme, usually). Diced potatoes are a popular addition, since they provide starch as they cook, which makes the goulash thicker and smoother. A small amount of white wine or wine vinegar may also be added near the end of cooking to round out the taste. Modern cooks have also started adding tomato, but those are not included in “traditional” goulash. Once it’s done, the goulash can be served with egg noodles, called csipetke in Hungary. Csipetke are not a side of pasta, though. They’re prepared by boiling them in the goulash itself.

Those are just the basics of Hungarian goulash. There are tons of variations:

Gulyás à la Székely: Reduces the amount of potatoes, and adds sauerkraut and sour cream.

Gulyás Hungarian Plain Style: Omits the csipetke, and adds vegetables.

Mock Gulyás: Substitutes beef bones for the meat, and adds vegetables. Also called Hamisgulyás (Fake Goulash).

Bean Gulyás: Omits the potatoes and the caraway seeds, and uses kidney beans instead.

Csángó Gulyás: Adds sauerkraut, and omits the csipetke and potatoes.

Betyár Gulyás. Uses smoked beef or smoked pork for the meat.

Likócsi Pork Gulyás: Uses pork and thin vermicelli in the goulash instead of potatoes and csipetke, and is flavored with lemon juice.

Mutton Gulyás: Uses mutton as the meat, and adds red wine for flavor. Also called Birkagulyás.

There are also countless variations on goulash in other countries. Since I'm writing this from America, I’ll just mention American goulash briefly. The American tweak is a casserole mentioned in cookbooks dating back to 1914, and has plenty of its own variations. Originally it was a seasoned beef dish, but now usually includes various kinds of pasta (usually macaroni or egg noodles), ground beef cooked with onions/garlic, and tomatoes. Cheese, melted into the dish during the cooking process, can also be added. Now that’s American. At least we have the good grace to maintain the use of paprika to connect it back to its Hungarian origins.

How about putting this research to good use? Instead of the usual pot roast or meatloaf at your next dinner party, how about trying out a hearty goulash? Your guests will thank you! Maybe even in Hungarian.
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Research: The Reputation of American Fruitcake

Wednesday, March 22, 2017 0 comments
A couple of Decembers ago, my friend Chris and I enjoyed some of the truly wonderful julekake he had baked for the first time. And a couple of days later, I devoured a terrific little pannetone cake that came in a Foods of the World assortment. If other countries have mastered the method for baking an actually tasty fruitcake, why does that word send a shiver down every American spine?

In a way, terrible fruitcake is all our fault. Back in the 16th century, European fruitcake was humming along quite nicely as a symbol of a successful harvest season, when suddenly, cheap sugar poured in from the American colonies. Candying fruit became a simple way of preserving it, making it available to places with a dearth of fresh produce. Inserting the sugared fruit into cake was a convenient way of making a buck, and since fruitcakes were heavily produced in the American South, cheap surplus nuts found their way into the recipe as well. Soaking it in booze helped counteract some of the sweetness, and no doubt gave people a handy way of coping with their families around the holidays.

Fruitcake was popular enough to become a Christmas staple, so what precipitated its fall from grace? A lot of it has to do with marketing, a problem that plagues white bread as well. In the early 20th century, industrialization transformed the food landscape. Mass-produced fruitcakes were sold via mail-order, and these newly available cakes definitely did not represent the height of quality. Fruitcakes became heavy and dry.

From there, its popularity began a steady decline it has never recovered from. It became associated with other bygone recipes of your grandmother’s kitchen, like aspic casseroles. Tales and jokes about people’s hatred of fruitcake proliferated; one article I found mentioned a soldier who received a gift of fruitcake on the front lines of WWII, shoved it in his bag, and discovered the uneaten cake 40 years later in his mother’s attic. Johnny Carson joked that “The worst gift is fruitcake. There is only one fruitcake in the entire world, and people keep sending it to each other,” a jibe that people have been repeating almost word-for-word to this day.

Some American bakeries claim that fruitcake is making a comeback, but this doesn’t really pass the sniff test. Christmas baking displays often exclude them. Restaurants don’t serve them. Nobody I’ve talked to about it can seem to remember the last time they spotted one at a family gathering, unless one was served as a joke.

It’s not all bad news for fruitcake, though. There does seem to be one country that appreciates American fruitcake. Japan apparently can’t get enough of the stuff, enjoying the sweetness of the fruit and the dense texture of the cake. So, in the interest of the season of goodwill, let’s strike up a mutually-beneficial trade agreement. Japan can have all of our fruitcakes, and we’ll take Norway’s.
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American Plate - Bite #52: Oysters Rockefeller

Tuesday, March 14, 2017 0 comments
John D. Rockefeller is heavily associated with New York City, but the Big Apple has pretty much nothing to do with the iconic dish that carries his name. For that, we have to jet to another one of America's well-known food destinations. In 1840, French immigrant Antoine Alciatore founded Antoine's Restaurant in New Orleans, and it was an immediate hit, which makes sense, given the city's embrace of its citizens' Cajun and Creole backgrounds. In fact, if you'd like to have a more personal experience with this restaurant, you can, as it's amazingly still in operation, having been owned and run by the Alciatore family since the very beginning.

Antoine's son Jules is who really put the restaurant on the map. In 1899, he created the original recipe for Oysters Rockefeller. Its status as a decadent dish with an indulgent, rich green sauce inspired the name; if you're going to serve a fancy dish as a status symbol, why not name it after one the Gilded Age's wealthiest and most notorious financiers? Since then, Antoine's has served more than three million servings of this iconic dish, and its popularity has spread across the country.

The fact that this dish was invented at and served at a restaurant is no mistake. When have you ever had Oysters Rockefeller at home? Some dishes and ingredients are welcome in multiple dining spheres, but these almost demand to be eaten out in public, which is exactly what I did.

They're deceptively simple. Oysters Rockefeller is just oysters topped with other ingredients (usually parsley and other green herbs, bread crumbs, and a rich butter sauce) and then baked or broiled. That said, I've never had two servings that have tasted the same. Every restaurant seems to have a different twist on this classic.

As you can see, the ones pictured above were served on ice in order to keep them chilly, and they turned out to be quite good. I like eating oysters in pretty much all their forms (on the half shell, fried, and so on), but Oysters Rockefeller will always have a special connotation in my brain. It's a dish to be enjoyed out on the town, and as such, are symbolic of a certain kind of fun and friendship. That's a pretty impressive accomplishment for such an unpretentious little preparation.
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Research: The Rise and Fall of White Bread

Tuesday, March 7, 2017 0 comments
We've all got our favorite breads, but it's unlikely that plain old white bread is at the top of your list. These days, if you refer to something or someone as “white bread”, it is emphatically not a compliment. It wasn’t always so. Once upon a time, white bread had a sterling reputation, and even served as a status symbol. So how did it go from being respected to being mocked?

White bread (and Wonder white bread in particular) has the reputation of being not only unhealthy, but classless. The term “White bread” stands for everything bland and uncool, but back in the Middle Ages, you had to really be someone to enjoy white bread. Refining flour cost a lot of money then, and only the aristocrat class could afford such a product. The peasants had to make their own bread from whole wheat flour. That was the status quo for a long time. Around the turn of the 20th century, 90% of bread was baked in home kitchens by women.

Industrialization took care of that. A combination of new technology that made the refining process infinitely cheaper, fear that home kitchens weren’t clean enough, and some good old-fashioned xenophobia about local bakeries run by immigrants led to a huge shift; by 1930, mass-produced bread claimed 90% of the market. Suddenly, everyone was eating white bread. And you know what happens when “everyone” is doing something. The counterculture shows up to disdain everything about it – what we’d call hipsters today.

In the 1960s, those in the counterculture identified white bread as the symbol of everything they hated. It represented big business. It was unnatural. It was boring. To be fair, this wasn’t the first time that white bread came under cultural attack. Anti-white bread sentiment stretches back as far as the 1840s. Once in a while, a nutritionist or diet expert would come along and blame all sorts of things – from cancer to insanity – on factory-made white bread.

Those critics weren’t wrong about some of white bread’s problems, though. The refining process may have given affluent citizens in the Middle Ages an excuse to pat themselves on the back, but it also removes all the components that make bread healthy. Necessary vitamins, minerals, and fiber were being stripped away, and although everyone knew that was the case by the early 19th century, industrial breadmakers didn’t want to do anything about it.

Once wheat bread gained popularity as a healthful alternative, they started paying attention. In 1956, it became law to add the vitamins and minerals back into white bread, but by then, it was too late. People were fleeing in droves to wheat bread, which was billed as healthier and cooler than that stodgy old Wonder Bread your parents ate. The advertising did its job; Wonder Bread went into bankruptcy in 2004.

They’ve made some strides in clawing their way back onto the grocery store shelves, but white bread has never reclaimed the cachet it once had. It’s a little sad, given how important to the American table it used to be. So, in honor of this once great staple, a loaf of Wonder is in order. It should still make a pretty tasty grilled cheese.
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Flavor of the Month: February 2017

Tuesday, February 28, 2017 0 comments
February may be the shortest month of the year, and it may generally be a month during which people like to hole up at home and eat vast quantities of red meat, but that doesn't mean there isn't time to get out and enjoy a variety of meaningful meals with others. This particular February brought unseasonable warmth, which made it all the easier to go enjoy the food and drink that I'd usually be reserving for late spring or early summer. So what wonderful things caught my attention during these brief 28 days?

  • A surf and turf dinner fit for a king

  • For the winter holiday season, my friend Jeremy's parents had given him an exquisite gift: Four steak filets and four lobster tails. He and Kyle decided to fill out their foursome with Jeremy's sister and 'lil ol me, so she and I set to work on filling in part of the meal with dishes fancy enough to be served alongside such regal offerings. The final result was incredible: Perfectly medium steaks, wonderful lobster, French onion soup, creamed spinach, twice-baked potatoes, salad, creme brulee, and an additional dessert that I'd worked on for basically two days (see below). I'll likely not have another home-cooked dinner as impressive for a long time to come.

  • Baking a French orange tart for the dinner party

  • Baking is my hobby, and though I do plenty of it, I'd still consider myself a beginner. There are plenty of creations I don't dare even attempt, but in anticipation of the dinner party mentioned above, I thought I'd try to ease out of my comfort zone with a recipe out of a cookbook featuring fancy desserts from across the globe. This particular one is called "Scandalous Orange Tart", probably because it used more butter than I ever thought possible could go into one item. Day one was devoted to making the short crust for the base of the tart, while day two was about creating the double layer of almond/orange filling and orange cream topping, then bringing them all together for the final bake. I'm still no good when it comes to dexterous pastry rolling, but fortunately, I was able to hand mold the crust into the semblance of its correct shape and thickness. The final product was delicious, though I don't know how often I'm going to make a recipe that has so many ingredients, takes so much time, and uses so many dishes. It was worth it though, even for the burn mark I'm still sporting a month later from the tart pan.

  • Embracing global culinary culture with Jack and Corey

  • I've always liked eating foods from around the globe, but in this current climate of bigotry and xenophobia, it's become even more important to me to be welcoming to people of other nations, even if it's only by going to their restaurants and stuffing myself. One such place is Sameem, an Afghan restaurant in the Grove neighborhood of St. Louis. In fact, according to their site, it's the only Afghan restaurant in Missouri. It's walking distance from my friends Jack and Corey's place, and it's become somewhat of a ritual for us to wander down there, get a platter of sambosas and pakowras to share, and then delve into our separate entrees. I've become very enamored of the lamb beriani, a dish that involves rice, green peas, chickpeas, garlic, and a zillion spices. Am I solving the immigration crisis by eating delicious lamb? Undoubtedly not. But every time I eat there, it reminds me to do what I can to make our community a better place for everyone.

  • Watching people try the milkshakes at Layla for the first time

  • Not once, but twice over the past month, I've gone to eat at Layla. Their burgers are always excellent, but what has really made these outings special is watching people who haven't been there before try their milkshakes. My favorite is the Couch Potato, a chocolate shake which includes peanut butter and chopped up pretzel bits. Gnat took one taste of it, and promptly stole half. Later, I went for lunch with my friend Pam, and watching her face light up upon her first sip of the Veruca Salt (salted caramel and vanilla ice cream) was worth the price of the entire meal.

  • A cathartic sangria Monday at Onesto

  • Once a week, local restaurant Onesto runs specials on pitchers of sangria. Far from the traditional sangria, Onesto likes to experiment with strange flavors. Sometimes, it's wonderful, and sometimes, it's...not for me. In February, the one we tried was grapefruit-based, and wound up being quite good. The gathering of friends there that night have all had tragedy or intense struggle touch our lives recently, and I can't describe how much of a pressure release it was simply to gather and talk and sip our drinks. Events like this are what Flavor of the Month is really all about; how a simple glass of sangria with friends can change your whole outlook.

  • A traditional candy for a wildly untraditional Oscar night

  • When I was a little kid, my mom used to make Buckeyes - they're those balls of peanut butter candy that are partially-dipped in melted chocolate, and then chilled to harden. As I grew up, my mom stopped making them for some unknown reason. What's particularly weird is that when I talk to other people my age, many of them have had the same experience. Their moms made buckeyes, and then some cosmic signal went out across the universe, and the stream of candy goodness ceased. I have no idea how to explain this societal hiccup, but I knew the remedy, so I went in search of some Buckeye recipes. Tempering chocolate is always a pain, so really the most joyous part of this experience was discovering a shortcut method that requires only chocolate chips, shortening, and a microwave. I've made a couple of batches now, some more successful than others. The most recent batch went to Tiffany's Oscar party, where we were casually enjoying this childhood favorite when all of a sudden, they announced the wrong Best Picture winner. A cultural tremor that big just might link Buckeyes with this snafu in my mind for the rest of time. Situations around Buckeyes just keep getting weirder.
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    Research: Sushi Terms

    Thursday, February 23, 2017 0 comments
    I’m a full-blown sushi “fanatic”. I'm literally always in the mood for it, and will probably wander off for some as soon as I publish this entry. But even though I have a grand passion for sushi, its terminology can sometimes be a bit of a muddle. What better opportunity for some research? Hopefully, this can serve as a bit of a cheat sheet for all your sushi glossary needs. Grab your chopsticks and let’s dive in!

    Sushi: Let’s start with the important one. We like to say “sushi” as a catch-all term for the style of cuisine we’re eating, but its precise definition is “cold, boiled rice moistened with rice vinegar”. Yep! Sushi is just rice! No fish required! That said, don’t let pedants drag you down with semantic hair-splitting. But if it’s just vinegared rice, then what the hell are most people thinking of when they picture sushi?

    Sashimi: Sliced or prepared raw fish, without the sushi rice.

    So what we think of as a piece of sushi is actually sushi and sashimi put together – generally with a dab of wasabi (Japanese horseradish) to glue them together. Ironically, this is the most common form of sushi you’ll see outside of Japan, and yet most people are unfamiliar with the term describing this combination: Nigiri-zushi. The other big category of sushi-eating is rolls vs. nigiri:

    Maki: Sushi (and other ingredients) rolled up using a bamboo mat, and normally wrapped in nori (sheets of dried seaweed). The maki roll is then cut into several pieces and served. “Maki” is an extremely broad term, though. You can have futomaki (an enlarged maki), hosomaki (small, simple assemblies of maki, often with just one additional ingredient), temaki (hand rolls that are often served in a cone shape), and uramaki (medium-sized rolls with the nori on the inside).

    Nigiri: A single piece of sliced fish with a molded ball of rice underneath. This is the shorthand term for “nigiri-zushi”, and is what most people picture when you say the word “sushi”. While there are some outstanding maki, there isn’t a lot of widely-accepted terminology. There’s some amount of agreement (spider rolls, California rolls, etc.), but restaurants can generally name their rolls whatever they wish. Nigiri is more standardized, and it’s where sushi can really shine, so let’s get into some specifics.

    Pop Quiz: What will you get if you go to a sushi restaurant and ask for tuna? Sorry, I shouldn’t ask trick questions like that, because tuna is a world unto itself when it comes to sushi.

    Otoro: Fatty tuna (from the belly, usually the most expensive type)
    Ahi: Yellowfin tuna
    Hamachi: Yellowtail tuna (not the same thing!)
    Maguro: Big-eye tuna, not to be confused with…
    Siro Maguro or Shiromaguro: White, albacore tuna – And just to confuse the issue even more, Kampai refers to a separate nigiri as “Albacore”, which is seared.

    I could actually go on; in researching this post, I found honest-to-goodness flow charts attempting to categorize the various types of sushi tuna. The ones above should probably suffice for now, but if you’re interested in a deeper dive (no pun intended), poke around the internet.

    There’s also the matter of roe, which is fish eggs. You can get various type of roe in sushi places, generally resting on a bed of sushi rice and wrapped in nori. As mentioned in the episode, salmon roe (Ikura) is my absolute favorite, but you can also usually find smelt roe (Masago – gathered from the capelin fish) and flying fish roe (Tobiko).

    When people hear “fish eggs”, though, their mind generally goes to caviar, so is there a difference between that and roe? Of course there is! “Roe” refers to the fish eggs themselves, while “caviar” is roe that has been salted and tinned for storage and aging. Caviar also tends to come from sturgeon roe, which is not considered a sushi fish.

    There are also a ton of other nigiri, and while it’s impossible to list them all here, I’ll leave you with a nice sampler platter. Go enjoy some!

    Fugu: Puffer fish – A delicacy, but poisonous if not prepared properly.
    Taco: Octopus
    Saba: Mackerel (mentioned in the episode as speedily racing its way to the top of our list of favorites)
    Anago: Salt-water eel
    Unagi: Fresh-water eel – We recommended this one highly.
    Uni: Sea urchin
    Tamago: Egg omelet – A strange inclusion on a fish-based menu, but can be very good.
    Ika: Squid
    Kani: Crab
    Hotate: Scallop
    Ebi: Shrimp – Can also be served as Ama Ebi (sweet shrimp).
    Mirugai: Giant clam – Also called “geoduck”, one of the ugliest creatures on the planet.
    Hirame: Halibut
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