Research: Seitan

Monday, February 6, 2017 0 comments
Whether you’re an omnivore, a vegetarian, or a vegan, chances are you already know a fair bit about tofu. You may not like it, but at least you understand it. That’s not the case with another specific meat substitute. Seitan is a relative newcomer to the meatless scene – at least in America. So I thought it’d be the perfect subject to tackle with some deeper scrutiny. What makes seitan tick?

“Seitan” is a very Asian-sounding word, and there’s good reason for that. It’s a lot more fun to say than “wheat gluten”. OK, there may be actual geographical reasons, too, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that “wheat gluten” sounds like a bummer, and “seitan” sounds awesome. It first appeared in cuisine during the sixth century, when it popped up as an ingredient in Chinese noodles. From there, it spread to Japan and other Asian countries, where it has been enjoyed for hundreds of years, especially by strict vegetarians, such as Buddhists.

The word “seitan” was coined in 1961 by George Ohsawa, and it took another eight years to be exported to the States as a finished product for consumption. Oh, we were eating it way before that, just not calling it seitan. Western doctors often prescribed it for diabetics in the 1830s and Seventh-Day Adventists were big supporters as well.

But let’s get back to those Asian roots. In Chinese, it’s called mien chin which translates roughly to “dough tendon”. It’s often deep-fried into small puffy balls, though it’s also popular steamed or baked. Pre-prepared seitan is often eaten at Chinese breakfast as an accompaniment to congee. In Japanese, seitan is called fu, and is generally eaten in one of two forms. It can be consumed raw, in which case it’s often formed into whimsical shapes or filled with sweeter things like red bean paste. Or, it can be leavened with baking powder and dry baked into long sticks. In this form, it’s often added to broth, such as miso soup.

Here in America, seitan enjoyed a popularity boom in the 20th century. It’s high in protein, and became a natural meat substitute alongside tofu. It’s sold in blocks, in strips, or in familiar shapes such as burger patties. And it’s not just for humans; seitan is often used to provide protein and bind other ingredients in pet food.

That may make it sound unappealing, but like tofu, seitan seems to take on the flavors of whatever you cook it with, which allows for some delicious experimentation. If your morals or your diet doesn’t allow for consumption of animal products, seitan has been a reliable fallback since King Arthur was in charge.
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Flavor of the Month: January 2017

Tuesday, January 31, 2017 0 comments
Food is such an everyday thing, it can sometimes fade into the background. Many is the night when you come home after a long day at work, and just have the same boring dinner you had last Tuesday. So I thought it would be a worthy project to make note of the exceptions; the food and drink that really stood out over the course of a month. That doesn't necessarily mean the fanciest or the most expensive things. As you'll see below, the meals that stand out are far more about meaningful situations than meaningful ingredients. Something as simple as a takeout sandwich can still represent something special.

So, what stood out in January? 2017 is shaping up to be a...challenging year, to put it mildly. That, combined with the fact that it's winter, means that comfort food featured heavily this month. But really, even if the food wasn't specifically designed to bring comfort, the company was. Even though I'm just kicking this series off now, I can already tell that what makes these foods and drinks stand out was the presence of the people I shared them with. There's a lesson for all of us in that.

  • Gnat's curried deviled eggs on New Year's Eve

  • I'm going to cheat a bit, and include something from 2016 on this list. As the year was drawing to a close, it was plainly evident how terrible the year had been on all levels, from personal to societal. I wanted to blow off a bit of steam, and going to see La La Land with my friend Gnat seemed like just the thing. Leave it to Gnat to put the perfect capper on the day by having some pre-movie deviled eggs at her house, half of which were curried. Gnat has a magical quality in the kitchen; she has an instinct for what ingredients are needed to perfectly balance something out, and my deviled eggs are never half as good as hers. They immediately lifted my spirits, and sent me into 2017 in a more optimistic mood.

  • In and out of the hospital with James

  • After the movie on New Year's Eve, I snuck some champagne into James' hospital room to watch the ball drop at midnight. The hospital food at Barnes is apparently not half bad, but it gets old after a while, so it was certainly special to bust James out of there in mid-January to take him out for a late Christmas present to Eleven Eleven Mississippi, one of his favorite restaurants. I certainly benefited too, indulging in things like an outstanding butternut squash soup and one of my favorite desserts in town, their Crème Custard Napoleon. James and I always enjoy talking food together, and it was nice to finally get a chance to do so over something other than hospital pudding.

  • My first successful lasagna

  • I don't know why, but it seems more difficult these days to figure out what to get people for the holidays. They either don't want more "stuff" (I fall into this category as well), or there isn't a particular item they want that they haven't already gotten for themselves. So for my friends Eric and Taylor, who are always busy fellows, I decided that their present was going to be to sit down to a nice home-cooked meal in January. I asked what they liked, and got a somewhat vague response about chicken and pasta. I like a challenge, and sat down to think about what I could do, when the idea of chicken lasagna struck me. Thing is, I'd never made a lasagna of any kind before, so I went on a recipe hunt. I found a promising one, though I made a few tweaks, mostly in the form of heavier seasoning. First-time recipes are often fraught with disaster, which would usually be fine, but I didn't want to screw up their present. Happily, I must have scored some beginner's luck on this one, because it came out perfectly, and when paired with roasted Brussels sprouts, garlic bread, and a blueberry buckle for dessert, it wound up being a meal even my toughest critic enjoyed.

  • A surprise French feast

  • One evening, I wandered out with my friends Jack and Corey for a final hurrah at a casual Mexican restaurant before they closed for good. The restaurant turned out to be too crowded, so we started looking for a new destination, eventually winding up at the diametric opposite of "casual Mexican". We landed at Brasserie, an upscale French restaurant that we were all a little concerned that we were under-dressed for. No matter, we dived right into some incredible food, like the most interesting pumpkin soup I've ever tasted (see below), and some nicely-seasoned Trout Grenobloise. I also noticed a sloe gin fizz on their cocktail menu, and remembered that Kyle and I had talked about them on an episode of Four Courses about spring drinks. Tardy as it was, I completed one of the drinking challenges by sipping one down, and by the end of the evening, I was feeling quite fat and happy.

  • Inventing the Camp Tigerclaw with Kyle and Erika

  • Speaking of Kyle, I don't get to see my friend and old co-host as often as I'd like these days. We did have a great night of catching up over patty melts at Picadilly, which was great, but the real notable drink event of the month happened when he threw a just-because party, to which his friend Erika brought some blueberry liqueur. The wheels began to turn in all of our brains - how could this be used to full effect? After some spirited collaboration, we settled on mixing it with ginger syrup, vodka, and lemon juice. A wonderful new drink was born, and since blueberries make us think of summer, we named it after the evil rival camp from Wet Hot American Summer.
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    Thursday, January 19, 2017 0 comments
    Ever since The Great British Baking Show started airing on American television, it has consistently been one of my favorite shows. It's the perfect blend of competition and cooking show, and nothing has ever come close to matching it.

    That doesn't mean people won't try, though, and TV executives weren't about to let all of us fervent American fans of the show slip through their fingers. They attempted to capture the same lightning by producing The Great American Baking Show, which premiered last year. Rather than a generalized baking experience, it aired around the holidays, which naturally drove all the challenge inspirations as well. That was probably a wise decision, even if I soon tired of Christmas-themed bakes. Mary Berry agreed to tie the show to its foreign counterpart by acting as judge, along with Johnny Iuzzini, who has already acted as a reality show judge, with limited success. In place of Mel and Sue, the show is hosted by Nia Vardolos (My Big Fat Greek Wedding) and her husband, Ian Gomez (Cougar Town).

    Here's the thing about capturing the spirit of a runaway hit show: It's really, really, really difficult to do. And the first season of The Great American Baking Show was so unsuccessful, it struggled to even rise to the level of pale imitation. On the most basic level, it just didn't have any of the chemistry that makes the original program so enchanting. The judges didn't gel, the hosts were visibly trying and failing to capture the giddy enthusiasm of Mel and Sue, and the contestants... Well, that was the worst part. I'm sure they're all lovely people, and I know this is a show for amateurs, but as with inaugural seasons of a lot of competitive reality shows, they suuuuuuuuuuucked. All of their bakes looked terrible. It got to the point where I was literally embarrassed for us as a country.

    I chalked the show up as a failed experiment and moved on with my life. Until about a month ago, when I noticed Hulu recommending the second season to me. Against my better judgement, my curiosity was piqued. Were any lessons learned? Could the show improve, or was it just destined to languish in the shadow of its older cousin? Well, I have some good news!

    Season 2 was much, much better. Nia and Ian are still a bit over-hammy, but they've settled down to an acceptable level. The judges (Johnny specifically) are still a bit awkward, but their explanations are better articulated now, and they seem to be in better moods. That may be because the contestants are worlds better this time around. It's night and day. Sure, there was some obvious chaff, but the wheat was soon separated out, and I found myself really invested in their success. Finally, some American bakers our nation can be proud of.

    The second season was again holiday-themed, which limited what it could do, but I was so giddy over the show's rise in quality that I hardly minded. Does The Great American Baking Show stack up to the Great British Baking Show? Hell, no. Not in any way whatsoever. But it certainly takes home the engraved cake plate award for Most Improved.

    The Great American Baking Show - Season 1: C
    The Great American Baking Show - Season 2: B
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    Research: Brazilian Cuisine

    When I say “Chinese food” or “Italian food” or “French food”, chances are that your brain is prepared, and has got some images primed and at the ready to spring to your mind. But what’s the first thing you think of when I say “Brazilian food”? That one’s a bit of a mystery. What a perfect opportunity to do some research!

    Brazilian food is not one, big, monolithic idea, of course. It’s a huge country, so just as there’s a difference in the United States between “Southern food” and “Northeastern food”, Brazilian cuisine varies by region. It’s also similar to the USA in that the differences are influenced by geography and the immigrant groups who chose to settle in each area. As far as country-wide ideas go, Brazilians love their coffee, and their national cocktail is named caipirinha, made with alcohol derived from sugar cane. In the food realm, if there’s one dish that your brain can file away as wholly Brazilian, it’s the dish that any Brazilian restaurant worth its salt will be serving: Feijoada.

    Feijoada is basically a mixture of black beans and salted/smoked meats cooked over a low fire. Vegetables are then added to be cooked by the steam of the beans and meats. It is traditionally served with a dark broth alongside white rice, oranges, and greens.

    It's especially common in Southeast Brazil, thanks to the domination of big cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo over the region. The rice and beans are also used in many other dishes, such as one that combines grilled beef filet, rice and beans, farofa (toasted casava flour), and French fries. Corn makes an appearance in the state dishes of Minas Gerais, while Espírito Santo is influenced by the German and Italian immigrants there. Also, seafood is obviously a big part of the Brazilian Southeast.

    Northern Brazil has smaller population centers, so the indigenous cuisine is a lot more present. The most well-known dish of the region is pato no tucupi. Duck is cooked, then prepared in tucupi sauce, which consists of broth extracted from cassava and boiled guava. It’s then served with white rice, manioc flour, and corn tortillas.

    The Northeast gets a lot of its flavor from Africa. A popular shrimp dish (bobó de camarão) is from this region, as are many other shrimp dishes, such as an intriguing one called vatapá. Vatapá is made from bread, shrimp, coconut milk, finely ground peanuts and palm oil, all of which is mashed into a creamy paste. It can be sold with acarajé, a ball of black-eyed peas that are deep-fried in palm oil. Pancakes made out of tapioca are commonly eaten as breakfast, with fillings made out of cheese or condensed milk.

    Finally, in the South, red meat is king. The United States has BBQ (or grilled meat – there’s a difference!) while southern Brazil has churrasco. It involves a variety of meats which are cooked on barbecue grill, often with supports for spits and skewers. American eaters may be tangentially aware of churrasco, due to the popularity of Brazilian steakhouses.

    That’s the gist of Brazilian food, but it’s impossible to summarize fully in a brief blog post. I haven’t even mentioned grilled chicken, pizza, corn bread with fennel, Brazilian cheeses, pasta, or a metric ton of other foods that are popular down there, but I hope that I've at least gotten you started. The best way to continue this research is to go eat some yourself, and I'm willing to guess that once you’re done, your brain won’t consider it such a mystery association anymore.
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    Research: Quick Questions #1

    Wednesday, January 18, 2017 0 comments
    Sometimes, small research topics pop up. There's not enough info to delve too deeply into these questions, but they're certainly worth looking into. Here's a handful that we covered for one episode of the podcast, but I should definitely start collecting more.

    What’s the difference between crawfish and crayfish?

    That depends. Where do you live? If you live in the South, the Rockies, the Mid-Atlantic, or the part of the Midwest that stretches from St. Louis to Chicago, you probably call them crawfish. If you live in the North or New England, you’ll likely refer to them as crayfish. And if you’re one of those weirdos in the middle of the Midwest or the Pacific coast, you’ll disdain both, and opt for crawdad, instead. Here’s a handy visual representation.

    OK, but what’s the biological difference between these critters?

    There isn’t one. It’s all linguistic. Oh, America. Never change.

    What is “Carolina Gold” rice?

    A restaurant menu took the time to point out that one of their entrees was being served with Carolina Gold, and it struck Kyle and me as strange that a rice would need such a specific description. We wondered what makes Carolina Gold so special. Well, it turns out that it’s special because it’s basically the progenitor of all long-grain rice in the Americas. According to the Carolina Gold Rice Foundation (which...exists), this rice originated in Africa and Indonesia, but once it arrived on our shores, it took hold in the Carolina Territory by 1685.

    It became the standard for all rice served in the States, but after the Great Depression, new rice varieties crowded it out of the public eye, to the point that it became virtually extinct. Luckily for Carolina Gold, an eye surgeon named Dr. Richard Schulz collected stores from a USDA seed bank in the 1980s, and repatriated it to the Carolinas. Nowadays, it’s considered an heirloom rice, so it’s no wonder that it’s an attractive grain to serve in nice places. It’s tasty! Give it a try if you see it somewhere.

    What are hoecakes, exactly?

    They’re basically an unleavened cake made with cornmeal. They’re called hoecakes because they were originally baked on hoes. Hoecakes are also known as Johnny cakes, and they differ from traditional pancakes in that pancakes are generally leavened. Pancakes are also considered a sweeter dish, while hoecakes tend toward the savory.

    Paella is stuffed with seafood, but do clams belong in there or not?

    Do they ever! Or they don’t. Paella is one of those endlessly tweakable dishes; I found plenty of recipes that made sure to include clams, and plenty that made sure to exclude them. The meats and shellfish that go into paella have infinite permutations, but I’d suggest making sure you at least include some chorizo as one of the meats, and shrimp as one of the shellfish. Here’s a paella recipe with clams that looks fairly complex, but wow, would it be tasty.
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    Research: The History of Hamburgers

    Tuesday, January 17, 2017 0 comments
    It’s endlessly fascinating how mysterious a lot of food origin stories are. We tend to think of history as “This happened in this place on this date,” but when it comes to who came up with particular foods, drinks, or cooking styles, it seems we run into conflicting information more often than not. Nowadays, the humble American hamburger is practically ubiquitous, so it’s no wonder that a lot of people want the credit for introducing it, even if that credit is purely nominal. All those people are destined for frustration, though, because the history of the hamburger is a complicated tangle. I wanted to take a stab at it, though. Hamburgers are immensely popular, and are often even symbolic of America, but where did they come from?

    As with 99.9999% of American foods, the hamburger didn’t really originate in America. Several sources trace them back to the Mongols in the 1200s, who stashed raw beef under their saddles as they rode around pillaging and raping. Supposedly, their butts pressed the meat into a form tender enough to eat raw, and when this tenderized raw meat was introduced to Russia, steak tartare was born. Frankly, this story sounds a little apocryphal, but like I said...complicated tangle. In any event, it’s beyond question that plenty of raw beef was being consumed.

    Apparently, it took until the mid 1700s for actual cooking to be applied to these cuts of meat (again – a bit suspicious). Seafaring traders in the port city of Hamburg, Germany brought in a great deal of ground, raw meat, which the locals shaped into steak shapes and cooked. It’s about this time that we finally have some definitive historical evidence, in the form of an English cookbook called The Art of Cookery, Made Plain and Easy, which published a recipe for “Hamburg sausage” in 1747. By 1802, the official Oxford dictionary was defining Hamburg steak as a “hard slab of salted, minced beef, often slightly smoked, mixed with onions and bread crumbs.”

    This was a time that German immigrants were coming to America in great waves, and they naturally brought this preparation with them. A New York doctor named James H. Salisbury declared in 1867 that this cooked meat was a pretty healthy alternative to consuming raw beef, and the Hamburg steak soon took on his name as Americans embraced it. It was fortuitous timing that home meat grinders also became widely available about this time. The stage was set.

    So, where did the modern American hamburger as we know it today come from? Good question! As mentioned above, a lot of people have laid claim to it:

    -There’s Fletcher Davis (~1880), who historians believe served hamburgers in Athens, Texas before bringing them to the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904, where they were popularized.

    -There are the Menches brothers, Frank and Charles (~1885), that Ohioans claim served hamburgers at the Erie county fair when they ran out of sausage and used ground beef, instead.

    -There’s Charlie Nagreen (~1885), who sold meatballs at the Seymour, Wisconsin county fair, and apparently made sandwiches out of them in order to make them easier to eat while walking around.

    -There’s Louis’ Lunch wagon in New Haven, Connecticut (~1895), run by Danish immigrant Louis Lassen, who is officially credited by the Library of Congress as selling the first hamburger.

    -There’s Oscar Bilby (~1891), who is believed to have created the first bun specifically created for hamburgers in Tulsa, Oklahoma. A fry cook named Walter Anderson is said to have “discovered” these buns in 1916, and went on to co-found White Castle in 1921.

    Whew! What a mess. It seems that without access to a time machine, we’ll never know if the hamburger can be credited to a single source, or if it was independently developed by a whole bunch of people. Happily, though, it doesn’t matter too much. Let’s just be grateful that it happened.
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    Research: The History of Eggnog

    Thursday, January 12, 2017 0 comments
    Hey, did you guys know that there was an event in American history called “The Eggnog Riot”? And that its alternate name is “The Grog Mutiny”? Really! It occurred in 1826 when a bunch of cadets sneaked whiskey into the U.S. Military Academy for a Christmas party, and wound up getting into a huge, drunken brawl. Twenty cadets were court-martialed, and one of the participants was future Confederate president Jefferson Davis. How come high school history classes never cover cool stuff like this?

    Though eggnog is usually considered a holiday drink, a lot of people like to indulge in it throughout winter. As with a lot of drinks, there are ton of different ways to make it. When it first came about in England, it was made with wine. When it arrived in America, rum was favored. In the southern states, they prefer bourbon. In Puerto Rico, they add coconut juice/milk. Mexico intensified it with grain alcohol. And in Peru, they add a brandy called pisco.

    Eggnog dates back to Europe in the Middle Ages, and probably evolved from a drink called posset, which is hot milk that has been curdled with wine or ale, with spices added. The concoction was often used as a remedy for colds and flu, and sometime during its rise in popularity, eggs began to show up in posset recipes. The “nog” part of the name is likely derived from noggin, a term for a small, carved wooden cup that was used to serve alcoholic drinks of all stripes.

    In the 18th century, eggnog crossed the pond to the American colonies. Brandy and wine were heavily taxed, so America stuck out its collective tongue, and switched to Caribbean rum, which was far cheaper. In Britain, eggnog was a drink that was mainly consumed by aristocracy, but over here in America, its cost-effectiveness, plus easy access to cows (milk) and chickens (eggs) made it a popular drink for all classes. Rum became harder to obtain after the Revolutionary War, which is when domestic whiskey became the booze of choice to include. George Washington was a big fan of eggnog, and even devised his own extremely boozy recipe that utilized rye whiskey, rum, and sherry.

    Weirdly, eggnog doesn’t seem to have any official historical affiliation with Christmas. It’s served warm, and it’s mostly served in social settings, so it makes sense that it would insinuate itself into the winter holidays. But no holiday is required to enjoy a cup of nog, and never has been. In Baltimore, there was a tradition in which young men would visit all of their friends on January 1. At each of the homes, the visitor would be offered some eggnog, and got progressively drunker throughout the day. How awesome is that?!? We tend to think of the past as stodgy and prudish, but once you start digging into the history of popular foods and drinks, it becomes clear that people have been cutting loose since the very beginning.
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