Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Jell-O Pudding: "The funnest sacrifice"

I’m writing this post as quickly as I can because the clock is ticking. According to the ancient Mayans, the world is coming to an end. We’ve only got until 12-21-12, a few days from now.

Happily, there is something that just might save us from impending apocalypse. No, it’s not a heartfelt prayer and no, it’s not an arcane ritual. Quite on the contrary, it’s something you’re likely to have in your kitchen at this very moment.

Corn? Beans? Potatoes? No way. If you were a Mayan god—Quetzalcoatl, say, or Kukulkan —wouldn’t you be bored after untold centuries of agricultural offerings? How much succotash can a god eat, after all?

Now, you might be thinking that what the gods really want, what would really avert the doom that’s hanging over our heads, is some vital internal organ or other, or perhaps a liter or two of blood, or some other such result of human sacrifice, but once again, you’d be wrong.

Chocolate pudding. That’s what the gods want—at least according to the folks at Jell-O Pudding. Who ever gets tired of chocolate pudding? The new Jell-O commerical features a guy slogging his way through the jungle, wading across a river, and dragging a huge wooden crate up the side of a pyramid, all in order to present his offering to the gods in the hopes of averting global catastrophe.

“Call me loco,” he says, “but I think this is gonna work.”

Well, you can’t fault them for trying and those of you who like a bit of culinary history will be happy to learn that the Jell-O folks are in good company. In the late seventeenth century, a Frenchman by the name of Henri Misson visited England and, although he was far from ecstatic over the food he was served, you might be surprised by the one thing that he did wax poetic over: pudding.

Blessed be he that invented pudding, for it is a manna that hits the palates of all sorts of people; a manna, better than that of the wilderness, because the people are never weary of it. Ah, what an excellent thing is an English pudding! To come in pudding time is as much as to say come in the most lucky moment in the world!

One has to remember, though, that Misson was not referring to chocolate or butterscotch pudding, but to such traditional English fare as black pudding—rich with blood, fat, and spices, stuffed into lengths of intestine, and boiled in water. To be fair, he did also mention sweeter puddings of “flower, milk, eggs butter, sugar, suet, marrow, raisins”—which might put you in mind of Plum Pudding, found just about everywhere around Christmas Time, but still, even Plum Pudding is a far cry from the silky smooth chocolate puddings beloved by children and gods alike.

How such stodgy puddings were transformed into the creamy concoctions on offer at supermarkets today is a matter I considered in a post last year and if you’re interested in such transmogrifications, you can check it out here.

For now, I’ll simply note—ever aware that the clock is ticking and 12-21-12 is fast approaching—that if I were a Mayan god, I might indeed prefer chocolate pudding to Black Pudding (although there is that blood connection, so I might want to give the matter some more thought). But then again, if I were a Mayan god, I think I’d prefer something along the lines of a Mexican Chocolate Flan with Kahlua (there’s no beating Rick Bayless’s recipe from his Mexican Kitchen) to the instant puddings the Jell-O folks are hoping will keep the apocalypse at bay. 

Stay tuned. As the commercial voice-over says, “Fingers crossed, we’ll see you on the 22nd.”

Mexican Chocolate Flan with Kahlua
(adapted from Rick Bayless’s Mexican Kitchen)
(makes 6)

1 cup heavy cream
1 cup milk
4 ½ ounces chopped Mexican chocolate (Ibarra is the brand I use)
1 inch cinnamon stick
1/3 cup sugar
4 large eggs
1 tbsp Kahlua
½ tsp vanilla extract
½ tsp almond extract

Pour the cream and milk into a medium saucepan. Pulse the chocolate in a food processor until pulverized. Add to the milk & cream, along with the cinnamon and 1/3 cup sugar. Bring to a simmer over medium heat, stirring occasionally’ then cover, remove from the heat and let steep for 20 minutes.

Whisk the eggs, Kahlua, vanilla and almond extracts in a large mixing bowl until combined. Slowly whisk in the hot milk mixture; return to saucepan and stir until the mixture coats the back of the spoon. Pour through a fine-mesh strainer into a large measuring cup. Then pour into custard cups, cover with plastic wrap (to prevent a skin from forming), and chill until firm.

Monday, December 10, 2012

A Corona with lima? Or is that limón?

A guy walks into a bar and orders a Corona with lime. No problem. He’s gets his bottle, icy cold, with a wedge of lime stuck in the top. That would be the small green citrus fruit that goes by the name of lime. At least that’s the name it goes by here in the United States. That’s why we call the color “lime green.” Because around here, limes are green.

By the same token, in these parts, the larger yellow citrus fruit is a lemon. That’s why we call the color “lemon yellow.” Because to an English speaker, lemons are yellow.

But go south of the border and order what you think is the exact same drink in Spanish—“una Corona con lima”—and you’ll get your icy cold bottle of beer but now it’ll be adorned with a wedge of lemon.

In lots of Spanish speaking countries—in Mexico, Venezuela, El Salvador, and the Dominican Republic, for instance—the small green citrus fruit we call a lime is known as a limón, while the larger yellow one is a lima. Aunt Clara, of Aunt Clara’s Kitchen, a delicious blog of traditional Dominican recipes, tells me that in the Dominican Republic, lemons are sometimes even referred to as limónes amarillos, or “yellow limes.”

On the other hand, in Spain itself, the mother country as far as Spanish is concerned, limas are limes and limónes are lemons. And get this one: in Portugal, a limão is yellow and a lima is green, but in Brazilian Portuguese, it’s exactly the reverse.

Why all the citric confusion? What happened during the transatlantic crossing?

As with so many fruits, the confusion is the result of a lot of history, a lot of meandering, a lot of hybridization, and a bit of climatology as well. In the case of citrus fruits, the story begins in the part of Southeast Asia bordered by Northeastern India that’s the original home to both the lemon and the lime. Citrus trees hybridize easily, so it’s hard to know what was what, especially given the linguistic confusion involved back then. Ancient Indian medical treatises use the word jambiru (which you can still find in Ayurvedic sources), but it’s not clear whether lemons and limes were meant. The Hindi word nimbu is usually translated as lemon, although it might have referred to lime as well, and it appears to be the source of both words. How did nimbu become “lemon,” you might wonder? According to linguists, when the “n” in nimbu is “denasalized,” it sounds like an “l” (you can ask your linguist friends about this one), which is precisely what happened to transform the word into the Persian “limu” and the Arabic laymûn from which the European languages got their various citric vocabularies since there was no native Greek or Latin word for any citrus fruit. [Citrus itself, in case you’re wondering, comes from the Greek word for cedar, κεδρος kedros, perhaps because of a similarity in smell.] 

So was the fruit that grew back then in northern India and Southeast Asia yellow or was it green? It depended on the variety planted, natural hybridization, and even on the weather—as it still does. When winters are warm, citrus fruit remains green, but if the temperature drops, the fruit changes color as it matures.

When citrus reached the New World in 1493, certain varieties took better to subtropical regions where the cooler winters turned the fruit yellow, whereas in the hotter tropical regions, the fruit remained green. In both cases, the staple citrus was known as “limón.” “Lime,” for whatever reason, was reserved for the less important member of the family, whether that country cousin was yellow or green. The lime barely registers in cuisine north of the border, and the lemon rarely plays a starring role in Hispanic cookery.

Which is why when you ask for a Corona with lime in the US, you get a wedge of green fruit, but unless you like lemon in your beer, remember to order “una Corona con limón” when you’re south of the border. Or at least specify “lima verde.”

Friday, November 30, 2012

Which came first? The color or the fruit?


Once your friends know that you’re the sort of person who likes food words, they assume you’ve got an encyclopedic database in your brain that you can access at a moment’s notice. There you are, out for an evening with friends, when suddenly—wham!—the questions start coming. Do flour and flower have anything in common? Do turkeys come from Turkey? Do brussel sprouts really come from Brussels? Why’s it called “French toast”? Which came first, the color orange or the fruit orange?

So many people have asked me about that last one that I thought I’d set the record straight—at least, to the best of my ability.

In a word: the fruit.

For such an everyday fruit—as the commercial used to sing, “A day without orange juice is like a day without sunshine”—the orange had quite a history before it landed on English-speaking shores. It’s native to China where one of the earliest varieties eaten was the mandarin (which is, of course, also the name of the major language spoken in the country). From there it traveled to India where it acquired the original form of its modern name. In Sanskrit, the fruit was a nāranga, which, as centuries passed, was adapted by the Persians as nārang, the Greeks as narantsion, and by the Arabs as naranj. Moorish traders brought the fruit with them across northern Africa to Morocco with its port city of Tangier (think tangerine) and up to Spain where it became a naranja, just as it still is in today’s Spanish. While the Moors were introducing their Arabic-named fruit to Europe via Spain, though, Italy and France had acquired their names arancia and orange from the Latin aurantium (which seems to have added aurum, “gold,” to the Greek name) and it was from the French that English speakers received the name for their beloved yellow-red citrus fruit.

Phew. And Michael Pollan talks about the carbon footprint of today’s fruits and vegetables?

As for the fruit itself: in the 1190’s, Richard the Lionheart and his crusaders enjoyed eating oranges in Jaffa (think Jaffa oranges), but it was in 1289 that seven oranges, along with fifteen lemons, 230 pomegranates, and assorted dried fruits, were purchased from a Spanish ship for Queen Eleanor (wife of Edward I, affectionately known as Edward Longshanks)

So much for the fruit. More could be written of the different names given to the bitter (or Seville) orange and the sweet (or China) orange; and more could be written of the French town Orange (which originally had nothing whatsoever to do with the fruit but was later confused with it), but the color beckons . . .

There’s no written record of orange as the name of the color until 1512, when it was used in a will drafted in the court of King Henry VIII. (You have to wonder what the actual wording of the will was—“Item: one orange robe to my eldest daughter”?) Obviously, the color existed before someone thought to identify a robe (or whatever it was) as “orange.” Just think of the mnemonic for the colors in a rainbow, ROYGBIV, which stands for red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet. Rainbows existed before their colors had those names, so you have to wonder what someone would have called the color between the R and the Y had he or she lived in, say, the year 1000? 

 That’s easy.

Geolecrog, the Old English word for “yellow-red.” And yellow-red is what people used to call the color before “orange” appeared on the scene—sort of the way “blue-green” was how people described the color before the 19th-century English art critic John Ruskin had the good sense to call it “aquamarine” (“while the sun was up, the ever-answering glow of unearthly aquamarine . . . melted in the sun”) after the blue-green gem stone beryl. 
So there you have it. The fruit had already been an orange for about 250 years before someone had the bright idea to use its name for something, whatever that something was, that had the same reddish-yellow color. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Monday, November 5, 2012

"32 eggs, separated"; or, What Would We Do Without Baking Powder?

Thank god for KitchenAid mixers, I thought to myself as I read a wedding cake recipe in the early 19th-century Young Lady’s Companion. 4 pounds of flour (that’s somewhere between 12 and 16 cups to us Americans more used to cups than weights), 4 pounds of butter, and 2 pounds of sugar. But it’s the 32 eggs that got me. Imagine standing in the shoes of the hapless cook instructed to “work up the whites of your eggs to a very strong froth,” and “beat your yolks half an hour at least” before mixing them into the butter and sugar that you’ve already had to beat together “a quarter of an hour.” Visions of beefy forearms danced through my mind. As I said, thank god for KitchenAids. 

Or maybe the ones we should be thanking are the 19th century chemists who discovered the magic of chemical leavening, because without them, our cakes would still rise, but not nearly as quickly and certainly not as effortlessly as they do today. You would have had to leaven your cakes with yeast, but that would have taken a lot of time and have imparted a barminess, not wholly desirable. Or you would have beaten dozens upon dozens of egg whites into foamy submission, resulting in beautifully light and airy cakes, but also in those afore-mentioned beefy arms.

And then came baking powder—that indispensible household staple one reaches for today without thinking twice—and there was no looking back.

Of course people had known about soda for some time. “Soda” derives from sodium and it was sodium carbonate (for centuries, called “washing soda”) that Egyptians used to mummify their dead thousands of years ago. When sodium carbonate is combined with carbonic acid, sodium bicarbonate, or “baking soda,” is the result. And as anyone who’s ever added baking soda to vinegar knows, the combination of soda and acid is an explosive one; it’s that same explosivity—technically, the release of carbon dioxide—that causes your cake batters to rise. Baking powder, the next step in chemical leavening, added an acid (and some filler) right into the soda, so that bakers no longer had to worry whether the batter was acidic enough to activate the soda. The layers rose without fail every time.

Another reason baking powder might have become popular so quickly is the obvious, immediate, and alarming gassiness that results when soda is combined with vinegar. Isabella Beeton, for one, expressed concern in her 1859 Book of Household Management: “A small pinch of carbonate of soda will give an extraordinary lightness to puff pastes . . . but its qualities have a powerful effect upon delicate constitutions, and it is not to be used incautiously in any preparation.”

Isn’t it lovely to learn that the first modern baking powder entered the world not out of any commercial zeal but out of a husband’s desire to please the “delicate constitution” of his highly allergic wife? Alfred Bird—yes, as in Bird’s Custard—loved his wife Elizabeth so much that he drew upon his chemical and pharmaceutical training to devise a way to leaven bread without yeast which she was unable to tolerate. She was similarly allergic to eggs, by the way, which is also why he concocted the corn-starch-thickened custard for which he is remembered today. Talk about true love. 

It didn’t take long for cookbooks to reflect the new discovery. Beeton’s “Nice Useful Cake,” for instance, calls for “2 teaspoonfuls of baking-powder” to leaven its batter. Granted, her cake is a much smaller affair than 32-egg wedding cake of earlier in the century, but if we apply the proportions of the earlier recipe to the later one, we’d still need eight eggs to lighten our batter. With a couple of teaspoons of baking powder, we’re down to a mere three, and even those, need be only briefly whisked, rather than separated and laboriously whipped.

So, take your pick. Is it KitchenAid standing mixers you want to thank for sparing you the beefy forearms of yore, or is it the unsung heroes of the chemistry lab?

Monday, October 15, 2012

"The kingdom of heaven is like yeast"?


Is it just me or does it seem that fermentation is getting an awful lot of press lately? All of a sudden there are a whole lot of books on the subject of home fermenting and just this morning I sat down with the paper only to find a big article on the health benefits of bacteria, probiotics, and such fermented foods as yogurt (remember that post I wrote some months back?, apparently I was ahead of the game), sauerkraut, Korean kimchi, and stinky French cheese. You don’t have to convince me. If there’s one food group I love, it’s the fermented one. Apparently I’m not alone.

But how many of you know what fermentation actually is?

Here’s the biochemical definition: “a metabolic process whereby electrons released from nutrients are ultimately transferred to molecules obtained from the breakdown of those same nutrients.”

Still not too clear? Try the culinary definition. “The process of converting sugar to carbon dioxide and alcohol with yeast.” Fermentation, in other words, is when yeast digests sugar, giving off carbon dioxide and alcohol as waste products. Fermentation is why bread dough rises and grape juice turns into wine, not to mention why about a billion other everyday delicious culinary reactions take place.

Fermentation doesn’t sound nearly as appetizing, though, when it’s described as the process of allowing “certain microbes to degrade the original food, but not beyond the point of edibility.” These are the words of Harold McGee whose On Food and Cooking is a bible to lovers of kitchen chemistry Fermentation, he neatly concludes, “is essentially a process of limited, controlled spoilage.” Gee whiz. How good does that sound? Cheese as no more than spoiled milk and kimchi as nothing but rotten cabbage.

From my perspective as equal part foodie and academic (this blog isn’t called Academy of Food for nothing), I find the whole question of whether fermented foods are delicious or rancid very interesting. Flip back more than 2,000 years and you find that Jesus couldn’t make up his mind on the matter either. On the one hand, he likened the kingdom of heaven to yeast: “the kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed in with three measures of flour until all of it was leavened” (Matthew 13:33). Truly yeast can be treasured as a pearl of great price. 

But in another passage, Jesus wasn’t so fond of the eukaryotic microorganism, as the chemists like to refer to it: “Beware the yeast of the Pharisees,” he warned, which was his way of calling them a bunch of gasbags not to be trusted. God, by the way, didn’t much care for leavening either and prohibited his people from offering it to him: “No grain offering that you bring to the Lord shall be made with leaven” (Leviticus 2:11).

So which is it? Airy, spiritual and able to lift your spirits (or at least your dough) or gassy, bloated, and hypocritical?

Or, to lurch back into the present world, when does a deliciously fermented cheese become a rancid glob stinking of ammonia and old gym socks?

When, one might wonder, does eating probiotics make one need to resort to antibiotics?

Friday, September 28, 2012

You can tell Coke from Pepsi, but can you tell what's in it?


How good are you at guessing ingredients? Can you tell what’s flavoring your soup or what gave that spice rub its zing?

If you’re like most people, you’re pretty confident you can identify flavors in your food and drink. So, you tell me: what gives the most popular soft drink the world has ever known its distinctive taste?

I’m referring, of course, to Coke—Coca-Cola, to use its official name. Almost everyone claims to be able to tell Coke from Pepsi, but can you isolate just what it is that gives it that unique flavor? Despite the fact that, according to recent statistics, somewhere on the order of 13,000 eight-ounce servings are consumed every second of every day—that translates to approximately 1.2 billion servings each day—I bet that very few of you can tell me what’s in the stuff.

Most people know that the “Coca” in its name comes from the South American coca plant, the same plant that, with the help of a series of complicated chemical processes, gives us cocaine. They’re right, but that tidbit doesn’t help you answer my question about today’s soda. 

Yes, it was the leaves of the coca plant that the Atlanta pharmacist Dr. John Pemberton used when he concocted the earliest version of the drink back in the 1880’s, known then as Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. He was trying to cash in on some of the success of the popular drink of the day: Vin Mariani, a French medicinal tonic made from Bordeaux wine treated with coca leaves and enjoyed by the likes of Queen Victoria, Thomas Edison, Ulysses S. Grant, and Popes Leo XIII and Pius X. Both Vin Mariani and Pemberton’s French Wine Coca claimed to cure almost anything that ailed you, from constipation to neurasthenia, exhaustion to impotence. And maybe they did. The other ingredients Pemberton incorporated into his French Wine Coca were the caffeine-containing kola nut from the rainforests of Africa and the damiana shrub native to Texas and Mexico where the leaves had long been steeped and drunk as an aphrodisiac. So maybe between the coca, the kola, and the damiana, that French Wine Coca really could cure what ailed you—or at least wake you up and get you feeling in the mood.

 But how did Pemberton’s wine turn into our soda?

When Atlanta County prohibited alcohol in 1885, Dr. Pemberton remained undaunted and cleverly replaced the wine in his French Wine Coca with carbonated water (then called soda water) and sugar syrup. He must have known that you’re unlikely to lose money if you appeal to our nation’s sweet tooth.

So, are you any closer to identifying the flavors in today’s Coke? I don’t think so. Yes, it’s still sweet and carbonated and yes, it’s still flavored with coca leaves (entirely cocaine-free) and still get its caffeine from kola nuts (I don’t know whether the formula still includes damiana). But the rest?


For the longest time the formula was as strictly guarded as the gold at Fort Knox or Colonel Sanders’ “original recipe” of 11 herbs and spices. The original copy was kept in a vault in an Atlanta bank for 86 years until it was transferred to a new vault which is currently on display at the Coca-Cola museum in downtown Atlanta. Legend holds that only two executives know the formula at any one time, each one knowing only half.

In reality, the formula was discovered in 1979 and published in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

1 oz caffeine citrate
3 oz citric acid
1 oz vanilla extract
1 quart lime juice
2.5 oz “flavoring” (Merchandise 7X) (See below)
30 lb sugar
4 oz fluid extract of coca leaves
2.5 gallons water
caramel sufficient to give color

“Flavoring (Merchandise 7X)”: (Note that quantities weren’t specified)
1 quart alcohol
80 oil orange
40 oil cinnamon
120 oil lemon
20 oil coriander
40 oil nutmeg
40 oil neroli

With only a few changes, this is still more or less the recipe for Coke. So, now you know what you’re tasting when you drink your share of the 1.2 billion servings of Coke downed every day. Vanilla, cinnamon, citrus, spices, and a whole lot of sugar—or, since 1985, high fructose corn syrup.


Friday, September 14, 2012

Apples, Honey, and Beets?

In my experience, people either love beets or they hate them. Is anyone indifferent to them? Some people just can’t get past their color. Who wants to cook something that dyes your hands that particular shade of lurid magenta? And then there’s the matter of their velvety unctuousness (shared, when you think about it, by another food even more capable of triggering spasms of primal disgust: black pudding, aka blood sausage).

I’m one of the people who love beets but I have to admit that my love wasn’t of the love-at-first-sight variety. No, it was acquired over the years and I’m sorry to say that it wasn’t the recipes I grew up with that converted me. Back then, beets meant one thing. Well, maybe two. Borscht—whether hot and meaty or cold and served with sour cream—and pickled beets. Neither, I’m sorry to say, was I ever happy to see on the dinner table.

It was when I grew up and started eating out on my own that I discovered beet salad. All of a sudden it seemed every restaurant I went to had an arugula or watercress, roasted beet, and goat cheese salad on the menu. At last one night I succumbed. I ordered the salad featuring my old nemesis, the beet, cubed up and decked out in a lemony, vinagery, or mustardy dressing. Nothing had prepared me for the magic that results when the velvety suaveness of the beet is accompanied by the bracing tartness of lemon or vinegar, the tanginess of the goat cheese, all served atop a bed of peppery greens. (In truth, the cold borschts and pickled beets of my childhood should have prepared me—after all they’ve got more than their fair share of lemon juice and vinegar—but somehow I was either too young or too rebellious to appreciate that maybe my mother and grandmother knew a thing or two that I didn’t.)

So now to my point.

Sunday, as many of you know, marks the beginning of the Jewish New Year and, as many of you also know, the holiday is celebrated with sweet foods to symbolize a sweet new year. Apples and honey feature large. But, if you’ve read other posts of mine—like the one I wrote last Rosh Hashanah on honey, for instance—you’ll know that I’m no big fan of sweet, so providing a traditional Rosh Hashanah dinner has always presented a challenge to me.

This year, though, I came across something that stopped me in my tracks. Am I the only one who didn’t know that beets are just as traditional to eat on Rosh Hashanah as honey? When I read that according to a Talmudic rabbi, “at the beginning of each year, each person should accustom himself to eat gourds, fenugreek, leeks, beets, and dates,” I felt vindicated. Gourds, fenugreek, leeks, and beets are all fine by me (dates not so much). And since I already had a big bunch of beets in the vegetable drawer of the fridge, I was all set.

Before I started cooking, though, I started wondering why the rabbi had listed those particular foods. Fenugreek? When was the last time you felt like celebrating with fenugreek? Turns out that the Hebrew name for fenugreek is rubia which sounds a lot like yirbu (at least according to the rabbi) which means “increase” which is what one prays for at the start of the year: more. More merits. More children. More money. By the same logic, beets, which in Hebrew are silka, reminded the rabbi of siluk, which means “removal,” as in the removal of our enemies. Hmmm. So, if I eat beets, I’m praying for the removal of my enemies?

Even without the tenuous connection between its Hebrew name and the demise of my enemies, I’d still rather serve beets than honey and this year, I’ll thus be honoring both my taste buds and tradition by serving up a beet salad, a lovely Moroccan one I came across in the New York Times some years ago in an article by the wonderful cookbook writer Joan Nathan. Lemony, garlicky, and cuminy, it’s the perfect side dish for those of you who want something traditional that’s also got a whole lot of flavor other than simply sweet.

Joan Nathan’s Moroccan Beet Salad
6-8 medium beets
Juice of 1 lemon (or more)
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp cumin (or more)
Salt and pepper
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
½ cup diced fresh parsley
Simmer the beets in water until fork tender, about 45 minutes. Cool, peel, and cut into bite-sized pieces. Place in a serving bowl.
Stir together the lemon juice, garlic, cumin, and salt and pepper in a small bowl. Whisk in the olive oil & taste for seasoning. Toss with the beets and let sit for a few hours. Just before serving, sprinkle with parsley.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The American Cheese Society?

You have to pity the poor American Cheese Society. You also have to wonder about Dr. Frank Kosikowski, the Cornell University professor who founded the society back in 1983. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got nothing against a society dedicated to supporting “the understanding, appreciation, and promotion of farmstead, artisan, and specialty cheeses produced in the Americas.”

But couldn’t Kosikowski have come up with a better name? The American Cheese Society?

Ask your average American what American cheese is. Ten to one it won’t be the stuff the ACS has in mind—cheeses like Capriole Farmstead’s Julianna, a raw goat milk cheese sprinkled with Herbes de Provence or Cowgirl Creamery’s organic triple-cream Mt Tam.

No. Ask your average American and you’ll get one answer. Kraft Singles. OK. Maybe there’s a second answer. Land O’ Lakes American cheese, sliced at the deli counter. Keep pressing the point and you might even get a third: the spreadable stuff in jars (think Cheez Whiz) or the spray stuff in cans (think Easy Cheese).

Ask the U.S. Code of Federal Regulations what American cheese is and you’ll get a more precise but similarly unartisanal answer: “a type of pasteurized processed cheese.”

More specifically still, according to Article 133, Section 169, paragraph (e)(2)(ii) of the Code, “when cheddar cheese, washed curd cheese, Colby cheese, granular cheese, or any mixture of two or more of these is combined with other varieties of cheese in the cheese ingredient, any of such cheeses or such mixture may be designated as ‘American cheese.’” Somehow I doubt whether American cheese—understood in its legal sense—would satisfy the ACS’s dream of “add[ing] diversity to the nation’s diet and preserv[ing] long-standing methods and traditions.” Diversity? You can buy the same packaged slices from New York to California. Long-standing methods and traditions? Only if your idea of long-standing traditions goes no farther back than 1916, when James L. Kraft patented his new method of processing leftover bits of Colby and Cheddar. (By way of comparison, think of this: cheddar cheese has been made since at least the 12th century).

Well, it may not win any awards from the ACS, but American cheese represents half of all the cheese eaten in the United States. In his wildest dreams even Kraft himself couldn’t have imagined what would become of his frugal attempt to reduce waste by shredding refuse cheddar cheese, re-pasteurizing and emulsifying it into “a homogeneous plastic mass” that melts smoothly without separating into ooze and oil, making it the perfect cheese for the millions (billions?) of grilled cheese sandwiches and cheeseburgers Americans eat every year. 

But did you know that American cheese isn’t food at all? Not, at least, according to the US Code of Federal Regulations. “Pasteurized process cheese food” refers, not to American cheese, but to a product that, by definition, must consist of at least 51% cheese ingredients (the other 49% consisting of flavorings and additives such as acidity regulators, preservatives, emulsifiers, vitamins and food colorings), a moisture content of less than 44%, and have at least 23% milkfat. And then there’s something called “Pasteurized process cheese spread” which is similar to “pasteurized process cheese food” but has to have a greater moisture content so it can remain spreadable at 70°F. Finally there’s what’s known as “Pasteurized process cheese product” for which no standard of identity has yet been codified—which means that anything can call itself a cheese product and get away with it. 

Calling “cheese food” “cheese” can get you in serious trouble. So can calling a “pasteurized process cheese product” “cheese food,” as Kraft Foods discovered in 2002 when they received a letter from the Department of Health and Human Services telling them that their Kraft Singles American Pasteurized Process Cheese Food “are misbranded . . . in that they purport to be or are represented as a food.”

You gotta love it. The cheese eaten by more Americans than any other is only purporting to be food.

Look closely at the packaging next time you’re at the supermarket. Before 2002, what you would have put in your grilled cheese sandwich was sold under the name “American Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Food.” After 2002, though, in response to the Department of Health and Human Services’ letter, “food” was dropped from the label. Today what you give your kids for lunch isn’t “food” at all, but “product”: “American Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product.”

I ask once again: what was Professor Kosikowski thinking of?

Friday, August 17, 2012

On Madde Apples & Swans Egges

Two proverbs for today. The first is attributed to Winston Churchill. “England and America are two countries separated by a common language." 

The second is a traditional Arabic proverb: “A woman who does not know how to prepare eggplant 101 different ways is not yet prepared for marriage.”

Put them together and what do you have? English and American brides-to-be who can’t even decide what to call the vegetable, much less come up with 101 ways to cook it.

Is it an eggplant, as we North Americans like to call it, or an aubergine, as those other English speakers refer to it?

Let’s start with eggplant, since I’m on this side of the Atlantic. It’s a curious name, especially if your default is the large purple variety rather than the smaller white one described in a sixteenth-century Herball, or General Historie of Plants as having “the bignesse of a Swans egge” and which obviously gave the entire species the name we know it by today here in North America.

On the other side of the Atlantic, though, they’re aubergines, which to many Americans might sound more like a shade of nail polish or lipstick than it does something to be cooked for dinner, but the British have long had a penchant for referring to their vegetables by French names. What we call zucchini, they call courgette. Our snow pea is their mangetout. What we know as arugula, they know as rocket, often spelled roquette. (For more on American vs. British vegetable names—not to mention many other instance of our separation by a common language—check out the wonderful blog called, aptly enough, separated by a common language.)

For reasons unknown, North Americans never cozied up to aubergine and I, for one, am glad. I like that the vegetable I cook so often for dinner should have such a funny made-up name, dating only to the 18th century, when someone had the bright idea to put two everyday words together to describe the small white variety. That someone was not, as might be expected, an American, but the English John Abercrombie, author of the 1767 Every Man His Own Gardener. For some reason, however, his neologism took root in the United States rather than in his native country.

I will admit, though, that aubergine wins out in the history-and-circuitous-meanderings-through-ancient-lands-and-languages department. In Sanskrit, it was a vatinganah (which meant, rather unappetizingly, “anti-wind vegetable”), later naturalized by the Persian Empire as badingan. When the Persians conquered Arabia, they brought their badingans with them, where they acquired the Arabic definite article al and were henceforth known as al-badhinjan. When the Arabs, in turn, invaded the Iberian peninsula, their eggplants were soon mispronounced by the Spaniards as berengena. Up in the northern region of Catalonia, the dialect name was an alberginia, which the neighboring French transformed into aubergine, and it is from them that the British appropriated their name for the vegetable.

When it wasn’t being compared to a swan egg, the eggplant was sometimes called a “a Madde or Raging Apple”—probably because it belongs to the deadly nightshade family, which also includes the tomato and potato, by the way. Folk wisdom held that the eggplant would make the eater go mad; hence, “madde apple.” It’s even possible, though not all linguists agree on this, that the Italian name for the vegetable, melanzana, derives from the Latin words mala and insana, in which case, translated literally from the Italian, an eggplant would be an “apple of insanity.”

Here in the United States, however, eggplants have no such psychiatric history but have been plain Jane eggplants, at least since Thomas Jefferson, not only our third president but also a passionate gardener, bemoaned that “I lost by the drought my egg plants” in his 1807 Garden Book and Mary Randolph provided the very first all-American recipes for them in her 1824 The Virginia Housewife, titled, quite simply, “Egg Plant.”

Now for 101 ways to cook it, whether you call it eggplant or aubergine. There’s grilled eggplant slices and baba ghanoush. There’s moussaka and my favorite Szechuan eggplant, spicy with chili paste and garlic (recipe below). There’s caponata, the Sicilian sweet and sour spread of eggplant, tomatoes, olives, and capers, and there’s late-summer Provençale ratatouille. There’s eggplant cooked with a Bengali mixture of cumin, fennel, nigella, fenugreek and black mustard seeds, and there’s the dish that used to be called “Vegetarian Chopped Liver,” a paste of eggplant, onions, and hardboiled eggs. Of course there’s no end of ways to stuff an eggplant and there’s the ubiquitous eggplant parmesan, but, truth be told, if I were an eggplant, being breaded, fried, slathered in tomato sauce, and covered with cheese would be my idea of a fate worse than rotting on the vine.

Even including eggplant parmesan, though, one thing is very clear. When it comes to eggplant cookery, there’s not a single young Arab bride-to-be who couldn’t outleague me in a heartbeat. And there’s something else that’s equally clear. She’d know what to call it.

Spicy Szechuan Eggplant 

Peanut oil, enough to coat the wok or pan
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
2” piece fresh ginger, minced
3 scallions, thinly sliced
Eggplant, either 1 large one or several long slender ones (the Chinese or Japanese varieties are best in this dish), cubed, but not peeled
2 tbsp soy sauce
Chili sauce to taste (start with 1 tsp and build up)
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp Chinese black vinegar (or red wine vinegar)
1 tsp sesame oil
Cilantro, chopped but not too finely

Heat enough oil to coat the bottom of a wok or large sauté pan & briefly stir-fry the garlic, ginger, and scallions just until fragrant. Add the eggplant cubes and stir to coat. Add the soy sauce, chili sauce, sugar, and vinegar & stir to coat. Let cook for 15-20 minutes, stirring frequently, until the eggplant is soft, brown, but not too sludgy. Add the sesame oil and cilantro and stir to coat. Serve hot with rice. This is even better cold the next day, with an extra splash of soy sauce and sesame oil.