Breeding for convenience

When we changed from being strictly hunter/gatherers to becoming farmers, we decided that the natural world was not enough to support our needs, and we decided to focusing on making food more convenient for us. At first, it was probably mostly being more conveniently located, and ensuring that those items in the convenient location have the best chance for survival and growth. As time went on, though, we gained the skills and knowledge to modify what we grew to have different traits. Some of this was from selecting the seeds of various plants that we liked the best, and continuing to select seeds from later generations that more accurately matched our desires. In other cases, we would take a natural process of cross breeding, as happens with grasses, and diversify grains into things like corn and wheat. Both useful, both grasses, both very different.

When the advent of high-speed trucking, shipping, and freight-hauling hit its peak, food growers realized that they could expand their market by selecting some traits, such as ability to withstand damage, over others, such as flavor. The big example in this case is the tomato, which went from a delicious fruit/vegetable thing to becoming a tasteless bit of watery ornamentation that goes on top of a sandwich. When convenience is chosen over flavor, the food suffers.

This is not to say that convenience and flavor are mutually exclusive, or that with enough work, we can't create a series of tomatoes that can survive shipping *and* have all sorts of different, and good, flavors. However, each additional variable adds a lot of extra complexity, and it becomes less profitable to bundle it all into one. This is why year-long, grocery store tomatoes are not likely to be as good as locally-grown, farm fresh tomatoes without being much more expensive. Worse, that's likely to remain the case for many, many years, if it ever changes at all.

I also think of this whenever I eat a fresh concord grape. They are packed with all the flavor in the world, but their seeds and skin leave a little to be desired. Seedless grapes, on the other hand, are really easy to eat, but have a flavor best described as, "insipid".

So be cautious of the compromise you make when choosing your food. Putting forth a little extra effort, or waiting until the right time, will almost always give you significantly better flavor than choosing the convenience route. Which is not to say that you can never choose convenience, just know what you are giving up.

Dealing with living food

One of the interesting things about vegetables and fruits is that they're still alive when you're storing them. In fact, unless you cook them, they're still alive when you eat them. Raw food vegans had better be quite comfortable with their life choices knowing the sheer number of living beings that they consume just to live. I'm not judging, I merely mention because it's just occurred to me. The problem with the plants being alive is that they continue doing whatever it is that they would normally do under the circumstances. In some cases this means turning sugars into starches, in others starches to sugars. Colors may fade, cells might degrade. Life goes on. In some cases, life going on is great. Bananas, for example. Bananas are all well and good as a fresh fruit, but while they're green, they're tasteless, and only as the continue to age do they turn starches into sugars. Take it too far, and they become brown and generally unappealing. Of course, in the specific they become better, because brown and mushy bananas are perfect for banana bread. So it's great for the whole living thing to keep going on. Sometimes you'll slow down the living processes by reducing the molecular activity by slowing down all of the molecules. Though this sounds complex, I'm really just talking about putting something in the refrigerator or freezer. After all, temperature is just the average speed of molecules in any given substance, so to slow down chemical processes, you make it colder. Freezing is much more effective at slowing the processes than cooling, but that doesn't make it a good idea in all cases. After all, freezing will create ice crystals in the cells, and as they expend, it will rip through the membranes and cell walls of your plant, which will cause the cells to leak upon thawing. This is fine in some cases, but not in others, so use caution with the freezing. A general rule is that if you don't see it in the freezer aisle, it probably doesn't freeze well. Another useful rule is for whether to refrigerate a fruit or vegetable. The the plant in question lives in through cold weather, it's fine with the cold. If it's a tropical plant, it would be happier on the counter. Because the plants are still alive, if they hit some weather that they're not ready to deal with, then they don't know what to do and the chemical factories that keep them going will often fail. There are times when you really want to stop whatever's going on within the plant, and that usually means halting enzymatic actions. Enzymes are proteins that facilitate chemical reactions, and are one of the lower-level functions of a living system. If you can stop the enzymes from doing their thing, then you can stop the aging process. They way to do that is with heat. Of course, heating food is one way to cook it, and there are all sorts of other chemical processes that go on when you cook food. You might just want to stop the enzymatic stuff without seriously damaging the fresh taste or texture of a food. At this point, you're looking at a blanch. Blanching is cooking something for a brief amount of time and then halting the cooking process quickly. Traditionally, this is done by briefly putting it into boiling water, then transferring the food to cold water. If you're French, it would be ice water, but room temperature water will do just about as well. After all, we only need to change the temperature quickly, we don't need to freeze the food, and water's heat transfer ability will work nearly as well at room temperature as it will at the freezing point. If you're cooking a green vegetable, you may also take advantage of the blanching process to reduce the acidity a bit with some baking soda into the boiling water. This brightens up your greens. If it's a purplish vegetable, you would very much not want to do this, unless you want your vegetable to turn bright green. You could enhance the reddish-purple color by adding some acid, however. Another trick blanching is good for is allowing you to use certain tropical fruits in gelatin dishes. Papaya, mango, and pineapple all have enzymes that break down certain connective tissues in meat. Because gelatin is based on a connective tissue, collagen, the enzymes in those fruits will break down the gelatin, thus taking what should be a nice mould and turning it into a sweet, sticky puddle with some fruit at the bottom. As we know that blanching will stop enzymatic processes, though, we know that we could blanch the fruits before putting them into the gelatin, and we should have no troubles with the enzymatic baddies ruining the dessert treat.

Italian Soffrito

A couple of days ago, I received a shipment of 6 liters of the greenest extra virgin olive oil* that you have ever seen. It was from Toscana Saporita, the cooking school my wife and I attended in Italy on our honeymoon. The cooking school is held on a working olive orchard, and the primary output of the estate is olive oil. So people who attend the school get a chance every year to order oil, which we did. The arrival of the oil reminded me of one of the big lessons of the school: the soffrito. Soffrito is a terribly misunderstood technique, primarily because people don't realize that it is a technique. Raised on cooking television where the mire poix and trinity are common, people figure that the soffrito is the Italian word for mire poix, and so the assumption is that the soffrito is carrots and onion and celery, or perhaps only two of those. In reality, soffrito means "softly fried", and it's actually the Italian version of "sweating", or cooking aromatic vegetables at a low temperature. It's used in the same way mire poix is, by being a flavorful base to just about anything savory. The difference between mire poix and soffrito is that it doesn't really matter which aromatic vegetables you use in a soffrito. If you are missing carrots that day, don't fret. Use some more celery! If you have peppers, throw those in. The proportions are not key, the specifics are up to what you have handy when you're cooking. It's Italian: relax. The technique is basically the same, though. Dice the aromatics into roughly equal-sized pieces, add some salt, andcook over medium-low heat in oil (or butter; whatever) until the vegetables show signs of being cooked. The signs include some increased transparency, being soft, deepening of color, depending on the vegetable. There ya go. If you're making a soup, throw this together at the beginning for better flavor. If you're making a braise, throw this together for better flavor. Stews, casseroles, sauces, etc etc. Go for it. Don't fret about the specifics, just make sure you have some sort of base, and your food and diners will thank you for it. *- or, as the Italians call it, "oil."

Fractal Foods

Fractals are constructs that, when you look closely at them, contain tiny copies of themselves. There are fractals all over nature, and there was a period in the early nineties, around the time of the first Jurassic Park, that fractals and chaos theory were intensely popular. The most popular mathematical fractal, the Mandelbrot set, was featured on t-shirts and posters everywhere, and how quickly your computer could generate one was the Big Nerd equivalent of how quickly your car could go from 0 to 60 MPH.* Note that the audio to the video contains not only a naughty word or two, but extreme geekery in the form of a Jonathan Coulton song. In the world of living creatures, fractals aren't quite as popular. If you met a bear that was a fractal bear, he'd probably look like this:
mandelbear.jpg
and that'd just be weird, right? Vegetables are a little different though; at least a few of them are. People talk about onions having layers like that's something interesting, but the broccoli relatives are the ones that you want to watch out for. If you've ever cut up a broccoli or cauliflower, you've probably noticed that the little stalks are much like the larger bits, at least up until a point. The best representation of a fractal that I've seen in nature is broccoli's cousin, the romanesco. The first time you see one, you tend to think "pointy broccoli." That's because it looks like:
plants_7_bg_082104.jpg
Image courtesy of PD Photo.org under a Creative Commons Public Domain license. which, as you can clearly see, is a pointy broccoli, or something that looks suspiciously like a pointy broccoli. *- The "Magic Eye" or random dot 3D autostereograms were also very popular at that time.** **- Ooh, and fiber optic artwork. People loved that stuff.

Seasonal Ingredient Map

SeasonalProduceMap.png

Seasonal Ingredient Map: "Epicurious has created a handy, interactive map of seasonal produce by state. Select a month, hover over a state, and a list of in-season ingredients is displayed with links to the ingredient descriptions and recipes....

I was looking for one of these a couple of years ago, and this one seems pretty good. It does a little grouping, I've noticed: when it says that this month is good for spinach in Virginia, it really means leafy greens in general (we get quite a bit of kale, mustard greens, and the like as well). With that minor quibble, it's a lovely tool. I am actively working to become in tune with seasonality, and we are attempting the noble goal of eating a family's share of CSA vegetables between the two of us (and whichever guests we happen to have over). While this tool won't change much by way of what we do, it will be nice to know what to expect when, and hopefully reinforce the memories of which point of the season we get which fruits and vegetables.

(Via Required Eating.)