IFT Awesomeness

[by Naveen]

I still have yet to absorb all that happened over the past week, which featured the IFT conference in Chicago. Below is a sampling in alphabetical order.

ADM: Probably not approved by Michael Pollan: corn syrup, soy protein isolate, high fructose corn syrup, sugar, digestion resistant maltodextrin, natural and artificial flavors and colors = a good source of fiber and protein.

Barry Callebaut: Initially I just knew about Fine+Raw Chocolate in New York, but now major companies are looking for ways to retain more nutrients during the chocolate-making process. I wish I took more chemistry as an undergrad.

Bascom Family Farms: Maple syrup is far more interesting than I previously thought. I found a booth than showed aerated maple syrup that had the consistency of butter. They also found a way to concentrate the flavor of maple syrup, without increasing the sugar content, and created various types of maple vinegars.

Chickpea smoothie: There were a lot of smoothie samples, but using chickpea as a base was really unique. By combining with various fruit and vegetable purees, it takes this legume far beyond the realm of hummus.

Consumers: I have a new-found sympathy for people in the food industry. They have a nearly impossible task to satisfy frequently paradoxical consumer demands. It would better if everyone cooked for themselves with raw ingredients, but until we reach that Alice Waters utopia, they will be a fixture of the American food landscape.

Fiber: One of the most interesting talks I attended was about fiber, a topic that I had previously given little thought. Unlike other nutrients, its nearly impossible to find a recommended daily value. Eskimos and some people on liquid diets can survive on none, while vegetarians can get over 70 g/day. The distinction between "soluble" and "insoluble" is not really relevant and is a gross over-simplification for the vast diversity of polysaccharides that people consume.

Free samples: Although I appreciated all the free samples, only some of them were actually informative. Side by side comparisons are good. Free, calorie-reduced, nutrient-enhanced bakery goods are nice, but need context. Color and flavor demos could have been far more interesting by defying the conventional combinations. Giant machines extruding play-dough at the Process Expo are fun to watch.

Good Cacao: I would be happy to be a taster during their recipe development.

Green Zebra: I highly recommend the tasting menu. Someday I'd love to try out the more ambitious (and far more expensive) tasting menus at L2O, Moto, or Alinea.

Inception: Go see it, even if it's not the IMAX screen at Navy Pier.

Innovative Foods, Inc.: I only discovered this booth on the last day, but it did strike me as one of the most innovative. The exhibitor/inventor, Edward Hirshberg, was demonstrating his idea for "pre-cycling." Essentially, by using vegetable by-products and lesser known ingredients (e.g. pulp, stems, assorted legumes), he made energy bars unlike any I've tasted before.

Kraft: They didn't have a booth; they had a restaurant.

Micro-encapsulation: Another hot trend in food science makes me glad to be in Prof. Weitz's lab.

Origami Wraps: This simple idea opens up a world of culinary possibilities. Instead of tortillas or other flour-based wrappers, use a sheet of fruit or vegetable puree: hors d'oeurves, pastry and desserts, glazes, rolls…

Probiotics: Your food will soon take on a life of its own. Scientists are just beginning to understand the complex interactions between your intestinal microbiome and your immune system.

Roquette: I spent over an hour at their booth, chatting with the chocolatier they hired about the challenges of working with sugar-free chocolate, as well as the chocolate-making process in general.

Sensory and consumer preferences: This strikes me as an area of food science ripe for an infusion of Bayesian analysis. I went to their reception on Monday and would be happy to spend more time with this sub-discipline of the food world.

Stevia: you'll be seeing a lot more of this soon, thanks to recent government approval.

Symrise: I was initially drawn by their Happy Hour, but I became fascinated by the flavor development process. I did some side-by-side trials of MSG replacers and soy powder flavor disguisers, then went upstairs (yes, it was a two-story exhibit), to talk with one of their researchers, while sampling flavored potato chips and almonds. It takes eight years of apprenticeship to become a flavor chemist, along with a good dose of natural talent.

That's just a small sample: practically every conversation or exhibit booth triggered some new idea for a blog post, recipe, research project, or career path. There's far more that happens behind the scenes in our food supply than I could have imagined.


Jump Monk

[by Mike]

Last week I had the fortune of traveling to Chamonix, a picturesque little town nestled underneath Mont Blanc in the French Alps, for a statistics conference. The views were amazing, but the food wasn't particularly intriguing. I guess a region known for fondue doesn't offer much for the lactose intolerant.

You do have to respect, however, a town with multiple charcuterie and cheese shops. While browsing one of the better stocked stores, I was amazed to find bottles of Chartreuse, both green and yellow, resting in the rafters above the cash register. Over the course of the week I went back twice, each time leaving with a new product from the Carthusian Monks.

I'm always impressed when I spot a nip of high quality liquor, but this gift set was a revelation. It was worth the bottle of V.E.P yellow alone, a product which I have yet to find anywhere on either side of the Atlantic. The 9th Centenary Liqueur commemorates 900 years of the Carthusian monastery, but isn't much more than a slightly sweeter take on the usual green formulation.

G enepi is everywhere in the Alps. Back in the day montaineers would gather flowers from the slopes and then macerate them in liquor to produce a sweet, herbal, and slightly bitter liqueur. Just about every store sells their own formulation and every restaurant features it on their menu. The Chartreuse offering was actually a bit disappointing; I preferred the versions offered in the local restaurants. Their stronger bitter swallow reminded me of a harmonious combination of yellow Chartreuse and a good amaro.

The bottle that started the string of purchases, however, was the Meilleurs Ouvriers de France Sommeliers, or MOFS, special edition Chartreuse. Confused by the unfamiliar label, I spent the following evening googling around for more information. Information was sparse, especially when limited to mostly French websites and Google Translate, but what I could find was sufficiently intriguing to warrant a purchase.

Once back in the States, the first tastes did not disappoint. Somewhere between yellow and green Chartreuse, in color, flavor, and proof, the MOFS Chartreuse features a rich herbal flavor with an unctuous texture and just enough sweetness to round everything out. While yellow, and sometimes green, work wonderfully in cocktails, the MOFS is something to be sipped, slightly chilled, in the middle of the summer. A porch wouldn't be inappropriate.

Even though I've never been impressed with milk chocolate, I couldn't resist one last Chartreuse purchase.

I need to get to more conferences.


Start Me Up

[by Mike]

We've discussed the very beginnings of a bar before, but a few weeks ago I had a chance to put some of these ideas into practice.

I was in Los Angeles for a conference, and had the opportunity to crash with some friends from undergrad. One of these friends has long been intrigued by cocktails ever since he, John, and I nearly had Craigie to ourselves for a night thanks to a few feet of freshly fallen snow, but never found the time to start his own bar. It would have been a shame to waste an opportunity to help him see that through.

The weekend before my flight I dropped by the Boston Shaker and put together a basic kit: shaker, jigger, spoon, julep strainer, and a set of Tovolo ice cube trays. Upon arrival I presented him with the gift, essentially guilting him into a trip to BevMo and an earnest start to his bar. Although to be fair, I don't think much guilt was actually involved.

We began with two classics that any self-respecting enthusiast should master: the Martini and the Manhattan. Plymouth and the vermouths were easy enough to find, but the Sazerak took some searching before we found a single bottle precariously placed on top of a display case. Not wanting to risk a rye-free night, we took the bottle and quickly paced over to check-out.

Teaching an engineer how to mix drinks is a delight. Given the basic steps, their underlying motivations, and a few examples, my friend was quick to pick up on the technique and by the end of my trip he was well on his way to a great bar.


The Gospel of Food

[by Naveen]

Earlier this week, thanks to heat wave-induced insomnia, I read "The Gospel of Food" by Barry Glassner, a book that I picked up at Green Apple Books during my recent San Francisco expedition. Each chapter questioned mainstream nutritional advice and led to haunting questions about food and nutrition.
  1. False Prophets: Culinary Correctness gone awry: What if one's enjoyment of a meal affects nutrient metabolism? The first study mentioned in the book shows how Thai women absorbed more iron from a meal with spicy food, while Swedish women absorbed more from a meal of hamburger, potatoes, and beans. Rather than a quest of self-denial against fat, carbs, eggs, milk, soy, or the trendy nutritional demon of the week, what if we find ways to enjoy food more?
  2. Safe Treyf: Pretending to Be a Saint: What if the nutrient-fortified food products sold by companies ranging from small "organic" workshops to vast multi-national corporations lower the efficacy of prescription drugs and the absorption of nutrients from whole foods?
  3. Promises to the Fathers: How the Food Industry Sells it Wares: I was thoroughly impressed by the descriptions of recipe creation at culinary R&D facilities. The author writes how he "was bowled over by how many of the rank-and-file were foodies and expert chefs. Many had, in addition to training in food technology, degrees from top-ranked culinary institutes, and the bookshelves in their cubicles and lab areas were filled with cookbooks, restaurant guides, and culinary magazines." (77)
  4. Restaurant Heaven: Defining Culinary Greatness: What if the food that "anonymous" diners eat in fancy restaurants is different than food served to restaurant critics and VIPs? This is a controversial claim, but critics can have a huge impact on future business and VIPs can spend far more money on profit-laden drinks than normal diners.
  5. The Food Adventurers: In Search of Authenticity: Food authenticity is a somewhat nonsense concept. Many of the people writing the reviews have never been to the host country. Moreover, chefs in the country or origin often incorporate new ingredients into their own cuisine. I think that these food adventurers, just like beer geeks, oenophiles, dieters, and others, are looking for a sense of community and shared culture (a tribe) rather than a specific food.
  6. Restaurant Hell: The Dissing of McDonald's: It's easy for people like me to demonize McDonald's. However, I wonder how many of the critics have to worry about the source of their next meal or the location of a safe playground to take their kids. For people worried about the environmental consequences, take a look at the jewelry industry. According to the environmental group Earthworks, twenty tons of waste are generated in producing a single gold ring. For the anti-capitalists out there, the author notes that McDonald's is no where to be found in the top hundred on the Fortune 500 list. No one would argue that more fruit and veggies would be better, but viewing fast food as the enemy and condemning the poor as ignorant or lazy is no way to solve the actual problems.
  7. What Made America Fat: It's Not Just the Food: Conventional wisdom touts the "fiscal view" of nutrition: calories in (diet) - calories out (exercise) = weight gain/loss. What if stress has the predominant impact on the absorption of nutrients and the metabolic rate of a person? What if lowering one's weight doesn't lead to improvements in health? What should one do if weight gain is correlated with being social (e.g. the more people present at a meal, the more a person tends to eat)?
Take home message: Nutritional studies, even large ones, often extrapolate percentages from a couple extra incidences of disease or death. More food for thought: two strong correlations with weight gain are low-income and being on a diet.

My personal theory: being "too busy" is the root cause (see Scott Berkun's manifesto). How are American's spending their time differently than people in other countries?


campari and salt

[by john]

campari doesn't do it for me. i've seen lady gaga rock it, i've had it in cocktail form, and i've even sipped it with a slice of orange at a sun-drenched italian cafe. still. that bitter finish is not pleasant like other italian amaros' bitter finishes. medicinal.

but, holy shit if this didn't change (a small portion of) my life: add a dash of saline solution to campari and it turns delicious! i tried their 'campari martini' the other night and...fruity? sweet? this is campari?! i'll leave the taste science to mike or naveen, but for now, it just tastes good.

the guys at rogue cocktails (go, click that link!) are on top of their game. salted cocktails are definitely trending, but i hope they rise to prominence faster - it seems like there's a large, fertile, unexplored parameter space out there...

white lily

[by john]

this drink, the white lily, has two amazing virtues.

first, its ingredients are readily found at any fratty house party (hosted, presumably, by some dude who smuggled absinthe back from europe after spring break '07), and their combination in a single drink just amplifies the frattiness ('look bro, a shot each of rum, gin, triple sex [sic], and some of the green fairy. race you to the bottom!), but that blend yields a refined, fruity, crisp, and flipping tasty result.

second, like the pegu club, the eensy bit of modifier (absinthe for the lily, bitters for the pegu) transforms the drink like a necklace of pearls around an otherwise fine neckline of a black dress.

i won't forgive myself for keeping this one on my to-make list for so long.

the white lily

equal parts of:
white rum
triple sec
a dash of absinthe

stir with ice and strain


West Coast Rejuventation

[by Naveen]

With just under three days to explore as much of the Bay Area culinary zeitgeist as possible, I started with Heidi Swanson's list of San Francisco Favorites, combined with recommendations from friends and a good dose of serendipity.

Spice Kit: I followed Heidi's advice to check out the recent issues of Tablehopper for inspiration. I picked this “chef-driven Asian street food” restaurant for my first meal, based on a note in the June 29th edition. The owners, Wilfred Pacio and Fred Tang, alumni of the French Laundry, Per Se, and The Dining Room at the SF Ritz-Carlton, lit up the interwebs with their application of "Farm Fresh ingredients" and "techniques that Frenchmen would love" and now I can better appreciate the thrill of discovery felt by the bloggers.

Nopalito: After following the linecook blog for several months and hearing rave reviews from John, I knew that I had to go to either here or Nopa. The menu combined traditional Mexican cooking with "local, organic, and sustainable" ingredients. I really want to visit one of Rick Bayless' Chicago restaurants now, as well as make an eventual trip to Mexico (perhaps with Mike as tour guide).

Burma Superstar: One of my high school friends and Heidi both recommended this wildly-popular venue. Despite calling in at 8:30 pm, we weren't seated until 10:45. It was totally worth the wait to experience this unique fusion of Southeast Asian flavors. Combined with John's trip to Thailand, the experience reminded me that I need to return to that part of the world.

Dosa: Another one of Heidi Swanson's recommendations. The atmosphere was totally different than the Little India restaurants and hawker center stalls in Singapore, but I enjoyed the food just as much, especially since I got to introduce one of my friends to this South Indian specialty.

The Plant Organic Cafe: Thanks to the Yelp app on my new smartphone, I found this amazing new restaurant at the Ferry Building. It shattered my negative pre-conceptions of pizza, showcased some amazing locally-grown vegetables, and ended with a great contrast between the molten chocolate cake and vegan blackberry cheesecake desserts. After months of resisting, I am glad that I finally decided to upgrade my Motorola RAZR (it still makes a nice alarm clock, though).

There is still plenty left for future visits. Top on my list are Gracias Madre (vegan Mexican), Aziza (Michelin-star Moroccan), and Coi (sadly, closed for renovations during my visit), but I'm sure there are dozens of others that I have yet to discover. Besides the restaurants mentioned here, I also visited the Farmers' Markets, grocery stores, and ice cream shops, which were equally inspiring. As you can tell from my summaries, this trip renewed my interest to travel the world. My last memory of the trip is gazing at models of Shanghia sky-scrapers, as part of an SF MoMA exhibit at the SFO airport, which I hope is a case of foreshadowing.