Sunday, July 17, 2016

Recipe: Simple Macaroni and Cheese

Almost exactly one year ago, there was some commotion* in my tiny corner of the Twitterverse about a New York Times recipe from Julia Moskin for macaroni and cheese. There are a zillion mac and cheese recipes, so what caused the commotion? Uncooked macaroni. The recipe calls for uncooked macaroni to be mixed with milk, cheese seasonings, and blended cottage cheese, and then the whole thing baked for 60 minutes. Several in the Twitter commotion were highly skeptical, including me. But we were foolish to doubt the New York Times cooking team: the recipe was a success and has become a 'go to' recipe for me.  And also is a lot easier to make than my previous favorite macaroni and cheese (from the now-gone Paper Palate blog).

The recipe wasn't quite right for me as originally written, so I have been making changes:  four about ingredients, two about methods.

  1. Cut it down: The first modification happened before I even made the first batch: I thought that 1 pound of cheddar cheese was too much, so I cut it in half. 
  2. Frozen: Next, I tried freezing the cottage cheese. The recipe calls for 8 ounces of cottage cheese and I buy it in 16 ounce containers, so I froze the extra 8 ounces and used it in a batch a few weeks later (after defrosting). It was fine — the freeze / thaw cycle didn't have any negative effects on the dish.
  3. The whole story: Hearing so much about whole grains, it was worth trying a whole wheat pasta. The pasta cooked properly and made the flavors a bit more robust.
  4. Choppin' lots of broccoli: The final ingredient tweak has been to add some chopped broccoli halfway through the baking time (when the mixture is gently stirred). The broccoli cooks nicely and adds nutrients and flavors.
  5. Simpler combine: The original recipe calls for the milk, seasonings, and cottage cheese to be blended together, and then the mixture combined with the pasta and grated cheese in a large bowl. Instead of mixing everything in a bowl, why not pour the pasta and grated cheese into the blender jar and then mix it by hand? It's slightly challenging to get a uniform mix in the blender jar, but that can be corrected in the baking dish. (Of course, an immersion blender could also be used in a mixing bowl to blend the cottage cheese, milk and seasonings, and then the pasta added to that bowl.)
  6. One tool, two jobs: A few weeks ago, I had a question while I was washing dishes after making the recipe: Could I use a food processor to grate the cheese and blend the ingredients, thereby cutting the 'wash list' by one?  The answer is yes. Step 1: use the food processor's grater disk to grate the cheese. Remove the cheese and put it on the plate you are going to use for dining to save a dish. Step 2: switch to the blade and process the cottage cheese, milk, and seasonings. Step 3: add the dry pasta and grated cheese to the bowl and mix everything together by hand. Step 4: pour into the prepared pan. 

Saturday, July 09, 2016

Tracking Retail Cricket Flour Prices

Person pointing at a chart (from the Internet Archive)
I have been following the field of entomophagy (insects as food) for a little while: watching the news, occasionally writing news roundups or more detailed pieces (see notes section).  So I have been wondering, as news coverage has increased, new products are launched, and companies start scaling up their insect-rearing operations, what is happening to retail prices?  

In early 2015, I started recording the retail price of 100% pure cricket flour at a handful of on-line stores (shipping costs were not considered).  The results of these surveys are shown in the chart below. 

Suppliers' prices vary significantly, with a spread of about 20-30% from the average. The retail price has been relatively stable over the period of study — the average retail price of pure cricket flour is about $40 per pound. These are not terribly surprising results.  This is a newly developing market, and it takes time to scale up and optimize — the teams building insect farming infrastructure need time to acquire land and farming space, develop more efficient farming techniques, increase processing capacity, and build distribution networks.  (And, of course, they'll need many more customers.)

My price survey has some deficiencies. The first is that it considers retail prices, while the major action in cricket flour is probably at the wholesale level (e.g., sales to manufacturers like Bitty Foods and Exo) and so it would be better to be tracking wholesale prices. These aren't as readily available, however.  The second is about shipping: some companies offer free shipping for orders above certain amounts, others charge for shipping on all orders. For example, in the June 2016 survey, the low-price option charges $11 for shipping, the high-price option includes shipping, one company sets its free shipping limit below the price of a pound of cricket flour, another sets it above the price of a pound.

Livestock prices from USDA Economic Research Service
If the industry grows significantly, real food data experts might step in.  One group of food data experts is the staff of the USDA's Economic Research Service, which has built an amazing collection of data and reports about agricultural products and markets — data products like the aquaculture dataset "Statistics on domestically grown catfish and trout and U.S. imports and exports of fish and shellfish that may be products of aquaculture, such as salmon, shrimp, and oysters"; or monthly reports like "Monthly average price values at the farm, wholesale, and retail stages for selected cuts of beef, pork, and broilers;" or charts like the one on the right. I didn't find anything about insects as food at the Economic Research Service, but perhaps in the future the Service will be tracking the industry, publishing a monthly "Insect Outlook," and compiling data about "Monthly average price values at the farm, wholesale, and retail stages for selected species of edible insects." 

My previously posted pieces about insects as food:
If you want to closely follow what is happening in the entomophagy movement, three great places to start are the Twitter feeds of @AnaCDay, @littleherds, and @4EntoFOOD (to name a few of the good ones that are out there).  Ana C. Day also runs an entomophagy news collection service on the service.

Image Credits
Person pointing at a chart is from page 752 of "Illinois Agricultural Association record [microform]" (January 1944- December 1949) from Internet Archive's Flickr collection, no known copyright restrictions.  Agricultural price chart is from the USDA Economic Research Service, not subject to copyright (U.S. Government product).

Random link from the archive: Annatto Seeds – An Ancient Dye and Flavoring with a Global Reach (insects are another source of dye, notably cochineal, which caused some trouble for Starbucks a few years ago)

Sunday, June 19, 2016

A Visit to a Tofu Factory

As I was writing the post about savory baked tofu, I remembered a piece I wrote for the Ethicurean about a visit to a local tofu factory (original post URL).  With the Ethicurean archives being inaccessible, I thought it would be worthwhile to update the original piece and post it here. My visit was in 2010, so it is possible that there have been some changes to their procedures, but the piece still gives a good overview of tofu making.

Farmers markets are far more than a source of good food and a place to build a stronger community. They can also serve as incubators for food businesses — places where entrepreneurs can try selling prepared foods on a small scale or where experienced market participants can try out new products or recipes.*

One of the many food businesses incubated by farmers markets is Hodo Soy Beanery, a tofu-making company based in Oakland, California.  The company was started in 2004 because the founders wanted better tofu than they could find at local stores, and figured that many others were also looking better tofu, so they started making their own.

The initial launch pad was a single farmers market.  The next steps were additional markets and multiple restaurant accounts, like San Francisco's Slanted Door.  In recent years, they have been selling in many supermarkets and have landed some major accounts (like supplying tofu to Chipotle to use in their sofritas offering). Alas, this success led to their withdrawal from farmers markets — the markets weren't worth the effort.

Soybean cooking equipment at Hodo Soy Beanery
Soybean cooking equipment
Several years ago I toured the Oakland facility. It reminded me of a cheese factory, with stainless steel vats, tanks, and molds, but without the yeasty, cultured aroma that you find in a cheese factory. The equipment similarity is not surprising, because tofu is basically a soy cheese made by heating, curdling, and pressing. Although one could probably adapt some of the cheese equipment for tofu, the equipment in Hodo's plant was designed and built in Asia specifically for soy milk and tofu making.

Dry soybeans are the starting ingredient for all of Hodo's products. The beans are soaked in water for several hours to rehydrate them, then cooked under pressure. The cooked beans are finely ground and passed through two levels of filtration to separate the solids from the liquid. The resulting liquid is soy milk; the solids are generally known by the Japanese word okara. The soy milk can be bottled and sold or made into tofu or yuba.  The okara is generally sold to livestock farmers (for much more about okara, see this post on Mental Masala).

Tofu making equipment at Hodo Soy Beanery
Forming large blocks of tofu
To make medium or firm tofu, the hot soy milk is transferred to a vat. Coagulant is added to start the curdling process; in Hodo's case, it's calcium sulfate, a naturally occurring mineral that has been used by the Chinese for centuries. The mixture is stirred, allowed to curdle, and then the curdled mixture is poured into a cloth-lined porous mold. The whey goes down the drain.**

The curds are pressed to remove excess water using a weight appropriate for the grade — medium tofu gets one weight, while the firm tofu goes into a special machine for some serious squeezing. After the pressing is complete, the tofu is cut into blocks and transferred to cool water baths for storage until it is packaged for sale or transferred to the in-house kitchen to be made into one of Hodo's prepared foods, like edamame tofu salad or spicy braised tofu.

The process for silken tofu is slightly different because it is so fragile: soy milk and the coagulant are mixed in the consumer containers (e.g., pint-sized plastic tubs) and allowed to naturally set without any pressure. This process creates a smooth, delicate texture.

Photograph of yuba making at Hodo Soy Beanery
Hanging sheets of yuba
Yuba is the most distinctive product made by Hodo. It's a thin, rippled, pale-yellow, somewhat elastic sheet that is composed of soy proteins and lipids. To make the sheets, an array of shallow containers are filled with soy milk and steam heat is applied to the bottom.  A skin forms on the cooled upper surface. After a short time, the skin can be removed by hand and hung to dry before packaging.

Yuba is subtle and delicate: some call it the "sashimi of tofu," and it was the inspiration for a piece in the New York Times Magazine by San Francisco chef Daniel Patterson (Coi, LocaL and other Bay Area restaurants).  It is versatile, serving as a wrapper for a savory filling, as a pasta analogue, and as an addition to soups or salads, to name a few uses.

Although I'd love to see Hodo branch into other soy products like tempeh or soy sauce, they would need to make those items in a different facility because the organisms that drive the tempeh and soy sauce fermentation process could colonize the factory and cause all sorts of trouble for the soy milk and tofu production lines.

Further reading about tofu and the Hodo Soy Beanery:
*  Has anyone compiled a list of food companies that were incubated at farmers markets?  Another Bay Area incubation success that I can think of off the top of my head is Tacolicious, a group of San Francisco Bay Area restaurants that got their start as a taco vendor at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. 
** Okara and the whey from the tofu-making process are apparently useful as green cleaning agents. Tofu Cookery by Fusako Holthaus notes that okara can be used to polish floors and woodwork. The book recommends wrapping okara in a cloth and applying vigorously to a surface, but is short on details — should the okara be dry or moist? What kind of cloth is recommended? The Book of Tofu by William Shurtleff and Akiko Aoyagi notes that the whey can be used as a soap, and that they have heard of tofu shops using the whey to clean tofu-making implements and workers' hands.

Random link from the archive: Making up for travel by buying political activism instead of 'offsets'

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Recipe: Baked Tofu

Making tofu at Hodo Soy Beanery
Making tofu at Hodo Soy Beanery (2010)
One of my favorite things to cook is also one of the most unphotogenic dishes I know: the savory baked tofu from Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant*. Although it has a monotone and bland brown hue, its taste is much more exciting: tofu's subtle flavor in the background,  and a foreground of soy sauce, ginger, garlic, vinegar and sesame oil.** 

The dish is quite easy to make:  put the sauce ingredients into a baking dish, slice some tofu, add it to the pan, and bake.  Sometimes I add sliced carrot or wedges of Satsuma sweet potato (a variety from Japan) to the pan and let the vegetables roast along with the tofu.  Although it seems like a good idea at the time, it is rarely successful because the baking times are mismatched.  

You could probably just set the tofu block into the baking pan and wind up with an OK result, but you'll get much better flavor if there is more exposed surface area to roast and absorb the sauce.

As I thought about describing how I like to slice the tofu, my descriptions soon became hopelessly confusing, so I made simple drawing to help explain.  The drawing below roughly replicates the dimensions of a standard piece of tofu, with the primary dimensions represented by 1, 2 and 3***.  I prefer the pieces of tofu to be relatively thin, so I like to make one cut on side 1, two cuts on side 2, and two cuts on side 3 to give 18 rectangles. Of course, more pieces means more turning. 

Recipe:  Baked Tofu
Adapted from Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant

16 ounces (453 g) tofu, firm or extra firm, cut into rectangles, triangles or other shapes
3 T (45 mL) soy sauce
1.5 T (22.5 mL) rice vinegar
1.5 T (22.5 mL) sake or rice wine
1 garlic clove, minced or pressed
3 t (15 mL) grated ginger
4 T (60 mL) water
3 t (15 mL) sugar
1 T (15 mL) toasted sesame oil

Preheat oven to 375 F (190 C).

Combine all of the ingredients except the tofu in a shallow baking dish [8" x 8" or larger (20 cm x 20 cm)].  Add the tofu pieces and turn a few times to coat the surface.  Bake for 30-40 minutes, turning the pieces every 10 minutes.  There is no fixed point when the dish is "done," so you can decide that it is done based on how much sauce is left, the color of the tofu, or that it is time to eat.  

* Some other great recipes in Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant include Groundnut Stew, Capetown Fruit and Vegetable Curry, Beurek with Parsley-Cheese Filling, Berbere (a spice mixture), Niter Kebbeh (spiced clarified butter), and the two W'ets (Ethiopian stews that use the Niter Kebbeh).
** Good, but not good enough or original enough to submit to Food52's best tofu recipe contest
*** Most blocks of tofu seem to be the same size.  How long ago was that dimension chosen, and how was it chosen?  Might there be a centuries-old Chinese or Japanese specification that was adopted by makers in the U.S.?

Random link from the archive: Tempura at Ten-Ichi

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Mr. Monk and the San Francisco Goofs

It's time again for some digressions about obscure television topics.

The long-running series "Monk" from USA Network was set in San Francisco but it was rare that an episode had a strong connection to the city. That was probably in part by design since it was primarily filmed across the Los Angeles area (an urban back-lot at a studio, Long Beach, the Santa Monica pier, LA's Union Station, etc.), with strategic stock footage of San Francisco and rare location shoots in San Francisco.  When there was something specific to San Francisco, it was often weird.

The Newscast Background
Early in "Mr. Monk and the Wrong Man" (S6E8, IMDB page), there is a shot of a San Francisco newscast with a picture of the northeastern part of the city projected behind the news reader that shows the Transamerica Pyramid on the left and the Ferry Building and Bay Bridge on the right). When I rewatched this episode recently, I thought: "That doesn't look right." Here's a screenshot from that newscast:

Screenshot from "Mr. Monk and the Wrong Man" (S6E8)

Something isn't right about that background. While you try to identify the flaw, let's switch to the subject of Richmond (or The Richmond District).

The Bad Girlfriend's House in Richmond (or The Richmond District?)
"Mr. Monk and the Bad Girlfriend" (S6E4) has some confusing geography. Captain Stottlemeyer's girlfriend (a wealthy real estate agent named Linda Fusco) supposedly lives in the city of Richmond (at 12:41, Lt. Disher points to the city of Richmond on a map to indicate Linda's city of residence). During a visit to Linda's house, the Captain arranged to have an illegally parked truck in front of her house towed away. Later in the episode, we find that the truck has been towed not to a Richmond lot, but a San Francisco Police Department lot. Why would the city of Richmond tow a truck across the Bay to a city of San Francisco lot?

Linda is a key suspect in the episode's marquee crime, and her alibi is based on timing: she claims to have been too far away to have committed the crime. Therefore, the time it would take Linda to travel from her house (in Richmond or the Richmond District) to the city of Novato (north of S.F. in Marin County) was so important that the writers had Mr. Monk and Natalie recreate the journey. The annotated USGS map below shows the locations:

Using Google Maps to get directions from the two Richmonds to Novato, they appear to be more or less the same, given random effects of traffic and traffic lights:
  • Richmond City Hall to Novato:  26 minutes, 22 miles (35.9 km)
  • San Francisco's Richmond District (Park Presidio and Geary) to Novato:  29 minutes, 25.6 miles (41.47 km)
When you start from the Richmond District, however, you get to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge, which is always a thrill (the scenery around the Richmond-San-Rafael Bridge is quite nice, but the bridge is oppressively utilitarian).

My guess is that the writers were thinking of San Francisco's Richmond District — a mostly residential area between Golden Gate Park and the Presidio — and that there was some confusion during prop preparation and/or filming. On most maps (like the one above), the text for the city of Richmond is much larger than the text for the Richmond District (if it is even marked).  Linda is supposedly a superstar real estate agent, so I'm not sure why the writer's didn't pick a elite and well known San Francisco neighborhood like Pacific Heights or Nob Hill instead.  Perhaps Richmond is an inside joke like Vinton Street?    

Richmond Train Routing
"Mr. Monk is Up All Night" (S6E9, IMDB page) has a quick mention of Richmond as Monk is waiting in the "Caltrain Station" while searching for a mystery woman (it's actually Los Angeles' Union Station — San Francisco doesn't have any grand train stations). There's a strange broadcast over the station's speakers: "Local service for Richmond and Burlingame, Track 12" (24:33). That's a weird broadcast, because there is no Caltrain that makes that run (Caltrain doesn't go to the East Bay), there is no Amtrak that makes that run (Amtrak runs on the eastern shore of S.F. Bay with bus connections to S.F.), and BART goes from the Peninsula to Richmond but not as far south as Burlingame (Millbrae is the southern terminus).

Dumpling Digression
Coincidentally, as I was writing an early draft of this post, the food scene in the Bay Area had Jonathon Gold fever, as the documentary City of Gold was playing and Gold was making several appearances in the area. In a quick interview with Eater S.F., he made a similar Richmond / The Richmond slip-up, though in this case he actually was referring to a place in the City of Richmond: "Daimo has the best wontons anywhere in the U.S. It’s in that Chinese mall in the Richmond. It’s pretty good, but [the restaurants in there] switch around a lot." Perhaps this one was a transcription error.

Back To the Newscast
Have you figured out what is wrong with the newscast background?  The image is reversed!  When looking at San Francisco from the north, the Transamerica Pyramid will be to the right of the Bay Bridge, not to the left like the newscast background shows.  It's weird — perhaps an intentional "Easter Egg" for viewers? Or a necessary tweak to allow the inset photo to appear on the right side of the screen while maintaining a full view of the Transamerica Pyramid?

San Francisco from Alcatraz Island, from Paul Kelly on Flickr
San Francisco from Alcatraz Island, from Paul Kelly on Flickr

"Between the Bridges," from Images by John 'K' on Flickr
"Between the Bridges," from Images by John 'K' on Flickr

To further see for yourself, point Google Earth to 37°48'31.93" N 122°24'08.86" W, eye altitude 625 ft; or go to Google Street view, drop the viewer on Alcatraz Island, and spin around until you can see San Francisco; or take a look at a few more photos from Flickr: by Mike Lewis, by Doug Sandquist, by Harvey Quamen.

Image credits

Random link from the archive: The Temper-Spoon, a device for temperature measurement while stirring

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Recipe: Seed and Oat Cakes

Flax flowers from Ranchita Vida's Flickr collection
Back in February, the San Francisco Chronicle's Food+Home section had a feature article about using seeds in the kitchen. Written by Amanda Gold, the article recommends looking at seeds as a healthy and tasty addition to your diet, in savory and sweet applications.

Always looking for healthy, homemade snacks, one of the recipes caught my attention:  multi-seed cakes made from a blend of seeds mixed with oats, honey and oil, then baked into clusters.  I had all of the ingredients in my pantry so I gave the recipe a try.  The mixture didn't stick together — it was like trying to form cookies using damp granola — so I was apprehensive.  Will these hold together?  But almost miraculously, something happened during baking and cooling that turned the loose blobs into self-supporting cookie-like objects. (What exactly is happening to hold everything together? There is no egg, no water, nothing binder-like.) 

Since making the recipe a few times, I've learned that it's essential to let the cakes fully cool on the baking sheet before trying to remove them — they firm up as they cool, turning from mush to crispy cakes. 
Sunflower by Anselmus de Boodt
I imagined that I could simply production by spooning the mix into a muffin tin. Production was certainly simpler, but the results were poor:  the bottom burned and/or stuck, while the top didn't brown properly because there was too little heat circulation to the top of the cakes.  (I haven't tried a silicone muffin container yet, which might eliminate the sticking problem, but might not improve the tops.)

The seed and oat cakes are becoming one of my favorite snack foods.  They are healthy, delicious (crunchy, toasty, just a little bit sweet), almost of the ingredients can be bought in bulk (thus reducing packaging waste), and are proving to be highly adaptable. The last time I made them I was short on some of the seeds, so I swapped in peanuts and finely shredded coconut with great results. Now I'm adding a few tablespoons of coconut to each batch.

I like to use a scale when baking, so my key contribution to the recipe's evolution 'in the wild' is to add weights for each ingredient so that making the mixture can be a "pour and tare" operation.

Recipe:  Seed and Oat Cakes
Adapted from San Francisco Chronicle's Seed and Oat Cluster recipe (which uses the Super Seed Raw Blend)

50 g shelled pumpkin seeds / pepitas (4.5 T)
60 g sunflower seeds (4.5 T)
20 g chia seeds (2 T)
25 g flax seeds (2.5 T)
25 g sesame seeds (2.5 T)
100 g rolled oats (1 cup)
1/2 t kosher salt (2 g / 2.5 mL)
25 g oil
84 g honey
Optional: 3/4 cup dried fruit (175 mL)

Preheat oven to 350 F (175 C).  Prepare a baking sheet with a non-stick liner like Silpat or parchment paper.

Stir the seeds, oats, salt, honey and oil together (plus dried fruit), being sure to fully coat oats with the oil and honey.  Spoon onto the lined baking sheet, about 2 tablespoons each. Push loose seeds and oats into the blobs, then press lightly to hold together.  Bake 15-20 minutes.  Cool completely before removing from baking sheet.

Image credits

Random link from the archive: Choc-ing the Rubicon

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Three More Old Postcards of San Francisco: the Golden Gate, Fort Point and Sutro Baths

This post has a few more old San Francisco images from the New York Public Library Digital Collections. The first two of postcards were taken before the addition of a major landmark, and the last was taken before the destruction of a major landmark.

Before the Bridge
The first photo is an undated postcard from the early 20th century, the pre-bridge Golden Gate glows at sunset. Unfortunately, the image is not terribly distinctive and to be honest, it doesn't jump out to me as the Golden Gate — it could be any stretch of coastline.  Even Ansel Adams' famous photo doesn't shout "Golden Gate!" I think that's the power of the bridge — it became such a critical part of the landscape that it's hard to think of the setting without it.   (The Golden Gate wasn't named for the gold fields that lay to the east of San Francisco, but after the "Golden Horn" in Turkey. For the full answer, see my earlier post called How the Golden Gate Got Its Name).

Golden Gate before the bridge
Postcard showing the Golden Gate, early 20th century (NYPL Digital Collections)

The next photo, marked "Copyright 1904", is a view of Fort Point with Marin County in the background (today part of the Marin Headlands section of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area).  These days, the Golden Gate Bridge towers over the fort, giving Fort Point a unique vista of the bridge (it might be the only piece of land where the public can be somewhat underneath the bridge).

Postcard of Fort Point, San Francisco
Postcard of Fort Point and the Golden Gate, early 20th century (NYPL Digital Collections)

Inside Fort Point underneath the Golden Gate Bridge

Sutro's Baths: A Long-Gone Swimming and Amusement Palace
The next image shows Sutro Baths, a massive entertainment complex located on the western edge of San Francisco (roughly at the end of Geary Blvd).  In the early 20th century, the Sutro Baths were one of San Francisco's top attractions, with several huge public swimming pools (somewhat like the "plunge" to which Buster Keaton brings a date in The Cameraman) and museums of curiosities and wonders. As time went on, popular tastes changed and expenses far outran revenues (it took a lot of energy to heat the frigid Pacific Ocean to a tolerable temperature), leading to its closure.  During demolition in the 1960s a massive fire destroyed what remained.  Today the site is a modern-day ruins that is open for exploration as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (and also serves as a starting point for a trail along San Francisco's northwestern coast). In recent years the most exciting event at the ruins was the appearance of a river otter ("Sutro Sam") in the ponds. 

Detail of a postcard of Sutro Baths (NYPL Digital Collections)

Plenty of history about the baths has been written or filmed, like a page at the National Park Service, the film Sutro's: The Palace at Lands End (highly recommended), and several books (e.g., Sutro's Glass Palace and Lost San Francisco).

Ruins of Sutro Baths, 2012 (from Flickr user jtu, CC-2.0)

Advertisement for Sutro Baths and Museum,1923 (California Historical Society)

Image Credits

Random link from the archive: Learning to control my temper: making dipped chocolates, part 2