Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Swimming Bald Eagle

I had no idea bald eagles could swim.  I have seen them somewhat submerged, wings flapping, struggling to take off with a fish.  But swim?  No idea.

Best Rorschach test ever...

The lake is calm this morning, and I saw the soaring shadow from the kitchen window before it hit the fish off our dock with the predictable splash.  Then there was a strangely rhythmic splashing, and I caught a glimpse of him through the trees.  Arching those great wings up and over, propelling itself forward.  It looked bizarre, but my brain only attached one label to the action:  swimming.  I raced to wake The Child and we got down to a good view from the shore just to see it give up and take off.

Maybe it was just drying his wings so he could fly?  Or it was simply struggling with the fish and my silly brain tricked me.

The Child was packed back off to bed, and I was contemplating coffee on top of the excitement, when I heard it again.  More rhythmic splashing.  The eagle had come back for attempt number two, and it was definitely swimming.  This time I snagged the camera and skipped The Child.  No sense getting her up if it wasn’t going to stick around.  But stick around it did.  It was swimming for certain this time.  No doubt about it.  It dragged the fish to shore and all the way up the bank under the trees for cover.

I grabbed the little Canon PowerShot.  It’s on zoom, and I was shaking a bit from the sprint down the hill.  The video quality is crap.  The audio is worse.  But I don’t care, this is the best of the little bits I got.  (btw :: That’s an otter swimming away from shore in first few seconds of the video.  The loon was there as well, but just out of frame, and the mink had scampered off the dock when I came down the path.)  The Child of course was up in a flash on her own and on the pier at my side in time to see it all.

Smiles despite not being able to see the eagle enjoy breakfast

It is my 39th birthday today.  Certainly memorable.  Life is good.

Moments like this when you see how someone could believe in auspicious signs, but not me.  Just an amazing and lucky happenstance.  Unless of course, I could somehow spin this as a cosmic sign to buy a new and better camera!

Advertisements

Read Full Post »

No foodie should preach about sustainability and local agriculture without taking a serious look at their own pantry.  We have been getting organic grocery delivery of local produce for many years now, and I find it well worth the drawbacks for our circumstances.  Recently, we joined a local meat CSA (community supported agriculture) and drive once a month to a predetermined drop point to pick up our share of the monthly meat.

But if Vidalia onions are in season you can bet I am going to select them over the local ones, and I cannot function in the kitchen without my spice drawer which hails from all over the world.  All across California wine country there is a movement to drink local.  That’s great.  Support your community.  But I hardly think Napa would like to encourage restaurants across the country to only drink local.  In fact the story of their success depends on worldwide exportation and is a fabulous example of local agriculture makes good for a community.

So recently when I opened the pantry looking for a quick and easy side dish I saw the quinoa, which hails from *checks package* Bolivia.  Hmmm… dinner is going to have a big carbon footprint tonight kiddo… Except of course these things are all relative.  Quinoa packs nutrition, history, and socially-responsible agriculture into a tiny grain.

Technically, quinoa is not a true grain or cereal.  Botanically speaking, Chenopodium quinoa is a chenopod (like beets, spinach, or chard) and can also be consumed as a leaf vegetable, although it is predominantly grown for its edible seeds.  Originating in the Andes, it can be grown at altitudes over 13,000 feet.  And although it can also be grown on fertile plains with the benefit of mechanization, this contributes to soil erosion.  But the mountain crops are both easier on the land, of better quality besides, and are hand-farmed by small-scale communities.  The quinoa I purchase is produced by a cooperative of small growers and is sold through Alter-Eco, a fair-trade product distributor.  I prefer their Red Quinoa and choose to purchase it from Amazon in bulk.   It qualifies for Amazon Prime free shipping, and is cheaper per bag ($5.67/1 lb. bag) than the bulk price offered by Alter Eco online ($6.49/1 lb. bag).  You may not be certain you want eight pounds of the stuff right off the bat…  but I think the variety of recipes available on the intertubes these days will provide a multitude of inspiration.

The National Association of Quinoa Farmers (ANAPQUI) was created in 1983 in order to maximize the revenue of local communities who were selling at a loss. The Anapqui cooperative currently regroups 1100 small producers from the south of the Bolivian Altiplano who now benefit from decent living wages, transformation and packaging facilities. The latter, partially funded by the United Nations Development Program, enables them to export directly without having to rely on middlemen. The profit from sales goes towards financing educational and training programs that have led to the introduction of organic farming methods. -- Alter Eco website

Quinoa is a low-maintenance crop as the seeds have a coating of saponins.  Saponins are nifty plant-derived chemical compounds. They are amphipathic glycosides, so they have both hydrophilic (water-loving) and lipophilic (fat-loving) qualities.  Saponins all share the same phenomena of foaming when shaken in aqueous solution, and some saponins were historically used as soaps.  Most importantly to quinoa, saponins tend to taste bitter.  Awful enough that crops are typically safe from birds, insects, and other foraging animals.  After harvest, the saponins are removed before consumption, and most quinoa available in the US comes ready to prepare.

Quinoa, together with potatoes and maize, were hugely important to the Incas and other pre-Columbian civilizations.  To the point of being sacred.  It is considered a complete protein, that is to say it has a balanced set of essential amino acids including the oft-missing lysine, which is very rare in plants, and according to the package I purchased, one quarter cup serving contains 160 calories, 5 grams of protein, 3 grams of dietary fiber, and 20% of the daily recommended intake for iron.  There is solid nutrition science behind why this stuff fueled Incan armies.

Confession

To be quite honest, I forgot it was in the pantry.  I started buying it years ago when a friend was diagnosed with Celiac Disease, back before the food industry started catering to the gluten-free niche market.  I really only ever made one recipe:  Quinoa Taboulleh from Cooking Light.  It worked well as a gluten-free dip alongside hummus, or as a side dish to roast lamb.  I usually I made it for a crowd.  I skipped the raisins and went with parsley over mint.  And I shortened the cooking time to the package instructions of 15 minutes so it didn’t go all mushy.  Back then I bought red quinoa in bulk, but we have since diversified our gluten-free offerings as more and more friends receive their diagnoses.  So the last few packages had quietly hidden in the back of the pantry until I opened it up last month assuming I would take the easy out and just boil up some pasta.

Epiphany

While the fennel and onions bubbled away on the stove I read the package instructions.  Add rinsed quinoa to water, bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes.  Well that is about the same time commitment for pasta, so why not?  I find rice tricky because you have to cover it and not peek, but this simmers uncovered.  It cooked up just as it said it would, and as they absorb the water and burst there is a tell tale curlicue on each grain letting you know they are almost ready as the germ separates from the seed.  I mixed in some frozen corn, about 2 Tablespoons of salted butter (the butter is key if I want The Child to eat it without complaint!), and some fresh grinds of black pepper.  I would have added other things and played more, but it was time to eat.  It was under 30 minutes from the time I opened the pantry looking for pasta to the time The Child and I sat down to quinoa for dinner.

Quinoa and The Child

Much like discovering how easily farro could replace the desperation pasta meal, it was a revelation to recall just how quick and easy quinoa is to make.  While we ate I remembered one of the reasons quinoa had fallen out of favor around here.  It was not very baby or toddler friendly as a standalone dish for our family, as the individual grains were sometimes difficult to swallow.  We had a similar baby-gagging experience with couscous.  Mixed with something mushy, like hummus, tiny grains are easier for small children to eat safely and keep from sticking to everything.  In fact at our recent re-entry dinner The Child decided that mixing it with the fennel and onion mash was a more convenient way to eat it, instead of chasing the frustratingly itty-bitty grains around her plate with her spoon.  We each had seconds and stored the leftovers in the fridge.  Later in the week we discovered the leftover quinoa and corn worked very well mixed in with salsa and scooped up with tortilla chips, as well as making an excellent omelet filling with melted cheese.

During my health issues this spring The Spouse made another huge batch.  At first to help address the residual anemia post blood transfusion (between quinoa and meat and iron supplements recommended by the doc it cleared up within a few days), and then post-surgically to get more fiber and, um, let’s just say combat a challenging side effect of the pain medication.  This batch used up our leftover vegetable broth in place of the water for added flavor.  We had it stirred into cold chicken salad and salmon salad.  Alongside scrambled eggs for breakfast.  As a side dish at dinner served much like wild rice.  But the clear family favorite was mixed into salsa.  One post-hospital dinner consisted of a jar of salsa and red quinoa mixed 1:1, homemade guacamole, and Tostitos Scoops.  The Child was thrilled to “just have snackies” for dinner, and I welcomed the opportunity to nibble while healing.

Salsa for Dinner

Before we were married, my mom and her friends hosted a wedding shower.  I reluctantly agreed on the condition that there would not be any silly games.  That request somehow got lost in translation and there were, in fact, silly games.  One of them involved each person giving a gift getting to ask me any question they liked about The Soon-to-be-Spouse.  At one point someone asked what his favorite food was.  I didn’t really know what to say, but I answered, “Chips and salsa.”  There was much derision, but it was true.  Comfort food at the time often centered around a bag of chips and and a bowl of adulterated salsa.  And sometimes that became dinner.  And now we get to share that pleasure with The Child without any worries about the meal being insufficiently nutritious.  Time to make some more quinoa.

Photo by Randy Mayor for Cooking Light

Quinoa Tabbouleh from Cooking Light

Yield:  5 servings (serving size: 1 cup)

Ingredients
1 3/4 cups water
1 cup uncooked quinoa
1/2 cup coarsely chopped seeded tomato
1/2 cup chopped fresh mint or parsley
1/4 cup raisins
1/4 cup chopped cucumber
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 tablespoons chopped green onions
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons minced fresh onion
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine water and quinoa in a medium saucepan; bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat, and simmer 20 minutes or until liquid is absorbed. Remove from heat; fluff with a fork. Stir in tomato and remaining ingredients. Cover; let stand 1 hour. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

CALORIES 182 (24% from fat); FAT 4.8g (sat 0.6g,mono 2.5g,poly 1.1g); IRON 3.5mg; CHOLESTEROL 0.0mg; CALCIUM 31mg; CARBOHYDRATE 31.6g; SODIUM 259mg; PROTEIN 5g; FIBER 5.3g

Cooking Light, OCTOBER 1999

Read Full Post »

Our family talks about where our food comes from every single day.  Now that The Child is seven we have started in on the enlightened environmental sustainability speak… but when she was teeny-tiny we skipped over that and stuck to the basics.

What I mean specifically is setting down a pulled pork sandwich and announcing, “Mmm…  Pig.”  Or having a platter full of sausages become an impromptu quiz for a three-year old:

Us:    “What do beef and pork mean?”
Her:    “Cow and pig.”
Us:    “What’s in the bockwurst.”
Her:    “Baby cow.”
Us:    “Excellent!  Dig in.”

It got a lot of laughs from guests when she was wee, but it is a serious attempt to instill respect for what we are eating, how it gets to us, as well as the obvious basic identification about what it is.  I want The Child to know what she is eating and still have to try it.

This also applies to where it comes from on the animal.  Alton Brown does an excellent job of conveying this information on Good Eats in a manner even tiny kids can grasp.  Every time The Child asks for TV and I want to say no, but still desperately want to plug her in for my own sanity, I offer Good Eats off the DVR and sit down with her.  Frankly watching Alton break down a chicken using a dinosaur skeleton as a useful illustration is entertaining!  While The Child did not retain the details as a toddler, it fostered an environment for these discussions to become legitimate and regular dinner conversation.  And at a very young age, roasting a whole chicken became a lesson in anatomy, providing a launch point for discussions of dinosaurs and birds.  Adaptation and evolution.

No one should be thought too young for an anatomy lesson.  Most people purchase their meat cut and wrapped and ready to cook, and in the case of poultry, it is shrink-wrapped and presented such that it is not obvious to a little kid which end the head was on.  The Child was typically plunked in her Easy Diner as a baby, a safe distance from raw meat preparations, and became used to engaging in cooking interest even then.

Ever noticed how kids gravitate to drumsticks?  (Even big kids like drumsticks!)  Knowing a drumstick is a leg, and showing a kid how it goes together, is really just a fascinating puzzle.  But on a more basic level it reinforces that our dinner is muscle, bone, fat, and in the case of the humble chicken, the skin.  Put a dried out, boneless, skinless, chicken breast in front of a kid, and I cannot blame them for deciding they don’t like chicken anymore.  The more we learn about micro-nutrients inherent in every component of what we eat, the more important it is to leave that skin on, enjoy that wee bit of crispy fat, and discover the marrow in those bones.  Assuming appropriate portion control, the science of nutrition is indicating more and more that every little edible bit of an animal has a role to play in a truly balanced diet.  Akin to the micro-nutrients of leaving some of the bran intact on whole grains like farro or eating the peel on your apple.

Not every family is brimming with science geeks like our little threesome.  But just as food is science, food is also culture, and respect for food is foundational to respect of other cultures.  Religious food traditions are a common way of approaching food discussion with reverence.  Maybe your family likes to travel?  You don’t have to travel far to find varied food traditions.  Perhaps there are farmers, fishermen, or hunters in your extended family or social circle.  If history or literature is what excites you, bring that conversation to the table, especially about the foods they already love.  Just find comfortable, matter-of-fact ways to relate what you are eating to what it once was without “Ewww!” or “That’s gross!” being considered an appropriate reaction from anyone.

Kids cannot learn to respect their food unless they know what it is.  And frankly, that goes for adults too.  If your family has made the decision to consume animals, give your kids a little credit and be honest and straightforward about what is on their plate.  They just might surprise you.

Taking The Child (2 yrs old, orange pants) to The Oakland Zoo with friends in July 2005

When The Child was two years old we went to the brand spankin’ new Children’s Zoo at The Oakland Zoo.   The Oakland Zoo succeeds better than most zoos in teaching conservation and science while providing for the health, welfare, and habitats of their animals.  The Wayne and Gladys Valley Children’s Zoo is no exception, and we were there in July 2005 when they opened.  They include farm animals amidst the exhibits there, and my two-year old sprinted up to the pig exhibit with a huge smile, sighed in awe, and said, “Mmmm… Bacon.”  Some folks within earshot cracked up.  And amidst the stress of keeping up with her that day I thought, “Okay, I’m doing something right.”

Pot-Bellied Pig at The Oakland Zoo's Children's Zoo. One man's pet is another man's food.

Read Full Post »

We actually had a *gasp* vegetarian meal.  Even when meat is not the star around here, it is typically incorporated as unctuous stock, or at the very least acts as garnish to soups or salads or sandwiches…  but without really thinking about it, I made a vegetarian meal.

First there was the broth.  Vegetable stock is a misnomer.  Without connective tissue, it is broth and not stock.  But as I figured out recently, there is no need for vegetable broth to be without flavor.  Mine turned out downright spicy!  Fennel tops, bendy celery, an old and cracked carrot, a handful of peppercorns, some salvaged cloves of sprouting garlic right in their paper skins, and some thick slices of unpeeled ginger.  And because there is no need for bones to release their collagen or for connective tissue to break down, it only took about an hour.

If at first you don’t succeed…

Fennel is new to me.  More accurately, home-cooked fennel bulb that tastes good is new to me.  I have watched it prepared a zillion times on the tube, often running right out to get some and try it myself.  I have roasted and sauteed and slawwed.  And every time it overwhelms with anise flavor in a truly unpleasant way.  I would be scared off for another year or so, convinced it was not meant to be.

To add insult to injury, I know I like it.  Anytime I order fennel soup in a nice restaurant it is tempered and smooth and gorgeous.  I grew up loving fennel seed in Italian Sausages and bread.  Decades ago in Southern California I made a hobby of learning to cook Indian food, and discovered an entirely different direction for fennel seed.  The feathery bits of leaves are great tossed into a green salad, or with eggs or fish in the place of dill.  Every part of the fennel plant is edible, even the pollen, but successfully cooking the damn bulb eludes me!

Franz Eugen Köhler, Köhler's Medizinal-Pflanzen (1887)

Fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) is interesting botanically because it is considered the sole species in it’s genus, although one cultivar stands out as being sweeter with a slightly larger bulb (Florence Fennel, Foeniculum vulgare var. azoricum).  Plants able to adapt to various habitats without evolving into different subspecies have to be tenacious.  This tough perennial has naturalized throughout the world, propagating easily by seed.  In climates similar to it’s Mediterranean origin it is an invasive species contributing to habitat destruction.

Introduced by humans to California, it has made itself at home across much of the state.  On Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Islands it has overrun native habitat, much like the introduced and devastating feral pigs which thrive on a diet of naturalized fennel.  Ironically it has also provided cover and shelter to native Island Foxes, a species recently hunted into threatened status by the Golden Eagle.  The Golden Eagle moved to the islands after humans completely displaced the Bald Eagle with DDT.  Ah the web we weave, or unweave as the case may be.  Recently Bald Eagles have been successfully reintroduced.

Fennel’s intricate history with humans far pre-dates California settlement and goes beyond just food.  It reads like a missing chapter from The Botany of Desire, what I find to be Michael Pollan’s most enjoyable work.  It is a book of essays about four plants which have benefited and changed due to the desires of mankind and how they in turn changed us.  Fennel was an important plant medicinally and mythologically in Ancient Greece, and the Romans carried it throughout their realm as well.  Used in Europe as one of the three herbs to make absinthe, the others being anise and grande wormwood, the rituals and lore surrounding absinthe production and consumption further the plant’s mystique.

Mystique to me is just science I don’t yet understand.  And the science which makes fennel special is really cool.  That overwhelming flavor comes from anethole, an unsaturated ether which measures 13 times sweeter than sugar.  And because anethole is less soluble in water than ethanol, it makes anise-flavored liquors milky and opaque when mixed with water.  This Ouzo Effect is a case of science spawning culture and ritual.  In this case resulting in artwork, specialized glasses, spoons, and antiques.  The collector in me swoons!  The legacy of it being hallucinogenic is entirely false, however the hypothesis is that cheaply made absinthe in the 19th century had toxic additives and color enhancements which fueled the lore.  (Humans adding toxic additives and chemicals to increase profits and thereby sell a dangerous product to an unwitting and less affluent demographic?  Imagine that!)

But yet I’ve been hesitant all these years to try absinthe.  I have never cared for licorice before, and have always turned down anise-flavored food and drink.  Really…  all this talk about making sure The Child tries new things, and here I am having never tried it before?  Note to self:  I ought set a good example and rectify this deficiency soon!  If for no other reason than the chemistry is so darn nifty.  But I digress…

"Absinthe Drinker" by Viktor Oliva

Fennel has a glorious history.  It has unique flavors and chemistry which have infiltrated centuries of human history.  It’s done pretty well for itself.  So at the very least I should learn to cook it!  In my previous attempts, I was clearly missing something.

…try, try again.

A friend recently offered a tip.  Steam it a bit.  Instead of just sauteing, hit it with a cooking liquid of some kind, slap the cover on, and let it go all translucent.  So I did just that.  I used the spicy vegetable broth I had made the day before.  And after giving it 15 minutes, took the cover off and tasted.

It was a bit soupy yet, and terribly white and bland looking, but it tasted really, really good!  I left the cover off and simmered most of the soupiness away.  At this point it I intended to let it caramelize a bit while figuring out what the heck to serve it with.  In the 15 minutes it took the quinoa to cook, the mush had reduced to more of a mash.  A colorless and ucky looking, but incredibly tasty, mash.  A little sprinkle of frozen chopped spinach (frozen peas would have also worked) and it had some color.  Sort of.  Who cares…  fennel finally tasted awesome and The Child had seconds!  She in fact chose to mix it in with her quinoa and eat them together.

This is exactly the kind of side dish that works well for an infant or toddler.  It is already nearly baby food as it is, but give it an extra whirl in the blender if necessary.  I remember sitting down with The Child to feed her dinner while we ate, and she was always thrilled when we offered her a taste of something off our plates.  Sometimes she wanted more of what we had, and sometimes she would return to the baby food options we had started with.  It instilled the family habit of The Child trying anything offered really early, but it never could have happened without us all sitting down for dinner together.

So how do you like your fennel?  All this chemistry talk makes me curious if using alcohol as a cooking liquid with fennel changes it’s flavor profile.  Maybe there is a chemical trick to various vinaigrettes which make raw salads more palatable?  I have many more experiments ahead.  Tell me your favorites, and share some recipes in the comments so I can try preparing it again and again!

Spicy Vegetable Broth

Stalks & leaves from 2 fennel bulbs
Leftover celery and carrots past their prime
Garlic cloves, given a quick smash but left whole and in their papers
2-3” piece of ginger, unpeeled and sliced
6-10 whole peppercorns
1 bay leaf

Put everything in a pot with cold water and bring to a boil.  Simmer for about an hour.  After it cools enough to handle, strain and store accordingly.

Fennel & Onion Mash

(This can hardly be called a recipe when I was haphazardly winging it on this one.   But *something* worked… I just don’t know what.  An extra puree at the end would make this the best baby food ever!)

2 fennel bulbs, sliced thin
1 large sweet onion, sliced in half end-to-end, then sliced into half circles
Olive oil
Cooking liquid (broth, stock, water, wine, etc.)
Seasonings of Choice (I used just salt & pepper)
Colored add-in of choice (I used half a handful of chopped, frozen spinach.  Peas, chopped sun-dried tomatoes, or fresh herbs would also work.  Or a drizzle of pan sauce or gravy…  Yum.)

Saute in a saucepan with olive oil and seasonings until just starting to brown on the bottom of the pan.  Add enough cooking liquid to nearly cover veg and then cover pot and turn down temperature so it slowly simmers away.  Let it simmer covered for 10-15 minutes, occasionally giving it a stir.  (For a quick soup, carefully transfer mixture to the food processor with it’s liquid at this stage.)  After the cover is removed let it simmer to your preferred consistency.  For the mash I let it slowly bubble while pulling together the rest of dinner.  It took mine about a half an hour.  Stir occasionally to keep mash from sticking to the sides of the pan.  Turn off the heat and sprinkle in chopped frozen spinach and serve warm.

Read Full Post »

USDA National Nutrient Database

I’m an engineer and scientist by training, although that life seems forever ago.  But I will always be a geek for data.  When I discovered the searchable USDA National Nutrient Database, I was downright giddy.

This is raw data, and it is obviously more useful in the hands of a trained nutritionist.  Understanding which nutrients are soluble when, what is contraindicated with what, and how this data changes given the application of fire are all nuances beyond me.  But as a basic guide when counting calories, or to compare relative vitamin content of particular foods, it is an excellent resource.

Read Full Post »