Life's too short to eat bad food - Me

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic - Arthur C. Clarke

Thursday, April 30, 2009

There is still no cure for the common birthday. - John Herschel Glenn Jr.

Ten years ago today I returned from the Dinner Shift at DACC's at about 12:30 AM. I was hot, sweaty, smelly and beat (which, by an odd coincidence, is the name of the last Law Firm I worked at). I followed the usual routine - dinner and a beer or two. A quick shower and flop into bed in hopes of a five or six hour of sleep before Trish had to get ready for work.

No such luck.

Two and a half hours later, Trish woke me up - the contractions had started, she thought. They had not only started but were already 3.5 minutes apart. We called the Doc, and got to the Hospital at about 5. At 6 I called the owners to say I would wouldn't be showing up that night - we had been planning for that. By 7:30 we were told the birth was imminent. At 8, we were asked if some nursing students could watch the delivery. Heck, a lot of the nurses hung around. We had an eclectic musical selection.

It seemed we were ready to deliver.

Again, no such luck.

At 4:30, after hours of pulling, pushing and bouncing on a big silver ball, Trish was prepped for a C. At 5:06pm a cook was born: Elanor Gordon Harris - 7lbs. 10 oz.

Happy 10th birthday, bug.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Confessions Of A Serial Starter Abuser

May it please the Court, I admit it freely - I abuse my sourdough starter on a regular and consistent basis. I do so by ignoring the advice of most of the experts I respect and admire. I do so with willful disregard for their words . My only defense it that it works - regularly. And, if I may offer Your Honor an extenuating circumstance, the fraking Sourdoughs of the Gold Rush kept their sourdough alive in cold weather by placing the starter under their clothes near their unwashed bodies. This isn't rocket surgery people.

So, why do I raise it now? The Jewish Holiday of Passover is upon us and so my mind is upon yeast. Or rather the lack thereof. You see, while it probably occurred much earlier in history, the first archaeological evidence of yeast fermented dough comes from Egypt. At some point somebody realized that if you mix flour and water together, and let it sit for a few days, it to begins to bubble. When baked the dough cooks up much lighter and tastier. If you kept some of that first batch and added it to the next, it was ready sooner. You can get the details of this from far better sources than me.

The bottom line is that when my Israelite ancestors were fleeing from Egypt, they didn't have time for this biological miracle to occur. Thus, I have been condemned to most of the past week lunching on things that can be spread on a matzoh or stuffed into the dreaded Matzoh Meal Bagel aka the Horta.

If you want a brief overview of sourdough bread, I'd recommend this article in Culinate by Hank Sawtelle. For a more detailed discussion I'd try Mike Avery's excellent site.

On to my sourdough. There are two gripes one hears about sourdough: 1) some folks don't like the taste, and 2) there is so much waste in maintaining a starter. Unless you bake bread on a daily basis, you will be throwing a lot of flour down the drain.

I avoid this by keeping about 1/2 cup of starter in the freezer (with a backup that I dehydrated and stored). Nothing wrong with this - I keep my yeast there as well. It sleeps, rather than dies, in the cold. When I am going to make a sourdough bread, I pull it out and thaw it. When it is thawed, I transfer it to a clean plastic container. I add some warm water, and stir in some flour. I scrape down the sides, cover the bowl with one of those hotel shower caps and put it up on the top of the fridge.

That's my first sin. I know there is an arcane formula for refreshing a starter, but I don't care. I thin it down with water, and then add flour 'til it gets that to that thick batter state I want. Sin two - I don't follow a regular feeding schedule, several times a day style. Once a day, when I remember, it gets the same treatment, some water, some flour, a stir and a scrape - done.

 By the first day it's bubbling away. The great Peter Reinhart sees "thousands of yeast cells eating and then burping." Wrong. They are farting, not burping. Farting carbon dioxide and alcohol. After two days, the starter is up and running. Heavy bubbling and a layer of the well named "hooch" on top (it is alcohol - a relative of kvass). It is now ready to be prepared as a straight sourdough starter "liquid or stiff". It can be transformed into a rye starter, a whole wheat starter - heck any kind of starter.

As my friend Bob delGrosso pointed out, you can even use it to start vinegar! What you are seeing to the right, is the active starter, the firm starter and the firm starter the next day - ready to be incorporated into bread.

The bottom line is that this is the simple result of the combination of three things: water, flour and yeast. I happen to think that most people overthink this, and come up with unnecessary rules. If you mix the flour and water the rest happens by nature.

So let's examine the advice I ignore.

Water: Filtered water, spring water, bottled water, distilled water - the point seems to be that chlorinated water may interfere with the propagation of yeast. Feh. I have done dozens of starters using only Chateau Erie County Water Authority. If you live in a place like Phoenix, where the water tastes like it came right from the toilet, by all mean choose another source of water, but for most of us the tap is just fine.

Flour: Most experts call for unbleached bread flour. I think the idea of bleaching flour is silly, but I get 50 pounds of bleached bread flour for $16, and 25 pounds of all purpose for $6.30. Even store brand flours cannot compete with that price. But, bleached or unbleached, all purpose or bread flour, you can get and a maintain a starter with any of them.

Yeast: here is the real bone of contention, and a discussion that I think is ultimately irrelevant. When you start a starter, where does the yeast come from? The flour? The air? Grapes or some other vegetable? Bakers yeast. Mike Avery says its the flour, period, and that using other things like grapes is the "wrong" yeast. . Peter Reinhart notes that yeast spores are everywhere. Look. There is one there. And another. And one more. . . Bob delGrosso thinks the initial yeast comes from the flour, but more importantly he notes that it's a silly thing to think that only one strain of yeast is present in or on a particular substance.

I think it is all moot.

I have made starters by just about every method except using a purchased starter - more about that later. I have made starters with just rye or whole wheat flour. I have done it with all-purpose flour. My regular starter is the descendant of one done with grapes a la Nancy Silverton. I have started one with commercial yeast. Yes, I know the pH of sourdough starter is inhospitable to bakers yeast, but for me it seems to jumpstart the process, and when the pH lowers, other yeasts take over.

That leads me to my theory. To quote Ms. Ann Elk of Monty Python fame it is "my theory, which belongs to me, is mine." I don't think it matters how you start the starter. I do think that once it is up and running, the yeast microflora that take control is what is roaming around your house and is used to your particular environment. That's my gripe with purchased starters - a) they are free if you do it yourself, and more importantly b) that San Francisco or French Starter you paid $10 for, if maintained, will become a {insert your location here} starter. My proof? Harold McGee:

Eventually, the "mother dough" or "starter" would come to be dominated by the microflora characteristic of the local area: contamination by airborne spores would dilute the initial yeast population.

You want to fight with McGee?

So don't sweat it. If an Egyptian peasant or an illiterate gold miner can make it work, so can you. And it's worth it!

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Toronto Food Porn


Dim Sum at Yiu Wah
Lunch at Perola's

Better Life Through Chemicals

The Hill is reporting the the Nation's Agri-chemical companies are miffed at the choice by the First Lady to make the new White House Garden an Organic Garden. MACA, a chemical industry group, stated: "We live in a very different world than that of our grandparents."

It's true. Food tasted good then . . .

Friday, April 10, 2009

Toronto Food Porn

Friday Pi-Tom's Thai Restaurant.

Toronto Fri

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Days Of Wine And Matzoh

Trish reads the comics section of the BuffNews start to finish. I read five strips (six on Saturday). Two of the, Bliss and Rhymes with Orange, often have culinary themes. When Bliss has a good one, I go to the website and link to the image and post it. But, Rhymes with Orange has like a two week delay before the strip is available online, and by that time I have either forgotten or it's become irrelevant.

This was just good not to scan and post now.

Happy Passover!

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Buffalo News, Meet The United States Food and Nutrition Agency (or Department)

Back in Febrary, I posted a commentary on Nicholas Kristof's Op-Ed about changing the name (and and focus) of the Department of Agriculture to the Department of Food. The gist of the post was that a name change wasn't enough - a whole new agency is need to combine oversight of all food policy.

So I had to smile when the BuffNews dedicated a Sunday Editorial to just that idea. The only problem was that they too did not go far enough, focusing only on the issue of food safety. While this is at the forefront of the news these days, we need a new, holistic approach to food policy.

So, I decided to write a letter to the Editor.

I often suggest that I should write such a letter, and have done so on two or three occasions. But I have been gun-shy about the process since my first letter (the only one published) had been "edited" in a way that eliminated the point. So I went ahead and prepared a Reader's Digest Condensed version of the February Blog post and e-mail it off.

A day or two later a phone call came from the News - the were going to print my letter. It showed up in today's edition.

Here is the text:

While I am not a big fan of the creation of a new federal bureaucracy, the call to create a new agency to take over responsibility for inspecting and monitoring food safety from the U. S. Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration is a good idea. Let me suggest, however, that it is just not enough to create the comprehensive change our national food policies need.

This new agency should also be given authority over nutrition policy, now split between the USDA and the FDA; food advertising policy, now shared between the USDA, the FDA and the Federal Trade Commission; and those aspects of farm subsidies that have an impact on the previous three topics.

All that is needed to make this happen is a method to ensure that decisions made by the new agency/department are based on facts, not influence from Congress or any interest groups from any side of a food issue, along with quite a bit of long-absent political will.

I have little hope that this will happen. Yet my family and your families deserve, at minimum, better food and a better, safer food supply.

Scott Harris

East Amherst

The Making of a Fool

Monday, March 30th began as most Mondays do. Drag my ass out of bed, help get the girls fed, dressed and on the bus. Kiss Trish at her car and go back inside to decide whether to shower or eat first.

Then, the phone rang. It was my friend Andrew Galarneau of whom I often speak. He's a staff writer for the BuffNews and a fellow food addict. He was apologetic, not wanting me to think he only called when he was in a jam, but he had a problem. He had a photographer coming over, and no way to whip cream. Little did he know that Trish and I had decided that our old KA was going to be a housewarming gift.

So I traveled to his house, mixer and some glassware in hand, to make Fools. Andrew had the mango one made, but more work was ahead. I made a second trip home and back because his daughter Zoe had the brilliant idea of not just serving them in a cocktail glass, but making it look like a cocktail. I had paper umbrellas, and little sippy straws. I also had to make a stop at the Wine Cellar, where I knew they carried those cute little bottles of Cointreau that so resemble the Holy Hand Grenade of Antioch.

So, with Klezmer music in the background, berries macerated, cream was whipped, chocolate melted and the Fools assembled and garnished. It was a hoot.

You might think the Fool in the title refers to the delicious desserts we created. You'd be wrong - it refers to me. It took my 8.5 year old daughter Alison seconds to point out that I had missed the obvious: "It's for April Fools Day, Daddy!"

And so, when I picked up last Wednesday's BuffNews I was able to show the photo's to the girls and point out that I had placed that mint sprig or that it was our martini glass in the photo above. How cool is that?

Not as cool as when I noticed that Andrew was credited as "News Food Writer". Congrats, bro! (I have to be nice to him - he is holding my Martini glasses hostage to ensure my continued co-operation wink

The photo is copyrighted by Sharon Cantillon / Buffalo News.

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
- Arthur C. Clarke

Life's too short to eat bad food -