Daily Dish

The inside scoop on food in Los Angeles

Category: Science

Noma's Rene Redzepi and Lars Williams at UCLA

Redzepi2Nobody had expected to witness a few handfuls of crickets meet their death, shoved into a blender and whizzed up with mold-inoculated barley. But that, according to Noma chef Rene Redzepi and Nordic Food Lab research director Lars Williams, is how to make one version of a sauce known as garum

Along with cricket garum (which tastes like soy sauce) and fermented barley, Redzepi and Williams served seaweed ice cream, cucumber "spice" and carrot "vinegar" at a UCLA lecture titled “The Exploration of Deliciousness,” part of a course series on science and food. Deliciousness, Redzepi says, is the point of both Noma, the Copenhagen restaurant known as "the best restaurant in the world" thanks to an annual list published by S. Pellegrino, and the nonprofit research facility Nordic Food Lab.

But it is where and how Redzepi and Williams discover deliciousness that has drawn the attention of the culinary world -- amongst the sea arrowroot that grows along Danish beaches, the 125 types of horseradish in the Nordic region or its 263 varieties of seaweed, or ants that taste like kaffir lime leaf (yes, ants), for example.

"It's a difficult challenge to get excited about those ... so put it in something delicious," says Redzepi, who in fact does get excited about ingredients that are otherwise underutilized and overlooked. The man -- someone who mandates "the need to understand horseradish" -- waxes passionate about sea arrowroot: “I never would have dreamed that there was a plant that wasn’t coriander or even in the coriander family that tasted like coriander!”

Dried cucumber powder is an example of a variety of fruit and vegetable "spices" (the Nordic version of spice, anyway), dried at a certain temperature to achieve caramelization and heightened sweetness. "Vinegars" are made with kombucha -- "an extra live creature in the kitchen," notes Redzepi. Williams says microbes, including various fungi and bacteria, are big in the Noma kitchen. Lately, fermented peas have become "peas-o," their take on miso. "It's a working title," Redzepi says. 

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-- Betty Hallock

Photos: Betty Hallock/Los Angeles Times

Seedless cherimoya? Not quite yet

Cherimoya
“Seedless cherimoya, the next banana?” read the headlines of a story that has circulated on the Web since Monday, referring to the discovery of a gene for seedlessness in a fruit related to cherimoya by Charles Gasser, professor of plant biology at UC Davis, and three Spanish colleagues. The prospect sounds inviting, because the cherimoya is supremely delicious, but contains numerous hard black seeds (whence its name, which means “cold seeds” in Quechua, the Inca language).

Seedless cherimoyas have been around for decades, but have not become common, either in home gardens or commercial orchards, because the trees are not very productive; the seeds are necessary for normal fruit development, so seedless fruits are small and misshapen. Researchers in Japan have also figured out how to make standard varieties of cherimoya seedless by controlling pollination and applying natural plant growth hormones called gibberellins, but this approach has not proved commercially practical.

Gasser’s group does not yet have a seedless cherimoya, but a seedless form of a more tropical relative, sugar apple. This was found in Thailand and brought to Spain, said Gasser on a recent visit to his office. Seedless sugar apples are common in backyards, but previous varieties have been malformed, with mediocre flavor. This one, however, is full size, with good flavor, said Gasser, whose article appeared online Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences; the seed coats appear to develop just far enough to induce the fruit to develop normally, but no seeds develop.

His colleagues in Spain, where cherimoyas are grown commercially, are working to breed a seedless cherimoya by crossing their seedless sugar apple with a normal cherimoya. The trait for seedlessness is recessive, so it will take several generations, but Gasser is confident that a seedless cherimoya-like hybrid will result. (This is all through conventional breeding, not genetic modification.)

Most interestingly, Gasser has identified the same mutant gene for seedlessness in Arabidopsis, a species of cress that is the standard model organism used for studying plant biology. Because sugar apples and cherimoyas are in the magnolia family, which is among the most primitive of flowering plants, “that means that we can probably control this gene to induce seedlessness in basically all flowering plants,”  Gasser said.

Cherimoyas, which are cultivated on about 300 acres in California, will likely become more popular if seedless varieties become available. But they probably won’t ever be as abundant as bananas and pineapples, two other fruits that lost their seeds during domestication. Cherimoyas require labor-intensive hand-pollination and are strongly climacteric, passing quickly from firm to ripe to squishy and brown, so they’ll probably remain an expensive delicacy best suited for local sale.

-- David Karp

Photo: Thai seedless sugar apple, related to cherimoyas, are being used by a team of Spanish researchers to hybridize a seedless cherimoya-like fruit. Credit: Emilio Guirado

Notes from the Test Kitchen interns: Fine-tuning a recipe

Cremebruleekirkmckoy About a week ago,  I introduced Leo Rubin, one of our Test Kitchen interns. Probably the most important thing we teach our interns is how to read a recipe from a recipe tester's standpoint. Unlike the latitude we might take when we cook something at home, formally testing a recipe in a test kitchen is a whole different thing. We follow a recipe step by step, ruler and timer in hand, making notes on everything from what size saucepan we use to what the consistency for a finished sauce might be and how many minutes it takes to get there. Any questions we might have go through the chef or restaurant; we make no assumptions.

Leo has worked a lot helping to test many of our recent recipes for Culinary SOS, our weekly column where we adapt readers' favorite restaurant and bakery recipes for the home. He tested and retested the recipe, double-checking ratios and making sure every step worked -- literally -- as it was written. Here are his notes. -- Noelle Carter

During my time in the test kitchen, I've learned a bunch of techniques that are required to test a recipe. And it can sometimes be a long process, using a trial-and-error approach to achieve the perfect end result.

A perfect example is our recent Culinary SOS recipe for Kona coffee crème brûlée.

Whenever we receive a recipe from a restaurant, we give it an initial run-through, following the exact directions. Often we may have questions for the chef, and he or she may get an earful from us: What size baking pan should we use? Over what heat are we cooking on the stove? Is there a good visual indicator for when the recipe, or a particular step, is done?

After that initial trial, we analyze the results. If a dish is good, we keep the recipe and formally test it for publication. If it's not, we toss it and move on.

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Notes from the Test Kitchen: Fried chicken galore

Chix1 Apparently, there's more than one way to fry a chicken.

When I started researching the Food story, "Back to basics: Fried chicken, made at home," I was amazed at how many recipes there were for the classic comfort food.

I decided to test a bunch of recipes to see which methods worked, and why. I looked for every possible variation: Buttermilk versus brine versus rub. Complex versus simple seasoning. Size of bird. Type of fat. Deep fryer or pan (and if pan, what type). Lard or oil. Temperature. I even researched how to drain the fried birds: rack versus paper bags versus paper towels (and are the towels flat, or do you crumple them?).

I chose 11 recipes, ranging from classics to just-released cookbooks. There was Edna Lewis and Scott Peacock, Kansas City's Chicken Betty (courtesy of Jane and Michael Stern) and James Villas, the Lee brothers and the Bromberg brothers, Thomas Keller and David Chang. I included recipes and variations on the theme from David Rosengarten, Nancy Oakes, Frank Stitts, Gray Kunz and Peter Kamisky.

And because the only way to do a true comparison is to test variations side by side, I decided to test all the recipes at one time. Yeah, it sounded great in theory, but the execution turned out to be more than a little daunting.

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Notes from the Test Kitchen interns: Recipe testing

Breadpuddingkirkmckoy
About a week ago, I introduced Michael Osborne, one of our Test Kitchen interns. Probably the most important thing we teach our interns is how to read a recipe from a recipe tester's standpoint. Unlike the latitude we might take when we tackle a recipe at home, formally testing a recipe in a test kitchen is a whole different thing. We follow a recipe step by step, ruler and timer in hand, making notes on everything from what size saucepan we use to what the consistency for a finished sauce might be and how many minutes it takes to get there. Any questions we might have go through the chef or restaurant; we make no assumptions.

Michael worked a lot on our most recent Culinary SOS, our weekly column where we adapt readers' favorite restaurant and bakery recipes for the home. He tested and retested the recipe, double-checking ratios and making sure every step worked -- literally -- as it was written. Here are his notes. -- Noelle Carter

A reader loves the caramel banana bread pudding from a hotel in Phoenix, and we just got the recipe from the chef. It's a potential Culinary SOS, but will need to be tested before we can run it.

The recipe looks a little complicated. As we read through the ingredients and steps, we quickly note that the recipe will have to be scaled down -- a home cook doesn't need three gallons of custard to make a bread pudding for a family of four. Calculator and red pen in hand, we quickly adjust the recipe proportions and reduce the amounts to a manageable size. Simple math. The directions look a little nebulous: What are the visual cues? And what does the chef mean by "overripe bananas?" Do we toast or dry the cubed croissants -- and how big are the cubes? Time to get the chef on the horn and break out the ruler.

In the Test Kitchen, our normal M.O. is to take the recipe quite literally the first time we make it....

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Notes from the Test Kitchen: So you wanna be an intern ...

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The L.A. Times Test Kitchen is always buzzing with activity, whether we're testing one (or several) recipes, exploring a particular cuisine or ingredient, styling a dish to shoot for an upcoming Food section, taping a television segment ... or having fun in the adjacent photo studio (above). And every day is different.

In addition to our full-time staff, we host interns from culinary schools all over the United States, including international students. These students receive hands-on training as they learn the finer points of recipe testing and development (how to read a recipe, wording, problem solving, adapting for the home kitchen and testing for consistent results). The students also learn tips for food styling and interact with chefs, writers and food professionals of all kinds.

And as much as they may learn from us, we also learn a lot from them. Hailing from various regional and ethnic backgrounds, each intern brings a unique perspective and passion to our kitchen, whether it's discussing the secret intricacies of Texas-style "bowl o' red" or sharing a mother's technique for making Chinese bao. What we all share is a deep love of food.

On that note, I'd like to start introducing you to some of our interns. Meet Michael Osborne, currently interning from The Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

I'm a Texan, grew up in Waco, and have lived there for the majority of my years. My interest in cooking was kindled as the byproduct of a divorce in 1990. Self-preservation was my motivator. My ex, a farm-raised West Texas girl, had been a wonderful cook, and when it came time to feed and fend for myself, I knew I had a lot to learn. ...

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Fried = healthy, CCH Pounder goes fishing, lunching without lunching, root beer roses and more

Chilean vinyard
--Oscar nominees get together for the annual luncheon. But from the looks of this photo gallery, no one is actually doing any lunching. 

--Chile's wine exporters are feeling the economic squeeze.

--The Twitterverse is all about Mardis Gras this morning. Here, @chefrb shows us her....first stab at a King Cake. Nicely done. (Update: An earlier version of this post attributed the photo to @bonbonvivant.)

--If "Avatar" actress CCH Pounder invites you over for a fish banquet, don't fall for the "I've been cooking all day" line.

--Replacing paper coffee filters with reusable ones. A good way to keep trash out of the landfill?

--Would you pay more to have your strawberries smell more like strawberries? Or your roses smelling like root beer? Scientists find genes that could restore fragrances to flowers. The genetic research may also be applied to restore flavors to fruits and vegetables.

--A recipe for fried Greek Zucchini Fritters that still claims to be healthy? We're sold.

--Rene Lynch
On Twitter @renelynch

Photo credit: Victor Baeza, general manager of Calina winery in Talca, Chile, says the 170-acre operation's sales last year didn't budge from 2008's. Chris Kraul / Los Angeles Times

Notes from the Test Kitchen: Crazy cakes

Crazycakekirkmckoy So maybe they are called "crazy," but when it comes to the recipes for these fun and simple cakes, there is a method to the madness.

Emily Dwass' story this week, "Mad for crazy cake," includes a couple of great recipes for these classic cakes, one for  a rich chocolate and the other a fun lemon poppyseed cake.

We started testing the cakes two weeks ago. We ran through each recipe to familiarize ourselves with the method, make sure the recipes worked as expected, and get a look at the finished cakes so we could figure out how to approach shooting the final versions in the studio.

The chocolate cake recipe worked fairly well; the method worked without a hitch, and the final cake was flavorful, though we thought the texture could have been a bit more tender (it was on the spongy side). That spongy texture was more noticeable with the poppyseed cake, and the leavening didn't seem to be working as well.

So I contacted Emily to run through the recipes and compare results.

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Notes from the Test Kitchen: Slow-cooker bread pudding in the oven

BreadpuddingkirkmckoyWhen we picked our Top Recipes of 2009, one of our favorites was the white-chocolate bread pudding with a whiskey caramel sauce, a recipe from February of last year.

It has all the elements of the classic comfort food: a loaf of crusty French bread soaked in a warm white-chocolate custard, then baked to glorious perfection. Puffy and light with a crisp, toasted crust on top. Oh, and the whiskey caramel sauce was just like icing on a cake.

And it's a simple recipe, really. That is, if you have a slow cooker....

See, I developed the recipe to go with a story I'd written on the resurgence of slow cookers'  popularity. The recipe was just one example of the variety of recipes slow cookers can handle (the slow cooker worked perfectly, baking the custard gently at a consistently low temperature).

Of course, I received e-mails from readers who wanted to know what to do if they didn't have a slow cooker. Could the recipe be replicated in a regular oven?

So we tried it in the Test Kitchen, and I think we came up with a pretty good adaptation. The changes include calling for a 13-by-9-inch baking dish (in place of the slow-cooker insert) and baking (loosely covered with foil) at 325 degrees until puffed and set, about 45 minutes. Remove the foil and increase the temperature to 400 degrees and continue to bake until lightly colored and toasted, about 6 to 10 minutes. The method for that whiskey caramel sauce remains the same.

The revised recipe follows the jump. Enjoy!

-- Noelle Carter

Photo: Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles Times

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Chefs, companies promise to use sustainable seafood; 'Super Green' list issued

Fish2

Alton Brown is voting with his taste buds.

He is among more than two dozen chefs -- who also include Suzanne Goin of Lucques, Susan Feniger and Mary Sue Milliken of Border Grill and Rick Moonen of rm seafood in Las Vegas --  from around the country who are pledging today to serve only sustainable seafood and to recruit their colleagues and customers to join them.

Their effort is organized by the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which is releasing a report today on the state of the oceans as well as a "Super Green" list of seafood that is healthy for people and the planet. On the list are some albacore tuna caught in the U.S. or British Columbia, wild-caught salmon from Alaska and pink shrimp from Oregon, among others.

"Every bite you take is like a vote ... a statement of values," says Brown, of Food Network fame. "I value healthy oceans, oceans that have cared well for mankind through the ages. It's high time we took better care of our seas and the bounty they produce."

The chefs are committing not to serve fish from the aquarium's "avoid" list -- rated by scientists as destructive to the oceans.

Other chefs include Rick Bayless of Topolobampo in Chicago, Susan Spicer of Bayona in New Orleans, and Michel Nischan of the Dressing Room in Westport, Conn. In addition to the chefs, the aquarium noted that food companies are also making changes. Compass Group and Aramark, the two largest food services companies in North America, have partnered with the aquarium to shift to sustainable seafood sources. The report cites the efforts of other companies, including a commitment Wal-Mart made in 2006 to, within five years, source all its wild-caught seafood from fisheries certified by the Marine Stewardship Council, which was established by the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever.

The aquarium's report says that prospects for the oceans are improving with a growing consensus to manage wild and farm fishing. But it also sets out significant problems that remain for the oceans and cites the human demand for seafood as the primary factor in the oceans' decline.

The report says that the world seafood supply was 110 million tons in 2006 -- eight times what it was in 1950, with Asia accounting for more than half the global catch. And in the next year, it says, people will eat more farmed seafood than wild for the first time.

The "Super Green" list was developed in conjunction with the Harvard School of Public Health and the Environmental Defense Fund.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the aquarium and the 10th anniversary of its Seafood Watch program, which advised people on what fish to buy and to avoid for their health and that of the oceans. The aquarium says it has distributed 32 million Seafood Watch pocket brochures.

-- Mary MacVean

Photo: Monterey Bay Aquarium

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Daily Dish is written by Times staff writers.