Simanaitis Says

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BETTER EATING—THROUGH CHEMISTRY

A CHRISTMAS GIFT from Wife Dottie was utterly impossible to guess: an 8 1/2 x 10 3/4 x 1 3/4-in. rectangle, rigid as a board—and heavy! Later assessment proved it weighs almost six lb.

A pair of x-ray-protective lederhosen? A safety-packed shipment of rare uranium 235? A tightly wrapped set of oversize Maj Jong tiles?

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The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science, by J. Kenji López-Alt, Norton, 2015.

Being this heavy, the book has extremely dense pages, indeed, of high-quality stock and 958 of them. The Food Lab is written by an acknowledged “nerd in the kitchen.” Kenji has an MIT degree in architecture, a scientific bent of mind, and a flair for writing about home cooking. He’s also known for his “Food Lab” column at seriouseats.com website, whence this book arose.

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J. Kenji López-Alt. Image from kenjilopezalt.com.

Kenji’s inquisitive mind poses questions we’ve all had, but he follows through with answers, many of which have direct application in preparing foods. Here, I offer only two: the concept of cryo-blanching and the subject of PASUD (post-asparagus stinky urine disorder).

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This and the following images from The Food Lab.

One of Chapter 4’s topics is cryo-blanching, a concept new to me for which Kenji credits pals at ideasinfood.com. The technique sounds trivial: Rapidly freeze vegetables. Thaw them. Cook them.

Kenji explains what’s behind the idea: “As the vegetables freeze, ice crystals forming within their cells will puncture cell walls, weakening their structure. After thawing, what you end up with is a vegetable that is partially softened but still has bright, fresh flavor with a bit of crunch remaining.”

It’s similar to the food chemistry brought about by traditional blanching, but without the fuss of hot water and timing. After being thawed, the veggies are sautéd ever so briefly and they’re done.

Beans

To freeze rapidly, the vegetable must have small cross section, like green beans, peas or asparagus. Put the trimmed veggies in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet and leave them, uncovered, in the freezer for a few hours. Then they can be bagged and saved for sautéing directly from frozen.

I’m going to try the technique with asparagus, which brings me to Kenji’s discussion of this vegetable’s unique er… character.

Asparagus

In 1975, Robert H. White, University of California at San Diego, identified S-methyl thioacrylate and S-methyl 3-(methylthio)thiopropioate as the chemical culprits in why one’s urine smells odd after eating asparagus. Kenji gives it the name Post-Asparagus Stinky Urine Disorder, PASUD, for short.

What’s more, not all people have this tell-tale followup to asparagus consumption. It’s unknown why some are unable to process these chemicals, but it’s recognized that PASUD is related to genealogy.

As Kenji notes, “Fewer than half of Britons, apparently, suffer from it, while almost 100 of the French do…. But the real kicker is that it turns out that not only do some people not produce the odor, some people cannot smell it.” He notes cogently that this complicates PASUD self-reporting and “It’s not easy to find volunteers to check for it either.”

Marcella Hazan, author of The Classic Italian Cook Book: The Art of Italian Cooking and the Italian Art of Eating, and Julia Child, of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1, are my culinary mentors. However, I sense I’m going to enjoy Kenji’s company in the kitchen for entirely different reasons. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2016

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