food knowledge

5 Must-Try Dumplings

Is there anywhere on the planet where dumplings aren’t eaten?

Everybody loves dumplings.
Italians have ravioli and the Germans have spätzle. There’s Japanese gyoza, Polish pierogies, African fufu, and Cuban papas rellenas. Dumplings soar to new heights with the culture and traditions of Chinese dim sum, and you can’t be Jewish without yearning for a matzoh ball now and then.

At its most basic, a dumpling is the simplest of concepts: a cooked ball of dough. It can be made from potato, flour, rice, or bread. Dumplings can be sweet or savory, filled or unfilled, steamed, simmered, fried, baked, or boiled. They can appear as any course at any meal, at any time of day or night. Whoever you are, wherever you’re from, there’s a dumpling option for you.

The Essential, Must-Try Dumplings
It’s not all wontons and ravioli; there’s a great big world of dumplings out there. Here are 5 to try: (Ukraine)
Savory varieties are usually topped with melted butter, sour cream, fried cubes of uncured pork fatback, and fried onions. Fruit-filled sweet ones are usually topped with melted butter, sour cream, honey, or raspberry jam. Either way, Time Magazine once called varenyky the greatest of all European foods.


Pelmeni (Russia)
Smaller than varenyky, with thinner dumpling skins, pelmeni are always savory and have a higher filling to dough ratio. Frozen bags of pre-made pelmeni are so ubiquitous that they are seen as student or bachelor food, kind of like our instant ramen. (Italy)
You can readily buy tortellini that is dried, frozen, and  canned in soup. But don’t. You want it freshly-made and served in a rich meat broth—the classic tortellini en brodo—in a shape that pays tribute to Venus’ belly button.



Xiaolongbao/Soup Dumplings (Shanghai)
Thin, chewy dumpling skins, mild, gingery filling, all bathed in a few spoonfuls of steamy broth— the first bite of a Shanghai soup dumpling is a rich, juicy explosion that plays like a symphony in your mouth. Dumpling (U.S.-Amish)
It’s a whole apple sweetened with sugar and cinnamon encased in a flaky pastry, and you get to eat it for breakfast, Pennsylvania Dutch-style. Think of it as a precursor to the Pop-Tart. (Afghanistan)
Aushak’s closest relative is the Italian ravioli with meat sauce; but that is merely a reference point. The dough is thinner and more delicate, the filling is a sharp puree of leeks or scallions, and it’s topped with two sauces, one of spiced, finely ground lamb, and a second sauce of yogurt that cools the kick of the other.


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6 Condiments You Really Should Get to Know

In the beginning there was ketchup.

Ketchup has reigned supreme for nearly 200 years. At its peak, it was found in 97% of U.S. households.
But global influences have perked up our palates. There’s a big world of flavor out there. Clear out some space in the pantry and push aside the ketchup bottle in your refrigerator. It’s time to make room in your kitchen and your cooking repertoire for six new condiments.

Sriracha, oh how I love thee. Squeezed on vegetables, drizzled over noodles, mixed into dressings, dips, and sauces; a moderately spicy chili base with a healthy garlic kick, Sriracha is a condiment chameleon. It transcends cuisines and national boundaries meshing equally well with dishes from Asia, Latin America, and the American South. It rivals ketchup as a tabletop catch-all.


Fish sauce requires a leap of faith. Comprised largely from fermented anchovies, on its own it is potent and smelly. Use it judiciously as a dipping sauce or an ingredient in curries, casseroles, and stir fries. The flavor is pure magic.

Chimichurri sauce can be green or red (with added tomatoes or peppers). It’s primarily a blend of parsley, garlic, olive oil, vinegar, and pepper flakes, with different spices added to suit the dish. It’s used as a marinade and as a sauce, mostly with grilled meats. It’s popular throughout South and Central America; especially in Argentina where they know a thing or two about grilling meats.

Doesn’t this look familiar? Canned tahini has been found on supermarket shelves in the kosher aisle forever. A creamy paste made from sesame seeds, tahini is most closely associated with the Middle East, where it is a familiar ingredient in hummus, falafel, and eggplant dishes. Tahini has the consistency of peanut butter but with a milder taste, and adds nutty richness as a sandwich spread, salad dressing, and dessert ingredient.

Harissa is a chili sauce that appears on every North African table; sometimes in every course at every meal in all kinds of dishes. To my taste, a little goes a long way: a dab added to stews, sandwich spreads, soups, and sauces adds a distinctively tart, fiery finish. It is available in cans and jars, but for me, the little tube, as shown, is plenty.

Cook Moroccan food without preserved lemon and it just doesn’t taste Moroccan. These are lemons that have been essentially pickled in their own juices along with salt and some spices like cloves, coriander, pepper, and cinnamon. Maybe it doesn’t sound like much, but whatever the preserved lemons are added to take on complexity and a kind of exoticness. Beans or vegetables, sauces and salsas, dips and desserts will all have a little Moroccan je ne sais quoi.



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Did You Inherit the Supertaster Gene?

Most of us are born with around 10,000 taste buds on our tongues; many more and you’re a supertaster.

About 25% of us are supertasters– more women than men. It can be a mixed blessing. Flavors are perceived more vividly. Salt is saltier. Sugar is sweeter. But carbonation bubbles can be distractingly prickly. Hot peppers can be punishing. Hardly a garden of gustatory delights.

Taste is one of the most basic of all human experiences. It is also one of the most complex. It is dependent upon experience, context, and genetics. It embraces all of the senses.

It begins with the tongue.

Supertasters’ tongues are distinguished by two genetically determined traits. One is the profusion of taste buds densely packed into each square inch of the tongue’s surface. The greater sensory capacity leads to more nuanced sensing of flavors. The second trait is the perception of the chemical compound 6-n-propylthiouracil known as PROP.

Most people perceive PROP as a slightly bitter taste. About a quarter of the population will fail to taste it at all. Supertasters are overwhelmed by an intense bitterness.

Supertasters tend to prefer orange juice to grapefruit, tea to coffee, green beans to broccoli, spinach to kale. They have a penchant for creamy, fatty foods but as a group are thinner than the general population, perhaps because the palate is more easily satisfied. As children, they are often known as picky eaters.

Supertasters that succeed in developing tolerance for strongly-flavored foods can benefit from this genetic endowment. They can perceive far more subtle and nuanced flavors than the rest of us, distinguishing individual notes in a complex dish. Quite a few wine connoisseurs attribute their discerning palates to supertaster status, including wine writer Robert Parker who famously insured his taste buds for one million dollars.

Does this sound like you? There are a few tests to determine if you possess either of the attributes of a supertaster.

Bland, vile, or somewhere in between? The Supertaster Test Kit contains two sets of PROP-infused strips and a detailed test guide.

For an easy home test, swab a little food coloring on your tongue and check the number and concentration of taste buds.

Take this quick and easy quiz about food preferences to see if you could be a supertaster.



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Offal for Beginners

Clockwise from top: pig's tongue, heart, foot, ear. Image via Eat Me Daily

We are having an offal moment.
Nose-to-tail, organs, innards, variety meats, the nasty bits—whatever you want to call it, whole-animal cookery is experiencing a revival in restaurant and home kitchens.

There are good reasons to eat offal.
It’s cheap, full of nutrients and protein, and adds variety to our diets. It reduces waste, maximizing the resources of food production, and pays a kind of respect to the animal that gave its life to appear on our plates. Of course those reasons are probably the last thing on your mind when you’re confronted with a grilled sheep heart (very tender, distinctly ringed with chambers) or boiled pig ears (simultaneously crunchy and gelatinous, still looking very ear-like).

Offal doesn’t challenge us with its taste. Most innards and extremities are subtly flavored and not unfamiliar. And intellectually we appreciate its virtues. The problem is an emotional, elemental, visceral response—one we feel in our own viscera. Its homophonic name (yes, it is pronounced awful) doesn’t help.

Offal is the stuff of nightmares for vegetarians and carnivores alike. Some might recoil from brussels sprouts and others gag on cottage cheese, but offal provokes a squeamishness that is nearly universal. It’s a shame, because some of today’s most creative chefs have embraced whole-carcass cooking as a badge of honor, producing innovative, exciting dishes based on offal and odd bits like heads, tails, and trotters.

If you’re ready to take the plunge, here are some tips to get you started.

  • Leave it to the professionals.
    Preparations can involve some fairly gruesome peeling, snipping, and soaking. You want to be sure it’s done right and hang on to your resolve and your appetite. Eat out.
  • Start with sweetbreads.
    You probably thought I was going to say liver, but no, the thymus gland (or sometimes pancreas) is the better gateway offal. Sweetbreads are sweet and mild, and in expert hands will emerge tender and crispy, sort of like a cross between monkfish and fried chicken. Liver, on the other hand, is chalky with a powerful mineral tang—paté and terrines did not prepare you. Trust me, you want the sweetbreads.
  • Know your limitations.
    The true challenge is not to your palate but to your head. Pig brains might taste like nectar from the gods, but if you can’t get past the ick factor, then don’t go there. We all draw our lines somewhere, and there’s no shame if yours is this side of ram testicles.

The U.K. Guardian explains all the nasty bits in An A to Z of Offal.

AOL’s Gadling travel blog has A Guide to America’s Most “Offal” Restaurants.


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Contest Winners: Designing a new food label


Daniel Campuzano 



The old label (far left) just isn’t working for us.

Not that it ever really did. In fact when the FDA first introduced nutrition labeling in 1993, the agency deliberately didn’t choose the best option; instead, it opted to play it safe by choosing the design that was characterized as ‘the least poorly understood.’

The FDA is taking another crack at it. Later this year it will introduce revised food labeling, and the hope is that it set its sights a little higher.

Melissa Messer- Daily Nutritional Value Paul Frantellizzi

The School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, is lending an unsolicited hand. It held a public competition called Rethink the Food Label,  judged by a panel of designers, health professionals, and food activists (including faculty member Michael Pollan). Entrants were encouraged to “re-imagine the label to include geography, food quality, food justice, carbon footprint, or lesser-known chemosensory characteristics.”

Joanne Frederick- The Real Food Label

The biggest shortcoming of the current label is the nutritional arithmetic. All those grams and percentages tend to cause our eyes to glaze over. It also gives manufacturers the ability to ‘game’ the system by adding irrelevant and inert ingredients that improve the labeling profile without making the food any healthier. Instead of improving food and nutrition literacy, the current label is a distraction that doesn’t directly answer the real questions:  Is this good for my health? Is this good for the planet?

The best of the contest submissions (some seen here) use a visual shorthand to answer those questions. They finesse a graphical yes or no with design elements like thumbs up or thumbs down, report card-style letter grades, color coded food groups, and red light or green light.

We will soon find out if the FDA has incorporated any of these elements in its final redesign. The contest makes one thing clear —the existing model can be vastly improved with a dose of simplicity and a little creativity.

See who won at Rethink the Food Label.


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Everything (and then some) Bagels

image via chris

The everything is not the most popular bagel—that would be plain, closely followed by sesame. But for some, it’s the only bagel that will do. Salty, seedy, and pungent with onion and garlic, it’s the true bagel lover’s bagel.

The everything bagel also has its detractors. They complain that the everything’s yeasty, stinky goodness befouls its milder brethren in the paper sack on the way home from the bagel shop. They whine about garlic breath and the way poppy seeds tuck themselves into the spaces between their teeth. I say knock yourselves out with a blueberry bagel [sic].

And there’s controversy.
In a promotional post for his 516Ads blog, web entrepreneur David Gussin claims to have invented the everything bagel as a teenager in the early 1980’s. Working an after school job at a Queens bagel bakery, he was inspired to reuse the tasty, toasty, seedy debris he swept out of the oven at the end of a shift. The shop’s customers went crazy for the concoction, and the rest, as he says in a New Yorker Schmear Dept. profile, is history.

Not so, says modern marketing guru Seth Godin. He claims to have originated the everything bagel at least three years earlier, back in 1977 when he was a teenaged bagel shop employee. Godin figures the oversight comes from the fact that the bagel shop of his youth was located in Buffalo—too far off the radar of the bagel elite. Despite a compelling argument from Godin (“…you add the seeds when the bagels are on the wet burlap…the burnt seeds in the oven get pretty incinerated and you wouldn’t want to use em.”) the New Yorker has yet to publish a retraction.

The everything is hands-down the funniest bagel.
There is so much online riffing on the boastful hyperbole of the appellation that blogging pioneer Jason Kottke hypothesized, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d have thought Twitter was built specifically for the purpose of cracking wise about the lack of everything on the everything bagel.” His blog,, rounded up some of the best:

–This “everything bagel” is great. Has onions, poppy seeds, garlic, cheese, q-tips, Greenland, fear, sandals, wolves, teapots, crunkin… @JohnMoe
–The “everything bagel” really only has like three things. Just what I want for breakfast. Lies. @missrftc
–You might want to scale back on calling yourself an “everything bagel.” I mean, right away I can see there are no M&M’s on here. @friedmanjon
–Flossing after an everything bagel is important b/c as the name implies, you don’t just have *something* in your teeth, you have every thing. @phillygirl

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

You can make everything taste like an everything bagel with a sprinkle of Everything Bagel Spice Mix.

The home gardening adventurers at Plantgasm ask the question, “Can you grow anything from the seeds of an everything bagel?


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You’re So Wrong! Food Myths and Misconceptions

Adding salt won’t make the water boil any faster, you can take mayonnaise on a picnic, and go ahead and swallow that gum—it doesn’t take any longer to digest than anything else you might eat.

Let’s face it, sometimes common wisdom isn’t all that wise.
Then there are those infernal enemies of truth—of course I’m speaking of tweets, like buttons, and repostings. They carry the misinformation to the masses, and the next thing you know you’ve got yourself a new food mythology.

Let’s separate the facts from the fiction, the science from the silliness.
We’re going to look at those myths and misconceptions, and settle this once and for all.

myth: Add salt to water to make it boil faster.
reality: Salt actually raises the boiling point, so salted water takes longer to boil. It’s moot anyway since it takes way more salt than what gets added to a pasta pot to have that effect. Just add salt because it will make the pasta taste better.

myth: Sushi means raw fish.
reality: Sushi refers to the vinegared rice. Sashimi comes closer in meaning, since the ingredients are always raw, but it’s still not accurate.


myth: A craving is your body telling you it needs something.
reality: Our bodies can tell us physically when we lack a certain nutrient, but specific food cravings are strictly emotional.


myth: Alcohol burns off in cooking.
reality: Alcohol has a lower boiling point than water, so it evaporates more quickly in cooking. But even after an hour of simmering, 25% of the alcohol remains, and 10% after two hours.


myth: There are negative-calorie foods that use more energy to eat than what’s contained in the food itself.
reality: The mere act of existence burns about 62 calories an hour, so in that sense, you can eat very low-cal foods and come out ahead. But chewing and digesting even a tough food like celery won’t bump up the hourly calorie burn enough to compensate for the added calories.

myth: You can’t bring sandwiches containing mayonnaise on a picnic.
reality: Commercial mayo has a high acid level and actually acts as a preservative for other ingredients. The turkey on a sandwich or the tuna in the tuna salad are more likely culprits when it comes to food-borne illnesses.

myth: Slice into rare beef and you get bloody juices.
reality: Nearly all blood is removed from meat during slaughter. Even when it’s served ‘bloody rare,’ you’re only seeing water and beef  proteins.


myth: The avocado pit in a bowl of guacamole will keep it from turning brown.
reality: There is no special magic to the pit. The browning is just natural oxidation from exposure to air, and the pit is big enough to block some air from reaching the dip. Try saran wrap and you’ll cover more area.

Myths, legends, misconceptions, polite fictions, old wives’ tales….
They’re the lessons o f old-school chefs, the ‘wisdom’ passed from mothers to daughter; whatever you want to call them, there are plenty more out there, and now they’ve gone viral.




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These Foods Will Outlive You

This is not about Twinkies. Or Christmas fruitcake, circa 2004. Or leftovers that wear out their welcome. Forget what you think you know about spoilage, shelf-life, and expiration dates.

This is a list of foods that never go bad. You don’t toss them when you clean out the pantry, remodel your kitchen, or move to another city. In fact you’ll be long gone, but that box of brown sugar will live on.

The sweeteners

White, brown, or powdered, sugar never goes bad. Bacteria can’t feed on sugar, so it will never spoil. Corn syrup is also a keeper, but we’re not fans of the stuff. Honey, with its own antibacterial properties, has been famous for its longevity ever since centuries-old honey pots were unearthed from ancient Egyptian tombs, and found to be perfectly edible. Maple syrup has a surprisingly limited shelf life of just a year or so, but who knew you could freeze maple syrup indefinitely?!

The carbs

Unless you’re wild about gravy, that tin of cornstarch could be the last one you’ll ever buy, since it never goes bad. All of the white rice varieties, like jasmine, arborio, and basmati, will keep forever; the higher oil content of brown rice makes those varieties prone to spoilage. Wild rice is another food that will outlast you, even though it’s not a rice at all, but is an edible grass.

The condiments

Salt—kosher, iodized, from the sea, or chiseled from mines—it never goes bad. Its resistance to bacterial growth makes it handy as a preservative for other foods. Like salt, vinegar is also used to extend the shelf life of other foods, and is, in a pure state without added flavorings, eternally self-preserving. Vanilla (the extract, not the beans) doesn’t just last forever; it actually improves with age. The cheaper, artificial extract is no bargain when you consider the cost to replace it every few years when its flavor fades. Spring for the good stuff and your grandchildren will still be baking with it.

Heat, light, moisture, air, and pests; these are the enemies. Keep them away from your pantry, and you can keep these foods forever.

When in doubt, check with the keep it or toss it query bar at Still Tasty.


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How Much? How Many?

A little culinary quantum physics to answer some of life’s vexing questions.

So much in life is uncertain, unknowable, and uncontrollable. Sometimes we can use a few answers. Maybe these aren’t the kinds of questions that keep us up at night, but there is still something comforting about round numbers.


A keg contains 15½ gallons, or the equivalent of 6.8 cases of beer. That’s 124 red party cups filled to the brim. [KegBooty]




There are 37 scoops in a gallon of ice cream.  [WikiAnswers]




Within their PVC-wrapped tubes, Smarties come in a combination of white, yellow, pink, orange, purple, and green. Each color’s flavor really is slightly different. They are packaged as a roll of 15. [Wikipedia]


Plain or peanut?
A 1 lb bag of peanut M&M’s contains approximately 190 candies; you get 405 M&M’s in a bag of plain.   [ChaCha]



Figure on 7,200 grains in a cup of rice.  [WikiAnswers]




It takes 1½ potatoes to make the Big Grab single serving size of chips. How many chips is that? Let’s just say not enough. [Askville]



If you squeezed every last drop of ketchup out of little foil packets, it would take 41 of them to fill a standard ketchup bottle; realistically, you’ll never wring out every last drop or hit the narrow bottle opening every time, so count on 50 packets. Of course, realistically, who’s going to attempt this?  [CalorieCount]


A box of Cornflakes contains a mere 981 flakes, [WikiAnswers] while the same size box of Cheerios holds almost 5,000 of the little o’s. More importantly, it’s easily enough to make Cheerio necklaces for 50 small children.  [WebAnswers]




And the proverbial two scoops of raisins in Raisin Bran? It begs the obvious question Just how big is said scoop? You have to wonder, is it the same scoop, independent of box size, or does the scoop get larger when the box size increases?

The raisin counts prove to be an average of 221 in the 15 oz. package,  337 raisins in the 20. oz. box, and a stingy double scoop of 321 in the 25.5 oz. size. The scoop-to-box-ratio increases proportionately until you get to the big box, which is strictly for bran flake enthusiasts. [Science Creative Quarterly]


Next time you go grocery shopping, remember that volume estimates are subject to all sorts of perceptual illusions—a fact that marketers never forget. Tall and narrow appears to hold more than short and wide, and tuna cans aren’t flattering to anything but tuna.



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Does a Good Review Make the Food Taste Better?

image via Foodists

We know that food tastes better when it’s eaten outside. Or when it’s free. Or when one of our kids cooks it for us.
What about a meal in a restaurant that’s gotten rave reviews? Researchers who study the science of taste tell us that our expectations actually exert a kind of strange magic on our taste buds that can truly alter our sensory perceptions.

Your taste in music or art is subjective, but those opinions come after you’ve sensed it. Your eyes are seeing a color or a shape and your ears are taking in the tones—they do the sensing before your brain chimes in with its opinion. The sensations themselves are unjudged; there is nothing intrinsically good or bad about them.

Taste is different.
It is good or bad: nutrition or poison; swallow or spit. Taste is survival.

It’s more than the sum of the sensory data.
Your tongue identifies hot or cold, salty or sour, sweet or savory, but the survival mechanism requires your brain to interpret the data: ingest or reject? Taste is created only when the brain takes the sensory data from the taste buds, tosses in data from the other four senses, and views it all through the lens of experiential and psychological factors.

Our expectations play right into the psychological factors, sometimes even refracting the sensory input in defiance of reality.
You’ve probably seen some of the classic studies: the young children who insist the hamburger in McDonald’s packaging tastes better than the no-name burger, or the wine drinkers who show a marked preference for the bottle with an expensive label. The newest studies using MRIs and brain mapping techniques confirm it—your expectations really are defining what you taste. That Michelin star or Zagat 27 score will light up your brain when you sit down to dinner, giving it a head start in delicious before the first bite (You’ll have to trust me on the technical details of this one- I think we’ve had enough neuroscience for one day. Or else read the studies cited below).

Eating is a multisensory experience taking into account genetics and gender, historical and cultural influences, mood, emotions, context, and hunger. The empirical scores of a restaurant review can shape the experience, but no two people can ever truly taste the same thing. Like good art or music, good food is subjective.
Of course food lovers already know this.

Studies referenced:
Effects of Fast Food Branding on Young Children’s Taste Preferences from the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine;

The Interactive Effect of Cultural Symbols and Human Values on Taste Evaluation from the Journal of Consumer Research;

various studies from Alfredo Fontanini at the Neuroscience Lab at Stonybrook University.


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Barbecue, Bar-b-que or BBQ? Finally, a definitive answer.

Capital F for French toast but not for french fries; it’s sloppy Joe but bloody mary; wheat germ—two words; wheatgrass—one. Who decides this stuff?!

I’ll tell you who: the Associated Press. It’s the world’s largest news organization, operating in 121 countries, and what it says goes. If it’s being written for public consumption, the AP Stylebook is the final word in grammar, spelling, punctuation, and usage. For more than 50 years, it’s told us when numbers should be spelled out (one through nine unless it’s an age or percentage), whether it’s United States or U.S. (abbreviate when it’s an adjective), and that white (lowercase) is preferable to Caucasian (capitalized). And this year, the AP Stylebook features its first-ever Food Guidelines section.

It’s a big deal. Really.
The stylebook is the gold standard for journalistic publication. It means that food writing is recognized, legitimized, and welcomed into the ranks of established AP journalistic specialties like business and sports. It also standardizes and codifies food writing; we are told that equipment and techniques should always precede ingredients in the text of a recipe (in a nonstick pan over medium heat crack 2 eggs…), and now we know when to say the garlic is minced and when we should call it chopped.

If that wasn’t enough of a big deal already, we are also told unequivocally that Parmesan is a style and Parmigiano-Reggiano is a cheese; Crock-Pots (uppercase, hyphenated) are always slow cookers (little s, no hyphen), but slow cookers are not all Crock-Pots; and Broccolini™ is a brand name. And the barbecue entry offers this:  The verb refers to the cooking of foods (usually meat) over flame or hot coals. As a noun, can be both the meat cooked in this manner or the fire pit (grill). Not barbeque or Bar-BQ.
That settles it.

What a boon for foodbloggers (yes, one word) everywhere.

The 2011 Edition of the AP Stylebook is available in book form and as a mobile app.

On June 13 at 2:30 p.m. ET, AP Food Editor J.M. Hirsch will host a live chat to solicit feedback and answer questions about the new edition. You can join the chat at


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Head Cheese (WTF?!)

All this talk of ‘nose to tail’ eating, but still we don’t cozy up to the head cheese.

Let’s start by getting the ‘head’ and ‘cheese’ business out of the way.
Yes, it’s made with a head; usually that of a pig, but sometimes from a calf, cow, or sheep (good to know if you keep kosher); no, there isn’t any cheese involved (the lactose intolerant can relax). The name evolved from the Latin word forma—a basket or box used as a mold—most often to compress and form cheese curds but also for meat terrines; as forma, and then fromage, became the word for cheese, the molded meats were swept along.

Said head is plucked and shaved, the earwax is cleaned out, and it’s simmered for hours— skin, snout, eyeballs, tongue, and all. The cooked meat is seasoned and packed into a mold along with the collagen-enriched stock (from all the bone and cartilage) which gels as it cools.

Looking at a well-constructed slice of head cheese can be like peering through a stained glass window with its mosaic effect of shimmering aspic dotted with suspended jewels of braised pork bits. At its finest, a slice of head cheese is tender meat and wobbly gelatin that melts on the tongue. Bad headcheese can be grayish, dry, and pasty, studded with the occasional bristle or tooth missed in straining, but that’s another story…

Any cuisine that cooks with pork has a version of head cheese, since when it comes to the pig’s head, it’s pretty much head cheese or toss it. In Germany it’s called sülze, it’s queso de puerco in Mexico, giò thủ in Viet Nam, and formaggio di testa in Italy. The Brits call it brawn and in the southern U.S. it’s known as souse. You probably eat more head cheese than you realize a slice can be snuck into a Vietnamese banh mi sandwich or served as a salumi alongside its charcuterie cousins.

Your kitchen will look like the set of a slasher flick, but it’s otherwise not that difficult to make your own head cheese. So if you ever find yourself in possession of a whole pig’s head and a dozen or so friends willing to share in the results (that’s why they’re your friends), you’ll be amply rewarded with pounds of the stuff.

You’ll find recipes for head cheese and other ‘nose to tail’ cooking at The Rooter to the Tooter.

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Your Beer has a Secret (and you’re not going to like it).

The clear amber hue? Thank the fish bladder that filtered out yeasty sediments.
That creamy head of foam? It comes courtesy of a froth conditioner derived from the gastric enzymes in a pig’s stomach.

Water, malt, hops, yeast: the label might list as few as four ingredients, when in fact a whole host of unnamed additives were used as brewing ingredients or processing agents. It’s a dirty little secret of the beer industry.

There can be hidden animal by-products in your beer. It’s troubling, to say the least, and if you’re a vegan or vegetarian, keep kosher or eat halal, it’s wholly unacceptable.

And it’s not just beer—animal-derived ingredients and agents make unannounced appearances in virtually every aisle of the supermarket. Gelatin from pig skin puts the chew in gum and licorice and the creaminess in frozen cheesecake . You’ll find beef fat in Twinkies, fish oil in Tropicana’s Heart Healthy Orange Juice, and dough conditioners sourced from duck and chicken feathers that are added to bagels and donuts.

As for beer, with the exception of specialty brews made with honey or dairy products, animal products are most commonly used for flavoring, coloring, head retention, and as a clarifying agent. Not all brewers and brewing processes use them—animal-free alternatives are often available—but they appear almost universally in English and Irish brews (yes, Guinness too), and in beer that has been cask-conditioned. The U.S. doesn’t require labeling for animal ingredients or agents in beer, and even the stringent Reinheitsgebot, Germany’s 500-year old purity law, permits their use.

See if your favorite brew is animal friendly: Barnivore maintains a massive and up-to-date list of the vegan options available through nearly 1,500 breweries world-wide.

Perhaps in homage to cock-ale, a 17th century favorite, the Boston Brewing Company recently cooked up a Sam Adams beef heart brew that is served exclusively in David Burke’s restaurants.



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Get the Damn ‘X’ Out of My Espresso!

Something in me snaps when I see an ‘x’ in espresso.
Or an extra ‘r’ in mascarpone. The salad is ‘Caesar,’ not ‘Ceasar,’ and there is no ‘n’ in restaurateur (and a server’s incorrect pronunciation affects me like fingernails on a chalkboard, but don’t get me started…).

Yes, we all make little mistakes sometimes. And it’s true that excellent spelling skills are seldom a prerequisite for a restaurant job. But no, I will not lighten up; not until every misplaced ‘x’ has been eradicated.

There’s no room for creative expression when it comes to menu spelling. Get it wrong and it undermines your credibility and leaves doubts about your expertise. If you can’t spell it right, how can I trust you to cook it properly?

Wrong tells me that you couldn’t be bothered to check. It makes me wonder what else you couldn’t be bothered with, like trimming the tough stems from the spinach or washing your hands.

I’m not saying it’s easy.
Menus can be an etymological bomb field. They can challenge even the word-nerdiest diner with their technical jargon and regional and obscure foreign phrases. It’s what makes food terms such a favorite of the Scripps National Spelling Bee (50 food-related words appeared in the last Bee).

If (like me) you love food and you love language, then you should be excited (also like me) by the forthcoming release of Scrabble’s Cooking Edition. You can pre-order today for shipping next month. [Cooking Edition of Scrabble]

For the final word on menu language, pick up a copy of The International Menu Speller with its 10,000 alphabetically arranged names of dishes, ingredients, culinary techniques and nutrition terms, all correctly spelled and accented. [The International Menu Speller]



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Deconstructing Chicken and Waffles

The long-time favorite of West Coast stoners and East Coast soul food lovers has crossed into the mainstream.
Chicken and waffles has been gaining steam for a few years, spreading organically from its New York and Los Angeles bases. The culinary mash-up began popping up on stylish brunch menus and as a late-night gastropub offering. It’s had its own controversies, raising questions about cultural sensitivity and cultural appropriation, and has spawned shark-jumping fusions from chicken and waffle food trucks. If you needed any more proof that chicken and waffles has hit the big time, IHOP is now serving the combination at 1,500 locations.

Northern Europe meets southern United States. Breakfast meets dinner. Sweet meets savory.
Who do we thank [or blame] for this uneasy marriage? Some food historians see a link to Pennsylvania Dutch traditions. Others point to the confluence of black cooks and the nation’s first waffle iron, when that implement was imported by the notorious slave-holder Thomas Jefferson.

Whatever the origins, the dish was first popularized in 1930’s Harlem at the Wells Supper Club. An after-hours gathering place for Jazz Age club-goers, the Wells legend tells us that the combination was a happy compromise—it was too late for dinner and  too early for breakfast, so both meals were served on a single plate. The dish hit the west coast in the 1970’s, where it was equally well-suited to the midnight rambles of the local youth culture.

With maple syrup; really?
It can baffle the uninitiated: is it two dishes sitting side-by-side or should it be eaten as a single entity? How about butter? Gravy? Hot sauce? Syrup?

Yes to all.
Crunchy, juicy, spicy, crispy, fluffy, sweet, and salty, plus a hit of sticky maple—it’s a heck of a forkful.

History professor Frederick Douglass Opie is our foremost chicken and waffles authority. His podcast for American Public Media’s The Splendid Table traces the dish’s history, and he shares more history, culture, and recipes at his blog Hog and Hominy: Culture, Cooking, Travel, and Traditions.



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Rewire Your Tastebuds

Go from yuck to yum with the miracle berry.

About a year ago synsepalum dulcificum, known as the miracle fruit or miracle berry made some ripples in the food press.
In case you missed the story the first time around, these are berries that rewire your palate so that sour or bitter foods will taste sweet. Dark beer tastes like a chocolate milkshake, goat cheese turns into cake frosting, and ketchup tastes like maple syrup. Tequila goes down like apple juice, vinegar becomes wine, and wine tastes like a melted Popsicle.

What’s going on is that a protein in the miracle fruit binds with and alters the flavor of the acid in whatever foods you eat in combination with it. Low-acid foods like bananas and zucchini are unchanged. Vanilla is just vanilla. Tangy foods like onions and horseradish retain their astringent aroma but taste disorientingly bland, while worcestershire sauce will surprise you with its complexity.

The miracle fruit itself is pleasantly sweet and berry-like. It takes effect almost immediately and lasts for an hour or two. It took a first run at the American market in the 1970s. The fruit’s growers promoted its potential to sweeten foods with fewer calories than sugar and none of the health risks of artificial sweeteners. Its commercialization was abandoned when the FDA classified the fruit as an “additive” rather than a food. Recently interest has been revived by cutting-edge chefs and bartenders exploring its culinary potential and by food enthusiasts who make the fruit the centerpiece of experimental tasting parties.

Keep in mind that miracle berries change only the perception of taste, not the food’s chemistry. Your teeth, mouth, and digestive tract are as vulnerable as ever to the effects of highly acidic and spicy foods. If you want to experiment with a Tabasco-pickle juice-vermouth cocktail (and you know you will), just remember to follow it with a Tums chaser.

You can order miracle fruit online as fresh berries or as freeze-dried berry tablets.


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Five to Try

With something like 50,000 different items in your neighborhood supermarket why are you still buying the same dozen or so fruits?

Get out of your rut. Try something new. This is a low-risk and high-reward proposition. It’s fruit—what’s the worst that can happen?

Cut open a passion fruit and it’s a confusing mass of juicy, seedy pulp. It’s all edible, although you might want to strain out the seeds. Passion fruit is boldly tropical, and the sweetness and assertive flavor make it versatile in cooking and baking. There is a Passion of Christ/passion fruit connection that makes a whole lot of symbolic hooey, likening the vine’s tendrils to whips and its petals to the Apostles. Not Judas and Peter, though. Yes, you are looking at a strawberry. The pineberry looks like strawberries and cream but smells and tastes just like pineapple. Tiny white berries with red pips, it’s a wild variety that was rescued from extinction, rechristened as the pineberry, and is now grown commercially. I suggest that you find someone with a backyard pacay tree and make them your friend. Technically a legume, pacay pods don’t travel well, and you’ll only find frozen ones in the market; the fresh pods are worth the hunt. Crack open the hard shell and inside you’ll find a row of black seeds nestled in a bed of fluffy white flesh that tastes like vanilla ice cream with a hint of cotton candy.

Mangosteen Mangosteen is not at all mango-like. It’s sweet, tangy, and somewhat fibrous. Skip the astringent purple rind and go for the juicy white flesh around the seeds that comes apart in segments like a tangerine. It’s rarely baked into desserts, but fresh, uncooked mangosteen works well in sorbets and smoothies.

Durian Who knew fruit could stir controversy? Fans of the durian describe it as a rich, smooth, custardy fruit with an alluring aroma and the taste of almonds. Others have compared the taste and odor to sewage, gym socks, skunk spray, and moldy onions. Well-known as a durian lover, Anthony Bourdain famously described the fruit as “like you’d buried somebody holding a big wheel of Stilton in his arms, then dug him up a few weeks later. Your breath will smell as if you’d been French-kissing your dead grandmother.” And he likes durian.

Be flexible and adventurous. Experience the thrill of the unknown. And while there might be Five to Try, feel free to stop at four, with apologies to Mr. Bourdain.


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Harbingers of Spring: The new crop of food words

image via Manjit Sangha

Nothing signals the change of season like the new crop of food words.
Each year around this time, the Oxford English Dictionary releases a list of new words that will be welcomed to its pages.

Come on; this is good stuff!
I see those eyes start to glaze over. I know what you’re thinking: epic word-nerdery. But it’s so much more than that.

As the definitive record of our language the OED is also our cultural barometer. A new food word isn’t just an expanded vocabulary— it signals a change in our appetites and tastes. Its inclusion tells us that the dish is served and the word is used commonly enough that it’s worthy of inking it in to the annals of history; at least in the estimation of the dictionary’s editors.

Drum roll, please.
This season’s crop shows our cultural interconnectedness, as we borrow freely from regional and world cuisines, from science and technology, pop cultural references, and urban slang:
Babycino. A drink of hot milk that has been frothed up with pressurized steam, intended for children.
Banh mi. A Vietnamese snack consisting of a baguette (traditionally baked with both rice and wheat flour) filled with a variety of ingredients, typically including meat, pickled vegetables, and chili peppers.
Chermoula. In North African cookery, a sauce or marinade for fish or meat, typically containing olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, and cilantro.
Eton mess. A dessert consisting of a rough mixture of whipped cream, pieces of meringue, and fruit, typically strawberries.
Flat water. Ordinary tap or bottled drinking water, as opposed to sparkling water.
Flat white. A type of coffee made with espresso and hot steamed milk, but without the froth characteristic of a cappuccino.
Gremolata. A dressing or garnish made with chopped parsley, garlic, and grated lemon zest, served as an accompaniment to meat or fish.
Kleftiko. A Greek dish consisting of lamb marinated with lemon juice and herbs and cooked slowly in a sealed container.
Mac1. Macaroni, as in mac and cheese.
Momo. In Tibetan cooking, a steamed dumpling filled with meat or vegetables.
Nom nom. Used to express pleasure at eating, or at the prospect of eating, delicious food.
Pork bun. A Chinese snack consisting of steamed or baked bread dough filled with barbecued pork.
Pulled pork. Tender, slow-cooked pork that is pulled apart into pieces and often prepared with a barbecue sauce.
Rugelach. A bite-size cookie made with cream-cheese dough rolled around a filling of nuts, poppy seed paste, chocolate or jam.
Sammich. A sandwich.
Spiedie. An Italian-American dish consisting of marinated pieces of meat cooked on a skewer, and often served in a roll.
5-second rule (also 3- or 5-, etc.). The culinary rule that allows for the eating of a delicious morsel that has fallen to the floor, provided that it is retrieved within the specified period of time.

There is also a short-list of culinary terms that didn’t make the cut. Don’t call them rejects—the OED editors are keeping an eye on these for inclusion in future editions. These not-yet-words are languishing on 4″x6″ index cards, stored alphabetically in a vault in Oxford owned by the Oxford University Press. Really.
Dringle. The watermark left on wood caused by a glass of liquid.
Freegan. Someone who rejects consumerism, usually by eating discarded food.
Oninate. To overwhelm with post-dining breath.
Peppier. A server whose sole job is to offer diners ground pepper, usually from a large pepper mill.
Spatulate. To remove batter or dough from the side of a bowl with a spatula.

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A Big Bowl of Smarty Pants


Have You Had Your Recommended Daily Allowance of Trivia?

We love trivia.
And because we love food, we love food trivia most of all.
The uncommon food facts, the curious bits of culinary miscellany, the flotsam and jetsam of the kitchen— each tasty tidbit is more useless than the next, but still we gather.
And who knows; someday, maybe, just maybe, there will be an opportunity to flaunt it. […]

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Bedtime Snack: How Food Influences Dreams

[image via the film Sleeping and Dreaming of Food]

You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!

– Scrooge to Marley’s ghost; from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol

Was it something I ate?
Anyone who has ever gone to bed after a dinner of enchiladas can tell you that what you eat affects your dreams. Surprisingly, there is very little solid science to explain it.

Spicy foods in particular are notorious for inspiring particularly vivid dreams.
Some in the medical community have theorized that the heat from the spices elevates body temperature enough to interfere with the quality of sleep. The discomfort then works its way into your subconscious, and is reflected in the narrative it creates. Real-life stomach aches and other types of gastric distress can end up as dream pain experienced by your dream self.

Another theory suggests that what you eat before bedtime isn’t as important as how much you eat and when you eat it. Any digestion increases the metabolism and brain activity, so the more you eat and the closer it is to bedtime, the more vivid the dreams.

Sweet dreams: Low blood sugar, or hypoglycemia, is another culprit. When your body’s blood sugar level is low, which happens when you haven’t eaten in a long while before bedtime, your brain gives you a little spurt of adrenaline that causes your body to drop some stored glucose into the bloodstream. If you’ve ever had a dream that wasn’t just vivid but also felt especially frantic, you know the feeling of adrenalized dreaming.

If you’ve ever dreamed you were sitting in a restaurant only to wake up and find your partner cooking up some bacon, you already know that food smells can creep into your dreams. The sense of smell is associated with the part of the brain that is associated with emotions, so food smells can take on a literal meaning and also affect the mood of your sleeping self. One study (unpublished but presented to the American Academy of Otolarygology) pumped different scents into the nostrils of sleeping subjects, and found that dream moods and impressions were clearly colored by the smells, although dream content seemed unchanged.

Gaming your own dreams
We know that food affects dreams, but no one has figured out how to use it to manipulate the content of dreams, Inception-style. The best we can do is choose foods and time our meals to get the best night’s sleep possible. Web MD has a slide show of foods that help and foods that harm your sleep.


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