Amyl Butyl Whatyl?

As a biology major, I was forced to endure the terribly long laboratories that supplemented organic chemistry lectures. Students donning white lab coats and plastic goggles (think Dr. Nefario from Despicable Me) sat for hours on end at the benches mixing, heating, and synthesizing chemicals. Dangerous substances were present in lab: hydrochloric acid, cyclohexene, diethyl ether. Nothing that I desired to put in my mouth.

Now picture a laboratory of a huge flavor corporation. What do you think occurs there? I imagine its something to similar to my college organic chemistry labs. I read an excerpt from Eric Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation that discussed how these companies produce natural and artificial flavors—it is indeed in a laboratory setting. The scientists that develop these creations, what he calls “flavorists,” mix a multitude of chemicals to achieve just the right taste or smell for specific foods. By a multitude, I mean sometimes twenty or thirty. For instance, artificial strawberry flavoring contains a whopping 48 ingredients, most with names like amyl acetate and hydroxyphrenyl-2-butanone. Um, what? I even think I used a few of them in my organic chemistry class.

Though the chemicals that flavorists employ may not be harmful like the ones used in school experiments, they sound neither appetizing nor healthy. It makes me uncomfortable that most processed foods contain unknown ingredients like the ones listed above. Legally, manufacturers do not have to list components of any scents or flavorings added to food. These companies may not want us to know what exactly is in our food—I feel like they are fooling the consumer. We could be ingesting any number of strange chemicals when we crunch on those Doritos or lick up that Dannon yogurt.

Reading Schlosser’s article really changed the way I think about processed food. Packaged products are tinkered with in laboratories before they are put on the shelves, so customers should be aware before they buy. What I thought was fairly healthy before may not actually be all that good for me. Instead of snacking on pretzels, I should bite into an apple. Rather than grab that handful of pita chips, I could crunch on fresh carrots. I know that now I need to try to incorporate more whole foods into my diet and less foods from boxes, bags, and wrappers.

Back to My Roots

Talking to my mom about her youth as an East Coast Italian and how that influenced her cooking now really brought us closer. It was not simply about the food, but also the family traditions that she grew up with and has taught me. I learned a little bit more about her, which gave me insight into my own roots. The following are excerpts from our interview.

Me: I know that I have always been an unfussy eater, but I wanted to interview you to gain a better perspective on what it was like cooking for a family of four, all with different demands and opinions. I want to see where you first picked up your cooking chops and how your cooking has had to adapt as your life has changed. So my first question would be: what did I hate to eat when I was younger and did you cater to that? If yes, how so?

Mom: You were such a good eater, Colie. I can’t remember not having to making any one thing for you. Now your sister, that’s a different story. I know you weren’t big on asparagus. I just remember that asparagus wasn’t your favorite vegetable and I would always want to grill it on the barbeque but I knew you didn’t like it, so I didn’t make it.

Me: What was my favorite food when I was growing up?

Mom: You used to like pastina. Grandma used to make it with egg, but I made it with just butter and cheese.

Me: Is there a food that you associate with me?

Mom: Brussel sprouts. That was your favorite vegetable when you were younger—you loved when I sautéed them with olive oil and garlic until they were crispy.

Me: Who taught you to cook?

Mom: Part grandma and part on my own. I always used to watch my mom in the kitchen, but she was afraid to let me do things, so I mostly watched. Once I had a family of my own and started to host holiday dinners, that’s when I really learned how to cook.

Me: How is your cooking influenced by your family’s culinary traditions? The way you grew up?

Mom: It’s hard to say because the food I grew up with is not something we eat a lot of now. It’s so fattening. On the East Coast, we grew up on a lot of Italian food. But if I have to host something or bring something to someone, I always go back to my Italian roots. I usually make a pasta dish or lasagna.

Me: How did your cooking change from when you were single to after you got married? Did any dishes change? Did you cook different meals?

Mom: Yea. After I got married, the dishes were simpler and I had healthier cooking in mind. I stopped making heavy Italian meals on a regular basis.

Me: Was it hard to cook with/for children? What demands and pressures did we add for you in the kitchen?

Mom: Not necessarily, except your sister was very picky. At first we thought she was a vegetarian because she wouldn’t eat meat, but she also didn’t like anything green. She hated cooked vegetables. I mean, she used to chew one piece of meat for 20 minutes and then take it out of her mouth. So that was a little challenging.

Me: What is your absolute favorite food or meal?

Mom: I think my ultimate favorite is a dish of ravioli with a light sauce and a glass of red wine.

Me: What is your least favorite, full on “can’t stand it” food or meal?

Mom: I don’t like bell peppers. I don’t like anything deep fried and greasy, like Kentucky Fried Chicken type of stuff. No fast food.

Me: Have you ever had any embarrassing kitchen disasters?

Mom: I had a lot of flops, especially baking. I can remember once I was baking something and I realized that instead of sugar I had used salt by accident.

Me: What happened?

Mom: It tasted really bad.

And that, folks, is my mom. She is a loving Italian woman who grounds me and teaches me all the important things in life. She keeps me in touch with my roots but also gives me freedom to fly wherever I so choose. Oh, and she makes a mean lasagna.

The Gourmet Ghetto

Gourmet

gour·met [goor-meygoo r-mey]

Adjective

  1. elaborately equipped for the preparation of fancy, specialized, or exotic meals: a gourmet ghetto.

To cook gourmet food is an art. It is an acquired specialty that I can only assume comes with much practice and patience. The restaurant proprietors of Berkeley’s Gourmet Ghetto have managed to master this trade and their food establishments are flourishing because of it.

Love At First Bite cupcakery was my favorite stop on the tour. Pat, the owner, had a down-to-earth persona and her cupcakes were even more humble than she was. Upon first glance, they do not appear to be fancy, specialized, or exotic. I mean, they’re just cupcakes, right? Wrong. The cakes that Pat and her team produced surpassed every other cupcake that I have ever eaten. The flavors, textures, and presentation were so simple, but that’s what made them so good. My mini strawberry cupcake appeared tidy: a tiny pink cake with a dainty dollop of icing on top. The size made it so personal—this little morsel of cake was mine. As I bit into it, I immediately noticed the moisture. Sometimes cupcakes crumble and collect in the bottom of the liner, but not this one. Its spongy texture kept it intact. The natural strawberry flavor had me convinced that Pat used fresh berries rather than flavoring. I found it neither contrived nor corrupted in any way. The icing avoided giving me that “I think I have a cavity from eating this” feeling that I usually get from frostings. Sweet, but not toothache sweet, it was the perfect pillow to sit atop that cupcake. One bite, and I was indeed in love. It proved to me that gourmet food doesn’t have to be some weird concoction of foreign ingredients that no one’s ever heard of. Sometimes understated food is better.

I have traveled to Italy and have sampled authentic gelato, however I found that I prefer the locally made gelato at Lush to Italian ice cream. We had a choice of what seemed like 30+ gourmet flavors (yes, these were fancy, specialized, and exotic), mostly made with organic ingredients from nearby communities. Completely unique and mind-boggling combinations called out to me from the label cards, everything from Honey Cardamom to Salted Stracciatella to Cowgirl Creamery Fromage Blanc, whatever that is. After much deliberation, I finally settled on Espresso with Chocolate Chunks. The bold coffee flavor stood out, highlighted by the random pieces of dark chocolate scattered about. The combination of flavors was livening; the teeth-chattering cold didn’t hurt either. Lush’s gelato was hearty, almost coarse like a smoothie. The texture made it so that not a lot was necessary to feel satisfied. I found that Lush crafted an unparalleled gelato—a truly gourmet delight.

Definition: dictionary.com

Chopped!

Sinigang soup base, rosemary, and Sriracha hot sauce. I don’t know if I would typically put these three flavors together, but when I received them in our class “draw from a bag,” I figured I would have to make it work. Sriracha goes on pretty much anything, and it seemed like it would complement the tamarind soup base (Sinigang) that I was able to find at an oriental market. Sinigang is a traditional Filipino dish in the form of a tangy, vinegary soup, so I was worried about combining it with the rosemary. I have to say, this was quite the challenge.

I whipped up a quick soup with shrimp and green beans, and added a little rosemary to the top at the very end. To incorporate the Sriracha I prepared an olive oil, garlic, and hot sauce marinade in which to sauté extra green beans. For a starch, I made a side of brown rice.

To be honest, I was not a fan of the Sinigang. When I first leaned in to smell the soup, I caught hints of vinegar. Upon sipping it, I found that it left an aftertaste of acidity that made me pucker, like an extremely concentrated sweet and sour soup. It was a little too tart for my taste. Rosemary tastes like a garden on a rainy day, very clean and fresh, so the flavor was not complementary to the Asian elements of the broth. The green beans balanced out the tang of the soup well. They were spicy from the hot sauce and biting from the garlic yet still plump and juicy. Small, caramelized chunks of garlic littered the plate and I made sure to eat every last one—I appreciate the kick of a good piece of roasted garlic. Overall, the meal wasn’t as cohesive as I had hoped. Next time I prepare Sinigang, I will definitely seek out the advice of an experienced Filipino cook and absolutely won’t add rosemary!

Japantown: Discovery of a New Cuisine

Unbeknownst to me, there is an entire Japanese cuisine outside of sushi. Usually when I go to a Japanese restaurant, I order sashimi or a roll with miso soup. Perhaps I have not been adventurous enough, but I had no idea that there were other options available to me. The trip to Japantown helped to expand my palate; I discovered many dishes that I never knew existed. For example, we tried a Japanese “comfort food” called Okonomiyaki, which translates to “grill what you like.” The dish, reminiscent of a frittata, includes a mixture of meats, seafood, ginger, seaweed, smoky sauce, and bonito flakes. The fish shavings on top wiggled with the heat, behaving as if they were worms wriggling out of the ground. It was truly a rare meal, one that I may never encounter again.

May’s Coffee Shop introduced me to a new fix for my sweet tooth. This absolutely ingenious mixture of ingredients is known as Taiyaki, a Japanese dessert made with filling inside of a fish-shaped waffle. To the touch, the cake felt like a fortune cookie: rough, crispy, and lightly porous. But it was only hard on the outside. The inside was doughy, much like a Belgian waffle. Chocolate and banana filling squeezed out at the first bite. In one mouthful, I experienced both the creamy sweetness of the chocolate and the exotic fruitiness of the banana, the texture like mashed baby food. A strong wave of fruit flavor hit first, followed by the chocolate, which crept up on me as I chewed. Bite after bite, the flavorful stuffing spread across my palate. The warm chocolate and banana mush oozed out of the crispy waffle onto my chin. I licked the sides of the treat to ensure I got as much filling as possible. It was the perfect sweet for me. As far as I know, these flavors are not traditionally used in oriental cuisine, yet this treat is a Japanese specialty.

It may seem odd that we stopped at an Indian restaurant while on our tour of Japantown, however Dosa served my favorite dish of the day. A thin, savory pancake gently wrapped around mounds of spiced masala potatoes, dosa is a traditional Indian crepe typically dipped in sambar, a lentil soup. Most Indian food is eaten with chutney, and Dosa paired this meal with two types: coconut and tomato. Emily, the owner of the restaurant, encouraged us to soak the dosa in the soup before we ate it. The crepe, fluffy but browned on the outsides, absorbed the soup, making the bite very moist and soft. The green, chunky masala potatoes offered a spice that was counterbalanced by the plain dough of the crepe. Sambar is spicy and heavy, similar to the consistency of minestrone soup, but with flavors of curry laced into the tomato base. The soup enhanced the spicy punch of the potatoes. The coconut chutney offered a complementary coolness, while the tomato chutney added more zing. I was a fan of the tomato, as I enjoy intense spice. As a whole, this dish was unique and full of flavor. I had never heard of sambar or dosa, but I am glad that I tried them. The combination is now one of my favorite Indian dishes.

Kitchen Disaster: The Worst Meal I’ve Ever Made

Yuck is never a word that you want to associate with your culinary creations. Sometimes, that is the only word that comes to mind.

My college roommate was a talent in the kitchen. She, too, came from a pure Italian background, yet she inherited the culinary genes that somehow evaded my DNA. Her signature dish was “salsa chicken.” It was a simple dish, very easy for two college students with empty wallets and busy schedules. She would plop two chicken breasts in a Crock-Pot, dump in a jar of Pace classic salsa, turn up the heat, and run to class. When we returned home at the end of the day, we had perfectly caramelized chicken ready to eat. All that was left to do was toast the tortillas.

Imagine how excited I was to try this recipe out on my family! How easy it was, and it tasted like a gourmet taco from an authentic Mexican restaurant. I thought I could impress my family with as little effort as possible. I repeated her recipe one day, but as soon as I looked in the pot, I knew something was off. Rather than being gooey, the salsa was still liquid. The chicken did not shred with a fork, but required a knife to cut it up. Unlike the sweetness that was normally brought out, the dish was nearly tasteless, but had a strange aftertaste that made me think of burnt onion. Warm, wet, slimy chicken, tasting like it had just sat in tomato juice all day. Not appealing. I had to serve it.

There was a silence in the room. Everyone could tell that there was something off in the dish, but no one wanted to say anything. I knew that everyone could only think, “Yuck.”

If you can nail the process, this dish is very good. Promise.

Salsa Chicken

What you need:

1 Crock-Pot

 Ingredients:

 2 chicken breasts

1 jar of Pace classic salsa

Tortillas, lightly toasted (best with whole wheat)

Place chicken breast at the bottom of the Crock-Pot. Pour in entire jar of salsa. Set to highest heat and leave for several hours. Chicken should caramelize and should rip apart with just a fork. Best served shredded on toasted tortillas. No garnishing needed unless desired for taste.

Pop Squish Crunch

Curry, any curry really, is very hard to describe to someone who has not explored it. I say explored because eating curry is not merely eating a meal; it requires the use of every one of your five senses and demands a great deal of thought. Unlike other dishes, you never go to a restaurant and settle with “Uh, I guess I’ll have the curry.” No, with curry you have to be sure that you want to eat it. It’s premeditated. And it’s not simply eating—it’s experiencing.

See it. The colors grab your attention. Bright reds, greens, oranges, yellows. Colors that come from the freshest stuff of nature. They make you hungry.

Smell it. Curry spice fills your nostrils, taking you away for a minute. An atypical aroma, unlike anything else you know. Your nose sizzles with warmth and spice before you even take a bite.

Feel it. The varying textures create a blend that somehow works. Green beans and carrot disks provide crispness, while the cooked baby corn and bell peppers soften the bite. The curry soaked pumpkin can be squished into all crevices of your mouth with your tongue.

Hear it. As you chew, the veggies burst and you know it’s fresh.

Taste it. Curry is hearty and earthy, sweet and spicy. Vegetables give the dish a healthy, natural flavor, while the spice lends a sensation of heat. It is lush and arousing.

The pop of red curry spice. The odd sensation of coolness from basil leaves. The squish of the soaked pumpkin. The crunch of fresh veggies between your teeth. You feel alive.