Archive for category science

More GMO Notes, and a Chocolate Caramel Coffee Tart

Do you see the little “Science!” label down there on the right? After you scroll down a bit, underneath all the tasty stuff?

Exhibit A: Tasty Stuff

Those scientists and science bloggers are working hard to make foods better, safer, and more understandable for everyone else. Recently, the good folks at Biofortified have explained, in very clear terms, why GM foods don’t have any more scary genes in them than any other foods you’ve ever eaten, since of course bacteria and viruses are already everywhere, and every time you eat anything you eat the little guys and all of their genes as well. And if you still think after my earlier discussion of the subject that GM foods lead to horizontal gene transfer and presumably plant-people? The GMO Pundit explains an article that shows that a happy little beetle managed to get a useful little bacteria gene all his own, without a GMO in sight.

I know this is a food blog, and I promised chocolate, so I’ll keep this short. Basically, if you cook, you use science. You don’t have to think in terms of chemistry when caramelizing sugar, because following the protocol recipe will get you results just the same. You don’t need to know the biological mechanisms of capsiacinoids to add the heat of chile to a dish. But I think at least knowing the information is out there– and that it’s available and understandable if you’re interested whether you did well in science in school or not– is important. And hey, it’s cool! Scientists are doing things with plants and nutrition that look straight out of science fiction, and it’s brilliant. Give it a quick peek, is all I’m saying.

So now we can get back to caramelizing sugar and melting chocolate and keeping that smell in your kitchen as long as possible.  Because caramel and chocolate go together like nothing else. Because coffee makes both caramel and chocolate taste better. And because everyone should have a chocolate tart recipe. So I adapted one from David Lebovitz. I removed the flour from his filling, as mine seemed thick enough without it and I want to be able to pour it into a gluten-free crust* if we have company with Celiac. The chocolate is a tad darker in mine as well, but offset by the slightly sweeter chocolate ovals used to decorate it. And the smell in the kitchen? I turned off all air circulation in the apartment just so we could breathe it a little longer. It’s sweet and complex and full of coffee. If we could bottle that smell, I could quit my day job and just sell chocolate-caramel-coffee scented candles because who doesn’t want a dozen of those?

Ingredients (Makes 1 9-inch tart; serves 10-12. Crust adapted from Dorie Greenspan’s sweet tart dough, filling adapted from David Lebovitz’ chocolate tart)

For the crust:

1 1/4 cups flour

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 t salt

1 t vanilla

9 T butter

1 egg

For the filling:

1 cup sugar

6 oz. espresso

8 T (1/4 lb, 1 stick, 4 oz) butter

3 oz unsweetened chocolate

3 oz bittersweet (72% +) chocolate

2 eggs at room temperature

1 T vanilla extract

optional: for a bit of heat, add 1-3 t chile powder when you add the chocolate (how much you use depends on the heat of the powder you’re using; a pinch of Habañero powder goes a lot further than a whole teaspoon of Poblano).

Directions The crust comes first, of course. To prevent it being grainy, you’ll want to use superfine sugar. To make superfine sugar, place granulated sugar in the bowl of your food processor  and run it for about 30 seconds to a minute.

Add the flour and salt and pulse briefly to combine.

Add the butter and egg (and the vanilla, not shown).

Apparently I forgot to keep taking pictures of dough making, but if you’d find them helpful it’s just about the same dough as used way back here for a lemon-blueberry tart. Sorry about that. Pulse the dough in 2-3 second bursts until it comes together in a smooth ball. Chill the dough for two hours or more, then roll it out to about 1/4 inch thick. Line a buttered 9-inch tart pan with the dough, and line the prepared crust with buttered tin foil. Add pie weights and bake with foil and weights at 375°F for 20 minutes, then remove the foil and weights and bake another 10 minutes to brown. Set aside the crust and turn the oven down to 350°F. Start the filling by caramelizing some sugar. Just pour a cup of sugar into a saucepan. . .

. . .and heat it up over medium-high heat, stirring gently, until you have thick, bubbly caramel.

Pour in the espresso and whisk vigorously to combine.

Try not to spill espresso all over the chocolate. Add the butter to the coffee-caramel mixture.

Whisk in the butter and add the chocolate.

Whisk the mixture until smooth.

Test the temperature of the mixture by dipping a spoon in it and tasting. If it’s scalding to the tongue, keep whisking until it’s merely pleasantly warm before adding your eggs. Unless of course you want scrambled eggs in you chocolate tart. When the mixture is not too hot, add the eggs.

Whisk the eggs in, giving the filling a lovely pudding-like texture, and pour it into the waiting tart shell.

Bake at 350°F for 20-22 minutes until the filling is just set but not dry or cracking. If you have any pretty chocolate pieces like these Valrhona fèves lying around, grab a handful for decorating the top. What can I say? I can’t resist the bulk chocolates at Central Market.

The texture is completely smooth, almost a warm pudding. The tart shell adds sweetness and a lovely crunch to the mixture, and the sweeter chocolates on top (only 53% cocoa) finished it out perfectly.

I didn’t cut into the tart warm, as it was a birthday tart for a co-worker and tradition dictates that the birthday boy or girl gets to cut the first slice, but I did re-heat a slice in the oven the next night and it was divine. Not that anyone complained at room temperature; there really is no comparison to a good chocolate tart.

Sadly, I can’t make or eat anything like this right now; I had my third molars removed this morning and am having a certain amount of difficulty with yogurt and mashed potatoes, let alone a delightful flaky-crisp tart shell. So eat one of these for me, okay?

* to make this a gluten-free pie or tart, simply use this filling and the gluten-free graham cracker crust found here, or any other GF crust that you like.


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Red or Green?

New Mexican chile probably isn’t a big deal to those of you who don’t or haven’t lived in New Mexico. When I first moved there, I couldn’t understand it. A friend took me to a lovely New Mexican restaurantand once I’d ordered, the waiter asked the most baffling question I’d ever heard: “Red, green, or Christmas?”

The elusive Christmas chile. (Wikimedia Commons)

See, in New Mexico, pretty much everything that isn’t dessert is served with chile. There’s green chile, which is made of ripe green chiles cooked with spices and maybe a little flour as thickener, and red chile, which is made from dried red chiles (the same species as green, just fully ripened then dried) plumped with water and pureed. Then there’s Christmas, which is of course a mixture of both. You may notice, especially if you’re a Texan, the lack of meat or beans or anything else in this chile sauce. It’s just a sauce they pour over every burrito, enchilada, and fried egg in the state of New Mexico. Now some folks are protesting against the good people at the New Mexico Chile Association and the Chile Pepper Institute at NMSU because part of their funding could be used to research genetically modifying the peppers that define New Mexican cuisine. The Facebook page of the protesters (Occupy Green/Red Chile) seem to be  focusing more on the potential commercial repercussions of GM chile seeds rather than the health risks that some folks allege are posed by GMOs.

Image from the USDA

I was surprised to see an economic movement attach itself to a culinary cause.  I was also a little concerned that the protests might lead to pressure to change the track of some of the research being done at the Chile Pepper Institute. So I sent them an e-mail, and after a few weeks of phone tag (Tip: never try to reach a professor at the end of semester, especially while you’re moving. You’ll each end up with 30 second bursts of time that never seem coincide.) I spoke with Dr. Paul Bosland, the  director of the Chile Pepper Institute. I had been rather expecting a grad student or intern to deal with me, honestly, because I’m not a scientist or even a reporter, just a person who cooks pretty well and sometimes writes about it. Dr. Bosland didn’t seem particularly worried about the movement. According to him, the protest’s presence is primarily an Internet phenomenon; they were scheduled to protest on NMSU’s campus the weekend before I spoke with him, but he didn’t notice any protest at all that day. Of course, he gave a very good reason to ignore the protests entirely: there are no GM chiles. It’s actually rather baffling–other nightshades such as potatoes and tomatoes and tobacco take to gene insertion quite nicely, but apparently if you insert a gene into a callus and then try to grow a plant from the callus, it doesn’t work. Obviously the Institute is interested in finding out why this is the case, but a greater part of their focus is on plant breeding.

Callus tissue. From Wikimedia Commons

  Their research foci include the usual you’d expect to find in plant research: increasing yield, nutrition, and flavor, as well as some (probably obvious) avenues that hadn’t occurred to me. The protesters worry about cross pollination from GM plants reducing genetic variety–that is, contaminating landraces and changing them. The Chile Pepper Institute is worried about non GM plants doing the same thing. “Let’s say you’re a farmer, and you plant a NuMex 6-4 [one of the popular cultivars bred by the Institute] in the same field with, say, an heirloom jalapeño. There’s going to be cross pollination, and the next generation will be changed,” Dr. Bosland explained. So the Chile Pepper Institute cultivates many varieties of chile and saves seeds to preserve their unique genes and characteristics. They also make new ones, and Dr. Bosland discovered that an Assam pepper called Bhut Jolokia is (or was) the hottest chile in the world at 1,001,304 scoville heat units. Mr B. just ordered some seedsfor it, because apparently he wants to eat something that will hurt more than biting a hot poker.

Also, he co-wrote this book, an older version of which has helped us successfully grow chiles here in Texas. Sometimes. I'm really good at killing plants.

But insane heat levels aside, chiles contain high levels of vitamins C and B6, as well as some vitamin A. According to an older text called Culture, Environment and Food to Prevent Vitamin a Deficiency by Kuhnlein and Pelto (sorry, I haven’t found any more recent studies), in some parts of rural China chile peppers are the primary source of vitamin A. Sounds great, until you realize that one average chile (with a great deal of variation between individuals, obviously) only contains 5-6% of your daily recommended amount of vitamin A. Now try to imagine eating at least 20 entire chile peppers every day. If the levels of the vitamin could be boosted, either by breeding or genetic engineering, a vitamin deficiency that causes a quarter to half a million children to go blind every year could be treated even in areas where medical treatment is of limited availability.  It’s things like this that cause me to feel so strongly about the importance of research into improving the nutritional values of food crops by any means possible. Other resources (aside from all the fun links above) The New Mexico Chile Association’s breeding solutions statement,  which discusses how the acreage of chile peppers grown in NM have decreased by 75% in the lest 20 years (not due to GM; we’ve discussed that). If you read nothing else, read this. It’s a clear, concise explanation of how research is actually being used to help the chile industry, including small farmers, in New Mexico. The Chile Pepper Institute at NMSU has loads of information for both scientists and the rest of us, as well as seeds for sale and growing tips for an astonishing variety of peppers. They also sell hot sauce, salsa, and BBQ sauce made from the Bhut Jolokia, if you want to try out some crazy hot chile sauce without growing and making it yourself.  As a bonus, the profits go towards Chile Pepper Institute research. This article has Dr. Bosland ever so proudly showing off his certificate for measuring the heat of what was the world’s hottest pepper. How cool is he?

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Mendel in the Kitchen, or Please Don’t hate the GMOs

Because you’re reading a food blog, and more specifically because this blog is about making food from scratch, you’re not likely to be receptive to this. But it’s important, so I’m going to say it anyway.

Genetically modified food is awesome and I wish there were more of it.

GMO acreage worldwide, by Fafner (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

I’m pretty sure several people just stopped reading and decided I’m a sad, deluded corvid. It isn’t true. There’s just so much misinformation about science, and so few people who remember and understand the biology they learned in high school, that believing that misinformation is easy. And it does seem that biology and medicine get the lion’s share of paranoia. I mean, the people protesting the large hadron collider are rare and generally considered to be nutters. Physics kills millions of people in the form of car accidents and other rather commonplace (if grisly) manners every year, but you don’t see people protesting the use of cars because of their extraordinary deadly physics.

By Thue (Own work) Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In contrast, no deaths to date can be attributed to GMOs. No illnesses, either. Turns out the FDA is actually really strict about the whole engineering death through vegetable and cereal business. Now, I’m not saying that a GMO potato couldn’t kill someone, if the engineers were careless in multiple different steps in the GE process, and if the oversight boards through which new GMOs must pass were extraordinarily lax. That said, traditionally bred potatoes (specifically the Lenape, a cross between a Delta Gold and a Peruvian wild potato) were on the market and being made into potato chips before anyone realized they were very high in solanine, a glycoalkaloid naturally produced in potatoes that makes them insect resistant. No tests of the new potato variety were required, because it was natural.

Delicious little poison grenades. Image from the USDA.

Natural things kill people all the time. Bee stings are natural, as are deadly nightshade (potato’s close cousin), as are uncooked kidney and lima beans, large quantities of nutmeg, raw sour rhubarb, and the seeds of apples, apricots, peaches, plums, and almonds. Oh, and potatoes, but we’ve bred most of that out of them by now.  In fact, the history of agriculture can be understood as man’s struggle to do two things. First, to make food that doesn’t kill us (or make us vomit or swell up or hallucinate, except on special occasions), and second, to make it grow more calories per acre. You know, so we don’t die the old fashioned way: of starvation during winter, drought, flood, or any other non crop-friendly time.

Now that we live in such a glut of calories (at least for many of us in the developed world; they can be deplorably hard to come by elsewhere), now that we don’t have to worry about where our calories are coming from, we look for something else to worry about: whether those calories are healthful. It’s a valid concern. Obesity is rampant, as are diabetes and high cholesterol. Americans consume too many calories and in some cases, not enough nutrients. Those of us with the luxury of choice in our diet should probably think hard about our health and the best way to improve it through diet. (I know, this from the woman who lives on carbs and salt.) However, those choices need to be appropriate and educated, so before ruling out genetically modified food from your diet, or making it harder for the destitute and starving of the world to reap the benefits thereof, do some research.

Very good book. You read this now.

One good overview of the subject is Mendel in the Kitchen, by Nina Fedoroff. It’s good in that it tries to put things in layman’s terms (though never to the point of talking down to her readers), and really shows the history of mankind’s fear of biotechnology, which gives a little perspective to today’s issues, as well as directly addressing some of the specific fears people have of GMOs.

Because I can’t do this book justice with a chapter-by chapter review, I’m going to stick to a few favorite points. And I’m going to start with Johnny Appleseed.

By André Karwath, Creative Commons, via Wikimedia Commons

He’s an American folk hero, right? Just went around barefoot planting apple seeds that grew into lovely apple trees where all our delicious apples come from.

Or rather, an early nineteenth century religious zealot who, according to Michael Pollan ( I couldn’t find an earlier source, so this could be fictional) said of grafting “They can improve the apple in that way but that is only a device of man, and it is wicked to cut up trees that way. The correct method is to select good seeds and plant them in good ground and God only can improve the apples.” Now, if you’re nodding along in agreement, and you enjoy eating apples, you aren’t aware of something important.

Cower before my clone armies! Image from the USDA, which probably wouldn't appreciate these captions appearing on their very serious work.

All apples grown for consumption are grafted. Have been for hundreds of years. Johnny Appleseed’s seed-grown crop were good enough for making hard cider (and hey, who doesn’t want to get their drink on with apple cider every now and again?), but too bitter and sour for a reasonable person to eat. Oranges are always grafted, too. See, apples don’t breed true. Their triploid chromosomes make them genetic freaking wildcards, and cultivators’ nightmares. So we graft ’em, which lets the grafted stock clone its happy little apples on every rootstock it’s grafted to. And before you shout “OMG cloning!” and throw all your fresh fruit out the window, these clones are perfectly natural, just like all of a person’s cells are clones. Except the gametes. It’s okay.

Now, there are a few ways to get new varieties of apples. you could plant a few hundred seeds, wait for them to mature, taste the apples of the ones that look promising, and start grafting the best of those (probably burning the rest of the plants, because they sucked). You could wait for a sport–a genetic anomaly–to appear, and graft it (this is where navel oranges come from). You could bombard some plant cells with radiation to mutate the crap out of them, and then graft the best results from these (plants engineered this way are organic as legally defined, by the way). Or you could isolate a gene you want your new plant to have, multiply it with PCR, and either paint it onto BB gun pellets and shoot then at plants(yes, really, but not without vegetable casualties) or insert it into a harmless plant pathogen that will in turn insert it into plant DNA for you. That last one is what freaks people out. It does sound pretty Sciency, I know. But there is no reason to think it isn’t safe.

According to all movies containing scientists since Metropolis in 1927, these guys are probably destroying the world right now. Image from the USDA, again. Apologies to scientists Dan Bullock and Ken Overturf--I'm sure you're really awesome and doing science for the greater good, even if the public is now terrified of you.

That last statement–the phrasing of it–is one of the things that makes people scared of science. So why didn’t I just say, categorically, “it’s safe”?  Well, science can’t say that. Science can’t actually prove sweeping, boundless statements; it can just say there is or isn’t any data to support it. There is no reason to think your house will fall down tomorrow, for example, but no scientist can prove that it won’t, because there is the possibility of an unknown variable. Like Cthulhu rising up to go bowling in your neighborhood. But science can tell you that your house is safe given certain parameters. The problem is, people don’t want to hear about specific, safe parameters. We’re sort of all-or-nothing when it comes to–well, everything actually. You hear it all the time about nutrition. All vegetables are good. All sugars are bad. Forget the fact that you need sugars to live (and that a lot of vegetables are quite high in sugars), humans want a very simple, black and white rubric for their lives. Science, and reality, are a little more complicated.

So let’s address the common fear people have raised about GMOs, and why it is specifically silly. If you think of some new things to be afraid of, I’ll do some research and see if I can show you why those are silly, too.

Horizontal Gene Transfer, or If I eat this GM corn I’m going to get it’s transgene, right?

Grandma just hasn't been the same since she ate that GM cornbread. Image from the USDA.

Nope. I’m just going to quote the book on this one. “Sixty-five percent of the Americans queried for an international survey on genetically modified foods got the answer to the following question wrong: ‘Do ordinary tomatoes contain genes, or is it only genetically modified tomatoes that do so?’ All of our food contains genes–all our plant food and all our animal food.” Yet we don’t worry about that natural, heirloom tomato splicing its let’s-produce-toxic-glycoalkaloids gene into your cells. Why? because you and your grandmother and her grandmother have eaten them forever, and none of you has ever turned into Poison Ivy (yes, that was a Batman reference. Deal).

But it’s different with transgenes, you say. They’re inserted, along with a promoter, using a vector called CaMV.  CaMV is pretty effective in most plants–it’s  a virus called cauliflower mosaic virus–though it doesn’t work too great on cereals. In animals, though? Before we used the promoter to help us make GM foods, the virus was already pretty common among cauliflower, yet farmers didn’t worry about catching it. Very simply because they weren’t cauliflower. Our flu can’t infect the cauliflower respiratory tract because, well, it doesn’t have the parts. Likewise, plant viruses don’t attack animals. We’re just not the right environment for them to propagate.

"I can't come to work today. I found out Cauliflower Mosaic Virus was used in growing some stuff in the fridge, and I think it's contagious." (Thanks again, USDA!)

Okay, so it won’t turn you into the amazing Spider-Man, but what about the ecological effects? I heard it kills butterflies!

Yes, in a lab, when researchers forced monarchs to eat pollen from corn that had been modified to contain a pesticide, some monarch caterpillars died. The keyword here is forced. See, monarch caterpillars only eat milkweed leaves. If those weeds happen to be in or near cornfields, this does mean eating corn pollen some times of the year. But when there are pesticides in it, the little buggers just move to a clean leaf or another plant. They don’t like that pesticidey taste. To see if it would kill them (uh, science guys? You kind of designed it to kill them. Did you forget?) researchers had to force the (probably wiggling, crying, begging) caterpillars to eat a volume of pesticidal corn pollen that would never be present in its wild diet, even if the caterpillar in question lived on a milkweed plant directly under the horniest cornstalk in the world.

"Ever thought about moving, Earl?" "Nah. I like that bitter yellow stuff. Also this flower I'm not supposed to eat."(image by Linda Tanner, creative commons, via Wikimedia Commons)

In terms of other environmental effects, GM foods can actually help the environment. GM foods can produce a greater number of calories per acre, which means fewer acres need to be cleared of more complex ecosystems to feed people. This effect is somewhat dampened by our insistence in subsidizing corn for ethanol production, at which it is abysmally inefficient, but that’s a digression I don’t want to get into right now. Some GM foods, such as Bt corn, require far lower doses of pesticide to grow–they produce a pesticide naturally, which means no runoff from pesticides to affect insect life in neighboring areas, not to mention removing the cost of those pesticides (although I don’t know whether this completely offsets the cost of Bt seeds).

Image from the USDA. No funny caption this time; there's nothing funny about corn borer destruction.

To be clear, I’m not saying the technology is all sunshine and puppies and completely safe, but there is risk in all worthwhile human endeavors, and this technology really is there because of people who want to improve the quality and yield of our foods. Some of them are idealists and visionaries, some just want a profit, but the goal is always better food. As a person who has to eat to live, and as a cook who wants to enjoy a variety of foodstuffs, I can’t argue with that. I don’t care if you don’t want to eat GMOs. I don’t care if you prefer not to eat mushrooms (like me), or wheat, or carbs, or animals, or red foods, or any other set. I do care that you don’t make that decision based on misconceptions, and it makes me mad when such misconceptions are spread.

Tomorrow, I’ll just cook for y’all again. But today, let’s think like scientists.

Resources (stuff to read if this interests you)


The USDA’s brief answer to the question: What are GMOs? 

The USDA’s “briefing room” section of the website (not completely on-topic, but there is a lot of fun stuff to nerd out at over there. Plus, I used six of their images; the least I can do in return is send some folks a-sniffin’ their way)

Colchiploidy and Histological Imbalance in Triploid Apple and Pear, from the American Journal of Botany vol 52 number 4 353-359, 1965 (warning: this is on Jstor. If you’re not a student at university or a member of an Internet linked library, you can’t read this. Sorry. Although, check your library card [what do yo mean you don’t have a library card?]; you may be able to access articles using the library’s resources from home.)

U Kentucky’s Bt-Corn: What it is and how it works

Gary Munkvold at IA state on disease control with Bt corn (with pictures of corn damage. Also, check out the related articles an the right hand sidebar.)

Genetically Modified foods: Harmful or Helpful? by Deborah B. Whitman (Contains its own host of references, which is the main reason I include it here.)


Mendel in the Kitchen by Nina Fedoroff

Shrinking the Cat by Sue Hubbell (I haven’t finished this one yet, but still.)

Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa by Robert Paarlberg (I didn’t really talk about this above, but it’s awful. The fact that people are starving needlessly, I mean. Not the book.)

And finally, for a lovely science fiction work in which there is a global food crisis and society is clamped under the thumb of Monsanto-like companies  and foodborne illness is rampant and deadly, read The Wind-Up Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. It’s lots of fun.