Before we start, here is what you need to know about me. Though this is indeed Science on Tap, and though I was indeed invited here by the College of Physicians, I am neither a scientist nor an M.D. I am a food blogger, a folklorist, a historian, and — if anything — a fermentation enthusiast. This means that what I am interested in is people — how people use fermentation, how they have used it in the past, and how it works as a technology that improves quality of life, and the flavor and longevity of whatever it is folks are eating.
Fermentation is a bit of a popular topic right now. Alternet, the online indy reporting outfit and sometime light-news rag, called it their number one top food trend of 2013. In December of last year, they wrote:
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Posted in Cooking & Eating, Folklore, Technique
Tagged fermentation, Gilgamesh, James Cook, lacto-fermentation, lactofermentation, live events, pickling, science on tap, sea voyages
Science on Tap – Culturing Food: History, Health, and Fermentation
Don’t forget, folks — this is happening on Monday, April 14, at 6PM. My talk at Science on Tap. If you’re in Philly, and if you’re around, come on out to the National Mechanics bar on South 3rd St. to hear me talk about fermentation as a science and a technology. There will be pickles! There will be bread! There’s going to be a healthy dose of The Epic of Gilgamesh, and even a little bit of the Bible thrown in for good measure!
(I can talk about the Bible in a science lecture, right? That won’t get me thrown off the stage?)
Anyway: the talk is free. The bar is great. You’ll need to pay for your food and drinks, but National Mechanics does all that stuff super well.
If you come by, say hello. I’d love to meet you.
Passover is coming next week, and it is about nothing — culinarily speaking, of course — if not lamb. Sure, the matzoh takes the prize as the most distinctive Passover food, all dry and crunchy — and delicious, so long as you don’t have to eat it exclusively for seven days. And sure, the horseradish wins in the category of “why is this night different from all other nights.” But before you go barging off to make your Hillel sandwiches, consider this: a seder isn’t a seder at all — literally — without the lamb.
Look at your bible. Exodus 12. It’s all right there.
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Today’s Special, on YouTube
Back when I lived in Bloomington, one of my favorite lunch spots was an Israeli restaurant, not too far from the edge of the Indiana University campus, called Falafels of Jerusalem. They were a hidden treasure amid the bars of Kirkwood Avenue, featuring killer sandwiches, lamb scented with cumin, and shakshouka so good that it was always a struggle to order anything else.
The owner was the husband of a fellow graduate student in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology — which, I admit, suggests a certain kind of bias in me. But what I can say that I think will convince you is this: after six years in Philadelphia, there are only two restaurants that I really miss from my time as a Hoosier; one is the Runcible Spoon — which is certainly the platonic ideal of breakfast places; and the other is Falafels.
At any rate, Shai — the owner — and his wife — the folklorist — headed back to Israel at about the same time that I left for Philadelphia. And as these things go, I lost track of them for a while. But today — oh, today — a voice from out of the blue (by which I mean Facebook blue) pointed me toward this:
This is vegan shawarma, the first installment of Shai’s new series of cooking videos on YouTube. So far, he’s also got hummus, schnitzel, vegan spicy sauce (which seems very close to my very favorite thing at Falafels), and a few more.
Without reservation, I would recommend that you subscribe to his YouTube Channel, which he calls Today’s Special. If you like Mediterranean cuisine — which, don’t we all? — it will make you very happy, and very hungry.
Watermelon Radishes: In All the Colors of the Rainbow
For all their stunning beauty, watermelon radishes emit a pungent, offensive odor as they ferment. It’s the sort of smell that might make you turn around and ask yourself: is it possible that I’ve stepped in something?
But mature, they are pink, and pleasant, and piquant. And flavored with garlic, hot peppers, and star anise, I have no doubt that they will be an excellent addition to the edible menagerie of living foods that are slowly taking over the fridge.
The recipe is as follows:
About 8 Watermelon Radishes (sliced thinly into semicircles)
1 1/2 quarts Brine (filtered water, plus 3 tbsp of Sea Salt)
2 Cloves of Garlic
1 Star Anise Pod
Dried Hot Peppers and Black Peppercorns to taste
To put it all together, have a look over at this post about Lactofermented radishes from a couple of years ago.
Spring is here!
Philadelphia’s weather report may call for one last coughing gasp of snow on Tuesday, but in my house, it’s feeling particularly vernal. The first seedlings — cucumbers, I think — have pushed their little heads up out of the soil. And the tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants are following hard on their heels. I would never tempt fate by making a bold prediction. But if things continue on course, the state of Sarah’s garden may signal tasty times ahead.
Here’s hoping. (Knock on wood.)
People! Philadelphia People, especially! Pay attention!
I am pleased to announce that, because it was such a hoot in the fall, I will be rerunning my pickling workshop — Pickling Without Pasteur — this spring. Thanks to the Mount Airy Learning Tree, on Saturday May 3rd from 10am to noon, we will be gathering in the Unitarian Society of Germantown’s kitchen to talk about the biology and methodology of lacto-pickling, and then to make copious quantities of delicious pickles which participants will get to take home in jars.
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Randall Munroe’s New “What If” Book
For the second time in a fairly short span, I’m going to push a book at you that is mostly unrelated to cooking, or eating, or politics. I don’t know if you are all aware of Randall Munroe, author of the geeky-chic, totally amazing, thoughtful, incisive, and hilarious XKCD web comic. But if you’re not, you should be. And you should know that he’s writing a book!
From XKCD, not What If? But the joy of this particular strip expresses some how how I feel about Randall Munroe writing a book.
It’s not an XKCD book, exactly. It is based on his equally thoughtful blog, “What If?” in which he provides serious scientific answers — mostly based in physics — to all kinds of crazy questions that readers send him. My favorite from way back in the blog’s early days is called “Everybody Jump,” and it answers the pressing question: What would happen if everyone on earth stood as close to each other as they could and jumped, everyone landing on the ground at the same instant?
At any rate, the book is called What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. And you can click on the title to pre-order. Or, if you prefer, Mr. Munroe has some links to where else you can get it over on his website.
So Keurig, amiright?
Green Mountain Coffee, the makers of those increasingly ubiquitous Keurig single-cup coffee machines, will be including digital rights management (DRM) in their next generation product (creatively called Keurig 2.0). This means that every time you pop a plastic pod into the machine, it will look for a tiny chip emitting a tiny radio signal that will let the coffee maker’s onboard computer know whether it is okay — with the company, not with you — to brew.
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One of the things that I really like about Chinese food is that it baffles me just a little bit. Oh, if you put me in front of a steamer full of dumplings or a bowl of dan dan noodles, I could probably tell you — for the most part — what’s in them. But Chinese food is out of my cooking idiom: it isn’t something that I had at home growing up, I’m not quite comfortable with its methods, and I would almost say that I have a block about producing most of my favorite dishes myself.
For the most part, I am content with this fact. It turns out that Philadelphia is pretty great for Chinese restaurants, and I’ve developed a deep stable of favorites in and around the city: Sang Kee, Han Dynasty, Joy Tsin Lau, and the like. And it is a pleasure, I find, to choose a handful of elaborately prepared, intricately spiced dishes from their menus, and enjoy them without giving too much consideration to the prospect of reproducing them at home.
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