August 25th, 2010

popping e’s

One BBC reporter spent the day eating as many e-number filled (e-numerous?) foods as possible in order to make a point about the widespread fears attached to their consumption.

By the end of the day I felt like a balloon of slurry on the verge of bursting. I’d eaten 50 different E numbers, but have I eaten enough to poison myself?

No, said my GP, Dr Jonty Heaversedge, who explained that the basic toxicology principle for safe consumption was a 100-fold safety margin.

Scientists work out how much of any E number an animal can eat on a daily basis before having any ill effects, divide that by 10 (in case humans are more sensitive than animals) and then divide by 10 again, just to be safe.

He concluded that one shouldn’t discriminate against food that contains E-numbers:

Are these actually bad for you? Words like “preservative”, “emulsifier” and “stabiliser” sound bizarre and scary for something you put in your mouth. But lemon juice is an antioxidant preservative, also known as E330 (citric acid), egg yolk is emulsifier E322 (lecithin) when added to oil to make mayonnaise, and stabilisers include E460, or cellulose, which comes straight from plants.

One commenter on the BBC website notes:

And E300 is vitamin C! Most people think Es is a classification system for chemicals instead of a multi-language labelling scheme.

All the same, I understand why people are hesitant to eat food whose ingredients are obfuscated with code.

The Day I Ate As Many E-Numbers As Possible @ BBC News. (Photo by Flickr user RuneT)

August 13th, 2010

a model of the universe in a pot of boiling water

Image courtesy of Flickr user VeloSteve.

Does adding salt to water really make it boil quicker? Not by any significant degree, according to the article Everything you ever wanted to know (plus more!) about boiling water.

Adding a handful of salt to simmering or boiling water certainly appears to make it rapidly boil. This is because of little things called nucleation sites, which are, essentially, the birthplace of bubbles. In order for bubbles of steam to form, there needs to be some sort of irregularity within the volume of water—microscopic scratches on the inside surface of the pot will do, as will tiny bits of dust or the pores of a wooden spoon. A handful of salt rapidly introduces thousands of nucleation sites, making it very easy for bubbles to form and escape.

Ever notice how in a glass of champagne the bubbles rise in distinct streams from single points? It’s a good bet that there’s a microscopic scratch or dust particle right at that point.

On a much grander scale, entire galaxies were formed when matter started to collect in gravity wells formed initially by tiny nucleation sites in the early universe. This baffles scientists (if there was nothing before the big bang, what then were these primordial nucleation sites?). But that’s neither here nor there (or perhaps it’s everywhere?)

The full article is boiling over with further factoids. Read more at Serious Eats.

August 13th, 2010

‘Flavours of Cyprus’ Soup

A flavoursome and satisfying soup of brown rice, lentils and vegetables with the traditional Cypriot flavourings of lemon and mint.

Very nutritious, providing plenty of fibre and a full protein compliment through the combination of whole rice and lentils.

I coined a recipe for a soup that reminds me of the flavours of Cypriot cooking. See the recipe at We Gotta Eat.

August 13th, 2010

the complimentary protein song

From the University of Cincinnati Professor Stein Carter:

Amino acids are just great
When sitting on your plate.
Your body needs all twenty kinds
To build your bones and minds.
But there are eight that we can’t make:
Essential ones to take
Within your food so you’ll be set,
But some are hard to get.
Three limit others’ usefulness
If you consume much less.
Combine these foods to get them all
So you’ll grow big and tall:
Whole grain with milk or grain with bean
Or peas with seeds between
Or maybe try all three or four
If you want something more.

You must of course hear the accompanying music to appreciate this musical mystery. Don’t quit your day job, Professor Carter!

Here’s the science bit: an explanation of dietary protein requirements at the same website..

Our bodies use amino acids in a specific ratio to each other, so if a person doesn’t get enough of one of them to match with the rest, the rest can only be used at a level to balance with that low one. Most of these amino acids are fairly easy to get in a reasonably well-balanced diet. However, there are three that are a little harder to get than the rest, thus it is important to make sure you’re getting enough of these three. These three are called limiting amino acids, because if a person’s diet is deficient in one of them, this will limit the usefulness of the others, even if those others are present in otherwise large enough quantities. The three limiting amino acids include the sulfur-containing ones (methionine and cysteine), tryptophan, and lysine.

Because of publicity from certain agricultural industries, many people in our culture have been taught to think that it is necessary to eat meat to get protein, but this is not true! People in many other cultures do not eat meat yet do get enough protein in their diets. It is true that there are areas of the world where people need to raise cattle and eat meat to survive. For example, in certain arid areas of Africa where almost nothing grows, cattle can graze on the meager grass that’s there that people can’t eat, and the people can eat the milk and meat from those cattle. In our country, the climate is much better, and we can raise many varieties of edible plants, thus we have available alternate (and often better) sources of protein. Some plant protein sources, like soybeans, have a better amino acid balance for humans than meat.

Well, I never.

July 26th, 2010

Would you like the fish, or the fish?

And interesting question from an old article at The Straight Dope:

Why didn’t Eskimos get scurvy before citrus was introduced to their diet? They have a traditional diet of almost entirely meat and fish. Where did they get their vitamin C?

And the answer:

This calls to mind a question I’ve dealt with before: Why do the Eskimos (or Inuit, as those in Canada and Greenland generally prefer to be called) stay there? It turns out that the people of the north have a highly evolved physiology that makes them well suited to life in the arctic: a compact build that conserves warmth, a faster metabolism, optimally distributed body fat, and special modifications to the circulatory system. One marvels at the adaptability of the human organism, of course, but still one has to ask: Wouldn’t it have been easier just to move to San Diego?

Much of what we know about the Eskimo diet comes from the legendary arctic anthropologist and adventurer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, who made several daredevil journeys through the region in the early 20th century. Stefansson noticed the same thing you did, that the traditional Eskimo diet consisted largely of meat and fish, with fruits, vegetables, and other carbohydrates–the usual source of vitamin C–accounting for as little as 2 percent of total calorie intake. Yet they didn’t get scurvy.

Stefansson argued that the native peoples of the arctic got their vitamin C from meat that was raw or minimally cooked–cooking, it seems, destroys the vitamin. (In fact, for a long time “Eskimo” was thought to be a derisive Native American term meaning “eater of raw flesh,” although this is now discounted.) Stefansson claimed the high incidence of scurvy among European explorers could be explained by their refusal to eat like the natives. He proved this to his own satisfaction by subsisting in good health for lengthy periods–one memorable odyssey lasted for five years–strictly on whatever meat and fish he and his companions could catch.

Read further at The Straight Dope.

July 22nd, 2010

intimate cucumber photography

Inside Insides blog has a collection of fruit and veg porn: MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) photos of fresh produce, animated in sequence to reveal a kaleidoscopic beauty.

Above is a cucumber from top to bottom. More at Inside Insides (via kottke).

July 21st, 2010

Rosemarie is for remembrance, between us daie and night

An unhinged Ophelia (Kate Winslet) recalls that rosemary is
traditionally for remembrance, in Hamlet (Kenneth Branagh, 1996).

A rose by any other name:

The botanical name Rosmarinus is derived from the old Latin for ‘dew of the sea’, a reference to its pale blue dew-like flowers and the fact that it is often grown near the sea. (Garden Guides)

Rosemary for memory:

Rosemary is said to stimulate the memory; both Greek and Roman students wore garlands of Rosemary to further learning in their studies. Rosemary also has a strong association with marriage and it was traditional for brides to carry sprigs of Rosemary in wedding bouquets; this was originally for its aromatic properties. Today, Rosemary is also associated with death; some European countries carry Rosemary at funerals and throw the herb into the grave. (Suite 101: Rosemary)

To wear a wreath of rosemary into an exam would be a fun tradition to uphold, I think.

I was looking for some kind of natural mosquito repellent and I read online some claims of rosemary to that effect. So I steeped a heaped teaspoon of dry rosemary in about 3/4 a mug of hot water, for an hour or so — maybe a bit longer. I strained the solution into a small atomizer in order to spray it on my skin before bed. And, lo and behold, I haven’t gotten a bite since, except for a night when I forgot to use it. I admit that’s hardly conclusive scientific evidence, but so far so good.

Rosemary in English folklore:

Rosemary was also popular as a Christmas decoration, an all-purpose disinfectant, and even as a hair rinse. As late as the 1990s people were still calling it the ‘friendship bush’: ‘You always had to plant rosemary in your garden so that you wouldn’t be short of friends’ (Vickery, 1995: 318). Nevertheless, a parallel belief states that rosemary only thrives where the woman of the house is dominant. A much older tradition, reported by Nuttall, holds that rosemary plants never grow taller than the height of Christ when he was on earth, and that when they are 33 years old their upward growth stops. (

As for Rosmarine, I lett it runne all over my garden walls, not onlie because my bees love it, but because it is the herb sacred to remembrance, and, therefore, to friendship; whence a sprig of it hath a dumb language that maketh it the chosen emblem of our funeral wakes and in our buriall grounds.

— Sir Thomas More (1478-1535) (Suite101: Remembering Rosemary)

More info about rosemary’s alleged medicinal uses at suite101.

Rosemary at Wikipedia.

July 15th, 2010

everything you didn’t know to ask about saltpetre

What’s saltpetre, I don’t hear you asking. Potassium nitrate:

Potassium nitrate is a chemical compound with the formula KNO3. It occurs as a mineral niter and is a natural solid source of nitrogen. Its common names include saltpetre (saltpeter in American English), from Medieval Latin sal petræ: “stone salt” or possibly “Salt of Petra” and nitrate of potash.

Sounds dull but you’re probably more familiar with it’s many uses than you thought. Apart from providing a natural source of nitrogen in fertilizers, it has the following uses also:

In the process of food preservation, potassium nitrate has been a common ingredient of salted meat since the Middle Ages, but its use has been mostly discontinued due to inconsistent results compared to more modern nitrate and nitrite compounds. Even so, saltpetre is still used in some food applications, such as charcuterie and the brine used to make corned beef. Sodium nitrate (and nitrite) have mostly supplanted potassium nitrate’s culinary usage, as they are more reliable in preventing bacterial infection than saltpetre. All three give cured salami and corned beef their characteristic pink hue.

Potassium nitrate is an efficient oxidizer, which produces a lilac flame upon burning due to the presence of potassium. It is therefore used in amateur rocket propellants and in several fireworks such as smoke bombs. It is also added to pre-rolled cigarettes to maintain an even burn of the tobacco.

Potassium nitrate is the main component (usually about 98%) of tree stump remover, as it accelerates the natural decomposition of the stump.

From wikipedia.

June 24th, 2010

curried marrow and mango soup

A marrow is a courgette (Americans read: zucchini) that’s getting on a bit.

Dad’s courgette plants are producing in overdrive and we have courgettes coming out of our ears at the moment. We’ve been searching for new ways to cook courgettes (and marrows, as the courgettes are maturing to their marrow stage faster than we can eat them). This soup was really easy to make and one of the most (unexpectedly) flavoursome I’ve had in a while.

serves 5-6

For the spice mixture (to be ground with mortar & pestle):

2/3 tsp cumin seeds
2/3 tsp coriander seeds
2/3 tsp black peppercorns
1 1/3 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp chilli powder (or to taste)
1/4 tsp ground white pepper (optional)
1/4 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground ginger
1/5 tsp anis seeds
2 cloves

(or cheat and use 2 tbsp curry powder and chili to taste — won’t be as good, though)

For the yoghurt mixture:

1 pot of greek style yoghurt (approx 2 tbsp).
4 tbsp mango chutney (I used the “Patak’s” brand).

The main ingredients:

2 tbsp olive oil
2 medium sized onions, chopped coarsely
2 medium-large marrows, peeled and largely diced
500 – 750ml vegetable stock (depending on how thick you want your soup — save some of it and add later if necessary)
a few handfuls of fresh spinach (optional, adds depth of flavour)

The onions are sautéed in the oil and spices until they’ve softened*. Then the stock is added with the diced marrow (with salt to taste), and it’s left to simmer for 20 minutes**.

Then the spinach is added (if you have it) and left for another 10 minutes. Then the whole thing is blended smooth and the yoghurt mixture is stirred in.

*If the spices mop up too much of the oil and the pan becomes dry… add more oil!

**If, during the previous stage, there are spices clinging to the pan, you can loosen them with a dash of vinegar.

Adapted from this recipe (whose portion sizes are very mean; I doubled most things and it was about the same number of servings, in my opinion).

June 14th, 2010

garlic and chocolate… an introduction to flavour pairing

Garlic and chocolate. Yum?

The blog food for design on flavour pairing:

[…] basil tastes like basil because of the combination of linalool, estragol, …. So if I want to reconstruct the basil flavour without using any basil, you have to search for a combination of other food products where one contains linalool (like coriander), one contains estragol (like tarragon),… So I can reconstruct basil by combining coriander, tarragon, cloves, laurel.

The people behind the food for design blog have started a new website called, which provides a database of foods with information on their flavour components and flavour partners.

Apparently peas and strawberries have flavours in common and would be good partners, as would chocolate and oysters or chocolate and sauerkraut. Even more interesting is that you can use their theory to match two otherwise unmatching foods by using a third food with common flavours to both:

Like chocolate and garlic. The trick then is to search for a third food product that has something in common with chocolate and with garlic. An example is coffee. Coffee has flavour components in common with garlic: Dimethyl disulfide and with chocolate: Methyl pyrazine.

Sounds fun. They hasten to add:

This is just a tool to inspire you. You still need as a chef the craftsmanship, the experience,…to translate this inspiration into a good recipe. It is not only mixing two components together. The balance between the two is important. | Food for design.

May 6th, 2010

under the influence and canopy of the linden

Above: Lindenallee, Berlin, circa 1961. Johann Stridbeck.

The [linden tree] was a highly symbolic and hallowed tree to the Germanic peoples in their native pre-Christian Germanic mythology.

Originally, local communities assembled not only to celebrate and dance under a [linden] tree, but to hold their judicial thing meetings there in order to restore justice and peace. It was believed that the tree would help unearth the truth. (wiki)

I remember studying the poem “Under der linden” by Walther Von Der Vogelweide at university:

Under der linden
an der heide
dâ unser zweier bette was
dâ [muget]1 ir vinden
schône beide
gebrochen bluomen unde gras
vor dem walde in einem tal!
schône sanc diu nahtegal.

The full text can be found here in the original Middle High German, with an English translation.

There are many interpretations of the poem on YouTube. I don’t know which of them would be considered most faithful to the original pronunciation or most appropriately accompanied musically, but certainly these were amongst the most harmonious:

And this was perhaps the most original interpretation I came across:

I was led back to the above poem today after drinking a cup of “tila” and orange leaf tea here in Spain and not knowing exactly what the tila part was. Tila, I have learned, is the Spanish for “Linden”. So it was tea made from the blossoms of the Linden tree. The clue would have been in the latin name for all trees in this family: Tilia.

According to some web sources, linden tea is commonly drunk in South America, particularly in Mexico and, historically, by the Aztecs who claimed its possession of the following medicinal qualities:

* Tranquilizes the Nervous System,
* Cures Insomnia,
* Favors Digestion,
* Calms Menstrual, Hepatic and Renal Cramps,
* Disinflames the Digestive Tract,
* Is a Laxative,
* Sudorific
* Diuretic
* Useful in Bronchitis Cases

Apparently the species Tilia cordata is used not only in landscaping in Central Europe and the former Yugoslavia, but also traditional herbal medicine.

Wikipedia has a (rather impressive) paragraph of the purported health benefits of Tilia:

Tilia flowers are used medicinally for colds, cough, fever, infections, inflammation, high blood pressure, headache (particularly migraine), as a diuretic (increases urine production), antispasmodic (reduces smooth muscle spasm along the digestive tract), and sedative. New evidence shows that the flowers may be hepatoprotective. The flowers were added to baths to quell hysteria, and steeped as a tea to relieve anxiety-related indigestion, irregular heartbeat, and vomiting. The leaves are used to promote sweating to reduce fevers. The wood is used for liver and gallbladder disorders and cellulitis (inflammation of the skin and surrounding soft tissue). That wood burned to charcoal is ingested to treat intestinal disorders and used topically to treat edema or infection such as cellulitis or ulcers of the lower leg.

I certainly feel tranquillized. And the tea is very agreeable to the tastebuds. I may start drinking it more often.

May 5th, 2010

I believe in grass

The biblical statement ‘all flesh is grass’ is almost literally true. Grass is the staple diet of nearly all human beings. Wheat, rice, barley, millet and corn are all grasses, and cattle, sheep and goats (our main sources of meat) survive entirely on grass.

QI fact of the day @ BBC

May 1st, 2010

“big farma” and big ignorance

A. A. Gill @ The Times:

The industrial processes we complain about are what first attracted Victorian housewives. Packet food was sterile, controlled and predictable. The joy of branded ingredients was in their consistency and purity. You see that in all the early advertisements that emphasise the safety of ingredients, that they could be offered to infants and invalids.

Anyone who has travelled to India knows that vomiting, diarrhoea, fevers and worse are constant concerns. That’s what eating everywhere was like before processed food. The fact that we so completely trust the volume and ingredients in packets of food is a great thing; the fact that we can feed 60m people three times a day without poisoning them is an even greater thing and is the triumph of the past century.

Read the full article: School trips to the slaughterhouse.

April 29th, 2010

meat love

Jan Švankmajer (born 4 September 1934 in Prague) is a Czech surrealist artist. His work spans several media. He is known for his surreal animations and features, which have greatly influenced other artists such as Tim Burton, Terry Gilliam, The Brothers Quay and many others.

Švankmajer has gained a reputation over several decades for his distinctive use of stop-motion technique, and his ability to make surreal, nightmarish and yet somehow funny pictures. He is still making films in Prague at the time of writing.

Švankmajer’s trademarks include very exaggerated sounds, often creating a very strange effect in all eating scenes. He often uses very sped-up sequences when people walk and interact. His movies often involve inanimate objects coming alive and being brought to life through stop-motion. Food is a favourite subject and medium. Stop-motion features in most of his work, though his feature films also include live action to varying degrees.

More of his imaginative short films (like Food) are available to watch on youtube. Thanks Femi

April 22nd, 2010

food that digests itself for you

The alien pods of the Chickpea plant, Cicer arietinum L.
Photo by wikipedia user botbin.

Raw chickpeas apparently increase significantly in nutritive value when left to sprout. But I read that uncooked chickpeas contain chemicals that inhibit protease — the enzyme in our bodies required to digest their protein. So how can one benefit from the sprouted chickpea if you can’t even digest it?

Apparently when the chickpea sprouts, it effectively begins to digest itself for you. It turns its protein into digestible amino acids which it uses to fuel the plant’s growth. Therefore one doesn’t need to cook a sprouted chickpea to make it digestible, as one does an unsprouted chickpea.

[anti-nutrients] are substances that bind enzymes or nutrients and inhibit the absorption of the nutrients. The commonly alleged anti-nutrients are protease inhibitors, amylase inhibitors, phytic acid, and polyphenolic compounds such as tannins. With proper soaking and germination, none of these are anything to worry about. Around the world, studies have been and are being conducted on the use of germinated seeds as a low-cost, highly nutritive source of human food. It is well established that when legumes are properly soaked and germinated, their nutritive value increases greatly, usually to levels equal to or exceeding those of the cooked bean. (Nutritive value is the ability of food to provide a usable form of nutrients: protein, carbohydrates, vitamins, and minerals). This has been shown for mung bean, lentil, chickpea (garbanzo bean), cowpea (blackeye pea), pigeon pea, fava bean, fenugreek seeds (a member of the pea family), green & black gram, kidney bean, moth bean, rice bean, soybean, and legumes in general. The increase in nutritive value in the raw sprouted seed is due to an explosion of enzyme activity, which breaks down the storage-protein and starch in the seed into amino acids, peptides, and simpler carbohydrates needed for the seed to grow. The seed is literally digesting its own protein and starch and creating amino acids in the process. Because of this process, sprouted seeds are essentially a predigested food. At the same time, the anti-nutritional factors such as enzyme inhibitors and other anti-nutrients are greatly decreased to insignificant levels or to nothing. Soaking alone causes a significant decrease in anti-nutrients, as the anti-nutrients are leached into the soak water. Soaking for 18 hours removed 65% of hemagglutinin activity in peas.Soaking for 24 hours at room temperature removed 66% of the trypsin (protease) inhibitor activity in mung bean, 93% in lentil, 59% in chickpea, and 100% in broad bean. Then as germination proceeds, anti-nutrients are degraded further to lower levels or nothing. Soaking for 12 hours and 3 – 4 days of germination completely removed all hamagglutinin activity in mung beans and lentil. Soaking for 10 hours and germination for 3 days completely removed amylase inhibitor in lentils. Normal cooking removes most or all of the anti-nutrients.

(via living-foods)

April 21st, 2010

mother HUBBARD

A Golden Hubbard squash (species Cucurbita maxima, a large variety of winter squash).
Photo by wikipedia user badagnani.

April 17th, 2010

never has a chart flowed more sweetly


This flow chart visualizes the difference in processing between teas made from the camellia sinensis plant.

(via reddit/r/food)

March 27th, 2010

Liu Ling the poetic drunkard

I always thought it was a shame that Alan Watts died at such a young age (58). And how incongruous, I thought, that he should die from alcohol-related health problems. But then again, maybe it’s not so strange!

From an interview with one of Watts’ associates, Gia Fu Feng:

Q. You’ve mentioned Alan Watts several times and I know that you’ve been with him when he was teaching. What was he like to be with?

A. You see Alan Watts was very creative. When he drinks he’s very clever. He was in a class, you know, at night time, he was all drunk. But his lectures were never boring. He was a tremendous entertainer. He said, “I’m an entertainer, I’m no Buddhist philosopher.”

Q. Alan Watts actually died from alcohol, didn’t he?

A. Oh yeah. At that time he drank whisky by the bottle.

Q. But how could that tie in with the Tao?

A. That’s from the Tao! The fact that he drank is totally in tune with the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove-his utter disregard for convention. One of the sages, a famous poet called Liu Ling, had a servant who followed him carrying a jug of wine and a spade. In this way he always had some wine to drink and his servant would be ready to bury him if he dropped dead during a drinking bout! It’s in the Tao. So Alan Watts’ drinking is quite Taoistic.

I stumbled upon this (here) when looking for info regarding his untimely end, expecting further tragedy. And yet — what a terrific story! I need to get myself one of those jug carriers.

Coincidentally I learnt earlier today that a wine jug is called an oenochoe!

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