A tale of three seafood sandwiches

This is an article about making seafood sandwiches for friends in New England. My main(e?) takeaway isn’t the methods or recipes, though—it’s the frankly bizarre dance of imports and exports that sends locally sourced fish around the world and back again before it reaches consumers:

Next up will be a squid sloppy joe. Squid is another extremely common animal we find off New England’s shores, but it is rarely available fresh in our fish markets. Like herring, it is often used as bait. What we do eat directly comes to us through a truly bizarre transport system that makes my Tennessee-waylaid FedEx delivery seem downright direct. New England squid is typically caught off Massachusetts and Rhode Island, frozen whole, shipped to China, defrosted, cleaned and ringed, refrozen, and sent back to us as a twice-frozen product.

Source: A Tale of Three Seafood Sandwiches | Hakai Magazine

Baking the Most Average Chocolate Chip Cookie

We wondered if there was a way to leverage computers and hundreds of pre-existing recipes to create the most average chocolate chip cookie. Would it be bland and unremarkable? Or, perhaps like averaging human facial features, the results would be even better than each of its individual parts. Maybe an average cookie would be the most delicious of them all.

But what is an average cookie? We decided to interpret this idea using three different methods: a mathematical average, predictive text algorithms, and neural networks. After feeding each algorithm over 200 chocolate chip cookie recipes, they each generated something new. And, yes, we actually baked them.

Source: Baking the Most Average Chocolate Chip Cookie

A brilliant vegetable burger

Following yesterday’s post about vegetables, I made vegetable burgers tonight. They were excellent. I don’t have any photos but here are the ingredients and recipe. Serves 4, or you can cook 2 and leave 2 in the fridge for a following day.

  • 85g brown basmati rice, cooked in salted water and drained
  • 400g tin flageolet beans (or other cooked pulse), drained
  • 100g cashew nuts
  • 1 red onion, roughly chopped
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, roughly chopped
  • 115g sweetcorn, drained
  • a squeeze of tomato purée
  • 1 tsp dried oregano
  • big pinch each salt and pepper

Put all the ingredients in a food processor and pulse until well combined. Form into 4 burgers. Dust the sticky burgers with some brown flour on both sides then chill on a plate in the fridge for an hour or so.

Cook in a pan over a medium-high heat with 1 tbsp oil for 5-6 minutes on each side. Serve in toasted buns with shredded crunchy lettuce, a slice of tomato and whatever sauces you like.

(I served these with sweet potato fries: cut up your sweet potatoes and toss well with 1 tbsp olive oil, 1 tbsp polenta, and 1/4 to 1/2 tsp each of your favourite herbs and spices. I used smoked paprika, ground cumin, ground coriander, oregano, cayenne pepper, salt, pepper. Lay on a baking sheet and cook at 200°C for 15-20 minutes, turning halfway.)

Raw power: Britain’s changing appetite for veg

Who would have thought that cauliflower – which was traditionally served under what chef Jean Conil described in his 1953 book Haute Cuisine as “a merciful disguise of sauce” – might one day be so celebrated it would be served proudly whole and slow-roasted, like a prime cut of beef? For a while it felt as if the vegetables that inspired love in Britain were Mediterranean ones such as red peppers that were roasted and safely removed from anything we had grown up with. But there is a renewed appetite for locally grown root veg too. From 2016 to 2017, sales of beetroot in the UK grew by £34 million, an increase of 6% year on year. Still more startling is the rise in people who centre their entire diet on vegetables, gathering under the hashtag #plantbased. The number of self-declared British vegans has risen by more than 360% since 2006.

Great. Vegetables are increasingly the star of the show. But a diet rich in fresh produce is still out of reach for far too many:

At the vegetable summit, Kerridge said her teenage daughter often begged her for pre-packed spiralised courgettes in the supermarket because she had seen it idolised on social media. The problem is that Kerridge can’t afford to buy it.

Granted, it’s much more affordable to buy courgettes and spiralise them yourself. (If you must.) But the broader point is painfully clear—vegetables are cool again, yet large swathes of the population are missing out.

(Aside: I learned recently the that author of this piece, Bee Wilson, is the sister of classicist Emily Wilson, whose translation of the Odyssey is currently on my bedside table.)

Source: Raw power: Britain’s changing appetite for veg | Life and style | The Guardian

A new generation of food magazines thinks small, and in ink

Despite some off-putting names — like Toothache or Mold — many of these publications are beautiful and inviting, with ink-saturated pages filled with original art, and nuanced, complex stories you want to spend time digesting. Their cover prices are fittingly high, with many around $20, and a few don’t even bother to post their content online, focusing entirely on print.

Staffs tend to be tiny (often just one or two people), as do circulations (150 to 15,000). But what these titles lack in size or legacy, they make up for in originality and ambition, often zooming in on stories that have been overlooked or misrepresented in traditional magazines, and publishing them on their own terms.

Source: A New Generation of Food Magazines Thinks Small, and in Ink – The New York Times

I’ve bought and read a few of these—Mold, The Gourmand and Put a Egg on It spring immediately to mind, delivered as part of my Stack subscription—and they are things to treasure. Worth seeking out if you are in any way interested in food and culture.

Whenever I go into the kitchen to do something quick—let the dog out into the garden, make a cup of tea, empty the dishwasher—I open this book onto a random page and read for a few minutes. While not a recipe book per se, it’s by far my favourite book about food. 📚

Teaching grownups how to eat

The key to lasting dietary change, according to Wilson, is “a hedonic shift” in attitudes toward food—a reorienting of our palates that would render broccoli at least as delicious as cookies. “When our preferences are in order,” she argues, “nutrition should take care of itself.” Better yet, the trick to learning to love cruciferous greens turns out to be relatively simple: repeated, positive exposure to broccoli and its cousins. To prove how malleable our palates can be, Wilson marshals an array of case studies and experiments that have examined the human ability to shape and reshape food preferences.

Source: Teaching Grownups How to Eat | The New Yorker

Bee Wilson’s last book was terrific. ‘First Bite’ sounds just as intriguing; not just because my son will start to eat proper food in the next few months, and I can’t wait to see how he reacts to the food we eat, but also because we have a huge societal problem on our hands and (re-)learning about food, its origins and impact should be high up any forward-thinking government’s todo list.

My restaurant ruined my life 

Cooking would have remained a hobby if I hadn’t stumbled across old footage of Michelin chef Marco Pierre White preparing a stuffed pig’s trotter on YouTube. It was an audacious dish and maybe even a bit sinister. It looked a little like a stubby, sun-baked human hand on a platter. I loved how the deft skill of an unlikely genius and a few choice ingredients transformed a cheap cut of meat into a beautiful plate. The dish was transcendent to me, and in a rough kind of way, so was its creator. White smoked. White sneered. White swore. He was handsome. I could envision him swaggering around his Hampshire restaurant, the Yew Tree Inn, dropping exquisite plates of food in front of wealthy customers with all the bombast of a star footballer. As he got older and no longer cooked in the kitchen, he was known to hang about the bar and drink cider with customers, at times with a .22 rifle close by in case he had the sudden urge to go rabbit hunting. To me, Marco Pierre White was inspirational. I wanted to be him. And I wanted my own Yew Tree.

It’s safe to say that this plan—starting a restaurant off the back of being a bit interested in food—doesn’t go quite as well as the author would like.

Source: I poured my blood, sweat and life savings into my restaurant. Dumbest thing I’ve ever done

Selling pizza to Italians

How a British pizza chain is succeeding in Salina, Southern Italy:

Only a handful of restaurants overlook the seafront on the Via Marina Garibaldi in Lingua, one of the few villages on the Aeolian island of Salina. Among them is Da Alfredo, famous for granita – made with figs, peaches, melons, mulberries, citrus fruits or even pistachios – which has been here since 1968.

‘It’s perfect, isn’t it? Granita is just what you want to eat after pizza, so it is fantastic to have this place beside our restaurant,’ says Giuseppe Mascoli, who this summer opened a pizzeria, Franco Manca, in the shop next door.

Recognise the name? Franco Manca is a hugely successful British chain, founded by Mascoli in 2008 in a small unit in Brixton Market, south London.

Speaking of Italy, I recently completed the Italian language tree in Duolingo. Having started and stopped it a few times, it was good to get it finished. As expected, my spoken Italian is not great, but I can read and wrote fairly well. I’ve bought a book of short stories to assist with the latter; I will simply have to spent time at my local Italian bistro to improve the former. Oh well.

Atomic cookery

Joe Pinsker writes for The Atlantic about metacookbooks:

It’s a shame that the standard way of learning how to cook is by following recipes. To be sure, they are a wonderfully effective way to approximate a dish as it appeared in a test kitchen, at a star chef’s restaurant, or on TV. And they can be an excellent inspiration for even the least ambitious home cooks to liven up a weeknight dinner. But recipes, for all their precision and completeness, are poor teachers. They tell you what to do, but they rarely tell you why to do it.

This means that for most novice cooks, kitchen wisdom—a unified understanding of how cooking works, as distinct from the notes grandma lovingly scrawled on index-card recipes passed down through the generations—comes piecemeal. Take, for instance, the basic skill of thickening a sauce. Maybe one recipe for marinara advises reserving some of the starchy pasta water, for adding later in case the sauce is looking a little thin. Another might recommend rescuing a too-watery sauce with some flour, and still another might suggest a handful of parmesan. Any one of these recipes offers a fix under specific conditions, but after cooking through enough of them, those isolated recommendations can congeal into a realization: There are many clever ways to thicken a sauce, and picking an appropriate one depends on whether there’s some leeway for the flavor to change and how much time there is until dinner needs to be on the table.

The downside of learning to cook primarily through recipes, then, is that these small eurekas—which, once hit upon, are instantly applicable to nearly any other dish one prepares—are most often arrived at via triangulation. It’s like trying to learn a language only by copying down others’ sentences, instead of learning the grammar and vocabulary needed to put to paper lines of one’s own.

In our house, I am the one inclined to create a meal out of ingredients we already have. For me, this reduces waste, it encourages the use of seasonal ingredients, and it can result in novel discoveries and surprises which I think more than make up for any occasional disappointments.

My girlfriend, in one of the few areas of life that she is predominantly risk-averse, prefers the more consistent results produced by meticulously following recipes, and is not interested in such outlandish or risky approaches as ingredient substitution or generally making it up as you go along.

We’re both keen cooks with different approaches. I was working on a web design project today, using a pattern library, when it occurred to me: Pinkser is talking about breaking recipes into component methods. It’s an atomic approach.

Atomic design

Brad Frost’s 2013 post Atomic Design explores the building blocks of web design and how they combine:

A lot has been said about creating design systems, and much of it focuses on establishing foundations for color, typography, grids, texture and the like. This type of thinking is certainly important, but I’m slightly less interested in these aspects of design because ultimately they are and will always be subjective. Lately I’ve been more interested in what our interfaces are comprised of and how we can construct design systems in a more methodical way.

In searching for inspiration and parallels, I kept coming back to chemistry. The thought is that all matter (whether solid, liquid, gas, simple, complex, etc) is comprised of atoms. Those atomic units bond together to form molecules, which in turn combine into more complex organisms to ultimately create all matter in our universe.

Similarly, interfaces are made up of smaller components. This means we can break entire interfaces down into fundamental building blocks and work up from there. That’s the basic gist of atomic design.

Frost’s approach consists of five distinct ‘levels’ or ‘stages’ (he uses both terms interchangeably) of atomic design:

  1. Atoms. The core building blocks, e.g. HTML tags, form labels, inputs or buttons.
  2. Molecules. Combinations of atoms, e.g. a working form comprised of a label, input and button.
  3. Organisms. “groups of molecules joined together to form a relatively complex, distinct section of an interface,” e.g. a masthead consisting of a logo, primary navigation, search form and social media links.
  4. Templates. These are groups of organisms which together form a layout. Think of wireframes and mockups.
  5. Pages, which are specific instances of templates. All placeholder information is replaced by real content.

This is useful in many ways. People can focus on things in detail as well as having a broader view. Faced with problems, you can take a particular stage and investigate if the issue relates to how it combines with others, or if the problem is with what the item itself is comprised. You can look both ways for a solution.

Reverse-engineering cookery

Pinsker praises people like J. Kenji López-Alt for their reverse-engineering approach to cookery. Kenji’s The Food Lab column looks at a specific dish, e.g. katsu curry, by tweaking ingredients and methods and deconstructing other cooks’ approaches. He’s looking at the concept of katsu curry and seeing what approaches do and don’t work, relaying this to the reader, who then has all of the following:

  • A solid katsu curry recipe
  • An understanding of why that combination of ingredients and methods works
  • How to adapt the recipe according to what’s available
  • A set of transferable skills, e.g. making cutlets, brining, breading and frying

It offers more information than a typical recipe. It’s recipe and method together. Another proponent of this is Felicity Cloake, who’s How to cook the perfect… column for The Guardian breaks apart cooks’ approaches in search of a single foolproof recipe. There are others, too. Food52 have a Not recipes section which focuses more on a toolkit approach to a dish rather than a single recipe.

Atomic cookery

I hope it is obvious that ‘atomic’ here is unrelated to molecular gastronomy, however that is being defined at the moment. It is also unlikely to be a novel thought. Scientific or linguistic metaphors for cookery are already well-used. But it has given me a new way to think about how we approach these things in our particular house and with our particular approaches. If it’s easy to break apart a set of core recipes, and we understand how best to do this and why, we can reassemble them in new and (hopefully) successful ways.

By drawing a parallel between atomic design and cookery, we have something like:

  1. Ingredient/method/technique, e.g. eggs, deep-frying, julienning
  2. Preparation, e.g. making a soffrito
  3. Component, e.g. ragu sauce
  4. The conceptual ‘dish’, e.g. the idea of bolognese
  5. Specific recipe, e.g. a specific cook’s version of a dish, made up of components

This isn’t quite an exact parallel with the atomic design approach. There isn’t the same progression of increasing nested complexity through the list. A bolognese recipe isn’t more complex than the ‘concept’ of bolognese, for example; instead, it will use a subset of all the possible components.

Pinsker praises Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking by Samin Nosrat as the best metacookbook along these lines. I’m certainly going to buy the book based on his description of the ‘checklist’ approach it instils in the cook:

Has it been sufficiently salted? How was fat used to inflect its flavor and texture? Is there acid in there to balance out the overall flavor? And should it have been exposed to a different type or amount of heat? This is the book of cooking grammar that so many novices would benefit from.

And experienced home cooks, I bet. I can also recommend An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace by Tamar Adler, which concerns itself with the grammar of good, economical cookery. I particularly like the section on soaking and cooking dried beans and pulses, and think often of ‘the fat boy in his prime’:

(Some caution to end. I’ve invoked a scientific metaphor taken from web design and also mentioned grammar while discussing food preparation and recipes. There are pitfalls of jumping too wholeheartedly into using these abstractions and metaphors. They might inadvertently impose a way of thinking that is more restrictive rather than freeing the cook to think about things in new ways. In a recent post for the New York Times, John Herrman cautions against the widespread use of the technology ‘stack’ as a metaphor, ending with a quote from computer scientist John Daugmann: “We should remember that the enthusiastically embraced metaphors of each ‘new era’ can become, like their predecessors, as much the prison house of thought as they first appeared to represent its liberation.”)

New allotment

Over the weekend we got a new allotment:

For those who know Stony Stratford, it’s on the Wolverton Road site, which I’m told has a strong community feel.

All the plots on the site have roughly the same area, but the shape of ours is dramatically affected by a neighbouring garden. The plot resembles an L-shape, with the ascender tapering off into a long point, where this photo was taken from. I hope this means there’ll be a mixture of sunny and shady spots.

Coincidentally, the previous tenant of the plot is one of our friends, and he planted a few fruit bushes before having to give up the plot. There are a couple of sheds too, so I’m hoping to fill one up with mugs, books, tools and so on.

Our overall aims for the allotment aren’t necessarily to save money. I’d just like to eat more seasonally, grow crops that aren’t readily available in supermarkets, and try out less-obvious varieties of things that are.

The Food Lab’s BLT Manifesto

J. Kenji López-Alt goes characteristically deep on the BLT sandwich:

It wasn’t until I tasted my first great tomato, at the vine-ripe old age of 22, that I finally understood the true nature of the BLT (and, by extension, why I’d never enjoyed tomatoes on my sandwiches or in my salads). Here we go: A BLT is not a well-dressed bacon sandwich. A BLT is a tomato sandwich, seasoned with bacon. From this basic premise, all else follows. Indeed, a better name for the BLT might well be the Tomato Club, for it is the perfect tomato, not the bacon, that is the rarest, the most ephemeral, the most singularly delicious ingredient.

Starting a Szechuan restaurant in the US

Han Chiang, for Munchies:

Everybody takes spice differently. When I opened my first restaurant, I got so many complaints about the level of spice. A older woman once tried to call the cops on me because she thought that I was trying to fuck with her because the dish was so hot.

So I started thinking, What can I do to solve this problem? As a Chinese restaurant in America, we have a lot of people send back dishes to the kitchen, and this is culturally the greatest offense to us. This is unheard of in China. If you don’t like a particular dish, you don’t eat it, and then you don’t go back to that restaurant. In China, you would get your shit kicked in in the back of an alley if you sent a dish back.

A nice tale of tradition and authenticity vs. giving the customers what (they think) they want.

All the city’s flotsam and jetsam

1: Cancer and climate change

I’m a climate scientist who has just been told I have Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

This diagnosis puts me in an interesting position. I’ve spent much of my professional life thinking about the science of climate change, which is best viewed through a multidecadal lens. At some level I was sure that, even at my present age of 60, I would live to see the most critical part of the problem, and its possible solutions, play out in my lifetime. Now that my personal horizon has been steeply foreshortened, I was forced to decide how to spend my remaining time. Was continuing to think about climate change worth the bother?

2: Ten thousand years of the mortar and pestle

3: Vader’s Redemption: The Imperial March in a Major Key

4: The tube at a standstill: why TfL stopped people walking up the escalators

It’s British lore: on escalators, you stand on the right and walk on the left. So why did the London Underground ask grumpy commuters to stand on both sides? And could it help avert a looming congestion crisis?

5: Google Earth fractals

The following is a “photographic” gallery of fractal patterns found while exploring the planet with Google Earth. Each is provided with a KMZ file so the reader can explore the region for themselves. Readers are encouraged to submit their own discoveries for inclusion, credits will be included. Besides being examples of self similar fractals, they are often very beautiful structures … not an uncommon characteristic of fractal geometry.

6: The digital materiality of GIFs

The history, present and future of GIFs.

7: A collection of Bat-labels

Collecting the explanatory labels on everything in the 1966-1968 Batman TV series.

8: Michael Wolf captures abstract, accidental sculptures in Hong Kong alleyways

For over 20 years Michael Wolf has been photographing Hong Kong. During that time he has captured the towering pastel facades of its high rise architecture in a vein similar to Thomas Struth or Andreas Gursky, but perhaps more interestingly he has delved into the hidden maze of the city’s back alleys. What he found and has faithfully documented, are the innumerable abstract urban still lifes seen throughout. All the city’s flotsam and jetsam, from clusters of gloves and clothes hangers, to networks of pipes and a full colour spectrum of plastic bags, are photographed in strange, but entirely happenstance arrangements.

9: A list of the 100 oldest rockstars still living

10: ‘Shocking celebrity nip slips’: Secrets I learned writing clickbait journalism

I spent six months writing traffic-baiting articles about ‘nearly naked’ red carpet dresses and Hollywood bikini shots. Here is my dispatch from the dark side of online celeb journalism.

11: Poachers using science papers to target newly discovered species

Academic journals have begun withholding the geographical locations of newly discovered species after poachers used the information in peer-reviewed papers to collect previously unknown lizards, frogs and snakes from the wild, the Guardian has learned.

12: Why I ignore the daily news and read The Economist instead (and how you can too)

But there’s one big downside to the The Economist: it’s a bear to read every week. Not because of the writing, which is crisp and engaging, but because of the volume. Each issue contains about 90 pages of densely packed 9-point type and few photos.

Here’s my 7-step system for reading The Economist every week.