Tuesday, January 31, 2023

January Cooking

January 2023 began with a lovely dinner

New Year’s Eve at Carol’s house. Her kitchen is in the background.

Since the year began, my kitchen has been the site of  lots of cooking including experiments with new recipes and new ingredients. I’ve posted photos about some of this food before, so you may have seen some of the pictures earlier this month, but I’ve added some new ones too.. I’ll be sharing this post  on Sherry’s blog to participate in the once-a-month blog event “In My Kitchen.”

New Cookies from Costco

Stroopwafels from Holland via Costco. Nice!

Trying many new Asian recipes

Kitchen prep: sauce ingredients for the dandan noodles.

Minced pork for the dandan noodles.

Bok choi with ginger, cucumber salad with peanuts, and dandan noodles with pork and spicy sauce.
Len continues his successful experiments with Asian recipes.

Another dinner: bao buns filled with mushrooms, carrot pickles, wild-caught shrimp, and snow peas.

Chicken stew, fish-fragrant eggplant, and smashed cucumbers.
Smashing the cukes is fun, says Len.

Mapo tofu with rice and salad.

Inspired by Judee’s Posts about Quinoa

Judee at the blog Gluten Free A to Z had some nice quinoa
recipes, which inspired me to try some new salads with this ingredient.

And other dishes…

Old favorite: vegetarian chili and salad with avocados.

Tortilla with carnitas, cheese, cilantro. Cooked by Evelyn,
Tom, Miriam, and Alice in our kitchen.

Campari tomatoes are my favorite Costco purchase.
The tortilla filling was a total impulse buy, and a good one.

Tortilla and red bean casserole, plus clementines:
a very simple lunch.

On repeat: mixed salad.

Julia Child’s recipes are always a treat, and worth the effort.
I made this steak au poivre for our visitors.

Coffee Every Day …

New mug from the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology.
Old mug from Madera Canyon, Arizona.

We drink French Press coffee in the kitchen every morning.
But as in this photo, sometimes we have an espresso at a cafe.
This one came with a glass of bubbly water!
I'm sharing this drink with Elizabeth and the Tuesday bloggers.

Blog post © 2023 mae sander

Sunday, January 29, 2023

A Great Chinese Meal

Let’s start with dessert, made by Carol. It was fantastically delicious and not at all Asian.

Almond and apricot tart.

Dandan Noodles

Our main course was Dandan  Noodles, another selection from Len’s ongoing experiments with recipes from cookbook author Fuchsia Dunlop. See the Guardian for a version of her recipe here. According to this article:

“Dandan noodles are the most famous Sichuanese street snack. They were first sold by men who wandered the alleys of Chengdu, carrying their stoves, noodles and secret-recipe sauces in baskets hanging from a bamboo shoulderpole. Older people can remember their calls of ‘Dandan mian! Dandan mian!’ which rang out in every quarter. The noodles were cheap and nourishing, and enjoyed by everyone from odd-jobbers to the very wealthy.”

Sauce preparation.

Mincing a small amount of pork for flavoring the dandan noodles.

Tossing the noodles, sauce, and pork just before serving.

Side dishes: cucumber salad and bok choi with ginger sauce.

Bok choi cleaned, cut up, and ready to go into the steaming basket.

Steamed bok choi with ginger sauce.

Bok choi with ginger sauce, cucumber salad with peanuts, and dandan noodles: ready to eat.

The Popularity of Dandan Noodles

Dandan noodles have been very popular in the US since at least the early 2000s; for example, I know I had them at a Chinese restaurant in St.Louis in 2012. Lots of websites and cookbooks offer recipes for making them. As illustrated by the picture of a package of frozen noodles from P.F.Chang’s, you don't even have to source the special ingredients and go to the trouble of making them yourself. 

Many noodle restaurants have a version of this dish: it's even on the menu at Skipper Dan's of Disney World for $26. I was fascinated by some of the noodle art that I found when exploring this topic.

In New York, the menu of restaurant Ivan Ramen includes Dandan noodles. (source)

A weird noodle mural in weird Austin. (source)

I even found is even a wall poster for sale at Etsy that tells how to make dandan noodles! I’m tempted by this cool item, but I don’t have that much space for more art work.

Poster for sale on Etsy. Link: Chinese Food Print: Dandan Noodles.

Blog post and kitchen photos © 2023 mae sander

Saturday, January 28, 2023

“The Rise of Yeast” by Nicholas P. Money

The Rise of Yeast: How the Sugar Fungus Shaped Civilization by Nicholas P. Money is a challenging book. In presenting the workings of yeast, discussions are often very technical. The author explains the internal structure of the yeast cells, the details of yeast’s cellular reproduction, and also the chemical formulas for the various alcohol reactions that occur. 

Leavened bread, beer, and wine are not the only important products that require the complex organisms classified as yeast; The Rise of Yeast offers information on the expected uses and on the others too, such as the industrial processes that produce ethanol for biofuel and other biotechnology applications. The author includes the history of yeast research, along with the way yeast was discovered to be a living organism. He presents brief sketches of the scientists who worked on discovering yeasts' life cycle and developed its technological uses. The role of yeasts in many natural processes including digestion is included, along with the history of claims that yeast supplements can contribute to health, or contrariwise, the claims that consuming yeast is harmful and should be avoided. One chapter is devoted to diseases caused by yeast — yes, gross!

 From the introduction:

“Supernatural mediation in the experience of inebriation was imagined throughout the ancient world and alcoholic gods and goddesses flourished, including Dionysus and his Roman manifestation Bacchus, the Aztec god Tezcatzontecati, and the Sumerian goddess Ninkasi…. Wine is the essential beverage of the Bible of course. Benjamin Franklin wrote, ‘Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.’ For those of agnostic persuasion, we may toast the evolutionary roots of our little fungus.” (p. 5)

From the conclusion:

“Our complex relationship with alcohol, and later with leavened bread, drove agriculture and settlement. From these splendors came civilization, political organization, militarization, and mass starvation. Later fruits of our yeast-driven civilization included science and technology, engineering and medicine, exponential population growth, and the attendant destruction of the biosphere. And in this time of considerable climatic peril, industrial applications of yeast promise major advances in biotechnology and offer some hope — perhaps our only hope — of powering a carbon-neutral economy. The future of humanity depends more on this bug than on any farm animal or crop plant.” (p. 183)

 It’s a difficult book, but full of interesting facts and insights. This is my third post this week about yeast, beer, bread, wine, and the associated history and science. Now I’m planning to read something completely different!

Review © 2023 mae sander


Friday, January 27, 2023

In Vino Veritas

"Indeed, the idea that drunkenness reveals the ‘true’ self, though ancient and universal, is perhaps most famously expressed by the Latin in vino veritas, ‘in wine there is truth.’ This perceived link between honesty and drunkenness goes back to the Greeks,” (Drunk: How we sipped, danced, and stumbled our way to civilization, Edward Slingerland, p. 141)

Titian's vision of an ancient Greek feast of Bacchus, God of Wine. A favorite example of Edward Slingerland, used on the cover of his book.

It’s Dry January. The first Dry January was in 2012. This month-long event started small and now it’s big. Popular culture embraces an extreme solution for everyone, whether they have a problem with alcohol or not. Recent news articles promoting paranoia about the most moderate of drinking strike me as evidence of a continuing streak of puritanism that plagues American society. Sure, it doesn’t hurt anyone to give up alcohol, but it hurts society to refuse to acknowledge its benefits as well as its risks. It might be worthwhile to create a responsible, not hysterical, assessment of how they stack up. Prohibition a century ago didn’t accomplish its goals and contributed to the growth of organized crime, alcoholism, and other undesirable results.

As a society, we aren’t viewing this issue rationally. Here’s a book that tries to put alcohol in historic and evolutionary perspective, and look for the benefits of alcohol use as well as the negative effects. 

This is a very complex and detailed book, and I can't begin to describe all of the arguments that author Edward Slingerland gives in support of the hypothesis that alcohol and other stimulants contributed to the development of civilization, of social cohesion, and of technological progress in human history. For these accomplishments, both now and historically, he says, humans need what he calls "the Three Cs: we are required to be creative, cultural, and communal." (p. 77). 

Drinking alcoholic beverages, he says, has contributed to all three of these requirements. I can't try to reproduce his discussion: I strongly suggest that you read the book to see this fascinating exploration of history, evolution, and adaptation.

Both good and bad results come from drinking alcohol; Slingerland summarizes the risks: 
"An alcoholic beverage typically provides calories but little nutritional value, and is made from otherwise valuable, and historically scarce, grains or fruit. Its consumption impairs cognition and motor skills, damages the liver, kills off brain cells, and fuels ill-advised dancing, flirting, fighting, and even more louche behaviors. In small doses, it can make us happy and more sociable. But increased consumption quickly leads to slurred speech, violent arguments, maudlin expressions of love, inappropriate touching, or even karaoke." (p. 11).

But he also states the following:

"This book argues that, far from being an evolutionary mistake, chemical intoxication helps solve a number of distinctively human challenges: enhancing creativity, alleviating stress, building trust, and pulling off the miracle of getting fiercely tribal primates [humans] to cooperate with strangers. The desire to get drunk, along with the individual and social benefits provided by drunkenness, played a crucial role in sparking the rise of the first large-scale societies. We could not have civilization without intoxication." (p. 17). 

Alcohol use, the author shows, predates much of human evolution. He describes how even primates and certain other animals intentionally consume over-ripe fruit that has begun to turn alcoholic, and offers evidence that early humans brewed alcoholic beverages from pre-agricultural plant matter. In fact, he ascribes one of the motives for domesticating grain in prehistory to producing something to ferment into beer! (This is known as the beer-before-bread hypothesis.)

In ancient China, in ancient Turkey, in ancient Greece, and many other prehistoric sites, there is evidence that alcohol was part of life: 

"Jars containing our earliest documented alcoholic beverage—a 'Neolithic grog,' made of honey mead, rice beer, and fruit wine—from the Jiahu tomb (7000 to 6000 BCE) in the Yellow River Valley, were 'carefully placed near the mouths of the deceased, perhaps for easier drinking in the hereafter,' and the contents were no doubt also imbibed by those performing and attending the funeral." (p. 156).  

Potsherd from Göbekli Tepe, Turkey (p. 156)

"Indirect evidence of the ancient connection between chemical intoxication, ritual, and ecstasy is found in a remarkable potsherd, dating back to the early Neolithic (ninth millennium BCE), and found at a site in what is now modern-day Turkey not far from Göbekli Tepe. It shows two joyful individuals being accompanied in dance by a turtle, the presence of a dancing animal being interpreted by scholars as a sign of 'altered states of consciousness.'” (p. 156).

Slingerland argues that collective benefits to society, to creativity, and to individual satisfaction for moderate and controlled drinking, especially drinking of low-alcohol beverages like wine and beer (but not distilled spirits) outweigh the purported benefits of total abstinence:

"All things considered—liver damage, calories, and all—a spot of social drinking is good for you, and this has nothing to do with any French paradox or narrow health benefit. Moderate, social drinking brings people together, keeps them connected to their communities, and lubricates the exchange of information and building of networks. We social apes would find it very challenging to do without it, both individually and communally." (p. 206). 

Here is an example of Slingerland's approach to studies that conclude that drinking is unequivocally bad for everyone and bad for society:

"Demonized from the early modern era well into the twentieth century as the “poisonous tap-root” of all evil, alcohol won back some utilitarian respectability with research suggesting that moderate alcohol consumption—on the order of one to two drinks a day—might reduce risks of heart disease, diabetes, or strokes. As we have noted, though, practicing physicians have never been terribly impressed by this body of research, and have resisted actively recommending light drinking in the same way they do, for instance, regular exercise. The health-based defense of alcohol finally suffered a massive body blow from the 2018 Lancet article that has haunted our discussion, a terrible document that concluded definitively that the only safe level of alcohol consumption was zero. As mentioned above, responses to the Lancet study ranged from a predictable 'I told you so' from the teetotaler crowd to those wanting to challenge the methodology and salvage some health benefits for alcohol. An alternative tack is the one taken in this chapter: uncovering or drawing attention to the various ways in which alcohol continues to serve important individual and social functions, the value of which must be weighed against the more obvious health risks." (pp. 227-228).

Drunk is a readable book because it's so full of highly specific examples; however, this makes it hard to review and summarize. In addition to alcohol, the author adds observations about other similar intoxicants. Consider this, for example:

"The anthropologist Dwight Heath, a pioneer of the study of the social function of alcohol, notes that it has always played a crucial bonding function in situations where otherwise isolated individuals are required to get along—sailors in port, loggers just having come out of the woods, cowboys gathering at a saloon. ... Other chemical intoxicants have also been used to create the particularly intense form of social bonding required for warriors. An early Spanish missionary to the New World noted that some indigenous groups used peyote before heading out to war. 'It spurs them to fight with no thought of fear, thirst, or hunger,' he reported. 'And they say that it protects them from all danger.' The battle rage of the legendary 'beserkers' of Norse legend was likely driven by psychedelics, and the feared assassins of ancient Persia derived their name (Persian hashashiyan, Arabic hashīshiyyīn) from the intoxicant from which they drew their fighting spirit, hashish." (p. 145-147)

I found many interesting and significant insights into the uses and abuses of alcohol in this very penetrating study of a subject that in some ways is almost taboo! A major conclusion:

"We cannot properly grasp the dynamics of human social life unless we understand the role that intoxicants have played in making civilization possible." (p. 303).

Somehow, the book didn’t mention the iconic function of
alcohol in the famous St.Bernard snow rescues.

Review © 2023 mae sander.

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Vegetarian Mapo Tofu

In Fuchsia Dunlop’s cookbook Every Grain of Rice, the vegetarian version of the famous Mapo Tofu is called “Pock-Marked Old Woman’s Tofu,” which means the same thing. Len made it last night, and it’s a very exciting dish because it has enough sichuan peppercorns to actually make one’s mouth tingle.

Tofu, rice, salad.


Sichuan Pepperconrs

These peppercorns are berries of a type of prickly ash tree, which belongs to the citrus family. They are not related to the two most common kinds of pepper: black pepper and capsicum pepper. Their flavor is amazing. According to Bon Appétit: “instead of attacking the tongue with spiciness, Sichuan peppercorns induce a tingling sensation similar to drinking a super carbonated seltzer or eating a whole pack of pop rocks.” (source)

Green onions. For a while they were hard to find,
but they now seem widely available.


Sichuan Chili Bean Paste: this imported brand is
the one the author recommends.

This tofu recipe appeared in Fuchsia Dunlop’s cooking column in the Guardian in 2012. She wrote: 

“Mapo doufu is one of the best-loved dishes of the Sichuanese capital, Chengdu. It is named after the wife of a Qing dynasty restaurateur who delighted passing labourers with her hearty braised tofu, cooked up at her restaurant by the Bridge of 10,000 Blessings in the north of the city. The dish is thought to date back to the late nineteenth century. Mrs Chen's face was marked with smallpox scars, so she was given the affectionate nickname ma po, "pock-marked old woman". The dish is traditionally made with minced beef, although many cooks now use pork. This vegetarian version is equally sumptuous.” (source)

Blog post and photos © 2023 mae sander

Tuesday, January 24, 2023

More Murakami

What I’ve been reading: Two early novels by Haruki Murakami.
After the Quake, published as a collection in 2002.
South of the Border, West of the Sun, first published in Japanese in 1992.
I enjoyed them, but don’t feel like writing about them.
His style changed a great deal in his later works.


Monday, January 23, 2023

Beer, Bread, and Yeast

Brewing beer, 16th century (source)

As I’ve mentioned many times, Len makes absolutely wonderful bread, mainly from sourdough starters (one wheat, one rye) that he has kept going for several years. Recently, he became curious about the history of bread baking, particularly the history of using starters and of obtaining yeast from breweries, such as the one depicted. 

Len’s Bread

Len’s discussion about where bakers got their leavening

I've done a lot of reading to answer the question about how traditional bakers got their yeasts, i.e. beer, old dough, or liquid levain (our method). For 19th century America I came to a very unexpected result: it depended on where in the country you were. In the East people exclusively used brewer's yeast. I got this from a Dover reprint of a cookbook from 1841 by Sarah Josepha Hale, and from a discussion in a book by Linda Civitello called Baking Powder Wars. Hale says that you should use what's left in the bottom of the cask when you make your household beer, or, if you don't brew beer, get it from the local brewery. She lived in Boston and Philadelphia.

However, In California, they used sourdough of the type we use from early times. For example, Boudin bakery (which still exists) started making sourdough loaves in 1849. They claim that they are still using the starter that their founder, Isidore Boudin, had in the original shop. In the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, the wife of the then owner heroically saved the levain in a bucket and ran out of the shop with it. 

Boudin Sourdough: available at Costco!
It’s quite good (but Len’s is better).

Mae found accounts of people on the Oregon trail who had levain in the wagons and baked on the trail. Of course, you know the stories of the miners who slept with their levain to keep it from freezing.

My guess is that this split reflects European practice. In England all bread was made with brewer's yeast before commercial yeast became available (1860's more or less). The Brits had a horror of sour bread, and prefered it bitter, like beer. (Hale's recipe for bread using brewer's yeast added hops). On the other hand, on  the European continent, our kind of levain was the standard. Isidore Boudin was from a family of bakers in Burgundy, and came to California around the Horn. Many of the people on the Oregon trail came directly from Europe (e.g. Sweden) and carried their starters with them.

So it all comes down to custom, and snobbery.

Beer and Bread Were Invented Together

Ancient Egypt: Kneading a starter for beer.
(Israel Museum)

Ancient Egypt: Kneading bread. (Toronto Museum)

… and Humans Have Never Been the Same.

Source: “How Bread, Beer, and Soy Sauce Changed the Human Biome”

Blog post © 2023 mae and len sander