Recipe Tracker: Cooking Out of the Box

Recipe Tracker: Cooking Out of the Box

Have you ever had a compost bin full of bits and druthers that you think are almost edible? You know, the thin peels of broccoli or carrots or apples? What about a refrigerator drawer with wilted greens or the selection of cheeses you got for that cocktail party a month ago? Do you just chuck them out, concerned that they’re not fresh enough to use or be delicious?

And what about the money you spent on those ingredients? Or the costs of producing them? Does tossing no-longer-fresh food take a toll on your grocery budget, as well as your environmental conscience?

As landfills are increasingly brimming with food that was produced but never consumed (for a variety of reasons), it may be time to reconsider the ways in which we assign a value to ingredients. After all, in less affluent eras — or areas of the world and the U.S. — people couldn’t afford to waste food products that could still contribute to a tasty and nutritious meal. Think of it as a really good time to figure out how to be creative with your organic kitchen matter.

The good news is lots of people, including some of the world’s best chefs, are working on ways to address this very issue. In fact, two recent cookbooks — or, let’s say, sources of recipes — approach the notion of creating a dish from opposite ends of the spectrum. One, “Bread is Gold,” by the world-renowned chef Massimo Bottura, is a collection of recipes and stories by and about a variety of chefs who were called to cook using only products that arrived at a pop-up soup kitchen during the 2015 Milan World Expo as excess, day-old or deemed insufficiently fresh to sell.

The Expo’s theme, “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life,” spoke directly to Bottura, who worked with a parish priest in the city to transform an old theater into a dining hall that could accommodate, restaurant-style, 100 guests each day — serving lunch to area school children and supper to local homeless people.

For the fancy chefs who came to Milan to cook for a day or two at the Refettorio, their constrained ingredient lists were the catalysts to their creativity. Deliveries included days-old bread, produce in various states of maturity or discoloration, cheeses and other dairy products that were nearing or past their sell-by dates. Each day’s supplies were different and unpredictable. After the initial shock of the arbitrariness of that day’s delivery wore off, the enterprising chefs got straight to work, creating delicious and comforting meals for their guests.

“Something of apparently no use could become a secret weapon in the kitchen, a super power that could magically transform a dull dish into a vibrant one,” Bottura writes about the solution Chef Cristina Bowerman devised for using the outer — and often discarded — leaves of vegetables: Dry them and grind them into intense powders that add stealthy flavor to dishes. (She’s not the only one who makes savory powders from dehydrated vegetable peels; read on.)

The chefs wasted nothing because very little was available to start with. Even banana peels were used to make a chutney. It was a revelation, even to one of the world’s top chefs, Bottura. “If you open your mind and start thinking differently about ingredients, then you no longer have to throw away a banana peel ever again,” he writes.

“Bread is Gold” shares stories and recipes by chefs who fed hundreds of people using food deemed unfit to sell. The key to success? Human chefs who applied their knowledge and experience to effect a delicious outcome.

Chef Massimo Bottura

By contrast, for Chef Watson, developed by IBM — yes, that Watson — the sky’s the limit when it comes to ingredients. Through machine learning and algorithms, an online app called Chef Watson will take in up to four ingredients that you suggest (whether or not you see how they might result in something delicious) and output a set of instructions that it “believes” will create an edible dish. Chef Watson offers a never-ending source of combinations for any ingredient under the sun. [Editor’s note: Alas, IBM closed its Chef Watson site in June 2018.]

The computer ingested the entire archive of Bon Appetit magazine, as well as a huge dataset of different ingredients and their detailed flavor profiles. From there, Chef Watson learned to recognize synergies — ingredients that seem to go well together (understood perhaps by frequency of pairing or through the logic of their marrying profiles). Garlic and tomatoes. Mushrooms and butter. Pork and apples.

As the recipe appears on screen it displays three graphic measurements — synergy, pleasantness and surprise — that help the user determine how the hypothetical dish might turn out. Just as constraints fueled the chefs at the Milan Refettorio, the search for novelty drives Watson’s recipes.

While the platform is available online for anyone to use, Chef Watson has been on a few roadshows, employed by featured chefs to make novel dishes. The chronicle of these events is a book called “Cognitive Cooking,” another collection of experiential narratives and try-it-yourself recipes.

“Cognitive Cooking” shares stories and recipes by IBM’s Chef Watson, which generates recipes from any combination of ingredients. The key to success? Human chefs who applied their knowledge and experience to effect a delicious outcome.

If you have unused ingredients lingering in your fridge and pantry, don’t toss them — type them into Chef Watson’s ingredient fields and await a recipe generated just for you. You can refine outcomes through filters such as cuisine type, dish type or even holiday. Dinner solved!

Central to the recipe successes shared in the book are the chefs — the human cooks — whose expertise and creativity helped shape Watson’s “suggestions” of unusual ingredient combinations into viable outcomes. For instance, an early trial was a pastry recipe for Spanish Almond Crescent. But the ingredient list included more liquids than would work to make a stable dough. A chef at the Institute of Culinary Education tweaked the recipe, substituting some ingredients for others to ensure a satisfying outcome but still maintain the flavor profile Chef Watson suggested.

“This is the nature of the human-machine collaboration,” the book notes. “The computer doesn’t dictate. It suggests.”

For IBM Watson Group Engineer Florian Pinel, Chef Watson has great potential to help people eat more healthfully by personalizing recipes according to dietary constraint and personal preference. It also could help reduce food waste by making suggestions based on what lurks in your refrigerator, finding ways to use the last of those beets along with the remains of the star fruit and ground pork you bought for last weekend’s cooking project.

“People can create new, personalized recipes on the fly,” Pinel said in a 2014 TED@IBM talk. “People can cook food that’s flavorful and healthy without ever eating the same thing twice.”

Whether you come to your starting line with leftovers and remainders or a motley collection of ingredients for your next unique Watson creation, a key component is a human willingness to see the value in every piece of the puzzle. Whether it goes into tonight’s dinner or becomes part of the stock for tomorrow’s sauce, just about every edible thing on Earth has a value that should prevent it from simply being next week’s landfill fodder.

IBM engineer Florian Pinel talks about the thinking behind Chef Watson in this 2014 TED@IBM Talk.

That’s certainly the philosophy that drives Chef Ian Thurwachter of Intero, an Italian-themed fine-dining restaurant in Austin.

Fine-dining restaurants are often known for their pristine ingredients and precise techniques, the combination of which should result in a mind-blowing dining experience that’s hard to replicate at home. But often, there’s a cost to this level of quality, and it’s not only found in the prices on the menu.

For example, to create carrot brunoise, the delicate ⅛-inch dice that often garnish soups or stews, one must start with an irregular, round vegetable and make it square. In the same vein, to get to the heart of a broccoli stem, arguably the sweetest, most tender and delicious part of the green brassica, the outer peel must be removed first.

In both instances, once you’ve finished cutting and have the finished ingredients, ready to sprinkle or roast or puree, you also have a pile of peel and other trimmings — byproducts that often end up in a compost bin, or worse, the garbage.

Not so at Intero, where Chef Thurwachter operates a no-waste kitchen in which every stem, peel, animal organ, off-cut of meat or other commonly tossed odd and end is put to flavorful use.

Chef Ian Thurwachter. Photo by Kenny Braun.

This Intero dish features a pesto made from radish tops, carrot tops and almonds. Extra carrot greens top the dish as a leafy garnish.

Yum Yum powder (dehydrated fermented broccoli scraps) sprinkled over a dish that highlights the rest of the broccoli plant, grilled florets and thin slices of pickled broccoli stem.

A branzino fish entree dusted with lemon powder.

Take the humble, fibrous broccoli peel. At Intero, they pack it with salt and sugar and leave it to ferment for several days. “It balloons up, is intensely pungent, with a very off-putting smell. But the flavor is really awesome — it’s got this tart saltiness,” Thurwachter explains. “We take all that and dehydrate it and turn it into a powder that’s got this background funkiness. It’s intensely savory, and we use it as a seasoning.” (Another clever dehydrated use for vegetable peels….)

The idea for this transformation came from a sous chef who had seen some something similar with mushrooms. Thurwachter engages his team in regular brainstorming sessions to figure out how best to use all the scraps.

“About once a week it’s a necessity,” he says, “but we try to make it an ongoing thing. Every day we have projects.” Projects such as dehydrating the smoked carrots his bartender used for a cocktail. The resulting powder will go into a pasta dough. Or using remnants from artichokes that were served as a bar snack in a stock that pairs with a rabbit tortelloni. “It’s just constantly trying to move these puzzle pieces around,” he says about the challenge of using all the parts.

It’s a challenge that resembles the no-waste reality of Italian farmers of earlier generations. “I love Italian cooking more than I love Italian food because it’s really a cuisine that historically is based on poverty,” Thurwachter says. He explains how veal farmers used to sell their prime cuts to fancy restaurants in Milan and keep the off-cuts — the lower-valued and harder-to-sell cuts — such as the shanks and head, for themselves.

But just as Bottura’s chefs made scrumptious meals from undervalued ingredients in Milan in 2015, Italian farmers of yore tapped into their own creative wells.

“They came up with things like osso bucco milanese (using the veal shank), which is the quintessential Italian dish,” Thurwachter explains. And it didn’t stop there. Arancini, fried rice balls, are made from leftover rice, stuffed with leftover veal and fried the next day for yet another meal originating from humble ingredients. “And then there are these really elaborate preparations where the farmer’s wife took the time to completely bone out the veal head and roll it up into this beautiful roulade and braise it and then slice it super thin and serve it with bitter greens and a salad. I would take that veal roulade with a salad over a veal chop any day of the week,” Thurwachter says, vividly illustrating an alternative way to value ingredients.

While he’s set a different challenge for himself than Massimo Bottura or Florian Pinel, Chef Thurwachter relies on a similar asset: “Our biggest resource in the kitchen is our collective creativity.”

Paste made from fermented broccoli peel before being dehydrated.

Homemade vinegar-in-process at Intero using carrot tops and leftover wine from bottles sold by the glass.

Baker’s Holiday

Baker’s Holiday

January is just about the worst time to meet the owner of a bakery in Buenos Aires, or any business owner, for that matter.

Marcelo, the owner of La Sud América, a bakery in the Almagro neighborhood in Buenos Aires, was texting me with the news that he would be available for a brief meeting before he taking off for a holiday with his family. Like our summer months, Argentinian winters are prime vacation months for families with children out of school, which means that many businesses hang cerrado (closed) signs on their doors to indicate they are off for the holidays. So I was lucky to find to find a few minutes when Marcelo could show me around his small shop.

During the 19th century, Almagro was home to Italians and Basque families.  As a haven for immigrants, the area also became home to the tango culture, built on the amalgamation of social customs and cultures.

Knowing that Marcelo would be anxious to escape the sweltering heat in the city, I located the shop and peered underneath the partially raised and profusely graffiti-covered metal door. He greeted me with a warm, Argentinian bear hug and led me to his office in back of the retail bakery shop. Marcelo wore flip-flops, baggy shorts, a black T-shirt, a silver necklace, and on one wrist, a huge sport watch with a yellow band and oversized, orange numerals. If his attire said anything, it said, “I’m not a baker today, just a guy wanting to be on a beach somewhere, looking cool.”

We moved beyond the retail shop, where wood and glass cases stood empty, worn labels revealing absent pastries and breads such as libritos and cremonas. A gleaming red paper cutter occupied an imposing position at the end of the counter to wrap purchases in white paper printed with the bakery’s decorative logo.

But the most impressive display in the small shop was the laminated article from Carghill News that had featured Marcelo and his bakery in 2007. There on the front page was Marcelo, holding a freshly baked loaf of bread in front of his old, brick oven. The antique oven is the main attraction of his small operation, built in the 1890s and one of the last remaining old brick ovens. (A famous bakery, L’Epi, located in Chacarita, has an oven built in 1919.) While boasting about its survival all these years, he complained about the annoyances that arose when bricks broke and he had to scour the city for hard-to-find replacements. Of course I wanted to see it, but for some reason Marcelo explained that it wasn’t available for viewing since the shop was closed. It didn’t make much sense to me, but who wants to push their luck when they have a shop owner who is technically on vacation offer to spend an afternoon explaining his business? Not me.

“Marcelo is an evangelist for the old way of baking bread.”

Marcelo is an evangelist for the old way of baking bread, and he makes much use of his brick oven. But despite the notoriety from the Carghill News, he’s not a big fan of Carghill flour. He reasoned that the company mixes grain from multiple growers and thus, in Marco’s opinion, the quality of the product varies from shipment to shipment, depending upon the mix from unknown sources. Instead, he buys from a smaller, Argentinian flour provider that purchases grains from a smaller and more familiar set of farmers.

One has to take this with a grain of salt, since the Argentinian government is in the midst of issuing tariff regulations and subsidies on a rather irregular and unpredictable basis. The country has been one of the largest exporters of wheat in Latin America, but recent bad weather has lowered production so that the grain harvest available for export after filling orders from Argentinian mills has rapidly declined. Even domestic mills are anxious about having enough grain to keep busy. All of these factors muddy Marcelo’s rationale for moving from Carghill to an Argentinian mill. He did explain that the mill gave him a “good” price because it liked the idea that Marcelo used the antique oven.

Marcelo led me from his empty shop to his back office, a rat’s nest of papers, dirty cups and empty soda bottles, shrink-wrapped boxes of paper goods, files and random items such as old, broken headphones amidst computers and closed-circuit security screens. The place was a mess, but Marcelo wanted me to believe he was in control of the apparent chaos as he half answered questions, holding the remote control for the air conditioning system in one hand and his cell phone in the other. Both were in operation at the same time.

But his attempt to appear in command failed when he was unable to locate the original copy of the Carghill article. He stepped out of his office to place a telephone call to his mother, who apparently has a mental map of all contents of Marcelo’s office. From the hallway, I could overhear his plea for help, which was proceeded by a plaintive “Mommy?” This tough baker, who owned not only this shop but also two bar/cafes, had suddenly become someone’s little boy.

He found the file, but in his enthusiasm for producing useful items from his files, he also pressed two books into my hands, explaining that they were old classics of his trade with recipes for traditional breads. These books, from the 1950s and ’60s, were at one time loved by some baker, and their pages were bent and soiled with butter and grease. Nothing like an old book to seal a friendship for life.

Marcelo never stopped walking, talking, texting, and moving the temperature up and down in the room from the remote control. He comes from a family of bakers, his father and grandfather working in bakeries in Buenos Aires, and he was quick to rattle off all the ingredients of the bread used to make chopàni sandwiches: wheat flour, margarine, salt, yeast, sugar. But he wasn’t as quick to respond to my question about the quantity of sandwich buns he makes every day. For a quick moment he put down his cell phone, picked up a calculator, and pronounced that he bakes about 900 sandwich loaves each day during the weekend and 650 to 700 on a weekday. Wouldn’t you think he knew how many loaves he bakes by now?

“His enthusiasm for the job bubbles to the top of our conversation.”

Perhaps his training as a lawyer, which he completed alongside his twin brother, prepared him more for negotiating with the bakers union than tallying production output. He showed disdain for the bakers’ union, which, he gleefully reported, he has eliminated from his business. Marcelo also revealed that the most unpleasant part of this job is working with his forty employees, whom he described as a big family who regularly bring him forty personal problems. On the bright side, Marcelo shared how much he enjoys the hands-on process of baking bread. He said he wants to be in the thick of day-to-day operations, admitting that he is a perfectionist (and maybe a micromanager). His enthusiasm for his job bubbles to the top of our conversation as he describes how important it is for him to work hard so that he can maintain to his family’s good reputation in the bakery business.

I imagined he was anxious to head to the beach with his family, so we wrapped up our conversation, walking by the towers of bright metal bread pans and pastry sheets on the way out. I really did want to see the old oven, but Marcelo was resistant to the last, saying that it was not that interesting when it wasn’t baking, which sounded like cover for other reasons. We’ll never know.

From Sea to Table: The Logistics of Sushi

From Sea to Table: The Logistics of Sushi

These days serious locavores can enjoy an array of restaurants serving up regionally grown ingredients. But if you’ve got a hankering for sushi, not even proximity to an ocean will ensure that you’ll be dining on local fish. So how does all that fish get to us in time to safely eat raw?

Only a few decades ago sushi was considered an exotic cuisine, with many Americans afraid to try raw fish. Fast forward to 2016: Sushi restaurants are the norm across the country — even in most landlocked areas — and it’s not uncommon to see prepackaged sushi in the cold grocery cases, if not a dedicated chef on site making it to order.

The increase in interest has driven a rise in demand for getting fresh seafood from the sea to plate as quickly as possible. Fish, like humans, travels fastest by airplane if going a great distance. Throughout the country vendors like International Marine Products Inc., have hubs in coastal and landlocked cities, which provide those areas with daily shipments of fresh fish within hours of being caught and flash-frozen, or ship them to other places.

Now that vendors receive fish via airfreight and deliver them right to restaurants, gone are the days that restaurant staff must retrieve fish from the airport. Kaz Edwards, Chef de Cuisine at Uchi in Houston (a sister restaurant to Austin’s Uchi and Uchiko), recalls his biweekly trips to the airport years ago where he would pick up fish from the shipping area and have to deal with all the red tape associated with international shipping.

“If they hold it for any reason, it’s done. It’s over. You basically have to waste that whole box,” he says.

Uchi’s chef de cuisine Kaz Edwards. Image courtesy Uchi Houston.

Cobia crudo at Uchi. Image by Rebecca Fondren.

Now the vendors take the hit when sushi fish is delayed, rather than the restaurants.

When fish travels by plane, the two most important details are time and how it is packaged. That gap between ocean and plate should be as small as possible, and, while there are some variances, less than 24 hours is the goal. 

For sushi, extra care must be taken in how the fish is packed. The weight of regular ice results in bruising and degradation of the flesh, while dry ice is too extreme to keep fish at a consistent temperature. Edwards says that slicing through ice-packed fish causes it to break apart and gives it a shredded appearance, so whole fish carefully arranged with insulated ice packs is standard.

When it comes to fresh seafood, how it’s packaged for travel is just one piece of the puzzle. Read how a coalition of conservationists and seafood industry folks is working to give consumers a complete backstory of their catch of the day.

Sushi-grade is a term that indicates a higher quality and is the reassurance many consumers look for when ingesting raw seafood. Sushi-grade can also be used to describe the way a fish is killed and bleeds out — and the traditional iki jime practice is used on the U.S. east and west coasts but not in the Gulf of Mexico. 

The FDA addresses all facets of seafood handling in the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) Fish and Fishery Products Hazards and Controls Guidance report, but the reality is that there is no grading system to determine whether fish can be consumed raw. So one must assume a certain level of risk when eating sushi — there are no guarantees. 

But the reputation of a restaurant hinges on the quality of their food, and most sushi chefs go to great lengths to ensure the freshest of fish for their customers.

Uchi’s policy is to remove items from the menu if the fish isn’t up to their standards, rather than try to procure it elsewhere at the last minute. The integrity of fish and how it is packaged is always important, but Edwards says that for sushi in particular it’s a key factor in determining whether or not it makes it onto the plate at all. 

“It’s just the reality of what we do,” Edwards says.

Oroshi hocho tuna knife at the Tsukiji fishmarket. Image by Chris 73 via Creative Commons. Click image to enlarge.