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Go a little nuts

spiced nuts

Millions of people worldwide suffer from nut allergies. These allergies are frequently severe, and they've become so widespread that schools have been forced to change menus (no more PB&J sandwiches) and many airlines have quit offering nuts as snacks. Scientists at the USDA's Agricultural Research Center hope to change all that by creating a hypoallergenic nut.

Molecular biologist Christopher Mattson leads a team of scientists experimenting with ways to reverse the reaction caused when an allergic person comes in contact with nuts. "Many nut allergies are triggered when the immune system recognizes specific proteins in the food and releases the antibody immunoglobulin E (IgE) to latch on to the allergen," causing reactions that range from mild to life-threatening. Mattison determined "that the problem isn't the release of IgE per se, but rather the myriad allergic reactions triggered when it binds to the nut proteins. So he decided to modify the shape of cashew proteins so that IgE wouldn't be able to recognize them."

While they remain a long way from the goal of a hypoallergenic nut, the team's limited success with modifying cashew extract proteins by using a combination of heat and sodium sulfite, a common food preservative, is encouraging. Mattison and his team were able to reduce the binding of allergens by 50% in their latest effort, reported in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. The next step for the scientists is to work on whole cashews instead of cashew extract. After that, they will move on to making sure that the modified nuts taste just as good as the unaltered version so there is no aftertaste.

Photo of Maple-bacon spiced nuts from The Washington Post by Sara Kate Gillingham-Ryan


Here come the blog books!

Maybe it's my imagination, but August and September seem to be a fertile time for new book offerings from food bloggers -  they're popping up like mushrooms after a summer storm.  The blockbusters may come in October and November, with their glossy promotion packets and glitzy launch parties.  But now's the time for scrappy, interesting, web-to-print forays, and three bloggers of my acquaintance our coming out with books so fresh the ink has yet to dry.

First in the lineup is The Messy Baker, from Charmian Christie, who does her best to take anxiety and fear of failure out of the kitchen both in her blog (www.themessybaker.com) and her app (Kitchen Disasters and Fixes).  Her snappy, stylish paperback isn't just sweets, though.  It's got just about everything you might expect from an oven (pizza, muffins, granola bars, pie) as well as a few you don't (gremolata, crepes).

The other two blog titles I've got my eye on haven't shown up yet, but they're imminent.  One is Preserving Everything, from foraging expert (and, to me, friend-of-a-friend) Leda Meredith. Can Meredith really make real-life Aunt Ems out of us end-of-summer slackers? We'll see.  And then there's Flourless from Nicole Spiridakis, my colleague from the much-missed NPR Kitchen Window column.  Nicole's Kitchen Windows columns matched vegetarian, vividly shot recipes with an easy humor, and I'm hoping/expecting a gluten-free riff on the same sensibility with this book.

Are there bloggers you follow whose books you're waiting for?  Chances are, they're in the offing...

Keep your cool by going slow

Slow cooker apple butter

Who wants to use the oven during the sweltering dog days of summer? If you are among those saying "not me," then head over to indexed blog The Kitchn, who gives us eleven ways to beat the heat by using a slow cooker. Clocking in at number 11 is the classic method of cooking beans in the slow cooker. But some of the other uses in the list are more creative.

Did you know that you can make cheesecake in a slow cooker? Baked potatoes are also easily made by harnessing the low-and-slow capabilities of this under-utilized appliance. Make the most of the bumper crop of fruits or vegetables by using the slow cooker to make preserves or relishes.

Other interesting uses explored in the post are baking bread and roasting beets. More traditional soups and meats in the slow cooker are also discussed. Do you make use of your slow cooker during the summer months? What is your favorite summer slow cooker recipe?

In addition to the great ideas from The Kitchn, look to these highly rated recipes from the EYB Library:

Slow cooker Mexican pulled pork from Simply Recipes by Elise Bauer
Slow cooker black beans from Café Johnsonia
Slow cooker blueberry butter
from Food in Jars by Marisa McClellan
Carrot cake from Slow Cooker Revolution by America's Test Kitchen Editors
Spiced cauliflower and potatoes (Aloo gobi)
from The Indian Slow Cooker by Anupy Singl

Photo of Slow cooker apple butter from My Baking Addiction by Jamie Lothridge


Make mayo; hold the eggs

Green olive dip 

David Leite of indexed blog Leite's Culinaria  is making mayonnaise, but without one major ingredient: eggs. The mayonnaise is made with milk instead, and although it may sound strange, he assures us it is a delicious base for a variety of dips and sauces. Leite discovered this unusual condiment when he was traveling in Portugal a few years back. The "ghostly white" substance was used as the base for a delicious green olive dip.

Leite was perplexed by the recipe that he obtained from the Portugese chef. How could it be mayonnaise if it didn't have eggs? Indeed, some of his friends suggested that it wasn't even an emulsion but more of a oil-flavored milk sauce. So Leite turned to food scientist Shirley Corriher for help. Corriher assured Leite that this was a bona fide emulsion, noting that in any emulsion, the liquid "has to break down into finer and finer droplets until it gets "juicy," or looser," which allows the oil to find a home between the droplets and thereby thicken it. Milk contains natural emulsifiers, Corriher continued, which makes it easier to form the emulsion. The garlic "helps to make a sturdier base before adding the oil."

Leite notes that equipment plays a big role in creating a successful emulsion, and that an immersion blender or blender is required to achieve the desired consistency. He offers four variations on this unusual mayonnaise: cilantro and ginger, anchovy, curry, and sun-dried tomato. Amanda Hesser of indexed blog Food52 tried the recipe and found the resulting product "reveletory: sauce that had the texture of buttercream and the clear flavor of an infusion. There was fragrance from garlic, tang from lemon juice, and silkiness from the butterfat emulsifying with the oil." Have you tried milk mayonnaise?

Photo of Green olive dip from indexed blog Leite's Culinaria

Use your melon

Three melon salad

In the heat of summer, few things are as refreshing as a ripe, succulent melon. Choosing the right melon at the market, however, can be a difficult task. Do you thump it or sniff it? And what should the fruit look like? Russ Parsons of the L.A. Times offers some tips on how to pick the perfect melon.

Melons can be roughly divided into two groups based on the texture of their outer covering, and melons in both camps can have green or orange flesh. Smooth-skinned melons are in the honeydew family, while rough-skinned melons belong to the cantaloupe family. Which group the melon belongs to determines the selection criteria you should use. (You may be wondering about watermelons - it turns out they aren't even in the same botanical family. Parsons assures us he will give us pointers on those another time.)

Rough-skinned melons offer us more clues to guide us to the right fruit. You are looking for "netting that is raised above the rind; a golden background color; a clean "belly button," where the stem has slipped free; and a profoundly melon-y perfume." Smooth-skinned melons pose a greater challenge for picking as they don't have any odor. For these melons, you should seek out a "slightly velvety, almost waxy texture to the rind; a background color that is more rich cream than ivory; a golden color to the pale spot where the melon rested on the ground; and subtle cracking around the stem end."

While just enjoying the ripe fruit on its own is delicious, the article offers twelve recipes if you want to branch out a bit. And for additional inspiration, take a gander at these top-rated melon recipes from the EYB Library:

Melon, peach and red wine sorbet from indexed blog Tinned Tomatoes
Gazpacho with honeydew and peppadew from indexed blog Food52
Cantaloupe ice pops (Paletas de melón) by Fany Gerson
Mango and melon verrines from Fine Cooking Magazine
Shaved honeydew, fennel, and olive salad from Bon Appétit Magazine

Photo of Three melon salad with mint from indexed blog Serious Eats

Gut instincts


We've often been told that our "gut instincts" can guide us to a decision. That saying may be more true than we ever thought. Researchers from three U.S. universities recently conducted a review of scientific literature and concluded that our guts may indeed tell us what to do--at least when it comes to eating. The researchers determined that microbes living in our digestive system "influence human eating behavior and dietary choices to favor consumption of the particular nutrients they grow best on, rather than simply passively living off whatever nutrients we choose to send their way."

So it seems that the voice in your head telling you to eat doughnuts might be coming from your gut instead. While the exact mechanism has yet to be determined, there are several hypotheses about how this community of microbes, collectively known as the gut microbiome, influences our behavior. Microbes may "influence our decisions by releasing signaling molecules into our gut. Because the gut is linked to the immune system, the endocrine system and the nervous system, those signals could influence our physiologic and behavioral responses." These signals may change our taste receptors, produce toxins to make us feel bad, or release chemical rewards that make us feel good, according to Athena Aktipis, PhD, of the University of Arizona.

Fortunately this communication appears to be a two-way street, so we don't have to be held hostage by our bacteria. While microbes may be telling us what they want, we can change the level of microbes to suit our desires as well. According to Carlo Maley, PhD, of the University of California, we "can influence the compatibility of these microscopic, single-celled houseguests by deliberating altering what we ingest, with measurable changes in the microbiome within 24 hours of diet change."

The potential for this discovery is exciting researchers. Says Aktepis: "Targeting the microbiome could open up possibilities for preventing a variety of disease from obesity and diabetes to cancers of the gastro-intestinal tract. We are only beginning to scratch the surface of the importance of the microbiome for human health."

Bartenders' latest secret ingredient

Cucumber gin salt and pepper cups

Salt is not new to the repetoire of cocktails, but the salt is now moving from the rim into the glass. Mixologists are discovering something chefs have known forever: adding a little salt helps bring out the flavors of other ingredients. "You salt your food, so why not your drinks?" says Morgan Schick of Trick Dog in San Francisco.

One feature of salt is its ability to balance bitter flavors. This coincides nicely with the surge in drinks featuring bitter Italian liqueurs like Cynar and Campari, whose bitterness can be tempered with a pinch of salt. But its uses are not limited to this balancing act. Duggan McDonnell of Cantina in San Francisco "adds a pinch of salt to every bucket-sized container of fruit-flavored simple syrup to give it a little flavor push."

While some bars are adding salt to many of their drinks on the sly, others are drawing attention to the practice, adding salted cocktail sections to their menu. Singer Social Club in Reno, Nevada, is one such venue. Cocktails featuring salt are highlighted on the menu, like a rum drink with salted strawberry-lemon-lime soda. Says bar manager Jameson Alexander: "I use salt or saline to enhance flavors that are falling flat, and to keep the guest taking sips."

Bartenders are also using salt to complement herbaceous flavors. David Kupchinsky of The Eveleigh in West Hollywood, California, uses a few drops of sodium solution in garden-inspired cocktails like The Song of Solomon, which incorporates Cynar, dry vermouth and celery bitters. "The salt adds a nice subtle brininess that complements the celery, artichoke (from the Cynar), and the herbs from the vermouth," he says.

Photo of Cucumber gin salt and pepper cups from indexed blog Joy the Baker

Double trouble

Plaited dough

Baking bread is both simple and complex. The ingredients for a basic loaf are the simple part, as you need only flour, water, yeast, and salt. The complexity arises in the treatment of these basic building blocks. One of the first obstacles a beginning baker faces is determining if the risen dough is properly proofed, or ready for the next recipe stage. Most recipes, even ones with otherwise detailed instructions, will say something like "place dough in a bowl and let rest, covered, until dough has doubled in size."

But what does doubled mean? If you use a mixing bowl to proof the dough, the edges of the bowl flare out, making it difficult to determine when the dough has doubled. You can't judge doubling by the height of the dough alone because the dough is also expanding sideways. That's why instructions like those given today at Epicurious about using tape to mark the doubling point are confounding. How do you know where to put the mark?

The Weekend Bakery tackles the math behind dough doubling in an effort to make it more understandable. According to the site: "If we simplify the shape of a dough boule to the geometrical shape of a halved sphere we can calculate the volume of the boule." This formula is volume = 2/3 * pi * radius³. That is more math than most bakers (myself included) want to include in their routine. But it's important to note that using this formula and starting with a boule 10cm in diameter, "you only need an increase of 2.5cm in height to get a doubling of the volume...The increase of 2.5cm is hard to notice and you will not perceive this as the dough having 'doubled in size'."

So if it's hard to tell by looking, what other options do we have? There is another way to gauge the readiness of the dough--poke it. The Weekend Bakery advises us to poke the dough with a finger and note the results: "If the hole disappears completely: under-proofed. If the hole dent pops half way back out: proofing is just right. If the hole stays entirely dented in: over-proofed."

Other websites also advocate the poke test. Another method that works well is using a straight-sided cylinder or square container where the dough extends to the edge of the container. The dough is constrained on all sides except the top, so you can judge when the dough has doubled by measuring only its height. Remember that the key to proper proofing is not just allowing the dough to expand, but also stopping the expansion before the dough collapses. "When the gluten can not hold the amount of carbon dioxide produced by the yeast, the little gluten balloons explode and your bread will deflate before your eyes."

Once you bake several loaves you will get a feel for when the dough is ready, but until then the poke test will suffice. What is your preferred method of judging the readiness of proofed dough: by looking, poking, or another method?

Photo of How to plait bread from indexed blog Great British Chefs

Featured Cookbooks & Recipes

Did you know adding online recipes to your EYB Bookshelf is a really great way to build your personal recipe collection? You can now do this even if you have a free membership!

Try it out now and see how easy it is. Browse the recipes below, choose one that appeals, click on the link, and add it to your Bookshelf. (Make sure that you are signed in first.)

All the recipes we feature in these weekly round-ups have online links so you can add any of them to your Bookshelf. Happy cooking & baking everyone!

From magazines:

Brown Butter Salted Honey Pie from the  Summer issue of indexed  Kinfolk Magazine

Slow Cooker Vanilla Fig Oatmeal by Kathy Hester from newly indexed Chickpea Magazine

A variety of cocktails from recent issues of indexed magazines: 
Martha Stewart LivingEatingWellCooking LightBetter Homes and Gardens
Fine Cooking, and Food & Wine

From UK books:

20 recipes from Low Carb Revolution: Comfort Eating for Good Health by Annie Bell, 
indexed by an EYB member


Dried chiles add depth and nuance

Ancho chile soup

Many of us keep whole spices in our pantry because we prefer the vibrant flavor of freshly ground spices like peppercorns or cumin seed over the sometimes flat flavors of the pre-ground varieties. Yet when the recipe calls for chile powder, we still reach for the pre-ground version because we are overwhelmed by the dozens of varieties of dried chiles available to us. Cookbook author and food writer Ivy Manning helps us pick the right pepper with a primer on using dried chiles.

Manning focuses on seven chiles readily available in her local area of Portland, Oregon, but many of these peppers are available in supermarkets and specialty shops worldwide. Mail order spice houses are another source for dried chiles. Starting with the popular ancho chile (the most frequently found chile in pre-ground versions), Manning continues through lesser-known varieties such as guajuillo and puya (aka pulla) chiles.

In addition to describing the flavors and heat levels of the chiles, Manning offers advice on how to cook with them. She cautions that you should always wear gloves when handling dried chiles to avoid irritating your skin, and instructs cooks to dry roast the chiles in a small skillet. Toasting chiles "is not only worth the effort for the complex flavor it lends sauces, but it also gives off a delicious aroma."

Do you cook with whole dried chiles? If so, which is your favorite and how do you use it?

Photo of Ancho chile soup with avocado crema and chile pasilla from Saveur Magazine

Seen anything interesting? Let us know & we'll share it!