The Problem with Governors Eating Pink Slime

Even 8,000 miles away, I’ve been unable to avoid hearing about “pink slime” – or, if you prefer, “finely textured lean beef” – and the resulting commotion being made as people come to learn that the ground beef they are buying often contains additives that have been treated in some disturbing ways.

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This week, a trio of governors (Brownback from Kansas, Perry from Texas, and Branstad from Iowa) visited a Nebraska meat processing plant owned by the ominously named Beef Products, Incorporated, with media in tow. To prove their claim that this finely textured lean beef is safe to eat, after their tour of the plant they ate hamburgers made from the meat additive.

Good for them, but their publicity stunt missed the larger issue. The question isn’t whether or not this finely textured lean beef meets the minimum standards of food safety. The question is whether consumers have a right to know whether the ground beef they are buying contains any of this highly processed additive.

Let me explain my rationale: When you go to the store and buy a pound of ground beef, or when you buy a “100% beef” hamburger at a restaurant, this is what you probably have in your mind:

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You expect chunks of beef, perhaps with a little more fat than this picture shows, that have been ground. But if that’s all you expect, you may be in for a stomach-turning shock.

It has been reported that up to 70% of the ground beef sold in the United States has finely textured lean beef (a.k.a. “pink slime”) added to it and, of that ground beef, up to 25% of the total may be made up of the additive.

This additive is made from the stuff that’s left over once all the “meat” is cut off the cow’s caracas: stuff like connective tissue and spinal, rectal, and digestive lining. In the strictest sense, I guess it is “beef”… but it isn’t what I have in mind when I buy ground beef.

Now, my personal philosophy on food and nutrition is that we are better off when we eat food that has been processed as little as possible – ideally, not at all. Each step of processing robs nutrients from the food and generally increases the cost of the food.

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When I think of eating meat – and despite having spent a few years in university as a vegetarian, I’m definitely a meat eater – I would never want to eat any meat that has had to be sent through large rollers, as in the picture above, which shows how the finely textured lean beef is produced at the BPI plant. “Meat” that has to be sent through rollers can’t be a healthy choice, even if it meets the Food and Drug Administration’s definition of “generally recognized as safe.”

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Which is why I think at the heart of this matter – the heart that the merry trio of hamburger helper governors has missed – is a question of transparency, of consumers’ right to know, of truth in labeling. Something that is labeled as “100% ground beef” shouldn’t contain any finely textured lean beef… which we more accurately ought to call “ammonia bathed offal.” Instead, it should be labeled something like “ground beef with up to X% additives.” 

Again, I’m not saying that this product shouldn’t be allowed to exist on the market. I just think that we have a right to know what has been added to our food and how our food has been processed before we buy it.

 

Sweet Potato Pecan Pie

A few weeks ago a friend asked me to show her how to make pie crust. When I asked what kind of pie she wanted to make, she suggested a sweet potato pie. I’m ashamed to admit it, but I’ve never had a sweet potato pie. Nonetheless, I agreed and sought out a recipe. Ultimately, I settled on a combination sweet potato / pecan pie.

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The sweet potato pie isn’t that far off from a pumpkin pie. You roast sweet potatoes, skin them,then mix the flesh with sugar, a little salt, and an egg. That filling is put into an unbaked pie shell and topped with pecans and a pecan pie filling – a sugar syrup and egg mixture. Bake it until set.

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End result with freshly made whipped cream. Turned out nicely!

 

Fat Cat

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A few weeks ago we went to brunch at Justin and Benji’s house. Justin moved from the US about a year ago and brought with him his two cats. Like so many other residents of middle America, these cats have been struggling with their weight.

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The good news is, since moving to Thailand the cats have lost a lot of weight. (Same thing happened to me… initially!) Unfortunately, severe weight loss is often accompanied by a need for a tummy tuck because the skin does not tighten up as quickly as the weight is lost. Here, one of the cats lays on the floor, his extra skin spreading out like a floor mop or a purring panther skin rug.

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Eventually, the cat decided he had had enough of my invading his privacy so got up and trotted off to the bedroom.

 

Lard-o-Licious Bangkok

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On March 16 and 17, an event space in Bangkok called Opposite hosted a pop-up restaurant called Lard-o-Licious. A friend of mine served as sous chef and invited me to the event. While some of my non-pork eating readers may be turned off, I was really excited to attend this dinner.

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Opposite (second floor of the building on the right) is located off Sukhumvit Soi 51, a small alley just a short walk from the Thong Lo BTS station. It is also just one soi over from our condo. The pavement in front is uneven and badly in need of replacement. An international school is down the street and a few restaurants and massage parlors fill out the rest of the neighborhood.

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Opposite is thus named because it is located directly across the soi from a bar/restaurant called WTF, owned by Somrak Sila and Christopher Wise, the same people who own Opposite. The space is about 60 square meters (600 square feet) and has a kitchen and bar area. It is perfect for gallery exhibitions, dinners, parties, performances, and other such events.

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When I arrived I found my friend Brian Bartusch, on the left, helping chef Jess Barnes prepare dishes. The well-inked Jess hails from Melbourne, Australia and has worked in a wide variety of restaurants both there and in Bangkok including at Grossi Trattoria and Bed Supperclub. He will be the chef of Quince, a new Modern Australian restaurant set to open in May on Sukhumvit Soi 45.

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Sneaking a peak in the kitchen, I saw some watermelon salad with toasted pistachios and some homemade pickled vegetables.

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Plates and plates of freshly made bread, with which to slather up all of the good flavors that would follow.

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As we arrived, there were plates on the tables with liver and Thai brandy pate with house made mustard fruits on crostini. I really enjoy pate (perhaps thanks to my paternal grandfather who fed me lots of liverwurst when I visited as a child) and this met expectations.

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The space was arranged with three long tables running the length of the space, a small temporary bar mixing white sangria as guests arrived, a screen showing a loop of food-related videos, and lamps made from used plastic rice bags. The lamps echoed traditional northern Thai paper lamps and were a colorful touch.

Before dinner started, the organizers of the event said a few words then local illustrator Kathy Macleod showed us a 7-minute animated video providing a brief history of pork. I filmed it and have embedded it above for your viewing pleasure. Unfortunately, I didn’t seek out her permission to share the video but hopefully this counts as fair use. Please see her facebook page for more information about her comics. (Link to video on YouTube for high definition version.)

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The first course was composed of four dishes. Shown here are steamed buns (similar to Chinese style bao) filled with pulled pork shoulder, red cabbage slaw, and prawn mayonnaise. These were very fun and the pork was flavorful and tender, albeit a little under-seasoned. I ended up eating only about half the bun for fear I would fill myself too quickly. 

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Also on the table were jars of head cheese – confit pork terrine served with olives and pickled vegetables. The name “head cheese” makes some people squeamish. Really, there is no need. It is basically made with the various scraps of meat from the animal’s head, much in the same way that sausage is made from various scraps of meat from elsewhere in the body. The head cheese was very flavorful and tender.

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The next dish was roasted bone marrow with Italian parsley salad and shallot jam. Bone marrow is another one of those dishes that some folks have a problem with. Anthony Bourdain called it the “butter of the gods” and, in my opinion, he isn’t far off. It is rich and fatty and flavorful. While you might think that your cholesterol shoots through the roof just as soon as the platter is set down in front of you, the good news is that bone marrow is rich in monounsaturated fat as well as protein.

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The final dish of the first course was a watermelon and mint salad served with rosewater, pistachio, and feta cheese. I was pleasantly surprised to see this dish, considering that I’ve made variations of it twice in the past month and a half.

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The pacing was leisurely – the entire meal took over three hours – so we had time to visit with other people at the table and to get up and wander around. One of the interesting things about family style seating is that, of course, you end up meeting people sitting next to you whom you’ve never previously met. The drawback in this situation was that there were a lot of people who already knew each other and Tawn and I were outsiders, but folks were very friendly. I spent a good portion of the evening chatting with the owner of Bed Supperclub, who was seated directly across from me. I will say that in my advancing age, it is increasingly hard for me to carry on conversations in moderately loud environments.

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The second course also featured four dishes. The first was smoked pork loin served with cabbage and sticky juices. The menu said it was served with puffed grains but I didn’t see those. There was wild rice served on the side to absorb the yummy juices. This dish was fantastic – very tender and flavorful.

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Another interesting dish was the pork cooked in milk, served with white beans and lovage. Lovage is an herbacious perennial plant – a fact I had to look up. Braising the pork in milk worked very well to make it exceedingly tender. The dish was very enjoyable although it was lacking a little bit of salt. Tawn pointed out that, despite not being a Thai dish, a bit of fish sauce and a few Thai chilies would have complemented it perfectly.

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A third dish was eggplant, labne and soy bean salad, with romesco sauce. This may have been the highlight of the evening. It had tremendous flavor, hearty but not heavy. Labne is yoghurt which has been strained to remove the whey.

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The final dish in the second course was fennel, citrus, spring onions, celery, and holy basil. This was a combination of flavors I really liked but the fennel was tremendously tough which made it unpleasant to eat.

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Our meal was accompanied by a trio of wines from a Thai vineyard called Monsoon Valley – a 2011 Colombard, 2010 Shiraz, and a 2010 fortified Muscat. All three were pleasant. Thai wines have been slowly improving and while they still have some way to go, I’ve been having more of them in the past year or two that impress me. There were also two home-brewed beers made by Brian, one a pale ale and the other a toasted coconut malt.

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For dessert we had a bittersweet chocolate and blood cake (more of a mousse, really) with hazelnut pastry and tangerine ice cream. The big question at the table was, “Is it real blood!?” I went to ask the chef and, sure enough, it was real pig’s blood. A mixture of equal parts of chocolate and pig’s blood are blended and cooked. I think cream is added, if I recall correctly, along with some gelatin. It is then chilled overnight and foamed to lighten the texture. How did it taste? Fantastic. You would never had known there was blood in there – it just tasted like a very rich chocolate mousse.

All in all, the meal – which was about $65 per person inclusive of everything – was quite a reasonable price for a special occasion dinner. There was plenty of food and wine and the menu was both tasty and creative. I enjoy when food can engage me intellectually as well as in the more traditional ways such as through flavor, smell, and texture. I’m looking forward to the next pop-up restaurant event at Opposite as well as the opening in two months of Quince, Jess Barnes’ new restaurant here in Bangkok.

 

Attempt to Bake Gougères

A few weeks ago, I tried my hand at making gougères, a French pastry that the ever-helpful 101cookbooks.com describes as “golden pom-poms of cheese-crusted magic.” They use a dough similar to the choux pastry dough used to make éclairs and cream puffs but are supposed to be easier to make. Here’s what the finished product looks like, according to 101cookbooks.com’s recipe

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Beautiful, right? So I decided to make some for a brunch I was hosting. The recipe wasn’t too hard to follow: bring a mixture of beer (or water, if you prefer), milk, butter, and salt just to a boil. Add a mixture of all-purpose and whole-wheat flours, stirring until smooth and slightly toasted. Cool slightly then mix in the eggs, one at a time. Finally, mix in grated cheddar cheese and portion onto a baking tray, cooking immediately.

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Following the recipe, I made my dough, measuring carefully and mixing in the eggs as indicated. The mixture seemed a little loose, though. Instead of following my instincts and trying to thicken it by adding more flour (which would have given it a taste of raw flour since it hadn’t been toasted along with the rest of the mixture), I proceeded with the dough as it was.

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Portioned onto the parchment-lined baking sheet, the dough confirmed my fears. It started spreading too much. Undaunted, I sprinkled a little more cheese and some anise seeds on top and put them into the oven.

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The end results were decidedly flatter than the ones in the recipe’s picture. The taste was okay, but they didn’t have the “poof” I was looking for. Unfortunately, I don’t know what I did wrong but I would like to try again.

 

Making Chocolates at Baker Republic

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In February, a new store opened on Sukhuvmit Soi 49. Called Baker Republic, it specializes in the supplies candy and cake-makers need to produce the finest desserts. In the run-up to Valentine’s Day, they offered complimentary chocolate making classes, for which Chow and I signed up. 

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Fresh flowers add a touch of elegance to Baker Republic’s light-filled store on the second floor of the 49 Terrace shopping center.

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The shop is owned by a family whose business is importing packaged foodstuffs. Since many of the brands they import sell goods used for baking, opening a shop like Baker Republic was an obvious next step. On the right side of the picture is their climate-controlled chocolate storage room. Like a humidor for fine chocolates, this room ensures that the chocolate you buy is at its very best.

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As part of the class, we were invited to conduct a chocolate tasting, working through different brands and different percentages of cacao. As hard as it was, I forced myself to put up with this tortuous task! By the end, I had confirmed that I prefer darker chocolates to lighter ones and more expensive chocolates to cheaper ones.

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Some of the other baking supplies offered at Baker Republic. From candles to sprinkles, fillings to flours, they seemed to have just about anything you would need in order to bake. Now, an interesting question arises here: do enough people in Bangkok bake to really give a shop like this a chance to survive? Most city homes don’t have ovens, at least not full-size baking ovens.

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Our instructor started with white chocolate, melting it on top of a bowl of simmering water in order to “temper” the chocolate. I had heard of the process before but hadn’t understood it. Tempering is the process of controlling the size of the cocoa butter crystals. When the crystals are of a uniform, small size, the surface of the chocolate will have a uniform sheen and it will snap when you break it. Untempered chocolate will have irregular, larger crystals and the surface will have a matte appearance, crumbling when you break it.

There are a few different methods to temper chocolate but the result of each is that you bring the chocolate to a high enough temperature to melt all the cocao butter crystals, then cool it slowly to a point where the medium- and small-size crystals form, stirring all the while. Finally, you again heat the chocolate, but only to a temperature where the medium-size crystals melt. Yes, it is a little tricky.  

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To make different colored chocolates using the white chocolate as a base, we added food coloring. The secret, though, is that you have to use an oil-based food coloring with chocolate. Water-based colorings, such as those you use when baking Red Velvet cake, won’t work.

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From left: the powdered food coloring mixed with a small amount of melted cocao butter; the resulting paste dribbled onto tempered, partially-melted white chocolate; and then the color being stirred into the chocolate.

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Parchment paper bags were filled with the chocolate and we started filling the plastic molds. Above, Chow tries her hand at filling the molds so that there are no air bubbles.

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One thing I quickly learned is that you don’t have nearly as much control over the squeezing of the chocolate as you think you do. I suppose it takes a practiced hand to build sufficient technique.

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Trying to get fancy, I add layers of different colored chocolate, popping the tray into the refrigerator for a few minutes in between each layer to help it set.

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Mid-way through the process you can see some filled molds as well as others where I’ve tried to add squiggles that will then be topped with chocolate of a different color. Trying to create fine, thin lines of chocolate was a challenge.

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The goal was to not have any air bubbles, so after filling the trays we would tap them on the counter several times, then hold them up and inspect them. You can see several bubbles around the yellow squiggles where the purple chocolate hasn’t filled in the spaces completely.

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Next, we moved to dark chocolate. Truth be told, I don’t much care for white chocolate, although it can more easily be colored.

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Close-up of my chocolate molds. Again, you can see the challenge with air bubbles. As you tap the trays on the counter, the bubbles work their way to the surface. But if the chocolate has cooled too much, the shape of the popped bubble holds and you don’t have a pleasantly smooth surface. These are the very chocolates that appear (finished) in the first picture of this entry.

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After about twenty minutes in the fridge, the chocolates popped right out of the molds. You can see where those bubbles on the purple and yellow striped chocolates never went away. The chocolate was nicely tempered, though, and had a nice sheen and pleasant snap.

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The other two students, in honor of St. Valentine’s Day, used heart-shaped molds and piped the letters L-O-V-E – backwards and upside-down, nonetheless – to create this cute presentation.

After this experience, I’m inclined to think that, just as with baking macarons, making chocolates is one of those skills for which it is better to just pay for someone else’s expertise! That said, I really enjoyed the opportunity to learn more about chocolate making at Baker Republic.

 

Versatile Blogger Award

z223730208 Almost a month ago, Val tagged me in one of her posts, part of a chain called the Versatile Blogger Award. The idea is that you write seven things about yourself. The rules are that you should also thank the award giver, linking to them in your post (done!) and that you should pass the award on to recently discovered blogs that you enjoy reading.

Now, I have no idea what makes me so versatile, but what the heck… I’ll play along. Here are seven things about me which you probably don’t know:

  1. My earliest food memory is of making strawberry jam during four-year old preschool. We each had to bring an empty baby food jar from home, then mixed cut strawberries with sugar and maybe some pectin.
  2. Foods that I did not appreciate in my childhood but now enjoy include raw oysters, squid, sweet potatoes, pumpkin, dried coconut, licorice, and liver.
  3. Somewhere during late primary school my mother enrolled me in a year of ballet class. I was also enrolled in a disco dancing class for a period of time, too. This was the 70s.
  4. During senior year in high school I was yearbook co-editor, president of our school chapter of VICA (the Vocational Industrial Clubs of America, now known as SkillsUSA), actively involved in German Club, held down a part-time job, dated girls, and won first prize in the county fair for architectural drafting.
  5. I’m a switch hitter. In softball, that is.
  6. Yeas ago, I managed to move into an apartment that was across the street from an ex’s workplace.
  7. I prefer my toothpaste tube to be squeezed neatly from the bottom so it continues to have a nice, full, easy-to-squeeze look.

Now, as to the question of on whom I’d like to bestow the Versatile Blogger award, there are a few people who aren’t necessarily recent finds but whose writing I really enjoy and about whom I’d like to know more. Hopefully, they will feel as honored to receive this award as I did: mizz-chanstepaside-loser, devilzgaysianboy, and icapillas.