Archive for the ‘Ingredients’ Category

Photo by Isobel Craig

We’ve all heard the phrase “He’s no spring chicken,” meaning someone isn’t as young as he used to be. So we know what a “spring chicken” isn’t, but what is it?

Being a lover of old cookbooks, I recently decided to make Chicken Célestine, a late 19th Century recipe also served by the great chef Fernand Point at his restaurant La Pyramide near Lyon which opened in the 1920s. Chicken Célestine (after translation into English) calls for “spring chicken.” However, the French title uses the word “poulet” which, according to books of the time, describes what was then known in the US as a “broiler,” a young chicken, 2-3 months old and weighing 1½-2½ pounds. The reason it’s important to use such a young chicken in this dish is, the cooking method. It is braised for only about 15 minutes and so needs to be small and very tender to cook so fast.

When I went out to purchase a chicken of the required size and youth, I quickly discovered that the smallest whole chickens available at any number of supermarkets and gourmet shops in my area weighed at least 3 or 4 pounds. Even the venerable D’Artagnan, source of exotic meat and game birds for food lovers everywhere, doesn’t have any chickens under 2¾ pounds.

Scratching my head, I hit the books to find out what this recipe was really asking for and if I could get it. A little research in some old cookbooks, Larousse Gastronomique, and Julia Child’s famous “To Roast a Chicken” episode of The French Chef, shows that the term “spring chicken” is a British usage which means a young chicken that weighs 1½-2 pounds and is 2-3 months old. That sounds just like our “poulet” or “broiler.” According to Julia Child’s sublimely entertaining chicken episode, the USDA classifications for chicken in the early 1960s (when she made the show) were as follows:

  • Broiler: 2-3 months old, 1½-2½ pounds
  • Fryer: 3-5 months old, 2½-3½ pounds
  • Roaster: 5½-9 months old, 4-7 pounds
  • Capon: 7-10 months old, 8 pounds
  • Stewing foul: up to 12 months old
  • Old Hen: older than 12 months (and good only for soup)
  • Due to changes in the poultry industry, the USDA has changed these classifications. The invention of battery farms, the use of antibiotics, and selective breeding all mean that chickens grow a lot faster than they used to. So as you might expect, they are slaughtered younger than they were in Julia’s time. You can read the current USDA poultry classifications here.

    One thing puzzles me, the USDA has combined the first two categories, creating something they call a “broiler-fryer” which is under 13 weeks old. No weight range is given, but this bird is supposed to have a very flexible breast bone which indicates youth. Epicurious’s excellent “Food Dictionary” entry on chicken says that broiler-fryers can weigh up to 3½ pounds. From what I saw on my shopping trip, it seems there aren’t very many true broiler-fryers out there and if you’re looking for and old fashioned “broiler” as defined by the old rules, good luck with that.

    Fortunately, for us historic recipe geeks, there are other options. In Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia Child mentions another category of chicken, namely the “squab chicken” or “baby broiler.” This is a very, very young chicken at 2 months old and weighing in at ¾ – 1 pound. She writes that this is equivalent to the French “poussin” which is available through our friends at D’Artagnan. Another possibility for cooks who want a young (and thus very juicy and tender) bird is the Rock Cornish hen, also called a Cornish game hen. They fall right between the “squab chicken” or “poussin” and the “spring chicken” or “broiler” of old at 4-6 weeks in age and a weight of up to 2½ pounds. The Rock Cornish is a hybrid breed created in the 1950s by cross breeding Cornish roosters, and White Plymouth Rock hens. Alphonsine Davalis Makowsky, a French-American chicken farmer, is credited with the creation of this hybrid which was immediately seized by fine restaurants all over the US as a way to serve a whole bird as a single serving of tender, succulent meat.

    I am still left with the question, “Why are there no old style “broilers” available anymore?” Is it the growth of portion sizes in the US? Have home cooks lost the knowledge of the different sizes/ages of chicken and their proper uses? Do the meat companies (Tyson, I’m looking at you) want to make more money and so don’t bother selling small birds, instead using them for chicken parts or processed chicken products? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

    For my Chicken Célestine I chose to use 2 poussin which together weigh about the same as a “spring chicken” or old fashioned “broiler,” I also thought they would fare best with the cooking method. It’s a very simple dish using only mushrooms, a little tomato, garlic and a zesty pinch of red pepper in a white wine sauce, to bring out the delicate, sweet taste of the spring chicken. Served with rice and a bouquet of daffodils on the table it just might transport you.

    Chicken Célestine

    adapted from Fernand Point

    Serves 2

    4 tablespoons butter
    2 poussins (see above) weighing a total of about 2 pounds, cut into 4 pieces each
    ½ pound cremini mushrooms, cleaned and quartered
    2 small ripe tomatoes, seeded and diced
    6 tablespoons Congac
    1 cup dry white wine
    ½ cup homemade chicken stock or low sodium canned chicken stock
    sea salt
    freshly ground pepper
    1 pinch red pepper flakes
    1 clove garlic, minced
    4 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped

    Melt the butter in a large deep saute pan. Stir the butter until it turns a nut-brown color. Add the chicken pieces to the pan and cook them over medium-high heat, turning so they brown evenly.

    When the chicken is browned, add the mushrooms, and tomato, stir to combine and cook for 5 minutes. Next add the Cognac, wine, and chicken stock, and red pepper flakes. Then season well with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper.

    Adjust the heat so the wine sauce is simmering, cover the pan and cook for 15 minutes or until the chicken reads at least 160F on a thermometer placed in the thigh.

    Remove the chicken to a hot platter and cover it with aluminum foil so it can rest while you make the sauce.

    Skim the fat from the top of the sauce or use a fat separator. Sprinkle ½ the chopped parsley into the sauce along with the minced garlic. Reduce the sauce until it coats a spoon. Taste, and adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper if necessary. Spoon it over the chicken, sprinkle on the rest of the parsley, and serve with rice.


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    Photo by Sandor Weisz

    “Is Slow Food Really Slow?” is a series here on Comestibles in which we explore the hypothesis that some of the processes many modern home cooks have declared too time consuming are a lot easier than the admen would have us believe.

    Did you know there are 31(!) ingredients in the plain breadcrumbs sold at the grocery store? Really, have a look next time you’re shopping.

    There is no reason to ever buy breadcrumbs. Have you ever thrown away the heel of a loaf of bread because it’s too small to make a sandwich or because you just don’t like the heel? Or, have you forgotten you have some bread in the house, only to discover a week later that it has gone completely stale? Have you ever bought some really cheap, nasty, industrial, squishy bread because the only store open was the corner bodega and you were desperate, but now that you’ve eaten two slices you regret it? In all of these situations you might end up throwing the bread away, what else can you do? Make breadcrumbs!

    I will confess that the Panko or Japanese-style breadcrumbs sold in stores these days are very nice. They only have 5 ingredients, are perfectly uniform and super crunchy, and I feel like a celebrity chef when I use them. But when I think about how they came to be so perfect, I get visions of factories in my head. My big reasons for making my own breadcrumbs (besides the fact that I’m a geek) are to prevent food waste, cut down on the number of containers I have to send to the landfill and keep unnecessary and possibly unhealthy ingredients out of my food. It seems ridiculous to pay a company to pulverize bread and toast it in a factory somewhere and then ship it to a store so I can buy it when I can make the same thing in about half an hour at home.

    There are two types of breadcrumbs fresh (sometimes called moist), and dry. The dry ones are crunchy and are mainly used in recipes as a coating or topping. Fresh breadcrumbs are also made from stale bread but they are not toasted so they remain softer. Fresh breadcrumbs are used for stuffing or as a filler to bulk out meat preparations and sauces. You may not get the same even browning from homemade dry crumbs as you do from the store bought kind, but I think that makes dishes look more homemade. The commercial crumbs often have some dried milk or egg in them, if you want to experiment you could try adding some powdered milk. I imagine the milk proteins would help the browning.

    Breadcrumbs Fresh or Dry

    Approximately 4 slices of bread makes 1 cup of breadcrumbs

    Any kind of stale bread, dry but not rock hard, and certainly not moldy.

    If your bread isn’t stale, put the slices in a 350F oven for 5 minutes or so to dry it out, but don’t let it brown.

    Tear your bread into 1 inch pieces and process in a food processor or blender until you have the size breadcrumbs you wish. If you don’t have a food processor you can grate the bread on a box grater or put the dry bread in a bag and crush it with a rolling pin.

    These are fresh or moist bread crumbs. They can be stored in the freezer in a zip top bag until you need them.

    If you want to make dry bread crumbs preheat your oven to 350F and spread your fresh breadcrumbs in a single layer on a sheet pan. Bake them in the oven for 10 minutes. Then stir the crumbs to ensure even crisping and bake for an additional 5-10 minutes. You don’t want to brown the crumbs very much since you’ll likely be using them as a coating or topping where they will be cooked further. Just dry them out until they are crisp and crunchy.

    Store in a zip top bag in the freezer until needed.

    Variations: If you want to duplicate the “Italian style” breadcrumbs sold in stores, mix in some salt and dried herbs such as basil, and oregano.

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    The noble pig, supplier of some of humankind’s most delicious foods, bacon, pork loin, barbecued ribs, ham, sausages, etc. Oh and yes, that all important unguent, lard.

    Some of the best pie crust I’ve ever had is made with lard. No it doesn’t taste piggy, not if you use the right lard, rendered properly. Have you ever had bitter greens like arugula, wilted in pork dripping, or bacon fat? It really turns a salad into a main dish, especially if you add some pancetta and a poached egg on top. On a recent trip to Budapest, instead of butter for my bread, I was served a mound of fluffy lard rendered from one of Hungary’s famed Mangalitsa pigs and flavored with paprika. It was heavenly.

    I know a lot of people are worried about their health, but lard is really no worse for you than butter. In fact, it actually contains less saturated fat than butter. Butter is approximately 50% saturated fat, 30% monounsaturated fat, and 4% polyunsaturated fat. Lard consists of 39% saturated fat, 45% monounsaturated fat and 11% polyunsaturated fat. And it turns out that saturated fat may not even be as bad for us as we have been led to believe. A recent meta-analysis of over 300,000 subjects published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, found that “there is no significant evidence for concluding that dietary saturated fat is associated with an increased risk of CHD [Coronary Heart Disease] or CVD [Cardio Vascular Disease].”

    But doesn’t fat make you fat? Well, actually, no. Eating more calories than you expend is what makes a person gain weight. Fat and the flavor that it brings to food, are what make you feel satiated. If we take the fat out of our food, we keep eating past the point where we are actually full, in search of satisfaction that will never come. The explosion of “no-fat” and “low-fat” processed foods, along with meat bearing animals that have been bred leaner and leaner over the past 30 years have paradoxically contributed to the current obesity epidemic.

    Take that wilted arugula salad I mentioned above, if you make it with a bottled “no-fat” dressing and bacon bits (which, by the way, are usually made of soy, not bacon), you’ll be hungry half and hour later and digging into the emergency Oreos stash in your desk drawer. If you make it with pork fat and pancetta, you’ll hardly be able to eat too much of it, especially if you make a smaller portion to begin with and concentrate on eating slowly and savoring the luscious flavor. On this point I agree with Jennifer McLagan, author of Fat: An Appreciation of a Misunderstood Ingredient, with Recipes. Eat fat, lose weight.

    If you’d like to try using some lard at home, start with something simple, like wilted greens with a vinaigrette made with bacon fat instead of olive oil. Or take some lard and melt it with salt and a couple of sprigs of a fresh green herb like thyme or rosemary. Let it cook over low heat for about 15 minutes, then pluck out the herb stalks, let the lard cool to room temperature, and chill it in the fridge. At serving time, bring it to room temperature, beat it a bit with a wooden spoon to make it fluffy and serve it as a spread for bread with some additional chopped fresh herbs to sprinkle on top. Any where you use olive oil, vegetable oil, or butter, you can try lard instead.

    I recommend buying lard from a trusted source at a farmers’ market or a good butcher. It may be already rendered, or you can easily do it yourself at home (see below). Free range, sustainably raised pigs make better tasting fat, so ask about where and how the pig was raised. Heritage breeds such as Tamworth or Gloucestershire Old Spot, have more and better fat, than modern ones which have been bred to be “the other white meat.” Stay away from the lard sold in supermarkets. It has been industrially processed using bleaching and deodorizing chemicals and it is usually hydrogenated to make it shelf stable which really does make it bad for you.

    There are several kinds pork fat, each being good for different types of cooking. Back Fat or Fatback comes from the back, shoulder and rump of the pig. It is the fat just under the skin and it is often sold with the skin still attached (great for making Chicharrón). If you remove the skin and render the fat, the resulting lard is very good for sautéeing and frying.

    Leaf lard is the fat from around the pig’s kidneys. This is the purest and most neutral tasting lard and it’s special crystalline structure is what makes your pie crust the best in the world. You can also use it for frying.

    To Render Lard

    Adapted from Jennifer McLagan

    Leaf Lard or Fatback, very cold or partially frozen

    Preheat oven to 250F

    If rendering fatback remove the skin, if using leaf lard pull away any papery membranes. Cut the fat into 1-inch pieces. Put it in a dutch oven or ovenproof casserole. Add 1/3 cup of water for each pound of fat you have. This prevents the fat from burning during the rendering process.

    Put the pan in the oven, uncovered. Check on its progress and stir it twice during the first 45 minutes, then check and stir once per hour. Render the fat until it starts to color. This will take 4-8 hours depending on the amount of fat you start with. As soon as you see any pieces with color, remove the fat from the oven and strain it through a fine mesh strainer lined with cheesecloth. Any pieces that remain in the strainer can be returned to the pan to render further if you wish.

    Let the rendered lard cool completely before covering it and storing in the refrigerator where it will keep for about 2 months. If frozen it will keep for a year.

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    When shopping for milk there are myriad options: organic, non-organic, grass fed, homogenized, non-homogenized, ultra-pasteurized, low temperature pasteurized, etc. The prices are all over the map, ranging (near me in Brooklyn, NY, US) from $1.09 to $4.00 per quart. Apart from animal welfare issues, which are important, there is the issue of taste. Do any of these techniques of raising cows, obtaining, and processing their milk make a difference in how the end product tastes? I decided to find out.

    I invited a few friends over for an informal, unofficial, thoroughly unscientific, blind tasting of six different brands of whole milk readily available at shops and farmers’ markets near me. I thought it was important to do a blind tasting because studies have shown that knowing what you’re drinking affects the outcome. We are psychologically wired to believe that more expensive things taste better. One person (it wasn’t me) stayed in the kitchen with the milk containers and brought out samples in nondescript cups labeled with letters of the alphabet. The non-homogenized milks were shaken before pouring. We didn’t discuss our thoughts during the tasting to avoid influencing each other’s opinions. The identities of the milks were not unveiled until we had completed the tasting, at which time, we dug into a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies.

    Going into this I wasn’t really sure we would perceive much difference at all between the milks. We tried to treat it like wine or cheese, smelling, tasting, and thinking about mouth feel and aftertaste. It turns out, I had nothing to worry about, there were lots of differences. Some milks were watery feeling in the mouth while others were rich and luxurious. A couple had a slight refrigerator taste which was surprising since they were all bought fresh that morning and had just been opened for the tasting. Some had a “nose,” to use the wine term, others did not at all. The actual flavor varied as well, from our winner which was quite distinctive, through the others which ranged from “yup, tastes like milk,” to bland and watery.

    Our little experiment yielded some very interesting results. All of us agreed unequivocally on the number one milk. It smelled and tasted significantly different, and better, than any of the others. It was rich and creamy and had more body. Its flavor reminded me more of pudding than milk, quite luscious and sweet. The majority of tasters also agreed on a group of three milks which they placed in the middle of the pack, in slightly different orders, and then two at the bottom.

    The first place winner by unanimous acclaim was:

    • Natural by Nature organic, grass fed, homogenized, low temperature pasteurized milk ($4.99 per half gallon). They also sell non-homogenized milk but it was not available at my store. The milk comes from small Amish and Mennonite family farms in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. They are members of the Lancaster Organic Farmers Cooperative which as of 2006 had 40 farms. Their cows graze all year round, but in winter when grass is not as plentiful they also eat organic hay, organic haylage (fermented alfalfa or grass) and a small amount of organic grain. This milk was head and shoulders above the others with a rich mouth feel and complex flavor, the word “terroir” came up in the discussion.

    The three milks which came in the middle of our tasting are (in no particular order):

    • Trader Joe’s Organic Milk ($3.69 per half gallon). It says on the packaging that Trader Joe’s sources their milk regionally. I contacted them to ask about the dairies used to supply milk to New York City and was told they do not discuss their sources.
    • Milk Thistle Farm organic, grass fed, non-homogenized, low temperature pasteurized milk ($4.00 per quart plus a $1 refundable bottle deposit). The cows graze freely on pasture during the growing season and their diet is supplemented with organic grain. In winter they eat hay grown on the farm. The farmers at Milk Thistle are also practitioners of biodynamics, a system of agriculture based on the work of Rudolph Steiner.
    • Organic Valley organic, homogenized, ultra-pasteurized milk ($3.29 per quart). They offer non-ultra-pasteurized milk in half gallons but not in quarts and non-homogenized milk in half gallon size, neither of these were available at my store. Organic Valley is a cooperative of over 1400 organic farms across the US. While the milk is not labeled “grass fed,” Organic Valley requires their farmers to abide by their Pasture Policy which is more stringent than the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) organic standard (more on that later).

    The two milks which came in at the bottom of our list (in no particular order) are:

    • Ronnybrook organic, grass fed, non-homogenized, low temperature pasteurized milk ($2.25 per quart plus a $1.50 refundable bottle deposit). According to the farm’s web site, the cows’ primary diet is pasture for spring, summer and fall and they eat hay that is grown on the farm in the winter (emphasis mine). It does not say if the cows’ diet is supplemented with grain.
    • Tuscan Dairy Farms non-organic, pasteurized, milk ($1.09 per quart). This is standard supermarket milk in New York City. The milk comes from over 200 farms in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.

    Based on our completely unscientific experiment, it seems that the dairying techniques which affect flavor most are organic certification, homogenization, and maybe grass feeding. We had only one non-organic milk in the tasting and it was consistently rated last. If I were to do it over I would have tried to include another one for comparison.

    The USDA doesn’t make it easy to find out exactly what their official requirements are for a dairy to be certified as organic. I spent some time digging through mind-numbing regulations and it seems to me the most relevant parts of the rules for this discussion are the following: The cows must be fed 100% organic feed (notice how it doesn’t say what the feed should be), they cannot be treated with antibiotics or growth hormones, and they must have access to pasture. That word “access” can be interpreted in many different ways, and some larger organic operations have been heavily criticized for the treatment of their cows.

    As an inveterate romantic, I like the idea of non-homogenized milk because it harkens back to the days of the milkman, and glass bottles where you could see the cream on top. However, our blind tasters (myself included) put both of the non-homogenized milks lower than I would have expected. Disclosure: I’ve been buying Ronnybrook milk at my farmers’ market for years and always thought it was very good. Perhaps the fact that all of the tasters, including me, grew up on homogenized milk influenced our preferences? Some claim that the homogenization process is not good for your health and may be the source of an increase in dairy allergies, but so far there is no scientific evidence to back that up.

    Finally, it’s important to know there is no “official” definition of “grass fed” as far as the USDA is concerned, so seeing that description on your milk label means, well, we don’t know what it means. Sometimes you can contact the dairy to find out exactly what their practices are, as I tried to do with these milks. But, they won’t all tell you and even if they do, I’m not a dairy farmer, so without lots of extra education, how am I to judge which practices are truly better? Isn’t that what the USDA is supposed to be doing?

    I’d like to believe the farmers behind the Natural by Nature milk are doing something different, something better for their cows — it certainly tastes like they are — but it’s difficult to know. In 2008 the USDA came out with a proposed rules change to the National Organic Program (scroll all the way to the bottom for a summary) that, among other things, would not allow dairy farmers to “prevent, withhold, restrain, or otherwise restrict animals from being outdoors” except under a very narrow set of circumstances. The proposed rules also require that at least 30% of dairy animals’ “dry matter intake” come from grass. Even if passed, these rules still would not define “grass fed,” they would only clarify the pasture practice requirements for certified organic dairies. The public comment period on these proposed rules closed in December, 2008 and as far as I can tell, nothing further has been done.

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    Photo by Flickr User vieux bandit

    Recently we bought some fresh ginger root and I was about to wrap it in aluminum foil and put it in a zip top bag in the freezer when I found myself wondering how people used to store it before freezers were everywhere. It turns out the answer, as is often the case, is alcohol!

    Years ago I bought a wonderful reference book called Keeping Food Fresh by Janet Bailey which is basically the ultimate guide to choosing and storing all kinds of food. I’m always going to it to answer questions like these. Ms. Bailey gives several ways to store fresh ginger root, including my freezer solution, however she says the most intriguing one she has run across is submerging the whole root in sherry and storing it in the refrigerator. She goes on to suggest uses for the ginger flavored sherry which results from this happy combination, including salad dressing and a little something to liven up your next stir fry.

    Further research revealed that many kinds of spirits have been used for this purpose, including brandy, vodka, sherry, and sake. It seems that a fairly high alcohol content is required since most sources do not suggest wine. Completely submerging the root (peeled or unpeeled) in distilled spirits or sake (which runs about 18-20% alcohol) is said to preserve it for six months. Ms. Bailey only gives ginger stored in the freezer a life of four weeks, so I had to give this a try.

    Our ginger had two sections so I cut it apart and stored one the usual way in the freezer and put the other in a recycled mayonnaise jar, covered it with vodka and stashed it in the fridge. Really, I’m guessing that the fridge isn’t strictly necessary, but I have one so why not increase the chances of success?

    I am most intrigued by the cocktail and cooking possibilities conferred by this method of ginger storage. If I had enough sherry in the house (we’re running low from the holidays) I would have used that instead. I love the idea of throwing a bit of gingery sherry from the jar into a sauce or salad dressing. For now, I will have to be content with thoughts of ginger flavored vodka cocktails. Not a bad trade off I’d say.


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    In his book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, Michael Pollan writes that that stone ground flour is more nutritious than flour made in a mill equipped with metal or porcelain rollers. The thing that really surprised me is that he wasn’t just saying that whole wheat flour is healthier (which it is), but that white flour ground with stones is healthier than white flour ground with rollers.

    I decided it was time for me to learn a little about the history of flour. After all, it’s a ubiquitous ingredient, seen in cuisines the world over and humans have been making it for thousands of years. For the purposes of this article I’ll be discussing wheat flour, but of course there are many other flours used in different cultures. First, a little wheat nutrition lesson, and then we’ll explore the different ways there are to make flour. A kernel of wheat has three parts, the bran, the endosperm, and the germ. Here’s an illustration:

    Most of wheat’s important nutrients are located in the bran and the germ. The bran contains insoluble fiber (important for digestive health), incomplete protein, some trace amounts of B vitamins, and Iron. The germ is the most nutritious part of the wheat kernel containing protein; vitamin E; almost all of the B vitamins, including folic acid; carotenes and other antioxidants; and omega-3 fatty acids. The endosperm (which is the largest part of the wheat kernel) consists of carbohydrates, incomplete protein and trace amounts of vitamins and minerals.

    One of the oldest technologies for making flour is the combination of a stone mortar and pestle to initially break the grain, and the saddle quern for grinding it. The saddle quern is an elongated stone with a depression in it where the grain is placed, and then a woman (it was usually a woman) kneels in front of the short end and pushes a smaller stone back and forth over the grain in a rocking motion. It takes a long time to make any useful amount of flour in this manner. In fact, archaeologists examining women’s bones from a Neolithic site in what is now Northern Syria, found many of the women had deformities to their toes, legs, back, and pelvis which can be attributed to spending many hours kneeling in front of a saddle quern. Boy am I glad we don’t have to make flour that way anymore!

    A Saddle Quern / Photo by Flickr user unforth

    The next development is the rotary quern which consists of two round stones placed on top of each other. The lower stone is slightly convex, and the upper, concave. The top stone has a vertical handle coming from it’s top and a hole in the middle where the grain is fed. The operator (also most likely a woman) uses the handle to turn the top stone, grinding the grain between the stones. The finished flour flows out from between the edges of the stones. Some versions included a spout which would feed the finished flour out into a container. Here’s a great video of someone operating a rotary quern. That still looks like an awful lot of work to get enough flour to make a loaf of bread.

    As one might expect, the ancient Greeks and Romans made some important contributions to grain milling technology. The Romans built larger versions of the rotary quern and used animal or slave power to drive them and the ancient Greeks invented the first water mill. A wooden spindle ran from the top stone through the bottom stone. This spindle extended down into a stream and a horizontal water wheel was placed on it. The flow of the water causes the top stone to turn, thus grinding the grain. Eventually the Romans turned the water wheel in the other direction and used gears to transfer the power of the water to the grinding stones. This configuration: a vertical wheel, gears, and two grinding stones working in a rotary manner, remained the predominant method of milling flour until roller mills were introduced in Europe in the 19th Century. There were some changes as to how the stone mills were configured and powered, but essentially the technology was the same for almost 2000 years.

    A Model of a Roman Water-powered Grain Mill as Described by Vitruvius (born c. 80–70 BCE, died after c. 15 BCE)

    The latest development in flour milling I’ll discuss here is the replacement of grind stones with metal or porcelain rollers which happened around 1870. A mill equipped with rollers uses multiple sets of them turning at different speeds to break the grain and then to grind it. Rollers were faster than grind stones, they produced more flour from a pound of grain and they produced a product with a longer shelf life (more on that later). So it makes sense that the millers of 19th Century Europe and America would jump at the chance to convert their mills to this new technology that would help them make more money and increase their customer base. In fact, in only took about 10 years for most stone mills to be replaced by rollers.

    A Modern Flour Mill / Photo by Kate Waxon

    So, how do these different milling technologies affect the nutrition of the flour? At some point people discovered they could separate the bran and the crushed pieces of germ from ground wheat fairly easily by sifting it through cloths of an appropriate weave. In Medieval England this was called “boulting” and by using multiple cloths of differing weaves quite fine flour could be made which contained little bran and germ. However this “white” flour still contained the oil from the germ which was released when the germ was crushed during milling. Wheat germ oil, being rich in beta carotene, gave a yellowish gray cast to the flour. The oil also began to oxidize as soon as it came into contact with air, which meant that this “white” flour would only stay fresh for about six months, after which time the wheat germ oil would turn rancid, affecting the taste.

    This all changed when rollers were introduced. When grain passes through two rollers moving at different speeds the slower one holds it and the faster one strips it. This meant that not only could the outer bran of the grain be removed as could be done with stone milling, but the germ could be scraped off before grinding. And so was created the first truly white flour, ground solely from the endosperm of the wheat. It was a snowy white and due to the lack of wheat germ and wheat germ oil, it had double the shelf life of the old style “white” flour. Before roller milling was introduced, “white” flour was very expensive and only affordable to the wealthy. The poor used what we would call whole wheat flour today and the truly poor could only afford rye or barley flour. Once roller mills made it more affordable, white flour’s popularity exploded and everyone felt wealthy to have it.

    Unfortunately, the lack of nutritional knowledge at the time, meant that millers didn’t understand that in removing the germ from their flour they were taking away a major source of vitamin B, especially from the poor for whom bread was the main source of nourishment. Once roller mills became ubiquitous we see a higher incidence of diseases caused by lack of B vitamins such as pellagra and beriberi.

    Once the requisite vitamins were discovered and better understood (during the 1930s) we began enriching some of our flour with Iron, Niacin, Thiamine and Riboflavin. Folic Acid was added to the list in the 1990s. These are of course the nutrients contained in the wheat germ which was removed during the roller milling process. In stone ground “white” flour there is no need for enrichment.

    Having learned some of the history of flour milling and how it affects our nutrition, I would now like to bake some bread with stone ground “white” flour and compare it to bread made with good quality all purpose, unbleached, roller milled flour. I’m curious to see if the flavor, color or texture is different. After a cursory bit of looking around, there seems to be plenty of stone ground whole wheat flour available in the US, but hardly any stone ground “white” flour. So far I’ve only found it at Wade’s Mill in Virginia and Central Milling in Ogden, Utah. I might consider mail ordering some from them, but since freshness is so important, I’d really rather get it locally. Please contact me if you have any sources in the New York tri-state area and stay tuned to read the results of my bread baking experiments.

    Campbell, Judy, et. al. “Nutritional Characteristics of Organic, Freshly Stone-Ground, Sourdough and Conventional Breads” in Ecological Agricultural Projects (McGill University, Quebec, Canada, 1991)
    Elton, John “Evolution of the Flour Mill, From Prehistoric Ages to Modern Times” in Souvenir of the First International Miller’s Congress and Annual Convention of the National Association of British and Irish Millers (Paris, 1905)
    Hazen, Theodore, R. “How the Roller Mills Changed the Milling Industry” in Pond Lily Mill Restorations
    Pollan, Michael. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (New York: The Penguin Press, 2008)

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    Reading Fuchsia Dunlop’s memoir, Shark’s Fin and Sichuan Pepper: A Sweet-Sour Memory of Eating in China, had me wanting to move to Chengdu and learn Mandarin. I even added a book on learning Chinese to my wish list, really! Unfortunately, at the moment this particular fantasy is not too practical. So I did the next best thing: I cooked up some Dan Dan Noodles.

    In addition to relating her adventures as the first westerner to study at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu, Ms. Dunlop also thoughtfully provides a few recipes (for more, see her two wonderful cookbooks). In particular I was intrigued by the tale of Xie Laoban’s Dan Dan Noodles. Mr. Xie owned a noodle shop near Sichuan University in Chengdu where Ms. Dunlop was studying. She and her fellow students agreed that his were the best Dan Dan Noodles to be had in all of Chengdu. She attempted to wheedle the recipe out of Mr. Xie. Over the course of several years he would drop little hints of ingredients or techniques, but he never truly revealed all the secrets. Slowly the puzzle pieces fit into place and Ms. Dunlop cooked a version for her student friends and they all agreed that she had nailed it.

    The story has a bitter-sweet ending. A number of years later Ms. Dunlop returned to Chengdu and immediately sought out her favorite noodle man to show him a copy of her newly published cookbook. She found that his shop, along with a large swath of the surrounding neighborhood, had been torn down by the Chinese government. She was not able to find out where Mr. Xie had gone or if he had opened another shop.

    As you may know, Sichuan cuisine has some specialized ingredients which create its unique flavors. In her scholarly Sichuan cookbook Land of Plenty Ms. Dunlop kindly provides a large section on the Sichuanese pantry, with names and descriptions (in English and Chinese) of all the common ingredients used in this complex cuisine. One of the most distinctive ingredients is Sichuan pepper. It’s actually not related to pepper or chiles; it’s the berry of the Prickly-ash tree and has been used in Chinese cooking for thousands of years. It has a delightful citrusy aroma and when eaten it causes a tingling and numbness in the mouth that is intensely pleasurable. When combined with hot chilies it forms the bedrock of many Sichuanese dishes.

    Sichuan pepper

    Ms. Dunlop warns that much of the Sichuan pepper available at Asian markets in the US is of poor quality and she recommends several mail order sources. It turns out that one of them, Adriana’s Caravan, is right here in New York City and they allow you to pickup your order in person if you pre-pay over the phone. They had almost all the ingredients I needed for Mr. Xie’s Dan Dan Noodles, and were able to have them ready for me that very afternoon, talk about convenient. Adriana’s Caravan has a huge catalog of spices and specialized ingredients from all over the world and they take good care to order in small amounts, so what you get is nice and fresh. Their Sichuan pepper is a lot more expensive ($36/lb.) than what I’ve seen in Asian markets, but it’s completely worth it. I’ve never experienced this amount of mouth numbing tingle, even at the downtown branch of Grand Sichuan restaurant. I’ll have to cook more recipes soon which feature it, so it doesn’t go stale on me, oh, the hardship!

    At this point I only had three ingredients left on my shopping list: ya cai, a variety of Sichuanese pickled mustard greens; dried Sichuan chilies, also called “facing-heaven” chiles because they grow upside down; and fresh Chinese noodles. Helpful members of the online food forum eGullet recommended the Hong Kong Supermarket in Flushing, Queens as being one the best sources for Chinese ingredients in New York City. So I hopped on the Number 7 train and went out to one of the largest Chinatowns in the US.

    The Hong Kong Supermarket is located inside of the Hong Kong Plaza on Main St. in Flushing. It’s a large full-service grocery store, complete with fish, meat and produce departments as well as pan-Asian packaged goods from China, India, Japan, Korea, Thailand, and many other places. The fish looked stunningly fresh and the prices were really good, if I lived closer, I’d do all my fish shopping there. The packaged goods are labeled in a wide variety of languages depending upon their origin and, thankfully, some packages also have English on them.

    There’s an entire aisle of pickled vegetables, so that’s where I went looking for ya cai. I found a jar labeled “Pickled Mustard” in English, and showed a woman who worked at the market the Chinese characters in Ms. Dunlop’s book, asking if it was the ya cai I was looking for. She shook her head and said what I wanted was in a different part of the store. She led me to the produce department and showed me the fresh bean sprouts (which looked lovely and crunchy). I thanked her and decided to use an alternate ingredient suggested in the recipe, Tianjin or Preserved Vegetable, which I had already found.

    When I got home, I did a little more research, and it turns out that ya cai can also mean bean sprout. It seems it is used to describe the Sichuanese pickled mustard greens because the proper greens to use are tender and young like a bean sprout. If the woman in the market was not from Sichuan (most Chinese immigrants in New York City are Cantonese speakers), it makes complete sense that she thought I wanted bean sprouts.

    Luckily, the Hong Kong Supermarket did have the right Sichuanese dried chilies for the recipe. They were not labeled in English, but their place of origin was. They were from Chengdu! So I took a chance and bought them. When I got home I googled for an image of Sichuanese “facing-heaven” peppers and they looked exactly right. Next time I’m shopping for exotic ingredients, I’ll use Google Images before I leave for the store.

    Dried Sichuanese facing-heaven Chilies

    If you’ve never gone shopping in an ethnic market where most of the packages are unintelligible and the staff doesn’t speak very much of your language, you don’t know what you’re missing. It’s like taking a little vacation without leaving home. Oh, and how did the Dan Dan Noodles turn out? Let’s put it this way, the cooking was way easier than the shopping and just as much fun. The dish comes together very quickly and is multi-layered with classic Sichuan flavors including the pleasurable numbness of the Sichuan pepper, and the heat from the “facing-heaven” chilies. If I do say so myself, these Dan Dan Noodles were better than any I’ve had in New York’s Sichuan restaurants.

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