Saturday, April 27, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Head Cheese

     To begin with, the second part of the name is a bit misleading—this is not a dairy product.  The first part, though, is accurate—head cheese is usually partially, or totally comprised of meat from a head.  Most commonly it’s from a calf or pig, but sometimes an adult cow or sheep is used instead.  The traditional way of making head cheese is to take the head, remove a few organs considered more unpalatable (typically the eyes and the brain) and simmer this until the meat is so tender it falls off the bone.  Various spices (often black pepper, salt, allspice, and bay leaf) are added, as well as onion.  Due to the high level of collagen from the cartilage and marrow of the head, when the mixture cools the collagen congeals into a gelatin.  However, there are several different types of head cheese.  Some don’t have the gel, and the result looks more like a regular sausage.  Additionally, different areas of the world put in different species and cuts of meat.  Some add pig’s feet and tongue, for example.  The Caribbean variant incorporates chicken feet into it.  A few modern equivalents don’t use head meat at all, and just use pork shoulder and gelatin powder (which I consider cheating, but oh well).  However differently they make it, head cheese is popular world wide.  Both North and South America, Australia, and many parts of Europe and Asia are known to consume it.  It’s usually served cold, as a type of luncheon meat.
     In doing the research for this post, I realized I’ve had the subtype known as souse—this kind uses vinegar, and usually has more gelatin than the traditional head cheese, about 75% meat, 25% gelatin.  It looked like a thin slice of clear Jello which had a lot of small pieces of meat, green pepper, pimentos, and pickles embedded in it.  A couple of times I got a plain souse, and once a spicy one.  As for the taste, it’s undeniably weird.  Rather unique, as you taste both the gel and the meat, which are two combined flavors I wasn’t used to.  It was okay—I don’t think I would want to eat it often, but every once in a while sounds reasonable.  The spicy variant was better, as it had a nice bite to it.  But there’s no getting around its somewhat off-putting appearance and ingredients.  When I’ve eaten it, the only other interested party was my friend’s dog—my human comrades adamantly refused to join me.
     But, to quote Apu from a “Simpsons” episode (who was talking about something else, but still), “It’s full of heady goodness.”

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Several Jamaican Soft Drinks

     Today I'd like to discuss four different Jamaican soft drinks--two sodas, and two non-carbonated ones.
     The sodas are produced by D&G, or Desnoes and Geddes, out of Kingston, Jamaica.  This may be familiar to beer drinkers, as they're the same company which brews the very decent Red Stripe beer.  The soda selections I sampled were the ginger beer and then the cream.  The cream was good, but not very different from a typical cream soda, so in effect it didn't seem exotic at all.  I had misgivings with the ginger beer, given my palate.  I should explain, I love ginger flavoring in food, and in fact I love the pickled ginger that garnishes the plate for sushi meals so much that I sometimes eat an entire jar of it by itself when I can find it in supermarkets.  Oddly though, I really dislike ginger ale.  However, I'm pleased to report that although ginger beer and ginger ale sound nearly indentical, my taste buds noted a significant distinction.  In short, it was delightful--nice strong odor, and very good, zesty taste.  It looked like lemonade, which was kind of weird, but it went down very nicely.
     Next up are the two non-carbonated offerings.  These were both from Big Bamboo's Jamaican Irish Moss series (this sounds like a lot of different ethnicities for one drink.  To explain, though, "Irish Moss" is a name for the type of red algae that produces carrageenan, the thickening agent for several food types, such as ice cream, as well as for this particular beverage).  I tried the vanilla and the peanut flavors.  The peanut drink literally contains peanut butter, which is strange to read on an ingredient list.  The drink tasted like awesome.  Or, to be less vague, it was like a peanut butter milkshake, completely delicious.  I had another company's take on this in a Jamaican restaurant (don't recall the brand name, but it came in a plastic bottle), and this was great, too.  The vanilla was also good, but it paled in comparison to its peanut sibling.
     So, to recap, all four of the Jamaican drinks I tried were good, and the ginger beer and peanut Irish Moss were exceptional.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Burdock

     Burdock, for the most part, is kind of a nasty, somewhat dangerous plant.  Its leaves and stems can cause a skin rash (contact dermatitis) in humans, for example.  But the plant is best known for its seed dispersal system.  Some plants spread ‘em by enveloping them in delicious fruits that will be eaten, some equip them with tiny quasi-parachutes or gliders to travel on the wind, and some, like the burdock, have devices to latch on passersby, and are only released after a struggle.  The “burrs” or seeds of the burdock are particularly tenacious, as hikers and those with pets probably already know.  For the most part, this is more of an annoyance, but sometimes it can cause harm.  The seeds, if eaten, can cause irritating fur balls in the digestive systems of some animals.  And birds which get entangled enough may be unable to fly, and may even die.
     However, the plant’s taproot is edible, and is used by various cultures.  Europeans used to use it as a bittering agent for beer before hops became prevalent (which relates back to my post on gruit beer).  A current type of dandelion and burdock flavored soft drink is still enjoyed in the U.K.  Still, though, it’s most commonly consumed in Asian countries.
     I had burdock in a Japanese restaurant in Schenectady, New York, as a type of sushi.  It was a makizushi roll called “gobo.”  I learned later it was burdock which was then pickled and colored orange to resemble a carrot.  (To digress, there are few things I despise, DESPISE worse than carrots—so this ruse wasn’t a selling point to me.)  Thankfully, burdock doesn’t taste anything like a carrot.  It had a pleasantly mild sweetish flavor, and a satisfying crisp texture to it.  Very good, a definite recommend.  Alas, it doesn’t seem to be very popular in the U.S., as I’ve never seen it on a menu again, in the dozens of Japanese restaurants I’ve tried since.  (And I haven’t been very close to Schenectady in a long while.)
     Nutritionally, burdock is low in calories, and high in potassium, calcium, amino acids, and fiber.  It’s also become more popular in the past fifty years or so among proponents of macrobiotic diets.  Furthermore, it’s believed to have various positive effects in folk medicines.  Some even think it’s good for increasing lactation in nursing mothers, but this hasn’t been medically proven.  (Additionally, doctors tend to discourage pregnant women from eating burdock because of possible negative side effects, such as uterine stimulation.)
     Burdock is also involved in an important non-food issue.  It was the inspiration for an invention that probably every person reading this frequently uses—Velcro.  In 1941 Swiss electrical engineer and inventor George de Mestral was motivated to closely observe the seed burrs after he had problems removing them from his dog and his clothing.  The microscope revealed the hundreds of tiny hooks that the burrs use to attach themselves securely.  George came up with the hook and loop halves of Velcro, and shoelace, button, and zipper companies have been cursing his name ever since.  Recently, the military even devised a type of Velcro that is nearly noiseless, and so better suited for stealth battlefield conditions.  Finally, George was evidently quite the prodigy, as he patented a toy airplane when he was only twelve years old.


Sunday, April 7, 2013

On the Road....

     Today I'll be over at my publisher's blog, with a post on my Top 10 True Crime/Gruesome Nonfiction books.  The address is:    See you there!

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Exotic/Disgusting Foods and Beverages Forum--Gefilte Fish

     Today I’d like to talk about gefilte fish, a Jewish delicacy usually eaten as an appetizer.  Don’t bother looking for details about gefilte as a species—it doesn’t exist.  It’s actually a mixture of several fish types—usually carp, pike, whitefish, and mullet.  The fish are deboned, and then combined with onions, pepper, salt, vegetable oil, and either bread crumbs or matza.  Up until the nineteenth century this combination was then stuffed back into a fish skin, but since then the result is typically processed into small oval or roundish “cakes.”   These are usually about three to four inches long, and an inch or two wide.  Those packaged for supermarkets are usually canned, or packed in large glass jars with either broth or a whitish jelly.  Gefilte is served cold, with horseradish being the more common condiment.
     I first had gefilte about ten years ago.  A friend of mine who’s half Jewish (Hi B.C.) offered me some, and I took advantage of an opportunity.  To be frank, gefilte doesn’t look all that appetizing—it’s a weird pinkish-brown color, and the texture is odd for a fish-based product.  However, the taste was very good.  For those put off by canned or tinned fish like sardines (smoked herring), gefilte doesn’t have the same fishy odor or oily texture and taste.
     This was one of the most successful exotic/disgusting trials, as I’ve eaten it dozens of times since then.  As I mentioned, most folks put horseradish on it, but I’ve found any mustard makes for a good pairing.  Preparation is simple, too, as you just have to open the container and you’re ready to go.  Admittedly, digging out the gefilte patties from the whitish, slimy jelly is a bit nasty, but the taste more than makes up for it.  It’s also readily available—even groceries with mediocre selections usually have a jar or two squirreled away somewhere.  And, of course, if you’re shopping in an area with a higher Jewish population, it will be even easier to find.  In recent years a vegetarian variant has also been developed, although I haven’t been able to sample this.  Be forewarned, though—if you do become a fan, you may find yourself drooling while looking at pet goldfish (a species of carp), or while you’re admiring the koi (also a type of carp) in a decorative pond.