Tuesday, August 16, 2016

A "Square" Meal?

A few months ago I wrote about Soylent, the liquid meal substitute.  I was not impressed by it, either in concept or with regard to what I read about consuming it as a sensual experience.

A few nights ago, I followed a ad link to a website advertising a much newer product with a similar purpose, but rather different in design; the site can be found here.

The product in question is the MealSquare, a baked good of 400 calories per serving that, like Soylent, claims to be nutritionally complete.  Unlike Soylent, it requires significant chewing and has a discernible flavor. The FAQ describes a MealSquare as "dense, subtly sweet cornbread/pumpkin bread, with chocolate chips and sunflower seeds for added variety."

I find the approach the MealSquares people take toward their product to be more wholesome than that of the makers of Soylent.  For example, though they claim that you can get 100% of your minimum daily requirement of vitamins and mineral from MealSquares, and all the necessary calories, they admit that living solely on MealSquares is not "optimum for health." "For example, no substitute has been discovered for fish as part of a healthy diet (fish oil pills don't cut it)."

One MealSquare (photo from the MealSquares.com website)
Looking through the FAQ and other parts of the website, the MealSquares approach to making its niche in the food industry is to emphasize the following factors about its product:  1) it is primarily made from whole foods such as whole grain oats, eggs, and milk; 2) it can easily be used as either a meal replacement or a snack, because they are square and can easily be cut into 4 100-calorie units of equal size; 3) the easy divisibility and exact calories make the produce useful for dieters, though it's unclear whether people attempting to live solely on MealSquares lose weight.

The MealSquares page states that the product is still in beta test mode.  However, the product is already available for sale.  For $90.00 USD (and they only sell within the US, at least for now), the company will send you a box of 30 MealSquares.  Thus, each 400 calorie square costs $3.00 (shipping is free).  Price discounts are available if you agree to have a specified number of boxes sent to you on a monthly basis. However, don't plan on stockpiling them.  MealSquares have a shelf life of only two weeks unrefrigerated and one month in the refrigerator, which makes them unusual as food bars go, and is a distinct disadvantage over the powdered version of Soylent, for example.  If you only wish to taste MealSquares, you can buy a package of just 10 squares for $29.00 (plus $5.95 shipping).

Unlike the reviews of Soylent, which read as though the reviewers wanted to like the product despite their reactions to its physical qualities, the Internet reviews of MealSquares have a negative tone even though the product is more physically appealing than Soylent.  This review from Business Insider gives useful information about the size of a Meal Square (a bit larger than an iPhone 5S), taste and texture (like "vegan banana bread" but dry; best consumed with milk or another beverage).

The author concludes:  "Some of my colleagues had less positive experiences, with the main complaint being the squares seemed to suck the moisture out of your mouth.  Indeed, if you didn't have anything to drink, it wasn't that enjoyable. I ate the squares for a few days, and while convenient, they didn't make me feel either healthier or unhealthier from a physical standpoint."  On the other hand, microwaving a MealSquare before eating, as the company recommends, makes it softer and melts the chocolate chips inside--a definite plus.

Another review, this one from reddit, notes that a Square is very filling and "takes a bit of time to eat"--advantages for a meal replacement bar.  The reviewer concluded that the product is "bland" but "quite dry and hard to eat when you're not that hungry.  Probably won't order again." But a third reviewer, who had been using Soylent regularly because he hates food, experimented with switching to MealSquares instead and had a more positive experience than he had had with Soylent.

It seems to me that, although there are definitely some people eager for a long-term easy-to-eat nutritionally complete single food like Soylent or MealSquares, most people prefer a more varied diet. Among people who really just want an occasional meal replacement or alternative, the extreme claims made for foods like Soylent or MealSquares are fast generating skepticism and a vague if general distaste.  That doesn't surprise me.  People's taste preferences in food differ widely.  It is hard to imagine any one food that would satisfy all of them, and attacking the problem by producing foods that are "meh" to everybody hardly qualifies as a win.

EDIT:  (8/16/2016)  Yes, I know that the checkerboard background on the photograph showing a MealSquare is almost violently fluorescent in appearance.  That's not my fault; that's how the photo appears on the company's website! 

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Oldest Comfort Food

A few days ago, a friend posted this article from the American Schools of Oriental Research blog on Google Plus.  The article explains in some detail how we know what we know about the food cooked by the inhabitants of ancient (e.g., Biblical period) Israel.

In the web article, Cynthia Shafer-Elliott, Associate Professor of Hebrew Bible and Archaeology at William Jessup University in California, examined Biblical references to food, vegetables, legumes, and other foods known to grow or otherwise been available in the area for millennia, and available food preparation tools and techniques to support her conclusion that most Israelites often ate stew, probably on a daily basis.  Pottery usable for stewing has been found, as well as a kind of oven called the tannur (compare to the tandoor used in India), for baking flatbreads.  A photograph of a reconstructed tannur appears in Ms. Shafer-Elliott's web article.

Ms. Shafer-Elliott's conclusion that the early inhabitants of Israel stewed much of their food. makes sense in light of the practical difficulties of other forms of cooking technology, such as hard boiling, in the ancient and early medieval world.  Ms. Shafer-Elliott's article mentions a written Assyrian source that contains at least 100 different stews and soups.  The ancient Romans, including Roman legionaries, ate porridge--stewed grain--as a large part of their daily diet.  The Vikings likely enjoyed lots of stews and porridges, and Hungarian herdsmen of the same period were making goulash--a kind of stew--at the same time.  Meanwhile, at least 2,000 years ago, the Chinese were making soup, a fact we know because a little of one batch still survives.

Clearly, the crock-pot chef's favorite cooking style--take a heatable piece of crockery, put in some liquid and tasty food ingredients, and simmer for hours till done--has a long and honorable history.  It makes me feel a little bit connected to the past every time I make a stew or soup in my crock pot.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Two Quick Food Experiments--Punic Porridge and Posca

About six weeks ago, I decided to make two of the recipes featured on the Pass the Garum website, namely, "Punic Porridge" and posca.

Punic Porridge is a recipe Cato attributed to the Carthaginians.  It is a blend of wheat groats, cheese, and egg, sweetened with honey and flavored, only a bit speculatively, with cinnamon.  Pass the Garum recommended bulgar wheat or semolina and ricotta cheese (which predated the Romans), I used buckwheat groats and part-skim milk ricotta in my porridge.

The resulting porridge was soupy rather than creamy, with the groats still a bit chewy.  It was slightly sweet, but mostly bland.  If I make it again, I'll probably use more groats, even though doing so would abandon the 3-to-1 ratio of cheese to groats found in Cato's recipe.  Other possibilities include: 1) I used too much water; 2) I did not cook the groats for long enough. I can experiment with changing those variables another time.

Posca, the archetypal non-alcoholic drink of the Roman legionary, was something I'd been tempted to try for a while now.  Pass the Garum's blog included three possible recipes:  just water with vinegar; vinegar water with a bit of honey added; and vinegar water with honey and cardamom seeds added.  I opted for the vinegar and honey without other seasonings.  Pass the Garum's recipe calls for red wine vinegar, but apple cider vinegar was what I had available, so I used that.

My first problem with the recipe was in getting room-temperature honey to diffuse through cold water.  My honey was in a plastic jar that couldn't be microwaved, but microwaving the mug containing the posca itself helped a bit.  I didn't want to microwave it too much, though, because I didn't want the resulting beverage to be warm or hot.  Unlike the author of Pass the Garum, I couldn't taste any sweetness in the resulting liquid; it was very sharp.  The sharpness was not unpleasant at first, but it became increasingly hard to tolerate by the time I had finished the cup.  I will try making posca again with wine vinegar sometime; that may be less sharp than the cider vinegar.  In addition (or instead), I might also halve the amount of vinegar while leaving the amount of honey the same, and see whether I find the resulting flavor more appealing.

If any of my readers has tried either of these recipes, or has experimented with posca, please feel free to tell me about your results in the comments.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Russian Kitchen

Have you ever been curious about what traditional Russian cooking is like?  I have. I still am.

Recently, I found a fascinating website that answers many questions I've had about Russian cuisine, and provides information I never would have thought to look for.  It's called Russian Kitchen and it contains a wealth of short-well-written and informative English language articles about foods and regional cuisine specialties from all over Russia, with beautiful color photographs as illustrations.

Here's a sample of some of the more interesting articles I've found so far in browsing the site:
  • Russia's eight strangest regional cuisines.  
  • Regional dishes from Western Siberia and Eastern Siberia.
  • Food and beverages from Karelia, Russia's "land of lakes"
  • Foods that you won't find outside of the regions of Russia in which they grow.
  • How to eat caviar Soviet style. (Note:  the answer is more complex than "washed down with lots of vodka").
  • The recipe for a now beloved dessert that arose from Soviet food shortages.
  • Russia's obsession with tea and how Russians believe tea should be made. 
There's much more, and the site appears to be added to almost daily.  It's part of a complex of sites called "Russia Behind the Headlines" that is sponsored by a Russian newspaper called Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

Whatever your feelings about Russia, its people, and its politics, Russian Kitchen is a lot of fun to browse.  I hope to try some of the more accessible recipes on the site.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Swiss Cheese--older than we thought?

A new article from Science Daily reminds us that cheese making in ancient times was not limited to the Romans.

The article, which may be read here, describes a study of Iron Age pottery finds from six locations in the Swiss Alps. The study, conducted by a group of archaeologists spearheaded by the University of York and Newcastle University, concludes that the pots bear chemical residues which indicate that milk was heated in them.  The heating of milk, of course, is a necessary step for the making of most cheeses.   The pots date from the first millennium BCE.  A PLOS ONE article that gives technical information about the study may be read here. It notes that in the Swiss lowlands, similar evidence for cheese making dates back to the Neolithic, i.e. around the fourth millennium BCE.  

We cannot tell whether the cheese made tasted anything like Emmenthaler or Gruyere, two cheeses that are commonly thought of today when one considers Swiss cheese making, but the study results do demonstrate that the Swiss have engaged in cheese making for a long time. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

Roman Garlic Grinding

Fragment of an ancient Roman mortarium
found in Herfordshire, England.   From the
National Roman Fabric Reference Collection
(Dore & Tomber 1998,Museum of London
Archaeology Service Monograph 2)
In my last post on moretum, the highly garlicked ancient Roman cheese spread, I speculated about whether the Romans used anything like my French garlic plate to pulp the garlic used in making it.

After a surprisingly brief amount of digging, I've learned that the answer to my question is "yes", though the Romans do not appear to have made special garlic plates. Instead, in making mortars, ancient Roman potters would embed sand, sharp pebbles, bits of broken pottery, and the like into the mortar's interior surface, so that the simple act of rubbing the pestle over food stuffs placed in the mortar would result in shredding and pulping.

Wikipedia has a good picture of an ancient Roman mortar, which was called a mortariumhere.  Judging by that picture and others I've found, Roman mortars were wider than many modern examples, and had broader, flatter bowls.  For the truly curious, an on-line atlas containing detailed information about multiple potsherd finds all over the Roman Empire, with good pictures, may be found at potsherd.net.  For the edification of readers of this post I've added a picture of a potsherd I found on potsherd.net.  This sherd was found in Herfordshire, near what had been Roman Verulamium (now St. Albans) and is believed to be a fragment of a Roman era mortarium.  The picture gives a good idea of the quality of grit and roughness created by Roman potters on the bottom of mortarium bowls.  Click on the picture to view it in a much larger size that better displays the roughness of the surface.

So Symilius, Virgil's cheese-and-garlic-loving farmer, probably did shred his garlic, simply by pounding it in a rough-bottomed Roman mortar. The pragmatic Romans clearly saw no need for a separate plate for garlic grinding when the humble mortar, used for grinding so many things, could serve.  Because it too would have been pounded in a mortar, any celery used would also have been shredded as I speculated, probably improving the moretum's texture.

Now the only question I have is why are modern mortars smooth bottomed?  Wouldn't it be easier to grind herbs in a mortar if the bottom of the mortar contributed to the grinding action?  Or doesn't it matter how mortars are made in the 21st century, when you can simply buy a food processor and have anything you like ground, chopped, or pureed automatically at the touch of a button?

EDIT:  (5/19/2016)  I think I've figured out the answer to my own question.  A rough-bottomed mortar is clearly superior for grinding/shredding/pulping wet items like garlic cloves and celery pieces.  But if you're trying to grind seeds or nuts into a fine powder, the coarseness of the surface could get in the way.  For example, it might trap larger seed bits, making it harder to properly pulverize them.  Thus, I hypothesize that mortars became smooth-bottomed at the point when they were used more to grind seeds and nuts than to grind garlic and wetter herbs.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Ancient No-Stick Pans

Fragment of non-stick cookware from Cumae
(article:  Discovery News: Photo:  Marco Giglio)
From at least half-a-dozen recent news articles come reports of an archaeological discovery of a factory, in ancient Cumae, that made red ceramic pans with a stick-resistant glaze during the Roman empire.  You can read one of the better articles on the subject here

The article mentions in passing that a first century CE cooking text, De Re Coquinaria, states that a Cumean no-stick pan was the best pan to use for making chicken stews.  

What I would like to see is an experiment to attempt to make pans with the Cumae stick-resistant glaze, and then use those pans in cooking over an open fire to see how the surface actually behaves. Hopefully such an experiment will be performed eventually, though it will certainly not happen overnight.  Aside from providing us with information about ancient ceramic and cooking technology, the experiment might lead to the development of products we can use today to replace substances like Teflon, whose safety has become suspect in the eyes of many people.

EDIT:  So far as I can tell, this article is NOT an April Fool's joke.  The dates on the articles I've seen on this find range from March 28 to April 2, and none of them appear to have an April 1 date.