Learning the Science of Food

By Hannah Lee

When I was enrolled in chemistry in college, it was a humbling experience to realize that I do not have the spatial intelligence to imagine organic molecules in three dimensions. However, I am an avid cook, so I was intrigued to register for Coursera’s free online course on the science of gastronomy.

The months of waiting until the start date was announced led me to wonder if the company was waiting for a threshold number of registrants, but by the time it was launched this summer, it was very well subscribed. By Assignment 9, the course had 5,438 students from all over the world, including Germany, Mexico and the Philippines.

This course was taught by two professors from the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, so the deadlines for the weekly assignments were in Hong Kong time, 12 hours ahead of the Eastern Standard Time zone. Each week offered about two hours of video lectures, divided into smaller units of 15 minutes or less. The assignments were usually graded immediately on-screen. To pass and qualify for an “e-Statement of Accomplishment,” the student must score at least 70%.

There was a discussion forum for the students’ use. For the assignment on gluten development in dough, students shared ideas on what to do with the remains of the experiment: Their ideas included turning the non-yeasted mass into pizza, short-crust pie, and Christmas tree ornaments. I did not attempt to join a “Meetup” group, but I learned that 185 self-identified Philadelphians were taking a Coursera class.

The topics covered included: energy transfer, hunger and satiety, the sense of taste and smell, the sense of sight and touch, fruits and vegetables, a perfect steak, sauces, and dessert. I loved learning about the chemistry for what we cooks know from experience, and the two professors were thoroughly grounded in the scientific concepts. They also provided plenty of visual graphics, as well as student demonstrations from their campus.

I was particularly intrigued by the assignment on satiety, in which I was instructed (from among four different meal options) to eat nine small pieces of cracker followed by one piece of chocolate, separated in time by 3 minutes. I discovered that even after exercise (when I was ravenous), the slow eating allowed me to feel satisfied by about the fifth or sixth piece of cracker. Mindfulness eating allowed me to stop my intake earlier.

One assignment was on the importance of our sense of smell for our enjoyment of food: Much of what we consider taste actually comes through our nose, which explains why a stuffy nose impairs our sense of taste. Another fun experiment was on how sweetness suppresses sourness, as we compared solutions of vinegar and sugar in different concentrations.

The assignment on gluten development was one that I was eager to do, because each of the test ingredients — oil, vinegar, and salt — is part of my regular challah recipe. I demonstrated to myself that each of the three hinders gluten development, yielding a mass with shorter strands of protein than the control portion of flour and water. I suppose they are included in my challah recipe for flavor and texture.

When I registered for the course last January, I noted a list of recommended books. Being the kind of college student who would purchased the books for interesting courses that she did not have time for, I ordered every one of them. I later found that while none of them were essential, they were useful references. If you are a foodie, the following titles are fine additions to your culinary library:

Coursera is a pioneer in offering massive open online courses (MOOCs), and since its launch in April 2012, it has rapidly added academic partners, which now total 66 institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Exploratorium, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. New partners are the University of Chicago, Yale, and Tel Aviv University.

Last March, Coursera announced a milestone number of over 3 million students, enrolled in 325 courses. I have not yet identified my next online class, but I can tell you that two local professors will be featured on Coursera: Paul Offit of the University of Pennsylvania will be teaching a nine-week class on vaccines, and Jonathan Biss of the Curtis Institute will be teaching a five-week course on Beethoven’s piano sonatas. Both classes will start on September 3rd.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/3456/learning-the-science-of-food

Book Chat: The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook

By Hannah Lee

The next frontier for the savvy and hip gourmet, following up on farm-to-table locavorism, is to source your own food, through foraging and/or hunting.  A timely guidebook for such culinary adventures is The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook by Emily Ansara Baines, the ultimate in fan tribute to the wildly popular trilogy on The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, and now made into a film of the same name.

Baines is a chef and baker as well as one who’d studied creative writing at the University of Southern California with novelists and short-story writers Aimee Bender and T.C. Boyle.  She was working as an in-house caterer for a post-production sound company in New York — creating new recipes daily — while reading Collins’ books in her leisure and delighting in the refreshing character of Katniss Everdeen, a fierce, resourceful heroine so diametrically different from another protagonist of current young-adult fiction fame, Bella Swan, the clumsy and passive heroine of the Twilight Saga.  Katniss is an inspiring role model, one who thrives under severe circumstances and who cannot be hurried into love by two different male heartthrobs.

The resulting cookbook pays tribute to the characters and settings of the trilogy, with more than 150 recipes for both the spare, survivalist fare of the residents of the 12 districts as well as the decadent cuisine of the denizens of the Capitol.  There is a chapter on wild game and an appendix of edible wild plants, such as might appear in Katniss’s Family Herb book (from the second book, Catching Fire), including burdock, chickweed, evening primrose, and thistle.  Caution: the poetical recipe titles and descriptive explanations (with source citations) would prove to be spoilers, if one has not read all three books.

A nifty “Tips from Your Sponsor” insert for each recipe shows the author’s professional training, giving helpful advice as such using dental floss to cut sticky cinnamon buns and wetting one’s hands before shaping balls of cookie dough.  She notes that homemade whipped cream will not be stiff as what is sold in spray cans.  These box inserts provide scientific explanations, substitutions, and historical notes (beans were used in casting votes in ancient Greece and Rome, with white bean to indicate “yes” and black beans for “no”).  Medicinal uses are included, such as steeping pine needles for a tea as a cold or flu remedy and basil as mosquito repellant.

One big caveat is that the author does not list market information for the unusual ingredients not found at your local Acme or even Whole Foods.  For her research, she relied on friends who do hunt, so she was able to add four squirrel recipes in her book, including Mr. Mellark’s favorite, fried squirrel.

This book was thoroughly engrossing.  It has recipes for both the novice cook as well as the adventuresome gourmet.  The chapters on wild game and foraged weeds could prove useful for Scout troops in search of fun projects for wilderness survival badges.   Book club youths may prefer the more familiar baking projects.  Note: most of the recipes are not kosher, but a savvy reader can easily identify (and substitute) the ones suitable for a kosher kitchen.  There are even some recipes using quinoa and yucca that would be suitable for Pesach (Passover).  So, if you’re a fan who hankers to try Katniss’s favorite lamb stew with dried plums, Peeta’s cheese buns, or Prim’s peppermint candies, this cookbook is for you.

http://blog.pjvoice.com/diary/2045/book-chat-the-hunger-games