Baking potatoes the right way

Some people bake their potatoes in the oven, wrapped in foil or not and some use potato spikes to speed up the process. Others cook potatoes in their microwave oven and other use their charcoal or gas grill. We decided to compare the three basic methods and tell you what we found.

A baked potato means cooked using dry heat. This leaves out the possibility of using a pressure cooker, which steams the potatoes, giving quite a different result. But it turns out that if you wrap your potato in foil, as many do, you are actually steaming the potato using the moisture trapped inside the foil. And there is a difference in the result.

We took 3 russet potatoes each weighing around 200 grams. One we wrapped in foil and one we left unwrapped but inserted a potato spike in the middle to help heat transmit to the center, speeding up the cooking process.  You can get these spikes on Amazon for about $6.50 for 6, and at many hardware and cooking stores as well.

We set the oven to 400° F and baked the potatoes until inserting a fork indicated they were done. At 400°, the spiked potato took about 40 minutes, but the foil-wrapped one took nearly 50 minutes. You could expect these times to be about 10 minutes less at 450° F.

Then, for comparison, we pricked the third potato about 8 times with a fork and cooked it in the microwave oven for 5 minutes. When we removed this potato, it was wrinkly and shriveled, presumably because the microwave process forced more of the potato’s moisture out as steam.

All of the potatoes came out rather differently. The baked potato with the spike was flaky, tender and flavorful. The foil-wrapped potato was mushier, and took 10 minutes longer to bake, which makes foil a silly idea. The microwaved potato was the worst of all, being the mushiest, and having an odd off-taste, perhaps picked up from the peel. It was truly terrible.

on-grillIf you want to grill your potatoes, add spikes and throw them on the grill, near, but not on the actual fire source. Yes, the outsides will blacken a bit, but it is worth it for the improvement in flavor and texture. A baked potato should be flakey, like many politicians, but not mushy like some other politicians. It will have a nice pleasing texture and a much better flavor. We found that grilled potatoes took about 20 minutes and had an excellent flavor and texture.

Our conclusion: only the oven and grill make an actual baked potato. Foil wrapped takes longer and is mushy, and microwaved potatoes are the worst of all.

 

EWG and Erin Brockovich recycle discredited chromium claims

waterThe ill-informed Environmental Working Group has been engaged in a blizzard of press releases and E-mails claiming that nearly everyone’s drinking water is contaminated with chromium-6 (hexavalent chromium).  Consisting mainly of lawyers, PR people and self-promoters like Brockovich, the EWG has little scientific expertise, but loves to issue scary broadsides about evil chemicals. Their board members and staff contain almost no actual scientists. Their yearly press releases on the “Dirty Dozen,” have been widely discredited for failing to recognize that all the residues they report on fall far below USDA safety levels.

Comes now Erin Brockovich, mostly known by having been portrayed by Julia Roberts, recycling her claims from 25 years ago about Cr+6 in our water supplies. In fact she and the EWG have sent out regional alerts with lists of the chromium levels in water supplies for that region, conning naïve local papers into publishing these data with little contextual explanation.

Well, as McGill chemistry professor and science writer Dr Joe Schwarcz explained some years ago, there was actually little cause for concern in the town of Hinkley, CA where Brockovich made her name, and little cause for alarm now. Learning that trace amounts of chromium were in the Hinkley water supply caused by PG&E using it as a corrosion inhibitor, she quickly connected it to every conceivable malady, including miscarriages, Crohn’s disease, lupus and cancer, without any actual evidence. She eventually got PG&E to pay a $333 million settlement to Hinkley.

Now the trouble is, as Schwarz points out, chromium exists in two ionic forms trivalent or Cr+3 and hexavalent, or Cr+6. The trivalent state is pretty benign and an essential nutrient. It also sometimes appears in nutritional supplements (where it probably does little good). The hexavalent form is actually rather toxic, but Brockovich disregarded the chemistry, much as the EWG always has. The small amounts of hexavalent chromium would quickly react with chemicals in the soil and groundwater, reducing to the safer trivalent chromium.

And, in fact, exhaustive, repeated studies have shown no toxic effects on any residents either in Hinkley or other sites of contamination, as reported by The Wall Street Journal, and by ABC News.  While hexavalent chromium may be carcinogenic to some chemical plant workers, there is no evidence at all that ingestion of trace amounts of chromium in drinking water poses any sort of harm.

The EWG could quickly find this out. After all, reviews of the movie even pointed out that this contamination probably was not actually harmful.  But, no, they want to scare you and use the claims to raise their membership levels and raise money. They are not qualified to undertake “research” in this area and should cease these ridiculous claims.

Incidentally, the EWG is also trying to scare us about atrazine. But as evidence, they are using the pronouncements of Tyrone Hayes, the eccentric UC Berkeley professor who claims in entertainingly profane diatribes that atrazine exposure can change the sex of frogs. However, since he refuses to release any of his data after several years of these claims, he has become more of a laughingstock than a credible scientist.

 

Poaching eggs in an Instant Pot

Put some water in the Instant Pot and add the little trivet. You ought to be able to poach eggs in some container above the trivet. Right? Right. We went through a dozen or more eggs, eggs-perimenting with this, and tell you that the answer, like all social science is “It depends,” because there are a lot of variables.

Our first trial was to put an egg into each of two little glass ramekins that we had sprayed with cooking spray, and set them on the trivet over 1 cup of water. We closed the pot and the steam vent and pressed the Manual button for 3 minutes. Since it take the pot almost 6 minutes to heat up the water and come to pressure, this actually takes 9 minutes to cook the 2 eggs. We released the pressure quickly (30 seconds) and lifted out the two ramekins on the trivet.

It took a bit of time to unmold the eggs: we ran a thin spatula knife around the edge of each dish to loosen them. And even this wasn’t that quick, because the ramekins were so hot that we had to wait a bit before we could handle them. And unmolding the eggs is delicate enough that using hot pads or gloves just won’t cut it.

But we did get the eggs out and onto toast in about 11.5 minutes. They looked fairly nice, although weird because they are actually upside down: the yolk, which would normally by on top is inverted and is now on the bottom. However, when we cut the eggs open, they were a bit overdone. The yolk was more cooked than we would like for a classic poached egg.  Moreover,  the whites were distinctly tough and rubbery.

Rubbery whites were something we saw in cooking hard-cooked eggs under pressure. It vanished if you cooked the eggs at low pressure.

3-minlp-broken-openSo we tried cooking the eggs at low pressure, reducing the time to 2 minutes. They weren’t sufficiently cooked, so we repeated the experiment at 3 minutes and low pressure. These were actually pretty nice, but again, it was hard to unmold them, and the ramekins were just as hot, so it took some time. Again, the elapsed time was at least 11.5 minutes or more, and while the eggs were cooked well, it was hard not to break them while unmolding them.

Some people have recommended poaching eggs in little silicone cups. We picked up a couple of Poach Pod cups at our local Cook’s Nook.  Some people have also tried other similar egg poacher cups like these from Zenda Home.

poach-pod-broken-openWe sprayed them with cooking spray as they recommended and cooked 2 eggs for 3 minutes at low pressure. They weren’t done, so we returned them to the pot for one more minute. These were done and looked pretty nice in their silicone cups. But, while the pods weren’t as hot as the glass ramekins, they were very difficult to get the eggs out of. In fact, even though we carefully ran the spatula knife around them, one of them broke.  Further, they were hard to center over the toast. While the eggs were cooked properly, getting them out was far too difficult, and we don’t recommend them. This took nearly 12 minutes.

Finally, for comparison, we poached two eggs in a saucepan as we have described before. It takes 3 minutes to bring a quart of water to a boil in a 2 quart saucepan, then we turn the heat down so the water is barely bubbling, swirl it with wire whisk and crack the eggs one at a time into the swirls. The eggs are done in 2-3 minutes. The total time was 6 minutes, including lifting the eggs out onto the toast. And there are many fewer dirty dishes!

So, we conclude that while it is certainly possible to poach eggs in the Instant Pot, it takes twice as long as in a saucepan, and since the cooking time is so brief, you have to watch the pot timer like a hawk so they don’t overcook. This takes away the “set it and forget it” advantages of the Instant Pot that you get for longer cooking stews or rice.

‘The Third Plate’ : Dan Barber’s book entertaining but fallacious

third-plateDan Barber is a highly regarded chef with substantial experience who is known for his two restaurants, Blue Hill in New York and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Westchester (Pocantico Hills). Both restaurants emphasize creative uses of vegetables and grains and de-emphasize meat, although their menus certainly include it, and represent some of the best examples of “farm to table cooking.”

His book, The Third Plate is an entertaining description of his restaurant and the accompanying farm give you some great insights into how great chefs think.  Unfortunately, his book has some serious fallacies that diminish its credibility as we describe later below.

Barber’s Pocantico Hills restaurant is located on the former Rockefeller estate. The renovation of the buildings as well as the accompanying working farm was funded by David Rockefeller, apparently to the tune of about $30 million. The book tells the story of how Barber’s Stone Barns restaurant developed in association with the farm, where they have the freedom to try out and breed unusual historical vegetables and grains. This “third plate” refers to an evolution in cooking from plates with meat and some small veggies on the side, to meat with better tasting and better cooked veggies, to some imagined future plate where the “steak” is made from vegetables and meat becomes a side dish.

Currently, Stone Barns offers one or two prix fixe menus, which for two with wine pairings, tax and tip can cost you as much as $898. With those prices in mind, you have to recognize that there are a lot of us who will probably never eat there. The reviews for that restaurant are exceptional and apparently so is the food. An evening’s dinner may consist of ten or more courses, starting with small servings of grains or vegetables, with meat in later courses. The menu varies frequently and may vary with each table depending on how the waiters feel you are appreciating what you have just been served

Barber is a good writer and story teller, and the book describes his work with the farmer and with plant breeders to develop and introduce the grains served in the restaurant, starting with the heirloom Eight Row Flint Corn, which was grown by early settlers but had all but vanished at the time he started.

His book is nominally divided into four sections: Soil, Land, Sea, and Seed, but the discussions flow freely around these ideas and you are likely to find some topics revisited in each section.

Foie gras

After his initial soil and farming discussions, Barber spends several chapters on foie gras, with a long bucolic description of a farm in Spain where geese are not force fed, but simply provided with sufficient food all summer and then naturally gorge on acorns in the fall. The farmer, Eduardo Sousa, simply talks to his geese to get them to do what he wants: and some call him a “goose whisperer.”

Then Barber visits the Hudson Valley Foie Gras company with Eduardo, and finds that the goose feeding is not cruel at all, where the “force feeding”  (gavage) takes only about 5 seconds per bird (ducks in this case). The kicker in this otherwise rather fascinating tale is that Eduardo decides that the Hudson valley ducks “didn’t know they were ducks.” And that Barber segues from that bizarre conclusion to his own: “What’s intolerable is the system of agriculture that it reflects.”

It is at this point that I lost touch with Barber’s point of view. Raising geese for slaughter one way or another, as long as they are humanely treated, seems to me completely comparable and I have no idea what he is getting at.

Fish Farming

Barber devotes over 100 pages to the sea and buying and cooking seafood sustainably, since many popular fish like bluefin tuna are threatened by overfishing. He visits the well-regarded chef Angel Leon of Aponiente on the Iberian Peninsula, who has learned how to cook the fishing fleet’s discarded by-catch, seasoning it with a phytoplankton broth. Barber also visits the fish farm Veta La Palma, where they raise fish in existing ponds and canals, where the fish are mostly fed from nutrients that occur naturally, producing some of the most sought after sea bass in Europe (and eventually the US).

He also describes the almadraba in Cadiz, where the villagers have been capturing migrating tuna using mazes of nets for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

He also spends some time praising Gilbert Le Coze, the founding chef of New York’s pre-eminent seafood-only restaurant, Le Bernardin, but for some reason avoids mentioning for many pages that Le Coze died in 1994, and that Eric Ripert, the chef since 1994, is principally responsible for Le Bernardin’s current exalted status in the food world.

Barber also tells us the story of Glenn Roberts and his founding of Anson Mills to produce artisanal grains, including graham flour (a kind of wheat) and revitalizing Carolina Gold rice, where they discover that the crops grown in conjunction with the wheat or rice affect the flavor of the grain.

Fallacies

While Barber’s book is entertaining enough to plow through in a day or two, there are some real problems with some of what he tells us.  Starting early on and repeating throughout is Barber’s insistence on the superiority of organic farming, although he provides no good reason for that, and does not acknowledge that “organic” is a USDA marketing label that allows you to charge higher prices rather than a set of superior techniques. At no point does he explain why the farm is “organic” nor why the farm would be less successful had they chosen careful conventional farming techniques.

Studies (USDA data) have shown that organic farming yield 50-75% as much as conventional farming, and that the produce is no safer or more nutritious or flavorful than conventional produce. This is simply the naturalistic fallacy promoted by the organic marketing associations.

One of the first anecdotes in the book describes farmer Klaas Martens, who had been farming conventionally for some years and suddenly developed a sort of weakness in his arms after spraying 2,4-D. According to the story, no doctors were able to diagnose his ailment, but this caused him to switch to organic farming because as his wife said, “he was being poisoned.”

The trouble with Martens’ story is that it contradicts all known toxicology data on 2,4-D. The National Pesticide Information Center fact sheet on 2,4-D says the “No occupational studies were found reporting signs or symptoms following exposure to 2,4-D under normal usage,” and even on acute oral exposure (drinking it) no symptoms like Martens had are observed. Since Martens condition was never diagnosed, we have to take this as mere rumor.

One particularly offensive statement later in the book comes from a young farmer who comes to Barber saying that “My father just got cancer, so I am switching to organic farming.”

Throughout the book, Barber continually mentions chemicals used in conventional farming as “poisoning the soil.” Since more than 98% of all farms in the US are conventional, this would imply that they must all be failing. Now, since most farmers have at least bachelor’s degrees and well understand how important caring for their soil is, this is pretty ridiculous. We would all be starving if this were true.

Even more ridiculous is Barber’s quote from Rudolf Steiner, who hatched the idea of biodynamic farming out of a series of mystical rituals, such as burying oak bark in a cow’s skull in the middle of your field. Steiner also had a lot of other crazy theories such as the one Barber quotes with a straight face, that the heart is not a pump for our blood, but that the blood that drives the heart. To support this nonsense he quotes “holistic practitioner” Thomas Cowan, who is deep into the same nonsense and Sally Fallon Morell of the discredited Weston A Price Foundation.

Barber is no friend of biotechnology either, making it clear he would never serve any genetically modified food in his restaurant (this is pretty hard to accomplish, actually). His example is the 2009 infestation of Late Blight that devastated everyone’s tomatoes in the Northeast.  There was one small patch of tomatoes on the farm that were not affected, Mountain Magic, an experimental seed from Cornell, bred to be blight resistant. (You can buy these from several seed catalogs today.) But Barber’s restaurant customers resisted them, fearing that they might be “genetically engineered.” He decided he needed to perpetuate the fallacy of tomatoes “bred the old-fashioned way at a land grant like Cornell, [versus] GM tomatoes from a company like Monsanto.”

The only GM tomato ever marketed was the Flavr Savr tomato, bred to be shipped ripe rather than green. Eventually, the tomato failed, but not because it didn’t have better flavor as Barber says, but because Calgene had trouble keeping costs down so it would be competitive.

Finally, Barber is skeptical about the whole idea of the Green Revolution, started by plant breeder and Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug. His criticisms on the use of fertilizers to create higher yield seem to echo those of the mendacious non-scientific activist Vandana Shiva.

In fact, Barber is critical of the whole idea of modern agriculture, where farmers buy new seed each year rather than saving seeds from last year. Farmers have not saved seeds since the 1930s, because of the problems of storage and disease control as well as those of controlling new generations of seed. Barber thinks they should all be saving the best seeds from the fields each year on each farm instead, turning each farm into its own primitive seed development company. Few farmers would agree that this is a good division of labor.

In conclusion, Barber has written an entertaining and informative book on the relationship between high end cuisine and small scale agriculture, but seems oblivious to the fact that he and his restaurant are living a bucolic fantasy which can only work on a small scale, with the subsidies of the Rockefeller family and his high-priced restaurant.

Originally published on Examiner.com in September, 2014

 

Troupers Light Opera to present Northeastern Premiere of ‘Thespis’

jupiter
Jupiter, grown old

Gilbert and Sullivan’s first collaboration, “Thespis” was for years considered lost because while the dialog was known, the music has not been found. However, thanks to a skillful reconstruction by opera designer Anthony Baker and conductor/composer Timothy Henty, a truly entertaining version of Thespis has been created.

Troupers will present the Northeastern Premiere of  this Thespis on November 5th and 6th in Norwalk, CT at All Saints School at 139 West Rocks Rd. The 20 member cast, under the direction of Marian Shulman and Jim Cooper will present the full comic operetta as created by Gilbert and Sullivan as a special Christmas entertainment for the company of London’s Gaiety Theater.

Troupers has been performing Gilbert and Sullivan in Fairfield County for 72 years and is delighted to premiere this Baker-Henty version of Thespis to Northeast US audiences. Each year Troupers welcomes new members to our company: this year we are delighted to welcome soprano leads Anne Collin and Jennifer Wallace. New members are always welcome!

In the ridiculous story, the gods on Olympus have become old and tired (except Mercury) and would like a vacation. They happen on a theater company picnicking on the side of the mountain and quickly reach an agreement that the actors will play the parts of the gods fo a year, while they go down to Earth. Of course, this doesn’t work very well, as Mercury sings “Olympus is in a terrible muddle” in the second act.

The famous chorus number “Climbing Over Rocky Mountain” first appeared in Thespis, and it was so successful that Sullivan reused it in “Pirates of Penzance.”  Some musicians believe that a lot more of the music from Pirates originated in Thespis, and Baker and Henty have included several references to Pirates in their reconstruction, as well as using music from several other familiar and less familiar Sullivan works. You will also hear a bit of Offenbach in Thespis, because early reviews suggested that Sullivan had borrowed some, perhaps as a jest.

The Troupers cast of Thespis stars Brett Kroeger as Mercury and Greg Suss as Thespis along with Anne Collin as Nicemis and David Richy as Sparkeion. Rounding out the gods: Bob Scrofani plays Jupiter,  Wendy Falconer is seen as Diana, John Matilaine as Apollo, and Rob Strom plays Mars.

Among the mortals, Deborah Connelly plays the flirt Daphne, and Jennifer Wallace plays Pretteia. Other cast members include Ty Goff playing Sillimon, the stage manager,  John Hoover as Timidon, Guy Stretton as Tipseion and Tammy Strom as Cymon, or Father Time. Also appearing will be Rebecca Kovacs, Rosa Parrotta, Ruth-Anne Ring, Bill Abbott, and Neil Flores. The accompanist will be Troupers 35-year veteran, Dorothy Kolinsky.

Tickets are available on Troupers’ web site: TroupersLightOpera.org.  Don’t miss a chance to see this rarely performed gem!

 

 

Craft 14 Kitchen and  Bar opens in Wilton

Craft 14 Kitchen and  Bar opens in Wilton

After months of anticipation, Craft 14 Kitchen and Bar opened in Wilton about 2 weeks ago. Run by the team that manages the nearby Bianco Rosso, Mario Lopez and Cristina Ramirez, Craft 14, in the Stop and Shop plaza, has a lively, but informal vibe, and a small but varied and interesting menu. They call it a “polished casual New American restaurant,” and we think this describes it very well.

The restaurant consists of a bar area with high-top tables, and lower tables to the right, and a semi-open kitchen area where you can watch them from some of the tables. You can also eat on the semi-enclosed patio area in good weather. When the restaurant fills up, as it did last Saturday evening, it’s pretty lively, but you can still easily converse.

Normally we don’t write a real review so soon after a restaurant opens, since they deserve a shakedown period before being scrutinized, but Craft 14 really got everything right and we are going to dive right in and praise their food.

craft-burger
Craft 14 burger

The menu is divided into soups and salads, sandwiches, small plates, supper, sides and desserts.  In each category, you’ll find some simpler items and at least one spectacular one. For example, they have a conventional Wood Fire Classic Burger ($12) and an absolutely over-the-top Wood Fire Craft 14 Burger ($18), which includes ground beef, crisp pork, charred tomato, fried egg, brioche bun lathered with warm “cheese sauce.” We didn’t order this one (yet) but our neighbor did, and it was a burger requiring cutlery. In fact it required a couple of meals to finish, as he took half of it with him. But it really looked delicious. They also have a salmon and a ground chicken sandwich.

In the Soup and Salad category, you’ll find Clam Chowder, Halloumi Salad, and Beet Salad among other things. We’ll definitely try the clam chowder next time, but the Beet Salad ($15), made red and golden beets, Asian pear, pistachios orange segments and a yogurt and mint dressing was excellent.

Among the Small plates, we ordered the Ricotta Croquettes, served hot with applewood bacon, tomato confit and Chipotle honey ($12). You get four sizeable croquettes, so it is not unreasonable to share one or even half of them. The portions here are really generous!

mac-cheese
4 Cheese Mac and Cheese

 

And again, among the Small Plates, they have 3 kinds of macaroni and cheese: conventional ($11), Four cheese ($12) and Lobster ($15). We generally think that restaurants serving mac and cheese are silly, since it is so easy to make at home. But not this one! The Four cheese version was rich, hot and creamy. Apparently, rather than starting with a béchamel base, they started with heavy cream. Not only was it excellent, it was huge, and came home for lunch the next day.

chicken-waffles
Fried chicken and waffles

 

The Supper section of their menu included chicken, lamb, pork chop schnitzel, branzino, sirloin steak and hanger steak. But, to us, the spectacular item was the Fried Chicken and Waffles ($20), something you seldom see outside of the American South, and it was really well executed. The chicken was tender and juicy and the waffles crisp, but tender. A small amount of syrup was drizzled over the chicken and waffles, but a small pitcher of syrup was provided, giving you the chance of going either the sweet or the savory route. This was a fun find in a New England restaurant.

They have a small dessert menu including, I think, a mousse and some ice cream, but to top off the over-the-top theme, they  also offer a Banana Split!

This is a restaurant we’re going to be going to again and again, and we wish them well. Our bill, with 3 drinks was only $87.

 

Seed Diversity is not a serious concern. Ignore the Seed movie?

Seed Diversity is not a serious concern. Ignore the Seed movie?

In 1983, the Plant Genetic Resources Project of the Rural Advancement Fund, Inc. (RAFI) circulated a paper describing their study of the availability of varieties of vegetable seeds in 1983 compared to a study of 1903 seed catalogs. Their study, summarized in this 2011 National Geographic chart concluded that there had been a substantial loss of seed genetic diversity: only 16 out of 285 cucumbers remained; only 79 out of 408 tomatoes and so forth, suggesting that 93% of vegetable varieties had gone extinct. Mooney and Fowler published the entire RAFI study in their book Shattering: Food, Politics and the Loss of Genetic Diversity in 1990.

This report was considered gospel for years and is referred to in popular press articles all the time including the National Geographic chart. Now if you are into gardening and get a blizzard of seed catalogs in the mail, this just doesn’t sound reasonable. You see so many varieties in these catalogs, there must be something wrong somewhere.

Well there is. There have been several studies refuting the RAFI study, showing that vegetable varieties are as diverse as ever.  For example Heald and Chapman published an extensive review article called Veggie Tales: Pernicious Myths About Patents, Innovation and Crop Diversity in the Twentieth Century. They point out that the RAFI reports counted seeds in 1903 seed catalogs and compared them to the seeds in the USDA seed bank in 1983, rather than to current catalogs.

In fact, they found that while there were 7262 varieties of 42 vegetables in 1903, there are now 7100. This is all summarized clearly in David Tribe’s article. Further in a paper by van de Wuow found that

 …no substantial reduction in the regional diversity of crop varieties released by plant breeders has taken place.

Seed, the Movie

Since all available research indicates that there is not a decrease in crop diversity, it is surprising that anyone believes the contrary. And this brings us to the movie “Seed, the Untold Story,” soon to be shown in a few selected theaters. It opens in New York and Los Angeles on Sept 23 and Sept 30, respectively. The directors are Taggart Siegel and John Betz, who were responsible for the misinformation about bees in Queen of the Sun, often summarized as “Naked German hippies dancing with bees.”

In this film’s PR, they admit being misinformed by the 2011 National Geographic article and present a number of non-experts who have no idea what the science actually says. These include serial agriculture fabulist Vandana Shiva whose degrees are in the philosophy of science rather than in actual science.

The film also features commentary from non-scientists such as economist/activist Raj Patel, human rights activist Winona LaDuke, anthropologist (and plagiarist) Jane Goodall, and anti-GMO activist and attorney Andrew Kimbrell. None of these people have any scientific training and their support of the misguided thesis o f this film is laughable

To see what this film is about, let’s look at a claim from the press kit:

Farmers from Minnesota to Madhya Pradesh, India toil in economic thrall to the “Gene Giants,” paying hefty licensing fees to plant their patented crops. If they attempt to save their own seed at the end of a season, following a tradition practiced by humans for over 12,000 years, they face ruthless prosecution. (Suffering under this indentured servitude, over 250,000 farmers in India have committed suicide in the last 20 years.)

  • Farmers are not in “economic thrall.” They can purchases any seeds they want from any company. If they choose to buy patented seeds, which cost more, it is because they find them more profitable.
  • Farmers do not save seeds. Farmers, for the most part, do not save seeds, preferring to delegate seed cleaning and storage to experts. If they buy patented seeds, they agree not to save or replant them without paying the license fee.
  • This is not “indentured servitude.” Farmers are free to select new seeds each year from any of a number of vendors.
  • Indian farmers have not committed suicide because of GMOs. Several studies (by Herring and Guere) have shown that since GMO cotton came to India, farms are more productive and profitable than before, and suicides from economic problems have decreased.

The central thesis of this film is that farmers should be able to save seeds and that 94% of seed varieties have been lost. Of course, farmers can save seeds if they are not patented. They usually do not. And we have just shown there is no lost in diversity. This is a film made to spread misinformation and attack biotechnology companies that have made farming more productive and reduced the use of pesticides.

It is worth noting that independent scientists Klumper and Qaim reviewed published literature and concluded that

On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. Yield gains and pesticide reductions are larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops. Yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries.

This film cites no science and interviews no scientists. It is a misinformed political tract aimed at the gullible.

‘Queen of the Sun’ beautifully photographed utter nonsense

QOTS_2011_27by39w125margins_outlines_CMYK_MASTERTaggart Siegel’s 2010 film “Queen of the Sun” about honeybees has been getting a lot of play lately by green, crunchy groups where facts are of little concern. It appears to be a film about how important bees are to our lives, and is made with endless close-ups of bees and honey. Oh, and bees crawling over some naked German hippies.

To some extent, the film is about bee colony collapse, but Siegel never interviews any scientists about the problem, relying instead on beekeepers, farmers and various activist alarmists with little scientific background.

In fact, many of the beekeepers and farms shown in the film practice biodynamics, a kind of farming mysticism based on anthroposophy, which believes in an “objective, intellectually comprehensible spiritual world” as advocated by German pseudo-mystic Rudolph Steiner.  This is the sort of practice that advocates farming by astrological positions and burying skulls in your fields. It might be better to have consulted with some entomologists and agronomists.

One of the practitioners of this mystical approach to beekeeping is Gunther Hauk, who appears frequently throughout the film. He is the proprietor of the Spikenard Farm Honeybee sanctuary. While preserving honeybees is important and Hauk cares deeply about it, there does not seem to be a single scientist on his staff or board of directors.

The premise of the film is that Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is the “bill we are getting” (for the way we farm?). They clearly seem to believe that modern farming practices are somehow to blame, ignoring that fact the bee colonies have been collapsing intermittently for over 1000 years. This is not a new problem, and at this time we do not actually know if there are new contributing causes but just recurrence of the same events as before. As we noted in a recent article, it does not seem the bee colonies are “newly endangered.

You know the film has dipped deeply into mystic pseudo-science when we are told that honey contains “forces of the hexagonal” and that honey contains silica, which has “beneficial influences on our evolution.” We also learn that “pollen is materialized light.”

The film also features celebrity non-experts popping up from time to time. Journalist Michael Pollan comments on feeding HFCS to bees in new colonies as “viscerally offensive,” when even he has admitted any number of times that HFCS is just sugar, which is what bees feed on in any case.

We also get Cassandra-like appearances by Vandana Shiva, whose degrees are in the philosophy of science rather than in actual science, where she makes incomprehensible pronouncements about seeds worthy of Peter Sellers’ character Chauncey Gardiner in “Being There.”

One of Shiva’s points is based on her irrational opposition to transgenic crops (“GMOs”) which thus must somehow be the cause of CCD, even though careful research has shown this not to be true. And Bt corn is wind-pollinated in any case.

And of course anti-GMO activist Jeffrey Smith pops up making some of his trademarked dire but completely unscientific pronouncements. Smith has no scientific training but hopes to scare us with preposterous lines about “experimenting with the soul and body of human beings.”

There are some actual issues discussed in this film which are worth understanding, however. It shows us vast California almond orchards which are pollinated each February by imported hives of honeybees, since there is no other plant nearby that could feed the bees the rest of the year. The film suggests that interplanting some rows of flowers would provide the almond growers with their own bees, although of course the cost of giving up tree space versus the cost of renting hives has to be considered.

However, the film does suggest that trucking hives all across the country can hardly be good for the health of the bees in the hive, and this may well be true. It does not note that honeybees are not native to the Americas and that in their absence there are local bees that would also do the job.

One serious problem for honeybees is the varroa destructor mite, a tiny mite that lives on the bee’s body. The pesticides used to keep these mites at bay have become ineffective and it is difficult to find newer insecticides that are safe for the bees but toxic for the mites. One farmer suggested that we should just let the bees and mites evolve together and began such an experiment, although he did not report any results in the film, nor does it seem likely that this would work. There are no published papers on this approach.

While the newer neonicotinoid insecticides are being blamed for CCD, the evidence is not clear that they are to blame. For example, even the film notes that organic beekeepers also suffer from CCD.

Overall, the film wants us to appreciate the beauty and majesty of bees, and this is easy to do, but as a documentary on the problems of honeybees, it is not particularly accurate or successful.

We watched “Queen of the Sun” for free, streaming on Netflix, where it is available through September 24 (at least), but if you watch the trailer on the film’s web site, you’ll have had enough.

 

 

Soft-boiled eggs using a vegetable steamer

Soft-boiled eggs using a vegetable steamer

While soft-boiled eggs are pretty simple to make, there are a lot of variations on boiling the “3-minute egg,” that have been proposed, including turning off the heat and letting the egg set in the just-boiled water for several minutes.  There is also the problem of eggs cracking while cooking which can lead to a watery result.

So, we recently read of the idea of just cooking the eggs over boiling water in a vegetable steamer. This is a little easier to manage and less likely to lead to cracking. The only real question is how long to cook them. We decided to find out for ourselves.

We numbered 4 eggs 7 through 10 with a pencil. Then we placed a vegetable steamer in a 2-quart saucepan, added water to just under the steamer platform and brought it to a boil. On our stove this takes about 2 minutes.

Then we quickly added the 4 eggs, covered the pan and started a timer.  We prepared a pan of ice water, and quickly removed an egg at 7, 8, 9 and 10 minutes, placing them in the ice water to stop cooking quickly.

We cut open the eggs and lined them up for the picture above. You can see that the 7-minute egg looks to us most like a soft-boiled egg, but if you like them just a bit firmer, you could go for the 8-minute egg,  The last two look more to us like they are on the way to being hardboiled eggs.

11-minutes
Steamed 11 minutes

 

We had separately tested the 11 minute egg, and it is definitely hard boiled.

So, you can definitely make soft or hard-boiled eggs using the steamer. This not only minimizes cracking, it produces hard-boiled eggs that peel perfectly! This is even an advantage when serving soft-boiled eggs, since they come out of the shell cleanly.

This experiment made 4 eggs at once. In a larger saucepan, you could probably make 6-8 if you wanted to. Beyond that, the logistics of serving that many soft-boiled eggs while they are still warm becomes a bit daunting.

Soft-boiled eggs in the Instant Pot

Of course, since the Instant Pot is also a steamer, you can cook eggs in it just as well, and you can do as many at a time as you like, with the same restrictions on logistics of serving them.

intantpot
Steamed 3 and 4 minutes in the Instant Pot

 

We put one cup of water in the Instant Pot, added the trivet rack and put one egg in the pot. We closed it and set it to steam for 3 minutes at high pressure. Then we quickly released the pressure and put the egg in the ice bath. We repeated the process, steaming for 4 minutes. Comparing the two eggs, we rather think the 4 minute steamed egg is closest to a soft-boiled egg: the 3-minute egg seemed a little underdone. We know that a 5-minute egg is essentially hard cooked so we know we didn’t want to go further.

The only real drawback to using the Instant Pot is that it took 5 ½ minutes to come to temperature before the cooking began. Since the water was already hot in the pot, the heating time for the second egg was only about 4 minutes. However, you can make as many eggs as you can fit into the pot, although getting a large number into the ice bath to stop the cooking might be challenging.

We also tried steaming an egg for 4 minutes at low pressure instead of high pressure. Heating of the water is about 30 seconds faster, and the egg seemed perfect at 4 minutes steaming time. If you are going on to make hard boiled eggs, the low pressure method is preferable as it leads to a tenderer white.

Cooking corn on the cob: three methods

Cooking corn on the cob: three methods

Sometimes the simplest things get complicated. How best to cook corn on the cob? The goal is to end up with hot, butterable corn on a cob you can pick up and eat. Maybe wearing a bib!

We tried three different techniques for cooking corn on the cob: boil water, steaming in an Instant Pot, and cooking in a microwave. There are some advantages to each method.

Boiling

Far and away the simplest approach is to get a pot of water boiling and drop the shucked corn into it for 5 minutes, lift it out with tongs and serve right away. The advantage is scale: in a big pot, you can cook a lot of corn in a hurry.

pot

Now some die-hards like to spread butter on the hot corn, and while this is entertaining, it is way better to just brush some melted butter on each piece before serving. We melted  our butter in a small pitcher in the microwave, at 50% power to prevent the milk components from boiling.

Instant Pot

instant-potAnother popular method for members of the Instant Pot owners cult is to put several shucked corn ears in the Instant pot with a cup of water under the trivet. Then, set the pot to steam under low pressure conditions. We found that 3 minutes in the put made pretty nice corn. The disadvantage is that  it takes the pot more than 5 minutes to get that water to a boil and you can only do a few ears at a time in the pot: maybe 4 or so. In our experiment, we used the Quick Release after 3 minutes, rather than letting it cool down in the pot and perhaps overcook.

The corn comes out very well, but you have to clean out the pot when the boiling water pot is simpler to clean.

Microwave

 

The third approach is to put the ears in a microwave oven. In this case, you don’t shuck off the husk until afterwards, to keep the steam inside the ear. You cook them for 4 minutes, then cut off the bottom and pull out the corn. This did not work very well for us. Neither of out two trials resulted in “quick release” corn. We had to peel it manually, and when the husk, the corn and the cob itself are very hot, this is very tricky. Further, you really can only do 1-2 ears at a time, reducing scalability.

Results

All three methods produced tasty hot corn: we took a few bites from each and found no obvious differences. However, the microwaved corn is hot through and through, making it difficult to pick up the corn and eat it without burning your fingers.  While we tried to pick corn ears that were similar in size, we didn’t succeed: the middle, smallest ear was microwaved, the left one cooked in boiling water and the right one in the Instant Pot.

wrinkledHowever, as the corn cooled, we noted that the kernels of the microwaved corn began to collapse and pucker. We repeated this with another ear and found the same result. The water was evidently forced out of the kernels by the microwave heating, and when the corn cooled it was unsightly. While we didn’t notice a flavor difference, the difference in appearance indicates that the microwaved corn could be or seem to be less flavorful. Because of the difficulty in peeling the husks and the puckered kernels, we ranked this technique third, and don’t recommend it.

Among the other two: the boiled and the Instant Pot are about the same, but the open pot of boiling water lets you make far more corn in a hurry for a crowd.  We would guess that you could only do about 4 ears at a time in the Instant Pot, and the elapsed time is greater, because once the open pot of water is boiling, you can cook all the corn you want without a reheating step.

We omitted cooking corn on a barbecue grill because the results are so different, but you can, if careful, caramelize the kernels a bit to make very good corn without steaming or boiling.