Sauce for Thought: A Brief History of Spices that Serve as Natural Food Coloring

By Saturday, January 11, 2014 Permalink 0

Sauce for Thought: A Brief History of Spices that Serve as Natural Food Coloring

Spice Rack

The catnip ice cream was a pale green, like one of those hundreds of mysterious white paint chips at the hardware store. You are drawn to a white paint chip that appears to be somewhat greener than the other white paint chips. Squinting under the fluorescent lights, you take the paint chip outside to see if the color is different under natural light but there it is again, that lurking feeling that this white chip is really sort of green. That is the subtle coloration of catnip ice cream as well. It is, well, not quite like plain vanilla.

The waiter had notified us, in his endless confusion of specials, that the ice cream flavor of the day was “calamint” and so we ordered a couple of servings to share. The company round the table became animated as each person in turn tasted the ice cream and recognized the flavor of the rangy herb growing wild by the back gate, a favorite of cats worldwide. The flavoring of the novelty ice cream described as “calamint” was actually catnip — and we all had a good laugh, at least until the bill came. In retrospect, the laughter and the memory, and the bonding experience for all of us at the table, merited a high price. Would I order “calamint” ice cream again? Probably not.  Will I repeat the same story over and over again to the annoyance of my family? Absolutely! We ate Catnip Ice Cream at a fancy restaurant and paid for the privilege – can you believe it? Catnip is fuzzier than the other “food-grade” mints like its invasive cousins peppermint or spearmint. It grows taller in an out-of-control way, has a fleshier stem and a lighter colored leaf. The saw-edge of the leaves and the furriness make the leaves look more like nettles than like true mint. That should be a clue that this leaf does not belong in ice cream.

mints and catnip by Alice Deluca

Garden mint, Thai mint, Catnip

There are other odd-tasting food ingredients that are used very specifically for certain culinary purposes. For example, there are a host of ingredients used mostly for coloring such as cochineal (made from scale insects that live on cactuses), annatto (a seed), turmeric (a root), and saffron (from a flower). In small quantities these items brighten foods and make the visual presentation more interesting. However, if a super-sized portion of any of these ingredients is added to food, especially to bland foods (like desserts), the result may be unpleasant and unexpected. “Natural” as these colorings ma be, they can taste weird when they are in the wrong place. Starbucks has been in the news recently for using cochineal coloring in its drinks. Bugs in your drink? Maybe that’s not what vegans want to hear, but bugs have been coloring human food for thousands of years. Ada Boni, in Regional Italian Cooking, notes a recipe for a sort of bread that is flavored and colored with an ancient Italian liqueur called Alkermes (or Alchermes), dyed with a weird insect, not a beetle but a scale insect. To make this bread, the dough is mixed until the color from the liqueur is evenly distributed – a thorough saturation of bug DNA in your bread. Search today’s interweb and you will find people looking for “food grade cochineal” with which to fabricate their own Alkermes  for use in Zuppa Inglese, as they find the liqueur difficult to obtain in the United States for some reason. Cochineal and the other great red bug juice from Kermes have been used to color drinks since Biblical times, according to the entry for “Kermes” in the Encyclopedia Americana (copyright 1962). “Kermes refers to the red gall-like bodies of female scale insects (coccids). Kermes ilicis of the order Hemiptera, source of a red dye known as grain, granum tinctorium, and alkermes, since the time of Moses. The adult females have no legs, but a hard epidermis, are spherical in shape and bright red. They live on twigs of the Kermes oak, Quercus coccifera, a sturdy evergreen shrub or tree, 12 to 20 feet high, found in southern Europe, Asia Minor, and North Africa, and resemble cynipid oak galls. The dye derived from Kermes iliciswas superseded by the more brilliant cochineal after the latter was discovered in Mexico by the Spanish in 1518.”So first there was Kermes, and then Cochineal became a colorant of European cooking in the 16th century. The elixirs that were made from these marvelous insects were considered both lovely and medicinal. They were “natural” and at that time they were ‘organic” too. What could be more natural than products made from a pulverized creature living parasitically on an oak tree or cactus? And how much more attractive for the sick to contemplate a draught of spicy, vivid red liqueur than a small, sterile, modern pill. Perhaps the liqueurs did not solve any of the biological problems of illness, but they must have been somewhat comforting. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if today’s medicines were more like the magical drinks that Alice in Wonderland finds when she is down the rabbit hole? Which would you rather have: a tiny pill that holds no flavor magic and sporting an irrelevant and meaningless name, or a medicine that tastes like “a sort of mixed flavor of cherry-tart, custard, pineapple, roast turkey, toffy, and hot buttered toast” in a bottle with “a paper label with the words ‘Drink Me’ beautifully printed on it in large letters. [ii]” So how does a food conglomerate win, when bugs are off the menu? Colorants like the old cancerous villain “red dye No. 4” or the modern red dye #40 (apparently made from coal) are eyed with deep suspicion by folks interested in natural foods, but chemical dyes solved the historic problem of “fixing” red dyes so that the color remains true over time. Red dyes from beets, red onion skins etc. are notorious for fading and turning brown as they age. Ask a knowledgeable quilt-maker about “turkey red” and they will tell you about the historic challenge of procuring permanent red fabric dyes. Purchase a bottle of Pomegranate liqueur, keep it on the shelf for a few years and you will notice that the red color fades to browner hues. There are a few “natural” and plant-based options for coloring food in the orange-red range. Annatto is made from Achiote seeds  and is a key ingredient in certain Latin food flavoring mixes. The seed can be purchased for only a few pennies per teaspoon. Annatto is the seed of an evergreen plant (a plant that does not shed its leaves seasonally.) Added to hot oil, the seeds leave behind their bright color and very little flavor. The oil keeps for quite a while in the refrigerator and can be used for soups, stews, sautés etc. It is only necessary to fry the seeds a very short while – so that they release their color but do not burn. The seeds themselves are thrown away. In its dry form, the surface of the achiote seed, where the red coloring resides, has almost no taste.

Annatto or Achiote Seeds by Alice DeLuca

Achiote Seeds in a Japanese mortar

The turmeric root (curcuma longa) is a beautiful little root about the size of a finger, and, when in its root form, its inside is the gorgeous color of a deeply orange carrot. Frozen turmeric root is available in Asian grocery stores and lately it is appearing fresh in national chains that focus on healthy and organic food. When dried and pulverized, turmeric has the same hue as a Thai mussuman curry or any of the commercial curry powders. It is a component of French’s mustard and it stains everything it touches, including food-grade plastic and expensive items of clothing. If you indulge in a food coloring taste test, which of course is necessary at some point in your life, the turmeric will color your tongue strangely. Be prepared to offer explanations every time you open your mouth. It will dye your fingernails an unattractive yellow color too. Would turmeric be appropriate for coloring custard or cupcake icing? Probably not, because of its earthy bitterness and strong, stinkbug aroma.

Fresh Turmeric and Powder by Alice DeLuca

Turmeric Root and Turmeric Powder

The Color of Turmeric - Alice DeLuca

Fresh turmeric juice and dried turmeric powder

Saffron is in a class by itself. The gold standard of this type of coloring, saffron made from the stigma of a pretty little purple crocus is the flavoring and coloring agent of the culinary “1 percent” because it is so very, very expensive. It makes an excellent gift since it takes up almost no space, is easy to put away, and does not need to be dusted. Saffron has been precious since ancient times; it is mentioned in the Song of Solomon and was cultivated in England in the 15th century[i]. These days, it is possible to purchase saffron crocuses for the home garden so anyone with a small plot of land could theoretically experiment with growing and harvesting saffron at home. Those who play with flowers know that the inside of a flower has interesting properties and will sometimes stain your hands or clothes. You may be tempted to ditch your career and go in to the saffron farming business. What could be simpler than plucking the stigma from crocuses and hoarding them in your cupboard? Here’s the problem — a single ounce of saffron requires 4,000 stigma, and at 3 stigma per flower the whole front lawn would have to be completely sown with crocuses to yield a crop. Each day, you rise before dawn to pick a few tiny pieces from the blooms of that day, to dry and store. Perhaps this career path is not practical and it is best to “keep the day job.”

Asafran - saffron - Alice DeLuca

Saffron threads next to their bottle

Saffron has a flavor that lends itself to both sweet and savory dishes.  You can smell the powerful aroma of saffron right through the cork. It is prized especially for coloring rice dishes and is superb as an addition to mango ice cream, rendering the ice cream a deeper orange color and adding an odd, woodsy flavor.  Although mango ice cream is good without saffron, mango-saffron ice cream is also excellent, and once you try it you will notice the saffron edge to the flavor and miss the saffron when it is absent. To make a mango-saffron ice cream that is somewhat less sweet than commercial ice creams,  combine,  puree and chill the ingredients in this recipe, then freeze the mixture in an ice cream maker. Mangoes are highly fibrous, with an almost hairy texture, so be sure to puree thoroughly. Any type of mangoes can be used, but they should be perfectly ripe or the flavor will have a sour edge. Notes: this easy formula does not require pre-cooking, and the sugar can be reduced by one tablespoon. I could write an entirely different article addressing the whole color spectrum of natural colorings – a their own Alkermes of ice cream colors is available, and perhaps some enterprising dessert chef will offer a color wheel sampling or crayon-shaped servings of ice cream in the near future. Yellow – mango, saffron, French vanilla with egg yolk, lemon, corn, passion fruit (lilikoi) Orange – apricot, peach, carrot cake, pumpkin pie Red – Pink – hibiscus, raspberry, cherry, strawberry (add cardamom or cayenne pepper), guava Blue-Purple –blackberry, plum, currant, wild blueberry (for a stunning blueberry ice cream see Nick Maglieri’s Perfect Light Desserts) Green –avocado, ground pistachio, pandanus leaf, mint White – vanilla, ginger, honey, banana, coconut Brown – chocolate, caramel, cinnamon, coffee, dulce de leche, maple, nuts Regarding catnip: the pale green leaves of catnip are perfect for your cat’s salad bowl but not for the dessert tray.


[i] Ingersol, Helen. “Saffron.” Encyclopedia Americana. Vol. 24. New York, NY: Americana Corporation, 1962. 104-05. Print. [ii] Carroll, Lewis (1865). Alice in Wonderland.
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The Low Hanging Fruit

By Wednesday, December 12, 2012 Permalink 0

by Alice DeLuca

As the Mayan-predicted end of the world is upon us, I am sitting on the precipice of civilization, looking at seemingly the last remaining pay phone in the world.  Pay phones used to be easy to find. They weren’t perfect. Some coin-operated telephones had broken cords, no handset, no phone book. Many phone booths had been used for unspeakable activities. Others were like a dream, with all parts intact, clean and working, the kind of place that Superman and Dr. Who might step in to, in an emergency.

When pay phones ruled the sidewalks, anyone with a dime could make a call, and if you had a pocketful of change you could talk for minutes, clanging in additional coin-of-the-realm whenever the operator “horned in” and threatened to disconnect the call.  College students shared the one pay phone on their dormitory hall to phone home. Women walking alone could seek assistance at any functioning pay phone. We knew where the pay phones were, even if we were a bit afraid of the voice of the operator, interrupting, in that all-powerful voice like Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine.

You could game the system if you were short of cash. If you called “collect” and hung up quickly after saying your name (“Will you accept a collect call from Fred?”), your friend could call you back “on their nickel.” Expats living in Paris knew that a long line of waiting immigrants standing in line by a phone signaled a phone that had been broken (now we would say “hacked”) so this special pay phone could be used for free to call home in some faraway country.

Today, the American pay phone industry claims there are just a one and a half million pay phones in existence. One hundred and forty million Americans have no cell phone, and fourteen million have no home phone either. That’s a lot of people who must still know where the pay phones are.

The pay phone was the automat of communication, but instead of opening a little door to pull out a piece of pie, as was possible at the Horn and Hardart automats in New York City, you put in your dime and presto! there was a person talking at the other end of a line. The automat, that magical drive-up window for pedestrians, is a thing of the past. So is the omnipotent “phone company,” and so is the shared experience of the pay phone.

The IPhone 5 is available now, and who doesn’t lust after its shiny, sleek profile holding a box of mysteries and enchantments? It will only cost you  $1,000 a year, all told, or ten thousand dimes. These phones work, their phone books don’t have pages missing, and they are personal and clean. But where do recent immigrants go to make a call at low cost?

And, where is the common experience that binds us all together in today’s America?

I find hope for the common experience at the increasing number of local diners run by recent immigrants, often from Central America and Brazil. At these local diners the coffee is hot, the plates are mismatched because there are no matching plates, not by design, and the prices are reasonable. The waitress prices your meal as “sides” to save any diner a few bucks.

You can tell you are in the right place because the menu includes an option of a large bowl of fruit.  Rich and poor, we all come in for the fruit. The fruit is uniformly fresh and juicy, never defrosted from a bag of institutional frozen fruit salad. Frozen melon has a squishy, spongy consistency because all the cell walls have been compromised by freezing. Frozen melon is not good, and there is nothing more to say about it. The local diner fruit bowl is truly the “low-hanging fruit”, to use a horrible term from business-speak, and I am picking it now, just before the end of the world.

To be continued…..

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Day of the Un-Dead

By Sunday, October 28, 2012 Permalink 0

by Alice DeLuca

The Day of the Dead and Halloween are nearly upon us and I am frantically digging for recipes that can protect the living against the Un-dead. Books and papers fly as I paw through shelves and piles, seeking something to ward off the Zombies, Vampires and Werewolves that may be lurking outside the door, or that may invade my kitchen at any moment. They all have highly specialized dentition designed to make swift work of the main course – me!

Day of the Dead Secretary Alice DeLuca 2011

I’m calling on restaurateurs —  please, this time of the year, an amuse-bouche for the living might be just the thing to calm the customer’s nerves. Could chefs please get a little creative, and instead of offering me a puddle of olive oil, or herbed olive oil, or olives in a lake of olive oil with obligatory bread (that I don’t eat anyway), could they provide something that will protect our table from monsters? Let’s get our priorities straight please; safety comes first!

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Food History: Before there were Restaurants, there were Street Kitchens

By Friday, October 5, 2012 Permalink 0

by Jonell Galloway

Some form of restaurant has existed ever since humans have been eating. The phenomenon grew as large cities formed, and as people traveled on the ancient silk roads in the Middle East and China, and in the Roman Empire, often in the form of inns where one could both sleep and eat.

Street kitchens and food trucks are by no means a modern invention. Jean-Robert Pitte says in his  essay “The Rise of the Restaurant”:

Throughout the world, the principal type of eating establishment has always been the street kitchen, where a person can buy a precooked dish for a modest sum. They have always existed in China and still exist throughout Asia, even in industrial and postindustrial countries such as Japan…Street restaurants are still common in Latin America and the Middle East and Africa… (from A Culinary History: Food, edited by Jean-Louis Flandrin and Massimo Montanari)

 

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Sauce for Thought: Coming in From the Cold – An Exploration of Soup

By Wednesday, October 3, 2012 Permalink 0

Sauce for Thought: Coming in From the Cold – An Exploration of Soup

by Alice DeLuca

We’re turning down the new thermostat daily, stubbornly staving off the inevitable start-up of the furnace for the coming home-heating season. It’s the hot soup season and the knitting season also, so there are reasons to celebrate. Animals are busy storing everything they can get their paws on, for a long winter of curled up dreaming. I picture them underground and know why some people covet their fur coats. My coat of choice is made from the knitted wool of sheep, and to the sheep I am grateful.

Our new Nest thermostat is “smart” in that it knows what we are doing, but we maintain the illusion of control by tweaking it via tablet technology, even from remote locations. The designers thought of everything, down to the specially designed stickers for labeling the wires during installation. We’re hoping we won’t have to fool this new thermostat in to turning on when the temperature dives like a submarine, the first week of January; nor will we be tempted to put a space heater under it to keep it warm so it won’t activate the furnace, as my father used to do with his mercury-switch driven thermostat from those days.

When the temperature drops, the Canada geese start making tracks. Often they are flying south, but sometimes they appear to be confused and fly east or north, which is because some of them winter-over. The V-formations of confused geese overhead is another clear indication that the time has come to consider hot soup.

Soup, japan dish, японская кухня, суп

Japanese soup

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Sausage Walks in to a Bar…..

By Monday, July 16, 2012 Permalink 0

by Alice DeLuca

A story for carnivores

Assador - Alice DeLuca 2012 (C) digimarc

Assador

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This whole adventure started with a search for the perfect sausage to use in a recipe for pork with clams, which led to a little ceramic pig, and ended up with a truly excellent party. This cute little piece of specialty cookware, which looks like footwear for some impossible outer-space monster, is in fact designed for brazing sausages over flaming, hi-octane Portuguese liquor. As we learned the purpose and the method for using this device, we became completely distracted from our original mission and found ourselves planning a sausage-roast.

Linguica roasting - Alice DeLuca 2012 digimarc

Sausages roasting over flaming Aguardente

First, we had to obtain the little pig dishes from Portugal – that was easy and took only a few weeks. As soon as the dishes arrived we set about making home-smoked sausages and invited some guests to come over and roast them with us – RSVPs were instantaneous and none declined the invitation.

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Sauce for Thought: Sweet Flower of Dreams

By Monday, March 26, 2012 Permalink 0

 

by Alice DeLuca

A little prehistoric flower has been grown, re-created really, from 32,000 year-old seeds found in the ancient den of an artic ground squirrel. The photo of the little white flower in the New York Times [i] brought a rush of excitement and a feeling of kinship with the scientists who sought to cover those seeds with earth and add water, to cup their hands and breathe warm air over the planting, revealing the sprouts last seen by the tiny ground squirrel so long ago. I have the same feeling when reading an antique recipe that might bring back the flavors of the ancestors. Can we breathe life in to an antique delicacy and resurrect a better flavor? Why did people add rose geraniums to their jelly, infuse herring pie[ii] with grains de paradis[iii], or even stir and stir to create cornstarch pudding for that matter? Perhaps they knew a marvelous flavor-way or texture that has been lost to us, overtaken by food fads and conveniences of the present day?

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Sealed With a Quiche: Brief History of Quiche in America with Recipe Ideas

By Wednesday, February 8, 2012 Permalink 0

Including a food trend prediction for 2012…

by Alice DeLuca

When first married, I received lots of advice on how to stay married, which is of course so much more complicated than “getting” married. For example, Sally told me that both a happy marriage and a career had been possible for her because she created and froze 4 quiches at a time.  I immediately pictured 4 quiches in the deep-freeze, carefully labeled for rotation of the stock so as to avoid freezer-burn and waste. The quiches would keep.

English: Different kinds of quiches.

 

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We love this food timeline/infographic!

By Monday, February 6, 2012 Permalink 0

If you’re interested in food history, take a look at this food timeline/infographic discovered by Rambling Epicure contributor Alice DeLuca. It covers just about everything there is to cover, from prehistoric grains such as emmer grain circa 17,000 B.C. and einkorn grain circa 16,000 B.C. to modern food terms such as Twecipes & Recessipes. This is a true reference for  lovers of food history, and definitely one to be bookmarked.

Einkorn wheat

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Say Cheese!

By Monday, December 19, 2011 Permalink 0

by Alice DeLuca

Many years ago, on a train traveling slowly through the French countryside – I don’t remember exactly where and I refuse to invent a location for the sake of a story — I met a man whose job it was to sell cheese mold. This friendly man was sitting in the same compartment with me. I was naturally apprehensive when he started to speak. Sometimes men traveling on trains want to share stories and sometimes they want to show young women other things whether the women are interested or not, but that is another story.

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