WTFood: International Stout Day

As I mentioned before, yesterday was International Stout Day, the day we celebrated my favorite style of beer! For those unfamiliar with the different styles of beer, a stout is a dark beer where the malt and hops have been roasted, giving it a strong flavor. That is, in fact, why it’s called a stout (meaning “strong”).  In addition, the alcohol content is usually around 7-8%, pretty strong for a beer. The Stout Day website has a pretty good synopsis of the history.

The most commonly known stout is Guinness, but I wanted to stick to some American Microbrews. I chose two actually. First was Pretty Things Babayaga, their “sylvan stout”. A brewery from my own great state of MA, Pretty Things like to put their own twist on type names. “Babayaga” is actually an export stout, or a stout brewed in bigger batches so that it travels better. I first came across Pretty Things last year, trying their Saint Botolph’s Town brown ale and really enjoyed their table at the BeerAdvocate Beerfest this past spring (though sadly was not fast enough to get tickets to this February’s Extreme Beer Fest, which sold out in 2 hours).

“Babayaga” had good mouthfeel, great herby smokiness, a touch of hops, and a surprisingly bright note to the finish I don’t associate with stouts but really enjoyed. I think it’s the first time I’ve been able to refer to a stout as “refreshing”.

My next beer was one I saw trending on Untappd so I thought I’d try it out. Breakfast Stout by Founders Brewing Company out of Michigan. A “Double Chocolate Coffee Oatmeal Stout” – honestly, I think I would have gotten this out of sheer intrigue even without seeing it trending. I’ve had chocolate and double chocolate stouts, coffee stouts, and oatmeal stouts, but all together?!

Honestly, my mouth didn’t even know what was going on for the first half of the glass. Dark and rich, surprises of spice and roasted sweetness – holy wow. Honestly, I think this beer was just too complex for my palate! Thankfully I bought a 4-pack, so I’ll have a few more chances to really get a grip on this meal of a brew.

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WTFood Doubleheader: Kombucha and Chia

So this round of WTFood is a bit of a two-for-one deal; First we’ve got Kombucha, a tea-based drink originating in Asia, and second is Chia, specifically the seeds, an ancient Aztec crop related to mint.

Kombucha, also known in some parts of the world as the “Elixir of Life”, is tea cultured with a mushroom fungus. It is believed to have originated in China roughly 2200 years ago, but gained real popularity in Russia, where the peasants cultivated it for its health benefits. From there it spread to Japan, where it was known as a popular potable among samurai, and Europe, mostly among Germans. Kombucha fell out of favor as World War 2 began due to tea and sugar shortages.

The first thing anyone ever tells you about Kombucha is that it’s alive. The bacteria and yeast that ferment the tea are always active, which is why you always see chunks of culture floating at the bottom (the larger of which I can’t bring myself to drink). But they’re also what give Kombucha it’s mystical heritage, as the enzymes and acids are known for detoxification, probiotic, and anti-cancer properties. As Kombucha is actively fermenting, it does contain some small level of alcohol. Normally this is limited to under 0.5%, making it available as a regular food product, but if left to age, the content can rise. Also, don’t shake it, as the process naturally produces gasses that pressurize the container (though the tea itself is only mildly bubbly).

I think the first time I came across Kombucha was in a Whole Foods about 7 years ago. Given that I was about 20, I didn’t give it much thought (mostly because  it was pretty expensive for a drink, about $6 a bottle, though it’s still about $4 now). Then I caught an episode of Bizarre Foods where Andrew Zimmern meets a man who makes this potent potable (around the 2:50 mark):

As you can see in the clip, Kombucha, like many teas, is often flavored. I like the flavor options of GT’s products and they have a “Synergy” line that contains actual fruit juice, which is nice since there’s actually a method to drinking Kombucha. Ideally, you drink a bottle (16 oz) spread out over the day, a little before every meal. Since that means drinking it before breakfast, having a little juice mixed in is a plus. However, if you decide to try some of this brew, don’t jump straight into that pace. Instead, start slow, maybe a quarter or half a bottle, and figure out how your system deals with the influx of bacteria, acids, and enzymes. If you take it well, increase gently, until you find a level you’re comfortable with (for me that’s a bottle a day, usually in one sitting, but only two days a week). To be honest, you don’t need to drink more than a glass a day to get the health benefits.

Since Kombucha is unpasteurized, there are some risks involved with consumption, but as far as I’m concerned, they’re negligible.

Probably the weirdest thing I learned while researching for this post is that there’s a way to make clothing out of the Kombucha SCOBY (the mat of culture at the top of the bottle in that previous video).

Now on to our second WTFood: Chia Seeds.

First, when you say chia in the U.S.A., every automatically thinks of Chia Pets. Well, guess what, these are the same seeds.

Chia (salvia hispanica) is typically grown from Central Mexico to Guatemala (though Australia is the world’s largest commercial producer), and was cultivated by both the Aztecs and Mayans (possibly as much as maize) as a compact source of energy. Pretty much everything you find on chia seeds relates how it was important for hunters, giving them a boost as they ran for dozens of miles through the jungle. For example, here’s part of an article:

For centuries, this tiny little seed was used as a staple food by the Indians of the southwest and Mexico. Known as the running food, its use as a high-energy endurance food has been recorded as far back as the ancient Aztecs. It was said the Aztec warriors subsisted on the chia seed during the conquests. The Indians of the southwest would eat as little as a teaspoon full when going on a 24hr. forced march. Indians running from the Colorado River to the California coast to trade turquoise for seashells would only bring the Chia seed for their nourishment.

And here’s part of the reason: 20 grams (roughly 2 tablespoons) of chia seeds is roughly 66 calories. 20 grams of sugar is 75 calories. But while all you’re getting from eating pure sugar is a toothache, chia seeds also contain all the essential amino acids, a decent level of protein, fiber (more than in oatmeal), and Omega fatty acids (8x the amount of Omega-3 in salmon), and some antioxidants (more than in blueberries), calcium, and phosphorus. There’s some evidence that adding 20g of chai (daily recommended amount) helps lower blood pressure and LDL cholesterol, as well as benefits diabetics The recent health-nut surge in promoting ancient Mayan/Aztec “Superfoods” (like Goji berries, Acai, Maca, and Golden Berries) also pushes adding chia seeds to one’s diet.

High levels of soluble fiber is one of the reasons chia is so popular – it’s extremely hydrophilic, able to absorb 9-12 times its weight in water. This effect produces a gelatinous substance much like tapioca. This has two effects on the digestive system: first, it promotes hydration, and second, it slows down the absorption of carbohydrates (a real benefit to diabetics). For this reason, one of the most popular means of consuming chia seeds is simply in a glass of water/juice/tea. Honestly, it reminds me of Basil Seed drinks (a favorite of mine around Halloween because it looks like you’re drinking tadpoles). However, it can also be ground into a powder, made into a pudding, baked into various goods, or sprinkled on yogurt. Unlike poppy or flax, chia seeds have no real flavor by themselves.

And now we come to why I’ve done Kombucha and chia in the same post: that bottle in the image above (the one on the right), is Kombucha with grape juice and chia seeds (though there are a few other flavors). It’s so new that it’s still not on the producer’s website. The chia seeds cut down on the acidity of the Kombucha, but also give it a consistency just this side of pudding. It’s delicious – I just suspect that the mouthfeel is a bit too strange for a lot of people. However, if you’d prefer to try a chia drink without Kombucha, there are a number available.

WTFood: Nattō

It’s been a few weeks since my last WTFood post, so I needed something truly legendary to get me back into the swing. Enter the infamous, the dreaded, the truly stomach churning Nattō.

Nattō: Dun dun duuuun

Nattō is a traditional Japanese food, typically eaten for breakfast, made by fermenting soybeans with the bacteria Bacillus subtilis. High in protein and probiotic properties, nattō was a mainstay of feudal nutrition. Nowadays, however, the first words anyone says when asked about it are “acquired taste”. There are dozens of videos on youtube of people trying nattō to really show you why.

Like many fermented foods, nattō is strongly associated with health benefits, and one of these days I’ll write a post specifically on fermentation.

I found this nattō in a freezer at a Japanese market in Cambridge for just under $3. It included 3 separate styrofoam containers.  If found frozen (typical outside of Japan), thaw a container overnight in the fridge before eating it. Each container comes with a packet of soy sauce and mild mustard seperated from the nattō itself by a thin plastic sheet.

First impressions: Even before you open the container, you can kind of smell it. To the American nose, it smells like compost just starting to turn. As for the taste, it tastes like soybeans, just further intensified. A bit nutty, sour, maybe a hint of cheesiness. It’s kind of like a sliding scale: soybean sprouts > edamame (immature soybeans) > soynuts (toasted soybeans) > nattō. The flavor is present in all of them, just grows more intense as you mature them. That said, I’m grateful for the included soy sauce and mustard, as both work with the underlying flavor and mask some of that moldiness. It’s suggested that you throughly stir nattō (chopsticks being the best means). Doing so helps integrate your toppings, but also opens up the flavor profile. That might sound like a negative, but it really isn’t.

I can get over the smell and the taste. It’s the consistency. The slimy, slippery yet sticky, stringiness of it. Frankly, it’s a bit nauseating.

Thumb-nailed for your convenience. It looks a lot like caramel. In fact, you know how when you bite into a candy bar and the caramel strings out a bit? Well, it’s like that. But more disgusting. Like walking through cobwebs lips first. It’s really off-putting.

In researching nattō, I came across a number of different preparations. Classic methods like over rice, mixed into miso soup, topped with chopped green onions or an egg, even sprinkled with a little sugar. More modern variations include dicing the nattō and mixing it into pastas, salads – there’s even an ice cream.

I tried Nattō Toast. Spread on toast and covered with a thin layer of melted cheese (a grass-fed cheddar from New Zealand for me), the negative properties are masked, but the base flavor is still there. That said, with this method  you want to eat it pretty quickly, as the toast starts getting soggy and the nattō grows more pungent (if you can believe it) over time. As for the third container, I’m curious about how nattō will do paired with ketchup.

WTFood: Bird’s Nest Drink

I’ve kinda had this feeling that the last two (and only) WTFoods have been a little plain. So I’m reaching to the far end of my comfort zone this week with FOCO ‘Bird’s Nest Drink’.

Now, before I get into the drink itself, I want to talk about Bird’s Nest, an actual dish popular in Southern Asia, typically as a soup. It’s not actually made of what you would typically think of as a bird’s nest (sticks, pebbles, trash, etc.). Instead it formed from the hardened saliva of a particular species of Swift that lives in caves.

You read that right. Saliva.

It’s actually an amazing evolutionary adaptation permitting these birds to live on the sheer walls of the cave, completely inaccessible to any predators. Because of this, there are serious dangers associated with obtaining the nests. I seriously recommend watching this BBC segment on the subject, it’s really interesting:

So there you have it. An expensive delicacy, made from bird spit. Who said I couldn’t make this educational?!

Now, apparently some people can find a version of this drink made with real bird’s nest, but the only one I could find lists artificial. Here’s the ingredients:

To make up for it, we’ve got that final ingredient: ‘white fungus’. Though all versions of the drink apparently include this (some kind of syrup made from the fungus), I’m still pretty skeeved out by it. So much that I haven’t actually opened the can yet.

Okay, here we go.

Tastes mildly sweet. What I’ve heard seems about right: it’s a lot like cake. A light vanilla maybe? The consistency is a little syrupy, but not off-putting. The sweetness actually builds again toward the end of the flavor profile, which is interesting.

Definitely something floating in there (though I’m used to that, having had tea with boba, various forms of jelly, and even pudding). Let’s pour this out and get a picture.

Just don't say what comes to mind, okay?

So at least I’m not bent over a toilet like I thought I’d be at about this time. The little white “nest” bits are a little stuck in my throat, which isn’t pleasant, but I’m not doing this for me – I’m doing it for you!

Now to go find a palate cleanser…

WTFood: Dragon Fruit

This week’s WTFood: Pitaya, commonly known as Dragon Fruit or Strawberry Pear. The majority of people I know in the U.S. have only ever encountered this in the form of a beverage (most notably Glaceau Vitamin-Water ‘Power-C’), but I’ve found dried slices in my local Trader Joe’s, and it’s actually quite popular around the world. Native to Mexico, Central, and South America, the Pitaya is a fruit of a vine in the Hylocereus species of cactus (a favorite as it blooms large fragrant white blossoms, but only at night). It’s been cultivated as both a crop and ornamental plant in many regions, most notably Southern Asia, but also Israel, Australia, and a number of Pacific Islands.

There are a few varieties of this fruit, but the most common (and the one I found in a local Asian market) is the Red Pitaya, pictured below:

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Picking and preparing a Dragon Fruit is pretty simple (it’s actually a lot like a kiwi). Look for bright, even-colored skin. Avoid any fruit that is very blotchy or has dead, brown leaves. If you can, give the fruit a slight squeeze – it should give a little, but not be mushy. If the fruit is very firm, it’s not ripe (takes a few days).

Next step, preparation! I gave mine a rise and a slight scrubbing, just because pesticides are a real possibility (but the skin is thick enough that you don’t really have to worry about it penetrating to the fruit). Then cut the fruit length-wise, splitting it in two (pictured above) and exposing that unique seed-speckled flesh (if the flesh is red, you’ve found a Costa Rican Pitaya!).

Slide a spoon between the flesh and the skin to separate them. It’s hard to judge the curve of the fruit, so I – very gently – made a cut half way horizontally through the fruit and took each half out separately. Once finished, inspect the flesh for any pink spots and remove them (you don’t want to eat the skin).

You can do almost anything from this point. Juice is a really popular variation, and as I mentioned before, I’ve had it dried (which really concentrates the flavor). This time around, I simply cubed the flesh and served it in the hollowed skin, but given the unique appearance, Dragon Fruit could provide great contrast in a fruit salad or as a thematic element during your next role-playing session (It’s named Dragon Fruit – you had to see that coming).

So on to the important part: how does it taste?

First, just like with the preparation, the texture is similar to that of a kiwi: firm, with the seeds adding a nice crunch (themselves a good source of essential fats, but you have to bite them otherwise they won’t be digested). The flavor is subtly sweet and floral, but with a slight tannin-like finish. I served samples to two of my roommates and both enjoyed it. It’s hard to make a comparison. The closest I can come to is apple skins, but that doesn’t really do it justice. All in all, Dragon Fruit is a great seasonal find and could really puzzle any guests you serve it to!

WTFood: Santa Claus Melon

People that know me have to regularly deal with the fact that I’m an amateur foodie. I watch a ton of food programs on TV, visit gourmet grocers and small foreign cafes, and regularly attempt to cook for others (4 years running and no one has been sent to the hospital on my account!). So I may as well start a weekly segment on food I find… interesting. Because let’s face it, everyone has that moment in the supermarket where they stop and think “WTF?!”.

Hence the amalgam ‘WTFood’.

Today’s WTFood: The Santa Claus Melon.

I love melon! Maybe not as much as the Japanese (where a fresh melon is so expensive – $60-80 – they have created an entire sub-industry of melon-flavored snack foods), but it’s one of the best things about summer. Add to the fact that it’s a healthy alternative dessert (low calorie, high vitamin C, high fiber), and I’m sold!

The Santa Claus Melon, also known as the Christmas melon, is roughly the size and shape of one of those old Nerf footballs (about a foot long). As you can see, the outer skin is a mottled green, though it is supposed to yellow as the melon ripens. The flesh is a light yellow, much like a Canary melon, and can get sweeter than honeydew.  It’s apparently quite popular in Spain and Latin America and quickly gaining fans in Europe and the U.S.

Now, as you can see below, mine is still a dark green.

I bought it over a month ago.

A MONTH. It has been sitting on my kitchen counter for 5 weeks, doing everything BUT turn yellow. And the thick skin keeps you from telling ripeness by scent.

Because here’s why they call it the Christmas melon: combine it’s late harvest season (from June to October) with a long shelf life (6-8 weeks depending how you keep it), and you can basically serve it as part of your holiday meal.

So finally fed up, I cracked this open today for lunch. And while it was good, it was definitely a tad under-ripe still. So really bringing the WTF to the party, I turned it into a milkshake.

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My sister got all the talent when it comes to photography.

I was a bit worried that, between the blending and the milk, the melon flavor would be lost, but it was actually quite present. And decently refreshing.

WTFood moment: My roommate walking in and seeing the crosscut of the melon (pictured above), reminisced about the triple-breasted mutant hooker from Total Recall. Yup.

Hopefully the next one of these will be a tad more gratifying.