smart science: pasta edition

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Given the past post, and given my inability to stop staring at that twisty bowl of fettuccine… we’re gonna chat about pasta.

We’re gonna chat about the best way to make pasta, to achieve that perfect al dente bite. If you’re into really overcooking your pasta until it’s mushy and sad… take this to heart. I promise you it’s better.

Let’s break it down:

  1. Keep the water at a rolling boil – which means waiting until the pasta reaches a rolling boil until you put your pasta in. A rolling boil is when the whole surface is rapidly bubbling and wild-like.
  2. If you’ve been not adding salt to your pasta water… add it now. Making the water taste like the sea is a good level, but generally add in a bit more than you think you should.
  3. If you’ve been adding oil… stop. There’s no use for it. It’ll all pour off when you dump the water out. Oil and water just don’t mix.
  4. PASTA SAUCE IS LIQUID GOLD. Take this to heart, and scoop out some just before you drain the pasta. If you toss a bit of this water into your pasta as you’re tossing it with the sauce it’ll add flavor, texture, and help your sauce stick to the pasta. No one wants a pile of pasta sitting on a soup of sauce. You don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.
  5. Don’t rinse your pasta after draining it. We need that starch on the pasta so the sauce will stick.

All of these ideas are backed up by scientists who work to make sure pasta tastes the best it could… what a job, right?

Here’s some more information:

have a beautiful sunday, friends!

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creamed spinach and sausage pasta

To start, I was not planning on writing a blog post about this meal. In fact, I only took a picture because someone suggested it, and I snapped a quick one on my phone without looking back – so forgive the quality.

Then I tasted it, and you bet your ass I looked back.

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This pasta is creamy and comforting, with bites of peppered ricotta and creamy spinach. For those people (like myself) who sometimes have a moment of hesitation when foods start with the word “creamed”… worry no longer. Embrace it. I embraced two whole bowls of it.

The balance between the creamy spinach, the salty sausage, and the soft ricotta is bomb. Add in toasty pine nuts and a grate of nutmeg? Sheer brilliance. Also, as I was writing this up, I realized that it’s a remarkably easy recipe to remember – lots of 1 pound weights… it’s like the pound cake version of pasta.

creamed spinach and sausage pasta
recipe from joy the baker

1 pound fettuccine
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 pound sweet Italian sausage
1/2 cup pine nuts
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 pound spinach
1 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper
Freshly ground nutmeg
Parmesan

how-to: 

Place ricotta in a large bowl, and season with salt and pepper.

In a medium-large skillet over medium heat, warm olive oil. Add sausage and cook, breaking up, until browned and crispy looking. Drain the pan, and wipe clean with a paper towel. Toast the pine nuts over medium heat, being extremely careful not to let them burn. Take off heat and place in a small bowl.

At this point, heat up some water for the pasta in a large pot, and add a generous pinch of salt. Cook fettuccine until done, and drain, reserving 1/2 cup of pasta water. While pasta is cooking, cook garlic in the same skillet until golden around the edges. Season with salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Add spinach and cook until wilted (depending on the size of your pan you might need to add in batches, just keep adding a bit more). Add the cream, and bring to a simmer. Simmer for 2 minutes, or until thickened a bit.

Add pasta to the cream sauce, and toss to combine. Add sausage. Then, transfer pasta to the bowl with the seasoned ricotta and toss until slightly combined, but leave some big chunks of ricotta. Top with pine nuts and parmesan and enjoy.

things i’m thinking about

Hey guys! Here’s some beautiful flowers from Palermo, and some thoughts of mine this week.

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As always, it’s been awhile. I didn’t have time this week to whip up a recipe post – and my brain is so stuffed full of science I thought I wouldn’t bore you with whatever wisps happen to sneak out. They’re probably about plants, definitely about water, and possibly about fossils. Just good ole incoherent ramblings.

Instead, here’s some ideas for dinner, things I’ve been thinking about, and a technique I’m becoming obsessed with (hint it’s the one with eggs):

  • Here’s how to make a french omelette, aka my current obsession. I can’t even play it cool and dramatically move it to the end of the list, because all I want to do is talk about it.
    I like mixing herbs and aromatics into the eggs, and then sprinkling cheese on right before I roll it on up. My dinner omelette last night was scallions and basil in the eggs, with sharp cheddar cheese. Mmm so soothing for hearts and minds and so quick for dinner.
  • I always listen to Nicholas Kristof in the wake of horrible events. He always sets up a nice clear path: and after the Vegas shooting, this opinion piece is no exception. Let’s take some steps in the right direction, for once.
  • Helping feed Puerto Rico while eating food? Sounds pretty good to me. Can’t make it to a participating restaurant? Just donate directly to the World Central Kitchen.
  • Now that it’s getting chilly, let’s eat these tahini chocolate chip cookies warm out of the oven. Have a glass of wine with it, and impress your friends with your knowledge of how it came to taste that way. Greatest fall party trick ever.

stay sane, everybody. xo.

your own blt

I know, I know, you know how to make a BLT.

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You know to toast up some good white bread and to slather with mayo. You know to pop on some crisp lettuce, and to layer with thick cut tomatoes. You know to go heavy on the bacon. You know it’s best eaten immediately. You don’t need me.

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Before I slink out of sight to wallow in my obsolete existence, let me pass on two things to you – the tip of a century and also variations. I like to think that in our lives where recipes tell you exactly how much of everything to put in, and exactly how long to bake it and exactly what it should look like… that we’re actually forgetting how to cook. We don’t learn to look in the fridge and make a meal – and not to be worried if it doesn’t look like it could get lots of likes on Instagram. All food isn’t beautiful. And all recipes could use a twist – and I’ll give you a few of my ideas but I know you’re also full of them.

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As far as a tip goes – bake your bacon! I’ve made many a mess with bacon on the stovetop, and ruined many a shirt. If you’re only making bacon for one, I’d still use the method that’s slowly whittling my wardrobe, but if you’re making BLTs for a crowd (which you should), this is the way to go. Simply heat the oven to 400°F, line a pan with foil and plop your bacon on, and bake for 15-20-more or less minutes until the bacon is the level of crispy you desire. Easy cleanup – thank god, and easy BLT eating. Also – butter lettuce was almost the star of the show here, and that’s really saying something.

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As far as twists, here’s what I got for you:

BELT it: Add an egg! Perhaps fried with a runny yolk… perhaps hard-boiled and sliced.
Chz it: I also don’t need to tell you to do this. Sharp cheddar is usually my go-to, but I’m not saying no to some gouda. Or Gruyere. Or Parm. Actually I’m not saying no to any cheese, ever.
Heat it up: Double meaning: if you chz it, maybe also panini it? BLT grilled cheese… yes. I’m saying yes. Second possibility, stir some sriracha into your mayo before you slather it on.

Here’s how to bake your bacon, in step form, for those of us that aren’t that great at following paragraph instructions (me):

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F
  2. Line a baking sheet with foil, and place bacon in a single layer.
  3. Bake for 15-20 minutes, depending on how crispy you’d like your bacon to be!

Now – go forth and prosper. I know you will.

smart science: wine edition

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Wine has always been something that varies from person to person. My mom and I like red, my roommate likes white, and my sister adores a solid (or not so solid) prosecco or champagne. After spending a semester in Italy, I was drawn to the idea that there are guidelines and rules for producing certain kinds of wine. A lot of these rules stem around where specific varieties of grapes can be grown, and whether you can call a wine a specific name. For example – you can’t make real Chianti outside of the Chianti region, in Tuscany. Complicated stuff. It got me to thinking… I wonder how these regions, these climates, and these grape varieties all interact with each other? There has to be a reason – and onto the science we go!

  1. There are a couple types of climate that matter here: macroclimate, mesoclimate and microclimate. Macroclimate is the easiest – essentially just the average temperature of a place – and unsurprisingly, some grapevines are more attuned to growing in one temperature than another. Think how cacti are happier in Arizona, and how maple trees are happier up north! Same idea. Mesoclimate is a bit zoomed in – differences within a specific region – like a hill, or a riverbed. This contributes to subtle taste differences between wines grown in the same region. Finally, microclimate is studying the individual vine. This can include how much sun it gets compared to its neighbor, proximity to water, levels of wind and airflow. These can all change how good a grape is from a specific plant.
  2. Soil matters too! Just like any plant, the type of soil you grow it in will affect your final outcome. Most good wines are grown in either clay or sandy soil. Clay soil is known for producing very rich wines (think – wines from Tuscany), while sandy soil is known for producing highly aromatic wines (think – Riesling).
  3. You may have heard the word “terroir” used to describe wine. Essentially, terroir is the entire natural environment of the wine – and then how that natural environment influences the taste. Winemakers from regions where great wine has been produced for many years take this really seriously – and rightfully so.
  4. In light of all these things it takes to make a great wine, it’s no wonder that really good wine can be quite expensive. Wine forgery has actually been around almost as long as wine (classic human innovation, eh), and still constitutes a pretty big issue today. There’s a couple different ways that people forge wine – some blend wine together to try and form a final product, some simply fake the bottle, and some create a bottle to look like a fancy wine. Interestingly enough though, people tend to enjoy wine regardless of the quality if you tell them it’s more expensive. Seriously – neuroscience and brain mapping has shown heightened activity in pleasure centers. Wild, right?

To beat the wine snobs at their own game, check out the links below to learn some timely fun facts you can insert into conversation! Drink some wine while you’re at it, and I’ll be back eventually with more smart science posts on wine.

  • A general overview on everything we’ve been talking about, with a bit more detail.
  • Want to know more about wine forgery? Read this article, and then watch the documentary Sour Grapes.
  • A whirlwind five things to know about the science of wine from the World Science Festival, some of which we’ll chat about later. It’s like homework! For wine!

roasted peaches with honeyed cream and almond brittle

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Whoa, what a mouthful this recipe is. You need all the information you can get though – information is power, and power is these roasty toasty peaches. I’m also not ashamed to say that I was eating this whipped cream out of the bowl, with a spoon. It’s that time of year. I’m back at school, and trying to get in the swing of things – so here’s the late posts. Posts might be late these days, but I like to think we’ll all survive.

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This is a recipe for when you forget that you want to make dessert, or when you feel as though you’d like some fresh fruit involved. You can leave out the almond brittle, switch up the cream, or just guzzle the roasted peaches straight – I won’t tell.

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This recipe is also one where the exact amounts don’t matter so much. Toss your peaches with a bit of cinnamon, rub the pan with a bit of butter. For the cream, one glug of honey and a pinch of salt should do it. Dump some sugar in a saucepan, melt it down, and toss with some sliced or slivered almonds. Boom – brittle. I think that these are the best types of recipes – the ones that give you the flexibility to make the food you want. Whether that be significantly sweeter roasted peaches, no-salt whipped cream, or peanut brittle instead of the lowly almond. It’s your pick. Congratulations, this just might be the one thing in your entire life that is completely under control. Relish that.

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roasted peaches with honeyed cream and almond brittle

ripe peaches
cinnamon
brown sugar
unsalted butter

1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup sliced or slivered almonds

1/2 cup heavy cream
1 glug of honey
Pinch of sea salt

how-to:

Preheat oven to 425F. Rub the inside of an 8×8 pan with the unsalted butter. Feel free to use a larger pan if you’re using more peaches! Halve the peaches, pick out the pits, and cut them into quarters. Toss with a couple of pinches of cinnamon and a spoonful of brown sugar. Place in pan, and roast until they’re your desired level of roastiness – you can go really far, or keep them somewhat firm.

While they’re roasting, place parchment on a sheet pan and spray with nonstick spray. Place the sugar in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Stir around with a spatula every once in a while, until melted. It might look weird at various stages up until this point. Stop stirring once melted, and bring to a deep amber color. Stir in the almonds, and pour out onto prepared pan. Smash the brittle into a flat shape – relatively thin. Let cool completely, and break into shards of desired size.

Lastly, place the cream, honey and salt in a large mixing bowl and whisk until soft peaks.
Place roasted peaches in small ramekins or bowls and top with the cream and brittle. Enjoy warm and melty.

smart science: sweetener edition

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If you’ve ever been to a coffee shop, you’ve seen the brightly colored packets of artificial sweeteners kicking around on the table. You’ve probably also seen drinks proclaiming the health benefits of stevia, or a smoothie sweetened only with agave. Today, we’re gonna chat about these guys. Not only what they’re made out of, but whether or not the health/diet/superpower claims are true. Let’s start with Splenda.

  • Splenda is made out of sucralose, which is about 600 times sweeter than normal table sugar. It also contains very few calories – hence its popularity on the diet circuit. Since it’s approval by the FDA in the 90’s, sucrolose, in the form of Splenda, has become extremely popular. Additionally, it was thought to be biologically inert – meaning that it had no actual, chemical effect on the human body. Recently, an article published in the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health has shown that sucralose does have an effect on the mechanisms involving glucose and insulin – both hot button topics due to their involvement in diabetes. This study did not definitively prove that sucralose contributes to Type II diabetes, but it merits further study. To add insult to injury, another recent study in the International Journal of Occupational and Environmental heath suggests that, in mice, sucralose might contribute to some malignant cancers. Strike two.
  • In this vein, many of the artificial sweeteners like Splenda (aspartame, for one) have been embroiled in far more dangerous controversy. Some sides say it’s completely safe, some don’t. All sides merit further study. Aspartame, (name brand: Nutrasweet, Equal), was discovered in the 60’s by a man attempting to make an anti-ulcer drug. Displaying poor scientific practice, he licked his finger reaching for a piece of paper, and discovered that whatever he was making was extremely sweet – and aspartame was born. Before aspartame, other low-calorie sweeteners all had significant health concerns. So, when aspartame hit the market, it seemed like the best option for a low calorie sweetener. Its scientific significance was broad, in that it momentarily filled a hole in the low-calorie sweetener market, and also provided a new structure for sweet compounds. But – there is serious conflicting evidence that aspartame contributes to serious health issues, including insomnia, headaches, neurobehavioral difficulties, and seizures. Additionally, mice and rat studies have shown an increase in malignant tumors after long-term exposure to small amounts of aspartame. Animal studies are significantly different than human studies, so this does not by any means indicate that aspartame causes cancer in humans. As always in science, more research is needed.
  • Moving onto agave. Agave syrup is made from the agave plant, which is the same plant used to make tequila! It’s long been marketed as the healthy alternative to any other sweeteners, whether that be honey, sugar, or artificial sweeteners like sucralose and aspartame. In theory, agave syrup should contain a lot of inulin – a fiber-rich, sweet compound. But – agave you buy in stores is highly processed, and most of that inulin is broken down into fructose. Fructose is found in all sugars, in varying amounts – and the higher the amount, the more unhealthy for you it is. Think…. high-fructose corn syrup! We all know that’s bad. Now, when agave gets processed, it is equally as dense in fructose as HCFS, if not more! Essentially, it’s genius marketing, since ingesting high levels of fructose actually interfere with digestion, among other processes. Agave isn’t healthy – despite what people on Instagram might think.

Essentially, when looking at any version of sugar, whether that be normal white sugar, artificial sweeteners, or agave, limiting the amount you eat and drink is definitely a good move. Eating diets high in sugar contribute to a bunch of health problems, not just limited to things like diabetes or heart disease. Additionally, if you eat a diet high in artificial sweeteners, your body and brain might forget what a normal sweetness level in foods is, leading you to consume even higher levels of these sweeteners. Bummer – since we should all be able to remember the natural sweetness of a ripe strawberry!

For tons more information, check out the links below!

  • For more information on the affect of Splenda on insulin levels, check out the Huff Post article here.
  • Cancer experts tend to think that aspartame is safe to use, but they also like to provide all the information. Check out this detailed factsheet here.
  • Lots of general information here and here from Harvard about artificial sweeteners, their brand name counterparts, and some crazy facts about how much sweeter than normal sugar they are!
  • A doctor has some harsh words about agave in the HuffPost…. all rooted in science!