Lab: Lean Protein

For many Chinese families, having seafood, especially fish,  is a symbol of prosperity and abundance, so it’s often seen on dinner tables. Well, it’s almost always on my family’s table, at least, but less so with my husband and kids who are not fish fans. The down side to always having a seafood ambassador on the dinner table for my entire life: it’s not as easy to maintain a low-meat diet when you’re the one who has to pay for it! My dad grew up in the seaport city of Shanghai and passed his love of seafood to me. Whenever the opportunity presents itself, a member of the oceanic community goes right on my plate. The only seafood I deeply dislike are sea snot oysters (shudder). Otherwise, bring on the conch, clams, crabs, scallops, periwinkles, fish, and lobster. As Michael Jackson so sagely put it, “Don’t stop until you get enough!”

For this lab, I chose to make fish tacos using the haddock that was already in my freezer. Unfortunately, I’d forgotten to take it out of the freezer the day I planned to make these tacos, so I cooked them sous vide (the fancy French phrase for cooking “under vacuum” which is in turn fancy phrasing for cooking food in a vacuum-sealed bag in a circulating water bath). I put together the fish marinade: lime juice (I had to use lemon juice as I was out of lime), chili powder, cumin, and cayenne, then poured it into the bag containing about three ounces of haddock. I figured it would marinate as it cooked in the bag. As an aside, I do this with meat I want to marinate but don’t plan to cook the same day; basically, I make whatever marinade appeals to me, then pour it into a big freezer bag over the meat and then stick into the freezer. As the water molecules freeze within the meat, it expands. The marinade fills in those newly formed micro-tears, flavoring and tenderizing (depending on what’s in your marinade, of course) the meat as it thaws. It saves time later when you’re in a rush and just want to throw something into the slow cooker before you leave for work or don’t have time to thaw and marinate. 

It wasn’t until my immersion circulator (that’s the doodad that cooks things sous vide) indicated that the cook cycle was done that I realized I’d fat fingered the temperature: it was supposed to cook to 145F and I’d entered 155F. Whoops. Once out of its bath, I  seared it on a hot carbon steel pan lightly coated with grapeseed oil because proteins cooked sous vide can taste unpleasantly wet.

While the fish cooked in its water bath, I turned my attention to the accompanying purple cabbage slaw because you just can’t have fish tacos without some sort of slaw: mayonnaise (I used the homemade mayo from Lab 7: Eggs and Egg Foams), lime juice, cilantro, honey, corn kernels, and shredded purple cabbage. The recipe also called for fresh jalapeno which I didn’t have so I omitted that. The slaw went into the fridge for about an hour while the fish overcooked. In the meantime, I wrapped two corn tortillas in foil and heated them in the toaster oven. I was really surprised by how quickly this came together once the fish was done and just how good it tasted. I was even more surprised not only by my picky husband’s willingness to try it (fish tacos are full of things he hates) but his approval. Between you and me, I still think he was just being polite. I’d make this again for a weeknight dinner for myself!

Appearance: bright, colorful, textured, appealing

Aroma: fresh, herbal, lime, faintly grassy, corn

Flavor: light, fresh, citrusy, savory, zesty, peppery, the fish was mild-flavored with just a little briny-sweetness, and lightly creamy and loamy from the avocado

Texture: Creamy, crunchy, flaky

Fish taco and red cabbage slaw recipe

Lab 8: Fruits and Vegetables, Part I

For the fruits and veggies lab, the entire class had to choose from a selection of experiments involving either enzymatic browning (the process that turns apples and bananas brown) or the effects of pH on vegetable colors. I chose the latter, mostly because I happened to have purple cabbage left over from the seafood and fish lab (that’s a future lab that I’ll be posting).

This experiment reminded me of a story I’d read as a teenager about a woman who had a back yard with several hyrangea bushes. Every year, her hydrangeas bloomed a pretty pink. One year, the flowers on one plant turned blue and for years afterward, that was the only blue-flowering hydrangea in a row of pinks. One day she decided to move her hydrangeas and when she dug up the blue one, she discovered a gun rusting away underneath. The iron in that gun had leached into the soil and lowered the soil’s pH level to become acidic. At the time, the only lesson I took from this story was to never bury a gun in the garden.

I essentially needed to do two tests, one using a base and the other an acid. As I mentioned above, I happened to have shredded purple cabbage. If  you didn’t know, purple cabbage is high in anthocyanin, which is the group of flavonoids (plant chemicals) responsible for the bright colors in fruits and vegetables. I learned about anthocyanins in this class!

First I set up the rubric: 1 cup of water, 1 tablespoon each of baking soda (the base) and lemon juice for the acid. I brought the water to a boil, added the cabbage, and then stirred in the baking soda. 

Have you ever seen The Wizard of Oz? The cabbage and water turned Wicked Witch of the West green. By the end of it, the cabbage looked like a mess of cooked kale. It happened within a minute. I repeated the steps, only with a tablespoon of lemon juice in place of the baking powder. As with the baking soda, it didn’t take long at all for the water to turn red in the acidulated water. Maybe I’m just easily amused but I thought it was pretty cool.

Lab 7: Eggs and Egg Foams

My earliest memory of the humble egg is also linked with my earliest memory of my maternal grandfather. When I was about three years old, my parents went overseas on an extended visit with family. I was left with Grandma and Grandpa who were still young enough to chase after their somewhat… rambunctious grandchild. Grandpa was an early riser who was up at dawn every day, and so was I.

One morning, as the sky started to lighten while I sat at the kitchen table nattering away at him in that charmingly tiresome manner that only three year-olds have, Grandpa handed me a warm egg and showed me how to crack it at the top before dipping a spoon into its tender soft-cooked center. It was the best tasting thing I’d ever had and I quietly ate that egg (and a second one) while Grandpa talked to me about grandpa things. The taste of a good runny yolk always brings me closer to Grandpa and that private moment with the sunrise. Because of this, nearly everything made with eggs is appealing to me. 

For this lab, I chose to make mayonnaise using a recipe in our lab book that was adapted from Delishably because, well, I like mayo. Mayonnaise is made by emulsifying, or mixing together two ingredients that normally don’t combine well to form a stable mixture, like fat and water. I used my food processor for this but you could also use a blender or immersion blender, or if you need an extreme arm workout, a balloon whisk. The recipe calls for Dijon mustard (I only had brown mustard), apple cider vinegar, vegetable oil, and pasteurized egg yolks. 

Homemade Mayonnaise

Probably should have used white pepper for this

Appearance: the grapeseed oil I use is yellow-green so the resulting mayonnaise was also a sort of pale chartreuse; creamy; thick; opaque

Smell: slightly tangy, eggy
Taste: slightly vinegary, rich, vaguely reminiscent of Miracle Whip
Texture: creamy, dense, thick

Homemade Mayonnaise (adapted from Delishably)

2 large eggs
1 tsp cider vinegar
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
1 tsp Dijon mustard
1 1/4 cups olive oil (NOT extra virgin) or sunflower oil

Pasteurize the eggs: Remove eggs from the refrigerator and let it come to room temperature, about 20 minutes. Place eggs into a pot and fill with enough cold water to completely submerge the eggs. Place a thermometer in the pot and set the heat to medium. For an accurate read, the thermometer should not touche the pan. When the thermometer reaches 100*F, hold it so it’s just touching the water. At 138*F, reduce heat to low. At 140*F, set your timer for four minutes. and maintain the 140*F for four minutes. Remove eggs from warm water and let it cool in an ice bath for about 10 minutes. 

Separate the yolk from the white and place them into the work bowl of a food processor with the vinegar, lemon juice, and mustard. Blend until the mixture is very thick and creamy.

With the motor running, slowly trickle the oil in a steady stream. If at any time it appears that oil is not being incorporated (this is called “breaking”), stop adding oil and blend until smooth, then continue slowly adding the oil.

Add salt and pepper to taste and mix again for a second.

Transfer to a jar, cover, and chill for up to three days.

It’s been a minute

I keep popping in and out of here like a demented hummingbird. I got a new job at a large university that keeps me pretty busy, but by the time I get home after staring at two computer monitors (I actually need a third monitor, wtf?), the last thing I want to do is sit in front of a computer some more when I get home.

And then I decided to go back to school for my bachelor’s degree. I’d already earned my AA some years before I made this decision and thought, ‘what the hell, I made dean’s list three times and had a high gpa at community college, let’s see if I can get my BA before I turn 90!’

Which brings me to the present. You see, I enrolled in a food sciences course this spring semester and was excited to be taking a dietetics and nutrition class, which was going to be my major. Except 95% of the dietetics degree program is taught during the day and I work 9-5 so no degree in dietetics for me. SEE WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU FAFF AROUND IN SCHOOL?? Anyway, I thoroughly enjoyed my class and especially my lab group who eventually started calling me Ma because, well, I’m a mom and apparently I have serious Resting Mom Face. With every lab that passed, we developed an excellent working groove and I felt like a proud mama as I watched the three of them grow in enthusiasm, skills, and curiosity. And they’re hilarious people.

And then COVID19 took that away, that bitch. Campus closed, all classes went online and our instructor had to redo her entire lab plan. And this is where I fell apart. I love working from home but I’m not as well suited to fully online learning; part of the lab experience for me is the interaction with my classmates and professors, and of course, the hands-on learning.

So this is the driving force behind restarting this blog: Professor A very kindly agreed to accept my missed work and part of it includes blog posts about my labs. And so here I am. Welcome to my virtual classroom!