Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Mardi Gras

Mardi Gras in New Orleans marks the end of the carnival season.  Michigan's "Fat Tuesday" celebrations focus on paczki, which are fine, but a glorified donut can't really compete with Cajun and Creole cooking from Louisiana.

While it's impossible to replicate the French Quarter or the Carnival parades, the cooking is easier to recreate.  My recipes to celebrate Mardi Gras include: Jamabalaya, Red Beans & Rice, and Pecan Pie.

No time to cook?  You can pick up some spicy fried chicken at Popeyes (the Battle Creek store is the closest one to Kalamazoo) and some Abita beer (a tasty craft beer brewed outside New Orleans that's available at World Market, Meijers and other retailers.)



Jambalaya is a classic Louisiana dish that can be made with a huge variety of different ingredients.  Here's the version that I've made every Mardi Gras for over ten years.  It takes a fair amount of time to make this.  Some steps can be done a few days in advance.

2 whole chickens
2-3 pounds ham
3 bell peppers
4 onions
3 stalks of celery
3 cups of rice
2 cans (28 oz each) whole tomatoes
3 cups chicken stock
2 tsp cayenne pepper
1 tsp white pepper
1 tsp black pepper
2 tsp salt
2 bay leaves
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup flour

The night before (or earlier) bake the chickens and ham.  After the chicken cools, remove the meat from the bones.  Refrigerate the meat until ready to cook.  Simmer the chicken bones and skin, in enough water to cover, for a few hours to make chicken stock.  The longer it simmers the richer the stock.

Cut the peppers, onion, and celery into 1-2 inch pieces.

The only hard part of this recipe is the roux, which is critical to the jamalaya's flavor.  The problem with a Louisiana roux is that it takes the cook's full concentration for a long time and if it overcooks, it is ruined.  It's also hot and can burn you if it spills.  (This is the only stressful part of making jambalaya.)  Some groceries sell roux in jars, which is certainly easier, but I have never tried it.
The roux itself is simply flour with oil slowly cooked in a heavy skillet until the mixture browns.  I use a cup of flour and a cup of oil, which makes for a very rich, flavorful jambalaya.  The trick to success is to stir constantly over a medium to medium low burner for about 15 minutes.  This gives a medium-brown roux.  Coffee-colored roux is supposed to have a richer flavor but I've never had the patience to wait longer than a peanut-butter tone.  Some cooks prefer a milder blonde roux.  

If the burner is too hot, or if you get distracted, the roux can burn.  Specks of blackened flour will appear in the oil.  There's no way to recover from this and the burned flavor would ruin the jambalaya, so it's time start over.  So it's good to ignore the telephone and to be sure small children are under control before starting the roux.

Once the roux is done the pan remains hot even after the heat is off.  I stir in the chopped vegetables at this point to cool the roux and prevent it from burning.
Next, chop the cooked ham and chicken into chunks about the same size as the vegetables.  Brown them briefly in a heavy skillet.

Then everything goes into a big oven dish.  I use a 12" x 16" x 4" oval roasting pan that has a lid.  Add the veggies with roux, meats, canned tomatoes (with juices), uncooked rice, chicken stock, bay leaves, and spices.  Stir briefly so everything is evenly distributed.

Cook for about two hours (covered) until the rice is soft and the edges start to brown.  I usually stir it a couple of times during cooking.

This is flavorful but not particularly spicy.  I offer Tabasco or Louisiana Hot Sauce at the table for those who want hotter jambalaya.

I've experimented with a gluten-free roux, using sweet white rice flour, and it tasted fine.


Red Beans and Rice

Red Beans and Rice are another traditional Louisiana food that I make for Mardi Gras.  It's a simple dish but tasty and always popular.

2 pounds dried small red beans
2 onions
2 bay leaves
2 pounds smoked sausage

Wash the beans and add enough water to cover them in a pot.  Soak overnight.

Chop the onions and and them and the bay leaves to the pot.  Bring the beans to a boil, then lower to a simmer.

Cut the sausage into slices and brown them in batches in a heavy skillet.  Add them to the beans.

Cook everything for an hour or so, until the beans are tender.

Serve over hot white rice.

If you leave out the sausage, you will want to add salt.

Pecan Pie

There are many recipes for pecan pies and I'm sure they are all tasty.  I experimented with a few and settled on this filling over a decade ago.

3 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 cup Karo corn syrup
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 tsp salt
3 TBS melted butter
2 cups pecans

Mix eggs.  Add sugar, corn syrup, vanilla, and salt, stir until blended.  Add pecans and melted butter.  Pour into a prepared 9" crust and bake 45 minutes in a 375° oven until filling sets and top is browned.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Food & Global poverty

Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo published an interesting excerpt from their research titled, "More Than 1 Billion People Are Hungry in the World: But what if the experts are wrong?" in the May/June 2011 issue of Foreign Policy.

"Our research on this question has taken us to rural villages and teeming urban slums around the world, collecting data and speaking with poor people about what they eat and what else they buy, from Morocco to Kenya, Indonesia to India. We've also tapped into a wealth of insights from our academic colleagues. What we've found is that the story of hunger, and of poverty more broadly, is far more complex than any one statistic or grand theory; it is a world where those without enough to eat may save up to buy a TV instead, where more money doesn't necessarily translate into more food, and where making rice cheaper can sometimes even lead people to buy less rice.

"But unfortunately, this is not always the world as the experts view it. All too many of them still promote sweeping, ideological solutions to problems that defy one-size-fits-all answers, arguing over foreign aid, for example, while the facts on the ground bear little resemblance to the fierce policy battles they wage."

Read the whole article

or get their book Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty from Amazon or other booksellers.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Flavor Comes Last

Have you ever had a tomato that looked perfect but tasted like nothing? You wouldn't be alone: 217,000 webpages complain about tasteless tomatoes and another 66,000 write on flavorless tomatoes. In an era of consumer sovereignty, this seems a little odd. Why do we spend $4 billion [USDA] on tomatoes if we don't like their flavor?

Maybe it's all in our minds? Reggie Brown of the Florida Tomato Committee says, "Everybody has an emotional attachment with a tomato they've grown and the memory of that taste," Brown says. "If you hold me to the standard of the tomato that you're emotionally attached to, I'll never meet that standard. You can't beat a memory." [USA Today] Mr. Brown puts a clever spin on the question, but I'd bet most people could identify a good tomato in a blind taste test.

We usually don't buy produce via a blind tasting. Instead, we use appearance to judge quality. Is the tomato rotten? Is it soft and wrinkled? How's the color? Are there bad spots? Was it smashed in shipping? If it's bad, we don't buy.

Producers respond by providing us with tomatoes that are unblemished, shiny, round, and uniformly red. Flavor? Flavor literally comes last. It isn't observable until after we buy and then it's too late. The firms' incentives are to produce perfect-looking tomatoes that ship well.

Growers typically harvest tomatoes while they are green and hard, since green tomatoes are more durable than tender vine-ripened fruit. Ethylene gas can turn green tomatoes red, but their taste and texture usually doesn't match a ripe tomato. The result: hundreds of thousands of unsatisfied customers.

Could a firm produce good-tasting tomatoes and profit from this market failure? Maybe. There's certainly a business opportunity there. But they can only be successful if consumers are able to identify the tasty tomatoes. So the question becomes, how can growers signal that they have a better tomato?

Branding is common way to differentiate consumer products, but it's generally difficult to brand vegetables in a meaningful way. One big Florida producer came up with an interesting solution-- grow better tasting tomatoes that look different from the usual tomato. Ordinary commercial tomatoes look perfect, so in order to differentiate, they market the UglyRipe tomato. UglyRipe is a beefsteak tomato with lumps and bumps that visually distinguish it from the typical supermarket tomato. The Florida Tomato Committee (a Depression-era institution that controls the winter tomato market) suppressed the UglyRipe for several years until a 2007 USDA ruling allowed it to be shipped out of state. [CBS]

It's not really the ugliness that makes this tomato tastier. The same tomato, picked hard green, would be flavorless. Ripe is the key in UglyRipe. The lumpiness is simply a marker for the investment in flavor quality that this producer made. They aren't alone. Selling tomatoes on the vine is another visually distinctive method of identifying an invisible attribute. The vine itself doesn't contribute to the flavor.

It's late summer in the southern hemisphere, so I'm able to get ripe local tomatoes at the Farmers' markets in Uruguay, but next year when I'm back in Kalamazoo I'll be looking for branded tomatoes. If you get a chance to try them sooner, let me know.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Nutmeg for New York

You probably know the story of Peter Miniut buying Manhattan in 1626 for $24 worth of beads and you may be familiar with the compound interest calculation that shows $24, invested for nearly four hundred years, grows enough to buy back the entire island at current real-estate prices, but what's less well-known is why the Dutch gave Manhattan to the British.

The answer, surprisingly, is nutmeg.

In 1667, the Dutch traded Manhattan for the island of Run, described by David Quammen as "the world’s most inconspicuous yet eloquent symbol of changing commodity values and myopic diplomacy." Run, a British colonial foothold in the Spice Islands, provided a competitive alternative to the Dutch monopoly on nutmeg.

Quammen explains:

Early spice cargoes were sold in Amsterdam at as much as 32,000 percent markup, and so the Dutch burghers who had financed those expeditions moved quickly to corner the trade. To eliminate competition among themselves, they united in 1602 as the Dutch East India Company. To eliminate international competition, they began nudging aside the Portuguese, who had reached the Moluccas first; the Spanish, who had gained a regional foothold in the Philippines ; and the British, who had established an East India Company of their own. The Dutch focused on the Bandas, where the other colonial powers had no prior commanding presence, and in 1611 they built a fort on the slope above Bandaneira. Meanwhile the British had established a more modest trading post on Run, just a few miles eastward. The British, if Muller’s book can be trusted, offered better prices for nutmeg than the Dutch. And the Dutch company made itself still more unpopular with the Bandanese people by demanding a monopoly concession. This led to rebellion, murder, reprisal, and war—between the Dutch and the Bandanese, between the Dutch and the British. At one early stage, the Dutch tortured and beheaded eighteen (or eight, depending on which source you believe) British subjects for conspiring to subvert Dutch colonial authority. That caused a stink back in England, but the Bandanese fared even worse.
The Dutch company officials were truculent, firm, and purblind, as imperialists of all flags usually are. Beginning in 1621, under a fierce governor-general named Jan Pieterszoon Coen, they began killing off the Bandanese population. Another measure was equally barbaric, though less bloody: They also killed nutmeg trees. They did their best to extirpate M. fragrans from most of its range—everywhere but on those few islands where Dutch hegemony was absolute, namely Ambon and the larger Bandas.
For almost two centuries, people everywhere bought nutmeg from the Dutch East India Company or not at all. And when the supply threatened to sate the demand, the company willfully destroyed tons of its own nutmeg in order to reinflate prices.

That seems like a lot of effort to control something we sprinkle on eggnog, but in that era spices were world-changing. Venice flourished from its Mediterranean trade in spices. Portugal and Spain, followed by Holland and England, became maritime adventurers to break Venetian control of international trade. Columbus wasn't an explorer in the modern sense; he accidently discovered the Americas as part of a commercial gambit in the spice trade.

Spices financed the Age of Discovery but the spice trade's global importance pre-dates Columbus and Magellan by centuries. "The global aspect of the dealer’s trade is nothing new. As far back as 2600BC, there are records of the Egyptians feeding spices obtained from Asia to labourers building the great pyramid of Cheops, to give them strength. Archeological evidence suggests that cloves were quite popular in Syria not long after, despite the fact that, like nutmeg and mace, they came only from the spice islands of what is now Indonesia. ... Europe imported them before Rome was founded." [The Economist]

Today, Run is a quiet tropical isle but Indonesia is still the world's largest nutmeg producer, with Grenada, in Columbus's "West Indies," the other major producer. The desire for monopoly continues. Producers in these two countries formed an international cartel in the 1980s to limit nutmeg output and therefore boost prices. Cartels generally face an internal incentive problem: high prices are very profitable, encouraging producers to sell larger quantities. That, of course, leads to falling prices. The nutmeg cartel collapsed in the 1990s because of this dynamic.

International trade in spices continues, but competition between producing countries keeps prices affordable. It's hard to imagine an empire built on the kitchen spice rack.


"The Spice Trade, A Taste of Adventure" from The Economist, reprinted in the encyclopedia of spices.
"The Narcotic of Empire: Nutmeg Economics and the Bargain of Breda", The Boilerplate Rhino: Nature in the Eye of the Beholder (based on his earlier article in Outside Magazine)

Nutmeg and mace - world overview
FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations)FO: MISC/94/7 Working Paper

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Cross-border Coke

If you read my post on Coke you might be interested in this San Diego Union-Tribune story on
Is Mexican Coke the real thing?

Carvallo says his store goes through 10 to 15 cases of Mexican Coke a week – his entire stock – while he's barely able to push five cases of the domestic version.

"Sometimes I have it left over," he said of the domestic Coke he orders. "Sometimes a case, case and a half. So it's a lot of difference."

Taste is the main reason why his discriminating shoppers buy Mexican Coke – they say the cane sugar sweetener used in Mexican Coke has a sweeter, cleaner flavor than the high-fructose corn syrup in the American version. Many are willing to pay $1.10 per 12-ounce bottle for the imports, even with cans of American Coke sitting nearby for 49 cents each.

With a niche market for Mexican Coke taking root in the United States, The Coca-Cola Co. and its bottlers are quietly looking to block its passage across the border.

update:Here's a post by Grant McCracken on Mexican COke

Monday, January 29, 2007

Sweet South American Coke

"The Coke tastes better here," said my stepson, while he was visiting us in Uruguay. Was this just a side-effect of being on vacation? Maybe... but I doubt it. The Coke he was drinking really was different from the Coke he usually drinks in the U.S. I'm not referring to the infamous "New Coke,"or the original Coca Cola patent medicine formula with cocaine, but in South America, Coke is still made with real sugar. The Coke in the US tastes different because it's made with corn sweeteners. Why can't the world's richest country buy the world's best-tasting Coke?

The answer, it turns out, has to do with a series of unintended consequences. Sugar policy in the US was designed to increase income for farmers by increasing the price of sugar. The US government set quotas on the amount of sugar that could be imported from other countries. Restricting the supply of imported sugar boosted its price, and achieved the goal of higher incomes for US sugar producers, at least temporarily.

Sugar cane is a tropical plant and by blocking imports from the Caribbean, Central America, and South America, this policy gave most of the U.S. market to cane plantations in Florida, Louisiana, and Hawaii. But other US farmers saw an opportunity. The high price of sugar made it profitable to produce sugar from beets. States like Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Michigan became major sugar producers. Beets have surpassed cane; 54% of US production now comes from sugar beets [USDA].

Even with expanded domestic production, sugar prices in the US are still much higher than the free-market price. U.S. consumers pay over twice the world price. In total, sugar policy costs the American public over $1 billion annually. And it's not just households. Companies are also major purchasers of sugar and while high prices may help farmers, they hurt business buyers. Lifesaver candies used to be made in Holland, Michigan (about an hour from Kalamazoo) but because of the high price of sugar in the US, the factory closed and moved to Canada.

This brings us back to Coca Cola. For generations, Coke was sweetened with cane sugar, but eventually high US sugar prices forced the company to consider substitutes. Since sugar-- either from cane or from beets-- was so expensive, Coke, and other soft drink manufacturers, switched to a cheaper sweetener, corn syrup, in the 1980s. US production of high fructose corn syrup has grown by over 400% since that time [USDA].

In the new millennium, some consumers have doubts about drinking high fructose corn syrup in their soft drinks. Jones Soda, and other small bottlers, are switching their recipes to use only sugar.

Is Coke with sugar better? You can find out for yourself. Each year, Coca-Cola produces a limited amount of Coke that is kosher for Passover that doesn't use corn sweetener. Look for Coke bottle with yellow caps and marked "KP" in early Spring

Friday, January 26, 2007


This blog sits at the intersection of food and economics.