Sunday, June 30, 2013

Blue Corn Tortillas: an Expensive Experiment

We were worried we wouldn't make it to Wellington last weekend, as wild weather forced Wellington airport to close temporarily. Fortunately, things were pretty much back to normal before we were scheduled to fly, although it was busier at the airport than expected. As usual, we stay at a serviced apartment diagonally across from road from the treasure trove known as Moore Wilson's. This time, a packet of organic blue masa caught my eye, and came back to Auckland with us along with a variety of raw milk cheeses, Mussel Inn feijoa cider, and a container of malt extract. (Oh yeah... we also bought all the duck liver mousse, made by brilliant little French restaurant Le Canard, that they had on hand.)

The ingredients listed for the blue masa was "organic blue corn, trace of lime". It turns out this did not mean the type of lime that looks somewhat like a green lemon, but rather referred to slaked lime, or an alkaline solution of calcium hydroxide. Upon further research, I discovered that the process of preparing corn in limewater is called nixtamalisation, and ancient civilisations have been doing this as long ago as 1200-1500 BC! This process not only improved the flavour and colour of the corn, but provided niacin, which unprocessed maize is deficient in. European settlers did not adopt the same process, leading to poor people in the southern US developing pellagra in the early 20th century.

To be honest, this flour from blue corn did not look so much blue as a kind of pale grey. I decided that I would make corn tortillas with it, using the recipe on the packet, and serve it with a vegetarian bean chilli. This is no stew for the poor, as I went and bought such exotic and expensive ingredients as dried ancho poblano chillies imported from Mexico, and the organic masa harina was pretty dear to begin with!

Blue masa, chipotle peppers and ancho poblano chillis, which cost me $11.50, $3.09 and $7.49 respectively.
The recipe went like this:
To make tortillas combine 500g of masa, 1 teaspoon of salt and 300ml of warm water to form a dough.
Roll the dough into equal sized balls and press each ball flat to about 4mm thickness. Cook tortillas on a pre heated frying pan for 30 seconds on each side then stack them on top of each other and wrap in a tea towel to stay warm.
It sounded pretty simple, but I had questions straight away. How big should each dough ball be, and how hot the pan?  Do you use oil? And 4mm sounded awfully thick! Recipes on packets generally turn out well though, I reasoned, as companies want you to keep buying the product, so I ploughed on ahead. I made a rather dry and hard lump, which looked very different from the description and pictures in Mexico in my Kitchen.

The dough was a bit hard even when I added more water. I ended up adding significantly more.
I tried flattening the dough balls between two sheets of baking paper, pressing with a saucepan on top of a chopping board. Because the dough was so hard though, it didn't really want to spread, and I had to flatten it a bit more with a rolling pin and before putting it on to cook. As you probably guessed, it was a failure. The heat did not transfer well to the dry lump, and the inside of the tortilla did not cook through, at least not in the short timeframe suggested.

First attempt at a blue corn tortilla did not turn out well.
I tried adding more water to make a softer dough, I played with the heat, and tried actually making a 4mm thick patty, but no matter what I did, nothing seemed to give the result I was looking for. Although I heated some for as long as 5 minutes, the insides never seemed to cook properly. The most edible versions were those that I pressed thinner, but even they were not particularly inspiring. I only managed to make one tortilla that puffed up a little bit. A lot more practice required, methinks! And maybe with cheaper ingredients first.

Chilli sin carne, served with blue corn chips.
My chilli fared much better, but also lacked a depth of flavour. Perhaps it will improve overnight, as the recipe suggested that it would. [Added 10 July 2013: It's amazing but true. This went from something slightly anaemic to a full-bodied, sophisticated chilli after a week.] I managed to rescue my tortillas by chopping them up into triangles, and baking them in the oven until there were no more wet dough innards. Although they were now edible, they were definitely more hard than crisp. I shall have to trawl the internet for tips and tricks, before attempting to make corn tortillas again.

This post is part of Our Growing Edge, a monthly blogging event aimed at inspiring us to try new things. This month it is hosted by Chandler from The Chef With Red Shoes.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Notes: Cafe Scientifique: Waiter! There's nanotechnology in my soup!

Wow! What a young, passionate, inspiring and knowledgeable speaker! I was not sure about spending my evening at the bottom of the Horse and Trap pub, but it was roughly on the way home, and Auckland Museum's Cafe Scientifique page suggested that there would be food mentioned. Dr Michelle Dickinson, who runs New Zealand's only nanomechanical testing laboratory at Auckland University's Department of Chemical and Materials Engineering, did not disappoint, sharing how nanotechnology, although we may think of it as "futuristic", is actually very much present in our lives, for good or for bad.

Dr Michelle Dickinson in action.
Fortunately, the talk did not begin absolutely on time, so even though I got off at the wrong bus stop and was running late, I was able to admire the beautiful venue with exposed brick walls and wooden counters, and order some snacks for dinner as well, before the presentation started.

Surprisingly delicious vegies (brocollini, bak choy and green beans with black and white sesame), and crispy brocolli and cheese balls with beetroot relish.

What is nanotechnology?

You know how wide a metre is, right? A nanometre (nm) is one-billionth of that in American English, i.e. 1nm = 10-9 m. As Michelle points out in her TEDxAuckland speech, to put this into context, one strand of your hair is 80,000nm wide. And nanotechnology is the science of matter with a dimension of 100nm or less.
So she is constantly working with material that cannot be seen.

What is it used for?

Nanotechnology has a wide variety of applications, from cosmetics, to nutrition, to electronics, to solar panels. Like all things, it can enhance human lives or harm them, depending on the purpose for which it is used.

Michelle's research has been in the field of medicine. You can make nanoparticles that deliver a substance to cancer cells, which allow you to then take an image of the patient's body and see where the cancer sites are. This material will heat up if you use a certain kind of light on it, so you can selectively kill off the cancer cells. This is a much better approach than chemotherapy, where you basically try to destroy the cancer before you kill the patient.

Outside of the research lab, you can already find silver nanoparticles in Samsing washing machines, used for their antibacterial properties. However, what happens when those particles are washed down the drain? They could end up killing microorganisms in our environment, including those that are beneficial.

Remember how sunscreen used to leave white streaks on your face 20 years ago? The reason you do not see it today, after smoothing the cream onto your skin, is that the zinc oxide and titanium dioxide particles have been reduced from micro- to nano-sized.

The speaker even found "nano soap" being sold at Pak 'N' Save for $4.99, though who knows what it is made of or how it works.

What are the properties of nanoparticles?

It turns out that when you reduce something down to tinier than tiny, they start behaving in very different ways. A sheet of glass will shatter if you drop it onto the floor, but a nano-sized piece of glass would simply bounce. Gold is useful for its non-reactive properties, but a gold nanoparticle is highly reactive. This is due to the high surface area to volume ratio.

What benefits could there be?

Apart from treating cancer, nanotechnology could be used in food. For instance, if you had very fine particles of salt, you could cook a tasty dinner while using lower amount of it. You could create mayonnaise with much less oil by reducing the size of the oil particles, thereby making your meal somewhat healthier.

Do you have a child who refuses to eat vegies? Companies have already produced a vitamin spray which you can point at their tongue. Tasting of blueberries, the vitamin nanoparticles are absorbed quickly into the blood stream.

There are other advantages too. You can buy razor blades which give you "a closer shave", because they are coated with 4nm wide diamonds. Nanotechnology also allows us to make smaller electronics, smaller sensors which can be used to diagnose.

What risks are there?

Nanotechonology is used in everyday products, and little research has been done on what effects this may have on the environment or on human health.

Of particular concern is the use of fullerine or carbon 60 nanoparticles in some cosmetics. Also known as "buckyballs", they are supposed to have "anti-aging" properties. However, they have displayed toxicity in mice, and more independent research, done by those not driven by an agenda, is needed.

Amazingly, nano silver is also used to coat baby bottles to kill germs, even though we do not know whether it could harm people, and young infants are amongst the most vulnerable.

What the public should be pushing for

Although nanotechnology sounds like something from the future, it is already being used all around us. Further research is required to determine how safe it is, and consumers should be pushing for legislation so they can make an informed choice on the products that they buy. Studies done so far have either been funded by corporate interests, showing positive results, or by the opposite camp, showing negative results, but using unrealistically high levels of nanoparticles. We still do not know the their effect at expected levels.

Some companies are proactive about disclosing their use of nanomaterials.  For instance, Blistex has notified the EPA it uses nano silicon dioxode in its lip ointments. However, there is no requirement to do so until 2015, when labelling will be mandatory in cosmetics, though not in food.

Nanotechnology has the power to do great good, but it can also have a dark side. We need to put processes in place to ensure its safety, and channel funding towards research on health and environmental impacts, not just encourage business-driven goals such as the development of faster computers or other products.

Promotional description of the presentation on Cafe Scientifique page.
Questions and Answers

The main presentation was a great overview of nanotechnology in our lives, but the audience had some excellent questions which made the evening all the more interesting. I have tried to paraphrase them below.

Why have we not seen nanotechnology used to treat cancer?

Animals with stage 4 cancer, from dogs to horses, were donated for our research in the States. Our cancer treatment is very non-invasive. Basically, after sending the nanoparticles through, you just shine a lightbox on the animal, and we have had a 100% success rate (on 28 animals?). There was only one that died, and that was due to another reason.

However, the nanoparticles do not leave the body afterwards. They collect in the liver and we cannot prove that they will not harm you in some way in the future, even though none of the animals we tested showed any signs of being the worse for it. There has been no testing on humans, because the FDA will not approve a treatment in which something introduced to the body accumulates in it, even though the person may be in better health than before treatment.

How do you produce and collect nanoparticles?

We use our knowledge of chemistry to move atoms to where we want them to go. Another way of producing nanoparticles is to use a high powered laser, breaking the material up into tiny fragments. We hold them simply in the usual containers, even though the nanoparticles will be oozing through the pores of the container. They are produced in such quantities that it does not matter if some are lost.

Of course, they are not really lost. We just can't see them. Work has been done to electrospin nano fibres to weave filters for nanoparticles. Nano fibres are actually cheap to make, and there is a startup making filters with them for heat pumps. But collecting nanoparticles is the easy part. The hard part is to work out how to let water molecules through at the same time. Other research has looked at capturing nanomaterial chemically as well as physically.

Do nanoparticles exist in nature?

Yes, our bodies contain organic nanoparticles. The main concerns have been with the use of inorganic ones.

Will nanoparticles break down over time?

Some will and some won't. For instance, zip-lock bags have nano silicates which are antimicrobial, and these will break down over time. However, nano silver and gold do not break down.

Genetic modification (GM) is highly politicised. Why is the same not true of nanotechnology?

Perhaps the nanotechnologists saw what happened to GE and are careful to keep it quiet. Certainly there is less public awareness of the prevalence of nanotechnology in our lives. This may be due to the fact that companies are not required to disclose their use of it. That is why I think labelling legislation is very important as a first step.

Would you say that nanotechnology is well developed already, since it is already used in so many different ways?

It is widely used, but in terms of understanding its health impacts, it is still at its infancy. I inspected a Chinese factory recently, in which electronics with nanotechnology were produced. The workers were walking around with dust masks, thinking they were well protected! There were no safety protocols in place.

The problem is that it is easy to get funding to make faster computers, but ideally, we want to have money set aside to research the implications of this on our health and environment too.

[Audience input: Radioactivity took 100 years to regulate. I used to work with <a radioactive substance> and they gave us little film badges to wear and told us it would be safe!]

There are ways to destroy GM material. You can burn it, or pour bleach on it, but there is no equivalent in nanotechnology. Gut instinct is your only control. I will never work with, or allow my students to work with, something that I think might be dangerous, even if it promises lots of funding.  For instance, I would say no to testing lead nanoparticles. Others are not as fortunate as me. Chinese researchers are pressured to publish every year, and get forced to do research they do not want.

Like radioactivity, nanotechnology is hard to see and test.

What are your plans? What will you be doing for the next year or so?

I am a failure engineer. I like to pull, push and squash things at a nano level. I want to break malarial cells and see how they compare with normal red blood cells. If we can measure the difference between a disease state and regular living cells, we can learn more about conditions such as tuberculosis or Alzheimer's and work towards treating them.


If you would like to hear Dr Michelle Dickinson speak in person, she will be giving a short presentation at the Auckland Girl Geek Dinner next Tuesday 2 July 2013.  Don't worry: men are also welcome!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Book Review: The Colour of Food

When I was at school, I never understood why anyone would want to study history. Maths and science will help you get a job, art was relaxing and fun, but history?  Sure, I enjoyed reading novels, including those set in the past, but I had no interest in memorising dates and events. In my infinite wisdom, I chose to study the dead language of Latin instead.

These days, I am much more likely to read non-fiction than fiction. Information about kitchen science, for instance, or the news, or research on the web. With the prominent changes taking place in Auckland, I have suddenly become interested in how it once was here. It was fascinating to discover that some units down the road used to be the premises of a shop, dwelling and stables. We went to MOTAT to look at photos of Auckland in the 1950s, when trams still ran down Queen Street and Dominion Road. I pored over old cookbooks purchased from school fairs, and was amazed by the recipes using such unusual ingredients as brains and calves' tongues. In New Zealand the Beautiful Cookbook*, edited by Tui Flower, I even found a recipe using pukeko (pretty much identical to this one published in the Dominion Post), which I thought nobody ate!

* There was no publication date printed in the hardcover book published by Shortland/Weldon Publications, but though I would have guessed a 1970s timeframe, various websites suggest it was published in 1993. One description claims it was first published in 1984, reprinted twice in 1988.

When a representative from AWA Press sent me a review copy of a new eBook, I thought no more of it for two weeks. I had plenty enough other books waiting to be read, and I was under no obligation to give free publicity to anyone, even if it was vaguely related to food. After flicking through just a couple of pages, however, The Colour of Food: A memoir of life, love and dinner by Anne Else had me hooked.

Of course, it helped that the author grew up just up the road from me, living above a grocer's shop at the corner of Valley Road and Mount Eden Road. I loved hearing about what she ate as a child, from her grandmother's chokos, which she hated (I had always assumed it was a foreign vegetable because hardly anyone I mentioned it to seemed to know what a choko was), to her mother's homemade cape gooseberry jam, to the classic bread and Marmite. "Chicken and pork were rare treats, saved for special occasions. Mostly Mum served us hogget, or a round of chewy beef criss-crossed with wooden skewers and tied up with string." I hadn't even heard of hogget before, and had to look the word up.

We went to the same intermediate school, and as with Julia Child also, we didn't learn to cook until after leaving home (I am still learning, with a long way to go). But it was really her captivating narrative that kept me reading. Food has always been an important of Anne's life, and she skilfully weaves it in to her story.

More than anything, I am impressed by this woman. I thought I was well-travelled, but Anne has lived in Albania, which even now is not a common destination. She has had her share of challenges in her life, but nothing seems to knock her back for long. And for someone whose family didn't even have a refrigerator until she was five, I am amazed that she now runs multiple blogs, with her memoir available as an eBook only.

There are recipes at the back of the book, which link to the milestone phases of the author's life. But even without these, I would happily recommend The Colour of Food. It reads like a novel, but it is real, touching and insightful. It is an absolute gem, especially if, like me, you are interested in food, New Zealand from an earlier era, exotic faraway lands, and tales of love and sorrow.


The Colour of Food is available at:

Friday, June 7, 2013

Review: GreenKeeper Cafe *CLOSED*

[Added 27 March 2017: This cafe has now morphed into Parked Up on the Green, a licensed eatery with catered events]

It's taken a few years, but it's finally there. After spending $140,000 on refurbishing the exterior of the caretaker's cottage in Victoria Park back in 2010, the Auckland City Council has found a tenant for the property, which was built in 1906.  For months, I watched with interest, as bare-chested workers laboured under the heat of the summer sun, carting wheelbarrows and such like behind a fence marked "The
housecafe that Jack
builtis renovating". One day, about two months ago, a sign announcing the "GreenKeeper Cafe" appeared over the northern entrance to the cottage, then it disappeared again, and I kept watching some more. Now the wait is over, and I can tell you it is worth it.

The former caretaker's cottage is now a cafe.
Admittedly, it can get a bit crowded between the counter (where you have to order) and the coffee station on the other side of the doorway, because people tend to stand around looking at the cabinet items or trying to decide what to sample off the menu.

Selection of salads.
But there is no shortage of seating, with two rooms downstairs (one with an antique pump organ in it, complete with carved, rectangular, wooden foot pedals) and one upstairs, as well as tables outside the northern entrance.

Downstairs room overlooking the sports field.
Apart from the changing selection of salads and desserts at the front counter, and the usual suspects of coffee and scones, the GreenKeeper Cafe offers three categories of food: breakfast items, pastas, and hoagies (a Philadelphian word for hot filled rolls).

Given this cafe apparently opens as early as 6:30am on weekdays, I am sure the breakfast options are popular with those participating in the morning boot camps in Victoria Park. Mostly, they are egg-based dishes, such as eggs benny with hot smoked salmon and greens ($16), but you can also order muesli and yoghurt ($7.50). I was surprised by how pale the sauce on my eggs benny was, not the yellow I associate with hollandaise, but it was still very rich and creamy. I also liked the range of sides you could add, from beer battered fries to smoked pork sausages to bubble and squeak ($3 - $5).

Eggs benny vege, with a very rich, if pale looking, sauce.

The waitress recommended the pastas ($12.50), and they were not only great value, but fresh and tasty. It turns out that most of the foreign-language ingredients are actually vegetarian. The pansotti (served with heirloom tomatoes and hand-pulled mozzarella) are just triangular-shaped filled pasta, not at all like the pancetta the word brought to my mind. The peperonata which came with the ravioli and sage butter was in fact a capsicum stew, not to be confused with pepperoni sausage slices. On the days we tried them, these pastas were filled with pumpkin, and pea and ricotta respectively, so perfectly acceptable for a meat-free diet. Having said that, the parpadelle with beef and rosemary ragout was the standout dish. You also have the option of adding extras to the pastas, such as bacon lardons or roast chicken ($2.50 each).

Parpadelle with beef and rosemary ragout.
The hoagies sounded by far the most exotic, with such fillings as Philly cheese steak with sliced roast beef, provolone cheese, peppers, onions and mushrooms ($10), or pulled pork with cumin slaw and chipotle aioli ($9.50). Once I saw that the sandwiches were sitting in the cabinet above the salads, ready to be heated up, however, I was less keen to try them. Presumably, the staff would make you one from scratch if your choice were not there. You can also get one with two salads for $12.50, which I may be tempted to do next time.

[Added 19 July 2013: Wow, this place is getting crowded! The space on top of the salads now holds a variety of wraps, and some new items have been added to the menu too: a soup of the day ($7), crockpot of the day ($10) and Fish 'n' Chips ($15).]

The old caretaker's cottage in Victoria Park is a great venue for a cafe, and it is nice to see that it has been done up inside and out, with some exciting food choices on offer. Whether you are here for a meal or just a drink and a nibble, this is a place where you can both grab-and-go, or just as happily relax and people-watch.


Wheelchair access is via a ramp at the "back" or northern side of the building.

Panda Recommends

We still have quite a few things to try, but right now...

Mains: Pastas, particularly the parpadelle with beef and rosemary ragout ($12.50)
Avoid the walnut bread french toast with apple jelly ($15). Ignoring a staff member's offer of sprinkling pepper over the top, I found the bread soggy, and what I had thought would be a delicate apple jelly turned out be bright red with some kind of chilli in it—more sweet chilli flavoured than fruity.
[Added 19 July 2013: The french toast now comes with banana and berry compote—perhaps the cafe owners have taken note of my complaints?]

Vegie Pandas
The vegetarian hot sandwich may sound tempting, with the promise of goat's cheese and truffle oil, but while those ingredients are there, be aware that the grilled veges are mainly pumpkin. Go for one of a pastas instead. The eggs benny vege ($14.00) was not bad either. [Added 6 August 2013: they now offer a hoagie with mushroom instead of pumpkin. Good stuff!]

Wall menu.

Restaurant Details

GreenKeeper Cafe
Victoria Park, corner Fanshawe and Halsey Streets, Auckland Central
(09) 302 0425

Opening hours:
Mondays to Fridays 6:30am - 4pm (kitchen closes at 3pm)
Saturdays to Sundays 8am - 4pm (kitchen closes at 3pm)

The old caretaker's cottage is a great location for a cafe in Victoria Park.

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