by Doctor Science
In my earlier post about the 'obesity epidemic' I talked about Catching Fire: How Cooking Made Us Human by Richard Wrangham. This book really changed my thinking about a number of aspects of food, cooking, and human evolution, but the very best part about it is what Wrangham says about BCBs.
Maillard compounds can be quite bad for laboratory animals, causing cancer and/or mutations, as any raw-food diet guru will tell you. The trouble is, they taste really, really good.
It makes me feel like the woman in this painting of "The Sense of Taste", a collaboration between Rubens and Jan Brueghel:
BCBs are so tasty! But maybe they come from a tricksy, devilish source! arggh, inner conflict.
Wrangham steps in to reassure:
The cooking hypothesis suggests that our long evolutionary history of exposure to Maillard compounds has led humans to be more resistant to their damaging effects than other mammals are.Now "impossibly unpleasant for humans to ingest" struck me as a wacky statement. I mean, *I* can't injest a whole raw Scotch Bonnet pepper, but I've seen someone (from Jamaica) happily eat them out of hand. "Really spicy" strikes me as closer to "acquired, sought-after taste" than "inedible".
... Evolutionary adaptation to cooking might likewise explain why humans seem less prepared to tolerate toxins than do other apes. In my experience of sampling many wild foods eaten by primates, items eaten by chimpanzees in the wild taste better than foods eaten by monkeys. Even so, some of the fruits, seeds, and leaves that chimpanzees select taste so foul that I can barely swallow them....
Consider the plum-sized fruit of Warburgia ugandensis, a tree famous for its medicinal bark. Warburgia fruits contain a spicy compound reminiscent of a mustard oil. The hot taste renders even a single fruit impossibly unpleasant for humans to ingest. But chimpanzees can eat a pile of these fruits and then look eagerly for more.
And yet, google doesn't turn up any evidence that people living where Warburgia ugandensis grows use it in their recipes. The leaves and bark have some traditional uses, but no-one seems to eat its (or its relatives') fruit.
I have been thinking about how nice it is for BCBs to be redeemed in my eyes, because yesterday our weekly Saturday dinner party was the celebration of R's birthday, and he asked me to make my very favorite food in all the world, Peking Duck.
Peking Duck is the apotheosis of BCBs.
My hands were too greasy to take my own pictures, so I'm using this one from Sifu Renka.
I've made Peking Duck a number of times before; this time my process was very like the one described here by Becca. In sum:
- Take fresh duck (I had 2 smallish ones) and remove obvious fat
- Massage it all over, especially the areas with visible fat deposits under the skin. The idea is to loosen or break the connective tissue holding the skin and fat together.
- Make a syrup and pour it over (and over) the duck to coat lightly
- Dry the duck in the fridge for 12-24 hours. I did *not* hang mine, I propped them up on a V-shaped rack and turned them a couple times.
- Before cooking, the duck skin should be approximately the color and texture of parchment. I used a blow dryer to do the final drying, because I hadn't stuck it in the fridge for long enough.
- Cook breast-up at 475° for 15 minutes, then turn over and turn heat down to 350. Cook for 30 minutes, turn again, cook for another 40 minutes. Let the bird(s) rest for at least 10-15 minutes before carving
- The skin will come off like an extremely tasty sweater! cut it and the meat up for serving
- The bones went into a pot with water, homemade stock, scallion tops, and shiitake stems, to make the base for a Shiitake-Bok Choy Soup (I used Napa cabbage, instead, and MUCH less fish sauce and sesame oil than that recipe specifies), because R is Mister Mushroom.
- I made two sauces:
- a mix of hoisin and chicken demi-glace
- home-made plum sauce: Polish preserved plums cooked with star anise, 5-spice powder, garlic, ginger, and just a little Aleppo pepper, then pureed. The crowd went wild for this one
- Also served with scallion brushes and flour tortillas, masquerading as moo shoo wrappers
To drink I had Leinenkugel's Summer Shandy, which I find extremely mild and refreshing. Other people were drinking wine, but I need something bubbly with duck.
Altogether it was a wonderful feast. I also stir-fried some "tatsoi raab" -- tatsoi that has started to bolt, and looks a lot like broccoli raab, only much milder in taste -- with garlic, and served it with rice to be a digestive substrate for the extremely rich duck. Verdict: NOM NOM NOM -- even from J-ette, who is extremely cautious about novel foods and who didn't think she liked duck.
Cooking notes for next time:
- brine duck with Chinese spices before syrup stage
- cook syrup longer with more flavorings
- get similar small ducks again -- they have more skin per unit meat
- serve soup at end of feast, per Chinese custom, to give it longer to cook