Wednesday, April 14, 2010

"Cilantro-Haters: It's not your fault". Love, the NY Times

When I cook for lots of people, I am often cognizant of those who fall into the "cilantro-hater" category. Outwardly, I am understanding. However my inner dialogue wants to scream "what is WRONG with you people? It's so fresh! It tastes like SPRING!! It Mexico."

However, this article solves the great mystery. Cilantro-haters, I'm sorry that I ever thought ill of your palette. This article also explains some of the reasons why we might not like a food at first try, but grow to crave it after a few trys (sushi, I'm talking to you).

Cilantro Haters, It’s Not Your Fault

Tony Cenicola/The New York Times

Published: April 13, 2010
FOOD partisanship doesn’t usually reach the same heights of animosity as the political variety, except in the case of the anti-cilantro party. The green parts of the plant that gives us coriander seeds seem to inspire a primal revulsion among an outspoken minority of eaters.
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Recipe: Cilantro Sauce (April 14, 2010)
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Culinary sophistication is no guarantee of immunity from cilantrophobia. In a television interview in 2002, Larry King asked Julia Child which foods she hated. She responded: “Cilantro and arugula I don’t like at all. They’re both green herbs, they have kind of a dead taste to me.”
“So you would never order it?” Mr. King asked.
“Never,” she responded. “I would pick it out if I saw it and throw it on the floor.”
Ms. Child had plenty of company for her feelings about cilantro (arugula seems to be less offensive). The authoritative Oxford Companion to Food notes that the word “coriander” is said to derive from the Greek word for bedbug, that cilantro aroma “has been compared with the smell of bug-infested bedclothes” and that “Europeans often have difficulty in overcoming their initial aversion to this smell.” There’s an “I Hate Cilantro” Facebook page with hundreds of fans and an I Hate Cilantro blog.
Yet cilantro is happily consumed by many millions of people around the world, particularly in Asia and Latin America. The Portuguese put fistfuls into soups. What is it about cilantro that makes it so unpleasant for people in cultures that don’t much use it?
Some people may be genetically predisposed to dislike cilantro, according to often-cited studies by Charles J. Wysocki of the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. But cilantrophobe genetics remain little known and aren’t under systematic investigation. Meanwhile, history, chemistry and neurology have been adding some valuable pieces to the puzzle.
The coriander plant is native to the eastern Mediterranean, and European cooks used both seeds and leaves well into medieval times.
Helen Leach, an anthropologist at the University of Otago in New Zealand, has traced unflattering remarks about cilantro flavor and the bug etymology — not endorsed by modern dictionaries — back to English garden books and French farming books from around 1600, when medieval dishes had fallen out of fashion. She suggests that cilantro was disparaged as part of a general effort to define the new European table against the flavors of the old.
Modern cilantrophobes tend to describe the offending flavor as soapy rather than buggy. I don’t hate cilantro, but it does sometimes remind me of hand lotion. Each of these associations turns out to make good chemical sense.
Flavor chemists have found that cilantro aroma is created by a half-dozen or so substances, and most of these are modified fragments of fat molecules called aldehydes. The same or similar aldehydes are also found in soaps and lotions and the bug family of insects.
Soaps are made by fragmenting fat molecules with strongly alkaline lye or its equivalent, and aldehydes are a byproduct of this process, as they are when oxygen in the air attacks the fats and oils in cosmetics. And many bugs make strong-smelling, aldehyde-rich body fluids to attract or repel other creatures.
The published studies of cilantro aroma describe individual aldehydes as having both cilantrolike and soapy qualities. Several flavor chemists told me in e-mail messages that they smell a soapy note in the whole herb as well, but still find its aroma fresh and pleasant.
So the cilantro aldehydes are olfactory Jekyll-and-Hydes. Why is it only the evil, soapy side that shows up for cilantrophobes, and not the charming one?
I posed this question to Jay Gottfried, a neuroscientist at Northwestern University who studies how the brain perceives smells.
Dr. Gottfried turned out to be a former cilantrophobe who could speak from personal experience. He said that the great cilantro split probably reflects the primal importance of smell and taste to survival, and the brain’s constant updating of its database of experiences.
The senses of smell and taste evolved to evoke strong emotions, he explained, because they were critical to finding food and mates and avoiding poisons and predators. When we taste a food, the brain searches its memory to find a pattern from past experience that the flavor belongs to. Then it uses that pattern to create a perception of flavor, including an evaluation of its desirability.
If the flavor doesn’t fit a familiar food experience, and instead fits into a pattern that involves chemical cleaning agents and dirt, or crawly insects, then the brain highlights the mismatch and the potential threat to our safety. We react strongly and throw the offending ingredient on the floor where it belongs.
“When your brain detects a potential threat, it narrows your attention,” Dr. Gottfried told me in a telephone conversation. “You don’t need to know that a dangerous food has a hint of asparagus and sorrel to it. You just get it away from your mouth.”
But he explained that every new experience causes the brain to update and enlarge its set of patterns, and this can lead to a shift in how we perceive a food.
“I didn’t like cilantro to begin with,” he said. “But I love food, and I ate all kinds of things, and I kept encountering it. My brain must have developed new patterns for cilantro flavor from those experiences, which included pleasure from the other flavors and the sharing with friends and family. That’s how people in cilantro-eating countries experience it every day.”
“So I began to like cilantro,” he said. “It can still remind me of soap, but it’s not threatening anymore, so that association fades into the background, and I enjoy its other qualities. On the other hand, if I ate cilantro once and never willingly let it pass my lips again, there wouldn’t have been a chance to reshape that perception.”
Cilantro itself can be reshaped to make it easier to take. A Japanese study published in January suggested that crushing the leaves will give leaf enzymes the chance to gradually convert the aldehydes into other substances with no aroma.
Sure enough, I’ve found cilantro pestos to be lotion-free and surprisingly mild. They actually have deeper roots in the Mediterranean than the basil version, and can be delicious on pasta and breads and meats. If you’re looking to work on your cilantro patterns, pesto might be the place to start.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Cake Project: "And Baby Makes 3"

It was my aboslute pleasure to attempt, for the first time ever, a really complicated cake. My lovely friends Amanda and Bill Markmann, to whom I was introduced by Meredith, are adding to their family! Additionally it was Amanda's 30th birthday. In my book, those are two VERY important things to celebrate and we celebrated all at once.

I wanted to design a cake that recognized Amanda's unique and individual style in honor of her birthday, but I also wanted the cake to pay tribute to the the PUC (person-under-construction) that Amanda and Bill will soon welcome. Therefore, I stole straight from their lovely invitation featuring a pair of lovebirds and added a little mini bird for effect. Then I took the tiny details on the birds and blew them up as decor for the sides of the cake.

This is not their exact invitation, but it is the same design (From Tiny Prints).
I have been avoiding fondant for awhile now, thinking that it sounds impossible to work with, but absolutely everyone says "fondant is eaaaassyy" (in a taunting, sing-songy voice) and thus I can't back away from a challenge! Thus, a big order was placed to and Eric's skills in logistics were employed.

And here's the rub: this cake was a true exercise in compromise for mine and Eric's relationship. You see, in the kitchen, I am the boss. And he really should be commended for following my constant instruction of "chop this, sautee that". HOWEVER. This cake was a work of art: so what happens when the kitchen boss and the artist come together?

I had the "plan" in my head. Just in my head. And I explained it with lots of hand motions and asked Eric to bring some scalples for cutting out fondant. But that wasn't good enough for the artist. He wanted artistic renderings of "the plan" (I can't draw). He wanted to know exactly how many leaves we needed to cut out (why count? Just use them all!) He wanted a time schedule of which design had to be completed by what time (that went out the window after the first bottle of wine).

In the end, I was so happy with how this turned out and glad that I could contribute to the party and the welcoming of a new person to the world in a meaningful way. Eric and I survivied and contemplated going into a cake business together (until the buzz wore off). But we will take requests for other special events!

Allie Carroll, of Allie Carrol Photography was at the party and took some fabulous shots. Obviously, the more delicious-looking photos on here are her handy work. Take a look at her blog for other shots of the party and a glimpse into her many talents!

Note: a few have asked about the actual cake recipe: I used baking diva Rose Levy Beranbaum's All American Butter Cake from The Cake Bible. It is a dense cake that I return to often for its tiny crumb and reliable structure. The chocolate buttercream recipe was off Wilton's website, which is also incidently where I ordered the fondant.

Allie Carroll Photography