The Taste of Tomorrow
  • Things We HEART
  • January12th

    The TofT's favorite spot for egusi stew.

     The range of West African food options in Chicago, USA is not great.  As we’ve lamented in earlier posts, if you’re a Cubs fan looking for Nigerian food – or Ghanaian or Senegalese – your best is probably to jump on a flight to NYC or DC or maybe  LA.

    Experiences with W. African in Chi-town have been mixed at best (the one notable exception is Yassa, a wonderful Senegalese place.) But Yassa is on the southside; it is an epic commute from the T of T’s Evanston (north suburb) headquarters.  One must pass through the gauntlet (aka the Loop) to get there. And the T of T’s author has a short attention for traffic jams, and is still struggling with his road rage problem.

    That’s why we are so pleased to announce that we have discovered an excellent Nigerian restaurant in Rogers Park, a northside neighborhood, roughly 15 minutes from T of T headquarters.

    The maker of the egusi, the Qaato Restaurant, is easy to miss – I’ve probably driven past it 20 times before noticing the  “Authentic Nigerian & West African restaurant” sign.  Qaato is on a strip of a north Clark that’s a blur of down-in-the-mouth  retail (taco joints, Chinese take-out, pawn shops, dollar stores)  And when you enter the dark, nearly barren restaurant, which reminded me of a friend’s basement during the disco years, you might have the some anxious thoughts. But resist these thoughts.  Savor the high-volume Afro pop, and make that order.

    What makes Qaato worthy of an eccentrically-long T of T post is their mind-expanding egusi – that’s the soup that is to Nigerians what bouillabaisse is to the French, or Tom Yum is to the Thai.

    Egusi done right is an insanely spicy broth (stew, really) of ground melon or mango seeds, shrimp (sometimes), spinach, peppers, and a protein (fish, oxtail, goat)

    Egusi soup? It's more stew-like.

    Qaato’s fish egusi, which was served in a shallow bowl, (it’s really more stew, than soup) is not for everyone.  It’s for the type who favors vindaloo over curry & only orders the “blazin” option at Buffalo Wild Wings.

    For the weak-stomached, korma-favoring reader: another way of coping with the hotness of egusi is to make smart use of your sides – jollof rice and garri. We’ve had our share of jollof rice at the T of T – often it tastes like nightmare-quality cheap Chinese restaurant fried rice (due to abuse of palm oil and salt. But Qaato’s jollof (rice, tomatoes, onions, light palm oil, spinach free) is wonderful In fact, if you throw some jollof rice in your egusi stew, you’ll mitigate the spice, and you’ll have thoughts of gumbo.

    A big blog of fermented cassava known as garri.

    The other side dish we tried is garri  which is a big blob of mashed fermented cassava.  It has the faint smell of wet socks,  and, unadorned, it doesn’t taste much better than wet socks. But the garri isn’t supposed to be eaten plain – it’s your dipping tool.   To eat like a Nigerian, pinch off the fermented cassava, roll it into a ball, and then dip it in your egusi.  It functions like pita bread or the Ethiopian injera, and is an excellent way of managing the heat.

    Qaato is so temptingly close to The Taste of Tomorrow headquarters that we’ll have a chance for regular egusi runs (next up: oxtail); we’re also hoping to persuade the friendly-proprietor (who is said to be open to customer suggestions) to make us some suya – that’s the barbecued meat kebab, coated with groundnuts and chili pepper and other spices that is served throughout Nigeria, but is no where to be found in Chi-town.  My idea for a spicy feast: egusi, suya, tempered with Star (a West African beer). Will keep you apprised.

    Meantime,  if you live in a Nigerian-restaurant deprived community, and are jonesing for egusi, check out this excellent how-to-egusi video from Yeti on the indispensable web site AfroFoodTv.Com. There’s also a good egusi recipe on this UK-based African foods site.

  • December20th

    Sean Cutler – UC-Riverside scientist behind supercharged mustard plant.

    Unless you’re a Rick Perry-liking creationist, anti-scientist type, or someone on a decades long information Sabbath who ignores data from climatologists and demographers,  you probably accept that Earth is getting hotter, that population is increasing, that water resources are dwindling.  And you’re probably on board with the idea that it would be a really wonderful thing if humans could grow lettuce and cucumbers and apples and raspberries in arid environments, without tapping some aquifer or siphoning off drinking water from people in LA or Phoenix.

    Well, great news: earlier this month, a team of scientists at UC-Riverside announced a major breakthrough that could ultimately lead process to engineer drought-tolerant crops.

    The researchers, led by plant scientist Sean Cutler, identified a means to regulate the stress- relieving hormones that enable plants to weather droughts.  Specifically, they’ve learned how to activate and deactivate what are known as abscisic acid receptors, which control how plants respond to their surroundings. Cutler’s lab has found ways to make receptors open and close on command by altering plant genes. They tested hundreds of variants to figure out which alterations cause these receptors to behave optimally in periods of drought. The result: they’ve developed a mustard-type plant, called Arabidopsis, with a heightened ability to survive under harsh conditions.

    While the release of drought-resistant lettuces and tomatoes is probably still years off, the potential upside of Cutler’s drought-resistant Arabidopsis  is game-changing.   In a world with diminishing water resources, a drought-resistant crop could be a huge boon to water conservation efforts. A recent New York Times piece, for instance, spotlighted the water challenges for organic farmers in Mexico.   If the goal is sustainability, why not consider a drought-resistant, pesticide-free GMO crop?)

    Equally important, a drought-resistant GMO plants could potentially create more opportunities– land previously deemed unfit for certain crops could become viable. (There’s a fascinating piece, fyi, in the most recent New Yorker that focuses on effort to stop desertification in Africa)

    Cutler’s work is not unknown in the plant science world.  Work leading to the supercharged mustard plant was one of Science magazine breakthroughs of the year in 2009.  For more scientific detail on Cutler’s work to engineer drought resistance crops, you can check out the Dec. 20 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    Of his breakthrough, Cutler told one researcher. “I would like to see farmers bragging about how little water their plants can get by on.”

    Here’s an interview with Cutler.

  • December8th

    We have some really great news from Wisconsin (ancestral home of the TofT author) – and it has nothing to do with the Packers, the Badgers,  or the effort to recall governor Scott Walker.

    The first anaerobic dry fermentation biodigester in the United States is up and running at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh.

    Now, the three words dry fermentation biodigester might not immediately electrify most Americans.  But the upside is revolutionary, Holy Graily.

    According to a post in one of our favorite blogs, Seedstock, the alternative power system has been producing clean, renewable electricity from plant and food waste to supply electricity and heat for the university campus since Oct. 3. The site reported that UW-O staff and students had been stockpiling agricultural plant and food waste as feedstock in airless chambers and feeding it into the dry anaerobic biodigester since last summer in anticipation of bringing it online.

    A steady, source of clean renewable electricity would be a tremendous breakthrough for the type of clean, environmentally-friendly indoor fish farming that is profiled in The Taste of Tomorrow, the book.

    A short description of the science as culled from Seedstock:

    Anaerobic digestion consists of a series of processes in which microorganisms break down biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen. Anaerobic digestion reduces the emission of methane gas, CO2, and “non-methane organic compounds” or NMOCs into the atmosphere.  Anaerobic digestion is also used as a renewable energy source as the process produces a methane and carbon dioxide rich biogas suitable for energy production. As the name indicates, ‘dry,’ as opposed to ‘wet,’ anaerobic digesters break down dry organic materials with moisture content of less than 75%, such as agricultural waste and plant material traditionally left over after harvesting a crop.

    For a fuller description of the work at Oshkosh, please check out the post on Seedstock’s site and the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh report.

    Folks at Oshkosh expect the anaerobic digester to generate enough electricity in the start-up phase alone to meet 5% of the university’s electricity and heating needs. This is great news: as it demonstrates that clean, renewable energy can be produced from throwaways like corn stalks, husks, leaves, and discarded food.  According to the University, a second anaerobic digester is being planned for a dairy farm, and generate electricity from the methane produced by the decomposition of dairy cow poop.

     

  • November22nd

     

    Since this is the inaugural post in the Good GMOs category, let’s briefly explain our position.

    You can use a computer to build a web site that raises money for starving refugees in Darfur.   You can also use a computer to create malware that destroys web sites, disables businesses, and thwarts efforts to raise money for starving refugees in Darfur. You can use airplanes to deliver food.  Or you can airplanes to deliver bombs.

    It’s true.  There are some bad genetically engineered crops out there. Some GMOs, circa 2011,  are created by rapacious petrochemical corporations.  They are herbicide and pesticide tolerant, so they encourage the spraying of more chemicals on crops, that, in turn, increase sales for these large petrochemical corporations. Intellectual property law, circa 2011, makes it possible for the wealthiest, most powerful corporations to own genes, the very building blocks of life. It’s true that GMOs, by and large, circa 2011, advance monoculture, thwart biodiversity and are not the ally of small farmers.

    Still,  as with computers, and other technologies, there are BAD THINGS and there are GOOD THINGS.

    One of the goals of The Taste of Tomorrow is to spotlight smart, safe, promising uses of GMO crops that can help protect the earth, improve food quality, and save lives.

    ***

    As many parents of  school-age children in the US know,  peanut butter – once a staple of school lunches – is often verboten.

    Peanuts and  peanut butter are banned by a number of schools across the country, and others have created so-called “nut-free zones.”  There’s some talk that the FAA will institute a total ban on peanuts on commercial airlines. This makes sense.  Although the numbers of people allergic to peanuts is small, those who are allergic have a a potentially life-threatening response.. Even trace amounts of peanut dust can leave a child covered in hives and gasping for air.

    (Personal encounter: When my four-year-old daughter mistakenly called her sunflower butter sandwich a peanut butter sandwich, we got an immediate call from a school administrator. Why? There’s a boy in her class with an extreme peanut allergy.

    But there is promising work  that could bring peanuts back to schools.  Even allowing Kate’s classmate to have a PB&J some day.

    For the past decade, Peggy Ozias-Akins of the University of Georgia in Tifton has been using genetic engineering to grow hypoallergenic peanuts.

    In research profiled widely in the biotech world,  Ozias-Akins and her team have developed peanuts that do not produce two proteins that are among the most intense allergens.   A story in Wired, summarizes the paper that appeared in the Journal of Food Chemistry:

    The biologists shot a customized DNA sequence into the plants with a gene gun, causing the legumes to produce hairpin-shaped RNA molecules, which halt the production of the two proteins. Messing with the genetic code of a plant could potentially cause the seeds to develop improperly, change the taste of the crop, or render it more susceptible to fungal infections. But Ozias-Akins’ team found that they grow normally and can resist a common mold without any problems.

    Still, getting rid of every allergy-causing substance in peanuts would not be easy, Ozias-Akins said. “Given the number of allergenic proteins in peanuts, I doubt that developing an allergen-free peanut is realistic.” Although it may be impossible to make a perfectly safe peanut, clipping the right genes out could make food accidents far less common.