At $9 A Liter, Aneto Chicken Broth Is A Steal.

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Worth its weight in chicken.

I know, I know. For that amount of money you could buy THREE liters of chicken broth. You’d probably be better off mixing this with two liters of water, actually, if price is your sole criterion.

Full disclosure: Due to an upcoming medical procedure during which they insert a video camera up into the shadiest area of my body (i.e., “where the sun don’t shine”), I am currently on a liquid diet. Chicken broth is permitted. I decided to use this opportunity to test drive a suggestion I came across while writing the article on fideuà inauténtico. My research for that piece led me to an excellent food blog called The Daring Gourmet, which features not only recipes, but also product reviews, travel and health tips, restaurant reviews, and more. [You should visit it after you’re done reading this.]

They wrote an article about their visit to the Aneto factory in Artes, Spain, that I found completely captivating. Enough so that I was willing to plunk down $27 to pick up three liters of the broth as part of my hydration regime, knowing I would be renting it for not much longer than it will take you to finish watching the final episode of The Americans this evening.

I had considered myself a fairly savvy shopper, and the chicken broth in the pantry was Kroeger’s Simple Truth Organic Free Range Chicken Broth Fat Free, which I bought at the local Ralphs for about $1.99 or so. But compare the ingredient list between Aneto (at left) and Kroeger (at right).

The boxes are the same size, but that’s where the similarities end.

As Kimberly of The Daring Gourmet pointed out in her article,

    To be called “broth” the USDA only requires a Moisture-Protein Ratio (MPR) of 1:135. That’s 1 part chicken to 135 parts water. That translates as 1 ounce of chicken per gallon of water. As unbelievable as that sounds, we’re understandably left asking, “So where’s the chicken in the chicken broth?”

Indeed.

On the left, the Aneto broth. On the right, the Kroeger. Which one do you suppose has more chicken (and, for that matter, flavour)?

I don’t want to come across as picking on Kroeger; it’s one of the best of the conventional chicken broths. The problem is that we in the United States just don’t set the bar very high (another issue addressed at The Daring Gourmet). And most of us aren’t drinking our chicken broth straight. But I gotta say, from the bottom of my taste buds, that Aneto is to conventional chicken broth what a Maybach or a McLaren is to a Vauxhall Viva.

Of course, you could make your own stock. That gives you the option to tweak the taste, and it’s possible to make a stock that’s even better than what Aneto sells. But it takes time to buy and prepare the ingredients, and if you want to get some economy of scale, it also requires a significant amount of freezer space, so those costs deserve to be considered. I come from a family where it was considered to be something of a crime to let potential soup bones go to waste, so I do make my own stock from time to time, but it’s usually with veggies that are a mere few days away from becoming a science project, plus a fresh onion (I always have those). I rarely — read “never” — set out to make a big batch of stock from scratch with purpose-bought vegetables. Plus, Aneto makes really good stock, and it’s always handy to have some room-temp broth in the pantry even if your freezer is (ahem) well-stocked.

Appended to their 2016 article, The Daring Gourmet thoughtfully provided a list of stores across the USA where Aneto is sold (the company also make a ton of broths that are not sold in the US, such as their Caldo Natural de Jamón). I got mine at the local Sur La Table; I could have saved a couple bucks a unit had I bought a six-pack through Amazon, but I failed to plan ahead that far. Idiot me. Over the next few hours, I’m sure I will have ample time to sit and contemplate the error of my ways.

Meanwhile, go read the Aneto story!

What the hell ever happened to margarine?

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In 2013, 200 years after the French chemist Michel Eugène Chevreul discovered margaric acid (the vital building block in making the original version of margarine), it’s pretty safe to say (in the manner of the final pronouncement on Iron Chef), in America at least, “The Margarine Battle is OVAH!” Go to the store; try finding something labeled as margarine. Seriously. It just ain’t there. Sure, there are old favourites, such as Parkay and Blue Bonnet and Imperial, all of which used to call themselves margarine, but the word itself is as welcome on their packaging these days as ants at a picnic.

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Originally produced in 1869, when another French chemist, Hippolyte Mège-Mouriès, rose to a challenge posed by Emperor Napoleon III to make a butter substitute for the armed forces, the new foodstuff was originally called oleomargarine, later shortened to the trade name “margarine.” Mège-Mouriès tried to make a go of producing it commercially, but it failed, and he sold off the patent to the Dutch company Jurgens (not to be confused with the American company founded by Andrew Jergens of Jergens Lotion fame, though both made soap). In 1930, the company merged with Lever Brothers to form Unilever, which continues to make margarine — much of it not billed as such (including Promise, I can’t believe it’s not Butter!, and Country Crock) — even today.

Americans have long had a love/hate relationship with margarine, especially in the dairy states, where manifold laws were passed to marginalize its ability to compete with butter. In 1885, Pennsylvania banned the sale of “any oleaginous substance, or any compound of the same, other than that produced from unadulterated milk or of cream from the same, any article designed to take the place of butter or cheese produced from pure unadulterated milk, or cream from the same, or of any imitation or adulterated butter or cheese,” but it was held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1898. An even more comical statute was passed in New Hampshire, which required margarine to be dyed Pepto-Bismol pink, and it too was struck down by the Supreme Court in Collins v. New Hampshire, 171 U.S. 30. The court concluded, quite sensibly, that “If this provision for coloring the article were a legal condition, a legislature could not be limited to pink in its choice of colors. The legislative fancy or taste would be boundless. It might equally as well provide that it should be colored blue or red or black. Nor do we see that it would be limited to the use of coloring matter. It might, instead of that, provide that the article should only be sold if mixed with some other article which, while not deleterious to health, would nevertheless give out a most offensive smell.”

Margarine Colour Blender

While the states were prevented from altering the product, that didn’t mean that the dairy lobby tucked its bovine tail between its legs and headed back to the barn. Margarine in its natural state is white, so states began to pass laws preventing margarine manufacturers from “adulterating” their product with yellow dye, and many of them levied a significant tax on any margarine that was so modified. By the turn of the 20th century, the dairy lobby had largely succeeded in cutting margarine consumption by more than half. Margarine manufacturers responded by enclosing a special bonus packet of yellow pigment with their wares, so homemakers could DIY their dye. [These colour restrictions persisted in Québec, believe it or not, until 2008!]

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In fact, Wisconsin even today has a whole subsection of its state food regulations devoted to oleomargarine, including:

  • (3) No person shall sell, offer or expose for sale at retail any oleomargarine or margarine unless:
    (a) Such oleomargarine or margarine is packaged;
    (b) The net weight of the contents of any package sold in a retail establishment is one pound;
    (c) There appears on the label of the package the word “oleomargarine” or “margarine” in type or lettering at least as large as any other type or lettering on the label in a color of print which clearly contrasts with its background, and a full accurate statement of the ingredients contained in the oleomargarine or margarine; and
    (d) Each part of the contents of the package is contained in a wrapper or separate container which bears the word “oleomargarine” or “margarine” in type or lettering not smaller than 20-point type.
    (4) The serving of colored oleomargarine or margarine at a public eating place as a substitute for table butter is prohibited unless it is ordered by the customer.

It is also prohibited from being served to Wisconsin “students, patients or inmates of any state institutions” unless “necessary for the health of a specific patient or inmate.”

On the national level, the FDA takes over 700 words to define margarine, and the USDA requires that margarine “Shall possess a fine and pleasing buttery flavor. May possess acid, bitter, coarse, flat or oil flavors to a slight degree.” (I’m guessing nobody ever got prosecuted over that.)

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What flattened the margarine industry (or, more appropriately, the use of the word “margarine”) was the Great Trans Fat Scare of the ’90s. Trans fats, for those of you who skipped either the Food section of your local newspaper or chem class, are unsaturated fats (either mono- or poly-) that have been “partially hydrogenated,” or have had hydrogen added to them, in order to increase shelf life and decrease the need for refrigeration. They’re a cheap substitute for other fats and oils that suspend solids at room temperature, such as palm oil, lard, and butter. They have been linked to increased incidence of coronary heart disease, liver dysfunction, Alzheimer’s Disease, diabetes, cancer, and infertility, among other things. But they’re cheap, and market forces have brought them into our diet in great quantities. Since many margarines/buttery spreads/butter substitutes contained these chemical pariahs, they got swept up in the anti-trans-fat movement. To their credit, most butter substitutes — the former margarines — no longer contain trans fats (though some still do). But the damage was done. The margarine moniker had to go.

These days, there’s a fair case to be made that butter substitutes are no worse for you, and possibly even better, than butter. After all, butter is richly laden with saturated fat, which is itself associated with coronary heart disease. And then there’s the whole animal exploitation/treatment issue, which is another topic for another time, but deserves consideration. Wise consumers will peruse the product’s contents (trans fats are now required to be identified separately from saturated and unsaturated fats), and choose accordingly, striking a balance between the palate and the peril.

Whether you opt for buttery spread, butter substitute, vegetable oil spread, or some other ersatz dairy product, when they say, “I can’t believe it’s not Butter!” you would be more than justified to respond with, “And I don’t believe it’s not margarine.”

Coda: A persistent myth circulating around the Interwebs claims that “margarine is one molecule away from being plastic.” Two quick rejoinders: 1) It’s not true, and 2) So what if it were? Water (H2O) is one atom away from being toxic (hydrogen peroxide, H2O2). Salt (NaCl) is an atom away from being chlorine gas (Cl2). Get over it.

Je suis sous vide

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Sous Vide Supreme

Sous Vide Supreme

First off, I should explain the headline, because those of you who go to Google Translate to figure it out will discover that the phrase — at least in machine-translate speak — roughly equates to “I am vacuum.” And you might infer (possibly even correctly) from that translation that I had, in a cross-cultural display of bilingual ineptitude, intended to say, “I suck.” Not true. It’s up to you, dear reader, to determine if I suck, but it’s up to me to determine if that’s what I intended. The more appropriate translation of “sous vide” is “under pressure,” and on this Bastille Day, that’s precisely what I am.

Just to the right of the keyboard where this post is being composed sits a machine that The Bride gave to me as a Christmas present. In 2011. Here it is, nearly half way through July 2013, and it still sits there unused, mocking me. Not because I’m not keenly interested in giving it a spin, but because it terrifies me. Let me back up for a moment.

Sous vide began as an ingenious solution to a difficult problem: When you cook fois gras, it shrinks. And at $50+ per pound, even a little shrinkage hits the wallet in a pretty dramatic way. Just about 40 years ago, Georges Pralus invented the technique of sealing food in plastic and cooking it at low temperature for Restaurant Troisgros (of Pierre and Michel Troisgros fame) in Roanne, France. The technique has been adopted by restaurants across the world, not only to save on foie gras shrinkage (something that we in California don’t have to deal with because it’s been outlawed — wink wink), but to help tenderize meats gently, and without using additives. When you think about it, it makes perfect sense; typically, when you’re cooking meat, your intent is to bring the center of the meat to a given temperature, and the way we’d always done it was to apply a heat that was way too high to the outside, letting the energy radiate from the surface into the center until the desired temp had been attained. Done skillfully, this results in a perfect steak/chop/rib/whatever. Done poorly, the outside of the meat morphs into leather, encasing a Goldilocks band that’s “just right,” and an interior that’s a meager step above raw. What sous vide allows a cook to do is to set the temperature in the circulating water bath just slightly higher than the desired core temperature of the item to be cooked, place the bag in the water, and walk away for a few hours.

Yep, you read that right. A few hours. Sometimes as many as 72 hours. Anybody who’s used a slow cooker is reasonably familiar with the anti-microwave nature of this method. It relies on thinking things through well in advance of the meal; no spur-of-the-moment “Gee, I’d like some carnitas!”-type decisions here. And I’m good with that, at least most of the time. I usually know how many people will be dining here a couple of days in advance and am capable of following a calendar to schedule my meal-building appropriately.

So I started reading recipes and digging into the underlying science — it’s just part of my process. I read Thomas Keller’s Under Pressure: Cooking Sous Vide. I read Sous Vide for the Home Cook by Douglas Baldwin, Michael Eades, and Mary Dan Eades. I read the relevant passages in the massive six-volume set Modernist Cuisine: The Art and Science of Cooking by Nathan Myhrvold, Chris Young, and Maxime Bilet. I plowed through innumerable articles on the Interwebs. And in addition to the joys and benefits of this exciting new technique, I uncovered a staggering amount of information about food safety and how to avoid serving things one doesn’t care to eat, such as colonies of Escherichia coli O157:H7. And Salmonella. And Clostridium perfringens. And Bacillus cereus.

Let me say at this juncture that I keep surfaces in my kitchen pretty clean, but I wouldn’t want a USDA inspector poking his nose around with a black light and swabs for petri dishes. And I certainly don’t want to serve a lovely, tender roast that sends my dinner guests off to hospital. So I read more. And more. And more. For a period of time, I became convinced that I’d have to prepare my food in a hazmat suit, install negative air flow isolation chambers at both entrances to the kitchen, and finish my chemistry degree or run the risk of becoming known as the South Bay Poisoner. Clearly, along that route lay madness — or, in my case, paralysis.

Recently, as the Sous Vide Supreme was sticking out its figurative metal tongue at me from its perch below the printer, I had an epiphany: my kitchen isn’t so very different than many restaurant kitchens that employ this technology successfully. And unless one happens to be dining with Harold McGee or Nathan Myhrvold, the likelihood of the chef holding an advanced degree in food science or chemistry is fairly small. In short, I can do this.

And I’m going to. I’ve made myself a promise — now repeated in public — to enjoy the benefits of sous vide cooking while summer is still in full swing… if only to relieve the pressure.

Should you see any news stories about the South Bay Poisoner cropping up, all I can say is that it wasn’t me. I was miles away at the time, and I can prove it.