Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Wheat - good for you? Bad for you?

Spanish "Horno" -- oven -- for baking bread, on Camino de Santiago, Spain. [Photo by Teri Carns.]

Anyone thinking about food these days can't help but notice that the topic generates a lot of controversy. Is healthy fast food an oxymoron? Is genetic breeding always bad? Is organic always good? Someone is always trying to change the way that you shop, cook, eat your food.

Alaska wheat, Alaska State Fair. [Photo, Teri Carns.]

Wheat is the focus of many of these controversies.
  • Dwarf wheats produce at double or triple the rates of earlier plants, but also need great quantities of petroleum-based fertilizers that result in more greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.
  • Gluten-free diets, vs. diets with wheat have some people arguing that no human body is actually capable of digesting grains, and they are responsible for the most pernicious diseases of the last couple of centuries, while others say that grains are important to a healthy diet. 
  • Sustainable harvests, vs. monoculture crops is a debate particularly focused on wheat, along with corn and soy. 
  • Some authors raise concerns about food as a marker of social class. Locally-grown organic wheats are made into artisan breads at the upper end of the scale, and bleached and enriched flour is used in low-cost breads and hamburger buns at the other end of the scale.
  • Nutrient-rich "natural" foods may protect against aging and disease, but foods bred over centuries to serve other needs, such as taste, portability, and disease resistance may lack some specific nutrients.
Baguettes, Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop, Anchorage. [Teri Carns, photo.]

A recent headline in the New York Times was "Breeding the Nutrition out of our food." The author, Jo Robinson, made the point that people have selectively chosen variations of food over the centuries that are sweeter and more palatable, while sacrificing bitter medicinal qualities. She omitted the discussion of how people also have selected varieties that are more disease resistant, heavier yielding, easier to harvest, and safer to transport. Those points were not relevant to the point that she was making, and she wasn't obliged to mention them. But they're useful to remember.

Urban dandelion, Anchorage, April 21, 2013. Probably not ideal for your salad. [Photo by Teri Carns]

She describes dandelion leaves, for example, as having "seven times the phytonutrients (chemical compounds found in plants with the potential to reduce the risks of several major diseases) of spinach." One immediately thinks that it is simple prejudice that keeps people from selling dandelion leaves. But they are subject to diseases that spinach is not; they often grow near dairy fields and can be contaminated with bacteria from the cows; and they are difficult to harvest. The price could be as low as $5 a pound, a little more than the comparable spinach, but may only be available for a short time during the year.

Foccacia, April 20, 2013. [Photo by Teri Carns.]

Those who insist that modern food is not as good as that eaten by our ancestors often target wheat. The current arguments against wheat include insistence that the new dwarf wheats contain proteins not found in wheat grown before about 1950. The anti-wheat arguments however, often suggest that humans never had the right enzymes to digest grains, and particularly the proteins in wheat (gliadin and glutenin) that allow breads to rise. Some also argue that after gliadin does get digested, it turns into a morphine-like compound that creates cravings for more wheat. The proponents of a wheat-free diet suggest that wheat raises blood sugar more effectively than does candy; that wheat increases inflammation and insulin resistance,  and that it makes digestion of minerals difficult or impossible.

L'Opera Ristorante, Long Beach, California, fresh-baked bread, March 2013. [Teri Carns photo]

What are the arguments on the other side? There's a counter to each of the claims made against wheat. One author, writing at berkeleywellness.com,  notes that there's no clinical evidence (meaning random, controlled studies that meet the tests for peer-reviewed scientific journals) for the claims that modern wheat affects humans differently or more harmfully than earlier varieties of wheat. Humans have eaten wheat for thousands of years, and in fact the evidence is that human digestive systems developed more amylase after they started eating grains, which permits better digestion of wheat, rye, barley and other grasses.

There is no evidence that eating wheat causes obesity. As the author above at berkeleywellness notes, many other groups of people in the world today eat substantial quantities of the same wheat that we do, and are not obese.

As for the opoid effects of gliadin, researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln said that there was some evidence that in people with celiac disease, there may be some reaction, not fully understood. But the reaction was not known to occur in those who do not have the markers for celiac disease, which is present in less than one percent of the American population [note -- June 30, 2015 -- this link no longer works -- try this one: at webmd.com].

Seed bread, Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop, Anchorage. [Photo, Teri Carns.]

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Wheat reports from the Midwest, spring 2013

Winter wheat field, Berrien County, Michigan, mid-April, 2013. [Photo by Micki Glueckert]

This spring, as every spring for thousands of years, people have looked at the sky, and felt the ground for warmth, and  wondered how soon they could plant. In some areas, they look at their winter wheat crops, the only thing growing during the first spring days. 

For a blog about wheat, it makes sense to follow the wheat as it grows around the U. S., and the world. Wheat is something of an experimental crop in Alaska fields, so I sweet-talked a couple of my Midwest sisters into taking some pictures of winter wheat fields in Michigan and Ohio. Throughout this summer and fall of 2013, I plan to post regularly about wheat crops and harvest around the world.

Wheat, unlike most grains, can be planted both in the spring and the fall. Called 'winter wheat" when it's sowed in the mild autumn days, it goes dormant over the winter. As soon as the fields warm up, the leaves turn green and begin to grow again. Moistened by the snows, and ripening early, winter wheat escapes the scorching midsummer days.

                Winter wheat field with grain silos, Berrien County, Michigan April 28, 2013 [Photo by Micki Glueckert]

Southwest Michigan winter wheat

I grew up in Berrien County, Michigan, noted for its fruit orchards, and (these days) vineyards. Turns out that wheat of any sort is not a prime crop there -- the weather's too wet, usually. The farmers who grow it use it mainly for livestock feed. A Michigan State web site with information from 1996 and 1997 showed that the county had somewhere between 500 and 14,999 acres planted in winter wheat in 1996 and 1997, and a harvest of 51 to 69 bushels per acres in 1997. A data site for Berrien County noted that farmers harvested just 2,617 acres of wheat (which might have included some spring wheat) in 2011, compared to 41,400 acres of corn and 51,400 acres of soybeans. The sister who lives on a poultry farm there will be sending along progress reports for Wheatavore.

Northwest Ohio winter wheat

Another sister who lives in 
Ottawa County at the northwest corner of  Ohio, has also been pressed into service (I'm working on the Iowa sister for more photos). Ottawa County near Toledo has its own share of winter wheat fields. But just as with Berrien County, the Ottawa County land use map shows that corn and soy fields cover much more acreage than winter wheat.

                                   Winter wheat field near Genoa, Ohio, April 20, 2013 -- on the dry side [photo by Betsy Slotnick].

                              Another winter wheat field on May 19, 2013, also dry, but the wheat's much taller [photo by Betsy Slotnick].

We'll be reporting regularly on these wheat fields and others -- their weather, the pests, the commodity prices on the markets, and more. For instance, this site shows the prices for wheat delivered at different times in the future, and tells who's buying what, for May 23, 2013:

Latest Brugler Wheat Report

Wheat futures are trading 9 to 10 cents higher at midday in Chicago. Japan is tendering for 122,222 MT of milling wheat this week, of which 67,897 MT is specified US origin white, HRW and DNS wheat. Results are due on Thursday. Ag Canada raised projected Canadian wheat production to 29.4 MMT, going above the USDA estimate of 29 MMT which was in turn based on Stats Canada (different agency) data.  Algeria bought 50,000 MT of soft wheat for August from the EU. USDA is expected to show net US weekly export sales of 400-700,000 MT for last week. May 31 is the last day for old crop wheat to be shipped.

None of them are in the market for Berrien County wheat, or Alaska wheat either, but it provides another perspective on one of the world's oldest crops.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

la Baleine -- the Whale -- arrives on the Homer Spit

             la Baleiene (French for "the whale") on the Homer Spit, its windows reflecting the mountains across Kachemak Bay.

    The freshest food in Homer is easy to find. Just go almost all the way to the end of the Homer Spit, and there on the left is la Baleiene, painted the ocean's blue. Inside, le Cordon Bleu-trained Mandy Dixon greets her guests warmly.

                                        Mandy Dixon surveys the Dixon family's new restaurant, la Baleiene.

     The cafe opened on May 10, little more than a week before we arrived on May 19. The deep familiarity with  restaurants showed -- even though it had been in business only a few days, everything was in order. The staff handled each new customer with ease and consideration, whether they were asking for soup and sandwiches to be served at one of the wooden tables, or choosing pastries and box lunches to go. And the prices

     Mandy's seafood ramen dish, with crab beignet and shrimp toast tied for second in an invitational seafood cooking competition on May 8. While the salmon ramen dish is on the menu, we tried the cafe's chowder, which shows her skill at marrying wild seafood  flavors with a rich cream base and the perfect seasonings.

             The breakfast sandwich, veggie version (you can get it with bacon too ) on grilled ciabbata with fresh greens, cheese, and caramelized onions, leeks and mushrooms. 

     I ordered the breakfast sandwich, with its variety of options -- bacon, egg, more cheese, and always with  bright greens, rich onions, leeks and mushrooms, and a few bites of fruit to set off the other tastes.

      We decided on chocolate chip cookies to go for our dessert, but could have had many other choices.

                                    Hard to beat these chocolate chip cookies that exemplify Mandy's years of training as a pastry chef -- buttery, chocolate filled, rich -- all the things that they should be.

       Catering to locals with a 5:00 a.m. opening, and to visitors with lunch served until 4:00 p.m., la Baleiene is open Tuesday through Sunday at 4460 Homer Spit Road across from the SeaFarers Memorial.

        The to-go items were disappearing fast; the staff replenishes them throughout the day.

       A Homer Tribune article gives more information about the local foods and "Homer Style" cooking that guests will enjoy at the cafe.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The neighbor's no-knead bread

                                          Mark Titzel's no-knead bread, fresh from the oven.

Our neighbor Mark across the street and I debated last week about sourdough vs. Jim Lahey's No-knead breads. Mark wins this one hands down. He came over this evening bearing a rounded perfectly-crusted, never-kneaded loaf, hot from his oven. It made me think that while I'm learning sourdough, maybe I owe it to myself to try this tasty and relatively simple bread.

Mark said that he used the well-known Jim Lahey recipe for 18-hour no-knead bread that was published in the New York Times in 2006 (see below). Since then, Mr. Lahey has published a book, and demonstrated and written extensively about his method.

I'm a complete beginner at breads, and especially at being able to understand the intricacies of 21st century artisan breads. My first loaves, and most of them for the next several decades came from the Rombauers' 1967 "Joy of Cooking." Those were days of milk, sugar, and butter in the bread, even the French bread (click here for a slight variation on that recipe) that today would have simply water, flour, yeast and a bit of salt (click here for a more modern recipe for French bread).

A few weeks ago,  Alyeska Bake Shop gave me some of their sourdough starter, and it couldn't just sit in the back of the fridge. I got busy reading and working with a whole new set of recipes, techniques, and terminologies -- folds, levains, preferments, Dutch ovens, bread stones, and more. I'm too much of a novice to compare the No-Knead technique with the variety of ways in which artisan breads rise and are kneaded, and proofed and baked. But there are similarities. Both the Lahey technique and sourdough breads rely on long fermenting times to give them more complex flavor. Both call for baking breads in ovens much hotter than those recommended in the early "Joy of Cooking." They do without the sugar, butter, and milk that seemed to be standard for the 1960s recipes, and work their wonders with flour, water, yeast and a bit of salt.

                              The no-knead bread -- a light crumb and thin, crisp crust -- ready for jam or cheese.

Suffice it to say that Mark's gift was both beautiful and delicious. Jim and I have been nibbling away all evening, and are looking forward to toasting this and slathering it with butter and homemade raspberry jam (or maybe Matanuska honey) for breakfast on Mothers' Day tomorrow.

Baking the Perfect Loaf of Bread at Home

Formula and Process created by Jim Lahey, owner of Sullivan St Bakery
    3 cups (430g) flour
    1½ cups (345g or 12oz) water
    ¼ teaspoon (1g) yeast
    1¼ teaspoon (8g) salt
    olive oil (for coating)
    extra flour, wheat bran, or cornmeal (for dusting)
        Two medium mixing bowls
        6 to 8 quart pot with lid (Pyrex glass, Le Creuset cast iron, or ceramic)
        Wooden Spoon or spatula (optional)
        Plastic wrap
        Two or three cotton dish towels (not terrycloth)
          Mix all of the dry ingredients in a medium bowl. Add water and incorporate by hand or with a wooden spoon or spatula for 30 seconds to 1 minute. Lightly coat the inside of a second medium bowl with olive oil and place the dough in the bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rest 12 hours at room temperature (approx. 65-72°F).
          Remove the dough from the bowl and fold once or twice. Let the dough rest 15 minutes in the bowl or on the work surface. Next, shape the dough into ball. Generously coat a cotton towel with flour, wheat bran, or cornmeal; place the dough seam side down on the towel and dust with flour. Cover the dough with a cotton towel and let rise 1-2 hours at room temperature, until more than doubled in size.

          Preheat oven to 450-500°F. Place the pot in the oven at least 30 minutes prior to baking to preheat. Once the dough has more than doubled in volume, remove the pot from the oven and place the dough in the pot seam side up. Cover with the lid and bake 30 minutes Then remove the lid and bake 15-30 minutes uncovered, until the loaf is nicely browned.

          Friday, May 10, 2013

          The Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop -- artisan baking in an Anchorage tradition

          Anchorage has a tradition of warm-hearted artisan bakeries, from the Bread Factory of the 1970s to today's Fire Island Bakeshop. Andy Davi and his friend Kathy had spent a year cooking at the old Bridge restaurant that was located in the Quonset Hut across from the Sears Mall, and were ready for something more. With visions of baking the tastiest and healthiest bread in Anchorage, they opened The Bread Factory at 835 I Streetin the fall of 1971. Dense loaves of Tassajara bread arrived at the front counter from the kitchen, along with hearty sandwiches layered with avocado and sprouts, fragrant vegetable soups to be sopped up with chunks of whole wheat rolls, and huge rich cookies for desserts. Anchorageites loved the wooden wire spool tables, the mismatched thrift shop chairs, the Indian-print bedspread decor, and the steamy warm air on a winter morning.Nothing was done by halves – Andy’s thick black curls and ringing laughter, and Kathy’s answering voice brightened both our home and the restaurant.

          A decade later, Anchorage oil wealth scattered office buildings everywhere, replacing The Bread Factory and the handful of other small businesses with glass and concrete blocks. Andy went back to Monterey and his family of Italian fishermen, and Kathy moved on, as did we all. But a few years ago, a new bread shop opened not far from the old Bread Factory, and though its offerings are rooted in a different set of traditions, it has the steamy windows on a winter morning, and the bright welcomes from its owners.

           Jerry Lewanski and Janis Fleischman created the Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop at 1343 G Street in 2009. Retired from directing the Alaska State Parks (Jerry) and from service as a principal at a local high school (Janis), they have the clear eyes and grounded vigor of people who love to hike the Pacific Coast Trail and take their vacations in bracing wilderness. Why then are they baking some of Anchorage's most creative breads?

                                                   A spring afternoon at Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop.

              “I’ve been cooking all my life,” Jerry said as he showed me through the bakery. He handed me “The Taste of Bread” from his library.”The French professor Raymond Calvel brought back the traditions of his country's breads -- to Japan, all over the world -- he showed the science and art of it. If you want to know how to make bread right, this is where to start."

          "The Taste of Bread" guided him in the days when he was figuring out how to turn out the perfect French loaves from the hand-built brick oven in his backyard. After retiring, Jerry headed to the San Francisco Baking Institute to master the skills needed for baking on a larger scale. Inspired by European shops, Jerry and Janis started Fire Island to bring "the best ingredients, the best tastes, and the highest standards of bread making" to Anchorage."

                                                   Seeded loaf.

                "Any baker will give you a recipe,” he said. “It’s the ingredients that you use, and the work and artistry that you put into it that makes the difference. We can spend a year or more refining our recipes before offering something new. It takes that long to get it the way we want it to taste.”

                                                    Fire Island Oven.

          Baking is fraught with uncertainty. Even the finest wheat flour varies in its rising and taste depending on the weather, the humidity in the air, where it was grown, how it was stored, and dozens of other factors, most of them not under the control of the baker. Yet Fire Island turns out the same delicious breads, day after day, season after season. Jerry pulled several scales off a shelf next to the tables where the assistant bakers work. “Everything gets weighed, sometimes to the hundredth of a gram,” he said. “You have to start there, and then comes the art of knowing how the dough should feel when it’s ready to bake. Do you need to add a bit more water? More flour? Those things come from experience, and constant attention to details.”

                                                    Mixer in work area at Fire Island.

          We talked flour – the basic ingredient in everything except the coffee in the Bakeshop. Jerry said that all of the wheat flour is organic, and comes from Central Milling in Utah. Two of the Giusto brothers from the San Francisco baking family started the company in 1867, and still take great pride in their wheat and its preparation. Fresh-ground flour doesn’t absorb water well, or develop the desired texture when kneaded and baked. Central Milling inspects each batch of flour, and ages it for two weeks until it's ready for the water, yeast and fire. Jerry and Janis experiment with other grains as well -- rye and oats appear regularly, and they've tried many of the ancient wheats – kamut, emmer, einkorn, and spelt.

                                                    Classic French baguettes.

          Jerry described the natural yeasts that they use, a topic of great controversy among bakers. “Really, a pedigreed sourdough starter is not necessary,” he said. “Yeast is everywhere – in the air, on the flour itself. I use yeast from grapes, along with starters that I grow myself.” He keeps the starters healthy by feeding them regularly and watching their temperature and environment. Most of the breads are supplemented with a small dose of commercial yeast, needed to replicate the taste and texture of classic French bread, as recommended by Professor Calvel.

           And what about croissants? I wondered, having attempted them myself on occasion. “We roll them and turn them all by hand,” he said, showing me the recipe. It includes egg, a tiny bit of sugar, whole-wheat and white flour, yeast, salt, and of course, butter. “We use organic salted butter, and Plugra unsalted butter. Only the best. There’s never any GMO product – we quit using corn for the most part because it’s so hard to get non-GMO corn any more.”

                                                    Challah breads and rolls are on the menu every Friday.

          It’s not all about challah, or rustic rye, or a dozen other breads that vary by the day and the season. Fire Island customers order from a menu that runs the gamut from elegant fruit tarts to chocolate chip cookies, to muffins and cupcakes. Jerry said that they are always trying new things. He didn’t think there was such a thing as an edible scone, but Janis made them not only edible but delectable. Now the scones are favorites, and people arrive early  to be sure of getting a savory spinach scone with Asagio cheese and sun-dried tomatoes.

                                                    Apple, cheddar, black pepper scone.

          As he walked through the small front work area, showing off the 6,000 pound Italian oven with five stone baking surfaces, and the mixer that swirls 80 pounds of dough at a time, I thought about standing on the other side of the Fire Island counter watching six or eight bakers bustle in that same space. Without ever brushing elbows, they pull croissant trays from the oven, shape baguettes, top foccacias with browned portobello mushrooms and slices of Dubliner cheese, and ask each customer in the crowded line for their orders.Their grace and good cheer shows the awareness of themselves in space possessed by expert dancers and athletes, and the professionalism that marks every aspect of the business.

          When  I left, Jerry was joining Janis and their daughter in a small sunny office at the front of the shop to design the summer menu. The large black dog, Mac, lay by the front door keeping an eye on passers-by. Next time I go in, it will be as one of a steady stream of fans who travel from all over Anchorage to get their fix of a kale and Gruyere croissant, or a classic French baguette. The Bread Factory is a distant memory, but its spirit of the kinship of bread is alive again at the Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop.

          Toys for the kids -- everyone's welcome.

          To get there: Fire Island Rustic Bakeshop is located at the corner of 14th and G Streets near downtown Anchorage. Hours are 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m., closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. They serve croissants, muffins, and breakfast pastries, breads, foccacias, sandwiches, cookies, tarts, pies and cupcakes; coffee is available too. Call (907) 569-0001 for information about what breads are on the menu for the day. Their website is http://www.fireislandbread.com/.

          1343 G St  Anchorage, AK 99501
          (907) 569-0001