Okra and Tomatoes

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Okra, photo courtesy of Swallowtail Garden Seeds

As Julia mentioned in our last okra blog, cooking with okra can be a bit slimy. One of the tricks to combat the slime, is to cook it at high heat and really fast. Usually, this means frying okra, but there are other ways to cook it quick! Today’s recipe is okra and tomatoes. The trick, in this recipe, is to sauté the okra in a hot pan for only 3 to 4 minutes. Add some tomatoes and voilà, we have a recipe jam packed with vegetables and a kick of spice!

 

tomato

Photo courtesy of Vodeck

Ingredients:
• 3 medium tomatoes, diced
• 1 onion, chopped
• 3 cups Okra, cut into 1 inch pieces
• 2 cloves garlic
• Pinch of cayenne pepper
• Salt and pepper to taste
• Bacon or Andouille sausage (optional)
• Vegetable oil

 

onion

Photo courtesy of Kim Siever

Putting it all together:
1. In a large skillet, cook the bacon (or andouille sausage) until crispy. Remove bacon from pan and place it on a paper towel lined plate.
2. Pour all but 3 tablespoons of grease into a grease jar. We will be using the remaining grease to cook our onions and garlic.
a. Vegetarian option: use vegetable oil instead of bacon or andouille sausage grease
3. Put the onions and garlic into the pan with the grease. Cook on medium-high heat until the onions are translucent. Add a pinch of cayenne to add some spice.
4. In a separate pan, add vegetable oil and heat on high for about a minute. When pan is hot, add okra pieces in a single layer. Let brown for a minute, and then stir to allow the other side to cook. Sear for about 3 to 4 minutes and remove from heat.
5. Add the okra and tomatoes to the pan with the garlic and the onions. Cook about 4 more minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
6. Remove from heat, add bacon (or sausage) and enjoy!
If this type of okra isn’t for you, join us at OKRA Charity Saloon this month! The Houston Museum of Natural Science is one of four featured charities. You won’t have to eat okra (unless you want to) and you have the opportunity to vote for HMNS!

Okra: Friend, Foe, or Fried?

okra7Image from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Okra Ah, okra.

Okra is one of those divisive foods like mayonnaise or Brussel sprouts. Some people love it, while others are repulsed by the mere mentioning of its name. It’s like a culinary four-letter word. As a child, I was predisposed to hate okra. Everyone always described it as “slimy.” I’m not one for being a picky eater, but “slimy” isn’t typically a selling point for me when it comes to food. I refused to try okra for years because of this commonly used description.

As an educator at HMNS, I frequently encounter children who are afraid of certain halls or objects, like the ferocious prehistoric beasts in our Hall of Paleontology or the mysterious mummies in the Hall of Ancient Egypt. When I start to ask questions about why they’re afraid, I usually discover that it’s because they’re afraid of what they don’t know. So, we learn! We start talking about why mummification was an important practice in ancient Egypt, or we learn more about the amazing anatomy of a T. rex. I mean who could be afraid of a Tyrannosaurus rex after learning that one of the scientific theories behind their tiny arms is that they used them to show affection and tickle each other? It’s a pretty great mental image. After all, knowledge is power. I’m going to argue that the same concept can be applied to okra, so let’s delve into some food science.

Okra is a member of the flowering mallow family along with cotton and hibiscus. The culinary slime-stick we fry up or throw into jambalayas comes from the edible seed pod of the plant. Now, what is the deal with that slime? I’m glad you asked!

Okra seed pods contain a substance called mucilage. Sounds tasty, right? Mucilage is made up of polar glycoproteins and exopolysaccharides, or more simply put, it consists of protein chains and sugar residue. Plants use mucilage to store food and water, thicken their membranes, and help with seed germination.

Mucilage is also found in aloe vera and cactus plants. You may have rubbed some mucilage on yourself this summer in an attempt to soothe a painful sunburn. Some carnivorous plants, like sundews, have mucilage glands along their leaves to use as a flypaper trap to capture their prey.

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Succulent_plant
Image: The fibrous mucilage found inside the leaves of an aloe plant.

 

okra9 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drosera
Image: You can see the mucilage at the end of the tentacles as this sundew catches an insect.

So, in short, this is the stuff you rub on yourself to heal a sunburn, and the substance some plants use to catch insects. Great, let’s eat it!

If you’ve ever told an okraphile that you hate okra, they most likely responded with “You didn’t cook it the right way!” And that may be true. You see, mucilage is hard when dry; however, as you heat mucilage and add moisture, the viscosity of the substance increases which releases the dreaded slime. That’s why many people advocate for quick-frying okra. (For that reason and because anything fried is delicious.) Frying exposes the okra to heat for a minimal amount of time, so the mucilage doesn’t become too viscus. This results in crunchy little okra morsels. Others embrace the goo and use it in gumbos and jambalayas. The mucilage acts as an excellent thickening agent in soups and stews. Because food science.

Now that we know a little more about our friend, mucilage, let’s serve up some okra. I’m a converted fan of fried okra. It’s simple, delicious and tends to eliminate the slime factor. I’ve included my favorite recipe below!

After you’ve fried up some okra, and you’ve worked up your appetite for okra and science, stop by Okra Charity Saloon during the month of September to support your museum! We’ll be there every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday with cocktail chemistry, fossils, crafts, and science. For more information on Okra Charity Saloon and how you can support HMNS, check out Nicole’s blog from September 1st (link to Nicole’s blog here).

Fried Okra
Ingredients:
2 pounds of fresh okra
1 cup flour
1 cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup buttermilk
6 cups oil for frying (Canola oil or peanut oil work best. These both have higher smoke points and mild flavors, which are perfect for frying foods. More science!)

  1. Heat oil in deep pan.
  2. Cut okra into 1/2 inch pieces.
  3. Place okra pieces in buttermilk. Let sit while you combine dry ingredients.
  4. Combine flour, cornmeal, garlic powder, paprika, cayenne pepper, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Stir until ingredients are combined.
  5. Remove okra from buttermilk and toss in coating until each piece is completely covered. 
  6. Fry okra in oil for approximately 5 minutes or until pieces are a golden brown. Stir to make sure each piece is evenly fried. (Remember: Don’t leave it for too long, or you’ll increase the viscosity of the mucilage!)
  7. Remove okra from oil and place on paper towels to remove excess oil.
  8. Enjoy, and stop by Okra Charity Saloon to support HMNS!

Ice cream science: Make a cool treat to beat the summer heat

It’s getting to that time of year when it’s so hot and yucky outside that everything cold is better.

It’s also a time for telling kids about how, when you were their age, if you wanted ice cream you had to turn a crank until your arms fell off (presumably while walking uphill to school both ways and fighting off bears…).

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Here in the Houston Museum of Natural Science education department, we have tried making ice cream in a variety of ways to see what is easiest for kids, and not all ways are equal. (Pro tip: Those special ice cream-making balls they sell for kids freeze shut, and then kids are sad. Not recommended.) Our favorite way, at the end of this post, is fairly cheap and easy and fun for kids, but before we get to the instructions, let’s talk about some science.

To make ice cream, you will of course need ice. The ice is simply to lower the temperature of the cream to the freezing point, but if you just used ice alone and let it sit, you’d end up with a solid block of cream – more like an ice cube – and it would take longer to freeze. What makes ice cream special is salt and stirring.

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Water freezes at 32° F, but sprinkling salt on the ice lowers the freezing/melting point of water. How, you say? In order for liquid water to freeze to solid ice, all of the water molecules have to slow down enough to connect to each other and form solid crystals. When this happens, the water loses kinetic energy due to the decrease in movement of those molecules. Because temperature is a measurement of kinetic energy, this results in a lower temperature.

The presence of salt interferes with this process. The water molecules can’t attract each other as easily because they are also attracted to the sodium and chloride ions from the salt. Mixing the salt, ice, and water together results in a temperature below the freezing point of water, which helps the cream freeze faster. The shaking or stirring helps cool the cream evenly and efficiently. In ice cream, this lower freezing point turns the fats into solids, but the water content to be almost frozen.

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What about the milk, then? It is much easier to make ice cream with creamer, heavy whipping cream, or half-and-half than to use skim milk because of the higher fat content in cream. You can make ice cream with skim milk, but it is really, really, really hard to do by hand, AND you have already committed to making ice cream, so I feel like you have acknowledged the inherent risk of fat consumption that comes with making a frozen confectionery delight. Just use the full-fat stuff, and let’s all move on.

What does the fat do, anyway? Primarily the higher fat content allows for a richer, creamier texture and a more delicious flavor in your finished product. The reason for this is that when you are cooling and mixing the cream, you are also introducing air molecules to the liquid. The bits of fat in the cream add a little structure to the ice cream and trap these air molecules in the solution as it forms. This, plus the lower freezing temperature, enables you to be able to scoop the ice cream fairly easily because it allows for there to be a bit of unfrozen water in the ice cream, which stops the ice cream from becoming a solid block of ice.

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If you have ever had ice cream that has grown ice crystals and gotten a bit of freezer burn, those ice crystals appeared because the unfrozen water in the ice cream had a chance to migrate a little bit when the ice cream was warmed slightly on the ride home or when it was left on a counter a little too long and then frozen again. There are things called stabilizers added to your ice cream to prevent this from happening. Most ice creams today have one of five stabilizers added to them: carob bean gum* (a type of bean from Africa), carrageenan (a type of algae), guar gum (a type of legume from India), sodium alginate (made from seaweed) or carboxymethyl cellulose (sounds scary but it’s plant-based). Often, if you read the label, you will see more than one of these in your ice cream to keep it smooth and delicious.

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* Carob beans, or locust beans, are cool. They are from exotic African trees and each bean is so similar that at one point they were used as a unit of measurement for gold and silver. We still use this measurement today, but the name has changed over time to Karat.

So now that you have had a little lecture about the science of ice cream, let’s get to the delicious lab work.

 

Activity: ICE CREAM!!!!

Materials:

Individual serving containers of coffee creamer

Ice

Small waterproof container or quality sealable plastic sack big enough for about two or three cups of chipped ice

Salt, any variety

A dish towel to insulate your hands

Optional: Inexhaustible energy of small child-based labor

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Procedure:

  1. Find some liquid coffee creamers in individual pots.
  2. Put ice in your water proof container, filling it about a third of the way. Smaller chunks of ice work better because there is more surface area, but any ice will do.
  3. Layer your salt on your ice. Several solid sprinkles will do, but if you are nervous about the quantity, add some extra just in case. It won’t hurt anything.
  4. Put your sealed creamer cup(s) in your container and then put more ice in, filling it about 2/3 of the way.
  5. Layer on more salt.
  6. Finish filling the container with ice.
  7. Start shaking your container. Make sure it is well sealed and that you have a firm grip on it. No one wants to be injured in an ice cream-related accident. There is no way to spin that so it sounds cool. Also, this is an excellent job for kids to help with. Put on a nice, long song or two and let them wiggle till they drop. About ten minutes will do it, but you will know when you are getting close because a frost will form on the outside of your container. If you don’t feel frost forming after a couple of minutes, add more salt. To speed this process up, start with creamer pods that have been stored in the fridge. This way, your creamer will start at about 50° F, and you won’t have to work so hard.
  8. After about 10 minutes of shake, shake, shaking your ice cream, dig your creamer cup out of the ice and wipe it off.
  9. Ta dah! You are done. Unless you want to make this tablespoon of delicious homemade ice cream into a sundae and add chocolate and banana or some jelly for more flavor.

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Note: If you are thinking to yourself, “That seems like a lot of work for a tablespoon of ice cream,” well… it is. But it’s also science. So there.

If you get the liquid creamer that comes in a larger container at the grocery store, you can increase the volume of your creamer and make MORE ice cream. If you choose to do this, you will need to find a small waterproof (and I would suggest plastic) container to pour the creamer into and then a slightly larger waterproof container for all the ice and the salt. It’s the same procedure, just with a larger amount of the ingredients!

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You Can Thank Science for Helping You Cook an Awesome Thanksgiving Dinner

Loosen your belts boys and girls, because we are approaching Thanksgiving, the day where diets and portion control cease to exist. To make things a bit easier for you, I have compiled some tips on how to make your Thanksgiving dinner a winner. And how do we do this? With science of course!

Turkey
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When it comes to cooking turkey, the star of your Thanksgiving dinner, you have to make sure your bird comes out moist, tender, and flavorful. First thing to know is the cooking style and time depends on the parts of the turkey you are cooking. If you are going Ren-Fest style and just serving up turkey legs, a longer cooking time at a low temperature would be better to allow the tissue to break down slowly. However, if you are just serving up a turkey breast, it can be cooked at a higher temperature for a shorter period of time since there is not as much tissue as is in the legs.

Now I am going to assume that you are a Thanksgiving champion and are cooking the whole turkey. Here’s what you should do to make a winner winner turkey dinner:

  • As mentioned above, the breast and legs have different cooking times, however if you are cooking the whole turkey, this isn’t really an option. However, there is a way you can help differentiate the cooking times before putting your turkey in the oven. “Take the bird out ahead of time and let the legs warm up a little bit while you keep the breasts covered with ice packs. That way, you keep the breasts cold. The legs warm up by maybe 10, 20 degrees, and that way, when you put the bird in the oven, you’ve already built in a temperature differential. The breasts are going to end up, at a given time, less-cooked than the legs.“ – NPR- “Delicious Turkey Tips From Food Scientists
  • We have all had that dry, chewy turkey before, and I don’t know about you, but I would rather not repeat that experience. To help your turkey maintain its moist deliciousness, soak your bird in a saltwater solution prior to cooking–aka brining. Brining helps loosen the structure of the muscle fibers and increases the turkey’s water weight, these steps combined result in tender and juicy meat. Check out Butterball’s brining guide to find the correct brining time for your turkey.
  • If you are roasting the turkey, cook it on an elevated rack a few inches off the bottom of the pan to allow the heat to circulate evenly around the turkey. If your turkey is resting on the pan, the heat will not be able to fully circulate resulting in an unevenly cooked bird.
  • Have ever cut your turkey (or steak, too) while it is hot and seen the juicy deliciousness seeping out? Well, sorry my friend, but you are watching the flavor leave your meat. When your meat is still hot, the juices are still flowing and have not rested into the fibers yet. Therefore, you should allow your turkey to rest prior to carving. The rest time depends on the size of your turkey and can be anywhere from 5-20 minutes. Letting your bird rest will also make for easier carving.

Sides

  • Green beans
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    Blanching green beans brings out their vibrant green color, but you may have noticed that their color dulls over time. This is “a result of the chlorophyll molecules losing their magnesium ions in the heat.” To stop this, shock the beans with an ice bath immediately after they finish cooking.
  • Pie 
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    Who knew the secret to a flaky, yet easy to work with crust was vodka? When rolling out pie dough, water is often added to form a more cohesive crust that is easier to place into the pan. This is fine up to a certain point. Adding too much water will activate the gluten development causing the dough to lose its flakiness. However, vodka will add the extra moisture you need without activating the gluten development. (Don’t worry your pie crust won’t taste like vodka.) Source – Live Science
  • Stuffing
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    While cooking stuffing in the turkey is tradition, you may want to rethink that. Most stuffing mixes contain eggs which need to be brought up to a temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit in order to kill the bacteria. In order for the stuffing temperature to reach 165 degrees Fahrenheit, you risk overcooking the turkey and drying out the meat – not cool. Instead cook the stuffing on its own and serve it on the side or add it to your turkey platter after the turkey has been cooked.
  • Rolls
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    Rolls are one of the best parts of Thanksgiving in my opinion, but making it is not. If you’ve had homemade rolls you know there is nothing that you can get out of a box, carton, or frozen package that compares to the delicious fluffiness of homemade rolls. No one has the time, especially on Thanksgiving, to endlessly knead bread. Unfortunately, kneading is a necessary step in the break making process to “break down existing bonds and form stronger, straighter gluten sheets.” However, you can save your hands five minutes of kneading thanks to autolyse – i.e. let the dough rest before kneading (about 20 minutes). The resting time allows for the existing bonds to break down on their own. 

    Now get ready Thanksgiving, because we are coming for you!
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