Happy Halloween!

The Moose comes out of her shell….

Edible rocket science: Astronaut food is more than Tang

Imagine having to carry along all the food you’ll need for a three- to six-month camping trip – including water – and you’ll get a small idea of the challenges facing NASA’s Space Food Systems Labs in Houston, Texas, especially as missions to the moon and Mars are planned. Scientists provided a tour of the labs to members of the Association of Food Journalists at our recent conference.

Michele H. Perchonok, advanced food technology project manager at Johnson Space Center, said that carrying high-tech foods is fine for Space Shuttle trips and stays on the International Space Station. However, for the longer trips, astronauts will need to find ways to grow their own food
because it will be impossible to carry enough. NASA plans to have a habitat on the moon, where astronauts will stay for six months at a time, by 2022. An outpost on Mars is projected by 2035.

Space flights must travel light. Perchonok said astronauts require four pounds of food per day (that includes the packaging) per person. Her current challenge for long-term stays in space: Get the food weight down to 2 1/2 pounds per person.

Besides weight requirements, the food must not require refrigeration or freezing. No crumbs that could float around in the weightless environment. And it must be processed to resist bacteria. Foods for the Shuttle must have a nine- to 12-month shelf life; it’s 18 months for the space station.

Water weighs two pounds per liter, and the assumed use per person is two liters daily. Every drop of moisture in the shuttle and space station is recycled, from condensation produced by equipment to, yes, urine (it’s processed like at municipal water treatment plants).

Perchonok said a lot of the foods are freeze dried because that process meets the food safety requirements and still lets the food look like appetizing. Meats are irradiated at the Department of Defense labs in Natick, Mass. Thermostabilized foods are heat processed to destroy microorganisms and packed in pouches similar to the military’s MREs.

But with all the space-age technology, the food still has to taste good. The food lab’s menu has 160 items, from main dishes to snacks and beverages, and astronauts bound for the space station taste them all to select their preferences. Shuttle astronauts taste and pick from a smaller number. Lab dietitians develop three to five new items a year, and taste panels of astronauts evaluate them.

Perchonok said that unless there is a special food study going on, astronauts may select whatever they want – everyone doesn’t have to eat the same thing. However, the boss has a big say. “Many commanders say ‘no fish on my shuttle’ because of the smell,” she said. “There are problems with fish for that reason, and it’s been hard to keep it from being fishy tasting. The commander has to like it, but not necessarily everyone else.”

It’s not like you can open a window.

Some of the most popular foods are homey favorites: meatloaf, corn tortillas, shrimp cocktail, M&Ms, cookies, and desserts like chocolate pudding cake and berry cobbler. Perchonok said that one perennial request from crews is for more warm desserts. The lab has accommodated some special requests – Italian and Japanese food when crew members from those countries traveled to the space station – and provides holiday meals, if the astronauts want them. “We’ve had one vegan,” she said. “And we had kosher style meals, not certified kosher, for an Israeli crew member at his request.”

Condiments are in liquid form: salt dissolved in water, black pepper in oil. Nothing that could float, remember?

Because the Russians are partners in the space station, half of the U.S. crew’s meals are from Russian items such as borscht, aspics and heavier stews. “But they switch food all the time with each other,” she said.

And beverages? “There’s no alcohol on the U.S. side,” she said. “I can’t say there hasn’t been some vodka now and then on the other side, but we don’t encourage it.”

Although dietitians have calculated the menus to provide enough calories (with 30 percent calories from fat), astronauts often lose weight on their missions. Perchonok said there are many reasons for this. One is that the crews are so busy and excited to be in space that they just forget to eat. Another is that without gravity, aromas don’t rise. Also, the lack of gravity affects fluids in the body, causing a feeling like a stuffy nose. Can’t smell the food, can’t taste it well.

Yes, the crews still carry Tang into space, but it was not developed for NASA as legends say, according to Perchonok. And that freeze-dried “astronaut ice cream” never went to space. It was developed solely as an item to be sold at museums, she said.

For the Mars mission, crews will be able to carry some food, but will need to grow some of it hydroponically in recycled water. Want bread? They’ll have to grow the wheat and mill the results. That’s a long way from the tubes of applesauce first sent into space in 1961.

Jammin' with figs

There are some big fig fans out there. After my September column in The News & Observer of Raleigh, N.C., many of you emailed me asking for my fig jam recipe. Now, I told y’all you could just give me those pesky figs, that are just in your way, taking up space. But, no, you want to do it yourself.

Fine. Here’s the recipe, which is not really difficult. Making jam is not hard, it just takes a little time and the right equipment. You’ll need a boiling water-bath canner, which you can find at good hardware stores or discount stores. You’ll also need canning jars with lids. Do not be tempted to reuse mayonnaise jars or some such thing. The glass will break or the lids won’t seal. I can’t tell you what a pain it is to clean out a canner in which a defective jar has burst, spreading glass and messy contents all over the other jars.

I like to put jam in half-pint size jars. It’s a nice gift size, which is primarily what I do with the jams I make all summer – give them away.

Make sure your canning jars are clean and sterile. Put them through the dishwasher, or wash by hand in hot soapy water, then put the lids and rims in a pot of boiling water until you need them. Otherwise, you’ll be known as the person who gave the family botulism for Christmas. Check the lids to be sure the strip of rubber (it may be orange or red) is complete and unblemished. I have rarely found defective lids, but it does happen. If the rubber is not complete, it won’t seal.

Put enough water in the canner to cover your jars by at least a couple of inches. Bring the water to a boil, then put in the just-filled, still-warm jars. Begin timing the processing when the water comes back to a full boil.

Obviously, the jars will be very hot when they come out of the canner. Remove them with a rubber-coated jar lifter (it looks like a large set of tongs), which you can buy where canners are sold. Place the jars either on cake cooling racks or folded towels on your kitchen counter. You’ll be rewarded with the satisfying “ping” of sealing lids as they cool. If nothing else in your life is going right, those “pings” sound mighty good. Let the jars sit for several hours before putting them away. If you should have a jar that doesn’t seal within 10-12 hours, you have two options: Put the jam in the refrigerator and start enjoying it now or reprocess the jar by removing the lid, checking it for defects, washing it, putting it back on and going through the canning sequence again.

Using powdered pectin makes jelling almost foolproof. I like the pectin for low- or no-sugar recipes, because I can control the amount of sugar. I prefer a less sweet jam that lets the fruit flavor be the star. Jams with less sugar will be softer when they set, but it’s not a big difference. You can also use Splenda in place of sugar, but I’ve never personally tried that. Be sure to get the pectin specifically for low- or no-sugar uses.

So, hang onto this recipe for next fig season.

Fig Jam

About 5 pounds fresh figs

2 cups sugar

1 (1/75-ounce) package powdered pectin for low- or no-sugar recipes

1/4 cup lemon juice

3/4 cup water

Place figs in a large bowl and cover with boiling water. Let sit 10 minutes. Drain. Remove stems from figs and chop. Mash slightly but do not puree – leave some chunks. You should get about 2 quarts chopped figs.

Measure sugar into a separate bowl. In a small bowl, mix 1/4 cup of the sugar with the pectin.

Place figs, lemon juice, water and sugar-pectin mixture in a large saucepot. Stir to combine. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring constantly to prevent sticking. Then add remaining sugar, return to a full boil, stirring constantly. Let boil for 2 to 3 minutes, or until the mixture feels thick while stirring and comes off a clean spoon in a sheet (no thin drips). Manage the heat to maintain the boil without burning the mixture.

Remove the pot from the heat. Using a canning funnel, fill the jars to within 1/4 inch of the top. Wipe the jar rims with a clean, damp cloth and screw on the lids. Just hand-tighten the lids. Place the hot jars in the canner. process 10 minutes.

Makes about 8 half pints.

Bacon really does make everything better

I was privileged to be invited to Biltmore Estate in Asheville a couple of weeks ago for the first Field to Table Festival, celebrating local farming and great food. The estate is honoring the farming past by increasing the amount of produce and meat it produces for use in its restaurants. Right now, 18 percent of items on the restaurants’ menus are grown on the estate.

My talks were on tailgating. But I had fun watching a bright, young chef from Charleston, S.C. do bizarre things with bacon. Sean Brock, chef of McCrady’s Restaurant, is into the trendy molecular gastronomy, which can turn a kitchen into a chemistry lab. Frankly, I’ve been leery, concerned that playing with the toys would take over the flavor of the food.

But John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance introduced Brock by addressing that issue. He talked about Brock’s respect for locally produced ingredients and traditional flavors. “His food is molecular cuisine takes on Southern food,” Edge said. “Sean’s food is really rooted in Southern tradition.”

Brock said that the restaurant staff – not an experienced farmer in the bunch – cultivates a 3-acre garden which he uses to supply McCrady’s. The garden focuses on heirloom varieties, and Brock works with Seed Savers Exchange to save vanishing vegetables.

When the two interests collide, the results are such things as taking rare James Island red corn (“It was mostly used for moonshine,” Brock said.) and making grits using liquid nitrogen. Liquid nitrogen clocks in at minus 270 degrees F. “The secret to milling good corn is that the stone be cold. Well, I didn’t have a mill, but I did have liquid nitrogen,” he said. “I dumped in the corn, and it shattered immediately into grits. They tasted like eating hot buttered cornbread.”

Grinning like a kid contemplating a Halloween prank, Brock decided to show the group what happens when great bacon meets a mad scientist: bacon ice cream. Melted Haagen-Daz went into Brock’s seemingly endless supply of liquid nitrogen, this time in a mixer to fluff up the ice cream. Then, cooked smoky bacon.

Sean Brock, left, makes ice cream using liquid nitrogen with John T. Edge.(In the photo at right, Brock is the crazy guy on the left. Edge is on the right, behind the steam.)

The ice cream froze in no time, and what’s not to like about sweet and salty? But the real surprise for me was bacon cotton candy, which Brock made in one of those little pink toy-like cotton candy machines. Sugar and fat don’t like each other, Brock explained, so he used an invert sugar and an alcohol-based sugar to combine with the bacon fat, which he heated with glycerine flakes.

Got that? Then go to the head of the class. I didn’t, but it didn’t matter. The off-white colored cotton candy, which wasn’t extremely sweet, was like eating bacony air that evaporated on my tongue.

If I needed more evidence that, despite the high-tech trinkets, this Virginia native is a real Southern boy: Brock said that he goes through 50 pounds of bacon a week at the restaurant.

See ya, CSA

Well, the summer of the CSA is over and it was a ton of fun. I stretched my cooking muscles, worked on improvising and it all just tasted good.

The final box contained green beans, eggplant, collards and some fall squashes – acorn and butternut. On the first chilly, autumn-like day, I combined the squashes for a golden-colored soup. You can cook acorn or butternut squash in the microwave or boil the chunks, but I think roasting gives a better flavor. I tossed in some onion to roast as well. When they were all done, about 45 minutes, I combined them with a little butter, homemade chicken stock, garlic and some dried aleppo pepper, which has a mild heat but lots of earthy flavor. I kept it simple, because I knew the vegetables would taste so good.

If you love to make soup and don’t own an immersion blender, get one today. It makes the work so much easier. With it, the most time-consuming part of making my soup was waiting for the squashes and onion to roast.

The soup was perfect for the cloudy, rainy day. But a little bacon on the top would have really lifted it up, and I’ll add some the next time I make the soup. Bacon makes everything better. I’m having that printed on T-shirts.