Thursday, January 23, 2014

Benjamin Harrison and the American Corn Belt

Now please don't tell People magazine or TMZ, but Benjamin Harrison and his wife Caroline were reportedlty "corn-addicts," which isn’t surprising since they were born in Ohio and lived for many years in Indiana, two of the states that make up the American Corn-Belt, which produces more than half of the corn grown each year in the United States.

The other states that make up the Corn-Belt include Iowa and Illinois and parts of Kansas, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Missouri. Experts say that the warm nights, hot days, and well-distributed rainfall of the region during the growing season are ideal conditions for raising this highly versatile vegetable.

And did you know that more than half of the corn grown in the United States is used to feed cattle, sheep, chickens, hogs and other livestock? The rest is used to produce an astonishingly wide array of consumer foods and products, including ketchup, crayons, soap, detergent, cough syrup, marshmallows, graham crackers, pancake mix, chewing gum, soft drinks, toothpaste, salad dressings, breakfast cereals, licorice, disposable diapers, shoe polish, paint, peanut butter, and, of course, popcorn.

Although the popcorn that Harrison ate was nothing like the microwavable kind we are familiar with today, biographers say that he was fond of such traditional midwestern dishes as Corn Muffins, Stewed Corn, and Green-Corn Fritters. And being the "corn-addict" that he was, he surely would have enjoyed this delicious recipe for Corn Chowder from the Food Network's Paula Dean:

1 cup (2 sticks) butter
1 small onion, diced
1 small carrot, finely diced
1 small celery stalk, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups white corn kernels, fresh or frozen
3 cups chicken stock
2 cups half-and-half
Pinch freshly grated nutmeg
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Melt 1 stick of butter in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic, and saute for 2 minutes. Add the flour and stir to make a roux. Cook until the roux is lightly browned; set aside to cool to room temperature.

Meanwhile, combine the corn and chicken stock in another saucepan, and bring to a boil. Simmer for 10 minutes. Pour the boiling stock with the corn (a little at a time) into the saucepan with the roux, whisking briskly so it doesn't lump. Return the skillet to the heat and bring to a boil. The mixture should become very thick.

In a small saucepan, gently heat the half-and-half; stir it into the thick corn mixture. Add the nutmeg and salt and pepper, to taste. Just before serving, cut the remaining stick of butter into large chunks. Add it to enrich the soup, stirring until the butter melts.

FOOD FACT: Popcorn's ability to "pop" lies in the fact that corn kernels contain a tiny amount of water stored in a circle of soft starch inside a hard outer casing. When heated to a high enough temperature, the water expands which exerts an increasing amount of pressure until the outer casing eventually gives way and the kernels explode, or “pop,” allowing the water to escape as steam and turning the kernels inside out!

Credit: Oil Portrait of Benjamin Harrison (1895), Eastman Johnson, White House Historical Association (White House Collection)

Thursday, January 16, 2014

John F. Kennedy and the Rise of Space Food

In a famous 1962 speech at Rice University in Houston, Texas, President John F. Kennedy reaffirmed America's commitment to landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade. In it, he said:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too….It is for these reasons that I regard the decision last year to shift our efforts in space from low to high gear as among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the office of the Presidency…

Seven years later, on July 20, 1969, as part of the Apollo 11 space mission, astronaut Neil Armstrong opened the hatch of the lunar module (nicknamed “The Eagle”) and became the first man to walk on the surface of the moon. The crew spent a total of two and a half hours on the moon, performing experiments and collecting soil and rock samples to return to Earth.

So what does this have to do with food? A lot, if you’re talking about space food! According to sources at NASA, the first American astronauts had to eat bland, bite-sized cubes of food, freeze dried powders, and semi-liquids that were squeezed from aluminum tubes.

By the late 1960s, the quality of space food had greatly improved. The Apollo astronauts were the first to have hot water, which improved the food's texture and taste. Today, a wide variety of menu items are available for astronauts in space. They can choose from beef stroganoff, chicken teriyaki, macaroni and cheese, spaghetti and meatballs, peanut butter, seafood, quiche, candy, cereal, nuts, and fruit.

Sandwiches with bread, however, are strictly forbidden. That's because there is no gravitational pull in space and so bread crumbs could float away and get stuck in equipment, clog air vents, or contaminate experiments. Condiments like ketchup, mustard and mayonnaise come in their normal forms, but salt and pepper are only available in liquid form because, like bread crumbs, the powdered versions could float away and pose a danger to the mission.

If you'd like to get a taste for what astronauts ate in space, here's a recipe for NASA Mini Vegetable Quiche from NASA Space Food Systems Laboratory and Scientific American:

4 whole eggs

4 whole eggs

3/4 cup canned low-fat evaporated milk

½ lb. fresh zucchini

4 oz. cream cheese

1 cup fresh mushrooms, sliced

½ cup Swiss cheese, shredded

tops of 3 fresh green onions

1 cup corn flake crumbs

1 tbsp unsalted butter

1 tsp coarse grind black pepper

No-stick cooking spray

Preheat oven to 275°F. Spray petite loaf pans with the no-stick cooking spray. Coat each compartment of the loaf pans with corn flake crumbs. Wash green onions and zucchini thoroughly. Trim ends from zucchini. Grate zucchini. Chop sliced mushrooms and the green onions.

Place softened cream cheese into a bowl and beat until smooth. Add evaporated milk to the cream cheese, a little at a time, mixing well after each addition. Add eggs to the cream cheese mixture and mix until thoroughly combined. Heat sauté pan over medium heat. Melt butter and sauté chopped green onions and mushrooms just until soft, about 5 minutes. Add black pepper to sautéed vegetables. Mix well and set aside.

Combine sautéed vegetables with zucchini and Swiss cheese; mix well. Combine vegetable mixture with egg mixture and mix well. Add vegetable quiche to each compartment until the compartment is almost filled to the top. Bake pans of quiche for approximately 25-27 minutes at 275°F (until internal temperature is 170°F). The quiche will rise a bit during cooking then fall slightly. Allow quiche to cool before removing from pans.