THE DETERIORATION OF OUR FOOD
On my recent flight from NYC to Israel, the breakfast was nearly inedible. The omelet felt like leather and tasted worse and the bagel was so soft and sweet it was simply a roll with a hole in the middle. But what particularly irked me was the small container of yogurt. (Or maybe it was that dreadful excuse for a bagel.) I fondly remember when Dannon first appeared in the American mainstream back in the 1970s. To be sure, some whey would separate from the yogurt and it would sometimes be a bit lumpy when stirred, but it was essentially pure milk with, for flavored, types, some sugar. No longer.
Americans tend to take things to extremes. We miniaturize foods and gianticize (ok, I just coined this term) them. Look at bagels. The typical nineteenth century European bagel weighed one and a half ounces. When Lender’s entered the frozen bagel business, the size had grown to 2 ounces, and today 3 ounces is the norm for frozen, while fresh bagels tend to weigh 4 to 4.5 ounces. On the other hand, Lender’s also produces a line of miniature bagels for quick bites or hors d’oeuvres. Today, the original bagel cutters of the 1970s, developed to prevent neophytes from cutting their hand and geared to a 3-inch bagel, no long fit the massive 5- to 6-inch versions. I don’t mind the size difference, but the flavor and texture of contemporary bagels is another thing. I was recently in Montreal, a city appropriately proud of its bagel heritage, and it was gratifying to taste some real boiled bagels for a change. Steaming instead of boiling bagels results in a softer, less chewy inside and less crusty exterior. Some manufactures don’t even bother to even steam them. Many add prodigious amounts of sugar and fat, resulting in nauseatingly cloying and fluffy bread. Ok, they don’t have to be hockey pucks, but fluffy crosses the line.
And don’t get me started about the lack of flavor and texture in the produce sold in American stores, all of it selected for shipping and storage. Last week, my parents’ Israeli CSA (community supported agriculture) – Chubeza. (http://www.chubeza.com/english.html), an organic farm consisting of two acres on Moshav Kfar Ben-Nun situated between Latrun and Ramla – included corn on the cob in the weekly delivery. Let me tell, you that was the most flavorful, succulent corn I ever tasted. I ate three cobs for Shabbat dinner. You can also taste the difference in the other CSA items, none of them grown for shipping and storage. If you are fortunate enough to live near a CSA, and by now most of you are, then I strongly suggest you give it a try. Yes, you will be delivered some items that will appear foreign to many. But chard and fresh beets and tomatoes that don’t taste like the packaging they come in will enrich your palate and health. (And chard and beet greens, the Talmudic silka, are also traditional Rosh Hashanah foods.)
American business has a way of taking healthy or relatively healthy items and transforming them into standardized dreck. Look at most breakfast cereals, which are so filled of sugar and sprayed with various vitamins that basically pass through the human body. We might as well be feeding our kids cookies for breakfast. (Some of these monstrosities are actually cookies.) And look what they’ve done to yogurt.
Yogurt has been a part of the Middle Eastern diet for 6,000 years. Originally created when milk was accidentally fermented, thereby resulting in curdling, yogurt has a pleasantly tart flavor. The direct ancestor of today’s yogurt was probably created by accident when two equal amounts of benign bacteria, now the characterizing bacterial culture, Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, came in contact with and coagulated a batch of milk in a particular animal skin bag. In the Middle East yogurt is also made from sheep’s milk, which produces a thicker yogurt than cow’s milk.
Fresh yogurt contains billions of live cells per milliliter, preventing the growth of harmful bacteria, thereby keeping the milk safe for several days. Cultured milk products are based on the microbial conversion of the milk-sugar lactose into lactic acid in a warm environment, which produces the characteristic ‘sourness’ or ‘tanginess’ of these products as well as inhibits the growth of food-poisoning bacteria. Besides lactic acid, other by-products of bacterial fermentation are acetic acid, acetaldehyde, and dacetyl, each contributing to yogurt’s taste and texture. The growth of lactic acid reduces the pH of the milk, destabilizing the micellar casein, resulting in the coagulation of the milk. When the desired pH (4.1 to 4.6) has been reached, the product is cooled to slow the fermentation.
From a few simple ingredients, the label on the airline yogurt container read: “Cultured pasteurized Grade A nonfat milk, modified cornstarch, whey, potassium sorbate (for freshness), gellan gum, tricalcacium phosphate, Vitamin D3.” But a thicker, whey- and lump-free yogurt was not worth the artificial flavor that left a harshness on the back of my palate. And there are actually worse violators of yogurt out there. Some contain gelatin and numerous preservatives. Too many brands lack any active yogurt cultures.
Yet, on the other hand, there is another major trend in yogurt today – Greek yogurt. It is made by straining the whey from regular yogurt, which results in a thicker, creamier product. (Without adding starches, gums, and other thickeners and stabilizers.) Avoid “Greek-style” yogurts, which contain the nefarious thickening agents. Greek yogurt has twice the protein (about 20 grams per ¾ cup/175 grams) of regular yogurt and only 10 to 20 more calories. So far, Greek yogurts all contain active cultures and, since it is more concentrated, more probiotics than regular yogurt. The price, alas, is double or more that of regular yogurt, although that has started to fall as the competition heats up.
This type, not native or exclusive to Greece (strained yogurt would be more accurate, if less prosaic), emerged from Chobani (an American company founded by a Turk who launched his Greek yogurt in 2007) and Fage (a Greek company, which established a facility in Johnstown, NY in 2005) and has exploded of late. The major yogurt manufacturers were so intent on producing creamier products by adding junk, they missed this healthier and tastier trend, and only very recently began to jump on the bandwagon.
Another antithetical trend has also emerged in yogurt, purer and organic brands, including Stonyfield Farm, Brown Cow Farm, and Horizon. Since they contain no artificial thickeners, the fruit must be stirred up from the bottom. The lack of added ingredients translates into better.
Back in the 70s, when yogurt spread through America, many homes, including my parents, had a yogurt maker. These devices may not be as popular today, but homemade yogurt is less expensive than commercial brands, and you control what goes into it. And refuse to eat the culture-less yogurts.
(1 quart/950 ml)
Once you have made your own yogurt, save several tablespoons for making the next batch. If the effectiveness of the yogurt starter begins to wane, purchase fresh yogurt and start again.
1 quart (950 ml) milk
2 tablespoons (30 ml) plain yogurt with active cultures
1. In a medium saucepan, bring the milk to a low boil over medium heat. (Scalding destroys any bacteria in the milk that can inhibit the yogurt culture.) Let cool to lukewarm (115 degrees).
2. Remove ½ cup (120 ml) warm milk and stir into the yogurt. Stir the yogurt into the saucepan. Pour into warm jars or a Thermos.
3. Cover with wax paper and wrap with a towel. Place in a warm place, such as an oven with a pilot light, and let stand undisturbed until thickened (3 to 8 hours). (The thickening time will depend on the yogurt culture used, the temperature of the milk and the temperature of the environment during the incubating period. The longer the yogurt takes to incubate, the more tart the taste.) (Yogurt thickens further when refrigerated.)
4. For Greek yogurt, line a colander or strainer with a coffee filter or a double layer of fine cheesecloth. Place over a bowl to catch the whey. (Use the whey in baking and soups.) Pour the yogurt into the prepared colander/strainer, cover with plastic wrap, place in the refrigerator, and let drain until thick, but not too firm (8 to 12); at more than 12 hours, it becomes labni, yogurt cheese.
4. Chill. Store in the refrigerator up to 1 week.