First off, even though this post features a cute baby, I’m really just writing about how to be a parent to a sourdough starter; no human reproduction required!
Also, full disclosure that I do not intend for this to be a thorough guide for how to bake sourdough. The internet has already covered that many times over–check out this guide by the company Cultures For Health. I simply want to make a few recommendations and point friends to the resources that I have found to be the most useful. I am excited to see so much new interest in sourdough and have gotten many requests for sourdough recipe recommendations since the pandemic started.
I’ve gotten this question a lot since news of my pregnancy went public. Aside from the one time when I had a violent need for carrots, the answer has generally been ‘no’. However, there are a lot of conscious changes that pregnant women need to make to their diet due to the suppressed immune system of the mother (like avoiding unpasteurized dairy products and uncooked deli meat) and the fragility of the developing baby (no alcohol because it’s a neurotoxin). Once we get beyond the very long list of things pregnant women aren’t supposed to eat (by the way, it’s helpful to know WHY certain things are prohibited so you don’t end up avoiding something like cantaloupe for no good reason), it’s up to mama to formulate a balanced diet with all of the foods that are left. Luckily, taking prenatal vitamins covers many of our needs for basic nutrition and the special considerations of pregnancy. But that doesn’t get me ‘off the hook’ completely, so I’ve intentionally increased my consumption of nutrient-rich foods like dark greens and fish.
However, the recommendation that pregnant women should eat more fish comes with a big asterisk because avoiding contamination with mercury (a powerful neurotoxin) requires a little research. Blanket rules such as ‘the bigger the fish, the more mercury’ are generally true—but there’s some nuance to that—and oftentimes you don’t know the size of the fish that a filet or canned bits came from. As a biological oceanographer, I have the training needed to understand why some fish are more risky than others, so I’ll break down some of the science here.
Mercury in the Environment
How does mercury get in to fish in the first place? The sources of the mercury are as small and common as the combustion engine of your car. There are some natural sources of mercury, such as volcanoes and forest fires, but there is some relative balance to this exchange. Human-made, a.k.a. ‘anthropogenic’ sources—chief among them: gold extraction, burning coal, and burning other fossil fuels—have nothing to balance them, so much of this excess mercury gets deposited in the ocean. It is estimated that the amount of mercury in the atmosphere has increased 300-500% above natural levels since the time that humans started burning fossil fuels (Driscoll et al., 2013). We are also dealing with a legacy of mercury pollution from human activity that took place before we understood the effects of mercury; some coastal sediments may store contamination as a result of careless waste disposal by earlier industry.
Bottom line: Mercury is in the environment for both natural and unnatural reasons, but much of the excessive mercury produced by humans ends up in the ocean.
Mercury in the Food-chain
Straight-up mercury (Hg) isn’t the worst, but when combined with sulfur (another pollutant from fossil fuels) and the right bacteria, a dangerous variant that can enter cells is formed: methylmercury (CH3Hg)+. My husband is kind of like mercury—totally capable of generating chaos on his own, but the chances are exponentially higher when certain friends are around! This more dangerous form of mercury gets into the phytoplankton—tiny plant organisms at the base of the oceanic food web. The next step in the food web is typically a filter-feeder like zooplankton or bivalves, which are relatively small and short-lived—even though oysters could keep growing for decades, humans typically harvest them after just 1-3 years of growth. If the amount of methylmercury being ingested with food exceeds the animal’s ability to process it, the contaminant will build up in the animal’s body in a process called bioaccumulation, similar to how humans will gain weight when the calories coming in are greater than what’s actually being burned. As the mercury load of one animal gets passed on to another—say, many zooplankton get eaten by a fish, which is then eaten by another fish, and so on—the level of mercury that ends up in the fish grows larger, through a process called biomagnification. So, the top 1% don’t have it so great after all—at least in the ocean!Bottom line: When mercury takes on a more dangerous form—methylmercury—this builds up in individual ocean animals and becomes concentrated in the fish at the top of the food chain.
Mercury in my fish; What am I supposed to do about it?
If methylmercury is so dangerous, why should we bother eating seafood at all? There are enormous health benefits to eating most seafoods, and many of these items can be produced more sustainably than the meat we grow on land (check out the Aquademia podcast for much more information on that!). Understanding how mercury gets into the fish that we eat helps us navigate the seafood counter to get the maximum health benefits. Wielding this knowledge and handy guides like this FDA webpage can help make you an informed consumer of seafood. The aforementioned filter-feeders—such as scallops, clams, and oysters—are going to have the lowest levels, followed by other fish that are low on the food chain. Large predators like sharks and swordfish at the top are going to pack a potent punch of mercury that should be avoided by all—especially kids who are still growing or pregnant/nursing mothers who are directly nourishing them.
To make sure that I’m getting my recommended 2 servings of seafood per week, canned sardines have been a great stand-by option. Sardines are the lowest non-bivalve on the FDA page, are easily found in grocery stores and can be stored in your pantry for a long time. We like to get large sleeves of cans from Costco, especially when they have the ones with the bones and skin included (I’m weird; I like the slight crunch). My favorite way to eat these is on a cracker or slice of bread with a smear of mayo and some kind of pickled veggie on top—be it standard pickles, red onion, or banana peppers. Anchovies occupy the same place in the food chain as sardines and can be used as a secret umami-adding ingredient in many recipes that will not offend fish-averse eaters. In the book The Food Lab by J. Kenji Lopez-Alt, you’ll see anchovies make an appearance in the recipes for Bolognese sauce, chili, meatloaf, and lamb leg, among others. We use that book as our meat-prep Bible, so we keep a tube of anchovy paste in the fridge for this very purpose—GQ magazine even wrote an article about the practice; so grab a can or tube of these low-mercury fish to cook like a real man!
Bottom line: We need to eat more seafood for both health and sustainability reasons. Understanding the science behind mercury contamination and the ways that we can incorporate low-mercury fish into our diet can help maximize health benefits AND deliciousness!
I now have a new favorite dumpling flavor, and hubby is the one to thank/blame for this fantastic new creation! The inspiration for this particular dumpling comes from a mix of Nepali momo’s, Jamaican beef patties, and Taiwanese curry pastries:
To mix things up even further, the curry powder we use is actually a Japanese-style curry that can be purchased at most asian grocery stores. The key flavors for this recipe come from Vermont curry, ground turmeric, and dried chopped onion:
Apparently the name “Vermont curry” is applied to curry roux that includes flavors of apple and honey… no actual connection to the state of Vermont. When volunteering at English camps in Taiwan, all of the kids would ask me about curry when they found I’m from Vermont!
Part 1: Make the Filling
Combine the following ingredients in a bowl (pro-tip: mix everything in a stand mixer with paddle attachment):
300g Beef (we supplemented with part lamb on a couple of occasions)
100g Carrot (stuffed vertically in to a food processor to get short shreds)
100g Cauliflower (we used the frozen riced cauliflower from Costco)
50g Curry Powder (grated with a microplane)
10g Dried Chopped Onion
1 tsp Iodized Salt
Part 2: Make the Dumpling Skins
In the years that have elapsed since my first dumpling post, we’ve started making our skins with 50% hot water and 50% room temperature water, instead of the 100% hot water that we had previously used. Hot water prevents gluten formation, and so makes the dough easier to work with and roll in to circles… but, this can make for a weak skin that won’t hold up through cooking. Room temperature water allows gluten formation, resulting in a stronger, chewier skin. However, we have tried 100% room temperature before and found it nearly impossible to roll out to the desired thinness. So a recipe that uses half-and-half is where we’ve landed for our dumpling skins.
To achieve the yellow color and all-important flavor of these dumpling skins, add one teaspoon of turmeric to 2 cups of flour. Mix these dry ingredients together first before adding the water. I like to add the hot water first, mix it all up in to a shaggy mixture, and then add room temperature water as needed (the actual amount needed will vary depending on your flour and humidity in the kitchen):
2 cups flour
150 g water (our preferred ratio is 50% boiling, 50% room temperature)
1 tsp turmeric
Cover and allow the dough ball to rest 30 minutes. Cut and roll skins to desired size and thickness.
Part 3: Assemble and Cook Dumplings
Fold the dumpling mix inside of the skin using your choice of fold. We are particular to crescents that line up well in round pans, which you can see in my first dumpling post. Refer to that post for our preferred pan-frying method as well.
Part 4: Make the Dipping Sauce
1/2 cup rice vinegar
1 tsp tomato paste
Sriracha to taste
Option: Freeze and Cook Later!
You can prepare the dumplings through the folded stage, quick-freeze them on trays, and then throw the frozen dumplings together in a ziploc bags to remain frozen until they can be boiled/fried. Simply add about 5 minutes to the pan-frying time.
We ended up doing this twice over the past summer for two different camping trips. In July we we made ~800 dumplings to boil for 40+ family members during the annual family camping trip. It was not easy by any means, but we employed our secret weapon: friends who are willing to work for a free dinner!
Note: we kept a couple of blocks of dry ice in the cooler to ensure that the dumplings stayed rock-solid… any thawing will turn the whole bag into a mess of dough and filling that will be impossible to separate!
Enjoy these dumplings at home… or in the middle of a forest in Vermont!
It’s a little more complex than that, but in short: it is my new year’s resolution to cook one chicken a month and make my own chicken stock with the leftover bones as well as the scrap vegetables that I’ve been collecting. I postponed publicly committing to this goal in order to give the concept a test run (or two) in our new apartment in NJ. Here’s a little more about what this resolution entails as well as my driving motivations: Continue reading “Resolution: Roast One Chicken Each Month”→
Grad school has been crazy y’all. I’m SO thankful for the things I’ve learned (oceanography, genetics, bioinformatics, etc.) and discovered about myself (that I really like coding and science communication). Conferences and workshops have given me the opportunity to travel (to the UK, Germany, and the far corners of the U.S.) and connect with new people (shout-out to the Phytonerds!). However, in the pursuit of constant productivity, I’ve let the things that keep me happy and motivated fall by the wayside… it’s this masochistic cycle, in which I believe that I’ll somehow be more productive if I deprive myself of the things that I enjoy. The sheer joy of metagenetic gut content analyses can only keep you going for so long, so it’s my New Year’s resolution to be less “productive” with the aid of the following activities. So, I’m counting on you—dear internet friends and acquaintances—to keep me accountable! Continue reading “7-ish Resolutions”→
I am currently getting organized and taking stock of my goals and priorities as I plan out a summer of oceanography research. Let’s do the same for food! There are several dishes that I’ve been wanting to try my hand at, but keep putting on the back burner for one reason or another. Maybe I’ll finally get to them this year if I make a tidy little buzzfeed-style list…
For this blogging project I had hoped to obtain fresh, locally-farmed seaweed, but this task proved much more difficult than expected! Dried sea vegetables are already available at most natural foods stores (for a pretty steep price) but fresh sea vegetables (undehydrated) are a rarity. However, the dried products that I worked with for all of these blog posts rehydrated quite nicely and apparently suffer little to no nutritional loss as a result of the drying process. We won’t be finding fresh sea vegetables in the produce section of every grocery store until there is a larger demand from consumers for these products. Join the cause and become a sea vegetable pioneer in your own kitchen! Continue reading “Eat Your [Sea] Vegetables! Sustainable Farming (Kelp DESSERTS)”→
The old adage that one can have “too much of a good thing” is supported in spades by a phenomenon that is plaguing many waterways around the world. Nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous are integral to the healthy functioning of marine ecosystems, but are often raised to unnaturally high levels by human activities such as agriculture, lawn-fertilization, and sewage treatment. This overloading of nutrients into a body of water is called eutrophication. This environmental affliction is unpleasant for both humans and animals alike, and can even have lethal effects. As a result of eutrophication, many waterways suffer from harmful (toxic) algal blooms as well as hypoxia: a low-oxygen state in which few organisms can survive.
Seaweed (a.k.a. sea vegetables) is an informal catch-all term used to describe multicellular algae species, that—you guessed it—come from the sea! Seaweeds can be classified as red, brown, or green varieties. Most species attach themselves to the ocean floor, while a few species float freely near the ocean surface. Most seaweed growth occurs along coastlines where water depths are shallow enough for sunlight to reach seaweeds anchored to the seafloor. Seaweed is a vital part of the ecosystem in which it grows, acting as a source of both food and shelter for other organisms. With a little encouragement from chefs (and Oprah?) I hope that seaweed will soon become a vital part of the American diet!
Seaweed offers many health benefits, and some even argue that we should be eating seaweed in every meal! A simple google search on the health benefits of seaweed will yield a multitude of websites and peer-reviewed journals eager to inform the public about this underrated “superfood”. This label appeals to a health-conscious audience, but likely repels all others. If you belong to the latter category but are open to an easy entry point, then I invite you to try Dulse!
Seaweed has been unnecessarily limited to the realm of east-Asian cuisine, making only rare appearances in the average American’s diet as sushi or miso soup. In this series of posts I am hoping to introduce you—dear reader—to a few varieties of sea vegetables, including some unconventional ways to use them. There are many benefits associated with the culinary use of sea vegetables for both humans and the environment, so let’s get ‘em on our plates! Continue reading “Eat Your [Sea] Vegetables! Cooking Beyond Nori (Laver Recipe)”→