Fizzy Drinks All Around (or I Am the One Who Pops)

It’s been called everything from the dry and dull “carbonated beverage” to the quaint and regional “pop.” Its flavors range from common fruits to strange concoctions, like Jones Soda’s Tofurkey and Gravy. It’s on the lips of everyone, from little kids at birthday parties to doctors who warn of its high fructose corn syrup and other artificial ingredients and politicians who want to curb its intake in schools or tax it in an effort to fight back against the obesity epidemic and stimulate the economy.

It’s soda…where I’m from, anyway. Depending on your region or country, it’s – as I said before – called everything from “pop” to “soft drinks” to “carbonated beverages.” Other regional terms include “coke” (though I don’t know why people would use this, considering that that’s a very common slang term for cocaine. Then again, the original Coca-Cola had cocaine in it and cocaine was considered a perfectly acceptable sugar substitute before it was known for fueling disco dancers, being boiled down into the more insidious drug crack, and glamorized in the 1983 version of Scarface. Also, “coke” when you’re speaking of soda is mostly used when you’re drinking cola. You can have a Pepsi and still call it a coke – unless you’re in the Olympia Café on late 1970s Saturday Night Live), “lolly water” (which sounds like a very British term that’s probably not even used these days), and “fizzy drink” (which also sounds British, but also sounds like a brand name for dollar-store soda).

Soda is, of course, from the soda water that’s used as the canvas on which the soda maker can add flavor to it. “Soft drinks” are called that to differentiate from “hard drinks” (the drinks with alcohol in them). “Soft drinks” can have alcohol in them, but only less than 0.5% of the total volume, but most soda made in America (at least made by the two major chains, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola) would rather load soda with high fructose corn syrup and artificial sweeteners moreso than a little alcohol (since alcohol’s effects can be amplified when in contact with carbonation. I’ve had a ginger ale with a splash of vodka in it and felt the room spin about 10 minutes later), never mind the reports that excessive consumption of soft drinks (especially soda) is linked to obesity, type II diabetes, loss of bone density, low nutrient levels, and cavities in your teeth (eventually leading to tooth decay). So, soda does rot your teeth, but not your brain, despite what those moral guardians and misguided social justice warriors will tell you. My opinion on all of this: all things in moderation. If you’ve been hooked on the fizzy stuff for a while, try and cut back. Switch it up with a good detox drink (mint and citrus-flavored water or just regular filtered water with some lemon in it) and always remember to brush your teeth, floss, and (if you can) visit the dentist.

Health public service announcements aside, that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to instruct you on how to make homemade soda. Yes, I know it seems like something that can’t be done since it’s already available pre-made, but I had a homemade ginger ale from a farmer’s market when I lived in San Francisco, California that left me with a satisfying throat burn and didn’t feel like I was swishing my own spit in my mouth, so don’t come whining to me about how soda can’t be made by hand. With handmade soda, you get to make it in the purest way possible: with carbonated water, a sweetener (particularly cane sugar), and some kind of flavoring agent (a juice, purée, or syrup).

Carbonated Water

If you drink a lot of soda or soda water, you know it gets expensive over time. A six-pack of Pepsi can set you back $6.00, depending on sales tax (unless you’re in Delaware, where sales tax is not a thing), when, back in the 1990s, it was maybe $4.00 (assuming there’s no sale). I’m not the only one to think to myself: “I wonder if there is a way to carbonate my own water.” There are several ways. The easiest way is to just buy soda water or seltzer water (both of which can be found in grocery stores or any place that sells liquor and liquor accessories for home bars and parties) in bulk, but that only works if you have the cash, a home bar, or are starting a homemade soda business. For her 28th birthday, my sister bought herself a SodaStream* (which she has been wanting for a while). While it does save you a considerable amount of money in terms of buying soda and soda water, the costs are actually high and very hidden. The machine itself costs $90 (though my sister bought a $70 model. Either she found a less expensive model or she got a discount since she always shops at Amazon.com for everything from books to new shoes) and each carbon dioxide refill bottle costs $30 for each 33 oz cannister. If I were her and had some gadgeteer genius (the kind that gets you into those Institute of Technology colleges, like M.I.T.), I’d make my own carbonator with a big CO2 tank, some plastic tubing, and a carbonator cap hidden in an easy, yet ingenious way because a large CO2 tank would look awkward in a kitchen setting. For weird parties, like Halloween or raves, or if I want to experiment with something different, I’d find some dry ice and carbonate the water that way.

Sweetener

Until 1985, soft drinks were sweetened with sugar or corn syrup. As of 2010, in the United States, that’s been replaced with high-fructose corn syrup to lower cost. In Europe, sucrose dominates, because agricultural policies over there favor production of sugar beets and sugar cane over the production of corn (besides, corn is more abundant in North and Central America than it is in Europe). The deal with high-fructose corn syrup and human health is that it’s connected with diabetes, hyperactivity, hypertension, and fatty liver disease that isn’t caused by alcoholism. On the other hand, the human body breaks sucrose down into glucose and fructose before it is absorbed by the intestines. Simple sugars such as fructose are converted into the same intermediates as in glucose metabolism. However, metabolism of fructose is extremely rapid and is initiated by fructokinase activity, which is not regulated by metabolism or hormones and proceeds rapidly after intake, promoting fatty acid and triglyceride synthesis in the liver, and increased blood lipid levels. The takeaway to all of this is either (a) all things in moderation, or (b) you’re better off trying to find or make soda with real sugar in it.

Sweeteners for “diet” sodas are no better than high-fructose corn syrup. While aspartame has been disproven in its claims that it causes cancer, neurotoxicity leading to neurological or psychiatric symptoms such as seizures, mood changes, and/or neuropsychiatric conditions in children (including ADHD), it does have a really awful aftertaste (to me, at least) and there are people out there who have an adverse reaction to it, though the worst they get from aspartame is a headache.

Cyclamate – the first sugar substitute to be used in “diet” sodas – is the sugar substitute that caused cancer in laboratory mice, which is a shame, as tasters at the time claimed that cyclamate actually tasted good for a sugar substitute. Fortunately, cyclamate is still available in some places outside of North America. Saccharin followed. Its taste was described as “metallic” or “bitter,” and was also alleged to be carcinogenic. However, it was never banned. Rather, foods with saccharin in it had to have warning labels put on it as part of the Saccharin Study, Labeling and Advertising Act, a United States federal statute enacting requirements for a scientific observation regarding the impurities in, potential toxicity, and problematic carcinogenicity of saccharin, signed into law in 1977 by Jimmy Carter. The ban wouldn’t be lifted until 2ooo.

All of this doesn’t really matter when making homemade soda – unless you somehow have high-fructose corn syrup barrels just stored in your pantry for use in everything from soft drinks to frozen food. All you really need to sweeten your homemade soda is either plain sugar (the same sugar you put in your morning coffee or tea). You can also create your own flavored syrup or use an alternate sweetener, like agave nectar (though that’s if you want your homemade soda to be super-indie, real “arthouse” obscure, which translates to “pretentious” for most people). When soft drinks were first starting out, honey was used as a sweetener. Maybe you could bring that back and do something with it.

Flavorings

As with any food you make, ingredient quality is the key, especially if you’re using fresh fruits, herbs, and spices for your soda. The store-bought sodas can have their “natural and artificial ingredients” label.

A simple fruit syrup is just sugar, water, and the fruit, herb, or spice of your choice boiled down into a thin, slightly sweet goo (think children’s cough medicine if it actually tasted good). If making syrup isn’t your thing, then you can go for a simple fruit purée with as much or as little sugar as you want into the carbonated water for an Italian-style soda. For sodas like root beer and ginger ale, yeast is added, so it’d be like brewing beer or kombucha.

Making imitation Pepsi or Coca Cola (which you can label as “Popsi” and “Kooki Kola” or do the old “blind taste test” by putting the imitation in empty brand name bottles to see if anyone can tell the difference) is probably the most difficult soda you can make because most of the ingredients are only available if you know a good high-end supermarket or can find rare and unusual ingredients online. Those ingredients are food-grade orange oil, lime oil, lemon oil, cassia oil, nutmeg oil, coriander oil, lavender oil, gum arabic (a natural gum made of hardened sap taken from two species of the acacia tree; Senegalia and Vachellia), water, and vodka. The water and vodka you don’t have to look far for, but everything else takes some time and energy to find. On top of that, the directions as outlined on Unusual Food Handers (http://food-handler.blogspot.com/2008/02/coca-cola-how-to-make-coca-cola-at-home.html) make the whole thing like a chemistry class project, what with the use of syringes and high-ended beakers. If you’re looking for something more organic, then Salt and Smoke has a recipe for homemade cola syrup that tastes like “old-school” Coca-Cola (http://saltandsmokefood.com/botanical-cola-syrup/).

Ideas on My Own Sodas and Conclusion

Besides the usual homemade take on ginger ale, root beer, and cola, I am experimenting with fruit-, herb-, and spice-based soda mixes that haven’t been done before. Pineapple mint, white grape and rosemary – heck, maybe I can take that cranberry sauce I made during Thanksgiving and turn that into a soda (complete with ground cinnamon). Of course, all of this is tenative and those were the three ideas I had buzzing in my head ever since I decided that I might want to make and market my own soda.

So, remember to enjoy your soft drinks in moderation and always recycle your empties. My sister has enough in her room to pay off her student loans (with some left over to pay off half of mine).

Thanks, and happy eating and drinking.

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*SodaStream also comes with a lot of manufacturing controversy, since its main facility is in a settlement in the occupied West Bank of Israel. According to the Israeli human rights group, B’Tselem, the settlement (including the Mishor Adumim SodaStream factory), was built on land taken from five Palestinian towns and two Bedouin tribes who have been evicted by the Israeli army, and these Israeli settlements in the West Bank are regarded by many as illegal under international law. The European Union’s highest court ruled in 2010 that SodaStream was not entitled to claim a “Made in Israel” exemption from European Union customs for products manufactured in the West Bank. Why? Because Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory are outside the territorial scope of the EC-Israel Agreement. Human Rights Watch has come down on SodaStream for unlawful discrimination, land confiscation, natural resource theft, and forced displacement of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, while The United Church of Canada, Sweden, Finland, and Norway (all three Scandinavian countries) launched a campaign to boycott SodaStream’s products manufactured in the occupied West Bank.

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Operation Thanksgiving: The Leftover(s) Post

With Thanksgiving three weeks behind and Christmas almost a week away, you may be wondering why a Thanksgiving leftover blog post should be published this soon?

Well, to get a head start on post-Thanksgiving leftovers for 2014, and because I only have two recipes that individually takes three Thanksgiving dishes (namely the turkey, the homemade cranberry sauce, and mashed potatoes) and recreates them into something you can make any time of the year.

Turkey/Homemade Cranberry Sauce: Turkey and cranberry sauce quesadilla

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Quesadillas are not a new thing for me. I’ve had them since college, both made by me and bought from Qdoba and several San Francisco food trucks (Food trucks are a bigger deal in the West Coast than the East, though Philly is starting to get into it). I’ve had both meat and vegetarian takes on it, and I like them both.

For those who don’t know, a quesadilla is a corn or flour tortilla filled with cheese and some kind of savory mixture (meat, vegetables, refried beans, mostly) either folded in half to form a half-moon shape when cut or sandwiched between two tortillas and cut into wedges after it’s been pan-cooked, griddled, or panini-pressed. The latter way of preparing it (sandwiched between two tortillas) is actually referred to as a sincronizada outside of Mexico, so if you’re an American tourist in Mexico, don’t get mad or confused if you see them prepare a quesadilla this way (as seen in this video): https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/transcoded/5/5a/Quesadilla.webm/Quesadilla.webm.480p.webm.

Another difference between a Mexican quesadilla and an American one is in the ingredients, especially the type of cheese used. In Mexico (particularly the central and southern areas; northern Mexico tends to use queso fresco and wheat flour tortillas for their quesadillas), queso Oaxaca (a stringy, mozzarella-esque cheese from the Mexican state of Oaxaca) is the cheese of choice in this dish (in America, it’s usually Colby Jack, that shredded “Mexican cheese blend” you see in stores [which is really just Monterey Jack and cheddar mixed], or mozzarella).

As for savory fillings, you get beef, chicken, and pork, same as in the States, but real Mexican quesadillas use such ingredients as chorizo (a type of spicy pork sausage; I made this in garde manger class during the week when I worked on forcemeats, pâtés, terrines in aspic — you know, the kind of disgusting foods that a lot of 1950s to 1970s home cookbooks have. It’s very weird that I actually know what they are and how to prepare them in a day and age when only children of 1970s parents and people who read James Lileks’ website and books would know what a savory gelatin dish is), huitlacoche (corn smut. Yes, it sounds like pornography that would exclusively be made in Nebraska, but corn smut is a type of pathogenic fungus that’s considered a delicacy in Mexico), and chicharrón (a meat dish that can best be described as “pork rinds made from scratch,” though some Central American places and places like The Philippines [which was under Spanish rule], beef and chicken is substituted).

This recipe I have for a turkey quesadilla uses ground turkey that you can cook like ground beef, but if you have leftover turkey from any occasion, you can just rip up the meat and sauté that in with the other ingredients.

All credit goes to Closet Cooking

Ingredients

  • 1 to 2 (8 inch) flour tortillas
  • ½ cup shredded cheese (a Monterey Jack/Colby blend is preferred, but you can substitute with whatever semi-soft or hard cheese you like)
  • ¼ pound turkey, cooked, shredded
  • 2 tablespoons cranberry sauce (I prefer the homemade cranberry relish I discussed in the previous “Operation: Thanksgiving” entry)
  • ½ jalapeno, finely diced (optional: I’m not a fan of jalapenos, but you might be)
  • 1 green onion, sliced
  • 1 handful cilantro, chopped (also optional, as not everyone likes cilantro)

Directions

  1. Heat a pan over medium heat, place one tortilla in and top with the half of the cheese followed by the turkey, cranberry sauce, jalapeno, green onion, cilantro and the remaining cheese and tortilla (if you’re doing the folded quesadilla with just one tortilla, then you need to place the filling on one side of the tortilla, then fold the bare side over the filled side).
  2. Cook the quesadilla until golden brown and the cheese is melted, about 2-4 minutes.

Mashed Potatoes: Gnocchi

I made gnocchi (pronounced nyo-KEY) once in my life, and that was in Chef Will’s International Cuisine/Bistro class when I was in California. It was during the two weeks we learned true Italian cooking. You’d think I’d learn at least something from that, since I have a great-grandmother who was one-quarter Italian and the Italian cooking bug lives on in my mother. Well, it does and it doesn’t. Making pasta like a true Italian grandmother (despite that I’m in my late-20s as of this writing. Hey, you’re never too young to cook like an Italian, Jewish, Greek, or Eastern European mother or grandmother, even if those ethnicities aren’t in your family tree) is something on which I still need to work — and that’s with and without the pasta maker. I’m not saying I stink, but there is room for improvement, as far as making pasta dough is concerned (though I do pride myself in making noodles out of kreplach dough to add in Jewish chicken soup. I did it because I felt like having chicken soup with noodles in it and the cafeteria wasn’t serving it).

Gnocchi is no exception. Gnocchi is a lot like any recipe, but especially like soufflé, in that just about anything can go wrong. They can fall apart like cheap jeans in a washing machine. They can taste doughy and soggy. They can have a heavy mouthfeel. That’s a lot to run through your mind while preparing this, but let me put you at ease at what you can do to avoid crummy gnocchi:

1)      Use starchy potatoes. Russets (the Idaho potatoes) are ideal. If your mashed potatoes were made with Russets, then you’re good to go.

2)      Try not to use too much or too little flour. Too much makes the gnocchi heavy and too little doesn’t make a strong enough dough.

3)      Use enough beaten egg to act as a binder (a quarter cup and nothing more)

4)      Ideally, egg isn’t needed in a true gnocchi recipe, but an eggless gnocchi recipe is very tricky to handle. Unless you’re experienced at making eggless gnocchi or you’re serving someone who doesn’t like or is allergic to eggs (eggs are considered one of the most common foods people are allergic to, next to peanuts, milk, any tree nut [walnuts, cashews, pecans, etc], soy, wheat/gluten products, and edible crustaceans), then stick with step three.

5)      Gnocchi is supposed to have a delicate, light mouthfeel to it – and that includes when you fry it. Yes, you can fry gnocchi. My International Cuisine teacher was disappointed in me when I decided to cook it up traditionally (boiled and cooked in tomato sauce) rather than fry it – not because he’s into fried food, but because he personally feels gnocchi is enjoyed better fried. And, after tasting a fried piece from a girl in my class (I think her name was Dahlia), I agree. Fried gnocchi tastes like tater tots, only less greasy. And that is a compliment. I know pairing something refined like gnocchi to something blue-collar like tater tots is a foodie taboo of some kind, but that’s the hazard that comes with opening your mouth to everything from pre-made to homemade.

Here’s the full recipe for your reference (this is from my “Italian Week” International Cuisine class packet):

Gnocchi From Mashed Potatoes

1½ cup prepared mashed potatoes (or 2 large Russett/Idaho/baking potatoes, scrubbed)

¼ cup egg, lightly beaten
1 cup of unbleached all-purpose flour
salt and pepper to taste

For those making a fresh batch of mashed potatoes (if using leftover mashed potatoes, skip steps 1 to 5):

1)   Fill a large pot with cold water. Salt the water, then cut potatoes in half and place them in the pot. Bring the water to a boil and cook the potatoes until tender throughout (anywhere from 35 to 50 minutes, depending on how fast your stove range heats up.

2)   Remove the potatoes from the water one at a time with a slotted spoon. Save the potato water.

3)   Place each potato piece on a large cutting board and peel it before moving on to the next potato. Peel each potato as soon as possible after removing from the water (without burning yourself).

4)   Keep in mind that you want to work relatively quickly so you can mash the potatoes when they are hot. To do this you can either push the potatoes through a ricer, or, failing that (not everyone has a potato ricer or knows one with such a thing), run a fork down the sides of the peeled potatoes, creating a nice, fluffy potato base.

5)   Mash the potatoes until you get a consistent base with little to no obvious lumps. Do not over-mash.

6)   Let the potatoes cool spread out across a cutting board (or other flat, protective surface) long enough that the egg won’t cook when it is incorporated into the potatoes.

7)   Pull the potatoes into a soft mound. Drizzle the beaten egg and sprinkle ¾ cup of the flour across the top. With a metal spatula, a pastry scraper, or your own washed and dried hands, incorporate the flour and eggs into the potatoes by repeatedly scraping and folding the mixture until the mixture is a light crumble.

8)   As gently as humanly possible, knead the dough, adding the flour a sprinkle at a time if the dough becomes tacky (“sticky” tacky, not “showing up at church with cheap jewelry, blown-out ‘80s hair, an obvious, second-rate boob/nose job, and Day-Glo spandex” tacky).

9)   When the dough is moist but not sticky, cut the dough into 8 pieces and  gently roll each 1/8th section of dough into a snake-shaped log, roughly the thickness of your thumb. Use a knife to cut pieces every 3/4-inch.

10)   To shape the gnocchi, hold a fork in one hand and place a gnocchi pillow against the tines. Use your thumb and press in and down the length of the fork. The gnocchi should curl into a slight “C” shape and the backs will capture the impression of the tines as tiny ridges.

11)   Set each gnocchi aside and dust with a bit more flour if needed, until you are ready to boil or fry them.

12)   If you want your gnocchi boiled: either reheat your potato water or start with a fresh pot (salted), and bring to a boil. Cook the gnocchi in batches by dropping them into the boiling water roughly twenty at a time. The gnocchi are done when they float back to the top. Fish them out of the water a few at a time with a slotted spoon ten seconds or so after they’ve surfaced. Have a large platter or shallow bowl ready with a generous swirl of whatever sauce or pesto you like with them. Continue cooking in batches until all the gnocchi are done and serve.

13)   If you want your gnocchi fried: As mentioned before, fried gnocchi has a taste akin to that of tater tots. Though you will have experts and websites stating that deep-frying gnocchi will result in turning your kitchen into a fireworks show of hot grease and potato chunks, there is a way you can nip this problem in the bud: stick them in the microwave submerged in water for two minutes to soften them up, then drop them in a frying pan of oil. If the prospect of deep-frying gnocchi still scares you, then pan-frying/shallow-frying is your best bet.

Thanks, and happy eating!

I’d like to close out with the YouTube video that shows just how dangerous gnocchi frying can be: