Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Harvard MOOC

When I'm not out saving the world from the forces of evil, working, keeping the house tidy or spending too much time at my local Y trying to stay fit enough to keep the world safe from the forces of evil, avoiding work, and making sure I still have the energy to keep the house tidy, I am taking a course, a MOOC, through Harvard University called SPU27x Science and Cooking: From Haute Cuisine to Soft Matter Science. It is harder than saving the world from the forces of evil, working, keeping the house tidy, and working out at the Y (uh, not that superheroes NEED to exercise, of course). But I  know that our BRAINS need to workout, too, so we can save the world from the... well, you know. Whatever. So I'm getting old and puzzles are supposed to be a good thing.

Like many superheroes, Zena has a background in art, chemistry, and information science, as well as being half Greek and loving food and wine and eating. I am taking the "food challenge", and except for my arch-enemy, MATH, it's been a great ride. I'm halfway through this 10 week course and I'm clearly spending way too much time ruminating over how to flip an equation around to solve for E (Energy, something the Goddess of Fire has too much of these days. Don't offer me caffeine unless you have some kind of death wish). Anyway, it has been incredibly interesting and challenging - I've learned a lot, some of it really useful to mortal home cooks and mostly very fundamental to superhero chefs. This is what we've done so far.

Unit 1: Introduction. I calibrated my oven by melting sugar only to discover it was running 44 degrees F below the set point, that I didn't know how to change my scale to metric (got it by now, thanks), and that I can now calculate the number of molecules of glutenin in chocolate chip cookies. This was all very useful.

Unit 2: Understanding the concept of "specific heat" and calories (too many equals large butt, FYI), what sous vide cooking is (little portions of food cooked in a vacuum pack in a water bath set at a precise temperature), and that the perfect egg sets at 64 degrees C. Oh, and how to make ricotta cheese, which has a lot to do with temperature and pH. I am now officially a superpower because I can transform milk (and vinegar) into cheese, which I transformed into an amazing lasagna dish, which has specific heat that can enlarge butts unless you are spending time saving the world or burning excess Joules at the Y.

Unit 3: Phase changes, like being a Librarian by day and Zena, Goddess of Fire by night. I learned what a rotovap was, but who cares, that adding salt increases the boiling and decreases the freezing point of water, and how to make ice cream in a baggie because you've had to much to drink to go to Stewart's for a chocolate depression fix. NOW you can make it using a few simple ingredients ON HAND. It was really delicious. Zena, Goddess of Fire, plays with ice. Served that up with wild blueberry syrup, frozen blackberries, and walnuts. Yes, went out and did overtime in the field that night!

Unit 4: Elasticity. Think squishing things, like the vermin that contribute to crime in our nation, or the doneness of steak. When you cook things using heat their "elastic modulus" changes. I calculated how cooking tofu effects its elasticity. But let's face it - tofu is just plain squishy. Next unit.

Unit 5: Gelation, Spherification and Diffusion: L equals the square root of 4Dt. It took me 2 hours to figure out that the solve for t the easiest was to do it was to square both sides of the equation. I tried the scrambled egg technique for making "wobbly" eggs and they were as good as anyone with a hangover can appreciate. The lab was to make ceviche and to measure hydrogen ion movement via lime juice into the protein. This is not interesting. But the ceviche that I made (see recipe, below) was amazing. Thanks, Cookie, for again being a willing victim of my food prowess.

Unlike most of my MOOC classmates that are also finding MATH to be their arch-enemy and a lot to take on, I have taken the extra zillion hours to refresh my skills and solve for x. And I don't mean my X, FYI. I am determined to get my certificate from Harvard and brag that I not only work hard to protect the world but I can also make the perfect steak AND figure out how many hours I need to spend at the Y, or saving the world, in order to work off those extra calories.Next lab: molten chocolate cake. Very dangerous. I'm ready!

1/2 pound saltwater fish, sushi grade, cut into 3/4" inch cubes (cod is good) [Fin is the place to go for quality fish in the Albany area]
1 cup fresh lime juice (from about 6 limes)
1/4 cup finely diced red onion
1/4 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped
1/2 cup fresh chopped tomato
1/4 t salt
1 T chopped jalapeno pepper
1/2 avocado, diced 
tortilla chips

Denature the proteins in the fish by soaking in the lime juice for 1-2 hours. Drain. Combine onion, parsley, tomato, EVOO, salt and jalapeno pepper in a medium size bowl. Gently stir in drained fish. Top with avocado and serve with chips. Open a bottle of wine and enjoy, preferably with a good friend like Cookie, who puts up with my foodie thing, who agreed it was OMG delicious!

Zena, Goddess of Fire

PS: We also learned about chocolate having a temper, or something along those lines. Nice to know it isn't just me. 


Unknown said...

What would the chemical equation of cooking shrimp in lemon juice be?

Zena G.O.F. said...

It's simple diffusion - the acid (H+ ions) penetrates the fish and denatures the proteins. You can calculate L (the distance that the acid penetrates)as the square root of 4 times a diffusion constant times the time in seconds.

sabine said...

I am taking the course now (just for fun, no certificate) and enjoying all the stuff (equations included).
Looks like I cannot do the elasticity lab, since I have a lot of trouble trying to cut meat, cheese of bread square. Will try later with raw and cooked apples
Don't want to think the hurdles I'll have to take to complete the diffusion lab.
Great blog