Monday, March 14, 2016

Haman's purple hat and my subversive challah

This time of the year really brings out the creative pastry chef in me. I put my thinking cap on - aptly so, because it's time to bake some hamantaschen.  For those less familiar, Hamantaschen is a triangular filled-pastry normally baked to celebrate the Jewish holiday: Purim. The cookie, symbolyzing Haman's presumably triangular hat is eaten as if to slight Haman; Haman being the villain in the Jewish story in the Book of Esther. The real etymology of the word, hamantaschen, is rooted from Mohn-taschen which is germanic for Mohn- (poppyseed) and tasch (pouch). Poppyseed filling is the traditional one, and is perhaps everyone's favorite. That's definitely true for my family.

The story of Queen Esther is about humility and how this strong Jewish woman married the King, saved him and the Jews by outwitting the wicked Haman. You'd think that the King would know that she's Jewish, but this is zinger in the story in the end. (Sorry for the spoiler!) Anyway, there's something about how ignorant one can be with differing cultures,even leaders, that really resonated with me. Thus, while I always make the special hamantaschen with traditional filling (poppy, apricot, prune), I also like to create something unique that would speak to my Asian culture infused in the Jewish tradition. It's a great way to teach my kids about my background, and their uniqueness, and how cultural mixing can have great outcomes, even delicious ones! Last year, I made Azuki bean-filled hamantaschen.  This year, I'm making Ube-ntaschen. Gah, purple little hats! What would Haman say?!

I've already written about my love affair with ube previously. Needless to say, it's one that knows no bounds and is crossing the cultural lines. With its deep purple shade and sweet, earthy taste, what's not to love? So yes, I made Haman's hat purple. Oh, and I didn't stop there, I added shredded coconut just for good measure. After baking, the coconut turned golden brown and complemented the purple ube really well. Whoever wears this kind of hat is definitely stylin'!

I'm happy with how it turned out. Happier even that my kids find this cultural mixing a norm. The purple ube-ntaschen quite the contrast (less sweet) compared to its prune and poppyseed counterparts.

And to keep the theme, I'm making 'diversified' challah this week too. Some folks may argue that it's not really challah if it's mixed with something. To them I say: Live a little! ...And technically, we call our staple one Babkachallah (one word!). ...And, (in an even more defensive tone), I do make traditional challah when hubby requests it. Today's "subversive challah", as my husband calls it, is slightly different. I dug up my previously prepared then frozen sweet red bean paste and added that to the dough while kneading. Another way to get the kids to get some protein, no matter how small it may be. But then again, they tend to eat an entire babkachallah on Shabbat. Their only requirement is that our challah have chocolate. I have to say this one came out good, the red bean taste was not overwhelming but gives a certain sweetness to the batter. 

So, let's see - I've already tried chocolate, coconut, ube, olives, figs, raisins, prunes, currants, cheese, nuts, and different herbs. Oooh. I just thought of something - lavender and lemon! And maybe pistachio! That's gotta be good in spring or summer. If you have additional challah ideas for me to try, let me know. And there's always room in our Shabbat table!

Monday, January 25, 2016

Cooks a-Plenty!

Life happens. I've disappeared from blogging for about 3 months, then life happened, and I just had to blog again.

As a mom of two very spirited kids, everyday seems like a wonderful whirlwind of chaos at home. Outside of work, I find myself constantly shuttling kids between preschool, home and various activities - swimming, ballet, gymnastics, and Hebrew class. I love it, and love that they love being busy, but I realize that I have been so occupied with family activities that I really don't do any socializing outside of my work. I don't really mind as my work tends to be very social - with meetings, interacting at conferences, and more meetings. So... what's the issue, dear? None really. Life happens, and I'm ok with that.

Still, it was a pleasant thing when a group of wonderful folks at our shul came up with an idea for a cookbook club. I happen to like cooking - passionate even. The kitchen is my lab at home. I can experiment and create wonderful things. Sometimes, I have to calmly put out fires too - just like 2 days ago. See? I've been well-trained.

Back to the cookbook club. If you like to read, cook, or better yet, read a cookbook - try joining/starting a cookbook club! Make recipes from the same book and feast as food critics. The idea is simple:
  1. The group selects one cookbook 
  2. Everyone picks a recipe from it (ensuring all courses are covered), 
  3. cooks the dish unaltered (ideally), 
  4. brings it to the group dinner (rotating hosts), 
  5. describes the process to the group,
  6. and the group critics the dishes, while enjoying company and food

It's all win. It's one day a month for this mom to socialize, and discuss one thing I'm most passionate about (outside of family) with similarly passionate people. 

The book we chose was Plenty, a vegetarian cookbook by Israeli chef/author, Yotam Ottolenghi. It's a beautiful book from cover-to-cover, featuring recipes that I'm unfamiliar with. (Translation: I love a good challenge.)  After borrowing a copy from the library, I was tempted to buy the book, but thought I'd wait until after I've tried the dishes during the club dinner. This turned out to be a good decision.

During dinner, it became evident that a lot of the dishes were time-consuming to make. This is not really a deterrent as far as I'm concerned, but something to note if you have very limited cooking time. I also found, from trying 2 recipes outside of that dinner and during the dinner, that as described some of the recipes just didn't work and would need to be tweaked. One recipe I tried, the glass noodles with edamame, was so bland that I had to change it so much it didn't resemble to recipe at all when I was done with it.  The other dish, soba noodles with eggplant and mango, was spectacular. I did, however, used honey instead of sugar, and used mirin instead of rice vinegar.

There were some standout dishes from last night's dinner though. If I were to pick 2: I really loved the peach and goat cheese soufflé, which I'm looking forward to making but will probably add a drizzle of honey, and replace the cream with almond milk. I also liked the lima beans with feta, sumac and sorrell as is, and would note the tip on how to avoid frothing (add oil to beans, but will also use a bigger pot)

Now for the dish I actually made, Gado-gado, which Ottolenghi described as a "substantial salad". 'Substantial' would be not strong enough. Substantial salad in my book would be a Cobb salad. Also, prep-wise, this is no salad. If it involves making a paste for 1 hour in multiple pots, and separately blanching veggies (potatoes in turmeric, cabbage, green beans, bean sprouts, etc.), and deep-frying shallots and wanton wrappers (or cassava chips), it doesn't qualify as salad in my book. I believe I used a total of 5 pots and pans for that 'salad'. And did I mention that not only does it have hard boiled eggs, but tofu too? Trust me, this is a main course. So, was it worth the trouble? Yes and No.  Yes, because... just look at that beautiful and colorful plate. It shows the layers of laborious cooking, methinks. Or, to pick up the yiddish word I learned yesterday - it's potchke! Heck, all the dishes last night had some potchke level of prep. It can certainly and easily take the centerpiece of your Shabbat menu. Nope. Not a salad. On a certain level, I felt that it was also a NO, not worth it to make all the steps as outlined. For instance, why grind and boil the peanuts to make the satay sauce? Why not just add raw peanut butter? Will I make it again? For sure, but with tweaks. I will use less sugar in the sauce, and add more lemongrass, and  possibly lime. The satay was too sweet for my taste, masking the citrus flavor of the lemongrass completely. I may also just skip the deep-fried wanton wrappers, and serve vegetarian wanton soup instead! 

As for the cookbook club? I can't wait until the next one in February!

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The price of neglecting neglected diseases

Today, as I prepare tomorrow's day of atonement, I was greeted by headlines on Turing's price hike for its drug, Daraprim. Not a good start for Yom Kippur preparation as the curses trembled in my lips.  Scientist friends and lay friends alike expressed their displeasure in social media and has some choice words for Turing's CEO. This also comes at the heels of me drafting a response to an anti-vax comment pointing the fingers on Pharma's selfish interests. You see, I was going to try to explain that each vaccine takes about 10-15 years of research, which translates to about $2 billion in cost, which would somehow justify the cost.  But that post was taken down before I could even respond. And now, I feel somewhat betrayed.

So, to wake up this morning to "CEO: 5000-percent drug price hike "not excessive at all",
was kind of a slap in the face. Here I am trying to gently and tactfully explain the cost of drug and vaccine R&D, while this guy tweets his flippant responses to detractors without restrain and at one point in a vulgar way, way worse than a rebellious teenager.

Here are some key points and facts for those interested.

  • Daraprim (Pyrimethamine) is a prophylactic antimalarial agent against Plasmodium falciparum and in the treatment of toxoplasmosis.
  • Toxoplasma gondii can be transmitted to humans by eating undercooked pork or lamb that contains this protozoa, or through ingestion of contaminated vegetables. Usually individuals don't show symptoms unless one is immunocompromised - those with severely weakened immune systems. 
  • As can be expected, these parasites usually infect already HIV-infected patients. Yes, these are opportunistic little bastards. 
  • In general, the drug development process is complex, lengthy, risky and expensive.
  • It takes about 10-12 years for a drug to travel the lab bench (research) to patient's bed. After drug discovery, which means sorting through tens of thousands of candidate compounds for a few active ones, the lead compound has to be optimized, get approved for trials, go through Phase I, II, III (and sometimes IV) trials before it can be registered and manufactured in large scale. 

  • Neglected and rare diseases (diseases that primarily affect the developing world) are given less R&D funding and attention because either a smaller part of the population is affected (smaller market) or there's smaller financial gain from developing countries and considered non-commercial.
  • Very few big pharma companies are interested in investing resources for reasons mentioned above.
  • Furthermore, many multinational Super Companies have downsized, and the first budget they cut is the less profitable infectious disease division.
  • Small companies, like Turing, often focus on technologies or niche markets. 
  • The wheel of drug discovery need to keep churning as pathogens evolve with increasing drug-resistance.
So, going back to the Daraprim case, I think it is reasonable that the drug cost be increased to support the cost of R&D. What gets me though is the amount of price hike. 5000% increase. Really. Can you at least break that down for us? If you currently have 25 scientists, and plan to double that, it would justify a 100% hike from $14 to $28, don't you? Triple it even, if needed for return of investment (ROI).  Let's be honest, the guy is clearly trying to recoup the cost of the start-up, but what else? I would really like some transparency here on how they came to that figure ($750). One thing to note is that this price hike is egregious, and does not represent the usual drug price increases. Was market research even conducted in this case? Plus, no one should really be flippant in addressing a situation like this. Ethical and humanitarian reasonings should apply.

It really saddens me that R&D researchers could take the blow for this, and will further bring the reputation of drug industry down the sink - inclusive of the not-for-profit ones. This kind of increase reflects the fault in an unregulated drug market. And I for one cannot wait to hear our the plans that our political candidates plan to unveil to address this.

As a former synthetic chemist, I suddenly had the itch to go back and synthesize that damn pyrethamine. (I'll atone for my language later.) This move should be a wake up call, and the only incentive one would need to put their hard efforts in neglected diseases.

This news make me really sick to my stomach. Oh wait - I hope it's not Toxoplasma, because I sure as heck can't afford Daraprim's price tag.

UPDATE: What do you know, social media has a voice after all! It appears that the price hike will be rolled back.  How low? We'll have to stay tuned for that. With all eyes on the company and the drug, and scrutiny from social media users, the government and big pharma, Turing better be doing their research.