It’s the holiday season, and that means eating. Lots of it. More likely than not, you’re going to have to attend a few holiday shin-digs where showing up without food or libations might earn you a serving of side-eye and a Venmo charge from the party hosts.
So, what do you bring? Three-bean dip? An apple pie? Two-buck Chuck? You’re better than that. Here are a few suggestions that will help bring your friends’ taste buds some holiday cheer. And bonus: there's science and tech baked right in, so these plates double as conversation starters for those awkward silent moments when you end up standing next to someone you don't know.
Someone is bound to bring meaty pastry pinwheels to a party. But you can one-up them — and make the vegetarians happy — by cooking up a Beyond Meat version.
Beyond Meat, which you can buy at Whole Foods, is made to look and feel like cooked chicken-breast strips. The stuff is actually soy protein that’s been pressed through an extruder. That's just a fancy word for a machine through which you push something — say a metal or uncooked pasta — to give it a particular shape.
The science and technology that makes Beyond Meat strips chicken-y was developed by two scientists at the University of Missouri, Columbia who basically spent a lot of time playing around with the art of extrusion.
"A lot of it is trial and error," Harold Huff, one of the University of Missouri scientists, told me in 2013. He and other food scientists did a lot of modeling to see how different ingredients, extrusion pressures and temperatures affected the texture and taste of the "meat" strips. They did this on-and-off for about 15 years until they got it just right. The strips do feel and taste remarkably like chicken. Some consumers, Huff said, have even confused them for the real thing. And that's kind of the whole point.
As with other faux-meat startups, the thinking behind Beyond Meat is that we need more sustainable ways to bring protein to our tables, but packaged in ways that still satisfy our psychological cravings for the real deal.
Cricket Cinnamon Banana Bread
In case you haven’t heard, crickets — or insects more generally — are the future of food. They’re supposed to be more eco-friendly to farm than big-ag staples like corn and wheat. Plus, they’re high in protein and other nutrients.
People in other parts of the world have been eating insects for centuries. In Mexico, for example, you can get a generous helping of dried crunchy chapulines (crickets) with chili powder and lime to sprinkle on top for about 10 pesos, or roughly 60 cents. Now, some say, it’s time for the rest of us to join the insect-eating party. Crickets, it seems, are where the past meets the future.
But don't worry. We're starting you off easy. The banana bread we're suggesting doesn't contain whole crickets. It's made with cricket flour. San Francisco-based startup Bitty Foods is just one of several companies that sell the stuff online. And, according to their website, their cricketty banana loaf is perfect for "cricket flour newbies" because “the natural nuttiness of the crickets compliments the sweetness of the bananas, and is a natural substitute for walnuts.” (Your friends with nut allergies will appreciate that.)
Bitty works with cricket farms that raise organic crickets humans can eat. To make Bitty Foods flour, the critters are frozen and boiled to kill off bacteria, “so no toxins whatsoever are used in our process,” says Leslie Ziegler, one of the company’s co-founders.
Unfortunately, cricket flour won’t come cheap. Bitty Foods sells a 20-ounce pack of their cricket-flour baking blend for 20 bucks. (It also contains coconut flour and tapioca starch, among other things.) Next Millennium Farms charges $15 for about 4 ounces of the stuff, but it appears to be pure cricket rather than a blend.
Once you're comfortable with the idea of ingesting Jiminy Cricket's less cute ground-up relatives, try popping whole ones. Next Millennium Farms sells them in honey mustard, BBQ and Moroccan spice flavors.
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If you and your friends have transcended food because it just takes up way too much energy and time to chew — or you simply don’t have time to spend in the kitchen, then People Chow 3.0.1 is the party favor for you. It’s a hacked version of Soylent.
Soylent is Silicon Valley’s answer to a life wasted on expensive, non-nutritious meals. It’s a liquidy beige goop that’s supposed to come packed with all the nutrients your body needs. For just $9, you can prepare a whole day’s worth of “food” in just three minutes: pour the powder into a blender, add water, and hit blend.
Unfortunately, it can sometimes take weeks to get your Soylent supply. And who can wait that long, especially if you want to bring the nutrient cocktail to a holiday party?
Enter DIY Soylent. That’s a Soylent-approved site where you can find recipes for Soylent-like concoctions, like People Chow 3.0.1, the most popular recipe among DIY Soylenters. You can Amazon-Prime some of the ingredients, like soybean oil, corn flour or whey protein, or find them at a local market.
People Chow's also known as “The Tortilla Perfection.” It's earned that moniker because it's got a subtle hint of tortilla flavor to it — probably thanks to the corn flour. Unfortunately, it's not as tasty as nachos. My suggestion: Pair with tequila. You’ll need it to wash down the gritty, corny drink down your throat.
Next-generation Chocolate Chip Cookies
Everyone loves a good chocolate chip cookie. But the food engineers at San Francisco-based startup Hampton Creek are trying to improve on it with software. The company is creating a database of plant proteins — and how they behave — in an attempt to understand how mixing them up in cookies, pastas or condiments might affect taste and texture. It's basically Facebook or Google-type data analysis, but applied to food.
Hampton Creek's aim is to use the plant kingdom's sizable bag of natural ingredients to supercharge the way we eat, all while helping the environment and our health. In the style of a Silicon Valley data-driven company, it's even helping consumers quantify how much they're contributing to changing the world.
Bringing 50 of Hampton Creek's Just Cookies to that Ugly Sweater party you were invited to will spare the planet 136 gallons of water and 4 kilograms in carbon emissions, according to the company's Cookie Calculator. It will also supposedly save your friends from a total of 635 milligrams of artery-clogging cholesterol.
The treats are available at various chain stores, like Safeway, Whole Foods and Target.
A holiday party isn't complete without eggnog. So, an eggnog cocktail is bound to win you even more points with your hipster friends. Pulling this off will take a little bit of planning, though.
Eggnog is the star ingredient here, obvi. You can buy a ready-made carton of it, but you can also try your hand at playing chemist while you make your own. The people over at Chefsteps, a Seattle-based startup founded by some of the chefs involved with The Modernist Cuisine, have an interesting recipe.
The trick to a good eggnog, says Grant Crilly, the chef who concocted the eggnog cocktail recipe, is balancing texture and flavor. Sure, you can add fat to get it all nice and creamy, but adding too much will dull the flavor.
That's where carrageenan and guar gum, two hydrocolloids that come from algae and tree sap, respectively, come in. When hydrocolloids come in contact with water, they soak it up and plump up. That's what gives the eggnog its creamy consistency.
The eggs, Crilly says, are just really there for color and a bit of flavor. But if you have friends that are vegan, you can actually substitute in Himalayan sea salt, which, like eggs, is rich in sulfur, and something called astaxanthin, which is a compound found in marygold flowers. It's what makes egg yolks yellow. Chickens eat marygolds, and the astaxanthin ends up in the yolk.
So once you've got all your ingredients, it's time to start cooking. This eggnog recipe calls for a process known as sous vide. Basically, it involves cooking stuff at a carefully controlled temperature in vacuum sealed bags in a water bath. Ordinarily, high-end cooks have special equipment for this sort of thing, but there's a clever hack you can use.
Once you have your eggnog mixture ready, pour it into a ziploc bag, carefully press out the air, and then let it hang out in a water bath precisely at 162 degrees Fahrenheit for 20 minutes.
Once your nog is ready, you'll need some good rum, milk, and ice to make the cocktail.
"Shake the heck out of it," says Crilly, "and serve it immediately."
Alcohol makes things more fun. But when you mix booze with science, things suddenly get a lot more interesting. Why make a boring vodka tonic or a run-of-the-mill margarita when you can wow your friends by whipping up beaded booze.
Thanks to a process called reverse spherification, you can wrap liquid into gel-covered spheres. It works thanks to a chemical reaction between calcium ions and alginate, a molecule found in brown algae. (It's also a hydrocholloid.) If you drop calcium-containing liquids into a bucket of alginate solution, a thin jelly skin forms around the droplets, and boom! You've got liquid-filled orbs.
Here's a recipe for The Ouya, a spherified cocktail ChefSteps concocted at my request last year.
Daniela Hernandez is a senior writer at Fusion. She likes science, robots, pugs, and coffee.