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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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« 23 And Me And the FDA | Main | Russian Soured Cabbage »

November 27, 2013

Thanksgiving: Never Trust An Organic Chemist Who Can't Cook

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Posted by Derek

I wanted to note that I'm home today, and will soon be starting my traditional chocolate pecan pie. If you haven't seen it, that link will lead you to a detailed prep, with both US and metric measurements. It's based on Craig Claiborne's recipe, and he certainly knew what he was talking about when it came to Southern food (and much else besides). I've been making it for twenty years now, and if I didn't, there would be a mutiny around here.

I have a pumpkin pie to make as well, and I'd like to get the base of the gravy going, so it can be turkey-enhanced tomorrow. (As for the turkey, for some years now we've bought a kosher one, so it's already been brined. A 17-pound specimen is waiting for tomorrow efforts). I hope to also make some green beans with country ham, since that reheats just fine, and will save on stove space tomorrow. For country ham, I can recommend Burger's from the Ozarks, available through that Amazon link. Pan-fried country ham has been my traditional Christmas breakfast for my entire life, and my wife and kids now join in with me on that one, but I break it out for Thanksgiving with the green beans. For me, it's wintertime food - I wouldn't turn it down if someone served it to my in July, but it certainly would be a new experience. I grew up eating a brand called Mar-Tenn from west Tennessee, but I don't even know if they exist any more.

The rest of the Thanksgiving meal will include an Iranian basmati rice (with saffron, slivered almonds, sour dried zereshk berries, pistachios, and bits of orange zest), home-made mashed potatoes, creamed onions with sage, pan-roasted Brussels sprouts, and stuffing (my Iranian mother-in-law's own recipe, with bread cubes, cranberries, celery, onion, and pepperoni - how she thought that one up, I don't know, but it's excellent). And this year I'm trying out some Russian sour cabbage (with apples, cranberries, and caraway seeds), which is fermenting away in the basement right now. I'll post the recipe for that later on in the afternoon, after I've made some culinary headway. Update: forgot the stuffed mushrooms and the roasted acorn squash. It's hard to keep track of it all after a certain point!

Comments (28) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Blog Housekeeping


1. SP on November 27, 2013 11:04 AM writes...

I made that argument one time, that chemistry is a good basis for knowing how to cook, when applying for a food-service job in college- not to be a cook but a waiter who also had to prepare minor things like dressings, etc. It didn't go over so well, similar to the typical response of, "I don't want chemicals in my food!"

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2. Virgil on November 27, 2013 11:31 AM writes...

I plan on trying out this recipe which I saw last week, a twist on the normal sweet potatoes using bacon and sage...

And for the turkey, once you brine, you'll never try it any other way.

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3. morphine on November 27, 2013 11:50 AM writes...

Hey Derek,

Please don't blow my cover, if my wife reads this she may wind up using it to force me to cook. She's a Pilsbury bakeoff finalist (Buffalo Chicken Pizza was hers) and I really prefer her cooking or my mom's so maybe change the headline please? She only thinks I can grill right now, if she winds up making me cook and me being so detail oriented and liking to an excellent job at whatever I do, this could end very badly for me. I may wind up having to do most of the household cooking in addition to trying to invent the perfect "non-addicting narcotic analgesic", its too much I tell you!

And no I won't just burn the food just to get out of cooking, my wife is the type to do something as terribly as possible to get out of doing it ever again, but I won't.

So please, lets keep this secret about Chemists being good cooks a trade secret, OK?

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4. Kazoo Chemist on November 27, 2013 12:01 PM writes...

I agree with your title and have often made the same observation. However, I think the chemist / cook linkage may be going the way of the horse and buggy. Your recent "good old days" column supports that notion. Remember when you had to titrate your own butyl lithium, set up two stills, one for THF and another for diisopropyl amine, measure out the amine and THF by syringe, cool with dry ice, add the BuLi by syringe, warm a bit, recool, and then you were good to go with your lithiun diisopropyl amide. Now you just stick a syringe in a sure-seal bottle.

Anyone who could manage the "roll your own" prep could follow a simple recipe in the kitchen. The modern way is more like heating up a store-bought frozen pizza.

As for your gravy, I certainly hope you are making your own roux and letting it get a bit browned for flavor and not thckening the gray with Wondra flour!

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5. Derek Lowe on November 27, 2013 12:20 PM writes...

#2 Virgil - absolutely right. The salt-water treatment is a great thing for poultry of all kinds, and helps out pork roasts tremendously as well. Turkey, often being on the dry side, really responds well.

#4 Kazoo - I know what you mean. But I hope the link still hold up, since Aldrich still won't sell you your final product in heat-and-serve form.

And #3 Morphine, if you've told your wife to read this site, hey, you're on your own (!) Good luck.

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6. phil on November 27, 2013 12:28 PM writes...

# 4 Kazoo - you mean you don't do those things? I find Sigma's BuLi is half concentration as reported, and I always make up LDA fresh... shouldn't you?

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7. mowgli on November 27, 2013 12:49 PM writes...

A recipe for your MIL's stuffing would be greatly appreciated. The wife and I have been trying to move away from the traditional stuff(ing) in recent years, and yours looks well worth trying. Thanks.

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8. Kazoo Chemist on November 27, 2013 12:50 PM writes...

@6 Phil - Nope, I'm retired. My personal LDA days are behind me. I do occasionally get paid to tell other chemists how they should do their job ;-)

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9. Derek Lowe on November 27, 2013 1:00 PM writes...

#7 - I'll try to watch the details of its preparation closely this year, and I'll see what I can do for you.

Oh, and one more for #4. No Wondra in the house, actually, although I guess that this must be its big selling season. It's flour and butter, cooked to the color of a copper penny. Can't go wrong that way!

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10. a. nonymaus on November 27, 2013 1:12 PM writes...

Interesting, I'd never heard of Wondra flour before. Organic chemistry is really more like bartending than cooking in my eyes. Add some of this with ice-cooling, measure in a couple mls of vermouth, catalyze with a sprig of rosemary, mix vigorously, strain into well-cleaned glassware.

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11. newnickname on November 27, 2013 1:22 PM writes...

@1 SP: You should resubmit your applications to the high-end fancy-schmancy haute cuisine restaurants that toy with Molecular Gastronomy /wiki/ Molecular_gastronomy

I'm looking forward to Flow Through Synthesis of Dinner, Mechanochemical Synthesis of Dessert and, you never know, maybe introduce some hot new recipe with a "BuLi-in-pentane flambe". Apparently, only an old-time chemist will know how to titrate the BuLi to get the flavor just right.

Seriously, I won't be surprised when they start serving meals decorated with fluorescent proteins to create an eerie -- and expensive -- dining experience.

Have a Happy T-Day, Everybody!

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12. Anonymous on November 27, 2013 1:34 PM writes...

Wow... I see skipping lunch and reading this blog were not well advised today.

So hungry now!!!

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13. Dannie on November 27, 2013 2:10 PM writes...

Pretty sure you would blog abt the experience very soon..

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14. nekekami on November 27, 2013 2:15 PM writes...

#3: Oh come on! You can't leave the cooking to the women... Or is that just the women in my life who are a disaster in the kitchen? :/

So far, in 8 years, the fatalities are: 1 cast iron frying pan(lacquered wooden handle, placed in a still hot oven......), 1 carbon steel knife(washed in the dish washer...), a couple of stainless steel pots and pans(don't ask...) and more...

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15. anonymous on November 27, 2013 2:24 PM writes...

I don't understand the link between organic chemistry and cooking. I can't get the turkey to fit in a microwave vial, and if I could the autosampler arm could never lift it.

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16. SP on November 27, 2013 2:37 PM writes...

15- Clearly you're not a process chemist. A turkey will fit in a 1000L reactor no problem.

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17. SteveM on November 27, 2013 2:40 PM writes...

Agree on brining the bird. BTW, a really great way to roast a turkey is on a Weber kettle grill with indirect heat using briquettes.


Happy Turkey Day.

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18. anonymous on November 27, 2013 2:41 PM writes...

How does one stir a 1000 L reactor of turkeys under GMP conditions?

In all seriousness though, I too would question any organic chemist that can't cook, and my turkey will spend the night takinga bath in a cooler full of spiced brine.

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19. rtw on November 27, 2013 3:10 PM writes...

I like to cook. Just hate to clean up, though I leave the traditional feast's at Christmas and Thanksgiving to wife, her sister and their mother for the most part.

My recipes are generally made up off the top of my head, and involve various types of pasta, meats, sea food, vegetables, herbs and spices mixed together to taste in several combinations depending on what's in the pantry, fridge and freezer. I haven't had too many failures, as my wife generally makes favorable noises while eating these creations.

BTW Derek - I have never tried pan roasted Brussels sprouts. I love them but usually just steam or boil them. How do you roast them. That sounds yummy. I am also interested in your Russian Sour Cabbage recipe.

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20. isodope on November 27, 2013 3:15 PM writes...

I've always felt somewhat marginal as an organic chemist although I am a good cook according to my tasters. But it seems I might have something to contribute to the modern organic chemist - I've been titrating my BuLi for years very simply and directly: JOC 1989 v54 p. 509.

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21. MILFshake on November 27, 2013 3:15 PM writes...

@ #2 and #Derek:

Deep frying a turkey beats brining in my book. It also far more efficient in terms of heat transfer, and adds an element of extreme danger (medieval hot oil bumps from ice chunks and, most dreaded, the tailgate tipover). Avoid these and you have a moist delicious turkey (and a vat of oil to sit in the garage) in short order.

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22. isodope on November 27, 2013 3:32 PM writes...

Turkey deep-fry safety tips: do it outside, never deep fry a frozen turkey; find a way to dip it slowly; measure your oil requirement by covering your bird in the vat with water, removing the bird and marking the level of the water, dump the water and dry vat and bird. If you measure your water as you add it then you know how much oil to buy (or steal from the hexane still residue if you're a process chemist;-). p.s.- Don't start drinking until the bird is bubbling.

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23. MILFshake on November 27, 2013 3:35 PM writes...

Some how not to do it turkey frying style:

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24. Secondaire on November 27, 2013 4:18 PM writes...

Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours, Derek.

Pshhaw on brining, basting, and deep-frying...We wrap the turkey in bacon. It's the very definition of anti-Kosher, but it's ridiculously amazing.

Agreed with all of the observations here; myself and my best friends who are chemists all love cooking, baking, and feeding people. I joined a new research group at the end of 2012, and 2013 then coincided with a suspicious and permanent 12 lb weight gain. :)

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25. Another Derek on November 27, 2013 8:50 PM writes...

Pan roast brussels sprouts are good: just trim them up in the usual way (pull of oldest outer leaves, trim bases), cut in half lengthwise, toss with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper, and roast on a sheet pan at somewhere around 400F.
But even better, though rather more work, is to shred and saute them. This time don't trim the bases, they provide convenient handles as you shred. Shred the sprouts on a mandolin - I have a hand-held mini-mandolin about 1" wide from a local discount Japanese store, which is very convenient.
If you like shallots, shred a couple (cut in half lengthwise, so the slices break up) in with the sprouts.
Saute in olive oil until you see some browning - there's a fairly wide acceptable range between underdone and burned.
A good dressing is mayo into which some Dijon mustard has been stirred, just put a dollop of that on the sprouts.

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26. jbosch on November 27, 2013 8:55 PM writes...


next time try 50% regular potatoes e.g. Idaho Whites, 50% sweet potatoes, cooked to your liking, then instead of using milk or cream add vegetable broth and as much Parmesan as you like.
The sweet&salt mixture go very well with good gravy.

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27. Derek Lowe on November 27, 2013 10:13 PM writes...

#19 We do the Brussels sprouts on top of the stove, but cut them in half as suggested in #25. We steam them a bit with some water in the covered pan, then take off the cover, dry them out with some more heat, then add a bit of oil and saute them until they're browned around the edges

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28. souls_at_zero on November 28, 2013 5:30 PM writes...


Everyone I know still makes LDA fresh, don't despair.

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