Peanut butter cookies without peanut butter? Call it food science

Frank on food

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Enjoying the privilege of writing this column each week compels me to keep current with the latest trends in culinary arts. It's an ever-expanding field that continues to fascinate and entice a growing number of novices, all eager and hopeful of finding their niche.

Teaching cooking full-time at Kendall College, the renowned culinary school that, incidentally, is now firmly established at its new home on the Chicago River at the southern tip of Goose Island, gives me the means by which I can see, first hand, just where those trends (and many of our new culinarians) are heading. Food wise, these are certainly some interesting times.

True enough, more Americans than ever are fascinated by food. Cookbooks still outsell all other categories at bookstores and we can't seem to get enough of Emeril Live or the Iron Chef on television. Cooking Under Fire, the new reality series on PBS, is like a culinary version of American Idol, and I predict it will be one of the most frequently watched shows on that network. Mark my words.

Yet we live in a time when the fewest Americans in our history do any "real" cooking at home. Incredibly, over 19 percent of our meals are consumed in the car. When we do eat at home, more of us are opting for the luxury, but oftentimes necessity, of employing a "personal chef" to do the cooking. Understandable when you realize that the fastest-growing demographic in our population is the elderly.

Today, unlike when I began my career, the hottest jobs in the culinary arts are in healthcare, personal-chef cooking, and research and development. Besides knowing how to cook, a good grounding in such disciplines as nutrition and dietetics is indispensable for any successful career in health care, and certainly helpful in personal-chefing.

Becoming a research chef, however, begs for knowledge of food science as well as cooking, and as this field has grown a new area of study has emerged called "culinology," which focuses on a merging of the culinary arts with food science.

Research and development is an exciting field, and last week I had the pleasure of sampling the efforts of students who are enrolled in Professor Judith Beto's experimental foods course at Dominican University. Beto, whom I've known for some years, is an amazing teacher, loved by her students and respected throughout the culinary world for her vast knowledge of nutrition science.

Fourteen students presented new food products they'd developed as part of their course work during the past year. Inventive entrees such as peanut-free peanut butter cookies, utilizing liquid peanut flavor instead of peanuts; low sugar children's breakfast muffins, with alternate sweeteners and dried fruit; and a vegan cake, made with fresh pumpkin and soy milk, were typical of the kinds of foods being offered.

The most popular entree was a daiquiri popsicle for adults, but my favorite was the healthy oatmeal cookies, developed by food science major Nicole Pedota, who used ground flax seed (which is very high in omega fatty acids) and water in place of whole eggs. And they were tasty, too.

What else can I say? Fascinating!

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