Opuntia cactus paddles, "Rows of nopales... were hanging on the wall."
Opuntia cactus paddles, "Rows of nopales... were hanging on the wall." Photo: Witold Ryka

Richard Cornish

How do I know my food isn't genetically modified? B. Smallwood

Is this some sort of trap? I know I am going to get letters, definitely one from the anti-GM lobby and probably one from Monsanto as well. Anyway, in Australia genetically modified food has to be listed on its packaging in the ingredients list. Simple. There are some exemptions. Oils made from genetically modified plants do not need to carry the ''made from GM'' listing on the label. Food Standards Australia New Zealand deems it not necessary to list oil made from genetically modified soya, cottonseed or canola because they have been so heavily processed. So you will never know if your cake, bread, margarine, fried fish or any manufactured food using oil is made with GM oil unless the manufacturer states they are not. Once processed, detritus from GM plants is not wasted and is often used to feed animals in feedlots. The milk and meat from animals fed GM plants or seeds are not required to be labelled. Food grown under organic and biodynamic standards, by definition, cannot be genetically modified.

What is cochineal? M. Dawson

In the kitchen, it is a food dye. In nature, it is a bug that lives on cactus. A few years back, I was working with a team researching a book in Mexico. We were learning to make tamales with a family of women who were also master dyers and weavers. Rows of nopales, or cactus paddles, were hanging on the wall. On them was what appeared to be white fluff but were actually hundreds of little cochineals, parasitic insects that live on the cactus. The women collect them and grind them in a metate, a Mexican mortar and pestle, and use them to dye wool to make red and pink rugs. One little cochineal jumped down onto my notebook and was crushed, leaving a blood-like stain. Cochineals are grown, harvested and processed to make the dye carmine and what we know as the red food colouring cochineal. Vegetarians are well aware it is made from dead bugs and steer clear of it, looking out for its E number E120. People trying to avoid artificial additives in their diet, however, will use it to colour food as it is made from naturally occurring little cochineals.

I dislike the taste of evaporated milk and can detect it in cooked dishes. Can I replace it with cream? B. Griffiths

Manufacturers of industrial food have a responsibility to their shareholders to sell more products. Creating new recipes for new products creates demand, the apotheosis of this perhaps being the day in the 1950s the makers of Rice Bubbles teamed up with the people who make Copha and Cadbury Bournville Cocoa to create chocolate crackles. Most Australians with a child aged under 10 make these at least once a year. Evaporated milk entered the canon of home cooking with the help of recipes developed by the manufacturers. Evaporated milk is made by removing over half of the water from whole milk, which is then canned and pasteurised. The high temperatures caramelise the natural sugar in the milk, giving it a particular nutty sweet flavour. Compared with whole milk, it has roughly twice as much sugar, protein and fat, which is about 10 per cent. It adds flavour and richness to sauces and is used in popular desserts. Substituting cream won't give you the sweetness but three to four times as much fat. You could stir a scant teaspoon of sugar and several teaspoons of cream through a cup of milk. A better alternative is to take several cups of whole milk, place them in a large, wide, pan and simmer until they have reduced by just over half. Use as directed.

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