Cooking: NASA's heavenly menus

By JULIA WATSON   |   Sept. 18, 2002 at 12:27 PM   |   0 comments

WASHINGTON, Sept. 18 (UPI) -- Back in the days of the Soviet Union when I was a Moscow correspondent, I was taken on a press jaunt to Star City. This was the previously out-of-bounds, shrouded-in-mystery base of the Soviet space venture. Opening it up to the foreign press was a demonstration of the new divulgence era of "glasnost."

Tucked away from the spacecraft in a dimly lit room sat an assembly of dusty glass cabinets. Centered on a saucer in one of them was an example of the snack first cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin took with him on his seismic 1961 single-orbit spin around the world in Sputnik: a head of garlic and a small dry sausage.

For John Glenn, America's first astronaut in 1962 and the subsequent Mercury Program crews, food was provided in bite-sized cubes, freeze-dried powders or semi-liquid in aluminum tubes.

It may have represented an advance on garlic. But the powders and cubes were inclined to dredge the capsules' sensitive instruments with crumbs. (Remember that film footage of the astronaut squeezing his juice box, then air-swimming after the floating droplets and sucking them into his mouth?)

But even if hoovering in one's supper from toothpaste tubes might amuse, the stuff inside didn't taste half as scrumptious as a good chewy sausage.

These days, space food is almost worthy of a critic's evaluation. Irradiation, rehydrating and thermostabilizing techniques have produced dishes and puddings far more appetizing than freeze-dried foods. Shrimp cocktail is the universal favorite.

What astronauts also like are macaroni-and-cheese, ham, steak, sliced turkey, tomatoes-and-eggplant and chicken-and-rice casseroles, beef tips with mushrooms and -- would you believe -- chicken à la king. Heavenly, you could say.

What they don't like, in the early days of a flight when queasiness is a problem, is food with a pungent smell: fresh bananas or canned tuna and salmon in particular. Smells hang about worse than in a boy's bedroom.

It's something the astronauts assigned to the International Space Station have to grin and bear. Fifty percent of their food is supplied by the Russians. And, says Vickie Kloeris, sub-system manager for shuttle and space station food at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, "Russians are not nearly as concerned with fish smells. Fish is very popular. It's a cultural thing. Like the Swedes, fish items are even used for breakfast."

Sadly, the years when they sent up caviar are over.

The more than 100 astronauts involved in the space program design their own meals from over 200 food items. Food is crucial. The menu planning, testing and production that take eight or nine months are the starting point for scheduling lift-off. For expeditions to the International Space Station, only when most of their food has arrived ahead of them does a crew launch take place.

It's like being a student again. Each astronaut's supplies for breakfast, lunch, dinner and snacks are marked with a personal color-coded dot. This would prevent them all fighting over the shrimp cocktail.

Astronauts still have to be careful. If they tear into a package of peanuts too wildly, the peanuts surge forth and bob about the capsule. Tortillas are the bread of choice -- no clogging crumbs.

Those on Earth with crumb distributors of all ages under their roofs might take a lesson from NASA. Here are a couple of naturally preserved treats that would convey well for months on land or in space and produce no dangerous debris.

Membrillo is a scented quince paste from Spain delicious with cheese or just by itself, cut into cubes or diamonds.

Weigh a purée of quinces that you have washed, quartered, cored, then steamed till soft and pushed through a sieve or mouli. Add the same weight in sugar and cook together in a heavy-bottomed pan, stirring till it thickens, darkens and begins to come away from the sides. Pour into a lightly vegetable-oiled baking pan of a size to create a spread about 1 inch deep. Cool, then dry out. If you can't leave it in the sun, just put the tin into the oven at its lowest temperature with the door wedged open about an inch. It can take several hours and is ready when springy to the touch. Store it indefinitely in an airtight container, or cut into pieces and wrap in greaseproof paper.

Confit de canard is a method of preserving duck from France's Périgord. Essential in cassoulet, the skin of these tender legs will roast to a crisp. If you find duck legs cheap -- look in Chinese supermarkets -- it's worth making this in quantity. You can buy duck fat in cans in gourmet food shops.

To make curing salt, to 8 tsp of rock salt, add 4 tsp sugar, 2 chopped peeled garlic cloves, 1 bay leaf, 1 clove, 1/2 tsp smashed peppercorns, 1 pinch dried thyme, a good grating of nutmeg. Whiz in the blender 45 seconds. Coat 16 duck legs well with this mixture, lay in a dish, cover with cling wrap and refrigerate for 12 hours. More and they will be too salty. Thoroughly wash off and dry the legs with a cloth. Melt 3 1/2 cans duck fat in a deep but narrow casserole then add the legs, 1 branch of rosemary, another of thyme and a head of garlic sliced through the middle. Gently bring the fat to a simmer. Watch over it -- fat left unattended is dangerous.

Once sizzling around the edges, put the dish, uncovered, into an oven preheated to 325F. Cook till the flesh comes easily away from the bones -- about an hour. Lay the legs in suitable freezer containers, not too many at a time for flexibility. Strain the fat into a heatproof jug and pour over, then freeze till needed.

You could preserve them like the French in large sterilized jars. But I've not tested the method myself.

To cook, heat the oven to 375F, melt a generous tablespoon or more of the duck fan in a roasting pan, add a leg per person, some peeled and quartered potatoes, some unpeeled cloves of garlic to suck, turn everything about to coat and roast till all is gold and crispy -- about an hour. The fat by itself makes the most wonderful roast potatoes.

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