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The taste of space

NASA astronaut Jeff Williams checks out a food pouch in the international space

station's galley. Williams and his crewmates, Russia's Pavel Vinogradov and

Germany's Thomas Reiter, will put jambalaya to a taste test next week.

Gourmet cuisine and space food may sound like mutually exclusive terms, but when NASA whipped up some jambalaya based on TV chef Emeril Lagasse’s recipe and freeze-dried it for a space station tasting, even Emeril’s team had to admit that the result was ... surprisingly good.

"I'm a little biased," said Karen Katz, executive producer for "Emeril Live" on the Food Network, "but I must say we were very pleasantly surprised when we tasted Emeril's food in that freeze-dried form."

Yes, this may be the 21st century, but NASA still has to freeze-dry a lot of the food it sends to the international space station, even the "Kicked Up Bacon Cheese Mashed Potatoes" from Emeril's recipe book. The space station's astronauts will be putting the results to a televised taste test next Thursday - but the space food manager at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Vickie Kloeris, is already pretty sure the meal will get four stars.

"Our team looked at the recipes to decide which ones would freeze-dry the best and basically ran a test batch of these products, and they were quite successful," she told me today.

And Emeril? He's happy with the results as well, to judge by the Food Network's news release: "This is a tremendous honor," he was quoted as saying. "It is rare to have this kind of opportunity, and obviously we hope that our meals make a difference in the quality of life for our men in space. ... This give the term 'kicking it up a notch' a whole new meaning."

The chef and his staff have been working with NASA over the past 18 months to develop freeze-dried versions of five classic Emeril recipes - weathering delays caused by Hurricane Katrina as well as space shuttle snags. The finished products were finally delivered last month aboard the shuttle Discovery.

Kloeris and Katz said surprisingly little had to be done to adjust the recipes for space. "We had to change the chop size of these things ... because the freeze-drying process doesn't work very well if you have large chunks," Kloeris explained.

Also, Katz said the rum in Emeril's rice pudding had to be replaced by rum extract, to comply with NASA's ban on alcohol in space. (I'm sure the Russians would laugh at the idea that a smattering of freeze-dried hooch would make a difference.)

Emeril and his team had to give their stamp of approval before the food could be sent up - so they got an advance shipment of the dishes for rehydrating in their own earthbound kitchen. "It still tasted like his food," Katz told me.

Spicy jambalaya should be a particularly welcome dish around the space station's dining table. (Yes, there's a dining table in the Russian-built Zvezda module, equipped with Velcro pads and bungee straps for holding down the food and drink packets - but in zero-G, astronauts just float around the table rather than sitting in chairs.)

Yuri Malenchenko and Ed Lu float at the space station's dining room table

during their 2003 mission. The hot sauce floating above the table comes

in handy to add some zest to the food, and when it comes to utensils, the

scissors for opening up food pouches is as indispensable as a spoon.

Since the very dawn of space food, back in the 1960s, astronauts have noted that their palates seemed dulled during spaceflight, which has led them to "kick it up a notch" with a variety of hot sauces and spices. Kloeris said scientists have tried in vain to figure out exactly why space food generally seems so lackluster, but she has her own theory.

"In the early days of a spaceflight, the fluid shift causes fluid to go to the head and the upper torso," she explained. "It's just like when you and I have a cold and are congested - things just don't taste quite the same."

But the fluid shift eventually evens out, which means there has to be a different explanation for why long-term space fliers continue to have a pallid palate.

"When you're in a closed environment like a spacecraft, the food is going to be competing with any other odor that's present in the environment," Kloeris suggested. "The way a person tastes food, it's more smell than it is taste. So in microgravity, where they're having to eat out of funky little packages, and there's less convection, and the food is competing with other odors - all of that says you're going to have less effective taste on orbit."

Space food has come a long way since the days of Tang drink mix sucked from a pouch and applesauce squeezed out of a toothpaste tube. Not everything has to be freeze-dried. In fact, many of the foods on NASA's 300-item menu are "thermostabilized" - basically, put through a canning process that preserves the food in pouches rather than glass jars.

There are even deliveries of fresh fruit and vegetables. However, you can't leave those things sitting around for long. NASA can put a human on the moon (at least it could), and it can even put a lab freezer on the space station, but it can't give the astronauts a refrigerator for food storage. "That got cut, for budgetary reasons and because of power usage limitations," Kloeris said.

There's no oven in the usual sense, either. "The ovens we have onboard the shuttle and the station, they don't go hot enough to cook anything," Kloeris said. "They're just warmers." Even a microwave oven would be too bulky, by the time engineers added all the shielding required to make the darn thing space-ready.

That means the astronauts can't bake their own cookies or pop a bowl of popcorn. Instead, the freeze-dried items are reconstituted by injecting water into the food pouch, massaging it a bit to mix it up, then delicately opening the pouch to spoon the vittles out. (Because of surface tension, a moist spoonful of food will stay on the spoon rather than flying off - unless, of course, you want it to fly off. Food fight!)

Other foods - including off-the-shelf cookies and candy - can be eaten right out of the package or the can. And yes, Tang is still on the menu, in orange as well as other colors.

Space station and shuttle astronauts gather around the station's table

during a 2001 mission. Click on the picture for a more detailed view.

The space food business is by no means standing still. Kloeris and her food specialists are always working to kick the menu up a notch.

"What we hear 99.9 percent of the time is that anything you can do to increase the variety is a good thing," she said. A varied diet in space makes a big difference for psychological as well as nutritional reasons, she noted.

Unfortunately, some earthly foods don't travel well - pies with flaky crusts, for example. Pizza is another dish that's high on the astronaut's wish list. That may be part of the reason why Pizza Hut made such a big deal over the "first pizza delivery in space" a couple of years ago.

In addition to menu monotony, NASA has to cope with stresses on the food supply chain. It turns out that the U.S. military relies on many of the same suppliers that NASA does for its "Meals Ready to Eat" rations.

"Because of the war, there are so many MREs being produced for the troops that we are having trouble getting our own products processed," Kloeris said. "It's the war, and Katrina, believe it or not."

To address that problem, NASA is making arrangements for its own dedicated supplier for thermostabilized food - and an announcement on that score should be coming out by the end of the year, Kloeris said.

Then there's the next generation of space food to worry about: meals that will be suitable for Mars-bound astronauts. NASA would likely have to send a cache of food in advance of a human mission, so that supplies for Red Planet exploration and the return trip are waiting for the astronauts when they arrive. That means the food would have to keep for a long, long time.

"The concern that we have is that in order to support a mission to Mars, they're going to have to have products that have about a five-year shelf life," Kloeris said. "Although there are some of these MRE-type products that have that length of shelf life, there's certainly not enough of a variety of food products that have the shelf life to support a mission to Mars."

No one else is doing research on that aspect of nutritional science. "They're not trying to figure out how to make M&Ms last five years because they don't really need to have M&Ms last five years," Kloeris explained.

So consider Emeril's gourmet fling as one giant leap for space food, and one small step toward Mars and beyond. The space station astronauts themselves will deliver their reviews live on NASA TV at 1:30 p.m. ET Thursday, and the whole process will be the subject of a special episode of "Emeril Live" in October.

You can learn much, much more about how space food is served up by following the links on  this NASA Web page, as well as by checking out this description of "Cafe ISS" from space station veteran Ed Lu.

And if you want to sample what the astronauts will be tasting, pour yourself a tall glass of Tang and make these dishes (freeze-drying optional):

Mardi Gras Jambalaya

(Recipe courtesy Emeril Lagasse)

1 (5-pound) duck, trimmed of fat and cut into 8 pieces

3 tablespoons Essence, recipe follows

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 pound andouille or other spicy smoked sausage, diced

2 cups chopped yellow onions

1/2 cup chopped green bell peppers

1/2 cup chopped red bell peppers

1/2 cup chopped celery

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cayenne

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 cups peeled, seeded, and chopped tomatoes

1 tablespoon chopped garlic

3 bay leaves

2 cups long-grain white rice

2 teaspoons minced fresh thyme leaves

2 quarts chicken stock or canned low-sodium chicken broth

1 pound small shrimp, peeled and deveined

1 cup chopped green onions (green and white parts)

1/2 cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley

Season the duck pieces with 2 tablespoons of the Essence.

Heat the vegetable oil in a large heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add the duck, skin side down, and sear for 5 minutes. Turn and sear on the second side for 3 minutes. Remove from the pot and drain on paper towels.

Add the sausage to the fat in the pot and cook, stirring, until browned, about 5 minutes. Add the onions, bell peppers, celery, salt, cayenne, and black pepper and cook, stirring often, until the vegetables are softened, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, garlic, and bay leaves and cook, stirring, until the tomatoes give off some of their juices, about 2 minutes. Add the rice and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes.

Add the thyme, stock, and duck. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer, stirring occasionally, until the rice is tender, about 30 minutes.  Remove duck pieces from the jambalaya and cool slightly.  Discard skin and bones and shred duck meat.  Return the duck meat to the rice mixture. 

Season the shrimp with the remaining 1 tablespoon Essence. Add the shrimp to the pot and cook until they turn pink, about 5 minutes. Remove the pot from the heat and let sit, covered, for 15 minutes.

Add the green onions and parsley to the jambalaya and stir gently. Remove and discard the bay leaves. Adjust the salt, pepper, and cayenne to taste. Serve directly from the pot.

Yield: 6 servings

Emeril's Essence Creole Seasoning

(also referred to as Bayou Blast)

2 1/2 tablespoons paprika

2 tablespoons salt

2 tablespoons garlic powder

1 tablespoon black pepper

1 tablespoon onion powder

1 tablespoon cayenne pepper

1 tablespoon dried oregano

1 tablespoon dried thyme

Combine all ingredients thoroughly.

Yield: 2/3 cup

Recipe from “New New Orleans Cooking”, by Emeril Lagasse and Jessie Tirsch. Published by William Morrow, 1993.

Kicked Up Bacon Cheese Mashed Potatoes

(Recipe courtesy Emeril Lagasse)

4 baking potatoes, like russets, about 3 pounds, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

1 3/4 teaspoons salt, plus more for seasoning

1/2 cup heavy cream

4 tablespoons butter

1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper, plus more for seasoning

8 slices bacon, cooked crisp and crumbled

1/2 pound sharp Cheddar, grated

1/4 cup sour cream

1/4 cup chopped fresh chives

Place the potatoes and 1 teaspoon salt in a heavy 4-quart saucepan and cover with water by 1-inch. Bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until the potatoes are fork tender, about 20 minutes. Drain in a colander and return to the cooking pot. Add the cream, butter, remaining 3/4 teaspoon salt, and black pepper. Place the pan over medium low heat and mash with a potato masher to incorporate the ingredients and achieve a light texture, about 4 to 5 minutes. Add the bacon, grated cheese, sour cream, and chopped chives and stir until thoroughly combined. Season, to taste, with salt and pepper.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings

Spicy Green Beans with Garlic

(Recipe courtesy Emeril Lagasse)

1/4 cup clarified butter or vegetable oil

3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced

2 small green peppers, (such as jalapeno or serrano), stems and seeds removed, minced

2 teaspoons turmeric powder

2 teaspoons ground cumin

1/8 teaspoon cayenne

1 pound green beans, tough ends removed

1/4 cup water

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

3 tablespoons sesame seeds

In a large sauté pan, heat the butter over medium-high heat. Add the sliced garlic, peppers, turmeric, cumin, and cayenne, and cook, stirring, until the garlic begins to turn golden, about 2 minutes. Add the green beans, water, salt, and stir well. Cover and cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the beans are tender, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the sesame seeds and cook uncovered, stirring, until toasted, 2 to 3 minutes.

Remove from the heat and adjust seasoning, to taste.

Yield: 4 servings

Mixed Fruit Pandowdy

(Recipe courtesy Emeril Lagasse)

2 apples, such as Golden Delicious or Granny Smith, peeled and sliced 1/2-inch thick

2 pears, such as Anjou, peeled and sliced 1/2-inch thick

4 nectarines or peaches, pitted and sliced 1/2-inch thick

2 plums, pitted and sliced 1/2-inch thick

1 cup strawberries, rinsed and patted dry, hulled and quartered

1/2 cup blackberries, rinsed and patted dry

2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons cornstarch

1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar or maple syrup

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

Pinch salt

1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.

In a large mixing bowl combine the apples, pears, nectarines, plums, strawberries, and blackberries with the lemon juice and cornstarch and toss to combine. Add 1/2 cup sugar, cloves, nutmeg, and salt and stir well. Butter a deep pie dish or a 9 by 12-inch baking dish with 1/2 tablespoon of the butter. Transfer the fruit mixture to the buttered dish, and dot the top of the fruit mixture with the remaining tablespoon of butter.

Bake the fruit, uncovered, about 30 minutes.  Remove from the oven and let cool 15 to 20 minutes before serving.

Yield: 6 to 8 servings

Rice Pudding with Rum Raisins

(Recipe courtesy Emeril Lagasse)

3/4 cup golden raisins

2 tablespoons rum extract

1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise

1 cup water

1/2 cup long-grain white rice

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 1/2 cups whole milk

1/2 cup light brown sugar

2 large eggs

1 large egg yolk

1/8 teaspoon salt

Place the raisins in a small bowl.

In a small saucepan heat the rum over medium heat. Pour the rum over the raisins, cover and let soak at least 30 minutes and up to 2 hours. Drain.

Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into a small ramekin and reserve.

Combine water, rice and vanilla bean pod in a heavy, medium saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, covered, until the rice is tender and the liquid is absorbed, about 20 minutes.

Uncover rice, discard the vanilla bean, and let cool.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Butter 1 large (6 to 8-cup) soufflé dish with the tablespoon of butter, and place inside a roasting pan.

In a large bowl whisk together the milk, brown sugar, eggs, egg yolk, salt and reserved vanilla seeds. Stir in the raisins, sugared almonds and 1 1/2 cups cooked rice. Pour into the buttered dish. Add enough hot water to the roasting pan to come halfway up the sides of the dish. Bake until the pudding is set in center and brown around edges, about 1 hour 5 minutes. Remove the dish from the water and cool at least 15 minutes before serving.

Serve warm with whipped cream.

Yield:  6 servings