A year and a half ago, I drove to the Soldier Systems Center in Natick, Mass., as part of the research for a story on U.S. military cuisine. (A year and a half later, the story is finally coming out later this month in Gastronomica!) As part of my tour of the facility where the food that soldiers eat gets developed and formatted into “recipes” (though not the kind of recipes we’d recognize, they’re more like contract requirements…but more of that in the piece), I got to sit in on a tasting session. Now for those of you who have eaten military food (or even subsisted on it), this may not sound like a treat.
But for me, it was a huge learning experience–and not just in empathy for those who have to eat pre-packaged food for days on end, as their only form of sustenance. I also got a quickie education in how tasting works. That is, what a professional taster does for a living. At the Soldier Systems Center, teams taste rations at different points in their lifespan, to ensure both safety and quality. Lots of people on the campus are trained as tasters, which means they know how to identify the different flavors in terminology that were summarized for me on a worksheet the tasting room manager handed to me.
As I tasted (and, if we’re being honest–spat out), shelf-stable foods like MRE cinnamon buns at age 1 month and age 6 months, I actually noticed how a brand new bun had fewer brown notes than an aged one. Brown notes are the essence of nutty caramel that you sometimes taste in carbs.
Back in my kitchen, I decided to test this theory on some Cheerios.
No, what really happened is: I kept remembering a snack my mom made throughout my childhood, fried Cheerios. Why on earth did she bother to fry the cereal when the wheaty O’s tasted just fine on their own? I asked her, and she told me that back in the 80s and 90s, she was always looking for relatively healthful snacks that seemed more exciting than a healthful snack should. That made sense.
And then why did fried Cheerios taste substantially better than plain Cheerios? Well, that brings us back to the Solder Systems Center and the tasting room. Like the “aged” MRE cinnamon bun, a chemical reaction (heat, rather than time), had caused the wheat to take on more sweetness, depth, and toasty caramel notes, making for a delicious snack.
In my mom’s recipe, the browned butter and wheat play off the third of three ingredients in this simple, healthful snack–oregano–to create a finger food that’s as snack-able as stovetop popcorn–whether or not you’re a kid, or a soldier.