Pirates of the Carob Bean

Maybe the name takes you back to gentler days of Moosewood Cookbook and the dusty spicy local co-op. Or maybe you were a kid back then and fell for a chocolate bait-and-switch. Whether you are sweetly nostalgic or wary and resentful, it’s worth giving carob another chance. Katherine argues that it’s time to pull this earthy crunchy 70’s food into the superfood age. She offers foraging tips and recipes to help you get to know carob on its own terms.

From November through January, the carob trees in my neighborhood dangle hard, lumpy, dark brown fruits resembling lacquered cat turds. They are delicious and nutritious and of course I collect them. I am, without apology, a pod plundering, legume looting, pirate of the carob bean. If you seek adventure and happen to live in California, Arizona, or on the Mediterranean coast, you can probably pilfer some carob fruits yourself and play with them in your kitchen. If you lack local trees or the pirate spirit, you can order carob powder and even whole carob beans with one simple click.

Although plundering season begins just as the year is ending, I always wait until January to gather carob fruits for two reasons. First, carob functions mainly as a healthful chocolate substitute, and during the holiday season, fake chocolate just seems sad. In January, however, eating locally foraged carob feels virtuous and resourceful. Second, November and December are when my local carobs make the flowers that will produce the next year’s crop, and those flowers smell like a pirate’s nether parts after a shore leave. Or so I imagine, and not without precedent. A man who should have been inured to such salty smells, Pliny the Elder, natural historian and commander in the Roman Imperial Navy, described the flowers as having “a very powerful odor.” It’s not clear why these flowers have a sort of seaman scent, since the main volatiles wafting from the flowers – linalools and farnesene – smell like lilies and gardenias (Custódio et al., 2006). In any case, I keep my distance until the flowers have finished mating season.

Carob trees

Despite their stinky flowers, carobs make great street trees and produce a valuable crop in many Mediterranean-type climates. They are beautiful, tolerant of dry and poor soils, pest resistant, and tidy. Carobs are legumes – like familiar peas and beans – but they belong to a different branch of the legume family (Caesalpinioideae), one that contains mostly trees and woody shrubs with tough inedible fruit (Legume Phylogeny Working Group, 2017). Carob pods look about as edible as Jack Sparrow’s boots, and the species’ scientific name, Ceratonia siliqua, means “horny long pod,” which well captures the intimidating nature of their leathery fruit. But as you will see below, the fruits are easy to harvest and process, and their sweet pulp is worth seeking out.

Whole carob pod (left) and immature pod opened to show pulp and seeds. The pulp hardens and turns pale brown at maturity. Click to enlarge.

Evidence suggests that people have indeed been seeking out carobs for a long time. Although carob’s origin is uncertain, the species seems to have evolved in the eastern Mediterranean and wild plants would have been available to foragers well before agriculture arose in the region. The plant geneticist Daniel Zohary believed that carob was domesticated late, perhaps only in Roman times, but that it spread quickly throughout the Mediterranean region once people learned how to propagate the trees. Remains of horny pods were found in the 1st century ruins of Pompeii (Zohary, 2002), where carob trees perished alongside our noble friend Pliny the Elder. The University of Cyprus has recently embarked on a project called “Black Gold” to reinvigorate the island’s ancient tradition of carob cultivation and develop new food products from it. Right now, countries around the Mediterranean produce tens of metric tons of carob annually, and one Australian company has jumped into the market with an Aussie Sharkbar.

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Is there a carob tree here? Mort de Pline (Death of Pliny). Jean-Édouard Dargent [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Carob powder is derived from the fruit wall, and this is what we will process for the recipes below. A less visible but incredibly common carob product appears on ingredient lists as “locust bean gum,” which comes from the gelatinous endosperm of the seeds. It is used to thicken cosmetics and almond milk and to keep crystals from forming in ice cream.

“Locust” is a common name for several of carob’s close relatives, hence the confusion, but I’m still puzzled by the marketing choice of “locust” over “carob” for a list of ingredients you might eat or rub into your face. Squeamishness over true six-legged locusts may underlie another common name for carob, “St. John’s bread.” His “meat was locusts and honey,” but surely John the Baptist subsisted on sweet tree pods and not icky arthropods.

In ancient Greece and Rome, dry carob seeds provided a standardized weight for jewelry, which we now call the carat. So if your own pirate’s code precludes stealing actual gold and gemstones, you can still fill your bandana with carats of a sort.

24 carat magic!

Becoming a carob pirate

First, I must state clearly that we Botanists in the Kitchen are committed to sustainable use of wild foods and do not endorse actual pirate behavior, including stealing carob beans from private property or taking anything from parks or forests where collecting is prohibited. The interests of others and the conservation status and abundance of any plant must always be considered.

Fortunately, taking a few handfuls of carob fruits before they hit the ground does not damage the trees or deprive anyone but slugs of a snack. Carobs are not native outside of the Mediterranean and anyhow they do not reproduce readily by seed, so you are unlikely to affect their propagation. And honestly, as much as I love them, publicly available carob pods are not in high demand. In fact, you may be doing your community a service by keeping them off the sidewalk. After all, the trees are planted for their foliage, not their fruits.

To collect carobs, you must first find them. The Friends of Urban Forests have collected a useful series of tree maps for many cities, including several where carobs grow. City streets, public parks, and college campuses are good places to look as well. Even without a map, if you have local carobs, you should have little trouble because carobs are among the easiest to spot once you have a search image. They brandish bold compound evergreen leaves with elliptical thick green to blue-green leaflets, about 1.5 inches (4 cm) across, arrayed in pairs along a red-tinged rachis.

A single large carob leaf, with four pairs of leaflets. At dusk, leaflets fold up towards each other, like pairs of hands, thanks to the thick pulvinus at the base of each leaflet. Click to enlarge.

Their trunks become rakishly knobby and gnarled with thick ribs running along their length. They often have low branches, making harvesting easy, and in mid-winter the black pods dangle in conspicuous clusters. Of course, during early winter flowering season you can always find them with your nose.

But there is a twist in the story. Not all carob trees make pods. Ceratonia siliqua is dioecious, with some individuals bearing only pistillate (“female”) flowers and others bearing only staminate (“male”) ones. And yes, female flowers smell just as bad as male flowers do. My favorite local tree, however, is one of the occasional hermaphrodites, whose flowers bear both pistils and stamens. It is plausible that humans selected for hermaphroditic individuals during domestication (Zohary, 2002), and that my local genotype reflects that history.

Inflorescence with hermaphroditic flowers. Flowers have both pistils (stigma, short style, ovary) and stamens (anthers on filaments). They lack petals, and their sepals are very short, obscured by the green nectary. Click to enlarge.

Each flower in a cluster is tiny and completely lacks petals. A set of short sepals is almost entirely hidden by a fat green gland that secretes odoriferous nectar to attract and reward insects. That offensive scented nectar seems gratuitous, however, because the flowers have several hallmarks of wind-pollination: highly reduced perianth (sepals and petals), well exposed anthers, and dioecy (separate male and female flowers). On the other hand, they lack other wind-pollination traits, most obviously a long and feathery stigma to capture wind-borne grains and numerous anthers tossing out buckets and buckets of pollen.

Only a few ovaries per inflorescence survive to become a carob pod. This one is happy to see you. Click to enlarge.

Attracting insects thus appears to be important, and one study reports that the flowers don’t make any fruit without wasps and flies to pollinate them (Arista et al., 1999). Unfortunately, it looks like we have to tolerate the raunchy smell to get to the treasure. Nobody ever said a pirate’s life was a bed of roses.

 

Recipes

Although carob is often used as a chocolate substitute, and it does taste similar to cocoa, carob has a unique flavor profile that deserves to be taken on its own terms. The flavor can be enhanced by roasting the pods gently for about 10 or 15 minutes. Roasting also turns residual moisture in the fruits into steam, which swells the cavity inside so that the seeds come out more easily.

It’s more fun to make your own, but you can find commercial carob powder in many stores, and both powder and syrup can be found online.

Carob “mocha”

Use about 5 pods per cup.

Roast pods in a toaster oven at a low temperature (about 250ºF or 120ºC) for 10-15 min until they swell up and blister slightly. Their high sugar content makes pods burn easily and deeply, so keep a watch on them and remove them quickly if they start to char.

Crack open the pods and remove all the seeds.

Grind the pods in a coffee or spice grinder to the consistency of ground coffee.

Carob mocha brewing in a French press

For rich flavor, I like to use about half a cup of ground carob in a 4-cup French press to yield two hefty mugs. Brew for about 15 mins.

Add heated or steamed milk to taste.

Carob syrup

Use to sweeten tea or coffee or to make carob-peanut balls.

You will need about 8 pods and two cups of water for every tablespoon of syrup desired. Pods do not need to be roasted, but allowing them to dry out for a week reduces the tannins and yields a smoother flavor.

Rinse any dust from the pods. Remove “stems” (pedicels). Hand break the pods into 1-inch lengths or roll over them with a marble rolling pin or a thick-walled wine bottle to crack and crush them. Pirates can use a bottle of rum.

In a sauce pan, bring to a boil one cup of water for every 4 pods. Remove from heat, add the broken pods, cover and allow to steep for several hours, until the water is the color of iced tea.

Reheat the water and simmer the pods for another 30 mins, or until the liquid looks like breakfast tea or very weak coffee.

Remove the pods and continue to simmer the liquid extract until the depth of the water is about half an inch.

At this point, right before it is thick enough, the syrup can burn very easily. For the final reduction, either strain it into a small sauce pan and heat gently under constant vigilance, or strain it into a glass measuring cup and microwave it a few minutes at a time.

You will know it is ready when it has been reduced in volume to half a tablespoon per cup of starting liquid. It will thicken a bit when it cools, but will always be more like maple syrup than molasses. Refrigerate for storage.

Carob peanut balls

Peanuts and chocolate are a classic combination, but peanuts and carob really belong together, as they are in the same family. If you can’t make or find carob syrup, you can use clover honey instead and sort-of add a third member of the fabulous Fabaceae.

Roast and grind 2 or 3 carob pods, as described in the mocha recipe above, but continue to grind to make a very fine powder. Put the powder through the finest sieve you have to remove grainy bits. A gold filter for coffee or a very fine tea strainer works well. The leftover grainy bits can be steeped for tea.

Mix a tablespoon of powder with about a teaspoon of carob syrup (or a bit less honey).

In a coffee grinder or mini food processor, grind a half a cup of whole peanuts into smooth peanut butter.   Add salt to taste. Add the powder and syrup mixture and blend to combine.

Allow the mixture to sit for an hour as the powder binds with the peanut butter.

Roll mixture into about a dozen small balls. Roll the balls in carob powder to coat them. You may need a second coat if they become sticky.

Carob peanut balls (right) and carob powder (left). This batch was rolled in sugar for some sparkle. Sugar is not necessary for taste because carob is naturally sweet.

References

Arista, M., Ortiz, P. L., & Talavera, S. (1999). Apical pattern of fruit production in the racemes of Ceratonia siliqua (Leguminosae: Caesalpinioideae): role of pollinators. American journal of botany, 86(12), 1708-1716.

Custódio, L., Serra, H., Nogueira, J. M. F., Gonçalves, S., & Romano, A. (2006). Analysis of the volatiles emitted by whole flowers and isolated flower organs of the carob tree using HS-SPME-GC/MS. Journal of chemical ecology, 32(5), 929-942.

Legume Phylogeny Working Group (LPWG) (2017). A new subfamily classification of the Leguminosae based on a taxonomically comprehensive phylogeny The Legume Phylogeny Working Group (LPWG). Taxon, 66(1), 44-77.

Pliny the elder. The Natural History of Pliny, vol. 3, Chapter 16 (8), translated by John Bostock and Henry Thomas Riley, 1855

Zohary, D. (2002). Domestication of the carob (Ceratonia siliqua L.). Israel journal of plant sciences, 50(sup1), 141-145.

A holiday pineapple for the table

This deep dive into pineapple anatomy is our contribution this year to the very fun Advent Botany essay collection, a celebration of plants that are at least somewhat tangentially connected to the winter holidays. In previous years we’ve contributed essays on figs, peppermint, and sugar.

December is the time to bring out the fancy Christmas china, polish the silver pitchers, and . . . bedeck your best bromeliads. In 2017, as in 1700, no proper hostess can be without a pineapple for her centerpiece. Here we unpack the botany of pineapple, which is as complicated and fabulous as its cultural history. A proper hostess, after all, should also be able to dazzle her guests with tales of tropical fruit morphology. Continue reading

#Celery

It’s hard to get too excited about eating celery, but if you can manage to see a dip-drenched celery stick as a dynamically loaded cantilevered beam, then its stringy bits suddenly start to look like incredible feats of bioengineering. The mildest mannered member of the crudité platter turns out to be a misunderstood superhero.

If you are about to celebrate Thanksgiving, chances are good that you have a lot of celery in your immediate future. It shows up in dressing and cranberry relish and especially in leftovers, like turkey salad sandwiches. When I was growing up, my sister and I were tasked with picking the carcass for turkey hash, which, in our family, was basically turkey soup stretched with lots of celery and potatoes and never enough salt. Although frugal and nutritious, this one-pot crusade against food waste did not inspire a lifelong love of cooked celery. But you don’t have to like celery the food to admire its alter ego, celery the plant.

Leaves, not stems

Celery the food may not excite you, but celery the plant – the bundle of dynamically loaded cantilevered beams – is a biomechanical superhero worth exploring in the kitchen. Celery (Apium graveolens) is one of the clearest examples of how a plant’s life in the wild over tens of millions of years yielded anatomical adaptations that determine how we use it now. Because of its evolutionary responses to biomechanical challenges, it is now perfectly built to hold peanut butter or scoop dip, and when sliced, its crescent moon shapes are pretty in soup and chopped salads. On the other hand, its tough strings catch between teeth and are not easy to digest.

Celery stalks are the petioles (“stalks”) of compound leaves. They are not stems, in spite of widespread misrepresentation in elementary school lesson plans. They may look like stems to some people because they are thick and fleshy and have prominent veins running lengthwise through them. But there are several morphological clues to their leafy identity, including these: Continue reading

Botany Lab of the Month: Jack-O-Lantern

Happy National Pumpkin Day! Turn carving your Halloween Jack-O-Lantern into a plant dissection exercise.

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The first Jack-O-Lanterns were carved out of turnips in 17th-century Ireland. While the large, starchy hypocotyls (fused stem and taproot) of cruciferous vegetables are anatomically fascinating, this post will be about the stuff you are more likely cutting through to make a modern Jack-O-Lantern out of squash. Continue reading

Carrot top pesto through the looking glass

Isomers are molecules that have the same chemical constituents in different physical arrangements. Some terpenoid isomers have very different aromas and are important food seasonings. A batch of carrot top pesto led to an exploration of intriguing terpenoid isomers in the mint, carrot, and lemon families.

“Oh, c’mon. Try it,” my husband admonished me with a smile. “If anyone would be excited about doing something with them, I should think it would be you.”

The “them” in question were carrot tops, the prolific pile of lacy greens still attached to the carrots we bought at the farmer’s market. I have known for years that carrot tops are edible and have occasionally investigated recipes for them, but that was the extent of my efforts to turn them into food. My excuse is that I harbored niggling doubts that carrot tops would taste good. Edible does not, after all, imply delicious. My husband had thrown down the gauntlet, though, by challenging my integrity as a vegetable enthusiast. I took a long look at the beautiful foliage on the counter.

“Fine,” I responded, sounding, I am sure, resigned. “I’ll make a pesto with them.”

Carrot tops, it turns out, make a superb pesto. I have the passion of a convert about it, and not just because my carrot tops will forevermore meet a fate suitable to their bountiful vitality. The pesto I made combined botanical ingredients from two plant families whose flavors highlight the fascinating chemistry of structural and stereo isomers. Continue reading

Preserving diversity with some peach-mint jam

We are knee deep in peach season, and now is the time to gather the most diverse array of peaches you can find and unite them in jam. Katherine reports on some new discoveries about the genetics behind peach diversity and argues for minting up your peach jam.

Jam inspiration

Fresh peaches at their peak are fuzzy little miracles, glorious just as they are. But peaches cooked into jam and spread across rough toast lose their buttery mouthfeel and dripping juice. To compensate for textural changes, processed peaches need a bit more adornment to heighten their flavor, even if it’s only a sprinkling of sugar. Normally I am not tempted to meddle with perfection by adding ginger or lavender or other flavors to peach jam. This year, however, as I plotted my jam strategy, the unusual juxtaposition of peach and mint found its way into my imagination over and over again, like the insistent echo of radio news playing in the background. Peach and mint, peach and mint, peach and mint – almost becoming a single word. To quiet the voice in my head I had to make some peach-mint jam. The odd combination turned out to be wonderful, and I’m now ready to submit the recipe to a candid world. As we will see below, it’s not without precedent. Mmmmmmpeachmint jam. Continue reading

Maca: A Valentine’s Day Call for Comparative Biology

Sometimes food is medicine, and sometimes that medicine is an aphrodisiac. Such is the case with Andean staple maca. What elevates this high-altitude root vegetable above its cruciferous brethren?

The ancient Greek Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, famously said: “Let food be your medicine.” For most of human history, categorizing an edible item as either food or medicine could prove difficult or impossible (Totelin 2015). Even in the current era of modern pharmaceuticals, food and medicine exist along a continuum (Johns 1996; Etkin 2006; Valussi & Scirè 2012; Leonti 2012; Totelin 2015). The traditional Andean food Maca (Lepidium meyenii; family Brassicaceae) can be placed squarely in the middle of that continuum. Herbal medicine markets outside of its native Peru have recently discovered maca and loudly and lucratively promote an aspect of maca’s medicinal reputation that has particular relevance on Valentine’s Day: an aphrodisiac that increases stamina and fertility (Balick & Lee 2002; Wang et al. 2007). Continue reading

Botany Lab of the Month, Presidential Inauguration Edition: Saffron

If you like your spices gold-colored and expensive, find some fresh Crocus sativus flowers and grab ‘em by the…disproportionately large female reproductive organ. Small hands might work best, though it might turn your skin orange. Saffron is probably from the Middle East. If that bothers you, you may want to ban it from your spice shelves, however ill that bodes for the quality of your cabinet. After all, there is a stigma against that sort of thing.

The most expensive oversized reproductive organ in the world

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A pile of dried saffron stigmas (“threads”). Photo from Wikipedia

You may know that saffron is the most expensive spice in the world. A Spanish farmer sold his crop of high quality saffron this year for four euros per gram, which is a ninth of today’s price of gold (36 euros per gram). Saffron is expensive because its production requires a huge amount of labor and land. Saffron production is labor- and land-intensive because saffron is a botanically unique food item that defies mechanical harvest and accounts for a miniscule proportion of the plant that bears it. The saffron threads sold as spice are the dried stigmas of the flowers of the saffron crocus (Crocus sativus, family Iridaceae). Recall that the stigma is the part of the flower’s female reproductive organs that catches pollen. Pollen travels from the stigma through the style into the flower’s ovary (collectively, the stigma, style, and ovary comprise the pistil). Continue reading

Buddha’s hand citrons and a wish for peace on earth in 2017

Winter is the season for citrus fruit, and January is the month for breaking out of old routines, so stop staring at your navel and learn about one of the weirder citrus varieties.

I’ll never forget the day one of my general botany students brought to class a Buddha’s hand citron, pulled from a tree right outside our classroom. I had only recently moved to northern California from Indiana, and I’d never seen anything like it: it was a monstrous mass of a dozen pointed twisted fingers splayed irregularly from a stout base. It had the firm heft and girth of a grapefruit and the unmistakable pebbled skin of a citrus fruit, so I wondered whether my student had found a grossly deformed grapefruit; but the oil in the peel smelled heavenly and not at all like a grapefruit. In class we cut through a big finger and found no juicy segments, just white citrus pith all the way through.

Immature Buddha's hand on the tree

Immature Buddha’s hand on the tree

We eventually discovered that this fascinating fruit was a Buddha’s hand citron, Citrus medica variety sarcodactylis, meaning fleshy (sarco-) fingered (-dactyl) citron. Since that day many years ago I’ve become an unapologetic (if surreptitious) collector of the fruits from that same campus tree. The citrons do not drop from the tree on their own, yet I often find one or two lying nearby, probably torn off by a curious tourist or student and then abandoned. Obviously these fruits need a good home, and where better than the window sill in my office?

The first time I left one closed up in my office over a weekend, I opened the door on Monday morning to a waft of fruity floral aroma. It turns out that many people in China and India use the fruit to scent the air, although in west Asia and Europe the fleshy fingers are more often candied or used to flavor alcohol. I do both: the fruits make my office smell nice until they are fully yellow, and then I cook them.

It can be difficult or expensive to get your own hands on a fingered citron, but it’s easy to find a navel orange almost any time of the year. Fortunately, the patterns underlying the morphology of the fingered fruit can also be seen in an everyday navel orange. Between our photos of Buddha’s hands and your own navel orange, you should be able to follow along at home. Continue reading

Closing out the International Year of Pulses with Wishes for Whirled Peas (and a tour of edible legume diversity)

The United Nations declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses. What’s a pulse? It’s the dry mature seed of a large number of species in the legume family (Fabaceae): various beans, peas, soybean, chickpeas, lentils, peanuts and other groundnuts. 2016 is days from ending, so it’s high time I get up the Fabaceae diversity post I’ve been meaning to write all year long. This rounds out our year of legume coverage, which included Katherine’s posts on bean anatomy, peanuts, and green beans

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Christmas Lima beans (Phaseolus lunatus), soaking before cooking

One out of every 15 flowering plant (angiosperm) species is a legume, a member of the large plant family Fabaceae (Christenhusz and Byng 2016, LPWG 2013). Boasting around 19,500 species in 750-ish genera (LPWG 2013), the Fabaceae is the third-largest plant family in the world, trailing behind only the orchid (Orchidaceae: 27,800 species) and aster (Asteraceae: 25,040 species) families (Stevens 2016). By my count, people only use about 1% of legume species for food (my list of edible legume species is found here), but that small fraction of species is mighty. People eat and grow legumes because they are nutritional superstars, can be found in almost all terrestrial ecosystems around the world, and uniquely contribute to soil fertility in both wild and agricultural ecosystems. Continue reading