Monthly Archives: March 2013

Cucurbita squash diversity

Jeanne introduces the diversity of some American natives, the squashes in the genus Cucurbita.

Spring is officially here, and I have squash on my mind.  We’ve ordered zucchini seeds for the upcoming summer garden but still have acorn squash from the fall sitting in the pantry (both are varieties of Cucurbita pepo). Our winter vegetable CSA box recently bequeathed to us the tastiest winter squash I’ve ever eaten, a Seminole pumpkin, which is a different variety of the same species (Cucurbita moschata) as the butternut squash sitting on the counter, destined for dinner.  Now between last year’s hard winter squashes and the tender summer squashes to come seems a good time to remind ourselves of the origins and diversity of squashes in the genus Cucurbita. Continue reading

Maple syrup mechanics: xylem, sap flow, and sugar content

It’s maple syrup making time in the Northeast.  Jeanne explains the mechanics of sap flow, collecting sap for syrup making, and why maples are special in this regard.  

Proctor maple research field station, Underhill, VT

Proctor maple research field station, Underhill, VT

I had the great pleasure last weekend to visit the University of Vermont’s Proctor Maple Research Center in Underhill, VT, where the sugar maple (Acer saccharum, Sapindaceae) sap is flowing.  Sugar maple trees all around the northern hardwood forests in the Midwestern and Northeastern United States and southeastern Canada can now be “tapped,” fitted with a hollow tube in the sapwood, out of which sap flows and is collected and boiled down to maple syrup.

Tapping sugar maple to collect sap

Tapping sugar maple to collect sap, Proctor research station, Underhill, VT.

Maple syrup might be the oldest agricultural product in North America. Early 17th-century written records from Europeans exploring North America describe Native American use of sugar maple sap.  We of course can’t know how Native Americans discovered sugar maple sap, but it may have been by sampling a “sapsicle,” icicles made from frozen maple sap that forms at the end of a broken twig.  The evaporation of water during ice crystallization partially concentrates the sugar in the sap, making the sapsicle particularly sweet.  To understand how that sap got to the end of the twig in the dead of winter and why it’s so sweet, we need some basics about plant vasculature and carbohydrate storage and must figure out what makes maples so special. Continue reading

A very close look at potato leek soup

To understand how potatoes behave in the stock pot, Katherine puts a favorite soup under the microscope – literally.

Potato leek soup is the perfect soup. It is heaven pulled from the ground in all its humble grassy beauty. Potato leek soup is good-looking, simple, and flexible. It can be made vegan and provides nutrients and fiber with few calories. It is cheap, scales up for a crowd, and freezes well. Plus you have to love a soup with more names than ingredients. As a comforting wintertime staple, we call it what it is – potato leek soup. In tiny cups, sprinkled with chopped parsley and freshly ground black pepper, it becomes potage Parmentier, a rich tasting but delicate entrée to an elegant dinner party * . Chilled, with fresh cream, it is Vichyssoise, the cool, light partner of a good baguette and a glass of Pouilly-Fumé on the patio in summer. And my mother-in-law has demonstrated many times that when the holidays overwhelm your fridge, you can store a huge pot of potato leek soup on the porch overnight – as long as you put a brick on the lid to keep the raccoons out.

This amazing soup is the just about easiest thing in the world to make. Julia Child’s version is probably the most widely used, and the one I like: simmer equal parts cubed potato and sliced leek in water until they are tender. Add salt to taste and puree. A bit of cream is optional. A dusting of chopped parsley and freshly ground black pepper is divine. I like to err on the side of more potatoes than leeks, but the soup is robust to variations in proportion.

But is it really so easy? If you trust the internet more than you trust your favorite dog-eared chocolate-spattered cookbook with the broken spine and decades of marginalia (silly you), you may worry that without the right kind of potato and extremely careful handling, your soup will end up gluey. Is any wallpaper not pre-pasted these days? Doubtful, but everyone seems to describe gluey potato soup or mashed potatoes as “wallpaper paste.” I will say right up front that gluey soup has never happened to me, but given all the stress over this utterly simple soup, it seemed worth investigating. Continue reading

A look at leeks

FLUELLEN …and I do believe your majesty takes no scorn to wear the leek upon Saint Tavy’s day.
KING HENRY V I wear it for a memorable honour; For I am Welsh, you know, good countryman.
Shakespeare, Henry V, act 4, scene 7

Break out the daffodils and leeks!  This past Friday, March 1, was St. David’s Day, the feast day of the patron saint of Wales and a national holiday in that country.  As long as you are cleaning and slicing leeks, let’s take a quick close look at the vegetable, one of the national symbols of Wales. Continue reading