Author Archives: katherineapreston

Dreaming of white cocoa, hibiscus, and a happy Gomphothere

Katherine’s search for delicious white chocolate (it exists) leads to a holiday twist on truffles. And whatever your festivities proclivities may be, we Botanists in the Kitchen wish you a very merry Hibiscus and a happy Gomphothere!

White chocolate
’Tis the season to sound the trumpets and pronounce judgment upon the holy or evil nature of traditional holiday foods. Try mentioning fruit cake or egg nog in mixed company and see what happens. If you are among this season’s many vociferous critics of recently trendy white chocolate, you’ve probably been complaining that white “chocolate” is not even chocolate (uncontroversial) and that it tastes like overly sweet vanilla-flavored gummy paste dominated by an odd powdered-milk flavor, and that it exists only to cover over pretzels or perfectly good dark chocolate or to glue peppermint flakes to candy. You might even jump on the white chocolate hot cocoa trend, which has become a social media flash point now that pumpkin spice season is finally over.

It’s true that white chocolate is not technically chocolate; it lacks the cocoa solids that give genuine chocolate its rich complex flavor borne of hundreds of aromatic compounds balanced by just a touch of sour and bitter. However, proper white chocolate is made from cocoa butter, the purified fat component of the Theobroma cacao seeds from which true dark chocolate is also made. Raw cocoa butter has its own subtle scent and creamy texture, and I thought I could use it to make a version of white chocolate more to my liking, with less sugar and no stale milk flavor.

It turns out that working with cocoa butter is tricky, but it gave me the chance to learn a lot more about the nature of this finicky fat. It also turns out that sugar and some kind of milk powder are essential ingredients in all the homemade white chocolate recipes I found, because they seem to make the fat easier to work with. My plan was to make white truffles, which would showcase homemade white chocolate as an ingredient but allow me to balance its unavoidable sweetness with another flavor.

Because it can be fun and instructive to find a culinary match within the same botanical family, I searched for a balancing flavor from the list of common edible members of the Malvaceae. Baobab? Too hard to find locally. Durian? Too risky. Linden tea? Too subtle. Okra? No. Just no. Hibiscus? Bright red and tangy and perfect. Although hibiscus and Theobroma are rarely united in cooking – and they took divergent evolutionary paths about 90 million years ago – I found that these plants work extremely well together. Unlike traditional dark rich chocolate truffles, white cocoa truffles rolled in crimson hibiscus powder melt in your mouth like cool and fluffy snowballs, followed by a refreshing sour kick. Instead of being just one more rich December indulgence, these play up the bright white clear and cold elements of the season. Even better, the most widely available culinary hibiscus flowers come from the African species Hibiscus sabdariffa, sometimes called roselle, which has its own connection to the winter holidays: it stars as the main ingredient in a spicy punch served at Christmastime in the Caribbean.

Cocoa butter
Melting and molding dark chocolate into candies is notoriously difficult because the chocolate can lose its temper and become grainy or develop white oily streaks as it cools. The trouble lies in the cocoa butter, and like many chocolate dilettantes, I became interested in cocoa butter behavior when I tried to learn how to keep my dark chocolate in temper.

Cocoa butter is the fat that Theobroma cacao stores in its seeds to fuel the growth of its seedlings. Like many of the large edible seeds we casually call nuts, cacao seeds are about half fat by weight, but their fat composition is very different from the fat found in almonds, walnuts, or even the ecologically similar Brazil nuts (Chunhieng et al., 2008). In plants and animals, all naturally occurring fat is composed almost entirely of triglycerides, which are based on a glycerol backbone with three fatty acid tails. Those fatty acids can be long or short, and straight (saturated) or kinked (unsaturated). The nature of the tails determines how the individual triglyceride molecules interact to form crystals and whether the fat will be liquid or soft or firm at room temperature (Thomas et al., 2000). Very generally, the more straight tails there are, the more closely and stably the triglyceride molecules can be packed together, and the firmer the fat will be. (Manning and Dimick have a clear description of this in the case of cocoa butter, and their paper is available open source).

Whereas milk fat includes about 400 different kinds of fatty acids (Metin & Hartel, 2012), cocoa butter is dominated by only three (Griffiths & Harwood, 1991). That simple chemical profile isn’t unusual for seeds, but the types and proportions are. Cocoa butter triglycerides mostly contain two long, straight fatty acids (palmitic and stearic) and one long kinked one (oleic), in fairly equal proportions (Griffiths & Harwood, 1991). The high percentage of stearic acid is especially unusual and contributes to the solid state of cocoa butter at room temperature, while the equal combination of these three particular fatty acids causes cocoa butter to melt quickly on our skin or in our mouth.

Another unusual property of cocoa butter is that it actually cools your mouth when it melts. A piece of chocolate on your tongue gradually warms, and at first you feel it approaching your body temperature. However, precisely at its melting point – just below body temperature – it abruptly stops getting warmer, even as it continues to remove heat from your mouth, thereby cooling it. This pause in warming is due to the high latent heat of fusion of the triglyceride molecules. Because it happens just below body temperature, you feel a cooling sensation.

Interestingly, the exact proportions of the three fatty acids varies slightly with genotype and environmental conditions during the growing season (Mustiga et al., 2019). Cocoa butter is, ultimately, food for cacao tree seedlings, and so the precise fatty acid composition of the seeds certainly reflects the species’ seed ecology. To my knowledge, the details have not yet been investigated, but I assume that the fat properties influence both seed longevity under hot tropical temperatures and the ability of seedlings to metabolize the fats as they draw on them for energy during germination. In any case, because the exact proportions of the three fatty acids determines the melting point of cocoa butter, its source and genotype will also affect its behavior in our kitchens or in a factory.

A miniature sleigh and one giant Gomphothere
Speaking of ecology, all that lovely fat and protein and carbohydrate in a cacao seed is great for humans and our chocolate habits, but it doesn’t help T. cacao as a species if at least some of their seeds don’t eventually become trees. Actually, our chocolate habits over the last few millennia have done a lot to spread cacao seeds (Zarrillo et al., 2018), but for the millions of years that cacao existed before humans spread into neotropical cacao territory, other animals must have carried away the cocoa pods.

Given the hefty size of a cacao fruit (about a pound, or 500 grams), its relatively large seeds, and its yellow-orange color, the species appears adapted for dispersal by a correspondingly large animal. But no such animal candidates coexist now with Theobroma cacao or with several other similar neotropical tree species. One long-standing hypothesis has been that tropical fruits with this suite of traits are anachronisms that coevolved with now-extinct megafauna, such as gomphotheres – relatives of American mastodons – or giant ground sloths (Guimarães et al., 2008). At least one genus of gomphothere did co-occur with cacao (Lucas et al. 2013), so it is possible that they spread the seeds, but we need more complete information about their diets to be sure.

Malvaceae: Gomphothere.001

We wish you a red hibiscus and a happy gomphothere

Merry Hibiscus

The genus I chose to balance white cocoa’s sweetness and add a bit of festive color was Hibiscus, which includes hundreds of species, but Hibiscus sabdariffa is the one used most often in herbal infusions or as natural coloring or flavor. Because of its global popularity its flowers can sometimes be bought dried and in bulk at co-ops or international markets. The petals are relatively short and so a whorl of fleshy sepals makes up most of the flower, as is obvious after they have been plumped back up by a soak in hot water.

To make the hibiscus powder truffle coating, it is necessary to grind dried flowers to the finest possible powder and sieve out any remaining gritty pieces. I pulverized about half a dozen flowers in a retired coffee grinder, but you can use a mini food processor or a spice grinder. I quickly learned to let the powder settle before opening the grinder, to avoid getting a Gomphothere-sized dose of astringent dust in my human-sized nose.

After grinding, the powder must be sifted through the finest sieve you can manage. I use a gold filter like those designed to filter coffee. It takes time and patience but this step is important for the look and the mouthfeel of the truffles. The sieve full of leftover grit makes a nice cup of tangy tea.

img_0699.jpg

Dried (bottom) and reconstituted calyces (ring of sepals) of Hibiscus sabdariffa, sometimes called roselle

Truffles
Traditional dark chocolate truffles are pretty simple to make: Simmer some cream and let it cool to the point where you might consider taking a very hot bath in it. Herbs or spices may be steeped in the cream during the simmer. Measure the volume of the hot cream in ounces and add twice as many ounces by weight of finely chopped chocolate. Stir gently to melt all the pieces and then allow the mixture (called ganache) to cool at room temperature. Overheating the chocolate initially or cooling the ganache too fast takes the chocolate out of temper. When the ganache is firm, roll it into lumpy balls, coat with cocoa powder, lick your fingers, et voilà.

It turns out that dark chocolate is much more forgiving than pure cocoa butter when it comes to truffles. The first time I tried to make white cocoa truffles, I followed my usual recipe, using chopped cocoa butter in place of dark chocolate and adding some sugar with the cream. Although I was extremely careful not to overheat the cocoa butter, my ganache separated anyway. Whereas dark chocolate contains cocoa solids that support the desired type of crystal formation in solidifying chocolate (Svanberg et al., 2011), cocoa butter does not. In my various experiments with the gentle melting of cocoa butter, I went so far as to sit for an hour on a plastic bag full of grated cocoa butter. Although it should have melted at body temperature, it never got quite soft enough. I finally got the texture right when I accepted a century of professional wisdom and introduced the dreaded milk powder as well as a lot of sugar into the recipe.

Malvaceae: cocoa truffles rolled in hibiscus powder

Cocoa truffles in hibiscus powder

Below is my current working recipe, subject to additional experimentation:

  • 3 oz food grade pure cocoa butter, chopped
  • 1/2 cup powdered sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons powdered milk
  • 1/4 cup cream
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • hibiscus powder from 5 or 6 dried hibiscus flowers

In a small food processor, pulverize the cocoa butter, powdered sugar, and powdered milk. The result should be coarse dry crumbs. Place the crumbs in a small heatproof bowl or the top of a double boiler.

Bring the cream to a simmer and dissolve the sugar in it. (For one version I steeped a couple of hibiscus flowers in the cream, which tasted good but made the truffles pink all the way through. Extra cream was needed to account for some of it clinging to the flowers.)

When the cream is the temperature of a hot bath, pour it into the cocoa butter mixture. Remember, cocoa butter melts below body temperature so the cream doesn’t have to be very hot. The crumbs will cool the cream as you stir, and you want the mixture to be just above body temperature as the centers of the crumbs are melting. Those last bits to melt will seed the mixture with the desired type of crystals and favor their formation as the mixture cools.

It will take several hours for the mixture to be firm enough to roll into balls. I usually leave it at room temperature overnight. Do not rush the process by chilling it! Fast cooling favors unstable crystals and your truffles will be grainy.

Roll the mixture into balls and roll them in the hibiscus powder.

Note that you can buy white “chocolate” chips and use them in place of dark chocolate in the usual truffle recipe described above. I tried this and it worked when I increased the chips-to-cream ratio to slightly above 2-to-1. However, do read the ingredient list because many white chocolate chips (especially those labeled “white morsels”) contain no cocoa butter at all. The Gomphotheres would not approve.

Malvaceae: hibiscus cocoa truffles

White cocoa truffles with hibiscus dust and whole dried hibiscus flowers

References and further reading

Chunhieng, T., Hafidi, A., Pioch, D., Brochier, J., & Didier, M. (2008). Detailed study of Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa) oil micro-compounds: phospholipids, tocopherols and sterols. Journal of the Brazilian Chemical Society, 19(7), 1374-1380.

Gouveia, J. R., de Lira Lixandrão, K. C., Tavares, L. B., Fernando, L., Henrique, P., Garcia, G. E. S., & dos Santos, D. J. (2019). Thermal Transitions of Cocoa Butter: A Novel Characterization Method by Temperature Modulation. Foods, 8(10), 449.

Griffiths, G., & Harwood, J. L. (1991). The regulation of triacylglycerol biosynthesis in cocoa (Theobroma cacao) L. Planta, 184(2), 279-284.

Guimarães Jr, P. R., Galetti, M., & Jordano, P. (2008). Seed dispersal anachronisms: rethinking the fruits extinct megafauna ate. PloS one, 3(3), e1745.

Hernandez-Gutierrez, R., & Magallon, S. (2019). The timing of Malvales evolution: Incorporating its extensive fossil record to inform about lineage diversification. Molecular phylogenetics and evolution, 140, 106606. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ympev.2019.106606

Lucas, S. G., Yuan, W., & Min, L. (2013). The palaeobiogeography of South American gomphotheres. Journal of Palaeogeography, 2(1), 19-40.

Manning, D. M. & Dimick, P. S. (1985) “Crystal Morphology of Cocoa Butter,” Food Structure: Vol. 4 : No. 2 , Article 9. Available at: https://digitalcommons.usu.edu/foodmicrostructure/vol4/iss2/9

McGee, H. (2007). On food and cooking: the science and lore of the kitchen. Simon and Schuster.

Metin, S., & Hartel, R. W. (2012). Milk fat and cocoa butter. In Cocoa butter and related compounds (pp. 365-392). AOCS Press.

Mustiga, G. M., Morrissey, J., Stack, J. C., DuVal, A., Royaert, S., Jansen, J., … & Seguine, E. (2019). Identification of climate and genetic factors that control fat content and fatty acid composition of Theobroma cacao L. beans. Frontiers in plant science, 10, 1159.

Svanberg, L., Ahrné, L., Lorén, N., & Windhab, E. (2011). Effect of sugar, cocoa particles and lecithin on cocoa butter crystallisation in seeded and non-seeded chocolate model systems. Journal of Food Engineering, 104(1), 70-80.

Thomas, A., Matthäus, B., & Fiebig, H. J. (2000). Fats and fatty oils. Ullmann’s Encyclopedia of Industrial Chemistry, 1-84.

Zarrillo, S., Gaikwad, N., Lanaud, C. et al. (2018) The use and domestication of Theobroma cacao during the mid-Holocene in the upper Amazon. Nat Ecol Evol 2, 1879–1888 doi:10.1038/s41559-018-0697-x

The Beet Goes On

In this Valentine’s Day edition, Katherine brings you a love song with a beet. Sweet and red, sort of heart-shaped, bearing rings, and definitely divisive – beets should be the unofficial vegetable of the holiday. And if you don’t feel like celebrating, then you can just sit alone and eat dirt.

Throughout two years of dating and our first six months of marriage, my husband and I had never discussed our feelings about beets. Then again, I had never made beets for him before. When I did, they were meant to bulk up a brimming vat of stew that would feed us every night for a week. In my husband’s version of the story, it lasted for three weeks. “I hope you like beets,” I announced that evening. “I may have added too many.”

Whether you love or hate beets, it is probably because they taste like dirt. Some people (my husband) can’t get over the flavor, and others can’t get enough of it. Some people experience beeturia, the appearance of bright red or hot pink urine after they eat red beets. Maybe this sight unsettles you. Or maybe you embrace the opportunity to track the transit of beet pigments through your body. You may admire their lovely rings and be inspired by the rich and brilliant colors that beets bring to salads. Or you might have picked up a lifelong aversion after too many canned pickled beets on a school lunch tray. Beets are a pretty polarizing vegetable. If you are among the haters, I’m going to do my best to turn the beet around for you.

Red and white beets

Why beets taste like dirt

Beets taste like dirt because they contain a compound called geosmin (meaning “dirt smell”). Geosmin is produced in abundance by several organisms that live in the soil, including fungi and some bacterial species in the genus Streptomyces. Humans are extremely sensitive to low concentrations of geosmin – so much so that we can smell it floating in the air after rain has stirred it up from the soil (Maher & Goldman, 2017). While people generally like that rain-fresh scent in the air, it’s less welcome elsewhere. For example, we perceive it as an off taste in water drawn from reservoirs with a lot of geosmin-producing cyanobacteria. In wines, geosmin contributes to cork taint. Continue reading

The Chestnut Song

“The Christmas Song” tops the charts every December, but there’s lots more to know about those chestnuts roasting on an open fire. We peel back the layers in this essay, which is one of our two contributions to this year’s Advent Botany holiday collection.

I first tried chestnuts when I was a student in Paris. The holiday season was peaceful that year, as it should be, and I’ve cherished my memories of it all the more as intense protests are spreading through France, and violence has shattered a Christmas market in Strasbourg. In that long-ago December, though, my most consuming emotion was a kind of double nostalgia. I missed home, and yet I wasn’t quite ready to leave that beautiful city behind. As I walked for hours and hours gathering last looks, it was thrilling to get caught up in the sudden early darkness of winter and the elaborate holiday windows of the grand old department stores. During one evening promenade, I saw a street merchant who had anchored himself in the middle of the streaming agitated crowd and was patiently tending a pan of marrons grillés, freshly roasted chestnuts. The scene was so sepia toned, so achingly 19th century, that I had to have some, just to glut my sentimentality. I bought a newspaper cone of the hot aromatic nuts and managed to peel one with my cold fingers right there on the sidewalk. Continue reading

The Ballad of Farro Salad

We botanists in the kitchen are busy preparing for Thanksgiving, as you probably are too. Please enjoy this quick song about a grain salad. And if you still need ideas for vegetarian side, consider this a recipe.

To the tune of Darcy Farrow.  (See this version by John Denver if you don’t know the tune.)

The Ballad of Farro Salad

Where the water runs down to the Nile River plain,
There came a kernel, emmer farro was its name.
A wheat of four-fold ploidy, and a fair one to see,
The sweetest texture e’er found in a grain.

It goes well with tomatoes, cherries red and gold.
The larger ones we halve; the littlest we leave whole.
Add goat cheese crumbled in, with parsley julienned.
Serve at room temp or maybe even cold.

Oh they sing of emmer farro where the Hudson runs through.
They sing of its beauty out in San Francisco too.
At dusky sundown, to its name they drink a round,
and to its golden hearty chew.

Botany lab/rant of the month: that’s a magic beanstalk, not a soybean

In chaotic times, there are moments when you just have to take comfort in order anywhere you can find it. Katherine reviews some basic plant growth rules and takes a major company to task for undermining botanical literacy.

Would you buy milk from a dairy whose smiling cow mascot had an udder perched on top of her head? Would it bother you to see waiving teats where her ears should be? What if the unsettling image were wrapped in a lyrical ode to ungulates and to the steadfast farmers who rise before dawn to tap into “all that mammalian goodness”? Would a Holstein hagiography be enough to distract you, or would the contrast between carefully crafted ad copy and a negligent disregard for bovine biology trip your bullshit meter?

I think about this every time I buy soy milk made by one particular giant of the non-dairy milk industry. Normally I make my own soy milk – it’s cheap and fast and delicious – but sometimes life intervenes and I have to go with convenience. At my favorite local grocer, that means buying this brand. You might think it’s the gellan gum and the “natural flavors” that offend me, but really I just can’t get over the carton.

Have you ever really thought about the magic of plants?” the carton beckons. Well, yes! Yes I have! Like me, these producers have “been rooted in plant power for over 20 years.” Wow, we have so much in common! I am invited to enjoy “all that leafy goodness” and call them “plant-based, plant biased or just plain plant-prejudiced.” No plant blindness here, right? 

Except for this, the botanical version of a cow with an udder on her head and a tail growing out of her chin:

Someone's wildly inaccuarate idea of a soybean plant. the brand name has been obscured to protect its reputation.

Someone’s wildly inaccurate idea of a soybean plant. The brand name has been obscured to protect its reputation. Click to enlarge.

Judging by the edamame pod randomly stuck onto a stem, this altered photo is supposed to represent a soy bean plant (Glycine max). The words below (“Discover the power of plants at [redacted].com”) almost promise botanical accuracy. Yet, for comparison, here is an actual soybean plant, with its trifoliate leaves and bushy growth habit:

Soybeans in Warren County, Indiana

A soybean plant growing in Indiana.

Not only is the image on the soy milk carton clearly not a soybean plant, but the chimeric little sprout violates basic patterns of plant construction. When I showed the carton to my class this spring, the students were all over it with fervor and a sharpie.

Why it matters

There are many extremely important and urgent challenges facing humans and other organisms all over the planet right now, including some negative social and ecological impacts of soy and the potential for new tariffs on U.S. soybeans to make these worse. So why direct righteous ire against the photo on a carton of soy milk? First of all, what biology teacher (or parent or anyone) wants to see inaccurate or misleading images, especially if they appear every single morning on breakfast tables across the country? Second, at the risk of overstating my case, I believe that someone made deliberate choices about both the text and the image on this carton in order to evoke health and sustainability, but that these choices actually expose indifference toward the plants, the farmers, and the natural world. Similar indifference has gotten our species into a lot of trouble. We all get things wrong, but it’s important to try not to.

How a plant body is supposed to look

The green world is full of gigantic trees and tiny floating plants and delicate vines and cacti and orchids and palms and titan arums. Even if we leave aside mosses and ferns to focus on seed plants, it’s obvious that natural selection has taken a very simple basic developmental program and pushed it in almost every conceivable morphological direction. A common set of plant growth rules accommodates the varied forms of a quarter million or more species – which is astonishing – and yet the graphic designer for this soy beverage company somehow managed to stitch together an oddly improbable plant.

Under the basic developmental program, the set of stem cells (the meristem) at the apex of a growing shoot spins off a series of appendages (e.g. leaves) at regular intervals, arranged along the stem in a regular pattern. Most often, appendages spiral around the stem or occur in opposite pairs. The resulting basic vegetative unit is a leaf (or leaf homolog such as a bract, scale, or spine), the span of stem below it (the internode), and a bud at the place where the leaf meets the stem (the axil). A shoot grows by adding these units in sequence. New leaves continue to expand and internodes continue to elongate for a little while, so leaves near the tip of a shoot tend to be smaller and closer together than they eventually will be. Buds in the axils of the appendages may themselves grow out as branches that reiterate the basic body plan. The result is a modular and potentially nested structure composed of repeated subunits.

Basic flowering plant body plan

Flowering plants (and other seed plants) are built from a series of basic vegetative units, consisting of a leaf and an associated axillary bud and the internode below it. Axillary buds may develop into branches that are similarly built of a series of vegetative units. When plants begin to flower, bracts often develop in place of leaves, and flowers emerge from buds in their axils. Note that this generic plant is not meant to represent any particular species.

When a plant starts to flower, this regular organization does not go away, even if it is modified somewhat. For example, flower clusters (inflorescences) are generally produced at branch tips and along shoot axes where leafy branches would have emerged. And while leafy branches are associated with (subtended by) leaves, inflorescences are subtended by leaf-like appendages called bracts. Inflorescences themselves might transition to a complex branching architecture that differs from the rest of the vegetative plant body, but they still produce flowers in a regular pattern. Because individual flowers are conceptually (and evolutionarily) a bit like branches, they also are usually associated with bracts (Rudall & Bateman, 2010). A notable exception is plants in the mustard family (Brassicaceae); one of the genes that tells a meristem to switch gears and make a flower also suppresses formation of a subtending bract (see summary in Krizek, 2009).

Practically, what this means is that any branch, flower, or inflorescence should be associated with a subtending leaf (or bract, scale, or spine) and that any leaf (or bract, scale, or spine) potentially has a bud, branch, inflorescence, or flower associated with it. The regularity and simplicity of this fundamental pattern of seed plant development gives you a powerful framework for interpreting plants. You no longer have to ask what kohlrabi is; the leaf arrangement gives it away. You can use a combination of clues to distinguish a single compound leaf from a branch. It’s fun.

True, the pattern is not always obvious. Leaves and bracts fall off (although they often leave evident scars), and axillary buds can be extremely small or obscured. Leaves can also be reduced to tiny scales, such as those on a potato tuber. Flowers and fruits of the chocolate tree (Theobroma cacao) appear to emerge directly from an old branch, but in fact they are associated with long-gone leaf axils. And woody plants can produce new shoots adventitiously at their bases or when they are damaged. But we were talking about soybeans, not redwoods.

A magic beanstalk

Returning to the image that set off this screed, I might be able to see it as a harmless, fanciful botanical embellishment if it weren’t for the soybean pod deliberately pasted onto the stem. Surely these plant-prejudiced people could have paused their musings on the magic of plants and simply observed an actual soybean plant. They might have noticed that soybeans have compound leaves with three leaflets and that they grow more like bushes than vines. With a good photo, the artist could have gotten this image right without knowing anything at all about how plants develop. However, the text strongly implies that the central values of the company are rooted in a genuine understanding of plant biology, so I think it’s fair to hold them to a higher standard.

Now that I’ve said my piece, it’s time to take a virtual sharpie to that carton and make it botanically correct. Here’s my version.

Making soy milk at home

Homemade soy milk has many advantages. The beans for a half gallon of soy milk cost about a quarter of what you would pay for a carton at a store. Making your own is also more sustainable: bulk dried beans are less resource-intensive to ship than packaged liquid, you can often choose the source of your beans and how they are grown (e.g. organic from the U.S.), and you can control waste from the process. For example, I mix the solids strained from the liquid milk with salt, nutritional yeast, and whatever spices are handy and pack them for lunch. To the milk, I can add vanilla or not as I like. I can throw some oats or nuts or soy lecithin into the boil if I like.

  • 1 cup dried soybeans
  • water for soaking
  • 8 cups of water
  • dash of salt
  • 1/4 cup of rolled or steel-cut oats or almonds or cashews
  • immersion blender
  • fine strainer or cloth strainer bag

Soak soybeans in a medium saucepan (1.5 qt) for at least 6 hours. If you are using steel-cut oats, almonds, or cashews, soak them too.

Bring 8 cups of water to the boil in a large stock pot. The larger the better to reduce the chance that the mixture will boil over.

Drain and rinse the soybeans and return them to the sauce pan. If you are using rolled oats, add them here.

Pour some of the boiling water over the beans to cover them by about an inch, and immediately puree them with the immersion blender. Using boiling water denatures some enzymes that can cause off flavors, and an immersion blender is much safer than a regular blender for hot liquids.

Pour the blended beans into the large stock pot with the rest of the boiling water. Turn the heat to the lowest setting possible. After about 5 or 10 mins, put a lid on the pot and let it cook for another 45 mins. Add a dash of salt about midway through.

Do not leave the pot alone until it has been simmering without trouble for a while. The mixture has a tendency to boil over and make a huge mess within the first 5-10 mins.

Allow the mixture to cool for an hour or so and strain it. Refrigerate the milk right away.

The remaining solids can be flavored and eaten as they are, stirred into breakfast oatmeal or grits, baked into muffins, etc.

References

Krizek, B. A. (2009). Arabidopsis: flower development and patterning. eLS, 1-11.

Rudall, P. J., & Bateman, R. M. (2010). Defining the limits of flowers: the challenge of distinguishing between the evolutionary products of simple versus compound strobili. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 365(1539), 397-409.

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. CarobPiratesIf 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. Continue reading

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

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 their buttery mouthfeel and dripping juice are lost when peaches are processed into jam and spread across rough toast. To compensate for textural changes, cooked 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

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