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
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
Posted in Botany Lab of the Month, Education, Flavor, herbs, Recipes, The basics
Tagged anatomy, carotenoid, climate change, Crocus sativus, flower, Jeanne L. D. Osnas, pollination, saffron, spice, stigma
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
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
Is there anything good about green bean casserole? Not much beyond its association with Thanksgiving, so Katherine will be brief and just keep you company in the kitchen in case you are stuck assembling said casserole.
Since this year is the International Year of Pulses, we have been focusing on legumes, whether they count as pulses or not. Green beans do not count as pulses, but only because they are eaten as tender and fresh immature whole fruits. The very same species (Phaseolus vulgaris), when allowed to mature, could yield black beans, white beans, kidney beans, or pinto beans depending on their variety – dry seeds that are perfectly good examples of pulses.
This Thanksgiving week we are going to welcome green beans into the fold and give them a special place. It’s too bad that Thanksgiving so often presents them out of the can, overcooked, with funky flavors, and buried in a casserole. Even Wikipedia promotes this peculiar tradition : “A dish with green beans popular throughout the United States, particularly at Thanksgiving, is green bean casserole, which consists of green beans, cream of mushroom soup, and French fried onions.”
And once again, international observers ask themselves what on earth are Americans thinking? That cannot be good for them. But in the American spirit of inclusivity we invite green beans of all sorts to our tables and try to learn something from them. So if you are preparing green beans this week, take heart, take up your knives, and take a closer look.
The outside of the bean Continue reading
As part of our legume series, the Botanist in the Kitchen goes out to the ballgame where Katherine gives you the play-by-play on peanuts, the world’s most popular underground fruit. She breaks down peanut structure and strategy, tosses in a little history, and gives you a 106th way to eat them. Mmmmm, time to make some boiled peanuts.
Baseball is back, and so are peanuts in the shell, pitchers duels, lazy fly balls, and a meandering but analytical frame of mind. Is this batter going to bunt? Is it going to rain? What makes the guy behind me think he can judge balls and strikes from all the way up here? What does the OPS stat really tell you about a hitter? Is a peanut a nut? How does it get underground? What’s up with the shell? A warm afternoon at a baseball game is the perfect time to look at some peanuts, and I don’t care if I never get back. Continue reading
Walnuts may not seem like summer fruits, but they are – as long as you have the right recipe. Katherine takes you to the heart of French walnut country for green walnut season.
Public domain, via wikimedia commons
English walnuts do not come from England. The English walnut came to American shores from England, but the English got them from the French. The (now) French adopted walnut cultivation from the Romans two millennia ago, back when they were still citizens of Gallia Aquitania. Some people call this common walnut species “Persian walnut,” a slightly better name, as it does seem to have evolved originally somewhere east of the Mediterranean. But the most accurate name for the common walnut is Juglans regia
, which means something like “Jove’s kingly nuts.” I think of them as queenly
nuts, in honor of Eleanor of Aquitaine, because if any queen had nuts, she certainly did. During her lifetime the Aquitaine region of France became a major exporter of walnuts and walnut oil to northern Europe, and it remains so more than 800 years later. Continue reading
Why do so many rich tropical spices come from a few basal branches of the plant evolutionary tree? Katherine looks to their ancestral roots and finds a cake recipe for the mesozoic diet.
I think it was the Basal Angiosperm Cake that established our friendship a decade ago. Jeanne was the only student in my plant taxonomy class to appreciate the phylogeny-based cake I had made to mark the birthday of my co-teacher and colleague, Will Cornwell. Although I am genuinely fond of Will, I confess to using his birthday as an excuse to play around with ingredients derived from the lowermost branches of the flowering plant evolutionary tree. The recipe wasn’t even pure, since I abandoned the phylogenetically apt avocado for a crowd-pleasing evolutionary new-comer, chocolate. It also included flour and sugar, both monocots. As flawed as it was, the cake episode showed that Jeanne and I share some unusual intellectual character states – synapomorphies of the brain – and it launched our botanical collaborations.
Branches at the base of the angiosperm tree
The basal angiosperms (broadly construed) are the groups that diverged from the rest of the flowering plants (angiosperms) relatively early in their evolution. They give us the highly aromatic spices that inspired my cake – star anise, black pepper, bay leaf, cinnamon, and nutmeg. They also include water lilies and some familiar tree species – magnolias, tulip tree (Liriodendron), bay laurels, avocado, pawpaw (Asimina), and sassafras. Continue reading
Posted in Flavor, Recipes, The basics, Uncategorized
Tagged angiosperm, evolution, flavor, gluten free, pepper, phylogeny, recipe, spices
You don’t have to be superstitious to believe in the power of hoppin’ john on New Year’s Day. Katherine’s recipe is below, but first, she takes this good excuse to talk about the structure of beans, the magical fruit (really seeds).
The magic of beans
Beans are extremely satisfying seeds. They are large and germinate easily. They can be harvested young and eaten soft – like limas, favas, and green peas – or in their fresh pods, like green beans and sugar snap peas. They are most beautiful and useful when allowed to mature and dry naturally. They are creamy white, chestnut, blue-black, or pink; mottled, speckled, cow-spotted, or black-eyed; fat and reniform, or shaped like a lens or a ram’s head. They can weigh down pie crusts or fill bean bags. Food co-ops everywhere are built on the cornerstones of bulk bins full of colorful dried beans. Running your hands through a bowl of cool dried beans is an inexplicably simple joy. Continue reading
What is hairy, green, full of slime, and delicious covered in chocolate? It has to be okra, bhindi, gumbo, Abelmoschus esculentus, the edible parent of musk. Katherine explores okra structure, its kinship with chocolate, and especially its slippery nature. What’s not to like?
Okra flower with red fruit below
People often ask me about okra slime. Rarely do they ask for a good chocolate and okra recipe, which I will share unbidden. With or without the chocolate, though, okra is a tasty vegetable. The fruits can be fried, pickled, roasted, sautéed, and stewed. Young leaves are also edible, although I have never tried them and have no recipes. Okra fruits are low in calories and glycemic index and high in vitamin C, fiber, and minerals. The plant grows vigorously and quickly in hot climates, producing large and lovely cream colored flowers with red centers and imbricate petals. The bright green or rich burgundy young fruits are covered in soft hairs. When they are sliced raw, they look like intricate lace doilies. In stews, the slices look coarser, like wagon wheels. And yes, okra is slimy. And it is in the mallow family (Malvaceae), along with cotton, hibiscus, durian fruit, and chocolate. Continue reading
A shorter version of this essay appears in the Autumn 2013 issue of the beautiful, creative online magazine Soiled and Seeded. Here Katherine and Jeanne explain the topological relationship between figs and mulberries and do a little investigative journalism.
Figs and mulberries are both gorgeous, sexy fruits, but in very different ways. At first blush a mulberry could be the fragile hot-mess cousin of a blackberry, while figs are classically sensual fruits, like marble nudes teetering on the edge of vulgar. For all their fleshy assertiveness, both fruits keep their secrets; and it takes more than a long, intense gaze to uncover their close relationship and know what makes them sweet. Mulberries may look like blackberries (and share a taxonomic order), but they are built from different plant components. The true siblings are mulberries and figs (both in family Moraceae), and at heart they are very much alike, although figs are clearly the more introverted of the two. Continue reading
A batch of lemon balm-lemon verbena syrup reminds Jeanne of the multiple evolutionary origins of lemon flavor.
The citrus lemon itself is only one of many plant species that lends its namesake flavor or fragrance to our food and drinks. Lemon flavor primarily comes from a few terpenoid essential oils: citral (also called geranial, neral, or lemonal), linalool, limonene, geraniol, and citronellal. The production of one or more of these essential oils has independently evolved multiple times in species on widely separated branches of the plant phylogeny (see figure).
Phylogeny of plant taxonomic orders with edibles (click the tree to enlarge). Orders with species with lemony essential oils are highlighted in red. For a refresher on reading this phylogeny, please see our food plant tree of life page.
Posted in Flavor, herbs, Recipes
Tagged citronella, Citrus, essential oil, evolution, flavor, Jeanne L. D. Osnas, Lamiaceae, lemon, lemon balm, lemon verbena, lemongrass, syrup, terpenoid, trichome, Verbenaceae