Category Archives: Vegetables

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

Who wants some green bean casserole?

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

Botany Lab of the Month (Oscars edition): potatoes

This month we introduce a new feature to the Botanist in the Kitchen: Botany Lab of the Month, where you can explore plant structures while you cook. In our inaugural edition, Katherine explains why she would like to add her nominee, Solanum tuberosum, to the list of white guys vying for Best Supporting Actor.

In one of this year’s biggest and best movies, Matt Damon was saved by a potato, and suddenly botanists everywhere had their very own action hero. It’s not like we nearly broke Twitter, but when the trailer came out, with Damon proclaiming his fearsome botany powers, my feed exploded with photos of all kinds of people from all over the world tagged #Iamabotanist. The hashtag had emerged a year earlier as a call to arms for a scrappy band of plant scientists on a mission to reclaim the name Botanist and defend dwindling patches of territory still held within university curricula. Dr. Chris Martine of Bucknell University, a plant science education hero himself, inspired the movement, and it was growing pretty steadily on its own. Then came the trailer for The Martian, with Matt Damon as Mark Watney, botanizing the shit out of impossible circumstances and lending some impressive muscle to the cause. The botanical community erupted with joyous optimism, and the hashtag campaign was unstoppable. Could The Martian make plants seem cool to a broader public? Early anecdotes suggest it’s possible, and Dr. Martine is naming a newly described plant species (a close potato relative) for Astronaut Mark Watney.

In the film, that potato – or actually box of potatoes – was among the rations sent by NASA to comfort the crew on Thanksgiving during a very long mission to Mars. After an accident, when the rest of the crew leaves him for dead, Watney has to generate calories as fast as he can. It’s a beautiful moment in the movie when he finds the potatoes. In a strange and scary world, Mark has found a box of old friends. They are the only living creatures on the planet besides Mark (and his own microbes), and they are fitting companions: earthy, comforting, resourceful, and perpetually underestimated. At this point in the movie, though, the feature he values most is their eyes. Continue reading

Okra – what’s not to like?

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

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

Making ratatouille like a botanist

The story of the nightshades is usually told as a tale of European explorers, New World agriculturalists, and a wary bunch of Old World eaters.  But what about the birds?  And the goji berries?  Jeanne and Katherine introduce you to the Solanaceae family and walk you through the botany to be observed while making ratatouille, the classic French collision of Eastern and Western nightshades.

Can you imagine Italian cuisine without tomatoes? The Irish without potatoes? Chinese cuisine without spicy, fruity chiles?  Such was the case prior to the discovery of the New World nightshades (family Solanaceae) by sixteenth-century Spanish explorers.  And they couldn’t help but run into them.  Solanaceae is a huge family, with over 100 genera and nearly 2500 species, most of which are in Central and South America. Continue reading

Super styled

Corn silks are annoying, but they’re also amazing. The longest styles on the planet don’t make it easy for corn pollen to do its job.  Gain new respect for your corn on the cob. 

Corn plant. Tassels with male flowers on top, ears with exposed silks in the middle

Corn plant. Tassels with male flowers on top, ears with exposed silks in the middle

Fresh corn (Zea mays, Poeaceae) is a summertime treat. Shucking corn silks, though, can be a pain.  Corn silks, however, are amazing, and maybe knowing why will ameliorate their annoyingness.  Formally corn silks are the style, the part of the female flower that intercepts pollen.  Female flowers of many species have a stigma, a sticky pad, atop their styles to intercept pollen, but corn silks are lined with sticky trichomes (like hairs) that essentially do the same thing.  Corn silks are incredibly long styles.  Can you think of another plant with a flower appendage that could rival it?  I can’t.  Continue reading

Caterpillars on my crucifers: friends or foes?

A high glucosinolate (putatively anti-cancer) broccoli variety is now on the market.  Jeanne wonders if caterpillar herbivory-induced increases in glucosinolates can match it.  The answer is unsatisfyingly complicated. 

Cabbage butterfly pupa on the tile above my sink. A survivor from washing crucifers from the garden.

Cabbage butterfly pupa on the tile above my sink. A survivor from washing crucifers from the garden.

There are three primary reasons why I haven’t launched aggressive war on the cabbage butterfly (Pieris rapae) caterpillars munching on the cruciferous veggies in my garden, even though I don’t like them:  (1) garden neglect; (2) hostility towards most pesticides; and (3) bonhomie toward caterpillars by my toddler.  There is also a fourth reason.  I know that in general most plants increase production of chemical defense compounds when they detect that they’re being attacked by pathogens or herbivores (Textor and Gershenzon 2009).  Some of these defense compounds have been shown to be beneficial for human health, including those in crucifers.  I’ve been wondering for a while if those caterpillars were actually enhancing the value of the tissue they didn’t consume.  A recent report about a high-defense-compound laden variety of broccoli prompted me to do some research into the issue.  I’m left with more questions than answers. Continue reading

Preparing asparagus: the facts about bracts, part 2

If artichokes are big balls of spiny bracts, then asparagus spears are telescoped rods with membranous scales.  In this follow up post, Katherine takes on asparagus, both the tender and the tough, and explains why peeling can’t rescue a woody spear.

Asparagus is a hopeful spring vegetable.  Asparagus aspires, breathes in the warming spring air, and optimistically pokes its nose up from the ground.  Its tips are clusters of tiny developing branches, still packed tightly like an unexpanded telescope, containing all the potential of a season’s worth of growth.  Except that we whack them and eat them  before they can realize their audacious plant dreams.  There’s no need to feel entirely bad about this, though.  The spears stay alive for a while, stubbornly growing tougher until they are cooked or digested. Continue reading

How to make an artichoke: the facts about bracts, part 1

Inspired by spring and the appearance of both artichokes and asparagus, Katherine explains artichoke morphology in the first of two posts about bracts and scales.

Artichokes don’t exactly look like food, and their name in English is homely and offputting.  The scientific name is no better.  Cynara cardunculus variety scolymus rolls off the tongue like a giant ball of tough spiny bracts.  I’m not ready to call it an onomatopoeia, even though artichokes are giant balls of tough spiny bracts.  And the word “bract,” on its own, is just flat-out ugly.  But artichoke bracts have delicious meaty bases, and they protect the tender inner part of the bud which we call the heart, so I am a C. cardunculus var. scolymus bract fan. Continue reading

Greens: why we eat the leaves that we do

Jeanne reveals which branches of the evolutionary tree of plants bear edible leaves and speculates about why that is.

Giant coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) fronds dwarf me

Giant coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) fronds dwarf me

Most of the 300,000 + plant species have leaves, and the function of all of them is to perform photosynthesis.  They are the ultimate source for all of the oxygen and food for the rest of the food chain and help regulate the global carbon and water cycles.  They are also nutrition superstars.  To figure out why greens are good for you and whether all leaves are equal in this regard, we need to take quick look at global leaf structural variability and broad evolutionary patterns in the species that make their way onto our tables. Continue reading