Category Archives: Vegetables

The Botanist Stuck in the Kitchen, rummaging for beets

Over these many weeks, humans have been forced into an uncomfortably close study of our own species’ behavior. Observations haltingly stream in through the internet and the TV, through hurried forays into the sparse public square, and through sometimes painful introspection. We are finding what we’ve always known, that humans are petty and petulant, compulsively social, and surprisingly sublime.

Meanwhile, without our clueless interference, non-human animals have gone about their business as normal. The male bi-colored redwing blackbirds where I live are putting on the biggest and flashiest red patches I’ve seen in years. Good luck, guys!

And the Canada geese, which normally annoy me with their poop and their nasty moods have become adorable as they sashay in pairs down the road towards their new nests on the empty golf course. In a few weeks they will be justifiably nasty again, hissing as they protect their babies from me, a silly runner, just trying to shed my own cranky mood into their territory.

Recently, after a run through a muddy patch of the trail stamped with goose footprints and lined with wild sea beets, I remembered that I had some old beets in the refrigerator. Time to do some botany!

For much more information about beets and their relatives, see our longer posts.

Botanizing in the kitchen with kale

The farmer’s market this weekend in late March of 2020 was disorienting, and not only because I was wearing a mask and gloves. It was hard to see which line of widely spaced people was snaking into which farmer’s stand, and many vendors had hung tarps and were helping customers through windows. But everyone was as community-spirited as usual, and many of us were uncharacteristically patient.

Yet again, I was beyond grateful for both the opportunity and the means to fill my fridge with fresh green vegetables, including kale. And I was way more excited than usual to find a bunch of kale that had started to elongate its stem and flower because I knew I could use it in another video in our special COVID-19 series of dispatches from our kitchens.

Here’s hoping you stay in good health and good spirits.

 

For many more details about Brassica oleracea see Jeanne’s many terrific posts from the past that cover B. oleracea diversity, chemistry, and comparative morphology.

The Botanist Stuck in the Kitchen, Saturday night artichoke edition

Welcome to another installment of our new special feature: a series of videos and posts that bring you into our kitchens as we join millions of people sheltering in place. So far, my local farmers market is open for business and local farmers are continuing to bring fresh food to our community, at some real risk to themselves. So so many of us are grateful.

I was lucky enough last week to pick up some gorgeous giant artichokes to prepare for Saturday night, which presented the opportunity for a virtual botany lab. Wherever you are sheltering, I hope that you are able to find some for yourself. Artichokes are full of antioxidants, specifically polyphenols, that have generally health-promoting effects. They are also rich in dietary fiber, which is a good thing if you have spent too much time on the sofa lately. And if you eat them with melted butter or olive oil, well, that can’t hurt your mood, now can it?

This video was only lightly edited and entirely unscripted, so please be patient with the pace and the occasional interruption by Caltrain.

For more details about artichokes, see my written explanation in an earlier post: How to make an artichoke: the facts about bracts, part 1

 

 

The Botanist Stuck in the Kitchen

It’s the spring of 2020, and like millions of others, we Botanists in the Kitchen are sheltering at home, trying to help flatten the curve. In other words, we are stuck in the kitchen. However, neither of us is complaining right now. Personally, I (Katherine) feel secure in my home, and I am (for now) healthy. I have access to fresh and nutritious food (thank you small-holder farmers), and at the end of the day I can go for a long run along a lovely creek lined with trees and birds. Both are opportunities to connect with plants, and this blog has always been about helping people connect to plants that might just be sitting in their refrigerators.

Like many other educators, I have also been preparing to teach a spring quarter botany course, from my sofa, through a laptop. In rethinking what is essential to the class and what might be necessary for my students in this moment, I decided to assign a new reading. It’s a 2015 study by some Stanford colleagues who found, basically, that a walk through a natural green space reduced anxiety compared to a similar walk through an urban area. Maybe that’s not surprising, but they also investigated potential mechanisms by measuring the way people’s brain activity differed in the two situations. Their data suggest that an immersive experience in “nature” (with plants) reduces the kind of unproductive rumination that feeds anxiety. Nobody has done the same experiment comparing our anxiety levels after scrolling through social media or after carefully preparing broccoli and marveling at the fractal arrangement of its unopened flower buds. I do have a prediction, though. Under the current conditions, maybe it’s time to move into the kitchen and see what’s in the fridge.

 

P.S. If you are food-secure and financially able at this time, please consider giving to your local food bank. Everyone should have nutritious fresh food for body and mind.

Reference

Bratman, G. N., Hamilton, J. P., Hahn, K. S., Daily, G. C., & Gross, J. J. (2015). Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences, 112(28), 8567-8572.

Botany lab of the month: Contrasting brassica plants in the garden

This is just a quick post about some instructive cruciferous vegetable (family Brassicaceae) anatomy and within-species diversity apparent in my garden at the moment.

Red Russian kale, rutabagas, and canola oil are all different varieties of Brassica napus. Red Russian kale and rutabagas are in my garden now, and the amplification of leaves and roots, respectively, through domestication is evident.

Red Russian kale (Brassica napus)

The rutabaga leaves are large, lobed, and somewhat grayish, like the Russian kale, but they are tougher and not as numerous as on the kale.

rutabaga plant (Brassica napus; Brassicaceae)

You’ll just have to take my word for it that there is no giant rutabaga-like root (technically a swollen hypocotyl, the fused lower stem and taproot, like a turnip, radish, or maca) straining the soil surface on the kale plant.

rutabaga

Anatomical differences amplified through domestication on otherwise vaguely similar-looking cruciferous vegetable plants is also visible on Brussels sprouts and collard greens, two different varieties of Brassica oleracea. A farmer or gardener familiar with the gestalt of the plants will easily identify a Brussels sprouts plant from afar as distinct from a collard greens plant, although the large plant and leaf size are similar.

Brussels sprouts plant (Brassica oleracea)

collard greens plant (Brassica oleracea)

Up close, though, you’ll see that the larger, more tender collard greens leaves have only a very tiny bud in their leaf axils (where the leaf joins with the stem).

Giant collard green leaves subtend very tiny axillary buds.

The developing Brussels sprouts, though, are not nearly done growing and are already much larger than the axillary buds  in any other variety of B. oleracea.

Young Brussels sprouts are really just giant axillary buds developing on the stalk.

While red Russian kale is Brassica napus, most of all the other kales are leafy varieties of Brassica oleracea, along with collard greens, Brussels sprouts, cabbage (which is the enlarged terminal bud, similar to the axillary bud), kohlrabi, broccoli, and cauliflower (read about this diversity and more about the anatomy involved in our essay The extraordinary diversity of Brassica oleracea). Last year we let one of the B. oleracea kales, a curly green winterbor variety, overwinter. Many of these brassicas retain the biennial life cylce of their weedy Mediterranean ancestor (read about it in our essay Caterpillars on my crucifers: friends or foes?), so overwintering is something for which a kale plant can prepare itself. The term biennial means that the plant’s life cycle requires two years to complete. In the first year the plant produces a profusion of leaves (the “rosette”). In the second year the plant flowers, sets seed, and dies. The leaves from the first year die over the winter. It is the job of those axillary buds to survive the winter as tightly wrapped bundles of overlapping leaves that will be familiar to Brussels sprouts fans. In the spring those leaves in the axillary buds unfurl and grow as the tiny stem that supports them elongates. This unfurling of leaves from otherwise small axillary buds was apparent this spring in our overwintering kale.

This winterbor kale stem overwintered. Above each leaf scar (from last year) new leaves are expanding on a new lateral stem from the axillary buds.

If you’d like to read even more about cruciferous vegetables in the mustard family (Brassicaceae), we have a few other longer essays that fill in some of this back story:

Thanksgiving turnips and the diversity of the genus Brassica

The most political vegetables: a whirlwind tour of the edible crucifersGreens: why we eat the leaves we do

Maca: A Valentine’s Day call for comparative biology

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

#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.

IMG_7963

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

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