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 →
Victory with creating a gluten-free quick bread recipe inspires Jeanne to give you a brief primer on the evolutionary history of gluten within the grass family.
We were perhaps a little too enthusiastic this fall in our apple picking at a local orchard and our acquisition of interesting squash at our farmer’s markets. Our freezer now contains many bags of applesauce and squash puree. We must now “do something,” as we say, with all of it, meaning use the purees as ingredients. Lately I’ve been working on incorporating the purees into nutritious (low sugar, high protein, whole grain) quick breads. On my doctor’s recommendation, that quick bread also needs to be gluten-free. Increasing appearances of the phrase “gluten free” on restaurant menus and product labels are noble efforts to accommodate the needs of people who have celiac disease or other dietary sensitivities to gluten. Baking without gluten is a challenge, as gluten is what gives wheat dough its elasticity and allows yeasted wheat bread to rise. The internet makes gluten-free baking more accessible by the day, but I haven’t yet found someone else’s recipe that really does what I want, so I’ve been working on my own. I’m fairly pleased with the latest result (below) and thought I would use the occasion to give you a brief evolutionary history of gluten and the botanical family that makes it: the grasses. Continue reading →
The scent of ripening peaches spurs Katherine’s musings on the botany of stone fruits
Fragrant peaches ripening on window sills and countertops pull me right back into the heart of my childhood summers. They always arrived in a huge box from Georgia, sent by my grandmother in the hope of drawing my parents back to their native state. Her other lures included Vidalia onions in April and Claxton fruitcakes in November, but peaches were definitely her best shot. The peaches were gorgeous, and their ripe flavor was incredibly complex and vivid, but their peak was ephemeral. After my sister and I had spread them all out on newspapers, the whole sprawling array had to be checked at least two times a day and sorted by ripeness. Peaches were never allowed to touch each other. On some hot days, peach tending took on the urgency of triage, with fruits passing from ripe to “sharp” to downright alcoholic in one long afternoon.
Peaches, nectarines, plums, apricots, and cherries are sometimes called stone fruits because of their pits, or stones. Along with almonds, they are all in the genus Prunus which belongs to the Rose family – Rosaceae. Several other familiar fruits come from the rose family but are not stone fruits. Continue reading →