Coconut palms grow some of the biggest seeds on the planet (coconuts), and the tiny black specks in very good real vanilla ice cream are clumps of some of the smallest, seeds from the fruit of the vanilla orchid (the vanilla “bean”). Both palms and orchids are in the large clade of plants called monocots. About a sixth of flowering plant species are monocots, and among them are several noteworthy botanical record-holders and important food plants, all subject to biological factors pushing the size of their seeds to the extremes. Continue reading
Jeanne continues Bract Month here at the Botanist in the Kitchen by describing the morphology of an interesting and delicious springtime specialty: fresh bamboo shoots.
I had the distinct pleasure a few weeks ago of trying a temperate springtime speciality: fresh bamboo shoots. The friend who shared them with me has a backyard bamboo thicket and harvests the young shoots when they pop up as incursions into the lawn. Globally, he is in good company, as the fresh shoots show up in springtime (or otherwise seasonally appropriate) markets in most of Asia, which is the native range of most of the 1400+ bamboo species. Probably like many modern Americans, before steaming the fresh shoots and putting them in a lovely spring chopped salad last week (we used a lemon-garlic-dill vinaigrette), I had only eaten bamboo shoots as neat, thin, rectangular or julienne slices of canned bamboo shoots in various Thai curries at and Chinese soups in restaurants.
The fresh shoots are a big improvement over the canned and have the texture of asparagus and a flavor like a mild, tangy corn. These similarities might arise from shared evolutionary history between bamboo and both vegetables. Like corn, bamboo is a grass (family Poaceae; see our post on the evolution of gluten within the grasses for a phylogenetic context of bamboo within the grasses). Like asparagus, bamboo is a perennial monocot (see our monocot diversity essay and our food plant tree of life for a refresher on monocots and their phylogenetic position within all plants), and its shoot is a new young stem developing from underground stems called rhizomes that spread out from a parent plant as a form of asexual reproduction. Continue reading
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
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