Tag Archives: morphology

Let’s get it started with some black-eyed peas (and rice)

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

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

Figs and Mulberries, inside and out

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.

Mulberries

Mulberries

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

Pear grit and the art of aging

Nostalgia emanates from a basket of pears, inspiring Katherine to explain what makes up these glorious, gritty, and gorgeous late-summer fruits.

Last week a dear friend conjured an entire autumn for me when she handed me one of her pears.  She had picked it a few days prior from one of the small espaliered trees that guard the outside of her bedroom wall and overlook her garden.  It was pale buttery gold with a pink blush, soft and honey-flavored.  A month past the solstice, we were still able to enjoy the low sun well into early evening as we sat on her deck and gazed over the garden, savoring the fruit.Rosaceae talking pear

Bartlett pears, like my friend’s, ripen in the summer and yet they herald the fall.  They appear, and we start the inevitable tumble towards apples, wool socks, and the bittersweet baseball postseason.  Other popular varieties, such as Bosc and d’Anjou, tend to arrive later, when we have already come to terms with shorter cooler days.

I love apples, but they are not as emotion-laden for me.  Whereas apples seem timeless, even summer pears carry an old fashioned patina.  They evoke a time when canning was a skill necessitated by the Depression, but which still made a lot of good sense.  My grandmother must have spent a thousand hours canning the soft sweet pears from her trees.

Pears also know how to age right.  Apples are harvested ripe from the tree, but pears should be taken when they have reached their full size and before they are ripe.  My friend always picks her pears before the squirrels can mark them with bite-sized divots, a practice that also happens to keep them from becoming mealy on the tree.  She sent me home that day with a bag of firm green Bartletts and instructions to hold them in a bag in my kitchen for a couple of days.  Summer varieties don’t require chilling, but d’Anjou and Comice pears benefit from a month of nearly freezing temperatures, followed by ripening at room temperature (Stebbins et al).  The proper aging of pears is all about managing the activity of enzymes that alter various compounds and break down cell walls.  Such treatment would ruin high-maintenance peaches, which are horrified by the thought of getting old and don’t take well to chilling. Continue reading

Aching for strawberries

If you have ever doubted the practical side of  plant anatomy, keep reading, as Katherine explains what you can learn about flowers by cutting up a strawberry.  As it turns out, this enigmatic little gem is packed with coincidences and apocrypha along with its citric acid and anthocyanins.  Could it turn out to be true that a strawberry is a berry after all?

Welcome to early June, when strawberry season is finally well underway across the US, as far north as the upper Midwest and New England.  Here in the promised land where little green plastic baskets are never empty (coastal northern California), there is still a peak season for strawberries, since the popular varieties don’t reach their full potential until mid-May.

With so many strawberries in so many kitchens this month, now is the perfect time to merge botany lab and breakfast preparation by working through the many parts of a strawberry.  Once you have mastered berry dissection, I promise you will find it a surprisingly versatile skill.  Having the confidence to steer a conversation towards strawberry anatomy can help you recover from one of the more awkward inevitabilities of summer – biting gracelessly through an enormous chocolate-covered strawberry just as you are introduced to the mother of the bride.  After you have pointed out the veins and ovaries and have explained the developmental origin of the epicalyx, she won’t remember the red juice and bits of chocolate shell you have just dribbled down your frontside.  Or so has been my experience. 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

A look at leeks

FLUELLEN …and I do believe your majesty takes no scorn to wear the leek upon Saint Tavy’s day.
KING HENRY V I wear it for a memorable honour; For I am Welsh, you know, good countryman.
Shakespeare, Henry V, act 4, scene 7

Break out the daffodils and leeks!  This past Friday, March 1, was St. David’s Day, the feast day of the patron saint of Wales and a national holiday in that country.  As long as you are cleaning and slicing leeks, let’s take a quick close look at the vegetable, one of the national symbols of Wales. Continue reading

Welcome to 2013, the International Year of Quinoa

Can we call quinoa a grain? Why do people care?  Where did all these geese feet come from, and what does Ban Ki-moon have to do with it?  On long winter runs, Katherine’s mind wanders over such questions.

Quinoa seeds (Chenopodium quinoa)

Quinoa seeds (Chenopodium quinoa)

In the final two months of 2012, questions about quinoa and its status as a “grain” came up three separate times within my earshot.  This was odd in itself, but it launched a cascade of coincidences.  On a run near the baylands, my mind was idling back over those conversations, when I noticed for the first time a little weed along the trail, looking much like one of quinoa’s relatives, a saltbush.  (The crushed specimen I carried home in my shoe laces keyed out as Atriplex semibaccata, Australian saltbush.)  There is also a gorgeous and much larger saltbush species along the trail, and yet another relative, an edible Salicornia species (“sea beans”) that fills the marshy areas next to the bay.  Along with quinoa, spinach, beets, and chard, all of these species belong to the (former) goosefoot family – the Chenopodiaceae – which is now considered a branch nested within the Amaranth family.  Quinoa is a central member of this old family, belonging in the namesake genus Chenopodium. Continue reading

Of sweet potatoes and putting down roots

On a hunt for a traditional Thanksgiving tuber, Katherine discovers what it takes to root your own sweet potatoes.  Here she explains how sweet potatoes are put together, which anyone can observe in the kitchen.

The Sunday before Thanksgiving – the first Thanksgiving in 19 years that I have not spent with my family in Georgia – I was on a hunt for sweet potatoes.  Not a single one of my favorite vendors at the Mountain View farmers market grew them this year.  Finally, I questioned Luis Miranda of Wholeness Farms, who has always given me clear and patient explanations of many aspects of farming.  In his charming Nicaraguan accent, he simply said that sweet potatoes are a “long crop.”

Sweet potatoes of all kinds – orange, white, or purple, garnets, Beauregards, Georgia jets, and white stars – are members of the species Ipomoea batatas, in the morning glory family, Convolvulaceae. Continue reading