If it smells like onion or garlic, it’s in the genus Allium, and it smells that way because of an ancient arms race. Those alliaceous aromas have a lot of sulfur in them, like their counterparts in the crucifers. You can combine them into a Brimstone Tart, if you can get past the tears.
The genus Allium is one of the largest genera on the planet, boasting (probably) over 800 species (Friesen et al. 2006, Hirschegger et al. 2009, Mashayehki and Columbus 2014), with most species clustered around central Asia or western North America. Like all of the very speciose genera, Allium includes tremendous variation and internal evolutionary diversification within the genus, and 15 monophyletic (derived from a single common ancestor) subgenera within Allium are currently recognized (Friesen et al. 2006). Only a few have commonly cultivated (or wildharvested by me) species, however, shown on the phylogeny below. Continue reading
Posted in Uncategorized
Tagged allium, amaryllidaceae, angiosperm, Brassica, Brassicaceae, chemistry, chive, convergence, crucifer, defense, garlic, greens, Jeanne L. D. Osnas, leek, onion, phylogeny, ramp, recipe, sulfur, vegetable
Walnuts may not seem like summer fruits, but they are – as long as you have the right recipe. Katherine takes you to the heart of French walnut country for green walnut season.
Public domain, via wikimedia commons
English walnuts do not come from England. The English walnut came to American shores from England, but the English got them from the French. The (now) French adopted walnut cultivation from the Romans two millennia ago, back when they were still citizens of Gallia Aquitania. Some people call this common walnut species “Persian walnut,” a slightly better name, as it does seem to have evolved originally somewhere east of the Mediterranean. But the most accurate name for the common walnut is Juglans regia
, which means something like “Jove’s kingly nuts.” I think of them as queenly
nuts, in honor of Eleanor of Aquitaine, because if any queen had nuts, she certainly did. During her lifetime the Aquitaine region of France became a major exporter of walnuts and walnut oil to northern Europe, and it remains so more than 800 years later. Continue reading
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
Posted in Flavor, Recipes, The basics, Uncategorized
Tagged angiosperm, evolution, flavor, gluten free, pepper, phylogeny, recipe, spices
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
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
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
Posted in Fruit, Recipes, Uncategorized, Vegetables
Tagged chile, eggplant, fruit structure, goji, ground cherry, Jeanne L. D. Osnas, Katherine Preston, nightshade, pepper, phylogeny, ratatouille, recipe, Solanaceae, tobacco, tomato
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
To understand how potatoes behave in the stock pot, Katherine puts a favorite soup under the microscope – literally.
Potato leek soup is the perfect soup. It is heaven pulled from the ground in all its humble grassy beauty. Potato leek soup is good-looking, simple, and flexible. It can be made vegan and provides nutrients and fiber with few calories. It is cheap, scales up for a crowd, and freezes well. Plus you have to love a soup with more names than ingredients. As a comforting wintertime staple, we call it what it is – potato leek soup. In tiny cups, sprinkled with chopped parsley and freshly ground black pepper, it becomes potage Parmentier, a rich tasting but delicate entrée to an elegant dinner party * . Chilled, with fresh cream, it is Vichyssoise, the cool, light partner of a good baguette and a glass of Pouilly-Fumé on the patio in summer. And my mother-in-law has demonstrated many times that when the holidays overwhelm your fridge, you can store a huge pot of potato leek soup on the porch overnight – as long as you put a brick on the lid to keep the raccoons out.
This amazing soup is the just about easiest thing in the world to make. Julia Child’s version is probably the most widely used, and the one I like: simmer equal parts cubed potato and sliced leek in water until they are tender. Add salt to taste and puree. A bit of cream is optional. A dusting of chopped parsley and freshly ground black pepper is divine. I like to err on the side of more potatoes than leeks, but the soup is robust to variations in proportion.
But is it really so easy? If you trust the internet more than you trust your favorite dog-eared chocolate-spattered cookbook with the broken spine and decades of marginalia (silly you), you may worry that without the right kind of potato and extremely careful handling, your soup will end up gluey. Is any wallpaper not pre-pasted these days? Doubtful, but everyone seems to describe gluey potato soup or mashed potatoes as “wallpaper paste.” I will say right up front that gluey soup has never happened to me, but given all the stress over this utterly simple soup, it seemed worth investigating. Continue reading
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)
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