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Pirates of the Carob Bean

Maybe the name takes you back to gentler days of Moosewood Cookbook and the dusty spicy local co-op. Or maybe you were a kid back then and fell for a chocolate bait-and-switch. Whether you are sweetly nostalgic or wary and resentful, it’s worth giving carob another chance. Katherine argues that it’s time to pull this earthy crunchy 70’s food into the superfood age. She offers foraging tips and recipes to help you get to know carob on its own terms.

From November through January, the carob trees in my neighborhood dangle hard, lumpy, dark brown fruits resembling lacquered cat turds. They are delicious and nutritious and of course I collect them. I am, without apology, a pod plundering, legume looting, pirate of the carob bean. If you seek adventure and happen to live in California, Arizona, or on the Mediterranean coast, you can probably pilfer some carob fruits yourself and play with them in your kitchen. If you lack local trees or the pirate spirit, you can order carob powder and even whole carob beans with one simple click.

Although plundering season begins just as the year is ending, I always wait until January to gather carob fruits for two reasons. First, carob functions mainly as a healthful chocolate substitute, and during the holiday season, fake chocolate just seems sad. In January, however, eating locally foraged carob feels virtuous and resourceful. Second, November and December are when my local carobs make the flowers that will produce the next year’s crop, and those flowers smell like a pirate’s nether parts after a shore leave. Or so I imagine, and not without precedent. A man who should have been inured to such salty smells, Pliny the Elder, natural historian and commander in the Roman Imperial Navy, described the flowers as having “a very powerful odor.” It’s not clear why these flowers have a sort of seaman scent, since the main volatiles wafting from the flowers – linalools and farnesene – smell like lilies and gardenias (Custódio et al., 2006). In any case, I keep my distance until the flowers have finished mating season.

Carob trees

Despite their stinky flowers, carobs make great street trees and produce a valuable crop in many Mediterranean-type climates. They are beautiful, tolerant of dry and poor soils, pest resistant, and tidy. Carobs are legumes – like familiar peas and beans – but they belong to a different branch of the legume family (Caesalpinioideae), one that contains mostly trees and woody shrubs with tough inedible fruit (Legume Phylogeny Working Group, 2017). Carob pods look about as edible as Jack Sparrow’s boots, and the species’ scientific name, Ceratonia siliqua, means “horny long pod,” which well captures the intimidating nature of their leathery fruit. But as you will see below, the fruits are easy to harvest and process, and their sweet pulp is worth seeking out.

Whole carob pod (left) and immature pod opened to show pulp and seeds. The pulp hardens and turns pale brown at maturity. Click to enlarge.

Evidence suggests that people have indeed been seeking out carobs for a long time. Although carob’s origin is uncertain, the species seems to have evolved in the eastern Mediterranean and wild plants would have been available to foragers well before agriculture arose in the region. The plant geneticist Daniel Zohary believed that carob was domesticated late, perhaps only in Roman times, but that it spread quickly throughout the Mediterranean region once people learned how to propagate the trees. Remains of horny pods were found in the 1st century ruins of Pompeii (Zohary, 2002), where carob trees perished alongside our noble friend Pliny the Elder. The University of Cyprus has recently embarked on a project called “Black Gold” to reinvigorate the island’s ancient tradition of carob cultivation and develop new food products from it. Right now, countries around the Mediterranean produce tens of metric tons of carob annually, and one Australian company has jumped into the market with an Aussie Sharkbar.

HistoireDesMétéores - p419

Is there a carob tree here? Mort de Pline (Death of Pliny). Jean-Édouard Dargent [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Carob powder is derived from the fruit wall, and this is what we will process for the recipes below. A less visible but incredibly common carob product appears on ingredient lists as “locust bean gum,” which comes from the gelatinous endosperm of the seeds. It is used to thicken cosmetics and almond milk and to keep crystals from forming in ice cream.

“Locust” is a common name for several of carob’s close relatives, hence the confusion, but I’m still puzzled by the marketing choice of “locust” over “carob” for a list of ingredients you might eat or rub into your face. Squeamishness over true six-legged locusts may underlie another common name for carob, “St. John’s bread.” His “meat was locusts and honey,” but surely John the Baptist subsisted on sweet tree pods and not icky arthropods.

In ancient Greece and Rome, dry carob seeds provided a standardized weight for jewelry, which we now call the carat. So if your own pirate’s code precludes stealing actual gold and gemstones, you can still fill your bandana with carats of a sort.

24 carat magic!

Becoming a carob pirate

First, I must state clearly that we Botanists in the Kitchen are committed to sustainable use of wild foods and do not endorse actual pirate behavior, including stealing carob beans from private property or taking anything from parks or forests where collecting is prohibited. The interests of others and the conservation status and abundance of any plant must always be considered.

Fortunately, taking a few handfuls of carob fruits before they hit the ground does not damage the trees or deprive anyone but slugs of a snack. Carobs are not native outside of the Mediterranean and anyhow they do not reproduce readily by seed, so you are unlikely to affect their propagation. And honestly, as much as I love them, publicly available carob pods are not in high demand. In fact, you may be doing your community a service by keeping them off the sidewalk. After all, the trees are planted for their foliage, not their fruits.

To collect carobs, you must first find them. The Friends of Urban Forests have collected a useful series of tree maps for many cities, including several where carobs grow. City streets, public parks, and college campuses are good places to look as well. Even without a map, if you have local carobs, you should have little trouble because carobs are among the easiest to spot once you have a search image. They brandish bold compound evergreen leaves with elliptical thick green to blue-green leaflets, about 1.5 inches (4 cm) across, arrayed in pairs along a red-tinged rachis.

A single large carob leaf, with four pairs of leaflets. At dusk, leaflets fold up towards each other, like pairs of hands, thanks to the thick pulvinus at the base of each leaflet. Click to enlarge.

Their trunks become rakishly knobby and gnarled with thick ribs running along their length. They often have low branches, making harvesting easy, and in mid-winter the black pods dangle in conspicuous clusters. Of course, during early winter flowering season you can always find them with your nose.

But there is a twist in the story. Not all carob trees make pods. Ceratonia siliqua is dioecious, with some individuals bearing only pistillate (“female”) flowers and others bearing only staminate (“male”) ones. And yes, female flowers smell just as bad as male flowers do. My favorite local tree, however, is one of the occasional hermaphrodites, whose flowers bear both pistils and stamens. It is plausible that humans selected for hermaphroditic individuals during domestication (Zohary, 2002), and that my local genotype reflects that history.

Inflorescence with hermaphroditic flowers. Flowers have both pistils (stigma, short style, ovary) and stamens (anthers on filaments). They lack petals, and their sepals are very short, obscured by the green nectary. Click to enlarge.

Each flower in a cluster is tiny and completely lacks petals. A set of short sepals is almost entirely hidden by a fat green gland that secretes odoriferous nectar to attract and reward insects. That offensive scented nectar seems gratuitous, however, because the flowers have several hallmarks of wind-pollination: highly reduced perianth (sepals and petals), well exposed anthers, and dioecy (separate male and female flowers). On the other hand, they lack other wind-pollination traits, most obviously a long and feathery stigma to capture wind-borne grains and numerous anthers tossing out buckets and buckets of pollen.

Only a few ovaries per inflorescence survive to become a carob pod. This one is happy to see you. Click to enlarge.

Attracting insects thus appears to be important, and one study reports that the flowers don’t make any fruit without wasps and flies to pollinate them (Arista et al., 1999). Unfortunately, it looks like we have to tolerate the raunchy smell to get to the treasure. Nobody ever said a pirate’s life was a bed of roses.

 

Recipes

Although carob is often used as a chocolate substitute, and it does taste similar to cocoa, carob has a unique flavor profile that deserves to be taken on its own terms. The flavor can be enhanced by roasting the pods gently for about 10 or 15 minutes. Roasting also turns residual moisture in the fruits into steam, which swells the cavity inside so that the seeds come out more easily.

It’s more fun to make your own, but you can find commercial carob powder in many stores, and both powder and syrup can be found online.

Carob “mocha”

Use about 5 pods per cup.

Roast pods in a toaster oven at a low temperature (about 250ºF or 120ºC) for 10-15 min until they swell up and blister slightly. Their high sugar content makes pods burn easily and deeply, so keep a watch on them and remove them quickly if they start to char.

Crack open the pods and remove all the seeds.

Grind the pods in a coffee or spice grinder to the consistency of ground coffee.

Carob mocha brewing in a French press

For rich flavor, I like to use about half a cup of ground carob in a 4-cup French press to yield two hefty mugs. Brew for about 15 mins.

Add heated or steamed milk to taste.

Carob syrup

Use to sweeten tea or coffee or to make carob-peanut balls.

You will need about 8 pods and two cups of water for every tablespoon of syrup desired. Pods do not need to be roasted, but allowing them to dry out for a week reduces the tannins and yields a smoother flavor.

Rinse any dust from the pods. Remove “stems” (pedicels). Hand break the pods into 1-inch lengths or roll over them with a marble rolling pin or a thick-walled wine bottle to crack and crush them. Pirates can use a bottle of rum.

In a sauce pan, bring to a boil one cup of water for every 4 pods. Remove from heat, add the broken pods, cover and allow to steep for several hours, until the water is the color of iced tea.

Reheat the water and simmer the pods for another 30 mins, or until the liquid looks like breakfast tea or very weak coffee.

Remove the pods and continue to simmer the liquid extract until the depth of the water is about half an inch.

At this point, right before it is thick enough, the syrup can burn very easily. For the final reduction, either strain it into a small sauce pan and heat gently under constant vigilance, or strain it into a glass measuring cup and microwave it a few minutes at a time.

You will know it is ready when it has been reduced in volume to half a tablespoon per cup of starting liquid. It will thicken a bit when it cools, but will always be more like maple syrup than molasses. Refrigerate for storage.

Carob peanut balls

Peanuts and chocolate are a classic combination, but peanuts and carob really belong together, as they are in the same family. If you can’t make or find carob syrup, you can use clover honey instead and sort-of add a third member of the fabulous Fabaceae.

Roast and grind 2 or 3 carob pods, as described in the mocha recipe above, but continue to grind to make a very fine powder. Put the powder through the finest sieve you have to remove grainy bits. A gold filter for coffee or a very fine tea strainer works well. The leftover grainy bits can be steeped for tea.

Mix a tablespoon of powder with about a teaspoon of carob syrup (or a bit less honey).

In a coffee grinder or mini food processor, grind a half a cup of whole peanuts into smooth peanut butter.   Add salt to taste. Add the powder and syrup mixture and blend to combine.

Allow the mixture to sit for an hour as the powder binds with the peanut butter.

Roll mixture into about a dozen small balls. Roll the balls in carob powder to coat them. You may need a second coat if they become sticky.

Carob peanut balls (right) and carob powder (left). This batch was rolled in sugar for some sparkle. Sugar is not necessary for taste because carob is naturally sweet.

References

Arista, M., Ortiz, P. L., & Talavera, S. (1999). Apical pattern of fruit production in the racemes of Ceratonia siliqua (Leguminosae: Caesalpinioideae): role of pollinators. American journal of botany, 86(12), 1708-1716.

Custódio, L., Serra, H., Nogueira, J. M. F., Gonçalves, S., & Romano, A. (2006). Analysis of the volatiles emitted by whole flowers and isolated flower organs of the carob tree using HS-SPME-GC/MS. Journal of chemical ecology, 32(5), 929-942.

Legume Phylogeny Working Group (LPWG) (2017). A new subfamily classification of the Leguminosae based on a taxonomically comprehensive phylogeny The Legume Phylogeny Working Group (LPWG). Taxon, 66(1), 44-77.

Pliny the elder. The Natural History of Pliny, vol. 3, Chapter 16 (8), translated by John Bostock and Henry Thomas Riley, 1855

Zohary, D. (2002). Domestication of the carob (Ceratonia siliqua L.). Israel journal of plant sciences, 50(sup1), 141-145.

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

Preserving diversity with some peach-mint jam

We are knee deep in peach season, and now is the time to gather the most diverse array of peaches you can find and unite them in jam. Katherine reports on some new discoveries about the genetics behind peach diversity and argues for minting up your peach jam.

Jam inspiration

Fresh peaches at their peak are fuzzy little miracles, glorious just as they are. But peaches cooked into jam and spread across rough toast lose their buttery mouthfeel and dripping juice. To compensate for textural changes, processed peaches need a bit more adornment to heighten their flavor, even if it’s only a sprinkling of sugar. Normally I am not tempted to meddle with perfection by adding ginger or lavender or other flavors to peach jam. This year, however, as I plotted my jam strategy, the unusual juxtaposition of peach and mint found its way into my imagination over and over again, like the insistent echo of radio news playing in the background. Peach and mint, peach and mint, peach and mint – almost becoming a single word. To quiet the voice in my head I had to make some peach-mint jam. The odd combination turned out to be wonderful, and I’m now ready to submit the recipe to a candid world. As we will see below, it’s not without precedent. Mmmmmmpeachmint jam. Continue reading

Alliums, Brimstone Tart, and the raison d’etre of spices

If it smells like onion or garlic, it’s in the genus Allium, and it smells that way because of an ancient arms raceThose 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 alliums

DSC09511

garlic curing

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

The Extreme Monocots

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

Walnut nostalgia

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.

France 1154 Eng newAnnotation fullRes 2

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

Origin stories: spices from the lowest branches of the tree

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

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

Making ratatouille like a botanist

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

Caterpillars on my crucifers: friends or foes?

A high glucosinolate (putatively anti-cancer) broccoli variety is now on the market.  Jeanne wonders if caterpillar herbivory-induced increases in glucosinolates can match it.  The answer is unsatisfyingly complicated. 

Cabbage butterfly pupa on the tile above my sink. A survivor from washing crucifers from the garden.

Cabbage butterfly pupa on the tile above my sink. A survivor from washing crucifers from the garden.

There are three primary reasons why I haven’t launched aggressive war on the cabbage butterfly (Pieris rapae) caterpillars munching on the cruciferous veggies in my garden, even though I don’t like them:  (1) garden neglect; (2) hostility towards most pesticides; and (3) bonhomie toward caterpillars by my toddler.  There is also a fourth reason.  I know that in general most plants increase production of chemical defense compounds when they detect that they’re being attacked by pathogens or herbivores (Textor and Gershenzon 2009).  Some of these defense compounds have been shown to be beneficial for human health, including those in crucifers.  I’ve been wondering for a while if those caterpillars were actually enhancing the value of the tissue they didn’t consume.  A recent report about a high-defense-compound laden variety of broccoli prompted me to do some research into the issue.  I’m left with more questions than answers. Continue reading