This month we introduce a new feature to the Botanist in the Kitchen: Botany Lab of the Month, where you can explore plant structures while you cook. In our inaugural edition, Katherine explains why she would like to add her nominee, Solanum tuberosum, to the list of white guys vying for Best Supporting Actor.
In one of this year’s biggest and best movies, Matt Damon was saved by a potato, and suddenly botanists everywhere had their very own action hero. It’s not like we nearly broke Twitter, but when the trailer came out, with Damon proclaiming his fearsome botany powers, my feed exploded with photos of all kinds of people from all over the world tagged #Iamabotanist. The hashtag had emerged a year earlier as a call to arms for a scrappy band of plant scientists on a mission to reclaim the name Botanist and defend dwindling patches of territory still held within university curricula. Dr. Chris Martine of Bucknell University, a plant science education hero himself, inspired the movement, and it was growing pretty steadily on its own. Then came the trailer for The Martian, with Matt Damon as Mark Watney, botanizing the shit out of impossible circumstances and lending some impressive muscle to the cause. The botanical community erupted with joyous optimism, and the hashtag campaign was unstoppable. Could The Martian make plants seem cool to a broader public? Early anecdotes suggest it’s possible, and Dr. Martine is naming a newly described plant species (a close potato relative) for Astronaut Mark Watney.
In the film, that potato – or actually box of potatoes – was among the rations sent by NASA to comfort the crew on Thanksgiving during a very long mission to Mars. After an accident, when the rest of the crew leaves him for dead, Watney has to generate calories as fast as he can. It’s a beautiful moment in the movie when he finds the potatoes. In a strange and scary world, Mark has found a box of old friends. They are the only living creatures on the planet besides Mark (and his own microbes), and they are fitting companions: earthy, comforting, resourceful, and perpetually underestimated. At this point in the movie, though, the feature he values most is their eyes. 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 →
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 →
Chili, black pepper, white pepper, and Sichuan pepper
Black pepper, pink peppercorns, chili pepper, Sichuan pepper – except for being “hot,” these spices have as little in common as Sergeant Pepper and Pepper Potts. Their homelands are scattered across the world, and they were spread through distinct trade routes. They are not closely related; they belong to families about as far apart as possible on the phylogenetic tree below. They even aim their heat at different sensory receptors in your mouth. Continue reading →