In this Valentine’s Day edition, Katherine brings you a love song with a beet. Sweet and red, sort of heart-shaped, bearing rings, and definitely divisive – beets should be the unofficial vegetable of the holiday. And if you don’t feel like celebrating, then you can just sit alone and eat dirt.
Throughout two years of dating and our first six months of marriage, my husband and I had never discussed our feelings about beets. Then again, I had never made beets for him before. When I did, they were meant to bulk up a brimming vat of stew that would feed us every night for a week. In my husband’s version of the story, it lasted for three weeks. “I hope you like beets,” I announced that evening. “I may have added too many.”
Whether you love or hate beets, it is probably because they taste like dirt. Some people (my husband) can’t get over the flavor, and others can’t get enough of it. Some people experience beeturia, the appearance of bright red or hot pink urine after they eat red beets. Maybe this sight unsettles you. Or maybe you embrace the opportunity to track the transit of beet pigments through your body. You may admire their lovely rings and be inspired by the rich and brilliant colors that beets bring to salads. Or you might have picked up a lifelong aversion after too many canned pickled beets on a school lunch tray. Beets are a pretty polarizing vegetable. If you are among the haters, I’m going to do my best to turn the beet around for you.
Red and white beets
Why beets taste like dirt
Beets taste like dirt because they contain a compound called geosmin (meaning “dirt smell”). Geosmin is produced in abundance by several organisms that live in the soil, including fungi and some bacterial species in the genus Streptomyces. Humans are extremely sensitive to low concentrations of geosmin – so much so that we can smell it floating in the air after rain has stirred it up from the soil (Maher & Goldman, 2017). While people generally like that rain-fresh scent in the air, it’s less welcome elsewhere. For example, we perceive it as an off taste in water drawn from reservoirs with a lot of geosmin-producing cyanobacteria. In wines, geosmin contributes to cork taint.Continue reading →
The United Nations declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses. What’s a pulse? It’s the dry mature seed of a large number of species in the legume family (Fabaceae): various beans, peas, soybean, chickpeas, lentils, peanuts and other groundnuts. 2016 is days from ending, so it’s high time I get up the Fabaceae diversity post I’ve been meaning to write all year long. This rounds out our year of legume coverage, which included Katherine’s posts on bean anatomy, peanuts, and green beans.
Christmas Lima beans (Phaseolus lunatus), soaking before cooking
One out of every 15 flowering plant (angiosperm) species is a legume, a member of the large plant family Fabaceae (Christenhusz and Byng 2016, LPWG 2013). Boasting around 19,500 species in 750-ish genera (LPWG 2013), the Fabaceae is the third-largest plant family in the world, trailing behind only the orchid (Orchidaceae: 27,800 species) and aster (Asteraceae: 25,040 species) families (Stevens 2016). By my count, people only use about 1% of legume species for food (my list of edible legume species is found here), but that small fraction of species is mighty. People eat and grow legumes because they are nutritional superstars, can be found in almost all terrestrial ecosystems around the world, and uniquely contribute to soil fertility in both wild and agricultural ecosystems. Continue reading →
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 →
We’ve got several posts in the pipeline – and this year we are contributing to Advent Botany – but meanwhile, we bring you posts from the past to nerd-up your kitchen as you cook. Don’t forget, nothing deflects from an awkward personal revelation or a heated political conversation like a well-placed observation about plant morphology.
A close relative of The rapunzel plant (Campanula rapunuloides). Photo from Wikipedia.
I never suspected that I’d learn something about edible botany by indulging my 3-year-old’s princess obsession, but I have. According to the Brothers Grimm, Princess Rapunzel is named after the cultivated vegetable of the same name, growing in a witch’s garden. The wording of the story suggested to me that the Grimms’ contemporaries would be familiar with the plant as a vegetable, that it wasn’t a fantastical invented thing. Apparently rapunzel was a popular vegetable in the Grimm’s Europe.
Formally the rapunzel plant is Campanularapunculus, native from southwestern Asia through central Europe to North Africa.The genus Campanula contains upwards of 500 species of what are commonly called bluebells, bellflowers, or harebells, widely distributed throughout the northern hemisphere. Many if not most of those species have edible flowers, leaves and roots (see links here, here, here and here). The Brothers Grimm don’t specify which parts of the plant were particularly enticing to Princess Rapunzel’s mother.
Our princess, in the Tangled-inspired dress from Santa
Many species in the closesly-related genus Adenophoraalso have edible roots, leaves and flowers. These genera add a taxonomic family, Campanulaceae, to our list of taxa with culinary species. Campanulaceae joins the sunflower family (Asteraceae) as culinary families in the order Asterales. Rapunzel seeds are for sale, and it can grow in Anchorage, where we will be moving this spring. My little Rapunzel will have to beat the moose to it in the garden next summer. It’s so interesting to me that this was once considered a common, mainstream cultivated vegetable, but now it’s considered a fringe edible plant or something to be “wildharvested.” It’s fun to learn about plants that were once widely cultivated for food but have since fallen out of fashion. Wonder why that is.
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 →
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 →
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 →
It’s high season for kale and apples, and Katherine just can’t stop talking about epicuticular wax
There is something nostalgic about kale and its softly glowing dusky cast that suits late autumn and early winter. It looks rustic and thick-skinned, steeled against falling temperatures and short days. It even shrugs off winter rains. Water beads up and rolls right off its leaves. Kale’s ageless still-life look is due to its extraordinary epicuticular wax, a legacy of the first plants to survive on dry land. Continue reading →