You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘delicious’ tag.

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Apples (Malus pumila) originated in Central Asia somewhere around Turkey/Georgia/Armenia–where the wild apple (Malus sieversii) still grows.  These delightful members of the rose family have been continuously cultivated, hybridized, grafted, and cloned since prehistory.  Apples are shockingly promiscuous and their seeds are different (sometimes extremely different) from the parent, so varieties (“cultivars”) are cloned and grafted. There are more than 7500 cultivars of apples grown and each is really a clone—or a still living clonal scion–of the original tree they come from. The history and meaning and delight of the apple is beyond my ability to even begin to discuss, however I want to talk about the best variety of apple which is widely available in the United States, the Golden Delicious, because it comes from the same place as me.  The first Golden Delicious tree comes from Clay County, an obscure county in West Virginia where my whole family hales from (well, at least for the last 250 years or so, I guess we are from Africa by way of Europe originally).

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Golden Delicious apples are a bright yellow (or yellow green) apple which are extremely sweet and fragrant.  The original tree was found on the Mullins’ family farm in Clay County and the fruit was locally known as “Mullin’s Yellow Seedling” and “Annit apple” until 1914/15 when it was renamed the Golden Delicious by Stark Brothers Nursery to whom Anderson Mullins sold the cultivation rights and the tree (for the then princely sum of $5000).

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Golden delicious apples are wonderful for cooking, salads, and sauces, but their sweet taste makes them perfect for eating too (although their bright crisp flesh and nearly transparent skin makes them susceptible to bruising). Wikipedia tells us that “In 2010, an Italian-led consortium announced they had decoded the complete genome of the Golden delicious apple. It had the highest number of genes (57,000) of any plant genome studied to date.”  To my eye, Golden Delicious apples also look like the golden apples of Aphrodite which sometimes play a saucy role in Greek mythology or even the forbidden apples of the Hesperides which conferred immortality (if you could get past Hera’s dragon).   Anyway I picked a bunch of them upstate this past weekend and I can’t stop thinking about them…or eating them.  After Halloween week is done, I will share my favorite apple pie recipe.  However next week is not about apples…it is about snakes!

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When scanning over the (dreadful and upsetting) news this morning, a wacky and funny story jumped out at me from amidst all of the grim happenings: fruit merchants in Japan auctioned off some grapes for a record high price!  A bunch of approximately 30 “Ruby Roman” grapes sold for 1.1 million yen (which is equal to approximately $11,000.00).  Even considering today’s high food prices and Japan’s astringent import rules (aka crooked tariffs), $365.00 per grape is an appallingly high price!  What is going on? And what are “Ruby Roman” grapes?

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Paying astronomically high prices for high-status foods is sort of a Japanese food tradition—like hotdog contests or giant pumpkin weighing in America. Merchants or wealthy patrons buy up ceremonial first fish or crops in order to gain prestige and whip up public attention (from all the way across the ocean in this case). The buyer of these particular grapes, Takamaru Konishi, plans on showing the expensive fruit in his shop before parceling them out to special customers and patrons.

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Ruby Roman grapes are a special Japanese variety of red grape which each grow to the size of ping pong balls. Viticulturists began developing this new variety of grapes in 1992 by hybridizing and selecting certain strains of Fujiminori grapes.   In 2008 the new giant red grapes hit shops…provided the fruit met the hilariously strict Japanese agricultural guidelines for what constitutes “Ruby Roman.”  To quote Wikipedia:

Every grape is checked strictly to guarantee its quality, with certification seals placed on those thus selected. The Ruby Roman has strict rules for selling; each grape must be over 20g and over 18% sugar. In addition, a special “premium class” exists which requires the grape to be over 30g and where the entire fruit bunch must weigh at least 700g. In 2010, only six grapes qualified for premium status while in 2011, no grapes made the cut.

Wow! Maybe these grapes are worth $365.00 each! Or maybe this is another goofy publicity stunt for lazy reporters.  If so, count me in!

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It is March 14th—“Pi Day” (since the date is 3/14).  Today mathematicians celebrate the famous irrational number, while everyone celebrates delicious pie.  I am certainly no math person, so I am going to give you my favorite pie recipe.  There was a year when I made a lot of pies and I feel like I still owe a sort of debt to the beloved desserts.  Here is the story: I quit drinking and I made a pie every time I really wanted a drink, which was frequently.  I must have made a hundred pies that year (I should probably stretch this story out with some comic anecdotes and use it to get a book deal and become a celebrity chef). Anyway, this is a pistachio pie which I “invented” during that time—by modifying a very fine pudding recipe which I found on the internet.

This is a really easy pie which is incredibly delicious, but it requires good ingredients.  It goes in a graham cracker crust which you can make yourself—however since all the recipes for graham cracker crust start with graham crackers (a store bought cookie) I always just buy a premade crust.

1 premade store-bought graham cracker crust

OK so you have a graham cracker crust.  Now obtain a blender, a saucepan and these following ingredients for the pudding filling.

1 cup salted shelled pistachio nuts

1/3 cup white grain sugar

2 tablespoons water

Another different 1/3 cup white sugar (I know that sounds weird, but bear with me)

2 cups whole milk

2 large egg yolks

2 tablespoons cornstarch

pinch of salt

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

First put half the nuts in a blender with 1/3 cup sugar and the 2 tablespoons of water. Obliterate them until they are a dense swamp-green paste.  Then throw the remaining nuts in on top of the paste and chop them up fine with the blender.

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“Yum?”

Put the blended nuts in your saucepan with the 2 cups of milk, the sugar, the cornstarch, and the salt.  Getting the pistachio paste out of the blender is the hardest part (it is a dense sticky sludge which adheres to the blade apparatus). Maybe use the milk to wash out every bit of this disgusting yet heavenly paste?

Heat the ingredients on medium low heat until they begin to thicken, but DO NOT BURN THE PUDDING!  You will need to hover over it constantly stirring it with a big wooden spoon and muttering oaths which sound like they are from the old country.  Once the mixture thickens you should hastily whip the egg yolks in a little ceramic bowl with a whisk.  Grab a big metal spoon and pour some of the hot nut milk (?) mixture into the egg yolks and whip it together into a satisfying hot yellow viscous gel. Immediately pour this gel into the saucepan while it is hot and hastily whip it into the pudding in such a way that the eggs do not cook but rather integrate as a custard. Whip this on the stovetop with a whisk for a minute or two then remove the sauce pan and add the butter and vanilla.  Stir them into the hot pudding until they are fully integrated.

You will now have a greenish brown pudding which you should pour into the pie shell. Put the pudding pie in the fridge for a couple of hours until it is set.  Now make the whipped cream topping (which sounds inconsequential but is nearly as important as the pudding for the pie to taste right). The ingredients for this are:

1 pint of heavy cream

A few tablespoons of sugar

½ teaspoon of real almond extract

Mix a pint the cold heavy cream with a handful of sugar in a frozen metal bowl with a hand mixer.  Once the whipped cream starts to form peaks add the almond extract to the whipped scream and finish whipping the topping into stiff peaks.  Spread it on the pie with a rubber spatula/scraper thing.

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You now have a cream pie which looks like an abomination from the three stooges (except with pudding the color of a pneumonia victim’s coughing).  But pay no attention to the pie’s crude appearance.  It tastes as though it was stolen from the table of the gods themselves. It is one of the best pies ever! Enjoy (and be sure to tell everyone where you got the recipe).

My food pyramid is more like food columns lately

My food pyramid is more like food columns lately

I have been living on rice and pulses for weeks (pulses=lentils, split peas, red beans, pink beans, black beans, pinto beans, chickpeas…you get the idea). These foods deserve their own posts, not just for keeping me alive in this narrow stretch, but because they are also some of the first crops of humankind (and our history with them goes back way longer than that). However, as much as I love my chili and curries, tonight I couldn’t bear to look at the crock of chana masala. Plus I somehow managed to complete my training as a new employee of [Redacted], the regimented and tight-fisted financial firm where I am improbably quartermaster, and I felt like celebrating the fact that I made it through a (mostly) full week of grueling work alive.

Uh...is this a post about the glamor of working on Wall Street?

Uh…is this a post about the glamor of working on Wall Street?

So I gathered up my nickels and bought one of the cheapest meats available at the supermarket to make a strange poultry feast. Now this is one of my favorite meals, but it is kind of a monster’s dinner–and it is definitely made of meat! My readers who are vegetarians…or even just squeamish may want to skip this cooking post [ED: Why is a recipe post even here?] and come back tomorrow for Fourth of July stuff.

Chicken Livers (photo by the hungry native)

Chicken Livers (photo by the hungry native)

OK, we are making delicious chicken livers with onions in creamy marjoram vermouth sauce! I usually eat it on a bed of yellow rice, but it is really a French meal and it also works well on buttery mashed potatoes, if you want to make those. The key to the meal is fresh undamaged livers without gall bladders…but your only clue in the supermarket is color so this is sort of a Russian roulette meal. Just buy the freshest looking chicken livers and you’ll probably be fine.

Drain the chicken livers (which, rather unpleasantly, come floating in a little plastic cup of chicken blood) and dredge them in a deep plate of plain flour with a pinch of salt mixed in. I threw away one of the livers that looked like it came from a chicken with a serious drinking problem, but all of the livers smelled good (if they smell rancid or bilious, you uh probably need a new batch). Keep the bloody flour—you’ll need it! Grease a large solid frying pan with a bit of olive oil and start frying the livers on medium heat. A lid really helps if you have one!

Thanks Mom and Dad, for the really nice pan.

Thanks Mom and Dad, for the really nice pan.

I then chop up a medium onion and get a handful of wonderful marjoram from the garden. Flip the livers and throw a large pat of butter in the pan. When the butter melts and starts sizzling, put the onions in and flip them around so they don’t burn.

Marjoram

Marjoram

Add the chopped marjoram and some dry thyme and turn the flame down and put the lid on. Now mix the bloody flour with water till it becomes a viscous paste. The livers should be browned and firm and the onions transparent. Pour the flour water into the pan. Cook covered for a few minutes over low heat and then add a liberal splash of dry vermouth. If the gravy looks too thick, just ad some water and turn up the heat. Slosh everything around delicately with a spatula and add some sea salt to taste. Let the meal simmer on low heat till it looks right and then let it rest while you rice finishes (this all goes really fast).

I'll put up this mystery image so you can imagine the meal

I’ll put up this mystery image so you can imagine the meal

The meal looks like brown glop with horrible livers and dispiriting brown bits floating in it. It smells like butter, onions, trace elements, and cooked viscera. Sadly I forgot to take a picture before I fell on it and devoured it like a savage—so you can’t see how ugly it looks. Yet, when it comes out right, it is one of my best meals (and I’m a very good chef). I always imagine it being cooked by some sad scary old French man who lives alone in a forest, but when you get to know him you realize that he is a visionary genius and his horrifying meal is a gourmet treat.

They say he lives on entrails...and read all of Proust...

They say he lives on entrails…and read all of Proust…

This post concerning chicken strayed pretty far from the beaten path, but now you have a gourmet dinner you can make for next to no money! Let me know if anybody makes it! I’m new to food blogging but it seems to be all the rage out there and I thought that this meal fills a peculiar sophisticated/impoverished/delicious niche!

A farmer harvests an onion in a painting in the Ancient Egyptian Tomb of Neferherenptah (ca. 2310 BC)

A farmer harvests an onion in a painting in the Ancient Egyptian Tomb of Neferherenptah (ca. 2310 BC)

The common onion (Allium cepa) is one of the oldest known cultivated vegetables: indeed, the onion goes so far back that now Allium cepa is known only as a cultivated vegetable. As with the cow, the actual wild version of this organism has been lost (although there are other edible allium species around the world which go by the name “wild onion”). Common onions probably originated in Central Asia: the oldest archaeological evidence we have of onion farming puts the vegetables in Ancient Egypt 5,500 years ago, in India and China 5,000 years ago, and in Mesopotamia 4,500 years ago, however it is likely that they were grown as a crop long before then. Onions are in the most ancient Chinese and Indian texts and likewise they are in the oldest chapters of the Bible. The classical civilizations of Greece and Rome were heavily dependent on onion cultivation. When Rome fell, onions became a staple of the medieval diet. Emmer wheat, bitter vetch, and bottle gourds have come and gone from fashion, but the onion is more popular today than ever. There is a huge bowl of them in my kitchen right now (and I cook them into pretty much every savory dish).

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Onions are easy to grow in many different types of soil in many different ecosystems. They are also easy to store all winter and plant from seeds or bulbs. They can be dried or pickled for long term storage. They can be cooked in every conceivable way, or just eaten raw. Clearly humankind has an ancient relationship with onions and they have kept us alive in many a jam (myself definitely included).

An onion field...hmm, not much to see here...

An onion field…hmm, not much to see here…

Indeed, onions are such a bedrock part of human culture, that we don’t too have much to say about them aside from boilerplate comments about their tear-inducing properties (which are caused by sulfenic acids released when onion cells are damaged). The ancient Egyptians thought of onions as sacred, and made them a part of funeral ritual and a symbol of the cosmos, but subsequent generations have become distracted by flashier vegetables, and pay the ancient onion little tribute (although I suppose there are arguments that onion domes, my favorite architectural flourish, are a sort of homage).

Onions (Wayne Ferrebee, 2002, oil on canvas)

Onions (Wayne Ferrebee, 2002, oil on canvas)

I was hoping to feature some onion-themed deities or deep and troubling myths about these edible bulbs, but I haven’t really been able to find too many (although the satirical website is messing up my ability to search for material). So, instead of citing ancient literature or art, here is my own tribute to Allium cepa. This is a small oil painting which I made back in 2002. It pays tribute to the modest but very real visual beauty of onions. I painted the three main colors commonly available (after looking through all the bins for the right subjects for my still life like a crazy person). The painting makes me smile and it reminds me fondly of all the chili, curry, Chinese food, pasta, and porridge I have eaten which would have been thin and bland without this amazing vegetable. Hooray for onions!

Sheep in a winter snowstorm

Sheep in a winter snowstorm

This week has been bitterly, horribly cold. The other day I was cooking a hearty winter stew of mutton, barley, leeks, and turnips. The kitchen was cold, so I put on the wool socks, sweater, and hat which my mother made me (my parents operate a fancy yarn store on Market Street in Parkersburg, West Virginia, which means I always have knitted goods made of the most gorgeous yarn). When I put on my woolens I was suddenly warm, and the smell of boiling mutton pervaded the whole house. It forcefully stuck me that I should devote a week to blogging about sheep (Ovis aries) in order to celebrate the many gifts of wool, milk, and meat which these gentle artiodactyls have given us over the years.

Wild mouflon (Ovis aries orietalis) on Cyprus .

Wild mouflon (Ovis aries orietalis) on Cyprus .

And the years are not few. I wrote before that goats were the first domestic farm animals, but there are some who argue, fairly convincingly, that sheep were domesticated first [our beloved friends the dog (who were once our feared enemies the wolves) were really first, by thousands–or even tens of thousands–of years, but dogs are hardly farm creatures]. Sheep were first domesticated somewhere between 11000 and 9000 BC in Mesopotamia. The animals are ideal for herding. They are large enough to be useful, but small enough to be manageable. Their highly social herd nature makes them tractable. It is not difficult to imagine hunter gatherers who followed mouflon herds around at first, and then held onto a few orphaned lambs…and then helped the sheep avoid other predators…and then led the flocks into greener pastures, until one day the relationship between the two groups of organisms was completely different. I am saying “sheep”, but there are actually a number of species in the Genus Ovis—different beautiful wild sheep from around the world. There are argali, urials, bighorn sheep, Dall sheep, and snow sheep. There were once others–now gone from Earth. But we are writing about mouflon (Ovis aries orientalis) and their domestic descendants, (Ovis aries aries).

A herd of sheep

A herd of sheep

Since they played such a large role in the origin of farming, sheep are deeply enmeshed in human culture and play a central role in many religions. The Abrahamic faiths were created by ancient herders and there is certainly a strain of sheepherders’ absolutism woven into monotheism! Cowherds are occasionally crushed, goatherds and swineherds despair of their charges’ willful intelligence, but shepherds have complete dominance. Christian literature in particular emphasizes sheepherding (Christ, the resurrected deity, often goes by sobriquets like “the lamb of god” and “the shepherd of men”). The lovely myths of Greco-Roman polytheism, ancient Egypt, and predynastic China are likewise filled with stories of the golden fleece, the supreme god Amun Re, and celestial rams.

Jesus!

Jesus

Although more people worldwide have eaten goat meat, there are more sheep in existence and they are more important economically than their close cousins the goats. There are over a billion sheep on Earth belonging to upwards of 200 breeds. Each different breed was laboriously created by artificial selection across the long years to maximize meat, milk, hardiness, quick growth, tractability, or wool characteristics (or judicious combinations of these attributes). Just look at some of these breeds below. It is amazing they are the same animal, and yet they are obviously the same animal.

The Jacob sheep

The Jacob sheep

Schwarzbraunes Bergschaf

Schwarzbraunes Bergschaf

The Najdi Sheep (desert sheep of Arabia)

The Najdi Sheep (desert sheep of Arabia)

The vanrooy (photo by Denis Russell)

The vanrooy (photo by Denis Russell)

The heidschnucke sheep

The heidschnucke sheep

Manx Loaghtan

Manx Loaghtan

Merino ram

Merino ram

 

There are people who are very rich because of sheep. There are nations which depend on the wooly herds for their GDP. I have written much about sheep, but little about their milk, meat, and wool. Of these, perhaps sheep milk is least familiar to us in the industrialized west, since it is not easy to collect by mechanical means. Cheesemakers however still use it to make premium cheese. Some of the greatest and most delicious cheeses are sheep cheeses (sadly I have them infrequently, but they are indeed delicious. Sheep meat is known as lamb when it comes from young sheep and as mutton when it comes from older beasts. Prime cuts of lamb are more expensive than steaks–and arguably more delicious–but I like cooking mutton which can be boiled all day into soups and stews of surpassing flavor (although my urbane roommates sometimes wrinkle up their noses and look at me like I am a warlock dancing around a cauldron atop some ancient hill).

Mutton leek soup

Mutton leek soup

Sheep’s wool is the most common animal fiber in use. It is so familiar that it comes as a shock to read about its virtues with a fresh eye. Wool has a distinctive microscopic crimp which allows it to be spun into threads and yarns which do not unwind themselves (the sad fate of my otherwise excellent llama sweater). Wool can also be hammered or compressed–which causes microscopic barbs to attach to each other and form felt. It is an excellent insulator even when wet and it also absorbs sound. Wool is surprisingly fire resistant—much more so than other fibers. If it becomes hot enough to catch fire, wool does not melt or release toxic gases but forms a self-extinguishing char which still retains insulating properties. In airlines, where every other amenity has been removed or replaced, there are still wool carpets and dividers because of its excellence in fires (although no doubt right now some soul-eating MBA with a spreadsheet is working to make things less elegant and less safe). Wool is also extremely durable—although different varieties of wool last in different ways, and it can be dyed.

Why are you not in bed?

Why are you not in bed?

Of course to the jaded modern human, milk, amazing fiber, and meat are of little concern. Today’s city dwellers care even less about an animal’s docile nature or its ability to graze, reproduce, or stand off predators (which sheep do by forming together as a dense barrier wall!). Perhaps we are outgrowing sheep. However, they kept us alive for 10 hard millennia! As the arctic winds howl outside through Brooklyn’s empty streets and I sit at my computer in my wool socks and hat my eyes wearily trace to my bed where my little cat is curled up on the red trapper’s blanket. I certainly haven’t outgrown my dependence on sheep. Join Ferrebeekeeper in saluting our ovine friends during the coming week!

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Grapefruit is one of my favorite fruits.  Incongruously I associate the sweet semi-tropical fruit with the most bitter part of winter.  When I was growing up (on a hill farm in central Appalachia), we had crates of the big yellow citruses during winter–an annual gift from some unknown relative.  My mom would read long novels while the wind roared outside and we set by the wood stove listening.  If my father was home from the oil & gas fields, he would peel grapefruits for us (not that Dad was a roughneck, he was a geologist with poorly organized yet relentless employers).  In order for the fruit not to be bitter and tough it is necessary to peel it correctly, which requires patience and deft hands (not only must you strip off the rind, you also have to carefully pull the leathery endocarp away from the juice-filled vesicles). I didn’t master the fruit on my own until I was an adolescent.  As an aside, I feel like those evil serrated spoons are cheating…plus they don’t work.

Ahhh..classical physical comedy!

Ahhh..classical physical comedy!

Grapefruit is a human creation—and a comparatively recent one at that.  It was first hybridized in Barbados during the 18th century from two very different ancestral citrus fruits–the giant pomelo from Southeast Asia and the Jamaican sweet orange (itself a hybrid fruit with ancient Asian antecedents). A Welsh clergyman, Rev. Griffith Hughes, first documented the tasty new hybrid in the 1750s.  Apparently it intrigued and scandalized the English planters (or maybe the Welsh cleric?) to such an extent that it was initially called “the forbidden fruit.”  I guess this earns the grapefruit a place with other fruits known as “the forbidden fruit” such as quinces, citrons, figs, apples, and datura (to say nothing of knowledge…or sensuality, or GMOs, or post-humans or other metaphorical forbidden fruit).

A beautiful grapefruit tree

A beautiful grapefruit tree

Grapefruit trees are shapely evergreen trees which grow to a height of 5–6 meters (16–20 feet).  They have beautiful but tiny four-petaled flowers which, when fertilized by bees (or other insects) grow into the large fruits.  The name grapefruit originates from the fact that growers thought the heavy clusters of ripe fruit looked like grapes (throughout much of the nineteenth century they were named “shaddocks” after an enigmatic & profligate ship captain who was evidently some sort of Johnny Appleseed of the high seas) .  The flesh of grapefruits can be white, yellow, pink, or red.  According to farming lore, pink and red grapefruits were of twentieth century origin—the famous “ruby red” grapefruit was patented in 1929.  The subsequent search for richer color lead growers to irradiate bud sticks with neutrons in the hope of creating exciting new mutants!

A (limited) rainbow of grapefruit hues...

A (limited) rainbow of grapefruit hues…

Grapefruits are healthy fruits filled with vitamins, nutrients, antioxidants, and other possibly wholesome phytochemicals (to say nothing of fiber) however they also contain a chemical which inhibits the activity of a human metabolizing enzyme CYP3A4.  This not-very-euphonically named enzyme allows the liver and the intestine to break down drugs–so grapefruit are potentially dangerous to people taking certain prescription medicines.  According to pharmacologists, more than 40% of drugs can interact with grapefruit!  This sort of thing is why biochemistry is so interesting and challenging!  Maybe there is a rightful reason grapefruit should be called forbidden fruit…but until the doctor actively forbids it, I am going to go have some more…

Um, not THAT much more...

Um, not THAT much more…

 

 

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This is the perfect time of year for delicious pecan pies! Unfortunately, if I made such a tasty and expensive confection, I would eat four slices and then the rest would sit sadly in the refrigerator (since my roommate wants to live forever and thus fears Crisco and corn syrup). So I will hoard my precious bag of pecans for Thanksgiving and instead blog about the magnificent pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis)–an Apollo among trees, which is as beautiful and large as it is beloved and useful! Pecan trees are members of the Hickory genus, Carya, which is named for an archaic Greek tree-nut goddess (whom I need to blog about another day). While there are a few Hickory species in Mexico, Canada, China, and Indochina, the majority are native to the United States (which probably indicates that the trees originated here and spread elsewhere). Pecan trees are native to the southeastern and southcentral United States and spread down into northern Mexico. The word “pecan” is a borrow word from Algonquian (!) and it means “nut so hard it takes a stone to crack it open” (Algonquian, evidently, is masterful at compressing hunter-gatherer concepts into extreme brevity). Pecans have been planted and used as a food source by Native American peoples for a long, long time so it is hard to tell where exactly the tree originated within its range.

Natural range of pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis)

Natural range of pecan tree (Carya illinoinensis)

Rich in proteins and healthy fats and requiring no preparation to eat, pecans are an almost perfect food for humans (in stark opposition to Crisco and corn syrup). Pecans keep fresh within their shells for an entire growing season or longer. The nuts contain protein, sterols, antioxidants, and omega-6 fatty acids. They provide two-to-five times as much food energy as lean meat. Eating a daily handful of pecans lowers “bad” cholesterol levels in a manner similar to statin drugs, and also, “may delay age-related muscle nerve degeneration.” I should probably just eat my bag of pecans and live eternally, but who really wants to be around for the nightmarish robopocalypse (or forgo pie)? Out of convention, I have been calling pecans “nuts”, but the edible part is technically a drupe—a fruit with a single large pit much like a peach or plum. I won’t even mention the rich buttery flavor which is a perfect complement to sweets such as…well, I said I wouldn’t talk about it. Like walnut and hickory (which are close cousins), pecan also makes a magnificent lumber–although it seems a waste to use such a beautiful & useful tree for furniture and cabinetry.

A Pecan Tree in Texas (from tree-pictures.com). That little brown blob in the lower left is a cow.

A Pecan Tree in Texas (from tree-pictures.com). That little brown blob in the lower left is a cow.

Unlike most familiar fruit and nut trees, pecan trees get big! A mature tree can grow up to 44 meters in height (144 ft) with an equally wide span. Just imagine a living green sphere the size of a 15 story building. The trees live to more than 300 years of age, so there are pecan trees out there older than our republic (and arguably in better shape)!

A pecan tree growing over George Washington's mansion at Mount Vernon

A pecan tree growing over George Washington’s mansion at Mount Vernon

According to my sources, pecans were not domesticated until the 1880s. However, considering how perfect they are for humans, I can’t help wonder if they coevolved with us quite a bit over the last 14,000 years. Or are we more squirrel-like than we wish to admit? At any rate, today the United States accounts for up to 95 percent of the world’s pecan crop which exceeds 200 thousand tons. The crop is harvested in mid to late October (which probably explains why I could even afford my bag of shelled pecans). Pecans are a perfect food, a perfect timber, a perfect tree. I’m not sure if the Algonquians were right to choose such a spare name—perhaps the pecan tree should be named for a goddess after all. Unlike the monstrous Chinese invader, pecan is the true tree of heaven.

PecanGrove

A Gentleman with a Cucuzzi

A Gentleman with a Cucuzzi

Before summer ends I want to write about the cucuzzi, which is also known as the “Indian squash” or the “Italian edible gourd”. One of my friends, a robust native New Yorker (married to a Sicilian-American) brought me one of these long green snake-like vegetables from his garden. It was a remarkable conversation piece—as long as a broom handle and slightly obscene. He averred it was a sort of squash and advised us to skin off its waxy pale green skin and sauté it in olive oil. This lead to a confusing conversation wherein I stated that squashes are from the New World while my friend stolidly maintained that the cucuzzi was some ancient Sicilian farm thing which predated the Romans.

2009_09_02-Cucuzza

It turns out my friend was right (although I was right that true squashes and pumpkins are from the Americas). The cucuzzi is not a squash, but a gourd which is descended directly from the bottle gourd of Africa. There are arguments to be made that the bottle gourd was actually the first domesticated plant of any sort—but it was first used as a container and not as a foodstuff. Our distant ancestors carried it to the Near East and thence to Asia and Europe. It probably traveled across the Bering land bridge with the first American peoples and their domesticated dogs in the depths of time (estimate: ca. 14,000 years ago?), although a few experts instead contend it drifted across the Atlantic Ocean from Africa on its own!

Bottle gourds (Lagenaria siceraria)

Bottle gourds (Lagenaria siceraria)

The bottle gourd first found use as a bottle (as subtly hinted at in the common name). It grew true from wild seeds into a tough water-proof container which was of profound use to our thirsty ancestors as they trekked across deserts and arid scrublands. Presumably some of these bottles also held whatever elixirs and medicines our nomadic forbears took as they left our first homeland. Since the gourd has been around a long time, generations of farmers were able to gradually selectively breed it into an edible form (although my friend assures me that if it develops to maturity it is not worth eating). The cucuzzi is an Italian form, but the Chinese still keep bottle gourds for bottles (and as ceremonial art objects). I have a Chinese bottle gourd inscribed with a Song dynasty poem in beautiful calligraphy by my ex-girlfriend’s father (I really liked that guy). Other cultures make them into pipes, traps, or decorations.

or even clothing!

or even clothing!

I did ultimately eat the Cacuzzi sautéed with onions and olive oil (with salt and black pepper). The first night, I found them bland and green tasting, but when I reheated them and put them on noodles they were delicious…and now I want more. When I was trying to find out how to obtain seeds for these strange shape-shifting gourds from the remote depths of humankind’s past, I discovered that their name is a (friendly?) insult in contemporary Brooklyn-Italian slang. If a person is not fired by the dreadful engines of ambition, and simply sits around the house getting slowly bigger and duller he is a “gagootz”—the goomba’s way of saying cacuzzi. So, not only did humankind carry these remarkable plants from the cradle of our evolution, but, as technology and globalization take away various employment options, we are turning into them!

Man with a calabash pipe

Man with a calabash pipe

Nutmeg

Nutmeg

Yesterday I cooked a savory chicken pie using an ancient recipe and it came out really well.  Although it has carrots, cream, mushroom, potato, boiled chicken, caramelized onion, and peas, the dominant taste is a subtle flavor which is simultaneously sweet, medicinal, and delicately evocative of some eastern paradise.  The secret ingredient is one of the strangest and most important commodities in human history—nutmeg, the ground nut from the fruit of the tree Myristica fragrans.

A nutmeg fruit

A nutmeg fruit

In the middle ages, nutmeg was a rare and precious ingredient.  Only a small cadre of Muslim traders knew where the spice was actually from and, after laboriously carrying it across or around the Indian Ocean, they sold it to the Venetians for substantial sums (whereupon the Venetians sold it to everyone else for exorbitant sums).  The European age of exploration was ostensibly launched in order to find the mysterious “Spice Islands” where nutmeg was from (a pursuit which had long ranging side effects, such as the European rediscovery of the Americas and the rush towards global colonial empires).

The Banda Islands

The Banda Islands

Even though the search for nutmeg kicked off an age of exploration, it was not until 1512 that the Spanish finally discovered where all the world’s nutmeg was coming from: the Banda Islands located East of Sulawesi in the middle of the Banda Sea. The Islands were thereafter contested by traders until the Dutch gained an upper hand in the 17th century.  The Dutch used this monopoly to bolster  their brief ascendancy to global superpower.  During the height of Dutch power, nutmeg was taken to Holland and stored in a giant warehouse in order to keep the price artificially high.

17th Century Amsterdam

17th Century Amsterdam

As the English began to command mastery of the seas, they inevitably fought the Dutch for control of world trade.  The Second Dutch-English war, a battle for global maritime supremacy, was fought in the Caribbean, the North Sea, at the mouth of the Thames (and, on all the oceans of the world, via privateering).  The war was fought over the global trade in slaves, fur, tobacco, and, above all, spices.  Although English privateers scored initial successes, the war became a disaster for the English when the Dutch raided their home port of Medway at the mouth of the Thames and burned their war fleet (an event which is still regarded as the worst disaster in the history of the English navy).

The Dutch burning English ships during the Raid on the Medway, 20 June 1667 (Jan van Leyden, ca. 1667, oil on canvas)

The Dutch burning English ships during the Raid on the Medway, 20 June 1667 (Jan van Leyden, ca. 1667, oil on canvas)

In the treaty of Breda, which ended the war, the English received the colony of New Amsterdam—thereafter named New York, whereas the Dutch claimed the greatest prize: exclusive control of the Banda Islands (and the sugar plantations of Suriname).  Thereafter the Dutch crushed hints of sedition on the Banda Islands by means of brutal executions and they led war raids on nearby territories to extirpate any nutmeg trees which had been grown or transplanted elsewhere in Indonesia.

Tourists frolic beneath a nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans) in Grenada

Tourists frolic beneath a nutmeg tree (Myristica fragrans) in Grenada

During the Napoleonic Wars, the English used their naval supremacy to take over the Banda Islands and break the Dutch monopoly.  They exported trees to numerous tropical colonies (which is why Kerala and Granada are now famous for nutmeg production).  Colonial America was hardly exempt from the nutmeg craze, but because of colonial antagonisms, nutmeg was not always available at affordable prices.  The state of Connecticut became famous for unscrupulous tradesmen who would carve nutmeg seeds out of similarly colored wood and thereby earned its nickname “The Nutmeg State” (i.e. a haven for fraud) which seems appropriate given the number of wealthy financiers who live there.

Gentlemen drinking and smoking pipes round a table in an interior, a servant bearing a bowl of punch (English School)

Gentlemen drinking and smoking pipes round a table in an interior, a servant bearing a bowl of punch (English School)

So much for the history of nutmeg production and distribution—what about the demand? What was the reason for all of this desperate search and strife? Nutmeg was popular as a spice and tonic since ancient times when it was used by Greeks and Romans (if they could get it). During the era after the crusades it became de rigueur among aristocrats and its status only grew during the age of exploration. Wealthy gentlemen would carry nutmeg grinders on them, and hand grind nutmeg into alcoholic punches and hot drinks.  Nutmeg was baked into the fanciest pastries, pies, and cakes.  The red avril covering the nutmeg seed was ground into a separate spice named mace which is used in more delicate dishes.  As well as being used in desserts and drinks, nutmeg was used in Indian curries, eastern medicine, and at the apothecary. The fruit of the tree Myristica fragrans held a druglike sway over the wealthy classes around the globe.

Botanical-Educational-plate-Nutmeg-780x579

It turns out that nutmeg contains myristicin, a powerful psychoactive substance which acts as a Monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI).  MAOIs prevent the breakdown of monoamine neurotransmitters, a mysterious class of neurotransmitters which play an unknown but critical role in emotion, arousal, and cognition (indeed pharmaceutical MAOIs are one of the more useful classes of antidepressants).  In tiny doses myristicin is harmless or tonic to humans (although even in small doses it is deadly to many animals including some of our best beloved domestic friends) yet upping the dosage quickly causes nausea, seizures, splitting headaches and powerful weird hallucinations.  Every generation, the press rediscovers nutmeg as a drug and creates a moral panic, although all but the most reckless drug users are put off by nutmeg’s bitter taste in large doses—or by the ghastly descriptions of nutmeg’s physical effects.

nut Egg Nog 006

Indeed, the modern world has found more potent flavors (and better psychoactive powders).  Nutmeg has been relegated to grandma’s spice rack and it really only comes out during the holidays as a critical flavor in eggnog, pumpkin pie, mulled wine, and gingerbread.  This is a shame because, in small quantities nutmeg is delicious in savory dishes (like my pot pie and my favorite lasagna).  The flavor has a strange power—an intoxicating deliciousness which invades the brain and gives nutmeg dishes an irresistible quality. Believe me, because as I finish writing this, I am also finishing off that addictive pot pie (and I believe I am also starting to feel more chipper)…

My chicken pot pie (with some portions missing)

My chicken pot pie (with some portions missing)

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