July 16, 2013
Lettuce has been harvested for millenia—it was depicted by ancient Egyptians on the walls of tombs dating back to at least 2,700 B.C. The earliest version of the greens resembled two modern lettuces: romaine, from the French word “romaine” (from Rome), and cos lettuce, believed to have been found on the island of Kos, located along the coast of modern day Turkey.
But in Ancient Egypt around 2,000 B.C., lettuce was not a popular appetizer, it was an aphrodisiac, a phallic symbol that represented the celebrated food of the Egyptian god of fertility, Min. (It is unclear whether the lettuce’s development in Egypt predates its appearance on the island of Kos.) The god, often pictured with an erect penis in wall paintings and reliefs was also known as the “great of love” as he is called in a text from Edfu Temple. The plant was believed to help the god “perform the sexual act untiringly.”
Salima Ikram, Professor of Egyptology at the American University in Cairo who specializes in Ancient Egyptian food explains Min’s part in lettuce history. “Over 3,000 years, [Min's] role did change, but he was constantly associated with lettuce,” she says.
The first of these depictions appeared around 1970-80 B.C. in the The White Chapel of Senusret I, though there may be earlier examples, Ikram says.
This relief, from the funerary temple of Ramses III at Medinet Habu, for example, depicts Min’s harvest festival. At the center is a statue of Min. Behind him, a procession of priests holds a small garden of lettuce. Min is also sometimes depicted wearing a long, red ribbon around his forehead that some say represents sexual energy.
“One of the reasons why [the Egyptians] associated the lettuce with Min was because it grows straight and tall—an obvious phallic symbol,” Ikram says. “But if you broke off a leaf it oozed a sort of white-ish, milky substance—basically it looked like semen.”
When the butt of modern Romaine lettuce is cut off, a similar substance oozes from the plant and gives it a bitter flavor. Lettuce’s scientific classification lactuca sativa, is derived from the Latin word for milk and shares the same root as lactose, the sugar
enzyme found in dairy products. (Ed. — corrected thanks to feedback from reader joelfinkle) (While we’re talking etymology, raw lettuce dishes known as herba salata (“salted greens”) gave rise to the English word “salad.”) Jane Grigson’s Vegetable Book provides further options for what the lettuce milk of the “ithyphallic god of increase” may represent:
Lettuce was sacred to him because of the “straight vertical surge” of their growth, milky juice they exude which could be taken as a symbol of mothers milk or semen.
Ancient Egyptians used the lettuce differently than those who would come later. The leaves had a greenish blue color and were often removed from the plant due to their bitter taste. Instead of being part of a meal, the seeds from the bud of the flowers were harvested and pressed for their natural oils which were used for cooking, medication—even mummification. Lettuce oil was a standard in the Egyptian materia medica and even today is used as a traditional remedy for hair regrowth.
The Greeks and Romans later popularized the leafy veggie as an appetizer during the 81-96 A.D. reign of Domitian. When they first introduced a set order of courses, the meal included a salad at the beginning to stimulate the appetite and also at the end to encourage digestion, according to author Gil Marks. It was still considered a medicinal goldmine by the Greeks and Romans, but for a different reason than the Egyptians—they believed it helped people sleep. Under Domitian’s reign, as the story goes, the ruler would force his guests to eat lettuce before the meal so as to make them struggle to remain awake for the remainder of the visit.
Another interesting lettuce-related story in Ancient Egypt, not for the faint-of-stomach: In Egyptian history there are many battles between the Egyptian deity Horus and Set, the god of the desert. Though the argument was usually over which of the two had the rightful claim to rule Egypt, one rather odd battle involves lettuce. According to Papyrus Chester-Beatty I, as interpreted by Ikram, Set at one point tries to overpower Horus by seducing him and then having intercourse with him. Horus places his hand between his legs, catches Set’s semen and throws it into the river. “Horus [then] tricks Set by basically spurting his sperm and throwing it into a lettuce plant, ” Ikram says. Because Set eats the semen-covered lettuce, in the eyes of the gods, Horus was dominant—at least until the next battle.
June 18, 2013
In the late 1700s, a large percentage of Europeans feared the tomato.
A nickname for the fruit was the “poison apple” because it was thought that aristocrats got sick and died after eating them, but the truth of the matter was that wealthy Europeans used pewter plates, which were high in lead content. Because tomatoes are so high in acidity, when placed on this particular tableware, the fruit would leach lead from the plate, resulting in many deaths from lead poisoning. No one made this connection between plate and poison at the time; the tomato was picked as the culprit.
Around 1880, with the invention of the pizza in Naples, the tomato grew widespread in popularity in Europe. But there’s a little more to the story behind the misunderstood fruit’s stint of unpopularity in England and America, as Andrew F. Smith details in his The Tomato in America: Early History, Culture, and Cookery. The tomato didn’t get blamed just for what was really lead poisoning. Before the fruit made its way to the table in North America, it was classified as a deadly nightshade, a poisonous family of Solanaceae plants that contain toxins called tropane alkaloids.
One of the earliest-known European references to the food was made by the Italian herbalist, Pietro Andrae Matthioli, who first classified the “golden apple” as a nightshade and a mandrake—a category of food known as an aphrodisiac. The mandrake has a history that dates back to the Old Testament; it is referenced twice as the Hebrew word dudaim, which roughly translates to “love apple.” (In Genesis, the mandrake is used as a love potion). Matthioli’s classification of the tomato as a mandrake had later ramifications. Like similar fruits and vegetables in the solanaceae family—the eggplant for example, the tomato garnered a shady reputation for being both poisonous and a source of temptation. (Editor’s note: This sentence has been edited to clarify that it was the mandrake, not the tomato, that is believed to have been referenced in the Old Testament)
But what really did the tomato in, according to Smith’s research, was John Gerard’s publication of Herball in 1597 which drew heavily from the agricultural works of Dodoens and l’Ecluse (1553). According to Smith, most of the information (which was inaccurate to begin with) was plagiarized by Gerard, a barber-surgeon who misspelled words like Lycoperticum in the collection’s rushed final product. Smith quotes Gerard:
Gerard considered ‘the whole plant’ to be ‘of ranke and stinking savour.’… The fruit was corrupt which he left to every man’s censure. While the leaves and stalk of the tomato plant are toxic, the fruit is not.
Gerard’s opinion of the tomato, though based on a fallacy, prevailed in Britain and in the British North American colonies for over 200 years.
Around this time it was also believed that tomatoes were best eaten in hotter countries, like the fruit’s place of origin in Mesoamerica. The tomato was eaten by the Aztecs as early as 700 AD and called the “tomatl,” (its name in Nahuatl), and wasn’t grown in Britain until the 1590s. In the early 16th century, Spanish conquistadors returning from expeditions in Mexico and other parts of Mesoamerica were thought to have first introduced the seeds to southern Europe. Some researchers credit Cortez with bringing the seeds to Europe in 1519 for ornamental purposes. Up until the late 1800s in cooler climates, tomatoes were solely grown for ornamental purposes in gardens rather than for eating. Smith continues:
John Parkinson the apothecary to King James I and botanist for King Charles I, procalimed that while love apples were eaten by the people in the hot countries to ‘coole and quench the heate and thirst of the hot stomaches,” British gardeners grew them only for curiousity and fo the beauty of the fruit.
The first known reference to tomato in the British North American Colonies was published in herbalist William Salmon’s Botanologia printed in 1710 which places the tomato in the Carolinas. The tomato became an acceptable edible fruit in many regions, but the United States of America weren’t as united in the 18th and early 19th century. Word of the tomato spread slowly along with plenty of myths and questions from farmers. Many knew how to grow them, but not how to cook the food.
By 1822, hundreds of tomato recipes appeared in local periodicals and newspapers, but fears and rumors of the plant’s potential poison lingered. By the 1830s when the love apple was cultivated in New York, a new concern emerged. The Green Tomato Worm, measuring three to four inches in length with a horn sticking out of its back, began taking over tomato patches across the state. According to The Illustrated Annual Register of Rural Affairs and Cultivator Almanac (1867) edited by J.J. Thomas, it was believed that a mere brush with such a worm could result in death. The description is chilling:
The tomato in all of our gardens is infested with a very large thick-bodied green worm, with oblique white sterols along its sides, and a curved thorn-like horn at the end of its back.
According to Smith’s research, even Ralph Waldo Emerson feared the presence of the tomato-loving worms: They were “an object of much terror, it being currently regarded as poisonous and imparting a poisonous quality to the fruit if it should chance to crawl upon it.”
Around the same time period, a man by the name of Dr. Fuller in New York was quoted in The Syracuse Standard, saying he had found a five-inch tomato worm in his garden. He captured the worm in a bottle and said it was “poisonous as a rattlesnake” when it would throw spittle at its prey. According to Fuller’s account, once the skin came into contact with the spittle, it swelled immediately. A few hours later, the victim would seize up and die. It was a “new enemy to human existence,” he said. Luckily, an entomologist by the name of Benjamin Walsh argued that the dreaded tomato worm wouldn’t hurt a flea. Thomas continues:
Now that we have become familiarized with it [the worm] these fears have all vanished, and we have become quite indifferent towards this creature, knowing it to be merely an ugly-looking worm which eats some of the leaves of the tomato…
The fear, it seems, had subsided. With the rise of agricultural societies, farmers began investigating the tomato’s use and experimented with different varieties. According to Smith, back in the 1850s the name tomato was so highly regarded that it was used to sell other plants at market. By 1897, innovator Joseph Campbell figured out that tomatoes keep well when canned and popularized condensed tomato soup.
Today, tomatoes are consumed around the world in countless varieties: heirlooms, romas, cherry tomatoes—to name a few. More than one and a half billion tons of tomatoes are produced commercially every year. In 2009, the United States alone produced 3.32 billion pounds of fresh-market tomatoes. But some of the plant’s night-shady past seems to have followed the tomato in pop culture. In the 1978 musical drama/ comedy “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes,” giant red blobs of the fruit terrorize the country. “The nation is in chaos. Can nothing stop this tomato onslaught?”
June 14, 2013
Under the blazing summer sun, they bulge out of fields of parched dirt, dead grass and lifeless dust, almost like a parable for the spontaneous appearance of Earth’s first life: melons. It’s the season, and the hotter and more miserable the weather gets for the rest of us, the better it often is for these juicy sun-lovers. Some farmers don’t even water their melon vines at all—they call it dry-farming, which supposedly intensifies many fruits’ flavors—and still, football-size creatures with names like Rayann, Sharlyn, Charentais and Santa Claus swell toward ripeness.
Scores of melon varieties — beyond just the honeydew and cantaloupe — are available in the United States, especially from smaller farmers. Some of these are favorite heirlooms born centuries ago and maintained by seed saving; others are more modern creations of scientific breeding programs. Nearly all these melons are great when ripe—but some are better than others.
Here are six of the best melons worth watching for this summer, plus great dishes to make with them:
The Hami is a Chinese variety of muskmelon, elongate, with a distinctive spider web pattern radiating over its yellow-gold hide and bearing very sweet peach-colored flesh. We used a jicama-melon salsa recipe from Yum Scrub Organics, replaced the jicama with fresh tomatoes, added red onion and served with homemade tortillas. The salsa resembled a standard pico de gallo with boosted sweetness thanks to the Hami melon. If you have a taste for the spicy, add paprika.
Sharyln Melon Gazpacho
This melon is the shape of a football with the skin texture of a cantaloupe—but so much better than that ubiquitous Budweiser of melons. A ripe Sharlyn—a variety that originated in the 1400s around Algeria and Italy—is fragrant and musky, and a grocer’s stall piled high with them can fill a shop with the fruits’ natural perfume. The flesh is white to pink, juicy and sweet. The fruity, mild taste finishes with a note of cool, spicy mint that may coax one to say, “What is that taste?”—and to have another investigative bite, and another, and another, and another. Be careful or that $10 melon will be devoured before you even get the jalapeños peeled. That was our experience—we couldn’t stop ourselves—though the food blog Carne Diem seems to have done a knockout job on a Sharlyn Melon Gazpacho. Exercise some self-restraint and give it a try.
Spicy Arugula-Avocado Salad with Sweet Corn and Canary Melon
Yellow-skinned with snow-white flesh and named for its islands of origin off the western African coast, the Canary is a melon superstar. Though fragrant, the fruit is less musky than others of the family (called, interestingly, “muskmelons”) and instead emits a mellower, honey-like fragrance. The soft, sweet flesh calls for contrast, so we thought of a salad spiced with arugula, avocado, smoked paprika and a biting vinaigrette. We followed a recipe from Fresh and Foodie for a watermelon-avocado-arugula salad and replaced the watermelon with Canary melon. To further the summer feel, we added toasted corn kernels.
Greek Yogurt and Crenshaw Melon Soup with Cilantro
The Crenshaw seduced us with its powerful aroma, bright yellow skin and soft feel—but inside, we found it surprisingly similar to a cantaloupe. For many, this will be a virtue, but we decided to give the Crenshaw a real makeover. So we puréed it in a food processor as the first step in a Greek-themed yogurt-melon soup inspired by a recipe from the Healthy Foodie. We substituted cilantro for the suggested mint, added cumin to the blend and drizzled over the juice of a lime. Be sure to use a tart yogurt with high fat content to balance the sweetness of the melon.
Honeydew Melon Curry Over Brown Rice
This lime green melon is nothing unusual. But the juicy, fragrant honeydew melon is popular for a reason: it’s one of the best. Good ones smell sweet and flowery, and especially ripe ones may be identified by a rubbery stickiness over the skin. The softer the better, if you like juicy, and as long as the melon bears no bruises or rotten spots, it should be a winner. The food blog A Stack of Dishes provided a recipe for ceviche with honeydew and jicama about a year ago. Inspired, we took a slightly different direction and made a honeydew-jicama coconut curry, served cold over brown rice. We combined in a serving bowl half a large melon with half a medium-sized jicama, skinned and cubed. In went half a can of coconut milk, a tablespoon of curry powder, a half cup of red onion, a cup of diced basil, salt and pepper. Twenty minutes prep time and it’s done—a perfect cooling dinner for a balmy night.
Piel de Sapo: Au Natural
Finally, since melon season is sometimes too hot for cooking, we decided that if there should be one melon to devour whole—and there definitely should be—it must be the best, and that may be the Piel de Sapo, or “Skin of Toad.” Also called the Santa Claus melon, the Piel de Sapo has a mottled skin like a zucchini’s—or a toad’s, if you have a vivid imagination—and this melon, a favorite in Spain, often produces little to no aroma, making it seem like a gamble to buy. However, only occasionally is it a flavorless dud. More often than not, the Piel de Sapo melon is superb—with flesh juicy, white, just crunchy enough and very sweet. Toward the center of the fruit, the flesh is almost velvety and just about melts at the touch of a spoon. Shove aside the recipe book, grab a knife and dive in. You might also want to wear a bib.
April 30, 2013
In April, most seasonal restaurants tend toward green foods. As the weather shifts, and new crops come to life, plates are decorated with tender young peas, asparagus, green garlic, and spring onions. And now, the green strawberry is joining the ranks.
Picked earlier than their red cousins (and abundant this time of year), green strawberries have been popping up on high-end menus for the last several years. And they show no sign of going out of style any time soon. Evan Rich, chef at the new San Francisco hot spot Rich Table, decided to take the plunge this year after noting the presence of green strawberries on a number of menus he admired. Then the underripe berries made an appearance at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. Yerena Farms, a small organic berry grower based in California’s Monterey County was promoting the unusual item, and selling them to a number of prominent local chefs.
Rich bought several flats of the berries and pickled them using a simple brine of champagne vinegar, sugar and salt. Now he’s serving them with yogurt atop a scallop chip (the result of a process wherein the inventive chef purees, flattens, dehydrates and fries a local scallop).
So far, Rich been pleased with the results — a tart, perfumy flavor that catches diners just a little off-guard. “They have all the qualities of a strawberry without the sweetness,” he says. “They also provide a little hint of the sweet summer fruit to come.”
In cities like Portland, Oregon, where spring goes on a little longer, chefs have been seen pairing green strawberries with things like duck confit and rhubarb well into May. But green strawberries aren’t just for savory dishes. Brooklyn’s hipster pizzeria Roberta’s makes a green strawberries shortcake and at San Francisco’s Perbacco, pastry chef Laura Cronin regularly incorporates this unusual ingredient into her desserts this time of year.
“They have a more acidic flavor than red strawberries. I candy them or toss them in a sugar syrup seasoned with bay leaf and other spices and herbs,” she said recently. “I love the crispness they bring to the dish as well as the kiwi-like flavor they take on when macerated in sugar.”
Cronin’s latest creation? Candy cap mushroom donuts filled with green strawberry compote.
Unless you grow them yourself, finding a regular supply of green strawberries might be tricky for the average consumer. But it’s worth asking the vendors at your local farmers market if they’d considering picking a few flats of the fruit a week or so earlier than planned. Of course, green strawberries probably won’t ever ripen up to peak sweetness, so if you do pick or buy them at this stage, be sure to have a plan on hand for how to use them, like this simple pickling recipe that Yerena Farms has been handing out at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.
For the pickling:
1 part rice wine vinegar
1 part sugar
½ part water
¼ part lime juice
For the flavoring:
Dissolve the sugar into the vinegar with water. Cool completely. Combine strawberries, flavorings, and brine in a mason jar. Refrigerate for 2+ days. Get creative with flavorings. Have a pickle party and pair with cheese!
April 8, 2013
Chia seeds are gaining a reputation as a superfood, joining the ranks of açaí, pomegranate, goji berry and the most recent favorite, quinoa (the United Nations dubbed this year the International Year of Quinoa.) But unlike its health food brethren, which few knew of before they became ubiquitous, the ingredient once enjoyed some unusual success outside the kitchen: it gave life to Chia Pets, ceramic turtles, cows, pigs and other creatures that sprouted plant-hair and sat atop living room tables across America in the 1990s.
Chia, a flowering plant in the mint family known as Salvia hispanica, is native to central and southern Mexico and Guatemala. Domesticated in 2,600 B.C., the seed is said to have been a staple of the Aztec and Mayan diet. The Tarahumara of Mexico, famous for their incredible endurance running, consume a blend of maize and chia seeds while pounding the desert sand.
At just 65 calories per tablespoon, chia seeds are rich in protein, fiber, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids. The seeds transform water into a gooey, gelatin-like mixture one can drink (slowly) straight out of the glass. Their unassuming mild, nutty flavor can disappear into countless different dishes, from pancakes and mashed potatoes to barbecue sauce and Jell-O. Here are five ways to cook with chia seeds that go beyond breading and salad garnishes.
Smoothies. Chia seeds can be ground down into a fine powder in a blender. Now a nearly invisible ingredient, chia powder can be swirled around with countless combinations of fruits, veggies and syrups. This recipe pulverizes the seeds with yogurt, blueberries, mangoes and vanilla extract for a tropical shake, while this one blends them with strawberries and apple juice for a quick breakfast beverage. For a brightly colored shake that tastes better than it looks, combine baby spinach leaves, chunks of kiwi, almond milk and a frozen banana and blend till smooth. Toss a few tablespoons of seeds with peanut butter, frozen bananas, chocolate-flavored coffee creamer, cocoa powder and milk to create a rich dessert smoothie. If the mix is too thick, add milk until it thins out.
Pudding. Some drink chia seeds straight with water, but if the gooeyness minus the flavor is too much for you, try pudding. Fold chia seeds into a mixture of cocoa powder, brown sugar, instant coffee and milk and stick them in the fridge for two hours to create decadent chocolate pudding. Combine the seeds with milk, sugar and vanilla extract and refrigerate overnight for a tapioca-like treat, sprinkling it with shredded coconut. For a breakfast pudding, toss water-soaked cashews with maple syrup, vanilla extract and chia seeds until smooth. Refrigerate eight hours or all night, and or top with dried or fresh fruit.
Breads. When chia seeds absorb water, they create a gelatinous mixture that can replace eggs, oil and butter in baking. In this recipe for pumpkin bread, chia gel takes on the role of butter and oil. Blend it with sugar, eggs and pumpkin puree. In another bowl, sift together flour, cloves, cinnamon, nutmeg, baking soda, baking powder and salt. Stir the pumpkin mixture in gradually, then fold in chopped walnuts for crunchiness. Spread the batter out into a pan and bake for an hour at 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Once it’s transformed into a spongy loaf and cooled, smear with a sweet glaze of cream cheese, powdered sugar, milk and vanilla extract. Swap pumpkin puree for bananas for classic banana bread.
Burgers. For an extra protein kick at the picnic table, use chia seeds in homemade burger patties as a binding agent. Stir them in water to create a thick gel-like mixture. Saute chopped onion with olive oil in a pan until it begins to caramelize, then add minced garlic. In a bowl, combine them with ground meat, grated carrots, seasonings and the chia seed mixture. Using a large spoon or glove hands, mold the mix into 4-inch patties that are about half an inch thick and freeze them for an hour. Then, toss them on the grill, letting them sizzle for three minutes on each side.
Soups. Water-laden chia seeds can help thicken soup for a hearty comfort meal. For creamy cauliflower soup, boil chopped onion, cauliflower and vegetable stock. Ladle out half of the broth and stir in ground chia seeds. Return the mix to the pot and continue cooking. Garnish the soup with chopped parsley and black pepper, and serve with a crunchy slice of bread.