Why “Natural” isn’t always better: almond extract and cyanide

Right now the various species of Prunus are in flower all over northern California; the ornamental plums that are so popular as sidewalk decor are shedding petals everywhere, apricot blossoms are peeking out from yards, and the almond trees that crop up as renegades from the big orchards near Davis and in the central valley are covered in popcorn-y pinkish white flowers.  With constant reminders of stone fruit everywhere but none actually in season to eat, I’ve been doing a lot of baking with almonds and almond extract.

A sprinkling of wild plum blossoms (Prunus americana) on my way to lab.

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Relishing Radishes

Yesterday we took our dog to his favorite place, the Point Isabelle dog park, where the wild mustard and radishes are in full flower and the ground is currently soft enough to gather roots.  The radishes were so appealingly enormous that we hauled up a handful of them, and brought them home to sample. Since the bay area is liberally strewn with radishes right now, you might want to do the same!

Radish (R. sativus, foreground, large white flowers) and mustard (background, small clustered yellow flowers), growing wild at Point Isabelle. The ripe pointed silique (seed pod) of the radish is visible in the center of the picture.

Radish flowers can be purple, white, pink, or yellow. They grow singly or in small clusters, which is one way to tell yellow radish flowers from the more heavily-clustered flowers of mustard. Another difference is the siliques, which are young and thin on this radish, but still much larger than those of mustard.

Harvesting tips:

-Don’t eat the ones that have started to flower.  The roots will be tough and fibrous.  The root should snap with a nice crunch when you chop or break it.

-look for radishes with one whorl of large leaves (not a whole clump, which signifies an older plant), and take a look at the root underneath before you dig it up.  It should be smooth and white or pink–not woody and dry, although some good roots look dry on top, so peek down under soil level. We found some very nice large radishes with appealing leaves and roots growing under the protection of fennel plants, so that might be a place to start.

Radish greens that are good for eating, from a plant with a nice big healthy taproot.

-wash and scrub them extremely thoroughly when you get them home.  I even peeled them with a carrot peeler.

-break off the long tendril-y root tip.  It’s too fibrous to enjoy.

-If you plan on eating the greens (which are good if you like bitter greens; similar to beet greens), choose evenly-colored leaves, make sure you wash each leaf thoroughly, look for and remove any bad spots, and remove the stems.

The best (and biggest) of the radish greens and roots we collected.

I followed this recipe from food and wine magazine for roasted radishes and greens.  The roots were very good cooked this way–it cut the spicy isothiocyanate flavor, and gave them a nice crisp-tender texture.  The greens were good too, but a whole bowlful of bitter greens turns out to be a bit much for me.  Definitely good side-dish material.

The finished product: roasted radishes and radish greens. Very tasty!

Getting Nettled

One of the most prolifically adaptable plants around has got to be the stinging nettle, which is at home in Europe, Asia, North America and northern Africa.  It’s also one of the most prolifically named: Urtica dioica goes by several other species names that appear to be in a state of constant revision. (Maybe I can get a little help from the taxonomists on this one–is this a case of many plant morphologies with a single genome that people have confused for unique species, or is it a case of many people having something they call “stinging nettle” near them, that’s actually a range of species within the Urtica genus?)

By any alias, the stinging nettle is an interesting mix of benevolent and malicious–an intensely nutritious food plant chock full of iron, calcium, and vitamins A and K (see recipe below)…but guarding its benefits behind an armor of fine stinging spines. Continue reading

Lavender at the lab

If Stanford isn’t running a bustling underground soap and sachet business, it should be.

The grounds near the med school have stands of lavender large enough to comfortably carpet my entire house (ok, granted my house is the size of some people’s bedrooms, but that is not the point.  The point is that there’s a lot of lavender).

A mere sampling of all the lavender that populates our section of campus. It's listed as Lavandula "var," which seems only fair since apparently fighting over Lavandula species and subspecies names is a popular botanical pastime.

This hardworking Mediterranean mountain native is probably most famous for its use in bath oils, soaps, and fragrances (its name, after all, comes from the Latin lavare: “to wash”), but I like it best as a food flavoring—it’s great with chicken (see recipe, below), but also chocolate and other dessert items.

A closer look at the flower spikes

Extra nitty gritty:

The fragrance we associate with lavender in its essential oil comes from several compounds, mainly terpenes, but the biggest single component is probably linalool.  Linalool is made by a diverse array of sweet-smelling plants, including many others of the mint family to which Lavandula belongs.

linalool by any other name woud almost certainly still smell as sweet

Lately, the commercial and therapeutic utility of lavender has driven a more molecular approach to its cultivation, with scientists characterizing the expression levels of genes contributing to the biosysnthesis of linalool and other terpenes.  By studying how Lavandula angustifolia regulates production of its essential oil normally, new cultivars could be developed with greater essential oil output, and even more of a fragrant pop.

Interested in the details?  Here’s the reference:

Lane A, Boecklemann A, Woronuk GN, Sarker L, Mahmoud SS.  A genomics resource for investigating regulation of essential oil production in Lavandula angustifolia. Planta. 2010 Mar;231(4):835-45.

 And you can eat it!

So here’s my favorite lavender recipe, does anyone have a favorite of their own? Post a comment or a link–I’d love more!

Lavender chicken recipe:

4 Boneless Chicken Breasts

3 Tbsp Butter

1 clove garlic, chopped

1 large shallot, chopped

3-4 spikes lavender flowers (plus a few more for garnish)

1/2 cup pinot grigio or sauvignon blanc (we avoid chardonnay for cooking because the oak taste becomes too strong when the wine reduces)

1 tsp. Fines Herbes ( or a mix of marjoram, thyme, rosemary and a bay leaf or two works well)

2 Tbsp honey (clover or wildflower. Don’t use orange blossom; it turns out yucky)

juice of 1/2 lemon

Salt, pepper

Pat the chicken dry and rub with 1-2 Tbsp butter (or olive oil if that’s more your style), then sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Place so they fit fairly snugly in a baking dish.

Saute the garlic and shallot together in the remaining butter just until the shallot turns soft.  Then add wine, lavender, herbs, honey, and lemon juice and bring to a simmer.  Let simmer, stirring occasionally, until slightly reduced—about 5-10 minutes.  Slosh the resulting sauce over the chicken breasts and cook at 375 for 45-50 minutes, basting occasionally toward the end.  If needed, broil 4-5 minutes to brown chicken nicely.

Garnish with lavender and serve with the rest of the wine.  A big chunk of crusty bread is handy for sopping up the extra sauce.

Lavender chicken, my favorite brassicate, fresh-baked bread and a generous glass of sauvignon blanc. Dinner!