Wednesday, October 28, 2015

What the heck is that? Sooty blotch

My friend Robair recently commented, "Every time I read your blog, I learn something new about something I'd like to eat."

Not this time, baby.

I should be upfront with the news: Sooty Blotch is not actually an item of produce, though it's fun to imagine asking a vendor for 2 lbs. of it. Nor is "sooty blotch" a vivid insult, though it sounds like an entry in the Urban Dictionary.

Rather, sooty blotch is the first, and probably the last, non-produce entrant in the "What the heck is that?" category.

Sooty blotch is a fungus.

Sooty blotch isn't a tasty fungus like mushrooms or huitlacoche, the Mexican corn fungus that is also known, hilariously, as corn smut. Sooty blotch is the fungus that gives meaning to the term "no spray."

Sooty blotch is associated with wet summers, and can affect other fruit besides apples - pears, grapes and plums are also favorites of the fungus. Farmers can treat their crops with fungicides or simply prune the trees more aggressively during the winter, since better air circulation means better drying in the wet warm weather.   

Seeing unsprayed apples is like seeing one of those "Shocking and Unrecognizable: Stars Without Make-up!" articles that celebrity magazines love to publish. Wow, is that a blemish on Beyonce? You mean it takes work for Katy Perry to look glamorous?

You mean apples would like this without anti-fungal spray?

Listen to Iowa State University's plant pathologists discuss sooty blotch and hear the echoes of feminist deconstructions of the conventions of beauty. As one pathologist noted mournfully, "People know what a good apple looks like. They're used to the Disney World-looking apples."  Another pathologist added, "It's devastating if you're the grower," saddled with apples unfit for the consumer's gaze, suitable "only... for juice and in pies."

I notice that even organic apples sometimes feel the pressure to be beautiful, especially if they're jockeying for attention in a gourmet market.

 Meanwhile the dreaded fungus is by all accounts tasteless and harmless. "Give the skin a good scrubbing if it bothers you," one vendor at the Union Square Greenmarket told me. "Or scrape it off with your nail. That is, if it bothers you." He was right - there was no taste difference, and some of the discoloration did come off on my cloth when I gave a few wipes.

Learning about sooty blotch has made me a bit more accepting of apples' cosmetic imperfections. At the same time, it has also made me aware of the hard work - and probable chemical intervention - that goes into making an apple look naturally perfect.

Today I bought a perfect-looking apple. But lovely on the outside did not guarantee perfection on the inside. Nature often surprises.

 Hmmm...could this become a selling point?

Ya gotta have a gimmick!

Friday, October 23, 2015

Save the seeds

When I recently served my father-in-law some dragon fruit, he said the same thing he always says when I serve him a new and intriguing fruit, especially a fruit whose seeds are prominent or themselves intriguing:

"You should save the seeds. If I still had a garden, that's what I would do. Plant them and see what happens."

Well, I am nowhere near the accomplished gardener he is, but I am finally taking his advice. 

I'm not ambitious enough to attempt to raise dragon fruit, a heat-lover native to Southeast Asia, but his words inspired me to direct my attention to my herb garden.

This year's crop included basil, dill, cilantro, oregano, parsley and chives. The oregano, parsley and chives are still going strong; the dill and basil are a mix of viable plants and stalks with dried leaves and seed heads; and the cilantro has entirely gone to seed.

Time to harvest!

First, the dill. I enjoy the dill in its "firework" stage, when I use the leaves and pretty yellow seed head in pickles and salads, but that doesn't mean the party's 
over when the fireworks subside.

  There's still some utility in the pale, dried-out skeleton.

 I chopped off the dill heads, and then gave them a good shake.

What can you do with the ensuing bounty?

Dill seed was actually a mainstay spice in my rather spice-deprived home. My mother, who has an extraordinarily keen sense of smell, used salt and pepper very sparingly and adventured to the use of garlic only after a late-adulthood trip to Italy. But she used dill seed very frequently in soups. You can also use dill seed in pickles, salads and anywhere you might use caraway seeds - in rye breads or dishes like sauerkraut or braised red cabbage. 

Next was the cilantro, which mysteriously crosses over and becomes "coriander" when I think of the seeds rather than the leaves and stems. Oh, you're supposed to use those terms. 

We use coriander seeds all the time when cooking Indian dishes. But maybe I don't have to buy the seeds in bulk, when I have a coriander-seed-tree right at home?

Once again, it's snip and shake.

If shaking doesn't do the trick, give each little seed a pinch off the branch.

My husband suggested a freshness taste test, but I couldn't really tell the difference between the purchased and the homegrown, other than the bits of tiny debris in the homegrown.

Finally, the basil seed.

Unlike the dill and coriander seeds, basil seeds aren't a mainstream grocery spice rack item. I had grown the basil from seed, and I mainly intended to save the basil seeds for next year's planting.

But a brief google search revealed the limits of my imagination.  

Thai basil seed ice cream!

Trendy salad ingredient! ("Inexplicably, the chefs also spurted a gray dribble of soaked basil seeds on the plate,"wrote the less-than-thrilled New York Times restaurant critic.) 

Tapioca pearl alternative, perfect for bubble teas, smoothies, and other beverages! 

Weight loss aid! (A skeptical comment from the Livestrong website: "Basil seeds, also called tukmaria seeds, are touted as a weight-loss aid because of their ability to swell in water and, therefore, improve satiety. While there's no harm in including basil seeds as part of a healthy weight-loss diet, no studies support these claims.")

Medicinal powerhouse, fighting respiratory, digestive and skin ailments!

Once again, the basic method of harvest was snip and shake. The basil seed heads were stickier than the others, so I pushed the whole mess through a sieve to get my seed yield.

Since most uses mentioned basil seeds' ability to become gelatinous tadpoles with soaking, I decided to soak the seeds and try them out. (No, the photo below is not a grubbier version of the dragon fruit photo at the start of this blog post.)

The resulting concoction was as gelatinous and tasteless as promised. What the heck, if you're in the habit of adding chia seeds for a nutrition boost to your smoothie, I suppose you could try this alternative. I'm going to save the basil seeds for the more mundane task of planting next year's crop.

But this whole exercise has changed my perspective. I'm looking at all of this year's crops with next year's in mind.

Cherry tomato seeds, anyone?

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Apple picking in friends' backyard

Apples! The pride of the Union Square Greenmarket, where you can buy over 60 varieties (and counting).

But what the heck are they doing growing in my friends' backyard?

I surprised myself by acting like an urban hayseed. It's not like I don't grow produce myself. I covet the sour cherry tree on 19th Street near 2nd Avenue! And I fondly recall the crab apple trees that were common in my childhood home in Queens. But I betray my urban sensibilities when I encounter real apple trees in a backyard, full of fruit ripe for the picking.

My friends Joan and Frank have a house in Stony Brook, a college town on Long Island. They planted two apple trees in honor of their young grandsons, Tyler and Cameron.

Joan and Frank described the apple trees as McIntosh and Red Delicious, probably the two most popular varieties in New York. The McIntosh tree, bearing round red fruit, was indeed a McIntosh, but I had my doubts about the Red Delicious. "They're not ripe yet," Joan said of the still-green fruit. But they looked full-sized and ripe to me, despite its green color.

Feeling curious, I picked one of the green apples - you can do that with a tree in your backyard - examined it. The apple looked like it was as big as it was going to be; all of the apples on the tree did. I washed the mystery apple and cut it up. This was not a Red Delicious at all, but rather some variety of green, semi-tart apple. 

I reviewed the inventory of greenish apples I had in my head. Too small and tart for Mutsu. Too sweet for Rhode Island Greening. Didn't really look nor taste like Granny Smith. What was this apple?

I took a couple of apples, thinking I would ask one of the Union Square apple farmers. I ended up eating them instead. That happens a lot with fruit and me.
So I described the green apples to some farmers, and we played the "Who Am I?" game. The most compelling guesses were two heirloom varieties I had never heard of: Briggs Auburn, a variety so obscure it doesn't even get a mention on the comprehensive fruit fetish site Orange Pippin, and Chehalis. Could this simple Red Delicious apple tree really be an obscure heirloom variety instead? Apple trees grown from seed can cross-pollinate to become a different variety than expected. Maybe that's what happened here.

I decided not to get too hung up on the green apple's mysterious identity, which left plenty of room to mull over the pleasure of having an apple tree in the first place. There were apples to eat and apples to squish and throw into the brook behind the house.

There were apples to observe as science experiments, as in this one, Bugs Like Apples.

And of course humans, ants and worms aren't the only animals to admire apple trees. Deer and rabbits love them too, as Joan noted ruefully. But there is enough to share, and enough to continue to engage Tyler and Cameron for years to come - hanging out in the shade of the trees, playing with the fruit, and sustained by its flavor and nutrition.