Rice Pudding for #AdventBotany

By Jana Vamosi and Sarah Walshaw



Rice inflorescence “Oryza sativa at Kadavoor” © 2009 Jeevan Jose, Kerala, India, used here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License

Rice is the seed of the grass species Oryza sativa (Asian rice) or Oryza glaberrima (African rice)

Although we have evidence of rice being domesticated by 10,000 years ago in China, and Asian rice being introduced to Iberia by 1,000 years ago, rice pudding was not a Christmas tradition in Denmark until after WWII, when rice became increasingly popular.

African rice was independently domesticated by 3,000 years ago in West Africa and formed an important component of the agriculture along rivers, deltas, and swamplands from Senegal to Nigeria. It is thought that West African rice varieties and cultivation methods were brought by enslaved Africans on the journey to the New World– with some reports of women hiding seeds in clothing or hair!

Risalamande is what the Danish call rice pudding, which is rice, boiled with milk, mixed with whipped cream, vanilla, and chopped almonds. It is usually served cold with a cherry sauce (kirsebærsauce) but in Canada it is common to replace the cherry sauce with homemade strawberry sauce. Many rice pudding recipes call for the short-grained varieties, including pearl rice called “pudding rice” by the English, although Italian recipes used arborio rice (better known as the base of risotto); however the long-grain basmati rice is a tolerable substitute.

It’s delicious but the fun is heightened by the fact that a single whole almond is added to the dessert, and the person who finds it wins a prize (such as marzipan). Often shenanigans will result, as whomever (you know who you are!) had been lucky enough to find the whole almond in their dish would tuck it in the side of their mouth and not tell anyone until the entire bowl of risalamande had been consumed.


Nisse in their natural habitat. The one at the top left is clearly plotting something.

Offering rice pudding extends to the guardians of the household as well. In Denmark, farms are considered watched over by mischievous elves or nisser, and every productive farm should have a benevolent “nisse” (pronounced nissa; see figure). In Danish lore, to keep Nisse happy, you must give them some rice pudding or porridge every Christmas or they will put a hex on you. Generally they are well mannered as long as you behave properly but they get a real hankering for rice products at Christmas. Rice pudding with sugar, cinnamon and butter (risengrød) is apparently their favourite. As you can clearly see, they are a tough lot and not to be trifled with.

(This post is part of a series exploring plants that are part of December  festivities. Check out more at: http://blogs.reading.ac.uk/crg/about/advent-botany-2015/ )


Mead, virtual blueberries, and pollinators

A diverse diet isn’t just important for human nutrition, but for other species as well. The vast majority of animal species are at their best when they eat a variety of species. And keeping some animal species in peak health is essential for human health and welfare…like pollinators, for instance.

Bees bring diversity to your diet

Bees need diversity in their diet

A great number of our favourite fruits and vegetables require animal pollinators, especially bees, leaving us with startling images of what the grocery store would like if we lost all the animal-pollinated species. Not good!

Your food choices are more diverse with bees. From http://westernfarmpress.com/orchard-crops/what-grocery-store-without-honey-bees-looks

Your food choices are more diverse with bees. Help them help you! From http://westernfarmpress.com/orchard-crops/what-grocery-store-without-honey-bees-looks

So what should you do? Managed bees and crops depend on the general state of the environment. Ergo, what you do on your property does, in some small part, matter to our food supply. You can provide a wealth of good pollinator native food sources in your garden. My personal favourites are raspberries, thyme, and cilantro, etc.

Raspberries. Not pretty perhaps but  so popular with pollinators.

Raspberries. Not pretty perhaps but so popular with pollinators.

You wouldn’t think it to look at it but my cilantro is awful popular with the pollinators too.

Cilantro, planted next to the tomatoes, natch. Salsa ingredients ready by the end of July.

Cilantro, planted next to the tomatoes, natch. Salsa ingredients ready by the end of July.

But why does it matter? Think of setting out a dinner party. You rarely set out the finest in potato products and expound upon the potato chips and then the French fries and then the mashed potatoes. No, no, no. You toss it up, let the flavour co-mingle. If you’re me, you buy something a little unusual like starfruit or lychee or algae and regale your guests with tales of their evolutionary history (perhaps make them construct a phylogenetic tree from the fruit salad offerings before they are allowed to eat).

7 yr old submits her phylogenetic hypotheses of her food before eating.  Atta girl, not bad.

7 yr old submits her phylogenetic hypotheses of her food before eating. Atta girl, not bad.

But honeybees are often left to make do on the bland diet provided by monocultures  – miles and miles of one crop. Add this to the suite of pesticides applied, and this all contributes to stress on the hive and declines in honeybees. One of the reasons many beekeepers apply so many pesticides is that it is a cheaper option than sustainable farming practices. You can make the plight of the beekeeper easier by buying their products – honey and mead, for instance. Using honey as opposed to sugar from sugarcane has some additional environmental benefits. There are some great recipes that give good instructions for how to substitute honey for sugar.

Mead is a drink that is starting to gain a resurgence in popularity. It’s wine made from fermenting honey and it has a number of different variants. I had the pleasure of joining in on a little film about honeybees and mead earlier this spring with Salt, Fresh, and Field and the Chinook Arch Meadery and got to try melomel and metheglin. Definitely worth a try!

Chinook Arch Meadery has produced some award winning meads. I think the Melomel was my favorite.

Chinook Arch Meadery has produced some award winning meads. I think the Melomel was my favorite.

But native bees do their share of pollinating our food supply as well and they are also suffering declines in numbers and diversity. In fact, some species in our food supply, like blueberries and tomatoes, are not pollinated well by honeybees at all.

Tomato flowers. The yellow tip is where the buzz pollinator has to buzz to make a good tomato

Tomato flowers. The yellow tip is where the buzz pollinator has to buzz to make a good tomato

They require pollinators that can buzz at a certain frequency, like bumblebees. And while fallow habitats may appear useless, they are critical in supporting our food supply because they provide nesting habitat as well as diet diversity for these wild pollinators. To demonstrate this I came up with the idea for a video game that illustrates the concepts of functional diversity. The people at Mozilla Science Lab and UCalgary’s Biological Modeling and Visualization group (namely Przemyslaw Prusinkiewicz, Cory Bloor, Andrew Owens, Jeremy Hart and the affiliated Chrissi Klassen) to make http://www.diversibee.org/. I’m so grateful for their mad skillz. Give it a whirl and see if you can design a sustainable profitable blueberry farm!

Diversibee Game! Test your skills at designing a sustainable farm with maximum profit

Diversibee Game! Test your skills at designing a sustainable farm with maximum profit

Ancient greens

Hello again, it’s been awhile.

I stumbled over how to continue this blog. I felt it needed a better grounding in scientific principles but I didn’t want to sacrifice the fun my kids and I were having with making “masterpieces” in the kitchen, complete with idle tales of the life of plants.

I decided that we should do a tour through plant biodiversity. When I teach courses in plant biodiversity we start with blue-green algae, a group of bacteria that are able to harvest sunlight and turn it into sugars…and then turn sugars into a bunch other things like protein and complex carbohydrates.

Blue-green algae are not actually algae at all and are rightly named cyanobacteria. They share a closer relationship with E. coli than they do most of the plants you’re familiar with but some whopping primordial cell engulfed a wee little cyanobacteria like a greedy pacman way back about 2 billion years ago. This colossal event leaves us with the somewhat confusing picture of two entirely distantly related groups having the similar trait of being green and “plant like”.

You may have heard of cyanobacteria if you’re a smoothie enthusiast. Smoothie outposts will be happy to put a scoop of spirulina in your drink, claiming GIGANTIC health benefits.

It’s not inaccurate really. They host a great deal of amino acids and valuable fatty acids. There is some research to suggest that it may harbour important bioactive compounds for immune function that would be worth further study.

While they are not algae they truly are a vibrant blue-green. This verdant colouration is what really piqued my interest. That, and this recipe at Spirulina Academy for Spirulina Tapenade

To summarize – 1/2 can olives, 1 clove garlic, 5 basil leaves, 1 tsp salt (it calls for himalayan salt). I was a little short on himalayan salt so substituted table salt :). 2 tbsp capers, 1/2 lime juice, 3 tbsp olive oil, 1 tbsp spirulina powder. Place everything in a blender. Blend until paste. Spread on crackers and garnish with pimento.

Nice, I say. Low on the equipment and fairly simple on the ingredients. I march to store and outfit us for this adventure.

The gear

The gear

The kids are wise to my tricks now. Oldest (11), rolls eyes. The youngest (7) can still be recruited. Ah, parenthood. The days are long but the years are short.

My youngest looks at the ingredients in jars and cans and asks a good question: “Why do you write about this stuff?”.

Valid. She’s sharp. I explain that the food doesn’t represent where it comes from when it is only shown in pretty jars. It appears sterile, like it was made in a lab when in fact its origin is more like this:

Capers in the field

Capers in the field

And that I think the dirt is important. I think the weeds are important. I think valuing the reality of food is important, including the fun incorporated in a 7-yr old using a blender.

She’s satisfied. She gets to use the blender after all. So we get to work.

We’re at the garlic stage here and I ask my little sous-chef, “Okay, what are we adding here?”, convinced she’ll get it right, daughter of a botanist.

Garlic (fyi)

Garlic (fyi)

“Onion!” she replies proudly. OMG, child. Well, correct genus I guess. We move on from this awkward moment.

My daughter cannot stop eating the capers. She loves them. Capers are a cute food. As a child I thought they were mini-olives but in university I learned that they are more closely related to broccoli. Quite adorable little nubs and rather tasty. The heavy basil in this recipe hurts none either.

We put in the spirulina…

This is a re-enactment. Note blue-green colour already in blender.

This is a re-enactment. Note blue-green colour already in blender.

blend as instructed…and produce a substance….


That looks remarkably like meconium…

Yes, meconium. I will spare you the link but suffice it to say that it is one of the treasures of the first few days of human life [if you are not a parent and do not plan to ever become one, please do not read this section. It will only disturb you]

I mention this unfortunate resemblance to my husband (not the children who proceed to gobble it up and merely mention that it is perfect St. Patrick’s Day food).

My husband’s reaction is that perfect blend of horrified and nostalgic that I was hoping for. We are whisked back in time to the primordial days of our own kids. Goddamn but the first few days of parenthood are a trip. I make a mental note to bring this to my next baby shower. It will be my civic duty to prepare the expectant parents. Let’s face it, peeps. Newborns are a scary joy with you wondering whether the next moment is going to offer some new form of putrescence or profound peace. It’s 50-50 at any point in time.

But, I digress. I’m happy to say that with respect to this appetizer, we salvaged our minds from our macabre reminiscences with a slab of pimento.



Now it looks like Christmas, all forest green and bright red! Yay for pimento! Saviour of all things dark green. One has to wonder whether such garnishes have altered our perception of more unsavoury remembrances for generations.

No glacial timeframes needed to see this dish disappear. This little cracker dish is a hit and is consumed before I get it on a proper plate.

Living off the land in the city…questionable tips for the zombie apocalypse

Springtime is upon us and the garden is finally getting going. I live in a cold climate so it takes awhile for spring to come around. By this time I’m going a little crazy trying to put things I’ve grown into our meals. While some herbs are ready to eat, it’s still pretty slim pickings.

Suffice it say that those in Northern climates should all hope that a zombie apocalypse does not occur earlier than peak-harvest season. I’ve watched Walking Dead so I know these things can happen suddenly and without warning. Fending off zombies is certainly a concern, but there is also the daily challenge of keeping your mortal vessel intact and healthy. No easy task. What can you eat when you can’t go to the supermarket? Well, let’s assume you raid the suburban landscape first. Two easily recognized edibles at this time of year are going to be rhubarb and dandelions. You’re welcome.

Let’s start with rhubarb first. A good number of people find rhubarb too tart to make much use of. Well, suck it up, there are zombies! If you grew up in a place with rhubarb, you were probably told repeatedly not to eat the leaves. They are indeed poisonous if ingested in high quantities due to oxalic acid.

Rhubarb! You might have this tart treat growing in your back  alley.

Rhubarb! You might have this tart treat growing in your back alley.

Symptoms of Oxalic Acid Poisoning:

  “ one might experience weakness, burning in the mouth, death from cardiovascular collapse; on the respiratory system – difficulty breathing; on the eyes, ears, nose, and throat – burning in the throat; one the gastrointestinal system – abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea; and on the nervous system – Convulsions, coma.”

If you experience these symptoms, please stop eating the rhubarb. Clearly you have had quite enough. But on the plus side, oxalic acid can clean your motor or your stained wood (…no, that wasn’t a euphemism). Check it out here if you don’t believe me.

In all seriousness, oxalic acid is a product found in spinach, kale, parsley, beets and a long list of things that you probably eat regularly. Safe to say, you don’t have to be overly alarmed at ingesting a bit of oxalic acid. Still, if you’re ever curious regarding the edibility of a plant species you can consult Plants for a Future database.

Of course, rhubarb is great in pie or a sauce with vanilla ice cream. But those desserts might not be top priority during a zombie apocalypse. I had heard that rhubarb was good in savoury dishes, including accompanying meats, such as pork and chicken. I figure it will bring a sweet-and-sour flavour, which I’m really quite a fan of. I find this simple recipe online and I’m a go. It even calls for parsley and thyme, which are the only two things I have thriving in the garden.

Side dish? Oh, there’s dandelions! Aside from the issue that *someone* seems to be providing lawn maintenance during the zombie apocalypses in TV depictions, I think it’s safe to say that during a real zombie apocalypse we can expect some pretty solid dandelion harvesting.


No shortage of them on my property sans zombies. I’ve been keeping our lawn au natural for years and just digging them out by hand so I figure mine are fairly free of pollutants. I’ve developed the nifty trick of paying my kids $5 to get of all my dandelions. With the bonus that I will show them how to cook them so they are prepared in the event of a zombie apocalypse. Is that not totally fun? NO? Well, they needed a break from their electronic devices in any case.

Dandelions. All the goodness of lettuce with half the taste!

Dandelions. All the goodness of lettuce with half the taste!

I’ll say this…the kids enjoy the harvesting and they’re quite interested to learn that things they’ve been walking by every day are edible in the same way as what they find in the grocery store. I think that’s rather splendid. I launch into diatribes about how rhubarb is in the same family as buckwheat and dandelions are in the same family as sunflowers, lettuce, and artichokes. But other than a few bland, polite smiles, these facts do not appear to amuse them. Cutting things and digging things does and I leave them to it.

Our rhubarb harvest!

Our rhubarb harvest!

Dandelion has glycosides together with other alkaloids, terpenoids, etc. Of course even you’re daintiest abrosia is going to have a slew of things that sound nasty if you’re going to go about labelling them like that. You can call sugar dihydroxy-2,5-bis(hydroxymethyl)oxolan-2-yl oxy-6-(hydroxymethyl)oxane-3,4,5-triol, if you’re determined to make it downright toxic.

More intriguing, however, is that Asteraceae, of which dandelions are card-carrying members, has some rather unique chemical properties,

 “Even common garden lettuce contains alkaloids that are comparable to opium alkaloids; and the sap of wild lettuces has long been used, as opiates are to this day, to ease severe pain.”

Say what?

Well, who can’t use an opiate now and then I say*. I mean, if this zombie apocalypse food, these little tidbits can come in handy.

  • *Disclaimer: I’m freaking kidding. Most lettuce species produce lactucarium, which shouldn’t be used for the purposes of intoxication. It only provides mild sensation of euphoria so it’s hardly worth the bother. Whatever gets you eating salads I guess.

Chemicals aside, I was still 99.9% sure I wasn’t poisoning the family with this brew (or making them high) with the numerous reports of edibility in this species. However, it often reported how bitter they are and my nibble of a raw leaf tells me they’re not kidding. I find this recipe that seems like it has ample masking agents.

Soaking the dandelions in salt water to remove the bitterness. mmmm...doesn't that look  good? No, it really doesn't.

Soaking the dandelions in salt water to remove the bitterness. mmmm…doesn’t that look good? No, it really doesn’t.

The rhubarb chicken recipe was actually okaaayy…I would suggest for next time less rhubarb…as in cut it to zero.

Rhubarb chicken...needs...less rhubarb I think

Rhubarb chicken…needs…less rhubarb I think

It wasn’t bad…it’s just that the tanginess of the rhubarb didn’t seem to bring anything to the taste table. There was no happy mingling of flavours. But the chicken was tender.

The dandelions?…ahem, generally I’m a backer of eating local and seeing the value of our backyard biodiversity…but I’ll be waiting for the zombie apocalypse before I’m making dandelions a big part of my diet.

The reviews from the kids:

“Yucky!” from the six-year old.

“Dandelion greens a no-go and the chicken quite tart” from the 11-year old.

In short, this was pretty much a fail. Considering the Western diet doesn’t incorporate a lot of Polygonaceae, it was a dish that brought considerable diversity to the table. Of questionable merit in this case, I’ll concede…

Lots of diversity in this dinner...too bad it tastes awful!

Lots of diversity in this dinner…too bad it tastes awful!

As you can see, things are going to start looking pretty bleak for the few survivors when the zombies come. I’m a biodiversity scientist and clearly not a chef! I can tell you what’s edible but it will be up to the capable pros like Happiness by the Acre and Galloway Wild Foods to make things tasty. When the zombies come, stay close to them.





A Tale of Three Tomatoes

The tale of three tomatoes is epic. One of suspense, romance and intrigue. But I must digress first to tell you how I did cook something. Moussaka.

My choice for going the Moussaka route was two-fold. The first reason is that the last time I cooked an eggplant dish I bought an extra eggplant and it was languishing in the fridge. The second reason is that I tried moussaka once in a Greek restaurant and I really liked it. I didn’t realize that moussaka is the half-marathon of the culinary arts.

There is a lot of variation in moussaka recipes. I know this because I googled moussaka recipes and all of them seem to involve cooking the potatoes and eggplants before cooking them yet again in the casserole dish. Cooking twice? Really? I felt sure that I had stumbled upon a string of sadistic freaks and continued googling recipes for nearly an hour to find a way around what seemed like a cruel and horrible extra step. Yes, I see the irony. It was twice the time it would have taken me to actually do the extra step.

No dice. It seems that is the moussaka way. I ended up making an amalgam recipe through my thorough research however. I suppose it came closest to this one:


4 potatoes

1 large eggplant

some olive oil

3 cloves garlic, crushed

1 large onion, finely chopped

1 lb beef

1/2 teaspoon each ground cinnamon and allspice

2 spoonfuls tomato paste

1/2 cup red wine

400g can Italian chopped tomatoes

healthy sprinkling of dried breadcrumbs

Bechamel Sauce:

½ c. butter

1/2 cup flour

4 c. milk

1/4 teaspoon nutmeg

150g kefalograviera, coarsely grated – yeah, right. Let’s try parmesan

3 egg yolks – I’m not throwing egg whites away  – went with 2 eggs, the whole thing

You can see I’m already getting cocky substituting ingredients. I’m not driving across town to find kefalograviera cheese. I’m just not. I also see no point in throwing away egg whites. Some chicken worked hard to make that.

It turns out that my oven has a broiler! And I know how to use it and I broiled those little eggplant slices after I had salted those little puppies and let them sweat out their little juices and patted them with a little paper towel. I’ve had worse days at the spa than those eggplant slices had that day.

Mollycoddled eggplant. I basted olive oil on these suckers after they had been "brined" for 20 minutes. Lovingly, of course.

Mollycoddled eggplant. I basted olive oil on these suckers after they had been “brined” for 20 minutes. Lovingly, of course.

Now the sauce is worthy of mention. Many recipes called this a béchamel sauce, which gave me quite a thrill. I’m a Downton Abbey fan and I envisioned myself as Daisy fretting about the béchamel and Mrs. Patmore shaking her head http://downtonabbey.wikia.com/wiki/Beryl_Patmore. I hadn’t known what they’ve meant by it, but can now report that it is merely a milk sauce.

my béchamel turned out okay, Mrs Patmore! In fact, because there’s cheese in it I now know that this is actually a Mornay. Take a page, Mrs. Patmore. Watch and learn. I’m just kidding Mrs. Patmore. I apologize for my impertinence.

my béchamel turned out okay, Mrs Patmore! In fact, because there’s cheese in it I now know that this is actually a Mornay. Take a page, Mrs. Patmore. Watch and learn. I’m just kidding Mrs. Patmore. I apologize for my impertinence.

The moussaka was quite good and, despite the rather finicky nature of the dish, I can see myself making it again. As for the diversity in the dish, it does rather well.

moussaka_pd_treeThough really, other than an extra hint of colour coming from the allspice, we’ve hit the same families as last time (Amarylidaceae: onions, garlic; Myrtaceae: allspice; Solanaceae: potatoes, eggplants, tomatoes; Oleaceae: olive oil; Myristicaceae: nutmeg; Lauraceae: cinnamon). Mind you, I’m only marking the plant diversity, not that coming from animal sources, which is admittedly full of nutrients as well.

Now, you have of course noted that Solanaceae was featured 3 times!!! Three members of the nightshade or tomato family….hmmmm…there’s a story brewing there…The Tale of Three Tomatoes.

This story stems from me trying to explain to my kids the idea of why I chart traits on phylogenies and why phylogenetic diversity would matter. Why does it matter if you keep eating the same things over and over as long as they are nutritious? To answer that question, we will take you on a journey…

As I began to recite the story my kids got excited and starting to give me rapidfire feedback. My daughter and her friend started providing illustrations on TuxPaint. My son, disgruntled with their typos (I think they are cute), shook his head and thought the least he could do was provide a proper starting tomato (this boss dude)  Monster_Giant_Tomato

and some backstory. So without further ado:

“Once upon a time, there a population of Arcane Tomatoes (pictured above), the mighty Lycopersicons. They were peace loving but could be fierce warriors if provoked. As time went on, there was an event in their history known as the Great Divide, the circumstances of which are the thing of legend…”

Disclaimer: I hope this goes without saying but this is not scientifically accurate.

Disclaimer: I hope this goes without saying but this is not scientifically accurate.

As time went on, Canadian tomatoes had sex with other Canadian tomatoes, American tomatoes had sex with other American tomatoes, and other Mexican tomatoes had sex with Mexican tomatoes (Crossborder traffic waits were horrendous so all cross border matings ceased). Yes, tomatoes have sex. Lots. These little hedonists are just crazy for it and it’s a wanton bitrophic orgy come springtime. But that is a story for a different time.

Suffice it to say for now that the three tomatoes went their separate ways. My son assures me that each had their specific powers: the Canadian tomato is magical, the American tomato has super strength, and the Mexican tomato has superspeed and dexterity. [I’m not sure what the American tomato is so impatiently waiting for but the artists were sure that it fit with this particular tomato’s personality. I don’t think there is any political commentary attached to this].


Now, you’ll notice that this northward migration has consequences. The Northern two tomatoes started making more Vitamin E to combat the cold (this part has some truth to it, see Tammy Sage’s research) but the Mexican tomato kept pumping out the Vitamin A.

So there you have it. You need Vitamin A and E in your diet. If you are only going to eat two tomatoes, which two would you eat out of these three? Bet you picked a pair that optimized the phylogenetic diversity!

Hmmm…I guess if you just ate two that means that one tomato survives to be the Ruler Supreme. Would it be the one with Magical Powers or the one with Super Strength? …to be continued….

aubergine…’cause that just sounds fancy

So let’s begin. I am a plant biodiversity scientist. One aspect of my research focuses on what plants animals eat. Humans aren’t terribly different from other animals in many respects but our choices in plants are somewhat different because:

1)   we cook plants and this changes their edibility

2)   our choices may reflect price rather than abundance

I became interested in what plants were edible and why they might be abundance or cheap in a supermarket from an academic perspective. But now with 2 kids with typical fussy diets and my own curiosity piqued, it’s become a hobby to expand the plant choices in our diet. Research to date indicates that the more diverse your diet, the more you hit nutritional targets. So it’s not all about just getting 5 servings of fruits and vegetables in your diet. It’s also about making those 5 servings represent a certain level of diversity. And let’s face it, eating just apples and carrots gets a bit boring. Even a non-foodie like me can appreciate that.

Am I good cook? Hell, no. I stink at it. I tend to be lazy, eat whatever is easiest to make my stomach stop grumbling, and whatever will absorb the vast quantities of wine that I pour down my throat at the end of a hard day. And that’s the real purpose of this blog. To get better, more adventurous, and maybe have a laugh along the way.

I have no aversion to fruits and veggies. I actually eat quite healthy. But, I mean, I don’t even bother to peel my carrots. My diet is a bit fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants and I tend to drink my stress away. Oh, did you think this was a nutrition blog? Um, sorry about that. No, not a nutrition blog exactly. But there are nutritional elements I tell you. Or at least I hope so.


3 large red chillies, deseeded and stalks removed, chopped

6 garlic cloves, roughly chopped

knob of fresh ginger, peeled and chopped

2 lemongrass stalks, trimmed and chopped

2 tbsp ground turmeric

1 tsp chilli powder

2-3 aubergines (about 600g/1lb 5oz), quartered lengthways, then halved

1 tbsp olive oil

1 tbsp sugar

6 shallots, finely chopped

1 tbsp Thai fish sauce (nam pla)

400ml can coconut milk

400ml vegetable stock or water

small bunch coriander, roughly chopped, to serve

serve on a bed of rice

This lovely recipe seems like a good place to start. It seems like a botanically diverse dish for sure:

Chillies, aubergines (eggplants) – Solanaceae; Garlic, shallots – Aliaceae; Ginger, Turmeric – Zingiberaceae; Lemongrass, rice, sugar – Poaceae; Olive oil – Oleaceae;  Coconut – Arecaceae; Coriander – Apiaceae. Lots of different flowering plants represented. Gives a gal like me the happies. Awesome!

So I scamper off to the supermarket to get these ingredients, some of which I’ve never cooked with before. First hiccup, nothing labelled “red chillies”

No “red chillies”. Eep. I went for the Habenero (orange ones, centre left). Go big or go home.

But thankfully, they offered a handy chart that allowed me to find something in the mid- to high- range of hotness. What is a Scoville Score, you ask? Good question.

Scoville Scale. Detour #1

Scoville Scale. Detour #1

According to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Scoville_scale, hot peppers are hot because they contain capsaicin oil and a Scoville ranking is how many units of sugar water has to be added to the extract before it isn’t hot anymore. The more sugar water added, the higher the score, the hotter that spicy pepper gonna be. So I went for Habenero, largely on a guess, but the chart was useful for preventing me from buying the ones that were going to make my children cry.

I march home and the kids are pretty excited that mom is in adventure-mode. I realize quickly that the first instruction is to “pulse” the peppers, garlic, lemongrass and ginger. This requires some sort of food processor I presume. I don’t have one. Ever the resourceful one I find this antique mortar and pestle lying about the house and figure I can put the kids to work banging the crap out of these minced ingredients. I even take this as a “country kitchens” photo op. I’m pretty proud of myself at this point.



The kids oblige. They are having fun!

For about 5 minutes. With the lemongrass still in fairly solid large lumps I figure it will have to do and set my 6-year old at putting the turmeric and chili powder on the eggplant slices. Gotta keep ’em happy.


Did she wash her hands? No idea. But these eggplants are about to get the cooties fried off them I figure.

At this point I’m realizing why I don’t cook much. I look around. This is not a quant country kitchen. This is my place. Do not be deceived. This is what it really looks like.

Welcome to the real. We can't all be Martha Stewart.

Welcome to the real. We can’t all be Martha Stewart.

And yet, miracle of miracles, the dish works out! Whole family eats it! Yes!

finishedBut I know what you’re really thinking! Was it diverse? Would it provide a vast array of nutrients? Well, compared to a dish of poutine, very much so. But there were still a lot of the branches in the tree of flowering plants that we left out. Below gives you a quick visual. There are ~300,000 species of flowering plants sorted into roughly 400 families. You wouldn’t want to eat them all, some of them are downright toxic. But we can eat many of them and eating more is better for our bodies and the planet. We can depict all the families as a sort of genealogy, called a phylogeny. There are so many different families they wouldn’t fit on the page but you can curve the family tree into these pretty radial figures. If I highlight where the species belonged in this dish, you can see from how slight the flecks of colours are that we just scratched the surface of plant diversity. Of course, one dish can hardly be expected to cover it all. So it was a good start!

A summary of how the ~415 families of flowering plants are related. This recipe sampled the coloured branches (red: 1x; purple >1x)

A summary of how the ~415 families of flowering plants are related. This recipe sampled the coloured branches (red: 1x; purple >1x)