I’m still working my way through McGee On Food and Cooking. Honestly, this book is a treasure trove. I’ve ordered my copy and I can’t wait for it to arrive.
At the moment, I’m in the vegetables chapter, which is quite extensive. The first part took me back to Year 9 biology, with drawings of cells that looked faintly familiar, but it quickly moved on to the juicy vegetable gossip. Did you know, for example, that onion is a leaf? It makes sense, now I think about it – each layer in the onion is the coiled base of the leaf that extends up above the ground. If you think about spring onions and leeks, it’s easy to see. And perhaps this explains why one friend of mine is allergic to onions, leeks, spring onions, chives and shallots, but not garlic – which is the one member of the onion family where the leaves are not the edible part. Actually, I’m not sure what the edible part is, plant-wise, but I have a suspicion it’s a stem, not a root. And before you give me odd looks, we eat potato stems too, you know. Apparently tubers are just swollen up stem bits. Yum.
And pectin, apparently, regulates intestines and counteracts diarrhoea, which explains why a friend of mine with Crohns reported that she felt better after eating my pectin jellies. Not a placebo effect, apparently, but one which is well documented (though not in jelly form, I suspect). Apples are also good for this, which might explain why my mother always insisted we eat apples that had been grated and left to brown when we had tummy bugs.
And it was rather fun to look at the carrots I was chopping up at dinner today and note that, ah yes, there are the well-marked storage and vascular layers (which are, incidentally, only in two sections on a carrot, but form in alternate layers in beetroot – which explains why stripey beetroots look the way they do).
Leafy greens, I have learned, are largely full of air pockets, not water as I had thought, which is why they cook down so much. And it turns out that my fixation with using lots and lots of nutmeg in everything is not going to lead to my friends becoming either high or dead – you need to consume the equivalent of 2 nutmegs per person to have any hallucinogenic effects at all, and even I don’t go that far. Incidentally, don’t go out and eat 2 nutmegs, because the lethal dose is very, very close to the interesting hallucinogenic dose, and in between you get horrible cramps and headaches, so it probably isn’t worth it.
It’s kind of fun learning about all the poisons found in common vegetables. Oh, don’t worry too much, though, because we have tended to breed them out of the kinds we use. Mostly. Don’t go eating any apple pips, however, and I’d avoid apricot stones, too, even if you can buy them at the mediterranean food shops. True, bitter almond flavour is nice in apricot jam, but you probably won’t appreciate that when you turn all blue. And I’d stay away from the green potatoes, too. And if you aren’t sure of the provenance of your lima beans, make sure you cook them with the lid off – the heat causes the cyanide to dissipate, which is how you like it, believe me. Keeping the lid on, however, concentrates the cyanide very nicely.
You know, if I were looking for ways to ‘accidentally’ poison people, this book would be quite useful. Though, to be fair, I was aware of most of these possibilities already. (In case you were getting worried, I have no intention of poisoning anyone. In fact, I can’t imagine wanting to kill anyone, but the idea of doing so with food upsets me on an almost visceral level – it’s the ultimate perversion of what food is for. Horrible.)
Moving on from poisons (which are, of course, a form of Vegetable Self Defense, and quite justifiable in this context – it’s not like the potatoes can beat you up if they don’t like what you are doing with the celery), McGee also enjoys pointing out that fruit is basically designed to be eaten as a way of spreading the seed more broadly, and that from the perspective of the vegetable kingdom, humans are the ultimate in seed spreading technology, what with our tendency to carry food across oceans and onto new continents. Perhaps the fruit trees have been bioengineering us all along? (OK, that’s my theory, not McGee’s. But think about it – those apricot trees are cunning blighters, and apples are downright shifty, if you ask me).
You’ll be glad to know that my friends the anthocyanins get a look in, too, though not in as much detail as I, personally, would prefer. Though he does encourage readers to go off and sprinkle some bicarb onto a beetroot or into some cheap red wine, just to see what happens.
All of which leads me to the passage which has been making me giggle at intervals all evening. Readers who found Cross-Dressing Ken’s cake adventures to be a bit racy may want to skip this final section.
You see, McGee explains in some detail what makes vegetables such as lettuce leaves crisp, and why they go limp if you leave them in the fridge. And it’s a very useful, detailed description, but oh, his phrasing….
When a cell reaches its limit in water content, the vacuole swells and presses the cytoplasm against the cell membrane, which in turn presses against the cell wall. The wall is somewhat flexible, and bulges a little to accommodate the swollen cell. The mutual pressure exerted by many cells against each other results in an erect, rigid tissue, or what we would judge a crisp texture. As we bite into the turgid vegetable, we experience an initial resistance and then a burst of juice as the walls rupture. But if the tissue has lost water, the vacuoles have shrunk, the cell membranes have drawn away from the walls, and the vegetable has become limp and flaccid.
I think we can all agree that there’s nothing worse than a flaccid vegetable.
While it’s possible that I am particularly gutter-minded, I would like to respectfully suggest that the word ‘turgid’ is just asking for trouble in this context. Though I have to say, I find it hard to believe that this phrasing was accidental.
(Incidentally, one can derive quite a bit of entertainment from reading the above passage aloud to one’s partner in a suitably husky tone of voice.)