Friday, August 21, 2009

The Involuted Inflorescence of the Syconium

Breakfast this morning: homemade granola topped with homemade yogurt flavored with vanilla and maple syrup, and chopped fresh figs. The whole combination is tangy, sweet, crunchy and creamy. The popping of the fig seeds between my teeth is one of my favorite food textures.

Figs are an interesting food. My brother tried to freak me out many years ago as I was eating a fresh fig by telling me that wasps lay their eggs in figs. I did not freak out, I’m proud to say, but filed the information away for later research. Many years later, I’m finally getting around to looking it up. This task is a heck of a lot easier with the Internet. And yes, it’s true… there’s a type of wasp called a fig wasp that is believed to have coevolved with the fig species so that the fig and the wasp cannot reproduce without each other! Amazing. More about this in a minute.

The so-called fig fruit is not actually a fruit. It’s a syconium, defined as a fleshy stem containing multiple flowers. Furthermore, the syconium is an involuted inflorescence, an inside-out cluster of flowers. Cut open the fig and the lines you see extending from the outer edge to the inside are the flowers, each with a seed at the end. Again, amazing.

As I was saying, several species of small wasps are intimately involved with figs. The wasps pollinate the figs by crawling into them through the ostiole, the small hole at the base of the fig, and laying their eggs inside. The species of wasp is specific to the species of fig and therefore a specific region, so that you can’t just grow any old fig in your yard and expect it to bear viable fruit. You have to have the right kind of wasp living nearby.

Funny, I don’t think I’ve ever found wasp larvae in my figs. Could it be that I just wouldn’t know them if I saw them or tasted them? I found this explanation on Wikipedia: “In figs of this sort [the sort that wasps pollinate], the crunchy bits in the fruit contain both seeds and wasps. However, there are several commercial and ornamental varieties of fig that are self-fertile and do not require pollination; these varieties are not visited by fig wasps.” I take that to mean that the types of figs sold as food are generally from self-pollinating species and I don’t have to worry about finding wasp eggs in them. Good to know.

As for their nutritional value, figs are a good source of fiber, potassium and manganese. According to the World’s Healthiest Foods, they’re also a fruit source of calcium, though you’d have to eat a lot of figs (about 8 medium figs) to get only 79 mg of calcium. Still, the more of these nutrients you get from your food, the less you need to get from supplements. And there are countless other nutrients supplied by whole plant foods, some of which haven’t even been discovered yet, let alone studied for their biochemical roles, that are believed to act synergistically with vitamins and minerals to help increase their absorption and facilitate their functioning in our bodies.

Figs are in season in the Pacific Northwest from July to September. This means you only have another month to get a hold of some wasp-free figs from your local farmers market. Enjoy them on salads, grilled and served with fish or pork, stewed along with your morning oatmeal, or just cut in half and smeared with a little goat cheese. Yes, I’ll say it one more time… amazing!

Monday, August 10, 2009

The Goods on Cocoa Nibs

My stats software tells me that there are a number of people out there looking for information on cocoa nibs. Given the name of this blog, I guess it behooves me to devote a little time to the subject.

First, why did I choose Cocoa Nibs as the title of my blog? Chocolate is one of my favorite foods. I am prepared to admit that I am obsessed with chocolate. I eat it every day of my life. And its ability to stimulate and satisfy in small amounts made it the perfect symbol for what I hoped to achieve with my blog.

Cocoa nibs -- or cacao nibs -- are bits of roasted cocoa beans. They're the whole foods version of chocolate! They have not been sweetened or otherwise processed, so they’re bitter and a little grainy, a little crunchy. Cocoa nibs are often used these days as accents for salads and baked goods, but most cocoa nibs go on to become chocolate liquor (cocoa nibs ground into a paste), which is then made into chocolate by adding cocoa butter, sugar, and sometimes vanilla and lecithin. Cocoa nibs can also be separated into cocoa butter and cocoa powder.

As for the nutritional content and benefits thereof, cocoa is very high in antioxidants. Research at Cornell University showed that cocoa powder has more antioxidants than red wine and green tea. Flavonoids are one type of antioxidant that is especially abundant in chocolate. Flavonoids have some nice effects on the heart and the circulatory system, including the ability to improve the flexibility of the walls of the blood vessels, and anti-clotting effects in the blood.

Chocolate also contains stearic acid, a saturated fat that has been shown to be “cholesterol-neutral,” meaning that it neither lowers HDL levels (this is the good cholesterol) in the blood, nor does it raise LDL (the bad cholesterol) or total cholesterol levels.

Antioxidants, flavonoids, and stearic acid are highest in the darkest chocolate. Adding milk to chocolate not only dilutes the amount of beneficial compounds, it adds saturated fat and cholesterol that does affect blood levels. Most chocolate manufacturers are now putting the chocolate percentage on product labels, making it easier to identify and buy the chocolate with the most added benefits.

I agree with Dr. Weil’s advice to eat one ounce of dark chocolate (he recommends at least 70%) several times a week. And remember that though chocolate may be good for you, overindulging in it can lead to weight gain, just like anything else!

As for cocoa nibs, they have all the great benefits of chocolate without the added fat and sugar, and the additional processing. There are many recipes floating around on the Internet, so cruise around a little and find one that strikes your fancy. Here are some to get you started:

Chocolate and Cacao Nib Cookies
Cacao Nib Almond Sticks
Ribeye Steaks with Cocoa Nibs Spice Rub

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Au Naturel

We have a three-foot wide strip of earth at the edge of our patio, just like each ground-level apartment in our complex. Some of our neighbors have been ambitious and have planted flowering plants in these tiny patio gardens, others are attempting to grow vegetables, bless their green thumbs, in pots set on top of the soil, and some have just let the gardening crew keep it raked clean of any plant life at all.

We chose the third option for the first six months of our residency here, but soon noticed that between the gardening crew’s visits little bits of plant life would appear, mostly dense patches of moss since we don’t get much direct sun on this side of the building. Did you know that moss comes in about twenty shades of green?

It was my husband’s idea to ask the landscapers to leave our plot of ground alone and let nature take over. The moss quickly spread to every corner of the garden, despite a close call when one un-informed worker took his rake to the moss just when it was really taking hold.

The ferns and the grasses have recently arrived. Now our garden looks like the forest floor – moist dark soil teeming with bug life, plants randomly and beautifully arranged. Our cat peruses the menu of grasses for her afternoon snack, and the dog… well, she’s content just to gaze upon the garden from the sun-warmed concrete.

The beauty of this random garden causes me to wonder how many other things in our lives would benefit from being left alone, or au naturel, a French term meaning “in a natural state.”

My mind turns automatically to food – that is my profession and my passion, after all. I love making elaborate dishes with complex flavors that take hours to prepare, but just this afternoon I had a salad for lunch that was just greens, cucumber, tomato, red pepper and avocado. It was utterly satisfying. I remember not too long ago savoring a raw, unsalted almond. If you’re paying attention, complex flavors can be found in the simplest of foods.

The summer is a good time to go au naturel with food because fresh fruits and vegetables are abundant. It’s an exercise in developing the senses since foods that haven’t been salted, spiced or sugared have more subtle flavors. Plus, the closer you are to the natural form of the food the closer you are to a whole foods diet, and that’s good for all of us.

The itsy bitsy flower at the bottom right measures about 3mm.