Gardening with science Part I: eat and be eaten

Everything is recycled, folks. Including us.

Science helps me to appreciate the role of plants in feeding us and maintaining our health and environment. Paying attention in high school biology class helped me begin to appreciate how plants and people are all part of the processes that cycle nutrients throughout the living and nonliving parts of the Earth.

Here's a plant that eats animals. Photo by Noah Elhardt.
Here's a plant that eats animals. Photo by Noah Elhardt.

So I have absolutely no qualms about making my plants eat other plants.

If you think about it, plants should be great food for each other. They’re built from the exact same nutrients other plants need, minus what they expend or excrete to create themselves. So you can raise plants ‘organically’ by turning them into plant cannibals! Well, not directly; they’re actually relying on decomposers to break down the dead plant matter and release the nutrients in a form that live plants can use. Call that a transformation step – like digestion or cooking – if you will.

If you think about it, people eat other people, too; there are just (in most cases) a few more transformation steps between dead people and people food.

Oh yeah. Plants eat animals, too. ‘Organic’ gardening is not a vegan activity. Plenty of ‘organic’ farming operations use animal products such as fish emulsion (famous for its recent use at CU-Boulder to repel pot smokers on 4/20) and bonemeal, as well as animal by-products like manure. There are some fascinating essays in the New York Times right now about whether it’s ethical to eat meat, and at least one of those essays points out the essential role of farm animals in the production of vegetables.

Not a food chain. A textbook nitrogen cycle (this one's from the US EPA).

Think of the food chain. Eaters of plants (people, cows, etc.) are more concentrated sources of nutrition than the plants themselves. The only comparable alternative to animal-based fertilizers is chemical fertilizer. We consider it artificial (rather than ‘organic’ or ‘natural’), but it’s made from familiar substances from nature, like rocks and air. Ammonia, for example, is made from natural gas and air using the Haber Process. It’s energy-intensive and not the greatest thing for the environment, but there isn’t enough bat guano in the world to compete with it.

[Yes, ammonia production is also essential to the mass manufacture of explosives, and Fritz Haber of the Haber process also oversaw the use of poisonous gases as a weapon during World War I. In case this makes you think science and chemistry are evil, remember that the Haber process made farming possible and starvation a thing of the past in many places where the soil was too poor for ‘organic’ methods to suffice, and that Clara Haber – herself a chemist – purportedly killed herself to protest Fritz’s involvement in the gassing of soldiers. Yes, woman are more moral than men].

It’s doubtful that the U.S. could have developed and grown as a nation anywhere near as fast as we did without the Haber process or something like it. Only now, after we’ve built loads of new infrastructure and technology that make productive farming possible in other ways, are we considering alternative means of food production. But as it did then, it will cost us quite a lot more time and manpower than industrial food production does. Searching every leaf of my indoor plants for aphids is lot more time intensive than spraying them with pesticide, but I have the luxury of time and energy to hunt for aphids because other technological developments made possible by cheap food production make much of the rest of my life more efficient.

An oversimplified piece of the nitrogen cycle illustrating an important relationship between us and our plant brothers.
An oversimplified piece of the nitrogen cycle illustrating an important relationship between us and our plant brothers.
I live in a developed country. I don’t need to produce food on an industrial scale; but I can see how other countries would like to have the ability to do so in order to grow and develop like the U.S. did and enjoy many of the same comforts we do. I am merely trying to grow a little produce to supplement my diet, to reap the spiritual and intellectual rewards of growing my own food, and to avoid paying through the nose for organic produce at the schwaggity schwag Boulder farmer’s market.

In addition to making frugal use of my own vegetarian leftovers to feed my plant cannibals (and my somewhat neglected vermicompost), I plan on using exactly two animal products – eggshells and bonemeal – because they are much richer sources of phosphate and calcium than my produce scraps and coffee grounds. I’ll also add a splash of Epsom salts right around flowering time to make sure I get lots of juicy fruit.

I don’t think ceasing my use of bonemeal will help bring down the feedlot industry. Eating lots more vegetables and much less meat very well might, though. And figuring out and sharing ways to make it cheap, easy, tasty and fun could help as well. So please, read up. I hope you’ll be encouraged to find ways you can transform your own food waste into fresh food instead of throwing it out.

51 vegetarian and vegan foods to eat before you die

The dregs from last year's garden, now a part of me. Photo by Sandra Chung
The dregs from last year's garden, now a part of me. Photo by Sandra Chung

I am neither vegan nor vegetarian. But I’m impressed and enchanted with the ingenuity and creativity of chefs who make truly wonderful meatless creations that aren’t pretending to be meat. I owe a deep debt to many of my friends who introduced me to various wonderful recipes over the years.

Most of those items are links to recipes, because very few restaurants serve food like this, and you usually have to make it yourself to enjoy it. Recipes that are vegan or easily made so by minor omission or substitution are bold. I’m sure you could find ways to make all of them vegan …

1. Grilled coconut kale
2. best chocolate cake ever
3. vegan mayonnaise or Vegenaise
4. raw blueberry mini-pies

5. beets with spiced quinoa and yogurt
6. zucchini cakes
7. scallion pancakes
8. oven-roasted parsnips
9. fried oatmeal
10. baba ghanoush
11. 5 bean and kale soup

12. spicy zucchini soup
13. fruit salad with papaya + pineapple + watermelon
14. che ba mau

15. green corn tamales
16. bruschetta
17. caprese with tomatoes and basil from your garden or a friend’s
18. ginger cucumber salad
19. raw zucchini salad

20. sweet potato enchiladas with cilantro avocado cream sauce
21. General Tao’s tofu
22. silken tofu chocolate mousse
23. sliced banana with lemon and sugar
24. tahini lemon cookies
25. seaweed salad
26. bean sprout salad

27. bean sprout soup
28. vegan French onion soup
29. cold cucumber soup
30. white gazpacho
31. vanilla soymilk + orange juice
32. chickpea tacos
33. black bean sweet potato stew with poblano chilies
34. kale chips
35. cowboy caviar

36. saag paneer
37. breaded deep-fried okra
38. simple mango salsa: mangos + cilantro + red onion, eat with salty tortilla chips

39. chile rellenos
40. vegetarian Southern-style collards
41. coconut milk horchata
42. oven roasted brussels sprouts

43. grilled garlic artichokes
44. jicama slaw
45. gyoza
46. braised celery

47. kaddo bourani
48. fried sage leaves
49. lemon squash risotto
50. broccoli stem pickles
51. potato pizza with rosemary: your favorite olive oil pizza dough, covered with thinly sliced potatoes, fresh rosemary, salt and pepper, and a drizzle of olive oil or garlic oil. Parmesan cheese and peas are optional.
51. Tempeh sloppy joes

100 foods to eat before you die? Hmm, missing the point.

Yellow/red heirloom tomatoes, by Don Goldman (DoGoLaCa on Flickr)

Plain ol' red tomatoes from our 2011 garden.
Plain ol' red tomatoes from our 2011 garden. By Sandra Chung.

I’m a big advocate of foodventurousness, so I can’t resist commenting on this little food list game that’s making its rounds on Facebook.

Some people think of foodventurousness as a competition for bragging rights about which exotic dishes you have eaten, but I like to think that trying new ingredients is simply one of several ways to expand your experience, appreciation and enjoyment of food.

Below is the original list of 100 foods, of which I have eaten 70 something. I’m not particularly proud of that score. The list is biased toward fatty foods and exotic meats, a natural blend with my background. I’m pretty sure being the child of Asian immigrants helps me have a somewhat broader definition of edible protein than the average white American (My mom told me stories of eating earthworms [that was actually my Grandma who ate the worms] and ants as a child in postwar Korea, and I’ve had my fair share of grubs and ants as a curious eater). Living in the Southeast for much of my life means I appreciate the art and beauty of good biscuits and fried food.

I can see that a list like this might be intended to encourage more foodventurousness. But being open to novel foods is only one part of foodventurousness. And meats and fatty food are probably not the first genres in which Westerners need to focus on expanding their tastes.

In fact, I would not recommend the exotic-game checklist approach to foodventurousness. My most disappointing foodventures are almost all expensive land meats. I haven’t found much flavor or texture variety at all between goat, yak, bear, venison, elk, goose, wild boar, gator, Kobe beef, and supermarket beef, chicken and pork. Most red meats and white meats are nearly indistinguishable from each other when fried, curried, or sausage’d, and many are quite bland or downright disgusting as simple steaks.

Most cultures don’t have this relentless emphasis on slabs of land meat that we do here in the overfed States. I’ve found a much larger cornucopia of flavor and texture in seafood, grain and vegetable dishes. But there are few interesting vegetables or vegetable dishes and no grains on this list, and the seafood and fish on the list don’t go much beyond sashimi. No quinoa, wheat berries, pickled fiddlehead ferns or roasted beets and parsnips? No bouillebaise, kimchi or soon doo boo chigae (okay, I admit, I’m biased toward Korean food. But seriously, Hostess Fruit Pies and Moon Pies but no Korean or vegetarian food?)

Kimchi, by Craig Nagy. How can people go through their entire lives without eating this?
Kimchi, by Craig Nagy. How can people go through their entire lives without eating this?
A true foodventure is an actual departure from your food comfort zone. If you’re already a chicken and beef eater, a slab of alligator is not much of a stretch. Like many ‘exotic’ meats, it’s a familiar flavor paired with an equally familiar texture. “Tastes like chicken” is funny because it’s true.

A real foodventure for a meat-and-potatoes Westerner would be something like a new vegetable, a raw vegan restaurant, or insects. I want to try more insects. I’ve read that for shellfish fans, insects are not that big of a reach taste and texturewise. What remains is the psychological barrier. But I like to make a point of getting over those. I had an easier time eating pickled pig’s feet than insects. But the pig’s feet were not very good. I’d be open to trying them again, just in case the batch I snagged was a poor example.

Ah, yes. Poor examples are important. Whether it’s a simple tomato or a slab of whale meat, if it’s not fresh or well-prepared you will not get much out of eating it. Sure, caprese with a $4 heirloom tomato (#50) is great, but 90% of the heirloom tomato’s greatness comes from the fact that it is fresh. It has to be – you have to eat heirloom tomatoes within 48 hours or they’ll liquefy on you, unlike the pink mealy things you buy at the supermarket that can reasonably double as paperweights for a week or three. Now don’t get me wrong; I love me one of those yellow-and-red heirlooms, sliced and lightly salted and plated like a rare steak. But I regularly get my socks knocked off by plain old regular red tomatoes, good and ripe and straight off the plant.

The most magical dish I’ve had as of late is a simple raw zucchini salad with lemon and salt. I’d never had raw zucchini before my first taste of that salad. It costs next to nothing to make with super-fresh zucchini during our ridiculously prolific local zucchini season, and eating it makes me feel wonderful. That’s a food experience I’m glad I got to have in this lifetime.

The original list of 100 foods to eat before you die, with the ones I’ve eaten highlighted in bold and a few comments on the less common dishes:

1. Abalone – Like a huge oyster/clam. At its best, the meat is tender with a pleasantly smooth texture and savory seafood flavor. It’s usually improperly cooked and chewy. Great in sauces and soups.
2. Absinthe – is quite a show. You get it with an elaborate setup (basically an ice water jar) that slowly drips ice water through a sugar cube into the glass of clear green absinthe, which turns white and clouds up. Lovely licorice aroma and flavor and sadly, no psychotropic compounds in the U.S.
3. Alligator – batter-dipped and fried, it’s like chewy chicken fingers.
4. Baba Ghanoush
5. Bagel and lox
6. Baklava
7. Barbecue ribs
8. Bellini – never heard of it, but from what I read it’s a popular Italian cocktail of peach puree and sparkling wine. Sounds lovely.
9. Bird’s Nest Soup – have seen it but not eaten it. it looked goopy.
10. Biscuits and gravy
11. Black Pudding – this and all other dark, bloody dishes I have tried have been unappealing in texture and liver-y in taste. I like liverwurst, but not much more concentrated liver flavor than that.
12. Black Truffle – no occasion to try this yet.
13. Borscht – mmm. Beautiful beet soup.
14. Calamari
15. Carp – one of the least pleasant fish I’ve had the displeasure of eating. My dad, brother and I caught a lot of it fishing in upstate New York.
16. Caviar
17. Cheese fondue
18. Chicken and waffles
19. Chicken Tikka Masala – Come now. Vindaloo and tandoori are the way to go.
20. Chile Relleno – yes to the roasted poblanos, no to the massive quantities of cheese that these are usually stuffed with. As I’ve come to grips with adult lactose intolerance, I’ve realized that cheese is a lazy way to make things taste good. In the States, finding inexpensive restaurant food that tastes good is very difficult if you’re not eating cheese.
21. Chitterlings/Chitlins – crispy and terrible.
22. Churros – yet another variation on fried dough with sugar. Best eaten dipped in thick hot chocolate at a Madrid chocolateria open till 2 am
23. Clam Chowder
24. Cognac
25. Crabcake
26. Crickets – on the to-do list.
27. Currywurst – pork sausage with curry ketchup? I’ve had curry slaw, mustard and ketchup on a brat. It’s hard to go wrong with pork sausage.
28. Dandelion wine – Thought this was just the title of a Ray Bradbury book. I imagine it’s quite bitter and that the main ingredient is not actually dandelions.
29. Dulce de leche – somewhere I found a brilliant method for making this in a glass bowl in the microwave, rather than the incredibly dangerous traditional method that involves boiling an unopened can of condensed milk.
30. Durian – I see this in the Asian market all the time. I will eventually try it.
31. Eel – delicious, savory fish with a delicate texture. I remember reading about eel stew in the Chronicles of Narnia.
32. Eggs benedict
33. Fish Tacos
34. Foie Gras – tasty, but not worth the price or force-feeding.
35. Fresh Spring Rolls
36. Fried Catfish – not my favorite fish, but hey, fried whitefish is fried whitefish.
37. Fried Green Tomatoes
38. Fried Plaintain – like thick, slightly sweet potato chips
39. Frito Pie – yeah, this one’s real exotic. Graduate to 7-layer dip.
40. Frog’s Legs – never had to occasion to try them, but I would like to. I hear they taste like chicken.
41. Fugu (pufferfish) – haven’t eaten it, but I have used tetrodotoxin in the lab. The food version of Russian roulette. You might as well try eating a live octopus instead; it makes for much better video.
42. Funnel Cake
43. Gazpacho – Cold tomato soup. The red stuff is not that exciting unless you have really good tomatoes. White gazpacho, made with almonds and grapes and garlic, is very nice.
44. Goat – A cross between pork and beef in texture and flavor, not very gamey at all. Extremely lean and requires careful handling not to make it incredibly tough to chew. Of course, that’s true of almost all land meat.
45. Goat’s milk – very white in color, a little less fatty and milder-tasting than whole cow’s milk.
46. Goulash –  one of a million variations on livestock stew, which exists in any culture that ever herded anything. This one has lots of paprika – sweet red pepper that’s often dried and used for color and mild flavor. Not too hard to sell to anyone who likes meat.
47. Gumbo – mmm. Okra put to devastatingly good use. Okra, seafood and stew – sign me up!
48. Haggis
49. Head Cheese
50. Heirloom Tomatoes
51. Honeycomb
52. Hostess Fruit Pie – should not be on anyone’s must-eat list. wtf.
53. Huevos Rancheros – eggs on a corn tortilla with salsa, beans, avocado. Simple and delicious. Like foie gras, the native language version of the name makes it sound a lot more exotic and interesting than it really is.
54. Jerk Chicken – a seasoned grilled chicken variation that will introduce you to the wonderful flavor of allspice, which will remind you of nutmeg and other pumpkin pie spices. Only in this case it’s paired with chicken, thyme, and hot hot hot pepper (usually jalapenos or scotch bonnet).
55. Kangaroo
56. Key Lime Pie
57. Kobe Beef
58. Lassi – Yogurt smoothie, usually with mango. Lovely after spicy food.
59. Lobster
60. Mimosa 
61. MoonPie
62. Morel Mushrooms – not that special unless you’re a mushroom connoisseur
63. Nettle Tea
64. Octopus – meatier and not as stinky as squid, really wonderful grilled. Can be rubbery if not cooked well.
65. Oxtail Soup – beef soup. Oxtails are just the tails of cattle and a frugal source of stock.
66. Paella – savory rice and seafood. Mmm.
67. Paneer (a cheese) – Mild in flavor, satisfying texture. Reminds me of Mexican queso.
68. Pastrami on Rye 
69. Pavlova (meringue cake)
70. Phaal (curry dish)
71. Philly Cheesesteak
72. Pho – the most wonderful beef broth you’ve ever had, with goodies like rice noodles, steak slices and aromatic herbs in the mix.
73. Pineapple and cottage cheese
74. Pistachio Ice Cream
75. Po’ boy – fried something sandwich on fluffy white bread.
76. Pocky – a less salty variation chocolate-dipped pretzels
77. Polenta – gotta love a fancy name for cornmeal mush
78. Prickly Pear – delicate flavor. Translation: bland.
79. Rabbit Stew
80. Raw Oysters – Texture is key here. All raw oysters have a creamy, liquid texture and variably briny flavor that you can obscure with cocktail sauce and lemon if you don’t like it.
81. Root Beer Float
82. S’mores
83. Sauerkraut – replace this with kimchi. kimchi is better.
84. Sea Urchin – an acquired taste that I haven’t acquired yet. Very expensive and a little stinky to me.
85. Shark
86. Snail – lovely, as is anything that’s usually served dripping in garlic butter. Like a softer, meatier and less salty clam. Avoid the canned kind.
87. Snake
88. Soft Shell Crab
89. Som Tam (spicy salad made from shredded unripened papaya)

Spaetzle cooking. By adactio
90. Spaetzle – these are fat little wheat flour noodles with a flavor quite similar to gnocchi. Boiled and served in butter. You never see them in restaurants because they’re laborious to make and really meh in texture and flavor. Maybe you have sentimental attachment to spaetzle because your grandmother made them … but mine didn’t, and I don’t.
91. Spam – salty, savory, fatty, non-perishable. It’s sausage that comes in a can. What’s not to love?
92. Squirrel
93. Steak Tartare
94. Sweet Potato Fries
95. Sweetbreads
96. Tom Yum – clear, tart, spicy lemongrass-shrimp-mushroom soup. Yum.
97. Umeboshi (pickled ume fruits common in Japan, similar to a plum) – very salty, uniquely aromatic flavor unlike anything else you’ve ever tried.
98. Venison – light beefy flavor, lean and chewy texture, usually gamey.
99. Wasabi Peas
100. Zucchini Flowers – not much flavor, but a nice tender wrapper for lightly seasoned filling