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Tuesday
Jun182013

Aubergine, fruit or vegetable?

If I asked you whether a tomato was a fruit or vegetable what would you say? Fruit, right?

What about an aubergine?

A few months ago in my food anthropology seminar we were debating the difference between fruits and vegetables. I said that I thought that the difference was that fruits contain seeds, whereas vegetables don’t; this is what my Mum told me when I was younger. “What about aubergines, they have seeds?” someone asked, which seemed a good point – surely an aubergine can't be a fruit too, or a cucumber, or a pepper? I didn’t have full confidence in what my Mum had told me all those years ago so I didn’t fight my corner. However, I have since read a bit about it and it seems that, at least botanically speaking, Mum was right. 

In botany, fruit is defined as “the ripened ovary of a flowering plant, containing one or more seeds”. This definition is taken from Dictionary.com, but is supported by various science and botanical websites, for example, Science Daily, Biology Reference and Biology Online.

Vegetable, on the other hand, is not a botanical term and it is harder to pinpoint a definition. Some say it is any edible plant, which is the most inclusive and far reaching definition. Some narrow this slightly, saying it is any edible part of a plant. Others, such as Dr Jim Bidlack of the University of Central Oklahoma, define it as any edible part of a plant, excluding the fruit, which is in line with my Mum’s definition.

Science Daily and the Botany Professor draw attention to the difficulty that arises when we start talking about nuts, tubers and fungi. Mushrooms, botanically speaking, are neither fruit nor vegetable, though we generally think of them as vegetables. 

However, perhaps what is most important here is that we accept the cultural subjectivity of the term and the importance of context. Monica Wachman points out that in a culinary context we generally tend to classify fruits as those which are sweet or used in sweet dishes and vegetables as those which we use in savoury dishes. In this context a tomato would be considered a vegetable. Science Daily also highlights that vegetable is a culinary term and somewhat arbitrary and subjective. “Since "vegetable" is not a botanical term, there is no contradiction in referring to a plant part as a fruit while also being considered a vegetable.”

So, I ask you again: aubergine – fruit or vegetable? 

Photos courtesy of Trevor Hyett.

Sunday
Mar242013

Chargrilling an aubergine

Aubergines are chargrilled for use in recipes, such as baba ganoush, where a smoky flavour is desirable. The process is much the sames the process for roasting a pepper.

Rub the aubergine in a small amount of olive oil and prick with a fork. Put it directly over a gas flame, turning it as it blackens until it is charred all over. I usually put a thick grill or grate over the flame so that it cooks more evenly.

When it is ready put it in a covered receptacle, e.g. a saucepan with a lid or a tupperware container; the steam makes it easier to peel. After 10 minutes remove it, cut it in half and scrape out the soft flesh. Don't worry if a few bits of the charred skin end up in the flesh, it adds to the smoky flavour in moderation.

If you prefer not to do it over a gas flame, you can do it under a grill, though you won't get the same degree of smokiness. 

Sunday
Mar242013

The best way to roast a pepper

My Dad taught me the best way to roast a pepper. It is also the quickest. 

Rub the pepper in a small amount of olive oil and put it directly over a gas flame, turning it as it blackens until it is charred all over. I usually put a thick grill or grate over the flame so that it cooks more evenly.

When it is ready put it in a covered receptacle, e.g. a saucepan with a lid or a tupperware container; the steam makes it easier to peel. After 5 to 10 minutes remove it and peel it. Don't worry if there are a few bits you can't get off, the black charred skin adds a nice, smoky flavour in moderation.

Pull the stalk out, cut the flesh in half and remove any leftover seeds. 

If you are not using it straight away, you can store it in the fridge for a few days. If you cover it in olive oil it should keep a bit longer.

You can, of course, roast it in the oven, but it is harder to get a charred skin, which gives it that lovely smokiness. In fact, I should really have called this post 'chargrilling a pepper' but the point is that I would use this method when a recipe calls for a roasted pepper, hence the misleading title.

Thursday
Oct272011

Pairing wine and cheese

Cheese and wine can be a match made in heaven but it is easy to get it wrong, particularly when you have are serving a range of cheeses. While a mature cheese is bold enough to stand up to say a full bodied new world shiraz, spicy and jammy, a mild goat’s cheese would require something much smoother, like a Cote du Rhone or Central Otago pinot noir.

If you are serving a selection of cheeses your best bet is to choose something light with low tannins so it does not overwhelm the more delicate cheeses. People often think that cheese only goes with red wine but, as highlighted by Bronwen Percival, Buying and QA manager at Neal’s Yard Dairy, “a white wine with a bit of residual is often the best all-round choice.”

Dessert or fortified wines can also be great, again because the sweetness compliments the cheese, where tannins and acidity can clash. Sauternes with blue cheese is a particular favourite of my Dad’s only surpassed by his love of the same with foie gras.

Here are some useful links to help you choose the best wines for the cheeses you have selected:

  • Gourmet Sleuth - the most extensive of the guides matching specific cheeses to grape varietals and appellations
  • Winemonger – another extensive list offering a ‘grape by grape guide to pairing cheeses with wines from around the world’
  • Hello Vino – allows you first to select a category of cheese (hard, semi-hard, soft, semi-soft) and then a type of cheese (e.g. mozzarella, gorgonzola, feta) and then provides a couple of wine suggestions. You can also download the app.
  • 2BASnob  – some general rules about cheese and wine pairing with a few suggestions for general pairings
  • Artisanal Premium Cheese – a helpful guide to pairing white wines with cheese. Its usefulness is somewhat tainted by the fact that it is a store and, therefore, all cheeses are ones that they sell, but one could easily use it as a basis from which to make generalisations and find substitutes
  • About – their article on general cheese and wine pairings is quite basic, but the one on matching dessert wine to cheese is quite helpful

Depending on what is more important to you – the wine or the cheese – you may like to select the wine first and then find a cheese to match it.

Monday
Mar212011

Stephanie Alexander's advice on braising and stewing beef

There is nothing worse than getting an hour into the process of making a delicious pie or stew, only to find when you test the meat that it tough and chewy. In her seminal book, The Cook's Companion, Stephanie Alexander offers some advice on avoiding this predicament:

TO BRAISE AND STEW When cutting meat for a braise or stew, follow the natural separations of the meat as far as possible, then cut across individual muscles. Meat that is cut willy-nilly across several different muscles can twist and bend in very strange ways in the cooking pot and can be tough. The connective tissue on such cuts as chuck or blade will melt to tenderness when braised slowly.

Whether a dish is a stew or a braise, the result will be better if it is cooked gently for longer. 

It is much better to buy the meat and cut it yourself rather than buy the cubes of casserole steak you can get from the supermarket, since they are unlikely to have taken this level of care when cutting the meat. If you are worried about cutting the meat yourself, get it from a decent butcher and ask them to cut it for you.

It is also important that you use a heavy-based saucepan which conducts and diffuses heat more evenly.