Monday, July 28, 2014

Meatless Monday: Seedless Watermelon…What’s Up With That?

Last week I promised to tell you the story of seedless watermelon in today’s Meatless Monday post.

The story is not a simple one to explain and I remember now why I started to blog about this last year and never finished the post.


Here is the puzzler: Seedless watermelons are all grown from seeds, although they themselves do not produce seeds. How is this possible?

The answer as brief as I can make it:
  • A seed-bearing watermelon contains two complete sets of chromosomes, making it a diploid (diploid for two) fruit.
  • When seeds from a diploid watermelon are treated with cholchicine, a chemical derived from the autumn crocus plant (used by humans to treat gout),they yield watermelons with four complete sets of chromosomes instead of two, making them tetraploids (tetra for four).
  • When the flowers from these tetraploid watermelon plants are cross-fertilized with flowers from diploid plants at the correct time, they produce fruits with triploid (tri for three) chromosomes; their seeds will grow healthy but sterile plants — seedless watermelons.
This process generates several questions:

Can a seedless watermelon be organic?
While it is possible to grow a seedless watermelon organically, there is no way to avoid the use of the chemical cholchicine to obtain seed for a seedless watermelon.

Is the seedless watermelon a GMO crop?
There is a lot of chatter on the internet about seedless watermelon being a GMO crop. This is not the case. Yes, a chemical is used to initiate a chromosomal change in the original seed, but the fruit is produced by hybridization. No genes from a different organism were introduced to modify the plant’s DNA, the definition of a genetically modified organism. Furthermore, the seedless watermelon plant is sterile, the end of the line [much like the sterile mule, the offspring of a horse and a donkey].

Are seedless watermelons are more difficult to grow than seeded varieties? Yes, on many counts:
  • First there is the cost of the seed that takes two generations to be produced.
  • Second, the seedless seed is more fragile. It requires germination at a higher temperature. For this reason, the seeds are grown as transplants to be moved to the field once a good root system is established, thus requiring the cost of the containers and the extra work of replanting. Seeds from seeded varieties can be sown directly in the field.
  • Finally, watermelons are monoecious, meaning that each plant bears both male and female flowers. The female flower on the triploid watermelon will set fruit, IF it is pollinated. Since the male flower on the triploid plant is sterile, the only solution until recently was to plant rows of diploid (seeded) watermelons in the midst of the triploid (seedless) melons. Since seeded watermelons are decreasing in market value, there is ongoing research to develop “in-row pollenizers,” some of which bear marketable fruits. 
There you have it – the story of the seedless watermelon in a nutshell. For more on the topic, check out this Texas Extension Service site for potential growers. Watermelon is a huge cash crop in our southern states.

Happy Monday. Have a great week!

On Mondays I often blog on food, food issues, or gardening in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”


Monday, July 21, 2014

Meatless Monday: The Wonderful Watermelon

Watermelon may not be local just yet in Connecticut, but it is in season in the southern states. That means it’s inexpensive and plentiful in my local stores.


Watermelon is a nutritional powerhouse. Two cups of this colorful fruit provide 8% of the potassium, 30% of the vitamin A, and 25% of the daily requirements of vitamin C, with just 80 calories! 


Watermelon is 92% water. That means eating a slice or two is a cheap and good way to replenish the fluids lost after a few hours spent out in the hot summer sun.

These days there is much more to watermelon than eating it by the slice and seeing how far one can spit the seeds. With the advent of seedless watermelon [more on this next week], this fruit is trending in the food world, as an ingredient in salads, appetizers, salsas, beverages, desserts, and even main dishes. 

A regional chain has me on their direct mail list and sends along the occasional promotional piece, replete with coupons and recipes tailored to my taste. Last week the promoted item was watermelon. With basil in plentiful supply, how could I not try “Watermelon Skewers with Feta?” They make the perfect appetizer to impress your guests, but they are so easy and delicious that you may find yourself wanting to eat them all by yourself, again and again!



WATERMELON with FETA Skewers
Ingredients
  • 1 small watermelon, cut into 48, 1-inch cubes
  • 1 lb. feta cheese, cut into 24, 1-inch cubes
  • 24 basil leaves, washed, patted dry, and cut in half vertically
  • 24 small wood skewers or toothpicks
  • Ground black pepper to taste
  • Balsamic Glaze

Method
  • Skewer 1/2 basil leaf, 1 cube of watermelon, 1 cube feta, 1 cube of watermelon, 1/2 basil leaf
  • Drizzle with balsamic glaze
  • Repeat until you have as many skewers as you need

Here’s a tip. Store any remaining ingredients separately in covered containers in the refrigerator. Pick and prepare the basil just before you need it, and you will be able to throw a few skewers together in no time. 

The one “mystery” ingredient  – Balsamic Glaze – is a reduction of balsamic vinegar and some sort of sugar. I found some in a squeeze bottle on the shelf of Trader Joe’s. If you are pressed for time, you can make a substitute by combining honey, maple syrup, or agave nectar and balsamic vinegar in a 1/1 ratio, but it will not be as thick as the bottled kind, and you won’t be able to drizzle it as neatly. If you want to make your own glaze, and time is not problem, there a number of recipes online. Here is a link to one. [Be warned, however, that user comments indicate that if you do not pay attention while the glaze is reducing, you can end up with a mess.]

I also tried “Watermelon Agua Fresca.” According to the recipe, this translates to “juice made with fresh water” and is “a super satisfying way to beat the summer heat.”

WATERMELON AGUA FRESCA
Ingredients
  • Watermelon
  • Water

Method
  • Blend together 2-3 parts watermelon with 1 part water

This drink was refreshing, but I found myself wondering why I had gone to the extra trouble when a cold slice of watermelon would have been easier and more flavorful, with fewer dishes. 

For more recipes, check out the recipe section of the National Watermelon Board’s website. You will be amazed at the creative ways watermelon marketers have found to promote their product.

Have fun, and come back next week for the saga of the seedless watermelon.

Happy Monday. Have a great week!

On Mondays I often blog on food, food issues, or gardening in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Meatless Monday: With Basil In Season — It’s Pesto Time!

When the days are perfect for spending time at the beach — long, hot, and sunny — conditions are also right for growing a bumper crop of basil.


Basil is a highly fragrant annual in the Lamiaceae (mint) family, with origins in the tropical Old World. Sweet Basil (Ocimum basilicum) is the most familiar, but there are a number of other varieties — in colors ranging from light green to purple, and with flavors from “classic” to licorice.

Many sites tout basil’s antioxidant and antibacterial properties; WebMD states that two tablespoons of chopped fresh basil provide 27% of the RDA of Vitamin K, as well as significant amounts of vitamin A, manganese, and magnesium.

Basil requires lots of sun, and frequent watering during dry spells, but it does well in either a garden or a good-sized container. If you are interested in growing your own, check out these tips on the Old Farmer’s Almanac site [The tips are good; ignore the hokeyness of the site.] 

Now is the time to find basil in plentiful supply at the farmer’s market, where it is sold by the bunch at likely the lowest prices of the season.

Pesto (“paste” in Italian) is what I always make when I have a large quantity on hand, as I did on Saturday. I turned to a favorite source — Beard on Pasta  — for a recipe. Beard’s “Pesto” calls for pignoli (pine nuts) and pecorino or Parmesan cheese, the traditional ingredients. But this time I opted for his alternate version which calls for walnuts as a substitute for pignoli. Vegans rejoice! Cheese is NOT an ingredient in Beard’s “Pesto with Walnuts.” It was delicious served atop of a bowl of rotini, whose spiral shape holds pesto so well. [If you find you miss the cheese, just add a few curls of Parmesan.]



PESTO with WALNUTS
Ingredients
  • 4 cups basil leaves
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1/2 cup walnuts
  • 1/2 cup Italian parsley
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 to 1 cup olive oil 

Method
  • Remove the stems from the basil and parsley.
  • Wash well and spin dry.
  • Put the basil, garlic, walnuts, parsley, and salt into the food processor with 1/2 cup of olive oil. 
  • Process, adding just enough additional oil to make a smooth paste.

Often served as a topping with pasta (hot or cold), pesto has many other uses, from soups and salads to sandwiches and vegetable toppings. 

Google “Basil Pesto” for more ideas. If you plan to freeze your leftovers for winter use, note that most recipes call for freezing WITHOUT cheese. You can add in the cheese of your choice once your pesto is thawed.

Don’t miss this great opportunity to prepare some great, low-cost summer meals and to put some food by for the winter — all without cooking!  

Happy Monday. Have a great week!

On Mondays I often blog on food, food issues, or gardening in support of Meatless Monday, one of several programs developed in the Healthy Monday project, founded in 2003 in association with Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Communications. Meatless Monday’s goal is “to help reduce meat consumption 15% in order to improve personal health and the health of our planet.”