Thursday, 25 March 2010

Mushua - A Tasty Transformation of Tropaeolum Tubers?

Mashua is one Andean root crop whose flavour is resistant to all my enthusiastic attempts to acquire a liking for it. Every time I see those fat and enticing tubers, my mind fills with desire, yet one taste and my ardour wanes.

That's a pity, because it grows quite well here (watch out for cabbage white caterpillars though) and the yields are often not bad. It throttles weeds with its vigorous, tangled growth and has beautiful flowers.

With an intensive breeding effort for early tuberisation, this plant might have a future as a food in northern latitudes. I know for a fact that seed production is quite possible, if you give it protection from early frosts.

Maybe it's just my incorrigible palate, but prepared simply, by boiling or roasting, it tastes simply terrible. Reading some of the literature, it appears that it needs special preparation - boiling followed by freezing, for example. Perhaps mashua ice cream is a possibility in that case: just add lots of cream and lots of sugar. Following on from my success with yakraut, lactofermented yacon tubers, I thought I ought to explore the same method as a means of rendering mashua more palatable. I mean, people do actually eat this plant as a staple carbohydrate, don't they?

When I was lifting the remnants of the harvest weeks ago, I noticed that some of the frosted tubers had developed a slightly lactofermented smell before decaying further. I wondered whether it might it be possible to arrest decay at this stage and work with these natural processes to produce a more palatable foodstuff.

Lactofermentation of starchy roots is not unknown. In Hawaii, poi is made from cooked and fermented taro corms and is considered a delicacy. Cassava roots can be turned into fufu by the same basic method. Might mashua be similarly converted by the application of this tried and trusted technology?

I grated the tubers and was surprised by the differences in flesh colour between the three varieties.

I sprinkled salt on the layers as I filled the jar, then I weighed it down as before.

I was also surprised by the large quantity of juice that was produced and by its colour - not dissimilar to red wine. Could this be the anti-oxidant elixir we've all been waiting for? That smell, mashua's distinctive signature, quickly persuaded me to abandon all thoughts of imbibing it.

Fermentation was initially sluggish for the first few days, then the room began to smell of something like burning rubber; this was followed by several days of frequent mephitic wafts that wouldn't have been out of place emanating from a Borneo bat cave. Finally the smell subsided, to be replaced by the familiar odour of happy lactobacilli at work. Could it be a case of Tropaeolum tuberosum tamed?

The ghastly logic of what I had started and therefore must complete was clear: I must taste this witches' brew and let my palate decide whether or not mashua's base metal had been converted to gold.

This new product, henceforth to be known as mushua, had a powerful, though not unpleasant smell. So what did it taste like? Well, a bit like sauerkraut, with that peculiar violet perfume taste in the background - moderated, but not eliminated. It wasn't that good, but then, as I manoeuvred a small clump of mushua strands around my mouth, I realised that it wasn't that bad either. I just kept getting the powerful insight that it might be an excellent way of eliminating internal parasites. Hippocrates used to bang on about about food and medicine being interchangeable. Mushua seems to prove it.

Mushua's not going to win any prizes in a taste trial, but the fact that I actually managed to eat what must have been close to a mouthful suggests that I might, just might, be on the right track. Next time I'll cook the tubers first and then ferment them. Or ferment them, then cook them and then ferment them again - there's got to be a way to reach some kind of culinary rapprochement with this tricksy Tropaeolum. Are there any other brave souls out there who would like to share my heavy burden? Mushua is probably just the base camp in a long ascent to Beulah Land, where all bitterness is cast aside. Amen.

Monday, 15 March 2010

Young Yacons: You Like?

Ready to stifle those yawns? It's time
to pot on the yacon seedlings I described previously. They seem to be making rapid growth and are in definite need of some extra elbow room. I think I can detect some differences in hypocotyl colouration between individuals - it will be interesting to see if these are maintained in the adult plants in terms of variations in tuber colour.

Their progress has cheered me up - I was feeling a bit depressed by the discovery last week that all my adult yacon varieties must have perished in the big freeze of last winter and have now begun to rot rapidly in response to rising temperatures.

But now back to the the seedlings - I am pleasantly surprised by the vigour of their root systems, shown both individually and collectively here. There's nothing so pleasing as the sight of young roots doing what young roots should - ramifying through the growing medium:

Here they are, post parting, ensconced in their new homes. I'm hoping that any shock or separation anxiety they have suffered will be short lived.

And here's an update shot, taken a few days after the move described above. They're not exactly what you'd call hesitant in exploiting their new found freedom.
Yacon is dead. Long live yacon.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Don't Choke on My Chorogi - Stachys sieboldii

When is an artichoke not an artichoke? When it's either Helianthus tuberosus or Stachys sieboldii. The former is the Jerusalem artichoke, neither from Jerusalem, nor an artichoke, although like its namesake, it is a member of the daisy family; the latter is the Chinese artichoke, which does occur in China, but is actually a member of the mint family, the Lamiaceae, rather than an artichoke sensu stricto; true artichokes are naught but overgrown thistles in the genus Cynara. These are Chinese artichokes, freshly lifted. I wonder whether they were the inspiration for the Michelin man?

So the Chinese artichoke isn't an artichoke, but it does come from China - so far, so good. It's a woundwort, Stachys sieboldii, bearing typical woundwort style lanceolate leaves with toothed edges and small spikes of purplish flowers. A common synonym is Stachys affinis. It wouldn't look out of place at the base of a hedge somewhere - let's call its charms rustic and understated; others have referred to it as an invasive brute. Oh and it's also found in Japan where it's known as chorogi and in France where it is called Crosnes du Japon, after the village to which it was introduced from Japan in 1882.

It's simple enough to grow and seems to be a survivor; reasonable soil and sufficient moisture are what's needed for a good crop. Go easy on the nitrogen or you end up with excessive foliage. Last year I rescued a couple of tubers from a friend's garden where they had been growing untended for about ten years - volunteers from a crop I planted there. They got a bit of a bear hug from the mashuas late last year, but despite near total asphyxiation, I've still got a few to replant this spring.

I first became acquainted with this plant in my teens, when I bought a handful from a Chinese greengrocer in London. I loved their maggoty appearance and although I planted most of them, I got to cook a few. They had a nice sweet, nutty sort of flavour and a pleasant texture. I boiled them, although they are often pickled in China; in Japan they're eaten at New Year, again in a pickled form. I've got a bit more sophisticated lately - I often drop them into miso soup where they add both visual and gustatory appeal. That sweet taste comes from stachyose, an oligosaccharide they contain. This is supposed to help feed the bacteria in the gut, with the usual attendant health benefits. Maybe they could be described as "yacon lite". They are also edible raw.

Many people are familiar with the "Three Sisters" concept of multicropping, consisting of maize, beans and squash planted in groups. The post modern version of this is, apparently, the "Three Brothers", a polyculture planting of Jerusalem artichoke, Chinese artichoke and hopniss (Apios americana). I've yet to try this method, but it sounds like it could be fun. The Jerusalem artichoke provides stems for the hopniss to climb up, whilst the Chinese artichoke proliferates into a weedy mass of growth at the base, suppressing all comers - so runs the theory. At harvest time you get a pick and mix of three different different root crops. My experiences with the Three Sisters method have never been very successful, being more like a game of scissors, paper, stone, with one of the three crops overwhelming the others; my guess is that this technique is dependent on suitable varietal selection for success. It's possible that Jerusalem and Chinese artichokes with hopniss might be more successful, as all three are, in their own ways, very vigorous.

Talking of varietal selection, it seems that Chinese artichokes follow the example of the Model T Ford - you can have any variety you want, just as long as it's the standard one. I do recall seeing some tubers for sale that seemed to have a purplish tinge to the emerging shoots, but this may have been a stress response rather than an indication of genetic variability. So we're limited to just the one variety in Europe, as far as I can tell.

The National Institute of Horticulture (INH) in Angers, France had a stab at breeding the plants back in 1980s and 90s, but I don't know what progress was made. What they did show was that plants are capable of producing viable seeds. That's good, because in order to escape that most hateful of designations, "minor" root crop, some serious work needs to be done on increasing the dimensions of the tubers. In the world of root crops, size matters. Those of a squeamish nature may recoil, but I would also be interested in seeing whether the judicious application of colchicine might induce chromosome doubling and lead to bigger tubers. Anything much smaller than thumb size is never going to endear itself to the phyto-philistines out there, so it really is necessary to pump them up a bit.

I propose we set up a Chinese artichoke improvement group to get hold of some more Stachys sieboldii germplasm, then cross them indiscriminately and select the progeny for tuber size and yield. Call it recurrent mass selection if you like, just as long as you get on with it.
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