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How to Pick a Peach : The Search for Flavor from Farm to Table
In a moving story about a son's relationship with his mother, a world-famous birder relates the essence of his passion for nature.
At the age of sixteen, Kenn Kaufman left home to travel the world in search of birds. Now a grown man and a renowned ornithologist, he has come back to visit his ailing mother and to try to explain to her what drove his obsession with birdlife. His explanation takes the form of a series of interlocking tales from the frontier where the world of birds intersects with the world of the humans who pursue them. The stories range over settings from Alaska to Africa, from trackless jungles to parking lots. They delve into subjects from first dates to last rites, from imagination and desire to sleep deprivation, from poignant encounters with eternal mysteries to comical brushes with biker gangs and secret agents. But as the stories unfold, the ornithologist comes to realize that he can still learn some things from his mother, about life and even about the meaning of birds.
Flights Against the Sunset brings together nineteen of Kenn Kaufman's best essays from his long-running column in Bird Watcher's Digest. They are woven into an original story that examines how we communicate about our passions with those who do not share the same level of interest, and that celebrates the world of infinite possibilities and wonder.
Equal parts cookbook, agricultural history, chemistry lesson and produce buying guide, this densely packed book is a food-lover's delight. California food writer Parsons (How to Read a French Fry) begins with a fascinating tale of agribusiness trumping our taste buds en route to supplying year-round on-demand produce, and how farmer's markets are bringing back both appreciation of, and access to, local and seasonal foods. He then takes readers on a delectable season-by-season produce tour, from springtime Artichokes Stuffed with Ham and Pine Nuts to midwinter Candied Citrus Peel, and provides readers with the lowdown on where each fruit or vegetable is grown and how to choose, store and prepare it. Along the way, he detours into low-stress jam making, the chemistry of tomato flavor, a portrait of two peach-growing stars of the Santa Monica farmer's market and why cucumbers make some people burp. For readers who have always wondered where their food comes from, why it tastes the way it does and how to pick a peach, a melon or a green bean, this book will be an invaluable resource. (May)
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. -- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
April 30, 2008
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Excerpt from How to Pick a Peach by Russ Parsons
Alexander Pope wrote that it was a brave man who first ate an oyster. What
possible words can describe the heroism of he who first ate an artichoke?
Not only did he have to consume it, but he probably had to invent it as well.
At first glance -- and maybe even after patient consideration -- little about
the artichoke indicates either edibility or conscious creation. The thing looks
more like a primitive instrument of war than a domesticated product of
agriculture. With its overlapping rows of hard prickly petals, it seems only
one step removed from a stick with a nail stuck in it. Yet somehow,
sometime, someone almost certainly did create the artichoke. Exactly how,
when and who are unclear. Obviously, it happened well before anyone
thought to copyright a plant, or even to write a scientific paper claiming
academic bragging rights. But there is little doubt that the artichoke was
The vegetable that we call an artichoke is actually the unopened
flower bud of a plant that is an improved cardoon. (My colleague Charles
Perry says the word "artichoke" is derived from the Arabic al'qarshuf, which
translates as "little cardoon.") If you visit ethnic produce markets --
particularly Italian ones -- you may have seen a cardoon. It looks like a
prehistoric stalk of celery. It is outsize and a pale dinosaur gray-green with a
thick, stringy skin. Peel it, chop it and cook it, and you'll taste artichoke.
Why did our unnamed farmer decide that the bud of the cardoon
was more desirable than the stalk? Is that even what he was going for? Did
he really think he had accomplished his goal, or did he simply give up? There
is something haphazard, even accidental, about the artichoke. One thing's for
certain: no modern plant breeder would dare to come up with something like
it. More's the pity. The artichoke is one of spring's great vegetables, with a
buttery texture and an appealing flavor -- an almost brassy sweetness that
combines well with a multitude of other ingredients.
But there's no getting around it, the artichoke is a peculiar
vegetable. First, of course, there is its form -- like a thistle-covered mace.
The edible part of the artichoke is an unopened flower bud, or, more
accurately, a collection of flower buds. If it is left to open, the artichoke will
turn almost inside out, blossoming into something that looks like a flat
pincushion stuck with hundreds of tiny lavender-blue flowers. It is attractive in
its own gargantuan way, and fully opened artichoke flowers are sometimes
used by avantgarde florists to make visual statements in arrangements. The
sharp, tough "petals" or "leaves" of the artichoke are what botanists call
bracts, which are actually somewhere between the two. Bracts are tough,
leaflike objects that protect the flower.
But the artichoke's contrariness is more than skin-deep. In fact,
peel an artichoke and set it aside for a minute, and you'll soon discover
another of its eccentricities. Exposed to air, artichokes turn brown or even
black. This is not altogether unusual in itself -- potatoes do the same thing,
and so do peaches and shrimp, among many diverse foods.
The process is what chemists call enzymatic browning. The plant
contains a substance that when exposed to oxygen changes the color of the
flesh. This is not always bad. All tea would be green if it were not for
enzymatic browning. In the case of artichokes, though, it's hard to see the
benefit, at least for the cook. But whereas it is almost impossible to prevent
enzymatic browning, we can delay it fairly easily, either by preventing
exposure to oxygen or by treating the flesh with an acidic compound. Neither
of these takes any special equipment, just a bowl filled with acidulated
water -- plain old tap water to which you've added an acid of some sort
(white vinegar and lemon juice work equally well). When you're done, keep
the artichokes in the water until you're ready to cook them. Oldtime chefs
used to call for cooking artichokes en blanc -- in a combination of water,
acid and flour. This only slightly improved the color and pretty much wrecked
the flavor for anything other than serving them as glorified chips and dip.
You're better off settling for only minimal browning.
Another odd thing about the artichoke is its tendency to make
everything taste sweeter -- not in a good way, but that weird metallic kind of
sweet you get from diet soft drinks. This is mostly caused by a naturally
occurring chemical called cynarin (artichokes belong to the genus Cynara),
which is unique to artichokes. This sweet reaction can be so powerful that it
is almost off-putting. Sometimes the flavor is so strong that even a sip of
water tastes as if it has been artificially sweetened. It is no surprise that this
sweetening makes artichokes extremely unfriendly to wine.