Sunday July 25, 2021

Interesting Things




‘Did You Know?’


Watercress is part of the mustard family and is one of the most ancient green vegetables known to man. Its use can be traced back to the Persians, Greeks and Romans.

The first known commercial cultivation attempt was made by Nicholas Meissner in the 16th century in Erfurt, Germany. It was seen there by an officer of Napoleon’s army and introduced by that officer into France, where it was eaten at almost every meal. Napoleon himself was a huge enthusiast.

The first British watercress farm was opened in 1808 in Kent. One famous British watercress seller was Eliza James, who as a child of five sold bunches of watercress around factories in Birmingham, and later earned the nickname of "The Watercress Queen" because of her near monopoly on the London watercress restaurant and hotel trade. She was reputed to be the biggest owner of watercress farms anywhere in the world.

Watercress has a light peppery, slightly bitter taste and is available year round.


An early form of gingerbread can be traced to the ancient Greeks and Egyptians who used it for ceremonial purposes (I have yet to determine what type of ceremony).

Gingerbread made an appearance in Europe when 11th-century crusaders brought the spice back from the Middle East. An early European recipe consisted of ground almonds, stale breadcrumbs, rosewater, sugar and, ginger.

The first gingerbread man is credited to Queen Elizabeth I, who presented visiting dignitaries with one baked in their own likeness.

Gingerbread tied with ribbon was popular at fairs and, when exchanged, became a token of love. On a less appetizing or romantic note, aromatic crumbled gingerbread was added to recipes to mask the odor of decaying meat.


Shallots are thought to have originated in Asia and traveled through India and to the Mideast. They are known botanically as Allium ascalonicum, derived from Ascalon, a coastal city in Israel where they were cultivated. The Crusaders brought them to Europe and it is thought that De Soto brought shallots to the United States during his Louisiana explorations.

Shallots are a member of the same families as garlic and onions. They have a mild flavor, a bit like a sweet onion with a hint of garlic. They are covered with an onion-like papery skin but have multiple cloves like garlic. When a recipe calls for a shallot, it means the whole shallot, not just a single clove.

A colleague credits Anthony Bourdain for stating that the shallot was the difference between restaurant food and home cooking.



Allspice is not a combination of spices, rather it is the dried berry of the allspice tree, also known as the pimento tree (no relation to the sweet pepper pimento).  The pimento tree is native to the West Indies and Central America.

The allspice berry tastes like a combination of cinnamon, cloves, and nutmeg, thus leading to the confusion that it is a melange of spices.  Jamaica is the largest producer of allspice and the Jamaican product is considered superior to those from other countries such as Mexico, Honduras and Guatamala.

Allspice can be purchased ground or as whole berries (preferred).  It can be used in baking (best known as the "secret inredient" in pumpkin pie, savory dishes such as jerk chicken, and with vegetables, especially winter vegetables such as turnips and squash.

Celery Root, Celeriac, Celery Knob

This rather ugly, gnarly root is a member of the celery family, but is not the root of what we recognize as celery. Rather, it is the root of a particular celery that is cultivated solely for its root. The taste is somewhere between strong celery and parsley. It is a mainstay in French bistros and brasseries.  Celery root can be shredded, grated, or julienned and tossed with a sharp dressing and served on its own.  Celeriac-potato puree is a wonderful alternative to mashed potatoes and it is also excellent in soups.  Celery knob is available year round, but is best November through April.  Don't be turned off by its looks!


“I have made a lot of mistakes falling in love, and regretted most of them, but never the potatoes that went with them.”
Nora Ephron, Heartbreak

“I appreciate the potato only as a protection against famine, except for that, I know of nothing more eminently tasteless.”
Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, The Physiology of Taste

Potatoes are revered, maligned, and misunderstood. Originating in Peru or Chile, depending on the food historian, potatoes were introduced to the Old World in the 1550’s by Spanish Conquistadors. Potatoes were not readily accepted because they are a member of the nightshade family and thought to be poisonous. Sir Walter Raleigh helped debunk that myth when he planted them on his property in Ireland. Later, Antoine-August Parmentier, a French agronomist, posted armed guards around his property by day and removed the guards at night, prompting thieves to nightly steal sacks of this precious crop, thus introducing potatoes to French cuisine. During the Alaskan gold rush potatoes were so valued that miners traded gold for potatoes. The first episode of The French Chef with Julia Child on PBS in 1962 focused on the potato.

Buy potatoes depending on what the end product will be. Waxy potatoes like red-skinned and fingerlings hold their shape when cooked and are best used in soups and salads. Mealy potatoes such as russets are drier and starchier and are excellent for mashing and baking. All-purpose potatoes like Yukon Gold and white are “in between” and can be used in most recipes.

Choose potatoes that are firm, with no soft spots, and that are evenly shaped. Avoid potatoes with sprouts as this is a sign they were stored in a warm place and have lost flavor. Also avoid potatoes with green spots. This is a sign of chlorophyll that occurs when the potatoes are exposed to excessive light after harvesting.

Store potatoes in a cool, dark place. Never refrigerate them. If they do begin to sprout but are still firm, remove the sprouts and cook soon. Properly stored potatoes will keep about 10 weeks.

When peeling potatoes, the flesh will begin to oxidize and cause discoloration. To avoid this, place peeled, cut potatoes in a bowl of cold water where they can stay for a few hours before you cook them. If you are shredding potatoes such as for latkes, placing them in cold water will not work well, so try to shred them just before cooking. Any discoloration that appears will not impact the taste and will disapperar in the cooking process.

Potatoes are rich in Vitamin C and potassium. They also offer fiber, especially when eaten with the skin-on. It is the “extras” such as butter, sour cream, bacon, cheese, etc. that we mound on the potato that adds calories.

Canola Oil

Canola Oil is an acronym for “Canadian Oil Low Acid”. It is made from a hybrid rapeseed and was developed in Canada in the mid-1970’s. Rapeseed oil is popular in Europe and still goes by that name, but the Canadian seed oil industry changed the name to make it more saleable in North America. In Canada it is also known as Lear Oil or “Low Euric Acid Rapeseed”. Rapeseed is related to the mustard, turnip, and rutabaga family.

Canola Oil is a neutral oil, has one of the lowest percentages of saturated fat, and contains a high level of monounsaturated fat. It also contains Omega-3 fatty acids. The health benefits and the fact that it has a very high smoke-point (400 degrees Fahrenheit) make it very popular for everyday use.

Nutmeg & Mace

Nutmeg and Mace are two distinctly different tasting spices that come from the same tropical fruit. Nutmeg is the seed of an apricot-like fruit on the nutmeg tree and mace is the bright red membrane that surrounds the seed. When the fruit is picked, it is split and the seed removed. The red membrane is scraped off and dried and turns orange-red in the process.

Nutmeg is sold whole or ground. Ground nutmeg loses flavor quickly, so it should be purchased in small quantities. Whole nutmeg retains its flavor much longer and can be easily ground with a nutmeg grater or microplane.

Mace is much more expensive than nutmeg because it takes 400 pounds of nutmeg to make 1 pound of mace.* It can also be purchased whole (known as blade mace) or ground.

*Field Guide To Herbs and Spices, Aliza Green, 2006

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Welcome to Did You Know? where each entry will explain or demystify an aspect of cooking –  ingredients or techniques.  If there is a topic you would like addressed, email us and we will answer your request.