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Red, White and Grape: From Jumping Genes to Wrapping Leaves

Red or White? Even King Tutankhamun (1332-1322 B.C.) prudently stashed away amphorae of both red and white wines to enjoy in the afterlife. Biochemically, a single class of pigments found in grape skin, the anthocyanins, separates the red from white. White grapes arose from their wild, dark berried ancestors by not one, but two rare and independent genetic events: either one alone would not have given us the white grape. In fact, all ~3000 white cultivars today carry these same gene disruptions, pointing back to a common ancestor that arose millennia ago. The disrupted genes code for transcription factors, aka master regulators of biochemical pathways that can turn other genes on or off.

Science sleuths have peeked back into the gene history of Vitis vinifera to figure this out.

First, the MybA gene duplicated, giving two side-by-side copies, both active in making anthocyanins and red berries. Somewhere along the way, one of them, the MybA2 gene accumulated two mutations (depicted as stars) that rendered the resulting protein non-functional.

Independently, a “jumping gene” or retrotransposon, (green triangle) landed within the adjacent backup gene MybA1, knocking it out as well. The resulting plant, termed heterozygous, still bore red berries, because the unmutated genes on the other chromosome were active. Eventually, two heterozygous plants bred together and some offspring received both chromosomes with two nonfunctional MybA genes.

Voila, white grapes!

If you’ve ever snacked on delicious dolmas, then you know that the goodness of the grape vine goes beyond berries. Legend has it that the gods of Mount Olympus feasted on the tender leaves of the grape wrapped around morsels of rice or meat, alongside ambrosia and nectar! Although stuffed grape leaves are common around the Mediterranean, Greeks claim that dolmades were co-opted by the army of Alexander the Great to parcel out limited rations of meat during the seige of Thebes.  Luckily, you only need to lay seige on your local Middle Eastern grocery store to find jarred leaves, preserved in brine. Unfurl them gently and give them a good wash to get started. It doesn’t hurt to have a glass of your favorite vintage, red or white, on hand before embarking on this project!

For the recipe on stuffed rice dolmas, visit my blog at:

REF:White grapes arose through the mutation of two similar and adjacent regulatory genes. Walker et al., 2007
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Falafel Faves and Favism

★ I flagged the Palestinian taxi driver with some relief: the streets were deserted, the restaurants in the old city of Jerusalem were shuttered for Shabbat and I was growing increasingly peckish. After I convinced him, with some effort and considerable diplomacy, that I did not want a tour of Bethlehem, he admitted defeat with good humor and took me to a little Palestinian restaurant where I had the most delicious falafels- golden nuggets of chickpea goodness drizzled with tangy tahini atop mounds of fluffy pita bread, still warm from the oven.

★ Did you know that falafels were originally made from fava beans by the Egyptian Copts, who become vegans during Lent? But fava beans can trigger life-threatening anemia in a fraction of people of Mediterranean descent, including Jews, so chickpeas have been used as a safer replacement. Known as favism, the disorder is due to inherited variants in the enzyme G6PD, which stands for glucose-6-phosphate dehydrogenase, a somewhat less tasty mouthful than falafel.

★ In red blood cells, G6PD replenishes an important anti-oxidant, glutathione that guards against damaging free radicals generated from certain compounds (like vicine and divicine) found in broad beans. People with G6PD deficiency, nearly all males since the gene is located on the X-chromosome, lack this protective mechanism and their damaged red cells gives them anemia, jaundice and occasional hemolysis. For extra credit: why did these harmful mutations persist in some populations instead of being weeded out by natural selection?  It turns out that G6PD mutations protect against malaria, likely by hastening clearance of red blood cells infected with the malarial parasite Plasmodium.

★ To make falafel, start with dry chickpeas. Fresh bought works best (save those fossilized pellets from the back of your pantry for ammunition in case of squirrel invasion). Soak the chickpeas overnight in generous excess of water and they will reward you by becoming pleasingly plump and doubling in quantity. One cup dry chickpeas should be plenty, two will feed a crowd. As any responsible scientist would do, I repeated my falafel experiment for n = 3 before publishing. Many thanks to my enthusiastic students for confirming the protocol and consuming the product! For the recipe see:
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Courgettes with Challah

Zucchinis stewed in a lemony, herb infused oil. Delicious hot or cold, especially mopped up with challah bread made by my daughter! I've tried this recipe twice, so I'm confident about sharing it with my fellow foodies. If you have too many courgettes/zucchinis lying around, this is a great way to use them up.

First, sprinkle cubed zukes (about 3-4 cups) generously with coarse salt and let drain an hour or overnight in a colander. I used some yellow squash as well. 

Bring to boil: 1.25 cups water, 0.5 cup olive oil, juice of one lemon, crushed garlic cloves, some dry thyme and a bay leaf. Coarsely crush some black pepper corns, whole coriander seeds and fennel. (The fennel seeds were harvested from my garden. I'm still puzzling over why I didn't get any fennel bulbs, though?). Add to the oil-water-lemony broth.

Add the cubed zucchini and 2-3 chopped tomatoes. I added a small handful of black raisins for a touch of sweetness and contrasting color. Let boil briskly for 15-20 minutes. The liquid thickens into a lovely, fragrant broth with a glossy finish. Top it off with some olives..I used the green pimento-filled ones which were rather bland, so I think the black Kalamata olives would be a better match. 

You'll have to ask Anjana for the challah recipe :)

Bon Appetit! 


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What's for Dinner?

Homemade chappatis, puffed on an open flame. Make a pliant, soft dough with whole wheat (chappati) flour and water. Roll into circles and griddle-cook both sides before flipping directly on to the flame (I cheat, and use a metal grid. My mom uses her fingers, ouch). The chappatis should puff right up. Dab a small amount of clarified butter (ghee) on each, and store covered until ready to eat.

Coconut Curry with Potatoes and Peas: Grind together fresh coconut, roasted coriander seeds, roasted fenugreek seeds (just a few, or it will be too bitter), tamarind, dry red chilies. Bring to a boil with enough water to make a gravy; then, add precooked, diced potatoes and peas. Add salt and garam masala to taste and a small lump of jaggery to sweeten and balance the tartness of the tamarind. The final touch is tempering: in a tsp of oil, splutter some mustard seeds and split white lentils (urad dal). When the oil turns aromatic and the mustard seeds turn gray, attempting to escape and redecorate your clean stove top, add the curry leaves and stand back..then pour it on the coconut curry for a satisfying sizzle. 

Homemade Yogurt: 2% fat milk, boiled and cooled, then inoculated with non-commercial (i.e., smuggled from India) culture. Use a yogurt thermometer if you want to be scientific. Or not. Incubate overnight in warm spot (I once saw a friend lovingly wrap it in a child's parka!). It is mild to taste, and moderately solid. 

Bon Appetit! What's your dinner? 
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Cabbage Spiced Rice

A lazy weekend dish that will wait until the boys come back from their wanderings (they'd better hurry, I'm hungry!). 

Cook separately, 1.5 cups of basmati rice. Inhale the floral flagrance, ahhh!

Finely chop a head of cabbage and half an onion.

Add to hot oil: black mustard seeds, white split urad dal, yellow split channa dal, roasted peanuts, dash of asafoetida powder, curry leaves, a few grains of fenugreek. When the mustard seeds turn grey and pop, and the dals release a nutty aroma, add the chopped onions and cabbage in succession. I leave green chillies whole so the wimps boys can fish them out. Stir on high heat, season with salt, a pinch of turmeric and your favorite garam masala spice mix. I used one made my mom that I have stashed away in my refrigerator. 

Cover briefly until the cabbage just about cooks. Add fresh, grated coconut and a tablespoon of coconut oil for flavor. Toss in the cooked rice very gently, garnish with chopped cilantro and mint (mine are from the garden..the only herbs that are out and about this early in our spring). The mint is a variegated variety, isn't it pretty? :)

The boys are not home yet. So post pix on social media and hold off consuming until they return. Bon appetit foodies! 

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Of Onion Jam and Patriarchal Hegemony

◑ What, you may justifiably wonder, does onion jam have to do with the patriarchal hegemony? Nothing, of course. Unless, you count yourself a member of my mad menagerie. Still, if you're looking for some delicious comfort food that's out of the ordinary, and willing to pay a paltry remuneration by nodding sympathetically through my maternal musings, Read On!

◑ Like any self-respecting feminist, I yearned for my pragmatic teenage daughter to espouse the cause. More women in STEM! Independence! Equity! So when she won a merit scholarship at one of the Seven Sisters colleges, I exerted my not-inconsiderable persuasive powers to get her to go there. Four years later, she's back, with a degree in neuroscience but somewhat bruised around the edges. Well, the college website did say heady and nervy, and that's what we got. After looking up the patriarchal hegemony on Wikipedia, and nodding every time she said, That's so hetero-normative, I sought a meeting of the minds in the old standby of comfort food.

◑ This being the child who asked for caramelized onions as pizza topping and used words like ramekin and macerate in her vocabulary, I turned to a +A French girl "cuisine" for a recipe for onion marmalade ( . The first time we made it, we dutifully converted the metric measures to American. Too bad we didn't follow them. Since then, we've confirmed by innumerable replications (p <0.005) that it always tastes delicious. I served it with a side of penne, baked in a creamy sauce tossed with roasted vegetables and topped with a layer of potatoes. 

Recipe and More pix
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Diwali: Then and Now

⌘ Picture a little girl, shaken awake in the pre-dawn darkness by her mother, shivering before a "head bath" with a pail of steaming hot water from the big copper water heater in the kitchen. Squeaky clean, her hair dried and braided into long mogra flower-laden plaits, she puts on some pretty gold bangles (from an ever-expanding stash of jewelry destined for her future bridal finery) and dresses in a brand new, long skirt of Kanchipuram silk, the traditional and sacred fabric of southern India. After excitedly holding a little sparkler on the balcony, she joins her family for a Diwali feast, full of sweets and special treats that last all day long, while explosions of crackers and the acrid smell of smoke fill the city air.  

⌘ Fast-forward many decades later, and the little girl has given up the silks and bracelets for a disciplined life of an academic scientist, transplanted into a distant western land.  It may be Diwali, but she must fly from one coast to another, evangelical in her passion, poring over 200-page reports on the plane and happily rolling polysyllabic words into hour-long lectures. But wait: just before leaving, there is time to whip together a simple family breakfast of beaten rice ("poha") with crunchy, tangy, comforting and colorful notes. Today, the sweetness comes from dimly-recalled memories of childhood and the sparklers are in the bright eyes of the family who will welcome "madamescientist" back home :)  To all those who celebrate, Happy Diwali!

For +Azlin Bloor, +nomad dimitri and #foodiesdiwali  , with apologies that this is not quite the spread you requested.  

Recipe: #diwali  
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Pumping up Pumpkin Pie

✿ My postdoctoral advisor, Carolyn Slayman, could strike fear into us by the deceptively mild statement..”Wouldn’t it be nice..?” We all knew what that meant. At least another couple of months of experiments, if we were lucky. Twenty years later, I will confess to pumping up science. Just when my lab folk think they have a story neatly wrapped up, topped with a colorful title and shiny journal to target, I have no qualms in raising the bar on expectations up another notch. It’s the same with recipes. Who can resist the urge to dress up a nice but bland sauce, sneak in more spices or fiddle with the fixings? So when a collection of 50 canned pumpkin recipes came my way, I considered it only the start of a culinary excursion.

✿ Take for example, the Pumpkin Alfredo sauce: whisk together a cup each of pumpkin puree and light cream, season with salt, pepper and grated nutmeg, and heat through. Nice, but surely there’s more? It needed some tang: in went a quick puree of sundried tomatoes in olive oil, with a sparse bunch of rosemary and sage scavenged from my fast fading fall garden. The little specks of deep red and bright green were a lovely addition. What, no vegetables? I folded in roasted florets of cauliflower to the penne with the pumpkin sauce. Topped it with crushed red pepper and parmesan cheese. Next time, I might try layering the pumpkin cream with no boil lasagne, fresh mozzarella and something yet to be determined. Consumed before digital capture, this one is worth repeating.

✿ Now that I was on a pumpkin quest, pie loomed on the next horizon. I am not a pie person, however. So I settled for prudence and a recipe on the can of Libby’s pumpkin puree. It sounded easy enough, besides it’s been on the label since 1950! I used my trusty crusty Graham Cracker base and decorated the top with walnut bits and pecan halves (to dress up the wound I made when I tested for doneness!). Although my prudence was rewarded with a perfectly pleasing pumpkin pie, I have a hankering to veer from the straight and narrow next time. Do you have suggestions to pump up my pumpkin pie? How about adding a dash of smoked paprika? Chocolate in the base? 


50 canned pumpkin recipes:
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Test Driving a Tagine

Tagine. The very word conjured up a magical mirage of Marrakesh and Casablanca, dashing Berbers and belly dancers, hookahs and saffron-laced spicy stews.  I gazed at the overpriced albeit charming hand painted glazed clay artifact in the Williams Sonoma store, and in a fit of self-indulgence, bought it. My children were less impressed. “It’s a pot”, explained the world weary, newly minted college graduate. The beatnik teenager sniffed the air hopefully, “Mom bought pot?”

• Online, opinions and advice flew in, fast and furious. You’ll need a heat diffuser for the stove top. Don’t place it in a preheated oven. You have to temper it first. Just use it as a serving dish. The clay will leach heavy metals. Never wash it until completely cooled. Intimidated, but determined, I applied the same (lack of) logic I use to call upon divine spirits to bless our laboratory research. I soaked the tagine overnight, then rubbed in some olive oil, and baked it for an hour despite a strong suspicion that the glazing on the pot made this exercise unnecessary. I sent my husband to the store for some tagine spices. Prudently, he purchased every exotic mix he could find: Harissa, Za’atar, Ras-el-hanout.  The aromas were all-too familiar though: cumin, coriander, turmeric, cinnamon. “Mom, you’ve been had”, the 14 year old wisely concluded, “It’s Garam Masala”.

• Clean up was a breeze!  My husband dug into his plate, saying “Mmm…all it needs is some lamb”. He was assigned dish washing duty for making mischief.

For +Shinae Choi Robinson 's African Food Cookalong  ▶

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Fun with Furans: Making Flat Bread with Fenugreek

• The first reports of a strangely seductive aroma wafting over Manhattan and nearby New Jersey began in 2005. People smelled maple syrup, which got them fantasizing over pancakes and waffles. No doubt, the local Denny’s did brisk business. But there were enough calls to 311 to set the authorities sniffing. It was not until 2009, after the Department of Environmental Protection analyzed dozens of air samples and computed wind routes, that Mayor Bloomberg announced the mysterious source: a spice factory in New Jersey that processed fenugreek.

Sotolon, or more precisely 4,5-dimethyl-3-hydroxy-2[5H]-furanone, is an extremely strong aroma compound. In low concentrations, it smells like maple syrup, caramel or burnt sugar, and at high concentrations it evokes the smell of curry and spices. It is the major aroma and flavor component of fenugreek and lovage, but also flavors rum, white wine, aged sake and tobacco. Why you complain, New Yorkers?

• Remarkably, fenugreek (Trigonella foenum-graecum) is used three ways: as a spice, herb and vegetable. The yellowish cuboid seeds (methi) are roasted and widely used in Indian cooking, the dried leaves (kasuri methi) are used as herb, and the fresh leaves (methi) are cooked as greens. This time, I chopped the leaves up finely in my food processor and incorporated them into a verdant and pliant dough, to make methi parathas, a flaky, flat bread full of flavor.

Gene Mutations in the enzyme that breaks down branched chain amino acids result in sotolons accumulating in the urine. Maple syrup urine disease, (MSUD) is life threatening and is particularly prevalent in some ethnic groups (Old Order Mennonites).



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