Field of Science

Fabulous fungus and pesto pizza

It's been awhile since TPP blogged about food, so here's a nice recipe to consider especially if your F1 likes a meatless Monday dinner (except this week she missed it!). Isn't that a pretty pizza? And this is so simple, first just make your usual pizza dough. What? You don't make your own pizza dough? OK, take 2.5 cups flour, 1 cup warm water, 3/4 tsp salt, 1/8 tsp sugar, 1 pkg/tbsp. yeast, and 2 tbsp. olive oil and mix in a large bowl until you have a sticky dough. Sprinkle with enough flour that you can work with the dough and knead the dough, in the bowl, until it gets nicely elastic. You will probably need to keep sprinkling in more flour. It only takes about 10 min, and you know you're done when you push in a finger and the dough pushes the hole back out. Pour a bit of olive oil over the dough, roll the dough ball around to coat the dough and the bowl, cover with waxed paper and set aside in a warm place for at least an hour. This will make 1 large pizza (10"x 15"). It will rise a bit faster if the yeast is activated in the warm water for 10 min before making the dough. Lightly oil or grease the pan and sprinkle with a dusting of corn meal. After the dough has doubled in size, about an hour, the dough ball can be stretched gently to the length of the pan, placed in the middle, and then gently pushed and prodded until it reaches the edges making a bit of a crust at the edges. No matter what the topping, bake at 400 F for about 30 min. This recipe easily doubles for two pizzas, or use the other half to make bread sticks or bread.
This pizza is topped with fresh basil pesto brushed on moderately thinly almost out to the edges (recipes abound). The fungi are 8 oz of portabellas, 8 oz of shitake, and a big handful of chanterelles collected from under the burr oak in your backyard. Cut up the mushrooms into a large dice, sauté in 1 tbsp. of olive oil until they have shrunk and dried out a bit. If necessary, drain on paper towels (no one likes soggy pizza). Sprinkle onto the pesto. A light sprinkling of red pepper flakes is a nice optional touch. Top with about 12 oz of fresh mozzarella cheese cut into pieces. This is a surprisingly hearty pizza with a sublime flavor. Enjoy. 

Sansa Stark's portrait in the Uffizi?

Renaissance art is mostly of a religious theme; the rest is portraits of important people. You don't see landscapes except for background details. Some of the frescos in the Uffizi about which they tell you nothing show you much more about the more ordinary life and times. At any rate, a younger relative began the meme of looking for portraits that resemble friends and family members. Thus while never intending to, portraits were being viewed with a new purpose, and much to TPP's surprise there was a portrait of Sansa Stark! Right there in the Uffizi, although they did misidentify this painting's subject, something that does happen even by the museum's own admission. The final decision is up to you.

Thoughts on travel

The Phactors like travel, but not traveling. To be clear travel is when you are at someplace that is not home; traveling is the act of getting to that someplace. Traveling has become drudgery, a necessary ordeal to get to some place different. Nothing about traveling is fun, and it is often quite stressful. Traveling home is more so because there is no anticipation of going someplace new. Airports must be the most inhumane, uninhabitable, uncomfortable, uninspiring, and ugly places that humans have ever designed for themselves. This is why our recent trip was planned to maximize the amount of time spent abroad so that the ratio of travel to traveling was high (15:1 days)!  This time the travel home was uneventful, and clearly a 7 hr layover in Rome is a non-event, something to prepare you for the discomfort and boredom of a 9 hr flight, although TPP will admit, The Grand Budapest Hotel was quite amusing so only 7 hrs of boredom. It makes for a long day and 24 hrs with little or no sleep is never fun and tends to make you into an exhausted grouch. And with the exception of an OK lunch in Rome and an OK burger and margarita at the Chicago airport while waiting for the shuttle bus home the food was terrible, a real downer after enjoying quite good Italian food for a month. Wonder who supplies their kibble? The shuttle bus terminal at O’Hare has all of the services (none) and charm one comes to associate with bus terminals here in the USA. BTW, not the case in Turkey where they know how to do bus travel (yes, even stewardesses!). So home again The Phactors are; the kitty-girls and the F1 are happy to see us back. 

Italian bread with no salt - an update

The question of why Italian bread has no salt has raised two hypotheses and here are some of the ideas about this from the local natives, Italians themselves. First, they all agreed on exactly one thing; no salt in the bread is a Tuscan thing. Further south and further north in Italy the bread has salt. So it's only Tuscan bread that tastes bland.  Who knew? The favored hypothesis is that Tuscan cured meats, their ham and their favorite salamis are pretty salty, so you just don't need salt in the bread too. The historic hypothesis says that during its many wars with other city states, coastal dwellers sought to punish/subdue Florence by withholding salt. Florence responded by basically saying "We don't need your stinking salt; we'll make our bread without it." But this is a mighty long time keep punishing yourself out of regional pride. These explanations are not incompatible except if you have no salt for bread you also have no salt for curing meat. The things you learn when you travel.

Friday Fabulous Flowers - Italian Renaissance Edition

Several thoughts came to TPP while perusing the Uffizi Museum. Could there really be that many works of art featuring the Madonna and Child? (Yes!) You really had to have some big houses to commission some of those paintings. (Yep!) Some of the small details of paintings are their most interesting feature. And lastly,TPP is certain that one of the portraits was of Sansa Stark. So putting some of this together, and getting the most out of the museum's new no flash photography policy (replacing total prohibition) your flowers today are featured in a work of art called The Madonna of the Lilies by Carlo Dolci in 1642, a painting that is still remarkable in its quality, detail, and beauty.

Who is a botanist?

The Phytophactor is a botanist. His official title is Professor of Botany Emeritus, his graduate degrees are in botany, and the courses he taught were botany courses. Too many of my colleagues think botany is an old fashioned label rather than one of great distinction. Plant science is a favored label of some, but plant science, plant science, plant science, it just doesn't have a ring to it. The problem is that some of my colleagues prefer a narrower perspective. TPP introduced one of his colleagues as a botanist, and my colleague insisted he was not a botanist, so TPP focused things a bit, and said, well, alright Dave here is a geneticist thinking that would mollify him, but again he insisted this was not correct, so fine Dave, you are a cytogeneticist, and then he nodded, stuck out his hand, and said, "I'm a maize cytogeneticist".  Now given the importance of maize, this is not a small field, but not recognizing that you belong to larger and more general collective groups is in TPP's opinion, a small perspective. My ecological colleagues prefer to be called an ecologist rather than a botanist, but obviously they are both. And phycologists, physiologists, bryologists, and others all prefer the smaller, narrower label, as if somehow the broader label diminishes their expertise. The Phytophactor is a pure botanist trained in plant anatomy, plant morphology, and systematics/taxonomy, pure, undistilled, unadulterated botany. And it's time botanists of all flavors reclaimed the distinguished field of botany, the study of plants, not plant science, as their own. There. Said and done. And TPP could not be prouder.

Slay the syllabus!


Now that TPP’s academic alter ego has retired is it time for TPP to stop pointing out the absurdities of higher education?  Nah! Nada! Not a chance! So how nice is this that a columnist at Slate has taken a major swing at that evil monster – the syllabus. Yes, these days a syllabus is treated by many students and virtually all administrators, both being just about equally distant from any real vision of education, as a contract, and TPP totally agrees that this is a sign of the end times for higher education. The problem arises when a student wants to know exactly, precisely, right down to the last twiddle, what they must do in your course to get an A so that they can minimize learning and effort while maximizing their GPA, and your syllabus is supposed to spell this out. TPP actually included a small phrase at the end of one syllabus saying, “This syllabus is not a legal document and not a binding contract.” Wait, wait, the semester has started and that’s still Tuscany outside my window! This is disturbing my wa, my transcendent serenity! It can be restored only by the anguish this blog causes my teaching colleagues.   

Botanical Geek Tour - Italian edition continues


Our Italian Botanical Geek Tour continues with a changing cast of characters, some not so garden oriented, so the Phactors soldiered on to visit the Giardino Boboli and Giardino Bardini, which are right next to each other, almost.  Both gardens are of the formal nature, and in places both provide panoramic views of Florence, especially Bardini.  Giardino Boboli is the formal gardens behind the Palazzo Pitti.  From the Palazzo entry, the Boboli is all up, and fairly steep; it has a amphitheater and quite a bit of statuary, but botanically it’s pretty dull.  At the top the garden ends sort of surrounding the Belvedere Fortress, and if you walk around the fort, and down just a bit, there is the entrance to the Bardini. It’s also steep and mostly up hill having been an agricultural area just inside the old city walls where the steep terrain probably saved it from development. Some areas are still terraced orchards whose trees are espaliered onto stout fences. A slanted pergola walk is covered by some big old wisterias. Other gardens and lawns have spring flowering shrubs, so a bit quiet in August. The views of the city are quite nice, and it was a clear, not too hot day; no city haze! At the very top is a coffee shop for a bit of rest and fortification. The image is a formal part of the Giardino Bardini, looking up the main stair case. The exercise was needed to make room for gelato (peanut butter and an outstanding passion fruit). Florence as seen from the coffee shop at the top of all those stairs.  

Classic Italian botany


Here’s some historical Italian botany; an illustration by Jacopo Ligozzi on display in the Palazzo Pitti and photographed without flash in keeping with museum policy.  Always impressed by how well this camera does in low light conditions. The interesting thing is that this lovely illustration (ca. 1577-1567) of mandrake (Mandragora autumnalis – Nightshade family) is pretty accurate (flowers aren't quite right) while illustrations of an earlier era portrayed this famous toxic plant  anthropomorphically and very inaccurately. (Does anyone remember Mandrake the Magician comics?) This illustration has held up very well for 400 plus years. Ligozzi was about 20 years earlier than Gerard’s famous herbal, which also had fairly accurate (although sometimes mislabeled) illustrations.  According to legend, and as portrayed in Harry Potter, a mandrake it could scream so loud it could kill you if you pulled it up, even if to repot it.  Here the taproots, often branched, look like roots rather than arms and/or legs. 

Friday Fabulous Fern - A botanical resurrection


Any tourist to Florence Italy will get their fill of resurrection because of the abundance of religious-themed art.  But there’s another kind of resurrection that is very common in these parts; so called “resurrection” plants or desiccation tolerant plants.  Many ferns, clubmosses, mosses, and leafy liverworts are capable of desiccation and rehydration, sometimes quite rapidly.  In this part of Tuscany, the agricultural and urban landscape is composed of wall after wall after wall of mostly rough limestone blocks. There’s a lot of surface area there for tough plants who can hang onto the wall by rooting into the cracks and crevasses between or in the rocks. Such environments are pretty harsh, very hot and dry, intermittently hospitable after rains or during a rainy season. Quite a number of these desiccation tolerant plants can be found on the walls of this estate.  The primary fern is Asplenium ceterach, the rusty-backed fern, so called because the backs of the leaves are covered with brown, scaly hairs that hide the sori. As the fern dries out the pinnae (leaflets) and fronds curl such that the brown back side of the leaves is exposed, and the fronds curl almost into a reverse fiddlehead. The hairiness helps reduce water loss, perhaps reflects sunlight, and may speed rehydration by trapping water in capillary spaces. When dehydrated these ferns seem like real crispy critters.  Right now a little demonstration is underway to see how fast some of these desiccated ferns can rehydrate.  As expected some of the mosses are very fast at this indeed. But within minutes the fronds begin to uncurl. 12 hours later the fern was rehydrated looking green and fresh. The non-botanists were quite impressed partly because the transformation is so striking, and partly because people have this idea that ferns are delicate little things.