Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Cilantro: The Controversial Herb

Why is this ancient, worldly herb so polarizing? There are theories that nature plays a role: Some people may be genetically predisposed to cilantro intolerance. ... For the rest of us, nurture or environment may be a factor.

text size A A A May 25, 2010 When you are a cooking instructor, the last thing you want is for a student to flee your class. It happened to me, but I swear it wasn't my fault. It was the cilantro.

The cooking class featured a Southwest American menu that embraced cilantro. Not 10 minutes into the introduction of the cuisine, one student's eyes began to water and her throat constricted. She admitted she didn't like cilantro, and she believed her reaction was due to her close proximity to the springy bouquets I had placed around my kitchen as edible decoration. She didn't have to ingest it; simply sharing a room with this herb was enough to set off her attack. Apologizing profusely with tears streaming down her face, she clutched her purse and fled my home. There were no other casualties that afternoon, but it did get me thinking about cilantro.

Like politics and religion, cilantro elicits strong opinions. People love it or hate it. For some, it's an acquired taste, thus attracting its share of proselytizing converts, such as myself. Even the name of the plant can be controversial. In the U.S., the leaves are called cilantro, while the seeds are called coriander. In Europe, the leaves are called coriander, while the seeds are also called coriander. To confuse matters further, cilantro leaves are also known as Chinese parsley.

About The Author
Lynda Balslev moved to Paris to study cooking in 1991. She returned to the U.S. 17 years later with a Danish husband, two children and previous addresses in Geneva, London and Copenhagen. During that time, she worked as a freelance food writer, caterer, cooking instructor and food editor for the Danish magazine Sphere. Currently she lives in California's Bay Area, where she writes about food and culinary travel on her blog TasteFood, teaches cooking and is relieved to be speaking English again.

A French Culinary Love Affair

Jan. 26, 2010
Whatever your culinary or linguistic disposition, this is one herb the world apparently can't live without. Featured in the cuisines of the Middle East, North Africa, Europe and Asia, cilantro has a culinary history dating back millennia. Its seeds were found in 8,000-year-old caves in Israel. There are ancient Sanskrit and biblical references to coriander. Even King Tut claimed a piece of the cilantro action with seeds scattered in his tomb. Introduced to the Americas by Europeans in the 1600s, the coriander plant is a relative newcomer to this part of the world. It's been growing like the dickens ever since, making up for any lost epochal time while achieving a prominent place in American Southwestern, Mexican and Latin American cuisines.

The entire cilantro plant is edible, including its root. The seeds, known as coriander, are the dried ripe fruit of the plant, frequently used whole for pickling and spicing, or toasted and finely ground into the dried spice also known as coriander. Dried coriander seeds bear no resemblance in flavor to the fresh leaves. Fresh coriander leaves are delicate and lacy, imparting a unique soapy aroma that either attracts or repels, depending on which side of the cilantro fence you sit. Cilantro leaves are best served fresh and used as a final flourish to dishes, because their fragility does not lend well to the heat of cooking.

Cilantro is easy to grow, which helps to explain its abundance. It is a hardy annual herb and a member of the parsley family, related to other lacy-leaved plants such as fennel, dill, chervil and carrots. It bolts quickly in warm temperatures, so it's best grown in the spring or fall. As soon as it flowers, it makes seeds that can be harvested and replanted. With some planning and routine, cilantro can grow all season long.

So, why is this ancient, worldly herb so polarizing? There are theories that nature plays a role: Some people may be genetically predisposed to cilantro intolerance. This can manifest itself in an intense aversion to the aroma and flavor of the leaves, and, in rare cases, a physical reaction similar to my student's. For the rest of us, nurture or environment may be a factor. Chances are that if you were raised in a culture where coriander is a kitchen staple, you are a cilantro lover. If you had little exposure, cilantro might take some getting used to. It's worth the effort. Fueled by culinary curiosity, I have grown to love cilantro. Now, pots of coriander grow year round in my California garden, and I frequently cook with it while happily considering myself a cilantro convert. If King Tut passed into the afterlife accompanied by coriander seeds, then this herb is worthy of our respect

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Scientist make synthetic cell

Scientists are reporting that they have made a living cell from DNA that was originally synthesized in a lab. This isn't quite a synthetic organism. But the result is an important, and some would say troubling step on the road to creating life in the lab.

Craig Venter is the scientist behind the effort. Many scientists have strong opinions about Venter, but even his detractors will admit he's a man who thinks big.

Venter and his team have been working to create a synthetic cell since 1995. The idea is to use the 4 chemical constituents of DNA — named A, T, C and G — to put together a synthetic genome. Then they would put that synthetic genome into a cell, and have it direct the cell as it grew and multiplied. Now they've has succeeded.

Venter says there were two enormous hurdles to accomplishing his goals. First, he needed to figure out how to make a very big piece of DNA. Most chemical synthesis techniques stop working when you get to a few thousand of DNA letters. That means you can't copy a whole genome — you have to do it in parts.

But Venter says, "we wanted to make something close to a million." Solving all the chemistry has taken much of the last 15 years.

Venter and his colleagues eventually solved this problem by putting smaller fragments of synthesized DNA first into bacterial cells where they assembled into large fragments, and then into yeast cells that stitched those fragments together.

The second hurdle was figuring out how to transfer that large chunk of DNA into a cell without breaking it. To begin with, he wanted to show he could transfer a working chromosome from one species of bacteria to another.

Synthesizing Life

So he took the genome from a simple cell, a small bacteria called Mycoplasma mycoides, and spent several years trying to transfer it's genome into a related species, Mycoplasma capricolum. He finally succeeded.

"So it was the capricolum cell, with the mycoides genome in it," says Venter.

After he cleared those two hurdles, the last step was to make an exact copy of the mycoides genome in the lab, and transfer that synthetic genome into capricolum.

It took several more years of work, including determining a more accurate DNA sequence for the mycoides genome, to get the system to work. But now, as he and colleagues report in the journal Science, they've done it.

But this isn't really a new life form, says Jim Collins, a synthetic biologist at Boston University. "Its genome is a stitched together copy of the DNA of an organism that exists in nature."

Collins says Venter has created something remarkable, but it's not creating life.

"We don't know enough biology to create or synthesize life," says Collins. "I think we're far removed from understanding how would you build a truly artificial genome from scratch."

Even so, Venter's accomplishment of using DNA created in the lab to control a cell's behavior is bound to raise questions about whether the work is morally acceptable. That's a discussion bioethicists have been having for some time.

Inevitable Dilemmas

It's not as though we suddenly got to the point where particular moral questions are raised here that weren't already present in the field, says Gregory Kaebnick, a scholar at the Hasting Center, a bioethics think tank.

Kaebnick says there are two basic concerns about what Venter and others in the new field of synthetic biology are doing. First, that one of these synthetic organisms will escape from the lab and run amok. And the other is whether this kind of work crosses a line where humans start playing God.

"Up until now, organisms have come into being on their own as it were, they've evolved on their own." But Kaebnick says Venter's work says that may not longer be the case. "And for some that's a troubling development.

But for Venter, that's exactly the point of doing the work in the first place.

"We decided that writing new biological software and creating new species, we could create new species to what we want them to do, not what they evolved to do, says Venter.

Venter has founded a company called Synthetic Genomics where he intends to use these new species to do things like make new fuels and new vaccines.

For the moment, Venter and his colleagues are the only ones with the money and techniques to do this kind of genomic manipulation. But others are working in related areas, and a new world of synthetic microorganisms might not be far off.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

For Airport Security, Size Matters

For Airport Security, Size Matters

Cops: New high-tech screener triggered fight over manhood insult

MAY 6--A Transportation Security Administration screener is facing an assault rap after he allegedly beat a co-worker who joked about the size of the man's genitalia after he walked through a security scanner. The May 4 confrontation involved Rolando Negrin, 44, and other TSA employees who had previously taken part in a training session at Miami International Airport, according to the below Miami-Dade Police Department reports. Negrin, pictured in the mug shot at right, and his co-workers had been training with new "whole body image" machines--the controversial kind that provide very revealing images of a traveler--when Negrin walked through the scanner. "The X-ray revealed that [Negrin] has a small penis and co-workers made fun of him on a daily basis," reported cops. Following his arrest, Negrin told police that he "could not take the jokes anymore and lost his mind." After work Tuesday evening, Negrin confronted fellow TSA screener Hugo Osorno in an airport parking lot. Negrin wanted to "resolve a problem," and get Osorno, 34, to "finally respect him." Instead, Negrin allegedly pulled out a police baton and began striking Osorno, while demanding an apology. A witness told cops that Negrin told Osorno, in Spanish, "Get on your knees or I will kill you and you better apologize." When Negrin, wearing his TSA uniform, arrived for work yesterday, he was arrested on an aggravated battery count and booked into the Miami-Dade lockup. Osorno, police reported, suffered "bruises and abrasions on his back and arms" during the attack.


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