Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Top Poisonous Foods We Love To Eat

Everyday we chow down on food produced from plants that carry deadly poisons. Most of the time we don’t need to be concerned with this as the mass production of fruit and vegetables ensures that we are usually safe, but from time to time people accidentally kill themselves by unwittingly eating the wrong part of a plant. In order to ensure that this never happens to you, I have put together a list of the most commonly seen poisons that we come in to contact with in our kitchens.


We have all heard of toadstools - and know that they are poisonous, but what many people don’t know is that a toadstool is actually a mushroom, not a separate type of plant. Toadstool is slang for “poisonous mushroom”. While there are some useful signs that a mushroom is poisonous, they are not consistent and all mushrooms of unknown origin should be considered dangerous to eat. Some of the things you can look for to try to determine whether a mushroom is poisonous are: it should have a flat cap with no bumps, it should have pink or black gills (poisonous mushrooms often have white gills), and the gills should stay attached to the cap (not the stalk) if you pull it off. But remember, while this is generally true of many types of mushroom, it is not always true.


Elderberry trees are very attractive and quite large. They are covered with thousands of tiny flowers which have a delicate scent. The flowers are used mainly for making elderflower liqueur and soda. Sometimes the flowers are eaten after being battered and deep fried. But beneath the pretty surface lurks danger! The roots and some other parts of the elderberry tree are highly poisonous and will cause severe stomach problems. So next time you decide to pick some elderberry flowers for eating, be sure to eat just the flowers.


Castor Oil

Castor oil, the bane of many of our childhoods, is regularly added to candies, chocolate, and other foods. Furthermore, many people still consume a small amount daily or force it on their unwilling children. Fortunately the castor oil we buy is carefully prepared, because the castor bean is so deadly, that it takes just one bean to kill a human, and four to kill a horse. The poison is ricin, which is so toxic that workers who collect the seeds have strict safety guidelines to prevent accidental death. Despite this, many people working in the fields gathering the seeds suffer terrible side-effects.


Almonds are one of the most useful and wonderful of seeds (it is not a nut as many people would have you believe). It has a unique taste and its excellent suitability for use in cooking have made it one of the most popular ingredients in pastry kitchens for centuries. The most flavorsome almonds are bitter almonds (as opposed to “sweet” almonds). They have the strongest scent and are the most popular in many countries. But there is one problem: they are full of cyanide. Before consumption, bitter almonds must be processed to remove the poison. Despite this requirement, some countries make the sale of bitter almonds illegal (New Zealand regretfully is one of them). As an alternative, you can use the pip from an apricot stone which has a similar flavor and poison content. Heating destroys the poison. In fact, you may not know that it is now illegal in the USA to sell raw almonds - all almonds sold are now heat-treated to remove traces of poison and bacteria.


Cherries are a very popular fruit - used in cooking, liqueur production, or eaten raw. They are from the same family as plums, apricots, and peaches. All of the previously mentioned fruits contain highly poisonous compounds in their leaves and seeds. Almonds are also a member of this family but they are the only fruit which is harvested especially for its seeds. When the seeds of cherries are crushed, chewed, or even slightly injured, they produce prussic acid (hydrogen cyanide). Next time you are eating cherries, remember not to suck on or chew the pip.


Like the previous two items, apple seeds also contain cyanide - but obviously in much smaller doses. Apple seeds are very often eaten accidentally but you would need to chew and consume a fairly high number to get sick. There are not enough seeds in one apple to kill, but it is absolutely possible to eat enough to die. I recommend avoiding apple eating competitions! Incidentally, if you want to eat an apple and find a worm in it (and hopefully not half a worm), you can drop it in a bowl of salt water which will kill the worm.


Rhubarb is a very underrated plant - it produces some of the nicest tasting puddings and is incredibly easy to grow at home. Rhubarb is something of a wonder plant - in addition to an unknown poison in its leaves, they also contain a corrosive acid. If you mix the leaves with water and soda, it becomes even more potent. The stems are edible (and incredibly tasty) and the roots have been used for over 5,000 years as a laxitive and poop-softener.


First off, a little interesting trivia: in the US, thanks to a US Supreme Court decision in 1893, tomatoes are vegetables. In the rest of the world they are considered to be fruit (or more accurately, a berry). The reason for this decision was a tax on vegetables but not fruit. You may also be interested to know that technically, a tomato is an ovary. The leaves and stems of the tomato plant contain a chemical called “Glycoalkaloid” which causes extreme nervousness and stomach upsets. Despite this, they can be used in cooking to enhance flavor, but they must be removed before eating. Cooking in this way does not allow enough poison to seep out but can make a huge difference in taste. Finally, to enhance the flavor of tomatoes, sprinkle a little sugar on them. Now we just need to work out whether they are “toe-mah-toes” or “toe-may-toes”.



Potatoes have appeared in our history books since their introduction to Europe in the 16th century. Unfortunately they appear largely due to crop failure and severe famine, but they will be forever the central vegetable of most western families daily diet. Potatoes (like tomatoes) contain poison in the stems and leaves - and even in the potato itself if left to turn green (the green is due to a high concentration of the glycoalkaloid poison). Potato poisoning is rare, but it does happen from time to time. Death normally comes after a period of weakness and confusion, followed by a coma. The majority of cases of death by potato in the last fifty years in the USA have been the result of eating green potatoes or drinking potato leaf tea.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Unauthorized commercial for Trader Joe's

Brew the Best Possible Coffee Without Breaking the Bank


Whether you're the kind of coffee drinker that slugs back the swill in the break-room coffee pot at work or savors exotic coffee on sleepy Sundays, there is always room for enhancing your java.

Consider yourself forewarned however, once you begin brewing better coffee it becomes increasingly difficult to go back to enjoying crappy coffee. Raised in a family of non-coffee drinkers I simply accepted that the coffee I intermittently experienced in diners and donut shops across America was the entirety of the coffee experience—scalding hot, bitter in taste, and certainly not as pleasant a caffeine delivery system as Mountain Dew. All of that changed when I started drinking more coffee to survive life on the graveyard shift and decided that there had to be a way to make coffee taste good without adding so much sugar into it that I may as well have kept drinking soda.

You won't always be able to use all of the following tricks to brew a great cup of coffee—not all of us have access a local coffee roaster or the a well stocked local market—but applying even a few of them to your coffee routine will boost the quality of your coffee drinking experience.
Know Your Varieties

Nearly all the coffee in the world comes from two types of coffee plants: Arabica and Robusta. Arabica has roughly half the amount of caffeine and a more mellow taste. Robusta has more caffeine and higher acidic content which creates a significantly more bitter flavor. Many people experience mild stomach aches from the combination of higher caffeine and acidic content of Robusta beans, certainly many a potential future coffee-drinker has sworn off the stuff because of such an experience with cheap Robusta beans. It often isn't all that much more to buy Arabica over Robusta and with careful label reading you can often get Arabica coffee for the same price as Robusta based blends.
Buy Whole Beans

When you smell coffee—whether you're smelling whole beans or already ground coffee—you're essentially breathing in some of the flavor. The oils and chemical compounds that give coffee its distinct flavoring are in constant flight from the bean. The more you can do to preserve the integrity of the beans and the delightful flavor inside right up until the moment of brewing, the better the coffee will be. Keeping the beans intact for as long as possible helps immensely. If possible where you live, try to buy locally roasted beans to benefit from the freshness. Barring that, buying whole bean coffee is vastly superior to buying pre-ground coffee.

Grind Your Own

You've got whole bean coffee, now what? There are two principle types of coffee grinders on the market. A basic blade grinder costs less than $15 at any kitchen store or big box grocer and looks a lot like a tall and narrow food processor. There is a flat blade at the bottom of the chamber you put your coffee in that spins and grinds up the beans. The other kind of grinder is a burr grinder and prices for a quality model start at $200 and rise rapidly. Burr models use two interlocking metal burns to create extremely uniform coffee grounds—imagine if you will two cone shaped gears that fit together like nesting dolls. Coffee aficionados will balk at my suggestion that a blade grinder is adequate, but it's better to have irregularly but freshly ground coffee than it is to have no coffee at all because you blew $500 on a premium coffee grinder! Grind the coffee as closely to the time it will be used as possible, ideally right before you use it.

The refrigerator is the mortal enemy of your coffee. Taking coffee in and out of the fridge is a sure way to suck the flavor right out of it. Coffee that will be used frequently and immediately—whole bean or ground— is ideally stored in an air tight, opaque,and glass or otherwise inert container. Coffee that will not be consumed immediately but needs to be preserved for near-future use can be safely stored in the freezer assuming it is stored in a dry and air tight container. Storing an unsealed container of grounds or beans in the cold temperatures of either the fridge or freezer is a sure way to accelerate the its journey from delicious flavor to stale bitterness.

Press It

Most people would assume if they had less than $50 to spend on coffee brewing equipment that there would be no way they could get a premium cup of coffee out of the supplies they could afford. Fortunately one of the best methods of brewing coffee is the cheapest. You can pick up a Bodum Chambord French Press, the original and classic design, for $25 or less just about everywhere. Using a French press is one of the simplest methods of brewing a fantastic cup of coffee. A French press is a glass cylinder that has a lid with a piston style rod attached to a circular screen. Grind your coffee, put a few heaping scoops in the bottom, pour nearly boiling water over the grounds, wait about four minutes, press the plunger down to push the grounds down and enjoy some delicious coffee. One of the primary benefits of making coffee in a French press over a standard drip pot is that more of the coffee oils end up in your cup instead of in the machine's filter. More oils means better taste! As a bonus, a carefully cleaned French press can also double as an excellent pot for loose leaf tea. If you already have a drip pot and want to keep on using it, use a tip we've previously highlighted as a way to get better coffee out of drip coffee makers: run a pot of water through it before putting the actual coffee through to pre-heat the unit and help get it closer to optimum brewing temperature.
Use Pure(r) Water

While it might not be practical to install a reverse osmosis filter under your sink, the more pure the water you use for your coffee the better it will taste. A gallon of locally distilled water costs less than a dollar in most places and many supermarkets have cheap refills available—my local market has a machine that will refill a gallon jug for 35 cents. Even if you—for environmental or financial reasons—don't want to spend money on filtered or bottled water for your coffee you can still tweak your water. Fill up a pitcher of water the night before and set it out on the counter. While it's not the same as being filtered through the stony depths of a mountain aquifer it will allow some chemicals in the water like chlorine to dissipate. Anything that makes your cup of joe taste less like the pool at the YMCA is welcome.

The variety of coffees and methods of preparation ensure that the above list just barely scratches the surface of tips and tricks to be shared on the subject. If you have a great tip for making a better cup of coffee, share it in the comments below and help your fellow readers make 2009 the year their coffee stops being bitter enough to kill an old cowboy.