Dealing with living food

One of the interesting things about vegetables and fruits is that they're still alive when you're storing them. In fact, unless you cook them, they're still alive when you eat them. Raw food vegans had better be quite comfortable with their life choices knowing the sheer number of living beings that they consume just to live. I'm not judging, I merely mention because it's just occurred to me.

The problem with the plants being alive is that they continue doing whatever it is that they would normally do under the circumstances. In some cases this means turning sugars into starches, in others starches to sugars. Colors may fade, cells might degrade. Life goes on.

In some cases, life going on is great. Bananas, for example. Bananas are all well and good as a fresh fruit, but while they're green, they're tasteless, and only as the continue to age do they turn starches into sugars. Take it too far, and they become brown and generally unappealing. Of course, in the specific they become better, because brown and mushy bananas are perfect for banana bread. So it's great for the whole living thing to keep going on.

Sometimes you'll slow down the living processes by reducing the molecular activity by slowing down all of the molecules. Though this sounds complex, I'm really just talking about putting something in the refrigerator or freezer. After all, temperature is just the average speed of molecules in any given substance, so to slow down chemical processes, you make it colder.

Freezing is much more effective at slowing the processes than cooling, but that doesn't make it a good idea in all cases. After all, freezing will create ice crystals in the cells, and as they expend, it will rip through the membranes and cell walls of your plant, which will cause the cells to leak upon thawing. This is fine in some cases, but not in others, so use caution with the freezing. A general rule is that if you don't see it in the freezer aisle, it probably doesn't freeze well.

Another useful rule is for whether to refrigerate a fruit or vegetable. The the plant in question lives in through cold weather, it's fine with the cold. If it's a tropical plant, it would be happier on the counter. Because the plants are still alive, if they hit some weather that they're not ready to deal with, then they don't know what to do and the chemical factories that keep them going will often fail.

There are times when you really want to stop whatever's going on within the plant, and that usually means halting enzymatic actions. Enzymes are proteins that facilitate chemical reactions, and are one of the lower-level functions of a living system. If you can stop the enzymes from doing their thing, then you can stop the aging process. They way to do that is with heat.

Of course, heating food is one way to cook it, and there are all sorts of other chemical processes that go on when you cook food. You might just want to stop the enzymatic stuff without seriously damaging the fresh taste or texture of a food. At this point, you're looking at a blanch.

Blanching is cooking something for a brief amount of time and then halting the cooking process quickly. Traditionally, this is done by briefly putting it into boiling water, then transferring the food to cold water. If you're French, it would be ice water, but room temperature water will do just about as well. After all, we only need to change the temperature quickly, we don't need to freeze the food, and water's heat transfer ability will work nearly as well at room temperature as it will at the freezing point.

If you're cooking a green vegetable, you may also take advantage of the blanching process to reduce the acidity a bit with some baking soda into the boiling water. This brightens up your greens. If it's a purplish vegetable, you would very much not want to do this, unless you want your vegetable to turn bright green. You could enhance the reddish-purple color by adding some acid, however.

Another trick blanching is good for is allowing you to use certain tropical fruits in gelatin dishes. Papaya, mango, and pineapple all have enzymes that break down certain connective tissues in meat. Because gelatin is based on a connective tissue, collagen, the enzymes in those fruits will break down the gelatin, thus taking what should be a nice mould and turning it into a sweet, sticky puddle with some fruit at the bottom.

As we know that blanching will stop enzymatic processes, though, we know that we could blanch the fruits before putting them into the gelatin, and we should have no troubles with the enzymatic baddies ruining the dessert treat.