Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener


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Parax paper

Ryan went to the Gadget Show last week, and brought me back a present. He bought me three notebooks made from Parax Paper, which (according to the label) is made from stone. He knew I’d be intrigued, and I had to investigate. It turns out that Parax paper is tree-free, made from calcium carbonate (the active ingredient in agricultural lime, and the stuff that makes water hard) and some plastic (HDPE). Its manufacture doesn’t use any water, requires less energy than conventional paper, and the finish is naturally white. It has a lovely, smooth writing surface and can be recycled (as plastic, not paper). It has won all kinds of eco awards.

Parax paper is water-resistant, and hard (but not impossible) to tear, which should make it an ideal allotment notebook. It won’t mind being used in the rain. In theory, I could write on it underwater, if I had a pen that would write underwater. As the paper doesn’t yellow over time, it could be good for archiving. I will give it a go. If you fancy trying Parax paper for yourself, Amazon is one possible retailer as they have a good selection.

Stone Ice Cubes

Parax paper isn’t the only stone product to have come into my life recently. We have also acquired some whisky rocks, designed to cool your drink without watering it down. Of course, they can be used with anything, not just whisky. Ours are made from soapstone (they’re Chill ‘N Rock, which we ordered from Amazon). You pop them in the freezer, and then into your drinks as necessary. A quick wash and dry and then they can go back into the freezer for next time.

Now, I’m an ethnobotanist, interested in the way people make use of plants. And occasionally I stray into ethnobiology (mainly due to an interest in edible insects, entomophagy), the way people make use of animal products. And I my stone implements set me wondering – is there such a thing as ethnomineralogy? It turns out that there is, it’s the “study of the interrelationships between people and the minerals, or inorganic resources, in their environment”. So, whether you’re in to the animal, vegetable or mineral, there’s an anthropologist out there who wants to know about it!

Posted in Blog on Apr 14, 2014 ·

Last modified on Apr 10, 2014

Tag: science

2014: Citizen Science

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Horse chestnut candle

Towards the end of last month, citizen science made the news when the findings of the Conker Tree Science Project were published (e.g. by BBC News). The project used reports from the public to track the spread and establishment of the horse chestnut leaf miner across the UK (pretty much everywhere south of Newcastle). The findings have been published in the scientific journal PLOS ONE, as befits proper science (as The Success of the Horse-Chestnut Leaf-Miner, Cameraria ohridella, in the UK Revealed with Hypothesis-Led Citizen Science).

The growth of social media and the development of internet tools to handle these kinds of projects means that there are now more options for the citizen scientist than ever before, and the properly-published results show that citizen scientists are making a real contribution. So if you’d like to try your hand, here are some of the projects you might like to get involved with:

The Harlequin Ladybird Survey is tracking the spread of another invasive pest, one that has the potential to out-compete our native ladybird species.

OPAL is the Open Air Laboratories Network, which aims to “create and inspire a new generation of nature-lovers by getting people to explore, study, enjoy and protect their local environment”. Their website shows that they have quite a few surveys open at the moment, including tree health, biodiversity and soil and earthworms.

The Zooniverse is a big citizen science site with lots of projects. They started out with Galaxy Zoo, using pictures from the Hubble Telescope to investigate how galaxies form. They’ve added in several more astronomy projects, including looking at solar flares and exploring Mars’ weather, but they’ve expanded into other areas of science as well. You could look through historic ship’s logs, to find information that can be used to develop climate models, or classify NOAA’s more modern data on tropical cyclones. Study the lives of the ancient Greeks, or annotate and tag soldiers’ diaries from the first world war.

For the citizen naturalist, Zooniverse has options to listen to whales communicating, classify the Serengeti animals photographed by camera traps or explore the ocean floor. There are museum samples that need transcribing for historical biodiversity data – including herbarium samples in Notes from Nature.

That’s not the only option if you like looking through old herbarium records – Herbarium@Home could use your help with that as well.

Green-fingered gardeners can take part in Garden Organic’s Members Experiments (although there’s a clue in the name – you do have to be a GO member). There’s usually several to choose from each year. Previous ones that I know about include growing chickpeas, mango ginger and soy beans here in the UK, and finding out which flowers attract beneficial insects into the garden.

There are bound to be more projects that I don’t know about, and I’m sure there are some great local efforts as well – if you’re involved in a citizen science project then do let me know in the comments. Whether you get involved because it’s a cause you want to support, or because you have some spare time to donate, or because you just #lovescience and want to be a part of it, there’s plenty to choose from, and citizen science can be really rewarding!

Posted in Blog on Feb 14, 2014 ·

Tags: science & ethnobotany.

Access to Research

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When you’re a university student, you have access to all kinds of academic research, provided via your institution’s library. They pay for access to any of the journals that are deemed relevant for students and academic staff. Once you leave, you are brutally cut off, left high and dry above the flood of knowledge, both modern and historical.

Open access to online papers is increasing, and I’m not going to dwell on the politics/ business model of academic publishing, but suffice to say that – as an individual – access to most journals is a costly business. You can buy/rent one-off access to papers, but a subscription is probably more than most people can afford. And since interesting research is spread (whatever your field) over innumerable journals, it would be impossible to fund a research habit yourself. (For plant nerds, an annual subscription to Economic Botany is actually affordable, and comes with online access to their archive, which makes it a very good deal.) Quite often you can’t read more than the abstract without paying – which may not be enough to tell you that the paper will be useful to you.

There are numerous ways around this problem, which are laid out in a nice blog post – 5 Ways To Get Your Hands On Academic Papers Without Losing Your Mind (And Money). It talks about asking for papers on Twitter, Microsoft Academic Search, Google Scholar, Cite Seer X and emaiiing the author (most academics are only to happy to send copies to you if you are genuinely interested in their research).

I added a sixth to the list, which I was told about but have yet to try – asking on Reddit Scholar. You may also find that the author(s) have a list of publications somewhere on the internet, some of which may well have links to downloadable copies. However, some of the journals dislike copies being given away for free, and ask institutions to remove them.

But, as of last week, you can now get access to research journals via your local public library, thanks to the Access to Research initiative. I emailed the Oxfordshire Library Service to ask how it works, and got the following response:

Due to the publishers’ licensing conditions the website can only be accessed through library PCs. We do have special computers in our libraries called Information PCs which don’t require booking and have no time limit on their use so these would be the best way of accessing the site.

We are hoping to get a direct link to Access to Research placed on our website and on the PCs themselves but in the meantime you can open an Internet Explorer page on a library PC and use to access the site.

Articles may not be saved to memory sticks or other storage devices but can be printed off at a cost of 20p per page.

If you have any further questions about Access to Research please let us know, we’re very excited about this resource being available in libraries!

So, there you have it. If you’re interested in accessing scientific or research papers then pop along to your local library! It’s worth checking what other services they offer, as well, as your library card may give you access to some online resources that you can access from anywhere (I have just discovered that mine gets me back issues of National Geographic and the archives of The Times until 2007).

How do you feed your research habit?

Posted in Blog on Feb 10, 2014 ·

Tag: science

Time to go nuts?

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As I was tucking into Chocolate Ganache and Cinnamon Hazelnut Cake at Café Mauresque following my graduation, dad remarked that I was getting my daily intake of nuts, so I would be alright. Apparently he’d read something about a handful of nuts every day being healthy; I pondered which nuts it meant – culinary nuts forming an overlapping category with botanical nuts.

I figured it was probably something he’d read about in the Telegraph, and it is – they published Nuts linked to lower death risk on 20th November. The BBC headline, Eating nuts ‘may prolong life’ is both more restrained and more accurate.

They’re reporting on one scientific study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, entitled Association of Nut Consumption with Total and Cause-Specific Mortality, and partly funded by the International Tree Nut Council Nutrition Research and Education Foundation. It asked people whether they ate nuts on a regular basis, without specifying (as far as I can tell) what they meant by nuts. Later in the report they separate peanuts (which are, botanically, a legume) from ‘tree nuts’.

Wikipedia has a very nice List of culinary nuts, which specifies whether the ‘nut’ in question is a botanical nut, a drupe, or a seed from a gymnosperm or an angiosperm. Hazelnuts and sweet chestnuts are both examples of true nuts.

Sweet Chesnuts

It’s relatively easy (and a fun project) to try growing your own peanuts, although yields in the UK are both unreliable and likely to be underwhelming. The peanut is a ‘nut-like angiosperm seed’, for the record. Tiger nuts (Cyperus esculentus) are really tubers; they’re not included in Wikipedia’s list.

Tiger nuts

There have been other studies (this one refers to some of them) that show that nut consumption is healthy, so this is not a one-off, although it’s still unwise to read too much into one study. There’s nothing here that explains what it is about nuts that’s having a protective effect; certainly tucking into a bowl of salted peanuts every evening isn’t going to be the best thing for you. It’s all too easy to justify bad dietary habits by quoting a newspaper headline, but eating a varied diet seems to be the important thing.

Historically I haven’t been a big nut eater, although I am getting better and am happy to try and add a few more of them into my diet. Martin Crawford wrote about growing nuts in the UK for the BBC Gardening blog a few years ago; I was chatting about nut trees for small gardens for City Planter in September.

Are you nuts about nuts? Do you grow them? How do you like to eat them?

Posted in Blog on Nov 28, 2013 ·

Last modified on Nov 28, 2013

Tags: nuts & science.

The Perils of an Outdoor Life

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bbq poo 277/365BBQ poo’ by k ryan, via Flickr

I get quite a few press releases, and most of them are diverted straight to the trash can, but one survived the whole summer in my inbox, because it is so delightfully hilarious. It is from a company that manufactures disinfectant products. It begins with the words “A new hygiene report shows high levels of bacteria on garden furniture, with barbecues and garden tables found to contain MORE bacteria than the average toilet seat”. If you read the small print at the end, that’s based on samples taken from a whopping 10 (yes, ten!) British households.

It goes on to say that only 28% of British people clean their outside table more than TWICE A YEAR! And that people frequently come into contact with bacteria from UNCLEAN BIN LIDS!

Clearly, we’re all going to die, but for most of us the cause of death is unlikely to be a bacterium we picked up in the garden, I should think. Although dirt can, in fact, be dirty, we don’t need to scrub the whole garden with disinfectant.

The press release did say the barbecues were often staggeringly dirty, so you might want to give yours a clean before you use it next. Although, having said that, I am assuming they tested the grills before they were lit, when it’s reasonably safe to assume that most bacteria would have died a horrible, flamey death. But I’m not a microbiologist, so don’t quote me on that. (And try to avoid inviting a microbiologist to your BBQ, they will put you off your food.)

Despite the hyperbole, that’s not the funny part. The funny part is this:

“Bacteria in the garden can include decaying plant matter, dropped or spilled food as well as deposits from wild or domestic animals including birds”

which is just WRONG. Bacteria might indeed by lurking on dead plant matter, dropped or spilled food (what’s the difference between dropping and spilling?) and the tastefully described ‘deposits’ from animals (including birds! Wait, aren’t birds animals?). But none of those things are bacteria, contact with any of them is not inherently fatal (you do wash your hands occasionally, don’t you?) and in fact we’re starting to discover that avoiding contact with bacteria is bad for us.

To help the people who drafted the press release, I have come up with a very basic Venn diagram which explains the whole bacteria/animals/birds/plants confusion:

Patronising and simplistic Venn diagram

(Note that I have left space for the other kinds of life that are different, but I haven’t included them because there’s no need to confuse matters.)

Instead of worrying about how clean your garden is (not at all, so get over it), it’s far more important to get your food hygiene up to scratch. The NHS has some good tips on barbecue food safety that will help you steer clear of upset tummies next summer.

Posted in Blog on Nov 7, 2013 ·

Last modified on Nov 7, 2013

Tag: science

The mysterious case of the ripening pears

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Yes, I know they're bananas

I am still waiting to hear whether I will be graduating in November. It feels like a long time since I handed in my dissertation; life has moved on and I’ve started a new job. When I am introduced to people at work, the subjects of my two degrees often come up, and most people are somewhat bemused by the apparent gulf between them. Astrophysics isn’t much like ethnobotany, it is true. But even taken together they don’t represent the sum total of my interests in life – I consider myself to be a ‘lifelong learner’, and there are plenty of things about which I would like to know more.

Which is why I have recently signed myself up for some MOOCs (Massive Online Open Courses). Only one has started so far, and it caught my eye because it has the same title as (and is written by the same person as) a book I bought myself shortly after finishing my dissertation.

It’s called ‘What a Plant Knows’, by Professor Daniel Chamovitz, at Tel Aviv university. The book and course are both about how plants take in information from their environment, and how that changes the way they behave. It’s not suggesting that they ‘think’ or ‘know’ in the human sense, just that they collect and use very similar sensory data.

Chapter 2 is about what a plant ‘smells’ – the volatile chemicals it receives and processes, and the main example is that of ethylene. Ethylene acts a plant hormone, playing a vital role in regulating the functions of the plant. It controls whether a plant elongates in the absence of light, or grows short and stocky. It controls leaf senescence (death) and it controls when fruit ripen.

You may have learned the ‘trick’ of putting unripe fruit in a bag or a drawer with a ripe banana, to make it ripen. It works because the ripe banana is emitting ethylene, and the unripe fruit is taking it as a signal that it’s time to ripen. In fact, all fruits emit ethylene gas when they ripen.

Our understanding of (some of) the ways in which ethylene affects plants in relatively recent. Frank E. Denney discovered the ripening effect in 1924 (he wrote a paper called ‘Hastening the Coloration of Lemons’, which doesn’t appear to be available electronically). Before that, people were using ethylene to ripen plants without knowing. The book explains that citrus growers in Florida ripened fruits in sheds heated with kerosene. They thought the heat was ripening the fruits, and were frustrated to discover that when they swapped the kerosene heaters out for electric ones that the fruit no longer ripened. Frank E. Denney proved it was the ethylene gas produced by burning kerosene that was doing the trick.

Further back in time, the book mentions that the ancient Egyptians slashed ripe figs on fig trees to encourage others to ripen, and that in ancient China farmers burned ritual incense to ripen rooms full of pears. When I read that, I wanted to know more – but I’ve discovered that it’s one of those ‘facts’ that is repeated a lot on the internet, without anyone providing any decent references on how they know. I’ve started trying to track down the origins of that story, but it’s slow going. If you’d like to get involved in an ethnobotanical mystery then you can read more over on my research quests page. There are plenty more ‘facts’ like that in gardening and botany, and hopefully we can put together a crack team of citizen researchers to either prove or debunk them, or at least find out where they came from :)

In the meantime, I’ve got some unripe pears I need to put in a bag with a ripe banana. Anyone got a ripe banana?

Posted in Blog on Oct 23, 2013 ·

Tag: science

For whom the bell trolls

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Troll Bridge

I am avoiding Twitter today (if you came here following a link to this post on Twitter, note that it was automatically posted), because although Twitter have backed down and said that they will implement a system for reporting and blocking abusers, that’s only half the battle. The other half is making it socially unacceptable to abuse anyone – online, in public, in private. It’s not a free speech issue; making rape threats, death threats or bomb threats is illegal here in the UK, whether you speak them out loud or tap them into your keyboard.

It’s my choice, and I’m not rallying any of you to join me. However, if you choose to rant at me through the medium of the comments (because you think it’s pointless, or I’m pointless, or that supporting a feminist cause is anti-men) then know that a) trolls don’t get fed from my kitchen and b) comments are moderated and yours won’t appear.

For those of you who have read past the political intro, rest assured I am now veering off into something more garden-related. For starters, it appears you can grow plants in scalped trolls, which would appear to be troll abuse. Perhaps someone needs to start a Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Trolls. RSPCT is an appropriate acronym.

Those with an interest in books may be delighted to learn that there’s a collection of short stories called The Troll Garden, which is available to read online.

And did you know that there’s a variety of Ginkgo biloba named ‘Troll’? It seems an unfortunate name for such a wonderful plant, but perhaps I am missing something. The namer of Bush Violet ‘Blue Troll’ would obviously think so.

The (official) naming of plants is part of the remit of the taxonomist, who tries to group together species that are related. Throughout much of the history of botany, this has been done on the basis of what we can see – what the plant looks like, its morphology. (These days it’s increasingly likely to be done on the basis of DNA and cladistics, a concept I encountered on one of my study days at Kew. In essence it’s like six degrees of separation for plants, and it’s solving some riddles and posing others.)

If you’re wondering where I’m going with this, then the answer is that I’m going back to early years of the 20th century, and the work of German botanist Wilhelm Troll. Inspired by Goethe, and by his own religious convictions, he believed there had to be order behind the diversity we see in plant life. Now one of the most controversial figures in German botany, he made careful studies of plants, documented their characters and introduced reference systems for all plant parts. However, his rigidity and ideology were rejected by the increasingly secular scientific community.

Those of you who are interested can find out more about Wilhelm Troll, and his botanist contemporaries Walter Zimmerman and Agnes Arber, in a paper by Claßen-Bockhoff that is open-access:

Claßen-Bockhoff, R. (2001). Plant morphology: the historic concepts of Wilhelm Troll, Walter Zimmermann and Agnes Arber. Annals of Botany, 88(6), 1153-1172.

It’s a little dense, I’m still working my way through it!

Safe from the Troll

Posted in Blog on Aug 4, 2013 ·

Tag: science

Food from the air

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Nitrogen nodules on bean roots

Mr. Liggett: Miss Mack… Could you tell us your answer to question number four? Why do nitrogen nodules cling to the roots of plants?

Jennifer Mack: Love?

Mr. Liggett: Jennifer, what do you know about nitrogen nodules that we don’t?

WarGames, 1983

Some plants have the ability to form a mutually-beneficial relationship with soil bacteria that can take nitrogen from the air and turn it into plant food – it’s not love, it’s called symbiosis. Gardeners are most familiar with it in the legumes – peas and beans – that grace our tables, and if all is well then nodules should be present on the roots of the plants when you pull them up at the end of the season. Those nodules are where the bacteria live. In return for the nitrogen fertilizer, the plants feed the bacteria some of the sugars they make from photosynthesis. In the absence of symbiosis plants are reliant on the amount of nitrogen in the soil, which can be a limiting factor in their growth.

Until Fritz Haber discovered how to synthesize ammonia (for which he won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1918), humans were unable to recreate this bacterial feat, and had to rely on animal manures, green manures and compost to fertilize plants and increase crop yields. The ability to produce synthetic fertilizer greatly increased our ability to feed ourselves, and today chemical fertilizer feeds about 3 billion people. However, it comes at a high price. Producing nitrogen fertilizer is an energy-intensive process, and nearly 80% never makes it into food. Instead, it causes considerable environmental problems. Fertilizer run-off makes its way into water courses, where it becomes a toxin, and into the atmosphere.

If we could encourage more plants to form symbiotic relationships and feed themselves, then our reliance on synthetic fertilizers would be drastically reduced. For years the idea has sounded like science fiction, but according to a press release from the University of Nottingham, Professor Edward Cocking and his colleagues at the Centre for Crop Nitrogen Fixation have done just that – to the point where their work has been licensed to a company to develop into a commercial product.

Sugar Cane

This technology revolves around a nitrogen-fixing bacterium called Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus, which occurs naturally in sugar cane sap (and which has therefore been ingested, safely, by humans for a long time). Professor Cocking has discovered a way of using a sugary coating on seeds to entice the bacteria to colonize the roots of any major crop plant. This isn’t genetic modification (GM) or bio-engineering; it can be applied to the varieties of plants we already grow.

It would be interesting to know more about the temperature dependencies of the bacterium (is it happy in temperate zones, or just the tropical ones where sugar cane likes to grow?), and whether it would persist in the soil once the plants had been removed. Would it naturally find a way to colonize the next crop, or would treated seeds have to be sown each time? That would be another blow to farmers saving their own seeds, and seed sovereignty in general. Agrochemical companies may not see this work in a positive light; they will no doubt want to have some input when the finished product is put forward for regulatory approval.

We’ll have to wait and see how the economic and ethical issues play out, but some of my scientific questions may be addressed in Professor Cocking’s published work on the subject, which I have listed below. I have access to three of those papers, which I aim to read when I have finished my dissertation; I don’t have access to the fourth.

Burrowing bacteria may end need to fertilise plants, by Richard Gray in the Telegraph, has some details that aren’t in the original press release.

The Nitrogen Fix: Breaking a Costly Addiction, by Fred Pearce in Yale Environment 360 summarises some of the environmental changes our nitrogen use is causing.

COCKING, E.C., STONE, P.J. and DAVEY, M.R., 2006. Intracellular colonization of roots of Arabidopsis and crop plants by Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus In Vitro Cellular and Developmental Biology – Plant. 42(1), 74-82

COCKING, E.C., STONE, P.J. and DAVEY, M.R., 2005. Symbiosome-like intracellular colonization of cereals and other crop plants by nitrogen-fixing bacteria for reduced inputs of synthetic nitrogen fertilizers Science in China Series C Life Sciences. 48(Special Issue), 888-896

STONE, P.J., O’CALLAGHAN, K.J., DAVEY, M.R. and COCKING, E.C., 2001. Azorhizobium caulinodans ORS571 colonizes the xylem of Arabidopsis thaliana Molecular Plant-Microbe Interactions. 14(1), 93-97 [Open Access]

O’CALLAGHAN, K.J., DIXON, R.A. and COCKING, E.C., 2001. Arabidopsis thaliana: a model for studies of colonization by non-pathogenic and plant-growth-promoting rhizobacteria Australian Journal of Plant Physiology. 28(9), 975-982

Posted in Blog on Jul 29, 2013 ·

Tag: science

Pretty pictures from Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons

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It wasn’t all work and no play when I went to visit Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons for my research project last week. I had the opportunity to take some photos in the garden afterwards, so I will share some more of those with you today :)

Chinese artichokes
Anyone who says veg plants aren’t attractive hasn’t had a good look at Chinese artichokes.

The angelica was literally exploding like fireworks.

Sweet cicely
The sweet cicely was setting seed.

Just in Thyme
The thyme was abuzz with bees.

Pestle and mortar
The garden is full of sculptures and works of art, but I think this one is my favourite :)

Posted in Blog on Jul 3, 2013 ·

Tags: gardens & science.

Armchair Taxonomist

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Earlier in the spring I entered the Encyclopedia of Life’s Armchair Taxonomist competition. The idea was to write a brief description for one of the entries in the EOL, which would contain the salient details about a species whilst being interesting enough to capture the imagination of someone who is not that in to science. And it has to be properly referenced, to boot.

It sounded right up my street, and so I had a go – it turned out to be a bit harder than I thought! I picked Zatar (Origanum syriacum) as my species, as for some time I have been fascinated by the zatar spice mix (there are numerous different spellings). I’ve always known that there was a herb referred to as zatar as well (in fact, there are several, it’s a good example of the problem with common names) and so I was quite excited when I finally tracked down this one as being the real deal – at least in Lebanon.

And I won! The judges chose my entry (which you can read in the EOL) as overall winner, ‘for its combination of accurate scientific information, original language, quality sources, and that “something extra” we like to call “readability”’.

My prize is a private, behind-the-scenes tour of the Smithsonian Museum, in Washington DC. I have to make my own way to Washington, which I’m working on (if I can’t make it they’ve got some whizzy way of giving me a virtual tour instead).

To celebrate, I cooked my first meal involving zatar the spice mix. This one, coming from Lebanon, includes thyme, sesame seeds, sumac, salt, coriander and fennel. It wasn’t as overwhelmingly fragrant as I had imagined, but it’s certainly an interesting mix. I need to make some flatbreads and have Manakish, but in the meantime, I give you: Zatar chicken.

Zatar chicken

2 chicken breasts
2 tbsp olive oil
1 heaped tbsp zatar seasoning


  1. Preheat the oven to 200 C, gas mark 6.

  2. Mix the oil and zatar, and then coat the chicken in the mixture. Add salt and pepper to taste.

  3. Put the chicken breasts on a foil-lined baking try and cook for 20-25 minutes, until the chicken is cooked through and the juices run clear.

It’s an adaptation of a Waitrose recipe; they served theirs with a quinoa and bean salad. I used a little cross-cultural creativity and had mine with patatas a lo pobre, and it was very nice!

Posted in Blog on Jun 19, 2013 ·

Tags: science & food.

Unless stated, © copyright Emma Cooper, 2005-2014.