About Kat

Kat has been both the spokesperson for the CSI: The Experience exhibit and project manager for the Imperial Rome exhibit and has a love of all things historical and cultural. She is responsible for the Xplorations summer camp program, coordinating weekday labs during the school year, writing department curriculum and presenting at teacher trainings. Kat has worked at the Museum since 1996.

Pickled Okra Recipe

Canning…. I should be excited about this in the spring, but I never seem to get around to it until the fall.
Canning has a weird backstory. In a nut shell, Napoleon wanted to be able to better feed his troops during war. By better feed, I don’t mean quality. It was hard finding enough food to make sure large groups of soldiers could eat while on the road and it was equally irritating to have to haul a bunch of live animals and dried staples around to prepare meals. So, the French government offered a cash prize for someone who could figure out a cheap, fast and effective way of preserving food that could be taken on the road. In 1809, a brewer figured out that food cooked inside a jar didn’t spoil unless the jar leaked or broke. He worked on a method to use jars to seal in food, and won the 12,000 franc prize (about $175,000 today). So, what are we making today? Hot pickled okra. Yum!

 

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Materials:
1 big pot for boiling water
1 medium sauce pan for your pickling brine
Canning Jars, lids and bands (Half pints are fine as long as you don’t have okra that is extra long.)
3 cups of distilled white vinegar
2 tablespoons kosher salt
4 -6 cloves of garlic – peeled.
4 – 10 fresh hot peppers
3 tablespoons of whole yellow mustard seeds
3 tablespoons peppercorns
1 to 1 ½ pounds of okra
Sieve
water
What I refer to as a “canning jar lifter”. It’s this thing :

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Procedure:
1. Clean your okra by rinsing it off under running water and shaking it dry. Set it aside for a minute.
2. Clean your canning jars and then put the okra top down into the jars. Try to get them as full as possible without smooshing the okra.
3. On top of the okra in the spaces, add your peppers and garlic cloves. This is one of those things where you do it to taste. Like it hot? Use hotter peppers and more of them. Want just a hint? Use a halved jalapeno that has been seeded.
4. In your big pot, boil a bunch of water. How much water? Not sure. To test this out, put one of your canning jars in the pot. You want the water level to be about an inch and a half or two inches from the top of the jar. Bring this to a rolling boil as well.
5. In your sauce pan, combine your vinegar, mustard seeds, peppercorns, sugar, kosher salt and about 4 cups of water. Heat all of that until the sugar and salt have been dissolved. After that, bring everything to a rolling boil.
6. Pour the hot brine into the jars, filling them so that there is about a half inch of room left. Try to keep it all on the INSIDE of the jar. If you spill, you will just have to do more clean up later. NO ONE WANTS THIS. You need to tap the jar gently to let any sneaky air bubbles rise to the top, but beware. You just put boiling liquid into a glass jar. It will be hot. I like using a dish towel wrapped around the jar as a hot pad for this part as you can grip it a little better.
7. If all of the above was theoretically done correctly, you should be good to seal your cans. I don’t trust myself, so I am going to reheat everything for a minute. To do this….
8. Turn your boiling water down to low and let the water settle for a bit. Then, using your canning jar lifter, put the canning jars (now filled with okra, peppers and pickling brine) into the hot water. The water level SHOULD NEVER REACH THE TOP OF THE JARS. The water will be displaced as you put more jars into the big pot, so you may need to scoop out a little bit of water as you go to keep the water level from rising too high.
9. Let everything get nice and toasty in the hot water bath. After a few minutes, use the canning jar lifter to pull the jars out. Set them on a towel or heat proof surface. Use a clean towel to wipe and dry the lips of the jars. Place a lid firmly on the jar and wait. After a few minutes, if the can seals, you will hear a “thwip” as a vacuum is created. Once you hear that noise, put on the bands, wipe everything clean and wait for them to cool to store in the pantry. The pickled okra can last several months!
10. BUT WHAT IF THE JARS DON’T SEAL? Stick them in the fridge and eat them in the next week or so.
11. The final step? Come to the OKRA Charity Saloon before the end of September to help support educational programming at the Museum. For more information, visit hmns.org/okra.

Okra: Friend, Foe, or Fried?

okra7Image from: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Okra Ah, okra.

Okra is one of those divisive foods like mayonnaise or Brussel sprouts. Some people love it, while others are repulsed by the mere mentioning of its name. It’s like a culinary four-letter word. As a child, I was predisposed to hate okra. Everyone always described it as “slimy.” I’m not one for being a picky eater, but “slimy” isn’t typically a selling point for me when it comes to food. I refused to try okra for years because of this commonly used description.

As an educator at HMNS, I frequently encounter children who are afraid of certain halls or objects, like the ferocious prehistoric beasts in our Hall of Paleontology or the mysterious mummies in the Hall of Ancient Egypt. When I start to ask questions about why they’re afraid, I usually discover that it’s because they’re afraid of what they don’t know. So, we learn! We start talking about why mummification was an important practice in ancient Egypt, or we learn more about the amazing anatomy of a T. rex. I mean who could be afraid of a Tyrannosaurus rex after learning that one of the scientific theories behind their tiny arms is that they used them to show affection and tickle each other? It’s a pretty great mental image. After all, knowledge is power. I’m going to argue that the same concept can be applied to okra, so let’s delve into some food science.

Okra is a member of the flowering mallow family along with cotton and hibiscus. The culinary slime-stick we fry up or throw into jambalayas comes from the edible seed pod of the plant. Now, what is the deal with that slime? I’m glad you asked!

Okra seed pods contain a substance called mucilage. Sounds tasty, right? Mucilage is made up of polar glycoproteins and exopolysaccharides, or more simply put, it consists of protein chains and sugar residue. Plants use mucilage to store food and water, thicken their membranes, and help with seed germination.

Mucilage is also found in aloe vera and cactus plants. You may have rubbed some mucilage on yourself this summer in an attempt to soothe a painful sunburn. Some carnivorous plants, like sundews, have mucilage glands along their leaves to use as a flypaper trap to capture their prey.

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https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Succulent_plant
Image: The fibrous mucilage found inside the leaves of an aloe plant.

 

okra9 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Drosera
Image: You can see the mucilage at the end of the tentacles as this sundew catches an insect.

So, in short, this is the stuff you rub on yourself to heal a sunburn, and the substance some plants use to catch insects. Great, let’s eat it!

If you’ve ever told an okraphile that you hate okra, they most likely responded with “You didn’t cook it the right way!” And that may be true. You see, mucilage is hard when dry; however, as you heat mucilage and add moisture, the viscosity of the substance increases which releases the dreaded slime. That’s why many people advocate for quick-frying okra. (For that reason and because anything fried is delicious.) Frying exposes the okra to heat for a minimal amount of time, so the mucilage doesn’t become too viscus. This results in crunchy little okra morsels. Others embrace the goo and use it in gumbos and jambalayas. The mucilage acts as an excellent thickening agent in soups and stews. Because food science.

Now that we know a little more about our friend, mucilage, let’s serve up some okra. I’m a converted fan of fried okra. It’s simple, delicious and tends to eliminate the slime factor. I’ve included my favorite recipe below!

After you’ve fried up some okra, and you’ve worked up your appetite for okra and science, stop by Okra Charity Saloon during the month of September to support your museum! We’ll be there every Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday with cocktail chemistry, fossils, crafts, and science. For more information on Okra Charity Saloon and how you can support HMNS, check out Nicole’s blog from September 1st (link to Nicole’s blog here).

Fried Okra
Ingredients:
2 pounds of fresh okra
1 cup flour
1 cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 cup buttermilk
6 cups oil for frying (Canola oil or peanut oil work best. These both have higher smoke points and mild flavors, which are perfect for frying foods. More science!)

  1. Heat oil in deep pan.
  2. Cut okra into 1/2 inch pieces.
  3. Place okra pieces in buttermilk. Let sit while you combine dry ingredients.
  4. Combine flour, cornmeal, garlic powder, paprika, cayenne pepper, salt, and pepper in a large bowl. Stir until ingredients are combined.
  5. Remove okra from buttermilk and toss in coating until each piece is completely covered. 
  6. Fry okra in oil for approximately 5 minutes or until pieces are a golden brown. Stir to make sure each piece is evenly fried. (Remember: Don’t leave it for too long, or you’ll increase the viscosity of the mucilage!)
  7. Remove okra from oil and place on paper towels to remove excess oil.
  8. Enjoy, and stop by Okra Charity Saloon to support HMNS!

Educator How-to: Learn to Draw a Celtic Triquetra

At the Houston Museum of Natural Science, we know that people are as much a part of natural science as rocks and dinosaurs. That’s why we love social studies and maintain exhibits like the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas and the Hall of Ancient Egypt. We find the development of societies fascinating!

The historical Celts, a diverse group of tribal societies in Iron Age Europe, ranged over a large swath of land reaching as far west as Ireland and the Iberian Peninsula, east to central Anatolia, and north to Scotland. The Celts used a three-cornered symbol, known as the triquetra, to adorn everyday items and important ritual objects. Similar tri-cornered symbols are seen in the artwork of many ancient civilizations. It is speculated that the symbol illustrates the uniting of the past, present, and future or birth, life, death. As Christianity spread through Europe, the triquetra was used to help new converts to understand the concept of the Trinity.

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It is really simple to draw this ancient knot-work symbol. All you need is paper, a compass, an eraser, and some markers.

First, using a compass, draw a circle of at least 3 inches in diameter in the middle of your paper. Make sure to leave room around the circle, as the resulting knot will be slightly larger than the initial circle. Make sure that you do not adjust the compass after the circle is drawn.

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Next, use a pencil to make a point on the circle at the twelve o’clock position. Then, place the point of the compass on this point and use it to make marks where it crosses the circle on each side.   

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Now, place the point of the compass on one of the marks made in the previous step. It doesn’t matter which one. Then, draw a semi-circle within the initial circle. It should start at the twelve o’clock point and end in the lower quarter of the circle. The arc does not need to be continued outside of the circle. Make another arc, identical to the first one. The two arcs should cross at the center point of the circle. If they don’t, check to make sure that the compass setting has not been changed.

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Then, placing the compass point on the lower tailing end of one of the arcs, mark off another tic on the bottom of the circle.celtic5

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Now place the point of the compass on the bottom mark and draw an additional arc from side to side within the circle.

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You will now need to enlarge the diameter of the compass a bit. Place the compass point back onto the marks made in the upper half of the circle. From each point, draw another arc within the circle, and extending a little beyond its border. It is important to make sure the arcs are extend a bit outside of the circle so they’ll meet up when the arcs are all drawn.

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Pick a point where one of the knot strips intersects another, and make it pass over the other, erasing the lines from the underside from within the “over” strip. The next pass for the knot strip, following the same strand, will be to go under the next intersection, so erase appropriately. At this point ,you may erase the initial circle and the arc marks.

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Now your trisquetra is complete! Color it in! See designs like this and others this summer in the Medieval Madness Xplorations Summer Camp.

celtic

No Bones About It: Forensic Workshop Provides Evidence for an Awesome New CSI Summer Camp

At the Houston Museum of Natural Science, we understand the value of education, as it is an integral part of our overall mission. The value placed on education extends to museum employees as well. Whether through offering CPR training to employees or encouraging participation in continuing education in disciplines in which they are already trained, there is always opportunity for growth. I benefited from this forward-thinking mindset in April. Let me tell you a little bit about this amazing opportunity.

I participated in the Forensic Anthropology and Skeletal Recovery workshop presented by the Forensic Science Center. This 40-hour experience was spent learning to identify bones as human or animal, creating biological profiles using skeletal remains, and recovering buried remains along with associated evidence. In addition to furthering my education, I was able to meet some interesting people, like my new friend pictured here.

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Forensic anthropology is the application of anthropology to criminal investigations. The forensic anthropologist is often called in to help in the recovery of skeletal remains and to create biological profiles using bones to help identify an unknown individual. Let me tell you a little bit about how it works.

First thing’s first — if what looks like a bone is found, whether it could be something else must be determined. There are a surprising number of things that look like bone. Even anthropologists can be fooled from a distance. Below is a picture taken on my trip to Saudi Arabia; the item is about the size of a half dollar.  At first glance, I thought it was bone, but on closer inspection, I decided it was not. It is most likely a piece of coral, fashioned into a circular shape many years ago, by human hands. So, not bone . . . still cool. I can live with that.

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The fact that it was found next to the piece below, which is absolutely bone, made it much more likely to assume the above piece was bone as well.

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Once you determine the specimen is a real bone, you need to find out if it is human or from some other type of animal. This is harder than you might think. All mammals have the same skeletal template. This means all mammals have all of the same bones, in approximately the same places. However, the morphology of the bone, which is its shape, and how the bones relate to each another, differs between humans and other animals. Bone is classified as human or not by considering its size, shape, and structure. 

We examined two tables filled with all kinds of bones, both human and other. What an amazing experience! You can read about identifying human bone, but you really don’t get a feel for the process until you’ve had the opportunity to touch them and hold them in your hands. Check out one of the tables, filled with long bones.

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Ok, great, let’s assume the bone we’ve been talking about is real and it’s human. Now what? Well, we need to establish what elements of the skeleton are present and how many individuals are associated with the burial. This is done by laying the bones out in the order you would find them in a living person. This is called the anatomical position. When done, you will know what parts are missing and it also allows the opportunity to scan each bone for trauma.

Turns out that laying out a skeleton isn’t too hard, until you get to the ribs (and hands and feet, but we weren’t required to do that). My partner and I get points for being clever. We discovered a number on the side of each rib. This made things go much faster! What can I say? I’m competitive. Given time, we would have gotten it right without the help of numbers; I say work smarter, not harder.

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The next question — are the remains modern or ancient? Police will not be interested in an ancient Native American burial, but they will be interested in any human remains less than 50 years old. Whether bones are ancient or modern can often be determined by associated artifacts. Cell phone? Most likely modern. Pottery shards? A good bet it’s ancient.

The next order of business is to identify the person to whom the skeleton belongs. This is done by creating a biological profile, which includes the estimated age, sex, ancestry, and stature of the individual. Knowing this information helps investigators narrow the amount of potential candidates from the missing persons database. When possible matches are found, dental X-rays or unique identifiers such as healed fractures or bone abnormalities are used to make a positive identification.

Next, we reviewed how to determine probably ancestry and sex using the skull, and then worked with a variety of specimens of varying ancestry, both males and females. This particular skull was a real challenge.

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Some were a little easier.

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And some skulls were as interesting as they were simple to identify. Check out this awesome specimen. It was modified into a teaching aide. Sections of bone were removed and then replaced with hinges so they could open to reveal substructures and close to observe surface structures. Notice where a portion of the jaw was removed to illustrate the root structure of the teeth. Absolutely fascinating!

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Later we took a field trip to the crime scene house where they train law enforcement personnel. So cool! We worked on surface recovery of skeletal remains in the yard surrounding the house. This included gridding out the entire crime scene into one-meter squares using stakes and string. Then we got busy documenting the scene using photography and sketches.

After the initial preparations, we cleared the entire area of grass and debris. This was quite an undertaking, but I did discover three .22 shell casings because of our careful work. Our skeleton was rocking some awesome boots, as you can see below.

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The last two days we spent on the recovery of skeletal remains from a clandestine burial. This is hard work! The first step was to find the grave using a probe to penetrate the ground looking for disturbed soil. Disturbed soil is more loosely packed than undisturbed soil, making the probe slide easily into the ground. Once located, we gridded out our work space, removed grass and debris, and collected surface evidence. Pink flags indicate the likely outer limits of the burial site.

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It was then time to move a ton of dirt, a little at a time. All dirt was sifted, after removal, to collect evidence that may have been missed during excavation. Precise measurements were taken for anything found associated with the burial. It could be tedious at times, but it really got exciting when things started to turn up! We found our skeleton about four feet down. That’s a lot of digging when using a hand trowel, a paint brush, and bamboo skewers!

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I’m excited to put my new training to work as I prepare brand new forensic science Labs-on-Demand classes and a brand new CSI camp experience for Xplorations Summer Camp 2017. It will be amazing for students to be able to interact with real bones and engage in the kinds of processes used by practicing forensic anthropologists!