Question: Is this a carob bean? (The reader had included a pod in the envelope along with the note.) If so, how do you use it? I've read where you can chew on them, like beef jerky. How do you make powder out of them? We have lots of them going to waste.
Answer: At Sego Nursery in North Hollywood, we confirmed the pod was indeed a carob bean and obtained a few more from the owner's tree to use for photography. A variety of other sources, including David Lasgren of the L.A. County Arboreta & Botanic Gardens in Arcadia, assisted in researching answers to the reader's other questions.
Carob pods are produced by a variety of evergreen tree (Ceratonia siliqua) native to Mediterranean countries. The long seed pod shows that it is a legume, related to beans and peas.
Carob is an ancient food. Seeds and pods have been found in ancient Egyptian tombs. It's said the locusts referred to in the biblical story of St. John living in the wilderness on locusts and honey are not the locust insect (the grasshopper) but the pod of the locust (or carob) tree. This explains the alternative name for carob--St. John's Bread.
The plants were introduced to the United States in 1850. In 1922, a commercial planting of carob seedlings was promoted in Southern California, so it's not hard to understand why so many of these trees now exist in the Southland.
Only female carob trees produce the pods, beginning when the trees are 5 years old. Productivity increases each year according to the weather and other environmental factors.
Carob is often compared to chocolate. All the sources we checked, however, say this is unfair; to expect real chocolate flavor from carob is asking too much of any legume.
Because carob is nearly 50% sugar, it's true that the washed and dried pods can be chewed as a sort of candy. Because it contains tannin, however, one source recommended that carob be used in moderation, especially in children's diets.
"St. John's Bread--the Carob Cookbook" (Jurupa Mountains Cultural Center, 1975) by Edith E. Wilkin and Ruth A. Kirkby provides the following two methods of making carob pods into powder:
"First, remove the seeds from the pods and then break (the pods) into small pieces. (In my innocence, the first time I didn't even take the seeds out. There's no harm in them, just not much nutrition and flavor. The seeds are beautiful, though, and might be a natural for jewelry making.) Put the (pod) pieces into a coffee grinder and spin until carob is powdered. Put through a sieve to remove any larger particles. Store in an airtight container.
"Or you can put your washed pods in a pressure cooker with about 3/4 cup water. Process them at 15 pounds pressure for 20 minutes. Drain, cool and dry them. Cut them open with kitchen shears and remove the seeds. Cut the pods into short lengths. If the pods are still moist, dry them again before grinding them to a powder."
"Juel Andersen's Carob Primer" (Creative Arts Communications) by Robin Clute, Juel Andersen with Sigrid Andersen explains that the carob powder that you purchase is usually roasted: "This gives it a dark, rich color and improves the flavor."
To roast the powder, place "the carob powder on an ungreased baking sheet in a low (150-degree) oven until it is rich brown and smells delicious. You can also roast carob powder in an unoiled, heavy skillet over low heat. Stir frequently until browned, but not burnt."
Carob seeds may be eaten as a snack, but they are more often ground to produce a gum called tragasol, used as a binding for foods and a variety of other products.