Monday, October 14, 2013

Kale, Interrupted

This Kale is on MAJOR furlough for the next several months.

Apologies to the vegetable gods.

Meanwhile this is happening...

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Weird Veg in Paper Magazine!

I've long harbored a simultaneous pleasure and discontent in the fact that Weird Vegetables has always been a little haphazardly thrown together, never quite ready for prime-time, much less polished than other  food  blogs, intermittently updated, falling fallow for long spells.

On one hand, I'm such a perfectionist that if I sat around crafting my ideal web presence, I'd be just as far behind as I am in my dissertation (ba-dum! of the sad drum, no laughter). In this way, the rough-draft feel of the blog is a productive necessity--and a quality of most blogs, I suppose. But at other times, when I'm daydreaming on the BART train to Berkeley or procrastinating from grading undergraduate papers, I imagine a banner with weirder vegetables, more frequent posts, more interviews and profiles, a more magazine quality to the site. Maybe I don't need to wait to make these changes until after filing that dissertation on competing ideas of propriety and proportion in North American, Brazilian, and, er, some British and French literature, which encompasses Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil, Clarice Lispector, and the Brazilian modernists known as the cannibalists.... sigh. Back to lighter subject matter...

So it brought me great surprise and delight to find a short appreciation of the blog in Paper magazine's May Tech & Food issue. (Andy Samberg and his cronies from The Lonely Island are on the cover listening to a hamburger, and I thought they looked like they could use some major veggie B-sides). It seems that having a site that is technologically and aesthetically one step beyond a Geocities homepage doesn't entirely discredit the worth of one's online contribution, and that the print world, that old dying king the youthful web armies are doing their best to overpower and supplant, is peopled by, well, people who will spend the time to click through one's forgotten posts and synthesize their wanderings into a thoughtful appraisal:

 "Part scrapbook of images, part diary of encounters with preposterous plants, this blog adds rich chapters to our awareness of the vegetable world. Scroll through to find vintage seed packet artwork or a review of artichoke tea."
[Blushing with pleasure!] The shout out appears in a roundup of "weird, smart, funny, yummy" food sites like scanwiches, artist Dan Cretu's high-concept weird food + art tumblr, and, which sounds like grindr for gardeners, except more about hooking each other up with veggie advice. Or something.

Anyways... the longer feature that this page punctuates is devoted to "foodieodicals" (a new breed of magazines about food), in a beautiful spread that features some local San Francisco publications, Meatpaper and Remedy Quarterly, plus the brand new Modern Farmer, which is technically based in Hudson but seems to have lured a communal barn-load of S.F. media people with promises of lower rent and the simple life. They also mention a super rad zine you should know called Put A Egg on It. In the print mag but also online here.

You should also check out a crisply-written piece on the new "foodivists" (magazines love catchy neologisms) who are moving and shaking up the West Coast food + art world, by WV contributing vegetable Leafy Heirloom, aka Leif Hedendal. (On a side note, we at WV would like to thank Leif heartily for calling the attentive eyes of Paper Mag to our humble virtual vegetable stand.) Little City Gardens gets a lovely profile, as do up-and-coming SF baker dood Josey Baker (not redundant; that's really his name, yo), a chef from Washington named Blaine Wetzel whose ecto-green broths and foraged edible sculptures I've fallen in love with, plus two groups dedicated to exploring experiments in dining, Thought for Food and Thank You For Coming. You can read the feature in print but also online here.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

The Roots of Spring (A Paean to the Greens of Little City Gardens)


APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

From T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, 1922, which I performed parts of in a poetry class during my undergraduate days of wine and roses. In another English-major rite of passage, I also had to memorize the cheery spring-time opening of The Canterbury Tales that Eliot twists into this morbid, modernist version of April awakenings.

My own experience of spring winds and sunshine sweeping away winter grays in the Bay Area has been decidedly less dramatic and less strewn with the churning of long-dead desires or a pilgrim's wanderlust (I am teaching and dissertating, so in some senses rooted to this place). Still, my heart sounds tentative cheeps of joy at the sight of young shoots and delicately hued petals at the farmers' markets.

Last weekend, I was lucky enough to partake of WV blogmate Erin's baggie of coveted spring salad greens from Little City Gardens, the urban idyll whose 3/4-acre plot sprouts an amazing assortment of bitter, sweet, kicky, crisp, and tender things whose earthy grace can be found in salads at Bar Tartine and often pepper the platings of other independent chefs, including WV friend Leafy Heirloom, né Leif Hedendal. Erin volunteers at the farm every week and in return gets some thank-you trimmings off the harvest heap.

There are so many tiny delights happening in just one handful of this salad, that it's sometimes hard to single them out individually. (The yellow bok choy flowers were an addition from the Marin Roots Farm stand at the Ferry Plaza market, $1.50 per bunch.)


Most of us use forks to eat our salads, but there are some that invite being eaten directly with the hands. The Little City salad is one of these. I adapted almost unconsciously, when my fork ran into some trouble with a resistant spray of turnip greens, while the miniature globed, white turnip dangled awkwardly into the salad bowl. So I put my fork down and picked the turnip up by its leafy hair and proceeded to chomp happily. I began to notice the various shapes and colors—spiky and pronged, smooth rounds and spears, light green speckled with paler green and sometimes with red-purple, the frizzled sprigs of fennel tops, the fuchsia surprise of a tiny radish tucked in among the green, a sudden purple flower (borage?), and a small white bloom, solo orange petals sprinkled throughout like confetti, a lacy yellow bunch of arugula flowers (or was it mustard?).

At one point,  there was a pause in the conversation and Erin said, in a neutral voice, "You can eat those, you know." I looked down at my hands and realized I had been unconsciously pinching off the microscopic root ends of purple mustard sprigs and tossing them to the side while I devoured the weak shoots like a mighty giant.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess...

 Oops. Peach-fuzzy clumps of flower buds, root-vegetable tops, stringy, hairy, rat-tail trailing roots, all these things we normally discard for being too woody, too clumpy, too dirty, too outside the normal purview of our known salads, were meant to be appreciated in this lovingly inclusive mix.

One by one, I put the baby mustard roots in my mouth. They were slightly stronger in flavor, slightly hardier than the leaves, and surprising in their mix of texture and flavor. I imagined the extra kick I tasted was the heart of all the plant's power. But I am just a lowly wordsmith and amateur vegetable lover, not a biologist or farmer. I cannot say, or guess, for I know only this taste from a heap of scattered greens that have soaked up the welcome beatings of the sun.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Cultivating Feral Intelligence with Deborah Madison

Last month, I went to Santa Fe for work, and thanks to a friendly introduction from Leafy Heirloom, had the pleasure of meeting Deborah Madison. Author of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone and founding chef at Greens restaurant, she's an icon to anyone vegetable-friendly. We talked about miner's lettuce in Golden Gate Park, scolding our moms for buying eggs at Safeway, and her newest book, Vegetable Literacy.

EK In your 10th Anniversary edition of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone, you mention that it pre-dated Fast Food Nation, The Omnivore's Dilemma, and our current hyper-awareness of the obesity and diabetes epidemics. Now, with Vegetable Literacy, you've created a cookbook focused on the interrelatedness of plants — you're describing and cooking from botanical families. What was your motivation?

DM Well, I’ve cooked for a long time and I’ve gardened some. My brother is a farmer and my dad was a botanist. So I had some awareness of plant families for a while and I felt that if we were, as a people, more literate about plant and botanical relationships we might begin to engage on a yet deeper level.

EK How do you mean? Writing and thinking about food today, would you say that Vegetable Literacy is responding to a raised awareness, post-Schlosser and post-Pollan? Do you think we've made it to a point where we're less in need of coaching on the virtues of a vegetarian diet and have moved toward craving sophisticated vegetable knowledge? I know more than a few readers of The Omnivore's Dilemma who finished the book and thought, now what? Do you think that a deeper understanding of the plant world and a respect for biodiversity will stimulate home cooks in a new way?

DM Since I’ve been writing — or cooking, even, at Chez Panisse in the ‘70s — we’ve gone from buying a big head of lettuce, breaking it down and using just the little leaves, to bagged mesclun at Walmart. That's quite a transition. There are many more different kinds of plant foods and vegetables within view, but we don’t have any sense about how they relate. I think we need to deepen our knowledge — it’s not enough to see things as pretty. (And I'm the worst when it comes to that!) I think if you have an understanding of plant relationships, it gives you some confidence and a clue and a basis to cook from more intuitively.

EK I see this new book as an extension of your earlier foray into encouraging readers to learn their way around vegetables: you're saying we need to be armed with a little more information to be more comfortable in the kitchen and excited to cook, but is there a grander motivation? You seem to be digging into what we've lost, knowledge-wise, as our food sources have become more distant — or am I ascribing too much to your ambitions?

DM Well, gardening and observing plants gives us a kind of feral intelligence that I think is really fun. It’s not about just being smart about food, it’s about being in the world, seeing relationships in the plants we use, observing their characters. A full-blown leek has yards of greens that it waves like a flag and a lot of varieties are named to reflect that: Broad American Flag is one. Welsh soldiers used to wear them on their helmets, but that doesn’t make any sense to most people because they don’t see them growing. But when you do, you see all this amazing biomass that it takes to produce that leek and what a really impressive vegetable it is.

EK So you started to pick up this knowledge from your dad, while growing up in Davis, and did the rest come from working in restaurant kitchens, at places like Chez Panisse and Greens, where vegetables are treated with reverence?

DM I also wrote this based on my own experience in the garden. If you garden — and a lot of people are starting to garden — you begin to see all kinds of things. You ask yourself questions and observe patterns in plants that you'd never notice if you were just left to the grocery store, which is all about parts and not about whole plants. After you see plants growing, the supermarket is totally weird, like a butcher shop. In a butcher shop you see pieces: you don’t see the whole cow, you see pieces of meat. And in the produce aisle you see pieces of things, you have no idea how much it takes to produce a broccoli head or a cabbage. We’re just so ignorant, we have no idea. There are all these leaves, stalks, stems, and flowers that make up a plant — many of which are edible — but we only know one little bit.

EK Okay, so you're working to broaden our knowledge — to awaken instincts and channel the curiosity that comes with observation. Is there a particular vegetable or flower or leaf that you discovered as a gardener or during your research that you really love?

DM As far as the families in the book, some of them I really do love a lot, and others... well, the daisy family is really interesting to me: Asteraceae. It’s got all these thorny, thistly, prickly, cardoons and artichokes and salsify. This was really a particularly difficult family to access. One of my sourcebooks, written in 1943, implies that already a lot of those foods were considered beyond the pale, even back then. Then you grow them and you see why! Goat’s beard (or salsify) — it has a million roots on it and you have to cut all of them off, and I can see there may be some reason behind why they’re not common or familiar today. On the other hand, they're undeniably interesting.

EK Wait, so cardoons and artichokes are in the same family as daisies?

DM As daisies, as sunflowers as salsify as lettuce, yes. They’re in a different genus but they’re all related. They all have tendencies towards bitterness. If you cut a Belgian endive root, it bleeds this white milky sap, lactuca, as does lettuce, as do they all. So you put some on your tongue and you go Yo! That’s really not very good! And it’s how you learn. And then you go in the kitchen and maybe you bought something at a farmers’ market and you cut the root, and you see all this white sap come out and you go Aha! When lettuce gets old and bolts it turns bitter — the bitterness has been bred out of it for the most part but it reverts. I found that really interesting — the tendency toward bitterness in this family, the thorns, the prickles, plus the fact that a lot of them are considered to be good for the liver.

EK I happen to think cardoons are one of the most beautiful plants in the garden — eerie, regal sculptures — and you mentioned that you want to push people (including yourself) beyond buying food simply because it's beautiful. That said, did your time in the garden unearth some unexpectedly beautiful ingredients?

DM One of the old ways of telling how plants are related, that my father told me when I was very young, is by their flowers, or morphology. The umbellifers all share the quality of growing umbels for flowers. Carrots, parsnip, parsley, lovage, fennel, coriander — they all make these beautiful little lace-caps.

EK I love those! My friend Brooke called them robot paws. Sometimes they look like magic wands sprouting clusters of mini suction cups.

DM The only reason I did get attuned to them is that one year I didn’t pull up all my carrots and there they were. And then I noticed that red carrots made umbels that were sort of pink, and they opened eventually to become white. Then you look at all the herbs in that family, and guess what, they’re great with all these vegetables. That’s a family that has a lot of coherence. It's the first chapter in the book.

EK Which reminds me, I've almost forgotten that Vegetable Literacy is, first and foremost, a cookbook. Can you think of a recipe that's inspired by the interrelations and complementary flavors within a plant family?

DM I always like to bring members of the same family together — such as (from the daisy/sunflower/aster family) sunflower seed oil, sunflower sprouts, frisee, other greens, and calendula petals - a real showing from that family.

EK It's clear to me that this book is a love letter to gardening. Would you encourage somebody who doesn't have a garden to buy this book? Can a person cultivate what you called "feral intelligence" without committing to their own garden? How else might a reader become vegetable-literate?

DM You don't need to have a garden in order to relate to Vegetable Literacy. There are other ways to open your own eyes. Hopefully the book will help you see the plant world differently, whether it's in your own garden, a community garden, or a botanical garden. Go on a farm tour, or look at a photograph of a cardoon or some bolting chard. Or you might try growing a plant or two on your fire escape - that counts, too. Having a garden is great, but it's not for everyone. This is not a book about gardening, it's really a book about seeing and going beyond the pretty vegetable on the market shelf.

Kale Daikon on Hiatus; Exciting Winter Veg Discoveries

Dear vegetable loverz,

You may have noticed a very long, wintry pause in the vegetable rumblings of this site. This is just to say that Kale Daikon is still at large, indulging in and thinking about the wide world of weird vegetables. At the same time, she has been thrashing about in the undertow of various other pursuits for the past several months (teaching, writing, translating, bouncing between apartments in an increasingly crazy S.F. Bay Area housing market), so her blogging activities have come to a stand-still for the moment.

We look to her valiant sometime co-blogger Eggplant Kohlrabi to come to the rescue, with a new series of vegetable musings, beginning with a very exciting interview with one of the vegetable world's preeminent stars, coming soon.

In the meantime, I leave you with some beautiful root vegetables to salute the end of winter, in this rainy interim while we notice the wind-blown blossoms and inhale the bewitching scents of spring.

To the right, above, are butternut squash, green-tinged celeriac (celery root), normal onion and the flatter, slightly sweeter cippolini onion, a regal Scarlet Queen hot pink turnip, an orange-purple rutabaga, and special apples whose names I forgot (vegetable names make a deeper impression on this mind, it seems).

The Scarlet Queen turnip was one of my most exciting winter finds at the Tuesday afternoon Berkeley Farmers' market. It comes from Riverdog Farm, which quickly became my market favorite for tasty, reasonably priced root vegetables. Turnips aren't normally my, er, cup of tea, but these were so crispy and fresh, with a barely discernible sweetness, almost like jicama (which I just discovered is also known as Mexican turnip, whoa), that I found I was eating them immediately after slicing. I also put them in salads because it seemed a shame to cook out the freshness and flavor. I did cube them once for inclusion in a winter vegetable lasagna that was a highly pleasing root veg carnival.

But my absolute favorite new weird vegetable discovery of the season came from Full Belly, at whose stand I tend to be careful about what I pick up because they are very $$$, the Porsche of market produce, but I nearly fainted with delight after trying their Karinata Kale, an out-of-this world (for kale lovers) mix of Red Russian Kale (lacy, gray-green, purple-tinged leaves) and Red Mustard. I almost never eat kale raw, even though it is my favorite vegetable, mostly because I find its leaves too tough for chewing, but this kale is so tender, so flavorful and with a mild mustard-green kick, that I found myself tearing off huge pieces and stuffing them into my mouth like a feverish rabbit that had suddenly awoken to find it had opposable thumbs.

 Big-time yum. The only drawback is that this kale is very very hard to find and sells out in the first couple hours of the market, so you have to be semi-unemployed or have an unconventional work schedule to get them in that 2-4pm Tuesday market window. Here is a fuller description, plus pesto recipe from Full Belly.
So purple-green and delicate, it could almost pass for shiso!

May your winter-into-spring bring more exciting weird vegetable treasures. I will be on WV hiatus through May but until then, look out for some new posts by my partner in crime, Eggplant Kohlrabi, also known by her initials "eek."

Karinata Kale Kisses,
Kale Daikon

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Vilmorin's Vegetable Garden of My Dreams

The days grow colder, shadows lengthen, and roots burrow deeper into the land, swaddling themselves in ever thicker layers. The carrots are so cold they turn pale and begin to shiver like leeks. The turnip puffs its cheeks out with cold breaths. Only the beet manages to keep itself warm with wine-dark passion.

Auntie Rutabaga knits green caps for herself and her soil mates, and makes a jaunty violet affair for poor Tiny Turnip. Old Man Celery has lost his color and his beard tickles the cheeks of the squeaking new potatoes. Purple Cabbage has a cold; she wraps her ashen face in insulating folds. It is freezing frozen, so cold in the ground, they say. Dig us up and put us somewhere warm.

Here are some vegetable fantasies to fuel your holiday dreaming. Taschen has reissued Album Vilmorin. The Vegetable Garden (1850-1895), featuring color plates and illustrations from the catalog of the French seed company Vilmorin-Andrieux & Cie, which was founded in 1766.

If you are seeking more of an Americana feel to your vegetable musings, check out an old Burpee's catalog. You can usually find a couple at used bookstores.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

They Draw & Cook Vegetables

The art of cooking intermingles with the cooking of art over at They Draw & Cook, a website of recipes illustrated by countless artists from around the world. The illustrations all take the form of a long, rectangular banner, but vary in style from hand-drawn cartoons to saturated watercolor splashes to the clean lines and flat shapes of graphic design. I particularly like the experiments in typography and narration of  recipes that move between the textual and the visual. In the same way that I usually find out more about TV shows through reading newspaper reviews than actually watching TV, I discovered the site through a review buried at the back of the print magazine Gastronomica of a cookbook the founders have published with 107 of their favorite illustrations from the site. Read the review here. Below, a few choice vegetable recipes. Green jello salad wins the prize for freakiest vegetable dish.