Monday, September 28, 2009

Bull's Blood: A Vegetable Offering

7am. Three Saturdays ago. San Francisco's Mission District. My bedroom.

My eyes spring open. The silence crouches, and the room fills with a flash of unearthly light.

CRRRRACK BOOM!!! (but bigger than that even)

Thunder shakes the sky and descends into my bones. The black cat Osiris skitters from his spy position at the window over my desk and slides under the bed.

Why have you forsaken the Bay Area? What do you mean by leaving at the peak of late summer produce season? Why do you insist on poking around dusty, not very exciting East Coast vegetables and then fleeing to the mountains of Colorado only to miss the local farmers' market while you stay up all night holding a flashlight in a movie theater and spend all day hiding in the Telluride Public Library like a whey-faced turnip squealing about "work" and "deadlines"?

Me: [sobbing and blubbering like a baby carrot] I'm sorry, I'm sorry. I don't know what came over me. I'm a wreck. It's positively grotesque. I've become a monster, I'm monstrous [spoken through fingers that clutch at my face]. But the whole time I kept dreaming about heirloom tomatoes back home and the Early Girls and figs and and and--[out of breath, hiccuping]

The vegetables gods are angry. They must be appeased.

Me: What can I do?

Get thee to a farmers' market and prove to them that you truly appreciate the spectacular bounty of Northern California and that your vagrant wanderings are the necessary consequence of an overburdened spirit, a condition that mind-blowing produce alone could not soothe. They must have blood. Blood, I say!

Me: Then I know what I must do.

The rain continued to pour down in rushing waves. I pulled on my dull green rubber boots and pushed my way into the grabby crowds and chaotic produce of the Alemany Farmers' Market to bring back a vegetable offering that would sufficiently impress upon the Bay Area vegetable deities my unwavering faith in the superiority of their produce. It had to be dark, dramatic.

An hour later, I dragged the sacrificial produce home in a purple net bag and lay the offering out on the kitchen island.

To test the waters, so to speak, I sliced into the orange tomatoes and made a spectacular salad, heavy in taste. The tomatoes were richly sweet, the greens crisply bitter, the crumbled ricotta salty.

"Too friendly," a voice rumbled. They wanted something that crawled further away from the mainstream salad bowl, something that would evoke the raw pain of the local earth as I left it behind for other topographies.

So I selected the rosa bianca eggplant, which looked swollen with heartache, a nightshade turned pale from weeping.

I sliced her creamy flesh into rounds and admired them for a moment:

"Bloodier," the voice intoned.

Next I put the knife to a round of radicchio, the chicory whose bitter taste and scab-like coloring recall wounds not yet healed over.

"Bloodier," the voice intoned.

Seeds oozed onto the cutting board as I hacked into the dark-ringed bulk of brandywine tomatoes:

"More blood," called a different voice. "Besides, these tomatoes have catface," came its petulant tone.

The catface was minimal and not necessarily offensive to me, as a person who rather enjoys cats' faces and oddly formed produce. These gods were getting a bit demanding for my taste. I had to shut them up.

While considering what final effort would prove my local vegetable love, I set the oven to 350°F, laid the eggplant and radicchio out on a baking sheet, and painted them with olive oil and salt on both sides.

Then I tossed the tomatoes with more olive oil and salt, plus a sprinkling of Italian herbs, arranged them on a separate baking sheet, and put both sheets in the oven.

After roasting all parties for 20+ minutes, I chopped the pieces even smaller, put some into my mouth, and added the rest to a base of sauteed garlic and onion, a 14 oz. can of stewed tomatoes, and basil that had been simmering on the stovetop for about 15 minutes.

A hot wind blew through the kitchen. The only sound was the gentle rustling of the colored papeles picados strung from the ceiling. The hearty aroma of tomato sauce wafted throughout the apartment, yet still I sensed a rancid air of discontent that lay ready to pounce.

[Murmuring] There must be true blood. Vegetable blood, that is.

Then they came to me unbidden--

The beet is the most intense of vegetables.
Beets are deadly serious.
The beet is the murderer returned to the scene of the crime.

--the lines from Jitterbug Perfume that I had quoted in an earlier post.

Elsewhere, autumn may be the "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness," as Keats writes, but in San Francisco, fall is the most intense of seasons. September bakes the land into a stupor, while October sends us into the hot swoons of earthquake weather. Only the maroon, cracked-blood meat of beets could reflect the depth of my desire for the Bay Area's autumnal harvest and the suffering I experienced at being separated from it.

My task required a beet of crimson root and greens incarnadine. What I sought was found at the Alemany stand of Tomatero Farm:


I would have to consume every part of this elegant creature--the root, the stems, the greens (though perhaps they should be called purples, they're so dark)--to demonstrate the totality of my devotion.

Wiping the soil from my brow, I set to work with my Global chef's knife. With possessed fingers, I scraped the fine rooty hairs away from the beets, separated the stems and leaves, and rinsed them carefully. As I chopped, my vision became soaked in bull's blood and I cried out for some baby chioggia beets to break the red tide with their blushing pink and white stripes. Soon the deed was done. I wiped my blade on a dish towel and sauteed the greens and stems with balsamic vinegar and salt, while the red beet roots roasted in shallow water at 400°F in a covered enamel pot.

In just short of half-an-hour, the beets softened and sweetened, and I plucked the globes from their ruddy bath and laid them out to make a kind of vegetable altar.

Feeling faint, I sank to my knees. The room began to spin and hysterical laughter emanated from all sides of the kitchen. Bull's blood. Bull's blood. Bull's blood, the voices chanted gleefully. I was struck momentarily blind, and when my eyesight returned, I saw that the beets had exploded into discs that spread out across the counter top.

Trembling weakly, I slid one into my mouth, and its tender sweetness assured me that I had been absolved of my vegetable crimes. I whispered that I was to go away again for just a little longer, but that I would return in time to attempt some acorn squash tarts. The breeze caressed my hair in acquiescence as church bells rang in the distance.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Separated at Birth: Serpentine Cucumber & Striped Zucchini

Hey kids! I've been huffing and puffing in mountain movie theaters and writing my brains into hominy for many many days now for various other commitments, but I'm squeezing out a little extra oompf before this week ends for a late summer version of Name that Vegetable. [Yes, in San Francisco we all agree that September is really summer.] Our winter-time pop quiz was the tricky Turnip or Rutabaga, but now you get to test your vegetable acumen by identifying which is the cuke and which the zuke in the above photo!

a brief diversion while you think...

sizzle sizzle.

that is a zucchini frying in a pan.

drizzle drizzle.

that is a cucumber being dressed for its salad.

Ding! Egg-timer's up. The one on the left gets sizzled and the right-hand looker gets drizzled. If you guessed correctly, go slice yourself a summer squash variant of your choice. If not, feel free to do the same. How else are you going to learn to identify things accurately?

I had thought the Armenian cucumber was the most curious of cukes besides that lemon doppelganger, but was intrigued by this slightly sweeter serpentine, which I'd never before laid eyes on, lying next to its paler Armenian brother at the Heirloom Organics stand at the Ferry Plaza market.

The striped zucchini lay not far away, and I put the two together in my basket because they gave me warm thoughts of these two black-and-white polka dot socks I have that originally come from different pairs and are almost identical if you don't look too closely. (One is a little more faded and baggier than the other, but secretly my favorite because I think it was worn by my sister as a moody teenager in the '80s.)

If you insist on inspecting them more minutely, here you go:

Both cucumbers and zucchini (Italian for "little squash"; Brits prefer the French "little squash," which is courgette) are members of the Cucurbitaceae or cucurbit family that includes squashes, melons, gourds, pumpkins, basically all manner of these round or elongated seeded creatures that creep along the garden floor with their hairy tendrils. The cucumber is shinier and juicier, and thus cooler than its denser zucchini neighbor, whose tougher flesh makes it not as enjoyable to eat raw.

If I were the mad botanist designing this couple's lovechild twinset, I would call them Cucchini and Zucumber. They would be charmingly sweet and agreeably juicy yet tough enough to withstand the worst taunts at school.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Vegetable Curtains (or DIY Window Farming)

"But I don't have a backyaaaard," is a total cop-out excuse not to try your hand at urban agriculture thanks to this hydroponic window garden system developed by artist-tinkerers Britta Riley and Rebecca Bray during a residency at the Eyebeam Art + Technology Center in New York. Of course, there are still plenty of other excuses not to tend a full-on vegetable garden, but if you can build a geodesic dome or trick out your bike in elaborate ways for Burning Man, then you can definitely pull together some plastic water bottles, PVC piping, net planters, and fluorescent light bulbs to reproduce this hanging Eden based on the how-to instructions provided by the Window Farms Project.

I ran into these futuristic vegetables at the Eyebeam gallery in Chelsea while visiting New York a month ago and had to use all available will power not to filch a cherry tomato or stuff a rabbit mouthful of tri-color kale when no one was looking.

Smaller, lighter crops like greens, cherry tomatoes, strawberries, and herbs work better than heavyweights like squash and melons in the delicate net planters placed in halved plastic water bottles. They grow in clay pellets that are fed from a top reservoir that drips down a mixture of water and added nutrients. A basin at the bottom catches unabsorbed water, which can then be sent back up to the top by a pump connected to a timer.

The research and collaboration that led up to what Riley and Bray are calling R&DIY, a super acronym that stretches out into "Research and Do-It-Yourself," was a kind of odd-couple pairing of hydroponic explorations conducted by NASA scientists and marijuana farmers. Or maybe not so odd, if you consider both groups as kind of spaced out (a small haha? yes?).

You can see more information and photos and join the project forum at the Window Farms Project site.