Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Merry Christmas

Every Christmas Eve in Sonoma, my family makes cheese fondue. Since the festivities provide an excuse for us to gather around my parents' wedding-present fondue pot, the recipe we originally followed came from a 1970s Sunset cookbook that included cream of celery soup. In the spirit of my current refusal to purchase any food made from more than five ingredients, this year's concoction of molten white goo consisted simply of white wine, nutmeg, gruyere, and emmenthal. I wouldn't rule out adding half a can of PBR in years to come, in an effort to delay the fondue's devolution into a stringy vortex of errant vegetables when the candle flame peters out.

Unofficially aiming for a balance between tradition, nutrition, and weirdness, we foraged for veg in my mom's crisper before stocking up on the stranger varietals at Oak Hill Farm, ultimately dipping watermelon radish, carrots, crimini mushrooms, zucchini, broccoli florets, d'anjou pear, and green kohlrabi (center), plus walnut bread from Artisan Bakery.

What better way to convince your loved ones to try an unfamiliar piece of plant food than adorned with melted strands of expensive cheese? Happy holiday eating.

**Note, 1/28: check out this New York Times article about the simple pleasure and transcendental powers of eating fondue.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Winter vegetable lasagna

Wintry weather means comfort food, of which lasagna is the melty, noodly king. Stifle your yawn. I weirded-up the above version, beginning with a recipe in Everyday Greens. Warning: this is a labor-intensive dish. I made the sauce from almost-scratch (used canned tomatoes), and spread the work over two days. The recipe follows, after a layer-by-layer explication of the veg-related details.

- Sauce: for once, I bit the bullet and purchased a $6 one-ounce bag of dried porcini mushrooms. I usually only pay exorbitant prices for fresh and local earth-borne products, but these I rehydrated in near-boiling water, diced, and added to a bubbling pot of tomato, onion, and zinfandel. I even reserved the aromatic soaking liquid, strained it to get rid of the grit, and stirred that in as well. A minor element of the finished product, the woodsy/earthy/meaty contribution of the porcini didn't go unnoticed, at least by me.

- Unidentifiable layer of green: to infuse my lasagna with xmas cheer, I pureed ricotta with steamed, salted broccoli and nutmeg-seasoned spinach, wilted into submission. Voilà! Brilliant green cheese.

- Roasted orange melange: parsnips, turnips, and rutabagas (below), plus a delicata squash, sprinkled with a blend of grated parmesan and gruyere.

Turnips: purple-white and the bitterest of the three. Can be thinly sliced and added to salads when young and crisp. Pleasantly radish-y.

Parsnips: resemble chubby white carrots (and evoke the droopy-mustached Miyazaki character riding the elevator in Spirited Away). Slightly sweeter than turnips, but still earthy.

Rutabagas: their purple and orange skin, thicker than that of the other two, hides only orange flesh. Sweetest of the trio.

Note: all of these roots get rubbery as they grow larger and older or, ironically, as they sit in the crisper. This can be counteracted by oven-roasting or steaming and mashing them.

Winter Vegetable Lasagna – adapted from Everyday Greens

Tomato-Zinfandel sauce (recipe follows)
1 large yellow onion, diced, about 2 cups
1/2 pound parsnips, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes, about 1 1/2 cups
**I used parsnip, rutabaga, turnip, and delicata for a total of 5 1/2 cups veg. Please feel free to work with whatever your heart desires. The only important factor when choosing is that the ingredients roast at the same speed. You can chop the denser vegetables smaller, or roast on separate sheets if they're of vastly different texture - like zucchini and acorn squash.**
1 pound butternut squash, cut into 1/2 inch cubes, about 2 cups
1 pound celery root, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch cubes, about 2 cups
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 tablespoon minced garlic
Salt and pepper
1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs: flat-leaf parsley, oregano, marjoram, thyme. (Use whichever herbs you have on hand. You can also use dried, but they should be added before the roasting of the veg rather than after.)
1 pound whole milk ricotta, about 2 cups
2 large eggs, beaten
5 oz parmesan, grated, about 1 1/2 cups
2 or 3 pinches of freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 lb gruyere, grated, about 1 cup
1 lb fresh pasta sheets (I used whole wheat lasagna in a box)

Make the Tomato Zinfandel sauce and set aside (see below)

Preheat oven to 400

Toss the vegetables into a large bowl with the olive oil, minced garlic, 1/2 tsp salt, and a pinch of pepper. Spread the vegetables on 2 baking sheets and roast for 10 minutes. Use a spatula to loosen and turn them, and cook until golden and tender, about 10 minutes more. Set aside to cool.

Lower the heat to 350, transfer the vegetables to a bowl and toss with herbs (if you use dried, toss them with the veg prior to roasting).

Blanch or wilt spinach or kale or any not-too peppery green and drain well, squeezing if necessary. If you wilt it in a pan, there will be less excess moisture and you'll (probably) retain more nutrients. Once they've cooked down, drain and combine with ricotta in a food processor. Blend until the cheese is bright green.

Whisk the ricotta mixture, eggs, 1/4 cup Parmigiano, nutmeg, 1/4 tsp salt and a pinch of pepper together in a medium-size bowl. Combine the remaining remaining parmesan with the gruyere, reserving a 1/4 of the mixture to sprinkle on top during baking.

Spread 1 1/2 cups of the sauce in the bottom of a 9x13 baking dish. Cover with a layer of pasta. Pour another cup of sauce over the pasta, followed by half of the roasted veg mixture. Sprinkle with half of the mixed cheeses and another layer of pasta. Spread the ricotta mixture over the pasta, and cover with another pasta sheet. Spread one cup of the sauce over, followed by the remaining vegetables and cheeses. Add the final layer of pasta. Top with 1 1/2 cups of sauce, cover and bake for 35 mins. Uncover, sprinkle with reserved cheese mix, bake uncovered until set 10 to 15 mins more.

Tomato Zinfandel Sauce - Makes about 1 1/2 quarts

1/2 oz dried porcini, soaked in 1/2 cup water for 10 minutes (these aren't vital, but add a woodsy element and deep flavor to the sauce)
1 1/2 Tbs olive oil
1 large onion, finely chopped, about 2 cups
salt and pepper
1 Tbs minced garlic
1/3 cup zinfandel or dry red wine
2 28 oz cans whole tomatoes with juice, pureed (I use Muir Glen)
1 bay leaf
1 Tbs chopped fresh herbs: flat leaf parsley, thyme, oregano or marjoram.

Drain the porcini through a fine sieve and save the soaking liquid. Finely chop the porcini and set aside.

Heat the oil in a large saucepan (or stock pot) over medium heat and add the onions, 1/4 tsp salt, and a pinch of pepper. Cook until the onions begin to soften, about 3 minutes. Add the garlic and cook one minute more. Pour in the wine and simmer until the pan is nearly dry, about 3 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, the porcini and their soaking liquid, the bay leaf, 1/2 tsp salt, and a pinch of pepper. Simmer over medium-low heat for about 30 minutes. Remove the bay leaf, add the herbs, and season with salt and pepper to taste. If the sauce is acidic, add a pinch of sugar.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

It's Tofurky! Yum. Yum?

Tofurky could easily bypass the "weird vegetables" category and go straight to the "freaky" pile. Freaky because it looks and feels like sausage but tastes like gritty, salty soy substance. Because it turns rock hard one day after you cook it. And, most of all, because its name is the most unnatural amalgamation of parts since Frankenstein's monster. Sorry, that was unkind to the monster. I understand the first part of this ersatz funflation, a reference to its tofu-ish base. But why "furky"? We're all thinking "turkey," already an alternative meat (i.e. turkey burgers, turkey bacon), so why not just leave the "e" in? Not only is the "furky" suffix confusing, there's something kind of gross about it, perverse even. Like they want you to think "Tofurky. Yeah, funky. Funkay," when you cook it. Or, "Hm. Tofurky. Quirky! I like it." The worst is that "furky" is so disturbingly close to "jerky," as in "beef jerky," probably the scariest meat substance ever, as to suggest that Tofurky is, in parallel, the scariest meat substitute. Ever.

So why did I cook it, you ask? I really wanted tacos with Lawry's taco seasoning on my meat (for reasons of nostalgia), it was late, the only neighborhood supermarket open was the 24-hr Dellano's, and considering the amount of spoiled/borderline food I've gotten from there, I was not about to get real meat. The Tofurky was actually not that bad, kind of interesting in fact. I'm just mad that I've been spelling it incorrectly in my head for all these years. There's probably something else going on with me. Forgive the outburst. But if I were Google, I'd ask Turtle Island Foods, "Did you mean: tofurkey?"

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Why are carrots weird?

In their adult form, I mean. I grew up in a time before baby carrots were invented, so I could claim that as a kid I ran around with with a quiver of hardy orange roots on my back, fronds flailing behind me. But that's not true. I ate plenty of ants on a log, and once ordered cauliflower at a restaurant simply because I liked the the sound of it, but my younger self was a pretty typical, Cookie-Crisp-craving child of the '80s.

These days, on my farmers' market trips, I indulge my vegetable warrior fantasy: I buy a bunch of carrots (or fennel or turnips or beets) and stick them–tops on–into my shoulder bag to parade back home with greenery on display. And I usually manage to use the carrot tops (and beet greens and fennel fronds) when I cook–they're a grassy-sweet contributor to vegetable stock, for one.

But I'm straying from my original point. Why don't people eat whole carrots anymore? Is it because, as Michael Pollan aptly described, we prefer seeing them as "machine-lathed orange bullets"? As sanitized, dirtless incarnations of root vegetables? I'm not trying to be melodramatic--I honestly wonder why we're doing the same thing to carrots we do to our meat products: divorcing them from their (in this case, relatively inoffensive) source. One of my favorite moments in Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was a story she relayed about her brother, working in his garden when a neighborhood kid stopped by and observed carrots being pulled from the ground. The kid asked "How'd you get those in there?" After explaining that carrots are plants, or really roots of plants, and that they live and grow in the dirt before we pick them and eat them, the man asked his neighbor to name any other food he could think of that might be a root. The kid thought hard, consulted his friends, and ultimately responded: "Um, spaghetti?"

I've also heard that Weight Watchers warns dieters about the high sugar content of carrots, which makes me wonder if anyone in the history of the world has blamed their weight gain on overconsumption of any raw vegetable. In my experience, they're too fibrous to overconsume, and your hands will turn orangey long before you become obese, but maybe the baby versions enable carrot binges. Aside from the fact that they're an energy and time wasting, re-packaged version of a naturally occurring, perfectly suitable serving size of vegetables, baby carrots tend to taste like either pesticide or nothing at all.

So I buy them whole, rinse off the dirt, and eat them, self-righteously, one spear at a time: I dip them in hummus, tahini, or peanut butter, shave long ribbons into green salads, or slice them on the diagonal and eat the resulting oblong chips with salsa (0 points, WW!). Heirloom Organics has been selling crazily beautiful white and purple varieties at the Ferry Building recently, and oven-roasted carrots with mint may make an appearance at this year's family Christmas (see Megan's inquiry in comments below).

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

The Secret Parts of Eggplants

Not to make you blush, but you are looking at the his and hers genitalia of the Rosa Bianca eggplant. They caught my eye (the eggplants, not the genitalia) at the Balakian Farms stand at the SF Ferry Plaza Farmers' Market a few months ago, and I was so pleased with their sweetness and creamy texture that I kept going back. The Rosa Bianca is an apparently fancy pants, highly coveted Italian heirloom variety. I like its plumpness and delicate purple shading. They were more purple in August, but now that we're coming to the end of the season in December, they're looking decidedly wan. Balakian Farms has closed its Ferry Plaza stand until the spring, but you should be able to catch the last Rosa Biancas of the season from another local purveyor of produce.

Look for the glossier ones that are heavy for their size but not too big, since the larger ones have more seeds, which can taste bitter. Certain winds of folk wisdom say that the male eggplants have less seeds and are therefore less embittered than the females. So who's who up there? The male has a round dot and the female has "the wider bottom," as the Balakian lady told me with a knowing smile.

If you're into "science" and stuff like that, then you've probably concluded that eggplants are in fact fruits that have no gender, and that this whole male/female thing is an elaborate ruse cooked up by the farmers to make life seem more fun and exciting than it really is. I'm okay with that. If you want to know more about this purple majesty, NPR has a nice feature on "Making Over the Much-Maligned Eggplant."

I usually dice my eggplants and drench them in oyster sauce for stir-frys, but these are so lovely that you can eat them straight out of the oven. Just slice into thin rounds, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with salt, and roast in the oven at 350°F for about 20 minutes.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

Beef tendon: far from a vegetable, but oh-so-strange

Recently, on an extremely chilly night in Albany, I partook of an impromptu Szechuan banquet at the restaurant China Village. A friend of Kat's (with command of Mandarin and an immense and nuanced knowledge of Asian food) pre-ordered 15 or 20 dishes, and 14 people gathered around a circular table to spin the Lazy Susan.

I knew enough to expect the food to be spicy, but am largely ignorant of the specific characteristics of regional Chinese cuisines. It seems that Szechuan dinners traditionally begin with cold meat or vegetable dishes, most of them spicy, but with cooling properties—chilled temperature, palate-cleansing shoots of scallion, a touch of sweetness in the sauces. We tried rabbit in a sweet-hot red sauce that featured whole nutmeg and star anise; tofu skins tossed with soy and scallions; small quartered cucumbers swabbed in a garlic and chili emulsion; and—my favorite—a salad of thinly sliced beef tendon in spicy sauce.

Perhaps because I wasn't thinking carefully about what little I know of mammalian anatomy, I at first pictured beef tendons to be bloody-red in color; Then I modified my mental image to be one of opaque white, sinewy strings with bits of rare meat clinging to their ends. It fact, the tendons were were translucent, flat, and whitish pink, served in a chili-infused, bright orangey-red heap, and bore a vague resemblance to biology textbook illustrations of neurons and their dendrites, though less gangly. They were surprisingly delicate, and limp but chewy -- what I think shreds of sheets of al dente glass noodles might feel like in your mouth, if such a thing existed -- and I was able to clasp them deftly with my chopsticks.

When the salad was brought to our table, I realized I'd seen and tasted tendon before--at Quince, where I once worked as an expeditor--albeit in the manner of another foreign land: Italy. I've been unable to determine whether nervetti always means beef tendon en italiano, but it definitely refers to the tendon of a 4-legged beast. Quince's insalata di nervetti (like the Szechuan incarnation) featured hot and sour flavors, courtesy of more Mediterranean ingredients: crushed red pepper, red wine vinegar, raw brunoise of red onion, carrot, and leek, and was sometimes tossed with baby wild arugula. Though it was one of the few dishes that didn't rouse front-of-house employees to battle forks during our pre-service tastings, I was similarly surprised back then by how much I loved the interaction of flavors and textures.

My advice to weird veg enthusiasts? Be bold. Expand your eating horizons to include strange sinews.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Persimmons, various

I'm a zealous persimmon advocate, and am surprised when people see a precariously stacked pyramid in my fruitbowl and ask me what I do with them. As with many weird fruits, I want to respond, "Uh, I eat them–they're delicious as is."

The most common variety (sold at most farmers' markets, at Whole Foods, and in Chinatown) are Fuyu persimmons (above). They're a little squat, resemble shiny mini-pumpkins, and are slightly crisp, like a ripening nectarine. These are also the fruit's safest incarnation: they don't need to be cooked, or even peeled, before eating, and they're sweet as honey.

Hachiya persimmons (pictured at left) are stranger. They're more torpedo-shaped, and if you take a bite before they're fully ripe and pulpy, you'll probably fling the fruit from your hand in disgust–squinting your eyes and scraping your tongue in an attempt to rid your mouth of unimaginable bitterness. That would be the astringent quality most people fear, and the reason (it's silly, really, now that the whole internet thing's caught on) why some eaters avoid persimmons altogether. Hachiyas are ambrosial and decadent when they've reached a state of squishiness that borders on decay. You can eat them with a spoon, or use them for baking.

The other varietal I'm familiar with (and extremely partial to) is a version alien to most people: the Amagaki.

I've been buying them from Twin Peaks Orchard at the Sonoma Valley farmers' market for the past 4 years, and can't find them anywhere else. The seller, Ed, who appeared for a brief window of time at the Crocker Galleria market, says the Japanese restaurants in the city fight for his product, and promises he'll deliver to my doorstep. I'll keep you posted. Anyway, the orchard claims that the Amagaki is actually a Hachiya that (through "an ancient process developed in the Orient") has had the "puckery characteristic" bred out of it. The result is a mouthwatering hybrid of the above varieties: an elongated, acornesque shape; soft and juicy, peachlike (not pulpy) flesh that's edible as soon as you buy it; and a deep, honeyed flavor with a hint of cinnamon. I swear. Try one.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Happy Thanksgiving weekend!

When you're cooking for 30 relatives, half of them (my mom and her siblings) raised on corned beef hash and waffles and ice cream, and the other half (my cousins under the age of 14) on Gushers, cranberry juice cocktail and turqouise-flecked Doritos, all weird vegetables must be camouflaged.

For the salad in the photo, I sliced Amagaki persimmons into unidentifiable wedges and had my sister Megan crumble Humboldt Fog goat cheese beyond recognition, then throw in some toasted pecans. Other dishes included a gratin of parsnips, turnips and rutabagas with Vella Asiago cheese–produced in the town of Sonoma, where our dinner took place–and brussels sprouts with pancetta. Everyone ate the root vegetables (most people thought they were potatoes), and the bits of pancetta upped the appeal of the roasted sprouts.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Three Foodies in San Francisco

So I never followed up on my post anticipating Alice Waters & co. at the City Arts & Lectures talk on "The Art of Simple Food" (the title is from Waters's newest cookbook). Ruth Reichl moderated a discussion with Waters and Calvin Trillin. Reichl used to be a food writer for the L.A. Times and then N.Y. Times and is current editor of Gourmet magazine, and Trillin is an essayist and humorist who writes about food and life for the New Yorker and the NYT and contributes ironic poetry to The Nation.

The event was sold-out, of course, but like true believers, we persevered and waited in the standby line until some seats opened up. In the end, I never really learned the Art of Simple Food, but it was fun to see the three hang out on that stage at Herbst theater with the Persian rug, comfy easy chairs, and some pomegranates stacked in a bowl on a side table.

Trillin was by far the most charming of the three. I wish I had a grandpa like him. He kept cracking jokes and told a funny story about making his young daughter try some strange food and her responding, "Well, it's better than a carrot." It became a permanent saying in the family so that they'd all come out of a movie and go, "Well, it was better than a carrot." His approach to food is just to try everything, especially if it's from a street vendor. Someone from the audience asked how his philosophy fit in with Waters's, and he said that Waters was right but that he was hungry. Waters predictably toed the party line and talked about making a bigger effort to care about and know what was in our food. But she also later said that she always packs her own food or gets "takeout" from Chez Panisse, making her totally impossible as a role model for the rest of humanity. The way I see it, we should try our best to get food that is grown or raised sustainably, organically, and locally, but that doesn't mean we should always shun In 'N' Out or dim sum. Everyone seemed to agree that dim sum was awesome, though, even Alice.

As much as I love Alice Waters and feel that the world is a much better place for her visionary approach to food, I find her a little aggravating at times. She's a little too caught up in her own rapture about the raw beauty of tomatoes or pears. Her expression in that picture at the top just about sums it up. It's like watching someone else gush over the poetry they're reading aloud to you; the whole performance is a little embarrassing, and you get the sense that it's only partly real feeling. She also claimed not to have any clue what buffalo wings were, which I find either incredibly disingenuous or an egregious lack of cultural awareness for someone who makes it their business to know about food.

I asked Alice a question about what goes through her head when she looks into other people's refrigerators, which is uncharacteristically brave of me. Her answer was kind of boring and diplomatic, but Trillin piped in that he always padlocks his fridge when she comes over and told an anecdote about his late wife freaking out over a picture that was published somewhere because it showed him standing in front of his open fridge with four cans of Ready-Whip in full view. Yum.

I don't have much to say about Ruth Reichl except that Erin likes her books and that she seemed to be playing the role of New Yorker. She was dressed in head-to-toe black and made a disparaging joke about the Midwest. The three ate at the Hayes St. Grill beforehand, if you were wondering.

If you want to catch Alice for free and be inspired/chastised, then head over to Red Hill Books in S.F.'s Bernal Heights neighborhood on Dec. 20 at 7:30pm. I used to work at their sister store, Phoenix, and the owner, Kate is amazing and happens to have a very close connection at Chez Panisse... Go buy books at Red Hill, Dog Eared in the Mission, and Phoenix in Noe Valley! Now!

Friday, November 16, 2007

Fennel: creature of the night

I'm having a strange bout of insomnia tonight. Perhaps the combined result of a strong coffee at 3pm and reading too much Sylvia Plath. I thought a post about fennel would be appropriate, since this eerie vegetable strikes me as an inhabitant of the night. It has something to do with its wavy limbs that end in countless wiggly tentacles waiting to grab your ankles in the dark. It's probably safest to keep your fennel in the crisper. If you leave it out on your kitchen counter, I imagine it might raise its bushy head when the clock strikes twelve and start creeping about the house, poking around in your underwear drawer and reading the most embarrassing entries in your journal.

I've done some beautiful things with fennel roasted with wine and chicken broth in the oven but I can't recall the recipe at the moment. Ever since I learned that it's okay to eat fennel without cooking it, I've been boring and just chopped the bulbs up for salad. I bet Erin has some good ideas for fennel. While I usually don't like licorice-flavored things (pastis, certain jujubes, black Twizzlers), I think the hint of licorice in fennel is delightful without being overpowering.

Here is a nice line about Foeniculum vulgare from Wikipedia : "Fennel is used as a food plant by the larvae of some Lepidoptera species including the Mouse Moth and the Anise Swallowtail." I guess it's actually an herb, not a vegetable, but it's weird anyway.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Vegetable stock

For the record, I am not a vegetarian. I may love vegetables with an obsessive urgency, but I ate rabbit loin last week at the Blue Plate and wild boar sausage the week before that at Suppenküche. I am not a vegetarian–I'm a meat snob. It's easier (and most definitely cheaper) to find beautiful veggies requiring minimal labor to produce a healthful, satisfying meal than it is to locate and buy responsibly raised meat and do the same. I love quail, but I'm not going to buy one from Wolfe Ranch, let alone stuff it with chestnuts and chorizo, lacquer it with honey, and roast it in my oven at home (à la Deuce restaurant, where I used to work). Housemade sausages from Bi-Rite are one non-labor-intensive exception, but should be used sparingly, and Marin Sun Farms produces glorious but pricey beef and chickens (sold at the Ferry Building with the feet on, to my delight). All this meaty rambling isn't meant to imply that vegetarian cooking is inherently easy–just easier for a nearly broke, eco-conscious health nut to engage in. Plus, eating meat infrequently means that I appreciate it when I do. As with butter and salt, the flavors that come from animals (including their bones and entrails) should be savored slowly.

Recently, I had leftover corncobs hanging around after making cheddar corn chowder and I tracked down a recipe for corn stock in Annie Somerville's Everyday Greens. As per my usual cooking routine, the recipe was more of a starting point than a magical list of instructions to be followed exactly, lest my potion turn to sludge. What follows is a chronicle of my first-ever attempt to make vegetable stock from scratch.

Into a pot I threw:

5 corncobs, broken in half
2 large carrots, cut into sizeable pieces
1 fennel bulb, quartered, plus stalks & fronds
1 smallish yukon gold potato (also a chowder straggler)
1 large yellow onion, quartered, with skins on
5 cloves of garlic, smashed, with skins on
1 bunch of cilantro stems
5 fronds of carrot top (subbed for parsley)
1 teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon kosher salt
10 cups of water

I covered the pot and brought the water to a boil, then removed the lid and lowered the heat until the liquid was bubbling at a very gentle simmer. I left it that way, steaming up my kitchen, for the next hour. The garlic aroma wafted outward first, followed by cilantro and onion, reminding me of my grandmother's house on Thanksgiving. Honestly, the scent alone is reason enough to try this. When the veggies looked like their life force had been extracted (see photo below), I poured the concoction into a colander over a large bowl, then poured the broth through a fine sieve (sometimes called a china cap or chinoise) into another bowl. Then I heaped the softened vegetables, in batches, into the sieve and pressed the juices out with a wooden spatula. According to Mark Bittman–who I sometimes but sometimes don't trust–this is a necessary, flavor-enhancing step (as is pre-roasting the veggies, which I'll try next time). Kat recommends reserving the mushy carrots and using them to enrich tomato sauce.

The finished product, I must admit, was a slightly unappetizing shade of green–similar to that of spirulina-tinged beverages. I blame it on the fennel fronds and carrot tops, which weren't in the original recipe. Algal appearance aside, after adding a little salt, it was delicious: clean, sweet, and fragrant. Like nothing I've ever poured from a hermetically sealed carton, but perfect for the next night's soup of soba, tofu, bok choy and rapini, which caused my carnivorous roommate to exclaim, "It smells fantastic in here!"

Monday, November 12, 2007

Pea shoot salad (dou miao)

For me, peas are meant to roll off your fork, around your plate, and off the table. They are round pellets that come in pods. I had never considered the leaves before. Then last spring, Erin made me eat some pea shoots at the SF Ferry Plaza farmers market. I was amazed at how the leaves smelled and tasted just like peas, only lighter and somehow fruitier. I've probably eaten them a million times in Asian stir-fry dishes but without recognizing them as pea-kin under all that oyster sauce.

As we head into the winter months, snow pea shoots are sprouting their delicate leafy heads and will be with us into spring. My friend Paul brought some over last night for a salad. We experimented with adding pomegranate seeds and kumquat bits. The dressing had miso, rice vinegar, sesame oil, ginger, lemon juice, kumquat zest, and perhaps some additional tasty ingredients that he threw in on a whim. It was delicious. The citrus flavor complemented the crisp pea shoots especially well. The only problem can be getting a good-sized bunch onto your fork and into your mouth. You will probably look like a giant rabbit at some point during your meal.

These shoots are known as "dou miao" in Mandarin (thanks Corey!). They are the small kind (xiao dou miao), as opposed to the larger kind (da dou miao), which is more frequently used in stir-fry dishes. Paul got a heaping box of them for $1.99 in Japantown. Here are some ideas for pea shoots in both salad and stir-fry from EatingAsia. This blog tells us that Asian pea shoots are more delicate than their sturdy English pea shoot cousins. If you want to try to grow your own, Evergreen seeds sells them.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Beet it!

In a very exciting moment of personal development, I made beets for the first time a short while ago. I had previously associated beets only with eating out -- either at a gourmet restaurant or casino salad bar. In other people's kitchens, I'd seen them dump slimy beet slices out of a can. The beauties here are from the Alemany Farmers' market.

With help from Judy Rodgers and her beautiful The Zuni Cafe Cookbook, I roasted the beets to nutty perfection. (Yes, that is the sound of a horn tooting.) As with most new things I cook, I was surprised at how simple the process was.

Here's how:

Part 1: Preheat the oven to 375°. Scrub the beets, then cut off the top and bottom ends. Place them in an oven-safe baking dish with a lid and fill it with 1/4-inch of water. Cover the dish and pop it in the oven for about 25 min., until they are just tender. To test, you can stab to the center of the beet with a thin paring knife or whatever other thin, sharp, long, foodsafe object you can find. When you remove them from the oven, let them sit with the lid on for another 5 min. to finish cooking.

Part 2: When cool enough to touch, rub or peel the skins off and trim the ends again. Then slice the beets into wedges. Your fingers will look like Lady Macbeth's, but the beets are so worth it. Toss in a bowl with red wine vinegar, salt, and olive oil.

I tossed my wedges into a salad with the random assortment of produce in my fridge and herbs from my garden. This included: fennel slivers, bean sprouts, cherry tomatoes, kumquat slices, mint, thyme, basil, plus more salt, vinegar, and oil. My cat, Osiris, meowed his approval.

Cheddar corn chowder

It's the first rainy Saturday in San Francisco in a while, so although there's nothing weird about the following recipes, they're apropos today.

First is a modified Barefoot Contessa recipe for Cheddar Corn Chowder, with Yukon Gold potatoes, yellow onions, and corn fresh off the cob (I've also used Trader Joe's frozen organic sweet corn in the past, which works in winter). I make it to share with vegetarian friends, so I skip the bacon–I swear it's still delicious–use soy milk and veg stock, and ignore the fussy recommendation to blanch the kernels before adding them to the pot (they'll cook in the soup). One of the tastiest versions I've produced had diced fennel mixed in with the onions, an extra teaspoon of dried tarragon, and tarragon-flecked jack cheese instead of cheddar.

The accompanying Brown Butter Soda Bread is crumbly, buttery, and fragrant–and extremely easy to make for an experimental non-baker like myself. I use whole wheat pastry flour, less butter and more rosemary than Bon Appetit reccomends. For the loaf pictured, I actually picked fresh rosemary from a sidewalk plant on my block–does that count as usufruct? Also, FYI: yogurt thinned with milk (or soymilk) works as a substitute for buttermilk. This bread's also great with chili, which I'll write about on a future rainy day.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

NY special

I awoke late last Saturday morning, grumpy at the thought of trekking down to the the Ferry Building to navigatie swarms of self-professed foodies (I know, I know–I'm one of them). So I stuck close to home and met Kat at the Noe Valley FM, where I perked up after buying a few of these über-apples from Hidden Star Orchards. The sign called them the "New York Special," and they're lovely. Smaller and tangier than a Fuji, these are really crisp and juicy–perfect with the peanut butter of your choice (please, please don't tell me it's Skippy).

Update, 11/10
Purchased a few more at the Ferry Building today, and found out they're a Braeburn-Macintosh hybrid. My friend Beth tasted one and exclaimed "Wow, that's tart! Is that how you like 'em?" So I'll rephrase my previous description: they're small and crisp, juicy and tart -- almost like a green apple. But I still say don't defile them with Jif.

Update again, 12/15
The New York Specials are still being sold by Hidden Star at the NV and FB markets, and have reached softball-sized proportions. That also means they're sweeter and a tad less crunchy. Anyone want to start an apple-off?

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Buford on Slow Food–before the onslaught

I just finished reading Heat, and it's my favorite among the recent-ish slew of celebrity-chef exposés/restaurant-kitchen memoirs. (For the record, the others I've digested are Michael Ruhlman's The Soul of a Chef, Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential, and–arguably in a separate genre–Phoebe Damrosch's Four Star Secrets.)

Anyway, Buford's Batali homage won me over because his view of the craft of cooking–notably, outside of restaurant kitchens–is similar to mine. Having ferried countless plates of food to appreciative, discriminating, and indifferent customers, I highly respect every chef striving for perfection night after night. But that's not the kind of cooking I'm interested in doing.

"For millennia, people have known how to make their food. They have understood animals and what to do with them, have cooked with the seasons and had a farmer's knowldge of the way the planet works. They have preserved traditions of preparing food, handed down through generations, and have come to know them as expressions of their families. People don't have this kind of knowledge today, even though it seems as fundamental as the earth, and, it's true, those who do have it tend to be professionals–like chefs. But I don't want this knowledge in order to be a professional; just to be more human."

Un peu de Provence

I'm not sure how authentically French this salad really is, but I envisioned it after purchasing pristine green beans and fingerling potatoes last week. It's at least European of me to plan my dinner around whatever looks good at the market, right?

The salad is a lazy hybrid of salade Niçoise (named for une citeé en Provence) and sauce gribiche (a delicious concoction involving mayonnaise, capers, cornichons–-none of which appear here--and hard-boiled egg yolks--which do), and helped me legitmize the purchase of brie with my mom's credit card. Hey, she helped me eat it.

Look for beans that are crisp and rigid, and potatoes with smooth skin that peels back when you rub it. Wash and pat dry the potatoes and slice them into half-inch rounds or bite-sized chunks, and remove stem-ends from the beans (if they're really young and slender, this isn't necessary). Then, briefly blanch batches of each in salted (at least 1 tsp), rapidly boiling water: 1 min for the beans, about 5 for the potatoes. The beans should remain crisp and be vivid green, the potatoes should yield to a fork but not be mushy.

Once removed from boiling water and cooled to near-room temperature (plunge beans into an ice-water bath if you're afraid of overcooking), toss potatoes and beans in a large bowl with the following ingredients: sliced hardboiled eggs (or 1-2 per person), diced red onion, and enough mustard vinaigrette to coat but not overpower the veggies (in other words, to taste). I made mine with grainy Dijon, red wine vinegar, olive oil, salt and pepper, and a pinch of fresh chopped tarragon.

Serve with bread, brie, and chardonnay for a petite, frenchified dinner.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Brussels sprouts

Okay, so they're not that weird. But I think it's pretty rare to encounter someone who looooves brussels sprouts -- which I do. Other than consuming the occasional buttery green jewel at the first restaurant job I worked, I hadn't tasted a single sprout until the age of 23, due to my mother's belief that they're bitter and unpleasant. Then I saw the food network's Barefoot Contessa (or Ina Garten–does she actually go by that moniker?) prepare them in the following manner, and gave it a try. Now even my mom eats them this way -- the crunchy blackened outer leaves are her weakness, just like the burnt kernels at the bottom of the popcorn bowl.

Preheat the oven to 400 or 450. Slice the stem end off of each sprout, then, standing them on their cut ends, slice them in half vertically (see above). Discard any stray leaves that fall off, and peel away any that look dirty or holey. Throw them all on a baking sheet, drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper. Toss everything together with your hands, so spices stick to each sprout. Roast them in the oven for about 20 minutes, probably less, till they're slightly blackened and soft in the center. I feel I should admit that the batch pictured below is a tad overdone, but I like them almost burnt.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Alice Waters reaching Oprah-atic proportions

Just wanted to call people's attention to the growing number of Alice Waters sightings. She appeared in last Sunday's New York Times Magazine (click here for the 10/21/07 article while available) where she played fridge doctor to a working mom trying to make bag-lunches fun for her two teenage boys. Like the shining fairy godmother she is, Waters got them all to roast chicken for soup stock, toast tortillas over the open stove flame for breakfast, and make gourmet meals involving aioli sauce in a half-hour.

I especially like the "before" and "after" fridge photos, though I'd like to point out that the post-Waters makeover fridge was a little out of touch with reality. From what I can tell, she did away with the milk and juice and left the wine! But I guess not everyone can be a magical food fairy. Her daughter Fanny makes my head smoke with jealousy. She's beautiful and goes (went?) to Yale (check out p. 304 of November's Elle magazine profile for pictures of their fantasy family meal. It's so idyllic, it makes me want to squirt them all with Cheeze Whiz). Back to the NYT article, there's an interesting carrot soup recipe at the end that I hope to try...

Also, this-coming Tuesday, San Francisco's City Arts & Lectures series is having a special night dedicated to "The Art of Simple Food," coincidentally the name of Waters's new cookbook. Waters is speaking with food writers Ruth Reichl and Calvin Trillin. Erin and I are going early to try to get last-minute tickets to the sold-out event. We'll let you know how it goes if we manage to get in.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

delicata squash

Slightly more weird than the butternut, the ridged, green-striped delicata has a subtler sweet/nutty flavor and more seeds than its ravioli-filling relative. I procured this fine specimen at Sonoma Market where, in an effort to outdo the newly-opened Whole Foods down the road, they've recently installed a wagon o' local produce, featuring edibles from Oak Hill Farm and the Patch. I halved mine, scooped out the seeds and sliced it into Cs. Inspired by a recipe from, I first sauteed the slices in a little butter till they were just golden on either side.
Then I laid them on a cookie sheet, sprinkled with salt and pepper, and roasted them at 450 for 20 minutes, until they were brown around the edges and had the mashable yet firm texture of a baked potato. Well, a squash is inherently moister than a potato, but I hope that makes sense nonetheless.
In the interest of saving time and avoiding gratuitous butter intake -- save it for when you can taste it -- I'd cut out the sauteeing step and just toss the squash slices with olive oil, s & p and dump them onto a baking sheet. If so inclined, try sprinkling on a little sage or thyme.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

On a Saturday in October in SF, $40 can get you...

Clockwise (roughly) from top right:
- 1 lb brussels sprouts (Iacopi Farms)
- 1 Gala apple (Blossom Bluff Orchards?)
- 2 flavor-ripe pluots (Frog Hollow Farm)
- 2 Rosa Bianca eggplants (Balakian Farms)
- 2 lbs dry-farmed Early Girl tomatoes (Dirty Girl Produce)
- 1 lb mixed greens -- baby arugula, mustard, red spinach, tat soi (Heirloom Organics)
- 1 bunch of fresh thyme (Eatwell Farms)
- 1 purple globe eggplant
- 2 turnips (HO)
- 1.5 lbs haricots verts or young, slender green beans (Dirty Girl)
- 1 rutabaga (HO)
- 1 butternut squash (Eatwell Farms)
- 2 watermelon radishes

Not pictured:
- 1 cup of coffee from Blue Bottle
- 1 Chris Cosentino sighting + conversation about The Next Iron Chef

watermelon radish

If I may channel Alice for a moment: it's beautiful, right? I purchased this one from Heirloom Organics at last Saturday's Ferry Plaza market. HO is also my preferred purveyor of lettuces, although they've directly contributed to my food-snobbishness. Ever since my first taste of their arugula, spinach, and mustard, I've been unable to consume any organic salad-in-a-bag (yes, especially Earthbound) because it tastes like limp tissue paper in comparison.

Anyway, back to the radish: this
variety is slightly sweeter than the average puny bulbous root, but still pleasantly crunchy and spicy. I tossed mine into a salad with greens, sliced pears, and feta for lunch yesterday.

Note the imperfect julienne-ing. My knife could use a good sharpening, but even then I'm no Thomas Keller–evident in the fact that my knife is dull. These photographs of his minced onions, brunoise, and tomato diamonds in The French Laundry Cookbook almost make me cry.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

And Knowing's Half the Battle: You schooled me, now I squash you

Okay, so you edumacated me big time. Thanks for the cherry tomato suggestion. I did slice them in half for a salad (next post!), although I have to admit that I kind of like squishing them whole in my mouth. Does that make me a slob?

On the
pattypan vs. sunburst squash issue, it's a tricky one. The answer to your question of whether that's a pattypan or sunburst in your crisper is, "Yes."

Here's what my convoluted Internet trail-blazing led me to:
The sunburst squash is a kind of pattypan, pattypan being marked by its flying-saucer shape with scalloped edges and sunburst being a yellow variety of pattypan.

com's entry for pattypan identifies the pattypan's color as white, or greenish-white. If you want a more official aggie site, the UK's Royal Horticultural Society calls the sunburst the best variety of "Patty Pan" (they separate the two words, but I think they're kind of jolly squished together and in all lower-case letters). Also, they associate the pattypan with winter squash, which is perplexing:
"The Patty Pan types of winter squash, all of which can be left to develop and mature for winter storage, seemed to work particularly well when harvested young. The fruits are not unlike flying saucers with flat, round fruits and wavy edges. Undoubtedly the best of these was the cultivar ‘Sunburst’ which produced many small, bright yellow fruits."
My last source, The Cook's Thesaurus, lists pattypan (one word!) as part of the family of summer squash. Summer squash is distinguished from winter by the fact that you can eat it entire, seeds, rind, and all. I think I'll side with the Cook's Thesaurus over those British blue-bloods on calling the pattypan a summer squash. They also give a nod to the sunburst, "There are green and yellow varieties; yellow ones are sometimes called sunburst squash."

I first heard the term "
pattypan" from The Naked Chef, Jamie Oliver. He uses them in a delicious Food Network recipe for couscous with grilled summer vegetables that I like to make for potlucks or big groups of people.

[Insert cringe-worthy pun involving "squash" here, i.e. "I hope I squashed that question," or "Sure ran that one through the squashing machine," etc.]

Monday, May 14, 2007

crisper wars

The contents of my veg drawer are unconventional, and over one week old. Nonetheless, some weird vegetable educatin's gonna happen.

Pictured at left:

- 1 rhubarb baton, fuschia. I diced up its mate to use as a fennel substitute in a green lentil salad with carrots, lemon, thyme and feta. If fennel is sweet licorice celery, then rhubarb is thick-skinned, lemon-infused celery.

- 1 baggie of stinging nettles, upper right corner. To be (carefully) plucked from stems, sauteed with garlic and spread on pizza crust. More to come.

- 1/2 a red onion that was cheap, giant and gorgeous. Purchased from the Balakian Farms stand at the Ferry Plaza FM.

- An assortment of squashlets. The yellow guy is either a pattypan or a sunburst -- find out for me? Either way, they will all soon be grated to shreds, sauteed with a little garlic and salt, and tossed with penne and parmesan and basil.

Think you've learnt some stuff yet?

As for your cherry tom dilemma, whatever you do, slice those things in half! Quarter them if you have the patience. I say I'm an adventurous eater, but I cringe at the thought of biting into one left intact and feeling seeds ooze between my teeth. Shiver.

An idea:

- Halve the tomatoes, slide them onto a cookie sheet with olive oil, garlic, s & p, and broil for less than 5 mins. When they look juicy and blistery (and before the garlic blackens), remove from oven and combine with hot pasta and fresh arugula.

Report back.

What up veggie mate?

Hey Erin! Thanks for letting me weasel my way onto your food blog. It's just like at the farmers' market when I follow you around and ask you what everything is, then buy what you buy. I'm looking forward to a flavorful, nutrient-rich dialogue. Let's boogie!

I have no weird vegetable activity to report yet, unless you count the color of the celery wilting in my crisper. I also have some cherry tomatoes and baby carrots that look like dry gnome fingers. I promise to pick up something new and exciting this weekend at the farmers' market.

Do you have any ideas for what to do with cherry tomatoes?