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.