Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Saving weird veggies, one freak at a time

The New York Times is treading on our territory, reporting on the efforts of one Gary Paul Nabhan, a man with a plan to save out-of-the-ordinary plants and animals in danger of disappearing from dinner plates everywhere. In retaliation, I stole their dreamy photo of moon and stars watermelon (above).

Thanks to my brother Stephen for tipping me off to the article. He writes, "Moon and stars watermelon? Near-extinct vegetables and fruits that are saved by people eating more of them? Sounds like a case for Weird Vegetables." Totally.

The article, "To Save a Species, Serve it for Dinner," is here.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Enter the Dragon Fruit

So while we're on the topic of vegetables that are glamorous and exciting until they enter your mouth, I thought I'd add a post about the weird fruits equivalent, dragon fruit. Dragon fruit is one of the most dramatic pieces of produce I've encountered. It is thought to originate in Southern Mexico, but I know it from trips to Vietnam, where half of my family is originally from. Our visits are usually divided by enough time for me to forget just how disappointing the taste of dragon fruit is compared to its appearance.

The best of them can be sweet, but in general the flesh of dragon fruit is watery and bland. This quality in itself can sometimes be pleasing, as with jicama, but jicama looks like a bland, hairy root whereas dragon fruits scream out to be eaten with their waxy hot pink skin that shoots off into green-tinged flaming scales. If I were a designer for Street Fighter, I would make it an option to be able to shoot dragon fruit fireballs at people.

To return to our bittersweet story, not only does the throbbing pink outer layer invite potential seed carriers to rip it open and sample the glories within, but once you cut into the fruit, the soft inside has the most charming polka-dot pattern, like poppy seeds in a white cake. It's still a refreshing fruit, especially on a hot day when water alone doesn't hydrate in all the ways you need, but I'd say dragon fruit is at its best on display. Below is the fruit plate from the family luncheon we had before my brother Minh's wedding in Saigon last summer.

Since finding a tasty dragon fruit is such a difficult feat, I'd say don't buy one unless you're already in a tropical clime where this kind of fruit is cheap. If you're in the U.S., just touch it, say, "ah," and walk away. Aliases include: hylocereus undatus, pitahaya, and strawberry pear. The Trade Winds Fruit site has a nice, meaty entry for those hungry for more information.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Spaghetti Squash: It's not your fault!

Like Erin, I too had a lackluster experience with spaghetti squash in an attempt to prove Mark Bittman wrong. I often use his cookbook How to Cook Everything, which has a blurb from The Washington Post on the cover that calls it "a more hip Joy of Cooking." Bittman's book jacket photo is a little less than hip, more like jazzy (jazzaaay) but the guy does do a good job of providing a recipe for most ingredients that may find their way into the North American kitchen.

So I bring home one of these yellow footballs, all excited for the magic of squash-as-pasta, and I open up to Bittman's entry for spaghetti squash. He gives his advice on preparation - don't slice open but instead stab repeatedly then throw in the oven to bake at 400° for an hour, open it up, and scrape the stringy flesh out with a fork - and then ends the paragraph in a way calculated to let you know that spaghetti squash is only listed in this book because it is part of "Everything," and doesn't count as one of the other "Everything"s that are from very far away and in another language and thus are understood not to be part of "Everything" in English (China, India, and Thailand have been partially annexed through tokens like hoisin sauce and curry).

Bittman concludes: "The flavor is incredibly bland, especially compared to the best winter squashes; but it is a pleasant novelty." I think it's an especially nice [read: bitchy] touch that he uses the superlative "incredibly," like he's about to say something wild about spaghetti squash, and then follows it with "bland."

Now what? I think. I stand there at the kitchen island feeling dumb and wasteful for wanting to cook food only for the experience of "a pleasant novelty." I then decide that it is going to be delicious and all salty and buttery and steamy. And it did turn out to be salty, buttery, and steamy, but was, ultimately, not only incredibly bland, but outrageously mealy, like the worst red apple that's been rolling around in your bag all day. I'm a much bigger fan of delicata or acorn squash.

My camera is broken and won't upload at the moment, but I'll put up pictures when I get it fixed (fingers crossed).