Thursday, May 29, 2008

Your vegetables aren't that weird

"I read through weird vegetables.... I like reading your entries. You guys write about vegetables that i don't find very weird..."

Ouch. That's the sting of gloves being smacked across our collective blog face as guerrilla vegetarian chef Leif Hedendal throws down the gauntlet.

To be fair, that last sentence ends, "but i have such a skewed sense of produce," so he admits that his métier brings him into closer contact with a whole variety of veggies that the average civilian cutting board doesn't encounter. And I guess if you're the closest thing to a walking, talking, anthropomorphic weird vegetable, disguised in a beard and plaid shirt, then I'd imagine you might be a little picky about whom you accept into your clan.

My initial response:

"Our idea of 'weird' is for people who live on Trader Joe's baby carrots and who buy boxes of cherry tomatoes in December, like my mom but also me two years ago, people who kind of get in a rut of cooking the same veggies over and over. But really, fennel is a strange strange creature no matter how well you get to know it."

Upon further reflection, I realized that a bunch of our posts are just about produce in general, weird or not, and began to feel a little glum about not living up to the full potential of our blog name--until my friend Jennifer made the startling yet undeniable observation that, "All vegetables are pretty weird if you think about it."

It's true. So, in a series of soul-searching discussions over treats at Tartine, coffee at Atlas Cafe, and in the Valencia St. bike lane, Erin and I have decided not only to seek out weirder vegetables but also to further probe the hidden strangeness of those vegetables we think we already know. And now that we have the added powers of Leif integrated into our growing Voltron assemblage, our weird vegetable quotient can only multiply exponentially.

To get us all reoriented, I wanted to leave you with some choice entries on the notion of weirdness from the Oxford English Dictionary:

weird, a.
1. Having the power to control the fate or destiny of human beings, etc.; later, claiming the supernatural power of dealing with fate or destiny.
Originally in the Weird Sisters = {dag}(a) the Fates; (b) the witches in Macbeth.

2. a. Partaking of or suggestive of the supernatural; of a mysterious or unearthly character; unaccountably or uncomfortably strange; uncanny.

b. of sounds or voices. [I don't know how this relates to vegetables yet, but it does explain the "weirding module" in David Lynch's Dune.]

4. a. Out of the ordinary course, strange, unusual; hence, odd, fantastic. (Freq. in recent use.)
b. Colloq. phr. weird and wonderful, marvellous in a strange or eccentric way; both remarkable and peculiar or unfathomable; exotic, outlandish. Freq. ironical or derog.

I am particularly intrigued by the idea of vegetables having supernatural powers, kind of like that creepy mandrake root baby creature in Pan's Labyrinth. And just when you thought peas were the same ol' ho-hum, they turn up in the entry for the verb "weird." Yes, the verb:

weird, v.
3. To warn or advise by the knowledge of coming fate.

1806 JAMIESON Pop. Ballads I. 237, I wierd ye, gangna there! Ibid. II. 174, I weird thee, to lat me be were best.
Hence {sm}weirded ppl. a.; {sm}weirding vbl. n. in Comb. weirding peas, peas employed in divination.

: The anatomically correct carrot (front and back shot) is from this blog. The googly-eyed produce are entries in Amy Sedaris' googly-eye craft challenge.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

A Morning Poem

O little pea shoot!
Sweet herald of spring,
Sprig of green sunshine,
Glorious phantom of the garden,

I welcome you into this world!

I squeeze your fat belly
Caress your bulging forehead
Pinch your plump bottom
One, two, three peas!

Bashfully, you flutter your tendrils,
And I pluck you away
From this dusty world;
Into my mouth

You go! Pop!

Can you tell I've been reading Robert Hass's orgasmic nature poetry? His recent book, Time and Materials: Poems 1997-2005, is a beauty both inside and out.

I woke up this morning with a vision of the pea shoots I cultivated last spring in a window box when I had lots more free time than I do now but still thought myself way too busy. I bought this "icebreaker" pea plant as an experiment from Cole Hardware. I probably harvested 4 or 5 pea pods, which I think means I could have tended them better. But they were delicious. This plant originally came from the Sweetwater Nursery in Sebastopol (Sonoma County). I hope to start from seeds one day.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Bonny 'doons

Katrina's been imploring me to stop being lazy and start posting again, and we've jointly identified a need to increase the weirdness level of our chosen specimens. So, in an effort to surprise, disorient, and tantalize readers, I'm reaching back more than a month to give you cardoons.

These pale green, almost translucent stalks have graced menus at my past restaurant jobs, and I once heard a server describe them as "a member of the thistle family, like the artichoke." This is true, but really explains nothing about the flavor and does little to allay the diner's fear of the strange. (How likely would you be to order potatoes after hearing that they're a member of the nightshade family, like the eggplant?) Anyway, here's my attempt at description:

Imagine hacking away at the outer branches of an artichoke plant, the ones that reach outward and upward to embrace the thorny, flowerbud-bearing trunks in the center. Still can't picture it? Think of tall, slightly curved stalks—longer than my forearms—similar in strength and stringiness to celery or fennel, sans the feathery topknot and with a more defensive air about them. Like the ridged, whitened offspring of an aloe vera plant and the protective outer arms of a rather large head of cauliflower. With velvety, silver-sided leaves. Still confused? Just look at the picture.

Flavorwise, they're salty celery with a tangy, artichoke-tinged finish. I removed the leaves, then sliced the ones above (from Knoll Farms at the FB) into crisp U-shaped segments that I cooked briefly in salted, boiling water. Before they turned mushy (after 5 or so minutes), I removed and drained them, tossed them with a lemony vinaigrette, then mixed in a chopped soft-poached egg to balance the acid. A little trick I learned from the artichoke witch of the west. No. I googled them and stole the recipe from Mariquita Farms' website. Those farmers know their thistles.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Bok choy or Chinese Broccoli?

The setting: Dinner time, around the kitchen island at Katrina's house.

My roommate: Mmm, that looks good, what are you going to do with it?

Me: Um, probably just stir-fry it with some garlic and that salty magic mushroom seasoning my mom gives me. I got it from the Hmong stand at the farmers' market. I don't usually cook bok choy but these were so cute. Look at the little yellow flowers! (brief giggle)

My roommate: That's Chinese broccoli.

Me: No, it's not. It's bok choy. Baby bok choy.

My roommate: I used to work at the farmers' market. And I'm half Chinese. That's Chinese broccoli.

Me: You worked at the Ferry Building. Selling lavender. This is from the Noe Valley market. From the Hmongs. The sign said "baby bok choy."

My roommate: It's Chinese broccoli.

Me: [Silence.]
My roommate: [Silence.]

Now that I have the floor to myself, I'll say again, I swear it's baby bok choy. I think. Doesn't bok choy have white stalks and Chinese broccoli, green? Either way, it was fresh 'n' crunchy even after wilting in the frying pan. I also like to put bok choy in soup, like in a broth with diced tofu or with soba noodles and a base of miso, rice vinegar, and sweet sake (mirin).

I bought this little bunch from the Sunny Farm family-run stand at the Saturday morning Noe Valley farmers' market on 24th St. at Vicksburg, in the parking lot across from my favorite bookstore ever, Phoenix Books! Every time I head toward the stand, which comes at the end of the line, Erin mumbles, "I don't think they're organic," but I just pretend I don't really know what she's talking about. They admit to using Round Up twice a year but they also use compost, mint, and hand weeding. You can check out the stats on the farmers' market vendor page. Besides, the mom, Pao Thao, shares a name with my mom, Thao, so they're almost like family.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Let them eat broccoli cake!

In the years since high school, my friend and former French-class petite copine Gabby Parker has blossomed into the Bay Area cake madame Gabrielle Feuersinger, with her own company Cake Coquette. One of her specialties is cake sculpture, and many a customer has requested veggie-shaped cakes. I am particularly impressed with her dedication to verisimilitude with the above broccoli cake, going so far as to include the occasional brown streak, as well as those pesky little leaflets that I always peel off the stalk.

I pondered the possible motivations behind requesting an otherwise standard, non-veggie cake that only looks like a vegetable and came up with the following:

1. Cake disguised as broccoli creates the illusion that people are taking in less calories and more calcium than they actually are, hence enhancing that "good-times" feeling at any party

2. To evoke that two-birds-in-one satisfaction of finishing one's veggies and earning the right to have dessert at the same time

3. To trick the alternative hippie kids into eating cake instead of veggies?

4. To remind people of what they should really be taking into their bodies instead of cake, which is actually nothing but tons of sugar and eggs, thus leaving more cake for you (this works in opposition to #1, 2, and 3, being only effective if the health-nut level in the room is particularly intense)

5. Because cakes-as-vegetables are weird, and hence kind of cute and funny in the same way that those Winnie-the-Pooh cell phone charms that have Pooh dressed as Piglet, Tigger, or a bee hive are kind of weird, cute, and funny all rolled into one squeezable rubber package.

Feel free to coo your little heart out over the pea pod - yes, Gabby/Gabrielle made it for a baby shower. The pumpkin was a popular Halloween special. Check out her cake gallery for more sculpture and wedding cakes. I am now on the lookout for cakes actually made out of vegetables besides just carrots...