Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Hey there potato face!

Between the poles of vegan, omnivore, and Atkins, exist many gradations on the spectrum of dietary principles and preferences. There are pescatarians, fruitatarians, freegans, those who only eat free-range/grass-fed/organic/humane/sustainable meats (this is the realm I've begun to enter, with a few lapses here and there), and plain old vanilla vegetarians. I knew a girl in college who seemed to subsist on bread alone--a panivore? panitarian? Then there is the friend of a friend who consumes according to the principle: "I don't eat anything that has a face." So my question for him is, if your potato smiles up at you with a knowing grin, then what?

If you're me, then you smile sweetly back and crunch that smirk in two. Sounds brutal, but it was oh so tasty. I encountered this little tater at a "por kilo" restaurant in São Paulo, where you select your food from a buffet spread and pay by weight. Por kilos are my favorite way to eat casually in Brazil because I like to try just a tiny bit of everything. In the photo above, I lay my cheeky potato friend lovingly on a bed of arugula, accompanied by a mug of pineapple juice blended with fresh mint. Yum!

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

the accidental cashew

While some vegetables have been invested with the power of prophecy (remember weirding peas?), fruit and fate have enjoyed a long and notorious partnership. Apples in particular have played a pivotal role in the expulsion of humankind from Paradise, as well as in the fall of certain snow-white maidens into irresistable catatonia. And it was a strawberry-embroidered handkerchief that put the final stain on Desdemona's innocence, condemning her to an unjust death at the hands of her jealous husband, Othello.

In December of 1951, a tart bite of cashew fruit (the ones above are from Rio de Janeiro) set off one of those tiny accidents that can change the entire course of a life, in this case bringing together Brazil and the U.S., poetry and landscaping. Elizabeth Bishop, an American poet for whom I harbor a profound admiration and escalating obsession, had been planning to spend several days in Rio de Janeiro before stepping back aboard a ship to continue her trip around South America.

At the home of a mutual acquaintance, Bishop was offered a taste of this strange fruit, known to Americans mainly by its uppermost crescent-shaped nut. The fruit's toxins, benign to most, coursed through her body and caused it to swell up in a violent allergic reaction.

Her host became her nurse, and convalescence merged with courtship, so that at the end of several weeks spent recuperating in a Rio apartment facing the Atlantic Ocean, Bishop found herself in love with Lota de Macedo Soares, a Rio socialite from a prominent family and self-taught landscape architect of sorts. Several weeks accumulated into fifteen years with Lota in Brazil, two collections of poetry, a Pulitzer Prize, and a rainforest house in the mountains outside Rio that Lota designed with a studio for Bishop that looked out onto a waterfall. There is much more to the story, including more years in Brazil and another house in Ouro Preto (where I'm staying now), that true fanatics can read about in the biography Rare and Commonplace Flowers.

On a more lyrical note, Bishop's poetry is waiting for your hungry eyes here. The most famous are probably "One Art" and "In the Waiting Room." My first favorite was "The Fish," and I also love "The Weed," "At the Fishhouses," "Questions of Travel," and basically all of her animal poems, particularly the tragi-comical "Giant Toad," "Strayed Crab," and "Giant Snail" of the series "Rainy Season; Sub-Tropics," which I sadly can't find a copy of online (but will post once I get back to my own computer).

Now that I have exploited the cashew to lead you through grandma's fireside story hour and to impose my personal literary tastes on you, I shall return to your initial pressing questions:

Cashew what?
That's where the nut comes from?

Yes, your deluxe roasted nuts come from this bright Brazilian fruit known as caju. But, wait, it gets weirder, grotesque even. The cashew "fruit," that is to say the juicy rosy part, is no fruit, my friend, but rather an impostor, a pseudofruit, an accessory fruit, a peduncle. The real fruit is what we call the "nut," which is really no nut in scientific terms, but a seed, one that begins as a drupe hanging off the end of the peduncle (that means the "fruit" hangs off the tree, "nut" side down). Incidentally, the fruit is also known as the "cashew apple," bringing us back to the initial matter of fateful fruit.

Yes, it's all very confusing and a little upsetting. Perhaps the wikipedia entry can settle your nerves. A drier but definitely more fact-checked explanation is here. If you want to know about how your cashew "nuts" are steamed open and cooked to remove the potentially toxic outer shell, this article by living and raw foods enthusiasts is pretty accessible.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

happy-sad tomato

This dear little one found its way into the home and heart of Rachel Corry (of Vegetable Parinirvana fame), who generously passed on the photo for the benefit of the select inner circle known as Weird Veg readers. It's as if the tomato had been intended to reach a certain size but then decided all of a sudden that it had achieved an almost-perfect state of roundness and that it would rather just stop there.

Despite it's cheery aspect, I associate this tomato with that class of things that adults present to children as being full of joy and amusement but that induce quite the opposite feelings of either despair or terror. There is something in the overblown redness and roundness of this tomato, combined with its deflated pointing tip, that remind me of the 1956 French film The Red Balloon, recently remade into The Flight of the Red Balloon by Chinese director Hou Hsiao Hsien. Take a look at this kid and tell me he doesn't make you want to bawl into your oatmeal.

A trace of the fearful arises from the tomato's resemblance to a classic clown nose. At this cultural moment in time, I don't think I need to elaborate much on why clowns occupy the realm of both the tragic and terrifying, at least in North America. Zippy and Stephen King's It clown have laid much of that groundwork already. If you're looking to cleanse your palate and go in the direction of tomato-cuteness, check out the album and song of the Portland multi-culti orchestral group Pink Martini called "Hang on Little Tomato" right here.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

legumes estranhos! (edição brasileira)

Weird Vegetables is going Carmen Sandiego on your asses as Erin and I embark on our summer search for eye-popping produce. Erin will be traipsing up and down the East Coast, itself a strange and daunting endeavor for a native Californian, while I'm down in Brazil spreading the gospel of "legumes estranhos" to newfound converts.

Today, I went to the Tuesday farmers' market on Praça General Osório in Rio de Janeiro after my yoga class (which was like no other kind of yoga I've ever done and involved Bollywood-type dancing and heavy nasal breathing meant to induce snot rockets--I kid you not, the instructor handed me some Kleenex to hold in front of my nose before we got started. But that's all for another blog...). The market rotates between squares on different days, but I remembered this one from when I used to live in Ipanema.

My favorite thing about Brazilian farmers' markets, at least the ones in the Zona Sul region of Rio (basically, the neighborhoods by the beaches, like Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon), is their mix of chaos and OCD produce layout. You can have all sorts of rinds flying through the air, old ladies running you over with their rolling carts, lime-and-garlic vendors tugging at your elbow, and just as you're about to lose it, a pristine pyramid of fruits and vegetables reminds you that there nevertheless remains an underlying force of order in the universe. A lot of produce here is sold in fixed portions called "lotes" and pre-grouped or pre-chopped in little plastic baggies. [July 23 oops! André, a very knowledgeable editor in São Paulo, kindly informed me that the whole "lote" deal is a Rio thing. Just so you know.]

Today's curiosities are "maxixe" and "jiló." Both plants are thought to originate in Africa and to have been introduced into Brazil at the time of the slave trade. Maxixe (mah-SHE-she) is the prickly one that looks like a projectile of choice for teenage boys. It's actually just like a cucumber on the inside and can be eaten raw. I ate the spikes too since the ones I got weren't overly mature. It is also known as the "West Indian gherkin" and "bur cucumber," but I think the Portuguese name wins the prize for "Best Name to Repeat Over and Over Again in a Sing-Song Voice." That's okra, hanging out in the upper right-hand corner of the bottom left-hand photo (hello, old friend!).

What looks like a small, green eggplant is the jiló (gzee-LAW), also known by the less appetizing name of "garden egg." It's kind of like an eggplant, 'cept different, and the rounder ones, like these, are bitter. They are harvested while still unripe because the mature crops become even more bitter (and turn orange). You can sautée them with garlic and other veggies for an interesting mix of bitter and salty.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Fiddlehead Fern

Shhh! Come closer, but don't wake it. I'm afraid if you even breathe on it, the shock will make this delicate little creature suddenly awaken from its peaceful slumber, unfurling violently from its tight coil. I stumbled across a box of these wild fiddlehead ferns at Rainbow Grocery, tucked in nonchalantly next to the exotic mushrooms. This one comes from Wineforest, Oregon, though they tend to grow in the eastern U.S. between the months of April and July. At $12.99/lb., I was content to buy a single stem for about 25 cents, just to sample it.

From the info sheet that the good people of Rainbow had thoughtfully posted, I learned that the fiddlehead's name comes from the way it resembles the spiral end of that folksy instrument (apparently "violinhead" doesn't evoke the same down-to-earth feel) and that its known aliases include "ostrich fern" and "pohole." It remains coiled for two weeks but they recommend keeping it for only two days in the fridge. In sheepish full disclosure, I admit that I forgot this sleeping beauty in its plastic baggie for the full two weeks, where it nevertheless remained magically wound, though a little soggy.

After rinsing it off a bit, I bit into the forest-green stem and was delighted to find it was still crisp, kind of like celery.
Rainbow describes the taste as similar to asparagus, green beans, or even okra. I'd say that mine reminded me of green beans the most but with a kind of "gamey" taste, if you can imagine what gamey might mean for a vegetable: layers of flavor suggestive of thriving free in nature, a little darker, grittier, deeper. The only slightly alarming element was the head's baby fern leaves, whose proliferation of crunchy coiled segments reminded me of the pan-fried silk worm pupae I once ate out of politeness in Vietnam.

Update 7/22: Just in case you don't religiously read all the comments, Erin's friend Kim just informed us that the fiddlehead is indeed toxic, at least in Maine. So don't eat them raw, though I really did enjoy my crunchy little critter. Her cooked version of fiddlehead is here.