Tuesday, September 30, 2008

World Vegetarian Day

So, neither Erin nor myself are strictly vegetarian (hardly) but we are clearly veggie-minded people, so I thought I would alert you to the auspicious happening known as World Vegetarian Day, occurring tomorrow, October 1.

And so this weekend, Golden Gate Park in San Francisco is the place to be. For one thing, the incredibly exciting Academy of Sciences has re-opened with its fancy coral reef, indoor rain forest, planetarium, and green roof. On top of that (or alongside of it) is the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass concert extravaganza (with MC Hammer! Emmy Lou Harris! The terrifying Bonnie "Prince" Billy!). But these two are hardly strictly the main attractions of this parklife weekend (yes, I went for it; don't hate).

Because... drum roll, please... the truly maddening crowds will be flocking to the World Vegetarian Day Festival, a carnival of vegetable madness descending upon the park, including an arboretum tour, veggie lectures, and food demos. The eye of the vegetable storm will be located at the County Fair building at 9th Ave. and Lincoln. While The Gourds will be rocking out on the Arrow Stage at the bluegrass festival, the alternate veggie festival entertainment promises to blow your mind with the 3:15 p.m. Saturday event listed as: "Wayne Huey, Chinese Acrobat followed by handstand demo with audience participation." For more on the veg fest schedule, click here. I would attend if it weren't for my paranoid fear that they would smell the bacon on my breath and lynch me (even if it did come from Prather Ranch). That was just a joke. Ha. Ha?

Tomorrow I will be attending a panel discussion on "A Food Agenda for the Next Administration" hosted by the UC Berkeley School of Journalism and featuring Michael Pollan and other luminaries of the growing healthy food movement. More info is here. Below is the event description:

"A Food Agenda for Next Administration will be a panel discussion at UC Berkeley that posits a policy framework for achieving healthy food and agriculture systems in the US. Speakers are Michael Dimock, President, Roots of Change; Michael Pollan, author and Professor, UC Graduate School of Journalism; Judith Redmond, co-owner Full Belly Farm and Board President, Community Alliance with Family Farmers; and Mark Ritchie Minnesota Secretary of State. The moderator is Cynthia Gorney, Professor, UC Graduate School of Journalism."

Thursday, September 25, 2008

A radicchio is a rose is a radicchio...

is a rose

and sometimes it looks like meat!

a veritable treat!
though not so very sweet...

in a salad or a skillet,
you can grill it to perfection,
a chicory confection
to fit your predilection!

Monday, September 22, 2008

This squash blossom's for you

Tomatero Organic Growers is clearly becoming my heart-throb farm stand of late. Not only did I find the charming lemon cucumbers and sweet tomatoes of recent posts at their Noe Valley farmers market stand, I also got this glossy zucchini there, with no extra charge for its lovely squash blossom headdress. Squash blossoms are often sold separately as specialty items, sometimes in their own plastic container for protection, so I was especially excited to get it as a freebie. The squash blossom, or flor de calabaza is common in Mexican cuisine, and I've had them fried up on tortillas in Mexico City, but I had never actually tried to prepare my own since they are more of a rarity here, and I've been a little too cheap/too daunted to experiment with them

My Chez Panisse Vegetables cookbook had some tasty-looking advice on how to prepare my blossom. First, I sliced it off of the cucumber and rinsed it gently. Then I made a slit with a sharp knife (it needed extra help to open because it had wilted in on itself in the fridge overnight) and checked for bugs (Alice's recommendation). The pistil and stamen fuzzy bits looked somewhat insect-like but also like they should be left alone in their little cocoon, so I let them be. (I had to review my flower parts here, if you need to too.) The recipe then calls for sliding a "thumb-sized" piece of goat cheese into the flower chamber, and luckily I had a thumbish amount of creamy chevre from Point Reyes Farmstead in my fridge. In the next step, you're supposed to dip the flower in egg before rolling it in flour. I had no eggs, but the water from rinsing still made enough flour stick to my flower.

Once the olive oil got hot enough in the frying pan, I lay the squash blossom down. It began to sizzle and then did the most alarming thing. It began to heave and throb violently, like someone hyperventilating or gulping for their last breaths, or like a tell-tale heart pulsating under the floorboards of your bed. In order to go on, I had to remind myself that it was just a vegetable, that it had been inanimate matter for some time now. The blossom continued to puff in and out on itself as it browned on the outside and wilted like a shrinky-dink. After about one minute, it looked nice and toasty. My camera ran out of batteries, which is why I wasn't able to document the final result, but I will say that it was extremely delicious, with a deep, hearty flavor (hearty as in rich, not like an animal organ). I will definitely be making more of these in the future. And so should you! A Chez Panisse-inspired recipe and more squash blossom lore are waiting for you here.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Tomato Safari (among other things)

Please excuse the hysterics of the last post. I reserve the right of digital publishing to delete all records of my disproportionate response to the rightful existence of a parallel web presence to mine...

Before we re-enter the beautiful complexity of the vegetable universe, I would like to ask if we would for a moment consider David Foster Wallace, who passed away last Friday. It is easy to be put off by the superlatives that crowd around his name, his reputation as a giant philosophical brain, a Major Writer of Our Time, a postmodern genius, our generation's literary insurance to the legacy of Joyce and Pynchon, but once one reads his writing, these distancing labels fall away and we are left with a hilarious, brutally critical, brilliant, and continually curious writer who makes one want to keep the conversation going indefinitely, both with others and alone with the voices that muse along in our heads. He's also an engaging and subtly nuanced reader of his own work, and I recommend his book-on-tape version of the essay collection Consider the Lobster, which I checked out at my local branch library (the aural solution to his infamous footnotes is entertaining). McSweeney's has been gathering together people's stories of their encounters with Wallace and his work that you can read/add to here. You can also read recent appreciations at The New York Times and The Guardian.

[Commercial break: Smooth your hair and smile brightly in your hand-mirror as we switch gears...]

Turning now to produce, September is the sweetest month in northern California, bringing golden weather and mouth-watering tomatoes to the land. Tomatoes used to disgust and outrage me while I was growing up, and I blame my immature palate and early encounters with mealy, watery tomatoes eaten out of season. I eventually learned to stop worrying and love the tom, even popping cherry tomatoes without cringing. (Oh, stop it, I'm just talking about tomatoes!)

In this high tomato hunting season, there are a seemingly endless array of tomato varieties and colors. After that rhino tom sighting in my room, I caught a pair of red zebra tomatoes cozying up to the magical zebra cat that perches on my bathroom window ledge (topmost photo and below). Keep an eye out for its fraternal twin, the green zebra tomato, at a farmers market near you, though these red ones came from Rainbow Grocery.

I've been especially excited about the $3/lb. tomatoes from Watsonville's Tomatero Organic Growers, which has stands at the Alemany and Noe Valley farmers markets, among others. Their early girl dry-farmed tomatoes are sweet like strawberries. I also daydream about the early girls of Dirty Girl Produce, which are on offer at the Ferry Plaza market. Dry farming means the tomato seedlings are watered when first planted but not after they begin to bear fruit, so that their flavor becomes super concentrated and super delicious. The early girls are the small round ones in the tomato party two photos up.

While I lamented not having planted sun-gold cherry tomatoes in the backyard this year, my mom called wanting to pass on some of the heirloom tomatoes that her friend Lanh had grown on her land in Sonoma.

"You want one or two?," she asked me on the phone.
"Um, boxes? One," I answered.
"No, tomatoes."
"What? Just one or two of them?"
"Katrina, you don't understand, these tomatoes are huge. Each one is the size of a bowl." Her voice escalated with each italicized word.

We arranged a clandestine drop-off, and I met my big, fat tomato, looking content in its cardboard box. Back home, it plopped with a heavy thud onto my kitchen island. Hoping to astound you with its relative size, we embarked on a whirlwind photo shoot involving the various denizens of my kitchen neighborhood:

I began to get a little too attached to my giant tomato, to the point that I would gaze at it on my countertop day after day, thinking that no dish was good enough for my tomato. Finally, it began to look a little droopy and weary of this world, so, without further ceremony and nary an onion tear, I chopped it up and combined it with some green, yellow, and red tomatoes from Tomatero into a nice, juicy pasta sauce.

Another tomato idea is dicing them up for a sautée with bell peppers, onions, and herbs to ladle over fish. In the dish pictured above, I pan-fried halibut in butter and boiled some fingerling potatoes tossed with herbs as a side dish. My all-time favorite tomato preparation, though, aside from just eating them raw, is roasting them until they get crispy on the outside and melty-steamy on the inside.

Try this at home:
- Pre-heat the oven to 400˚F.
- Halve the tomatoes and toss them in a bowl with salt, pepper, olive oil, and a handful of minced herbs (basil, oregano, thyme, mint, whatever grows in your herb garden—yes that's an Alice Waters-esque assumption that you grow things as well as cook and eat them).
- Arrange your tomato paradise in one layer on a baking pan
- Pop it in the oven and sip your Chianti for 30 minutes (use your judgment and carbon preference to add or subtract time)
- Et voila! Eat as a dish on its own, lay over slices of fresh Italian or French bread, cook further in a sauce pan to go with pasta, or make into a tomato soup.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Frozen vegetable grill party

I believe I can say with little to no controversy that French Canadians are the champions of weird, in particular that kind of weird that makes one laugh abruptly but with a glib embarrassment and bewildered shaking of the head on behalf of all parties involved. Thus, it comes as no surprise that Arctic Gardens, the company that produced the kooky dancing vegetable music video posted below, resides in Quebec and Ontario. Its tagline, "Arctic Gardens captures the freshness," could almost pass for standard English and yet has that twinge of a Mentos accent (captures the freshness of what?) that gives it away as somehow Other.

The video appears to be part of an advertising campaign for Grill Champions, a frozen yet "tasty mix of vegetables ready for the barbecue," according to the product website. You should experience this musical event for yourself, but I will say that its irresistible tackiness falls somewhere between ABBA and Ace of Base, both of whom I adore with a guilty passion. I find the video fascinating yet terrifying, kind of like The Shining, partly because the refrain (also the song title) has vegetable people with bloated white Mickey Mouse hands beckoning to you and calling out "Come play with me!" which recalls those freaky red-headed twins murmuring "Come play with us" to little Danny.

The video's other disturbing element is the vegetable violence. It's as if Arctic Gardens is trying to macho up the image of vegetables, so that grilling veggies seems just as He-Man an act as slapping some tri-tip on the coals. Not only does the pea-pod rapper with pom-pom pea buttons get the carrot-tomato babe in the frozen food aisle, the young 'n' frisky veggie partiers also amuse themselves by blasting bell peppers into smithereens with a baseball bat. There's something unsettling about watching giant vegetables with human faces barbecue and devour tiny versions of themselves while singing and smiling. The Arctic Gardens website underscores this vegetable aggression with its graphic of the Grill Champions package wedged between a man's clenched fist and meaty bicep. Eat your veggies or be a sissy! GRRRR!

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

rhinoceros tomato

This just in from our correspondent in the far reaches of my room:
A rhinoceros tomato was spotted foraging for ladybugs early Sunday morning close to the faded water stain in the mid-northern quadrant of my desk. The daytime watch guards, bronze Don Quixote and Sancho, apprehended the perennial with only minimal resistance. The rhino tom gave a low squeak and curled up its leafy top fringe before jumping quietly into the green plastic produce basket they held out before it. The rhino tomato is easily mistaken for its more spirited look-alike, the unicorn tomato, whose horn is said to make whatever soil it is dipped into incredibly fertile. This luscious specimen came from the Dirty Girl stand at the Ferry Plaza farmers' market, which has the sweetest dry-farmed tomatoes. The truly tomato-obsessed should check out this post from the food blog Tea and Cookies.