Sunday, November 30, 2008

"Organic" Squash

What's weirder, these gross warthog winter squash or the scare quotes around "organic" in this sign from a booth at the S.F. Ferry Plaza Farmers Market? Those Ferry Plaza folks are hard to read. Can produce be ironically organic? Are we witnessing the birth of hipster produce? Or is this a commentary meant to shake up our consumer consciousness--just because the sign says so doesn't mean it's really organic so you should do your homework and follow up before purchasing. Or perhaps "organic" is making a statement about naturalness of form, and while these squash may have sprung from the loins of Mother Earth without chemical aid, their mutant bubbles make them monstrosities, unnatural beings, and hence destined to be "organic" only in quotes, lonely freaks caught between worlds.

What are scare quotes, you ask? According to the Chicago Manual of Style:

Quotation marks are often used to alert readers that a term is used in a nonstandard, ironic, or other special sense. Nicknamed "scare quotes," they imply, "This is not my term" or "This is not how the term is usually applied." Like any such device, scare quotes lose their force and irritate readers if overused. (7.58)
For lots of fun with intentional misinterpretations of unintentional scare quotes, see The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotes.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Thanksgiving Gratitude

Another Thanksgiving meal has found its way into my happy belly, and I sit in bed now at my parents' house ready for pumpkin pie dreams and yam deliriums. I found this cornucopia on my mom's dining room table today and thought it would make a nice "of-the-season" photo op, though to be a real cornucopia, the bounty would technically need to be spilling out of a curved goat's horn.

Of course, scratch the surface of anything that seems picture-perfect and family-friendly, and you'll uncover darker matters that will certainly upset everyone's digestion. Like the myth of Thanksgiving, that picturesque first meal in which Squanto's folks and the Pilgrims passed around heaping harvest platters and set the stage for an unbroken national tradition of multicultural sharing and understanding (just as soon as we got over that pesky issue of clearing the Indians off the land). For a thorough attempt to set the Thanksgiving record straight offered up by a group of highly conscientious schoolteachers, click here.

But I don't really worry about ruining Thanksgiving for any of this blog's readers because everyone but elementary school kids knows that this holiday is really all about celebrating American gluttony and familial competition--eating as much food as you can fit into your stomach in one sitting and stabbing your sibling's hand with your fork so you can get to the last bread roll first. Who cares about our country's past crimes when we've got turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, candied yams, green beans, cranberry sauce, and pie in our faces?

As I gazed at the vegetable centerpiece and reflected upon the meaning of Thanksgiving, I began to think about the strangeness of that entity known to us in the U.S. as "Indian corn," and why it is that corn with darker, multi-colored grains is known specifically as "Indian" when all corn (or maize) originally came from sustained cultivation by Native Americans up and down the continent.

This led into musings about how corn is my favorite basic food staple ("corn bread, hominy, polenta, corn soup, corn tortillas, corn on the cob, creamed corn..."), but then how it is also "America's most subsidized crop" and "the staple of its cheapest--and most troubling--foods," according to the site of King Corn a recent documentary about the problems of the over-corning of America by our bloated system of industrial agriculture. Michael Pollan has been one of the most eloquent advocates of reform of the U.S. agricultural policy that has resulted in the over-production of corn that is sold for less than it costs to produce and that ends up in much more of our food supply than we realize, causing obesity and reduced nutritional diversity. You can read more about it in Pollan's veil-lifting book The Omnivore's Dilemma or in this brief online essay. (That mysterious googly-eyed corn lives here.)

How can one cornucope with all this food anxiety? Was that too much pun-ishment to take? Then take a break and step with me into the Bay Area dining phenomenon known as Café Gratitude, where I shared a pre-Thanksgiving raw food meal with my friend David on Tuesday night. At Café Gratitude, you can be sure that all your food comes from happy, sustainable sources and will do something healthy for your body. You will also be forced to recite self affirmations as you order (the menu items are named according to the formula "I am" plus a positive adjective such as "elated," "satisfied," "warm," or "abundant"). Our server made us consider the question, "What do you love about your family?" before she would take our order, and while we hesitated a little at first, we both ended up admitting things we kind of liked about our families. And when you get to the bottom of your soup or quinoa bowl, you will be greeted with the question, written in swirly handwriting font, "What are you grateful for?" You may not want to join the cult, and you may have to snack on salami and cheddar cheese later on, but it's a nice thing to try every once in awhile, kind of like burning an aromatherapy candle or laying one of those buckwheat lavender pillows over your eyes.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Pomegranate Lover

If the beet is the most intense of vegetables, then perhaps its fruity soul mate would be the pomegranate. A blood-dark, passionate, nocturnal pair they would make, the one channeling a forbidding, frozen Slavic fervor, only to be engulfed by the feverish seeds of the other's Mediterranean femme fatale charm. The Greeks said it was the swallowing of four pomegranate seeds that caused Persephone to remain in the underworld as Hades's queen, while her mother Demeter wept above and let the Earth become a mournful wasteland. Would the beet's diabolical cunning have been enough to rescue the pomegranate maiden from the depths of the underworld? Think of Rasputin and Persephone walking hand-in-hand along the Neva River.

After I posted a photo of beets accompanied by an incarnadine entourage, my friend Adam mistook the giant red onion for a pomegranate and suggested that this delectable crop be added to the assembly. Unfortunately, by the time I remembered my lonely pomegranate in the hanging fruit basket, it was too late to integrate it into another vegetable medley photo. This led me to request that my poet friend write a pomegranate poem for Weird Vegetables so it could have its very own post. Adam promptly complied and has since written several iterations of the poem "Pomegranate." Here for you to devour are two versions, an earlier composition and a later sonnet that is the most recent version posted on Adam's poetry blog, The Twittering Machine, which you should bookmark right this second! Also courtesy of Adam is a link to a recipe for vegetarian Iraqi pomegranate soup.


We wished to wring our hands clean of it,
undo on ourselves any hint

of having entered it, door after door
through blood-red rooms we went,

so innocent we could barely breathe,
knowing nothing of ourselves that was not spent

for us by another’s hands; we knew, for instance,
how to tell a face apart from a cent

that the touch of a surface was where
each world would end, not the front

for a secret so thoroughly hollowed
out of us, with hands giving rent

to skin: what remained hidden for us
to find was an ecstasy--oblivious, as a saint,

of what would be left to our bodies
after the spilling of paint.

—by Adam Ahmed


We wish to wash our hands clean of it,
undo in ourselves any hint
of having entered it -- pit after pit
through untold corridors: we spent

our innocence for access to the other side
of a story -- half-formed, unmeant
for even mirrors -- with trembling hands fed
ourselves a part of the pulp we rent.

Poor reader -- the story, overwrought,
refuses the bait of a coined phrase; that day
we live to recant -- what shade remains pent

in our minds like a contrast dye --
forms the closest tint to a pint
of blood our systems can tolerate.

—by Adam Ahmed

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Brekky of Champions

I lived in Sydney for a year during college, and when I arrived there, I was a sleeping fool. I never took a class before 11am, slept my Sundays away, and never, ever ate breakfast.

But in Australia, something happened. For one, I stopped taking architecture courses and stopped pulling all-nighters. Aside from unthinkable cloud formations and Centennial Park at daybreak, I also credit my job – as a waitress at Sloane's on Oxford in the artsy, wrought-iron-accented suburb of Paddington – with turning me into a morning person. I had to show up at 6 to squeeze a few buckets of orange juice and serve date-pecan scones to our earliest customers, and I'm pretty sure it was their Bircher meusli that helped me realize life could be dreamy before noon.

Meusli, I quickly learned, is the Australian (or European) term for granola. Usually, it's plain untoasted oats, nuts, and dried fruit, and sometimes they mix it with yogurt. This version is fair enough, but requires an unbecoming amount of teeth-gnashing to digest.

Bircher's ingenious component is an overnight soak of the oats, nuts, & raisins (charmingly referred to as "sultanas" by Aussies, who deftly cutesify just about everything) in apple juice. I swear I'm as unenthusiastic as the average eater about dried out SunMaids, and I promise that the rehydration process eliminates raisins' resemblance to rat turds. They'll become bright fruity jewels by morning.

So. For the batch in the photo, I had rolled oats on hand that I combined with trail mix containing raisins, dried cranberries, almonds and pepitas. (Other possibilities are dried coconut flakes, pecans, and chopped dried apples or pears.) Recipes say the ratio is 1/2 a cup of juice to every cup of oats, but I just layer the dry ingredients in a wide, flat container and pour until the nuts and grains can slosh around a little – not quite as drenched as cereal in milk. Grate some cinnamon, nutmeg, and/or fresh ginger into the mix. Cover and ignore while you snooze.

Early the next day, leap from your bed and run to the fridge where the meusli awaits, newly infused with tangy apple sweetness. Stir in an almost equal amount of yogurt. I went with Redwood Hill Farms plain, but Greek style or fruit-flavored varieties can be equally smashing. (After a spare, leafy lunch at the Tate Modern's overpriced cafe in London a few years back, I happened upon currant-yogurt Bircher in a tiny take-away shop, and would've danced for joy if I hadn't been busy scowling at the exchange rate.)

Finally, chop up and add whatever fresh fruit is rolling around in your fruit bowl. In my case, I refer to the fruit region of my countertop, which was harboring this Black Arkansas apple. I bought it at the Ferry Building because I find it beautiful in a slightly sinister way, like the flocks of bats (aka flying foxes) that take wing on spring and summer evenings in Sydney.

Fresh, creamy, crunchy and fruity, there's simply not a better bowl of breakfast on this continent.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The Passion of the Beet

The world of beets is shadowed and labyrinthine, rooted in the secret, craggy corners of earthy hearts. Does eating them help channel the inky passions that course through our animal bodies and release them into the light of day? Or do they merely worm their way into our souls to stain our guilty consciences even further with their knowing tint?

Here is a beet salad with hazelnuts that I made for my sister while visiting her in Los Angeles in August. I used the beet recipe from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook I wrote about in an earlier post, in which I ended up with Lady Macbeth fingers.

It is hard not to feel unsettled when handling wine-dark beets. It seems I am not alone in this sentiment. Below, I share with you the opening chapter of Tom Robbins' Jitterbug Perfume. It will irrevocably change the way you think about beets. It may also cause you to reconsider radishes, tomatoes, turnips, cherries, and carrots. Bon appetit:


The beet is the most intense of vegetables. The radish, admittedly, is more feverish, but the fire of the radish is a cold fire, the fire of discontent not of passion. Tomatoes are lusty enough, yet there runs through tomatoes an undercurrent of frivolity. Beets are deadly serious.

Slavic peoples get their physical characteristics from potatoes, their smoldering inquietude from radishes, their seriousness from beets.

The beet is the melancholy vegetable, the one most willing to suffer. You can't squeeze blood out of a turnip . . .

The beet is the murderer returned to the scene of the crime. The beet is what happens when the cherry finishes with the carrot. The beet is the ancient ancestor of the autumn moon, bearded, buried, all but fossilized; the dark green sails of the grounded moon-boat stitched with veins of primordial plasma; the kite string that once connected the moon to the Earth now a muddy whisker drilling desperately for rubies.

The beet was Rasputin's favorite vegetable. You could see it in his eyes.

In Europe there is grown widely a large beet they call the mangel-wurzel. Perhaps it is mangel-wurzel that we see in Rasputin. Certainly there is mangel-wurzel in the music of Wagner, although it is another composer whose name begins, B-e-e-t—.

Of course, there are white beets, beets that ooze sugar water instead of blood, but it is the red beet with which we are concerned; the variety that blushes and swells like a hemorrhoid, a hemorrhoid for which there is no cure. (Actually, there is one remedy: commission a potter to make you a ceramic asshole—and when you aren't sitting on it, you can use it as a bowl for borscht.)

An old Ukranian proverb warns, "A tale that begins with a beet will end with the devil."

That is a risk we have to take.

Pictured here: Vegetables worthy of Snow White's blood-red lips—(l-r) chioggia beets, Arkansas black apple, red onion, radishes, early girl tomatoes.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The fairest of them all

I can't remember exactly how it went, but the idea for this blog grew from a conversation Kat and I had while hiking, when I named Romanesco (pictured at left, in pointed glory) my favorite weird vegetable. I also claimed I'll someday tattoo its image upon myself while singing the praises of this green, fractal wonder. (FYI: That is the New York Times lying on my kitchen table, and yes, I consider this vegetable elite.)

Its verdant, whirling form inspired love at first sight, so I took it home (from the Oak Hill Farm stand at the Sonoma farmers' market) and treated it rather unadventurously – like broccoli's edgy cousin. Steamed and salted, the flavor lies somewhere between cauliflower (earthy/nutty) and said queen of green crucifers (bitter and sweet, vegetal). But when I saw, then tasted, roasted Romanesco florets sprinkled around scallops at Quince, my adoration grew like Totoro's tree.

My preferred preparation method is a hybrid pan-roast and steam: throw it in the skillet with olive oil, garlic, plenty of salt, then add your liquid of choice (water, stock, PBR) and cook it off to mellow the crunch. (Also helpful is this straightforward yet poetic description from the Food Lover's Companion.)

I'll frequently turn the resulting slightly browned bits into a puree, sometimes with the addition of tahini. Pictured here is purple cauliflower given the same treatment: pureed, then spread on cheese toast. I once brought this snack on an airplane, and when my seatmate blurted, "What are you eating?" I was more than happy to reach across the aisle and spread my love of weirdness.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Mission Street Food update

I'm not sure, but I think that people aren't supposed to update blogs on Friday nights, thus creating the illusion that they are out having a better time than you are. However, I am pretty beet (!) from being out on the streets all last week, from Halloween Critical Mass, to election night spontaneous street dancing, to finally getting a taste of the S.F. foodie phenomenon Mission Street Food last night (I missed the vigil and march to protest the depressingly misguided passage of Prop. 8's ban on gay marriage, but many of my friends were out there).

In a tragic missed connection, I never did get to meet that elusive King Trumpet sandwich, since the operation has tweaked its menu and moved on up from a taco truck to a Chinese restaurant on Mission St. between 18th and 19th streets, hence taking it from Mission Street Food to Mission Street Food. I did get to sample the dreamy ginger and coconut ice cream, followed by the highly tasty meat-smoked fried rice with duck (yes not so vegetable, though the smoke part could be deemed weird). The restaurant was packed and had a kind of speakeasy vibe—the lights were mostly out except for some red-and-blue Christmas twinklers and the fluorescent glow of the back room, casting film noir shadows on the forms hunched over bowls of indeterminate edibles. By around 9:30pm, the food was running out, so I had to grab whatever happened to go by on a tray, dim-sum style.

The foodies were out in full effect thanks to the frenzy whipped up by local blogs like Eater SF, SFist, and Burrito Justice, which have already posted extensive photos and updates on last night's meal. The service was friendly and volunteered by chef Anthony Myint's loved ones, and I left a hefty 75-cent tip for my harried waiter, who found me a spot at a table with his friends (thanks!). I also met a nice Italian food enthusiast named Arrigo who has promised to give Weird Vegetables the inside scoop on his upcoming vegetable fermentation extravaganza based on a workshop he went to in Berkeley. Check the updates on Anthony's blog Mission Street Food for more information on location, menus, and possible guest chef appearances. Still every Thursday until further notice...

Thursday, November 6, 2008

This is what it looks like...

...when vegetables cry.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Arugula or Iceberg Lettuce?

I voted arugula. This poster comes from a very scary righty blog that I don't have the heart to link to here, but Weird Vegetables wants to take back the arugula and detach it from this taint of xenophobia that demonizes strange, foreign-sounding words and exotic-seeming vegetables. Why should the desire to know about the world beyond the borders of iceberg lettuce be discouraged as "elite"? Why should we shy away from greater flavor and nutrition? Call it by its original English name, Joe rocket, if that feels less threatening. Either way, lettuce hope that by the end of tonight, this country will welcome a new kind of greenery into the White House.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Pumpkin hangover

This little pumpkin had too much Halloween fun! I hope y'all had an exciting Halloween weekend. I didn't get to carve a pumpkin this year, but I did witness some really intense pumpkin carving action involving precision tools and stencils of the Cheshire Cat and Sarah Palin's face at my friend Andy's pre-Halloween party. Check out more crazy pumpkins at Epicurious, where I found this amazing barfing pumpkin. You should also check out Andy's freaky wonderful illustrations and comics at He spent today selling his comics, t-shirts, and prints at the Alternative Press Expo.

Some people like to carve faces out of pumpkins, others like to sit on them. Henry David Thoreau in his celebration of humble woodland hermitude, Walden, can't seem to make up his mind on this question of pumpkin usage. First he declares, "I would rather sit on a pumpkin and have it all to myself, than be crowded on a velvet cushion." Later on, he decides he's above this crude business of pumpkin sitting, and that all it takes is some clever thrifting to find adequate seating: "None is so poor that he need sit on a pumpkin. That is shiftlessness. There is a plenty of such chairs as I like best in the village garrets to be had for taking them away. Furniture!"

Still others like to write songs about pumpkins. For example: Shrimp Boat's "Pumpkin Lover" or Devendra Banhart's "Pumpkin Seeds," not to be confused with The Smashing Pumpkins' entire album called Pumpkin Seeds. I haven't been able to make out how or if pumpkins actually factor into the Shrimp Boat song, but I did manage to catch the part where Mr. Devendra sings: "You ever make a soup out of pumpkin seeds? There's a lot of skin and flesh I should have never seen..."

More on pumpkins to come! Just you wait.