Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Beet Poet

As we head out of 2008 and into the deep heart of winter, I would like to bid farewell to the beet, my vegetable obsession of the last couple months. My wine dark muse shall still take part in my wintry salads, but midnight signals a new year and the need to turn over a new leaf in our vegetable saga. What will January hold for Weird Vegetables? Hmm, dark days, new leaves--all signs point to the dark leafy green kale as the next winter vegetable of choice for this vegetable lover. How can it be that we have never posted on one of my most cherished of edible plants?

Before you turn to your organic champagne garnished with parsley and thyme, I would like to leave you with this beet poem, commissioned from the Bay Area's itinerant market poet, Zach Houston, at the S.F. Ferry Plaza farmers' market back when I was at the height of my beet phase. When he's not trotting off to New York to participate in a gallery show or making an appearance at Art Basel in Miami Beach, you can find Zach and his Poem Store typewriter Saturdays at the Ferry Plaza and also in front of Berkeley Bowl, the champion of supermarkets. Give him a topic and he will tap out a poem for you that is sure to delight, and maybe even instruct. The poem:

If you can't quite decipher the type, the poem reads:

the blood red ukranians have food
to match their humanity and its life
blood food no reason for those two
vowels not to sound the same like
the rock and roll difference thats
between borscht and beatles black sea
and england is famous for its
music spelled wrong not song
just secretly edible roots
with two ee beatnik

He wrote that in about 2 minutes while following the side conversation that Erin and I were having and chiming in with a comment or two. I was impressed.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Xmas Kookies!

Merry Christmas! Please enjoy some kooky dried fruit & nut Christmas cookies courtesy of my phenomenally crafty friend Amanda, America's answer to Ju Duoqui and her vegetable tableaus. In the weeks leading up to Christmas, Amanda has turned her kitchen into an elfland artisan cookie workshop, churning out such masterpieces as Black Santa, '70s cartoon kids, a Mexican dancing lady, Dia de los Muertos skull and eyeball hand, and an entire bestiary of animals perfumed with clove and ginger. I helped with a Christmas tree for Santa to put presents under (above).

To note as you marvel at these photos: no cookie cutters were involved in the formation of these amazing sweets. And the frosting was made with powdered sugar mixed with food coloring. Inspiration begins now!

It took me over a day to find the heart to eat the bejeweled butterfly that my friend presented to me (below). Once I started, though, it was so tasty I couldn't stop, though I did eat the parts very deliberately, pausing for a moment to contemplate the reverse aging process of butterfly to saintly larva, my insect Benjamin Button.

The pretty dancing lady and her model:

Almond duck and coconut-flake-poppyseed sheep:

Mr. Tristram has two mustaches, macho-man gingerbread on the left, and real-hair maitre d' on the right:

Corey and I promise that we licked our hands thoroughly before handling the glowy saint and happy dog that other people have probably eaten by now:

Thanks Amanda! (pictured here with her lovely assistant Tom)

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Potato-bear and Carrot-bunny

Potato-bear and Carrot-bunny are friends. They like to hop through the fields together liberating other potatoes and carrots from the earth. Farmer Brown often tries to catch them to put them into his beef stew, but they always get the best of him. Potato-bear spits spuds in Farmer Brown's eye, while Carrot-bunny likes to shoot rooty pellets at him from beneath her round carrot tail. Then they roll in the dirt and have a good laugh at his expense. Silly humans!

Potato-bear originally comes from a farm in Vermont, while Carrot-bunny is a local kind of gal. They were sent to me by a certain Leafy Heirloom who often comes across freakish outliers of common vegetables. I've somehow decided that Potato-bear is a boy and Carrot-bunny is a girl, but some of you might interpret them as otherwise, depending on what parts you find yourself fixating on. I'll leave it at that.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Kombucha, baby!

Weird? Certainly. Vegetable? Who knows. Kombucha is one strange brew, and a most divisive foodstuff. Some of my kindred food spirits (Katrina included) have been known to cringe, mime dry-heaving, and screech "Gross!" at the mere mention of the beverage. Even McSweeney's (a place where weirdness is usually warmly embraced) published this less-than-favorable report. But how can I blame folks when I freely admit that kombucha's snotty globules are something you have to get used to, and took the adjacent photo of my most recently acquired culture looking heart-like in its jar of juices?

In an effort to familiarize the skeptical, wary, and just plain averse, Kombucha is:

1) undeniably delicious (if you're like me and used to drink vinegar behind closed pantry doors as a child);

2) a mystical elixir of ancient origin that's now sold for close to $4 a bottle, its packaging often sporting claims that it may ward off cancer, keep migraines at bay, regulate digestion, and add gloss to hair;

3) sweetened green or black tea that's been fermented (meaning yeast has converted its sugars to carbonation and alcohol) and contains a low amount of sugar, live strands of bacterial culture, and a trace amount of booze.

So the culture – also called a mother, mushroom, or bladder (eew!) – that performs the fermentation is a yeast/bacteria hybrid (anyone out there want to explain the science behind this?), and resembles a gelatinous, whitish mushroom cap. The one in the photo above was folded into a jar for transport, but they're typically nearly-perfect circles with the circumference of the jar where they were birthed. Be not afraid, dear reader!

To brew the brew, you pour a large amount of tea with sugar dissolved in it into a large glass jar (mine's a 1 gallon cookie jar from IKEA). Add the culture, which will either float atop or hover in the midst of the liquid. This process can be referred to as "feeding the mother," and before you get all grossed out, note that this is also the name of a necessary step in the creation of yeasty sourdough bread–a markedly friendly, universally beloved food staple. When feeding my mother, I use mango-scented black tea and add slices of fresh ginger.

Then you cover your jar with cheesecloth or dry paper towels, secure the breathable lid with a rubber band, and let the culture devour those sugars for 7 to 12 days. During that time, the liquid will turn pleasantly sour and bubbly, and your mother will grow a new layer – about 1/8th of an inch thick – called a baby, scobie, or starter. This newly-generated culture will either be attached to the top of the matriarch or floating freely above it. If necessary, remove the mother from the jar and gently peel the progeny from her. (My friend Travis, a staunch anti-kombucha activist, deems this part "skinning the baby.")

At this point, you have a little culture to pass on to a friend, and a jar full of drinkable kombucha lorded over by your robust mother. Ladle most of the liquid into a serving vessel, blend with juice if desired, refrigerate, and quaff whenever the mood strikes. (Feeling down? Particularly toxic? Eager for a cleanse?) Meanwhile, your mother is ready to start all over again, so you best get a brewin' if you want to feed your newly-formed addiction to the acidic tincture.

Here's a link to a decent site explaining the brewing process in detail.

**For those of you still reading, I just delivered a baby, now sleeping soundly in my fridge, and will gladly give it – for free! – to the first inquiring adopter.**

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Vegetable Museum

If art is a way of defamiliarizing the world, of bringing our attention to dwell on the strangeness of certain objects, thoughts, or actions, then vegetables, in their innate weirdness, are a natural medium for this kind of aesthetic reflection. (The ghosts of Russian Formalism and Viktor Shklovsky are nodding their spectral heads in approval as I type.)

When our Veg-on-the-Street correspondent, Endive Haricot, forwarded me a link to The Vegetable Museum, the vegetable art project of Beijing artist Ju Duoqui, I immediately recognized in her a kindred spirit, though one far more skilled than I in the art of wielding the vegetable. Parents teach their children not to play with their food, but Duoqui's work recovers the secret bounty that is lost when vegetables are reduced to mere vehicles of nutrition.

After shelling several kilograms of peas to make herself an entire pea-lady outfit two summers ago, Ju Duoqui decided to get even wackier and reconstruct classics of Western art via the wide world of vegetables (the tofu Mona Lisa, a leeky Van Gogh, Klimt's naughty kiss between radishes, begging the question: where's the beet?!). Of the tableau above, Liberty Leading the Vegetables (the inspiration is Eugène Delacroix's La Liberté guidant le peuple) the artist writes:

Against that fiery fried-egg backdrop, this woman who emanates onion smells from her breast and carries a spring onion spear in her left hand and a wood ear flag in her right, draped in a tofu skin robe, leads the vegetable people forward. The yam soldiers, with their bewildering little round eyes raise a cabbage banner. Having figured out what moving forward means, have they lost their momentum? Each of the potato-head soldiers has a different expression, not sure of their bearing, perhaps surprised, but that is definitely a completely unadorned potato. You wouldn’t know them any better if they were chopped into French fries and covered in ketchup, but when placed in the picture, they all appear unfamiliar and rich in facial expression.

How well do we really know our vegetables, regardless of the form they take? I am particularly taken with the line: "this woman who emanates onion smells from her breast." Think of it, the onion body from which flow the tangible traces of courage and hope. Maybe that Obama onion wasn't so random after all...

Another vegetable piece of Ju Duoqui's that I am fond of is The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Pickled Cabbage, which is a lumpy revision of Rembrandt's The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolas Tulp:

And here's a saucy little Tim Burton-style potato 'n' lettuce Napoleon:

Dig the little eggplant shoe and the cilantro cravat. All photos and the artist's statement are taken from the Paris-Beijing Photo Gallery, where even more vegetable masterpieces await your perusal.