Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Vegetarian Mission Street Food

Tomorrow's Mission Street Food (MSF), the weekly San Francisco underground foodie phenomenon whose popularity has been clogging the sidewalk outside of Lung Shan restaurant on Mission St. between 18th and 19th every Thursday from 6pm-midnight, will feature a vegetarian menu with way too many weird vegetables to discuss in detail here. At the helm will be chef Leif Hedendal, who's been a kind of shadow contributor to Weird Veg, mainly in the form of creepy carrots and assorted vegetable performance tips. MSF has recently decided to donate all of the profits from the operation to different charities, and this week's extra cash goes to the local Food Not Bombs. The dinner date will also mark my long-awaited reunion with my alleged blogmate Erin (Eggplant Kohlrabi), who's been off again traveling and working film festivals in Palm Springs and who has been posting with the frequency that Halley's Comet comes around. (Yes, that is a sharp-elbowed nudge, Erin).

For more info on MSF, go to their blog, or read more background with lovely photos on the Beer and Nosh blog.

See how many weird vegetables you can spot on tomorrow's menu:

castelvetrano olives with fennel (vegan) 3.5

chickweed, chicory, cress, chioggas, pecorino ginepro, blood orange, rosemary-filbert vinaigrette 8

Tartine walnut levain with chevre, apple, meyer lemon, wild arugala, pine nut, honey, olio nuovo, Murray River salt 8

deep fried yuba package with maitake mushroom, mustard greens, leek, miso, Buddha's hand, matcha salt (vegan) 7

roasted cauliflower with tahini, Recchiuti chocolate 85%, piment d'Espelette (vegan) 6

king trumpet mushroom, triple-fried potatoes, garlic confit, charred scallion sour cream on homemade flatbread 6

slow egg on mashed potatoes with nettles and fresh herbs 8

bucatini e cavolo nero: caramelized alliums, fried sage, toasted almonds, capers, olives, chiles, brown butter 9

humphry slocombe maple walnut ice cream with rosemary shortbread, olio nuovo, Murray River salt 5.5

humphry slocombe coconut sorbet (vegan) or oolong ice cream (not vegan) 3.25/scoop

Monday, January 26, 2009

Chuc mung (bean) nam moi!

That's my attempt at a bilingual pun. Chuc mung nam moi means "happy New Year" in Vietnamese, and today is the start of the lunar new year, known as Tet in Vietnam. My mom just gave me some banh chung, the savory sticky rice cake wrapped in banana leaves and stuffed with pork and mung beans whose taste reminds us that the new year has arrived (though maybe they should be using ox tail this year in honor of the Year of the Ox). Here, my banh chung stands flanked by an envelope full of crisp new bills—my li xi ("lee see") lucky money—ginger candy, and some red-dyed pumpkin seeds. And that's my cat Osiris (aka ODB, Dirt McGirt, Big Baby Jesus) being really creepy in the background.

Mung beans aren't so weird to me, since I grew up eating Asian desserts made with the yellow bean paste and always welcome a handful of bean sprouts to freshen up soups like pho and canh chua. At the same time, I've never actually tried to make the paste myself and never even knew the beans were green on the outside. There are certain foods that we've eaten since childhood that seem to arrive magically on our plates in a way we never question. Perhaps a sign of adulthood is realizing that we too can conjure these foods directly from their unprocessed form. Does that mean I lost my innocence the first time I made mac 'n' cheese not from the box? Maybe I should let the mystery of the banh chung keep a little while longer, at least until I'm over 30...

So, happy New Year to you. Get yourself some banh chung at your local Vietnamese sandwich shop, then fry it to a crisp in a pan and eat dipped in sugar or soy sauce. And if you're the ambitious, know-it-all, cook-it-all type, then you can learn more about banh chung making here. And watch this video, which has an amazing soundtrack:

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Oh my neep!

Could it really be? Is Weird Vegetables tapping into the frosty heart of this season's Geist? This just in from our Irish vegetable linguist, Conor Creaney (aka Cardoon O'Chicory): neep is the Oxford English Dictionary's word of the day for today, Sunday, January 25, 2009. Leave it to the OED to unearth yet another pseudonym for a member of clan turnip that I left unexamined in my turnip vs. rutabaga post (see the comments too). If you make it to the OED site today, 'tis here. If not, then I've diced up the entry and kept my favorite bite-sized pieces below. I am particularly taken with the turnip paraphernalia (turnip watches and neep lanterns) that round out the uses of turnips elaborated below. Ju Duoqui may want to take note for her next vegetable outfit.

neep, n.

Now regional (chiefly Sc.).

1. a. A turnip; (also, in later Sc. use) a swede. Also: a turnip plant or swede plant.
In Old English, perh. also applied to rape, Brassica napus.
The usual name in all Scottish dialects and current in Ulster and Northumberland, it is also recorded by Eng. Dial. Dict. (1903) in Cornwall, Suffolk, Hertfordshire, Herefordshire, north Wales, and Leinster.

1826 J. WILSON Noctes Ambrosianae in Wks. (1855) I. 207 Juicy neeps that melt in the mooth o' their ain accord.
1972 P. O'BRIAN Post Captain (1990) v. 123 She will bash the boat like a bowl of neeps as she sounds.
1997 Shetland Times 21 Nov. 27/1 An enjoyable meal of haggis, neeps and tatties was served by Lexie Mann.

b. Sc. and Irish English (south.). A parsnip. Cf. MYPE n.

...1791 MRS. FRAZER Pract. of Cookery (1800) 121 To stew Parsnips..when the cream is warm, put in the nips.

{dag}2. More fully wild neep. Any of several wild plants used medicinally; spec. white bryony, Bryonia dioica. Obs.


3. Sc. A watch; spec. a watch in a case, a turnip watch.
Sc. National Dict. (1965) records the sense in general Scottish use in 1963.

1866 W. GREGOR Dial. Banffshire (Philol. Soc.), Neep, a watch. 1895 J. TWEEDDALE Moff 210 ‘It maun be shortly sin if he dis,’ said Wullie Cuddy, consulting his ‘neep’. 1923 R. L. CASSIE Heart
or Heid
18 That great neep o' a watch o' yours wunna keep time.


neep brose n. Sc. and Irish English (north.) brose made with the liquid in which turnips or swedes have been boiled.

1887 A. G. WILKEN Peter Laing 50 A great notion for *neep brose. 1959 C. GIBSON Folk-lore Tayside 33 Almost on a par with kale-brose were neep-brose, beef-brose{em}and just plain brose.

neep land n. Sc. (now Orkney and Shetland) ground prepared or used for growing turnips or swedes.

1861 in Sc. National Dict. (1965) s.v. Neep n.1, I was at Newmill yesterday and got the Dung and new grass Valued and plowing of *neep land is setteled. 1956 C. M. COSTIE Benjie's Bodle 9 Mither's washan and Ded's i' the neep lan'.

neep lantern n. Sc. = turnip-lantern n. at TURNIP n. Compounds 2.

1871 C. GIBBON For Lack of Gold xviii, The laddies paraded the village with *neep-lanterns. 1937 St. Andrews Citizen 1 May 3 They then got a turnip, hollowed it out in the usual manner when making a ‘neep lantern’, and gave the turnip the form of a skull.

neep-seed n. (a) the seed of the neep; (b) Sc. (north-east.), the time for sowing neeps.

1916 G. ABEL Wylins 66 The neepseed deen, me an' my chums an' pals Wid shim a bit, or dander to the walls.

neep-shaw n. Sc. and Eng. regional (Northumberland) a turnip top.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Dino Kale

Please give a hearty Weird Veg welcome to dinosaur kale, the lumpiest, crunchiest member of the kale family. Dino kale belongs to the more bulbous Brassica oleracea branch, making it kin to collards, cabbage, broccoli, and brussels sprouts, as opposed to the more delicately leaved side, Brassica napus, which includes Russian kale, as pictured in the previous kale post.

This night-green bunch may look prehistoric, but dino kale is actually considered a more recent variety of kale, discovered in Italy in the 19th century. Its name comes from its scaly hide, though it could possibly be the dinosaurs' preferred leafy snack, judging by how much my baby dino seemed to enjoy several tiny bites of its eponymous vegetable, sauteed with some potatoes and corn, with a bit of cheese grated on top. I also used dino kale as one of the layers in a winter vegetable lasagna I made inspired by Erin's beautifully layered version. And I'll never forget the time she made me the most delicious boiled kale on toast topped with a fried egg (!), the recipe for which comes from the Zuni Cafe Cookbook via the always mouth-watering Orangette blog.

Things to know about dino kale are that its darker color suggests it has higher levels of vitamins and carotenoids (they help your eyes) than even other types of kale, already known in general as The Phytonutrient Master, and that it can be grumpy in the morning, so watch your hands when you reach in the crisper for something to scramble with your eggs. Like the wily rutabaga, dino kale operates under several sneaky aliases, including Black Tuscan Kale, Cavolo Nero, Nero Toscana, Black Cabbage, Black Palm, and Laciniato. The Cavolo Nero especially likes to peep in windows at night, so keep your curtains drawn if you're afraid of the dark cavolo.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Turnip or Rutabaga?

Pop quiz, veggie heads. Rutabaga or turnip? Which is which in the above photo?

tick tock

tick tock


Decided? The bigger one is a rutabaga (right) and the smaller guys are turnips (left). If you correctly identified these specimens, then advance to Veggie Challenge #2: the radicchio vs. escarole blind taste test. According to Mark Bittman in his encyclopedic How to Cook Everything, an incredibly useful recipe resource that will save you hours of Internet filtering: "If you can tell the difference with your eyes closed between radicchio (seven dollars per pound) and escarole (fifty-nine cents a pound), you deserve a Julia Child award for Most Sophisticated Palate."

Incidentally, Bittman has a new book out called Food Matters: A Guide to Conscious Eating, which picks up the gauntlet that Michael Pollan threw down with The Omnivore's Dilemma (changed my life) and In Defense of Food (preaching to the choir for me at this point but still good) by combining the discussion of our bloated food system with practical guidelines and recipes for how to eat more sustainably and healthfully without fetishizing your food objects and spending your whole paycheck on two ears of corn and a lamb sausage. This book review by Laura Miller at is worth reading not only for its use of the bizarrely intriguing term "snow jobs" (applied to diet books) but also for the way it aptly characterizes Bittman as a kind of everyman's foodie, the Joe Sixpack love child of Michael Pollan and Alice Waters, one might say.

Returning to the veggies at hand, if you failed the quiz, get yourself to your next farmers' market or produce-heavy grocery store and examine the rutabagas side-by-side with the turnips. They aren't too different, but these root vegetables do belong to slightly different species, Brassica rapus (turnip) and Brassica napus (rutabaga). Turnips come in both Japanese and French varieties, the former round, white, and cute, the latter, purple-tinged and with a more tapered end (the ones pictured here) and are available pretty much all year. Rutabagas, on the other hand, hit their stride in the winter months, becoming sweeter in colder weather, and are generally deep purple and yellowish with rougher skin and tougher "meat" than the more delicate turnip. I'd put my money on the rutabaga in a street brawl.

Provenance gets a little more colorful with the rutabaga, which is thought to be a cabbage-turnip love child——there's a possible analogous loop back to Bittman somewhere in there but I'm in no mood to dig for it at the moment——originating in 17th-century Bohemia. After that, this starchy staple gets associated with Sweden, nicknamed "swede" in Commonwealth nations, while "rutabaga" derives from the Swedish "rotabagge," meaning "root ram." Yes, root ram. It did just get better. Lest I overwhelm you with excitement, rutabagas/swedes/root rams are also known as "snaggers" in northeast England. How did I get so knowledgeable? By surfing here and here.

If you're wondering how to cook these earthy creatures, let the potato be your guide. I would roast them sliced up, maybe peeled, tossed with salt and olive oil, at 375°F for about 30-40 min. until browned around the edges and soft in the middle, or I would simmer them in a soup. Below, I made a gratin with one layer each of turnips, potatoes, and rutabagas. I had the rutabaga layer on top, but next time I would make it the bottom because it's tougher than the other two and so less inviting as the first bite into your mouth.

Turnip, Rutabaga, Potato Gratin (inspired by the recipe from Chez Panisse Vegetables)

Preheat oven to 375°F. Get together a handful each of turnips, rutabagas, and potatoes, enough to make one or two layers each in a 9-in. round or 9x12-in. baking dish. Wash and peel if you don't like skins or they're too scaly. Then slice turnips, rutabagas, and potatoes into thin, 1/4-in. rounds, and layer them in the dish as below. Season each layer with salt and pepper.
Pour a mixture of half cream (or milk) and half chicken stock (about 2 cups, but varies depending on the size of your dish) to just cover the rounds. Bake uncovered for 40 minutes. If you have some parmesan or gruyere lying around, grate some over the top to bake for the last 5-7 minutes.

I must confess that my final product in this instance came out a little funky, since I ran out of milk and got all MacGyvered out by using sour cream swirled with salted water. I also ran out of patience and energy while slicing the larger rutabaga, which ended up in savagely chopped, irregular blob shapes. I trust that yours will be much more pleasing.

Note: This post was inspired by a debate I had with an always friendly and gracious cashier at Bi-Rite over whether my purchase was a rutabaga or turnip (I was right; it was a rutabaga, though I was helped by the signage when I picked it out). Bi-Rite Market is a neighborhood grocery store in San Francisco's Mission district that specializes in organic and local products and that I usually denounce for its high prices, though its local produce is actually surprisingly affordable. Also, they're always super nice when I ask really specific and probably annoying questions about cuts of pork or call up and have them check on exactly what kind of beets are in stock and at what price.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Kale & Potato Soup

Kale doesn't strike me as such a weird vegetable, but I do find it weird that more Americans don't eat this magnificently hued leafy green. Pictured above is red Russian kale from the Tomatero Organic Growers' stand at the Noe Valley Saturday farmers' market. I first developed regular kale cravings while living in Brazil, where they like to chop their couve up into ribbons and sautée it with lots of garlic. Below is some Brazilian kale, which may be closer to collard greens (specifically couve mineiro for those that means anything to), sidling up to a tasty portion of fried manioc:

If you can accept "dark green" as a flavor, that is what kale tastes like to me. Besides being the heartiest of winter greens, kale is also ready to pump your system full of anti-oxidants, beta-carotene, vitamins K & C, calcium, and other healthful nutrients. One day, I'd like to see a vitamin death match between kombucha and kale... This wild cabbage cousin is also said to be an extremely hardy crop, a good addition to winter vegetable gardens; perhaps I'll plant a few of these black-green roses in my tiny backyard garden patch next to my thriving endives and mustard greens. My inspiration is the kale I spotted growing in the hillside garden that Dona Linda Nemer planted at Casa Mariana, the poet Elizabeth Bishop's former home where I stayed for awhile in the summer (their winter) in Ouro Preto, Brazil:

Besides sautéeing my kale, I also like to put it in soups. The recipe below (adapted from Alice Waters's Chez Panisse Vegetables) is for a Portuguese soup called caldo verde that also became a staple of my past Brazilian life. It's basically kale, potatoes, and fried ham and is perfect for a cold winter evening, though you wouldn't know it was winter in the Bay Area with this week's record-breaking 80-degree weather. Alice doesn't include the ham, gesturing instead toward an optional garlic sausage, but the caveman hedonist in me had to add it back in.

1 bunch kale
2 pounds boiling potatoes (I used Russian banana potatoes, which is a post for another day)
2 quarts water
1 tsp salt
extra-virgin olive oil
a small slab o' ham or bacon
optional: other root vegetables (I added carrots here; you can also try turnips, Jerusalem artichokes, turnips, rutabagas, parsnips, etc.)

Chop the naked stems off of the kale, then wash it - you don't want gritty kale in your soup! Then I usually roll the kale up into a kind of cigar roll and chop it thinly into what's known as a chiffonade:

Then peel the potatoes and dice them into small cubes. My friend Leslie gave me this vicious orange monkey peeler—it likes to gloat over its handiwork. Bring the water to a boil with the salt. Meanwhile, dice your preferred salty meat up into tiny pieces and fry it in a pan to as black a crisp as you like (I prefer burnt edges, myself). When the water boils, add the potatoes, and when it returns to a boil, cover the pot and cook for 2 more minutes. Then add the kale and cook for about 2 minutes longer, until it wilts nicely into the soup. Add more salt if needed and a splash of olive oil. I also add a little freshly ground pepper.

Don't forget to toast some fresh crusty bread to dip into your soup while you're waiting for it to cool down. Potato-based soups always burn my tongue! While I do hold kale close to my heart and have even adopted it as the first half of my vegetable name (Kale Daikon), there are still others out there whose passion extends far beyond my paltry devotion. Try the blog i heart kale for starters. Or if you've got some January wanderlust and frequent flier miles (or good Internet travel deal skills), get yourself over to northwest Germany where the social clubs hold what's known as Grünkohlfahrt or "kale tour" (yes, German gets the prize for most charming name for kale, Grünkohl, plus add "fahrt" and it's an instant party). At these kale festivals, kale is consumed alongside sausage and schnapps, and the lucky kale king is crowned. I couldn't think of a better way to spend my January.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Four Ways of Looking at a Carrot

Carrots are the character actors of the vegetable world. Often overlooked in the produce aisle, the carrot is unassuming yet unmistakably singular, able to quietly evoke a stunning range of personalities. Like a Philip Seymour Hoffman or Kevin Spacey, the one single carrot featured below shifts with chameleon ease between four very different poses. It comes from the Tierra Vegetables stand at the S.F. Ferry Plaza farmers' market.

"Hey there, good looking. Care to stop awhile and pass the time?"

"Dude, you got an extra cigarette? Thanks, man. Happy New Year."

"Zzzzzzzzzz" (pleasant dreaming)

"Uncle! Uncle! Ow, Tommy, you're hurting my leg. C'mon, get off!"

No you're not cross-eyed, this one carrot does really have all those limbs. I'd say this little critter's got a leg up on the Best Supporting Root category for the Veggie Oscars.