Sunday, March 29, 2009

To Live the Artichoke

Feast your eyes on Livi Yoshi-choke-a, a girl that gives vegetables a good name. Though the naked baby doll, purple balloon dog, and plate of bacon (candy? what is that?) are vying their hardest for your attention, clearly the artichoke princess is the belle of the ball. Wanting to know more of this artichoke's heart, I asked Livi some questions over email, which she graciously answered:

WV: Why did you dress up like an artichoke?
LY: It's one of my favorite vegetables, and having dressed up as a snail over the summer for a masquerade ball, I decided I wanted to continue the things-that-are-eaten-with-butter theme. [Editor's note: I usually eat my artichoke leaves dipped in mayonnaise or salad dressing, but I am open to trying butter after reading this.]

WV: How did the world open up for you as an artichoke?
LY: Donning the artichoke costume was definitely a moment of self-actualization. Why try to be a rose when you can be an artichoke?

WV: How has this experience changed your relationship to artichokes?
LY: When I drive through Castroville now, I feel less like I'm passing by fields of Matrix Pods, and more like I'm at a family reunion.

WV: What is your favorite weird vegetable?
LY: I'm not sure. I think the vegetables I like are pretty boring -- turnips, greens. I eat heart of palm straight out of the can, but I'm not sure that's a vegetable. I do like bitter melon a lot, that might be a bit more unusual.

Inspired by Livi's lovely costume, I steamed some artichokes to eat.

This is how:
Wash the artichokes, snip off the thorny tips of their leaves, and slice off the very end of the stem. Heat about an inch of water in a pot and lay one of those collapsible vegetable steamers down, then put the artichokes in it. Cover and steam for about 20 minutes, 30 if they're larger than your fist. You can peel off a leaf and taste the edible end for softness if you're not sure if they're done yet.

To eat: peel off one leaf at a time, dip it into your dressing of choice (mayo, butter, oil and vinegar), and use your teeth to scrape off the soft part into your mouth. You won't be able to eat the whole leaf until you get deep into the middle, where they become thin and soft. When I get to the center, I like to pluck off the little layered leafy cone and eat it whole. Then use a knife to slice off the white fuzz, and enjoy the crunchy heart. Be sure to take many sips of water in between so you can exclaim over how this thistle makes the water taste sweetlike.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Vegetable Victory

It's official. Vegetables, though still weird to most Americans, are as hot as Michelle Obama's triceps under the media sun. Unless you've been hiding in the back aisles of Wal-Mart for the last week, you've heard by now that the First Lady has broken ground on a new White House vegetable garden on the South Lawn (arugula yes, beets no). All of a sudden the words "organic," "sustainable," "fresh," and "locally grown" are being tossed together with "government," as anti-industrial foodist factions whet their appetites for some attention from the powers that be. Of course, it's too soon to start juggling kumquats and tooting on your fiddlehead ferns in celebration, but when Alice Waters appears on 60 Minutes and on the front of the New York Times Business section in the same week, you know that the seeds of a new food consciousness have begun to sprout in mainstream soil.

The article, "Is a Food Revolution Now in Season?", looks at the growing consensus toward a need for reform in the U.S. food system--from reducing and redirecting farm subsidies to increasing funding for more nutritional school lunches--both on the side of policy (pleasant surprises from new secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack) and that of commercial/cultural influences (Whole Foods, movies like the upcoming documentary Food, Inc.), as well as somewhere in between: the NYT reports a lobbyist's amazement at "how many members of Congress were carrying copies of The Omnivore’s Dilemma." Here at Weird Vegetables, we usually float in our own idiosyncratic, farmers' market-driven thought bubbles and only get overtly political when the mood strikes, but if you want a good source of progressive food news and politics, I suggest adding The Ethicurean to your bookmarks.

While it's hopeful to be able to look to government for some large-scale food reform, I personally like Michelle's way of taking the matter into one's own hands by just going out and planting some vegetables. (By the way, The Economist has a great article you should read criticizing the fluff treatment--as fashionista and dutiful mom and daughter before anything else--Ms. Obama's been getting in the press and asks that the White House PR team "Let Michelle be Michelle") I was the most impressed by the price tag of the White House garden: $200. It might seem like a lot of work, but you can start small with just some herbs in a little windowsill pot from your local hardware store or nursery. Above is a family friend's quite advanced plot in Eugene, Oregon, which I found inspiring but impossible for my own limited space and time, though I am lucky enough to have some backyard space. Below are some further examples of vegetable dabbling:

Here is an herb project I started with my backyard neighbor (his hermitage, as I call it, is located at the far end of the yard over which my window looks). We drilled holes in an old wine barrel he had cut in half, poured soil in, and planted parsley, oregano, mint, thyme, and sage. I think herbs are the best way to get into growing food because they're cheap, easy to maintain, and more practical than the large bunches offered at supermarkets since you usually only need a handful at a time.

At the end of last summer, I came into some beautiful starter endives and mustard greens from an underground source with connections to the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center in Sonoma County, which is having a spring plant sale and tour on April 11. I shoveled out a 2' x 2' plot in my backyard and cordoned it off with string wrapped around stakes and chopsticks, providing my neighbor's collie with lots of naughty fun-time. The plant babies got fried in the sun, but revived into vivid green fronds a few weeks later. Nothing compares to freshly picked spicy mustard greens tucked into your midday sandwich. The endives have since retired, but the mustards (Ruby Streaks and Purple Wave) are still going strong seven months later!

Above, the rooftop garden of my Brazilian "auntie" (ti-tia) in Rio de Janeiro, where I also did some much-needed laundry while traveling last summer. Her chubby chives were a tasty last-minute addition to rice and soups.

My friend Lealah and I engaged in some inconspicuous foraging at the victory garden across from S.F.'s City Hall last Labor Day weekend during the first Slow Food Nation extravaganza.

The victory garden planners brought together a range of Bay Area community urban gardening projects and revived a bit of San Francisco's history by planting on the same site of the city's 1943 Civic Center victory plot. What's a victory garden? Read more about it here. We should all think of Amy Franchescini with awe and affection as the artist-activist-gardener who made it happen with lots of tenacity, library research and convincing conversations with the right people at City Hall. Check in with her organization, Futurefarmers, for more exciting uses of public land. And if you're looking for a plot to call your own in S.F, here is a list of some community gardens.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Celeriac Attack!

I emerge from a week of deadline-induced hysteria to bring you this brief attack of celeriac. With the recent drain on my brain, this image seemed appropriate. I have been operating under conditions of limited time and unlimited panic of late, and Weird Veg again presented itself as my most fruitful form of procrastination (I trust you will pardon the seemingly incongruous adjective, but I take recourse to the fact that fruits are actually subsets of vegetables, as established in the lemon cucumber post).

Hanging from the sure grip of my roommate Rachel is a celeriac, also known in less exciting terms as celery root. She brought home this strange thing one day, looking for all the world like an explorer bearing a shrunken head she had plucked from the misty regions of the great beyond, but it had, in fact, come from S.F. Ferry Plaza farmers' market.

She put the root to work in a recipe for Celeriac and Mascarpone Purée culled from her cookbook that I've recently become quite taken with, Cooking Outside the Box: Easy, Seasonal, Organic: the Abel & Cole Cookbook which sounds a little generic until you realize that the box is a winking reference to the boxes of organic produce delivered to the homes of happy Londonite vegetable eaters by Abel & Cole, one of Britain's best-known CSA companies. Keith Abel, the main brain behind this book, loves root vegetables, as evidenced by his numerous impassioned endorsements of not just celeriac, but also swedes (the Brit term for turnips, and sometimes rutabagas, remember?). One of his recipes is called "Swedeaphobia Cure," which involves mashing swedes/neeps/turnips with cream, honey, ginger and nutmeg. He calls celeriac "another one of those great British vegetables that people avoid because they don't know quite what to do with it." There are a lot of great vegetable ideas in this book, which is helpfully divided by season, and has some really gorgeous matte color photos of produce and finished dishes.

Here is the adapted recipe. I didn't get to try the final product, but Rachel reports that it was quite delicious, like potatoes but with a fresh dollop of celery taste.

Celeriac and Mascarpone Purée

1 celeriac, rough outer skin removed and diced into 1 in. cubes
2 garlic cloves, peeled
A knob of butter (yes a knob--part of this book's charm)
1/2 mug of mascarpone cheese
Salt and freshly ground pepper

Place diced celeriac and garlic cloves in a pot of salted water (to cover them) and simmer for about 15 minutes, until the celeriac is fork-tender. Drain, pop those guys back into the pot ("pop" is Abel, "those guys" is me) and move it around over low heat for a minute or so to remove some moisture. Then mash it all in the pot (or put it in a blender) to make a smoothish paste before folding through the butter and mascarpone. Season and serve.

Mm, this is making my brain hungry.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Why Look at the Lobok

I came across the lobok at the S.F. Ferry Plaza Farmers Market a couple of months ago. This small root--it fit in the palm of my hand--was so unassuming, so humble in its quiet sandpaper dullness, that I nearly passed it over in my excitement to reach my fingers into a box of its flashier cousins, the giant white Asian radish known as daikon. But then the farmers set out some sample slices, and the ring of brilliant green that encircled the lobok's inside flesh caught my eye and drew my hand.

Like the daikon (a Japanese name; "lobok" is Chinese), the lobok has a spicier bite than the European radish, but I also find it sweeter than the daikon. I put my slices into a delicious sandwich made with Acme walnut bread, ricotta cheese, mustard greens, and marinated red peppers, an idea lifted from my friend Nick, who takes photographs and draws pictures of lovely things. I had almost ignored the lobok's lonely hairs of wisdom but was glad to have paused for a second look. Here's to free samples at the farmers market!

Monday, March 9, 2009

Booty-ful Bounty

"Let me just get one more handful of Booty first." This, spoken to me by my Weird Veg blogmate, Erin, before entering the strangely fancy/divey EZ5 bar in San Francisco's Chinatown last Friday night. We were digging into a bag of Veggie Booty, a weird vegetable treat consisting of airy corn puffs flavored with spinach, kale, cabbage, carrots, and broccoli.

Says the Robert's American Gourmet product website, "Veggie Booty puts you in the mindset to eat healthier and change your life, take it on a train, or in your car, on a walk, or on a boat, Veggie Booty will be your good friend." My sentiments exactly, though probably with different punctuation. I haven't had the Simply Booty Vegan member of the Pirate Booty family, but it looks promising. You should be able to find some kind of Booty at your local corner store depending on where you live, and definitely at Trader Joe's.