Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Long Ago, a Farro Way

In the midst of some intense pressure-cooker, game-show-style writing on the nature of American and Brazilian poetry, the properties of propriety, the materiality of words, I have decided to take a break. That means watching The Princess Bride and thinking about farro. Fred Savage is so little. Andre the Giant so tender. The whole premise is inconceivable (with a lisp), yet so enchanting. On to farro...

Once upon a time, at the end of the Ice Age, humans in the Fertile Crescent began to tire of wandering the land hunting and gathering, so they settled down to cultivate edible plants. Farro, widely known as emmer wheat, was one of these grains. The gods of radiocarbon dating have identified emmer from Israel going back as far as 17,000 BC.

Fast forward to one year ago. Location: Cafe Rouge, a restaurant on 4th St. in Berkeley chosen by friends, specializing in "rustic Mediterranean fare as well as American dishes," as the website informs us. I scan the menu, slide an oyster into my mouth (ordered by aforementioned wise friends before I had arrived), and think to myself, what's farro?

Our server comes.
"What's farro?" I ask.
"An ancient grain," she says, with a far-away look in her eye.
"Ooooh. Let's get that," I say.

An ancient grain. It has a nice ring to it. Eat it and you are connected to Egyptian pharaohs, lonely goatherds on the grassy hills above Rome, enterprising Phoenician sailors scenting the wind for signs of land.

I was quite pleased with the farro's substantial texture and how it combined with dark leafy greens. At home when I cooked it, it seemed chewier than at the restaurant, but I don't know if cooking it for longer would have helped. I'm still experimenting. It could be that they used a higher quality, more refined version. This farro came from Rainbow Grocery. Other things to know: Farro is the Italian name for this wheat, cultivated mainly in Tuscany. It is not the same thing as spelt, a mistake that caused some trouble for Heidi Julavits, as she tells us in the NY Times. Buy it semi-pearled (semiperlato) if you don't want to get stuck having to soak the whole grains over night.

Above, I tried stewing it with tomatoes and topped the hearty mess with onion slivers fried to a crisp.

Cooking farro:
Rinse the farro and pick out any delinquent-looking grains. You can soak it in a bowl for awhile if you want the cooking to go faster, but you don't have to. Heat up some oil in a pot and throw in some sliced onions or scallions to sautée, maybe leeks, carrots, and/or pancetta. Add the farro, a 1/4 teaspoon of salt, and water at a 1 : 3, farro : water, ratio. Here is where I added the stewed tomatoes as well. Bring it to a boil, take it to a simmer, keep it going for 30-40 minutes, and check it for cracked kernels and edible chewiness. It also makes nice soups, especially with white beans.

Here is Mario Batali's recipe for Farro Soup in the Style of Lucca: Minestra di Faro Lucchese. When I think of Mario, I remember when a friend told me of how he saw the Food Network chef in New York smoking a cigarette against the side of a building and wearing Crocs. This is funny if you know what he looks like or maybe just because Crocs are always kind of funny, though kind of sad too. Here's Mario's website if you want to check out his beard and ponytail.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Russian Banana Potatoes

I found these Russian banana potatoes a few months ago at the Happy Boy Farms stand at the Noe Valley farmers' market and decided to take them home to test the resemblance in my fruit basket. (Happy Boy is the coolest stand around, as confirmed by their cartoon vegetable signs. They compete for my affection with Tomatero Organic Growers, even though they don't even know I exist. sigh.)

This is a case in which the vegetables themselves are pretty normal, but it's the humans who've gone a bit loopy. I'm talking about naming practices that bring us into the territory of surrealism. When things are named after other things, independent identities begin to dissolve, and it gets especially confusing when 1) the things don't exactly resemble each other and 2) you try to figure out which is meant to be the original and which the copy and why.

So does the wiener dog look like a hot dog or does the hot dog look like a dog dog? And then there's this banana potato that is also a type of fingerling potato, as in little finger. To recap: a potato that looks like a banana that looks like a finger. Whose finger, you ask? Well, that depends. If you're talking potatoes, I'm assuming it's a human finger. When you get into banana territory , those tiny sweet bananas are known as lady fingers, but there is also a more elongated kind called monkey fingers, and yet another kind named goldfinger. So could I say that someone has banana fingers or potato fingers or banana potato fingers? And are lady finger bananas supposed to look like the genteel fingers of ladies (though I find them a little too stubby to be genteel—the bananas, that is) or the delightful cookies known as lady fingers? Are fingers supposed to look tasty?

Of course, these potatoes could also be the punchline to some farmer's joke about what you get when you try to breed tropical fruit in Eastern Europe...

I can think of at least two other vegetables named after fruit (lemon cucumber, watermelon radish) but no fruit named after vegetables. I'm still thinking, but perhaps it's a sign that people are more familiar with fruit and are reassured when strange vegetables can be associated with a known piece of produce. Why are there no radish apples? Or rutabaga oranges? On the matter of linking produce to body parts, it does make the plant parts more recognizable, but I'm not sure how reassuring that naming practice is (i.e. the aforementioned "fingers," also blood oranges). Okay, I'll stop before we all go bananas, b-a-n-a-n-a-s.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Creeps Come in Pairs

"The better to see you with, my dear," say the pattypan squash eyes.

I got these at the Tomatero Organic Growers stand at the Noe Valley farmers' market back in the early fall (I pulled these photos out of the Weird Veg archival crisper).

"And the better to bear our appalling decrepitude together," say the jujubes, which were crisply sweet but strangely spongy yet stiff to chew when I ate them, also back in September.

Yes, these are jujubes, or Chinese dates, not to be confused with Jujubes the candy, which are actually made from potato starch, but were originally made from a mysterious vegetable-based gum called ju-ju gum (I can't get a satisfying answer on what exactly this "ju-ju gum" is or was, and the Internet stories of a tropical berry have clearly not been properly fact checked, so if anyone has more legit info, drop it in the comments section). While Jujubes come in nondescript thimble form, Jujyfruits actually make the effort to look like real produce, including asparagus, pea pod, and tomato shapes, which have zero relation to the fruit flavors that their colors represent. This well-written candyblog entry has everything you should know about these two kinds of candy.

Now it's up to you to decide which is the good juju and which the bad juju. More on juju magic here.

Friday, April 10, 2009

My First Weird Carrot

There has been many a weird carrot featured on this blog, but they have always been passed on to me by other sources (well, mainly from Weird Veg satellite Leafy Heirloom). Then, a couple weeks ago, on my way to a dinner party hosted by the elegant Kathryn, vegname Chardstem Corn, I dug around in my crisper and grabbed a bag of small carrots I'd picked up from Heirloom Organics, one of my favorite farm stands at the S.F. Ferry Plaza market. And there, at Chardstem's kitchen table, she emerged in a spray of lacy green frills--my very own weird carrot in all her Botero-esque glory.

We couldn't bear to eat her just yet and instead elected her mascot of our salmon feast. I was going to name her Eve, but then remembered that Lilith had been the first woman, the one who had been banished for insisting on her equality with Adam, as the Hebrew myth goes.

The next day, I took her to meet her namesake sculpted by Kiki Smith, whom I like to think of as my artist earth mother (with Sophie Calle as my creepy-cool auntie). The Liliths stared at each other for awhile in knowing silence, but then my carrot lady became restless and wanted to know more of this new world above ground. So I sat her down with my cats and frog from the Ben Thanh market in Saigon.

Lilith found their fastpaced banter amusing, but soon tired of their endless musings on the color of Walter Benjamin's aura and the origins of German tragic drama, of their heated debates over what exactly the poetic embodiment of Coleridge's organic form would look like. It was all a little, well, wooden. Perhaps too much time spent on the bookshelf... She needed something fresher, more natural. It was time to explore the garden.

At the base of the angel trumpet tree, Lilith met a very nice, very rosy strawberry. They exchanged anecdotes of soil and earthworms and sat for some time basking in the sun like cats. The strawberry was a decent companion, but was just too cloyingly cute she felt, like those Japanese fruits.

Trailing morosely through my neighbor's orchid collection on her stubby root stems, Lilith watched the clouds pass in the sky. She sighed under the weight of this world that had so many new things in it. And then, like that, she happened upon the most lovely tree oyster mushroom. They crashed into each other like trains (whatever those were; she had never actually seen one before), had a passionate affair under the stars, and parted with bittersweet kisses the next morning, bathed in the golden hues of dawn.

Lilith had learned and experienced many important things in Purgatory, but my carrot's wilting body told me it was time for her to disperse into atoms and rejoin the universe in a new form. My friend Zoe (née Zohar), who comes from the Kennedys of the rabbinical world, said a prayer for her little carrot soul, and then we ate her with great pleasure and appreciation.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Black is the New Radish

No, that's not a piece of charcoal or a root vegetable I left roasting in the oven while I got lost foraging for mushrooms in a dark forest. It is a black radish. Yes. Disconcertingly natural. I found it at Rainbow Grocery the other day and knew it must come home with me. I haven't been able to find out what makes its skin so inky, but I did learn that the black radish is a more everyday sight in eastern Europe. Here is a first-person account of growing black Spanish radishes.

This is serious business, not for the faint of palate. You have to really like root vegetables to enjoy this, like be the kind of person who slices turnips up raw and shoves the pieces into her mouth with a hearty growl. It's not so much that it's spicy, as that it's just really really radishy. The taste is strong, the flesh is tough, the skin is rough. I'm totally into it. I slivered mine unpeeled (!) into one of the most aggressive salads (tastewise) I have ever made:

black radish, white turnip, wild arugula, kumquats, avocado, fennel, tender carrots, bits of stinky French goat cheese, oil and vinegar dressing

It was delicious. To this vegetable chomper, at least.

Add it to your list of Foods that are Black:

black radish
black beans
black lentils
black sesame
black soybeans
black vinegar
black rice

Any more? It's a trend, apparently.

Random memory triggered by this post: As children, one of my brothers and I used to have a joke where we would say, "Black mushroom! Pop!" and slap our palms over our mouths, then laugh uncontrollably. We made it up in the backseat of our parents' Volvo one night on the way home from a Chinese restaurant where we had encountered black mushrooms for the first time. I can't really explain why it was so funny, but it was. Black foods seem to have a slightly unhinging effect on people.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Vegetables: Fiendish or Friendly?

Besides an acute case of costume envy, Lady Yoshi-choke-a left me with a link to a spectacularly bizarre show called Making Fiends, a kind of gothic, girl-centric South Park set in a place called Clamburg in which Vendetta, who makes fiends, continually tries to outwit and demoralize her archnemesis (in her mind) Charlotte, who makes friends. Created as a web series by the talented Amy Winfrey, it now also airs on the Nicktoons Network. This cafeteria episode features the high-pitched shrieks of lunchtime vegetables and ends in a rousing vegetable chorus that goes:

Eat vegetables with every meal,
Or your lips will start to peel,
And your eyeballs will fall out,
And your feet will smell like trout.

All very true, as any pirate can attest, which is of course why they never board ship without an ample stash of Veggie Booty. To watch the 3-minute webisode (I thought I cleverly made that word up just now until a quick Google search set me straight) click here. I'm especially partial to the cartoon delicata squash.