Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Mustard Seeds

Bottom: Your name, I beseech you sir?

Mustardseed: Mustardseed.

Bottom: Good Master Mustardseed, I know your patience well: that same cowardly giant-like ox-beef hath devoured many a gentleman of your house: I promise you, your kindred hath made my eyes water ere now. I desire you more acquaintance, good Master Mustardseed.

Over the past nine months, I have gained a tongue-tingling acquaintance with the mustard plants that I tucked into the soil in my backyard last August. The plants began as spiky leaves that shot out horizontally, and that I would snip off for salads and sandwiches over the winter months, but as of April, they've gone into hyperdrive and blossomed into tall, elegant stalks topped with bright yellow flower bunches.

I felt like poor dense Bottom, the weaver with the enchanted donkey's head from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (or in other words, like an ass, or perhaps like "that same cowardly giant-like ox-beef" who had been devouring the leaves without proper mental rumination), as it suddenly dawned on me one day that it was possible to transform this plant into something approximating the Grey Poupon in my fridge. First I would have to find a way to harvest the seeds. I watched the flowers for signs of something more, forgot about them for a couple of weeks, and then suddenly today I walked out into the sunshine to discover this incredible mass of pods, waving in the wind like Titania's fairy helpers.

Here is what the mustard plants looked like in the fall:

I'll need to wait for the pods to grow a bit more and get brittle before I harvest them and hang them in a bag to dry, as instructed by this article. San Francisco weather is so unpredictable, I have no idea when these will be ripe for the plucking. Hopefully I'll be in town when it happens. Get ready for some traveling Weird Vegetables in the coming months...

As we wait for the seeds to ripen, I'll leave you with the lines that end this mustard scene, spoken by Titania, Queen of the Fairies, who has fallen temporarily in love with Bottom:

[To Mustardseed]

Come, wait upon him; lead him to my bower.
The moon, methinks, looks with a watery eye;
And when she weeps, weeps every little flower,
Lamenting some enforced chastity.
Tie up my love's tongue, bring him silently.


Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Great Scapes

What kind of a person wakes up spontaneously at 4:17am unable to fall back asleep? Clearly a disturbed one. We all dream about the extravagance of absolute freedom, but when it finally arrives, as a sudden free fall after months, even years, of being driven by an intense, habituated single-mindedness, it can be terrifying, even if or perhaps because intoxicating. I am now officially Qualified. To do what, some invisible souls may ask. Hmm, something inconclusive and of little quantifiable benefit to the world at large. In other words, to speak with some measure of authority on a vast array of books that span certain periods of Luso-Brazilian, Anglo-American, and French literature. With the consequence that I now spring awake in the wee hours of the morning thinking I need to make more flash cards and copy out more passages only to remember that my most pressing engagements at the moment are my plans to make tie-dyed t-shirts and friendly animals out of socks and gloves and to peep into the secret lives of seahorses at the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

"I fear chiefly lest my expression may not be extra- vagant enough, may not wander far enough beyond the narrow limits of my daily experience, so as to be adequate to the truth of which I have been convinced. Extra vagance!"

Thoreau, who writes this at the end of Walden, likes to think of himself as an extra-vagrant, a kind of knight errant who often wanders beyond the bounds of his own stated subjects and arguments. I sometimes half worry that we will one day run out of weird vegetables to think about, that going to the same farmers' markets every Saturday will produce predictable results and that I will have to search the rogue hillsides of Oregon or the backlands of Brazil for something more exciting. But then it seems only an atrophied imagination that cannot discover a certain thrill tucked away among the fuji apples and yellow onions, that can only recognize wildness in its most obvious of forms.

The extravagance of farmers' markets was punctuated for me three weeks ago by the sudden appearance of scapes at the Happy Boy farm stand in Noe Valley. These gnomic wands stood like ciphers in a container near the "checkout" scale, and I picked just two up out of curiosity. Scapes are the flower stalk of alliums, which include garlic, leeks, and chives. They bolt up toward the sky for a brief spell and are cut away by farmers to encourage growth of the underground bulb and are often tossed away. But, as the saying goes, one man's trash is another man's treasure, and many people have come to salivate at the very thought of these delicately pungent tendrils, which are available for an excessively limited time. Blink and their season could slip away unnoticed. After tasting these, which happen to be leek scapes, thicker and less commonly found at markets than the curlier garlic scapes, I went back for more the next week, but I had already missed the last of them.

At home, I investigated the insides of the papery bulbs and sliced the stalks into one-inch pieces on a bias cut, as suggested by a friend who thinks seriously about the shapes of slices. It was pleasantly disorienting to experience that familiar spicy, leeky-garlicky flavor coming from such a different color and texture, and the scapes kept their distinct flavor even after I sautéed them with other vegetables mixed into a lentil sambar I made from a Moosewood Cookbook recipe.

Another lesser known vegetable offshoot worth trying is green garlic, which is the young garlic attached to its stalk and harvested before its cloves grow and separate, also available for limited periods in May and June. It appears in the middle of the tableau below, surrounded by red cabbage, purple onion, red Russian kale, and a lemon wedge. You can get more ideas on scapes and green garlic from this NY Times article by Melissa Clark and also here. People seem to like making pesto from garlic scapes. I'll be ready for them next year. Unless I accidentally sleep through it...