Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Requiem for a Kale

My heart is always saddened by the sight of decaying food. Rancid milk, shriveled cilantro, fuzzy green tangerines... This morning while I was still wandering through the apartment groggy-eyed in my Mexican muumuu nightgown (brightly colored flowers embroidered on a bed sheet converted into a dress, still wearing it now, I must admit), Erin had already finished her breakfast, pinned up her hair, and was about to head out to work when she let out a low mournful sound. I followed her gaze to the mass she had just pulled out of her cloth shopping bag.

Poor, poor yellowed kale! It came from a farmers' market less than two weeks ago and lay forgotten, trapped in the dark, lonely folds of her bag hung on the kitchen doorknob. And now its withered leaves would go straight to the green compost bin. Kale being the the first half of my vegetable name, I decided to take it personally. I have all day to think up whatever small vengeance I shall extract from Ms. Kohlrabi when she gets home. The Brassica family looks out for its own. Be warned.

It is a sad kale, yet beautiful in a sere, austere way. We must console ourselves with the remembrance that this vegetable body, put to rest, will eventually give sustenance to a new form of life as it rejoins the soil.

Requiem aeternam dona huic brassicae oleraceae, Domine.

[Grant this kale eternal rest, O Lord.] I mustered my one year of Latin to attempt correct conjugation of the kale element in that phrase, brassica oleracea.

For another way to consider decay, I turn you to my personal poet laureate Elizabeth Bishop, who writes in her essay "Memories of Uncle Neddy" in The Collected Prose:

Except for the fact that they give me asthma, I am very fond of molds and mildews. I love the dry-looking, gray-green dust, like bloom on fruit, to begin with, that suddenly appears here on the soles of shoes in the closet, on the backs of all the black books, or the darkest ones, in the bookcase [KD's note: "here" is Rio de Janeiro, Brazil]. And I love the black shadow, like the finest soot, that suddenly shows up, slyly, on white bread, or white walls. The molds on food go wild in just a day or two, and in a hot, wet spell like this, a tiny jungle, green, chartreuse, and magenta, may start up in a corner of the bathroom. That gray-green bloom, or that shadow of fine soot, is just enough to serve as a hint of morbidity, attractive morbidity--although perhaps mortality is a better word. The gray-green suggests life, the sooty shadow--although living, too--death and dying.

One of the things I like best about this passage is how it reminds us that the alarming signs of spoiled food--here in particular the dark, insidious change of color but also the foul smells and transformed textures we associate with foods gone bad--are at the same time signs of life, but also of death and life intermingling in tiny dramas that play themselves out in our refrigerators and storage shelves, in our forgotten shopping bags. It also recalls to me how many foods that I enjoy are really "bad" made "good," like cheese, bread pudding, or anything fermented really.

If I think hard enough, I may be able to effect an alchemical transformation whereby it is obviously much healthier and more life-affirming to stay in the house all day in my muumuu instead of taking a shower and stepping outside to feel the sun and wind on my face.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Vegetable Publicity

Weird! Strangers are reading our blog! Andrew Simmons, a kindred spirit in food and wordplay and not to be confused with the professional wrestler Andy Boy Simmonz aka Simmons the Butler, interviewed us about Weird Vegetables for KQED's Bay Area Bites blog. (Query: Should I be embarrassed for always accidentally spelling it "KQUED"?) Then John Birdsall over at SF Weekly's food blog, SFoodie, blogged about Andrew's blogging, saying, "he just might be our favorite blogger of things edible," cataloging Andrew's Weird Vegetable post under the heading: "Trippy." That's three layers of blogdom. It's getting so bloggy up in here, I can't make out my rooty little carrot fingers on the keyboard.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Seafaring Carrots

All those sea vegetables in Hawaii got me in the mood for further marine exploration closer to home. At the Happy Boy stand in Noe Valley, I came across the mythical seahorse carrot, which made fast friends with my resident seahorse.

A watery snorfle then drew my attention to the scurvy likes of the dread pirate Peg-leg Porkytop. Needless to say, the other denizens of my kitchen sea wall swam quickly in the other direction once Porkytop landed on the scene with his little piggy eyes.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Oh Wow Laulau! It's Weird Vegetables: Hawaiian Tropics Edition

All right, produce people, listen up. Get ready for some summertime surf and turf veggie action as Weird Vegetables hangs loose and goes traveling. My little niece Zooey says "Aloha! Eat more vegetables. Weird ones! And weird fruit too." How can you say no to such a cute tyrant? Last week, about twenty members of my extended family gathered together near Waikiki Beach on the island of Oahu to celebrate my mom's 60th birthday.

Always in search of weird vegetables, I took the opportunity to snoop around one of Honolulu's best farmers' markets. Led by our fearless local guide, my friend Janice, who just opened a super cute and tasty Vietnamese restaurant there called Ha Long Noodle House (tagline: "Are you a phở-natic?"), my mom, my cousin Binh, and I went on a free-sample frenzy at the Kapiolani Community College or KCC Saturday Farmers' Market, while most other sweaty tourists continued up the road to hike the landmark Diamond Head crater. Whew! Take a breather after that last crowded sentence and then grab a salty mouthful of this:

Yum! That's Kahuku sea asparagus, delicately crunchy and rinsed until it retains the perfect amount of saltiness. This vegetable competes with the rutabaga for best aliases: pickleweed, glasswort, sea bean, sea pickle and marsh samphire. The ones here are grown in salt water ponds on Oahu's north shore by a company with the futuristically dystopian name Marine AgriFuture, LLC. They were also selling sea asparagus inari, the rice-stuffed tofu skins many know affectionately as "football" sushi.

Alongside the succulent sea asparagus was ogo, a crunchier reddish-brown seaweed used to make poke, that most delicious of ahi tuna salads (pronounced "po-keh," though I like saying "Pokey" like Gumby's little horse friend).

These Japanese ladies were very excited by the seaweed selection. Ogo can be hard to find in the States and was overharvested (overfished? overweeded?) for awhile before more sustainable aquaculture techniques were developed, according to this article. Here's a recipe for ahi poke and an interesting-looking one for sea asparagus ahi and tofu poke.

Now that you've had a taste of surf, let's go in search of turf...

Oops, that last one is out of our jurisdiction, maybe a job for Weird Meat.

But here we are with some hula corn, dressed in a husk skirt, butter, and sweet-salty-sour li hing powder (which I associate with the dried Asian plums or mui that I used to suck on absently while watching cartoons as a child):

And--oh wow, laulau! It's kalo! Mmm, ono and so pono!

That means: Oh my gosh! It's taro! Mmm, delicious and so right!

The "Oh Wow Laulau!!!" is also one of the signature offerings at the Taro Delight stand. Laulau is a Hawaiian dish usually made with pork and butterfish wrapped and steamed in luau, or taro leaves, but this version is made with salmon belly and taro root chunks. My human belly said it was too early in the morning for laulau, even this lighter kind, but I did try a flavorful bite of the taro poke that owner Tom Purdy and his be-lei'd companion were handing out:

I also dipped some chips into their taronaise and assorted creamed taro concoctions. Taro plays a starchy supporting role in Vietnamese and other tropical cuisines (I especially love che khoai mon, a Vietnamese dessert made with taro root, sticky rice and coconut milk, recipe here), but the Hawaiians claim the taro crown, with early Polynesians cultivating over 300 varieties for their large, flat leaves and hairy ovals of edible corm (but you can still call it by the less alarming "taro root").

A lover of all things taro, I feel a little guilty for never getting that excited about poi, the traditional Hawaiian dish of taro root mashed into a bland, goopy, lavender-hued mass that acts as a complement to salty meats and fish. But if you're ever in Honolulu, you should try some with the kalua pig, laulau, or lomi salmon at Ono Hawaiian Foods, a restaurant that makes some "broke da mouth" good food. More on kalo, the Hawaiian word for taro, here and here.

The beads of perspiration dotting your upper lip tell me you're getting a little fatigued walking around under this hot sun, so let's get some dessert and then scoot you under a palm tree in the sand.

Wait, moms has to stop for some fresh papaya to go along with her growing pineapple, lychee, mangosteen collection back at the condo.

And now I take a plastic knife, and carefully divide this delectable work of culinary art from Made in Hawaii Foods's Saturday Grandma. Behold the strawberry mochi, a sticky rice flour pocket of sweet red bean paste and a perfectly ripe strawberry from Kula Country Farms on Maui.

And try some of this one too:

The filling is Okinawa sweet potato (purple) and haupia (white), Hawaiian coconut pudding that has a consistency like Jell-O.

Wash it down with some fresh coconut water, hacked open by a nice man at the end of the Vietnamese bakery stand, Ba-Le. Meanwhile mom talks shop with the other Vietnamese ladies and buys a rosemary baguette and monkey bread even though we're leaving in two days.

Okay, now it's time to go play in the water.

Back at Nana's room, baby Alexa, Zooey's evil twin, says, "Forget that weird fresh stuff, gimme another Dorito! Mahalo!"

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Salad Hands and Mugwort Soba

The world of vegetable eaters can be divided into those who feel weird handling salad with their bare hands and those who feel even weirder tossing their greens with the plastic prostheses known as Salad Hands. Erin, my blogmate and now roommate, falls into the former camp and so was baffled--yet strangely pleased--to receive these cheerful ergonomic grips from a loving family member last Christmas. While she still sneaks her warm, pink real hands into the salad bowl before serving leafy greens, Erin has found that these cartoonish claws are perfect for tossing more slippery fare, like noodle salad.

Note how these "ergnonomic nonslip grips," as the product description calls them, fly through the salad:

On this particular night, Erin was making a salad with mugwort soba noodles, a soy-ish dressing, purple cabbage, peas, and the secret ingredient: pistachio butter. The mugwort tinted the soba slightly greenish and still remains something of a mystery to me, though I was once shown some fuzzy, dark green scraps in a ziplock bag identified as mugwort. It also reminds me of a story my friend Andy shared while musing on the ethnic labeling of certain vegetables (like Chinese broccoli).

He writes:

"I particularly resent the Japanese mugwort designation on kitazawaseed.com, given that mugwort (along with garlic) plays an important role in the creation story of Korea. The story being that a tiger and a bear wanted to become humans, and God said to them to go into a cave for 100 days and subsist only on garlic and mugwort. The tiger quits after a while and goes back into the woods, while the bear manages to make it to the end. God rewards the steadfastness of the bear by turning it into a woman and weds his son to the she-bear...and so the Korean tribe began..."

I'm not sure what this says about the health properties of mugwort (not to mention garlic) but I'm going to bet that the bear falls into the, um, bare hand salad tosser party.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Herbal Detritus

It is with great fanfare and a greeny contentment that I announce a new era of Weird Vegetables. Erin, my ghostly blogmate whose last post was back in some wintry month and now lies covered with a thin layer of dust, has moved in with me, thus heralding the burgeoning of a heretofore unwitnessed Produce Utopia in our kitchen and enabling me to nag her daily about helping out with the blog.

While searching for a new home for Erin's pasta maker and food processor, we came across a mysterious jar labeled KIMCHEE in one of the upper cupboards. The jar itself was not such a question mark, since I recognized it as the brand of kim chee that my former roommate Rachel regularly kept in the fridge. No, what drew our curiosity was the jar's contents: a tangled mass of delicate chartreuse tendrils. It looked like seaweed or the hair of some tiny sea nymph. Or some secret experiment Rachel had been marinating in the cobwebbed corners of our cupboard space.

I gingerly unscrewed the lid and poked my nose into the jar. Dill. The scent was faint but unmistakable. The taste was like pencil shavings. When I pulled the wizened herb out of its hard nest, it held its cylindrical shape and was quite beautiful. But something about its fragility cried out to be returned to its glassy shell and I acquiesced. It made me think of the Sybil of Cumae, the seer who asked Apollo to let her live for a thousand years but without asking for eternal youth. Her body withered into such a small case for her poor soul that she could eventually be kept in a jar. In the epigraph to The Wasteland, a poem I was obsessed with as an undergraduate and still think about surprisingly often, T.S. Eliot quotes a few lines on her from The Satyricon in Latin and Greek that translate into the following:

I have seen with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in a jar, and when the boys asked her "What do you want?" She answered,"I want to die."

Maybe Rachel was trying to create the thousand-year-old dill weed that would prophesy our futures in croaking whispers. But perhaps I should lay it to rest. . . It looks a little fatigued.