Saturday, October 31, 2009

Pumpkin Dance

Really, you should go out tonight. Finding a costume is not that complicated. Just find a black shirt and leggings, grab someone's front porch jack-o-lantern to strap onto your face, et voila! Halloween! Someone will throw candy your way, I promise.

This Omaha news station knows how to start a partay. I'm fascinated by how clearly enunciated all the dance moves are and also by the curious androgyny of the dancer--big ham fists (note the wedding ring), broad shoulders, yet such delicate legs, and the lumpish hint of chicken hormone breasts.

I owe this incredible treasure to the Internet foraging skills of the musically, linguistically, comedically gifted Kerry McLaughlin, who contributes to many blogs and produces episodes for the TV arm of XLR8R magazine.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Elmo's Butchered Pumpkin Face

Last week I left New York to face its impending winter alone and escaped to the perma-summer of Los Angeles on the weekend for a friend's wedding and to visit my sister's family. While driving through Echo Park on our way to hike in the hills near the Griffith Observatory and ogle the Hollywood sign, then pick up some really expensive coffee beans that a roast-obsessed San Francisco friend requested I bring him from Intelligentsia in Silver Lake, my friend John--a passionate meat lover--asked if there was any vegetable equivalent for butchering.

I think of the butcher as someone who handles and dresses dead animals and who acts as a skilled intermediary between cooks and their meat because the task of division and preparation is labor-intensive, often unpleasant, and takes some amount of training and talent to perform. But I couldn't think of any vegetable whose parts are parceled out to be sold in quite as elaborate a way as pigs or cows. A "vegetable butcher"-themed Google search turned up Bloody Butcher corn, perhaps the most frightening heirloom variety name I have yet encountered, as well as this delightfully creepy children's illustration by Michael Lauritano:

What we do to pumpkins and other large winter squash, especially in the weeks leading up to Halloween, seems to come closest to what might be called vegetable butchering. Many of us remain amateur carvers, though, hacking into these forbidding vegetable surfaces with much trepidation and trial and error, and more often for recreation and decoration than to eat them.

In our efforts to be festive, we take sharp knives and carefully cut into their rotund exoskeletons, revealing their tangled mass of innards.

Then we reach our hands in and swirl them around to remove the goopy guts.

Some additional knifework or spoon action clears the last of the seeds and spaghetti entrails.

Then the less knife-sure of us take a Sharpie to the pumpkin face in order to better carve out a creaturely visage. My twin nieces, whom I nicknamed Pumpkin and Peanut for their relative shapes and sizes when they were first born, are in love with Sesame Street's Elmo, like most American two-and-a-half year olds who watch TV, so my sister and I decided to attempt an orange homage to this little red giggle monster. I drew a test Elmo on our newspaper scrap and plotted a carving strategy but deferred to my sister for the actual drawing on the pumpkin.

"Don't worry, I've drawn Elmo sooooo many times."

Round and round, in and out the knife goes. Pull out the mouthpiece!

Wipe away that pumpkin slobber!

For Elmo's clown honk nose, I had the brilliant inspiration to scrape it down to the yellow layer with a grapefruit spoon, though it failed to show up in the dark later. If you say he looks like Grover, I will smash your head like a gourd.

Put his party hat on.

"Elmo likes palm trees!"

"Elmo likes the dark if there's a candle burning inside his head!"

It is true, this charming Elmo is no match for the fine art produced at my friends Andy and Aron's pumpkin carving party last year, where people were using awls and homemade stencils to stab out intricate formations like Sarah Palin's face. But that's why this is a post about butchering vegetables.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Cheeky Greens & Green Radish

We always seem to find a reason to stay right as we’re about to say goodbye. This little blogging kale was beginning to feel a bit droopy after several weeks of poking around produce in New York and finding herself unable to find a single bunch of farmers’ market dark leafy greens worth taking home to her kitchen, mainly because they were either outrageously overpriced or pathetically wilted. I imagined I’d developed a vegetable vitamin deficiency and wondered if I really had the resolve to be a true locavore outside the Bay Area (though I can’t ever fully subscribe to a strict Barbara Kingsolver regimen of eating only locally grown foods, a policy that strikes me as xenophobic and dogmatic at its most extreme even if I do agree with the general point).

And now on the eve of returning to the West Coast, I have found what I was looking for: Evolutionary Organics. Back in August, at the Union Square Greenmarket I had encountered some awesome sensual carrots and other bizarre beauties at Windfall Farms, but their prices were unsustainable for my weekly veggie needs. This month, I had mostly been languishing in bed on Saturdays and rolling out at the last minute to the McCarren Park farmers’ market between Greenpoint and Williamsburg in Brooklyn to pick out the least sad turnips and potatoes, so to be fair, I haven’t really been working extra hard to seek out the best produce around town.

Then last Wednesday, I found myself wandering aimlessly through New York’s Union Square and was suddenly attracted by signs of dark green life shining happily in the cold sunshine at the Evolutionary Organics stand. All the rows of assorted greens for $4/lb recalled my treasured Heirloom Organics leafies back home at the Ferry Plaza market (Windfall’s comparable greens are $3 per 1/4 -lb, or an outrageous $12/lb).

I took a sampling home and laid out the greens to admire each piece in my collection like I used to do with Halloween candy after a hard night’s work of running up front steps and breathlessly shouting “Trick or treat!!” The assortment pictured above includes, clockwise from top left: toraziroh (a Japanese mustard green), bok choy (though they call it “pak choi”), mizuna (the spiky ones, another Japanese mustard green), tat soi (the little chardy looking leaves), purple pak choi, a token vitamin green leaf, purple mizuna, and sunflower sprouts. I'm hoping I identified everything correctly, though I may have mixed up the toraziroh and vitamin green...(confirmations or objections welcome in the comments section). All are tasty, good sauteed or raw, and nothing too bitter.

The farm stand’s signage consisted of hand-written cheeky notes, and some were painted in rainbow colors. When my joy broke out into an involuntary smile that landed on the girl working there, she smiled back (turns out she was from Santa Cruz, original home of happy produce).

The sign for the purple pak choi began: “that’s right, I said it. It is pak choi/bok choy and it is PURPLE.” The note identifying the vitamin greens explained, “a literal translation from its Japanese name--I don’t think it has more vitamins than other greens. It is very tasty any way you choose to use it.” I told Evolutionary’s farmer and sign author Kira Kinny (Blondy Kinny, according to her email handle) that she had pretty much just written my blog for me and she said, “Yeah, we’ve got a lot of weird vegetables here” in a reassuringly no-nonsense sort of way and kept unloading boxes without pausing to gush over the literariness or entertainment value of vegetable descriptions.

Not only did she have watermelon radishes, there were also green meat radishes, which I had never encountered before (pre-sliced radish pictured up top). Kira’s sign introduces them: “Neato! They are green inside!” I found the green radish friendly-spicy, as opposed to the heated aggression of both black and watermelon radishes, and less perky in flavor than little pink French breakfast radishes, like its sharp edges have been washed out a bit, if that makes any sense.

My bounty came together in an elaborate sandwich consisting of rye bread from The Garden market down the street, hummus, green radish, whatever greens I could fold up and layer on, yellow wax beans, sun sprouts, and a raw cow’s milk cheese.

I also ooh’ed at the greens from Keith’s Farm a few stands down and picked up some of their famous humongous garlic--written up in the NY Times. But that sudden rising in my heart when I found Evolutionary Organics made me realize that half of my vegetable love is for the actual produce but just as important is the general mojo of the farm and its workers, an energy that manifests itself in everything from their smiles to getting kind of loony and arts ‘n’ crafty over what they grow, which I can’t help but feel does have a way of ultimately improving the quality of the produce.

Evolutionary doesn't have a website, but is at Union Square on Wednesdays and Brooklyn’s Grand Army Plaza Saturday market. This article gives good sense of what farmer Kira Kinny is about. Her husband runs Conuco Farm, which I haven't had a chance to encounter, but whose blog I linked to for their toraziroh description. I'm sure there are more great farms scattered around New York's farmers' markets (and yes a post on Ms. Greenhorn Severine's smithereen farm is a-comin' soon!) but I just haven't quite gotten my bearings out here as well as I have on my home turf in San Francisco.

That day I also picked up a bunch of kale to make a caldo verde soup, and on the subway home whisper-chanted to myself, “Happy kale, happy kale, happy kale,” until it began to sound like “Abigail, Abigail, Abigail.” So now whenever I meet someone named Abigail, I’ll think of the Happy Kale I found in New York.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Pink & Greens For Fall

All right, I got the beet madness out of my system with a little red borscht soup and potato-cheese pierogis at Lomzynianka in the Polish neighborhood where I'm staying in Brooklyn. I was also assisted by the red flannel hash (eggs over beets mixed with corned beef), plus a side of beet mustard and salad greens I had at a most exquisitely delicious restaurant, The Farm on Adderly, which has a bowl of plastic farm animals to take like business cards or toothpicks and Slow Food NYC's Snail of Approval, a distinction I did not know existed. So now here's a relatively lighter post.

Erin's already written about the eye-watering watermelon radish, but I suggest we all clasp our hands together and breathe, "Oh!" one more time because aren't they just the purtiest lil' darlin's y'ever did see?

Fall is supposed to be when we get serious--about our work, our lives, our leaves--but it's a relief to see that not all is dark orange, brown, or somber green this time of year. I got these first watermelon radishes of the season in mid-September at the Ferry Plaza Heirloom Organics stand, and paired them with dandelion greens, though more out of a sense of color than taste, I admit. Watermelon radishes are supposed to be sweet as far as radishes go, but these were super spicy, perhaps because they tend to start off really feisty and mellow out as they mature (rather like humans but the opposite of most radishes, according to this site).

To ease the hot pink peppery jolt, as well as the bitterness of the greens, I sauteed them together. Next time I might put some scrambled eggs on the side and serve the bold-flavored dish as a morning eye-opener.

I had used only half the radish, so later I dropped some raw triangle slices on top of hummus and fried falafels (made the naughty cheater way with water and a mix from Rainbow Grocery's bulk section, though I did add freshly minced shallots.

The sweet-tart ending to this pink-and-green theme party came with the arrival of these "mystery apples" I got from Four Sisters Farm. The woman at the stand told me this fruit was deemed "mysterious" because the tree's seeds had blown into their five acres from elsewhere on the scented winds of Aromas, their Monterey County location.

For those who like rankings, I say these apples' cuteness factor is the food equivalent of the baby pygmy hippo.