Thursday, November 26, 2009

Thanks for Nothing

This is late late notice, as I'm licking the remains of pumpkin pie off my plate, my brain addled from ginger curry shrimp, sweet potatoes, yams, green beans, rice, and polenta with salsa (we had Thanksgiving dinner on Sunday so we could have it with some family friends, so today is just standard mom's vacation-time cookin'), but... I wanted to tell you all about an awesome pickling experience you could have tomorrow early evening with master microbial herder Eric Smilie. Eric will be leading a workshop in which he will teach you the alchemical craft of transforming your everyday cabbage into the magically tangy, luminescent topping known as sauerkraut. More information on the materials you will need to bring is on his blog Awesome Pickle, from which I nicked these photos. You can also just ask for a taste and a cup of tea or bring something to barter with him for a whole jar of his superior kraut.

Above is a photo from a workshop he led recently at the earthy forest-sprite neo-folk wonderland known as Gravel & Gold (I was actually walking home as he was setting up for it and popped in to say hi). More photos to make you sad you weren't there but that will motivate you to be at the next one are at the G&G blog.

The event tomorrow is part of the Buy Nothing Day festivities at the Non*Mart art show at Y2K Gallery in San Francisco's Richmond District. There will also be seed & book swapping, as if sauerkraut alone weren't enticing enough. It's from 4-6pm, 251 Balboa at 4th Ave. (combine it with a trip to the deeply satisfying Green Apple Books! Oops, but don't buy nuffin' or at least don't let on that you did). So instead of participating in the apocalyptic-sounding Black Friday, where crazed masses overcharge their credit cards for things on sale they don't really want and come home feeling empty inside and so, so alone, "unshop, unspend, and unwind" as the Buy Nothing motto goes, and feel grateful for all the amazing things that buying nothing gets you to actually do and make.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Vanessa Dualib's Playful Produce

It's that time of year when all the little potatoes come out to play, so get your craft box out and your googly eyes ready. This incredibly charming creature is called Potatosaurus Dulcis and will gladly munch up all that extra parsley you don't know what to do with. I discovered prints of him and his descendant (or ancestor?) Potatoctopus (below), along with other delightful produce pals at the Greenpoint Food Market while I was in Brooklyn last month. These cartoonish creatures sprang from the mind, fingers, and camera of Brazilian artist Vanessa Dualib, who has assembled a book of slightly psychotic yet endearing characters, like radish mice, baby carrot figures, fruit fish, and a mischievous fellow named Eggbert.

In addition to the book, Playing With Food and its main website, Vanessa also has a flickr photo gallery and tumblr blog, for those who have strong Internet interface preferences or just prefer their website names to confuse people by deleting vowels from commonly known words.

Here is Pepe the Pepper flanked by his less embarrassed and perplexed companions. He moved from his native Mexico to Avery Island, Louisiana to work for the Tabasco Co. and married a hot jalapeña, according to Vanessa.

Not only is Ms. Dualib a fellow weird food fetishist and Brazilian (I have a long-standing relationship with the country and its cultural production, though I swear to you by my Freud reader and Havaiana flip-flops that I do not belong in the dubious ranks of Brazil fetishists), but she also shares my soft spot for children's stories, which earns her a permanent place in my vegetable heart. Here, a carrot version of Le Petit Prince:

And... she made an eye-popping fruit 'n' veggie Where the Wild Things Are tableau that was featured on We Love You So, a web collage of art, music, and inspiration by people who worked on the Spike Jonze film version.

They also interviewed her on the site if you want to know more. Now, if only she would cross paths with Wes Anderson and make some Fantastic Mr. Fox-inspired dioramas. How excited I am to see that movie!

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Buttercup Squash in Winter Beanie

The weather has grown colder, and even our vegetable friends need some extra warmth. That's why this buttercup squash grows its own fitted light-green "beanie," as original weird vegetable goddess Elizabeth Schneider calls it in her indispensable Uncommon Fruits & Vegetables: A Common Sense Guide, originally published in 1986 with the super extended title that continues: From Arugula to Yuca: An Encyclopedic Cookbook of America's New Produce, With Over 400 Easy-to-Follow Recipes. She writes, "this turban-shaped squash with its distinctive pale 'beanie' has long been esteemed by many growers as the ideal winter squash..." Our intrepid guide never really says what makes this squash "ideal" (or her guide "common sense" for that matter). This shiny green fellow I picked up during a rare visit to the produce mecca that is Berkeley Bowl seemed pretty ideal, and I half expected to find a baby dread tendril peeking out from under its jaunty cap.

The buttercup is in the Cucurbita maxima family, which means it shares a resemblance to hubbard, turban, and kabocha squashes, the most dramatic group of the winter squashes, in my opinion, for their larger size and swirling color combinations.

Although I love the hearty orange comfort of roasted winter squash, spooned directly from the steaming rind, mixed into pasta, or puréed into a soup, I don't often buy the larger ones because they seem to take too much effort and planning. I hesitate to overload my shopping bag with these heavyweights because I'm usually biking or taking public transit home (I like to pretend I don't have a car), then I get nervous about how my knife will slip and take off a finger while I'm struggling to hack open this thing that suddenly looks disconcertingly like a human head, and after that I'll have to scoop out the seeds and guts and then, depending on what ultimate form I would like to serve the squash in, try again not to draw my own blood while awkwardly peeling the outer skin, then perhaps cut the orange meat into smaller pieces and then--whew!--heat the oven that I forgot to preheat and wait forever for the slices to soften, and then do yet more fixing up before serving.

But! Inspired by the optimistically unhinged grin of the Elmo pumpkin I carved with my sister, I've decided to quit all this exaggerated whining and tackle the world of winter squash with gusto! And a sharp knife.

Ms. Schneider prepared me for the worst kind of squash resistance to being halved: "If you want to cut up the buttercup, a heavy cleaver or giant knife usually does the job." Then she gives the contingency plan, which involves pounding--okay, gently hammering--on the blade where it joins the knife handle with a wooden mallet or rolling pin. Excited by the cartoonish potential of this scene, I eagerly got my rolling pin out, ready to beat that buttercup into comic submission (boing! oof! stars). But it parted surprisingly meekly before my not-yet-sharpened blade, and the large seeds were easy to scoop out.

I had decided to make a squash and sage risotto based on a recipe from my Chez Panisse Vegetables book, so I sliced the pieces up and peeled the rind off with a paring knife. I also added in some pieces of red kuri squash that Erin had left over from an elaborate dinner involving several kinds of home-brewed beer and food pairings that was orchestrated in part by this pickle master friend, whose chocolatey porter she cooked a squash mole to accompany.

The red kuri has a red-orange peel and is slightly harder and less sweet than the buttercup, say my taste buds. The buttercup was unexpectedly tender for being a C. maxima and reminded me of acorn squash.

The exact risotto that I made is probably unreproducible since I had the sudden inspiration to substitute the chicken broth with a cardamom-ginger-anise-spiced Vietnamese pho broth base and add shreds of ox tail meat that I slow cooked in the broth for four hours and then reheated as I ate pho for breakfast, lunch, and dinner over the course of two days while I was recovering from what I'm self-diagnosing as swine flu in a minor key. It's also my mom's pho [pronounced "fuh" like "fun" without the "n"] recipe, so you really can't reproduce it unless I release the information to the Internet winds.

But here I shall give you a version of Alice Waters's risotto:

(I used buttercup and red kuri; acorn would also be nice)

1 medium squash (1 lb)
24 sage leaves (really, you don't have to count them, just use the force)
Salt 'n' pepa
7-8 cups of chicken stock (or pho broth!)
1 medium onion
5 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup grated parmigiano reggiano cheese

I also included this one monster chanterelle mushroom that cost $5 at Bi-Rite and must have drawn a glistening tear from the eye of the forager who unearthed it:

Evil monkey peeler approved of the frivolous purchase.

Now, onto the instructions:

Carefully peel and clean the squash and dice it into small cubes (I'm still stuck in remedial-level peeling, as you can see from the tinges of green still stuck on my cubes.)

Put the diced squash in a heavy-bottomed pot and cook with a few whole leaves of sage, salt, and 1 cup of the stock. Cook until tender, but not too soft, about 5 to 10 minutes. Meanwhile, chop 6 sage leaves fine and cut the onion into small dice [yes, Waters writes "small dice." I guess that's an official chef's term.] I also took this moment to slice up that glorious mushroom into small sliver [that's my own term].

Heat the rest of the chicken broth and hold at a low simmer. In another heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat 3 tablespoons of the butter, add the chopped sage (mmm, it's gonna start smelling gooood), and cook for about a minute; add the onion and cook over medium heat until it's see-through (I'm doing that undergraduate plagiarism trick where you switch out a few key words, like "see-through" for "translucent"). Add the rice and toss it around a bit with your wooden spoon until it's covered in butter, glistening and slightly translucent (or see-through). Now turn up the heat (aw yeah) and pour in the white whine (sookie sookie, now). When the rice absorbs the wine, add enough stock to cover the rice, stir it up, little darlin', and reduce the heat.

Keep the rice at a gentle simmer and continue to add more stock, a ladle or two at a time, letting each addition be absorbed by the rice. At this time, you should feel free to pour yourself a glass of the white wine while your guests hover in the kitchen and wait for the food to be ready because they got there on time and why are you behind. While the rice is cooking, sauté the remaining sage leaves in butter until crisp. (I did not do this because I was busy drinking wine and talking about movies with the people in the kitchen and forgot, but I'm sure it would have been awesome.)

After 15 minutes, the rice will be nearly cooked. Stir in the cooked squash, the rest of the butter (I left this out), and the cheese--I also added those chanterelle slivers and the shredded slow-cooked ox tail meat. Continue cooking for about 5 minutes or until all that extra stuff is warmed up and mixed in. Adjust the seasoning or add more broth as needed. Serve in warm bowls and microplane some more Parmesan cheese on top and add those crispy sage bits. So delicious and warm on a chilly night!

I fed five people with this recipe (along with crispy roasted brussels sprouts and a potato dish that Erin made), plus made at least three bento box meals of it in the days following.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Cute Vegetables

At certain moments in my life I bless my luck for having been born a woman, and for having a face that people seem to suspect of little sinister intent. This often happens while I am peering through a chain link fence at school children or taking digital photos of strangers' toddlers dressed up for Halloween at the park (the fat giraffes and miniature musclebound Spidey at my nieces' twins play group Halloween party two weeks ago were irresistible). No, no, these aren't moments of maternal feeling or gloating over the fact that I have the ability to grow tiny humans inside my body. I just love watching children be funny and cute with each other and I know indulging that impulse would be the source of a much greater amount of public suspicion if I were a man with a large beard or twitchy eye.

The British Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley had a sweet face and was much bolder with children than I ever am if this story I came across while reading American poet Elizabeth Bishop's collected letters is to be believed. In the postscript of a letter to Robert Lowell, who apparently wasn't so fond of these little monsters, she writes:

P.S. I really feel you should struggle against your feeling about children, but I suppose it's better than drooling over them like Swinburne. But I've always loved the stories about Shelley going around Oxford peering into baby carriages, and how he once said to a woman carrying a baby, "Madame, can your baby tell us anything of pre-existence?"

I haven't quite worked out what they say about pre-existence, but these vegetable posters decorated by the charmed little fingers of students at Cesar Chavez Elementary School, which I often pass during my neighborhood strolls, tell us much about the incredible plasticity of children's minds as applied to the world of edible gardens. In the cornucopian utopia to the left, a giant carrot befriends a tiny tree whose roots are occupied with sucking up an upside down hachiya persimmon, which in turn seems to be in love with the happy-faced apple beneath it, if the heart shape that unites them is any indication. And I find myself quite taken with the mythical blue vegetable (blue hubbard squash?) that appears in the poster to the left, as well as the blue strawberry with yellow spikes in the "Garden Munchies!" tableau up top.

Let's give a hearty huzzah! to programs like the San Francisco Green Schoolyard Alliance and the Chez Panisse Foundation's Edible Schoolyard for creating garden classrooms where city children can experience the thrill of pulling a carrot from the ground (POP!), learn why we shouldn't squash worms or ladybugs, and totally freak out about the fact that the food they put in their mouths comes from the dirt (AH! DIRT!! GROSS! SNAILS!).

Mr. Chavez looks pretty happy about the loving labor that goes into these crops.