Saturday, January 30, 2010

Tainted by Turmeric

Everything is yellow, yellow, yellow. My fingers, my toothbrush, the side of the ceramic mug. The strainer used to filter grated orange slivers for tea. All stained yellow from turmeric. Who knows, maybe my insides have gone all saffron bright from the taint of this super spice as it works away the ravages of this winter cold.

Orange nubbin, looking like a sad old baby carrot, skin hanging in shingled scales like a piece of ginger. I had never seen it outside of a spice jar. It came from Hawaii, this one, from Bi-Rite at $14.99/lb, but weighing much less. I picked up two fingers. They made a peace sign in my bag.

It had been on my mind, turmeric. First The 11 Best Foods You Aren’t Eating highlighted on the NY Times website as one of its 2009 most-viewed articles. Turmeric was #9: “The 'superstar of spices,' it may have anti-inflammatory and anti-cancer properties.” Then the piece in the S.F. Chronicle on the miracle of ghee; it only mentioned turmeric once, but got me thinking about healthful South Asian foods. And it came up again in conversation with Eric of Awesome Pickle, who uses turmeric paste with yogurt or kefir to avoid heartburn. His girlfriend Kruti gave it a solid thumbs up despite being made to drink a turmeric-and-water mixture as a child in the name of general health.

Rhizomatic: indeed of the ginger family, not a root but a rhizome, horizontal stem that sends out feelers from multiple points underground, “forming through continuous negotiation with its context, constantly adapting by experimentation, thus performing a non-symmetrical active resistance against rigid organization and restriction,” as told here . (Did Deleuze and Guattari munch on turmeric to bring their thinking to the next plateau?)

Boiled for several hours, dried in hot ovens, then ground into powder to curry your flavor and cucurmin your ailments. It dyes for you.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Vegetables Illustrated

If you blinked on December 13 and therefore missed the McSweeney's newspaper the San Francisco Panorama as it sold out of its first print run, then you'll be happy to learn that it is back in S.F. Bay Area bookstores, and allegedly outside of the Bay Area nation-state bubble as well. My artistically inclined veggie mate, Aron Bothman, created the above paint & ink vegetables to accompany my article on unusual fall-into-winter produce and the origins of San Francisco farmers' markets and alternative markets. Both pieces were chopped up a bit in the final edition due to limited space (inevitably), but the end result is nevertheless beautiful to behold.

Above is Aron's original composition, which you can view on his website too. The characters are, clockwise from top right: hachiya persimmon, Jerusalem artichoke, sorrel, blue potato, singua, chanterelle mushrooms, long beans, fuyu persimmon, ong choy, stinging nettles, long eggplant, bitter melon, yu choy, red giant mustard greens, and rosa bianca eggplant.

The inspiration came from our illustrious food section editor, Chris Ying, who envisioned a take on the back cover illustrations of Cook's Illustrated, but at a racier tilt, more fever dream than quaint reverie. Aron also illustrated the facing page article on chicha, the Peruvian corn spit beer. He's looking for more work, so send your illustration requests and bags of money his way!

Monday, January 25, 2010

Farmers' Market Gluttony

This little piggy went to the Ferry Plaza market on Saturday. There, she bought a shoulder crushing amount of produce that had to be shoved down forcefully to fit into her crisper, causing carrot legs to snap off and romanesco cones to chip in the tussle. A long while had passed since she had last been to a farmers' market and a very long while since visiting this particular one, which always has spectacular produce, even in the middle of winter, so that she lunged at everything she saw like a hungry hungry hippo.

The visit came about after this little piggy-hippo had woken up abruptly at 6am on Saturday for an undetermined variety of reasons and had nothing better to do than get dressed and head to the market. Perhaps it was because of a violent bout of rain roaring against the window, or due to a disturbed mood caused by the recent Supreme Court ruling in favor of an overtly corporate-controlled election process, or maybe something to do with having just read a chapter called "The Vicissitudes of Melancholy" in a book on three famous melancholics: Rainer Maria Rilke, W.G. Sebald, and Walter Benjamin, but most likely it was the consequence of a turbulent stomach full of sauerkraut + radish, potato, green salads + cheese plate with cold cuts + many mugs of beer + cheesy chanterelle spaetzle + bratwurst + chocolate cake, all chased with a shot of Underberg bitters at the Mission's delicious and delightful new German restaurant Schmidt's from the night before.

My usual farmers' market strategy so as to not get too carried away is to take out a $20 bill and stop buying when it runs out. But on Saturday I indulged to $28, which was $26 worth of produce plus $2 for Blue Bottle coffee. It seems quite extravagant for the piles of produce you see above, but breaking it down makes it feel much more reasonable.

First there was $2.50 for a charming quartet of pink lady apples from Sebastopol's Devoto Gardens that I scooped up after crossing the street to the Ferry Building while the travel photo and decorative glassware vendors and the always-impressive bucket drummer were still setting up. Then $0.50 for a bulb of garlic at Chue's Farm, run by the Moua family, who immigrated from Thailand but are originally from Laos and are now part of the large Hmong farming community in the Fresno area.

Between rich, warm sips of Blue Bottle's Three Africans, I made a leisurely reconnaissance round of the stands behind the Ferry Building, tasting fruit and cheese samples, comparing per pound prices, and inquiring about mushroom availability. At Blossom Bluff, $3 got me some blood oranges and navels.

Usually I make a beeline for Heirloom Organic's treasure trove of unusual greens and root vegetables, but Star Route waved some of its Bolinas magic in my face, and I made a $6 detour for a bunch of vivid red-purple carrots, French breakfast radishes, mesclun salad mix, and a kind of chrysanthemum green I'm particularly excited about, the Cresta di Gallo (the lower left corner of the photo above). It looks like carrot tops, and has a distinctive, just shy of bitter taste that I think will add a nice surprise to my next salad.

Having satisfied my salad needs, I gave a quick, affectionate once-over to the greens bins over at Heirloom, sampled their purple radish, and picked up a brown mysterio bag of root vegetables for $5 that turned out to contain potatoes, kohlrabi, a parsnip (hello friend!), turnips, rutabaga, and a curmudgeonly but lovable black radish.

Iacopi Farm always seems to have the best brussels sprouts, and I've experienced this much-maligned vegetable prepared in the most divine crispy, truffled, bacony style, but I always end up filling my veggie quota some other way, and this time I found their $3 bunch of dinosaur kale just too irresistible. Incidentally, there seems to be some kind of kalegeist in the air of late--or maybe it just happens every winter (a friend's recent facebook status update "High on kale" received very enthusiastic responses). Even the ladylike food blogs are loving on the coarse, dark crinkles of dino kale, aka black Tuscan kale or cavolo nero: see Orangette's new banner and the recent mouthwatering post on 101 Cookbooks on ribollita, a thick Tuscan stew starring this fine brassica.

$3 and change got me some weird splotchy carrots and salsify, which sounds like a verb that should always be punctuated with an exclamation point (as in "Just salsify it, grrrl!"), at the Tierra Vegetables stand. Tierra definitely won the weird vegetable title of the day with their twisted, creepy assortment, and my whole face was trembling with mad desire for the piles of Jerusalem artichoke, the brown, crackled burdock and salsify lying almost indistinguishable in the same box, all those leggy carrots, and the crazy crazy punterelles, described in exuberant chalk writing as "the artichoke of chicories." But alas, I had already overspent my budget and was almost out of room in my market bag, so I restrained myself to just a few carrots and one token salsify (salsify!). Look out for a post on this strange root once I figure out what the hell to do with it.

I really should have stopped there, if not for the sake of my budget, then for the fact that I couldn't possibly cook all these veggies at their peak freshness. But a man strolled past with a wheelie cart in which I happened to glimpse the bright fractals of a romanesco broccoli peeping out at me so hypnotically.

"Where did you get that romanesco?!" I shrieked at him. "Dirty Girl," he replied with a bewildered half-smile.

The problem with Dirty Girl Produce for me is that while they have some of the most delicious and beautiful vegetables around, my Ferry Building route always takes me by their stand last, so that by the time I remember them, I'm already feeling quite greedy and sheepish about my produce trawling. But I had to have this exquisite creature, which was sold to me for $3 by Aurora, who humored my musings on the sunrise glory of her name with a story of how she used to play the Sleeping Beauty song that goes "Hail to the princess Aurora!" repeatedly on her little portable record player as a child. It was a splurge, but look how beautiful!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

The Pleasure of the Parsnip

We normally associate springtime with the reawakening of the land and the rousing of dormant desires. Yet it is in the frigid, cracked depths of winter that the parsnip swells to its peak of flavor and beckons to us with its strange, pale allure. It promises an elusive taste, an echo of its cousin the carrot, though both heavier and lighter--sweet in a less obvious way and at the same time more substantial in texture, usually too rough to eat raw.

These intertwined roots locked in a lovers' embrace, or a gesture of sibling comfort, like Hansel and Gretel after they've knocked that old candy witch into the oven and reunited, come from Chez Panisse's prized wood cutter Patricia Curtan (okay, she actually prints from linoleum cuts but wood cutter sounded better in the context), and are reproduced in Chez Panisse Vegetables.

Hello. Do not be alarmed. I am a real live parsnip. You can stare at me all you want because I cannot see you. These are raisins that are my eyes. I put them on so you would not be alarmed by my lack of features, but I suppose that eyes can be just as alarming as blindness. Do you like the way that my tiny root arms and legs curve out just so, as though I were swinging through the air or swimming at an upbeat pace? Well, don't look down there too long or you shall notice that I am naked, and then we will both blush, and I'll look like a carrot. Tee hee.

These are my friends, Parsnip Too, Watermelon Radish, and Tokyo Turnip. We hang out all the time like those animals in The Wind in the Willows. Just like Mole, Rat, Toad, and Badger, we go boating, have wild rides, and embark on memorable adventures. One time a gang of small potatoes from the Wild Wood took over Radish Hall...

... but we found a secret entrance and drove those intruders all out again. Good times those were, yes. Radish sometimes gets feisty, but we parsnips calm him down with our mellowness. We parsnips used to be the cat's meow in Europe until the potato came from the New World and took our place next to the meat.

And that is all we have from the real live parsnip because shortly after giving this speech, he was scooped up and put into a gratin with the potatoes, turnips, and a smattering of radish slices.

Here is the recipe for this delicious PARSNIP POTATO TURNIP GRATIN, adapted from Chez Panisse Vegetables.

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Begin with about 5-6 small potatoes, 2 parsnips, 3 turnips, and a watermelon radish if you just happen to have one lying around. Feel free to include rutabaga too. Peel anything whose skin will be distractingly tough to chew through once cooked. Grab a hefty handful of herbs from your herb garden or the supermarket herb shelf. I took parsley, thyme, oregano, and some sage. Wash them all in a bowl of cool water.

Drain then slice the roots into 1/8-inch thick rounds. Rub a gratin dish (I just used one of those gigantic ramekin-looking white ceramic dishes) with smashed peeled garlic and butter. Lay down your first layer of rounds. Season with salt, pepper, and some sprigs of the herbs. Keep going with different root vegetable layers until you reach the top.

After layering, add your choice of cream, cream and chicken stock, or milk until you just reach the top layer. I used a mixture of soy milk and salted water, which was a bit cavalier but the best I could do under the circumstances. It turned out fine, I was half surprised to find. Then sprinkle the top with grated cheese, either Parmesan or Gruyere, or a mix of both, plus some thin shavings of butter.

And if you find you have leftover root rounds, just toss them with olive oil, salt, and pepper, and any remaining herbs and lay them out on a baking sheet to roast on the oven rack below the gratin. Bake the gratin (and the extra veggie rounds) for 45 minutes to 1 hour, until nicely browned like this!

More parsnip recipes are waiting for you at Mariquita Farm.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Weird Veg Quiz the Third

And what, pray tell, is this delightful morsel?
A candied fig?

A rare species of mushroom that appears only at the start of each new year?

Detritus from a particularly intense Care Bear Stare?

A guava-flavored fruit snack? Crunchy yet chewy...

The glistening eye of an albino dolphin?

A super nova preserved in vegetable form like some semi-precious stone?

Give up?

It's the wizened form of a watermelon radish. It's been sliced thinly and tossed with olive oil, salt, and pepper, along with purple, red, and yellow potatoes, turnips, and parsnips and roasted on a baking sheet in the 375-degree oven for 45 minutes.

Mmm. Root Chips. Waaay more addictive than Veggie Booty!

Remember the bright pink and pale green watermelon radishes of the fall?

These radishes were so fresh and fun-loving, before the heat of the oven, like Father Time, transformed them almost beyond recognition. What was once spicy and juicy has withered to a wrinkled, salted crisp, ready to become faintly sweet dust in your mouth and make way for the new. We bid you adieu! Adieu. Adieu...

Here are Veg Quiz I and II, if you missed them the first time around.