Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Weird Garden Vegetables

Stalling just a bit more before doing some scarier kinds of writing (of the dissertation variety) and wanting to know if this sudden springtime weather was going to hold up, I flipped through the S.F. Chronicle lying on my dining room table--I'm convinced I'm the last remaining subscriber to the paper version of the paper who is under 50 years old--and came across this article on garden trends for 2010. Signs point to: more vegetables. Ooh la la!

The article profiles mainly veggies that grow well in the Bay Area's fickle and fog-bound climate. Some highlights include the exciting-sounding Guatemalan Blue banana squash, Gigante 3 San Marzano canning tomatoes (pictured above), the Cincinatti Market heirloom radish, which looks like a red carrot, the Apollo broccoli, called broccoli but more like a broccolini, and the Amsterdam seasoning celery, though its description is a little confusing: "Use this kitchen herb when you want the flavor of celery without the actual vegetable." I'm not sure how you can get flavor from an actual vegetable (as opposed to its seasoning salt equivalent) without the, well, actual vegetable. Curious. Maybe the writer meant you can use the parsley-like leaves without the stalk? But you can do that with regular celery too. Maybe this celery has a more potent flavor? Anyways, I seem to be a little cranky today (see end of previous post), so I'll let it lie and go drink some chamomile tea.

Neeps in Space

It is with shameless abandon that I plagiarize the words of our New York WV correspondent, Cardoon O'Chicory, for the title of this post. After digging himself out of a Brooklyn snow bank that he fell into with some naughty fingerling potatoes, Mr. O'Chicory sent me word from The Farm on Adderley, one of the best restaurants I experienced during my New York fall interlude (oh, how I still dream about that acorn squash tart!), of a new-fangled way to pickle turnips, or neeps as they're known over in his native lands in that lucky green region of the British Isles.

This looks like something Awesome Pickle should sniff out. I'm not a big pickler myself, and traditionalists may like to stick with vinegar and the reassuring charm of those Ball mason jars, but the jar pictured above from picklemeister has some interesting innovations that seem to make pickling more user- and less botulism-friendly. The Farm's helpful explanation:

This jar has a "double bubble airlock” which allows the gasses created by fermentation to be released without allowing contaminants inside the jar. Let this sit at room temperature (70-75˚F). There is also an inverted lid lightly weighing down the vegetable so they’re completely submerged in the brine. All this is to ensure a very clean fermentation with no spoilage.... Unlike pickling with vinegar, lacto-fermented vegetables are teeming with beneficial enzymes and retain their vitamins and nutrients. The flavor is tangy, a little yeasty and for turnips this process seems to really bring out their inherent horseradish flavor.

I got overly excited when I first saw the photo because I thought they had discovered a way to power fluorescent light bulbs through the magic of turnips, but then had to downshift a little into the world of practical "science" when I realized that this was not, in fact, a lamp but a pickle jar.

Previous posts on The Farm blog include some other good ideas for what to do with winter turnips, but I must admit I had to suppress an Olympian California eye roll when I read their entry on discovering the concept of food waste composting entitled "Ok We're Officially Hippies Now!" I completely agree with their excitement about being able to separate food waste into a compost bin, but the idea of this practice as being "out there" and the mark of inclusion into an insular granola left makes no sense when the compost is taken away and handled by a professional and when this guy is sounding the battle cry for mandatory citywide composting:

It's true that the San Francisco Bay Area does exist in a very different cultural climate from New York and that progressiveness is relative. And while I know the "hippie" thing was a throwaway joke, the peevish part of me is reminded of the irritation I felt while in New York at what seemed to be a frenzied adoption of the concepts of "organic" and "sustainable" as additional branding distinctions and just another foodie trend without a proportional understanding of what these concepts and practices actually entail or acceptance of what makes them worthy of note beyond merely being more expensive or in fashion (anything outside the capitalist logic of production and consumption being derided as "hippie," it seems).

And here I'm no longer talking about producers or restaurants like The Farm, which I really respect, but am directing this sudden rant toward a general attitude I gleaned from the consumer side--in conversations had and overheard, things read in newspapers and magazines, observing people at farmers' markets and in grocery stores. We will return to our regularly scheduled vegetable revelry in the next post.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Happy Chez Panisse

Oh, hello! Here I am. It's been awhile. I've been split into various pieces, like poor Osiris, my energies dispersed by my evil sibling pursuits and obligations, and only now have I been put back together enough to attempt a new post. These beautiful eerie carrots appear on the front of the menu of the Chez Panisse Restaurant from Monday, February 8, 2010. It was my birthday--an Aquarian date of distinction shared by Elizabeth Bishop, James Dean, and Nick Nolte, among others.

It was cold and rainy on the streets of Berkeley, but inside it was warm and smelled faintly of sage (we were the first seating at 5:30pm, and they must have waved a smoldering herb bunch in the air to set the space properly). The downstairs room feels like the dark, paneled inside of a wooden jewelry box lit up in a golden-orange glow from angular light fixtures and reflecting off various mirrored surfaces, a cozy secret.

The menu:

The weird vegetable highlights were the wild fennel slivers in a light lemony vinaigrette swirled with mint that accompanied the "fried Monterey Bay squid" (aka calamari) appetizer, then the grilled, wilty-crunchy, slightly bitter, purple-and-green radicchio and the cream-colored butter beans, chubby to bursting, that floated in the hearty sauce of dry chilies, cumin, and marjoram that the goat was braised in.

My family's table was right in front of the kitchen, and I could spy some kind of gigantic celery-looking vegetation partially visible on the other side of the glass-paned door. Before dinner began, I asked our more-than-gracious French server about them, and he strode back there to grab a bunch of what turned out to be monstrous cardoons and waved their bushy gray-green leaves delightedly at us as he talked about them. I was disappointed that we wouldn't be able to try them--they were to be baked in a gratin with chard for the next night's prix fixe dinner, which was much more exciting in terms of vegetables, I must admit with only the faintest twinge of regret (see the Feb. 9 menu).

With a prime seat facing the kitchen theater, I drifted in and out of dinner conversations while watching white-clad chefs spin the leg of goat hanging from string above an open fire whenever they thought of it or happened to pass by. I stared lovingly at the piles of radicchio that would get tossed atop the grill below and to the right of the goat as they magically shrank and were transferred to terra cotta saucepans.

My father doesn't eat goat or lamb--perhaps an effect of having been born in the Year of the Ram, but then so was I and I have no trouble eating my own--so they offered him the vegetarian menu:

I was most excited by the grilled chanterelle entree, but my father preferred to eat some kind of dead animal, so the head chef was nice enough to substitute petrale sole with the sides from the chevreau à la mexicaine (a funny Frenchification of a Mexican dish) that the rest of us had.

I probably do not need to go on about how delicious the meal was. It was very. Tasty. And succulent. And delicately yet deeply flavored. Satisfying but not gluttonous.

Throughout dinner, I had seen various civilians wander into the open kitchen and not get angrily shooed away, so while waiting for our dessert of tres leches cake topped with creme fraiche and chopped pistachios surrounded by (oh!) candied kumquats and a perfectly tangy-sweet slice of blood orange, my brother Minh and I took our own turn about the long, narrow kitchen. We smiled at various line cooks and chefs (only age seemed to distinguish chefs from cooks as far as appearance went), I asked about a bowl of black trumpet mushrooms (for the cafe upstairs, alas), and we inspected the delights of the pastry station. Earlier, excitement had been savored by all when the scent of burning caramel erupted scandalously from the back of the kitchen, and my dad shouted gleefully at our politely restrained server, "Hey, they're burning our dessert!"

My other brother Stephen presented me with Alice Waters's latest manifesto-cum-cookbook, The Art of Simple Food: Notes, Lessons, and Recipes from a Delicious Revolution, which she introduces as a kind of basic cooking course, as opposed to say my Chez Panisse Vegetables, which is more of a reference. I'm looking forward to reading it through and sharing some recipes and ideas with you.

Minh & me, happy as can be.