Sunday, May 23, 2010

Salad Days

These are salad days. What does it make you think of?

For me, it conjures days of delicious greens and things dug fresh from the warmed soil, of new buds and shoots that grow secretly overnight and must be snapped up and enjoyed before the sun gets too hot.

When my blog/room-mate Erin told me that Salad Days was the chosen name of the dinner she was hosting with her man-guy Nick in honor of his parents' visit from Canada and his aunt's arrival from England, as well as a celebration of spring's rolling into summer, I first thought of the Young Marble Giants song "Salad Days" that goes:

Think of salad days
they were folly and fun
They were good, they were young

Then the invitation, designed by the charmingly talented artist Christian Robinson, conjured a friendly gathering of animated creatures, including a crowned ginger root and a swinging, martini-sipping horse:

Christian also painted a table runner and matching vase for the occasion, shown at the very top with the garlic scapes I got from Happy Boy and arugula flowers plucked from a friend's garden.

But it wasn't until the dinner date got closer that I learned that the phrase originally comes from Shakespeare (that unparalleled tinkerer of the English language who gave us other gems like "sea change" and "green-eyed" monster).

It appears at the very end of Act I of Antony and Cleopatra, in which Cleopatra, who has fallen in love with Marc Antony, reflects on her earlier passion for Julius Caesar, casting it off as a relic of indiscretion from:

My salad days,
When I was green in judgment, cold in blood...

It's a curious line, especially the part about being both young and "cold in blood," because one tends to associate youth with hot-headed explosions. After thinking it through for some time, though, I've come to see it as a suggestion that youth often confuses its bursts of feeling for real passion while being incapable of the emotional depth and tempering experience necessary for producing the actual heat of love, that the so-called passion of youth is all cold surfaces, flimsy and transitory like salad leaves. (Does judgment, once colored green, mature into a browny-red fervor, then?)

Though Cleopatra tried to disparage her youth in order to more fully embrace her present lover, "salad days" has since taken on a more nostalgic tone in its usage, referring not only to youthful inexperience but also as another version of "halcyon days," the good ol' days when one lived like a grasshopper in summer, on top of the world with no heavy cares (as in the Young Marble Giants version).

In the days leading up to their ambitiously vegetastic dinner, Erin and Nick worked like ants but not without some grasshopper whistling as they went.

The almost entirely home-made menu included:

- hand-rolled tortellini filled with fresh English peas, fava beans, ricotta, and the neighborhood-foraged mysterious minty leaves that the commentary consensus says is catnip

- hummus blended with green garlic, marjoram, and Meyer lemon

- a salad fantasia of wild arugula, mustard greens, miner's lettuce, spinach, purple, velveteen borage, and mizuna rabe dabbed with tiny yellow flowers, all mingled with arugula and radish blossoms

- nettle pesto to spread on crusty Acme and Tartine bread

- favorites from Erin's fondly remembered trip to Spain: deep-fried guincale croquettes and espinacas con garbanzos

- a dessert to bring forth that tragicomic combination of crying eyes and upturned lips: gooey-centered chocolate cake with homemade ice cream in two flavors, strawberry cream and Meyer lemon

The mingling merry meal was so divine that no one stopped to take pictures, and all that was documented is what came before and after. Thus is the nature of salad days: consumed quickly and left only as a trace in the memory.

You can read Nick's account of the night here.

Earlier that day, I sat in the park and composed a ukulele song inspired by the theme, which I performed after dinner. I leave it for you below as yet another interpretation of what "Salad Days" might mean, filled with as many vegetable puns as I could think of and at least one image inspired by Christian's invitation. You can try to listen for them or just read them in the lyrics. I might have looked more light-hearted and green in judgment if I hadn't been trying so hard to get all the notes right.

Salad Days

Lettuce take you away to a place that's green,
Where the mint runs wild and ginger is queen.
Foxes play a tune on the fiddlehead fern;
Silly goats are lickin' garlic just to make their lips burn.

'Scape with me up the ramps to the river.
We’ll pluck chanterelles 'til our hearts start to quiver.
And spice things up with our arugula ways,
Then lose ourselves in these salad days.

Salad days dressed with lemon sunshine
Lying in the grass drinkin' dandelion wine
We'll bury our noses in parsley and sage
And lose ourselves in these salad days.

Turnip the beets, you oughta shake that fennel;
The flowers on the wall'll get stung by nettles.
Oh the clover is swinging and the carrots say peas
Won't you sing our fava song? It'll radish the bees!

Endive with me to the bottom of the pond.
We'll paddle like frogs to the artichoke frond,
Then cool things down in a nasturtium haze
And lose ourselves in these salad days.

Salad days dressed with lemon sunshine
Lying in the grass drinkin' dandelion wine
We’ll crown our heads in parsley and sage
And lose ourselves in these salad days.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Plastic Vegetables in Space!!

And by plastic, I mean real vegetables whose forms can be coerced and molded to realize the fantasy of turning the growing process on its head. This morning I found this article from a couple days ago in the NY Times about garden tinkerers who have trained (or tricked?) their cherry tomato plants, their cucumbers and peppers, into growing down toward the ground out from holes cut in buckets and As-Seen-On-TV planters called the Topsy Turvy (pictured here). It's not quite as sci-fi as the window farms that use NASA technology to grow hydroponic vegetables, but the upside-down trick is a little mind-bending in its own right. Growing veggies up in the air protects them from the usual onslaught of weeds, beasties, and blight while also sparing space and the need for stakes, though it is inconclusive whether the upside-down element has any added benefit for the vegetables. At the very least, it makes those mad-scientist growers clap their hands together and exclaim, "How nice!" Or, to quote my favorite line from the article: "While there are skeptics, proponents say the proof is in the produce."

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Under Discussion

A couple of weeks ago, I had the pleasure of enjoying a weird vegetable extravaganza of a meal in the company of like-minded vegetable enthusiasts and a generally lovely group of people interested in living and eating creatively.

We were brought together under the auspices of Dinner Discussion, an informal monthly dinner gathering hosted by San Francisco chef-at-large and occasional WV shadow contributor Leif Hedendal, who conceived of the series about a year-and-a-half ago as a way to open up lines of conversation between "artists and researchers and food people of different sorts, whether they be food activists or agriculturalists or different people doing cool projects," as he puts it.

Since Leif and Hiroko from the National Bitter Melon Council were the only familiar faces to me, I got a wee bit shy at first and hid out in the kitchen watching the pots boil and mushrooms sizzle, but the promise of wine and stinky cheese on fresh crusty bread soon lured me into the living room, where I was met with many a smiling face.

It would overwhelm the limits of this medium for me to describe all ten of the assembled intrepid questioners and makers of things in any adequate way, but you can get a sense of who was there from the Dinner Discussion blog and in this series of flash video interviews taken by Zoey Kroll, a super friendly and fabulously ginger-haired gardener, photographer, web designer, and combiner of dirt and technology (let your mind go where that takes you) who operates under the institutional alias of Edible Office.

Zoey lured me into close range of her video apparatus with tales of her fantastical vegetable garden wonderland in the outer Richmond, near Ocean Beach, and suddenly before I knew what was happening, I was half-shouting answers to her questions about Weird Vegetables in a slightly hysterical manner. One of the video clips includes the part where she makes me repeat “ALL FRUITS ARE VEGETABLES” multiple times, until I say it almost like a question while scrunching my eyes closed emphatically.

But you came here for vegetables, so here's what was on our grateful plates:

* cucumbers with lavender salt
* tepary beans with ginger, thai chile, lime leaf
(I was very excited about these beans, they were so small yet so tasty!)
* sauteed greens with leeks
* roasted roots, morels, and asparagus
(and yes, morels are really very special and hearty)
* bitter melon thinly sliced, sprinkled with Meyer lemon and salt
*All was topped by miner's lettuce gathered from Golden Gate Park by artist Amy Balkin, plus redwood clover from Far West Fungi.

I loved the bitter melon, brought by Hiroko of course, and was surprised to find that it could be eaten raw with just lemon and salt. This height of bitterness is not for everyone, and I particularly enjoyed this exchange in Zoey's video while Hiroko is preparing the dish:

Zoey: So... do you think... is this a real crowd pleaser?

Hiroko: [Pause. Then smiles, unfazed.] No. I think it’s a conversation starter.

I nearly wept from joy and an overwhelming sense of bounty when the dessert was brought out: an assortment of Meyer lemon & cardamom cookie sandwiches (like chubby macarons) made by Portland's Project Grow founder Natasha Wheat, as well as two cakes, plus rhubarb compote and olive oil ice cream made by artist and pastry chef Leah Rosenberg, who sometimes makes cakes inspired by her paintings and sculptures (above left: inedible art, right: cake art--or art cake?).

As though we weren't giddy enough, the otherworldly conjurer of mushrooms whose human name is Phil Ross then broke out his mason jar of black chanterelle vodka to pass around, which he introduced thus: “It tastes like socks to some, and like the forest to others.... It has the taste of the forest floor.”

I have yet to come up with a valid justification for the inclusion of mushrooms into the weird vegetable universe except for the fact that mushrooms are unambiguously the weirrrdest non-animal organisms that we put into our mouths and incorporate into our bodies (though they're not really plants and hence not really vegetables). Just watch some of Zoey's interviews with Phil and you'll be convinced--if you aren't already. I'm obsessed with his project, Mycotecture, in which he coaxes ganoderma fungi into brick shapes that he then forms into buildings to be visited and gradually broken down chunk by chunk to make into tea that visitors can drink.

Phil: "So when you come to visit this building, you will actually take it away with you... inside of yourself.” Eek! [That last exclamation is me, not him. One day I will possess Phil's Zen calm. Maybe.]

The mycological master also provided my favorite conversational morsel of the evening, which Zoey managed to catch on video like a cunning paparazzo. We were talking about the difference between cultivated and wild mushrooms and he expressed his preference for the latter, saying:

"You get what I’d call more of a 'rock ‘n’ roll' experience when you have wild things--wild anything: like a worm ate this part, it’s rotting a little bit, you get a teeny bit of bitter, or even some poisonous things in your body... It just activates so much more of your soul..."

I'm not 100% sure that he actually said "soul" at the end, but you can check it out for yourself here. Thanks again to Leif for the food and networking skills, to Zoey for helping me to remember some of our conversational wanderings, and to all who were gathered that night for nerding out about food and art in such a satisfying way.

Monday, May 10, 2010

Ear of Fava

The fava of spring is most often the bean, but what of its silky smooth green?

Their texture and silvery sheen remind me of Weimaraner ears. I came across them at the County Line stand, which is at the Ferry Plaza farmers' market on Tuesdays and Thursdays (county line being: Marin-Sonoma). Unbeknownst to me, these mild leaves have been anointed the next "it" green on Bay Area menus, though you can choose how much salt with which to take the SF Chronicle's forecasting (see Bauer and others). I don't eat out enough to be able to verify this, so anyone with their finger on the local dining pulse should feel free to drop a few cents in the comment bucket.

I tore up these velveteen greens for a lunchtime salad. They are surprisingly mild--I expected some bitterness but they taste watery fresh at first, then pass into an almost sweet, fava-pea flavor. For contrast, I mixed them with some spicy arugula and also added white and orange Chantenay carrots, slimly sliced fennel root, and strawberries. The dressing was Meyer lemon juice mixed with minced & muddled shallots, fancy olive oil I've been hoarding since my birthday, and salt and pepper, all shook up. I later sauteed the leftover fava leaves with some other braising greens, shallots, and garlic.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Mysterious Mint

Erin came back from a neighborhood foraging expedition today bearing a sprig of this "mint" in her sure hand. It doesn't exactly look like either spearmint or peppermint, with its slightly rounded leaf edges and more shallowly etched veins. Nevertheless, as my steadfastly adventurous vegetable companion declared:

"Well whatever it is, it tastes like mint. And I haven't died yet."

I can still hear deliberate and industrious noises coming from the kitchen, where Erin is allegedly making tortellini from scratch. Any more specific i.d.'s on this minty plant are welcome.