Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Cranberry Beans (or Borlotti?)

Okay, I'm still trying to get my groove back, waiting to exhale, trying to make some deadlines, but I wanted to squeeze in one more post before August flipped into September. Back in the Bay, the August produce is once again life-affirming, but I fear that the cold summer has made the Early Girl tomatoes not so spectacular this year. It's still early in the season, but the specimens I tasted from my favorite purveyors, Dirty Girl and Tomatero, haven't been as out of this world sweet and vivid as in past years.

But these cranberry beans have provided some excitement to distract me from tomato disappointment. Iacopi Farm, also at the Ferry Building, always has the best fava beans and English peas but I'd never tried their cranberry shelling beans before. My visiting Italian friend Valeria saw these dramatic pods and exclaimed, "Borlotti!" and paused for a golden moment to think about shelling beans with her mamma back in Milano. But the sweet boy working the stand said, no, that these were cranberry beans and pointed to a different package of dried beans labeled Borlotti. The Cook's Thesaurus reduces various aliases to the same identity linked by a simple equation:

cranberry bean = borlotti bean = saluggia = shell bean = salugia bean = crab eye bean = rosecoco bean = Roman bean = fagiolo romano

Nevertheless, I suspect that the bean people have a finer feel for the nuanced ways in which these all retain their very own character. A less-fatigued Kale Daikon would get to the bottom of this, but I'll leave that thought as a placeholder for now. Cranberry beans also remind me of Tongue of Fire beans, though I think the latter have a white (rather than greeny) undertone and come from Tierra del Fuego, at the southern point of South America, instead of Italy.

One must, of course, take extra time to shell the beans but since they are fresh, they don't require the advanced soaking that dried beans do, which works better for the haphazard way in which I embark upon meals. I love the quiet, meditative state that standing over a bowl and doing some simple, pleasant task like shelling beans lulls a person into. If I'm shelling or sorting with someone else, then our conversation takes on that kind of easy, meandering rhythm people get into when they can talk without having to stare at each other across a table, and silences seem natural rather than awkward.

The shelled beans are how I imagine little dinosaur eggs, some pale green, others mauve speckled. They don't really look like actual cranberries, but the True Red Cranberry Bean from Maine,  highlighted in the Slow Food USA Ark of Taste "endangered species" list of best-quality, delicious-tasting heirloom varieties, truly does look like a bright red cranberry.

To cook these beans, I just followed the recommendation of the young farm stand man and boiled the shelled beans in lightly salted water for about 30 minutes (actually I accidentally overcooked them while having one of those high-school style hour-long phone conversations with someone who lives 10 minutes away). Then I sauteed them with minced garlic and olive oil--you can also add shallots or onions if you like--added more salt and had a lovely multi-hued lavender bean meal. The beans have a muted, nutty taste that seems somehow equivalent to their understated palette. Chez Panisse likes to smash the cooked beans into a spread to put on bread, which sounds like a delicious idea. I might also add bits of parsley next time for color.

And while sitting on the kitchen floor, talking on the phone and waiting for the beans to cook, I made a Weird Veg sign from the empty hot pink pods.

It reminds me of those stylized "Chinese" fonts on old signs for Chop Suey restaurants and other oriental mysteries.



Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Cirque de Légume

Just more proof that humans are waaaaay weirder than vegetables.

I've been slammed with deadlines since getting back to S.F. and have left everything else in the dust, including my poor beautiful, strange vegetables. But luckily, my friends have been forwarding me material to keep afloat, like this clip from an Edinburgh show put on by a pair of iceberg-lettuce-and-leek-loving clowns. Honk your nose if you love carrots! (Thanks Conor!)

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Artemisia, is that you?

A wave of work and schlepping back from New York to San Francisco has knocked me off my once-a-week WV rhythm. I've got some wonderful things to tell about the Poughkeepsie Farm Project, probably the highlight of my trip, but while I catch my breath and pull it all together, I cast to you this scrap of mystery. You all were so spunky when chiming in to identify that cat mint that I thought I would ask about this specimen as well.

Erin and I encountered it while at a friend's hillside hideout in Santa Barbara. Its spiny leaves look similar to rosemary but they have a lighter, chalkier texture and taste almost sage-y. Our friend said, "Rue?" But I thought I recognized its bristling twin at the Cloisters garden in New York:

The sign identified this medieval herb as Southernwood or Artemisia abrotanum, named after the goddess of hunting, Artemis. Apparently they still use it as a poultice in Germany, but most people nowadays seem to use it for filling sachets with a lemony scent. Entertaining aliases include: Lad’s Love, Maiden’s Ruin, and Old Man. Another site cites its use in ye olde ladies' bouquets and "tussie mussies." Bonus points for whoever is industrious enough to Google "tussie mussies" first and report back.

So perhaps the Santa Barbara plant is also some kind of Artemisia? If not southernwood, then maybe sagebrush? Help from the vegetable geniuses out there is much appreciated. Here are more photos to work from: