Saturday, December 24, 2011

Solid Borscht (or Beet & Carrot Latkes)

Hello from Jerusalem! I've gone to the Holy Land for the holidays to be with some good friends who live here... and am learning a great deal from the intensity of life within a deeply interwoven knot of three major religions and their innumerable sects. A dizzying experience: mingling in with Greek Orthodox, Coptic Christian, Franciscan, and Ethiopian priests, pilgrims singing and kissing relics, and tourists looking bewildered at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, feeling the divine spirit with Jewish worshipers at the Western Wall and feeling out-of-step for not backing away from it, drinking sweet mint tea offered by Muslim vendors in the narrow, curving passageways of the old city and studying the façades of mosques I cannot enter. The vegetable backlog has grown past the top of my head, but here is a special morsel to tide you over through the holidays.

These are beet & carrot latkes, which are perhaps not so very strange, but I had only ever had the Hanukkah treat in its more traditional potato form. And thus, these make it into the pantheon of Weird Vegetables by virtue of their unorthodox chutzpah and extra-ordinary deliciousness. Made with love by my friend Zoe's mom Paula and eaten with generous dollops of applesauce and plain yogurt, these latkes caused one happy eater to exclaim, "Wow, together with the yogurt, it's like solid borscht!" Which, in our vegetable-loving context, is akin to saying "It's like solid gold!", but better because you cannot eat solid gold. The recipe is from The Joy of Cooking.

May you eat well and light some candles of love and merriment over these next few days.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Volunteer Corn

Our weird vegetable field has lain fallow for a spell as your virtual farmer-forager takes a pause from her Brazilian sojourn to touch down in Occupied U.S. territory and witness what's been sprouting in the late North American autumn. Despite this writer's preoccupation with the bruised hands and ribs of her colleagues at the University of California, Berkeley and the violent peppering of peaceful bodies across this state and country, as well as her fulfillment of non-vegetable-related tasks with non-negotiable deadlines, others have been pitching in to help keep up production. And so, as in the natural world, what seems to be abandoned by human activity, is in fact not forgotten by all. Seeds germinate in the minds of others, photos are snapped and forwarded on behalf of the site, guest posts are written, and long-dormant co-bloggers begin to turn over their fertile plots in preparation for winter crops. Pictured above is the first of a few offerings made by kindred vegetable spirits: volunteer corn.

Yes, what you see is a corn plant that has sprouted in the sewage-soiled cracks of a city gutter. The evidence was forwarded by Bay Area curator-writer Christian Frock (creator of projects both invisible and visible), who spotted it in San Leandro, which she describes as "the wee sleepy suburban village next to Oakland." Of this newly born green guerrilla, Christian writes:

I saw this ambitious little corn growing in the gutter while out for a walk with my kids around the block. We have actually had some volunteer corn spring up in our very inhospitable backyard recently too. It is amazing on two fronts--one, I have no idea where it came from because there are no farms that I know of nearby and two, corn will apparently grow under the most incomprehensible conditions. The corn we saw in the gutter is growing out of a pretty small crack in an otherwise cement-bound area. That photograph makes me wonder at the absolute tenacity of living things, whether or not the world is conducive to their existence.

I like to imagine the ways the corn might have gotten there: a child spits out a mealy mouthful just to see the yellow spray splatter against the sidewalk. An ear tumbles out of someone's full bag of farmers' market produce or bounces off the top of a truck's abundant corn bed. A pigeon got too greedy somewhere and landed here to hurl politely into the gutter. The wind got curious about its powers and decided to fling some corn bits along the road.

One thing leads to another and the next thing you know, the city sidewalk finds itself becoming-field without active human intervention. Which leads to another question: what's the difference between a volunteer and a weed? Who determines which is which? A volunteer is "a plant that grows on its own, rather than being deliberately planted by a farmer or gardener," says Wikipedia , the key defining factor being that this plant is desirable and has decided to labor for its own life, while appearing as though a natural gift to the grateful farmer or gardener: "Unlike weeds, which are unwanted plants, a volunteer may be encouraged once it appears, being watered, fertilized, or otherwise cared for." This blog gives an entertaining account of volunteer vegetables as her cream of the crop Garden Army.

A weed, too, is talented at surviving on its own, yet to the displeasure or detriment of the human who plots and pines for its removal. It is "a plant that is not valued where it is growing and is usually of vigorous growth; especially : one that tends to overgrow or choke out more desirable plants," according to Merriam-Webster.

At the heart of this volunteer/weed divide is a value judgment applied to occupying space. Which plant deserves to thrive in a determinate patch of ground and which must be pulled up by its roots and disposed of to make way for others? But how are we to judge how to distribute (or redistribute) the soil's riches properly? Is this corn a weed if it disturbs the sidewalk and no human wants to eat it? Is it a volunteer only if it is deemed a vegetable by means of its edibility? Does its conversational value, the pleasure of surprise it gives by springing up unexpectedly from a gutter, make it a volunteer and not a weed?

Perhaps it is a matter of reinventing our definition of a weed. Books have been written in praise of weeds, including Joseph A. Cocannouer's 1950 Weeds: Guardians of the Soil, which broadens the definition of a weed from something unwanted to, "any plant growing out of place," though he immediately complicates the idea of any plant being "out of place" by asking us to take the perspective of the farmer trying to protect his beet crop from a certain weed and then that of the soil that is simultaneously being fertilized and strengthened by this same "weed." He writes: "Nature may at times compel us to discover the value of her wild plants; her weeds," which emphasizes how one inherent value of a weed is its wildness, its spontaneity.

Or perhaps weeds are vagabonds, invasive species that travel and set up camp in open areas or pioneer new systems of life in spaces cleared then abandoned by humans, as French "planetary gardener" Gilles Clément writes in his book Éloge des vagabondes (In Praise of Vagabonds), which devotes whole chapters to vegetable weeds like fennel and Tibetan rhubarb. Readers of French can find more of his writings here.

Clément's defense of invasive species asks us to suspend our opinions about what species "belong" where, challenging the assumed superior value of the local, the indigenous, and the diverse in order to open the doors to the possibilities tracked in by plants that go wandering, even those that threaten to take over an area of their own. Though Clément's writings have been influenced by Marxist philosophies, here his arguments are radical without falling neatly on any defined points along the left-right political spectrum. Here, I leave you with a tiny sampling from poet-ecocritic Jonathan Skinner's translation from In Praise of Vagabonds that appeared in an environmentally-themed issue of the journal Qui Parle that I edited last year. (Issues can be hard to track down and difficult to download if you don't have university library access, but if you email weirdvegetables AT I can send you a pdf version of the excerpt.)

A troubled world decries the invasion of life-forms from elsewhere. Strangers, plants, animals, how dare you reach our shores? Articles on the topic abound. We hold conferences, organize world summits on the urgency of the struggle against all that is not indigenous, local, and national. We advise the user to eradicate by any means necessary species not featured on the authorized lists. We pass laws, set up quarantines, insure. Once the system is in place, it damages an extravagant process: that of evolution.

You have no right, you vagabonds, to occupy the land of another. Go away, do not crowd our floral classifications with your abusive and deadly presence. You chase away our species, sometimes you kill them. You are pollution. In the name of national identity we fight you, we protect our citizens, our landscape, our environment. In the name of diversity we wage war on you because we want peace. 

Peace: a human delusion, without biological foundation. Whenever it is at hand, elements erupt. The rest of the time life goes on in its own way. 

That’s how the process goes, and everyone knows it’s accelerating.   


If anyone else has favorite publications or sites that think about weeds or volunteer vegetables in interesting ways, post them in the comments section.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Banana Flower Power

One month ago, when I was in the Brazilian mountain town of Ouro Preto, I came across the last dregs of the Thursday farmers' market, a somewhat small but very high quality gathering for its being so close to the countryside. In one of the almost-bare shallow wooden boxes, I saw the scattered forms of what I recognized to be banana flowers, the heartsblood cone that dangles from the end of a thick umbilical cord extending down from the prized banana bunch that hangs off the brilliant green plant (there's a lot of dangling and hanging involved in banana plants, a lot to fit into one sentence, much less droop off of one plant). If you live in a tropical place, you see these all the time, but I'd never thought about eating them (though apparently they're used in Vietnamese cuisine—shows how much I know about my own mother culture. Banana flower salads are also very much associated with Thai and Indian cuisine).

In English we know these as banana flowers, or the more lyrical banana blossoms (adds a fragrant quality to a menu), but sometimes things get darker and they are known as banana hearts. In Portuguese, they also like to say "flor" and "coração" de bananeira but also sometimes use the gross-cute "umbigo," which means "bellybutton," or "navel" if you prefer a more elegant feel.

I asked the farmer and the cleaning crew what I was supposed to do with them, and their eyes got all dreamy as they listed all their favorite banana flower dishes, mostly variations on a sautee with ground meat. Here were the basic preparation instructions they offered:

- peel off the outer layers until you get to the creamy cone in the middle
- wash, slice in half, then in little slivers
- then drop in a pot of water and bring to a boil three times
- yes three times, dumping the water out each time and starting anew
(this is to take away the mature flower's strong bitter flavor)
- strain and then sautee with some ground meat, maybe some onions

It seemed a little labor intensive to me for just a couple flower hearts, but they all threw their hands up in the air and exclaimed, "Vale a pena! Você vai gostar!" ("It's worth it! You're gonna like it!")

So I bought a couple blossoms and tried it at home. First, I peeled back the layers, one scab-colored petal at a time. It felt a little gruesome, like mutilating some living thing, the flower is so heavy and almost fleshy in its thickness. Also, while we're peeling back layers, I should mention that the "flower" is actually an inflorescence,, which starts out as the stem, known technically as the peduncle (how I love that awkward word), and then starts to mutate as clusters of flowers grow off of it.

I am really not the person to be explaining what I've only just read and half-absorbed from wikipedia and I think my head is going to explode from this sentence on the nature of the inflorescence's mutation or "modification," as the entry calls it:

The modifications can involve the length and the nature of the internodes and the phyllotaxis, as well as variations in the proportions, compressions, swellings, adnations, connations and reduction of main and secondary axes.

That is to say: I've shone a strobe light on the situation and I leave you to your own biological modifications...

It was morbidly fascinating and mildly disturbing to peel away the layers and to examine the delicate proto-bananas (flowers?) that looked like tiny monkey fingers, then to peel each one of these fragile "fingers" off of the cone. I guess I don't feel this way when peeling artichoke, which is the most similar thing I can think of, because its colors and forms aren't so uncannily animal-like as the banana flower's.

After awhile, the purple petals fell away to reveal a creamier center that looked almost painted, with its dark-stained tip. Slicing the inflorescence open into two spearheads revealed even more traces of ghostly bananas that would never be. I wasn't quite sure what the proper slicing technique was and have never been good at making precise cuts, so I kind of just hacked the whole thing into diagonal slivers, some thicker than others, some pointy and others more of a blunt, rectangular shape.

Then during the labor intensive boiling session, I prepared some sides. After boiling the fairy-tale number of times (why do important events in fairy tales always happen in threes?), I placed the slivers into a plastic flower bowl (visual pun intended) to await their next adventure.

I had the idea to sautee the banana flower with garlic, cilantro, and a little salt, which turned out to be a stroke of tasty-time genius. 

Opting out of the meat enthusiasm from the farmers' market, I served (to myself) the cilantro-sauteed banana slivers with sliced cucumber, okra stewed with tomatoes, and one of my favorite South American roots, batata baroa, aka mandioquinha, or the less graceful sounding "Peruvian parsnip," a tuber with a delicately sweet yet distinctively potato-y taste and a cheery, translucent egg-yolk color.

And what did the banana flower taste like?

Not at all like a flower or any other vegetable I've had, but more like a mushroom, in its meatiness and a certain umami quality (that elusive fifth flavor), though with a lighter texture and flavor than a mushroom. It was difficult to detect a banana aroma, though I imagine this is stronger when eating more tender, uncooked flowers that are often used in Southeast Asian and South Asian banana blossom salads. Yes, I liked it, and yes, it was worth the effort, though perhaps not a daily endeavor.

A while back I wrote a post on edible flowers in which I quoted Adorno and Horkheimer on the way that eating flowers is something of a gesture toward the aesthetics of food detached from the practical injunctions of "rationally planned eating." The banana flower is of a different edible order, it seems. Seeming more aesthetic to prepare and for the idea of a flower than how it looks on the plate, the banana flower is decidedly undelicate and unflowerlike, of a hearty rather than delicate nature. And, like banana the fruit, it contains plenty of potassium and other nutrients sought out by rational eaters that you can read about here.

Neverthless, some irrationality abounds in this episode. When I told the guys at the evangelical luncheonette across the street that I had gotten banana flowers at the market, they laughed at my silly gringa ways and said, "Around here, no one buys banana flowers. They grow everywhere!" Point taken.

Read more about banana flowers at what I've come to think of as my Brazilian sister site, Flavors of Brazil.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The Indomitable Ninja Broccoli (Brócolis Ninja)

Victory, at last. For months now, ever since a hot tip came in on the wire from Paulistano WV agent Ervilho Frita ("Pea Fry," though I've happily butchered the Portuguese rules of masculino/feminina and reinvented "ervilha" as a macho pea-o), I've been stalking the (in)famous Ninja Broccoli, part of the stealth gang of green mercenaries known in these parts as Brócolis Ninja.

It may look like a normal head of broccoli, but this is no ordinary inflorescent, no. Its floret might look rotund and jolly like its average American counterpart but the ninja broccoli's cat-like swiftness and diabolical cunning are dead serious.

The ninja broccoli is a variant that cropped up mysteriously amidst fields of the previously more common (in Brazil) sprouting broccoli, or brócolis ramoso, which has more numerous branchings and thinner stalks. Another complication is that this chubby ninja known as "normal" broccoli in the U.S. is called "calabrese" in Britain (from Calabria in Italy), a name whose fancy foreign connotation U.S. farmers apply to the other, thinner, more exotic, usually heirloom, and sometimes royally purple-tinged sprouting type. An insane amount of broccoli lore can be had here.

As might be expected, the origins of the "ninja" identity of this broccoli in Brazil are somewhat obscure. In Rio, no one at the farmers' markets had even heard of "brócolis ninja." "Must be from São Paulo," many of the vendors mused about the Japanese-sounding name. São Paulo state has the largest population of Japanese descent in Brazil, a country that has has the largest population of Japanese descent outside of Japan. Most Japanese immigrants originally came as farmers, beginning at the end of the nineteenth century. If you are surprised by this, read more here.

Sprouting broccoli is considered tastier but the "one-headed broccoli," or ninja broccoli (brócoli de cabeça única) is easier to harvest with one swoop of the blade, more weather resistant, and holds up well in the freezer section, so its popularity in the veggie marketplace has risen.

To return to our origin tale... this site (in Portuguese) claims that ninja broccoli began to sprout as a genetic accident, a hybrid among fields of "normal," or sprouting broccoli (recall that the U.S. "normal" broccoli is this genetic aberration). At first, farmers considered it an undesirable variant but could not get rid of this broccoli that kept appearing and spreading mysteriously. A Japanese scientist, who preferred to remain anonymous, compared these cunning broccoli to ninjas, and the name stuck, immediately snatched up by marketing professionals as a stroke of genius: Ninja broccoli, your kid's favorite vegetable. Sounds suspicious? Well, the site is called "Crazy Train" (Trem Doido), so factor that into whether you believe it or not. Maybe we are to believe this story to the extent that we believe that this guy is a deadly Broccoli Ninja:

left on my virtual doorstep by
Brazilian vegetable queen V. Berinjela

So far, I haven't been able to find any other explanation of why it's called "ninja broccoli," and for now we might come to the simple conclusion that it just sounds cool, ninjas being arguably one of the coolest figures to come out of Japanese history and lore (unless you're partial to samurais. It's kind of like that old Goddard or Truffaut debate). Anyone with more information, please comment. I will update if I find anything at the library (the Internet has exhausted me for the time being).

image source

Friday, September 30, 2011

Sophisticated Corn

São Paulo is one sophisticated town. People don't live their lives in flip-flops, the best coffee isn't just for export, the graffiti is better than gallery art, and the homeless people have more style than anyone with money, assembling outfits with that impossible-to-imitate creative intuition for pitch-perfect clashing normally achieved only by the most talented Japanese hipsters and Marc Jacobs.

One of my favorite mid-afternoon snacks in Rio de Janeiro was something from the corn man: a pamonha, curau (a kind of corn pudding made with sugar and condensed milk), or boiled corn-on-the-cob served in its pale green husk. On one of my first days here in São Paulo, while wandering alone down Avenida Paulista, one of the city's main arteries of finance, commerce, and culture, I spotted a happily familiar sight: corn man!

Only something was different. I couldn't put my finger on it at first, but something about his piles of candied coconut chunks and sweet roasted peanuts seemed a little too tidy. I ordered: "One corn, please." Using a long, two-tined barbecue fork, corn man fished out a bright yellow corn cob from the vat of boiling salted water, but instead of placing it into its snug corn husk jacket, he set it over a small plastic bowl and started carving it with an elegant efficiency I had never witnessed in Rio. I stared and pulled out my camera. He looked annoyed at my bumpkin tourist antics, like the best of the New York hot dog vendors (note the NY baseball cap):

I remarked that while living in Rio I had never seen anything like what he was doing, shaving off the corn kernels into such a civilized spoonable snack, and he seemed somewhat pleased by the contrast (São Paulo and Rio being rivals in the same sort of way that San Francisco and Los Angeles thrive on their differences from each other, though the particular stereotypes between each pair differ). I paid my R$3 and continued on down the avenue, spooning steaming fresh corn kernels into my mouth like a contented baby, free from anxieties of hot water spilling down the husk onto my forearms or corn getting stuck between my teeth for the rest of the afternoon. While there's something satisfying about tearing off a row of kernels with the toothy force of your own hunger, the corn carving is a clever idea for a pre-meeting (or pre-museum, in my case) snack.

see how neat his stacks are?

Thursday, September 29, 2011

São Paulo: Garden of Kosher Delights

Shana tova, vegetable lovers! Happy Rosh Hoshanah. We are on the second day of the new year. How does a non-practicing Protestant-vestigial Catholic, Vietnamese-Pennsylvania Dutch-English American living in Brazil know what's happening on the Jewish calendar? In addition to friends' Facebook posts with muppets singing catchy high holiday tunes in Hebrew, I happen to be spending the month living on the edge of a neighborhood of São Paulo marked by some real deal orthodox kosher livin' (or Kosher Livenn):

I walk by this plaque, "livenn Kosher Today," on my way to the private-seeming but open-to-the-public Senac library in Higienópolis, a relatively tranquil, tree-lined region to the northwest of the city center, highly recommended by  (note: "Senac library" sounds pleasantly like "snack library" but is the library of one of many nationwide centers of professional training—fashion, computer magic, graphic design, etc.—funded by a 1% tax on the goods, services, and tourism sector. It remains something of a mystery to me, but I appreciate how quiet and underused its library is compared to many of the sadly overburdened and underfunded public libraries in San Francisco, though this varies by wealth and accessibility of neighborhood.)

traffic & trees
graffiti outside my building

sidewalk in Higienópolis

family time

At first I thought Livenn Kosher Today was a lifestyle magazine, but one day the sun pierced through the building's tinted windows so as to reveal food displays: a kosher butcher!

dialogue between São Paulo graffiti &  Livenn Kosher Today

Too shy to whip out my camera and take photos of the mysterious packaged vegetable products labeled in Hebrew on the wall facing the rows of shrink-wrapped, chilled kosher cuts, I waited until I got to Kosher Delight to investigate further. (Portuguese pronunciation of "delight": dee-LIE-chee), which proclaims itself one of the foremost suppliers of kosher foods (lots of baked goods, yum) in Brazil and prides itself on "helping the planet to live longer."

I picked up many, many delights that I had very much been missing, including fresh hummus (it's hard to find good hummus around these parts), olive spread, and a cute-as-a-button raisin challah swirl (the size of an overgrown cinnamon bun). The "shana tova" pastry (top photo, with my housemates' painfully adorable Lhasa apso, Marley) is a Jewish take on a Brazilian classic: pão de mel, or honey bread covered in chocolate. Our woman in Rio, vegname Celery Kabbage, observes that this new year's message on a sweet pastry operates as a bit of "poetisserie." She writes:

I  really like the concrete poetisserie of writing "shana tova" on a little cake. The full greeting is "l'shana tova u'metuka"--to a good and sweet year. The dessert itself conveys the second half of the phrase! Kosher Delight is totally avant-garde.

olive spread from Kosher Delight

My most exciting Weird Vegetables find was the Bissli Falafel flavour Wheat Party Snack. Who says fun can only be had with meat or sugar? There's a whole wheat party happening in that bag of falafel flavor.

These wheat sticks taste somewhat like a condensed, dehydrated version of Funyuns. The overall flavor was marked by an onion note that stood out above the wheaty grit, though I don't recall actual falafels being so overpowered by onions. Still, the Funyun connection makes sense with the lemon sunshine packaging and the suggestion of loads of fun and laughs in every package, that onions and wheat can be fun and funny (I prefer to read "party snack" as meaning "party in a snack" rather than merely something you lay out in a bowl for your human party).

Here is the party-for-one platter that I laid out after my festival of delights at the kosher bakery:

On a final note, all this Kosher Livenn got me thinking about the kosher status of vegetables. Judaism 101 informed me that all fruits and vegetables, with the exception of grape products due to the danger of their falling into the hands of idolators, are kosher, no rabbi necessary (in general rabbis are involved in verifying kosher food production practices more as a result of the complications of our industrialized system rather than for their blessing skills). A further explanation and important caveat:

All fruits and vegetables are kosher (but see the note regarding Grape Products below). However, bugs and worms that may be found in some fruits and vegetables are not kosher. Fruits and vegetables that are prone to this sort of thing should be inspected to ensure that they contain no bugs. Leafy vegetables like lettuce and herbs and flowery vegetables like broccoli and cauliflower are particularly prone to bugs and should be inspected carefully. Strawberries and raspberries can also be problematic. The Star-K kosher certification organization has a very nice overview of the fruits and vegetables prone to this and the procedure for addressing it in each type.

I wholeheartedly recommend checking out the very involved, very illuminating Star-K vegetable insect-checking guidelines, which include detailed guidelines for leafy vegetables, floreted vegetables, and a really intense (and kind of bizarrely gorgeous) photo gallery of insects-on-vegetables. What's so treif about insects? According to the Torah, "every swarming thing that swarms upon the earth is a detestable thing; it shall not be eaten." Many many learnings to absorb today. But the main moral of today's lesson is this: that vegetables are a kosher delight! (as we suspected all along...) You may eat them with a feeling of both goodness and pleasure.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Neurogastronomical Isis and the "Mouthfeel" of Cassava

"Isis," Romera's signature vegetable dish (photo: New York magazine)

A few weeks ago a very talented and keenly observant poet friend visited me in Brazil and left behind his copy of New York magazine so I could catch up on a little stateside culture. Ever since some invisible eminence decided to start sending New York to my apartment in San Francisco free of charge last year, I'd become familiar with the weekly and now appreciate it as an easily digestible finger on the pulse of what's new in urban culture (though perhaps a finger is not that easy to digest; please excuse my indulgently grotesque figures). The most startling item in the magazine's fall food section was a short piece on neurologist-turned-chef Dr. Miguel Sánchez Romera, an Argentine who recently decided to close his Michelin-bespangled restaurant L'Esguard, located outside of Barcelona, thus ditching the avant-garde Spanish molecular gastronomy set for the grittier pastures of New York City, where he has opened a new fancypants restaurant, Romera.

Drawing on his expertise in neuroscience and haute cuisine, as well as his background in fine art, Romero has invented the term and practice of "neurogastronomy," a culinary blend of philosophy, art, and science that aims to transport the eater to sensory and affective heights of Proustian intensity. The restaurant's site explains it thus:

Neurogastronomy embodies a holistic approach to food by means of a thoughtful study of the organoleptic properties of each ingredient. The result is a natural cuisine driven by the importance of the neurosensory perceptions, the taste-memory and the emotions of food.

I hope I've saved some of you a few clicks by explaining that "organoleptic" means "acting on or involving the use of the sense organs." With his Renaissance-man immersion in multiple, distinct fields and his confident elucidations of the eclectic and ambiguous science of gastronomy, Romera strikes me as a 21st-century Brillat-Savarin, the French lawyer, politician, and aristocrat gourmand whose obsessive interest in food matters led him to write The Physiology of Taste (1825), a collection of essays on the art of choosing, cooking, and eating good food, including meditations on the definition of gastronomy, the role of the senses, the concept of “taste,” and gastronomically crucial matters such as the "Erratic Virtue of Truffles." The now-ubiquitous truism, “You are what you eat,” originates in Brillat-Savarin’s line, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are.” Romera appears to have written two books, though his written work has yet to achieve the influence of a Brillat-Savarin, Alice Waters, or Harold McGee: La Cocina de los Sentidos (The Kitchen of the Senses, not yet translated into English), and La Neurogastronomia, which seems to be a special order from a Danish pharmaceutical company for its favorite neuroscientist customers, also in Spanish.

Without knowing more about Romera's food, and never having experienced it, I'm not sure what to make of his claim to activate "the taste-memory and the emotions of food," since our taste-memory and emotional associations are so particular to individual cultures and to each individual person. Being presented with a tiny carrot nestled on greens laid upon a tightly regulated field of vegetable squares may trigger aesthetically excited endorphins in some systems or panicked memories of childhood in a too-strict, too-clean household in others.

Regardless of claims to memory and emotion, however, the dishes at least look exquisite. Pictured above is one of Romera's signature creations, a vegetable tour-de-force entitled "Isis," after the Egyptian goddess of fertility, nature, and magic (also sister-wife to Osiris, lord of the underworld, and namesake of my mysterious black Wu Tang cat). This article further describes the earthy, edible palette:

The dish is comprised of 48 tiny dried squares of vegetables from beets to potato and spinach, served with even tinier micro-veggies - leeks, onions, cabbage, carrots.

The vegetables all get steam-cooked and stewed together, then cooked in a homemade vegetable broth, a simple yet at the same time complex preparation.

In reading about Romera, I noticed a curious detail that I've never before seen or heard of in a chef's cuisine, a tiny daub of three bright colors—green, yellow, and red—that seem to act as his artist's signature. It appears in the Isis platter as three mini vegetable bits placed at the top right edge of the plate "frame" (some perverse part of me enjoys referring to it as the "platter," like it's merely the rich cousin to the $12.99 seafood platter). 

I wasn't sure what to make of that seeming non sequitur until I saw that the "E" in the   R O M E R A   logo is made of three horizontal lines in precisely the same shades of green, yellow, red. After this, I began to notice the tri-color signature on every dish photographed.

Chef as egomaniac is nothing new, but I'm not sure I've ever heard of such an overtly Picasso move in the culinary world. Maybe one of WV's food-obsessed readers has?

pile o' cassava (photo source)

The second part of the article that made my eyes go wide was the description of one of the esteemed doctor's culinary inventions, a natural additive known as Micri, "an odorless, tasteless gel derived from cassava, which when used in cooking can replace fats and extend flavor without sacrificing mouthfeel." Hmm. I had to read that line a few times. How does one extend flavor without sacrificing mouthfeel? What exactly is "mouthfeel"? Texture? With taste? The emotional geography of our oral cavities? What are the additives that extend flavor but that crudely block out what must be something quite pleasant that we would prefer not to sacrifice in our enhanced food: mouthfeel? Was Mouthfeel part of the secret arsenal of the Vietcong, who won the war through fierce determination and a diet of cassava that kept them going in underground tunnels outside of Saigon for so long? Cassava, also known as manioc and very popular in Brazil as well, does have a certain gummy je ne sais quoi that distinguishes its root texture from plain old mealy potatoes. Could this slippery starchiness be the source of its superlative mouthfeel properties?

Despite the scientific- and not-very-holistic-sounding Micri, and its successor Cassavia, Romera differentiates his process from the Frankensteinian tinkerings of molecular gastronomy, saying "I don't have any technology. . . . A kitchen is made to work with one's hands. All of technological cuisine sacrifices something, which is the taste. And to solve this problem, you have to add chemical additivies." I couldn't track down in-depth Internet information on either of the doctor's own natural (hm, "natural"? not sure if that word alone still retains any meaning in our fallen age of food production) additives, but he assures the readers of New York that his Hippocratic oath prevents him from making anything that's "against nutrition." The site Food from Spain describes Cassavia as "a fat-free paste made from yucca root and, like magic, it can transmit any flavor and take on any texture." It is a merging of magic and science on the site of a chameleon root powerful enough to win wars and nourish populations; in short, a very weird vegetable tale.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Tree of Life

Opa! It's been like a million years since I last posted and everyone I once knew has probably moved on to greener online pastures. But phooooooo! That's the sound of me blowing the dust off this space so we can pick up from where we left off. I am still in Brazil, had to take an unintended hiatus from Weird Vegetables because I was up in the highlands of Minas Gerais (the General Mines, very mystical, very mineral, northwest of Rio de Janeiro) doing my Sir Richard Burton thing, living about a half-hour walk from the Internet cafe where the keyboards were sticky and the bandwidth was excruciatingly narrow.

Here are some views of my near-daily sojourn into the old colonial center of Ouro Preto (Black Gold, yargh!), a town that boomed during the 18th-century gold rush, from which sprang a disproportionate number of impressive baroque churches filled with golden altars and black saints, all surrounded by a chain of dark green mountains forming the Serra do Espinhaço.

mineral spirits
ouro preto

igreja são francisco (the church of my hometown's namesake)

ouro preto city center, a good place for a university student protest

Aside from my jaunts into town, where I found some small but very satisfying farmers' markets (more on that to come), I sat reading and writing in front of my little red window with its little green banana palm view while drinking miner's coffee from a little red mug.

But you came for vegetables, and here I am giving you mineral nuggets from my recent life. But it all comes around because on my travels, I met the sweetest Mineiro couple, a pair of retired university professors, one a geologist and the other a chemical engineer, Dimas and Claudia. Claudia's work centers on the Moringa oleifera, a tree of most magical properties, which include purifying water into a potable state, healing and disinfecting wounds, and restoring the vital vitamins to malnourished souls. After inviting me to lunch one day (Mineiros are famous for their hospitality and home cooking), they showed me around their home, and let me take a sprig from the Moringa oleifera sapling they were cultivating in the backyard. I crushed its delicate, benevolent fringe of leaves into my notebook for safekeeping (top photo). In another room, they had laid out fronds of leaves and the tree's small yellow-white flowers to dry in order to crush into a powder to sprinkle on food.

The leaves have a distinctly bitter taste but not so strong as to be unbearable and gave me the sensation of chewing on tiny, fresh tea leaves. Here is a site that calls it "The Miracle Tree" and enumerates the many benefits of its seed pods, leaves, flowers, bark, and roots. The tree originates in tropical Africa and India and is known commonly in English as the horseradish tree, clarifier tree, and drumstick tree. The site also reports its East African alias as "mother's best friend." In Brazil, it is also known as the horseradish tree, good nut or "do-gooder" nut (noz-de-bem), and "corner okra" (chiabo-de-quina) for its long, okra-looking seed pods (also the origin of the "drumstick" nickname). It seems that every single part of this tree has some amazing restorative properties, as our good friend Wikipedia affirms.

sweet botanical assemblage from this site.

Engaging in corroborative library research, I came across some very nutritious tree books by Harri Lorenzi, who seems to be the reigning king of popular plant literature here in Brazil. He tells us that in India the seeds are ground into a paste to treat wounds or are toasted and enjoyed as a nutritious snack. In the northeast of Brazil, they cook the leaves with beans or eat them in a salad with tangy vinagreira, or purple hibiscus leaves. The tree has natural antibacterial components, and it is this (as far as I understand it!) that makes the seeds absorb impurities in water and thus drinkable for our delicately calibrated human systems. The leaves, roots, and seeds also have anti-inflammatory abilities, which make them good for treating wounds. As if that weren't enough, the leaves are also said to be helpful for diabetics to decrease their blood glucose levels, while the seed pods contain all the essential amino acids (super food alert), plus high levels of beta-carotene, Vitamin C, iron, and potassium.

In short, this tree is a crazy miracle. I am glad to have befriended it and to pass it on to you all. Though North American climates are not ideal for the Moringa, your local or online health store may offer the oil essence of this tree of life.

Now that I am in São Paulo, land of cultural over-stimulation and limitless wi-fi, the posts will return to their regular once-a-week (or more!) frequency.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Vegetarian “Feijoada” What?!

So there’s this girl who goes by the vegname of Kale Daikon and tells everyone she’s in Brazil investigating South American weird vegetables (and the intersection of Brazilian and North American poetry), but it’s all on the Internet, so for all anyone knows, she could be in Pittsburg making up stories based on a 2005 edition of the Lonely Planet Brazil found in the free box of a used bookstore and posting photos ripped from random websites. But really, I assure you, It’s All True and being broadcast from Rio de Janeiro.

She sits in a room on a Friday night taping three months of receipts into a graph-paper notebook and taking photos of the carefully arranged and labeled receipts so that the U.S. government will reimburse her for every centavo spent on books, photocopies, and subway transportation. Feeling spleenetique and saturated in the thumping sounds of the baile funk blasting from the favela across the way, she gets up, spies on the neighbor’s chubby goat, and takes a break from the tedium to write about the vegetarian “feijoada” she recently made.

This is a Kale that grew up believing a meal wasn’t a meal without meat but who in the last five years has moved steadily toward eating mostly vegetables and “happy” meat (there is no such thing as happily murdered meat, you disgusting human, say the real vegetarians and militant vegans). Her current predicament is that, now finding herself in the land of meat-only meals but with little information on where to find non-industrial “happy” (less tragic?) meat, she finds herself caught in a strange limbo land where she doesn’t exactly call herself vegetarian but has stopped eating meat almost entirely--exceptions made here and there for the torresmo that gets sprinkled on her caldo de feijão at the botecos (the corner bar classic of black bean soup that always arrives with a topping of parsley and crackly pork skin bits).

Not historically a fan of mock meat (seitanic substitutes and suspiciously processed soy), but recovering from a bout of dengue fever that has left her weakened and with blood tests showing a serious dip in B12, she finds herself powerfully drawn to the package of vegetarian feijoada “meat” blops offered for purchase at her favorite local natural foods store, Grão Integral, or “Whole Grain.” The ingredients in this "Mistura para feijoada vegetariana" are listed as: smoked gluten (what?), smoked soy protein (smoked? is there another translation for defumado?), smoked tofu, and "aromatic herbs." Verrrry mysterious.

Feijoada, it should be noted, is the typical national Brazilian dish, famous for its mix of mysterious meat parts (pork scraps, ears, tails, assorted beef parts, sausage slices) camouflaged in a black bean stew. Debate continues over whether this all-day slow-cooked meal to serve at Saturday family feasts, birthdays, and graduation get-togethers is the now-valorized dish derived from a necessarily resourceful slave culture or the descendent of European stews enjoyed by colonial aristocrats, such as the Portuguese cozido and the French cassoulet. It is hard from this vantage point to determine where exactly the truth lies, but the black bean bears its factual weight as the great unifying legume of Brazil (with manioc as the country’s prime root).

This is all to say that bestowing the name “feijoada” on this dish that I cooked up on a Sunday when the pressure cooker was calling out to be used is a serious travesty on two counts: 1) it contains no trace of random pig and cow bits and bobs and 2) is made with brown beans instead of the signature black beans.

This dish may be a poorly-disguised impostor, but it is authentic in at least one aspect relevant to this blog: the smoked soy mock meat blops, which were intentionally varied in shape and color to simulate the vaguely disturbing and curious lumps that one finds buried in the black swirl of traditional feijoada, were very much indeed the Weirdest of Vegetables. They bore an unsettling resemblance to kibble when poured into a shallow dish:

Once boiled for almost an hour with the beans (taking the pressure cooker shortcut), the blops became chewy and bean-juice-saturated and slightly salty, bearing an uncannily meaty texture of alien familiarity. Their buoyant spongency also made them float to the top. The "meat" was a little freaky, but the beans were reassuringly tasty in their broth fortified with the flavors of bay leaf, salt, garlic, and hot pepper oil.

Despite this freakshow experiment that I was ashamed to serve to any true Brazilian, I must claim some credit for at least attempting to complete the “feijoada” with the proper accompaniments: rice (though brown instead of white), sauteed kale (though my chiffonade was too fat), farinha (a yellowish manioc flour that is almost like pouring sand on your meal but is subtly tasty and adds a pleasingly rough layer when mixed into the beans), and sliced oranges meant to be eaten with the meal (not after) to aid digestion.