Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Vegetable Butcher of Eataly

This tropical weather in Rio is making me think of the snowy times back in February when I went to New York for my birthday (star sign Aquarius, thanks for asking). I stayed with my Italian friend Valeria, and of course we both had to poke our curious noses into Mario Batali's Italian grocery extravaganza, Eataly, which opened last fall. Located in the nondescript, in-between territory of Midtown, this food, um, emporium? hall? mall? spreads its assortment of bread, cheese, meat, and produce counters, plus dining zones over 50,000 ample square feet. Like Batali himself, Eataly is an overgrown Americanized version of Italian culinary culture. The heady rows of pasta and panettone glittering under bright spotlights reminded me a little of Wal-Mart even if the packaging of the products retained a classic Italian elegance.

Signorina Valeria at the doors to Eataly

I introduced Valeria to one of her country's most delectable cheeses, Sottocenere, a creamy cow's milk cheese laced with black truffle and whose herbed ashen crust provides its name, "sotto cenere" meaning "under ash." Then we went on to prowl the produce section.

The fruit and veggies were all very well-lit, all very pretty, considering the barren wintry landscape outside, though a lot of it came from Florida and California (there was a smattering of Hudson Valley farms represented). I also found a satisfying variety of weird vegetables and fruit, including red watercress, finger limes, and an admirable mushroom section.

At last, we came to the main attraction, the curiosity that had summoned me to this realm called Eataly in the first place: The Vegetable Butcher.

Someone please tell me why they are put scare quotes
around "Vegetable Butcher." Is it all an ironic joke?

Like the Wizard of Oz, the Vegetable Butcher is a symbolic figure that goes beyond the identity of merely one person, the green mantle having been handed off to various wielders of the bloodless knife since the inauguration of the position last September. The whole concept of this in-store vegetable mascot, a hearty carver of edible plant matter there to slice, delight, instruct, and dice, sprouted to life over late-night glasses of fine wine in the back of a swanky restaurant, as New York creation myths often seem to go. Impresario Mario was chatting up conceptual artist Jennifer Rubell, niece of Studio 54's Steve but more importantly for us connoisseurs of the alimentary fringe, a conjurer of food as art and art as food. Her show Icons, which was a dinner at the Brooklyn Museum of Art's fundraising gala last year, included Fontina cheese casts of her own head suspended upside down to melt (under heat guns) onto stacked snack crackers, carrots to be plucked and munched from a seed bed in the shape of artist Vito Acconci's body, grotesquely decadent meat and vegetable spreads, and for dessert: a 20-foot-tall pinata of Andy Warhol's head, which was bashed in to release rivers of Twinkies, Ding Dongs, Yodels, Sno Balls, Suzy Q’s, and Ho Ho’s. Yum!

cheese head pre-melt...
What if the hors d'oeuvre were the oeuvre d'art?

a chipped pyramid (these & more here)

Jennifer Rubell with cleaver & cucuzza squash
(source: New York Post)
But  let us return to the vegetable matter at hand... Rubell's idea as the inaugural Vegetable Butcher was to be part educator, part expediter, making people's lives easier and their culinary risks less daunting by informing them about the more unusual vegetables, suggesting possible combinations, and chopping them up at no extra charge. In assorted interviews, Rubell shows herself to be a weird vegetable kindred spirit:

“I like to expand the vegetable kingdom for people.”

“I’m just like a bartender. But the advice customers seek from me is about what to do with vegetables, and to introduce them to unfamiliar ones like cardoons and celery root.” 

Read about the story here, here, and here.

By the time I arrived on the scene, Rubell had already split for stranger pastures, but Valeria and I were able to spend some quality time over sliced celeriac dressed in olive oil, lemon, and salt with the gracious Milan, that day's Vegetable Butcher.

Valeria grills the Vegetable Butcher, Milan (also her hometown)

Responding good-naturedly to my barrage of questions as he selected a hefty celery root for his demonstration, Milan observed that baby artichokes seemed to be the most frequently butchered vagetable at his station (people not knowing how to deal with the thorns and the fuzz, it seems), followed by winter squash. "A lady once asked me to basically scalp a pumpkin for her," he said, while I gasped in shock at the barbarousness of the request, before realizing that that's what we do to all our tough-skinned Cucurbitae, though we call our actions by other names. Truly scandalous, however, was the customer that once had him mince something like forty garlic cloves (I didn't note down the exact number, but it was something ridiculous).

I tried to drag some juicy dirt from him on his job, but the most I could get was that he's bothered by the excess plastic packaging used to box up the sliced veggies and that he's against slicing up mushrooms too far in advance, thus degrading their integrity into a slimy mycological travesty. My main disappointment was that they hadn't come up with any signature vegetable butcher "cuts" with diagrams like the ones you see of cows. But perhaps we of the vegetable community can reflect more on this question and provide further ferment for innovation in vegetable preparation.

As we were talking, a woman came up to have her cauliflower dissected, and Milan sliced it to order ("How small do you want it? Florets?") while she shared with us her preference for pureed cauliflower over mashed potatoes because of its lighter texture. Then we all considered how celery root, also a bit more delicate than the potato, might add a complementary tone to the cauliflower.

Here is Milan's celeriac demonstration, in which I learned that celeriac/celery root can be eaten raw (duh, I know, but I did not know). Please do try this at home. Also, that person who sounds like a total valley girl giving useless color commentary is NOT me.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Sometimes Foods That Look Suspect Are In Fact Delicious...

...such as:

1. bananas passa, or dried bananas, one of my favorite emergency snacks here. They look like they're on the verge of decay, but are sticky sweet without sugar. However, there is no elegant way to eat them. Peel off a strip, your fingers get gummy, it looks like a sardine swinging in the air over your mouth, then gulp, delicious!

2. pamonha, a Brazilian "tamale" or a polenta of sorts that may look like someone spat out their half-chewed corn because it was too hot in their mouth, but that is pure corn joy. They take fresh corn, grind it up and juice it, then mix it with grated coconut or coconut milk, and wrap it in a corn husk and drop it in boiling water. The corn street vendors always have pamonha, boiled corn, and another corn treat called curau that is corn puréed with coconut milk into a kind of yellow pudding and put into a plastic cup for your convenience. I've heard of savory pamonha (filled with meat) but haven't encountered it yet. The Flavors of Brazil blog does a good job of describing pamonha and distinguishing it from tamales.

3. pão de mel, or honey bread, a sweet but not too sweet, spiced, soft cookie. Despite its homely aspect, it is quite tasty.

I couldn't resist taking the opportunity to play with my food and make a Pac-Man tableau.

4. inhame che

Back when I thought inhame [een-YAH-me], the Brazilian purple hairy yam, was taro, I made it into the Vietnamese dessert known as che khoai mon, or tarot che, "che" being the general name for a whole collection of Vietnamese desserts involving some combination of fruit, tarot, or beans (red beans, mung beans, black-eyed peas), coconut milk, sugar, and tapioca, sticky rice, or jello. But the two are almost the same thing—same purplish tinge, slightly sweet potato flavor, tendency toward viscosity. I made a lazy version: peeled and diced the inhame (with another root veg that I love called batata baroa added on a whim), boiled and strained the cubes, then dumped in a bottle of coconut milk and some sugar (no little tapioca balls, no sticky rice, no accurate measuring of proportions). I like to eat it warm, though some have it at room temperature.

It looks like sad, gray gruel, but I promise you it is so so tasty. Consider it my tropical-tropical South American-Southeast Asian fusion concoction. When I open my Brazilian-Vietnamese restaurant, this will be the dessert special. I'll ladle it into a crystal goblet adorned with a pineapple slice and a tiny paper umbrella so the tourists won't feel afraid. Another added bonus is that inhame seems to be the magic super vegetable that cures all ailments. Everyone here says, "Inhame limpa o sangue," that it "cleanses the blood," and that it helps boost the immune system, decreases inflammation, and cures dengue fever. I've been eating a lot of boiled inhame lately.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Homemade, homemade

Being in a new environment has got me feeling experimental lately. I made this hot oil a few weeks ago with advice from the spice man at my Sunday market ("the recipe is free! ha! freeee!"). It gives an extra kick to my stir-fries, my fried eggs, my toast (fried in the pan with oil when I run out of butter; we are a toasterless household). It draws little flames around whatever my heart desires. Anyone who's been to Brazil will have seen countless bottles of this stuff on the tables of homes and homey restaurants.

To make it, I took an equal mix of orange, red, and green chili pepppers (the little green ones are the meanest), washed and destemmed them,

put them in a jam jar with this much salt,

et voila! After about a week, the whole thing got spiced up.

I also made this homemade mosquito repellent from really cheap vodka (R$6 a bottle) infused with a packet of cloves and some cinammon. I let it steep for a week, shaking up the mixture every day, then mixed it with sweet-herb-scented body oil. It seemed to work for awhile; at least it made my skin smell really nice, but then I started getting less vigilant about putting on insect repellent. Then I fell ill with dengue fever, which has been something of an epidemic in Rio in the last couple years. My bout was intense, though maybe not as bad as others have had it, and I am now in recovery and have finally been leaving the house. I blame succumbing to the illness on a combination of an evil, gluttonous Aedes egypti plus intense stress from trying to finish a dissertation chapter by a self-imposed deadline. (Dissertations are bad for your health.) I'm going to try another batch using olive oil instead of body oil. The only problem with cloves is that they can stain clothes and some report that clove oil can be a skin irritant, though I haven't had this problem.

My latest and most exciting home project has been making my own compost bin out of an old French fryer. In San Francisco, I got so used to never throwing a single scrap of food in the garbage since the city picks up compost separate from garbage and recycling, so that when I moved here, it caused a great pain in my heart to throw out so many beautiful vegetable and fruit parts. I met a woman at the organic farmers' market who gave me this old French fryer she cleaned out, plus some advice on how to put all the layers together.

I poked drainage holes in a plastic planter base for the bottom, found a metal wire sieve to block the top from critters while letting in air and sun, and now have become totally obsessed with feeding my compost, turning it, chopping up my organic scraps into tiny, digestible pieces for the sweet creature that lives in the back near the laundry machine. My yin and yang have now been transmuted into brown and green layers (brown=old leaves, sawdust, shredded newspapers, the "cold" stuff; green=organic materials from your kitchen and garden, the "hot" stuff that steams and brews as the bacteria transforms it into cold, black matter)

 It is still a work in progress and I already need a bigger compost receptacle, so I'm on the lookout for an old laundry drum, which will already have all the breathing holes drilled in the sides, plus drainage in the bottom. The Alameda County Stop Waste site also helped me imagine how all these technicolor scraps would eventually decay and shrivel up into beautiful black compost. Meanwhile, I continue to chop up my scraps into bite-size pieces and store them in a drawer in the fridge. It's an exciting life here in the southern hemisphere.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Pinhão: Giant Pinenut

Running through my life in Rio like Manichaean undercurrents, yin and yang, light and dark, good and evil, joy and despair are the mico and the barata. Micos are the tiny marmosets that scamper past my open window in the mornings, pit-pattering over my neighbor's corrugated tin roof to leap into the mango tree nearby, all four limbs outstretched in a moment of pure exhilaration. They look like evil Jim Henson mini-demons with their downturned mouths and shocks of white hair shooting out on the sides of their furry heads, but they bring innumerable moments of pleasure into my life and release me from darker thoughts with their sudden chattering appearance. (The ones that hang around here are playful and shy to approach humans, unlike the scary micos that leap onto tables and bully tourists into giving up their snacks at Sugar Loaf Mountain, a popular vista point.) Their dark counterpoint, my great, trembling vulnerability here, are baratas, cockroaches, big brown tropical cockroaches with wings that I have neither learned to kill nor to react to in a calm, accepting manner. They terrorize me. There are moments when I begin to imagine cockroaches in every corner, imagine them flying in my window at night (it happened last night and I knew it wasn't just a fever-induced delirium), see them scuttling into my ear while I sleep, see them in the food I eat.

Blur your vision and it is a cockroach

Indeed, while preparing these pinhões (plural of pinhão), I began to see them as a big collection of cockroaches, hard-shells glistening ominously under the kitchen lights. But reason took hold and I kept on with the work of piercing, boiling, then peeling back their hard outer layers, imagining the nutty treasure inside, more than triple the size of the European and North American pine nuts I am used to. Peeling these nuts open is hard work, and at one point I considered banging them open with my flip-flop, the way people smash cockroaches here in one blow (whap!).

But my monkey patience persevered, and I ended up with a nice collection of waxy, yellow-brown nuts, slightly chewy like chestnuts can sometimes be. I snacked on several whole and coarsely chopped up the rest to layer on top of a squash puree I made.

Calling these mysterious beings "pine nut" may be misleading for those used to those teardrop nuts coming from arrow-shaped dark green conifers and their brown pine cones. The man at the market said they were "a type of Portuguese nut" in response to my curiosity, but these actually come from the Brazilian pine, pinheiro-do-paraná or pinheiro brasileiro, known by the scientists as Araucaria angustifolia. The tree is also an evergreen, but its leaves begin much farther up the trunk and its branches extend outwards in more of a radial pattern, like a big halo or green fireworks.

Image source

And look at the pine cones! They are grrreeeeen:

Image source

They remind me of durian, the infamous stinky fruit (like natto, a taste not to be savored by the masses, but adored by those strong of palate).

What else can I say about pinhão? The tree grows mostly in the more temperate and higher altitude regions in Brazil's southwest and is endangered due in part to the replacement of the Paraná pine on private lots with Canadian pines--think Christmas trees--whose wood has a higher market value (boo to decisions based solely on market value!!). It is a traditional food of indigenous tribes, much as pine nuts have been for North American tribes, and was also adopted with enthusiasm by Italian and German immigrants to southwest Brazil. People in the town of Lage in Santa Catarina state, are nuts (ahhh! couldn't help it, not sorry about it) about pinhão and eat it all sorts of ways: roasted, boiled, ground up with manioc flour, in a mayonnaise, pureed, gnocchi'd, eaten as a dessert or with dessert, on pizza, in a pancake, in a dish called entrevero mixing pinhão with meat and greens, etc.

Here is my attempt to give you some sense of scale:

More on pinhão (in Portuguese) from Slow Food Brasil, which is trying to raise awareness about this endangered nut, and from an informative blog called Brasil Sabor.

But just as I thought I was coming out of my delirium and ridding myself of disturbing associations (brown nut conjuring the terror of the flying cockroach), I open up my Portuguese-English dictionary from 1945 and read under the entry for pinhões do Brasil: "black vomiting-nuts." What?? Another rabbit hole I've fallen down. Turns out black vomiting-nuts, also known as the psychic nut, come from the Jatropha plant, sometimes a tree, sometimes a shrub, and that has recently been known as the great biodiesel hope. I could try to follow this new thread to its end, but as we know in the world of vegetable identification and Internet burrowing, there is never a finite end and so we must stop when our eyes begin to buzz and our heads begin to swivel around in search of micos to distract us from our mental labyrinths. Weeeeee, weeeeee, I hear their high-pitched calling now.... Let us end here for today.