Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Vilmorin's Vegetable Garden of My Dreams

The days grow colder, shadows lengthen, and roots burrow deeper into the land, swaddling themselves in ever thicker layers. The carrots are so cold they turn pale and begin to shiver like leeks. The turnip puffs its cheeks out with cold breaths. Only the beet manages to keep itself warm with wine-dark passion.

Auntie Rutabaga knits green caps for herself and her soil mates, and makes a jaunty violet affair for poor Tiny Turnip. Old Man Celery has lost his color and his beard tickles the cheeks of the squeaking new potatoes. Purple Cabbage has a cold; she wraps her ashen face in insulating folds. It is freezing frozen, so cold in the ground, they say. Dig us up and put us somewhere warm.

Here are some vegetable fantasies to fuel your holiday dreaming. Taschen has reissued Album Vilmorin. The Vegetable Garden (1850-1895), featuring color plates and illustrations from the catalog of the French seed company Vilmorin-Andrieux & Cie, which was founded in 1766.

If you are seeking more of an Americana feel to your vegetable musings, check out an old Burpee's catalog. You can usually find a couple at used bookstores.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

They Draw & Cook Vegetables

The art of cooking intermingles with the cooking of art over at They Draw & Cook, a website of recipes illustrated by countless artists from around the world. The illustrations all take the form of a long, rectangular banner, but vary in style from hand-drawn cartoons to saturated watercolor splashes to the clean lines and flat shapes of graphic design. I particularly like the experiments in typography and narration of  recipes that move between the textual and the visual. In the same way that I usually find out more about TV shows through reading newspaper reviews than actually watching TV, I discovered the site through a review buried at the back of the print magazine Gastronomica of a cookbook the founders have published with 107 of their favorite illustrations from the site. Read the review here. Below, a few choice vegetable recipes. Green jello salad wins the prize for freakiest vegetable dish.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Somebody Take This Obese Pumpkin, Please!

It's the time of year when gourds start to take over, spilling from the oven and dinner plate onto people's front porches and various home display nooks. And the grocery stores start getting inspired with their gigantic pumpkin and yellow-and-green warty gourd displays. Around Berkeley and Oakland, I've seen a number of obese pumpkins basking in their orange Jabba the Hutt folds at the Berkeley Bowl, out in front of Sweet Adeline's cafe, and some random restaurants along Telegraph that I zoomed past too quickly to remember.

People grow these enormous pumpkins, win prizes at county fairs, proudly display their overgrown vegetable progeny in a blaze of harvest glory. And then the excitement fades and reality sets in. You have an enormous, unwieldy pumpkin that no one is going to eat, that will grow moldy and disgusting, and that you will have to hack at with a chainsaw before it'll fit into your green bin.

The photo above comes from a Craigslist post from a San Francisco family that won this 160-lb. pumpkin for correctly guessing its weight and, now that the euphoria of that victory has shriveled to a wizened tendril, are trying to pawn off this nuisance on someone else. Here's the ad:

160 lb pumpkin -- who can resist?

Date: 2012-11-13, 8:45PM
We won this pumpkin in a contest for correctly guessing its weight.
We've enjoyed having it for the past month, but now it's time to let go.
Wouldn't necessarily suggest eating it, but great for use for decorative, artistic, or composting purposes.
Yours for free if you'd like to come pick it up. I'll help you carry it to your car.
We're near Japantown.

The ad is still live as of this posting (it's here!), so I hope I am doing a public service by spreading the news to someone who might want this bloated orange monster.  "Who can resist?" I imagine the family members smiling weakly, trying to convince you of the irresistible allure of the 160-lb pumpkin that's been decaying in their house for a month already and that they are begging you to take off their hands. "I'll help you carry it to your car." Please help. SOS.

While I'm on the topic of ornamental squash, I'd like to remind you that it's the time of the year when we gather round and reread my all-time favorite McSweeney's Internet Tendency column, "It's Decorative Gourd Season, Motherfuckers." by Colin Nissan. It begins:

I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to get my hands on some fucking gourds and arrange them in a horn-shaped basket on my dining room table. That shit is going to look so seasonal. 

It continues in pretty much the same vein, until the cumulative effect of the macho-dude swearing and swagger to describe such Martha Stewart passions for seasonal decor makes me laugh so hard I cry, every time. I especially love the gourd necklace.

When it rains it pours, and the veggie posts keep coming tonight after two months of silence. (It's been a busy few months.) It must be the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday and an early T-day feast last Sunday that got me thinking about vegetables again. Enjoy your feasts and don't forget to include some weird vegetables.

And thanks to Amaranth Gadberry for foraging this amazing pumpkin plea from the brambles of Craigslist. Lastly, I leave you with some choice obese pumpkin photos culled from the Internet. While 160 lbs might seem heavy to you, some of these award winners weigh in the area of 1,300 pounds or MORE. Yikes. And yes, that is a man riding in a pumpkin boat.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Witchy Brew: Meadowsweet, Fennel, and Marshmallow Root

Magic herbs in the company of the very magical Clarice Lispector

Having recently moved from San Francisco's Mission District to the Berkeley-Oakland borderlands (by way of Rio de Janeiro for a year+ in between), I've had to seek out equivalents for my old favorites in my new neighborhood.  Scartlet Sage is still my #1 witch store, but I no longer live 10 minutes away, sadly. So I was happy to wander into the Lhasa Karnak Herb Company on Telegraph today while on my way to the heavenly Moe's Books to look for The Road to Xanadu (found it!). Rows of glass jars filled with magic herbs, walls lined with tinctures and tarot cards, stacks of teas, soaps, and beeswax candles. I inhaled all the familiar scents and felt a faint glow from my inner spirit crystal.

Today's discovery was a tea made from meadowsweet, fennel, and marshmallow root in equal proportions. I explained my mysterious stomachaches to the young witch at the counter and she recommended this combination to soothe the stresses of a sour, acidic stomach. She recommended it two ways: a spoonful heated up with almond milk (in a tea ball or strained afterward) and also brewing a big batch of tea and straining it into a mason jar because "these herbs like to expand." Or something like that. I imagine that it must be akin to the way wine likes to breathe. I had the milky tea earlier, which eased my way into a delicious post-teaching nap, and am now enjoying some post-dinner tea that's been stretching its legs in an old Spanish olive jar.

The taste is laced with licorice from the fennel, while the meadowsweet, an herb sacred to the Druids, reminds me of chammomile, though with an ever so slightly bitter taste. Marshmallow root, I've never had and I can't quite isolate its taste in this mixture, though I assure you it has very little to do with sticky sweet taste Kraft products. The tea has been soothing to me, even if it does taste a little medicinal (not necessarily off-putting though I can imagine some people not liking the taste).
marshmallow root (source)

But the strange marshmallow root, like insides of the more familiar campfire roasting treat, is slimy and thick, known as a "demulcent herb" that is meant to soothe mucous membranes (like the lining of my upset stomach). It also has about a thousand other uses, so if you are a witch-in-training as I aspire to one day be, you can read all about them here. More on its magic mucous properties from this site:

Both the root and the leaf of the marshmallow plant contain a substance known as mucilage polysaccharides, a mucusy substance that does not dissolve in water. It is this substance that causes marshmallow to swell up and become slippery when wet. This attribute of the marshmallow plant gives it the ability to soothe irritation of the mouth, throat and stomach, as well as to relieve coughing.

Mucilage polysaccharides! Weeeeird! But my stomach is saying, "aaaaaaah."

Flowering Kale

Here is a kale blossom to cheer your kitchen as the weather turns cold and the rain gives us an excuse to sleep scandalously late on the weekends and lounge around inside, being both lazy and industrious in ridiculous rainbow knit pants and crocheted slippers. I wish I could say this hearty bloom came from my backyard or an overgrown field I tromped across, but, alas, it caught my eye from a white plastic florist bucket. But the tiny tomatoes are, yes!, from my backyard.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Funny Carrot Man

Look at this child's funny carrot treasure, dug up during an Internet stroll by Radish Khorn over at the exciting and instantly venerable magazine of weird and delicious food, Lucky Peach. Did anyone see the amazing carrot pants that accompanied the article on trickle-down food trends by Christine Muhlke in Issue 3: Cooks and Chefs? There were a number of particularly alluring weird vegetable items from that issue that I noted and have been meaning to post about.

Life continues to overwhelm. But this Kale will get her groove back in another month or two. Kales tend to thrive through the winter months.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Purple Moon Potatoes

Been thinking a lot about moons lately, between this month's blue moon and the honey yellow harvest moon I saw rising up from the hills of San Francisco on Sunday around 8:30pm. When I cut into these purple potatoes from the Berkeley Farmers' market, I was stunned by the beautiful lunar forms from a distant galaxy that awaited me. I like to think that some farmers in head-to-toe tie-dye sat around these specially ordained nightshades and collectively om'ed these patterns into being with the help of some healing crystals. Perfect for adding a fried purple haze to accompany my scrambled eggs.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Cute Vegetables and Familiar Faces at the South Berkeley Farmers' Market

Moving from San Francisco to the Oakland-Berkeley borderlands (with an interlude in Rio de Janeiro) has brought a few challenges of acclimation, like getting lost in Oakland every other time I try to find the Grand Lake movie theater or a frozen yogurt place close to the Oakland Museum. But my food procurement routine has presented some reassuring continuities. I continue to find a wide selection of produce and bulk foods at Berkeley Bowl, my Rainbow Grocery substitute, while the South Berkeley Farmers' Market presents some old favorites (Dirty Girl, Blossom Bluff, Blue Bottle coffee) alongside some new friends. Full Belly and Riverdog are two farms I've known about for a long time but that don't make their way into San Francisco, so I'm excited to start sampling their produce on a regular basis. Riverdog seemed to have an especially broad selection of cute vegetables last Tuesday, including some of those pictured above. 

L-R, they are Armenian cucumber, an albino eggplant, a summer squash that looks as though it were hand-dipped in grassy hues, tiny radicchio, Chinese (or Japanese) eggplant, a fist-sized cauliflower, stripey eggplant (not sure what variety), French breakfast radishes right out of a children's picture book or the Chez Panisse Vegetables book, and pale lemon cucumbers, which turned out to be surprisingly sweet for cucumbers. They are mainly from Riverdog Farm, with a couple cuties from Dirty Girl.

I got a reminder + $2 coupon in the mail letting me know that the farmers' market had relocated 10 blocks closer to Oakland from its old location (for my personal convenience, of course), and though a few people have grumbled about the move, most of the vendors seem happy with the larger space.

I've been going to the Tuesday afternoon market, which starts at 2pm. This is exciting because I usually can't wake up in time to get the best of the market on Saturday and Sunday mornings, plus getting there at the start of the market also offers sightings of local foodie movers and shakers. As I strolled along with a Weird Veg special agent chef, he pointed out Charlie Hallowell, chef/owner of the most delicious Pizzaiolo and Boot & Shoe Service (where I just ate a delicious nettle pizza on Saturday night), as well as Russell Moore, chef/owner of the much-lauded Camino going about their food shopping. Both are part of the ex-Chez Panisse, local-vegetable-loving mafia, which has been spreading its influence over Berkeley and Oakland for years (Oliveto is another restaurant with Chez Panisse ties that comes to mind, as well as the San Francisco restaurants Quince and its spin-off Cotogna. I wish someone would compile a list of this mafia and their restaurants, or send me a link to where one already exists).

As I hovered over some Riverdog lemon cucumbers, a broad-shouldered, salt-and-pepper mustachioed man passed by me and I had a feeling of déjà-vu that threatened to linger as an unbearably unscratchable itch. Where had I seen him before? "Pal's Take Away," my agent said in a low voice at my side. Ahhhh, yes, one of the masterminds behind my favorite secret sandwich shop in the Mission, where I used to live in San Francisco. Suddenly, it didn't seem that I had moved so far away.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Literary Kale

As you may have guessed, I'm always on the lookout for good literary vegetable passages. Thoreau is still my favorite wielder of worded vegetables, especially his passages on pumpkins and beans. So I was instantly delighted at reading the first line of Heidi Julavits' review of the racy werewolf novel Talulla Rising in last Sunday's New York Times Book Review :

If literature is lacinato kale, genre is gelato.

An extremely erudite vegetable reference, lacinato kale being the blackish green brassica also known as dinosaur kale. Was she implying that those of us who know what lacinato kale is and regularly enjoy it are most likely to also be literary snobs? That we enjoy what's more challenging to appreciate, what the common folks who are chomping on iceberg lettuce do not take the time to notice? The first part may be in there, but she jumped straight from vegetables to dessert, implying the cultural divide is even more extreme. But perhaps reading novels these days is already highbrow, so that liking mysteries or thrillers is more like eating gelato (still the mark of discerning taste) rather than soft serve or Breyer's.

But tastes are contradictory and likely to cross all sorts of so-called cultural boundaries. Once, my former roommate, who used to research food trends, took a picture of my breakfast because she wanted to capture the incongruity of my organic, farmers' market strawberries sliced over a bowl of Lucky Charms that were soaking up local, organic whole milk from Straus Family Creamery.

So I appreciated the way Julavits, a novelist and an editor of The Believer Magazine, took her initial "kale : literature as genre : gelato" metaphor and spun it into a miniature reflection on the mash-up frenzy driving urban food trends as a way to understand similar literary splicings. She continues:

Despite regular critical attempts to reconstruct this outdated food pyramid, the base holds strong. Fortunately, thanks to a surge in literary molelucar gastronomy, readers can enjoy an ever wider array of broccoli rabe (or brussels sprout, or Swiss chard) ice cream. When cooked by mad word scientists like Glen Duncan--whose new horror novel, "Talulla Rising," is a sequel to "The Last Werewolf"--this harmonic hybrid delivers sweet (plot), salty (character), sour (emotional pathos), bitter (psychological probity) and umami (stylistic and linguistic panache).

I think the inclusion of "umami," or the fifth flavor, shows this is a woman as serious about food as she is about books. Just when you think you've gotten to the dregs of the food metaphor, it keeps on going, perhaps inspired by the horror genre she's reviewing (ha! not dead yet! a relentless attack!):

If books were required to list the nutritional value of their contents, Duncan's sumptuously gluttonous werewolf saga would rank as high in pure cane sugar as it does in omega-3s. 
Note how she uses cane sugar and not corn syrup. Like the careful choice of gelato, she's saying Tallulah Rising is a little naughtier than kale but still not the trashiest thing you can ingest. The book looks really fun, by the way, feminist in its narrative of female werewolf empowerment but with a dose of True Blood-style sexytimes. I will be totally honest and say it was actually this pull-quote that got me to stop turning the pages and read this review:

Can a woman who kills and consumes innocent people and craves near-constant sex be a fit parent?

Ahem. Lettuce turn back to vegetables... Ms. Julavits' opening paragraph clearly planted a tiny green seed in my imagination, as I kept envisioning a book made of kale leaves, one that I could read and eat at the same time. It grew and grew in my mind, until I sat down after dinner and painted it (above). The lacinato, or dino, kale is on top, alternating with Red Russian kale, which I love for its delicate colors, texture, and flavor.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Time For Twig Tea

Just over here sipping on some twig tea in the nebulous region between Oakland and Berkeley, part concrete jungle and 2am Jack in the Box drive-thru binges, part sunshine garden idyll and self-righteously organic paradise. The air is scented with tiny jasmine blooms and the heady spices of Cafe Colucci, one of the Ethiopian restaurants that pepper almost every block in my new area.

I don't think I can make a convincing case for twigs as vegetables, since we can't really eat them, just drink hot water they've been soaked in. Still, it does feel strange and notable to drink infused twig water. You can get kikucha (its Japanese name) in sachets, but I like to get the actual roasted twigs. Feels a bit more witchy that way... I think I got these from Rainbow Grocery over a year ago--I found them in a box I unpacked with all my old teas and spices in it (still good, dammit, though the spices probably have their best days behind them).

Kikucha is not as weird as you might think at first, however, when you realize that the twigs are not just any twigs but come from the tea plant, whose black/green/white-leaf water we're more used to drinking. Kikucha has a little caffeine, which is why I'm drinking it as I wean myself off coffee for a week or so (just so I can restart the addiction with fresh vigor). I got really into twig tea when I tried adhering to a macrobiotic diet for a week-and-a-half and nearly lost my mind--I felt so much healthier but proportionately crazier for all the cravings left unfulfilled. But twig tea was a good friend in that time of need and no coffee.

I find its amber hue and mellow, smokey flavor very soothing even as it cuts through my drowsiness. It's not as bitter or jarring as some green teas can be and also not as strong as black tea. I often drink it after dinner when I need to get some writing done but still want to feel a little dreamy and be sure I can fall asleep when crawling into bed. The roasted brown rice genmaicha is also another favorite tea with a deep yet delicate flavor, but its portion of green tea makes it too caffeinated for me to drink at night.

You can read more about twig tea here and here.

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Meanwhile, back at the San Francisco Ferry Building...

Being born and raised in a place like San Francisco should normally make a person avoid tourist tornado zones and the risk of being mistaken for a tourist at all costs (Fisherman's Wharf doesn't even register on the native's mental map of the city), but after having spent a year away from my "cool, grey city of love," I was inspired to break one of my cardinal rules: never set foot in the Saturday Ferry Plaza farmers' market after noon. Before 10am is ideal, after 11am is getting a little hectic, and after 12pm is total insanity, destructive tourist gremlins all over the place and everyone headed for a collective meltdown.

But the siren song of this produce paradise was too much to bear, and since I wasn't actually shopping for vegetables because I don't have my own kitchen yet, I decided that I might as well be a tourist and walk around staring at California's most beautiful vegetables and be that annoying person who just snaps creepy photos and doesn't buy anything except a breakfast egg plate and Blue Bottle coffee.

While loitering and enjoying said egg plate and coffee, I took notice of the carnival of harmless tourist profiteers that I normally ignore in my rush to be the first to fondle the doughnut peaches and heirloom greens. Superman was sweating buckets under his muscle foam while boinging merrily around on pogo boots, collecting tips for photos ("It's for health insurance!," he told onlookers with a winning smile. I assume it's to uphold his individual mandate and give the necessary support to the healthcare reform package than out of any real need for health coverage. Man of steel and all...). Magicians, clowns, and fresh-faced folksy singers in cowboy outfits rounded out the sideshow, providing much-needed distraction from smartphone data feeds.

Despite being comforted by the familiar sight of northern California blooms and plaid shirts, I was dismayed to see a sign that the farmers' market has gotten overly crowded and militantly regulated:

But as I strolled past my favorite vendors, all of whom can be found on the CUESA website, I moved on to more satisfying sights, like the multi-colored heirloom tomatoes at Balakian Farms that made me want to dive in and shout, "Treasure bath!!!"

And the tranquilly delicious scents of lavender and strawberries at Eatwell Farm:

Floating dreamily past the brown turkey figs at Knoll Farms, which are fat, pale green, and dusty purple, past the sweet-smelling stone fruit of Frog Hollow and Blossom Bluff, I wafted into my personal favorite weird greens triangle of Heirloom Organic Gardens, Star Route, and Marin Roots farms.

Heirloom Organics had its usual dazzling rows of salad and braising greens, plus an explosively cute wicker-and-gingham array of pale purple borage and what look like marigolds, alongside delicately tendriled pale carrots (or could they be baby parsnips? hard to say in retrospect).

Star Route's bounty of rainbow chard and assorted greens (ancho cress, tatsoi, red mustard, and dandelion greens) was holding up well under the swelter of unseasonably hot weather (San Francisco is supposed to be gloomy and foggy in June, a mean joke played on tourists who end up having to buy cheap fleeces embroidered with "SF" in Chinatown).

I flirted with their stinging nettles for awhile but decided to make that nettle soup, pizza, or pesto into a future ambition.

Gandhi was looking well-accompanied by a conspiracy of beards as I sauntered from Star Route across the way to Marin Roots to compare the price of designer weeds.

In a twenty-first-century weeds-to-gourmet story, the slightly chewy succulent with teardrop leaves known as purslane has risen to veggie stardom, partly on the crest of its omega-3 riches. It is lovingly cultivated by both Star Route (for $6/lb) and Marin Roots ($8/lb). Perhaps the latter's purslane was a bit larger and more comely, hence the premium. I also found a heretofore unknown weird vegetable at Marin Roots known as chocolate mint.

In an interesting twist of the human mind/palate partnership, chocolate mint does not taste like chocolate but is reminiscent of chocolates that feature this strong mint flavor, like Andes or Peppermint Patties. My slightly lazy clicking through the Internet has rendered insufficient information to say when this "chocolate mint" was thus named, but it's an interesting case of an herb taking on the name of a candy that previously took its name in part from a close relative of that same herb. (In the beginning there was mint, then there were chocolate after dinner mints and there was mint chocolate as an ice cream flavor and flavor of chocolate, and finally there was the chocolate mint for $2/bunch for sale with the spearmint at the farmers' market.)

Marin Roots also had some very alluring radishes waiting to be ravished:

After the endorphin-inducing triple-whammy of weird greens, I usually veer right (or south) and poke my head in among the beans, yarn, and dried hot peppers at Tierra Vegetables, which usually has an odd yet rustically intriguing assortment of vegetables. Today their onions and garlic were especially luscious. Maybe I've been away for too long or these were the only things not wilting in the sun, but for some reason onions and garlic seemed to be the most gorgeous and mouth-watering vegetables at the market.

See how pretty these red burger onions look in the sun?

And the chiaroscuro effect of the garlic bin!

Around the corner and rounding out my Ferry Building vegetable nirvana is Dirty Girl Produce, whose cherry-red early girl dry farmed tomatoes I die for in late August/September. Today they had the world's most adorable fist-sized romanesco, of course sitting next to yet more pretty onions:

Spycam shot of the Dirty Girl stand through Twin Girls' flowers (or did they belong to Four Sisters? Sometimes I get all the farm girls mixed up):

And next door to Dirty Girl was a farm I'd never seen before, Hunter Orchards, which had its own formidable garlic pyramid and some bright red jackpot cherries.

Not sick of onions or garlic yet? Here are even more from Heirloom (left) and Eatwell (right).

It's beautiful and overwhelming to be back in the Bay Area, starting life back up here and returning to my most favorite vegetables in the world. I'm about to move to the East Bay, though, for logistical and rental price reasons (goodbye expensive Mission District—I bequeath you to the Facebook + Google + assorted tech startup army and the rent control holdouts!), so expect some posts on Berkeley and Oakland farmers' markets in the near-near future.