Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Turnip Princess

The Turnip Princess lies in wait for her Pumpkin Prince to appear one moonlit night and find her absolutely radishing. Her pale luminescence is crowned by her own greeny mantle and a chamommile diadem. In the midst of her reverie, she purses her spiced lips and sheds a single petal tear of unfulfilled joy.

The idea to create a Turnip Princess came to me from a German fairytale I read in The Guardian that is one of 500 forgotten stories recently unearthed from an archive in Regensburg, Germany. These folktales had been gathered in the Bavarian countryside by Franz Xaver von Schönwerth, a 19th-century contemporary of the Brothers Grimm. Here is the article about the fairytales and the translation of "The Turnip Princess."

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Why Use Pepper When
You've Got Spicy Sprouts?

To the wealth of oft-repeated sayings, such as "The apple falls not far from the tree," or, "Like father, like son," allow me to emend the following adages:

"Like veggie, like sprout."

"The sprout sprouts close to the root."

Do you recognize the sprouts in this photo? Don't worry, I won't make you take another quiz so soon after the last one: arugula. I've had arugula sprouts in the past (I must have), but never have I been so struck by how strongly these babies taste like fully grown, spicy arugula leaves.

Though not adored by all, sprouts are often used to freshen up sandwiches or garnish salads with watery flair. However, they often make more of a complementary visual and textural impact than adding any remarkable taste element. If the usual alfalfa sprouts are like extras, then these arugula sprouts bear the distinctive flavor of character actors, the Kevin Spacey of vegetables (before he turned into a leading man).

I paid what seemed like a fairly expensive R$3.50 (about $2) for a box of these at the Leblon organic farmers' market in Rio. A bunch of fully grown arugula would probably have cost the same or been slightly cheaper. But a small handful of these heart-shaped babies contains a surprising amount of spicy crispness, and I found that the lot lasted me for a week and seemed well worth the price after all. I sprinkled them on salads, on soups, and most memorably, atop a bowl of bow-tie pasta tossed with fresh pesto, parmesan, garlic, and halved cherry tomatoes.

Just as spicy, though less delicate than the arugula kids, are radish sprouts.

Interestingly, but logically, I suppose, radish sprouts compare to arugula sprouts in similar ways that radishes are like and unlike arugula. Both are spicy vegetables, but radishes have a more pronounced bite and crunch. They don't take a back seat to other vegetables on the plate as willingly, and the same goes for their mini-me's. Radish sprouts are thicker and harder to chew than arugula sprouts, and bear the delicate yet pronounced signature hot pink tones of the radish. Still, I used radish sprouts in pretty much the same way as the arugula—sprinkling them on top of whatever dish could benefit from a spicy-fresh finish and sometimes just plopping them directly into my mouth.

While both kinds of sprouts germinate above-ground, it's funny to think how differently their adult versions develop. While the arugula spreads its leaves in the rays of the sun, the radish blooms its secret self underground like a pale, pink, or purple mole, as this pleasing time-lapse video reminds us:

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Strange Love

"strange how
you control my every little
move now
hanging from your strings
is all I know
starring in your puppet show
never let me go
strange love"

Photo shared by the buds at Farmer's Pal, and left on the WV doorstep by Oakland forager-at-large Jícama Calabaza.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Weird Veg Quiz IV

Dear class, today we are having a QUIZ!

Yes, your favorite! It's been awhile since we've had a weird vegetable mystery post, so to keep you on your toes, I'm posting this medley and you have 30 seconds to identify the 5 different veggies in this photo.

I'll give you some clues: two are temperate veggies and the other three are specific to sub/tropical regions, like Brazil, where I am at the moment.

Here's some inspirational music to play while you're thinking it over and writing down your bets and final answers. You get one life-line and losers have to send me their first-born tomatoes of the season (I will accept them both canned and fresh). Correct answers are displayed after the video.

Okay, ready?

The two give-away veggies to make you feel good about yourself are: beets and cucumbers.

The others are a bit trickier...

On the bottom edge are manioc chunks. Also known as cassava and yuca, it is a much-beloved tuber here in Brazil, mostly eaten boiled or French-fried, or in the form of a grainy-flour condiment known as farinha or farofa that gets toasted and sprinkled on beans, fish stews, or mixed up with bananas and eggs. I think it tastes like sand but is nevertheless strangely appealing.

I boiled the manioc shown above in salted water then peeled and tossed the chunks with a trickle of olive oil and a sprinkle more of salt. The skin is hard to peel, so it's best to boil it first, then skin after. Also, some kinds of manioc are poisonous when eaten raw, so I like to boil them for a long long time. The taste is like potato, only deeper somehow, more substantial, and ever so slightly sweet (or some other yet-to-be-named taste that lies far on the savory side of sweet).

There are some manioc plants growing right outside my hermit house in Rio, and their roots will be ready to harvest as soon as they get a foot or two taller. The spiky leaves bear a striking resemblance to California's most beloved barely il/legal cash crop.

 Next, the green sauteed chiffonade on the right may look like kale but—GOTCHA—it is in fact a dark leafy doppleganger: the more delicate taioba (tie-OH-bah), the giant leaf of a plant that's related to taro and that I posted about last year.

And finally, the most mysterious of all, so mysterious that even Brazilians at the farmers' market I went to last week were like, "Whhhaaaat, is that?!" (Que que é iiiiiisssso??):


What?? I know, they're so weird. 

Here's more info. Also known as tamarillos, these are tomato dopplegangers that grow on trees and taste slightly tangy but are sweet enough to enjoy raw (though some people add sugar and make a juice from them). The ones I got were a far cry from ripe because apparently they turn bright red or yellow-orange when ripe. These look almost like figs, though the gooey red central seeds remind me a bit of pomegranate. Not realizing these were still incredibly unripe, I tried one, which actually turned out to be quite tasty with easy-to-chew seeds (very soft, those tiny red pods). But thinking of them as tomatoes, I was surprised to find that the rind was too tough to bite into, so that I had to gnaw the yellow meat off as though they were tiny watermelon slices.

And now you're probably griping, "Heeyyyy, that's not fair, those aren't even vegetables," in which case I refer you to the official Weird Vegetables response to this objection, which is to point out that fruits are, in fact, a subset of vegetables, as vegetables are culturally defined as any "edible part of a plant," and fruits are biologically defined as coming from a flower and bearing an enclosed seed. For further explanation, I refer you to the now-seminal Lemon Cucumber post, the interview with WV on the KQED Bay Area Bites Blog, or this slightly embarrassing and potentially career-damaging video of me holding forth about fruits vs. vegetables after a couple glasses of wine and feeling very sweaty and dinner-partied and not entirely realizing I was being recorded at WV chef Leafy Heirloom's Dinner Discussion series, in which people working in food and art get together to talk about, well, food and art. While he serves a tasty dinner of mostly weird vegetables.

Okay, now let's tally up your marks. Tally ho!

0 correct: you need to go to the farmers' market and read this blog more
1 correct: pat yourself on the back with your forefinger. Now go make a salad.
2 correct: mildly respectable. You probably guessed beets and cucumbers, right?
3 correct: good, you have a discerning eye and some awareness about international weird vegetables, and maybe you've been reading this blog
4 correct: verrrrry impressive, companheiro/a. Have you spent time in sub/tropical climes?
5 correct: you are a scientist or a magician. or a farmer, which is a combination of both.

If you missed the previous quizzes, you can find them all here, plus an entertaining Obscure Veggies Quiz from Mental Floss that eventually leads you back home to Weird Vegetables.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

And They Wonder Why Children Are Afraid to Eat Vegetables


These terrifyingly wonderful images of suffering vegetables come from classic children's books culled by Will Schofield, a beautiful soul with a passion for strange and magical old children's books from around the world that he displays on his site 50 Watts. Schofield's scanned images have made countless readers happy, including our hero Patti Smith! (See the "Christmas miracle" note in the About section.)

The tomato spanking a pickle and vegetables meeting an unpleasant death-by-boiling come from a French book called Le Jardin Animé (The Animated Garden), dating from around the 1920s or '30s.

In addition to the graphic depictions of vegetable beatings, illustrator Jacques Peltier decided to put some disturbingly literal flourishes on his anthropomorphic Blackface Radish ("le beau radis noir") but stops short of orientalizing the exotic cone-hat-wearing mushrooms, who are being tempted by what looks like a sinister pickle in an apron.

The weeping onion comes from the delightfully named Venturous Vegetables At "The Frolic Grounds", by T. Benjamin Faucett, who created a whole series in which the Moon Queen animates venturous vegetables, folksy fruits, brainy berries, and—ready?—frolicsome flowers of evil. 

In the vegetable tale, the Moon Queen's magic wand "had changed the vegetables into queer little people who could run and play and talk just like any boy or girl." After reading this book, what sensitive child would consent to the brutal steaming/sautéeing/boiling of these dear queer vegetable souls? Or perhaps the story's effect is the opposite: to inspire a vile hatred of the vegetable that stares back, as in the case that Schofield recounts:

The previous owner of this particular copy, an angry little girl named Mernie Bishop (who received the book as a Christmas gift in 1929), attempted to stab to death each and every diabolic vegetable with her trusty pencil.

Either way, these books seem laden with the potential to cause major vegetable trauma. But I must confess to my own morbid pleasure at the creepy smiles spread across the faces of this veggie population.

Softer, friendlier, and yet ultimately disturbing in their own special way, are Dutch illustrator Nelly Bodenheim's vegetable people for Een Vruchtenmandje (A Little Fruit Basket). It starts out all cute with dancing radishes, but then the whole thing veers into strains of the uncanny and the abject in the way its vegetable people are both too human and too vegetable—so that the red cheeks of a tomato lady look like a diseased flush and the leek lady's normal amount of roots look really pitiful as human hair.

Many thanks to edible flower Lily Gherkin Water-Poppy and tartlette extraordinaire Amaranth Gadberry for alerting me to this source of delectable vegetable art. And I leave you all with the highly entertaining dialogue that the pickle spanking picture sprouted on the facebook page of Mr. Fennel Mouthcrop:

Zucchini Endive: Is spanking the pickle a thing? 

Dillweed Saffron:  Mr. Pickle!

Tomato Beet-y:  Skankin' Pickle is a thing.  

Neep Vine Leaf: I like how the other pickles are watching. "A pickle is being beaten..."  

Dillweed Saffron: My understanding was that Poppa Pickle was bringing the Pickles Jr. to receive a spanking from Tío Tomate.  

Kale Daikon: Is that naughty pickle giving Tio Tomate the finger? Or just scratching his dill brow? p.s. I might have to borrow this for Weird Vegetables...  
Amaranth Gadberry: Oh man, I wish I could Like "A pickle is being beaten..." more than one time. 

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Prince of Pickles

Allow me to interrupt KD's subtropical reflections with this near-Arctic specimen:

Last year, longtime Weird Veg ladyfriend Lacinato Parsnip gathered and pickled herring roe kelp from waters off the coast of Prince of Wales Island, Alaska, and assumed (correctly) that I'd be interested in eating it. I let the jam jar sit on a kitchen shelf awhile, its down-homeiness obscuring otherworldly undersea egg pods, until I brought it to dinner with a band of brewers including an awesome pickler.

We ate the whole jar, and agreed it tasted dilly and crunchy and briny and a smidge fishy. The eggs are barely bigger than poppyseeds! One brewer likened it to "eating little bubbles." Another called it "one of the crunchiest things I've had from the sea," and Mr. Pickle deemed them Mermaid Crackers. Their flavor made me think of the tuna salads of my youth – with sweet-pickle bits mixed in, eaten on Ritz for lunch.

But our consumption of this kelpy relish is the tail-end of the story, so I'll let LP – a medical resident who ventured north for a rotation in an Alaskan clinic last spring – explain its origins:

I went picking with an ex-Marine who retired to Southeast Alaska, built a house, and now enjoys fishing, hunting bears, and camping on islands that he boats to.

It was basically all everyone talked about when I first got there – herring spawn is coming soon! Herring egg soup is a dish much-beloved by the Native Americans of Southeast Alaska. Essentially, the lady herring lay eggs on the kelp and then the gents come along and spew their sperm all over. The first sign that the spawn has begun is that there are huge pools of milky white visible in the ocean.

One way of eating fresh herring eggs is to cut up the kelp, fry them in a bit of butter, and eat them with soy sauce. Delicious.

The spawn also attracts all sorts of wildlife. There are flocks of birds hanging out waiting to eat the eggs, and gangs of seals, sea lions, and orca whales that dive through gobbling up the fish that come to feed, and humpback whales frequent the same waters. Near the commercial operation I saw dozens of bald eagles hanging out for their turn at the feast.

Japan is a huge market for herring egg export, so commercial fishing operations set up these nets with contained kelp and then add their own herring.

(Ghostly egg-laden kelp after a commercial spawn!)