Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Weird Vegetable Iron Chefs at the NY Food Book Fair

Wild tamarack, basswood leaves, garlic mustard, fiddlehead ferns,
and knotweed over Spanish mackerel. Source: NPR

While some of us gaze dreamily out at the rainy rainforest in Rio de Janeiro, others are busting their chops organizing book fairs and slapping together improvised gourmet dinners in the throbbing capital of, well, capital and haute cuisine: New York City. Congratulations to Elizabeth Thacker Jones for pulling off the first-ever New York Food Book Fair in high style at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn (and proving that grad students can actually meet deadlines and be "real people" too) and to WV friend Leafy Heirloom (aka Leif Hedendal) for whipping up what looks like a very tasty, very veggie-inspired meal to accompany the event—and for getting his leafy mug featured on the NY Times food blog.

The Garden Gather dinner was held in honor of John Cage, genius of music and mushrooms, and co-founder of the New York Mycological Society, but the wild mushrooms that were supposed to be the centerpiece of the meal suddenly got shy of all the attention, so Leif and his co-chef Mark Andrew Gravel improvised with a whole bunch of New England-foraged greens that they'd never heard of before. The NY Times blog and NPR both covered the event, making it sound like an unexpected Iron Chef competition starring weird vegetables. The featured weird vegetables included twelve pounds of dried heirloom red cowpeas that Gravel packed in his carry-on bag from South Carolina, ramps, basswood leaves, tamarack shoots, lily shoots, knotweed (eh?), ground ivy, toothwort root (what?), sweetflag (what??), and fiddlehead ferns (relatively normal in this esoteric company). The chefs used a combination of the Internet and their instincts about texture and flavor to make the knowns and the unknowns all work together. Another top-chef secret shared by Leif went beyond the forest and into the sea. He made up for the unexpected dearth of mushrooms "by getting a lot of seafood—that's my idea of improving something, is throwing a lot of seafood at it." Oysters, blue crab, and mackerel. Sounds fishy, but we trust his Leafy heart still blooms green.

Toothwort root and knotweed, though I'm not going to pretend I know
which is which,  (I'm assuming that NPR's caption puts them in l-r order...)

The NYT write-up gives a fuller view of the context of the book fair and the meal, while NPR's piece focuses more on foraged greens and the potential incongruity of a swanky $150 per person meal being concocted from what might be considered as weeds: "In a different era or a less rarefied location, such a plate might suggest poverty — someone forced to scrounge for scraps (whey) and weeds (cattails) because they couldn't afford anything else."

This redefinition of obscure and foraged vegetables as a product of specialized knowledge (both in the gathering and preparation) that carries with it a certain aura of exclusivity and gourmet cachet is a tendency that has marked the culinary Zeitgeist of the past few years. Of course exclusivity and gourmet cachet are nothing new in the world of fine dining, but the attention dining-obsessed eaters are suddenly granting to the endless variety of vegetables that chefs are seducing them into accepting (with lots of butter, high quality olive oil, and creative combinations) has been an interesting and complicated phenomenon to witness—though always pleasing to experience when I'm lucky enough to taste one of these expertly prepared meals.

But it sounds as though this Brooklyn-based weird vegetable sermon was served to the choir, since one of the guests was already rapturing to the NYT about the greens he spotted on the way to the dinner: "It's really hard not to pick the lamb's quarters and the shepherd's brush that is growing within a block of here."

We at Weird Vegetables (the royal "we" of Kale Daikon and sometimes Eggplant Kohlrabi) look forward to a Bay Area incarnation of the Food Book Fair with much watering of the mouths and minds.

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