Friday, August 31, 2007

Dispatch from Vacation: Italian Heirloom Eggplants

I think since a humble eggplant took out a Top Chef contender in the Identify the Ingredient Quickfire Challenge, it can qualify as unusual enough for its own entry. Plus, I'm on vaycay, and it's the only thing I have a photo of, so, ladies and gentlemen, allow me to introduce Italian Heirloom Eggplant of Unknown Proper Name!

Italian Heirloom Eggplant from Stokes Farm, Union Square Greenmarket

(A little aside here for me to say that since this was snapped my SigOth, the Boy Genius of all things technological, has shown me how to take proper close-up photos that are neither blurry nor blown out by the flash. Much hotter food porn money shots starting next post. Promise.)

When I first saw them, I thought they were the same as the blaze orange colored Turkish eggplants I had bought from a stand at the Abingdon Square Greenmarket a few weeks ago, but the woman (Stokes Farm again) said that they were heirloom Italian. I looked again and realized that the Turkish had been quite round and smooth, whereas these were the shape of smallish pears with vertical ridges. When I cut them open, the flesh was dense for an eggplant, and very white with barely discernible seeds.

Since I was trying to wrap some things up for work and pack while tidying up to make the apartment presentable for our fish-sitter, I just halved and cut them into 1/2 inch slices to toss into a big ratatouille-like stew I made to use up all the gorgeous veggies I couldn't resist buying at Union Square even though I knew I was leaving town and couldn't possibly eat them all. I am helpless in the face of itty bitty baby squash and big busty August tomatoes. Completely, utterly without help.

As it turned out, that was far from the ideal use for this variety. By the time the other veggies were done, the flesh had completely melted into the stew, leaving behind nothing but surprisingly tough strips of skin. Plus, it didn't take advantage of the spectacular presentation potential of that flame colored skin. If they still have them when I get home, I'll try stuffing them and report back.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Tall, Dark, and Leafy: Mohea, the Mystery Green

Mohea leaf structure detail

Meet Mohea. He's new to the City. A little mysterious, a little prickly, but if you'll give him a chance, he just might grow on you.

So no sooner than I commit to starting this blog about exploring unfamiliar ingredients, then suddenly there's nothing I'm not familiar with at the Union Square Greenmarket this week. Baby fennel (so yawn). Heirloom tomatoes (I love you, but even Cherokee Black isn't exactly virgin territory any more). Wild arugula. (Oh, Eff! You! wild arugula. Two days and you're a puddle of brown ooze in the bottom of the crisper drawer. Every. Effing. Time. Nevermore shall I be lured in by your false promise of peppery crunchy green goodness. You filthy scumbag.)

But then, just as I'm resigning myself to schlepping to Canal Street for a can of Squid Beak with Spiny Herb to guarantee that SPLASH! opening every New York venture must guarantee, I spy something at the Stokes Farm tent that looks like in any other setting it would be the target of an herbicidal highway crew.

"What IS that?"

"Mohea." A word she had clearly had more occasion to read than say aloud. In the Middle East and North Africa, it's used like spinach or any other leafy green, she tells me.

Um-kay. I have to rely on her say-so, as Google reveals fuckall about "mohea", except that it's Tongan for 'good night', and apparently has some significance in the regional folklore of one of those flyover states.

Moeha: the World's Tallest Leafy Green

So the first thing you notice about our new friend is that he's a tall, gangly drink of water. Like four feet tall.

The next thing that pops out at you are these orange-yellow strands that frill out where the stems meet the stalks. If you're at all high strung, you might first notice these leggy/antennae looking tendrils with a girly squeal and an instinctive recoil. Possibly followed by a nervous giggle. Whatever.

The last really distinctive thing about mohea in it's raw state is that its leaves areMohea Not Insect Legs detail kind of . . .furry. It's not as prickly as, say, radish greens (which, I found out after a loo-oo-oot of cookbook surfing, are not poisonous. What? You've never heard of rhubarb? It could happen. Thanks Deborah Madison!), so I didn't really notice it as I was stripping the leaves off the stalks. But it became very apparent in the salad spinner when I had to spin and drain like five times to get the suffering things even remotely dry.

Oh, really last thing. Raw, it tastes like yard clippings smell. So in that way it's not that much like spinach. No raw salads in mohea's future. Not so big a deal. I'm just saying.

Ok, big pile of clean, dry-ish mystery greens, let's go!

I'm a transplant from the South, so I hear leafy greens, I think pork fat. (Ok, so I hear ice cream I think pork fat. Hush up your mouth!) I hack a few lardons off the slab of bacon from the Seriously Good Bacon guy at the Union Square Greenmarket I keep around for emergencies, and render it over medium low heat till I have crunchy munchy pork islands floating in a shallow sea of glimmering liquid pig lipid--insert Homer drool here.

mohea cooking porkadelic styleI toss in about half of the mohea leaves, stir that around for 30 seconds or so, then toss in a couple of cupped handsful of water to help it wilt, a good pinch of salt, and few shakes of red pepper flakes. I would have thrown in some fresh garlic, but I'm out, and going to California for a week soon, so am trying to thin out the pantry. Sue me.

Plate it up with a sprinkle of plain old white vinegar on top, and I think I can safely say, YUM! Ok, so it possibly could really have been grass clippings and turned out pretty ok with this never-fail, makes-shoe-leather-fit-for-a-king, soul-style prep. But no, really. YUM! Honestly, extra yum!!

When my excitement passed, I realized that perhaps, just perhaps, my porkalicious preparation was not the most culturally sensitive for an ingredient reportedly native to the Middle East and/or North Africa, so I wipe out the pan and start over.

Olive oil, more red pepper flakes, more unfulfilled desire for fresh garlic (actually, in the best of all possible worlds, I would rather have had some harissa, but did I mention I'm going out of town?), add mohea, splash of water, pinch of salt, followed by a small assload of Zatar seasoning.
mohea cooking politically and culturally correct style

Also yum, but in more of a delish-basis-ingredient-for-another-recipe than a lick-the-plate-for-it's-own-virtues result. (If you want to hang with this blog, you need to embrace my hyphen-o-philia from the get-go--um-kay?) I immediately wanted this version to be cuddling up with some chick peas over basmati rice. So much so that I'm going to put it in the freezer so I can try that when I get back home. Holla back later.

I get why they explained mohea as being just like any other leafy green, because he seems to cook more or less like other leafy greens, from collards to spinach. The really exciting thing about my new friend, (the thing that makes it worth my braving hitting every single other shopper at the Greenmarket in the kisser with with his tall, awkward stalks when simple, pretty, cheerleader-ish rainbow chard is perfectly available), is that he responded like a champ to two raw-ther divergent treatments.

The other memorable thing is his fa-ha-habulous texture--meaty, and almost chewy. Mohea's texture is less virtuous and more sensuous than other greens. And that, as I think somebody said, is a . . .nice change.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

What Do I Do With This?

A spiny sea creature staring glassily from the ice at a fish market. A mysterious jar of. . .something gleaming from a shelf at an Italian deli. Unidentifiable tubers, tempting yet intimidating, at a farmer's market.

What are they? What do you do with them?

I have no idea. I can't find anything on the web to tell me. It looks like I'm actually going to have to figure it out on my own.

My mission: Use research and experimentation try out a new food item every week. Either I won't know :
a) what it is at all (e.g. about half of any produce stand in Chinatown) or
b) what to do with it (e.g. any whole fish).

My goals: 1. Educate myself about foods I've been to shy or too lazy to find out about before;
2. Do the legwork for people who are likewise inhibited but curious;
3. Encourage culinary experimentation and adventurousness;
4. Have fun!

Ok, see you with something interesting next week!