Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Bloggus Interruptus

We interrupt the regularly scheduled blog post for this important announcement.

(And I'm really sorry too, because it was going to be a good one. The star was going to be stinging nettle, and Heirloom Italian Eggplant of Unknown Proper Name was going to make a special return appearance. Julia Child's name was to have been evoked. We hope to have that for you by Friday. Or possibly Saturday, as the stinging nettles resting on the stove right now deserved to have been attended to a couple of days ago, so I might try to get back to Paffenroth's stand Saturday morning for a fresher batch to cook off before opining, though my results thus far are not entirely disappointing.)

So produce withers in the fridge and the stove lies mostly fallow. What could have lead to such a dire circumstance?

Meet Max. King of Cute. Liege of Levity. Prince of Pug-naciousness. And Appropriator of Attention. He's been keeping me and my puppy daddy pretty occupied of late.

Until my next substantive post, enjoy this evidentiary video of those electrically anomalous black dragon tongue beans. (And don't think I've forgotten the spaghetti squash cliffhanger. We will catch up with that over the next week as well.)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Fear and Loathing at the Greenmarket: Bad Craziness with Dragon Tongues

So the craziest thing happened on the way to this week's post.

I was absolutely walking on clouds with little birdies tweeting around my head after weeks of travel, weddings, guests in from out of town, etc. to get to wallow wholeheartedly in the Union Square Greenmarket on Saturday morning, knowing I was actually going to be home and have time to enjoy playing around with stuff I found there.

I was ready to wax poetic about the perfect cusp-of-fall day--a refreshing new briskness in the air, corn and tomatoes still at their peak but winter squashes and new apples starting to appear--a veritable paradise on urban earth. And I surely would have held forth with lengthy treatments of numerous products I, once again, couldn't help but bring home, despite my new Stop Eating So Much Already, Dammit! campaign.

I was excited to get into pornographically detailed descriptions of my highly successful experiments with zucchini blossoms,

zucchini squash blossoms: a study in sepia

which I had eaten for the first and only time on our aforementioned trip to Rome this summer, but had never prepared myself. I couldn't wait to yammer about my super exciting discovery about them (1), and show off my cool new cast iron tortilla press in the context of talking about the faaaabulous squash blossom quesadillas I made--and ate so fast I didn't even get a picture (2). So much for the campaign.

I very likely would have employed the adjective 'unctuous' in describing the risotto I made with the remaining blossoms (3). Thank heaven we were all spared that.

I also bought a spaghetti squash--a big thing for me. There would have been a charming story of contrasts, how I used to long for such a whimsical, exotic prize when amusing myself by pouring over Burpee's catalogues while visiting my grandparents, whereas my dear SigOth was being taught to hate them by a mother who insisted on dressing them as if they were actually pasta. Possibly, there would have followed a tale of triumph wherein I devised a recipe that won him back over (or a tale of woe wherein I discovered that they are actually as nasty as he claims). Alas, we know not yet, as various circumstances (not the least of which my being a bachelorette this week and having to consume everything I cooked by myself) leave the controversial squash unmolested on the counter at date of writing.

But all of that was thrown aside (and thank God too, given how long this has turned out already!!) by the Curse of the Black Dragon.

No, seriously.

I gave my very last $3 to the lady at Berried Treasures (No, seriously.) for half a pound of bewitching purple-black string beans.

Black Dragons, Dragon Tongues, random beans.

"What are these called?"

"Black Dragons. Or Dragon Tongues. Or Something. They turn green when you cook ‘em."

Well, how's that for a whole emotional roller coaster in a few succinct lines? What could be more exciting sounding than Black Dragons? Unless it's Dragon Tongues? But what could be more deflating than they turn green when you cook them? In the face of the blackberry bean disappointment, I took it as a challenge to see if I could manage to cook them while retaining the color that is clearly the only reason anyone would pay a premium for them in the first place.

**Spoiler Alert**

In a word, no. But stick with me, ‘cause we're getting to the crazy.

Ok, so I haven't read McGee (or I probably wouldn't have felt the need to embark on this little adventure at all, but whatever), but I don't imagine I can do anything about regulating temperature or acidity to keep them from turning green while being cooked in hot liquid, so I decide to try the microwave. While snapping them into one inch lengths, I can't help but be a tad discouraged by the fact that these babies are clearly bright green in cross section. Oh well, what the heck.

I put them in a little deli container with only clinging rinse water for moisture, just set the lid on top to let steam escape, and set the micro for one minute. After about three seconds I hear BiiiiZZZIRT. Crackle. You know--that sound right before Colin Clive starts screaming It's Alive! It's Alive!? Exactly. I whirl back around and the little deli container is--I swear on my half empty pack of Frank Sinatra’s unfiltered Camels--Filled. With. Lightening. I dive for it and yank the door handle open--a choice I probably wouldn't have made had I been thinking at all.

Wow. Ok. Weird! I examine the little deli container. It looks like all 80 other little deli containers under the counter. But who knows, maybe in this age of enhanced security, perhaps this one has some kind of invisible anti-shoplifting metal wires embedded in it. That the TSA confiscated my cannoli at airport security because the cream qualified as a liquid is a far stranger true story than the possibility of an anti-theft wonton soup tub, right?

So I dump the beans into a bowl I know for a fact has been in the microwave without incident a million times. I put the bowl in the microwave. I hit start. BiiiiZZZIRT. Crackle. Lightening shoots out the top of the bowl. This time I prudently hit the stop button. And back away slowly. And mix a Tanqueray and tonic.

I've kept the rest of the beans that didn't go into the machine. I'm going to try to reproduce my results and post video. Because typing it now, it sounds too far-fetched, even to myself.

Much later, when I was able to talk myself into opening the door, I got an interesting visual of how microwaves impact food. Mostly the beans were still purple black, but they were covered sporadically with some rather leperous looking green spots--presumably where the waves hit and cooked the beans. I count it as a battle lost in the War on Green-turning.

At this point I was feeling gin brave, figuring I'd already contracted heirloom bean related radiation sickness if I was going to, and proceeded with the next step in my experiment as previously planned. I dumped a bunch of vinegar on them to see if they would stay purple when pickled--which would have been so great from an alliterative marketing standpoint if nothing else. Again, no. Though by the next morning they had leached a charming lavender hue into the vinegar, which I think would make simply darling Easter eggs.


1. While eating stuffed fried blossoms--at the very restaurant on the Piazza Santa Maria in Trastevere from which diners watch hippies getting a beat down from the cops in Fellini's Roma--I thought "Slimeylicious! I bet these would be AWESOME in quesadillas!" After picking up some blossoms from (I knew I should have written it down, or remembered it by now since I shop there every time I go to the market, but that really nice guy on the park side of the west side of the market who always has those cute bitsy baby potatoes? And the stunningly gorgeous wreaths and garlands at Christmas time? Sweet Mountain Something? Sweet Something Mountain?) the market, I did a little Google when I got home. I was semi stunned and satisfyingly validated to discover that far from being an Italian monopoly, zucchini blossoms are like kudzu in Mexico, and putting them in quesadillas is pretty much a no brainer to millions of people. Score one for my palate!

2. RE: Tortilla Press: Get one NOW! Easy to use and store, fun, cheap, more delicious and healthy tortillas, etc. etc. Quesadillas: blossoms aren't intensely flavored, so don't be stingy. At least two, torn apart, per quesadilla. A few very thinly sliced crimini mushrooms nicely underscore the flavor of the blossoms. Paper thin slices of red onion, separated, contrast beautifully. Nonstick or cast iron griddle, do not grease.

3. No excuse, but in explanation, I would have only used such purple prose out of sincere shock that the risotto turned out so beautifully under. . .difficult circumstances. I urge you to not attempt a dish that requires near constant attention while also attending your Resident Evil 4 addiction. You will do Leon, your food, and your nerves no favors.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Bottarga: Yeah, but really good gourmet cat food.

"You know what that is?"

"Um, I think so."

I've ordered the only remotely interesting sounding thing on the predictably predictable menu at the touristy place our quartet ended up in near the Colosseum. Spaghetti alla Bottarga, translated for our English speaking convenience as "spaghetti with fish eggs". The hairy eyeball the waitress is giving me telegraphs that she's been burned before. Clearly she doesn't think the kind of people who show up for dinner at the ungodly hour of 5 pm will appreciate whatever this is. I'm doubting there will be anything to appreciate about anyplace in Rome that's actually open for service at said hour, so we're kind of even.

"Wait, I show you."

I had been anticipating some kind of roe, but with all this buildup, I'm starting to think something really interesting might be about to happen. I'm pretty fish-ignorant, so maybe there's a crazy Mediterranean fish with sparkling blue eggs, or exploding eggs, or blood eggs. Not so much. She comes back with a diner-style sugar jar and shakes some of what looks like tan salt all over my plate.

"Taste. See if you like." This lady is taking no chances.

A little let down, I run my finger through the grains and have a lick. Salty, definitely, but also. . .I don't want to say fishy because of the negative connotations, so let's say oceany. Now, let's be clear, I probably would have stuck by my order at that point if she had sprinkled fish scales on my plate because I felt challenged. Happily, it was magically delicious so I could say "Si, grazie!" with complete sincerity, before going back to lick my plate clean. She still looked suspicious, but she took the order.

Spaghetti alla Bottarga was just that, spaghetti, olive oil, a sprinkling of bottarga, and the shaker on the side in case you wanted more. Our waitress only seemed to relax once I used the shaker, and seemed positively friendly once she saw that I Could. Not. Stop. Eating. I'm not going to lie, it smells a bit like cat food, but this stuff is just addictive, purified essence of umami.

After an exhaustive search through what felt like every grocery store in Trastevere, I finally found a jar to bring home in the refrigerated section of a specialty food store on a side street off San Giovanni a Ripa (heading toward the piazza, take a left at the bar with the GINORMOUS gintonicas. Anyone who has had occasion to stay in this neighborhood with family members and retains their sanity will surely know the place I mean.) It's a good store to know about if you're going to spend an extended time in Rome, as it's the only one I saw that had such exotic items as soy sauce and Thai curry paste, and I suppose Italian food must get tiresome. Eventually.

Yummy bottarga from Sardinia, via Trastevere

I was entirely unsurprised to discover that it's a Sardinian product. Back in the salad days when I didn't have such tedious concerns as making a living (read: college) I spent a couple of months on an archaeological dig on Sardinia. Consistently astonishingly good food--of the rustic, robust, and hearty variety. I've had a predilection for all things Sardinian ever since.

As it turns out, I didn't need to work so very hard to import/smuggle (Is it meat? Is it fresh? Even if it's legal, will the customs agent know that? Please God, just don't open my bag!) my possibly contraband fish eggs into the US after all, since several varieties are available for order on Amazon (though I'm glad I did as it was about half price in Rome). I've also heard rumors it's for sale retail here in NYC, but I'll have to do the legwork on that and get back to you.

It also turns out that I did not experience the "essence of umami", as this granulated stuff is supposed to be kind of crap and what you really want is the compressed whole roe. Though mine is the superior muggine (gray mullet) variety, better than the common tonno (tuna). I liked the granular perfectly well, thank you very much, but can't wait to try the 'good stuff' when I'm feeling flush.

So anyway, after playing around with it for a couple of months (a little goes a long way), I've determined:
  • It's fantastic on long skinny pastas, but strangely disgusting on short fat pastas. Like two bites of penne, scrape it into the trash, get out the delivery menu file disgusting.
  • It's good with eggs.
  • It's good with tomatoes.
  • It's just too much with Parmesan or Romano.
  • I wasn't really feeling it on chard, but wouldn't rule it out with some other greens. Maybe something more bitter? Or raw?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Labor Day Special: Husk Cherries and Blackberry Beans

So here's the kind of miraculous thing. I'm shambling around Union Square Greenmarket on Labor Day Monday in that particularly listless fugue state brought on by an over-active "vacation", mixed with a touch of jet lag, and gently kissed by a soupcon of too many gin and tonics, trying in vain to pass the hell out already on the return flight. In short, I was definitely more in the head space to lay in bed and order in Thai food than walk to get stuff I would have to process myself.

But just a couple of minutes poking around the few stalls that were there (who knew local farmers were such commies as to actually take Labor Day off?!), the old synapses were firing and Holy Crap! was I hungry!

Even more miraculous, on a holiday when there were 10 or fewer stalls set up, I still came across 2 items that were both extremely photogenic and almost entirely unknown to me.

Gleaming piles of organic produce initially beckoned me over to Norwich Meadows Farm's stand. Among the multitude of varieties of heirloom tomatoes and eggplants, I spied one of those products I've seen but never asked about. HUSK CHERRIES! the sign screams.

I pick up one of the darling wee tomatillo-looking things and the guy doing the restocking is immediately at my side. "That one's no good. You want this one."

Honestly, the miniature Japanese paper lanterns all piled together were so pretty and dainty it took some coaching on his part before I was able to see the differences between good ones and bad ones.

husk cherries, ground cherries, gooseberries, with husk

husk cherries, ground cherries, gooseberries, without husk

I think these somewhat more clinical photos (the colors are way more vivid than you will see in real life) will cut you to the chase. The green ones are underripe. Still edible, but rather tart. The pinkish-beige ones are good to go. The grey ones are over. Not just overripe, but covered with mold. And while I'm ok with some molds--cheese for instance--if the guy selling it says don't go there, guess where I'm not going?

I get them home and do a quick Google. Husk Cherries are also known as ground cherries or cape gooseberries. The extremely nice man at Norwich Meadows recommended just eating them out of hand or adding them to a salad. Very logical, given their delightful texture--juicy flesh held together by skin substantial enough to have a peppy little snap, but not so thick that it sets my teeth on edge like grapes do.

Their flavor is strangely complex, almost befuddling. Smoky grape, melon, apple, fresh hay+cherry, and, weirdly, buttered toast are some of the thoughts I had while trying to suss out what these things taste like.

I think they would be a good addition to a raw salsa intended to go with fish or a reduction to go over game (duck!), in fruit tarts, or preserved and spread on toast. I also suspect they would do well dried as a snack, or a substitute in any recipe calling for dried figs. I really couldn't say though, as I ate every last one, and actually turned the bag inside out to make absolutely positive there were no more hiding in the seams. The verdict: odd, but addictive. I hope they have more next week.

Next I was absolutely beguiled by the blackberry beans from Race Farm, Blairsville, NJ. Just stunning beans, sexier than Padma's Scar (is that a band name yet?), pure white with somewhat lurid splashes of crimson.

I have to confess, to me, beans are kind of beans. They're fresh or dried, eaten shelled or in the pod, but other than that they can be used to a certain extent interchangeably. That's of course an exaggeration, written mostly to justify my primary interest in the Blackberry Beans: would they retain their color through cooking? Well, in a word, no. Less than five minutes at a simmer they were a uniform dull grey. I had been trying to stay pure, cooking them in salt water only, but as soon as I saw the crimson splotches fade, I said to hell with it and dived for the Really Good Bacon.

Twenty minutes later, oh yeah. The beans melted to creaminess itself and oozed the bacon and salt they had absorbed at a really fundamentally delish level. Nummy eaten too hot out of the cooking pot, niiice blended into faux hummus. Oh! I wish I had these beans to go with the mohea a couple of weeks ago!