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Tomatillos: The fruit with its own wrapper

August 26, 2012

Giving feels good. For most people, at least. This axiom is the entire reason the non-profit sector I work in exists. Without donors who enjoy the feeling they get from supporting a cause they care about, no charity could keep its doors open. Bloggers on nonprofit development work are constantly reminding us of this: “The greatest gift you can give a donor is to make them feel they made a difference that mattered,” writes Katya.

Outside of work, I’ve found personally that sometimes the best way to raise my spirits is to do something nice for someone else. That’s pretty easy when you’re a gardener in late summer–you have so much to give. So when our quirky, thirty-something neighbor from down the street inquired about our garden the other week, I felt like sharing. We had never had a real conversation before, but he does sometimes comment on our garden when he passes by the fence walking his big dog-little dog combo. I told him everything was going wild and that we had a ton of Swiss chard. His eyes seemed to light up when I said it, so I spontaneously asked, “Would you like some?”

Few people turn down free home-grown veggies, so the next evening I was proudly carrying a bag filled with giant, multi-colored chard leaves down the street. (Our Swiss chard is very tall and very attractive, all crinkly-textured leaves and pink-hued veins.) I delivered them somewhat awkwardly at his door as his little dog danced about on the porch and repeatedly proffered me a stick.

The next day when I was walking to work, he greeted me with a big smile and said “I cooked up that chard and ate it right after you dropped it off. It was delicious!” Not a bad start to the day. It reminds me of one particularly prolific summer in Homewood when we had way more produce to spare than we could even foist off on the neighbors. In desperation not to waste it, my mom set up a table by the street with a big pile of tomatoes and squash with a sign that read “FREE!” By evening, the table was empty, and we discovered an anonymous note scrawled on the back of the sign: “Thank you! God bless you!”

That giving felt pretty good, too.

Maybe that’s part of why going to the farmers’ market is such a fun experience: I always imagine that local and organic farmers take great joy in directly providing other people with fresh fruits and veggies. They’re happy to make us happy: a feedback loop of the most positive kind. It’s still a transaction of course, but it’s an entirely different feeling from grabbing a tomato in the grocery store produce section.

The mighty tomatillo, or “little tomato,” peeking out of their husks.

Most vendors are happy to help you with the discovery process, too. When I first committed to buying tomatillos at the Nichols stand, the nearest worker patiently answered each of my many questions. It was only when I asked, half to myself, “How many should I get?” that he eyed me a little askance as if to say “Do you want me to write out a recipe?”

This fruit, contrary to my last post, IS from across the border. Tomatillos are a staple of Mexican cooking. Also known as tomate verde (green tomato), they are the primary ingredient in, you guessed it, salsa verde. They’re in the same family as tomatoes (nightshades) but not actually that closely related.

They also have husks. I have to admit this was the draw for me. Sure, corn have husks, bananas have a peel. But how many other fruits and vegetables come in their own wrapper?

What it looks like: A glossy green tomato hidden within a lighter green, paper-like wrapper.

What it smells like: A green tomato (creative, I know) with a hint of spice.

How it feels: Once husked, they’re a little oddly sticky on the outside. I tried not to think of Alien eggs and just rinsed them a little.

The recipe: Found on the Foodie Crush blog, which features the “top 10 tomatillo recipes.”

Roasted Tomatillo and Green Olive Salsa
makes 1 1/2 cups

Tomatillo and Green Olive Salsa. Sorry, I skipped the mid-preparation photo!

1 1/2 pounds tomatillos, husked
6 garlic cloves
2 jalapeño peppers*
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup green olives
1 cup cilantro
1 lime, juiced
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup water
* substitute 1 serrano pepper for the jalapeno peppers if you like more heat

Heat oven to 475 degrees. Spread tomatillos, garlic cloves, and jalapeños on baking sheet and coat evenly with oil. Roast for 15 minutes or until tomatillos are browned and blistered. Remove from oven and place in a food processor or blender with olives, cilantro, lime and sugar. Pulse 5-7 times. Add water and pulse another 4-5 times to mix. Serve with chips or as a topping on eggs or veggie meat.

How it tastes: Green olives can be pretty intense, but they are in just the right proportion in this recipe–or maybe they just blend really well with the roasted tomatillo flavors. This is a bright, citrusy, not too spicy salsa. The tomatillos have a hard-to-describe, fruity-but-not-sweet taste that is a refreshing change from traditional salsas.

Conclusion: For tomatoes, green is the new red.

Red currants: A mid-summer’s dream

August 4, 2012

With the Summer Olympics upon us, this seems a good season to try fruits and foods that are more popular outside the States. To be grown well in our local conditions, of course, plants typically need to have come not across the border but across the pond. Red currants are one of these: Commonly served as jelly at Sunday dinner in the U.K., this berry is just gaining a fan base in the U.S. And, like any new sensation, people are clamoring to say that they discovered them first.

Currants are so attractive you’d almost rather gaze at them than eat them.

A foodie blog I came across describing red currants as an under-used fruit got several incredulous comments: “Under-used, really? Because I have currant bushes in my backyard and I’ve been baking with them for years!” (Everyone likes to have a “before-they-were-famous” story.) The Internet is also full of posts from adventurous eaters who wanted to jump on the bandwagon but then were stymied once they had currants in their possession. (Typical post in a cooking forum: “I couldn’t resist picking up some truly beautiful red currants at the farmer’s market this morning even though I have no idea what to do with them.”)

I had no such quandary. I had black raspberries in the fridge off my dad’s vines at home waiting to be used. I thought the colors would be gorgeous together. I made a pie.

Currants grow on a deciduous bush in the gooseberry family. Native to western Europe, they come in three colors (red, black, and white), each with their own flavors and combination of tart and sweetness. The red and white versions can be eaten raw or mixed into salads, yogurt, or cereal. Currants are typically made into jellies, custards, or puddings because they coagulate when boiled, but this was my favorite traditional use: In Germany, syrup from red currants is combined with soda water to make a refreshing drink called Johannisbeerenschorle (say that three times fast). Why the long name? They’re called “John’s berry” in German, because it’s said they ripen on St. John’s Day, or Midsummer Day, June 24.

For years we’ve been able to time the coming of Independence Day (and deep summer) by the blooming of our red Monardas in my dad’s yard (or as I like to call them, firework flowers). So I find the idea of red currants as the midsummer berry irresistible.

And, as it turns out, this German girl celebrated Midsummer Day in America without even knowing it. I just went back and looked at the date I decided to make the red currant pie. It was–you guessed it–June 24th. Talk about eating seasonally!! We managed to try red currants on just the right day.

I can’t remember which online recipe I adapted now, but that’s OK. I pretty much winged it anyway.

I couldn’t wait to see how these colors and textures combined in a pie.

What they look like: Small, perfectly round and smooth red berries arrayed on a woody stem. The skin is translucent so the seed and bright red juice within seem to glow, especially in the sun. You can understand why so many people buy them on a whim without knowing what to do once they get home. They are exceptionally pretty.

What they smell like: Summer, with a faint sharpness like cranberries.

Just throw some sugar, butter, and flour in there.

The recipe:

1 pie shell (pre baked or make your own)
2 cups black raspberries
1 cup red currants (I made the berry proportions more like half and half because that was what I had, which produced a tarter pie than most people probably would like; this 2:1 should be better)
3/4 cup sugar
2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
2-3 Tbsp. cold butter or margarine

“Stem” the currants. (Basically, this means gently pop them off the stem one at a time. Freezing them a little supposedly makes them come off more easily. But I found they detached like a dream without even spilling any juice.) In a bowl, mix the sugar and flour and cut in butter until it’s in coarse crumbs. (I already had a sugar-flour-butter mixture leftover so I am not sure what the true proportions were. This should be close.) In a large bowl, combine the raspberries and currants and gently fold in the sugar mixture. Bake at 450 degrees for 10 minutes, then reduce heat to 350 and bake 30 minutes more. Serve chilled! (my addition)

The taste: When warm out of the oven, the filling didn’t hold together well and it was tasty but incredibly tart. Unlike other fruit pies, you want to chill this one first for the best flavor and easy serving. After the fridge, it was the perfect tartness. The currants hold their shape in the pie so you get a sweet mouthful of raspberries, then little bursts of sour flavor from the currants as you bite into it. Whipped cream or vanilla ice cream goes well on top.

Conclusion: No need to try to puzzle out the meaning of the Olympics opening ceremony when you can absorb plenty of European culture with this little-known berry. A tart midsummer pleasure for pagans and locavores alike.

Rapini: A case of mistaken identity

July 15, 2012

Well, the experiments continued, but my written record of them did not. A lot happened between February and today. This included feverishly planting and then maintaining our gardens in Homewood and Logan Square in the face of an early heat wave and, subsequently, temperatures that have soared past 100. As yet another side effect of the havoc climate change is beginning to wreak on our system, gardening (especially container gardening) requires a lot more attention when record temperatures coincide with a drought year. It’s been all we can do to keep the potted plants on our deck alive from day to day. I can only imagine how an Illinois corn farmer feels.

In other news, any blog on local eating must give a nod (and a deep bow) to a wildly popular movie that came out this spring and made foraging cool. The teenage protagonist of The Hunger Games is not only the best young female role model to step from the page to the big screen since Hermione Granger; the knowledge Katniss brought to the “game” about edible wild fruits, greens, and tubers is part of what gave her the edge over the other contestants to survive.

Her namesake plant that helps keep her alive, found growing in wet marshy areas, is also commonly known as arrowhead for its pointed leaves–making it doubly appropriate given Katniss’ unmatched skill with a bow. (A wetland ecology in-joke?! I love this author. Apparently I am not alone in my geeking out, as I came across this roasted katniss recipe online described as a “tribute” (no pun intended?) to Katniss Everdeen.)

Katniss collects arrowhead tubers for roasting.

But let’s get back on track here. As I said: The experiments continued! With a certain mysterious green called rapini.

Because the cookbook gave an alternate name of “broccoli rabe,” I assumed that this plant was a variant or wilder version of broccoli. Its appearance when I found it at the store reinforced this perception. In reality, it’s more closely related to the turnip. It also has more aliases than Frank Abagnale, Jr.: Some of the many other names (and spellings!) include raab, rapa, rapine, rappi, rappone, fall and spring raab, taitcat, Italian or Chinese broccoli, broccoli rape, broccoli de rabe, Italian turnip, and turnip broccoli. It originated in the Mediterranean and China so, not surprisingly, is commonly used in Italian and Chinese cooking. The peak season for rapini is fall through spring. The stems, leaves, and flowers are all edible.

The recipe I found for it also features orzo (a tiny rice-shaped pasta) and sun-dried tomatoes–two other ingredients that I had never cooked with before, making for an even more exciting culinary adventure!

Fresh rapini, masquerading as baby broccoli.

What it looks like: Yellow-and-green young broccoli buds just starting to form, nestled among medium-sized, dandelion-like toothed leaves arrayed on round, bright green stems.

What it smells like: The fresh earthy scent of broccoli, with a peppery hint that suggests a more complex flavor.

The recipe: Rapini with Orzo and Sun-Dried Tomatoes, from Quick-Fix Vegetarian by Robin Robertson (my favorite vegetarian cookbook, which features delicious, simple recipes that use vegan whole ingredients and can be made within half an hour).

Ingredients:
1 bunch rapini, coarsely chopped (discard bottoms of stems if tough)
1 1/2 cups orzo
2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
1/3 cup chopped oil-packed sun-dried tomatoes
Salt and black pepper
1/4 cup toasted pine nuts (toast on the stovetop in a dry small skillet over medium heat, shaking occasionally, until lightly browned–about 5 minutes)

The rapini mingling in the skillet with sun-dried tomatoes, garlic, and olive oil.

Cook the rapini (stems, leaves, buds, and all) in a pot of salted boiling water until softened, about 3 minutes. Use a slotted spoon to remove the rapini from the water, and set aside. Return the same pot of water to a boil; add the orzo, stirring occasionally, until it is al dente, about 8 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the red pepper flakes, sun-dried tomatoes, and rapini. Cook until the rapini is tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in the orzo and season with salt and pepper. Serve sprinkled with the pine nuts.

How it tastes: Unbelievable. For such a simple dish, this recipe has many deliciously rich flavors. I discovered I love sun-dried tomatoes after all, despite my previous suspicion of their appearance. Their chewy, semisweet and semi-savory flavor added heartiness. The crunchy pine nuts complemented the tender orzo very well. Oh, and what about the rapini? It was like a combination of asparagus and broccoli, with a similar texture to cooked spinach. Very tasty and blended well with the other ingredients, without a hint of bitterness. I’d give this dish and these undercover greens each five stars.

The finished recipe. I can taste it again just looking at this picture!

The sweet and peppery parsnip

February 25, 2012

This is my first post as part of my exotically local food experiment! (Pick out a locally-grown form of produce I’ve never tried, make a recipe with it, and blog the experience.) For the most part, it’s been unseasonably warm, but this is still technically winter in Chicago. So except for hothouse tomato and pepper farmers and cold-frame spinach growers, this is storage-crop, root-vegetable season at the market. So my first selection was a good example under these categories: Parsnip.

What are parsnips? I relied on the sign to identify them, because while I had a vague idea I probably couldn’t have picked them out of a root lineup. They are sometimes called the “white gourmet carrot,” and are a great winter crop because cold weather turns their starches to sugar and brings out a sweeter, fuller flavor. Possibly a good replacement for the world-travelling banana, they are a rich source of potassium and other vitamins and minerals. In ancient times, parsnips were cultivated and eaten interchangeably with carrots in the Mediterranean, and their range expanded along with the Roman Empire.

Raw parsnips, doing their best to match our cutting board.

I imagined them as similar to turnips, an infamous vegetable in the Leopold household when I was growing up because of my dad’s purported intense dislike of them, which I had always suspected to be exaggerated for comic effect and led to them being slipped into minestrone soups to masquerade as pieces of potato (secret’s out!).

While turnips can cause strong feelings, members of the parsnip family can actually cause chemical burns. The roots are safe and edible raw or cooked, but the shoots and leaves contain furanocoumarin, a phytophototoxin, which means that when the plant juices contact your skin, they make the skin hypersensitive to sunlight, resulting in burns. This is naturally occurring chemical warfare to prevent predation.

I didn’t make the connection before between the garden parsnip and these noxious relatives, wild parsnip and giant hogweed, with which I actually had an encounter and scars to prove it. Doing my bird surveying job several summers ago, I had to push through a field of tall grasses and weeds. On the drive back, I noticed my arm resting in the sun on the window edge had a strange red rash-like circle developing on it. By the next day, it had become a huge raised blister. It never hurt, but for the rest of the week it looked like an awful burn–which, after some online research, I realized it actually was.

Anyway, to my knowledge I have never eaten one of these seemingly innocuous parsnips in my life. And so the experiment begins:

What it looks like: Yep. A white carrot.

What it smells like: Pungent earth. Somewhat carroty and definitely like something that spent its time quietly in the ground.

The recipe: “Rikke’s Sweet Parsnips,” from The Chicago Diner Cookbook

Ingredients: 1/4 pound green beans (or any amount you have), cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
2 Tbsp. olive oil
4 cups diced onions
1 pound parsnips, peeled and cut into chunks
1/4 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper

Blanch the green beans in rapidly boiling water with a pinch of salt for 30 seconds to a minute, then drain and immediately run cold water over them to stop the cooking process.
In a medium skillet, heat the oil and saute onions until translucent. Add the parsnips, salt, and pepper. Cover and cook on medium heat, stirring frequently, until the parsnips are tender and almost caramelized, at least 10 minutes. (It will be done when the onions start to turn golden-brown.) Add the green beans and cook 3-5 minutes more.

The completed recipe! With tender-crisp green beans, caramelized onions, and peppery parsnips.

The taste: A delicious complex flavor, sweet on the tender outside to peppery in the chewier center. Not as soft as a potato or as dense as a carrot. The large amount of caramelized onions and fresh green beans (grown in Florida, bought at Whole Foods in a moment of weakness..) in this recipe–two great veggies–complement the taste well and make it even richer.

Conclusion: An awesome winter vegetable; just watch out for it in the wild.

Resolution

January 26, 2012

It’s a new year, and this won’t be my usual entry. I’ve been thinking about food lately, but not on the local sourcing of it: I’m making a New Year’s resolution to consciously eat vegan at least three days a week. Why? In part, because four of the vegetarian cookbooks we’ve been using over the past year are vegan, so I have a feeling we’ve been eating vegan (un-consciously) more often than I think– and I’m curious if it will seem any different to do it intentionally.

There’s another part, though: In the many past conversations that have come up with friends, family, coworkers, and acquaintances about being vegetarian or vegan, I realize that I’ve failed to be a good advocate for a lifestyle that I strongly admire and respect: a plant-based diet.

Those who know me understand that while I may have my moments of verbal clarity, I’m much more articulate through the written word– so an off-the-cuff comment or question about eating choices is likely to receive a less coherent response than if I’ve had a chance to think and write it through. But not to use my communication skills as an excuse. My verbal answers are often more cowardly, and aimed at making the person asking more comfortable– primarily by agreeing, and by letting myself be led to address the negative, rather than redirecting the conversation to all the positives.

The result is that after I tell someone I’m vegetarian, but not vegan (I eat dairy products and Certified Humane eggs), I have preemptively volunteered, “Yeah being vegan is really difficult.” I’m of the mind that most people will be more open to trying a different diet themselves if they can do it gradually and easily, rather than switching cold turkey (no pun intended) to something that seems extreme. This is the same reason why faux meat products like veggie burgers, veggie sausage, deli “meats,” etc. are so prevalent; people want to eat what they’re already familiar with. But in my desire to show that being vegetarian or flexitarian (eating meat only occasionally) is easy and accessible, I end up making veganism sound all but impossible. But is it really?

I’m going to eat my previous words in two ways this year: Cooking vegan meals at home three days a week, and bringing or finding vegan lunches to buy at work on those same days. This can be done even at chain restaurants. Some examples:

Subway – A falafel sandwich on wheat bread topped with veggies, giardinera, and mustard.
Chipotle – Veggie tacos with rice, beans, sauteed onions and peppers, lettuce and salsa (just skip the cheese and sour cream).
Other vegan alternatives in the Loop include Hannah’s Bretzel (gourmet sandwiches with their percentage of organic ingredients listed!) and the new Native Foods Cafe location (serving all-vegan dishes with house-made sauces, dressings, and proteins). I’ll post more as I discover them!

When people talk about being vegan, they question how you get your protein (it’s not difficult at all– the average American is actually consuming twice as much protein than they need or their body can use) and your vitamins: the old stereotype that vegans are weak and nutrient-deficient. Instead of being led into a debate about vitamin B12 (don’t worry, I’m getting it), I want to turn those comments around. I want to say that the American Dietetic Association has found a well-balanced vegan diet to not only be nutritionally sufficient for all stages of life, but to result in lower rates of heart disease and cancers. Vegetarian and vegan diets have been shown to be healthier.

A 100% vegan meal: Garlic and herb rice pilaf, green beans, and panko-crusted tofu cutlets with lemon-caper sauce.

People also tend to focus in on all the restrictions on your diet — that it limits you. But how diverse is the diet of someone eating McDonald’s for lunch and steak and potatoes for dinner? Eating vegan means opening up a spectrum of new foods, proteins, vegetables, grains, and dishes to try. From what I’ve seen so far, vegan eating is for those with a spirit of adventure — not those with a penchant for self-sacrifice. So I’m going to explore the diversity of the vegan diet through something I’ve been planning to do anyway: Whenever I go to the market, I’ll pick out a locally grown vegetable/fruit I haven’t tried, find a recipe to use it in, and blog about it.

Finally — I’m going to try to be more up-front with my reasons for doing this. When someone asks me why I’m vegetarian, I usually say, “For a lot of reasons: it’s better for your health, and for the environment.” Those are both true (see this Scientific American response summarizing the severe environmental impacts of large-scale meat production).

But there’s another reason that’s easy to leave out, because of what I mentioned before– not wanting to make the other person uncomfortable. What I want to say also is: “I don’t believe it’s right for any living creature to suffer the way millions of cows, pigs, and chickens do on factory farms to provide our food, when we have a choice to get our food entirely from other sources.”

I know no one wants to think about that. I certainly don’t. It’s not a topic for polite dinner conversation. But then, neither are many of the realities underlying our modern society. And making them visible is the first step to making change.

The grateful fed

November 30, 2011

As we close out November, this is also probably the last day for those participating in the thankful exercise. The month that contains Thanksgiving is a great time to consciously and literally give thanks as much as you can. (I like the Spanish name for the holiday better: Dia de Accion de Gracias. The direct translation is “Day of the Act of Thanking.”) Several of my friends have dedicated themselves to posting about what they’re grateful for each day of the month. Nonprofits and even for-profit businesses get in on the act in November, too. I must have received at least 10 emails from nonprofits, titled with some variation of “We’re thankful for YOU!” And it’s just not the Thanksgiving season unless we’ve received our warm thankfulness card from our State Farm agent, complete with the pre-printed “handwritten” signature.

It IS important to remember to appreciate things you tend to take for granted. And food, as the most basic of things we may take for granted in the developed world, is as good a thing to be thankful for as any. So while Thanksgiving can seem to be a holiday that has no theme other than overeating, as Jim Gaffigan puts it, taking a moment to appreciate a bountiful harvest meal is not a bad thing.

And this year I’m also very thankful for the things that surprised me — that I didn’t expect. It’s a great feeling when there’s someone, or something, that exceeds your expectations. It doesn’t happen often. But my first visit to the Logan Square winter farmer’s market this year was one of those things.

In years past, before I was pointedly seeking local fruits and vegetables, I knew the winter market was there but didn’t go until February and March – when spring began to come into sight around the bend and I sought early relief. So, I was used to the enjoyable but fairly spare offerings of the early spring farmer’s market (mainly crates of frozen blueberries, eggs, salsa, Wisconsin cheese- actual produce is few and far between). Thus, even knowing that Thanksgiving is a seasonal meal of plenty — despite seeing the vibrant diversity of produce at the late-October outdoor markets just as they ended — I walked into the beautifully shabby Congress Theater on November 20 expecting the lean pickings of a February market. I mean, it was winter-jacket weather. How much could there be?

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Maybe it was because the vendors were crammed inside instead of setting up their stands down the street, but I was overwhelmed by the color and stacked varieties. After walking down one side of tables, met by purple and white cauliflower, red and green cabbage heads, carrots, turnips, leeks, lettuce, kale, spinach, apples, potatoes, three kinds of squash, the tight little heads of Brussel sprouts still arrayed up their stalks (all of these items local and ORGANIC), I was practically ecstatic. The November farmers’ market had the MOST variety I could remember seeing, nowhere near the least.

I then realized the end of the outdoor markets had been only a feint of the end of the growing season, brought on by the need to keep the vendors and customers themselves from freezing, not by the decrease in fresh produce available. If I was more in tune with what can be grown in the Midwest and when, this would surely not have been a surprise. October is when most people I know give up on their home gardens. But the harvest is nowhere near done and dead.

Autumn is my favorite season, but this fall has been a surprise. I remember picking nearly all our Swiss chard by flashlight a few nights after Halloween, expecting it to start to droop and freeze with the cold weather. Now, the day before December 1st, our neighbor’s chard is STILL growing. Partially that’s due to the unseasonably warm weather. But it’s also due to the hardy weather tolerances of cool-season vegetables, which I find I never quite believed before now. (You can’t REALLY grow a second crop of lettuce in the fall, can you?)

For this Thanksgiving, Dave and I were able to prepare a Tofurky roast we were incredibly proud of: Surrounding the vegan, wild rice-stuffed “bird” was our traditional medley of potatoes, carrots, and quartered onions. But this year every single one of those vegetables was both locally grown and organic. The bite-sized purple and white potatoes were even dug out of my dad’s very own garden. Something to be VERY thankful for.

But while I’m at it, this year I’m also giving thanks for every person working to create a world kinder to animals, kinder to people, and kinder on the earth: through our food system, and otherwise.

Thanks to Mercy for Animals, an awesome Chicago-based organization that takes on the very tough and courageous task of going undercover to expose cruelty on factory farms (among other efforts to eliminate cruelty to farm animals and promote a vegetarian/vegan lifestyle). When they made public the abuses of chickens they discovered at the facilities of a major egg producer just before Thanksgiving, McDonald’s dropped the supplier that very same day. Target and Sam’s Club went on to do the same.

Thanks to the police officer caught on video stopping traffic to escort a family of ducks off a busy highway. (People can still surprise you with the good they do.)

Thanks to the market vendors who called, “Happy Thanksgiving!” as each customer walked away from their tables loaded with bags of produce, who helped make my November a very warm one.

Plenty

October 25, 2011

Today was the last day for my downtown farmers’ markets. No, I don’t know what happened to October. How about September? Fall sneaks up on you – even as I anticipate it as my favorite season, culminated by my favorite holiday, Halloween.

Although Halloween marks the darkening of the days, the end of warm weather, the death of the summertime growing season, it has its own magic and excitement that is hard to explain. First of course, there’s the costuming – where some hidden alter ego of yourself can come out and play. But there’s also the strange fun of looking fear and mortality in the face and making light of it. We welcome death and decay to our yards and houses, hoping to spook a few candy-seeking children. We know that, as October’s dying day, Halloween marks another kind of end. And we celebrate anyway. We celebrate more because we know it’s the finale.

On November 2nd I’ll be going to my first Day of the Dead celebration in the South Side neighborhood of Pilsen. The theme this year is “Muertos de la Risa” (dead of laughter). The combination of the bright colors and the macabre, the festivities, and the plenty of this traditional Mexican holiday (enough food for your family AND your ancestors to share) always appealed to me.

No matter how you’re celebrating in autumn, the plenty of the season and the harvest figures in somehow. The sheer diversity of produce to be found at the markets over this past month shows summer going out with a bang. Cool-season crops reappear side by side with long-ripening squashes and apples, while root vegetables like potatoes and onions are into full swing at the same time. I’ve been dumbfounded by the variety of colors, too- mirroring the many bright shades of autumn leaves, and more.

Like this:


Or this. Look at that amazing bumpy texture!

My feeling as I stood amid the bounty of the Last farmers’ market in Federal Plaza, under the Nichols tent, was that same late-October elation and sense of loss. Kind of the way Halloween lovers feel once the weekend’s over. The three usual guys behind the table were there to help me cope.

“So… what am I going to do now?” I asked them, only half-serious.

They laughed: “I know what I’m going to do,” said one. “Have a life!” Bringing in and selling all those crops is hard work. Then he marked down the pumpkins and kale for me, unasked-for, and suggested a few Saturday markets around the city.

A couple weekends ago, in Western Springs, we brought in the fruits of our church’s first (organic) vegetable garden, but with significantly less work. One small raised bed in the sunny area behind the building was a good start for our small congregation. Tended only minimally over the summer, it had become a rambling profusion of vines and leaves. Hidden under all the greenery were plenty of fat eggplants, tomatoes large and small, peppers, and even two big cabbage heads. As I helped our family and other members reap the final harvest, I deemed the experiment a success.

The produce was donated to a local shelter for women, so they could eat and cook with some fresh veggies. The abundance of the harvest is something meant to be shared while it lasts.

Eggplant heaven

September 12, 2011

It’s nearly mid-September and you know what that means. It’s harvest time. The tomatoes at my dad’s house have started to keep us busy. I’ve spent more than one night when I should have been going to bed, chopping up tomatoes for freezer bags in an attempt to outpace ripeness and rotting. That was AFTER giving a fair amount to a co-worker.

The jalapenos are also really taking off. We have more than a dozen hanging, almost grown, on our two plants, and we’ve picked at least twice that. They’re also finally getting hot. Mid-summer when they ripened, these little pointy peppers were totally mild, like a green pepper with only the vaguest hint of spice. Now, eat a few seeds by mistake and you’ll be grabbing your windpipe and fumbling for water.

I feel somewhat validated now, after a passerby who had read an urban square-foot-gardening book informed me through the fence that jalapeno plants HAD to be fertilized with pig manure to be productive. We haven’t used any manure on these plants, pig or otherwise, and they’re just fine.

But some of the best gardening thrills come from an under-the-leaves discovery. The moment when you inspect the vines and discover the first dangling cucumber, or push the prolific zucchini leaves aside to discover a behemoth specimen you had no idea was there. This happened the other week when I ducked down to check our small, seemingly frail eggplant (being dwarfed by indeterminate tomato plants and crowded by leaping jalapenos), and found a massive, glossy black fruit hiding underneath. Eggplants have an almost magical ability to produce a huge fruit out of seemingly slim resources: like a kiwi (bird) producing an egg that’s a quarter of its body mass. It just doesn’t seem physically possible. And yet, there it was.

I’m not actually crazy about eggplants. Their texture can be pretty iffy if they’re under- or over-cooked. Too dry, or too chewy. The perfect eggplant is hard to come by. I can remember only a few eggplant dishes I really enjoyed… that is, after the days that my dad used to make delicious fried eggplant on a summer night in our deep-fat-fryer. A pretty good eggplant Parmesan was served at the buffet at our wedding reception, for example.

But: Because our one eggplant had given us such a singular, marvelous fruit (and I knew this might be the only home-grown one we got all year), I wanted to prepare it really well. I discovered eggplant heaven, by making the following recipe (from VEGETARIAN (The Greatest Ever Vegetarian Cookbook) – yes, that is really the title, by Nicola Graimes).

First, cut the ends off a large eggplant and then slice it thickly. (Looking at these slices, I remembered with some concern the last, semi-gross eggplant recipe I tried, but kept faith.)

Salting the slices will help draw out their moisture and reduce the amount of oil they absorb (so the book says in a helpful “cook’s tip”). Pat them dry with a paper towel after a few minutes. Spread out a 1/2 cup all-purpose flour in a shallow dish and season generously with salt and pepper. In another bowl, beat two eggs. In a third bowl or dish, put 2 cups white bread crumbs (or panko – Japanese bread crumbs, which I used).

Line up the bowls on the counter to make an assembly line, the end point of which is a large frying pan. Heat enough vegetable oil to have a depth of about 1/4 inch in this frying pan. Dip the eggplant slices first in the flour, then in the egg, and then in the bread crumbs, patting them to make an even coating and help them stick.

Fry the eggplant slices for 4-5 minutes in the oil or until golden brown, turning once. Drain on paper towels.

To make a hot vinaigrette dressing:

Heat 2-3 Tbsp. olive oil in a small pan. Add 1 crushed garlic clove and 1 Tbsp. capers (their liquid drained off) and cook over gentle heat for 1 minute. Increase the heat, add 1 Tbsp. white wine vinegar, and cook for 30 seconds. Stir in 1 Tbsp. chili oil (or something spicy… we used slightly less than 1 Tbsp.) and remove from the heat.

Arrange the leaves from 1 head of radicchio (the fancy dark red lettuce) or 1 small head of cabbage (any kind) on two plates. Top with the hot eggplant slices. Drizzle with the vinaigrette and serve.

You get something like this:

Which, I am very proud to say, looks a lot like the fancy full-page photo in the cookbook. Except I replaced the radicchio it called for with the cabbage we had in the fridge from the Homewood garden. The eggplant was absolutely delicious, crisp outside, tender and flavorful on the inside. With the combined spicinesses of the vinaigrette and the cabbage, plus the discovery that I like capers after all, it was…. heaven.

Found: Wild fruit

August 25, 2011

I know, Oregon Trail is pretty much a generational cliche at this point. But if you ever played the green-and-black version where the green ox ambles amiably across the same bland stretch of green grass (or if you played the much later, full-color versions, where the same genial man with glasses comments at every waypoint, “Fine scenery, round these parts”), you’re probably familiar with the following message.

(In the new(er) game, the “found wild fruit” message is inexplicably linked with a twittering of unseen birds every time, as if the wild raspberry canes themselves are singing.)

You can get food four ways on Oregon Trail: buy, trade, hunt, or gather. All of them are still practiced today by the settlers’ descendants– even the gathering. Or as it is also known, foraging: the act of searching for food. There is nothing quite like gathering random wild fruits and greens from your yard for meals… something you didn’t plant and have put zero effort into tending. People who have made a hobby of foraging (like this guy who taught NPR staff what they could eat in the vacant lots around their office) say that there are at least 75 different wild vegetables you can add to your diet if you know how to find them.

Last summer when we moved in, our friends who live down the alley from us discovered that the bushy, crinkle-leaved plants growing alongside our building were not just weeds or exotic shrubs as we had thought, but actually mint and spearmint plants. I assume a previous occupant installed them there, and now we’re reaping the benefits. This past weekend, it was amazing to just walk downstairs and gather a small bunch of fragrant mint leaves for our Greek salad pitas.

(They also featured cucumbers, tomatoes, and lettuce from the market, with feta and hummus.)

The black raspberries in my dad’s backyard are somewhat like that. After my mom established them as cuttings from my grandmother’s yard two decades ago, we’ve done very little in the meantime to keep them going. Really all we’ve had to do is stop them from spreading. They grow like weeds.

The mulberry trees are even more “volunteers.” After the apple tree in my dad’s yard died, a mulberry tree volunteered in its place and now heavily bears fruit in the early summer every year. The birds go wild for it; I’ve watched a family of finches moving through the poplar trees with their beaks stained purple from eating mulberries. Human feet will similarly get stained purple if you walk underneath a fruiting mulberry unawares. The best foraging on mulberries is when the fruits have just turned black and are hanging so heavy on the branch that they drop off at a light touch (thus why your feet get stained). They’re sweet with a light, neutral flavor underneath that’s somewhat wild and… leafy. The tree is currently at the perfect height for human fruit foraging. I admit that I grabbed berries off a low branch with my mouth this year like a deer.

There’s something visceral and beautiful about foraging — kind of captured in this Goo Goo Dolls album cover.

But while many people still forage for fruit, wild herbs and onions, morels, and other mushrooms (and have great fun doing so in Illinois), it has kind of a stigma to it in the mainstream. It’s a little “weird.” Like breast-feeding, it seems to remind people too much that we are, in fact, mammals. In reality, we’re made to nurse our young and eat things that come from the ground.

My own husband had a marked hesitation to my first offering of a mulberry handful picked straight from the tree, back when he was my boyfriend and visiting the south suburbs with me. “Doesn’t it need to be … washed?” he asked uncertainly.

As my uncle would say, “A little dirt’s good for you.” When my mom and I were weeding the flower beds side by side, we would often eat what we called “sweet-weed.” Small, clover-leafed plants with little yellow flowers. The entire plant is edible: Leaves, stem, flowers, and all. It has a half-sweet, half-tart bite to it, like the natural form of a Sour Patch Kid. It was yellow wood-sorrel– which I saw being sold at the Logan Square farmer’s market last month, but a different species with larger leaves. Dave and I were game to sample a leaf when it was offered, but why buy it? There’s plenty sprouting up between our tomatoes in the yard.

A few weeks ago, we were weeding our new city garden and I pointed out the yellow-flowered sorrel plants. “Try it,” I said, and Dave readily put a few leaves right into his mouth.

I tried not to show how pleased I was. Progress takes many forms.

Sense of urgency

August 8, 2011

A few years ago, I worked for about seven very unusual months at a direct marketing company that sold assorted items for kids to raise money for nonprofits. If you’ve passed by a table at your local Walgreens or grocery store where two cheery, snappily-dressed representatives greet and beckon you over, you may have seen us at work. Each morning we’d practice our pitches and get trained in the multitude of careful and proven techniques direct marketers use to catch your attention, pique your interest in what they’re offering, and ultimately convince you to make a purchase in the span of about two minutes. It was kind of like being in a cult. It was also ridiculously fun on most days, and one of the biggest learning experiences I ever had about how people operate and make decisions as consumers on the most basic of levels.

But this entry isn’t about my experiences as saleswoman-for-a-cause (which, one could argue, is what I still currently do in my job as a nonprofit grantwriter). It’s about some of the concepts we were taught to use: sense of urgency, and fear of loss. We always strived to have a sense of urgency in the field. To keep things moving, to rearrange the table to create action, to always be on the lookout for the next person. We also learned to create a sense of urgency in people, to make them feel that they had to help the nonprofit NOW, that they couldn’t wait until later because they would miss out on the chance or the deal. It seems silly, but this worked so often.

For a real sense of urgency, though, visit the Daley Plaza farmers’ market at about 2:30 in the afternoon. I lost track of the time after lunch and ended up doing this on Thursday.

The market officially closes at 3 pm, but by about 2:30 a lot of vendors have already left or are in the process of packing up. You really want to hit the market before 1, when you can still get the choicest fruits and veggies. For something really rare or popular, you have to be there in the morning. (I confess I’ve never done this.)

As I hurried up to the stands, I was relieved to see that several vendors were still open and had a lot of selection. I quickly scouted the tables, weaving in and out among a throng of people also craning their necks and swiftly sorting through bins of eggplant and piles of lettuce. A bottleneck had formed at the register for one stand, where all greens were $1.00 a bunch. (You can seek good deals at the end of the market, t00.) I was able to grab mushrooms for egg salad just before River Valley Kitchens closed. I found myself mentally prioritizing blueberries and tomatoes as I booked it across the square to Nichols. The blueberries lost out, and I reached the Nichols stand in time for a regular who recognized me to take a stack of crates back down and show me some yellow tomatoes, which I quickly purchased. With an impulse buy of black cherries, I was all set. I hadn’t missed it after all.

This is a truism from marketing I still see in action everywhere: Fear of loss is one of humankind’s greatest motivators. We don’t want to lose out. We will even buy things we don’t really want or need if we get caught up in the idea that we won’t be able to get it at a future time. Everyone uses it: Department stores (“Giant blowouts, only through Sunday!” “Get this deal before it’s gone!”), fast-food restaurants (“the Double Bacon-Cheese Supreme back for a limited time only!”), magazines (“This is your LAST ISSUE!” – don’t worry, they’ll send you three more notices). Grocery stores certainly use it to advertise their latest deals. But the concept no longer seems to apply when it comes to the actual food they sell… Produce in the grocery store is available year-round. No need to panic that the avocado you’re eyeing won’t be there next week. It will. It’ll be there in January too.

I would argue fear of loss is not merely a tool for consumer manipulation, but actually has an important purpose. We appreciate something so much more if we know it’s fleeting. Like a spring day in Chicago, the blooms on our backyard catalpa tree. If that tree bloomed all year-round, I guarantee I would stop even noticing it. If the weather was a balmy, sunny 75 degrees 12 months of the year, eventually I’d be ready to move somewhere I can make a snowman.

Variety is the spice of life, and fear of loss is still in full force at the market. The available produce is always changing. One week gooseberries appeared. I sampled them for the first time, but didn’t get around to buying them the first couple weeks. Now, they’re gone! I’ll have to make a point to buy them next year.

Asparagus is such a highly-anticipated and fleeting spring vegetable that stands started having signs that said “The last!” while others still had signs reading, “Taste what you’ve been missing!” I took full advantage of its availability while it lasted. We had an asparagus omelette, pasta with broccoli and asparagus, a quinoa salad with asparagus, and a delectable fried-egg, roasted asparagus, and spring-greens salad topped with a hot garlic dressing. (Another fear-of-loss lesson: Write down any recipes you invent THAT NIGHT. I don’t exactly remember how I made that last one!)

Finally, Dave said, “I think we’ve had enough asparagus for a while.” This neatly coincided with their disappearance at the market. After feasting on and deeply appreciating asparagus this spring, we won’t be tasting any until next year. Come April, we’ll be seeking those first fresh, tender deep-green spears with an urgency.