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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.

Oases

August 2, 2011

It’s hot in Chicago, folks. It’s that time of year where the hum of air conditioners mingles with the throbbing, lazy buzz of cicadas. What I like to call “deep summer,” where walking outside is more like being underwater. As a friend recently commented: “I didn’t know we had a monsoon season.” Complete with pyrotechnic thunderstorms every other night, strangely starting right around 10 p.m.

The humidity was such this past week that I actually skipped the Daley Plaza market because walking or rather, wading, all those blocks through the downtown sauna wasn’t appealing enough when I didn’t really need anything. Yeah man, but it’s a dry heat.

I’ve decided one thing, though: I would much rather have too much hot than too much cold. Heat is something you have to embrace; you just eventually concede to sit/lay there and sweat. Cold, you have to huddle against.

The heat can’t stop our gardens, just like the hailstorm didn’t. (Torn leaves and broken stems later, the plants apparently just decide to keep growing.) Late July into August is when the garden takes on a life of its own, breaks from the moorings and starts to go a little crazy. It takes the heat, humidity, drought, extreme storms, whatever, and just grows bigger. (Except for the peas. My dad’s peas are stone dead, but that’s about par for the course.)

My best friend was in town this past weekend, and when I stopped by her dad and his girlfriend’s place in Bucktown on her last night in the city, I got to see another riotous summer garden. They have a beautiful square deck in back that is lined on all four sides with potted plants. Well into deep summer, the plants are bursting from their containers, covered with colorful blooms, leaning and twining around each other.

This is literally an urban Eden; there’s even a small fountain set in the wall with water quietly trickling. I’m not sure how it works, but it’s very cool.

It was still a very warm day but the sun was sinking, so they set up an oscillating fan and we sat out on the deck to enjoy the open air and greenery. They had been to the Lincoln Park market so we had an impromptu light dinner of roasted summer squash and eggplant, buttered corn on the cob, bread, and a mixed greens salad. We watched as Molly’s dad picked dill, basil, and parsley from an herb container to go in the salad. For dessert, there was homemade, yummy blueberry crostata. Sorry no pictures, Molly and I ate it as soon as it was in front of us. They had bought five pounds of blueberries at the market and froze what was left after the recipe.

Just before Molly had to head for the airport, we took a last look around the deck. I spotted the tiniest cherry tomatoes I’ve ever seen growing behind me, which had been in the salad. “Have some more,” Becky urged. I obediently plucked a few more juicy globes off the plant and into my mouth. You want to talk locally grown? This was produce transported from six feet away to my plate. Clearly doable in a city setting.

I stepped a little closer to the edge of the deck and looked over the wall at the rest of the alley. Plenty of other people had balconies, decks, porches, even small yards. I saw one spider plant at a distance, but otherwise no other gardens or potted plants were in sight. No flowers, certainly no food. A shimmering desert of concrete and metal.

I felt lucky to be standing in the middle of an oasis.

Completely bananas

July 27, 2011

I had a strange experience today. I was leaving my building to grab some lunch, and saw a girl walking out of a 7-Eleven, taking a bite of a banana that she had clearly just bought at that store. What’s so strange about that? Well, for the first time, this sight struck me as completely bizarre.

I like bananas. It was a sometime breakfast for me for years. Banana bread pudding is a great way to use up the leftover crusts from the Miller family stuffing recipe at Thanksgiving. They do have all that potassium, and that 91-year-old guy who still runs every day sure swears by them. (Does anyone remember that commercial??)

But I thought about it for a second. That banana came from somewhere in Central or South America, near the equator. Ecuador is a primary exporter, or it could have come from Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras. A hot, humid tropical region is what they require. That sure sounds like Chicago in this past week– but there are very few bananas commercially grown in the United States. Assuming that banana came from Ecuador, it travelled nearly 3,000 miles to get to Chicago.

THREE THOUSAND MILES. 2,900-and-some to be exact.

I was so shocked by this that I triple checked the distance.

How many different modes of transport and middle-men were involved in this international journey? More importantly, what funded this odyssey so that the banana could end up for sale in a basket on the counter of 7-Eleven for 79 cents? Cheap wages and poor conditions for the plantation workers, to start with, and then cheap energy. Lots and lots of oil.

In much older times, it used to be only nobility, kings, emperors could summon the resources to have exotic food brought in from the far reaches of the globe for an extravagant, decadent banquet that no one would forget. Now cheap energy, fossil-fueled transport, and globalization have made us all emperors. We can get bananas (in fact, much of our food) from three thousand miles away in the summer, winter, anytime we please. Until the price of oil skyrockets and the disruptive effects of climate change take off, at which point we’ll all be wearing our new clothes indeed.

Imagine all the preparation and expense that would go into you taking a 3,000-mile trip yourself. Why SHOULD we expect that we can have bananas in the Midwest, year-round? Not as a special occasion, but whenever we want?

Consider the clerk at the convenience store selling this banana, who has five degrees of separation from its origin and probably not the slightest idea of the situation in which it was grown. Versus a sunburned, smiling guy at the farmers’ market, who hands you a bag of Michigan peaches, banters mildly with you about the last thunderstorm, and either works at the orchard himself, or is personally connected to the family who grew them.

How did we come to accept and even demand such both literal and emotional distance from the origin of our food?

If you are lucky enough to have local and store-bought options to compare, it’s impossible not to see the difference. Even an organically grown apple from Whole Foods (shipped from Washington, typically) is a pale substitute for locally picked. On an apple-picking trip, that first tart crunch into an apple plucked off the branch on a sunny fall day? You could just lie down in the orchard and die of happiness.

But because bananas travel so far to get to us, they’re picked green and then “gassed” with ethylene in airtight warehouse rooms, or on the truck, to ripen them just before they reach the supermarket. So how would a fresh-picked banana compare to a store-bought, artificially ripened one that’s been traveling for three weeks? I couldn’t tell you. I’ve never had the opportunity, considering I’d have to fly to South America and find a vehicle to take me to a banana plantation in the middle of the jungle to find out. When it comes to tropical fruit, it’s a case that we just don’t know what we’re missing.

I’ll probably still make banana bread pudding, once after Thanksgiving. But right now I see no need for extra variety in the fruit options available to us. There’s more than enough diversity right here at home. At the Federal Plaza market, there’s strawberries, peaches, raspberries, blueberries, currants, even gooseberries. (Ever tried a gooseberry? They look like tiny beach balls or watermelons… and their taste is hard to describe.) Summer is the best time to reject the lure of the far-off and exotic, and enjoy what’s unusual and delicious here in the Midwest.

Comfort foods

July 20, 2011

Most everyone has those characteristic meals that make them think of good times at home, with family, or with friends. They’re not always the healthiest choices. In fact, the food we feel is good for our soul is sometimes what most sticks to our ribs. One of my comfort foods is good old orange-yellow mac and cheese. Stereotypical, but there it is. Usually when I spent the night at my childhood friends the twins’ house, we’d make a big stainless steel pot of Kraft mac and cheese. Or, on nights when their mom was in the mood for cooking, we’d have her trademark special dinner: enchiladas (chicken for them, bean for me) with cream sauce. So rich that you sit at the table for an hour talking afterwards to avoid having to move.

But with the proliferation of vegan soul food restaurants in Chicago, there are equivalents without the meat or dairy. The Chicago Diner, for example, offers a veggie reuben (my husband’s favorite), chicken fried “steak,” and even eggs, biscuits, and vegan gravy for brunch. A vegetarian or vegan can sit back, stuff themselves, and feel right where they belong. It’s like being back at home enjoying my mom’s meat-less-loaf.

So comfort food doesn’t have to include the discomfort of animals. But can comfort food go local too? Dave and I tested this last night on a favorite from his side of the family: Green bean casserole.

We already had a good supply of green beans. Some were picked from my dad’s garden the week before.

Garden green beans ready for snapping.

And to make sure I had enough for the recipe, I found some more beans (French this time) at the Tuesday Federal Plaza market, including both green and a deep shade of purple that fascinated me and didn’t seem edible. For the hash-brown base of the pie, I also bought some Illinois-grown potatoes at the market for grating. More of the Wisconsin two-year cheddar got grated to go on top.

Purple, yellow, and green French beans at the Nichols Farm stand

To get the other non-produce elements of the casserole, we then did a little cheating. A can of cheddar cheese soup, chopped veggie burgers, and a can of French fried onions later (all from the grocery store and full of preservatives, I’m sure), we had this strange but delicious amalgamation. Tender green beans, earthy potatoes, made all cheddar-gooey, with the it’s-so-bad-it’s-goodness of French fried onions to top it off. A work in progress (maybe we can fry our own onions? does someone make a somewhat more natural cheese soup? or maybe some mushroom gravy instead..), but a definitely comforting late-night dinner nonetheless.

The finished green bean casserole hot from the oven.

Counting

July 16, 2011

How do you measure success, or what makes you “rich”? Some people count their coins, or belongings: how much money they make, the size of their house(s), the car they drive. Others count their blessings.

In the ecological world, richness is defined by diversity. A calculation exists for the “species richness” of an ecosystem. Generally the greater the diversity, the healthier a place is and the longer it can persist in the face of disturbance.

Summers at our place have always brought a different kind of counting, not financial or scientific. It was a little game we often played at the dinner table when I was a kid: Count how many things came from the garden. The number typically got more impressive as the summer months went on.

Barley with broccoli, salad, and Bell's

This past week Dave and I made a recipe using barley for the first time I can remember (pretty much a superfood: high-fiber, high-protein, can lower cholesterol, reduces the risk of heart disease, and is nearly fat-free. Shockingly, it tastes great too.) While we were waiting for the barley to cook, I put together a quick salad with the mushrooms from last week’s Logan Square market, which amazingly hadn’t spoiled yet.

As we sat down to eat, this time I counted the locally grown foods: Broccoli and onions from Nichols Farm in Marengo, Illinois (only 60 miles from Chicago); two-year cheddar cheese from Wisconsin; mushrooms from River Valley Kitchens, just north of the Wisconsin-Illinois border; and baby lettuce, thinned from my dad’s garden this past weekend. A total of five! Not bad.

I believe we set the record for our Homewood garden one night in late summer when my mom had made a hearty and very diverse minestrone soup. We counted I think nine ingredients from the garden. Potatoes, onions, tomatoes, carrots, zucchini, and even turnips (my dad’s least favorite root vegetable, but a couple years they grew like gangbusters– whatever those are) must have all went into the pot.

It seems like a small moment, this household record, but then how do I remember it clearly so many years later? I sat at the table, impressed by all these vegetables that we grew right in our own backyard, feeling proud. Thinking wow. What a success.