Wednesday, July 8, 2009

New Site:

If you came here through, please go to the new Rooting for Fruit

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Bob Marley's kind of mint

Earth Day in New York was, like, really cool back in the 70’s, Elizabeth Kolbert wistfully tells us in this week’s New Yorker. Cool enough for politicians to be riding their bikes, dead fish to be flung across the streets, soil to be shared among strangers, and the Nixon Administration to take notice and actually do something in response: create the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act. The 2009 equivalent to today’s environmental buzz across the land? The Obamas tune in, and appropriately plant some kale in response.

Of course, I love kale and the publicity of this year’s White House vegetable garden is nothing to sneer at. But the truth is, Kolbert’s right. I mean, how did I celebrate Earth Day this year? I bought herbs. Not even Herbs, like the kind a really cool 20-something would have gotten happy with back on Earth Day ’70 but culinary herbs, for garnish.

After weeks of dithering and spending the last of my singles at the farmer’s market on a sixth basket of Camarosa strawberries for the week, I saved my dollars for the herb man peddling plastic pots. Choosing only three was excruciating, as I had to put back the oregano, the chives, the rosemary, and the baby chili pepper plant (not an herb, but zany nonetheless). I finally exchanged the lemon thyme for silver culinary thyme, which promises to be more potent. And I put the chocolate mint back—not nearly versatile enough, as tempting as adding chocolate flavor to everything savory is—in favor of the Bob Marley mint. The latter originated in Jamaica and was grown by Marley himself on his stoop for his morning herbal infusion, of sorts. Obviously, I’m a sucker for a plant with a story. And I finally chose the purple basil over your everyday trattoria basil, which just seemed so trite at the time (though of course I’ll still be buying bunches of the stuff when my little purple plant is only giving me a pretty little leaf every now and then). Like my friends Abigail and Emma, who have managed to create an entire vegetable garden--radishes included--from these pots on their stoop the size of a Manhattan fire escape, I’m going back, for tarragon and more.

I’ve also begun a new sourdough starter with Earth Day still on my mind and with enough emotional distance from my last failed attempt to be really optimistic about this one’s ability to leaven my dough. I remember hearing once that really old barns make for the best wineries because there are so many generations of wild yeasts hiding out in the woodwork that the wine rarely needs to be inoculated with foreign strains. My 1922 wood-beamed apartment might have the same effect. In fact, the wild yeasts already seem to be churning out a bubbling mess in their jar—so much so that I’ve resigned myself to feeding those damn yeasts once, even twice a day (more coffee for me, a fistful of flour for them). I’d also like to think that my antique brass front door handle, which is stamped with “J.G. Wilson Co., 3 West 29th St, New York, Jan. 20 1890” transported some of those almighty wild yeasts here from back east. Hopefully, from New York’s cooler days.

These are all quiet activisms, though I’m sure many who still practice the throw-a-fish-at-Congress kind of activism would beg to differ. Those who load up on local strawberries, who garden, who bike to work probably don’t think of these acts as a kind of activism at all, except on Earth Day when we’re given a nice excuse to pick up some starters of oregano, chives and rosemary. These little acts have become freed, in some sense, from their attachment to the radicalism of the past. Of course, they don’t speak nearly as loudly as pro-environment uprisings en masse. But they somehow seem more 'sustainable' in the most rudimentary sense of the word, which is, of course, what the environmental connotation of sustainable is founded upon: to keep up or to keep going, as an action or process; to supply with nourishment; to keep in existence. Radical Earth Day acts could never promise to do so much.

So maybe what Kolbert is tapping into is not environmental complacency per se, but a moment of contentment. We got our president. Alice got her garden. I’ve got Marley's mint to muddle for mojitos all summer long. Perhaps we have lost our edge when it comes to Earth Day. But so many of us have taken to dwelling closer to the earth in tiny yet not insignificant ways. I’m not sure what else to say to that, aside from that however we express it, the earth still matters. On Earth Day and everyday.

And on that pun-intended note, I will be starting a new column next month called “Earth Matters.” Not on my own website, but elsewhere—stay posted. Happy Earth Day.

Friday, March 20, 2009

a smidge of a recipe

Out of eggs, three days until the farmer’s market egg stand, and an un-satiable 10pm desire to bake a cake. Not so much a desire to eat cake, mind you, but to beat sugar and butter together and smooth batter with a spatula. But of course, once the cake is sitting there all elegantly cracked on top and cooling, the nub end of the loaf (this is a cake-bread) becomes a mandatory taste-test.

I rarely gravitate towards recipes calling for bananas, I think because I am too diligent about eating them while still tinged with green in an everyday-snack sort of way. Banana creations are always calling for those mushy, over-ripe things; banana bread has hence never been in my repertoire. Sweet potatoes, however, hover around my counter far longer than bananas. A crop native to the tropics, these things stick awkwardly out of the fruit bowl looking well-positioned for long storage but deceivingly so: they start to turn brown long before I usually get inspired to render them edible.

Coconut, liberally. I keep a medium-sized jar of shredded unsweetened coconut on my counter, between the big jar for sugar and the little one for salt. The coconut jar has its own steel spoon.

The last potent nutmeg kernel. I bought it at a spice farm in Zanzibar last August; this farm will remain indulgently in my mind as a big-person’s Candy
Land. Now that I'm out, I’m just pretending that nutmeg has gone out of season, like persimmons, rather than admit I will have to travel 8000 miles to return to the spice farm where I bought it to find more. Nutmeg, though we rarely realize it, is the pit of an un-appealingly yellow fruit. Embracing the pit is a lacy pink membrane that is referred to on the spice rack as mace; I wish I had thought to ask the spice farmers what they do with the flesh of the fruit. I grated my entire last darn brainy-looking mass into the batter, and immediately wished there were spice farms in Los Angeles.

Sometimes I find the circumstances that produce our foods so much more interesting than the recipes. How I ended up creating a recipe for an eggless cake-bread borne of the tropics, yet so temperate climate end-of-winter feeling, is purely based on circumstance.

But I’ve also included a formal recipe here, though with a smidge of hesitation. I can’t help but feel that there are so many recipes circulating out there in this virtual space and that mine isn’t necessarily better than all the rest. And I will probably be setting out into uncharted baking territory by the time I’m posting this up. I transcribe it now, however, justified as a kind of archival practice and perhaps the first of a few recipe jottings on this site. Haven’t we all had that serendipitous kitchen creation, only to be befuddled a year later over what exactly went into that spicy thai soup that made it so much zestier than the next? Or which recipe for fresh ginger cake did we follow, the one with molasses or the one with none? Index card recipes are so the grandmother I never had. I suppose I’m suggesting that sometimes our taste-memory isn’t quite sufficient enough, that cookbooks don't always provide us with the most personal instructions, and that perhaps I might capture these recipes—let’s refer to them as happenings, rather than objects—in case, just in case, we should desire an encore. I also intend these jottings as inspiration for your own happenstance recipes. Thank you as well to Steph, who graciously accepted half of the loaf this morning, and allowed me to make more room on my cooling rack.

Out-of-Eggs Sweet Potato-Coconut Bread

Inspired by a banana bread recipe from Orangette

Preheat oven to 350˚. Butter a standard-size loaf pan.

1 stick of butter, softened

¾ cup brown sugar [I don’t keep brown sugar around but instead mash a bit molasses into white sugar—it’s so much moister than brown sugar from a bag, but I’m fussy]
1 ½ cups sweet potato puree from about 2 roasted whole sweet potatoes/yams
2 cups flour [any all-purpose or pastry flour will do]

¾ tsp baking soda

½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg

1/8 tsp salt

¼ tsp distilled white vinegar

½ tsp vanilla or almond extract, optional

½ cup unsweetened shredded coconut
sugar for sprinkling

Mash the roasted, skinless sweet potato until its nearly free of lumps (a food processor does this job well), and measure out 1 ½ cup.

Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat in vinegar and extract.

In separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, and nutmeg.

Alternate additions of puree and flour mixture, beginning with puree, to butter mixture approximately ½ cup at a time. Mix until all of the flour is just combined; do not over-mix.

Spread batter (it’s thick) in loaf pan, smoothing out the top with a spatula. Sprinkle liberally with sugar—I like to keep a jar of vanilla bean-infused white sugar for opportunities like these, but any sugar will give the loaf a nice crust.

Bake 60 minutes, or until toothpick (or wooden chopstick in my case) inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from pan and cool on rack. Eat nub end while still warm, but cake is best a few hours after it's baked.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

filaments from China

It’s been a while since I’ve been here. Long enough for the meyer lemons at the market to have eclipsed pale yellow and waxed into orange, ripening beyond tart. Long enough to have nearly forgotten what it was like to have a lesser president, to have forgotten the times when NPR didn’t wake me up in the morning with a reminder that the world is crashing down around us. Enough, even, for an entire academic quarter to have passed, shifting from blissfully free (I can write for fun all the time!) to preoccupied (I would write for fun, but I’ve really got to think about that paper due in five weeks) to currently inundated (those papers, due next week, don’t have a sentence to their titles). This last frantic phase, however, is also the coziest nook from which to write. Indeed, to write for fun.

I’ve also moved since I’ve last been here, to a city within a city where the 10 freeway unravels itself into the Pacific—Santa Monica—and I’ve been dutifully filling the extra bit of space in my now-roomier freezer with a winter’s worth of lumpy leftover scones and the remnants of multi-day chocolate chip cookie experiments. And I’ve been squinting one eye at the dwindling stack of vintage jarred stone fruit in the corner of my open pantry shelves, staving off fret with a solemn intuition that the stack will be built again soon. Berry jams and all that.

I had a craving for first-of-the-season strawberries the other day, and though chilly nights are lingering on for now, the jasmine is in fragrant bloom here and root vegetables no longer feel obligatory. And it’s just about the only time of year when the rain clouds lazily drift on in once each week or so, carrying with them on their way east the particulate matter typically suspended in the air over this corner of Los Angeles. I don’t really know where the matter goes from here, however sorry I am to whomever has to receive it. But I’m pretty sure of the fact that some of this matter begins its life as filaments spewed from factories in China. We are well-reminded when the air clears of these Chinese imports that Southern California has mountains in its midst (no, definitely not hills), still crowned with white, that seem to rise where Wilshire traffic drives off into the vanishing point. Of course, everyone knows that Wilshire actually ends at the Pacific and doesn’t nearly reach these mountains. But for a brief moment, when my morning bus pauses at the stop sign to cross Ocean Park Boulevard (which also ends in the Pacific), I can turn my head quick enough from west to east to see both the ocean and the suspended snowy mountains that float as if part of a backdrop for a Nepalese film. This Janus-inspired view anchors my small-town neighborhood to the sprawling metropolis that sometimes feels like an endless abstraction to me when I can’t see the mountains that form the farthest boundaries of this urban locality, and that allow the next terra cognita to begin.

How does one remain attentive to the global within the local economy? Darra Goldstein, editor of the chicly erudite journal Gastronomica, offered this question at the Tasting Histories conference I was attending last week (I have some more thoughts on this here, at Civil Eats).

Having spent nearly every weekend in college taking the NYC subways to the ends of the outer boroughs, on a perpetual scavenger hunt for the most obscure ethnic hole-in-the-walls, my life now by comparison could hardly be more local. Food from elsewhere (or eaten elsewhere) is a rare indulgence; nearly everyone who sells me what I eat I’ve greeted the week before. I walk to all of my food markets. The beans in my near-daily meal of dollied-up rice and beans are grown in Napa by Rancho Gordo; the indulgently sweet brown rice, by Lundberg Family Farm, also in Northern California. My yogurt and milk? Marin County. Every frilly green cabbage, golden beet, bunch of cilantro, and blood orange that’s taken up temporary residence in my refrigerator this winter? All local, by nearly anyone’s definition.

I’m not intending this grocery list as a point from which to gloat (though that is perhaps unavoidable by those of us who live in California during the otherwise cruelest months), but to raise the question of “so what?” Or less cynically, “now what?” Have I, after years of tweaking, finally found a lifestyle that affords me every opportunity to eat locally that I could ever want? If I’m supposed to feel rather self-satisfied, or satiated, I don’t really—I want to know what’s next. Sure there’s so much more work to be done, around Los Angeles even, if I thought everyone should be aspiring to the local food lifestyle that I seem to have nailed down (though I’m not entirely sure I think that). And I still have edibles in mind that might grow nicely on my property this summer, basil and lemongrass to beat out my farmer’s market’s herbs in food blocks. But I’m also interested in what life is like post-local, given that the “local” has been co-opted by the food authorities as a stand-in for the benevolent eating life, and is on its way to being applaud-worthy national rhetoric. But can we find a way to act globally in our local economies, and should we? Is there a benevolent global here in my neighborhood that doesn’t recall the particulate matter from China, that we don’t necessarily feel we have to resist with our proudly-purchased local roots and fruits?

One of my students sent me this note about two months ago, via email, after a class on industrial food systems and my closing rant on the importance of knowing where your food comes from. The timing of the comment now seems uncannily apropos, invoking hardship in a way that is no longer being tried on by the mainstream for show.

“Hello Ms. Jennifer:

A late thought that occurred to me after the discussion today: in some cultures, at least in my hometown (Cerritos, CA), which is predominantly Asian, it's normal for one to choose gifts for others that are imported from far-away places. I.e. It would be best to buy someone a packaged pear from Korea or Japan as opposed to buying one from California. I think the idea that the item came from a long distance away means that you care enough to give the receiver something that went out of its way to get here, and that you have enough status or are financially successful enough to afford and give away such an item. Giving domestically produced items as gifts may indicate financial hardship or apathy.”

I still don’t miss those filaments from China when they’re absent, nor will I let South American strawberries rid me of a craving that will only truly be contained by the impending arrival of the smallest, sweetest berries from Ventura. But I do like to recall this comment every now and then, especially when the mountains surface in the distance and my head turns to the ocean that crashes here where I dwell and I know that it's also crashing in someone else’s locality, very far away.