of cabbages and drag kings: a gay marriage salad

IMG_4342

Searching for the perfect reddish pink salad to serve your “gay-wedding” guests?  Seek no further.  With most of the blue states and every single rhetoric instructor ever chuckling over the Supreme Court transcripts for two cases challenging the Defense of Marriage Act of 1996, it’s clear we need to celebrate with something simple and sassy, something that waves the colors and is topped with a veil of crème fraîche.

I vow love for this early spring salad: love, love love.  It’s my take on downtown restaurant Belly‘s tangled beet salad.  I’ve loved her since the day I met her — only a week or two after the restaurant opened.  It was a little unusual, I’ll admit, for one so carnivorous to love, really, what amounted to a pile of leaves, but we weren’t committed to traditional and outdated definitions of marriage, only fearing the censure of the courts.  So we capered about, rejoicing in our newly minted promise to be true.  We occasionally faced tough times, sometimes united in furtive silence, sometimes daringly holding hands in front of our close friends.

And being progressive and the sharing type, I’m opening up this relationship to you.  You can thank me in your champagne toast.

Keep in mind that she’s a local girl.  You can pick her up in the markets this weekend.  Some tender, nubile cabbages are ready now, or you might have a wizened old specimen hanging out in your crisper — I don’t judge.  Beets are also a great storage crop, so I hope you have some left or can get some larger ones at the market.  You made some berry vinegar last year, right?  This salad cries out for the special combination of sweet berries with vinegar, and I even add more fruitiness with a splash of pickled cherry juice.  Spearmint and fennel fronds are up in gardens right now; you might skip the fennel but don’t omit the mint.

Crème fraîche, which is essential to serve on the side, is stupidly easy to make with some cream and buttermilk. Don’t you dare buy it.  Recipe below.

So if you think we shouldn’t legislate love and really want to move forward, this salad is really a perfect way to celebrate spring, when the world is mud-luscious, and the queer old balloonman whistles far and wee.

Beet and Cabbage Salad with Mint, Fennel, and Crème Fraîche

Serves 4.

  • 1/2 small head of red cabbage, or quarter head if larger (aim for 5-6 cups of shreds)
  • 1 medium dark red beet (3-4-inch diameter)
  • 3-4 shallots, sliced very thinly
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2 tablespoons capers, rinsed (salt-cured are better than brined)
  • 2 tablespoons fruity olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons berry vinegar (substitute balsamic)
  • splash of pickled cherry juice or cranberry juice, if you have it
  • handful of spearmint, leaves rolled up and sliced finely in chiffonade
  • fennel frond tips, torn into little pieces
  • 1/2 cup or more crème fraîche

Shred the cabbage as finely as you can with a knife.  Do the same with the shallots, then soak shallot shreds in cold water for 5-10 minutes to remove some of the strong flavor.  Drain.  Using a box grater, grate the beet.  Toss vegetables with the salt and capers, and set aside for 15-30 minutes.  Whisk together the oil and vinegar, and add to shreds.  Just before serving, add the splash of juice, then top bowl with a chiffonade of spearmint and little fennel frond bits.  Serve with a generous dollop of crème fraîche for each serving.

Crème Fraîche

Makes 1.25 pints.

  • 1 pint freshest, most organic, lovely heavy cream you can find
  • 1/4 cup buttermilk
  • 1 quart-sized jar (pint is too small)

Plan ahead several days before serving, as it takes time to set up.  In the gloomy, rainy PNW, it often takes mine three days, but I like it thick and tangy.

Mix together cream and buttermilk in a sterilized jar.  Cover with cheesecloth and let sit on the counter for anywhere from 1-3 days, depending on how thick you want the final product.  The longer you wait, the stronger the flavor.  Don’t bother mixing it, as it will even out over time and get a uniform thickness.  Refrigerate and enjoy with soups, salads, or desserts.

land use and the urban farm

A fundamental part of my pedagogy at the Clark Honors College at University of Oregon is fostering networks for students:  between themselves, the greater university community, our Eugene community at large, and with worlds of possibilities.   For the lower-division Humanities sequence food and literature class, now in its third year, I try to include an interactive component that stresses some of our community networks.  As you might imagine, this is difficult given the short quarters and my mandate to teach food from the literary perspective, but we do manage to pull off something.

This year, we visited the Urban Farm on the outskirts of the university.  OK, just across the street. But in many ways, it’s a homesteading plot in the wilds of the Millrace, clustered with the arts facilities.  The wild, wild northwest.

This is my favorite picture from the day.  It’s my students listening to Urban Farm Director Harper Keeler of the Landscape Architecture Department.  He’s an active part of my food studies group and he’s been involved with the Urban Farm for a great deal of its ~30-year history.  Yes, we’ve been doing the farm-to-school schtick for about 30 years!

Harper teaches classes that incorporate sustainability readings and hands-on stewardship and food growing training.  He also regularly gives tours of the farm, and was kind enough to show us around. Here he’s pointing out the location of the old farmhouse that was on the property, which was once an orchard of fruit and nut trees (cherries, apples, pears, almonds, filberts, and at least one big English walnut).

What is the orchard now?  Behind Harper and the compost bins made of old pallets, there’s a giant parking lot available for student athletes only while using the Jacqua Center for their tutoring appointments.  A couple prized trees were saved after some negotiations, apparently.

To be fair, the entire lot wasn’t an orchard; part of it became a Coca Cola bottling plant, then the lot was used for storage and deliveries to the farm.  But now it’s just an empty parking lot.  A colleague who works nearby keeps a tally — once 13 cars were parked there!  Usually it has one or two cars in it (two there during my day at the farm).

Land use, and the evolution (degeneration, I suppose) of a plot of soil from an orchard to an unused parking lot is fascinating for the literature scholar, because a walk becomes a story.  Folks like Harper and his staff and students learn how to read the land like we read books.  With fluency in parking lots and greenhouses, we can raise our own consciousnesses and those of others.  I am proud to be part of the team that is making these connections start to happen.

OK, before I get off my soapbox, I just have to brag about my students.

See the woman in the blue coat?  She is holding a Victorian blancmange made in our very own Clark Honors College kitchen, formerly the location of the Home Economics Department at UO.  Yes, my students bring blancmanges to share with the class.  Can you beat that?

The lit, high-tech greenhouse is not on the farm, alas.  It’s the adjacent property, managed by one of the science programs, and allegedly the greenhouse is doing experiments with GMO crops.  The Urban Farm’s greenhouse, which helps grow food for low-income programs and the 80 students a term who learn on it, is the jerryrigged, salvaged and foraged plastic one in front (which was vandalized by some moron who slashed the side with a knife).  Anyone have a rich uncle?  Car wash to raise funds?  All we need is an empty lot…

The little contraption in the second photo above, around the back of the Urban Farm greenhouse, is a low-cost, low-fuel model developed by a student for use in developing countries.  I understand he’s off in Central America testing out field models right now.

Another greenhouse, and winter crops in the front part of the 1.5 acre farm.  We’re able to grow brassicas and various lettuces throughout the winter in the Willamette Valley, and the Urban Farm manages quite well, even with night-visiting nutria from the river tributary next to the farm.

The cabbages improve with frost, and I’ve found arugula almost completely loses its bitterness with all the rainfall.

A lesson I am trying to take to heart.

seeded slaw

If you’re finding it too hot for baked beans, try cole slaw.  An American original standard, it’s a fitting side for July BBQs.  I can’t resist experimenting with cole slaws.  I made an all-Oregon, hazelnut/blue cheese version a few years ago, for example.  And let’s not forget my Polish sauerkraut-apple-carrot slaw of yesteryear.

This one is studded with crunchy seeds, a nice contrast to the creamy dressing and cabbagey cabbage.

I salt my cabbage prior to making the slaw.  I find it makes for less watery run-off when the salad is complete.

The easiest dressing in the world is some homemade crème fraîche, mixed into the pre-salted cabbage.  But if you don’t have any of that around, consider a buttermilk alternative.

Seeded Slaw

Serves 6 as a side dish.

  • 1/2 med. head of green cabbage (weight will vary widely given the time of year and freshness of cabbage, but aim for around 6 cups, shredded finely)
  • 1/2 cup sweet white onion (e.g., Walla Wallas), sliced very thinly
  • handful of sunflower seeds
  • 1 tablespoon yellow mustard seeds, presoaked in hot water
  • 1 tablespoon caraway seeds
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt

Rinse finely sliced onion in plenty of cold water, set aside.

Presoak the mustard seeds in hot water.

Toast all the seeds except the mustard seeds in a dry pan on medium heat (shake the pan frequently for 2-3 minutes, until the seeds smell fragrant and look roasty).  Add non-mustard seeds to onion.

Shred cabbage as finely as possible.  A mandoline, if you have one, is best, but I’ve used a sharp knife and wits plenty of times. Place in a colander.

Salt the cabbage with the kosher salt, and toss in the colander.  Let sit for an hour or so.

Give the cabbage a good rinse, and dry it as completely as possible with a tea towel or paper towels.

Place the dry cabbage in a large bowl with the mustard seeds and the onion/seed mixture.   Add either 2/3 cup of crème fraîche and a bit of cider vinegar or the following buttermilk dressing:

Buttermilk Dressing

  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 2 tablespoons cider vinegar
  • 1 teaspoon whole grain mustard
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon sugar

Whisk together all parts of the dressing, then toss it with the cabbage.  Chill completely (both you and the slaw).  Slaw improves if it is kept overnight in the refrigerator.