consider the vegetable: produce as modern art

Squash growing five feet up an elm tree; Eugene, OR
Sweet trompe l’oeil pastries shaped like bok choi mimicking jade sculpture in National Museum, Silks Palace Restaurant, Taipei

Of all the odd patterns I’ve discovered through my study of food in modern literature,  fruit and vegetables as victims of circumstance is probably the one I like best.  Meat, since Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle (1905), had its battleground drawn between the forces of good and evil.   But produce, it would seem, was contested land.

Red cabbage sauerkraut lacto-fermenting; Eugene, OR
Seed zucchini in the winter rain; Open Oak Farm, Sweet Home, OR

Breaking free from the cornucopia and vanitas imagery that played out in paintings over and over again from the Dutch Old Masters onward, the vegetable in particular was portrayed in new and unusual and almost unrecognizable ways, frequently being destroyed by man’s (or woman’s!) hand: decaying, tortured, forced to adapt and survive in unfriendly conditions.

Display at Food Network’s Food and Wine Festival Grand Tasting, 2011; New York, NY
Native but tropical-flavored pawpaw, first crop in seven years; The Gourd Patch, Springfield, OR
Indian drumstick vegetable (Moringa oleifera), steamed; Oakland, CA

Be a modernist.  Try it yourself. It’s winter and raining and your imagination has nothing better to do to combat the Christmas onslaught of kitschy, rehashed icons and themes. Promote, as M. F. K. Fisher did, a tonic of mixed leftover vegetable juices as a tasty treat.  She fooled no one.  Would you have better luck with an apple-paw paw-drumstick cocktail?

Or think of vegetables not as their perfectly ripe, brilliantly colored, archetypal forms, but rather in a state of decay, too big and fecund, too shrunken, cut into pieces, out of place, misshapen, a seed, growing awry, doomed…

First harvest of Belgian endive, next it goes into deep chill then darkness to grow the familiar pale yellow chicon; Sunset Lane Farm, Brownsville, OR

…or is it dormant, exceptional, whole in its fragmentation, full of promise?

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spring vegetables say hello, locavore!

A pile of the first, tender spring roots in our glorious valley never ever fail to make me all daffy.  You can keep your Jesus miracles.  I like natural ones. So I captured a bunch of the beauty at the Lane County Farmers Market today (with a few thrown in from last week).  Click the thumbnails to enlarge.

Lots of radishes: elongated French breakfast, bright pink ruby, and red ones. Hey Bales is growing daikon and has bunches of little ones about 4 inches long.  They’ll make wonderful pickles.

Tiny creamy-white turnips are a fleeting treat — they all too soon grow up, oy.  Pickle them whole or braise in a slightly sweet, buttery broth.  Spring onions are garlic are beginning to give way to leeks, and raabs are on their way out.

I saw one vendor with snap peas (the Organic Rednecks).  Beets in a rainbow of reds and yellows, from tiny to large, are all over the market.  You should retain the greens for beets and turnips; steam or saute them after washing, and dress with a little butter and garlic or with dashes of soy and rice vinegar and a sprinkle of sesame seeds.

Many vendors are selling tomatoes and peppers.  Unless you have a greenhouse, DO NOT give in to the temptation.  Every year I get closer and closer to the old timers who don’t plant tomatoes until mid-June.  Egads, who can wait that long!  But then I watch their tomatoes grow faster and better than mine.  So. Food for thought.

I also saw the first artichokes, new potatoes, many more eggs than last year, tender zucchini, napa cabbage, dried beans and grain, and flowers galore.  Those cherry blossoms are so gorgeous.  Too bad they’re so fragile.  SLO farm (who is selling the cherry blossoms) is also selling my absolutely favorite dark purple lilacs.

Enjoy the weekend and don’t forget to listen in to Food for Thought on KLCC (89.7) tomorrow, Sunday, April 29, at noon!  We bring you urban chickens and campus food pantries.

improvised smoky bean and root vegetable soup

Campbell’s Bean with Bacon soup was one of my favorites growing up.  Quivering beige sludge with an occasional bean or mysterious fat cube, it was condensed.  You’d add a can full of water and slosh it around in a pot on the stove, then it would become soup.  It would cook up hot and salty, just how I liked it, and perfect with saltine crackers.

Even after leaving home, it was comfort food.  I remember with fascination and trepidation a particular old sandwich shop in Ann Arbor that would sell a bowl of it, sans attribution, for college student prices.  Maybe a buck fifty a bowl?  Perfect for a freezing day walking around without sense in Michigan.  (Drake’s closed a few years after my last visit in the late 80s, but there’s a wonderful photo set from that era here.)

I wouldn’t say no if someone put a can in front of me now, but I’d probably seize up over the salt content.  Actually, maybe not, since even Campbell’s realized it was over the top and reformulated the stuff into a “heart healthy” version (whatever that means) a number of years ago.

There are many ways to make your own bean-smoky-meat soup that are way more healthy than anything processed in a can, but if you’re lucky, they’ll still bring on that rush of nostalgia when you smell them in the pot.

I had a surplus of root vegetables from the CSA thanks to this frosty month, and thought I’d experiment with a bean soup that was as much about the veg as it was the legume.  This soup is more than its parts, so feel free to add more root vegetables than you think possible.  It will look like too many roots, but you’ll cook half of them down into the broth.  Don’t do anything ridiculous, like add beets, though. Stick with mild potatoey- or carroty-type roots.

Smoked ham or bacon or turkey is really not optional for this recipe, as it forms the broth.  Start the night before you’d like to serve it.  Flavor improves as it sits.

Improvised Smoky Bean and Root Vegetable Soup

  • Several pounds of mixed root vegetables: rutabagas, turnips, potatoes, celery root, etc., chopped
  • One large yellow onion, diced
  • 3-4 stalks celery, diced
  • a half dozen good-sized carrots and/or parsnips
  • Several cups of country ham (or a couple of ham hocks/shanks if you have those instead)
  • Greens: a bunch of kale, collards, green cabbage, head of parsley, escarole, etc.
  • Fresh herbs if you have them (I used a bay leaf, a couple sprigs of sage, and some thyme)
  • 2-3 cups of dried soup beans, which might be Hutterite soup beans, Vermont cranberry beans, Navy or Great Northern beans, etc.
  • salt and pepper

Soak your beans overnight and prepare the stock. Dice the onion, celery, and carrots or parsnips into small pieces.  Over medium heat in a medium-sized stock pot (5 gallons, perhaps), sauté ham (if using), chopped onion, celery and carrots/parsnips until they turn golden brown.  Add enough water to fill the pot about halfway, and add half of the chopped root vegetables, herbs, and the ham hock/shank (if using).

Do not add the beans or the other half of the vegetables yet.

Simmer stock on a low heat for a couple of hours, then cool and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, bring stock up to a simmer, then add the beans and cook until they are soft.  With a potato masher, mush some of them up to thicken the broth.

Now taste and salt the broth (salt needed will depend on the ham you’re using).  If in doubt, err on the less salty side, since you can add more later. Add the greens and the rest of the vegetables, and simmer another half hour or so until tender.

Adjust seasonings before serving with a hunk of country bread.

Serves many hungry people and freezes well.  Cats who appear to be innocently looking out the window from a far corner of the table so they won’t seem interested also enjoy it when your back is turned.