Posts Tagged ‘greens’

You know it’s spring

March 30, 2009

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It’s starting, finally, to feel like spring.  I saw daffodils in Prospect Park this morning, and even one dark tree flowering all over with pink.  But for Koreans, one of the earliest and best signs of spring is the appearance of 냉이, naegni, or shepherd’s purse.  Koreans love wild greens, and naengi is one of the most special (and most expensive).  You can make a namul, or wilted salad, out of it, blanching it and dressing it with salt, sesame oil, and sesame salt.  But my favorite way to eat it is in a deep, pungent, doenjang-jjigae, or soybean paste stew.  It has a strong, woodsy fragrance that just wafts over you as you spoon up the salty stew.  And if you eat it in that doenjang-jjiae, as we did, after a couple of hours of planting cucumber seeds on a Korean produce farm, it just tastes that much better.

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My sister’s friend Nancy had invited us to join her on her parents’ farm in Walden, New York, about an hour and a half north of the city.  Her parents, in their retirement, had decided to start growing Korean produce.  Her father was an economist, her mother, a long-time small business owner.  And now they are farmers!  The romance of that is totally intoxicating to me.

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It was too early to be planting directly into the ground, but their greenhouses were full of seedlings—garlic, giant scallions (actually a different vegetable from the green onions we all know), garland chrysanthemums, and peppers.  Our job was to start the cucumbers, placing one little cucumber seed in each square of soil.  It should have been boring, but it wasn’t.  It was soothing to sit there in the sun, poking and covering the seeds with a pair of tweezers.  By the last frost in early May, the cucumber seedlings will be ready to be transferred.

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Even though all we did was stomp around the farm a bit in our rubber boots, and then sit for hours poking seeds into squares of dirt, when it was time for lunch, we had that sharp appetite that comes from working outside.  Nancy’s mother had picked the naengi, washed it very carefully, and added it to the strong stew.  She’d also made bulgogi, thinly sliced beef marinated in a slightly sweet, soy-sauce marinade, served with fresh greens from the greenhouses and wonderful pancakes stuffed with vegetables and shrimp.  I ate ravenously and almost with a feeling of happy righteousness, knowing that I’d done some small thing towards growing food.

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Nancy said we should come back in the summer, when everything is growing riotously.  She’d been worried there would be nothing to see on the farm when the earth was still bare.  I’ll happily go anytime they’ll have me.  I went home with garland chrysanthemum and scallion seedlings, a little baggie of shepherd’s purse, and Korean radish pickles that Nancy’s mom had preserved in a giant barrel in their barn—very stinky and very tasty.  But I’m glad that I came when I did, when everything felt possible.

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Rice and greens, or arroz con quelites

August 24, 2007

Mercado Hidalgo is considered a little “fresa,” which literally means “strawberry” but is also Mexican slang meaning “snobby.” It’s located in upper-class Colonia Reforma, on Emilio Carranza on the block north of Palmeras, and its produce does sparkle. I saw stuff that I hadn’t seen in other markets in Oaxaca, like huitlacoche and fresh figs. I almost flipped when I saw the figs, as it doesn’t quite feel like summer unless I eat some fresh figs.

They also had beautiful bunches of quelites, a type of Mexican green, leafy vegetable, which inspired me to actually try one of the recipes from my new Mexican cookbook, “Alquimias y Atmosferas de Sabor,” by Carmen Ramirez Degollado, the chef and owner of the beloved “El Bajio” in Mexico City. I’ve been trying to read more Spanish, since I remember more from reading than hearing, but the only thing that really holds my interest enough to get through more than a few pages are cookbooks and food magazines. Unfortunately, reading them doesn’t challenge me as much as reading literature or news articles would because I know enough about how recipes are constructed to figure out most of what I read through context. For example, as I read a recipe calling for “chayotes tiernos,” I guessed that “tierno” meant fresh or tender, didn’t bother looking it up in the dictionary, and then was shocked when my Spanish teacher described her ex-boyfriend as acting very gentlemanly and very “tierno” on their first date. It turns out a man can be as tender as a vegetable.

Rick Bayless translates “quelites” as “lamb’s quarters,” and recommends substituting it in his recipes with chard or collard greens in the U.S., some green with strong flavors. But I’m not sure that he’s describing the same thing I bought, as my “quelites” were more like spinach, just better. They had a similar sweet flavor, and reminded me a lot of Korean spinach with its leggy stems, but without the furry aftertaste of a lot of American spinach. Also, I know that the word “quelites” is used to describe a whole category of Mexican greens, including even amaranth leaves which are also called “quintonil,” and amaranth leaves are distinctly stronger and more bitter, more like chard.

But I digress. The recipe was very simple, a rice with greens dish, calling for the rice to be fried with pureed raw onion and garlic. Then broth was to be added with the bunch of raw quelites, two parts broth to one part rice. Like most Mexican recipes, it assumed a lot of knowledge on the part of the reader, and I wondered, “Stalks and all? Should I pulverize the leaves and make it a green rice? Should I throw the leaves in whole?” Finally, I decided to just destem them, chop them roughly and throw them in with the broth leftover from cooking my pork shoulder.

Well, I put in way too much broth, forgetting the leaves would emit a fair amount of water themselves, and I ended up with a rice with greens porridge. I mistakenly thought I could avoid burning the rice this time by adding more broth earlier on. I also think there’s a reason chicken broth is normally used to cook rice, not pork broth, because although the flavor was richer than it would have been with water, it wasn’t rich in quite the right way. But the quelites didn’t turn turd green, I got to try cooking with them, and I still enjoyed my rice mush very much. Thank God I had my shameless solitude.

Tacos of garlicky greens and cheese, plus beans

August 15, 2007

There are several things that make cooking in Mexico very different from cooking in my Brooklyn apartment:

• Stoves that won’t turn down to low
• No oven
• Cheap, thin pots and pans with uneven bottoms that make the hot stove even less forgiving
• Garlic that comes in tiny, intense cloves and only white onions, rawer and better for Mexican cooking, but not complex
enough for Italian pasta sauces
• Not enough bowls
• I miss my good chef’s knife!

Still, there are quite a few advantages. Last Saturday, I cooked a pot of black beans, practically cackling with glee that I had epazote, which Rick Bayless says to use “if you can get it.” They were the best beans I’ve ever made, if not the best I’ve ever tasted, tender but with distinction, full-bodied with the incomparable flavor of epazote, and so easy, as all I had to do was boil up a cup of beans in water covering them with a sprig of epazote for two hours, adding more water when necessary and a bit of salt near the end. They didn’t even need to be pre-soaked! I may cook a pot of beans every weekend while I’m here. And if I can smuggle some fresh epazote past customs and into my Le Creuset dutch oven in Brooklyn, they might be even better than they were in the cheap, thin, misshaped pot I had to use, though admittedly, there may be some special risks to smuggling packages of herbs and weeds from Mexico into the U.S.

On Sunday, I decided to make a lunch of tacos, of garlicky greens and fried onions, from my beloved Rick Bayless cookbook. Most of his recipes are eminently and invitingly doable, but with my crappy stove and my reluctance to stock up on all kinds of spices, I’ve decided to stick to simple dishes and try making at least one kind of salsa a week, which is still an exciting goal.

I started by making Bayless’s Yucatecan simmered salsa of roasted tomatoes and fresh peppers, substituting serranos for the habaneros I couldn’t find. I roasted the tomatoes on a metal comal covered in foil right on top of the stove, until the skins were black and splitting open. After peeling them the best I could, I threw them in the blender. In the meantime, I sautéed chopped white onions until dark gold and sweet. I added the pureed tomatoes and two chiles, halved. It wasn’t as spicy as I’d hoped, but it was still such a joy to spoon it up, to remember with such brightness how delicious tomatoes could be. I wonder if this is what it’s like to fall in love again with someone you’ve been married to for 20 years.

For the greens, I had some fresh green chard from the organic market. That got washed, sliced into ribbons, and then blanched for a minute or two in boiling water. Then I thinly sliced white onions and sautéed them until dark and sweet, threw in some chopped garlic, and then the chard until it was warmed through, adding a bit of salt. Meanwhile, the black beans from the day before were reheating in another pot.

I even walked to “Las Delicias de Etla” on Independencia, past the Basilica de la Nuestra Soledad, for my cheese to try to ensure that the queso fresco I bought was truly “fresco” from Etla, where all great Oaxacan cheese is born.

Ah, the juggling of pots and pans! The mug I had to fill with crumbled cheese, the juice glass with salsa! My little sink was overflowing. But I sprinkled queso fresco all over the beans and greens, made sure my blandas, the big floppy tortillas, were warm, and sat down for a very good meal. It was so satisfying, and almost surprising to taste the sweet onions mixed in the slightly bitter, strong flavor of the chard. The beans were even better reheated, and the salsa added a tang that would otherwise have been missed. It was simple meal, despite the number of burners I had going at one point, but it was the best thing I could have eaten on that Sunday afternoon. It felt so good to be cooking again!

This weekend, I’m going to make shredded pork tacos with a tomato-chipotle salsa.