Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Eggs and Greens with Thick Spaghetti

Sadly, even with the overexposure to "unusual" foods, when it comes to vegetables, most Americans still eat the basic few. For me, however, I can't think of a single one that isn't, at least on a rotational basis, in my diet. One of my favorite by far is kale.

Rick in vitamin C and K, calcium and beta carotene, kale often makes the top of the list of healthiest foods, most likely because it contains lots of carotenoids (pigments that carry oxygen) and is a natural anti-inflamatory. Basically, people who eat diets high in these dense nutrients live longer lives without disease. If this information isn't enough to sway your thinking, then a bowl of my hearty pasta should do the trick.

I call it peasant food because it's cheap to make and sticks to your ribs, but it's also very dense in nutrients and good for your heart fats (olive oil and walnuts). There's a nice balance between carbohydrates and proteins, which gives one sustained energy, and it's serious comfort food that is simple and rewarding to make.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Secret Meetings and Brown Paper Bags

A few weeks ago at the Farmer's Market, I found myself hanging back in line, keeping a fair distance from the other shoppers. It was way too cold for a late February Saturday morning in California and all I really wanted to do was have a quick, but private chat with the vendor and take myself home. Finally, the line died down and I seized the opportunity to corner Lamb Lady behind her table. "I don't see it on your board, but don't you have some Marguez for sale?" I asked as calmly as possible.

She eyed me a bit suspiciously and after a long pause, repeated, "Do I have any Marguez for sale?" The wind kicked up a bit and my patience started to flag, but she was the only one (to my knowledge) who had Marguez, so I had to keep my cool; I nodded and then she went on into a long soliloquy that covered, in turn, raising lamb, a secret recipe, and an FDA crackdown. I nodded my sympathies and then, in whispered voice, she confided that while she didn't have any with her that morning, she just so happened to have two half-pound packages back at her ranch and could bring one the following week. It took a lot for me to get her to agree to giving up both packs, but after a few more minutes she agreed. It would have to be secret, though, and she wouldn't list them on her board, so if I wanted Marguez, I needed to be there the following Saturday. Period.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Ephemeral Beauties

Along with a wild streak of gray hair over my right temple, age has brought me a deep appreciation for the treasures of each season, something that was entirely lost on my younger self. Lately, the end of fall and the whole of winter has become my favorite seasonal time, especially in regard to the bounty of produce.

I've a deep love and respect for the earthiness of turnips and rutabagas and parsnips, the sweetness of fennel, the bright bitterness of collards and Tatsoi; I love cabbages and radicchio and endive, and the cauliflowers and broccolis, but while my vegetable bin seemed to overflow, the same didn't always seem true of my fruit basket.

At some point I realized this had more to do with my own mindset than reality, and off I ventured to the local farmer's market. It would be a trip that would forever change my life, particularly because at the time, I lived in Southern California and in spite of all the agricultural land that fell to new home construction, citrus was still a booming crop. It was there that I discovered the Myer lemon, a cross between an orange and a lemon, and, an all time favorite, the Blood orange. But a funny thing happened over the next two years--Blood oranges disappeared from the farmer's market and the fruit stands that lined the old highway that snaked inland  from the coast; they had never been available at the grocery store so I made no attempt to look there. As par for the course, this only made me crave them more and sent me in search of them-- an odyssey that would last many years.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

It's Artichoke Season!

Hooray--for who wouldn't want to sit around the table and pick over a heap of artichokes? Well, probably a lot of people because it's been my experience that there are two camps when it comes to this prickly thistle: Love 'em or Hate 'em. If you hate them, there are only two possible reasons: they are challenging to prepare and leave your fingertips cracked and discolored (latex gloves are a handy way to nip this in the bud) or there simply isn't much to eat on an artichoke. True; I've known many a person to utilize an artichoke leaf as a vehicle for a dipping sauce, and it's even more true that there is just a little bit of 'meat' for one's teeth to scrape away on each leaf, but eating a pile of artichokes is as fun, rewarding, and delicious as spending an afternoon picking crabs? Not to mention, once you pick your way through all of the leaves, you get the real prize--the heart. So, it's fairly safe to say that if you can't fathom a better way to spend the day, then you come down in the other camp--a bona fide artichoke lover.

That's me. So, when Ken came home the other night with a lumpy brown paper bag and a Cheshire grin on his face and announced he had a surprise for me, I knew that the Artichoke Man must have stopped by his office. When I opened the bag and peered in to see 7 beautiful, medium-sized artichokes, I was thrilled, for not only would I get to eat artichokes, but it also meant that Spring was on its way and soon enough, all the delights of the new season would be bountiful and ready to enjoy.

Before I espouse on how to cook, or even eat, an artichoke, perhaps a bit of artichoke trivia to brighten the day. First off, the artichoke is truly a Mediterranean discovery. First discovered in Sicily, the ancient Romans actually would candy the hearts with honey and cumin seed, which is sort of fascinating to me as well as how someone somewhere hit upon the genius idea of actually preparing and eating an artichoke the way we do now; it must have been hell to have been an early artichoke aficionado--one's mouth literally torn to pieces from the sharp leaves and well, raw artichokes, at least the older ones, are very bitter. Anyhow, discover a better way to eat them, they did, and the artichoke moved around Europe and gained popularity, eventually riding the seas to Louisiana with the French and then soon after, taken by the Spanish to California. Now, virtually every artichoke eaten in the United States originates from Monterrey County, which just so happens to be about 90 minutes up the road from me, and, 80% of all artichokes are grown in a little town called Castroville, which is located in Monterrey County. Finally, just to note, in 1947 Marilyn Monroe was crowned the Queen of the Artichokes in Castroville, which is a bit ironic since at one point, the artichoke was also considered to be an aphrodisiac.