Eight writers offer praising prose for underdog foods
The dour Calvinists who colonized New England considered gluttony and lust the most dangerous of the seven deadly sins, no doubt because they offered intense and immediate pleasure in this life.
In addition to those dour Calvinists, some tools and the Bible, the Mayflower brought parsnips to the New World. A passenger on that ship, Reverend Josiah Brigham, called the parsnip God's greatest manifestation of love on Earth, or something to that effect, and penned a monograph, The Roote of Goodeness, praising its virtues in 1621.
Three hundred and seventy years later, my oldest brother succumbed to one of those deadly sins, killing himself with a knife and a fork. Among gourmands, he was known as "The Terminator" and ate five all-you-can-eat establishments into bankruptcy before getting his own just desserts. Swedish meatballs, all manner of fried things, cheese-laden concoctions, greasy slabs of beef and pork, ladles of artery-clogging sauces, deviled eggs and seafood Newburgs were no match for his voracious depravity.
My brother, however, never ate a parsnip. I have, and therein lies my salvation. I share his shameful proclivities, but periodically I transcend them, finding absolution not in the sweaty breathiness of the confessional or in the balancing of my aura. Instead, I seek the modest sanctuary of the parsnip. Some spark of decency must remain in my otherwise polluted soul that enables me to find a righteous joy in the sweet, gentle rootiness of this vegetable. While my baser nature drags me back to the gluttony of the groaning board, the parsnip waits patiently, calling me to a higher plane -- perhaps a prefiguring of Heaven's Table.
A proverb tells us, "Fine words butter no parsnips." True enough: The buttering is best left to us. I parboil them, slice thinly and saute in a little butter until each morsel is golden brown. They are divine.
A stupid, lazy camper often gets her comeuppance in the form of a bear. This stupid, lazy camper huddled in her tent at 3 a.m. last summer while an adolescent male bear tore apart a zippered canvas cooler that certain stupid, lazy people had left out in the open air. When a weary dawn finally broke, apricot pits gooed over with the rich thickness of bear spit lay everywhere; the grapes had been trod and actually shat upon; the carrots had vanished; the apples were eaten; and the melon had been broken and brutally slurped.
All that remained -- untouched, inviolate and wholly intact -- was one perfect green globe of damned cabbage.
When even a rampaging bear won't eat that which seems destined to find its highest expression in cole slaw -- a dish the children humorously refer to as "cold slop" -- how can we expect others to embrace its cruciferous goodness? I admit that I came to this vegetable late in life, having read enough Irish novels describing the sickly smell of the stuff overboiling in water to have snubbed it at the store. But an Irishman who has never written a novel showed me that epiphany awaited -- a culinary "aha!" moment.
Despite its limp annual surrender when paired with its good buddy the corned beef, cabbage has a stand-alone gorgeousness when washed, cored, quartered and slow-cooked in generous amounts of butter. Shake the water from its leaves, place it over low heat, and with a wooden spoon gently caress until its firm quarters yield to your ministrations. The result is unconscionably sexy, but also warming and freshly simple.
Best of all, any stupid, lazy person with opposable thumbs who's mastered fire can do it. Take that, you bear!
If you can't grow enough tomatillos (to-ma-tee-yos) to keep you in green salsa and pepian till at least Christmas, you must be planting them in blacktop. The small, green, tomato-like berries are native to the tropics, but for some reason they grow like goldenrod around here. Sue and I planted a few seedlings when we moved to the Champlain Valley from Saranac Lake six years ago. We haven't bothered with them since. And yet they keep popping up on their own every year, like lupine -- long green canes that overproduce two golf-ball-sized varieties, one with a purple skin but the same tart lemony flavor and waxy green husk as the more common, green-skinned kind.
I always knew they provided the main ingredient of the delicious green salsa at the Casa del Sol in Saranac Lake, but I only learned their loftier culinary purpose when driving down the Pan-Am Highway in Guatemala in 1992. My Guatemalan companion knew a roadhouse outside Huehuetenango, where we pulled in for lunch. Immediately he recommended the pepian verde: chicken in a local green mole (sauce), made with pumpkin seeds, chiles and tomatillos. My first bite produced one of those rare light-up-your-mouth moments, and I wheedled the recipe out of the owner.
You make pepian verde by browning a cut-up chicken and then simmering it in a sauce of toasted unsalted pumpkin seeds, roasted jalapeqo peppers, garlic, onion, cilantro and, of course, tomatillos. The dish works just as well for shrimp and, minus the pumpkin seeds, with all fish and seafood. And you don't even have to grow your own. You can get them dirt-cheap and big as apples in most organic markets and co-ops.
I serve the pepian verde with black beans, corn tortillas and sometimes sweet corn -- too often, apparently. Last year when I asked a guest, Ian Pounds of Ripton, how he liked the strange Mesoamerican dish, he sighed and reminded me that he'd already had it at the house twice before -- though of course he really liked it.
The main thing that turns people off about okra is the slimy inside. And the hairy outside. Oh, and don't forget the taste, my daughter reminds me. But grossing out the non-cognoscenti isn't the only thing I enjoy about ladyfingers, as these semi-tropical green pods are also known.
I first tasted okra at a cafeteria in downtown Birmingham, Alabama, where it was offered as an alternative to fried green tomatoes. Both came coated in crispy cornmeal. Their slippery, slightly sour interiors cut the salty grease on the outside.
I encountered okra again at a friend's house outside Los Angeles. Dinner turned out to be take-out pizza, which our host -- an aspiring screenwriter with a heavy southern drawl -- passed up in favor of his third martini. As we were picking the last fragments of melted cheese from the box, he shambled off to the kitchen and returned, forking up a plate full of food. "Anyone want some okra and tomatoes?" he offered. We didn't.
In this country you most often find okra deep-fried, stewed with tomatoes or melting into the glue that binds Creole gumbo. Slaves brought it here from Africa. But it traveled north to Turkey and Greece as well. There it's called bamya and is either sun-dried and used in soups or soaked in vinegar or lemon juice to mitigate the mucus.
Okra also found its way to India, where my mother-in-law grew up eating it. In my favorite recipe, adapted from one of hers, hexagonal disks of bhindi are softened in clarified butter with slivered onions that have been carefully caramelized to a deep, sweet brown. Aromatic ajowan -- a spice that's related to caraway and tastes like peppery oregano -- gives the velvety okra just enough edge to make it as entertaining to taste as it is to spring on the uninitiated.
In 1957, Constance Spry wrote in The Cookery Book that Brussels sprouts "should be regarded... as minute and delicate little cabbages, mostly heart." The Brussels sprout is perhaps best understood as the most passionate but also most misunderstood branch of Brassica oleracea. Its little verdant heart is full of the helpless rage of a palate pariah.
The sprout is not entirely blameless for its reputation. Raw, it confronts the world with a tight, tough little fist. Brussels sprouts do not have an inviting demeanor. Their external leaves come together in a thin-lipped scowl, and their resemblance to Audrey II's offspring (in Little Shop of Horrors) is uncanny. And a sprout responds violently to overcooking, assuming the texture and taste of a moldy rodent brain -- bitter, soggy and stinky. Presented with an overdone vegetable, you can only wonder, why would anyone eat such a thing?
But Brussels sprouts are worth getting to know. Well done, they roll on the plate like edible emeralds, and they yield to the masticating jowl with a gentle crunch. You just have to remember their basic nature -- seething, full of rage -- and approach them accordingly: with a knife. If you stab your sprouts at their base, knife aimed at the heart, they will cook all the way through quickly -- and you avoid the decaying brain taste and texture. Lightly blanched or sauteed, drenched in butter and sprinkled with freshly ground pepper, the vilified veggies are, as one chef put it, "little green gems."
I can never get enough of the gooey ginger candies many sushi restaurants in New York City leave on top of the bill. The only English on the packaging says "Ginger Candy" and "Made in Indonesia." The ingredients aren't translated, which is probably a good thing, so I can continue to believe that it's just concentrated ginger with vitamins.
The little log-shaped candies are covered in powdered sugar. They're chewy but hard, and require some serious gnawing before they turn to toffee in your mouth and you get a huge, sweet burst of ginger and spice. The spice is intense -- kind of a zesty pepper.
Most people stop at one. Some people spit them out. Then there are those, like me, who acquire a serious ginger-candy habit and eat them until queasy. Yum.
If you want to establish your foodie credentials, you can sing the praises of all sorts of exotic and, to some, disgusting foods: foie gras, blood sausage, sweetbreads, fish eggs. Mention that you ate braised bat in the Far East and you'll get some respect. But utter the words "pork rinds" and, foodie-wise, you're toast.
Not that they wouldn't be good with toast. Yes, as a card-carrying foodie I confess: I also love pork rinds.
During the senior Bush campaign I became aware that a yen for pork rinds is something to be ashamed of. When George H. averred that pork rinds were his favorite snack, my friends guffawed, chalking it up to an attempt to woo the Bubba vote. You can bet, they all said, he doesn't actually eat that stuff.
I was dumbfounded. Hadn't these people ever tasted a pork rind? Crisp, salty, larded with, well, lard, they're a snacker's dream.
According to porkrind.com, which bills itself "the online pork rinds resource guide," Americans are spending more each year on pork rinds, totting up sales of some $840 million on the crispy morsels last year alone.
It turns out that the up-tick in business is not due to Republican loyalty but to the fact that some of those low-carb-diet folks are touting pork rinds the way the low-fat folks used to push pasta. In other words, they are practically health food.
This is not the point of pork rinds. Pork rinds are not good for you. They are a guilty pleasure, a secret indulgence. They are the kind of thing it's best to eat when driving. Alone. You can dump the plastic bag at a rest-stop trashcan. Getting the grease off the steering wheel is a little trickier.
Like any food snob ("Wasn't that Saint-Marcellan we ate in Provence just divine?") I have my own "authentic" pork rind experience. I was driving to Edisto Island, South Carolina, with Matt and Ted Lee, two well-known Southern food purveyors (see: boiledpeanuts.com) and writers, who insisted we pull into a low-slung, roadside butcher shop called Marvin's Meats. There, among myriad hand-lettered signs -- "Small Suckling Pigs," "Shank Bones For Soup" -- and pork shoulders slowly smoking in drum-shaped rigs, I found plastic bags of chunky, rustic pork rinds.
Matt pointed out that Frank Marvin's pork rinds "Never let you forget what they are" -- pig, that is. "In my mind, that's a good thing," he said. The rinds are variously colored according to the shading of the pig's skin. There are little bits of bacony meat clinging to some of them. A huge bag, as I recall, cost us something like $5. We scarfed them while driving further south. I was grateful to be eating pork rinds in company. And, as it was a rental car, I didn't have to de-grease the steering wheel.
A few nights ago I ate prune pudding at my friend Tina's house. I could tell from the expectant but nervous look on her face that she didn't think I'd like it, didn't even think I'd eat it. She almost apologized for serving it. But eyes glistened as the sticky, gummy, dark-brown pudding was put before me, and I confessed that I liked, even loved, prunes. That's when we knew we had a cause in common, a kind of fruity alliance. And we wanted to rescue the prune.
I have loved prunes since childhood and was always happy to see the box of Sunkist in my mother's cupboard. But most people make a face when they hear the word "prune," squeezing their features into a grimace that resembles the dried fruit they despise. Inevitably they make some remark like "Eww, prunes!" or note cynically that you're eating prunes only because of -- dare I say it? -- constipation.
Tina's and my penchant for prunes creates an uncomfortable alliance with people whose systems are, well, slow. The thing that is so unfair about prune prejudice is that raisins -- a smaller, dark, dried fruit -- have an excellent reputation. As do their cousins, currants. Raisins even dance on TV and have their own special following. But no one refers to them as shriveled grapes, whereas the new and, to me, rather desperate marketing ploy of prune packers is to refer to them on the box as "dried plums." Well, of course they are, but they are transformed into something different.
If you stew a prune, and I have on many occasions, it doesn't turn back into a plum; it is still a prune, just chubbier. What a flavor it gives to duck or rabbit, or even chicken, and how happy I am to see any of those dishes on a restaurant menu.
If you would like to join in reviving the prune reputation, start right now. Share a recipe that includes prunes; write a prune poem, short story or anecdote. Become a member of the prune club today!