Green Plum Cooking School: Sat, Jan 16 and Jan 23
NOTE: The recipes used in my Green Plum Cooking School classes can be found in my online cookbook, “Eat Where Your Food Lives,” available for purchase at http://www.ChefMonicaPope.com)
“Hippo Eats Dwarf” is the title of a news report out of Bangkok that someone gave me a while ago and it stills hangs in my kitchen office. The gist of the news story is that a circus dwarf, named Od, bounces sideways on a trampoline and, by accident, ends up in the yawning mouth of a hippopotamus waiting in the wings to be in the next act. The vet explains that Hilda the Hippo has a gag reflex that caused her to swallow the dwarf, instead of spitting him out. The crowd loved it, applauded wildly, until they realized there had been a tragic mistake. I lead with this because, well, just because…tragedy happens.
It’s been a tough two weeks. I’m procrastinating writing this blog because two Saturdays ago, NOTHING happened in the class or at least I couldn’t think of anything (neither could my trusted memory keeper-researcher-assistant, Lisa). I was making my favorite dates: medjool dates stuffed with maple syrup and real Italian mascarpone, topped with pistachios and drizzled with orange blossom water. At one point, I thought that I had created a new word, “striration.” I was trying to say “striate,” meaning I wanted to leave streaks of maple syrup in my mascarpone, but I couldn’t think of the word “streak” and “striation” came to mind but came out as “striration.” While not spelled correctly, it turns out “striration” is most used (or mis-used) to mean the “ripped muscles of a body builder.”
I didn’t even make up a new word. So, I guess nothing (still) happened.
In that class, I also made my favorite salad: red quinoa vegetable salad (like a tabouli, really). Quinoa (pronounced “keen-wah) is a super food and one of the healthiest foods in the world; it is a complete protein on its own because it has all 8 essential amino acids, it’s not a grain (it’s a grass) and it’s in the spinach family. The quinoa salad we made has extra virgin olive oil, fresh meyer lemon juice, salt and pepper and lots of chopped local vegetables like green onions, carrots, broccoli, herbs, cauliflower, greens, tomatoes and anything else you can find at the market. We end up filling hollowed out zucchini cups with the quinoa salad – great for parties. The quinoa salad is a tad over-salted but still good. But I do love salt. It makes food tastes like what it is. Maybe I was overcompensating for my blandness…I don’t want to be boring. Ever!
Sometimes in class I think nothing happens – especially when I’m censored – but, really, something is happening all the time.
On Saturday, January 23rd, a local producer/director, Greg Scheinman, comes to the market and the cooking class to shoot me for a show called Profiles that airs on Thursday nights at 11pm on our local PBS station. The show profiles different people in our community, really a day-in-the-life point of view. I was told to be on my best behavior. Lili was told to be on her best behavior. For some reason, neither of us could stay on our best behavior.
I’m still riled up from two classes ago, the class that shall forever be remembered as “the racial tension class.” I stirred the melting pot as it were and someone was bound to get burned. No one wants to talk about race or at least they don’t want anyone to talk back, so I’m going into this Saturday’s class with some trepidation. Really, you just never know what I’m going to say — and today it will all be captured on camera!
During the week, Joe (my catering chef) sent me a link to a scathing article in The Atlantic about Alice Waters. I knew it was going to stir my pot. Even though we’ve stopped using Alice’s book, The Art of Simple Food, Alice keeps finding her way into the classes. Maybe it’s me who keeps dragging her in? Is she my security blanket? Is she my frenemy? Her business partner and pastry chef, Lindsey Schere, and her husband came to my restaurant, Boulevard Bistrot, many years ago. They were retired and traveling the country to visit the great museums of North America. Houston was an important stop with the Menil, CAM and the MFAH. I mumbled something about the press labeling me “The Alice Waters of the Third Coast” and they both burst out laughing. They remarked that even “Alice didn’t want to be Alice” and proceeded to talk about all the trials and tribulations of Chez Panisse and the board of directors that was set up to specifically help Alice achieve her lofty goals of putting gardens in schools and her interest in changing all students’ food choices, starting with her own daughter’s college, Yale, and 16 schools in Berkeley.
The article in The Atlantic is called “Cultivating Failure: How School Gardens Are Cheating Our Most Vulnerable Students”. I tried to understand the author’s point about the importance of reading and math and science – “real” education; we believe every kid has a right to a good one, but fall short for all sorts of reasons I’m not going to get into, except one: hello…it’s hard to learn when you’re on DRUGS. And by DRUGS, I mean the Western Diet — that is, the government mandated “food” that is served in our school systems. The author’s entire article is grounded (or I should say floating) in her investment in the now-twisted and unhealthy American dream: self-made success at the expense of community, crap food, big SUV’s, McMansions and more stuff, stuff, stuff between us and living a quality life. Heaven forbid some young immigrant leaves their hard-scrabble life (the author’s words to describe toiling in a garden anywhere) behind in a small puebla in Mexico, only to come to America, walk into an American public school to be immediately taken out of his/her classroom and into a garden. And then, under the hotter American sun (global warming?) has to touch dirt, and learn the difference between Romaine and Arugula. Of course, that’s a simplification.
What really got my goat is the author’s devaluation of the work of a farmer or a grower – we’re talking small growers, not big agribusiness with its chemically-laden, unsatisfying and ultimately unsustainable growing business. Don’t get me started on what agribusiness has done to us: they tell you what to grow, they tell you how to grow it, they subsidize you to grow, they make crap food from it, and then – at school – we tell kids to shut up and eat it. What’s wrong with that, they say, it’s food that’s been FDA-approved. Well, of course, it has – it’s not food, it’s drugs. I call the food that we Americans know and love just another form of ethnic cleansing. Yes, I know that’s loaded. Aryan food anyone? White, bland, culture-less, tasteless – and we’re full-circle back to food and race issues. We keep a system that is keeping people without economic power (mostly people with brown or black skin) fat and sick and incapable of learning or even living. The 4th graders I teach every month at MacGregor will be the first generation of youngsters to die before their parents, have heart problems in their 30′s and, oddly, when they say during every class, “should we go out to the garden and harvest something?” I stupidly think I’m cultivating something at all.
Nicole, my friend who is in the audience (like a plant), asks me what my shirt means because she wants to start something; today, I’m wearing my “fast, easy & cheap” shirt. That gets me going on the American way of going to CostCo or Walmark (as her mom calls it) to load up on bags and bags of food at the lowest price. Alison, who’s sitting next to her and who I thought was a disciple of mine, admits that her husband doesn’t like carrots but still buys the bags of ground down carrot nubs because he’s “supposed to” eat carrots.
Maybe if you came here from Russia (like Alison’s husband did), where winter lasts for ten months, those carrot nubs might seem like an amazingly wonderful thing, maybe even a bit like a piece of the American pie, the immigrant’s Dream. Are locally-grown carrots, in a beautiful rainbow of colors, so delicate that they don’t need to be peeled, less fast, easy or cheap? I don’t think so. And, they actually taste like carrots (not watery cardboard) and have nutritional content to boot.
Unlike the hippo with the dwarf, this is all a little hard to swallow.
All the while, I am making a hot gazpacho with the last of the pickling cucumbers (that’s winter in Southeast Texas, people!) and pan-roasting turnips to pair with harissa. I hear an audience member, June, talking to the person next to her, which is annoying only because she’s talking about Meryl Streep and I love to talk about Meryl. June’s story about Meryl is that when she was a kid, she went to a friend’s house for dinner and was helping out in the kitchen. They were making baby potatoes and Meryl thought the potatoes were rocks because she knew potatoes came out of a box that you just had to mix with water. I guess Yale educated her in the theater of life.
Everyone loved the gazpacho, even though I slightly caramelized my onions. We learn that coconut milk is a good fat because it is liquid at room temperature and our bodies process it easier than other fats. The gazpacho is finished with mint, cilantro, sugar and nam pla (fish sauce). We learn that Karin, who is German, makes a warm cucumber gratin. I usually restrict cucumbers to a cold dish, but today have broken out of that vegetable profiling. I determine to not limit my vegetables to what I think they can do but what they dream they can do.
I had to smile because Daisy and Lili are peeling and seeding cucumbers for me — surely that is setting them up for failing the Stanford tests they’ve been taking the last two weeks. Are we really going to end up on a spaceship, too heavy to walk on our own two feet, unable to return to earth or even remember what grew on earth, like in the movie Wall-E? When they return, they dream of planting pizza plants. But we’re here now, and what are we doing? We’re feeding the dream of genetically modifying the carrot to actually grow into a nub (with no nutritional value whatsoever) to satisfy our desire to eat what we’re supposed to, instead of cultivating the love of real food.