Green Plum Cooking School – Sat, April 3rd
Today, I’m making a mild coconut curry with local vegetables. Just so you know, the Pope don’t do “mild,” or so I’m thinking. I’m afraid it’s going to be boring. The recipe calls for green peppers, squash, eggplant, corn, green beans — you get the idea, summer vegetables, most anywhere. Here in Houston, we’re smack into spring, which anywhere else would be summer, but the whole point of this dish is that you can utilize any vegetables you find at the farmers market right now — pick five or go for the sky as your limit.
The recipe also calls for lentils, of which I have four varieties down in the t’afia kitchen, so I bring them all up. The only thing I’ve prepared ahead of time is to roast some small beets, mainly to see if I could actually get them to cook in an hour and I also didn’t want them to discolor the curry by cooking them with the other vegetables. Pink curry is… well, pink…and sometimes that color doesn’t quite translate. Also, when we did beets last year when we were “cooking with Alice,” trying to fully cook beets during a one hour class was one of my only failures; we ate very al dente beets that day!
We start with lilies, of which I have many (that’s why I did a five-lilies soup for Easter). You know, we named our child after the lily because she makes us cry with joy, in Yiddish the word is kvell. But, of course, we chose the Lili Taylor (indie actress) and Lili Fini Zanuck (Hollywood producer) spelling because I’m a little bit country and a little bit Hollywood!
The allium genus consists of hundreds of varieties commonly known as onions, garlic, leeks, scallions, ramps and so on. They are of great importance in the kitchen and form the base of most stocks and sauces, the aromatics of braising liquids, the underpinnings of well-made soup – basically, all things good in the kitchen.
I open the first bag of lentils and promptly drop the crimson legumes. I take a deep breath and decide not to cry over spilled lentils, but mention my crying on Top Chef Masters. I begin to cook the lentils and the potatoes together — I have local red potatoes and four types of lentils (crimson, black, white and green). The black lentils are referred to as beluga because they resemble beluga caviar, that’s great marketing when you can make a lowly legume seem like an extravagant ingredient, right Oleg?
I’ve placed the rather large potatoes in the pot with all the different lentils and I’m now concerned that they won’t cook in time. I don’t want to cut the potatoes because the cut potato will absorb too much water and lose its potato flavor. I add a little more water, but I want it to just cover. This will be the base of our curry, in the end. I toss the ingredients back and forth, I’m not really sure why or to what end, and then decide to be patient and just let them be.
Meanwhile, the kids, Daisy and Julian, are prepping carrots into rounds and quartering mushrooms. I cut the tops off the lilies, or spring onions, to yield a whole pile of Bobby Browns, as these tops are referred to by my 4th Grade MacGregor kids who I teach through Recipe for Success (see my previous post). Recipe for Success is the charity I’m playing for (or crying for) on Top Chef Masters. Daisy and Julian are wielding knives and Lili reminds me of the time she stabbed herself in the forehead with a paring knife (of course, the story has grown in dramatic effect over time). She tells Daisy, who happens to be holding a paring knife, that “my skin is still on that knife.” Nice. Active and gory imagination, that one.
After washing all the veggies, I put the bowl of water on the floor behind me. It’s getting a little hazardous between the spilled lentils, human flesh stories and bowls of water to trip over. I decide we need some distraction so I bring up DIRT: The Movie that screened at Rice University’s community cinema last week. I was on the panel for the post-movie discussion. I got a little bent out of shape during the panel discussion. One of the audience members asks a question but prefaces his question with a reference to my “trendy little market” and then proceeds to ask where else he might buy local food. Well, wherever the “f” you want to, is what I’m thinking, but I didn’t say it.
DIRT: The Movie is a documentary about our relationship with…dirt. It shows how incarcerated women’s behavior changes when they connect with dirt and grow their own food. Food can change behavior. An Indian farmer in the film says, ”Sometimes dirt is my father, sometimes dirt is my mother and feeds me and sometimes dirt is my lover.” In the end, we are all in service to the soil, or should be. We should connect with our parents or lovers in a very meaningful way and we should connect with our food in that same meaningful way – even, by God, at my “trendy little market.” Another man stands up and goes off on politicians. I get a little pissed off again and tell the guy to vote with his fork three times a day, seven days a week. Instead, he decides he wants to talk to Mark Bowen (another panel member), who has dealt with a fair number of politicians in his time. Mark leans over and asks me if I’m optimistic, and I say Hell, no. People have the answer already but they keep looking for another one. I call it “The Oprah Syndrome.” But this has been too much distraction and I need to get back to cooking my mild curry and forget about talking about fixing Oprah right now!
The potatoes don’t seem to be cooking, which is disturbing because I did cook the beets, but now am failing at potatoes. I’m concerned about the time; I always finish on time but the thought of raw potatoes is scary and fascinating all at the same time.
Lili enters stage right with a balloon and wants to make my hair static-y. I ask her, “Isn’t that usually how I wear it?” She rubs it on her hair instead. It stands up. We all look a little like Bobby Brown now. And then she lets go of the balloon and it flies up, up… behind my Green Plum banner and it looks like it’s going to stay on the ceiling. The look on a kid’s face when they let go of a balloon is heart-achingly priceless; I see that look now on Lili’s face. The audience can’t see the balloon. I’m wondering how can I save the day (or the class) and get the damn balloon back and then suddenly it begins to slowly descend, like the New Year’s Eve ball and we all begin to countdown, and it’s back in my child’s hands.
I get back to the curry by throwing the rest of the ingredients into one pot. Those potatoes have to be cooked by now, right?! I use the other pan to sauté the lilies (all of them), some ginger, other spices, the rest of the veggies and finish it all with coconut milk, lime and mint. I ask June to remind everyone why coconut milk is a good fat. Of course, the food industry gave it a bad rap when they wanted to push hydrogenated oils. Now the poor coconut is in a big battle with the soda companies: Coconut water is nature’s sports drink, chock full of electrolytes, and is better for you than Gatorade…surprise, surprise.
We serve up the curry and I remind the class that if some of the veggies are not cooked, I did that on purpose. However, if they are cooked perfectly, I did that on purpose, too. So, for the guy who thinks that the Midtown Farmers Market is trendy, this market changed the way I cook – it’s made me a more honest cook and my food is more true to its ingredients. Raw or cooked, local food just tastes better.
By the way, I did finish the class on time, I just like to generate a little drama, kind of like what you’re going to see on Top Chef Masters this Wednesday! Watch the show and you’ll see me bring the emotional corn.
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)