the whole truth

tomato on vine

This is going to seem like a terrible story to tell on a food blog, I mean, on this food blog, the one where I’m always saying we should embrace new things and shake food preconceptions and, Hey! You have no excuse not to try this!, but I’m going to tell it anyway, because if there’s one thing I want this place to be, it’s honest, and I think it’s time I was.

From where I sit tonight, with a cup of decaf green tea at my side, I have to tell you this uncomfortable fact: I have a sensitive stomach.

I’ve hinted at it before, even come right out with it when we talked about vegan ice cream, but I’ve never really given you the background, and seeing as that full story is how I first met my friend Nealy in grad school and the kind of thing that comes in handy when another friend gets diagnosed with colitis, as one did recently, I figure you might want to hear it, too. Maybe you know someone like me, or maybe you are someone like me.

tomatoes

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bears. beets. Battlestar Gallactica.

purple CSA

Last night, I had dinner with my friend Jacqui, someone I first met through an editorial internship three years ago, but later came to know through our food blogs (started on the exact same day last August, would you believe it?) and who inspires me, with simple-enough-for-me-to-try fried green tomatoes and stories about her family that give me chills right in the middle of my day and, lately, stories about beets, the purple root vegetable I have never, ever before tried or bought or held, even, but found a bunch of in my Saturday CSA box.

And while Jacqui regularly amazes me with phrases like, But I don’t have a baking sheet, or We don’t keep sugar in the apartment, or Could I bake that in a casserole dish instead?, she also possesses an attitude toward vegetables—and all food, really—that is as open-minded and I-will-try-that-too as I could ever hope to be, without making me feel silly for ordering something called a chicken puff at the Thai restaurant she took me to, after I asked her things like, What is Pad Thai? and How do you make fried rice?

So anyway, when I saw her recipe for beets Sunday, luring me with likenings of beets to jewels or lipstick kisses, I felt less terrified of the purple beasts inside my box, more empowered. I knew what I would do.

beets

And after scrubbing, trimming and placing the beets in my Lucy Le Creuset with a little water at the bottom, I stuck the whole thing in the oven for about 45 minutes, later pulling them out, draining, cooling and then wiping away their skin with my plastic-gloved fingers. Everything she said was right, from the way the gnarly exterior gives way to something shiny and glistening to the way they taste, eaten just plain, like the earth they came from.

Seeing as this was the first time I had ever had a beet, I tried very hard to discern their flavor or texture: like you’d expect of a vegetable, hearty, smooth, slightly sweet, almost like a cooked carrot. While I wouldn’t say it was love at first bite, I do think we’re on to something, beets and me, and we’ll have a lifetime to get the kinks worked out.

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what is simple and complex and real

green beans

One thing you can say for green beans: they make sense. When you take a big bag of them out of your second CSA box, for example, confusion is not what assaults you (unless it’s curiosity over which of the many good, good ways to make them you will choose).

That’s more than I can say for a lot of things, and I mean even beyond turnips or Swiss chard or bok choy. Like relationships—is there anything more wonderful, painful, easy, hard and just plain confusing than knowing another human being? In my life, I’ve sat across the dinner table from someone, recently, and heard myself sing-song-ing surface things like, Oh, you know, I’m just keeping busy with work, I like to bake, and nodding while they say, Yeah, here is what I do for a living and here is where I live and gee, it was great seeing you, let’s do it again sometime, while we both walk away with our pasted smiles, saying, call me later!, hoping we won’t, interacting on a shallow level when we both want deep (I mean, I want deep. Or at least real).

I want to be honest with the person I sit down with, to not pretend, to share my stories and hear theirs, to stand on top of the table at our plastic booth of pretense and yell WHAT IS THE POINT OF THIS? But I don’t.

So eventually there comes a point when we’ll rise from the table, from the topics, to something else, anything else, that feels safe, and neat, and not so messy. I think we both want to know and show love, but we fail at it.

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we’ll start somewhere

fresh parsley

The smell of parsley makes me think of Passover, and the Seders we had at our house, all through my growing up years, with different friends each time, when my mom would make a big meal that everyone would rave about. On those nights, we’d dip sprigs of parsley in salt water—the parsley symbolizing spring and the newness of life, the salt water reminding us of the tears of Israel while they were in Egypt, before God parted the Red Sea and brought them out of captivity.

Until last night, that was the only place I’ve ever eaten parsley on its own. I’ve had it in things—like Thanksgiving stuffing, where it reduces from leafy stalks to bending, fragrant herbs on the stove, drenched in butter and sauted with onions. I know bits of it—dried or fresh—go into all kinds of marinades and rubs, and I know it’s very inexpensive to buy at the store (I want to say it was $0.99 for a bundle in November Wisconsin, which, when you think about it, is kind of amazing).

But when I saw the fat package of it in my CSA box, I figured I may as well give this formerly-only-of-the-holidays herb a chance to stand on its own, a chance for us to get to know each other in a new context.

Enter this Lemon-Rice Parsley Salad adapted from Food + Wine.

sweet pepper

Besides the fact that this recipe calls for a full cup of packed, chopped parsley (exactly how much I had! do you believe in fate?), it also requires half a sweet pepper, which was a bonus in my learning-to-use-vegetables plan.

half a sweet pepper

Now, as far as getting out of my comfort zone, I cheated a little with this one, since I already knew I’d like it when I saw the olive oil and lemon juice, which, between us, can usually make me like just about anything. (I read an article once about a famous chef I can’t recall the name of now, who said everything is improved with a little lemon on top. Amen.)

lemons

rice and olive oil

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trust me on this

asparagus salad

As far as vegetables go, asparagus is really something: tall, peaked in pretty tips, stalks cast in deep shades of green, with knobby dark-purple bumps along the sides shaped in tiny triangles. It has no fat or cholesterol, few calories, little sodium, as well as lots of potassium, folic acid, vitamins A & C and fiber. Plus, this time of year it’s just finishing up its two-month-long season, meaning it’s still pretty easy to find at your supermarket.

Of course, just because it’s available doesn’t mean it’s fresh—a lesson I learned all too well on Saturday when I pulled out the bunch I’d grabbed the night before and, gasping, extended my arm as far away as possible from my face, hoping to minimize the oh-my-gosh-what-is-it-that-smells-like-death odor assaulting me. A return trip to the store—complete with thorough examining of every remaining bunch of asparagus, conversations with the produce man and the manager, obtainment of two brand-new bunches hidden away in the back cooler— left me confident of three things: 1) Fresh asparagus should not, ever, ever, smell like dirty socks left in a hamper, 2) Nor should it, for any reason, have yellow slime building up between stalks and 3) There’s a reason I spend so much time at Dominick’s: those people are nice.

asparagus salad

When you’re choosing asparagus at the store, don’t assume bunches are fresh just because they all look alike. Search for firm, bright green stalks with tightly closed tips, where the ends look freshly cut, not dried out. And, fun fact: the thickness of the stalks reveals how late in the season the vegetables have been harvested. Thicker stalks = beginning of season. Thinner stalks = later.

Now, if you love asparagus like I do, you’ll already know how good it is roasted in a white-hot oven, smothered in olive oil, when the skin blisters and absorbs all the oil’s fruity flavor. It’s also fantastic grilled over open flames or, boiled and chopped up into Saturday morning omelettes.

But can I make one more suggestion? If you have in your hands a fresh bunch of asparagus, you absolutely have to make this salad. Trust me on this.

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this life we have

skies that stretch

My great uncle seems to be dying. I found out Saturday, after brunch, walking next to my mom and my brother in the crisp spring air that made us hug our arms to our chests and pinch our fingers into fists.

It’s not like I knew him very well. I actually don’t think I’ve seen him since four years ago or more, at that family reunion after his daughter’s wedding. But I saw him a lot when my grandma was sick. He was healthy then, much healthier than she was, and he and his daughter—my mom’s cousin—sat with us at our dinner table and told stories about his wife, my grandma’s sister, who used to make me spaghetti and meatballs when we’d go to her house, climbing up tall steps to her back porch and into the kitchen.

And he was there for my graduation parties, and he always sent me a crisp $5 in a Christmas card, all through my growing up years. When I had to write a paper on someone who’d survived the Depression, it as just after my grandma had died, and he was the only relative from her generation left. So I mailed the interview questions to Uncle Lindy, and he filled them all out, every one, with scratchy penmanship in lines that were straight without trying. He wrote that there were no jobs then, people had to share a can of tomatoes for dinner, his paper route paid $2.50 a week. And I kept all those sheets, put them in a big green box in my cabinets.

I’m supposed to visit him in the hospital this week. But seeing him means seeing Grandma, remembering her days in the hospital, when her body was shriveled and sick, when she didn’t always know who I was. I brought her a photo album one visit, telling her about a school banquet and showing her the blue dress I wore, and she called me Nancy, my mom’s name, and she fell asleep. I don’t know if she knew we were there when we rubbed rose lotion on her legs and her arms and played music in the background, talking to her and touching her when she couldn’t respond, but most of the time I say she did.

asparagus with walnut crema

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of kitchen failure

artichokes

These artichokes are pretty, aren’t they?

Looking at them now, I have that same warm and fuzzy feeling I experienced at Meijer, when I grabbed them, like a puppet, pulling them from their big green mountain and into a clear plastic bag, wheeling away with no idea of what I was doing, smiling that I’d found them on sale.

Beyond what it says about me that my big weekend plans are, more often than not, pushing a four-wheeled grocery cart around aisles of a supermarket, I want you to know there are other reasons never to shop on Friday nights. There’s the chance you’ll be followed by a middle-aged man, for example, one who never picks anything up, just follows you, getting closer and closer and shifting back and forth on his legs, forcing you to, in desperation, abandon your cart, hugging the borders of a happy family walking to their car, breathless and scared as you drive home, without anything you needed. Another week, you might be addressed with “Hey, how you doing” by a leather-clad stranger who brushes past you, and when you don’t respond, he may shout, “Fine, great to meet you, too. That’s just fine” while you try to find your friend or really, anyone else.

But worst of all, Friday nights at the quiet grocery store have been known to wreak other kinds of damage. Damage like, say, the purchase of four beautiful artichokes, just because you saw them and they were on sale and, what with your need to be on guard about other things, you don’t know what else to do but throw them in your cart and keep moving.

peeled artichoke

Things started off O.K., I guess. When I got home, I researched online: I watched a video about peeling an artichoke, I read articles that explained what the heart was and how to remove the choke. I also flipped through several cookbooks and a couple good blogs, and I saw what my options were.

But here is what happened: I got confused. In the midst of my excitement over learning something new, I half-followed every guide and, in the end, followed none.

My first artichoke (pictured above, peeled), I kept peeling all the way to the center, and then I didn’t know why I had. So I found an article that said you should really trim each of the leaves to remove their sharp bits, and I tried that with the other three. That same article suggested steaming the clipped artichokes in a bath of water and wine and salt, which I did, but in a pan that was too small.

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