June 24, 2012

The Culinary Arts of Hollow Hearts

"You know your heart, Jack?"
"Bam bam." I show her my chest.
"No, but your feeling bit, where you're sad or scared or laughing or stuff?"
That's lower down, I think it's in my tummy.
"Well, he hasn't got one."
"A tummy?"
"A feeling bit," says Ma.
I'm looking at my tummy. "What does he have instead?"
She shrugs. "Just a gap."
Room, Emma Donoghue
A gap for a heart may not be a good thing in humans, but it's a great quality in a vegetable. One vegetable has a Chinese name (空心菜) that literally translates into "hollow heart vegetable," because its stalks are hollow. It's also sometimes called Chinese water spinach. This vegetable grows so quickly that the U.S. Department of Agriculture actually classifies it as a noxious weed. In this case, one person's noxious weed is another's gustatory treasure.

"Hollow heart vegetables" are one of my father's favorite foods. He has told me on multiple occasions (usually while munching away on said vegetable) that he would gladly eat them every day without getting sick of them.

In addition to never failing to bring a smile to my dad's face, this vegetable has another awesome quality: It can be converted into two different dishes. I'm invariably pleased when a food serves more than one purpose in the kitchen. For example, lemons can offer juice and zest. Eggs are not just one ingredient but two — whites and yolks — which are wonderful together, but even more wonderful because they can be separated to serve completely different purposes.

A bundle of hollow heart vegetables yields two dishes: first, a dish of the sauteed leaves, and second, a spicy dish made with the stalks. The stalks can also be added to fried rice.

To prepare this vegetable, pluck the leaves off the stems, put them into a bowl, and wash them thoroughly. Then rinse the stems and slice them; since they have "hollow hearts" they become tiny rings once sliced. After they're cooked, they exhibit a crunchy, not tough, texture.

The stems of the hollow heart vegetable can be transformed into a spicy concoction that's delicious on top of rice, served alongside their leafy counterparts.

Two-Part Recipe for Hollow Heart Vegetable
Part 1: The Leaves
1 bunch of hollow heart vegetables
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp sesame oil (or regular oil, if you don't have any)
salt & pepper

1. Pick the leaves off the stems using your hands. Wash and chop the stems, and set aside for part 2. Wash the leaves thoroughly in water and drain. Heat a skillet with the oil and garlic until the garlic is fragrant. Throw in the washed and drained leaves. Add salt and pepper to taste, and cook until the leaves have just wilted. Move on to part 2.

Part 2: The Stems
1 1/2 cups chopped stems
1 tsp soy sauce
1 tablespoon Sriracha or other chili sauce
dash of salt
a few turns of black pepper
1 garlic clove, minced
1 tsp sesame oil

Saute all ingredients together over medium-high heat for about 3-5 minutes. The stems should still be crunchy and green; don't overcook them. Serve with the stir-fried leaves with a side of rice.

June 18, 2012

On Rothko and Jello

"She told him about her Dad and the eggs.
'I made my Dad scrambled eggs one morning, yeah? When I was staying at his place for a weekend. He sleeps late, you know. And I made him breakfast when he got up, you know — good little girl. And it was like, scrambled eggs on toast, and some bacon and a tomato. Stuff like that. And a pot of tea. Glass of orange juice. All posh. And he really liked it, and then he was trying to show off that he knew about art — he's always doing this — and he said, Rothko eggs. Points at the scrambled eggs. Rothko eggs. I didn't know what he was on about. They look like a Rothko painting, he said, all pleased with himself. And then I realized that he'd gotten Rothko mixed up with Pollock!'"
—"Rothko Eggs," by Keith Ridgway
I really liked this story. You can read it on Zoetrope.

The concept that one artist's style can be reminiscent of a certain type of food is really fascinating. If I were to try to associate a Rothko painting with any kind of food, I'd probably choose layered Jello. Someone even went so far as to create these Rothko-inspired cookies. Delightful!

June 5, 2012

Our last Transit of Venus

My mother said she used to stare directly into the sun when she was younger, because she didn't know any better. I think I did, too, until some kind soul advised me against it. Sounds like a dumb thing to do, but it's only natural to be drawn to that light in the sky, isn't it? I mean, some people actually stare at the sun for a living. And they are probably all really excited about tonight's Transit of Venus, which is the last one we'll ever live to witness — the next isn't until 2117.

Strange to imagine that babies born next week won't grow up to see even one, while most of us lived through two (the last one was in 2004). But they will still be lucky enough to read Shirley Hazzard's wonderful novel by the same name: The Transit of Venus.

“Once we were walking in Florence,” she recalls. “And there was a red coat in a shop window—I had already cast an eye on it. Francis stopped me and he said, ‘Just a moment! One of your heroines has a red coat, and I don’t think you’ve ever had one. I think we should go in and try that on.’” The coat was reminiscent of one Hazzard had imagined for Caroline Bell in a pivotal scene of The Transit of Venus. Steegmuller bought it for her.
--Shirley Hazzard's interview with Narrative

It's not hard to imagine that details of one's real life can pop up in one's fiction, but isn't fantastic to think that the reverse happens, too? It's like when you dream of something wonderful, and then you make it happen in real life. Sometimes it's simple — for example, you dream about a glorious ice cream sundae, and then you wake up and recreate it for breakfast. Easy peasy. Writing a novel like The Transit of Venus and then having your husband buy Caroline Bell's red coat for you on the streets of Florence? Well, that's a whole other level of accomplishment.