Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Vegetable Love

In his poem, "To His Coy Mistress," metaphysical poet Andrew Marvell (1621-1678) wrote, "Had we but world enough and time/My vegetable love would grow/Vast as empires and more slow."  By this, he meant in a perfect world, we'd have the luxury of time and a love that would grow exponentially, organically, unfolding and revealing itself over the years.  But honey, the clock is ticking, so if you want to hook up before you lose your looks and I lose my erection, let's do it now.  Marvell was being as snarky as I am, but he did have a way with words.  

I doubt local, seasonal eating was in Marvell's mind when he penned "To His Coy Mistress."  For one thing, local and seasonal eating is all anyone knew.  Chilean grapes weren't winging their way to Hull in the winter, Marvell never ate a mango, and when last of the cucumbers were gone by summer's end, they were gone. A few centuries on, we've become so accustomed to getting any kind of food any time we want that we've forgotten the pleasure of enjoying produce at its moment of ripe perfection.  And we've managed to ignore the fact that food that comes from far away comes at a cost -- dwindling fossil fuel, which is not fun for the planet, and lackluster flavor, which is not fun for us.

We could all take a lesson from Marvell and go for what we have when we have it.  Seasonal, local eating is a Zen exercise of living in the moment, which I'm bad at.  Fortunately, there's reward involved, like the tomatoes ripening on my plants right now, harvesting my tender collard leaves and bright red tabasco peppers and the incredible array at the farmers markets.  The vibrant flavors make awfully compelling evidence this is the right thing to do.  Not compelling enough?  Have you seen PETA's veggie porn ad? http://peta.org/content/standalone/veggielove/default.aspx.

Okay, poetry, porn and now dinner.  Do not feel intimidated by the list of ingredients.  This is a celebration of seasonal eats and what I call a chop-and-walk-away recipe.  There's a little prep work, but then you throw your farmers market haul into a pot, clap on the lid and let gentle heat and time do the rest.  You'll be madly impressed and you'll have made it  yourself.

Ital Vital Farmers Market Caribbean Stew

Ital isn't short for Italian, it's Jamaican patois for pure, which these ingredients are.  Be freewheeling, though, Use whatever's fresh at the market. Vegetables play well with others.  Feel free to swap use any kind of chopped broccoli or green beans for the greens.  Go with the fresh greens of your dreams  -- kale, Swiss chard, or -- if you're lucky enough to score some at your farmers market, Jamaican callalloo -- the dark green iron-rich leaves of the amaranth plant.  Try replacing some of the pumpkin with carrots.  Add some celery.  To please the masses, I've shown restraint and been mingy with the chilis, but please, feel free to double the amount.  Some of us like it hot.   

The point is to use what's in season, fresh and available.  You'll get more health out of it than the effort you put into it.  This stew is easy, seductive, gently spicy and gets its goodness from:

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
4 garlic cloves, chopped
2 teaspoons fresh ginger, minced
1 red pepper, chopped
1 habanero or its tamer rellie, jalapeno, chopped
1-1/2 pounds pumpkin or winter squash, about 2 cups peeled and chopped into bite-sized pieces
1 15-ounce can organic diced tomatoes
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons turmeric
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped or 1 teaspoon dried
1 teaspoon allspice*
3 to 4 cups callalloo, spinach, kale or the greens of your dreams, sliced into ribbons for easy eating
1 to 2 cups water or vegetable broth
1/4 fresh cilantro, chopped
sea salt and fresh ground pepper to taste.

Heat oil in a large stock pot over medium-high heat.  Add onion, pepper and garlic and stir until vegetables soften, about 5 minutes.

Add ginger and thyme, along with cumin, turmeric and allspice, and cook stirring, for another minute, or until fragrant.  Add canned tomatoes and their juice.  Add pumpkin and greens, stir to coat. Add 1 cup water or broth, raise heat to high and bring to a boil.  Stir, reduce heat to simmer, cover with lid and let it go for half an hour.  

When you come back, the greens will have wilted and vanished into the stew, the pumpkin will be tender.  Stir well.  Add more water or broth if the mixture is too thick for your taste.  Season with salt and pepper and chopped cilantro.

Serves 6.  Keeps refrigerated for up to a week and flavor improves over time.

*Not a spice blend like it sounds but a true Caribbean berry with a haunting sweet spice, used in the islands as an analgesic and cure for aching belly and head.

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