Thursday, April 29, 2010

A Hill of Beans

Moroccans don’t go to supermarkets, they go to the souks. They haggle with the vendors, they study the wares -- barrows full of thistly wild artichokes, bins of lustrous purple eggplants, baskets of fresh, fragrant mint, pyramids of dried apricots and figs, pillar-sized jars of spices, piles of grains and dried beans.

People cook together – friends and extended family. In the kitchen of my Marrekesh riad, I chopped carrots, onion and zucchini for a vegetable tagine – Morocco’s famed slow-simmering stew – while Latifa the cook steamed and fluffed couscous and her friend Fatima flipped semolina griddle bread. We chopped, stirred, danced and ululated (well, they did) along to their favorite song. The pleasure of working together, the easy intimacy it inspires overcame our lack of common language, creating a richly flavored day and meal.

I was thinking about all this as I peeled favas, or broad beans, here in Miami. I was thinking how far I am from Morocco in almost every sense.

Peeling a dried fava bean is not so hard. Soak your beans in water overnight -- this is a must -- rinse and drain. Take a pre-soaked bean between your fingers. It’s not a single unit but comes in two halves, like an almond. Manipulate it a bit and you can feel the two halves give within their skin. Then the fava will pop out, like a butterfly freed from its chrysalis. This takes less than a minute. For one bean.

If you have a pound of them, it’s a daunting task, made more so by the fact for every bean that comes along quietly, there’s three that won’t give. These you must nick with a knife and then wiggle until they’ve been freed from their shells. Favas are not papery-skinned things, but have sturdy carapaces like thick plastic.

The first time I made fava dip, I did so in the hope of cheating. Bigilla, the classic Maltese dip, is a no-peel deal, traditionally made with favas cooked in their skin. Having attempted it, I wonder why or how. Mashed, liberally dosed with garlic, lemon and olive oil, the favas were still too tough and dense, even for a fiber fan like me. Plus, in their shells, they take forever to cook.

Solo fava-shelling is not a task for the right-minded. But I’d already soaked the beans overnight and had to deal with a pot of them. So there they were and there I was, feeling not unlike Psyche, the Greek girl of myth forced to sort a cellar’s worth of seeds and grain if she expects to see her lover Cupid again.

Shelling favas is a bit like a yoga practice -- you might like to rush through it and get home and back to your life, but slipping the skins off favas keeps you in the moment and frankly, you ain’t going anywhere. I made a pot of tea and set about the task.

I imagined being a nun and making this a lesson in humility and mindfulness and finding the holy in all things, approaching menial work as prayer. That lost its luster after a while. I thought how we as a species used to put a lot more time and effort into putting food on the table, growing our own crops, chasing down animals for dinner and whatnot. Meanwhile, the thumb of my right hand, the hand at which I’m better at peeling, had begun to swell.

A hater of waste and time, I contemplated tossing any uncooperative favas and started to resent the little brown buggers for playing so hard to get. I begin to think like George W. Bush -- you’re either with me or against me. I threw a few favas in the food processor and gave them a whirl. It sped up the process a bit but the beans could not be tortured into submission and I’d come very far from the saintly attitude I’d started with.

There was no Latifa, no Fatima, no one to help make the work go faster or make it fun. Kitchen community has been in my mind since Morocco and also since I’ve been thinking of kitchen community since participating in a food bloggers panel this past weekend. I know many of our local farmers and producers, chefs and food artisans, but no so many other local food bloggers, and there’s a healthy crop of us. While we’re all writing about food, we approach it with our own unique passions:

We’d made a good panel and would be good in the kitchen together, too. Had they been here, we would sit and gossip or ululate, eat, drink and the work would be done before you know it -- a fava shelling party. But I had not planned ahead, had invited no one and in a drenching rain, no one would have made it, anyway. There was only my dog, made cranky by the bad weather and anyway, lacking an opposible thumb.

The takeaway -- there’s power in numbers, whether it’s building community or peeling dried favas, and though shedding your skin -- becoming vulnerable -- is risky, it’s part of how we grow.

Community Peel and Eat Fava Bean Dip

Oh, and as if peeling favas weren’t enough of a pain in the ass, for some people, favas are toxic. Please God may it not be you.

1 pound dried favas, soaked in water overnight, rinsed and drained

1 carrot

1 onion

1 jalapeno

2 cloves garlic

1 bunch flat-leaf parsley

1 bunch cilantro

2 lemons

2 teaspoons olive oil plus more for drizzling

sea salt and ground pepper to taste

Invite many friends over to help you peel the buggers.

Place beans, carrot, onion, jalapeno and garlic cloves in large pot with about an inch of cold water to cover. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for about an hour, until beans are tender.


Process everything in a food processor, mouli or blender. Alternately, mash by hand like a fiend.

Add chopped parsley and cilantro, lemon juice and olive oil. Season with sea salt and pepper.

Chill covered at least two hours before serving.

Nice on flatbread or as a dredge for crudite including carrots, celery and radishes.

Keeps for three days in the fridge.

Serves 6 to 8, enough for a modest fava shelling party.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Market Economy

What brings together the mayor of Miami, Miami’s greatest chef, Homestead farmers, Haitian refugees, tatted hipsters, Overtown residents and guys in suits? Jewel-like heirloom tomatoes. And fresh, locally grown collards, carrots, eggplants, green beans, loquats and more. It all happens at Roots in the City, Miami’s newest farmers market and magical convergence of cultures.

Well, you know how skeptical I am about magic. I’d like to have faith in the universe’s benevolence and all that, but usually I find we’ve got to help it along. Roots in the City has had some serious magical muscle behind it, including Daniella Levine and the folks at Miami-Dade’s Human Services Coaltion, our community shared agriculture maven Margie Pikarsky, Michael’s Genuine chef Michael Schwartz, whom I have long worshipped and Michel Nischan, new to my pantheon but ensconed there evermore. Chef and author of Sustainably Delicious, Michel is also founder of Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit working to make fresh food accesible to everyone. Wholesome Wave has sponsored over a hundred farmers markets in 12 states, the latest being right here.

Roots in the City not only brings fresh produce to an underserved part of Miami, it offers double value on food stamps. A dollar’s worth of food stamps gets you two dollars’ worth of veggies, and lifetime Overtown resident Sarah Wallace was going for it. In the past, getting fresh produce had been too much struggle -- too much money and too much travel, because Overtown, like many of America’s food deserts, has convenience stores and liquor stores, but nowhere selling anything fresh.

When Roots in the City opened, Sarah didn’t have to take a bus or three across town, just leave her apartment and cross the street. She was the first person at the market when it opened, buying up bags of vegetables, hugging Michel, sampling some of Michael Schwartz’s braised collards and politely listening as the mayor gave her an earful about how important Roots in the City is. Like she doesn’t know. Still, she posed next to him for a photo op, her arms full of fresh collard greens, carrots and tomatoes.

This is the Miami I’ve always hoped for, one in which we all come together, whoever we are. Because we all gotta eat. And we all deserve to eat well. So it's in everyone's best interest to make the magic happen.

Roots in the City Farmers Market Scramble

Feel free to switch out the veggies for whatever’s fresh at your local farmers market. Lacto-ovo lovers may likewise swap eggs for tofu and cheese for nutritional yeast, but honeys, tofu, unlike eggs, adds little fat and no cholesterol, and nutritional yeast tastes cheesily fabulous without the fat and gives you a hit of mighty vitamin B-12, besides. Open yourself up to possibility. I’m just saying.

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 small onion or 3 scallions, chopped

1 jalapeno, chopped

1 red pepper, chopped

1 small zucchini or yellow squash, chopped

OR 1 cup greens, fresh spinach, chopped or blanched collards, sliced into ribbons

1 teaspoon cumin powder

1 teaspoon turmeric

1 tablespoon nutritional yeast

1 tomato, chopped

12 ounces firm tofu, drained and squeezed to get rid of extra water

1 bunch fresh cilantro, chopped fine

sea salt and fresh pepper to taste

Heat oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add chopped onion, jalapeno, red pepper and zucchini, if using. Continue to saute, stirring, until vegetables soften, about 7 to 10 minutes.

Stir in cumin, turmeric, nutritional yeast, chopped tomato and optional chopped greens. Stir together until fragrant and golden, about 3 minutes.

Crumble tofu into skillet. You may mash with a wooden spoon or have a wonderfully tactile experience smooshing it with your fingers. Scramble together in merry fashion, breaking up any odd tofu clumps. Cook until combined and heated through, another minute or 2. Add chopped cilantro, season with sea salt and pepper to taste and tip onto two plates.

Serves 2 generously, 3 people if you’re adding rice and beans or cornbread or something additional. Recipes doubles, even triples but is best eaten hot, fresh and at once.