Chef Monica Pope writes about eating & cooking where your food lives

In Visible Transformation… February 14, 2011

Black Swan Winter Salad

Green Plum Cooking School – Saturday, February 5th

To say that I’m still processing the movie “Black Swan” is an understatement.   My friends’ and followers’ reactions to my tweeting about it forced me to do even more processing.  I think some people thought I didn’t get the movie.  Au contraire.  I have been screening my own personal “Black Swan” movie in my head all year; only, instead of Mila Kunis and Natalie Portman filling the light and dark roles, in my “movie mind” I’ve got Rosie O’Donnell and Ellen DeGeneres cat fighting — or at least that is the image I get in the middle of the night, between 3:00 am and 6:00 am, when I seem to do most of my processing.

I didn’t understand why people called “Black Swan” a horror flick until I saw it.  One woman was stuck on the question of “Did she really slam her mother’s hand in the door that hard?”  Well, she did have it wrapped in a bandage later.  In the end, it’s a psychological thriller.  I tried to give a sanitized synopsis of the movie to my 8-year-old daughter and now she has her own obsession with the film:  she wants to somehow become 13 to be able to see the movie and then go back to being 8 again afterwards.  Ah, if only we all could stay kids somehow, especially the girls.

And yes, since I most often wake up in the middle of the night to process everything, I am now worried about the new study that correlates heart disease with getting less than six hours (or more than nine) of sleep a night.  My heart does hurt.  I do want to feel like the Natalie Portman character, though.  I love it when her director says, “I’m not worried about you playing the white swan, you’ve got the technique down, but to play the black swan you have to let go, you have to feel and make me feel”….isn’t that the trick?  Last year in particular, I was in a battle with myself, with my inner white and black swans.   You may have noticed that I stopped blogging for a while because I just couldn’t put myself out there anymore.  I have loved doing the free cooking classes on Saturday mornings, they have been a kind of therapy for me.  As one regular class member said, “You’ve found your pulpit.”  Well, I did sort of find my pulpit, my stage, my voice so to speak, even if no one was listening but me (and occasionally my daughter).  But I stopped writing the blogs because I felt a diatribe coming on, a tirade, a Tyra-Banks-cell-phone-moment, a railing against the world or Bravo or male chefs or all food critics or just everyday people but, ultimately, I realized it was just me against myself.  It’s been complicated.

My food journey started because I wanted to find out who I was, who my family was, where we came from, how we cooked.  Really, I wanted to hear stories.  Food is the language of family and stories are the salt.  And you have to have salt—it’s the ingredient that makes food taste like what it is supposed to taste like, salt brings food alive.  There is nothing worse than eating something that you can almost taste.  I just believe in good food too much.  I love this quote from Wallace Stevens:  “People should like poetry the way a child likes snow, and they would if poets wrote it.”  I feel this way about good food and the chefs who should be cooking it.

I told somebody recently that I wasn’t interested in the ordinary economy, I’m only interested in the transformation economy. And that is what this year is about for me.  So, I am back, people! I am cooking and blogging and preserving myself, my family and my local food.

So to start the year off right, I decided to make a Black Swan Winter salad for my first class this year.  From the market vendors, I got red carrots, Napa cabbage, Red Russian kale, watermelon radishes, radicchio, beets, grapefruits, oranges and Hans’ sunflower and buckwheat sprouts (these are so nutritionally dense that a ballerina could survive on eating them alone).

Local Greens

In class, I broke down all the greens, rinsed them, and fanned them on a towel to dry.  I half-boiled a beet — halfway through the cooking process, I realized that the beet would be great raw in the salad, so I pulled it out of the boiling water, scraped the skin off with my fingernail and cut it into wedges.  Even though it was accidental, the beet had the best of both worlds:  it was still a little crunchy but a little sweeter and more “beety” than it would have been raw.

Watermelon Radish

I peeled the radish because the skin looked a little tired from bumping around in the farmer’s igloo.  I don’t know what got into me but I threw the peel at the audience for them to taste it.  Everyone seemed a little shocked but we moved on quickly.  I sliced the radish thinly on the mandolin; it was a watermelon radish and, yes, it looks just like a watermelon on the inside.  Someone in the audience actually asked me where I got the radish.  Hum…is this thing on? Is anybody out there listening?  I got it at our local farmers market, where do you think!  Since it’s a new me in a new year, I didn’t get depressed that no one is listening to me or gets what I’m doing, I instead called this lady out and went Black Swan on her!

I sliced imperfect rounds and also shavings of the raw carrot.  I didn’t peel it because most of the nutrition is in the skin.  Don’t get me started again on carrot nubs, people!  Even my daughter, Lili, knows how I feel about the little carrot bullets in the cellophane package at the grocery store; she warmed my heart when she noticed the little Thumbelina carrots at the Tuesday market and told me she was going to name these carrots “the real natural good local carrot nubs.”  She looked at me a little askance when she said the word “nub,” but I let it slide.  This from a kid who two years ago didn’t believe that purple carrots were real carrots.  Although she still won’t eat a carrot, transformation is happening all the time.

I told the class the story about Dan Barber from Blue Hill at Stone Barns (in upstate New York) who tested the Brix (or sugar content) levels of the carrots he grew in his own garden, which registered around 12, compared to the grocery store carrots, which registered a big, fat ZERO.  Small growers are using technology to test the sugar content of their crops so they know the best time to harvest.  This means your food will taste better when picked at the height of ripeness and readiness, more like what it’s supposed to taste like.  The whole relationship of land stewardship, flavor, nutrition and just knowing the family and the stories behind what we eat is priceless.  No, this is no ordinary economy.

Next, I made a sweet seed dressing that supposedly originated from Kentucky.  I actually had local sesame seeds from David Cater (Utility Research Garden).  My Czech swan can’t help throwing in poppy seeds and some black sesame seeds just to be equal opportunity about it.  I also found basil seeds as well as Chia seeds at Phoenicia so I threw those in for good measure.  Speaking of measuring, I actually measured my ingredients with a measuring cup this time.  For some reason, the audience was shocked and awed more by that than the real food we were preparing.  This dressing is made with grape seed oil, minced shallot, apple cider vinegar (or champagne vinegar), sugar, salt and pepper and is very sexy in the bowl.  Toss the salad ingredients with the dressing, plate it up, top with the sprouts and some savory granola and you’ve got a transformational eating experience.

And that’s how this Black Swan cooks.


Here, Taste This! October 20, 2010

From Peppers... Persimmon!

Green Plum Cooking School – Sat, Oct 2nd

I’m always suspicious when someone says, “Here, taste this!” and shoves a pepper in my face.  That’s what Hans Hansen of Twin Persimmons Farm did when I arrived this morning at the market.  I was tasting an Aji Dulce chili – and it really is as good as advertised:  sweet but peppery without the spicy.  This gives me an idea to make chili in my class this morning.  In my head, I’m ticking off the things I would need to pull that off and I walk back to the kitchen to make sure I have everything.

But I walk into an empty, quiet kitchen.  I don’t know if anyone truly understands the scariness of this feeling.  Benjy and Maria aren’t here yet (no biscuits! no breakfast!), Claire is not here yet (I’m going to have to set up Plum Eats!), no Molly, either (I’m going to have to set up Plum Pantry, too!) and then there’s all the produce I foraged yesterday that has to be set up at the Community Table (!).   Where is everyone?  It takes a village to put on a farmer’s market and right now the village looks like Pompeii.  I’m thinking to myself that I can enlist Daisy and Lili to sell produce (they’re not even 8-years-old) – I can just imagine what the money box will look like when they’re done.  My mind races with fear.

Finally, my people show up and they get to work.  I can breathe again.  But I’ve had to change course on the chili for the class (turns out I don’t have the meat I need) and so I switch to persimmons.  Ah, from Pompeii to persimmons.

So I decide to make persimmon pudding.  The only bad thing about this is that I’m going to have to entertain the crowd while the pudding is baking in the “real” kitchen.

We get started on the pudding and I cream twelve tablespoons of butter by hand (or by spoon, as it were).  No mixer out here!  I’m trying to teach the kids who are helping me how hard life should be.

You have to work it, the old-fashioned way...

It helps to have help.

The persimmons have a very soft, beautiful flesh that has body and flavor. I peel them and strain them.

Beautiful, strained persimmon

I bring the pudding together alternating the flour mixture with milk.  The kids help me pour the batter into the baking pans and they carry them, precariously, through the crowd to the kitchen.

When the puddings come out from the kitchen, all hot and steamy, I can’t help but say, “Here, taste this!”

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


Spicy. Sticky. Sweet. September 22, 2010

Green Plum Cooking School – Saturday, August 28th

Today, I’m doing a spicy red chili preserve, even though I don’t have all the ingredients…does that really surprise anyone at this point?  I decide to have Benjy roast the peppers in the kitchen so we don’t have to do them in small batches (and because food just happens back there!).

I’m not sure where they are but my usual hecklers are not in the audience today.   Maybe they know we’ve moved class outside to the patio and think it’s too hot.  Everyone is sooooo quiet.  My friend Nicole is helping her husband, Tommy, sell his photo t-shirts at his vendor table in the parking lot; I holler over the fence if she can heckle me from out there, but she can’t hear me.  A voice comes through the plants on the patio; it’s Miss Priss saying, “You mean me?”  I say “No, it’s just not the same,” but then realize she could heckle me just fine.  This could work!

A whole peck of peppers...



When in Umbria (or in Houston dreaming of Umbria)… September 18, 2010

Cooking my beautiful Cicerchie

Green Plum Cooking School – Saturday, August 21st

I brought home some dried Umbrian Cicerchie (aka “wild chickpeas”) from Berkeley.   Lisa Googles Umbria for the class:  it’s one of the smallest regions in the center of Italy, just east of Tuscany, north of Rome and west of the Marches (if you imagine the map of Italy in the shape of a boot, Umbria is right in the middle of what would be the calf muscle).

These lovely dried Cicerchie are the color of chickpeas, but the shape of a fava bean.   And they are beautiful.  I decide to cook them using a stew recipe on the back of the bag, but I substitute some ingredients that I don’t have.   It is a quintessential simple recipe that I just know Alice would love.  Traditionally, you would cook the beans with salt pork, which I don’t have, so I substitute speck or smoked prosciutto from La Quercia.   Lisa looks up La Quercia.  I know it is an American salumi company located in Iowa.  But what I didn’t know is that La Quercia means “the oak” and is the traditional symbol of the province of Parma, where prosciutto has been made for 500 years.  The pigs feed on the acorns from the oak tree.  The owners of La Quercia, an American couple, lived in Parma.  For them, the name unites Iowa, Parma and Prosciutto and the oak is also a symbol of patience, integrity, persistence and beauty — values this couple are guided by.  Values we should all be guided by.

Sautéing the speck...

I start by sautéing the speck and garlic in some olive oil.  I sent two pints of cherry tomatoes downstairs to Benjy for him to blast them in the oven.  Sarah is not sure about my instructions, but I know that Benjy will understand.  We want the tomatoes to be blistered, with the peel slipping off and the flavor more concentrated from cooking them.  They will be very sweet and will break down in the stew when added.

Blasted tomatoes

I’m cooking the Cicerchie separately.  As I add a little salt to the water, I panic as I realize that you shouldn’t add salt to chickpeas, especially if they are dried because they will never cook.  I hope these cook.  I decide not to worry since I always seem to finish on time no matter what happens.  Lisa presents me with a Google picture of Cicerchie stew – it has a lot more green in it, so  I send Sarah down to visit the Secret Garden folks to get some Chinese heart-shaped spinach; I ask for 10 or so leaves, but she comes up with a bundle.

Chinese heart-shaped spinach

I love cooking this way:  keeping it simple, just a few ingredients, finishing a dish or two in less than an hour.  It would be so pleasant if I had a glass of wine and some nibbles while we’re waiting.  Oh, it’s only 10:00 am, you say?  I wonder what time it is in Umbria…hmmmm.  I share with the class all the wonderful things that we have growing right now in Houston like peaches, muscadine grapes and (soon) persimmons, and so much more.

We tear off some Slow Dough ciabatta and dip it in the stew.  Now I really wish I had some wine, maybe an Umbrian red!  The stew would be really good after a couple of days in the refrigerator, too, but no one wants to wait that long.

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


Is This Thing On? September 15, 2010

Filed under: Green Plum Cooking School — monicaspeak @ 6:38 am
Tags: , ,

Green Plum Cooking School – Saturday, August 14th

Today, I’m making a gazpacho with beets.  I’m having trouble with my mic, though.  I’m not sure anyone can hear me.  I just keep talking.  I mention my mother’s gazpacho and the one I had in Spain years ago – lasting food impressions that are always my reference points when I make gazpacho.  My mother’s is a puree and much like a salad with a balance of acids and oil from the vegetables or fruits; in Spain, the gazpacho had more red bell peppers in it, was strained after it was pureed (which made it finer) and was garnished with lots of goodies like croutons, hard-boiled egg and tomato.  The beet gazpacho I’m making today brings aspects of these two gazpachos together.

I start by boiling the beets in water to which I have added sugar and vinegar.  The result is a beet-colored sweet and sour elixir that will flavor our gazpacho.  The garnishes are prepped:  concasséd tomatoes, cucumbers and red onion — all diced or minced.  I correct Megan’s (aka Miss Priss) knife skills and reiterate that I want it diced or minced.  But she says she can’t hear me.  I check my mic.  Sarah and Megan’s heads are down and they are determined to squeeze and chop and mince all of the ingredients.  I take some time to chit chat about things with the audience.  I mention my Twogs (my last two blogs that are full of tweets) which I did on my vacation because it’s not enough that I close t’afia and pay for my staff to go on vacation, I now have an obligation to you, dear readers, to disclose my every experience!

It's dicey, folks

For those who didn’t read my Twogs (Hello, is this thing on?), I recounted my experience listening to Alice Waters talk at Toby’s Feed Barn in Tomales Bay (she was supporting her new book, “The Green Kitchen”).  You may remember that I started my Green Plum Cooking Classes by working my way through Alice Waters’ “The Art of Simple Food” for the first year.  I wanted to see if it was really possible to cook something delicious and simple in one hour, using the ingredients I found at the market every week.  Well, it is possible.  So, now, in my second year of cooking every Saturday morning at the market, I am using my own recipes from my online cookbook, Eat Where Your Food Lives.

During Alice’s talk, she challenged the audience to YouTube their own experiences in their Green Kitchens (failed or otherwise).  I’m considering filming my classes.  Alice said that if she was going to do a TV show, she would just dig a hole, put a grate over it and start a fire and invite all of her talented friends to come and cook.  That’s where I’m at — only I want a wood-fired brick oven instead.

almost ready...

We bowl up the Beet Gazpacho.  Really, it should be very cold, but today we’re outside…in August…in Houston.   You could puree the ingredients with ice water to make it colder.  We could pass the gazpacho through the strainer again for a much finer texture but I go with my mom’s gazpacho texture because I’m running out of time.  I suggest to the audience to put it in the freezer with their vodka and realize that the two would make a great combo:  beet gazpacho martinis…which reminds me of another vacation story, but no one can hear me at this point anyway.

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


“Twog” This…Part 2 August 30, 2010

This is where all the good cheese comes from...


Travel Blog, Part 2 – San Francisco/Bay Area – August 2010

More Tweets from my summer travels that I never Tweeted.

(…continued from Part 1)

*Ah, Chez Panisse….what can I say….lots of history here.  Very unassuming, copper, warm wood, an actual fire, everyone from kitchen to floor focused on welcoming you.

*We order most of the menu: start with bellwether ricotta salad with perfectly cooked romano beans and a carpaccio of  both halibut and wild salmon with lots of lemon zest; wolfe quail with heirloom beans; sf bay squid, grilled, with purslane and padrones, green olive gremolata of sorts tucked in there; side of anchovies with olive oil.

*I make a note to ask Hans to grow both purslane and padrones for me. Stacey had a good run on padrones last year.  I’ve been thinking a lot about what these 2 growers can grow for me (when I get back to H-town, Stacey tells me the story of the stolen padrones this summer…yet another devastation for Stacey – you remember the chicken incident?)

*for dessert: the fruit tart (nectarine) and the chocolate sundae (Lili just wanted the ice cream, but we want the caramel and toffee).

*Lili is still processing the experience at Chez Panisse.  She had the pizza and ate it all.  I keep reminding her that this is Alice Waters’ restaurant and she is the Mother of American cooking.  She asks if Alice was “the girl” who made her pizza

*The other day, I told Lili she was a perfect kid and she stomped off saying people aren’t perfect; I said she was a perfect kid meaning she wasn’t perfect but perfect the way a kid should be.

*At Chez Panisse, she tugs my arm down to get my ear and whispers that, when we get back, I should tell people in my class that “people aren’t perfect but food can be perfect.”  I think Alice will like this comment.

*We have plans to hear Alice speak at Toby’s Feed Barn on Saturday night; we’re all excited, but Lili is wary.  “Is this the girl who made my pizza?” she asks again.

*After Chez Panisse we drive to Oakland to check out Camino.  It was my favorite eating experience last time (created by two Alice Waters’ alums, but who isn’t out here?).  All the food on the menu comes out of a wood-fired brick oven or the fireplace.  It’s really simple food and also has the only sustainable bar in the country.

*The next day for dinner (back at the bay house), I sauté the mixed mushrooms from the Ferry Plaza and toss them with some tagliatelli, McEvoy olive oil, parsley and garlic.

*Tonight is our Alice Water’s experience in the barn.  The series is called Food For Thought and has had such speakers as Michael Pollan.  Big people thinking about food, then writing about food and now talking about both in a barn.

*Lili is fussing about going to a lecture and doesn’t care anymore that Alice is the girl who made her pizza…after all, that was days  ago! Then she sees the hay bales and says she wants to go up to the top.  (This is hilarious because on all the hikes she couldn’t stand the smell of freshly mown hay and now she wants to be in & on them.)

*So we head to the top bales. Lisa and I have our Green Kitchen books ready to sign.

*My friend Davia shows up first.  She is one half of the Kitchen Sisters (they have a show that airs on NPR).  The last time I saw her was in Austin when she was on her cookbook tour.

*The stage is set with two Japanese-California style outdoor chairs, a chest, beautiful flowers.  There are probably 200 people in the barn.  Toby’s Feed Barn hosts one of the top 10 farmer’s markets in the country on Saturday mornings (it also has yoga classes, a café and lots of hardware and feed).

View from the top of the hay bales...



“Twog” This…Part One August 21, 2010


Travel Blog, Part 1 – San Francisco/Bay Area – August 2010

I was supposed to Tweet during my vacation but, because I prefer to eat life instead of tweet life, I saved all my tweets and decided to blog them instead.  Call it “twogging.” That’s kind of like my other new favorite word:  “GLOCAL” ( going local ).

*We land in SFO and hit Ferry Plaza Seafood.  Had a Deluxe Seafood Platter — the best Fanny Bays and Little Skookums I’ve had…ever.  Also, boiled shrimp and mussels with salted caper butter and Acme bread.

seafood platter

* I also had a flight of white wines starting with a Muscatel, then a Reisling and a French something…who knows now

*That was all a preamble for our 1:30 lunch reservation at Slanted Door.

*We’re sussing out the ferry plaza stores for our provisions to bring to the bay house.  We check out Boulette’s Larder and get yelled out by one of the owners — that’s always fun.  We take some pictures and promise to only use them as our own personal porn

*We buy a mixed carton of wonderful mushrooms….all local

local mushrooms

more mushrooms



It’s in Our (De-)Nature… August 19, 2010

Matagorda Stone Crab Claws

Green Plum Cooking School – Saturday, July 31st

My mind has already switched back into vacation mode (Yes, again! Every year, I close t’afia for a week so my staff can all have a nice vacation away without worrying about who’s going to cover whose shifts).  But before shutting it all down, I have a class to teach.  I decided, since I’m feeling great about going on vacation and really relaxing, that I will gift the class some Matagorda stone crab claws today.  We don’t get these often, so it’s a real treat.  We also have lots of blueberries right now and I haven’t done blueberries in class yet, so I’m going to make a clafouti.  That’s one of my favorite words, by the way.  I really like saying it.  It is French and it is typically a dessert, but I used to do a zucchini clafouti back in my Boulevard Bistrot days.  A clafouti is a crust-less tart – imagine fruit bobbing in pancake batter, that’s what it’s like.

One Handed Egg Cracking



It’s About Thyme… August 15, 2010

Screaming Summer with Summer Savoury Corn Chowder with Wild Salmon

Green Plum Cooking School – Saturday, July 24th

I’m on Mexican time, today.  Well, really Mexican thyme.  I just got back from a little vacation in Yelapa (no, not the new “beach food” restaurant here in Houston on Richmond).  Yelapa, Mexico might as well be an island, since no cars can get there.  Only boats.  And then only two or three times a day.  There is no infrastructure to speak of.  But I stayed in a beautiful, open “flat” called Casa Pericos, overlooking the water.  Our only souvenir, except for a hat for me, was the exoskeleton of a scorpion.  Yes, they have poisonous scorpions, tarantulas and snakes aplenty.  At night, I had to wear a spelunking light on my forehead to watch out for the creepy crawlies.  Luckily, there was just the dead one.  It helped me get through customs, oddly enough. They were looking for drugs at every juncture of our return and when the customs agents ran across the jar holding the scorpion skeleton, that was as far as they went!  My Mexican sea salt was safe.

Starting from scratch...



Long Enough For Me… August 7, 2010

Everything we need...

Green Plum Cooking School – July 17th

Right from the start, I’m not sure what is going on this morning.  Usually, we hand out tickets for seats to my free morning cooking class starting at 9:00 am.  People wander up and in, cradling breakfast and coffee in their laps.  We end up with a full house most Saturdays, sometimes overfull, that’s when I pull out the igloos to seat people on.  Tommy, who volunteers to man the door, tries to prevent overcapacity, but I just can’t turn anyone away.  Today is a little different, though.  The line begins at the top of the stairs just before 9:00 and snakes all the way down the stairs and just keeps going into the dining room below.  I’m shocked!  It’s the middle of a very hot summer and we’ve got people lining up for an early Saturday morning cooking class.  Maybe they are just now making good on their New Year’s resolutions.  I’m not sure, but it’s grate…I mean, great.

We also have a new vendor starting today at the Midtown Farmers Market (aka MFM): Hans Hansen of Twin Persimmons Farm.  Hans is a cool guy who specializes in native plants and sprouts.  I ask the class what brought so many of them here today and most say that a friend told them they had to come.  Hum…SHEEP PEOPLE, I love it!

Today, I am cooking Chinese long beans.  When the woman from The Secret Garden (another of our regular MFM vendors) says the name for Chinese long beans in Chinese, it sounds like six syllables.  I try to repeat the Chinese name myself, at least six times throughout the class; they laugh at me but I’m not sure it’s that funny, really.

I don’t know why, but I have a problem with long beans, kind of like I have a problem with shrimp.  And water.  Not shrimp with water, but shrimp…and (also) water, and maybe some other things.  I’m determined to leave the long beans long, but The Secret Garden folks tell me I should cut them.  Other people tell me that, too.  But I don’t get it — they’re long, why not keep them long?  The first thing I should do is start the beans to cook, but I’m waiting for them to be prepped — NOT cut, but topped and tailed.  So, instead, I start the blossom butter.  I usually just grab this secret ingredient from my kitchen downstairs and no one knows what the hell I’m talking about even though I say, “It’s a compound butter with herbs, edible flowers, lemon zest, and salt and pepper.”  They still don’t really get the beauty and use of blossom butter on or in everything.  So today, I am going to demonstrate it.



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