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.
Doris from Lola Daniel Urban Farm (another MFM vendor) has zinnias of all colors that I want to use in the butter. Earlier, I also gathered all the herbs from our patio garden — Mexican Mint Marigold (a good substitute for French tarragon that grows like crazy here), basil, marjoram, summer savoury. Megan zested the lemons. But Doris tracked me down to tell me that she now wasn’t sure the zinnias were edible. After many phone calls to Lola, she was able to confirm that this variety was in fact edible. Whew!
I combine the soft unsalted butter with the herbs, lemon zest and the zinnia petals. I leave the petals big (sometimes I chiffonade them) because I like to see the colors in the sauce after we mount it with the butter. If the petals are too thinly sliced, you lose that color. I then talk about how easy it is to grow your own herbs – even if you don’t have a backyard – and how everyone should. Most folks in the audience say they grow their own. Using your own, fresh herbs, and also using whole spices that you toast and grind as needed, make a HUGE difference in the way your food tastes. Just making these two small changes can change your cooking for the better.
Back to the long beans. I am going to cook them for a loooooong time and finish them with a sweet soy mixture (one of my other secret weapons to achieve umami – also known as the fifth sense – it is a satisfying savoriness) mounted with the blossom butter. I suddenly remember that I was also going to make Zaatar, which is a Middle Eastern spice mixture made from sumac, sesame and savoury or thyme. Sumac is a berry that, when ground, is very tart – lemony and salty. Turns out that Sumac was used in the Middle East for tartness prior to the Romans introducing lemons to that part of the world. Sumac is great sprinkled on mainly things from hummous to quail; combined with other spices like in the Zaatar, it’s perfect for seafood stews.
Hans, our new grower, gave me some celeriac tops this morning, too. Celeriac is a root vegetable but has a leafy top that has a very strong, fresh celery flavor. I use it like an herb. Hans tells me that after class, he sold out of the celeriac.
I take the beautifly long long beans out of the cooking pot with my tongs and lay them on my table. Ah, to cut or not to cut, that is the question. I realize, though, that in order to feed all of these people I WILL have to cut them. Argh! What a travesty of justice I must now participate in.
In the end, I decide not to put the Zaatar on the beans; there seems to be a lot going on. Instead, I put a teaspoon off to the side so people can dip and taste the spice mixture separately. I remind the class that at home, they can add all sorts of things to their secret sauce: like fermented black beans, roasted garlic, ginger, scallions, edamame, shiitakes.
I send Megan downstairs to find out the right way to say Chinese long bean in Chinese. “Ask her to write it down for you,” I say, threateningly. Megan comes up with a Chinese newspaper with the words Chun Sun written on it. That is NOT how it sounded to me! Megan rolls her eyes, as if she speaks Chinese herself and knows better.
We plate the long-cut long beans, taste the Zaatar. I hope I’ve given everyone a couple of reasons to stick their New Years’ resolutions…in July.
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 http://www.ChefMonicaPope.com)