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.


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