What does your food look like before it gets to you? I’m not talking about shady factory-farming practices or the difference between the sunny farm on that bag of spinach versus the vast monocropped acreage of the Central Valley. No, I’m talking about something more basic: how well do you do know how familiar foods grow? Close your eyes, and imagine a field growing okra, kiwi, peanuts, or rhubarb: what do you see?
Last year, visiting the Post Familie winery in northwest Arkansas, I spied what I thought were tall, pretty flowers growing among the beans and tomatoes in the family garden. Up close, those six-foot-tall flowering stalks turned out to okra plants, with the sharply pointed pods curving back behind the wide petals. I didn’t know until I became an apprentice at UCSC’s Farm & Garden program that kiwis were harvested in the winter from thick, heavy vines, trellised like grapes. Or that asparagus spears push straight out of the bare ground, later unfurling into lacy, fernlike fronds that look like fairy-sized Christmas trees dappled with red berries.
You never know when a little bit of education will take you by surprise. I was taking a Sunday-afternoon stroll along Cortland Street, looking forward to the April 9 opening of Blue Elephant Thai in the old Tinderbox space, admiring Heartfelt’s cute aprons and vintage glassware (“have a lemonade party!” suggested a cheery sign) and contemplating a daytime cocktail down in the secret garden of Wild Side West, only to be overtaken by a yen for Fiat Majani chocolates. When I lived in Bologna, I used to go around the corner to buy these suave hazelnutty squares, a specialty of the city; now, on the other side of another continent, they’re still available around the corner, at Avedano’s Holly Park Market.
Butchery is Avedano’s reason for living (whole carcasses broken down weekly, the latest issue of Meatpaper on display, “I Love You More than Bacon” buttons by the register) but they’re pretty savvy at filling out the menu with Italian chocolates, fresh baguettes, eggs from Soul Food Farm’s happy hens, even a few baskets of well-polished potatoes and lemons.
But what were these fuzzy oval things in a basket above the baby artichokes? They looked like green almonds (but too skinny) or mutant edamame (only too chubby). Green garbanzos, the sign read, $6/lb, and it struck me that never before had I seen garbanzo beans (a.k.a. chickpeas) in their fresh, unprocessed state, before they’d been rattled into cans or dried to wrinkled golden bullets.
Had I lived in Mexico, though, I’d know these as guasana, a popular and very common snack, with a flavor somewhere between fava beans and green peas, with perhaps just a hint of down-South boiled peanut. Like edamame, they’re typically steamed in the pod, then sucked out one bean at a time. According to Chowhound posters in Jalisco and Guanajuato, home cooks buy huge bunches of the whole plant, then strip the pods from the stems before steaming them in salted water until bright green and tender. Street vendors steam the pods over braziers and sell them by the bag, the outsides sprinkled with lime, chili, and salt. Andy Griffin of Mariquita Farm wrote a rueful journal entry a few years ago about his farm foreman’s attempt to grow (and sell) fresh garbanzos to relocated Jaliscans expecting to pay Mexican prices for a California crop.
Mark Benedetto, a private vegan chef in San Francisco, identified my green handful without even needed to pop a pod. Seems he’s been getting his green garbanzos, at $2/lb, from the Asian market at 22nd Avenue and Irving Street in the Sunset. He treats them like favas, nipping them from their pods, then steaming in lightly salted water. Once they’d lost their slightly chalky rawness, he tosses them in a pan with olive oil and a little minced garlic, rolling them around over medium heat until the garlic is just beginning to golden. Then, a quick buzz in the processor to a chunky puree, a little salt, pepper, and lemon juice–”like hummus without the tahini,” as he describes it–and he’s got a gorgeous spring-green mash ready to be spread on warmed pita bread.
Another idea, if you have a lot? Grind them to make falafel instead of the usual soaked-but-raw dried beans. Since only the outside of the balls fry (the insides steam), they’ll keep a lot of their fresh, green-pea flavor.