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Burrowing Under the Boroughs

Burrowing Under the Boroughs

...a closer look at the roots of New York City.

A bright day in Brooklyn. There’s a breeze and the sun casts soft shadows between buildings. Your thoughts wander over to the park; in the lower field, you run into a group of friends, laughing and lounging on a picnic blanket. Overhead there are elms, maples, and oaks, teeming with chipmunks, wrens, thrushes. Occasionally a golden retriever peeks his head out, with a branch in his mouth, dragging his owner behind. It seems that your friends have tried to imitate nature’s bounty — across the picnic blanket they’ve arranged jams, dips, charcuterie, vegetables, pies, and casseroles. Beneath the trees and the grass, beneath your blanket, lies a vast root system, interlocking all the life of the park together. And New York City, stretching into the distance, itself seems a forest of concrete and brick. Skyscrapers rise like redwoods, while down under the sidewalk, subways burrow sideways, wires and pipes connect neighbor to neighbor, and the whole city finds itself intertwined.

Even though summer's warmth has started to evaporate, that doesn’t mean farmers are packing their bags for vacation. Early autumn is the prime season for root vegetables in the Northeast, with carrots, beets, parsnips and more at the peak of flavor and availability. But as every New Yorker knows, the roots of our city extend around the world, so in addition to highlighting these local, seasonal vegetables, we will take a look at roots flourishing at this time in other countries, like ginger and turmeric.

New York City is constantly evolving — it’s in our roots, that there is always a rush towards the future. How has the public perception of vegetables changed here? Let’s take the carrot for example. In the 20th century carrots became a ubiquitous grocery store vegetable across the United States, but this wasn’t always the case. While carrots have been cultivated in Europe since Antiquity, they weren’t introduced to the New World until the time of the Columbian Exchange. While it is speculated that the carrot was introduced to the New World in the 17th century, this brightly colored root was still a long way from enjoying popularity: in 1867 Peter Henderson writes in Gardening for Profit, “[The carrot] may be classed more as a crop of the farm than of the garden, as a far larger area is grown for the food of horses and cattle than for culinary purposes.”

Why did our great-great grandparents have a change of heart about carrots, and decide to bring them out of the trough and onto the dinner plate? One significant factor could be its color. Carrot color is a genetic mutation, just like eye color for humans, and in the early days of carrot cultivation, darker, purplish carrots were more common than lighter yellow, red, and orange ones. Carrots were selectively bred over the years to highlight their orange hue. In Vegetable Gardening the Colonial Williamsburg Way, Wesley Greene addresses this shift, “Popular legend has it that the Dutch developed the orange carrot as a tribute to the House of Orange, the royal standard of the Dutch Monarchy. It is more likely that the orange carrot was favored over the purple because it did not give the brownish coloration to soups and stews that the purple one did.” Orange you glad that you can enjoy the pale, translucent broth of a chicken soup? Thanks carrots! Thanks genetic hybridization!

But don’t write off non-orange carrots yet — here’s a handy breakdown of the typical differences between orange carrots and their multicolored siblings:

Orange carrots: These tend to have been cultivated specifically for contemporary tastes, which means that they are usually bigger and sweeter. Orange foods also contain higher levels of beta-carotene and vitamin A, which can give your vision a boost. These factors make orange carrots a prime choice for juicing, pureeing, and for any dishes that might look better with a bright hue.
Multicolored carrots: Colors in vegetables are an important indicator of vitamins and antioxidants. Purple carrots are high in anthocyanins (may prevent heart disease), red have lots of lycopene (also found in tomatoes, this nutrient may help prevent various cancers), while yellow are especially high in lutein (also good for vision, and may help prevent cataracts). Since these carrots are less manipulated by human breeding, they tend to have an earthier, or more herbaceous taste. Try using multi-colored carrots to add varied color and a depth of flavor to baked dishes or casseroles.

Nowadays New Yorkers love carrots, and across the city you can find countless dishes that include this noble root. While great raw, dipped in hummus or ranch, or simply baked with salt and olive oil, there are lots of fun and creative ways that New York City cooks its carrots. For an appetizer, stop by Purple Yam in Ditmas Park, where you can find ukoy, a Filipino dish that mixes julienned carrots with shrimp in a fritter. At Prospect Height’s Olmsted, your main course could be their inventive carrot crepe, topped with littleneck clams and sunflower seeds. Nearby is Sofreh: here you can find an orange zest and carrot rice, spiced with saffron and laced with raisins. For dessert, try the exquisite carrot halva, which comes perfumed with an intoxicating rosewater and cardamom syrup.

Roots are a testament to the hidden, to the productive power of the unobserved — maybe it’s for this reason that we refer to informal, creative networks of artists or musicians as being “underground.” But the story of roots shouldn’t stop at the top of the soil. While we might associate root vegetables with their subterranean home, in actuality these plants need sunlight and fresh air as well, and to this end they push their leaves up to the sun. Leave carrots in the ground for some time and they will eventually flower, creating new seeds for a new generation of baby carrots. For culinary purposes, it’s a shame that these leaves are so often overlooked, in favor of the root. Carrot leaves have a slightly bitter, herbaceous character, which can add a lot of depth if you throw them into tabbouleh, pesto, or simply sauté them alongside other greens, for use in a dish like bibimbap.

In the history of beets, this root-role-reversal has undergone a huge change in public perception: the beetroot was largely overlooked in kitchens for many centuries, and was more commonly used for medicinal purposes, while its leafy greens were commonly found in cookbooks and on dining room tables. What you find in markets as “Swiss” or “rainbow” chard is in fact a cultivar of beet (Beta Vulgaris) that has been specifically bred for its tasty green leaves. Like chard, beet greens can be eaten raw or cooked, and add an earthy, vegetal note to salads and stir fries.

So wait a second, back it up (beep, beep, beep)… is it true that a beetroot a day keeps the doctor away? While I can’t confirm or deny this, I can say that in the very first cookbook ever printed — De honesta voluptate et valetudine, or, “On Honest Indulgence and Good Health” — Bartolomeo Platina suggests that beetroot consumption can combat garlic breath. Medieval texts also advocate boiled beetroot juice as a “shampoo” to fight dandruff, as well as a burned beetroot-and-honey concoction for prevention against hair loss. More modern sources tell us that beets contain high levels of folate, fiber, magnesium, potassium, and iron — vitamins and minerals that are all essential for general healthiness. I’d rather eat my beets than shower with them anyway.

Walking outside after a summer rainstorm, you might be greeted by a distinct scent, a fragrant earthiness known as “petrichor.” Dry soil, tilled by raindrops, has released a compound called geosmin, which, as it turns out, is also noticeably present in beetroots. All vegetables rely on damp humus to nourish their roots, but here in beets, we literally find the aromatics of soil itself. The earthiness of beets is not for everybody, and I can understand that — I know I wouldn’t want a scoop of dirt in my lovingly prepared salad. But when you consider the other flavors found in beets — tangy minerality and characteristic sweetness — it makes a lot of sense why you’d want them to sit side-by-side with your feta and arugula.

Imagine you are in Beirut, maybe browsing the wares at a souk, or sitting at a coffee shop in Hamra, playing tawle. The weather is still warm enough that you don’t want to eat a steaming shawarma, however you feel an urge to celebrate the season, as summer nights fade into autumn days. Flustered with indecision, your friend orders for you: beetroot mtabbal. My friend Monzer was good enough to send me his family’s Lebanese recipe, as follows:

“Boil or bake the beetroot until is very soft, mash it, put it in a processor or stick blender cup. For 2 cups of beetroot use 2 to 3 tablespoons of tahini, half a cup of laban, 2 cloves of garlic, pinch of cumin (optional), and salt to taste. You could go easy on the salt, because of the sweetness of the beetroot, you won’t need much salt to enhance the flavor. Blend it. Done.”

Roots anchor plants into the ground, they give definition and structure to the trunks and leaves which reach up to the sky. The historical roots of the westernmost tip of Long Island start first as a homeland for the tribes of the Lenape Nation. Next this land existed as a Dutch colony known as Breuckelen, before being renamed “Brooklyn” by the British. Modern Brooklyn can trace the roots of its population around the world: the roots of many Sunset Park inhabitants can be found in China or Mexico, the inhabitants of Crown Heights and Flatbush often have roots in the West Indies, Carroll Gardens is known to be rooted in Italy, and southern Brooklyn neighborhoods like Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay trace their roots across Eastern Europe and beyond. There is another kind of root however, a root that doesn’t trace a linear, historical narrative, but instead spreads outwards horizontally, which forms a complex of connections in the present: the rhizome.

As Deleuze and Guattari say in their seminal A Thousand Plateaus, “Any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be. This is very different from the tree or root, which plots a point, fixes an order.” Rhizomes like ginger, turmeric, and galangal are happy to grow every which way, shooting out new stems from along any node of their stalk, in whatever direction. Many plants that we consider weeds, like poison ivy and Virginia Creeper also use rhizomes to grow vigorously, and to evade human detection, with the vast majority of their body lying underground. Rhizomes act unpredictably, they work according to a kind of democratic chaos, which creates as it goes along, according to no pre-determined plan.

Almost mirroring its rhizomatic plant structure, the path ginger has taken through history and cuisine was unforeseeable. Originally from the South Pacific, ginger has spread through the world, influencing the food of countries from Japan to Jamaica, from the Netherlands to Nigeria. Ginger’s worldwide appeal comes from a combination of relatively easy cultivation, powerful medicinal effects, as well as its signature piquancy: a spicy-yet-flavorful kick. Ginger is definitely noticeable — unafraid of making itself heard, and yet versatile, ginger is comfortable both in sweet and savory dishes. It is at once a world traveler, which makes appearances in many countries, as well as being a neighborhood presence, a familiar face in hyper-regional cuisines. We might imagine ginger to be kind of like a New Yorker, a well-travelled and friendly neighbor, who lives upstairs in their apartment full of photographs and souvenirs.

Even in dishes where ginger is featured in the name, I can guarantee that you will never find ginger as the main ingredient — gingerbread is mostly “ginger-flavored bread” and so on. Unlike with carrots and beets, you probably wouldn’t want to eat roasted ginger with salt and olive oil. That’s because ginger works best as a companion. Julienned ginger sharpens the funky spice in Korean kimchi; raw grated ginger contrasts with mellow dashi in Japanese zaru soba; stir fried ginger adds depth to the spice base for West African dishes like maafe or jollof; baked ginger contrasts with the sweetness of molasses in classic British gingerbread. Because of ginger’s assertive flavor, it provides a wonderful juxtaposition for other ingredients.

So ginger gets around, one way or another. Instead of listing recipes where ginger is featured, I think it’s more interesting to ask, “where can ginger be used to add new layers of flavor?” When discussing carrot colors, chicken soup was mentioned. Why not add a knob of ginger into your stock, to give more depth and spice, and to increase the dish’s medicinal potential? Middle-eastern dips came up in our section on beets — what if you included ground ginger and turmeric in your next batch of hummus or tahini? Again, you wouldn’t want ginger to be the overwhelming flavor. But next time you think about how to take your cooking to the next level, think about ginger, and think about how rhizomes “think”: unbiased, creative, and spontaneous.

That being said, I can’t help but include some funky ginger drinks!

Sambharam: Known by several names, this drink from Kerala (in southwest India) is made by steeping chopped chilis, ginger, and curry leaves in a blend of yogurt and buttermilk — the result is tangy and spicy, at once warming and cooling.
Ginjan, Emudro etc: West African countries like Ghana, Guinea, Senegal, and Liberia have endless variations on ginger beer, including versions with lemon juice, pineapple juice, cloves, cinnamon, peppercorns, nutmeg, and vanilla. Mix and match and find your favorite! Also consider mixing ginger juice with hibiscus tea to make a spicy Malian bissap.
Fire cider: With origins in the Appalachias, fire cider has experienced a renewal of interest, with several companies now making bottled versions. However it is easy and quite a lot of fun to make for yourself at home! A base recipe calls for a jar of chopped ginger, garlic, hot peppers, horseradish, and lemon juice to be submerged in a lot of apple cider vinegar. Steeping the ingredients at room temperature for several weeks to several months will leech out the flavors and medicinal properties of the solids into the liquid. Make sure to turn the jar upside-down once a day, so that everything gets mixed properly. Fire cider recipes can include anything that you find delicious or nutritious, so don’t be afraid to experiment by adding raw honey, herbs, or other spices/roots! After the desired period of steeping, strain the solids out and you will be left with an intense, wellness-promoting elixir, to sip or do shots of. Cheers!
-- originally published in our Fall 2019 magazine --