Tiny Takes it All

by Andy Griffin

www.mariquita.com

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These damn chefs are all the same I decided. Here's Tiny, who has come with his sous chef Pablo all the way from Rose Pistola in San Francisco to visit our farm and he ends up on the property line, literally turning his broad back to my twenty acres of vegetable fields, and now he's waxing enthusiastic about a bunch of thistles I've neglected to turn under.

"I'll take it all," Tiny declares with a sweep of the arm worthy of Caesar laying claim to Gaul.

"Those are weeds," I protest.

"Those are milk thistles, Boss," he corrects me. "I'll take ‘em all."

Chef Eric Tucker of Millennium pulled the same trick when he visited a month ago. Eric didn't want the thistles but a tractor beam of the same unseen culinary force drew him to the margins of the field as well.

"Elderberries?" he said looking at the tiny blue-gray fruit clusters hanging from the windbreak hedge. "I'm gonna do something with those. I don't know what, yet, but I gotta do something."

Don't get me wrong. I'm not complaining about the chefs that visit us. I love ‘em. I feed off their energy like some folks feed off their meals. But thistles?

"What are you going to do with those thistles?" I ask Tiny.

"Ravioli," he shoots back. "Blanch ‘em with kale, chard, rapini greens, dandelions, radicchio, and escarole. Grind it up. Put it all in a cheese cloth bag and squeeze out the excess water. Grind it again. Squeeze it again. Because you're gonna grind it all up it doesn't even matter if the leaves are coarse and tough. All you need is flavor, a mixture of sweet and bitter."

Following Tiny's example I eat a thistle leaf. It is surprisingly mild.

"Bind it all together with a little ricotta and you've got yourself a great ravioli filling," he continues.

Tiny is very convincing. Not that I want to do all that work over a hot stove. But it is now 2:00 on a hot afternoon in a field outside Hollister and I'd trade my dust and thistles for a little round table at Rose Pistola on Columbus Avenue in San Francisco in a heartbeat. I'd call for a glass of cool white wine and a plate of Tiny's ravioli and just sit back to watch the world go by.

We walk back into the center of the field. I want to show Tiny and Pablo the erbette chard we have painstakingly weeded, clean of the flavorful milk thistles.

"This is great stuff," Tiny agrees, chewing on a leaf. "Taste the salt?" he asks Pablo.

I eat a leaf too. The salty flavor is natural and good. Eric from Millenium surprised me when he visited. He took a bite of erbette, turned to me and said, "This tastes like the ocean." He was dead on. Erbette is an heirloom chard, the grandaddy of them all. Its ancestors once thrived along the brackish intertidal zone around the Mediterranean. It remains one of the very few vegetables you can actually fertilize with sea salt. That's what I love about chefs. Even if they aren't always up on their botany their noses and tongues are honed so sharp I can learn a lot about the plants I grow when I shut up and listen.

Tiny, Pablo, and I continue through the rows past parsley, parsnips, carrots, potatoes, and broccoli before we come to a stop before a volkswagon-sized pile of cipollini borettana heaped in the shade of Eric's elderberry trees curing.

"Hey, hey, hey," says Tiny, scooping up a generous pile of the tiny golden onions in his hands. But his next question is about garlic.

"Are you gonna plant any green garlic?" Tiny asks.

"Well, sure," I respond. "Garlic goes in the ground in late September or early October. We pull the first bunches maybe late March, depending on the weather. By May it is too tough to use green so we let any left-over cure."

"Couldn't you keep planting it so the season for green garlic goes on a lot longer?" Tiny asks.

"I suppose so," I answer, "I've just never done it because I figured everybody gets tired of it."

"Not me," says Tiny. "I'm always sad when the green garlic is over. It's so mild and versatile. Our cuisine doesn't call for a lot of garlic but I can just slip that green garlic in there and it's so subtle and perfect."

"Maybe I'll try that," I say, thinking out loud, "and see if the people will go for it."

"Don't worry about them," says Tiny. "I'll take it all."

And maybe he will. Tiny certainly planted a clove in my brain as surely as I'll ever plant one in the soil. Those damn chefs and their seductive rap. Where would I be without them? Thanks Tiny, Pablo, and Eric, for visiting and sharing your enthusiasm, and thanks to all the rest of you cooks out there I've met who have made learning about food so much fun.

copyright 2002 Andy Griffin

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Tiny's thistles
Eric's elderberries

Tiny's Onion Pasta

as told to Andy while the two of them meditated in the presence of a ton of cipollini and written down later by Julia

3 pounds golden cipollini, sliced

3 Tablespoons butter

8 anchovies, rinsed

A splash white wine

A pinch red pepper flakes

1 pound hot pasta

S & P to taste

Slowly cook the onions in the butter with the anchovies until they are caramelized a golden brown. Be careful not to burn the onions. Add the splash of white wine and the pinch of red pepper flakes, then toss with one pound hot cooked pasta. Season and eat.