What there was not, to much of any degree, was green vegetable matter.
There were plenty of root vegetables, from familiar beets and carrots to a confusing assortment of hairy brown tubers such as taro, malanga and the aforementioned yuca. But even in the cool season, the lettuce is poor and scant; beans, peas and the like are rare as truffles, and leafy greens are almost unknown.
After I spent 10 days being deprived, the produce section of a big American supermarket seemed as full of treats as a candy store. Let's have some slow- simmered kale with curried yogurt and toasted cashews. Let's have some steamed broccoli with lemon butter and rum. Let's have some tossed salad and some grilled zucchini with garlic and olive oil.
Let's have some Stew-Fried Joy of Vegetables.
At this point, most people are familiar with stir-frying, a cooking technique that preserves the crisp textures and bright flavors of fresh vegetables by moving them around constantly over heat so high that they have no chance to steam. This is all very well and good, but it does prevent the flavors from blending to any degree.
Stew-frying, which is like stir-frying except that you use a big saucepan or small kettle instead of a wok, adds a constant steam bath to the equation. This blends and concentrates tastes and allows more variation. That which should be crunchy remains crunchy, but things that ought to be soft and tender have a chance to get there. The complexity of textures rounds out the dish, and the green beans don't squeak.
The visual aspect is also especially attractive, like a jungle painting in shapes and colors of green on green, grass-bright pea pods, jade beans and celadon lettuce stems threaded with the deep green of cooked leaves, highlighted with an occasional crescent of creamy mushroom.
I like this served as a main dish, with steamed new potatoes on the side and maybe some cheesecake for dessert. But it also makes a fine first course (try sprinkling on a few toasted almond slices), and, of course, it's a lovely side dish, particularly for fish.
STEW-FRIED JOY OF VEGETABLES
1 large head romaine lettuce
1 large bunch watercress
1/4 pound shiitake mushrooms
2 tablespoons butter
1 large clove garlic, minced
5 ounces green snap beans, cut in 1-inch lengths
1/2 cup water
1 large bunch scallions, cut into 1/3-inch lengths, including 2 inches of the green part
5 ounces snow peas, halved into short lengths
1/2 teaspoon sugar, approximately
1 teaspoon lime juice, approximately
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Separate the lettuce leaves, and trim off any wilted or brown spots, but leave the thick bases of the ribs. Split down the middle the long way, then slice across in 1/2-inch ribbons. Set aside.
Pick over the watercress, discarding anything yellow or wilted. Trim off only the very coarsest stem bottoms, then cut crosswise into chunks about two inches long. Put them into the lettuce pile.
Cut the stems from the shiitakes (see note). Slice the caps into 1/4-inch- wide strips. Melt the butter in a large saucepan over medium heat, add the shiitakes and cook, stirring, until they are completely wilted and more or less translucent, about four minutes.
Stir in the garlic and green beans. Pour in the water, raise the heat to medium high, and boil, stirring frequently, until the liquid has evaporated and the beans are bright green and just tender.
Raise the heat to high, and start adding the leafage in handfuls. Keep stirring and adding, applying more as soon as there is room. By the time all the greenery is in the pan, the leaves will have wilted to nothing and the stems will be crisp-tender.
Add the scallions, cook about 30 seconds, then add the snow peas, sugar, lime juice and salt, and raise the heat to high. Cook, stirring like anything, just until the snow peas have changed color and are almost, but not quite, as tender as you want.
Remove the vegetables to a bowl, and allow them to cool slightly. They're much more flavorful if served quite warm but no longer piping hot. Taste and adjust sugar, lime and salt. The sweet and sour quality should be just a suggestion, and how much of each component you'll need will depend entirely on the quality of the vegetables of the day. Makes three main-dish or six side- dish servings.
Note: Shiitake stems are uncookably tough and are always removed, but they do have a fine flavor, and with the price of these mushrooms, it's nice to know they can, indeed, be used. Just set them aside on a plate, uncovered, until they're completely dry, then store in an airtight jar. As is, they make a good seasoning for stocks and stews, though be sure to remove them at the end. Or they can be ground to a magic powder that enhances almost everything you sprinkle it on - vegetables, eggs, hamburgers, spaghetti sauce, wherever a deep woodsy accent might spiff up the proceedings.