Monday, April 26, 2010

"Is This Ube?" Or, "Steven And The Purple Yam."

There's a much-mangled quote that gets attributed to Abraham Lincoln, that goes something like this: "After a certain age, a man gets the face he deserves." The "certain age" part of the adage seems to change from "forty," to "fifty" to "sixty," depending on how many years are hung on the mug of the person repeating the quote. And, no doubt, on whether they feel the aging process treated them, and their face, fairly.

So as you look at the picture of these gnarly tubers to the right, you might wonder why I'm mentioning that quote. Don't worry. I'm not saying that I think my face looks like a yam. At least not yet. No, I've been thinking about that quote because as a kid I often viewed Harold, the cartoon figure of the clean spate and crayon-clenched hand, as a kindred spirit. And now that I'm of a certain age, and headed - no pun intended - toward an equally denuded scalp as Harold, I keep thinking about the books which featured him as I have started to color my culinary world with a variety of purple yam called Ube. (That's pronounced "oooh-bay," by the way.)

Often used in desserts in Filipino cuisine, ube was something I'd never heard of until I moved to San Francisco. But once I saw it, I was instantly intrigued. Its hue was somewhere between royal blue and a nearly-neon purple, and I saw repeatedly in ice cream. Over time, I became determined to bake gobs with it. When OutsideIn - the monthly event organized by chef Roger Feely aka Soul Cocina which takes vendors and food purveyors who ordinarily sell on the street and brings them together, under one roof, for one night - announced it was having a Filipino-themed evening, I knew I had my chance.

Finding fresh ube proved to be a bit of a challenge, but I finally succeeded in securing the frozen variety through the magic of Twitter. Guided by the tweets I received from my followers, I discovered whole ube in a market less than a mile and a half from my house. I dashed to the store and saw two varieties in the freezer. The first was a mass of purple pulp, and quite honestly looked like something a phlebotomist would've drained out of The Phantom. The second bag held several peeled, but whole ube. Peeled, their oblique cuts and facets made them resemble strange gemstones rather than something that was actually edible, but I hurried home with my loot, eager to try them in my recipe.

I prepared the ube as I would any filling that I was going to add to my gob batter. But ube was proving it wasn't just any old gob filling. For one thing, even after boiled down, its starchiness made it quickly coagulate into one gigantic mound. For another, that same tendency for its pieces to become part of a whole again, made it almost impossible to disperse. What I hoped for was a rich, purple batter. When I had, instead, was a gray mix with tiny points of the yam, scattered like drops of violet mercury, throughout.

After the first batch failed, I quickly regrouped in my kitchen, and decided the ube would go into the frosting instead. While that approach was more successful than putting it in the batter, it didn't yield that Prince-worthy color I'd hoped for. But when the coconut gob was filled with the ube frosting, the flavor was sweet and exotic. Not only did it taste good, the Coconut Ube Gob ended up looking foodgawker- and tastespotting-worthy, thanks to the skillful eye of blogger and photographer Jun Belen.

Having worked with the frozen version, I remained determined to find the real thing, so I was nearly speechless when I saw some of the white-skinned roots sitting in a box at my local farmer's market. My favorite organic purveyor was now carrying them! Holding them up excitedly I asked "Is this ube?" The proprietor of the stall looked at the tubers in my hand and said "That's purple yam. What's ube? I don't know ube." I said "Ube, it's um, it's a purple yam used in Filipino dishes." She shook her head knowingly. "So," she said as she weighed bok choy for another customer, "You have a Filipino wife?"

"No," I answered, as I turned each ube over, looking for the smoothest specimens possible. "I just like to cook with a lot of Asian ingredients."

"Oh," she said. "So you're one of those guys."

I stood up. An awkward silence followed. She exchanged glances with her son and then looked back at me as people within ear shot shuffled their feet, waiting for something to break the tension.

"What she means is 'One of those guys who thinks he's Asian,'" her son hurriedly offered.

There was more silence, a few more furtive glances, and then big laughs. And finally a discount on my order.

Yes. I guess I was "one of those guys," I thought. I was happy, and I felt a bit like Harold as I raced home, excited to color my kitchen. The purple possibilities seemed endless.

Many thanks to Jun Belen, not only for his creative eye and kind words in his blog, but also for his generosity in allowing me to reprint his photo of my Coconut Ube Gob.

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