Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Henceforth? Tourtière!

Every culture, every country, every cuisine, has some kind of meat pie. Just think of that old nursery rhyme, “Four and twenty blackbirds baked in....” one. Think of calzone, knish, pizza, shepherds, chicken pot, steak and kidney, pasty, empanada...

The first time my neighbor and friend Ginette Turgeon mentioned tourtière, my ears pricked right up and I peppered her with incessant questions about the thing. She told me she’d grown up with it in Québec, that it was a French Canadian meat pie enclosed in two crusts. That only enflamed my curiosity, perhaps because mincemeat pie, as my grandma made it and as I do now, is one of my favorite things in the world. Mincemeat, not many people know, is beef, or venison neck meat if Grandma had her way, chopped up with suet, apples and raisins, with brown sugar, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, and pepper added, all simmered together until done. About two hours. Enclosed in two crusts and baked.

If tourtière didn’t sound more exotic, it was interesting in that it was connected – there was boiling meat, and sweet spices like cloves. It differed from mincemeat, and put it in a whole other category, that there was whipping, and a potato, and no sugar. “Not sweet. No,” Ginette said. “It is a savoury pie.” But, like mincemeat again, “and we eat it at Christmas and at New Years and at no other time.”

Many years have flown by since that first conversation, and though Ginette and I have talked about tourtière several times during those years I had never tried making it. This year I was spurred on by a reader and neighbor, Mickey Best, asking about tourtière last spring and lamenting that she could not seem to make it taste the way it used to. I remembered this lament when another friend and neighbor, Lowell Klock, came back, from spending Thanksgiving in Quebec, with a sample of creton. Creton is a kind of spread or pâté made of ground pork of which Canadians eat slices, with toast, for breakfast. And it seemed to be made, upon investigation, in the same way that tourtière is made – by boiling (well, simmering) ground meat with seasonings – though not enclosed in pastry.

I looked up recipes on the web and combined a few and made it. I liked the idea I found of simmering the ground pork in milk, quite a lot of milk. Some recipes had no spices – I went with the classic four – cloves, cinnamon, allspice and pepper – not a lot of each. That was about it. Sauté the meat until the red is out – until it’s gray – add the spices, and the milk just to cover, some salt, and let simmer for about 2 hours. I scraped it all into a container and refrigerated it. It was very good, but not quite as formed, as... stiff, as the slice that Lowell had brought home. I found out later that some people add the marrow of roasted pork bones to give it more gelatin, which gives it more form.

So that was a success. We ate some with toast, I gave some to Ginette (but none to Lowell – I’m sorry. Next time) and the rest I used as a filling in pizza dough, thereby making a creton calzone. Talk about mixing your metaphors, or, in this case, cultures and cuisines.

I’m not sure if Lowell brought that bit of creton home because she was intrigued with it or because she knew I would be. Probably a little of both. Having lived in exotic places and being well traveled, she owns a learned appreciation of exotic and just plain fine – meaning the best ingredients, well-prepared – food. Ginette, I suspect, like me, owes her passionate sense of food to the intense family that fostered it; that and being pretty well traveled herself. There is something of the historian to this curiosity about food, an appreciation of cultures’ unique yet connected influence on and interpretation of raw ingredients. Mrs. Bomblatt would no doubt agree if she were not but a fictional character. With Mickey, we all four end up in Wallingford, Vermont from our own different directions, focused on a Canadian dish of what is, essentially, boiled meat.

Damned tasty, though, if we do say so, in a way to which much of today’s food cannot begin to aspire: in its history, its outdated necessity, and the almost-from-Marco-Polos-era – or at least 17th Century France – way of spicing meat with sweet spices – the better to preserve it longer, or at least smell like it; in the use of milk, I think, as the original simmering medium to make a kind of gravy of the very meat!; and the pastry enclosure to render that creton handy to transport down into the mines or up into the pastures. At which time, enclosed in pastry, it becomes pasty, tart, burrito, well, you get the point. Tourtière is not quite as handy to carry, but the pastry crust does make it more festive at the table.

Having a pound and a half of ground beef on my hands, I decided to make a tourtière out of it instead of pork, a legitimate decision because most surmise tourtière was a way of using leftovers. In fact, a cipâte, from Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, widely thought to be a predecessor of tourtière, uses several different kinds of meat, notably wild ones, each layer separated from the next, sometimes by pastry. Gaspé, being a fishing area, makes a salmon pie or tourtière, as well as a chicken one. The Québécois version sometimes uses veal and/or beef in addition to pork.

Adding a little lard to the heavy pan to grease it, I cooked the ground beef, with a chopped medium-sized onion and several cloves of garlic. When it was gray and limp – how appetizing! – I added ¼ teaspoon each of cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice and pepper, maybe a teaspoon of salt, a rather large potato cut in 1 inch chunks, poured in enough whole milk to cover it – about a cup and a half – brought it to a simmer, put the cover on and let it cook for about 2 hours, until it was thick and most of the milk had been absorbed. Then, remembering, however vaguely, Ginette saying that she beat it, I mashed it with a potato masher to get out all the clumps of meat until it was of a rather fine consistency. Then I corrected the seasonings – it needed a little more salt.

I made my usual crust of 2 cups flour, a little more salt than usual –a heaping teaspoon of flaky seasalt, 1/3 cup butter and 1/3 cup lard, and 1/3 cup water or a little less. Once the pastry was rolled out and filled with the cooled meat, I glazed the top crust with 1 egg yolk mixed with a little cream, and baked it at 450 for 15 minutes, then 350 for another half an hour. With all due modesty, I have to say that crust was the best one I’ve ever made. Man, it was toothsome!!!

I had a feeling I should serve the tourtière with gherkins, the traditional accompaniment to creton, but I didn’t have any, so I dolloped several things around it – horseradish made by Mama K (another Wallingford neighbor), and spicy mustard, and put pickled mustard seeds on top of it. Then I put a line of Greene’s Gourmet of Vermont all natural Texas Chipotle medium around it, and it was to that line to which my fork gravitated. The sauce is HOT, but chock full of flavor, first from the chilis, then the lime but not tasting of lime, maybe garlic. But those are some flavorful chilis, and an end of a toothpick touch of it on a forkful of tourtière was as though made in heaven. You can get this sauce at the Farmers’ Market as a rule. Next day I ate tourtière with Maya’s homemade kimchi, and that was awfully good, too.

But to get the ultimate low-down on tourtière, I asked Ginette if I could stop by and observe her technique. She makes half a dozen pies and freezes them without baking them, then takes them out one by one during the holiday season to bake. Her whole family looks forward to them. Knowing how these things work, she had made one tourtière for me to see the finished product – and a beautiful thing it was – while on the stove bubbled the makings for another five or six pies.

She was using ground pork, about 1 ½ pounds per pie, with one large onion and 5 to 6 cloves of garlic, chopped pretty finely, adding 1 teaspoon of salt and some pepper, which she cooks just until the meat loses its red color, then covers this with the water, not milk, about 1 ¼ cups, and simmers it for about an hour and a half or until reduced and almost creamy. Only then does she add her spices – about ¼ teaspoon each of cloves and cinnamon, and simmers it another 20 minutes. Remember, this is for one tourtière.

And Ginette does not kid when she says she beats it – she gets out her handy hand-mixer and whips the meat, for some time. “I whip it to not a fine texture, not exactly a spread,” she says, “but so it is all even, and until the water is all incorporated. I don’t like coarse!”

Only when she approves its texture, does she add the potato. “I use one very large potato, russet, starchy, for each pie, and I cook it and mash it without any butter or milk before I add it to the meat.” She dollops in the potato and whips it into the meat, and then checks the seasoning. “Oh, more salt!” she exclaims, “and a little more cinnamon.” She sprinkles more salt, and we taste, and she sprinkles a little more salt. “Now, what do you think? It’s perfect, eh?” And it was.

“What did you serve with it,” she asked. I went on and on about what I’d tried, and that I’d settled on Greene’s Hot Chipotle Sauce, and returned the question to her. “Plain,” she said decidedly. “I like mine plain, but Gaeton likes zucchini relish with it.” I recalled Ginette mentioning last summer that she always made a little zucchini relish for her husband Gaeton to eat with tourtière come Christmas. I recalled that in my research traditional sides are pickled beets or green tomato relish.

At my request, Ginette flipped through her books – most of them in French – to find the recipe she uses for creton. It calls for 2 pounds ground pork, two onions and 2 cloves of garlic, chopped, 2 cups water, 2 teaspoons salt, to be simmered together for 1 hour; at which time 1 cup of milk, ½ cup of oatmeal and ½ teaspoon of allspice are added and cooked for another hour. That’s whipped, too, before being packed into a dish and refrigerated.

The oatmeal I had not heard of before, but that and the potato in the tourtière are thought by food historians to reflect an Irish influence. Looking for the original recipe for something? You’d probably have to go back to the apple in the garden of Eden.

Well, that’s about all I know about tourtière, as well as creton. I’m glad I finally know it, though – it’s delicious, it’s beautiful and impressive, it’s traditional, it’s easy to prepare, can all be done ahead, and it will be a glad addition to my holiday table henceforth!

Originally published in the Rutland (VT) Herald on 12/18/07

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

the Unbearable Whiteness of Baking

Mrs. Bomblatt woke with foreboding. “Cookies? Bah! Humbug!"had been her less than gracious response last night, when her eight year old daughter reminded her that it was time for that marvelous tradition known as Making and Decorating Christmas Cookies With Your Children, or Creating Total Havoc with Flour and Confectioners Sugar.

Mrs. Bomblatt knew this to be an activity perpetrated by Mary-Poppins-like mothers who shared it gently and graciously (there was that word again) with their children, dressed all the while in clean, unrumpled Alice Blue dresses and white pinafores, their blond hair swept impeccably into soft chignons.

Mrs. Bomblatt knew her own limitations. There was a medieval edge to her food sense, she feared, a touch of the arcane. Much to her consternation, a friend had once suggested that if she’d lived in an earlier age she would have been burned for a witch, just because she loved the quirks of food, the historic pattern of it. She had a feeling for the ethos of the people who performed the intricate processes before her.

And holiday food was no exception. Mrs. Bomblatt liked to steam a plum pudding, stew mincemeat with real meat, preferably venison, spend extraordinary amounts of time finding a free-range goose to roast, soak a southern ham in the bathtub for days, or hang a locally smoked one in a cool dry place for a month, scraping off the mold before baking it. And while, for most people, eggnog meant pulling a cardboard carton out of the dairy case and adding liquor to it at the appropriate time, wasn’t that just too simple for her taste! She liked to beat up fresh eggs and cream with sugar, weeks or months ahead of time, add a liberal amount of dark rum, and let it mature in a crock in the cellar (refrigerators are so... mundane, she thought) to let it mellow for weeks or months, stirring occasionally and testing by the spoonful. Once, she had tasted it, diffidently, at Easter, and it was very good, in her opinion, and, to her surprise, she had survived. That was when she began to consider how Mr. Bomblatt’s beloved Bailey’s was made; how all those little European towns thrived in spite of drinking old eggs.

Mrs. Bomblatt had realized long ago that she’d never make old bones as a cook if she didn't do something to liven it up. Her family, on the other hand, could stand a little more ordinariness, something they could count on. Cookies were, as her daughter would say, something Mrs. Bomblatt could not possibly add a hot pepper to. But making Christmas cookies involved time! Great, massive quantities of time, and if she knew herself, those quantities would be short on quality.

Mrs. Bomblatt threw back the covers and planted her feet on the chilly floor, girding herself for battle, for today would be the day to play Saint Mary of the Cookies and she feared she would find herself once again eminently unfitted for the part.

Sure enough, later that afternoon:

"Why are you swearing, Mom?" Lizzie asked with equanimity, sitting on the counter, all knobbly knees and elbows. "Santa will hear you and leave you a lump of coal!" She laughed. Outside it was frigid and snowy, but inside all was cozy chaos and flour. They’d been at cookie baking for a nice quantity of time — about fifty hours, Mrs. Bomblatt thought.

She glared at her daughter. "I'm just perpetuating an old tradition among the wimminfolk of our family," she said, yanking the silverware holder out of the dishwasher (she was her mother). "You're lucky I'm not slamming doors and crying."

Lest the reader come away with the wrong idea, Mrs. Bomblatt would not ordinarily act in such a way except that a truly monumental misfortune had befallen her – she had misplaced the rubber spatula! Or, rather, someone had taken it! Or it had taken feet and walked away! Her daughter was staring at her rage in fascination. Mrs. Bomblatt considered kicking the step-stool; resisted kicking the cat; found herself frozen in mid-exasperation by some kind of rational maturity. Shame on me! she thought.

She centered herself. She’d looked everywhere at least three times, and wouldn’t look again. The problem could not be solved by brute action – Mrs. Bomblatt took a deep breath and put her faith in civilized problem solving. There were several ways to go, i.e. Sour Grapes – She didn’t need the stupid thing, would use her hands; Give Up and Kick The Stool – Mrs. Bomblatt caught her blood pressure by the shirt-tail as it shot up in anticipation; Pass The Buck – "Well, if you think YOU can find it (she was her aunt) then do!". She did not so much decide on as burst out with the latter.

Balletically, Lizzie dropped off the counter, gracefully sweeping flour with her. Mrs. Bomblatt opened her mouth and shut it quickly. Lizzie glanced back at the resulting squeak and opened the refrigerator door. "Here it is," she said, yanking the cursed thing out of the chilling cookie dough.

I think I will go away, far away, and lie down with a cold compress on my head, thought Mrs. Bomblatt, until the season of harmony and grace has ended.

Whom did she think she was kidding? Once started, the process of fourteen thousand tasteless gingerbread boys demanded to be completed. One quarter ton of sugar cookie dough must be pressed out of this silly little contraption, although once baked it would have melted back into shapeless blobs anyway. Ah well, Mrs. Bomblatt began to pack the dough into the tube and, sure enough, when she tried to screw it out in the shape of a poinsettia a blob emerged.

"Here, Mom," Lizzie took the cookie press from her mother. "You just relax. Let me try."

"Hmmmph," grunted Mrs. Bomblatt, crossing her arms (therefore looking and sounding just like her grandmother). "I don't know how you expect to be able to do it,"she snapped, regretting the words before they were out of her mouth, "...if I can't." Lizzie turned the screw handle and pressed out row upon row of perfect poinsettias until the thing was empty, then she unscrewed the cap, removed the pattern, inserted one of a Christmas tree, and packed the tube full of batter again.

Mrs. Bomblatt perched on the stool, arms still crossed, chagrin fading to something more easily assimilated. Was she recognizing a very faint pattern here? A very long process? She could hear her grandmother saying contentedly, "Cookies? We'll let your mother do the Christmas cookies. She does such a nice job of it." My Goodness, Mrs. Bomblatt thought, her eyes widening in relief, It’s like twins – it skips a generation!

"What a beautiful job you're doing," Mrs. Bomblatt crooned, patting her glossy chignon, smoothing her snow-white pinafore. "Let me know if you need some help with the icing," she said, heading down cellar to stir the eggnog and... make sure the taste was developing properly.

Some of Mrs. Bomblatt’s favorite cookies – made each year, forever after
this embarrassing little episode, by Lizzie.

Basler Brunsli

(Heart Shaped Chocolate Almond Spice Cookies from Nick Malgieri )

60 cookies


1 1/2 cups whole natural almonds (or hazelnuts or both) (8 oz)

1 1/2 cups sugar plus additional for coating work surface

6 ounces fine-quality semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, chopped

1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 cup egg whites (from about 2 large eggs)

In a food processor combine almonds with sugar and pulse until ground fine. Add chocolate and pulse until ground fine. Don’t over process because the chocolate will melt. Add spices and pulse twice. Add egg whites and pulse until mixture forms a stiff dough, adding 1 teaspoon water if necessary.

Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper or foil. On a surface coated with additional sugar press out or roll dough about 1/4 inch thick. With bottom of a fork held facing down and tines touching dough at a sixty degree angle, score dough about 1/16 inch deep by pulling fork across in a series of parallel vertical lines. With a 2-inch heart-shaped cutter cut out cookies and transfer to prepared baking sheets. Press dough scraps together and cut out more cookies in same manner. Let them stand, uncovered, for 3 hours before baking.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees

Put cookies in oven and immediately reduce temp to 300 degrees. Bake 10 to 15 minutes, juggling cookie sheets, or until cookies are just firm, then cool on sheets or racks.

When cool, store for up to two weeks in an airtight container.

Grandma’s Ice Box Cookies

Grandma made two kinds of cookies and one was this oblong, brown, nut-studded, rich, thin bar. Mrs. Bomblatt had absolutely no idea why you needed a whopping tablespoon of cream of tarter, but you do. She keeps a pan of this dough in the fridge and manages to bake them off when needed. Grandma used black walnuts and so does Lizzie when Mrs. Bomblatt e can get them.


2 cups brown sugar

1/2 cup lard or solid shortening

1/2 cup butter

1 tablespoon vinegar

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 eggs well beaten

4 cups flour

1 tablespoon baking soda

1 tablespoon cream of tartar

1 1/2 cups walnuts or pecans

Cream together the brown sugar, shortening and butter, stir in the vinegar, vanilla and eggs. Whisk together the flour, soda, and cream of tartar and beat into the sugar/butter mixture just until combined, then stir in the nuts.

Line a bread pan with plastic wrap, pack the dough into this, smooth the top, cover with the plastic and store it in the fridge overnight. Next morning, or evening, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Slice the dough into 1/4 inch slices and bake for about 12 minutes.

Rose’s Peanut Butter Cookies w/Chocolate Navels

From Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Rose’s Christmas Cookies. “They are very peanut buttery yet exceptionally light, with a lovely ‘sandy’ bite.”


1 cup (5 oz) all purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/8 teaspoon salt

½ cup (3.75 oz) light brown sugar

¼ cup (1.75 oz) granulated sugar

½ cup (4 oz) unsalted butter

1 cup (9.25 oz) smooth peanut butter

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Into a small bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, and salt, then whisk. In a food processor with the metal blade, process the sugars for several minutes until very fine. Cut the butter into a few pieces and add it with the motor running. Add the peanut butter and process until smooth and creamy. Add the egg and vanilla extract and process until incorporated, scraping the sides of the bowl. Add the flour mixture and pulse it just until incorporated. Scrape the dough into a bowl and refrigerate for at least 1 hour or overnight.

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.Roll 1 inch balls of dough between your hands, set them 1 1/2 inches apart on a cookie sheet, then make a depression halfway through the center of each with your index finger. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, until set, remove from the oven, and immediately place a small chunk of chocolate into the little navels. Let the cookies cool on the sheets for a few minutes until they are firm enough to handle, then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

Betty’s Russian Teacakes

Put these in the freezer and let them pile up, batch by batch, and don’t tell anyone how delicious they are frozen. Lizzie usually makes them in double batches. Originally from the now classic Betty Crocker’s New Picture Cook Book (1967)

3 1/2 dozen cookies.


1 cup soft butter

1/2 cup sifted confectioners’ sugar (run it in the food processor to get the lumps out)

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 1/4 cups unbleached flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup finely chopped nuts

Into the bowl of a food processor put the butter, sugar and vanilla, and mix thoroughly. Add the flour and salt and pulse. Add the nuts and pulse. Chill.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Roll the dough into one inch balls. Place on ungreased baking sheet. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes. While still warm, roll in confectioners’ sugar. Cool. Roll in sugar again.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Cabbage Minus Zero

If your dog has an ancient brain, vestigial memory, he will bury a bone and go back one day and dig it up and lie down over it and hold it in his paws and nurse it until it’s gone, licking and sucking and sometimes chawing until it is lace and finally disappears. He buries the bone not so it ferments, not so the earth will make its elements work on each other until they are more available to his digestive system, which is what happens, but because something, a hunch, tells him to. My dog’s ancient brain has been pretty much bred out of him. Nevertheless, he has little or no interest in a fresh bone. If I give him one on June 1st, he will disdain it, nose it a few times over the next month as it lies in the grass under a hot sun, and finally find real interest in it about the 4th of July. A winter bone can lie there till hell freezes over and then thaws, at which point he might find it fascinating.

Makes you glad to be a civilized human, doesn’t it? But wait a sec: you pick a cabbage out of the fall garden. It might be sleeting, you might have to lift the protecting blanket and shake the snow off it before you break off the cabbage. Now what? Eat it at ground zero? Probably not. And no, you can’t leave it on your counter or even in your fridge to eat next month, for even if rot doesn’t set in, the quality – the flavor and nutrition of it – will degrade. No, you have to do something with it – immediately, if not sooner. What do you do? Grandma used to cut out the core and shred the cabbage, salt it until it wept, wring it out, and apply a dressing of light cream, vinegar, a little sugar. That’s pretty much ground zero.

Next step is to heat it. I like to put some good amount of butter in the pan (natch!), melt it over low heat, then add the thin wedges of cabbage, salt and pepper, cover it up and leave it over very low heat on a back burner for a long time – an hour, maybe. Turn it once in awhile as the cabbage melts and golds. The long low heat doesn’t excite cabbage’s bitter buds but calms them into sweetness. A touch of vinegar when you eat it.

That’s the way with cabbage. You heat it, it’s a plus, an addition.

Let’s go the other way – don’t heat it, slice it up in slivers and put it to work, encourage it to make the most of its innate self. You’ve heard of sauerkraut? You know how it’s made? Think about it – it’s buried in a crock with salt sprinkled over it, pounded down, weighted, covered, and let work!

The process is called lacto-fermentation, and the key to it is salt, which allows “Lactic microbial organisms – similar to those that curdle milk – to develop spontaneously and convert the natural sugars of the vegetable into lactic acid. This environment rapidly acidifies, to the point that it becomes impossible for bacteria responsible for food spoilage to multiply.” This is from a little book called Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning, put together by The Gardeners & Farmers of Terre Vivante, in France, and published by Chelsea Green in White River. It’s a treasure trove of old techniques of preservation that get left out of modern cookbooks but that were – until quite recently, the middle of the 19th century when heat sterilization (canning)came into wide use – the prevalent forms of food preservation. They include drying; preserving with salt, oil, sugar, alcohol or vinegar; cold storage, and fermentation.

“Oh, how esoteric,” you might say. But lots of foods we eat everyday take advantage of fermentation. Chocolate, for instance. In an October 29th New Yorker article called “Extreme Chocolate”, Bill Buford says “Fermentation has been around forever. It is older than cooking. It was probably the first method of food preparation. Fermentation transforms grapes into wine, grains into beer, wheat into leavened bread. It transforms a raw ingredient, often valued for its nutrition, into one valued for its taste. It yields vinegar, yogurt, sauerkraut, cheese, prosciutto, vanilla, and pickles.” Of course, cacao pods are also fermented, a process Buford describes robustly, to yield, finally, the silky bitter thing we call chocolate.

Without undue thought about the matter, I made a couple of small batches of sauerkraut this fall. I was surprised by the sweetness and velvety texture of it, and how well it accompanied roasted or grilled meats. A taste of it alone in the middle of the afternoon proved satisfying, too.

Suddenly, as though my ears had been unstoppered by the doing of it, people were TALKING, in the most ravishing tones, about sauerkraut and the more varied Asian counterpart of it, kimchi, a fermented vegetable mix, usually based on cabbage but with the addition of other vegetables such as carrots and onions. Its spiciness can be scorching or mild with hot peppers, its Asian origin told in notes of ginger or fennel or seeds of cumin, coriander or cardamom. It’s as individual as the maker.

Potter, Maya Zelkin, served kimchi as part of a little spread she put out for her pottery studio opening in Shrewsbury in October. As I nibbled it appreciatively she told me she’d made it from her own garden produce and in a fermenting crock like the one I was at that moment looking at and wondering what that unusual object was. She had taken a fermentation class given by the Flack Family Farm of Enosburg Falls a few years ago at a NOFA (Northeast Organic Farming Association) conference, and based her execution of the crock on one she’d seen there.

The crock holds 2.5 gallons of vegetables, considerably more than I had been making at home, and the covering weight is a halved disk that fits, half by half, through the narrow top to cover the vegetables to weigh them down. “You don’t need a lot of weight,” Maya told me.

A bowl-like top fits upside-down into the lip, or gutter, of the crock, the lip is then filled with water, which creates a seal that allows the fermenting gases to escape but keeps air and dust out and prevents the formation of kahm yeast, that slimy stuff that isn’t harmful but is a little distasteful.

The crock is both beautiful and utilitarian, and suddenly I was a little more excited about making kimchi.

Maya said that I might visit her one day for a kimchi-making session if I would provide the cabbage. We would need 12 pounds, and I arrived in her kitchen a few days later toting just two heads of cabbage, because one of them weighed a humongous 10 pounds! A pot of soup bubbled slowly on the back of the wood range and Maya was prepping ginger, carrots, garlic, onions, and daikon radish to grate, a bowl of sea salt and a package of dried hot pepper stood by, as she handed me a sharp knife and a teensy cutting board and bid me get busy on that cabbage!

As we chopped and grated and chatted, she told me she’d made several batches of kimchi already and stored it in canning jars in a cool spot in the basement.

“Really,” I said, surprised at this, thinking of it as a condiment, “and why do you make so much?”

“As a preserving method, this is just so superior to canned. I realize it’s not good for modern commerce, doesn’t have a long shelf life, but it means I don’t need to buy California greens in February.”

“So we need to be careful,” I said, “or the USDA will decide that lacto-fermented vegetables are dangerous to our health and outlaw them!” We both had a rueful chuckle at that!

As a matter of fact, there is a caution in the Terre Vivante book, saying that “The USDA and the FDA recommend that all fermented foods should also be canned in a hot water bath to protect against botulism,” but they add, “There is good reason to think these recipes are safe without canning.”

We plunged along in our dangerous task.

Much of the big cabbage was revealing itself to be made up of numerous baby cabbages that grew from the same stem and nestled in its structure like babies in a womb. I munched on one and offered one to Maya, which she declined. “I’m not much for raw vegetables,” she explained. “I think traditional cultures didn’t eat a lot of vegetables, except for fermented ones.” She went on to explain, “I think the emphasis on raw salads is really not good for you – after all, we’re not cows!” I looked around and tossed the little half-eaten baby cabbage in the compost.

I’d sliced about a quarter of the cabbage, Maya had a nice pile of grated additions, so we put them into the crock, sprinkled 2 tablespoons of gray sea salt – Maya was using slightly less salt with this batch, 6 tablespoons altogether, for the 15 pounds of vegetables – and a half teaspoon of hot pepper powder on them, and I took the big pounder that had been carved out of a stick of firewood and began to pound.

It wasn’t long before the last layer of vegetables was pounded down. Maya fit each half of the weight on top and pressed them down onto the solid vegetables – the kimchee was juicing up nicely – and fitted an incongruously vivid bowl over the top onto the lip. The original top cracked in the firing, but she found this bowl fit perfectly. Carefully she poured water into the lip. “This was the first fermenting crock I made, and the lip is a little shallow, so I refined it in the following ones. But this is good enough for me.” Too, this crock was the smaller of the two sizes she makes, holding 1.5 gallons of vegetables, a size she finds most useful for her needs.

The task completed, we cleaned up and I gathered my things to go. “Come back in three days,” she bade me. “It should be done by then.”

My mouth was agape. Three days! “Oh, yes,” she crowed. “Bring some canning jars.”

Sure enough, three days later I returned home with my jars of delectable, juicy, sweet and spicy kimchi.

The following Saturday I bought daikon, carrots, cabbage, onions and a bulb of fennel at the Winter Farmers’ Market at the Rutland Area Food Co-op, and made a small batch of kimchi for myself. Of course I didn’t have Maya’s fermenting crock, but I could get along with a small crock I did have, my little coffee-cup plate to cover it, liter jar full of water to weight it, and a cheesecloth covering. It’s been two weeks now, and my small batch of kimchi is beginning to taste pretty good. It’s a little dry, I think because of evaporation, but quite tasty. But I’m thinking that when Maya gets back to making pots again next spring I might have to splurge on my own Zelkin fermenting crock!

Preserving fall vegetables might seem a little off-season for a December column, but the mind-blowing success of the indoor Winter Farmers’ Market puts the lie to that thought! When the prospect of a winter market began to take hold last summer, farmers began to plan for fall and winter crops. So far their planning has been fruitful, and the market is bursting with produce. Talking to Sally Beckwith of Foggy Meadow Farm last Saturday, I learned that the cabbages are still in the ground, picked at opportune moments during the week, and have probably benefited appreciably, as the parsnips have done, by the nip of raw weather making them sweeter. The spinach, though not actively growing, has roots still securely in the ground waiting, with no loss of freshness, to be picked and sold at the market.

Fresh or fermented, even cooked – never have our food choices been so broad, so festively presented. Why, I feel as instinctively happy as a dog with a fresh juicy bone in its jaws, just beginning to dig a hole to bury it in!

Potter/artist, Maya Zelkin Pottery, wood fired stoneware and porcelain, Coldham Road, Shrewsbury, VT 05738, 802/492-2045 or mayazelkin@gmail.com

published in Rutland (Vt) herald December 4, 2007

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Stuffed with Tradition

Mrs. Bomblatt’s Way

Mrs. Bomblatt woke calmly to the scent of sage and with no undue expectations nor worries. The big turkey, she began to remember, with her eyes not yet open, was crammed into the cooler on the porch, the big wooden bowl was full of bread cubes that had been tossed with the rendered suet, and onions that had been melted in the suet for a long, long time, as well as torn fresh sage and the Thanksgiving seasoning. How many years had she been using that same little yellow box of seasoning? A quart of oysters sat in the fridge awaiting her decision: She did not want to use saltines – which were mainly awfully unhealthy though tasty white stuff – to scallop them, though that was traditional, and she had not bought saltines for the occasion, was rethinking the technique.

The turkey broth from the neck and giblets rested in the pan on the porch counter. Mrs. Bomblatt hoped that it had gotten cold last night, but then she had grown up with chancy food temperatures and never gotten sick from them nor, to her knowledge, had anyone else. Just another way to make us fear our food, she thought with finicky irritation.

Mrs. Bomblatt rose from bed and paused at the window. The mountains were rusted brillo pads, the sky seventy-nine shades of gray that contained every other shade in the palette watered down to almost nothing. It looked to be your average gloriously restrained Thanksgiving day.

Arriving in the kitchen Mrs. Bomblatt was met by more shades. “I don’t know when you think you’re going to get that bird in the oven, Kid,” admonished her grandmother, “lying slugabed so late!” Her mother tossed her head and languidly sipped coffee. Father dipped the newspaper and winked at her over its top, and Grandpa held a bloody axe in his gnarled hand while a headless turkey scrambled under the table. Her aunt hovered near the refrigerator door just itching to start the oysters. Mrs. Bomblatt smiled to herself and began to grind the coffee beans. It never failed, they all came back on Thanksgiving day as on no other.

Mrs. Bomblatt turned from the shades and toward the telephone. She would call her daughter, she decided, to see how the instructions she had given her the day before had worked out. But with her hand on the receiver she checked herself, the recollection of the two hour time difference and Lizzy’s sleeping habits rising through the Thanksgiving haze in her head. She withdrew her hand. She would wait an hour or two, and in the meantime figure out what to do with those oysters. Stew would not do, nor raw, since there were no half shells. Something puddeny, slightly bready, something like scalloped but without those awful white crackers.

Her mind wandered to Lizzy, making Thanksgiving dinner in her own kitchen out there in that god-forsaken place.


“Mum, I know I’ve made stuffing with you every Thanksgiving since I was born,” she’d called to say yesterday, “but I can’t remember the fine points.”

“You know you’ve got to find some suet,” Mrs. Bomblatt had said sharply, fearing her daughter’s Thanksgiving hopes would come to naught without it. It was Wednesday afternoon and Lizzie did not yet know what ingredients she needed? How mobbed the grocery stores would be? Mrs. Bomblatt calmed herself. She began to give the needed instructions. Lizzie could deal with the mobs herself.

“You’ll need suet,” she said, “about a pound of it – that’s beef fat, of course, and most grocery stores have it. And a loaf or two of a good substantial white bread – think something as close to Baba-a-Louis as possible. And,” she put down her own loaf of Baba-a-Louis and rummaged through the spice cabinet, “some... Bells Seasoning. And fresh sage. And two or three large onions. Are you writing this down?”

“Got it, Mum.”

“All right. And if there’s something else you want in the dressing, like chestnuts, or sausage, or ... oysters, get them, too.

“Now, as soon as you get home take the bread and spread it out so it will dry a bit. Then take the giblets – don’t use the liver, just stew that in butter and eat it for lunch – and the neck, and any other trimmings of the turkey, put them into a saucepan and add about 6 cups of water. Bring that to a boil and then turn to a low simmer, add some salt and vinegar, maybe a teaspoon of each – vinegar and salt help pull the flavor from the bones into the water – cover, but tip the cover so steam can escape. Okay?”


“Okay, now you make the stuffing. Chop up the suet into a large flat-bottomed skillet over low heat and let it render the fat out. You’ll end up with little crispy things after an hour or two. Scoop them out and throw them away, as they aren’t very tasty. Try them, though, sprinkled with salt, just to prove me wrong.

“Slice 2 large onions thin and add to the melted suet and, over low heat, let them just melt, stirring occasionally and turning them over and about. They will become golden but don’t let them get dark. This will take about an hour. Let the onions cool a bit in the beef fat.

“In the meantime, tear the bread into half-inch sized chunks into a big bowl. Balance your weight on your two feet, pull in your stomach muscles and breathe deeply while doing this. You will have less stress on your back, and become less tired and irritable.”

Her yogic advice met with silence at the other end, Mrs. Bomblatt plowed on. “Strew the bread cubes with a handful of torn sage leaves and a tablespoon or so of Bells Seasoning. The kitchen will begin to fill with the scent of Thanksgiving, and thus the spirit, too. Toss this mixture with your hands several times while you’re rendering the suet and melting the onions. That will help them dry out a little bit more.

“When the suet has cooled enough not to fry the bread on contact, pour it and the onions over the bread cubes and toss until each cube is coated with fat and has onions to snuggle up against, which will scent the bread. You see, Lizzy, the waxiness of the suet on the bread prevents it from becoming soggy with the turkey juices and permeates it with flavor.

“Cover the bowl with dish towels and leave overnight. Cover the giblet broth and put it in the fridge or out on your porch, if you’ve got one. Do you have a porch in that godforsaken place you live in?” Mrs. Bomblatt asked her daughter delicately.

“Sure do!”

“By then, you’ve made your pies?”

“Yes, Mama Dear.”

“All right, then, go to bed. Sleep well.”

“Nighty night, Mum.”


The telephone rang. “Mum! The house smells heavenly, just like Thanksgiving!” said her daughter delightedly. “I almost imagine you’re here!”

Mrs. Bomblatt, thinking of her own shades, looked out the window onto the far-away brillo-pad peak and smiled undecidedly.

“But now what?” asked her daughter, “something about eggs...?”

Shaking herself back to the present, Mrs. Bomblatt set about the next operation. “When you’re ready to stuff the bird, pour several whisked eggs over the bread – maybe three to a loaf of bread – and more fresh sage, and toss that all up. Then you check it for taste and texture. It might need more sage, or salt, or even another egg. When it’s just right, add whatever is extra for this year – are you adding extras this year, Dear?”

“Nope. I want it just simple, like Grandma and Great Grandma did it, and you do it! I just need that taste,” she continued wistfully, “something to remind me that the Thanksgiving we’re having in this crummy kitchen stems from something tried and true. And delicious.” She turned brisk, “Now Mum! What about the gravy?”

“Dear, the main thing to remember is you’re going to want lots of gravy. So, when the turkey’s out of the oven, and you’ve wrestled him onto a big platter – you DO have a big platter, don’t you, Lizzy? – well, you can use a cookie sheet or... whatever! Cover him with tinfoil! Then put the roasting pan over a burner or two, and turn the heat to low, and scrape up the bits and pieces off the bottom. Put about a cup of flour into a jar with a lid and add some water and put the lid on the jar and shake it up until it’s smooth. Skim the giblets and neck and stuff out of the broth. Toss the neck, but chop up the giblets very finely and put them back into the broth.”

“Mum! Joe HATES giblets in gravy.”

“That’s why you chop them up so very finely, Lizzy. But, do as you like. Back to business!

“If you think there’s too much fat in the pan, pour some off. But there probably isn’t too much fat in the pan with turkeys bred as leanly as they are nowadays.” Mrs. Bomblatt’s tone was ever so slightly disapproving.

“Then pour in half of the flour slurry and stir until it thickens and browns a little bit. If it’s too dry add some of the broth. Keep adding the broth a ladle at a time, and if it gets too thin add some more of the flour slurry, until you’ve used all the broth and it’s the right thickness, then add some salt until it tastes right, and some pepper. Then cover it and keep it very hot. Be sure to simmer it long enough to cook the raw flour taste out. It’ll thicken, but you can always add a little water to thin it.”

“Oooo, Mum, I can’t wait! This is going to be a great Thanksgiving!”

Mrs. Bomblatt smiled through her damned tears.

But Lizzy spoke again. “You didn’t forget oysters, did you? Have you scalloped the oysters yet?”

“They’re sitting right there in the fridge,” said Mrs. Bomblatt, “But I don’t want to scallop them with those awful crackers. I’m trying to think of something different.”

“But it’s tradition,” Lizzy wailed. “Great Aunt and then Aunt and then I made them. You’ve got to keep up your end of it, Mum – just because I’m not there...!”

Mrs. Bomblatt sighed and reached for a pencil, thinking that tradition could be carried a bit far. “Let me just jot down the recipe then, Dear.”


Mrs. Bomblatt was stuffing the bird when Mr. Bomblatt walked into the kitchen. “Anything I can do to help,” he announced confidently, knowing there would be nothing required of him. But he was to be disappointed, as “Yes, as a matter of fact,” said Mrs. Bomblatt, bent directly over the gaping crotch of the turkey, “If you wouldn’t mind, you could try to find a store that’s open and see if they have saltines.”

There was a flurry of movement in the corner of the kitchen, but when Mr. Bomblatt tore his dejected eyes from his wife, there was nothing more than shadows to be seen, but shadows from which emanated a distinct aura of intense satisfaction.

this twice bitten column was published in the Rutland (vt) Herald November 20, 2007

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Simmer Time

Stick season –compelling time of year! Leaves stripped off boughs to cover the ground in drifts of pale and rusty yellow, bereft limbs and bark shading from mauve to chocolate against a lavender sky, flowerheads mellowed to dull copper and steel, while grass remains brilliant in its green, like a ninety-year-old running the marathon. Brrrrr!! You know what comes next.

But if you’re honest with yourself there was that time in the second week of August that you looked at all the marauding green growth and longed ever so briefly for an early freeze. What you did not wish for was less light, shortened days with no evenings, and dawns that come long after the eye of the clock nudges you from sleep. Winters would be wonderful if their chill whiteness were to be lit by long days to urge us outdoors to do outdoor work.

Well dream on, my little chickadees! Because it is our cross to bear, and how do we bear it? We gather inside and begin again to enjoy quiet and long-lasting processes, performing warm and comfy and indoor tasks, like cooking, at least once in a blue moon.

...the long and the slow of it...

Instead of tossing halved tomatoes and peaches on the grill towards the end of chicken roasting or steak grilling – while the sun still blazes but the clock shows nearly half past seven – and going about our gardening business in-between, now it’s barely mid-afternoon when we put the lamb shanks in the big cast-iron pot to brown in olive or coconut oil, or lard, and while they’re doing that the kitchen gets those little attentions it’s needed since May when you abandoned it for the great outdoors, and the house begins to fill with the deep and appetizing smells of lamb.

When the shanks have browned they’re taken from the pot and a leek is shredded, garlic chopped, both added to the juices in the pan and briefly wilted; a frozen packet of sauce, made from last summer’s Pratico tomatoes, is added, and then a glug or two of red wine before the shanks are put back in, the pot covered tightly and put into a slow oven for two or three hours. What the heck, you’ve got the time!

I did this recently, and nestled the shanks on top of baby turnip greens from Boardman Hill Farm, that I curled on top of the leeks and garlic, then scattered the teensy turnips themselves on top of the shanks. I find my low oven – 200 degrees for four to six hours or 300 for two to three hours, who’s counting? – approximates all day in a slow-cooker. The shanks themselves were from South Freeport Maine’s Wolfe's Neck Farm.

I served them with a side of butternut squash a friend had given me, that I steamed and then mashed with lots of butter, a mere touch of maple syrup, and a bit of curry powder. I was angling towards a middle-eastern touch, however subtle, because that’s what lamb reminds me of. A friend had given me a bag of Trader Joe’s blend of Israeli style couscous, orzo, baby garbanzo beans, and red quinoa, and I soaked a cup of that in water for a couple hours before adding more water and simmering it for half an hour. On the plate, these three items were accompanied by home-made raw-milk yogurt, and Man, was that a splendid meal!

I know how precious that sounds, how spoiled I seem! Absolutely! Who has the time for this kind of food intensity? I must be nuts, right?

Well, this is the kind of meal that comes together over time, a little bit here and a little bit there, and then it all goes rather quickly. The browning of the lamb shanks and getting them into the oven or crockpot took about half an hour. If I remembered to soak the grains at the same time, that would take another three seconds. Finishing the whole thing up later in the day – cooking and mashing the squash, and simmering the grains – took another half an hour. The yogurt had been made for days. My point being – and because you’re reading this you probably already act on this conclusion – that if you keep a running food commentary in the back of your mind, making connections with this ingredient and that, you’ll be ready to construct a final product when the time is right.

The leftovers were fabulous. Next night I took the remaining lamb off the bone, chopped it up, put all the sauce and well-cooked veggies in the blender, buzzed it, thinned it out with more liquid – chicken broth, water, and more red wine – added a handful of small pasta, some leftover cannellini beans, the chopped meat, simmered, and had a great supper soup. Leftovers of that provided Leo a couple of lunches.

There are certain meats that benefit from that long and slow cooking. It’s tempting to think that they all do, but ‘t’aint so! I used to roast most meats, except for pot roasts and other tough, flavorful, gelatinous cuts, at a high heat – 425 degrees, at least – but lately, for the last several years, I’ve been roasting them slowly, not above 325 degrees. Congruently, I’ve bemoaned the lack of flavor in the pork roast or the chicken. Hmmm, as my grandmother said, “Too soon old, too late smart!”

I took a rather small Boardman Hill chicken – three and a half pounds, I think – and roasted it at 450 for about 15 minutes, then 425 for the better part of an hour – no seasonings except some butter smeared over it to hold the sprinkling of salt – and it was exceptional! I served it with brown rice that I had soaked for several hours before cooking slowly for about an hour, and cannellini beans that had also been soaked before cooking. I served this with an apricot/tomato chutney that I’d made for a Friends of the Library Eastern Indian dinner.

Next day I refried the beans in coconut oil and lard and made burritos with shredded chicken, the warmed up brown rice and refried beans, with added arugula from the garden, Salsa-From-the-Gut and cheese. Then I made a stock out of the chicken bones and – full circle – used it to stretch out the lamb soup I talked about.

...old wives’ tales...

Soaking grains for hours and days? Where does that come from? Well, this is a real change for me – I used to advocate NEVER soaking beans, unless they were so old they wouldn’t soften anyway. After all, they cooked just fine in an hour or two with lots of water, a bay leaf, and no salt until the last half hour, without soaking. It was an old wives’ tale, I said.

Well, yes, and what is wrong, anyway, with old wives’ tales? Are we assuming those old wives didn’t know what they were talking about? As it turns out, beans and grains, and for that matter seeds and nuts, are rendered much more digestible by soaking. Soaking triggers the sprouting process and deactivates the enzyme inhibitors, softens the action of phytic acid and breaks down tannins, complex sugars, gluten and other digestive stumbling blocks. As an added bonus the brown rice I’d soaked cooked up very nicely – none of the messy broken kernels I associate with the stuff.

I began to soak oatmeal overnight for breakfast and, “Yum, that oatmeal hit the spot,” said Leo the next morning. I told him it was simple, just soak a cup of organic oatmeal in a cup of water overnight, then add another cup of water and a pinch of salt and simmer it for about seven minutes the next morning.

“Or of course there’s instant,” he mused.

I looked at him sharply. He was grinning...

...passing it on...

The question this posits is: How do we – you and I – disseminate this hard-earned food-intuition to those who most need it, those harried and hard-working young people with families who need to be fed good food who simply don’t have the time? How to impart the importance of being jealous of their sources and guarding them against the encroachment of big business and intrusive government?

...above all, be sure it’s safe...

Couple weeks ago I picked up a gallon of apple cider and happened to read the label – “UV LIGHT TREATED” – it said. “Will,” I said to William Apple of Apple Orchards (names have been changed here TPTI), “What’s this all about?”

Will ran with that. It is, apparently, the long-ago fault of Clinton and Gore who, Will tells me, received money galore from big juice companies and then had to heed their demands. Then he handed me a homemade CD recording of a This American Life segment called “Ladies and Germs” and dated 10-02-98. I guess I’m not quite up to date.

Apparently in all the history of cider making there have been 4 instances of E Coli 0157:H7 found in cider. In 1996 a little girl died of Odwalla juice into which had been dumped a truckload or so of rotten juice composed of drops – apples that had dropped off the trees, apparently on to cow patties.

Buying industrial fruit juice (juice made by an enormous company, of juices from hundreds if not thousands of farmers that you do not know) is a far cry from buying apple cider from a local maker. Small cider makers use only ripe apples that have not dropped from the tree. The apples are washed before using, and the machinery used for crushing and catching the juice is also washed after using. And if you doubt it you can go to the orchard and see for yourself. Too, apple cider that has not been treated with heat (pasteurization) or UV light retains more vitamins, minerals, and enzymes.

Frank Browning, apple grower, cider maker, and author of Apples, was the narrator of the piece. He talked to a spokesman for the National Food Processors Association, which represents many of the world’s largest multi-national food conglomerates, who said, “Juice companies want to know ABOVE ALL that their product is safe. If there’s something effective that you know you can do, that would render the industry completely free of the charge of not being safe, that that would not be an issue anymore; if there is an existing technology there that can be applied and is widely being applied, we don’t really see a reason why you wouldn’t go ahead and acquire it.”

Will Apple could think of a reason, as could most small producers: his UV light apparatus cost him $18,000. Last year it was four years old and needed repairs that cost $1,000. On top of that there’s $500 a year for maintenance. But he got off comparatively cheaply, as pasteurization units cost $25,000 to $30,000.

And I could think of another reason, and that is that processed cider is another food that is being skeletonized – all its vitamins, minerals, trace-minerals degraded in the name of safety by big business, with no thought as to what is being destroyed. Our bodies, just like our brains, learn from experience; and if they don’t experience a myriad of bacteria they don’t learn how to deal with them. When a potentially harmful bacteria gets into a knowledgeable body the body knows what to do with it; when it gets into an innocent body it can wreak havoc.

This is a big impetus to eat local, to buy food from your neighbor farmer, and to support her when she’s faced with costly and unnecessary and only so-called improvements. When big business and intrusive government reaches down and throttles the last small farmer with a campaign of fear, what will we do? Where will we go to acquire our food? This becomes a personal freedom issue.

...this just in...

Like so many others’, my heart just swelled right up and tears came to my eyes on Saturday when I walked through the Co-op on Wales Street, through their new hallway (sheetrocked, taped, and mudded) into the old theatre where some thirty to 40 vendors displayed their bounteous and beautiful wares to a steady stream of patrons who arrived even before the opening ten o’clock hour and lingered, reluctant to leave, through the two o’clock closing.

It was the inaugural session of Rutland’s Winter Farmers’ Market, and it was only then that I realized what a miracle Greg Cox, of Boardman Hill Farm and RAFFL, whose dream it was, and who organized the whole thing, and the volunteers who cleaned and painted and pounded and swept, had accomplished! That cavernous old place, filled with music and chatter and food and good smells, was positively warm and intimate.

Some old faces from the outdoor summer Market were missing, but several new ones from points west – just over the New York line – and north from Orwell gave new meaning to the word “local”. There is rabbit, now, to round out our fresh meat needs (the Co-op is selling it now, too), and more free-range chicken, beef, and lamb. Two boys (twenty years old!) from Kilpatrick Family Farm in Middle Granville showed an incredible array of vegetables highlighted by a mountainous display of Brussels sprouts on the stem. “How do you stick all of those little cabbages on that log?” asked one customer with a grin. Nugget of information: Michael Kilpatrick told us he uses a small pruning chain saw to harvest the sprout stems.

When everyone had left, Greg splayed back against his stand and couldn’t quit smiling. “I’m going to sleep well tonight,” he sighed.

Ah, it was a happy day!

this column was originally published in the Rutland (Vt) Herald on November 6, 2007

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Bone Meal

We burst over to Poultney the other golden evening for dinner at the Red Brick Grill, something I’ve been meaning to do for some time, even before I walked beside a contented Stephen Chamberlain, a couple of months back, who was showing me, with obvious pride and pleasure, his Dutchess Farm. “Sharon,” he said, “I really encourage you to talk to Wendy and Frank, and go eat at the Red Brick Grill. It is exceptional food.” And, besides, they use LOTS of his product! But it wasn’t just Steve, because for the last couple of years people have been saying to me with a great deal of enthusiasm, “Have YOU been to the Red Brick Grill yet? Well GO! It’s wonderful!”

By “Wendy and Frank,” Steve referred to Wendy Jackson and Frank Rhodes, who replied to an ad by the Poultney Chamber of Commerce to make use of the renovated train station that they now call their culinary home. Although Wendy is the one who attended culinary school, it is Frank who cooks because, in Wendy’s words, “Frank has the most innate sense of flavor, texture, and combinations that I have ever seen! Every food he touches turns to gold. Cooking is a gift, not learned.” Frank attended Franklin & Marshall College and gained expertise in the culinary arts by apprenticing at some of New York City’s best kitchens, according to the Poultney website. Wendy is a graduate of Colgate University and the New England Culinary Institute in Essex Junction. Both have worked at some of the finest restaurants in Manhattan, Westchester County and Westport, CT.

It was May of 2005 that Wendy and Frank took over the Grill, July by the time it opened, and in spite of turning out much local food innovatively and expertly prepared and presented, there have been the same ups and downs that most restaurants travel, even those who aren’t a little ways down that road to Poultney. However, we tend to forget that Poultney is a college town, home to Green Mountain College, which has an Environmental Studies program offering a concentration in Sustainable Agriculture and Food Production, and thus spawns a community with an intense interest in good food. So the night we were there the little train station was glowing like a jewel, tables filled, murmurs of conversations in the air, smiles on the faces of our servers, and wonderful smells coming out of the small but ultra-efficient kitchen in the back, along with our bottle of house Cabernet Sauvignon.

That kitchen! There was a kitchen there when Frank and Wendy bought the place, and a very adequate kitchen at that, but it wasn’t THEIR kitchen, and so they made it theirs, with new configuration and appliances. At the same time, a brick wood-fired oven and wine storage, in which they also cure their house-made pancetta, were incorporated.

And now, from that kitchen, came two long ceramic-looking bones on a plate, accompanied by a sharp little mound of greens, for the appetizer I had ordered was os á moelle – roasted Vermont Marrow Bones, with coarse sea salt and garden parsley salad. I had never ordered marrow bones before: marrow is the guilty secret I consume in the kitchen when I’ve roasted bones for soup or stock, using a long-handled baby spoon to scoop it out of the bone, spread on some good bread, salted, and savored slowly. Marrow, of course, besides being fat, is full of all those good things that make bones – and you – strong! And flavor? Wow!! So here I was eating them in public, in the company of Leo and my dining companions who are the original “low-fat” connoisseurs.

But not yet was I eating them. I was still staring at them in some shock – two gleaming white bones on my plate with a little pile of greens. In its stark beauty, the picture belonged on a cookbook cover; but was there not a utensil with this, like that baby spoon, that would reach into the narrow opening and scoop out the good stuff? Our server, Emily, a student at GMC who is doing her thesis on the effect of the industrialization of certain food items such as the tomato, brought me an espresso spoon. Too big. I finally used the handle of the butter knife, which worked quite nicely, but I hoped that no one was looking – I had the awful feeling that I was making a gaffe! But the alternatives – pounding the bone on the table? putting it to my mouth and sucking? – did not seem any less raffish.

When I looked around for something to spread this lovely white marrow on, I found Leo gobbling up a small dish of crisps that had been left perilously close to the poor man’s place – he who had THOUGHT he would share my appetizer but wasn’t so sure of this one.

Obviously, I’ve never had properly roasted marrow bones from free-range veal before, nor had my companions, because that almost solid, very white, hot-from-the-bone stuff, spread on the little crisp, mounded, actually, then sprinkled with coarse gray sea salt, topped with a leaf or two of the astringent parsley, was like nothing I had ever tasted before. It wasn’t greasy, and the taste was not pallid – it was smooth and unctuous and totally flavorful. Even my rangy companions ate it right up. Later, Cynthia mused, “That wasn’t just marrow, do you think? There had to’ve been something added to it. “Just roasted veal marrow bones,” Wendy told me. “Frank soaks them in several changes of cold water, and then they’re roasted in the wood-fired oven.”

In the meantime, Cynthia and Alan were sharing an appetizer of hand-made ravioli gnudi: ‘naked’ ravioli with spinach and Dancing Ewe Farm ricotta, in a porcini cream, which I’d heard extolled far and near. It turns out to be the filling sans pasta pocket, very delicate in flavor and rich with the creamy sauce of porcini mushrooms.

We had chosen these two appetizers from a list that included a small Quiche Lorraine, chicken liver pate’, squash bisque, kataifi fried wild gulf shrimp with a garden salsa from their own field – kataifi being a kind of shredded phyllo dough; and a brandade of cod, potatoes, garlic and olive oil – each of which I aim to chow down on in the future!

For her entrée, Cynthia chose hand-made tagliatelle with ragu alla Bolognese, the pasta – again the word ‘delicate’ begs to be written, so here goes – delicate but with a definite bite, holding its own bathed in the full-flavored meat sauce. I can think of only one other instance of a pasta so tender yet with such presence – one that a friend, Ruth Cousineau, once made in strips to contain a wild-mushroom lasagna.

“It’s a regular egg pasta,” pasta-maker Wendy begins, then corrects herself, “No, I use an imported Italian flour – oo pasta flour.” She goes on to say how much she enjoys making pasta – “It’s almost a meditation.” Wendy also makes the bread that she bakes in the brick oven, and even sells some at Poultney’s Thursday farmers’ market, sometimes, in the summer.

Leo’s entrée of “moules frites” – a big bowl of steamed mussels with hand-cut French fries and aioli – was pronounced “very good” but he wanted more bread to soak up the sauce. What could I say about that, having almost pounded the table with a bone!

Alan’s crispy duck confit, with cider braised cabbage, bacon, fingerling potatoes and caramelized apples must have been very good because I didn’t get even a bite. It sounded good and it looked good but, as I say, I wouldn’t really know!

But I can’t blame Alan, because I was so intent on my boudin blanc – house-made Vermont veal and cognac sausage, with preserved-lemon mashed potatoes, and garlic spinach – that I forgot to offer anyone a taste until I was on my second plump sausage and had practically gobbled up the intriguingly lemon-scented potatoes and the mound of silky spinach. The sausages were plump and sizzling leaned up against the mound of mashed potatoes, and spurt their juices over them when cut into. This is not a Creole, but a classic French sausage, made of veal and chicken and fatback, mixed with milk, cognac, bread and mushrooms, flavored subtly with épices fines, poached in a milk bath and then grilled.

Tiny bits of preserved lemon are stirred into regular mashed russet potatoes, a classic example, I think, of Frank’s genius with combinations. I did not taste the texture of the lemons, just inhaled their perfume, and found it a curious yet addictive combination. And the spinach? Immensely pleasurable!

When I very tentatively asked Wendy if Frank ever gave out recipes, she said “Sure! What would you like?” And when I asked for the spinach recipe there was a stunned silence for a moment, and then she said, “It’s just sautéed with garlic, there really isn’t one, it’s just the spinach itself, Steve’s spinach, it’s so good.” She was talking about Dutchess Farm spinach. “I don’t know what he does to it. It’s creamy, almost mild, without that bite that other spinaches have. I think it must be his dirt. I was eating handfuls of it this morning while I was cleaning it.”

Indeed, it might be Steve’s dirt. The name Dutchess is given to a specific soil that he’s named his farm after that is conducive to growing vegetables, and it must work because Steve’s spinach, perhaps above all his other excellent produce, is famous far and near. And sometimes infamous, for it is expensive stuff. “It’s worth it,” says Wendy definitively.

We had chosen our entrées from a list that included Bucatini alla Amatriciana – a house-cured pancetta; a grilled tenderloin of beef with “smashed” German butterball potatoes and green beans, both from Dutchess Farm, with a sauce bordelaise; a grilled Vermont lamb steak; grilled mahi mahi in a Thai green curry/coconut broth with shiitake, cabbage, and rice noodles; risotto with wild gulf shrimp; house-made potato gnocchi with sage brown butter OR a ragu of Champlain valley rabbit, porcini, and house-cured pancetta; or a burger made of chargrilled Boyden Farm grass-fed beef. And that was only THAT night’s menu – it changes daily, according to what’s available locally in season. Wendy and Frank have numerous partnerships with local and Vermont, and just over-the-New-York-line farmers, and when they find a new product, such as the Dancing Ewe Farms Ricotta, they design dishes around it.

It was a very pleasant, an excellent and exciting meal, and after wishfully perusing the dessert menu we chose simply coffee and a small shared scoop of Wendy’s house-made Rum-Raisin ice cream, and then, delightfully surfeited, we found our way back down the winding roads to Wallingford.

The Red Brick Grill, 28 Depot St. Poultney VT 05764 is open for it’s winter hours, Thursday through Sunday from 5:30PM. For reservations call 802-287-2323. Appetizers $5.50-$9; Entrées $15.50- $26.50.

Red Brick Grill Native Garlic Spinach

If you don’t include the salt and pepper, this is a three ingredient recipe. Therefore, its goodness is dependent on the quality of the ingredients: spinach, garlic, extra virgin olive oil. Our spinach and garlic come from Dutchess Farm in Castleton (available at the Rutland Farmer’s Market). Now is peak spinach season; fall spinach tends to be the sweetest.

  • Wash and dry (either in a salad spinner or air dry) 6 oz spinach leaves, coarse stems removed.
  • In a large skillet, heat two tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.
  • Add one heaping tablespoon paper-thin sliced garlic.
  • Just when the garlic begins to brown, add spinach all at once.
  • Season with salt and fresh ground pepper.
  • Turn constantly until spinach is thoroughly wilted.

Excellent on its own, as an accompaniment to grilled meat and fish, or tossed with pasta.

This column was originally published in the Rutland (Vt) Herald on October 23, 2007