Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Simply Summer

...Salad Days...

Driving through Virginia that burgeoning summer was like driving through a market basket – the countryside absurdly aburst with fat tomatoes in ruby and amber tones, tall, tessellated corn in chartreuse shades, royal eggplants and pale green okra and peppers of all vibrancy, sweet onions of gold and ivory, and that’s not even speaking of the bushels of scented peaches – what is that indescribable color of pink and gold? – piled to toppling in roadside stands. All the usual high-season stuff: We couldn’t wait to stop at a restaurant and gobble up the countryside.

But the kind of restaurant that is easily accessible to travelers does not, as a rule, serve what I wanted to eat that day, which would have been a nice combination of the very foods I’d seen in the fields – a salad in other words. Mixed lettuces topped with green beans that had, perhaps, been fussed over a bit – steamed and then laid crosswise on a grill to pick up some char stipples and smoke and then cooled; half a tomato that had been sprinkled with garlicky olive oil and salt and grilled until softened, and slices of grilled zucchini. Thinly sliced sausage or chicken, or even tuna could complement the greens and vegetables. All mounded up, a simple vinaigrette over all, with thin-sliced bread, topped with an herby chevre, grilled briefly, just until slightly crisp on the bottom and oozy on the top, leaned up against the sides.

It would have been refreshing and nutritious, a satisfying feast for the eye and the tummy. And it need not have been expensive for the cook to make, could all have been prepared beforehand and assembled in seconds when ordered. A win-win solution.

At home we would sit down to a platter of buttered corn, with a squeeze of lime and a sprinkle of chili powder; or a platter of just-off-the-vine tomatoes, sliced and scattered with torn leaves of basil, with maybe a few thin slices of fresh mozzarella tucked between. Or Okra, or even squash blossoms, dipped in egg and cornmeal and swiftly fried.

Any of those dishes would have been sumptuous at the end of a hot day on the road – the essence of summer food, just simple and cool.

That was in 1994, thirteen years ago, back in the ice age of local food consciousness, but not a whole lot has changed, or if it has changed it hasn’t changed for the better. On a recent trip through Virginia all the same names loomed at each rest stop, not beckoning but threatening – If you’ve got to eat you’ve got to eat here, and it will surely be tired, old, over-processed stuff that will slide down your gullet just above your hunger and just below your ire. We could have been in Detroit or the middle of Idaho – there would be the same names and the same industrial food. Oases of desert in the middle of a garden. How strange we have grown.

There was one bright spot on the recent trip. In Staunton, Virginia there were two unfamiliar names on the tall signs shooting up at the US 81 exit and we chose that of Mrs. Rowe’s, where we had the perfect breakfast. Beautiful, calm surroundings, excellent service, local food from eggs to bacon to homemade apple butter, bread and biscuits. Grits. Scrapple. Reasonable price. We left rejuvenated. If you’re driving south try to pace it so you’re in Staunton, VA at mealtime – breakfast, lunch, or supper, when you could order real fried chicken.

Mrs. Rowe’s is not an example of a change for the better – it is an example of a restaurant that did not, in the first place, change for the worse. They’ve been in business since 1953. The world changed, not they.

... a little summer soup...

Elizabeth David began writing about food after the second world war. I have all of her books, most in the Penguin edition, and all of them are beginning to fall apart. They have recently been reissued in new editions by the New York Review of Books. I may have to invest.

This is her Sorrel and Lentil Soup. She details it in her elegant and simple way in Summer Cooking.

“Make a puree with about ¼ lb. of brown lentils cooked for 1 ½-2 hours in about 3 pints of water, adding the salt towards the end of the cooking. Put the lentils through the sieve, add enough of the water in which they were cooked to make a thin puree.

“Chop a handful of sorrel leaves (about ¼ lb.) fairly finely, cook them in the lentil soup for 10 minutes. Immediately before serving stir in 2 or 3 tablespoons of cream. Enough for four helpings. This is one of the best of the sorrel soups.”

(Sorrel is a lemony-tasting green. If you don’t grow it I don’t know where you’ll find it, and I don’t know what you would substitute – there’s nothing like it. The leaves seem to melt like a Cheshire cat into an omelet or a soup, leaving only the taste but not a grin. My aged sorrel plant had been a part of the family for many years, when it suddenly bit the dust last year. This year I planted two different varieties and they’re going great guns. You can have a couple of handfuls for the asking. I’ll even give you a few seeds so you can grow your own.)

Summer Cooking was originally published in 1955. Somewhere between then and now some of us lost our respect for food. I believe it may have stemmed from those who believed the scientific speculation several decades ago that future nutrition could be gotten from capsules and forget those pesky family dinners and all the work and nasty angst they entailed. Everything would be minced and freeze dried and shrunk, vitamins added (and where would they come from), and stuffed into a gelatin capsule, which would leave a lot more time to do other things, such as... well, as... Well, I can think of a million things!

But did we ever think who would grow and mince and freeze and shrink and stuff? And who would make the gelatin capsule? Large chemical companies? Ah, there lies the rub. Healthy and flavorful food does not come from Monsanto.

Why in the world would we ever want to take the pleasure, the hard work, the camaraderie, the creativity, the art, the craft, the earned expertise, the localness, the terroir, the supper-time harvesting and snip, the sheer voluptuous textures and colors and scents and, yes, conversation – even the bickering – out of eating.

...making the most of it...

Take a white platter and strew over it a few handfuls of micro-greens that you most likely have got from Farmers’ Market on Saturday. Snip a little sorrel on them if you like. On top of those, at one end of the platter, place a round of Blue Ledge Farm’s Camembrie. You have let it come to room temperature for an hour or so, and it will be nice and oozy and creamy when cut into. Mound a pint or so of fresh-caught blueberries (or blackberries in the near future) near the cheese, but don’t be too neat about it – strew them around. Break up a bar of really good dark chocolate and place it on the platter. Serve with crusty bread or crackers to good friends or those you would like to be friends, as appetizer, dessert, or entire meal. Drink a hearty red wine, too.

We eat, therefore we exist. We might as well make the most of it.

First Published in the Rutland (Vermont) Herald on July 31, 07

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

The Name Game

A rose is a rose is a rose is a merganser: It may smell as sweet but the nose isn’t listening – it knows there’s a duck in there somewhere. Suggest to your dining partner that he’s just swallowed a slug without the pretty shell, and the haughty chef may decide to delete escargot from the menu, the better to avoid further unpleasant incidents.

So what’s in a name? Clarification – what IS this thing we’re naming. Hope and ego – what do we WANT it to be. Marketing, of course. And, to the perceiver, memories, sensation recalled, color, tastebud angst or pleasure, love perceived or anger translated. Or simply mystery: the scent of dianthus – pinks – is, to me, haunting in a most pleasurable way, yet I cannot recall any wonderful thing happening among them; only that, even when I was a small child, they called to me and I vaguely assumed they called from a past life.

... two farmers and a tomato...

I went to the Tuesday market in Depot Park to talk to Greg Cox and Steve Chamberlain about what’s up in farmers’ lives these days; how they keep connected with other farmers and with trends and developments in farming and in food.

There at Steve’s Dutchess Farm stand I found the first tomatoes of the season – pints of red cherry tomatoes and big unripe tomatoes piled like sleek slumbering piglets in their basket. I took the last pint of cherrys and was about to pass over the unripe ones when the half of my brain that has any sense at all said, “Just a sec, Tomato Woman, those are NOT unripe, they’re green!” A black cast iron range loomed before me. Sizzling lard, a bowl of whisked-up egg, a mound of crushed saltines on a sheet of waxed paper; those green rounds dipped in each, browned and crisp on the outside, custardy and sour within, the salt shaker – Fried Green Tomatoes. Life, bitter and sweet, on a plate. These green tomatoes were ripe and rife for Fried Green. If I were Steve I believe I’d put up a sign that suggested that very thing – sometimes the imagination needs a nudge to consider the divine.

...Rutland Farmers’ Market...

The Rutland Farmers’ Market, itself, has a little name intrigue. When it started back in the ‘70s it was called the Rutland County Farmers’ Market, and it stayed that way until the early ‘90s when a small group splintered off to become the Vermont Farmers’ Market. I’ve said before that the farmer is a noble being – nowhere did I say that as a group they are not overly independent, crotchety and – tsk tsk – too often guilty of ignoring the maxim, United We Stand – so important to struggling groups like small farmers.

Over the years the two groups have seen some back and forth movement by individual farmers according to issues, so much so that I no can no longer keep them straight, and to my mind they are one market. To their credit, they’ve all found ways to fit together well under the larger tent of the Rutland Farmers’ Market, and, this year, it seems, they will gain yet another name when they initiate the Winter Market in the rear of the Co-op building and continue to widen our access to local food.

Everyone I talk to agrees that this summer the Market has reached a new breadth of vitality, with vibrant and colorful produce and splendid crowds of appreciative shoppers. With thirty years of experience behind it, the Market is flourishing because it is in the position to provide what an increasing number of us want and need – organic and sustainably-grown local food.

Steve is particularly enthusiastic about his membership in an informally named Networking Group that includes several New York and Vermont farmers who join together to buy seeds and supplies, tour each other’s farms and, in general, share their knowledge. That’s where he met Paul Horton, of Benson, whom he invited to join the Rutland Market. This year Paul’s Foggy Meadow Farm shines with an artist’s palette of produce at the Saturday market; and that’s surely not the only way in which we are all indebted to Steve’s networking.


Up at Boardman Hill, Greg is holding forth to a customer about good food for low-income people. “Crap calories are cheap,” he says. “We have to teach people that paying a little more for good local, organic, food is worth it. And we have to figure out more ways of getting that food to people who are stretched.” Greg is, at heart, the original philosopher farmer. The organization in which he is perhaps most notably involved – chairman of the board, as it were – is RAFFL – Rutland Area Farm & Food Link.

RAFFL! What a great name – straight on, utilitarian, but amusing at the same time – kind of raffish, with the connotation of ‘taking a chance’ and, it would seem, unmistakable.

RAFFL has many routes to meet its goal of linking farmers and their food to consumers, but the most immediate one is to find land for incubator farms and community gardens. “We’ll provide the land and the advice and some communal machinery while novice farmers learn to farm. When they get their feet under them, when they’ve learned and have some success, they’ll start looking for their own land and a new wannabe farmer will move onto that incubator land.” Greg is gleeful when he adds, “We’ll be seeding new farms all over the county.”

The seed for RAFFL itself, came to Tara Kelly and India Burnett Farmer when, in their jobs with the Rutland Regional Planning Commission, they realized that all the towns around had “preserving our agricultural heritage” as one of their major goals, and yet none had concrete plans to reach that goal. What Tara and India saw as RAFFL’s mandate was not just conserving open agricultural land but making that land viable for active agriculture.

With that mandate came a string of corollary goals when a board of directors was collected and heads put together. India relinquished her job with the RRPC and became RAFFL’s coordinator; and just recently her main job has been finding that large piece of land, close-in to Rutland, not used by other farmers, to become the base for an Intervale-like Community Farm and Agricultural Resource Center. (I can’t believe it – there’s no R in there.)

A little riff on RAFFL, here: Tara tells me that lots of people mistakenly call it the Rutland Area FOOD & Farm Link. “It all depends on your point of view,” she says, “and most of our calls – where can we find fresh corn; who has u-pick strawberries – come from consumers. But we really wanted to stress the Farm connection, and Farm does come before Food.” That would be Rutland Area FARM and Food Link, thank you very much.

The demand for services is outstripping India’s ability to give the time and assistance needed, especially with the almost full time job of finding land. Perhaps a school calls and wants to know how to access local food for its cafeteria. Systems are not yet in place, a broker is needed to support the ordering and distribution of local food. More funds need to be raised. Etcetera.

The need for this organization is overwhelming, and their 2004 startup was none too soon. Pick up their green tabloid-style Locally Grown Guide for more information. It will be somewhere in almost every store you visit. Have them find it for you, and suggest they display it in a more prominent place if it’s hidden.

...the Co-op...

One of the most basic links in our Rutland Area Food Chain is the Co-op; you know – the building on Wales, just off Washington. Rebecca Rubin was the first manager back when it started in the mid-‘90s as the Rutland Area Food Co-op. A couple of years ago the name was changed to Rutland Area Food Co-op dba (doing business as) Rutland Natural Foods Market, and that is still its legal name. However, it is being changed, as we speak, to Rutland Natural Food Market: The Co-Op. No matter. Really. Whenever you hear any of these names – and most often it will be just The Co-op – you will know it is the store on Wales Street where you can buy local and organic and sustainable food and sundries and drinks. You can join up for $10 a year and be a member – getting a small percentage discount – or not: Everyone – member or not – is welcome to shop there.

With Becca back as manager and with a long-overdue public consciousness of the importance of eating local, sustainably grown food, the Co-op is in the throes of exciting growth, planning to accommodate the Winter Farmers’ Market in its back theater space this winter, expanding its retail and office space, and, incidentally, looking for funding. Join it. It’s an investment in your safe and healthy food future. And always think of it as OUR Co-op. That’s the nature of a co-operative, that it belongs to all of us and all of us are responsible for its success.

As a matter of fact, invest in all these places, the Farmers’ Market by shopping at it and getting to know the farmers; RAFFL and the Co-op by using them, volunteering for them and, at the risk of being crass, giving money to them if you can afford it.

...life itself...

All of these food intimacies may seem cloying and tiring, too time-consuming to deal with the earnest people who are drawn to the cause of good food, whose edges are not ground down by corporate sameness but remain prickly. But then consider all of the nameless and faceless and edgeless people who are manufacturing the industrial and international food that fills our large stores, of the thousands of fingerprints on that food, the numerous laxities likely in its manufacture, the tremendous carbon footprint of its importation, and we might find the time.

In a recent trip down US 81 to North Carolina I saw enormous food processing plants and warehouses that covered numberless acres of former farmland, and that were preparing to ship, in the long convoys of humongous trucks that clog the highway, overwhelming amounts of – to borrow Greg’s word – crap, that is becoming, increasingly, a non-sequitur in our brave new world.

Perhaps you’re haunted, as I am, by the headline last week announcing that China’s food and drug czar had been executed as a symbol to the world that China recognizes the fact that they can’t ship tainted food. What kind of food could come out of a country that is capable of such an ineffective and barbaric act? Add to that the remark I heard dropped casually by an industry executive the other day, that “China owns the global garlic market,” (Garlic!) and you realize anew that the fight for real food is the fight for life itself.

...and finally, invest in some Fried Green Tomatoes...

Slice one tomato per person into thick, ½ inch slices. Dip into flour, then beaten egg, and then into seasoned flour, cornmeal, or crushed saltines. Fry in a mixture of lard, butter, and/or olive oil. Adjust the heat to achieve a crisp golden crust and a custardy interior. Salt liberally. Eat. You can do okra the same way, and eggplant, too. John Martin Taylor, in Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking recommends putting the sliced vegetables into ice water for about 30 minutes before frying. And I have more suggestions in my book, Tomato Imperative! that is available at the Co-op.

I adore fried okra, and pickled okra and okra straight off the plant. But most people equate okra with slime and don’t buy it. A farmer or two at the market grew it for a couple of years. I was one of the few who bought it, so they quit growing it. No okra now to learn to like, to broaden and brighten our palates.

They built it but we didn’t come.
And that’s the name of the game!

This Twice Bitten Column appeared in the Rutland (Vermont) herald on July 17, 2007

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Peas: Paean and Pleasures

It’s the simmery, bee-droning season to take a child by the hand and toddle out to the garden and show him peas, fresh and plump-podded, and how to pull one off the vine and how to unzip it, to show him the tender pale peas all crowded into their pod-cradle, how to eat one, to watch his eyes grow wide, his fat little fingers grow grabby. And then to pick him up, if he’s small enough, to prevent him – in his sudden, scrambling enthusiasm – from pulling the shallow-rooted vines out of their dirt.

Lysander, who’s one and a half years old, is coming to visit this weekend and I hope at least a few peas have filled out their pods enough to taste. And I hope that the black-caps – wild black raspberries – have enjoyed our recent hot and humid and sunny days, and not been discouraged by today’s coolness, enough to have – at least a few – turned dark and sweet enough for him to enjoy. Strawberries still ripen in their small patch, so surely he’ll be in time for the last of those.

These are events, involving gardens and tastes, and who knows what else, that children remember all their lives, if not as detailed memories then as sensory mysteries associated with the food. Lysander’s older friend, Jarett, still looks for cherry tomatoes at my house, no matter the season, for on our first meeting we toddled out to the garden and feasted on them. “Let’s take a look around the garden,” he’d say in November, reaching for my hand. “Let’s find us a few of those little baby ‘matoes.” He’s eight now, though, so last time he was here we sampled cilantro, chard, and a little bulb from the top of an Egyptian onion. He found them “interesting”.

You have a million of those sensory memories of your own, of course, as do I. Wandering down to the swamp’s edge to pick huckleberries with Grandma – how fast that old lady (fifty if a day) could tuck up her skirts and how wide her stride as she fled toward home from a snake slithering through the undergrowth. Galloping on my own after her I felt the limits of her love. Or following my piano teacher and sometime babysitter, Mrs. Minshell, along the paths of her strawberry plants, she telling me to keep between the rows, not to step on the strawberries or even to pick one yet, and then, “And I’ll know if you do, because I have eyes in the back of my head!”

“You do?” I said, wonderingly.

You don’t have to be a child to form these sensory memories. Once, long ago, my friend Carol spent a good long hour or so of a community lawn sale sitting on my front stoop shelling peas from her own garden into a big green bowl. Plink, plink, they went, slowly covering the bottom of the bowl. She’s never going to fill that bowl, I thought. But steadily she worked, and steadily the emptied pods towered beside her; slowly the peas mounted in the bowl. That night she served them simply steamed in a lettuce leaf, a pad of sweet butter topping them, salt and pepper, in that same green bowl. The bowl was at most half full. It was a beautiful sight, the peas delicious, and my realization, that something as precious as fresh peas should never overflow, one I’ve never forgotten.

That memory reminds me of M.F.K. Fisher’s paean to peas in An Alphabet for Gourmets, when she recalls a difficult feast enjoyed with family and friends over a campfire on a Swiss mountainside where she and her husband were building a house. I rummage on my bookshelves and settle down to read the passage. “...what really mattered, what piped the high unforgettable tune of perfection were the peas, which came from their hot pot onto our thick china plates in a cloud, a kind of miasma, of everything that anyone could ever want from them, even in a dream. I recalled the three basic requisites, according to Fanny Farmer and Escoffier [they must be very green, they must be freshly gathered, and they must be shelled at the very last second of the very last minute], and again I recalled Sidney Smith, who once said that his idea of Heaven (and he was a cleric!) was pate’ de foie gras to the sound of trumpets. Mine, that night and this night, too, is fresh green garden peas, picked and shelled by my friends, to the sound of a cowbell.”

Peas are so... so perfect, so round, so green, so sweet, so rare, so... labor intensive but so worth it. I grow Petit Pois, the French strain developed for small, tender, tasty peas crowded into small pods. We eat them mostly out of hand, wandering out to the garden several times a day, picking a handful, then sitting in the hammock and podding them, tossing the pods into the compost pile, and eating the peas one by one. That’s on the best of days, admittedly. Sometimes I use the sprouts, blossoms, and tendrils in sandwiches or as a garnish in salads, or the pretty white buds on beets.

I flip through my library and find that Thomas Jefferson planted nineteen varieties of peas. I think it’s no wonder, for he was a passionate man. A friend of Jefferson’s said that for dinner on Sunday you must cook the peas on Wednesday with a large amount of butter and then cook them in more butter each day until Sunday when they would have absorbed their own weight in butter. I think what a waste of good peas! Might’s well just eat the butter.

I find that if you’re English you boil them, if you’re French you cook them in butter in a pot lined with lettuce leaves, with a sprig or two of mint added. They can be creamed with new potatoes, small onions and baby carrots. In Apulia you pour some olive oil in the bottom of an earthenware pot, put in the washed peas ‘wet’, add salt, a sliced new onion and some leaves of mint. Perhaps you would use them as a dressing for pasta, and often one or two hot chilli peppers go into the pot with the sliced onion. This is according to Patience Gray in one of my favorite books, Honey From a Weed.

William Woys Weaver writes, “in the days before we shipped hither and yon, rich folks raised these little-bitty varieties in greenhouses as a winter luxury.” Indeed, people became quite crazy about them back in the seventeenth century. In 1692 A lady named Madame de Maintenon, wrote in a letter to the Cardinal of Noailles, “The question of peas continues. The anticipation of eating them, the pleasures of having eaten them, and the joy of eating them again are three subjects that our Princes have been discussing for four days… It has become a fashion indeed, a passion and a life style issue.” I find an adaption of that quote on the web, and I doubt that the term “life style issue” was au courant in 1692. The rest is correct, though.

I’m disappointed to see that the sorely missed Laurie Colwin does not mention peas in any indexable way, nor does James Beard in any memorable way; and Edouard de Pomiane, writing in the 1930s, has this to say about Buying Local: “Young peas, freshly picked, have a wonderful flavour and scent, but after a long journey in a confined space they lose nearly all their charm. This applies in greater or less degree to all vegetables. They should be bought fresh and prepared immediately.” He was referring to peas grown in Morocco for the Paris market, which puzzles me. But he goes on to detail peas cooked in lettuce leaves with butter, and then peas sauced with double cream, which sounds quite nice to me, and finishes with peas and new carrots cooked together. Nothing earth shattering.

But Camille Glenn, in The Heritage of Southern Cooking, writes, “If I were asked to name the greatest fresh vegetable dish in the whole wide world, I believe it would have to be Fresh Green Pea Pie... It has a succulence, flavor, freshness, elegance, and charm – and one doesn’t meet it every day.”

This is Glenn’s technique. Cook 3 cups of shelled peas with sugar and salt in boiling water until tender; drain. Add four ounces butter, chopped parsley, salt, and white pepper. Toss gently to absorb butter, adding more as needed for a soupy sauce. Pour into pie tin lined with flaky butter-crust dough; top with dough. Brush with cream; bake until golden. Serve warm.

And then, the strangest recipe of all, for Medieval Pea Soup with Ginger, Saffron & Almonds, pops out at me. It was adapted from the 14th century chef Taillevent, by James Peterson in his Splendid Soups: Sweat onion and ginger in butter. Add blanched peas, roasted blanched almonds and chicken broth. Bring to a simmer and cook a few minutes. Puree, then press through a food mill. Thin with broth and season with saffron soaked in water and a little almond extract. Yum. Though the poor tender subtle pea may get lost in this mélange without an expert touch.

It seems that my pea column is ending. I head out to the garden and find that, indeed, Lysander shall have his peas this weekend. I am pleased.

While I’m in the garden I gather the makings for A Garden Sandwich:

Take two slices of good bread. Butter one slice and mayo the other. Lay slices of crisp, fresh radish on the buttered side. Sprinkle with sea salt. Lay thin slices of tomato (if you have it) upon the radish. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Strew with sliced shallots or green onions, or green rounds of Egyptian onions. Smother with a mound of mixed fresh lettuce and herbs — I like lettuce, arugula and a few fronds of cilantro. Cover with the mayo'd bread and eat it on a shady porch with fresh lemonade or hot green tea. Carnivores could sprinkle the tomato layer with crumbled bacon, but not too much. It doesn't need it.

I take my summer sandwich and sit on the porch, waiting for Lysander.

This Twice Bitten Column appeared in the Rutland (Vermont) herald on July 3, 2007