Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Before the Night Hits...

Since I begin to dread the Winter Night as soon as the summer days begin to shorten at the end of June, and my dread builds as the evenings grow cool and then downright cold, it’s always with a burst of relief and appreciation that I realize we have these two months of energetic brilliance to enjoy before the Night really hits us. Brisk and loaded with color, with baskets and pans and boxes and bowls full of glorious foods, rescued from the garden on frost-fearful nights or just because this is peak season, these days bring contradiction and imperative, both to get out and enjoy the last of this vitamin D sunshine and to stay inside chopping and simmering chutneys, jams, butters and sauces as the piles of fruits and vegetables first grow then dwindle down into preserves.

I know you all feel the same – in late July my friend Lowell emailed me “We've had the most wonderful spinach and broccoli from Foggy Meadow of Benson, and good corn and blueberries from Woods. How shall I exist when all this good stuff is over? I say this every year and survive – but...”

Yes, we shall survive, and we shall eat lots of local foods this winter – especially with the Winter Market and the Co-op keeping them available to us – and then May will, presumably, appear again.

...in a foggy meadow...

I remember walking into Depot Park on the first Market day – the Saturday before Mother’s Day last May – my heart swelling up the way it always does at the sight of these people I’ve known for so many years, and their wonderful early-season produce, working my way down the truck line, saying joyful hellos and catching up, when I was stopped in my tracks.

Speaking of hellos, HELLO, what was this? A new vendor, Foggy Meadow Farm, had set up across from the truck line; a large set-up, of bounteous greens and purples and reds, leafy mostly – from the micro-greens that I would use all summer in salads, and scattered here and there to complement, say, a cheese or salsa, both in beauty and taste, to the mature, most perfectly frilled green and red lettuces, laid out and mounded in beautiful pattern.

“My Goodness!” I said, rather abruptly. “Who are You?” I had not seen Foggy Meadow in their growing stages, not heard of them before, and here they were full-blown as though puffed from a hookah. I rubbed my eyes like Alice.

Paul Horton, it seems, is not a man who goes through growing stages. He and Sally Beckwith have owned their Benson hill farm for four years, lived there three, and farmed organic vegetables for two, selling at several farmers’ markets, including Middlebury, Dorset and Rutland.

I say hill farm advisedly, as I learned when I visited them later in the summer – the old farm house set on the north side of the road, behind and above it the scratching chickens and grunting pigs, and across the road below, and slanting down, an old barn and a patchwork of fields and, um, patches, outlined with irrigation ditch and pipe and scattered, it seemed artfully, with farm implements and machines, some ancient. It’s quite a sight anytime, particularly when created by a man who until a few years ago managed production systems for a publisher and a woman who designed databases. But perhaps that’s the source of their joy and success in what they do now, bringing those organizational and pattern-making talents into an area in which it is possible to love and feel at home – the farm-garden.

An avid organic gardener by avocation before he decided to make it a vocation, Paul appears to see farming as a cheerful challenge, a puzzle to be solved with a little creative diligence: when the town of Benson didn’t seem too keen on digging a trench across the road in which to lay his irrigation pipe, he contacted utilities companies and had them pound a conduit under the road like a horizontal well – that’s the way they lay their own lines, he reasoned – and then snaked the irrigation line through it.

In another instance, as we were walking through a field of leeks he reached down and measured the size of one. “Almost ready,” he said. “I want a buck fifty for these, so they have to be big.” Later I realized that two of his leeks were as big as the three that other farmers were banding together for $3 a bunch, and he pointed out that by growing them large he had decreased his handling costs, time, and aggravation.

Problem solving! It’s a real kick for some people. I’ll bet even now he’s noodling over how to get in the truck line next year.

It’s good to have people like Paul and Sally as part of our food community. Welcome them, won’t you?

...they pasteurize almonds, don’t they... The ubiquitous “They” – The US Department of Agriculture – has determined that all California almonds must be pasteurized (100% of our almonds come from California). However, in this case it seems that it was not the USDA that decided to kill the mosquito with a piledriver, but the Almond Board of California, who worked quickly after a 2004 outbreak of salmonella attributed to almonds to protect their industry from even the faintest mainstream taint, and made it a law that almonds must be pasteurized. Almonds are pasteurized either by steam or by propylene oxide (PPO), a chemical that has been banned by hot rod and motorcycle racing associations where it had been used as fuel. It’s also used for weed control. PPO is a known carcinogen. Pasteurized almonds apparently don’t taste or look differently from their raw counterparts, and are not required to be labeled “pasteurized”; are, as a matter of fact, continued to be labeled “raw”.

According to the Center for Disease Control, food borne diseases cause approximately 76 million illnesses, 325,000 hospitalizations, and 5,000 deaths in the United States each year. In the almond outbreak, a total of 33 people were hospitalized, lots of people had tummyaches, no one died. Wouldn’t it be an intelligent reaction to check out how almonds are being warehoused and packaged, marketed and delivered, rather than to stomp the entire industry with pasteurization? Our food system should be helped by the USDA and a knowledgeable public to recognize that it should celebrate the diversity and originality of our products and knowledge and totally abhor the idea of uniformity and lack of choice.

...which brings us to milk...

It made sense to react to the inane news of mandatory pasteurization of our almonds by revisiting the issue of raw milk by speaking to Amy Shollenberger at Rural Vermont, the organization that was instrumental in making it legal for small chicken growers to sell their chickens to restaurants and neighbors earlier this year. I had heard rumors that Rural Vermont was working to make unpasteurized milk more easily available to consumers. She said that Rural Vermont is still “in the homework stage, working with legislators” to allow farmers to sell unlimited quantities of raw milk from their farms (they’re limited to six gallons per day now), and to advertise (which they’re not allowed to do) and to deliver milk to the consumer after it is paid for in an arrangement something like the produce farmers’ CSA – Consumer Supported Agriculture – wherein customers subscribe to a farmer’s harvest at the beginning of the season and receive a box of vegetables and fruit, sometimes other foods too, once a week, of whatever is in season. “It’s important to have a relationship with the farmer,” Amy told me, “and pre-purchasing the milk makes it so you would have to at least seek out the farmer.”

...pasteurized livestock?...

Amy was also very hyped about the appearance of Mary Zanoni, legal expert, farmer, and anti-NAIS activist, today, at The Abbey, way up north, in Sheldon at 1:00 pm and at Ilsley Library, Middlebury at 6:30 pm. She’ll keep to the subject of animal registration tomorrow, Wednesday, at the United Church of South Royalton at 7 pm.

NAIS is the National Animal Identification System, which the USDA is pushing, and which small farmers are resisting, saying that the costs of knuckling under to the system are prohibitive, and that the aim of the whole thing is to aid industrial animal farmers and to, indeed, put small farmers out of business. See and hear Zanoni to learn more.

It’s amazing that you can still buy a raw egg.

... what we’re eating now...

Fresh, yet fall, beets. I forego the balsamic vinegar and also the teaspoon of sugar, and use, along with a little olive oil and salt and pepper, raw cider vinegar, with misgivings, yet when I taste them later they are perfect, the beets sweetening their coating, yet sharp, yet sweet.

Katherine Clark of Montpelier is cooking crookneck squash or, rather, her husband is. She writes: “I am convinced that crookneck is by far the best variety of yellow squash. It has a nutty complex flavor that is much better than the standard yellow squash... You never find them because they are ugly and bumpy and people think they are gourds. Bill cooks the squash in our house. He cuts up crookneck in non-uniform small chunks (so that the faces won't stick to each other while cooking), and cooks them in a non-stick skillet with a small amount of butter for a long slow time so that the liquid evaporates and the flavor intensifies.”

I ran with Bill’s technique, sautéing crooknecks or any other summer squash for as long as two hours. The good ones keep their shape, lose their water, and get all caramelly and absolutely wonderful.

Katherine’s on a quest to get people to like ugly vegetables, or vegetables they don’t think they like – like rapini, turnips, fava beans – so that farmers don’t quit growing them. “I adore rutabagas and don't understand why they aren't hugely popular. I like to roast them in the oven with olive oil...and rosemary.”

I’ve never cooked rutabaga much, but I will this year. That sounds like a wonderful way to expand our winter local foods repertoire.

Something else I just discovered is the very small – Little Ben – pumpkin. “We’ve been having good luck with these,” Paul Horton told me last week. “Just bake them, whole, at 325 degrees for about 45 minutes. They’re really good.” I took two of them and grilled them for about half an hour. When I sliced them open the seeds were easily scooped out, and the pumpkins contained a sweet nutty meat. Great taste and texture!

I make Elizabeth David’s tomato soup. I can remember it almost word for word, yet when I make it without getting out the book and re-reading it there’s something missing. As she said, “For all its simplicity and cheapness, this is a lovely soup, in which you taste butter, cream, and each vegetable, and personally I think it would be a mistake to add anything to it in the way of individual fantasies.” Don’t you love that word, “fantasies,” as though you or I could not and should not entertain them?

So I get out my French Provincial Cooking and the book falls open to Potage Crème de Tomates et de Pommes de Terre. It calls for the white part of 2 leeks (only one of Foggy Meadow’s though), ½ pound of tomatoes, ¾ pound potatoes, 1 ½ ounce butter, a little cream, chervil or parsley. You melt the butter, soften the leeks in the butter, add the roughly chopped tomatoes, cook a little until they begin to give off their juice, add the diced potato, a seasoning of salt and a little sugar, cover with 2 ½ cups water, bring it to a boil and let it simmer “steadily but not too fast” for 25 minutes. Put it through a food mill, she says, but I put it all in a blender and pour it back in the pan, in which I’ve heated about ½ to 1 cup of heavy cream. Just before serving sprinkle with chopped chervil or parsley.

But when I open the book and read the recipe, even then I don’t make it exactly as she says – I do indulge in some of my “fantasies” and it tastes better than if I hadn’t read it but made it closer to her instructions. What do you make of that? I make of it that life is more mysterious than we can comprehend.

This column was first published in the Rutland (Vermont) Herald on September 25, 2007

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Sex in the Garden

Once upon a time, long, long ago, I knelt in the garden watching a bee wriggle himself up the flower of a foxglove and then back himself out again covered in yellow dust, where he seemed to pause on the lip of the flower, seemingly dazed, and shake some sense back into himself, almost as though he were sneezing. Then he flew to another flower and eagerly scrabbled in. In one hand I held the phone and described the whole process to my mother, who said, and I could see her lips pursing, “You can see sex in ANYTHING, Daughter!” Well duh, just roll the flower parts around on your tongue – pistil, stamen, ovary, anther – now where’s the stigma in that?

Now, as I say, that WAS a long, long time ago, and hormones were still wreaking havoc, at least periodically, in my body, but now that I’m a bit calmer – one of the very few advantages of getting older, but a generous one, indeed – I still see sex in the garden and on the table. Sometimes to such an extent that it makes me purse my own lips.

...the French Charantais melon...

Just the other night I came in from supper of creamed cranberry beans, potatoes and carrots – all fresh as rainwater – alongside grilled chicken, eaten on the deck from dusk into dark – days shorten so fast in this brilliant season! – and was redding up the kitchen when the tiny Charantais melon spoke to me from the counter. I answered that call and held it in both of my hands and smelled the sweet ripeness of it before I put it on the cutting board and took my cleaver in hand. With the first gentle touch of the blade the Charantais sliced open like butter, seeds spurting from the center and sliding down the cut sides, perfectly ripe, ready to be planted sweetly into my mouth or into the ground to grow again. It was at that moment that my lips began to purse – I was that startled by the voluptuousness of this innocent-looking fruit. I actually drew back just a bit before I took a spoon and had a mouthful of those seeds – they’re good for you, you know – before I scraped the rest of them into the compost. Then I sliced half the melon into slivers and ate them with no salt, no nothing. My goodness it was good! I believe that was the most perfect melon I’ve ever eaten. Peak ripeness – even a moment before or after may not have achieved the same perfection.

Prissily, I wrapped the other half in plastic and put it in the fridge, wandered around thinking about how perfect it was, looked around for Leo, who was nowhere in sight, went to the fridge, snatched the plastic from the saved half, and then ate it, too. Not the plastic, silly...

I do believe that whatever essences were in that melon will be good for what ails me even if I don’t get another taste for another year.

...the Pratico/Menduni tomato...

Again, years ago – but not so long ago that I could use the Once Upon A Time phrase – Claire Clarino gave me some seeds from a strain of tomato that her grandmother Menduni had brought from Italy and that Claire has nurtured all these years, saving seeds from the best of them and planting them year after year. She calls them “Nonni’s Tomatoes,” and they are also called “Chella,” after her grandmother’s home town in Italy.

Now, in my dark old house, I never got them to germinate successfully, but I’ve always wondered about them. And then the other day I was being escorted by Steve Chamberlain on a tour of his Dutchess Farm in Castleton, when he suddenly reached down and grabbed a long, tubular shaped thing that seemed to be a long pepper but turned out to be a tomato. About 2 inches in diameter and maybe 5 inches long, it was not tapered but more sausage shaped, not red, exactly, but a blotchy maroon– in the sex-appeal category I’d rate it a Kissinger – you might recall Henry Kissinger as the supremely unlovely person who was National Security Adviser to the Nixon Administration, a terrible and even ugly man, but who, nevertheless, was said to be very attractive to women, apparently because of his lovely balance of acidic and sweet.

About that tomato: “These are called Pratico tomatoes,” said Steve. “An elderly person came by my stand one day and gave me seeds for them, said he’d developed them, part beefsteak, part paste tomato, and he wanted them to continue. So I put ‘em in the ground and they’re pretty good. Here, take one.”

I immediately thought of Claire’s tomato seeds, and took the ugly thing with alacrity. I thought they might be the same tomato, developed or at least saved by two different Italian families who’d settled on Meadow Street, in the section of Rutland called “the Gut”.

So, even after my near orgasmic experience with the Charantais Melon, still unsurfeited, I slice into the Pratico. Oh. My. Goodness. The Pratico is a tube of fine, juicy – but not too juicy – tomato flavor, nothing mushy or plum-mealy about it. A fine gift from one of our oldest families. Though not beautiful, when you slice through its tender skin at the blossom end you find fresh tasting tomato meat separated by tender seeds and jel, and as you continue to slice toward the stem end it becomes somewhat more mealy, but still very tasty. I imagine the melding of the whole into sauce would be quite rewarding, but perhaps not so much as eating them fresh. You can eat only so many tomatoes, though, however that many may be, and when you cannot eat more, and more are left, then you must turn them into sauce. And what a sauce that would be, come February. Or even next week.

Thinking that my taste buds might just be in a good mood, ready to drool over any old morsel, I decide to test the Pratico toughly against the greenhouse-raised tomatoes – Buffalo, by name – from Dutchess Farm.

These are not exactly “greenhouse” tomatoes. They’re planted in soil, in a field, root-watered, with the amendments to the soil the rest of the farm gets – compost, composted manure, green manure from wheatgrass. Their only difference is that they are protected by a plastic tent, the sides of which can be rolled down or up, to regulate the heat and the cold. “Tomatoes aren’t usually a New England plant,” Steve says. “They need more heat; and, as well, under plastic the water doesn’t stand on the leaves, which prevents disease.” Plus, in this protected venue they get an earlier start.

Dutchess Farm has the earliest tomatoes at the market, and probably the latest into the fall. And the turnover is tremendous. There’s no way to grow heirlooms – the Pratico, the Brandywine, Green Zebra, Black Krim – in that number. They’re much more idiosyncratic, and are grown, a patch here and there in the crevices of the garden system and pattern. Thank the market gardener/farmer who still gives formal space to these wonderful things, and buy them, so they’ll keep growing them.

After tasting the Buffalo, good flavor, nice texture, juicy, and much prettier than the Pratico, I’m still blown away by the latter.

The following Saturday I arranged to meet Claire at the Farmers’ Market. She brought a bag of her Nonnie’s tomatoes. Were they the same as the Praticos? I was certain they would be. Eagerly I opened the bag, and my jaw fell. They were NOT!

Nonnie’s Tomatoes are a large plum shape and much prettier than the Pratico. Cut into, they are almost solid flesh, the absolute best, I’m sure, for a tomato sandwich or a thick tomato sauce. The taste is not as transparent as the Pratico, but superb in itself, with the texture of a classic plum – great for sauce. Claire saves seeds each year and grows them in her mother’s garden in Rutland, her ex-husband grows them in Key West where they climb to six feet or more, and a market gardener in Grand Isle grows large crops of them for sale. By spreading those seeds around Claire hopes to insure the survival of the Menduni.

Here we have two heirloom tomatoes brought from the old country a hundred or more years ago, entirely different from each other, nurtured by offspring and farmers, and they’re probably only two of many, right here in the Rutland area. Immigrants used to arrive on American shores with seeds concealed in the brims of their hats and sewn into the hems of their dresses. Thomas Jefferson smuggled rice seeds out of Italy and then wrote, “The greatest service which can be rendered to any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.” Countries and geographical areas create “banks” of seeds for the preservation of the species. When crop failures occur or the land gives out from growing only a few strains of Genetically Modified Seeds owned by a few chemical and drug companies on hundreds of millions of acres, perhaps the few people surviving will be able to find a few acres here and there on which to plant their heirloom seeds. For an interesting take on this phenomenon see John Seabrook, “Sowing for Apocalypse” in the August 27 New Yorker.

Thank you Claire, and thank you Steve, for saving the Mendunis and the Praticos.

... naked farmers...

RAFFL, with the Rutland County Farmers’ Market is putting out a full monte calendar featuring farmers in tasteful buff tending to their business, in order to get our attention about the amazing array of local farm products grown in Rutland County. It’s very, very cute and for a good cause. $15. Order several for gifts. Check it out at the RAFFL table at the Rutland Farmers’ Market or contact Mike Horner at

... more smut...

I had meant to talk about the amazing Sex Life of Corn, but space is dwindling, and I would merely be sensationalizing what Betty Fussell has already said in The Story of Corn, as well as Michael Pollan in The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Pick them up if you are really craven. By the way: Corn smut is a disease of maize caused by the pathogenic plant fungus Ustilago maydis ... Wikipedia

...and that’s it...

Well, what did you expect? Lady Chatterley’s Lover?

First Published in the Rutland (Vermont) Herald on September 11, 07