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