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

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