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

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