Sunday, March 18, 2007

We Are Tired of Our Huts

White smoke from neighbors’ chimneys plumes straight up into blue sky this morning when the dog and I go out for the paper; but there’s a softness to the air and busyness with the sound of birds. And there behind the old church across the street rises the bright shadow of Easter – not the bunny but the sun. Almost Spring Equinox.

It’s the best time of the year. The days have a long time to get longer now. Far off, in the high sun of mid-June we can allow ourselves the luxury of apprehension, for then the hemisphere begins to leak light, leading at least to November. But for now winter’s back is surely broken, and soon we’ll be allowed out of our huts!


Now’s the time we clear out the cupboards and fridge, freezer and pantries of stuffs dried or frozen or otherwise preserved from an old season, free at last to use them up in frenetic anticipation of beginning the cycle anew, of preserving yet unknown things for yet another February. There’s a venison roast frozen since fall that needs to be considered before the young, copper-sheathed fiddleheads of ferns poke their curled heads out of the mud. Daytime temperatures will rise and tumble back down for night and though nothing yet visibly grows nevertheless saps and mycelium begin to flow and grow, and soon our first foraging season will begin – Sugaring! In the past, when stores had been depleted by this time, humans were known to subsist on new maple sugar for a month or so before green struck again. Religions, formed before refrigeration and on the shoulders of earlier pagan rites, actively encourage severe fasting at this time of year, culminating with feasting at the time when new young things do birth and grow.

Feasting rises the ladder of climates from south to north as the quarry rises from the earth, the waters, and the forests: Shad and its luscious roe. Bitter dandelion. Lovely wild leeks. The crenellated wild morel.

... of Cans and Bottles of Things

In this house the 2006 canned tomato sauce is gone but there’s one more bottle dated 2005: a classic example of over-hoarding – time gets away, too few mindful trips to the cellar. Perhaps, to do it justice, we’ll just drink it, with a little vodka or not. It was made from a favorite tomato called Enchantment, shaped like a paste tomato but not mealy, a little salt and basil leaves added just before the lid went on.

... of Garlic

I no longer hoard the bag of garlic that I bought from Dutchess Farm at the Market last fall, but use it like it’s going out of style, which it is, though it’s kept well upstairs in a little room we keep quite cold and dry. I used almost a whole head of garlic in last Sunday’s pot roast, while in November’s I would have been more sparing.

. . . of Strawberries

One Tuesday last summer, at the Rutland County Farmers’ Market, I bought two more quarts of those most marvelous strawberries everyone raved about. Greg Cox of Boardman Hill Farm sold them for Wood’s Market Garden in Brandon where they’d been raised under organic conditions even if not yet certified. They were huge, so sweet they needed little added sugar for shortcake. These last two quarts – I’d bought five on Saturday – were spread on a plate and frozen whole, then placed into freezer bags to eat like popsicles throughout the rest of the summer.

But so many good foods to eat all summer, and the natural instinct to hoard good things, rendered those strawberries mostly untouched by last month. Now that the next strawberry season is within imagination’s reach, I’ve begun indeed to “eat them like popsicles.” Since the texture of frozen strawberries leaves something to be desired, they’re not great on salads. Last night I made a dressing of them to go over a salad of grilled salmon and pear on fresh greens, garnished with warm goat cheese and toasted walnuts. It shed warmth (some of which was due to the rather too large pinch of chipotle pepper flakes I added) and a sense of summer on the whole meal.

The Strawberry Vinaigrette
Make this early enough for the flavors to meld.

Makes about 1 cup

6 large sweet strawberries, fresh or frozen
1 clove garlic,
½ cup cilantro
1 tablespoon shallot or onion
3 dried tomatoes

Zest and juice of ½ lime
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black or white pepper
1 tablespoon maple syrup

½ cup olive oil

In a small bowl, mush the fresh or defrosted strawberries with a potato masher.
Chop the garlic, cilantro, shallot, tomatoes, and lime zest until very fine and stir into the strawberries. Stir in the lime juice, salt and pepper, and maple syrup. Whisk in the olive oil in a very fine stream. Correct the seasonings.

Alternatively, place all of the ingredients except the olive oil in the bowl of a blender and blend until smooth, then add the olive oil in a thin stream while the blender is running. Correct the seasonings.

This would do well dipped up with tortilla chips, particularly if you did the minced version; or served in tiny cups as an amuse bouche at the beginning of a meal. In that case I would use the blender, and drizzle each tiny mouth-amuser with a little extra and very good olive oil.

... Really? Vinaigrette?

Okay, I may be playing somewhat loosely with that term. It’s certainly not a plain vinaigrette. But Larousse Gastronomique, in addition to specifying a 1:3 ratio of vinegar or other acid to oil or cream, allows other seasonings, such as herbs, garlic, or mustard, to be added. I must consult them about the addition of six large, flavorful strawberries. I never fail to realize something unexpected from the LG: Put a little salt in the bowl, they say, and then whisk in the vinegar, because salt doesn’t dissolve in oil.


But let’s face it, most of us don’t have larders. We might have a pantry, but what do we store in it? Cans and bags and boxes of food stuffs that overflow the kitchen cupboards, that’s what! I wonder how many people have a ham hanging in some cool dry room? (Let me know if you do!)

Nope, most of us rely on at least weekly visits to the supermarket; and don’t get me wrong, I do too, at least in the winter when most Farmers’ Markets are hibernating.

....Discovering The Co-Op, Rutland’s Natural Foods Market

One day last fall, meaning to stop at the supermarket for some serious grocery shopping on the way home from a Center Street lunch, I dropped by The Co-Op on Wales Street just to see what was up. To be honest, perhaps I just wondered what delicious offering Peter had cooked up – maybe his impossibly good Tortilla Espagnola or his signature cornbreads and salsa. I can’t remember now if it was one of Peter’s days or not, but it certainly turned out to be one of mine!

The place was colorful and warm and positively exuded good energy; the produce bright and fresh and well-stocked, much of it organically grown and locally produced. The clerks and volunteers were friendly and helpful as I chatted with them and with friends who had wandered in.

I picked up some bright yams, which I have been using for awhile instead of potatoes, and some glossy, deeply creased kale to steam and dress with Asian tastes, and to cut into strips and drop, for those last minutes, into soups; cilantro, mesclun, some cans of this and that – how about organic pineapple? I measured out some pearled barley and excellent coffee beans in bulk, chose a local cheese, an extraordinary yogurt, picked up a cleaning spray, and probably a dark-chocolate bar when I got up to the counter, where the final pleasant surprise whapped me up side the head – I’d spent far less than I would have at the supermarket.

...Consider the Yam

I think that what I’ve been buying is a garnet yam, which is really a sweet potato of the Morning Glory or Convolvulaceae family. Anyway, I grew up with them served mainly for holidays or Sunday dinners swimming in maple syrup and butter. But in recent years I’ve reconsidered them. Now, to bring out their nutty natural sweetness, I simply roast or grill them whole; or simmer them – unpeeled and cut into rounds – in salted water until tender. Quickly, I add butter or olive oil and finely chopped shallot, garlic, and parsley and mash them with a fork, not until smooth but until broken apart, chunky and mixed together with the oil and alliums which the heat of the yams will partially cook, then clap that cover back on the pan until ready to eat. They are delicious, low in calories and carbs, packed with good orange vitamins; great with grilled meats.

He who distinguishes the true savor of his food can never be a glutton;
he who does not cannot be otherwise

This column was first published in the Rutland (Vermont) Herald in March of 2007

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