Monday, July 28, 2008

Plethora Again

This is the time of year we’ve been waiting for... the first field tomatoes are coming in, there are beans, and the beginnings of peppers, eggplant soon, all sorts of zucchini and summer squash. And corn – both Grabowskys and Browns will have trucks full of corn Saturday! The old standbys, such as beets, are better than ever... This is summer as we think of it in February.” Greg Cox of Boardman Hill Farm.

...that first ripe tomato...

A million times I’ve written this, in various permutations, over the years: That first ripe tomato? Eat it in the garden, while it’s plumply sun-hot and the green scent of tomato vine curls to your nose. Perhaps you’ve carried along a shaker of salt. Use it. But first you must heed the advice of our artist friend – feel it first, heft it in the curve of your palm, notice its full-to-bursting skin and the way it glints its different shades of red in the light.

...the question of pasta...

But the morning after that first garden-fresh, ripe and juicy tomato, make the tomato sauce. Go out into your dew-wet but already simmering garden and pick several tomatoes – half a dozen small ones – and a good handful of basil leaves. Pull a bulb of garlic and knock the dirt off it. In the kitchen cut up the tomatoes into a pretty bowl. Tear the basil leaves over them, smash two or three cloves of garlic – or more, to taste – and add them to the mix. Then, as Elizabeth Romer suggests, for this is her recipe called Spaghetti al Salsa di Pomodoro Crudo, from her book The Tuscan Year – take “one teacup of the best green olive oil, no other sort of oil can be used” and pour it over and toss the whole mixture together. Let that bowl sit, covered, in a cool place if you can find one, but not in the refrigerator, to let the peppery flavor of the good oil and basil, the sweet/tart ones of the tomatoes and the sharp and unmistakable garlic flavors marry all day, to transcend each individual taste into an amalgam of them all. And when you’re ready to eat later on that evening, cook some spaghetti al dente and drain it well and pour the hot pasta into the sauce, which has been salted, and toss together. Top each serving with coarsely ground pepper. Parmesan? Only if you must.

This is, of course, a wonderfully leisurely kind of recipe, technique, celebration, meant for a simple hot mid-summer’s day when the tomatoes are ripe and the basil is yipping in the dooryard, and perhaps a couple of friends will stop by for a glass of wine and a bite to eat. Leave it to me to make it difficult by planning it too early, then racing all over hell and gone trying to gather really fresh ingredients – for that is the beauty of it, too, the simply peak and simmering gift of food from your garden or your farmer’s. It’s paradisiacal, actually, in its essence.

I might make it once a summer, just as I might make a thought from my old compatriot, John Thorne, whose Simple Cooking is one of the best foodletters, and longest running, in existence, once a winter. That thought would be a midnight snack of pasta topped with a fried egg. I’m speaking from memory, here, and there might be more to it – like crumbled cooked side-pork or pork belly on top of it (yummmmm!), or a chopped parsley sprinkle – but there needn’t be anything more to it than a fried egg slid onto a bowl of hot pasta, mixed up, salted and peppered, and you’re good to go. Of course I would serve it for Sunday supper, never at midnight or I might’s well forget sleep for that night, at least.

Why only once a year for either of these two intriguing and delicious dishes? Well, I don’t see the point of pasta. It’s not that I don’t like it, although it’s not my favorite thing in the world, but you could spread cream and anchovies and tomatoes and garlic and olive oil on a clean kitchen sponge and it would probably have about as much taste as pasta. That’s what it is, a cheap way of spreading a few hard-won ingredients over many plates. A filler.

Well, at least that’s what I think. What does Larousse Gastronomique say about it? “A dough made from durum-wheat semolina, water, and often eggs. Pasta is shaped in various ways and sometimes flavoured... Marco Polo introduced pasta into Italy from China...” Or at least it had always been thought to be true, but it can also be traced to Sicily in the middle ages “when the island was under Arab domination.” Monsieur Gastronomique also points out that different shapes of pasta, made with different grades of flours, make a difference not only to texture but to taste, as well. How much does the tender but crisp bite of Wendy Jackson’s Tagliatelle at the Red Brick Grill contribute to our perception of its deliciosity? What about my favorite (besides Wendy’s tagliatelle), which is the tiny little hand-twisted Trofie that I find at the Co-op? No doubt the thickness of those little bits, and the fact that it’s air-dried in the sweet air of the mountainous Abruzzo region of Italy, after it’s shaped by the delicious little hands of Italian ladies all sitting together in a flowery meadow (my imagination runs away with me), has something to do with making it so sumptuous.

Okay, so it can be delicious, but the fact remains that it’s flour. It’s all flour, and it’s mostly over-refined white flour that not even mice want to get into because it’s got no nutrients; and which is blamed in large part for the diseases of the western diet. Why, again? Well because when we snuff it up it’s like a drug, that super-refined carbohydrate, and shoves our blood sugar sky high, and our insulin has to get up from the table and shoot up and drag it back down again, and pretty soon our insulin gets tired of doing that, and then all hell breaks loose. At least that’s the way I understand it. A little here and a little there ain’t gonna kill you, but some people eat this stuff every day of their lives.

But then another deeply beloved staple of our diet is all flour, too, mostly white flour, and that would be... bread! And what could be more delicious to eat than good bread, or more satisfying to make, or to buy from our beloved favorite bakers? Taking pot-shots at bread is akin to kicking a puppy.

And that reminds me that another wonderful thing to do with that third tomato is to make a sloppy tomato sandwich, with good white bread slathered with mayo and enclosing slices of a tomato that still holds the heat from the garden. Maybe a few arugula leaves before clapping the top slice of bread upon the whole.

And, as my heroine, of food the doyenne, the great Julia Child – who ate her share of pasta and especially bread, and a great deal of fat, both olive and animal, and died at the age of 91 – might say, and most assuredly did say, “Bon Appetit!”

...odds and gifts...

My young friends Cyrus and Kristin traveled home to Burlington for their wedding from Fort Collins, Colorado, where they live, and though we had gotten an invitation we did not get a list of stores and websites where we might buy their selected gifts. I was grateful for that – is there anything more distasteful about modern weddings? – and so had to wrack my brain for a suitable gift. For my last wedding gift I carefully chose a beautiful casserole hand-thrown by my friend and neighbor, Carl Buffum, wrapped it well, but not, as you might surmise, well enough, and sent it down south where it arrived in shards. So fragile was out. Also, it seemed almost a thoughtless act to give them something they’d have to pack and send home, or carry home on the plane. So I googled “Co-op Fort Collins Colorado” and gave them a membership to their co-op and a gift certificate. I might – or not – have given a more thrilling gift, but they seemed to be genuinely tickled with it. Turns out they can walk to the Co-op from their house, and do, but had not yet become members.

For my friend Kathi’s November birthday last year I wrapped up a gigantic turnip in sheets of paper that, when smoothed, were typed over with turnip recipes – because Kathi had never cooked a turnip. And she should, you know? Okay. All right. It was a joke. But she loved it! You have to know your friends.

For a gift for a foodie closer by, I noticed all kinds of suitable things at the Farmers’ Market Saturday.

Start with a Garlic Grater and Dipping Sauce Bowl from Pizzazz Pottery. This is a shallow 4 inch flat bowl with ridges on the bottom over which you rub a clove or two of garlic. It renders them juicy and squashed. Then you pour in some good olive oil, perhaps some coarse-ground pepper, maybe some grated parm, all for dipping some of that good bread you just bought, or made. I cherish mine, and use it, literally, constantly.

You can build on that – along with the garlic bowl, add a couple of plump heads of garlic, and then maybe a nice bottle of olive oil – which is not, so far, available at the Farmers’ Market, though there are rumors and expectations.

A bottle of balsamic vinegar, aged by the people at Gordon’s Pond in Shrewsbury, who also make a great sesame dressing and a marinara to die for, would go nicely in this package, as would a loaf of Bear Mountain Bread if the event was to happen in the next few days. If it were that very day, then throw in some rich and delicious hard-boiled quail eggs the package – you can get them from Nancy at the Tweed Valley Farm Mushroom stand. She hard boils the little things herself, and peels them for you!! No easy chore. This Saturday, she tells me, she will be selling quail, already dressed. We’ve been waiting for that!

A bottle of Montcalm Lacrescent wine, a nicely balanced white “with delightful citrus-lime character with hints of pineapple and peach” bottled by Champlain Valley Vineyards in Benson would be very much appreciated. You serve this icy cold and it is glorious!

Maya Zelkin occasionally shows up with her pottery at the FM, and I happen to know, having traveled up to her
studio in
Shrewsbury to get mine, that she has several Kimchi pots just thrown and kilned. They’re gorgeous, and so utilitarian, my favorite combination. A nice gift for someone very special. And if you’re very lucky you might get to say hello to Manolo.

That’s all the gifts I’ve got time for now but, as you can see, the Farmers’ Market is a good place to start gift shopping.

On August 6, Rural Vermont will host one of their famous Ice Cream Socials – Rutland finally made it!! – in the grassy space beside the Co-op on Wales Street, starting at 6:30PM. Rain space will be in the Winter Farmers’ Market in the back of the Co-op. So come and lick a cone made of Farm Fresh Cream, meet some of the fine people from Rural Vermont and the Co-op, and your friends and neighbors. It’s Leo’s birthday, so be sure to say HB2U!

...slow food...

“For dinner I had a pork chop from the pigs I raised, sautéed with a little mustard, and some crushed fresh sour cherries added when the chop was turned over. Oh man. Got to go pick more cherries for sure.”... My friend and pork supplier, Joyce Sabo.

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