Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Preserving Summer

...subsistence thoughts...

If you were to pick up a book called The Polish Officer by Alan Furst, you might open it at the bookmark towards the end and continue to read of one of the last clandestine operations in the book which takes place at the farm of a peasant during World War II. It had been visited recently by an enemy operative who introduced himself as a politruk. When he has gone, the peasant says, “I can understand most Russians when they speak, we all can in this place. But what is a politruk?”

“It means political officer,” answers the Polish Officer.

The peasant shrugged – “That was to raise life to a level where it only pretended to exist,” the omnipotent storyteller explains, digging deep into the peasant’s practical brain wherein life was seen as a series of steps performed to get food on the table, protect the farm from the enemy, and survive.

“...to raise life to a level where it only pretended to exist,” I read again and again, then lifted my eyes from the page, a picture already forming behind them of lines of cars creeping around the new fast-food faux Mexican restaurant located in one of Rutland’s malls. This was surely an instance of pretense – “what will make life seem important for the next 3 hours?” we might ask. “Why, a hard-won machine-made taco. Let’s go!”

Which just goes to prove that we take our challenges where we can get ‘em, right? But to sit in lines, spewing hard-won gasoline and ethanol from the mid-west’s hard-used acres and wasting precious time? I wonder how many of those of us found idling in line we might see at another time at the Farmers’ Market, or sweating in our own garden, or, heaven forefend, helping out in a farmer’s field, or even standing at our own kitchen counter putting black beans to soak to cook the next day and refry the next? Not many, I would guess.

...ah, but how profitless this line of thought...

If, on the other hand, you were to pick up a book called An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, written by one of the finest writers in English, Elizabeth David, and much of her subject regarding food, you might turn to page 113 of the Penguin softcover edition to a section called ‘Mafalda, Giovanna, Giulia’. There, under Mafalda, you will find a simple – though labor intensive – and lovely treatment for fleshy and sweet, autumn red peppers, and how to preserve them, using not an iota of vinegar.

Peppers and eggplant are alkaline, that is "sweet", and most people, in order to preserve alkaline foods, add an acid, such as vinegar. I'm here to tell you that Elizabeth David, Mafalda, Myriam Gaignard, and Marcella Hazen do not find that necessary, with careful technique. Read on

It is, or will be, the perfect thing to do to remove yourself from profitless thoughts.

David is in Italy, in the village of Anacapri, early ‘50s, and Mafalda, who, with her husband ran a small restaurant there at the time, has given David several of her Southern Italian recipes. But David especially covets one for preserving red peppers, which Mafalda serves as an antipasto, “beautiful, brilliant scarlet strips of tender sweet peppers lightly sprinkled with olive oil and parsley and chopped garlic.” Mafalda bids her come back in the summer and she will show David how to make them. Next summer David lingers for weeks while Mafalda waits for the peppers to become thick-walled and meaty and sweet, and finally they are deemed ready.

Mafalda chars the peppers over a charcoal brazier, while David impales hers on a long handled fork and turns them over a gas flame until the skin is blackened and can be scraped or rubbed off. Put them into a paper bag for 15 minutes or so after they have charred, to let them steam a bit and lift that skin off. Every bit of blackened skin must be peeled and scraped and rinsed off, and the stems and cores and seeds are scraped out and discarded. Then the peppers are sliced into half-inch strips.

Mafalda packed hers into emptied wine bottles because in Italy at the time “...it would be thought wasteful to buy special preserving jars; she tied the corks with a piece of string...” However, you and I, and indeed Elizabeth David, use(d) small preserving jars –wide-mouth half pints work well.

Pack the peppers in, fill those jars up, add half a teaspoon of sea salt to each and a couple of basil leaves, screw down the tops, and place the jars into a flat-bottomed pan big enough to hold all the jars without touching. You won’t have that many, maybe 3 or 4 half pints, because preparing the peppers is so labor-intensive. You can wind a dishtowel or a rope of crushed newspapers among them so they don’t jostle each other as they cook. Cover completely with cold water. “Bring to the boil and continue boiling for 15 minutes. When quite cold, remove from the pan and make sure that the tops are screwed as tight as they will go.” David has kept these little bottles “well into the following summer,” but I found one hiding behind other jars in the basement last winter that had been put up several years ago. I arranged them on a plate, touched them with garlic and olive oil. They were such a treat! Full of the scent of red peppers and basil, and the taste, too! I don’t know of anything that speaks in February of the taste of summer as fluently as these.

Still feel like getting in the ole car and motoring down to circle that quik-stop? Maybe not.

...now let’s think about eggplants...

Vinegar is an effective preservative, but often it overpowers the preserved, which is one reason I like the pepper treatment, above, and also the process of lacto-fermentation, where foods are pickled in their own fermenting juices, creating much more complicated and at the same time subtle tastes than pure vinegar does. I wrote about it last fall and you can find it here: http://thriceshy.blogspot.com/2007/12/cabbage-minus-zero.html

However, there are many more – and almost forgotten – ways of preserving foods without the addition of vinegar, and many of these ancient ways can be found in a book called Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning. It’s prepared by many different old-world cooks and gardeners under the rubric of The Gardeners & Farmers of Terre Vivante, and published by Chelsea Green in White River Junction.

Years ago I discovered how luscious strips of eggplant can be when aged, raw, a few days in olive oil – they turn silky and creamy. But I can’t lay my hands on that recipe, which claimed to be not a preservation technique but simply preparation. Ever since, I’ve been looking for a way of preserving eggplant in olive oil, or permission to, without the addition of vinegar, the taste of which overpowers that of the eggplant, and in Preserving Food I found one. This is it:

Vegetables Preserved in Oil: Eggplant

2 pounds very small eggplants
coarse salt
5 cloves of garlic
12 pearl onions
1 sprig of thyme
1 bay leaf
black peppercorn
1 quart of olive oil
Slice the eggplant into rounds and place them in a bowl with a handful of coarse salt, toss them, and marinate for six hours in a cool place.

Drain and dry the eggplant with a clean cloth. Add the seasonings and toss. Pack the eggplant firmly into canning jars, cover with oil, and close tightly. Leave the eggplant to marinate at least one month, after which you can serve it as an appetizer.

This recipe is offered by Myriam Gaignard, in Coulans-sur-Gee, France, and it’s one I’m going to try!

...that said...

If you feel you need a bit of vinegar to ensure the keeping of preserved eggplant, note that Marcella Hazen in Marcellas Italian Kitchen, performs this technique with the addition of a few tablespoons of wine vinegar, and packing the eggplant with garlic, eggplant, mint and hot peppers. The eggplant can stay in the bowl shedding moisture overnight, if needed. It can be cut in strips, and it will halve its quantity after being wrung out in clean towels. Pack the eggplant down as you pack the jars, completely cover with olive oil, and Marcella claims this will keep for a year.

...sour grapes...

Maybe it IS just sour grapes. Why spend all those hours in the kitchen to get a few little jars of delicious condiments? Aside, of course, from the very sensuous activity that it is, handling and slicing and charring and steaming the luscious peak of the season foods; and aside from the pleasure they provide now or will provide in the winter months when we rediscover them and pry off their lids and present them to our families and friends – the scents and the flavors and the memories.

But who says that’s not just as great a waste of time as driving around in cars and eating industrial food? Well, I guess we do, don’t we? You and I, and I guess we’ll keep right on! But one of these days we’re going to be driving by Taco Bell and notice that there’s not one car in front of us, and just maybe we’ll let curiosity get the better of us and stop by and try it out. Hope nobody’s lookin’!

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

What do we think of when we think Baked Potato?

Sadly, what most of us must think of is, number one, BIG. Humongous! Tasting mostly of the butter (or margarine, if that’s our mindset) and sour cream (probably the oxymoronic low-fat) with which it’s slathered instead of complemented; the flesh, which should be tasty in itself, obscured by the condiments; the skins, especially in the summer, flabby and thin because they were wrapped in aluminum foil the way so many people think they must be. Which, of course, only defeats the purpose of a tasty, crisp skin, and dry and mealy flesh (the better to absorb the moist and unctuous toppings) and was originally employed simply to steam the potatoes on the grill or in the oven to hasten the cooking. Might’s well boil ‘em!

And then, expanding on that mind-set, the potatoes not eaten for themselves, but as an accompaniment to a thick pound o’steak – industrially raised, got from the supermarket, probably flabby in itself, and watery, having been grilled ON TOP of aluminum foil! What strength of will I showed the last time I saw this desecration taking place by not shoving aside the griller, grabbing the spatula and ripping the foil from under the steak! Then we wonder why that baked potato – and that steak, too, if we stop to think about it – was not the treat we anticipated.

But let’s forget the steak for now and concentrate on that baked potato.

I’m thinking back to the article in Sunday’s Herald (8/3/8) by Gordon Dritschilo about the Ethnic festival and the baked potatoes served at the Republican booth. Senator Hull Maynard was quoted as saying, “I’d like to say these are locally grown, but I don’t think at this time of year we’d have potatoes this mature.”

Well, Senator Maynard, although a very nice and knowledgeable man in many ways, with a GREAT sense of humor, I fervently hope, was wrong, of course. There are wonderful little russet potatoes – not large, but mature – grown by Don Heleba at his Center Rutland potato farm. I’ve had them – a lovely starchy meat to them, with a crisp and substantial brown skin. And man! do I like my baked potato skins, filled with real butter, salted and peppered, sprinkled with chives. The best part of a baked potato, I’ve always thought, and these are the best of the best!

But perhaps the Senator, though a Republican – that party that attempts to take responsibility for Vermont’s Buy Local movement – had not been to the Farmers’ Market – an absence that, in itself, would be a shame – and seen the extraordinary number of varieties of freshly dug potatoes that Don and his wife Diane offer their patrons at their booth that, along with Spring Lake Ranch and Bear Mountain Bread, pins down the southern edge of the Market. Or perhaps the Senator HAS been there, but to his eye none of those smaller potatoes leapt up and shouted BAKED POTATO. And really, who could blame him? You’d need two or three of these beautiful and modest little guys to make one industrially raised potato.

Now perhaps someone in the planners for this event suggested that it would be nice to serve locally grown potatoes. That little voice in the wilderness would have been quickly shushed, because ‘although local is nice, it is not essential’. And that is not just a Republican mindset! I can’t tell you how many times I have been shushed with the words, from the mouths of admitted liberals, when I’m working on any of the food-related things I’m involved with, “Oh, Sharon, not EVERYTHING has to be local.” But ‘Not Everything’ becomes ‘Very Little’, then ‘Why?’ and a blank look, and then totally fades from mind.

But buying and eating locally SHOULD be essential! Especially when it comes to potatoes, for industrially grown, non-organic potatoes are among the worst offenders in absorbing chemical fertilizers and pesticides and passing them on to us. And, besides, they can be tasteless, and watery. And, besides, the buying of them does not benefit our local farmer and/or our local economy. And besides, serving industrially-grown potatoes does not make the point that the Republican party is conscientious in its aim to ‘Buy Local.’ But then that just proves the old axiom, “There’s many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip.”

... Many words will not fill a bushel ...

It reminds me of stopping by the supermarket one day in early summer in search of a particular kind of mango grown in India that I’d read about. Dennis, the Co-op produce manager, had not been able to find them. There at the supermarket I met two very good Co-op customers with their carts piled high with industrially grown vegetables and fruit and meats. “Well, you can’t buy EVERYTHING at the Co-op,” they sputtered somewhat shamefacedly, and one continued, shoveling little red potatoes into a bag, “especially those dried-out little spuds the Co-op’s got just now.” Well, admittedly this was before spring veggies were very prolific at the Co-op and Farmers’ Market, and we were still buying over-wintered potatoes and beets and turnips and what have you. At the very end of the season, just before Don began to dig new potatoes, those over-wintered potatoes tended to put out sprouts very quickly. But I remembered buying freshly imported carrots at the Co-op, attracted, if guiltily, by their smooth, fresh, orange skins, choosing them over the hulking, scabbed, over-wintered, local ones, and finding them absolutely insipid in taste and watery in texture while the over-wintered ones were sweet and substantial.

In comparison, the aisles and aisles of fresh-from-California produce at the supermarket were very tempting in that early-season time. But, though I was tempted by the aisles of fresh-looking produce from California or South America in the supermarket that day, I also remembered the old saying, ‘Many words will not fill a bushel’ and, since I did not find the mangos I was looking for, I stood by my darn-tootin’ scruples and left empty handed.

...chinese potatoes and native American rice...

But getting back to potatoes: when I was growing up in the Midwest we had potatoes every night, and mostly they were peeled and quartered and boiled. You were meant to fork them up, mash them, butter and salt and pepper them, and eat them down. I hated them. I liked the mashed potatoes my grandmother made, that she served onto your plate and then, with the gravy ladle, made a crater in the volcano and filled it with gravy. I could stand baked potatoes but really wanted only the skins, and I hated the potatoes my mother fried with bits of bread. I spent hours sitting in front of a greasy plate at a table otherwise emptied, under the admonition to clean up my plate! Children in China were starving to death. I wondered how many potatoes Chinese children were forced to eat?

We love potatoes now, eat them weekly, and once in a blue moon we have a supper of just baked potatoes. Take two or three – or one, if you’re being abstemious – small Heleba russets apiece, rinse them off, thread them onto metal skewers (or potato nails), and put into a hot oven or on a non-flaming grill until they are perfectly fork tender. Roll them over often if you’re grilling them. While they’re cooking, prepare a potpourri of toppings – I like garlicky olive oil or butter, sour cream or crème fraiche, chopped scallions or shallots, chives, crumbled bacon, sea salt and freshly ground pepper, caviar, fresh, steamed broccoli... the sky’s the limit. When they are fork tender – and don’t rush this, there’s nothing worse than anticipating a good baked potato and finding it hard as a rock – roll them on the counter to mush them up inside, make a shallow cut through the skin of one side lengthwise and pinch the ends towards each other to open a place for the toppings. Let each person add their own favorite toppings. Now don’t make a pig of yourself.

...elsewhere at the ethnic festival...

At the same time the Republicans were baking industrial potatoes, the Dems were selling bits and pieces of pastry. I can only hope that they were made by a local baker, of as many local ingredients as possible, but I wouldn’t know, as I hadn’t time to get to either booth. I was volunteering at the Co-op, first cooking up a storm in the new kitchen with Susan and Annabelle and Carol – and that was FUN, the first time the kitchen had been used that way, and with all the attendant bustling and gossiping that goes along with four women in a kitchen, with a pleasant deadline – and then selling, and sometimes giving away, our product at the Co-op booth. Our theme was Native American, and our offerings were a Wild Rice Pilaf and Corn Cakes. The wild rice, of course, came from that wonderful Orwell farmer who plants it in the shallow grassy southern tip of Lake Champlain! Well, no... possibly from Minnesota, but probably not industrially raised.

We were asked for the recipes by several people, so I’ll give them to you here. I believe that all the ingredients are available at the Co-op:

Sunflower Seed Wild Rice Pilaf:

* 4 cups veggie bouillon or broth
* 1 cup wild rice
* 1 3/4 cup bulgur
* 1 cup sunflower seeds
* 1 cup dried cranberries
* 1 bunch scallions, thinly sliced
* 1/2 cup cilantro &/or parsley, chopped
* 1/2 cup fresh mint, chopped
* 1/2 cup chopped almonds (we omitted these, but missed them)
* Zest from 1 orange (we wanted to add the orange segments, too)
* 2 tablespoons olive oil
* salt & pepper to taste

In a medium saucepan, bring the broth to a boil. Add wild rice, reduce heat & cook, covered, for 50 minutes or so, being careful not to overcook. Remove to a large bowl. In the meantime, cook the bulgur in about 1 1/4 cups boiling water; simmer 15 minutes and let rest another 15 minutes. Add to rice and combine with all other ingredients. Serve at room temperature.

Corncakes With Fresh Corn and Chives

* 1 ear fresh corn
* 2 tablespoons flour
* 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
* 1 teaspoon sugar
* 1/2 teaspoon salt
* 1 cup boiling water
* 1 cup yellow cornmeal
* 1/4 cup milk
* 1 slightly beaten egg
* 1 tablespoon snipped fresh chives
* Butter for frying

Cut corn kernels from cob. Reserve. Combine dry ingredients and set aside. Stir boiling water into cornmeal to make a stiff mush; add milk and blend until smooth. Stir in everything else, adding the dry ingredients last, stirring until just combined. Drop batter by rounded spoons into hot butter, or a mixture of olive oil and butter. Fry until golden on the bottom, and top is solidifying. Turn once and brown till golden. Transfer to a serving platter and keep warm.

...more platitudes, axioms, metaphors, etc...

You know, we can talk up eating and buying locally, but if we don’t follow it up with action, if we allow those slips ‘twixt cup and lips’, then it doesn’t matter how many words we utter – they won’t fill up the basket. And beyond that, and as I hope I’ve shown, bigger is not better when it comes to most things, even potatoes. So how do I put this? Eating locally is no big potatoes – it matters! Or, maybe, the Devil’s in the Details.

...starring indian food...

If you’re a fan of Indian food, don’t miss Dr. Sanjukta Ghosh, professor of cultural and women’s studies at Castleton State College, who will be the guest chef on the next edition of What’s Cookin’ Rutland on PEG TV, sponsored by Chaffee Art Center on August 18.

Dr. Ghosh, who writes and lectures widely on South Asian issues, grew up in the Himalayan foothills of Kashmir and Kumaon, and in New Delhi, India. She will speak with host, Whitney Lamy, of some of the dilemmas and delights of Indian food while she prepares a peak season stir fry of eggplant and tomatoes called Baigan Achari, a Bengali Chicken Curry, and Jeera Pulao, a rice pilaf.

What’s Cookin’ Rutland is taped at PEG TV Studios in Howe Center starting at 6PM. Doors open at 5:30 for the seating of the live audience. A $10 donation is suggested, and reservations may be had by calling Chaffee Art Center at 775-0356.

You can watch Sanjukta and Whitney here: http://www.pegtv.com/ipegvideo.html . Look for What's Cookin' Rutland, and choose any show you like.

Twice Bitten columns are archived (sometimes with added information and recipes) at www.thriceshy.blogspot.com Thanks for your comments and questions, emails and calls. They reach me at the Rutland Herald, P.O. Box 668, Rutland, 05702 or by email at snimtz@gmail.com