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’!

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