Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Zen and the Craft of Sofrito

I was working on a column about cheese when I remembered that a conversation about Robert Persig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance was due to be broadcast on VPR at that very moment. Being constitutionally unable to sit mindfully still and listen for an hour, I decided to listen while preparing sofrito for the future.
Why sofrito? you might well ask, as I would have two days ago. But yesterday I had a visit from an old friend from California who stops by once a year. I had thought I’d missed him, or that he had forsaken his annual trip.
I was working on that selfsame article yesterday when I glimpsed a white t-shirt moving past my office window but when I went to the door no-one was there. No ONE, but a voice boomeranged around the corner of the porch and, when I peeked, there was Paul, talking on his cell phone. He continued to talk while we hugged. He continued to talk to this person in California whom he had just left, while I, whom he had not seen for a year, walked out to the garden to see if I would get any okra before the frost. It had simmered in place most of this rainy summer, but now in sunnier weather was shooting out it’s beautiful hibiscus flowers, some of which had given way to a fruiting body whose insides would cunningly echo the flower in shape and form, and please the mouth when dipped into egg and flour and fried in butter and olive oil. In the background Paul’s voice continued to boom. He appeared to be talking about motorcycles.
Paul is a very sweet man, I look forward to seeing him, but he is not a person who asks many questions. He does, however, like to talk, so after he’d clapped his phone off and we’d found a sunny spot on the chilly deck, he described in no uncertain terms where his political sympathies lay – which closely approximated my own – and how the American People seem to mistake the deadly seriousness of the contemporary political scene for the hijinks of a reality show, what the weather had been like in California, what he and his significant other had been doing for the past year, and that a pot-luck dinner was to be held the next evening to initiate the sailing weekend – the annual Fruit Bowl – which was the ostensible reason for his annual trip as it has been for the last twenty or so years. The real one, of course, is seeing old friends.
“And what will be your offering for the potluck dinner?” I asked in a brief pause, thinking that he and our friend, with whom he was staying, would stop by a deli on the way up Route 7 and pick something up.
“I’m going to make my artichoke casserole,” he said. “It’s delicious, a no-brainer, and a couple handfuls of crushed saltines on top,” he rubbed his hands together over an imaginary casserole, “and it’s good to go.”
Surprised, I asked him if he did a lot of cooking, having never guessed it. He’s a retired steel-worker, worked on the Alaska pipeline and tall city buildings. Turns out he does. And had a few, welcome, words of advice for me.
His significant other – “not-married going on twenty-some years, now,” he said – is a vegetarian, while Paul is a dedicated carnivore, so he’s learned to cook both ways. “I do lots of soups,” he said. And he always starts with a sofrito.
“I make up a sofrito when there’s lots of tomatoes, put ‘em in the processor along with hot peppers, cilantro, onions and garlic, smash ‘em up, make up a whole bunch, then put it in little plastic bags and freeze it.”
He heats some oil, adds the sofrito, fries it, adds chicken broth and white beans, then divides it into two portions and adds chunks of ham to his own. He’d just stopped by the Locker and ordered a ham, as well as pounds of bacon to take back to California with him. “Yeah, the whole cabin fills up with the smell of cob smoke,” he laughed.
But I was thinking – I had lots of tomatoes, and my garden produced cilantro and Serrano peppers this year to beat the band. I also had garlic and onions. “What a great idea,” I said, and I clapped my hands. Paul smiled shyly.
As I followed him across the deck on the way to his car, he inspected my Big Green Egg, telling me what a great grill it was, “it’s like one of those middle-eastern things,” he said.
“A tandoori oven,” suggested I.
“Yeah, like a ceramic oven, holds the heat,” he said, “makes a dynamite chicken.”
“Yes,” I said. “I’m making a chicken in it tonight.”
“Be sure,” he said, looking very serious, “to prick the skin all over. Let’s the fat bubble out and crisps up the skin.” I considered this. It’s not something I usually do because I’m afraid of losing juices and making the chicken dry, but in the high heat of the tandoori, perhaps it would work.
“Seriously,” he said, nodding his head.
The day before, I had spatchcocked that chicken, meaning that I had cut out the backbone with a meat saw and done a little damage to the breast bone. This allows you to open up the chicken so that all the skin is on one side and all the inside is on the other, and lets you place it flat on the grill. Here’s a video of it, being done with kitchen shears.
Then I brined that chicken, this way: Place about two cups of water in a saucepan with a tablespoon of sugar, 6 tablespoons of salt, and a bayleaf. Or you may add whatever seasonings you like. Bring it to a boil to dissolve the sugar and salt, then top off the pan with cold water. Place the chicken in a large bowl and pour the water over it. Add enough cold water to cover the chicken, and place in the fridge for several hours or overnight.
This might seem a lot of work for a chicken, but it took about 15 minutes – maybe 3 minutes to spatchcock it and the rest just time to heat the water. My biggest problem is to remember to do it the day before I want to grill the chicken.
So the evening of Paul’s visit, I placed the spatchcocked and brined chicken on its skin side first on the grill, and let it grill for twenty or so minutes, then turned it over. That’s when I followed Paul’s advice and pricked that skin all over, and I must say it worked beautifully, the skin crisp and succulent, the flesh moist and flavorful. I left that 4 pound chicken on the grill at about 400 degrees for another 40 minutes.
Jumping back to where we began, to moments before the Persig program and my thoughts about sofrito, I turned on the radio and surveyed the tomatoes, the onions, the garlic, and the hot peppers, which were already on my counter. Litter. Grace. Whatever. I dashed out to the garden to pick handfuls of cilantro, and back in the kitchen took some deep breaths. Becoming engrossed in the program, I quartered the onions, seeded the peppers, smashed and peeled the garlic, and put them all in the food processor with the cilantro with such intention, mindfulness, that it seemed that Persig or Edward Espe Brown or, indeed, Paul, were at my side.
If you want to do this, probably I should give you some guidance about amounts, ratios, and so on. Except that it’s really a matter of taste: with one rather large onion, and 4 rather small serranos, and 4 or 5 large cloves of garlic, and the couple of handfuls of cilantro, I added perhaps 30 medium-sized tomatoes. And a tablespoon of sea salt. It seemed perfect to me, and it made about 2 ½ quarts.
Another thought – there are all kinds of sofritos. I never think of tomatoes when I think of sofrito, which is, really, only a mixture of aromatics that you sauté in a hot frying pan before you get into the meat of the matter. Like a mirepoix – you know, which is onions, garlic, carrots, maybe celery. This sofrito was very like a salsa; indeed, as I understand it both words mean ‘sauce’ with the added intention of sofrito to mean sautéed sauce.
I clean and chunk up the tomatoes and whir them up in the food processor, too. Okay, I like my salsa chunky, cut individually, but this is faster and perhaps a better texture to flavor that winter soup. Tomatoes into the big bowl with the already chopped vegetables, salt added, and this is not too shabby to dip up with a tortilla. Later, I will reach the conclusion that the sofrito should be added to the soup in the last twenty minutes, in a last-ditch attempt to save some of the perishable cilantro flavor. Later still, I will determine to fry most of it before adding the meat, or the chicken broth – whichever way I’m leaning – at the beginning, and add the remaining a few minutes before serving it.
By the time the radio scholars are talking about Zen as “not a way to change the world, just a way to change your individual space in the world,” I am filling the last freezer bag, and I finish labeling half a dozen of the quart bags with “Paul’s Sofrito 9/08”. Really. It was like that – my wonderful tasks of making sofrito and listening to a discussion of Persig’s Zen and motorcycles coincided exactly – end of program, I’m carrying the sofrito down the steps to the freezer.

Not, as you might think, an advertisement for Ziploc

Next, a small bowl of un-sauteed sofrito – very finely chopped salsa – and some chips accompany me back to my computer and I sink from mindfulness of sofrito into mindfulness of cheese – two ends, if I’m not mistaken, of the spectrum of food, each of the twain meeting here.
I hope to bring that same single-mindedness to the task of finding that old copy of Persig’s book and rereading it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

we have Hen of the Woods!!

This is a Hen-of-the-Woods mushroom, that grows under old and massive elms. I have never found one, but one or another of my mushroom buddies usually brings me one this time of year. They are delicious – crisp and full of that mysterious taste of umami. Meaty. Fungal.

I met this year’s mushroom buddy just as he crossed the green bridge to Tinmouth, and I had just come down the hill with Mo. I noticed an old truck slowing, and when I recognized him I quickly glanced into the back of his truck and onto the cluttered seat beside him. “I left you something beside your door,” he said, nervously keeping an eye on his rear-view mirror. I knew what he meant. He brushed aside my ecstatic thanks. Another car approached the other side of the bridge and he sped creakily away.

I will separate the petals of the mushroom and scrape out the critters – not too many in this kind of mushroom, usually – and rinse off the litter, then fry them up. Only some of them – they keep their shape and don’t loose a lot of volume in cooking.

Maybe I’ll scramble some eggs – mushrooms and eggs go well together.

Then I’ll put the picked-over leavings in a jar and cover them with extra-proof vodka and let them macerate, and then I will have a tincture or a winter aperitif.
Asians prize Maitake – Grifola Frondosa – for its immune-enhancing and cancer-preventing properties, also for its deliciosity.

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

for all Pratico purposes

In a few weeks, we’ll have apples and winter squash littering our kitchens in bountiful and pleasant ways. But if the latter two descriptives are true, then the word ‘littering’ is not quite correct. Change that to ‘gracing’. But whatever. Today, what litters and at once graces our porches and kitchens is tomatoes. And really, it’s only the lucky ones of us – the ones whose gardens didn’t go into an extended sulk at the unprecedented amount of rain they were required to soak up – who have a litter of tomatoes to at once glory in and feel responsible to do something with.

...The Pratico tomato...
There are, as usual, exceptions to that rule, and I am one. My garden DID sulk, but I was the grateful recipient of a basket of Pratico tomatoes, which I talked about last year in an article called “Sex in the Garden” which dealt with, among other things, the Menduni and Pratico tomatoes.

If you’ll remember, the Pratico came from seeds given to Stephen Chamberlain of Dutchess Farm in Castleton by an elderly person at the Farmers’ Market one summer day, in the hopes that Steve would propagate an old family favorite. S/he said he’d developed them, part beefsteak, part paste tomato. Luckily, Steve did propagate them, thereby saving an incredibly ugly but luscious tomato. It’s a fat, long tomato tapering to a pointed blossom end. It has very little core, the shoulders are as tender and meaty as the rest of it, it has few seeds and jel, and lots of flavorful flesh.
After that article was published Ray Pratico, Jr. called me and offered this conjecture.
He thinks it was his great-uncle, Pasquale (Patsy) Pratico who developed – hybridized – the Pratico tomato. Patsy was the brother of Ray’s grandfather, Anthony Pratico, who started Pratico’s Barber Shop on Strongs Avenue next to Gill’s Delicatessen.
The brothers came from Reggio in Calabria, Italy, Patsy in 1918 and Tony in 1920.
Back in 1918, Pasquale escaped a horrendous depression in Italy and worked hard so that he could send back $35 for his brother’s passage. The depression taught him well. Ray remembers fishing with his Uncle Patsy on Lake Champlain, and when they caught an eel Patsy would bring it home to eat. “Fish that you and I would never consider eating, he would consider a delicacy.” He was a champion skeet shooter – learning when he was in Italy by being charged with taking a shotgun and shooting robins for the family’s dinner, “and he wasn’t to waste a shell by shooting only one robin, he had to shoot six at a time.” We imagined that they’d taste pretty good with a little tomato sauce.
Ray says that Uncle Patsy had a beautiful garden in his back yard at the south corner of Union and Forest in Rutland where he grew, not so much broccoli or cucumbers, but peppers “as big as my head,” and tomatoes – presumably developing, along the way, our precious Pratico – onions, garlic and eggplants, all the ingredients for a great sauce and parmesans. “And you did not want to be caught playing out in that back yard.” I did some exploring, and if what I found was Pasquale’s backyard and it is the same size it was then, I have to say it is truly tiny. But apparently Patsy planted every nook and cranny of it.
Anthony Pratico died in 1999, close to a hundred years old. Pasquale died in 1990.
Do they still have seeds for the Pratico tomato? Still grow it? Ray is uncertain, but he says, “Everyone buys Ragu, it’s cheap and it’s easy.”
I think I know where you could get some seeds, Ray, and continue carrying on a tradition.
...and grandmother menduni...
The Menduni had been saved from extinction by Claire Clarino, whose grandmother Menduni had brought seeds from her town in Italy called Chella, and had grown them until she died, when Claire took them over. “Claire saves seeds each year and grows them in her mother’s garden in Rutland, her ex-husband grows them in Key West where they climb to six feet or more, and a market gardener in Grand Isle grows large crops of them for sale,” I wrote then. They are a large, meaty plum shaped tomato, with excellent taste. Apparently they take a little longer to ripen, for I have not yet got my first taste of them this year.
...spreading the seed...
I saved seeds from the Menduni and the Pratico, and gave some to Paul Horton at Foggy Meadow Farm in Benson – he who was the giver, this year, of the basket of Praticos – and my friend Dana Squire in Virginia – she with a climate which allows her to plant the seeds directly into her – prolific – garden! – and Marilyn Burnham, gardener and cook extraordinaire, in South Wallingford.
Marilyn had no luck with them. They were fine until she put them into her rainy garden, and then they just stood right up and died. Dana, on the other hand, emailed me photos of her “thrilling” crop, saying, “I processed some last night – I don't usually grow plums – and what bliss to not have squirts going off in every direction. Delicious flavor. They will be featured all next month. They are huge – like 6" long!”
Paul Horton had good luck with germination, and planted about 20 plants, from which he and his partner, Sally Beckwith have “probably put up 40 pounds, and maybe we’ll get another 30 pounds.” They will not be widely available at the Foggy Mountain Farm stand at the Farmers’ Market this year, but he hopes for a larger crop next year.
In a couple of serendipitous asides, a friend gave Paul some tomato plants this spring that hailed from Providence, Rhode Island. By the time he got them they were rather sickly looking plants that he’s nursed along until they are producing some fruit that is now almost ready to taste. They are, he thinks, both a red and yellow Sergi Sicilian tomato, the red called Doro Rossi Lunghi, and the yellow P. Lunghi Gialli, and they are in appearance remarkably like the Pratico. Googling does nothing on this subject, but we wonder if they could possibly be from the same town in Italy, Reggio, each brought by different émigrés, a supposition that might hold a little more water if we did not already think that Pasquale Pratico ‘developed’ his tomato from beefsteak and plum tomatoes.
At the same time, a neighbor brought Paul some Jimmy Nardello pepper seeds, a multi-dimensionally sweet and intensely flavored banana-shaped pepper. They came originally from Seeds of Change, a company that was founded to save heirloom seeds that were in danger of dying out.
“This to me is really fascinating,” Paul told me, “because I think it’s really important that we have crops that we can save and share the seeds of, to reproduce these older varieties, because they’re reliable, and delicious, and because we need our own source of seeds without relying on seed companies.” Seeds of ordinary plants, like green beans, for instance, are getting much more expensive and even hard to get, other farmers have told me. Paul elaborated on that thought by saying, “More and more seed companies are being bought by big companies and the seed being hybridized and sold back to farmers.” It’s not good, we agree, when the seeds for our foods are all owned by industry!
That was the thought of Tom Stearns, the founder of High Mowing Seeds in Hardwick. In an article in the 9/03 Seven Days entitled Hungry Hardwick, Suzanne Podhaizer writes, “In 1995, [Stearns] began saving the seeds from his garden. ‘I was interested in having as self-sufficient a home garden as I possibly could,’ he recalls. After moving to Vermont, he realized he had more seeds than he could use, so he put together a miniature catalogue. In 2000, Stearns quit his day job to focus on his seeds full-time, and in 2005, decided to take the business national; with the economy in a slump and more people aiming to grow their own food, the move is paying off. ‘There’s a lot of people gardening who weren’t before,’ Stearns suggests.”
A little aside here – if you don’t follow Suzanne in either the online http://www.7dvt.com/ or the free hard copy of Seven Days, you should! She’s an indefatigable food sleuth, and what she doesn’t write about food from Middlebury to Montreal probably doesn’t merit writing about.

...saving tomato seeds...

Saving seeds, though, is a laborious process, especially if you want to save enough to take the product to market. So far, Sally and Paul are keeping most of the Praticos (the Mendunis aren’t quite ready yet) for their own use. Steve and Julia Chamberlain, too, keep most of their Praticos, though a few show up at the market. “Aren’t they the best tomatoes!” exclaims Julia, adding that it’s lucky for her that the tomatoes aren’t the gorgeous things that buyers expect. Steve adds that they’re poor yielding, too, and he can’t afford the time to train people to buy them for the taste. He mentions, though, that a Pratico relative from the Midwest, after reading the Sex in the Garden article, emailed Steve for some seeds.
Saving tomato seeds is a process of fermentation. Since Pratico tomatoes have very few seeds and little gel, lots of meat, you’ll have to do some digging. Slice the tomato in half lengthwise, maybe even into quarters. With a spoon, scrape the jel and seeds into a small bowl. Add a couple of tablespoons of water to the seeds. Cover the bowl with a piece of plastic wrap and then poke a small hole in it to allow for transpiration. Place it in a warm spot for two or three days, removing the plastic wrap each day to stir the mixture, then replace the plastic. There will be a layer of scum on top of the liquid when the fermentation process has separated the jel from the seeds, and destroyed many of the possible tomato diseases that might be harbored there. When this happens, pour the seeds into a fine kitchen sieve and rinse with water several times. Drain well and place on a piece of parchment or waxed paper and spread them into a single layer. Let them dry for maybe a week, stirring often. When they’re dry they do not stick to each other. To store them, wrap them envelope-style in parchment paper and label them with the name and the date.
...mfk symposium...
Lots of readers here seem to like MFK Fisher’s writing, and since this year she would have been 100 years old, the New School in NYC is hosting an MFK symposium on Sept. 22. It’s free for all students, only $8 for others, as I read it. Thought some of you MFK diehards would grab the chance. More details: A panel of distinguished guests celebrate the life of Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, master food writer, and discusses her relationships with other American food celebrities, including Julia Child, James Beard, and Alice Waters. Panelists include Amanda Hesser, food writer for the New York Time; Judith Jones, editor and author; Joan Reardon, author; and Kennedy Golden, Fisher’s daughter. Andrew F. Smith, editor of the Oxford Companion to American Food and Drink, moderates. This event is offered in conjunction with a short course, MFK Fisher: Poet of the Appetites, beginning September 15; please visit www.newschool.edu/food studies for more information. Tickets: 212 229-5488 or boxoffice@newschool.edu

...didn’t i already mention marilyn...
My friend and neighbor Marilyn Burnham will be the next guest chef on What’s Cookin’ Rutland at Peg TV on Monday, 9/15. Marilyn is the superintendent of the Vermont State Fair’s culinary competitions, among other things, and she will introduce this year’s apple pie winner, Barbara Taraska, of Wallingford and points south, chat with host, Whitney Lamy, about the pleasures and tribulations of baking for, organizing, and judging the fair’s food contests, and show us how she makes her own apple pie. Studio guests will taste apple pies from Marilyn, Barbara, and Whitney.
What’s Cookin’ Rutland is taped from 6:00 – 6:30 PM, doors open at 5:30, and members of the audience must be seated by 5:45. You may bring your own beverages, if you like, a $10 donation is suggested, and for reservations call the Chaffee Art Center at 775-0356.
...hungry bikers wanted...
Got this note from Shelby Hammond of Rural Vermont about the TOUR DE FARMS event that Rural Vermont is hosting with the Addison County localvores and VT Bike-Ped Coalition. Choose a 10, 25, or 30 mile bike tour with stops through Shoreham at various farms and orchards to sample farm fresh goods. It's on Sunday the 21st at 10:30 a.m. meeting in Shoreham. It’s $15 per adult and $8 for 15-and-unders, and you pre-register by calling (802)223-7222 or email Shelby@ruralvermont.org.
I’ve just done some investigation into Shoreham’s vital farm scene, and hmmm, wonder if my old bike still works...
The article “sex in the garden” can be found at http://thriceshy.blogspot.com/2008/03/sex-in-garden.html
This post was published As Twice Bitten Column in the Rutland Herald here.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

...oh me, oh my...

We're just gliding in here, me ready to stop us, Leo backpeddling to slow.
Photo by Lowell Snowdon Klock

I do offer my best apologies about the appearance of the entry below (as of Tuesday the 9th, it will be above). Either blogspot or my computer is acting up, inserting lots of extraneous html and not allowing me to fix it all with my woefully inadequate html skills, though i was pleased pink that i managed to fix the worst of it. So your eye will jump from large typewriter script to teensy stuff. Hope you can read it. Best I can do now. It's been hours of a beautiful Sunday afternoon and I simply must leave it and go down to have a paddle.