Yes, I know it’s Friday, the 17th of October as I write this, but Nasturtiums still frolic on while their ancient – gaunt, pale, and sinewy – protector, Hosta, melts back into the earth. Tonight, possibly, they will join him when a sudden jolt of cold wilts them in the active old age of life. And by that they might teach us a lesson: live till you die. Have fun doing it. Give pleasure to others. And, if its in your nature, taste good.
Nasturtiums don’t seem to mind giving up a few of their pretty round leaves to round out a salad, and their piquant, peppery taste adds dimensions to one. As do their flowers, which in texture are a combination of velvet and crunch, with the same peppery taste. Their unripe seedpods have been compared to capers, and I have pickled and bottled them as such, or just eaten them out of hand. Several times this summer past I’ve lined vine and leaf, flower and seedpod between fried green tomatoes or eggplant on the oval black cast-iron griddle to serve as appetizers with cocktails, and perhaps this evening I’ll do that one last time before their night falls.
Dear little things! I thank you – two or three starts – for completely taking over one new flower bed this summer, tumultuously traveling, leafing and flowering, setting off and encouraging two new hosta divisions and Leo’s grandmother’s repotted hibiscus, all superintended by the wooden giraffe pretending to munch the leaves of the taller plants. Perhaps he encouraged you. I wondered if you wouldn’t reclaim the whole garden. But so long for now – knowing you, you’ve probably reseeded yourselves and I’ll see you next spring!...no doldrums here...
Appreciating the nasturtiums may not be quite the same as smelling the roses, but it takes a welcome moment to do so, thereby escaping the chaos in this season’s kitchen to revel, briefly, in them.
Okay, so here’s what’s going on: yesterday, the 16th, a Thursday, I start thinking seriously about my next column. But I’m totally engrossed in making clotted cream because I’m reading Milk, the new book by Anne Mendelson which is subtitled The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages with 120 Adventurous Recipes that Explore the Riches of Our First Food. (I used an Amazon link there, but please order it through your local bookseller.)
Now this is a wonderful book, a very timely book, so timely, in fact, that I had done some beginning research with the idea of writing it myself. If I had written it, it would have been well-researched, historical, knowledgeable, insightful, elegant, personal, with a few well-placed recipes and techniques and lots of pictures of farmers and barns and cows in fields.
It would have taken me ten years, and then it wouldn’t be timely anymore.
So I am now breathing a sigh of relief and appreciation, for Anne has done a tremendous job of research, and she has written elegantly and personally and knowledgeably, and insightfully of that marvelous substance. As for the brouhaha over unpasteurized vs pasteurized milk – she side-steps it, instead calling for non-ultra-pasteurized milk and cream, but especially unhomogenized milk, cream, and cheese. I applaud her magnificent effort, while regretting the fact that there are no pictures, which was probably the publisher’s decision, not hers.
But why was I making clotted cream?
Wouldn’t you if you had a recipe and four or five hours that you could let half a gallon of rich milk heat on the stove and end up with a cup or so of the unctuously delicious cream you’ve read about for so many years and hardly tasted?
Yes, of course you would – that is, you would if you hadn’t yet remembered that you needed to make spanakopita-for-thirty for the Friends of the Library dinner Saturday night, and that you were going to be out of town all day Saturday for the first meeting of the Vermont Chapter of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association, and that, by the way, you needed to make something to offer for that day’s lunch. And, oh yes, the column.
Not to mention that fat chicken sitting in the fridge waiting to be poached, or the bread dough rising at that moment because you’d made the most luscious yogurt the day before and had strained it overnight and had sweet and tart whey that needed to be used.
And the column?
You open the refrigerator and there are three grilled-whole eggplants that you need to do something with.
That’s the position I found myself in on Thursday. Looking at those eggplants, though, I thought – I’ve just made yogurt, using as a starter the expensive and delicious Greek strained yogurt which is sold at the Co-op under the name of Fage Total, and I have never made yogurt so creamy it tastes almost like the best crème fraiche. The roasted innards of the eggplant combined with some of my yogurt, along with some hot
pepper and garlic, cilantro – hmmm, that sounded good! It would be awfully synergistic, or perhaps incestuous, slathered on that whole grain bread I needed to bake off soon that was made from the whey of the yogurt that will be mixed with the eggplant.
I hardly knew where to start.
I sat down at my computer, but the desk was littered with Mexican cookbooks – one by Rick and Deann Bayless, another by Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz, and several by the doyenne of Mexican food writing, Dame Diana Kennedy. What were they doing there? Well, I’ll tell you what they were doing there – I’d found a very neat little Tuesday night Mexican bistro and had realized that I didn’t really know much about how the food was made. Seemed everything started with a tortilla... or a poached chicken, so I was doing a little research.
My Tuesday night outings are not really to a bistro, though it seems it. Last Tuesday when I walked into the Co-op’s kitchen, Peter McGann was just frying tacos rolled around chicken and mushrooms and fastened with a toothpick, and Tomas was serving them to about a dozen of us with a side of piquant tomatillo sauce spiked with Serrano peppers, onion, and cilantro.
It was the second installment of Peter’s Mexican cooking class being held on each of this October’s Tuesdays. The tacos would be followed by Arroz Verde – rice with poblano chiles, onion, garlic, all cooked in chicken stock (from that poached chicken that was pulled apart for the tacos). A lovely Sopa De Elote followed that – made from pureed corn and milk, and garnished with roasted and skinned poblano peppers cut into a brunoise, or tiny squares. What a perfect combination! As was the final dish we prepared – Peter doing most of it – that of Tostadas de Tinga Poblano, or shredded savory pork mounded on fried tortillas. Tinga translates as “vulgar” or “disorder” notes the author, but it was a delicious disorder!
By that time, most of the class was involved in pureeing the corn or putting it through the food mill, roasting peppers and rubbing the skins off (works better if you wear those disposable plastic gloves), chopping onions, cleaning up here and there, with lively conversation and questions of Peter and his thoughtful replies. What delicious fun! This series is sold out, but I’m sure he’ll do it again – first come, first served, and this time we didn’t even advertise. Perhaps he’ll start a list of names and telephone numbers of people who want to make sure they get in on the next series of classes. Let him know.
It strikes me, sitting in front of the computer, thinking back on the class, that I will have some really nice cooked milk after I ladle off the clotted cream tomorrow morning, and corn in the freezer. And that’s when I decide the canoers will be tasting Sopa de Elote on Saturday.
But then I realize – this is Thursday, and I’m sitting at my computer looking at the Mexican cookbooks – that I don’t even have the recipe for spanakopita and no doubt I’ll have to shop for it, and that’s the way the rest of that day is spent – shopping for specific ingredients, which is something I seldom do, poaching the chicken, and baking the bread – which turned out fantastic, by the way, with a crisp, crinkly crust and whole-grain goodness, and no kneading!
Today, late afternoon, I’ve made the corn soup – using my cone-shaped chinois instead of a food mill: much easier – and everything’s ready to make the spanakopita. I’ve even written a bit of my column.
Whoops! Forgot about supper. I believe that spanakopita is going to serve only 28 tomorrow after I snitch a couple of squares for Leo and me tonight.
Later I’ll roast the poblanos and dice them, and I have some great Consider Bardwell feta that will make a nice additional garnish for the soup.
Oh, those lucky little nasturtiums frolicking out there with no inkling of the cold ax that is going to fall one of these nights. I, on the other hand, seem to have foreseen (my back hurts) what needed to happen and made it happen. For now.
...it all comes out in the wash...
Sunday afternoon I sit here finishing up the column.
The nasturtiums were frozen in place Saturday morning, caught still bright and beautiful, the frost on them glistening in the rising sun before they melted and turned to mush. The filo dough for the spanakopita was as arduously difficult to handle as I’d suspected, which is why I’d never made it before, but Friday night’s little supper of it was luscious, as was Saturday’s when we attended the dinner.
The canoers seemed to like the corn soup. I have two liters of solid chicken broth in the fridge alongside a quantity of shredded chicken to fold into tortillas tonight. The bread, as I said, was wonderful. And the clotted cream? Well... absolutely disgusting. Waxy. Vile. And when I stirred it to see if I couldn’t disperse some of the wax, it turned to waxy butter. It’s at the bottom of the bowl of chicken skin and sinews I’ve saved for the dog. He’ll love it.
But I shan’t give up. We’ll have delicious clotted cream yet!
Try the soup. It’s easy and extremely tasty.
Sopa de Elote (Fresh corn soup)
• 3 tablespoons chile poblano or canned, peeled green chilis, diced
• 4 cups corn (1 ½ pounds frozen corn or kernels from 5 ears)
• 1 cup water
• ¼ cup butter
• 3 ½ cups milk
• ½ teaspoon salt or to taste
• 6 tablespoons crumbled cream cheese or diced feta
• tortilla chips.
If using fresh chiles poblano, impale them on a long-handled fork and roast them over a gas flame until the skin is black and charred, then place them as each is blackened in a paper bag – the steam will help to lift the skin. Then rub all the skin off them, and I think that using those disposable plastic gloves really helps this process. Dice in a tiny dice, or chop them.
Put half the thawed corn into a blender with half the water and process until molten. Pour into a food mill (I like to use a chinois) and process the other half of corn and water. Press through the mill into a bowl. In a soup pan, melt the butter over medium heat then add the corn puree (what’s in the bowl, not in the mill) and let it cook while you stir it for about 5 minutes. Add the milk and the salt and bring it just to a boil, lower the flame and let it simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring from time to time so it doesn’t stick. It will thicken slightly.
To serve, put about ½ tablespoon diced chili and 1 tablespoon of the cheese into each bowl. Pour the hot soup over them and serve with tortilla chips.
This is a twice bitten column published in the Rutland Herald here.