Monday, January 26, 2009

Simple Food for Pacing Tigers

The White Tiger paces its bamboo cage – “He was hypnotizing himself by walking like this—that was the only way he could tolerate this cage.” Those words are by Aravind Adiga, in his novel about India, The White Tiger. Ah, I look up from the page – has there ever been a better description of cabin fever? Just when I am dangerously bored, my imagination forsakes me and all I can see are walls. Thank god for people like Adiga whose words act as a pry-lever to flip me into another reality, make me laugh, demand my commiseration for those worse off than I.

not a white tiger
Not a White Tiger charcoal by Isobel Gabel Nimtz (with permission)
So I get up and go make myself a smoothie. I have never made myself one of those things – don’t really approve of them – but I have blueberries that Greg Cox picked last summer and froze in his prototype processing barn up at Boardman Hill. Prototype for the processing plant he and RAFFL want to build as part of the food HUB in Rutland whenever they find the property.

That Food Hub will one day consist of a Commercial Kitchen to serve as an incubator for small businesses and also for RAFFL to process foods under their own label so that Rutland area consumers can find local canned and frozen foods all year round. There’ll be a Flash-Freeze Operation, a USDA certified Meat Processing center, Storage for ingredients and final products, Distribution Facilities, and a four-season Farmers’ Market. That’s Greg’s dream, and RAFFL’s, too, and, come to think of it, mine as well.

Now wouldn’t it be nice to see that dream take on flesh right in downtown Rutland, on Wales and Center, surrounding Center Street Alley. That way the Co-op (Rutland Area Food Co-op; Rutland Natural Food Market: The Co-op – whichever name you know them by, they’re all the same entity) and the Farmer’s Market could stay together in what has been an incredibly fulfilling partnership so far, stretching out into the alley in the summer, and withdrawing cozily inside in the winter. And all those empty spaces on Center Street could be filled with the other components of the HUB.

The important thing to know right now is that Greg has done more than talk about the Food Hub, and installed display freezers at his booth at the Winter Farmers Market and is selling berries, melon balls, vegetables and meats there. You know, of course, that the Farmers’ Market sets up Saturdays from 10 to 2, and is reached through the Co-op’s Wales Street entrance.

About that Smoothie, er, ah, let’s just call it a shake. I spooned out probably about half a cup of Fage Total – that thick, creamy, Greek strained yogurt – into a glass, added Greg’s frozen blueberries, a spoonful of blueberry jam that my friend Ruth Ann made last summer, and some creamy whole unpasteurized milk that John Pollard gets from his little Jerseys up in Shrewsbury. Jumbled that up with an immersion blender, and didn’t so much drink it as spoon it out of the glass. MMMmm, delicious. I scraped it up.

Mark Bittman calls this a Sorbet in his blog BITTEN (think he stole the name from me??), combining 2 cups frozen fruit in a food processor, with 1/3 cup sugar, ½ cup yogurt and about 2 tablespoons of water. Process for just the right amount of time or, he says, “you’ll have a smoothie, instead.” Spoon into desert goblets and serve right away. Those are the proportions for, probably, 4 or 5 people – make as little or as much as you like. It should be eaten immediately, perhaps with a crispy shortbread if it’s a company dinner.

Well, that was simple enough, but so is this following – one of those slow-cooked winter dishes that permeates the house with tantalizing odors.

I talked about a book called France, A Culinary Journey, a few weeks ago. This recipe for Caqhuse (I do not know where the term came from, but isn’t it an interesting word) is one I didn’t mention then, but it makes an absolutely lovely dish and it’s as simple as they come – all it takes is oven time. And though I haven’t tried it, it could probably be made in a slow cooker. It’s simply a pork roast slowly cooked with a LOT of sliced onions, which melt down into a savory compote whose deliciosity is impossible to describe. It’s supposed to be served cold, and it IS good cold, but for that first supper I serve it hot, and in days following it’s eaten cold, usually with a good amount of that onion compote spread on good bread and covered with slices of cold pork.

The recipe itself calls for “fresh ham”, which, of course, means unsmoked, a slice cut from the thick end of a leg of pork, but I’m going to make it with country – meaty – spare ribs tonight.

• 5 tablespoons butter
• 2 ½ pounds pork (or more), preferably bone-in
• 2 pounds onions, thickly sliced (or more)
• Salt and freshly ground pepper
• ¼ cup red wine or cider vinegar (I used the vinegar, here)
• ¾ cup water
• 2/3 cup white wine (I’ll use red wine, sorry)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Melt a lump of the butter in a large baking dish, place the pork in the center and surround it with onions. Dot with the remaining butter, season generously with salt and pepper and bake for about 1 hour, or until the pork and onions have begun to brown. Baste from time to time (I don’t).

Turn the pork over, add vinegar, water, and wine, and continue baking for another hour. Test to see if the pork is done by piercing the meat – if the juices run clear, it is done.

Remove from the oven and serve warm.

I think you will be astounded at the synergy of these two ingredients!

All right, so those are a couple of satisfying things to do in the kitchen that will interrupt your pacing for a bit, and sooth your cabin fever.
Here’s another – get out of the house and have a little lunch at the Co-op.
Yes, finally, after finishing the new kitchen oh, about a year ago now, the Co-op is utilizing it for more than a prep area for the store.

First of all, there’s a little series of cooking classes/demonstrations happening one Saturday a month during Farmers’ Market. There was a steamed vegetable soup there in November, a vegetarian chili in December, January’s offering was roasted root vegetables – all very good, and all given out at the end in small portions to vendors and customers. Coming up on February 14 is Vermont Breakfast Specials (French Toast & others), March 14 will be 3 Sisters and a Brother, corn, squash, beans and rice. And April 18 finishes this series off with Feeling your Oats (and Grains). You’re welcome to join the cooks say around 10 or 11 a.m., watch the whole process, and learn what you can!

As well, the Co-op has been making and selling lunch soups now on several days of the week. Highlights have been last week’s Yellow Split Pea soup. Clam chowder was a hit, as was the Salmon Miso Soup, and a Curried Coconut and Roasted Squash. Mike Muller, the Co-op’s General Manager, raved about the “Great Cabbage Soup,” from last week.

For now the soup – very affordable, by the way – is accompanied only by Westminster oyster crackers, but Mike told me that as he gets a handle on the operation there will be some good bread and/or rolls with it, and some experimenting with non-soup offerings such as oh, casseroles, chili, and Beans and Rice kinds of things, and then, perhaps, eventually, salads and sandwiches.

“We’re taking it slow, seeing what works,” Mike says.

It’s quite enjoyable to ladle out a cup of soup for yourself and head up to the tables by the windows. Maybe pour yourself a cup of tea or coffee. There’s always an interesting character sitting there already, or standing behind the cash register, to relieve your tigerish pacing!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Four Four Sixty-Eight – One Twenty Oh Nine

I’ve worn a One Twenty Oh Nine lapel pin and shown the sentiment off on my bumper for several years now, and when I began the practice it seemed an unimaginably long time to that date. The bumper sticker grew incredibly tattered and eventually was scraped off completely.

Now the date is here, and it is more than it was – not only are we rid of a bullying and punishing president and age, but we also gain our first black and white president. That was something totally beyond my imagination when I bought that first One Twenty Oh Nine sticker. And I had certainly not thought of the fact that One Twenty Oh Nine turns out to be close enough to Martin Luther King’s birthday to be a defacto celebration of it – the day he was born, not the day he died which was Four Four Sixty-Eight, or April 4th, 1968, a day I remember well.

Forty-one years ago I was working in Norfolk, Virginia, in a small tavern at 3313 Colley Avenue. It backed up on the black neighborhood, and the black cooks and dishwashers slapped through the back screen door and were not allowed beyond the kitchen into the Tiffany-shaded, rustic, dining room and bar.

This banishment was fractured in the case of some screaming tantrums between the white, red-mustachioed owner and the bearded, African-American cook who took his paycheck and was often not seen for a couple of days. He’d gotten paid, the owner was a jerk, and he was not coming back until he had to. When he had to, the resulting confrontation was well-attended by the young, comparatively well-off professional clientele.

I was young and pale skinned, a yank out of my element, according to black people in the kitchen. At the time they were not called Black. They were called by most of the Whites the N word. I can’t remember how I differentiated them. It must have been Negro or even Colored, or perhaps I just called them by name. All I remember is being ostracized by them. When I pushed through the divided door into the kitchen they paused their talk, called me Yank, called me White Girl, told me to go back home, and in the midst of wisdom-tooth trouble gave me pain pills that sat me down and glued me happily to my seat. I’ve been looking for those pills ever since. They were rude to me, and caring, and impatient. “Go back home, White Girl, you don’t know nothing about what’s going on here.”

I grew to see the southern situation as a mountain of black people, sighing, and a sea of white people washing against them, plaintive, demanding.

Dismissed by them I played with the white folks out front, yet never grew tired of checking them out in the kitchen. Two black men sat at the scrubbed wooden table in the middle of the kitchen, peeling potatoes and tossing them into buckets of cold water beneath the table. They were discussing whether the earth went around the sun or the sun went around the earth. The sun poured in upon them in those horizontal streaks. I nearly fainted from the beauty of it.

One night I went home late, to the omnipresent white-folks party, and somehow heard that Martin Luther King had been shot. I scarcely paid attention. Dr. King was a minister, of whose ilk I had become distrustful, and he was the object of network news, which made him suspect. It was only when I walked into the kitchen the next day and found tall Janny twisting iceberg lettuces in half with her bare hands, naked tears scalding down her cheeks and upon the wilting lettuces, that I understood, suddenly, what had happened. White lawyers consumed Black tears in their salads that day.

The riots began, and eventually I did take their advice and went home again. That summer Bobby Kennedy was killed the very day I took my little brother to the airport on his first leg to Viet Nam.

One of my forever banes when I was an angry young person is what I called Black Suits, and, recollecting, have begun to call them again. Those were white men – and now women – who wore suits for a living and invariably also big black shoes (now, often, stilettos), and made punishing decisions about money, religion, and what grade, job, or seat on the bus we must settle for. They decided who would get that car loan or mortgage, and how much through-the-nose we would have to pay for it until its shoddy workmanship fell apart. They also decided which eighteen-year-old boy would be ripped from everything familiar, thrust into a uniform, given a gun, and sent off to fight their wars. It goes on, you never win, it is cyclical – or not – forward one step, back two. Keep pushing that big old rock up the mountain. Pay attention, stay in your own lane, let that cellphone ring until you can pull over. And enjoy every little thing you can.
Quite a balancing act.

There have been many years without hope. We have Obama now, but it took the demolishment of our government, our entire country, and our psyches to get him. And he comes with baggage, and ignorance too. He seemed to pay attention to food, at least had an aide brief him on Michael Pollan’s Letter to the Next President, but now he’s chosen Vilsack as Secretary of Agriculture. It seems that the misnamed “Green Revolution” of genetically altered seeds, subsidies, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, Fencerow-to-Fencerow planting, and the abusive use of hormones, antibiotics, chemical fertilizers and pesticides will continue to be seen as the lesser evil needed in order to feed the world.

But Obama has a great deal on his plate right now, and I’m sure it has not occurred to him that a real green revolution of local eating and sustainable growing can succeed in feeding the world, and feeding it healthily – the people and animals as well as the environment and the economy. When it does, when he has time, we need to be there with suggestions and answers and urgings.

So let’s keep on pushing that big old boulder up the mountain, pay attention, take joy in our own efforts, and Welcome Obama! As one reader put it, "This nation's long celebration of ignorance is morphing into something better."

We can only hope.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Through a Glass Darkly – Relatives and Holidays


Chicago people used to say to me, when they vacationed on our side of the lake in southwestern Michigan and stopped to buy eggs or dressed chickens from Grandma, “Little Girl, I hope you know how lucky you are to live in such a beautiful place!” I had no idea what they meant, my thumb in my mouth, stretching back to the security of Grandma’s hip, one leg forward to circle a shy big toe in the dust. Their words were meaningless to me, in the way that chickens were mysteriously called “dressed” once they had reached the state of death and undress.

Later I heard their words resentfully – I imagined those Chicagoans all lived in beautiful apartments across the lake, their daughters all slept in pink-canopied beds, and everyone attended smart cultural events every day. THEY didn’t have to risk chicken poop and mulberry juice between their bare toes every time they walked out the door, nor have to laze down the lane to get the cows.

Of course, living in the Hog Butcher for the World was quite a different experience from that my imagination conjured, but anywhere was better to my mind than southwestern Michigan. You can’t keep ‘em down on the farm after they’ve seen the Field Museum, Berghoff’s Restaurant, and Michigan Ave.

We’ve had company from Indiana, from the megalopolis formed from the three small cities of South Bend, Elkhart, and Mishawaka. When we think of this area we think of malls and strip-development, traffic, and fast food joints. I think of deadly trans fats, but that’s just me. But most of all we think of Leo’s younger brother Chris, who died suddenly of stroke just as the Iraq war was beginning in 2003, and we think of Chris’s widow, Ginnie, and their two children, Alex and Cate, who have pretty much grown up in the intervening years – Cate in her first year of college and Alex about to graduate. The three of them flew out for a visit these holidays and we had a blast!

They are plucky, these Southbendians, full of grit and gumption, getting up at the crack of a dismal freezing-rain Vermont dawn, Cate and Alex at least, to go bird counting with Leo, then all of them rounding up later with me at the Co-op and Winter Farmers’ Market. Where else!

Daughter Zoe was here on a nice long visit, and son Spence took quite an interest in these young cousins he barely knew. Over the course of four or five days we took walks and hikes, made shopping forays, played spontaneous charades, and ground down on an absolute mule of a puzzle! And both Alex and Zoe are musicians, so music was a constant. The one segment of their stay where they lacked fortitude was, you guessed it – food!

I have been known for my lectures to picky-eaters – no surprise, that – and some of them have turned around. Another dear nephew, Nate, from over Down-East way, now rhapsodizes about my split pea soup, even as he’s taking yet another wrapped thing out of his microwave, or frying up some industrial food.
But the split pea soup and fresh-from-the-oven bread with which we welcomed these sojourners after their day battling airlines and de-icing, and their packed trip back in a small car from the Albany airport, was met with stiff disbelief. It was as though I was trying to feed them arsenic, or plastic bags boiled up with a hambone. Perhaps in retaliation, we three – Spence wasn’t here that night – had several helpings apiece and stood up from the table with last hunks of bread dripping with olive oil. We were gluttonous.
But maybe our visitors were just tired and frayed from the long day.

The second night, after the bird counting and Farmers’ Market, we took them to Sal’s South. They were into pizza, and when I suggested the small gourmet pizzas, Nephew Alex ordered the Ricotta and Broccoli, I the white shrimp pizza, Leo his favorite dish of Fettucine Alfredo, and Ginnie and Cate a large sausage and pepperoni – pizza again. Alex’s stunned look at the first taste of the delicious ricotta and broccoli turned to pure relief when the large pizza arrived, and they all literally dove into it. It was a moment of spontaneous enthusiasm among the three of them.

The third night was the big dinner night. I’d gotten a big ham from a heritage Brunswick hog from Sunset Farm at the Farmers’ Market, potatoes and squash, too, nice greens... t’would be a big sit-down celebration, and it was – after the toast the ham was celebrated, the squash was tried in tiny spoonfuls, the potatoes were good with good old redbone gravy, and the beets were ignored. “How is it?” I asked in my sprightly, hoping-for-the-best manner. It was “good,” “all right,” and “fine,” from the guests. “Stupendous,” “tremendous,” “terrific,” and “Ummm Ummm Good,” from those I have spent years training.

I had to laugh, which Zoe thought was supremely big of me, considering my past attitude.

But, you have to know by now that we adore these people, and we’re empathetic. A suddenly widowed woman bringing up two children alone, man-o-man, we know how difficult THAT had to’ve been – grief-stricken, all three in shock, just juggling three schedules and going to work or school every day doesn’t leave much time for nor curiosity about food. And it made me realize that when you have grown up in a megalopolis like Southbendelkhartmishewaka, and you eat the foods that, I am finally forced to see, the majority of Americans eat, my Vermont life and habit of listing foods from the farmers that raised them may seem not merely quaint, but perhaps insane, indecipherable, really. And even, perhaps, just a tiny bit pretentious. Not that anyone was so rude as to point that out.

I wooed them with black bean tostadas smothered in Cabot cheddar, because Cate had told me she’d eat anything if it had enough cheese on it. Tiresomely, I asked her how it was. “Fine,” said Cate faintly. “Repeat after me,” I said, “with enthusiasm – It’s wonderful Aunt Sharon!!! – and don’t skimp on the enthusiasm – that’s the most important part.”

There was a chorus around the table of enthusiastic “It’s Wonderful”s.

They loved the fresh kielbasa we served with it, just as they marveled at how substantial Leo’s bacon was – not shriveled up to nothing like their grocery-store bacon.

As I said, it was a lovely visit, and though I don’t believe we got very close to imparting Wendell Barry’s prescient line that “Eating is an agricultural act,” perhaps something rubbed off and at the very least they might begin to notice once in awhile where their food is coming from. I hope so, because I worry about them – the danger inherent in industrial food is becoming more and more apparent, with widespread metabolic syndrome even in children – diabetes, depression, obesity, and heart disease. I want more for them.

At the same time, the whole incident has brought home to me the realization that I am preaching in these columns to the choir – you – people who take the time to cook food that they have taken the time to grow themselves and to collect from others who have grown it; who enjoy thinking about food, and reading about it, and, in general, take great pleasure in it, and know the importance of it.

I hate to sound stereotypically old, but things have changed, and in a dastardly manner. Those city people who visited Grandma to buy eggs and birds weren’t being poisoned by the food they ate from their corner store in the city. There were few trans fats, people still cooked, even in the city, and though they appreciated an egg whose yolk was plump and bright yellow and whose white clung tightly to the yolk, and a chicken that had been scratching around in the sunlight only a few scant hours earlier, and took advantage of them when they could, they were not yet in dire trouble, only on the verge of it. Few(er) people suffered from diabetes or heart disease, much less obesity or depression. Our food chain was on the point of being put in danger, but it hadn’t yet happened.

And for people not in the know, unlike us, Dear Reader, it seems absurd to say that food could be dangerous – even nowadays, even when you’ve been told that you have diabetes or heart disease, especially when so many people are hungry...

Now, since you, the choir, already have your own favorite version of Split Pea Soup, I’ll give you a recipe you might not have, but might like very much. It’s one I had long ago at the Governor’s Inn in Ludlow, from Deedy Marble, when she owned the inn. It is now a 3 star Bed and Breakfast, according to Jim Kubec, who owns it with his wife Cathy, and they no longer serve dinners to the public.

But this is the soup, which I used to take on cross-country skiing expeditions, and my addendums:

Deedy’s Red Wine Sipping Broth
This is the way I got it from Deedy

Have on hand equal parts of red and white wine. Take 1 apple, 1 carrot, 1 tomato, and put them in a food processor with 4 beef bouillon cubes, and 1 tsp. black pepper. Put that mixture into a stockpot with the wines. Boil for 35 minutes. Cool, and strain twice through several thicknesses of cheesecloth. Add 1 cup of V-8 juice. This may be stored for several days in a glass bottle in refrigerator.

Now, if you want to be anal about it:
Chop 1 apple, 1 carrot, and 1 tomato. Put them into a stockpot with 1 quart of good homemade beef stock, 1 teaspoon of black pepper, 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning or oregano, 1 bottle each of red and white wines, and 2 cups of canned tomatoes. Bring to a boil and keep at an actively bubbling simmer for about an hour. Cool and strain, and drink hot or cold.
I’ve never made it with chicken stock but I can’t see why it wouldn’t be wonderful.

...countin da boids...

Say, a little birdie told me that preliminary planning for Peter McGann’s next cooking lesson series at the Co-op is going on – to be held starting at 5 o’clock on the four February Wednesdays and the first Wednesday in March – five in all, as you can see, and they will each one explore a world cuisine. I believe the price is $25 per lesson, or $100 for all five. What a bargain. I said I thought that was bargain-basement prices, and Peter said “it’s a tough economic climate.” So be it. Stop in at the Co-op at 77 Wales, or call 773-0737.