Tuesday, October 06, 2009

That last summer sweetness

It's Fall, folks, Autumn, but without our big freeze yet, this is the time to take full advantage of all the fresh tastes you can.

Last Summer Sweetness
Some of the summer etables still available pending the big freeze. Eat 'em up!!

I had the most perfect tomato the other day. It was an enormous Brandywine, perfectly ripe, grown by the Tomato Lady at the Farmers’ Market. I made a BLT for Leo with Bear Mountain honey/oatmeal bread, bacon from the pork people in Clarendon – J&S Davis – and iceberg lettuce grown by Paul Horton at Foggy Meadow Farm in Benson.

For me I made a BLT salad, because I’m not eating bread right now, nor potatoes, rice, nor pasta. No starchy things, in other words, nothing that can easily turn to sugar, and NO sugar. It was so good, that luscious tomato all juicy and sweet, and the crunchy, icy, substantial lettuce, and the salty crisp baconness, all dolloped and dotted with mayo. I ate and ate and ate.

“Iceberg lettuce!” you exclaim. “But how outrĂ©!”

Well. Maybe. But possibly trend-setting, I’d like to suggest!

I was re-minded of my predilection for the crisp-tender sweetness of that round balled lettuce – with leaves so substantial you can wrap a slice of ham with a slather of mayo in them and forego the bread while you munch – last late-spring when I sat on the deck leafing through the May issue of Saveur Magazine. Yes, there was a photo of Her Majesty The Ice Queen, as they called it, looking luscious with blue cheese, radishes and scallions.

Iceberg was the only lettuce to be had when I was growing up. Those big pale green balls would come home from the grocery store every week, the stem would be thumped on the counter to remove it, and it would be stored in a – get this – Tupperware container made especially for it! We ate it every night, usually with bottled red stuff called French Dressing. It was sweet. We liked it. Candied lettuce! Often, though, budding little gourmet that I was, I would top a crisp cold leaf of it with half a canned peach and a dollop of Hellman’s – not mayo, but – was it called “Salad Dressing”? It looked like mayo but it was sweeter. I think it’s still around. If company was coming, a plump red maraschino cherry would sit atop the whole elegant thing... “Just like downtown,” my mom would say.

Suddenly, sitting there in the backyard in that long beginning twilight that is early summer, I yearned for iceberg lettuce, but I would have to go to the grocery store to get some, and it would have been grown in California or even China, and I didn’t want it that bad. The Farmers’ Market overflows with gorgeous, splendiferous greens, and that’s what I buy.

But. That next Saturday I couldn’t help but ask Paul whether or not he’d ever thought of growing iceberg lettuce. He’s very open to growing new things, even asks for suggestions, and I never hesitate to oblige. “Hmm,” he said with interest, “I haven’t. But it’s not a bad idea. I’ll order some seed.”

We’ve had lots to think about over the summer, but the other Saturday I revisited the subject: “I did grow some,” Paul told me, “But the heads didn’t form up very well – maybe it was that last heat we had, or maybe all the rain early on – but it tastes good and it’s been going into the salad mix.” So I bought some of the salad mix and enjoyed it that way.

The next week, though, “Oh, I’ve got something for you,” Paul said, and handed me a ... real... head of iceberg!

Last Summer Sweetness
Tomato Lady's Brandywine Tomato and Paul Horton's Iceberg Lettuce

Now I can’t tell you how much pleasure that head of lettuce has given me. I know that sounds pathetic, but I live a simple life, with simple tastes and ... well, nevermind! But, it was perhaps at least partly responsible for my eating low-carb for a few weeks here, as I could see how I could do without some of those starchy enclosures, how a leaf of this crisp stuff could cup a tuna or egg salad or support that BLT salad I began with, tastily, crisply, and absolutely healthily. I feel better already.

As I spoke to some other farmers, including Greg Cox of Boardman Hill, and read up about the history of the lettuce, I found few facts but much conjecture. Greg told me that iceberg was the original desert lettuce, bred to survive the trip across the country from Sonoma County where it was grown, which is probably why it didn’t thrive in our cold, rainy summer. I read that it traveled heaped with ice chips, from whence comes its name, and that it was the picking of this lettuce that led, in the 70s, to Caesar Chavez calling for a boycott to protest the working conditions of California lettuce pickers.

The main point to me, though, and what makes me feel less than proud of my hunger for iceberg, is that it was bred for long-distance travel, and I have simply given up on long-distance foods. I said to Paul, I don’t know why I’m writing about iceberg lettuce when I have just finished the only head of it that anyone’s likely to see...” He had a thoughtful look in his eye. “Maybe I’ll try it again, make it the first seed planted, maybe in March next spring.”

So that’s okay – as a long-time local-eater (before localvore was coined) I know that I can’t have everything I want exactly when I want it. I can wait. In the meantime there are other crisphead lettuces. A silky butterleaf is as encompassing if not as crisp, and we’ll have lovely spinach all through the winter, most likely.

And, truth to tell, this diminuendo of eating mainstream carbs has paid its benefits – I no longer have an insatiable urge to eat more and more; to, in the midst of a meal, be planning the NEXT meal! Because that’s what sugar does to you, you know, it makes you want MOWAH, as Oliver so plaintively pled in the midst of his pallid porridge.

So now it’s time to allow in starchier veggies, such as beans and lentils. They’ll taste sweet enough, because when you cut out the blatant sugars in your food the subtle sweetnesses that remain step up to the plate. How to get your sugar fix? Go without carbs for awhile and a bowl of split pea soup will taste like ambrosia. A very thin slice of Bear Mountain Honey Oatmeal sourdough bread will be orgasmic! Slathered, I don’t have to tell you, with butter.

So forget about iceberg lettuce for now, wait for spring and see what Paul’s efforts bring, and truly enjoy those wonderful tomatoes that are still vine-fresh as I write. Eggplants. Peppers. Go hog wild on those things while they last.
Corn on the cob is getting scarce, but when you can find it it’s starchy and sweet, maybe a little tough for some of you dainty cob-gnawers out there, but it’s great scraped off the cob (maybe with a round cookie-cutter?), perhaps scored with a knife, first, so as to get its milkiness in with the kernels, then baked with lots of butter in a hot oven for half an hour, 45 minutes. Caramelized, you’ll think you’ve died and gone to corn heaven.

My latest favorite rendition of this is from Michael Ruhlman’s blog – his wife is a photographer and the photo made me want to fly down to Manchester to get myself a corn scraper just like Michael’s. If you have one you don’t have to use a cookie cutter or a knife:

Baked Buttered Corn
adapted from Michael Ruhlman
These are the ingredients for four servings:
- 8 ears of corn
- 4 tablespoons butter, cut in 4 pieces
- salt and pepper to taste

Scrape 6 ears of corn using a corn cutter, [but we’ve talked about this, right?] so the kernels are opened and all their sweet starchy juices fall into a bowl (you can also slice the kernels with a knife and scrape the ears that way or you could probably use a box grate. Cut the corn from the remaining two ears into the same bowl. Season well with salt and pepper. Pour the corn into a baking dish (choose a dish or individual ramekins that will give you a depth of a couple inches). Push the butter into the corn and bake uncovered at 425 for 30-40 minutes.

Last Summer Sweetness
The more common scene: Sarah Seward's Farm Stand, East Wallingford. Gorgeous Fall.

1 comment:

sharon parquette nimtz said...

I really have no idea why this post did not get any comments. I could not have improved on it. I was entranced. Thank you so much!