Tuesday, May 04, 2010

warmer than in air

Saturday was that first day that, when you walk out the door, the air is warmer out than in. Not that the air conditioner is on in. Not that we have an air conditioner, at least not if you don’t call fireplaces and chimneys and cellars a natural form of air conditioner, which they are. If those builders in 1809 didn’t know how versatile they were making this house in terms of keeping it cool in summer and warm in winter then they were at least more intuitive than they would need to be now.

From blog warmer than in air
Leo came in as I went out and I mentioned in passing that I had no ideas for supper, and then I continued out to the deck and sat down in the chair that tests my ability anew each year to be able to get up out of it, and picked up my book. Pretty soon, though, it nearing 6pm, I felt a stirring – not of hunger, but of a need to cook.

Cooking gives me space and time to think, to combine, to surprise myself, to get the juices flowing. Cooking and music are a divine combo; add a glass of wine and you’ve got a pretty heady process going on.

In the kitchen was a vase of ramps – I had garlic and shallots, too, but you don’t need them with ramps, which you may know as wild leeks – and a handful of fiddleheads. There was a bit of spinach, too, and some coconut dal I’d made the other night. I had eggs, in more ways than one – which is always a good thing – and good multi-grain bread. Cheese. There was smoked polish sausage from On the Edge Farm, but did I need it? And what else?

Tarragon, basil, & lovage are luxuries of the season, that make me smile every time I cook and walk outside to pick some. Last Sunday I couldn’t resist chopping two stems of tarragon into the filling of a rhubarb pie. There were people who noticed, with questioning and, I think, with real pleasure. Herbs that we think of as savory do indeed go nicely in sweet pies. Rosemary in apple, for instance. Basil would be good except that even a touch of heat reduces its taste to nothing. I decided to make a simple frittata – an omelet of sorts – with ramps and fiddleheads, lovage and tarragon.

Do you know the best way to get those coppery husks off fiddleheads? It's this: Put them in cold water and bring them to the boil and then immediately (almost) tip them into a sieve. The husks have turned into coppery fibers unrelated in any complicated way with each other. Spray the green fiddleheads to take the husks to the bottom and lift the green things out. Dump the husks in the compost. No quicker way to stop up a sink than fiddlehead husks.
I tell you this from experience.

Now, my biggest quandary is – do I use the little hydroponic tomato or stick to the wild, just-grown things? My instinct says no, but my palate says yes.

Instinct is a good thing to follow, especially in spring. A week or so ago I began to think about shad roe. Shad is a river herring, very bony, and its egg sacs are prized by anyone who loves seasonal food and, probably, fish eggs. Its availability works its way north until now we’re getting them from somewhere in Pennsylvania and New York. I stopped into Earth and Sea in Manchester and those expert and friendly people told me they’d call me when they got some in. They called last Thursday, so I did a little carbon footprint thingy and drove down to Manchester and got the roe and, while I was at it, a Branzini, a whole, small European sea bass with white, sweet flesh. Apparently it’s farmed in a very sustainable way, feeding on plants and algae, its waste eaten by microbes instead of by other fish.

Which is quite something to think about – the sustainability of fish – when in the next breath I think of what we are doing to that very strange world that comprises the majority of OUR world, and ALL of theirs – the underwater world and the ocean floor – which is killing great swathes of it completely mindlessly.

I found one of those papery brown moths the other day in the kitchen. They look like tiny, dried-out tea bags when they’re dead. I put him under a jeweler’s cup and saw that he had a monkey face and all kinds of differentiated markings and feelers and little feet not intelligible to the naked eye.

Why do we always look up and go outward when we could find just as many worlds by looking down and within and into the tinier and more and more microscopic levels?

Is that why we haven’t concentrated on exploring that ocean but do concentrate on outer space? And is that why, even while we know next to nothing about that land covered by water, we are content to destroy it in the name of BTUs and so-called progress. Shame.

The Branzini was beautiful to cook and to eat. I zested a lemon over it, diced some preserved lemon, sprinkled salt and pepper and olive oil, stuffed it with chopped ramps, wrapped it in parchment and baked it at 400 ° for about 20 minutes.
In-parchment is a very good way to cook almost any fish. It encloses it to keep the air out and the juices in, and the parchment browns to a coppery mess. It’s always an adventure tearing it away.
From blog warmer than in air
I served the Branzini with a coconut dal, the recipe for which I’d found in a big, beautiful, expensive cookbook at the Northshire that very same day. I did not buy the book but, while flipping through its pages, spied the recipe and memorized the ingredients – it was easy, they were mostly c words. Except for garlic and shallot, for which I substituted ramps, it has coriander, curry leaves, chile, and coconut milk. Along with those little orange lentils that cook so quickly. (I did buy David Chang’s Momofuku, which I will give to Jesse when I’ve had my way with it.)

For the Coconut Dal, simmer a cup of the lentils in 2 cups of water for 20 minutes or so, until tender. Meanwhile, sauté the garlic and shallot, or ramps, then add in the ground coriander, the curry leaves and the crushed hot chile until browned and amalgamated. Add a cup of the coconut milk (I used the whole can) and stir in the lentils. It was delicious but it needed cilantro, which I added to the leftovers. Those are good dipped up with corn chips.

The shad roe were two pretty pink crescents that I prepared Friday night after looking up Jasper White’s technique, which is to braise them in enough butter to almost cover in a slow oven – 350° for about 10 minutes a side. Handle them very carefully so that the sac doesn’t split. I used some of the leftover butter in the mashed potatoes that sided it, and still have some left, and I had the leftover roe the next morning for breakfast.

Which was interesting, because the skin on the cold cooked sacs is thin and brownish pink and veined all over with a web of what looks like black silk thread, and reminds you of other thin-skinned sacs you’ve seen, of a deeply personal nature, though those are not usually cooked. Inside, the eggs are grainy and briny and solid and healthy as surely all eggs are that hold the beginnings of life. Mineral and fascinating.

The frittata was not nearly as fascinating, but it was good, made out of what was on hand, and filling, and Leo liked it.

By the way, I went with my palate instead of instinct – which is just another kind of instinct, I guess – and used the little tomato. I’m glad I did. But when choosing which kind of cheese to top it with – that took me awhile. I thought Swiss, but once I opened the cheese drawer the choice was easy – all I had was cheddar ends, so cheddar ends won out.

So this is quite a bit about eggs and fishes, and sacs and other gelid things, and I’m reminded of what Oscar Wilde said one time, and that was "An egg is always an adventure; the next one may be different." I believe he could be talking about any kind of egg, but especially fish eggs.

My little brown moth lay under the jeweler’s cup all day, and when I lifted him up when I was ready to make the frittata, preparatory to sweeping him into the trash, he came alive, teetered on my finger, flew into my hair, and when I ducked outside he flew away into that warmer than in air.


Penny said...

My goodness Sharon. This was much more than getting out of your chair and preparing dinner. The ocean....the moth.... the shad roe. Beautiful photos and great prose. Wish I had been at your table.

DK said...

Beautiful words, beautiful photos, and yes, all is well...just busy since returning to NC, working on the house of course. Attended the Dragon Boat Race Festival all day today in Lake Lure, trying to sell some books in support of Friends Of The Library, but sold not a single book. Sign of the financial times I guess...fairly disappointing...could have stayed home and worked on the house with the same benefit to both me and the library. Any plans to venture this way to visit Isobel any time soon?

sharon parquette nimtz said...

Generous words to hear from you both. Thank you. And I'm glad to hear that you're just busy and everything's going well.
David, I just loaned your books to friends who are connoisseurs of children's books and their verdict! Wonderful. And so they are, so don't be disheartened!
Isobel's a busy girl these days, but I think we'll get down sometime, and will surely make a point to see you then. In the meantime -- Vermont is cool and your visit would be a pleasure.

Mary said...

This was a lovely post. Your words, photos and recipes are all a delight. This was my first visit here, but I'll be back often. I hope you are having a wonderful day. Blessings...Mary