Tuesday, September 28, 2010

seasons’ crux

A week ago I was leaning over the counter eating a yellow watermelon and finishing up Diana Gabaldon’s last book. The yellow watermelon tasted so sweet and so refreshing and it had a clean, fermenty smell, as well, and I imagined this elegant enclosed thing lying in a field on the end of a vine for so long – all this long hot summer, really –  in someone’s field – I think this one came from Woods’ in Brandon – growing larger and rounder, the delicious seed pod from that small yellow blossom, under the sun and the rain, to end up here in MY kitchen, satisfying MY hunger.
We take the mysteries of the growing season so much more for granted than we do the mysteries of fall. We eat directly off the vine, with very little preparation, because everything is so glorious it’s best just fresh. Plants are a great leveler, feeding rich and poor alike, in great houses and humble – in both you find people gnawing corn off the cob.

The mystery of this crux is that some of us are still picking basil off the bush, tomatoes off the vine, and cutting okra from its plant, too, even while mountainsides are turning crimson and gold and colored leaves rain off the trees over the deck and you have to pluck them out of the tarragon before you pick it. Our frost comes later and later.
...fried veggies...
That’s what we’ve been eating most of all this highly prolific summer – vegetables – and one of my favorite ways of preparing them is to fry them. Eggplant, green tomatoes, just-ripe tomatoes, zucchini, okra. I slice them (except I leave the okra whole), dip them into a tempura batter and fry them in lard that I rendered from pork fat I sourced at the WAWWEE (We Are What We Eat Eats) store in Gassetts, just this side of Chester, or in some butter and olive oil. Yum! I’m not tired of it yet.
Nor this: one fine afternoon a friend dropped off some bass that he’d filleted from fish he’d caught that morning. He and a friend leave Wallingford at 3AM for Lake Champlain and are back by 8, he said. With a plethora of fish. What a treasure. Thank you, Robert!
I dipped those beautifully cleaned filets in egg and then panko crumbs and fried them in olive oil and butter, but I could have dipped them into the tempura batter instead. 
Here’s a technique for that batter from Elizabeth David. It’s an excellent coating, and I think it’s the oil in the batter that keeps the coating on the food rather than in the grease:
Take 4 ounces of flour, about a cup, and put it into a bowl. Add 3 tablespoons of olive oil and a pinch of salt, then gently and slowly whisk in “3/4 teacup of tepid water” until the mixture is about the consistency of somewhere between thick cream and half and half. Let it sit for awhile to let the gluten relax, and, when you’re ready to use it, whip one egg white and fold it in. Dip your food into it and fry it up.
Take advantage of that simplicity while you can, before the first frost, and then, while you wait for all those leaves to come off the trees, you might like to take to the road to see the autumn sights and refresh your palate with some un-New-England tastes before you settle into those long-simmered winter things.

...on the road...
I met friends at Mariam’s  Restaurant, which serves African and American Cuisine, located on the main street in downtown Windsor. Not only is it a beautiful ride from here to there – we took the most picturesque route from Echo Lake Inn on Rte 100 and wended our way through South Reading, Brownsville and Ascutney to the other side of the state – but it’s totally worthwhile: Where else can you get African – in this case Tanzanian – food in Vermont? We chose to order totally African, and chatted while the young couple – Ibrahim and Jennifer Mahem (he, originally from Tanzania, she from New Hampshire) –  prepared curried goat with rice, coconut cauliflower with chicken, a spicy mango stir fry, and a platter of chapatti, a creamy African flatbread. We tore off pieces of the chapatti in which to pincer and wrap bites of each entrée. The flavors were fabulous – spicy but not too hot – sharing many with Asian food – those of coriander, cinnamon, and cardamom.

We had a dessert orderer among us and we all noodled over what she should order. Deep Fried Ice Cream, she’d had before. Cheese cake... no. We paused at the Fried Plantains with ice cream, but ultimately settled on a Squash Bread Pudding. Wow! It was wonderful, a big plate of bright orange slathered with whipped cream. Three spoons went right to it, smothered gasps of goodness emitted. YUM.  Chef Ibrahim and Jennifer had the leisure – we were the only patrons that noon – to sit down and chat with us. It turned out that he had made up the dish a few days before, simply roasting a butternut squash with clove and cinnamon (“and mebbe some cardamom,” he guessed), a drizzle of olive oil and sprinkle of salt, then mashed it with heavy cream and poured it over cubes of challah, that lightly sweet and eggy, very light bread, with perhaps a trace of cardamom in itself. Then he baked it. “I was just experimenting,” he said, having the ingredients and combining them in a playful kind of way. It was sensational. I haven’t tried making it myself from these hints, but when I do I’ll let you know how it comes out. And if you try it, let me know what you did.
Mariam’s is open Monday through Saturday from 11AM to 9PM. Put it on your calendar, for you’re in for a treat. They also do catering.  Call them at 674-2662.
I was lucky enough a week or so ago to have my second lunch at Anjali Farm in South Londonderry. Now that’s a gorgeous ride from here, up 140 to 155 and then 100 through Londonderry and then 3 or 4 miles further to South Londonderry.
Lini Mazumdar cooked for maybe twenty of us who were attending a MetaYoga retreat at the restored train depot in that beautiful village. She made a lovely Raita, seemingly more silky and certainly more tasty than the ones I’ve made. She doesn’t make her own yogurt, but buys the excellent Butterwork’s Farm one that I do (available at the Co-op), whipping it up with cucumber, spearmint, cumin and cayenne, as well as salt and pepper and a touch of maple syrup. 
Too, I was totally captivated by the daal she served (admittedly, we had worked up quite an appetite in the morning yoga and aerobics session), which she described to me over the phone afterward: Cook the lentils, any kind (wash them 3 times) in water or chicken broth flavored with turmeric and minced ginger. Then sauté cumin seeds in oil, add onions and garlic and sauté until soft. Meanwhile, parboil vegetables which could include, as hers did, potatoes, cauliflower, chard, kale, carrots, and red cabbage, and when they are partially cooked add them to the lentils and cook until tender. If you make this thick it’s a stew; thin, a soup. She served hers with basmati rice.
She described how she made her dal but there was no accounting for how delicious it was. She also served a chicken curry, also exceptional, and a holy basil tea. I could not have made that, either. Something there is that goes from her hand to the food that does not translate into a recipe. Perhaps if I stood in her kitchen and watched over her shoulder I could translate it.
Anjali Farm is owned by Lini and her husband, Emmett Dunbar. Lini grows herbs and makes elixirs and tinctures she sells under the name Lotus Moon Medicinals. She is available, also, for Indian cooking lessons and catering for events. She will come to your house and cook for you and your friends or she will cook in her own kitchen and you can pick it up from there. Call for more info and/or directions at 824-4658. MetaYoga? 802-824-5064.
Finally, just a few days ago, I was headed west and stopped at Cinco Gringos just west of Castleton on Rte 4A in Hydeville. This is a small storefront in a small mall, brightly painted with Mexican scenes, owned by a young man named Michael Jakab, originally from Fair Haven, who is also the cook along with his girlfriend Alex Lamy who recently graduated from culinary school. Michael, on the other hand, majored in communications. No matter. The restaurant – mostly takeout, has been open since last December, and it’s time we heard about it and gave it a good try.
I asked Michael what he would recommend and he said “sweet potatoes”.  Okay, I said, in what form would he recommend that those sweet potatoes come in that I could eat in my car. Well, the least messy, he told me, would be quesadillas, and so I ordered sweet potato quesadillas. I waited ten minutes and there they were, eight large triangles of flour tortillas stuffed with cheddar and jack cheese and sweet potatoes, served with freshly made salsa and sour cream. They make their own salsa and guacamole – tons of it, Michael says – every morning.
There were nice tastes in these, but they were very filling and I could eat no more than four of them and that was stretching it a bit. Others, however, were glad to finish up my leavings. I’ll be back soon to try a burrito, or maybe even chicken mole’ tacos!
Cinco Gringos is open Tuesday through Saturday starting at 11AM through the evening hours. Sundays they open at 4. Closed Mondays. They also do some catering. 278-4090.
So, eat your veggies, Folks, while these fresh summer ones last, and then take a ride to enjoy this season and the international tastes offered by young cooks along the way.
this post was published as a Twice Bitten Column in the Rutland Herald on 09/28/10

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