Thursday, March 17, 2011

between now and green

a little dill'll do ya
Last year at this time we’d had spring for over two weeks – not terribly bright, perhaps, but in the 50s and low 60s sometimes – and green things were becoming apparent. All the green this year is at the Farmers’ Market.

Miller’s Farmstand has been offering dill and cilantro directly from growing flats for our delectation, other herbs already banded together, tiny bunches of romaine, and half a bushel of baby spinach if you get there early. Foggy Meadow has had micro-greens all winter – those baby sprouting greens that make such a difference to a plate all through these snowy days – and now has baby spinach, too, but, as with Millers, you need to get there early for a taste. They are in demand.  Jim Horton, Paul’s son, who has been manning the stand this winter, told me he hopes to have (shhhhhhh...) a bit of chard this coming market.

There’s no doubt that we’re missing Kilpatrick’s Farm this winter, they with their well-tended and well-planned plethora of winter vegetables as well as surprises all along the way.  In an email, Michael Kilpatrick told me, “ at the (Saratoga) market we have lettuce mix, mesclun mix, baby spinach, regular spinach, Christmas spinach, boc choi mix, and  Swiss chard, for greens, (and) the kale will be back in a few weeks. Couple new roots this year, too –  Jerusalem artichokes, parsley root, purple and green kohlrabis, (and) a new yellow carrot.”

So, as I say, we miss them, but some of our larger farmers are seeing that they need to take up the slack – Paul at Foggy Meadow and Greg at Boardman Hill come to mind. How to do that sustainably is really the gnarly heart of the problem. Winter greens grown without petroleum? That would be the next breakthrough!

In my last column I said that you could find local mesclun – that mix of small-leafed greens – at the Co-op in Rutland. Mea culpa, you can not – they’re getting their mesclun from California! I’ve been buying it all winter, assuming it was from Benson’s Vermont Herb & Salad Company, because that IS available, and as we all know our Co-op is mandated to support our local farmers and provide us local produce when possible. So I emailed co-owner Heather McDermott to ask her where VH&S’s mesclun could be found. Not closer, she said, than Burlington! She is trying to get her herbs and salad mixes into Hannaford’s, however, so it wouldn’t hurt to put in a plug if you shop there.

Ironically, when Leo brought home a package of California mesclun from Price Chopper the other day I was like, Umm, I am NOT eating this stuff. What were you thinking?

(Over the holidays my daughter picked up two vacuum-packed packages of romaine lettuces. I popped one open to use in Caesar salad. The other got shoved to the back of the fridge and when I dug it out over a month later it was – guess what? – just as “fresh” and crisp as the first one had been. Now that is scary. “Don’t eat anything that won’t rot, or ferment” is a really good axiom.)

 “But it’s organic,” Leo said of this recent incident, “and I was at PC anyway.” Organic schmanic, I said, I’m not eating greens that were picked in California by who knows who, who knows how long ago!

 Sheesh. Who knew that’s what I’d been feeding us all winter. Lesson learned – I should never assume.

This demand for local food has just skyrocketed, hasn’t it? And nowhere can it be seen more clearly than in the success of Roots: The Restaurant down on Wales Street. Their business has been going lickity split ever since they opened – is it something like ten weeks ago already? I mean, reservations for lunch, please, as well as dinner (open every day except Monday at 747-7414). And the farmers whose product Chef Don Billings has contracted for are also doing well, able to plan the year ahead; having some idea of how many head of beef, how many rows of squash, and how much bacon to have smoked.

And the customer? The eater is in her glory – finally she can get a locally grass-fed beef hamburger! With hand-cut fries from local potatoes.  She can also get a shrimp cocktail with Bomoseen shrimp and Don’s own sweet salsa. Oh, you didn’t know Bomoseen had shrimp? Learn something new every day, don’t you?

Let’s face it – not everything can be local, and what would a menu be without a shrimp dish – these are delectable little Ecuadorian things, supposedly sustainably caught, very nicely presented in a champagne glass so tall that you kind of have to put in your lap to be able to eat out of, with said salsa and guacamole and some tortilla chips. Kudos to Roots for making a few exceptions to Local!

Because at this time of year our  tastebuds crave something out of the ordinary. And we’re finding it also in a burrito from Izapa Burrito Bar on Evelyn Street. The little purple structure is home to fiery – or not so – Mexican tastes a la the very gutsy Jillian Burkett, who has been open ALL WINTER (in that flimsy little structure) for lunch Monday through Friday. My burrito’s heat and content was perfect, I told her, and she murmured that she has a knack, the ability to judge, just by looking at them or listening to them on the phone (774-1001) a customer’s scoville unit preference.

And at home? What are we doing to enliven our winter-weary buds on that front?

Dukkah is the answer. I’m sprinkling this little nut and seed preparation on everything, from the yogurt and red lentils I have for brunch to the striped bass (Earth and Sea in Manchester)  I wrapped in parchment with drizzles of olive oil, panko, and the dukkah grind I made last fall, and salt and pepper, of course. I put that parcel into a 400° oven with the slices of sweet potatoes that had  lived there for 15 minutes already, and set the timer for 20 minutes.
In the meantime I remembered the brocc raab I’d bought a week ago at least. I parboiled it while I warmed some garlic and hot pepper flakes in olive oil in the old black skillet. What the raab would experience when it had drained and turned cool, was a warm spicy bath of olive oil that imperceptibly heated to flavor the raab in a process similar to that in which lobsters are said to be cooked starting in cold water – without alarm.

There are many mixtures of this but this pleasing one I found online
 from a woman by the name of Melissa Fernandez.
Feel free to double this to make it worth your time.
  • 2 tablespoons pistachios, toasted
  • 2 tablespoons hazelnuts, toasted
  • 1 tablespoon sesame seeds, toasted
  • 2 tablespoons coriander seeds, toasted
  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds, toasted
  • ¼ teaspoon sea salt.
To toast the nuts and seeds put each kind separately into a small skillet over medium heat and watch them carefully, giving them an intermittent swirl, and when you begin to smell their toastiness they are done. Let them cool in a sauce dish and start on the next one. When they’re all toasted and cooled put them into a mortar and pestle and pound to a coarse consistency, or pulse in a food processor (I use a coffee grinder). Sprinkle them on everything.

Make some dukkah for yourself. It’ll pass the time between now and green!

published as Twice Bitten Column in the Rutland (Vermont) Herald 15 MAR, 2011

emptying the larder

I took out last year’s calendar just to look at the blank spot that ran through the last week of February into the first week of March of two thousand and ten. So clean and unmarked it was except for the straight line I’d drawn through it with the words “to SJU”. That is travel agentese for San Juan. Every last week of a Vermont February should have a similar line drawn through it, indicating that we are off having adventures, exotic or not. A certain energy is released when one goes journeying, certain plugs are exploded, a freshness in one invites new energy back. Lives change when adventures are spun.

My calendar this year does not sport that line through a couple of weeks, though it doesn’t have much else, either. So I have been enjoying my own home and village and walks as though I were a visitor, hoping for new eyes and appreciation. It almost works, and it has some enjoyable side effects.

The weather has cooperated. This is one of the more exciting winters that I can remember, with temperatures into the negative numbers and not single digit ones, either. There is a certain sense of accomplishment when your car thermometer shows -23° and you  have made it out for early breakfast with the governor. Or when you get to the Paramount in spite of heavy, wet, crunchy snow all day, to hear The Academy of St. Martin in the Fields, whose music is simply magnificent.

We were in our own private world there with those eight people on stage working as hard and perfectly as hummingbirds, with their wands and violas and violins and cellos to give us music that just smacked us in the face like a lovely Olympian ruffle – so powerful and transporting it was.  After the Shostakovich came intermission, when nature gave us just as powerful a rendition as the thick snowing sky turned to pouring February rain, pelting like liquid icicles on the street, and lightening and thunder, great rolls of it, blasted us back to the Academy for the mesmerizing Mendelssohn in the second half. The whole night was something like ecstasy.

We are some of the lucky ones: Everything works – though there have been some major complications – and our house is warm and the larder stocked.

That larder is being slowly depleted, which is as it should be: The growing season is coming again – we’ll soon be prying ramps out of the rocky ground and steaming fiddleheads – and it’s time to spend the luxurious currency we put up last summer.  The roasted corn we froze last August  is so incredibly sweet and tasty now! It’s as though our tongues had been blanded down over these white months to be shocked awake at what we took for granted in August. All those times that I threw twice as much corn as we could eat on the grill, all those times that Leo shaved the rest of it off the cobs and I froze it? Little chunks of time with a great payoff now!  I simply mixed it with faro one night, to side some grilled chicken breasts. Now there’s a nice combination – so nutty and so sweet.

I roasted broiler pans full of tomatoes last summer, and ladled them into freezer bags. When I thawed some the other day, took an immersion blender to them in the pan just to break up skins and seeds, and tasted, I was petrified with delight!! So vibrant, so sweet, that I simply ladled them into little bowls, put a spoonful of garlic olive oil on top, and imagined we were sitting on the August porch.

Then – it just keeps getting better – one very snowy Saturday we saw the signs for the Maine shrimp truck and scored 5 pounds of them. After beheading them and shelling them, 5 pounds of Maine shrimp is not an impressive amount. Nevertheless, they are delicious little things, and combined with the roasted corn and the roasted tomatoes, cilantro and chopped avocado, on a few leaves of mesclun, some lime juice squeezed over – they made a totally decadent and delectable salad.

Playful salads are our counterintuitive choice these days for supper –  a bed of mesclun, locally grown and available at the co-op, along with the micro-greens from the Farmers’ market, some leftover shredded chicken or pork, sometimes beef (also from the Farmers’ Market), perhaps some homemade fried croutons for crunch, a scattering of walnuts or pecans or pumpkin or sesame seeds that have been roasted or at least warmed in some butter, and some dried cranberries or diced dried apricots, or slices of fresh mango, come to that. A little vinaigrette of sherry or balsamic vinegar and garlic olive oil. Salt and pepper, sometimes some shavings of parmesan or cubes of mozzarella. These just totally hit the spot, full of intriguing tastes and textures.

We’ve started on the second batch of sauerkraut, too, and it’s wonderfully refreshing – tangy and crunchy yet, and full of microbes and live cultures that help our guts populate themselves with healthful things.. I dig out a dish of it in the morning and leave it on the counter to snack on all day. 

The pile of New Yorkers (not people, Silly, the magazine!) that I was too busy to read last fall is slowly diminishing, too, as I take some of these white hours to peruse them, finding some gems as I go along.  One of them was a fascinating article by Burkhard Bilger in the November 22 issue called Nature’s Spoils, which followed Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation, on his rounds of making fermented foods such as my sauerkraut and along the way had some amazing things to say about the idea that “Americans are killing themselves with cleanliness,” as he quotes Katz saying.  Somehow Bilger segues from fermented sauerkraut to raw milk, and his discussion of that timely topic is perhaps the most balanced and unbiased that I’ve ever read. It’s too long and too complicated to summarize here, so I hope you’ll find the article and read it for yourself.

I say ‘timely’ topic because you may or may not have heard that the excellent organization, Rural Vermont, was stopped by our new  (and, we hoped, farmer-centric) Agency of Agriculture from conducting workshops teaching people how to make yogurt, butter, and cheese from raw milk. The Agency cited some confused wording in the raw milk law that prohibited farmers from selling raw milk to people who would use that milk in any but its fluid form. The solution would seem to be a simple one – the Agency should clean up the wording so that it makes some modicum of sense and get themselves out of our pantries – where they most obviously do not belong. Because it is none of their business (or my farmer’s business) if I drink my gallon of raw milk whole or skim the cream to make butter or heat it up to make yogurt.

Making yogurt from raw milk is something that I often (and illegally?) do. And there’s nothing simpler, really.  This is my technique.

  • 2 quarts raw whole milk
  • ½ cup good unflavored, whole milk yogurt (Butterworks Farm is a good one)
Ladle the milk into two quart jars and pour into a pan. Heat the milk slowly and carefully to 160° to 180°and let it cool to 115°. (Some recipes call for just heating the milk to 110° in the first place, but I do not have good results with that technique.)

Meanwhile, take a small hard-sided cooler (that the two quart jars can fit into) and fill it with hot water. Close it and let it warm up while you make the yogurt.

When the milk has heated and cooled to 115°, stir in the yogurt. and pour back into the quart jars. Screw the caps on loosely.

Empty the cooler of water, put the jars of milk/yogurt into it, close it, and place somewhere warm and out of drafts for 8 hours, at which time check the consistency and taste.  If it is still too thin, without any sign of setting, you can leave it for a few more hours or overnight. If it seems to be setting, put it in the fridge, and it will continue to thicken.  If you leave it for too long in the ‘cooler’ the tanginess will cede to sour.

Voila! That’s it.
Mark McAfee, C.E.O. and founder of the country’s largest raw-milk dairy, Organic Pastures, is quoted by Bilger in the aforementioned article as saying that dealing with the live cultures in any food, but in this case, raw milk, forces dairies to do what all of agriculture should be doing anyway: downsize, localize, clean up production.
“We need to go back a hundred and fifty years,” McAfee told Bilger. “Going back is what’s going to help us go forward.”

My question to the new head of the Agency of Agriculture, Chuck Ross, on VPR’s Vermont Edition one day was,
“Sustainable dairy –  meaning smaller herds, grass and pasture fed, sustainably milked, minimally and locally processed... How do we make this happen, and how do we quit encouraging farmers to get bigger at all costs, and how do we transition big farms to sustainable farms?
Thanks. I'll take the answer off the air.”
The recent action of the Agency of Ag was not the answer I was looking for.

published as a Twice Bitten Column in the Rutland (Vermont) Herald 01 MAR 2011

not a lot of solid evidence

It’s Sunday morning, so I’m trying to decide what to do instead of writing Tuesday’s column. I think I’ll wipe the kitchen down, even mop the floor.  Make some chicken soup – good for what ails you in February or any other time. And maybe I’ll clean out the fridge.

There is a commonality in opening the fridge and seeing it stuffed full with forgotten leftovers and other mysteries and realizing that it needs a good cleaning.  Nora Ephron has to take care of her own leftovers, probably, clean her own fridge. No one escapes that chore unless they have full-time housekeeping, or a wife, or a partner who does it. There is not a job I like less, except, apparently, writing a column.

Ah! I’d forgotten those Brussels sprouts I made on Wednesday. I was looking for recipes for the Co-op and asked around and Lindsay Arbuckle, of Alchemy Gardens and  Pierce’s Store, suggested Brussels sprouts steamed with dried cranberries, leeks and pecans. I formulated that into a recipe that I trust approximates the preparation she had in mind.

They’re delicious now, cold, salted and peppered. The sweetness of the pecans and the cranberries with the savory greenness of the sprouts is the perfect brunch snack.

Hmm, wonder how the Vermont Peanut Butter got pushed back behind the seldom-used jars of miso? I take a teaspoon full of it – it’s the chunky variety – and add a scraping of butter before taking it to my computer and staring at this screen. It’s an adult lollypop. Well, it’s a peanut butter lollypop, adult or not. And it reminds me of an article about  food allergies in children that I read in the Feb 7 New Yorker. 

The practice of anti-intuitively advising pregnant women and babies to avoid all kinds of foods, from peanuts to shellfish for varying amounts of time up to two years old in order to AVOID food allergies in children, seems to have backfired, and the number of food allergies has exploded!

My favorite quote is by a medical doctor/professor who said, “We in medicine are making a lot of decisions and recommendations based on not a lot of solid evidence.”
Read that again. “... on NOT a lot of solid evidence.” 

So the NEW thought on allergies is that “a child becomes tolerant to a variety of food proteins through exposure in the first six months of life.” You will notice that’s the exact opposite of what they have been advising the poor allergic dears all this time.

Nowhere in this article – The Peanut Puzzle, by Jerome Groopman – does anyone wonder if allergies might be due to the altered chemistry of the food because of the way it is now grown. Is it not reasonable to think  that the reason such an increasing number of people have ‘intolerances’ to so many foods – milk, wheat, soy, nuts –  is that their bodies do not recognize the food as food. It’s been genetically altered. It’s been grown or produced with a variety of chemical helpers that our bodies do not recognize as food. 

But they do note that in developing countries, where allergies are scarce, children “often consume solids, initially chewed by their parents, at two or three months.”  It’s the quickest and most convenient, and even, perhaps, the healthiest way of feeding babies solid food.  “Saliva is a rich source of enzymes that can help break down solid foods and of antibodies that might coat food proteins...” to make them less allergenic.  Don’t you just love it?

You know all those pronouncements about when to feed your baby rice cereal, and phase in this and that food?  It has NO basis in scientific evidence! And that’s according to a specialist in newborn nutrition quoted in the article. NO basis in scientific evidence. Who’da thunk?

This reminds me of a quote by Gary Taubes. In his book, Good Calories, Bad Calories,  he wrote, “The institutionalized vigilance, ‘this unending exchange of critical judgment,’ is nowhere to be found in the study of nutrition, chronic disease, and obesity...”  He adds, “(practitioners) certainly borrow the authority of science to communicate their beliefs to the general public.” In other words, it SOUNDS like science, but it is far from it.

How about that low-fat milk we’re advised to feed our kids? Who says? Well, for one, the new USDA guidelines say to. On what scientific basis are we advised? There is none. And to my mind, when in doubt follow Michael Pollan’s advice – Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize. Why take apart a perfectly good food and recombine it to some know-nothing’s specifications? Eat the whole food. Drink the whole milk. Our cells need saturated animal fats. They don’t oxidize like vegetable oils do, and go rancid and create the dreaded free radicals. Cholesterol is an antioxidant.  It rushes to repair arteries and heal infections. It’s good for our brains, our nerves, and our adrenal glands. Forget the Kool-Aid! Drink the milk!

Oh my goodness, look what I’ve done! It seems I’ve written a column! Whether or not it’s readable remains to be seen. And just to be sure that it’s edible, I’ll include a recipe for Lindsay’s

Glorified Brussels Sprouts

•    1 pound Brussels Sprouts, trimmed and cleaned
•    Salt and pepper to taste
•    1/2 cup dried cranberries (or other dried fruit)
•    1 tablespoon butter
•    1 tablespoon olive oil
•    1 large leek
•    1/2 cup pecans
•    Optional: Sherry or Marsala  wine

Steam the Brussels sprouts until they begin to soften, sprinkle with salt and pepper and steam until fork tender. Meanwhile, melt the butter and olive oil in a skillet. Clean the leeks and slice lengthwise into thin strands about 2 inches long. Add the leeks to the butter and sauté over low heat until golden and tender. Add the cranberries or other fruit (shredded dried apricots are very good) and pecans and sauté a few moments more. A splash of sherry is nice here.
When the sprouts are done add them to the pan and combine. Correct the seasonings. Add more butter, to taste, just before serving.

published as a Twice Bitten Column in the Rutland (Vermont) Herald 15 February, 2011