Thursday, March 17, 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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

For some reason my reader is not picking up your posts as you make them, it's dumping 3 at a time at me! And while this is an enjoyable surprise, I am more of a sipper than a binge-er by nature, so I wish I had more time to savor and reflect on your posts!

But one thing I *had* to tell you, Sharon, is that I am with you on leaving the bowl of kraut on the counter to eat as I pass. Thank you; I thought I was the only person to do that. Hah!