Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Expecting Lysander

Oh, the garden. 
It was only a few days after I spoke of a dystopian world here that the sudden storm came up, the wind blew like hellions, the temperature dropped 20 degrees in five minutes, and I, picking peas in my garden, looked askance at the flailing trees and told myself to get into the house. Now! I dashed and darted, with an eye on the maple and even the writhing Royalty crab, and got there, and while I was closing windows upstairs – where I paused to watch half-inch hail rattle on the tin roof of the porch – a third of a very large maple blew down onto my tomatoes, the basil, and a decades-old perennial garden.
Dystopian indeed. Picking through the rubble later, I was demoralized, close to tears, rendered suddenly without energy. But when I heard about the losses of a couple of vendors at the Farmers’ Market I felt a little ashamed of myself.  That hail sliced up Alchemy Garden’s beautiful lettuce so that the first Saturday after the storm their booth looked pretty bare. By last Saturday, however, their lettuce was again beautiful. Farmers roll with Mother Nature’s punches.
On Sunday I was looking forward to a visit from dear friends who would be escorting the infamous Lysander child, who must be five years old by now, if not in college! Could that be possible?

Because of the spiraling inferno of heat I’d made cold dishes – beets in a vinaigrette (beets first cooked in the cool of a morning), raw zucchini salad, cucumbers in sour cream, and grilled corn cut from the cob. And I grilled fat tomato slices and even some mozzarella in order to make the toasted quinoa salad, the idea for which I’d borrowed from Chef Donald of Roots the Restaurant. And when they got here -- that would be Cary, Dana, and Lysander --  I would grill some chicken for the non-vegetarians among us.
And there were red raspberries from Saturday’s farmers’ market with which I thought Lysander and I might make some ice cream if there was time.

Oh, but it’s summer – of course there would be time.
I have a new tool that I’ve used to slice the beets, julienne the zucchini, make a carefully tiny shred of some garlic cloves, and even to cut the corn off the cob. It makes an attractive job of slicing cucumbers, too, and would do awesomely if you had a finger that needed to go. It’s called a Benriner mandolin, and it’s a little cheap plastic job (well, $19 from Amazon) with a flat blade for simply slicing, and three interchangeable julienne blades for a tiny shred to a fat ¼ inch, julienne. It even shreds cheese, it’s so sharp and thin. And dangerous! But if you’re a careful sort and not accident prone it is a fun plaything.
Lysander, chewing on his drumstick, first asked me what the stick was that was sticking out of his chicken, and then informed me that “most people take the sticks out of their meat before eating it.” He also wondered what kind of animal this could come from: “It must be a very small animal because its bones are teeny,” said Lysander. This child needs some farm visits!
Lysander’s mother is a vegetarian so I hope she was pleased with the selection of vegetable dishes Sunday evening, especially the toasted quinoa salad. Lysander was not very interested in the vegetables. "He likes cucumbers and he likes sour cream, but not all mixed up together," his mother told me.When we tried the beets – and they were a shock – his expression asked “WHAT is this vile stuff?” It made me wonder what this little family ate for dinner every night if not vegetables. "Perhaps some bread," said his father, looking worried. We found some bread and butter and that seemed to fill Lysander up. 
But Lysander was very bright at the mention of raspberry ice cream.
“I kind of made it for boys who have eaten all their vegetables,” said downer I, for at the last minute I HAD made one pint in my small Donvier, thinking that we would need to make another.
But the ice cream – and who could actually withhold ice cream from a boy so viscerally disgusted by vegetables – was a great hit. After everyone was served, with extra berries and a drizzle of heavy cream over the top, Lysander was allowed to keep his arm crooked around what was left as he spooned up his own serving. Every once in a while he peeked into the container and a big, blissful smile spread over his pretty little face.
There must be a recipe here someplace, don’t you think? Well, not much of one. I striped the cucumber skin off with just the flat blade of the mandolin, and then sliced them rather thinly and tossed them with salt and let them drain in a colander. I dressed them with sour cream into which I folded some lemon juice, chopped dill and garlic, and ground pepper. The residual salt on the cucumbers was enough. 
The raw zucchini salad is a real eye opener. I dressed it with vinaigrette made with white balsamic vinegar (from Gordon’s Pond in Shrewsbury), shaken with a very garlicky olive oil, seasoned with  just salt and pepper.  That very garlicky olive oil? I made it by rubbing a clove of fresh garlic (flooding the Farmers’ Market these days) over a rough surface like a garlic grater, or pounded in a pestle, and left to macerate in a good olive oil. Dressed with this, the raw julienned zucchini turns into silk. Instead of balsamic vinegar you could use plain rice vinegar with a slight drizzle of maple syrup.  Then I’d add some thinly sliced onion rings to the mixture.
I’m still refining the toasted quinoa salad, but in a nutshell it involves toasting the raw grain in a cast iron skillet over a medium heat until it’s golden and giving off a toasty smell, and then adding 2 parts boiling water to 1 part quinoa, covering, and simmering until tender, about 15 minutes. Cool, and then dress with the vinaigrette we made for the zucchini salad, and toss with grilled tomatoes and mozzarella.
To grill the tomatoes, cut in inch thick slices and grill over a hot fire, turning once. Then cut them into bites. To grill mozzarella, cut into ½ inch slices and put them on a very hot griddle. As soon as the edges melt – not more than a minute – turn them over briefly and then remove to a cutting board. Use a rigid straight-edged spatula to handle the melting, sticky mozz. Cut into cubes and toss into the salad.
For inspiration you might order the Toasted Quinoa Salad at Roots the Restaurant. Remind Chef Don that mimicry is the sincerest form of compliment.
I have just finished reading Iris Murdoch’s The Book and the Brotherhood, in which one character reflects, “Was there in the end nothing but breakage, liberty from obsession and nothing enduring of the spirit?” In the dystopian mood I have been in for awhile that plaintive query slammed into my heart. But now I realize there are absences in that book – an absence of children and, perhaps not coincidentally, of hope!
All this weekend, of course, I was getting my Lysander fix. And in our meandering conversations full of wit and whimsy I didn’t at all mind when he slipped and called me “Grammy!”

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

an accretion of karma

Once I foolishly spaced some tubers of the orange daylily along the sidewalk in front of my house. Ten years later it took axes and shovels, brute strength and an entire summer to dig them out. Inevitably I missed  a few chips along the way and they are popping up all over the place now. Do tell. The things are hardy opportunists, and plant themselves into the middle of more cherished plants more often than not and, unless you want to ruin clumps of your more esteemed lilies, you are reduced to pulling them out as well as you can.

I put the last of those that I supposedly destroyed in a big, tough, black plastic garbage bag and put that in an out of the way place in the woods. There they apparently ate that plastic and burst from it into a thriving colony.

We can imagine, in a singed, dystopian world, one lonely tiger lily pushing orange through the rubble. First one, then another, until they repopulate the world.

I DID mean dystopia a few columns back when I described a strawberry season from my childhood. Some of you assumed I meant utopian, and one of you sent me an entire encyclopedia page defining utopian, in an email with WRONG WORD? in the subject line. And no signature. Wrong word? Well, No. But that did let me know that I did not succeed in clarity in that column.

Being a young farm-kid in the era of my childhood was every kind of disconnected. For our news of the world we had Gabriel Heatter and Grandpa. Neither one of them inspired a person to feel easy in her soul. You took your joys as they transiently appeared – the first sun-hottened strawberry in your cheek or Grandma coming home from work. Sometimes food is the only thing we CAN rely on – not only can we touch and feel it, but we can taste it, and it nourishes us.

Perhaps the reason so many young people are going into farming  is our new connectedness with the land and with food without – these days –  the disconnect from outside society.  Without “the mental prison of rural subsistence,” is the way Ian McEwan described it in his latest book, Solar.

There is community in farming now that there wasn’t back in that Midwest that I grew up in, where we were reliant on family, which could be a little ingrown, and a very limited community. Now we can be connected by the internet to the larger world, and to an educated local community that helps solve the problems inherent in farming. And that might prevent us from getting too hateful,  perhaps, and narrow, or even too lonely.

When Carol Tashie of Radical Roots Farm broke her ankle recently, the event summoned lots of help from the larger community. When she thanked everyone on Facebook, saying “We are overwhelmed with appreciation,” the answering comment from Solarfest struck my eye. “It’s the good side of Karma,” they said.

Carol and her partner Dennis Duhaime have, all by their ownselves, brought an invigorating sense of community to Rutland over the last several years and now they’re reaping the rewards. And it was nice that they chose Rutland to put their cheerful and effective energy into. Rutland has always been a gritty place, a kind of a show-me place, and perhaps it is now attracting the kind of people who see work to be done here that they can do – not to change Rutland into Woodstock, but to help Rutland reach the height of being Rutland.

This is a matter of accretion – for forty years the farmers’ market has met every summer Saturday, then more recently on Tuesdays, and now for the last few years year-around. It is arguably the most exhilarating market in the state. How did it get there? By perseverance. And accretion.

Kara Fitzgerald, of Evening Song Farm in Cuttingsville, told me how she and her partner, Ryan Beauchamp came to be in the Rutland market. They’d meant to move their very professional operation to Hardwick from Pennsylvania but got sidetracked when they talked to Lindsay Arbuckle and Scott Courcelle of Alchemy Gardens, who had interned with Paul Horton of Foggy Meadow, who had been enticed a few years ago to become a new vendor at the Rutland Farmers’ Market by Steve Chamberlain of Dutchess Farm and Greg Cox of Boardman Hill, two of the oldest vendors. Lindsay and Scott talked of the wonderful energy in the Rutland area – and certainly Carol and Dennis are responsible for some of that wonderfulness – and of the numerous young farmers, of the knowledgeable older ones, and the opportunities for new ones. Kara and Ryan are pretty darned thrilled with their decision to settle here.

Another recent example of perseverance and accretion, if not karma: For years local restaurants kept repeating the mantra of ‘it’s more complicated than you know’ when I asked them why they weren’t serving local foods. Or else they got all paranoid and hysterical when I made a joke of it. But. Guess what? It’s not as complicated as all that now that Roots, the Restaurant has made such a splash by successfully serving, making it a point to serve, local food. Sustainable, at the very least, since not everything can be locally grown and/or produced.

All of a sudden our good tried-and-trues are asking – “where can I source good local meat or vegetables in the amount I need?” The answer is, of course, RAFFL will be sure to help you, and you could always look up on line and talk to some of the farmers. I know for a fact that Greg Cox almost always picks up on his cell phone.

Now, if that’s not accretion, I don’t know what is: It's like sand building on a rock through aeons until suddenly you have topsoil! That's what's made Rutland a big star in Vermont's bright food galaxy.

Rutland resembles nothing so much as those tiger lilies with which we started this ramble: Intent survivors, and beautiful, too. What to do with all those lilies so intent on repopulating the world? Well, you can revert to Rutland’s answer to almost every problem – you can eat them. They are rather delicious as well as pretty in a common sort of way. Eat them all up, but be sure to leave the tiniest chip of them to keep... slowly... propagating.

Last year at this time I made a little salad of slices of kohlrabi, mango, Hungarian wax pepper, and tomato sprinkled with sea salt, coarsely ground pepper, and chopped parsley and cilantro, then drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
photo by Janet Kennedy Farmer

This is a properly formulated salad from my friend and localvore Janet Kennedy Farmer. She notes, “Last years empire apples, from local grower, Brown’s Orchard, are available at the Co-op & taste as crisp & delicious as the day they were picked!” She used sweet, crisp, juicy kohlrabi from Radical Roots. Yum.

Mid-summer Salad of Kohlrabi & Apple  
serves 4
  • 2 kohlrabi roots, peeled and thinly sliced, the slices cut into quarters
  • 1 apple, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 4 spring onions, thinly sliced, including some of the green stem
  • ½ cup walnuts
  • ¼ cup fresh parsley
  • ¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
  • ¼ cup raw apple cider vinegar
  • 1/8 cup maple syrup
  • 1 tablespoon prepared brown mustard
  • salt & pepper to taste
Place all the vinaigrette ingredients in a lidded glass jar and shake vigorously, set aside.
Prepare the salad ingredients and place in a bowl.
Pour the vinaigrette over the salad and toss.

“Great served with rustic bread and a local pungent or sharp cheese,” says Janet.

And I say, in honor of this column, you might garnish the salad with sliced unopened blooms of the tiger lily.