Tuesday, August 23, 2011

where kick meets mellow

In which we create aCorn and Chili Salsa with fresh cilantro berries in the garden
Hot, hot, but definitely not haute (see below) did not assuage my yen for chilis -- or peppers or pimentos in other words. For I’ve been scouring the Farmers’ Market for ripe (not green) peppers, from mild and sweet to incendiary, but all flavorful. For I find I have a dawning and realizable fondness for that flavor so difficult to describe and yet addictive. You sense it, I think, way up at the top of your nose, almost between the eyes: It’s thin, almost windy, it’s sweet, it’s spicy to different degrees. I handled a very dangerous little red pepper at Woods’ Market Garden at the Farmers’ Market the other day, having been warned “Careful,” and could sense the hotness of it from it’s very outside unbroken skin. My fingers were slightly spicy when I let go of it, and when I licked them there was that hotness winding up my nostrils.
these little peppers were sweet and good, as was the eggplant next door
On the other hand, I bought some little round red peppers stuffed with a cream cheese filling – or was it fresh goat cheese – which were as sweet as candy. That was at Costello’s Market at the Marble Works in Middlebury.

The Farmers’ Market is as overflowing with Hungarian wax peppers as is my garden, and by diligent searching I have been able to find a long red sweet pepper called a bull’s horn, I believe, and jalapenos –  no Thai yet – and mildly spicy poblanos – which I adore – and little fat elongated pale green sweeties.

I had a selection of these the other day, and some day-old uncooked corn on the cob when I decided at the last minute to make a spicy and sweet, mild and gentle mélange of these things to be dipped up by tortilla chips. It would be my offering at Sundays-at-Five at the lake.

Sunday had been a busy one and by the time I was ready to get into the kitchen it was 4 o’clock, and I had one hour to make the dish and take a shower! Could I do it?

I asked Leo if he would shuck the corn while I put  pumpkin seeds toasting in a little coconut oil and garlic over a low heat. Meanwhile I blackened two poblano chilis and the long bull-horn one over the gas flame and slipped them into a paper bag to steam. I seeded and sliced two Hungarian wax peppers – I deemed their skins too thin to char and rub off – chopped up some onion that had been charred on the grill the night before, and two cloves of garlic. Cilantro was minced.

I put those aside while I cut the kernels from the six ears of corn, making  short and neat shrift of this usually messy and onerous task with my trusty Benriner mandolin, and put them to sauté in coconut oil over low heat. Remember, this mélange of tastes was to be oh-so-fresh-tasting, barely cooked, not fried. In a word, mellow!

Meanwhile I rubbed the charred skins from the peppers, seeded them, cut them into small squares and threw them into the pan with the corn. I cut a long yellow – vastly sweet – tomato into squares and tossed some of those in the pan. Ditto a small juicy red tomato.

Cilantro berries and flowers. They appear after the cilantro fronds, and when they
are dried turn into coriander::: Smart little things. They are a treat  available
only from the homemade garden

Added the onion, garlic, and Hungarian peppers. Sautéed just a bit more, drizzled that with the juice from half a lime, added a sprinkle of cumin/cinnamon/chipotle pepper I’d ground together, and the chopped cilantro. I scraped this mixture into a wide bowl and layered cubes of feta cheese over the top. Then a good scattering of the toasted pumpkin seeds that I’d intermittently shook and stirred until they were golden and began to pop like popcorn. As a lagniappe I tossed in some cilantro berries from my garden. They pop between the teeth juicily, giving  a surprising fresh touch of something between cilantro and coriander.

I looked at my watch. It was 4:35. Time for a shower.  The beach is 3 minutes from home. We arrived at a stylishly tardy 5:10pm. When people asked me what this dish was called I hummed and hawed::: what was it? Finally, I think it’s a Corn and Chili Salsa – where kick meets mellow!

Caveat: Do not try this at home with the same kind of deadline – you’re bound to spill your wine and take fifteen minutes to mop it up – as I did last night::: Drat!! – or something equally time consuming. This time I didn’t get the pans too hot, Leo didn’t come in and mess about cutting cheese and leaving the crumbs all over my work space. The stars were aligned – although Mercury was indeed retrograde, which seems to be a good thing for me. Anyway, I doubt I could do it again.

Check out my post from August of 2008 for Elizabeth David’s method of preserving red peppers here.

And then I found this pepper story --  one that hasn’t made it into a Twice Bitten column yet -- about my old Mexican food friend, Hedie. It was published in another column, my Small Bites, in 1993, I believe.

Those long green peppers – chilis – that I spoke of a couple of weeks ago, ended up strung in a heavy swag by the fireplace to dry.  Slowly, they are turning red.  But I wish I'd had Hedie Francis' note before I did that.  The way she treats a big batch of them is to roast them on the grill then place them, one by one, on a sheet on the ground by the grill, then cover them with towels until they've cooled.  Without picking off the blackened skin, she puts about 12 chilis in a ziplock freezer bag and that into the freezer.  "When we're ready to eat... I'll take a bag or two out to thaw.  Then I peel the skins off and pull off the stems," which pulls out most of the seeds and membranes, too.

With those peppers she might make...  Green Chili Enchiladas with Sour Cream:  Chop the chilis with garlic and salt, add water until saucy but thick, lightly fry corn tortillas and drain, then make layers of tortillas, chili, grated cheddar cheese, onion and sour cream.  "Delicious," she says.

 She also keeps a bowl of chopped green chili in a bowl in the fridge, with a little water and garlic and sometimes stewed tomatoes, to put on any old thing, such as eggs.

Now listen to this!  This is the way Hedie chops her green chilis – not in the food processor, and not with a knife, but "I use the lid off a vegetable can," the way she used to watch her grandma do it."  She has other suggestions too, because green chili preparations are a staple in Mexican and southwest cooking and eating, and Hedie is the expert on that... (this was published in my former Herald column, Small Bites, on 10/18/93).

I miss Hedie. She was a wonderful and generous Mexican food neighbor – she once brought me a quart jar of menudo when I was feeling off-kilter one winter. It saved my life, I think, thrillingly hot with chilis, with the unforgettable umami taste of  tripe. I would LOVE to find some good, grass-fed tripe!

Well that's it for peppers this August, folks.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Interns and Garlic

photo by Bailey Schreiber

One of the more exciting things we look forward to with the beginning of the summer are the farming interns who will earn their stripes over the season. They  bend their backs and minds to learn from some of our most experienced and successful farmers, and we get to know them at the Farmers’ Market. Their enthusiasm and hard work is often so enticing that we become fast friends.

Bailey Schreiber is interning with Paul Horton and Sally Beckwith at their Foggy Meadow Farm in Benson. She, with her cohorts,  follows Caroline Kimball and Conor Falcon from last year, and our own Lindsay Arbuckle and Scott Courcelle from the year before.

Bailey hails from Jackson, Wyoming, and has been writing about her interning experiences on her blog called Turnips and Tators. She is an uncommonly good writer. I took my licks and lessons from MFK Fisher, Laurie Colwin, and Elizabeth David, to name a few mentors. When I read Bailey’s post about garlic and the process of coming to love the earth I knew that I had to be the first to introduce her to my readers.

She titles her piece,
Garlic as Legacy
Bailey Schreiber
About nine months ago, last year’s interns – who are to me just names, not faces – helped Paul and his son, Jimmy, plant about 2,500 row-feet of garlic. On a cold fall day, they threw a bunch of seed garlic in the back of the truck and headed up to the south meadow. The bed was tilled and marked, and they poked a little clove into the soil at eight inch increments. After this was done, they likely looked over their work briefly, then threw their tools and themselves back into the red truck.

If they were anything like me, as they made their way back to the barn they thought about how this was one of the few crops they will sow but not harvest, how it will be one of the first plants to reach up and greet next year’s interns, and how it will be tended, harvested and planted again by yet other hands.

These other hands are, of course, my hands. And Katelyn’s hands, Nate’s hands, Grace’s hands, Sandy’s hands, and Kayce’s hands. The garlic was there in the spring to greet us and, as we slowly and sometimes painfully learned what it means to farm, it grew for us too. Early in the summer, I’d walk the rows looking for a double shoot – a spot where two cloves had been planted instead of one. To ensure a full head of garlic, one stalk had to be removed. And eaten.
Scapes provide a welcome taste of garlic before the young garlic
is ready to be pulled. They can be eaten raw or sauteed or made
into a vibrant pesto. (photo by spnimtz)
In late June, I watched and waited impatiently for the stalks to send up scapes. When they finally started to appear, we’d walk up and down the rows, baskets in hand, snapping off the early garlic blossoms. These whimsical, green garlic curls, when removed, encourage root growth. They also provide a taste of what is to come, a little sneak preview.

After weeks of scape-snapping and -snacking, I watched as the first few leaves of the garlic stalks began to brown – an indicator that the bulb is shaping up. Paul would pull up a plant now and then to check progress. “Getting there,” he’d say as we watched in anticipation as he pulled back the outer layers of the bulb to reveal the developing cloves. We waited until one day, after he examined a head, he said, “Well, I guess we’ll be bringing some garlic to market this week.”

We were a little train of garlic harvesters: one person loosened the soil and roots with a broadfork, two people pulled the plants from the dirt, and a third cut the roots and stalk from the bulb.

We were a well oiled machine, pulling and cutting over two hundred heads in an hour.
A couple hundred heads the first week and a few hundred more the next, we piled fresh garlic on the bed of the truck and on the table at market. As I told many a curious customer, fresh garlic is milder than the garlic you find in the store. As garlic cures, its flavor intensifies. Fresh garlic, though, can be sliced thinly with a pocket knife and eaten in the barn between tasks. It is important, however, that all workers are fond of and partake in this practice.

Garlic cultivation, as I’ve discovered first hand, is very labor intensive for about two weeks of the season. This is the primary reason farmers don’t grow more of it. It is important not to leave the garlic in the ground for too long as the heads will start to rot rather than cure. As a result, lots of hands are needed for a week-long window. It took four or five of us about twenty hours to get fifteen hundred or so heads out of the ground, trimmed and set up to dry. We did it in two- or three-hour increments stretched over a week and a half, but even so, it felt good to have it all under a roof and out of the field. One day before the garlic was harvested, Paul asked if I was going to market with Sally the following day. I replied, “No, I’m staying here to make sure we get all the goddamn garlic out of the ground.”

Once harvested, we set up the stalks in a small old garage on simple yet effective drying racks. We put fans up to promote air circulation and closed the doors in the evening to keep out the dew. After a few weeks, the outer layers of the bulbs took on a papery feel, flaking off in your hands as they were cut and cleaned for market. Again, we cut a few hundred at a time as was needed for market, until yesterday, when Paul decided they were as cured as they were going to get. I clipped over two hundred pounds of garlic, setting the largest bulbs aside. We’ll sell the regular heads at market for the next few months, but the biggest heads have a different destiny as breeding stock.

Come October, we’ll separate out the cloves, sitting on buckets in the barn. I’ll probably be wearing long underwear beneath my Carhartts and my fingers will be cold. We’ll load the truck up, drive to the prepped bed and we’ll poke one hundred pounds worth of garlic cloves into the ground at eight inch increments. After this task is completed, I’ll look out over the field, hands warming in my pockets. I’ll think about next year’s interns who will watch the garlic poke up through the soil when the snow melts and the ground thaws; who will excitedly snap the scapes; who will pull, trim, dry and eventually replant the thousands of new heads these little cloves will grow to be.

I’ll feel a sense of relief knowing I will not be responsible for these tasks, but I’ll also feel melancholy. This farm now feels a lot like home. As I’ve worked in the fields, I’ve come to know and love this land. I feel a small sense of ownership and liability for its care. But, while it will be sad to leave one day, I am thrilled to know someone will be taking my place in the spring. And I’ll know, on that chilly fall day, that the garlic will be there to meet, excite, challenge and feed them.

I think you'll agree that we'll be seeing much more of Bailey's writing in the nation's food future.
For garlic lovers, scape pesto is made by chopping scapes with pine nuts or walnuts very finely, then folding in
grated parmesan cheese and enough olive oil to make the mixture creamy. Season with salt . (photo by spnimta)

Monday, August 08, 2011

Hot and Hot, but definitely not Haute

One of the things that survived the maple tree falling on my garden were several Hungarian pepper plants. I planted several because I loved them so much last year; and not only did I plant the yellow kind but I planted the black kind, too, which so far seem to be much smaller than the chartreuse ones that look like horns of some kind of bull. The black ones look like the nubs on calves that might some day turn into horns.

If left on the bush they will turn red and incendiary, but they are most often picked when yellow -- when they can still be spicy to very spicy.

My favorite dance with them is to split them lengthwise along one side, leaving the stem end intact, and carefully remove all the seeds and membranes. Do this over a sink and then tap the pepper on the wall of the sink to loosen the seeds so they can be shaken out.

Take out a big block of Cabot Cheddar super sharp Cheese, cut a half inch slice of it and cut the slice into half inch strips. Stuff a chunk of that into each pepper and lay into a gratin dish which can be put into a 425° oven for as long as it takes to melt the cheese and tenderize the peppers, turning them coppery and charred in places.

Oh Yuuuuummmmmmmm!

Let them cool and serve them at room temperature (or beach temp) as appetizers. If you were to have any left you could slice them into mouthfuls and serve them as a side/relishy kind of thing to accompany oh, whatever -- meats, for sure, sandwiches... or just as a non-carb snack.

They are sweet and spicy and creamy and have that nice pepper vegetable taste.

You could definitely use a different cheese -- for instance a blue cheese or Gorgonzola, or Stilton -- I think that's what I used last year. I would try a new melting Swiss raclette type cheese from Southwind Farm down in the Rupert/Dorset/Pawlet Vermont area. And I wonder how a maply, garlicky chèvre would be!