Wednesday, February 19, 2014

wild apples and rutabaga

Apples gone wild -- Good taste and, seen with your taste buds, beautiful.

 Last September I went to a friend’s house and picked apples. They’d planted heirloom trees back in the ‘70s, a dozen or so different kinds of them, specimen trees, I think they’re called, but no matter what you call them they produce a lot of apples each year. But unless it’s an exceptionally bountiful year, my friends don’t bother picking them; if it IS a bountiful year they have a cider pressing party, and that’s all good, too.  But, because these apples don’t appear to be beautiful with their spots and blotches, my friends don’t pick them to eat.

But I had discovered that the imperfections were superficial and did not affect the taste, and I enjoyed comparing the offerings of the different trees – the hues from magenta to chartreuse, the sizes from golfball to almost grapefruit, and the flavors from sweet mallow to spicy cinnamon, bland to intense. And once I took them home I found that they really were beautiful, not in spite of and not actually because of the spots but because they were all just... beautiful together.

Just a week or so ago I saw some of these spotted apples at the Dorset Farmers’ Market with a little sign that said that the spots did not render the apples inedible but were indicative that the trees had not been sprayed. And that might be the best thing about the spots – when you eat the apples they are on you are not ingesting yet another, and apparently totally unneeded, industrial poison! That’s not to say, of course, that all apples with black spots have not been sprayed – they may have been sprayed with something that does not affect black spots – but I knew for a fact that my friends’ apples had not been sprayed or ‘aided’ in any way whatsoever –  I’m actually pretty sure they’ve never even been pruned.

Fall crept on from there – actually it flew by, but then all time does at this age – until it was almost Thanksgiving. The Winter Farmers’ Market had been going on for a few weeks at the Vermont Farmers’ Food Center down on West Street and I had already bought some Brussels sprouts, some of which had taken me an immense amount of time to snap from the stalk and to prune out the bad parts only to end up with a small bowl of them for all my work. And that’s when I spied some pale green rather small orbs on stalks at the booth of a new vendor, and when I took one of those stalks home the sprouts snapped off and needed very little paring. As I believe my apple anecdote shows, I am as accepting of imperfect organic food as the next purist but this perfection was a welcome thing as it made them so much easier to render edible, with so much more to show for my effort.

Next Saturday – the one before Thanksgiving – I sped to his stand again to find people buying up his veggies higgledy piggledy as they were from all the vendors –  the Saturday before Thanksgiving being the busiest market of the winter. By the time he got to me there were only two stalks of sprouts left and I took both of them, then sold one to the next person in line who had been crestfallen at my purchase. I used them – delicately steamed – to complete the casserole of  root vegetables I’d roasted for Thanksgiving dinner. Mixed with a bit of quinoa and topped with melty, creamy, cheese, it was a very good dish.

Weeks went by, it’s the new year by now – 2014 – and I notice that John – for that’s his name, John Falk of Neshobe Farm in Brandon, partners with Hannah Davidson – is back to the market sporadically and that his veggies  – he does not have a great variety – have dwindled as the canning jars have increased, until finally there are only two gigantic rutabagas on his stand amidst the jars of zucchini relish and pickles and jams. And who needs a gigantic rutabaga? But these rutabagas are so fresh and lovely that I am intrigued and after a little chat and a weighing I actually buy the smallest of these monsters even though it weighs six and one half pounds!

I don’t even like rutabagas, do I?

And as he’s weighing and I’m buying and we’re exchanging money for rutabaga I’m also raving to my friend about John’s blemishless Brussels sprouts when John jumps in. He has an eager, open, laughing demeanor, friendly and talkative, and he gives us a little lecture on how you should never judge organic vegetables by their looks because no matter how delicious they are, and good for you, organic vegetables may be just a little ugly. He is, of course, preaching to the converted – my food sense developed in the ‘70s, don’t you know.

Oh John, I think, Shut up! If the goodness of vegetables were to be proved by their ugliness then you would lose, hands down, but this is getting so convoluted that I cannot even begin to open my mouth and I bid the boy adieu!

Above: Not so difficult to pare
Below: Simmering in water and coconut oil

That enormous rutabaga? It was perfect, of course, thin skinned, smooth, not gnarly, not a lot of trouble to peel, not fibrous; tender, sweet, golden orange, and plenty enough to prepare every which way. First I cut it into cubes and steamed it until crisp tender, then froze at least half of it, probably more.  But even before that I took a goodly portion of the raw cubes and simmered them with a little water, some salt, and a nice amount of coconut oil and, when they had absorbed the water and caramelized in the oil – I stirred them as they did that – I mashed them together and perhaps I added a bit of coconut mash and corrected the seasonings – more salt? – and maybe I grated a bit of nutmeg into them. Oh yes, delicious. (Note: Coconut mash is the whole ground coconut, and although it does not contain sugar it does lend sweetness and flavor.)

A few days later I put some of the steamed cubes into an earthenware dish in which I had melted some coconut oil (yummy stuff), salted and peppered them, dotted them with a few spoonfuls of coconut mash, tucked parchment paper around them for a porous cover, and put them into a low oven for half an hour or so until they were caramelized on the outside. I served them with slices of orange. Scrumptious.

Leo said, “Yes. Very good, but how much more rutabaga do we have, exactly?”

 “Oh don’t worry. We won’t run out,” I said. 

Tonight will be the third time – two suppers, one breakfast, and numerous snacks – that this first one-quarter of a rutabaga will be eaten in our house. There are only two and one/tenth of us, for little dog Dakity loves a good rutabaga herself.

And really, who could protest having a beautiful, wonderfully-grown, bright-tasting vegetable in the February of a frigid winter

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