Tuesday, July 21, 2015

pea epiphany

One of the glories of summer is pea vines and their end purpose, peas, and I’m talking about peas safely nestled juicy and tightly in non edible pods, real shelling peas, the only kind I’ve ever grown. Perhaps this phenomenon will be more understandable when I tell you I have never owned a microwave, either. Isn’t that just amazing? I’m a gardening and cooking Luddite.
Leo is the pea-planter. This is because the act of gardening, to Leo, means planting. Never mind the fall cleaning and putting to bed, the seed ordering, the spring weeding, the deciding where things should be located this year as differentiated from past years... no, gardening is for planting, and he starts yearning to put seeds in the ground in April. Plus, he has a somewhat elaborate system of 4 foot tall fencing cylinders that need to be staked down for the peas to grow on, and only Leo knows their secret. And so, this year, when he said he wasn’t going to plant peas because he’d had no luck with them the last couple years, I had already made the bed for them, spring weeds out, soil loosened and quiveringly receptive.
I was disappointed but had done nothing about it when Zoe came out and said, “Did you plant your peas yet?” I gave her the news and she said, “No peas! What nonsense. Do you have any pea-seeds?” I said yes I did but they were two years old, and she said, “What are we waiting for?” So she fetched a bag of compost from the pile by the fence and drizzled a good amount from a cut corner of it in 8 different hills in a row and I worked it into the soil and fetched the seeds and she planted them in eight circles and got her dad to erect his pea towers, all in the time it would have taken Leo and me to argue about whether it was worth it or not.
I swear, each and every one of those peas sprouted and grew, and for the past week that’s all I’ve been doing is picking peas and sitting in the hammock and shucking them and eating them and throwing the shucks in the lilac tangle. Good compost.
Well, that’s not all I’ve been doing but it’s been a pleasurable thing to do.
This year’s peas form just one more story. Here are two I’ve told before but are – in my opinion – worth repeating:
Once, long ago, my friend Carol spent a good long hour or so at our lawn sale sitting on my front stoop shelling peas from her own garden into a big green bowl. Plink, plink, they went, slowly covering the bottom of the bowl. She’s never going to fill that bowl, I thought. But steadily she worked, and steadily the emptied pods towered beside her; slowly the peas mounted in the bowl. That night she served them simply steamed in a lettuce leaf, a pad of sweet butter topping them, salt and pepper, in that same green bowl. The bowl was at most half full. It was a beautiful sight, the peas delicious, and my realization, that something as precious as fresh peas should never overflow, one that I’ve never forgotten.
Isobel G Nimtz drawing
That memory reminds me of M.F.K. Fisher’s paean to peas in An Alphabet for Gourmets, when she recalls a difficult feast enjoyed with family and friends over a campfire on a Swiss mountainside where she and her husband were building a house. I rummage on my bookshelves and settle down to read the passage. “...what really mattered, what piped the high unforgettable tune of perfection were the peas, which came from their hot pot onto our thick china plates in a cloud, a kind of miasma, of everything that anyone could ever want from them, even in a dream. I recalled the three basic requisites, according to Fanny Farmer and Escoffier [they must be very green, they must be freshly gathered, and they must be shelled at the very last second of the very last minute], and again I recalled Sidney Smith, who once said that his idea of Heaven (and he was a cleric!) was pate’ de foie gras to the sound of trumpets. Mine, that night and this night, too, is fresh green garden peas, picked and shelled by my friends, to the sound of a cowbell.”
And that, my dear reader, is the way peas should be shelled – by your friends.
I’ve grown lazy, or at least simplified what can be simplified while retaining the best of itself, and this year I have not shelled peas in any quantity – I have even been known to take a basket of the first ones – fresh picked – to a gathering at the beach for everyone to shell their own.
I did shell enough for two omelets, which was not very many.
Pea-ifany Omelet
Serves 1
Have everything ready before you start because this omelet goes very fast once you pour the egg into a hot pan.
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon butter
  • 2 large eggs, whisked with a fork until not stringy
  • 1/3 cup freshly shelled peas
  • 1/3 cup freshly grated gruyere (or other) cheese
  • 2 tablespoons freshly picked mint, chopped
  • Sea salt and freshly ground pepper.
Heat a small skillet or omelet pan – about 9 inches – over high heat until hot, then add the olive oil and butter and heat until hot. Pour the eggs in all at once and with a spatula lift the edges all around and tilt the pan to let the liquid flow under the cooked egg just until semi-solid then sprinkle in the peas, cheese and mint, cook for a moment and then carefully fold the omelet in half with the spatula and let cook another minute. Very carefully flip the omelet onto the other side and cook a moment more, then slide onto a plate, sprinkle with the salt and pepper, garnish with a bit more mint and/or cheese and serve.
When I’m serving more than one omelet, I cook each one consecutively.
But here is what has become one of my favorite ways of treating those peas:  pick a big mess of them and throw them all at once – unshelled – into a very hot, dry, wok and stir fry them until they are charred and juicy, then toss them with plentiful coarse sea salt, put them into a big bowl and take them to the beach as your offering. You eat them like you eat an artichoke leaf or edamame, scraping the tender peas and juices out with your teeth and discarding the pod. Make sure the discarded pods are plainly identified as inedible, and, um, Used!

So that’s about it for peas for another year. I’m going to invite three little girls who really enjoyed eating the charred peas from the pod the other night to come over some day next weekend and help me harvest the last of them. We’ll toss them in a hot wok and perhaps have another epiphany! 

Tuesday, July 07, 2015

feed your head

Lewis Dodgson would have felt at home in this pile of stones and tiger lilies across from my house

One of the most astonishing questions I’ve been asked lately is, “Where do you want us to put the porta-potty?”
“I don’t want you to put a porta-potty anywhere,” I answered. And then, “What porta-potty.”
“Well,” Charlie said, rolling his eyes toward the porta-potty truck that I’d just noticed out on the street, “There are five men here, and nature calls, or at least it may. Unless you want them using YOUR bathroom...”
Since my office is between the kitchen and the bathroom, I told them where to put the porta-potty, in no uncertain terms, and they put it there, and all the following questions, from other people, have been “WHAT is going on at your house? You have a...”
“Porta-potty,” I supply.
Dirty grins.
Especially since the scaffolding is all hidden on the other side of the house now and the porta-potty stands alone. Just like the Cheese, in the Dairy-O.
Speaking of cheese... or perhaps I shouldn’t.

Perhaps I should speak of compost, instead. It’s all part of the same system. I wouldn’t need a porta-potty if these men didn’t eat, and what do they eat? They eat what comes from the earth or they eat what eats what comes from the earth, grows in the soil, and what is soil but a lot of micronutrients that come from the stars and from the compost; and that compost is composed of all the things that are supposedly used up – dead 
 leaves, grass clippings, vegetable leavings... and manure. Which, with a little microbial action come back as a fertilizer to grow things out of the soil again. Life, used up – death, but not really – then life again. At least that’s the way it always worked before Monsatan came along (it’s all very religious, isn’t it?). Which brings us back to the porta-potty. Or not.
The other day I was listening to the radio and I heard the novelist, Margaret Atwood, talking about age and she said something to the effect that ‘young people worry a lot more than we do because they don’t know their own life’s plot yet.” Yep, it could be anything. And it started me thinking.
All of my life I have known that there is really nothing, basically, when you get right down to it, more important than food. At this realm, at this layer of existence... food is supreme. It’s one thing you can do something about, practically. We need it three times a day or at least once every few days, we cannot live without it, and we have been given such bushels of nonsense and ill-truths about it by government and corporations and even doctors, because none of them knows anything about food and its relationship to the human body, that somebody has to try to keep the puzzle pieces straight, and talk about it and give it – food – the respect it deserves. The most we know is that real food comes from the soil and the better the soil the better the food. It’s important to remember what real food is, to keep the consciousness of it through the dark years. So that’s been my path. Nice to recognize it. Thank you Margaret Atwood.
Food connects everything. I heard Meighan Kelley belt out White Rabbit, that old, great, Grace Slick song, at a RAFFL benefit at Mary Ashcroft’s Standing Stones the other afternoon, and that, of course, put me in mind of Lewis Carroll and Charles Dodgson and Alice, and how logical everything really is but not in the way we think it is. Lest you think that Alice in Wonderland has nothing to do with food remember the pills, and the tea parties, and the little/big drinks. And of course there were, er, ah, those little girl picnics on the river.
Connectivity. RAFFL is all about food and farming and feeding. Meighan? I’ve known her since before she was born with that amazing power of voice. She now works for my old friends who gave us hippy-types a place to gather in Rutland back in the ‘70s, and who are now giving community a place to gather in Hinesburg. That would be Will and Kathleen Patten, the old, original Back Home CafĂ© on Center Street in Rutland, and now the Hinesburg Public House.  Grace Slick was loud and original and had nothing to do with food that I know of – none of us did back then – and the grin slid off the Cheshire Cat until only it remained. Mary Ashcroft’s husband, Harold Billings, was fascinated with the stones and collected them and stood them on a hillock behind their house and studied practical astronomy for placing them. Mary herself gave Radical Roots a start. And I sit here writing about porta-pottys and standing stones in a food column.
That’s the thing, Food is connection. Food is real. There couldn’t be anything more real than the box of new red potatoes, smaller than tennis balls, at the Rad Roots stand at Saturday’s Market. I scoffed ‘em right up, and it was only later that I decided to tenderly boil them in well salted.... well, let me just make up a recipe here and now. You deserve it for at least trying to follow my train of thought here.
a salad of new potatoes with feta

·         New red potatoes – 1 lb+, equal to or smaller than a golf ball
·         Salted water to cover
·         Olive oil – ¼ cup or more good tasting, best virgin
·         Garlic cloves – 2 or 3, chopped
·         Snow peas – two handfuls, stemmed and strung, then cut into ½ inch pieces
·         Tiger Lily pods – a dozen, sliced in 1/4 inch slants
·         Scallions or Egyptian onions – ¼ cup sliced at a slant
·         Tarragon leaves
·         Mint leaves
·         ½ cup feta cheese pinched into pieces
·         Coarse sea salt
·         Fresh ground pepper
·         Vinegar, cider or balsamic – optional
Swish off the potatoes in cold water to clean, put them into a large saucepan and cover with water. Add 2 teaspoons of salt, cover at a slant, bring to a boil, turn the heat down to medium high to keep them at a low boil.
In the meantime, pour the olive oil into a serving dish, add the garlic, peas, lily pods* and scallions. If you’re using the Egyptian onions, peel a handful of the tiny top bulbs and cut in half and add to the bowl. Then slice some of the tenderer stalks and add them to the bowl. Add the tarragon and mint. Stir this all up so the flavors permeate the oil. Actually, this would be good to do an hour before cooking the potatoes.
When the potatoes are tender to a table fork, drain them and put the pan over a very low flame until they are completely dry. Be careful not to scorch. Then add them to the bowl and toss with this delicious oil. Let them cool to room temperature and toss with the feta cheese. You may want to break some of the potatoes roughly in half with the tines of a fork.  You may want to add a few drops of cider or balsamic vinegar. Salt and pepper to taste.
If you don’t grow the perennial Egyptian “Walking” onions, please see me. Because you should.
Can you eat lily pods? Of course you can. Just remember that one will make you larger, two will make you small. And Remember what the Dormouse said/Feed your head!
All kidding aside, the guys who are working on our house replacing roof slates and painting the high points and trim are professional all the way, acceptable to have around, and are, porta-potty excepted, just super. I know they’ll forgive me for making them the butt of this column. No pun intended, of course. Or perhaps they’ll imitate the Red Queen and say “Off with her head!”