Tuesday, September 29, 2015

september clear

A week ago I was leaning over the counter eating a luscious little Chanterais melon from Dutchess Farm and finishing up Jacob de Zoet’s thousandth autumn. I’d sprinkled the orange flesh with sea salt and freshly ground pepper. It tasted so sweet and so refreshing and had such a clean, honeyed scent, as well, that I couldn’t help imagining this elegant globe lying in a field on the end of a vine for so long – all this long hot, dry summer, really –  in Steve’s Castleton field– growing larger – but not very large, some as big as softballs, some hardball size, and some slightly larger than a golf ball – and rounder, the delicious seed pod expanding from that tiny yellow blossom, under the sun and the rain, to end up here in MY kitchen, satisfying MY hunger, while this extraordinary September light pours through my clean windows.

We’ve been busy practically all summer working on the windows of this old house, painting, mending, taking down storm windows and putting them up, and, all the while, washing them. We washed them several times until they gleamed, but next day early morning and evening sun illuminated smudges that were awe-inspiring. I tried Windex. I tried my own DIY of one part water to one part ammonia to one part rubbing alcohol. Smudge City. I tried microweave cloths, paper towels, newspaper. “Take the storms off once more,” I directed my helper. Belatedly, I googled the experts. A drop of dish detergent in hot water and a squeegee, they said.

That worked. Just in time for this September sun to angle down in the way I’ve gloried in for *gasp* forty years now, to warm all the well-worn wood in the most delightful way.

We take the mysteries of the growing season so much more for granted than we do the mysteries of fall. We eat directly off the vine, with very little preparation, because everything is so glorious it’s best just fresh. Plants are a great leveler, feeding rich and poor alike, in great houses and humble – in both you find people gnawing corn off the cob.

The mystery of this particular crux of seasons, is that while this lights slants more and more from the south, some of us are still picking basil off the bush, tomatoes off the vine, and cutting okra from its stem, too, while mountainsides are incredibly slow to turn crimson and gold, and unusually dun-colored leaves spiral off the trees over the deck and you have to pluck them out of the tarragon before you pick it. Our frost comes later and later. So, apparently, does the color.

What we’ve been eating most of all this highly prolific summer is vegetables – and one of my favorite ways of preparing them is to fry them. Eggplant, green tomatoes, just-ripe tomatoes, zucchini, okra. I slice them (except I leave the okra whole), dip them into a tempura batter and fry them in lard that Pine Woods Farm in West Pawlet has rendered from their own pigs, or in some butter and olive oil. I’m not tired of them yet. I gave a recipe for that tempura batter a few weeks ago. It’s mostly a scoop of flour, salt, coupla tablespoons olive oil, water enough to make a thinnish batter, let it sit, then add a whipped egg white before using.

But now, with September light, a different mode makes itself known. Last Saturday, before I went to the Rutland Farmers’ Market as usual, I threw a couple of still-frozen lamb shanks into the slow cooker – my kitchen could use some warming up but if it had been warmer I would have plugged the cooker in on the porch, which I did a few times this summer. I was very happy to find lamb at the Dorset Farmers’ Market two weeks ago – I do not believe Rutland’s has anyone selling lamb anymore. The question begs to be asked: Why Not?

Along with the shanks went some chopped tomatoes, red wine, garlic, shallot, celery, and whatever herbs I found quickly in the garden – a bay leaf, oregano. A Hungarian hot pepper. Slices of fennel. An anchovy or two (read Karen Ranz’s latest Rutland Bites article, Amping Up Flavors for Cool Weather Cooking. It’s excellent). Two shanks, maybe a teaspoon of salt. I set it on low and left for pretty much the whole day. When I came back at three the shanks were tender and melted into a glutinous sauce. I turned the switch to warm and later on boiled some potatoes and carrots and served the shank stew over them with some good Kate’s Butter from Maine. I added some of the veg cooking water to the stew. It was awe-fully good! That first dish of the proverbial “long simmered stew’ season.

I used what I had. You don’t need a recipe – you need lamb shanks and flavors and some wine and tomatoes for making the stew, and then some vegetables or pasta to serve it over.

Enjoy your veggies and this extraordinary September light; and go wash those windows. It’s worth it!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

bitter beer and sweet dried figs

Enigmatic and evocative words sprang out at me when I opened my book first thing this morning. Sometimes books are sources of unexpected food inspiration, as this was, from The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet by David Mitchell. “Eelattu brings two beakers of bitter beer and sweet dried figs.” Nothing more is said. Mitchell does not ordinarily talk about food, but the bitter/sweet picture this brings to mind is irresistible.
And it brought to mind some food scenarios that have occurred to me over this last fortnight.

First of all, Mother Nature’s on the move again – the other day my scalp jetted sweat while I gazed at the Malabar Spinach at the Berkshire Botanical Gardens, and today (it is Sunday) I’m thinking about building a fire in the fireplace. Brrr, dank and dark.

Do you all know about Malabar Spinach? I thought I did, but I didn’t. What amazing surprising stuff! The plant I was melting around had thick, almost succulent leaves, on a red-stemmed vine with tendrils of beautiful little waxy pink and white flowers. It was spinach! Yet with a hint, said our guide, of the texture of okra to it. Actually it is not spinach. It tastes like it, apparently, and relishes hot weather so will last all summer. I wish I’d plucked a leaf of it to taste –  after all, it’s probably freezing to death by now!

Next day I was on my way back from Bennington when I decided to stop at Al Ducci’s in Manchester. Al Ducci’s is no longer Al and Nancy Sheps’ love child. It’s been sold, but I know nothing about the transaction except that it’s bustling and Nancy is now happily vending gelato from a cart, and the clerk told me I could probably find her at the Farmers’ Market. Oh. Reminded, I would certainly check out a different farmers’ market. I did find her there. I also found another wondrous plant – tiny, tender, beautiful little pink and white ginger corms with their angular bamboo-like tops still attached. They were nothing like the round little leaves of the native ginger that grows in my shade. It is a spectacular plant that everyone at the market was talking about, and that peeked out of most people’s bags.

I bought summa dat, of course, as well as a loaf of the amusingly named Stevie WONDER Bread from Earth Sky Time Community Farm. It is, somewhat ironically, white, shaped like an old-fashioned loaf of bread, with shoulders, but much heavier than the original WONDER bread (made by Monsanto, wasn't it?) – and great for grilled cheeses. (Right now I’m eating this amazing sandwich of Stevie Wonder Bread, sliced Wallingford Locker ham, with Hellman’s and very thinly sliced baby ginger.) A mandolin comes in very handy with baby ginger. Careful now!

This Sunday morning, cogitating on the subject for my column this week, the exoticism and simplicity of those words from David Mitchell reminded me of those cunning little ginger corms and I regretted that I hadn’t noticed the name of the farm that grew them. A little investigation remedied that, however, and I realized that Karen or Steven Trubitt of True Love Farm would be at the Dorset Farmers’ Market this very day. And so I drove down and pestered Steven, who was very busy selling those ginger clusters, and he gave me Karen’s number to call, saying that she was anyway nicer than he was and would answer all my questions. Customers, though, broke in to tell me that although Karen was very nice she was not nicer than Steven (although they may have been taken in by his exuberant hair and smile).

I did call Karen and she did tell me that they grow fava beans and broccoli raab, two of my favorite foods, in the spring, and that they have had some success in teaching people to eat them. I told her that I frequently urge my readers to, for heaven’s sake, buy the odd thing when they see it on the farmers’ stand and try it – farmers are not going to grow what they cannot sell!

And we did agree with Steven that two of the best things to do with baby ginger is to pickle it and candy it, both of which processes work better with fiberless, tender young ginger. You can also, of course, freeze it, since it will not last a long time fresh. We put our heads together to figure out how to pickle it, and I now have about 3 ounces of it, thinly sliced, salted and slightly fermenting in a bowl in the kitchen. Later I will add a syrup of ¼ cup of rice vinegar to ¼ cup of water and 1 tablespoon of sugar. I am not sure how long this might last in the fridge, but I imagine it could, too, be frozen if it is not lapped up like ambrosia fast enough.
There were other – wonderful – discoveries at Dorset. Besides finding what I think of as Rutland’s own Young La and Yoder’s and Ruane Farm there, I rediscovered Woodcock Farm’s cheeses, including a favorite chevre-type sheep’s milk called Summer Snow, and a rich nutty yellow Blue cheese. Oh. My. Goodness.

I urged all of these purveyors to come to the Rutland Market, and Woodcock’s new PR and sales person, Jordan, is particularly attracted by the winter market and the Vermont Farmers’ Food Center and the role it is playing in this whole area’s food industry! Woodcock Farm was one of the first Winter Market vendors back when the market started up in the back of the Co-op.

One more vendor caught my eye and followed up by tantalizing my taste buds. Sandra Kraehling’s Pan Latin Foods are scrumptious. I tried a corn cake topped with lightly grilled vegetables, sour cream, and then, for good measure, a zigzag of creamy ancho dressing. It was called Alepa de Choclo, and it was excellent. I found that it’s usually called Arepas de choclo, with  choclo meaning yellow corn. I believe they’re usually made of a batter that includes corn kernels, yellow cornmeal, and a fresh cheese, that is then cooked on a griddle.
I had hoped to have a recipe for you but must’ve gotten my signals mixed. There are quite a few online, but since I haven’t tried them I can’t recommend any particular one.  If you know of one, please let me know.
In the meantime, the very serendipitous event has occurred, that fennel and melon season have concurred, and I’ve been able to make the salad I talked about in the last column. The only difference I’ve made is the shaving of thin rounds of baby ginger in with the rest. 

As we enjoy the disparate and yet complementary tastes in this dish, the porch and patio are scattered with wild leaves that evoke such e words as enigmatic, and perhaps even elegant, and certainly elegiac, and Mother Nature tiptoes subtly into autumn.

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Tuesday, September 01, 2015


Okay, this is what I think, before even a glimpse into Larousse Gastronomique – “fritters” imply frying. Fritters do not result or benefit from a lot of rules.  Got a dab of this veg or that fruit – or a boodle of it either – then add an egg or two and some flour and a bit of salt and maybe some chopped aromatics and fry it up in spoonfuls and you’ve got a fritter. The amount of flour depends upon the amount of veg or fruit versus how many mouths you have to feed. I’d bet in olden times you’d be hard-pressed to find a corn kernel or strip of zucchini in a hard-times fritter.
I didn’t grow up with fritters. They weren’t a staple in my family’s food arsenal. Dumplings, yes; fritters, no. Obviously we put more stock in boiling than in frying. But not always. Anyway.
As a matter of fact the first fritters I remember eating – and they were mysterious to me – were the corn fritters made by Leo’s mother, Ida Mae. And those weren’t round puffy well-coated fritters at all (like the apple fritters you guiltily reach for in the baking section at Price Chopper), they were flat like pancakes but lacier, with sweetcorn kernels in them. I don’t remember if she served them sweet or savory, but I’ve adapted her instructions, “oh, nothing, easy, simple, little egg, little flour, corn...”, and learned to make them savory – with chopped garlic and a bit of hot pepper and onion in with the corn, but then to top them when they’re just out of the buttery pan with a few drops of maple syrup and a sprinkle of sea salt. I’m making those tonight.
We’ve been enjoying zucchinis up the yingyang because they’ve been plentiful in my garden this year and I l-o-o-o-o-ve the flavor, the freshness, the wateriness, and it will be a cold dark day in heck before I buy one in February from the culinary department store, from California, or Egypt, or wherever. So enjoy them I have, while I may, with no apologies, especially to Leo, who’s been on the verge of being a baby about them, sniffling a bit, squinching his eyes and fists, about to give voice to dissent; dissuaded perhaps because of my attitude, which is – Just do it! Eat the wonderful soba noodles and zucchini strips with ricotta and olive oil and lots of pepper, and a little parm that awaited him after an Audubon meeting the other night. And perhaps he was dissuaded from any hissy-fits the next night when I made zucchini fritters in the form of fat little pancakes sprinkled with chopped parsley, Hungarian peppers and Egyptian onions and lots and lots of freshly and coarsely ground black pepper. And topped with that great ricotta from Maplebrook Farms – a pint of that good stuff goes a very long way.
I took a platter of those to our beach gathering to mix and mingle with all the other great food and they were polished off quickly, further quenching any even faint zucchini roars from Leo the Lion.
Unfortunately, a quick circuit of my zucchini vines finds very few pending ones coming along, so that season seems to have just about spent itself. For this year.
A season that has not quite renewed itself is that of fennel – apparently it is available as an early summer crop and again as a late one. I’m embarrassed to say that I’d kept a bulb of it in the fridge for far too long and when I pulled it out the other day and, after skinning it of some of the outer layers that had aged rather unfortunately, sliced it thinly, I combined it with tiny cubes of muskmelon and chopped garlic and teensy squares of Hungarian pepper and thin slices of Egyptian Onion, all of which I dressed with a bit of white balsamic vinegar and olive oil and, again, lots of coarsely and freshly ground pepper, and some sea salt, only to discover that this unlikely mating – muskmelon and fennel – was an absolute holy alliance! I only hope that the end of melon season overlaps the beginning of fennel so that I can experience it once again. Without recourse to the Egyptian department store; which, of course, I would never do.
Keep this in mind, Dear Reader, because it is one of the few instances that I’m giving you notice of something that’s about to come IN to season rather than just going out.
Corn, however, will be here for the duration and so I offer you:

Ida Mae’s Corn Fritters
I say these are Ida Mae’s, but when I asked Leo if his mother’s corn fritters were savory or sweet, he said “corn’s sweet, maple’s sweet, how could they not be sweet.” I think hers were an egg, a little bit of flour, the corn and possibly some salt. But this sweet/savory is the way I have adapted, and we both like them this way.
·         2 eggs, whisked until frothy
·         2 tablespoons flour
·         2 cups cooked corn kernels
·         1 tablespoon chopped onion
·         1 tablespoon chopped cilantro or cilantro berries
·         1 teaspoon chopped garlic
·         1 teaspoon chopped mildly hot pepper – Jalapeno or Hungarian
·         Salt and pepper
·         Olive oil and butter for frying
·         maple syrup for topping
Combine the first 7 ingredients – egg, flour, corn, onion, cilantro, garlic, and pepper – the batter should not be thick and pasty, but light and slightly runny. Then add salt to taste – start with half a teaspoon.
Drop by soupspoons full into a hot mixture of olive oil and butter and fry over medium high heat until golden, flip and do it again. Eat hot with just a few drops of maple syrup.
Fritters are simply a way of incorporating food onto the table or into our gullets; mixing vegetables, fruit or fish, fowl, or ... mushrooms into a paste of some sort, whether it be tempura, choux, waffle. Larousse Gastronomique translates fritter into ‘beignet’. Yes, that’s New Orleans for donut, of course. It really is just spreading real food out thin with flour and egg. It’s what we do.

Go for it! 
I leave you with a photo of the fennel and melon salad


Okay, friends and neighbors, readers and scoffers, I am just going to start posting columns from back when I stopped posting them, which I think was in August, and if you are notified by email or something more esoteric, and you don't want to be bothered with a whole boatload of notices and columns, well, just ignore them.
At your own peril, of course. You might miss something.
I have been having more and more fun with them, so I do hope you keep reading.
All my best,

PS: No, I have not, in the end, done any real work on the blog... I'll keep tweaking. I think it's a little easier to read. Suggestions and feedback are welcome.