Tuesday, November 24, 2015

numinous sproots

little Dakity brings her 3 year old Irish Jack Russell intensity to the sere woods of this autumn

This sere stick season leads up to my favorite holiday, at least in part because Thanksgiving has been the only one devoid of the threat of gifting, that horrendous word for shopping until dropping. But more than that it is the gathering aspect of it, of family and friends, in the kitchens and around the tables, and I won’t mention the television and game aspect, although that’s part of it too, or it was. People still do gather, right? And cook? And feast?
Well that’s the thing – gardening is about done so it’s time to think of feasting, at least until the light starts coming back again. For now, I’m still picking sorrel and mint and swiss chard and kale, and the occasional dig yields crisp Jerusalem artichokes. But the onerous fall chores are pretty much done. The leaves are ground up and in the compost along with Ruth Ann’s and Rob’s sheep poop and the occasional rodent that has given new meaning to Dakity’s days. Exhilarated, she backs out of her hole at my call, ears alert, paws muddy. Marc has made trellises for me that will give new life to the Nimtz roses when the ground warms up next June. Fingers crossed. The garlic is planted and maybe I even have time to get some spring bulbs in before the ground freezes.
But all is not well in the world. Zoe sat right here the other day and asked me if I didn’t sense a certain element of doomsday in the air. And of course there is, what with Paris hysteria, the ignoring of other even more severe tragedies, the Big Lies certain politicians propagate to a massively gullible populace, and its mood of selfishness and NIMBYism. Isis. Trump. Ben Carson. Syria. Refugees. The world is insane. But it always has been and we always, with some halts, keep on going.
I responded that I was glad she was above DC, which is kind of like I’m glad she is above the Mason-Dixon line, or maybe the target area. Somehow it seems like going north would be safer than going south when it becomes necessary to get up from the supper table and move on up or down the highway. Because, I mean, fewer of us would head toward even more cold.
Or maybe what I really mean is that things get simpler the colder it gets. Heat brings all kinds of complications. I mean, self-rising flour? Something slightly indecent sounding about that, isn’t there? Self-rising, indeed! Too lazy to put some baking powder or soda into the bowl with the flour, are you? Then get on down south, Dear. Make some of those biscuits out of that lily-white, silken-soft, self-rising flour. Be sure to put on your frilly apron while you’re at it.
Funny, isn’t it, how when faced with doomsday the mind can just so easily swing back to food. ‘What are we going to find to eat,’ is the sentiment, because one does need to eat, doesn’t one. And someone needs to be figuring that out, the other way is hunger, pure, unsolicited starvation. How do you think we’ve survived all these years if not because someone took it upon themselves to think about feeding everybody. Pilar comes to mind, in the cave, in the mountains of ... Spain, wasn’t it? We cook on a heated rock or stone if need be. Because isn’t it much pleasanter to cook a meal than build a bomb; to sustain by life rather than by death?
In light of troubles in the world, and especially at this time of year you wonder about your own gluttony – the extravagance of being able to think about what specialities you are going to contribute to the Thanksgiving table, whether Jasmine will really find the good kind of oysters (I have been shocked at the sudden awfulness of those I used to buy in little pull-top cans at grocery store fish departments), if Nathan will get the consistency of the dressing right – when there are so many people in the world who are hungry, who die of hunger, or who are addicted to fast food, or who have no kitchen. No bowl. No chance.
Nevertheless, we go on, we incorporate changes, we help where we can. It is not the first year I haven’t done Thanksgiving in my kitchen, no, not at all, but it is the first time my daughter and her partner, Jesse, are doing it for the family, in their own house! Jesse’s baking a ham, a Wallingford Locker one, of course, and he’s preparing squash and mashed potatoes.  Zoe will make her traditional scalloped oysters (these are ordered from Green Mountain Fresh, which guarantees they will be the good ones). Me, I’m bringing the Italian Green Tomato Mincemeat Tart with crème fraiche, a lovely Brussels sprouts casserole, and... whatever else seems to need to be done. Zoe will make another pie, maybe apple, and maybe P2 will bring the requisite green bean casserole. It will be delicious. There will be mountainous leftovers. We will eat for a week.
The idea for those Brussels Sprouts in béchamel came from a recipe Ruth Reichl tweeted recently. It was a cauliflower casserole that I adapted to Brussels sprouts because that’s what I had. Next day Carol Tashie posted a similar recipe on her Radical Roots Facebook Page. Of course I used Radical Roots Brussels Sprouts. The ham trimmings came from a Plew Farm smoked jowl that I keep in the freezer and shave off what I need. It was sweet creamy Larson’s unpasturized milk that I used, and though Ruth called for a different kind of cheese, the raclette I’d gotten at Ooh La La bakery was perfect. The hard cheese was a Champlain Valley Tomme from Bridport Creamery. Everything available at the Rutland Winter Farmers’ Market.  Last minute shoppers note that there’ll be one more market before Thanksgiving on Wednesday from 3 to 6 at the Vermont Farmers’ Food Center. Remember that who controls the food supply controls the people. Buy local!

Ruth called her recipe Cauliflower a la Joe Beef. I think hers is the slightly easier one and why mess with perfection.  Nevertheless I’m calling mine,
Radical Brussels Sproots
Heat the oven to 400 degrees.
To make the sauce, combine 1 1/2 cups of milk with a bay leaf, a chopped clove of garlic, 1/4 cup ham or prosciutto trimmings and bring to a simmer. Turn off the heat and let cool for 10 minutes.
Make a béchamel by melting 3 tablespoons of butter and whisking in 3 tablespoons of flour and cooking, whisking, for a minute or so. Slowly add the milk mixture, whisking constantly. Continue until it’s thick, then stir in a quarter cup of grated raclette and a quarter cup of grated hard cheese. Add salt and pepper and keep warm.

Salt a large pot of water, bring it to a boil and toss in a pound or so of trimmed Brussels Sprouts. Cook for 3 minutes. Drain.

Toss the sprouts with the cheese sauce, pour it into a casserole dish and scatter a mixture of grated cheese and bread crumbs over the top. Bake for about 20 minutes until bubbling and golden.
I have to say every beautiful step of making and eating this dish is totally satisfying. Leo and I had it for supper last week. With just a tiny green salad and homemade bread. Absolutely numinous.  
Numinous is a puzzling word, having nothing to do with numbers but denoting, for some reason, the spiritual. It comes from the Latin word  nūmen, which means ‘nod’, in a divine way I guess, and it might be what you feel when you are surrounded by trees and the mysteries of wildlife and the workings of your own legs as you climb a path through them. I think that’s what keeps you going in stressful and tragic times. We continue to use our bodies, to bring new souls into the world, and to eat. It’s what we do. Have a wonderful and numinous Thanksgiving!


Tuesday, November 10, 2015

crooked little trail

Even in this fall, so generous with its glory, the time change has been painful. It’s bad enough that the days are getting shorter so quickly, without a whole hour suddenly yanked out from under you. So I’ve decided just to ignore it. Oh yeah, I changed the clocks, but instead of going to bed at 11 o’clock by the clock I’ll go at 10, or even 9, or maybe 8. I’ll get up when the clock says 6, or whenever I damned well please. Somewhere that feels like it would have been 7 a week or so ago. My natural wake-up time. We’ll eat dinner at ... well, maybe 7, still. The only problem is wine – I’d feel too guilty if I drank when the clock said 4, so I’ll just wait until it tells me 5.
This morning, the tiniest crescent moon in the dark eastern sky below the most radiant Venus I’d ever seen, then a beautiful pink sunrise, but only for about 10 minutes, that I would’ve missed if I’d gone by the new time. Like a sheep. The weather has been so clement that I find myself still outside digging Jerusalem artichokes or cutting down perennials until it’s pitch dark, and skunk-o’clock, I tell my little dog, Dakity.  In we go.
Perhaps that’s why I have not experienced that moment, that happens each fall where I’m cooking pork chops and apples – something too substantial – and it’s dark, and we’re sitting reading at the table, and the storm windows have replaced the screens in the door, the fire is licking up the chimney, and instead of feeling bucolic I feel claustrophobic, depressed about the whole thing. But this year there’s been a variety or openness about the hours and the days, and a different headset about getting dinner on the table. What do I want to eat? What needs to be cooked? 
The other night it was Late Fall mushrooms from the maple stump in the yard, baked butternut squash, some Brussels Sprouts’ tops (the new IN thing this year) in the sauté pan, and beets boiling forever, like nigh onto 2 hours.  Maybe I stored them a little long in the fridge.
Not a bit o’meat here, you’ll notice, or at least Leo did. But the next day I started a three day stint of making bone broth. Got some beef knuckles and marrow bones from Bald Mountain Farm Store on Cold River Road at the Hubbard place, put them in a lobster pot, covered them with water and boiled them slowly all day. In the evening I mashed some of the marrow fat on bread and salted it. What a treat! The second day I went through the freezer and found some meaty shank bones, and some pot au feu juice, added them and boiled again,  slowly, all that day, too, as well as the next. We had an Asian beef salad in homemade pita that second night, noodle bowls the third – soba noodles with scallions and shredded carrots, doused in boiling broth, and eaten. Because that pure bone broth is incredibly tasty, and some say very healthy. The only addition I made to it was half a carrot that was left over from shredding for the noodle bowls. And some salt.
After I strained all the bones out – they were falling apart by then – I simmered the broth down some more until it cooled and solidified into 5 pint jars.  More bouillon than consommé, even.
The reason the idea of bone broth took hold of  me is that nonsense – I’m sure you read about it – about red meat causing cancer. Really? Are we making any differentiation between grass-fed, organic beef and the gawdawful industrialized crap most people are used to eating? It made me mad, and so I made an essence of good beef –  its very essence.
And, because I’d gone to Bald Mountain, I had those bones. And a lot of stories. I had emailed them in the morning asking if they’d be open that afternoon. Oh yes, they were always open, was the answer. When I got there, sure ‘nuff, they were all locked up, but with a note on the door saying someone was around to open up for me if I would just call this number. I called the number and ... left a message. And I was irritated. But then I began to look around.
The first thing I noticed were some big humped birds resting on the old red trucks in what must be the Hubbard truck graveyard. Turkeys? No. Peacocks. Or peahens. And then a big brown bunny hopped by (Theo told me later that there were white ones as well, and, well, of course spotted ones, too.) Big brown and black and white chickens were stalking about their fenced-in yard. A Big Old Dog (named Tank, I found out later), ambled by emitting a ferociously lazy grumble. Turkeys in the distance. Angus across the road. All the animals are BIG! And then Brigid came back – blond and chic and kind of shy and full of stories – and let me in. She is Theo’s mother, married to the original Ted R Hubbard’s son. Theo is the one who dreamed up this organic meats store. She told me that the original Ted R Hubbard, back in the 20’s (I may have these generations mixed up or I may’ve missed one) was raising hogs and he’d go to various houses and businesses around town to pick up their table scraps to bring home to feed his pigs. Soon a lightbulb went off and he realized there was money to be made in this going to people’s houses and taking away stuff they didn’t want anymore. Getting paid for it as well as feeding his pigs with it. So was born “Ted R. HubbARD, Trash Hauling”. All these years later there are pigs on the farm again, and chickens and beef and... well, peacocks, looking like nothing so much as big ole guinea hens. Or Aryan war helmets.
Next day or so I stopped by for a strip steak – it’s all grass fed beef, not an ounce of grain, and they’re proud of its marbling – and Brigid asked me if I would like one that wasn’t frozen. Apparently she thaws some and keeps them in a separate fridge for those who want to cook a steak for dinner and don’t have time to thaw it. When I asked about the birds – peahens or peacocks? – she told me the story of an old peahen whose mate had gotten squashed somewhere, she just pining away for chicks, and so Brigid took one of her hens’ eggs and gave it to the peahen and she hatched it and nursed it and is now followed around by a large brown chicken.
That number I’d called? Theo called me back just as I was getting in the car after talking with Brigid. It’s a little hit or miss but it works.
Those shorter days got me cooking more than beef broth, though. In interstices of time, I made three jam jars full of the simplest – and best – chocolate mousse in the world – recipe below. On a different note, I made a sauce with all the vegetables on the counter that needed to be cooked – mostly tomatoes that hadn’t ripened on the vine and a few peppers, and gnarly little apples.
I’d started that pita dough in the morning with a couple cups of flour, a teensy bit of yeast – ¼ teaspoon at the most – salt, some yogurt and enough whole, raw milk to make a rather stiff dough. I figured it would get a little more liquidy as the day went on and it fermented and rose, but it didn’t, and the pitas were not that great. I just took golfball-sized pieces of dough and flattened them out in a tortilla press before I griddled them. They worked with the shredded beef salad.  
Then I added more flour and a little water to the leftover dough and let it sit out all night to rise. It didn’t rise much, but the next morning I tossed it anyway – I was tired of dealing with it – into a sizzling hot cast iron pan that I’d heated along with the oven to 450°, covered it and baked it for half an hour, then took it out of the pan, turned it on its top in the oven turned down to 350° for another 20 minutes until it sounded hollow when thumped. It turned out to be a pretty good loaf of bread, tender and tightly grained because of the milk and yogurt, but tasty and pleasant!
Turns out that bread – slathered with the butter I talked about last time, which is cultured by Ploughgate Creamery from Fayston, and available at the Co-op – when topped with the aforementioned chocolate mousse – makes a pretty good stand-in for Pain au Chocolat or even a chocolate croissant. And the mousse could not be easier to make (nor the bread, for that matter).
Chocolate Coconut Mousse
  • 7 ounces very dark and good chocolate, chopped coarsely
  • 1 can (13.5 oz) whole coconut milk
  • 2 tablespoons chia seeds
Melt the chocolate over hot water – that is, heat some water in a pan, place a bowl over, not in, the simmering water, add the chocolate pieces, stir with a rubber spatula until the chocolate is just melted. Take from the heat. Pour and scrape the coconut milk into a blender, turn on low, scrape the chocolate into the coconut milk and then add the chia seeds. Process until smooth. Pour into 4 ramekins or 3 jelly jars. Decorate with dried, unsweetened coconut if you like.  Refrigerate until set, about 2 hours.
The jelly jars make nice little gifts for your favorite people, and you still have enough for your ownself.
Food leaves its own crooked little trail, doesn’t it? Hungry or not, you gotta love it.