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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