02 February 2014

Dormancy

A remarkable number of half-finished entries over the past six months, a reluctance to hit the "post" button, and unfamiliarity with the mix and jumble of words that spill out when I start typing.  Moving, I think, is like pruning.  While my roots and foundation remain intact (to clone two unwieldy metaphors), much of the outward expression of how I represent place has been shorn back, clipped to the trunk.  At first glance, there's not much visible difference between a pruned vine and a dead one, only the hope that it will send new growth out once again. 
Despite this dormancy, I continue to eat, cook, and think about food.  Everything is slower, maybe like a trout in a cold stream in Vermont, or the apple tree in my neighbor's yard, a few unfallen fruits frozen in place.  Maybe terroir - the expression of place - has more to do with a plant's dormancy than its growing period. Perhaps in the cold grey of February apple trees absorb the still-earth they rest in, and - without even a bud to dream of - gain the characteristics of the Champlain valley.  The summer sun shines equally on all, but in the cold, quiet earth of February, next year's harvest is already taking shape, framing its profile as cold snaps and rain storms rearrange our expectations about what will flourish next.
That which thrived last year, grew when nothing else did, still must be pruned back.  May, the bursting forth of new life, depends on January, February.  So, too, do my words.  For now, I am still
in winter's hold.

04 June 2013

When I drink great wine

When I drink great wine I’m usually with great friends. Last weekend I traveled back to Minnesota and spent an evening with a few friends at Dan and Anna Lisa’s home. Dan has turned into a real artisan of pizza, and his pies rival those of the great pizza joints that we both love eating in throughout the country. He seriously needs to build a wood-fired oven in his backyard, because even with his 500­°F kitchen oven he makes ethereal, baby-bottom soft dough, and tops it with the finest, straight forward ingredients.

Most of the Chablis I’ve drunk has been young, mineral-rich and bracingly delicious. The way Chablis expresses chardonnay matches my own sense of this grape: I like its ability to be restrained and flinty, and love the long pull of fruit. I was not prepared for the transformation the 1998 Domaine Laroche ‘Les Clos’ underwent while it sat in storage for the past fifteen years. After my first taste I wasn’t even sure if the wine was still good. We tasted and looked at each other, wondering if we were in for a disappointment. Turns out it needed about five minutes to open up and send us over the moon.

You know, I’ve always admired the focused senses that bird lovers bring to their hobby. Whether they hear a slight pip or see a fleeting rustle in thick leaves, they have the skill to say, oh, it’s a blah blah blah! And that knowledge thrills them because they may be seeing a certain bird for the first time in their lives. The birders I know bring the joy of discovery with them every time they walk through the woods or down a country road. Wine tasting, on the other hand, sometimes feels like it’s been taken over by technocrats who want to prove that they’ve identified something previously unnoticed by the more pedestrian palates of the world. Some tasting notes read like technical fact sheets represented by ever more obscure tastes and images. Now, I’ve been at tastings where someone has identified flavors that, once named, open up with the precision of a well-turned double play, giving me words to notice something that was just beyond my palate’s vocabulary. A wine drinker with a good palate and an expansive word hoard can give us tools for better expressing what we’re tasting, just as a birder can help us identify a mere disturbance in tall grass as a rare Henslow’s sparrow.

The Laroche ‘Les Clos’ was a swooning bottle, and the candied fruits and caramel sugars were tastes we kept noticing, a slow chant of recognition as we pressed our noses deeper into the bowls, hoping to infuse our memories with a permanent record of this ephemeral event. How does a grape do this? we asked over and again. We were seduced by this just-out-of-sight wine that brought utter silence to our group, a church-like stillness as we inhaled the incense of a High Mass.

After we left the church of Chablis we indulged in a few pies that Dan crafted before us, a deft hand moving dough, cheese and his own pulse of tomato-garlic-basil that he spoons on with a sparseness that celebrates the fullness of each earthborn ingredient. A sprinkle of olive oil and sea salt on this pie, and Brussels sprout leaves on the next. Yes, we all said in chorus.

And then we swooned again, driven deep into the forest of a 1985 Chateau La Mission Haut Brion. This Dionysian Bordeaux (my favorite appellation) is, right now, perfect for drinking, so if you have one in your basement, go home and share it with your lover, drink it with friends, or gulp it alone and contemplate the mysteries of earth. The fruit that once ripened on branches returned to humus and made a bed for mushrooms, tobacco, and the funk of soil that nourished these vines in Graves. We lingered over this wine, as certain of its power as we were of fleeting time, knowing that as long as this purple juice swirled in our glasses, our time together would not end. So we sipped slowly, spinning the night longer and onward with wholesome food and endless talk, reveling in friendship and our shared passion for this fruit of the vine and work of human hands.

13 May 2013

Dua, Vietnamese fermented mustard greens



When mẹ, my mother-in-law, pronounces this dish, it sounds like “awe” with a ‘dz’ prefix (like we hear in 'adze'), so it sounds like “dzawe” to my non-Vietnamese ears. She’s been making it forever, and though we’ve asked her several times to show us how to make it, it was only after my wife and I went to Vermont’s first fermentation festival that I pressed her to share her way of making it. Like many things she cooks, mẹ says it’s easy and that it can be prepared in a number of ways. Once I get the hang of a dish, this perspective is great, but it’s difficult to learn a new dish when most questions are answered by, “It doesn’t matter,” or “You can do whatever you want.” On the other hand, such ease with substituting or changing ingredients shows how comfortable and familiar some people are with dishes (rather than recipes) that are close to them; they see infinite variety in secondary ingredients, which keeps the same dish interesting year after year.

So many fermented recipes follow a similar pattern, and dua is another. Using mustard greens, which are a thick ribbed and heavy-fleshed leaf, dua differs in just a few ways. First, the washed leaves are separated and laid out to dry and wilt a little. Mẹ recommends an overnight wilting period but in the hot sun it might be only a few hours. Next, the leaves are cut into smaller pieces to make them easier to eat when they’re done fermenting, but they can be left whole, especially if you plan to cook the dua with pork, which is a favorite way to cook it. When I’m making sauerkraut I use the pretty standard ratio of 3 tablespoons salt for 5 pounds cabbage, but dua differs a little in that there’s not a lot of water to pull out through osmosis, so a brine is typically used. To make the brine, I bring water to a boil, add salt, and let it cool to room temperature. A few tablespoons of kosher or sea salt in a few quarts of water is a pretty good ratio – the brine should taste salty. Put all the wilted greens into a big glass or ceramic bowl or crock, and cover with the brine. I put a plate on top to keep all the greens submerged, and a water-filled bowl on top of the plate. A sliced onion is a pretty standard addition, and mẹ sometimes adds garlic, chili peppers, or ginger.

The important thing is to keep the greens submerged because the fermentation occurs in anaerobic conditions and exposure to air can cause less beneficial molds to form on the dua. When mẹ makes it she frequently skims a layer of mold off the top of the brine; I prevent that by keeping a plate and bowl on top, ensuring that the mustard greens stay submerged. And, of course, when you begin, make sure all your containers are clean – I rinse everything in very hot water, and if a container has been used for something that’s left residue of some kind, I first rinse it with boiling water.



When fermenting things the first few times my confidence sometimes wavered and it seemed beyond my reach. But I thought about our early human history as a refrigerator-less species, and figured that I could figure it out (with the help of a few books and conversations with friends.) So I hope you'll give it a try; ferment something and eat like most people did in those years people lived without electricity. Here’s my simple 1,2,3 to make dua, Vietnamese fermented mustard greens:

1. Wash a big heap of mustard greens and spread the separated leaves out to wilt, overnight. Cut into smaller pieces, if desired.

2. Bring a pot of water to boil and add salt. Stir to dissolve and let cool. Use three or four tablespoons of kosher, sea, or other non-iodized salt in the pot. It should taste salty but doesn’t have to pucker your eyeballs.
3. The next day, put the wilted greens into a big pickle jar, ceramic crock, or glass bowl. Cover with brine.
4. Put a plate on top. Put something on top of the plate to keep it weighted down.
5. Let sit for a week or so. Dua will turn pale and yellowish. When done, drain off brine, and store in fridge, covered. 
6. Eat with rice, as a cool accompaniment to spicy foods, or by itself.

09 May 2013

Broth


There are many times when broth is the best medicine.  With a nagging sore throat, I came home at lunch and remembered a small pot of chicken stock in the back of the fridge.  A quick sniff confirmed it was still good, so I put it on the stove to warm up and melt those little bits of congealed fat that now glisten on the surface.
The bones and leftovers from a roasted chicken make the best stock, much more flavorful than stock made from a whole, uncooked bird.  Even a little seven-week broiler that's been well picked over at dinner can make a few bowls of delicious broth for the next day.  To make it, I always break up the bones and carcass with a big cleaver, chopping everything so all the flavor can be drawn from the marrow by the slow gurgle of stock-making.  An onion at least, and if I have carrots and celery, all the better.  A bay leaf or two, a few cloves, thyme, pepper, and just a little salt.  I bring it to a boil, skim the scum, and gurgle it slowly, usually overnight.  With the lid barely cracked and the simmer low, my night time dreams are sometimes interrupted by smells of stock.  Morning come, I call it done.
We sometimes look too far for cures to our daily ailments, but this small batch of broth saved me, revived my tired throat and strengthened my bones and blood.  A pinch of mineral-rich sea salt, the pullings of new sourdough crust torn and dropped like dumplings.  Hot soup slurped, my sore throat soothed.

28 April 2013

And spring.




And spring. Even here in this rented Vermont house with clod-covered nails, gravel and clay out the backdoor, I scratched today on the earth and dropped seeds into it, chard, kale, cilantro, romaine, with the hope and certainty of sunlight, warmth, and rain.

This burst of warmth brings so many woodland flowers into bloom, and on a sweet hike today we saw trout lilies and bloodroot, and many others whose names I don’t know but whose color brightens the damp forest floor in these early days of sunlight.

Last week I saw the excellent documentary Chasing Ice by James Balog, who’s tracked glacial retreat using time lapsed photography to show the staggering loss of some of Earth’s most significant glaciers in mere years, photographic certainty of massive climate change. I left the film feeling really cynical because even among the people who recognize the central importance of climate change, few of us are doing anything about it. Sure, we might buy our lettuce at the co-op, or carry canvas bags, but every morning in this small town of 6500, I’m in a crush of traffic as all of us who know that climate change may fundamentally alter life on Earth drive our kids to school, pick them up, drive them to tennis or swimming or soccer practice, ad nauseum. We want fuel-efficient cars so we can continue to drive as wantonly as we do, with no impediment to our routines. “If only those climate-change deniers recognized that they’re wrong!” we think, as we wait for the red light to change. We’re hoping for a big policy that will make the difference for us, but it’s not going to happen. Reversing climate change is not like banning DDT.

The Clean Water Act did a good job of curtailing point source pollution (the kind that comes, for the most part, from a single point, like a factory), but we’ve learned in the intervening decades that non-point source pollution (the kind that comes from everywhere – your lawn, your neighbor’s cows, the runoff from a parking lot) is just as malign, and its ubiquity makes it even harder to regulate or reduce. So, while Lake Erie’s water quality improved when some of the biggest polluters were forced to clean up their discharges into the lake, many of our nation’s other rivers and lakes have continued to deteriorate. And you and I are the non-point sources of increased carbon dioxide emissions, and it’s not until you and I and many, many others change our own habits that complement and strengthen any hoped-for policies that we should expect to see atmospheric C02 decrease.

So here I am with my sourdough bread, glad that I’ve nurtured wild yeasts in my starter. I wrote in my last post, after thinking about what a sour ferment is, that if food is alive, we have to pay attention to what it’s doing, not what a recipe is telling us to do. Working with a live culture necessitates that we pay closer attention to the thing we’re making. For me, this doesn’t mean I have to drop everything when I’m making a loaf of bread, but the usual four cups (or whatever) of flour a recipe calls for may not reflect how the starter is absorbing the new ingredients.

I’ve used a Zojirushi bread machine for three years and didn’t utilize its versatility until I started making sourdough. Lately, I’ve sometimes stretched rising times to twelve hours or more, incubating those wild yeasts in a warm, stable environment. Other times I’ll knead the bread for thirty or forty minutes and in that time the bread turns into a sponge-like batter and I have to add another two cups of flour to the mash. I continue to experiment with times and ratios, and my kids have complained a lot more this year as their peanut butter sandwiches are sometimes made on bread sour enough to be traded for an Atomic Warhead. Other times a loaf comes crashing down after rising to zeppelin heights, or remains gummy no matter how long it’s worked. Bread is alchemical, and making it without commercial yeast lets me appreciate the long history of nurturing food cultures that shared knowledge and starters and cultures when there were no stores to provide for us.

22 April 2013

Sour


A sourdough starter is a magnificent thing. Mine lives in a half gallon pickle jar, which gives me enough room to grow it, stir it vigorously, and ferment it. Its consistency is somewhere between pancake batter and porridge, but the bright, pungent smell of sour immediately identifies it as a sourdough starter. Depending on one’s olfactory experiences, its aroma can be off-putting or enticing. A healthy starter seduces my taste buds with a clean, sharp pungency that contrasts so nicely with the crusty earthiness of a well-cooked sourdough loaf.

We’ve heard so much about food borne illnesses and pathogens lurking in our kitchens that we react to sour smells with mistrust and apprehension. In part because we’ve been bombarded by advertising that conflates sterility with healthy, anything that’s pungent is suspect, and we cast a skeptical eye on a ripe, fermenting vat of sourdough, throwing away anything that doesn’t look perfectly preserved.

A good sourdough starter works like a compost pile, digesting raw materials and preparing them for their next use. The wild yeasts and bacteria that inhabit my starter are alive, and that’s the biggest obstacle wild starters have in gaining acceptance in our modern kitchens.

We have an explosion of cookbooks, food magazines, cooking shows, and food blogs that will make sure that any time we want to cook something, there’s a recipe to make sure it won’t go wrong. Someone else has tested it and fixed its flaws and all we have to do is follow the recipe, and it’ll turn out. And if it doesn’t, there’s a healthy dialogue in the comments section following every online recipe, where the next great chef will declare that he used 2/3 tsp basil instead of the ½ tsp called for, and everyone raved about it for months and begged for the recipe. The last thing most of us want in the kitchen – especially when we’re about to entertain, or we have an evening of kids’ activities – is unpredictability, because it will wreak havoc on our need to get dinner at our prescribed time. And the idea that we’re in a relationship with our food, that it can be temperamental and fickle, is not something that appeals to most people most of the time, because in the short term sterility is easier – we come in, cook, eat, and are done with it. If food is alive, we have to pay attention to what it’s doing, not what a recipe is telling us to do.

I replenish my starter nearly every day. After I take a cup or two out for a new loaf, I add white or whole wheat flour, bread crusts, leftover oatmeal, and once in a while a scoop or two of brown rice. The water from my tap is chlorinated, so I leave a jar of it out for twenty-four hours before I use it in a fermenting starter because I don’t want the chlorine to kill the microbial life that is so active in the starter. I then use a wooden spoon to give the mixture a good stir, which exposes it to air, and the next day the bubbling ferment is ready for the next loaf.

15 April 2013

Brown rice and weeds

This is the place to begin.  A long season of change tempered by the steady influence of brown rice and weeds, oat groats, and sourdough bread. 

I left Minnesota with my family and moved to Middlebury, Vermont in October 2012, and we've spent the past six months settling into a new community, new schools, a new job, and everything else.  And now it's almost spring.

When I walk with my daughter in the evenings after the dishes have been washed I smell the still-cold air against the birthing earth, warm with rot and new growth, piles of crust and slips of green, always.  

Birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas, Lent, Easter; we've now celebrated these seasons among old friends, family with whom we haven't shared holidays in many years, and new friends who have been kind, generous, and welcoming.  I helped my sister make Thanksgiving dinner for thirty-five or so in Buffalo and we shared the Christmas season with my wife's siblings, parents, cousins, aunts and uncles, and other relatives in Montreal, eating great Vietnamese food and a few of our traditional Christmas cookies.  It's good to be here.

I've eaten oat groats for breakfast since I've been in Vermont, having switched to oatmeal more than a year ago after many, many years of coffee and doughnuts in the morning.  Lunch is typically brown rice and some leafy green -- weeds, as far as my kids are concerned, and I don't know if it's necessary to differentiate the chards from the kohls; what I notice is green life and energy as I walk back to work. 

And then there's everything else that we prepare and eat, buy and make.  Everything still is our food, and we eat at our table every night, candles lit and some form of grace said or recited.  On weekends there is wine, rare on a weekday unless a special meal is served.  Nuts and dried fruit find their way to the table most evenings, and when mangoes are ripe I peel one for my youngest.  We press our children to make desserts themselves, telling them that their effort is all that will produce a sweet on the table.  And still we talk, sit at the table and let conversations turn and grow into this tendril or that, as I hope this blog continues to do.









09 May 2012

Peas

     The tip of each pea tendril tapers to a point of delicacy, reaching its way to the next steel edge or taut twine.  From six inches to eighteen with incredible speed, the moisture and heat urge growth. Is that a lacewing there?                                                                                  

21 December 2011

City Council and the Democracy of Competing Ideas

Much attention has been paid to language used by Councilor Kris Vohs and Mayor Mary Rossing about dysfunction and incivility on the Northfield City Council. Several of the candidates hoping to fill the seat held by Councilor Vohs referenced it, and took it as fact that such conditions exists. I disagree wholeheartedly, and think Northfield is being well served by the City Council.

Debate, the exchange and rebuttal of ideas, and careful deliberation are the means by which we assess the merits of every motion that comes to us for a vote. In our deliberations we follow Robert’s Rules of Order, the standard manual on parliamentary procedure, but one that appears rigid and obsolete at times. Robert’s Rules are actually pretty logical, and provide a clear, equitable structure, ensuring that all members are heard and that one member cannot monopolize proceedings. Robert’s Rules has plenty of safety valves, too, and if a breach of procedure occurs – whether a councilor speaks out of order or disparages someone– each member of the council has the authority and obligation to interrupt and bring the matter to the attention of the mayor. No member of the council should allow any incivility to pass by unnoticed, and every member has a responsibility to address it promptly and directly.

During a recent meeting, I said the tax levy for the Economic Development Authority (EDA) should be drastically reduced, and the reaction from the mayor was thorough dissent. The direction of economic development and the EDA has been discussed frequently and consensus has been elusive; we argued back and forth, trying to squeak toward some common ground, but our views were not reconcilable. Discussions like that are difficult and even uncomfortable; I know that if I speak I may be challenged with spirited opposition, but as an elected official I have a responsibility to state my opinion publicly and put it to the test of my fellow councilors. We are equals on the council and we share the same rights and responsibilities, whether we exercise them or not.

One-time visitors to the council chamber certainly would have witnessed vigorous debate and passionate opinions that evening, but they were also seeing a cornerstone of democracy, the free exchange of competing ideas. Those hard debates are the necessary ones, the ones that ensure that all ideas are being considered, even if we reject them.

When the mayor and I met a few days later, there were no apologies, no averting of our eyes, and no discomfort, because what we had done a few nights earlier was what we were elected to do. So, we greeted each other with friendliness, smiled, and moved on to the business at hand. And when the matter came before the council the following week, we again disagreed. But take heart, because with so many issues queued up for consideration, we’ll all have the opportunity – many times over – to agree, disagree, change our mind, listen anew, learn, and serve our city. I love it.

05 October 2011

My neglect prevailed


















My neglect prevailed, but I was given this growth, these abundant plants that pushed through dirt and grew, even as I ignored the claims of spring and summer, the edict of sunshine and heat.  I forgot to care but was rewarded, by dint of throwing seed, with life-rich greens, and peas, peppers, beets, and leeks.  And now October's thinning heat and the near memory of what just was is slowly packed and preserved in bags of frozen blueberries, jars of applesauce almost made, and sauerkraut fermenting in a big stone crock.  Tradition is the memory of time, repeated.

18 September 2011

Gio Thu - Vietnamese head cheese

My wife grew up eating Gio Thu - Vietnamese head cheese, and none of my efforts to make a European-style head cheese have especially won her over.  Our friends across the street threw a big party last week and they served a roasted pig.  Luckily, some of their friends are vegetarian, and they didn't want the pig to look too pig-like, so they removed the head and gave it to me!  My wife showed me a post on The Ravenous Couple and said their Gio Thu looked like the kind she used to eat.  The recipe was certainly clear and straight forward, so I decided to give it a go.  My ingredients were slightly different, mainly because I used a whole head and no hocks.  Heads take longer for the meat to get tender, so I removed the ears when they were done and let the head simmer a little longer. I found an old coffee can and lined it with a big ziploc bag, and added enough weight on the top to press it down. 
This evening we ate it for dinner, along with rice, swiss chard, and an omelette.  I think it's the best tasting (and best looking) head cheese I've made yet. 

14 July 2011

Snap pea and rabbit risotto

My freezer still has a lot of rabbits in it, and I took out two the other day.  After they thawed I rubbed them with salt and put them back in the icebox, where they've been resting for a few days.  I'm slowly figuring out ways to prepare rabbit that keep the meat tender and tasting like rabbit. 

For the risotto last night, I cut the loins on a diagonal, very thin.  In my enameled, cast iron frying pan I added a pretty big pour of olive oil and turned the gas on.  Over high heat I fried the rabbit, adding only pepper.  The thin slices curled up and browned quickly, so I turned off the heat.  The meat was still very tender.

With our cold, rainy spring, my snap peas flourished, and now in the heat of July I'm harvesting the last of them, the tall vines disheveled and rampant.  Chard runs wild and parsley flavors everything.  At the end of the twenty-fives minutes or so of stirring the risotto I steamed the peas for just a moment, and added them to the creamy, plump rice.  The rabbit bits were saved for the top of the dish; I usually mix the meat into the body of the risotto, but I figured I'd let everyone do that as they saw fit.  Some, like my son, just ate it plain from the top, avoiding the chard.

Today I came home during lunch, turned on the oven, and quickly browned a few meaty legs in the dutch oven.  A scant cup of rabbit stock was next and then I put the lid on and put the pot in the oven.  I  changed into shorts and headed to my community garden plot and did some weeding and picked a few young zucchini.   When I got back home I showered and was soon back at work with clean clothes.   I left the meat to cook in the slowly cooling oven that I turned off as I left the house.

When I got home after work I pulled the rabbit meat from the bones it was barely hanging on to, and put it into a bowl.  I heated up the bit of stock in the pot and added a little flour to thicken it, and added a little more stock to make even more gravy.  With this evening's beautiful weather we ate outside.  I served the rabbit over rice with sauteed zucchini on the side, and a big Caesar salad from the garden.

I still have a few legs left; tomorrow it'll be something else.

29 May 2011

Spring garlic

I missed a few heads of garlic when I was harvesting them last fall, and as soon as spring came, those forgotten heads burst through the ground, green, leafy, and nearly as pretty as Siberian irises. And, they have the added benefit of being delicious.

Today I dug up one of the heads-gone-wild, and sliced all the whites and added them to a frying pan with a big glug of olive oil. After they simmered and softened I added a few eggs along with a generous portion of pepper. When the omlette-y egg covered the pan I added a heaped mound of arugula, a sprinkle of salt, and covered the pan with a lid. I flipped it once and let the arugula press into the smothering egg. A few corn tortillas with it and I had a most delicious Memorial Day weekend lunch, giving me energy and a happy belly to go back into the semi-soggy garden and plant a few more things.

22 May 2011

Right now

Last night while it rained I went outside and took pictures in my garden.  "Right now," I thought, "everything is alive."

Earlier in the evening my daughter and I watched worms dart  into the wet ground when we stomped or jumped; when I went out in the late evening damp they lay there plump and unconcerned, probably knowing all the birds were asleep.  After such a long, cold winter, and a cold, wet spring, it's easy to forget how irrepressible life is, how the push of seeds breaks soil long before we're ready to garden.  I missed a few heads of garlic last fall, and they were up and growing when the ground was half frozen.  I managed to get a few seeds into a the ground on a single sunny day in April, and I nearly forgot about them with the subsequent weather.  And now, when I'm still hoping for enough dry weather to get our garden planted, my peas are nearly a foot tall, and we ate a big bowl of arugula this evening.  If a living thing is given half a chance it grows, flourishes, thrives on air, sunshine, water, and warmth.  The wet air in the evening sometimes carries, in addition to its wet, the knock-me-over inhaled-intoxication of plum blossoms, apple blossoms, lilacs, and all things spring.  Life comes so soon, so quick, and it's here right now.


  

30 December 2010

Applesauce, again

For the second year in a row, we purchased the bulk of our apples after Christmas and spent a long, steam-filled day in the kitchen making applesauce. Last Sunday we bought about one hundred thirty pounds of apples and spent the rest of the day (and into the wee hours of the next) making and canning just shy of 50 quarts of applesauce. Had I not lost two jars to breakage in the canning pot, leading to messy delays, we would have reached that milestone. We're lucky because there's also a pot of ready-to-be-eaten-but-uncanned sauce in the fridge, as well as a bag of apples in the hallway that are waiting to be turned into tarts and pies. We used two varieties this year, Haralson and Fireside, and the tart Haralson is my favorite for both eating and cooking. The Fireside is a sweet eating apple, but its taste is a little too green for me, so I used the Haralsons at a 3:1 ratio.

This was the first year we didn’t core the apples; instead, I simply chopped them into pieces and tossed them into the pot. To prevent scorching, I put a little water in the bottom of the two stainless steel pots used to cook the apples; I’ve had problems when I’ve used a thin-bottomed aluminum pot, so that one is now used beneath the chinois to collect the about-to-be-jarred sauce. We cooked the apples just long enough to mash the pulp easily, after which we put everything through the chinois, which purees the pulp, giving it a smooth, even texture while trapping the seeds and skins. Pushing the hot, pink pulp through the chinois, as my son is doing in the picture, is hard work, but we're richly rewarded for our efforts.

Our recently cleaned and reorganized fruit cellar now holds an entire shelf of jars, and during the course of the coming year the kids will make frequent trips into the basement to retrieve the jars one by one. It’ll be served as a topping for pannukakku, brought to school for a lunchtime snack, and eaten plain while sitting at the kitchen counter. We’ll serve it with pork roasts and chops, and sprinkled with wheat germ or fragrant Vietnamese cinnamon. And finally, we enjoy giving applesauce to friends, a simple gift that is the distillation of an entire growing season in Minnesota and a single, steamy day in December.

23 December 2010

On the brink of Christmas

Here we are, on the brink of Christmas, the cookingest time of the year. Christmas cookies galore, a pork roast in the icebox with its rub of kosher salt and crushed juniper berries, a ham waiting for tomorrow, and a few undecided choices for Christmas breakfast. My siblings and I have been reminiscing about our delight in sneaking Christmas cookies from the downstairs freezer when we were kids, and how even today we all enjoy them frozen. I just told my sister in Alaska that I still prefer a Christmas cookie that I’ve sneaked, even from myself!

Tonight the kids and I will bake our last batch for the season, and tomorrow we’ll start eating them. While I have no remorse about pilfering Christmas cookies relentlessly, I abstain until Christmas Eve dessert, the traditional start of Christmas cookie season. It’s only after we’ve tucked into the ham that our anise-laced cutouts reach their full potential, and the gingerbread men are best as we near the Epiphany. So for now, although the tins, canisters, and wax paper-lined shoeboxes are packed to the gills, I still have to scavenge for a little dessert. Luckily there’s still a little of that delicious sesame-honey crunch we bought in Greece. Merry Christmas!

12 December 2010

My Garden in December

The snow has stopped falling and the brilliant blue sky is washed clean.  Enormous mounds of snow line the streets, proof of our industrious snow-blowing and shoveling.  My garden is buried beneath the snow, the last of the brussels sprouts, beets, and leeks frozen 'til spring.
My wife and I recently spent two weeks in Turkey and Greece, our first vacation in the eastern Mediterranean.  We loved the hamsi in Istanbul, the pomegranate syrup in Sirinci, Turkey, and the kebaps in Athens.  But, what really struck me was a simple breakfast treat at our hotel in Athens, a small, clear glass filled with yogurt, honey, and pistachios. I was reminded that all food, when made with good ingredients, nourishes and sustains.  The quality of the ingredients was outstanding, and the honey especially captured the intensity of the dry, fragrant shrublands known in the Mediterranean as garrigue.  Just as great wine comes from stressed vines, it seems that great honey also comes from the stressed heather, thyme and other plants of the region.  And where do the cows that make such yogurt graze?  The few we saw were wandering  through the same rocky terrain that obviously yielded much (including olive oil) despite its inhospitable appearance. 
Foods that capture and embody the particulars of place leave a lasting memory, and remind us that what we eat is as rich with history and culture as the beautiful sights we travel to see.

05 November 2010

...and politics (not... A Chicken In Every Pot)



I picked these Brussels sprouts after a good, hard frost - cut them actually, cut each tight bud close to the wrist-thick stalk with a small paring knife. I shocked them in cold water after parboiling them in a scant half-inch of liquid water on the cusp of turning gaseous (the H2O, not the sprouts!) for a mere minute. Into the saucier I added a cut of butter, then slices of piment d'esplette, which I sauteed with all their seeds, adding a little heat to this fall classic. A big nob of leftover sweet potato was next, and finally, with the flame turned up, the Brussels sprouts. Salt, pepper, and a perfect fall dish, the heat of the peppers waking up the living green of this much-loved brassica.

And politics? Yes, I ran for city council in this beautiful, small, Minnesota college town on the Cannon River, and on Tuesday I won the election. On January 4th I'll take the oath of office and begin a four-year term as a member of Northfield, Minnesota's city council.

I started this blog with food on my mind. And it was hard to think about food without paying attention to the context in which it ends up on the tip of my fork, so I named this blog Duck Fat and Politics. From the beginning friends and readers have asked me about the politics part of the blog, and for the most part I've referred to politics as the broad set of relations between people and society, thinking less about electoral politics than the way we interact with each other (and our food.)

Electoral politics has long fascinated me, and I've often wondered if I'd be any good at it, making sense of competing, conflicting ideas, and making decisions I can live with, trying to address the complexities of living in a community. With a busy job, young children, and always making a real effort to be fully engaged as a parent and spouse, elected office was something just a little too far away, something that would require me to make sacrifices I wasn't able to make, or something that required qualifications and skills I didn't possess. So, while elected office intrigued me, it wasn't too pragmatic to think about a real run for elected office because of these limitations.

But, time passes (too quickly for the most part,) and a few years ago I renewed my lapsed subscription to The New Yorker, and noticed that my bedside pile of books was regularly growing and shrinking: time had returned! And I had time to think about politics and elected office again.

While I've written about politics only a few times in this blog, I'm surrounded by politics in the same way you are. Watching our economy expand and nearly collapse in recent years, I’ve been startled by the range of responses and reactions of individuals and political parties. So much change occurs on a local level where part-time elected officials grapple with the consequences of rampant partisanship on a national level.

Progress depends on compromise, and I don’t think the partisanship we see accurately reflects our various communities. We’re united by so many commonly shared beliefs yet we’re allowing the disagreements to set the tone of our political life. I’m comfortable with compromise, negotiation, and ambiguity. And at the same time, I know that at times progress occurs only when decisions are made and some possibilities are eliminated. I like arguing my point but I enjoy resolving things, too. I can’t promise a chicken in every pot, but sharing a big pot of stew might be a good place to start.