On Sunday, we get the first really cool day of this summer; grey, blowsy and wet. Erin is couch bound, enduring the final days of a long and very tough summer pregnancy.
I have work to do today. The easiest part of the work up here is the growing of stuff; after all, once the ground has been lovingly jiggered with the right mix of compost and cow poop and planted, the elements and insects step in to do the rearing. It is the ultimate outsourcing exercise. All you need to do is keep the weeds at bay, provide supplemental water at times and wait. But once things start to mature, you quickly realize that there is more to do…and then suddenly, in the blink of an eye, there is a LOT more to do. It all starts the way a summer rain will on a tin roof. You look at your pickling cucumber vines that have begun to flower one day. It has taken so long for that to happen, years it seems. You watch them for about three days, follow the bees as they buzz and tumble drunkenly between the tiny yellow gold cups and then notice that voila, one of those flowers is attached to a tiny, prickly green cigar, a first pitter here. Your first little cuke has arrived! Then the same day another one or two pop up, a patter and pitter there. Then ten more show up. Pitter, patter, pitter patter and then suddenly there are fifty and they are all growing their warty asses off, a full blown cucumber storm and you are bailing out the vines for your life because not doing so means that they will be inedible at best and that your entire plant will stop fruiting entirely at worst. Substitute Zucchini into this scenario, or most other crop denizens. Suddenly, harvesting is the word of the day, an athletic event that tests even the strongest backs and knees. Baskets filled with daily picks line up on our counters, waiting for their next step. What we consume on a daily basis in our lavish raw salads doesn’t begin to make a dent. Something else needs to happen.
That something else is preserving the harvest or as locals say “putting up”. Putting up is a requisite when you grow the amounts we do because as creative as you may be in the kitchen you quickly learn that you can’t chow down peas, broccoli Swiss chard, carrots, beets or anything else- even in their different glorious forms- every night. One can use for example only a fraction of the cucumbers mentioned above fresh-they don’t like to wait around. And even if you could, if you stuffed them down the hatch morning noon and night, you still wouldn’t be able to eat as many as today’s prolific cultivars pump out. So we use time honored ways of capturing everything that we harvest here at the peak of its respective freshness and guaranteeing the deferred gustatory pleasure. But the enjoyment is far more than merely sensual and the real prize promises something more compelling. Because if you learn to do it and do it right, you capture more than just the flavor of food in its most authentic form and the satisfaction that can only derive from having grown it from seed or seedling. Paraphrasing a perspective of the writer Michael Pollan, harvest captures a moment, a beautiful, ephemeral and complex instance when that produce was ready to be harvested and made its wish known, taking part with us in a highly complex and evolutionary interplay between species, needs and desire. Cool stuff. I’ll sum it up in my own words this way. Come over for breakfast in February and I will crack open a can of our home-made Strawberry jam. You can spread that chunky, ruby red magic on to a hot piece of buttered toast all by yourself. Have a bite and you will understand.
Anyhow, there are many methods that we use to “put up” around here, such as freezing, canning, pickling and cold storing. There are other techniques such as drying and over-wintering that we make less use of but are equally viable. Usually, like today, we will employ a few different ones. The harvest du jour is composed of a large basket of freshly dug carrots, a pile of pickling cucumbers, a basket of Swiss chard, and a mass of Filet beans. I turn on some music, start water boiling and contemplate a strategy.
The carrots call to me first. Handling or eating a freshly picked carrot- or any other freshly picked vegetable for that matter- is an act of rediscovery. The carrot that we see in the supermarket bears little resemblance to the perfect archetypal form that we hold in our minds. They are a pale distant cousin in terms of their flavor, appearance or nutritional worth. That is an unavoidable consequence of their likely distance from harvest in the best case. In the worse, they can have been processed. You would think that nothing could be simpler than the perfection and simplicity of a natural carrot but our industrial food producers, not content to rely on nature’s foolproof blueprint for success, have found a way to “improve” upon them. If you are like most of us you have probably seen and bought bags of “baby carrots” from the supermarket chains. Far from being babies, those wee carrots are industrially produced and have been run through a machine that literally tools and rounds them to an “attractive” shape. Adding industrial insult to injury they are then washed and treated in chlorine and chemicals before being bagged. Don’t believe me? Buy a bag and put it in the fridge for a day. Open the bag and you will notice the smell of bleach and that the surfaces are a bit slimy. No, that is not your imagination. Welcome to the world of our processed, poisoned food supply. You have no idea. We are surrounded.
But we don’t have to be and you can have your perfect carrot. Once you do, you will never forget why it is so important. I scrub each of our home gown carrots under cool water this morning to reveal their startlingly flame-orange skins, their rich scent. My taste confirms the promise of what I see and I must munch as I go, feeling perfect mouth crunch and tasting a sweetness that almost doesn’t make sense, a vegetal fruitiness that only a gardener really knows because nobody else in fact eats food within footsteps of its source. I can vouch for their authenticity; I broke the ground around them in the spring. I planted the finicky little seeds and watered them and waited and watched them germinate and purpled my knees keeping the weeds away.
Forgive my fervor, but make no mistake. I am not today’s run of the mill food TV junky and fad follower. I consider myself pretty close to the real deal, having been gardening for most of my life, cooking passionately all that time and always a believer that food that you grew and touched and harvested yourself was the best. It seems so logical but it has only been in the last few years- more or less in synch with the ascendancy of food television- that the secret is out to the greater public, the consumerists: fresher food is better and knowing where it came from matters. Everyone is talking about it now, right? I grew up in the city but was fortunate to have both an Uncle and Grandfather who ran farm operations. I fell in dear love with that lifestyle at a very young age and spent every moment that I could with both of them which is why I now live out here again. Back in those days the truth, the real truth was that farmers were ignored by pretty much everyone. They were marginal entities in society and in the economy. You NEVER heard someone venerate a farmer. I get so annoyed now that every chef and food pundit suddenly has fond, misty eyed memories of growing up on a farm. Everyone wants to be a farmer or know one- farmers are in essence following the meteoric elevation in public opinion that chefs have been over the last few years and I don’t have a problem with that at all. That is justly deserved. I simply get annoyed because authenticity guised as the “Farm to Table” movement seems sometimes like just another marketing tool to sell more cookbooks. One thing is for sure: the whole Goddamn thing has spawned a legion of annoying “cidiots” who crowd our local farmers markets, pawing the produce, annoying the farmers with stupid questions and trying to feel like they are leaders in the movement. Most of them don’t really even like food, that’s the funny part; they are the people who follow a recipe for lentil soup but leave out the best parts: the smoked ham hocks, the salt and the chicken broth.
My point is that everyone is now a food expert and they are still the picky eaters they have always been and the six hundred dollar set of copper pots and pans from Williams and Sonoma, the autographed Rachel Ray cookbook and use of the term “Locavore” doesn’t mean crap. Don’t spout off about the “food chain” and “sustainability” and “organic” to me, or for GOD’s Sake quote Wendell Berry, Michael Pollan or Sir Alfred Rodale (all people whom I admire intensely) until you have spent a day out in the field or gotten mud on a freaking SHOE!!!!! Then we’ll talk.
Man! Don’t know where that came from, but let’s go back to better things, namely those home grown carrots.
In my opinion, nothing tastes more like carrot than a carrot freshly pulled. We eat them sliced or shredded fresh and raw over almost every salad in the summer. They are tricky when it comes to storage though. Provided that they mature late in the season they can be covered while in the ground with a layer of straw to be dug out fresh through the hardest winter. They can be sliced and frozen, but in the process lose that crispy texture and that limits them to use in stews. I decide to take it a different direction today and invent a soup that will solve the problem. A well made soup will always capture the best in any ingredient and will freeze well. I have some fresh ginger in the fridge, so here is what I decide to make:
Curried Carrot and Ginger Soup
Slice up 8 cups of the carrots into 1/8” slices and don’t peel them first. Too much of the good stuff in a carrot is in the skin. Swirl some canola oil in the bottom of a good enameled pot and add a small handful of chopped fresh ginger. Let it go fragrant over medium heat. Next, add about 2 cups of sliced onions and let that work a moment. Add the carrots and a generous dash of ground coriander, yellow curry powder and a few waves of cumin and toss. A little white wine gets added next and that sits partially covered for about 4 minutes. Next, I add enough strong chicken broth to cover, bring the mixture to a simmer, cover and let it go until the carrots are very fork tender. In the final step, remove from the heat and use an immersion blender to whip the mixture smooth, check for salt and pepper and finish on the stove for another 5 minutes. Soup’s on!
Erin has a bowl for lunch and declares it awesome. When it is cool we will ladle the soup into small ziplock bags and freeze for cold winter days.
Next up this mornming, the string beans. We will freeze these for use in a variety of different recipes so we start by “frenching” and trimming them. Frenching refers to the removal of the “string” between the ends and is essential when beans have grown a little long in the tooth. After that process, I dump them in boiling water for 3-4 minutes, and then drown them in an ice water bath to stop the cooking and fix the color. From there, we stuff them into small baggies for the freezer. A handful of the freshly blanched beans will not escape our dinner plates tonight though through this recipe:
Blackened Fresh String Beans
This is awesome. Erin and I had something like this originally at the Saugerties Garlic Festival last year and we were hooked. So simple. We are still perfecting this but here is how we do it: first, take a couple of handfuls of fresh, blanched string beans and place them in a mixing bowl. Pour a little melted butter over them and coat them in with pre-made blackening or Cajun seasoning (store-bought is fine, but if you want to do it from scratch, try your own mixture of Bay Seasoning, Paprika, Garlic Powder, Onion Powder, Salt, Pepper, Cayenne Pepper and a dash of Mexican Chili powder). Heat a cast iron pan over high heat until super hot and then drop them into the pan, searing them until smoking and blackened. Serve hot with a homemade “remoulade” sauce (2 parts mayonnaise, 1 part relish, 1 part ketchup, 1 minced shallot, a dash of garlic powder and a splash of good tangy Worcestshire sauce) and you will be very, very happy.
What’s next? The chard. Oh, sweet, dependable chard. Swiss chard is one of my favorite things to grow for its fecundity, color, healthfulness, hardiness and of course flavor. It is an amazingly prolific veggie and our dense patch, harvested correctly, will stand proudly until the snow comes and all but buries it. It is always the last dependable splash of color in the garden; one of the most well known varietals is called Rainbow and provides a palette of white, gold, ruby and green stalks beneath the sturdy leaves. A really cool thing about chard is that it is like growing two finicky crops, spinach and asparagus, at the same time. The thick green leaves have the earthy rich taste and appearance of the former; the tender stalks impressively ape the flavor of the latter…amazingly well. We use both stalks and leaves in a variety of ways in our kitchen. I separate the two usually for freezing when we cannot eat freshly, chopping the stalks coarsely and throwing both them and the broad leaves into boiling water, followed by a cold water bath. They are then drained, bagged and frozen into serving sizes. The stalks can be used in all the ways the leaves can, and we often mix and store the processed ones together. Email me for more chard recipes or feel free to send me yours.
Here’s an awesome way to use chard leaves, in this pasta:
Spaghetti with Tomatoes, Sausage and Swiss chard
Blanch enough chard leaves to yield about a dense cup and a half worth of leaves when done and drained. Chop and set aside. Sauté two links of your best sweet sausage until well browned in a good pan. Remove and chop up into rough pieces and set aside. Do not drain the sausage fat. Add a little additional olive oil to the pan and then 2 cloves of minced garlic and some crushed red pepper. Let them do their stuff but not burn and then add three cups of your freshest chopped, seeded tomatoes and the juice. Let that work a moment; then add a pinch of additional sugar, some salt and pepper and a little white wine. Bring up the heat and let the wine cook off its alcohol for a moment, stirring. Turn down the heat, add back in the chard and sausage and let the sauce simmer covered for about 5 to 10 minutes. While that is happening, boil plenty of fresh water in a large pot. Add salt after the boil and then a generous handful of good pasta. Drain it when partially tender and add to the pan with your sauce, tossing well. Turn up the heat and finish your pasta that way. Serve really hot with some grated cheese, extra hot pepper on the side and a swirl of Olive Oil over the top. Really good eating!
In the winter, I will often substitute our own canned tomatoes (or even good store bought ones) in this recipe, sometimes finishing the sauce with a little cream and dash of nutmeg for a nice warm fireside-ish feel. We serve chard mixed with high quality country ham as a filling for omelets, as part of a pizza topping or as a simple side dish sautéed with garlic, minced anchovy, Portobello mushrooms and a splash of soy sauce. Summer, spring, winter or fall, chard is always a winner.
Last but not least I tackle the cucumbers. Almost done for the day. One of our favorite consequences of hyperactive cucumber vines are those precious pickles that will follow. Now I will confess to being a pickling autodidact. My grandmother pickled EVERYTHING that she could get her hands on- in her later years there were some unfortunate combinations. And as bad as I am, she never measured at all (reflected unfortunately in the way she drank her booze). So I don’t have any childhood recipes from her to share- this city boy had to teach himself. But the one thing she absolutely did teach me was that the glorious alchemy achieved through a combination of salt, vinegar, sugar and spices and just about anything almost never fails to please.
Yes, I have all the canning apparatus and have canned pickles, many different kinds from cauliflower (great pickler) and Broccoli (NOT a great pickler) to garlic (awesome pickler but even better when pickled with Grey Goose). Yes, my Ball’s Blue Book sits slouched on a shelf with my farming resource books and is stained and worn from years of use. Yes, it is rewarding for Erin and I to look in our antique dry goods cabinet and see rows of colorful Coptic-like glass jars stuffed with pickles and preserves that will last for centuries, only asking for a little dusting annually in return. But the dirty little secret is that “refrigerator pickles” take a third of the time, are crunchier and just as tasty. They take up more space in our refrigerator and they don’t last as long, but the way we chomp them down it’s a non-issue in the end. Forgive the heresy; I agree that there is no other option for your Roma tomatoes, I agree, and possibly other things too. Open to hearing from you. But let’s agree that making ‘fridge pickles means you can do it fast and don’t need to haul out and fill your canner (mine could double as a wading pool for our son) and other tools….a huge effort saver when you have so much other crap to get done.
So here is a very basic and simple recipe to try. I say “try” because I am not a cook book author and am not stuck on measurments, if you haven’t noticed. Use my recipes as a guide and adjust as you like. Feel free to give me feedback if you make them better! Keep in mind that with a few variations, you can so this with a wide variety of items. Things that work: hot peppers, cauliflower, carrots, string beans, fennel, garlic…get the picture?
Wash and slice some pickling cucumbers into thick rounds. Choose the smaller to medium sizes for their crispness and remember that regular cucumbers are not pickling cucumbers and don’t hold up well for any kind of pickling. More than likely your best bet is to grow pickling varietals or head to your local farm stand. Add them to a mixing bowl along with some sliced onion and whole dried Anaheim or Arbole chili peppers. Make your pickling juice next. Add about 2 parts of vinegar, 1 part water, about a ¼ cup of sugar and a little less of that in salt. Heat up the mixture to boiling until everything is dissolved. TASTE. If you don’t like it, add more salt or sugar or vinegar or water. There is no exact balance. Go with what you like. While the pickling juice is maturing, take a few canning jars, wire bands and tops and fill them with the cukes, onions and peppers (about 1 to a pint jar). Canning jars and tops are extremely cheap and double as cool, rustic drinking glasses- go out and by some by all means. You can also use them to freeze produce. Add a few tablespoons of generic “pickling spices” (I often make my own by combining peppercorns, crushed Bay leaf with and the seeds of caraway, juniper, coriander, Fennel, Dill and mustard and toss well. You can get really crazy and add hunks of Ginger, cloves of garlic…that’s the beauty of pickling!) Pour the boiling pickling juice (using a canning funnel!) into each jar, over the pickles until the liquid leaves about a ¼” of “headspace” with the top. Gently press on clean top and screw band on. Allow cooling and then label (really important) each jar and slide into the fridge to “marinate” for about two weeks. Then eat some home-made pickles!
Ok, so today’s post was supposed to be a short one on my Sunday but that is the way my Sunday’s are too; they seem simple and relaxed at first and then before you know it I have been working all day and am exhausted.
Let me leave you with a thought and perspective. Regarding my earlier rant about the clichés, hypocrisy and the “sound-byt-ing” of our many modern food movement pundits, I am in reality a huge fan and devotee of the cause. I get it completely and I am thrilled that so many people in our world now care about where their food comes from. I really am. I love the fact that Food TV personalities like Emeril Lagasse have taken the torch from Julia Child, democratizing and popularizing cooking in a way that is nothing short of astounding. In fact, I will go as far to say that today’s maturing societal awareness of food quality and sustainability may be more a function of this phenomenon than almost anything else. Hail to the cooking channel!
I also believe that we are living in positively thrilling times food-wise. We are looking around at each other slowly as if out of some long dormancy and realizing that the best ingredients are not actually the hardest to find and get…they are actually the easiest after all, the most local and ripe. Although it is a French word, “terroir” no longer owes the provenance of it truest meaning to the French alone; it no longer can be exclusively uttered by Californians and stodgy oenophiles. Terroir now has relevance and belongs to all of us; it exists everywhere, in France yes, and in California, but also in Weehawken, New Jersey, in Stewart, Florida- look no further than that pepper plant next to your porch, that cut of pasture fed steak or bin of corn at your local Farmers Market.
We are all in this together, we are all part of a Revolution whether we like it or not, you, me and even Jared from Subway- every single person you pass in the supermarket or squeeze past at a farm stand. We are all increasingly paying attention what we eat and where we buy it and the fact that more and more average consumerists are contributing willingly to micro and even micro-regional food production economies despite ferocious white noise and propaganda from our industrial food friends shows that we are winning battles. If you have been reading the New York Times, you will note two recent articles citing pending legislation to ban confinement in cages for industrially raised poultry and another revealing that genetically modified sugar beets have been sent back to the lab for more testing. Exciting times and I am proud to be fighting next to you. Keep the pressure up. Buy or grow local and support your farmers.
So, welcome to my blog. Love to get everyone’s input, recipes and ideas, gardening successes and failures, farming adventures….see you next week.