Wednesday, September 30, 2009

A Watermelon Manifesto

Seedless watermelons. I can't stand them. Well, secretly, I too have been victim to their charms (so much easier for cooking!), but when it comes to my garden I flatly refuse to grow them. It's a philosophical stance for me, as well as an aesthetic one. Unquestionably, they look silly. What's the vivid pink and electric green of a watermelon without the unassuming black seeds holding it all together? But more than that, seedless watermelons represent all of the single-minded striving for ever greater convenience that defines the age of happy meals, disposable clothing, and climate control at the touch of a button.

This is not to say that I want to start washing my clothes on a wash board. No, Margaret has already commandeered the one we found in the barn for her band. Convenience is not the villain: in a sense, canning, freezing, and all of the other methods of food preservation that I champion are ways of creating future-convenience. But whereas putting up food for the winter requires forethought and planning, throwing out jeans at the first small hole in the knee or purchasing a happy meal in desperation is a sign of a lack of prudence or economy.

So how do watermelons relate to prudence and economy, you ask? Not directly, perhaps, but consider what you loose when you watermelons loose seeds. You loose watermelon seed spitting contests on the porch stoop. You lose the childish superstition of a swallowed seed lodging in your gullet and growing a watermelon-child. You loose the promise that you too could grow a watermelon, if you only had inclination and soil and sun. You opt out of the ancient tradition of saving seed and instead entrust the future of your food to the plant technologists who would patent life and profit from sterile seeds. You teach your children that they can have exactly what they want in the moment, unobstructed by bread crust, peach fuzz, or cherry pits.

And so that is why I spent the spring time digging rocks out of my garden. So that I might eat watermelons in September, after waiting all season, and spit out the seeds into a bowl. That is why I spend this evening in front of the stove, sipping wine, and finally darning the holes in my winter socks before frosty chill slips off of the mountains and into our valley for good.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Economies of Scale

Under normal circumstances, I'm not one to advocate for economies of scale. They have their place and purpose, I know, but I'm of the opinion that we Americans are a bit over-attached to the concept, to the detriment of both our food system and our waistlines. But when you need to make enough tomatillo salsa to feed a hungry crew of farmers all through the winter and spring, you're going to need some very large pots.

Since we arrived in April, we've gone through gallons of the glorious, spicy stuff--its the perfect accompaniment to any meal with even a hint of the Southwest. As a result, our pantry has lately been overflowing with empty mason jars, and the canned good stash beneath the stairs has begun to run low. The time had come to replenish the larder, to fill the hungry jars with a long winter's worth of applesauce, dilly beans, and tomatillo salsa.

We began by husking, washing, and weighing the 25-ish gallons of tomatilloes we had harvest the day before. Tomatilloes are, after all, the limiting factor in our salsa operation. Once we had a tally on our tomatillo total, we began scaling up the rest of the recipe to match: 4 cloves of garlic became 256, 1 teaspoon of salt became 1 1/3 cups. It tried the limits of my conversion skills to translate pounds into bushels, teaspoons into shovel-fulls, but eventually we assembled all of our ingredients (they occupied every bowl in the house, as well as most of the pots) and began the laborious process of peeling garlic, washing cilantro, and prepping onions and peppers. We roasted the tomatilloes, jalapenos, onions, and garlic in the bakery oven, then pureed our potion in batches, with a hand blender.

Don and Bridget are the lucky owners of an Amish waterbath canner--a deep, rectangular tub that covers two burners on the stove and easily holds 15 quart jars at a time. I actively fantasize about the day when I can call one of the babies my own. We cranked up the stove, sloshed the massive canner atop, and pressed on. At long, long last, we pulled the final jar out to cool. The lids popped loudly into an airtight seal, and we stepped back to admire our handiwork.

That was two weeks ago. Last weekend we had our first frost, a wake up call for me to finish my own canning projects or forever hold my peace. I wanted to put up my own small stash of salsa, but our epic process seemed a bit daunting for my own purposes. So I scoured the Internet and found the ideal salsa recipe for someone slightly less ambitious that our Caretaker army. It calls for a pressure canner (fun new skill!) but is very, very simple, and it scales up by 10 (my style) or 64 (if you want to feed farmers, a la Caretaker)

For your canning pleasure (many thanks to food blog Doris and Jilly Cook!):

Tomatillo Salsa

1 lb tomatilloes, husked and washed
water to cover
1 onion
2 jalapeno peppers
cilantro to yield 1/4 cup cilantro, chopped

Put the tomatilloes in a pot with just enough water to cover them and bring to a boil. Cook for 10 minutes, until the tomatilloes change color and become squishy.

Remove about half of the water, but save it, in case you want to thin your salsa at a later stage.

While the tomatilloes are cooking, chop the onion in a food processor. Chop the jalapeno. Chop the cilantro. It is simplest if you chop each ingredient separately, as they all have different textures.

Puree the tomatilloes with a hand blender, then add the other ingredients and blend everything with the hand blender. Salt to taste.

Process in a pressure canner at 10 lbs pressure for 5 minutes (pints) or 10 minutes (quarts).

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Don't Tell My Professors...

Ever since I was in elementary school, I have loved Wallace Steven's poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at Blackbird" for its dark wintery mysteries. But as it is not yet dark and wintery here, I think that a small homage (or parody, depending on your perspective) is in order.

Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Chicken

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the chicken.

I was of three minds,
Like a roost
In which there are three chickens.

The chicken bathed in the dust on autumn winds.
It was a small part of the pantomime.

A man and a woman
Are one.
A man and a woman and a chicken
Are one.

I do not know which to prefer,
The beauty of inflections
Or the beauty of innuendoes,
The chicken clucking
Or just after.

Icicles filled the long window
With barbaric glass.
The shadow of the chicken
Crossed it, to and fro.
The mood
Traced in the shadow
An indecipherable cause.

O thin men of Williamstown,
Why do you imagine golden birds?
Do you not see how the chicken
Walks around the feet
Of the women about you?

I know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That the chicken is involved
In what I know.

When the chicken ran out of sight,
It marked the edge
Of one of many circles.

At the sight of chickens
nesting in a green light,
Even the bawds of euphony
Would cry out sharply.

He rode over Connecticut
In a glass coach.
Once, a fear pierced him,
In that he mistook
The shadow of his equipage
For chickens.

The river is moving.
The chicken must be laying.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The chicken sat
In the barn’s-basement.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Working On My Forehand

Last winter, while in New York City, I heard that the Museum of Modern Art was showing a Van Gogh exhibition which highlighted Van Gogh's night skies. Of course, "Starry Night" was the centerpiece around which all other paintings orbited. It fame is certainly justified, and the turbulent skies over the village seemed even more celestial when I saw them in person. But what caught my eye and held me transfixed was a smaller painting entitled "The Sower."

The image of a peasant sowing wheat or oats or barley was a fairly stock one in art--Van Gogh himself did several different studies on the theme. Nevertheless the painting captivated me, drawing me out of the crowded gallery and away from the chilly city streets. The colors of "The sower" are more muted than the brilliant blues and shocking oranges of some of his other works. And yet the sun, hanging large and low on the horizon, glows with a hazy late afternoon light that is familiar and beloved by me. The tree in the foreground could be just putting on the new growth of spring, or sliding into autumnal fire.

The sower returned to me today, as we seeded our open fields with our winter cover crops. Normally, we use a "spinner" slung over one shoulder to distribute the seed evenly. Walking steadily in a straight line, we turn a crank at the base of the seedbag and fling seed out over the soil in a fertile arc. But our spinner is broken, and the covers need to be sown, so we grabbed a few buckets and did it by hand. Truth be told, there is satisfaction and a simple pleasure in playing the role of the sower. Don showed me how to find my rhythm--step, reach in, pull out, release--and he fine-tuned my technique until with a flick of my wrist and and open hand I could broadcast the rye in a wide, even spray. At first, the bucket of seed hung heavy and clunked awkwardly against my knees. My right arm and shoulder ached from the snapping throw. I worried that I might oversow here, or undersow there. A poorly seeded cover crop would leave out fields vulnerable to erosion or provide opportunities for our overeager weed populations to take off come spring. I got the hang of it, gradually. All the while, I thought of Van Gogh's sower: his inward look and his empty fields. The haystacks and the vegetables will come again, but first we must rest.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Can She Bake A (Husk) Cherry Pie?

In some respects, the process of becoming a good eater is almost more fun than the actuality of being one. The road to good eating is paved with firsts--my first portobello mushroom, thick and savory, the piquant crunch of my first pickled okra, the vivid nourishing freshness in my first bite of kale. I may never be the National Geographic explorer to which I once aspired, but I fill my hunger for adventure in the kitchen and the fields. The more unusual the vegetable, the more unexpected the flavors, the more interested I become. As life goes on, however, it becomes harder and harder to surprise me with new tastes. Kohlrabi? I've eaten loads. Cherimoyas? I'm already a fan. I even managed to snag some Colombian fried ants this winter, thanks to a care package from Alina. Thankfully, even as my tastes expand and the realm of the yet-untasted shrinks, I savor my quirky comfort foods: Swiss chard gratin with nutmeg, melon and basil soup, and lemon-cilantro roasted sweet potatoes.

I wonder sometimes how my far-ranging tastes will be expressed in my own future farm. I am, as Andrew reminds me, a bit more daring than the average consumer, for whom eggplant is a walk on the wild side, rather than a seasonal staple. If I grow the unusual varieties and unorthodox veggies which send me into raptures, will I be able to convince anyone else to buy them? My characteristic enthusiasm may be contagious, but rare is the brave soul who has yet taken me up on my suggestion of chocolate-covered radishes (seriously--try it. The sharp, juicy crunch of a radish is perfectly mediated by the rich creaminess of dark chocolate. But then, what isn't improved by a dunking in cacao?) I plan to offer lots of free samples.

Husk cherries (aka ground cherries, uchuvas, or cape gooseberries) are the latest revelation in my quest for novel edibles. Enclosed in a papery shell like a miniature tomatillo, ground cherries hang from their low-growing plants like Chinese lanterns. Within the husks, the fruit resembles a golden marble with an tart, almost tropical flavor. Husk cherries are perfectly delicious on the own as a summer fruit snack, but if you're feeling fancy and want to truly impress, I recommend a ground cherry pie.

Husk Cherry Pie
adapted from the excellent Mennonite cookbook Simply in Season

for the crust:
1/2 cup white flour
1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 t sugar
1/3 cup butter
3 tablespoons ice water

for the filling:
3 cups husk cherries, husks removed
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/4 cup sugar
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/3 cup flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon butter

Prepare the crust: mix the dry ingredients together in a food processor, then add the cold butter, chopped into 4 or 5 pieces. Pulse the butter and dry ingredients until they resemble coarse crumbs. Add the cold water and pulse until the dough forms a ball. Remove from the food processor, shape it into a ball, wrap it in cling wrap and chill it in the fridge for at least one hour.

Preheat the oven to 425. Roll out the dough on a well floured surface until it lines a 9 or 10 inch pie pan. Prick the crust with a fork, cover it with alumnium foil, and blind bake it for 5 minutes. This will make the crust crispier.

Prepare the filling: Sprinkle a little of the sugar in the bottom of the crust. Mix the remaining sugar with the flour, the fruit, and the lemon juice. Pour into the pie crust. Sprinkle the top of the pie with the cinnamon and small daps of the butter. (I find that the golden berries are so pretty that a lattice crust is completely unneccesary) Bake at 425 for 10 minutes then reduce the heat to 350 and continue baking for an additional 25-30 minutes.