Thursday, October 29, 2009

Fuck that fun-size bullshit

Walking in the rain on the way to work this morning I was negotiating with coffee and gloves, umbrella hanging on the twisted knot at the back of my head, when I was abruptly splashed from behind by a filthy spray from the street, compliments of a passing sport utility vehicle. It soaked through my jacket, my sweater, reached my skin. It was gross. I forgot about it. My umbrella turned inside out. I turned into the wind.

Coming home late, I opted to take the other side of the street, navigating deep puddles in the drizzle, and came within one small step of being run down by a preoccupied business-man who did not notice me, even as I stood at his elbow, and sped away from his parking spot without ever knowing I'd been there. If I'd been moving one second faster he'd have hit me dead-on. Or seen me. Or both.

The rain fell light and fast on the way home, no drops but wipers on high, another dark and dreary evening of this wretched season. I can't remember a Fall so foul. I crossed the river to a familiar intersection, where someone always waits, and as I made that soft turn felt the warmth of my own involuntary pull toward home. As I approached the last light at the top of the hill, a black cat scurried across my path.

That's about how my day was, not that anyone was asking.

So the Bare Bones show this year is Devoured. Toward it I look eagerly forward, as always, trusting that it will not fail to cast a flickering light into our darkest corridors, however briefly, and show us the teeth and hands of the strange, shadowy night we know as Halloween. Wear your mask, lantern lit.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

(Mom's) Vegetable Soup

My Mom has a way with food. I'm not talking about the way everyone's Mom does, I mean she really has a feeling for food, understands seasoning, knows how to feed people... This is one of her recipes which, although distantly related to familiar dishes of the same name, is (imho) unrivaled in the one-pot-meal-in-a-bowl-comfort-plus-nutrition cooking category. Mom makes it with a beef soup bone, but I do it without (it's easier, and you won't miss the meat). My version varies from one pot to the next, but here's the basic idea.

This should go without saying, but be sure to use the best vegetables available, because their quality is what makes this soup. I find it's best to prep all the veggies first and have them at the ready before you start cooking. Amounts here are approximated based on my last batch, which was at least twice this size, but all can and should be adjusted to your preferences, of course.

1-2 tbsp canola oil
2 c onions, diced
1 c celery, diced
1 1/2 c carrot,
sliced about 1/4", in quarters, halves or small rounds
3-6 garlic cloves, minced (about 1 tbsp)
2 quarts water, more or less
1 c pearled (or hulled) barley
vegetable boullion (optional)
2 c rutabaga, diced 1/2"
2 c potato, diced 1/2"
3 c cabbage, chopped in 1" chunks
1/2 c turnip, diced 3/8"
1 28 oz. can tomatoes, diced or chopped, or more to taste
1 c corn, fresh or frozen
1 c green beans, fresh or frozen, cut in 1" pieces
1 tbsp fresh or 1/2 tsp dried parsely
1 large bay leaf (or 2 small)
salt and pepper

I usually start by pouring the oil into a large, heavy-bottomed soup pot (min 8 quarts). Then I chop up the onion, celery (you can include some of the leaves if you like but don't overdo it...fresh local celery, in particular, can be very pungent) and carrots, and toss them in the pot while I chop up the rest. Sure, you're supposed to heat the oil before you add the vegetables, but they do okay without preheating and it's nice to have them out of the way while you fill up the rest of your counter space with all the other veggies.

Once everything's chopped up, turn the heat up to med-high and saute the onion/celery/carrot (aka mirepoix) for a minute or two, then add the garlic and cook for a couple minutes more. When the onions are soft and the carrots are not yet, add the water, bay leaf and bouillon (I might use 1 square of Rapunzel Vegan w/Salt & Herbs. Or not.), with maybe 1/2 tsp of salt and a few cranks of freshly ground or some good shakes of plain old black pepper. Bring to a boil. Add the barley and simmer until it's just soft, then add the veggies, in the following order, leaving a couple minutes in between: rutabaga, potato, cabbage, turnip.

Cook for about 10 minutes, then add the tomatoes (I add these close to last because I've been told their acids can inhibit the ability of grains and some vegetables to absorb water. I can't corroborate this with any information from the web but I can attest to it, from experience. Try adding dry rice to a tomato base and see how long it takes to cook.) Add more water and/or tomatoes as necessary to achieve desired consistency (best nice and thick) or flavor (don't overpower those mellow roots).

Let everything stew for a while. Before the rutabagas and potatoes are fully tender add the beans, followed shortly after by the corn. Stir in the parsley, season with salt and pepper to taste, and let stand for a short time before serving.

I think that's it. See how it goes, let me know.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Neo-Nazi nanobots are going to kill us all.

I swear to god, some days I really hate what I do.

A freaky Hawaiian once explained to me that all human interaction was essentially an act of persuasion. A compelling argument. Then I think about the difference between getting someone to go for a moonlight swim with you and talking them into joining the army.

There's no going back.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Compassion for the Lost, or Not

Tuesday evening I caught the eye of a young man who was changing directions on a street corner downtown. He had just spun back around again as I walked up. On the slight side, sporting a nylon jacket of red, white and black, he approached me with an expression of mingled anxiousness and pleasant surprise. He was in the vicinity, he said, but needed help finding the rest of his way. The address he gave was unfamiliar. His English was fine and I presumed him to be a Japanese student at the University, though neither prevented me from talking a little too loudly as I offered my assistance. I looked left and right. He handed me a piece of paper bearing detailed instructions from I took them in, puzzled for a moment, and then pointed him toward what I imagined to be his destination, wishing him good luck with a friendly pat on the arm. He thanked me and walked on. Steps later I realized that I had just sent him off in the wrong direction, entirely--not because I didn't know the way but because I had been simply unable to make any present sense of the words that clearly told me he was in the wrong place. It was not a few blocks' walk, it was a bus ride away. Should I turn and go after him? Back at my car, I thought I might find him and offer a ride, since where he wanted to go was practically on my way home. I could have at least helped him get to a bus stop. Instead, I drove home, and left him to wonder at another strange intersection, somewhere yet further from where he'd hoped to be. Not exactly not my problem now, is that right?

Monday, October 12, 2009

First Snowfall: Frost Melon Moon

Saturday we woke to snow, brunched late and drove north through landscapes still painted by Autumn and now Fall standing boldly against the cold white, illuminated once and again by a break in the clouds: corn stubble, cattails, sumac, oak... red hawk on the air and golden eagle on dead wood...white resting heavy on green under a blaze of maple. It doesn't happen often this way.

It was quite cold--just a breath over freezing--when we arrived at my folks' place. After a stroll out to the mailbox and a gander about the place, I set about making a pot of vegetable soup for the evening's gathering at the neighbor's down the road. Their barn dance is an annual event, in honor of their daughter who died as a result of a vaccine injury as a toddler, seven years ago. This was our
first time going, and weren't quite sure what to expect. CM thought to offer this poem by Issa (one of many outstanding selections from 'The Winged Energy of Delight') but I felt it was too heartbreaking, if only as a woman without daughters of my own. Having lost one I might have found this too close:

Last night I dreamt

my daughter lifted

a melon to her cheek

So we left the poems on the table and instead brought soup (an humongous pot of it--recipe coming soon), arriving as usual to the warmth of a kitchen full of real food and good neighbors (and vice versa), accompanied this time by a fine banjo and sweet fiddle, guitar and bells and perhaps more in the room beyond... Ahh, I thought--almost in spite of myself--I'm ready to dance! And then they played my favorite song...

And dance we did, with bellies full, round and round until even the littlest kids were dizzy. We stepped to old tunes, called out keenly and played with grace, danced with joy. It was just a good old-fashioned barn dance, for real. We ended it singing, in circles. More food, more drink, more talk, more cold, and home again, right-hand star...

Sunday, Cosmic Monkey took a drive to woods further North while I stayed to work in the gardens. I did not harvest the dry beans or pick the last of the kale, nor did I wash all the root vegetables which Dad had pulled in advance of the onset of the deep cold and which were now sitting, dirty but safely in the cool of the shop. I did, however, take down the tomato fences, yank the rebar and remove the wire hoops in the front garden, cut several sunflowers (saving heads for birdseed and stalks for chipping), pull up the stakes in the front and compost gardens, put away two old wooden ladders (damn heavy, that big one), tidy up a bit and gather all the (hell of a lot of) rings from the tomatoes, peppers and melons.

It was in doing this last that I happened upon a Charentais, not yet taken by frost, among the tangled tendrils of peas and vetch. With one hard squeeze I cracked it open and to my small surprise I found inside a fruit still ripe with tender flesh--so very sweet, so dear to me--on the coldest day I'd known since our last winter.

To my brother and sisters and my new favorite Texan, my nephew, friends and others, I'm glad to have shared such an evening with you. Safe travels and sweet dreams.

Friday, October 9, 2009

This Morning I Saw

A most beautiful thing, just a LBB (little brown bird)--a sparrow, had to be--hovering slightly, momentarily, as it dropped itself into an unseeable space among tiny, evergreen branches. I almost didn't believe it.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Handle With Care

This evening I was craving Ethiopian food, after a recent dip in the Blue Nile with family in town from WI (thanks, btw, for a nice night), so I set about making a big pot of vegetables cooked in butter and spices: onion, ginger, garlic, cabbage, potato, carrot, green beans, slivered almonds and--why not?--a couple peppers from the garden. I picked out one mild Hungarian Wax, and then a hot one--a pretty little bright orange thing, all wrinkled and pointy and light as a feather, like a strange Chinese lantern. The Fatali.

I'd noticed this plant from the get-go, way back at the Friends School Sale, because of its unusual leaves and growth habit. Unlike other peppers, which all look more or less the same by comparison, this one has wide, almost heart-shaped leaves of a slightly soft and puckered texture which circle the stem in a horizontal way, creating almost a rosette around the growth points. The plants are short and bushy (or at least ours were), a lighter and more vibrant green than the standard dark & shiny of most pepper plants. Quite pretty.

Taking a cue from its name, I thought it might be prudent to sample the Fatali first, so I cut off the tip and had a taste. Not bad, a little hot but nothing I couldn't handle. I was expecting a bit more, with a name like that... Slicing up the rest of it I noticed that, on top of its phenomenal color, it smelled amazing--citrusy, sweet, earthy almost. Difficult to describe but definitely unique, exciting, enticing... One small pepper, minced, yielded maybe a tablespoon or two which I casually tossed into the giant cast iron roaster on top of the onions, garlic and ginger. No sooner had I done that than my lungs were met by a cloud of burn so hot it forced my breath out in an involuntary cough, a cough which persisted as I stirred the pot--and it didn't stop there... The steam wafted out of the kitchen and hit CM, two rooms away, causing him to cough as well. At one point it actually crossed my mind that the fumes alone might burn my eyeballs. That hot.

And thus it came to pass that my lovely stew, which was otherwise nicely spiced with a bit of nutmeg, freshly ground cardamom, a dash of cinnamon and a generous amount of turmeric, and which (along with the perfect buttered brown basmati rice with cardamom) was to be my answer to the question of what to eat for lunch during the remainder of the week, turned from potential non-Minnesotan "comfort food" to the culinary equivalent of "burning hell" in one short breath. Fatali, I now know.

Still pretty damn good, though. This one will be in the garden again next year, for sure.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Love that Hillbilly Sauce

During each of the past few summers I've made a point of cooking batches of three delicious corn-based soups from recipes in Fields of Greens (a book which I rather admire. CM and I have amassed a very nice collection of cookbooks, ranging from the essential Joy of Cooking to the magnanimous? Gastronimique, from the humble Laurel's Kitchen to the refined French Laundry... Some chefs jot down their recipes carelessly, with (one learns) approximate amounts and inappropriate timing. Some stray too far into the realm of obscure ingredients, while others seem reluctant to take any risks or put in a little extra work. Many cookbooks offer more inspiration than instruction, more pictures than flavors, better combinations of words than foods. And as a reasonably accomplished cook that's usually what I'm looking for--not a recipe, but an idea--but once in a while I want a taste of something just right. What I love about Fields of Greens is its attention to detail, its subtlety. It is approachable and ambitious at the same time, healthful but luxurious. Care is given to the steps involved (salting onions at the right time, in the right amounts, can change everything...) but it's not overly fussy or complicated. I've not delved into all its offerings but those I've tried have been, really, just right. Anyway, that was a long tangent, to get back to the soup) but there will be no delicious varieties of summery soups this year, to brighten the deep of winter... All I've got this year is tomatoes.

On Wednesday Mom brought down about a full beer case of tomatoes, so yesterday afternoon I cooked up some tomato sauce and now have (no room in the freezer for) around nine or ten pints of red sauce made with mixed varieties and a couple pints that came from four or five large Hillbillys. I did the whole boiling-water-bath-to-remove-the-skins thing and then went to the trouble of seeding them over a sieve, using our hefty granite pestle to push through as much flesh and liquid as possible. In retrospect, I'm not sure it's worth the effort to remove the seeds when the tomatoes are intended for sauce or long cooking. (For Bruschetta, okay.) But those hours weren't entirely wasted. Spend enough time fingering a bunch of tomatoes, learning their inner secrets, and you will most certainly find reasons to love and/or hate them... Here are, in my opinion, the standouts:

Italian Heirloom - reliably large without cracking or blemishes, good slicers, meaty with little pith and few seeds, peel easily, great for canning, nicely balanced (sweet/acid) and flavor
Amish Paste - deep red color, few seeds, perfect texture and flavor for sauce (I only had a couple of these in my batch but it was quite easy to see that they would make excellent sauce or paste. Hope to have enough to try that next year.)
Cosmonaut Volkov - nice, medium-sized fruits with no cracking, perfect slicers, sweet rich & complex flavor, great sandwich tomato
Yellow Perfection - prolific bearer of small fruits, juicy with lots of seeds but reliably sweet and bright flavor, makes lovely sauce and salsas
Moonglow - medium-sized fruits of gorgeous orange color, firm but silky texture, well-rounded sweet flavor, great for sandwiches, salsa, salads
Hillbilly Potato Leaf - large, substantial fruits with some cracking on lobes and bottoms, fantastic peach-gold color with veins of bright red, flesh thick and smooth, few seeds, amazingly sweet deep flavor, perfect for salsa, slicing

I should give honorable mention, also, to Hungarian Heart for many fine, large, uncracked fruits of good flavor and texture, even when rather under-ripe; I didn't have a good sample, but I'd gladly give this one another chance to impress me next year. Once again, Peacevine delivered an enormous amount of small (even for cherries) and very tasty fruits, while Chadwick produced some that were ping-pong sized and more or less flavorless. Pink Brandywine still failed to impress me, except with how difficult it is to trim and peel around all those lobes and the almost invariable scars on the bottom. Likewise with the German Pink. The Beefsteaks looked pretty nice and might be good to eat if you were starving. Sadly, I didn't get an opportunity to sample one of Aunt Ruby's German Green in its prime and the Black Krim didn't quite reach maturity, but I've got a couple of these last two in a bowl on the kitchen table, so I may get a taste yet.

Mom canned quite a few quarts of tomatoes this year, some in batches of specific varieties. Should be interesting to compare those, as well.

In terms of cultivation, the fences we built worked quite well, providing adequate support without the hassle of strings or cages, although many of the plants grew up and over the three-foot height of the top rail. We discussed pruning suckers but didn't do so, which turned out to be a mistake in two respects: first, the plants got nice and bushy but didn't put as much energy into flowering; second, all those extra leaves and branches were a perfect invitation to blight, in a damp and cold growing season. All considered, though, the crop did pretty well. This was thanks in no small part to the Agribon tent that Mom and Dad cobbled together out of some scrap wood, extension ladders, pipes and a few large rocks. This makeshift structure was covered by a large single sheet of Agribon 19, giving the tomatoes some extra warmth during the months of September and October. (It might have kept them warm a bit longer, even, if the whole thing hadn't blown loose in a storm two weekends ago. Days after that there was a frost advisory, but high winds prevented replacing the Agribon, so the tomatoes had to be picked. It didn't freeze. Of course.) Next year I think we'll build a more intentional structure, with better features, now that we know it works.

I'd hoped to keep track of our yields in pounds, before processing, but I've realized that's probably an unrealistic goal at this point, since I don't live near the garden and I don't actually harvest even half of the vegetables. Maybe next year I'll get one of those produce scales and hang it on the arbor, with a notebook nearby... Just an idea.

Anyway, that's the season-end report on the tomatoes. Gotta go clean out the freezer.

some sandwich

For those of you in northern climes, here's a great way to make use of the last of those Solanaceae family veggies:

Eggplant, cut in 1/2 inch slices
Zucchini or summer squash, cut in 3/8 inch slices
Red pepper, cut in strips
Onion, cut in crescents
Mushrooms, sliced thickly
Garlic, chopped
Baguette (Rustica Bakery, Minneapolis MN, or other)
Chevre (Donnay Dairy, Kimball MN)

Use as many veggies as seems reasonable, based on the number of people you intend to feed. One small eggplant, patty pan squash, good-sized tomato, little red pepper and onion and a few mushrooms was a nice amount for two people.

On a baking sheet or dish, toss all the veg with olive oil, a generous amount of good salt and freshly ground pepper. Roast at 450 degrees until slightly browned, turning once or twice.

Cut the baguette into serving-size pieces and slice lengthwise. Spread each with a bit of mayo, followed by a good layer of chevre, and top with roasted veggies. Cover the veggies with a few slices of mozzarella and broil until the cheese begins to brown.

If you don't have chevre or are afraid to try it, you might be able to get away with a little cream cheese (or nothing), but you'll really be missing out on something delicious without it. Likewise, good quality bread might make or break this meal, but you can probably do all right with a decent Italian loaf, or a nice sourdough, or a hearty wheat--just make sure it isn't flimsy and has some flavor. Easy, cheesy.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

I flipped to the middle. The top of the page read "Love Soup", and it began:

"These are hard times. Right? Most of us are making do with less, sometimes much less. And yet... I feel that somewhere in all this less, there is a secret more."

As my eyes lighted on those words, I felt two hands touch my shoulders, and heard someone say "Congratulations". I was tired and hungry, sitting at a cold table near the door of a nearly empty coffee shop on a Friday evening, getting somewhere close to closing time. We might have taken a seat by the fireplace at the other end, if I'd thought of it, but I was in a bit of a daze after a week which had begun with several exhausting days of illness and was now ending with my signing a purchase agreement for my first house. A house I'd only seen for the first time less than three hours before. I wasn't excited, really--just dumbfounded. Suddenly it seemed there was no one to call. I dialed home and the machine picked up. I didn't leave a message.

During the week since, I've gone round and about it in as many ways as I might, perhaps pushing the limits of the patience and good will of my family and friends, to make my peace with this decision. It's not what I wanted. Not what I'd hoped for. In many ways it is exactly what I was not looking for. And that's all right.

It was a nice bit of writing in Edible Twin Cities, by Anna Thomas, on the virtues of food and home. That sort of thing is still trendy these days--a trend which I am heartened to see so many embrace--but this piece somehow captured the heart of the matter in a way that not many do, not by giving us all the reasons or describing the beauty but by sharing her joy, in a few simple and delicious phrases, the way some women can do.

"Watching a storm outside a window for a while and cracking the walnuts is a pleasant meditation. Sitting with a friend on a summer evening, sharing a glass of wine and shelling favas, is a convivial pleasure. Dropping vegetables into a pot of water or a sizzling wok is an act full of hope. Stirring that pot is like stirring my history. And eating with my friends, all of us in the kitchen together, crowded around the table, tasting, talking, laughing well into the night--that is a joy that is home made."

In my new place I'll be alone, for the first time in many years. I look forward to the solitude for a time, as I work to refocus my energies and intentions. I hope, also, that I will find a space there which I can share with many of you, around my (as yet undiscovered) table. These are hard times, for most of us, for reasons varied and strange. To be up to the task of nourishing our selves and each other is sometimes the most we can hope to do. Or it may be that it's all we need to do.

Feed your selves well, and bring some along when you come...