13 April 2020

Home life

I walked with my daughter after dinner earlier this evening and we turned back because the rain started falling hard and we didn’t feel like getting wet, even though it was an April shower rather than cold March sleet. Yesterday we celebrated Easter, and with everyone home for the past month it was nice to break out the good china for dinner. A few weeks ago I decided to get a lot of starts going for my garden, including herbs like parsley and holy basil, which are slow to germinate and sometimes forgotten until it’s too late to plant them. Being home all the time, it’s easy to make sure they stay sufficiently moist and warm and it’s nice to see that everything is coming along fine. Because the ground is still quite soggy I also started beets and mustard greens in flats, which I usually direct seed. One of the reasons I like starting spring plants like beets indoors is that when I transplant them I can ensure that there’s some regularity to the spacing, which doesn’t always happen when I start them in the ground. It often rains while the seeds are still germinating, and half the seeds end up pooling in a six inch square space while the rest of the row is staggered with one plant every foot or two.
I’ve been happy to read that yeast is in such demand these days that it is selling out in stores around the country, and when I look at our own kitchen I’m not surprised. My youngest daughter loves to bake and it seems like she’s in the kitchen most nights after dinner, wondering what she can make. Sourdough breads are experiencing a home renaissance, too, and as a dedicated sourdough baker I am so happy that people everywhere are beginning to taste how good a loaf of home baked sourdough is, and that yeast shortages aren’t a cause for concern! Hopefully it’s more than a Covid fad and more people begin to bake their bread regularly. I have never been exact with timing or measurements when I make bread and as a result I’ve had my fair share of loaves that have failed to some degree, but I’m okay with that because I bake through the ups and downs of work and parenting and schedules that pull me from the kitchen, and my indifference to most schedules and rules for kneading and rising has shown me that dough has a very wide range of tolerances. The gold standard for a good sourdough loaf these days seems to be those big-holed, high hydration loaves that taste great and look beautiful on social media, but in my many years of baking I’ve never aimed for them. Maybe I don’t have the patience for weighing my water or taking notes, but I also like a more uniform crumb so when I make sandwiches the butter and honey and mustard and melted cheese doesn’t fall through the holes. Pragmatic failure, perhaps.
After St. Patrick’s Day my son and I made a big batch of sauerkraut and this weekend, a month since it began percolating on the kitchen counter, I put a half gallon or so into a smaller container in the fridge, and put the remainder into a cool, dark corner in the garage. With a diagnosis earlier this year of high blood pressure, I have significantly reduced my salt intake, much of which comes from fermented foods, and this batch of kraut is the first since I’ve started taking medication, so in response to it I’m rinsing all the kraut off before I eat it; I think a significant amount of the salt remains in the brine I dredge the sauerkraut from, and by further rinsing it I hope that my blood pressure remains in a healthy range. If not, it may be the end of fermented foods for me, which would be sad because I have a big crock of Korean doenjang fermenting for more than a year on the back porch, and an even larger crock of gochujang right next to it.
We go through phases of eating certain things and when my wife recently found an old pack of sprouting seeds I began watering them, and am happy to see that long-expired seed still has good viability. The sprouts will be ready in another day or two and after a few batches we’ll get sick of eating them and won’t make another batch for a year or two. As long as we don’t lose the strainer lid, we’re good to go whenever the mood strikes us. Eat well, stay well!

04 April 2020

We go back to the beginning

Early April and cold rain falling, chilly enough in our house that I still have to bring my starter into the living room where the wood stove is pulsing its heat, the most basic slurry of wheat and water dancing an evolutionary chemical dance with wild yeasts as we go back to the beginning and start again. Wheat and rye both beckon still in the raw spring air, and this lump of life I pulled from the fridge after dinner last night will today be split into bowls and for the next few days the bubble and slush of a growing starter reminds me that the very space we inhabit, the air we breathe is a biome of its own with dust and disease and fungi and bacteria and small bits of life we knew nothing about in previous centuries but had, through luck and practice and observation and long told stories that documented the hows and whys, developed scientific thinking through what we even today call superstitions or mumbo jumbo that contained embedded collective wisdom passed on across generations and today we may not think it necessary to drag clean linen over dew beneath an apple tree, and squeeze that moisture onto the wet flour mix, but they knew how to start a starter, and with all our advances in knowledge and science we almost ignored the old ways to make bread or preserve cabbages, ferment milk or brew our beer, and thirty years ago it looked almost as though our doom had been pronounced and we in these United States would be relegated to eating factory food and dead nutrition but in pockets around the country and globe, in small towns and crowded cities, still there were a few who continued to say yes to the old ways of teasing yeasts from the air or the skin of an apple from a long abandoned tree, a remnant of last century’s orchards now neglected and half dead, mostly overgrown, part of a hedgerow or just forgotten down in a gully, its unpruned branches a jumble of angles, and now a new generation has relearned many of the traditions of their grandparents and great grandparents and it’s not just cideries and bakeries that are doing this but you and I, who bake and press apples and say yes again to the possibilities of simple wild-yeast fermented food, the nutritional, caloric foundation of life in much of the world for millennia, and every time we knead a mass of dough or pull an umbered loaf from a hot oven and listen to its skin crackle as it cools, waiting, waiting just long enough to pull it apart and taste the transformation and spread it with butter and honey or wait a few days and grill it with cheese in an olive oiled pan, even though it’s just a weekday lunch or a snack before bed, the bread, beginning with its tug on our jaw, the edge of char almost realized, heating a mass of dough until it dries just as it pushes and prepares to burst, we bow to the ordinary, and every time we sit together and pass the peas and sop up the gravy with a hearty crust we’re in the midst of it all, and a deep love of the daily, which in these days of sheltering, working from home, and re-imagining family life, this return to the beginning, starting with the most basic forms of life – yeast – means we can begin to meditate on what tomorrow could look like, when the rain stops falling.

22 March 2020

Almost spring again

And a fire pulses in the wood stove and today’s blue sky masked the chill in the air and though I planted my peas two days ago and a floating row cover whose edges are held down with smooth Lake Superior rocks and leftover bricks keeps birds and squirrels from pecking and pawing them, and started a whole flat of holy basil (Ocimum tenuiflorum), hoping to have more for my favorite Thai dish which calls for a large colander of it but my soil has so much clay in it and this basil with fine hairs on its leaves never gets as big as I hope it will when I’m thinking about my garden in the winter, this coming week still calls for cold rain and sleet and maybe it’ll snow but the flats are in a bay window indoors wrapped in a big translucent bag getting all warm and humid on the inside and science and life systems are all a go and the long slow germination of holy basil is similar to parsley, of which I sowed a half flat at the same time, but come August the flat leafed parsley is an herb that can stand by itself in so many dishes – maybe a grilled mackerel stuffed with onions tomatoes and parsley, wrapped in foil and when it opens I think of Turkey and now I just hope the soil warms and remains moist for those first pushes of green through the long darkness of a seed underground – a seed, packed with knowledge and enough nutrients to get it into the light, overcoming dormancy, and the lightest feather-like wisps of tendrils so delicate they waver in even the stillest dawn quiet hush when only a bead of dew weighs upon this urge into light into the sky and around the rough galvanized wire stapled to the wood lattices stretched down the garden row next to the longer row of yet to be planted beans, long tall beans that taste like summer and sing in the hot wok when they’re chopped small and flash fried dry, an edge of char to overcome the raw push of life today needs to be nourished and nurtured and held warm and close against the still looming chance of snow and cold and a below ground darkness that admits no warmth, no hope for that long awaited perennial movement of the earth on its course, steadfast perhaps as our universe expands, grows, pushes us in new directions as we wonder what these coming weeks will bring as waves of illness and fear lap at our feet and now it is time or still it is time to graze with our fingers so lightly on the skin of the ones we love so deeply and feel the same urge that draws us into the light, into spring again

27 February 2020

What’s left

Here we are with crusted mounds of traffic-weathered snow on the edges of roads, dragged grey through the long weeks of February, an oscillating weather pendulum punctuated by sheets of cold rain and dumps of snow and now at the end we’re wondering what’s next. In the kitchen, though, it’s mostly been sour rye, risen and proofed and baked hot, a thick chewy crust and memory after memory of my Buffalo childhood and the smell of Kaufman’s rye bread drifting over the neighborhood, and when I slice this bread and toast it lightly and skim a thin sheen of butter the rich earthy caraway seeds and the springy dense texture of this bread satisfies some primordial memory, maybe that of ancestors in the wilds of cold northern Europe equally satisfied with a tear of this bread, frothy and alive and bubbling as it’s built, a mostly forgotten grain these days and as we head into Lent I went to an ecumenical Christian service and liked that they used the traditional, remember you are dust and to dust you shall return, the rough texture of ashes beneath his thumb and onto my forehead and those words are liberating because you who read this and I will both in three hundred years be dust again and with that certainty we can and should do what we will and in this season of want I remember so many past years when I believed in the trajectory of the church and thought it an institution that weathered the ages because of some grace and after these recent years of unending revelation of decades-long indifference to the abuse, molestation and rape of children by innumerable priests I continue to feel an anger and rage toward those men who used the power and moral authority of the church to intimidate and silence the very people they vowed to lead and protect, and the administrative, institutional authority of God’s church on earth crushed so many girls and boys that it’s hard for me to go into a church because when I do I want to interrupt the priest saying Mass and challenge his holy vows because I think of all the times I served as an altar boy for years and years and it’s only luck that a pedophile rapist priest was never assigned to my parish because then it would have been me and my friends whose lives would have been torn apart and filled with fear and doubt and mistrust but instead it was a parish over there, and over there, and over there and I feel an anger that can’t be forgiven but even with those feelings when I walk into a church there is a texture to the silence and I feel the pull of the sacrament of the holy Eucharist and even when I feel such anger toward the priests and the institution of the church the ritual ceremony sacrament they perform or conduct connects me back again to an even older, deeper mystery of life and death and the life of a soul or spirit and our unending desire to know and feel what lies beyond the edge of death and if the church sells its gold and vestments and art and churches and properties and jeweled chalices and priests are the people who hear within them a silence that calls to be voiced then perhaps the church has a chance and will not succumb to the fate it currently faces, a slow fall into indifference and irrelevance, and now, as these forty days unfold I wonder what’s left of the church I knew and gospels are filled with references to bread and after a long generation of bad bread in this country, the past decade or two have given us remembories of what bread is, fermented with wild yeasts and shared among neighbors and friends, constantly used and saved and used again, grown and depleted time after time, a continuous nurturing of life even when it slows down and rests in the fridge in an old pickle jar, a chunk of starter just waiting for warmth and wild spores floating through the air.

01 January 2020

New Year reflections

Happy New Year! When I wrote my first blog post in 2007 I was interested in gardening, the way we thought about food, how and where it was produced, the culture of dinnertime, and the role it played in fostering community.  I loved writing while observing my own family and circle of friends as we raised our children, but over the years ended up feeling marginalized and too amateurish to continue. It seemed that overnight everyone became a foodie and blogs and television food shows became increasingly competitive, and the aspects I love most about food were diminished. I lost heart and confidence and over time the blog withered.

As this new decade begins, I can see how my own life has changed since the last one, especially since 2012, when we moved from Minnesota to Vermont.  A job change means I now travel to Asia four or more times every year, and the perspective I’ve developed wandering through markets and neighborhoods from Japan to India has deepened my appreciation for the central role that food plays in our lives and its importance in shaping cultures and economies. Sitting at the dinner table and talking long into the night is as relevant today as it was when our kids were kids, and a bowl of chicken soup or a thick slice of crusty sourdough bread continues to nourish my spirit as well as my body. And, more than ever, the need for community compels me to pick up my pen and write again, even though I’m not always sure who or where my community is. It feels a little disorienting - or maybe disheartening - that I can feel at home in the wet markets of Seoul and Bangkok but out of place in the co-op around the corner from our home. I continue to believe that sitting down with people and sharing a meal is one of the simplest and most important ways to build community but rarely manage to do it with the friends I’ve made here in Vermont.

You who are my friends know that I can get excited when I talk, and what I hope to continue with here is a mixture of that excitement and passion for a grilled cheese sandwich or a profound bottle of wine as well as more thoughtful, reflective pieces about things that matter to me – food, family, culture, politics and, of course, God.

12 November 2019

1945 Chateau Clos de Sarpe, St-Emilion Grand Cru

Like a prayer that rises from the quiet lips of an old penitent, there is no beauty as elegant as old wine, resurrecting the glory of the Caryatids on the Acropolis and sunlight shining through high windows of St John Lateran onto hymn singing incense swinging priests, and although in the nose of this wine we inherit those relics whose memories are wrapped in the passage of time, we notice too in a swoon the fragrance of plum blossoms when you fall in love for the first time and your senses vibrate and expand to feel all that can be felt at once, dissolving the boundary of everything you thought you knew but just learned is only the smallest fraction of what can be known because until now you didn’t know love, didn’t know the smell of her skin just below her ear on that soft spot where your own breath mixes with hers and you can taste the commingling in the very air she inhabits, and when we breathe the skin of our loved one and inhale this beauty through our pores, each soft fragrance delineated along the touch of her lips, her neck, the almost impossible space between our skin and souls, we remember in that inhalation a memory of this love right now, and if we are fortunate to fall in love when the earth has moved past the sun and begins its long reflection back into itself we remember the earth radiating its stored heat, the pulse of an almost forgotten summer whose bass notes reverberate through our hands limbs and everything else all entwined and warm with wool and smoke and crystal clear breath and we wonder how anyone could forget this feeling, this full embrace of the world we live in. And how is it that seventy years ago when the scourge of war gashed raw this earth, killing and rupturing so much of itself from each other and a now irretrievable past, how did it come to be in those first months of peace, when the sun without judgment still poured across the land and the wind and the rain blew and fell without discriminating on who or what received its beneficence, how is it that on a field that was worked by farmers long since dead, whose hands are unknown to us today, how is it that they picked these grapes and crushed them with a memory of a tomorrow that just arrived. Seven decades ago, after the fermentation and resting in barrels, these grapes were put into bottles and laid in their caves only to lie there day after day after week after year after decade and my parents were young and they died more than a decade ago and still this wine sat in its cave untouched by light or heat or vibrations and the only thing that touched it was time, unforgiving linear time that softens things that once were sharp and brings down democracies and dictatorships and my almost six decades are enveloped and held in that time and still there is nothing but long silent memories until today when a protester in Hong Kong was shot and dozens injured and meetings were canceled because roads were blocked and still I made it to this restaurant in this quiet hush of an early evening in fall when the sky is washed with a breeze and the tear gas has dissipated and a relic from the past is remembered and poured into a glass and how does time express itself over time, a simple grape whose merest flaws or imperfections could have destroyed it years ago, how does it manage with such elegance to layer itself upon this long arc and still hold within it the lightest blush of strawberries and a bed of earth deep mushrooms and roots that draw up from rocks as old as life their nutrient remains and hold these twin remembories of spring and fall together in balance, weaving the many summers and winters together with this one small vineyard, one single harvest at the beginning of a long peace? How?

11 November 2019

Khlong Toie Market - Bangkok, Thailand

Almost everywhere the ground is wet, and dirty grey puddles with debris dissolve any semblance of hygiene as wave after wave of people, motorbikes, dollies, styrofoam containers and woven bamboo baskets stream though this massive market in the heart of Bangkok, Thailand. Crossing the khlong – or canal – over a small bridge whose damp thick planks are saturated with the accretion of quantity, and entering the market whose boundary is loosely defined by a brackish canal that shames the Cuyahoga River with a viscous liquid that now fills its channeled, hardened banks, visitors find it hard not to be awakened by the intense smells of rot, filthy water, row after row of crammed caged chickens ducks geese and other fowl, the squawks and bleets obliterated by the regular thump of heavy cleavers dispatching birds on huge wood cutting boards – slices of tree trunks actually, where bird after bird is killed plucked singed gutted and prepared for sale, and just past them are the rows under red plastic awnings of every cut and piece of animal that can be eaten, between the stalls crammed tight with people and carts, the voices of women young and old calling out the prices for a kilo of limes, squash, beans, bunches of basil and lemon grass, bottles of honey from fertile Phetchabun Province, curry pastes and mangoes, watermelon, garlic, turmeric, bitter herbs and gourds, lumps of liver and mounds of gizzards, heaps of feet cleaned and ready for stews and curries and soups, and all this before you come to the tubs of eels turtles catfish and shrimp of every size, fresh dried and salted, piled over ice and fat white-fleshed fish with scales as thick as fingernails being scraped off by men in rubber boots who smoke and cough and talk all the while, girls sitting in a circle de-veining shrimp one after one after another for hours at a time, their wrists tattooed and hard as their weathered fingers fly through shrimp like an old nun’s fingers run through rosary beads, habit and meditation built into the repetition, and cats prowling the aisles thin and tattered, tails mostly missing and eyes alert ready to pounce on the rat that runs between stacks of crates, across the child’s feet who plays with a toy gun as the other children clamber on empty tables used earlier in the day for trimming roots and pulling off dead leaves, tidying up the produce before the rush of another day, hour after hour of noise and people and everything for sale, the coming and going from the far provinces of Thailand to feed the hungry capital. Old men lie asleep on a low platform surrounded by piles of dried noodles or bags of rice, a tired mother snores in a small chair with a television showing soap operas playing only for the toddler who lies curled up next to her, looking at the TV as well as her phone, and a young woman sits among stacks of plastic mixing bowls, wire baskets for frying fish and cooking noodles, charcoal braziers and hand-forged knives, soup bowls and metal spoons, enough goods to let a small town feed, and where does she find love and friends and a breath of fresh air, sitting long hours and when the rain falls and the mishmash of tin roofs and thick plastic sheeting fray or give way or end between two rows of goods, the aisle splashes with a steady stream of water, flip flops and rubber boots the only useful footwear, the pyramids of limes of all sizes splashed with rain and fresher looking than ever, and rough young men moving small loads of wholesale goods from one end of the market to the next, filling the rows with the urgency of the day’s wages, the bags of ice to be delivered up and down the rows to sellers of almost living things that depend upon the cold to keep them fresh, and sitting here and there in dark nooks are middle aged women and men with hand calculators and clipboards tallying purchases and sales, chainsmoking cigarettes in anticipation of the next day’s business, the floods in Trang or relentless heat in Roi Et, the sacks of rice secure and dry under the high corrugated roof, and another motorcycle delivering whatever is was they needed next, and he stops for a bite of grilled fish, the fish coated in a snowy layer of salt pure and simple grilled over charcoal, the sizzle and smoke and smell mixing with salted squid and crispy chicken legs, plumes of smoke sanctifying the hard and endless work of these huge numbers of people whose lives are spent in this labyrinth of life death and sustenance.

04 November 2019

Guan Kee - Stall 53, Newton Food Centre, Singapore

Yes. It is worth traveling 10,000 miles to eat this $37.00 dinner. The night is hot and sticky and I’m sitting underneath an awning that stifles the breeze and keeps the drifting air in place, hot smells of spice and the constant ding of woks being
stirred with high heat below, the spatula scraping and turning vegetables meat fish and sauces into each other, friends, couples, families and the occasional loner like me, times when we bend over the food and say nothing or fuck for the thousandth time, marveling swooning that tastes textures like these exist on styrofoam plates for $10.00, smears of oil, chilis, dried little fish and spice, a crunch and savage raw flavor of some place I ought to call home on a Monday evening like this.

14 February 2018

14 February 2018

Feels like bullshit and politics when another shooting tears apart a community. Here we are on Valentine's Day and Ash Wednesday and in Florida neither of these matter. The ashes smeared across our foreheads, liberating us with the reminder that we are from ashes and to ashes shall return, and if that is the case and our mortal lives are short and brief, we can live as much as we are able, and some of us look at these bodies of ours for so long as unfamiliar instruments, and I remember being sixteen or so and picking up a friend's guitar and turning it upside down to fit my left-handed body and no matter what I did with the thing it remained awkward and foreign, and I didn’t ever figure out what a chord was supposed to sound like and I never did quite figure out how I was supposed to live in my body – I mean, it was just this thing where my head and thoughts were and the best thing about smoking was feeling the smoke sucked into my lungs and when I exhaled I knew I had a body but was not sure of its boundaries, and when, maybe fifteen or twenty years ago I finally got used to having one, it started degrading and falling apart and now the various gimps and grunts are taken for granted and every hike or long swim is precious and savored and even though the expiration date stamped on me is well beyond the “best before” date, I know that when things get a little funky they’re still alright, usually, and so I feel for the first time that I’m moving into a period of life where I know that it is finite and limited and that’s all the more reason to continue to try to figure out how to take the huge jumble of thoughts and put them into some semblance of coherence, at least a stray thought or two, because the big bundle of thoughts that have beat around in my head for most of these fifty-six years will probably remain there because despite the hundreds of thousands of words I’ve written, none of them even begin to resemble the way I think, and when I clicked onto CNN this evening to see if maybe Trump has resigned or finally been impeached or arrested I’m instead pulled into the headline of another school shooting and anything I was thinking about Lent feels trite, and my fist clenched and shaking in the air feels pathetic and infantile, and when I think about the death of my parents, which knocked me over with grief – my God, my parents were older and sick and even though I knew they would die someday - when it happened my body grieved, and how do I even think how these parents and sisters and friends right now are feeling and thinking and their bodies and hearts are overloaded and for us it’s another CNN headline.

Lent still matters because it can be an opportunity for us to pay attention to the difference between what we want and what we need and after a year of this presidency I think we need someone with a voice that can thread its way through so much hesitation between people who think they might agree with something but aren’t sure if they do and don’t want to be seen standing out and what I think what we need is to take out a tablecloth, a plain one will do even if it’s been bunched up in a hutch or drawer and is pretty wrinkled, and just spread it over the dining room table and simply smooth it with your hand because it feels nice to have that touch of cotton or linen between your palms and the table, and I don’t know what makes more sense – a cup of coffee or maybe even dinner, and just invite someone over and talk with them and remember

change happens in bits and pieces and big chunks and huge massive events and in the quietest of moments with maybe only a candle or two burning and not much left in the bottle of wine but there’s a little something left to swirl in the bottom of your glass and you can watch the glycerins streak down the glass before you say anything else and maybe in those little moments one of us will have an idea we can act upon and in a few years will remember that dinner or shared pot of tea and see it as the moment when we decided that the reasons for not doing something no longer meant anything

and you and I may have something to say to each other.

13 June 2016

Making amends

Americans rightly look at the Eighteenth Amendment (prohibition) as social engineering gone awry, and discussions about amending the Constitution are likely to be dismissed. However, changing the Constitution is both American and constitutional. The framers of the Constitution wrote Article V for that reason, and in the past 200-plus years the Constitution has been amended twenty-seven times, a not-insignificant number.

Many Americans who oppose rational gun control do so in the name of the Constitution, waving before a disbelieving and frustrated public a copy of the Constitution, arguing that any law that attempts to regulate guns infringes on a right guaranteed by the Constitution. More specifically, the gun lobby so manipulates public sentiment about the Second Amendment that our country is now tied up in knots over sensible gun control laws, and we are unable to move forward.

It should be illegal for a person to be able to walk into a store and buy enough weapons and ammunition to undermine our democracy.

I need a prescription from a licensed doctor that can only be filled by a licensed pharmacist in order to buy anti-motion sickness medicine, but almost anyone can walk into a store (or go online) and buy as much ammunition as they can afford.

Americans who oppose gun legislation have many legitimate arguments and a lot of data to back them up. But, it is also clear that gun ownership should not be equated with opposition to gun regulations. However, the NRA and others who oppose any restrictions on gun ownership exacerbate the differences of public opinion about gun safety by putting all types of gun ownership in the same category. It is disingenuous to continue to put hunting and personal safety and protection in the same argument as unfettered access to guns and ammunition.

If we amended the Second Amendment, several objectives could be achieved. First, we could clarify the conditions in which a citizen may lawfully own a gun; for instance, many Americans have long-wondered about the relationship between the right to bear arms and what it means to “maintain a well-regulated militia”. Second, the manufacture, distribution, and sale of guns and ammunition could be regulated and controlled in a much more stringent manner. The Constitution is silent on this issue, and an amended Constitution could create a regulatory framework for an unknown future that recognizes advances in weaponry and ammunition. And, to honor the Americans whose interpretation of the Constitution is based on our Founding Fathers, all late 18th century weapons could be grandfathered in to any new regulations.

While the American public and Congress may have erred on one amendment, we have also moved our country forward through Constitutional amendments. Constitutional amendments have abolished slavery, given women the right to vote, lowered the voting age, and have codified the evolution of American jurisprudence with laws that reflect our maturation as a democracy.

I support a 28th Amendment.

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.