28 September 2008

Late September in the garden










































Late September in the garden by the side door, where we cut swiss chard and parsley, nasturtiums and asters. Kids pick cherry tomatoes indiscriminately, popping them into their mouths like the candy they are - sweet and acidic. Beans and beets, black-eyed susans and garlic chives, things we try for one season, and perennial favorites. A warm, beautiful month and the greens get greener and tomatoes continue to ripen.
These days, we take the garden for granted, walking out minutes before dinner to pick something fresh, deciding on the spot what we'll eat. The choices are narrowing, and I didn't plant any kale this year. I think I'll make a cover for the chard so it'll last through October. And as the light fails and temperatures drop we'll adjust again to supermarket produce, but we'll also remember the rich store of tomatoes in the freezer and fruit cellar. For now, though, an abundance of green enriches our table, and color-splattered flowers dance in the warm light of fall.

21 September 2008

1x6 Tomatoes


Another trip to the garden to pick tomatoes, and another full bag of 1x6s. We've done so many things with 1x6s this year, and I had time to peel and seed them the other night, so I made a simple sauce with garlic, onion, anise seed and bay leaf. I cooked it a long time and when it was thick I turned the burner off and let it cool down. Then I put it into freezer bags and now we've got another half dozen bags of sauce in the freezer, ready to be used on a busy Tuesday night in December when we're running around doing a few things too many. Made into sauce, 1x6 tomatoes have a noticeable orange hue to them, rich and deep.

14 September 2008

Pot Roast

I cooked pot roast today because my wife is out of town and she (rightly) thinks it's something from the Stone Age. On damp September Sundays I feel pot roast weather in my bones, and today was another day drizzling down grey.

Chocolate chip pancakes before Mass, and the sky quiet so we rode our bikes. Then more rain, rain and a big piece of beef chuck in the icebox. A giant cube, about 3.5 lbs. A few scoops of duck fat into my dutch oven -- and there's nothing like that smell! I sprinkled whole wheat flour over the meat, rubbed in salt and pepper, and when the fat popped and crackled, I put the enamel coated cast iron pot to work, taking time to brown the chuck on all sides. Then a few onions, sliced thin, and I let them cook a little; a few 1x6 tomatoes, so good for cooking because of the small number of seeds/juice; a little water, and I scraped up all the good little browned bits; a bay leaf and into a 300°F oven, covered, for most of the afternoon. I opened the oven a few times and turned the meat over, letting all of it cook in the heat and bubbly juices.

Egg noodles, fork-tender meat and brown juices spooned with love over it all. A Rhone red, and candles to bring light and ward off the chill, the fall, the coming darkness.

13 September 2008

Macaroni and Cheese

Sometimes it takes a fall day, drizzling damp all the way through, to restore us. We planted grass seed last week and this grey medieval rain turns brown earth green again. Halfway through the day my daughter said macaroni and cheese would be good.
Elbow macaroni, a simple butter/flour roux with dry mustard, a few cups of milk and a heap of cubed, sharp cheddar whisked smooth. Into a buttered pyrex casserole, sprinkled with sweet paprika, and baked in a 350°F oven until bubbly and browned.
Steam rose.
We read, cleaned the house, listened to the radio.
Hot bubbly cheese, everyone wanted the crust - ketchup, anyone?

12 September 2008

Community First

A week after Sarah Palin’s speech at the Republican National Convention, I’m still reeling from her verbal assault on community organizing. Her calculated, aggressive dismemberment of Barack Obama’s early career did more than call into question his qualifications for President – in one widely watched speech she spat in the face of the very people she wants to help her win in November, and in the faces of hundreds of thousands (millions perhaps?) of everyday Americans who give of their time and talents in an effort to make their cities, schools, churches and other civic organizations stronger.

Community organizing is at the heart of the American experience, and Palin’s disparagement of the effort as one that “lacks responsibilities” is a worm eating into the apple of our democratic institutions. Worse than lies, Palin’s lashing does more than distort the truth – her poisonous words erode our faith in the ability for regular Americans to effect change and improve the very organizations we depend on for faith, friendship, and family.

If you’ve ever gone from house to house in your neighborhood, gathering signatures on a petition so you can request a stop sign at an intersection where school kids cross daily, you’ve been a community organizer. Perhaps you’ve been alarmed at the number of times your local beach has been closed because of poor water quality. You and your neighbors have gone to town board meetings and asked for answers to your questions. Before you know it you’re writing emails and contacting friends and neighbors, newspapers and radio stations for long hours after your kids are asleep and in bed, working on your own time to ensure that everyone can swim at the town beach. That’s community organizing. Think, too, of the garage sales and food drives that you’ve participated in at your church. The call went out for someone to help and you raised your hand. Before you knew it you were recruiting people for various committees and spending more time on this event than you were on your own garden, which began to sprout weeds. But, the event was a huge success, and because of your efforts, your church sent $10,000 to a small church in Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina, and the money helped people in that community purchase food they couldn’t afford. You know what? – you were a community organizer.

Our country has stronger civic organizations than any other country in the world. Americans volunteer more and give more money to worthy causes than any other people in the world – many times over. And when a person stands in front of this entire country and lashes out at this effort as unworthy of her approval and asks to be Vice President of the United States, I ask myself – what kind of America does she envisage? How does she think she can shrink government and shift more and more responsibilities to people themselves, and the community organizations they work with, if the efforts of community organizers are so belittled?

Community organizers also address long term, deep rooted issues in neighborhoods around the country. In some places, gun violence is a real problem, and regular people from small neighborhoods gather in the meeting rooms of local churches and put their heads together to figure out how they can reduce gun violence and keep their youth in school. Community organizers help these groups of deeply concerned people into avenues that can produce results. They help set up after school programs, they organize basketball and soccer leagues, they start mentoring programs so kids have a safe place to study and ask questions. Community organizers recognize the limits of government and roll up their shirt sleeves and get to work. They don’t let inadequate funding, indifference from politicians and local government stop them; in fact, it’s these conditions that are often the breeding ground for community organizers.

I can’t think of a better beginning for a politician than community organizing. It’s out of the spotlight and unglamorous, it requires long hours and less pay, and every gain is hard won. But hopefully, those gains stick, and a small success gives people hope, skill, confidence, and the experience to fight the next fight. Community organizers know that real change is slow, that slogans don’t accomplish the task at hand, and that naysayers will forever disparage their efforts as na├»ve, unrealistic, or foolishly optimistic. Sarah Palin’s remarks took direct aim at more than Barack Obama – she’s hoping to strike a blow at our optimism, determination, and belief that we can improve our communities and make our country stronger.

Sarah Palin is wrong – outsider, maverick politicians don’t make things happen, community organizers do, and so do the millions of people who put in long hours improving their towns, cites, parks and schools. They put community first, and make the United States a better country because of it.

08 September 2008

Sauerkraut

While we cling to the summer, still able to feel its heat in our bones, it's easy to smell the chill in the air and remember Rod Stewart's "...it's late September and I really should be back at school..." We got our first apples of the season last week and we've had evenings in the 40s.
I grew up eating sauerkraut - it's the one part of my mom's German heritage that stayed with her - we never had a holiday meal without a big bowl of it gracing the table. But, for all the kraut I've eaten in my life, I never made it myself. I got Michael Ruhlman's Charcuterie for Christmas last year, and I've had my eye on the home-cured sauerkraut recipe ever since.
It couldn't be simpler: a salt water brine is poured over thinly sliced cabbage and it cures for two weeks under a cheesecloth cover. The end result is a bit tart and quite salty. A few nights ago I cooked it and rinsed it a few times in water before braising it in a pan. Still a bit salty, I thought.
My sister Mo used to swoon over country pork ribs and sauerkraut, emphatically telling our mom, "It's my favorite dinner!" with her honest eyes and dramatic voice. She might be right. I browned the ribs last night in my dutch oven, and the sauteed an onion in the fatty residue. Before I went to bed I added a layer of rinsed and drained sauerkraut and put it in the fridge. When I came home for lunch today I peeled and thinly sliced a tart apple, added another 1 1/2 quarts of rinsed and drained sauerkraut, a bay leaf, a few juniper berries, and a cup or two of water. My wife put it in the oven late in the afternoon, and when I got home the house smelled like heaven!
Last night, my wife and daughters drove up to Minneapolis to see Little House on the Prairie, the world premiere musical at the Guthrie Theater, and my son and I played baseball and then picked tomatoes and dug potatoes. Nice hard potatoes, which Meaghen threw into the oven as well. How can you not just love eating in September, when so much of what goes into our mouths is homegrown?
Oh, the kraut mellowed beautifully during the baking in the oven. The apple's tartness and the onion's sweetness all melted together and made such beautiful juice - during my second helping I grabbed my camera and took a photo. "It's not very attractive," my wife pointed out, but the smells and tastes swirling around me announced a new family tradition.

05 September 2008

The Glory of September

I don't know how to wrap words around simple perfection.

Home for lunch, I pick two tomatoes from the garden while bacon sputters and pops in the frying pan. A few slices of bread in the toaster and I pull lettuce and mayonnaise from the icebox. Yesterday I picked nasturtiums and put them in a champagne glass, and now they dance - yellow, orange, and red - on the table. The tomatoes are big and I cut thick slabs - each slice reaches past the crust of the bread. (Sometimes the tomato's acidity and the sharp-edged crumbs from the toast conspire and make tiny cuts on the roof of my mouth - the BLT's stigmata.) The mayo is slippery on the tomato but it holds the bacon in place. I cap it with lettuce and cover it with another slice of toasted bread.

My wife's office is right off the kitchen. I call her and we share BLTs for lunch on a Friday afternoon.

A BLT is
the glory of September -
thank God for gardens!
-homegrown tomato haiku

01 September 2008

Tomatoes

Now comes the glut of tomatoes I long for all winter. Meals of tomatoes, snacks of cherry tomatoes, picnic lunches with oven roasted tomatoes on crackers, and bags of sauce, salsa and paste filling the freezer.

This evening, a one pound fifteen and a half ounce tomato, sliced with fresh mozzarella, and gobbled up with just a drizzle of olive oil, vinegar, and the smallest pinch of sea salt. And not just some thick-skinned, flavor-deficient hybrid that can be packed and shipped around the world; no, this was a beautiful Brandywine - Glick's Strain, a tomato I've grown for a decade and whose seed I keep and replant each spring. And the sauce I made this weekend was made with a tomato called 1x6, so called because it's a long, tapering tomato that can reach six inches. And, it's about 1" across at the top and has very few seeds, making it a great sauce tomato.

I've got a half-finished batch of salsa in the refrigerator and seeds fermenting in the garage; they attract a lot of fruit flies so I like to keep them out of the kitchen.