22 February 2009

Lent and Local or Catholics and Co-ops

As we approach the season of want, the season of hunger, we're reminded of our common agricultural roots, and the closeness of Christianity to the rhythms of time and the seasons. Embedded in the spiritual exercise of fasting is an even older condition: hunger. Whether physical or spiritual, hunger reshapes our sense of normalcy; it sometimes sharpens our awareness and heightens our senses, but left unchecked, it corrodes and can kill. Some religious traditions have made a spiritual discipline out of what used to be a common, shared reality. And while the Church has wandered and strayed as much as any one person, its roots are deep, profoundly deep, and we can still be nourished by its beliefs and traditions that reflect an older understanding of the world.

One thousand years ago, one hundred years ago, all food was local food. And March was difficult. Depleted winter stores collided with cold earth, food not yet grown. For Christians, Lent was the fast before the feast of Easter, with the physical and spiritual reflecting each other, synchronized. A spiritual voyage launched by a seasonal necessity. Today, in our non-seasonal, global appetite for whatever-we-want-we-want-it-now, Cub and the Co-op re-stock their shelves daily, and we expect our desires to be satisfied immediately. Instead of seeing our excess for what it is, we turn our obesity epidemic and fast-food or fancy-food fixation on its head, calling this overgrown appetite our right, our destiny, our blessing.

Are we entitled to eat whatever it is we crave? I don't have an answer for that question, but Lent and Eating Local are both compelling reasons to think deliberately about food and its place in the seasons of growing and eating. If we think about eating local we have to think about what it is we want to eat. Especially at this time of year, eating local is an exercise in long range planning about what we plant, grow, and harvest in the warmer months of the year. What remains of September's abundance that we can now draw upon? The doom of March leads me to think I should be growing and preserving much more food of my own. And that leads to a conversation about gardening and how we use our landscape – particularly us non-rural, grass-growing homeowners.

Even as I begin to think about eating local, I'm not sure I like all the implications. Take oranges, for instance. I can't imagine winter without oranges. The spray of a just-peeled orange in the cold air of winter is an unmatched fragrance. When I eat oranges in the winter I feel as alive and healthy and the first non-scurvied sailing crews! And what would happen to the Florida citrus industry if everyone in the north stopped eating oranges because they weren't local? On the other hand, what if Minnesota farmers were met by crowds of people wanting fresh, locally grown spinach in May? And what if consumers wanted four bushels of apples in September instead of three pecks?

Imposing disciplines on ourselves reminds us that although we are surrounded by an abundance of riches, our needs are few. The rest is manufactured. Eating local and fasting shouldn't be looked at as opportunities to assign blame or assume guilt. Eating local helps us think about our individual habits in relation to larger issues of food production, while fasting is a way to clarify our own needs by experiencing what some people feel each day – hunger.

18 February 2009


Shortbread is made with butter, flour, sugar and salt. It's as plain as plain can be. I like to shape the dough between my palms into a small ball and flatten it with the bottom of a glass, one-quarter to three-eighths of an inch thick. When the ball is flattened the edges break open asterisks-like, with stubby rays. These edges bake nicely in the oven, leaving the center a pale, off-white luminescent disk.

My wife and daughter like their shortbread with cornstarch, a new-fangled ingredient that adds lightness to the dough. My feeling is that corn starch flattens the flavor considerably, making an inferior baked good. We decided to have a Valentine's Day bake-off and decide as a family which shortbread we liked best. Luckily, we're an odd-numbered family.

After extensive negotiations to determine fair rules for a blind tasting, my daughter and I set to work. With softened butter at the ready, the dough takes only minutes to make. We both use our hands a lot, and once all the ingredients are in the mixing bowl we use our fingertips and hands to achieve the proper dough consistency, pressing and squeezing it into a manageable form.

We fortunately allowed decimal points into our voting, because fragments of numbers were all that separated our two entries. Had we used whole numbers only in our judging, a tie would have ensued. We learned that we like our preferred styles – we partisans all picked along party lines, even with our eyes closed! The outcome? When I'm baking, no cornstarch will be used, but when my daughter runs the kitchen, she'll do it her way.

1 cup butter, softened
2 cups flour
½ cup confectioner's sugar
¼ tsp salt
(Optional – ¼ - ½ tsp vanilla. I like vanilla, but even a small amount darkens the color of the dough and moves the flavor from a traditional shortbread into a different baked good.)

Cream butter and slowly add sugar. Add remaining ingredients and mix. Shape into 1" balls and place on cookie sheet. Flatten with bottom of glass. Bake at 350° F for 20 minutes or so. The edges should just be brown – don't overcook. Cool on a rack.

12 February 2009

Rosenblum 2005 Monte Rosso Vineyard zinfandel

This is a beautiful bottle of wine, a conversation starter that puts zinfandel in the age-worthy camp, a big wine with fruit, acid and tannins enough to lay down for a decade, and a perfumed nose so fragrant you don't have to drink it to be satisfied.

We opened this and put a short pour into our glasses and swirled it, dark red and thick, slow legs dripping down the sides like those new Ipod ads. We swirled and smelled and talked. The cleanest, sweetest nose imaginable, not a big, jammy nose so typical of these 15.2% alcohol wines – wow, and breath after breath the nose blew sea-fresh and calm. We circled back to it time and time again, each description closer and further off, no different than the feel of sunshine on our faces on the first sunny day after a snowstorm. We absorb equally the quality of light and the plum blossom perfection of the nose.

A strong trace of tobacco, oily rich and earth, deep berries and a disputation on indulgences, organized religion and the will of God. Such presence for a young bottle of wine! – a clean line of fresh pepper, still clustered and growing on the vine.

A digression: chili peppers, Capsicum frutescens, those hot little red "Thai chili peppers" aren't indigenous to Thailand; their center of diversity is somewhere near present-day Bolivia. They were one of the first fruits brought back to Europe by C. Columbus. In Thai, they are called prik or "pepper," while pepper, Piper nigrum, the tropical climbing vine, is called prik Thai, or "Thai pepper." Thais and the Thai language recognize the primacy of pepper, and they call it their own pepper, whereas the later introduction of chili peppers, a mere three or four hundred years ago, is given the simple moniker "pepper." I wonder if Thai pepper – our black pepper – had a different name before chili peppers were introduced, and Thais had to differentiate between this new pepper, and their own indigenous "Thai pepper." And, while we typically eat dried, crushed peppercorns, our "black pepper," Thais put whole clusters of fresh peppers in a few different dishes, and the flavor bursts out. – This is the clean, pungent pepper profile that washed over our taste buds halfway through the bottle.

Whenever I drink a good zinfandel I feel a billowy lightness underneath the intense, full expression of deep-colored berry fruit; I think it is the harmonious balance of the grape and a winemaker's skill. All that fruit needs something to keep it afloat, and this bottle has clean lines of tannin that keep the fruit from overflowing. And so we talked and drank into the night, a perfect expression of zinfandel. Go, find this bottle, and drink it! Feeling carnivorous? A thick steak with cracked pepper, dripping red from the inside out.

03 February 2009

Tomorrow's dinner

The dutch oven is in the garage now, resting on a shelf and cooling. Still in sub-zero temperatures, I think tomorrow's dinner - chicken paprika - will be a perfect antidote for this weather. And better yet, tomorrow is a busy evening and we'll be ready to eat as soon as I get home from work. We still have plenty of rice from tonight's dinner, and egg noodles take only a few minutes to make, if anyone clamors for them.
We like to cook in advance when it's practical, and some recipes take well to advance preparation and cooking. We make large batches of spaghetti sauce, and soups and stews are usually better when made the day (or two) before they're eaten. But just as often, we start thinking about what we're going to serve as we begin to make it.
I love the combination of butter, oil, and chicken fat that coats everything in chicken paprika. The chopped onions blaze with fragrance as they sputter and sizzle in the mixed fats and generous spoonfuls of sweet paprika. Everything simmers while the kids brush their teeth and bedtime stories are read. Then, in the quietness of a just-cleaned up kitchen and the settled routine of the evening's chores, I come by every so often and use a long wooden spoon to make sure nothing's sticking, and everything's cooking nice and slow.
Tomorrow's dinner is pretty much done. Sometime in the late afternoon my wife will bring it in from the garage and slowly reheat it. Just before serving, I'll mix a little flour into a cup or so of sour cream and add it to the simmering pot, a few minutes more on a low dancing flame. A salad on the side, a few sliced pears on a plate - a cold winter evening sounds pretty good.

Leftovers for lunch

Yesterday I made pancakes for breakfast and corn bread for dinner, and we didn't finish either. I left the pancake batter on the counter overnight, allowing it to develop a little extra flavor. Mondays are busy with meetings, but I came home for lunch and made a quick leftover meal. I crumbled the dry cornbread into the batter, leaving it in small chunks, squished a banana into the batter, and gave everything a quick stir. A little butter in the frying pan and I poured the doctored batter in - there was enough left to fill the 10" pan completely. I turned the burner down and covered the pan with a lid. I flipped it after a few minutes and the edges were nice and brown and crisp and buttery; it rose about ¾". A few more minutes on the other side and I slid it out of the pan and onto a dinner plate, opened a jar of applesauce and spooned it over the pancake.
Most people probably would have thrown out both the old pancake batter and the dried out cornbread; I did neither, and lunch was delicious. A good lunch for another cold Minnesota day.

01 February 2009

Wedding cake

My wife and I chose a traditional fruitcake for our wedding twelve years ago. We saved the small top layer and on our anniversary we eat a thin slice. We keep it well wrapped in the freezer and bring it out just once a year. Next year I think I'll bring it out long enough to thaw completely, and give it a bit of brandy. In the old days, fruitcake was stored by submerging it in confectioner's sugar; the fineness of the sugar prevented anything from getting in contact with the fruitcake. I hope we can share a slice on our fiftieth anniversary.