30 September 2009

Borscht recipe

Make stock with the bony parts of two rabbits, cooking it long and slow to extract as much flavor as possible.  Cook overnight, carefully topping off the stock pot with water before you turn out the lights and go to sleep, making sure the flame is as low as possible.  In the morning, remove from heat; the stock should be peat colored.

In an enameled, cast iron pot, saute an onion or two and a carrot.  Add dill and a nice fresh tomato from the garden.  Pull four or five good-sized beets from the garden; wash off the dirt and peel them.  Grate into the pot.   Add stock by the ladleful.  Remove meaty pieces from bones and add to pot.  Simmer gently.  Add a cup or two of uncooked, fermented sauerkraut.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  I made the borscht late at night, put it in the fridge, and reheated it for dinner the next evening, adding another two cups of sauerkraut before serving.
My wife also roasted sliced potatoes and onions in the oven and for my second helping I added a scoopful to the bottom of the bowl.  My son likes sour cream; I like the tang of good kraut.

28 September 2009

The way things are connected

A pot of stock is cooking on the stove; our beets in the garden are huge, and the weather has turned blustery.  Time for borscht.
But, I've been thinking about bread lately.  I used to make it all the time, but other things have displaced the time I used to use for bread making.  Before school began last year we bought a bread machine, and we've used it constantly; it makes a loaf that's good for the sandwiches my kids bring to school every day, and we haven't had to purchase bread since then.
When I started thinking about a rabbit-stock borscht my thoughts turned to bread again, and I remembered a beautiful recipe given to me a decade ago by a co-worker's mother in Des Moines, Iowa.  Inga's mother, Vija, gave me a jar of starter for her Latvian rye bread, the most wonderful sour rye I've ever tasted.  I made it for awhile, but over the years I lost the starter.  I've continued to make rye bread occasionally,  but nothing has compared to the still-sweet, slightly fermented rye I first tried all those years ago when recruiting for Peace Corps.  It was probably a night like this when I wrote down the recipe in her kitchen as I watched her make it.
So, even though I should be asleep now, I just brought out my big stoneware bowl and added a few cups of rye flour, enough warm water to make it thin like pancake batter, about a cup of sugar, and a teaspoon of yeast.  That'll be my new starter.  The recipe uses only rye flour and has no added yeast.  I added a little to start the fermentation, but I won't add any more.
Within a few days I'll have a big pot of borscht and a loaf of Vija's Latvian rye bread.

21 September 2009

Apple season

Apple season began around five this afternoon. I spent this beautiful September afternoon listening to baseball and washing storm windows and screens. Around four-thirty I knew we didn't have much time to get to the orchard, so I called to the kids and we hopped in the car. Ten minutes later we were glad to see an 8-6 sign nailed onto a fence post; we'd made it on time.
We walked into the refrigerated storeroom where they keep their apples; we wanted to taste a few before we decided what varieties to buy. Still early in the season, only one variety was available to pick, but there were a half dozen different apples in crates and bags. We tasted Early Blush, a fragrant, early season favorite, McIntosh and Cortland, Honeycrisp, Zestar, and Haralson. After tasting what was there, we bought bags of Zestar and Honeycrisp, both patented apples introduced by the University of Minnesota, and Haralson, a nice tart eating and baking apple, also introduced by the University of Minnesota, but back when land grant universities did work for the greater good of the state and its residents.

When we got home I put a pot of water for pasta on the stove and got to work making a tarte tatin, a reliable and delicious apple-upside-down tart. It went into the oven while the pasta was cooking and was finished before we were. We'll be eating a lot of these in the coming months. Here's how I do it.

Tarte tatin
1 cup flour
3 tbsp butter
2 tbsp sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cinnamon
2-4 tbsp ice cold water
3-5 tart apples, cored, peeled, halved lengthwise and cut into thin slices
3 tbsp butter
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
To make the crust, mix dry ingredients in bowl, add cold butter in chunks and mix with fork until pebbly. Add cold water one tbsp at a time and stir until flour holds together. Roll into crust the size of the pan you're using, using sprinkles of flour to keep from sticking.
Put a heavy, cast iron pan on stovetop and melt butter over medium low heat. Sprinkle brown sugar on top and let melt. I add the apple slices neatly and don't stir them once they're in. The thing to remember is that the apples shrink a lot; add at least four or five layers of them. After you've made it a few times it'll be easier to judge how many apples are needed. Add the apples and the butter-sugar mixture will bubble and sigh a little like a nicely stirred polenta. Keep adding the apples, making sure the whole surface is covered several layers deep. Sprinkle with cinnamon. After a few minutes, when the apples have softened up, remove from heat. Lay crust on top and poke a few holes in it. I fold any extra crust back on itself; it makes for a nice edge.
Bake at 375° F for about 45 minutes or until crust is browned.

When finished, put serving plate on top of pan and flip carefully. Let the upside down pan rest a few minutes before removing. Sometimes a rubber spatula is needed to dislodge a few apples stuck in the frying pan; it's also good for scraping any of the butter-sugar goo that's still in the pan.
Serve warm.

17 September 2009

The smell of rot

A walk in the garden and the smell of rot in my nose – slugs chew through tomatoes punked on the ground, thin walls blotched and putrid with collapse. Now is not the time to rest, glorious though these fall days are. The abundance around us will not last because a frost will come and kill what the slugs haven’t. For now, this bounty is ours to extend. Now is the time to can and preserve and salt and cure and freeze. This is the time to buy bushels of apples, heads of cabbage and pounds of tomatoes. This bounty is fleeting. We can eat local a lot longer than the first frost, and we can eat good food throughout the year without paying a fortune for it. If we don’t like the bland, cardboard tomatoes we find in the supermarket in February, then can the rich, flavorful, and bounteous ones today. As much as I enjoy being outdoors on these gorgeous autumn days, I know I’ve got to spend time in the kitchen.

We want good food but we don’t want to “slave” in the kitchen to ensure it. We’re used to buying whatever we want without regard for time or place. Maybe there are some things you can’t buy. As much as Hunt and Muir Glen want to convince us that quality can be bought for $.99 or $3.25 a can, there is pleasure in opening a jar of your own tomatoes in the depths of winter and smelling today’s warm September air, ripe and sun drenched. And rows of canning jars cooling on the dining room table add incalculable richness to our understanding of seasonality.

Just as we’ve lost so many old varieties of seed, we’re also losing traditional ways of storing food to extend its life. We’ve abandoned traditions because we have full refrigerators and well-stocked supermarkets. We feel we have no need to remember or re-learn the old arts of food storage. Root cellars are obsolete and canning, itself a relatively modern invention, is as archaic to many of us as a 33 record. Right now we’re surrounded by a lot of vegetables and it feels like they’ll be here forever but they won’t because winter is coming and the ground will freeze before we know it.

Do you want to spend an entire fall weekend in a hot, steamy kitchen? If you’re willing to, you might discover than it’s an enjoyable way to spend time with your kids or spouse or neighbors. Have a canning party now and in February you’ll savor the bounty of this season.

10 September 2009


The most useful thing we can do – if we care about food and where it comes from and how it’s grown and prepared and what’s good for us and what tastes good, and if we want to sift through all the contradictory and overlapping claims about health benefits or environmental degradation or sustainability – is unplug the television set.

For the most part, the food traditions that were gaining a foothold in various regions of the United States have been in steady decline since the growth of TV as the national communications medium at the end of WWII and continue to the present day.

While there are a handful of traditional dishes that define a region of this country– clam chowder or gumbo, for instance – one of the foods that many Americans claim as a national dish is apple pie. My guess is that most of our grandmothers and many of our mothers made apple pie. We’ve elevated apple pie to the point where apple pie means America, so we should expect most Americans to cook it with familiarity. Yet, how many people still make it themselves? And yes, I mean the crust, too. And where do we get our apples – an orchard or the supermarket? And where are the supermarket apples from? And how many apple varieties grew in the US when your grandparents were kids, and how many are grown where you live today? How many Americans make their apple pie without a recipe, and how many make their own crust? We have innumerable cooking magazines that devote whole issues to apple pie and crust-making and the cooking shows on television celebrate its wholesomeness, yet this simple and humble and delicious dish is too complicated and time consuming for most Americans to make themselves.

We have a generation that’s seen so many commercials for Pillsbury and Baker’s Square that they’re convinced that it’s too time consuming and tricky to make a crust and that the one purchased in the store is home-style and better than the one they were thinking about making. And a cooking show might highlight a small town in Vermont where everyone picks their apples wearing fall LL Bean clothes, and you flip the channel feeling too discouraged to replicate the New England Autumn Feast. Then some food guru comes on and proceeds to make something extraordinary or simply sublime – either way you look at it and say to yourself, “I could never do that,” and instead of cooking you watch cooking. But more insidious than the cooking shows is the television itself, the enormous time sink that causes pie-crust making to be too time consuming, that burdens the hours of a day so significantly that a microwavable lasagna begins to make sense, and most of all, the steady drone of entertainment that turns the television viewer into a spectator. And food is alive and dynamic and cooking engages the mind and body and nourishes the spirit.

So turn off your television and cook. When you cook you focus on food. Let that be the beginning of how and what you cook. Ignore the latest trend that insists you begin cooking Lebanese, or French, or with whole grains or without butter. Don’t worry if your family doesn’t smile the same way as they do on Hungry Man commercials, and don’t worry if none of Martha Stewart’s simple wisdom has rubbed off on you. Television is noise, loud noise that distracts us from paying attention to real issues. And food is a real issue. Food is important and thinking about it and talking about it helps us learn more about how complicated and intertwined with our politics and economics it really is. Whether we grow it or buy it, prepare it or order it off a menu, food and the cultural practices surrounding it define us a lot. Even if we don’t know where the fried chicken we order in a restaurant comes from, it comes from somewhere and is part of an agricultural practice that may or may not reflect our politics and preferences.

I recently saw an example of vanishing food traditions on St. Croix in the Virgin Islands where my wife and I spent a few days. The question I asked everyone I met was, “Where can I find some good Crucian cooking, local food, not tourist stuff?” Most of the time people would shake their heads and tell me how little was available, how few restaurants served local food. I found a few though, and the conch with garlic and butter, the stew beef, the salt fish and head-clearing ginger beer were testament to traditions rooted in the Caribbean. And talking with residents not much older than me I heard stories of growing up without electricity and doing homework by small lanterns around the kitchen table. And as the benefits of closer ties to the US mainland accrued – like electricity and better health care – the same erosion of local culture that’s affected every region of the US took hold on St. Croix. Pizza and hamburgers, Coke and cable TV came into more and more homes and my guess is that you had moms and kids cooking and the conveniences that have added so much detritus to our culture gained a foothold there and haven’t let go since. And over time the same deterioration occurred and without anyone noticing the loss, only the old people were still eating salt fish and boiled eggs for breakfast, and only the poor neighbors were eating fried sweet potatoes, because one way to show you had a little money was to buy potato chips or whatever else it was that demonstrated that you were no longer so poor that you had to eat that “stuff” that your grandparents still ate. Nothing unusual about that at all, is there?

But one of the things we’re learning now is that as we reject a food tradition we’re impacting a lot more than what’s on our plate at the dinner table. Because if you stop eating sweet potatoes the farmers eventually stop growing them, and before long the variety that was adapted to the specific climate, soil, and sun of your part of the island is gone. Gone. And when someone remembers the sweet taste of that dish from their childhood and they go to find seed potato they discover that the variety grown by their grandpa is gone – extinct – and their only option is to plant a variety of sweet potato that’s from somewhere else. Or when a grown adult remembers a childhood recipe that tasted so good, there won’t be anyone who remembers how to prepare it, and so they’ll eat something from the mainland instead and that Crucian dish will be lost.

And then, the need to provide habitat to an animal that used to eat the bugs that damaged the sweet potatoes will be lost, and when that habitat is neglected it becomes more difficult to remedy the deficiency. Or when few people are eating conch people won’t notice – or care – when its habitat is degraded, and when that happens a whole series of ripples spread across the environment and culture and the man or woman who left decades ago to make their fortune in Boston may return and find an unrecognizable island.

How do we bring back that learning, that knowledge that’s so specific and personal and local? I think we start by turning off our television and taking stock of what’s around us. And as we pull a beet from the ground, or dig out hard, crisp potatoes, we start again with the elementary needs of feeding our body, family, soul, and culture.

I don’t think the efforts people are making to better understand food are gimmicks; there’s clearly an interest and recognition by people that the way Americans have been producing food and eating for the past half century has created reverberations that go far beyond the dinner table. Let’s try to understand what we’re eating and how we prepare it in addition to unraveling the complexities of food production and distribution. And the way to understand is to go back to the basics and learn to cook again. Don’t worry if you can’t live in Provence for a year; turn off your television and live in your own community for those twelve months. Grow garlic and visit a farm and eat with friends and find an orchard and cook with abandon.