Locavore. Locally grown. Farm-to-table. These terms have become ubiquitous among the health conscious, environmentally aware, and food-loving population. It sometimes seems that if you don’t know where that apple was grown, you don’t want it. Somewhat in this vein, my daughter once told me that if she were to eat chicken, she would want to know how it was raised, what it was fed, and that she would even want to visit the farm so that she could confirm its good upbringing. My response was that by the time she had done all that she would have known the bird too well – probably by name – and would never have taken a bite. After all, could she eat somebody whose home she had visited?
But, back to that apple. Where did it really come from? And what about the peanut in your PB&J? Or the eggplant in your parmigiana?
Fascinated almost to the point of obsession, I have spent the past few years researching the histories of some of my favorite foods: their origins, how they got to various points across the globe, and what the people of those places have done with them. I have found — and prepared — not only recipes that include the foods, but all manner of artifacts, literature, and rituals.
The research has been fun and sometimes even surprising. (Who knew that the tomato was the subject of a U.S. Supreme Court case?) And the variety of dishes is amazing. Take the grape. The French, Brazilians, Hungarians, and Mexicans all have different ways of incorporating it into their national cuisines, and all in different ways.
It’s time to make supper now. What shall it be tonight?
Growing up in a small New England town, I never saw kohlrabi, but while volunteering on a kibbutz one year (breakfast and supper both featuring a cornucopia of super-fresh produce), I fell in love with the bulb. The flavor is mild with just a tiny bit of a kick. Not as spicy as a radish, but with the same wonderful crunch.
A member of the cabbage family and also known by the names turnip cabbage and German turnip, kohlrabi comes in both red and pale green color and, once the stems and leaves are removed, looks somewhat like an underwater vessel you might see in a Jules Verne novel.
I just knew it was a sign when I saw sets at the garden shop this spring. I had to try my hand at planting them. The challenge would be that my luck at growing vegetables is variable. Some plants produce bountifully – in my freezer I still have jalapeno and banana peppers from four years ago. Bell peppers, on the other hand, are stingy and kind of bitter. In fact, the grocery store varieties are better. Far better. When it comes to eggplant, the Ichiban variety is prolific for months, while the big fat Black Beauties grant me only two or three fruits at most.
So, hopeful but not delusional, I prepared the garden with the whole nine yards of stuff: organic fertilizer, compost, water, mulch. Just two months and a few prayers later, I returned from a week away from home to find that the kohlrabi was ready to harvest. Pretty fast by New England standards. Even better, the animals seem to be staying away, perhaps stymied by the obstacle course provided by so many stems and leaves surrounding the hard bulbs. (My tomatoes are being devoured by rabbits and chipmunks, necessitating better fencing.)
It was a good experiment but, in retrospect, since only one bulb comes from each plant, there may be better uses of the space in the garden. The farmer’s market is sure to have some, right?
My good friend Lorrin listens to what people say. Really closely. I happened to mention – once, and many months ago – that in preparing for the Big Middle Eastern Feasts this past winter, I had found several recipes calling for rose water, including Ottolenghi’s famous meringues. I didn’t have rose water in the house and, it being the dead of one of the snowiest winters on record, I decided to prepare dessert with ingredients already on hand or those easily obtained.
Well, wouldn’t you know that when Lorrin came for dinner last Friday night, my very thoughtful friend brought me a bottle of rose water, an ingredient so important in cooking and baking around the world, and especially in Persian and Middle Eastern recipes.
So, what should I try first? Nougat, Turkish delight, baklava? Indian rice pudding or lassi? Malaysian bandung? So many choices, and those were just the sweets.
Or, perhaps those meringues that Ottolenghi developed while working as head pastry chef at London’s Baker & Spice?
Yes, those meringues. The ingredients are few: egg whites, caster sugar, and of course, rose water, all rolled in chopped pistachios. And now that I had the rose water, it was time to bake.
With the recipe calling for ten egg whites to make only a dozen meringues, you can just imagine how big each one is. Enough to share if you happen to be the sharing type.
As for caster sugar, this is simply superfine sugar, and there’s no need to angst over not being able to find it in the supermarket. Just zap some regular old table sugar in the food processor – but not so much zap that it turns to powder.
But, what was I to do with the ten egg yolks now sitting in a bowl on the counter? It would be terribly wasteful just to throw them out. This is where the internet came to the rescue. I found a website, http://www.fortysomething.ca/2010/04/recipes_to_use_up_extra_egg_yo.php, that lists recipes for dishes requiring anywhere from one to twelve egg yolks. What a brilliant idea, and well worth book-marking.
I decided on a Golden Butter Cake calling for eleven egg yolks, for a couple reasons. First, a very rich crème brûlée on top of meringues would be a serious sugar and fat overkill, especially if we aren’t expecting guests. Second, it’s simply practical to freeze the cake for future use. Invited to a pot luck dinner? I’ll bring dessert! If you do decide to try this cake recipe, make sure to add vanilla; I’m pretty sure that its absence from the list of ingredients was inadvertent.
Now, what to do with that one extra egg white? Maybe fortysomething.ca will see this and post a similar list for whites. In the meantime, breakfast will probably be an omelette.
“Our days are as grass; we flourish as a flower in the field. The wind passes over it and it is gone, and no one can recognize where it grew.”
This stanza from a poem read at Yizkor, Jewish memorial services, came to mind as we stood last week on the pastoral farmland on which the Battle of Gettysburg took place 150 years ago this July. The temperature had plunged 40 degrees, the wind blew, and the grass in the fields rippled with every gust.
Perhaps nobody would recognize where a flower once grew, but there is no danger that the tens of thousands of soldiers and the one civilian who perished in this Civil War battle will be forgotten.
Millions of people have made the pilgrimage to this tiny town in southeastern Pennsylvania to bear witness to the horror that took place here, in a war of brother against brother that nearly tore our nation apart. They reenact campaigns. They climb Little Round Top and gaze out at the positions held by Confederate troops. They look out from Cemetery Ridge and the Copse of Trees, trying to conjure the image of a mile-long phalanx of men in gray marching toward them during Pickett’s Charge.
The battlefield is studded with square white stones that mark the left and right flanks of every platoon — from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. And dozens of monuments — beautiful sculpture and even a tower from which to view that bucolic farmland — honor the regiments from every state that participated in the Battle.
They tour the David Wills House, where Abraham Lincoln spent the night before delivering his Gettysburg Address, an amazingly brief speech of only 272 words that has stayed with us for a century and a half.
And, they visit the first national military cemetery established in this country. Magnolias in full bloom and trees leafing out make it a beautiful place, silent but for the birdsong and distant hum of traffic. It is a most fitting resting place for the more than 3,500 Union troops who gave their lives to ensure that slavery be abolished.
The countryside around Gettysburg is spectacular, but it haunts me. That so much carnage took place in such an idyllic spot seems impossible. But it did.
May we never forget where the grass grew and where the people died.
This winter is really getting old. It’s been no higher than seventeen degrees for a couple days here, and there are still several feet of snow in the yard. Even the influx of garden catalogues isn’t enough to snap me out of my winter funk. What to do?
I have developed two main approaches to defeat the gray mood of this never-ending winter:
- To borrow a phrase from Lady Macbeth, “Hie thee hither” — to the sunroom. Basking in the fresh aroma of earth and chlorophyll infuses me with life-affirming hope. And now, with my “Big Red” amaryllis, figs, and key limes all blooming and fruiting, I can actually believe that spring is around the corner.
- When life hands you lemons, put them on the table. There is nothing as cheerful as a bowl of sunny yellow lemons– unless it’s a bowl of lemons and oranges together. The height of the citrus season is one reason I can tolerate this months-long season of cold, gray, ice, and snow.
The scent of citrus is both energizing and romantic. Yes, romantic. Swaying palms in the moonlight, a blossom pinned to my hair, slow-dancing on a patio with a tall, handsome man. Sigh.
And then, there’s the practical side of having a bowl of citrus fruit. After about a week, before the fruit begins to soften, remove the rind, extract the juice, and put it all into premeasured baggies and into the freezer for that inevitable situation in which you start a recipe and discover you have no fresh-squeezed juice or rind in the house. (That stuff in the plastic lemon? Oh, please.)
Life may indeed be a bowl of cherries, but for cheering there’s nothing like one of citrus.
I recently got an assignment to write an article about dining out as a vegetarian. I was supposed to focus on “American” restaurants. The longer I thought about it, the murkier the definition became. What exactly is an American restaurant?
Does its kitchen use only ingredients indigenous to the United States? If so, then we are going to have a pretty narrow choice of foods.
Or, does the term include all produce, meat, and fish that is raised in the United States? That certainly expands our options.
How about the Americas — South, Central, and all of North? That opens up our menu even wider.
Or, is an American restaurant one that encompasses the cuisine of the myriad immigrant groups that have come to our shores and made this place their home — places as diverse as Burundi, Brazil, and Belarus?
An interesting factoid: In my research, I found that virtually every so-called American restaurant that does list a vegetarian entrée on its menu chooses Italian. There may be one more (very few restaurants list more than two veggie dishes), but the default seems to be pasta.
It’s snowing again. Rather, still. Here in Central Mass we will be at, or pretty close to, the seven-foot mark by the time this latest in a series of winter storms ends. And, while trees and shrubs dripping with glistening white frosting are pretty enough to illustrate a book of fairy tales, the glossy, gleaming ice dams building up on my roof are big enough to sink an ocean liner.
Thank goodness for my little sunroom, where I keep houseplants and fruit trees, along with a tray of herbs and vegetables I am attempting to grow from seed. If only the sun would shine.
Today is watering day. Normally, I might just look at that chore as another in a long list of tedious items on my to-do list, but today it is a pleasure. Why? Because within seconds of the water hitting the soil, the aroma of the rain forest begins to waft up and cause body and soul to rejoice.
This hint of Mother Nature’s perfume lasts only a moment, but for as long as it does, I can forget the swirling snow, the howling wind, and the sub-zero wind-chill factor. I can enter my little fantasy world in which I pick my breakfast orange from my own tree,
and enjoy it with a cup of coffee and the morning paper in the open-to-the-sky courtyard of my hacienda.
At least until the phone rings.
My kitchen table sits next to a big bay window that looks out onto my backyard. I love to sip my morning coffee gazing out at the expanse of green surrounded by all manner of trees and shrubs. Crab apple, wisteria, potentilla, hydrangea, spirea, climbing roses. Their vivid colors against the lush greens fill my mornings with cheer. Isn’t it great to be alive? And, isn’t it amazing how many shades of green there are?
As the frigid cold descends upon Central Massachusetts, thank goodness for the evergreens. Rhododendrum, azalea, spruce, and arbor vitae provide a warming counterpoint to the bare gray branches that make shiver. Even when it snows, the branches of these backyard stalwarts provide a sculptural framework for sparkling white frosting.
Round about January I start to fantasize about palm trees. Tall and gangly, with a Dr. Seuss-like mop of foliage on their heads, they sway in balmy tropical breezes in time to the rhythm of steel drums while I lounge in a hot sun drinking fruity drinks with little umbrellas in them.
But I am not in the tropics. I am in New England. So, I sit with baited breath awaiting the arrival of the postman. In his bag should be the annual onslaught of seed catalogues. These books filled with fruits, berries, vegetables, and flowers entice me and, even though I know that my plans are bigger than my acreage, I devour their pages with hungry eyes. Vibrant reds, sunny yellows, rich purples – they compete for my attention. And I want them all.
Astronomical spring will be here in about 59 days, and perhaps the path to the backyard will be clear enough to be able to plant some peas, even if I have to start them in the cold frame. In the meantime, I am poised like a Pavlovian dog waiting for the postman to ring twice and set me to salivating.
In preparation for cooking a Middle Eastern feast promised to the two highest bidders at a recent charity auction, I have been trying out recipes. What should I serve? How many courses? We will have five vegetarians between the two groups, so my options are somewhat limited, although all of the veggies will eat fish.
To help me decide on the menus, I am working my way through my own store of recipes and two particular cookbooks: restaurateurs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s Jerusalem, and Hadassah College Cooks, the latter published by the school’s renowned former culinary program.
One of my main concerns in all the whirl of cooking and baking is how long hubby Joel will put up with having to try new recipes on an almost daily basis. He does love to eat, and the recipes are all superb, but I fear that he will cry out at some point, “Enough! Just give me a scrambled egg!”
As I was pondering this potential roadblock yesterday afternoon, a bolt of electricity suddenly shook me. The spirit of Julie Powell had take residence in my soul — she, who famously spent a year cooking her way through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
I tried to remember how Powell’s husband reacted to being force-fed French cuisine night after night like some human goose being prepped for its fois gras. My recollection was that he was fine with the eating, but not so fine with his wife’s obsession.
So far we have gobbled up wild rice stuffed grape leaves, homemade pita, a burnt eggplant soup with mograbieh, spiced chickpea with fresh vegetable salad, Moroccan vegetable stew over couscous, and roasted butternut squash and red onions with tahini and za’atar. Joel has not uttered one word of complaint, despite the mountain of pots and pans the preparation has entailed.
As for me, just reading this over makes me crave dry toast for supper.