In honor of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, here's a link to my latest non-T&F food photography:
I'll get back to eating the Low Country after I eat some apples and honey.
Monday, September 29, 2008
Friday, September 26, 2008
It all started with a perfectly good sandwich at the Sentient Bean in Savannah.
In fact, it was a great sandwich, part of the new wave of hearty, meatless concoctions warming in the panini presses of cafes all across America. I believe it was called "The Taste of Fall," pairing Georgia sweet potatoes with pecans and chèvre. The crust of the bread was so sharp that it could cut the roof of your mouth if you ate it at the wrong angle, while the interior was soft and fluffy. It was here that, with the help of the local A&E rag and free wireless, we planned the next day's eating.
I was in the Low Country for a show at the Beaufort campus of the University of South Carolina, located in the town of Bluffton. Of that area, Gullah restaurateur and cookbook author Jesse Edward Gantt Jr. writes:
"In the days before interstate I-95 made its way down the Atlantic Coast, travelers heading south the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida often drove along highway 17, along rambling roadways that connected hundreds of small towns and hamlets including the region that has become known as Gullah/Geechee country, home of one of the oldest living cultures in the United States."
We were lucky enough to be in Savannah for the Trustees Market, an excellent assembly of local growers and food producers with the occasional restaurant and soap maker thrown in, too. There I bought a loofah gourd to use as a sponge and sprout to grown my own next year, a pound of sweet potatoes, a hunk of gnarly looking backyard ginger, some citrus whose name I couldn't make out but which is supposedly like a cross between an orange and a lime, six excellent grilled jerk chicken wings, a hunk of Georgia made aged goat cheese with a washed, herb covered rind, and some killer muscadines and scuppernongs.
The following day ended up being an edible adventure that would take me back to that world before I-95 described by Gantt.
At 8am I rose from my hotel bed. At 9am I ate an apple and two rice cakes, part of my usual early Fall traveling provisions. Until the "Middle East Prolific" cucumber that I would have for dinner in the Savannah airport, that was the last thing I would eat that day that wasn't meaty and exciting.
At 10:30 I ate three cold fajitas with my bare hands from a styrofoam to-go container on my lap in the driver's seat of our rented Corolla. I didn't like it when I had it for dinner the night before at a fake ale house in a fake part of a fake town, and I liked it even less for breakfast.
At 11:30 I sat down to a steaming plate of shrimp and grits at the Squat and Gobble in Bluffton. As soon as I saw the pink, local shrimp lolling in a bath of spicy peppers and onions, I hated New England.
Thursday, September 25, 2008
I'd been hearing about Russ Cohen's wild foods walks for some time now, but it wasn't until last week that I finally made it to one. If you're anywhere in New England, I strongly suggest staying on top of his schedule and doing so yourself. Afterwards, for the rest of your life, you'll have the confidence you need to walk through the woods snacking.
The most surprising thing I heard Russ say was this: in New England, with the exception of mushrooms, everything that tastes okay to eat is. If you pick the wrong mushroom you might have a delicious meal and then not wake up the next day, but with berries and the like you can generally trust your taste buds to tell you when something can or can't be eaten. This was great advice for me to hear, because it's what I already do.
Though there are those tasty but fatal mushrooms out there, Russ did point out that there are also several edible species which are unmistakable. Clearly the ones we saw on our walk were all named by protein starved vegetarians: oyster, chicken of the woods, beefsteak. I also learned to identify (and ate) both black and blue huckleberries, Indian cucumber, and an edible variety of viburnum whose fruits dry on the vine and taste very much like raisins. We also had the opportunity to smell a fresh sassafras root and learn about several greens which would be ready for harvest in other seasons, like milkweed, carrion flower (mmm!), burdock, and cat's claw tendrils.
Before we began, Russ handed out this homemade fruit leather made from fall olive berries, an extremely productive shrub that is both tasty and an exotic invasive, thereby fitting into a category I like to call "kill and eat" and which Russ calls "guilt free foraging."
If you are interested in foraging, you do need to know what you're doing, but fortunately this most ancient technique for acquiring food is gaining more popularity, and there are good guides out there like Russ who can help reacquaint us with wild foods. After all, as a species we've been eating this stuff for much longer than we've been drinking orange juice with fish in it.
Wednesday, September 24, 2008
Remember those handsome poblanos I bought over the weekend? You'll see them, roasted and stuffed, on the left in the photo above. Everything else I made for dinner was great, but they almost ruined my night.
First the kitchen filled with smoke as I charred them under the broiler. Our fire alarm, which has actually gone off while I've been making toast, had a field day. Several times. Because I couldn't stand the beeping and couldn't tend the flames and fan the smoke at the same time, I cut the roasting time a little short. Of course the peels then stuck like squirrel fur to squirrel meat.
I had to scrape them off piecemeal with a knife, but since these were local, organic, heirloom poblanos, of course they were runty. The combo of the sticking skin, scraping, and their small size meant that I tore them to shreds in the process. Still, I managed to cram a bread and parmesan stuffing into their small, tattered cavities, and when they came out of the oven they had hung together, the cheese had browned, and they actually looked decent.
I thought I could finally enjoy my hard work until I took a bite. There was no flavor, only bitter, vengeful heat. I've always known poblanos to be delightfully mild with only a hint of capsicum, and I have a decent heat tolerance if I do say so, but these sent me open mouthed to the milk jug. Even in today's Bitten they're referred to as having "gentle warmth," but I guess there's just something special in the feisty soil of New England.
Still, what China's dealing with really puts things in perspective. Suddenly deciding between organic or local seems much less important than spending a month's salary just to find out if your child will live.
Tuesday, September 23, 2008
As Fall blankets New England in irresistible clichés, I decided it was time to put down my mug of cider, stop leaf peeping, and gather up the harvest.
The title of this post stems from my new undertaking to read the dictionary. While doing so I discovered the secondary meaning of the word aftermath: "farming new grass growing after mowing or harvest," the "math" part being a dialectic version of "mowing." In other words, what you can grow after you've already harvested. Now that I've bored you, here's a picture!
This season the work horses of our kitchen garden were easily these zephyr and crookneck squashes, with the cherry tomatoes featured at top coming in a close second. These plants gave us our money's worth, which wasn't much since it's so cheap to grow your own food. We slapped together some garden beds out of an old fence, filled it with loam and manure, tossed in seeds and seedlings and were eating the fruits of our labor before we knew it. We started late, rarely weeded, got more rain than any Massachusetts summer on record and didn't have great sun to begin with. Still, we got a haul of über-fresh, beyond local veggies, with more on their way despite the change in season. Like this endearingly deformed cucumber that chose to grow in the corner of a trellis that we found in the trash.
There was also the previously blogged about sorrel, some strawberries, a few spindly broccoli rabe, an artichoke that never quite grew, cilantro that I let go to seed to have more for next year, and the afore mentioned squash, which I find very photogenic and not unlike a brontosaurus.
At present the most exciting and terrifying part of the garden is a softball sized canary melon. I ate its dad at a far-mar in Missouri last summer, and it was so good that I decided that I wanted to eat its children, too. Trouble is, I didn't get around to sprouting it until July, so there may not be enough of the season left for the little fella to mature. Will it make it, or turn into an unripe FrozFruit? Stay tuned.
But as the weather gets colder and the leaves drop, it's time to enjoy the last few tomatoes and start stocking up on turnips, right? Wrong. It's time for the aftermath.
There's a whole lost art of Fall planting in which you sow the seeds of things that can handle the frost and will often produce right through snow. These include Brussel sprouts, spinach, hardy greens like kale and chard and some varieties of lettuce, just to name a few. Then there's growing root veggies like carrots and parsnips to "overwinter," staying in the ground through the frost and letting their sugars concentrate. And don't get me started on planting stuff now to harvest in Spring, like garlic.
With so many options, you'd think nurseries and farm stands would be making a second big push with their planting supplies as they did back in Spring. But instead they sell their seeds back to the suppliers because no one wants to buy them, because in just a generation or two we've forgotten how to grow our own food. None of my local nurseries could think of a single place to buy seeds this time of year. Actually, they did recommend one location: K-Mart. Have we really gone so far from the lessons of the aftermath?
If so, that reminds me of another word I read in the dictionary: stupid.
Monday, September 22, 2008
One further note on making pine tea. Tonight I used full-on boiling water and let it steep much longer than usual, maybe even twenty minutes, and the result was a much stronger cup. In the past it's been more like a faint essence of pine, but this was like drinking a tree. Any time you find a downed branch in a trustworthy area, go for it and you cannot regret it.
On another note, thanks to everyone who attended my workshop at the Urban Country Fair over the weekend.
Yesterday I had the luxury of hitting up some of my favorite local food suppliers, including Codman Community Farm and Drumlin Farm and the independent grocery store Donelan's, all in Lincoln.
Since moving out of the city we've had to recondition ourselves to not need a weekly Whole Foods stock up, even if it means going to three different places. That means we sometimes don't have the little things we're used to, like Guss' pickles or cheap oil courtesy of Big Organic, but it also means we eat even more locally grown and minimally processed foods. Often our diet doesn't extend beyond creative combinations of eggs, meat, bread, cheese, fruits and vegetables. You know, what people used to eat. What was I buying at Whole Foods anyway?
It's also fun to return to shopping at a "normal" grocery store like Donelan's. Whole Foods is in part a force for good, but if you shop there all the time, you can't help but feel like a weenie.
I stopped at Codman for their incredible eggs, got bread and cheese and such at Donelan's, but it was Drumlin that shone the brightest on this excursion. They had a dazzling array of sustainably grown heirloom fruits and veggies ranging from New England classics to Caribbean specialties. As you can see from the photo above, I picked up collards, a leek, fennel, potatoes, tomatillos, poblanos, a melon, and the star of the bunch, ground cherries. These things are so good, so fresh and full of flavor, I eat them like candy, popping them out of their adorable little husks and straight into my mouth. It's addictive, but unlike candy, the more I eat, the better I feel.
I also picked up a ten dollar box of heirloom tomato seconds, which is pretty much what I expect to be handed upon entering heaven. Here's what was left after I sauced half for pizza.
I had fully intended to visit Verril Farm too, but was shocked and saddened to learn that their stand had burnt down in what started as an electrical fire on Saturday afternoon. Visit their blog here for updates and to follow the link to the youtube video of the fire fighters dousing the blaze.
I know I speak for the community when I say what a loss it is and that I only hope they're able to rebuild. I drove past it this morning to pay my respects, and the contrast of the luscious fields of crops that have been owned by the family for 90 years and the charred shell of the stand could not have been more stark. It tears me up to think of all of their carefully grown and prepared foods going up in smoke. I think it goes without saying that in today's economy, small scale farmers have enough challenges without their property spontaneously bursting into flames. Good luck, Verrill.
Friday, September 19, 2008
T&F would like to thank Laura of the blog Silk Road Gourmet for so graciously giving us a "Diamond Award."
And since I promised, here's a picture of some cherry tomatoes I harvested from the garden yesterday.
Though we had a frost warning for parts of Massachusetts last night, I've still got plenty of these ripening and hope I won't have to make lots of tiny, fried green tomatoes. Stay tuned for more updates on the kitchen garden in "Aftermath: The Fall Planting."
See here for my latest guest post on The Jew and The Carrot.
I promise I'll stop with the updates and get back to posting pretty pictures of food again soon.
And on an unrelated note, if whoever has been buying things with my credit card at a Walmart in Texas is reading this, you can stop now. The card has been canceled.
This weekend I'll be doing a skillshare at the Urban Country Fair in Somerville on putting up food for the winter. The event runs from 3-7 in Union Square and is completely free. My session runs from 6-7pm, and I'll be holding court on the range of options for storing food, including canning, drying, fermenting, and just buying squash. See here for more details and hopefully I'll see you there.
Urban Country Fair
Saturday, 9/20, 3-7pm
Union Square, Somerville, MA
Wednesday, September 17, 2008
I'll cut to the chase: the Ipanema Cafe in Richmond, VA is great. Really that's all I need to say, but since you're still reading, I'll continue.
One of the reasons I like the I.C. so much is that nothing like it does, or could, exist in Boston. This isn't to rag on Beantown so much as it's to say that the Ipanema effortlessly reflects the cool of its home turf. There's a lot of talk these days about terrior, and not everything on the menu is locally grown, in fact I don't remember if any of it was, but the Ipanema has a sort of atmospheric connection to its soil, or asphalt.
And who doesn't love a menu like this?
It's unlikely that the food at the Ipanema will blow you away, but it will surprise and satisfy you, especially for the price. I had a hefty grilled tofu sandwich on their fantastic (homemade?) focaccia, slathered with black olive tapenade and served with sweet potatoes fries and a salad that you actually want to eat, all for about six bucks. It's enough to make a carnivore at least an omnivore.
The Ipanema is also incredibly vegetarian and vegan friendly with a few meat options for those who can't miss a fix. They have an ample beer and wine list, and local offerings do crop up here. Its only achilles heel is a weak tea selection, or rather a weak selection of tea, but what else is new?
Go there. You'll like it.
917 W. Grace St. Richmond VA 23219
PH: (804) 213-0190
Tuesday, September 16, 2008
I once read in the mixing guide for Harry's New York Bar that one shouldn't create new cocktails. I have to paraphrase because I can't find my copy, but it said something like "If you haven't had it yet, there's a good reason."
There are tons of bartenders. Even the most popular of them are bound to have slow shifts. They are often creative people, and they are surrounded by the implements for making cocktails. In light of these facts, the book seems right: if they haven't made the next best cocktail, why would you?
Of course "Harry" probably thinks that he could keep inventing new cocktails, he just don't want you to. (For one thing, you wouldn't need his book anymore.) That type of hypocritical pedagogy is the same reason we're forced to learn correct grammar while asked to read Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man. Learn the rules, admire those who break them, but don't do it yourself. This tension is the single greatest battle in my cooking: improvisation v. tradition. When to trust those who have come before you, when to come up with something new to pass on.
Fortunately, there's a solution. Google. When I envision a dish and am not sure if anyone else has ever made it, I google it. If there are lots of o's in the word google, then I know I'm in the clear. If not, I have to decide if I'm a ninth grader or James Joyce. In the case of this lemonade, I chose the latter.
When I searched for "sorghum lemonade" on-line, all that came up was a link to the Universidad Evangelica De El Salvador. I decided that was a good sign, and went and made it anyway. It wasn't as user friendly as lemonade made with sugar, or even honey or maple, but at the end of the day I know that I am at heart an improviser, and would rather have a weird version of something than have it twice.
Besides, sometimes we have to improvise to return to tradition. Recipes provide a very narrow view of the vast panoply of things humans have historically put into their mouths. There was a time before recipes, when people just knew how to cook the foods they'd been surrounded by for as long as they could remember. A cooking culture structured entirely on recipes, like we now have, is one which is cracked enough for many traditions to fall through.
Even if google didn't know that someone else has made sorghum lemonade before, I did. How? If I had the idea, someone else must have. Tradition through improvisation, grammar via Joyce.
Take that, Mr. Whelan! (my 9th grade English teacher)
Recipe: Sorghum Lemonade for One
1 heaping, sticky tbsp sorghum syrup
Combine the syrup with slightly warmed water, stirring until it dissolves. Add the juice of 1/2 of a lemon. Fill to the brim with cool water. Add ice if so desired.
Note: I know summer is lemonade's chief season, and I know that we're technically still in summer, but this drink was perfect on a recent warm, blustery, early Fall feeling day. More of a farewell to warmth than a hello.
Monday, September 15, 2008
On Saturday I attended an oyster tasting at the Legal Seafoods in Harvard Square. Though I believe in paying the real cost of food, which Americans usually don't, the $35 price tag did make me hesitate, since that amount could put me in real food for several days. Also, great Wellfleets on the halfshell are available at the Davis Square Farmer's Market on Wednesdays for only a buck. With these two thoughts in mind, my companions and I decided that to make it worth it, we needed to eat at least an oyster per every dollar spent. In the end we each put down about 40.
After the first ten or so I didn't think I could do it. After two glasses of wine, I did.
Initially the space was way too crowded and the anxiety about making sure you got your fill was palpable. People were finicky about their place in line and there was a fair amount of bumping and jostling for a crowd who looked like the wealthy dupes of Marx Brothers movies.
Besides oysters, you could also have... nothing. Though the oysters were served raw, fried, pickled, baked and stewed, there wasn't a crumb, an oyster cracker even, to be had besides the oysters themselves, which I thought was a little shoddy of Legal. At least put out some bread, and then we'd eat fewer oysters anyway. Neither was wine included in the tab, though I was certainly led to think it would be by the wording of their promo. The folks at Boston.com seem to have had the same impression, having included the following in their listing for the event:
"you will be given wine sips to complement the oyster dishes."
I don't know about you, but if you come to my house for dinner, and I "give" you something, you don't have to pay $7.50.
Between that and being asked to fork over gratuity upon entering, one didn't get the impression that one was being graciously hosted. A not too cheap feeding frenzy it was, a pleasing dining experience it was not. When the shucking demonstrator asked for everyone's attention and spoke extempore about the high quality of Legal's oysters, taking pains to highlight their safety, I suddenly felt as though we'd been tricked into paying for their marketing.
Still you did get a complimentary oyster survival kit, which is really the opposite if you look at it from the oyster's perspective. It contained a DVD on how to shuck (don't need it), a small bottle of Tabasco (don't use it), one of those disposable wooden oyster forks (completely unnecessary), and a moist towelette (would rather have oyster juice on my hands than ethyl alcohol, propylene glycol, USP, benzalkonium chloride, fragrance, polyoxethylene nonphenol, PEG 75, lanolin, and sodium bicarbonate.)
That said, you really could eat all the oysters you wanted, or more. As I grabbed one last Maine pemaquid on my way out, my stomach sloshing with the very recently killed bodies of over three dozen bivalves, the busboys waved the tops of their hands at at me as if to say "take, take!"
The staff was friendly, light footed and informative, though not always correct. One staff member said that the small, ovular lumps on the shells were "barnacles," though I've been told by the oyster farmer at the Davis Market that they are in fact baby oysters. (He asks that you refrigerate your shells and return them to him the following week so that he can use them to re-seed his beds.) As if it wasn't already apparent, this event showed the massive disconnect between food production and consumption, even by the folks at Legal, who purport to know their stuff, though by their sheer volume they drain the ocean of life at an alarming rate per day.
But there's no way that I can pretend that I didn't love eating 40 oysters. There is nothing to help you better understand a food than obsessive indulgence, and I don't think I'd eaten a luxury item in this quantity since the age of fourteen, when my next door neighbor and I each ate 9 grapefruits from the tree in my yard. My lips burned, but I've deeply understood grapefruit ever since. I also have to report that afterwards we all felt a clear sense of euphoria, one not unlike my recent sichuan peppercorn high. Maybe that's the infamous aphrodisiac effect, though all it made me want to do was nap.
And no matter how you look at it, if I pass up buying an oyster the next 40 times, in the end I'll have saved money.
Friday, September 12, 2008
To continue on the theme of not fixing fruit when it ain't broke, contrary to the advice of the man who sold me these damsons, I did not turn them into jam. I ate them. I'd say "plain," but they weren't. The damson is a marvelously flavorful fruit despite its diminutive stature. So much so that it makes me exclaim the homophonic phrase featured in the title of this post.
The damson plum has a certain pucker that I so love in other fruits, especially wild ones, like the natal plum, a fruiting African shrub popular in South Florida landscaping. Of course I never would have fully appreciated the damson's flavor if I had followed the advice of the vendor at the Charlottesville Far-Mar and cooked them down with sugar.
Granted, there are fruits specifically bred for using in cooking, like quince, but those are often highly specialized and therefore mostly absent in our increasingly user-friendly produce section. These days it seems anything not cartoonishly sweet is being relegated to the realm of "oh, some people make jam out of that." As I've said before, in doing so, we surrender a wealth of complex flavors to one: sugary.
After my last post on the subject, Karen B. wrote in with an historic literary connection to the damson:
I remembered at least one instance of where I'd seen damsons, Christina Rossetti's Goblin Market:
Come buy, come buy;
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try...
Here is evidence that people before us have eaten the same things as we (sometimes) do now, a link to our food culture that you'll never find in something like a supermarket tomato or chalky, aspartamey red delicious. Sure, some of you out there might already be familiar with the damson and find my ranting unwarranted. That makes sense, since it's been popular for hundreds of years, besides the last 50 or so. But it didn't cross my path until the tender age of 27, so something is clearly wrong with our relationship to heirlooms. How quickly we abandoned the damson and green gage for those awful plums you can now get in any grocery store in the world.
Perhaps one reason the vendor told me they weren't good for eating is that they took a full two weeks to ripen. At first they really were too tart to eat without wincing, which was still kind of fun, but as they aged to the brink of shriveling, the sugars concentrated and the flesh softened. I'm so glad I didn't dump a bunch of Domino on them early on, never having learned how good they can be with my two revolutionary new ingredients: knowledge, patience.
Thursday, September 11, 2008
I recently received a package of coca tea, also called mate de coca, from a Columbian friend in Boston. Depending who you talk to, this tisane made from the plant that, when more seriously manipulated will yield cocaine, is either a big deal or not. As usual, if you consult the internet, it will tell you all kinds of crazy sh*t, like that it has more protein than meat
When I asked my friend who gave me the box whether coca was legal in the U.S., he began rapidly shrugging and blowing out little puffs of exasperated air, as if to say "How would I know what your crazy gringo government thinks about it?"
In my two times drinking the tea, I have felt no effects that should even approach illegality, this coming from someone too caffeine sensitive for anything but the occasional cup of coffee on a full stomach. The tea is mild and smooth, even buttery, with a slightly fruity aroma and flavor. It is said to help with altitude sickness, and friends of mine who have traveled through Peru have attested to its soothing powers in potentially nauseating situations.
Traditionally used by indigenous peoples of the Andes region as a sacred plant with powerful healing and nutritive qualities, the leaves have been found alongside 3,000 year old mummies. Of course it took modern Europeans to refine it into cocaine, a substance that in turn destroyed many of the cultures in which coca originated.
Through the lens of the local food movement, which touts the many benefits of eating foods grown in your immediate vicinity, it would make sense that something that grows at a relatively high altitude is helpful for people living at a relatively high altitude. Similarly, I'm sure the cherry tomatoes growing in my backyard are imbuing me with some special fortitude, though they, too, originated in Peru.
Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Thanks to the Ecologist for this short video detailing yet another triumph of an heirloom species when its industrial counterpart has failed to fit the bill. Pun intended.
Meet the Forest King Chicken:
Continuing on the theme of foraging, last night I had this chicken of the woods mushroom, not to be confused with the hen of the woods or chicken of the sea. One of the "foolproof four," not to be confused with the "fatal five," this fungi is popular with entry level mycophiles for its easily identifiable characteristics (huge, yellow) and lack of poisonous look-alikes.
This was a gift to me from a more established forager, though I'm beginning to think I'd trust myself to identify it as well. Not quite sure if this was the kind of fungi that releases it's flavor best in water or fat, I split the difference and prepared it with a short simmer in salt water, then a sauté in olive oil and a splash of broth. The tender outer edges of the shelf were superb, the rest of it a little tough but still flavorful and fun to chew. In fact I can't think of another vegetable so meaty in it's mouth feel. After trimming the choice cuts, I was left with a fist sized hunk of shroom too tough to eat, though I'm betting it will make a killer stock.
I've taken a break from homemade stock after feeling anxious about fuel costs while watching the stove's gas flame burn and burn, but as a Vermonter friend of mine said, "When you got wood heat, you get your stock for free." This Sunday I plan to make a small fire in the new pit with deadwood from the forest behind the house, have a great stock, and roll around in the pile of money I'll be saving.
For more of the c.o.w. in the blogosphere, check out BirdChick's post here.
Recipe: Sautéed Chicken of the Woods
Chicken of the woods mushroom, aka "sulphur shelf," one handful per person
Olive oil or butter
1. Forage for a chicken of the woods mushroom. DON'T pick something deadly.
2. Soak the mushroom in warm water to remove debris. If you aren't going to use it immediately, store somewhere damp and cool (it is a mushroom, after all).
3. Blanche in salted water for five minutes, remove, press out excess water and cut into strips.
4. Sauté in olive oil or butter. Goes well with eggs or in an omelette though it is excellent on its own.
Tuesday, September 9, 2008
Pine tea was one of my first forays into wild edibles, a very old practice now gaining popularity as "foraging" by foodies and bloggers.
Of all places, it happened in Lake Tahoe. Desperate to experience real nature through the "woodsy" veneer of the resort complex I was staying at, I turned to Tom Brown Jr.'s Field Guide to Wild Edible and Medicinal Plants, a fantastic place to start with this sort of thing. It was the following line that made me think differently about something I had only thought of as, well, a tree:
"I know that no matter where there is a pine, my survival is insured."
T.B.J. continues, describing the many uses of pine for food and medicine, including making flour from the inner bark and pollen of male cones, roasting the seeds, and in an emergency situation, boiling the rootlets in two changes of water to eat as a potherb. But it was his description of pine tea that most caught my attention:
"What I drank was an absolutely delicious cup of tea. It was like none I had ever tasted before. It's wild but mild taste seemed to bind us to the forest and to the tree itself. There, part of the natural world became part of our lives."
I looked out the window and saw a young pine directly in front of our (fake) cabin. I snipped a few needles, turned on the hotel coffee pot, got out my toiletry scissors, and got to work. Within minutes I was enjoying my first cup of pine tea. When my dad walked in I proudly offered him some of my wild beverage. Though he asked if it was going to kill him, he did try it.
The cup featured above was a gift from the remnants of Hurricane Hannah that blew through Massachusetts last Saturday night. While I drank it I also cracked and ate some roasted piñones I got at the the headquarters of the good folks at pinenut.com - more on them later.
This tea was one of Tom Brown Jr.'s first wild edibles, and thanks to him, it was mine too. I highly recommend it as a gateway foraging experience.
Recipe: Pine Tea
Cut a handful of green needles from any species of pine, or wait for a storm to blow a branch down for you. Heat water almost to boiling. Snip the needles using scissors into a tea cup or heat resistant glass jar. Pour the hot water over the needles and let steep about ten minutes or until you can see that the color from the needles has gone into the water. Strain through a FINE strainer (I used a bandanna). Compost the needles or return them to where they were gathered, thereby "closing the loop."
Monday, September 8, 2008
While flying back from a show in the Mid-West yesterday, Seth reminded me that I had once pledged to write about both the good and the bad things I eat on the road. This item falls with a wet "plop" into the latter category.
Leftover from dinner at a Mexican restaurant in Rolla the night before, this dish wasn't good fresh, let alone after a hot day of sloshing around in the backseat of a rental car and then in my carry-on. Maybe it's time to let go when you have to wipe off your lunch in the bathroom of an airport, but it still beats Chili's Too!
At the restaurant I had ordered a tamale deluxe and a carne asada burrito to go. The tamale deluxe was more deluxe than tamale, which only accounted for about a fifth of the total mass, the remainder being sour cream.
A little hard-up on provisions, I ended up eating the burrito for breakfast the next day. Granted, by "hard-up" I mean hard up in the first world kind of way, which means I relax my ethics and eat steak burritos. Because it was so difficult to excavate the entree from beneath the strata of sour cream, cheese, refried beans, sour cream and cheese, I actually thought I was eating the tamale when I was eating the burrito. You can imagine my surprise when I popped open the to-go container at the airport only to find the tamale, still intact.
Me: Oh, I think this is the tamale.
Seth: Can't you tell?
Seth: Didn't the burrito have chicken in it?
Me: I don't know.
Seth: Didn't you eat it?
Seth: Does that have chicken in it?
Me: (looking at it) I don't know.
Seth: If only we still had the menu.
There's a lot of talk about knowing where your food comes from these days. I think that especially rings true when you can't tell even tell what your food is.
As long as I'm eating meals on my lap in airports or airplanes, I would have much preferred another cucumber and cheddar sandwich like the one I ate at the gate while waiting for our departing flight.
Its only drawback was that I was able to make it, which means security didn't get catch the six inch kitchen knife I forgot to take out of my backpack.
Wednesday, September 3, 2008
In Just Eat It: Part I, I wrote that you could find wild fruit in any nearby vacant lot. In retrospect, I felt that I exaggerated and decided to post an apology saying so. Until I realized just how correct I was.
I wrote that post from hell, also known as a Ramada off the the US-46E Service Road in Wayne, NJ. It's a never ending sea of strip malls with fierce, cacophonous traffic twenty four-seven. If you miss your exit, you have to go miles before you can find a break in the dividing wall that will let you turn around. It is a place which looks as though it can sustain no life besides Dunkin' Donut-Baskin Robbins mergers, and is generally of the many human deserts that will be our legacy on this formerly green planet.
So you can imagine my surprise when, in the parking lot of the hotel, my traveling companions caught a whiff of what they thought was grape juice. The source proved to be fat, ripe, wild concord grapes trailing over the fence at the back of the lot. And what were they growing on? An elderberry bush. There in the harsh flood lights of the adjacent late night putt-putt and driving range, we feasted on wild fruit as the cars blazed by.
This just in from Sara of Amali Jewelry, who has solved the mystery of the birthday melon. She writes:
"Just wanted to let you know that the birthday melon is called Chameh and it's from Korea. My roommate was eating one the other night, but he doesn't remove the seeds. He said the seeds are the 'highlight of the melon.' I tried. I disagree."
Tuesday, September 2, 2008
I bought a pint of these purple tomatillos at the Davis Sq. Far-Mar in Somerville with big plans in store. The going idea was to broil or roast them to make a smoky, tangy stew, but before doing so, I took a chomp of one raw. Sampling is a practice I advocate in every stage of the cooking process, including before you even start cooking.
When I first started expanding my food horizons, I would buy a new vegetable each week and prepare it three ways, raw being one of them (unless it was something like a potato). That way I understood the whole arc of potential, and in doing so I came to appreciate the complexity of many fruits and veggies when unadorned by elaborate preparations. As soon as I took a bite of the tomatillo, I knew two things. First, a real tomatillo is as different from a supermarket tomatillo as in the same comparison of its more famous cousin, the tomato. Second, I wasn't going to do any roasting, I was going to eat the whole pint raw.
The texture and flavor of these little fruits was outstanding. They popped, they crunched, they melted. They were sweet without any of the dull, cloying corn-syrup quality of many modern fruits. In eating this tomatillo and savoring its unique character, I understood just how much we stand to loose by dumbing down the flavor and boosting the sugar content of America's fruits.
Beside growing them sweet, there are many distinct fruits both wild and domesticated that no one in modern America will touch without sugar. Among these are cranberries, gooseberries, currants, elderberries, beach plums, chokecherries, and in my home state of Florida, the sea grape.
I first learned about the sea grape in third grade during a section on Florida pioneer history. Our teacher mentioned that this small, seaside fruit was a staple of the Florida pioneer diet, though according to her it could only be consumed in heavily sweetened forms such as a jam, juice, or wine. We were also told that the local indigenous population was fond of them, and herein I sensed a disconnect. I knew the Indians weren't eating them with sugar, because they didn't have it.
The next time I was at the beach, ever the early forager, I popped one in my mouth. I will never forget my first sea grape, though many more would follow. The first thing you taste is salt from the sea breeze which has dried and lingers on the exterior. Below this dusting comes a soft, slightly fuzzy skin, not unlike a firm apricot. Then comes the thin layer of flesh surrounding the pit, its flavor deep and murky, reminiscent of copper, or blood, and tinged with a gamy, tangy sweetness. I would never, ever, mask it with sugar.
The sea grape boasts a wild flavor, a taste unchanged by human history, and one which is a world apart from anything available in your local supermarket, partly because nothing in your supermarket is local. I miss the sea grape, but have found the same pleasure just this past weekend in a wild elderberry bush on the bank of a pond in the woods behind my house in Massachusetts.
There are countless native fruits like the sea grape and elderberry which have sustained native populations on this continent and others for thousands of years. Now the only place they hold in our culinary tradition is in the rare instance that someone adds equal parts sugar to make them into a jam. If you do come across such a fruit, and you probably can in any woods or vacant lot near your home, don't do that. Just eat it.
Sure, I could have made a marvelous soup from the tomatillos, with chicken stock, black pepper, knives, a blender, and various other implements of the modern kitchen. But it couldn't touch the joy I felt by eating fruit after fruit raw, crunching on the small seeds of history.