Monday, September 26, 2011

Adios, Peaches

It's that time of year: you never know which peach is going to be your last.

Or rather that's how it usually goes. But this year E. and I have put by about forty pounds of peaches in various states: frozen, canned in light syrup and lemon juice, dried, and pie. The pie lasted the least amount of time.

We got the peaches from Umass' Cold Spring Orchard, which calls itself "the orchard with a difference." What I found to be most different about it was how cheap the fruit was: $16 for a 22lb box of seconds. At that price, we would have been fools not to have spent several hot, sticky hours of precious weekend butchering mushy stone fruit.

In the past hundred years, preserving food has gone from being what you do if you don't want scurvy to what you do if you're a hipster with a wad of cash to blow at the green market and nothing better to do. One of the best parts of our peach session was a conversation about canning and privilege. Let's just say that there's a lot to unpack there, regardless of whether you're cold packing or hot packing.

Once upon a time, before the era of horrible, unripenable Chilean winter supermarket produce, you -- or someone who worked for you -- canned, dried, jellied and so forth so that you could eat something with fructose in it that wasn't an apple in February. Some people still do it like that, and I like to think that counts us. But for others canning has become something of a folksy indulgence. Remember, people were once embarrassed to eat lobster, and now look at its status. Could humble jam go the same way?

Which isn't to say that canning is right if you live in Arkansas and wrong if you live in Brooklyn, have a shaggy beard, tight jeans and a single-speed bike. It's to say that our relationship to food is like a serious glass of wine: protean, complex, and loaded.

The changing economic and geographic demographics of canners entails more than I can go into here, so let me try to sum up my stance. My wife and I canned, froze and dried a bunch of peaches. It made me feel a little bit like a pioneer and a little bit like a toady.

I could just buy cardboard peaches all year instead, but now I at least have the option of reaching back in time when I reach into my cupboard, grabbing a cool glass jar containing a taste of place, the substance of another season, suspended in a little sugar and lemon.

Besides, there is no improving the fresh peach. Except perhaps with peanut butter.

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Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Vermmont 2011: The Kiely Family Outdoes Themselves

Foreword: this post is dedicated to the people of Vermont who are still wresting their incredible state out of the muck left by Irene. To find out how to volunteer, go to If you can't volunteer in person, you can donate to the relief efforts here.

There are many traditions at the Shakespeare camp I teach at in VT each summer; my favorite is that campers often invite the staff to their homes for dinner.

This gracious ritual has given me a window into the food lives of Vermonters, and it's a different perspective than the one you get from national press focusing on the state's upscale farm-to-table restaurants. Those places are great, I'm sure, but the impression I get is that tourists enjoy them far more often than locals.

Perhaps that's because of how good so many locals have it. Backyard salads, berries and even chickens were all on the menu this year, as was homemade ice cream, churned before our very eyes (and very thighs) and so forth. But only once did we have duck confit.

Mr. Kiely is a doctor, and thankfully the Hippocratic oath doesn't apply to poultry. Mr. and Mrs. Kiely slaughter a flock of their own ducks each year in order to make confit, and this summer I was finally the happy recipient of their carnage.

The Kiely clan is undeterred by the fact that their daughter isn't even a camper anymore. In fact, she's now on staff. Here she is eating berries at the home of current campers who led us into their prolific patch one night.

This year the Kielys made us dinner even though we weren't able to go to their house. And so, with the precision of caterers, they mobilized the confit along with gazpacho, their own roasted veggies, salad, the best quiche I've ever had, homemade peach ice cream (below), homemade ginger ice cream, and molasses-spice cookies, also homemade.

Everything was superb -- even better than the sushi feast, Greek extravaganza or shrimp risotto the Kielys have made us in the past, which is saying a lot -- but the confit was of course the star of the show. Because it was confit.

But now the Kielys have become their own worst enemy. Because where can they go from here when they make us dinner next year? I don't know, but I'm eager
to find out.

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Thursday, September 1, 2011

What I Ate on My Birthday, or What Didn't I Eat on My Birthday?

First there was a pre-birthday gorging at Sichuan Gourmet in Brookline. I ate Sichuan style green beans, ma po tofu, fried prince mushrooms, fresh bamboo shoots with spicy wonder sauce, dan dan noodles, Sichuan wonton with spicy chili sauce, tofu with spicy chili sauce, Chinese eggplant with Yu Xiang sauce, cumin lamb, and one that I'm forgetting but that was probably described by one or all of the words "spicy," "chili," "Sichuan," and/or "sauce." And a scorpion bowl. Oh full of scorpions was my mind!

On the birthday proper I awoke to the above breakfeast. Contents: roasted potatoes, whole wheat biscuits with porch-grown rosemary, leftover blueberry compote, herbacious medium-curd, soft and slow scrambled eggs that made me go as weak in the knees as the eggs themselves, slices of a very beefy tomato sprinkled with truffle salt.

But my favorite thing about this breakfast was that E. was completely unprepared for it and bought no additional ingredients to make it. Again, because that's what we had.

The meal was accompanied by two jars of precious stuff. One contained Chole Adams' fiery green salsa, which can only be purchased at a select few farmers markets in the Northeast Kingdom. The other held Japanese knotweed honey, sent by Seth and Maggie from BC. If you can't beat it, make honey out of it. Or rather make bees make honey out of it.

For dinner, fish tacos. But first, the runny, goaty VT cheese pictured at top -- I'll have to add the name later. Atop the soft corn tortillas: tilapia that someone tried to flirt with my wife about while she was buying it, chili-lime mayo, raw corn (probably my favorite taco topping), cilantro, lime, more of Chole's salsa, avocado, diced red onion.

And we finally hit upon what it is that makes fish tacos so excellent, besides the obvious combination of fish and tacos: the perfect balance of richness and levity.

As if these meals weren't enough, I also bought 44 pounds of peaches from Cold Spring Orchard and a canoe and read the last few chapters of Anna Karenina in the bathtub.

Even if the next 364 are sh*t, I'd still call this a good year.

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Never do I drink pisco sours more often than when in Vermont. That's because my dear friend Gabriel flies up from Santiago to teach at the Shakespeare camp I work at each year, and when he visits, he usually brings more pisco than clothing.

Gabriel's typical cocktail is a marriage of pisco, which is essentially a South American brandy, lemon juice, egg whites, sugar, ginger, ice and cinnamon. See below for the recipe, in Spanglish. However this summer we'd run out of lemons.

As they do each year, the Dunbar family had sent us a generous donation of red currants from their prolific bushes, a selection from which is pictured here against the evening sky at their dairy farm.

It seemed obvious, really. Gabbo set to work adjusting his recipe.

The currants were just as sour as the lemons but far more astringent, which I really liked, and instead of just using their juice, Gabbo blended them whole, making a sort of alcoholic smoothie. The nadir of each glass held a reservoir of crunchy little currant seeds.

If we'd had more lemons, we wouldn't have hit on the world's first -- and hopefully not last -- batch of red currant pisco sours. And that enforces one of my absolute favorite maxims when it comes to preparing eat and drink: because that's what we had.

Gabriel's Pisco Sour Recipe:

"Es muuuuuuuuuy fácil."

Obviusly, the amounts of pisco depends on the strength of it. You can add more if you want it more "dangerous."

In a blender put una parte de limón (ojalá lime) por dos de pisco... add sugar, but not too much, because it's a sour cocktail... (if you have "azucar flor," wich is sugar made powder, it's better) If you need more sweeterness, just add more after you tried it.

Add enough ice cubes and a small spoon of the white part part of an egg. Then mix it. Try it and see if it's good for you. Remember you can add some gratined ginger.

If it's good, serve it in a long neck cup. Spread a little amount of cinnamon and just before drink, some drops of Amargo de Angostura.

Pisco Sour is very good as an aperitive... that's why you gotta be careful with sugar. Hope it'll be delicious!!!!!

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