Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Adios Tomatoes, and other thoughts on liminal culinary spaces

"The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness."

- Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory

"no pit,
no husk,
no leaves or thorns,
the tomato offers
its gift
of fiery color
and cool completeness."

- Pablo Neruda, "Oda al Tomate"

In my last post I said goodbye to peaches, or at least to fresh ones. Now I bid farewell to the tomato, that gentle engorged Peruvian berry.

It's cold out. I wore mittens to walk the dog this morning. My dog, who is from Puerto Rico and who loves the snow but not the cold, wore a little green jacket that makes him look like Peter Pan. (I never thought I'd be the kind of person to put clothes on a dog, but I never thought about a dog needing clothes.) This kind of weather tells me that I probably won't have another fresh tomato -- or rather another real tomato -- until next summer.

But the weather has nothing to do with it: each tomato could be your last. Doesn't that make them taste better?

Here we are, a link on the chain between our ancestors and our descendants, eating tomatoes in a cradle in a brief crack of light. Fall, the cloudy, muddy tunnel between summer and winter, is the season for such reflections on the space between, and many cultures take this opportunity to do so. On Halloween the veil between the spirit world and this one is at its thinnest. On Simcha Torah the end and the beginning of the torah are read back to back. On Thanksgiving, to remind us of our mortality, we scorch the marshmallows that top our sweet potatoes

Summer and winter, those are seasons! They are clear cut: summer, hot, winter, cold. You know what to do. But Fall and Spring are transitions. Nature bats us about with freezing rain one day and glorious sunshine the next. The gloves come off, and then it gets raw out and we put them back on. These seasons are liminal spaces, full of liminal foods.

One of my fondest memories in my career as a food journalist is walking around Boston farmers markets with Jean-George Vongerichten for my story in the Globe. It was right around this time of year. Jean-Georges remarked on the liminal quality of the produce, that this is the time when tomatoes sit next to apples and peaches rub shoulders with squash. He planned his menu accordingly.

I ate my last tomato, a sweet emerald beauty from a local farm, with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of truffle salt that has lost its truffleness, so really it was just salt, which is still an incredible substance. I ate it with slices of butternut squash, walnut, leek and cumin flatbread.

Adios, tomatoes.

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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 http://vtresponse.wordpress.com/. 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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Monday, August 15, 2011

Switching Over

I'm in the process of switching the blog over to my new site, so for today's post, see here:


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Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Hot, Hot, Hot

Every year, STUFF magazine (the Boston one, not the defunct lad mag) generates a Hot 100 list of food, drink, fashion and so forth. Last year I contributed entries on the KFC Double Down, Pretty Things Beer and Ale and Silly Bandz. The year before I covered coconut water, pimenton and puehr. And this year, I have dubbed the following things to be febrile:

Hot Sake Relative: Soju

Hot and Wild: Foraging
Hot Spice: Sichuan Peppercorns
Hot Beer Upgrade: The Michelada
Hot Mojito Successor: Coquito
Hot For Local Carnivores: The Meat CSA
Hot and Sappy: Inspira-Pop

Check out the full list here: http://stuffboston.com/hot100-2011/default.aspx

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Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Food On Fire

The summer of campfire cooking has come to its fiery climax.

Last weekend I was in the Finger Lakes for an assignment and for what passes for a bachelor party these days: hiking, dining, wine tasting and reading poetry. Well, dirty poetry.

On the first night we made dinner on the campfire using entirely local ingredients. For dessert I baked a blueberry free form tart with a rye crust on top of stones in a Dutch oven, which we nestled in the coals and covered with a smoldering log. It wasn't the best thing I've ever had, but the fact that it worked at all was kind of amazing. I had picked up the technique from my story on the Revolutionary War reenactment cook. (The skillet was for presentation -- it really did bake on rocks.)

Also delicious were some crostini we seared in fat leftover from frying ham. (The topping was the fat.)

On the second night we dined out but returned to the campsite to sit around the fire. As the flames died out, we were left with a bed of perfect cooking coals, and even though it was one in the morning and no one needed any more nutrition, we couldn't resist.

We started by searing a small block of scrapple, which accomplished two purposes. First, it made the scrapple more appetizing, warming the slightly gelatinous meat and giving it a nice crust. Second, it dried the scrapple out after it had sloshed around in the bottom of a cooler for a while. Does that kind of logic apply at bachelorette parties, too?

As the scrapple sizzled, one of our party was struck by a bolt of genius, which resulted in the scrapple being struck by a bolt of fire. I believe the phrase "flambé that sh*t" was uttered. Never before had I heard the word flambé used as a command, and never had it seemed like such a good idea.

I stuck the long stick we'd been using as a poker into the coals until it was aflame. We splashed rye whiskey into the iron skillet containing the scrapple, which sat directly atop the glowing coals. I touched the fiery stick to the alcohol, and voilà! Was it the world's first scrapple flambé? Probably not, but Google seems to think so. And it was insanely good.

But when you've been drinking tiny amounts of Riesling all day and sipping on rye by the campfire, you can't flambé just once. My mind raced as to what else we had that could be set on fire and consumed -- oatmeal, Terra chips, a watermelon? And then it hit me: bananas.

Soon a larger iron skillet was sizzling with a fat lump of local pasture butter we'd pick up earlier. In went two ripe bananas that had been warming in a hot car all day. They quickly browned, and once flipped, I doused them with a dangerous amount of Glen Thunder, a corn whiskey from the region's only distillery. The poker stick was again lit on fire. The flame was passed to the pan, and along with the alcohol, Dave's previous life as a bachelor disappeared in a pillar of fire.

We reduced the jus that had accumulated in the pan, took the skillet off the coals and drizzled the bananas with local honey. What had started as a terrible/wonderful idea turned into one of the best desserts I'd ever had a hand in. Call it corn whiskey campfire bananas foster sans a la mode. We stood around the pan with a flashlight and gobbled them up. If it wouldn't have caught my tongue on fire, I would have licked the pan.

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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Massachusetts Terroir

So what does Massachusetts taste like in liquid form? To find out, see my story in the current issue of STUFF Magazine Boston or see here: http://stuffboston.com/stuffboston/archive/2011/07/11/mass-appeal-a-boozy-quest-to-define-our-turf-s-terroir.aspx

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Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Ancient Grains

Biodiversity, flavor and lower gluten content are just some of many reasons why Eli Rogosa's work with the Heritage Wheat Conservancy is so interesting. See here for my article in today's Globe about her farm:


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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

On Asparagus

Is it me or has there been something even more special than usual about asparagus this year? Maybe it's just because sparrowgrass is the "first" vegetable of the season, though I and others have pointed out that the fixed notion of a growing season is become a thing of the past. Or maybe it's because I live right over the river from the asparagus capital of the world.

My first bite of local asparagus several weeks back was, like so many experiences with genuine food, transformative. Eating seasonally also gives us the opportunity to forget something by the time it comes around again, making us that much more grateful for a taste of tomatoes, corn, green garlic or countless other crops that lose their ephemerality on the supermarket shelf.

Sure I've had great asparagus before. But there was just something about these spears. They were so fresh, so sweet, so cool and alkaline. They tasted like Vivaldi's "Spring," only more relaxed.

Sure grilled asparagus and broiled asparagus is great, but I'd only go there if I had more asparagus than I knew what to do with, and that has never happened to me and never will. I prefer a cooking technique that showcases the fragility of the vegetable: a brief steam or blanch. Just a few seconds too long and you'll loose the crispness, a minute too long and you might consider selling your olive-drab mush to Green Giant.

Sometimes we make asparagus omelettes (a word which I prefer to spell with as many letters as the dictionary permits). We don't cook the asparagus first; the radiant warmth coming through the eggs is enough. After letting the omelette rest, slice it up. Show off that cross-section of gorgeous, green o's and you may feel inclined to express some "oh's" yourself.

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Thursday, June 30, 2011

Even Newer 'Ticles

Excuse the lack of posts -- I'm in the process of building a website and am still deciding how best to integrate the blog. In the meantime, here's a story I just did for Splashlife about bitter melon, and here's one from the Globe about Gary Nabhan, hero of chiles and runoff everywhere.

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Wednesday, June 8, 2011

New 'Ticles

Cuban food, burrata, wild edibles and bitter melon have been the subjects of my latest stories in the Globe. See here for links and let me know if you can think up a dish that combines all four subjects:

Cuban classics that feel like home

Burrata requires a master to make it in Vermont

Berkshires’ farm and forage fete

Cultivating a fan club for bitter melon

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Friday, June 3, 2011

Fig Pride, or Higo Ego

I am thrilled to report that my fig tree shows signs of bearing its first fruit.

I'd wanted one ever since reading about a fig farmer in Edible Pioneer Valley, and I finally found a sapling at the North Quabbin Garlic and Arts Festival in Orange, MA last fall (the only time you want garlic in orange). My friend Ari also bought one, which he took back to Brighton. He named his Aaron, I named mine Ari. It was very confusing any time we shared updates, such as an email I received yesterday that said "Aaron has yet to fruit but he's looking healthy and more leaves are still sprouting. I gave him some ash from our fireplace as fertilizer and he seemed to like it."

Of course figs aren't native, nor are they frost hardy, so Ari and Aaron spent the winter indoors and only recently ventured outside. Apparently the farmer does the same thing on a larger scale with all of his trees, probably making his one of the world's few container orchards.

I brought Ari inside last night when the mercury threatened to dip into the low forties (just days after it had been nearly 90), and that's when I noticed the little, green immature fruits. Since that discovery it's taken all of my self control to not check on them every five minutes. Hang on... nope, not ready to be soaked in brandy yet.

Of course they may not make it to maturity, but if they do, I'll be eating fresh, locally grown Mediterranean fruit that spent most of the year in my living room. If it works I may just have to start my own container orchard.

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Thursday, June 2, 2011

On Kurdistan

The Good Doctor Jon Dworkin, one of my best friends, just returned from Kurdistan, and is writing a three part blog series about his experience for Kevin Drum over at Mother Jones. He writes:

"'Basis of life is sleep, sex, nutrition. I am nutrition.' That’s what the cook said, and then he handed me a meatball."

For the rest, see http://motherjones.com/kevin-drum/2011/05/return-kurdistan-part-1.

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Friday, May 27, 2011

Smoky Cheese, Hemlock Tea and Other Camping Tidbits

E. and I were lucky enough to sneak off for a night of camping this week, and the jaunt was full of tasty, woodsy treats. I don't know which I liked better, the cheese that we (sort of) smoked by the campfire, or the Indian cucumber, a native, wild edible tuber with a texture like a water chestnut and a mild, sweet, earthy taste.

Of course one Indian cucumber isn't much to eat. For contrast, here it is compared to a cucumber cucumber.

Eating the root means ending the life of the plant, so harvest this one with care and only from places where plenty of others exist. I suppose the best time to find them would be in the fall, when the (inedible) berries can be planted in the hole you've just exhumed the root from, hopefully ensuring the survival of a new individual. Again, you can't quite live on this stuff. We mostly ate sandwiches.

I also made some hemlock tea by heating a stone in the fire to boil the water. I'm not going to lie to you: the mug I made the next day with a Jetboil was a lot better. But the hot stone technique always recalls my first such experience, and the thrill of it.

Blueberry flowers were in bloom and with their sweet smell and zaftig bell shape, they brought the fruit to mind. But I'll have to wait -- and possibly fight bears -- for that.

The prettiest view of the trip was not a mountaintop vista but a little something I noticed nearly underfoot. Isn't he/she a beaut?

Note: I didn't eat it.

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Friday, May 13, 2011

Spring Foraging

The onset of incredible weather has me venturing beyond my typical morning dog routine and into the woods for wild edibles.

Usually I just take Oli, the official dog of T&F, down to a ball field near our apartment, but neither of us are content to run around on manicured grass with so many exciting things to smell, chase, roll in, and eat out in the brush.

I've found all sorts of trail nibbles, like faintly sweet dandelion flowers and not faintly onion-y onion grass, but this morning I decided to assess the stinging nettle situation. I thought I'd seen them once, except they didn't sting me. I did a little research and learned that not everyone experiences the sting, however I did recall feeling a faint tingling sensation on my upper thighs as I chased the dog through a particular thicket, wearing fairly short running shorts, as it were.

This morning I went back to the same spot, snapped some pics of the plants in question, pinched off a few samples (at this time of year only the tops remain worth eating), and whacked the leaves against my bare, upper thighs. No, I was not immune everywhere. Yes, these were stinging nettles.

Note the old bottles: I always take something bad out of the woods when I take something good. Back home I compared my samples with a few guides and realized why I'd had a hard time identifying the plants. There were two varieties, slender nettles ...

...and wood nettles.

While there I also grabbed some curly dock (a nettle remedy) and Japanese knotweed.

I never eat anything I can't be sure about, and after consulting the guides and my burning thighs, I concluded that I had the right plant(s). I blanched all four of my finds separately. I felt no sting when handling the plants, though if you look carefully you'll see one of the tiny hairs sticking out above the curve of my knuckle.

I like knotweed as a rhubarb replacement (we made a nice crisp with it recently) but disagree with its reputation as an asparagus stand-in: asparagus is just too sweet, too ethereal, to be swapped with this stuff. My sense is that it would be best to cut the acidity (think sorrel -- both smack of oxalic acid) with something rich, like cheese. However, if you think of it as its own thing, you can get into knotweed as a distinctively squishy, tangy, hollow, tubular vegetable.

The dock and the two types of nettles were all fairly beefy: the texture was on the meaty side as far as greens go, the flavor quite hearty, like spinach and even more like calaloo, aka amaranth. The dock had a bit of acidity but nowhere near the knotweed, and I found the slender leaf nettles to be a little lighter and sweeter than the wood nettles. However all were superb.

Once I'd tried everything plain, I felt I could move on. I squeezed the dock and nettles dry and slipped them into the center of a chive blossom laden one-egg omelet along with schmear of ricotta. God, it was good.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Sonoran Mouthfuls, Part II: Jordan and Autumn's Yard

Mesquite was perhaps the most meaningful thing I ate in AZ, but there were plenty of other terroir-laden delicacies. Like the tepary beans and chiles that my friends Jordan and Autumn grew in their garden.

I left the teparies (above) soaking and am curious to hear how they turned out. I rehydrated a few kinds of their chiles (below), which ended up in a salsa. The liquid they'd plumped in made for some piquant agua fresca.

Much as I love heirloom New England produce, it just doesn't thrill me to the core like the stuff you can grow in places like Tucson. Of course this is probably just the allure of the exotic, and if I lived in the Southwest I'd be pining for native sweet corn or fresh Duxbury oysters. Hmm, now that I write that, I'm already pining.

That's how Jim Verrier of the awesome Desert Survivors plant nursery feels (read that sign if you can). Surrounded by a sea of Sonoran-style Mexican cuisine, he sounded like he'd sell his soul for some New England tomatoes grown in our region's acidic soil. I didn't even know that we had acidic soil. When comparing New England to Arizona, I guess the grass is always more acidic, or less existent, depending on whether you're looking east or west.

In two drip-irrigated raised beds in the backyard, Jordan and Autumn also grow chard, tomatillos and native tobacco. Amaranth pops up on its own volition in the rest of the yard, and the house came with an old, established pomegranate tree and another volunteer just starting to poke up.

Though they live in a neighborhood notorious for its lawns, they ripped up the insatiable grass, mounded the earth to replicate the desert terrain, and reintroduced native plants like ocotillo and wolfberry. The ocotillo was particularly hard to squeeze into the car on the way back to from the nursery.

While sitting in the yard one morning of my recent visit, Autumn presented me with a glowing-green smoothie. I recall that it had almond milk, mango, banana, spinach and mint, and it couldn't have been a more stark yet complimentary contrast to the hot, dry, dusty surroundings. One sip and my temperature plummeted, partly from the frozen fruit, partly from the menthol.

I had entered the garden entranced by the tough, scrubby, desert crops. The beans and hot peppers. But to be perfectly honest, is was the cool, fruity smoothie that really hit the spot. I wonder if, as chili peppers are to Chengdu, the smoothie is to Tucson: a stranger from a faraway land that has found its spiritual home?

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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Whole Grains Galore

See below for my article in today's Globe about the new book Ancient Grains for Modern Meals by Maria Speck. And definitely try the wheatberry fool recipe.


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Monday, May 2, 2011

Sonoran Mouthfuls

I just flew back from Arizona and boy are my arms tired: from shoveling delicious, place-based foods into my mouth, that is.

Thanks to great friends in the area and a couple of exciting writing assignments, I was able to scratch beneath the surface of the local cuisine, going deeper than lollipops with scorpions in them, or prickly pear candies in which actual prickly pear content is vastly outnumbered by corn syrup and colors followed by numbers.

I ate many delicious things in Arizona, like sweet potato enchiladas with tomatillo salsa (really, blogger? you don't recognize the word tomatillo?) at the heavenly, jasmine-perfumed outdoor patio of La Cocina in Tucson. I also loved LC's cocoa diablo, essentially a Mexican hot chocolate spiked with tequila, a pairing that had somehow eluded me until this late in life. So many years, wasted.

I hope to never forget the sweet and starchy plantain tamales at Cup Cafe, but true to my love of minimalist cuisine and foraging, the ultimate mouthful from my week in the Sonoran Desert was picked up off of the ground.

Mesquite, my desert communion. I crunched on a dried pod at Tumacácori after having read much about this exotic staple. It tasted like marshmallows.

I could not believe that this flavorful food was made by a plant with nothing more than sand, sun and a few drops of rain each year. Mesquite really puts the "manna" in "galactomannan."

Sadly, the taste of this tree is better known by its charcoal, which can only be obtained from a dead mesquite. Imagine if every time you saw the word "mesquite" (as in "ROCKIN' TEQULIA-LIME-MESQUITE CRAZY WINGS!!!") it referred to the aromatic flour produced from mesquite pods, a drought-resistant, mineral-rich, low-glycemic index, at-risk food.

Mesquite trees grow throughout the Southwestern U.S. and Mexico and are a source of food, shade, fuel and nitrogen-fixation for the indigenous peoples that long have lived without air conditioning or golf courses where cities like Phoenix now sprawl. Due to the massive needs of these misplaced urban centers, water tables drop, making life more difficult for wild plants like mesquite. Which is why precious mesquite flour is listed on Slow Food's Ark of Taste.

On my way out of town, I picked up a pound of it at the Native Seeds shop in Tucson. This is the fine powder you get from grinding and sifting the pods. It tastes like chocolate, it tastes like caramel, it tastes like cinnamon. Dave said it tasted like mole, then I grabbed the bag from him like Frodo snatching the ring back from Samwise. Back in Northampton, the sealed plastic bag still manages to fill the kitchen with those sweet, complex, desert smells.

I'm told it's great on pancakes, but I plan to go through the whole pound by continuing to dip my moistened pinky into the bag and having my taste buds blown one pinch at a time.

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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Little Bosnia, St. Louis

While visiting my family in St. Louis I had the opportunity to explore the many bakeries, restaurants and cafes of Little Bosnia. I wrote about that neighborhood's culinary offerings for Smithsonian.com, and you can read the story and see the pics here:


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Friday, April 8, 2011

The Power of Omission

The infamous marriage of surf and turf is best known by chewy steaks and gummy lobster tails, but recently I was struck by the magic of a lesser known amphibious union: anchovies and mushrooms.

Elise made these anchovy and 'shroom flatbreads for dinner the other night, and we were amazed at the winning combination of the salty fish and earthy fungi. But what really stood out about this meal was what we didn't put into it: sauce and cheese.

These were not pizzas, though they easily could have been, and thank goodness they were not. Even under excellent tomatoes and ideal mozzarella, the strong flavors of the chief ingredients would not have shone through.

This was one of those rare instances when I didn't want balance. I was prepared with a lemon wedge, but it went into my water instead. These were fishy and mushroomy -- in a good way -- and I wanted nothing more. As I've said before, without the cheese, there's nowhere to hide.

Improving recipes usually means adding a little more of this or that, but as MB's illustrious career as The Minimalist has shown, sometimes scissors are better than glue. This approach is known by many names, such as ingredient based cooking and common sense.

As I write this I'm reminded of a throng of other dishes that are better with fewer bells and whistles (who wants to eat bells and whistles anyway? goats?), and this is more true the better your ingredients are.

I used to make gazpacho with pretty much any supermarket vegetable I hoped to wring some flavor from: tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, chiles, scallions and red onions, along with herbs, spices, lime juice and vinegar. Then one day I whipped up a batch with juicy, sun-ripened golden tomatoes and just a bit of raw onion. I drizzled a touch of syrupy balsamic vinegar and sprinkled in a couple of Marcona almonds and that was it. It was the best gazpacho I'd ever made, or had for that matter.

What are some of your favorite omissions?

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On Endangered Foods

Here's a taste of my first post on the Corporate Social Responsibility Newswire blog.

"Saving endangered foods might sound like the punch line to a joke about arugula-loving bleeding heart liberals, but RAFT connects such foods with the power to reduce carbon footprints, unite communities, better our health and preserve distinct, regional cultures."

For the rest, see here:


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Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Quote of the Day

Reading Gathering the Desert by Gary Paul Nabhan is making me very excited for my upcoming trip to AZ. The book also reminds me of my 9th grade Environmental Studies project on the many uses of agave (food, drink, needle and thread). It was my first taste of ethnobotany, opening my mind to the relationships between people and plants. And I got an A+! (Thanks, Ms. Coyle.)

From Gathering the Desert:

"Choose a moonlit night in the summer, and hike through the scattering of agaves in bloom. Hike past them, into the canyons of the Tortolitas where little caves lie hidden. Listen for the flutter of wings, watch for the bats, their shoulders cloaked in a coat of pollen, shining in the night like a poncho made of Precolumbian golden thread. Follow them back down to the scent of agave blossoms, where plants and animals again dance to an ancient American rhythm."

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Friday, April 1, 2011

Tea and Food Turns 700

As the snow fell earlier this morning, I made this buckwheat pancake using MB's whole grain pancake recipe, though without the sugar and spice and with 1/3 the fat (still delicious). That's right, I minimized The Minimalist.

I was fortunate enough to have locally grown buckwheat flour from the last installment of our winter CSA, and the flecks of hull added a pleasant bit of chew to the otherwise fluffy and spongy pancakes. Gently folded-in, stiffly beaten egg whites truly are the secret weapon for lofty, whole grain pancakes.

As usual, I ended up making one enormous pancake as big as my face in addition to several smaller ones. Topped with steamed apples and savored alongside a mason jar of gunpowder green, this was a celebratory pancake. Because as soon as I click "publish post," Tea and Food will have reached its 700th post. And what better way to celebrate 700 posts on tea and food than with a little food and tea?

It all started as a pet project between myself and my good friend Dave, and by "it all started" I mean Dave started it. We were obsessively discussing everything we were eating and gabbing like a couple of (old, hairy) schoolgirls about the latest Bittman videos. We would even try out the same recipes together in real time over the phone, emailing photos as we went. Dave pointed out that we were basically food blogging without a food blog, so he created us a food blog. 700 posts later, here we are.

At the time I was a traveling sketch comic and Dave was a grad student. He is now a Doctor of Philosophy and teaches at an esteemed university, and I don't live out of a van anymore!

Which brings me to my second cause for celebration: my first article for Smithsonian, on Boston's farm to table renaissance, which you can see here. You can also check out the photo gallery for additional shots.

So congrats to everyone whose enthusiasm has propelled this blog forward over the years. Now go make yourself a pancake.

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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Quote of the Day

From Mark Bittman's post about why he's fasting to protest "Congressional budget proposals that would make huge cuts in programs for the poor and hungry." He writes:

"This isn’t about skepticism, however; it’s about ironies and outrages. In 2010, corporate profits grew at their fastest rate since 1950, and we set records in the number of Americans on food stamps. The richest 400 Americans have more wealth than half of all American households combined, the effective tax rate on the nation’s richest people has fallen by about half in the last 20 years, and General Electric paid zero dollars in U.S. taxes on profits of more than $14 billion. Meanwhile, roughly 45 million Americans spend a third of their posttax income on food — and still run out monthly — and one in four kids goes to bed hungry at least some of the time."

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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Rabbit Confit

On my weekend off while teaching Shakespeare in VT last summer, my cohorts and I tooled around the Northeast Kingdom sampling its many delicacies. Before reaching Parker Pie for lunch, we saw a roadside sign whose gravitational pull had turned the wheel of my car before my brain knew what was happening. I believe it said "custom meat processing," or something along those lines.

I left with a frozen rabbit and having gotten a tour of the walk-in fridges where moose and bear sometimes hang. I don't have the name of the place with me, but my dear friend Maria Gould wrote a profile of the processor in a recent issue of Meatpaper.

The bunny hibernated in my freezer for several months until I worked up the nerve to make a confit. I had made neither rabbit nor confit before, and I was a little skeptical. Why use a technique that requires tons of fat when I know I'd be perfectly happy with a much leaner, cheaper braise?

While breaking down the bunny I was confronted with its very animal-like animalness. This is was no chicken or cow whose friendly shape has been ingrained in my food psyche since childhood. This was no animal: this was a creature. It's shape made me think of my dog, and I don't want to eat my dog. We should always experience such reflection before chowing down on something that used to walk (or hop) this earth.

I slid the bunny parts into a warm bath of olive oil along with a sliced bulb of fennel, a handful of kumquats from a recent trip to FL, rosemary, garlic, and a heaping handful of juniper berries.

Several hours later, the rabbit, and everything else for that matter, was succulent and tender. I pulled the meat and put it back into the aromatic fat along with the spices, fruit and veggies until I could decide on what to do with my rich bounty.

Our preferred method -- largely due to expediency -- was to simply pour some of the confit over slices of slightly toasted homemade bread. We also ate it tossed with steamed potatoes, and I'm sure it would have been lovely over pasta, though we didn't get to that.

The juniper berries were musky and spicy, the kumquats sweet and tangy, the fennel fennely. Was it good? Of course it was good. Who, besides a vegetarian, vegan, rabbit, or olive, wouldn't enjoy gads of golden olive oil laced with butter soft bunny flesh?

But would I ever make it again? Nope. I respect the technique of preserving meat with fat, but I'd just as soon do a braise and put the leftovers in the freezer.


Recipe Question: Do you miss them?

I much prefer the story of a dish to its nuts and bolts, and while I used to include more recipes, I would rather give you the gist of an idea and have you experiment with it than just follow my marching orders. That said, I want to know your preference. So shoot me a comment letting me know if you a) want me to keep including recipes b) like it this way or c) are a Russian spambot trying to redirect traffic to your scam.

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Wednesday, March 23, 2011

3... 4... 1!

Yan can make mincing garlic and ginger look like a magic trick, and, as his theory goes, therefore... so can you! Though you may find yourself halving his enthusiasm.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

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Monday, March 14, 2011

Corn According to Onion

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So Long, Dubious Friend

At long last, I'm bidding a bittersweet farewell to my trusty non-stick pan.

It's a sweet occasion because with the pan's passing, I'm stirred to remember all of the tractionless pancakes, slippery pasta dishes and unhindered tortillas we made in this baby. It's a bitter moment because I'm concerned that the gashes in the pan's fragile coating were starting to give us cancer.

When the non-stick coating finally wore through, my fears of being poisoned by this mysterious technology became too great, and I decided to cut my losses. So it's back to cast iron, until an omelet sticks, at which point I'll probably go crawlin' back to sweet, sweet perfluorooctanoic acid.

But hey, it's low-fat.

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Tuesday, March 8, 2011

No-Knead Bread, Five Years Late

Cast your mind back to 2006. Al Gore informed America that the planet was getting warmer as jeans grew skinnier and the Chinese River Dolphin was declared extinct. And who can forget sitting on the edge of their seat as Pope Benedict XVI issued his first encycylical?

But the number one thing I heard in '06 was "You have to see Little Miss Sunshine!!!" I never did. The number two thing I heard was "you have to try Mark Bittman's no-knead bread!" I did, five years later.

First off, you were all wrong. It wasn't Mark Bittman's no-knead bread, it was Jim Lahey's, and Bittman made that clear. But as I recently learned, Lahey is as good of a baker as Bittman is a publicist. This bread really is the best that you can make at home.

However the title of "no-knead" is somewhat misleading. No, you don't have to knead it, but you do have to fold it a few times, flour a work surface, and handle the dough, and that's kind of like kneading. There are other bread recipes where you do none of those things -- I'll be sharing one soon -- and so the fact that this bread isn't kneaded per se is not its most distinctive quality. Someone else has probably pointed this out in the past five years, but as you can tell, I'm a little behind the Times.

Instead of Mark Bittman's No-Knead Bread, as this recipe has become commonly known, a more accurate title would be Jim Lahey's Slow Rise, Low Yeast, Preheated Dutch Oven Bread. Because the technique is what sets this bread apart, and that's what gives it its perfect moisture, crumb and crust. My only problem was that our old bacon-seasoned cast iron Dutch oven (originally Elise's grandmother's) filled the kitchen with smoke as it heated. Almost makes me want to buy an enamel one. But who needs another hefty kitchen implement when you've got open windows, a damp bandanna tied like a bank robber, and an inhaler?

We made the bread as part of our new Valentine's Day tradition of having a meal at home made from whatever ingredients we want instead of eating out on what many chefs consider the worst night of the year. (In the above photo you can see Elise dramatically whisking the tinfoil off of the broccoli rabe.) Also on the menu were local oysters and defrosted chicken liver-and-Maker's Mark pâté from Christmas. Like Sylvester Stallone's character in Demolition Man, it survived the freeze quite well. In addition to baking the loaf of JLSRLYPDOB, I enacted another Bittman-influenced culinary fantasy: oven fries with pimenton aioli.

Lahey/Bittman's loaf is now available in regular, whole grain, and speedy. If you haven't tried it yet, you definitely should. Now if you'll excuse me, I have an endearing hipster dramedy to watch.

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