Monday, June 27, 2011

Yes, we can

Peas and strawberries are ready for their starring role at the farmers' market, but they're just going to be the warm-up act for the thrilling abundance of fruits and vegetables July will bring. This won't last long, so we have to do what we can to preserve it. The take-away from the continuously bad news about industrial food should be that it's a shame to waste the fresh taste of farm picked, letting it go by when it could brighten not only your health but a dark winter day. Now's the time to stock up on jam and canning jars--or lids for recycled ones, because they get harder and harder to find as summer moves on.

Preserving food is not drudgery, more work you don't need. For one thing, it can actually be fun, a very educational activity with kids on a rainy day, or after dinner on a foggy summer night. Stir raspberries into vinegar, or blueberries into chutney, or tomatoes into spaghetti sauce-- your way, or soup for the freezer. Then comes the joy of finding summer in the frozen doldrums of February, and having warm memories with your food. Making jam is not rocket science, making chutney is even easier, and preparing, say, tomato soup or red pepper sauce for the freezer almost a no-brainer.

But the more important "do can" reason for putting up with putting up food is psychological. Long ago I started stashing summer away as necessity because the food supply in Maine was severely limited and my ability to get through blizzards to it just as crimped. So it was for health and well-being, but particularly for buttressing those with the mental relief of knowing I had food--honestly good food-- on hand.

Now of course gassed tomatoes from Florida and "organic" blueberries from Chile are available everywhere all the time, but my hoarding habit is so strong, I'm still obsessed with pickling, jamming and sauces. I just can't let the harvest go by unheralded. I want to go in the flow of traditional rhythms for human life, to be participating in the real world as it really is, networking with Nature. I find honoring the seasons, the naturalness, this way to be very grounding, thus mentally relaxing in many ways.

The psychology goes deeper though. The urge to can or jam recognizes that nothing satisfies the human soul as much as the sight of a full larder, a re-assuring supply of something to eat. Our survival absolutely depends on food, which is why people get edgy when there's not much to pick at or up, not a lot of canapes and cheese at cocktail parties, no meals on planes. It has been the great marketing trick of corporations like Whole Foods and tastemakers like Martha Stewart to understand that abundance not only relaxes and removes inhibitions, it creates the buoyancy of joy. Those who walk into a party full of food are full of social spirit and ripe for conversation. Those who open the door to a well stocked pantry smile, for now they have freedom to go to other pursuits.

I am talking about our sense of security. It starts with food. So it's worth twenty minutes here, a half hour there, a few dollars for some jars, to have your own snowy day edible savings. You will have something on hand, know exactly what you are eating and realize what great benefits the summertime farmers' market can offer you.

P.S. If you've never done this before, How to Fix a Leek and Other Food From Your Farmers' Markets has easy recipes for blueberry apple chutney perfect for Christmas ham, the cranberry conserve I've made for 30 years for Thanksgiving turkey and midwinter roast chicken, for marinara (tomato) sauce, for pickled asparagus and dilly beans (favorite cocktail party and picnic food), even raspberry vinegar, and hints for how to make strawberry jam. Think of them as your starter kit and then do your own thing. These efforts make surprisingly welcome gifts for your friends too. I actually have greedy ones who wait to pounce.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Eats Shoots and Leaves

The markets are going green: spinach, baby kale, scallions, lettuce, chard, even in lucky places my special favorite, pea shoots. I fell in love at first bite in one of San Francisco's Chinese restaurants known for serving up huge platefuls seasoned with garlic, then chased them down in Chinese markets. I got so addicted, I badgered and bothered local farmers I knew to start thinning their pea crops to bringing those pulled shoots to market for me. "Plant extra peas just to get those shoots," I insisted. "I'll buy them. I'll get others to buy them. You won't be sorry."

Now, I can say with a "phew!", pea shoots have completed their migration from the East to the West to the east of that West, for now that June is busting out all over, they're showing at New England farmers' markets--and proudly featured too.

This is hugely good news. Pea shoots are not just a seductive prelude to the fully grown pod peas coming in July, but a perfect momentary tonic. Those leafy little sprouts have almost no calories and zero fat but almost the whole ABCs of vitamins: over the top Vitamin K, lots of C, significant A and the various Bs, even E. They're also chockful of antioxidants. Health by the handful but only at this precious moment before those pea vines grow up. So now or never...until next June.

There are shoots from the snow pea, the snap pea and the garden pod pea. The trick to enjoying shoots is to get the smallest, tenderest little tendrils you can find. I am not sure but tend to think they're more likely to come from snow pea vines than garden pea vines. But in any case, the best look like magnified alfalfa sprouts. If farmers wait longer to thin their crop, the shoot begins to get more stem and the stem begins to get tougher, which means more prep work and a sometimes a tough mouthful to swallow. If there are tough stems attached, break them off with your fingers and either contribute them to soup stock, rice water or your compost pile. Some Chinese Americans find fixing these older pea shoots so much work, they only eat them in restaurants--which allows those restaurants to charge plenty for them: up to $11 a dish.

But right now you can probably get tender shoots which are a no-brainer to serve. The quickest way to heat and eat is to rinse them thoroughly, don't drain them too much and put them still wet in a saucepan to steam in those remaining water droplets for 1 minute or two. Salt and serve. You can do this as a side dish with dumplings or chicken or you can throw them over pasta with fresh peas, seasoned with freshly ground black pepper and a hint of mint. Careful though: you don't want to do too much to compete with that lovely grassy pea flavor you can't get elsewhere.

Or, you can rinse them thoroughly and spin them dry so they really are dry. Then to feed 4, quickly stir-fry a heaping pound of them along with 8 cloves of garlic thinly sliced in 2 tsp of canola, soybean or olive oil for 20 seconds. Toss in a tbsp of vegetable broth, rice wine, sake or water, sprinkle on salt to taste, turn heat to high and shaking the pan, cook for one minute until the shoots are wilted. That's it.

You don't have to go to a San Francisco Chinese restaurant, consult gastronomy encyclopedias or give up any solstice revelry time to enjoy this sunny June treat. That just makes me love pea shoots even more.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

A Raw Deal

My new discovery at this spring's markets was raw milk. No pasteurization, no homogenization, just udderly thick, yellowy cream straight from the cow to me. Courtesy of the Bahner family farm and the cooler carried from Pittston to the Bath market. (I believe they are in Portland at least on Wednesdays.) I was so astonished by this find, I went right home to whip up a latte in my little machine but that milk was too thick and rich to steam. So I had fabulous cafe au lait--for five days.

When my Tibetan goddaughter, Tashi Chodron who operates the Himalayan Pantry in New York City, decided to make a quick trip to see me, I made a quick trip to the Saturday market to get her that milk. Tibetans go through lifetimes on pure, raw milk, straight up or churned into butter tea or churpi, a cheese harder than the Himalayas. I reckoned she'd be thrilled. So I was seriously disappointed to find Bahner Farm out of raw milk. Perhaps yogurt would do?

That offered another new adventure, one that turned out worthwhile. For starters, it was yogurt that needed a knife, not a spoon. It was more yogurt cheese that spread on bread like whipped butter or perhaps paté. And with a dollop of homemade jam on top...oo la la.
But I digress.

When Tashi arrived, I told her how excited I was to have raw milk and wanted her to make Tibetan tea with it. I bet she couldn't do that in New York. I still had about half the quart but when I opened it, it let out a slightly sour smell. "Damn," I muttered. "It's no good now. I was so looking forward to giving you this." I went to the sink to pour it out, but Tashi raced over to stop me.

"What are you doing? No! Don't lose that precious milk. Give it to me." She took the bottle. "Do you have a large pot?"

"Of course I do."

"Good. We can make my mother did every day in the refugee camp in India. This is perfect."
So she poured the milk into my saucepan and set it to boil and roil. After maybe five minutes, cream started to coagulate at the top. "Wow!" she exclaimed in delight. "This is totally perfect. I'll show you what my mother does." She scooped about four tablespoons of that cream off the top and put them in a dish to cool. The milk boiled away for another five minutes. "Now," she said, "do you have yogurt?"

I opened the fridge, reached past my favorite kind from Trader Joe and handed her the yogurt from the same farm as the milk, telling her that.

"Give me a large bowl. Oh, this is gonna be so good!" Tashi put about a tbsp of yogurt into the bowl and poured in the milk. Then she covered the bowl with a towel and a lid (it was an improvised pot lid since this was not a covered bowl). "Now," she said, "we have to put this in a place where it won't move for 24 hours. You can't shake it or anything."

Once we'd stashed it out of the way at the back of the counter, she put that plated cream into the fridge, clucking to herself with delight. "My mother would be so happy to have this," she said and we went on about the day.

And so the next morning, to my astonishment, like a magician Tashi pulled the lid and the towel off the bowel and voila! it was filled with yogurt! Lots and lots of yogurt. No matter how much we ate, there was still plenty left. Thousands of years from Mongolian nomads to my house in Maine.

That night, Tashi opened the fridge and took out her "cold cream." "This is what we do," she said. "Rub it all over the face and go to bed. In the morning you wash it off and you have smooth, glowing skin." Indeed I could swear she did, because that's what I saw reflected in the sparkle of her eyes.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Fast, Fresh and Fabulous: broccoli rabe is not broccoli

I have been on overdrive for the past week with little time for cooking so I’ve been surviving on one of my favorite fallback fast meals: pasta with broccoli rabe, fava beans, lemon, garlic and olive oil. I top that with freshly shredded pecorino cheese to get to the tastiest health heaven I know.

Happily Six Rivers Farm in Bowdoinham now grows broccoli rabe and brings it to the Brunswick farmers' market. The bunched greens are not really broccoli. They’re in the turnip family so they have a lovely bitter bite and all the goodness of Vitamins A and C as well as minerals and iron to boot. These are killer greens because they are supposed to be able to kill lots of bacteria and cancerous radicals in your body.

I learned to cook them from a professional chef by chopping them coarsely and blanching them in heavily salted (salty as the sea) water for 1 to 2 minutes. This leaches out a bit of the bitterness and intensifies their green. I drain them as well as I can in a colander, shaking and shaking. While they sit in the sink drying off, I heat fruity olive oil in a skillet with a large pinch of cracked black pepper. I dump in the broccoli rabe, standing back because any moisture on it will make the olive oil snap, crackle and spit. I toss in 2 to 3 cloves of minced garlic, stir and sauté for two to three minutes. That’s it. Sometimes I simply salt that and serve as a side dish, which people lap up, and sometimes I store it in the fridge to add to pasta as I have been this past week.

The other key ingredient, the protein punch in my pretty and pretty fast pasta supper, comes from canned fava beans, sold in supermarkets either as pigeon peas, congo beans or ful mudammas, a north African/Arabic staple. This is a very happy development. Fava beans have more protein and tastiness than all other beans, which is why even after the discovery of other beans (kidney, black) in the New World, they remain the core of the Mediterranean diet. And they come cooked in cans!

So…I boil up some really fine Italian pasta like penne, or those squiggles that look like toothpicks. And while that’s happening, I heat more fruity olive oil in a skillet, throw in two handfuls of my already cooked broccoli rabe, another clove of minced garlic, a handful of those canned beans and some cracked black pepper. When the mix is warm, I squirt in the juice of maybe half a lemon and set it to simmer as low as possible until the pasta’s cooked.

It’s important to take a large tbsp of the pasta water and put it in the skillet with the rabe and beans before you drain that pasta. This gives the final dish a creamy effect. Toss the drained pasta into the skillet, salt it to your taste, drizzle it with fruity olive oil and a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and blend everything. Pour this onto your plate and top it with freshly shredded or grated pecorino (sheep) or parmesan (cow) cheese. (These are dry salty cheeses.)

What you have is a feast for your eyes and wealth for your health. Try it with a glass of red wine and a green salad with black olives. I’m foolish for this southern Italian peasant food and so happy farmers are now making broccoli rabe available to us. And here's a shout out also to Trader Joe for that fabulously fruity and cheap chic Sicilian olive oil that adds so much to this.