Friday, October 28, 2011

The End is Near

As November approaches, many farmers' markets are shutting down. Last chance to get fresh produce not afflicted with that supermarket acne of gluegun stickers. Winter squashes, if kept in a cool place, will last for a long time and keep market fervor going. So will late harvest apples and cider, which you can freeze. This is a good weekend to turn local pears into tarts and cakes to freeze and enjoy in February. Pears can be especially delicious in ginger bread, or on an open faced tart with cinnamon and raisins.

If you've still got a few of those juicy heirloom tomatoes on hand, or the green ones you put in paper to ripen are good to go, now is prime time to turn them into a heart and rib warming main or side dish. They're perfect coarsely chopped and quickly sautéed to release their juices, salted and tossed into penne or rigatoni or ditalini with pesto. The dish can be surprisingly colorful if you happen to have both red, orange and yellow, even those darker black or purple tomatoes.

I've been tossing the last tomatoes with cracked black pepper into a sauté pan after I've softened a bit of sweet onion and a hint of fresh garlic in olive oil, and simmering them over low heat to release their juices. Simultaneously, I've been boiling up farro, that ancient Mediterranean grain, although not exactly according to package instructions. I've been toasting it first for a minute or two in a pan lightly coated with olive oil before tossing the water in. The farro needs about 15 minutes to cook, the tomatoes only 5 so in truth I start the farro first. When it's tender, I drain it and toss it into the sauté pan with the tomatoes, add a lovely pinch of Fleur de sel (salt) and a handful of chopped whatever green herb I have around: flat leaf parsley, basil, cilantro. A half tomato and 1/4 cup of farro per person does it.

This turns out to be great soupy as a main dish with a green salad, bread and cheese; or drier as a side dish with the meat of the moment. Either way, it's been a hale farewell.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Mushrooms: Nature's original pop up ads

All the storms and rains of September brought an extravagant crop of mushrooms this October, breaking records and making headlines. They popped up everywhere--even under my juniper bushes--and so did the revelations that several people I thought I knew well were actually avid mushroom hunters delighting in the moment. Mother Nature has tempted us to notice her.

Those of Polish and Russian heritage have been taking picnic baskets into parks and forests, staking a spot, and making a day of foraging and toasting their gains. Others are simply taking newly acquired books out to their back 40 and coming back to the kitchen with black trumpets, boletes, chanterelles and shiitakes, among other wild wonders prized by gourmets. Under my junipers according to a local expert mycologist were lowly slippery jacks, sullius americanus and granulatus.

So of course plenty of fungi have been on sale at farmers' markets lucky enough to have a mushroom vendor. And the variety is richer than ever, all of it already vetted as not poisonous. How easy is that? So now is the time, probably the last time until spring, to taste fresh, wild (i.e. organic as you can get) mushrooms.

What to do? If you're lucky enough to have chanterelles or black trumpets or real boletes (porcini), just saute them in a bit of butter to put slight crunch on them, sprinkle a pinch of good quality salt, and enjoy. Or share them with pasta and parsley.

Shiitake is Japanese for oak fungus, so this beloved edible is stellar in Japanese type preparations. Serve them with soba noodles, sesame oil, Tamari sauce and toasted sesame seeds. Or cook them with carrots, burdock root (gobo) in season now, and tofu in miso broth for a lovely soup. (You can even toss in a handful of chopped seaweed.)

For something more substantial, make a mushroom risotto using rice or farro or even pearl barley. Put diced celery, leek, fresh sage, a pinch of dried rosemary and thyme, and diced bell pepper of any color. (Hint: for a really rich dish use mushroom broth instead of water to cook the grain.) If you've got portobello mushrooms, the ones large as saucers, remove the stem and treat the underside of the cap as pizza dough: lightly oil the mushroom on both sides with olive oil, salt it, and pile on your favorite topping. Then bake at 450 for 15 minutes and serve a gluten free pizza.

To preserve mushrooms, you can dry them or pickle them or cook them into a soup or tart that will freeze.
And btw, since mushrooms push up out of the earth, they bring us minerals and vitamins we don't get from high flying plants.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Farmers Markets: the Future Present

Twice this week, in differing contexts, I heard the future will not be centralized. According to market guru Jeremy Rifkin, the energy future won't be behemoth companies dictating products and pricing to us, but rather each and every one of us with space to spare collecting and selling the excess of our own solar, wind or geothermal energy. According to political analyst Matt Bai of The New York Times, Steve Jobs' great genius was to understand that the hierarchical crony capitalism entrenched from the 20th century could be replaced in the 21st by truly democratic sharing as ideas and plans jumped from computer to computer or IPad, from one to one to one more via social networks. People will pop up, speak up and hear each other, exactly what the young ones did in the Arab world last spring. The process is already underway, undermining the current monopolistic big box business, top down bottom line political party model.

This future of individual independence makes the case for farmers' markets. And in this case, the future is here now. We can see and taste it. We can feel it in the joy we get from shopping at one--a joy never replicated in a big box store. Why is that?

Shopping at a so-called "supermarket" submits us to the self-serving machinations of the corporations who own the real estate and stock the shelves. What's on them for us to eat is what they want to be there. And what they want to be there was formulated and processed not for our benefit, but for their bottom line. How much free choice do we really get in that dictatorship? Think about it. Does grabbing your groceries there feel like duty, like jury duty? Or do you just love it, can't wait to go back?

Now think about going to a local farmers' market or two. You pick and choose among many lettuce offerings; you get the truth of provenance and other vital information about the food that's about to enter your body--is it genetically modified, irradiated, poisoned by pesticides?--so you decide. You even participate at times in the pricing. And you process the produce your way. Sometimes, if you make jam or pickles or preserves out of it, you spread it around on your own social network, just the way Rifkin figures energy will be transmitted and Jobs figured ideas would move. Crisscrossing power lines.

In other words, you are more in charge, more in the center of your own life. You are more part of a social network that starts with the face of the farmer who grew the food about to have a very intimate relationship with you, and ends with you serving up or giving away what you have made of it.

Even better, as Jeremy Rifkin pointed out in discussing the future of energy, we will get back in touch with the reality of Nature--and thus our own nature. Rifkin explained that collecting solar energy makes a person pay attention to where and how the sun is, just like wind energy makes one more cognizant of a calm day. So too does the very real seasonality of farm produce. It forcefully reminds us that autumn is not spring, that summertime is the moment of abundance and winter requires advance preparation to survive it. It reminds us that we are not supposed to be eating tomatoes during the snowstorms of January. If we are, they were flown in from who knows where and grown who knows how to trick us into thinking we can have it all all the time--no problem, no worries, no harm. True or false?

Farmers markets are truly places to practice vital feng shui for our body, to harmonize ourselves with Nature the way ancient religions teach us to. After all, like it or not we are a part of it, children of Mother Nature and Father Time. Shopping at farmers markets prompts us in spring to eat fresh greens--dandelion, fiddlehead, asparagus, spinach, chard--which are a tonic that cleans the sludge from sluggish winter blood. It reminds us to rev our body up for the exertion of outdoor summer fun with the extraordinarily nutritious cruciferous cold weather vegetables--cabbage, broccoli, radishes, kohlrabi; and the iron in newly sprouted mushrooms. Then when the heat of summer strikes, the available produce tells us to stuff ourselves with the juicy vitamins of berries, watery tomatoes and cucumbers and melons that will keep us hydrated when we sweat. It signals us to get our protein from corn and beans (in combo), fresh yogurt and cheeses. It teaches us to greet the shorter cooler days of fall with vibrantly colored root vegetables, thick stick-to-the-ribs winter squashes, and the crispness of an apple, the tang of that last berry, the cranberry. You can't mistake this and go wrong.

To feel yourself in time in place is to feel yourself truly alive. What beats that for a joyous high? Three cans of hearts of palm on sale at Piggly Wiggly or the not so Safeway?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Our Roots Are Showing

On October 13, I'm scheduled to do an autumn cooking demonstration of farmers' market produce, and I'm calling it Letting Our Roots Show, in honor of all that underground treasure farmers are digging up right now. Here's the list, and it's probably partial: beets (golden, variegated chiogga, red), burdock (sometimes known by its Japanese name gobo), carrots, celeriac (the bulb of a celery plant), coriander (the root of leafy cilantro, usually sold ground up), daikon, garlic, ginger, horseradish, Jerusalem artichokes (sometimes called "sunchokes"), leeks, onions (red, yellow, white, sweet, cipollini, pearl), parsnips, potatoes (myriad varieties), radishes (the small ones of multiple colors), rutabaga, salsify (sometimes called "oyster plant"), scallions, shallots, scorzonera (another name for black salsify popular in Spain), sweet potatoes, turmeric, turnips and yams.

The eye-popping color chart goes from black to magenta and purple through oranges to bright white. The nutrition is off the charts. Plants that actually grow down and dirty tend to absorb minerals in the surrounding soil as they swell, so many of these roots are rich in iron and have significant traces of hard to come-by potassium. They cover the whole vitamin alphabet from A to K, and are full of fiber. Salsify has protein. Bright orange roots--carrots, sweet potatoes, rutabaga, yams--are loaded with beta-carotene, a splendid anti-oxidant.

Almost all of them are magical medicinal chests. Burdock, taproot of the thistle plant, is traditionally eaten in China and Japan as a blood cleanser. Sweet potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes (root of the sunflower) are thought to regulate insulin in diabetics. All that smelly sulfur in onions and garlic becomes an antibiotic and decongestant for the lungs. Scallions are an anti-coagulant, turmeric an antibiotic, and ginger fights nausea.

Best of all, none of these roots are complicated to cook. Roast, boil or microwave yams until soft, and mash the flesh with a pinch of ground cardamom and a tbsp or two of coconut milk. Peel and chop a celeriac bulb, boil it in chicken or vegetable broth until soft and mash it with a tbsp or two of creme fraiche, sour cream or thick yogurt. Cook salsify until tender, then peel and mash with a tsp of vinegar. (Because this root has a lot of rubbery sap in it, it's easier to cook first and then peel.) Peel and chop burdock into a vegetable soup or a miso broth along with tofu and mushrooms.

Make a heart-warming Alpine gratin by slicing a large rutabaga, a red onion and a few red potatoes into thin disks. Lightly oil the bottom of a medium sized baking pan and lay the sliced vegetables out in two sets of alternating layers, seasoning each with salt and pepper and the rutabaga layers with a pinch of ground cloves. Sprinkle grated Gruyere cheese over each layer too. Then pour heavy cream lightly laced with nutmeg--maybe 1 1/2 -2 cups--all over, top with grated cheese and bake at 350 for about 35 minutes or until the vegetables are soft and the sauce is firm.

Make a slaw of carrots, celeriac and daikon. I make and store in the fridge the Himalayan multipurpose flavoring: 1 peeled head of garlic cloves mashed with 2" fresh, peeled ginger root in a small food processor. This is great seasoning for braised greens, especially broccoli rabe, all meats, and my favorite autumn offering: root vegetable stew. A little olive oil in the bottom of a heavy gauge casserole, a hit of that root flavoring, a hit of ground coriander and turmeric to boot, some ground cumin and ground chili powder, and in go chunks of onions, leeks, potatoes, carrots, parsnips, celeriac, turnips, rutabaga, daikon, Jerusalem artichokes and enough broth--vegetable, beef or chicken--to cover them. Cover the pot and stew for 20-30 minutes until the roots are tender to a fork. Stir in salt, pepper and a few tbsp of tomato paste to thicken the broth. Simmer a few minutes, garnish with freshly chopped cilantro and serve. For instance, fried chicken and yellow rice, or polenta and cheese, or roasted pork loin, with your roots showing by their side.