Friday, October 17, 2014

Harvest Time: Celebrate the Moment

My blazing leaf October weekend ended with a warmly cheerful dinner party of nine. Everybody brought something to the table, and the array turned out to be the most perfect celebration of that exact moment: the last fresh sheep milk cheese of the year with the first pears, my root vegetable stew, Bubble and Squeak (the last dug potatoes mashed with cabbage and kale), the first meat roast of the cold season with the last fresh herbs and the last tomatoes in a salad of the last outdoor lettuces, first apples crisp with homemade ice cream. That menu should let you get why everybody stayed so long and left so happy.

It was the weekend of Canadian Thanksgiving. It should have been ours too, but in his attempt to remedy the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt moved it to late November to placate America's Chambers of Commerce begging for a full blown whistle start to the Christmas shopping season. Perhaps that's why our Thanksgiving never feels like the harvest festival it is supposed to be. The particular foods we are scheduled to celebrate--cranberries, squash, pumpkins, wild turkeys-- are already gone by. Just looking at your farmers' market tells you the corn season ended long ago.

So Americans don't fete the food supply that assures our survival. Since we no longer live off the land but just go to the supermarket to find any food we want any time we want it, we have forgotten how precious a good harvest truly is. Food is the only certainty for  surviving the cold, dark time of year. For forever, abundant crops have been humanity’s most coveted prize, our supreme sign of good fortune. That's why almost every other society has some special autumn ceremony of gratitude for its stockpile of nourishment. Germany's Oktoberfest, China's Moon Festival, Poland's Doznki and Ireland's Samhain that gave us our Halloween customs.

The West's ur festival is the Hebrew Sukkot so carefully prescribed in the Bible. Sukkot, from the Hebrew word for "booths" or "huts", comes from the dictate in Exodus to celebrate the major fruit harvest. Eventually it morphed into a mandatory pilgrimage, a sort of hajj on specific days when people had to carry their first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem for the High Priest to offer to God. Sukkot also fetes the Four Species or special plants: the etrog (a citrus fruit native to Israel), the palm, myrtle and willow -- all symbolic of crucial desert necessities that saved lives. In their diaspora far from the Temple, Jews used Sukkot to commemorate the 40 years their ancestors wandered in the desert, living in temporary shelters and harvesting whatever they could to survive. That's why for this particular holiday, devout Jews construct in a growing field a hut or garden shelter made from gathered stalks, stems, branches, vines, leaves, fruits and flowers--all symbols of harvest. The top will be open enough to see the sky where prayers of thanks are aimed. 

Wanting a sacred way to express their thanks for a harvest that sustained them, the Plymouth Pilgrims acted on the Biblical exhortation to build this harvest hut, thus launching our autumn tradition of decorating our own dooryards with cornstalks, pumpkins and wreaths of dried herbs or flowers.

It is of course likely that the Pilgrims borrowed the whole idea of honoring food from their hosts, who are definitely pictured at that first Thanksgiving. The aboriginal Americans called the gloriously bright and round full moon that follows the autumn equinox (September 21) Harvest Moon, for its appearance signaled the moment to gather together the magnificent gifts of the Great Spirit: corn, berries, beans, grains, nuts, fish, and small game. (Notice how these are our traditional Thanksgiving foods?)  Having taken these gifts, Native Americans wanted to give a gift back, so they used harvest time to offer ritual praise and thanks to every living thing that had sacrificed its existence to become the food or clothing that would allow them to survive. They celebrated their good fortune with dance, drumming, games and feasting--all prelude to the big game hunt that would insure survival through the winter.
The actual first non-native Thanksgiving took place in Canada in 1578 when the English explorer Martin Frobisher arrived in Newfoundland and supposedly gave thanks to the Almighty for his safe arrival in the New World. The Canadian Thanksgiving tradition we know now began shortly after that. French settlers who came with the explorer Samuel de Champlain, brought their religious customs with them and celebrated their successive successful harvests with prayers of gratitude and feasting. They also generously shared their bounty with natives in their surround. Their heirs and communities continued this festivity on weather dependent dates between mid October and early November until 1957 when the Canadian Parliament designated the second Monday in October "a day of general thanksgiving to almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed." 

Notice, that date is now America’s Columbus Day, a lame way of marking a profound moment. Our harvest comes home, our farmers' markets shrink and shut and nobody notices. We're out to lunch at white sales and soccer games. Why should this blindness matter? Why should it matter that we have shoved ourselves out of sync with the seasons and natural scheme of things? Well, you can look at our health care mess or you can read all the studies that now confirm, as one reporter put it: " reason food rituals enhance flavor and enjoyment is their ability to focus people’s interest on the ensuing consumption." Then you can celebrate with a big harvest meal of your farmers' market finest to find out if that's right. Why not discover something on Columbus Day.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Digging Deeper into our Roots: the Swede!

Just about everywhere else in the world that grows it, the yellow turnip we know as a Rutabaga is called a Swede. That should tell you it's a cold climate crop. The rutabaga is cultivated not just because it grows and can feed us in the frozen north, but for its vivid color, exotic taste--sweeter than the ordinary turnip but piquant in a mild way, and above all its extraordinary goodness. You gotta like a veggie that pumps iron and potassium into you, that strengthens your thyroid and your collagen connections, that gives you almost all the Vitamin C you're going to need for the day. Think of all those antioxidants flowing into your immune system here on the threshold of cold and flu season and eat a rutabaga or two.

The Swedes are piled high at farmers' markets right now, at least in the northern half of the nation, and they're not waxed like the supermarket ones, so you know they're freshly dug. (That wax is a commercial ag preservative for the long winter haul.) If you don't know what to do with one, think potato and treat it the same way: mashed rutabagas are a Thanksgiving standard. You just peel the bulb, cut it up and submerge it in boiling salted water until its tender. I've been known to put a star anise in that water to intensify the rutabaga's unique flavor. You can also toss in a few cloves to add a mysterious smokiness. Then just like with potatoes, you puree or mash the soft rutabaga chunks, adding salt and pepper along with a spoon of creme fraiche or light cream, even whipped cream cheese. Or nothing at all and the dish will still be delish. You can even whip in a pinch of smoked paprika if you like.

A fancier form of this would be timbales, individual custard size servings of mashed rutabaga smoothed in a mold. The recipe is in the book How to Fix a Leek....and it makes the most perfect dish to set beside a roast chicken or turkey or beef bourgogne.

You can also treat the swede like winter squash. You peel it (maybe 2 lbs) then slice it into 2" thick disks, brush them with melted butter (4 tbsp) and lay them single layer on a buttered baking sheet. Bake at 400º for 15 minutes, then turn them over and coat the top side of each disk with honey (about 1/4 c) and continue to bake another 5-10 minutes until tender. Notice this dish is salt free.

I've seen rutabaga combined with the almost flavorless butternut squash in a lovely mash seasoned with a pinch of smoky chipotle chili, one medium squash and 2 swedes, and heard about this combination made into a thick comforting soup. This involves peeling both the swedes and the squash and optionally a sweet potato, chunking them, drizzling them with olive oil and salt and roasting them at 400º for 45-60 minutes until they are soft.
It also involves sauteeing a diced yellow onion in butter with a pinch of clove and a pinch of cinnamon. Finally in a processor or blender, you combine the roasted veggies with the sauteed onion and spices, salt and freshly ground pepper, a pinch of smoked paprika or chipotle chili, 3 cups of vegetable broth and a cup of cream. Whiz this into a thick pureed soup.

The Scots love the swede. It puts the key flavor in their Scotch Broth. I gave the recipe for that famed lamb/leek/barley soup two posts back while discussing leeks. I myself never fail to include a small cut up rutabaga with the onion, carrot and potato in my autumn ginger flavored beef stews. The swede gives them zing.

And finally, fan that I am of all the roots, I never fail to put rutabaga in my autumn root vegetable stew, served as root vegetable potpie in my book Veggiyana, the Dharma of Cooking. It's right at home with equally flavorful and colorful parsnips, carrots, purple potatoes, yam or sweet potato, celeriac, turnips, daikon, leeks, red onions, ginger and garlic. It's heartwarming how all these strong individual flavors work together to be so nutritious and delicious. It's the perfect tribute to the glory of the frozen north.