Archive for the ‘practice’ category

more than one way to skin a tomato

September 6, 2011

The first time I tried to peel and core a (small!) quantity of cherry tomatoes, it wasn’t too long before I wanted to flay myself. It is a fussy job no matter how you slice it, but if the little suckers are  slightly too green or slightly too ripe it is damn near impossible — either the skins refuse to let go or the fruit turns to mush in your fingers. And yet this morning I found myself contentedly peeling a pile of cherries for the summer’s third batch of tomato preserves.

This is the season of tomatoes, the most valuable currency of the kitchen. I bring in way more multicolored beauties than I can consume, but I’m always reluctant to downgrade them from fresh to — well, anything else. Every day or so I’ll dry a few pans of halved cherries in the oven, but at least as many are reserved for consumption in their unadulterated form. I pile them up on every available surface, believing somehow that I need to hold on to that Brandywine, this bowl of Persimmons, or risk fresh tomato bankruptcy — never mind that the garden’s economy is showing no signs of slowing.

Yesterday I came to my senses and decided it was time to clear the countertops. I began the day by sorting — perfect, medium-sized specimens would be preserved whole in a ginger-lemon syrup, smaller ones would be oven-dried, and the random remains would be sauce.

These plans involved peeling everything but the babies destined for the oven, a task that turns out to be not as tedious as it once seemed. It helps when you have gained a measure of skill through practice. But more than that, it is an aesthetically pleasing process, bordering on the erotic. After a quick dip in boiling water, the damp, soft skins slip off like a negligee, revealing the delicate flesh beneath — veiny, translucent little orbs that seem lit from within.

I once came across a note in a cookbook that suggested drying tomato skins in the oven and using them as a seasoning. At the time I thought this to be a ridiculous idea. But looking at the sunset-colored pile of discarded vestments, I couldn’t resist.

Even pleasant pursuits can be exhausting, so when I reached the bottom of the preserves pile, I took a little break before attacking the lumpier beasts destined for the saucepot.  Slicing up cherries for drying is quick work; after a few hours in a low oven they would dry to leathery coins that could be packed away for a winter’s day.

So, with the oven humming and a pile of sugar slowly melting over the preserves-to-be, I turned to the sauce tomatoes. Their flesh folded into irregular crevasses and weird growths, as well as the occasional dark spot that needed to be excised — nothing sexy about any of that. I wielded my paring knife like a butcher and did my best to contain the gore.

I find it hard to get too excited about tomato sauce, actually, but after a busy summer of canning I’ve already got more ketchup, salsa, and tomato jam than I know what to do with. So for this project I thought more in terms of soup base — something I could add to, say, a bag of lentils for a quick winter meal.

I started with the typical mélange of onions, carrots, celery, plus a stalk of lovage. (Lovage is my new discovery of the season — it looks a little bit like celery, tastes a little bit like celery, but it also carries the distinctive flavor of, well, lovage. It really doesn’t taste like anything else that I can identify, but boy does it add an intoxicating aroma to a bubbling sauce.) Next, some garlic pounded with coriander, followed by a couple of zucchini, and finally the tomatoes and some oregano.

Preserves were the last job: the pretty little globes with which I began my day went  over the flame with their sugar syrup, plus sliced lemons, ginger and a few cloves. It is a recipe that takes more patience than skill: the idea is to reduce the liquid to gel stage without allowing the tomatoes to fall apart.

And that was that — 14+ pounds of tomatoes reduced to six luminous jars of preserves, about a cup of dried tomatoes, the beginnings of four pots of soup. And the experiment with the peels? Um… I got distracted and burned them.

I stepped outside with the remains and the breeze carried them east to settle on the garden from whence they came. Which is where they were headed anyway, I guess. The path they took happened to be a little less messy than traveling through my gut and septic system. But whether progress begins with a holy unveiling or sloppy scalping, whether they seep into the muck or are borne aloft on the wind, all tomatoes get themselves back to the garden… somehow.

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abundance

July 22, 2011

Living mostly from one’s own garden is partially an exercise in doing without. But addicted as I once was to my Granny Smith a day, it hasn’t been so hard to trade the petroleum apple for whatever is freshest at a given moment. I’m finding that it’s more challenging, actually, to live well with the daily abundance, to enjoy what the earth offers today without worrying too much about tomorrow.

I brought in my first zucchini (and a few other things) a couple of mornings ago. I picked them quite small, which felt a little wasteful — another day or two in the sun and I would have doubled my food supply, for free. And there is always the prospect of an impromptu dinner — I find myself hesitating to bring in, say, a giant helping of lovely baby arugula for myself, because how will I add interest to tomorrow night’s salad otherwise?

But those tender tonic leaves, while precious, aren’t like the jar of balsamic vinegar one keeps on the shelf for special guests. Set to the side, young arugula only disappears into a tougher version of itself, simultaneously fierce and faded. Better to mow down half the patch for your breakfast and leave the rest to go to seed while you eat something else. The cycle will begin again soon enough. I know this intellectually, but every year my desire to hold on to the fruits of my labors, to save them for a special occasion, has caused me to lose some of them altogether.

Zucchini won’t be exciting for long, but after months of leaves, these first young fruits — along with a few handfuls of beans and peas — are to be savored. Right away. What occasion is more special, after all, than this moment of perfect deliciousness?

what [plants] want

June 26, 2011

Friday night I actually escaped work early enough to have dinner at home, but I found myself too tired — not too tired to cook, but too tired to eat. My intestines recoiled at the thought of digesting that last serving of  roasted beets/walnuts/arugula waiting in the fridge. I mentally tried on the idea of something simpler — say pasta with olive oil — but my salivary glands were unresponsive. And a lovely fresh salad from the garden — well, that seemed like a whole lot of chewing. I was tempted to just go to bed, but Saturday was the day off and I didn’t want to be prematurely pulled out of bed by an rumbling stomach. After pondering a bit longer, I knew what I wanted: a few walnuts, a couple of leaves of wild arugula, and a length of garlic scape pounded in some olive oil, eaten with the last of the bread.

Saturday morning I made a quick trip to the farmers’ market and then put on my grubby gardening clothes to see what I could do for this year’s garden tenants. Barbara Damrosch, in The Garden Primer, talks about thinking like a plant, learning to give them what they want. “Once you understand what makes plants tick,” she writes, “you’ll understand what you need to do to help them grow well.”

One thing young plants want is a space clear of competition. Weeding is never-ending, and I have to confess, I kind of like it. Last month, with renovations on my kitchen way behind schedule, I took my rage out to the garden, patiently wresting the long, hairy roots from the soil. I really should have been attacking the layer of carpentry dust that covered everything in the house, but it seemed so pointless, with the work not done yet. Why waste my time washing dishes in a construction site when I could be clearing the soil for my summer grocery store?

Except: even if I possessed the skill, determination and luck to get every last dandelion completely out, down to the tip of its taproot — and I don’t — a soft breeze across the downy heads left in my neighbor’s yard will soon sully the soil again. In the garden, there is no such thing as finished. And the same thing is true in making a home.

The renovations are down to the last details now, and I’m able to keep the house pretty clean, but some part of me has continued to resist really inhabiting it — I’ve been waiting for the installation of those shelves, the arrival of that last piece of furniture before I finally put everything in its place.

One day last week, a couple of hours into a really thorough job of weeding the legume section, I made the mistake of allowing myself to take in the entire garden, rather than the single plant I squatted next to. Completely overwhelming. The only way to avoid despair was to bring my focus back to plant-by-plant hospitality — pulling weeds, pinching suckers, training tendrils to wrap around supports. I didn’t do any of these jobs perfectly, but I knew the plants were going to be much healthier — and more productive — because of my efforts.

Something about the work of tuning in to the needs of my little green tenants made me more attentive to my own requirements. When I was through in the garden, I went inside and moved a small chest across from the kitchen sink to stand in for the island that will not arrive for weeks.

Having that workspace — temporary and imperfect though it may be — has transformed my ability to operate in the kitchen. Yesterday, during a late morning rainstorm, I came in from the garden and worked on putting together meals for the next few days. I started out by roasting beets and fennel from the morning’s market. Since the oven was on, I threw in the last of 2010’s butternut squash (time to clear the pantry and begin making way for 2011).

I usually make squash stew with ginger and all kinds of sweet, warming spices. Since I didn’t have any ginger — and since I wanted something a little more green and summery — I dug up a small piece of horseradish from the garden and ground that to a paste along with some of last year’s coriander harvest, a garlic scape, a mint leaf, and a healthy pile of black peppercorns. I also made the stew somewhat thinner than usual, ending up with a soup that was both sweet and bracing. Somewhere along the way I toasted the seeds and tossed them with the beets and fennel for a salad of many textures. After a good night’s sleep and a day of work in the garden, my stomach was ready for it. Just what I wanted.

nearer to godliness than theology

April 26, 2011

On Sunday I spent some time with the words of  Vigen Guroian, an Armenian Orthodox theologian, who writes:

… I think gardening is nearer to godliness than theology. (By “theology” I mean the kind of formal written discourse that my special guild of academic theologians does, not the praise of God and communion with divine life that ought to inspire theology at its core.) True gardeners are both iconographers and theologians insofar as these activities are the fruit of prayer “without ceasing.” Likewise, true gardeners never cease to garden, not even in their sleep, because gardening is not just something they do. It is how they live. (More here.)

Reading Gurioan’s words I was overwhelmed by the need to tend to some green things, which is a little difficult to do in a Manhattan studio apartment. I settled for chopping the stems off a bunch of wilted kale and sticking it in a glass of water to perk up. Then I took my book to the park.

Although the air is beginning to feel like spring, it’s still a little early for lolling on the ground. The grass is too patchy to protect bottoms and elbows from the damp, muddy earth. But I was not the only person to ignore this. The park was packed with families, with young couples, with dogs and their walkers, each doing a dance with their environment and with each other, doing their best to maximize joy and minimize messiness.

When I got home, Bob was waiting in the hall, as usual, with arched back and bottle-brush tail. Once he confirms my identity it takes him about five seconds to go from I’m-a-fierce-scary-cat to I’m-a-sad-little-kitten-who-never-gets-enough-love. It’s so interesting to watch his tiny body get possessed by waves of aggression, wheedling, torpor, gentleness. To some extent, I’ve been able to shape his behavior over these last months, to gradually win this once-wary stray’s trust. But I would be foolish to take what you might call his “moods” personally. Those moments of extreme sweetness, along with the spells of must-bite-toes, have more to do with his unfathomable wiring than with anything I’ve introduced. So I do my best to demonstrate that good things happen for kitties when I’m around, to gentle him when there is an opening, but otherwise let him work out whatever his mysterious kitten system demands.

By the time I got home from the park, the kale had perked up quite nicely. But even when it involves plants, a simple sequence of input >> results really isn’t much like gardening. Part of what makes gardening so enthralling, so mystical, is that despite a gardener’s deep attentiveness, her careful discernment about what a particular organism requires, she learns over and over again that her ability to fix the fate of a plant is about as sure as her ability to command the weather, to compose the soil, to legislate a whole world of predators of and pollinators.

No matter how much you study, or even how much you practice, a garden never stops surprising you– not unlike the placid lap kitty who, without warning, decides to climb you like a tree, claws out. Or like the possessed puss that, for whatever reason, suddenly decides he’s had enough racing around the apartment and would prefer to methodically bathe your feet for awhile.

occasion

November 25, 2010

In my summer kitchen, austerity and hedonism are the same thing. At the height of the season, when I’m hauling in buckets of beans and squash every morning, I sometimes find it difficult to get excited about the idea of eating them. But then later, when they’re on the plate, I am always amazed at my good fortune.

 There was a time I reveled in complex recipes and exotic ingredients, but my summers of rigorous seasonality and simplicity have definitely influenced my city kitchen. Part of it is a growing disgust with our industrial food system (though I don’t think I’ll ever give up avocados). It’s also a little bit habit, a little bit laziness, a little bit thrift. And, what can I say, I like to eat things that taste of themselves.

It was only as I prepared my contributions to today’s feast that I realized the extent to which big, complicated preparations have fallen out of my active repertory. And while there are plenty of reasons to make a habit of eating simply, there is something to be said for making an effort to mark an occasion. For baking the cornbread—from scratch—a day ahead so it has time to get stale. For starting a recipe with two sticks of butter. For supplementing the onions, herbs and carrots from the farmstand with chestnuts from France and figs from Greece. In the summer, I have the luxury of living off of vegetables I knew from the time they were seedlings. In the city, I have… well, everything else. So why not celebrate that?

Among my other contributions will be a heap of roasted vegetables from the farmer’s market. It is impossible to say whether I prefer this dish—one more typical of how I eat regularly—to the rich stuffing. It’s also irrelevant. Sometimes nourishment comes as much from the preparation as the consumption. How glad I am to be able to mark this day in this way—by making an effort, by serving up my love for my friends in edible form.

 

no bent forks

July 26, 2010

I have a director friend with a favorite speech (typically delivered over a meal) that goes something like this:

     This is a fork.

     Not a knife.

     If you try to make it into a knife, all you’re going to get is a bent fork.

Her point is not so much about cutlery as about understanding and respecting the essential qualities of the actors you’re given to work with.

The day after a gathering at my house, I found a mostly full bottle of red wine on the counter among the empties. It belonged to the genre one friend calls porch wine—not special, not bad, just fine for distractedly sipping on the porch.

I hated to throw it out, so instead I threw it on the stove, with a scattering of last season’s coriander, to reduce. As I considered what I was going to do with it when complete, I realized I didn’t have a lot of options. Red wine glaze just doesn’t go with most midsummer vegetables.

Then I remembered some eggplants I had picked up at the farmer’s market. Reduction done, I corrected with a little honey, then added salt, olive oil, some smashed garlic cloves, and the eggplant (halved lengthwise) to the pot. After simmering for awhile, I put the whole thing in the fridge and went to bed.

The next morning I put some rice on to cook, figuring to layer it with the soused eggplant and some feta and oregano. I cut up the eggplant and tasted a bit. Not bad… but not special. And not nearly as appealing as all the things coming out of my garden faster than I can eat them…

Hindsight is 20/20. I should’ve thrown out the wine before rendering those lovely eggplants unspecial. Instead, I threw out the whole conglomeration.

There are schools of cookery that are all about culinary alchemy—making silver knives out of stainless steel forks, as it were. There are old techniques for making tough cuts of meats into tender, refined dishes, as well as new techniques that turn solids to foam, or liquids into self-contained shapes. While I appreciate the craft, and often the flavor, of such dishes, in my own kitchen I’m more inclined to let a fork be a fork. More and more, I find the best way to appreciate the essential qualities of whatever came out of the garden that day involves the application of olive oil and salt. Sometimes the “recipe” calls for the application of heat, sometimes not. Herbs and/or lemon are sometimes nice, but unrequired.

After I let go of the eggplant idea, I shredded some radicchio and chopped a handful of green beans and added those to the warm rice, along with a splash of olive oil.

reflection and recitative

June 28, 2010

Around the time when Handel was writing opera, the convention was to deal with “events” in recitative—a plain, fast-moving vocal line with spare, improvised accompaniment. These conversational, relatively dry storytelling sections alternate with elaborate, expressive solo arias, in which characters pause for several minutes to reflect on recent developments.

Compared with later operas, in which action and emotion move along in a seamless sweep, opera seria can seem a bit static, but those of us who love the form accept the convention. I’m now working with a director who holds that the alternation between conversational exposition and reflective aria is actually not static, not artificial, but exactly like life. That is, stuff happens, then we turn it over and over in our minds, then more stuff happens, and we reflect on that. And those moments of thinking, rather than being static, are active and important times in our lives.

If we accept that spans where “nothing happens” are periods of growth, that gives us a different perspective on stretches where “events” come thick and fast. Most of June is like recitative—endless to do lists, an endless procession of new names and new personalities, etc. It’s very busy, but ultimately not particularly interesting or beautiful. Or if it is, who has time to notice?

When I finally got a day off to spend in the garden, I thought the moment for my aria had come. But between the pinching and pulling, the clearing out and the tying up, there wasn’t much brainspace left for reflection.

Yesterday morning I had a few hours and went looking for an aria on the lake. But like gardening, kayaking doesn’t leave a lot of room for extraneous mental activity. There’s too much to attend to, and maybe that’s the point. Skillful activities like gardening, yoga, cooking not only require us to step out of the tumble of events—the recitative—of life, they are also so all-absorbing that they shut down the part of the brain that either turns over past events or worries about future ones. In that way, they are less like the character’s experience of an aria than the singer’s.