Wednesday, July 23, 2008

You Are What You Eat

Oh, it was one of those weeks. Things started off so swimmingly last Monday, with me knocking out most of my weekly errands there at the onset, and getting through most of the paperwork that I had designated as imperative. Then, on Tuesday, as the kids and I were driving back from the farm with our weekly CSA box of produce just brimming with basil and parsley, Swiss chard, tomatoes, potatoes, squash and zucchini, eggplant, cucumbers, onions and garlic, The Auto From The Inner Circle of Hell overheated. Not just a little, mind you. The kind of overheating that involves turning on the heat full blast so as to bleed the heat out of the engine, in no less than 90 degree weather. And even then, the needle went into the red and so I searched for a safe place to pull off the road with my precious cargo of children and produce. Before I could make up my mind about what to do (and one of the options included moving back to town where a car would be a less necessary part of our existence), there was a loud explosion and fluid sprayed out from under the hood. It was turning into one of those days.

I pulled over in front of an assisted living facility, calmly climbed out of The Auto From The Inner Circle of Hell and furiously dialed The Carnivore on my cell phone. When there was no answer, and Little Miss Piggy started to cry (no doubt from the heat) and The Big Boy started to fuss (because he wanted me to “take the car to the hospital”), I lost my cool. All of it. Every last shred. I jumped up and down in fury and kicked a tire, and then I called my mommy.

My chagrin was palpable when I saw all the retirees sitting in rocking chairs on the porch of the facility, quietly watching me pitch a big fit.

In the days that have followed, as The Auto From The Inner Circle of Hell sits in front of my house, in the same spot the tow truck deposited it, with its unrepentant hood up and its bumper splayed out upon the ground beside it, I have done little more than fume. It was paid for, you see, and I do not relish the thought of getting a new vehicle even though it is painfully that this might be my only option.

I wanted to spend my week playing around with all the beautiful vegetables from the farm, trying some new recipes and putting up sauces for the winter, but everything has been overshadowed by the glowering hunk of metal taking up space in my yard. When I should have been finding new uses for squash, I was running amortization schedules in my head to see how much I was willing to spend on a new(er), less offensive automobile. And when I would have rather been turning those beautiful onions into sinful fried rings of glory, I was comparing the gas mileage and cargo space of different vehicles.

We did eat, of course, but there were no spectacular new recipes last week. I sautéed slices of squash with garlic and onions, and I made more of those crazy-addictive crispy flattened potatoes, and I froze some more batches of pesto to get us through the long, hard (4 ½ weeks) of winter we will have to endure in a few months, but I have no breakthroughs in cooking to share.

This is such a lonely feeling. I love to share recipes, and yet here I am, and I have nothing. Nothing but a broken down, fully useless Auto From The Inner Circle of Hell to grumble about.

I reached a new low on Friday when I realized I had no transportation with which to get to the Saturday morning farmer’s market. I flopped on my mother’s sofa in abject misery (after she came to pick me up, of course) and contemplated borrowing my grandmother’s car. The market would cheer me up, for sure, especially since I knew there was going to be live music (something I have heard far too little of since becoming a family woman), and I was feeling most desperate for more potatoes – because one can never have enough of those Crispy Flattened Potatoes.

My mother raised no dummy though (in my case, at least) and when I saw an opportunity for redemption, I jumped up and wrapped myself around it. Mom was trying to coerce my visiting uncle into joining her and Grandma at yard sales on Saturday morning, and Uncle Jim (God bless him AND the horse he rode in on) made entertaining little scoffing noises at Mom before saying, “I’d rather go to the farmer’s market with Sarah.”

Yes, yes, yes. THAT is how one erases a perfectly annoying week.

My Uncle Jim is only about 13 years older than I am, and I have always adored him. I knew he would be, without a shadow of a doubt, the ideal farmer’s market date. He’s hip, he knows food, he already understands why I’m so infatuated with the farmer’s market, he’s well-versed in what goes on politically, and he’s a lot of fun. He has always been fun. Mom and I shared a house with him in New Orleans for a few months when I was a wee thing, and there were always delightful impromptu visits when he would pass through Georgia in the years before and since. Even more than usual, I was excited in my anticipation of our trip to the market.

Truly, I look forward to the market every week now. We have had other incarnations of farmer’s markets in Athens over the years, but this spring a very well-planned and eclectic market came together at Bishop Park and was an instant success. There are maybe 10 or 12 stands of organic produce, a truck with eggs (that always seem to – grrrr – sell out within 5 minutes) and grass-fed meat, a couple of tables piled with fresh breads and other baked goods, Free Trade coffee that is locally roasted, and some crafts as well. It is beautiful and friendly and not the least bit elitest. You don’t have to be a card-carrying hippie, you don’t need to be able to converse on the merits of The Farm Bill, and you aren’t required to sign a statement that you will never eat anything grown out of state. The farmers at the stands are more than willing to answer questions about their goods, and you’d be hard-pressed to not find smiling people on every side. It would pain me greatly to think that anyone isn’t shopping there because they are intimidated by it in any way.

Everything is grown (or raised, in the case of the meat and eggs) organically and sustainably, within 100 miles of Athens, and there is even a table with information about PLACE, an organization that works to promote the idea of eating locally. The variety of produce is just lovely to behold, which, of course, is the best draw of all.

Uncle Jim, Little Miss Piggy and I arrived at the market only a minute or two past 8:00 this past Saturday morning, and my dour mood improved considerably before we even had his car parked. The weather was pleasant, the music was a great addition to the ambience, and Jim happily ambled off, scoring some blueberry juice and some hand-made soaps. There were people milling around everywhere, tote bags bulging with their purchases, and, even though the egg people were, of course, already out of eggs again, I gleefully filled my bags with potatoes, green beans, a gloriously fragrant cantaloupe, yellow onions, and two bags of dried tomatoes. The dried tomatoes were a particularly pleasing find, since I usually buy mine in jars from the supermarket, and I can’t wait to cook with these. I was also thrilled to the top to come across some fingerling potatoes. I have been trying to find some in the stores for a couple of years, and always came up empty before now.

For so long, one of the loudest arguments against local, organic food was the exclusionary high prices, but with the inflation at the supermarket checkout, I’m finding the costs of my summer CSA subscription, along with my weekly farmer’s market purchases, to be only slightly more than what I had formerly paid in the stores. Naturally it is all a matter of priorities, and since I’m vegetarian, well, it isn’t a big leap for me to buy my groceries locally and to be willing to spend a little more on them.

It can be daunting, I know, to go from buying processed food at the supermarket to joining a CSA or getting up at the crack of dawn (on a Saturday, no less) to get to the farmer’s market before everything is gone. The thing is though, it isn’t necessary to change one’s whole life in one fell swoop. If anything, that would be a recipe for disaster. But you have to start somewhere, and the benefits of eating locally and seasonally are too many to name. The flavor is the biggest and most obvious difference, but there is also a lot to be said for keeping your money in the local economy, for supporting small local farmers, for really knowing where and from whom your food truly comes from.

Start small, if it seems easier: go to the farmer’s market even just once a month, or make a pact to only buy produce at the supermarket that is grown in this country (hey – it uses less energy than transporting veggies from Chile), visit a pick-your-own-berry farm, read that Barbara Kingsolver book that brought local eating to mainstream America. Just do something. Food should be a source of joy, eating should be a thoughtful experience. It just makes sense that dinner should come from somewhere other than a box or a can.

After all, you are what you eat.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Southern Summer Delicacy

Green tomatoes are one of those fleeting joys, one of the last of the seasonal items that you must learn to grab while you can, unlike the artificially year-round availability we have grown accustomed to with so many other fruits and vegetables. I can find a tasteless, perfectly round, evenly colored red tomato in the supermarket any old time. Green tomatoes, on the other hand, are available around these parts only to those who grow their own tomatoes, or who belong to a CSA or shop at the farmer’s market (though I came up empty-handed when I tried to obtain more of them at this morning's market).

Don‘t get me wrong. This isn’t a complaint letter. I like having something to look forward to. Green tomatoes are really nothing more than plain old-fashioned unripe tomatoes - perfect for those of us who get wildly impatient waiting for produce to ripen. If left to their own devices, they’ll turn red and get softer, but frankly, I like them just the way they are. Firm, almost to the point of crispness inside, with very little in the way of seeds and gel, and a tart flavor akin to wild apples, they have rightfully earned their place in Southern cuisine. But you already knew that, right? Everyone has read Fried Green Tomatoes, or seen the movie, or (come on) at least heard of them, though from what I understand, entirely too many people have never had the pleasure of enjoying this unexpectedly addictive dish.

Truth be told, I’ve only had them twice, and I'm firmly ensconced in the Deep South here. When The Carnivore and I were dating, he showed up after work one afternoon with a bag of vegetables from the garden of a mutual acquaintance of ours. When he reached into the bag though, and pulled out a succession of green tomatoes, I winced and reached for the Chinese take-out menu hanging on my fridge. “I’ll fry them,” he said. “I don’t know about all that,” I replied warily, wrinkling my nose up at both the thought of the tomatoes themselves and fried food in general. An hour or so later, of course, I was munching happily and wiping my greasy fingers on my jeans.

Last summer, when I discovered a couple green tomatoes in our weekly box from the farm, I excitedly lined them up like little toy soldiers on the kitchen counter, vowing to learn how to fry them. Two days later, when I finally had the time, I saw that an evil ripening ghost had snuck in and turned my green tomatoes red. So I made a batch of salsa with them instead and consoled myself with Mexican food for dinner.

And then a whole ‘nother year passed. See, green tomatoes are like that. Out of sight, out of mind, or some such cliche. Since I don’t pass them at the grocery store every week, I just don’t think about them, and then lo and behold, poof, suddenly there they were again. I was crouching in the big walk-in cooler at the farm, transferring my box of goodies to some bags when I came across something like eight or nine big, fat, firm-as-could-be green tomatoes. The Big Boy eyed them a little suspiciously at first, but caught on in a hurry when I told him I was going to fry them up into tomato chips. It’s all in the way you talk to a kid…

I mentioned my plan to my adventurous sister who had never had the pleasure of fried green tomatoes and she cheerfully invited herself to dinner as well. She and I both dug around for the right recipe, and I finally settled on one that I had clipped from the July 1997 issue of Fine Cooking. I can only assume that my mother must have found me some old issues at a yard sale, and that I hadn’t been holding on to this recipe clipping for eleven years, but honestly, there’s just no telling.

Now that I think about it though, I wasn’t even involved with The Carnivore yet in July of 1997, and I certainly wasn't reading cooking magazines in my spare time back then. I did run into him at a party Aviso played at in Normaltown late one night during the summer of 1997, and we did start dating a few months later…

Anyhow, that being neither here nor there – the recipe was so simple as to be nearly comical, and called for ingredients I already had on hand (unlike many of the ones which required buttermilk). I called The Carnivore to see if he had any tips for me: “salt the p-turkey out of the breading,” is, I believe, an exact quote, and then I commenced to frying.

Frankly, the biggest lesson I walked away with is that it takes more patience than I have to wait until the heat has dissipated before popping the fried slices of heaven into my mouth. I’m telling you, these things are flat-out addictive and since the ideal way to eat them seems to be standing by the stove and snacking as they come out of the skillet, the chef gets the biggest share (and ends up with a burnt tongue, or so I've heard).

I served them for dinner that night alongside a frittata made with leeks, kale and garlic from the farm, and a potato salad supplied by my brother-in-law who, for some reason, did not accompany my sister to dinner, though that was just as well, I suppose, because there were only two slices of tomato left over.

As Jamie Oliver said about something completely unrelated to tomatoes, “This is not Michelin star food. This is proper food. This is dinner.”


FRIED GREEN TOMATOES (serves four as a side dish, adapted from Fine Cooking)
  • 4 green tomatoes (about 1/2 pound each) sliced 1/2 inch thick
  • 4 tsp kosher salt, divided, plus a little more for sprinkling
  • 2 tsp freshly ground black pepper, divided
  • 1 cup stone-ground cornmeal
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2/3 or so cup of olive oil, divided
  1. Season the sliced tomatoes generously with 2 tsp salt and 1 tsp pepper.
  2. Combine the cornmeal, flour, and remaining 2 tsp salt and 1 tsp pepper in a small bowl.
  3. In a large cast-iron skillet, pour about 1/3 cup of olive oil, so that the oil is about 1/4-inch deep or so in the pan. Heat over medium heat.
  4. Dredge the tomato slices in the cornmeal mixture immediately before putting them in the pan (don't do this too far ahead or everything gets soggy), and yes, there is no need for an egg mixture - the cornmeal/flour mix clings wonderfully to the slightly moist tomatoes on its own.
  5. Carefully (to avoid getting splashed with hot oil) place a few tomato slices in the pan, leaving plenty of room between them, and cook in batches, until well-browned on the bottom (2 to 3 minutes). Flip the slices over and cook the other side.
  6. Drain finished slices on paper towels, and add more oil to the pan as needed.
  7. Serve immediately, sprinkled with extra salt.

Friday, July 04, 2008

The Problem of the Bitter Berry

I am a recent convert to the cooking with fruit concept. For the longest time, I thought people to be quite batty when they would take perfectly good fresh-picked berries and run off to bake a pie. Honestly, it seemed quite wasteful. If I wander around picking blueberries, even if I come home with three bucketfuls, I will sit and eat them out of hand until I get sick. And sick I have gotten. Same goes for blackberries, which grow all over our property and which can stain one’s clothing beyond repair (as I’ve found when Little Miss Piggy stuffs them into her mouth with her less-than-coordinated fingers).

There are just very few pleasures in life that can compare to the flavor and texture of sun-warmed berries bursting in your mouth. And it is such a short-lived season that you don’t even have time to get sick of them before, poof, they’re gone.

Now don’t get me wrong. I plan to have too many berries someday. We have five blueberry bushes planted now, and I intend to add to our little orchard. If things go well, we shall be so inundated with berries that we’ll be able to freeze some for use in smoothies when the dark and dreary days of January arrive. But we are years away from that goal, and my little four-year-old gardener son can easily eat his weight in blueberries, so sharing is a bit of a problem.

I understand the appeal of fruit-based desserts, really I do. Cobblers and pies have their place in life, and it would be a rare day indeed for me to pass up one of these delicacies at a true Southern meat-and-three restaurant where the cobblers tend to be made with old family recipes. Hot, gooey fruit, covered with a crisp topping and then drowned in cold vanilla ice cream? Please. Pretty please.

But, see, given a choice of fresh-picked berries and a dessert baked from the same, I would choose the unadorned fruits every time. Maybe you’ve never tried produce that was picked moments ago. Those refrigerated fruits in the grocery store, picked days (or weeks) ago clear across the country (or the world) aren’t what I’m referring to. Those are not fresh. And they usually don’t even taste like real fruit. Peaches that taste like dry cotton, humongous strawberries with firm white insides, mealy blueberries, well, those just don’t count.

A week or so ago, I was flipping through my grandmother’s current issue of Southern Living when I ran across a very simple recipe for blackberry cobbler. After some histrionics on my part about nobody loving me when I could find neither pen nor paper, my usually oppositional little sister came through for me and I scribbled down the recipe and stuffed it into the nether regions of my giant bag.

The recipe seemed so ideal: local, seasonal fruit; idiot-proof baking instructions, a short list of ingredients. But I just couldn’t quite see past the stumbling block of having to waste perfectly good berries in a dish that would mask their true flavor. Then, last Saturday, The Carnivore and The Big Boy went traipsing through the woods and down the driveway and returned with a handful of the smallest, the tartest, most pathetic-looking blackberries I’ve ever seen. Apparently, two years of drought have taken their toll. I tried to keep my game face on, but the berries were bad. There was no sweet flavor, there was no juice dripping down my chin, there was no burst of plump skin. There was only tart, only bitter.

I have this one recalcitrant eyebrow that goes up when I'm mulling over an idea. It is an involuntary tic that I have very little control over and which has driven a few of my friends mad, and it shot up quickly over the problem of the bitter berries. “Can you go back and find four cups of these for me please?” I asked The Carnivore, trying vainly to hold the eyebrow down with my index finger. Without a single complaint, off they went, The Carnivore and The Big Boy, back to the thorns and the brambles, eager to help in the hopes that they would be rewarded with dessert.

I wasn’t sure it would even work, but it just seemed so logical. It makes sense to me that it was exactly for this problem that cobblers were invented in the first place. After all, what can you do with the most inedible berry harvest but add sugar to it and wrestle it into submission? Regardless, we were inundated with these miserable excuses for fruit and I couldn’t stand for them to go to waste. And that recipe was just lolling about in my bag…

But work, it did. The sugar tamed the tartness of the berries and created this perfect synergy of flavor. A little sweet, a little tart, with a crisp crust and just enough juice to muddle the color of the Haagen-Dazs vanilla ice cream that I topped it with. I loved it. The Carnivore loved it. The Big Boy wanted to swim in it. If I get my way, they’ll pick another four cups this weekend. And the one after that.


BLACKBERRY COBBLER (from Southern Living, serves 6)
  • 4 cups blackberries
  • 1 Tbs lemon juice
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup flour
  • 6 Tbs melted butter
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  2. Place blackberries in lightly greased 8-inch square baking pan.
  3. Sprinkle berries with lemon juice.
  4. In a medium bowl, stir together the egg, sugar and flour until mixture resembles coarse meal.
  5. Sprinkle flour mixture over fruit.
  6. Drizzle melted butter over the flour topping.
  7. Bake for about 35 minutes, until topping is crisp and lightly browned.
  8. Serve hot.