Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Farmstand update 8/22/2012 - my mother's garden!

Tons of corn - it's been coming strong for a couple weeks now. A grocery sack full of corn that's a little too starchy to eat off the cob - probably I'll use it for chowder, atole, or those fresh corn arepas.

Tons of tomatoes.

So many hot Cubanelle peppers - every time my mother plants chiles, they grow like crazy. We were expecting the Cubanelles to be a sweet grilling pepper, but they have a New Mexico like heat.

A couple Asian eggplants.

Cantaloupes aren't ready yet - maybe a week.

Red okra!

Red okra, cherry tomato

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

vir-gin and tonic and spiced butter rum and coke

Another Marx Foods contest - in this one, they sent out a package of ingredients and bloggers had to make both a cocktail and a non-alcoholic drink, using at least one ingredient in each drink. The ingredients were saffron, fennel pollen, dill pollen, juniper berries, long pepper, and dried pineapple.

I decided to use juniper berries and long pepper because they were the ingredients I had done the least with. The result: Vir-Gin and Tonic, with tonic water, juniper-blueberry-lime "shrub," and cucumber juice; and the Spiced Butter Rum and Coke.

Vir-Gin and Tonic

The idea here is not to emulate the gin and tonic per se, but to come up with a drink that is as refreshing and as complex as a gin and tonic, without alcohol. Gin's complexity comes from its botanicals, usually about a dozen of them - the most prominent of which, the only one required by law and definition, is juniper. That piney taste gin has - that's the juniper. I originally considered pairing it with spruce tips, but in a recipe contest I don't know how useful it would be to include an ingredient that isn't commercially available (mine were foraged in Alaska and purchased on eBay).

Instead, I combined equal amounts of cucumber juice, tonic water, and a sort of shrub. Shrub is a sweetened vinegar syrup that dates from Colonial times; mine uses lime juice instead of vinegar.

Cucumber juice:

Peel cucumbers and remove the seeds (which contribute bitterness) by scooping out the centers with a spoon. Blend and strain through a mesh strainer, pressing on the solids.


Cucumber pulp
Cucumber pulp.

Strained cucumber pulp
Cucumber pulp, strained, gelatin added.

Frozen cucumber pulp
Cucumber pulp, strained, frozen.

Cucumber juice

Cucumber pulp strained, frozen, strained - cucumber juice.

To further clarify, strain through cheesecloth several times or add a little dissolved gelatin - bloom a couple pinches of gelatin in a spoonful of cold water, heat it up to melt the gelatin, stir it into the cucumber juice, freeze the whole thing, and then thaw it in a strainer over a bowl in the fridge. As it thaws, the gelatin will bundle up the solids so that what thaws is just juice. If you use too much gelatin, it will stay too Jello-like when it thaws.

Juniper-blueberry-lime shrub:

Grind a spoonful of juniper berries.

Crush fresh blueberries lightly in a pan, heating over low heat until they darken and start to release their juices. Add a few spoonfuls of sugar - it depends on how many blueberries you're using, but you don't need a lot since the tonic water is sweetened - and the juniper berries and stir until the blueberries are fairly juicy. Remove from heat, let cool to room temp, and add an amount of lime juice equal in volume to the blueberries.

Let sit for a little bit, then strain. Chill.

Vir-Gin and Tonic:

Combine equal amounts cucumber juice, tonic water, and shrub. You get the tang of the blueberry and lime, the freshness of the fruits and cucumber, and the piney note of the juniper matching the bitter quinine of the tonic water. This is a "mocktail" that's more than an afterthought.

Vir-Gin and Tonic; Spiced Butter Rum and Coke
Vir-Gin and Tonic; Spiced Butter Rum and Coke

Spiced Butter Rum and Coke

I've talked about fat-washing before. Those flavor compounds which are fat-soluble are also alcohol-soluble; therefore, combine fat and alcohol, wait, and then remove the fat, and the flavor from the fat has transferred to the alcohol. This is why citrus liqueurs with a true fruit flavor are so much easier to make than other fruit liqueurs, for instance - because the flavor of the rind, the smell of the fruit, is contained in its oil, whereas the flavor of an apple or a grape is primarily water-soluble (which is why we ferment the juices to make brandy and wine, more often than we use them in infusions).

Bacon bourbon in Bacon Old Fashioneds gets a lot of buzz, because the internet loves bacon, but brown butter is more interesting to me. Brown butter is simply butter heated in a pan until it stops foaming and sizzling, at which point the milk solids have browned, giving it a richer, deeper flavor.

Heat a couple tablespoons of butter accordingly, and let the brown butter cool (it will be very hot). Add to a cup of rum and a long pepper, cover, and wait about four days.

The easiest way to strain anything fat-washed is to put it in the freezer, so that the fat becomes very solid, and then pour it through a mesh strainer or cheesecloth. I allowed a few bits of butter fat to remain in the spiced butter rum because I like the effect of butter flecks on the surface of the drink.

Long pepper is really, really awesome. Chile pepper and black pepper eclipsed it in part because it's harder to grind than they are, but for centuries it was a major commodity in the spice trade. The flavor is more complex than even the best black peppercorn - the heat of black pepper, but with a pronounced fruity fragrance, pronounced enough that it's the dominant smell even in this drink. The pepper heat is mainly in the aftertaste, and it blends in perfectly with Coca-Cola's botanicals (which are nearly as numerous as gin's). The butter adds richness that goes well with the sweetness of the soda, without the mouthfeel of actual hot buttered rum.

Add spiced buttered rum to cold Coca-Cola to taste - I suggest a shot of 1 1/2 ounces in a rocks glass of Coke. Normally I add lime juice to rum and Coke; I wouldn't add acidity here, with the butter flavor.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Farmstands, 8/20/2012

I always used to say that the thing about produce in New England is you wait all year and then it comes all at once. Thing is, I was exaggerating - New England's fruit and vegetable seasons are as well-defined as those of Louisiana or Indiana, they're just very very short, and if you ignore strawberries and rhubarb as early outliers, they're compressed into a tiny slice of the year.

This year I'm not exaggerating. Everything is available at once. Corn, tomatoes, apples, blueberries, grapes, melons - it's all cowboys and dinosaurs, it's all compressed together. It's kind of weird.

This weekend Lull's and Kimball's had everything they had last time, plus a couple more varieties of apples, plus grapes - no Concord grapes yet, but Kimball's has their other varieties, which are my favorite thing about summer after tomatoes and sour cherries.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012


I forgot to three weeks ago - maybe four?  Anyway, at that date, Kimballs had sour cherries - the only time I have found locally grown sour cherries.  Heaven!

Today's farmstand report, Lull's - everything's coming up!  August is the real summer up here:

Heirloom tomatoes
Local potatoes - I got Red Norland:

Red Norland Augusta:

Augusta and Purple Viking:

Purple Viking Local melon, including watermelon, honeydew, canary, that one that looks like a delicata squash, and muskmelon spp.

Local corn, including Mirai. Caitlin, we'll pick up Mirai this weekend and make atole mirai.

Early apples, including Jersey Macs, Ginger Gold, Paula Red, and Gravensteins. Jersey Macs aren't worth the bother but Gravensteins are great (and not grown much outside of California).

I asked about wild blueberries, but was told they didn't have any, which seems weird.

It's tomato pie season, tomato sandwich season, okra and tomatoes season, and almost succotash season! Holy cats.

Monday, August 13, 2012

black sesame pudding

Black sesame pudding

Black sesame pudding.

Black sesame tastes a lot like regular sesame, but the differences are pretty profound - the black seeds are a little floral, even a little perfumey.  I was thrilled to see black sesame paste at Super 88 in Allston last year, and usually use it for noodles. But both black and white sesame are frequently used in sweets, too, and here I made a very basic but very rich pudding.

I don't have amounts, because I eyeballed it and tasted and adjusted as I was cooking, but the idea is simple:

Beat two egg yolks together. In a small cup, dissolve a pinch of gelatin in a couple spoonfuls of cold milk.

Heat about a cup of milk with a couple spoonfuls of sugar.  When the sugar is dissolved and the milk is steaming, add a couple spoonfuls of black sesame paste and stir. It won't get fully incorporated yet, most likely. Add some of the hot milk mixture to the egg yolks to temper them, then add the eggs and the dissolved gelatin to the pan. Heat, constantly stirring, until the pudding thickens, and then blend it (or use a hand mixer) to make sure the black sesame paste is fully incorporated.

I still make salsa the same basic way I have for almost ten years - I combine fresh and cooked ingredients, because what I want in salsa is a texture that'll stick to chips.

Diced onions and chiles cooked in just a little oil, with tomato puree and salt added - cooked until it's thick. In this case I added a little cucumber juice, because I happened to have extra, which is the subject of another post. If you want a more elegant salsa, you can strain the tomato puree; I usually don't.

Meanwhile, fresh corn kernels just off the cob, chopped fresh tomato, fresh culantro, and fresh Texas tarragon, are tossed together in a jar.

The tomato puree is added to the fresh ingredients, and the head softens the fresh ingredients just enough, while thickening the whole mix.

Mac and cheese, Fritos and salsa

Served here with Fritos, and homemade macaroni and cheese.

tomato soup

Tomato soup

It's tomato soup season.

I halved tomatoes and scooped the seed pulp out, while roasting summer squash and corn kernels in the oven.

Chopped up some onion and carrot and cooked them with a little butter and flour until the onions had softened. Added the tomato halves, salt, and zaatar (a seasoning blend with sesame seeds, sumac, and thyme). Cooked, covered, until the carrots are cooked through. Blended. Strained. Returned to the pot, cooked down a little until it tasted right, and added a pat of butter.

After ladling the soup into bowls, it's the garnish that makes it more interesting: roasted corn kernels, slices of roasted summer squash, sprigs of purslane, the reserved tomato seed pulp, and a drizzle of scallion oil.  (Blend scallions and oil together; heat briefly until it sizzles; cool and strain.)

It took five medium tomatoes for two servings (plus one small onion and one small carrot).

Friday, August 3, 2012

In my life outside the kitchen, I'm a writer with a few history degrees, plugging away at history textbooks and reference books while working on an epic fantasy trilogy set in the Progressive Era. I read a lot, is what I'm getting at. I emphasize the role of food in history and history in food in this blog sometimes, and I think you can tell a pretty long story talking about almost any meal. There are a few common themes in my thinking about food and history - the role of cultural contact and global trade in influencing cooking habits, the fairly recent origin of "traditional" foods, the myth that there is no American cuisine ... come to think of it, all of these are variations on a discussion of authenticity in food, which I guess makes sense.

But one of the food matters I most often write about professionally, just because I so often get assignments that deal with prehistory and the dawn of civilization, is grain.

Grain is the basis of civilization. That's not an exaggeration or a metaphor. Cultivating grains - wheat, barley, millet, rice - was the single action that turned human groups from nomadic hunter-gatherer societies to city-dwellers. You grow grain, you can store it in a granary without having to salt it, smoke it, pickle it, or dry it. It has minerals, it has a little protein, it has starch for calories - you can get by on much less meat and vegetables when you use them to supplement a grain diet, and you can turn just about any grain into a porridge suitable for infants and sick people, which is an attribute the value of which might be difficult to understand in a modern developed nation.

This is a photo of a pumpkin because people like blog posts that are broken up by photos.

You plant your grain, you build a hut nearby to sleep in, you harvest it, and you're okay for the winter. Pretty soon you've figured out bread, which uses wild yeast to transform pounded grain into a versatile foodstuff, and beer, which is what happens when bread gets wet enough long enough. It takes less work to support a village on a grain-dependent diet than on hunting and gathering, so you have all this available labor, which leads to tool-making, religion, mathematics, art, and engineering.

When you have enough surplus grain, you can use it as livestock feed, which is kind of a weird development in the history of raising animals: the purpose, the utility, of a cow or sheep to a human society is that it takes the energy of grass and turns it into something humans can consume - milk or meat. Humans can't digest grass, but ruminants - cattle, sheep, goats, camels, buffalo, moose, deer, llamas, all of which have been raised for this purpose by one human civilization or another - possess a compartmentalized stomach that breaks down cellulose into fatty acids. (The main advantage of livestock feed - long before the relevant advantage was that it let you raise enormous numbers of animals in a very small space - is that it lets you feed livestock in a cold climate without migrating with them to a southern grassy area. So, again: we built this city on rock and rye.) The modern meat industry is associated with disgusting excesses, horrific practices, and egregious wastes of resources, but the innovation of raising animals for meat was an almost Eulerian feat of beauty: the land provides us with numerous forms of plant energy; we tend and cultivate those we can consume, and harvest them directly; we graze animals on those we cannot consume, and harvest them indirectly. Pretty remarkable given that our meat-eating originated as a scavenging behavior, as we munched on what the lions left behind.

This centrality of grain to the origins of nearly every human civilization is still obvious today - one of the first things you notice in a new cuisine is the type of grain culture it comes from. Some are rice cultures, like in much of Asia or South Carolina. Some are wheat cultures, like in much of Europe, or potato cultures, like in Peru.

We are coming to the point.

You also have corn cultures, which gets interesting. Corn is indigenous to the New World, and the corn cultures which are likewise indigenous are nixtamalized corn cultures. Nixtamalization is a process that makes corn easier to digest and converts its niacin to free niacin, which the body can absorb; without these innovations, a chronic lack of niacin can lead to the malnutrition condition pellagra. Nixtamalized corn products include masa and hominy, and therefore tamales, tortillas, etc - the staple grains of Mexican cooking. In the grits belt - the part of the American South where corn is the staple starch - the corn used for grits was commonly nixtamalized (I don't know if it was a universal practice) in the antebellum era, and less commonly after that, which is why southerners faced a pellagra epidemic at the turn of the century, when more southerners lived on corn, molasses, and salt pork than didn't. (And clay. Clay eating was common because it answered the body's need for iron.) The corn used for cornmeal, corn mush, sausage filler, and more industrial products like corn syrup or corn starch is not nixtamalized; neither, obviously, is corn eaten in kernel form, whether on the cob or from the can.

We are even closer to the point.
This is me at Disney World in 1981.

Grain culture has an impact on alcohol culture, because fermentation originated as a method of preserving nutrients, especially in cold climates. Anyone who insisted on trying a can of Campbell's Scotch Broth soup as a kid will be unsurprised to think of Scotland as a barley culture, and Scotch whisky reflects that - barley grains are germinated, which turns starch into sugar, which is fermented into a sort of beer, which is then distilled into whisky. (Beer is low enough in alcohol that it won't keep as long as distilled liquor, which is virtually impervious to anything but evaporation and spillage; hops added to beer act as a preservative. Wine doesn't have this problem because it's made with fruit, which is naturally high in sugar, resulting in a higher-alcohol final product.)

But barley isn't a staple crop in the New World, and whiskey makers here turned to ... corn.  Despite the rye resurgence, which only slightly impacts the mid-shelf price point and is mostly a top-shelf phenomenon, American whiskey is made with corn, supplemented with wheat (smooth and sweet) and rye (spicy).  Thankfully, pellagra is a non-issue with corn whiskey, because if you were to try to subsist on it you would run into larger problems much more swiftly than you could cultivate a niacin deficiency. This relationship between traditional grains and distilling is why American whiskey has predominantly been made in the South (and the historical "western frontier," i.e. western Pennsylvania - home of the Whiskey Rebellion - New York State, the Midwest, etc) while the northeast made rum from triangle-trade molasses.


This is my cat playing with a dog in 1991.


This year we face a ridiculously severe and widespread drought, the sort that would be much more on your mind if the last seventy years had not distanced us so greatly from the processes of food production. As much as I think corn subsidies are destructive - they make corn syrup a cheaper ingredient for industrial food production than sugar, which itself is already cheaper than molasses, which was once a mineral-rich staple food for the poor because it's an accident of sugar production; they divert resources from other crops; they encourage overuse of corn syrup in numerous food products that never used to have added sweeteners; and they are exploited primarily by large businesses that don't need them, rather than the small farmers they were introduced to preserve - we whiskey drinkers will benefit from them as they cushion the impact of the impending corn shortage that will result from this summer (and many hot summers to come).

We'll benefit a tiny bit, anyway. Unfortunately, this corn shortage comes at a time when there is already a bourbon shortage. That second shortage was inevitable: interest in whiskey has increased sharply in the last decade, and whiskey is an aged product, which means it's risky to ramp up production (which is inherently long-term) in response to what could have been a short-term spike in demand. By the time it became clear the increase in demand was long-term, supplies of aged bourbon were running low. It will take time to catch up to that, and a shortage of corn makes it much more difficult and much more expensive to do so.

So - and this is the point - celebrate your corn culture, buy a bottle of $25 whiskey before it's a bottle of $35 whiskey, add a couple ice cubes, some bitters, a couple Montmorency cherries, and some sugar, and try to cool off.