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Filtering by Category: Fat Of The Land

Fat of The Land - Like Pepper for Pepper

Sarah West

Most people who went to grade school in the United States know that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. As I remember it, he was hired by the king of Spain to sail farther west than anyone before him had (anyone, that is, on 15th Century Europe’s radar) and to settle, once and for all, the age-old argument over whether the earth was round or flat. In third grade, that logic was good enough for me. And, becoming something of a Columbus Day protestor in my teenage years (after my brother read a book called, Lies My Teacher Told Me, that detailed all the atrocities Columbus unleashed upon the New World), I put the whole story on the back shelf.

Years later, I picked up a library book on the spice trade (Spice: The History of a Temptation, by Jack Turner), where I promptly learned that Columbus headed west not to solve some existential puzzle, but for the very practical reason of securing a more direct trade route to import black pepper from India. He did it for two reasons that sound jarringly familiar to our contemporary minds: money and ego.

Pepper, that uber-ordinary seasoning we take completely for granted, was as precious as gold in Columbus’ day—a sign of wealth, a highly valued commodity in very short supply, a craze. Men lost their lives fetching pepper, and everyone thought it was worth it. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Silk Road became too dangerous for commerce, so the Portuguese (who monopolized the spice trade at the time) took to the sea, rounding the horn of Africa in order to reach the pepper-producing coast of southern India. Spain was looking to outdo their northern rival by finding a shortcut.

When Columbus landed in the Bahamas, he thought it was (or close enough to) the East Indies. And when, in keeping with his plan, he looked for black pepper, he came upon chiles. Of those arresting fruits he and his fellow explorers found in such profusion, one crewmember wrote: “In those islands there are also bushes like rose bushes, which make fruit as long as cinnamon, full of small grains as biting as [Asian] pepper; those Caribs and the Indians eat that fruit like we eat apples.”

Our modern palates separate the two peppers by a wide margin—black pepper is floral, pleasantly bitter, stinging the tongue with a quick zing only when eaten in excess; chile peppers are fruity, acidic, sour, often sweet, with a sensation we call heat that ranges from a mild tingle to something akin to the mind-altering hammer of a white-hot brand. Europeans had trouble with chiles (and still do), though hot peppers found a home at the margins—Eastern Europe’s paprika, Southern Europe’s spicy sauces and cured meats.

Where it’s hard to imagine that chile peppers were only introduced a mere 500 years ago is nearly everyplace else: Korea, India, Thailand, Ethiopia, China, and Senegal, to name a few famously spicy Diasporas. These cultures quickly adopted the chile pepper as their own, exploring its wealth of genetic traits and producing a mind-boggling collection of new varieties (one that continues to grow today). At a recent count, there were 79 distinct varieties passing under the umbrella of “Thai pepper,” a barometer that helps to translate the enormity of chile pepper diversity.

Then, of course, there is Mexico—the chile’s homeland and where its role in the cuisine is still, arguably, the most refined. Believed to be one of the first domesticated plants, chiles, along with corn and squash, constituted a mainstay of the Central American diet. From my own quasi-European perspective (averse, I hesitate to admit, to all but modest chili pepper heat), I’ve never thought of chiles as more than a seasoning. Like the black pepper they are named for, chiles unquestionably add dimension to a dish, but not substance, not weight. I did try to make myself more tolerant of them once, devoting an entire summer to cooking progressively spicier dishes until the persistent heartburn and other unpleasant side effects forced me to admit defeat. But even then, they were an addition, an adornment, a very small percentage of a dish’s overall volume; not at all, as that Spanish sailor reported, like apples.

But he (and the sophisticated cuisine he observed) was right. The first time I fully appreciated chiles in their own rite was when I watched friends make red mole from scratch. The pile of dried chiles and their seeds—toasted separately and ground together with water, warming spices, and nuts; thickened by hours of stirring and simmering; and at the very end, finished with dark chocolate—was, to my eyes, overwhelming. While process was beautiful and ritualistic, I wasn’t entirely sure I would be able to eat the results. But the sauce, only mildly spicy, exuded a graceful, effortless richness that compelled me to keep spooning it into my mouth, that fed both my simple, daily hunger and the one that no apple has ever quite quenched: the hunger for enchantment, for transformation, for food that drops an anchor and lingers, warmly, long after the meal is finished.

Sarah West is a gardener, eater and admirer of the agricultural arts. She gladly spends her Sundays as assistant manager of the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market, basking in the richness of its producers’ bounty and its community’s energy. Find archives and more at http://thefatofthelandblog.wordpress.com.

Fat Of The Land - Who Is Jimmy Nardello?

Sarah West

And Other Travels Through The Sweet Pepper Patch

Say the word pepper and one of two things likely comes to mind: the table shaker filled with black and gray dust, and the flamingly red and famously spicy crop we either crave or avoid, depending on our culinary disposition. Thirdly, some of our minds may drift to that molar of a fruit, glossy and green as spring grass: the bell pepper. In a typical North American produce aisle, it (and its yellow, orange, red, and purple siblings) is the sole pepper not relegated to the ‘ethnic’ produce section and the only one I tasted until a shamefully late age. ≈I grew up in the Germanic and Scandinavian influenced cuisine of the upper Midwest, but that is not an entirely sufficient explanation. Peppers, imported to Europe from the Caribbean and Central America by Columbus and his successors, spread widely through the well-established trade routes of the time, each culinary tradition choosing what they liked from the pepper’s plentiful genetic archive. Though northern Europeans are certainly not known for their peppers, they ate them, more often as dried powders (paprika) or as immature (green or yellow) fruits.

I blame my pepper ignorance on my own singular obsession with the green bell—something of an anomaly in the pepper world, their mild, watery flavor and crisp texture yields easily to nearby flavors. I used them often as a budding young cook in the few recipes I’d successfully mastered. It took a lot of practice to build the confidence needed to branch out, and until then I had no reference point for the nuance and diversity of pepper flavor, no clue at all as to what I was missing.

The first pepper that really stumped me was the Jimmy Nardello. It turned everything I thought I knew about peppers inside out, hung it to dry under an unfamiliar and illuminating sun. These skinny things, bright and lustrous red, looked like a sleeve of capsicum fire. “They’re not hot,” I was told, but my eyes, after years of dedicated chili pepper avoidance, refused to believe it. I cooked a few up, alone in the frying pan as I was instructed. Their thin walls softened quickly, their delicate skin blistered into oil-crisped bubbles, their sizzle unleashed soft, cherry-scented steam.

They were not hot. What spice they had was the citrusy kind, pinching their expansive flavor with compassionate sharpness. The rest was full-throated, candy sweetness and a quality of fruit deeper and darker than the best tomato. That enlightened moment led to many other fried Jimmies, to pickled Jimmies (my favorite), to roasted and grilled Jimmies. My freezer always has a bag of sliced raw Jimmies to add to off-season sauces and stews.

Jimmy Nardello himself would also dry his family’s now famous pepper, strung and hung in the shed for winter the way his mother, Angela Nardiello, likely taught him. Inheritor of her family’s slender red frying pepper, she brought its seeds with her when she immigrated from the southern Italian town of Ruoti to the United States in 1887. Jimmy was her fourth son and the one, if legend holds true, that was most interested in gardening. He kept the family pepper alive until he died in 1983.

Lucky for us, Jimmy shared his beloved peppers with the newly founded Seed Savers Exchange not long before his death. In the subsequent thirty-two years, they’ve become something of a cult sensation—seducing gardeners, small-scale growers, and in-the-know home cooks and chefs with their alluring set of traits. As easy and productive in the garden as they are quick and straightforward to prepare, I was not the first to be swayed by a single bite.

I have made other discoveries since then. Red bell peppers, with their diluted sweetness and juicy flesh, have nothing on the pimiento. A pepper type usually associated with Spain, these plump, round fruits (also called cherry peppers) have unusually thick walls for their size, their flavor a mix of Jimmy Nardello richness and caramelized sugar. Though they are traditionally dried and ground into sweet (or smoked) paprika, they are one of my favorite peppers to eat raw.

Then there are the roasting peppers, Italian in origin (going by the name Marconi), perfected most recently by Oregon’s Wild Garden Seed, with variety names like ‘Stocky Red Rooster,’ or ‘Gatherer’s Gold.’ Bred for oven and fire roasting, they peel with relative ease, leaving behind meaty strips of tender, delicious flesh. Northern gardeners appreciate their ability to ripen in quantity despite a climate that is not always accommodating to this tropical native.

My favorite pepper color is now red, though the realm of the sweet pepper is host to many flavorful greens. Shishito, small frying peppers with undulating walls are best sautéed whole with oil and salt, and make a delicious drinking snack. Yellow wax peppers (also called banana peppers)—looking like a pale yellow, bulked up Jimmy Nardello—are tangy and bright, good raw or cooked, though if you’re expecting something mild, don’t confuse them with their spicier look-alikes, Hungarian Wax or Pepperoncini.

I was a toddler when Jimmy Nardello died, but I get to smell his kitchen each time I fry up a batch of the slender, transcendent peppers that bear his name. I still cook green bells when a favorite recipe calls for them, though I find myself delighted more often by the more particular pepper personalities, the ones that shine like a badge of someone else’s devotion and perseverance. Through flavors we can travel, and in this endeavor, the pepper—hot or sweet—is a vehicle so precise it can deliver us to one family’s garden, terraced more than a hundred years ago at the ankle of Italy’s boot.

Sarah West is a gardener, eater and admirer of the agricultural arts. She gladly spends her Sundays as assistant manager of the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market, basking in the richness of its producers’ bounty and its community’s energy. Find archives and more at http://thefatofthelandblog.wordpress.com.

The Fat of The Land - Melon

Sarah West

ii

If summer could be concentrated into one single dish, it would be a wedge of dripping red watermelon. The flavor equivalent of jumping into a lake—cool, refreshing, slightly vegetal—watermelon is an antidote for hot days. Blue whale of the fruit world, it takes a village to eat a full-size watermelon, so we gather around them at picnics, potlucks, and parties. I, for one, never tire of the show: the huge green fruit, the big knife, the rocking, the crack as it splits, the smell of cucumbers and sugar, the firecracker red.

Most of the year, I avoid melon—those ubiquitous fruit salads that adorn lunch and brunch plates year-round—because the fruits must be picked under-ripe in order to survive the journey from Central America and California. Melons get their sugar on the vine; while some of their flavor components continue to develop after they’ve been harvested, they don’t get any sweeter. Melons picked with shipping and storage in mind are soulless things—watery, rigid, and bland.

Member of the cucurbit family, melons are cousins to squash, zucchini, and cucumbers. Although the exact location varies by species, melons are generally believed to have originated in Africa, where they were one of the first domesticated plant foods (they have been in cultivation for an estimated 7,000 years). From there, they spread by human dispersal to India, the Mediterranean rim, the Middle East, and Persia, and, slightly later, to China, Southeast Asia, Japan, and Eastern Europe.

Ancient people dined on melons for some of the same reasons we still do today. Seventy- to ninety-percent water by weight, melons are like botanical pop cans, and those ancestral species had a knack for drawing water up from underground springs, imbuing it with flavor and (a few) calories, and storing it safely within an orb of thick waxy skin. Their presence signaled an invisible oasis, and their tart flesh offered desert people a much-needed source of hydration.

The first melons were not sweet, and thus were treated more like vegetables in the various culinary traditions that adopted them, cooked in stews or sliced and served raw as a salad, dressed with spices and vinegar. Over time, sweet-fleshed mutations appeared and growers began selecting for this appealing trait.

With sweetness also came fragrance. Italian orange-fleshed melons grown in the papal summer residence of Cantalupo were favored by generations of popes and their gardeners, a popularity that traveled to other outposts of the Catholic heirarchy. These cantaloupes, as they were called, reached their pinnacle in the Provencal village of Cavaillon, which became famous for melons that exuded fragrance as thick and floral as jasmine. These unique melons still stir feverish mania among Cavaillon locals and visitors alike. Known as Charentais melons, a name that clings to them from a stint in the slightly more northerly region of Charente where this particular melon strain was purportedly first developed, their soul still belongs to Cavaillon.

In our country, cantaloupes are a far cry from their European brethren. The variety we know as cantaloupe is not even in the same botanical group. An orange-fleshed muskmelon, American cantaloupes can also be sweet and fragrant, but they often aren’t so for reasons of distribution and storage. That makes the farmers market the best place to buy top quality melons—the sort that made generations of pharaohs, emperors and kings want more, and captivated the tastebuds of three continents long before the Old World bumped into the New.

Though most of us have gorged on countless melons without hesitation or thought, knowing how to shop for one is not usually so intuitive. Cantaloupe-types are easier: since they “slip” from the vine once their sugars are fully developed, they should not have a stem (if so, they were picked to early). The stem end should be fragrant when sniffed, the skin below their bumpy reliefs a pale tan, not green. Watermelons and honeydew offer fewer clues, as they do not slip from the vine or exude fragrance outside their rind. Look first for the ground spot, the discolored area where the melon was in contact with the soil—it should be pale yellow, not green or white. Then, give the fruit a sturdy knock. If the sound seems to travel back from inside the fruit (implying hollowness) the flesh is ready; if the thud stays right where you’ve knocked it, put the melon back.

All melons benefit from a day or two’s rest on the kitchen counter. Although they will not get any sweeter, other components of the melon’s flavor (and nutritional value) continue to develop at room temperature. Don’t store them in the refrigerator, which is too cold to allow flavor components to synthesize, until you’ve sliced them open, at which point they’re ready to chill a bit before eating or store for a few days, if they last that long.

Sarah West is a gardener, eater and admirer of the agricultural arts. She gladly spends her Sundays as assistant manager of the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market, basking in the richness of its producers’ bounty and its community’s energy. Find archives and more at http://thefatofthelandblog.wordpress.com.

The Fat of The Land - Gilding The Chicken

Sarah West


Photo courtesy of Kookoolan Farms

I have grown used to berries that cost almost $4 a pint, eggs that teeter between $6 and $7 a dozen, ground beef or lamb that rings in around $5 a serving. I exclusively seek out (sometimes) pricy farmers market vegetables, not because of their expense or any illusion of status it implies, but because I so deeply crave their exquisite freshness I’m reluctant to settle for the same item from even the best grocery store. I’m not rolling in expendable income (I work for a farmers market!), but I choose to weave these sometimes-extra costs into my monthly budget, giving up other luxuries (cable TV, a car from the 21st century, good wine), for the ability to transform the abstract numbers of my bank account into the tangible wealth of authentic food.

For all my acceptance of higher food prices (which one could—and should—argue are closer to the real cost of food), I still gasp at the price of a pasture-raised chicken. Knowing that the chicken was happy and free, fed good food and allowed to nibble on forage and insects while roaming under the nourishing sun, that it was compassionately slaughtered and minimally processed to arrive in the cooler at my feet with as much flavor and nutrition as possible, just doesn’t completely remove the sting of its $30 price tag. I want to buy it, but the penny-pinching core of me rejects it, wonders why it costs so much and how it could possibly be worth it.

Life is about tradeoffs. Even within the terms we set for ourselves, we reach a limit to what we’ll accept: maybe pasture-raised chicken is mine, though I suspect it’s not that simple. Chicken holds tightly in our minds to its status as the everyman’s protein: healthy, abundant, and cheap. It has not, in recent history, held distinction in mainstream American culture, as does a prime cut of beef or a filet of salmon. Rather, low-priced chicken has begun to feel like something of a birthright to most meat-eating Americans, myself, apparently, included.

Almost all of the chicken purchased in the US is the product of factory farms, warehouses packed with upwards of 20,000 birds, too crowded to do much of anything in their short, filth-ridden lives than eat antibiotic-laced food that keeps them well enough to survive to a decent slaughter weight. In a factory farm scenario, it takes about two pounds of feed to produce a pound of chicken meat. Contrast that with the four pounds of feed (and extended growth period) for one pound of pasture-raised chicken meat, or the seven pounds of feed required for a pound of beef.

The motivation behind the last century’s unprecedented rise in mass chicken production is not difficult to see. Through factory farming innovations, chicken became a protein we could efficiently produce, that found the sweet spot every industry aspires to: good return on investment and a market demand that grew with production capability. As factory farms got better at churning out huge numbers of chickens, consumers were happy to buy them (and, because of their lean muscle, health experts were eager to advocate for them), driving the price of chicken staggeringly low (in the early 2000’s, the average price per pound was around a dollar, now it’s usually double that, still $3-$7 less per pound than its pasture-raised counterpart).

Cheap chicken production comes with hidden costs: environmental costs in the form of heavy pollution near factory farm sites, ethical costs when we must mistreat an animal in order to increase the economic return of raising it, social costs from the loss of family farm diversity and contracted workers tangled in a modern-day form of indentured servitude. And the chicken this system produces is dangerous. Consumer Reports recently conducted a survey that found raw chicken from all major brands had moderate to high levels of food pathogen contamination, including many strains known to be resistant to antibiotics. Even when properly handled and cooked, public health experts estimate that such chicken, still inside its packaging, can potentially transfer enough trace bacteria to make you sick (read more here).

Yet, fear and distrust of one product doesn’t necessarily create desire for another, as with my aversion to $30 chickens. I don’t buy the $8 chickens, either. Perception of value creates desire for a product, and that is a hurdle many well-meaning consumers still need to cross. For starters, we must forget almost everything we thought we knew about chicken—that it’s cheap and abundant and that we deserve it to be so, that its meat is soft and flavorless, that it comes in boneless, skinless segments from which we can no longer identify it as an animal.

We need to rediscover chicken as a whole-animal food, one with depth. Covered and slow-cooked, the firmer muscles of a pasture-raised chicken baste in their own nutritious fat, resulting in tender, flavorful meat and golden-crisp skin (if uncovered for the last ten minutes of its cooking time). The cartilage-rich carcass (especially the feet, if you’re not ready to eat them outright just yet) creates one of the most sultry broths known to the stock pot, rich in minerals and nutrients. All of the chicken’s major organs, save the liver (the bulk of which usually arrive in a neat, if mysterious, packet inside a good quality chicken cavity), enrich the broth or, if cooked as their own simple stock and added to the pan sauce, make delicious gravy.

What chicken needs is ceremony, the sort that changes how it appears to us at the market and on our plates. It comes out of a skilled cook’s oven gilded and steaming aromas as thick and rich as a velvet robe, right there before our eyes, but we have stopped recognizing its royalty. Maybe that $30 price tag is just the sort of stake we need in the game. Maybe less for more is also—when it comes to flavor, food and environmental safety, human and animal welfare—just plain more.

Sarah West is a gardener, eater and admirer of the agricultural arts. She gladly spends her Sundays as assistant manager of the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market, basking in the richness of its producers’ bounty and its community’s energy. Find archives and more at http://thefatofthelandblog.wordpress.com.

The Fat of The Land - Pollinators

Sarah West

As gardeners, we tend to think in terms of outcome, working to create an abundance of nourishing food, beauty, color, fragrance, liveliness, or serenity. We give to the garden in the form of compost, amendments, time, and water in order to receive again. It is a well-practiced agreement, one that stretches deeper into our history than written language. Underlying that bargain, or perhaps punctuating it, is the clause of partnership.

Numerous are the hazards that await a newly sprouted seed. As all creatures of the earth, it must struggle and endure, fitted with a biology prepared for some of the hardships that may come. Even so, destinies are not always attained, and those that are owe their victory, in part, to the efforts of others.

Pollinators seem the perfect metaphor for the everyman: one vote is all she gets, one voice of action. And while the pollinator is rarely glamorous or exceptional, his collective work has great influence. From the perspective of our species alone, pollinators are vital to our food supply—75% of food crops rely on pollinators for fertilization, while 100% benefit from the efforts of predatory or parasitic insects.

Known as ‘beneficial insects,’ these myriad species invisibly protect our fields and gardens. Syrphid flies, a fly in bee costume also known as a hover fly, snacks on pollen and nectar as an adult and hatches larvae that eat aphids, thrips, and other soft-bodied plant pests. Ladybeetle larvae have a voracious appetite for aphids, which the adults maintain at a slower but steady pace. Parasitic wasps lay their eggs on sap-sucking insect bodies that their larvae parasitize, eating the insides as they grow, leaving behind empty aphid husks as they pupate.

Such humble work is invaluable to any gardener, especially one wishing to avoid chemical pesticides. And for those that desire their trees to bow with branches heavy in fruit, for their squash patch to proliferate, or their berry harvests to boom, pollinators are irreplaceable partners. Diversity of pollinators means more bodies carrying pollen around the garden or field, and translates to increased yields of higher quality fruits.

Outside our cultivated spaces, the same results apply. Although we tend to think of honeybees when we talk nectar and pollen, native insects account for 80% or more of a given area’s total pollination. Honeybees, an introduced species, are useful for their colonizing habits. We can keep them in controlled hives and transport them from field to field in the orchestrated pollination of large crops. But in our gardens and natural areas, native pollinators do the lion’s share of the work, maintaining production as they maintain plant species diversity.

This arrangement reveals a compelling law of attraction. The equation is simple: what you give to eventually wants to give back. To nurture those who nurture you is a smart move on the evolutionary scale, one to which we have given a name and that we carry on in our own human terms: kindness.

Entering this positive feedback loop and being kind to your pollinators means planting the food they are accustomed to and providing the habitat the need. Many native bees nest in the soil, so leaving some undisturbed ground and plant debris (think sticks and leaves) means protecting nests. Native insects have evolved to eat native plant nectar and pollen; growing these species in clusters large enough to be noticed will attract native pollinators into your garden. Keep in mind that native pollinators are active all but the coldest months of the year; providing blooms spring through fall means feeding a diverse range of species with different hatching times.

There are many online resources from which to learn more about serving native insects by adjusting your gardening practices. A good place to start is the Xerces Society (www.xerces.org), a local organization that performs research, writes books and free publications (including plant lists and tips for gardeners), and advocates for these necessary species.

Sarah West is a gardener, eater and admirer of the agricultural arts. She gladly spends her Sundays as assistant manager of the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market, basking in the richness of its producers’ bounty and its community’s energy. Find archives and more at http://thefatofthelandblog.wordpress.com.

The Fat Of The Land - Kitchen Dispatch: Tomatoes

Sarah West

Tomatoes are the darlings of the main-season garden—their aromatic foliage smells fervently of summer, and it is from that radiant tangle our favorite fruits emerge in colors and combinations seemly without limit. In truth, tomato plants grow like weeds, flopping and out of control. While we struggle to hold them to their trellising, they take their time setting green fruits that hang for what always feels too long before the first hints of ripening appear. Slowly, with a storyteller’s patience, they become our imaginings—a mythology months in the making that we pluck, relishing its smooth realness all the way to the kitchen.

What a show they put on, grandly occupying vast stretches of small gardens from May to October, only to offer relatively minor bounty (especially with the larger heirloom varieties) compared to a succession of root and salad crops. Some years I must forgo tomatoes in my tiny backyard garden for the sake of rotation. But the tomato summers are always my favorite, and it is always worth their theatrics for this meal: a just-picked tomato carried in the gardener’s hand; zesty foliage and fruit’s rich perfume mingling.

Summer is ripe when tomatoes line the kitchen counter, spoils of market or garden awaiting transformation. Few countertop residents cause as much anxiety—truly vine-ripened tomatoes arrive already plump and soft, needing action. We know how to slice and dress them with basil and oil, slabs of fresh mozzarella. We know they make effortless sandwiches (now is the time for BLT’s), salads, and pizza toppings. We know they are perfect unadorned save a bright pinch of salt.

When we have done all that and the curiosity wants to stretch further, find new territory, tomatoes not only await, they demand our ingenuity. And what is more versatile than these sweet and savory globes? Melting or meaty, sour or satiny, their flavor easily concentrates or thins, and resonates with nearly anything the garden can throw at it. Like an agile partner, they know the tunes, they have the moves; we simply need to turn on the music.

Tomatoes respond well to slow heat, their moisture reduces, sugars develop, without wiping out all of the fresh fruit’s complexity. Slow roasted tomatoes are delicious simply atop a slice of fresh bread, but hold their own among heartier dishes like braised lentils, grilled meats, eggs, or buttery tarts. Paste, plum, seedless, or ox-heart type tomatoes are best for cooking—their dense flesh and few seeds means they contain less watery juices that would dilute their cooked flavor.

To roast tomatoes, pick an afternoon where you have tasks around the house and set your oven to its lowest temperature. Drizzle halved or quartered tomatoes (depending on their size; thick slabs also work for larger tomatoes) generously with olive oil. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet in a single layer, cut side up, and sprinkle with salt; a small amount of sugar adds surprising fullness, and seasonings like thyme, oregano, or black pepper add depth. Stick them in the oven and forget about them until the smell becomes irresistible. Take a peak. Roast them until they are shriveled, softened, their color deepened, anywhere from 2-4 hours. Store covered in oil in the refrigerator for up to a month.

Tomato sauce can be a daylong project, or an impromptu supper, depending on your resolve. Home-preserved tomato sauce is a great treat in winter, and a long project in the heat of summer. If you do choose to go that route, consider saving the skins you've so painstakingly removed and dry them, as Amanda Hesser suggests in her book, The Cook and The Gardener, in the oven (again on its lowest setting) until they become dehydrated but pliable. Chop and use as a punchy garnish, or save in a sealed jar to add to the stockpot down the line.

Never completely savory or sweet, cooked tomatoes always end up a combination of the two. Tomato jam, an unctuous preserve for scones, tarts, or even sandwiches, displays this quality well. Made with sugar, like any jam, it is luxuriously sweet; underneath is a base strikingly green, hearkening back to the florescent scent of the garden’s tomato brambles.

Fresh tomatoes are perhaps the sweetest form of all, especially those selected for this quality: cherry, pear, grape, and zebra-striped varieties make for syrupy mouthfuls without any embellishment. Or, Deborah Madison offers this simple preparation in her book, Vegetable Literacy, using cream to play up the fruit’s natural sugar:

Warm four tablespoons of heavy cream on low heat with a clove of smashed garlic and a fresh basil leaf until it comes to a boil. Set aside to steep while you peel a selection (about ½ pound) of fresh sweet tomatoes by dropping them for ten seconds in boiling water to loosen their skins. Place them directly in ice-cold water to stop them from cooking and slip off their skins. Slice and add tomatoes to the cream and bring to a bubble for 2-3 minutes. Season with pepper and salt (she recommends smoked salt) and serve covered in breadcrumbs or over a slice of toast.

Sarah West is a gardener, eater and admirer of the agricultural arts. She gladly spends her Sundays as assistant manager of the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market, basking in the richness of its producers’ bounty and its community’s energy. Find archives and more at http://thefatofthelandblog.wordpress.com.

The Fat Of The Land-Salt

Sarah West

There is perhaps no better way to taste a sun-ripened tomato than by slicing off a thick slab and sprinkling it with salt. This ubiquitous powdered mineral is the magic wand of the kitchen—transforming and enhancing flavor, shelf life, and even texture with a pinch here, a flick of the wrist there.

In a manner of speaking, all salt in the form we know it comes from the sea: sea salt is evaporated directly from collected sea water, while much of the world’s refined table salt comes from deposits left by ancient oceans. Salt deposits that form veins in the rock are extracted though shaft mining and the resulting salts are mainly used for icy roads and agriculture. Salt beds—wider underground deposits—are extracted using solution mining, where water is pumped underground to dissolve the salt, then pumped back out and re-separated in a salt evaporation facility (most table salt is manufactured this way).

But the ocean isn’t the origin of salt, merely its concentrator. Like an enormous caldron, the ocean collects minerals eroded by rainwater from rocks on the earth’s surface, which is transported to the ocean by rivers or underwater hydrothermal vents. As ocean water evaporates, it leaves minerals like sodium chloride behind, where they concentrate. Ocean dwelling creatures use some of these minerals, such as crustaceans that need calcium for their exoskeletons or diatoms that need silica for their shells. Other minerals, mainly sodium and chloride (which constitute 85% of the dissolved minerals in sea water), appear to go unused.

Fresh water carries sodium chloride from earth to ocean, and so it contains trace amounts of salt itself. Plants also extract sodium chloride from soil deposits, though the quantity is functionally insignificant for human dietary needs. Animal meat contains slightly higher amounts of salt than vegetables, as their bodies’ cells, like our own, depend on sodium to maintain proper fluid balance, as well as nerve and muscle function.

Though diets of primarily animal protein may have provided sufficient sodium to early humans, hunter-gatherers and agrarian people alike began supplementing their diet with harvested salt as long as 10,000 years ago. The ocean was the easiest and best source, and salt was a valuable commodity for millennia of local and global trade. Inland salt could be collected at salt springs; one of the oldest known salt extraction sites is located in Romania next to a mineral spring with high salt content, a production that began around 6,050 BC.

Modern day refined salt has little in common with these ancient extractions. The refining process results in stripped down sodium chloride further treated with additives like iodine and anti-caking agents. Because all other minerals are removed, some argue, common table salt offers less nutritional benefit. Unrefined salts collected from the living sea or ancient deposits contain a vast array of subtle flavors imbued by the environment from which they are extracted—hence briny or even vegetal sea salts.

Traditional salt evaporation methods also lend salt a wide range of textures—from large, heavy crystals that sink like granules of sand to the bottom of the saltpan, to the light, crystalline flakes of salt that form near the surface. Fleur de sel, or flake salt, are the product of this former method, resulting in what is known as a finishing salt—flakes whose tender, airy crunch adds an ethereal quality to a bowl of dressed salad greens or a plate of roasted vegetables.

Salt is one of the five tastes our tongue can perceive—an appointment that seems to betray its importance in our development and well being as a species. And salt (from any source) makes food taste better by masking bitter, metallic, or chemical flavors (and therefore enhancing the perception of sweetness), balancing and concentrating flavor, and creating a perception of thickness or fullness (especially in sauces and soups). We crave not just its inherent saltiness, but also the transformative power it has on the foods we require for all other forms of nutrition.

To me, summer is the time of salt and its subtleness—to enliven garden vegetables and to make the brines that will preserve them for winter. Pinch with a light but steady hand.

Sarah West is a gardener, eater and admirer of the agricultural arts. She gladly spends her Sundays as assistant manager of the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market, basking in the richness of its producers’ bounty and its community’s energy. Find archives and more at http://thefatofthelandblog.wordpress.com.

The Fat Of The Land-Ripe

Sarah West

photo by Sarah West

At one time or another, we’ve all had the splendid experience of biting into ripe fruit—juices oozing, sweetness and aroma filling our senses, exclamations of exaltation. But to find oneself with such a fruit in hand seems, especially in the grocery aisle, like a bit of a crapshoot. For every tart, firm, or lackluster specimen, there are too few superlative ones. Shopping at the farmers’ market or growing your own helps you avoid varieties bred and cultivated for ease of shipping rather than eater satisfaction, but doesn’t guarantee countertops covered in a gallery of perfect fruits. Understanding the nuances of ripeness, and what to expect from different kinds of fruit, can help shoppers and gardeners alike become savvy gatherers.

Our ripeness training is mostly based on color: tomatoes are red, peaches are glowing orange with a blush of red, berries gleam in glossy jewel-tones. While there is some truth to this bias, it is hardly the whole story. Ripeness indicators extend beyond pigmentation, as anyone who’s grown a melon can tell you. Fruits like kiwi and pears are even more mysterious, as the majority of their ripening processes (and the associated signs) occur post-harvest.

We mean many things when we say ripe: a ripe filet bean snaps when bent, a ripe cucumber crunches tenderly and fills our mouth with vegetal sweetness. While these fruits are prime for our own culinary purposes, they are not botanically ripe. A sweet slurp of peach; a fragrant, buttery bite of cantaloupe; a tomato whose juice has the complexity of red wine: this is where our preferences and nature’s purposes intersect, resonating to become the word ripe.

From the plant’s perspective, ripeness is the culmination of weeks (or months) of foundational work. From the moment of fertilization, a young fruit begins the process of cell division, organizing a compact version of its mature form that will fill over time with food storage substances such as starches or oils. Like an empty (and intricate) balloon, a young fruit contains all of the cellular structure it will require just a dozen or so days after fertilization—a larder waiting for its contents.

As the fruit matures, these empty cells fill and expand with energy-rich fluids, stretching the small fruit until it reaches its mature size. Triggered by environmental conditions like temperature or sun exposure, along with genetic cues, such “green” fruits begin the process of ripening: sweetening up their cellular fluids (often, though not always, by converting starches already stored within the cells to sugar), softening cellular structure to allow various enzymes access to more of the fruit’s chemical reservoir, and creating intoxicating perfumes via this mélange of volatile compounds.

Once picked, all fruits march steadily (some faster than others) toward the process of decay, a further enzymatic softening that culminates in bacterial decomposition. Along the way, some fruits will continue to develop flavor components (primarily sugar content), while others will not. Pears and kiwi are two fruits whose flavor development does not initiate until after harvest. Tomatoes, peaches, melons, and blueberries may advance in texture or pigmentation, but will not become more flavorful. Watermelon, soft berries, grapes and cherries do not notably improve post-harvest.

As eaters, ripeness is relatively straightforward—it tastes like the ideal version of itself. As harvesters and shoppers, ripeness is trickier to detect, requiring that we engage all of our senses. Look for deepness of color. Smell for complex aromas (in the case of tomatoes and melons, this is the best indicator of ripeness). Gently lift (but do not squeeze—this will cause bruising) the fruit to detect weight (ripe fruits are heavier) and tautness of the skin (eggplants, especially, exhibit over-ripeness and less desirable flavor when their skin begins to slacken). Listen for the fullness of its enchanting, saccharine silence. And know that once a fruit is ripe, there is no better time than right now to enjoy it.

Sarah West is a gardener, eater and admirer of the agricultural arts. She gladly spends her Sundays as assistant manager of the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market, basking in the richness of its producers’ bounty and its community’s energy. Find archives and more at http://thefatofthelandblog.wordpress.com.

The Fat of The Land - Home Cooking

Sarah West

A Conversation with Katherine Deumling

After only a quick peruse of Katherine Deumling’s ‘Cook With What You Have’ website, I knew that I would love to pick her brain on the place of home cooking in our chef-obsessed but also convenience-touting culture. Once upon a time, home cooking was the only option; now it is framed as either a hobby or a chore. Fun eating means going out, practical eating comes packaged as a minute-in-the-microwave away. But what happens when you take the time to chop a vegetable and add a touch of your own nostalgia, whimsy, or daring? Read on as Katherine and I discuss the personal and social transformation that can result from stepping into the kitchen with intention.

I may be lucky in that my mom was one of those cooks who would often devise our dinner menu by looking at what was in the fridge. She found clever ways to put together what we already had in the house and that approach had a strong influenced on me. Home cooking means cooking from scratch and learning from recipes, but to me it also means using what I have on hand as much as possible. Home cooked food isn’t restaurant food, composed and perfectly prepared. It is sometimes sloppy, sometimes under seasoned, sometimes unexpectedly amazing, always a work in progress. What does ‘home cooking’ mean to you? What does it mean to “cook from scratch?”

My definition is very similar to yours with the exception of the under seasoned bit! I really emphasize tasting as you go, adjusting with salt, acid, herbs, spice, etc. so that the simplest from scratch dish is as flavorful as possible. Of course it takes practice but also just trusting your instincts and tastes to create something—realizing you have all the control and agency. And frankly when you have produce like we have here in Oregon, it’s pretty simple to make delicious dishes.

I absolutely love the challenge of looking around my small garden, fridge/freezer and pantry and creating something nourishing. I also happen to have a well-stocked pantry with beans, lentils, grains, dried peppers, spices, oils, vinegars, nuts, seeds, etc. which makes cooking pretty simple. I love the crafty, frugality of cooking this way. I get great satisfaction out of preparing dishes with seemingly “nothing” or dribs and drabs (as my grandmother would have said) of vegetables left in the crisper. I once made mixed vegetable savory pancakes with radish tops, carrots, scallions, a bit of cabbage and some cilantro that was about to go bad, into a dinner that my family raved about. That’s my idea of fun!

Many people have become accustomed to purchasing prepared or “instant” foods and do not believe they have the skills or the time to cook their own meals from scratch. When I began cooking fresh greens like kale or chard, I marveled at how quickly they could be sautéed into a delicious and healthy meal. Throwing together a hearty salad or stir-fry can take as little as 10 minutes. We perceive cooking as a time consuming, arduous task, but with a pinch of willingness, it becomes clear that time is not the primary obstacle to making tasty, nutritious meals. What do you believe are the main barriers to becoming a successful home cook?

You hit the nail on the head. I think the barriers are multiple: 1) People often think they don’t like many vegetables because they’ve never had them prepared in a way that is simple and tasty and thus they don’t see the point in cooking them. 2) As you say, people think it takes a lot of time and has to be fancy and involve lots of ingredients. I think cooking shows have been a bit of a disservice in this regard as it furthers the idea that cooking is performance, art, fancy, etc. 3) Our culture (if I can generalize) gives the message that it’s not the best use of your time, it devalues everyday cooking, makes it something to be avoided. 4) Relatedly, it’s seen as a burden rather than something that might actually simplify one’s life, make it better, tastier, and more fun. 5) People aren’t accustomed to tasting as they cook and using their own judgment and taste buds in the process—so lack of confidence, lack of translating skills people use in other parts of their lives to cooking.

Food activists such as Dan Barber and Michael Pollen see cooking at home as a political act and believe it is the first and most necessary step to reversing a number of disturbing national trends relating to the industrial food system (increases in chronic diseases and obesity, factory farming, GMO crops, and even global warming and water use issues, to name a few). I tend to agree, largely because I see cooking as such a profound but simple act. It forces a higher level of awareness and is embedded with healthy constraints (i.e., because you are not hoping to preserve a meal longer than the time it takes to get it on the table, you would never use as much salt as is found in most processed foods). I would add that learning to cook also has the ability to create a sense of empowerment and satisfaction. What would taste mediocre at a restaurant tastes great at home because I made it. What do you believe home cooking has the power to transform?

With the risk of sounding hyperbolic, everything! First of all, if you know how to cook with simple, whole ingredients, including staples like beans and grains that are inexpensive and shelf stable and you can grow some herbs, you can eat well on little money and be healthy. There are many, many people who truly have few dollars to spend on food and many who don’t even have access to a stove or basic kitchen equipment, but if you do and have the time/ability to cook for yourself, you will be much better off than with the industrial, pre-fab alternatives—resulting in better health, more agency, and confidence.

And while we talked about how cooking doesn’t have to take a lot of time I also want to stress that it does take forethought, organization, and certainly some time to do this on a regular basis and for a family. Doing so can be immensely satisfying and nourishing in many ways and does, as you say, connect you to place, community and ideally people and farmers—all of which runs counter to the industrial food system.  Cooking with children gives them skills, engagement, joy and potentially a life-long independence and an awareness of the impact our food choices and policies have on people and planet. And lastly, the joy of good food shared with others should not be an underestimated force—this is one of the tenets of the Slow Food Movement—and we could use more well fed, happy people!

Dan Barber goes on to say in his new book, The Third Table, that “a pattern of eating can support a landscape,” meaning how we cook and what we eat is a road that goes two ways. The food that is available to us in season informs and creates, over time, a unique regional cuisine. Likewise, the popularity of and attraction to foods in their prime season supports the realities of agriculture: we cannot have everything always, though our industrial food system has tried very hard to make that so. Gary Paul Nabhan, another advocate of regional eating, has proposed the idea of distinguishing what he calls foodsheds—boundaries defined by the sustainable (and therefore reliable) food sources unique to a region’s landscape and climatic limitations. What do you see as some characteristics of the foodshed, or the “pattern of eating,” in which we live?

We used to (pre-1980s) grow more staple crops in the Willamette Valley; even though our wet climate isn’t completely ideal for beans and grains, there used to be more. Since the economic downturn in 2008, we have seen a slow shift to more beans and grains again, in part because with the crash the grass seed industry took a hit and some of those acres are being transitioned to edible crops instead. I am particularly interested in these very nutritious, shelf stable crops and hope that we can really increase the number of people who purchase these foods locally and support this transition. The interest seems to be there, with seed breeders and farmers working hard to cultivate varieties that thrive here.

I believe we have an opportunity to do more of what Dan Barber talks about and not just eat the “sexy” fleeting greens and vegetables that get more attention. Even though we have an extraordinary abundance and breadth of varieties grown for market here, we still have a fairly small number of people who primarily buy local products so I think there is a bit of tension between how some perceive our region and the reality of how people shop and eat. Even with our vibrant local food scene, farmers do not have an easy time making a living and I would like to see our foodshed strengthened, especially on the consumer front in really putting our money where our mouth is.

Big box stores certainly command the lion’s share of the food market in our country, and farmers’ markets are perceived by many as an expensive, privileged alternative. I began shopping at farmers’ markets when I was a poor student and could provide myself with enough vegetables to get through the week on just $10-$15. I chose to shop at the market less because of price and more because I wanted a high quality product—one that would taste better and keep longer. I credit my cooking practice for teaching me how to taste and appreciate freshness, and farmers’ markets for exposing me to many new kinds of foods. How does where you buy your food influence what and how you cook? How do you respond to the idea that cooking is a pastime of the privileged?

Where I buy my food completely influences what and how I cook. The produce is so delicious that it enables me to spend less time on cooking it and fussing with it to make it good. I also cook things based on recommendations by the farmer who grew it. What I cook is completely determined by where I go to shop and I rarely go to the market with specific items in mind (other than restocking cornmeal, beans, etc.) but what I find that looks good and I can afford.


As to cooking being a pastime of the privileged I would say two things: It has been framed as such for a variety of reasons such as longer work hours, poorer wages, the growth of fast food and convenience foods of all kinds, and the notion that cooking is drudgery. We have a tension in our culture of cooking being, on one hand, relegated to the poor and mostly women who don’t have enough “skill” to do more “important” work, and on the other hand, it’s said to be a pastime of the privileged.

Crafty cooks can eat better on fewer dollars by cooking from scratch than by purchasing processed or prepared foods. I know many people, including some of the Head Start staff and families I work with, who cook well from scratch and with food boxes and are not privileged in the conventional sense of the word. I understand why this tension exists and there are so many structural reasons for it that are complicated and hard to even parse, and that vary from place to place. I think of my job, my teaching and recipe creation and farmer “boosterism” as a small part of working to counter these assumptions and real and perceived challenges about cooking.

That said, cooking boutiques make it appear that dozens of expensive gadgets are needed to cook well. What tools and resources do you believe are the most essential for beginning home cooks?

A good, sharp 8-inch chef's knife, a big cutting board, and a cast iron or other heavy skillet. I love certain food blogs as a free and accessible resource to learn from, especially Heidi Swanson's 101cookbooks.com. If you find a blog that resonates with you, it can be a regular source of inspiration and education. There are dozens of fabulous ones; I also love Rachel Eats (based in Rome), which keeps me feeling connected to my long-past Italian days. As for cookbooks, I LOVE many of my books. I'm not sure they would all be great for beginners, but one of my favorites that might appeal to any level of cook is Nigel Slater's Tender. Other excellent primers include: Alice Waters' The Art of Simple Food, Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything, and Deborah Madison’s The New Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.  

But really I think cooking—for beginners or more advanced folks alike—is about doing and doing with as much of your own creativity, judgment, and instinct as possible. This takes inspiration by others of course, but doing, doing, doing and guessing and trying and tasting is what I would suggest. And asking your friends, parents, grandparents, and farmers about what they cook and how they do it. This is how I learned to cook, and my mother makes any vegetable taste good with simply her giant cast iron skillet, olive oil and salt. Don't start fancy. Start simple and you'll be rewarded with satisfying meals. Sauté a bunch of summer squash until they are browning and soft, be sure to salt well and then sprinkle with fresh herbs and/or grated Parmesan. Fry an egg in one side of the pan and have yourself the most satisfying dinner!

Sarah West is a gardener, eater and admirer of the agricultural arts. She gladly spends her Sundays as assistant manager of the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market, basking in the richness of its producers’ bounty and its community’s energy. Find archives and more at http://thefatofthelandblog.wordpress.com.

The Fat of The Land Home Grown

Sarah West

From woodlands to meadows to marshy banks and alpine perches, the lily family is well represented among the wildflowers of our temperate region. Members of the lily clan served as important food sources for tribes throughout the Pacific Northwest long before European settlement—from the starchy staple of camas root to medicinal wild onions—and later as a source of garden specimens sent back to mainland Europe in the early days of Western exploration.

Lily family species are one of our oldest foods—onion and garlic have been cultivated for over 7,000 years and provide a foundational flavor in nearly every cuisine. Lily flowers were featured in the ancient gardens of Crete, Iran and Egypt, holding a special place of honor (and associations with gods and goddesses) for the purity of their beauty and the power of their fragrance.

Fast-forward a few thousand years and you may be surprised to find that an important chapter in the advancement of ornamental lilies took place right here in Oregon. Lacking pharaohs or kings to extol their virtues, lilies of our era are subjects of the marketplace and their royalty is granted based on durability and profitability.

As a species, lily blooms tend to face downward, their petals peeling back to reveal enlarged pollen anthers to attract pollinators. Before the 20th Century, lilies were not a desirable bouquet flower because their drooping blooms created an odd contrast.

Long admired among garden aficionados, lilies before the early 1900’s were a finicky lot. Mostly wild-collected specimens, they were considered troublesome in the garden—prone to viral diseases and other hazards of existence outside their native habitat.

Jan de Graaff changed all that in 1941 at his Gresham nursery, Oregon Bulb Farms, when he made a lily cross that produced disease-resistant, upright orange blooms for the first time. The variety, which quickly reversed the reputation of lilies as horticulturally difficult and commercially undesireable, was named ‘Enchantment.’

Soon after, de Graaff converted his mixed bulb nursery exclusively to lily production, sending his lilies throughout the world to commercial flower growers and gardeners alike and remaining a hotbed of lily breeding for the next 40 years. The only shortcoming of de Graaff’s effort was that, in breeding for hardiness, flower orientation and color, he outbred the species’ celebrated fragrance.

The work of Leslie Woodriff, an eccentric but genius lily breeder living in Brookings, Oregon, corrected that absence. In his messy greenhouse, Woodriff created unconventional crosses and was well known in the flower industry for his outstanding varieties. Lacking business skills, assets, or much income, he worked away on his unkempt farm until a collaborative opportunity with an up and coming bulb farmer, Ted Kirsch, came his way. The two worked out a deal to transfer ownership of some of Woodriff’s breeding stock to Kirsch’s new farm in exchange for a set fee and full-time work.

The breeding stock that Kirsch bought and Woodriff tended at the new farm resulted in the discovery of a seedling that has become the world’s most famous, and profitable, lily. Called ‘Star Gazer,’ the lily stood out for its striking fragrance, bold coloration, and that elusive flower orientation, whose star-ward gaze inspired the variety’s name.

Though more acreage of Star Gazer is cultivated today than any other lily and its ubiquity is apparent in flower shops across the globe, neither Woodriff nor Kirsch ever made their rightful fortune from it. Woodriff was out of luck as he’d sold ownership of the stock just before discovering Star Gazer. Kirsch made some unfortunate patenting decisions that resulted in a significant financial loss to his company over time.

In the 1960’s and 70’s, Oregon Bulb Farms attracted and trained many of the next generation of American lily breeders, among them Judith Freeman, whose work with laboratory hybrids greatly expanded the diversity of hardy and delightful garden lilies. Her farm, The Lily Garden, still breeds and sells a wide range of exciting lilies just outside of Vancouver, Washington.

From our indigenous lilies to the innovative breeding work that Oregon was host to, our home ground has a long history with this species. And as you smell a Star Gazer in your market bouquet, admire beguiling hybrids in the garden, or come across a wild lily in bloom on your next hike, you will find their charm remains as apparent as it is abundant.

Sarah West is a gardener, eater and admirer of the agricultural arts. She gladly spends her Sundays as assistant manager of the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market, basking in the richness of its producers’ bounty and its community’s energy. Find archives and more at http://thefatofthelandblog.wordpress.com.

The Fat of The Land - Purple Food

Sarah West

 image by Sarah West
My grandmother had a dark purple velvet armchair when I was a young child that smelled like an exotic spice and was soft or prickly depending on how you stroked it. The chair fascinated me and I loved to sit in it, looking up at a mobile of Japanese umbrellas hanging from the ceiling above it or ringing a collection of small brass bells she kept on a shelf nearby. Sitting in that chair surrounded by beautiful and precious objects, I felt like royalty from a far away place. Its color has stayed with me, tucked away in its own regal corner of my mind.

With the exception of the “grow your own” movement, I have not been one to jump on food fad bandwagons. It may be to my detriment in the end, and certainly is a brand of laziness, but I just eat what I feel like eating most of the time, surrounding myself with whole foods so as to minimize the junk food snacking and maximize the home cooking. It seems to be working out so far.

But when a fad comes dressed in brilliant purple hues, I can’t help but take notice. Like a robe of velvet, the phytonutrient anthocyanin is responsible for staining fruits, vegetables and grains in shades of red, royal purple and blue. Anthocyanin-rich berries, potatoes, eggplant, peppers, and corn can be so darkly pigmented they appear nearly black. Others like burgundy lettuces, cherries, raspberries, onions, and even citrus (think blood oranges) exhibit anthocyanin’s red spectrum.

In addition to being visual standouts in the produce aisle, anthocyanins have become a popular subject of recent health and nutrition research. Anecdotal evidence as well as in vitro and laboratory animal studies hint at an antioxidant wunderkind, with applications in memory loss prevention, cardiovascular disease and diabetes treatment, as well as in reducing some cancerous tumor growth.

From the plant’s perspective, anthocyanin functions in three main capacities. In photosynthetic tissues (leaves), anthocyanin pigments act as a kind of sunscreen, absorbing high spectrum light waves that could otherwise do harm to the energy-harvesting chlorophyll. Flowers utilize red and purple ornamentation to attract pollinators; anthocyanin pigmentation of fruit entice scavenging animals (and market shoppers) whose ingestion of the fruit helps disperse seeds.

What hampers researchers studying anthocyanins is a lack of understanding regarding how (and if) the phytonutrient is absorbed and how it functions within the body in its absorbed state. Even in the source plant’s tissue, it is unclear how effective the antioxidant properties of anthocyanin are in combating free radicals located in separate tissue structures.

Since a scientifically proven catalog of anthocyanin’s benefits is yet forthcoming, we are left only with its brilliant colors and the equally unsubstantiated connotations they stir in us. Coincidentally, color has also been found to play an integral role in enhancing memory performance, the two linked like the sea and salt air. Visible and invisible, sight and smell, color and memory: all move through the circuits of our minds creating moments that are both old and new. And so it is that I stand in my kitchen cutting a potato black as midnight, to find my grandmother’s chair (and its impossibly distant world) waiting inside.

Sarah West is a gardener, eater and admirer of the agricultural arts. She gladly spends her Sundays as assistant manager of the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market, basking in the richness of its producers’ bounty and its community’s energy. Find archives and more at http://thefatofthelandblog.wordpress.com.

Fat Of The Land - Sol Food

Sarah West

When we think of sunshine foods, we default to adjectives like fruity, floral, and exotic. We imagine coconuts, passion fruit, and peppers rather than cabbage, lettuce, or kale. Though mango and pineapple do not survive this northerly climate, our own brand of sun-steeped harvests makes its appearance this time of year.

Falling between June 20th and 21st, the solstice represents more than opening day of summer shenanigans. Denoting the sun’s longest journey across the sky, the summer solstice is also known to gardeners as the time of endless greens—bottomless heads of lettuce, kale with wide paddles for leaves, unrestrained growth in every direction.

Though the solar calendar says it’s summer now, our climate tends to linger in the doorway a bit longer, extending spring showers and cool temperatures intermittently into early July. This oscillation of warm, sunny stretches and cooler, rainy days helps to check the growth of these greens, allowing them to take full advantage of mid-June’s extra long days.

Our lengthiest day of the year totals just short of sixteen hours of sunlight. To a plant’s physiology, extending day length is akin to increasing production hours. The chlorophyll in plant leaves is active in the presence of sunlight; the more sun there is, the more energy a plant is capable of synthesizing.

Plants invest some of the season’s surplus energy into creating more chlorophyll (and therefore more surface area, i.e. larger leaves), which in turn both creates an ability to manufacture more stored energy and a need for someplace to store it. In step luscious root crops like beets, radishes and turnips that seem to materialize over night as the solstice nears—the latter two transforming from tiny seeds to hefty bundles in under a month.

The whole garden is a rowdy place in June. What was freshly turned soil studded with seedlings becomes a bubbling quilt of colors and textures, plants touching shoulders with infectious camaraderie, vines tangled and climbing toward the sun that fuels them. Even slowpokes like carrots, potatoes, and onions seem inspired to catch up to their neighbors.

Perhaps the same spirit that infects the vegetables rouses the gardener as well, and perhaps some of the affection we have for this season comes from the sun’s penchant to party. We feel an urge to get out, to see, to commune and celebrate, to sit in the sun’s radiance. A garden in solstice is that urge made visible, and an appeal to find numerous and interesting ways to prepare a salad, to cook a turnip, to embellish kale or mustard greens or cabbage.

We are lucky to live in a place where we can grow tasty greens year-round, but I think solstice greens are the finest—tender and succulent in their freshness, glowing with the deep, verdant pigments of ample sunlight and water. No trials of heat or cold to endure, they open to their fullest, most vulnerable beauty.

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by a garden, for the undesirables grow as quickly as the desirables, and I am often overwhelmed until a wave of summer heat tempers the revelry. But in that heat, I begin to miss those soft, sweet leaves and the lush, hulking garden that produced them. So I try to savor every bit of it now, weeding and eating my way through these long, exquisite days.

Fat Of The Land - Persuading Pectin

Sarah West

Chef Kathryn coaxing pectin out of strawberries

Fruit preserves have entered a certain level of ubiquity in our kitchens—topper of toast, peanut butter buddy or teatime trimming, jam is a sweet thing we eat because we always have. Some like it rife with proof of the fruit it once was, others prefer a smooth, refined spread without the seeds, please. All in all, jam seems a straightforward condiment that offers simple pleasures. That is, until you try making it yourself.

Standing over a steaming pot of fruit whose bubbles burst out in sugary magma, jam’s simplicity tangles into a thick briar of questions: Should I stir it? How often? Is it done? Why is it covered in foam? And when you pop open your first jar and the jam is spreadable or it isn’t, the fruit has held something of its delicate flavor and texture or it hasn’t, the gel has set too thickly or not quite enough, the questions multiply.

Jam truly is a balancing act, finding that place on a seesaw of fresh flavor and just-so gel where the two sit still and look across at each other for a moment, one holding the weight of the other; and from that spoonful of strawberry preserves in January, you can see right through to a summery spring day at the market when your arm was slung around a flat of fragrant berries.

To achieve that balance, a preserver must transform fruit while interfering as little as possible with its flavor and texture. The three basic tools at her disposal are sugar, acid and pectin. Sugar, in moderation, helps develop the jam’s flavor profile, activates pectin, and is a preservative, inhibiting bacterial growth by displacing water. Acids (usually lemon juice and/or rind) function similarly to sugar, though their preservative role is to lower the solution’s pH, which also halts most bacterial growth.

Pectin is jam’s most finicky ingredient, as it is (in truly great preserves) not an additive but something you coax. Though many know pectin as a white, finely powdered substance added to jams along with copious amounts of sugar, pectin is already a component of your main ingredient’s cellular structure.

A carbohydrate, pectin binds the fibrous components of cell walls and increases as the immature fruits grow. When a fruit begins to ripen, pectic enzymes break down the cement-like structure of pectin and allow the cell walls to soften and expand with sugary solution. Thus, fruits that are just under ripe (still a little firm) boast the highest amounts of natural pectin.

Some fruits contain enough natural pectin to avoid adding a supplementary source at all. Apples, quince, cranberries, blackberries, gooseberries, plums and citrus rind will generally gel without added pectin. A traditional technique for attaining naturally gelling jam is to use one-quarter under ripe fruit and three-quarters fully ripe fruit to split the difference between flavor and pectin availability. Blends of high and low pectin fruits are another old-timey trick, such as adding tart apples to cherries or raspberries to increase their gel.

Citrus rind and apples (or crabapples) are such a great source that commercial producers isolate pectin from them using refining techniques. However, to activate commercial pectin, you must add large amounts of sugar. This alters the end product’s flavor by masking its subtleties with sweetness and watering it down, as the commercial pectin solidifies excess water rather than evaporating it.

Pectin is composed of long chains of sugar molecules that, if properly cajoled, bond with each other, forming a net-like matrix that binds liquid into gel. Pectin has a slight negative charge in water, and naturally resists bonding. Acids help diminish that negative charge, but water-attracting sugar is also necessary to decrease water content and act as a bridge between pectin molecules. Boiling further reduces water through evaporation and provides the magic temperature (221° Fahrenheit), at which pectin and its saccharine mediator connect and create a gel.

Getting a good ratio of these three components is both science and art. It’s important to follow a recipe in detail, without cutting sugar or other ingredients, until you have a firm grip on which ratio produces jam of a consistency you like. This ratio will be different for each kind of fruit you preserve.

Savvy preservers also avoid the need for refined pectin by making batches of green apple pectin concentrate with the fall’s first harvest. Freezer stored pectin concentrate will wait at arm’s reach for the first fruits of summer that compel you to seduce them into a jar.

Fat Of The Land - Let Us

Sarah West

We eat salad without a second thought; so ubiquitous has lettuce become in our restaurants, groceries and home kitchens we might never guess at the peculiarity of its path from wild food to pantry staple. Nor could many consumers of lettuce conceive of the myriad forms it can take. Until I began my own kitchen garden, I knew lettuce as green or red, ruffled loose leaves or crispy-bland iceberg. It turns out that lettuce is capable of infinite variation in flavor, color and texture.

Native to the Mediterranean region, lettuce’s wild origins were as a weed-like leafy annual that released a milky sap when cut. This “milk” is actually a kind of latex, and the basis for lettuce’s binomial nomenclature: Lactuca sativa (“lac” meaning milk, “sativa” meaning sown or cultivated).

The Egyptians were the first civilization to leave a lasting record of their reverence for lettuce. Often depicted in reliefs alongside the fertility god, Min, lettuce was a symbol of sexual stamina and represented Min’s formidable talents. This association may perplex modern lettuce eaters, but the lettuce of ancient Egypt was a different sort of plant than what we are familiar with today: starting as a rosette of narrow leaves, the plant would rise up from the ground on a thick stalk that could reach three feet in height. Egyptians discarded the bitter leaves and ate the succulent stem—a rarity among the flora of their desert clime.

The ancient Greeks also cultivated lettuce, though they appear to have selected their varieties more for leaves than stalk, and ate something likely similar to what we know now as Romaine lettuce, a name given by the French in homage to lettuce’s next curator, the Romans.

In ancient Rome, lettuce became more or less what we think of it as today—a leafy vegetable notable for its combination of sweet and bitter flavors, useful both as an appetizer to encourage hunger before the meal, and as a post-meal digestive aid. In answer to the question of whether one should eat salad before or after dinner, the Romans split the difference and advised both. (As a side note, the word salad comes from the Roman’s preparation herba salata, “salted leaves.”)

Lettuce traveled with the Romans as they charged to northern Europe, each culture that received it making it their own, beginning a trail of diversity whose proliferation we still benefit from today. A true eccentric, lettuce’s genetic library exhibits a high degree of variation. And because lettuce is self-pollinating, it is among the easier vegetables to breed at the home garden scale.

Such is the story of Frank Morton, a Philomath-based seed breeder who sells his innovative lettuce varieties under the name Wild Garden Seed (and shares land with vendor Gathering Together Farm), who got his start tinkering in his own lettuce patch. Morton’s catalog reads like a love letter to lettuce, and his numerous original varieties achieve the vegetable consumer’s holy trinity: beauty, flavor and nutrition.

Today we organize lettuce into five broad categories. The cos or Romaine group with their thick midribs, mild and sweet flavor and sturdy leaves; the crispheads with their crunchy, juicy leaves and often blanched inner heads (think iceberg); the butterheads with their floppy, silken leaves and intricately folded heads; the looseleafs, spacious and open in their growth habit, wavy or densely ruffled or lobed like an oak leaf; and the celtuce, lettuces almost exclusively found in Asian markets that, like the ancient Egyptians’, are grown for their thick, mild-flavored stalk.

Farmers’ markets are the best place outside of a backyard garden to experience lettuce diversity at its finest. That plain old ruffled green from the produce aisle is as predictable as it is reliable. Iceberg is still the most-consumed vegetable of all other vegetables combined. These, along with Romaine, used to be all the choice we had, but we live in the midst of a lettuce renaissance. So let us choose to explore its magnitude, walk the length of its vast kingdom, discover new flavors and the health benefits that come with them, and ease that nutritionally destitute iceberg off its throne for good.

Fat Of The Land - Wild Garden

Sarah West

It has taken me years to begin seeing difference in natural ecosystems—a bare ridge and a shaded forest are dissimilar enough, but one forest and another easily blur together. A horticulture degree and years of pouring over native plant ID books helped, but it was the intangibles that truly made the difference.

Looking is a slippery act: look too closely and you miss the web of connections, look too broadly and you ignore the enriching details. Look for one right way to look and you miss the boat entirely. And though I am still (and always) a student of looking, what has taught me, more than anything, how to observe the natural world is my own fumbling imitation of it. Hours of planting, weeding, watching, and loving my own cultivated spaces have taught me how to sit in a wild garden.

Anyone who has battled a weedy plot knows the power of ecosystem succession. As gardeners, we focus on curating a space of beauty, fascination and function. Meanwhile, the plants in our garden are engaged in a constant struggle for access to light, water and nutrients. We help by placing them in an auspicious site, weeding out competitors, feeding and watering them. Yet, even with our limbs and affections as allies, they sometimes fail.

The first time I entered an old-growth temperate rainforest and knew I was in an old-growth forest, I was awestruck. The gardener in me wanted to know how such fragile beauties lived in profusion there—trillium, orchids, lilies, and many others I couldn’t yet name—arranged in artful clusters on mossy stumps or as glorious trailside specimens, growing as any plant would in a weed-free utopia.

But old-growth forests, and other undisturbed ecosystems, are not utopias, nor are they static in their achievement. What impresses us in such a forest—its vaulted ceiling, open stillness, mossy softness and handsome plants—is balance, accomplished over hundreds of years of struggle similar in spirit to that which we deploy against our weedy garden beds. Such balance never stops to rest or admire itself, and it is its centered harmony, one it runs its bow back and forth across, which mesmerizes us so completely.

Forests that have been disturbed by logging, fire, landslide or other calamity grow back somewhat like our own gardens—thick and ferocious with life, specialists exploiting their particular skills, vying as individuals and as species to either capitalize on their moment in the limelight or eventually win long-term standing in that more open, tranquil place, where the may stretch into idyllic versions of themselves.

As gardeners, we are more disturbance than balance. We fancy ourselves balancers, concocting careful strategies to allow our gardeners to thrive, but each scratch of the soil is like pressing a reset button. Embrace it, for the struggle it brings is why we garden and how we earn any sense of accomplishment in our work.

Out on a rocky ledge, breathing the fresh mineral air, sitting in the white sunlight, I try to bring as little disturbance as possible. It is in such a place that my favorite type of garden grows. Alpine rock gardens, fragile and resolute, offer spectacular wildflower specimens and fabulous views to boot. The contrast of macro and micro is endlessly delightful to me—a neat foliage clump shooting out stems of brilliantly colored flowers can, with a quick shift of my gaze, give way to a long drink of conifer-covered mountains, rocky outcroppings, maybe a snowy peak.

June and July are the season for wild alpine gardens (higher elevation sites flower later than those at lower elevations, rewarding persistent hikers with many weeks of show-stopping blooms). What looks at first like a bare slope reveals itself to be a museum of highly adapted species; the alpine garden’s specimens, spread widely among cracks in rock faces and loose gravel, demand close looking and reward the careful observer with an eclectic diversity of shapes, textures and colors.

Rocky alpine gardens are not everyone’s ideal—most gardeners certainly prefer the fantastic blooms and foliage that dazzle us (and me) at nurseries and botanical gardens. Yet the sense of awe I feel in the alpine garden is as a student in the presence of a masterwork. Many alpine species are notoriously difficult (or impossible) to grow in cultivated gardens. Up on the ridge, they sit in effortless arrangement, embodying their breezy perfection in what seems like an impossible home.

Here, the wild garden teaches me to un-garden, to witness instead of act, to sink into the inimitable and shifting balance of wilderness left to its own devices.

Sarah West is a gardener, eater and admirer of the agricultural arts. She gladly spends her Sundays as assistant manager of the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market, basking in the richness of its producers’ bounty and its community’s energy. Find archives and more at http://thefatofthelandblog.wordpress.com.

Fat Of The Land - All In A Pickle

Sarah West

 

Pickles have personality that seems larger than the sum of their parts—puckering acidity, chopped vegetables, salt and a pinch or two of seasoning add up to refreshing brightness and enigmatic flavors that effortlessly invigorate a bowl of rice, a sandwich, or a steak.

There are essentially two kinds of pickles: fermented and not fermented. Fermented pickles use a salt brine to isolate lacto-bacteria and create an acidic environment that preserves the food suspended in it. Fermented pickles are a compelling combination of salty and sour flavors, and include among their ranks the now ubiquitous deli staples of sauerkraut and kosher dills.

Pickles made without fermentation rely on another form of acid to hinder spoilage, usually vinegar. Vinegar pickles may be sealed and stashed in the pantry using the water-bath canning method or stored unsealed in the refrigerator. They are acidic, salty and often sweet, as sugar is a common addition to balance out the vinegar’s sharpness.

The difference between the two categories is vast. Fermentation transforms a vegetable into something new, creating biological and flavor components that were not present in its raw form. Vinegar brines build, maintaining the spirit of the fresh vegetable’s flavor and adding layers of brightness, herbal notes, and sweet or aromatic spices.

Fermented cucumbers were my first pickle love, and I adored the subtle funkiness of their flavor so much I often wrote off their vinegar-brined kin as being too ostentatious. The grocers and restaurants of my formative years offered little diversity in pickles; then came a pickle renaissance, and in sauntered so much more than overly sweet relishes and bread-and-butter medallions.

As interest in home canning has increased in the last decade, vinegar pickle recipes have proliferated, stretching far beyond the traditional beet, dilly bean, and cucumber standbys. Driven by DIY ethos, some restaurants now compose their own pickled preparations, lining their pantries and countertops with handsome, exotically colored jars. Pickled novelties garnish plates, perch on cocktail rims, and add an instant dash of culinary mystery to otherwise familiar dishes.

Vinegar pickles have one serious advantage over fermented pickles for chefs and home cooks alike: they can go from preparation to plate in as little as a few minutes. Known as quick pickles, vegetables doused with vinegar, salt and any number of flavorings may be used immediately for the highest contrast of flavor and texture, or after marinating for a few hours or days to mellow and blend.

While pickles became mainstays of nearly every culinary tradition because they are so good at preserving foods rich in vitamins and minerals, we also acquired a taste for them along the way. We’ve since developed a wide range of food preservation techniques and greatly increased our access to year-round fresh vegetables, and yet pickles still satisfy and inspire us.

Now a traditional food, a frill du cuisine, a blank canvas for gastronomic whim or nostalgic indulgence, pickles are always refreshing—cutting through rich flavors, showcasing seasonal produce, making us at once thirsty with their salt and quenched by their acidity. But perhaps, more than anything, we love pickles because they allow us to conspire with time and its magic.

"On a hot day in Virginia, I know nothing more comforting than a fine spiced pickle, brought up trout-like from the sparkling depths of the aromatic jar below the stairs of Aunt Sally's cellar." - Thomas Jefferson

Want to learn more about pickles? Chef Kathryn will be sharing pickling ideas this Sunday starting at 11am.

Sarah West is a gardener, eater and admirer of the agricultural arts. She gladly spends her Sundays as assistant manager of the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market, basking in the richness of its producers’ bounty and its community’s energy. Find archives and more at http://thefatofthelandblog.wordpress.com.

Fat Of The Land - Nectar

Sarah West

 

Elder flowers

Synonymous with sweetness, fragrance and divine sustenance, nectar is a term borrowed from mythology. Stemming from a Greek word meaning “death-defeating,” nectar was the literal drink of the gods that, along with ambrosia (the food of immortality), granted eternal life. Appropriated in the 1600’s to imply a sweet substance, the word nectar has never fully shaken its mythical origins.

As flowers and their ethereal scents came about long before Mount Olympus, the concepts of nectar and ambrosia were surely influenced by the real thing, challenging human imagination to reach beyond their earthly limitations. The word nectar still elicits fondness and wonder, that a thing so small and insubstantial can enter the nose and mouth with such outsized charm. Nectar is sugar, but with complex scent and deepness that still hints at magic.

Pull it apart with the tweezers of analytics and you’ll find that nectar is one thing, pollen and aroma compounds another. Bees are searching for nectar (at base, a sugar solution expelled by plants) as they pass from flower to flower, collecting and spreading pollen on their hind legs as they go. Aroma is less consistent from species to species: sometimes absent, sometimes residing in the pollen or nectar, sometimes exuding from petals or other flower structures.

In biology, nectar is a reward—liquid energy exchanged for pollination or protection—a symbiotic arrangement that is one of nature’s most sophisticated. Flowers direct bees’ ambitions with a multifaceted marketing program that includes elaborate architecture, fragrance, pigmentation and “nectar maps” often drawn in wavelengths invisible to the human eye. Now that our species is involved, the dance has become even more complex, with humans manipulating bees and coming ever closer to annihilating them (through no fault of traditional beekeepers).

Though we are certainly not its primary directors, our involvement with honey production and collection has taught us a few things about nectar. Namely that, beyond its sugary sweetness, the flavor profile of nectar is as diverse as the plants from which it is harvested. From light and mild clover honey to aromatic citrus-blossom honey to the smoky dark flavor of buckwheat honey, nectar varietals offer a wide assortment of culinary possibilities.

Even without the nectar-extracting skill of honeybees, the sweet and fragrant flavors of certain flowers have found their way into our culinary traditions. I grew up sucking on the trumpet-shaped tubes of honeysuckle and columbine flowers. I’ve used edible flowers as a garnish for their punch of sweet (and sometimes spicy or bitter) flavors, layered aromatic blooms in sugar to absorb their fragrance, or sprinkled them in a steeping pot of tea.

A versatile nectar to harvest this time of year is that of the black or blue elderberry tree. Flowers from either tree may be used to make elderflower cordial, a simple syrup infused with the rich aromatics of elderflowers.

Elderflower cordial is a popular beverage base in northern Europe, where it is used to flavor sparkling water. I’ve added mine to cocktails, iced tea and even drizzled it over fresh strawberries for a refreshing dessert. Elderflowers may also be added whole to pancake, pastry or fritter batters, and lend a delicate richness to strawberry preserves. Be sure to correctly identify foraged elderflowers before using them, as some varieties are mildly toxic.

Bringing nectar into the kitchen requires a subtle hand. While some honeys are strong enough to hold their own in a barbeque sauce, fresh flowers, especially, have an ethereal flavor that hovers and easily flutters away among more powerful seasonings. Put in the right place, nectar, pollen and flower fragrance offer substance fit for the gods.

The Fat Of The Land - The Flavor Green

Sarah West


There is something common among the canon of spring vegetables that is found few other places—a freshness that cannot be fully preserved, a tenderness and depth of subtle flavors that quietly slips away in the heat of summer, lacks the robustness to survive winter. As spring days lengthen and the rich soils warm, the world becomes green for a few delicious months, and we dine on its delicate plenty.

Certainly leaf vegetables and herbs taste green year-round—that sometimes bitter, sometimes astringent, always tonic hallmark of healthiness—but the flavor green belongs to spring. In spring, arugula is succulent and nutty, pea shoots are soft and rich as butter, kale leaves are tender enough to eat in raw mouthfuls, lettuce’s bitter notes are balanced by sweetness and green substance. The flavor green even goes so far as to permeate the milk of grass-fed ruminants, lacing it with powerful odors (too strong for some) that taper into sweeter, floral aromas, casting the milk in deep orange hues.

The green color of plants comes, of course, from chlorophyll, the primary pigment responsible for transforming light energy into chemical energy. This explains the increase of green pigment in spring; more sunlight means plants leap into action, capitalizing on the newly available energy. But just what makes spring vegetables—and the flavor we think of as “green”—taste so opulent this time of year is more difficult to nail down.

Though most people associate chlorophyll with green-tasting foods, it is, from a cook’s point of view, mostly color. Hidden by chlorophyll’s powerful presence are concealed pigments that complement its work. When it comes to flavor, the carotenoids (ranging in color from yellow to orangey-red) may be some of the most significant of these accessory pigments. Acting as a buffer, carotenoids provide chlorophyll with light reserves as well as shield it from excess light that would otherwise cause harm.

Beyond their role as pigment, carotenoids double as precursors to flavor compounds as well as A-vitamins. Left in their whole state, functioning as light harvesters, carotenoids have neither intrinsic flavor nor odor. When processed by enzymes or oxidization, their chemical components convert to vitamins and antioxidants (as in the human digestive tract) as well as flavor.

As we chew a green leaf, the tearing action of our teeth releases enzymes present within the leaf itself that quickly convert carotenoids into some of those grassy flavors we associate with chlorophyll’s green color. Other flavor compounds are released by chewing, and in complex concert create the particular flavors we know as lettuce, asparagus, pea, and so on. Even black tea, whose chlorophyll has been converted away from green by oxidization, has carotenoids to thank for some of the lighter, grassier elements of its flavor profile.

Spring milk, too, gets its hint of green from carotenoids. Ruminants are capable of transferring the A-vitamins they’ve gleaned from carotenoids (and all associated flavor compounds) into their milk, so a diet higher in fresh forage will translate to stronger flavors (and more vitamins) than milk from primarily grain-fed ruminants. Not surprisingly, the color of spring milk, a rich yellow-orange, comes from carotenoids as well.

To me, the flavor green is equally a texture, that soft, melt-in-your-mouth tenderness only spring vegetables have. The serendipity of fresh molecular content, soft fibers, ample moisture and fewer bitter compounds may all have a hand in fashioning the subtleties of early-season flavor.

In our region, spring is a cavalcade of moisture and sunlight, one following the other in sometimes hourly successions, tempered by cool nights. While the nutritional content of spring vegetables is certainly not greater than their summer counterparts, it is available in abundant and succulent mouthfuls.


Sarah West is a gardener, eater and admirer of the agricultural arts. She gladly spends her Sundays as assistant manager of the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market, basking in the richness of its producers’ bounty and its community’s energy. Find archives and more at http://thefatofthelandblog.wordpress.com.

The Fat Of The Land - Spring Alliums

Sarah West

Most cooks are familiar with the virtues of alliums, a botanical genus that includes garlic, onions, shallots and leeks. The alliums are a tribe of powerful flavors that constitute the backbone of countless soups, sautés, sauces, roasts, salads and stews. They are the definition of savory: pungently aromatic, acidic and spicy when fresh, oozing with deep, often sweet umami flavor when roasted. Their essence permeates a dish only to harmonize the other flavors, providing a song for them to dance to.

In the garden, as on the palate, alliums are lingering guests. Leeks, onions, garlic and shallots all have long maturation periods, occupying valuable garden real estate for up to nine months. Garlic, leeks, and shallots accomplish much of their extended growth period over winter, when little else is growing, but most onion varieties require spring planting and a long, luxurious soak in the sun to reach bulbing stage.

Late spring is the narrows of allium bulb availability: winter leeks are beginning to bolt, onion sets have just been planted, garlic and shallots are still a month or two from harvest, and storage bulbs are sprouting.

Luckily, lush, green spring has its own brand of alliums, enlisting fresh, herbal flavors, sweetness, and succulence in place of shelf-stable bulbs.

scallions

Scallions, also called green onions, bunching onions, or spring onions are one of two things: a variety of onion that never produces a bulb (usually labeled scallions or bunching onions) or a bulb-producing onion that has been picked before bulbing (usually labeled spring onions). The difference is horticultural, though not usually significant in the kitchen. True scallions (those that will never produce an onion) are one of the most nutritious alliums, boasting 140 times more phytonutrients than a typical white onion. Eaten fresh, they promise peak flavor and powerful nutrition in a small but versatile package.

chive flowers

Chives and their attractive purple flowers are one of the first edible alliums to appear in spring, sprouting as early as late February in our region. By May, their bloom is in full force, sending up a composite flower that is as attractive in a vase as it is delicious sprinkled on anything you can think of. Consider chives and their flowers as spring’s perfect condiment, adding a dash of oniony sweetness and densely packed nutrients to eggs, salads, pastas and more.

spring onions

Salad onions, sometimes also called spring onions, are a variety of sweet, bulbing onion harvested before reaching maturity. Their juicy, tender bulbs and green tips are delicious raw or roasted. They are one of my favorite spring vegetables to grill: the bulbs caramelize into silky, smoky sweetness while the green tips get a little singed, adding a crispy, toasted onion accent.

garlic scallions

Garlic Scallions are the garlicky cousin of scallions, immature garlic plants pulled while their bulb-ends are still tender and soft. Sliced thinly, they may be added raw to salads or used as a garnish. They are slightly drier than onion scallions, so roasting or sautéing them both deepens their garlic flavor and softens their texture. One of my favorite quiche preparations features garlic scallions; their combination of garlic-aroma and fresh allium brightness balances perfectly with the egg and cream richness.

Leek Scapes

Leek Scapes or shoots are the leafless flower stems of a leek plant. All alliums produce scapes—shallot and garlic scapes are seasonal delicacies that begin appearing in mid-June—which are an edible bi-product of a plant entering its next physiological stage. Unlike garlic or shallot scapes, leek scapes are best harvested by pulling out the whole plant once the flowering shoot has grown about four inches above the leaves (but has not yet bloomed). The blanched white stalk that leeks are best known for is still edible at this stage, and may be prepared by slicing it up to the point where it transitions to leaves. Peel back the leaves until you get to the firm but tender central stalk.

Later (a week or two from this point), the scape will become stiff like a young tree branch, but at this stage it should be slightly rubbery. The entire stalk and flower bud are edible and delicious, like leek-flavored asparagus. When my leek patch starts to bolt, I harvest them all at once, slicing the white bases and tossing them in the freezer to use later, extracting the scapes to cook now.


Sarah West is a gardener, eater and admirer of the agricultural arts. She gladly spends her Sundays as assistant manager of the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market, basking in the richness of its producers’ bounty and its community’s energy. Find archives and more at http://thefatofthelandblog.wordpress.com.