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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

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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.

Where Good Food Comes From: Vegetable Variety Trials

Sarah West

By Sarah West

This fall and winter, we will explore where good food comes from: the net of institutions, organizations, and activism that helps keep our local food community robust.

As farmers’ market shoppers, we’ve come to know many of our foods by name. Gone are the days when a tomato was just a tomato; now we want Brandywine, Purple Calabash, Oregon Star. Anonymous berries just won’t do anymore and we wait in line for Chesters, Triple Crowns, or Hoods. We make the effort to remember these names because we remember the flavors that come with them.

A marketplace of flavor—of vegetables with names—is infinitely more exciting than one that focuses on appearance or price point alone. Diversity brings depth and possibility, along with the thrill of new discovery. Home cooks and chefs alike are attracted to novelty, the next charismatic flavor to inform and enliven their craft. Small farmers and seed breeders help to provide and create that diversity. Behind every choice you make at a farmer’s booth, there are a hundred other choices that have already been made not only regarding how to best cultivate and harvest a high quality vegetable, but how to choose which of a myriad possible varieties to grow and how to select for traits that will attract both farmers and eaters.

Our local OSU agricultural research station, NWREC (North Wilammette Research and Extension Center), has recently restarted an old tradition of public vegetable variety trials. Unlike the secretive work of seed breeders developing new (often patentable) varieties, a public trial consists of varieties already released (or near release) and its purpose is to compare attributes of similar plants. I recently attended an open field day at NWREC with a group of area growers to have a look at the crops and taste the differences. The one-acre site is planted in a patchwork of varieties and doubles as a learning garden for the center’s educational programs (including the excellent Growing Farms course that helps landowners evaluate and develop their small ag ambitions).

This year’s trials focused primarily on the Asian specialty market, with Thai basil, leaf celery, cilantro, yu choi, and gailan. We also got to taste a selection of soon-to-be released beets from breeders at the University of Wisconsin, and still-in-development mild habaneros, a project of OSU breeder Jim Myers.

While the majority of the varieties we tasted and discussed are not the newest releases, most farmers don’t have the time to grow out test plots to compare which leaf celery or cilantro performs best in our local climate. When a public institution (or non-profit organization like the Organic Seed Alliance) invests the time and acreage into trials such as this, it provides local farmers with valuable information that allows them to more efficiently grow and bring to market the best in quality and flavor. Such meetings provide the secondary benefit of gathering farmers to share their experiences and resources about specific crops.

   

Vegetable trials like NWREC’s are open-ended, designed to create a pool of information rather than definitive conclusions. The outcome of such a trial is the experience of seeing varieties side-by-side, tasting them one after the other to pinpoint why one stands out among the crowd. If you have ever tried comparing a pool of samples with a group of friends or coworkers, you know that there is rarely a consensus. A public vegetable trial such as this allows farmers and chefs access to the resources they need to make their own decisions.

   

Doing the slow work of finding out what grows (and sells) best is part of a farmer’s job, and our country has a long tradition of assisting them with development and field testing. Though almost all publicly funded breeding work assists commodity agriculture (and associated big businesses), a small fraction of that work is returning to its roots as a vehicle to enhance local food systems. In a scenario where money and market share are usually the guiding principles, a test plot of Thai basil starts to seem like a good omen for the future.

Farmers markets are a collection of businesses, a temporal grocery store where each shelf comes with a smiling face and a wealth of knowledge about the products they produce and sell. Weíre giving our vendors the spotlight to share more about their role in the Hillsdale market community.

 

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-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 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 - 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.

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.