Thursday, September 29, 2011


If you were a medieval farm laborer, you'd be getting paid today, for the last 3 month's work, as September 29th is a traditional Quarter Day, known in the Anglican calendar as the feast of St. Michael, or Michaelmas (pronounced "mikkelmuss" because, well, England). Fans of Thomas Hardy may remember Tess Durbeyville selling her services at a Quarter Day fair, and the drunken Michael Henchard auctioning off his family in an act that would come back to haunt him, decades later (hmmm, modern politicians would probably do well to re-read The Mayor of Casterbridge).

The Quarter Days--Lady Day (spring equinox), Midsummer Day (June solstice), Michaelmas (roughly the autumn equinox), and Christmas (winter solstice) and Cross-quarter days (Imbolc on February 2, May Day, Lammas (August 1), and Samhain (Halloween)--mark the ancient agrarian calendar.

Following these days puts you in rhythm with the earth and the ancestors, and reminds us that Hallmark and Macy's did not invent holidays, nor in fact did any modern religion. The holidays--holy days--are given to us by the universe, to mark the changing of the seasons and the passage of the earth around the sun. By focusing on the seasonal and celestial origin of these events, it becomes easier to resist the consumer culture that is consuming us, and to focus on the creative, the productive, and the holy.

It's traditional to make a goose on Michaelmas, although I'm making beef stew, since that's what I have in the house (and you see how out of rhythm I am? Why didn't I get a goose?) Other Michaelmas foods are carrots and other roots, and oat cakes.

The soup below is not very traditional, except inasmuch as it's made with a current harvest.

Cucumber Soup with corn and new potatoes
4-5 large cucumbers
1 large onion
1 T chopped fresh parsley
1 cup fingerling or new potatoes
niblets from 1-2 ears corn
2 T butter

1 tablespoon cornstarch (optional; for thickening. This recipe is from my MIL, who puts cornstarch in everything)
1 quart stock (chicken or vegetable; make sure it's a "white" stock or the soup will be ugly!)
>1 cup milk
2 cups half-half
2 yolks eggs
pepper and salt to taste

If any of the potatoes are larger than bite sized, cut them up, then boil them to al dente (not completely done!) and set aside.

Peel, seed and dice the largest cucumbers, leaving one for garnish. Dice onions and saute in butter with the parsley in the soup pot about 5 minutes (the cukes will turn a bright light green). Add water or stock, simmer 20 minutes. Mix cornstarch with milk, stir into the soup and bring it to a bare simmer, allowing to simmer for 10 minutes. Don't bring it to a full boil. Puree with an immersible mixer (or in a blender if you don't have a mixer; if you use a blender, let it cool a little before decanting it).

Lightly beat the half-half and egg yolks, pour a little boiling soup on to them, stirring at same time, then return it to the hot soup, stirring constantly; it must not boil again or it will curdle.

Add the potatoes and corn and heat; remember don't let it boil! Season to taste with white pepper and salt.

Saturday, September 24, 2011


At this time of year, all I seem to make is soup.

Roasted squash, pear and leek soup
1½ pounds sqash (I used delicata)
2 pears
2-3 leeks
2-3 cups leek stock
Creme fraiche

Heat oven to 350/170

Halve and seed the squash; halve the pears. Prepare a baking sheet with spray oil, and place the pears and squash face down. Trim the greens off the leeks, and also place the leeks on the sheet. Bake for 45 minutes or until a knife slips easily into the squash. (Save the seeds and greens.) Allow to cool.

While the vegetables are roasting, use the greens from the leeks, and the squash seeds to make a stock: boil about 20 minutes in 4 cups of water, with a handful of green peppercorns and salt to taste. Boil down to 3 cups. Drain and set aside.

Peel the squash and 1 pear, and grind them to pulp in a blender or food processor, using a little of the stock. Transfer the pulp to a large soup pot, and add stock until it's a little more watery than you want in the finished soup. You will probably have stock left over; conserve it. Blend the squash soup smooth with an immersible blender. Simmer for about 10 to 15 minutes, until it's the consistency you like.

Cut up the leeks and the other pear (peel on), and gently fold into the soup. Garnish with freshly ground nutmeg and a dollop of creme fraiche. Drizzle very lightly with local honey.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

The seed saver's dilemma

A few weeks ago I was talking seeds with some people from The Peterson Garden Project. I'm not really one of those seed people that just likes to buy seeds, but I flat out love harvesting seeds. There's something about growing plants from seeds that I grew that is just magical to me. It's an agrarian feedback loop.

I like the idea of the "backyard cultivar" as well--a plant that you've saved seeds from for so many years, that it's micro-adapted to your garden. I'm convinced my alyssum (which reseeds itself, no need to save them) and Black Krim tomatoes qualify.

Plus it's fascinating learning how different plants produce seeds--biennials that you leave to overwinter, and eggplants or cukes that you have allow to overripen so that the seeds get ripe too. I have rows of little jars of different colored tomato gel on the window sill, waiting to ferment the slime off so I can dry the seeds for next year.

But where was I? Right--talking to people from Peterson Garden, who introduced me to the idea of seed purchases as small business support. "I like to buy seeds to support the seed companies," my friend said.

And in the past two weeks we've seen this at work, with the imminent possible demise of Landreth Seeds, not only America's oldest seed company, but America's oldest company, period. Older than Chase Bank. Older than the New York Times. Older than Sears. And still local, family-owned and operated, and in dire straits.

I hope it's not because people like me aren't buying seeds.

Rainbow salsa
Golden, green, purple, and red tomatoes (plus any other color you have), about 3-4 lbs total, or 2 small to medium tomatoes of each color.
1 large cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced
1 cup fresh cilantro, minced fine (will be less than a cup when minced)
1 medium onion, minced
hot peppers to taste (I used four shishitos, a small mild pepper)
Juice of 1/2 lime
Salt to taste

Makes about 8 cups

Chop and mix the vegetables. I like to drain the tomatoes for about 10 minutes to reduce the amount of liquid. Mix it all together, let it sit overnight.

By the way, you can help Landreth, by placing your fall seed, bulb and set purchases with them, and by ordering a catalog, or ten.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

As American as

Nothing more American than apples on this uber-American day. I got 10 pounds of them from last week, so I've spent the last few days making stuff.

I started with a simple applesauce--peel and core, and boil the hell out of a gallon of diced apples. Dump in honey for sweetener, and lemon juice for preserving. Hot water bath, and I've got a quart and half of apple sauce.

I used Early Golds; these seem mostly to be recommended by the "Early" part of the variety name. I actually happen to like mealy apples, but these are a little mealy, even for me. They make a nice tart sauce, but if you like your sauce sweet, this is not the apple for you.

Last year I discovered that apple peels make a great stock, so I froze some of them to use for that in a future risotto or soup. About 4 quarts of peels, however, I used for my latest torture of trying to make jelly. I boiled the peels and cores until I had, essentially, apple stock (about 15 minutes), ran them through a food mill, and then strained out the liquid. Followed an apple jelly recipe to the *#* -%&$#&^ letter and I still appear to have apple syrup instead of apple jelly. It can't be that hard, right? I mean illiterate pioneers and immigrants can make a jelly set up, why can't I?

Still having a lot of apples, I started hunting through my favorite recipe sites: Orangette, and Chocolate and Zucchini, and Southern and finally found a fantastic list of apple recipes at the ever wonderful Coconut and Lime. I made this apple bread, and I'll be making meat loaf for dinner.

And that's all about as American as Apple Pie, if you ask me.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

No funny vegetables

There's a concept in fine arts marketing known as "threshold" art--it's the stuff that gets people past the doorway, that gets them to buy that first ticket. In visual art it's Monet, probably; in theater it's the musicals put on by the regional houses. In classical music it's often the school field trip to Symphony Hall. It's familiar, not too expensive, easy to understand, and ideally located right in the community.

The threshold experience gives you a taste for more. No one ever started going to the theater by checking out the experimental storefront in the sketchy neighborhood, or instrumental music by buying a subscription to the Kronos Quartet. But they just might get there via Brigadoon or Beethoven.

I'm sure this concept exists in other fields as well--you don't buy your first food processor as a high-end professional one from some obscure online source. You go down to Target and buy it on price and looks.

Home grown vegetables need a threshold level, too. I've got 220 square feet growing for two nutrition programs. The recipients are very excited about the produce I bring them, until I bring them a Dragon's Egg cucumber (pale yellow and fist shaped), or a light green or dark yellow zucchini (heck, a zucchini, period), or a green-when-ripe tomato, all planted by well-meaning volunteers who had already passed this threshold.

These people are barely familiar with standard vegetables. Several times this summer I've gotten "what's that" accompanied by a skeptical, slightly disgusted look. And I leave the veggie and walk away, thinking, well that's going in the garbage.

Several gardeners I've worked with over the past two summers are gaga to plant unusual vegetables--black carrots and white eggplants and blue tomatoes--for kids, food pantries, and new gardeners, as though somehow if the vegetables are weird enough they'll get eaten, whereas the ordinary ones are just too, well, ordinary and that's why people aren't trying them. I admit, the shock value is fun and even educational, but if the point is that you want people to eat this stuff, don't hand them something that doesn't look, to them, like food.

If you're trying to get someone to do something new, don't start at the geek end. Start at the familiar. Some nice Better Boys and standard Romas are going to look familiar and safe. A good old Danvers carrot will get eaten--and the person eating it, who has maybe never had a freshly dug carrot before, is going to be amazed at the difference in taste to the orange wooden sticks they sell at the Safeway.

I feel the same way about heirlooms. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a hybrid tomato, grown from seed or nursery start. Why disdain or discourage the new gardener, because somehow their effort isn't pure enough? I never grew heirlooms until I started talking with other gardeners--we're talking years and years of standard hybrids--I needed it to be comfortable and familiar before I went out on that limb.

There's safety in the familiar. We don't need more foodies. We just need people to eat fresh, home grown produce.