November 27, 2008

Triumph of (or over) the Brussels sprouts

I don't know whether to declare victory or defeat. Perhaps, I should borrow a phrase from Jon Stewart, and declare the Brussels sprouts experiment a "Mission Accomplicated." Because that's what it was. Those 'sprouts were such a pain in my ass, they took forever to grow, they threw off the design of my neato cold frames, but oh.


they were so delicious.

((Disclaimer here is that the story of this harvest is slightly used news in that I've been sitting on this post (chewing on this post?) for several weeks now and have not had the time to put cursor to monitor. Forgive and forget, if you please.))

Remember this guy?And the cute little sprouts? (that only toward the end ceased to look like the nipples of a pregnant dog and more like veggies?) Well, on a dark and stormy night, a monster emerged from the shadows wielding sharp blades, a blinding light emanating from it's menacing brow.The monster swung, and hacked, and chopped.But nothing happened.

So the monster handed the terrifying blades to its co-monster, who swung and hacked and chopped.Again, to no avail. With an angry roar, both monsters grabbed the 'sprout and ripped it from the earth intact.

And then they washed it off and scratched their heads at what to do next.OK. Enough with the third-person.

Then we snapped off the leaves and determined that it would not fit in the oven to roast.It was enormous, and we soon discovered that cutting it was impossible.

Except, that is, with a table saw.The stalk of the Brussels sprout is amazing.That ring you see has the texture and density of wood, and no kitchen knife or garden shear could dent it. It's damn impressive.

So impressive, we had to eat it.

But first, I brushed it with some olive oil and garlic,and stuck in in the oven, whole, to roast at 420 degrees for about 10 or 15 minutes.

Sprinkled it with salt, served it on a platter and cut each sprout off with a paring knife.

It's the vegetarian's version of eating meat off the bone.

And it was de-lish.

November 23, 2008

Travels, part 1

I'm back.

Or somewhat back. I'm in that half-way state of mind that descends during a transition. To my right, the washing machine is humming along, trying to process an epic amount of dirty clothes, this here teabag is doing triple duty with yet another refill of hot water, and I'm sitting in a silent house, listening to the wind tickle the wind chimes and feeling the chill of November 23 in the Northern Hemisphere.

Many thousands of miles south, November 23 is very different. Having just returned from Mendoza, Argentina, I'm happy to testify that early summer exists somewhere right now. Baby pears are budding in endless orchards, tiny nibs that will someday turn into wine are sprinkled through a sea of vineyards at the foothills of the Andes. And though my lettuce out in the coldframes isn't so sure about this Yankee 20-degree spell, it is currently wiltingly hot and dry on the desert roads, way down there, at three in the afternoon.

Circadian rhythms notwithstanding, I'm experiencing a sort of biological whiplash. Not two weeks ago, I wrapped up the somewhat mournful process of tucking my autumn garden into its cold, dark bed, and was beginning to accept ever fewer hours of daylight each day. And suddenly, by technological and petroleum-fueled magic, it became June all around me.

This must be, I thought, how a recent divorcee feels at a wedding. Wistful, and a bit ironical, and jealous. Babies everywhere - baby grapes, baby basil plants, fistsfull of chicks, a mewing orange kitten - all in their earliest season. And I walked among them full of awareness of the difference time makes to the living thing, to my own garden, to myself and my loved ones. I am prone to this melancholic way of thinking anyway, but there at the feet of the Andes, where snow melt meets desert and earth gives way to crazy sculptures of rock and dirt, I felt at the bleeding edge of this thought, for days on end. And each night, as if to reinforce this mantra, came the stars, zillions of them, blinking unblinkinlgy, to frankly scare the hell out of me.

Some context is necessary, I realize. We were near Tupungato which is about 2 hours (not quite) southish of Mendoza - on the far west part of Argentina. Erik and I were fortunate to stay for a spell at Estancia San Pablo, an enormous (106,000 acre) ranch run by Walter and his wife, Karina (and their two knee-high babes). Walter deserves a blog entry to himself. If the Bible were rewritten in today's time, he would appear as a character in its pages.

My fuzzy brain is beginning to fail me and is crying out for a nap, but I'd like to get to my main point first. Out there on the ranch, life swirling around backed by huge mountains and an even bigger sky, I felt that I had stepped into an alternate universe. Everything felt so raw, imposing, indigestible and dangerous, and it felt foreign, unsafe, different, gorgeous. But this raw world, at the edge of comprehension for my urbanized sensibilities, is so much closer to the truth, ecologically speaking, than my own reality day-to-day. Which completely turns me on my head. I say I want that reality, that intimate closeness with the cycles of life.

What does it say about me if, when faced with what I revere, I am a bit afraid?

November 13, 2008

What to do with 467 apples (or how to make apple butter)

Last weekend, a very special friend (who's turning 4 in a few days) and I went on an apple adventure.

Here's Ramona pre-adventure:
One ppj sandwich, a brief nap, and two lollipops later, we arrived at Drew Farms in Westford, MA where the manager and I struck a deal: $10 tucked into the glove box of the white Dodge minivan parked in the lot, and Ramona and I could pick all the apples we could carry out.


They didn't know who they were dealing with.
This is how it went down:
And then. . .
This is the story of how we ended up with 467 apples, give or take 100.

In the past week, I've given away enough apples to put a dent in Whole Food's produce sales, used a bushel in a fashion shoot and made 40 - FORTY - jars of apple butter.

And this is how to do it.

Get apples. Lots.
Wash them off, quarter them and stick them in an oven-safe container. Don't worry about coring or peeling them.
Cover them up (with lids if you have them or foil if you don't) and stick them in the oven at 400 degrees for about an hour - or until they're really squishy.This is what they look like when they're done baking:
My goal in this apple butter fiasco was to do as little work as possible to the biggest possible effect, so I went and splurged at the hardware store and bought a food mill:The beauty of this method is that you don't have to peel or core anything. The food mill takes care of all the roughage by pushing through only the happy squishy parts.

So, recruit you friends (say hi to Jason), and have a cranking party. Spiked hot cider helps the process along.This is what is left in the food mill when all the apple goo is processed:The processed apple goo is the prettiest applesauce you've ever seen:Then gather your spices (cloves, allspice, cinnamon), some lemon juice and sugar.Add a lot of the spices (I have no idea how much) and a pile of sugar (about 2-4 cups, I'd guess - depends on how much apple sauce you have). Just make it taste good - remember you can always add more as the mixture cooks.As I was doing this, by the way, Erik and Jason were making fun my *precise* measuring. Erik asked me how I would describe the amount of lemon juice I added to this batch, and lacking a better answer, I held up the bottle and said, "full, minus this much."And then you just cook it for a long time over medium/low heat. Be careful to keep some sort of screen on top of the pot because it bubbles and pops like mad.As the mixture cooks, the sugars caramelize, turning it a deep, beautiful brown and giving it a distinctive apple butter-y flavor. You'll know it's done - well, when it tastes done - but especially when it's very thick and clings to a spoon. If you stir it and think, "applesauce!" - keep cooking.

Once you've lost your patience, or you want to go to bed, or it's actually done (whichever comes first), pour the apple butter into sterilized jars to within 1/4" of the top, screw the lids on tight and process in a boiling water bath for 10 minutes.At this point, I got crafty. Or Martha Stewart-y. Or just plain carried away again. I had to play dress-up with all 40 jars of apple butter.And now I have the happy dilemma of finding enough people to give these to.

Looking back, it was by far the easiest of all the canning/preserving/jamming sessions I've done this season. Not having to peel the apples is grand, and there was almost no waste. This is definitely a project I'll repeat, and I'd recommend it to anyone with kids who like to cook and make grand messes.

Oh, by the way, I'm out of town (Argentina) for the next 10 days, so if you don't see any new posts, that's why. I'll still be online, though, so if you leave a comment, I'll be sure to get it and respond. Unless you tell me you hate me. Then I won't.

Happy November, y'all!