Tomatoes Homegrown

August 31, 2009

You might know that country ditty by Guy Clark “Homegrown Tomatoes.” The chorus goes:

Homegrown tomatoes homegrown tomatoes,
What’d life be without homegrown tomatoes,
Only two things that money can’t buy,
That’s true love & homegrown tomatoes.

If ever there’s a time to be bullish about growing vegetables at home, tomatoes are that time; if there’s ever a time to be arrogant about fresh vegetables, homegrown tomatoes are that time. But here’s the rub: if all you grow are Big Boys and their commercial ilk, you still won’t know that time.

The only way to get Guy Clark’s comparison is to grow some so-called Heirloom varieties. I have a bush of Cherokee Purples that are producing nice large fruit with a rich and intense flavor that is wonderful, but there are many others that are just as good.  Here’s a pile of them from my bushes and my neighbors’, along with a few other standards. The big one on the right is the Cherokee Purple.  If you grow one Heirloom variety, try that one:

Summer Vegetables

I picked the first ripe one for the season, sliced it, and dressed it with some EVOO, some good balsamic vinegar, some basil (Italian and Holy), and some fresh black pepper. No salt. My friend Joan and I ate a plate of them, and the taste was orgasmic. It reminded us both of what fresh means.  Later I had some at my friends John and Mark’s house with Mozz and bruschetta.  Then again at my house with cukes and dill and green onion, and yet again just alone with basil.  What’d summer be without ’em?

Fresh Tomatoes and Basil

Tomato and Mozz on bruschetta

Tomatoes and Cuke salad

Fresh does not mean the opposite of frozen. In this case, it means these tomatoes served as simply as possible, as we did at first. Fresh means you pick your zucchini, slice it, and grill it within an hour after it was picked. Fresh means you pick some golden raspberries of a kind that are too fragile to ship, and throw them on some homemade waffles.
I’m growing my tomatoes in barrels and planters this year.  At their size now, they require watering and tending every day; I can’t go on a day’s vacation without fear they’ll dry out or get knocked over by a wind or storm.

Tomato in barrel

That’s true love & homegrown tomatoes.

Vegetable Kids

July 11, 2009
“Where is my neighbor that I can eat his garden?”—a question that my neighbor Nicole said her son Dylan asked her one day. Nicole and Ryan Teasley have been my neighbors for years, and I watched Dylan and Gracie grow up. Now the kids are learning to ride bikes.

The Teasleys are vegetarians, and their two kids are happier than most to eat their vegetables. Earlier in the year they had nibbled the mesclun I had in large pots, including the arugula. They were over one day recently, and as I was talking to their parents about the various herbs I have in my garden, the kids got interested in trying them. They tasted the tarragon, the rosemary, the lovage, the thyme—even the flowers of the bergamot or bee balm.

Their interest in and positive response to fresh herbs and odd salad possibilities was a good lesson that what we think of as standard children’s food prejudices isn’t a standard. Not all kids crave bologna sandwiches, or mac and cheese, although Gracie and Dylan certainly like mac and cheese.

They’re very healthy kids, so it’s also clear that meat protein is not a requirement for health. Nicole and Ryan note that they eat soy “meats” and beans for their protein. Dylan, especially, likes raw foods and is a salad fanatic.

What a pleasure to have two young children in my garden wanting to try the edible greenery. For a foodie like myself, it’s a refreshing contrast to so many local kids who wouldn’t eat anything but hot dogs and iceberg lettuce.

For an instant, as I watched them pinch off a leaf of tarragon and tell me it tastes like black licorice, I felt like maybe the next generation, whatever they call themselves, might just make this country a better place. Foodwise, at least.

Thanks, Gracie. Thanks, Dylan. You made my tarragon smile.

Your Grandma’s Pot

June 28, 2009

Everybody has their favorite kitchen object. I got an old round cast-iron griddle at a flea market many years ago that is perhaps my favorite piece of cooking equipment. It fits perfectly on one burner, and it allows me to cook more than one thing at a time—eggs, potatoes, and shrimp for breakfast; grilled cheese and sliced zucchini for lunch. I use it a lot.

A friend of mine, Ted Mann in Arlington Virginia, is always looking for antique kitchen stuff at flea markets and church bazaars and giving them to me. He’s obsessed with old kitchen equipment, and I sometimes get the benefit of his obsession.

He found a few things for me last year that are some of my favorite items: French steel sauté pans and a 14” oval copper-bottomed sauté pan, presumably for fish, for $10. The latter has that wonderful, hammered finish that you don’t see in modern versions.  In fact, I found out that the company that makes it is the same line of copper cookware that Julia Child used.

Ted also has some nice old appliances. One is an old toaster that looks vaguely Art Deco or perhaps Mission inspired, but it is small, and recently we had a good laugh trying to toast some large Tuscan bread slices in it. We just had to do a turn-and-toast a couple of times.

Ted’s found me a couple of beautiful antique tools, like this whisk, which I have hanging up.

Recently, he got a whole box of cookware, including a set of 1960s Magnalite cookware for a few bucks. This was the earliest aluminum cookware for the home, and it’s still some of the best.

Like all old things, old pots, pans, and whisks have stories, and you wish they could talk about them: the kid who set off the fire alarm because he buttered the bread before he put it in the toaster, or the grandmother who used the whisk to make a cake for her husband not long before he died, or the carving knife that sliced a turkey on that lonely Christmas during WWII.

I don’t know my griddle’s or my pans’ stories but I connect to them anyway. I know that my old tools have a culinary history and that someone somewhere was comforted by what they cooked with them.

And I continue the tradition, and the stories. Except the part about buttering the bread before it goes into the toaster.

The Best Gumbo Ever

May 12, 2009

I’ve had stuff in my freezer for months waiting to go into my next big pot of badass gumbo, and finally I decided to clean out the freezer and do it—leftover turkey from Thanksgiving, turkey stock (I thought), shrimp, sausage, and a couple of squirrels from Terry my neighbor (the same one who gave me the trout in an earlier posting).

The squirrels were the wild card here—new for me—but sheesh, they more or less have parts like a chicken, right, except for arms where wings would be? And except for the fact that they kind of look vaguely fetus-like…

I started out with what now has become a normal gumbo beginning—first you make a roux.
(Traditionally gumbo could be thickened with roux, or okra, or filé powder, but not all three. Today, roux-based gumbos are common, with okra thrown in, and filé as a kind of condiment seasoning at the end.)

A gumbo roux is dark, and it’s easy to burn, so I keep the fire low. I used 10 tablespoons each of olive oil and flour. It takes two hours for me to produce a good roux on low heat, but at least I don’t ruin it. Here’s the roux at the beginning

and the end of the two hours.

Then into the roux went 4 cups of chopped onion, bell pepper, and celery, and that cooked for 10 minutes.

Then in went what I thought was frozen turkey stock—except that it wasn’t. It was another roux + vegetables gumbo base that I had frozen for a quick start next time. So now I had a gumbo base cooking that was as thick as paste. I had to thin it out with lots more canned stock and chopped tomatoes (and a bottle of beer), which gave me a lot of liquid to work with. This was going to be a big pot o’ gumbo, really big.

All I could do is try to fill the void with whatever I had—in this case, two pounds of smoked sausage, two pounds of shrimp, two squirrels, 8 cups of chopped turkey. In case it wasn’t enough, I took out the fryer I had and began to thaw that.

The shrimp I boiled for 5 minutes, cut each in half horizontally (to allow more shrimp pieces to permeate the soup), and boiled the shrimp water down to concentrate the flavor before putting it in the gumbo.

A classic formula for gumbo has a trio of meats: a red meat, a fowl, and a fish or shellfish. The squirrel was an odd West Virginia touch—Creole meets Mountaineer.

I had no experience with squirrel, so I tried first just cooking the whole squirrels in the gumbo liquid for 30 minutes and then trying to cut them up. I wasn’t very efficient, so I put all the mutilated parts into a strainer and continued to cook the squirrel in the gumbo. Twenty minutes later, they were still tough, so I took the parts out and braised them in a separate pot with some wine. The meat is very lean, but not at all gamey.

The whole process took most of Mother’s Day, but since my recently deceased mother was a great cook, she would have been right there with me. And she was. OK, except that mother only made seafood gumbo, with shrimp, crabs, and oysters, and she might have winced at the squirrel carcasses.

I like serving gumbo with the rice on top for color contrast, garnished with chopped parsley and green onions. And in this case, a bit of braised squirrel in the bowl.

Happy mother’s day, mother. Except for the sausage, turkey, and squirrel, my gumbo is your gumbo.

Pineapple Palate

May 7, 2009

I really love fresh pineapple, but whenever it’s served in restaurants or on buffets, it’s either canned or never ripe enough. To get really good, sweet pineapple—assuming you don’t live in a pineapple growing region—you have to let it ripen at home past the point you think is long enough. Most information about pineapples say that they do not get sweeter as they ripen off the stalk.

That has not been my experience. But to get the best taste, I’ve found that there should be no green anywhere on the fruit. Yellows and browns and oranges are the right, ripe colors. It can take two weeks after I bring a pineapple home before I cut it, because most supermarkets sell green fruit, not bush-ripened fruit.

The first picture is a pineapple I bought a couple of days ago. It’s mostly green with a bit of yellow toward the bottom. Buy a pineapple with some color at the bottom and it will ripen better than a completely green one. Still, if I tried to eat it now, it would be hard and too acidic—and frankly, flavorless.
The next picture is of a pineapple I’ve had sitting around for over 2 weeks. There is no green left at all. It had a very strong pineapple aroma. You have to be careful it doesn’t overripen, but if it does, just cut out any brown areas you see after you cut it, and it’s fine.

It ripens from bottom to top, so the bottom of the pineapple will always be sweeter than the top. Some websites say to ripen a pineapple upside down so the sugars get more distributed. I don’t know if this is true, but it can’t hurt, assuming you can find a place to hang or stand it upside down.

You can cut a fresh, ripe pineapple into slices and then peel and core them, or peel it first and then slice and core. Grill some slices with a bit of honey and bbq sauce and it’s a wonderful accompaniment to barbequed pork or chicken.

Warning: Pineapple contains a protein enzyme, which means it can be used to tenderize meat, but some people are also sensitive to fresh pineapple’s enzymes. My friend Mark says that if he eats fresh pineapple, his mouth and throat swell. If you cook pineapple, it eliminates the problem.

I’m glad my palate is pineapple friendly.

Mesclun is Not a Drug

April 24, 2009

I planted some mesclun (salad mix) seeds five weeks ago, a bit early perhaps, and they seemed to take forever to sprout. I’m impatient, but coaxing them is useless. Giving plant food to seeds is overkill.

Mesclun is a French dialect word meaning “mix”, so technically “mesclun mix” is redundant, but it’s not any worse than “PIN number”. Such is language use.

My “gourmet” mix includes green and red lettuces, arugula, curly endive, Russian kale. The combinations vary from seed company to seed company; read the labels. There is usually a combination of lettuces and bitter greens, and some curly something-or-other to make it look “gourmet.” They’re all delicious.

Anybody can grow salad, even in the city. Salad mixes can grow with less sun than summer vegetables require, and they’re perfectly happy in cool weather. Growing your own won’t replace going to the green grocer or supermarket for greens, but it’s a satisfying act to pick a few of your homegrown lettuce leaves and throw them into the salad bowl or on a sandwich.

My mesclun babies are now about an inch and a half high, and they’ll need to be thinned soon. They’re growing in barrels so I can tend them more easily.

Annual herbs are also easy to grow in barrels, but you do need some sun, so if your condo balcony faces northwest, you’re out of luck.

But more on the mesclun as it grows up.

Nothing Fishy

April 22, 2009

Wednesday, April 22

My neighbor, Terry, is a good fisherman, and the local streams here are stocked with trout. Terry’s wife doesn’t particularly like to gut fish for cooking, so I often get the fruits de mer of his labor.

I love fresh trout, not only because of the great taste fresh fish has, but because of a couple of good lessons it teaches me. One is what fresh fish look and smell like. The trout that Terry gives me has virtually no smell (they’re fresh water fish) except a kind of clean fish smell.

This gives me a comparison when I want to buy fresh fish at a market. I have no difficulty asking the person behind the fish counter to let me smell the fish before I buy it. If it smells ‘fishy’ or off in any way, I don’t bother. I can get something better in the freezer aisle.

A clean fish smell, except when I gut them. Then it’s easy to understand why Terry’s wife might not want to do this. But that’s the second lesson. You remind yourself when you disembowel a whole animal that you are eating something that was alive recently, and you try to appreciate the ladder of life that permits one species to consume another one.

I can understand vegetarianism, but I can’t understand people who eat animal protein but who do not want to know that it comes from animals. Such culinary denial. If we all had to catch and slaughter our own animal protein, we’d probably eat a lot less of it.

Thank you, Messieurs Trout (and Fisherman Terry). That I am higher on the food chain than you may just be an accident. But in this universe, my culinary spirit is grateful. Excuse me while I go get some flour and oil for the pan.


April 19, 2009

Thursday, April 16

I get on food jags. On the ides of April (technically, the 13th) I bought a pack of low fat, low carb sandwich wraps and whole wheat pita, which gave me an excuse to play with those breads for a while.

A basic ham and Swiss cheese wrap was first—with cuke slices, red bell pepper strips, Southwestern sweet-hot mustard, and a sprinkle of chili powder. Que alegría.

Next was one with more Swiss, herb-coated chicken breast slices, asparagus spears, and some homemade Creole remoulade sauce (made with homemade blender mayo, of course).

I was on a roll. I was on a wrap and roll.

Then a Greek, gyro-style one, but porkless. Instead, some leftover lamb from Easter rolled into a cone-shaped pocketless pita, ‘me ola’ (with everything): tomato (wretched winter ones for now), thinly sliced onion, and homemade tzatziki sauce (made with homemade yogurt). Bon Appetit. Or as they say in Greek, Kali orexi.

Or rather, bon wrappetit.

Easter Sunday, April 12

April 12, 2009

I always buy lamb for Easter, but I waited too late this year. All that the supermarkets had left on Saturday were expensive crown racks. My favorite supermarket here, Martin’s (a subsidiary of Giant) did have some cheaper shank ends, so I bought a twin pack for $6.50. They also had hormone-free whole fryers for half-price ($3.13) and ham butts for an astounding .58/lb ($4.38). A good meat harvest for under $15.

I marinated the lamb overnight in a standard mix of garlic, olive oil, lemon juice, and rosemary. Standard but never tiring. I roasted the two shanks for a couple of hours; they should have been braised, but I like the smell of roasting lamb on Easter.

For the rest of the Easter meal, I mashed some Louisiana yams and steamed some broccoli, and a colorful plate it was. I added some slices of the ham butt. Lamb and yam and ham make a harmonious ménage a tois.

I feel a Biblical connection with the lamb, and a cultural connection to the ham and the two vegetables, having grown up Italian in New Orleans, LA. It would be an odd combination in other lamb-eating parts of the world, but for me it was food as a reflection of myself.

Dare I say, the meal resurrected my spirit.

The salad says spring

April 9, 2009

Finally, edible green stuff is starting to spout in my yard, and I can start grazing on things for my first real spring salad. My friend Lu chides me by saying “Are you going out to get grass to eat again?” At least I know where the “grass” comes from. Does he think lettuce from Chile is any safer to eat?

Young dandelion leaves are a mildly bitter addition to my bowl (best picked before the flowers emerge), the sort of taste that radicchio or endive provides.

Violets are coming up now. The purple and white flowers are attractive and tasty, and weirdly interesting when you serve them to your friends, who wonder if you’ve lost your mind putting flowers in with the lettuce. The leaves are good, too, in moderation.

Wild onions are ubiquitous, but their taste is breath destroying; the chives and Egyptian onions that I planted are milder alliums.

I also get mache or corn salad resprouting from seeds I sprinkled about.

I love this time of year. It’s the first time I can hunt and harvest food not in a grocery store. I feel my taste buds waking up with the red buds (which are also tasty). This long cold spring is moving on finally. The salad says so.