Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Pommes d'Amour

Pommes d'amour, "love apples," is a French nickname for tomatoes. This time of year, my relationship with tomatoes tends toward love/hate. Of course, I love the intense, summery flavor of heirloom tomatoes ripened on the vine. The first tomato-basil salad of the season is a rite of passage. But by late August, certainly by mid-September, when they're no longer a novelty, when the air cools and other, more autumnal flavors beckon, the bounty of pommes d'amour can become, well, not hateful, but certainly a bit burdensome.

Platters of them sit on the counter, some have split and leak juice, clouds of fruitflies amass, the kitchen smells funny. It kills me to toss them, though; at some of the tonier farmers' markets in town, a specimen like this voluptuous Big Rainbow, gone soft at the bottom, would set you back five bucks! As I haul another bowl out to the compost, my mind rings like a cash register.

Some folks can tomatoes, or freeze them whole, or make sauce. I have to say, I do not crave tomatoes in mid-winter. My palate has come around to the idea of seasonal eating to the extent that I delight all winter in squash, in sauerkraut, in the roots we've stored, the hardy greens that last in our Minnesota garden sometimes into January. But there are times when some brighter notes are welcome, so each year I do preserve some tomatoes, and this is my favorite way to do it:

Tomato Gratin

This is so simple I scarcely dare call in a "recipe." For this version I took about five pounds of tomatoes, a mix of all the types in the photo above, which included Black Krim, Brandywine, Green Zebra, Big Rainbow, and others. I cut out the stem end, and just with a paring knife, open the tomato and squeeze out most of the seeds. But don't fuss with this part; just seed very quickly, and then simply tear the tomatoes into pieces and drop them into a big, wide gratin dish, like you see here:

Then drizzle with a couple of tablespoons of olive oil, and slice a couple of big cloves of garlic over it, if you like, and some herbs, also optional, but I usually add a good bit of basil and thyme.

Then pop it in the oven, fairly low: 325 or if you have convection, 300 convection. In 20 minutes or so give it a stir--the herbs will float to the top so you need to push them back in. Then just let it cook until it is reduced by about half. This will take around three hours. Stir every half hour. At the end it will look like this:

Pull out the thyme twigs. The skins are still in there. Some may be a little tough; most will have softened sufficiently. You can turn this into a smoother sauce by running it through a food mill. I don't bother. I freeze it now in pint containers, and when it's frozen pop out the frozen bricks and store in a plastic freezer bag. Then you've got sauce for pasta or pizza, embellished with some sauteed onion and garlic and a splash of wine, say. And it can be used to add bright tang and color to stews and soups. Or, just smear it on some good bread, top with a little grated cheese, and run it under the broiler.

That sounds really good. Is it time for lunch yet? Dang it, 8:21 a.m. Well, who says you can't have pizza toast for breakfast?

Text and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Ready, set, ferment.

I have to admit that even I find my enthusiasm for salted, fermented cabbage a little curious. I guess that five-plus years of intense bread explorations have only increased my fascination with the transformation that fermenting works on humble ingredients to make them delicious and distinctive. Flour and water into marvelous bread and grapes into wine are a little more dramatic than cabbage into...salty, smelly, tangy cabbage; nevertheless, it is a transformation, and one that opens all sorts of culinary opportunities.

Without sauerkraut, which the French call choucroute, we wouldn't have that wonderful, emblematic Alsatian dish, choucroute garnie, braised sauerkraut with smoked meats and sausages (you can do a fish or a game rendition, as well; we have done both). And you wouldn't have the simple, savory, satisfying Choucroute Bread Pudding that I wrote about last spring/late winter. There you'll also find the recipe for Sauerkraut Made in Jars. (After it was shredded and salted, that cabbage in the first photo--over three pounds--very nearly fit into the quart jar. The recipe says five pounds of cabbage makes two quarts, so that's pretty accurate.)

The combination of 'kraut and smoked meats in choucroute garnie is fitting and well as delicious, I think. Smoking and fermenting are both age-old methods for preserving food; turning the resulting products from a mere means of survival into a gastronomic tour de force is, of course, quintessentially French. The current interest in these atavistic methods is part of the reaction against processed food, fast food, faux foods; it's part of the renewed appreciation for local, seasonal eating, and a recognition that great food doesn't have to be fancy, expensive, imported. Some will say that la nouvelle cuisine is dead, but what was at the heart of that movement is what's behind the local and seasonal credo; it's only the overly fussy, effete wing of nouvelle cuisine that went out of fashion (which is not to say that it's extinct, by far).

There are lots of variations on standard sauerkraut, though I mainly make the unadorned version. Some people add herbs or spices to the fermenting cabbage; I figure I'll add extra flavors when I come to cooking with it. But this time, just for fun, I made one jar that combined the cabbage with a few beets and carrots, julienned on the Benriner . And in another jar I combined cabbage and apples, just because, with this sort of orchard we've come to own, we now have a wicked lot of apples.... I'll let you know how that turns out. You can ferment lots of different vegetables this way. Following the guidance of Sandor Katz in Wild Fermentation I made fermented beets and turnips last fall. The beets were great, the turnips, not so much.
The 'kraut in jars recipe comes from The Country Gourmet , a book well-worth owning if you come across it. I see you can get a copy for a penny, plus shipping at Amazon. That's, um, just pretty amazing.

I set those jars to fermenting on Monday. Today's Wednesday, and when I checked on them today, I could hear them fizzing away, especially the one with the beets. Within a week or so they should be nice and sour. We'll revisit this tangy topic, with recipes, in a few weeks' time

Text and photos copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Eat Local: We Dare Ya...

It's that time of year once again when those "Eat Local Challenge" promotions start to appear. Local and seasonal is what we're all about, of course; that's the Trout Caviar credo. It's the "challenge" part we don't care for. It used to seem that our Upper Midwest summers lasted about two months, if we were lucky. You had your fill of green beans, sweet corn, and tomatoes from late June 'til Labor Day, and then it was canned peas and frozen broccoli for the rest of the long, dismal fall, winter, and spring.

That is no longer the case. With growing awareness of the vast variety of vegetables we can grow here, with expanding tastes and knowledge of delicious ways to preserve food, with farmers' markets where we can shop for fresh produce up to Thanksgiving and sometimes beyond, it is truly a brave new world of local eating, even here in the frozen North.

And so here is what I suggest we do with it: Celebrate. If we can't meet the "challenge" of local eating at this time of year, if we even have to promote the idea in those terms, I fear the cause is lost.

But I know it's not a lost cause, not at all. So celebrate, rejoice, exult, and dig in. There isn't a better time of year for great local food, nor, in my humble opinion, a better place for it than right here. But, I may be biased....

(The photo is our friend Melinda's birthday "diorama," as she puts it. She likes food and she doesn't like things, so each August we put together a bounteous basket of good things to eat from garden, woods, and stream (I haven't gotten out to the stream much this year, so no fish in this one). This is actually a rather restrained example.)

Text and photo copyright 2008 by Brett Laidlaw