Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Terrific Toms

As dynamic as the world of food is these days, there are many people who still live in the hotdish, meatloaf, burger and chops world, where lettuce means iceberg and salad dressing comes from a grocery store bottle--no shame in that, though I do think those people are missing out on some profound pleasures. For these kinds of eaters, a tomato is simply something round and red that isn't an apple. It may have a name, and if it does it's likely Beefsteak or Big Boy, but more likely it's an anonymous salad garnish purchased from a chain grocery store, and it tastes the same summer, fall, spring and winter, which is to say, it doesn't taste like much.

Then there are those of us who when we meet exchange a knowing glance, and whisper to each other, "Green Zebra, Black Cherokee, Prudens Purple, Jaune Flamme...", like members of a secret society reciting the arcane password that opens the door to the Inner Sanctum. We are the Brotherhood and Sisterhood of the Heirloom Tomato. We are smitten and obsessed, and our palates are spoiled and perfectly jaded, incapable of enjoying any tomato that doesn't come with pedigree and provenance, that doesn't still bear traces of the heat of the sun when it comes to hand and then to table.

Red Brandywine, Hillbilly Potato Leaf, Wapsipinicon Peach, Green Zebra, Matt's Wild Cherry, Big Rainbow, Japanese Trifele Black, Tigerella, Pineapple, Ethiopian Black. That's my roster of tomatoes for this year. At least I think it is. In the typical springtime planting frenzy I neglected to take good notes on what I planted where, and the Sharpie-marked plastic stakes I used to identify the plants in the garden have either been wiped clean by wind and sun, or have disappeared entirely--I wouldn't doubt that the slugs have eaten them....

Most of them I started myself from seed, the rest I picked up when the market plant vendors were trying to clear out their stock in June. With my own home starts I experimented this year, extending the lazy man's gardening approach by not bothering to put the seedlings under lights. We have a sunny south-facing room, and I figured that by late March, early April, that room would be getting plenty of good sun, and the seedlings would do just fine, and I was wrong wrong wrong about that, of course. Then a very warm April turned to a very chilly May, and the plants sat in their pots too long, and when finally I got around to planting my sadly lilliputian sproutlings, I patted the dirt around the plants thinking, "Well, as least we have good farmers markets here...".

But one of the things that keeps gardening interesting is how we never know what Great Nature has in store for us next. June turned warm again, and my seedlings took root and grew, and the summer stayed warm, grew hot, and pretty soon I was staking those plants, that I doubted would be anything more than ankle-biters. It has turned out, overall, to be a perfect summer for tomatoes--oh, except for the heavy rains that caused the fruits to crack, the humidity that encourages blossom-end rot, the too-warm nights that prevent the flowers from setting fruit, and the late blight that's now taking out one plant after another. Aside from that, pretty much flawless tomato growing conditions.

It is ever thus, that the good comes with bad and the light with shadow, and another perennial facet of the gardener's understanding is a familiarity with redemption. Of course you have to be a bit of a sinner to know how that feels; for me, nearly every year, Great Nature manages to forgive my laziness, presumptuousness, arrogance and general ignorance. She takes pity because, though I am hopelessly flawed in all these ways, I am also steadfast, and trusting. Hey, it's really all I've got going for me.

Forgive my digression. I meant to speak of the wonder of heirloom tomatoes, and the first thought that spurred me to take up the topic--well, after the sheer inspiration of a counter overflowing with those beautiful fruits--the first thought was that it has been within my gardening life that heirloom tomatoes, as well as the whole notion of heirloom or heritage crops and breeds, have become widely familiar. I grew up in that Beefsteak, Big Boy, Better Boy, Early Girl world. Who didn't? Those and other hybrid varieties were all anyone grew, because they were all anyone could get. And they were--and are--productive, disease-resistant, reliable; and let's not be snobs about it: a vine-ripe just picked Big Boy from your own garden can hold its own with just about anything.

But some of us are easily bored, require lots of stimulation. For us, it's a wonderful thing that the world of tomatoes has expanded so, not by going forward via the hybrid route, but by going back to those open-pollinated varieties so expressive of the times and places where they arose. I don't want to go all academic on you (in part because that would require way too much work on my part) but I'll just lay this little factoid on you: The Brandywine, perhaps the best known of all heirloom tomato varieties, first appeared in the Seed Savers Exchange Catalog in 1982. I was going to guess that most folks didn't know much about heirlooms before 30 years ago; I'm amazed to learn that virtually no one had even heard of a Brandywine prior to 1982.

No doubt the world is changing fast, accelerating even faster. I remember (kind of) ordering Brandywine, Double Rich and other heirloom tomato seeds from Seeds of Change back in the early '90s. I recall the delight of opening the seed catalogs each winter and seeing more and more heirloom varieties of tomatoes and other plants appearing in those enticing pages. Now, those of us who watched the emergence and boom of heirloom vegetables can only shake our heads and sigh to see the "heirloom backlash" that has sprouted up in the last couple of years, in the form of newspaper and magazine articles opining that heirloom tomatoes aren't worth eight bucks a pound, that a Mortgage Lifter can be as insipid and mealy as a winter hothouse tomato, or bemoaning that an heirloom plant isn't as productive, is more fickle about growing conditions, or more susceptible to disease.

And you know, I have to agree, no tomato, not even an organic heirloom, is worth $8 a pound. At that price, one of the Brandywines sitting on my counter right now would ring up at $12! And hell, it's mostly water! The $12 tomato is the Whole Foods price in June for import California tomatoes--the sucker's price, in other words. If you look at your produce purchases as status symbols, then you probably deserve to pay $12 per. It's more important to know where your tomatoes come from, and who grew them, than to buy by trendy names and price tags, duh.

But I digress again. In 1982, those of us cautiously poking our callow noses up into the rarified air of gourmandise were just catching wind of extra virgin olive oil, balsamic vinegar, kalamata olives (forget about nicoise or picholine), and pesto. It may shock some of you to know that plain old basil is a relative newcomer to farmers market stalls around here. We were just learning that not all "parmesan" cheese came from a green can, pre-grated. I'll digress within a digression to say that upon discovering the culinary alchemy that transpires upon combining several of those products, I consumed so much basil pesto over the span of a couple of years that I wound up going completely off the stuff for more than a decade--I'm just now getting back the taste for it.

Of the heirlooms I've grown more than a couple of times, some of my top picks are Brandywine, Green Zebra, Big Rainbow, and Matt's Wild Cherry. I've also really enjoyed Cherokee Purple, Black Krim, and Jaune Flamme. The last two years I've grown--or tried to grow--the Wapsipinicon Peach, named for a river in Iowa. I'm not sure how big these might grow under ideal conditions. Mine are about golfball size, and they're covered with peachy fuzz. Maybe it's the power of suggestion, but I find their flavor fruity, too, tart and sweet with a savory richness behind it all. I'll keep trying to grow them, though they appear the most blight-prone of any tomato I've ever grown. I suspect it might wither under the force of a sidewise glance.

But I don't care. I might not grow those every year. I'll remember them with pleasure, regardless. There are literally hundreds of heirloom tomato varieties available now, and while I've no desire to try them all, I'm delighted by the selection, and by what it says about our sensibility regarding the food we eat. To me, the most meaningful backlash is the one that turned away from selecting tomato varieties for uniformity and "ship-ability," and back toward those old varieties, each with a taste and a story all its own.

Each year I wonder, briefly, if it's worth it to start my own seeds, and I succumb, more briefly still, to doubts about whether those heirlooms really are over-hyped, do I really like tomatoes all that much, don't we get sick of plate after plate of sliced tomatoes with basil when the glut of late summer is on? Maybe so, but I persevere (remember what I said about steadfast?), and each year when the first tomatoes come ripe in the garden, I'm given ample reward to carry through till next spring. Maybe that space could be better used growing rutabagas for the root cellar, but...wait, what the hell am I saying?

I close with one of my favorite heirloom tomato memories, inspired by a dinner at the Native Bay restaurant in Chippewa Falls, WI--our one and only dinner there, sadly, as that admirable outpost of local, seasonal eating in west central Wisconsin lasted only a couple of years, and we learned about it late. Everything about our dinner there was excellent (Mary will be happy to expound at great length upon her appetizer of soft-cooked egg with lamb gravy, just ask her...), but the best thing I took away--literally, in part--was a simple plate of perfectly ripe, perfectly chosen heirloom tomatoes from a local organic grower. There were four different varieties on the plate, which arrived with this slip of paper, what I think of as the "tomato clock":

I note with interest that I'm growing three of those four varieties in my garden this year (and the fourth, Cream Sausage, was fantastic, I need to find that one...), a sheer coincidence, but I also see it as an homage to Native Bay (its chef and owner, Nathan Berg, is still around), and to the tomatoes themselves. They're a vegetable...fruit...fruit eaten as a vegetable...that deserves the hype, if anything does.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A Report Upon the State of My Pickle, August 2010

I was intimidated by pickling and canning for a long time. Two things generally put me off on the whole process: First was the impression that it requires rigorous adherence to a systematic, scientific method to ensure proper results, lest in consuming said results, you die. Since I am not particularly good at reading directions or following instructions, it seemed much better to leave it to Gedney's.

The second discouraging facet of home canning has always been the fact that the glut of food begging to be pickled and canned arrives mid-summer, in the dog days' heat and humidity of late July and August, and who wants to be stuck in a sauna-like kitchen peering into steaming cauldrons when it's 90 with a dewpoint of 75? Pas moi, bien sur.

So I avoided delving into this arcane, sweaty, potentially deadly realm for years, but I was always jealous of those who had mastered it, who held the keys to this alchemy, who could endure the physical rigors of that sweat-lodge vision quest, who could make beautiful things out of the humblest materials, a lousy cucumber, salt, spoiled cider or wine. Those people were better than I, I was certain--smarter, stronger, more enlightened, more moral and pure.

And, they got dilly beans to snack on with their beer.

I finally overcame my reluctance to pickle around 15 years ago, I guess, spurred by an over-abundance of suyo long cucumbers from the garden. Ordinary overgrown cukes I have no trouble consigning to the compost bin. A well-formed suyo long cucumber, though, is such a magnificent thing--dark green, beautifully curved, bristly, ridged, sometimes growing to nearly a foot-and-a-half long--I couldn't bear to toss them or see them rot in the crisper. I gave a lot away, but I still had too many. I opened up the stained red-checked cover of the Better Homes and Gardens and found a recipe for bread & butters. It didn't seem too complicated. I made up a batch that filled a couple of quart jars. There was no steaming cauldron involved. I just stuck the jars in the fridge, and they kept all year, until the cucumbers were overwhelming the garden again. Now, was that so hard?

That experience set me down the path of small-batch canning, an approach much more like cooking than it is like the Industial-Scale Food Preservation that "home canning" had always implied for me. I have a few stand-bys--the bread & butters, French cornichons, sour dills--but each year I like to try a few new things.

Of course, it's generally the fruits or vegetables that you have the most of that you wind up looking for ways to preserve. For me, this year, that has meant taking a pickle to some wild foods that I hadn't preserved this way before: ramps, fiddleheads, chanterelles, milkweed pods.

I started with the ramps, wrote about it here. That Momofuku-inspired brine has become my go-to recipe for quick pickles. I did a jar of ostrich fern fiddleheads and ramps with that same brine, and I used it on the milkweed pods you see here in the little pottery dish:

Those pods are about an inch long, maybe a little longer, some of them. I blanched them in salted water for a couple of minutes before immersing them in the brine, and they've cured nicely in the last three or four weeks. They have a really interesting texture--nice sort of popping crunch to them--and the flavor is very like green beans.

Here's that brine again:

2 cups water
1 cup apple cider vinegar (or rice wine vinegar)
3/4 cup sugar
scant 2 Tbsp salt
2 small dried red chilies, seeds removed (or leave them in if you want more heat)--optional
1 tsp black peppercorns, also optional

And of course you could add other flavors, garlic, herbs, etc.

In the jar at top left in that picture, those are tiny milkweed pods that I turned into "Bide-A-Wee capers," preserving them the same way I do cornichons: toss with a good amount of salt and let sit overnight; rinse next day and place in a jar with a few peppercorns, some tarragon, a clove of garlic; boil vinegar enough to cover (I'm always using cider vinegar now, since we have so much home-made); the following two days, pour the vinegar into a small saucepan, bring to a boil, pour back over the pods. After that refrigerate and use as you would use capers. I can't wait to make a beurre noisette with some of those milkweed capers, to spoon over a grilled trout. I haven't been fishing much at all this summer, with the heat, and the streams often blown out from heavy rains.

With my excess chanterelles I made a soy sauce pickle based on a Momofuku recipe (just tasted those, and they're great); and a vinegar-blanched and packed in oil with garlic, chili, and herbs; and a jar of chanterelles in the manner of Polish pickled mushrooms. The last two preparations were from Linda Ziedrich's excellent The Joy of Pickling .

In the picture at the very top, that's my favorite pickle of the summer--cukes and crabs in the brine as above, without the peppercorns, with a little fresh Bulgarian carrot chili in place of the dried chili. This is a wonderfully simple, extremely refreshing pickle. The cucumber and the apple seem to sort of swap flavors after a few days in the brine--the apples have a bit of a watermelon rind taste to them, the cuke chunks become tart-sweet and a little fruity. Really good. I'm on my second batch. These should be eaten within a week or so of making them.

To make them, you just quarter and core a few crabapples or other small, firm, tart apples; cut a few pickling cukes into 1 1/2- to 2-inch lengths, and quarter those--and if they're very seedy trim off some of the seeds; make the brine as above, pour over the apple and cuke pieces packed into a jar with some chili, if you like. Refrigerate for a day before eating, and consume within a week. While the weather stays summery, that shouldn't be a problem.

After four days in the country I came back to Saint Paul to find my cucumbers in a state of riot. I just picked a heaping salad spinner full, to go with the half-a-crisper that's been awaiting company and a coolish day to get pickled. So this afternoon I'll be revisiting the classics I mentioned above--the bread & butters, cornichons, and Russian sour dills. Also on my radar: fermenting some kale, beets, and good old sauerkraut in anticipation of winter soups and choucroutes.

I hope you're getting your pickle on nicely this summer, and I'd love to hear about your favorite preserving recipes, too--pickles, canned goods, fermented stuff, jellies, or jams, whatever.

Cheers, and happy pickling to you.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Here's What We'll Be Up To...

...for a while now. These little darlings, some of our first apples to ripen, are a type of crabapple, we think. We're not sure what any of our inherited apple trees are. We give some of them our own names. Mary dubbed these ones "Snow White," because when they're really ripe they polish up to a deep, deep crimson, almost black. They reminded Mary of the apple that sent Blanche Niege a-snoozin'. Ours have no narcotic effect, except to induce a blissful state with their tart, refreshing, very apple-y flavor. They're beautiful inside, too, the flesh streaked pink and red. We eat them straight up, pickle them (recipe for a great crab-cuke pickle coming next week), cook with them--delicious with duck, pork, woodcock.

There are a couple more trees with larger apples coming ripe now, and we should be able to press some cider next week, which I think is quite early. Since this is just our third year owning the land, we don't have much history to go on.

Also, you foragers out there in Minne'Sconsin might want to take note of the fact that the wild plums are starting to ripen, and getting there quick. Our trees have a nice crop on them this year. If you find one plum tree, you're likely to find a few, as they tend to grow in groves. Don't dawdle if you want to get in on this harvest--I've noticed that once the wild plums become ripe, they don't stay on the tree for long.

Be fruitful, and, um...enjoy yourselves.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Corn Soup

Here's one for those who enjoy a comforting, flavorful bowl of soup, and a challenging puzzle, as well. For years I have scribbled down recipes on stray bits of paper--Post-it notes, the backs of store receipts, scraps of brown paper bags. Those non-descript artifacts would then most often get stuffed in a junk drawer, or buried under stacks of paper on my desk, or simply blown to the Four Winds, fetching up in an obscure corner in the dust under a piece of furniture, or scarfed up by one of the (four-legged) opportunistic omnivores in the family. You wouldn't think that a Post-it note would offer much in the way of culinary interest, but then, you're not a dog. Our junior griff, Lily, has a particular hobby of picking up in her mouth pretty much everything she sees, often just sort of rolling whatever it might be around on her tongue, as if it interests her to see what that feels like. Given how many such items are actually ingested, by both dogs, we're very fortunate that wirehaired pointing griffons are possessed of a robust digestive system.

The loss of some stroke of culinary genius was rarely more than a matter of frustration, unless the vanished formula was a bread inspiration of the moment from one week that I was now obliged to recreate for customers who had by this time read my ecstatic description of, say, the potato-chive levain flats, and who now awaited said loaf with keen anticipation. Life and farmers' market baking being what they are, I usually forgot all about the previous week's new bread sensation until it was time to ramp up baking operations again. Then you can guess how things went. With a dozen bowls of dough needing attention, I was often left to ponder, not very calmly, whether I'd jotted those notes down on an order sheet, a notepad, the back of a deposit slip...? What exciting times those were, the adrenaline flowing, the hair being torn out!

Of course, wouldn't you know it, it was only after we'd decided to take a break from the market baking that I remembered that blank book kitchen diary that sits on the cookbook shelf. I have really no excuse for neglecting it as a repository of bread recipes: I used it every week to record baking expenses and receipts.... Perhaps I had subconsciously deemed it too staid a medium for those fleeting flashes of brilliance that could only find best expression in a tattered corner above the crossword puzzle.

So I'm trying to get back into the habit of using the blank book. It's less intellectually challenging to transcribe a recipe from the notebook than from the random-scrap "system"; although, as you can tell from looking at my handwriting, there's still a certain level of difficulty involved.

It's a bit of a chowder, with the bacon, potatoes, and cream. It's a good use for those ears of corn that have been sitting in the crisper for a few days. They might not shine as corn-on-the-cob, but if they're still a little bit sweet, they'll be just fine for the soup.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Bulgarian Carrot & Patty Pan

Copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Grill-It Skillet Chicken & Oysters

I found a log liberally covered with lovely fresh oyster mushrooms last week. I wanted a tasty, simple dinner for the first night out at Bide-A-Wee. Grilled chicken is great, except when the fat drips on the coal, creating towering gouts of flame that carbonize the skin whilst the meat remains cold and bloody. I love the "iron on the fire" method.

Brown the chicken nicely over the coals.

Transfer to a cast iron skillet, and when it has rendered a bit of fat, add some garlic and onions, and some kale.

When the kale has wilted, toss in the oyster mushrooms or other fungi of your choice. Let everything get very simpatico and well acquainted.

Timing is not crucial here as long as the heat is mild. You can have another glass of wine and read another article in the NY Times magazine if you like, or just sit and see what birds come to the feeder. With this withering heat back upon us, we may wish for summer's end ASAP, but it will be here soon enough. No need to rush it.

We served this with pasta. I made the simplest of sauces, just deglazing the pan with a little water (Chateau Sink, as Jacques Pépin calls it), swirling in a bit of butter at the end.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Sunday, August 8, 2010

You Say Puh-MEN-uh, I Say PA-Minn-Ta...

Or, you might say:



Just a few pronunication options offered up by a Google search. And I can't resist adding this charming utterance, from Christy Jordan's "Southern Plate":

"They'd always ask 'Ya want some puh-men-ah cheese, baby?'”

What we're discussing here is pimento cheese. Pimento, as above; cheese, as in cha-ay-z.

It's a southern specialty that we first learned about, I think, from a New York Times article by Matt and Ted Lee. Hard to believe that was 10 years ago! In the meantime, we've come up with our own pronunciation--puh-MUHN chayz--our own evolved (or de-) version, and this toothsome glop consisting of cheese, mayo, canned pimento, and onion has become one of our go-to summer happy hour snacks. With a glass of scotch, by a campfire, preferably one overlooking Lake Superior, there is nothing better.

It was interesting to look back at the original recipe and see that it calls for cream cheese, which we never use, and that it does not call for onion, which we always add. Go figure. But we pretty much always have some cheddar and mayo in the house, cream cheese less often. I think we did make it originally with the cream cheese, but we found it difficult to mix in, while whomping up a mess of shredded cheddar and mayo takes no time at all--which is important when your scotch is getting watery....

For the version pictured here today I made my own mayonnaise, an intensely local mayo, too, using the Smude Minnesota sunflower oil that I've mentioned before, and just a touch of olive oil, and our own apple cider vinegar where I often would add lemon juice. But you know what? In the real world, not the local-seasonal-food blog world, I would suggest you use Hellmann's.

One little step to localize and seasonalize that I do endorse is roasting a bit of red chili, sweet or hot or both, instead of using the canned pimento bits that come in those cute little jars, you know, the ones you can never track down in the store, so you have to ask the stockboy, Where do you keep those...? And now I still can't recall if they live with the pickles, the olives, the vegetables.... You can put a jalapeno or similar right over the flame on your stove if you have a gas cooktop, or if you have the grill going anyway, roast it over the coals (because you might be getting ready to grill a steak, and this would be the ideal appetizer for that), and if neither of those situations applies, go for the stuff in the jar.

I found a couple ripe-ish chilies on a Bulgarian Carrot pepper I have in my garden. Picked it up on a whim at the farmers' market this spring, knowing nothing about this variety. Says on the ID spike that it is HOT and, Yessir!, it is hot--some web sources say it's as hot as an habenero, some say it's milder than a jalapeno, and I'd say it's somewhere in between; thank you, Internet. Beautiful bright orange color, hence the "carrot" in its name.

Anyway, the proper platform for puh-muhn chayz is definitely a Ritz cracker. Can you believe I actually considered making my own crackers, just for this post? Then I came to my senses. And then again, and this probably violates the whole spirit of puh-muhn chayz, but I had a few fresh-picked green beans lying around the kitchen, and it occured to me that they'd be good with a schmear, and I was right. So, that's another summery, healthy alternative, serve some crudités with your puh-muhn chayz. In the Lee's article it's described as a sandwich spread, which I'm sure would be good, too.

Finally, while this is clearly a down-home sort of preparation, and I wouldn't recommend using some $20-a-pound 10-year-old cheddar for this, the cheese does matter. Get a good, sharp, white Wisconsin cheddar, at least a couple of years old. We usually purchase our cheddar from Rene at Bolen Vale Cheese on highway 64 in Connorsville, Wisconsin. She offers cheddars from one to ten years old; we usually go for a six- or seven-year-old cheese for general consumption.

Puh-Muhn Chayz (with sincere apologies to any southern readers, but I once lived in Roanoke, Virginia for the better part of an entire year so I feel I'm at least somewhat entitled...do they still have that great butcher shop, Mason & Hannabass, down on the market square?)

2 Tbsp minced onion
5-6 ounces sharp cheddar, medium grate, about two cups
roasted red pepper or hot red chili, to taste,
half a jar of chopped pimentos
1/4 cup mayonnaise
paprika or cayenne to sprinkle on top

Ritz crackers to spread or raw vegetables to dip
Scotch whiskey, preferably Balvenie DoubleWood 12-Year-Old, on the rocks, optional

Mix everything together with a spatula. Let sit, refrigerated, a half hour or more for the flavors to blend. Bring out of the fridge at least one half hour before serving. Let it warm up a bit while you build your campfire, and pour your scotch.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Friday, August 6, 2010

A Wild Genius: Sam Thayer's "Nature's Garden" and "The Forager's Harvest"

See my review article of forager/author Sam Thayer's work at The Heavy Table.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Not So Hot

Aaahhh. The cool front came through in the night. Lovely. Temps in the 60s this morning. I hit the garden for an hour of watering, weeding, and slug control, and--I...am...not...sweating! Give me the cool & dry anytime. The dogs were absolutely exultant. Happy dog dances, Lily running laps around our tiny Saint Paul yard, Annabel bumping up against my leg, saying, "So are we going hunting, huh? Are we, huh? Are we, can we, huh?" Well, not quite yet, that's a ways off still, and we're not out of the woods yet, swelter-wise.

Last night we were sweltering, indeed, a desperate time calling for desperate measures, to wit: cold soup for supper. But what a soup. I have to tell you, I am inordinately pleased with how this one came out. Context has something to do with it, and this is definitely a dish for a time and place, a hot summer night, dinner on the screen porch or a shady patio. Do not eat this in an air-conditioned room. You need the contrast between soup and surroudings the get the most from it.

I initially saw this as a starter soup to be followed by a more substantial main course, but it wound up being the main event for us. The beauty of the DIY garnishes is that you can make your own portion as chunky--or not--as you please. As we reached the end of our meal, I noticed that my plate looked like the dregs of an overdressed salad, while Mary's was distinctly soupy. Chacun(e) à son gout!

We sated ourselves après-soup with a slice of levain cracked wheat toast, an apple, and some
Marieke gouda. Uncorked a bottle of cold white côtes de gascogne, Domaine d'Arton (less than ten bucks), and I have to tell you, my friends, all things considered, this was about as close to a perfect meal as I can imagine. We eat pretty well around here, you've probably noticed, and sometimes I wonder if I'm becoming a little jaded--but this dinner was so freakin' happy-making, it made me realize anew just how happy-making food can be, and it doesn't have to be anything fancy, just good local stuff of the season prepared with care, presented in its proper context. Voilà: Happy meal, our way.

Right, then, a recipe. No cooking involved. The set-up:

Buttermilk Apple & Cucumber Gazpacho
serves two as a main course, four to six as a starter

1 large Asian or English cucumber, or 2 small, thin-skinned slicing cukes
1 apple (I had some of the first gnarly little ones from our land, that's why there are four in the picture; I figure that's about one regular apple)
1 shallot
1 large clove garlic
2 yellow romas tomatoes, or 1 larger yellow or a ripe green tomato like a Green Zebra
1 flavorful red tomato, peeled, seeded, chopped--for garnish
croutons of good, grainy levain bread (mine were from a cracked wheat loaf, just toasted in a skillet with a little butter and olive oil until nicely browned)
1 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup heavy cream
a few sprigs each of chervil and mint
1/2 cup watermelon small dice, optional
lemon juice

In a food processor combine: 1/2 cup water, half the cucumber, half the apple, the shallot, the peeled garlic clove, the yellow or green tomatoes, 1/4 tsp salt (roughly chop all for easier blending; no need to seed apple or cuke). Process for about a minute, till everything is pretty well liquified. Run this mixture through a food mill or pass it through a sieve. Add the buttermilk. Refrigerate for at least one hour. You can do this part up to a day ahead.

Prepare the garnish: Seed the remaining half cucumber, and the apple, and chop into very small dice, 1/4-inch or smaller. Place in separate bowls. Squeeze a little lemon juice over the apple bit to prevent browning. Sprinkle a pinch of salt over both the apples and the cukes. (To peel the apple and cuke, or not to peel? The choice is yours. My cuke had a nice thin skin, so I didn't peel it. I partly peeled the apples, which had rather tough skin, but I left some for color.)

Refrigerate all the garnishes until just before serving.

Just before serving: Mix the cream into the buttermilk-veg mixture. Chop most of the mint and chervil (use a little tarragon or fennel greens if you don't have chervil), reserving some for garnish, and stir the chopped portion into the soup. Taste for salt and add if needed--but don't overdo it; I found I liked this a little undersalted to my usual taste, to let the fruit and veg flavors really shine.

Serve out the soup into individual bowls, and take to the table along with the garnish items--the reserved cucumber and apple, the chopped red tomato, croutons and optional watermelon dice--in their separate bowls. Then each person can garnish to his/her own preference.

Other optional garnishes that occured to me: chopped roasted red pepper; finely chopped fresh hot chili (you could also blend a little hot chili into the base); toasted hazelnuts.

As I said, we wound up making this our main course, but it would be a fantastic palate-perker as a starter for an elegant summer dinner.

It's turning hot and humid again this weekend, I hear. You've been warned. Make like a good scout, and Be Prepared!

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw

Monday, August 2, 2010


We haven't suffered with the blistering heat that has afflicted the eastern states this summer, but July slogs into August this week with a definite dog days' feel, a thick, humid warmth. The tomatoes like it, along with most everything else in the garden. It's not my favorite sort of ambience, but it does provide opportunity to appreciate those simple foods, simple meals of summer--corn on the cob, a platter of sliced tomatoes, rack of pork spareribs smoking away in the grill through the sultry afternoon.

That was our supper last night, that and this cooling salad of cukes, chervil, and garlic chive shoots (the unopened flower stalks, really) in a buttermilk bath. The tangy, translucent buttermilk, blended with a little cider vinegar and sunflower oil, made the cukes seem even cooler.

Chervil--that's the lacy leaf lying atop the cukes above--is one of my favorite herbs, with an anise scent more delicate than that of tarragon or fennel. But if you don't have that you could use a bit of tarragon and some parsley, and if you don't have the garlic chive shoots, regular chives would stand in just fine.

Cucumbers in sour cream with dill, seems to me that's the Midwest-Scandinavian potluck standard, yes? This is an homage to that classic, but lighter, perhaps a bit cooler. The dressing amounts here make for a fairly soupy salad, which I liked. It actually had me thinking of a soup with this basis, a sort of buttermilk gazpacho. With no break in the damplish heat in sight, look for that preparation later this week....

Buttermilk Cukes with Chervil and Garlic Chive Shoots
serves two to four

2 smallish cucumbers with nice thin skins, or a larger English or Asian type
6 Tbsp buttermilk
2 tsp apple cider vinegar or white wine vinegar
1 1/2 tsp sunflower or vegetable oil
scant 1/4 tsp salt
2 Tbsp finely chopped garlic chive shoots, just the very tender top few inches
a few sprigs chervil, chopped

Slice the cucumbers very thin, about 1/8-inch. I used my
Benriner mandoline. Mix everything together. Refrigerate and let the flavors meld for an hour or so before serving. It can be made a day ahead, too.

A word about garlic chives and their shoots: If you have garlic chives in your garden, you probably have a lot of them, and if you don't, well, I'm not sure I would recommend that you add them. Unless, that is, you are very conscientious about dead-heading plants with the potential to become invasive. Garlic chives spread both by dividing underground, and by spreading their little black seeds, copiously. They will inhabit any slightest crack, between edging and sidewalk, between boards on a deck where there's a speck of soil--you get the idea. Their dark, flat, blade-like leaves have a nice, pungent, garlic-onion flavor and aroma--a bit like ramps, actually--but the best part of them is the flower stalk before the flower has opened.

By running your hand up the stalk and letting it break off where it wants to, you get just the tender sweet tips, which are delicious chopped into salad dressings or, if you have a quantity, to stir-fry up with some soft-scrambled eggs or a bit of good bacon, speck, or Chinese sausage. When we get into Sichuan mode, right about now, the hottest, humidest part of the summer, those sweet, aromatic shoots become a regular part of dinner.

Text and photos copyright 2010 by Brett Laidlaw