Real Food For Thought

photo 1Max Watman’s new book brought me back to fifth grade when my friend Debbie gave me half her chicken sandwich and I found a vein in it.

“What’s this?” I asked her when I saw the tiny purple tube protruding from the chicken meat nestled between two pieces of her mother’s homemade bread. She shook her head even though she was no longer surprised at all the things a transplant from the suburbs of Connecticut to the White Mountains of New Hampshire didn’t know, and she explained.

It was the first time I connected chicken with a formerly live animal, probably one I’d seen clucking around in her mother’s coop the week before when I helped Debbie collect eggs. Until then, I associated poultry with what came sealed in plastic wrap at the meat counter when my mother took me shopping. I wanted to put the sandwich down but I was hungry and embarrassed, so I pulled out the vein, closed my eyes and chomped. I don’t remember if it tasted much different from a “store-bought” chicken but I finished it.

In the decades since moving from northern New Hampshire, I’ve consumed flocks of chicken but few have had any remaining veins and most have come from places that sickened me when I saw them exposed on movies like Food Inc.

In his book Harvest, Field Notes From a Far-Flung Pursuit of Real Food, Max Watman writes of his efforts to to get as close to his food supply as he can without being a farmer. I started it because it was a gift from The Distiller who is his friend. I finished it because it made me laugh, wince, and begin to see a way to make friends with food again.

I am in the middle of a crisis when it comes to my relationship with food. The erosion of my faith in the food industry has converged with some health issues and lately I analyze benefits versus risk every time I take a bite of something I used to love unreservedly. Tomatoes. Eggplant (nightshade vegetables with inflammatory properties) Fresh peaches (pesticides). Fried peppers and provolone on crusty Italian semolina bread (nightshade, dairy and wheat gluten). Chicken, hamburgers or, increasingly, any meat at all (raised in inhumane conditions and unresolved issues about eating animals when I could thrive on alternatives).

My mental gyrations are those of a privileged person — one who has never known hunger or been deprived of basic sustenance by factors outside my control. I am grateful which gives rise to shame when I get lost in the dilemma of what to eat. This doesn’t make the food go down any easier.

Watman, on the other hand, is passionate about food. He comes from foodie roots; He was hooked on cooking at nine when he roasted a chicken for his ailing parents who were among the first “locavores.” He’s also a writer, which means he is curious and observant, not afraid to dig deep into a subject or look inward if his journey takes him there. He reads. He tries things.

The first half of “Harvest” takes us through his attempts to find “purity and quality, simplicity and grace” the elements that would make the food he serves friends and family better, to live, as he says later on, “as if I were on a farm but without the farm.” We meet Bubbles the steer he purchases and lets fatten on a Virgina farm while he introduces us to his chickens, “the girls,” his cheese-making efforts, the hunting, the fishing, and, of course, the garden.

Nothing quite goes as planned which, combined with the literature he’d absorbed without quite wanting to, brought him to a crisis in his neighborhood pizza joint. He stared at the familiar menu, utterly unable to think of a single thing he wanted to eat there and believed he had failed.

“When eating out, I had drifted into a weird indecisiveness…I was now well versed on the wretched conditions of our fisheries and the wretched conditions of the fish therein. Steak frites made me think of concentrated feedlots, and chicken in any form made me think of the slurry of filthy water through which the carcasses of the recently slaughtered birds are run to “clean” them and “cool” them.”

The crisis nearly becomes a writer’s crisis until Watman’s wife, Rachel, points out that amid the failures were successes, thriving like volunteer tomatoes amid his disappointments. It’s a good thing too because the moment in the pizza joint leads to a mouth-watering description of a pizza that he goes home and makes himself. He made fresh mozzarella, his own pizza dough — slowly fermented to help his wife digest the wheat — and heated sauce he’d made from tomatoes he’d grown.

These moments when Watman discovers what his search, and his book, are really about kept me turning the pages when I should have been writing, packing for a trip, and about a thousand other things that will hammer me at 3 a.m. tomorrow when I can’t sleep.

I’m not sorry though. How can I be sorry when I get much-needed perspective like this:

“It’s important — drastically so in this age — to approach a fish counter with knowledge of which oceanic fruits are better choices than others. It’s also important not to have a small-scale nervous breakdown every time you want to make chowder.”

Or insights not only to the making of bread but the art of looking:

“Once you begin looking at processes, once you begin thinking about ingredients and techniques, once you know how to look at one thing carefully, you are simply better at looking.”

Or the wisdom that foraging can teach (even when foraging is defined as coming upon black (grey at least) market caviar at a deli):

“I had thought of foraging as a specialty, a hobby for the gastro-fringe, but I came to see that to take up foraging in whatever manner, is to learn to travel in your own place.”

What the pursuit of real food comes down to, Watman shows us, is deciding how we will participate in bringing the food we eat to table. His well-told stories of his own experiences — and the meals along the way — show that even those of us who will never be farmers or hunters or fishermen can do more that we think, have fun doing it, and gain a little balance and wisdom in the process.

See how the Camembert cheese worked out at Max Watman’s Tumblr

And let me know if you’ve been reading any books that make you think differently about food!

 

 

 

 

How to Love a Loquat

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It’s spring here in San Diego. The sky is blue, the temperatures are nudging eighty degrees, and I am working hard to come up with all the ways we can eat our loquats before they shrivel into black hairy clumps.

I realize that there may be those reading these words who are dealing with highs of forty degrees, mud, losing the bulbs they just planted to woodchucks. There are those too who haven’t seen the sun or blue skies for more than a minute since last fall. And there are those who will have absolutely no idea what a loquat is or why anyone would want to eat one.

I occupied all of those groups at one point. These days, I not only know what a loquat is but I love the fruit from our particular loquat tree. How could I not? It came to us nearly twelve years ago, a bare stick poking out of a little black pot half-full of dirt. It was a time of beginnings for us. I was a transplant and my husband was rediscovering all the things he’d loved and missed about California. He still speaks of his time in New Jersey (where we met) as “doing time.” That first spring, he was striding around a local home and garden show with a smile of a man who knows he will never feel snow sliding down his neck again.

We almost passed the tree on our way to our car after seeing all we’d come to see. The folks of the local chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers Association were packing their truck to head home. We bought a fig tree (another stick in a pot) and then my husband told them he loved loquats. Apparently not many people tell them that. They threw in the loquat for free.

“What’s a loquat?” I asked my husband as we carried our foundlings home.

“I used to pick them with my grandfather. I ate them right off the tree.”

That was all he needed to tell me. The loquat was like the wild rapini he and his grandfather would pick every Sunday back in the California of the forties and fifties, or the prickly pears that reminded his grandfather of Italy. The loquat was wrapped up in all the memories of being with a grandfather he loved and knew, for a time, better than his father who was away at war when my husband was born.

We waited nine years to pick a loquat off our tree and now they arrive every February or so. When someone asks me to describe a loquat, I struggle.

It looks like it started out to be an apricot and then changed its mind. It’s a little fuzzy like a peach. There is a sweet, spicy, sometimes a tiny-bit lemony taste when it’s at its peak. Loquats start to shrink within an hour or two of being picked which is one reason they aren’t grown for commercial use here. Another reason is that four or five pits form the core of each one, competing with the fleshy, juicy fruit for space inside the skin. The upside of this is that you can eat a lot of loquats before you’ve filled up.

There is no dignified way to eat them. Juice runs down your chin, between your fingers. The pits, smooth and glossy as stones in a brook, fill your cheeks. You must spit them out and there is no polite way to do this. If you are outside, of course, this is no big deal. My neighbor, for example, loves to practice her aim. Her husband, who is usually her target, does not appreciate this.

If you are inside, though, here is a look at how to enjoy a loquat fresh off the tree, along with some wonderful links to resources, recipes, and all kinds of factoids that will allow you to vicariously enjoy the loquat. I encourage you to check them out although the closest I will probably come to doing anything with a loquat other than eating it fresh off the tree is freezing it, skins and all. You can take them out one at a time. It’s like eating a bit of spring all year long.

How To Eat A Loquat

Step 1: pick and wash (although when I’m outside, I just brush it against my shirt and stick the whole thing in my mouth, spitting out pits and skin later. It isn’t pretty but it tastes great.)

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Step 2: Peel back the skin so the globe of fruit is revealed.

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Step 3: Toss skin and admire the perfection of the naked loquat.

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Step 4: Take a bite from one side and then work around in a circle until all the fruit is in your mouth and the pits are tumbling from your checks like quarters from a one-armed bandit.

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Step 5: Repeat.

If you’d like to try it out on a frozen loquat, go ahead. When you are ready to enjoy them, take a couple out of the bag you’ve stashed in the freezer. Let sit for five minutes or less. Peel as instructed above and enjoy. The great thing about the frozen loquat is that the flavor bursts through in an icy explosion that immediately makes you want more.

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A few fun links:

For the uninitiated, loquats have nothing to do with kumquats which is a citrus.

According to UC Davis, the loquat in SoCal is usually just there to look good but they haven’t eaten the fruit from ours!  http://fruitsandnuts.ucdavis.edu/dsadditions/Loquat_Fact_Sheet/

There is actually a site called Loquat World! And in addition to all things loquat, it provides some interesting recipes.

A wonderful post in the blog Full and Content: What to do with Loquats 

Finally, an anonymous Full and Content reader provided this handy little recipe for loquat liqueur:

1.75 liters of vodka or rum

Loquats

Pour all of the vodka or rum in a gallon jar and then fill it up with peeled loquats. I cut out the bloom end to expose the seeds. Let the mixture sit for 2 to 3 months and then strain off the loquats. Mix equal parts of the Liquor with simple syrup, e.g. 1 cup alcohol and 1 cup simple syrup.

 

 

Voice: Lost and Found

Greens delicate, spicy, gorgeous along with arugula flowers which provide a peppery snap

Greens delicate, spicy, gorgeous along with arugula flowers which provide a peppery snap

Hello again. It’s me. I’ve gone missing since early February, at least from this page. Those who’ve been blogging much longer than I have already know what I’ve discovered: use that voice or lose it.

For a host of very good but also not very good reasons, I’ve not written here for the past five weeks or so. I’ve missed the writing and I’ve missed the visiting that happens afterwards. I’ve missed these things much more than I ever thought I would when I first started this blog. The longer I went without starting or, in some cases, finishing a post, the harder it was to find my voice, my words. They were working full time in other parts of my life and my work and when I called upon them here, they shook their heads, turned their backs on me, and punched out on the time clock.

Then, my friend Sue called me up and asked me if I wanted some greens from her garden. I said sure. When Sue calls and asks me if I want anything from her garden, I always say yes. I’ll have more to say on this subject very soon. For the moment, though, let me show you the “few greens” that Sue brought me:

Sue doesn't just give me greens, she presents them on a tray

Sue doesn’t just give me greens, she presents them on a tray

Lettuces, fennel, kale, celery, arugula and arugula flowers which turn out to be delicious as well as pretty.

Greens delicate, spicy, gorgeous along with arugula flowers which provide a peppery snap

Greens delicate, spicy, gorgeous along with arugula flowers which provide a peppery snap

A little later she brought me some sweet peas which are not edible but sure smell nice.

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Today, my friend Polly gave me a dozen eggs. They were tan, perfect, and freshly laid by her four hens. “The girls have been busy,” she said when I wondered how she could spare so many.

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My friends didn’t just give me food, they gave me tonight’s meal and tomorrow’s breakfast and enough eggs to make a ricotta pie this weekend.

The gifts are like my friends: generous, beautiful, and so nourishing to body and soul. Without realizing it, they gave me everything I needed to write this post. The words came easily. There are only two that really matter:

Thank you.

Here’s how I dined tonight.

I turned some of Sue’s greens, fennel fronds, and the arugula flowers into a chopped salad. I chopped up some of my own mint and basil to add to the mix. Chunks of avocado, a little squeeze of lime, a drizzle of olive oil and some of the nasturtiums that finally showed up this year in my backyard.

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Notice the arugula blossom waiting for my first bite:

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The kale and what Sue calls her “spicy greens” made a great sautee. Olive oil, a little garlic and a bit of shredded parmesan:

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Seduction by Artichoke

Source: By MatthiasKabel (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

Source: By MatthiasKabel (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

There are the hearts you draw on Valentine cards, the chocolate ones, and the very useful muscle that is sending oxygen to your cells as you read this.

Then there is the tender, sweet meat protected by the thorny leaves of the artichoke. The heart of the choke, or the “toots” as my husband’s family calls it, is the promise that lies at the center of the spiky green globes.

You don’t just pluck this fruit and eat it, you have to work your way in. You have to find a way to render the leaves pliable so they release their essence. You have to peel each one and suck it dry, prove your worthiness.

Eating an artichoke is not a casual decision. It is a commitment. You engage with fingers, tongue and taste buds. It is not for the naive or inexperienced. When my mother introduced her children to this exotic food, she refused to let us have more than a few leaves of steamed chokes until we proved we could scrape every scrap of flesh from them. Then we progressed to the heart which she would scrape clean and carve into five small morsels, one for each of us. The tips of our fingers were slippery with melted butter and I can still remember the sweetness of my first taste.

My husband, though, revealed the true nature of the artichoke to me. He is polite but dismissive about the steamed choke. His way to the heart requires patience, a sharp knife, and tough fingertips which turn black as he prepares the artichokes for one of two final steps, each involving olive oil, garlic, lemon, herbs, a dash of marsala. Then, depending on their size, or his mood, they simmer in all of that until the juice has found its way into each crevice and has turned what is left of the leaves to petals of flavor. Or, he sautees them until they are crispy blossoms that give way to lemon, garlic and then the sudden fleeting sweetness of the “toots” before heading down the hatch to make room for another.

Artichokes helped us to fall even more deeply in love during one Christmas week in Rome. A long walk brought us into the Trastevere neighborhood and to Al Fontanone, then a small place with solid tables, carafes of good wine, and a waiter who informed us that artichokes, “carciofi,” were in season. We could have ours “alla Romana”, “alla Giudia” or both. Both. We peeled the slippery leaves from the chokes prepared “alla Romana” and shared them. We crunched down on the leaves of the ones prepapred “all Giudia” and smiled into each other’s eyes. We went back for more. Twice.

Inspired by this and by the lessons learned in his grandmother’s kitchen, my love has  been cooking them ever since. Sometimes he manages to combine the smoothness of the “Roman style” with the crispyness of the “Jewish style” into one sensous eating experience which makes me realize how lucky I am that I found a man who knows the way to my heart and is willing to do whatever it takes to get there.

For a look at what it takes, watch this video of my love at work. You can listen to Andrea Bocelli sing Romanza while you watch.

Prepping The Chokes

Or, for another perspective, read Neruda’s “Ode to An Artichoke” via Edible Gardens Point Loma. 

Finally, here’s a look at just one version of the finished product. To the cook: un milione di baci! To all: Happy Valentine’s Day!

Hearts laid bare, ready to eat

Hearts laid bare, ready to eat