Long and Scattered

Behold, I am alive.  Ambulatory, even.  (Kind of.  I’m walking perfectly easily, just not for very long periods of time). 

What’s more, I have been cooking.  AND going to the newly-opened farmer’s market. 

Given that it’s still so early in the spring, I’ve been able to do very little at the farmer’s market aside from make a considerable dent in the supply of pea shoots and rhubarb every week, but still.  The pea shoots have graced innumerable salads and sautes and stir-fries, and the rhubarb has been part of soup (poached in red wine and cassis), sorbet (cooked with the juice and zest of blood oranges) and smoothies:

Rhubarb Smoothie

(Greek yogurt, fresh ginger: need I say more?)

Unfortunately, aside from dishes containing the just-picked farmer’s market produce, my main meals have been somewhat lackluster.  Nothing has been actually bad, but nothing has excited me or made me want to write about it.  I haven’t saved a recipe I’ve prepared in almost a month. 

I am not entirely discouraged, however.  Even when living on hum-drum lunches and mediocre dinners, breakfast is always there to save me. 

Like probably 50% of the rest of the population of the U.S., when I was growing up, my parents would occasionally fix ‘breakfast for dinner’ as a special treat.  Whole wheat pancakes with scrambled eggs and bacon was the standard meal when the whole family sat down, and enormous potato pancakes–really thinly shredded hash browns bound with beaten egg and served with (forgive me) ketchup–when the food was meant for just my sister and me. 

Unlike most of the population of the U.S., however, my family also ate breakfast for breakfast.  I know that many people are unable to stomach heavy food–or food of any kind–early in the morning, but my family has never been been part of that group.  Toast (with peanut butter and honey) and fried eggs was my default meal through childhood, while my sister took her toast neat and her eggs scrambled.  My parents both consumed large quantities of yogurt and granola, and chili-covered cheese-filled omelets were rampant.  All of this on ordinary weekday mornings, no less. 

I don’t eat quite the same way anymore.  I have to eat my breakfast at 6:30 am to be able to get to work on time, and I cannot allow myself unlimited time to prepare a meal.  I must, however, eat just as heartily as I always have.  My usual lunch break isn’t until 1 pm, with no break for a snack, meaning that my breakfast has to last me more than six hours (and a 1.5 mile walk, when I’m up to par).

On weekdays I stick to my strict schedule: I eat a hardboiled egg, some homemade sausage (variety subject to change at a moment’s notice) and a large serving of whatever fruit is in season. 

Weekends, however, are a different story.  I have much more time to prepare my meal, and, given that I’m an early riser even without an alarm, the kitchen to myself to prepare it in. 

Farmer's market eggs

My weekend meals usually center around eggs.  Sometimes savory–two weeks ago I poached three eggs in the leftover sauce from a curry-roasted chicken.  It was tangy, spicy and absolutely divine.

Curried Eggs

More often, though, I use my eggs for sweet dishes.  Souffleed omelets and jam-filled crepes are my fall-back meals for weekends.  Both are usually topped with fruit, and both benefit from the eggs I get from the farmer’s market.  The yolks are bright yellow and melt into a custard with almost no need for additional flavoring; the whites are stronger than I am and whip up to stratospheric heights. 

Last week I made a very simple souffleed omelet–I whisked three egg yolks with two tablespoons of simple syrup and a teaspoon of vanilla, then folded in three egg whites, whipped to stiff peaks.  I poured the mixture into a hot cast-iron skillet, the bottom filmed with flavorless oil.  After a second on the heat to set the bottom, I slid the pan into the 400 degree oven, for 15 minutes, until it was cooked through–golden on the outsides, but still soft on the inside, like a meringue. 

I topped the whole thing with fresh strawberries tossed with slivered mint.  It looks enormous and sounds decadent, but it was so light on the tongue that the entire omelet disappeared without a second thought.

Strawberry souffleed omelet

Yesterday morning I made crepes.  Three more of those lovely eggs whisked up into the batter, along with a little Amaretto.  I filled each one with apricot jam, dusted the plate with cinnamon and topped it with raspberries.  It was, believe it or not, a clean-out-the-refrigerator meal. 

Breakfast is my favorite meal, and I’ve been having some great ones, but here’s hoping that the other two meals are soon up to snuff.

Published in: on June 2, 2008 at 7:49 pm  Leave a Comment  

There Are CSAs AND CSAS

I work at a library. Believe it or not, though, it is still extremely difficult to find anything to read during my lunch hour. In spite of the fact that I am surrounded by books, and in spite of the fact that I usually have stacks of the things to take home with me at the end of the day, I cannot read any of them at lunch. Why? Because people want to talk to me. Or talk to each other. Or turn on the lunch room television set and watch some horrific daytime show. It isn’t possible to concentrate on a book while this is happening. Sometimes it isn’t even possible to concentrate on a cookbook.

This convoluted story is by way of explaining why it was that I found myself reading a diet/exercise magazine at lunch yesterday. The lead article proclaimed, with shock and outrage, that the average American gained five pounds during the winter months; we should be doing everything humanly possible, they urged, to combat this! Here were their exercise tips and 2-calorie, out-of-season meals to prevent this revolting and pointless weight gain!

Hmm. Pointless? My immediate thought upon hearing that most people gain weight during the winter is to remember–oh yes, that used to be an evolutionary advantage. Want to live through the winter? Pad yourself out. These days, we insulate our houses; even just a hundred years ago, we insulated ourselves. Admittedly, the people of the western world don’t live in paper-thin shacks or eat at the subsistence level, but I still think it makes a sense to take into account those centuries of history.

I live in a modern house with central heating, but I walk three miles a day, outside, to get to and from my train station. This isn’t back-breaking farm work, but it is exertion — exertion that requires more energy when it’s extremely cold. (And extremely cold it has been: three blizzard-level storms in less than a week? Whose idea was THAT?).

On a day when you’ve plowed through miles of unshoveled sidewalks covered in calf-deep snow, something like a barely-dressed seafood salad isn’t going to cut it, no matter how much I might love it in July. A lot of the time, I want soup, and a lot of the time, I want meat. Something juicy, something fatty, something comforting and something filling.

Teacherman and I know that we eat a greater quantity of meat and stodge during the winter, and we’re happy with this. We know this, and thus, when we were presented with a unique and related opportunity, we immediately took advantage of it.

In December, we noticed that a vendor at the downtown farmer’s market was selling spaces in a winter CSA. We were intrigued, given how difficult it is to find local anything during the colder months (in the Midwest, even a heated greenhouse might not do you much good). The CSA in question, though, was not the type that everyone has heard of — no boxes of vegetables delivered to your grateful door. Instead, the boxes would be full of meat.

Yes, really: meat and meat alone. The farm sells chicken, pork, beef and lamb (and woolen yarn) at the farmer’s market, and, given that they sell everything frozen, it’s easy enough for them to continue to sell all through the winter. The farmer’s market closes between December and June, though, leaving them out in the cold (as it were). The solution? The aforementioned CSA. You pay them a criminally low fee, and they deliver 25 (or 12) lbs of free-range, carefully raised, local meat to you every month. Teacherman and I signed up as soon as we heard the schpiel. (We did sign up for the 12-lb half-share, though. We may love meat, but there ARE only two of us).

We got our first box two weeks ago: twelve pounds of ground beef, pork chops, pork cutlets, nitrate- and sugar-free bacon and three kinds of sausage. For the first box the farmer gave everyone safe cuts (in America ground beef is king), but in the future we’re allowed to make requests. We have, of course, requested all sorts of bizarro cuts (pork belly, lamb neck chops) and cannot wait to see what we’ll get next time.

In the meantime, though, we’re delighted with what we have. The bacon glorified two different Sunday breakfasts, the ground beef was made into beautiful burgers, and the pork chops went into one of the most simple and satisfying meals we’ve had yet this winter.

I sprinkled the pork chops with salt and black pepper, then seared them in a big skillet until browned on both sides, and no longer squishily-raw when I poked them with a finger. I deglazed the pan with a heaping tablespoon of whole grain mustard and a cup of the apple wine Teacherman made earlier in the year (technically it’s hard cider, but it fermented itself into a delicate effervescence that’s more reminiscent of a sparkling wine than anything else). I turned the chops in the sauce a couple of times, then took them from the pan when they had lost all but a trace of pink in the center. I reduced the mustard-apple wine mixture until the sauce was thick and syrupy, then poured it over the chops.

They were delicious. It’s hardly a surprise that the flavors of apples and pork work well together, but the match is well known because it can be so good. The pork was flavorful and juicy, plump and resilient, the edges of each chop caramelized and glistening. The sauce was as light as a white wine sauce, but with the subtle, unmistakable sweetness of apples. The mustard emulsified the sauce into a creaminess that almost seemed dairy-based, and added a textural contrast to the unctuous pork with the crunchiness of the whole mustard seeds.

There were only three ingredients, but the dish was perfect. Yes, there was a layer of fat around the edge of each chop. Yes, we ate it (with great relish, even). I don’t think we’ll die. If we gain five pounds, so be it. (If it makes me warmer, I’ll be ecstatic). Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy eating real food, and living through the winter the way many many people have before.

Published in: on February 6, 2008 at 8:48 pm  Comments (2)  

Still Life With Lunch, the Final Chapter

Freiburg was our favorite place of all. Not only is a beautiful university town with a stunning cathedral, all located with in (in my opinion) the best part of the Black Forest, but our hotel was right on the cathedral square and that square hosts a six-hour farmer’s market six days a week. The market extends all around the cathedral in a two-sided hoop, with gustatory delights on either side. It was plum season. It was cherry season. It was the season for every other summer fruit delight. We were seduced by the cheese stands and by the meat and sausage counters and looked (but alas, did not purchase anything) at the smoked fish cart.

Every day, as soon as we had finished working our way through the bountiful breakfast spread inside the hotel, we’d venture out into the market and buy food for lunch and/or dinner. Before we left, one of my colleagues had scoffed, saying “what use is a farmer’s market—you won’t have a kitchen.” This is undeniably true—our hotel room was a bedroom only—but to think that nothing for sale at a farmer’s market could be edible until transformed by cooking is nonsense. We bought cherry tomatoes, covered with golden speckles and more flavorful than I’ve ever had. We bought tiny gherkin cucumbers, meant for making cornichons, and ate them by the handful, like popcorn. We bought sweet, earthy carrots and tongue-numbing radishes—once we even bought radishes thinking that they were carrots! We bought innumerable kinds of cheese: weinkase, blue, sheep’s brie, chevre coated with pink peppercorns (excellent when spread on a perfect apricot), and once, a tiny, perfect thimble-sized container of crème fraiche. Nothing has ever been better on a strawberry. We investigated various meat stands, buying heavily smoked ham, lightly smoked ham, and various kinds of dried sausages. We bought olives, we bought pickles, we bought nuts; we ogled, but did not buy, spices, plants, eggs, and the most beautiful mushrooms I’ve ever seen. (I made up for this last by ordering chanterelles fried in butter in every restaurant that served them. It was the most worthwhile expensive passion I’ve ever acquired). We had four days to try as much from the market as we could, and we barely skimmed what was there. Every market-based meal we had was perfect—we would have happily eaten every meal there. Next time we visit, though, we will have a kitchen (I don’t know how, but we will); those eggs are calling to me.

Published in: on July 16, 2007 at 9:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

Still Life With Lunch, Vie Francaise

There is a lot of food in France.  Significant portions of the whole are in Strasbourg.  I think I may have eaten most of it.  Due to such exceptional greediness, we didn’t take pictures of any of our picnics, and we were too afraid to take any pictures of restaurant meals (in spite of the utter transcendence, of, say, the choucroute avec confit de canard et lard fume at the restaurant overlooking Strasbourg cathedral, or the restaurant devoted to using cheese in every way humanly possible [not to mention the attached boutique de fromage, where we practically lived]).  Strasbourg farmer's marketInstead, we have a sole picture of the Strasbourg farmer’s market–or rather, a picture of a cheese stand therein (a cheese stand that also sold bacon, as one can see in the foreground, and stationed next to a sausage cart, which you can see in the background).  Just out of the frame is the stall where we bought the most intriguingly flavored wild blueberries I’ve ever tasted–they were so concentrated and winey in flavor that they tasted like raisins.  Yes, they were definitely blueberries.  Yes, they were definitely fresh, not dried.  They were exceedingly good, not to mention tres unique.  (And it didn’t hurt that we ate them sitting in a churchyard in the Vosges mountains looking towards a misty Romanesque mountain settlement).

Also, in Selestat, a town just down the road from Strasbourg, we found The House of PAIN.  Strasbourg farmer's marketYes, I know that pain is just the French word for bread.  Allow me to be self-indulgent: when I was in high school I edited the literary magazine.  Faced with a never-ending stream of missives on the blackness of everyone’s SOUL, another board member and I, both of whom were in the same French class, came up with a silly method of diffusing the adolescent angst surrounding the discussion of such literary gems at board meetings.  The poems, you see, were really about bread, not pain.  Thus, while Teacherman found the Maison du Pain funny purely on an English-cognate level, I doubled over in wheezing giggles at the memory of those long-ago meetings.  I may have even produced a few scraps of remembered scholastic verse, to mark the occasion.  It’s a good thing Teacherman didn’t leave me there on the curb.  The bread looked excellent, I must admit.  

Too be continued, of course. . . . 

Published in: on July 14, 2007 at 8:19 am  Leave a Comment  

Still Life With Lunch, part one

I’m back.In fact, I’ve been back for a few days, but time-zone adjustment takes time. The wedding was perfect and the honeymoon was lovely, and, what’s more, I actually took some pictures. Herewith, an abbreviated tour of Lunch in Foreign Climes, with a special inclusion of lunch nearer to home.In Heidelberg, Germany, the farmer’s market was tiny, but there were innumerable fruit stands and organic produce stores to browse. GooseberriesIt was in Heidelberg that we fell into our habit of picnic lunches, the first restaurant lunch having been rather disappointing (in contrast to our restaurant dinners, which were universally excellent). Day one: to salve our souls (and stomachs) after a sub-par cafe lunch, we bought The World’s Biggest Gooseberries at a fruit stand. (Note the size–that’s right, gooseberries, not tomatoes. My hand is in the picture for scale reference. Also note the sleeve of the parka–it was about 40 degrees).

The next day we also had a picnic, in the grounds of Burg Gutenberg, a stunning medieval castle with a library of historical volumes we would have given our tastebuds to get into.  We ate just outside the moat, on a little rise above the walkway.  The area was rather infested with shrieking 11-year-olds on a school trip, but it was a lovely meal nonetheless. Gooseberries We’d bought a head of red-speckled lettuce at the Heidelberg farmer’s market that morning, along with a small bunch of ripe tomatoes, 2 pints of red currants and a package of Emmenthaler cheese.  We cut the tomatoes and cheese into chunks and made wraps with the ruffly lettuce leaves.  A little unconventional, but delicious.  The cheese wrapped in the lettuce had all the unctousness of a good cheese sandwich and the tomatoes were so much more tangy than I’m used to.  I stopped putting them in the wraps and just ate them on their own to better savory the spice.  The currants were perfection, as currants mostly are.  In spite of the fact that they are, as Teacherman says, “fiddly,” they were consumed in record seconds.

More adventures to come, I promise. . . .

Published in: on July 12, 2007 at 7:08 pm  Leave a Comment  

It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Today was opening day at the farmer’s market.

It’s not as if the market opens with great fanfare, or that it’s advertised as “opening day” (or even that it’s advertised at all, really), but I’ve been looking forward to this morning for weeks.  The produce I can get at my favorite grocery store is certainly top-quality, but a trip to the grocery store, no matter how lovely, cannot compare to wandering among farmer’s stalls and buying produce that was only recently(mere hours ago!) in the ground.  I’m not saying that the produce is definitively and scientifically healthier, but the experience of the farmer’s market adds to my appreciation of my purchases, and my excitement makes them taste better.

Naturally, of course, I was scheduled to work on this day of days.  Luckily for me the farmer’s market opens at 7:30 and I didn’t need to be at work (which is, it must be admitted, a 30-45 minute drive from the market, which is a 30-45 minute drive from my house–the three points form a very stretched out scalene triangle) until 8:30.  Given the scheduled labor, the out-of-the-way location, the early hour, and, most especially, the fact that Teacherman is out of town and therefore I am responsible for The Dog, whose needs cannot be put off, one might think that it would be wise to skip the market this week and pick up later in the season.

Are you kidding?  There was never any doubt: I was going to the farmer’s market. 

Breakfast, grooming, dog-walking: all of these things were dispatched as quickly as possible, and I flung myself into the car, double- and triple-checking to make sure I had the week’s shopping list.  I knew that I wouldn’t be able to get everything I needed, but it didn’t matter–I wanted to get everything I COULD.

I arrived at 7:30 sharp, parked, and headed out into the blinding sunshine.  The grid was somewhat sparse, the full contingent of vendors not having come down, given the earliness of the season (especially considering the strange weather we’ve been having), but still: there was my favorite cheese stall, and there were the people with the best greens, and there were the mushroom foragers, and there was the slightly scary earthy-crunchy woman who always has things I’ve never heard of, etcetera, etcetera.

I made a quick swoop around the market to see what was available.  I was hoping for strawberries, but alas, no.  I didn’t spy a single fruit the entire market over, but one stall had lavish piles of rhubarb, almost burying the cash-box in bright magenta bundles.  I bought two pounds.  (I don’t have any plans for rhubarb, but it’s never a bad idea to have some chopped up in the freezer).

The same stall had the only arugula at the market–compact bunches of leaves tiny enough to be considered ‘baby’ arugula, but sold without any gourmet markup.  Still on a salad kick, I grabbed two bunches for tomorrow’s dinner.

The all-organic stall two rows away had spring onions, actually-grown-by-a-stream-watercress, and chives with the blossoms still on–not to mention fresh eggs.  Two dozen eggs set me back $3.50 per box, but these are worth it–even I, with my chile-dulled taste-buds, can revel in the flavor of the arrestingly golden yolks. 

I hesitated in front of the stall with piles of beautiful French breakfast radishes.  Through no fault of their own, I always like radishes less than I think I will–they’re either too spicy when I want something milder, or tasteless when I’m looking for incendiary.  They’re so beautiful that I can rarely resist them, but this time I remembered last Thursday’s dinner, after which Teacherman professed himself to be radished out, and I managed to contain myself.

This sounds idyllic, but my joy was not entirely unalloyed.  They’ve changed the parking regulations on almost all of the streets surrounding the market.  A rental-car agency has taken over all of the good spots in the parking garage.  The cheese guy at my favorite stand is no longer MY cheese guy–the one who knew exactly what Teacherman and I liked and disliked (and where we differed in our opinions) and would produce new items for us to try almost every week.  Pout.  Sigh.  I will get over it.

With only seconds left to go before I had to leave for work, I stood in front of a display of tomato plants, gnashing my teeth.  I want tomato plants.  I NEED tomato plants!  Very specifically I want (among many others) a Green Zebra tomato plant!  But I cannot leave tomato plants on the floor of the back room all day at work!  (Taking up the fridge with multiple bags of produce is bad enough).  Last year I found myself in a similar situation and when I returned the next week there were no Green Zebra plants left.  This is a situation I vowed to avoid in the future, but I was thwarted.  I can but hope that market’s tomato plant purchasers will want more conventional varieties and that there will still be Green Zebras when I return in two weeks.  (I will be out of town next Saturday morning.  It is painful to contemplate).

I did finally tear myself away from the plants and head off to work, toting my eggs and greens.  I’m sure that the pervasive smell of spring onions in the staff refrigerator was hideously annoying to the rest of the Saturday workforce, but to me it smelled like excitement and hope and fantasies of meals to come.

But I kind of wish I’d bought those radishes.

Published in: on May 19, 2007 at 8:35 pm  Leave a Comment