18 December 2011

The Potato Project: Potatoes, Seven Ways

I've never really liked potatoes. It's not that I dislike them. They just aren't my carb of choice.  I've established a mental carb hierarchy.  At the top is good bread (we're not talkin' sliced bread in the plastic bag- I mean rustic Italian breads and French baguettes) and really anything in the good bread family: focaccia, breadsticks, friselles, soft gourmet pretzels, naan.  A close second is pasta--not crappy, mushy, generic Italian restaurant pasta, but perfectly prepared, al dente pasta with the appropriate amount of sauce.  After that the categories form a messy and confusing chart of carbs:  french fries are superior to garbanzo beans are superior to coconut rice and so on.  There's a lot of overlapping categories and fine print so I'll leave out the details.

I do have a confession.  At the very bottom of my carb hierarchy is  . . .here goes . . .mashed potatoes.  I know, I know this doesn't evoke a lot of sympathy.  Most people go crazy for mashed potatoes.  I make them occasionally because I know that people love them, but I really just don't get it.  They're messy and mushy and sloppy and kind of gritty.  I just find them annoying, which I know makes me kind of annoying.  But there it is, out in the open, out in cyberspace:  I do not like mashed potatoes.  I am very open to having my mind changed, but for the time being, that is my mashed potato status.

Despite the fact that they do not rank highly in my carb hierarchy, we did grow potatoes this past summer.  Many potatoes.  Blue ones and yellow ones and french fingerlings, which do boost the overall potato stock, in my opinion, with their subtle flavor and creamy texture.  Now, as if I wasn't already lukewarm about potatoes, they are really dirty.  The ones you get from the store need a quick rinse, but the ones you get from the root cellar need some serious exfoliation.  All these factors combined, I've been avoiding our potato supply.  Unfortunately, they are a little temperamental and are sprouting and threatening to go bad so we have some serious potatoes to eat.

In my attempt to find some inspiration for the task, I gave myself The Potato Project: Potatoes, Seven Ways.  It's a potato second-honeymoon of sorts--fall back in love with my tried and true recipes and discover some new favorites.  So, the first three are potato recipes that rank well on my hierarchy.  The last four are new attempts at potato love.

1.   Roasted Potatoes

This is my go-to potato recipe as many go to the dreaded mashed potatoes.  And just as a side note, I know what you're doing.  You're just using the mashed potatoes as a vehicle for the gravy that goes with the meat your mashed potatoes are accompanying, which is just despicable.  I'm new to the world of gravy, but now that I've been formally introduced, your mashed potato abuse is flagrant.  You're putting mush on mush to make your original mush mushier.  And that just cuts to the heart of why I cannot handle mashed potatoes:  I need some chew, some gosh-darned resistance for my teeth!  These mashed potatoes that people rave about belong in an I.V. drip!

Anyways, my roasted potatoes are nothing unique.  Hearty and flavorful and an easy medium for gravy or sauce, but a medium that does require teeth so if you're part of the potato-drinking camp, don't bother.  Dice 'em, toss 'em with olive oil, salt, pepper, paprika, and garlic and roast in the oven at 450 degrees for about 45 minutes.  They are also great with parsley and parmesan.  Really, they are just a satisfying side dish for any roasted meat and gravy or stew.

2.  Patatas Bravas

Or in Spanish, brave (spicy) potatoes.  I have to admit that I don't have a very authentic recipe.  Patatas bravas are a Spanish tapas staple.  Roasted or crispy potato chunks adorned with a sauce consisting of tomato, garlic, paprika, and hot pepper, more or less--there are many variations.  When I lived in Spain, I ate many versions of Patatas Bravas, not by choice.  Never in a million years would I choose potatoes over calamari, eggplant, jamon serrano, queso manchego, almejas, lomo.  I'll stop.  The list could go on for several days.  The point of tapas is sharing, so I'm sure some unadventurous eater that I had the displeasure of pretending to like while I got drunk ordered these.  However, one time we had good, really good, patatas bravas.  After enduring numerous anemic, watery red sauces, we finally went somewhere that served a spicy and creamy brave sauce.  This is the instance off of which I've adapted my recipe.  It's a crispy potato shrouded in a spicy cream sauce.  If you're up for frying the potatoes, be my guest.  I like to brown them in a bit of butter and oil and then pop them in the oven for about 30 minutes on a foil-lined baking sheet.  They get crispy like a fried potato, but without standing over the hot stove, which is essential because I often made these when Nick and I lived in the city and came home late after a night of partying.  Only he would ask me to prepare a dish after midnight while inebriated that required dicing, frying, baking, and then the incorporation of a sauce.  Only I would say yes.  That's how we roll.  The sauce is just a mix of sour cream and mayo (I like a 1:1 ratio, but I've used just one or the other) with a good hot sauce mixed in, or you could mix cayenne and paprika into the cream sauce if you don't keep hot sauce regularly on hand.  We like them brave, very brave.  It's not sophisticated, but it's really good.  Go get good and snockered tonight and come home to a plate of these.  I'll look for the thank you email in my inbox tomorrow.

3.  Tortilla Espanola

Techncally, this is probably more of an egg dish. Tortilla Espanola is the Spanish version of the Italian frittata or French omelette.  The most basic tortilla is filled with potatoes, but many versions include onions too.  When I lived in Sevilla, my host mother often made it with tuna.  It's another tapas staple, served hot or room temperature in small squares (at least that's how I remember it, but take into account that was during six months of a Rioja fog).    Really, it's just sliced potatoes fried in a skillet with beaten eggs thrown on top and cooked until set.  In Spain, many poeple have special skillets that allow one to flip the tortilla without making a mess.  I don't have one and after many tortilla disasters,  I found it works really well to cook it in a well-seasoned cast-iron skillet and then once it's almost completely set, to put it under the broiler to finish the top.  It's one of my favorites in a comfort food kind of way.

4.   Braised Potatoes

In effort to gain some scope for The Potato Project, I went to one of my favorite cookbooks, All About Braising, by Molly Stevens.  I felt I had already exhausted the roasted/fried potato category.  The first recipe in her braised vegetable section of the book is braised potatoes with garlic and bay leaves.  It sounded simple, and frankly, plain.  I wasn't expecting much.  I put my scrubbed french fingerlings in a non-stick shallow stock pot with several crushed cloves of garlic, two broken dried bay leaves, three tablespoons of olive oil, salt, pepper, and enough homemade chicken stock (I'm sure you could use any kind of stock, or even water) reaching halfway up the potatoes.  I covered the pot and let them simmer for about twenty minutes.  After checking that the potatoes were cooked through, I turned up the heat to evaporate the stock and glaze them in the reduction sauce.  The final dish was so shiny it looked shellacked.  I was very impressed with the punch of flavor just a few simple ingredients infused into the potatoes with this cooking method.  I will certainly come back to this recipe not only because it was quick and easy to prepare, but particularly because the result was so savory.

5.  Tortiera di Patate e Carciofi, or Potatoes Layered with Artichokes and Breadcrumbs

I found this recipe for what is essentially a potato and artichoke casserole in my Italian cooking bible--My Calabria, by Rosetta Costantino.  This is absolutely my favorite cookbook.  When I first bought it, I practically slept with it under my pillow for two weeks.  Since we moved to the country, I have used it for numerous meal preparations.  It is the source of one of the best meals I've ever prepared: ciambotta.  Typically any recipe with breadcrumbs, pecorino, and olive oil is good.  In fact, it's how I transitioned Nick into eating vegetables.  Dip them in egg, roll them in breadcrumbs and cheese, pan fry in olive oil.  It's my culinary panacea.

Maybe it was venturing out with Vivienne in the rain to get the artichokes I didn't have on hand.  Maybe it was the soaking and slicing of the potatoes.  Maybe it's the fact that the potatoes wouldn't seem to cook through even though I ended up doubling the cooking time.  It wasn't good.  Many of her recipes are simple Calabrian recipes.  They have few ingredients as Calabria doesn't have an opulent tradition. Would I have eaten it if I was living in impoverished Calabria in the first half of the twentieth century as Rosetta's parents did? Yes.  Did I want to take my casserole dish and throw it in the backyard after taking the time to prepare it? Also yes.  She's certainly more talented than I am in the kitchen so I'll give her the benefit of the doubt and say I must have done it wrong.  Regardless, next time I want the delicious crunch of Italian breadcrumbs along with artichokes, I'll go pick up my brother for a good stuffed artichoke appetizer.  It's his favorite.  Actually we'll have two so we don't have to fight over the heart.  He always wins.

Pay no attention to the casserole.  The real winner that night was the Sauvignon Blanc.

6.  Pasta e Patate 'Santo Janni' or Spaghetti with Creamy Potato and Pancetta Sauce

Why would I take carbs and put more carbs on top? Because the recipe sounded interesting and because I obviously hate being able to button my jeans.  This is another recipe featured in My Calabria and comes from an agriturismo in southern Italy.  The authentic version of this recipe calls for guanciale, cured pork jowl, which is hard to find.  Unfortunately, it wasn't at my favorite small, specialty Italian deli back home.  I would have loved to search for it at Caputo's, but we were on a timeline and I get sucked into a deli vortex when I enter that grocery heaven. Forget going to heaven and having the seventy-two virgins waiting for you.  Mine has a deli counter complete with prosciuttos, olives, and cheeses . . . and a serious gelato cooler.

As a quick side note, you may be wondering why I'll eat pork jowl, but not mashed potatoes (probably not, actually, but I'll explore it for you anyways).  That's covered in a separate section of my more complete food hierarchy of which the carb hierarchy is just a small module.  If my food hierarchy were a transparency overlay on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, cured meats would perfectly overlap the self-actualization section at the very top of the pyramid.  In fact, the meaning of life itself may lie in a jamon iberico.

Concisely, this recipe is spaghetti in a pancetta mashed potato sauce with lots of pepper and grated ricotta salata.  It is good--much better than I expected.  Pancetta is quite persuasive.  There were a lot of satisfied grunts from across the table.  The potatoes create a creamy sauce that really adheres to the pasta.  I probably wouldn't use it in place of a basic cream sauce, but if you don't do dairy (you'd drop the grated cheese too) it's a great way to get something creamy and satisfying.  I bet there's even a way to do a nice vegan version of this, not that I'll be exploring that option, but it doesn't seem like a leap from the original recipe.  Overall, a pleasant surprise.

7.  Traditional Gnocchi

I'm not fluent in Italian, but I'm pretty sure gnocchi's literal translation is pain in my ass.  There's scrubbing and boiling and peeling and mashing and mixing.  Then there's the rolling and cutting and shaping of the dough to form perfect little dumplings with ridges to hold the sauce.  Then there's more boiling and straining and plating and dressing with sauce.  I had to take a nap during the prep. Twice.  I even had to stop for a Powerbar just to have the energy to make it through.  And I did it the fast way!  I didn't have any patience left to assemble the food mill, use it per the instructions, and then wash it.  Someone would have gotten seriously hurt.

The ingredient list for the gnocchi is simple: potatoes, flour, egg, salt.  The process is laborious and time consuming.  I probably wouldn't have cared if it were something that excited me.  Once when I returned from New Orleans, I bought pounds of uncleaned, whole shrimp and did the whole deveining, cleaning process myself.  It too was laborious and time consuming.  And gross.  But it was fun because I love etouffee.  I don't think a potato is ever going to hold that same inspiration for me.

I do have to admit that once my little army of gnocchi were formed and ready for boiling, I was a little excited. Something about rows of food gets me giddy.  And for gnocchi, they were good.  These were light and tender, too tender.  If I ever decide again to devote an afternoon to a heartless meal, I will add more flour to create a tougher dumpling.

What did I learn from The Potato Project?  My cuticles look terrible after a week of scrubbing potatoes.  I certainly do not like them enough to deviate far from my old standards.  And, I'll keep to stealing a few gnocchi off of my sister's plate when we go out to eat as a reminder of my indifference.  I'm always up for a tray of patatas bravas after an ungodly amount of sangria, but I'll keep future projects up a little higher on the carb hierarchy.

Patatas Bravas
as prepared by The Redneck Paisana
Dice potatoes into 1/2-1-inch cubes.  Sautee in extra virgin olive oil and butter (about 2 Tbsp of each for a pound of potatoes).  Add more oil if it seems dry.  Once potatoes are coated in fat, spread them on a foil-lined cookie sheet in a single layer, generously salt and pepper them, and bake at 400 degrees until crisp on the outside and tender on the inside, about 30-45 minutes.  After about 20 minutes, carefully turn them with a large spoon or pancake turner.  While cooking, prepare the sauce.  Mix equal parts of mayonnaise and sour cream (about 1/3 cup of each for a pound) with hot sauce to taste.  Remove potatoes from the oven and let cool for about ten minutes.  Then toss them in a large bowl with the sauce.  Serve immediately.

Pasta e Patate "Santo Janni"
Spaghetti with a Creamy Potato and Pancetta Sauce
from My Calabria, by Rosetta Costantino

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 ounces pancetta or guanciale, minced
3/4 pound russet potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
Kosher salt
1/2 pound spaghetti, broken in half lengthwise
1/3 cup finely grated ricotta salata, plus more for sprinkling
Freshly ground black pepper

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil and pancetta over medium heat, stirring until the pancetta renders its fat.  Do not let it become brown or crisp.  Add the potatoes and stir for about one minute to coat them with the fat, then add 2 cups water.  Bring to a simmer and cook uncovered until the potatoes are soft enough to mash with a fork or potato masher, about 10 minutes.  Mash them to a near-puree and set the skillet aside.
In a 4-quart pot, bring 3 quarts water and 2 tablespoons salt to a rolling boil over high heat.  Add the spaghetti and cook until al dente.

Just before the pasta is done, return the skillet to medium heat.  With tongs, lift the pasta out of the pot and transfer it, dripping wet, to the skillet.  Reserve a cup of cooking water.  Toss the pasta with tongs, coating the pasta evenly with the creamy sauce.  Add the ricotta salata and a generous amount of black pepper and toss again, thinning the sauce as needed with enough of the pasta water to make a creamy but not soupy dish.  The sauce must cling to the pasta, but it should not seem starchy.  Taste for seasoning; if the pancetta is salty, the dish may not need more salt.  Serve at once, topping each portion with a little additional cheese.

Braised Potatoes with Garlic & Bay Leaves
from All About Braising, by Molly Stevens

1 1/2 pounds small red or white potatoes, scrubbed
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 cup water or chicken stock
2 bay leaves, fresh if you can find them
2 to 3 garlic cloves , peeled and bruised
coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Evaluate the potatoes: if the potatoes are larger than a golf ball, cut them in half.  If you are leaving them whole, check to see if they have thick skins by scraping your thumb-nail across the skin.  If the skin doesn't tear, remove a strip of skin around the circumference of each potato with a vegetable peeler--this will allow the flavors of the braising liquid to penetrate the potato better.  If the skins are relatively thin, leave  them intact.

2.  The braise:  Place the potatoes in a saucepan large enough to hold them in a snug single layer without crowding.  Add the olive oil and pour in enough water or stock to come halfway up the sides of the potatoes.  Tear the bay leaves in half and add them along with the garlic.  Season with salt and pepper.  Cover and bring to a simmer over medium heat.  When the water is simmering, lower the heat to medium-low so the liquid simmers gently.  Braise, lifting the lid and turning the potatoes with a spoon once halfway through, until the potatoes are just tender when pierced with a thin skewer, about 20 minutes.

3.  The finish:  Remove the lid, increase the heat to high, and boil, gently shaking the pan back and forth, until the water evaporates and you can hear the oil sizzle, about 5 minutes.  The braised garlic cloves will break down and coat the potatoes as you shake the pan.  Serve hot.

Serves 4 to 6
Braising time: about 25 minutes

10 December 2011

City Mouse, Country Mouse

It's been a long week.  A miserable, sick, coughing mess of a two-year-old tends to erode a mother's patience. After a persistent 48-hour crying and coughing marathon, I finally got the poor thing to sleep and defeatedly entered my kitchen to attempt a brief cleaning session before it resumed.  There, on my oven standing on its hind legs, was a mouse.  I stared at it; it stared back at me.  I yelled at it; it ran back to its home behind my cabinets.  The audacity of mice today.

This is not our first mouse, but I hadn't seen one in months and hoped we had seen our last rodent of the 2011 season.  I thought maybe they'd be easy on me since it's my first winter here. Y'know, sell me the idea of country living a little.  I don't like any creature in my house, but I particularly dislike mice because they make me squeal like a big, sissy girl when they scamper across the floor.  Oh, and they're diease-harboring, destructive, pooping vermin.  After my trying week, Fievel was gonna get it.

The next night Vivienne's fever had broke.  She seemed in better spirits and had become significantly less velcro-ey.  I took my first respite and drove to the gym for a very hurried and pretty much pointless workout.  I had bigger fish to fry, or more literally, bigger mice to catch.  I called my good friend, Lorna, to catch up on some chatting while in the car.  After greeting each other, we exchanged the following:

Giana: "What are you doing?"
Lorna: "Getting ready for my salsa dancing lesson. What are you doing?"
Giana: "Going to Walmart to get mousetraps."

This does not make me feel good about myself.  Lorna is the quintessential city mouse: beautiful, successful, sophisticated.  Her life is something off the E! network; mine was falling somewhere in the general vicinity of Man vs. Wild.  I swear it's over if I'm ever faced with drinking my own pee. That show always had the same highlights: eat an eyeball, drink some pee.  I think he should take Rachael Ray on an excursion.  Now you've got show.  Let's see her pour some E.V.O.O. on that.

After purchasing my weaponry, I returned home for the showdown.  I am having a special guest this weekend, a friend and pastry chef.  My ego barely made it through the salsa dancing/mousetrap buying juxtaposition.  My pastry chef will NOT see a mouse in my house as we make our macarons.

We had been using these black disk traps that lure the mice in with bait and trap them inside so you don't have to witness the caught, writhing creature.  I had little confidence in this contraption and bought the sticky traps, which seemed to be more promising along with more graphic.  We put Viv to bed.  We set the sticky traps by their favorite spots.  Nick retreated to his mancave in the basement, but I was too excited to relax.  I turned off the kitchen lights, sat at my post at the dining room table, and opened the laptop.  My eyes went back and forth from computer screen to the dim kitchen, my anticipation palpable.  Only my face was illuminated by the screen of the computer as I waited and watched in the dark.  It's as sinister as I've ever felt, waiting for that mouse in my odd version of Ratatuoille meets The Tell-Tale Heart.

Then I got distracted:  the baby started crying; Nick came in to talk to me; I started looking at junk on the internet.  I would be a terrible hunter.  Later, I was about to scold Nick for being in the kitchen during my mouse-hunting expedition when it occurred to me that the noise in the kitchen was not Nick!  It was the mouse desperately trying to free himself from the sticky trap. That was pretty quick--maybe my victim also had cataracts.  Victory!

I yelled to the basement, "We caught it! We caught it!".  Nick came up, displeased by his pending role of disposing of the pest.  He said something along the lines of "*@#$%^&disgusting*@#$%^&". Then he looked at me and said, "I guess this is the point where I have to man up and find something long enough to shove it in a bag so I don't have to touch or look at it."  He's tough.

He managed to push the trap in a box in order to throw it outside.  "Do you want to see a field mouse up close? They're cute."  I peered in the box.  We had already become acquainted during our staring match the night before.  It was kind of cute, like one of those furry designer broaches. I felt a vague pang of guilt as Nick threw it outside to its demise.

He retreated again to the basement and I sat back at the dining room table with a sense of relief. We caught it. Game over.  Whew.

Not yet.  Just as I settled back in my chair, I saw the very familiar scurry across the kitchen floor. My vague guilt pang immediately dissolved.  "You've got to be @#$%^&*kidding me!!".  I ran into the kitchen just to find mouse #2 slipping back into his hole.  Now it was on.  I moved another sticky trap under the hole to catch him as we did the last.  But this little sucker was smart.  Soon enough I heard something hit the trap.  I ran into the kitchen to discover he had pushed it to the side and escaped.  Then he darted back to the hole, hurdled the trap, and landed securely in his home.  I was dealing with an Olympic mouse.  I ran to get another trap, placed them side by side, and secured them right under his hole.  Let's see if he can hurdle two.

I waited for a few hours, hoping to finish the job before bed, but he didn't return.  I started feeling a little hopeless, like I had missed my shot, and went to bed a little uneasy.  What if he was plotting his revenge?

Then, in the middle of the night, I was lucky enough to be jolted awake by Vivienne's piercing screams.  Just a typical call for juice.  I ran into the kitchen to fetch the queen her goblet and discovered we had another hit! He will not be making it to London for the 2012 Summer Games.  I gave Viv her juice, calmed her down, and cuddled her as we both fell into a restful, contented sleep.  For the rest of the night I was nestled snug in my bed while visions of a pestilence-free kitchen danced in my head.  Mice, you've met your match.

My kitchen is clean, nary a sign of the mouse massacre and I can confidently receive my pastry chef friend.  And I think I've sent my message.  These country mice better think twice before messing with this city mouse.

04 December 2011


Upon our return from Thanksgiving in the suburbs, the lens through which I watch our life on the farm has been recalibrated.  It’s impossible to ignore the disparity in our origins.  While we come from similar families and similar values, the manifestations from the separation of just 100 miles can be quite different.  Please understand when I say different, I don’t intend it in a hierarchical sense.  There is no better or worse, just appropriate for each lifestyle.  People often ask me if I prefer living in the city or country.  I prefer both, but for different purposes.  Country living is appropriate for our current lifestyle for many reasons which are unnecessary to explore here.

The disparity provides me with endless material.   It was just last weekend Vivienne and I spent the morning shopping at Oak Brook Shopping Center with my mom and brother.  That would be the mecca for those brought up in the tradition of suburban materialism.  I'm greatly enjoying the fruits of our excursion (new jacket, tunic, sweater, knit top, and bohemian blouse-thank you mom! I’m cute again!)  Just a few days later, my father-in-law was watching Vivienne and decided to bring her along for a morning of tractor-shopping.  I guess one does that at some sort of mecca for those brought up in the tradition of rural commercial agriculture.  In order to transport her safely, he installed her car seat in the cab of his pick up.  Now that’s something one doesn’t get to experience growing up in Hondas.

My life is the perpetual alternating of redneck and paisana.  For example:

Nick stacked the functional DVD player on top of the old, broken DVD player.  I had the sudden realization that I was living a Jeff Foxworthy monologue.

I finally indulged myself in my ideal Christmas tree:  white tree, white lights, silver and blue decorations.  I like to call it European.  Nick calls it Jersey guinea.  I’m fine with either description.  I know it’s tacky.  I can’t help it!  There are somethings that will always look right to me even though society tells me otherwise:  many bracelets stacked on the same arm, excessive liquid eyeliner, and a white Christmas tree.  I think it’s beautiful and it makes me very happy.  

And then there is the garden, the biproduct of the redneck and the paisana, that is still kickin'. Yesterday, I had a very humble salad.

There is nothing remarkable about this salad other than it was harvested from my backyard on December 2nd in Northern Illinois.  Most of our lettuces couldn't withstand the frosts, but this curly cultivar is in its best condition yet.  Through September, October, and November, I mostly passed it opting for the peppery baby arugula, then the crisp romaine-like head lettuce, and lastly the burgundy and deep green leaves.  It always looked too dirty to bother cleaning, but now that there is little debris and no leaves on the ground, the curly lettuce is clean, in its prime, and has the spotlight.  It's the last lettuce standing, which is a great lesson in biodiversity.  Had we not chosen to plant six or seven lettuces, I would have never learned that each peaks in ripeness at different times, nor that each has a different resistance to the approaching hard freeze.

Also, upon getting reaquainted with the garden after a few weeks of neglect, I discovered we have broccoli.  I had relinquished any hope of harvesting the brassicas we sowed from seed this fall, but the two rows of broccoli that managed to germinate and grow through the changing weather of summer to fall have each produced a small, green head.

Along with the season's last bastion of greens, we had a meal that is a very good marriage of redneck and paisana.  If I were from the country, I might call it macaroni casserole (casseroles, I've learned, are very popular in the country).  But, since I contribute the paisana to the household, we call it pasta al forno, literally 'pasta in the oven', or baked pasta.  This came about mainly because we were seriously out of food other than our meager garden pickings and a crapload of turnips for which I have yet to find a good use--turns out there is something that isn't delicious roasted in garlic and olive oil.

We had copious amounts of milk because regardless of our schedule, we get two gallons from our local cow each week.  So upon our return from our Thanksgiving weekend, we came home to last week's two gallons and this week's two gallons.  Other than Viv, we are not big milk drinkers and I think it would be somewhat irresponsible to allow that to be her only source of nutrition for the next week, so I made a huge batch of ricotta.  Three quarters of a pound of slightly undercooked penne mixed with a generous amount of ricotta, a splash of milk, and salt and pepper baked with a romano-polenta crust made for a rustic and hearty macaroni casserole, ahem, pasta al forno.  If I had set out to make that meal, I probably would have chosen very different ingredients, but I think it made good use of our exorbitant amount of milk (there's still plenty of ricotta) and the last bit of grated romano and polenta hiding in the back of the refrigerator.

The cultural amalgam that is my life contains beauty from both parts.  Just as I once sighed at the sight of the Chicago skyline while coming South on the Edens into the city, I sigh at the silhouettes of the black cows against the caramel background of the harvested fields as they find the remaining bits of corn for their bovine breakfast.  Perhaps one day I'll come our with my own Redneck Paisana product line: Mountain Dew cannoli, a pickup truck decked out with fleck paint and a scapular on the rearview mirror, maybe some bedazzled gardening tools.  Until then, we'll watch our well-worn Anniversary Collection of The Godfather on our working DVD player nestled on top of the broken one. 

20 November 2011

A Squash by Any Other Name

The basement is lined with dozens of squash.  Although pleased by the plentiful supply, I'm daunted by the task of finding another variation on a squash theme.  One Wednesday afternoon while exhausting my resourcefulness for an inspirational dinner, I came up with something.  It is not original in the grander world of dinners, but it is original for our home.  If a meal isn't born in garlic and olive oil or an alternative herb in butter, it isn't our standard fare.  I routinely use our garden-grown herbs for flavor, but couldn't have been more bored by an onion or garlic let alone the rosemary and sage that have made appearances in more than a few meals over the past several weeks.  After testing our fair share of pumpkin pies for The Paisana's Patisserie, it occurred to me: pumpkin pie soup.  I have a freshly-stocked spice rack full of ginger, nutmeg, allspice, and cinnamon begging for experimentation outside the pastry crust.

a small portion of our Butternut Squash harvest

To call it pumpkin pie soup is slightly deceptive as there is no pumpkin in the dish. However, it is a much more appetizing title than any that came to mind containing the word squash.  According to Romeo, 'that which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet'.  Although romantic when applied to adolescent love, the theme isn't as relevant in regards to the Cucurbitaceae family.  Squash, though a true culinary delight, was not named accordingly.  At best, it conjures images of peasant or Native American cuisine--not that both categories lack delicious highlights, but neither immediately points to them either.  

1 gallon of farm-fresh milk
I wanted something redolent of the holidays--something that perfectly defines these transitional weeks of November into the official holiday season.  It had to be creamy, satisfying, and slightly exotic, but common enough to be a comfort food, just like pumpkin pie.

roasted and cooled squash halves
The ingredient list is simple: Butternut squash, milk, pumpkin pie spices, maple syrup or flavoring, brown sugar, kosher salt.  One of the purposes of this blog is to explore the gastronomic opportunities of Midwest gardening.  I point this out because my recipes are not always the most time or labor efficient.  In our effort to produce as much of our food as our sanity allows, I've reclaimed certain steps typically done by a factory.  So for this soup, I split, roasted, skinned, and pureed the squash.  If we are not cut from the same cloth in the kitchen, you are welcome to buy pure pumpkin puree from the store if trying this recipe.  You'll save time and effort; your kitchen will remain much tidier than mine as well.  

Pumpkin Pie soup makes a cozy winter lunch, puts the abundance of garden squash to good use, and is an anticipated respite from our standard meal equation: x + olive oil + garlic + parmesan = repast.  I think it may be the perfect tree-decorating companion lunch and certainly makes more room in the basement.  I only wish it were as delicious with a more virtuous name.

Pumpkin Pie Soup
serves about 8 

2 medium butternut squash 
5-6 cups milk
1 Tbsp cinnamon
1 Tbsp ginger
2 tsp nutmeg
2 tsp allspice
1/2 Tbsp kosher salt
3 Tbsp brown sugar
1 tsp maple flavoring (or 3 Tbsp maple syrup and eliminate brown sugar)

Halve squash and place faced down on a foil-lined and oiled baking sheet.  Bake for 1 hour 15 minutes in 350 degree oven.  The squash should be slightly caramelized on the outside and very soft.  Remove flesh and blend in batches in food processor or blender with enough milk to make a smooth puree.  Add squash, spices, and enough milk for a creamy, but not too thick consistency to a large stockpot (I use an 8 qt stainless steel).  Cook on a low heat until it's very hot, but not boiling.  The milk will form a skin if you bring to a boil.  I find this soup is much better on the second day because it allows enough time for the spices to infuse.  The texture is better after it sits a day or two as well.  

Please note that the amount of spice in the ingredient list is a suggested starting point.  Often, pumpkin pie recipes use more cinnamon than the other spices, but I really like the kick that the extra ginger gives.  Next time I may even add a little cayenne. I usually don't list my recipes because there aren't any, but this is my best attempt to estimate how much of each ingredient went into this dish.  Feel free to adjust according to your liking.  Were I serving this as a lunch or first course for a dinner, I might garnish with some creme fraiche and candied pecans along with a nice crusty baguette.  It's just fine with a dash of nutmeg and sea salt for a meal of less decorum.  I enjoyed it most by the light of my Christmas decorations with a side of silence provided by Vivienne's nap.  

15 November 2011

It All Begins with Garlic

You can never have enough garlic. With enough garlic, you can eat The New York Times. 
-Morley Safer

garlic in raised beds this past spring

In a way, we just celebrated our one-year gardening anniversary.  We haven't lived on the farm for a full year yet and we've barely completed our first gardening season, but the year has come in full in that it was last November that we broke ground on our future garden spot and planted garlic.  I wouldn't have realized it except that Nick tilled the raised beds and has already planted our garlic for next year.

It was last fall that we realized that we were indeed quite serious about moving to the country. We didn't know if and how the relocation would materialize, but we had faith that it would.  With that faith came the vision of a garden, and in that garden was sure to grow garlic, one of the cornerstones of our family cuisine.
garlic curing in the haymow over the summer

We came out to the farm one weekend to mark our garden beds, plant grass seed and a cover crop of clover, and build 8' x 8' raised beds for the garlic and herbs that require more drainage. We raced from the suburbs to the farm on a very autumnal Friday afternoon after work because we wanted to get all the seed in the ground before the anticipated rain the next day.

The first step was to till the ground.  My Father-in-law was generous enough to disk the dry ground first, but we still needed to till it further so he let us use his four-wheeler with a plow-type attachment on the back.  Nick suggested that I ride with him for a few passes until I was comfortable and then continue on my own so he could move onto other necessary activities in the spirit of saving time.  This made me very nervous: one, I am a bad driver in general; two, if anyone's gonna make a mistake with my father-in-laws stuff, it ain't gonna be me.  Additionally, his dog, Tilly, who is quite an obedient dog has one very annoying character flaw:  she loses her mind when anyone drives the four wheeler.  She bites at the wheels, runs in front of it, and barks her Blue Heeler head off.  Despite my requests to possibly have a different gardening assignment and the subsequent requests to put the dog in the shed, I was left to drive the four-wheeler with the dog practically having an aneurism from barking and biting at the wheels.  We all know this isn't headed anywhere good.

Before I get to the point, I have to make one important digression.  I make it a point not to annoy my Father-in-law, particularly during harvest season.  Nick, the middle-child, has absolutely no problem irritating him, in fact, they make a sport of antagonism together.  So, before we started on our gardening adventure, I established one rule.  One rule!  Don't irritate Dad.  My first-born fiber can't handle it.  Now, I've never really been a rule follower, but I set out with every intention of not breaking this one.  To make a long story short, I popped one of the back tires with the blade of the plow.  And if I have ever considered ending it all, it was at that moment.  I broke my own rule before the completion of our first gardening hour.

The whole incident occurred, basically, because I thought I was going to hit the dog.  In farm country, however, that is not the catastrophe that it is in the suburbs.  Nick's response to my explanation was something to the tune of, "Who cares?!"  My Father-in-law's was more practical: "Giana, you couldn't kill that dog if you tried."  Toto, I don't think we're in Kansas anymore.  

My plan was to never go into my in-laws house again in order to avoid the shame.  It would have been a perfect evening to spend my first farm-night outdoors too.  There was a full moon against a perfectly clear blue-black sky.  And the weather was almost temperate--a day which one can't decipher is fall or spring because of the combination of crispness and warm humidity in the breeze.  We continued planting grass and clover seeds by the light of the moon.  We were giddy. It was certainly a new breed of romance.

All in all, the event was not such a disaster.  Luckily, my Father-in-law is a very forgiving man, we replaced the tire the next day, and we learned early on that I would not be driving any machinery.

Our next season's garlic crop is already bundled in its winter coat of mulch.  Our first gardening season is bundled in its nostalgic coat of our family history.  And really, what could be a better crop to mark the passing of seasons?  It is the first in the ground each season and it's almost always the first ingredient in my pan shimmering with olive oil.  Garlic is an important cornerstone of our cuisine because it's part of me, a part of my heritage, a part of the cooking I grew up with.  We're raising our family in the glorified setting of Nick's youth, but I've brought a big part of mine in the kitchen.

05 November 2011

A Deliciously Redneck Autumn

End of September: Violet on Orange

The seasons are turning. Just when I thought nothing could be more beautiful than summer on the farm, autumn proves me wrong.  Our scenery was just green and lush and moist and overnight turned brown and dry.  The air is crisp, even biting in the morning when Viv and I take our walks down to the creek, which is also showcasing its fall outfit of orange and goldenrod wildflowers.  We walk down the waterway through the gold and burnt orange patchwork of the corn and soy quilt.  The corn talks to us in its crunchy, rustling voice and we might respond if we weren’t so busy singing Old McDonalds Farm, Viv’s new song of choice, which is quite the feat since I’m singing it while walking a with a 30-pound two-year-old strapped to my back.  It feels like I have a baby goat in the backpack.  I’m definitely winded by the time we get to the creek and have sung about every farm animal I know (which is like four that I’ve set on repeat), but like the turning of the seasons, I know she, too, will be turning, turning into a little girl that soon won’t fit on my back.  So I savor the moments she sits in that backpack, now bundled in her fleece and bunny hat while rubbing her dirty blankie on her nose and singing her E-I-E-I-Ohs with a binkie hanging out the side of her mouth like a little colorful cigar.

Despite the turn in season, our tomatoes are still producing.  And the hornworms are still destroying.  First frost has yet to hit and the cooler weather seems to have benefitted the tomatoes that now appear to be in perfect condition—no splits, no bruises, no funky smells looming underneath the plants as I pick.  More tomatoes does mean more canning (sigh), but I’m grateful considering our low yield in the hotter months.  It also means I have to watch Viv every second around the tomato harvest.  I came in from the garden one morning to find her eating her breakfast—a large Italian heirloom tomato that had to have weighed at least a pound.  She was sitting at our picnic table eating it as one would eat an apple.  Although I had been reserving that perfect tomato for canning, I was so impressed with the precision in which she devoured it, I sat and watched her eat the whole thing.  It also spared me the preparation of her eggs or oatmeal.

The new chill in the air brought the eggplant production to a screeching halt and I was actually thankful.  After grilling, frying, braising, roasting, drying, and even preserving a batch under oil, I’ve had my fill.  However, the peppers are troopers.  I’m still bringing in baskets of sweet, bell, and hot peppers.  And we’ve officially harvested thirteen Fatali Peppers.  They rank as one of the hottest peppers in the world and clearly are not native to this area, which makes it a wonder that we can raise these plants, but not corn and beans.  We will not be consuming the Fatalis as the Hungarian Hot peppers, which rank much lower on the Scoville scale, are hot enough for the both of us.  These are for my brother-in-law, Andy, who has a penchant for piquante and can pop one of the Hungarian Peppers in his mouth as though it were a piece of candy.  I hope he breaks a sweat as Nick had to start about fifty plants to get the handful that produced.  The Hungarian hot peppers are prolific and have provided pepper relish, hot pepper jelly, smoked paprika, and even our house hot sauce.  Come over on hot sauce makin’ day if you need your sinuses cleared.  The kitchen is like Bikram for your nose.

Now that the weather has cooled, it’s exciting to prepare end-of-summer crops in fall fashion.  I avoided the oven during steamy August, but September (ah, I love September) allows for all of the cozier, warmer dishes one can prepare with the nightshades.  After canning a bunch of tomatoes, the leftover puree gave way to a rich tomato Parmesan risotto.  That remaining risotto was stuffed into red bell peppers along with some Italian sausage.   And the sausage that didn’t go into the peppers ended up in the final--I swear to god the final--eggplant dish: stuffed eggplants.  We have lots of sweet Italian peppers.  They made a lovely Calabrian chicken along with onions, garlic, potatoes and pepperoncini.  Roasted and paired with feta we enjoyed some great crostini and rustic sandwiches along.  And on a Sunday night on which we were all very tired, they made a humble but pungent garlic red pepper pesto lightly tossed in capellini with generous Parmesan and ground pepperoncini.  We ate our fill and then couldn’t kiss for at least twenty-four hours due to the awful garlic dragon breath.  Worth it.

We have pounds and pounds and more pounds of squash: Delicata, Butternut, Acorn, Hubbard.  I have to practically go on safari to retrieve them from the jungle of vines in the squash beds.  We’ve had butternut bisque with sage, butternut bisque with peppers and kale, butternut bisque with fingerling potatoes and bacon.  All in all, we’ve already had our share of butternut bisque. 

The potatoes have all found a humid home in boxes of dirt in the root cellar.  When the cupboard is looking bare, it’s a nice surprise to remember the inventory of potatoes in the basement.  The blue potatoes are beautiful. Sliced, they look like cross-sections of amethyst geodes.  I make the yellow ones in the cast iron skillet, but to add some decadence, I crack eggs over the top and baked them for ten minutes.  When sliced and served, the yolks yield a rich sauce that nicely compliments the crispy potato base.  The gourmet French fingerling is everything they were advertised to be in the Seed Savers Exchange order form description.  They are silky and firm with a delicious buttery flavor.  And one evening when we had very few ingredients in the pantry, I fetched a good amount of them from the root cellar and after the millennia it takes to wash and peel them, fried them with bacon and garlic and poured in a half gallon of our creamy, local milk for a very basic but savory chowder garnished with plenty of fresh parsley.

Speaking of parsley, our herb bed is in full swing—a fragrant medley of rosemary, coriander, parsley, and sage.  The rosemary has been particularly enticing with its Christmas-y smell and inspired a series of braising experiments, most notably the rosemary-maple short ribs braised in a porter sauce and the rosemary-pear whole chicken braised in a white wine butter sauce.  I spent a Friday night engulfed in Molly Stevens book, All About Braising, and have become a braising fool.  Our freshly picked herbs really added excellent flavor to the experiments, but as the temperature has plummeted, we’ve pulled in most of the herbs and now have numerous strands of coriander, rosemary, oregano, basil, parsley, and sage hanging in the basement to dry before we package them for winter.  They made a nice addition to the onions and garlic we pulled in from the haymow weeks ago.  Our formerly Blair Witch basement is now the perfect venue for a Wiccan ceremony.  Not sure which is scarier. 

The autumn garden is a pleasant change from the barely manageable summer garden.  The falling leaves have saved me mulching efforts.  The fall crops are approaching their peak as the summer crops slowly decline. Each time I step outside, I think ‘violet on orange’.  The burnt soybeans, camel-colored corn, and golden leaves are vibrant against a violet-grey autumn sky.  The vista from my kitchen window is a Van Gogh painting of swirling browns, golds, and oranges, topped with dancing purples and thick greys.  When I squint, it turns into a Rothko— just violet on orange.  Who would have known I would have world-class artwork above my kitchen sink on the modest salaries of a teacher and a stay-at-home mom/gardener? 


End of October: Blue on Yellow

Just weeks ago Vivienne and I made our way to the creek each morning among the browned corn and soy.  As the industrial farming harvest season comes to an end, the corn and soy ocean surrounding our rural island is gone.  It’s as though the tide went out.  In the weeks it took for them to disappear, the wildflowers by the creek have also gone, and the baby I carried on my back turned into a big girl who can lead me to the creek on her own.  She’s not quite two and has a better sense of direction than her mother, although that’s not saying much.    

Now that the corn and beans have been harvested, we have visitors.  The bugs that lost their homes in the surrounding fields are trying to take residence in ours.  The primary invaders are the lady bugs, which are harmless, which does not mean they belong in the house, the shower, or the bed.  Any bug in my bed is completely unnerving and adds fuel to my irrational bug behavior.  So, I feel my daily vacuuming of the ceiling during those first few weeks after the advent of harvest was completely warranted.   I love feeling like a deranged housewife.

The squash is still producing, but not as heavily as a month ago.  After many squash taste-tests, we’ve decided that the acorn has superior flavor while the butternut has superior texture.  The butternut is an excellent candidate for soups, muffins, and pies (you can use butternut squash in pumpkin recipes).  The acorn, roasted and mashed with butter, brown sugar, and kosher salt makes a killer side dish. 

We had a quintessentially fall pasta with squash and sausage in a brown-butter sage sauce, which is definitely my go-to fall sauce.  The squash must be peeled and sautéed in oil before it can be added to the pasta with the other ingredients.  Learn from my mistake—it’s easier to peel a butternut squash with a vegetable peeler than the ridged acorn squash.  I realize that should have been apparent to me without having to commit the error. 

Our favorite use for squash is gnocchi.  Traditionally, gnocchi are small dumplings made with potato.  While I’ll take the occasional bite of someone else’s gnocchi, it isn’t a dish I typically order, let alone make at home.  I think my sister was genetically assigned all the appreciation for gnocchi. And sleeping. That girl loves gnocchi almost as much as a good nap.  But when made with roasted squash, gnocchi speaks to me.  And when covered in the brown butter sage sauce, it sings.  I’ve made them with both butternut and acorn squash.  The color is definitely prettier with the butternut, but I’m still partial to the flavor of the acorn.  They only require two ingredients: flour and cooked squash.  I’ve experimented with the ratio of flour to squash.  It varies from a 1:1 ratio of cups of squash to cups of flour to a 1:2 ratio.  The acorn squash requires more flour, the butternut less.  Too much flour creates tough gnocchi, but too little makes the dough very difficult to handle and a mushy gnocchi. And nobody wants a mushy gnocchi.  I create the gnocchi in small batches adding just enough flour to make quarter-sized dumplings, then roll it in flour, place it on a parchment-lined baking sheet so they don’t stick, and make ridges on the top with the tines of a fork.  They do take a little work, but if you are on a tight budget and are a foodie at heart, it’s worth it.  They keep their shape best in the refrigerator until boiled in salted water for 10-15 minutes, removed from the water with a slotted spoon, and gently placed in a colander to drain—they’re delicate.  Then after plating, a drizzle of the brown-butter sage sauce, a dusting of parmesan, and a sprinkling of salt and pepper, and they’re ready to go.  Pillows of flavor. 

The brown-butter sage sauce is easy: brown the butter with a handful of halved sage leaves.  The butter browns right as the sage becomes crispy, which is a lovely garnish.  The entire flavor has been infused into the butter, but the crispiness is a nice contrast to the chewy gnocchi. And, well,  it just looks pretty.         

While I expected the tomato production to halt weeks ago, it didn’t and the vines were heavy with fruit after neglect.  Late in October my mother-in-law, in her generous nature, offered to can the late harvest on her days off.  In several days she basically doubled the efforts of my couple months—and much more gracefully, may I add.  She makes up in finesse what I have in ambition.  I skinned and quartered a few last quarts and threw them in the freezer for a quick sauce and said good-bye to the tomatoes and their mockery for a while. 

In addition to the late tomatoes, I found a dozen or so late eggplant.  While part of me wanted to walk by and leave them on the vines, my heart just wouldn’t let me.  As sick as I was of eggplant, my love runs too deep.  Nick was pleased with my decision as he came home to eggplant parm for dinner layered with fresh ricotta made that day with our extra milk.  It’s always a winner—even after the eggplant deluge of August.

Our greens are in abundance: a variety of lettuces and arugula, chard, and kale.  The lettuces are tender and crisp and range in color from bright mint green to deep burgundy.  The salads are beautiful.  When you only eat fresh salads in season, it truly is a treat.  We have a large salad every night with dinner dressed with a roasted red pepper dressing made from the remaining Jimmy Nardellos and Marconis.  The pepper plants are looking sad, but the sweet Italian red peppers are still producing by the handful.  And amazingly enough, the Fatalis, a tropical plant, have yielded dozens and dozens of peculiar little orange hot peppers.  And from the few who were brave enough to try them, I was told they are hot. Dangerously hot. 

I enjoy the kale, probably more than most people.  It’s texture really holds up when sautéed with olive oil, garlic, and pepperoncini, unlike spinach that typically turns into a wet lump.  It’s a great accompaniment to Italian sausage, tossed with pasta, or thrown into soups.  I like to use it in place of escarole for the traditional Italian meal of sausage, escarole, and beans. 

When Nick and I daydream of our future homestead, we envision small livestock and fruit and nut trees.  However, the planting or transplanting of fruit and nut trees is not in accordance with our landlord/tenant agreement—or what I like to call, the ‘Nick, don’t piss off your dad’ agreement.  While we wait on the reworking of our contract, Nick found a walnut spot for us to forage.  A little note about foraging:  if like me, you were raised in the affluent suburbs by middle-class educated parents who worked hard to put you through college and travel the world, perhaps don’t tell them that you went walnut foraging. Or any kind of foraging.  That is unless you want them to look at you like you have two heads.  Again, this is probably apparent to most people without having to make that mistake.  Although having committed the error, I can now write down the word foraging on the until-now blank list of things that make my mother speechless.  And I’m not sure forage is even the right word anyways since it wasn’t technically wilderness in which we were collecting walnuts; it was my father-in-law’s best friend’s yard.  Although as far as my upbringing is concerned, his wooded lot would fall more in the wilderness category than yard.  Either way, he was generous enough to allow us to collect walnuts on his property, which is quite the process because the nut is encased in a husk.  The husk removal is very messy because the walnut juice gets all over your hands and clothes.  We actually had a lot of fun collecting them and removing the husks.  The juice and occasional maggot-infested nut didn’t even bother me, but that may have been because I was already half in the walnut bag. 

After the collection and husk removal, they must cure for a few weeks in the sun before storing, which is the real fun—dragging them out of the garage and onto the lawn every morning and packing them up every night.  Ironically, the same visit in which I mentioned foraging to my mother, she had brought me a trunk full of groceries consisting of my favorite things: chips, salsa, hummus, cheese, wine, pepperoni, breads, and walnuts.  She’s wonderful.  Walnuts that were already collected, husked, cured, and shelled. For $5.  Maybe she’s onto something.

As October comes to a close, most of the fall crops are proving successful.  The tender lettuces and kales are delicious.  We’ve harvested at least one hundred squash.  The packet of small, French pumpkins did not germinate well, but I have three Cinderella pumpkins that have grown and are about to turn from their deep green to deep orange.  We have our own brand of fairytales here on the farm.  I even have one Marina di Chioggia squash, which I probably shouldn’t consider a victory, but had already given up on them early in the season.  Then, one day I was out collecting squash and there in the middle of the garden bed was a fully-grown, very lumpy, green-grey pumpkin-shaped squash that is the Marina di Chioggia.  It’s so ugly it’s beautiful.  I squealed in delight and immediately sent Nick a picture message.  I wonder if other wives send sexy squash pictures to their husbands.   

The turnip and rutabaga are just beginning to pop out of the ground—let the root vegetable experiments begin!  The multiple carrot cultivars, beets, and radishes are right on schedule.  And it’s a race to see if our flowering fall peas produce.  As we head into November, the garden has reduced greatly in size from the massive and unruly July beast.  It is a small, verdant patch among the dunes of sand-colored bare fields.  I would expect a caravan of camels in the distance if it weren’t for the green waterways and standard midwestern farmhouses and buildings in view.  My swirling Van Gogh painting above the sink now showcases brushstrokes of sandy browns and yellows and icy grey-blues.  And when I squint, I no longer see the September Rothko: Violet on Orange, but the October replacement: Blue on Yellow. 

17 September 2011

More from The Redneck Paisana

The following entry was written a few weeks ago but hasn’t been posted due to our current lack of computer and internet, which has made it feel even more Little House on the Prairie here than usual . . .   

There are two staples in the Midwest garden: corn and beans.  If a gardener grows nothing else, he most likely has sweet corn and green beans because the Midwest weather and soil perfectly suits their proliferation.  In fact, the Midwest is the corn and bean capital of, well, the world.  If I look in any direction from my front or back doorstep, there is corn and there are beans—feed corn and soybeans.  With a growing list of books and documentaries dedicated to the subject, the American commercial food chain depends on this abundance of corn and beans in the middle of which I now live.  Nick and I planted over one hundred cultivars on approximately 20,000 square feet of land.  Our two biggest failures?  Yes, corn and beans.  All of our rare heirloom breeds of sweet corn, popcorn, and meal corn as well as the hundreds of ears of hybrid honey and pearl failed to pollinate because the cucumber beetles and Japanese beetles discovered them as a pesticide-free oasis.    

In all honesty, I’m not a huge fan of corn or beans.  I realize it’s because I didn’t grow up in corn country.  My husband is fanatical about corn and being a native of corn country, is a corn connoisseur.  He has taught me how the flavor depends on eating the delicious sugars before they have turned to starch, which has typically happened by the time it reaches grocery store shelves.  The only proper way to eat sweet corn is farm fresh and covered in butter and salt.  It is quite delicious even if his butter ritual destroys an entire stick of my premium pastured butter (almost $2 a stick!)  We’ve made a few elotes, a Mexican corn dish Nick always ate in our old neighborhood in Chicago, and I’ll admit that off the cob or in such dishes, corn can be delicious.  However, I think there just might be a critical acquisition period for corn like there is with language.  If you haven’t lived in corn country before a certain age, you can just never be a native corn speaker.  So while I’ve gained fluency, I still can’t conjugate all the tricky corn verbs accurately and just forget about the corn subjunctive.  I’m pretty sure I’ll never dream in corn.  After all, my native tongue is pasta.  I try not to prepare pasta too often, y’know, carbs.  But with our abundance of fresh vegetables, it seems sacrilegious to avoid pasta with access to such perfectly fresh sauces.  We’ve had pestos and pasta pomodoro and broccoli with garlic among other summer creations based on that which was available from the garden on a given day.  We had one of my favorites the other night.  I call it Scarborough Fair Angel Hair:  capellini with parsley, sage, rosemary, and thyme butter sauce (heavy on the rosemary, duuuuuuuude).  It was so light and fragrant.  Pasta poetry.

Of all the summer dishes, the masterpiece was in the prime of nightshade season.  It’s called ciambotta, an Italian vegetable stew similar to ratatouille except that it’s Italian, so of course it takes much longer.  Italian cooking is not complicated or difficult.  Most if it requires simple, fresh ingredients.  It’s all just very labor intensive.  If you’ve ever made a homemade lasagna, you understand what I mean.  The recipe (detailed at bottom of post) for ciambotta comes from my favorite cookbook, My Calabria, which I’ve referenced before.  It is basically eggplant, potato, zucchini, and peppers in a spicy tomato sauce flavored with onion, garlic, and basil. 

Allow me to walk you through the process.  Begin by dicing the zucchini.  Fry it in a pan of olive oil, and I mean serious olive oil—enough for the pieces to float and turn golden brown and crispy on all sides.  The zucchini will take anywhere from 15-30 minutes to cook completely depending on the amount.  It is my least favorite of the listed vegetable ingredients so I only use one medium or two small ones.  Next dice the potatoes small and fry them in batches in the same fashion. And then the eggplant. And then the peppers.  The frying alone took almost three hours.  It is essential to fry them separately though as each ingredient has a different cooking time.  I always love the idea of ratatouille, but anytime I’ve ever ordered it the zucchini is mushy and the eggplant underdone.  Not delicious.  Each pile of ingredients then rests in paper towel-lined dishes while the sauce is prepared:  diced tomatoes that have been previously removed from their skins sauteed with onion and garlic.  As the sauce cooks, basil is torn into small pieces and added.  Once the sauce has come together nicely, all the previously fried vegetables are added for the flavors to marry.  Then, the stew sits for at least 30 minutes to cool to room temperature.  That’s necessary not only because one does not want to eat a hot stew in the summer, but to allow the best flavor as well.  I’ve made it twice.  I’ve gotten the complete cooking time down to under four hours.  But let me tell you, I’d still make it if it took double, even triple the time because it is one of the richest, most delicious things I’ve ever eaten.  It is the dinner equivalent of a flourless chocolate cake.  Almost sinful. 

Speaking of tedious Italian processes—no I did not try to buy stamps or cash travelers checks in Italy, but I did do something that takes about as long.  I made tomato conserva.  Conserva is a very thick tomato paste preserved in oil.  I’ve been having some troubles with our tomato yield.  We have ninety-two tomato plants, but only half of them are producing (the other half was transplanted late and are not yet ready for harvest ).  Additionally, only about two-thirds of what I am harvesting is in consumable condition.  Many of them are bursting and rotting on the vines.  It takes about twenty-four pounds of tomatoes to yield six quarts of diced canned tomatoes.  It is said that it takes three pounds per quart, but I’m finding I need more to make a less watery product. 

I’ve canned many of our tomatoes and some peaches (that was a fun morning when the sugary packing syrup erupted from the jars all over my counter and floor).  The problem is that I am not always getting that many pounds in one picking.  It might take several days to acquire that many pounds and by then, the first picked are looking not as fresh as I would like for canning.  I could just can 10-12 pounds every few days, but that is a lot of work for just a few quarts.  So, I found this amazing recipe in the book (My Calabria).  It requires ten pounds of tomatoes.  First, they must be washed and inspected to remove any blemishes.  Then, they are passed through a food mill.  Not only does it remove the seeds and skins and make a velvety smooth tomato sauce, it also makes a huge mess.  The mill has a million parts, which of course makes me swear a lot.  The first time I tried to assemble the thing I almost threw it out the window, but that would have been really disrespectful given that my mother-in-law lent it to me.  I’m thinking we’ve made her life colorful enough without the addition of her having to find her things on the front lawn. 

Once all the tomatoes have been passed through the mill, they must be boiled down for several hours with a lot of kosher salt to remove most of the water.  Then, once they have turned into a paste, the real fun begins (do not try this at home without as least several bottles of wine). Grease a cookie sheet with a tablespoon of olive oil and spread the paste in a perfectly thin and uniform layer.  Bake for thirty minutes at 200 degrees.  After thirty minutes, mix it, respread it and bake it for another thirty. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat.  This process takes all the water out of the tomatoes, caramelizes it, and reduces it to a thick, sticky paste.  And it takes about three hours. After the three hours of boiling. After the passing the tomatoes through the mill. After the swearing at the food mill while assembling it.  After washing and removing blemishes. After picking perfectly ripe tomatoes and composting the rotten ones.   All while a tiny crackhead of a two year old says ‘It’s mine!’  Everything is hers right now—the chairs, the walls, and object in her line of vision.  The ‘mine’ phase is fantastic.  So ten pounds of tomatoes are reduced to two small half pint jars of tightly packed conserva topped with olive oil.  The lack of water, the salt, and the lack of oxygen from the oil topping allow this to keep for about a year in the refrigerator.  It is very rich and delicious and I’m sure will make some spectacular sauces, stews, and soups come winter.  Nick suggested this might be a good business endeavor.  Hmmmm.  Ten pounds of pesticide free tomatoes would cost minimally $2.99/pound so that’s about thirty dollars.  It takes me about seven hours to complete a batch.  At minimum wage, that’s another $50.  Other expenses (oil, salt, energy) would add a few more dollars.  So we’re talking at least $45 per half-pint of conserva.  In Viv’s words, “It’s mine!”

After making the tomato conserva, I decided to undergo the same process with peppers.  This took longer due to the ungodly amount of time it takes to remove the seeds and cut into uniform strips before boiling them into a paste and then passing them through the food mill.  I also dried the leftover skins and remains of the peppers in the food mill to create a paprika.  I then punched myself in the face because that was just one step too far . . .even for me.

There is a distinctly different feel in the air that indicates fall is coming.  Our fall beds are planted.  We took out our cucumber bed that was losing its battle with the cucumber beetles to make room for lettuces and fall peas, but not before having a few good cucumber salads and gazpachos.  Now that I have a sophisticated root cellar I thought it would make sense to plant lots of root vegetables for its use so we have several varieties of carrots along with radishes, turnips, parsnips, and rutabagas.  Honestly, I don’t even know what a rutabaga is, but how bad could it possibly be roasted with a brown butter sauce?  The fall brassicas are planted and the kale is already coming up.  The fall squash are absolutely out of control and growing far beyond their designated beds.  One has taken a tomato plant hostage and there are pretty striped squash hanging heavily next to the paste tomatoes.  The tomatoes’ days are numbered as the first frost approaches.  That and we are grossly losing the war with the hornworms.  They retracted for several weeks and we thought perhaps we had defeated them.  In actuality, they were just gathering the troops for an attack that has decimated our plants.  I’ve been picking hornworms for days now.  At first you can’t see them.  Then, as you search for fully ripe tomatoes one comes into focus with its peculiar markings, arched neck, and red horn on its back end.  And as you spot one, another appears--and another, and another, and another, until you realize there is a whole matrix of hornworms.  I had a very clear moment where I was able to see many at once and realized that they were not in my garden.  The garden is only an entity from my perspective, and I was quite a minor player in their vast network.  We had buckets of the thick juicy green pests.  Now if only I were canning those! My actions barely made a dent in their numbers, which seem to be doubling daily. 

The peppers and eggplant are still producing steadily.  And the melons.  Oh my gosh the melons.  They are the real celebrities of the garden right now.  We eat melon all day long.  The Cream of Saskatchewan watermelon is my favorite with its tender, blond flesh.  Another heavy producer is our Emerald Gem cantaloupe.  But the Moon and Stars watermelon have really made a spectacle of themselves in the melon beds.  They are enormous and have a dark green rind with tiny yellow dots (the stars) and one large yellow circle (the moon).   We harvested more than several of them to give and freeze with plenty more in the melon beds.  Having been placed curled together in the corner of our kitchen, they looked like a litter of cocker spaniels—full-sized.  And just like a spaniel, when I woke up there was a puddle next to one of the melons.  I considered rubbing its nose in it, but opted that it, the messy one, would be the first for carving.  I grabbed my largest, sharpest knife and plunged it into the middle, thickest part to hear a loud hissing along with a geyser erupting from the wound.  My kitchen immediately reeked of rotten booze.  I thought a slight imperfection had caused its accident, but the watermelon, overripe, was fermenting and I had interrupted the chemical process occurring in its bowels.  I had to continue splitting it just to haul out the separate halves to compost myself having opted to start on the melon preservation first thing in the morning and couldn’t possibly handle the smell until Nick came home late that afternoon. We were worried about not having melons and then in the past few weeks we’ve had more melon than we know what to do with.  The funny thing is that I’ve discovered I don’t really like melon as much as I though I did.  Sort of an ironic way to find out.  On the bright side, the watermelon experiments elicited a really good watermelon salsa: diced watermelon, purple onion, hot pepper, cilantro, lime juice, and salt. 

We’ve had some great wildlife in the garden—other than the hornworms.  We had a little nest of birds in one of the Roma Cherry tomato plants.  Viv and I would greet them on our morning garden walks.  They’ve since grown and left the nest.  I almost tripped over a multicolored toad with a bright green stripe down its back that stood still long enough for me to run to the house and retrieve the camera, but not long enough for me to capture the shot.  I was convinced that we had hummingbirds.  Nick and I were harvesting one evening and we saw these fluttering creatures with long needlelike ‘beaks’ in the tobacco flowers.  It was this romantic moment with the sun setting behind us until he said, “Um Geeg. That’s a moth!”  He then followed that with, “You are consistently wrong in identifying wildlife and yet you say it so confidently that I still believe your observations.  It’s a moth!”  And it was a moth.  A huge gross moth that looks like a mouse with wings and equipped with some sort of long apparatus on it’s face that allowed me (a real expert) to mistake it for a hummingbird.  Funnily enough, we were camping recently and I saw a hummingbird--a beautiful hummingbird that looks very much unlike the awful mouse moth.   

The summer gardening season is coming to an end.  We’ve had some successes and numerous failures.  The canning and drying and preserving are a wonderful experiment and we’ll see if it is enough for the long Midwest winter.  Our adventures in homesteading will soon be augmented as Nick has been hard at work converting an abandoned hog nursery to a chicken coop. Hopefully each year we can just get a little better, a little more proficient, and diversify along the way.  We lie awake at night and talk of all the possibilities from our dreams of orchards and beehives to sheep roaming the fields and pigs for perfect prosciutto.  It’s all still far off in the future.  I’m lucky my wonderful sister-in-law, Kara, has hooked me up with milk from a local cow (it makes a fantastic ricotta) as I’m not quite ready to take on a set of udders.   Perhaps one day we’ll have a fully functioning farmstead. We might harvest potty-trained melons.  We might get through the canning and freezing without a perpetually sticky counter and floor.  We might one day defeat the hornworms.  We just might get so good at this that we can even grow our own corn and beans.

Southern Italy's Summer Vegetable Stew
from My Calabria, by Rosetta Costantino

1 pound slender, dark-skinned Italian eggplants
1 pound zucchini
4 large red, yellow, or orange bell peppers, or a combination, in 1-1 1/2 squares
1 pound Yukon Gold potatoes
1 large yellow onion
Extra virgin olive oil for frying
Kosher salt
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 pounds fresh tomatoes, peeled, seeded, and diced
Handful of fresh basil leaves
Ground hot red pepper

Remove the eggplant stems, then quarter lengthwise and cut into 1/2-inch wide chunks.  Cut the zucchini the same way.  Halve the peppers and remove the ribs and seeds, then cut into 1-inch squares.  Peel the potatoes and onion and cut into pieces about the same size as the eggplant.

Heat 1/2 inch of oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over moderate heat.  Toss the eggplant with salt.  When the oil is hot, fry the eggplant in three batches until golden.  When each batch is done remove it to a large tray with a slotted spoon.

Pour off and reserve the oil from the skillet.  Return 3 tablespoons of the oil to the skillet and return to moderate heat.  When the oil is hot, add the peppers, season with salt, and fry until they are tender.  Transfer them to the tray with a slotted spoon. 

Add 1 tablespoon of reserved oil to the skillet and raise the heat to high.  Add the zucchini and season with salt.  Fry until nicely browned and tender, then transfer to the tray with a slotted spoon. 

Add any remaining reserved oil to the skillet along with 1/4 cup of fresh oil.  Reduce the heat to moderate.  Add the potatoes and season with salt.   Fry until well-browned, crispy, and tender, then transfer to the tray with a slotted spoon.

Raise the heat to moderately high, add onion and garlic, and saute briefly to soften.  Add the tomato and basil leaves, tearing them in half as you add them.  Cook briskly, stirring, until the tomatoes soften, then return all the fried vegetables to the skillet.  Season with hot pepper to taste and taste for salt, then simmer the ciambotta for about 5 minutes to blend the flavors.  Let rest for at least 30 minutes before serving.

Serves 8