14 August 2011

The Nightshade Issue

It has been the week of the solanaceae, or the nightshade family: potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant.  And our solanaceae are simply splendid.  This is my favorite food group, even more than the brassiceae and cucurbitaceae, because I adore peppers and eggplant.  In fact, the only thing I might love more is prosciutto, but we didn’t plant any this year.  Our three eggplant varietals are heavy with fruit and we’ve harvested several of the standard dark purple variety.  They were delicious grilled and even better in a simple eggplant parmesan.  If you are not an eggplant fan, it is only because you have never had my Nonny’s eggplant parm.  I can make a pretty mean eggplant, but not like Nonny’s.  But really, nothing is like Nonny’s.  After all, she’s magical.  She makes food delicious, babies sleepy, and kitchens remarkably clean.  And her eggplant follows suit.

Our solanaceae require some work in harvesting and preserving them properly.  Nick has been hard at work finishing our root cellar for the potato harvest, which has begun.  We planted three types: the All Blue (it’s all blue), La Ratte (a gourmet fingerling), and a Yellow Finn (your typical potato).  He spent several days digging up potatoes and packing them in boxes for storing.  I have been busy pruning our tomato plants because I could no longer promenade down my Promenade du Tomate.  I’ve cleared the path and our compost pile looks like the home built by the lesser-known fourth Little Pig that used tomato vines to hide from the big bad wolf.  Unfortunately, there is still a big bad woodchuck hiding behind the pile.

The tomatoes are exquisite, not physically because all the rain has made the skins rupture, but the taste is exquisite.  The Italian Heirloom taste, well, like Italy.  I was never a huge fan of tomatoes until I went to Italy.  I don’t remember if it was a Caprese salad or a sandwich of the same components, but it was sublime.  I had a tomato awakening. It’s easy to have a food awakening in Italy.  Everything is perfectly fresh and perfectly prepared.  It is apparently a crime to serve food in imperfect form.  I like that in a country. 

Our tomato production is beginning to accelerate, but I have yet to see a ripe Riesentraube, Black from Tula, Amish Paste, or Green Zebra.  Given the amount of green fruit residing in the Promenade du Tomate, we’re going to have some serious tomatoes here soon.  In the meantime, we’ve been having a pomodoro party.  We’ve had our first (and second and third and fourth . . .) bruschetta—diced Italian Heirloom, generous shredded Genovese Basil, a few splashed of olive oil and some kosher salt.  We’ve had several pastas pomodoro with romano over capellini. There is just something about a classic marinara on capellini.  It doesn’t taste as good on any other noodle.  And it seemed criminal not to make a pico de gallo with our obscene amount of cilantro, red onions, Hungarian hot peppers, and tomatoes.   The Roma Cherries are so delicious fresh from the garden, but we have enough to oven dry a few batches to add some summer to winter dishes when the garden is nothing but frozen dirt and snow.

And the piece de resistance, we grilled pizzas Margherita style.  I’ve been working on a basic pizza dough for about a year now and I think I finally nailed it.  Nick cooks one side on the grill and flips it, then we dress it with the ingredients, in this case, diced tomatoes, basil, olive oil, and ample parmesan (I prefer a rustic and goo-free pizza—not a lot of melty cheese).  The freshness of the tomatoes along with the smoky flavor from the grill made it feel like we were sitting in a trattoria on the piazza.  In fact, we were so excited we opened a special Syrah given to us by a special friend to celebrate the occasion (Thank you Billy!). 

Many people spend thousands of dollars on plane tickets and Italian tours to experience that taste.  So silly!  All you have to do is germinate seeds in your dining room in March, set up an elaborate lighting system, make your whole house smell like fish meal every few weeks, transplant the seedling when they’re big enough and the weather is warm, stake the plants, pray the weather doesn’t kill them every day until July, pick Tomato Hornworms off of them when they become infested, prune the branches when they become unruly, et viola! Come August, you have fresh tomatoes. 

In other tomato news, I had a small batch of green tomatoes that someone, I won’t say who because I don’t want to throw him under the bus, picked on accident thinking they were the Green Zebras.  I know we’re going to have more tomatoes than we know what to do with shortly, but I just couldn’t let them go to waste.  So I did something I never thought I would do. I made green tomato jam.  I always wished I was the type of girl to do things like make green tomato jam, but really, I’m not.  It felt kinda wrong, but it was good canning practice especially after my rhubarb canning gone bad.  I wanted to get something right before I started in on the ripe tomato crop.  So, I found a recipe in my favorite book, My Calabria, by Rosetta Costantino.  It’s a manual on cooking the old Southern Italian way.  I stewed the tomatoes with sugar and lemon. I sterilized the jars. I filled the jars with the proper headspace.  I processed the jars.  I placed them all on a clean towel and listened for all the lids to pop.  The whole process took almost two hours of standing in my steamroom of a kitchen to make five half-pint jars of green tomato jam.  At the end I was sweating. My kitchen was sticky. And I had five measly jars of something I don’t want to eat in the first place.  At that point, I really just wanted to take those five green jars and throw them against the wall, but I was too tired. 

The next day, once they cooled, I took off the lids to put them away, and one didn’t seal properly.  Never before that day has anyone ever cussed so profusely at green tomato jam.  I think I set a record.  On the bright side, I was able to bring the unsealed jar to a picnic with friends at Ravinia for a taste-test.  My very dear friend, Lisa, is the type of person who would make green tomato jam.  If there were a movie made about Lisa, a younger Jennifer Aniston would play the part, all lean and tan with honeyed hair and girl-next-door beauty and charm.  And she would wear white linen pants that never wrinkle throughout the entire storyline.  In my book there are two types of girls—those who can pull off white pants and those who can’t.  Lisa is in the former category.  She’s perfect.  She would make green tomato jam and would never swear at it.  It’s obviously not perfection that brought us together, but our love for delicious food and wine and all things European.  So given her perfection and love for good food, she was the perfectly perfect taste-tester.  And she liked it, so we know it’s good.  And I have to agree that while I was still mad at it, and a little scared to eat something so lumpy and green, it was quite delicious paired with goat cheese on dry breads rusks.  I imagine it would be great with cream cheese on crackers as well.  You can eat it with or without swearing at it first. 

Our peppers are at the tipping point of maturity.  In addition to the three hot peppers and two bell peppers, we did two Italian sweet peppers—clearly the most important.  Both the Jimmy Nardello and Marconi are supposed to be everything I ever wanted in a pepper—good for roasting and frying and also, for drying.  The main first year goal for our garden was to not have to buy produce from the grocery store  . . . all year (I mean no project is fun without a lofty goal).  That means that we would only eat fresh vegetables during garden season (which we will extend as late as possible) and preserved vegetables for the rest of the year. 

In order to preserve peppers, you can freeze them, pressure can them, dry them, or preserve them Calabrian style sott’olio (under oil).  The first two options are out.  Freezing and pressure canning don’t create the end product I want.  To dry peppers, you have to have the proper drying cultivars—peppers with thin walls.  The old Italian way of drying peppers is to make ristras, strings of peppers that mature and dry outside.  Now this is right up my alley.  It’s cost efficient AND it’s how the Italians do it.  If you’re Italian, you get it.  If you’re not, let me explain:  Italians do what Italians have always done.  Doing that which is Italian is very important.  I’m not gonna lie, it’s not the best policy across all categories (do NOT tell my father that I said that—I will deny it to the end), but it is regarding food. 

So ever since we decided to plant our very own little Garden of Eden, I have envisioned stringing these ristras.  In my ristra fantasy, I sit in the sun stringing our mountains of peppers in a lovely dress with my hair cascading down my back looking very much like Appolonia from The Godfather.  (Let’s be clear: I’m not as delusional to think that I actually look like her, but we’re allowed to be ridiculous in fantasies, right?  So I look like Appolonia and I get to marry Al Pacino—young Al Pacino, not the ghoul he turned into later in life.)  So finally, the Jimmy Nardello’s began to ripen.  To dry them properly, one must string them before they turn from green to red.  So at the first blush of red, I picked the first batch and carefully strung them on fishing line to hang in the haymow.  After tediously pushing a large needle through each of the stems and tying a knot between each pepper, I placed them gently on the picnic table for Nick to bring to the haymow only to find Vivienne, moments later, gnawing on one of the peppers in the middle of the strand.  Such is the poetry of my life.  I wonder if they serve Italian sweet peppers in toddler reform school.  So my very first ristra is drying even if it’s not quite as symmetrical and beautiful as I would like.     

As the end of summer is showing itself in the distance, our predicted cascade of produce is coming to a head.  The weather has calmed down and so have the bugs.  Lest you think I would end my update on an insect-free note, we had a visitor.  Nick had to leave for an hour or so one night.  He was barely out the door when I heard this awful hissing/rattling sound coming from inside the house.  Now earlier in our country life (way back about 8 weeks ago), I would have been positive it was a dinosaur in the other room, but I’ve really grown up out here.  I even went to go check on the noise—by myself. Now I couldn’t find the source of this buzzing maraca bug and it eventually stopped, that is until later when Nick returned and we heard its encore number from the dining room.  I made the man of the house go take care of it and after a few minutes he found it—a long grasshopper-looking fly with red, yes red, jaws.  Just when I think I can handle the bugs out here, we find something with RED jaws.  It advertises its own menace.  I laid in bed listening to swatting and thumping for several minutes and at one point I really wondered if when the battle was over it would be Nick or the bug that would enter the room and crawl into bed.  Luckily, my man of the house proved his manhood (as he always does) and I was able to go to sleep content knowing that I had been rescued from becoming the Bride of Redjaw.  I may not be the type of girl who makes green tomato jam or can pull off white linen pants, but I’ve got a brave country man who protects me from country critters and can build a state-of-the-art root cellar.  And, I do make a damn good ristra.  Just ask Viv.

Green Tomato Jam
from My Calabria, by Rosetta Costantino

5 pounds firm green (unripe) tomatoes
3 1/2 cups sugar
Grated zest (yellow part only) of 2 lemons
2/3 cup lemon juice

Core the tomatoes, halve them, and dig out the seeds with a table knife.  Cut the tomatoes in 3/4 inch cubes.

Put a small plate in the freezer to chill.  You will use it later to test doneness.

Place the tomatoes in a heavy 6-quart pot with the sugar, lemon zest, and lemon juice.  Stir well, then bring to a boil over moderate heat.  Reduce the heat to maintain a slow simmer and continue cooking until the tomatoes become translucent and the syrupy liquid thickens considerably, about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent the jam from sticking.  When the temperature reaches 215 degrees Fahrenheit on a candy thermometer, remove the chilled plate from the freezer and spoon a little jam onto it. 

Return the plate to the freezer until the jam is cold.  If the jam is still too runny, continue cooking it.  Otherwise, remove the pot from the heat.

Fill and process jars according to Water-Bath Processing instructions.  Process half-pint or pint jars for 15 minuites.