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