The Fat of the Land

The Onion Cleanse

 

Onion

 

When you picture a purifying post-holiday meal, you probably imagine clear, nourishing broth studded with vibrant greens. Perhaps visions of juiced vegetables dance in your head, endive and citrus salads, cholesterol-taming oatmeal breakfasts. But you probably don’t have a single fantasy about storage onions, that commoner we must resort to in the heart of winter when the juicy sweet onions of summer have withered away. Because the onion has been synonymous with the kitchen for so long—bound together by that time of day when you wander to the counter and begin slicing an onion before you fully know what you want to cook—it has become all but invisible.

Storage onions are so familiar, so basic, they seem squeezed of every last drop of intrigue. Yet they maintain the astonishing power to make (most of) us weep. For me, slicing an onion is nearly torture. About halfway through, my eyes sting so intensely I can’t see anymore. Once, while prepping an onion-heavy dish, a UPS guy showed up at my door—no time to wipe away the evidence, I answered with tears streaming down my face. He paused, I didn’t see the point in explaining, so we made our brief exchange with me looking like I’d just returned from euthanizing a beloved pet.

Still, I’d never given onions a serious thought until I tried growing them. I assumed that something so cheap, so unexceptional must be a piece of cake. But, no; from start to finish, onion cultivation requires finesse, experience, well-crafted patience.

For starters, their seeds are slow and, if you choose to go this route over buying onion sets at a nursery, they must be planted now—months (of watching and watering and coddling) before you will transfer them to the garden. Transplanting is pleasant enough if you are the sort that enjoys removing a hair from a wet finger, as fingers often are in an Oregon spring. And then, right when you think they’re safely tucked into the soil, a playful crow or scrub jay comes along some dewy morning and pulls them all back out, just for fun.

If you persevere—replanting, providing even moisture, keeping the soil cool with mulch, fighting back the weeds that will bully your babies into weaker versions of themselves—and those onion threads grow, finally, into succulent greens, you’re a third of the way there. From this point on, timing is everything: when to bend the tops over to prevent the growth of a flowering stalk that would deplete bulb quality, when to cut off watering to thwart fungal rot, when to dig the bulbs for optimum flavor and storability, how long to cure them, and, at long last, where to store them until you’re ready to let them toy with your emotions one last time on the cutting board.

Onion struggle, however relentless, is worth it. Whether your toil is seed-to-kitchen or simply the sort an unsuspecting UPS guy stumbles upon now and then, the humble onion pays back threefold. All onions contain a range of vitamins and phytonutrients (chemical compounds believed to be responsible for the low disease rates associated with plant-based diets), with the highest levels occurring in pungent storage onions. Sweet onions (think Walla Walla or Vidalia) contain about an eighth of the phytonutrients present in a storage onion. Quercetin, the onion’s most prevalent phytonutrient, is the object of studies investigating its promising ability to prohibit certain cancer cell growth and prevent some of the factors that contribute to heart disease.

Best of all, we know that these beneficial compounds, mysterious as they may otherwise be, aren’t damaged by exposure to heat. Roast away! Sauté your heart out! Put them in almost everything! Cooking tames their offending heat and brings out the sweetness that was waiting underneath. Since the phytonutrient content is denser toward the outer rings, peel conservatively and consider saving the skins (curiously, the most nutritional part) to steep in your next batch of soup stock.

Onions are rarely the star of the show, but this is perhaps their greatest attribute. The more onions you eat, the more benefit you get—in the form of vitamins and phytonutrients, of course, but also in the practice of preparing simple and satisfying meals. They are the first thing in the pot, the foundational ingredient that blends and balances and buoys. They are the kitchen’s best dancing partner, its most fervent soccer mom. And since starting with onions usually means building with other whole ingredients, they dare you—air filled with their enigmatic fragrance—to add more, to cook.

 

Caramelized Onions

Nothing transforms a pungent storage onion so completely as this simple recipe. Though there are many ways to char an onion, this low heat, hour-plus simmer will coax out and deepen all of the onions’ sugars, resulting in a surprisingly sultry ingredient that makes everything taste better: pasta, pizza, soups, sandwiches, omelets, bean dishes, polenta, you name it.

Makes 1 1/3 cups

Ingredients:

2 pounds storage onions (5 or 6 medium), sliced evenly to 1/4-inch thickness
3 tablespoons butter or olive oil
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper

1. Heat the oil in a skillet with deep sides or a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Add the onions, turning to coat them with the oil. Cook, stirring every few minutes, until they have released their juices and begin to really sizzle against the bottom of the pan, about 20 minutes.

2. Turn the heat down to low or medium low, depending on your stove, and continue to gently cook the onions, stirring every ten minutes or so, while they begin to turn golden brown, then walnut brown, then deep chocolate brown. The cooking will take between 60 and 90 minutes, depending on how deeply caramelized you would like them to be. When the onions are done, splash the pan with a tablespoon of water (for more flavor, use stock or wine); stir until the liquid is reduced and season with salt and pepper.

3. Caramelized onions will keep a week or two in the fridge, or can be frozen for up to three months.

Recipe adapted from Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy.

Scratch Cooking

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“If you want to make an apple pie from scratch,

you must first create the universe.”

–Carl Sagan

Perhaps no idea is more bothersome to those who avoid kitchen toil than that of cooking something from scratch. Upon hearing these words, the mind jumps to anxiety-ridden projects like roasted turkeys, tiered cakes, yeasted breads, and, of course, pie. For this predicament, I can offer no useful advice. These are hard things to make your first (or tenth) time. They demand skills acquired only from practice. But they are also not the sum of what scratch cooking is.

When we proclaim to make something from scratch, what we’re etymologically saying is that we started from the beginning. This now-familiar phrase entered common usage in the mid-18th century and hails from the sports arena, not the stove-top. The line at which a cricket player stood to bat was scratched into the clay surface at his feet, as was the starting point of a race and the line that divided a boxing ring at the beginning of a match. The literal scratch marking where athletes commenced their game morphed into a figurative turn of speech we now associate primarily with creative endeavors, especially cooking.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines from scratch as: “From the very beginning, especially without utilizing or relying on any previous work for assistance.” I can hear Dr. Sagan chuckling. For the reluctant cook, however, this is mostly good news. A beginning, a starting-point—these qualifiers make scratch cooking sound as accessible as slicing an apple.

Along the way—most recently as a result of our blog-glamourized, DIY-obsessed, cooking-as-performance-art foodie-ism—we transposed the ancient practice of building meals from whole ingredients with that of elaborately composed dishes, to the point where scratch cooking has become synonymous with prowess and mastery. What used to be a necessary daily task (one that technologies in food processing largely freed us from) has become a luxury pastime that, should we engage in it, we are told we must not only be good at but enjoy.

I like cooking and part of me subscribes to this thinking, but I also recognize on an almost daily basis that cooking is work. It takes time, planning, and effort; and it is not, if we are honest, an attainable practice everyday for everyone. It is not always fun. Even the most dedicated among us needs a break—preferably in the form of a hamburger—now and then. The holiday season, when we most want to dazzle our friends and family (or simply feel obligated to provide them with dazzle) amidst a swirl of logistics, expectations, and emotions, always bring this truth to a head.

For me, Carl Sagan’s quip about pie (a scratch recipe with which I struggle) calls out what is false about our preoccupation with skill and conquest in the kitchen. If cooking from scratch means starting from the beginning, and the beginning is as unattainable as creating the universe, then the door swings wide open. We are instantly excused to go crack a few eggs into a hot pan, pile them on toasted bread with a handful of greens, and call it dinner. Because it is.

Whether you are a practiced cook or a stranger to the potential of your kitchen, the rules of scratch cooking are the same:

  1. Don’t try to do everything. Since you cannot start from the very beginning, choose a beginning that is comfortable for you. Maybe your beginning is to wash and chop fresh vegetables, maybe it is to simmer a pot of stock using the vegetable scraps you were about to throw out, to try your hand at pie crust again, or simply to place a pan on a burner with something—anything—in it, and the attitude that it is fun to see what will happen.
  2. Start with an ingredient that inspires you. It may inspire you because it perplexes you, or you may walk through the farmers market and see something so radiantly beautiful it must belong to you, now. Those impulses are real and they will likely taste good.
  3. Use a recipe, or don’t. Recipes offer comforting, educated authority. They facilitate a sense of instruction and control attractive to both experienced and inexperienced cooks. They can also create unnecessary boundaries. I used to abandon a recipe if I was short even one ingredient, afraid it wouldn’t work if the chain was missing a link. Now I rarely use a recipe without substitutions. That’s my way; you’ll find yours. The point is to know that there are ways.
  4. Take a break when you need one. Because, some days, pretzels, a sliced apple, and a good book is the most exotic dinner of all.

 

Published in the Southwest Community Connection newspaper, December 2015: http://www.pamplinmedia.com/scc/125-opinion/283142-157542-the-rules-of-scratch-cooking

Fall Squash

Winter Luxury

Though they require all of summer’s sunlight and heat to reach maturity and are ready for harvest by September, we call these starchy inflatables winter squash, a nod to the tough, waxy skin that keeps them edible well into the rainy season. Delightful in their diversity, fall harvested squash are the perfect vessel for our transition from fresh produce to storage foods. Like painted gondolas, we let them carry our imaginations to a time when the days are short, the kitchen is cozy, and the scent of oven-roasted squash fills the air with opulence.

As a gardener, what draws me to winter squash is not just their bright colors and curving shapes (which, like most shoppers, is what makes me to want to buy one), but their patience. Arriving after months of demanding harvests—vegetables that ripen with relentless immediacy and must be used within the week—it is lovely to set such beautiful artifacts aside, to be allowed to wait.

The majority of the winter squash varieties that come to market not only allow delayed gratification, they prefer it. Though squash selection increases in abundance with each October week, it is not until winter that most will be at their prime. Belonging to a subcategory of the squash family known as Cucurbita maxima (‘max’ for short), the kuris, kabochas, hubbards, turbans, bananas, buttercups, sweet meats, marina di Chioggias, galeux d’Eysines, or Queensland blues are best once they’ve been cured. This simply requires stashing them in a corner of your kitchen where they can quietly continue to metabolize their starches into sugars.

The curing process deepens and sweetens a max’s flavor, increasing its nutritional value in tandem. If you’ve brought a max home from the market already this fall (when, it’s true, you have first dibs and the best selection), you’ll be rewarded with an inimitable winter delicacy—but only if you resist the urge to slice it open just yet. Like fine wine, a max’s most complex and interesting flavors continue developing long after harvest. Keep it on the counter another month or two, enjoying its oddness, the conversation it makes with the onions and bananas, the jokes it would tell you if you’d only listen. Arrange a few on your kitchen table where they will lend the whole room a tangible rusticity, painted, as it will suddenly seem, like a Flemish still-life. Whatever their presence gives you, let it linger—untouched—until at least December.

In the meantime, there are plenty of squash that need eating. True autumnal squash, the pepos (Cucurbita pepo) have thinner skins and a disposition that fades into mediocrity by true-winter. Delicata, spaghetti, acorn, carnival, sweet dumpling—these small, easygoing squash are at their peak flavor and texture right now. Summer falling into autumn is a pepo relay: zucchini, crookneck, and pattipans (also C. pepo) pass the baton to their starchy siblings. I find it useful to think of pepo “winter” squash this way—sugary amplifications of their green summer sisters, rather than something altogether different.

And then there is the most famous pepo of all, the one that signifies, in the symbolic language of seasonal decorations and latté flavors, that fall is here. A walk through my neighborhood betrays their numbers: pumpkins (vegetable, paper, and plastic) guard doors, stoops, and windows; cheerfully declaring that this shortened sky, this ground painted in leaves, this cool sunlight is theirs. And we give it to them gladly—cut with spooky hieroglyphics, worn as costumes, baked into muffins and cheesecake and pie. Coincidentally, the time of year we most associate with pumpkins—October and November—neatly matches their prime-eating window. If it’s the right time to put a pumpkin on the porch, it’s the right time to eat a pepo.

But skip the baked jack-o-lantern this year. Bred for girth and thin, easy-carving walls, they make poor cooking pumpkins. ‘Sugar pie’ is the standard baking pumpkin at market—small and sweet as its name, sugar pie flesh has enough flavor and density for muffins or quickbreads. Serious pie bakers will want to snatch up a ‘winter luxury’ pumpkin. Renowned for their smooth, bright pulp and concentrated flavor, these medium-sized, dusty orange pumpkins are coated in a charming netted patina, making them as lovely to look at as they are to eat.

Of course, you can eat any squash you pick up at the market right away, but knowing when they will taste like the best version of themselves makes for better pies, sautés, soups, and roasts, and, if you’re exploring new varieties, better first impressions.

Never made a pumpkin pie from scratch? This excellent step-by-step guide from Seed Savers Exchange will get you off to a good start!

Lime-a-tillo

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Anywhere outside of Central America the tomatillo is little more than an afterthought—something we have come to know through globalism and restaurants brave enough to affront our rutted palates with the unfamiliar. Even its diminutive name, meaning ‘little tomato,’ suggests it came second, though most archeologists believe the tomatillo was cultivated by ancient Mesoamericans long before its world-famous cousin.

Roughly the size of a cherry tomato, cloaked in an attractive, lantern-shaped husk, the tomatillo looks almost like a tomato, though hold a tomatillo in one hand and a cherry tomato of the same size in the other, and you will begin to feel the difference. With drier flesh, the buoyant tomatillo seems less substantial. Take a bite of each. Unlike a tomato, whose juices ooze with concentrated flavor compounds and sugars, a raw tomatillo comes off as overly lean—bitter acidity and merely a hint of sweetness.

Cook that same tomatillo in a small amount of water or on the grill and its sharpness mellows, cell walls bursting open, releasing pectin that thickens the tartly sweet juices into syrup. The tomatillo, parading as simple and slight, creates its own luscious sauce with only the application of heat. Its vegetal, citrus-infused flavor cuts through lipids like a cool breeze on an August afternoon, explaining the tomatillo’s common association with fatty taco fillings or buttery guacamole.

That the raw tomatillo seems to the tongue like a lime in a poorly executed tomato costume is no coincidence. Lime flavor is dominated by acidic compounds, which occur mostly as citric acid, with ten-percent dashes of malic (from the Latin word for apple; associated with tart things like rhubarb and sour candies) and succinic acids, both of which add to the fruit’s complexity (and are nearly absent in lemons). Tomatillo acidity is primarily citric and malic, a combination that lends its flavor that lime-without-the-peel quality; lime flavor, in its fullness, is a cocktail of acidity, sugar, and aromatic compounds released from the skin.

In traditional Mayan and Aztec cuisines, tomatillos played the role of a pre-Columbian citrus. It’s hard to imagine a plate of Mexican food without that quintessential slice of lime, but citrus trees hail from Asia and did not reach Central America until the 16th Century. The acidic resonance between tomatillos, a long-time staple, and limes, introduced (along with other citrus varieties) by Spanish conquistadors, may explain why these cuisines took to limes much more so than lemons—it was familiar; they already knew what to do with it.

One pre-Columbian use of the tomatillo was to tenderize meat. Stewed with chiles and perhaps a handful of quelites (wild greens, such as purslane or amaranth leaves), tomatillo acidity softened lean cuts the way citrus juice will. Remnants of this technique are evident in dishes like Chile Verde (pork braised in green salsa). Tomatillos perform similar to (and likely predate the use of) lime juice in various salsas, invigorating avocado’s heaviness in a well-balanced guacamole, or kicking up the acidity of chile- and tomato-based salsas.

Although the temptation to toss tomatillo husks out the back door to tumble around the yard like balls of lace must have been irresistible even to the Mayans and Aztecs, their most enterprising cooks discovered arguably better uses. It turns out, for reasons I could not find a definitive explanation of, tomatillo husks contain a leavening agent. Used to improve breads and tamale dough, water boiled with ten or so tomatillo husks somehow imparts masa with a fluffy lightness the way baking soda does in modern recipes. Many sources attribute this to the husk’s acidity. Since the water-husk infusions often (but, tellingly, not always) cite the inclusion of a particular kind of alkaline mineral salt called tequesquite, the basic idea is that the salt and the husk react something like baking soda and vinegar.

In an interesting exchange I found between a Mexican food blogger and the scientist-author Harold McGee, McGee explains that the chemistry of this theory doesn’t pan out. Prepared as an infusion, the gas release that results from the contact between the alkali and the acid would occur during the boiling process, meaning that the fluff-producing magic would extinguish long before it is added to the masa. McGee postulates instead that the leavening could be the result of pectin and other thickening agents; released from rigid cell walls by boiling (with or without the alkaline salt), they might lend enough elasticity to the dense dough to allow air bubbles to expand during cooking.

With no more than a high school chemistry course under my belt, I have nothing to add, except another comment I came across a few times on unrelated sites. Though I hesitate to call it a “tradition” without further evidence, it appears that several Mexican grandmothers have been known to boil tomatillo husks with cactus paddles in order to reduce the paddles’ slime (something akin to okra’s). Sounds like magic, but maybe the slime isn’t disappearing, just thickening, in which case, Harold might be on to something.

So the next time you take home those ‘little tomatoes,’ don’t think tomato at all. Think lime and lightness and silky rich sauce, maybe even husk and all.

Holy Trinity

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When summer turns down the heat, when it can no longer cloak the edge of winter with its sweet, delicate fruit and easy freshness, we must remember again how to cook. Not that we haven’t cooked all summer—there have been sautés, fresh sauces, crowded grills—but the flavors have stayed so available, so forthright, we haven’t needed to add much more than salty cheese, a dousing of vinaigrette, a sear on the grill.

End-of-summer produce is a sultry lot; what was bursting with readiness is now reserved, its proteins and sugars turned meaty or starched in a way that implores the coaxing of a low flame. Our kitchens, too, are suddenly more habitable, their corners cooled by night’s deeper chill, asking, finally, for the symphonic perfume that comes from roasting. It seems right, this pair: a ready kitchen, vegetables seeking warmth.

What you can draw from one gently cooked vegetable—say a tomato, thick slices roasted into candy—expands exponentially when you combine it with a companion or two. These trinities (sometimes duos or quartets) live at the heart of almost every cuisine. They make the stitch between cooking and culture.

Take sofrito, paella’s backbone and the base of many Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American soups, stews, and rice dishes. Cajun and Creole cooks call their sofrito the Holy Trinity, a trio of onion, celery, and green pepper finely diced and cooked until they sit in their own luscious sauce, ready for the next layer.

They go by different names, but all of these trinities are holy in their own rite, balancing sour and sweet, aroma and spice in a way that may best be summed up by the Italian word agrodulce. A mix of agro (sour) and dulce (sweet), agrodulce, at its most basic, is a sauce made of vinegar and sugar. But it also runs through a sofrito, where the acidity of a tomato meets the sweetness of roasted garlic, onion, and red pepper. Add zucchini and eggplant and you have ratatouille. Take away all but the tomato and onion, add ginger and coriander, and you have an Indian chutney. Give that chutney a couple spoonfulls of peanut butter instead of coriander, and you are on your way to Tongolese azi dessi.

Some trinities are strongly aromatic, such as German suppengrun (literally, “soup greens”), where carrots and leeks lend their earthy sugars to celeriac’s musk; or the French mirepoix—onion, carrot, and celery—offering the root vegetables’ subtle dulce a clean, cutting bitterness in lieu of overt acidity. Italian soffritto is more like mirepoix than its Spanish counterpart, starting with the same onion-carrot-celery base and adorning it with garlic, flat-leaf parsley, fennel, or cured meats. Szechuan cuisine’s holy trinity of ginger, garlic, and chile peppers marries sour and sweet with spice, as does the simplest Mexican rajas—strips of poblano peppers and onions slowly cooked in oil until supple and melded.

This kind of submission is what makes a trinity holy—the melting away of individual identity to become something if not greater, than at least unmistakably different than the sum of its parts. It is a way of cooking that does more than pair compatible flavors; it transforms them. But don’t go looking for texture, don’t expect crust or crunch. A good holy trinity is about softness, about giving up.

And so it is with end of summer vegetables; after months of freshness, I yearn for something deeper, something willing to fade into the background. This year, my trinity of choice is eggplant, tomato, and onion. I stew them slowly in a Dutch oven on the lowest heat, salted judiciously, oregano or thyme for character, a pinch of sugar and a dash of white wine for body. And because it is the last chance (or nearly so) for many other delicious things, from that rich, silky base I build.

Perhaps I’ll strip an ear of late season corn, its sugar becoming starch, adding creamy thickness and a pleasing pop to the stew’s texture. I throw in peppers, sweet or hot, for their meaty softness; Romano or green beans, less tender now than a month ago, which hold their shape after an hour’s simmer, absorbing the sauce and giving back supple firmness, something to chew on. Maybe I’ll cube that zucchini, a little spongy in the center, all the better now to absorb, to give.

You can keep going, adding what you like. Give it a grilled fish, a plate of pasta, a mound of polenta. Dip flatbread in it. Smother it with cheese. Bake it under a blanket of oiled breadcrumbs. Spread it on a sandwich with salami, a sausage. Make a crazy pizza topping out of it. Try it on ice cream. It doesn’t matter, because it takes its perfection with it. You’ve made something whole and, dolloped here, spread there, it stays that way.

Yotam Ottolenghi’s Eggplant Sauce

(adapted from Plenty)

With the addition of onion, softened just before the eggplant, this is the basic sauce I can’t get enough of right now. I cook it longer than the recipe suggests, about forty minutes on a low flame for complete melding.

Serves 4

2/3 cup vegetable oil

1 medium eggplant, cut into 3/4-inch dice

2 tsp tomato paste

1/4 cup white wine

1 cup chopped peeled tomatoes (fresh or canned)

6 1/2 tbsp water

1/4 tsp salt

1/4 tsp sugar

1 tbsp chopped oregano (or 1 tsp dried)

1. Heat the oil in a large saucepan and fry the eggplant on medium heat for 15 minutes or until nicely browned. Drain off as much oil as you can and discard it.

2. Add the tomato paste and stir with the eggplant, cooking 2 minutes. Then add the wine and cook another minute more.

3. Add the chopped tomatoes, water, salt, sugar, and oregano and cook for an additional 10 or more minutes to get a deep-flavored sauce.

4. Serve on its own as a side dish, with pasta and a sprinkle of parmesan, or over a bed of soft polenta (feta–stirred into the polenta or crumbled on top of the sauce–makes a great addition).

Like Pepper for Pepper

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Most people who went to grade school in the United States know that in 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue. As I remember it, he was hired by the king of Spain to sail farther west than anyone before him had (anyone, that is, on 15th Century Europe’s radar) and to settle, once and for all, the age-old argument over whether the earth was round or flat. In third grade, that logic was good enough for me. And, becoming something of a Columbus Day protestor in my teenage years (after my brother read a book called, Lies My Teacher Told Me, that detailed all the atrocities Columbus unleashed upon the New World), I put the whole story on the back shelf.

Years later, I picked up a library book about the spice trade (Spice: The History of a Temptation, by Jack Turner), where I promptly learned that Columbus headed west not to solve some existential puzzle, but for the very practical reason of securing a more direct trade route to import black pepper from India. He did it for two reasons that sound jarringly familiar to our contemporary minds: money and ego.

Pepper, that uber-ordinary seasoning we take completely for granted, was as precious as gold in Columbus’ day—a sign of wealth, a highly valued commodity in very short supply, a craze. Men lost their lives fetching pepper, and everyone thought it was worth it. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Silk Road became too dangerous for commerce, so the Portuguese (who monopolized the spice trade at the time) took to the sea, rounding the horn of Africa in order to reach the pepper-producing coast of southern India. Spain, with Columbus’ help, was looking to outdo their northern rival by finding a shortcut.

When Columbus landed in the Bahamas, he thought it was (or close enough to) the East Indies. And when, in keeping with his plan, he looked for black pepper, he came upon chiles. Of those arresting fruits he and his fellow explorers found in such profusion, one crewmember wrote: “In those islands there are also bushes like rose bushes, which make fruit as long as cinnamon, full of small grains as biting as [Asian] pepper; those Caribs and the Indians eat that fruit like we eat apples.”

Our modern palates separate the two peppers by a wide margin—black pepper is floral, pleasantly bitter, stinging the tongue with a quick zing only when eaten in excess; chile peppers are fruity, acidic, sour, often sweet, with a sensation we call heat that ranges from a mild tingle to something akin to the mind-altering hammer of a white-hot brand. Europeans had trouble with chiles (and still do), though hot peppers found a home at the margins—Eastern Europe’s paprika, Southern Europe’s spicy sauces and cured meats.

Where it’s hard to imagine that chile peppers were only introduced a mere 500 years ago is nearly everyplace else: Korea, India, Thailand, Ethiopia, China, and Senegal, to name a few famously spicy Diasporas. These cultures quickly adopted the chile pepper as their own, exploring its wealth of genetic traits and producing a mind-boggling collection of new varieties (one that continues to grow today). At a recent count, there were 79 distinct varieties passing under the umbrella of “Thai pepper,” a barometer that helps to translate the enormity of chile pepper diversity.

Then, of course, there is Mexico—the chile’s homeland and where its role in the cuisine is still, arguably, the most refined. Believed to be one of the first domesticated plants, chiles, along with corn and squash, constituted a mainstay of the Central American diet. From my own quasi-European perspective (averse, I hesitate to admit, to all but modest chili pepper heat), I’ve never thought of chiles as more than a seasoning. Like the black pepper they are named for, chiles unquestionably add dimension to a dish, but not substance, not weight. I did try to make myself more tolerant of them once, devoting an entire summer to cooking progressively spicier dishes until the persistent heartburn and other unpleasant side effects forced me to admit defeat. But even then, they were an addition, an adornment, a very small percentage of a dish’s overall volume; not at all, as that Spanish sailor reported, like apples.

But he (and the sophisticated cuisine he observed) was right. The first time I fully appreciated chiles in their own rite was when I watched friends make red mole from scratch. The pile of dried chiles and their seeds—toasted separately and ground together with water, warming spices, and nuts; thickened by hours of stirring and simmering; and at the very end, finished with dark chocolate—was, to my eyes, overwhelming. While the process was beautiful and ritualistic, I wasn’t entirely sure I would be able to eat the results. But the sauce, only mildly spicy, exuded a graceful, effortless richness that compelled me to keep spooning it into my mouth, that fed both my simple, daily hunger and the one that no apple has ever quite quenched: the hunger for enchantment, for transformation, for food that drops an anchor and lingers, warmly, long after the meal is finished.

Tales from the Sweet Pepper Patch

Jimmy Nardello

Say the word pepper and one of two things likely comes to mind: the table shaker filled with black and gray dust, and the flamingly red and famously spicy crop we either crave or avoid, depending on our culinary disposition. Thirdly, some of our minds may drift to that molar of a fruit, glossy and green as spring grass: the bell pepper. In a typical North American produce aisle, it (and its yellow, orange, red, and purple siblings) is the sole pepper not relegated to the ‘ethnic’ produce section and the only one I tasted until a shamefully late age.

I grew up in the Germanic and Scandinavian influenced cuisine of the upper Midwest, but that is not an entirely sufficient explanation. Peppers, imported to Europe from the Caribbean and Central America by Columbus and his successors, spread widely through the well-established trade routes of the time, each culinary tradition choosing what they liked from the pepper’s plentiful genetic archive. Though northern Europeans are certainly not known for their peppers, they ate them, more often as dried powders (paprika) or as immature (green or yellow) fruits.

I blame my pepper ignorance on my own singular obsession with the green bell—something of an anomaly in the pepper world, their mild, watery profile and crisp texture yield easily to bolder flavors. I used them often as a budding young cook in the few recipes I’d successfully mastered. It took a lot of practice to build the confidence needed to branch out, and until then I had no reference point for the nuance and diversity of pepper flavor, no clue at all as to what I was missing.

The first pepper that really stumped me was the Jimmy Nardello. It turned everything I thought I knew about peppers inside out, hung it to dry under an unfamiliar and illuminating sun. These skinny things, bright and lustrous red, looked like a sleeve of capsicum fire. “They’re not hot,” I was told, but my eyes, after years of dedicated chili pepper avoidance, refused to believe it. I cooked a few up, alone in the frying pan as I was instructed. Their thin walls softened quickly, their delicate skin blistered into oil-crisped bubbles, their sizzle unleashed soft, cherry-scented steam.

They were not hot. What spice they had was the citrusy kind, pinching their expansive flavor with compassionate sharpness. The rest was full-throated, candy sweetness and a quality of fruit deeper and darker than the best tomato. That enlightened moment led to many other fried Jimmies, to pickled Jimmies (my favorite), to roasted and grilled Jimmies. My freezer always has a bag of sliced raw Jimmies to add to off-season sauces and stews.

Jimmy Nardello himself would also dry his family’s now famous pepper, strung and hung in the shed for winter the way his mother, Angela Nardiello, likely taught him. Inheritor of her family’s slender red frying pepper, she brought its seeds with her when she immigrated from the southern Italian town of Ruoti to the United States in 1887. Jimmy was her fourth son and the one, if legend holds true, that was most interested in gardening. He kept the family pepper alive until he died in 1983.

Lucky for us, Jimmy shared his beloved peppers with the newly founded Seed Savers Exchange not long before his death. In the subsequent thirty-two years, they’ve become something of a cult sensation—seducing gardeners, small-scale growers, and in-the-know home cooks and chefs with their alluring set of traits. As easy and productive in the garden as they are quick and straightforward to prepare, I was not the first to be swayed by a single bite.

I have made other discoveries since then. Red bell peppers, with their diluted sweetness and juicy flesh, have nothing on the pimiento. A pepper type usually associated with Spain or the Southeastern United States, these plump, round fruits (also called cherry peppers) have unusually thick walls for their size, their flavor a mix of Jimmy Nardello richness and caramelized sugar. Though they are traditionally dried and ground into sweet (or smoked) paprika, they are one of my favorite peppers to eat raw.

Then there are the roasting peppers, Italian in origin (going by the name Marconi), perfected most recently by Oregon’s Wild Garden Seed, with bold names like ‘Stocky Red Rooster,’ or ‘Gatherer’s Gold.’ Bred for oven and fire roasting, they peel with relative ease, leaving behind meaty strips of tender, delicious flesh. Northern gardeners appreciate their ability to ripen in quantity despite a climate that is not always accommodating to this tropical native.

My favorite pepper color is now red, though the realm of the sweet pepper is host to many flavorful greens. Shishito, small frying peppers with undulating walls are best sautéed whole with oil and salt, and make a delicious drinking snack. Yellow wax peppers (also called banana peppers)—looking like a pale yellow, bulked up Jimmy Nardello—are tangy and bright, good raw or cooked, though if you’re expecting something mild, don’t confuse them with their spicier look-alikes, Hungarian Wax or Pepperoncini.

I was a toddler when Jimmy Nardello died, but I get to smell his kitchen each time I fry up a batch of the slender, transcendent peppers that bear his name. I still cook green bells when a favorite recipe calls for them, though I find myself delighted more often by the more particular pepper personalities, the ones that shine like a badge of someone else’s devotion and perseverance. Through flavors we can travel, and in this endeavor, the pepper—hot or sweet—is a vehicle so precise it can deliver us (whether we know it or not) to one family’s garden, terraced more than a hundred years ago at the ankle of Italy’s boot.

Melon’s Savory Side

Proscuitto e melone

This summer delicacy is best when sliced and served unadorned at the height of ripeness. Perhaps because it is so perfect alone, the melon’s reputation as a desirable ingredient doesn’t reach much beyond fruit salad and sorbet. Melon also seems rife with limitations—loose (and in the case of watermelon, watery) flesh, nearly cloying sweetness, and delicate floral qualities that, added up, seem to repel the idea of any course but dessert. However, melons do have an ambitious and intriguing savory side and, given the right kind, will even take a little heat. Try one of these techniques to explore a world beyond the melon ball.

Add some salt to its sweet.  Melon’s pervasive sweetness seems made for salty accouterments.

  • Try tossing cubed watermelon with feta cheese and mint (link to recipe)
  • Combine honeydew with cucumber, feta, and dill (link to recipe)
  • Treat yourself to the classic Italian appetizer, prosciutto e melone, which is delightfully easy to make as long as you have some thinly sliced prosciutto lying around (link to recipe)
  • Don’t be afraid to substitute other cured meats for the prosciutto: crispy fried pancetta, strips of bacon, or even a slice of salty cheese all make delicious pairings

Give it some heat.  Melon’s juicy texture and ample sweetness are the perfect companion to capsicum heat.

  • Sub watermelon for tomatoes in a fresh salsa (link to recipe)
  • Marinate cubes of watermelon in sriracha vinaigrette for a spicy and satisfying snack (link to recipe)
  • Forego the stove on a hot summer evening with this refreshing—and picante—melon gazpacho (link to recipe)

Think inside the spice box.  Salt and pepper aren’t the only game in town when it comes to seasoning melons.

  • Make a refreshing cold soup, like this masala-spiced, Spanish-inspired gazpacho (link to recipe)
  • Treated more like a sweet potato than a dessert fruit, a quick caramelizing sear and toasted caraway seeds make cantaloupe seductively savory in this simple and delicious preparation—try subbing cumin seeds for a variation on the theme (link to recipe)
  • Melons make a great substitute for mango in this cantaloupe cardamom-spiced lassi (link to recipe)

Go green.  Sweet, juicy melon makes a accompaniment to spicy greens, such as arugula, cress, frisee, mizuna, or baby mustard.

Give it grill marks.  A brief spell on the grill adds smoky, caramelized depth to melon sweetness.

  • Make this smoked paprika dusted grilled cantaloupe (link to recipe)
  • Throw a few watermelon slices on the grill to eat plain as a smoky alternative to the picnic classic. Or, why not make it a cheeseburger? (link to recipe)

Summer’s Sweetest Bite

Melon

If summer could be concentrated into one single dish, it would be a wedge of dripping red watermelon. The flavor equivalent of jumping into a lake—cool, refreshing, slightly vegetal—watermelon is an antidote for hot days. Blue whale of the fruit world, it takes a village to eat a full-size watermelon, so we gather around them at picnics, potlucks, and parties. I, for one, never tire of the show: the huge green fruit, the big knife, the rocking, the crack as it splits, the smell of cucumbers and sugar, the firecracker red.

Most of the year, I avoid melon—those ubiquitous fruit salads that adorn lunch and brunch plates year-round—because the fruits must be picked under-ripe in order to survive the journey from Central America and California. Melons get their sugar on the vine; while some of their flavor components continue to develop after they’ve been harvested, they don’t get any sweeter. Melons picked with shipping and storage in mind are soulless things—watery, rigid, and bland.

Member of the cucurbit family, melons are cousins to squash, zucchini, and cucumbers. Although the exact location varies by species, melons are generally believed to have originated in Africa, where they were one of the first domesticated plant foods (they have been in cultivation for an estimated 7,000 years). From there, they spread by human dispersal to India, the Mediterranean rim, the Middle East, and Persia, and, slightly later, to China, Southeast Asia, Japan, and Eastern Europe.

Ancient people dined on melons for some of the same reasons we still do today. Seventy- to ninety-percent water by weight, melons are like botanical pop cans, and those ancestral species had a knack for drawing water up from underground springs, imbuing it with flavor and (a few) calories, and storing it safely within an orb of thick waxy skin. Their presence signaled an invisible oasis, and their tart flesh offered desert people a much-needed source of hydration.

The first melons were not sweet, and thus were treated more like vegetables in the various culinary traditions that adopted them, cooked in stews or sliced and served raw as a salad, dressed with spices and vinegar. Over time, sweet-fleshed mutations appeared and growers began selecting for this appealing trait.

With sweetness also came fragrance. Italian orange-fleshed melons grown in the papal summer residence of Cantalupo were favored by generations of popes and their gardeners, a popularity that traveled to other outposts of the Catholic heirarchy. These cantaloupes, as they were called, reached their pinnacle in the Provencal village of Cavaillon, which became famous for melons that exuded fragrance as thick and floral as jasmine. These unique melons still stir feverish mania among Cavaillon locals and visitors alike. Known as Charentais melons, a name that clings to them from a stint in the slightly more northerly region of Charente where this particular melon strain was purportedly first developed, their heart will always belong to Cavaillon.

In our country, cantaloupes are a far cry from their European brethren. The variety we know as cantaloupe is not even in the same botanical group. An orange-fleshed muskmelon, American cantaloupes can also be sweet and fragrant, but they often aren’t, for reasons of distribution and storage. That makes the farmers market the best place to buy top quality melons—the sort that made generations of pharaohs, emperors and kings want more, and captivated the tastebuds of three continents long before the Old World bumped into the New.

Though most of us have gorged on countless melons without hesitation or thought, knowing how to shop for one is not as intuitive. Rough-skinned types are easier: since they “slip” from the vine once their sugars are fully developed, they should not have a stem (if so, they were picked to early). The stem end should be fragrant when sniffed, the skin below their bumpy reliefs a pale tan, not green. Watermelons and honeydew offer fewer clues, as they do not slip from the vine or exude fragrance outside their rind. Look first for the “ground spot,” the discolored area where the melon was in contact with the soil—it should be pale yellow, not green or white. Then, give the fruit a sturdy knock. If the sound seems to travel back to you from inside the fruit (implying hollowness) the flesh is ready; if the thud stays right where you’ve knocked it, pass that melon by.

All melons benefit from a day or two’s rest on the kitchen counter. Although they will not get any sweeter, other components of the melon’s flavor (and nutritional value) continue to develop at room temperature. Don’t store them in the refrigerator (it’s too cold to allow flavor components to synthesize) until you’ve sliced them open, at which point they’re ready to chill a bit before eating or to store for a few days, if they last that long.

Riding the Heat Wave

green tomato

We don’t want to, but we know the heat wave drill. After the last three weeks, we definitely know—shut in our houses with the curtains drawn, the box fan on high, dreading dinnertime and its fire-breathing stove—that all we can do is ride it out. Some people claim to love the heat, as if it were imbued with restorative properties in which they rarely get the chance to braise. But at a certain point, we all wilt, drooping and dripping through our day, finding excuses to go to the grocery store and stroll the freezer aisle.

Plants aren’t so different. Some, like my spring kale, start to go limp once the Fahrenheit reaches a sunny 76, perking up again each evening when the sun gets low. Others wait for the heat, sitting stubbornly in 65-degree cold until they see the kale wilting and know it’s safe to strut their stuff.

But plants have their limit, too, and for many it culminates at 115-degrees, the cell destroying temperature for the majority of species. We are familiar with a plant’s most visible response to heat stress: wilting. Just like we produce sweat, plants release water vapor through tiny holes in their leaves in an attempt to regulate the temperature around them. If a leaf releases too much water, it looses turgidity (wilts) and, if conditions don’t improve, eventually turns crispy-brown. Between perfect conditions and death-by-heatwave lies a whole spectrum of largely invisible reactions to rising temperatures, some of which may be of interest to hungry gardeners.

Take tomatoes, a common garden plant that we associate with hot summer days. It’s true that tomatoes largely shut down below 50-degrees, refusing to grow again until the weather begins to more closely resemble their native jungle habitat. However, anyone with a few plants out back may be wondering why, despite an unusually warm June, their tomatoes seem to have entered a holding pattern. Market shoppers may have noticed that even though the summer feels like it’s already deep into August, tomato selection remains limited.

This is due to a few temperature-sensitive quirks of tomato physiology. While tomato foliage remains sturdy in the heat, their flowers and fruits only thrive in the rather narrow range between 70- and 85-degrees. Tomatoes self-pollinate, meaning their male and female parts are located in the same flower. Wind, insects, and your fingertips are all sufficient pollinators, as it takes no more than a little jiggle to help the pollen hop from stamen to nearby pistil. Tomato pollen is usually available for hopping between the hours of 10am and 4pm, though temperatures above 85-degrees render it gummy and immobile. If, after two days, the pollen is unable to fertilize the ovary, the flower, admitting defeat, falls to the ground—a phenomenon known as blossom drop.

But let’s say that our heat wave sleeps in one morning and the pollen makes it. Now the ovary begins to swell into a fruit. Tomatoes require a specific foliage-to-fruit ratio to achieve proper ripening—drawing not only on the plant’s energy reserves to infuse the fruit with sweetness, but on leaf-synthesized flavor compounds that will add complexity and fragrance to the mix. Because leaves are essential to tomato development, the plants must continue growing more foliage to meet the demands of newly set fruit.

This puts our heat-wave tomatoes in a conundrum. In the best of scenarios, the foliage-fruit balance requires a certain amount of precision. In the heat, when a plant is sometimes faced with life-threatening conditions, it abandons nuance for subsistence. Above 85-degrees, a tomato uses most of its energy just to keep from drying to a crisp. At 94-degrees, photosynthesis becomes sluggish at best, cutting off a plant’s ability to replenish much needed energy reservess. Staying cool costs the plant all the energy it would have otherwise invested in ripening fruit.

Add to this equation one final limitation. Most tomato varieties rely on two pigments for their signature ruby-ripeness: carotene and lycopene. When exposed to temperatures above 85-degrees, these pigments stop synthesizing. Almost-ripe tomatoes entering a heat wave will hang on the vine with that I’m-nearly-there yellow-orange color, inspiring unrequited thoughts of caprese salads and gazpacho until the heat breaks.

With sufficient water and any but the most pitiful soils, tomatoes will whistle right along until the thermostat hits 85, at which point they’ll start putting the breaks on fruit production. At 95, they enter survival mode, a temperature at which I, too, have little else on my mind.

While gardeners have few tools at their disposal with which to convince tomatoes, and most other flowering and fruiting plants, to mature in the midst of a heat wave, they can prepare their plants to better cope with a week (or three) of heat, and recover more quickly once it’s over. Irrigation is key; water deeply before a heat wave, and use drip irrigation when possible to ensure the water is going straight to the root zone, where your plants need it most. A thick bed of mulch helps to moderate soil temperature and protect it from drying sunshine and winds. Resist fertilizing before or during a heatwave, which will promote tender new growth that is completely unprepared to withstand the harsh conditions.

And finally, summer is not a good time to prune. A healthy head of foliage helps a plant provide its own shade as well as photosynthesizing replacements if and when cell death does occur on the front lines. If you feel the compulsion to remove something, take a load off your tomato plants and cull a few green fruits. Those left behind will ripen that much faster.

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