The Fat of the Land

Month: December, 2013

Fresh

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It is sometimes the case that our intuitive nature knows—long before solid proof arrives—when a good thing is, indeed, good. So it goes with farmers’ markets. This once quiet, now prolific movement (started for reasons that range from the political, to the sociological, to individual and community health, to economics) wouldn’t have caught on if the food wasn’t good. Ideology rarely trumps flavor.

Perhaps it was a stroke of luck, guided by the collective unconscious of the ancestors who ate before us, but it’s my belief farmers’ markets have been so wildly successful because they offer something no other sector of the food supply chain has accomplished: regular access to ultra-fresh foods. In doing so, markets have bolstered local economies, created community, preserved farmland, provided a platform for education. Yet, without incomparably good food, these ritual gatherings would not hold the magnetic attraction that draws us to them each week.

We have known this from the beginning. The first time you went to a farmers’ market and took home a bundle of glowing vegetables, you knew you’d be back. Fresh food, especially vegetables and fruits, speaks to us. We taste its authenticity first, then come to feel it in the deep compulsion of wanting what is best for us.

Though I have learned (shopping at markets and growing some of my own food) to value fresh vegetables as highly as any other currency through which I barter for survival, until recently, I thought of this preference as personal: a matter of taste, a symbol of privilege, perhaps. I could sense fresh meant better—more nutritious, even—but my hunch felt unquantifiable.

Lucky for us, there are sturdier feet to stand on than hunches. I recently got my hands on a copy of Jo Robinson’s newest book, Eating on the Wild Side. This meticulously researched work draws on hundreds of studies from various disciplines, summarizing how (to the best of our current knowledge) we can get the most nutritional benefit from common fruits and vegetables. Robinson’s wise tactic is not to insinuate that we incorporate a host of difficult to access (or unappealing to eat) super-foods, but to unlock the health potential of those we already cook with.

As I read through this book, it became clear that many vegetables touted for their nutritional prowess lose much of their potency mere days after being harvested. To get broccoli’s maximum nutritional benefits, it must be eaten within 2-3 days of harvest. In ten days of optimal storage conditions (mimicking best-case scenarios of commercial harvest and transport), one study found that broccoli lost 50-80% of its super-food powers.

Turns out, most leafy vegetables and shoots are significantly better for you when eaten as soon after harvest as possible. The harvested parts of these plants continue respiring (a plant’s version of processing energy) after harvesting, using up the phytonutrients that would have otherwise been replenished if they were still connected to the whole plant. As vegetables sit in transit and on display, their constant respiring also increases their bitter flavors. Fresh vegetables not only contain impeccable nutrients, they are more palatable to those who are sensitive to strong flavors (and tend to avoid eating the leafy green end of the vegetable spectrum).

While the industrial food chain continues to perform miracles of efficiency and abundance, it does so at the cost of nutritional potency. What we’ve known all this time as eaters of farmers’ market food is that freshness makes the difference. It makes our healthy vegetables healthier and trains our taste buds to know the distinction between good enough and better. Jo Robinson has gathered into one easy read a plethora of reasons why this is so, for those eager to know more.

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Cold

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Winter farmers’ markets offer two basic categories of produce: storage crops and cold hardy crops. We know the characters well—whiskered roots, boxes of potatoes blinking in the daylight, stoic winter squash, bunches of bitter greens, snow-white leeks, fluffy blends of salad leaves looking like a pile of delicate miracles. We are lucky in our climate to enjoy a wide range of fresh vegetables throughout the cold season, from bunching greens to rutabaga, tonic to starchy sweet.

Storage crops are typically harvested in fall or early winter and held in barns or cellars at a temperature that protects them from freezing or sprouting. Cold hardy crops are planted in early fall and kept in the ground through winter, growing slowly and providing ultra fresh food at a time of year when it is much harder to find.

This year, hardy crops in our area faced an exceptional winter foe. Temperatures two weeks ago reached near record lows, dipping ten degrees below zero in Eugene area and hovering between six and ten degrees above zero around Portland. They were the kind of temperatures we rarely see west of the Cascades, for which farmers would be foolish to prepare defenses. The added cost of the necessary protections required to successfully grow cold hardy vegetables in sub-freezing temps is significant and largely unnecessary in our region most years.

As sure as any average is the occasional anomaly. We are tempered to expect mild winters and even in the wake of ominous forecasts, it can be hard to know how bad a freeze will be. Though area farms endured over a week of freezing temperatures, moderate cold can sometimes do more good than harm to edibles. A few seemingly insignificant degrees can mean the difference between frost-sweetened or frost-killed vegetables. And it is difficult to tell which fate has befallen your fields until they’ve thawed.

Many winter vegetable varieties are built to withstand a certain amount of cold, especially if it arrives incrementally. In a process known as “hardening off,” plants initiate subtle shifts in their physiology, making their cell walls more permeable to water (to allow movement of expanding fluids and avoid cell rupture) and increasing the sugar content of their cells’ cytoplasm. Sugar solution has a lower freezing point than water, thus acting as cellular antifreeze in a properly hardened plant.

Despite these clever defenses, physics demands that water turn into ice under 32-degrees Fahrenheit. When a vegetable plant is exposed to sub-freezing air, the water between cells inevitably forms into ice crystals, a process that attracts additional water from inside the cells. As the ice crystals grow, the plant responds again by increasing the sugar content of the cytoplasm, improving its ability to prevent ice formation inside the cells.

Winter vegetables can endure this game for a bit (typically to around 15-degrees), but if the temperature remains advantageous for ice, the cells will eventually become dehydrated and die. Add to this process the additional cooling and drying effects of wind chill on exposed plant tissue, and the chances of a field planting of broccoli or kale surviving our recent cold snap look ominous at best.

Crops under various forms of protection (plastic high-tunnels or row cover cloths) may have gotten the 3- to 6-degree buffer necessary to pull through. In most cases, it comes down to location. If the field is in a protected site (away from wind or cold pockets), got enough snow cover to act as insulation or stayed in the warmer range of our recent lows, its crops might have pulled through.

Farmers are a resilient lot. Though this winter’s cornucopia may look slightly less magnificent than years’ past, know your able farmers are already plotting the next round, adding this anomaly to their seasoned calculations, taking the good with the bad because they know, as some of us forget from time to time, that the two are always inseparable.

Don’t worry and fret about the crops. After you have done all you can for them, let them stand in the weather on their own.

If the crop of any one year was all, a man would have to cut his throat every time it hailed.

[…] the real products of any year’s work are the farmer’s mind and the cropland itself.”

-Wendell Berry

(from Prayers and Sayings of the Mad Farmer)

Brodo

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Brodo is the Italian word for broth—o’s that roll over their d like water over stones in a mountain stream. Its sound moves through the mouth more like broth than does our own word, one that fades abruptly into fuzz, tasting like fur next to satiny brodo. I am not an advocate of cultural self-loathing, but some words just don’t fit. Brodo does.

In certain Italian dishes, brodo is allowed to take the lead, poured in its understated elegance over a simple pasta preparation—a few handmade tortellini or cappelletti—and that’s it. Indeed, broth, under various titles, is a foundational element of nearly every cuisine, not just Italian. Think pho, matzah, miso, ramen, caldo Gallego, ham and pea, cocky leeky, consommé, and the proverbial chicken noodle soup.

To clarify, I am not referring to anything you have ever poured out of a can or carton, nor those salty bouillon cubes dissolved in hot water or concentrates dolloped into the pot. On the road to true broth, there are no shortcuts. While there may be a place for these stand-ins amidst our crowded contemporary lives, that choice is up to you.

When I speak of broth, it is of that rich, impossibly simple liquid that enthralls our senses with the same charisma as a steak. It is peasant food in one of its most compelling forms: sustenance drawn from leftover bits, technique that relies on diligence and time more than prowess or expense, humble food fit for kings.

I avoided making broth for a long time because it seemed like too much work, too much fuss for soup base. Something distant haunted me, however, in my dismissal of this ingredient’s worth: a soup my mother often made soon after Thanksgiving that we would relish for a week or so each year.

Once the carcass was cleaned of sandwich meat, it was (so it seemed to me) magically transformed into a tub of broth to which she would add bits of turkey meat and, not long before serving, strips of napa cabbage and soy sauce for seasoning. I loved this soup more than the entire Thanksgiving feast, and since a turkey carcass only came around once or twice a year, it was a rare delicacy.

One of the things I have come to appreciate about growing and cooking my own food, or just paying closer attention to the role of food in my life than I did a decade ago (I am no saint), are the subtle impulses that emerge. Paying attention is the most basic form of magic. What rises to mind on a cold November afternoon percolates out of the cells’ deep memory, drifts alongside the steam from a bowl set before a version of me that has long vanished.

Last November, my family spent Thanksgiving at my sister’s. Once the hoopla was over and just she and I were left craving quieter and simpler meals, I remembered our mother’s turkey soup. My sister had already made the stock, and that crisp afternoon we strolled through a winter farmers’ market to pick up a head of frost-sweetened savoy cabbage. We were nourished and transported and from that familiar ground I resolved to bring authentic broth into my kitchen more often.

Broth is deceptive. Masquerading as a liquid, we expect thinness from it—light and delicate, we paint it with a touch of frivolity. But in that simmering stockpot, joints and bones, marrow and connective tissues release their molecular components into the water—invisible nutrients in a form our bodies can readily absorb. And when we drink broth, its nourishment passes easily into this cellular realm, nudging warmly against our spirits, soothing, it seems, our most unfathomable depths.

Start by saving the bones from dinner. Accumulate them in the freezer if you only generate a few at a time. Keep beef with beef, poultry with poultry, etc. or break the rules. Make broth with vegetables. With fish. Don’t worry about mistakes and follow the simplest method you can find.

Mine goes: cover the bones with cold water, bring to a simmer and then place the whole pot (cover and all) in a 180-degree oven. Forget about it for a day. For two. Make it conform to your schedule. When you’re ready for it to be done, strain out the large bits in a colander and the small bits by pouring it through a clean towel (or cheesecloth). Cool it in the refrigerator and scoop off the solidified fat (save the fat to cook with, or discard). I am no expert—this is not a recipe for elite broth; it’s a place to start. Maybe you’ll go back to the cans or maybe, at the beckoning of your own bones, you’ll keep practicing until you can’t live without it.