The Fat of the Land

Month: August, 2014

Pollinators

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As gardeners, we tend to think in terms of outcome, working to create an abundance of nourishing food, beauty, color, fragrance, liveliness, or serenity. We give to the garden in the form of compost, amendments, time, and water in order to receive again. It is a well-practiced agreement, one that stretches deeper into our history than written language. Underlying that bargain, or perhaps punctuating it, is the clause of partnership.

Numerous are the hazards that await a newly sprouted seed. As all creatures of the earth, it must struggle and endure, fitted with a biology prepared for some of the hardships that may come. Even so, destinies are not always attained, and those that are owe their victory, in part, to the efforts of others.

Pollinators seem the perfect metaphor for the everyman: one vote is all she gets, one voice of action. And while the pollinator is rarely glamorous or exceptional, his collective work has great influence. From the perspective of our species alone, pollinators are vital to our food supply—75% of food crops rely on pollinators for fertilization, while 100% benefit from the efforts of predatory or parasitic insects.

Known as ‘beneficial insects,’ these myriad species invisibly protect our fields and gardens. Syrphid flies, a fly in bee costume also known as a hover fly, snacks on pollen and nectar as an adult and hatches larvae that eat aphids, thrips, and other soft-bodied plant pests. Ladybeetle larvae have a voracious appetite for aphids, which the adults maintain at a slower but steady pace. Parasitic wasps lay their eggs on sap-sucking insect bodies that their larvae parasitize, eating the insides as they grow, leaving behind empty aphid husks as they pupate.

Such humble work is invaluable to any gardener, especially one wishing to avoid chemical pesticides. And for those that desire their trees to bow with branches heavy in fruit, for their squash patch to proliferate, or their berry harvests to boom, pollinators are irreplaceable partners. Diversity of pollinators means more bodies carrying pollen around the garden or field, and translates to increased yields of higher quality fruits.

Outside our cultivated spaces, the same results apply. Although we tend to think of honeybees when we talk nectar and pollen, native insects account for 80% or more of a given area’s total pollination. Honeybees, an introduced species, are useful for their colonizing habits. We can keep them in controlled hives and transport them from field to field in the orchestrated pollination of large crops. But in our gardens and natural areas, native pollinators do the lion’s share of the work, maintaining production as they maintain plant species diversity.

This arrangement reveals a compelling law of attraction. The equation is simple: what you give to eventually wants to give back. To nurture those who nurture you is a smart move on the evolutionary scale, one to which we have given a name and that we carry on in our own human terms: kindness.

Entering this positive feedback loop and being kind to your pollinators means planting the food they are accustomed to and providing the habitat the need. Many native bees nest in the soil, so leaving some undisturbed ground and plant debris (think sticks and leaves) means protecting nests. Native insects have evolved to eat native plant nectar and pollen; growing these species in clusters large enough to be noticed will attract native pollinators into your garden. Keep in mind that native pollinators are active all but the coldest months of the year; providing blooms spring through fall means feeding a diverse range of species with different hatching times.

There are many online resources from which to learn more about serving native insects by adjusting your gardening practices. A good place to start is the Xerces Society, a local organization that performs research, writes books and free publications (including plant lists and tips for gardeners), and advocates for these necessary species: http://www.xerces.org

Kitchen Dispatch: Tomatoes

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Tomatoes are the darlings of the main-season garden—their aromatic foliage smells fervently of summer, and it is from that radiant tangle our favorite fruits emerge in colors and combinations seemly without limit. In truth, tomato plants grow like weeds, flopping and out of control. While we struggle to hold them to their trellising, they take their time setting green fruits that hang for what always feels too long before the first hints of ripening appear. Slowly, with a storyteller’s patience, they become our imaginings—a mythology months in the making that we pluck, relishing its smooth realness all the way to the kitchen.

What a show they put on, grandly occupying vast stretches of small gardens from May to October, only to offer relatively minor bounty (especially with the larger heirloom varieties) compared to a succession of root and salad crops. Some years I must forego tomatoes in my tiny backyard garden for the sake of rotation. But the tomato summers are always my favorite, and it is always worth their theatrics for this meal: a just-picked tomato carried in the gardener’s hand; zesty foliage and fruit’s rich perfume mingling.

Summer is ripe when tomatoes line the kitchen counter, spoils of market or garden awaiting transformation. Few countertop residents cause as much anxiety—truly vine-ripened tomatoes arrive already plump and soft, needing action. We know how to slice and dress them with basil and oil, slabs of fresh mozzarella. We know they make effortless sandwiches (now is the time for BLT’s), salads, and pizza toppings. We know they are perfect unadorned save a bright pinch of salt.

When we have done all that and the curiosity wants to stretch further, find new territory, tomatoes not only await, they demand our ingenuity. And what is more versatile than these sweet and savory globes? Melting or meaty, sour or satiny, their flavor easily concentrates or thins, and resonates with nearly anything the garden can throw at it. Like an agile partner, they know the tunes, they have the moves; we simply need to turn on the music.

Tomatoes respond well to low heat, their moisture reduces, sugars develop, without wiping out all of the fresh fruit’s complexity. Slow roasted tomatoes are delicious simply atop a slice of fresh bread, but hold their own among heartier dishes like braised lentils, grilled meats, eggs, or buttery tarts. Paste, plum, seedless, or ox-heart type tomatoes are best for cooking—their dense flesh and few seeds means they contain less watery juices that would dilute their cooked flavor.

To roast tomatoes, pick an afternoon where you have tasks around the house and set your oven to its lowest temperature. Drizzle halved or quartered tomatoes (depending on their size; thick slabs also work for larger tomatoes) generously with olive oil. Place on a parchment-lined baking sheet in a single layer, cut side up, and sprinkle with salt; a small amount of sugar adds surprising fullness, and seasonings like thyme, oregano, or black pepper add depth. Stick them in the oven and forget about them until the smell becomes irresistible. Take a peak. Roast them until they are shriveled, softened, their color deepened, anywhere from 2-4 hours. Store covered in oil in the refrigerator for up to a month.

Tomato sauce can be a daylong project, or an impromptu supper, depending on your resolve. Home-preserved tomato sauce is a great treat in winter, and a long project in the heat of summer. If you do choose to go that route, consider saving the skins you’ve so painstakingly removed and dry them, as Amanda Hesser suggests in her book, The Cook and The Gardener, in the oven (again on its lowest setting) until they become dehydrated but pliable. Chop and use as a punchy garnish, or save in a sealed jar to add to the stockpot down the line.

Never completely savory or sweet, cooked tomatoes always end up a combination of the two. Tomato jam, an unctuous preserve for scones, tarts, or even sandwiches, displays this quality well. Made with sugar, like any jam, it is luxuriously sweet; underneath is a base strikingly green, harkening back to the florescent scent of the garden’s tomato brambles.

Fresh tomatoes are perhaps the sweetest form of all, especially those selected for this quality: cherry, pear, grape, and zebra-striped varieties make for syrupy mouthfuls without any embellishment. Or, Deborah Madison offers this simple preparation in her book, Vegetable Literacy, using cream to play up the fruit’s natural sugar:

Warm four tablespoons of heavy cream on low heat with a clove of smashed garlic and a fresh basil leaf until it comes to a boil. Set aside to steep while you peel a selection (about ½ pound) of fresh sweet tomatoes by dropping them for ten seconds in boiling water to loosen their skins. Place them directly in ice-cold water to stop them from cooking and slip off their skins. Slice and add tomatoes to the cream and bring to a bubble for 2-3 minutes. Season with pepper and salt (she recommends smoked salt) and serve covered in breadcrumbs or over a slice of toast.

Salt

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There is perhaps no better way to taste a sun-ripened tomato than by slicing off a thick slab and sprinkling it with salt. This ubiquitous powdered mineral is the magic wand of the kitchen—transforming and enhancing flavor, shelf life, and even texture with a pinch here, a flick of the wrist there.

In a manner of speaking, all salt in the form we know it comes from the ocean: sea salt is evaporated directly from collected sea water, while much of the world’s refined table salt comes from deposits left by ancient oceans. Salt deposits that form veins in the rock are extracted though shaft mining and the resulting salts are mainly used for icy roads and agriculture. Salt beds—wider underground deposits—are extracted using solution mining, where water is pumped underground to dissolve the salt, then pumped back out and re-separated in a salt evaporation facility (most table salt is manufactured this way).

But the ocean isn’t the origin of salt, merely its concentrator. Like an enormous caldron, the ocean collects minerals eroded by rainwater from rocks on the earth’s surface, which is transported to the ocean by rivers or underwater hydrothermal vents. As ocean water evaporates, it leaves minerals like sodium chloride behind, where they concentrate. Ocean dwelling creatures use some of these minerals, such as crustaceans that need calcium for their exoskeletons or diatoms that need silica for their shells. Other minerals, mainly sodium and chloride (which constitute 85% of the dissolved minerals in sea water), appear to go unused.

Fresh water carries sodium chloride from earth to ocean, and so it contains trace amounts of salt itself. Plants also extract sodium chloride from soil deposits, though the quantity is functionally insignificant for human dietary needs. Animal meat contains slightly higher amounts of salt than vegetables, as their bodies’ cells, like our own, depend on sodium to maintain proper fluid balance, as well as nerve and muscle function.

Though diets of primarily animal protein may have provided sufficient sodium to early humans, hunter-gatherers and agrarian people alike began supplementing their diet with harvested salt as long as 10,000 years ago. The ocean was the easiest and best source, and salt was a valuable commodity for millennia of local and global trade. Inland salt could be collected at salt springs; one of the oldest known salt extraction sites is located in Romania next to a mineral spring with high salt content, a production that began around 6,050 BC.

Modern day refined salt has little in common with these ancient extractions. The refining process results in stripped down sodium chloride further treated with additives like iodine and anti-caking agents. Because all other minerals are removed, some argue, common table salt offers less nutritional benefit. Unrefined salts collected from the living sea or ancient deposits contain a vast array of subtle flavors imbued by the environment from which they are extracted—hence briny or even vegetal sea salts.

Traditional salt evaporation methods also lend salt a wide range of textures—from large, heavy crystals that sink like granules of sand to the bottom of the saltpan, to the light, crystalline flakes of salt that form near the surface. Fleur de sel, or flake salt, are the product of this former method, resulting in what is known as a finishing salt—flakes whose tender, airy crunch adds an ethereal quality to a bowl of dressed salad greens or a plate of roasted vegetables.

Salt is one of the five tastes our tongue can perceive—an appointment that seems to betray its importance in our development and well being as a species. And salt (from any source) makes food taste better by masking bitter, metallic, or chemical flavors (and therefore enhancing the perception of sweetness), balancing and concentrating flavor, and creating a perception of thickness or fullness (especially in sauces and soups). We crave not just its inherent saltiness, but also the transformative power it has on the foods we require for all other forms of nutrition.

To me, summer is the time of salt and its subtleness—to enliven garden vegetables and to make the brines that will preserve them for winter. Pinch with a light but steady hand.

Eggplant

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I have to admit that the eggplant has maintained an air of mystery in my life. I grew up without eating a single one (not a family favorite), and nothing about the spongy, thick-skinned, midnight-purple football of a vegetable made any sense to me as a young cook. Beyond an oil-soaked eggplant Parmesan here and there, I had little exposure to this perplexing produce-aisle standard.

Seed catalogs sparked in me the first authentic eggplant curiosity—this was a vegetable that, in heirloom collections, came in alluring variety: green or yellow grape-sized fruits to slender, pendulous purple cucumbers to white and lavender marbled tear-drops, bright red tomato-shaped fruits to pure white, egg-shaped fruits. Hence, the name: once upon a time, someone saw this sort of round, paper white fruit and said: eggplant.

Hailing from a native range that included northeast India to Burma, northern Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and southern China, eggplants have long exhibited wide variation of colors, shapes and sizes, which in turn reflect the tastes and preferences of their cultivators.

The eggplant went to Persia through ancient trade routes, and from there, to eastern Africa and eventually (post-Roman empire) Mediterranean Europe via Muslim expansion. As a vegetable, eggplant was slow to catch on, especially in northern regions, where it was believed to harbor powers ranging from the aphrodisiac to the psychotic. The word for eggplant in Italy maintains some of this old suspicion: melanzana, or ‘mad apple.’

Following western exploration to the Americas, the eggplant met for the first time its cousin the tomato, both members of the botanical family, solanaceae. The two were united again back in the Old Country, and in the capable hands of southern Italian and Spanish cooks, were masterfully paired—tomato’s sweet acidity flavoring silky, rich eggplant, a combination that now stands as a Mediterranean classic.

My first attraction to eggplant was visual, and, indeed, as eggplant spread to farther regions of the globe, eating the unusual fruits was not always the inheritor’s first impulse. Like tomatoes, eggplants are closely related to poisonous and narcotic species of nightshade, bearing much resemblance and residual misgivings. In some of the first seed catalogs, such as France’s 1760 edition from Vilmorin, they were listed solely as ornamental annuals.

Though we think of it as a vegetable, eggplant fruit is, by botanical definition, a berry. It has none of the sweetly sour, fresh-eating characteristics of culinary berries, but its seeds are embedded in a single, fleshy ovary, and therefore it is more a berry than strawberries or raspberries.

As cooks, however, we concede that raw eggplant holds little appeal (many still believe it is poisonous raw, a holdover from centuries of nightshade associations), and for eggplant to enthrall us, we must embrace its unctuous qualities. When fresh eggplant is cooked well, flesh that was spongy and bitter melts into sweet, silky, umami-rich softness that easily harmonizes with surrounding flavors.

The Persians, early adopters of eggplants, preferred to roast them whole in the ashes of a wood fire, later flavoring the flesh with oil, vinegar, and spice. Roasting a whole eggplant in this way helps to mitigate one problem with grilling or roasting the spongy fruits in slices: unless sufficiently oiled, their flesh tends to dry on the surface before it cooks through. Steaming the flesh inside its own skin results in superb texture and lighter flavor, as it is not soaked through with oil. Contemporary eggplant enthusiast, chef Yotam Ottolenghi, recommends an updated version of this Persian preparation in his cookbook, Plenty, roasting them directly on the low flame of a gas stove burner.

Though much of eggplant’s low ratings among the general populous may be rooted in historical misunderstanding, it is more likely a victim of poor selection and kitchen technique. The more slender, Asian varieties usually have thinner skin and sweeter flesh than the ubiquitous globe-shaped varieties; experimenting with different types may be the key eggplant-hater conversion.

All eggplants do not keep well once harvested. Like tomatoes, they dislike cold storage, which can damage their delicate flavor and fine texture. On the countertop, they age quickly, maintaining peak condition for only a few days. Eggplants picked while their skin is shiny and their flesh firm will taste sweeter and keep a less watery texture when cooked soon after harvest.

In the kitchen, we must embrace eggplant’s idiosyncrasies. They absorb fats copiously, so make sure the pan is good and hot before adding sliced eggplant to a sauté in order to protect the inside with a good sear (if you wish to avoid preparing oil sponges). Utilize their talent of sopping up flavor to sop up complementary, balancing flavors: acidity from lemon juice or tomatoes, warm spice blends, garlic, ginger, or tangy miso. Oiled and roasted eggplant turns into a vegetable version of butter, making it a great base for flavored spreads (start with babaganoush, then think outside the box).

Or take a few on the trail and, like an ancient Persian, throw them in your waning campfire to scoop smoky spoonfuls sprinkled in salt for a no-fuss meal, tasting their full, unadorned flavor: concentrated, caramelized richness coated in artichoke-like sweetness and something unmistakably eggplant.