The Fat of the Land

Month: September, 2014

Fall

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If summer is the extrovert and winter the introvert, fall and spring are the seasons when all bets are off, when every corner of our lives seems charged with purpose and possibility. Though we know fall is the beginning of the end in terms of tender garden plants and abundant vegetable harvests, it is so laden with bounty we may be forgiven for missing the first signs.

Before we called it autumn, this segment of late summer was known in English simply as ‘harvest.’ In an era without big box stores or large-scale farming, harvest was the portion of the year when that was all one did. For weeks on end, t’was the season to gather from the garden, the orchard, the fields and forests. Birds and squirrels in my garden follow the same age-old tradition of compulsive collecting, fattening themselves and their larders for the harsher days ahead. Their busy, sometimes irritating work enlivens the autumn garden with a sense of urgency.

And while the general trend in fall is a movement inward, to the outside observer, the world flares with color and exuberance. High and low pressure systems oscillate, bringing rain and wind one day, sun and crispness the next. Summer’s dust and haze are washed into wonderful focus. Deciduous leaves turn shades of yellow, red, orange, or brown, painting the ground with pools of color and filling the air with their chattering percussion.

Likely a shortening of phrases like “the fall of leaves,” and “the fall of the year,” fall is an old name for the season, one that came into common usage in the 1600’s as “harvest” phased out and “autumn” (of French origin) phased in. The terms fall and autumn followed colonists to the New World and remain interchangeable names for this season. Back in England, autumn took furtive hold, and ‘fall’ fell the way of ‘harvest.’

I’ve always liked to say fall—verb as season, like spring—as if through the trimming of our language we embraced the equinoxes’ transformative nature. Fall is a decline into winter, spring the rebound from it. Plants and leaves fall to the ground, the year falls to its close. And the gardener, too, wants to fall from the relentlessness of a garden in its prime.

And yet, when it comes time to cut back the summer plants, I always hesitate. Inevitably, there are tomatoes left unripe, basil with a few more leaves, pole beans still sputtering out pods. In my small garden, if I want to have winter vegetables, I must make a choice; to wait until the summer crops’ natural end means winter plants would start too late. So, in the span of an hour my summer garden falls into the compost, leaving bare soil and the certainty of seasons changed.

Though it appears that autumn brings death to the lushness of summer, its nature is more contractive than destructive. Leaves fall from the trees not because of sickness or frailty, but to preserve nutrients. When day length shortens to a certain number of hours, the woody stems of deciduous trees and shrubs begin to seal themselves at the point of attachment, cutting off nutrients to the leaves so they may keep a store of energy for spring growth.

Though the leaves are still attached, they no longer have access to the materials necessary to produce chlorophyll. As the leaf uses up its supply, its green begins to fade away. Orange and yellow carotenoids, present throughout the summer underneath chlorophyll’s pigmentation, suddenly become visible. Purple and red anthocyanins synthesize in the leaf’s changing chemistry, creating spectacular, glowing hues. Eventually, the leaves drop around the base of the tree and break down throughout winter, returning their minerals and nutrients to the soil and, over time, back to the tree itself.

Our lives go in as well. Like a tree, we gather what we can and leave the rest to winter’s decomposition. In spring, we look forward to abundance, imagining our bare gardens laden with food. Once the garden’s branches have been laden for a while, we imagine them gone, the work done, the squash roasting and a good book on the lap.

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Vitis

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There is a stark contrast between supermarket grapes and those lounging on farmers market tabletops this time of year. One is ubiquitous, somewhat sweet, somewhat acidic, often watery, whose lackluster qualities have tamed our desire for musky, deeply sweet grape flavor. The other ranges from mild to disarmingly complex, depending on the variety: sometimes seedless, sometimes crunchy (don’t believe you should spit out the seeds!), skins thick with aromatic pigments, whose chewing sends up smells and sounds and fills the mouth with divine nectar.

The life of a supermarket grape is unglamorous at best. Because of the same constraints that always plague large-scale distribution of delicate produce, supermarket grapes are often picked before they are fully ripe in order to survive the shipping process and lengthy tenures in storage and on display in the produce aisle.

Most conventional grape growers treat their immature fruits with a plant hormone called gibberellic acid, which elongates each grape, increasing the cluster’s weight by up to 75%. To prevent molds from damaging the tender fruits and to keep up an appearance of freshness through weeks of cold storage, conventional grapes are often fumigated with sulfur dioxide. Overall, conventionally grown supermarket grapes are one of the most chemically treated fruits you can buy.

Though most supermarket grapes end up living in refrigerator drawers, grapes and their flavors are creatures of the sun. The original species responsible for many of our market varieties are native to the eastern United States. The fox grape (Vitis labrusca), the muscadine (Vitis rotundifolia), and the river bank grape (Vitis riparia) are all deft climbers, easily scaling tall tree canopies to stake out a sunny perch without investing in widely girthed trunks of their own.

Table grapes allowed to sweeten on the vine gain more than just greater sugar content. Their dusty blue or purple skins are rich in anthocyanins (an antioxidant with potential to reverse memory-loss and inhibit cancerous tumor growth), and both their skin and seeds contain resveratrol (a lipid regulator responsible for the rumor that drinking wine could lower your chances of having a heart attack). Commercial grapes also contain some of these beneficial substances, but in much lower (and blander) concentrations.

Home grape growers experience the Vitis clan in all their wily splendor. Exuberant and untidy, grapes grow wildly in all directions if left to their own devices. A strict pruning regiment is essential, cutting back old woody growth (which will not produce grape clusters), in order to encourage buds of fresh, fruitful growth.

Home growers also get the bonus of easy access to grape leaves, an untapped Old World culinary treasure. Briny, surprisingly sweet, and meltingly tender, the young leaves of an early summer grapevine make the best dolmas you’ve ever had, or a robust substitute for spinach in anything cooked (think Greek and Turkish cuisines, which traditionally made good use of this abundantly available green).

Those who’ve eaten only supermarket grapes may be surprised at the range of flavors exhibited by what they find at the farmers market. Small farm (and garden) grown grapes have character—flavor profiles all their own—with myriad applications in both sweet and savory preparations.

Start by forgetting everything you thought you knew about grapes. Roasted alongside chicken legs or duck, their flavors intensify, creating a pan sauce with wine-like complexity. Pressed into focaccia, they are like tart, juicy raisins, savory and aromatic dressed with sea salt and rosemary. Married with salty cheese and garlic or onion, they are excellent on pizzas, galettes, and salads.

Sweet and succulent berries that they are, grapes fit easily into pastries: scones, sweet tarts, pies, cakes, or clafoutis. Their deep purple juice makes a striking sorbet, syrup, or jelly. Vitis means to wind, bend, or branch. Like the grapevine snakes its way through jungly undergrowth into the open air, grapes’ adaptability as an ingredient easily finds its way into imaginative cooking. And when there isn’t time or enticement, they always satisfy served in their majestic simplicity, as they have for millennia: unadorned, from the palm of your hand.

Table Seeds

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Resourceful gardeners (and in times past, every gardener) think to save a few seeds of their favorite vegetables each season, keeping their stock fresh and selecting for traits they desire: early ripening, flavor, color, size. Not all seeds are savable at the home scale because they require too much separation distance to keep their genetics pure. Others, like tomatoes, peppers, and lettuce, will come true most of the time even from two different varieties growing side-by-side.

It is satisfying to save seeds for next year’s garden, weighty harvests contracted down to feather-light parcels tucked away for winter. Beyond a hard won sunflower or chewy-roasted pumpkin seed here and there, we rarely think to eat the seeds we grow. They are so small, so insubstantial, and so often unfamiliar that we don’t consider most seeds worthy of garden space in their own right.

I grew my first seeds by accident: fennel that got away from me, bolted and flowered while I was concerned with some other part of the garden. By the time I took notice, they had already developed their green seeds in pretty little umbels I didn’t have the heart to cut down. Once they’d dried, I put a few in a jar mostly as a way of capitalizing my loss: no fennel bulb, but a stash of concentrated fennel flavor. I don’t use much fennel seed and promptly forgot about it, but a year later when I found it again, in need of some for a pickle brine, I was amazed at the full fennel fragrance that greeted my nose when I opened the jar.

I soon discovered that cilantro does the same thing, deviously racing into seed development only a week or so after much foliage appears. When they first form, the green seed heads are a tender, pungently citrus addition to curry pastes or they can be eaten whole—raw or pickled. The mature, dried seed heads are too woody to eat whole and must be ground before use as a seasoning.

Dill, a relative of fennel, follows a similar trajectory. As with coriander, the fresh seeds of dill and fennel are bright, fragrant versions of their dried flavor. Nearly effortless to grow and easy to harvest (just pinch them off when dry, or hang their clusters upside-down in a paper bag and shake once the stems are brittle), you simply need to sort out any plant debris (sifting and winnowing in front of a fan, with practice, still works), and store them in an airtight container. Just like all garden harvests, their freshness is obvious and will find its way into your home cuisine the more you experiment.

Last year I grew my first purposeful seeds. Impulsive catalog purchases, I chose cumin (Cuminum cyminum) and kalonji (Nigella sativum). The cumin never went very far; though I got meager germination, the few transplants I put in suffered before being overtaken by weeds (what you get when you combine plant and gardener indifference). The nigella flourished in a profusion of delicate blooms whose shape recalls a (albeit restrained) passionflower: wide opened petals displaying showy rings of pistol and stamen.

From the center of this fanfare grows an urn-like seed capsule, segmented into vertical pods that hold a dozen or so seeds each. When the whole capsule is dry and the seeds have released themselves from its walls, it rattles when shaken and the seeds spill out easily when the pods are split open. Looking like a rough-hewn black sesame seed, kalonji have a lemon rind bitterness that quickly becomes floral allium fragrance in the mouth (hence another name for them: black onion seed).

Kalonji is a common spice in Pakistan, Bengal, Turkey and parts of India, used widely in dal, as one-fifth of the “five-spice” seasoning panch-phoron, and to top flatbreads and rolls. They also make a pretty, though modest, garden flower that has culinary applications. Had the cumin thrived, it would have offered similar services, gracefully filling in space between the more showy garden flowers while developing capsules to refresh the spice cupboard.

Though I cannot personally vouch for them, poppies are touted as a painless home seed crop. The same variety that produces handsome capsules of delicious seeds also happens to have showy pink and lavender blossoms. Next year I’ll be planting a variety called ‘Zair,’ selected for its especially sweet, blue-gray culinary seeds. And for a real challenge, I may try sesame, a seed for which our climate is not ideal. A tropical native, they desire a long, hot growing season to reach maturity. If next summer is anything like this summer, a home harvest of sesame seeds may be the silver lining.

Find kalonji (listed as Nigella ‘Black Cumin’) and Poppy ‘Zair Breadseed’ from the regionally local Uprising Seed; Cumin and Zair Poppy from Fedco Seed; and sesame from Nichols Garden Nursery or Kitazawa Seed Company.

Pear

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Pears go well with cheese, it’s true. Their acidic sweetness contrasts nicely with a salty, forward variety like blue or something grassy and rich like a raw milk cheese. Put them together on the plate, add a few fresh walnuts and a dollop of honey or jam, and you’ve got a decadent afternoon snack best enjoyed in late summer shade with a view.

Pears pair with less gustatory partners just as well. Their floral-scented, syrupy flesh seems a natural embodiment of spring or summer, but pears are all autumn. Flowery notes conjure visions of yellowed grasses and chattering leaves while buttery sweetness foretells the mineral chill of plush summer air turning crisp. Only their coloring plays the part honestly, green that fades pale and blushes (as some varieties do) in sync with deciduous leaves. Savoring a pear on a walk in the woods—among the scent of dry, brittle earth drinking the first fall rains—or in a wetland—freshly filled with migratory birds beginning to wander south, honking in anticipation—these are my favorite accompaniments to pear.

The texture and flavor of a pear rely on counter-intuitive timing. We are used to picking fruit when its ripeness is obvious. Pears require that we see ripeness before it advances, and that we place our trust in subtle hints. Left on the tree, pears ripen from the core out, meaning their center softens and begins to spoil before your fingertips will feel it. As the fruit develops on the tree, its cells lignify, causing that gritty pear texture to intensify. A fully tree-ripened pear is a mealy, sandy, unsatisfying thing.

A perfectly ripe pear is not, from the plant’s perspective, ripe at all. Our tastes and the tree’s part ways after the fruit’s initial maturity concludes. At this stage, the pear has reached its maximum size, its seeds have formed, its cells have filled with starches and flavor compounds, but its flesh remains firm and tannic. To achieve silky pear sweetness, the fruit must be picked before tree ripening initiates, the best indicator of which is a twist of the wrist: if a pear stem releases with a single upright turn, it’s ready for picking; if the stem resists, it’s best to check again soon.

Once picked, a pear’s flavor depends on how you cure it. Sitting on the kitchen counter, it will sluggishly march into decline, developing few sugars and losing any desirable texture it may have had. Put in the back of the refrigerator, pears will sweeten and develop their succulent texture in a few days to several weeks, depending on the variety. Cold makes the difference because it slows mechanisms of decay while promoting the production of ethylene, a gas that initiates the ripening stage of most fruits.

Commercially grown pears are stored in giant warehouses at 30-degrees F, which significantly extends their shelf life, sugars acting as antifreeze and the ethylene slowly setting to work. Home gardeners have refrigerators, which typically cool to temperatures around 40-degrees F, a setting that will still cure pears to perfection, but which requires you eat them more quickly. Depending on the variety, pears stored in the home refrigerator will last from September to December (for Autumn pears like Bartlett and Seckel) or February (for winter storing varieties like Bosc or Anjou).

You can eat a cured pear right out of the fridge, but to finish its ripening (and develop the last of its sugars), let it rest on the counter a few more days. Pears with longer cold storage will need less room-temperature resting. Pay attention to the fruits: their skin should be bright, their surface plump and slightly soft. A pear left too long will become squishy or start to brown, a pear taken out of cold storage too soon will be firm and too green. The best place to check for the right level of softness is on the pear’s neck, just around the base of the stem. If the flesh here gives with a gentle press, it means the fruit is at its peak.

The buttery pear we know today is the result of French and Belgian growers selecting for that trait, perfecting the first varieties of contemporary pears around the early 1700’s. Previously, European pears were crisp, like their Asian pear cousins, ripened on the tree and much more reminiscent of their rose family kin, the apple.

Living in a pre-refrigeration world, these early growers likely experimented with cellar storage, picking their pears at different times to see how long they would keep into the winter. A good root cellar maintains a temperature between 32- and 40-degrees F, not far from commercial warehouses today. Early growers likely learned from their cellars how the fruit improved with cold curing and from that knowledge developed a range of varieties that performed well with early harvest and cold storage techniques.

And aren’t we glad they did: honey-flavored Bartletts for walks in the woods, firm-fleshed Anjou and Bosc for topping tarts, earthy-spiced Seckel and velvety-sweet Comice for poaching or pairing with cheese, are our inheritance. And though the fruits may have changed over time, autumn, as always, remains theirs.