The Fat of the Land

Month: October, 2014

The Bohemian

delicatas

All plants are wanderers through history, adapting to the demands of their environment, sculpted by the preferences of their consumers (human and otherwise). The shapes, colors, flavors, and distinctions of the plants we are familiar with today have long, often mysterious histories. The only thing we know for sure is that nothing—not an heirloom, not a hybrid, not a single F1 cross—is in stasis. Landing where we’ve landed, we get to eat what’s here.

Walking through the market this time of year, it’s clear we live in an age that values novelty. Nothing illustrates this quite as bombastically as the arrival of winter squash—a category of vegetables with an enchanting display of variability that, like the tomato, has seen a renaissance of interest in the past decade.

Squash are in the same plant family as cucumbers, a botanical tribe that originated on the Indian subcontinent. Somehow, via birds or sea currents, seeds found their way to South America, where the family’s genetics eventually morphed into what we know of today as squash. Those that stayed in India tended toward cucumbers, melons, and gourds. Three distinct categories of squash developed, each with its own environmental adaptations. When Europeans first arrived in New England, they found the natives eating a relative of our modern day Halloween pumpkin, a lineage whose domestication by early humans can be dated back as far as 10,000 years ago to a cave near Oaxaca.

Known as Cucurbita pepo, this branch of the family vine had already traveled widely, its genetics already deeply explored by millennia of Native Americans (and a few centuries of colonial gardeners) by the time a man named Peter Henderson emigrated from Scotland to New Jersey in 1843.

A student of the Royal Botanical Society of Edinburgh, Henderson wasted no time leasing himself a 10-acre plot of land in Jersey City and dove head first into market farming, providing vegetables and flowers to a growing urban population. His land holdings increased, and Henderson eventually switched his focus to seed production. He built top-of-the-line greenhouses, employed over 100 gardeners, and opened a flagship store in lower Manhattan (the former site of his store was later occupied by the World Trade Center Towers).

Henderson was a pioneer in early market farming (what we might call today “urban farming”). He wrote extensively on the subject, and sold only seeds he had grown himself, selecting new varieties and adapting Old World vegetables to New World growing conditions.

Though he may not have lived to taste it, Henderson’s company is credited with the release of the Delicata squash (which premiered in 1893, six years after Peter’s death). Likely the selection of a local farmer (seed catalogs of the day offered monetary rewards to growers who turned in high quality sports that could be developed into new varieties) that was then tested and marketed by the Henderson Co., the Delicata was an unusual C. pepo.

A branch of the family known more for its tender summer squash and stringy pumpkins, Delicata exhibited the delicate skin of its zucchini cousins while melding the sweet, rich flesh of a pumpkin with a finer, drier texture. For a winter squash, Delicata came in a surprisingly small package. Weighing roughly a pound, a Delicata cut in half made a meal for two, stuffed with an assortment of herbs, nuts, or meats. Its fine flavor, ease of use, and high yields made Delicata a popular seller.

As heirlooms go, Delicata’s story is short on details. Modern sources say it was also sold under the names “Bohemian,” “Sweet Potato,” and “Ward’s Individual,” and that it was popular through the 1920’s, at which point it fell out of favor (for a perpetually unspecified reason). Combing through scanned copies of Henderson catalogs, I found it listed up until 1951, not long before the company shuttered in 1953.

In the 1944 catalog, the new and novel Butternut squash made its Henderson debut (it was originally released by Joseph Breck & Sons in 1936), touting sweet, fine-textured flesh and a neck that was solid all the way through. Butternut is much better suited to commercial growing than is Delicata—thicker skin, longer storage life, and a higher weight per volume ratio likely attracted farmers to it. As home gardening diminished and commercial farming flourished, perhaps Delicata just quietly faded into obscurity, known to those who grew it, unknown to those who didn’t.

Along with Acorn and Butternut, Delicata is again one of the most recognizable squash varieties at market. It grows well in our short northern summers and we love it for the same reasons Henderson’s customers did—its delicious flavor and delicate skin make it versatile and approachable in the kitchen. We can just scoop out the seeds, slice it and sauté it, getting squash to the table in under 30-minutes. Delicata are still the perfect vessel for stuffing, and their cheerful green and orange striping still makes a decorative centerpiece.

But don’t hesitate! Delicata won’t last and they are at their best right now. Save the Hubbards and Butternuts for deep winter, Delicatas start to quickly diminish by the first of the year. I try to use the last of mine in one or another holiday feast, baking and freezing any remainders. This year I’ll be tipping a forkful to the bohemian behind the Bohemian: an innovator and wanderer, patron farmer of Delicatas everywhere.

Advertisements

Fennel

IMG_3884

Feathery leaves and hollow stalks reminiscent of dill, succulent celery-like stems, fennel is one of those vegetables that seems to exude domesticity: a creature of the garden too well-designed, too perfectly shaped to have come out of the wild. In some ways this is true. Ancestral fennels did not have softball-sized “bulbs” at their base, nor did they likely taste so strongly of anise, but this hybrid vegetable-herb did once scatter its own seed around the Mediterranean coast, born of a family tree of fennels rich in aromatic compounds and powerful phytochemicals.

Fennel’s native range still hosts a variety of fennel species, notably among them the impressive giant fennel (Ferula communis). This towering (up to 10ft), central-trunked curiosity boasts no edible qualities. However, its thick, hollow stalk, once dried, makes for good, slow-burning tinder—a characteristic recognized by Greek mythology. In the classic story depicting how humans were given fire, Prometheus pilfers a spark from Mt. Olympus by hiding it inside a fennel stalk.

Asafetida (Ferula assafoetida), a stinking giant fennel indigenous from Iran to northern India, is unpleasant eaten fresh, though its seeds and powdered resin are widely used seasonings in those regions. The resin tastes similar to onions, and makes a good substitute for pungent onion flavor in Vedic cuisine, which prohibits consumption of alliums.

Even more mysterious is silphium, a likely extinct species of antiquity whose exact botanical taxonomy is not well understood. We know of silphium today because of its great importance in ancient Mediterranean cultures. The Egyptians and Minoans had special glyphs to represent the plant. A Greek colony called Cyrene was established in silphium’s native range (modern-day coastal Libya) and its wealth was built on the trade of Silphium; so valuable a commodity was it that a stylized image of both the plant and its seed were depicted on Cyrenean coins.

Though silphium was used culinarily, its commercial value likely hinged on its medicinal properties. All members of the parsley family (apiaceae) have small amounts of phytoestrogens, compounds created by plants that function like or interact with estrogen in animals. Though it is uncertain why a plant would go to the trouble of creating a hormone it doesn’t use, one theory suggests phytoestrogens are a protective device: by producing hormones that work like birth control in forage-eating animals, the plants prevent population explosion and, thus, overgrazing.

Silphium appears to have had particularly potent phytoestrogens in its resin, a quality that suited the hedonistic Greeks and Romans, fonder of sex than of family life, and that most convincingly explains silphium’s commercial appeal and eventual extinction. In their zealousness to exploit silphium as a contraceptive, the Romans decimated wild populations of a plant that was never successfully domesticated. Pliny the Elder describes silphium as a bygone species of giant fennel, the last specimen of which was given to Emperor Nero as a curiosity.

On the other side of the Mediterranean, ancient people enjoyed the culinary properties of a milder fennel (Foeniculum vulgare). Though this fennel was short on contraceptive compounds, it was tender and juicy as celery, with an anise-scented sweetness. Gardeners cultivated this fennel, selecting less fibrous, swollen stem bases over stringy stalks, eventually resulting in what we know today as a fennel bulb.

Fennel requires little fuss in the kitchen. A cool-season vegetable, thinly sliced fennel is traditionally paired with winter-harvested citrus and a drizzle of good olive oil. On the stove or the grill, fennel’s sugars caramelize to a smooth, rich umami dressed in nothing more than a coating of oil and salt. Its stalks or seeds can be sprinkled over cooking coals to impart their fragrant oils onto fish or mild vegetables. Tucked into an autumn soup or braise, fennel melts into the broth, turning translucent and soft without disintegrating.

Many cookbooks instruct you to cut out the core, though I’ve never understood why. In grilled or braised fennel, the core is the most luscious part, silky as a roasted carrot when done. Since a fennel bulb is no more than the layered bases of the leaf stalks, the central core is what holds them together, making for neat wedges if you slice it so that each piece contains part of the core.

We have our own version of wild fennel in temperate regions—bronze fennel sold as an ornamental reseeds easily, soon populating even cracks in the garden path. Sweet garden fennel itself can get out of control, searching for its wilder self by stretching into shrub-like towers when left to seed, and setting tenacious roots if allowed to go a second season. In my garden, I tempt fate and look forward to the yellow flower umbels of fennel plants that bolted—each perched atop its stalk like the sparkling flame of a torch—adding them to fall arrangements or nibbling on their warming, anise-flavored seeds.

Sicilian Chard

IMG_3892

Hailed by the puzzling title, Swiss, chard doesn’t have a particularly storied history in that Alpine nation. Though chard has been grown and eaten there for centuries, Switzerland is neither the vegetable’s homeland nor its most fervent consumer.

Rumors circulate as to why chard is so adamantly referred to as Swiss: the scientist who gave chard its scientific nomenclature was a Swiss man and the term is used in deference to his effort, American seed companies used the qualifier ‘Swiss’ to differentiate chard from French spinach varieties, or that Switzerland is where chard was bred to be the vegetable we know it as today.

While such claims may hold a nugget or two of truth, the vegetable’s etymology provides more convincing evidence. The word ‘chard’ was once (as recently as the early 20th Century) used interchangeably to refer to both the inner stem of an artichoke plant and the leafy, succulent-stemmed beet-relative. In old French, cardoon, a variety of artichoke cultivated for its tender blanched stems, was referred to as ‘carde.’ Though chard and artichoke are completely unrelated botanically, their stems do bear some resemblance.

To picture this, you must imagine chard as it looked then—the same dark green, savoyed leaves we would recognize today crowning, in most varieties, a white or pale green stem. Lopped of their foliage, cardoon and chard stems could easily be confused, both resembling wide, pale celery stalks.

In the spirit of clarity, seed catalogs did distinguish the two chards, ‘Swiss’ added as a notation that the chard would be of beet-plant origin. The region that comprises modern-day Germany was one of the most zealous diasporas of the chard and beet clan, responsible for much of the vegetables’ development into what we grow and eat today. Perhaps Swiss had a better ring, and Germany’s southern neighbors, link between chard’s ancient homeland and its enthusiastic adopter, were likely to be chard-loving people as well.

Both Beta vulgaris in botanic nomenclature, beets and chard are nearly the same plant, one cultivated for its swollen root, the other for its stems and foliage. Of the two, chard more closely resembles the wild plant from which they were derived. Known today as sea beet, the ancestral chard and beet plant is native to the Mediterranean rim, liking, as its name implies, the sandy soils and temperate climate of its maritime home.

If chard were to have an associated nationality, it should instead be Sicily. Perhaps the sea beet’s earliest adopters, Sicilians introduced their own selections to the mainland—plants with tender leaves and stems, better adapted to garden cultivation than wild varieties. As chard was passed northward, gardeners selected for the qualities they preferred. Beta vulgaris exhibits wide genetic variability and from those rich resources millennia of gardeners uncovered myriad stem colors and sweet, long-storing roots.

Chard is a dependable, long-season green, a mainstay of temperate-region gardens from early spring until the first hard freeze. Beets filled in the rest of the caloric calendar, offering sustenance from the root cellar in months when the garden was covered in snow. Freshly sprouted leaves from cellared beets in late winter historically provided much needed nutrients. Beta vulgaris played a vital role in feeding continental Europeans for thousands of years, thus its place in their cuisines is paramount. An essential potherb, chard leaves appear widely in soup and rice dishes, its stems in gratins and braises.

It’s true, chard tastes something like spinach. Such was the claim that convinced me to try those intimidatingly outsized leaves back when they seemed as exotic as passionfruit or mango. Sautéed in oil and garlic, I discovered chard’s deep, earthy quality and mild saltiness. A Sicilian at heart, chard maintains an affinity for its ancient nursery grounds, a touch of brine to its otherwise mild manner.

As a gardener, I came to prefer chard to spinach as its temperament is more even and its growing season more forgiving. A ubiquitous presence in my gardens, thriving in spring and fall, passably surviving summer’s heat waves, I unwittingly began to know it as Sicilian chard: dependable, endlessly useful, deeply nourishing.

Firsts and Lasts

lasts

For a few short weeks each year, we perch on a bountiful cusp, the air palpable with autumn’s chill, the garden sputtering sluggishly to a halt. In anticipation of rain, we hoard partially ripened tomatoes and peppers, lining the kitchen counter with their less brilliant, still beloved hues. As the hearty squash, cooking greens, and root crops roll in, we panic slightly at the loss of the tender, succulent wealth that was, for a few brief months, commonplace.

This is the fifth season, the season of firsts and lasts. Spring and summer swarm with arrivals—freshness and youth, deep green that develops into sugary crescendo. Fall and winter whittle the palette down to rich starch and cleansing bitter, heft balanced by water. In the dark days ahead, we will appreciate their comforting manifesto. Now is the time to challenge it.

To those who prefer eating vegetables in their moment, grown and harvested when conditions were appropriate, brought to market vibrant and brimming with their own potential, the season of firsts and lasts offers a unique opportunity. Though summer vegetables and fruits are fast approaching the end of their culinary usefulness, some stand their ground even as the first true emblems of fall start to nudge them off the table. Seasonal eating often requires that we compartmentalize our repertoire—like with like, shaping the flavors of our table into harmonic, familiar communities.

Right now, however, is the year’s best occasion to break the rules. Right now it is possible to top delicata squash with stewed garden tomatoes, to toss celeriac with zucchini, drizzle freshly whirred basil oil over lightly sautéed turnips, make a curry of eggplant and kabocha squash, a salad of chicories and blanched green beans. And now that the solar heat is off, we can handle an afternoon in front of the stove, exploring the deeper flavors of our fresh-eating favorites.

As much as I relish the first few summer tomatoes, naked but for salt, I don’t fall in love until the time comes to comfortably simmer them on the back burner, roast slices for hours in a low oven, or bake them cradled in puff pastry tarts. Tomato magic is, for me, their transformation from carefree fruit to mesmerizing aromas, flavors developing from sweet to savory to soulful. Autumn’s cool overcast offers the perfect conditions to uncover the secret lives of summer’s fruits.

In the season of firsts and lasts, we let go of perfection. In this moment so very near the end, we cannot be so picky. Once, we desired delicate, brightly aromatic produce. Now we accept the bruised, battered, and failing. Cooking the holdouts is both to our benefit and pleasure, enhancing ailing flavors with seasoning, masking shortcomings by devising contrasting or complementary combinations. Mingling old and new, we illuminate our sense of possibility.

We have been here before, and yet each time we arrive it is as if we enter this season unversed. The firsts and lasts land on the table like dice: from our hand, but with a sprinkling of chance.

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

 T.S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

Celeries

IMG_3850

As a word, celery is delightful: smooth, translucent, bright, like the ample water its juicy bite unleashes. In today’s kitchens, celery is best known for its fibrous, overgrown stems, sliced into stock or slathered with peanut butter to mellow their robust flavor. In celery’s culinary history, those juicy, blanched stalks are an anomaly. Nearly every other part of the plant was used as medicine and (less commonly) food for thousands of years before the proverbial ants took a seat on the log and we shelved all but an inkling of celery.

The eternal background singer, few recipes feature celery outright, choosing its sturdy, harmonizing nature over the full aromatic experience. Celery, of course, is bitter and much of its breeding since the 1600’s, when European cooks began to recognize its culinary value, has been dedicated to taming that quality. Though in the United States we have sequestered our celery usage to almost exclusively the stalks, French cuisine in particular embraced a whole plant approach early on, using leaves, stalk, and root, a tradition that helped drive the development of different cultivars highlighting the best each of these plant segments have to offer.

Celery’s wild range circled the Mediterranean Sea. Called selinon by the ancient Greeks, it was of great medicinal and cultural importance, described often in literature as an esteemed wild plant. Winners of the Nemean Games (a sporting event held the years before and after the ancient Olympic Games) were presented with a wreath of wild celery. Garlands of selinon were commonly used to decorate the departed and wild celery had a symbolic connection to death; leaves and flowers of the plant were found in the tomb of Tutankhamen, suggesting the tradition was adopted from across the Sea.

This wild celery is known today as ‘smallage,’ a corruption of the Old French word for celery: ache (pronounced “ash”). Small ache became smallage, a word that now refers both to wild celery and a group of selected varieties also known as ‘cutting celery.’ Even cultivated smallage is only a sidestep from its wild origins; small plants (1-2 ft high) with narrow, often hollow stalks too fibrous to eat raw, and leaves that range from astringent to strongly aromatic. Not commonly eaten raw, smallage leaves are added to soups (a practice in both European and Asian cuisines), where the broth is used to mellow their bite with slow cooking or give a backbone to the refreshing zest of leaves added raw just before serving.

Perhaps no part of celery’s taxonomy is so revered as its root. Called knob celery, turnip-rooted celery, or, as we know it here, celeriac, the root is celery’s most accessible segment, which is ironic, because if the thought of a celery-flavored root vegetable doesn’t turn a shopper away, its bulbous, knotted appearance almost certainly will. While celeriac is a celery-flavored root, centuries of selection have unearthed a satiny, slightly nutty, mild-mannered, delightfully versatile celery-flavored root.

A French classic, celerie remoulade dresses fine slivers of raw celeriac in mustardy mayonnaise. Steamed and mashed, celeriac makes a creamy puree similar to mashed potatoes, or, when thinned with broth, a rich, elegant soup. Edible raw or cooked, celeriac is an alluring fall salad ingredient—one of the best preparations I’ve had was celeriac slightly steamed and dressed with hazelnut oil on a bed of butter lettuces. Leeks, shallots, and garlic make fine companions, as do herbs like thyme, sage, and smallage, creamy sauces, or nutty oils. Consider a salad of celeries: sliced celeriac, shaved stalks, and aromatic leaves. October is celeriac’s month, when they are pulled fresh from their long tenure in the soil (celeriacs at market now were planted in early spring). Though they will keep a few months in good storage conditions, they are their most refreshing now as our palates shift from sweet summer fruits to earthy autumn roots.

All parts of the celery plant have distinctive mineral coolness and an assertive aroma we tend to label medicinal. To me, their blend of flavors matches this season’s transitional nature: bright sun with a façade of warmth, turning cool in the shadows and cold after sunset. Celery starts with a punch then fades to an afterthought, but it’s the punch that gives the afterthought its flavor.