The Fat of the Land

Category: Recipes

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.

Holy Trinity

holy trinity

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).

The Kale Effect

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Nearly twenty years ago, I landed my first wage-earning job as a cashier at my small town’s natural foods co-op. A high school sophomore, my qualifications for the position were that I wanted spending money and I had an in with the manager, a family friend. The only items in the store that I knew much about were the processed and packaged ones—blue tortilla chips, carbonated fruit juices, “natural” mac and cheese—that were my family’s translation of the mainstream products I’d spent years coveting in friends’ lunchboxes.

The whole foods were unknown to me; filberts, adzuki beans, bee pollen, Swiss chard, kale, quinoa, and other exotically named ingredients made for a steep learning curve that had me bluffing my way through many an afternoon shift. A year in, some semblance of understanding began to form, though mostly from a spectator’s perspective; I wasn’t a cook and retained my childhood aversion to most vegetables. In the back of the store there was a small vegetarian deli that slowly began to change all that.

Called Pearl’s Kitchen, this literal hole-in-the-wall churned out sandwiches stacked high with fresh vegetables, vibrant salads sold by the pound dressed in boldly flavored vinaigrettes, and a handful of vegetarian entrees. Pearl, the sole-proprietress, was a soft-spoken woman whose narrow, smooth face cracked with radiance when she smiled. Her sandy, fine-textured hair cut stylishly short and her tasteful clothes gathered at the waist with a long canvas apron, she exuded a casual sophistication the Birkenstock-and-jeans-wearing co-op staff and I couldn’t match.

It was the mid-1990’s and in my part of the Midwest, hummus was still counterculture; greens like arugula, mustard, and kale were downright mysterious to the average small-town Wisconsinite. It was Pearl’s cooking alone that got me to cough up some of that newly-earned spending money for things like bok choy salad, BBQ tempeh, or wraps filled with spiced lentils. My mom’s influence and instruction are what made me a cook, but Pearl’s Kitchen and the Whole Earth Co-op planted the seeds of my palette. By the time I left for college, I was a dedicated vegetarian with a hotplate intent on cooking most of my own meals atop my dorm room desk.

Still, I didn’t try cooking kale on my own until I was two years out of college. Those rigid, waxy leaves, that unavoidable greenness, had always seemed too extreme. I’d come a long way from my processed-food-coveting days, but I didn’t think I’d come that far. Armed with a recipe card from the produce aisle and a sense of adventure, I brought what seemed at the time to be an enormous bouquet of frilly greens home and set to work.

The recipe was ridiculously simple: clean the kale, cut away the fibrous stems and tear the leaves into pieces. Heat vegetable oil in a large saucepan; throw in slivered garlic, then the torn leaves, water from washing still clinging to their corners. Stir to coat and cover.

When I lifted the lid a few minutes later, briny steam warmed my face and I stared in disbelief at how the pot, overflowing to the point of absurdity when I’d covered it, was now less than half full of shimmering, dark green leaves, looking like a pile of beached kelp. I was even less sure now, but I finished the recipe, cooking off any remaining liquid and tossing the steaming leaves with a healthy dousing of sesame oil and a pinch of salt just before scooping a small serving onto my plate.

The flavor was nothing like I expected—green, yes, slightly bitter, perhaps, but also richly sweet and deeply satisfying, cloaked in nutty sesame oil dressing. Much to my surprise, I ate the whole pot.

Kale comes from a world that knew nothing of mac and cheese, natural or otherwise. The people who brought kale in from the wilderness and nurtured it saw (or tasted) its potential as a nutritious food. And, after years of careful selection, Kale became an important source of fresh flavor during a time of year known as the hunger gap—those desperate months when the cellar stores ran low and the weather did not allow much in the garden to grow.

We joke about kale now, its ubiquity and cult-like following. Kale is over, we say, ready for something bolder, less familiar. But in our country, kale filled a different kind of hunger gap, one in which produce came from the freezer or the pantry, where lettuce was crunchy and white and ketchup was considered a vegetable. Heirloom seed-saving, organic farming, seasonal eating—kale was a compelling, if unlikely, ambassador of these movements. Something deep in its cells still charms us into believing our lives will be improved by eating it.

I, too, am always eager for the next thing. I’ve tired of kale salads and chips and am ready for new flavors. Even so, a pile of garlicky sautéed kale still seems to go with almost anything. I never tire of that trick—the one where an impossible mound of tough, bitter leaves melts into complex mouthfuls of yielding, ageless nourishment.

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.

Brodo

lamb broth

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.

Dairy Alchemy

milk jars

Where I grew up, cow’s milk is a cultural icon. Country roads oscillate between corn fields and cow pastures, the neighboring state fair displays busts of its royalty carved out of butter, folks drink 2% with supper, grocery stores rarely stock fewer than twenty varieties of cheddar. In the Midwest, milk is a birthright, and its venerated status seeps into the consciousness of all who live there. A pharmacist I met in eastern Oregon who had gone to school at UW-Madison confessed to me that he fell so in love with the cheese, he has a particular creamery’s cheddar shipped to him each December in such quantity he can freeze enough for almost the whole year.

Despite being surrounded by Holsteins throughout my youth, it wasn’t until earlier this year that I tasted fresh milk. I was on a tour of a small dairy learning about pasture rotation, when I had my first sip. I was hesitant. I’m not entirely sure how I expected it to taste, but the creamy freshness that greeted my lips took me by surprise. Milked that morning, it was light and sweet, scented delicately with the forage of the fields we had just wandered through.

I became a subscriber of their milk-buying club and now pick up a gallon of this impeccably produced milk every two weeks. The cows they raise are Jersey, a breed whose digestive system is capable of absorbing higher quantities of beta-carotene from their feed than the more common Holsteins, resulting in golden-hued milk. Not being the milk drinker I once was, I realized soon that I would need to learn how to manipulate and preserve this nectar or lose it to souring.

Transfixed by the 3-inch layer of orange-yellow cream that rests on the top of the milk, my first fascination was with butter. I slowly skimmed the thick, silky cream into a separate jar, which I let sit over night, a process called ripening (cold cream won’t separate into butter). In the morning, I simply beat it with my hand mixer, like making whipped cream. As the cream started to hold its shape, I kept mixing, the whipping of the beaters disrupting fat globules, eventually allowing them to stick together in visible chunks. What you get when you go past whipped cream is a nearly invisible transformation, when the puffy whipped cream suddenly becomes a slosh of butterfat and buttermilk. I drained the buttermilk off, folded in salt, and shaped my first pat of golden Jersey butter.

I’d expected to be pleased by the butter, and it is gorgeous stuff, smooth and flavorful. I examined the buttermilk and took one careful sip. Unlike the sour, thick buttermilk I use occasionally in baking, this was thin and sweet. Store bought buttermilk is cultured, somewhat like yogurt, to give it the sort of acidity that activates baking soda to leaven breads and biscuits.  Heated up and poured into coffee, my homemade buttermilk makes a delightful café au lait.

Recently, I made my first rennet cheese, one that uses the enzyme rennin to coagulate the casein in milk, leaving behind a high pH, sweet tasting whey.  Cheeses that use an acid (like lemon or vinegar) to coagulate the milk separate the proteins differently and expel a lower pH, tangy whey. Called sour whey, it is useable in bread baking, as a soup stock, even to soak oats overnight (makes the creamiest porridge I’ve tasted). Sweet whey is another creature entirely—cheesy, slightly syrupy, subtle but lingering sugar.

I had heard a rumor that ricotta, more commonly made by adding an acid to whole milk, was originally a bi-product of sweet whey. As I looked into the translucent liquid my cheese curds left behind, I didn’t see how it could produce much of anything. The instructions I found said simply to heat it. As the whey neared its desired temperature, the surface began bulging, and from its center emerged little white granules, a dust storm of ricotta curds, that multiplied as the heat increased. At 200° F, I turned off the flame and let the whole pot settle a few minutes before pouring its contents into a butter-muslin lined colander. After draining for ten minutes, the muslin cradled a sweet, pillowy ricotta, needing nothing more than a drizzle of honey to become a decadent dessert.

I’ve always known butter, yogurt and cheese. But before these spells were adapted to an assembly line, they were performed at home. Every day, milk was transformed by skillful hands that could reach beneath its satiny white curtain to draw out an eternity of flavors, a chain reaction of product and bi-product, because it had to be. Before cold storage and pasteurization, we were compelled by necessity to unlock milk’s secrets: liquid into solid, fragile to sturdy, something from nothing.

(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, November 29, 2012)

A Fall of Squash

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Though they require all of summer’s sunlight and heat to reach maturity, and are harvested in September or October, we call these starchy Goliaths winter squash, a nod to the strong, waxy skin that keeps them edible well into the leaner months. 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 imagination to a time when the days are short, the kitchen is cozy, and the scent of oven roasted squash fills the air with opulence.

I saw a girl who looked to be about ten years old stop with a gasp at a winter squash display one recent market. She grabbed her mother’s hand and pulled her over to point at the different shapes and colors, touch the gnarled scabs that decorated one variety. She lingered at these dry, giant creatures as if peering into a tide pool, marveling at their differences, choosing a favorite.

As a gardener, what draws me to growing squash is not their aesthetic (which, like most shoppers, is what makes me to want to buy one), but their heft. There is something endearing about a fruit that must be hugged to lift, whose flesh resists all but the largest knives. Arriving at the end of a string of demanding harvests that must be used with tireless immediacy, it is lovely to set such beautiful artifacts aside, to be allowed to wait.

Most squash grown in our region not only allow delayed gratification, they prefer it. Though the squash selection grows in abundance with each fall market, it is not until winter that many will be at their prime. These squash require curing, which amounts to setting them aside in a quiet corner of your kitchen or pantry, to convert the starches in their meat to sugars. This conversion deepens and sweetens the squash’s flavor and increases its nutritional value. Fall harvested squash belong to three botanical categories, each with different storage characteristics. It behooves us to know which is which when managing the pantry.

True fall squash, the pepo subcategory (Cucurbita pepo) cure quickly and do not store well. This group includes Delicata, Acorn and Spaghetti squashes. Once harvested, they only need to cure for a week or two before they are ready for eating, and can hold their peak flavor quality up to two months. The thin skin of the Delicata variety, though poor at keeping the flesh inside from aging, is perfectly edible. I keep the skin on and sauté thin slices in oil or butter for about fifteen minutes, making for one of the quickest squash preparations I know.

Less available in our area, save for one notable exception, are the moschatas (Cucurbita moschata). This group requires more heat and a longer growing season than we are endowed with in western Oregon. Butternut squash belong to this category, and are grown here because of their popularity. Most squash recipes call for varieties such as acorn and butternut, and as a result we tend to limit our usage to this narrow spectrum.

For true winter squash, the kind that age like fine wine well into the heart of the rainy season, we must turn to the maxes (Cucurbita maxima). Maxes can be grown with relative success in our climate, and comprise the majority of varieties that come to market, including Banana, Kuri, Kabocha, Hubbard, Turban and Sweet Meat. An Oregon heirloom, Sweet Meat is particularly successful in our region and is my personal favorite max variety for its thick and delicious flesh. Max squash varieties need at least one month of curing before they are ready to eat, and many benefit from further aging. Depending on the variety, maxes can keep their flavor quality up to six months in proper storage. (For a more in depth discussion of Sweet Meat and other squash varieties suited to the our climate, consult the squash chapter in The Resilient Gardener by local grower, Carol Deppe.)

Limited by space and experience, I have yet to fully incorporate squash into my garden repertoire. I have grown a few years’ worth of Delicatas, and this season my first Sweet Meat, with limited success. But good things are worth waiting (and practicing) for. Those I have harvested felt like trophies stacked on the pantry shelves. For me, winter squash have become symbolic of a true food garden, an anchoring presence in the field as well as the kitchen. Though most vegetables I grow do a good job of feeding me, these hefty fruits draw the eye down, point my gaze to the soil where they rest. And when the leaves shrivel away to display their painted loaves, the fairytale transformation becomes evident: seed becomes vessel of nourishment.

(Originally published in the Hillsdale Farmers’ Market newsletter, The Grapevine, October 4, 2012)