Cuba Bound: Researching Cuba’s Food Culture

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In a few short weeks I will be heading to Havana and beyond to meet with Cubans who are striving to preserve their food traditions among imminent change, and to witness how Cuba’s edible culture is moving toward economic and … Continue reading

Beyond the Crock: On Lacto-Fermenting

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I was very proud this fall when I finally got to use my Nani’s heavy, lacquered earthenware crock – the same one that she used to make the cherry brandy that my cousins and I would lick pooled from the … Continue reading

Locavore on the Road: Portland, Oregon

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When I was planning my west coast research trip in support of my upcoming book Small Batch: The Fall and Rise of Artisanal Pickle, Cheese, Chocolate, and Alcoholic Spirits in America (Alta Mira Press) – I almost didn’t plan to … Continue reading

“Coopetition” and the Spirit of Artisanal Food

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I shouldn’t have been surprised in the least when Michaela Hayes, owner of Crock and Jar, a Brooklyn-based company that specializes in making pickles and the teaching the art of pickling and canning, said that a main tenet of her … Continue reading

What Vermont Blueberries Helped Me Remember

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Maybe a dozen miles as the crow flies, it took us nearly forty minutes to get there. We went up a dirt road and crested a mountain, down the other side until deep ruts turned to asphalt. And then we … Continue reading

The Brooklyn Cure

The Brooklyn Cure

In the past few months, this locavore has been splitting her time between two cities. My husband and I travel between Somerville, Massachusetts and Brooklyn, New York on a weekly basis. This was precipitated, in part, by my songwriter-husband’s need … Continue reading

Duck Confit

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For, perhaps, the first time in this year of charcuterie, I did not know what to expect. I was sure I had confit at one point or another in my culinary life. I spent seven years (albeit all during my naive twenties) with an expense account, after all, have traveled internationally, have written about food. But for the first time I approached a recipe truly not being able to picture the end result. I had pork confit once – the chef claimed to have spent all afternoon making it and was very proud. But I found it unremarkable; just room temperature fatty shredded meat to spread, awkwardly, on toast.

But still, I read and re-read the recipes. I plotted my path to obtain the ingredients (this being my first charcuterie effort as a part-time resident of the city of New York). I did a little research.

Hmmm…. did you know that confit is simply a term that means immersing meat or produce in a substance for preservation or flavor. Fruit can be confit-ed by cooking in sugar or honey, vinegar and water, similar to a jam. I have unknowingly confit-ed roasted peppers and tomatoes in olive oil to preserve them for a bit longer than their brief shelf life in raw form. And now, I can say, I have confit-ed duck.

It was so easy. And tasty.

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I figured that the most time intensive part of this effort – which simply involved mostly passive cooking – would be finding the ingredients. I hoped to source my protein from the Union Square Farmer’s Market but figured that I might have to venture further afield for the fat. In the spirit of confit, I planned to buy whatever meat looked good – and was not extravagantly expensive. However, that I would be making duck confit was decided as soon as I walked into the square and met Matthew from Hudson Valley Duck Farm. I told him of my confit aspirations and asked his advice. It was easy he said, just cook the legs low and slow in the smallest pot in which they would fit in a single layer.

“I don’t need extra fat?” I asked.

“You’ll end up with more than enough when you are done cooking these legs,” he assured. He also added that I could salt and season them at least overnight – but if I wanted to let them sit in the fridge for up to a week, tightly wrapped in plastic, the flavor would only improve.

In the end I seasoned the two legs I purchased from Matthew with about a tablespoon each of salt and herbes de provence and wrapped them in plastic for three days.

On day three I washed and patted the legs dry, and then arranged them skin side down in a smallish oven-proof sauce pan. I baked them for about three hours at 200 degrees, and then took the top off and finished it off for another twenty minutes or so. The fat was beautiful, golden-tinged and clear while the meat was beginning to roast, but was still tender. The fat was not completely covering the meat, as I imagined it might by the recipe instructions. Was this still confit, I wondered?

I poured the fat into a half quart canning jar, and then, when the legs were cool enough to handle, I separated them and added them to the fat. They meat fell apart in my hands and I couldn’t resist taking a taste. It was fatty and unctuous, perfectly roasted and tender. The two legs, including the rendered fat, but after discarding the rest of the skin, perfectly filled one canning jar. I made sure the meat was covered in fat and then let it sit on the counter for the next two hours before dinner.

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For dinner, I picked up a strong semi-soft cheese that I thought would go well with the confit, and a loaf of fig bread from a local artisanal bakery. At home, I had perfectly ripe tomatoes from a previous farmer’s market excursion that needed to be eaten, and made a salad of them with basil from my front patio. My husband, Steve, opened a bottle of a bordeaux-style red wine. And we ate.

It was just meat in a mug of fat, as Steve pointed out, but it was delicate and flavorful. The confit held up well to strong cheese and wine, but on its own with just the fig bread, the meat’s sweetness shone. We ate not quite half of the jar, and I capped it and placed the rest in the refrigerator, despite my (relative) comfort that it was shelf-stable. I marveled at the simplicity of preserved meat in a jar, whose roots can be traced to the time of the Renaissance in rustic southern France. I may not have been able to picture confit before that afternoon, but I know to which standard I will hold all others.

 

Small Town Farmer’s Market & Freezing Peaches

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I was visiting my hometown of Fredonia, New York for a few days that finally, for the first time, coincided with the new local farmer’s market. That this farmer’s market is only two summers old is worth noting, as Fredonia is home of the first Grange in the United States (location, about three blocks from the shot above). Sure, this area has always been known for its agriculture, and road-side farm stands have long been offering local produce (and sometimes, produce from far away as well, but that’s another story), but the local farmer’s market represents, I believe, a shift in the way that my hometown neighbors think about where their food is from.

When I was young we often frequented the road-side stands during the summer and fall (I most vividly remember choosing ears of sweet, perfectly ripe corn) in addition to the tomatoes, zucchini, raspberries and other surplus items Nani or Grandma handed off when we visited. The farm stands were easy –  we passed a half dozen on the road that led from my childhood home to the closest town center – and the produce was at the peak of ripeness. OF COURSE we would buy from the local farmer who had harvested that morning rather than buying corn from the supermarket, with its browning silk and dry husks.

When and why did this mentality change? I wonder. Because about the same time I moved out as an adult, first for college and then to a big city eight hours away, my grandmother’s garden began to shrink and the supermarkets grew. Lives got busier. There were fewer mouths to feed. The big grocery stores just made shopping so convenient.

I see now that my urban gardening efforts were influenced by my small-town agrarian upbringing: the idea that we only ate corn in the summer because that was the only time it was available (other than in cans). I started growing things to recapture those flavors; my appreciation for the environmental, economic and health benefits came later. And I would like to think that my efforts helped to inspire my parents to both, separately, re-incorporate local and seasonal produce and products into their diets.

Not that I can take all of the credit. My efforts were followed by a societal (re)surgence of farmer’s markets, organic growing practices and general thoughtfulness about where one’s food came from. I saw more local (to my hometown) farms go organic and stores open – despite the tough economy – that offered locally grown, processed and produced food items. And, perhaps most telling, the new Saturday farmer’s market in the town square was crowded (I’ve been told) from June to October.

I went for the first time this past weekend. My mom and I walked, thinking we would just pick up some corn and maybe some fruit. My aunt had more zucchini than she could ever eat and had recently given my mother several large ones. Her neighbor also uses part of her land to garden and regularly offers up eggplant, peppers and tomatoes. But when we saw these large, fragrant and perfectly ripe peaches my mother insisted we get them.

“Do I have to can them?” she asked. Neither of us relished a few hours in a steamy kitchen during the particularly humid weekend. I told her that I froze my peaches in zip-top bags and would break off pieces for smoothies.

“Perfect. That’s what we’ll do.”

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We brought home an overflowing eight-quart basket and washed and peeled the fruit. The ripest we sliced and ate right away. My mother made a peach crisp with others and we doused some fresh ones in lime juice (for flavor and preservation purposes) and served them for breakfast the next day. The rest we put into bags that we just barely topped with local apple cider that we had bought at the farmer’s market as well to add acidity to improve the preservation of color and texture. Apple juice would have been preferable, but the spicing of this cider was pretty mild and wouldn’t affect the peach flavor much.

 

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We sealed them, squeezing as much of the air out as possible and then laid them flat to freeze. Perhaps, for the first time ever, my mother won’t have to buy a peach from the grocery store all winter long.

 

 

On Garlic and Patience

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It was a banner year for garlic, in my garden anyway. Not that planting garlic is ostensibly hard – really the only thing to consider is timing: when the cloves go in and when to harvest. Yet despite that it has taken me three years to get a good crop. The first year was, well, a non-effort. I decided in the spring that I wanted to plant garlic along with my tomatoes, basil and lettuce. Why it never occurred to me to plant garlic earlier in my decade of urban gardening, I don’t know. It seemed… hard for some reason. There’s something comforting about watching plants grow bigger and taller; the ability to see the fruits widen and ripen seems like half the pay-off of a tiny urban plot. And the garlic itself seemed to yield no clues as to how it was grown. Add another item to my embarrassing list of food I had been eating all of my life (I am Italian after all) of which I could not picture how it grew. Even my first garlic scapes – a bag full in my first CSA seven years ago now – did little to shed light on this process. Although, like most of us, I really didn’t give it much thought.

That is until I continued to hone the mix of vegetables in my community garden. I received great advice: grow what you always want more of. Thus the dozen tomato plants and tons of herbs. After paying upwards of two dollars for a head of garlic (a delicious, yet very tiny head), I realized that I should start growing my own. So when I was ordering my seeds in the depths of winter, I tried to look for garlic seeds as well. Yes, well, these don’t exist. At least not in the way that other seeds do. Instead, as a kind friend gently advised, I should plant whole cloves in late fall for garlic the following year. Sadly, I resigned myself to wait another season.

That fall my husband was designated the garlic-planter. I had a crazy week at work and the days were too short to plant in the evening. A freeze was coming after a mild autumn, so he would have to take over the duties. It hadn’t occurred to me that he had never before been set loose on the garden without supervision. The next spring little sprouts of green could be found in random patches around the plot. Some had been planted so deep that they were preserved in the coolness of the dirt and I upturned them with my trowel at various moments throughout the summer, their shoots never finding their way to the sunlight. I wasn’t sure when to harvest them, so I waited until the tops had gone completely brown – perhaps waited a bit too long as some tops had disappeared, leaving no marker for where the jewel of garlic could be found beneath the soil. Our first harvest was little more than a dozen heads, which I dried in the sun for a few days and then braided, hanging the two tails from a bent nail in my basement.

Last year I was determined to get my garlic in the ground by late fall (but not too late) and plant them in neat rows. I had maybe ten heads of garlic to plant and hoped to increase my harvest five times that.

Come spring, I was thrilled to see their little green shoots pushing through the dirt well before last frost. A few months later, their stalks were tall and green, although no scapes emerged. My plot neighbor’s garlic had beautiful pigtails and were taller, more robust looking. Had I done something wrong again, I wondered? When she harvested, I pulled up one head. Still green. I would wait.

If there is one thing I have learned from my garden it is patience. Patience to wait until next year to remember to plant the peas sooner or mulch the carrots better. Patience to wait to plant the tomato seedlings just a few more days in case of frost. Patience to give that pepper – my only pepper, I’ve never been good with peppers – another week of sunshine before plucking from the stalk.

And so I gave my garlic another week. And then a week more. My neighbor had long since dried hers and had added some to stir fries and long made pesto with the scapes. A few scapes did finally emerge – I found out that only some varieties of garlic produce them, which made me wonder if these scaped crusaders were leftovers from the season before – and the stalks widened just a bit more.

Then finally, after ignoring the garden for nearly a week, allowing mother nature to do my watering for me, I returned. The garlic stalks were dying back. The few scapes had flowered and then gone to seed. It was time to harvest.

I took a small shovel and dug around each one, giving a full six inches of space or more to lift the dirt around the head and not slice through it. I stacked them up as I dug around the perimeter of the garden, where I had planted them as a border on two sides. They totaled fifty heads when I was done. It had taken nearly three years of trying but I had finally grown fifty beautiful, perfect heads of garlic. My patience was rewarded.