Monday, August 27, 2007

HHDD #14: The Roundup and Voting

The gnocchi are in! The roundup for this month's Hay Hay It's Donna Day event is posted at Cafe Lynnylu. The guidelines for voting for a winner are here.

I enjoyed this blogging event a lot. Both my original meal and the leftovers were successful dishes in our house.

It's Berry Season!

I am a somewhat obsessive berry picker. Today, for example, we stopped so I could take a picture of some taiga-like landscape, but I happened to notice that there were a lot of bear berries. Or bog cranberries. We were in disagreement about just what they were. I picked them anyway. They were gorgeous. They were tasty. They were berries. What more do I need? Most of my berry picking obsession has focused on the blueberries to this point, of course. In addition to all the berries we've eaten (certainly thousands...tens of thousands??), I've got a gallon and a half in the freezer for the winter. I'd love to have double that, but the blueberries came in early and I missed some of the best picking. I resorted to mixed-berry picking over the weekend, getting two quarts of mixed blueberries, crow berries, and cranberries.

One of my favorite ways to eat blueberries (other than in a big, fat bowl with cream, still warm from the sun) is in a crisp. I often make individual ones like this lovely beast that joined us for Scrabble last week. The topping is pretty much 1:1:2:2 flour:oatmeal:brown sugar:butter, with pinches of salt and baking powder, and a hefty bit of cinnamon and coriander (still thanking the HHDD sorbet round that I didn't enter for that one; one of the flavor combos I tried was blueberry and coriander and it's a huge winner).

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Back to Normal Weather and Thoughts of Scurvy

We had a week of summer. Glorious, sunny days in the low-70s. Sunshine blazing through my windows during what is usually the wettest month here in Isolationville. It was a treat. It was a trick. Overnight, our weather reverted to normal, with gray, wet skies and winds gusting above 40 mph. Ah, well, it was lovely while it lasted, and we took advantage with nice cool meals like cold sesame noodles with snow pea salad.

Tonight, however, soup was on the menu. Sopa de lima, to be exact, from the Sundays at Moosewood cookbook. I love this soup. I like the freshness of the tomatoes and lime, the soggy crunch of the tortilla chips (or strips of fried tortilla, which is what I usually do), the richness of the avocado. It all mingles in the bowl so amiably. We had some grated pepperjack and a few sprigs of windowsill cilantro to finish off the toppings.

When I first moved to Isolationville, deep in the throes of the coldest winter in a couple decades, I made the mistake of reading a collection of journals from ships trying to find the northwest passage (a previously mythical sea-route across the top of the North American continent; with global warming, it may soon be a reality almost year-round). The bravest (or foolhardiest, depending on your perspective) of the explorers ended up caught in ice at the end of the summer, doomed to spend the winter in a giant ice cube with diminishing supplies and no way out. Many of those crews succumbed to scurvy, and as I read these accounts, I started to crave oranges and tomatoes and limes.

It made perfect sense: I was in a land of darkness for much of the day, surrounded by piles of snow, with no escape route, and the produce section of our small store left much to be desired. They did carry citrus. I will have to admit that up front. Husband made fun of me, claiming that "nobody gets scurvy anymore."

Oh, really?

Just in time for me to score a major debating victory, the NYTimes Sunday Magazine printed one of their occasional "medical mystery" columns and the mystery illness was scurvy! A modern case of scurvy, not in some northern hinterland, but in the Bronx. I felt vindicated!

With this lovely soup, however, even I don't worry about getting scurvy:

Sopa de Lima (Sundays at Moosewood, page 455)

1 cup chopped onion
4 large cloves of garlic, minced
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 or 2 chiles, minced
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
3 1/2 cups chopped fresh tomato (here in Isolationville, I use a can of crushed and a can of diced tomatoes instead of fresh)
3 cups vegetable stock
1/3 cup fresh-squeezed lime juice
salt to taste

In a medium pot, saute the onions and garlic in oil until the onions are translucent. Add the chiles, cumin, and oregano, and saute a few more minutes. Add the chopped tomatoes and sprinkle with a little salt. Cover the pot and cook gently until the tomatoes begin to release the juices. Stir occasionally. Add the stock and simmer, covered, for about 15 minutes. Add the lime juice and salt to taste.

Serve topped with grated cheese and crumbled tortilla chips. Garnish with finely chopped cilantro, if desired. (I usually serve it with cubes of avocado and lime wedges as well.)

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Leftovers Are Beautiful, Too

My leftover gnocchi went to good use, as planned. For lunch the day after I made them, I sauteed half a red onion and red pepper flakes in some olive oil until they were just barely starting to turn brown. Then I added capers and the gnocchi and tossed for a few minutes. I had planned to stop there, but the gnocchi started sticking to the pan a little before they were hot, so I drizzled in enough cream to prevent such silliness. And then I remembered that I hadn't used quite all the buttered crumbs from the night before, so we had those as a little crunchy topper. All very yummy.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Apple Tacos -- Who Knew?

We've been having what qualifies as a heat wave here in Isolationville. It's been all the way in the 70s, with abundant sunshine and calm winds. Our wall o' windows ensures that our house gets very warm without diligent heat management through blind closures and window openings changing throughout the day.

And so, I've been inspired to cook summery foods. There isn't a lot of call for them around here, so I'll take what I can get. Lunch the past two days has consisted of edamame salad with a toasted sesame dressing and spicy sesame noodles. The leftovers made today a lot easier than it would have been otherwise. For dinner tonight, I'd planned tacos thinking to use up the last of the tomatillos from my birthday package. Things did not go quite as planned.

I set my tofu to drain, because I didn't feel like thawing out some Gimme Lean ground beef style even if we do, indeed, still have a package of it in the deep freeze. I'm not convinced that we do anyway. My brilliant plan was to coat small pieces of tofu in a combination of taco seasoning, flour, and nutritional yeast and fry it to a crispy goodness. That part worked. The part that didn't work was the salsa I'd planned to go with it. I was thinking tomatillos, cilantro (from my flower pot in the window), green chile, lime, and either green or red onion, depending on my mood when I got to that bit. But when I opened up the tupperware, I found that I'd left only three small tomatillos. Clearly, not enough for a salsa fresca.

I started poking around the kitchen and pantry. My first thought was to just use my fresh ingredients to liven up a can of Herdez salsa verde. It could have worked. But then I spied the green apples hanging out by the sink and thought, why the heck not. I could see nothing about a granny smith that didn't go with the rest of my planned ingredients.

So that's what we had. Lovely, crisp-fried taco tofu, shredded cabbage, and an apple-tomatillo salsa on hot corn tortillas. I went with the red onion, mostly for color, and the whole thing worked surprisingly well. I'd make it again. I think.

Monday, August 6, 2007

HHDD # 14: Smoked Salmon Gnocchi

My first introduction to food blogging events was supposed to be the HHDD that featured sorbet, but I just didn't get my act together. I've managed a few others, but I'm very pleased to present my very first attempt at gnocchi for this month's event hosted by cafelynnylu.

When I read the announcement, I tried to think of some flavor combinations that would be appropriate for Isolationville. I've never made gnocchi before and didn't want to mess with the basic recipe too much, so I decided to stick with savory so I didn't have to worry about swapping out the parmesan. Given that we're still up to our hips in salmon, I decided to work with that. I had a very small piece of traditionally smoked/dried salmon left.

The texture and flavor of this particular smoked beauty (and yes, that's a little scale in the corner of the picture) lie somewhere in the realm where shoe leather, bacon, salmon, and smoke all come together. It's not for the faint of heart and a little goes a long way.

I shredded it finely for the gnocchi, knowing that the oils would seep through the dough nicely and spread the wealth of smoky goodness. I ended up with about a half a cup. I had some troubles with the dough. It was so wet as to be unworkable, no matter how much flour I put on the board. So I dumped it back into the bowl and added another 1/3 cup of flour. It was still wet, but barely workable, so I rolled out my worms of dough.

They weren't the prettiest of creatures, but they got the job done. I had made a cream sauce, very simple, by reducing to half the original volume 3/4 cup of wine with the zest of about half a lemon (it's what I had; Isolationville's store didn't have any for sale). I added a cup of heated heavy cream and reduced that a little before seasoning it with salt, black pepper, and crushed red pepper. Once half the gnocchi were boiled, I puddled a little sauce into each of two soup plates, spooned in the gnocchi straight from the pot, topped them with more sauce and buttered, toasted bread crumbs, and popped them into the oven for about fifteen minutes, to let everything get hot and bubbly.

It was delicious. Husband's comment after his first bite was, "I could eat a lot of these!"

This was my first bite. Creamy, dense, and crunchy; a true stick-to-your-ribs dinner. Although we ate quite early, and the portions weren't enormous, neither of us got hungry later. A bonus of this whole exercise is that half the gnocchi are still left! I had practice from the first half, and so managed to make the second set a little more presentable. I think they will be our lunch, reheated through a quick saute with red onion slivers and capers, a sort of deconstructed smoked salmon bagel.

Ok, so they're still not the fat, grooved cocoons that are store-bought gnocchi, but they're cute. They remind me of undercooked peanut butter cookies, only smaller. And with smoked salmon bits. I had a lot of fun with this event and got two good meals out of it, so I'm happy all around.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Birthdays Are Grand

My birthday was a few weeks ago now, and one of my belated birthday presents was a box of produce from my ever-understanding sister. Two luscious tomatoes, full of the sun and heat that are so missing from Isolationville's "summer". Blue potatoes, tomatillos, chiles...oh, she's a good sister.

The fate of the tomatillos was a given: fish tacos. I know I recently posted a photo of our Fourth of July fish tacos, but they were deficient in a number of ways. Chief among the defects was the lack of tomatillos for the cilantro-sour cream salsa. Last night, we fixed that problem. Into a small pan went tomatillos, whole garlic cloves, a jalapeno, and two green onions. These got a short simmer and then a trip into the container for my stick blender. The second blending was the juice of a lime and a big bunch of cilantro. Both blended batches then joined some sour cream in a bowl.

Simple pleasures: hot corn tortillas filled with simply pan fried tilapia, shredded cabbage, and cilantro-sour cream salsa. Crunch, juiciness, and an explosion of flavor.

Thursday, August 2, 2007

I'm A Gatherer

I've never really thought of gardening or picking wild berries as an atavistic exercise in getting back to my Pleistocene or Neolithic roots before I read the following two paragraphs in The Omnivore's Dilemma, but the thought tickles me:

Playing at self-reliance takes different forms in different people, and you can probably tell a lot about a person by his choice of atavism: whether he's drawn to the patient and solitary attentiveness of fishing, the strict mathematical syntax of building, the emotional drama of the hunt, or the mostly comic dialogue with other species that unfolds in the garden. Most of us have a pretty good idea which of these jobs we'd try for if somehow a time machine were to plunk us down in the Pleistocene or Neolithic.

At least until my adventures in hunting and gathering, I'd always thought of myself as a Neolithic kind of guy. Growing food has been my atavism of choice since I was ten years old, when I planted a "farm" in my parents' suburban yard and set up a farm stand patronized, pretty much exclusively, by my mother. The mysteries of germination and flowering and fruiting engaged me from an early age, and the fact that by planting and working an ordinary patch of dirt you could in a few months' time harvest things of taste and value was, for me, nature's most enduring astonishment. It still is.

Michael Pollan, The Omnivore's Dilemma, pages 364-365

The academic in me argues that being a "Neolithic kind of guy" does not restrict one to just gardening/farming. Plenty of "Neolithic guys", including many today, live not by hoe alone, but supplement with hunting and gathering of wild meat and plant foods.

That aside, I'm most definitely a gatherer at heart. It's a bit strange that I feel so content in that conviction, because I garden whenever I can (even in my Isolationville garage these days) and I was, for a couple years, a market gardener. I also study farming on many different levels, in many different times and places.

But still. I'm a gatherer.

The joy of feeling a hard lump in the sand, of knowing that a big, fat quahog lies there beneath my toes. The frantic sensation of standing in the middle of square miles of tundra, understanding that no matter how long I pick, I can never pick even a significant fraction of the billions of blueberries that surround me. The moment, as Pollan puts it, when I get my eye on, and morels jump out at me from the leaf litter and I can almost taste the mushroom tart they will become.

My heart also sings when I see seed leaves emerging from the soil, knowing that I put the seeds there, I gave them water and nutrients, and they grew. There is magic in agriculture.

For me, though, there is a greater magic in harvesting what no person produced. It makes me feel natural, in the same way as nursing my daughter makes me feel mammal. I was designed for this: for picking out the color and shape of the berries against the fall-purpled tundra, for kneeling amongst the hummocky wetness, using my opposable thumbs to pluck the berries from their branches, even for being able to make and carry containers to hold the berries as I pick.

It's much more than a feeling of getting something for nothing. There's an innate rightness about collecting food from nature. Gathering wild foods connects me more directly to the natural world than almost anything else I do, other than simply exist. The distance between the sun's energy and me is short, and the path it took between us direct.

For all the pitfalls of living in Isolationville, it does provide many opportunities for foraging from nature. Even the salmon are gathered here more than anything else. When there are millions of them, very literally, you don't exactly have to hunt for them. There may not be many green edible things around here, but there's plenty of protein, fat, and carbohydrates nonetheless.

Isolationville is a good place to be a gatherer (and a hunter, too, I should admit; just because I don't eat our furry friends doesn't mean they aren't here in abundance). Just lucky my avatar isn't an addicted gardener. Then, I'd be in trouble.