Monday, 23 November 2009

Earlier, again.

Earlier in the season, when I was canning like a good Southern wife, Susanna lent me a cookbook.

We had been sitting on the tractor together all morning and into the afternoon, tossing green grapes and raisins out of the endless ton-bins resting on the red tractors. We talked about traveling, languages, and fruit - and kept circling back to pectin. I was disappointed that my first batch of pinot noir jelly (made from the very fruit we were sorting through) had been more of a syrup than something spreadable. The next day, Susanna brought me the solution: ten pounds of sour apples from her backyard.

She also brought me a cookbook. From the 50's, the previously red cover had faded to the pinkish brown of dying roses. The pages cracked as I turned them, revealing other small pieces of paper that Susanna had tucked in as notes to herself.

Although I was focused on pectin, of course I looked through the rest of the recipes: watermelon rind pickles, quince chutneys, citrus marmelades, spiced meat concoctions.

A few of my favorites:

Honey Rose Petal Preserve -
Pick the petals from fresh sweet roses gathered after the dew has dried off...


Tongue in Fat -
Cook tongue by any recipe. Pack in fat. Store in a crock or large glass jar.

The book was obviously assuming a level of expertise concerning the proper treatment of tongue that I was unfamiliar with, but regardless, it was great. If only I had a calf's foot, and I could have experimented with Calf's Foot Jelly.

Alas, I had apples and herbs. Rose Geranium, to be precise. An herb also included in certain special absinthe recipes that I'm known to be rather fond of.

So instead of plucking pink rose petals, I sliced sour apples, boiled them down with their cores and stems, and arrived at a final few cups of apple juice. Mixed with sugar, boiled down to a thick jelly, and then with a final infusion of fresh rose geranium leaves swirled into the sugar substance, I had a rose geranium jelly. Slightly tart, with an herbacious yet still floral, and yes, rose-like quality, the jelly spread across our morning toast quite nicely, and even held it's appropriate jelly form.

If you stumble upon a calf's foot or a loose tongue, feel free to share the knowledge.

Rose Geranium Jelly
note: can be made with any number of herbs. lemon verbena would be delicious, or you could lean towards something to go with more savory fare, like rosemary, mint, or thyme.

sour apples

Take your apples. You may have five pounds, you may have ten. Chop them roughly, taking no care to remove cores. In fact, cores are essential.

Put them in a large pot over medium heat. Cover. Let cook down for about an hour. The apples should be completely broken down.

Strain. Reserve solids (minus seeds) for applesauce, if you like. Measure juice.

Return juice to stove. In a ratio of 2:1, juice to sugar, add sugar. Boil gently until mixture sheets off the back of a spoon. Turn off heat.

Add herbs to heated juice. Swirl for 30 seconds to five minutes, depending on how strong you want the flavor. Taste. Return to heat, return to boil.

Pour into prepared jars, seal, and process in a hot water bath.

Monday, 16 November 2009

fruit, meat, and eating it all.

There is something about trading "have you eaten stories" that will never cease to tire me. Listed like battle scars, or better yet, victories, these stories vary in their level of what I would call obvious excitement, but always hold something important for the teller of the story. For instance, there was the friend who was so proud to have finally eaten fish off the bone instead of fishsticks - not mind-blowing for all of us, but for her, a step in the right direction. And then their was the other friend who couldn't get enough roasted chicken feet to satisfy.

It's all relative.

Generally, it's the more exotic stories that I like to hear: alligator stews, rattlesnake bbq, yak yogurt, salted the end, it seems like flavors are the, but the question of taste is secondary to the excitement of that daring moment of consumption.

My own roster of exciting foods has grown over the years, beginning with my first chicken livers tossed into a French salad, and most recently ending with a spoonful of lamb brains.

But I'll come back to that. First, I wanted to mention Peru.

A few years ago, I spent a goodly chunk of time tramping around the jungle, teaching English, testing kids for malaria, planning reforestation projects, and visiting local health clinics with an organization called APECA that operated out of a few small boats running up and down tributaries of the Amazon River. I wrote lengthy emails home that were circulate among family and friends, and instead of rehashing, I thought I would share a bit of one here. It concerns masato, a drink made from fermented fruit-flavored saliva, and also delves into some of the other jungle excitement I got myself into.

This particular day, we had spent the afternoon on a lake, the entrance to which had been allowed to seal with tree branch growth to keep out the larger boats of commercial fishermen. In our small four person motorboat, we spent over an hour hacking at branches and vines with machetes to clear a path to the lake. APECA was planning a rainfall catchment project there, and while Pablo, an Amazonian native, talked details with high-ranking villagers, I was fed snacks by one of the families. The following are two short unedited excerpts from my 19 year old mind:

In exchange for a few soles, we were served a grape nut like substance made from ground yucca, the woody fruit pihuayu to be skinned and dipped into a pile of salt, and also big bowls of pihuayu masato. Yes, masato, the spit drink. I tried it, finally or unfortunately or thankfully I have no idea, but I had to! This grandma had made it. I have a very clear picture in my mind of her sitting on the edge of her rocky porch in the afternoon sun, swatting bugs and chewing the bright yellow fruit for hours, spitting whenever she has a good glob in her cheek of saliva, then shoving some more fruit in to keep the fountain going. There was a huge bucket of this thick yellow liquid, which, in this case, had been boiled.
Pablo seemed to think that since it was boiled, no problem! That solves every qualm, apparently. But it is still a bowlful of spit that I drank from, cautiously but curiously. Well, it didn’t taste like much, it hadn’t been fermented for very long so it had yet to turn very alcoholic, and was mostly like a salty fruit juice.
As I downed yellow spit and chewed on Amazon grapenuts, there was action going on around me. Pablo was looking over a gutted armadillo, which was sitting in a big plastic bowl on the porch next to where the babies were playing. Intestines all attached but hanging strangely, its trunk long and bent around its jellied body. Dinner....

...Returning, we found a fish waiting for us. Earlier in the morning Pablo had bought a live giant catfish, pregnant with a full belly of eggs, to be put into one of the ponds. A new fish colony. While we were gone, somehow it didn’t get into the water soon enough, and it died before it even hit the pond’s surface. Nothing left to do but cut it up for dinner. Chicle, the compound caretaker, brought up the fish, hanging from his shoulder to his knees, presenting it tragically but eagerly (thinking maybe he’d get some). Two of his kids followed him up, excited for the action.
Whiskers like half cooked spaghetti, a pristine white belly, black spots fading to a dark gray back. Smack it down on the counter, get out the biggest knife, plunge it into its middle, sawing straight through for circular chunks of bleeding fish flesh. I watched, fascinated and totally nauseated. I could never even watch the dissections of worms in middle school, so as I stood in the hot little El Fundo kitchen I was proud of myself that not only were my eyes glued to this atrocious sight, but I wasn’t vomiting all over myself. Red fish blood leaked all over Pablo’s hands, and splattered against the walls and the small machete was brought up into the air, then swiftly down to break the thick spine. Slicing through the juicy skin, sawing through the cracking bones, and cutting through the delicate egg sacks. The children were rewarded with a large piece of meat, the twelve year old boy having helped hold the fish steady as the hacking took place. The fish showed up in every meal we ate from then on.
Chilicano for breakfast (a thin, simple fish soup that is easy and popular), fried fish for lunch, grilled in a bijao leaf for dinner. Even the boney head showed up one night, bigger than a plate, overflowing with rice off the edges. I just wondered where the whiskers had gone.

Of course, not every meal in Peru was like this. Plenty of boiled plantains and plain white rice graced our plates, and there were also things that I refused to eat, like turtle eggs and the infamous monkey soup. But it was eye opening, in the sense that if something showed up on my plate, and we were sitting with a group of villagers, our meal lit dimly by a fading sun, the mosquitoes beginning to swarm around my painfully pale skin, there was never the question about whether I should eat it or not. There was no asking the timid question: um, can you tell me about this food please?

Once I tried. We had been eating a salty meat for days on end. No recognizable body parts showed themselves, just chewy meat and chewier gristle clinging to chunks of bone. When I asked for some kind of an idea as to what animal I was eating, the closest description I could extract from anyone was "jungle beast."

Which brings me back to another primal experience I had this past weekend, in a place much closer to that which I call home. A meat festival in Napa county, and lamb brains. Scooped from the head. The head sitting close to its neighbors, charring nicely on an open flame. The eyeballs, intact yet jellified, staring at me from above the bony jawline filled with teeth.

Imagine a custard. A pot de creme, perhaps. Make it savory. A bit salty, almost. A delicate meatiness to it. And a squirt of lemon to cut through a slightly cloying richness. That is my newest story of a lamb brain scooped straight from the scull. Frighteningly delicious.

Monday, 2 November 2009

artemisia absinthium and the green fairie

A green brew that clouds as cool water swirls through...a drink that has been said to rot the mind, be the cause of wife-killing, and birth small flying muses...the subject of innumerable French paintings...Absinthe is elusive, delicious, and time consuming, both in the time it takes to prepare and the time it invites to enjoy in its layers of complex herbal flavors.

This weekend, I had the opportunity to witness and partake in the distillation of absinthe with a neighbor who produces small quantities from her garden with the help of a beautiful portugese still.

It began with hyssop, lemon balm, and wormwood (above), the three predominant herbs in the concoction. The herbs had been macerating (below) for five weeks, stewing in an organic grape alcohol as the cooling fall weather descended.

After tasting a bit of the pre-stilled liquid, the herbs and liquid alike we stuffed into the basin of the copper still.

Fitted with a fanciful hat and attached to a coil of tubes twisted through tepid water, the still was set above a bright flame.

Star anise, coriander seed, and anise seed disappeared into the still, mingling with the wormwood, lemon balm, and hyssop as the flame rose around the edges of the swollen basin.

We watched as the first drops left the copper tube, slowly at first, then faster as they spilled into a clear jar with a steady rhythm.

Before long, several jars were filled with a pristine liquid that burned the nostrils at first scent, and then, with only a drop or two, swept through the mouth, spreading like a bitter green cloud, clinging to the back of the tongue and tingling the insides of our cheeks.

Kathmandu, a black kitty with a keen sense of herbal balance, surveyed our progress.

As the new absinthe trickled into the jar, we read about wormwood: how it soothes the nerves, stimulates digestion and appetite, and is said to aid with depression, arthritis, and restlessness. And then, we surveyed the second maceration from a previous batch.

After the absinthe is distilled, is it divided between different jars, each of which is individually infused with a different herb. Above was a small amount soaking in dried anise seed. Lemon verbena and rose geranium also made appearances, lending their floral, bitter flavors and vibrant green color to different stages of infusions, before the final blending.

We also tasted a finished batch from earlier in the summer. Clean and refreshing, with a green bitter quality that tastes almost medicinal, while still maintaining a deliciousness that can only come from something prepared with attention to layers of flavor and aroma and quality.

Cool from ice water, brightening, and uplifting, we drank without the oft-employed sugar cube dissolved through a slotted silver spoon. Instead, we delighted in the herbal bitters and toasted the green fairie.