Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Glut and the Sea

Last week, I visited the San Juan Islands.

There was family, there were friends. There were ponds and oceans and boats and gardens. There were harbors and docks, slow mornings with bottomless cups of dandelion tea and evenings lying on blankets rolled onto thick, damp grass.

But most importantly, there was seafood. Overwhelming and glorious amounts of seafood.

We had oysters from Westcott bay, pried open with dull kitchen knives and served naked on bright blue plates. We had clams, tightly wound in their shells, then lured out by the seductive smells of curry powder, ginger, and coconut.

And finally, we had crab. Caught in the afternoon, boiled whole for 15 minutes with handfuls of rock salt in the evening. Shells that turned from dark purple to bright red when splashed into the outdoor pot large enough to hold upwards of 15 crabs at a time. Shells that split open cleanly, revealing lungs and a yellow "crab soup" that we spilled into the sink instead of drinking. Shells that cracked quickly under the wooden mallet, wielded deftly against each leg and claw before being they were tossed into large silver bowls.

Crab is a wonder creature. Direct from the sea and with simple preparation, it's a food that is not shy about showing you its origins: if you want claw meat, you crack open a claw. Brutally, and without fuss or hesitation. In other words, this is no unidentifiable mush-from-a-can operation. But once you reach past that initial squeamishness, little lovely bites await you behind each crackable limb. Sweet yet savory, fresh yet rich...indeed, a wonder.

I have this memory: my mother and me (perhaps 17 or so), at home. A crab to share, a perfectly crisp baguette, and a bottle of white wine. We sat in front of the television on old newspapers so as to not dribble crab juice on the carpet. The meal seemed so summery, and yet it was January, and raining outside. The whole evening was somehow separate than the rest of everyday life, as we ate with our fingers and spilled drops of wine on the newspaper. One shared crab was enough to satisfy.

Here in California, though I live just a few miles from the ocean, seafood seems so much more rare. On the island, the veritable glut of crab, clams, and oysters was dizzying and pulled me into the feeling that summer had finally arrived.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Ancient Rose: thorn and perfume

There is something reminiscent of childhood whim that is connected to eating flowers; I remember one of my first books, in which a small fairy wore bright nasturtiums for hats, and drank morning dew from the upturned bells of bluebonnets.

The truth is, flowers are often reserved solely for these whimseys and whiles. Roses, for instance: in my mind, they have always been something that would only be used for cooking purposes in say, Turkey. I imagine an ancient Arabian world, where scents of cardamom, rose, and ginger waft from brews simmering in large copper pots, stirred with wide, wooden ladles by wizened women.

My neighbor, who I have spoken before about here, is out to change that. With elderflower tinctures, candied violets, and rose hydrosols, flowers from her garden tiptoe quietly beyond their decorative role and clearly become something that should be integrated more in our daily lives.

A few weeks ago, she called me over to help her distill roses. Damask roses, specifically: a heritage varietal known for its potent and focused fragrance.

The rose bushes were overflowing. A veritable glut of fine, pink petals was spread across the table, and the still sat round and ready, waiting for the flowers to be tucked cosily inside. A flame, cool water to keep the metal tubes of the still from overheating, and a waiting jar were all that were needed for an afternoon of distillation.

What emerged in clear droplets from the mouth of the still was a liquid combining the bright scent of fresh pink petals with a fascinating a bitter component reminiscent of chewing on a tender green stem. Each drop tasted of the whole flower, as if a delicate bud had just been clipped from the bush and chewed on its own, without adornment or florish.

The gallon jar was filled with this potent rose water by the end of the afternoon. When the still had exhausted the energy of the roses, and the stream slowed to infrequent drops, we saw small pools of rose oil floating across the surface. This, my neighbor explained, could be skimmed off and bottled on its own, but she preferred to leave it to integrate with the water, adding further depth and perfume.

Later, I took a basket of roses home to make a rose syrup. Simmered with sugar, the roses leached a lovely color and strong fragrance. When tasted, the syrup had none of the whole-flower quality of the hydrosol, but rather tasted of candied petals. If the rose water seemed curative and healing with its pleasant bitterness, the syrup was the opposite: toothnumbingly sweet, intoxicating in beauty yet straightforward in its nod to the pure and simple loveliness of petals.

Cooking with the hydrosol and syrup is the next step. So far, time has led us to drinking: the water or the syrup stirred into lemonade, iced tea, bubble water....or even brought a notch more into the adult world when muddled with crisp gin and cucumber...

My neighbor tells me the rose is protective; open and lovely, yet always ready with sharp thorns. A model for combatting the unpredictable nature of a wild and rambunctious garden. Surely, this protection should not solely be reserved for fairies.