Friday, April 30, 2010

Seasonal

Have you noticed that you can get fresh summer squash in the winter? Asparagus in the fall? Tomatoes year round? Sure, they may not be at their most flavorful, but many of the fruits and vegetables that we used to think of as seasonal delicacies are now available throughout much of the year, thanks to international shipping and modern growing techniques. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, asparagus is one of my passions, but I'm finding I miss the rhythm of seasonal foods. Now, when I find items that are only available in their own time, I embrace them, savor them, remember what it must have been like to be in awe of an orange in the toe of your stocking on Christmas morning.

I was reminded of this recently on a trip to Boston's Haymarket, our year-round open air produce and fish market. It's changed dramatically in the 20 years I've been shopping there (and I'm sure you can find essays that extoll it's glorious past and reduced present) but I love it. Everyone comes there, every age, ethnicity and economic status. Barkers call out to you to buy their tomatoes or avocados or celery. You can see the seasonal shift more readily there, not only by the dramatic price changes that are often disguised at the supermarket, but by the wonders you can find in the stands.

On my last visit I happily bought asparagus and leeks, celery and parsley. Then I saw a stand with a display of lovely, small, green fuzzy things. I had no idea what they were. I asked the vendor who waved his English-speaking brother over. "Green almonds," he said. I asked him how to eat them and had nearly reached the limits of his English while I speak no Arabic. He cut one open and I saw a glistening, soft gem. "Boil in oil. With salt."  I couldn't resist, bought a pound and brought it home.

They are beautiful, clearly showing their kinship to peaches. The rind is soft and easy to cut and the seed inside doesn't need oil or salt or any addition beyond itself. They are pearl white, translucent and glistening when broken open, so very tender. It tastes of spring. It tastes green. It tastes of living earth and new life and the hope of a new year. It is the reminder of almonds as currency, as precious beyond compare, as the offering for a loved one or honored guest. I am in love, but I know this love is fleeting, because green almonds are utterly seasonal, gracing our tables for only a few weeks each year and infrequently found in New England.

The ephemeral nature of this love makes it all the more sweet and as my mouth fills with the personification of the scent of grass I savor the fleeting moment, the reminder that time passes and spring,  while brief, will come again.

(c) 2010 Laura S. Packer

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

What the world eats

In 2005 Peter Menzel published a book called What the World Eats that captured families and their intake for one day. It's an amazing look at culture, economy, family and health.

You can see some of the pictures from the book here. Every time I look at this I am struck by how wealthy, lucky and unhealthy Americans are.

What do you eat in a day?

(c) 2010 Laura S. Packer

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Cookbook addiction

I love cookbooks. As you can see, I buy far more cookbooks than my life realistically needs. I read them, ponder the recipes and commentary and consider their cultural context with great joy; when I find scribbled notes beside recipes or scraps of paper in used volumes it thrills me. What I don't tend to do is cook from them. This strikes me as kind of silly, a waste of paper and space.

It's time to change that. I'm going to explore some of these volumes, especially the older, odder ones, and record my adventures here. I look forward to some gloriously unpleasant dishes (because our gastronomic sensibilities in 2010 are not the same as they were in the 1940s - who boils broccoli for 30 minutes anymore?) and some gems. I hope you'll keep me company on the journey and let me know what you think. I'd like to thank my step-daughter, Cara, for the off-handed remark that led to this idea.

To start, let's take a look at my bookshelves. For a librarian's daughter, these are a shameful chaos, but each book has a reason for being there. Buried in here are:
  • three copies of Joy of Cooking 
    • the copy my mom obtained when she was in her 20s and gave to me when I moved out, so worn it no longer has a complete table of contents or an index
    • a slightly newer copy I bought at a yard sale so I could use the index
    • my husband's copy, newer still, brought into our home when we moved in together
  • binders and folders of recipes my mother-in-law collected over 50 years of cooking. I don't believe she used most of them
  • my grandmother's Jewish cookbook. I can't imagine she ever opened it
  • a stack of recipe cards from my great-aunt that include a startling array of uses for prunes
  • recipes my husband's grandmother cut out of the newspaper in the 1930s and '40s
  • many recipe booklets that came with appliances and goods (blenders, toasters, household ingredients) that I've collected over the years
  • guy cookbooks from my honey's single days
  • church and community fundraising cookbooks from around the country
  • gourmet and specialty cuisine cookbooks
and so on. I admit it. I have a problem with cookbooks. But boy, they are fun to read. And now I'll be cooking from them, too.

I look forward to your comments - does anyone else out there have a similar problem with cookbooks? I'd love to read your thoughts about cookbook addiction, cooking from obscure and forgotten tomes and more.

(c) 2010 Laura S. Packer

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Ritual and preparation

I don't know about you, but my life has been so busy lately that I've had little time to really think about the meals I've been cooking. Most are made simply and in haste. Okay, I have chicken breasts and a bottle of salsa. Great, that goes in the oven, chop up a salad and yup! dinner and leftovers for lunch. Whew!

While this is tasty and generally healthy (I'm trying to not eat like an idiot) I miss the time and attention cooking can take. The step-by-step nature of it. The linear acts that lead to completion. It's a comforting kind of ritual that binds me to patience, to time, to doing one thing at a time. We connect to ritual time in many ways (prayer, meditation, doing the same thing every day as get ready for work). I find it through cooking.

I had a chance to engage in this careful kind of cooking recently in honor of Passover. For those of you who may not know, the Passover Seder requires several ritual foods that are eaten in a specific order and that have specific meanings. There is also a meal served two-thirds of the way through that often has traditional elements.

The Seder plate includes, among other things, charoset (a sweet mixture of fruit, spices and wine), matzo, the sacrifice (a shank bone) and maror (bitter herbs). In the preparation of these three items I found my connection to ritual time again.

Charoset represents the mortar of the First Temple, that which holds Judaism together. It's also yummy. Chopped apples, nuts, a healthy splash of Manischewitz wine (very sweet stuff) and ton of cinammon. Mix it together and you have ritual sweetness. Mmmm. This year my step-daughter made the charoset; I talked her through the process and I was so aware of the generations of women smiling behind me as I passed this knowledge on. The crisp-thunk of the knife through the apple. A cloying sip of Manischewitz (I hate it, she loves it). The ancestral memory of spice routes as cinammon wfts through the kitchen. The richness of walnuts, modifying texture and taste. All tossed together to represent something greater than their whole.

The shank bone is roasted. I always admire the smallness of the joint and give thanks to the small, leaping animal who died so we did not, so we can remember how fortunate we are. As it roasts the house is filled with the scent of lamb, something rare and rich to my immigrant forebearers. I roast it until the flesh clings onto the bone as an afterthought, reminding us of the pain of this sacrifice. There is a midrash in which the angels sing when God kills the first born children as the last and most terrible of the ten plagues. God castigates the angels for singing, saying "They too are my children and my creation. Their depth is cause for weeping not for joy." And so the shank bone is a silent witness to sacrifice in the name of freedom.

And the last, maror, is my favorite moment of ritual time in preparation for Passover. The bitter herbs represent our bitterness over enslavement. I use horseradish. When I buy the root it's long, dirty, ragged with green tendrils. As I scrub away the soil then begin to peel it my eyes water over its pungency and I can't help but touch my tongue to its burning white. It always sears. I chop it as finely as I can. I ignore the salt tears that fall into the bowl. I imagine generations of grandmothers watching me in silent approval.

(c) 2010 Laura S. Packer