Saturday, October 16, 2004


Last night, looking around for a vegetable side dish for dinner, I came across two seemingly incongruent things: some thin, tender asparagus in the refrigerator, and a heavy, golden butternut squash sitting on the sideboard.

It is fall, of course, so it is hardly surprising that we have a few winter squash sitting on the sideboard. But on Tuesday, when S and I were at the grocery store preparing for H's coming-home dinner, he pointed out a big sale display of asparagus, for less than two dollars a pound. And it was not only cheap, it was also the pencil-thin, perfect asparagus that is usually the first really fresh vegetable in spring. And right next to the asparagus display, artichokes! For 99 cents each!

Then I remembered that this particular grocery store had really good-quality plums, nectarines and other summer fruit over the holidays last year, imported from Chile, and concluded that the asparagus must come from south of the equator, where it is of course spring now. And I remembered reading an article some time ago about how farmers in Peru are growing asparagus as an export crop — if I remember correctly, being encouraged to do so as an alternative to, um, cocaine production — and in the process undercutting the asparagus industry in Washington State.

Growing cash crops for export is always a bit of a dicey business for developing nations — brings in cash, but takes land out of local food production. Peasants starving for lack of food as they work on the coffee plantations, and so forth. Hell, not just developing nations — there was an article in our local newspaper a couple of months ago about how the farm workers who pick our fruits and vegetables here in the U.S. can't afford fresh fruits and vegetables for their own families, and thus suffer from all kinds of health problems. At least asparagus is edible; if the asparagus-export market ever collapses, Peruvian farmers won't be starving as the coffee beans rot on the bushes.

H, whose food-service career was far more dashing than mine, once worked in a German restaurant owned by a woman named IG. IG would not eat asparagus. She was a descendent of the German nobility, from a junker family in the eastern part of the country. At the end of WWII, when IG was a child, her family fled as common refugees from the advancing Soviet army, which was not known to be kind to nobles and Nazi sympathizers. For some period they had nothing to eat but asparagus.

But all the weight of globalization and history aside, it is sometimes nice to be able to have a dinner accompanied by both perfect, light steamed asparagus and thick, rich, hearty roasted squash.

Wednesday, October 13, 2004

As seen on tv

The mole sauce I made for H's welcome-home dinner last night was excellent. I have never made mole sauce before; all of the recipes I have seen have been so complicated as to be intimidating. But finding a good mole sauce at a restaurant in Vermont is sort of like, um, searching for great French cooking in rural Mississippi, so if we're going to ever have decent mole, I figured it would need to come from my kitchen.

What gave me the confidence to tackle this classic Mexican recipe was an invention that I otherwise loathe — the television. In my book, tv is good for only two things: PBS Kids (a godsend for harried parents, known in our house as "the electronic babysitter"), and PBS cooking shows. Every Saturday if I can, I make the kids play upstairs or outside, make some tea or pour a glass of wine, and plunk down to watch, at the very least, Rick Bayless's Mexico, One Plate at a Time, and sometimes others.

Bayless's show, which featured mole this past week, is my favorite because of its healthy blend of travelogue, sociology and cultural history &mdash it's not just the Great Chef In His Kitchen. Every episode includes a healthy does of Rick in his kitchen, demonstrating a few recipes, but it also usually features a trip to his extensive rooftop garden, and of course scenes shot on location in Mexico, more often than not including mouth-watering panoramas of beautiful produce stacked up in the markets. New Scandanavian Cooking is another favorite, its Norwegian chef a bit like a younger David Attenborough, always sounding slightly out of breath as he rows down fjords to collect mussels or climbs up onto glaciers to make ice cream in a hand-cranked machine.

Ironically enough, my fondness for cooking shows was triggered by the stomach flu. Years ago, when E was still quite small and S not yet conceived, I was laid low by that malicious disease that makes cooking and eating impossible, and renders the last taste in your mouth prior to its onset (in this case, green tea) a trigger of nausea for weeks or months to come. At that time, we still paid for "broadcast cable," which provided us with Canadian broadcast stations from Montreal as well as the ones we could actually receive on our antenna. Weakened and laying on the sofa all day, I eventually got bored enough to flip on the tv, which was tuned to CBC, and discovered The Urban Peasant, a CBC cooking show hosted by an affable middle-aged man named James Barber. Unlike the shows I now most like to watch, this one didn't feature any trips anywhere, but part of the appeal of the show was that all the recipes were simple and quick enough to be made during the actual duration of the show — there was no "and now let's look at a sauce that I have been simmering and reducing for two hours," and he actually chopped the onions, peeled the garlic, measured the flour on the show in front of your eyes. It's from this show that I learned how to cook green beans in a skillet.

I didn't need the simplicity of his recipes to convince me to start cooking, I was already doing that and enjoying it, but what that show communicated in a way that cookbooks have a very hard time doing was the sheer joy of being master of the kitchen, of proceeding with confidence, that options and substitutions are things that you can make on your own initiative, not just when the recipe gives you a multiple-choice. And that's how I came to make the mole.

Monday, October 11, 2004

Soup, beautiful soup

One of my strokes of culinary/literary/parenting genius has been "birthday soup." It comes from Maurice Sendak's "Little Bear" stories. In the story so named, it is Little Bear's birthday, but there is no evidence that anyone has made a cake for him. Finding "carrots, potatoes, peas and tomatoes" in the pantry, he decides that he can make "birthday soup" from these ingredients, and invites his friends over for some.

The kids like this story well enough that one night when H was working late, and I was casting around for something easy, kid-pleasing and nutritious to make for dinner, inspiration struck and I asked if they would like to help me make some Birthday Soup — though without the tomatoes (my family does not like tomatoes). I cut up the veggies, they put them into the pot and poured water over them, added some salt and pepper, and then I simmered it for 20-30 minutes or so. With the extra touch of a little olive oil drizzled over each bowl, a classic family recipe was born. The kids are so taken with it that they eat it happily without realizing that they are eating a dish made entirely from vegetables!

The making of Birthday Soup has turned into a little ritual around our house, one we re-enacted this past Saturday night. I ask the kids if they want to make it, or often enough they will ask me "Can we make Birthday Soup tonight?" We pretty much always have potatoes, carrots and frozen peas on hand, so it doesn't have to be planned for. I ask the kids what we need to make Birthday Soup, and they recite the four ingredients, then add "BUT NO TOMATOES!" in unison.

While H has been out of town, though, I've been on an off-kilter eating schedule, generally eating breakfast in the mid-morning, lunch in the mid-afternoon, and a late dinner after putting the kids to bed, allowing me to make nice adult meals for myself and things the kids will eat without argument for them. Inspired by the kids' choice of soup, I decided to make some minestrone on Saturday night.

It's been years since I've followed a recipe to make minestrone, relying instead on the genetic knowledge I've inherited from my ancestors. Since I have no Italian ancestry, this can sometimes be a dicey proposition. Nonetheless, many food historians maintain that the tradition of long-simmered stews ("peas porridge in the pot, nine days old") is strongest in Northern Europe, where wood for fires was plentiful and in the winter days were short and nights were cold. The sauté, on the other hand, is the more Mediterranean approach, conserving scarce fuel and minimizing heat in the kitchen with a quick application of high heat.

So with the onset of cool fall weather I spent Saturday night assembling a fine kettle of soup. I had no summery greens on hand, but plenty of sturdy cabbage for bulk, sweet carrots and onions, aromatic rosemary, and the nuclear-orange tomatoes we've been growing this year for flavor, and chicken stock and white wine for richness. The nutritional powerhouses of chickpeas (the term is, interestingly, an English corruption of the Italian "ceci") and red kidney beans anchored the soup, and since H is gone, I felt free to sprinkle in a fair number of red pepper flakes for heat.

I inadvertently made the minestrone Atkins-friendly, because I forgot to add the pasta. I am not a carb-avoidant person, and my idea of a healthy diet is probably best summed up by Rick Bayless: make food from the simple ingredients around the edges of the supermarket, don't eat the processed crap in the aisles, indulge in rich meals on a regular basis but balance them with simple, wholesome meals most of the time.

Fortunately, the soup turned out all right, and of course pasta left in leftover soup (and cooking for one, I had quite a few leftovers) will just soak up liquid and get soft, so it all worked out quite well. And eating a good bowl of soup, it is hard not to look back on your life up to that point which has culminated (for right now) in this fine bowl of warmth and goodness, and think, "this has all worked out quite well."

Friday, October 08, 2004

Pastures of plenty

I ate a whole eggplant the other night. It was a smallish one, cut lengthwise into four slices and broiled. I ate them on top of bruschetta, toasting some good artisan bread under the broiler, rubbing the bread with garlic, drizzling with oil, and then smashing half a tomato onto them to coat them with the pulp.

We have yet to suffer a killing frost, but it is unusual to have a growing season last this long around here, so everyone is nervously harvesting their capsicums and other nightshades, and trying to pawn the excess off onto neighbors, friends and co-workers. This is how I got the eggplant, along with a couple of jalapeños.

H has been out of town on a work assignment since Sunday, and while this facilitated consumption of the jalapeños (I am the only one in the house who likes spicy food), it has cut down on the family's ability to consume vegetables before they go bad. Prior to settling down with the eggplant bruschetta for dinner the other night, I had to go through the refrigerator on a search-and-destroy mission for rotting vegetables, and I found more than I would have liked.

I am a bit obsessive about not wasting food. My grandmother developed a certain neurosis about food during the Great Depression (she never abandoned the habit of stuffing sugar packets into her purse whenever she ate in a restaurant), and passed them along to my father, even though she raised him in a middle-class suburban home. My mother is from thrifty Yankee New England stock. And of everything I read in high school English classes, one of the images that made the greatest impression on me was the scene from Grapes of Wrath when piles of oranges are burned while people starve.

However, I grew up in a midsized Midwestern city, surrounded by agriculture but not around it, and the fields were full of industrial monocultures — corn, wheat, soybeans. The part of town I lived in was prosperous enough that gardening was more a hobby than a food source, and ran more to flowers than anything else. Living in Vermont now, surrounded by small-scale vegetable farms, some even inside the city limits, and folks who grow serious gardens because buying fresh vegetables at the supermarket strains their budgets, I have a new appreciation for the actual rhythms of the growing season, the natural cycles of scarcity and abundance, and harvest rituals like using pumpkins for holiday décor make a lot more sense.

Wednesday, October 06, 2004

Sustainability classes

Last night the kids and I attended an informational meeting at E's school about sustainability. A local environmental non-profit will be spending two years at E's elementary school helping to "integrate the concept of sustainability into the curriculum." Last night was the first public activity of the year, a presentation by the fifth grade classes about the work they have been doing building a database (I suppose because it needs to fit provide math "components" for the curriculum) about "Quality of Life" issues. Essentially, this means asking a group of people to brainstorm about positive things they want to see in their neighborhood, then doing the exercise where everyone gets three dots and gets to stick them next to different options, and then identifying which suggestions got the most dots. The fifth graders had already done this exercise in their own class, and then with the fourth graders, and last night they did it with the semi-random collection of adults who came to the presentation.

The first noticeable thing when I walked into the room was that everyone there, and all of the kids doing the presentation, were white. Our neighborhood, and especially the school, is definitely not all-white; white kids are probably a minority in E's kindergarten class. But of course, this is hardly surprising — I would have been more surprised (though certainly pleased) if the environmental non-profit in question had prioritized reaching out to kids and parents of color and especially the immigrant population and made a specific effort to include them.

I suppose they probably feel they made enough of a "diversity" effort by coming to our neighborhood school at all. The last two years they were doing this program at a much more suburban school in the same city. And I don't think their program of just asking everyone what positive improvements need to be made and then ranking them has translated very well.

The problem of course is that the problems faced by working-class people in our neighborhood are not only more serious and complicated than those faced by many middle-class folks, they are also bound up inextricably in the very functioning of capitalism. For example, a theme in many of the improvements suggested by the adults and actually prioritized by some of the kids was the need for our neighborhood to have stores which sell basic necessities at a reasonable cost and provide a decent living for those who work in them, instead of the rent-a-centers and used furniture stores and the occasional coffee shop for gentrifiers and such like that populate our business areas. Years ago we had a grocery store, a hardware store, a clothing store, but they were all driven out of business by the suburban "big box" stores. Those who can afford to maintain a car will drive out to Wal-Mart and Price Chopper because it's cheaper, those who are too poor pay inflated prices for food at the corner stores and have few options for other staples beyond begging rides or lugging stuff home by way of the bus system. Now that the last holdouts in the neighborhood have closed, no investor in their right mind would put new capital at risk opening any kind of staple-selling business here, let alone one that would offer low prices.

The first few suggestions were the predictable "more bike lanes" and "more trees" made by some of the Americorps*VISTAs and middle-class parents in the audience, but we pretty quickly got down to the key issue for most people: drugs. The first suggestion, of course, was "no drugs," and the facilitators admirably tried to guide people into making positive suggestions which might help with the problem. So we moved from "no drugs" to "more cops" and the mantra of "educating the children about how bad drugs are." Growing up in the 80s, I was educated to the hilt about how bad drugs are and how I should "just say no," so given my own experiences, I have little faith that that approach has any effect in preventing drug use. And I don't think that more cops is going to work either, until we reach a 1:1 cop to kid ratio and each kid can be followed around constantly by their own personal cop.

What we really need is better jobs with higher wages and fewer hours, so parents can spend more time with their kids, more responsible adults can be out and around the neighborhood keeping an eye on things, and kids can look around them and see adults with productive lives instead of slaving away at too many crappy, demeaning jobs or, even worse, not even have a crappy demeaning job.

But of course we are not allowed to make these kinds of demands in this society. Everything tells us that your job (or lack thereof) is your own responsibility, the failings are your own failings. One participant in the meeting touched on the concept when she was bringing up affordable housing (still seen as a public good, at least in our neighborhood) as a need. She mentioned that if people had affordable housing they might not have to work multiple jobs and then might have more time to be around their kids. But no one brought up that if the wages were better at their first job, people wouldn't have to work the second job.

After thinking about it a bit, I decided that what I should have said I wanted to see in the neighborhood was a sense of hope in collective, social solutions to our problems, and an understanding that hopes for individual solutions are too often just recipes for heartbreak.

Monday, October 04, 2004

Shooting gulls

There is a park a few blocks from my house which is on a bluff overlooking the lake. It's got a bandshell, a big open green space where Vietnamese immigrants play pick-up games of soccer and volleyball, a corner full of play equipment, and lots of paved paths around the perimeter of the park, which make it an ideal place to take small children bike-riding. It also has, parked on the edge of the park from April through October every year, a yellow bus full of grills and deep-fat fryers, selling burgers, hot dogs, fries and creemees. Between the food left on the ground and the many fries that are consciously offered to them, the park is also a favorite haunt for gulls, who can sometimes be quite aggressive.

Yesterday I took the kids to the park just before dinner. After riding around the park a bit, we stopped so they could get some time in on the jungle gyms and slides. A young woman was sitting at one of the picnic tables with her mother and her infant, eating the greasy junk food from the bus. Her mom got up to go get some more food from the bus. A few minutes later, I heard the young woman yelling "MOM! COME BACK HERE!" A gull had hopped up onto the picnic table and was actually taking fries directly out of the cardboard box they were sitting in, just a foot or so from the young woman's face. Then she yells at her mom, as if it would help the situation, "I don't understand why it's illegal to shoot the f***ing things!"

It was a true American moment. The mental image I had of these poor folks carrying guns around the park, trying to shoot the gulls — of which there are a huge number, and they're small, and there are all kinds of small human children running around which I presume no one would want to harm — kept me amused for a good long while. Really, if one wanted to solve the gull problem, it would be much more effective to bring guns and shoot (or at least threaten to shoot) the dumbasses who feed the gulls in the first place, thus turning them into the fearless guerilla raiders they are. Or better yet, form armed bands to drive the bus-o-cholesterol from the neighborhood. I'm sure the university professors and rich folks up in the hill section would love to have the faint smell of deep-fat-frying wafting through their neighborhood every day. It might even be exotic for them, as few of them have probably ever had to slave away in the fast-food industry themselves.

After I finished amusing myself with these thoughts, I saw that E had been recruited into a game of tag with two Vietnamese girls, who were both about her size but a couple of years older (one of them used to live down the street from us and hung out at our house when E was smaller). Between the fact that the other girls were a little older and far more agile on the jungle-gym and the fact that E was probably tired out from getting up early and playing a soccer game in the afternoon, she spent a lot of time being "it."

For quite awhile, this did not seem to bother her. She recruited her younger brother to be her "helper," and seemed to get great pleasure out of huddling with him to devise complicated strategies for catching the other girls. She also was clearly enjoying ordering him about. They played for maybe 15 or 20 minutes, running around the playground, whispering strategy, and yelling instructions, but none of it resulting in any progress. E remained "it," and the other girls became increasingly bold in taunting her.

And eventually, E and S just got frustrated and we went home.

Friday, October 01, 2004

Last kiss of the flower goddess

It is properly fall now, cool enough to turn the oven on and enjoy not just the smells but the warmth emanating from it as well. Now the weekly home baked loaves of bread, which are enough a regular part of our cuisine to warrant summertime baking, will be joined by roasts, casseroles, oven-braises, dishes that take a long, slow approach to reach intense flavors.

Last night I made chicken enchiladas — a family favorite, with a sauce made from pureed roasted tomatoes from the garden. With the kids running underfoot as I assembled them, my usual rational approach to cooking (cut everything up, then turn the heat on and start cooking) went out the window. I had warmed corn tortillas anxiously awaiting filling before I had cut up the roasted poblano chilis, so they ended up being chopped one by one as I assembled the enchiladas. As it turns out, one of the chilis was much hotter than the others, and instead of being distributed evenly throughout the adult enchiladas, the heat was concentrated in just one or two of them. By luck of the draw, H, whose tolerance for spiciness is much lower than mine, and tries to avoid it while I seek it out, got the spicy enchiladas. A shame to see those beautiful dark-green, home-roasted poblanos, full of fire, discarded on the side due to a simple twist of fate.

In the spring we started pumpkin plants indoors, part of our ambitious gardening plans for the year. They were the fastest and best of the plants we started inside, we were worried that pumpkin plants would take over our lawn and that, come fall, we would have so many pumpkins that the neighborhood kids would regularly harvest them for vandalous purposes. But of the ten or twelve plants we transplanted outside after Memorial Day, most of them died, mysteriously, within a week or two, no doubt victim of some insect or small hoodlands creature, like the skunk who lives behind our neighbor's shed and probably dug up all our pea plants. A few plants survived, but over the summer most of them dropped off until we now have only one, a poor little bedraggled plant creeping cautiously across the lawn. Something, perhaps the same thing that took out its siblings, is chopping off its flowers as it puts them up. It is clear that this plant, our last hope for pumpkins, will never actually produce one.

But yesterday, in the middle of the afternoon, I noticed a new, full blossom, unmolested by the plant's tormenters. Seizing the opportunity to harvest at least one small fruit from all of our pumpkin-related labors (squash blossoms are edible), I plucked it. As an appetizer before our baked enchiladas, harbinger of fall, I made Sopa Xochitl, a simple, brothy soup with squash blossoms, named for the Aztec goddess of flowers.