Aug 20, 2013

Basil in the rain

The rain had been hesitating all day. The sky was darkly overcast, but not a drop had fallen. Even the birds seemed to have given up on it. A kind of sullen gloom seemed top pervade the atmosphere as the weather teetered on the edge as if deciding which way to fall.

The porch steps creaked as I descended to the backyard with a pair of scissors and a jar. I knelt by the back of the vegetable garden where a few cilantro plants had decided to give up on life and wither. I stripped the dried stems into my hat then sorted out and discarded the leaves leaving the coriander seed. I scattered some on the ground hoping for another harvest before fall and tipped the rest into the jar. As I screwed on the top, I felt the first drops of rain.

I pulled up the cilantro, took it over to the compost pile and went back for the jar and scissors. I was in no rush to get out of the rain, it had been a hot, muggy morning and the cool drops were a relief, so I stood for a moment trying to decide if I had the ambition to make myself a tomato and basil sandwich for lunch. The rain increased in intensity and my shirt was plastered to my body. I just stayed there enjoying it and remembering when I was a child, living in Vermont.

We lived on a 150 acre farm (50 acres of meadow and field and 100 of woodlot) in an old white farmhouse near the crest of a hill near Craftsbury. There was a spring, an apple orchard, a raspberry patch, a currant patch, and wild blueberries along the woodlot fence.

The spring was a little higher on the hill than the house and the water supply was good, but my mother, with her unique approach to thrift, decided that rainstorms were showers and not to be wasted. Whenever the storm clouds started to gather, she would have us strip to our underwear or less, give each of us a bar of Ivory soap and chase us out of the house.

My brother and sister and I would stand in the dooryard, and lather up then rinse off and go stand under a nearby silver maple until Mama felt like letting us back in. Even in the middle of summer, mountain rains are cold and we'd usually turned pale blue with chattering teeth by the time we got back inside.

To this day, a summer rain brings with it the memory of the smell of Ivory soap.

So there I was standing by the garden as the rain pounded down on my balding head and trickling down my body to sneak beneath my waist band and continue to the ground. I tucked to scissors into my back pocket and was about to turn back to the porch when a wall of scent hit me. Planted next to the cilantro were five huge sweet basil plants, and the raindrops pummeling their leaves had released some of their essential oils. An almost palpable fog of basil odor rose from them and surrounded me.

I'm sure that you know the smell of basil, the rich, green, spicy aroma is one of the most distinctive and pleasurable of the herbs. It improves and intensifies the taste of so many vegetables without overwhelming their own flavors. Salads made of any of the nightshades (tomato, eggplant, potato, bell pepper, etc.) are almost always the better for basil.

There are many sensual pleasures; the sting of chilis, the resinous taste of sage, The earthiness of cumin and caraway. To derive the intensity of their flavor you have to act on them; grind them, roast them, fry them, brew them. bite them chew them. Basil doesn't bother with that. It will come to you on a breeze under the moon, as you brush by on your way to harvest the chard, or it will rise to you in a mist that your mind wants to color green.

One of the most intense and overwhelming sensual pleasures that a plant can provide is when you stand next to a garden full of basil in the rain.

Aug 19, 2013

The Southern Vegetarian

It occurred to me today that, although I posted a review of this cookbook on Amazon, I should post one here too.

First, a disclaimer. Although I haven't met either of them yet, Justin and Amy are relatives (my oldest son is married to Amy's sister). Because of that connection, I would normally steer away from the appearance of nepotic favoritism but, in this case, I can't contain my enthusiasm.

Let's be clear. "The Southern Vegetarian" is NOT a vegan cookbook. Many of the recipes call for dairy products and eggs. This is not a big problem, in some of the recipes you can just drop those ingredients and in others there are easy substitutes. Recipes that call for cheese, for example, can be tricky. There are vegan cheese substitutes, but they can be expensive to buy and tricky to make.

The good thing about this book is that about 80 of the hundred recipes can be easily modified to fit my regimen. That's a much better percentage than I expected. In the near future, I'll post some lists and recipes for the substitutes I use. Another plus is that although the pictures are gorgeous, the food tastes as good as the pictures look.

The ingredients used are relatively easy to find, many large supermarkets should have most, if not all, of them. The instructions are clear and straightforward. Best of all, the ingenuity and creativity of the combinations of flavors and colors, make these recipes a pleasure to eat.

Of the recipes I have tried so far, my particular favorites are: Collard greens (I used chard) with honey, shallots, and mushrooms; The Chubby Vegetarian gumbo; and the Ratatouille Napoleon.

The real joy of this book is through their exploration, Justin and Amy might well inspire you to try your hand at finding unexpectedly happy combinations too.

I recommend The Southern Vegetarian highly. (The link will take you to Amazon.)

Aug 18, 2013

How to eat a tomato

When the tomatoes ripen, choose a bright, sunny day when the temperature is above 80F. Prepare for the meal by setting out a bottle of good, flavorful olive oil, a large shallow bowl, a knife and cutting board, and some good sea-salt on the kitchen counter. You can use a tomato shark for coring if you have one.

Step off your back porch, and make your way to the garden. Stand there with a self-satisfied smile, surveying the dark green leaves and ruby stems of the chard, the latest crop of radishes popping their shoulders out of the soil, the burgeoning bushes of basil, the beans, the cilantro, the chilis, even the disappointing eggplant. Let it fill your eye and your soul with pride. Cut off a stem of basil with at least 4 or 5 leaves, and pull some garlic if there's none in the kitchen.

At the cutting board chiffonade the basil (roll all the leaves into a tight cylinder and slice thinly). Peel, crush and mince a clove or two of garlic. Pour a couple of hearty glugs of olive oil into the bowl and add the basil and garlic.

When you're done, take a pinch of salt and step carefully through the garden to one of the tomato plants. (At this point I sometimes pause to think about how much better it is to tie tomato plants to stakes then witches.) Reach out and rub a leaf of the plant between your fingers and smell the scent left on the tips. That distinctive scent of chlorophyll and nightshade is critical to the pleasure of the eater. That scent is in the tomato, but it starts to dissipate as soon as the tomato is picked. Trust me you don't want to lose it. The hot sun beating down on the red, yellow, or brown globes intensifies the flavor of their flesh. So the following steps must be performed expeditiously.

Pluck a ripe tomato. Lick the skin. sprinkle a small amount of salt on the wet spot and bite it. You can taste the sunshine. Continue salting and eating until the tomato is gone. Drop the core on the ground.

Pluck two more ripe tomatoes and return to the kitchen. Core them (just get rid of the place where the stem attaches). Slice them about 1/4 inch thick and put them in the olive oil bath. Flip them to coat fully. Dust with a pinch of salt. Take the bowl and a loaf of crusty bread to the back porch and eat the tomatoes instantly. Use the bread to mop up the oil as dessert.

Jul 27, 2013

Holy Greens

Chard is the plant that keeps on giving. It's really hard to keep up with its growth. One gardening friend of mine (no doubt still somewhat confused by overindulgence during his hippy daze) calls it the Ultimate Spinach.

Another friend was watching me prepare dinner one night and was a little horrified that I was using chard leaves that had holes chewed in them. "How can you do that?" he said, making a yuck face, "something has been eating that already."

"I know," I replied, "the insects and animals in my yard are like the royal tasters, keeping me from getting poisoned."

The way I figure it is that a perfect plant is a sign that something is wrong. If other animals don't want to eat it I get suspicious. It doesn't mean that I won't knock hornworms off the tomato plants into a bucket but usually I don't mind sharing my produce with other animals if they leave me enough for my needs. The leaves get washed well so no-one has to worry about caterpillar or bunny spit, and they get chopped into pieces anyway.

I just gathered some chard and basil from the garden a few minutes ago. Tonight I'll stir fry them with tofu, baby corncobs and mushrooms, and serve it over curried rice.

Jul 15, 2013

Mmm Mmm Mjeddrah

It's probably strange to be thinking about hot food on a day like this (92 degrees fondly fahrenheit), but I've been reading an assortment of recipes for Mjeddrah, and it is interesting to see the variety of interpretations.

Mjeddrah is one of my go-to recipes and for years I've used the one I learned from "Diet for a Small Planet" and it has worked well both as a main course and as a base for other foods. You can even use it to make a kind of veggie burger. The recipe was simple, cook rice and lentils together with some herbs, spices and stock to get yourself a mess of pottage.

When you have a recipe that works, you can sometimes take it for granted. I did. I recently got hold of an Arabic cookbook and found two recipes in it that were interestingly different. The first one substituted bulghur for the rice, added chilis, tomato sauce, and yoghurt. It is an intentionally soupy mixture rather than the dense starchy mass that I was used to. It was delicious, and I solved the yoghurt problem by blending some silken tofu with lemon juice. I have no proportions for this last since it was done by taste.

The second recipe deconstructed the mixture into concentric circles. The outermost circle is rice, within that is a circle of red lentils and at the bullseye a mass of crispy fried onions. I haven't tried this one yet, but what's not to like?

Then I found a third recipe. This one boils the lentils until soft then puree them. Add some water and boil the puree then add a mixture of rice and bulghur. Chop some onions into small pieces and fry them in oil until golden and crispy. When the rice is almost done add the onions. Serve it with shredded green onion and radishes.

The radishes in my garden are nearly ready, so maybe I'll try that last recipe when the heat wave breaks.


I have always admired G.K. Chesterton. I don't share his religious persuasion, but his thoughtful, intelligent, witty, and philosophical writing style has made him one of my more consistent heroes. On alcohol, he has this to say:
"A modern vegetarian is also a teetotaler, yet there is no obvious connection between consuming vegetables and not consuming fermented vegetables. A drunkard, when lifted laboriously out of the gutter, might well be heard huskily to plead that he had fallen there through excessive devotion to a vegetable diet."
In my recent experience, the use of alcohol as an anesthetic should not be underestimated. We see it used in so many movies when some doctor is extracting a bullet from a gunfighter. that it has become so ubiquitous that it seems to have lost its meaning.

The Attack of the Chard

I have never grown chard before, so it came as something of a surprise when it took over my garden. I bought six small plants this spring, and within weeks was harvesting it almost daily. The tomatoes, eggplants and chilis are moomphing along, but the chard, basil, and radishes are growing faster than I can consume them.

In addition to my recent Parrot recipe, I have used it as the greens in a bulghur salad, as a primary vegetable in a green salad, shredded in spring rolls, and in green smoothies. If the temperature were not so high, I'd experiment with using the leaves to make something akin to doulmas.

Chard leaves, basil and chard stems.