Friday, March 20, 2009

a smidge of a recipe

Out of eggs, three days until the farmer’s market egg stand, and an un-satiable 10pm desire to bake a cake. Not so much a desire to eat cake, mind you, but to beat sugar and butter together and smooth batter with a spatula. But of course, once the cake is sitting there all elegantly cracked on top and cooling, the nub end of the loaf (this is a cake-bread) becomes a mandatory taste-test.

I rarely gravitate towards recipes calling for bananas, I think because I am too diligent about eating them while still tinged with green in an everyday-snack sort of way. Banana creations are always calling for those mushy, over-ripe things; banana bread has hence never been in my repertoire. Sweet potatoes, however, hover around my counter far longer than bananas. A crop native to the tropics, these things stick awkwardly out of the fruit bowl looking well-positioned for long storage but deceivingly so: they start to turn brown long before I usually get inspired to render them edible.

Coconut, liberally. I keep a medium-sized jar of shredded unsweetened coconut on my counter, between the big jar for sugar and the little one for salt. The coconut jar has its own steel spoon.

The last potent nutmeg kernel. I bought it at a spice farm in Zanzibar last August; this farm will remain indulgently in my mind as a big-person’s Candy
Land. Now that I'm out, I’m just pretending that nutmeg has gone out of season, like persimmons, rather than admit I will have to travel 8000 miles to return to the spice farm where I bought it to find more. Nutmeg, though we rarely realize it, is the pit of an un-appealingly yellow fruit. Embracing the pit is a lacy pink membrane that is referred to on the spice rack as mace; I wish I had thought to ask the spice farmers what they do with the flesh of the fruit. I grated my entire last darn brainy-looking mass into the batter, and immediately wished there were spice farms in Los Angeles.

Sometimes I find the circumstances that produce our foods so much more interesting than the recipes. How I ended up creating a recipe for an eggless cake-bread borne of the tropics, yet so temperate climate end-of-winter feeling, is purely based on circumstance.

But I’ve also included a formal recipe here, though with a smidge of hesitation. I can’t help but feel that there are so many recipes circulating out there in this virtual space and that mine isn’t necessarily better than all the rest. And I will probably be setting out into uncharted baking territory by the time I’m posting this up. I transcribe it now, however, justified as a kind of archival practice and perhaps the first of a few recipe jottings on this site. Haven’t we all had that serendipitous kitchen creation, only to be befuddled a year later over what exactly went into that spicy thai soup that made it so much zestier than the next? Or which recipe for fresh ginger cake did we follow, the one with molasses or the one with none? Index card recipes are so the grandmother I never had. I suppose I’m suggesting that sometimes our taste-memory isn’t quite sufficient enough, that cookbooks don't always provide us with the most personal instructions, and that perhaps I might capture these recipes—let’s refer to them as happenings, rather than objects—in case, just in case, we should desire an encore. I also intend these jottings as inspiration for your own happenstance recipes. Thank you as well to Steph, who graciously accepted half of the loaf this morning, and allowed me to make more room on my cooling rack.

Out-of-Eggs Sweet Potato-Coconut Bread

Inspired by a banana bread recipe from Orangette

Preheat oven to 350˚. Butter a standard-size loaf pan.

1 stick of butter, softened

¾ cup brown sugar [I don’t keep brown sugar around but instead mash a bit molasses into white sugar—it’s so much moister than brown sugar from a bag, but I’m fussy]
1 ½ cups sweet potato puree from about 2 roasted whole sweet potatoes/yams
2 cups flour [any all-purpose or pastry flour will do]

¾ tsp baking soda

½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg

1/8 tsp salt

¼ tsp distilled white vinegar

½ tsp vanilla or almond extract, optional

½ cup unsweetened shredded coconut
sugar for sprinkling

Mash the roasted, skinless sweet potato until its nearly free of lumps (a food processor does this job well), and measure out 1 ½ cup.

Cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy. Beat in vinegar and extract.

In separate bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda, salt, and nutmeg.

Alternate additions of puree and flour mixture, beginning with puree, to butter mixture approximately ½ cup at a time. Mix until all of the flour is just combined; do not over-mix.

Spread batter (it’s thick) in loaf pan, smoothing out the top with a spatula. Sprinkle liberally with sugar—I like to keep a jar of vanilla bean-infused white sugar for opportunities like these, but any sugar will give the loaf a nice crust.

Bake 60 minutes, or until toothpick (or wooden chopstick in my case) inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from pan and cool on rack. Eat nub end while still warm, but cake is best a few hours after it's baked.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

filaments from China

It’s been a while since I’ve been here. Long enough for the meyer lemons at the market to have eclipsed pale yellow and waxed into orange, ripening beyond tart. Long enough to have nearly forgotten what it was like to have a lesser president, to have forgotten the times when NPR didn’t wake me up in the morning with a reminder that the world is crashing down around us. Enough, even, for an entire academic quarter to have passed, shifting from blissfully free (I can write for fun all the time!) to preoccupied (I would write for fun, but I’ve really got to think about that paper due in five weeks) to currently inundated (those papers, due next week, don’t have a sentence to their titles). This last frantic phase, however, is also the coziest nook from which to write. Indeed, to write for fun.

I’ve also moved since I’ve last been here, to a city within a city where the 10 freeway unravels itself into the Pacific—Santa Monica—and I’ve been dutifully filling the extra bit of space in my now-roomier freezer with a winter’s worth of lumpy leftover scones and the remnants of multi-day chocolate chip cookie experiments. And I’ve been squinting one eye at the dwindling stack of vintage jarred stone fruit in the corner of my open pantry shelves, staving off fret with a solemn intuition that the stack will be built again soon. Berry jams and all that.

I had a craving for first-of-the-season strawberries the other day, and though chilly nights are lingering on for now, the jasmine is in fragrant bloom here and root vegetables no longer feel obligatory. And it’s just about the only time of year when the rain clouds lazily drift on in once each week or so, carrying with them on their way east the particulate matter typically suspended in the air over this corner of Los Angeles. I don’t really know where the matter goes from here, however sorry I am to whomever has to receive it. But I’m pretty sure of the fact that some of this matter begins its life as filaments spewed from factories in China. We are well-reminded when the air clears of these Chinese imports that Southern California has mountains in its midst (no, definitely not hills), still crowned with white, that seem to rise where Wilshire traffic drives off into the vanishing point. Of course, everyone knows that Wilshire actually ends at the Pacific and doesn’t nearly reach these mountains. But for a brief moment, when my morning bus pauses at the stop sign to cross Ocean Park Boulevard (which also ends in the Pacific), I can turn my head quick enough from west to east to see both the ocean and the suspended snowy mountains that float as if part of a backdrop for a Nepalese film. This Janus-inspired view anchors my small-town neighborhood to the sprawling metropolis that sometimes feels like an endless abstraction to me when I can’t see the mountains that form the farthest boundaries of this urban locality, and that allow the next terra cognita to begin.

How does one remain attentive to the global within the local economy? Darra Goldstein, editor of the chicly erudite journal Gastronomica, offered this question at the Tasting Histories conference I was attending last week (I have some more thoughts on this here, at Civil Eats).

Having spent nearly every weekend in college taking the NYC subways to the ends of the outer boroughs, on a perpetual scavenger hunt for the most obscure ethnic hole-in-the-walls, my life now by comparison could hardly be more local. Food from elsewhere (or eaten elsewhere) is a rare indulgence; nearly everyone who sells me what I eat I’ve greeted the week before. I walk to all of my food markets. The beans in my near-daily meal of dollied-up rice and beans are grown in Napa by Rancho Gordo; the indulgently sweet brown rice, by Lundberg Family Farm, also in Northern California. My yogurt and milk? Marin County. Every frilly green cabbage, golden beet, bunch of cilantro, and blood orange that’s taken up temporary residence in my refrigerator this winter? All local, by nearly anyone’s definition.

I’m not intending this grocery list as a point from which to gloat (though that is perhaps unavoidable by those of us who live in California during the otherwise cruelest months), but to raise the question of “so what?” Or less cynically, “now what?” Have I, after years of tweaking, finally found a lifestyle that affords me every opportunity to eat locally that I could ever want? If I’m supposed to feel rather self-satisfied, or satiated, I don’t really—I want to know what’s next. Sure there’s so much more work to be done, around Los Angeles even, if I thought everyone should be aspiring to the local food lifestyle that I seem to have nailed down (though I’m not entirely sure I think that). And I still have edibles in mind that might grow nicely on my property this summer, basil and lemongrass to beat out my farmer’s market’s herbs in food blocks. But I’m also interested in what life is like post-local, given that the “local” has been co-opted by the food authorities as a stand-in for the benevolent eating life, and is on its way to being applaud-worthy national rhetoric. But can we find a way to act globally in our local economies, and should we? Is there a benevolent global here in my neighborhood that doesn’t recall the particulate matter from China, that we don’t necessarily feel we have to resist with our proudly-purchased local roots and fruits?

One of my students sent me this note about two months ago, via email, after a class on industrial food systems and my closing rant on the importance of knowing where your food comes from. The timing of the comment now seems uncannily apropos, invoking hardship in a way that is no longer being tried on by the mainstream for show.

“Hello Ms. Jennifer:

A late thought that occurred to me after the discussion today: in some cultures, at least in my hometown (Cerritos, CA), which is predominantly Asian, it's normal for one to choose gifts for others that are imported from far-away places. I.e. It would be best to buy someone a packaged pear from Korea or Japan as opposed to buying one from California. I think the idea that the item came from a long distance away means that you care enough to give the receiver something that went out of its way to get here, and that you have enough status or are financially successful enough to afford and give away such an item. Giving domestically produced items as gifts may indicate financial hardship or apathy.”

I still don’t miss those filaments from China when they’re absent, nor will I let South American strawberries rid me of a craving that will only truly be contained by the impending arrival of the smallest, sweetest berries from Ventura. But I do like to recall this comment every now and then, especially when the mountains surface in the distance and my head turns to the ocean that crashes here where I dwell and I know that it's also crashing in someone else’s locality, very far away.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

filling stations

“This is the kind of place where you realize Americans like to feel full, quick,” muses Verlyn Klinkenborg in this week’s New York Times, on the most ordinary of places, another American highway rest stop. It’s the type of place known best for its placelessness, a mere pause for 18-wheelers and station wagons to load up and get on the road again, where McDonald’s and Starbucks and Mobile Mart exude extraordinary ordinariness.

The particular place Klinkenborg, who writes the occasional treat of a Time
s editorial on farming and the rural life, muddles over spending the night in happens to be a node on California’s spine. Those of us who like to think of ourselves as cosmopolitan conduits between San Francisco and Los Angeles know the spine well. The 101, the 5, even the 99, which I have never adventured onto but I’m sure is thrilling nonetheless: they all run the length of California's spine and they all, at some point, slice through the solemn heart of the state’s agricultural industry, the Central Valley. The Central Valley is a bit of a paradoxical landscape to me. At once both industrial, pumped with chemicals and unjust labor, and the underdog in America’s agricultural wars, it's not the demonized target that Farm Bill activists and food geeks from the coasts have made out of the Midwestern corn-scape. It can’t be—the Central Valley actually gives us edibles. The largest domestic supplier of almonds, grapes and tomatoes, virtually anything non-tropical can be planted along the 400-mile long stretch and it will take root and yield fruit.

The most recent version of the federal Farm Bill passed by Congress finally allotted fruit, vegetable, and nut growers a portion of the subsidies traditionally handed over to the corn, soy, rice, wheat and cotton producers of the big square states. So it was that I went to San Francisco a few weeks ago with America’s freshly subsidized fruit basket at my side, in an airpla
ne drawing a path parallel to Interstate 5.

The interstate was my anchor for knowing, vaguely, where we were on a map and as the dry mountains north of LA flattened out into the agricultural plain of the Central Valley, the landscape became etched with boxes and lines. The fruit and nut orchards are anonymous from above though the work of human hand and machine on the land is still visible, however dwarfed by its geologic context. Whatever land can be planted with crops and irrigated to an artificial green in the valley, is—except for where crops have been uprooted and replaced wit
h solar panels. Solar panels? I doubted my eyes at first, but the reflective blocks nestled among fields of brown and green were unmistakable. Lucky for California's dwindling water reserves, they don't need to be irrigated.

Adding paradox to land-use paradox, can our thirst for fuel exist harmoniously with our desire for full bellies?

These solar panels add social and environmental texture to the Central Valley, a third di
mension to the two-dimensional carpet of an agricultural cornucopia. They flickered opaquely, reminding me of the dozens of ‘golden’ lakes throughout Ethiopia’s southern Rift Valley that gleam under the spell of some naturally-occurring metallic compounds. The Rift Valley‘s food and fuel chain is simple and synergistic, with herds of goats, cattle, and sheep weaving back and forth across the single road in search of the freshest grass. Trees provide campfire fuel for the shepherds trailing their animals. There are no gas stations along the Ethiopian road, nothing to snack on if you’re not a cow, and cruising speeds are unobtainable due to frequent animal crossings. Yet I drove through this flat valley for hours and never felt deprived. Here, even the ordinary enchants.

I found myself in yet another window seat on my return to LA from the east coast a few days ago, next to a young woman returning home to southwest China after her first semester at college in the Northeast. Her trip to Massachusetts (she’s a Mt. Holyoke student) back in September was her first ever to the United States. She clutched a treatise on Wittgenstein, placed her slang perfectly in speech, had spent Christmas with her new best friend in Greenwich, CT and proclaimed that the only thing she missed about China was the food. She was a bit full in the face, and I was struck by how at ease she seemed to be with the transnational life she's embarked on. The woman to her left, a computer programmer for the air force, asked her if she ever eats dog. The Chinese girl made a gagging sound. I rolled my eyes. They don’t eat dog where she is from, she explained with patience, though some people in China do, she never does. Mostly she misses the simplicity of rice and vegetables and all the little dishes cohering into a meal. I asked her how the food was at Mt. Holyoke. So good, she told me, but there is so much of it! She asked if there was dessert at every meal at my college. Of course, I replied, we used to eat cornflakes with vanilla soft-serve at weekend brunch after sampling all the pastries.

“I’m afraid my family won’t recognize me,” she said, “you know, there is the freshman 15 but I gained more than 15.” There was no remorse in her voice over this, just a hint of incredulity. Just then, as I was about to offer unsolicited advice (which is what seatmates in the air are for, no?) on how moving off-campus to an apartment with a kitchen is always a healthier option, a floating pool of light appeared out of the blackness to our right. Oh look, I told her instead, there’s Vegas.

“How do you know that’s Vegas?” asked the air force programmer. How did I know? No matter what direction you approach Vegas from--southeast, northwest, or above--you just know. Vegas requires no highway marker or GPS coordinates, no billboard announcing its presence. It arises ahead out of dust as a veritable Oz in the desert, a most anticipated filling station en route to the sea, or the big square states.

Tonight it shone like an oblique Lite-Brite board, a fine-grained orange glow unhumbled by its context, a singular dimension of black.

We were an hour from touching down at LAX as Las Vegas drifted off to our right and finally out of sight, into the abyss of as-yet unlit, still frontier. What remained in sight was the city’s electrical tether, one thin illuminated line punctuated by crosshatching that stretched from the southern limits of this embodied civilization all the way under our plane and beyond. If one could dip a hand down from the air and slice through this thread with a fingernail, the city might fly away like a kite freed from its string. Until someone scrambled to plug it back into the outlet of infinite power, that is. Then the whole thing would rise from the earth again.

Happy New Year.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

if the mad hatter drank coffee

Stumptown Coffee Roasters is known as a purveyor of some of the best coffee in the world and yet when I arrived at their roastery in Seattle last week they didn’t offer me coffee. They poured me kishr. Or qishr, depending on how you take your spelling of this byzantine beverage. It was amber and translucent, easily mistaken for an oolong tea, and tasted and smelled strangely reminiscent of an herbaceous and prune-y tisane though I couldn’t identify exactly what kind. And oh yes, it tasted a bit like coffee.

Only because I traveled with Aleco, Stumptown’s coffee buyer, in the hinterlands of Rwanda this summer and made it home alive did I trust accepting a cup from him before knowing what it was. Call it kishr, call it coffee-tea if you, like me, don’t really know how to pronounce much in Arabic: it’s the dried coffee husk steeped in water. Originating in Yemen circa 1100, I imagine it traveled the world on spice trading routes before falling out of fashion with a newly cafĂ©-ed Western Europe for its deceitful simplicity. Kishr isn't hefty like coffee, and certainly wouldn’t stand up to milk. And it has a faint citrusy flavor that might be cooling on a thick Yemeni summer day and little out of place in a Viennese coffee shop. I joined the group of men wearing skinny pants in deeply inhaling kishr steam from little cups; huddled down the stairs from Stumptown’s main shop and plotting kishr’s comeback in hushed voices, I felt for a moment that I was on coffee's avant-garde.

What is old is new again… though exotica from the colonies always ran the risk of becoming bourgeois, didn’t it.

I had come to Stumptown to sample some El Salvadorian coffees and hear the grower of that coffee speak, but kishr stole the show. Our dried coffee husks were indeed from one of the coffee farms in Western El Salvador owned by Aida Batlle, a wonderful woman whom I wrote about in a post on the Civil Eats website today. With an experimental spirit, she left coffee cherries to dry on the trees before being harvested and then dried them again on clay patios for four days. Some of her nimble-fingered workers picked the husk off of the coffee bean. It’s the coffee equivalent of a late-harvest Riesling or Muscato and she bagged only 250 pounds of it this year. Pittance. If the Seattle underground doesn’t drink it all first, I think you can order it directly from Stumptown for $6 or $7 per pound, a downright 19th century price.

The best description I’ve found of kishr, as if dredged up from a sunken Indian Ocean trading ship, is from this article in The New York Times dated May 13, 1877. Right, 1877, and you can read it right here on the internet. They recommend adding “a few bruized cardamoms or a little dry cinnamon or ginger” and simmering for half an hour to yield a “most agreeable beverage.” Most agreeable, and also most caffeinated. The fruit of the coffee cherry (the coffee bean itself, as you probably know, is the seed of the fruit) retains more caffeine than the bean does; shocking that energy drink companies aren’t engineering coffee husk extractions (are they?). Coffee is brewed on the island of Zanzibar with nutmeg, clove and cardamom and I’ve been meaning to make a version of this concoction with kishr. There will have to be a kishr ceremony of course, like the Ethiopian coffee ceremony or a Japanese tea ritual; I’m open to suggestions of what this will entail. My most Mad Hatter of friends will be invited to the kishr ceremony and also a smattering of pirates, but only the ones who thieve fresh cinnamon in lieu of grenade launchers. I know, pirates are wrecking serious havoc these days and it's not funny business. But, by no small coincidence, they do their craftiest work just off the shores of Yemen.