Thursday, November 24, 2011

Occupy Christmas! Just Say No to Shopping!

                                                   Billy and Martha, Jacksonville, Florida, circa 1931

Yesterday I had the occasion to use my battle cry again: "Just say no to shopping!" A friend invited me to go shopping on Black Friday.  I think it's fine for her to enjoy bargain-hunting on Black Friday. I just don't want to.

For years now, I've been trying to scale back the Christmas Machine, as Jo Robinson and Jean Staeheli call the orgy of shopping  that happens at this time of year.  One of my friends  succeeded in doing it years ago: he just stopped celebrating Christmas or giving presents, and eventually, over many years, people stopped giving him presents too. At first he couldn't stop them, he said, but eventually, when they saw he was serious, they stopped giving him stuff at Christmas.

I don't want to stop celebrating Christmas altogether: I like Christmas music and some of the food. I like Christmas dances a lot. I like seeing my family at Christmas, and I love the deep quiet and long, dark, winter nights at my farm. When you are out in the country, and you go to bed early on Christmas Eve, and you lie in bed with absolute silence all around you in the cold air, it really is a silent night, a holy night. I love to have some rest at that time of year.

I read once that in the Upper Cumberland, where I live (most of the time), there used to be a long winter holiday. There wasn't much work to be done on the farms and in the woodlots, because it was cold. People had to bring in wood to burn, and cook, and feed and water animals, but that was about it. Men went rabbit hunting; maybe women visited each other and played with their needlework. It was a real rest period, and a long one, before the frenetic farm work of the spring began. It went on for a month or more. In medieval times, there were the twelve days of Christmas, a long rest period that ended on January 7th, at least for women, who went back to their spinning on that day. That day was called Rock Day. "Spinnrocken" is an old word for a spinning tool called the distaff, which holds the fibers to be spun. Spinners nowadays sometimes have group spinning parties on that day.

Of course, we've lost this leisurely approach to the solstice holiday. Most people only get one or two days off from work, and the days before Christmas are spent in a flurry of frantic shopping for presents and food. It's especially hard on women, who feel under a great deal of pressure to "make Christmas," and to make it special for their children and families. For many grownups, Christmas just adds to their already intolerable and unhealthy stress load. And for children, the day of Christmas itself is sort of disappointing sometimes: there's a big build-up to a few hours of frantic consumption, and then it's over.

I have nothing against small presents for children. I think everybody under the age of 12 should get at least one present. When my son was little, I bought several little, inexpensive presents, and gave him one each day for the 12 days. This went over really well. He would play with a $2 puzzle all day sometimes. And then the next day there was another cheap little trinket, which seemed very special that day too! I did this when my nephews and niece were little too. They liked it, but there were some amusing snafus: once Jack found my present stash in the closet, and he came and found me and said, "When are you going to give me that little man on the parachute?"

My compromise these days is to find some universal present, usually involving family photographs, that I give to everybody on my list. I can't yet divulge what that present is this year, but it's very affordable, and it's personal, and it involves photographs. I also usually make some knitted things, mainly just to spend down my yarn stash and try some new knitting techniques. That, too, costs very little.  I make jam in the summer to give away in winter. (For birthdays, which are spread out around the year and are thus easier, I go "all out." Or what seems like "all out" to me.)

Bill McKibben and his friends in Vermont now celebrate what they call the Hundred Dollar Holiday, where they pledge to limit their spending to $100 for Christmas, per family. I set a limit like that too. This time it went a little over $100, but not by much. (I don't count travel expenses, but you could: your presence could be the present.) At that level, you might buy a big feast (my choice some years!), or a fancy Christmas tree, or a trip out of town, or a few presents, but you can't buy all those things, and that's the point.  Some sort of limit on spending also actually limits your stress. You can't do everything, so you just do one or two things, and that's easier and better, and you enjoy those one or two things more.

Another resource for scaling back Christmas is the wonderful book already mentioned above, Unplug the Christmas Machine. (Bill McKibben has a book too called Hundred Dollar Holiday.)  I have to re-read that book every year. The authors explain that the idea of presents for adults only began about eighty years ago, in the aftermath of World War I. Economists were worried that since the American economy was no longer bouyed by war, it might sink!  Demand might fall off for goods and services! What to do? They came up with the idea of convincing Americans that they must buy a lot of Christmas presents for each other every year!  Genius!

Before the 1920s, adults just got little notions in their stockings: needlework stuff for women, tobacco for men. Kids got presents, though. I can see that in my grandfather's photographs from the 1930s: there are a few toys under the rather bedraggled, definitely home-made Christmas tree, but no presents for the grown-ups. It was after all the Depression, but more than that, the habit of massive spending before Christmas had not yet been entrenched in American culture.

Fast forward to the 1950s, and the rising tide of consumerism generally. Now the idea that grownups should buy big presents for each other for Christmas was thoroughly "traditional," people thought. Nobody could remember it being otherwise. Suggesting that the present-giving should be scaled back was tantamount to being a Grinch.

McKibben makes some interesting comments in his essay, "Hundred Dollar Holiday," about this Grinch character. In fact, the bad guy in the story--the Grinch--is the one who believes that Christmas comes from a store. He thinks that if you take away all the toys and store-bought food, Christmas won't exist. He is proved wrong: by singing.  This is the most beautiful and insightful part of Dr. Seuss's story: that the real essence of Christmas is people singing together. This is the part that has been crowded out of our American Christmas: holding hands in a circle singing "wahoo, dores."

Ok, I have no idea what "wahoo, dores" means. But Christmas songs are wonderful, as long as they are not played ad nauseam for weeks leading up to Christmas.  You don't have to be a Christian to love these songs, like "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem" and "Silent Night." I remember Garrison Keillor talking about the tears streaming down the faces of old Norwegian Lutherans as they sing "Silent Night" in Norwegian every Christmas Eve in their church. The same thing happens to me; I don't know why.

We used to go caroling in our neighborhood in Nashville for years; now nobody seems to do it. That was my favorite part of Christmas, but it was often shoved aside on Christmas Eve by some people because they "had too much wrapping to do." This is how it starts: the really good parts are sort of gradually phased out until all that remains is the shopping, wrapping, and opening of presents. One Mexican person in Unplug the Christmas Machine describes her village's elaborate, days-long round of parties, dancing, fireworks, and feasting, and she says, "You Americans just have presents. We have Christmas!"

Now that nobody can afford much of anything any more, we have a big opportunity: we can get Christmas back. The banks and corporations took it away from us decades ago, way before the present Crash, or even the one before that. Occupy Christmas! You can start now by not shopping for "bargains" tomorrow, and you can start talking to people in your family about scaling back the solstice holiday, at least the presents part. As McKibben says, it may take years of gradual change to get where you want to be, but the effort is worth it. As Fuzzy demonstrated, sometimes it requires one person to unilaterally withdraw before the Christmas truce can really happen.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Long Bean and Eggplant Salad

Our CSA basket last week had long beans in it. Long beans are Vigna unguiculata subsp. sesquipedalis, so they are very different from Phaseolus vulgaris, the common garden bean that most people think of when they think of green beans. Long beans are more related to cow peas (also called field peas or Southern peas), which include black-eyed peas and crowder peas. With long beans, though, you don't eat the seed; you eat the pod, as with regular green beans.

Long beans come in different colors; ours were a pretty purple:

They were about 12 inches long. They can grow much longer than that; in fact, they are sometimes called "yard long beans," but if you let them get too big, they become too tough to cook easily.

I like to make a recipe that I found in Gourmet magazine years ago.  It's a salad, and you make it by blanching the long beans, roasting an Asian-type eggplant, and dressing them with a tangy salad dressing made of lime juice, sugar, and fish sauce. I didn't have any cherry tomatoes, but they look very pretty in the salad if you have some.

First I chopped the beans into shorter lengths and blanched them for two minutes:

The recipe says to plunge the cooked beans into ice water, but I just rinse them with cold water when I scoop them out into a strainer.

Then you slice the eggplant, brush it with olive oil, and broil it. Here it is, ready to go under the broiler.

You broil one side for three to four minutes, and when it turns brown, you flip them over and broil the other sides. The eggplant does not get as greasy as it does if you fry it in a skillet; fried eggplant seems to soak up oil like a sponge.

The dressing is easy to make with some Asian fish sauce, sugar, and lime juice. I sometimes use vinegar instead if I don't have any lemon or lime juice, and it tastes fine. I put rather more cilantro in the salad than the recipe called for.

You can make this salad several hours ahead, and the flavors get better as it marinates.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Roselle Martini: Community-Supported Cocktail Hour

Tom and I belong to a CSA. Yes, it's true that our ancestors were once involved with an entity known as the Confederate States of America, but this time we belong to a Community-Supported Agriculture group. This means that once a week we pick up a basket of produce from the Utility Research Garden. Our farmer is David Cater, and the basket is always full of interesting, beautiful, very fresh produce.

Last week we got some pretty red blossoms in our basket. Actually the red pieces come from the calyx of a species of hibiscus plant, and they are used in cuisines all over the tropical world. There are actually two species of hibiscus the calyces of which are used in cooking: Hibiscus sabdariffa and Hibiscus cannabinus.  Some of these species also produce a bast fiber in the stems. I'm guessing that's why one of the Indian (subcontinent) species has "cannabinus" in its name: it's used a bit like hemp.

Back to cocktail hour. I'd been making tea with the calyces for some weeks, whenever we got them in our basket, but it occurred to me that their beautiful red color could be exploited for other purposes, such as jello, or even better, cocktails! It turned out that there is a traditional cocktail called the Martini de jamaica. Jamaica is the Mexican word for these pretty flower parts.  I altered the recipe for this cocktail a bit, and here's what I did.

First I simmered the red petals in water to cover them for about fifteen minutes, to make a very concentrated tea, about one cup's worth. Then I strained the petals out, and I added about a half cup of sugar to the hot tea and stirred until it dissolved. (This was probably too much. Looking at the original recipe which called for a separate simple syrup, I see that about 1/4 cup of sugar would have been about right.)

Then I squeezed three lemons and put the juice in a separate jar.

Tom brought home the vodka and we chilled it.

To make one martini:

2 ounces of the sugary roselle syrup
1 1/2 ounces vodka
1 1/2 ounces lemon or lime juice

We poured this over crushed ice and stuck a basil stem in it for decoration, because we didn't have any little umbrellas:

Since this first sample was good, I mixed a batch in a ball jar, using up the rest of the syrup. When people came we poured it over ice.  There's still some left over for breakfast!

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Cooking with Greens: Gumbo Z'herbes

We get a lot of greens from our gardens on Brangus Lane and in Houston, and in Houston we also belong to a community-supported agriculture, or CSA. Every week we pick up our share of vegetables, and this time of year, greens are an important part of the harvest.  You know that greens are very good for you. The magnesium in them helps your mitochondria to work. The iron is good for your blood. The calcium is good for your bones. But sometimes it seems impossible to use all these greens! If only you could somehow sort of reduce them to a flavorful, nutritious essence...

Enter gumbo z'herbes, a concentrated, flavorful essence of greens. I first heard of this in a macrobiotic cooking class in Boston, of all places, where a classmate from Louisiana talked about it. The macrobiotic version, truth be told, was not all that great:  it was just chopped greens simmered in some water, maybe with an onion. I suspected that there was more to the original version.

Years later I saw a recipe for gumbo z'herbes in Gourmet magazine. The recipe I'm using today is adapted from the Gourmet recipe.  This version seems more authentic, as it calls for  ham hocks cooked for an hour to make a flavorful stock to cook the greens in. I also found a recipe in New Orleans Gumbos and Soups, by Kit Wohl.  The recipe in that book comes from a restaurant called Dooky Chase's, which I'd love to visit. This recipe has you boil the greens for thirty minutes, strain them, make a meat broth with a LOT of meat, and then a roux-thickened broth, to which you add the chopped greens and meat.  This recipe is probably even more authentic than the Gourmet recipe, but I prefer to cook my greens for a shorter period of time to preserve their vitamins and bright green color.

(Speaking of bright, green color: one thing that I've noticed about cooking with greens is that if you parboil the leaves whole for about 3-5 minutes, cool them, chop them finely, and then store the chopped, lightly-cooked greens in a bowl in the refrigerator, you will use them more in your everyday cooking. They are already prepped, and they look so good and colorful! You can simply saute these lightly-cooked greens in olive oil or butter, maybe with a sauteed onion, or add them to soups and stews at the end of the cooking. They could be folded into an omelet, a souffle batter, or a sauce.)

The basic idea for gumbo z'herbes is that you make a kind of thin soul food/cracker version of sauce veloute for its base, to which you add the cooked greens and meat. A classic French sauce veloute is a white sauce made with a fish or chicken broth stirred into a roux made with butter and flour. But in the South, we make our roux with pork fat of some kind, from bacon or lard or sausage, and our broth is made from ham hocks. The pig ruled Southern cuisine for most of our history.

(There is also a classic French sauce called sauce bechamel, where milk is added to the butter and flour roux instead of broth. In the South, we call it sawmill gravy, and again, the roux is made of fat rendered from bacon or sausage.)

So here's my adapted, somewhat simplified, somewhat brighter-green gumbo z'herbes recipe.

2 lbs greens (I used mustard greens and sweet potato greens)
1/2 lb bacon or 1# ham hock
2 small habanero peppers
1 chopped onion
2 garlic cloves
1 bell pepper chopped
2 T butter or bacon fat
2 T flour

Bring 2 quarts of water to boil in a large pot. Put the greens in the pot, one bunch at a time. You may have to cook the greens in three batches to fit the bunches in the pot. Don't chop the greens before cooking: they have more flavor if they're boiled whole. Parboil each bunch of greens for about five minutes, then scoop the greens out and put them in a colander to cool. When they are cool, chop them.

When all the greens are cooked, put the bacon or ham hock and habaneros in the cooking water and simmer for one hour. Strain. Chop the bacon, and take the meat off the ham hock, and set aside.

Cook the onions, pepper, and garlic in the butter in a pot for about five minutes. Add the flour and cook, stirring, for 2-3 minutes. Add the broth in a slow stream, stirring constantly. It will begin to thicken. This is your cracker sauce veloute. Add the chopped greens and bacon. Simmer, uncovered, for about eight minutes. Season to taste with salt and vinegar.

You can puree the soup with an immersible blender after cooking if you want it to be really smooth and like essence de greens.

Garnish it with cream, sour cream, Tabasco sauce, and a side of sausage. You can serve it over rice or with cornbread.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Asian Persimmons

I don't really have a favorite food of all time, one that I would request on death row at my last meal. I like seasonal, local food, from my own terroir if possible, and that varies depending on the time of year. In summer, it's my own favorite cherry tomatoes; in winter, it's my own favorite kale.

Right now I'm in Houston, which is not my own terroir, but I still buy locally-grown food at the farmer's market.  Right now what I really, really like is persimmons. I like them everywhere, even when I'm in Tennessee, but in Tennessee I eat wild persimmons that I find on the ground, usually on the road, and sort of warmed by the road and maybe smushed by a car. Sometimes they have a little grit from the road in them. They have a lot of seeds, and I save the seeds and scatter them around my farm, or plant them in a row in the garden hoping to grow a hardy persimmon seedling.

In Houston you can buy locally-grown Asian persimmons. These are quite a bit bigger than the wild native persimmons, and they have only one or two seeds per fruit. Some fruits have no seeds at all! They are a beautiful orange color before they are ripe, and they are rather hard at first, but then they soften and turn brownish, and this is when you eat them. The variety that I bought at the farmer's market did not have much of the astringency of the wild American persimmon, but apparently some of the Asian types are more astringent than others.

The other day on one of my walks around the neighborhood, I saw a neighbor's tree just loaded with these Asian persimmons. None of them were on the ground. I think you pick them here while they are still unripe, and then you ripen, or "blett" them, in the house. That also prevents possums from dining on them before you can get them.

Urban Harvest in Houston sells Asian persimmon trees at their annual fruit tree sale in late January, and maybe I will get one this year. They certainly seem to thrive here. However, I think it would likely be too cold for them on Brangus Lane: they can't take temperatures below zero. Maybe in the near future, though, as the climate warms, we will be able to grow Asian persimmons in the Upper Cumberland.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Pot-au-Feu; National Blog Posting Month

Apparently November is NaBloPoMo, or something like that. The people at BlogHer challenge us bloggers to write in our blog every day, and today we're supposed to write about what we like the most about writing. That is, writing in our blogs, presumably.

The thing I like about it is that nobody edits me. This still seems so amazing to me, that I can write whatever I want to and publish it to the whole world, for free, instantly, with nobody telling me I can't or I shan't, as Dr Seuss would say. It may be the case that hardly anybody reads it. I don't care. It's out there, and it's published. I wonder if the first people to get printing presses felt this excited and liberated about their new-found power to wield a weapon of mass communication!  Probably. But you still needed ink, and paper, and now we don't. And there's no printer to tell us he won't publish our broadside. The Gutenberg revolution fomented all sorts of other revolutions; may our information revolution foster more revolutions. Maybe it already has.

Now that that's out of the way, I can get back to business. Last night I made something really primal: pot-au-feu. Like creme fraiche, it sounds fancy and French. It is French, but it's just peasant food. What you do is you buy some cheap cuts of tough meat and some bones. This won't set you back much. Get some marrow bones too. I got a piece of brisket, some "soup" bones, some beef short ribs, and some marrow bones. I used a recipe from the March 2008 issue of Gourmet as a starting point. IT can be found here.

You roast the bones (except the marrow bones) and meat in the oven for an hour. They turn all nice and brown and smell wonderful. Also you put an onion and a carrot in the roasting pan to roast with the meat.

Then you put the roasted bones and vegetables in a big soup pot and boil for three hours. It sounds like a lot of time, but this makes the broth all beefy and dark and wonderful. You can add some herbs like bay leaf, peppercorns, thyme, and parsley.

Now for the marrow bones. Put them in a saucepan standing up. Pour some of your wonderful broth over them to cover. Boil for fifteen to twenty minutes, until the marrow is soft.  Remove the marrow bones from the broth and keep them warm till supper time, at which point you will scoop out the marrow and eat it, either in your bowl or on a piece of toast. This is the part that's really primal.

(The broth you cooked the marrow bones in will be cloudy. If this doesn't bother you, keep it for another use. If it does bother you, feed it to a dog.)
Now simmer whatever vegetables you have on hand in the beautiful clear brown beef broth. When you're ready to eat, cut the meat off the bones, slice the brisket, put the meat and vegetables in a bowl, and ladle the broth over. Garnish with sour cream and mustard and horseradish.