Man does not live by wine alone. Not even with beer to help him out. No, there are times in a fella’s life when he needs a garden to bring him peace and happiness.
The garden has been really productive this year. Between a stretch of good weather early on, a long dry summer and a new fertilizer regimen I’ve managed to harvest huge volumes of peas, zucchini blossoms and marrows, basil for days, cabbages, cauliflower, artichokes, cilantro, peppers, broccoli, carrots, spinach, currants, apples, et cetera, et cetera. Imagine the beauties you can make with this and the best puree food blender, great recipes, super easy and healthy.
There is one crop that often eludes me: tomatoes. We’re technically zone 8, but the garden is right on the water just off of Mud Bay in Crescent Beach. This means we get a lot of cool, damp nights in late summer, right at the moment when we need one last push of heat to finish ripening our tomatoes. This usually means blight, right when you’re hoping for a good crop.
The only two cures are 1) planting the earliest-ripening tomatoes you can find, and 2) good luck with the weather. This year we had both, and the tomatoes are coming in thick and fast–and ripe.
First things first, you gotta have some toasted tomato sandwiches.
But after a couple of dozen sandwiches (and so much bacon) with the tomatoes piling up, it was time to make some sauce.
The classic Italian pomodoro is quick tomato sauce that’s ready in less than half an hour, but it it uses canned Roma tomatoes, which are already very well-cooked during processing. For a sauce from fresh tomatoes you need a little more time and planning.
Step one, saute some onions and peppers until completely soft.
This takes a lot longer than cookbooks or internet recipes tell you. I’m not sure why everyone lies: “Cook until soft, 10 minutes or so.” No Debra, it’s more like a good 30-40 minutes to get onions thoroughly soft, and it’s crucial: if the onions aren’t soft before the tomatoes are added, the acid in the tomatoes will set the onions and they’ll stay disconcertingly firm no matter how long you cook the sauce. Olive oil, medium heat, lots of patience.
While they’re cooking down, cut up your tomatoes. They don’t have to be tiny, but you want to get them chunked up to expose their inner liquidity. Most recipes will tell you to remove the skins, but I can’t be bothered: they cook down to nothing, and I usually use this in a very rustic sauce (more on that below). If I was going to make it into tomato soup (easy, with a little cream and herbs) I’d put it through a blender and push it through a strainer. But I’m not, so I won’t, and this is what I got:
Once the onions are completely soft, add them to the pan.
The little brown things that look like Kalamata olives are actually black cherry tomatoes. They’re really bright tasting and very zippy and sweet. Even a few adds a lot of flavour to a sauce. The only other thing needed at this point is a a whole head of garlic chopped fine, and a healthy pinch of kosher salt–about a teaspoon. The salt at this point helps break down the tomatoes and bust cell membranes, releasing juice. It will need more salt before it’s used, but a pinch now is the way.
This has to cook down a long, long time, at least three hours. I was able to roast three batches of coffee, finish my business correspondence, edit an article I was working on, fight with a seagull and do some vacuuming while it cooked. You can tell it’s done when the clear liquid is reduced and the raw tomato taste is replaced by a sweet intensity of flavour.
Then it’s ready to eat or freeze: it’ll keep for about three months tightly sealed in a freezer. As a base tomato sauce it’s fantastic on pizza, in lasagna, or adapted to a soup or any number of others. But for me it shines best in a simple kjilkje. The food of my people, kjilkje is homemade noodles, usually served with bacon or sausage, a tomato sauce and lots of other Mennonites crowded around to eat vast plates of it and chase it down with hot, sweet tea.
This time I diced and fried some of my guanciale (Italian pork jowl bacon that I make) and topped the noodles with that, sauce, a bit of Parmigiano Reggiano and some fresh chopped basil.
The single greatest lesson the garden teaches is that our relationship to the planet need not be zero-sum, and that as long as the sun still shines and people still can plan and plant, think and do, we can, if we bother to try, find ways to provide for ourselves without diminishing the world.
— Michael Pollan
In all the years I lived in my parent’s house, I was a garden slave. I had to work like the lawn care near Denver, NC! My father had back problems and wasn’t able to do heavy work. Throw in the fact that I’m the size of a moose and while poorly inclined to manual labour, was capable of it if pressed, and I spent part of every summer adding endless loads of sand and peat moss to the leaden clay soil of our backyard, digging and shoveling.
When I left home I swore I’d never pick up a shovel in anger again. Gardening? Bah, that’s for chumps.
So, when I settled down in White Rock the very first thing I did was get a community garden plot and set to digging and shoveling.
Gardening doesn’t just get under your fingernails, it gets into your soul. Every year I learn something new, every person I meet in the gardens tells me something important, every season brings challenges and surprises, and wonder of wonders, I really enjoy digging and shoveling. Go figure.
I did take away some lessons from enforced servitude at my parent’s plot: after a few years of amending the heavy clay of my community plot I gave up: even 10 cubic metres of peat and sand didn’t leaven the brick-hard yellowish clay (probably stratified clay related to the Puyallup Interglacial deposits all around the Lower Mainland) so I built boxes and filled them with light, airy topsoil, so friable and free-running it’s like cake mix. It was after that that I made real progress growing crucifers, carrots, peas, tomatoes, potatoes, herbs, lettuces, rhubarb, artichokes, berries, apples, et cetera.
One of the things I’ve learned in the last few years is recognising that not everything you didn’t plant is a weed, and not all weeds are pests. A case in point is purslane. For a decade I cursed the stupid weed, having made the mistake of rototilling it to get rid of it. It can root from a stem, and torn-off stems can remain viable for decades, so a rototiller is the best way to spread it. Oy.
A few year’s back a friend of mine was looking at my garden and openly admired my purslane. When I goggled at this, he goggled right back and asked why I wasn’t harvesting it for the table. Cue the light-bulb: not only did I not have to weed it anymore, I could just go ahead and eat it. That’s my kind of weed. It’s lightly tart, a bit like sorrel that way, and is a rich source of omega-3 oils, as well as a polysaccharide character–that means it’s kind of slimy, but in the same way that okra is, providing a lot of soluble dietary fibre. It wasn’t long before I was tossing purslane into salads and stir fries, and I began looking around for other ways to use it.
One of the dishes is a pork and purslane stew with tomatillos. It was a recipe I found in Taunton’s Fine Cooking magazine, but as with any recipe I ignored the fine print and applied my own cooking preferences to it. It may not be authentic to the original Mexican cook who made it, but it’s a big hit around Chaos Manor.
Step one is to harvest and wash the purslane, and then pick it over. You want mostly the leaves, and the tender little stems near the tip of the plant. You can eat the thicker stems, but they’re a little woody and tend to be bitter.
Step two is to get a big honkin’ pork shoulder roast. It needs to be nice and fatty. Seriously people, stop eating so much lean pork. It doesn’t have good texture and it’s nearly as bland as chicken breast when it’s too lean. Fat is where the flavour and the fat-soluble nutrients are, and eating fat is really good for you. I found a nice-looking four-pounder at my butcher and proceeded to chunk it up in 1.5 inch cubes.
I got a pan smoking hot, tossed the pork cubes with a generous coating of salt and pepper and proceeded to brown it off in small batches.
The trick to getting good flavour out a cut of meat is to brown it well, developing all the richness that Maillard reactions (caramelizing, sort-of) bring to it. That brown goo on the bottom of the pot is rich, tawny gold. The French call it ‘fond’ and it’s the basis for a deeply meaty experience. Don’t waste a speck of it.
While I was browning off the pork I assembled the usual suspects for this dish.
I was in great good luck the day I decided to make this dish: my local greengrocer had fresh tomatillos in stock, for the first time this year. I even had to explain to the nice-but-terribly-young lady at the checkout what they were. No matter, she was truly interested in what the weird old man was cooking up this time.
Onions get sliced up, and the garlic gets finely diced. Because I brown the hell out of my onions (more below) I saved the garlic aside to add after they were done, because garlic gets bitter if it’s the least bit burnt.
I cooked the onions until they were dark brown and completely soft, using the liquid that came out of them to loosen the fond off of the bottom of the pot and bring it to the party. The sugars in the onion will caramelize a long, long way and you can cook the living whee out of them and they’ll add more depth and colour to the stew.
While the onions were cooking way, way down I de-papered and washed the tomatillos. They do look like a really green tomato, but they’re quite different. the flesh is much firmer and less watery, and they’re more citrusy and resiny-sappy than even the greenest tomato.
When the onions had fully submitted to my will, I added about a litre of homemade chicken stock. Getting homemade chickens is the hardest part of making it. I scraped and stirred to make sure the pot was fully deglazed.
With the heat turned to high I slid in the tomatillos and (not shown) the chopped garlic and the toasted and ground cumin.
I added the pork back. I tasted a few pieces and seriously? I could have sat with a fork and a little hot sauce and eaten a pound of that pork, it was so crispy from the fat being well-browned. I could tell even before cooking this was really going to come together.
You can see in this picture that the purslane has been relieved of thick stems and nicely cleaned up. The pot is getting full, but the purslane will cook down and I was planning on boiling off at least 1/3 of the volume.
While the stew was cooking down I put on a pot of rice and prepped plantains. They’re kind of a cross between an actual banana and a starchy vegetable. Fried in butter and hit with salt, a little brown sugar and some lime juice, they’re really tasty. I usually add some allspice and nutmeg and chopped Scotch Bonnet pepper, but this stew is Mexican (ostensibly) not Jamaican, so I held off.
Once the plantains were planted in the pan, it was time to check on the stew.
It had reduced to a wonderfully deep and rich stew, thickened by the purslane. The flavours are complex, but clear. I have a bug about dishes with too many non-complimentary or non-contrasting/counterpointing elements. They seem muddy to me. This stew has the richness and savoury development of the pork cut by the acidity of the tomatillos and the purslane with a bit of a bass note from the cumin and sweetness from the onions, pretty much the way I like my flavour profiles.
Then, to the plate.
A handful of chopped cilantro, a squeeze of lime, a daub of thick yogurt and a dab of habanero sauce and it was a little bit of heaven. There’s enough leftover to freeze for future meals, and I put a bit aside for Hot Tub and Nacho Night. It will make a great topping for nachos, with the addition of some pickled jalapenos to spice it up.
That was the meal that was. Now that I’m back to freelancing again (need a brilliant copywriter? Shoot me an email. I also do education, brand championship, marketing, strategic consulting, and promotions. Let’s talk.) I’ll have time to do more blogging and catch up with some issues and ideas that I have been itching to cover. See you soon.
In her excellent book, Much Depends on Dinner, Margaret Visser says, “The extent to which we take everday objects for granted is the precise extent to which they govern and inform our lives.” If you haven’t read the book, it’s a brilliant meditation on how we are shaped by the quotidian, and how little we appreciate the miracles of everyday life.
I got to thinking about this the other day when I mentioned that I was having grilled cheese and tomato soup for lunch. My friend Babins, a not-very-serious person whose humour I quite appreciate, noted that I only had to add a cup of weak tea to make it a perfect nursing home meal.
I get it: it does sound like a safe, nay, middling, choice for a meal. Something a harried mother might make a fussy kid, or a gentle meal for someone with limited appetite or shy a few horsepower in the mastication department.
But that really misses the potential haecceity of such a meal, the ‘thisness’ that makes it evoke powerful ideas and memories. I’ll wager that the picture above made a few people salivate, a few others tilt their heads and think about getting something to eat, and a few might even have misted up, thinking of the comfort and safety that such a meal conjures in the heart. A grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup isn’t a simple meal: it’s a powerful spell that can not only banish hunger, but fill the soul with contentment and soothe a mind battered by the concerns of the day.
But only if you do it right. I have powerful ideas about what constitutes ‘right’ in the case of grilled cheese (the soup shown above is homemade from tomatoes from my garden, but that’s a blog for another day). I’d rather go hungry (and let’s face it, I can afford to go hungry once in a while) than eat a sandwich with lousy, squishy bread and cheese made from plastic products, fried in a waxy yellow substance suitable more as a floor wax than a butter substitute. Here’s what I do when the urge for crispy, unctuous grilled cheese strikes me.
Quality is of the essence, simplicity the watchword. Use top quality bread–I bought this from a local bakery, but if I have time I make my own. Day-old bread is a little better: too soft and it’s gummy. Slices need to be thick enough for structure, but thin enough to heat through easily. Butter–and only butter, please–is a given, but cheese needs a more thorough discussion.
If I’m making a melt or serving the sandwich alongside something with contrasting flavours I might choose a mellow or nutty cheese, like Muenster or Jarlsberg. If I had a load of spicy pickles I might choose Raclette, which I love. But for the sweetness of tomato soup I prefer cheddar. Choosing a sharp, well-aged version is crucial, but don’t get one that’s terrifically old or high in fat: it still has to melt effectively and ultra high-fat or low-protein cheese can simply liquify under heat, leaving a greasy mess. Don’t use too much: the cheese is for flavour and holding the crispy bread together. A thick gummy layer will cool down and be gloppy before you can finish eating your lunch.
You only need two tools, a frying pan and a spatula. Step one, preheat the pan over medium-low and add a teaspoon of butter to it–don’t butter the bread, because that will put way too much grease in the finished sandwich.
Next up, place both slices of bread in the pan. No cheese yet. let them gently brown for a few minutes to heat and crisp up on one side.
Take the bread out of the pan and assemble the sandwich, crispy side in with the cheese. Ho ho ho! It’s going to be crispy everywhere!
Add another teaspoon of butter to the pan and return the assembled sandwich to it. Careful not to scorch: don’t walk away here, as it’s crucial to get a nice crunch on the outside without scorch. You can flip it a few times if you’re getting too hot on one side. It should only take another three minutes or so.
Serve with your favorite condiment. I’ll often have a little hot mustard to dip the edge of the sandwich in as I go, but more often these days I’ll have a little Sambal Oleek, a crushed chili paste that suits my palate. Also, if you have some homemade pickles, they go down a treat.
How was it? Short lived, unlike the comfort and satiety that it gave me. Now where’s that cup of tea?
Times have been crazy busy at Chaos Manor, both personally and professionally–I’m really excited about Master Vintner, and all the good things we’ve got going on over there–don’t miss my ridiculously controversial blog post, Lies, Damned Lies, And Sulfites: The Facts. I love that topic, especially the angry mail I get from it.
I’m going to do a couple of garden updates this month, and a couple of cooking specials, sharing my love of good food to pair with good wine–and good friends. Many of my garden crops have come in and gone, still others are producing.
There’s currant jam to make, black currant wine, I made a bunch of spanakopita with my spinach crop, and I found time to make a batch of delicious head cheese.
I’ve been brewing pretty frequently as well: I’ve got half a dozen wine projects on the go, experimenting with extended maceration with grapeskins in wine kits and I’ve got a couple of hundred litres of cider to process.
First things first though: I’ve got a nice little dinner planned with minted peas, new potatoes, carrots and broccoli. Fresher food you can not get, and I’m pleased to be eating from my own garden.
It’s been a long radio silence from me for reasons varied and sundry, the principle of which is that I’ve been rascally busy for the last two months, with matters professional and personal. I know that professional technically includes ‘keeping my blog updated’, but that’s one of those important-but-not-urgent things that gets pushed back enough that it sometimes disappears altogether.
Part of my occupation was my community garden plot. We’ve had an extraordinarily good spring and summer–come to think of it, we basically skipped winter as well, with a long, warm period extending from November through to the middle of April, when suddenly it was summer–no spring, no tentative sprouting of plants, just a drop-kick right into full-on heat and sunshine.
This is a pretty big contrast to past years when we were joking about ‘Juneuary’, and bemoaning the endless grey rains, conveniently forgetting the fact that we choose to live in an actual rainforest. Normally I’d plant my garden on the May long weekend (the Monday before May 25th) but this year I had a lot of work to do and got it in on the last week of April.
Part of the work was building five new boxes. I have a community garden located on the site of a reclaimed marsh. While it may have been fertile one hundred years ago, the soil is pretty much hardpan clay, with a few inches of topsoil to cover. For a decade I rototilled, added sand, peat moss, compost and other amendments, but the soil quickly ate that up and returned to its peevish ways.
Two years ago I gave up and built some garden boxes. I make them deeper than is usual, and it seemed to work out really well–the results have been beyond what I could have expected. I expanded from three big boxes and three smaller ones, adding four big boxes and one broad but shallow one for vines like zucchini and squash.
It was quite a bit of work, between pounding stakes, screwing boxes together and then filling them, wheelbarrow by back-breaking wheelbarrow with soil. As I usually claim, I’m in it for the fresh air and exercise: tasty vegetables are just a by-product. But what a by-product! Between top-quality soil and an early, hot and extended growing season, things have been going crazy.
Unfortunately, the garden is a bit disruptive: it’s on an old farm site, but it borders a nesting sanctuary and a marsh. As such, there are marshy-type creatures there, including some that love fresh garden produce. The worst are beavers: you wouldn’t believe the damage a couple of beavers can do to a garden in only a few hours, especially to grape vines (I’ve lost four over the years) and fruit trees–a decade of growing and poof! It’s part of a dam.
When the beavers get bad, the wildlife service comes and hauls them away, relocating them. One doesn’t bother beavers without the help of a professional. First, they’re protected and only licensed hunters and trappers can harvest beavers. Second, they’re incredibly dangerous, and routinely kill people who try to interfere with them.
Beavers aren’t the worst, though, as they’re a once in a while animal. I save most of my ire for rats. Sadly, it’s my fault they’re trouble. If you think about it, the average rat is a timid riverbank rodent eating seeds and the occasional bird’s egg. Plunk down eighty or a hundred garden plots next to that riparian paradise and all the rats see is about a trillion calories of easy-to-get deliciousness. They multiply out of proportion to the natural landscape and start raiding. This year I finally took action, netting my corn and setting traps for them. While it worked, I’m not happy with having to murder rodents whose only crime was to recognise an easy meal. Thus is ever the life of an ethical omnivore.
Aside from the garden, I’ve been busy other ways. The building next to me (as in, right up against my suite) burnt to the ground.
That was exciting, especially the part where the flames shot up over the garden wall and incinerated my magnolia tree.
Sheesh. Not something you want to see out your bedroom window.
This year I did a day long boot camp seminar, teaching a class full of people advanced techniques for making wine, demo’ing equipment and doing things like post-fermentation elevage, as well as four other lectures, an author’s round table, and a couple more.
Those people at Winemaker beat me like the family mule sometimes.
Fortunately there was time to hang out with old friends, enjoy a few noshes
Winemaker was fun, if a bit of a whirlwind. It was really nice to catch up with my pal Wes Hagen. We just don’t get to see each other often enough. As a consequence, we tend to act like ninnies when we do, which is always fun.
After Winemaker it was time to gear up for the AHA national conference in San Diego. I’ve wanted to go to an AHA conference for at least 20 years, but always had some corporate drudgery that made it impossible to attend. This year I went under the auspices of my good friends at Northern Brewer, which got me in everywhere and helped me make some new friends.
Not only did I get to hang out at the NB booth, I got to do some backstagey stuff, like drink a whole keg of Russian Imperial Stout at an afterparty, plus hang out with a thousand-odd homebrewers and taste some of the best dang beers in the whole world, all in one convenient place.
As part of the trip I rented a car and drove down the Pacific Coast Highway. If you’ve never done this, I highly recommend it. It’s the most beautiful drive you can imagine–and just when you think it can’t possibly get any more gorgeous, it does.
I even got in a little whale-watching, when I decided to pull over for the first time in 2 hours and picked the only spot on the coast with a deceased mammal washed up.
I also made my traditional stop at the Tonga Room. It’s the finest Tiki Bar on earth, located in the basement of the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. There’s something about a restaurant that serves drinks the size of punchbowls, and has a boat floating in the middle of the room, the better to facilitate the occasional indoor rainstorm.
Returning home, I had a load of projects to get to. First up, a 4th of July barbecue. No, not grilling: a real barbecue.
Also, there was a seafood boil.
I was also part of the Tri-Cities Cask Festival, and we really had a great time doing our first beers-from-outside-of-Vancouver-city tasting. I was media man, but managed to get in on the keg tapping action (note: all pictures courtesy of Vancouver Photoworks).
I did a little brewing as well, trying to keep my skills sharp.
Let’s see, what else have I been doing . . . oh yes, I conducted a Scotch tasting.
Made some epic sandwiches . . .
Spent some time with my now very old gentleman cat.
And I worked on my winemaking.
Speaking of which, lots of good things coming up in the Master Vintner winemaking world! But this post is long enough with the catching up already. Tune in soon yet more will be revealed.