Sunday Dinner is a great American tradition that has all but disappeared. I want to bring it back. Join me in an exploration of roots food, culinary history, and kitchen folklore. Let's remake Sunday Dinner from scratch.
The concept of foraging brings to mind a post-apocalyptic landscape and survivalist rations, so I wasn’t expecting to start a foraging walk on the manicured lawn of a lush suburban park just north of Washington, D.C.
I squatted on the lawn, watching a bearded man dig through the thick ground cover with a small spade until he pulled up a clump of green by the roots.
“Bittercress,” he said. He pulled off a sprig and put it in his mouth, then passed the rest around to my fellow foragers. “Try a piece. It’s got a little bite, but it’s amazing stir-fried.”
I pulled off a sprig and put it in my mouth, surprised by both its sharpness and its raw freshness. Forager Matt Cohen encouraged us each to paw through the grass in search of our own clump of bittercress, helpfully pointing out the important details: several stalks all growing from a central point, five-to-nine paired leaflets, and a single leaf at the tip of the stalk.
Cohen’s quest expanded into the rest of the park lawn, uncovering chickweed, dandelions, onion grass and garlic mustard. He crushed the leaves of the garlic mustard and encouraged us all to do the same: The aroma is unmistakable. It’s also one of the few clear signs that a plant is safe to eat, Cohen explained. If it smells like garlic or onion, it’s usually not poisonous. In fact, it can be delicious: “Garlic mustard makes an incredible pesto,” he said.
Cohen began his career as a forager 20 years ago, when he abandoned his career as a computer programmer to become a full-time landscaper and avid amateur wild-plant forager. He counsels people to begin foraging as he began, by finding edible plants in the most common areas, suburban lawns.
Cohen supplied us with specific methods for identifying edible plants, but also gave us bigger-picture tips for someone just beginning to investigate wild foraging. Like so many things, foraging begins with the concept: location, location, location.
Matt Cohen’s Top Five Location Tips for Beginning Foragers:
Start in your own backyard if you have one. Learn the most common weeds and find out which ones are edible.
Next, move on to vacant lots, waste areas and spots that are neglected. There are lots of weeds there, but be careful to avoid possible sources of contamination, such as areas frequented by dogs and dog walkers.
Learn about invasive plants, which are usually free for the taking. Public park officials often hire volunteers to remove invasive species from the local ecosystem. You can help the environment while creating a delicious meal.
If you live in a city, check out community gardens. Gardeners are often excited to have help with the never-ending task of weeding.
Always know the land you want to forage and get permission from the owner.
We walked further into the Maryland woods in search of wilder fare. We passed a large patch of snow, when suddenly Cohen excitedly spun around. “Skunk cabbage!” he said. The foul-smelling purplish plant poking through the snow heralds the coming of spring.
Further in the woods Cohen pointed out a series of small, bright green shoots, spreading out in the undergrowth. He explained that its common name is spring beauty (Claytonia virginica), but foragers have a different name for it. They call it fairy spuds. Cohen revealed why when he showed us the diminutive potato that dangled within its roots. It’s a wild food eaten by Native Americans and early settlers alike.
Then Cohen stopped at a bare, leafless birch tree. Using a pocketknife, he drilled a small hole into the trunk, then stuck a small bamboo stick into the hole. We waited patiently, staring at the unmoving stick, until a small crystal drop of birch sap appeared at its end. We each took a turn touching our fingers to each drop as it appeared, then tasting the wet sweet sap.
Cohen then revealed a steel maple tap he had placed in a maple tree just an hour before. Beneath the tap was a jar nearly overflowing with a clear liquid. We passed the jar around and when it came to me, I lifted the light clear liquid and drank. It was like fresh spring water, with an edge of sweetness. It was one of the most amazing things I’d ever tasted — water from inside a tree.
It brought back to me the recent cross-country move I had made, from warm, always-sunny Southern California to the bare, early-spring chill of the East Coast. The lushness of Los Angeles may seem alluring, but it’s easy to become accustomed to abundance and take it for granted. In a world with winter, the first stalks of skunk cabbage are greeted with pleasure. Tiny clumps in the lawn can become a stir-fried delicacy. And deep inside a tree, gathering all winter, a hidden fountain of water courses through the trunk, sweet enough to turn into pancake syrup.
My new home is full of surprises.
Courtesy of Matt Cohen
1 tablespoon olive oil
½ cup field garlic (also known as onion grass)
4 cups bittercress
1-2 tablespoons tamari
1. Heat up the olive oil over medium heat.
2. Chop field garlic bulb and greens.
3. Cook for a few minutes in olive oil.
4. Finely chop bittercress and add to field garlic.
5. Add tamari to taste.
6. Cook another 5 minutes and serve as a side dish.
Each Wednesday we share a classic post from the Eat Sunday Dinner vaults. This essay originally posted on June 22, 2008.
People think I have a secret recipe. I maintain that I do not. The recipe is for “Coconut Cake with Seven Minute Frosting”. It came from my Grandma Willie, who lived in the Shenandoah Valley, and anyone who’s tasted its magical fluffy goodness wants the recipe. I have a strict policy that I will not give anyone the recipe because I know people will have trouble making it and call me to complain. So I tell anyone who asks that the “secret” is in the frosting and that they can look up a recipe for Seven Minute Frosting in any cookbook made before 1960. If the person is insistent, I politely say that I don’t give out the recipe, but that they can come over to my house and I will show them how I make the cake. In the decade that I have been making this cake, nobody has ever taken me up on the offer.
The real secret to my “secret” recipe is that there is no secret. It’s just that Seven Minute Frosting is no longer popular and most people have never tasted it. It isn’t hard to make once you’ve seen it done, but somewhat challenging to learn through a written recipe. I watched my grandmother make her coconut cake for 20 years before it occurred to me that I should try to make it myself. It took me an entire day, several batches of droopy frosting, and numerous phone calls from LA to my grandmother and mother in Virginia before I finished a version of the cake that was edible. My grandmother and mother are patient women who love me, but I realized I didn’t want to be on the receiving end of these phone calls now that I was in on the secret.
There is an art to making this cake and after ten years of trial and error, I can now make my grandmother’s coconut cake without thinking about it much. It’s easy for me to bake the cake after a long workday and ice it the following evening. (I do it this way because the cake is perfect when it’s made 12 to 24 hours in advance. Any less and the icing doesn’t have time to work it’s magic. Any more and the cake starts to get soggy.) By Day Three, I’m ready for any Birthday Party/Christmas Meal/Easter Picnic. But it was a long road to get there.
There are some things that cannot be explained in words. Baking a coconut cake is one of them. It is something that needs to be witnessed to be perfected. There are many ways to make a good cake. Each recipe is particular, often a little peculiar, and delicious, as most things made with love and a certain level of obsession tend to be. So if you want my secret recipe, it’s yours. Just tell me when you want to come over.
I read books and magazines about urban farming the way many people read cookbooks.
Sometimes I intend to use the information I read, but usually I’m just daydreaming. I love visiting urban farms for the same reason. I justify these trips by saying they’re good for my children’s education. But what I’m really after is to see how urban farmers have managed to carve out a bit of undeveloped land to grow crops, raise chickens or wrangle livestock in the midst of the city.
The E. Waldo Ward Ranch in Sierra Madre, Calif., is not an “urban farm” in the usual sense. That is to say, the ranch is not the product of urban land reclamation for agricultural purposes. It was here first, long before suburban sprawl took over. E. Waldo Ward started his ranch in 1891, and the city grew around it.
The ranch is situated in a quiet, “un-ranch-like” suburban neighborhood of Craftsman homes. But behind a stately house with a large lawn, you’ll discover barns, tractors, pick-up trucks and a “backyard” that stretches to the next block. It’s like a farm that’s been carefully camouflaged by surrounding it with suburban homes.
An empire built on marmalade
We parked behind the house and I went inside the small gift shop for our tour. I was greeted by Jeff Ward, fourth-generation rancher. Jeff pointed out the ranch is still a working ranch, even though it’s only 2.5 acres, and it still produces the same product that his great-great-grandfather (E. Waldo himself) started producing more than 100 years ago.
Our first stop on the tour was the original processing room, built in the early 1900s, where the company’s first product was tested. On the day we visited, soft winter light filtered through the many windows that wrapped around the room. It was here that E. Waldo Ward launched an empire based on marmalade.
Edwin Waldo Ward imported two Seville orange trees from Spain in 1891. He planted these new trees in the rich soil of the San Gabriel Valley. As a luxury food salesman, E. Waldo knew that the best marmalade came from Seville oranges, and no one in America was making high-end marmalade.
E. Waldo slowly built a grove of more than 600 trees that covered 30 acres using his two Seville orange trees as grafting stock. By 1915, he believed he could take the big step — quit his job, and launch his product.
Within a few years he was selling massive amounts of his high-end marmalade to his old sales clients, the railroads. He was harvesting oranges, making marmalade and packaging the product in his canning “factory” behind his house.
Into the modern era
Jeff walked us past pallets and a small lift truck to the barn that E. Waldo built in 1902. Today it’s part store-room, part museum — a treasure chest of crazy old machines and relics of early 20th century preserve-making. One side of the tiny museum showcases examples of kitchen tools and family photos of the ranch over the past 100 years. The other side contains a workbench that looked (and smelled) just like my grandfather’s workbench on his farm in Virginia. In these quiet corners it is easy to feel that E. Waldo’s spirit is still very much alive at the ranch.
After leaving the barn, we entered a series of much more modern processing and packing rooms. It is here that Jeff, and his dad Richard, spearhead the marmalade and jam processing operation that still bears E. Waldo’s name.
Jeff also applies the family’s know-how to help others create their own commercial food products. The company now offers consulting and co-packing services, helping small-time entrepreneurs take a handcrafted food product to market, just as E. Waldo did in this same spot more than a century ago.
The tour ended back in the gift store where we were offered the ranch’s high-end jams, marinades and sauces. I managed to taste, and ultimately take home, a number of delicious goodies, including blood orange marmalade and sweet spiced peaches.
As we packed up our jars of preserves and headed back down the path to the city street, I watched my daughters scamper amid the orange trees playing hide and seek. I remembered hiding behind the gnarled old apple trees in my grandfather’s tiny orchard in Virginia in much the same way. Although I was 3,000 miles away from my family’s farm, I couldn’t help feeling that I was giving my daughters a glimpse of their own agricultural roots. This tiny piece of old California rancho history conjured up the spirit of 19th century while creating a vivid memory of the pleasures of living in Southern California today.
This Sunday Dinner Questionnaire originally posted on October 20, 2010.
Fridgeir Helgason is a photographer, chef, and Viking, though not necessarily in that order. When I spoke to him, he had just ended his second season as Executive Chef at Sequoia High Sierra Camp and was days away from a cross-country move back to New Orleans, after living in Los Angeles for a number of years. He’ll be cooking at Eiffel Society, the latest New Orleans nightspot to bring together food, music, art, and even urban farming. (We’re looking forward to Fridgeir’s full report on the restaurant and we’re hoping for a few photos to post on the site.)
Fridgeir and I met the day after he came down from the mountain, which was in the midst of a giant hail and snowstorm. He told me it was like the mountain was saying, “Go Home!” And he did. But from June through the beginning of October, Friedgeir cooked three meals a day for guests at the camp and hiked in between meals. When I asked him what he cooked for breakfast, he said, “Everything. I make a breakfast buffet with my own homemade granola, fresh fruit, apple-smoked bacon from Wisconsin, hash browns, and eggs any style, except poached. I once worked at a place where I made too many poached eggs. After that I took an oath that I would never poach an egg again, and since I’m a Viking I can’t go back on my oath.” Fridgeir smiles when he says this, and although he can be very funny, Fridgeir is also true to his Viking heritage and says EXACTLY what he means.
I met Fridgeir first as a photographer, then as a chef, and I eventually realized that what I’d been seeing all along was his Viking personality shining through both of these personas. Fridgeir recently had an incredible solo exhibition at the Reykjavik Arts Festival which merged his love of photography and his Icelandic heritage. He received a grant from the city of Reykjavik to photograph the neighborhood in which he grew up and his love of his home country is clearly apparent in this work. It is also clear that Fridgeir sees beauty in forgotten and abandoned places, a theme which can be found throughout his photographic work.
Several years ago I went to an exhibition of Fridgeir’s photographs at his mother’s couture dress shop in Los Angeles. During the opening Fridgeir and his mother entertained guests with stories about Iceland and served cups of Icelandic lamb stew that Fridgeir had made to celebrate the occasion. Eating this rich, warm stew while viewing the work made the remote Icelandic landscapes and abandoned buildings come alive. The combination of great photography and delicious comfort food created a sense of place that allowed me to enter the work in a tangible way and it was irresistible.
I am now the proud owner of Fridgeir’s photograph of an abandoned herring factory in Djupavik, Iceland, where his mother once worked. At the opening, Fridgeir’s mother told me her story of working in the herring factory. Like the photograph, her story was rich, complex, and unusual. When I look at the photograph I think about what it must have been like to clean fish day after day in a remote Icelandic village and I am reminded that my life could be worse. Or better. The answer depends on the day.
The Official Sunday Dinner Questionnaire: Fridgeir Helgason
1. What is your favorite food to eat? Why? Soul food. Because it’s yummy and unpretentious. It’s also my favorite food to cook.
2. What is your favorite food to cook? How often and under what circumstances do you make it? Every time I cook I make soul food. It’s all about the love, man.
3. Who or what is your greatest culinary influence? Why is he/she/ it an inspiration to you?
Annie Kernney, Gerard Maras, Greg Sonnier, and Wendy Jordan. All chefs I’ve worked for. Because they busted my balls.
4. What is your favorite kitchen utensil and why do you love it?
Zester. It’s all about the zester. I love to zest. The zest [of citrus fruit] makes it sing when it comes into your mouth. I have a cheap zester and then I chop stuff up. (Editor’s Note: Fridgeir is not a fan of the microplaner.)And a spoon. You have to taste everything you make.
5. What did you eat for dinner this past weekend?
I don’t remember. But I can tell you what I cooked. The Sunday menu was carrot fennel soup, then for the appetizer I did my Icelandic fish cake, which is based on my grandmother’s recipe. It’s THE quintisensial Icelandic peasant comfort food that every mother or grandmother or wife made for whoever was killing the fish. You make it by poaching haddock in white wine, adding beshamel sauce, garlic and onion, and boiled potatoes. Then you cool it down, make it into cakes and dip it in an egg wash and coat the cakes in panko bread crumbs. Panko is IT, everything else is shit. Then saute them in canola oil and then pop them in the oven for 5 minute. I served them with a creole sauce.
For the main course I made andouille and pecan-stuffed pork chops with carmelized brussel sprouts, apple-smoked bacon, and sweet potatoes. The sauce I invented for that is a root beer glaze. (Ed. Note: Fridgeir is obsessed with root beer and orders it by the case. He says his root beer sauce was created accidentally. One day he was standing at the stove drinking a root beer and decided to pour it in the pan when he was making a beurre blanc. Fridgeir says, “It’s the bomb. Tastes like christmas.”) For dessert, we had something called Lemony Goodness. It’s a lemon custard thingy. I don’t do desserts. Most chefs don’t, actually.
6. When you were growing up, did you eat Sunday dinner or another meal that brought your friends and family together on a regular basis? If so, what you you eat? My grandmother, bless her heart… I love her but she’s the worst cook on planet earth, would cook a leg of lamb every Sunday. There were no fresh vegetables in Iceland when I was growing up except for rutabega and potatoes. It being a sunday dinner, she would open up a can of green beans and carrots and another can of red cabbage. She would cook the leg of lamb until it was the consisency of a shoe. A couple of years ago, I roasted a leg of lamb for my grandmother and her sisters. I cooked it a perfect medium and they thought I was trying to kill them with raw meat.
7. Do you have a garden? If so, what do you grow in it?
No. I live in downtown LA. But I’m moving back to New Orleans and hoping to get a place with a garden. (Ed. Note: Fridgeir is going to be working at Eiffel Society, a new restaurant where they grow most of their own vegetables and herbs.)
8. What is your ultimate food fantasy? To work at French Laundry in Napa Valley, El Bulli (in Catalonia, Spain), Noma in Copenhagen. Why eat there when you can work there?
9. If you could choose to have any person living or dead prepare a meal for you, who would it be? What would you want to eat?
Paul Bocuse. A twenty course classic french dinner with lots of butter and fois gras and truffle.
10. Fill in the blank:“The most important element of a good meal is ________.” Love.
Each Wednesday we share a classic post from the Eat Sunday Dinner vaults. This essay originally posted on January 31, 2010.
I recently went to an amazing event at Barnsdall Art Park called “Cup Thoughts”. I don’t get out of the house much these days, but I was so excited about this event that I wrangled a babysitter and requested to go to this event in honor of my birthday re-do. (My original birthday celebration had been cancelled because we all came down with a nasty stomach flu!)
Cup Thoughts was essentially a giant communal coffee break with fellow artists, and hosted by a gracious and fantastically kooky artist named Nicola Atkinson. Officially, it was a public artwork by Nicola Atkinson Does Fly. Nicola and I will hopefully be having an e-mail correspondence to discuss the event and the concept of communal meals that I can post on this blog in future, but in the meantime, check out Nicola’s website Nadfly Cup Thoughts for more information and additional photos.
The idea behind Cup Thoughts was simple, but its execution required a vast network of collaborators and participants. Nicola hosted two separate events at which two different groups of people in two different countries would enjoy a cup of coffee from the same set of cups. She served coffee from cups she made herself, and a special cake, which she prepared from a recipe she created for the event, and sang a song she wrote in honor of the event. The project took place over a two year period and were based on the idea of the “Fika”, which is a Swedish tradition of enjoying a public coffee break with friends, family or colleagues. As Nicola describes the project:
The starting point of Cup Thoughts is a simple question– how do we take our coffee? Do we have it “to go” as we pursue our busy lives or do we prefer to take a break and engage in a more socialized ritual? What if we took a proper break with our work fellows for ten minutes every day? What if we detached ourselves from our computers, iphones and Blackberries? How much more productive and creative would we be together? This art project sets out to discover the effects of the “Fika” on people and their work environment.
The first fika took place in Lidköping, Sweden, and the second event, which I attended, was part of the Fika Shop that Nicola created in the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery in Barnsdall Park. Throughout the run of the show, visitors could buy coffee and cake, but on this night, a group of about 100 people got together to enjoy an evening of food, conversation and entertainment. The overall feeling was that of good-natured excitement and slight confusion that is bound to occur whenever a group of artists are asked to participate in bringing someone else’s idea to fruition. Before the event, Nicola sent out an e-mail reminder, along with a note encouraging us to communicate with the other people at our table about table decorations. She told us that when she hosted the event in Sweden, she brought flowers from her own garden to decorate the tables, and thought it would be nice if we did the same here.
My table-mates and I were quite active in gathering flowers, candles, and hand-made pottery vases to decorate our table and it turned out great. Decorating the table gave us a goal and way to learn a bit about each other in a non-threatening, less awkward way than starting with the usual “Uh… so… what do you do?” I met a number of fellow local artists as a result and thoroughly enjoyed myself. The concept and entertainment was just unusual enough to force us all to set aside our preconceptions about what art should be and get into the spirit of the event.
Nicola helped encourage this communal spirit throughout the run of the show. She offered haircuts to anyone who wanted one and on the day I visited, she was out on the gallery’s balcony giving her first haircut. (There seemed to be a complex payment schedule based on a first-come, first-served basis, but the haircut I witnessed cost the recipient a dollar.) We all chatted as she worked and I was asked to give an opinion about the haircut, which was quite nice and suited her client well. Then I loaned them my compact mirror so the newly coiffed artist could check out his new do.
When the event was over, we were offered the opportunity to buy the cups we drank out of. Apparently the fika participants in Sweden were jealous that we could buy the cups, but that didn’t stop me. I now own Cup #35 and drink out of it every once in a while, but only when I have a rare moment alone. Drinking out of this cup is not for the frenzy of my daily life with two toddlers. I like to drink from this cup when the girls are napping and I can drink in peace, contemplating the event and wondering how I can incorporate more fika-esque moments into my life.
On this first day of Spring, my thoughts turn to planting tomatoes and to the advice of Craig LeHoullier. A tomato adviser for Seed Savers Exchange and author of “Epic Tomatoes: How to Select & Grow the Best Varieties of All Time,” LeHoullier is an expert in the field, having developed, introduced and named almost 200 tomato varieties.
Over the past 30 years, LeHoullier has brought a number of heirloom tomato varieties back from the brink of extinction. Perhaps his most notable contribution is the Cherokee Purple, a tomato that came to him as an envelope of seeds sent by John D. Green and is now one of the most popular varieties in the Seed Exchange catalog.
LeHoullier’s love for heirloom tomatoes began as a hobby, but after retiring from his career as a chemist and project manager in the pharmaceutical industry in 2007, this passion blossomed into a second career. LeHoullier lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, with his wife, Susan, and is known within the heirloom tomato community as NCTomatoMan.
I caught up with LeHoullier before the launch of his book tour and got his advice on how to successfully grow heirloom tomatoes in my own backyard.
Winter gardening: prime time for research
LeHoullier says he gets about a month long break between digging up the last of his dead tomato plants each fall and the appearance of the first seed catalogs, when the real work of planning the garden begins. This lull in the action is prime time for research. Online sites such as Dave’s Garden, Tomatoville and GardenWeb can provide a good starting point for new gardeners. LeHoullier recommends searching for “garden discussion groups,” “tomato discussion groups” and “top 10 tomatoes” to begin your reading.
Determine your gardening goals
LeHoullier points out that gardening is a personal experience and that “Each one of us will choose how much of our lives we’ll pour into it.” Growing great tomatoes requires figuring out what kind of gardener you are — or would like to be.
LeHoullier suggests that you think about what you want to get out of your tomato garden. Before you place your seed order, consider whether you want to garden because you want to grow food; because it’s a good hobby to work off a few extra pounds; or because you want to use it as a teaching tool for your friends, family or children.
Ask yourself: Do I want a high yield? Am I looking for huge tomatoes to impress my friends? Do I want an incredible flavor experience? Or do I want to grow something that I’ve never seen before? The answer to these questions will help you focus your research on the tomato varieties that suit your gardening goals.
Figure out what kind of tomatoes you like to eat
Tomatoes come in a wide variety of colors, flavors and sizes. Most of us have not tried many of the thousands of tomato varieties that exist in the world. LeHoullier believes that the best way to know which tomatoes you should grow is to decide which tomatoes you’d like to eat. Visit farmers markets and stores such as Whole Foods to try tomato varieties you’ve never eaten and notice which flavor profiles excite you.
Get to know your gardening climate
Understanding your growing season is crucial. If you live in a warm climate where summer lasts more than 150 days, then the maturity date doesn’t matter much. But if you’re in a colder climate, pay close attention to the maturity date of the tomatoes you want to grow. Talk to friends in your neighborhood who are avid gardeners and vendors at local farmers markets to see which tomato varieties grow best for them.
Seeds vs. seedlings
LeHoullier says that “At a basic level, people will want to understand that growing tomatoes from seed opens up the world for you to try different colors, sizes and shapes.” That said, starting tomatoes from seeds can be a tricky proposition. Consider your capabilities and experience with growing tomatoes from seed. If your tolerance for failure is low, begin by planting seedlings.
Hybrids vs. heirlooms
Although LeHoullier says he “won’t make the blanket statement that some make that heirlooms are always more disease susceptible and difficult to grow than hybrids,” he does allow that heirlooms can be finicky and that “every tomato — including the hybrid varieties — has its own personality and foibles.”
Start small (Do as I say, not as I do.)
After you’ve familiarized yourself with the seemingly endless choices in the tomato world, it’s time to get planting. Showing restraint is key, especially for new gardeners.
Raising thousands of tomato varieties isn’t for everyone. (Or in fact, for most people.) LeHoullier cautions new growers to start small, in spite of the fact that he has a huge and ever-growing tomato collection. LeHoullier identifies himself as a “hobby collector” — he’s into beer brewing, roasting his own coffee, bird watching, kayaking, and has countless other hobbies in addition to what he calls “the tomato thing.” He describes himself as a “seeker who is never satisfied.” It is this tendency that has led LeHoullier to raise a collection of tomatoes that now hits the 3,000 mark.
One reason that LeHoullier’s collection has grown so large is that he has inherited the collections of gardeners who have become overwhelmed. “People send me entire collections because they can’t take care of them.”
Disappointment is an opportunity for learning
A scientist by training and experience, LeHoullier sees gardening as “an exciting hobby to learn stuff” and reminds us that “Each year, X number of plants are gonna die. Critters are gonna eat another bunch of plants, but that’s great because we learn from it and the next year we try different things to avoid that problem, knowing that other problems will arise.”
The bottom line
LeHoullier asserts some basic goals: Do a lot of searching. Ask a lot of questions. Make an accurate assessment of your interest level. Taste every tomato you can get your hands on. Recognize that there aren’t a lot of hard and fast answers to gardening questions. There are just, as LeHoullier says, “an infinite number of variables for every act a gardener takes.”
Perhaps most important, LeHoullier cheers us on in our tomato-growing efforts by reminding us that, “If you can find them, and buy them, and taste them, and like them, there’s no reason you can’t grow them.”
Each Wednesday we share a classic post from the Eat Sunday Dinner vaults. This essay originally posted on March 28, 2010.
Over the weekend my husband decided we should harvest our first loquats. I’d seen them up there in the trees and thrown a few into the bushes when the girls started tripping on them, but it hadn’t occurred to me to eat them. (I’m from Virginia and the loquat is not a fruit I’d ever seen before we moved into this house six months ago.) Once he mentioned it, it did seem like a fun family activity, but I never thought it would lead to the discovery of my youngest daughter’s favorite food. Turns out, Annabel loves loquats. And she couldn’t get enough of them. Tim spent 20 minutes peeling and seeding these tiny fruits for her, and when we thought she’d had her fill (or more accurately, we didn’t think her tummy could hold any more), he stopped and tried, unsuccessfully, to distract her with her favorite purple ball.
Annabel would not be deterred and ran around the yard picking up whole loquats and happily shoving them into her mouth, turning her back to us to hide her prize. (Incidentally, a loquat contains four large, hard, slippery seeds which are just the right size for a 1 year old to choke on, so I was a little concerned when I realized what she was up to.) My older daughter was having such a great time collecting oranges and watching her father’s death-defying avocado collection techniques that we let Annabel run wild for a while. But watching my husband stand on his toes on top of a rickety chair wedged precariously into a raised garden bed while waving a fully extended fruit picker over my daughters’ heads was eventually too much for me. We finally had to go inside to keep everyone safe and nobody was happy. But until that moment it was an idyllic morning. The sun was shining, a gentle breeze was blowing, and our backyard was yielding it’s bounty. Even the wild parrots came to enjoy the harvest with us. Sadly, wild parrots do not like being photographed when they’re searching for food, and having a 3 year old clinging to my leg didn’t help the photographic process, so there’s no visual record of this amazing sight. You’ll have to trust me. It was a great day.
Driving down a country road in Virginia on a winter afternoon, I was definitely not thinking of vintage kitchen tools. Which is odd for me, since the topic is often running quietly in the back of my mind in many situations, much to my family’s chagrin.
My husband and I were enjoying a beautiful wintry drive in the rolling countryside of the Virginia Piedmont when we passed a weathered storefront piled high with old furniture and an ancient sign that read “Farmer’s Service Center.”
Suddenly I was thinking about vintage kitchen tools again.
While my husband was uttering, “That looks like an interesting place,” I had already swerved off the main drag and pulled into the parking lot. I was on a mission.
We were greeted at the front door by a friendly woman named Joan Tanner. She asked whether we were looking for anything special and I replied, as I always do in such places, “Kitchen tools.”
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m obsessed with old kitchen tools. I don’t mind if these items are a little battered and worse for wear. In fact, I love them all the more because I know that some cook used and cherished this tool before I was born.
I always keep a mental list of kitchen equipment I’d love to find, and at the top of this list is a lid for my Guardian Ware 2-quart Dome Cooker. It’s a 60-year-old a pot with a glass lid that belonged to my grandmother. When I broke the glass lid almost two years ago, I wept. I’ve been on the hunt for a replacement lid ever since. And I thought this might the place to find it.
I wandered into a cramped room overflowing with sleds, vintage lunchboxes and collectibles jars. Tanner plucked something down from a large nail in the wall. “You might like to see this.”
She handed me a small rusted object with a handle and a crank. “Do you know what it is?” she grinned.
I must have appeared confused and she quickly told me that I was holding a nutmeg grater. I’d been sure it was a grater of some sort, but I’d never seen a nutmeg grater like this before. I knew at this moment that I’d discovered a very special place, but I didn’t know the full story yet.
Marveling at the collection
Joan walked me to the sliding garage door at the back of the room and said, “Be sure to check out the back room before you leave.” With these words, she slid open a heavy wooden door, revealing a massive warehouse behind the storefront, filled from floor to ceiling with rows and rows ancient, rusty, dust-covered treasures. When the door opened, I felt like Dorothy walking into Oz.
Within 10 minutes I found a lid to my grandmother’s pot. And it was aluminum, not glass, so I’d spare myself the agony of another lid-breaking incident. Soon after, I found a double-boiler that was nearly identical to my grandmother’s. I inherited this double-boiler and I now use it to make my grandmother’s classic seven-minute frosting for coconut cake. After my mother gave me the double-boiler years ago, she quickly regretted replacing it with the new non-stick version, which never again produced the classic taste created by the battered old aluminum version.
So I bought my mother the double-boiler. And because there was another on almost exactly like it, I bought that too. Just in case.
As we traveled through the tiny paths created between the towering piles of stuff, we marveled at the cider press, pottery jugs and the basket full of rolling pins.
This process took more than an hour and a half and if it hadn’t been so cold, we might still be there. When we reached the warmth of the wood stove back in the front room, Tanner and I talked about how she got started in the antiques business.
She and her husband Bobby originally opened the place as a feed store in 1956. On a fateful day in 1990, Tanner cleared off one small shelf in the front room to display her bottle collection. Her husband Bobby told her, “Oh, nobody’ll come in here to look for that.” He was wrong. Today, the store still stocks feed, but only in a small area behind the main building. As Tanner puts it with a grin, “You’ve heard of people dealing out of the back room?” Clearly, animal feed takes a back seat to Tanner’s beloved antiques. She loves her stuff and it shows.
Like Tanner, I appreciate the craftsmanship that went into the making of these old tools and the love that’s expressed in their weathered hardware. Our society values the new, the slick, the shiny. But throughout the country you can find these secret treasure troves; the country stores and flea markets where love and heart and craft are still collected and kept. These tools are waiting for the next person to find and love them. I still keep my mental list of kitchen tools to find. But now I’ve also started a mental list of places to find these items and Joan Tanner’s Feed Store is at the top of that list.
The Feed Store 105 Church Street Madison, VA 22727 (540) 948-4483
This Sunday Dinner Questionnaire originally posted on November 29, 2010. We republish it today to congratulate Carol for winning the IACP award for Best Food Writing 2016 in the Personal Essay/Memoir Writing category for her essay “Churnin'”.
I knew about Carol Penn-Romine long before I actually met her. We both belong to the Culinary Historians of Southern California and I’d seen Carol from a distance many times, but I’d always been afraid to talk to her. After all, she was a well-respected food writer, chef, and culinary tour guide who knew everyone in the club. I was a television producer who hung around the edges of the food world on occasion. We officially met for the first time in the food line following a lecture about a year ago. I remember that Carol was very kind and funny and I was excited to have made a blip on her radar. Once we got talking she revealed that she was in the middle of a project called 52 Cuisines in which she was sampling food from 52 different cultures in 52 weeks. I read more about it on her blog Hungry Passport and I was hooked.
This photo of the Swedish Solögaon (at left) is from the 52 Cuisines project, for which Carol and the man she refers to as “Himself” made a mini-smorgasbord. I asked for details about the Swedish Solöga, which I knew meant “Sun’s Eye”, but that was the extent of my knowledge. Her blog report provided a lot of great information, as well as a recipe. Carol wrote back saying, “It’s so striking to look at and so tasty that it would be good to have occasionally just for the heck of it. You don’t have to be doing any international dining adventure to enjoy that one.” You gotta love that kind of enthusiasm, and although I probably won’t make a Swedish Solöga anytime soon, I do smile every time I see the photograph. Of course, that’s exactly why Carol sent it.
Carol has an amazing sense of humor about food, which is a treat. She also wins the prize for making me laugh more than anyone else in questionnaire history by saying that her ultimate food fantasy was to have “an ever-bearing bacon tree”, along with a few other genius ideas. But enough from me… I hope you’ll enjoy the questionnaire and the delicious-sounding recipe for “Roasted Garbanzos and Swiss Chard” at the end of this blog report. Thanks, Carol!
What’s for Sunday dinner after Thanksgiving: roasted garbanzos with Swiss chard.
Photo courtesy Andy”Himself” Romine.
The Official Sunday Dinner Questionnaire
1. What is your favorite food to eat? Why?
Hickory-smoked bacon. It’s just the right balance of pork, smoke and salt. I know bacon is trendy these days—or at least the business of putting it into all sorts of sweets and desserts is. But as a farm girl, I ate bacon every day of my life from the time I grew teeth until I left home for college. And since then, too. It has to be good bacon, though, not that mass-produced stuff lining the cold section of the grocery. That’s why I bring back packages of smoked pork in my luggage whenever I return from a visit back home in Tennessee. The local producers there do an amazing job. I stop by Tripp Country Hams in Brownsville, which is about halfway between Memphis and our family farm, and stock up on ham, bacon, cracklins and hog jowl.
2. What is your favorite food to cook? Why?
My mother’s beef roast. I love both the results and the procedure itself—the repetition of those steps gives me a feeling of connection. I’ve never had any beef as satisfying prepared any other way. I don’t make it often anymore, mainly because it’s difficult these days to find the required slabs of beef fat to wrap around the roast. It used to be that I could go to the meat counter and ask for several pieces of fat to be held for me when I bought the roast. But most meat you find in the grocery today has already had every scrap of fat cut away before it ever reaches your neighborhood market. Seriously, how many people go to the store and ask for hunks of fat? Anyway, the procedure involves searing the roast on all sides, then salting and peppering it, wrapping it in slabs of beef fat and slow cooking it overnight in a crock pot set to low—with no liquid. The next day it will loosen and fall into a hundred succulent bites as you lift it out of the crock pot. You don’t have to eat all that fat, of course, but this method of cooking breaks down any resistance the roast might have had if you’d just cooked it in water or some other non-fat liquid. I love beef fixed this way because it makes enough for several meals, and the more times you heat it, the better it gets.
3. Who or what is your greatest culinary influence? Why is he/she/it an inspiration?
Every unnamed and anonymous person who ever fed me the simplest food, like a serving of green beans cooked in bacon drippings in a well-seasoned iron skillet until they’re as black as the skillet. They have no nutritional value left in them at that point, but they’re good and they’re humbly and honestly prepared. Home cooks who manage to crank out the good stuff three times a day, every day are my heroes. I took them for granted until I grew up and discovered what was involved in performing that feat.
4. What is your favorite kitchen utensil? Why?
My chef’s knife is pretty important, because of how vital it was to most everything I did in culinary school and its daily use since then. I even treasure the callus at the base of my right index finger worn there by its constant rubbing against the top of the blade. But if I’m completely honest, I’d have to say my favorite kitchen utensil is the Homer Simpson bottle opener.
5. What did you eat for dinner this past Sunday?
After the Thanksgiving gorge fest we were weary of the leftovers and needed something that wasn’t quite so rich. My favorite penitential dish that doesn’t taste penitential is roasted garbanzos with Swiss chard, and that’s what we had for Sunday dinner. I’ve never liked garbanzos all that much, except made into hummus, but when you roast them, they develop the most wonderfully creamy texture. This is healthy stuff that seems really decadent with all those great textures and flavors, and it’s one of our new favorite meals.
6. When you were growing up, did you eat Sunday dinner or another meal that brought friends and family together on a regular basis? If so, what do you eat?
In the South, dinner is the meal you eat in the middle of the day, so dinner was what we rushed home to after church. My grandparents ate with us, and sometimes we went to their house, just down the road, and ate with them. The centerpiece of Sunday dinner was quite often that beef roast I’ve already mentioned, along with green beans, black-eyed peas, homemade relish, cornbread and iced tea…a good assortment of standard Southern fare. Sunday supper, which was the evening meal, was typically whatever was leftover from dinner. Or maybe breakfast-for-supper, which I still love. When I don’t know what I want to eat, it’s usually breakfast that I want.
7. Do you have a garden? If so, what do you grow in it?
I have the most pathetic of gardens, an embarrassment to my rural Tennessee upbringing. In the South plants beg to grow, and they require no irrigation and prodding. I still can’t figure out how to grow anything in the Southern California desert climate and soil. However, the herbs in my garden actually do quite well, and I take extraordinary pleasure in being able to dash out the back door and pick fresh ones to toss into the pot. I love brushing my hands through them and coming away smelling heavenly. I’ve even seen our cat, Prima, fall facedown into the rosemary and sleep deeply. I guess we both groove on that aromatherapy thing.
8. What is your ultimate food fantasy?
To have an ever-bearing fig tree and next to it, an ever-bearing bacon tree. And between them a magic well from which I could draw unlimited bucketsful of great cheeses, olives, chocolates and wine. That’s really not so outlandish, is it?
9. If you could choose to have any person living or dead prepare a meal for you, who would it be? What would you want to eat?
Either Carême or Escoffier, because I’m curious to find out firsthand just what it was that made them so very important to fine cuisine as we know it. And I’d eat whatever they chose to prepare for me. I know it would be exquisite.
10. Fill in the blank: “The most important element of a good meal is ______.”
A cloth napkin. I say this because I think it really brings home for me that dining should not be a hasty gobble-and-go proposition. Sitting down, unfolding a cloth napkin and placing it in my lap tells me this is an experience to slow down and enjoy, a meal to savor and a time to share. A cloth napkin elevates even the simplest meal in a way that a paper napkin or paper towel—or a sleeve!—just doesn’t.
Roasted Garbanzos and Swiss Chard. Photo courtesy Carol Penn-Romine.
Roasted Garbanzos with Swiss Chard
Makes four servings as a main course or about six as a side. This is an easy dish to modify for vegans—just sub vegetable broth for chicken and omit the cheese garnish.
2 15.5-ounce cans garbanzos, drained
5 fat garlic cloves, peeled & quartered long ways (remove core if it’s green)
2 shallots, sliced
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
½ cup olive oil
salt and black pepper, to taste
2 Tbsp. olive oil
5 more fat garlic cloves, peeled and sliced
2 shallots, sliced
2 bay leaves
2 bunches Swiss chard, stems removed & leaves chopped coarsely
1 cup chicken broth
Red pepper flakes, to taste
Salt and black pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 350°F. Pour garbanzos into square baking pan or dish, top with garlic, shallots, fennel seeds and bay leaves and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Drizzle with olive oil and cover with foil. Roast until garlic is tender (not caramelized), 35 to 40 minutes. While garbanzos are in the oven, prep ingredients to make the chard. (If garbanzos finish before you’re ready to cook the chard, just leave the foil on and set aside.)
Heat olive oil in a large pan over medium heat. When it begins to shimmer add garlic, shallots and bay leaves. Cover and cook until shallots are tender, about 2 to 3 minutes. Remove, cover, add half of the chard and toss until leaves wilt, about 2 minutes. Add remaining chard and repeat. Then add broth and red pepper flakes, cover and cook until chard is tender, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes (you might need to remove lid to allow most of the broth to evaporate). Season with salt and pepper.
Remove bay leaves from garbanzos and chard. Pour garbanzos and their oil over the chard and toss over medium heat until warmed through. Adjust seasonings to taste, garnish with a grating of parmigiano-reggiano and serve.
High-end vinegar is going through something of a renaissance among foodies, chefs, and home cooks. Vinegar is alive. Literally. At least before it’s pasteurized—a step taken by most manufacturers to make vinegar shelf stable. I’m on a quest to make my own vinegar, the kind that must be consumed quickly while at its peek acidity level, or fed at regular intervals to keep it alive. This living vinegar is tastier, healthier– and can give you better bragging rights — than the expensive pasteurized product you’re likely to find in gourmet food stores.
I dove into the world of DIY vinegar at the home of America’s greatest promoter of Maker lifestyle: Thomas Jefferson. The Monticello Heritage Harvest festival is an annual celebration of food, history and the do-it-yourself spirit of the American Revolution; where authors and PhDs rub shoulders with urban homesteaders; a gathering that my husband calls “Historians ‘n’ Hippies.” My guides in the arts of vinegar production come from both ends of this spectrum: Sandor Katz, author of The Art of Fermentation, and Gabriele Rausse, a pioneer of modern Virginian winemaking, and Director of Gardens and Grounds at Monticello.
Ancient Roots of Vinegar Culture
Vinegar appears in the human record at the dawn of civilization. Vinegar residue has been found in Egyptian urns from 3,000 BC. Vinegar is mentioned as a tasty treat in the Bible and as medicinal treatment for colds in the works of Hippocrates. Apple cider vinegar was a cure-all in colonial America, but by the time of the American Revolution, people like Thomas Jefferson explored vinegar as the ultimate addition to fine dining. Jefferson’s years in Paris made him a connoisseur of vinegar – and culinary historian Damon Lee Fowler declared Jefferson was positively “addicted” to tarragon vinegar.
Making Your Own
There are extremely elaborate, highly-measured ways to accomplish the transformation of fruit juice or wine into fine vinegar. But Sandor Katz takes a loose, DIY approach to the process. Acetic-acid-producing bacteria called Acetobacter and yeast—the two microorganisms required for vinegar- making– are all around us. “You don’t have to be a microbiologist,” said Katz, when I expressed my concerns about making fruit scrap vinegar. “Not to worry: vinegar makes itself.” My process began with fruit scraps. While making a pie, I found myself with a pile of peach skins, and several less-than-perfect chunks of fruit. I would begin with this – starting the process of turning fruit sugar into alcohol.
Step One: Sugar to Alcohol
Vinegar requires two steps to turn fruit scraps into vinegar. First, yeast naturally found on fruit turns sugars in the fruit into alcohol—a process called alcoholic fermentation. And second, Acetobacter converts the alcohol into acetic acid. A home-brewer or winemaker will use specific types of fruit sugar and add a specific type of yeast to the mixture. For my purposes, I just mixed the fruit scraps with a sugar solution in a Mason jar following Katz’s recipe in his first book Wild Fermentation. Then I covered the top with a paper towel secured with a rubber band, and let the natural yeasts on the fruit (and in my kitchen) find their way to it. Yeast consumed the sugar, excreting carbon dioxide bubbles and ethanol in the process. I gently swirled the mixture around in the jar every once in a while and within a week, I could see the telltale bubbles that showed alcohol was being created.
Step Two: Alcohol to Acetic Acid
My goal was not low-alcohol peach hooch. There’s a second step: turning alcohol into an acetic acid mixture that tastes delicious. “The word we use is French,” Katz said. “Vin Aigre just means ‘sour wine.’ It is the consolation prize when alcohol goes bad.” I strained out the chunks of peach skin to stop the alcohol-creation process, then put the golden liquid into a new container with a scrap of thin kitchen towel over the top of the jar. Sandor Katz’s approach to this step is extremely simple: just let it sit there. The peach alcohol soon began to get stringy gelatinous threads that eventually massed into a noticeable translucent layer on top of my peach mixture. At first glance it seemed like a food safety disaster, but it’s actually the start of the vinegar magic.
This was the beginning of the “vinegar mother” – a gelatinous membrane made mostly of cellulose produced by the Acetobacter. It is the “starter” from which more vinegar can be created. After two weeks, a quick whiff at the top of the jar revealed the powerful tang of transformation.
I poured some of the vinegar into a shot glass. It tasted sharp, with a hint of sweetness – a distinct peach taste to the delicious acidy liquid. I plan to let this sit for a couple of more weeks, until it reaches its peak of acidity. I have a dozen plans for this: salad dressing, marinade, potato salad, even mayonnaise.
Making fruit scrap vinegar was an interesting experiment, but this kind of live vinegar needs to be used fairly quickly, while at it’s maximum acidity level, or heat-pasteurized and stored in a closed narrow-necked bottle for long-term storage. I wasn’t interested in the details of heating and storing this kind of vinegar safely. And it is crucial to pay attention to these details because as the acidity level in vinegar drops, other microorganisms can start to take over—a potentially dangerous situation from a food-safety standpoint. I wanted to find an easy sustainable way to keep vinegar alive in my own kitchen, so I turned to a classic Italian method for making wine vinegar.
AN ALTERNATE STEP: ACQUIRE A MOTHER
The traditional method of making vinegar with wine begins with acquiring a “mother of vinegar” from a vinegar-making friend or from a wine-making supply store. I was generously given a small jar of this vinegar mother by Gabriele Rausse, Monticello’s Director of Gardens and Grounds. A passionate wine-maker and vinegar-maker, Rausse makes vinegar in his home every day using a “mother” that came from his grandmother’s house in Italy. When I asked him how long he had had his vinegar mother, he told me, “Since I was born.”
I was honored. My vinegar mother had its birth on another continent three generations ago. But such a legacy requires dedication and focus. I learned about the care and feeding of vinegar mothers at Rausse’s vinegar-making demonstration at Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival.
Keep Your Vinegar Alive
The key to good vinegar, according to both Katz and Rausse, is to consume it while it is still alive. Most vinegar that you buy in the grocery store or gourmet shop has been pasteurized – the living organisms killed for the sake of shelf-stability and food safety. There is an important place for pasteurized vinegar, most notably in food preservation. The USDA recommends that only vinegar with an acidity level of at least 5% should be used for pickling fruits and vegetables. Because the acidity level of homemade vinegar is unknown, it should never be used for pickling. I follow this rule in my own kitchen and encourage others to do the same. But when I want to dress a salad, I reach for live vinegar.
Up until now, I’ve bought commercially-produced vinegar with live bacterial cultures (Bragg’s makes a good one from apple cider). In a few months I hope I’ll be reaching for vinegar with a living history instead. My homemade vinegar will tell the story of at least three generations of Italian vinegar-makers, with additional flavors from my own kitchen. Over time, I’m sure my homemade vinegar will transform into something unrecognizable to Gabriele Rausse and his grandmother, but I hope it will be a delicious heirloom that I’ll be able to pass on to friends and family over the years and eventually to my own grandchildren. Time will tell.