Secrets from the North Carolina Tomato Man: Craig LeHoullier

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Cherokee Purple heirloom tomato, named by Craig LeHoullier, author of “Epic Tomatoes.” Credit: Susan Lutz

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.

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Craig LeHoullier, author of “Epic Tomatoes,” holds a Cherokee Purple tomato. Credit: Susan Lutz

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.”

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Our First Loquat Crop

Each Wednesday we share a classic post from the Eat Sunday Dinner vaults. This essay originally posted on March 28, 2010.

Loquat tree in our backyard. Photo copyright Susan Lutz 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.

Loquats abound in our backyard. Photo copyright Susan Lutz 2010.

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.

Oranges and avocados from our backyard trees. Photo copyright Susan Lutz 2010.


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Vintage Kitchen Tool Road Trip in Virginia

thefeedstore, photo credit Susan Lutz 2013.
The Feed Store, owned and operated by Joan Tanner, Madison, Virginia. Photo credit Susan Lutz 2013.

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.”

Joan Tanner welcomes customers into The Feed Store. Photo credit Susan Lutz 2013.

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.

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Rack of assorted graters, copper molds, and other kitchen tools. Photo by Susan Lutz 2013.

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

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Sunday Dinner Questionnaire: Carol Penn-Romine

Carol is impressed with her Swedish Solöga. Image copyright Carol Penn-Romine.

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.

Garbanzos:
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

Chard:
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.

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DIY Vinegar From Thomas Jefferson

Homemade peach vinegar made from peach skins, photo by Susan Lutz 2015.
Homemade peach vinegar made from peach skins,  copyright Susan Lutz 2015.

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

Hillside vineyard at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, Charlottesville, VA, copyright Susan Lutz 2015.

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

Sandor Katz at Monticello’s Heritage Harvest Festival, copyright Susan Lutz 2015.

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

peach vinegar
A “mother” begins to form in my peach skin vinegar, copyright Susan Lutz 2015.

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

vinegar mother, Susan Lutz
A thick vinegar mother in my kitchen, copyright Susan Lutz 2015.

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

Gabriele Rausse, photo copyright Susan Lutz
Gabriele Rausse, Monticello’s Director of Gardens and Grounds, in Monticello’s vineyard, copyright Susan Lutz, 2015.

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.

 

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We Can Thank Bacteria For The Smell of Rain

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Yesterday my oldest daughter asked why it smelled so wonderful after it rained.  I had to admit that I wasn’t sure, but that we’d find out.  A quick internet search revealed that there are actually many “rain smells” and they do not all have the same cause.  A bit more cyber-reserach seemed to point to bacteria as the source of the smell my daughter enjoyed so much.

We’re big fans of bacteria around our house– anyone who likes bread, beer, and cheese relies pretty heavily on the stuff– but I was surprised to credit bacteria with our favorite rain smell.  According to the folks at howstuffworks.com, the particular rain smell that we associate with rain (and with being in the woods) is the smell of a bacteria called Actinomycetes releasing it’s spores into the moist air.  Check out this link for more information on Actinomycetes and rain smells in general. It’s fascinating stuff.

So it turns out that we have one more thing to add to the list of the many wonderful things that bacteria do for us human beings.

 

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Marcella Hazan’s Love of Loquats

Marcella Hazan died this past Sunday at age 89.  I mourn her passing along with millions of people around the globe who read her cookbooks or were lucky enough to take a class at her cooking school in Venice, Italy.  Mrs. Hazan was known for her passion for Italian cooking and for precise, yet simple recipes that helped countless Americans learn to cook authentic Northern Italian food.

As a relative newbie in the world of food journalism, I probably have no place writing about this icon, and others are far better suited to singing her praised.

But I had a single, brief, but very important encounter with Ms. Hazan that I cherish.

This past May, I wrote an article about loquats for Zester Daily.  I love loquats and am always trying to convince people how delicious they are, often with little success.  The loquat piece got a surprising amount of comments, and among them – several steps down – was a magnificently cranky response that chided one of the other commenters for calling loquats “insipid.”  Then after declaring loquats “paradisiacal,” the writer spun on me for complaining that I didn’t know what to do with my backyard fresh fruit.

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“What we would have given in northern Italy to have found ripened loquats at the market,” she admonished.  “Why should anyone expect any experience more enjoyable than just eating them, peeled of course in most cases, figs, peaches, and pears, and loquats included.”

The author of this opinionated rebuke signed herself Marcella Hazan.

That Marcella Hazan.

Well, that put me in my place.  There’s no doubt that her response to my article was cranky.  But I love cranky.  To me, an occasional burst of crankiness is nothing more than a sign of passion.  There are times when things MUST be done a certain way—the right way.  Whether I agree or disagree, I respect a person who takes a stand.  Marcella Hazan knew how things should be done and she was happy to tell us all in no uncertain terms.

What I also loved about her response was that it was a comment on another comment!  Marcella Hazan, award-winning, internationally acclaimed food writer, was still in the trenches — reading not only articles but blogs and their comments, and calling out those who were clearly wrong – an 89-year-old street-fighter of food journalism who had no qualms about starting a flame war when it was called for.

I was delighted.  And I still am.  To discover that Marcella Hazan had read my article was very special.  To have her berate me for my opinions was even better – particularly since Ms. Hazan’s opinions came from hard-won experience.  And though our interaction was brief, I mourn the fact that it will be no more.

And it reminds me that this matters.  Food writing has become a conversation, thanks to the internet and publications like Zester Daily.   It’s an international conversation that stretches across the world and across cultures.  It’s a conversation that includes everyone from newbie food writers like myself to iconic figures like Marcella, who literally changed the way America eats.  I have loved food and food writing all my life, and I am delighted to have the opportunity to participate in this greater world.  Marcella welcomed me as an equal.  An equal who was wrong.  But an equal.

 

 

 

 

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Shattered

Every Wednesday brings you a classic post from the Eat Sunday Dinner vaults.  This essay originally posted on June 21, 2011.  

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This post has been a long time coming— mostly because I’ve been so heartbroken that I haven’t wanted to think about the “unfortunate incident”, much less write about it. But here goes…

About a month ago I broke the lid to my grandmother’s favorite Guardian Ware pot with tempered glass lid. She used it to cook every meal I ate at her house and I think of her every time I cook with it. I inherited the pot just after she died ten years ago, and I’ve always known that I was putting the glass lid at risk by using it (especially since I live in earthquake territory). But I believe in using family heirlooms (in spite of the Sugar Bowl Tragedy of 2010.) I figured it was better to enjoy using my grandmother’s pot and thinking of her on a daily basis than to keep it it packed away “for safekeeping”.

My grandmother’s pot has an amazingly thick bottom and it’s a pleasure to cook with. I sometimes fear I shouldn’t use it because it’s aluminum, but then I decided that it’s magical cooking properties make it worth the possible risk of cooking in aluminum (which nobody can seem to agree on anyway). Until I started cooking with this pot I was unable to make rice without burning it. I know I could get a rice maker, but that’s just one more piece of equipment to clutter up my kitchen and I already have a box of pots and pans in the garage labeled “secondary cooking equipment”. I haven’t opened the box in almost two years and I don’t miss anything in it.

I think the real reason that I was so upset about breaking the lid is that I know it was an accident that could have been prevented if only I’d been paying attention to what I was doing. I remember the exact moment I looked at the glass lid on top of my microwave and thought, “Huh- I should move that. It’s going to get knocked off and break.” Five seconds later, it did. I knew before it hit that there was no way it would survive the trip. I burst into tears the second I heard the crash.

I was miserable and I lunged for the phone to call my mother even before I cleaned up the broken glass. This is not normally my natural reaction, but I figured that if anyone would understand how bad I felt, it would be my mother. After all, the pot had belonged to her mother and my mother had given it to me. I felt guilty about breaking the lid and telling my mother was kind of like confessing. Through my tears I told my mother that I couldn’t believe I’d been so careless. At that moment I realized that although I was upset at losing the lid, it was my own lack of attention that was really upsetting me.

Normally, I am very good at paying attention. In fact, it’s a character trait that I value highly in myself and appreciate in others. You learn a lot when you pay attention to the things going on around you and to the people and objects that you value. Only a few days earlier I’d given my photo students a lecture about paying attention in class. I told them that understanding and analyzing photographs was simply a matter of paying attention to what they saw in the frame. I described what I saw in a single Cartier-Bresson photograph for a full twenty minutes. (I could have gone on longer, but decided I’d made by point by then.) I also told them that their open-book final exam would be easy if they had taken good notes throughout the term and PAID ATTENTION in class and when doing their reading. Then I proceeded to give them 90 percent of the answers on the final exam they’d be taking in two weeks. I figured if I was going to give my students a lecture about paying attention, I’d better make it worth their while.

This lecture ran through my brain as the lid to my grandmother’s pot fell to the floor. I knew I could get a replacement lid. The old lid was chipped anyway, so it wasn’t such a bad idea to get a new one. What was really bothering me was the fact that I hadn’t been paying attention. I was feeling lazy and tired and in pain when I put the lid on top of the microwave. I’d been in the middle of cooking the first meal I’d prepared since injuring my shoulder several weeks earlier and it was harder than I thought it would be. My shoulder ached as I lifted a cast iron skillet off the stovetop and put it on top of the microwave next to the lid. My arm dropped unexpectedly with the weight and the jerk of this unsteady movement led to the demise of the lid. On some level, I knew that this was a stupid thing to do and yet I did it anyway. I was too tired and lazy to behave responsibly. And this made me crazy. It’s been weeks since the accident and I haven’t made a decent batch of rice since then.

One of my least favorite character traits is that I have trouble making allowances for myself that I easily forgive in others. And I have trouble letting go. But my parents have just arrived for a two-week visit and my five year old is clinging to my mother’s neck as I type these words, saying “I’ve been waiting for this moment!” I guess it’s time to let go. To forgive myself, forget about the broken lid and enjoy the visit.

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