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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Quiet tears

Sharon Astyk and Aaron Newton, in their terrific book A Nation of Farmers, note that relatively few Americans know how to cook anymore, and describe five basic skill areas everyone needs to cultivate: soups/stews, salads, stir fries, pastry with fillings, casseroles. Cool!

To me, though, these are almost all one skill area, but then I'm a vague sort of cook. Mostly I just dice things up and then follow my blind food muse. If I bring stuff in from outside and some of it's green and some of it's white or red, I might sit down and eat that, and there's your salad. Or I put it in some water or stock and puree it with spices or simmer it on the woodstove, depending on the season then, yep, it's soup. Or I steam some rice, oil up the wok, cube some tofu and throw in the rice and then the green and red and white stuff at the end, there's your stir fry. (They mention the wok is not suited to "modern," that is, electric stoves, but if I flip the ring so the wok almost touches the burner, it seems to do OK.) If I soak and then crock-pot a bunch of beans and add the white, then the red, then the green stuff towards the end, that's kind of like a casserole, I think. Sorta.

Or I might take the stock, some leftovers from any of the above, or just bring in a little of the red and green and white stuff, dice it up even smaller and throw it in a big bowl with some salt and molasses and honey and yeast and a cup or two of flour, and let it sit behind the stove for a few hours, and after it has grown some, add more flour, and shape it into loaves and bake them, that's bread. I'm much more successful with this than the pastry thingies Sharon and Aaron talk about.

For variety, sometimes I leave out the leavening and fry this stuff, and it comes out as decent pancakes, looking a little like what we used to call salmon patties. You can emphasize different things -- potatoes, for example -- without having to worry too much about recipes. But we like having loaf bread on hand. Most of our loaves are wide, round, and flat; you could just rip off hunks but we tend to slice, sometimes in sections like pie. Beloved toasts her slices until it sets off the smoke alarm, then has them with fried eggs. I prefer mine straight with a bit of butter and fruit preserves.

I often start with an apple from the new cold room; apples were a disaster here this year and only one of the trees produced really well -- and it's the worst keeper. So we made dehydrated apple slices, and applesauce, and cider, but there were a lot of going-to-get-mushy apples left over and against my better judgment I individually wrapped them in newspaper and put four boxes full in the cold room, which isn't cold enough this year (today we're at 56F outside). A lot of them have inhabitants who have tunneled around in them ever since.

So I take up an apple and cut it in half to see whether it's "good" or "bad" or has a "good" half and a "bad" half or whatever, and decide: compost, chickens, or me. If it's good enough for me, do I want it raw, or diced up and used in something? Salad? Bread? You can puree fresh apples and hide them in soups and such, too. But today we're making bread.

This is an elephant garlic bulb that came up in the orchard. It's a little sloppy from the big freeze, but I cut the roots off and the greens, and as I'm washing the greens, slip the bad bit off them, and I'll dice up both the bulb and the greens to go into the bread. You can hide fresh garlic in soups and "casseroles" too but don't overdo it in the stir fries -- onion it's not. The bad bit goes into compost. Remember, trash cans and garbage grinders are not your friends. Keep everything you don't want for the birds, and everything they don't want for the gardens and your trees. You won't ever need to buy anything from the chemical companies.

Let's throw in some walnut bits from the last of a bagful a friend traded me, and grind a cupful of wheat berries, barley and amaranth, just because we feel like it, and toss that in too, with some rolled oats.

Molasses, honey, salt, eight cups of lukewarm water (for four loaves), a 10 oz. rice-bowl of WW/spelt flour, mixed. [ed. ... and yeast! Don't forget the yeast! ... told ya I was vague.] Bash everything around a bit and set aside in a warm place. We keep a set of steel shelves by the wall behind the woodstove for this, as well as for drying shoes and gloves (uh, not on the same shelf).

Now go build a new seed-starting rack for the west window, with full-spectrum lamps.

Three hours later, come back, say "woo! Better do something with this," grab the bowl, haul it back to the kitchen, dump five or six more little bowls of flour into the big bowl, and stir with a wooden paddle till the mass "rises off the bowl," that is, sticks to itself in one lump that doesn't try to glom onto you when you pat it.

The house is only about fifty-five degrees right now, as I'm not burning any more wood until this evening, and to be sure the bread will rise, at this point I pre-heat the over to 200 while I cut the batch into four sections with the knife. After greasing two industrial-size cookie sheets, I shape four loaves on a floured cutting board, turn them over, shape them some more, put two loaves on each sheet, turn off the oven, put the loaves in to rise and go play with the little plant nursery some more.

After an hour or two I peek in the oven. Uhhh, OK, those are huge, let's bake! Set to 350F (which is probably 325F in this oven), look at the clock. 3:40, take out at 4:40. More or less. Usually more, 62 minutes. Your oven will differ.

Pull the racks from the oven, turn over a loaf and look at its bottom. Should be well browned and respond to a thumping finger like a drumhead. Set on cooling rack. Sneak a hot slice. Butter it. Bite. Like it so much you burst into quiet tears.

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