Echoes and Mementos

Thoughts and pictures about cooking, eating, reading, writing, and living.

Month: August, 2012

Greenness and Grass

Today, on the way back from Sunday brunch in Chinatown, I picked up, among other groceries, a jar of wild blueberry jam. Thoughts of work were sailing in like storm clouds. As I often do with food, I wondered about the jam, about the snug rural place it came from, and about the guy who picks blueberries all day.

When I see honey, I imagine the beekeeper. When I read on a menu that a beer has been brewed by monks since 1634, as in the case with Paulaner Salvator, I imagine the monks in their high stone fortress stirring beer with paddles. And today, when I saw in Little Italy a package of penne made by La Terra e Il Cielo, I didn’t imagine anything at all. I remembered. Harvesting grain, chaffing the kernels, driving them to the pasta factory. It is strange to wonder back to yourself.

I once worked at La Terra e Il Cielo, a cooperative of farmers farming mostly in Le Marche, Italy. In fact, I was there for the co-op’s 30th anniversary, and we ate roasted goose and drank verdicchio, the wine of the region, in a castle that would satisfy any beer-brewing monk. There it was, the pasta on the shelf; and there I was, the sun high, the breeze rustling, the tractor rumbling, and my gloves on tight.

When you imagine what it’s like for the guy who picks blueberries, who grows garlic, who brews beer, who serves that beer on a cruise ship, or who makes a living from writing about that beer, there are no clouds, only beaming sunlight. But the beer can go flat, and plenty of cruise ships make their last stop on the ocean floor. With my gloves on tight and the smell of mint blowing in from the woods, I couldn’t see a cloud, only rows and rows of garlic, the bulbs so present I could taste them in the air and, later, would have to throw out my clothes.

But you return to the jam, the honey, the pasta. Work looms. If those wondered about places always seem green and sunny, it’s because some of them are.

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‘Tis the Season

“On the tractor right now,” wrote Farmer Ron to begin the email, “Yes 5th generation.” Though I had just interviewed Ron in Union Square as its Wednesday market set up, I had to send him follow up questions because the article couldn’t wait. No—the writing could wait; it was the tomatoes that couldn’t.

Ron, who sells apple mint and cantaloupes and cherry peppers at the market, who works on a farm in New Jersey that has been in his family for five generations, who has an obsession with tomatoes, gave me four of his best. As I typed the email, they stared at me from across my desk: one green, one pink, another crimson, the last orange-red stripe, all fat, skin tight with juice, and white in spots under the office lights. I sent the email. I stared out the window at Central Park.

At 7 a.m. that morning, I crossed the north side of Union Square Park to meet Ron. My two iced coffees hadn’t cooled me at all against the sun. Though early, it was hot, and vendors wiped their foreheads after pulling corn from crates, and the sun shone in their eyes even in the shade. They wore gloves and boots. Sleek vans with the names of restaurants on their sides were pulled up to the curb; the drivers of these vans were getting the good early produce at a good price.

I met Farmer Ron by his stand. He had on shorts and a blue t-shirt sporting the name of his farm, a bright blue, which might be the one color his tomatoes aren’t. There they were in crates, cracked and lumpy and beautiful.

As long as I can remember, I have been a lover of tomatoes. Sauce on pasta. Slices on a sandwich. Whole like a plum. On one occasion, I ordered a grilled cheese with seven slices of tomato at a diner. In recent years I have learned the joys of heirloom tomatoes. Loosely defined, an heirloom tomato is a type of tomato that has been grown since before World War II. Tightly defined, an heirloom tomato is the slew of pink and purple fruits that were on the tables in front of me.

The interview ended, and Ron picked out my heirloom tomatoes. I went to my desk; he went to his field. The day passed, sifted away in a second but for a moment in the evening that has fossilized. After work, after getting up before daybreak, after crossing the state line on my trip home and walking my dog when I got there, I washed off and sliced the tomatoes. They went into the bowl nearly naked; I dressed them up in only olive oil and salt.

When a tomato is good, it is good. You can buy the cheap bananas, and you can argue for the $5 wine, but once you have tasted a tomato that splinters your being and makes you know that, yes, summer is peaking, you will never again see an ordinary tomato as you did. The tomato season is here, and, as with anything temporary, seize, seize, seize it before it sifts away.

Homebrewing, Take One

Two hours into brewing my first batch of beer, I was finally able to relax. Elbows on the countertop, my shirt dark with sweat, I was re-reading the recipe’s fourth and trickiest step: fermentation. On the stove boiled the starchy brown liquid that would become beer, called wort. I was adding hops every 15 minutes, checking the temperature occasionally, reading, and enjoying the soothing heat and aroma that filled the kitchen, a smell like dark wheat bread, or a newly opened bag of pretzels. Then, from behind, from the yellow light under the microwave, where a moment before I could almost see the smell in the steam, there was a splash and a rolling hiss.

The wort was loose. It frothed out of the stockpot and turned my stove into a bath. I grabbed the pot’s hot handles and moved it to another burner. I wiped up the mess. “If you can make oatmeal, you can make beer,” the brewing book had promised. I can make oatmeal. I can make lasagna. I can make gnocchi in a Gorgonzola Dolce sauce that sends my tastebuds soaring. I can make oatmeal. Recently, I found out I can’t make beer.

Beer starts as grain. Grain can be boiled in water and eaten whole (wheatberries). Grain can be ground into flour, combined with water, mixed with other ingredients to form dough, and cooked (bread, pasta). Grain can be simmered long so that it softens into soup (congee, oatmeal). When it’s lucky, grain can be simmered in water so that the warm liquid saps all of the grain’s sugar. When its stars are out, grain becomes a wort. Wort is dusted with yeast and left to sit while the yeast turns sugar into alcohol. Beer is grain, water, and yeast–oatmeal with a few extra steps.

Then why was the beer so tricky? For three hours, you are heating, cooling, stirring, checking, straining, and stressing, all over a gallon of wort that will be ten beers in three weeks. If you are looking to profit from brewing, to flip a few dollars into a few cases, then you should brew at least five gallons at a time. Really, you should run to the beer store and get a six-pack of Victory.

But there is something to be said for the hard way. Let’s take that something from cookbook author and English professor Harold McGee, who writes, “The pleasure of tasting a good beer or wine or spirit grows with the recognition that its flavor is the expression of many natural, cultural, and personal particulars: a place and its traditions, certain plants and the soil they grew in, a year and its weather, the course of fermentation and maturation, the taste and skills of the maker.”

If the “pleasure of tasting a good beer” intensifies for the drinker who can link flavor to base plants (grain, hops), the course of fermentation, and the brewer’s role in the brewing, then I was developing a better taste for beer by attempting to make it at home, even as my wort charred in the burner. Here is the value of fumbling with carboys and siphons in your kitchen. For your effort, you will better understand brewing, the strange alchemy of fermentation, beer as a whole, where it came from, and how it got into your keg, can, or bottle. For your good work, every future beer you drink will taste better.

Tell yourself this when the wort bubbles over. When you’re stirring and your brother Nick has a glass thermometer dangled over the stockpot’s lip, and when the mercury shoots high above the 152-degree limit, cut the heat and cool yourself. When your strainer is ten sizes too small, when the instructions in your book read like gibberish, and when, after three weeks of waiting, the siphon rockets ale onto your rug, relax. There’s more beer than you could ever hope to drink at the store down the street.