Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Garlic in Winter

I don't recall much fresh garlic being used in our house when I was growing up; I think it was limited to a clove here and there and maybe almost exclusively garlic salt in a few recipes. Most of my early cooking used garlic salt, until I realized that I was adding a lot of salt to get that garlic flavor. I started to use fresh garlic and then a lot of it. I was struck with Alice's rule early on. You know, Alice from Arlo Guthrie's song "Alice's Restaurant", that started "You can get anything you want at Alice's Restaurant". Actually this song (1965) was mostly about the Vietnam War, but it briefly made Alice Brock a star, and she published a cookbook. Here's what she said:

"Tomatoes and oregano make it Italian; wine and tarragon make it French. Sour cream makes it Russian; lemon and cinnamon make it Greek. Soy sauce makes it Chinese; garlic makes it good."

Did you get that last part? I seem to have, because I use copious amounts of garlic in every dish where it seems reasonable.

Starting around 2007 there were a lot of reports that most of our store-bought garlic was coming from China. This was a comedown for our famous garlic capital, Gilroy, California. Part of it was a disease that devastated the crop, and partly because of cheap labor in China. As one industry source explains, Chinese garlic has been found to be contaminated with arsenic, and its quality is also not as good. But China has often been the only source of fresh garlic readily found in winter. I was dismayed to see a big case of it in the back room of a grocery I patronize especially for their local produce.

I planted my first crop of garlic in the fall of 2007 and harvested it in late July, 2008. Since then I've been storing and using it. Some home truths I have discovered are that yes, there really are substantial differences in quality among varieties; and storage really is an issue. The cloves start to sprout. After dithering about where to store them, they ended up in my pantry closet. The garlic to the left is German Extra Hardy. It doesn't seem to sprout as readily (I pulled the clove shown off precisely because it was sprouting). This is a stiff-neck variety with very large cloves, and not many per bulb or head. The cloves and bulb to the right are New York White, a soft-neck variety that can be braided - but I didn't. Now as January draws to a close, I have almost used up the New York White, skating ahead of the sprouts. I hope that the German Extra Hardy lasts into the next harvest, but I doubt it. We eat a lot of garlic.

In spite of the facts that GEH lasted better and is easier to cook with because of those huge cloves, I'm planting less of it in 2009 in comparison to other varieties. The reason is that the flavor seems to be harsher than the NYW. Yet I'm not ordering NYW at all, because the heads are so small and it sprouts so early. But I'm expanding my planting and have ordered more of two new varieties, Music and Russian Red. It's a little strange - I have now ordered garlic to be planted in October-November of this year (2009) and harvested in 2010. Meanwhile under the snow this last year's plantings are waiting for spring.

I'm looking forward to trying a recipe another blogger listed. It uses a lot of garlic and looks like a good reason to get plenty of green beans planted next year.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Since I've been predicting disaster for years, I particularly enjoyed an article in the January 26, 2009 New Yorker discussing "The Dystopians". It describes the people who have made it their career or at least their avocation to tell the rest of us about how bad things are going to get. An outstanding example is the author James Howard Kunstler, who has written such books as The Long Emergency. I only discovered him with this article. Another author mentioned is Nassim Nicholas Taleb, who wrote The Black Swan. That one I read last winter, before our economic system collapsed enough that everyone noticed. As the author of the article (Ben McGrath) notes, these days are great for celebration of "triumphant pessimism".

Now Taleb is getting a major following from newly converted financial professionals. His writing is very hard to follow; he alludes to chaos theory and various statistical models without really explaining any of them. The basic idea is that we fall in love with the current trend and situation and expect that things will go on forever as they are, only maybe getting better and better. His clearest exposition of this is with the story of the turkey who enjoys day after day of plentiful food, water, and sunshine. The turkey confidently predicts that this will go on forever, and his predictions are good - until Thanksgiving Day. This was exactly like our county's budget director who every year presented a budget with ever-increasing totals and the comment, "The best prediction of the future is the past." Now the county has a $10 million deficit and is closing entire departments. Unfortunately, my protests at the time had little effect, and someone once informed me that I was a "contrarian". "I told you so" after the fact is pointless and unsatisfying.

McGrath reveals a taxonomy of sorts of pessimists - "peak oilers", "back-to-the-land types", and generalized Cassandras, "doomers". My husband has been a "peak oiler" for decades and the Hubbert Peak was one of the themes of our household discussions. More recently we've both read lots of Jared Diamond. His book, "Collapse" gives a detailed backward look at how many societies have failed, and there are many uncomfortable parallels to be found with our own. There seems to be a fatal human tendency to ignore the long-term consequences of our actions. Since I see the universe in terms of thermodynamics, I have always had trouble with people who persist in believing in the free lunch.

My particular place in the taxonomy of "doomers" is the back-to-the-land type. I've been looking with horror for some years at our drawn-out food chain - how can we possibly be expecting a stable food supply from a distance of thousands of miles? Just as Voltaire cultivated his garden during the dying decades of the French monarchy, I am seeking to find a self-sustaining life to the extent possible. Thus the support for local enterprise, local farming, and thus I grow and preserve as much of our own food as I can. Food security is the most basic human need and it is not a given. We should be worried. I am. More on that later.

Part of being self-sustaining is learning a new way of eating and cooking. I've been learning new ways to use my bountiful sauerkraut production. Here is a new recipe I just discovered. It is modified from one I found among my mother's files.

Winter Slaw with Apples and Sauerkraut

1 quart sauerkraut, preferably raw (drain, place on a board, and cut up into smaller pieces)
1 apple, peeled and chopped
2 celery stalks, chopped
1 small or 1/2 large sweet onion (Walla Walla type), chopped
1/2 sweet red pepper, chopped (I used frozen, roasted and peeled red pepper)
1 T seasoned Japanese rice vinegar (contains sugar and salt)
1 t sugar

Marinate the onion briefly in the vinegar, then add the other chopped ingredients, then the sauerkraut. Mix and chill for a little while before serving.

Note: no salt needed - the kraut is slightly salty, as is the vinegar.
Adjust sugar and vinegar to taste.

This has a nice fresh flavor and is a very light dish.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Red Peppers in Winter

As I related last fall, red peppers have become a major crop around here. We have a couple of days in the fall of broiling and peeling, then I have a wealth of little quarter-pound packages in the freezer where that sunshine is available all winter long. So what do we use them for? They are wonderful, just thawed, on egg salad sandwiches (and probably on any sandwich). Perfect on pizza. I sometimes make a roasted red pepper sauce out of all the little pieces (hate to use up the nice big slices in the blender). Of course, any mixed vegetable dish benefits from a dash of color and flavor.

But putting them into meat loaf is one of my all-time success stories. They add a richness and subtlety when chopped and mixed with ground meat.

Here is a meatloaf that is neither dull nor intrusively spiced up. I make it as a full loaf pan recipe and freeze slices for future use. It could also be made into smaller loaves.

Meatloaf with Roasted Red Peppers

1 pound bulk pork breakfast sausage, raw
1 1/2 - 2 pounds of lean ground beef, raw
1 medium onion, minced
1 1/2 t sugar
1 1/2 t salt
dash each garlic and celery salt
2 c breadcrumbs*
2 eggs
1 c milk
2T ketchup
2T pickle relish**
1 T horseradish
2 T hot paprika
2 T mixed chili powder***
1/4 pound roasted and peeled red pepper, chopped

Mix all together. Best to mix the meat with dry ingredients first (takes a lot of hand mixing), then the wet ones, finishing with the milk and eggs at the last. Don't be afraid of overworking the meat - makes for finer texture. Place in a greased loaf pan (will be very full) and bake at 375° for 1 1/2 hours.

*Use packaged bread crumbs if you must, but I dry heels and odd bits in the oven and grind them with my blender. They'll keep a long time dry on the shelf.
** Actually I use my green tomato relish, which has spices in it. Ordinary pickle relish should come close, or you could try a chunky salsa.
*** This is the kind of chili powder that has spices like cumin and oregano mixed in. I use Pendary's Original.