Garden update: Green Beans and Persephone Days

There’s not much going on in the garden right now, given that it is so late in the year and the garlic is in. We’ve had a few frost and freeze days, which have killed most of the summer plants, although I still have some peppers holding on. It’s really not the prettiest time of the year for garden photos.

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Usually this month I cut down and clean up all the old plants, stack and store the big tomato cages and other trellises, mulch all the beds, and get ready for next year. If I were better organized and did not pack the garden full to the top every year I would take the summer plants out earlier and put in cover crops. But in December it is usually too cold and too dark to be able to start anything growing — not even cold-tolerant, fast-growing peas or favas.

I did manage to plant some green beans late in the Fall, and those plants sprouted and grew and began to bear very quickly during our typically warm fall days. Green beans don’t like the cold, though, and they’ve been looking increasingly unhappy in the last few weeks. Today I pulled them all out and harvested a handful of green beans. Enough for a side dish. Now that I know I can plant beans this late, I’ll plant more next year.

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I also picked all the brussels sprouts and cut the sprouts from the stems today. I haven’t been all that lucky with brussels in the past — it’s a really big plant, and it needs to go in pretty early in the year to be big enough to set sprouts. The plants I put in this year in March didn’t grow very big sprouts, but I had enough plants to harvest a couple pounds’ worth. I also learned this year that snapping or cutting the sprouts off the stem is a huge pain in the butt. All these issues make me want to re-examine whether I need to grow brussels again. It’s a lot of space and a lot of work for a vegetable that is not all that expensive already picked and packed in the store.

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Left in the garden now are the cold-weather greens (kale, collards, chard), a whole lot of broccoli, a bed’s worth of carrots and beets I will harvest over the winter as I need them, a small bed of lettuce and salad greens, and the plant formerly known as cauliflower that looks like collards. None of these plants will grow a lot at this time of the year, but they can survive the cold weather just fine.

This dark time of winter is sometimes called the Persephone days, after the greek goddess who was imprisoned in the underworld during the winter months. It’s the time of the year when daylight falls below ten hours a day — at my latitude that’s from about November 20 to January 20. It may be longer if you’re in a more northern area (November 10 to February 2, in Boston), or not exist at all in the south (Houston day length never falls below 10 hours).

Plants don’t like to grow during the persephone days, entirely because of the lack of daylight. Even in a mild climate (which I have), or in a very warm winter (which I’ve often had), or in a greenhouse where you can control the warmth (which I don’t have….yet), everything goes dormant during the persephone days. Some farmers with greenhouses supplement with extra light and warmth for extra early vegetables, but I like to have a break and take some time off. Also: no greenhouse (yet).

The Instructional Design of Recipes, by way of The Hand of Glory (part one)

A week or so back my friend Richard Kadrey posted this image to his Instagram:

Family fun for the holidays: how to make a Hand of Glory.

A photo posted by Richard Kadrey (@rkadrey) on

I grew up reading ghost stories and listening to cassette tapes of 1940’s horror radio shows (in the dark, under the covers), so I’m well-acquainted with what a hand of glory is (the mummified hand of a hanged man), and what it does (varies; supposedly it can open locked doors, or paralyze people to which it is presented so you can rob or murder them).

Because I make a living writing instructions, however, this hand of glory “recipe” has one particular problem that stood out for me: the first half talks about acquiring and preparing the hand of a hanged man. But then some amount of time later (15 days plus additional drying time), you’re also supposed to make a candle “using grease from the hanged man.”

Right. Does that need to be the grease of the same hanged man as the original owner of the hand? Surely the writer of this recipe could have told you up front that when you go to the gibbet in the crossroads at midnight during the full moon to cut the hand off the dead guy, you also need to collect some grease as well while you’re there (ew)? And even if it’s OK for the grease to be the grease of any old hanged man, it’s not like you can just take the horse and buggy down to the 17th century Occult Costco to pick up a half-pound of man grease.

Now before y’all jump up and “well, actually…” at me, I am well aware that this photo is likely from an encyclopedia of some sort, and not really a “recipe” at all. And I was going to end this blog post right here at half a page and get on with my life. (We would all likely have been better off.)

But then I started to think about recipe writing and structure in general, and how the format of recipes has evolved over time, and then I vanished into a multi-day recipe history research hole from which I have only just now emerged.

My weirdly all-consuming single-minded obsessive behavior is your gain.

The Narrative of Ye Olde Tyme Recipes

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The kind of unstructured, stream-of-consciousness, all-in-one-paragraph structure that the Hand of Glory recipe uses was very common in older cookbooks and recipes, going back to ancient times. Googling “ancient recipes” turned up a lot of these, including a terrific site called Gode Cookery that specializes in Medieval recipes.

I like this one from 1545 for Apple pie. It’s not really an American pie the way we think about it, with a crust on the bottom and sometimes the top. The pie crust from this recipe sounds more like a paste in the bottom of a pan (a “coffin,” here which I suppose is in keeping with the theme of weird dead things in this post):

To make pies of grene apples.

Take your apples and pare them cleane and core theim as ye will a Quince / then make your coffyne after this maner / take a little faire water and halfe a disshe of butter and a little safron and set all this vpon a chafyngdisshe till it be hote / then temper your flower with this vpon a chafyngdissh till it be hote then temper your floure with this said licour and the white of two egges / and also make your coffyn and ceason your apples with Sinamon / ginger and suger inough. Then put them into your coffyn and laie halfe a disshe of butter aboue them / and close your coffyn and so bake them.

Here is a
17th century recipe for sack (sherry) posset, which is kind of like eggnog:

A Sack Posset.

Take three pints of Cream; boil in it a Little Cinnamon, a Nutmeg quartered, and two spoonfuls of grated bread; then beat the yolks of twelve eggs very well with a little cold Cream, and a spoonful of Sack. When your Cream hath boiled about a quarter of an hour, thicken it up with the Eggs, and sweeten it with Sugar; and take half a pint of Sack and six spoonfuls of Ale, and put into the basin or dish, you intend to make it in, with a little Ambergreece, if you please. Then pour your Cream and Eggs into it, holding your hand as high as conveniently you can, gently stirring in the basin with the spoon as you pour it; so serve it up. If you please you may strew Sugar upon it. You may strew Amberedsugar upon it, as you eat it; or Sugar-beaten with Cinnamon, if you like it.”

Note to self: This actually doesn’t look half bad, except for the “ambergreece” (ambergris), which is “a solid, waxy, flammable substance … produced in the digestive system of sperm whales.” *yuck face*

I also found this terrific poem, attributed to Virgil, that includes an ancient Roman recipe for an extremely garlicky pesto (“moretum”).

Then singly each o’ th’ garlic heads be strips
From knotty body, and of outer coats
Deprives them, these rejected doth he throw
Away and strews at random on the ground.
The bulb preserved from th’ plant in water doth
He rinse, and throw it into th’ hollow stone.
On these he sprinkles grains of salt, and cheese
Is added, hard from taking up the salt.

Interlude #1: The Cockentrice

While I was googling ancient recipes I stumbled upon this 15th century dish called the Cockentrice. The word cockentrice is a pun on the mythical cockatrice, a dragon with a rooster’s head, that can kill you if it looks at you.

The cockentrice is a sort of horrific medieval turducken where you sew the front half of a suckling pig to the rear half of a capon (big chicken, usually a neutered rooster), do the same with the other halves, stuff it, and roast it. Very fashionable holiday dining for the Tudors, apparently.

I can’t find a legally usable photo of this nightmare to post here, but this article from the Huffington Post has photos: Cockentrice: The Most Deliciously Terrifying Thanksgiving Meal EVER

Structure and Audience for a Narrative Recipe

All of these narrative-style recipes are, at best, hard to follow. Most of them suffer from the Hand of Glory problem, where the ingredients are buried deeply within the text. The ingredient amounts, cooking times, and cooking temperatures are vague or missing altogether. Just how much is a “little” ambergris? (Any amount of ambergris is possibly too much?) The actual instructions for how to cook a dish may be out of order, contain shorthand (“make a marrow stock”) or include digressions on the best ingredients right in the middle.

I am neither a historian nor a linguist, but the conclusion I draw from all these recipes is that the audience is a very experienced cook with a well-stocked pantry, who does not need step-by-step instructions or a lot of detail on how to cook things. I can’t imagine any of these recipes laid out on the table next to the fire as the meal is cooking. The goal of these recipes, then, is to communicate the broad strokes of a dish so that other readers and other cooks with a similar background can benefit from that knowledge.

(too long; more in part 2)

Fruit of Mystery

I have a big yard. So big, in fact, that after 15 years living here I am still finding fruit trees lurking in the underbrush.

Up in the area we call “the meadow” there are a handful of really old pear trees. We get small pears every other year or so, but the fruit disappears before it gets ripe. I assume that squirrels are getting to them. I don’t especially like pears so I’ve never really kept on top of it.

This year I discovered a little tree right at the edge of the meadow that had little round fruits on it. I thought they were crab apples. I had tasted one a month or so ago, and again today, and it was so tart and tannic that I had to spit it out.

Yesterday I harvested all of the remaining fruits from the tree, and brought them home.

Mystery Fruit

Here’s where I get confused. Those aren’t apples. Apples have a shoulder — the indent between the stem and the fruit on all apples. They’re also especially green for crab apples, which tend to be red or at least have a red “blush” when they turn ripe. These fruits are entirely green, with heavy russeting (a thick brown skin) and long stems with no shoulder.

I spent a good portion of the day googling, and I’m still not 100% sure what kind of fruit these are. They aren’t apples, and they aren’t quince (an exceptionally tart apple-like fruit). I think they may be old european wild pears. The wild pear was commonly used as a rootstock for domestic pears at the turn of the century, and it is not unusual (especially for old trees) for the grafted top of a pear to die off and the rootstock take over.

Sadly this means that these pears are probably inedible. Although they would probably make excellent pear cider. I used to make big batches of (hard) apple cider every year, so cider pears would not be unwelcome.

I put the mystery pears into the fridge; some pears need chilling to ripen. We’ll see if these soften up and turn sweeter.

On the Making of Kimchi

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For a number of years now I’ve been making big batches of kimchi in the wintertime. I make it when the big heads of chinese cabbage start to show up in the farmer’s markets, sometime just before Christmas, and it lasts me in jars through to the spring. Like jam and pickles and applesauce, kimchi is one of the seasonal foods I look forward to making and putting away every year, and one that I give away to friends.

Kimchi is a traditional Korean pickle. Although you can make kimchi from a variety of vegetables, kimchi is most commonly associated with cabbage.

Stories abound of how the Koreans bury their kimchi pots in the ground in the fall and dig them up again in the spring, when the kimchi has well and truly rotted. I think westerners tell these stories because kimchi can have a very strong taste and smell, and that can be scary to a western palate used to blander food. Describing kimchi as a sort of zombie food that must be disinterred to be eaten seems to explain its more exotic and terrifying qualities.

Kimchi is not rotten. Like saukraut, kosher half-sour dill pickles, kefir, and sourdough starter, true kimchi is a fermented food. Although kimchi has a lot of chile pepper in it, its strong taste and smell comes mostly from natural yeasts and bacterias that develop over time in the mixture of vegetables in the pot. The kimchi pot does not need to be buried. Koreans traditionally buried the pot for the same reason root cellars exist; its easier to moderate the temperature of food underground if you don’t have artificial heating and cooling.  No one does that any more.

This is how I make kimchi, based on a bunch of recipes I found on the internet years ago and adaptations I have made over the years. It requires about 45 minutes of actual work and 5-10 days of very casual tending. This isn’t an exact recipe, because I don’t precisely measure anything. My kimchi is different every year because of the amounts of things I have on hand and also because fermentation is not an exact science. There’s no way to duplicate it every time, to make it perfectly safe and uniform. That’s why it’s so special.

You Will Need

To make kimchi you will need:

1 3-4 lb head of chinese (napa) cabbage, chopped into 1-inch pieces
Salt
Water
1 small bunch of mustard greens, chopped
1 bunch scallions, chopped into 1-2 inch lengths
1 Daikon radish, grated, about a cup
1 carrot, grated, about a cup
1 1-inch section of ginger, grated
1 head of garlic (yes, I said a head. 4-5 big cloves, 7-8 small cloves), peeled and sliced thin
A little sugar
A little salt
1/3 cup of Korean powdered chile pepper
Some kimchi from a previous batch
A little water

The first time I tried to make kimchi I used plain western cabbage and cayenne pepper. Both of these were bad ideas. Western cabbage has entirely the wrong texture. Kimchi is not korean spicy coleslaw. Seek out real chinese cabbage, otherwise known as napa cabbage.

Make sure you also get actual korean powdered chile pepper. I tried using cayenne pepper and was surprised that my kimchi was too hot to eat. Kimchi is mildly spicy-hot, but most of the strength and the depth of the flavor comes from the fermentation, not from the peppers. I also tried other chiles and found that nothing tasted right until I actually went to a Korean market and got Korean chile powder. There’s something about the terroir. Fortunately, a huge jar of Korean chile pepper only costs a couple bucks.

You can get mustard greens from large fancy grocery stores these days, or from any Asian grocery. Don’t use the stems. You can leave these out if you can’t find them, but I find they really add an interesting taste.

Step 1. Salt

This step is optional. Salting the cabbage helps it release some moisture. You’ll end up with a limper less crunchy kimchi. I think it helps the kimchi ferment faster. If you’d prefer a more vegetable-tasting, crunchier kimchi, omit this step.

Layer the cabbage with salt in a big bowl or a plastic tub and cover with water. The water should taste slightly salty, like seawater. Add more salt if necessary Let sit for 4-5 hours, or overnight. Drain and rinse.

Step 2. Mix

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Add the cabbage and all the remaining ingredients to the largest bowl you own and mix them all together. I like to mix the vegetables first with my hands, and then add the chile powder and a little water with a big spoon.

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If you don’t have kimchi left over from a previous batch, that’s OK. You add a few spoonfuls to this batch as a “starter” to get this batch going faster with the right bacteria for the fermentation.

Step 3. Ferment

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After mixing everything together, I put the kimchi into a tub and leave it out on the back porch to ferment. I used to use a stoneware pickle crock or glass half-gallon mason jars for this, but recently I discovered these food-safe plastic restaurant tubs and they’re a lot easier to keep clean and haul around. Don’t seal the top; you need it open a crack to let the good critters in there to do their work. Open in and stir it once a day or so.

How long you leave the kimchi out to ferment depends on how strong a taste you like and how nervous you are about letting food sit around unrefrigerated. A day or two in cool weather and you’ll get a very mild flavor, a crunchier kimchi, and you’ll still be able to taste the vegetables. A week in the sun and the kimchi will develop a spicy, sour, intense flavor, and look more pickled.

Why out on the porch? As the kimchi develops the smell will get stronger and more powerful, and an open jar of it can spread all over your kitchen like chemical warfare. I happen to like the smell, but others in your household may not agree.

Needless to say that if your kimchi turns a funny color or grows mold then your fermentation has failed and you should throw it out. I have never lost a batch but I can see it happening.

Don’t be afraid to experiment. Most of the years I made kimchi I only left it out for a few days. This last year I forgot about it entirely and rediscovered it out on the porch after ten days. I opened the jar and leaned over for a look and all the skin on my skull melted right off, like the Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. That was some really great stuff.

In a Pickle

(I am writing, a lot. I hope some of you are still around to read.)

When I was seven my friend Carolyn lived at the end of the road in a big old white house shaded under huge maple trees. Her house was more interesting to play in after school when our parents were at work than my house was, because her house was older and larger than my house, and it had more corners and places to explore, but mostly because it wasn’t my house. And so we rode our bikes up and down the street, and we climbed the maple trees in her yard, and we explored the basement and attic and other back corners of her house, and then one day while we we exploring we found the old jars of pickles at the back of the pantry closet behind the kitchen stairs.

There were two jars of dill pickles, big half-gallon mason jars we could barely lift out of the closet and onto the kitchen counter. We didn’t know how old the jars were, and there was no one else around in the house to tell us. The tops of the jars were furry with dust and although there were labels on the jars the writing had faded so we couldn’t see the dates. Inside the jars there were whole pickles, packed tightly, and if we tipped the jars on their sides we could see garlic and peppercorns and whole spiky brown heads of dill seed through the cloudy brine.

Continue reading

subsection 4.5.92(b): proper consumption of smarties

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Note: the following procedure refers only to the consumption of Smarties(tm) brand citric-acid based candies available in the continental United States. For information about the consumption of Smarties(tm) brand chocolate-based candies available in the UK and Canada, refer to subsection 4.3.2(a), Proper Consumption of M&Ms.

1. Shuck the Smarties.

Regardless of the total number of Smarty rolls to be consumed, all individual Smarties must be removed from their respective wrappers and piled up on a flat surface. Shucking and collecting Smarties ensures even distribution of flavors across rolls.

2. Spread out the Smarties.

After piling up the Smarties, spread them out into a single layer so that all flavors and colors are visible. A single layer enables the smarties to be properly sorted.

3. Pick out and eat the pink ones.

Ideally, each individual Smarty should be nibbled around the edges until both sides of the Smartie are flat (rather than concave). Then the Smarty itself can be squared off, octagonned, rounded again, and eventually reduced to zero. If you’re pressed for time, this step can be skipped.

4. Pick out and eat the orange ones.

5. Pick out and eat the yellow ones.

6. Pick out and eat the green ones.

7. Pick out and eat the purple ones.

8. Eat the white ones.

One could make the eating process more efficient by sorting the Smarties into piles by color after shucking them from the wrapper. But that would be obsessive.

the man and his latte

Today while I was waiting in the starbucks line a very large man came in the door behind me YELLING into his cell phone.

“I know that’s what he told you,” he said, “but I’m sick of that shit. You tell him that he needs to get that work done. You tell him that he’s had three months now and that work isn’t done and he needs to get OFF HIS ASS AND GET THAT SHIT DONE. NO. NO. You’re NOT LISTENING.” The man was poking the air next to my head. I edged away nervously. The people in line behind him edged away nervously. “You need to get on the GODDAMN PHONE AND tell him what I’m telling you. Tell him I WANT THAT WORK DONE AND I WANT IT DONE THIS WEEK OR HE’S GOING TO GET A VISIT DIRECTLY FROM ME AND NO ONE WANTS THAT DO THEY. OK? OK? OK? GOOD.”

The man slapped his phone shut and moved up to the counter. “Hi,” he said to the barista, who edged away nervously. “I’d like a decaf pumpkin latte.”

panoply of updates, part 2

More updates. I had planned to post this immediately after a panoply of updates (part 1) but I got distracted by the arrival of really large book. Perhaps you heard of it? Harry Potter and the Weekend of Accomplishing Absolutely Nothing?

The Return of the Cold-Brewed Coffee

My iPhone post was exceptionally popular the week I posted it, what with frenzy being at its peak just before the phone was released. But then as I watched my stats I noticed something funny: there was another post that was consistently getting better hits. A post I wrote almost exactly two years ago about cold-brewed coffee was by far the most popular post on this blog, even more popular than the iPhone post.

What the hell? I thought. It didn’t take long to figure out what was going on: the New York Times had done an article about cold-brewed coffee, and it had sparked a fad. Suddenly my review was in great demand from the curious. (the same thing happened when I wrote about no-knead bread; perhaps if I want to be a more popular blogger I should just always write about what the New York Times writes about.)

I panned cold-brew coffee in that original post. I had nothing good to say about it. “Tastes like ass” was the term I used, and I stand by that assertion. (“assertion,” ha ha ha. I’m sorry. I am 12.) I have a bunch of friends who have glommed onto the fad recently and they insist that my method was flawed, that you need to make smaller amounts than the full pound at a time I was making, and you don’t need to dilute it.

I am still dubious. But perhaps I will try it just to update that post and keep my stats up.

Death and Camping

An update for the happy camper (1 and 2)

A couple weekends back we drove out to the Sierras for the Death Ride, one of Eric’s two big bicycle events of the year. I’ve written about the Death Ride before, here and here. Eric wrote up his Death Ride story on his blog.

Normally for the death ride we get a motel room some distance from the ride, wake up at 3AM, and drive in a panic for an hour to the start of the ride in hopes of finding a good parking spot. At 5:30AM when Eric leaves I go back to sleep in the back of the car and wait for him to get back.

This year we have the VW camper van. This year we could camp along with a zillion other bicyclists in the park next to the start line. This year there would be no parking spot worry. And best of all, we could sleep in. All the way through to 4AM, when the Death Ride organizers turned the loudspeakers on, put the volume up to 11 and woke us all up with rousing music. The Mission Impossible theme. Appropriate.

This was our first big camping experience with the Eurovan and I am happy to proclaim it a success, mostly. On the one hand, sleeping in the poptop is comfortable and spacious. The windows in the side of the poptop are right at eye-height, which means as you’re dozing off in the wilderness you can look out at the stars (and the night sky in the sierras without any urban light pollution: tremendous). On the other hand given that the poptop is canvas it is very noisy up there. If you’re not used to a lot of noise — and we’re not, we live in the country — normal outdoorsy noise from other people can keep you up at night. We didn’t get a lot of sleep. I’m thinking earplugs.

Hanging out in the Eurovan is awesome. All the windows have curtains and there are accessory curtains for the windshield so you can make it entirely private if you, um, want to do private things. With all the doors and windows open it’s airy and comfortable, and sitting on the rear bench seat with a lemon soda out of the fridge and a bowl of blueberries on the table, reading a book, is almost decadent.

On the other hand if you really want to have the genuine sweaty and uncomfortable camping experience you can shut all the windows and does get really hot and stuffy inside fairly quickly. If you’re really lucky you can trap a couple really angry yellowjackets inside. Your choice.

coffee obsessions even stronger than mine

All Hail the Mighty Coffee Bean! – Wired News

Another Lore Sjöberg essay. I might as well just set up a Lore Sjöberg reposter for this blog because every single thing the man writes is totally brill. All Hail the Mighty Lore Sjöberg.

Step Two: Storage
All coffee lovers know that coffee grounds turn into the very dandruff of the Dark Lord himself if you leave them out for more than 145 seconds. Clearly I’ll need a way to store the grounds while I’m having each bean individually ministered to. The CafeStore 4000x creates a vacuum environment for the storage of the ground beans. Not just a vacuum in the usual sense of having very little air, but an ideal vacuum with no air, no black-body radiation, no zero-point energy, nothing but beans. According to the laws of physics, this is impossible, and as such may cause the universe to cease to exist, but isn’t that worth it for the perfect cup?