Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Dogmas and Dessert

One of the prerequisites of being a pretentious foodie is reading pretentious foodie literature. It just needs to be done. It's the only way you're ever going to fit in with the co-op crowd. To meet this requirement, and re-awaken some of that hibernating non-fiction lust that passed out after I got done with my college thesis, I've been reading Barbara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. Yes, I'm about two years late, but to be fair, I bought it at the Tampa Airport two years ago. So, it (almost) works out OK.

I'm making my way through it, albeit very slowly. I arrive at work every morning between 7:38 and 7:40 am, and go inside at exactly 7:50. That's when I sneak in a few pages, along with my 30 minutes at lunch, if I don't decide to run around like crazy to get an errand done in that scant amount of time. I'm about 1/3 of the way through, and so far, I just have to say that while Michael Pollan may be an anointed Sustainability Saint, Kingsolver is its Gaia. She may not have as high-profile of appearances, as polished a website, or the repeat seat on The Daily Show, but the woman has soul. She treads softly in the background, her hands deep in soil and compost, standing back and letting the beauty of her labors speak for itself. She writes about spring sprouts, neighbor-farms' eggs and friend's treasured recipes with more love than most people would use to describe their own children. While Michael trounces through the forest with some Italian aristocrat trying to find morels and prove that he can make one dinner from foraged scratch, Barbara is inside her no-nonsense energy-efficient farmhouse, scraping last winter's home-grown onions and potatoes out of the cellar for gratin from the heart.

No offense at all, St. Pollan. The sustainable food movement needs its boisterous advocate. But for really getting to the 'root' of the movement's heart, the subtlety of Kingsolver is an inspiring delight.

As far as I've gotten the Kingsolver family is still in early Spring, eagerly anticipating the summer bounty of their labors. My favorite chapter so far is Gratitude. In celebration of Barbara's 50th birthday, they are throwing an all local-food party for 150 friends and family in May. With the help of a friend, they begin to look at what will be sprouting and edible by the event date.

"There would be asparagus, of course, plus lots of baby lettuces and spinach by then. Free-range eggs are available here year-round. Our friend Kristy had free-range chicken, and the Klings, just a few miles from us, had grass-fed lamb. The Petersons had strawberries. Charlie had rhubarb, another family was making goat cheese. White's Mill, five miles from our house, had flour. If we couldn't pull together a feast out of that, I wasn't worth the Betty Crocker Homemaker of Tomorrow Award I won in 1972. (Kind of by accident, but that is another story.)

The menu wrote itself: Lamb kabobs on the grill, chicken pizza with goat cheese, asparagus frittata, an enormous salad of spring greens, and a strawberry-rhubarb crisp. To fill out the menu for vegan friends we added summer rolls with bean sprours, carrots, green onions, and a spicy dipping sauce. We had carrots in the garden I had nursed over the winter for an extra-early crop, and Camille ordinarily grew bean sprouts by the quart in our kitchen windowsill; she would have to ramp up her production to a couple of gallons. We might feed our multitudes after all."

-Kingsolver 103-104
(just in case the MLA police are lurking around the blogosphere. Thank you, AP English, for instilling the fear of God into me.)

The creativity and sheer tenacity just inspires the bejeezes out of me. I don't have any birthdays to celebrate in early spring - by the time Matt's rolls along on June 11, I'm already in full-on summer mode. The only real entertaining opportunity I have before unveiling the BBQ (officially - I've been cheating on the side in my garage) is Easter.

I don't know who the hell is even coming for Easter this year. My family, all 3 hours away in the foothills of Washington's Mt. Rainier, are going to have to take a pass this time around. That leaves the in-laws, which haven't committed either way as of press time. But I'm high on eloquent fumes, and possible lack of guests, along with the early April date this year, can't damper my goals. We bought a house 5 months ago in the Willamette Valley, and I just dare you to find a better diversified and rich farming country than this. Just on the way into our town you pass a winery, an asparagus farm, haunting hazelnut groves and fields of hops. As much as I'd love the thrill of joining a Portland-area CSA, it seems ridiculous when I will probably be drowning in fresh produce grown feet from our driveway by summertime.

That's summertime, though. Lulled into a false sense of security with sunshine and days surpassing the 60 degree mark, I forget that these gorgeous gems aren't exactly right around the corner.

Before considering the limitations, I created what I thought was a beautiful early spring Easter menu.

-Roasted Dijon and Cracked Pepper-Crusted Rack of Lamb

-Spring Risotto
with asparagus, baby peas and Ossau-Iraty

-Winter Cellar Vegetable Tian
with zucchini, onions and Yukon potatoes

-First-Greens Salad
tossed with hazelnuts and French herb vinaigrette

-Bread Menagerie

-Strawberry Shortcake

Wanting to keep things local and pure, I started from the top and started researching. New Seasons stocks Umpqua Valley Lamb, raised far south toward the beautiful Rogue River Valley. "Our lamb is grown strictly on pasture," says Leonard Gondek of Umpqua Valley Lamb. "It doesn't go to a feed lot. We have a very good area and very good soils."


OK, now risotto. I google "Oregon Produce Chart" and am led to this very useful link:


Let's see, asparagus. APRIL! Sweet.


August!? WTF?? I swear to god they're earlier than that. Are you quite SURE, Agri-Business Council of Oregon?

Ossau Iraty... well, that comes from the Basque region of France. There is nothing local about it. It is simply my former cheese marketing self screaming inside to be heard. And I will listen. Case closed.

Winter cellar veggies we're safe with. Lettuce, according to the green bar, is going to be popping up locally in time. I've got hazelnuts from one of the hazelnut packing plants just a mile or so down the road, and dried French herbes lovingly preserved by Penzey's . I'm not going to go all badass like Barbara and try too hard to fuss with locally ground-flour in my bread, but I'll see if New Seasons has anything offer.

Which brings me to the crux - Strawberry Shortcake. My Penzey's catalog came in the mail last week with the dessert gracing the cover, and I think my St. Marteen Vanilla would love a test-drive on the holiday table. Sadly, according to the cruel chart, the green bar falls just short of my reach - strawberries aren't scheduled to creep out of the ground until May.

My mind races with justifications and bargains. It's been a warm winter - maybe they'll decide to come out early this year? Am I really THAT far from California? Am I a terrible person, a part of the evil industrial food machine? What would the localvores do?

Make rhubarb crisp, that's what. YUCK. I fucking hate rhubarb. It's red celery, for god's sake.

I could get around the ethics by using my own preserves - but I was in the middle of trying to move into a house last summer, and didn't have the time or means to freeze the local fruit bounty for just such an occasion.

Well, there's an idea. Locally-frozen fruit. Immediately I know exactly the place - Willamette Valley Fruit Company. About 30 minutes south in Salem, the Willamette Valley Fruit Company produces an exceptional line of frozen fruits (and pies and cobblers, if you want to totally cheat). It's so beautiful in the case, frozen snapshots of summertime.

Take THAT, cruel tease of summertime! I can have my shortcake and eat honorably too. Barbara would approve.

Well, no, she wouldn't. I'd get majorly docked for the lavishly imported cheese, consuming ten thousand times as many fuel calories per edible calorie for transport, and that damn local flour. But it's Eden, not heaven. Things don't always turn out perfect here.

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