January and February are usually months to read books. I’m working on my fourth but it seems like I’m running behind.
Political work has taken a bite out of my time.
Ambient temperatures have been warm. Absent a cold spell of temperatures below zero, I’m planning to prune our fruit trees this coming cycle of days off. As I lean into retirement I work two days at the home, farm and auto supply store with five days in a row to do what I please. The days are filled with activity.
Sunday I’m scheduled to soil block at the farm, the first time this winter. I bought a small soil blocking tool for home use and planted onions and shallots. It’s the first time doing it at home and what the future holds as I wean myself from greenhouse use over the next few seasons.
Our ice box is getting down to carrots, turnips, bread, dairy and pickles. There are mostly jars of things. Light permeates the glass shelving, revealing what’s in the bottom drawer. Growing season is a couple of months away.
Our cooking is from the pantry and freezer. We have storage onions and potatoes and lots of garlic. Apples from our trees and the orchard have been gone a few weeks. There are plenty of canned goods. We have enough to last us until spring arrives, supplemented by weekly trips to the warehouse club and grocery store.
Winter in Iowa has changed. It’s weird. It’s not consistent from year to year. I try to adapt and still find the new experience a bit sucky. Are you winter or not? No response.
As I finish this post, a prelude to getting ready for work, I feel ready: ready for what’s next, ready for something different, ready to move on. In this winter morning I’m ready to emerge from my book-lined writing space and ascend to the kitchen, and all that happens there, midst a winter lament.
We are in peak apple season at the orchard where I’ve been working more hours compared to August. Time at the home farm and auto supply store continues to be predictable work and a regular paycheck. I’m working more volunteer hours in politics as the general election is just six weeks away. The garden is finishing with some plots ready to be cleared.
September was a month of plain living.
People don’t often use the phrase “plain living.” Most don’t want to be plain. I embrace it. I don’t know why I’m walking this blue-green sphere, but I am, and want to get along as I get by. Maybe that’s enough of a goal. It makes a life.
On Wednesday I read Anthony Bourdain’s “Appetites: A Cookbook” from cover to cover. I needed to get away. Many of his anecdotes have been out there, although there is always something new to learn. While meat is not on my bucket list of culinary adventures, there are a dozen Bourdain recipes I’ll try and hopefully adapt to our kitchen.
I’m usually on my own for Thursday dinner and had Bourdain in mind as I prepared a burger. It began after work at the home, farm and auto supply store with a trip to the warehouse club. I selected S. Rosen’s Plain Mary Ann hamburger buns. This bun is not a wonder of nutritional value. Like me, it’s plain. The warehouse club sells them in bags of 16 for a couple of bucks, which means I froze most of them to use later. Bourdain said bun selection is very important. This made in Chicago and trucked to Coralville bun fit the bill.
Our burgers are commercial veggie patties and like the bun, plain and utilitarian. They fill in for “burger” in the iconography of consumer life. I cooked the patty, and prepared the bun with Dijon mustard on the bottom, ketchup on the top, thinly sliced onion from the CSA and a thinly sliced tomato from the garden. As the burger warmed, I put a piece of Swiss cheese on top to melt. The goal in ingredient selection is to make the burger so it can be eaten without a bib. Served with a side of corn chips and salsa and apple cider it made a meal. It reminded me of childhood.
September was also the month I harvested my best crop of tomatoes, ever. There were enough to free me from any single preparation so I have several variations of tomato sauce in the ice box and freezer. Enough to last most of the next year. A few remain on the kitchen counter but they won’t last long. I have salsa with the abundant crop of Jalapeno peppers in mind.
One could do a lot worse than to live a plain life with plain folk. That of itself can be extraordinary. Especially with a burger for dinner.
The abundance of tomatoes, bell peppers and onions is leading to a pot of soup featuring those ingredients.
There is no recipe — I used ingredients already in the ice box. I cut up a bag of onion seconds and sauteed them in extra virgin olive oil until translucent; poured in a quart and a half of diced tomatoes (drained); and added a scant pint of the pulp of red peppers cooked and separated with a food mill, also drained. I seasoned with salt and that’s it.
The mixture is simmering in my Dutch oven on medium heat. Once it is thoroughly cooked, I’ll take the stick blender to it and taste. After that, who knows?
The adventure is in the doing and learning. Because of the uniqueness of this season, the dish is hardly replicable.
JOHNSON COUNTY, Iowa — In the margins of time between social engagements lives a local food movement available to all who seek it.
There is inadequate time in life’s span to become an enthusiast, however pursuit of local food culture is not only okay, it can be rewarded with meals that comfort more ways than imaginable.
While Jacque was in town with her sister, I made last night’s supper of seconds of poblano peppers and yellow onions from the farm, a couple of links of vegetarian sausage, and a variety of home made pickles.
After removing bad spots from the onions and peppers, I cut them into thin strips and piled them on the cutting board. I cut the sausages on the bias and browned them in a pan. Once finished, I removed them to a paper napkin sitting on a plate and began sauteing the onions and peppers in olive oil, seasoning with a bit of cilantro, granulated garlic, salt and pepper.
While the vegetables were cooking I arranged three kinds of pickles, sweet, dill and daikon radish in a bowl. Once the vegetable mix was finished I spooned it into the bowl beside the pickles and topped it with the cooked sausage. With a glass of iced water, it made a meal.
After dinner I went downstairs and checked the crock full of cucumbers. Fermentation bubbles had begun to appear after two days, indicating a successful pickling process. Patience is a key ingredient when making pickles. I hope I have enough of it on hand to make it 11 additional days when the dill pickles will be ready to eat.
Simple stir fries and pickles become a way of life when vegetables are available from the farm and garden in abundance. Cooking in the local food culture is an act of rebellion from a consumer culture that engendered us in the Western hemisphere. It represents taking control of our lives.
Do I always cook locally produced food at home? No. I pay attention to the seasonality of food and align with it as much as possible. I’ve found it makes for better ingredients and depending on the cook, for better eating.
There is more to the seasons of food than common affection for sweet corn and tomatoes. Learning more is a step toward living a better life and who doesn’t want to do that?
Between picture perfect onions and the compost heap lies an opportunity.
A friend grows onions using organic practices as part of a Community Supported Agriculture project. Onions are harvested from the field then dried in the greenhouse for storage. Sorting, trimming the tops and roots, and removing excess skin comes next.
As an experienced onion trimmer I work for farmers I know and trust. My compensation is an hourly rate above the current minimum wage plus all the seconds I can use. It’s a good deal, so I take it when offered. For an hour or two after a full time job at the home, farm and auto supply company, and on weekends after a shift at the orchard, I work in the onion shed.
The work is seasonal and temporary. Cognizant of potential competition from other itinerant workers, I work as quickly and as well as I can. The daily chore serves as respite from an intense schedule of lowly paid work that provides income destined mostly to corporations in exchange for stuff needed to operate the household: utilities, insurance, taxes, fuel and the like. I will have worked 100 days in a row by the November election — I’m not complaining, just sayin’.
At the end of each shift in the onion shed, I take home ten or more pounds of seconds. I remove the bad parts in our kitchen and am left with half the original amount in fresh onions. There’ no long term storage for these so they go into the ice box until used. If left on the counter, bad spots would quickly re-emerge.
I made and canned the first batch of vegetable soup with three pounds of fresh onions and a bit of everything on hand from the farm and garden. By the time the onions at the farm are in storage, there will be enough canned vegetable soup put up to last until the next growing season. Soup that can make a meal.
With the concurrent harvest of tomatoes and basil from our garden, I plan to make and can pints of marinara sauce using a simple, four-part recipe of tomatoes, onions, basil and garlic. Onion trimming blocks out time from vegetable processing, and some good ones will head to the compost bin before I can get to them. I am hopeful about getting a dozen pints of marinara sauce canned.
The life of an itinerant low wage worker lies on the margin between harvest and the compost bin, That’s true for a lot of professions, not just onion trimmers. If you think about it, that’s where we all live our lives in the 99 percent of the population that isn’t wealthy.
I’m okay with working a job with friends doing work that directly impacts our family’s sustainability. It may be easier to take a big job with responsibilities and varied compensation, but I’d rather deal with the questions like whether something can be made of each onion I encounter.
The pile of second represents hope in a tangible and meaningful way. What’s life for unless that?
The intent was to prepare dinner for my spouse who worked later than me on Saturday. The dish would have onions and tomatoes in it. Those things I knew.
From there the culinary session went into chaos as either I couldn’t make a decision, or more likely, refused to cooperate as I struggled to enter the real world of counter top, sink, stove top and oven. There were knives and heat involved, so it is a miracle the preparation left me unscathed.
It began with an onion that was beginning to sprout.
Onions are a staple in our kitchen, and we can’t grow or barter for enough of them. Having used up the local harvest, we were on our second bag from the warehouse club. Unexpectedly, one sprouted.
Not a catastrophe, and my mind turned toward preparing dishes using onions to eat for dinner and store for later. It would be pizza, chili and/or pasta sauce. That “and/or” became problematic, but no problem with the pizza.
A long-time pizza-maker explained that dough makes the pizza. We like it as thin as possible and the recipe is simple: a cup of warm water, a teaspoon of yeast, a scant teaspoon of sugar, pinch of salt and flour enough to bring the dough together in a sticky, but not too sticky ball. Then into a greased bowl in a warm oven, covered by a dish towel for about an hour. It takes practice and over 40 years, I’ve gotten the knack. So far so good.
What did I do for an hour? Partly I prepared the toppings for the pizza, including caramelizing two large onions seasoned with basil, made eight ounces of sauce, drained sliced Manzanilla olives and opened the bag of shredded mozzarella cheese I bought on closeout from the local grocer on the way home from work. Caramelized onions on pizza was something we discussed, and Saturday was the night to try them.
Using ample bench flour, the risen dough was dumped on the counter, kneaded a second time, then rolled with a pin. For the first time I decided to use parchment paper under the pizza dough to make clean up easier. Initially I hoped to put the pizza-laden parchment directly on the oven rack. I rolled up the flattened dough on the pin and transferred it to the parchment paper, which I laid on a large wooden paddle. The paddle was from the part of the plan where I thought the pizza would go directly on the rack. To call it a plan is not accurate. I transferred the works to a baking sheet.
I docked the dough and spread on a thin coating of olive oil. Next the sauce (seasoned with oregano and the remains of a jar of “Italian seasoning” rescued from our daughter’s Colorado apartment), then olives, then onions, then cheese all spread as evenly as possible.
12-15 minutes at 450 degrees and pizza perfection. If I had left it there, everything would have been fine.
I got out my kitchen-weary Dutch oven to make the chili or pasta sauce, having reduced the plan from “and/or” to “or.” In my mind, I was making both. Making a rough dice of another onion, I covered the bottom of the pan with tomato juice drained from two quarts of diced tomatoes. The idea was to steam fry the onions. As the juice evaporated, I added more. This part went well and the onions softened, becoming translucent. I added two small cans of tomato paste. Whoever invented tomato paste was brilliant as it both thickens and adds a pronounced tomato flavor to any dish.
Here is where things went awry. To season the dish, I added a scant tablespoon of chili powder, some cumin and incorporated everything so I could proceed to the next step. Then I added a heaping teaspoon of basil, which violated some unwritten rule, making the dish neither chili nor pasta sauce. When I seasoned the caramelized onions with basil, while the jar was still in my hand, I unwittingly dumped the rest of it into the nascent chili-pasta sauce. It’s not a crime, but it’s not chili.
Once the deed was done, I had to recover. With the chili powder, it would never make good pasta sauce, so I fetched some cans of organic kidney beans from downstairs. I drained and washed them and added them in along with a bag of Morningstar® Recipe Crumbles and covered with more tomato juice. It made nine pints of so-called chili.
A fine dinner was and will be had by all as the results of this work are consumed over the next week or so.
What the cookbooks by celebrity chefs don’t explain is the foggy dynamic of what actually goes on in a kitchen. Having cooked many meals with my late maternal grandmother, I understand what happened last night is not unusual. The extemporaneous practice of cooking is more often like that than not.
Through the haze of a long day’s work we look at life’s deteriorating produce, and a spice shelf where seasonings are older than fresh, and say, “something can be made here.” Even when ideas don’t quite come together in the mist of life, we can sustain ourselves. That is a life worth living.
RURAL CEDAR TOWNSHIP— The onion harvest is in at the CSA, and more than two tons of white, red and yellow onions have been arranged in the germination house and barn to dry. Today begins the third day of trimming the excess leaves and arrange them for further drying. A few more four hour shifts and the project will be complete. Onions are one of the most popular vegetables, so the shareholders at the CSA will enjoy continuing to receive this bounty in their shares.
I filled the blank spaces in my garden’s cucumber row yesterday afternoon and gave the new patch a good watering. The zucchini are about done, the vines withering and yellowed. Same with yellow squash. There are butternut squash seedlings to plant, although I’m not certain they will make the 90-100 day window needed to mature— another experiment. Next weekend I begin paying work at a local orchard, helping with the weekend surge of city dwellers who come out for family entertainment and apples. That means this weekend will become a working time in the yard and garden, getting caught up on weeding, grass mowing, tree trimming, and preparing garden plots for the next iteration of planting.
Fall crops will include turnips for the greens, radishes, lettuce and spinach for sure, adding to the most prolific of gardening years here in Big Grove. (Note to self: prepare more trays for germinating seeds).
My first crop of apples is getting close to ripe (there will be two harvests this year, plus pears), which means the CSA operator and I have to stay in touch with the work for tomatoes project so everything can get processed as it comes in at the same time. In my garden, the large tomatoes are beginning to ripen. We’ve been eating fresh tomatoes for about three weeks.
In the kitchen the storage space is filling up with onions, potatoes and apples, and the soup stock is getting used, making room for the approaching tomato harvest in a week or so. There is a lot to do before Labor Day.
LAKE MACBRIDE— The harvest was 100+ spring onions, but that was not the plan. The weeds had taken over the onion patch when I went to pull them yesterday— they were too intertwined with the onions to separate them, and while attempting to preserve the onions, I ended up pulling them out. One of the produce drawers in the refrigerator is now half full of clean spring onions, which isn’t all bad.
The trouble was the onion sets should have been mulched immediately upon planting— a lesson for next year. Part of the problem is that my supply of mulch (a.k.a. grass clippings) wasn’t ready then. Another issue is that while I spaced the onions well in the rows, the rows need to be further apart to enable the gardener to access them for weeding. Live and learn, but this year won’t bring the big onion harvest for which I had hoped.
After clearing the onion patch, I mowed and bagged the lawn and now there is a tall pile of mulch where the hope of onions used to be. This afternoon’s forecast is for a 10 percent chance of precipitation, so a-mulching I will go around the Brussels sprouts, broccoli, peppers, and everything else.
It will be easy to fill the onion patch with other plants, as two trays of seedlings are ready for transplanting. They will now see service in the space formerly known as onion patch.