Sunday, October 25, 2009

And now...Raw Milk!

The news comes from across the valley: over in Tapawera, there's a dairy farm--or WAS a dairy farm, as the farmer couple finally had enough, sold their stock (or most of it) for a pretty penny, and are now sitting back letting old age do its worst. BUT NOT EXACTLY, because they kept enough cows to sell milk as, you know, a hobby; just to keep their hands in. So they still have their delivery truck, and now, a couple of times a week, you can order raw, quasi-(i.e., uncertified)organic, straight-from-the-cow milk for $1 A LITER! That's about US$3 per gallon, for you Imperial holdovers.

What is it like, tasting milk that's hours old, pristine? Well, understand that the milk in New Zealand is already pretty good. Even the cheapest milk tastes faintly of grass, and generally of goodness. God knows there's enough grass around here that milk-from-grass is all there is. That said, I can't claim to have a head-snapping, eye-rolling reaction to the taste. However, one word in the job description stands out: "raw." Yes, there's a lot of hoo-hah about the supposed health benefits of raw milk--best left aside, which is where I'll leave them. But the main thing is: raw milk is what you make cheese out of. Pasteurization cripples the whole process. Raw milk is the doorway to the whole world of (ahem) cheese culture. So now, we're taking weekly delivery on 15 or 20 liters, mainly to sate the cheese maw.

This is a HUGE development--I mean the availability of cheesemaking literature. When I first looked into it, twenty or thirty years ago, cheese books were exclusively about cheese EATING, not cheese MAKING. And now, in the 21st Century, without underground connections of any kind, you can get any number of books that casually toss out recipes for Parmesan, Gorgonzola, Cheddar. It's like getting a pass code to a completely secret section of the cook's playground.

We're not the only ones with access to this magic stuff, and so cheesemaking is sweeping Lloyd Valley. Little wheels of Gouda are popping up in one pantry after another. Krys made all her mistakes on her first batch of "Pyrenees" cheese and, having decided not to risk aging it, opened it to find a pretty nice simulacrum of ricotta salata: entirely edible and entirely gratifying. Now she's moved on to a proper batch of the Pyrenees, now in process on the shelf; a velvety, light cream cheese; and Haloumi that's a salty but entirely viable replacement for the $50/kilo stuff. And, speaking of ricotta, the whey that comes off the initial cheesemaking makes for the loveliest, lightest ricotta I've had--and I've struggled for years with Lynn Kasper's recipe for ricotta straight from the milk which, God love her, stubbornly resists the most painstaking execution with a hard, rubbery product. Not so the used whey: it makes half as much per gallon, but jeez, it's used, fercryinoutloud!

So, ricotta with chard or spinach on pasta; ricotta as a sandwich spread with even mediocre hothouse tomatoes; ricotta in ravioli with asparagus; ricotta spooned up as a refreshing light snack: MmmMM.

But even after making ricotta, the whey isn't entirely depleted. Chilled down, retaining just the little bit of acid from ricotta-making, it's an amazingly refreshing drink for a hot day, rocketing up my personal chart to the point where it threatens my fealty to iced tea.

And then it turns into pork! ...the whey, that is: the new pig will happily take down all the whey we can turn out, pre- or post-ricotta. Life is good.

Looking for a nice tidy closer here? Sorry, but--fresh cheeses excepted--cheese takes a while. The Pyrenees MIGHT be ready for the family visitation next Feb/Mar., and we all know what "aged" Cheddar and Parmesan mean in calendar time. (Think about what this long feedback time means to the learning process--"Was this the batch with a teaspoon or a tablespoon of salt?", etc. Turns out that there's a good reason for apprenticeships: learning from someone else's mistakes.) So it's going to be a while before any of it comes off the shelf. Watch this space.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Musical Fruit

Aren't beans the greatest thing?

Dry, they sit on the shelf forever, a half dozen jars of Technicolor lovelies that need only an hour to soak and then an hour's attentionless cooking. Whatever bean dish you're making, there's enough left for something else, only imagination required. All they need is a complementary starch, and a little something for interest, and you're well on your way to dinner. They're even good without augmentation of any kind: they're rich and creamy and distinctive all by themselves, and with a little nice fresh bread, you're eating just fine.

Tonight, we had the second round (ever better) of a bean soup that just materialized a couple of days ago. The white beans were ready, the kale was in the freezer, and we had a little bacon from our neighbor Uwe. The bacon was a bit hard, and a bit bitter from smoking with oak, but it was a fine substitute for ham hock. Beans, bacon, kale, onions, carrots, a little hot pepper flakes, resisting the urge to gild the lilly with garlic, a little simmering time, and there you are. Oh yeah, the frozen beef stock, artifact of the dead cow and its lavish carcass, didn't hurt.

Tonight, re-heating and plating (bowling?) with some more of that local Parmesan, black pepper and a drizzle of olive oil was enough of an anchor for dinner. A few more asparagus spears, steamed and drizzled with lemon juice for a supporting vegetable, and the light salad with early greens and half an avocado sliced for the two of us. And today's bread with butter, of course.

(Speaking of avocados, I invite you to think of them as the moral fruit. To begin with, you have a choice (and what's more moral than that? The Pope would be pleased): you can go for the instant gratification of buying them ripe, overpaying for the privilege of virtually jostling with the ghosts of prior competition and desperately picking through their bruised leftovers for something edible (would this be, like, the 17th circle of hell?). But if you think ahead, and bring a little patience to the situation? Buy them green and hard as a golf ball--no kidding, that's the exact criterion--with no discrimination whatsoever, and with a few days wait, you're rewarded by seeing them magically morph into a flawless dark fruit that's exactly as ripe as you want it to be. Aah, the fruits of forbearance.)

That salad: in Motueka there's a "Sunday market" that's part flea market, part farmer's market, part grazing ground with lots of little food stalls (including the German lady proffering a panoply of sausages and other small goods, which don't get me started), and general hang out for the Churchless masses. One of the places we always check is a stand of organic, or rather spray free, vegetables, run by a character who, well, let's just say it's a good thing he has a solitary occupation. But he's a sweet guy, his prices are reasonable, he loves to talk about his product, and he has the odd interesting item, like spring garlic. We got a generous bag of very nice light lettuce for a buck. With a little avocado, perfect.

Overdid it on the desert, though. I succumbed to the last piece of chocolate cake, nuked up for a few seconds. And a bowl of fresh yogurt with the last of the 2007 jam, apricot, my favorite. And who can resist half a scoop of Krys's granola? Finally, there was the square of Trader Joe's chocolate with almonds, sitting in a dish on the table just daring me not to eat it. Fat chance. Oh well, I did spend two hours grubbing thistles today.

That's right, another feast.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Spring at the Fridge

[Generally befuddled musor stumbles onstage, still non-plussed by the casual act of getting a blog running]

Um, Hi.

Here I am, or we are ("we" encompassing Krys, my wife), in rural New Zealand, still staggering (or whatever you do when rocketing from conditions of hysterical stress and machine-gun mark-hitting to a late winter/early spring where it's still too early to plant) with the change. And as it always is with people like us, eating acquires front-and-center attention.

The situation: new house on a lot of pasture land in the hills of the northern South Island, Aotearoa. Go to Google Earth and type in "Orinoco, New Zealand" if you want to see exactly where: the crosshairs land exactly on our property, and you get a very dramatic zoom from the Western Hemisphere to our portion of Godzone. The house containing three freezers, among them a large chest freezer still sagging under the weight of a cow sacrificed in our name last year, plus assorted garden vegetables lying in state, awaiting inspiration/motivation: corn, kale, tomatoes, pesto, plums, pork, green beans, peppers. A spring coming to life with free-range eggs, asparagus, and a panoply of seedlings. A garden outside, 2000 square feet worth, patiently waiting for us to recover from the shock of seeing our organic wonderland of six months ago overwhelmed (as are we) by a riot of weeds, but still harboring some tenacious holdovers from the winter, including carrots, kale, collards, parsley, leafy radicchio and chicory. And appetites conditioned by California luxury and endless choice.

It's time to eat.

Tonight: we were in a lovely little garden shop today, singing sweet songs (the shop was) of "candy cherry tomato" plants, which of course how can you resist. But in plunking down my money for the plants, I spotted a basket of duck eggs. Well, I know exactly what to do with those.

Picked up a bundle of asparagus at some intervening market. Home, lunged for Mario Batali's recipe for asparagus and sunny-side-up duck eggs. The refrigerator was husbanding some cooked pinto beans, and some salsa.

(May I tell you about salsa? Mexican food is, like, a foreign concept of unfathomable exotitude in New Zealand. So, naturally, in our Berkeley sojourn this year I conceived the ambition of learning my way around salsa so as to hubristically aspire to the stellar heights of Cancun Taqueria in Berkeley, which religiously proffers upwards of a dozen staggeringly savory salsas every day. A successful cookbook find on Amazon, a spirit-lifting shopping excursion to Mi Tierra foods for dry chilis and other exotica before leaving California, and a round of fast talk to the MAF--Ministry of Agriculture and Food, vouchsafers of New Zealand's agricultural innocence--upon re-entry to New Zealand, later, and the salsas have started coming. This week's entry: grilled tomatillo and chipotle.)

This week our specials have featured fresh chicory salad. Krys discovered that some cardboard had blown on top of the chicory plants, and what was underneath was a lovely pale leaf, entirely edible and, it seems, highly prized in some quarters. But having finished that off, we were encouraged to move on to the rest of the plants, and it turns out that chicory makes a fine salad! Crisp, just the right chew, and sassy enough to argue with your palate. Threw on some sliced apples from the cold store, dried cranberries, and roasted salted pecans that I accidentally bought at TJ's, with a nice tart vinaigrette. Everybody's happy, and it even makes dessert kind of redundant.

(By the way, could somebody explain to me why on earth people buy bottled salad dressing? We found one in our fridge from a houseguest, a "balsamic dressing" whose first ingredient was water. It can't be the price. It certainly can't be the quality. It must be the idea of convenience; it would have to be, given how little real convenience there is to it.)

And there it was. At Mario's behest, I blanched the asparagus, tossed it in hot olive oil for a minute, then cooked the duck eggs sunnyside up with gorgeous runny flaming yellow tumescent yolks, and lay them lovingly atop the asparagus, all of it doctored throughout with salt and pepper, then smothered with good-enough local Parmesan. After that, plain old pinto beans with salsa, a couple of slabs of Krys's homemade bread, the chicory salad, and a couple of glasses of red wine.

We sit down and toast (as we do so often): "To another feast."

Not bad for, say, 20 minutes at the stove, including Margarita Time.