Because it’s Christmas season and we all have people to buy for, I thought I’d save someone the trouble and give away a book for your chef/gardener friend or family member.
Recently, I picked up a book about some different, traditional food-preservation methods that aren’t very widely used anymore (almost all of my reading lately has been about food… what does that say about me?). Charcuterie came out several years ago (surprisingly, I remember when it was released – I’m not sure if there was some publicity surrounding it, or if I was already starting to go off the deep end), and deals primarily with meats (though not entirely) and some old-school ways of preparing it, namely salting, smoking, and curing (see the subtitle).
Not just a cookbook, it gets into a bit of history and some of the science behind how brining or smoking work, for example. The authors (Michael Ruhlman and Brian Polcyn) don’t pull any punches, and warn you that this isn’t a twenty-minute meal type of book – most of the recipes listed take a good bit of time to prepare, and once you get into curing, it can be weeks or months before you get to enjoy the fruits of your labor, and in today’s instant-gratification culture, they probably eliminate 80% of the populace just on that premise alone. However, if you’re interested in trying new things in the kitchen, and aren’t afraid of getting a little messy (and being patient), I’d recommend hitting up your local library to check it out.
Despite the fact that this isn’t necessarily a quick ‘n easy thing, and we’re not exactly overflowing with free time, the book fascinated me. I imagine at some point, I’ll stop renewing it, and just get my own copy (when that aforementioned free time is available again). Home-cured bacon? Duck confit? Smoked salmon? Made-from-scratch sausage, corned beef, pepperoni, or even prosciutto? Yes, yes, yes, and yes please. In all fairness, a lot of the time requirements are not active time – there’s just a lot of waiting involved. But, of course, good things come to… you know how it goes.
We tried one of the easier techniques in the book, brining; something I’ve never before done. Brining involves resting a hunk of meat in a salt-water solution. The water and salt seek equilibrium in the cells of the meat, so the flavored brine is absorbed and distributed throughout (osmosis), which makes it more tender and juicy and less prone to overcooking, or something like that. Read the book if you’re that interested in the science. In any event, brining’s pretty easy – make the solution, let the meat soak, rest the meat, then cook it. Very little active time, and not too bad on the inactive time either. If you’re doing something smallish (a couple pork chops), this is something you can prep and eat for dinner the same day.
Garlic-sage Brined Pork Chops
2 bone-in pork chops
4 cups water
1/4 cup kosher or sea salt
1/4 cup brown sugar
Loose handful of sage leaves
Couple cloves of garlic, lightly smashed
1/2 Tbsp pepper
Combine the brine ingredients in a saucepan, bring to a boil, then simmer for several minutes, stirring to make sure the salt and sugar are dissolved. Remove from heat, set aside, and let cool (you don’t want to cook the meat with hot liquid).
In a large dish, place the pork chops and pour the brine over them, making sure they’re covered. Refrigerate for about two hours (longer if the cuts of meat are larger).
Remove the chops from the brine, rinse well in clean water, then refrigerate again for another hour (this allows things to evenly distribute).
Sear the chops on both sides, then cook at 350 F for an additional 10 minutes or so. Let rest for another 10.
The pork certainly was tender and flavor-infused, and made a nice meal with some sautéed chard and mushrooms. Since this was relatively easy, I like to think that we’ll brine again sometime. The only requirement is that we plan our meals more than 15 minutes in advance.
With spring quickly approaching, I’ve been getting hot and heavy into gardening literature. Some of it I’ve already read, and some of it is new. One of the new additions is Four-Season Harvest, by Eliot Coleman, a moderately well-known writer typically dealing with organic gardening. I’d heard some good things about this book, so I picked one up from the library – I think it was good enough that it’ll get added to my reference collection at some point in the near future.
I have to admit, I fit the “average northern gardener” stereotype that he talks about early in the book – once the first frosts hit, I pretty much pack it in until April, and don’t give any thought to extending the harvest. Sure, I’ve considered cold frames, but more for just starting things a little earlier in the spring. This book certainly changed my mind about what it means to have a four-season garden, and I’m almost kinda looking forward to next winter so I can try some of his ideas out. Not too much though – if summer wants to stay indefinitely, I’d be okay with that too.
Coleman talks about how Southern France and his home in Maine are at the same latitude, so the sunlight (the real driver of plant growth) is approximately the same. Of course, France, being on the Mediterranean, has a much milder climate, but his thought is that if it’ll grow in France in the winter, it’ll also grow in Maine, given the right conditions. The methods for creating these conditions that he dwells on for most of the book are cold frames and covered tunnels.
Some of it might be a little much for a small-scale backyard grower; I know I’m not ready for the attached 40-foot greenhouse that he has at his place. The rest of it is very helpful – different ways of designing cold frames, several ways of creating different sizes and styles of covered tunnels, and how various groups of people have used these divergent styles. It piqued my interest enough that I’m going to build a couple small cold frames for next winter. Another hook is that he says most of the work is involved in the planting upfront – once the winter hits, there’s almost no maintenance, and the only work is harvesting a little bit here and there for a salad.
The bulk of the book consists of anecdotes of his travels in (mostly) France, where he searched the countryside for winter vegetable gardens, his thoughts on the aforementioned cold frames and tunnels, many charts outlining varying planting times, a good description of several winter-hardy plants (some common and others not-so-much, like mache and claytonia), and other various tidbits, such as composting and raising ducks. There are also several appendices listing sources for seeds and building materials and covering the care of many common garden vegetables. It’s certainly educational, but also interwoven with stories and written at enough of a yeoman’s level that it reads easily.
If you’ve always thought that gardening ends in late September (but don’t necessarily want it to), I’d recommend giving this book a read.
I like to read. I can’t think of many (or any, off the top of my head) days where I don’t read something. In a way, my mind needs to consume words or information on a very regular basis, much like my body needs food. A good chunk of what I read is fiction, but I also read in order to learn new things (and I recommend everyone do that, at least occasionally). So, I’ve decided to add a new ‘feature’ and do a book review now and again, but only for books that relate to the main topics of this blog. So if you want my commentary on the latest historical fiction or sci-fi thriller, you’ll have to go elsewhere.
The book that has the honor of being first is Second Nature, a gardening book by Michael Pollan (he of the In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma fame). I’ve read and enjoyed some of his works on food – In Defense of Food really got me thinking about what and how we eat, and helped push me further down the rabbit-hole to real and local foods – but I didn’t know he had any earlier books (Second Nature was published in 1991; when I received it for Christmas, I thought it was something new he had written). In any event, I didn’t know he was also into gardening, so I was excited to dig in.
Second Nature is not really a how-to kind of book. It’s more conceptual, more of a treatise on gardening philosophy. I know that sounds terribly dry, but don’t worry. His introduction starts with the idea that we who garden really have two gardens: the first, “the garden of books and memories, that outdoor utopia… where nature answers to our wishes…” only resides in the gardener’s imagination. The second is reality – in my case, a couple acres of clay soil, inconsistent weather, weeds, and the resident wildlife. This idea is what the majority of the book is based around – how we learn from each of those two gardens, one real and one metaphorical. Pollan’s basic premise boils down to the question of what it means to garden. Are humans, with our superior intellect and technology, entitled to do anything and everything in their desire to conquer the land? Or are we to follow the romantic ideals of Thoreau and Muir and be environmental pacifists, letting nature run its course and not doing anything to interfere? Eventually, I think he decides it has to be somewhere in the middle.
The first chapter of the book talks about his gardening background and influences – his Bronx-born father, something of a rebel who refused to cut the grass in their suburban neighborhood; and his Russian grandfather, who maintained the most orderly, weed-free garden he had seen. He also touches on some of his earliest gardening memories, including his discovery of a watermelon born from a seed he had spit earlier. From here, the book is split into four sections (each named after a season, starting with Spring) which deal with the evolution of his ideas, starting at the time that he and his wife bought a house in the country and he returned to gardening.
Spring starts with Pollan discussing his first experiences gardening at the new house, how he had an overly romanticized view on how to interact with nature, and how those views quickly started to change with the arrival of the first woodchuck. He delves into the suburban American concept of a yard and how the American garden is so different from its European predecessors. Americans are all about their lush, green front yards, and his anecdotes about those who would dare to defy this mindset were entertaining (particularly the one about “noxious weeds” – at our old house, I once received a letter threatening swift action if my small front yard with its “noxious weeds” was not cut quickly. The “noxious weeds” consisted of 6″ tall grass with a few dandelions and ground ivy interspersed. Far from what I’d consider “noxious” but it’s funny to see how we’re forced to conform to the American suburban ideal). He moves onto a chapter about compost, the development of chemical fertilizers, and a metaphorical discussion of gardens, anti-gardens, and how Americans tend to see nature and culture as diametrically opposed. He does tend to wander, but it’s fairly easy to follow.
With Summer, we move into a discourse on roses. The classic old varieties and their supporters, the advent of the new hybrids (and their perceived inferiority by the “old guard”), and the sheer sensuality, or lack thereof, that comes to mind when experiencing the old vs. the new. Interesting commentary.
Into the next chapter, on what it is to be a weed, he starts by recalling an early experience with creating a “natural garden” – free-form, toss the seeds anywhere, almost no weeding (only one mention of pulling out some pigweed early on). The first summer, he says, things worked out reasonably well, with him being able to tolerate the unplanted guests. Predictably though, by the second year, the weeds took over and squashed his romanticism. He does eventually reach some kind of middle ground, which is kind of where I fall, in agreeing that there are such thing as “weeds,” though the definition is fairly gray and ambiguous, and really, weeds are a human construct. What is native in one area may indeed become an invasive “noxious weed” in another. For the most part, I don’t mind some weeds if I’m not doing anything particularly useful with some area of land, but in the vegetable patch, all bets are off. No quarter asked, and none given.
Fall is announced with the season of harvest – plants beginning to wind down, changing colors, animals marauding in a last-ditch effort to pluck what they can from our carefully-tended plots, and the rot that comes with the fungi, the cool, damp weather, and the ripening of produce. Pollan speaks of the fight we have with autumn, the tug-of-war that we play, but always lose in the end. Eventually, the killing frosts come nightly, the green is turned to black, and even the color from the trees begins to wane. At this point, we’re getting into the acceptance phase, realizing that nature itself needs to take a breather. As Pollan puts it, “A garden that never died eventually would weary… the garden winter doesn’t visit is a dull place, robbed of springtime, unacquainted with the extraordinary perfume that rises from the soil after it’s had its rest.” Indeed.
The subsequent chapter then delves into what is really at the heart of the book. He tells the story of Cathedral Pines, a local landmark of old-growth white pines, and the disastrous tornado that ravaged the trees. In the aftermath, there was much discussion over what to do – let it lie and have nature take its course? Remove the fallen trees and replant more pines? Or oaks? Bulldoze the area and put in condos? Sell the lumber? Throughout this process, foresters discovered that the pines dated only back until about the 1780s, so the “virgin forests” weren’t so virgin after all, and actually were likely the result of the first settlers clear-cutting the area. Turns out, Cathedral Pines wasn’t really a “wilderness” – and truly, there isn’t much actual wilderness left. Inevitably, man has left his fingerprints on the natural world, and has been for millenia (whether we realize it or not), so the question then becomes, what kind of fingerprint do we leave now? Do “nothing” (although “nothing” is really impossible, because we’ve already modified it in some way; it’s really, don’t do anything more), overdo it, or intervene in a way that considers both our own interests and nature’s? Pollan then dives into some ideas for what he calls a “new ethic” based on the idea of a garden. Again, lots of different points, references, and anecdotes, but interesting reading.
Finally we reach Winter. He starts us with a discussion of seed catalogs – how gardener’s wait in anticipation, and the different types; some parroting the latest and greatest hybrids, others more refined, almost to the point of being elitist. Then a dive into seeds themselves – hybrids, heirlooms, histories, and the reverence that different groups of people throughout the ages have had for seeds. In the final chapter of the book, Pollan ties up most of the loose ends with a summary of his gardening philosophy. It’s here that I found a brief passage that rings true to me, dealing with what a garden really is, and how we’ve taken something grand and turned it into a patch of ground. “What everyone else in the world would call a garden, we call simply, plainly, our ‘yard’,” he says. “Gardens and even yards in America are not places for being in but for looking at. We admire our beds from the lawn, and arrange our unfenced front yards for the admiration of the street… Suburban America has been laid out to look best from the perspective not of its inhabitants, but of the motorist.” How true, and how sad that we’ve all fallen into that trap. When you think about gardens in literature (think The Secret Garden), or see pictures of well-known or even unknown gardens from England, or France, or Italy, it’s something much more substantial than what we call a garden today, an actual place, not just a 20 x 10 piece of tilled ground.
So can it be more than just a yard? We’ve kind of taken steps in that direction – the entire yard on one side of the driveway has been turned into an orchard (or at least the start of one), with more and more flower beds popping up. Granted, my vegetables are still in a neat, enclosed space, lest the animals get to them. And I still want some flat, open spaces, at least enough for the kids and dog to run around (and hopefully, wear themselves out), but I have no strong attachment to having a big, luscious, green patch of grass.
Overall, I really enjoyed the book, and it was a fairly quick read. He goes off onto lots of tangents, and quotes several people profusely, but it’s not overly difficult to follow where he’s going, and philosophically, I’m on the same page most of the time. I don’t know that I’d agree with him much politically, but he does a good job of not bringing up those views too often. It’s more of a pleasure read than educational, but I did learn a few things, and it is quite thought-provoking and makes you consider things a little differently. Anyway, it’s good to read for fun now and then.
So, apparently I like to write too. I think the last book report I did was in high school, so I’m sure I’m breaking lots of rules, and not following any legible format, and probably rambling quite a bit. I’ll try to keep any future reviews a little more concise, somewhere between this and what they do in the newspaper. I don’t want it to be too brief, because in my personal opinion, I’d like to know a little about what I’m reading before I devote any significant amount of time to a book, so I want to summarize the basic premise to some extent. Feedback? Anyone?