Wednesday, August 28, 2013

tarragon summer

Have you ever noticed that food has fashion?  When I was a kid, chocolate mousse dominated the runway of restaurant desert menus.  I have to admit, I wouldn't mind if that trend found itself suddenly back in vogue.  The "chocolate mousse cake" that replaced it isn't worth the raspberry-swirled plate it usually comes on. 

Regardless, on the lightly whipped heels of the mousse I loved so much, came potato skins - remember those cheesy, bacon-bit laden little boats of perfect bar food we scarfed down after too many beers in college? (or was that just me).  And after college, chicken wings flapped their way into the Friday night happy hours of our twenties, with curly fries hot on their trail.  Perhaps I used to drink and then eat too much?!).

At some point, I grew up, stopped eating in bars, and became a more committed vegetarian (the kind that turns her nose up at imitation bacon bits).  Still, there was food fashion to be found, even in a home cooked meal.  In the 1990s, Gourmet and Bon Appetit would not be satisfied until they'd incorporated Italian basil and balsamic vinegar into each and every one of their recipes.  Once the food editors tired of that, we got cilantro and lime followed by sesame oil, ginger and Thai Basil.  Then, sometime before the restaurant became a thing, the chipotle pepper took over our cuisine. 

I happily rode these waves of food fashion, adapting to them far more easily than I did to the idea I should change out my Tivas for something more edgy.   But that ended about ten years ago when I began to cook seasonally. I quickly grew disillusioned with the cooking magazines that asked me, in the cold of winter, to make a Christmas veggie platter out of fresh broccoli and cherry tomatoes.  Further complicating my relationship to food, we discovered Olivia's food allergies.  The imperative that I cook without wheat, gluten, dairy, eggs, and peanuts sent me suddenly adrift, thrust into my own world where I invented new recipes and adapted old ones according to the limits of both season and diet. 

I'm sure there is something new and ever so fashionable in food right now, but I'm no longer privy to such trends.  Instead, my exposure to cooking magazines starts and stops with Living Without (a magazine for people with food allergies that I highly recommend if you are so in need).  I use recipes out of it occasionally, but mostly, I just read the articles (Ha!  We've all heard that before).  This leaves me largely to my own odd devices.  That, my friends, is how I've ended up in a summer where, around our house, the unlikely pairing of tarragon and jalapeño peppers hit runway pay dirt. 

Perhaps I'm no better at the fashion of food than of shoes, or perhaps it's just that bounty rather than trendy determines what lands on our plates these days.  You see, my basil did poorly this year.  Usually I have enough to stuff a mattress, but this year it languished (did I water it too much? too little? at all?  Maybe it didn't like the unusually cool weather?) Regardless, I haven't had much basil to work with.  But the tarragon was happy, and the peppers were plentiful, so why not? 

I used to think I didn't like Tarragon.  Not because I thought it tasted bad, but because I thought it had no flavor at all.  I grew the stuff years ago.  I planted it, watered it, weeded around it, cultivated it.  But I couldn't taste it.  Still, I persisted, dutifully putting it in salads and marinades.  No matter what I did, however, it always disappointed.  Then one summer at the farmer's market, I came across a woman selling tarragon plants.  "Huh."  I said, sort of moronically. "Your tarragon doesn't look anything like mine." 

You have to remember that I'm a plant killer, a gardener of ill-repute, as it were.  It's one thing to kill your plants, but it's quite another, isn't it, to lose track of your plant in the weeds, causing you to mistakenly cultivate the wrong thing! 

I think that at some point in the growing of my tarragon, I mistook it for a weed, pulled it out, and began caring for an impostor.  For two summers, I tended to...something.  I watered it, weeded around it, cut it fresh, dried it for winter, and fed it to my family in various forms.

Yes.  I fed my family a weed! (Not to be mistaken with: "I fed my family weed," which is how I keep reading that sentence).  Is it technically still a weed if you eat it?  I guess I'm just grateful that I didn't have any wild and poisonous hemlock lingering around in my herb garden like a snake, waiting to strike at the first opportunity.

Would you know the difference?

Mexican tarragon

  poisonous hemlock


It's been quite a few years since I began growing real tarragon, despite my horticultural challenges.  Still, until this summer, I hadn't cooked with it much.  Perhaps my years of eating a weed left a bad taste in my mouth?  But this summer, in the absence of plentiful basil, I found myself turning more and more often to this subtle little gem.  And since I had more jalapeños than we could eat, I just kept throwing them in the same bowl.  In salad.  On beets.  In pasta.  On meats.  

Do the two go well together?  Sure.  I'm not going to write a cookbook about it or anything, but I've enjoyed all the spicy hot, tarragon-laden foods we've been eating.  This is how regional foods evolve, right?  Not through fashion trends set out by the whims of traveling food editors, but through availability.  You cook with what you have.  If I'd been lucky enough that bounty and circumstance had brought lemons, olives and mint to my kitchen table in the same summer, I just may have written a cookbook about it.  However, I also can't complain.  I could have been the person to whom the butcher said, "Sorry, there's a Depression out there, I only have cow tongue on the block today" (please don't let that ever happen to me).  And what if my weed had been flavorful? I would have made a great discovery indeed!

Regardless of what the season brings, then, eating locally and seasonally connects you to your region:  the thrivings and failings of its plant life, the labor and luck of its farmers, the whims of its weather, the lurkings of its fungus, the creepy crawlings of its insects, and the work you did, or didn't do, in your own garden (no matter how misguided!).  In this way, food becomes part of your story, your history, and not just an incidental purchase, made for fashion under fluorescent lights at the grocery store. 

So this summer will be the one that was too cool for basil. The summer when Olivia caught pneumonia, when Gareth learned to drive, when the AC stayed quiet, and no one went swimming.  The summer we didn't eat weeds.  The tarragon summer. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

a smattering on bikes, barrels and bogs

I rode my bike to the farmer's market yesterday morning.  I love it when it works out that I can combine exercise with errands.  I really do hate driving around in a car--aside from the other annoying things like the exhaust, the heat, the traffic and the music that Olivia insists on playing, I think it's the getting in and out of the car that really bugs me.  Something about that just requires too much effort.  How odd that it's easier in my mind to ride 6 miles to the market than it is to drive there and have to, egad, get out of the car--and then later, horrors, have to get back into it!

So, I set out on my bike for a few cucumbers, a melon, and some milk (yes, I admit I'm still buying that boutique milk.  It's just so good we can't help ourselves).

I had wondered at first if carrying the milk on my bike would work.  I tried to imagine the various disaster scenarios: would it spoil in the heat on the thirty minute ride home? Would the bottle break from the bumpy ride? What if I crashed?  Would the bottle go flying and bonk someone on the head before smashing into a million little milk-laden daggers on the sidewalk where my vulnerable bike tires, or perhaps my soft fleshy body, would land just seconds later?

I worked all of that out by packing a small soft cooler for the bottle.  It would protect the bottle from cracking during the ride, would keep the milk cool, and would at least keep the broken glass contained should some unforeseen accident occur. 

Feeling like I had it under control, I rode into the market feeling all invigorated and car-independent.  I purchased my goods and packed them up in my panniers (basically saddle bags for a bike) then coasted happily out of the parking lot.  It wasn't until I clunked over my first bump that it hit me:


I knew immediately that this was how butter must have been discovered.  Some poor bloke (turned genius) slung an animal skin full of milk over his donkey one day, stopped for a swig hours later, and found something really unbelievably delicious had formed.  I just hope he wasn't too far from water when it happened. 

You hear of people being "ahead of their time."  I never expected to have the dubious honor of being ten thousand years behind my time. 

If I was to be the great butter prophet, I definitely dropped the butter ball, so to speak, in not happening upon how to make the stuff until the 21st century!  My failing only gets worse when you consider that I didn't even have cream in my satchel.  The last I checked (which was yesterday), you can't make butter out of 2% milk - even if it's the best, creamiest, richest, and most expensive 2% milk you've ever tasted.  If you went to the trouble to keep the milk cold, your chances are even worse. 

None of that stopped me, however, from worrying about it for every bump and jostle of that suddenly very long six mile ride.  What would we do with a half gallon of butter? How would we get it out of the bottle with that little neck at the top?  How does that play into my imagined accident scenarios?

Finally, I traversed my final bit of rough road and got the stuff home.  I pulled it out of my bag and beheld:  cold milk.

We haven't drank it yet, but it looks normal.  Surely there won't be a weird lump or some such thing that plops into Gareth's glass when he goes to pour it, right?  Something like that could ruin a kid on milk for a lifetime, don't you think? 

So the lesson is:  you can ride your bike to the farmer's market, even if you're buying milk. 

In case that's not a revelation for you, I have a few other butter facts that I found interesting once I started googling:

The word "butter" is Greek for "cow cheese."  Hmmm.  That sounds more like something that comes from the ears or toes (thank goodness cows don't have toes) than the udder.  I don't think that name does the stuff any favors.

The Irish, and other northern peoples, used to store butter in barrels that they buried in the mud.  They called these "butter bogs."  Apparently, the longer they left the butter to sit in the mud, the better the butter got.  I wonder if anyone tasted the 5,000 year old barrel one man found in Ireland back in 2011

Over time butter has been used to shine up hair, smooth skin, and to treat infections and burns.  It's also been used in religious ceremonies, in tea, and as currency.  Some crazy people, if you can believe it, even put it on toast! 

Weirder than toast, however, Dairy Goodness's History of Butter claims the Irish, Norse, Finns and Scotts loved the stuff so much they were buried surrounded by barrels of it!  I guess that gives a new and less savory meaning to the phrase "butter bog."

The same source reports that in Elizabethan England, newlyweds received butter as a wish for fertility.  Of course, this made me wonder if butter-wrestling has ever been a thing. 


Nothing so interesting as that going on around here, however.  After all my worrying, I'm now left feeling cheated because, instead of some magical, medicinal, spiritual, and seductively slippery butter in my bag, all we've got is this suddenly deficient jar of plain old milk.

Monday, August 12, 2013

like a squirrel in the tomato patch OR lazy locavore hangover

This time of year, it's easy to eat local.  In fact, it's sometimes hard to keep up with all the local stuff that greets me, with little vegetable arms upstretched, yelling, "me! me! pick me!" when I open my fridge.  All those vegetables, dying to be eaten, just break my heart! 

Eating locally gets harder, of course, during the colder months, so I supplement the food that I get from various farmers' markets, coops and buying clubs with the food that I've canned, frozen or dried. 

And guess what, the bulk of the preservation happens: NOW. 

I mentioned in the spring that I'd grown a bit fat and lazy on my winter larder.  Mama bear is not supposed to emerge from the den feeling as if she's just finished Thanksgiving dinner.  No, no.  She is supposed to claw her way back into the world feeling ravenous, edgy, and predatory.  What had happened to me?  Instead of anticipating spring with an eagle's eye for the first signs of fresh crispy stuff, I emerged feeling lethargic and a little drunk on a winter spent eating rich homemade soups and roasted foods that, thanks to my summer industriousness, had required little prep.  I wrote about how I needed to wake up and snap out of it in lazy locavore back in May.   I did rally to make several batches of strawberry jam that week, but while I've managed to do the hard work of eating fresh food all summer, I've sort of been dreading canning season.

Of course, we all know I could have a lazy summer and still have a lazy winter.  There's a grocery store just down the street packed to brimming with already chopped and jarred food.

But it wouldn't be the same.  Darnit!  You know that too.  You see, I don't just want to be lazy.  I want to be inspired.  Can a person be both lazy and inspired? The politics and economics of supporting local farmers, the environmental aspect of eating local and organic, the spiritual enrichment of eating seasonally: these things all simmer in that winter food.  Unfortunately, none of that gets in there without the work.  Winter food has labor and love bottled up with it in those jars.  Leaving that out would be like forgetting the salt in the tomatoes. I think the value of that work is what I get a little drunk on as curtains of cold and gray shroud the picture window in my kitchen (maybe the "work" is more like the tequila in the margarita?). 

The problem with that: you have to actually do all that work: the washing, chopping, hulling, paring, freezing, drying and canning.  And instead of doing it, I have been walking around with my lazy locavore hangover, telling myself that canning season is not yet upon us.

Until I casually asked Gareth's friend if his mother had begun her usual canning routine.  His eyes bugged out: "Are you kidding? She's a maniac!  She's been canning round the clock for weeks!"


Like a squirrel caught lolling fat and lethargic in the tomato patch (yes, the squirrels ate my tomatoes again this year), I snapped to attention.  The other bushy tailed rodents have been out gathering? And I've got nothing to show but some tomato skin between my teeth and a meager stash of strawberry jam?! 

While I've always suspected that my interest in food preservation must hearken back to some sort of survivalist hoarding instinct, I never realized there was a competitive element to it.  I always wondered why I got so antsy feeling when my sister would call and tell me proudly: "I'm canning salsa today!" 

If I wasn't canning too, I'd get all defensive: "Well, why didn't you tell me?"  As if she should always let me know her plans so I could be sure to keep us even.   Now I'd learned that someone else had already put up jars in numbers?  I needed to get my bushy-tailed-ass in gear. 


I put up blueberry jam, peach jam, pickled banana peppers and the dreaded labor intensive salsa all in one weekend.

Then I called my sister to tell her so.

Of course.

So I guess I'm writing to say I have the fire back.  I found myself yesterday scrounging around the kitchen to see what I could boil, blanch, pickle or dry.  Not enough cukes, not enough jalapenos, not enough beets.  And the market had closed for the day.  I growled in frustration. 

Quite honestly, I'm surprised one of my kids didn't end up in a jar.  But I shouldn't be, really.  I mean, if you're going to pickle your kids for later enjoyment, do it when they're fat and perfect at eighteen-month olds; don't do it when they're honing in on eighteen years.  By then they've grown old and tough, their skins thick and bitter with self-righteous indignation.  Who needs that with a shot of vinegar and dill?

Anyway, I finally found some wax peppers to dry.  And that led to the herbs.  Rosemary, basil, thyme and tarragon all waited majestically for me in the garden.  With bundles of aroma tied and hung, and piles of pesto in the freezer, this squirrel (or am I a bear?) called it a day.

Until tomorrow--when the tomatoes arrive.


Interested in doing some canning but don't know where to start?  Check out Pick Your Own.  That link will take you to the "All About Home Canning" page, but the website is pretty comprehensive on food preservation in general.  Just scroll down past the paragraph about blueberries to links for your specific questions.  If you're overwhelmed, I'd recommend you pick one thing and focus on that.  I'd start with jam, tomatoes or applesauce.  These are easy to get in jars and are acidic, which makes them easier to can safely.  My first canning project was applesauce.  I used a recipe from the Ball Blue Book.  Applesauce is so easy (once you've pared and cored!).  You just cook it down, ladle it into jars and process! :)   And if you do apples, you still have plenty of time to get canning supplies (see Pick Your Own for suggested kits).  Good luck!

Thursday, August 8, 2013

still no 'poo, are you?

It's been a year and a half since I gave up shampoo, so I think it's time to check in.  I'm still at it, if you're wondering.  While my family dabbled in baking soda, the practice didn't stick for them.  They all have their reasons: Gareth refused because he's a teenager.  Olivia gave it almost nine months before she decided her lackadaisical hair-washing skills weren't enough for the combination of long hair and baking soda.  Steve, who probably only tried it because he was afraid of what I'd do if he didn't, lasted almost a year before he confessed that he wanted to switch back because his hair, which looked perfectly clean to me, felt "weird."


I acted like he was crazy, but I had a secret: my head/hair felt a little weird too.  I didn't want to admit it because I was committed to the cause. I'm a martyr! A fighter! A true soldier in the battle to keep sodium laurel, sodium lauryl sulfates and parabens out of our water ways! But I couldn't deny to myself that my hair, which also looked perfectly clean, felt a gunky the word?


My hair felt fine when it was dry, but when I'd wring it out after washing it, my hands felt like they had an oily film on them.  Yuck.  Despite that, however, it actually looked better and was easier to style than it was before I gave up shampoo.  For the record, "easier to style" means I didn't need to do anything to it. I could wash it and let it drip dry and it would look exactly the same as it always did, except without the shampoo, conditioner, hair gel, blow drying, and hair spray I'd always felt I needed to make my limp, thin and lifeless hair look like something instead of nothing. 

So, while I didn't know why my hair had that feeling when wet, I didn't want to go back to the old routine. I saw the gunkiness of my hair as a sacrifice I had made for all the little crayfish and minnows that no longer make their homes in our waterways.  And if you must know, I didn't explore ways to eliminate the gunk because I was too busy moralizing about my sacrifice, thinking a little righteously about how I'd stuck with the cause when Steve--that irresponsible shiny-haired-'poo-using-traitor I married--had not. 

I did, however, begin to worry about what would happen when I got my hair cut.  I hadn't gone in about nine months (one of my many beauty and fashion failings), and the last time I'd gone, I'd let them wash my hair--a decision I regretted because the shampoo returned my hair to its old corn silk condition.  I know that sounds nice, but soft isn't always good.  Corn silk for me means straight, flat, lifeless, and too slippery to style.  It took a month to build up the weird residue that felt gross but gave my hair its new body.

If I wanted to avoid another month of shampoo-recovery, I had to refuse the shampoo.  But then how would I hide the secret of my gunk from Carrie, my hair stylist of twenty years? 

Not sure how to face her, I put off my hair cut, letting what had been a short over-the-ears cut grow to my shoulders!  I am such a wimp.  Finally, I could avoid it no longer, so I scrubbed my hair as best I could, and steeled myself for the humiliation.

When I explained my green hair care plan to Carrie, she was cool. I expected that, actually, because Carrie is cool.  Why else would I go to her for 20 years?  If she thought I was a lunatic, she didn't let on, so I relaxed. She cut my hair and we chatted as we always do about books and movies and politics.  Everything was going to be okay!

Then the moment came.

She stood behind me, fiddling with the back of my hair.

"So...I know you haven't been using shampoo..."

I'm telling you.  I could hear the words clacking together in her head like marbles as she sifted through them for the ones that would say, "Your hair feels scuzzy" without actually saying that.

She continued: "Your hair is clean...but it's almost as if, well, it has feels like..."  She scrunched up her nose.  Then her eyes lit up.  "It feels like it has a build up of too much product on it. That's what it is!"

I could see her relief at having stumbled upon such a safe description.  No, my hair wasn't scummy or oily, or fit for critters to nest in.  It was just overstyled.  As in, my hair had too much civilization in it instead of too little.

Ultimately, we laughed at her euphemisms as I assured her they weren't necessary.  If I couldn't hide the gunk, I didn't want to endure the awkwardness of pretending it wasn't there.  If for no other reason, let the same person cut your hair for twenty years so that when the time comes, they will have the guts to say, "Hey, your hair's kind of gnarly.  What's up with that?"

I was really glad we talked about it because she motivated me to get rid of the scum, and she gave me a clue: product

Out of habit, I had continued to use hairspray with my baking soda regimen.  Are you shocked and disappointed to hear I ever used hairspray at all? I had to.  No matter what fabulous things Carrie had managed to create on my head while I'd sat in her chair over the years, they were always utterly destroyed by the time I got to my car.  The sight in my rear view mirror never even remotely resembled the masterpiece I'd seen just moments before in her magic mirror.  Why? Because Carrie (rightly) didn't apply hairspray with the same 1980s vigor that my hair has always required. Without it, my hair falls instantly limp into my face where it drives me crazy for the rest of the day.  I hate that!

I had just assumed I still needed the hairspray, regardless of my no 'poo status. 

I was wrong.

My first order of business when I left Carrie's that day: eliminate the hair spray and see what happened.  The second: revisit the use of vinegar.

I used vinegar last year and liked it at first.  After a few times, however, it left my hair greasy - as if I had used too much conditioner, or hadn't rinsed my hair well enough.  That, actually, is exactly what had happened (too much conditioner/vinegar).

This is where I tell you, if you've tried and failed with no 'poo: understand that it is a process.  Perhaps you already knew this? I didn't.  If after using baking soda your hair feels too dry, or too oily, or it accumulates the gunk, don't quit (like some traitorous husbands have done!).  But also, know that you don't have to be heroic and endure embarrassing hair scum. 

Just experiment. 

I had been using this common prescription: 1 Tablespoon of baking soda in 1 cup of water.  My hair is thin and tends toward the oilier side, so this solution proved too weak.  I reduced the water, mixing my 1 Tablespoon of baking soda with just enough water to be thinner than a paste.  Now, I work this into my hair instead of just dumping it over.  Then I really scrub.  It feels gritty, but I like that feeling on my scalp.  I do this every other day, and it works well.   After a week or two, however, it starts to get that dry-but-too-thick feeling:  in other words: it starts to get the gunk (despite the fact that I don't use hair spray anymore).  That's when I hit it with the vinegar.  Instead of the 2 Tablespoons of vinegar in 2 cups of water like I tried last year, I use just 1 tablespoon in 1 cup of water (same proportions, just less of it).  This leaves my hair feeling smooth and shiny, but not greasy.


The moral of the story: you don't have to be a weird-haired martyr for the local stream beds!  A little experimentation helped me to make my hair better than it ever was: cleaner, more full of body, not scummy when wet, and easy to style.  I just wash it, comb it, and let it dry.  No shampoo, no conditioner, no hair gel, no hairspray.  That's a lot of money left in my pocket, time left in my day, and a lot of questionable chemicals left in their bottles.

It just took a little perseverance (and a fearless hair stylist).

And since so many people come to my blog under the search terms: "no 'poo pics": here are a few weird faceless pictures for your scrutiny.

unfortunately, the baking soda doesn't help with the way my
natural part extends down the back of my head.  
i'm certain this will be a bald spot in old age. :( 

this is from the side.
you can see the very tip of my nose sticking out on the left.