Sunday, February 25, 2007

The nose is running; the snow is falling. A little snow shovelling at a time keeps the lungs exercised and the limbs moving. Lots of stretches all day long keep the lower back from failing.

Plants. Seeds ordered last month have arrived, and it's not too late to order more. Time to start cilantro for the first crop of the season. In the past I've used one rectangular peat pot, which was then transplanted into a deeper pot after a month or so. This year I'm trying several small peat pots, and I will place several in one big pot next month. Fill the peat pots with dirt and scatter the seeds. They can be sown fairly thickly. Cover with soil. In a month or two, when the roots start appearing on the bottom of the peat pots, I'll put them all into a deep pot so the roots can keep growing downward. They make nice long roots. This will provide the earliest snippets of cilantro to sprinkle on dishes with mexican or thai flavors. The cilantro roots should not be neglected, as they have yet another dimension of flavor, and can be minced finely to make a wonderful marinade. Grind black peppercorns with garlic and chopped cilantro roots. Mix with fish sauce to a paste. Those plants that are not used when young will produce fine white flowers and set seed for next time.

Indoor plants have been stalwart through the winter, but they need attention. A couple look terrible, and I just can't take it anymore, and add them to the compost. Other big-leaved varieties, like philodendron, and begonias, really benefit from a dusting on a bright day. Those sunny days hovering around thirty are a treat after the harshness of the teens and zero fahrenheit. Bathing in the light from the window, I take a soft cloth and carefully wipe each leaf, and that gives me a chance to see the ones that are so damaged that they are better removed. Soon the plants can breath better again, and I am renewed.

Cooking. One thing good about winter is that there's a natural freezer outdoors on the porch, so it's easy to make big amounts of things, like soups and stews, in stages, and then eventually have a number of containers of various things in the real freezer for future meals over the next weeks or months. The flavor gets a chance to deepen over the slow cooking. There's no pressure, no rush – a little at a time. Those big cast-iron dutch ovens keep the food protected out there in the cold and snow.

One staple in my kitchen is black beans from which I make refried beans, chile, and sometimes black bean soup! Sure I could open a can or two and make a small quantity, but it's more fun to start from scratch, and it's cheaper. An awful lot of food can be made from a one-pound bag of dry beans. The beans need slow and long cooking so they can gradually absorb water and not shrivel. So first they are soaked overnight in a big pot filled with water. That soaking water is dumped out the next day, usually for the crabapple tree just outside the back door. Fresh water is then added to cover at least a few inches above the beans – heat to a boil at first, and then lower to a simmer. In The Good Food Book, Jane Brody recommends repeated cycles of boiling with fresh water and dumping out the water, so as to get rid of the flatulent-causing polysaccharides. I can't quite bring myself to dump out so much of that flavorful water and soluble vitamins and minerals beyond that first soaking. Instead I try to have a supply of epazote handy. This Mexican herb is reputed to reduce the flatulent effect of the beans and it enhances them with a unique flavor as well. Cook for several hours at a low simmer until the beans are soft.

The beans can be left outside well-covered for another night, or more cooking can proceed.

Refried beans are of primary importance in my household as we are regular burrito eaters. Sautee onions, garlic, peppers, salt and pepper; add chili powder, cumin, and coriander. Stir til fragrant, then add the beans with some liquid, so it can continue to cook down and let the flavors meld. Mash and stir; mash and cook some more, gently at a very low heat of course. The potato masher works great on the beans. Cover or not cover depending on how much liquid there is to cook off, and how well the beans are cooked. Stir often so they don't stick. Heavy cookware like cast iron really helps here. Often these go out overnight and come back in for more cooking the next day, as it takes a long time to cook down to the right consistency. They're not called RE-fried beans for nothing. If some black bean soup is desired, can have another pot going with a similar complement of vegetables and spices (an addition of celery would be nice if available), and obviously a much higher ratio of liquid to beans. The onions and peppers are in bigger chunks for the chile or the soup than for the refried beans.

If making a chile with meat, the ground meat should be browned in a separate pan, then drained of grease. It works great to spread it on a brown paper bag to de-grease. (Later the bag is torn up and thrown into the compost. When covered with other food wastes, woodash, leaves and whatnot, meat products are not likely to attract pests.) In the dutch oven, sautee onions, peppers, garlic, and maybe carrots. Add chile powder, along with extra cumin and coriander, salt and pepper til the fragrances arise. Throw in canned tomatoes, and then the beans with a good amount cooking liquid – could also add extra stock if available -- and cook on low for a long time, letting the smells sneak around the house.

I made another catfish stew (in time for Mardi Gras!). Sauteed onions, carrots, celery, garlic, and peppers. Braised big chunks of catfish separately on a hot cast iron skillet peppered with paprika, before adding them to the vegetables. It was time to add herbs or spices. I'm learning that I need to tone down the spices so as to give some of it to my mother. We can add the hot sauces to our portions later. I was thinking cumin would be real nice touch in the stew, but then remembered that probably my mother would prefer oregano/basil Italian version of the catfish stew. Hmm, I took another sniff of the stew. The current vegetable and fish aromas mingled with those that had permeated the castiron of the dutch oven. I threw in a little cumin and then some oregano! Why not? Cooked them a bit, and then the canned tomatoes, and the last bit of a bottle of red wine.