A Lengthy Cooldown
Here in the Mid-South, fall lasts forever. It's not like Chicago, my last perch, where the shoulder seasons--spring and fall--are technicolor blips on the way from the pure steel gray of winter to the deep somnolent green of summer. A Memphis autumn is a long slow slide from crippling heat through endless rain to crisp days that remind me of New England but never lead to snow. In fact, down here, the transitional seasons dominate. Winter is a brief pause on the way back to summer.
What this means for us eaters is that fruits and vegetables that make brief appearances up north linger into October here. Take the tomato. Some growers I know pull up their plants and hang them in the cellar, where the fruits ripen well into the fall. Others take their chances with the frost, betting that the midday sun will make it worth their while.
A couple of weeks ago I bought a small bagful of the season's last tomatoes from the Dodsons. Our growers didn't suffer the curse of blights that Northeasterners did this past summer, but constant rain and uncommonly cool weather left our tomatoes mealy and flavorless. There were exceptions, of course, and recent warm weather brought out the best in Thomas Dodson's small heirlooms. Olive oil and a few generous pinches of salt concentrated the flavor for a savory lunchtime salad. The leftovers did not keep well, though. Wish I'd eaten them all right away.
Give Beets a Chance
And now, a digression from strictly local fare. I haven't gone completely off the beam--the green stuff on my plate is arugula from Gracious Gardens' Tim Smith, aka "The Arugula Guy" (though wouldn't it be more fun if we called him Rocket Man?). I bought it at the winter market next to Tsunami on Saturday (that's where you'll find the Dodsons, too). But I confess that the rest of my salad's ingredients hail from the produce aisle of our local Whole Foods. And the star?
Sturdy yet brilliant, reviled yet unbeeten.
Don't worry, only a few more beet puns before I move on. But take in their day-glo glamour. Why is the beet the butt of every extended yucky-food joke? I blame cafeterias and salad bars that serve beets that taste of can lining. But roast a beet yourself, then marinate it in sherry vinegar and shallots, and you have an earthy, piquant foil for smoked fish and peppery greens. How frisky does that salad look?
Panicked by a recent editorial about the desperate state of the eastern Atlantic & Mediterranean bluefin tuna fishery, but craving smoked fish, I bought some smoked mackerel instead of trout, which is usually farmed and so less delicious, or salmon, which is hard to keep up with in terms of which fisheries are endangered. Mackerel, along with their smaller cousins the sardines and anchovies, appear at least now to be numerous and healthful. More importantly for us, they are absolutely transcendent with beets and arugula. Beets me why more people aren't snarfing down this combo every chance they get.
Sorry. Can't beet 'em, join 'em.
Falling into Grace
And now my beet moment has passed. Come November, I'm looking for comfort and creaminess and orangey-colored foods. I'm back at my stove, pan-roasting chickens and braising greens, thanking my oven for its warmth against my knees.
I've started taking delivery of pastured chickens from Downing Hollow Farm every couple of weeks. The birds are bosomy and firm--none of that spongy stuff you get from industrial fowl. For a recent supper I cut one up and browned the parts. After sauteeing shallots, ginger and garlic, I deglazed the pan with a good splash of sherry vinegar and chicken broth. Buttermilk-mashed sweet potatoes and creamed spinach round out the plate. Best thing? I made the buttermilk.
I'd gone mad chasing around town for the real thing. Recently Whole Foods started carrying products from East Tennessee's Hatcher Family Dairy, and their buttermilk is quite good, free of carageenan and the other thickeners that even respectable organic cooperatives like Organic Valley add to theirs. But they were out. I raced over to Easy-Way, which used to stock the buttermilk in glass bottles from Rock Springs Dairy. Nuthin'.
So I got to work.
As If By Magic
I love microbes. Because one day I had a half-cup of month-old buttermilk in my fridge, and the next I had 2 cups of delicious, useful, fresh-tasting cultured dairy goodness on my counter. Or coyly peeking from behind a curtain.
How did I do this? I googled "buttermilk how to make" et voila. You mix buttermilk and fresh milk in a 1:3 or 4 ratio and leave it out for a day. Yes! Leave it out! It's crazy, but it works! And the taste is fresh and, well, alive. I'll get into the science of it another time, if you like.
This buttermilk gave tang to my sweet potatoes and body to my creamed spinach. I also tested Marion Cunningham's recipe for Buttermilk Baked Eggs from The Breakfast Book. Sounded tasty, but not so much. (Otherwise, the book's a winner.) Basically, it's Egg in the Basket (which my mom called Pig-in-a-Poke) with buttermilk poured over it, baked for a bit. Better with nutmeg and thyme mixed in and some cheese on top, but not a keeper. However, the buttermilk is.
A blog lives through its readers, so talk to me.
Have you tried making cultured dairy products at home? Cheese, yogurt, creme fraiche? What, why, how?
And what's your position on beets? Do you have any entry-level recommendations for beet newbies?