Forum Holitorium

The End of the Valley


OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

There are several ends to the Großarl Valley south of Salzburg, Austria, the first of which is pictured here, after which point cars should no longer pass. We kept going on foot, passing an enclosure of red deer, several fishermen and a waterlogged Kneipp cure facility. We knew we had arrived at the next end of the valley when we reached a sign that read “Ende.” A trail started going up toward the peak in the picture above, but we had come far enough in the rain and weren’t interested in hiking up to the next end of the valley. Satisfied, we turned around and retraced our steps.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

They led back past the Kreealm waterfall, one of the many falls decorating the south side of the valley. The sound of the rush of water calms me without fail. It amazes me how tolerant I am of such loudness – a rare exception. The clouds began to nibble on the trees, adding to the magical atmosphere.

Everything we saw was filtered through a fine mist of rain that occasionally strengthened to a downpour. Yes, it rained the whole weekend long. Nestled in the heart of the valley, I had the impression that the sun was forever a stranger to these parts. Years ago, shortly after coming to Austria, I took the train from Graz to Vienna, still so impressed by the scenery that I stared out the window nearly the whole way. It struck me how green the Alps are, that same velvety green I had foolishly thought Ireland and Scotland held a monopoly on. The Alps haven’t lost their green at all in the past ten years. If anything, the nearly constant rainfall this year intensifies it. My amateur photography skills do it little justice.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sunday we crossed to the other side of the valley to go to a Frühschoppen. Früh means early, and a Schoppen is a half pint of beer, so as you might imagine, this festival allows you to start consuming alcohol quite early in the day. Which we didn’t. We had been lured to the festival by a flyer stating that sheep would be shorn, an event TC had never experienced in person and which I last saw years ago while conducting interviews with farmers in Rhône-Alpes. Amused by the barn cat annoying the cheese, meat, and schnapps vendors by trying to steal some of their local sausage for sale, we waited patiently in the rain for the sheep shearing to begin while most other people had already gone inside to drink their beer, eat their lunch, and listen to the oompah band. There were two older Swiss women and a random Austrian with a battery powered dancing hat also standing next to the barn, presumably fellow sheep enthusiasts. After an hour in the rain – 30 minutes after the shearing was supposed to begin – we gave up and left. Perhaps the sheep to be shorn were part of the flock that disappeared behind the cloud below.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Despite the lack of shearing action, we had plenty of opportunities to admire shaggy fleece growers. These mountain sheep grazed right next to our apartment.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Our landlady said that sheep fleece is only worth a few cents and is mainly used for house insulation. She keeps sheep for the free lawnmower service and for meat. Even long, long ago when I still ate meat, I don’t think I ever had mutton. But not so long ago, when I regularly ate dairy products, I loved a good sheep cheese or sheep milk yogurt. Sadly, those days seem to be history. I made an important, shocking discovery in April: I can no longer eat dairy products and feel healthy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

What an irony of fate. The valley was full not just of sheep but of cows too – both the ubiquitous Fleckvieh and the Holsteins that pepper the landscape of my native Wisconsin. No more cheese for me. At the recommendation of my doctor, I tried going without dairy for two weeks in April in the hope of relieving severe allergy problems (a torrentially runny nose and an itchy skin rash on my stomach). Within two days of cutting out dairy, my nasal congestion stopped and the rash started healing. It was as if someone had turned off a tap of running water. I had known in an abstract way that dairy encourages mucus production, but it was still shocking to experience it on my own body and realize how much better I felt without it. How long had I been contributing to my own discomfort? It gave me pause that such a small change could have an enormous impact on my well-being. No antihistimines, no Neti pot, no ointments, just different food choices. Could this innocent looking young steer and his kind really wreak that much havoc on my body?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

On several occasions, I tried reintroducing dairy – to little avail. Within a day or two, my nose ran, my rash came back and my digestion was miserable. What puzzles me is that butter doesn’t bother me. Though butter mostly contains fat, there are enough milk proteins in unclarified butter that could trigger an allergic response. Food allergies arise when your body overreacts to protein and affect the mucus membranes, skin, and digestive tract. My reaction was clearly an allergic one and not a sign of lactose intolerance, which only affects digestion.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Initially I was crushed to figure out that I shouldn’t be eating dairy products anymore. Though I have never enjoyed drinking milk straight, I have always consumed mass quantities of yogurt and cheese and have been known to say there is no life without cheese. My previous diet was heavily dependent on milk products for protein and fat. That has radically changed. I now try to eat beans or lentils every day and have upped the amount of nuts and eggs I eat. I am still tinkering and fretting about how to get enough calcium, but I can confirm that there IS life without cheese. At first, I was sad about no longer being able to eat some of my favorite dishes: gnocchi with ricotta, palak paneer, pizza, grilled Halloumi. But the good news is that there are so many different dishes waiting to be discovered and prepared – and that when you can’t eat most things on the menu anymore when you go out, you save a lot of money by cooking at home. If you or someone you know has problems with allergies, I highly recommend cutting out all dairy for at least two weeks and seeing if the symptoms improve. It’s a cheap experiment with no side effects that might reward you greatly.

We discovered that the Mur River, our local river, starts just on the other side of the peak at the end of the Großarl Valley. As we headed back to Graz, we took the slower, scenic route that followed the course of the Mur from the westernmost reaches of Styria back to the city. We stopped for a stroll and coffee in the town of Murau, home to around 2,000 inhabitants, a large brewery, and the statue of Murna. According to the city’s homepage, the lightening bolt in the river goddess’s hand symbolizes energy (hydroelectric, I presume) and hops grow around her body.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Our watery weekend is now over. Hope you are staying warm and dry!

A September Confession, or the Cinnamon Sweater Saga

The nuts are in jail again. Walnuts and a lone horse chestnut. You know what to do with walnuts; the horse chestnut is not for show but will be made into laundry detergent by TC according to his special recipe. We have three sources of walnuts this year, one of which has been providing quite large specimens that are easier to crack. Speaking of walnuts, the head and tip of the snout of the terrifying wooly beastie living on our couch that was surprised and captured on film below are made of wool hand dyed with walnut hulls. The cinnamon color will look good on TC, who has been waiting patiently for a sweater for nearly a year now.

The Cinnamon Sweater Saga

At a market in the fair Styrian town of Stainz, we oohed and aahed at the silky alpaca and soft merino wares in beautiful shades that would look good on everyone but me. TC found the cinnamon wool to his liking and we bought the whole lot of it. I started in on the tightly gauged pattern a few weeks later. After finishing the back and making a few calculations, my heart sank: there would not be enough yarn.

There followed months of agonizing, procrastinating, feeling guilty about not having knit TC another sweater when nearly all his old ones were falling apart. Then one day, I had the idea to make a sweater at a looser gauge and in the round. I remeasured and cast on and made it all the way up to the armholes before the record player slowed down and came to a halt. No, the way forward did not require electricity, just a little bit of courage and simple math. And important decision making.

Pattern or improvisation? Sleeves knit in the round or flat? Sleeves separate and sewed in or joined to the body and finished as a raglan in the round?

More procrastination, an even guiltier conscience that I was not clothing my husband properly when I actually have the ability to, and lots of other finished projects. Having survived a few knitting catastrophes (nearly finished items that turned out wrong and needing to be put out of their misery or repaired), I decided it was time to either frog or finish up what I had started so as to make room for new projects that I hope will have less tormented trajectories. Fortified by reading excerpts from Elizabeth Zimmerman books, I picked up the cinnamon sweater again last night, started to count and figured out how many stitches to start out with on the sleeves (48) and how many I will need where the sleeve connects to the body (64) – which naturally took far less time than expected. No calculus involved here.

The saga is ongoing, and only the fates know how it will end, but since the fates in the German-speaking world (i.e. the Norns) spend a fair share of their time knitting, I am betting on a happy ending. Keep your fingers crossed.

As a counterpoint to the aforementioned Zimmerman style raglan based on the percentage system, I am making wild and crazy beet colored nether garments (see the snout of the wooly beast) as described in The Knitter’s Almanac in the September chapter. Related to the much more common German nieder, meaning lower, nether is a lovely sounding old English word that has mostly fallen out of favor and been replaced by the more prosaic “under.” We’ll need wild and wooly clothing to brave the cold rainy peaks of Hohe Tauern National Park, where we hope to escape the beady eyes of the hungry deer chomping away on the foliage outside the window.

Happy knitting and nut collecting!

Squashsitting


One benefit of not traveling when summer is well on its way to fall is that you might be asked to look after a garden and told to help yourself to whatever is ripe. That is the position TC and I have found ourselves in this week. Our friends have a plethora of summer and winter squash and apples, apples, apples, so the kitchen has been the site of much action. The apples have been cooked down to compote or applesauce (depending on where you draw the line). The butternut squash has been made into Squash Pockets filling and paired with buckwheat groats. The strawberry leaves will add an accent to future cups of tea. And the yellow and green zucchini and pattypan squash have gone into two batches of the recipe below. This new addition to my summer culinary repertoire makes for a fast, easy, tasty meal.

Indian-style  Summer Squash

1 tbsp olive oil

1 kg / 2.2 lbs summer squash (green and yellow zucchini, pattypan), cut into fat matchsticks

1 1/2 tsp cumin seeds

1 tbsp diced fresh ginger

1/2 tsp turmeric

1/2 tsp ground chili pepper, paprika, or (for those not up to hot) coriander

salt

black pepper

1  heaping tbsp almond butter, tahini, or peanut butter

Fresh basil

Heat the olive oil in a large pan. Add the cumin seeds and cook until they darken. Add the ginger, turmeric, and chili pepper and sauté a minute or two. Add the squash, stirring to cover it with the spice mixture. Add some salt and a few tablespoons of water if it starts to stick to the pan. Cover and stew until cooked (at least 10 minutes). Grind some black pepper to taste. Stir in the nut butter of your choice. Sprinkle with fresh basil and serve with rice or buckwheat groats.

 

The recipe mine evolved from calls for a mix of zucchini and bulb fennel. Carrots would also make a nice variation. The past few months have seen me preoccupied or obsessed (once again depending on where you draw the line) with nutrition, and what’s interesting is that you never hear much about the health benefits of zucchini – not like nutrient-dense veggies like kale (vitamins K, A, and C – AND fights cancer!), carrots (vitamin A!), Swiss chard (vitamin K!), or sweet potatoes (vitamins A and C!). Why do we hear so little about this ubiquitous favorite of gardeners? Well, there isn’t much of a case to make for zucchini as a superfood. Zucchini provides modest amounts of vitamin C, manganese, copper, and the carotenoids lutein and zeaxanthin, which are both good for your eyesight. It is low calorie and a source of fiber. I’m afraid that’s all I could dig up. Summer squash will not be the next superfood, yet there is ample place in your diet for Cucurbito pepo. Think of it as the extra vegetable serving we all need to eat after getting a balanced mix of leafy green, cruciferous, and orange carotene-rich veggies – a filler vegetable. Zucchini and the summer squashes take on the flavor of what they are cooked with, and there are so many ways to prepare them.

Here are some ideas for how you can eat up the fruits of these prolific plants: fried zucchini blossoms, ratatouille, broiled zucchini and herbs (with or without a lemon marinade), zucchini tart, zucchini frittata, zucchini with pasta, zucchini soup, zucchini pancakes, zucchini fritters, zucchini bread. Zucchini pairs well with mint, thyme, marjoram, basil, savory, chives, and garlic. What are your favorite ways of preparing zucchini?

Mahlzeit and happy cooking!

My Blue Period

Südperd

“Every act of creation is first an act of destruction.” – Pablo Picasso

How true this is of knitting. All three of the projects I finished over the past two months started off as different items. I sacrilegiously frogged my first sweater, a very warm one I often wore at home that did not fit as well as it could have. After two failed attempts to reknit it, I found the right pattern and now I’m ready for winter days. Both TC and I have new scarves. His navy blue Atlantic Desire scarf was completed on our June journey while my variegated Sea Shawl was started on said journey and completed in July. Both of course are still in need of blocking.

These scarves, yes, were knit mainly en route to and from the Baltic sea. Accompanied by two lucky blog readers (no, you didn’t miss the contest – blood relations), TC and I head to the island of Rügen, Germany’s largest Insel and off the beaten path of most non-German tourists. We spent a week on the waterfront in one of the quietest parts of the island. Mostly visited for its sandy beaches with their trademark Strandkörbe on the eastern shore, the island is covered with poppies and fields of spelt. Reeds hug the rest of the shore. It’s a paradise for birds and birders.

One of my favorite memories of the journey was our visit to the museum (Historischen Handwerkstuben) in Gingst, a small town with a long, rich tradition of textile production. The two reed thatched buildings that house the collection date back to the eighteenth century, when several families of weavers shared the space. Each room was set up to show the tools and finished projects of different trades – cobbler, seamstress, tailor, rope-maker. Linen and spinning wheels were also on prominent display. A weekly market in summer features hand spun and hand dyed wool as well as locally grown organic produce. With its hodgepodge of mismatched tables and chairs and used books and old posters and postcards for sale, the cafe soon became our favorite haunt.

I would love to live in a thatched roof cottage like this one, wouldn’t you? Complete with green walls before they became trendy.

I just love these kind of organizers for life’s essentials, though the only ones shown above that I still eat are rice and oil. Perhaps if I travel further east, I might finally see one labeled buckwheat. Then there’s the following enamel container for good old NaCl that caught my attention because of that whole I- issue. I have found a good sea salt with seaweed added to it for natural iodine fortification, but since I never salted much to begin with, I find my salt consumption has increased dramatically in the past few months. I’m still searching for a good balance.

My experience on Rügen and the subsequent week in Berlin and Potsdam made me think more about my attitude towards travel and tourism. Travel is about being open to experiencing new things and finding out how people live in an unknown corner of the world. It’s about leaving as little a mark as possible on the places I visit. It’s about renting an apartment, going to the market and seeking out locally grown food, and cooking. It’s about slowing down and spending time with my travel companions. Strolling. Looking and seeing. Coming into conversation with people who live in a place and hearing their stories.

Tourism is about consuming, about working through to do and to see checklists that are rampant in guidebooks – regardless of your personal interests and the mood you find yourself in. It leads to that awful expression “to do a country” (as in “We did Italy last summer.”) In fact, tourism is doing what the crowd does, going somewhere because you “should.” It rapidly becomes stressful. And there is always a shop full of tacky souvenirs made of plastic bearing the name of the place, objects most likely made in China and delivered by diesel-spewing container ship. Possessing one of these objects (which will probably never biodegrade) lets you advertise to the world that you or someone you love were in a certain place at a certain time.

With the exception of the pollution from our car, I like to think we tread softly on Rügen. We cooked the majority of our meals in our apartment from food we bought at the market, composting our organic waste. I bought souvenirs of locally spun wool that I will make into clothing for myself and others as well as this ceramic baking dish – something that had been sorely lacking in our kitchen and that has been fantastic for making fruit crisps since its incorporation into our kitchen inventory.

Berlin and Potsdam were not as relaxing because of the stress to see “important” sights, though we focused on our specific interests, which in my case included seeing the incredible David Bowie exhibit – well worth the wait if you’re a fan – and dining at an Ethiopian restaurant in Kreuzberg. We skipped the palace in Potsdam (I have no interest in paying lots of money to see how the upper 1% lived, though I must admit as I walked past the entrance to the kitchen tour I felt a slight tug of interest to see the palace kitchen old Fritz probably never set foot in). Instead, we spent most of our time wandering through the impressively large (and free) Sans Souci park, which includes the botanical garden of the University of Potsdam, and the delightful Dutch Quarter, a district built for Dutch craftsmen in the eighteenth century that has lots of cafes and eateries and beautiful red brick buildings. We could have easily spent a full week exploring different parts of the park each day.

We beat the mad European vacation rush and are enjoying our own city as it empties out and slows down while those inhabitants that can afford it rush to be a tourist somewhere else. The weather has been rainy and thus conducive to knitting. My blue period continues as I prepare for fall, which is just around the corner. The hooded jacket below has such a beautiful cable border that reminds me of waves. Enjoy any travels and knitting you have before you.

 

Are You Teff Enough?

If I had to sum up what’s been happening in my kitchen in the past week, I wouldn’t even need a whole word – I could reduce it to the letter T. T for teff and T for tagine. T for tonight, when I ate homemade injera with chickpeas, Swiss chard, and onions pictured above. Injera is a traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean flatbread made of fermented teff flour. The flour is simply mixed with water and left to ferment a day or so. Fermentation happens quickly thanks to a yeast that lives on the grain. It’s then fried on one side like a pancake. When bubbles appear, the pan is covered until the top is done – no flipping anxiety required. TC and I were won over by the coffee stout smell of the injera. Though I recently discovered a good recipe for misir wat, a lentil stew served with injera that was a favorite in my college days, tonight’s topping materialized from the odds and ends in the fridge that needed to be used up.

Teff is poised to be the next you’ve-never-heard-of-me-but-I-don’t-have-gluten-and-am-super-nutritious food. With the exception of basmati rice, I only buy grains that are grown in Europe. I don’t eat quinoa because I don’t want to play a part in jacking up its price in South America so that people for whom it is a staple food can no longer afford it. The teff flour I cooked with was grown in Germany. That’s fewer food miles than the basmati rice.

Tagine cozy
But what’s that I see here? Is it a tagine cozy or a hat holder for my freshly knit linen sunhat that will protect me from the fierce rays of sunlight I hope to encounter next week at the shores of the Baltic Sea? Last weekend’s culinary experiment involved cooking with an authentic Moroccan glazed tagine, a gift from friends who took a road trip to Morocco. A tagine is cooked over low heat until the food is well stewed. The earthenware bottom and lid heat up and radiate warmth toward the ingredients from all directions. The vegetables get a good steam bath.

Set up

My Very First Tagine

Note: The tagine (base and lid) should be soaked in water for about an hour before being used, especially if you cook on a ceramic top stove like mine. Otherwise there is a risk it will spring. The bottom should be liberally doused in olive oil to season it.

1 onion, diced

2 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp cumin seeds

1/4 tsp piment

2 Tbsp raisins

3 small zucchini, sliced

2 small heads of cauliflower, cut into florets, stems diced

1 cup cooked chickpeas

Heat the tagine base on low heat. Layer the bottom with olive oil. When it’s warm enough, sauté the onions and garlic for ten minutes. Add the spices and raisins and mix well. Add the rest of the ingredients. Put the lid on it and forget about it for an hour or two. Then peek to see how the cauliflower is doing…

Peekaboo

When everything smells good and is cooked as you like it, serve with the grain or pseudograin of your choice. We tried it with Austrian-grown amaranth.

So that’s the kitchen report. Moving from the vegetable to the animal kingdom, it’s been a good season for animal offspring in our vicinity. The birdfeeder-turned-nest of Parus major is so full of young birds chirping up a storm that the parents can’t really fit in anymore – they just stick their heads in and drop off juicy white caterpillars. It’s very loud when the door is open, but it’s a pleasant kind of loudness. Last week we also noticed that the spider hanging out on the ceiling above our dining room table has all her eight hands full too.

spider progeny

Spiders remind me of the goddess Athena, my favorite Greek goddess, and the children’s book Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, who is quoted as saying, “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” Hope you can improve or enjoy the world today – or both!

High Time to Get to Sea

Distant islands
The diagnosis of a mineral deficiency is not usually met with joy, but when my doctor said it was only a few hours to the sea and that he recommended I go as soon as possible, I dusted off my wish to walk the entire 12 km Lungomare, or seaside promenade, in Opatija, Croatia, and started looking for a hotel within walking distance of the Adriatic. I found the Hotel Opatija, where we slept well last weekend. It was clean and quiet, possessing all the decrepit charm of a former K. und K. hotel worn down by the Tito years. If you’re looking for the ex-Yugoslavian cousin of the Grand Budapest Hotel with an uninspired breakfast buffet set to Muzak, it’s your place, but I think next time we’ll opt to dish out the extra euros for a cushy wellness hotel even closer to the sea. The point was not, however, the hotel. Most of our time was spent strolling.

Lungomare

Opatija developed into a resort town in the late 19th century when it was still known as Abbazia, before being caught in the tug-of-war between national borders and ethnic groups pervading the 20th century. You could hop on the train in Vienna (or Graz, for that matter) and ride the Südbahn to the Adriatic without having to leave the Austro-Hungarian empire. In keeping with the history of this seaside resort, the majority of tourists today still appear to be German-speaking. Dating back to the 1880s, the Lungomare is sandwiched between the sea on one side and city parks and stately villas built by prestigious Viennese architects on the other. Many of the latter are now hotels; some are private residences. TC and I decided that we’d buy this one and fix it up if we had the money.

Our next villa

It wasn’t just the Austrians who previously flocked to the sea here. Russian literati including Anton Chekhov and Vladimir Nabokov spent time in Abbazia, the hometown of Leo Henryk Sternbach, the inventor of Valium. Traces of their presence can be found by the careful tourist. This bust of Chekhov can be found near the Kvarner Hotel, while a commemorative plaque to Sternbach graces his birthplace along one of the main thoroughfares.

Chekov

The weather was just beautiful and I was able to wear sandals for the first time this year. Spring is so slow in arriving in Austria and I’m still bundled up in Icelandic wool as I type these lines. What a relief to escape to a milder climate and get enough Vitamin D from the sun for a change. In a conversation last week, the topic came up of how great it is that if you just go three hours in any direction from Graz, you end up in an entirely different cultural and geographical landscape. Three and a half hours away to the south, the figs are already ripening on the trees.

Smokve

As you might expect, seafood is everywhere on the menu in Opatija. Specialities include cuttlefish risotto that leaves your lips and tongue black and fried scampi. For the vegetarian in your party, there’s a special traditional pasta called fuzi served with Istrian truffles and vegetable risotto, though if you are suffering from a recently discovered acute milk allergy, as I am at present, you have to be careful and avoid delicacies like sheep’s cheese from the island of Pag. The local white Malvazija wine is excellent, as is the red Teran. My big discovery, however, was blitva, or Istrian-style Swiss chard.

Istrian-style Swiss chard

500 g Swiss chard

500 g potatoes

3 garlic cloves, minced

Olive oil

Salt

Nutmeg

Peel and dice the potatoes. Cook for 10-15 minutes. In the meantime, wash the Swiss chard. Remove the stems and blanch the leaves in boiling water for 3-5 minutes. In a frying pan, sauté the garlic in olive oil. Add the chopped Swiss chard stems and sauté about 10 minutes. Add the cooked potatoes and blanched Swiss chard leaves to the garlic and stems. Season with grated nutmeg, salt, and pepper.

I’m guessing that the hoops in these skirts are not made of whalebone. All this contact with the sea and my current preoccupation with iodine has inspired me to reread Moby Dick, one of my favorite American novels. In Chapter 1, the narrator, Ishmael, explains his many reasons for deciding to join the crew of a whaling expedition, arguing that all humans have an innate fascination with the sea. I heartily agree.

Starting to read a book is like embarking on a voyage. I hope you have a good one at hand – or will have the opportunity to set off on a real trip soon. Good luck getting your ship ready to sail!

The sailor

Yellow Gold is Everywhere


Röhrli

It started yesterday as TC picked dandelions to make dandelion honey, a concoction of flowers infused in a sugar solution and then reduced to a syrup. It continued in the garter stitch with a lace border of my Beeswax scarf, started sometime in March and finished this afternoon. It culminated in the egg yolk bolstered hue of the Osterpinze, a sweet bread with Italian roots that is eaten in Styria at Easter. TC tried his hand at preparing one, jazzing up the classic recipe with anise seed and raisins doused in krupnik, a Polish honey vodka. The color of the hour: yellow gold.

Osterpinze

This weekend we have been working on what I call the Mindful Kitchen Project. After two and a half years of sharing a kitchen, it was time to go through all the shelves, drawers, and storage space and scrutinize each object. Is it useful? How often do we use it? Is there an obstacle to us using it? If so, how can it be removed? What I have found is that we have much more than we think we need, starting with pots and pans. In the past, multiple pots of the same size have encouraged sluggish dishwashing and more countertop clutter. We removed 5 pots and pans and still have 12 left. It looks shocking to see that in print since we only have four burners on our stove, but the 12 in question are of a variety of sizes and materials from the stainless steel soup pot to the cast-iron skillet to the pressure cooker. At least now they are stacked so that I can just open the drawer and grab what I need  in seconds without unstacking or searching for the right lid. Another factor to consider when deciding where to put things in the kitchen is how often they are needed. The items you use every day should be closest to the stove. We previously had a spice shelf within reach of the stove for quick access to seasonings – as well as a shelf full of spices in the pantry at the other end of the kitchen. Everything except two large jars of saffron and oregano (which I don’t use on a daily basis) is now housed on the shelf next to the stove. The new arrangement looks and feels great, though I’m sure we’ll still need to make some minor adjustments. It was a very satisfying weekend project to take a good look at the objects we have that allow us to create the tasty, nourishing food we call home cooking. Most have justified their existence and will continue to serve us well.

There’s still a little more yellow gold in the house, but not for long. We’ll burn the cat and rabbit beeswax candles this evening in the company of friends and polish off the Osterpinze along with some Easter eggs. If the deluge outside ever stops, perhaps we’ll make it up to the garden to harvest a horseradish root and grate a little to accompany the eggs. Hope you’re keeping dry and enjoying some tasty food – traditional or not.

Why Go against the Grain?


TC’s latest loaf made my mouth water. The joy of anticipating the taste of the first slice of bread from a freshly baked loaf has been commonplace for the past 10,000 years since the the ancestors of the wheat and spelt in this loaf were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent. I recently finished reading the book Am Anfang war das Korn (In the Beginning was the Grain) by geobotanist Hansjörg Küster. It tells the story of how the domestication of plants changed the course of human history. According to Küster, agriculture (a word that comes from Latin and means the cultivation of fields) is the central innovation of human history. The choice to cultivate certain plants with qualities we found desirable (including being able to be stored for longer periods of time) radically altered our whole way of life. Previously hunters and gatherers that moved around constantly in search of food, we decided to stay in one place and devote our efforts to tending a few special crops. Over time, we developed trade routes to obtain tasty things that didn’t grow where we lived. Our numbers grew with this stable source of food.

Since we need a combination of carbohydrates, fats, and protein to meet our nutritional needs, it should come as no surprise to learn that our ancestors in Southwest Asia who domesticated the founder crops, as they are called, chose plants that provide these three fundamental macronutrients: emmer wheat, einkorn wheat, and barley for carbohydrates; lentils, peas, and chickpeas for protein; flax for oil. With time, other plants joined the roster, diversifying our food portfolio: fruit-bearing trees such as olive, fig, and walnut; poppy seed, which was used not only as a spice but also for oil; grapes for wine. The list goes on and on, and at some point I stopped taking notes and realized that when this book comes out in paperback, I want to buy a copy to have as a reference because there is so much in it worth knowing. It boggles my mind how many people today demonize grains because they are full of carbohydrates (which we need to live). Knowing the history of our relationship to grains, it seems a bit uncivilized, this rejection.

Despite being a staunch supporter of a grain-based diet, I am not growing any on my balcony, which is full of herbs, fruit, flowers, and vegetables. All the perennials are thriving with the warm spring temperatures. As it is wont to do, the savory above has just exploded, and I am happy to see that the sage I transplanted into the big planter feels good in its new spot. My camomile, thyme, lemon verbena, lemon balm, mallow, mint, and rue are all doing well. It looks like the parsley seeds I sowed a few weeks back have started to germinate. The only loss has been my marjoram – and that was a case of neglect on my part, I’m sad to say.

As for our garden, the strategy this year is to make one big bed (2 by 6 meters), enclose it with a slug fence, divide it into three sections, take good care of that, and not feel guilty about what happens outside that fence. The big bed is nearly ready to go, and after a round of weeding I started planting orach or mountain spinach (Atriplex hortensis) and kale in the two sections that have already been cleared. Outside the garden gate was a box with free sage plants, so I took one and planted it outside the bed in a spot that gets lots of sun. TC has already planted a bunch of Jerusalem artichokes along the edge of the raspberry bushes. If you plant by the moon or are a biodynamic gardener, this week is a good time to sow seeds as the moon is waxing. We hope to get peas, radishes, carrots, beets, red onions, and turnips in the ground soon. It’s also time to start zucchini and squash inside. After all that work, I can hardly wait to taste the first ripe strawberry of the year. I have never seen as many blossoms on the strawberry plants as there are this year.

I hope your gardening plans for 2014 are coming along. Enjoy the longer days and savor the grain of your choice!

Da leid ich’s net länger zu Haus

What a better way to welcome the spring than with chives and Georg Kreisler? As the title of this entry states, I can’t stand staying at home any longer. It is so beautiful outside, and I have been taking many walks, listening to the birds warble with joy. TC and I are keeping our fingers crossed that there will soon be new neighbors in the birdhouse hung up on a nearby pine tree – safely out of reach of the neighborhood cats, of course. I have seen a few birds peeking in and checking it out, but there are no takers yet.

With all the warm weather and direct sunlight, the chives have shot up over the past week. I gave this plant a haircut, sprinkling its allium tresses on my walnut pasta lunch. Yum. I have been doing a lot of research on nutrition lately. There are so many do’s and don’ts, but one recommendation seemed pretty undogmatic and sensible: eat something green at lunch and dinner. That was easy to do yesterday, with chives for lunch and brussels sprouts with mâche salad for dinner.

Enjoy whatever green passes your way – and happy spring!

Ta Da: Tatin?

First the bad news: the enticing crust above was so hard that I was embarrassed that I was serving it to someone not a member of my household. A mixture of wheat flour, water, and sunflower seed oil, it was a pleasure to mix and roll out. Little did I suspect that it would be impossible to handle with a fork. After TC managed to saw it apart into wedges, we elected to eat it with our hands. Though dry and tough, our teeth were never threatened. By the sugar, sure, but not by the hardness. Now the good news: the topping was loaded with flavor and moisture.

This is how the topping evolved: 100g muscavado sugar in 4 Tbs of water, heated and whisked until it melted. I added four sliced apples and stirred five minutes until the apples were well covered and the syrup started to cling to the fruit. Then it was time to pour it into the tart pan.

The topping was then tucked into the oven for a forty minutes’ nap at 200°C, completely covered by the flippant crust. To my relief, transferring it to the serving plate was real simple. Some apples didn’t bond much to either the form or the top of the crust, leading me to think that perhaps the sugar wasn’t really caramelized. It was brown to begin with, so there were no clear visual cues except the thickening of the syrup.  Nonetheless: there you have it, folks: my very first Tarte Tatin!

Or was it? I own two cookbooks with recipes for Tarte Tatin, and the one I used does not call for butter. (Butter, however, was what I used to grease the tart pan because it is simply unparalleled for that kind of job. Amen.)  The second one does, and I’d now like to try that one out as well as the recipe provided at this very interesting website written by a Tarte Tatin fan, which includes butter as an essential ingredient.

Since a lot of ink has been spilled over TT, I want to underline that my interest in trying out other recipes for it is more to expand my repertoire of baking tricks than any reverence for this much talked about starlet of French cuisine. Despite having devoted a good decade of my life to French studies, I have never felt a great affinity for French cuisine, perhaps due to haute cuisine‘s addiction to meat. Instead, my motivation is to master a cooking technique, the art of caramelization, that I can go on to apply it to other foods like milk, onions, and pecans. And next time, of course, I’ll skip the sunflower seed oil for the house flour-butter-water crust recipe.

Have you had any adventures with caramelizing? Good luck in refining whatever culinary skill you’re currently working on!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 79 other followers