Forum Holitorium

Month: September, 2012

Kurent’s Legacy

Friday I got the call. The grapes were to be harvested the next morning. Could we come?

Grapes have been grown in Slovenia for a very long time. Celtic and Illyrian tribes were cultivating them to make wine before the Romans showed up. This was the third time I had the pleasure of picking grapes in the Podravje region of Slovenia, one of the three main wine-producing areas of the country. A friend has land there that is brimming over with grapevines and fruit trees (apple, pear, quince, walnut, chestnut). She is slowly but surely renovating a house and has a mildly ambitious vegetable garden, too. The weather was just perfect, and TC and I were eager to breathe in the fresh air and M-O-V-E after a long week during which we were more or less chained to our computers. We contributed four hands to the harvest cause. With ten adults, the grapes were gathered quickly, and the next task was to dig up the potatoes.

It was the first time I had harvested potatoes. One person uses a spade to loosen up the earth, then the others make a mad dash to pick out the potatoes. It’s actually quite exciting and by the end you get downright greedy, wanting to beat the others and pull out the biggest potato yourself. Harmless fun and a cheap thrill, really. I was partial to the red ones. Many were cast aside that looked as if an end had been sliced off. From what I understood these wouldn’t keep as long, but I felt pangs of waste as we left them in the field. Scenes from Agnès Varda’s  The Gleaners and I flashed through my head (a remarkable, beautiful film) as did the scene from Taste the Waste in which a German farmer laments the amount of potatoes he ends up leaving in his field because they aren’t the right size.

The vegetable garden was bursting with tomatoes, Swiss chard, beets, and peppers. Unfortunately, many of the tomatoes were sporting mold that comes from a mixture of plants growing so close that the light and air can’t get in anymore and tomatoes absorbing so much water that they burst and are more easily attacked by fungi. Though the mold looked unsavory, most tomatoes were only affected where the skin had split open, and tossing them aside seemed extravagant. It just illustrates how well-insulated we are from hunger, we with our full refrigerators and bank accounts in the black.

The weather was just gorgeous, and after laboring in the fields, we were treated to a table groaning with homemade food lovingly prepared by my friend’s mother. I think it probably took her longer to prepare lunch for 15 than it did for us to harvest everything! But the best was yet to come. While we were relaxing in lawn chairs, the delivery of pogača was announced. Yes, delivery; it came in a cardboard box like pizza. There were two kinds, one with a buckwheat crust and one with a potato crust. You can guess which one I chose.

Along with grapes, buckwheat plays an important role in the Slovene version of the flood story. Only four people survive the flood. Who knows what the first three did – they probably went to other countries because there are a plethora of cultures with a flood myth – but the fourth one climbs up a grapevine reaching towards the sky. The god Kurent takes pity on him and makes the waters recede. The catch is that the man must promise to grow and honor grapes and buckwheat. He did, of course. Wouldn’t you?

Sirova Pogača

This is what my friend called it, but there seems to be a variety of different names for it.

Crust:

125 g / 1 cup buckwheat flour

100 g / 1 cup wheat flour

110 g / 1/2 cup butter

1 egg yolk

2 Tbs cold water

Cornmeal

Mix the buckwheat and wheat flours in a bowl. Cut in the butter with a fork and then rub it into small crumbs with your hands. Add the egg yolk and then the cold water by the tablespoon so the dough comes together in a ball. You may need to use your hands. Roll out to a circle slightly larger than your (buttered) tart form. Place it in and make sure the sides are even. Sprinkle about a tablespoon of cornmeal onto the crust.

Filling:

375 g farmer’s cheese (Topfen)

150 ml / 2/3 cup sour cream

1 egg plus 1 egg white

Cinnamon

Using the same bowl, mix together the cheese, sour cream, and egg. Spoon the batter into the tart form and even it out. If you like, sprinkle some cinnamon on top. There was no cinnamon in the original, but mine was just begging for a dash of something.

Bake at 190°C / 375°F for 45 minutes. The custard should be firm with attractive brown spots.

Mine doesn’t taste quite like the original because I didn’t use any sugar. If you have an insatiable sweet tooth, you can add some to the filling or drizzle a little honey over your slice. Jam might do the trick as well.

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On Abundance, or Why You Should Never Leave the Oatmeal Unattended

I marvel at the abundance of nature. The Oxford tells me that abundance is a large quantity that is more than enough. At the moment, I’m experiencing an abundance of basil. An abundance of savory. An abundance of chives. With chives, I will go so far as to say that I am safely self-sufficient. Abundance can often feed your happiness.

Felicity: great happiness. The literal meaning of the Latin felicitas is actually fertility, a synonym for fertilitas. Its metaphorical meanings of happiness, good fortune, and success live on in our English word. Yet this original literal meaning grabs me. To be happy, you must be fertile, producing numerous offspring, a long list of published works, a home full of clothes and textiles that you have knit and sewn yourself, a pantry full of jam, or another vision of fruitfulness. The point is you must create. He has a fertile imagination means he is creative.

Recently I saw a documentary on Woody Allen. He has a drawer in which he keeps pieces of paper of all sizes where he has jotted down ideas for films. When he finishes one film and is ready for the next, he just opens the drawer and fishes around until he finds something that strikes his fancy. What prodigious creativity! What a gift! Yet just as important is the diligence with which he goes about his work and turns the seed of an idea into a film that you and I can ultimately see on the big screen. It’s not enough to have good ideas.

Is the opposite of diligence neglect? These peppers were never transplanted to larger pots or the garden. I have mostly left them to the elements, which in my climes delivered both abundant rain and abundant sunshine this summer. Despite the tapering off of my caring from them, they are bearing fruit, which I almost feel I have no right to eat. Plants need sun and water and a handful of minerals. They don’t really need us, except if they need help getting these three things. Sure, our pampering can help them grow more, but left to their own devices, they will still move through all the standard phases of a plant’s life. My dwelling on the subject of neglect reveals more about me and my view that I have somehow failed the plants. In fact, they are getting on and making the best out of their situation of growing in very small pots.

Though plants can be left unattended, oatmeal cannot.

TC learned this lesson the hard way. Once fire is involved – or its modern equivalent electricity – diligence is key. The power of the elements should not be summoned and then left unattended. Cooking differs in this way from gardening. Neglect in the kitchen leads very quickly to incidents such as the one pictured above or an upswing in the fertility (and felicity?) of drosophila. An abundance of fruit flies does not warm a vegetarian’s heart.

With my abundance of basil and a gift of tomatoes, I adapted this 101 Cookbooks recipe to make a kind of tomato gratin. Since the last tomato tart I shared was called the Hexagon Tart after France, let’s name this one after Italy.

Boot Tart

4 shallots, minced

2 Tbs olive oil

900 g /2 lbs.  tomatoes, sliced

2 tsp balsamic vinegar

1/2 tsp sea salt

100 g / 3 1/2 oz. fresh mozzarella

100 g / 3 1/2 oz. finely-ground polenta

500 ml /2 cups water

Sauté the shallots in olive oil until brown. Slice the tomatoes and arrange in a buttered quiche or tart pan. Drizzle the vinegar and sprinkle the salt on top. Cover the tomatoes with the shallots, coarsely chopped basil, and small pieces of mozzarella.

Bring the water to a boil. Whisk in the polenta, making sure it doesn’t clump, and cook until it thickens.

Pour the polenta over the tart so it forms a uniform layer.

Bake at 200°C / 400 °F for about 25 minutes.

Mangia!