Today’s Agriculture Moment

This is, for those of you who don’t have the pleasure of seeing such a thing on a regular basis, a field of onions. It’s one block from Highway 99 (the 99 to you real Californians) on my way to work.

This is still weird for me, being from Fairfax County, Virginia, where the major crops are laws and influence.

A couple days in a row last fall, I watched this field getting planted (by hand) while waiting at the stoplight. Before that, I had driven by while they were cleaning the field from the previous year. It had been red onions, and they looked very dramatically bright and purple when piled up on the dull and sandy earth.

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The Longest Bloom

I was talking to a stone fruit grower this week – a guy in his late 50s at least – who said this bloom is the longest-lasting one in his memory. I had a sense that it was stretched out, but I’m a real newcomer in this business at two years. (A fair number of the people I sit around tables with on a regular basis were literally born into this work.)

Bloom typically starts around President’s Day; it was right on time this year. Most trees are in leaf now – small leaves – but there are definitely still blooms hanging on out there in a few orchard blocks.

An extended bloom period isn’t harmful; a short bloom or a long bloom can yield just as good a crop. What it does affect, though, is the exact window when the fruit must come off the tree.

In a short bloom, pollination is compressed into a smaller window, which means more fruit comes ripe at once. Stone fruit can’t be left to hang on the tree (like oranges) or held in long-term storage (like apples) – it has to be picked and on its way, pronto. So a short bloom means more fruit all at one time, which makes harvesting easier, because it’s all ready at once. However, it also means there’s a lot of fruit available at the same time – a spike in the crop – with all that can entail.

A long bloom means ripeness will be more staggered. Additional passes through the orchard will be needed to harvest the fruit at the right stage, as it’ll be maturing more gradually. That’s more work, but the upside of those multiple passes is that fruit will be coming into the market in the same way it’s being harvested – bit by bit. The gains of more controlled pacing are somewhat offset by the added cost for more rounds through the orchard.

So why the long bloom this year? It’s been cool and rainy. I keep finding myself thinking, “Hey, the weather’s not half bad,” which, when I’m thinking it, usually means the weather is atypical for central Californina.

The cool weather slows the trees down. It also slows down the bees that are necessary to pollinate plums – they don’t fly when it’s below 60 degrees Fahrenheit or raining or if the wind is blowing 15 mph or more, and at least one and sometimes all three of those conditions have been the case for many of the days this month. It’s kept the bees in their hives knitting antennae warmers.

The long bloom also makes for an awfully pretty commute; the last ten miles or so of my drive are lined with orchards and vineyards on both sides. The picture above was taken on my way home from work today.

An Ordinary Dinner

One day almost two years ago now, I was chopping carrots for split-pea soup. We had returned from a trip a couple days before and there wasn’t that much in the house. Split-pea soup – with chipotles for smoke flavor and copious butter to impart some of the fattiness that ham would – was one of my standard end-of-the groceries dishes. Butter, onions, garlic, a chipotle, carrots, some fresh herb if there was some in the fridge.

It was May 29, 2004, 5:45 p.m., three hours and twenty minutes after the linked post above. Having cut the carrots lengthwise, I began to cut them crossways into neat bits the size of the split peas so the dish would be harmonious, when what felt like an invisible wall of water slamming into my back and sucking me away from shore came over me. I felt frightened and disoriented; I set down my knife and gripped the edge of the counter, holding myself up, and reassured myself that I was just feeling momentarily strange for some indefinable reason, probably just one in my occasional series of panic attacks, and that it would pass if I would just keep breathing normally.

To make a long story short and sort of cliched, I am still waiting.

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Soup Technique

I made a recipe I haven’t used in years last night and was reminded of a good broth technique for vegetarian soups.

When I was about 20, I received Yamuna Devi’s book Lord Krishna’s Cuisine. It was my go-to cookbook for years, as I made my way through it, learning what urad badis were and how to combine spices and make homemade milk fudge. My copy reflects all of that. It’s yellowed and turmeric-stained and a little wavy on some pages from wet fingers repeatedly turning from the first page of a recipe to the second.

Many of the recipes have copious notes from my first attempts in the margins. I made this on January 10, 1996. I’ve written around the illustration of the spine being sliced off a cabbage leaf that there was a huge snowstorm the night before – about 2 feet of snow was on my car that morning.

This is a fine winter-ingredients soup – cabbage, carrots, nothing unusual there. However, what sets it apart is its approach to creating the broth.

Broth can be an issue in vegetarian soups, and that’s where this recipe shines. Chicken or beef stock is a quick way to create flavor in non-veg soups. For herbivores, there’s always the option of vegetable bouillon – I love this stuff from Organic Gourmet, as the paste form feels more flexible to me – and somehow more foodlike – than a pre-measured bouillon cube. The problem with always relying on bouillon is that all your soups tend to come out tasting the same.

In this recipe, split lentils and coriander seeds are covered with boiling water and allowed to steep for an hour, then ground until smooth in a food processor. Aromatics are added later in the process. This creates a smooth, creamy-textured, lightly spiced broth without the soup becoming overtly a lentil soup. It’s wonderfully delicate and flavorful.

The dal called for by the recipe is toovar dal, also spelled as tuvar dal or toor dal. They’re yellow split peas, basically. Devi suggests substituting moong dal for variety; I used the moong dal pictured above.

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White Flour

I don’t put much time in at the regular supermarket. I end up there on occasion when I need aluminum foil or dried chilies, but most of the time I’m living in my little specialty foods retailer cocoon.

Before we moved to California in 2003, I went to Meijer every week in Michigan, along with the health food store and oftentimes the bakery and, in season, the farmers’ market.

Before we moved to Michigan in 2000, I had been working for Whole Foods for five years, and with a 20% discount, there was no reason to go anywhere else.

I’m fascinated by the regular grocery store whenever I’m there. I grew up with regular supermarkets – the red and orange A&P logo on the front of the market my family shopped at in New England is one of my earliest memories.

I remember the logo’s shape-commonality with pills my father took while he was battling Hodgkin’s disease and the coated licorice Good & Plenty candies that I ate, mimicking his daily pill-swallowing routine and offering them to him with childhood-magical-thinking-surety that they would make him not sick any more.

In Virginia, we shopped at Safeway store #0002 and then the Giant when it opened down the street, plus the dreaded weekend-afternoon eating trips to the commissary that fill the childhood memories of lots of military dependents. When you started filling the second cart, you knew the end was in sight.

But I’ve been away from the supermarket so long, and away from the standard American diet even longer, that I’m sort of amazed by what I find there and what’s happening. I’ve always been a casual grocery cart anthropologist – I roped a date using this habit when I was working at Whole Foods by saying Hey, that’s great tofu, isn’t it? – but looking at people’s carts at Whole Foods is of limited interest. There’s the person who clearly buys all her produce elsewhere and the couple who buy six bottles of wine at a time and the family who ring up a gargantuan bill with meat and prepared foods.

At the regular supermarket, though, I get to see what most people are really buying. To tell the truth, I mostly find this depressing.

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Kinds of Vegetarians

I was reading The Vegan Lunch Box the other day and feeling grouchier and grouchier the more I read. I suppose I was thinking if I didn’t work outside the home I could make time for that level of lunch-involvement for my offspring, if I had any, but then I realized that it wasn’t just the fussiness of the food and the fact that she calls her kid “Little Schmoo” that was getting to me. It was that she was showing behavior that I think of as typical of a Compensating Vegetarian – actually a Compensating Vegan – and I’m not that type.

There are a lot of different kinds of vegetarians. Sure, there are those who eat eggs and those who think eggs are somehow not really vegetarian but have never been able to say exactly why. Beyond the what-do-you-put-in delineations of ovo-lacto, lacto, and vegan and the why-do-you-do-it categories of health, ecology, animal rights and plain old distaste for flesh, there are further distinctions.

Before we go any further, please note that the following type descriptions are intended in a spirit of humor and fun, and that I have immense respect for other vegetarians, no matter how they go at their diets. We can all get A Bit Serious about it sometimes – so if you recognize yourself below (I am here in several guises) please don’t get too bent out of shape. We’re all doing something good for the planet and the animals, folks, and we have to laugh among ourselves at our perceived neuroticisms a little bit because goodness knows the rest of the world thinks we’re nuts.

Compensating Vegetarians are the ones who feel compelled to make food that is as similar to meat-containing food as possible. These people keep the food scientists that work on meat and cheese analogues in business, and have no fear of the sodium level in packaged foods and no discomfort with putting an enormous amount of their food budget and caloric consumption toward plastic-wrapped substances that have TVP as the primary ingredient. They love technology…food technology.

A Compensating Vegan might make a ham and cheese croissant (note homemade croissant made with trans-fat free margarine, ye gods, if I had the time and energy…) with fake cheese and fake ham and maybe even fake mayonnaise (at least the pickle you might have on the side can be real).

It’s just like the real stuff! they’ll insist. They feel they can’t have it look as if they’re missing out on the meat-eating experience because if so, meat-eaters will mock their food. They have a need to conform that battles mightily with their dietary preference. A fake-everything sandwich helps them avoid sticking out and having their food or themselves labeled as different or – heaven forbid – weird.

Is it weird to want to eat a sandwich in which all of the ingredients are ersatz? I sort of think so. Why not enjoy the natural vegetable foods available for what they are and close to the forms they take? Why do they need to be like something else?

There are other vegetarian subtypes.

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Coconut Cream of Tomato and Corn

Earlier in the week, when we went grocery shopping, I thought I would make a tortilla soup. By the time it got to be yesterday, though, I was no longer very excited about the idea. How could I make a corn-and-tomato soup more interesting? I thought. I knew onions, garlic, tomatoes, corn and cilantro would be involved. Into the fridge. Earlier in the week, Chimp made a Thai curry – the other half of the can of coconut milk he had opened was still in there.

That sounded like a good idea. After all, there are Indian and Thai tomato soups made with coconut milk; the Indian versions use cumin as an aromatic, a spice shared by Mexican cooking, and Thai versions are sharpened with kaffir leaves or lemongrass where Mexican cooking might place lime juice. Coconut makes its way into Mexican beverages and desserts, at least, to my knowledge – and coconut milk is so rich, you can hardly go wrong adding it to something.

This was a success. I would have had to fight Chimp for the last of this if I was the fighting type.

This soup has a certain familiarity to it; it reminds me of a mulligatawny that I used to get at Gulshan, my beloved and long-defunct Indian restaurant on 2nd Avenue in NYC. There’s one by the same name on 6th St.; who knows if it’s the same one? (If it did still exist and I went back there, I would probably not think it was great now, based on all the restaurants I have eaten at in the past dozen years, but it was great to me then – and really cheap, which was of paramount importance at the time.)

I’ve tried to reproduce that soup many, many times over the years, and I think I am finally getting close. I’ll likely try a version of this without corn and with carrots soon to see if that gets even closer. If I made this as is again, I’d probably increase the amount of corn; it ended up playing an almost imperceptible background role.

I even measured the amounts on this, for once.

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