elijah, easter bunny both take a pass

Well, looks like neither Easter nor Passover will happen this year, and I’m fine with that.  I’ve become very blasé about holidays. This is hard to fathom, somehow, since I grew up in a family that hit every holiday hard. Easter, for example, was celebrated three times, maybe four times if you count dinner, in a row at different relatives’ houses.  We never did that doling out of holidays by relative thing that many families manage to do.

And since Retrogrouch and I don’t have kids and don’t have much interest in celebrating holidays with kids and all our friends are having kids, the gesture gets more hollow by the year.  Eh. No biggie.  I’d rather be out in the garden prepping food production this time of year anyway.  That seems more of an escape from bondage, more of a celebration of rebirth, than hostessing to me.  Praying with your feet, to paraphrase Rabbi Abraham Heschel, who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, Alabama.  I pray with my trowel.

But that doesn’t mean my thoughts aren’t filled with holiday swag when the holidays roll around.  In the grocery store, in particular, when one is bombarded with temptations.  I think about my grandmother, the one who doesn’t cook, who would spend weeks each year finding the best, coolest candy for Easter baskets for my sister and me.  I always keep my eye out, in her spirit, for weird and wondrous sugar bombs for my nephews, to send to them when I can. I rarely can time it like she did, but I have a more perverse sense of humor. Surely, my colleague who surprised me in line at Market of Choice while buying two IV bags of lurid red sugar blood at Halloween must have wondered what recipe I was dreaming up…

There was something very comforting in holidays, a temporal sureness.  That’s the pleasure of a middle class upbringing: heteronormative, reproductive time.  It’s hard to imagine there’s any other acceptable way when you grow up like that.  A part of me is sad I’ll never transubstantiate those particular joys or cyclical comfort, but my freedom to garden instead of cook, write instead of wash the seder plate, browse the Easter candy baskets instead of buying, means I won’t model the treacherous, complex groove of reproductive time for a little girl like me who would one day be sad.  This is not without its consequences, though.  The knowledge I have of the holidays — all the domestic rituals and rites — is thus rendered “heavy with useless experience,” to turn dear Adrienne Rich on her head.

I’ve never liked the Easter message, and my husband says he doesn’t like Passover anymore, because it celebrates vengeance.  “It would have been enough, dayenu,” he says. “But god needed more plagues, celebrated by drops of the blood of your enemy.”  He wants a holiday of moderation, where “it is enough.” As much as this concept horrifies me and I profoundly disagree in my middle class sureness, acknowledging the carnivalesque need for celebrations of life, where excess is sometimes very appropriate and wonderful and even blessed, I see his point. “The knife edge of fact.” The sacrificial lamb.

It’s just never enough.

olive garden receives another warm welcome

OK, I wasn’t going to do it, but given the proliferation of excellent reviews on the Olive Garden, I have to add mine.

It was late in the summer of 1999 and we had just moved from Berkeley to rural Connecticut on a choking, dripping hot night, one of those nights that trick you into thinking it might rain at any moment. Californians can’t handle humidity; their blood is too thick and innocent. They count on the sun to rise in the morning and a gentle fog blanket at night.  I hadn’t experienced a hot night in almost ten years.

So we’re in our little cottage in the woods, half-naked and savage, crowded in by a sheen of oily sweat and by boxes, and it’s so late and we can’t breathe.  The electric fans are hopelessly, helplessly buried.  We’re a good 30 miles from civilization.  The crawling, singing things throb around us, pressing us in through the open windows.

I had just seen The Blair Witch Project, and with the keening of the forest and the cats bugging out and our soft California reality rotting into vampire meat there was absolutely no doubt whatsoever that the witches of the Joshua’s Tract Conservation and Historic Land Trust were closing in.

We have to leave.

What?

We have to leave. Now.

The car has air conditioning.  We drive.  There has to be somewhere cool to go, somewhere to wait it out…

Olive Garden.

I have no idea what we ate.

buy girl scout cookies, support inclusiveness

Girl Scout cookies are available for purchase starting this weekend in Eugene outside of most of our major grocery stores, including Albertson’s, Safeway, Market of Choice, and Fred Meyer’s, and a number of other venues.  For the location closest to you, click here and enter your zip code.

Although not remotely healthy, there’s yet another reason to stock up this year.  You may be aware of the controversy last fall about a troop in Colorado that wouldn’t let a transgender girl named Bobby Montoya join, then reversed its decision after the case made the national news.  Well, one girl scout disagreed with that decision, and made a rather hateful video telling people to boycott cookies this year because of the Girl Scouts of America’s decision to support anyone who claims girlish affiliation and presents as a girl.  She felt it would be neither nurturing nor safe to have a transgender girl included with the other girls. You can read more about the controversy here or here.

I’m interested in this controversy not only because I’m interested in teaching tolerance of sexual and gender difference, but because I remember very vividly what it was like to have the Girl Scout experience ruined by intolerance about what a person chose to do with her body.

My mom, whose sash is the dark green one above, really loved being a part of these mother-daughter social organizations, and we were constantly involved in them while I was growing up.  She became the leader of my own Girl Scout troop and had a blast organizing activities and events.  I pretty much would rather have been reading or writing, but as you can see on my sash, the two lone badges for active citizenship and hospitality meant I had at least one lobbyist tea party with someone about something.

My mom was also considering at that time becoming a surrogate mother, which was all the rage and quite controversial at the time.  We even went to New York so she could be interviewed on the Good Morning America show about it. She felt that she loved motherhood so much that she wanted to give that experience to someone else, and because she was divorced, she probably wasn’t going to be able to have any more children herself.

Well, the mothers of the other girls in the troop saw the show, and decided my mother wasn’t a fit leader of young girls.  She was, after all, advocating conceiving a child out of wedlock, and she would be parading around pregnant without any husband to show for it.  They petitioned and forced her to resign.  She never went through with the surrogacy and wrote off the mothers as narrow-minded and basically forgave them.  We moved on to other activities and the matter was largely forgotten.

But I was pissed.  I’m still angry about it 30 years later.  It was one of the formative moments of my life, and it made me think for the first time that there were other ways of being a woman than a married, childbearing one.  I owe that epiphany to the Girl Scouts.

And it looks as if the Girl Scouts as an organization have come a long way since the 1980s.  Some individuals, however, apparently have not.  So I say support the organization and the girls who are different by buying as many cookies as possible this year.  And don’t forget to let the troop member know why you’re supporting the Girl Scouts.

Consider donating to the transgender girl’s troop through a webpage created by the organization TransYouth Family Allies.  Donations go to the Girl Scouts of Colorado operations or a new anti-bullying educational campaign.

Or just check out some of the historic badges earned by my mom by viewing images of Girl Scout badges through the decades here.

improvised smoky bean and root vegetable soup

Campbell’s Bean with Bacon soup was one of my favorites growing up.  Quivering beige sludge with an occasional bean or mysterious fat cube, it was condensed.  You’d add a can full of water and slosh it around in a pot on the stove, then it would become soup.  It would cook up hot and salty, just how I liked it, and perfect with saltine crackers.

Even after leaving home, it was comfort food.  I remember with fascination and trepidation a particular old sandwich shop in Ann Arbor that would sell a bowl of it, sans attribution, for college student prices.  Maybe a buck fifty a bowl?  Perfect for a freezing day walking around without sense in Michigan.  (Drake’s closed a few years after my last visit in the late 80s, but there’s a wonderful photo set from that era here.)

I wouldn’t say no if someone put a can in front of me now, but I’d probably seize up over the salt content.  Actually, maybe not, since even Campbell’s realized it was over the top and reformulated the stuff into a “heart healthy” version (whatever that means) a number of years ago.

There are many ways to make your own bean-smoky-meat soup that are way more healthy than anything processed in a can, but if you’re lucky, they’ll still bring on that rush of nostalgia when you smell them in the pot.

I had a surplus of root vegetables from the CSA thanks to this frosty month, and thought I’d experiment with a bean soup that was as much about the veg as it was the legume.  This soup is more than its parts, so feel free to add more root vegetables than you think possible.  It will look like too many roots, but you’ll cook half of them down into the broth.  Don’t do anything ridiculous, like add beets, though. Stick with mild potatoey- or carroty-type roots.

Smoked ham or bacon or turkey is really not optional for this recipe, as it forms the broth.  Start the night before you’d like to serve it.  Flavor improves as it sits.

Improvised Smoky Bean and Root Vegetable Soup

  • Several pounds of mixed root vegetables: rutabagas, turnips, potatoes, celery root, etc., chopped
  • One large yellow onion, diced
  • 3-4 stalks celery, diced
  • a half dozen good-sized carrots and/or parsnips
  • Several cups of country ham (or a couple of ham hocks/shanks if you have those instead)
  • Greens: a bunch of kale, collards, green cabbage, head of parsley, escarole, etc.
  • Fresh herbs if you have them (I used a bay leaf, a couple sprigs of sage, and some thyme)
  • 2-3 cups of dried soup beans, which might be Hutterite soup beans, Vermont cranberry beans, Navy or Great Northern beans, etc.
  • salt and pepper

Soak your beans overnight and prepare the stock. Dice the onion, celery, and carrots or parsnips into small pieces.  Over medium heat in a medium-sized stock pot (5 gallons, perhaps), sauté ham (if using), chopped onion, celery and carrots/parsnips until they turn golden brown.  Add enough water to fill the pot about halfway, and add half of the chopped root vegetables, herbs, and the ham hock/shank (if using).

Do not add the beans or the other half of the vegetables yet.

Simmer stock on a low heat for a couple of hours, then cool and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, bring stock up to a simmer, then add the beans and cook until they are soft.  With a potato masher, mush some of them up to thicken the broth.

Now taste and salt the broth (salt needed will depend on the ham you’re using).  If in doubt, err on the less salty side, since you can add more later. Add the greens and the rest of the vegetables, and simmer another half hour or so until tender.

Adjust seasonings before serving with a hunk of country bread.

Serves many hungry people and freezes well.  Cats who appear to be innocently looking out the window from a far corner of the table so they won’t seem interested also enjoy it when your back is turned.

life is like a carousel, a cured, meaty carousel

Life, it is said, is like a carousel.  I like mine historical and full of cats.  You may recall my post last summer mentioning the carousel in Spokane, a 1909 Louff carousel in Riverfront Park, in fact.

When I heard the city of Albany in Linn County was fundraising for their own carousel, my interest was piqued.  It turns out a local family donated the inner workings of a carousel from the same year as the Spokane carousel, long disbanded and separated from its menagerie.  Without the business end of the ride, something needed to be done, so a group of dedicated volunteers set out to design and carve 52 new animals and two chariots for a new carousel.  They’ve been working on it for about ten years, and have a range of animals to see in all stages of completion.  The project is pretty cool, and you can go visit the studio, museum, and gift shop.  Or maybe throw this dedicated team a few bucks? More information is on the website.

Neighbor Sybaris restaurant, who often takes on great charitable causes, held a fundraiser for the carousel last week.  Chef Matt Bennett, who has represented the Willamette Valley at the James Beard House in NY and is one of our most renowned local culinary professionals, invited fellow Michigander Chef Brian Polcyn to cook a Michigan-inspired PNW menu with him.  Chef Brian, who coauthored everyone’s favorite charcuterie cookbook with luminary Michael Ruhlman, heads up a restaurant where I went to middle school (go Birmingham!) AND teaches in a city I spent my early childhood and where much of my family still lives (Livonia in da house!), is working on a second book on salumi.  He brought his cured meats all the way from his restaurant for the benefit, and they managed to get their hands on a big, fat Mangalitsa pig for the dinner.

Pig trotter croquette with sauce gribiche was the first course!

Surely you’re beginning to see how happy I was.

1) As a Michigan girl, I had to go bump fists with the chefs and talk tough about my childhood drinking Vernors and eating jello salads.  Check.

This is how we do it in Michigan.  Gotta be tough.

2) As a charcuterie aficionado, I had to go taste the creations of the man WHO WROTE THE BOOK. Check.

Frilly, gorgeous prosciutto

3) As a carousel fan, I had to see the carving in action, and all the love and dedication these artisans have poured into their project. Check.

Bulldog, interrupted.

And I was not disappointed.  Want to see more pictures?  I put the entire set of the studio reception and the dinner on a public page on my Facebook page.  Everyone can see it, even if you’re not a member of Facebook.  My fellow co-host on KLCC’s Food for Thought radio show, Laura McCandlish, did a spot on Chef Polcyn as he was preparing the meal.  You can listen here (near the end, if I recall).  She and I enjoyed the dinner together with local farmers, educators, and food lovers.  It was a great evening.

Thanks so much Chefs Matt and Brian, Janel and her & Matt’s staff at Sybaris, and everyone at the Albany Historical Carousel!

my summer cup runneth over: thai hot and sour cucumber stirfry

This is a gorgeous dish, one of my favorites from Thailand.  I mentioned it as my “meal of the week” on KLCC’s Food for Thought last Sunday.  It’s an interpretation of a hot and sour shrimp recipe by San Francisco Bay Area Thai food maven Kasma Loha-Unchit, and a great way to use up extra cucumbers and hot peppers in the garden.

Kasma was the Julia Child of Thai food for a certain group of Bayareans who came of age in the gay ’90s and noughts; she still cooks and hosts Thailand trips for students from her home in Oakland.  For those of us who had fled the stodgy food of the Midwest in the late-1980s and found our culinary footing before the days of molecular gastronomy and fusion street food, Thai food was literally the taste of freedom.  It was like Chinese food (which we knew, or thought we knew) but with vibrant, living flavors.  Fresh vegetables! Coconut milk! Seafood! Not fried! And hot! O so hot! Kaffir lime leaf! Lemongrass! Over fragrant rice that took longer than a Minute!

Everything about it was technicolor, in stereo, 3-D, digital, 3G.

And Kasma, who offered classes in actually cooking what we were sampling at restaurants, offered the same thrill,  I’d imagine, that Julia’s French cooking did for young American sophisticates in the 1960s.  As for me, I was most assuredly a not-quite-sophisticate, as I relied on my lessons from my ex-boyfriend, who would come back from class and practice his dishes on me as I served as his sous-chef.

Because that’s the beauty of cooking, right?  We learn by sharing new techniques and ingredients, and by testing variations until we’ve hit on the perfect combination (that fleeting perfection).  This joy is spread from one friend to the next through potlucks, dinner parties, and celebrations.  And with each recipe we receive, each time we cook a dish prepared by someone who wowed us on a perfect evening and share it with others who exhale “wow,” the hues of our lives deepen and take on a richer sheen.  And if you can find someone whose wow is your wow, then that, my friend, is one of the finest pleasures in the world.

But back to the fish.  I bought a pound of black cod at Newman’s, too much, but it was so pretty and I was seduced.  The dish is usually for shrimp and is called, I believe, Pad Priow Wahn, or Hot and Sour Shrimp (with vegetables).  The spicy vinegar a surprisingly natural combination for cucumbers, which we Americans never eat cooked. This stirfry just softens the cukes a bit, makes them more receptive for the sauce and seafood.

I thought the fresh peppers, cucumbers, and tomatoes would be just as good over a mild pan-fried fish as they are with shrimp, and I was right.

I served the other half of the fish in an equally gorgeous dish, also with tomatoes, but this one radically different.  It used the same sauce as my Thai salmon “burger” recipe, which is also based on Kasma’s cuisine.  Fragrant with sweet-spicy roasted chili paste, and strewn with Thai basil from the garden.  The dish is balanced by slightly bittersweet little ‘Sungold’ cherry tomatoes and yet more sunkissed peppers.

Both dishes together are the essence of summer: one hot and sultry, one fresh and breezy.  Work fast and hot.  This is not the dish to simmer.  No, work fast and hot.  Run like the last days of summer.

Hot & Sour Cucumber Stirfry with Black Cod

Recipe adapted from Kasma Loha-Unchit’s pad priow wahn recipe (undated handout)

Serves 4 with another dish.

  • 1/4 cup rice flour or cornstarch
  • 1/2 lb. black cod or other thick fillet of mild, white fish (or substitute large shrimp, peeled and deveined)
  • 2-3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1/2 medium white onion, sliced in half and then thinly
  • 2 long banana or wax peppers or other frying peppers if you’d like it less hot
  • 4 med. pickling cucumbers or 1-2 garden slicers, halved and sliced at angle about 1/8th-inch thick (peel slicers)
  • 2-3 tablespoons fish sauce
  • 1 tablespoon white vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon sugar
  • 2 plum tomatoes or slightly underripe small slicers, cut in bite-sized chunks.
  • white pepper to taste

Set up your ingredients in separate, small dishes — mince the garlic; slice the onion, peppers, and cucumbers; chunk the tomatoes. Mix together fish sauce, vinegar, and sugar in a small bowl. Marinate fish fillet in a bit of this sauce and some white pepper.  Put rice flour on salad-sized plate or in shallow bowl for dredging fish.

Heat your pan until very hot on high heat. Just before frying, dredge fish fillet in rice flour on both sides and shake off the extra.  (If you are using shrimp, skip this step.)

When pan is hot, add oil and wait a minute to pre-heat, then add fish fillet or shrimp.  Cook fish until about 2/3 done (it will be brown on bottom and white most of the way up), then flip over in pan (for shrimp, just stirfry them until they are thoroughly pink).

Add onion and garlic, which should start to brown immediately.  Slow it down by adding the hot peppers.  Remove fish and set aside in a serving dish.  Add cucumbers and fish sauce mixture, then stirfry for a minute or so.  Add tomatoes and sprinkle with white pepper to taste.  Carefully arrange vegetables and sauce around fillet, or break apart fillet into four pieces and integrate into vegetables prior to serving.  Garnish with cilantro, if you have it.

anti-spontaneity league! baby!

Hello; my name is Eugenia, and I am not spontaneous.

Hello, Eugenia!

For a long time, I kept it relatively hidden.  I wrote lists in childhood journals à la Jay Gatsby that set out not only my plan for the day (broken into segments as minute as “say hi to the cats,” an important part of my day then and now) but my blueprints for my future house and life. I didn’t want to miss any opportunities, that was for sure.

Like Gatsby, I did force myself to do a number of things to build my social capital.  I started working at age 14 at a law firm and joined the rather unpleasant French Honor Society among a host of extracurriculars so I could get a job as an “international lawyer.” Hm.

I came out as a planner by accident.  It surprised even me.  When I was completing my wedding registry at Williams Sonoma, my future husband tapped me on the shoulder saying he was thirsty.  “I’m planning our childrens’ birthday parties,” I snapped, checking off the cake decorating kit, “you’ll just have to wait.”

Whoa!

But over the years, I’ve come to terms with my need for planning and I really love how much richness and productivity it lends to my life.

At its worst, a lack of spontaneity can be an irritable, chronic condition.  I get more and more grumpy when events conspire to keep the future veiled.  Not having secure employment affects me deeply as a long-range planner.  After all, I’m already planning my retirement, and not knowing where I’ll be next year makes that difficult.  (For those of you who don’t understand people like me, not knowing the future doesn’t mean letting the future just happen, it means contingency planning — setting out as many different options as possible. The wheels of change do not stop for any momentary obstruction in the road.)

Being a planner doesn’t mean I’m inherently inflexible.  In fact, adaptation is the key to any plan.   But it can be. exhausting.  I loathe last-minute invitations, since I can rarely attend them due to scheduling my evenings weeks in advance, and I’m participating less and less in thrown-together events because of the anxiety it causes.  I’m finding, too, that my pleasure in spending time with people who can’t make decisions is slowly diminishing.

So why don’t you change, Eugenia?

Why doesn’t the world change?  We could all use a little less chaos. That old saw about a messy desk being the sign of an orderly mind, or whatever?  Good god.  Spend a little less time defending your crap and a little more time cleaning it up.  Creativity has nothing to do with hoarding and bric-a-brac on your keyboard.  The whole being laid-back, it’s all good, letting go thing is vastly overrated.  Stick up my bum?  At least I don’t have shit everywhere.

And I like the idea of becoming world famous as an anti-spontaneity curmudgeon.  Anti spontaneity league! Baby!  (Note planning in action.)

So what’s the up side of a lack of spontaneity, then, if it just makes you grumpy?

I’m surprised that you even need to ask this.  But let’s return to cooking.  Some people really love baking cakes — it’s a relatively immediate gratification (I suppose you do have to wait for it to cool).  But me?  I love preservation, the opposite of immediate gratification.

As Sandor Katz has so eloquently written, preservation puts you in closer contact with the rhythms of the earth — seasonality, fertility, and decay.  Canning and the related arts are unnatural, I’ve said before, paraphrasing the Italian philosopher Massimo Montanari.  When you preserve food, you seize death by the throat and shake it until it falls back, stunned.  You stave off decay with sugar, vinegar, salt and heat. With a little planning, you can end up with a pantry and freezer full of summer bounty…in the dead of winter!  It’s alchemy and ingenuity and a testament to the human drive for life!

And it can all be yours for the simple mindset of just planning ahead, grasshopper.


Although I recognize the issues the “urban homesteading” crowd has with USDA-influenced preservation and acknowledge the safety redundancy and commercial interests that affect sugar, chemical, and salt levels in Extension-approved canning, I think we should take a moment to appreciate the spirit in which the early cookbooks and canning manuals were developed.  The home economists and domestic scientists of the early-twentieth century appreciated a good plan.  They standardized measurements and made recipes as fail-safe as possible.  This came at a cost, I’ll stress again: using inferior products for the sake of good looks (always a danger, in cooking and outside of it) and glorifying industrialization and economy led to the vilification of freshness and taste.

If you look carefully, though, you’ll see that adaptations were often encouraged and suggested, as long as they’d promote the recipe’s success and safety.  Creating an anti-spontaneous program helped generations to learn how to cook well systematically, not to mention raised the level of professionalism in the kitchen and provided women with ways to study science and business in an era in which they weren’t being educated much at all.  That’s quite a feat.

And wholly impossible without planning.

(The photos in this blog post are all from Grange exhibits at the 2011 Lane County Fair.)

of mortar, sandwiches, and feline elijah: passover 2011

Chag sameach, happy Passover, and all that.  Yes, that’s a knob of ginger standing in for the shank bone.  It’s brown and elongated, no?  For bitterness, we have a slightly mauve maror, since I added a bit of pickled beet as filler to the hand-harvested horseradish, and arugula flowers.  Karpas is from my healthy parsley crop. The haroset is a properly leaden mortar (oops).  Still, not bad for a relatively quickly organized pseudoseder.

Proof of participation, Ikea miniature whitefish dumplings.  Guess who was seduced by the idea of EZ cocktail gefilte fishies?  (Alas.  They tasted slightly better with the carrot salad on top.)

And my friend’s almond torte wasn’t bad at all, and not the least bit dry with a sauce made of last year’s frozen sour cherries.  And yes, that’s a meat-based white dollop there.  Shh. Don’t tell Elijah.

Actually, this year was a little bittersweet.  One year when we lived in a tiny house in Berkeley where the dining/living room opened up to the front porch, we opened up the door for Elijah at the appropriate time in the seder.  And lo, there sat our beloved cat Sylvia, who made the grand entrance of her life, to the delighted exclamations of everyone present.  This is the first year she hasn’t been with us in person, as she passed away in November.  A little part of me thought she might be there when I opened the door this year.  So indeed, she was.  And will be next year, too.

Passover Menu 2011

  • Bitter tears and spring greens
  • Deviled eggs
  • Bread of affliction (with and without freshly ground horseradish)
  • Hillel sandwiches with pear-date-almond and apple-pear-walnut-pine nut mortars*
  • Miniature Scandinavian gefilte-fish disks d’Ikea topped with carrot salad**
  • Braised beef brisket à la mode de Joan Nathan, tomatoes and red wine
  • Roasted fingerling and butterball garlic rosemary potatoes with crunchy potato croutons***
  • Asparagus with caperberries and bay leaves
  • Foraged arugulas, fennel fronds, and pine nuts with apricot vinaigrette
  • Almond-meal torte with local sour cherries****
  • Evesham Wood Willamette Valley Pinot Noir, Coffee

*why is it on this night only do we eat Hillel sandwiches?

**why is it on this night only do we serve garbage fish from cans and jars to complement those delicious sandwiches?

***why is it on this night only do we gild the lily?

****why is it on this night only do non-practicing Jews omit the crème fraiche?

homemade hominy and other corny matters

What a sad story is corn in America.  Demonized now because of the commodification of agriculture and our reliance on feed corn, corn is viewed with a suspicious eye.  As a naïve Midwesterner, I’ve always loved corn.  I like popcorn, corn on the cob, cornnuts, cornbread, corn tortillas, corn salsa, tortilla chips, cornmeal, corn broth, corn chowder, corn stirfry…the list goes on.  The only kind of corn I don’t like is canned creamed corn.

Well, and high fructose corn syrup, which kind of starts out the same way.

I realized after reading Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma, like so many of us did, that corn was a huge part of my diet as an American.  My very first diet seachange was to start cutting out preservatives and “hidden” sources of cheap corn in my food to shift my dollars away from Big Ag.

So I laughed in sympathy when Ayers Creek Farm owner Anthony Boutard began his talk for our Oregon Agriculture panel at the Food Justice Conference last month by shaking ears of corn at the audience, saying how mad he was that Pollan had ruined corn.

In 1922, McCall’s magazine ran an editorial on the introduction of new American fiction that would represent real, not nostalgic or idealized, American life…as American as corn.  I believe (partly as an addled corn addict, partly as a Midwesterner, and partly as a huge fan of Boutard’s corn) that we should rehab the reputation of American corn…as American as fiction.

We grow decent corn here in Oregon, believe it or not, and some of it is actually dried.  Homemade hominy is the perfect opportunity to start corn’s renaissance efforts.  I had the chance to make it last week, thanks to some red and yellow flint corn, already treated with hydrated lime, that Anthony brought down to Eugene for me.  Above, you can see a picture of the results: both my not-quite-successful attempt to remove the pericarp coating the inner kernel and the awesome freezing power of my new chest freezer, which just added a tiny bit of frost atop the corn.

Hominy can be pressure-canned or frozen.  I froze this batch because was a bit nervous about the stubborn clinging of the pericarp (the little nodule on the end is supposed to come off and didn’t, even with fierce rubbing) affecting the penetration of the heat in pressure canning, which sounds silly now that I type it.  Freezing is a lot less hassle.

My favorite use of hominy is what I call fake posole, a soup that isn’t even remotely like posole, save the pork and hominy.  I particularly like the combination of green chiles and pork.  In the soup pictured below, I simmered pork shoulder in a stock pot with onion, garlic, and bay leaf for a few hours, then shredded the meat and added some of my homemade salsa and a couple of cups of roasted chiles (frozen is fine) and the hominy.  The difference in using fresh (or fresh-frozen) hominy is that what’s usually mainly a starchy texture in the can becomes the most delicious, nutty, roasted corn flavor when you make your own.  It greatly enhances everything it touches, and I’ll never touch the canned stuff again.  For example, check out the pure white, washed out kernels in the soup (made with canned hominy), and the brilliant yellow and red stuff above.  The color differences, well, pale in comparison to the taste differences.

To make your own hominy, you’ll need hydrated lime (calcium hydroxide), also known as pickling or slacked/slaked lime (Spanish: cal, if you want to search for it in a Hispanic market), to break down the outer pericarp on the kernels.  I’ve also seen recipes from a very reliable source, the University of Georgia National Center for Home Food Preservation, that use lye (sodium hydroxide) or baking soda (sodium bicarbonate).

Edited to add, 2014:  I wanted to highlight Chef Mark Kosmicki’s method, as described in the comments below: “If you didn’t want to use chemicals, you could do this just fine with wood ash. I’ve done it recently with wonderful results. You just have to soak the corn in water the day before, then boil with a half cup ash per pound of corn, then boil till the skins are loose, an hour or two. Run it under water to clean, which is kind of hard.”
Also, in the intervening years between writing this post and editing it, I should mention that Anthony has published a fantastic book on corn, really a must-have for the locavore gardener/cook.  Expect science and recipes from renowned Portland chefs!

Here are Anthony’s instructions, slightly edited for clarity.  Enjoy!

Hominy

  • In an enamel pot (ed: important, since the lime is caustic and you don’t want it reacting with metal — I used my Le Creuset dutch oven and it cleaned up easily), add two tablespoons of hydrated lime per pound of corn.
  • Add water to cover the kernels by an inch or so.  Heat the pan to a bare simmer, don’t boil, and let cook for 40 minutes to an hour.  The solution will turn a lurid yellow and the fragrance of corn will fill the kitchen.
  • Take the pan off the heat and let the mixture steep overnight at room temperature or on the back stoop.
  • The next day, strain off the lime and liquid into the compost bucket (ed: will add calcium to your compost).  Rinse the kernels vigorously several times until they are clean.  The outer skin of the kernel, the pericarp will wash away (ed: I stress VIGOROUSLY and SEVERAL, but don’t worry if you don’t get it all off, since it’s still tasty.  I let it sit for two days and it was still hard to get the pericarp off).  The result is alkalinized corn, or nixtamal.
  • The nixtamal is cooked very slowly until it is tender, at which point it is called hominy. If you have a slow cooker, you can use it to cook the hominy (ed: highly recommended).  Fill your stockpot or slow cooker pot with the corn and fresh water.  Cover the kernels well, as they will absorb a good deal of water.  Bring to a boil and then simmer until the kernels split open as little flowers.  The hominy is now ready to use in a pozole or soup.