Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Big Life

Please excuse me for a couple of weeks. Something wonderful and huge is happening around here in Thinking-Stomach-Land, and don't you worry, I'll let you know all the details as soon as I can.

In the meantime, I charge you with a task. Here is the context: this summer, I was lucky enough to stumble across COFEA (Co-op and Food Exchange of Altadena), a group of local gardeners who share and exchange their bounty with each other. This group has proven to me the accessibility of localism; one person doesn't have to grow everything! In fact, with some of the struggles I've experienced in my garden, I haven't been able to growly nearly as much as I would have liked. Luckily, basil grows like a weed for me and people seem to want it, and for big bouquets of basil, I've received some wonderful garden produce.

Here is the task: if you're a food-growing gardener, find someone or a group of someones with whom you can tag-team garden. Don't be limited by lack of space. Perhaps you can grow the chilies on a balcony while another person grows the tomatoes and a third grows the cilantro—it will be a salsa party every time you get together. COFEA uses yahoo groups to organize, but there are many different means of doing the same thing. Just find what works for you. I can't wait to hear your ideas, successes, and even the hiccups along the way of making this happen near you.

Part of a spread from a recent COFEA get-together. Everything is from someone's back (or front) yard.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

Pity Me With Recipes

This post is for Patrick, at Bifurcated Carrots.

Cucumbers don't always grow so well in hot climates, at least not cucumbers that fit into our traditional view of cucumbers, the Cucumis sativus view. They tend to get bitter and angry in the dry weather and often give up even trying. Nevertheless, us warm-climate dwellers are lucky, because we have something that matches or maybe even surpasses cucumbers: Armenian cucumbers (aka serpent melon or snake melon and I'm sure many other names). Armenian cucumbers are not cucumbers, although they taste, look, and crunch similarly. Instead, these cukes are melons, Cucumis melo. Eaten at an immature stage (they don't taste good as they ripen, just watery and bland), they're denser and a bit sweeter, and to me, better than a regular cucumber. They're also productive. When I say productive, I mean rabbits on ecstasy productive; they reproduce like fruitflies, like weeds, like bad jokes. Unlike those things, however, I happily embrace the plentitudes of Armenian cucumbers.

Slender and very long, ranging between 10 and 20 inches in my experience, the pale green fruits have beautiful frilly edges that make the sliced fruit look like flowers.

Sometimes the fruits curl into funny shapes as they grow. I've seen Armenian cucumbers raising python heads, hunching like slugs, and curling pig tails.

Despite my gratitude for a plentiful crop, and as much as I love them, I'm running out of inspiration about how to prepare them. I've made the Thai Cucumber Salad that I shared last August several times over, and nearly every day, I've had the simplest, easiest of cucumber salads, slices tossed with onion, white wine vinegar, water, salt, and sugar.

Unfortunately, when I put this salad together on Tuesday for a friend, I added an extra ingredient, the tip of my thumb. (This leads me to an extended side note, please bear with me. I love my little mandoline. It was cheap, it works well, and it is darned sharp. But that is just it, it is darned sharp, sharp enough to take off a sizable chunk of thumb. When my thumb refused to stop bleeding after several hours—remember, hands bleed a lot—I had to visit my doctor so she could cauterize my finger with silver nitrate. Cutting one's thumb hurts like a bitch. Cauterizing one's cut thumb with silver nitrate hurts like a giant bitch with medusa curls and glowing red eyes. It really isn't fun. So, here is the moral of the story. Remember that plastic tool that comes with a mandoline that a cook can use to awkwardly hold whatever it is the cook is slicing? Remember how clumsy it is to use? Get over it. Use it, because if you are anything like me, keeping your fingers is at least a minor priority.)

Having my thumb bandaged up and sensitive to even the most minor bump is quite frustrating, but I think you can help me feel a little better. Take my mind off my throbbing thumb by helping me figure out what to do with my cukes. When it comes to cucumber bounty, what are your favorite solutions? Come on folks, send the inspiration my way.

My thumb thanks you.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Pounded Pig and Tasty Tomatoes

Hope exists! A few tomatoes are coming through, just not the mountains of fruit I expected. However, since my pout-y whining last week, I've been bringing two fruit home a day from the plot, which of course, is better than nothing. And, they're wonderful, home-grown, sweet, complex amazing fruit too, which is better than many things. So, I hereby announce my "end-of-tomato-complaints-for-2008." I have tomatoes, and therefore, I am happy.

We all know there are quite a few ways of eating homegrown tomatoes raw: chopped up in salsa, tossed in a salad with basil and balsamic, sliced with mozzarella and basil for caprese, even eaten over the sink alone because they are just so good. But during the summer, although I can as many tomatoes as I am able to for winter cooking, I rarely cook with the fresh tomatoes I bring in. Because they are so tasty raw, I usually don't mess with them.

This approach, of course, is short-sighted. It defies the central tenant of good cooking: good ingredients make good food. Yesterday, as I was considering what to do with the pork tenderloin paillards I planned to make (after Terry B.'s post about a month ago about paillards, they've been on my mind), I realized that I had to make the dish a celebration of summer tomatoes. I had great tomatoes, which meant I had the making of a great dish. A great dish it turned out to be.

Pork Paillards with Summer Tomato Sauce
The sweetness of summer tomatoes is enriched with vermouth, chili, and thyme in this dish, and given a firm foundation with onions and plenty of garlic. Since it is slightly soupy, ECG and I enjoyed it with smashed baby potatoes that soaked up the tasty sauce. It would also be great with crusty bread, pasta, or polenta. This dish was perfect for two with plenty of leftovers for a lunch.

You will need:
1 medium-sized pork tenderloin
1 small onion, chopped
2 large cloves of garlic, smashed and chopped
1/2 cup dry vermouth
a couple leafy sprigs of thyme
1 dried red chili, wiped clean
2 large tomatoes, coarsely chopped
salt to taste

To make the dish:
Rinse the tenderloin and cut it into 1 1/4" lengths. Cover your cutting board with a piece of parchment paper, place a round of pork flat on the board, cover it with another piece of parchment paper, and, using your favorite blunt instrument, pound away at the meat. Keep hitting it until the pork piece is flattened out evenly and just over a 1/4" thick. Place the pounded piece on a plate set aside from your work area, and continue with the rest of the pork chunks. For me, this is a very fun process and a great way to take out any frustrations I may be experiencing.

In a heavy pan (I used my cast-iron skillet) on medium-high, melt a dollop of butter and swirl it around. Once the butter is hot and sizzly, place three paillards in the pan, sprinkle lightly with salt, and pan-fry until the bottom is browning in raised spots and edges—just a couple of minutes. Flip each paillard over, and repeat the process. Once the paillards are lightly browned all over, place them on a clean plate and set them aside. Cook the rest of the pork pieces the same way, adding little bits of butter if necessary.

After browning the pork and removing it from the pan, add another little chunk of butter and the onions to the pan. Stir them around as they cook, coating them with the butter and bits and pieces of meat-juice stuck in the pan. After they have begun to become translucent and a little brown around the edges, add the chopped garlic. Stir for just a bit, 30 seconds or so, then add the vermouth. Using a spatula, make sure to scrape up the flavorful bits of browned butter and meat that may be stuck to the bottom of the pan. Let the vermouth cook down so much it is syrupy and glaze-like, about a quarter of the volume it had been.

Add the tomatoes, chili, and thyme branches, stirring to mix the ingredients thoroughly. Reduce the heat to medium-low, and let the mixture bubble and cook down. Once the tomatoes have softened and become juicy, stir the ingredients around again and taste. It should not taste at all watery, but instead, intensely tomatoey. If it is still a little too juicy, let it cook a few minutes more. Once you are satisfied with the consistency and flavor of the sauce, slide the pork paillards and the juice that has collected under them on the plate, into the pan. Gently move everything around so that the meat-juice mixes evenly with the tomato sauce and each paillard gets doused with the sauce. You want to meld flavors here, reheating the meat, and even cooking it a little bit in the sauce so that you can make sure it is no longer pink in the middle. It should take just a couple minutes to do this. Finally, taste the sauce for salt and season as necessary.

Serve and enjoy whatever tomato bounty you could get your hands on.