Sunday, December 26, 2010

Simple Pleasures: Peasant Food

Text: Trina
Photos: Trina and Greg

Up until I was four or five years old, my parents were living the simple, humble hippie life in Northern California, one highlight of which was tromping in creeks to get to the wild blackberry stashes, filling buckets with fresh picked, vine ripe berries, and hauling them home where my mom would make blackberry cobbler and jar upon jar of homemade blackberry jam. Then when I was six, they started their own business and work became life; life became work. There was no more homemade jam, no more canning, not much time for creek tromping.

I suppose that change must have imprinted on me as a lesson in quality of life – what you give up to be what society considers "successful," what you gain by choosing a simpler, humbler lifestyle -- because now (actually, about five years ago) as an adult, I made the decision to greatly simplify my life by stepping off the professional career treadmill and taking a simple, brainless, blue collar, punch-in-punch-out job in order to get my life back. It worked. I am no longer completely consumed by my job and defined by my title, and most importantly, I now have the time and energy to do more – many more – of the things that add joy and meaning to my life.

Greg was way ahead of me, having opted out of his "real" job years before, and doing seasonal work that allowed him to have winters off so he could spend them doing his favorite thing: riding his bike... all over the world. On a very low budget, and from an extremely humble home base, he has enjoyed amazing bike-touring and bikepacking adventures in Borneo, New Zealand, Chile, Hawaii, British Columbia, and England.

One of the greatest joys in this simpler life we now enjoy together is having the time to tend a vegetable garden and mini orchard, and to devote a lot of time to making wholesome, delicious food from that garden. We’re not yet able to grow enough food in our own garden to feed ourselves from it all winter long, and I don’t know that we’ll ever get there, but it sure is fun trying! Learning how to can food and finding good canning recipes has been a big part of the equation. In the process, we’ve been pleasantly reminded of the old practice of using every part of something, be it vegetable or animal. Fitting nicely with our romantic vision of a simpler, pioneer-esque lifestyle, this philosophy is referred to in one of my canning books as “The Department of Not Wasting Anything.”

This philosophy is what led to back-in-the-day foods like pickled watermelon rind; green tomato relish; ricotta cheese, which is made from the whey that is leftover from making some other kind of cheese; and new-to-me membrillo, which sounds very exotic -- in Spain and Portugal it is typically eaten with the contrasting dry, salty manchego cheese -- but is nothing more than a paste made from the pulp that is leftover from making quince jelly.

Chefs who use quince invariably say things like, “It is a truly unique fruit; there is no substitute for it; it has a flavor unlike any other fruit,” and they mean that in a good way. Quince is an uncommon, ancient, ugly fruit related to the pear and apple, looking kind of like a lumpy, knobby, furry cross between said pear and apple. So far we’ve only had opportunity to enjoy its aroma which is nothing short of otherworldly. I challenge you to sniff one and keep your eyes from rolling back in their sockets. If scent is any indication of flavor, and I'm pretty sure it is, it does indeed hint at something indescribable and perfumey that we hope to enjoy soon with the springtime addition of an Aromatnaya Quince tree to the orchard-ita.

I did glean 6 or 7 quince from a neighborhood bush last week, and peeled and cooked them only to subsequently learn that there are varieties of quince trees chosen for their flowers and others selected for their fruit. I had harvested from a flowering quince which I'm sure makes beautiful blossoms, but its cooked fruit certainly did not live up to the succulence promised in the many descriptions and recipes I've been reading. I hope dogs like quince.

The Department of Not Wasting Anything approach has also led us to start making bone broth instead of throwing away bones and scraps from the meat we eat, and using that bone broth as the base for simple, earthy, hearty stews and soups like this,

which is nothing more than some beans, onion, garlic, thyme and a couple of handfuls of our dried wild boletes, enriched by the little bits of meat scraps that fell off the bones during cooking. So simple, so healthy, and so delicious in a simple, earthy way.

A related change has been the move to buying free-range, local, non-factory-farmed, humanely treated and humanely slaughtered beef, lamb, goat and pork. When you buy meat this way, you get almost all of the animal, with the bones cut up for the dogs, and the organs for….? In the spirit of not wasting anything, I’ve tried my hand at making paté from goat liver, which proved adequately decadent, and will soon be embarking on beef tongue with horseradish-mustard sauce. Yikes! If we never post again, you know why.

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