Saturday, December 19, 2009

K-town test kitchen

Wintertime offers the opportunity to catch up on my reading of all things gardening, cooking and homesteading. The Chicago Public Library's online hold system is sending me a steady supply of books from all corners of Chicago to my local storefront branch on North Avenue. Since I have no weeding or harvesting, I also have more time to experiment with ideas from these books. For example, several have featured recipes for homemade marshmallows. Whenever I read accounts of homemade marshmallows, writers invoke the foodie-est of all labels: "a revelation". "Revelatory" is a related descriptor, oft employed in a similar manner, as in "the taste of the house-cured bacon was revelatory". I picture a cadre of critics and foodies marching around the city experiencing revelations like a band of modern-day mystics. Anyway, I figured marshmallows would be a fun Christmas activity. Christmas is the time for miracles and revelations, so why not? Also, homemade marshmallow shapes would look awesome in my Christmas cocoa.

The basic idea is to soften some gelatin in water, boil some sugar syrup, dump it in to the gelatin and beat it into a cloudy mass. This sugary air-whipped mass is then pressed into a pan. Once it cools, it can be cut into shapes and rolled in confectioners sugar. Simple enough, right? As soon as the boiling hot sugar syrup hit the gelatin, and billows of hoof-smelling vapor wafted skyward, I began to wonder if this was a good idea. The whipped product was extraordinarily sticky, rivaling only bubble gum in the way it clumps in toddler hair and clothing. But I wrangled it into the pan. Now, I distinctly remember a Martha Stewart Living Christmas cover from a few years back that featured marshmallows cut into gorgeously intricate snowflakes. Reader, be warned. I could barely cut these into squares, despite all manner of hot water and "nonstick" spray. In the end, I had a pile of white misshapen squares. Okay, they weren't to magazine standards, but the taste could still be "revelatory".

I sunk my teeth in. And that's when I remembered I don't eat marshmallows plain, since I don't really like super-sugary things. It tasted like a marshmallow, a little wetter than jet-puffed. But a plain, sugary marshmallow none the less. My son and husband --who both have a serious sweet tooth-- dutifully tried one each, then walked away. I took them to work and my colleagues gathered around. Much to my delight, they hopefully asked if it was more homemade cheese. Everyone took a sample anyway and a collective "meh" rose from the group. Fortunately, at my office, anything skirting close to edibility will disappear within an hour of placement on the conference room table. The marshmallows were finished quickly, but not with the chorus of approval that met my feta cheese and rosemary crackers.

The book that is occupying a lot of my attention right now is Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning by the Centre Terre Vivante. This French research and education center is an authority on four-season and organic gardening. I first discovered them through the writing of Eliot Coleman. The book is a collection of folkways and recipes from European kitchen gardeners. It is both an anthropological archive and a forward-looking tract on low-energy preservation techniques. The recipes use alcohol, oil, dehydration, salt, sugar and lacto-fermentation to preserve garden bounty. Lacto-fermentation has the ring of molecular biology to it, but if you've made sauerkraut (usually the gateway lacto-fermentation experiment for most cooks) then you know what it is. The book has some inspiring recipes (oil-preserved spheres of sun-dried tomato paste) and some that make me a bit queasy (lacto-fermented Swiss chard ribs, anyone?).

There is a shocking lack of food-safety advice in the book, and what there is mostly echoes the pioneer wisdom to "scrape the mold off and if it is slimy or smells bad, don't eat it" . I can't decide if I find this refreshing or disturbing. It also has me hesitating on whether to try the recipes. As an American reader, I am conditioned to reading preservation books that adopt an authoritatively "scientific" voice, berate me with bold-fonted medical warnings, and drown me in pages of government standards. Eugenia Bone's preservation book had clearly been retroactively edited to cut back on some of the recommended "use within" time frames, and I was surprised she was even allowed to admit on those pages that she has occasionally eaten things preserved more than a few years back. Is there merit to all this food-safety hand-wringing , or is this just a manifestation of our anxiety over the wisdom of folkways? How much of those safety disclaimers are just publishers' fears of legal liability? I am willing to eat moldy cheese, and I am an avid maker of homemade alcohol products. But I'm not sure about keeping jars of unsealed vegetables in my cellar. I might be able to stomach it, but I have this horrifying mother-vision of my kid flopping over with an attack of botulism. Are lacto-fermented Swiss chard ribs really worth the gamble?

So, here I sit, reading the recipes over and over again, and deciding whether to have a date with potential danger. In the end, the experimental cook in me will be unable resist the siren call of these heirloom recipes. But I don't think they'll be going into my cellar, unheated or no. I will simply have to cede more fridge space, already limited thanks to the kimchi. This, of course, goes against the whole idea of low-energy preservation. Perhaps when I get a bit older, I'll be less of a nervous-Nelly about all of this. After all, could there be a better exit for a cook and gardener than dying at the hands of your own green beans?


  1. What a fun post! I am reminded of a quote from Dr. Peng, dermatologist:
    "Old fashioned Way the Best."

  2. I have the same book and the same feelings. My favorite preservation book is Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz (there's a jailhouse wine recipe using pre-packaged ketchup.) Regardless, I've made a variety of fermented foods and chickened out on some, sending them to the compost, and ate others. I'm still experimenting, as sometimes when I eat them the trouble isn't that I get sick, it's that I'm lying if I say I like them! Great post...