we have a lot to learn bout eating

Sauteed up some sausage and threw in some bitter greens and some salt—ate with bread and butter—wife says, “why don’t we eat like this all the time?”

Good question.

my over-light roasts aren’t, after all

It turns out than when, numerous times over the life of this blog, I have modestly claimed that my cast-iron-in-the-oven green coffee bean roasting technique was inadequate for evenly roasting light roasts, I was wrong.

The characteristics that I used to judge a roast as under-roasted—difficulty in grinding (I use a hand-grinder), over-light body, and a peculiar and (to my stomach) somewhat unpleasant acidity—these characteristics are all alive and well in the coffees (nearly all of the coffees) roasted by a number of über-fashionable San Francisco roasters.

I just don’t like it.

they would [maple] sugar but for so much boiling

“Some time in February, we scaffolded up our fur and skins, and moved about ten miles in search of a [maple] sugar camp or a suitable place to make sugar. . . . We had no large kettles with us this year, and the squaws made the frost, in some measure, supply the place of fire, in making sugar. Their large bark vessels, for holding the stock-water, they made broad and shallow; and as the weather is very cold here, it frequently freezes at night in sugar time; and the ice they break and cast out of the vessels. I asked them if they were not throwing away the sugar? they said no; it was water they were casting away, sugar did not freeze and there was scarcely any in that ice. They said I might try the experiment, and boil some of it, and see what I would get. I never did try it; but I observed that after several times freezing, the water that remained in the vessel, changed its colour and became brown and very sweet.”

–James Smith, in his An Account of the Remarkable Occurrences in the Life and Travels of Col. James Smith, of 1799. I found it in Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking (New York: Scribner, 1984).

McGee goes on to note that “Despite the last sentence, this early version of freeze-drying would not of itself have turned the sap brown and developed the rich flavors we associate with maple syrup; these are the result of browning reactions that require high temperatures. In all likelihood, the nightly frosts were used to reduce the sap to volumes more easily handled in clay pots.”

This isn’t accurate, the bit about caramelization, incidentally, as any neophyte sugarer who has tried to make dark grade B syrup out of Fancy grade sap can tell you—and I can verify, from experience, that indeed freeze-concentrated sap does darken of its own accord. But as he says, freezing will only take sap so far, no matter how cold it is on however many successive sugaring nights, and the effect ultimately of this freeze-drying is only to reduce the volume of liquid that must be boiled to a more manageable level, for cooking in clay pots or indoor kitchens alike, or (as could be much more widely done that it is at present), to reduce fuel consumption for professional operations considerably.

In a primitive fashion this is still done, small producers who still use buckets typically discarding the ice that forms in the top of their buckets every morning, but the technique, I think, will bear refining. I suggest also broad and shallow pans, perhaps sleds, if you have them, and are on the cheap, as I am. I’ve also fantasized about putting such pans in a greenhouse, to freeze at night and evaporate by solar energy by day. Dunno. Might be worth trying, for the types who might try it.

The syrup itself, freeze concentrated and before you boil it, is, besides being quite thin, a little more fresh and tree-ee tasting. I’m sure a market could be developed for it, raw syrup or somesuch. Naturally, I plan to ferment it one of these years.

But the question of volume, how one must boil off forty gallons of sap for one gallon of syrup, and how this can have a way of steaming the wallpaper down in your kitchen if done too quickly, to say nothing of the fuel usage—is a key impediment to the home sugarer. Still, using this method or no, I recommend home sugaring, even if only from one or two trees. A quart of syrup boiled off slowly on the wood stove is free, and will hurt nothing.

Apologies for overlap with the previous post.

maple sugaring in your kitchen

Just a quick post, now that it is sugaring season in West Virginia. I made two gallons last year, mostly from one good tree. In the vein of encouraging posts I sometimes post here, I want to encourage you if you have even one decent sized tree somewhere convenient, to go buy a couple three dollar taps from your hardware store, hitch them up to milk jugs or something, and boil off the sap in your kitchen, or on your wood stove. The main thing to consider is, that in the boiling of sap to get a gallon of syrup, you’ll have to boil off some forty gallons of water. This is the reason that even slightly serious sugarers do it not in their home kitchens. But, with just a couple taps, not so much a problem.

The other question is when to stop boiling, but this isn’t so important. If you over-cook it, it will crystalize, and you’ll need to reheat it and add water. If you under-cook it, it won’t be as thick as it might be, and will go bad faster.

in San Francisco

Accidentally, I’ve wound up in San Francisco for the winter. Olives are dropping from trees on the streets, and I’ve been saving some for bringing home, and growing the pits into houseplants. I’ve read you can expect a crop from an olive tree in a pot, but even so the foliage is beautiful.

Also, the plum trees are in bloom. My grandmother-in-law, for some 45 years a student of Zen, told me the other day that in Japan plum blossoms are a symbol of bravery, on account of that they are the first fruit to bloom in the spring, and thus the most likely to lose its crop to frost. I like that, thinking of them as brave, rather than stupid which is what some farmers I know have called them.

The apples here are boring compared to what I’m used to in the east, but then with demand sucking them up so fast this year, the apples left in the east this time of year, at least in Vermont, are pretty boring too. More disappointing, the citrus available here, that I’ve seen so far, has not knocked my socks off. And I came too late for persimmons. But the new-harvest olive oil is in, and a joy.

Restaurants are pissing me off, as typically too precious or pretentious or expensive, often all three. I am beginning to turn against this new foodism, as readers know. But here it’s as bad as anywhere.

On the other hand, wine and cheese availability, considering only that which I can afford, is stunning, and there are shops that hurt my heart to be in, to be surrounded by such plenty, with the expectation of being able to enjoy some of it. I am currently drinking the best bottle of wine I’ve probably had in six months, a Fronton from Chateau Flotis, the second bottle I’ve bought in the city, and I spent on it $12. Gorgeous.

But I’m missing West Virginia. While I can buy fifteen varieties of mushrooms here quite easily, I’d rather learn to pick them in the woods myself for free. And make cheese, and cure meats, and ferment cider, and everything else I do and want to do, and can do there, without being a rich man. And eat no worse than a rich man. Except, of course, for wine. Achilles heel of us here at the antipasto.