Thursday, September 29, 2011

A god by any other name

India reminds you that there are gods other than money.  You hardly even need to go there to understand this on a literal level: between Zoroastrianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism, and others--and the polytheism many of these share--India seems to cultivate religions the way Switzerland cultivates banks, or France cheese.  And of course the notion that there is more to life than dollars and cents hardly bears repeating here.  Nor is India by any means innocent of capitalism: from the most humble bootblack to the most illustrious IT king, it is very much a commercial center.  What I mean is that India immerses you into the full spectrum of human life, thereby casting the old Biblical and philosophical saws ("Whosoever does this unto the least of these my brethren does it to me," "It's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven," "The essential is invisible to the eyes," "All men are created equal"...) into vibrant relief.

This suddenly became clear to me on my last day, in Delhi, when I returned to Chandni Chowk alone (having previously gone with a guide).  In the heart of Old Delhi, Chandni Chowk is the throbbing hub of commerce whose snaking alleys and choking boulevard have been teeming with business since the Mughals.  It is pretty close to what many foreigners probably imagine India to be--crowded, dirty, frenetic--only more so.  No doubt there are areas of Calcutta and Bombay that are far more intense, but for the sheer crush of humanity, it dwarfs Beijing, Mexico City, Dakar, anywhere I've been.  I'm not sure if I'd become innoculated to the sensory overload after a month in the subcontinent, or wandering alone was paradoxically easier than following a guide, but I suddenly found it fun, exhilarating, beautiful.

On the way back to the metro, I wandered down a relatively quiet, spacious, shady side street where brahmin bulls grazed on trash and a gaggle of rickshaws were parked, their drivers sacked out across the front and rear seats, looking more like kindergartners at nap time than grown men resting from backbreaking labor.  And suddenly it dawned on me that in India there's no such thing as a "bum."  You see all kinds of people who in the USA would be swept aside into jails and asylums, or "reformed" into burger-flippers and register-punchers and line-followers, walking around, crouching on sidewalks, sleeping on train platforms, loitering in mosques and temples.  To an untrained eye, there's no telling who's a pilgrim, or an itinerant salesman, or a beggar, or a traveller, or a pauper.  They blend in with each other and with the "normal" people wearing Western clothes and manifesting wealth.

We're so proud in the USA of being "democratic," but we're acutely uncomfortable with anyone who doesn't fit a fairly narrow mold of dress, cleanliness, regular work, mannerisms, and cultural orthodoxy.  A city not far from me recently gained national attention for outlawing panhandling.  In their defense against the ACLU and others, the mayor and his minions said that the law has been on the books since the Great Depression, it just wasn't much enforced until now.  Maybe I've spent too much time abroad, but I just don't get it.  Why are we so afraid of anyone in need, or even the possibility of swindling or shiftlessness?

Indians are beautiful people: well-built and fine-featured, with bright eyes like exclamation points against rich brown skin, they become even more striking with colorful dress.  Whereas in most countries I try desperately to get people out of many pictures, in India I often waited for a group of women to walk into the frame, their colorful saris providing an exquisite contrast to the red sandstone or white marble of the Taj Mahal and other monuments.  Most beautiful of all, in many cases, are the "fringe" people: the man with a Biblical beard and incongruously lithe body garbed in what seems like an adult's version of swaddling clothes; the Sikh warrior with his saffron turban and gilded saber; the cleaning-woman with henna-ed hands and a riot of costume jewelry; the half-naked boy with eyes like pie-plates and a jaw that seems to have lost its hinge.    

Friday, August 19, 2011

Immortality on the vine

In James Hilton’s The Lost Horizon, a motley crew gets stranded high in the mountains of central Asia when their small plane crashes. Slowly they learn the secret of the strange, isolated society they stumble on: its residents live forever. I’d always assumed the story to be based on Tibet, but apparently it was actually modeled on Hunza, a series of idyllic villages high up in the Karakorum Mountains of northern Pakistan. Traditionally, it was common for people here to live to well over 100 with minimal signs of aging, strolling up and down the mountainsides with baskets of hay on their backs as spry as antelope well past the age when most “modern” people have become semi-immobile or succumbed to cancer or some other affliction. Many scientists have led investigations into the secret of Hunza longevity; no specific answers have been found, because the formula is impossibly simple: clean air, lots of exercise, a simple lifestyle, and a very pure diet.

If nothing else, Hunza validates the idea of eating local: there’s little distinction between yard, pasture, and crop land—apricot and walnut trees drop fruit almost straight into kitchens, goats roam like pet dogs, and pumpkins hang over stone walls like lost balloons. Chemists tend to scoff at “terroir,” the notion that wine, or anything edible, could taste different depending on where it’s grown; that the flavor of a fruit could specifically reflect the flavor of a place. But Hunza seems to put the lie to the skeptics. Hunza apricots may

not convey immortality, but they do taste different from any other apricots I’ve ever had. And drying them in baskets on the roof under the high-altitude sun definitely makes them distinct from the sulfur- and heat-lamp-processed ones available elsewhere. I adore apricots, so I’ve been looking forward to Hunza the whole trip; if all you need to do to live forever is eat apricots, I figured, I’m ready. Trouble is, according to Hinton’s story, the price of eternal life is remaining in the lost world. Since we only had two days in Hunza, I probably didn’t manage immortality, even though I devoured every apricot I could find.
Hunza is world-famous for its apricots, but it didn’t become that way because they offer some magic flavor or health kick. They’re common in Hunza because that’s what grows best. Hunza is all about balance: water-channels are carved exactly where they’re needed; fields are contoured perfectly into the hillsides; paths are steep but made manageable with carefully placed stone steps.
The people are balanced too. Men and women dress and act as equals: some women wear head-scarves and some don’t; either way, they’re out and about, working alongside the men, rather than hiding in the house. (You rarely so much as see a woman on the street in much of rural Pakistan.) Some men wear the traditional salwar kameez and some wear Western clothes. Ramadan is honored as much in the breach as in the observance, and beer is readily available; many still make their own wine and brandy. As Ismaili people who look to the Aga Khan for spiritual leadership, they value health care and education, viewing the hajj as a luxury, not a mandate.

If eternal life ever did exist in Hunza, it’s probably gone now. Locals grumble that the old lifestyle has been ruined as people today drive up and down the hills from home to field rather than walking, and the influx of Chinese imports has ruined both the diet and the lifestyle, while tractors and minibuses have fouled the once-pure air. Nonetheless, an outsider could be forgiven for assuming it’s Shangri-la. The surrounding mountains are breathtakingly scenic, but even more arresting is the ineffable sense of peace in the villages. So many human settlements feel like intrusions on the landscape, but in Hunza it really seems as if this valley was made for just this combination of fruit trees, stone walls, shaggy pastures, and modest houses tucked in as neatly and lovingly as babes in a crib.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

News from the undisclosed location

Despite recent news to the contrary, Pakistan is not fatal to tourists--though my eight group-mates and I just about have the country to ourselves. We've been the only guests at nearly every hotel, and most locals have obviously not seen a foreigner in a long time, if ever. The plus-side to all the fear-mongering is that Pakistanis are without a doubt the friendliest, most innocently curious people I've ever encountered. Almost everyone is thrilled to have his picture taken; some even ask. Many want to take pictures of me--or, better yet, one of the women in the group. They smile and exercise their English as we drive or walk by, and many want to shake hands (in that especially warm, double-handed way common in the Muslim world) and extend a personal welcome.

When I was asked back home why I wanted to come to Pakistan, I struggled to come up with a better answer than, "It's not as hot as India." Now that I'm here, two obvious reasons have coalesced: mountains and people. Though our guide scoffs that anything less than 6000 meters is just a "hill," and we haven't gotten very close to the named 8000-meter monsters, or anything snow-capped, we've been surrounded by monolith after monolith, cut through by raging rivers and draped in a luxuriant quilt of fruit trees, evergreens, and terraced crops--more than enough to melt the heart of a Michigan boy starved for contours. When I was told in Lahore that Pakistan's major source of energy is hydroelectric projects, it rang funny, because this was the same fertile flatland of India. But as we climbed north on the most rugged roads I've ever seen, it became evident that Pakistan is as much a country of water as rock. Much of the Himalayan glacier base drains here, one way or another; the crush of snow melt is so strong in places that the rivers run grey with all the granite they've exfoliated from the mountainsides. And in those few places where no natural river runs, an irrigation canal has been cut, so that walking along the rural hills is like strolling through the Alhambra: everywhere the intoxicating gurgle of water, and its fresh cool smell.
In this picture the local people portage across a stream that had temporarily swollen with rain and washed out the road. In surprisingly short order, they re-positioned enough rocks by hand to resume minibus, truck, and car traffic. Even our Jeeps were temporarily halted by this avalanche, and we too had to clamber across on foot, but the drivers took care of our luggage, and none of us had a baby to carry, as does one man here.

“Do you notice any difference in Pakistan?” the guide asked. Crossing from India to Pakistan is not as dramatic as going from Texas to Mexico, but it’s close. There’s much more space, and less filth, but it also seems noticeably poorer, more controlled. Pakistan is India with the lid on. The dazzling diversity of people is all but gone, despite the guide's claims to the contrary. Suddenly all the men wear shalwar kameez and fez, nearly all have beards, and the women still wear bright colors, but gone are the makeup, bindi, hair plait, and bangles, and the dresses are much more closely cut, not the flowing, extravagant saris of India. Even the machinery is more uniform: though the trucks are spectacularly decorated beyond anything in India, and there are tuk-tuks and cars, the whole world seems to be riding the same small motorcycle—I took a picture of a rank of at least a hundred in one small street.

People are if anything more friendly, certainly more curious, to look at and greet me, though there’s a certain meekness I didn’t feel in India. Many people seem to be waiting for me to make the first move—a smile, a nod, a tip of the hat—at which point they smile back and sometimes shake my hand enthusiastically. These friendly young fellows were the first of many to ask me to take their picture.

But in other ways Pakistan very much has the lid off. The natural beauty is astounding, and the people are boundless in their enthusiasm. While India undergoes visible growing pains of socioeconomics and technology, Pakistan keeps on keeping on with its simple, traditional life. The roads are far better, everything is vastly cleaner, and space is no longer at any kind of premium. In fact the two countries are so different as to render any comparison silly, yet they insist on considering each other rivals, and forcing the question; a young guy in Lahore asked me what I thought of India vs. Pakistan. You might as well ask how a watermelon measures up to a pumpkin.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

It's all golden

Tonight I visited Sikhism's holiest site, the Golden Temple at Amritsar. This is the place made famous recently for all the wrong reasons when the Obamas came to town and the presidential handlers gnashed their teeth over how he could fulfill the covered-head requirement without looking like a "Muslim." Oh for goodness' sake, people, grow up! The Sikhs themselves, we should be embarrassed to learn, are far more open-minded: people of all faiths (or none) are welcome, and pilgrims and families alike greeted me with warmth and tolerance even when I stuck my camera in their faces and inner shrines. Enormously gallant guards in indigo tunics, flowing beards, saffron sashes, and gilded spears made clear the level of devotion that's possible, yet my tying my dirty bandanna over my head was not considered impious.

The "golden" part of the temple is an artificial peninsula in the middle of a vast pool inside a white outer square. It glitters aplenty, and impressive numbers abound re the weight of actual gold used in its construction. But the real magic of the shrine is on the outer edges of the pool, where visitors of every stripe mingle and meditate. Whether it's the humility engendered by covered heads, or the sense of equality stoked by bare feet, or the tranquility of the calm waters and sparkling clean temple, the place is ineffably calm, peaceful, invigorating. Most holy sites I've visited convey at least some element of hostility: Thou Shalt Be Impressed, Peon! The Golden Temple, somehow, at least at night, is much more welcoming.

The neighborhood around the temple is frenzied even by Indian standards. It's a bit of a shock to exit the shrine, where tranquility has washed over you, and return to the world of noisy commerce and grimy traffic. And you wonder how it is that a country of such chaos and filth can engender such variety and intensity of faith, groom such otherworldly shrines. And then you realize that you've answered your own question: in a world of crowds and dirt and sweat, a glimpse of all that's pure and protected is just what's needed.

If this were an American site, the pool would be chlorinated until it smelled like overdone laundry. Instead it's left alive; there must be some expression in Sikhism along the lines of "Suffer the little fishes to come unto me..."

Monday, August 1, 2011

Details, details

India is democracy at its best and worst. You assume you love your fellow man until you’re pressed in among the throngs in the heat and stench. Actually, the smell hasn’t been bad at all, nor really has the heat, though it’s so muggy my camera fogs up every time I step out of an air-conditioned car or building.
The whole country, it seems, is one giant gringo trap. On the streets of Old Delhi, every footfall must be carefully placed to avoid some foul spill, missing piece of sidewalk, fellow human’s foot, or collapsed body. Yet it’s so crowded that at times there’s little more than one foot’s width of ground to step on.

New Delhi seems to give the lie to all the stereotypes of India: leafy boulevards wind around in a semblance of order and quiet, traffic and crowds are under control, buildings are well-spaced and in decent shape. Then you get to Old Delhi, and it’s as chaotic and intense as anything imaginable. New York, Hong Kong, the Moscow subway have nothing on the sheer crush of human life that crowds Chandni Chowk and the other narrow old streets.

The Taj Mahal is where rolls of film and memory cards go to die. Many have called it the most beautiful building in the world; I won’t argue. The poet Tagore likened it to “a teardrop on the face of eternity.” If anything made of stone can justify such flowery prose, the Taj can: it’s one of those rare places that exceeds all the hype. I didn’t really see the supposed luminosity of white marble, but there are so many other little details to revel in, it hardly matters. From the tiniest filigreed flower in bas-relief to the massive meringue kiss of the central dome, it massages the eye on every level. Yet for me one of the greatest satisfactions was tactile: in order to reduce abrasion, you must wear crepe shoe-covers in the central mausoleum—or you can go barefoot. There’s a special magic to feeling an architectural gem as well as seeing it. Marble is a delightful surface to walk on, but every other time I’ve had the pleasure it’s been cold; thanks to the sweltering Indian summer, it’s almost the exact temperature of human skin, so that walking on it becomes an intimate affair.

The vast majority of visitors to the Taj are now Indians; as recently as ten years ago, they were nearly all foreigners. This bears witness to the burgeoning Indian middle class, which was on almost vulgar display at the restaurant where I supped, a sleek, starkly lit place serving classic Indian cuisine in a kind of nouveau chic style. Though it billed itself as a “family restaurant,” it swelled with immaculate young couples not yet fully comfortable spending money freely but trying ever so hard to appear so as they ordered mojitos and bloody Marys. I had to settle for a gin and 7-Up because they were too cool to stock tonic water. The food, like everything I’ve had in India so far, was excellent: spicy Peshawar lamb, steamed rice with every grain perfectly separate, and a lush vegetable raitha swirled with cumin and other spices. Those inclined to think “decadent yogurt” is an oxymoron need to visit India.

The tour company has booked me into some uncharacteristically swank lodgings. The first night I was upgraded to a “club” room, one of the nicest habitations I’ve ever slept in. Even the complimentary white chocolate was delectable; the fruit was more ornamental than edible, but a fine ornament it was. Of course you get what you pay for, but a certain attention to detail transcends money. The woman sweeping the floor at the roadside restaurant where I lunched today, in her fuchsia sari with matching lipstick and hair-plait, looked more put-together than an American teenager on prom night. Every plate of food, meanwhile, is as much a painting as a meal.

It’s obvious why Indians have become customer service reps to the world. The eagerness of hotel staff, tour guides, and drivers to ensure that every aspect of my trip be satisfactory could almost be called “aggressive” if it weren’t so graceful. Little formalities like clasping one’s hands together as if in prayer with every greeting transform mundane interactions into almost spiritual encounters.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Ice cream from another world

I had to take a friend to the airport today; this, plus the heat, made the perfect excuse to stop in "Little Beirut," aka Dearborn, to visit Shatila Bakery ( In addition to every permutation of baklava-like baked treats imaginable, as well as a wide array of French-style pastries, they make ice cream. Those who dismiss the Midwest as "whitebread" would do well to make a sojourn to li'l old Dearborn, where there are more Lebanese and Chaldean people than anywhere else outside the Middle East. They'd hear a lot of Arabic, and see a lot of women wearing hijab, but they'd also see a lot of olive-skinned people who look and act surprisingly "normal." If they're really lucky, they'll see Rima Fakih, who just returned to town after her yearlong reign as Miss USA.

It's not hard to find ice cream, of course; around here you can hardly avoid the little shacks that open around Mother's Day and close by Halloween, evidently trying to capitalize on their short season by providing quantity over quality, churning out one texture-less, artificially flavored glob of softserve after another. People who ought to know claim that some of these places are really special, but all I've found is 87 "flavors" of goo on a cone.
Shatila reminds me that there are basically two schools of ice cream ("hard" ice cream, I mean; let us never speak of softserve again): simple but intense vs. complicated but bland. Haagen-Dazs and Breyers epitomize the former, while Ben&Jerry's and Coldstone represent the latter. You can no doubt guess which side I (and Shatila) are on. Maybe people get taken in by the more-chunks-is-better school because they've forgotten what a wide range of simple flavors is possible, and how delectable each can be when done right. Shatila makes flavors that are too "exotic" for mainstream American creameries, but they make them really well. (The Chinatown Ice Cream Factory in New York, by contrast, makes many of the same tropical flavors, but you almost have to look at the labels to discern which you're eating.) Shatila sells their ice cream by the scoop or quart; the latter come in lively colored cartons, and most flavors are artificially colored, but you can easily close your eyes and know what you're eating.

The intense green of their pistachio is slightly off-putting, but the flavor makes a mockery of nearly every other iteration I've ever tried. By the quart it costs a dollar more than their other flavors, presumably because they pack in so many pistachios. Apricot almost pales in comparison, but it's so gratifying for such a flavor to be available at all, I'm not inclined to be super-critical. I think I remember being disappointed by mango (which also mysteriously costs extra) and pleasantly surprised by cantaloupe on a previous visit. Today for the first time I tried kashta (rosewater). Not being a fan of Turkish delight, I was prepared for disgust, but to the contrary, it was enchanting. I also tasted kashta with pistachio (a single flavor), which came pretty darn close to frozen nirvana.

It makes sense for a desert people to excel at ice cream, I suppose, and I appreciate the little Lebanese touches at Shatila, like free, self-serve cups of water, beautiful bathrooms, and sparkling cleanliness all befitting Islam, and an arid geography. Yet the world over, ice cream is much more common in cold climates. Americans are so awash in it as to become jaded, I think. I don't care how many crazy little bits and pieces Ben&Jerry's crams into theirs, or
how much garbage Coldstone offers to blend into theirs, the best ice cream I've ever had, bar none, was plain vanilla, served out of a hand-pumped churn cooled by a block of ice in a cart on the street in Kashgar, China. The exquisite caramel sauce proffered in glass bottles was almost a distraction. Unlike nearly all commercial ice cream, this tasted like an actual dairy product. And unlike even more commercial products, it melted naturally. Thus it refreshed the original meaning of the term: "iced cream" (as opposed to "sweet frozen paste that happens to involve dairy products").

Yesterday, while most people were poring over fireworks, I was agonizing over the ice cream aisle for a respectable vanilla to go with the local strawberries and blueberries I'd bought for a "flag" dessert. Breyers was always my standby, but a few years ago they started putting tara gum in. This may be technically "all-natural," but it ruins the texture. My grandma was really onto something when she used to wait for her ice cream to melt almost into soup: in the shadowlands between solid and liquid lies the hidden magic of ice cream. Guernsey, a local dairy, sells ice cream in old-fashioned rectangular cartons, but they corrupt it with one or more gums as well as the ubiquitous polysorbate 80. Ben&Jerry's is gum-free but too cool to make vanilla. Haagen-Dazs is, as far as I know, the only major producer left to make ice cream with the same ingredients you'd use at home--but their vanilla was absent from the shelves. I ended up with some fancy-pants gelato, because it was on fire sale, but it too contained gum--and turned out to be pretty anemic in flavor. (Full disclosure: Shatila ice cream also contains gum and preservatives.)

Ice cream is yet another victim of the conglomeration of food production. I'm thrilled to have Shatila in my neighborhood, but even it is pushing the "artisanal" label. Where do you even buy guar gum, let alone polysorbate 80? It's too bad, because making ice cream yourself is a pain, and requires special machinery. But you really can taste the labor: the stuff we used to crank by hand when I was a kid, layering in crushed ice and rock salt to make a mess of the kitchen, tasted different from what I've made recently in a Cuisinart. And this in turn tasted different from anything pre-packaged. Maybe ice cream should be a little harder to acquire, so we have at least an inkling of the wonder that must have greeted Marco Polo when he returned from China with his tantalizing tale of cream, kissed with sugar, served so cold it was almost solid.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Sunshine strawberries

California agribusiness has somehow convinced most people that "strawberries" are something available year-round, in big, almost un-bruisable, non-perishable form. But for a few weeks in June, all over the rest of the country, farmers' markets bloom with the smaller, more delicate, vastly more flavorful version of the over-fertilized monsters. Of all fruits, the strawberry is perhaps the most delicate: almost heady with flavor when fresh, it defies nearly all attempts at preservation: in the freezer it turns to mush; processed into syrup it becomes cloying; made into jam it goes from pink to ruddy and flowery to cooked-tasting. Apricots, at the other extreme, often get much better with cooking, or drying, but strawberries always seem to degrade.

When I first moved to Michigan, I happened upon a jar of strawberry preserves in Kroger that were like no other commercial jam: "a limited edition made via a special process scientifically proven to preserve strawberries at their peak of freshness...," they recalled the homemade jam I'd once had at a friend's farm in Oklahoma: bright pink and bursting with fresh flavor. Why can't they make all strawberry preserves like this, I wondered?

Last year I tried making my own strawberry preserves in what seemed the most unintrusive possible way: mix the berries with sugar, add lemon juice, and cook with pectin just long enough to set. The result was better than standard commercial jam, but still a far cry from the special Kroger stuff, or the homemade kind. There must be a way to avoid cooking the berries, I thought, to preserve that fresh-off-the-vine flavor. And there must be a way to thicken the juice without either prolonged cooking or commercial pectin, which turns out to be mostly dextrose and other dubious ingredients.

The Joy of Cooking offered an irresistibly titled recipe for "Sunshine Strawberries," in which the berries, mixed with sugar, are allowed to "cook" in the sun rather than on the stove. Forgetting certain complexities, like the need for not just a few hours, but two or three days, of sun, I set out to follow the recipe. I washed and hulled three quarts of strawberries. I'd bought a whole flat, but after three quarts my fingers were stained and sore, my sink a mess of stems and bad spots. I quartered or halved the berries, depending on size, and mixed them with three cups of sugar (a bit much, perhaps, but sugar is a preservative as well as flavor-enhancer), and let the mixture stand overnight, in sealed tupperware in the fridge. Naturally, it rained the next day, so I let the berries stand an extra 24 hours. The next morning, after boiling the mixture gently for ten minutes to ensure sterilization for the eventual canning process, I spread them out in a glass pie plate and two Corningware casseroles, covering the latter with their own lids and the former with the glass lid from a 16-qt. stockpot. I placed the trio on a bench in the sunniest spot of my backyard garden and waited.

It was a cloudy day, so I wasn't too surprised to find the berries little changed by evening, except for having attracted several small battalions of winged ants. Fortunately, the marauders had only managed to climb into the edges of the berry mixture, becoming paralyzed as soon as they hit the syrup. I fished them out with a teaspoon and stashed the berries in the fridge overnight.

The next morning I covered each container with cheesecloth, omitted the glass covers, and set them out again. By evening the berries had darkened and thickened somewhat, and once again attracted about a dozen ants. I removed the pests, refrigerated the berries, and hoped for sun once again.

On the third morning I "mummified" each container as best I could by wrapping it up completely in cheesecloth, put the glass covers back on, propped each container up on a baking rack or wok stand, lay aluminum foil below the lot (to maximize sun absorption, since the weather had been unseasonably cool and cloudy),
and hoped for the best. The trick with coverage, I'd discovered, is that you can't seal the containers completely with glass or the like, because moisture needs to escape. On the other hand, even the smallest opening seems to be sufficient for ants. By evening on this day noticeable thickening had finally occurred. The mixture in the pie plate, in particular, resembled proper jam. But the other two mixtures were pretty runny, and I figured that if I'd come this far, I might as well push the process for one more day.

The fourth day brought the kind of weather I'd been hoping for: high close to 80 and not a cloud to be seen. I got the berries out by 7 am, even before the sun reached them, and left them there until after 7 pm. (On previous days I'd often missed several hours due to a late start or threat of rain.) By evening the berries had really changed: they didn't quite "wrinkle," or gel when mixed with water, but they did coat the spoon, and had lost a great deal of liquid. I'm not sure strawberries have enough pectin truly to gel, no matter how long they stand in the sun, or even boil on the stove.

The proof of any preserves, of course, is in the eating. These tasted great before canning, and I got 4 nice half-pint jars filled with them and sealed. But to me the magic of canning is having the taste of summer in winter, so I don't plan to open these for many months yet. Check back in December or so to find out whether it was worth all the bother. In the meanwhile, enjoy the many delights possible only with fresh strawberries, like the classic, simple, all-too-often bastardized shortcake.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Eternal beef

The South Africans have done for dried meat what the French have done for cheese. I scoffed when I read that biltong goes well with wine, but that's just how good it is. In some cases, it even improves the wine. This makes sense when you consider that dried meat was integral to the nation's history, at least for Europeans. South Africa is often described as the most beautiful landscape on the planet, in large part because of its stark contrasts. The Dutch emigres had to cross hundreds of miles of barren scrub to reach the fertile vineyards and lush beaches of today. Wild animals abounded, but vegetation was scarce. Killing big game like an eland was a blessing and curse in the days before refrigeration. But the ferocious sun could be turned to advantage in curing meat. With a little salt, spice, and care, the resulting cuts could be even more delectable than the fresh carcass--much as ham can be tastier than pork.

South Africans bristle at any comparison between biltong and beef jerky, yet the distinction can be pretty fuzzy. Here's what I can glean:
  1. biltong is always cut with the grain; jerky is usually cut against the grain
  2. biltong is usually cured in big pieces, even a whole cut (rump steak, e.g.) at once; jerky is usually cured in thin slices
  3. biltong is cured slowly, at only a little more than room temperature; jerky can be cured at much higher temps.
  4. biltong is dried in the open air; jerky may be smoked
  5. biltong is always marinated, typically with cider vinegar; jerky may or may not be marinated
  6. biltong may be spiced with almost anything so long as coriander seed is involved; jerky rarely if ever includes coriander seed
  7. biltong must be cured raw; jerky may be pre-cooked (to kill germs)
Every spring I go on a camping trip during which students bemoan the dearth of sweets and other "civilized" food even as they consume more sugar--M&Ms, flavored oatmeal, Jolly Ranchers, Tang, hot cocoa--than I do at home. Other leaders bring vast stores of power bars. None of these snacks ever satisfied me. Beef jerky, even in its commercial, chemical-laced form, was a revelation: here at last was something to nibble on that gave me sustained energy and replenished the salt I was sweating off. When someone gave me a taste of homemade jerky a couple years later, I vowed to make my own for the next trip. It wasn't just satisfying, it was delicious.

My jerky has evolved considerably since that first attempt. Every year it gets a little better, even if I still haven't matched the chili sticks of a particular butchery in a dusty little town in Namibia. Good homemade jerky, biltong, whatever you call it, is more than tasty enough to make a good snack for home, even if you never go camping. And as with canning, and fermenting, drying food is a very special process whereby the end result is almost unrecognizable next to the source material. In a world in which so many things seem spontaneously generated in cans and boxes and bags, it's very satisfying to have something edible on hand which causes people to exclaim, "You made that?!"

In the pictures above you see (left to right, top to bottom) a round steak cut into inch-thick strips for drying; somewhat thinner strips of flank steak after being marinated, ready for hanging; about two pounds of sliced, marinated flank steak hanging on an unfolded coat hanger from the laundry line above my dryer; and the finished flank steak, almost black and brittle. My basement runs from 88 to 96 degrees in winter, which inspired me to quit fighting the oven, which insists on getting up to 140 or more--cooking the meat before it can dry properly--and let the meat dry out in the open. Even my basement is a little too hot; traditional biltong is slowly cured in the open air with a natural breeze or fan and little or no artificial heat, a process that could take several days for even relatively small bits of meat. Mine was done in less than 24 hours. (In the oven, thinner slices had taken less than 8 hours.) Lower temperatures allow bigger pieces of meat to dry evenly--and produce a more tender, flavorful result. Below 80 or so, mold and putrefaction become potential problems. I used to pre-cook the meat in the marinade to destroy E-coli and such, but this was messy, tedious, and flavor-robbing. Now I get my meat from the farmers' market: grass-fed, free-range, and butchered in small slaughterhouses, it's cleaner than a lot of vegetables.

Even grass-fed beef has some fat on it, which has to be trimmed away before drying, lest it go rancid. If you take this, and the scraps of meat, and chop it all up (with a very sharp knife and a lot of "wrist-grease"), you'll get the most tender, delicious hamburgers ever. You'll also understand why meat grinders were invented.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Adventures in Fermentation I

Winter's almost over, and most people still haven't made their own sauerkraut. What a pity. Sauerkraut is one of the simplest and most delicious things you can make at home. It requires only two ingredients, a few minutes of work, and a few days of waiting to provide the basis for any number of healthy, delicious meals. It's also an excellent first foray into the wild world of fermented foods. Fermentation is a lost art of food preservation--and, it increasingly seems, compounding health benefits. From yogurt to beer to kimchi to ketchup, much of the food our ancestors consumed was alive. You can continue eating pasteurized this and flash-frozen that, or you can reestablish the alliance with good germs that kept prior generations all but immune to colds, fatigue, and indigestion. Few things you can do in the home kitchen are as magical as fermenting cabbage, a process whereby a tough, sweet, dry, voluminous vegetable transforms into something tender, sour, juicy, and dense.

Though I do sport considerable German heritage, I never thought much of sauerkraut, because I'd only ever had it out of a can. It was just something to cover a hot dog with. As I developed a taste for beer, and increasingly unusual pork products, I became reasonably fond of commercial kraut, even though it sometimes gave me pretty bad indigestion. This probably resulted from the vinegar used in most commercial varieties, or the excess of pork fat often used to cook it.

Homemade sauerkraut tastes very different from the canned stuff--depending on how long you let it ferment, it can be plenty sharp, but more like horseradish than vinegar. At its best it has a depth and complexity of flavor I can only describe as "creamy." Yet maybe even more notable is the texture: while the commercial stuff tends to be very limp and a little slimy, homemade kraut is delightfully crunchy.

So how do you make it?

1. Slice half a cabbage as thin as you can with a good sharp chef's knife.
2. In a large bowl, toss the cabbage with several teaspoons of (Kosher) salt. To facilitate blending, layer cabbage, salt, cabbage, salt into the bowl. After you've filled the bowl, stir it all together thoroughly.
3. Cover and let stand overnight. Cabbage should "bleed" several tablespoons of juice.
4. Stir and mash the mixture with a wooden spoon. Let stand a few hours. Repeat. When the cabbage has been reduced to about half its original volume, you're ready to bottle it.
5. Pack the cabbage very tightly into a wide-mouth one-quart glass jar. You should be able to compress it to about half the space it took up in the bowl (or less).
6. Pack the cabbage all the way up to the brim of the jar, just beyond where it seems to fit, turning and mashing with a wooden spoon, so that the juice rises and covers the cabbage, all the way to the lip of the jar.
7. Loosely screw on the lid and wipe up overflow as necessary.
8. Cover with a towel and let stand in a cool, dark, draft-free place for about a week. Above 70, the cabbage will rot; below 60, it won't ferment. I've found a temperature of about 65 and a "rest" of 5-7 days to produce optimal sauerkraut. Less time, lower temperatures, and more salt all inhibit fermentation, producing a less sour product.

The picture shows red cabbage--half a big head of it, which seemed like way more than I could possibly fit in the jar. But the tighter you pack it, the less chance there is of mold. I've also tried white cabbage, and, best of all, half red and half white. Such a blend makes a beautiful swirl of green and purple when you start, but by the time it's done fermenting, it's solid fuchsia.

Serve with pork chops, sausage, ham, spaetzle, potatoes, any of the usual German suspects. Or substitute it for lettuce and make a beautiful winter salad. I get my cabbage at the farmers' market, so it's got a lot more vitamins, and fewer chemicals, than supermarket lettuce and other veggies. You can go on eating summer-style salads all winter and ignore the fact that the lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, etc., are flown in from Mexico or Chile, grown in E-coli-infested soil, woody with fertilizer, transported by planes gobbling up precious oil. Or you can embrace winter and enjoy some fermented cabbage. Since I'm not a football fan, Superbowl Sunday has become a celebration of guacamole; I "intercept" the avocados on fire sale for the weekend. Here red sauerkraut does a glamorous understudy for lettuce; with two colors of tortilla chips, the little plate could fetch a pretty price in one of those places where "vertical presentation" is a big deal. What a long way we've come from a can-opener and a frozen hot dog!

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Foodie Central

I'd been to Zingerman's once before: I remembered coffee in pint glasses and a sense of stress. Nothing has changed. Entering the deli, an unprepossessing brick building that opens like some wild pop-up book into a tiny space jammed floor to ceiling with bread, cheese, cured meats, prepared salads, olive oils, coffees, and other specialty items, you suddenly understand what Imelda Marcos must have felt like on entering a shoe store. Interest in food quickly goes from acute to terminal here. Negotiating the sandwich menu alone could take half an hour, if you actually took the time to read all the ingredients meticulously listed for every sandwich. No noun will do without an adjective, it seems, and no story may be left untold. The kitsch faux hand lettering doesn't make things any easier. None of the three dozen or more sandwiches listed seemed to include serano ham, several of which were hanging from the ceiling nearby. I would have done almost anything for a couple slices of it, in any form, but I was afraid to ask, lest I get drawn into a protracted discussion of the various grades and sources and cuts, abrading my memory of how casually the stuff is treated in Spain, the barman in the little place I frequented dabbing the butt-end of each dangling ham with a heel of bread as they sweated into the night. So much of the magic of food for me is bound up in its original context, where it is treated as impossibly common. A decade later I remember the cafe con leche at an unremarkable little bar in Granada not only because it was one of the best cups of coffee I've ever had, but because the barman was so utterly nonchalant in making it, as if coffee like this could be had anywhere.

There's no question they do a lot of things extremely well here: apricot rugelach was second only to my mother's, and a round French pastry I'd never heard of was so exquisitely constructed that its near-absence of flavor and moisture somehow became a virtue. The coffee, a "single-origin" variety, made me wonder why lattes were invented. (And they offered to rinse my travel mug with hot water and give me a 10% discount for bringing it.) The prices would be outrageous except that everything really is made with great care and top-notch ingredients. A loaf of rye bread I'd purchased on my previous visit, some seven years ago, still haunts me.

Yet there's a lot of things to hate about the place, like their "guide to good eating," which comes in both book form for purchase and little placards all over the store for free, as in "seven keys to a good olive oil..." Call me old-fashioned, but I've never considered taste something to be taught. There used to be a joke about the price of a Rolls-Royce: "if you have to ask, you can't afford it." If you need someone to tell you what's worth eating, why are you eating it? My sandwich included more packaging than a meal at McDonald's; I'll be using the napkins alone for weeks. The menu bears little if any relation to the seasons: for all the grandstanding about milk produced at different times of year yielding different cheeses, my sandwich featured a hank of romaine lettuce, about as far from Michigan in February as one can get. Next door at the farmer's market, the "Brinery" offered red and white sauerkraut, pickles, and other fermented treats, while inside Zingerman's, sandwich after sandwich was adorned with the same old lettuce and tomatoes that hadn't been available locally for almost six months. If the point is to re-create standard sandwiches in higher-quality form, they've certainly succeeded, but if the goal is to create some set of new, ingredients-first delicacies, imagination is lacking.

I was in a pickle, both literally and figuratively: I was offered a choice, with my sandwich, of a garlic-brined sour pickle or an unseasoned new pickle. I chose the new, which was excellent, but I don't want to have to choose. There's a line beyond which gourmet sensibilities crumble into neuroses, and Zingerman's seems to nudge, if not hurtle, people straight over it. Everything is extraordinarily good, and extraordinarily complicated. Talking about food becomes more important than eating it. I spent ten minutes with a bubbly young cheesemonger comparing goat cheeses, trying to strike a balance between "gooey," "aged," "chalky," and "goaty," only to end up with something less satisfying than what I've found at Whole Foods. She was knowledgeable enough, but the process became more a war of vocabularies and predilections--her book-sanctioned terminology vs. my casual one, her inculcation into farm philosophies vs. my recollections of French markets--than a tasting.

Yet in a sense Zingerman's must not be judged for itself, but for how far askance it dares to look at the mainstream American food world. Ten minutes away is Potbelly Sandwich Works, a "gourmet" fast food chain which produces pitiful shadows of what used to be served at any decent deli. It's a marvel that two such ostensibly similar, yet essentially different, places can coexist within less than a mile. Potbelly is cheaper than Zingerman's, but not by much. And there's plenty of fuss on offer at Potbelly too, yet it leads only to mediocrity and monotony. So as much as I chafe under the weight of overwritten captions and gratuitous options at Zingerman's, I can only cheer the extent to which they've raised awareness of the subtleties that make food more than filler for shrinkwrap and styrofoam: "raw milk," "acorn-fed ham," "wild yeast," and so on. Somewhere behind all the jargon are many wonderful meals the rest of the country has forgotten. Yes, right here in Michigan, we have a thing or two to teach New York and San Francisco about eating. Ann Arbor is carrying the epicurean fire back, however pretentiously, to the gastronomic capitals.