Sunday, August 9, 2009

not exactly a farmer cook

There are certain food absolutes you learn early, hear often. Respect your ingredients. Fresher is better. Know where your food comes from.

In a professional kitchen, this can translate to recognizing the giant truck when it pulls up with your order, or actually visiting farmers, or even doing it yourself.

At home is a different story. At home you are free to explore the whims of your mind and stomach, and not have to worry so much about whether or not the berry yield will last you until January. I have an idyllic vision of what I like my home kitchen to be. It involves, among other things, a home garden with endless fresh herbs, happy vegetables and a cat napping under some heirloom variety of something.

Reality check: I live in an apartment, and I kill plants. Herbs that are "easy to grow" die at my hands. Our little patio gets sunlight only late in the Oregon afternoon. But I try. I can tell you lots of facts about plant needs. I know the difference between xanthophyll and chlorophyll. Facts, however, do not translate into vegetables. I bought my plants this year expecting to soon be throwing away depressing half dead specimens. I threw away the snap peas first.

Why did I go to this expense with a budget stretched thin enough? Because every time one of those plants died, I felt I was somehow failing as a cook. I know what to do with these things when they arrive triple washed and shrink wrapped. I should be able to do better than that, I felt. At home, especially, I should be able to go straight to the source. Sun and soil and water can translate into flavors we can't replicate. As good as my strawberry shortcake may be, it's a biscuit and cream without the berries. And I know the best berries can never see the inside of a fridge, can handle only a few minutes of travel and will never see the supermarket shelves. How good of a cook can I be if I can't get the best ingredients? So I try again.

This summer, I have learned something. The more I ignore plants, except to water them, the better they do. I've actually gotten to make tarragon vinegar with my own tarragon and so far I've harvested exactly one tomato (It was on the plant when I bought it) but it looks like there should be a jalapeno and a cucumber soon. I'm excited for each morning as small as the bounty may be. And each time I cook with these plants, I'm aware of all it took for them to get to where they are. Was that the best tomato ever? No. But I cooked it the best way I knew, and the result was very good. I'm learning. The next one will teach me more.

red rubin basil, the most beautiful basil I've ever seen.