Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Garlic in my Garden is Barbara Kingsolver's Fault

Books hypnotize me.  If I read a book that I like, I am susceptible to any idea that I come across on the page.

At the Institute of Reading Development (my summer teaching gig), we talk about how kids need to acquire absorption, that is the ability to be so immersed in the world of the book that it's as if the child becomes the character that they are reading about, and there's no conscious thought of "I'm reading this."  If a kid can become absorbed, then they will most likely become a lifelong reader.  Absorption is that lightening strike experience that turns a reluctant reader into bibliophile.  Absorption gives literature its brilliant power.  As for myself, I can't remember a time that I didn't ever love books.  I do, however, remember the first time that I was susceptible to the suggests in a book.

But perhaps at first I aimed for emulation rather than absorption.  When I was 4 or 5 years old, certainly before I was reading on my own, I wanted to do everything possible in my play world to act and dress like the characters from my picture books.  The name of the book and character that I first emulated eludes me, probably because I felt mislead by the character in the end.  But I do remember that the main character had a doll.  At one point in the story, she mistreats the doll.  A mud puddle was involved.  In a stunt of pure immitation, I dressed my best doll up (in purple gingham) and then dashed her directly into a giant mud puddle.  The stains didn't wash out later when I tired, and I felt bitterly betrayed by the character because in the book the mud stains on her dolly's dress washed out, and she evades punishment.  I did not.

This is just a really long way to say that Barbara Kingsolver is the reason why I plant garlic.  I may be older and wiser now, but I still want emulate those that I admire when I read them on the page.  When people talk about life-changing books, they usually say something along the lines of:  it was exactly the right book at exactly the right time.  There is serendipity if life's journey coincides perfectly with the ideas, knowledge, and creativity contained on the pages of the right book. Barabara Kingsolver's Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was a life-changing book, but serendipitous it was not. I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle at completely the wrong time.

This book chronicles Kingsolver's year-long experiment to only eat local food, most of it home-grown.  I read this book in the fall, at the end of the growing season, right before gardening was ending for the entire year, at at time when it would be at least a good six months before I could start my own garden in Ohio when the only thing I wanted to do was plant a garden *sigh*

2010 Garlic Harvest

Toward the end of Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.  Kingsolver and her husband are about to embark on a trip to Italy in just a few hours, but rather than packing, she contemplates planting garlic bulbs before they leave.  I admire this impulse to tie up loose ends before traveling.  (As my itinerant reading teacher schedule has made for strange mid-week "weekends" in which I spend 12 or 14 hours in the kitchen canning veggies and performing other such produce triage as the garden's harvest threatens to over-ripen and expire.)

Garlic Braid: No vampires here!

So I found myself imitating Barbara Kingsolver. That late September when I read Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, I realized I could plant garlic to harvest the next summer. So that's why garlic was the first thing I ever planted in Ohio.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Chinese Noodle Making Adventure

A recipe is its own language.  With a reliable standardized set of precise measurements and concise directions a recipe will yield a consistent result, if applied accurately.  This terrifies some people.

This perhaps is why there are 3 types of people in this world: those that follow recipes, those that don't, and those that don't cook at all.  Changing the way I make food is just far enough out of my comfort zone to feel thrillingly adventurous.

I am a recipe cook.  It's a cliche to admit learning cooking "at grandmother's knee."  But I really wonder how many people really do learn how to cook from an older relative. (Which I should mention that most of my grandparents' and great grandparents' generation never used a recipe, and as a consequence, took the secret code of their dishes with them to the grave.)  I didn't learn much about cooking from the older relatives. 

My mom did, however, teach me how to read a recipe through a 4-H project.  The first cooking project that I took was called "The Road to Good Cooking."  The manual explained good cooking habits, especially measuring and food safety by using traffic sign metaphors.

This is why I am a recipe cook.  (Perhaps this is also why I'm a good driver.)

Even when I'm creating my own dish, the urge to write it down, to record the precision of how the ingredients merge and emerge into a coherent dish is strong.  So, when Chen told me that there is no recipe for Chinese noodles, that you only mix together water and flour, I was skeptical.  When he explained that the technique to make them involved hand stretching, as he gestured a stretching motion with his hands I thought that I'd never be able to master noodle making.  If you can't write it down into a recipe, how can I translate it?  Sometimes a word by word recipe isn't strong enough to convey the technique.  Sometimes you need hands or practice by the side of a master.

Chen started the Chinese noodles by adding water to all purpose flour.  With incredible dexterity, he mixed the dough with chop sticks until a stiff dough formed.

Then, we kneaded the dough for about 20 minutes.  This is the stiffest dough that I have ever worked with.  The kneading the dough though develops the strands of gluten, which allows the dough to stretch with the elasticity of a fat rubber band.

This dough is about twice as stiff as an average bread dough. It begins rough, but as it's worked developed a smooth solidity.  Here is Chen and me getting a bit of a workout kneading the dough.

 Next we patted the dough into flat disks about 1 inch thick and 8 inches in diameter.

Then, the Chen cut the dough into 1 inch wide batons.

Next, he coated the dough batons in vegetable oil, then wrapped then in plastic wrap.  It is important to let the dough sit for at least two hours, so we had plenty of time to sit and drink tea and eat silver ear mushroom soup.

Finally, we patted each baton flat with our fingers, and then rolled it out with a special Chinese-style rolling pin.

From there, the dough stretched and snapped like elastic as Chen pulled both ends.

Then the noodles were cooked.  Instead of timing the cooking Chen showed me how to let the noodles come to a boil, and then add cold water until it stopped boiling.  Repeat this twice, and then by the third time to pot of noodles comes to a boil, they are ready.

The noodles were fresh, pleasantly chewy, and readily absorbed the spicy/salty toppings both Lan and Chen had made.

From top, clockwise: pork and peppers; ground beef, potato, onion mushroom; fried tomato and egg with ginger.

My Chinese noodle-making adventure showed me a new way to learn a recipe.  And, I am richer for the experience because not only did Chen share food, but knowledge of how to make that food which will stick with me long after I've eaten.

How about you?  How have you learned to cook?  Do you know any special techniques that can't be learned by a recipe?  Who taught them to you?