Spring Cleaning, Spring Renewal

Spring is here and everything needs refreshing and revitalizing– wardrobes, homes, gardens, spirits, careers.  Buds revive tree branches but for us humans it’s a whirlwind of active goals that nudge us forth.  We’re all blooming in our own ways, at our own paces, after a long winter.

Me?  I’m not yet motivated to air out and deep clean the house.  But I have been working with a new web designer to air out and deep clean (i.e., completely change) the pages of my website.  He has given me some lovely designs, using color and concepts that pull together the different kinds of writing I do and also illustrate where I’m going with my work.  The finished product will be up and running soon, and I’m thrilled.  Fresh perspectives that renew:  the essence of spring.

I have also been reading a lot.  Hardly anything new: I went through 2 or 3 fiction books a week over the winter.  And that I have picked up two new cookbooks to read now may seem, on the surface, more of the passive and winterish same…and would be, if I were curled up in the corner of the sofa, keeping warm under a blanket, flipping pages and sipping tea and disappearing into other worlds.  But I’m not.  Not entirely anyway.  Yes, the food photos and some of the lushly descriptive writing may fall into the escapist category of food porn (defined by Wikipedia as “a provocative term variously applied to a spectacular visual presentation of cooking or eating in advertisements, infomercials, cooking shows or other visual media, foods boasting a high fat and calorie content, exotic dishes that arouse a desire to eat).

But these days I’m reading out of curiosity instead of titillation, both to learn a few things and to inspire and inform my cooking and eating in the weeks ahead.  April’s garden bounty in Massachusetts is best summed up on the peak season map recently published on epicurious.com: “The growing season is currently dormant here; opt for items from storage, such as apples, pears, and root vegetables.”  In other words, opt for the same damn things you’ve been eating since October.  The reality of our early spring is not all chirping song birds and tender green shoots, and sometimes it can seem a long time until June’s strawberry or asparagus season.  I not only need some ideas, I need some motivation to get through.

Mastering Cheese has been both diversion and inspiration.  Written by Max McCalman, Director of Curriculum for New York’s Artisanal Premium Cheese Center, the book is an uber-textbook for the artisanal cheese-curious and -serious alike.  McCalman’s two previous books have included an introduction to fine cheese and a reference book of some of the world’s finest cheeses, tasted, noted, rated, and paired with wines.  Mastering Cheese, in McCalman’s own words, answers the question, “What do you need to know to master cheese?”

He continues, “You need to know what great cheese is; where it comes from; what makes it great; where you can find it; how it is made, bought, and sold; and how to get the most out of it.  If this book does nothing else for you, it should outline all of this.”

It delivers.  In the 22 lessons provided in the book, McCalman makes good on his promise to answer the question of cheese mastery.  Between the history of cheese and cheesemaking and artisanal cheese in particular, an in depth discussion of good milk, lessons on how to taste cheese, how to pair cheese with wine and beer, and finally a look at all the important cheese-producing countries and the great cheeses they bring forth, you’ll know a lot about cheese by the time you finish this book.

Mention the word “textbook” though and often eyes will glass over.  Too many memories of late nights spent falling asleep in the pages of densely written math or science tomes perhaps.  The best part about Mastering Cheese is that nothing about the book is tedious.

The language is accessible, conveying genuine enthusiasm and respect for the beloved cheese and all that goes into bringing it to the table.  Each subject is enhanced with gorgeous photography of frank-gazed sheep, dewy-eyed pygmy goats and placid cows; up close art shots of runny, oozy, crumbly and blue-veined cheeses; and the smiling faces of happy people working on farms, in dairies, in cheese caves, and behind shop counters.  These people love working with cheese.

I love cheese; I loved this book.  Even if you don’t like cheese (and I have heard two people utter those very words, so I know you’re out there) you’ll come away with an appreciation for the craft of making it, and making it in so many different and distinct varieties.  In fact, to my mind, just knowing that a vat of milk may be turned into such a variety of taste delights nudges cheesemaking out of the realm of craft into more exalted places.  Say, magic.  Or maybe even miracle.

Just as passionate about her area of food expertise is Lidia Bastianich.  She is also prolific: restaurateur, cooking show personality, cookbook author.  Sometimes prolific translates into “watered down” or “spread too thin.” But Lidia is not about branding; she is the real, committed, expert deal.  She knows her subject of Italian cooking backwards and forwards, and yet she continues to dig deeper and learn more about it every day.  What’s more, she cares that you should do the same.  This may be why her most recent cookbook, Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy: A feast of 175 regional recipes, has grabbed hold of me and won’t let go, not even days after I finished reading it from cover to cover.

I recognize Lidia’s curiosity.  It’s a form of my own.  And curiosity to me equals passion, a passion for the ingredients and for the luck we possess in having such ingredients at our disposal.  “Our approach to food,” Lidia writes in her introduction about humans’ interaction with what they consume, “our respect for and understanding of the ingredients we work with, will dictate our future survival.  Will there be enough for the generations to come?”  Lidia finds answers to her question as she travels and researches 12 distinct regions of Italy for this latest cookbook.

It is clear as she explores in depth this one European country and its many different food products: there is no one Italian cuisine.  One region favors the starchy, stubby rice of risottos, while another excels in pastas.  Seaside towns count on their seafood feeding them while the interior of the island of Sardinia relies on its shepherds and lamb.  What then, beyond language (and sometimes even that is a barrier) unifies?

Philosophy does.  Or in Lidia’s words, “The recipes I share with you reflect a respect for food – growing it, shepherding the animals, foraging for the gifts of nature in the wild, and hunting respectfully to put nourishing meat on the table, not just for sport.”  Home cooks in each region share this respect, whether they harvest citrus fruits or legumes.

She continues, “Nothing is wasted.  Bread is recycled and used in soups, casseroles, lasagnas, and desserts.  Water is carefully conserved; for instance, the same water in which vegetables are cooked is used to cook the pasta that follows, and then that is saved for soups or making risotto.”  When I finished reading From the Heart of Italy I better understood my own compulsion for, and ease with, cooking from whatever I have on hand.  Using every last bit of protein and produce I have bought.  Making something from nothing, as I like to call it.

But don’t forget that innate Italian sense for good taste.  Think about the recycled vegetable water, for example.  If you then cook your pasta in it, the pasta will be infused with the flavor and nutrients of what went first.  The same goes for the rice and soup that follows:  it will benefit from the flavor and also from the starch of the pasta that was in the pot earlier.  Economical, certainly, but also brilliant.  Lidia writes, “And of course, they (Italian home cooks) wanted dishes that would taste good…(the recipes) are a testimony to the harmony of elements that result in a harmony of taste.  ‘Waste not, want not,’ and make it delicious.”

Last night we had a piece of salmon in the fridge.  A few onions.  Celery.  Plenty of condiments:  mustard, capers, olives, tomato paste in a tube.  Heads of garlic in the cupboard.  Remember, I have no spring asparagus or peas.  For the time being I must make do.  I turned to Lidia’s book, the bible of making do.

Celery Steamed in a Skillet comes from Le Marche, an eastern coast region below Venice, a region I know little about, and at least I had all the ingredients on hand: celery, onion, garlic, olives, tomato paste, water, and a little red pepper flake.  Celery, I thought, is an unusual choice to cook (although I love it roasted along with a chicken and other root vegetables in the dead of winter), but at least it makes a change from the celeriac puree I have passed the last couple of months with.

For Lidia’s dish, onions and garlic get sautéed in some olive oil, a couple of heads of celery – washed and trimmed and chopped a bit – are thrown into the same skillet with some olives.  These sauté for a while, then some tomato paste and water get mixed to make a braising liquid.  I poured the liquid over the celery, tossed in a few pepper flakes, covered the pot, and let the sauce cook the celery down while it thickened up and reduced.  The resulting side dish was delicious served over a slice of garlic toast alongside our baked salmon.

All we missed was a nice piece of artisanal cheese for dessert.

Maybe next time.  No, definitely next time.

©2010  Jane Ward