Blackberries

Wouldn't it be cool if Himalayan blackberries really came from those mountains? Not really, but my brother and I have constructed a whole mythology around it. It's strung together with a kind of botanical personification: The Himalayan blackberry is so incredibly and invasively successful here because its native home is far harsher. Adapted to cold, cold winters and very little water, here it thrives. Like the Himalayas are a bramble boot-camp.

There is a certain logic to this. They are so at home here and so impossibly hardy that they must come from some otherworldly place, and the Himalayas are that to us, rising to elevations we have never visited and on the other side of the earth. There is something alien in the brambles' utter familiarity with the landscape. Nothing native could grow so well--nativity, after all, must be nurtured. These cannot be destroyed. They will come back year after year from dry slashed up root matter forgotten in the ground. Up my street there is a family who for three years chopped them down, pulled them up, burned them, and sprayed them. They still persisted.

My brother and I always laugh when a restoration project we're working on as employees of my father involves pulling up blackberries and planting native plants in their place. We know it won't really work. It's amazing, really, the destruction that these plants excite in people like us. The same people who are melancholy about Arizona's immigration legislation happily engage in what amounts to a campaign of firebombing on an immigrant who was brought here more than 100 years ago. Last year there was a volunteer effort to remove what looks like a multiple acre swath of nothing but blackberries along Ashland Creek. It's doomed, of course, unless the same thing is done every year. This year the new canes have grown quite tall. If anything is clear to me, it's that Himalayan blackberries are here to stay.

But they are non-native and invasive, and thus the perfect scapegoat. We need them to be our punching bag. Without the millions of brown, slain blackberry canes, the native plants planted there would not be so proudly native. The category of native has been eked out through an extensive labor of killing Himalayan blackberries. And other species, sure, but mostly them.

But this is all hocus-pocus. To most of us, blackberries are blackberries. We do not know them as native and non, Pacific and Himalayan. They are simply that ubiquitous bramble that in the late summer bears purple berries. They are the landscape that they "invade."

Though I always wondered if perhaps they came from the lower, greener slopes of the Himalayas, I admit that I didn't know until just now that in fact, if we care to deal in fact, they have nothing to do with the Himalayas. Apparently, Luther Burbank, an American horticulturalist, visited India and there found some blackberry seeds in a market. He grew them, liked them, and decided to call them "Himalayan Giant." Wikipedia and others have pinned down the species' origin to Armenia, someone going so far as to say that the only correct scientific name of the plant is Rubus armeniacus Focke (much taxological confusion surrounds it, called by several names: "R. procerus Muller, R. praecox Bertol., R. grabowskii Weihe ex Gunther et al., or R. discolor Weihe & Nees") A gardening blogger went even further, stubbornly (like a teacher's pet) referring to them as "Armenian blackberries." It is undoubtedly true they are of the region of Armenia, but what of destiny? Who is to say that this plant wasn't meant for world domination any more than it was meant for Armenia? To go even further, and really "naturalize" these things, who's to say it wasn't meant to be massacred?

It bleeds so deliciously. Well, alright, it really doesn't need to be injured or killed to yield its sweetness. Actually, more likely if you pick the berries you will get pricked. Picking blackberries marks you; your hands become stained violet, berry juice sometimes mixed with a little blood. You come back scratched up but happy.

There are quite a few considerations involved in picking blackberries. The first is water: those bushes that grow near water or are irrigated (like near a grassy field) have fatter fruit. Personally, I prefer the places that provide shade, as picking in the late August weather is liable to kill you. My brother is a proponent of two things for serious picking: the two-by-six and the plastic gallon milk jug. The two-by-six (preferably salvaged from lumber scrap) is dropped on top of a productive but mostly inaccessible patch, and used as a platform from which to reach the berries nobody else could. The milk jug, the top 1/8 or so cut off with a knife, is the preferred berry-collecting device: it has a convenient handle, a large opening, and holds quite a lot.

Although my brother is now wary of the herbicides, diesel fuel, and god knows what else contaminating the soil near the railroad tracks, the tracks near the middle school used to be one of our favorite places to pick. I remember one day in late August when we drove there in his cream-colored Mercedes diesel (to run biodiesel, of course) as enormous slate walls of cloud grew above us. It was late in the day, and the light slanted yellow from a slit of unclouded horizon. The excessive details added up then to more than they do now: The four of us picked for an hour, until we were pelted with hail. It hurt, and we ran into the car with our various buckets (gallon milk jugs with the tops cut off, yogurt containers, paper bags, who knows what else) full of berries. Like a scene in an excessively nostalgic film, the fun bulged out a little nastily. The hail increased as we drove to the store, making more and more worrisome sounds on the steel roof. One of us (not me) used a newspaper to shelter himself on his way into the store to get oats, butter, and ice cream. Like all memories, it was mostly made up.

The object of all this youthful running about in a stormy idyll was blackberry crisp a la mode, of course, though we always called it cobbler. In fact "crisp" sounds wrong to me--it couldn't possibly refer to a baked dish of berries topped with (and sometimes lined with) a mixture of oats, butter, and brown sugar. We always made it that way because both my brother and my mother were allergic to wheat.

Baking a crisp was my goal when I picked today, but there weren't enough berries, and the hours of wandering around in the heat looking for enough berries exhausted me. So I will have fresh blackberries with various dairy products: ice cream, yogurt, (lightly) whipped cream. How terrible.

Fresh blackberries are yummy, but baking them in a crisp softens their flavor for good reason: The blackberry is a queer tasting fruit. It's not even clear it is one fruit. The same bush yields various tastes: bitter, sweet, gasoline-like, bland and mealy, moldy, almost always a little sour, and sometimes very sour. Sometimes you accidentally eat an ant, which has its own acrid, strangely complimentary taste.

Much in my life has revolved around blackberries. The first outing an ex (and now friend) and I had together was, I think, picking blackberries. One of my best childhood friends, who is no longer alive, used to eat red, unripe berries from the wall of brambles at the edge of the middle school. He had something to prove, I guess. One summer not too long ago (which probably means something like five years ago) my oldest friend and I made blackberry milkshakes. (Inevitably one of you is now laughing at your own joke: my milkshakes bring all the boys to the yard.) None of these memories are endemic to blackberries, because blackberries do not need endemicity. They pop up all over the place, given just enough water.

29 August 2011

This year's new canes where they were "removed" last year.

Gluten-Free Baking Part II: Bob's Red Mill Shortbread Cookies and Chocolate Chip Cookies

I suppose I should have photographed the whole process, showing you everything, plenty for your tactile imagination to chew on. But this isn't The Pioneer Woman Cooks! or some other shiny cooking blog. All I have are photos of the baked cookies themselves, which don't much illustrate the difficulty of making them. You can see the paraplegic cat, and a few other limbs broken off. This could've happened at one of a few points: transferring the cut dough shapes from the counter to the baking sheet, transferring the baked cookies off of the baking sheet, and simply handling the cookies to eat them. The package told us, like the chocolate chip cookie mix of the same brand, that the dough would seem dry, and that we needed to squish it together with our hands, and to roll it out between parchment paper and plastic wrap to 1/4 inch. How exactly did we do this without the dough crumbling to pieces? With difficulty. The package suggests using a cookie cutter. It does not suggest the acrobatics involved in getting the cut dough to the baking sheet. We carefully removed the layer around the shapes, trying not to break the shapes themselves, and used a spatula--quickly, quickly--to lift them in one piece (or, if the maneuver isn't executed perfectly, several). Irregular shapes with lots of limbs sticking off didn't fare well. The pumpkins were okay, being essentially a circle with a tiny bit sticking off (the stem).

I've never made shortbread cookies, regular or no, but what was the structural integrity these cookies were lacking? Gluten. I imagine regular (dare I call them that?) shortbread dough would stay together easily enough that it could handled with less care than nitroglycerin, and that the baked cookies would not be so delicate that they faint when they see a mouse. (Of course, when I saw a mouse in my kitchen at night I might've hit my head I jumped so violently.)

I complain, but the shortbread cookies were good, if messy, to eat. How can you go wrong with something that's mostly butter? The texture was a little grainy, becoming not quite the fine paste in the mouth that I'm used to from regular shortbread, but rich and a little sweet, as they should be. A nice tea biscuit.

Apparently, all legumes taste similar. Bob's Red Mill is partial to garbanzo bean flour in gluten-free baking mixes. Their chocolate chip cookie mix is mostly comprised of it, at which our noses twitched in mild disgust. Garbanzo beans and chocolate chips? Ew. Why not, say, oats? (The funny thing about gluten-free baking mixes is that each has a completely different approach to achieving the texture and flavor desired. Some are mostly rice, some oat, some garbanzo, some teff. Usually the actual ingredients are downplayed; the end result is everything. Which is odd these days, when every "organic" or "natural" product is busy bandying its ("simple," "pure") ingredients.) We didn't trust it, but we did already open the package, so what the hell. The cookies turned out beautifully, melting into the pan in folds of buttery chewiness (sorry, no photos). The flavor was unexpected, but not at all unpleasant. I devoured five in one sitting. I gave two to my brother, who when I asked him what kind he thought they were said "they're peanut-butter chocolate chip, right?"

22 August 2011

Gluten-Free Baking Part I: Simulation

I found myself making a strange conversational comment about gluten-free baking today: "Here," I said, "it's more of an experiment, whereas there it can be traditional." The over-there in question was Japan, because the owner of the recently opened Ichigo Cake, who is one of those male Niponophiles who is married to a Japanese woman, mentioned a type of rice-based chiffon cake made in Japan. There is a kind of hysterical traditionalism that the idea of gluten-free baking excdites in me at times. It's not just traditionalism, but a metaphysics of substance: No, I think, how is it bread if it isn't made from wheat?! The whole idea of gluten-free baking is heretical and challenging to this mindset. One tries to make something without the ingredients that have traditionally defined it. There is also the kind of gluten-free baking that adapts to the different qualities of other grain flours, making something entirely new and owning rather than trying to hide its uniqueness. But most gluten-free baking reaches toward realness: seeming indistinguishable from the gluten-based baked-good that it simulates.

It is because of how it resembles transexual politics that my knee-jerk reaction of "it's not real" seems so backwards. But there is of course a more visceral reason to defend gluten-free baking: for some, gluten really is poison. For my brother it's an allergen, something which makes him mucousy and plugged-up like he has a cold; it causes my girlfriend's immune system to go haywire, damaging her digestive system in its violent wake. (This is my dramatised picture of Celiac.) There are also, I hear, those who vow to go off wheat or gluten for health reasons, even though they have felt no ill effects. I find these people hard to disginguish from those who quaff wheat grass at juice bars. Children have the best neologisms: healthoholics.

When I said "experiment," i was thinking of a gluten-free bakery that's starting uncertainly in Phoenix (about five miles away), Gia's. The small, slapped-together storefront feels harried as you walk in. There isn't an employee at the counter, but a man with a walkie-talkie who I have a feeling is either related to or married to the baker. He communicates with the bakery itself across the parking lot, radioing that we're out of this or that, are you making more? This leads me to think that they have so little startup capital that they must reduce their risk by making tiny, on-demand batches and/or they just don't have the oven space to make enough at once to meet demand. Just opened a month ago, they're stilll figuring out how much of what customers will buy, and moreover are still probably gaining customers as the word of their existence spreads around those that want gluten-free. For the time being they'll just use what they've got. The cash register is a laptop hooked up to a receipt printer. The occasional cashier will come away from the bakery into the shop only when customers are afoot.

But as well as a business experiment, it's an experiment in baking. They're perfecting their recipes, looking for the right combination of flours and for the kinds of pastries people like. I am told the lemon bars are a hit. Personally I fell for the succulant carrot cake, which I didn't even realize was gluten-free until I felt the texture of rice flour in my second bite. My father had brought some home from the Talent Art Show (this is not some horrible exercise in naming--Talent is a town a few miles north of Ashland) where they were selling cupcakes as teasers for their bakery that was yet to open. There was chocolate and carrot cake. At least one of you is laughing at me, but I'm telling you, the carrot cake was far more tempting. At the time I didn't know its lusciousness (alas, there are only so many adjectives one can use to describe cake) was gluten-free; it was just some delicious cupcake from wherever. This, I suppose, is the simulationist gluten-free baker's dream. Gia's is exactly that. A recent Mail Tribune article says that "Jan Thorsell wants fellow sufferers of celiac disease to feel 'normal' when they walk into her new bakery." The normal customers also get to feel normal cake on their tongues.

Next, in Part II: a recent joint foray into gluten-free baking: chocolate-chip cookies and shortbread cookies.

21 August 2011

Pizza

My father has decided that "they" call me "Isaac 'Pizza' Skibinski." Not without reason. I've made pizza three times in the past week.

In the summer I always seem to be drawn to making pizza, despite the fact that turning on the oven when it's ninety degrees outside seems absurd (or, alright, just environmentally insensitive). When it's not delivered to your door as the quintessential late-night food, baked (or rather fried) in "deep dish" swimming with grease, two-inches thick and covered in various kinds of meat, I think of pizza as a summer food. In part this is because I grow basil in the summer (for some reason I've never been one of those enterprising people who grows it in a little windowsill pot when it's too cold for it to survive outside). What is pizza without fresh basil? (Yes, I know, I'm stuck on this.) It's also simply because my image of pizza is a summery image: thin, brightly colored, light(ish), bathed in sunlight.

In other words, my love of fresh pizza is slightly sneaky nostalgia for Italy. Even though what I make bears little resemblance to the thin snack I devoured there, it is that which I long for by making these things, I admit. I know it's not cool any more to think of Europe as the gastronomical promised land (unless you're Elizabeth Gilbert), as it was in the 30s and 40s when M.F.K. Fisher was visiting and dreaming of France. Nor is it 1961. Nor am I Julia Child. But let's be honest: I have silly idyllic daydreams of European food. There is nourishment and there is nourishment. I create this delusion that I'm creating Europeanness for myself more via the combining of Mediterranean ingredients than any meticulous attention to technique or finished product. As long as it has the right stuff--tomato sauce, mozzarella, fresh basil, maybe olives--and sort of looks like I imagine it should, I am content.

Generally I put these ingredients atop thin slices of good bread (in Ashland that's hearty, sour New Sammy's Cowboy Bread or La Baguette's French Sourdough, which is so fluffy that it becomes rock-hard stale in two days), and throw it in a hot oven for fifteen or twenty minutes. Recently I've discovered that the Ashland Food Co-op makes pizza dough and sells it in plastic bags. I've been looking for exactly that ever since I left Bar Harbor, where the local bakery sold bags of the stuff as well as the supermarket, but only recently did I actually find it here (because god forbid I, you know, ask). If I were one of the bazillion mothers who blog about what they feed their families, I would say that I have found a relatively quick and easy way to make pizza "from scratch," and wink as if I'm passing on some scandalous corner-cutting secret.

I wish I could say that their fresh dough is immeasurably better than bread. While the flat bread that comes out of the oven is fresh, its texture is tame and crispy like a cracker, where the bread slices are chewy and crunchy. This could be because I haven't kneaded the dough; it hasn't been stretched into the pizzeria crust I'm wishing for. But it's hard enough squishing the dough into the right shape without kneading it at all. Should I be kneading it and tossing it? Is that the only way to get it to not bounce eagerly back into itself?

I think, however, there is a certain romance in my lazy pizza-crust-making process. I plop the blob of dough into the glass roasting pan (we lack a cookie sheet or anything else more appropriate at home), which has a little olive oil on it. I dust the top with some white flour to keep it from sticking to my hands, and mash it down with fingers and fists. Once it's relatively flat, I begin stretching instead of squishing, until it roughly fills the whole pan. When the oven reaches 475 degrees, I lather and arrange all the ingredients on top of the dough, and bake it.

13 August 2011

Sage & Browned Butter

It never quite stays the same, but the same basic two ingredients do: butter and sage. The butter must be browned and the sage, fresh. Most of the time over these is poured cream, which bubbles into a sauce. But this last, it could be said, just dilutes the flavor.

It was taken from two friends' repertoires, both of whom exalted it.

The one loved gnocchi more than the sauce she bathed them in, but aren't gnocchi a vehicle for sauce? She made gnocchi to bring decadence to our poorly deprived college lives of hippie lentil soup and mac n' cheese. The time-consuming and detailed labor of gnocchi were supposed to bring us out of the fraught, gaudy world of a small New England liberal arts school to somewhere more expansive. Like, say, Italy, after which she pined by kneading dough and smooshing it delicately with a fork.

But the sauce. Her method was to pour some cream into a saucepan with lots of fried sage leaves, simmer it down until it thickened into a sauce, and salt it to taste. This made a sumptuous covering for the pillowy lumps. As such rich sauces are bound to, it drew us all salivating in only to leave us for dead at the table, feeling sick and wanting to collapse into our half-finished plates.

The other was following a recipe for pumpkin ravioli with brown butter and sage, and was enamored, in her self-consciously understated way. She dropped sage leaves into melted butter and burned the butter just so. This is the base, and sometimes the whole, of every permutation of my sauce.

I have a kind of paranoid respect for the flavor of sage and browned butter. I don't think it should be messed with. Olive oil is, I feel, an evil addition to it. Other herbs, even black pepper, should be shunned from sage. Garlic is too much competition, and its cloying, under-your-fingernails savoryness clashes with sage's sharp scent.

The furthest I have strayed from the holy diad has been to incorporate bacon and finely chopped onions. This may have been too far.

I do think that the recipe for pumpkin ravioli had it right: the flavor of sage and browned butter should be paired with something a little sweet. But I rarely do this. I have become more attached to the sauce than its place in a dish. I pour it over any old pasta. Once I even put it on chicken and mashed potatoes.

Once the sage leaves have become brownish and brittle in butter, I often remove them before the cream makes them soggy. These crispy, butter-soaked leaves are hard not to devour on the spot, but I like to sprinkle them as a flavorful garnish.

6 August 2011