The so-called Minimalist in the NY Times had a piece on 101 Simple Salads for the Season this week. But I'd suggest those dozens of salads are not nearly simple or minimal enough.
There's something primal about the absolute freshness of food in season now that makes me regularly want to eat it plain and unadorned, except perhaps with a little butter and salt. How else to taste the sweetness of a cucumber pulled off the vine just minutes ago? Or the earthy subtleties of a potato newly dug?
Of that subtlety and sweetness, I'd further suggest that these days only people who grow food are true gourmets. Because only they know the characteristic differences in taste or quality of "Blue Lake" vs. "Maxibel" green beans, for example, or how a "Greening" apple differs from a "Transparent." The supermarket mono-culture prevents your knowing the varietal name of your cucumber or carrot (after all, food is only fuel - in every sense - in that world). And even if you ask the produce manager and they happen to know, you can only be sure next week of more of same.
But if you ask the person who actually grew your food "what variety is this?" - it's pretty likely that they'll either remember or be able to dig out the seed package and tell you. And if you're lucky, they'll also have more of it next week. We're fortunate that every Tuesday Deb sends a list of the food we'll be getting in the Tantré box - including the names of the seeds it came from and describing its characteristic qualities. Becoming a scholar of the seasonal varieties is a new and exciting frontier in knowing the story behind my food. And I've started with pestering the people at the market with this question.
What got me thinking about the importance of fruit and vegetable varieties was actually a carrot from Frog Holler Organic Farm. A week ago, I came home from the market with the existential hunger - you know, the kind where you're considering gnawing off your own arm. And I took a bite of my innocent-looking carrot without even washing it, even though I don't especially love carrots so much. Shockingly, that carrot was like the fine wine of carrots. It had a honeyed sweetness, a delicate crunch, and a gingery finish. Pure perfect carrot. It was the best carrot I've ever had. And for once, I noticed. I hadn't realized I had a carrot-shaped hunger inside. And I wanted more. Of that carrot and ones related to it. But how, when I didn't even know its name?
It made me realize how impoverished my knowledge is of favorite varieties. This is information people used to know. And it's something I could be looking forward to every year. For example, Mary Wolfe has 2 types of apricots right now and she let me try them both. One type has a beautiful rosy blush, and is smaller and more tart. She says it's called "Harcot." Mary also has another type that's larger, sweeter and evenly golden called "Harlayne." They're both wonderful. But for making apricot butter, I definitely want the larger, sweeter "Harlayne."
Recently, I came across a 1940s Michigan cooking pamphlet on "putting food by" that identified the best fruit varieties for preserving. At least half I've never heard of:
Apples: Baldwin, Cortland, Greening, Jonathan, McIntosh, Northern Spy, Start, Rome Beauty, Staymen
Apricot: Blenheim, Royal, Tilton
Blueberries: Adams, Cabot, Concord, Katherine, Jersey, June, Pioneer, Rancocos, Rubel
Cherries: English, Morello, Lambert, Montmorency, Sour Red, Sweet Bing
Cranberries: Early Black, McFarlin, Howes
Currants: Perfection, Red Lake, Wilder
Dewberries: Boysenberries, Loganberries, Lucretia, Olympic, Youngberries
Gooseberries: Glendale, Poorman
Peaches: Champion, Cumberland, Elberta, Fireglow, Hale, Haven
Plums: Damson, Yellow Egg
Prunes: Imperial Epineuse, Italian, Petite Stanley
Rhubarb: MacDonald Ruby
Strawberries: Catskill, Culver, Dorsett, Dunlap, Fairfax, Julymorn, Premier, Redheart, Sparkle
Dewberries? What are those? Cranberries come in different varieties? Where can I get a Yellow Egg plum? My grandmothers have forgotten more than I'll ever know.
After that bite of awakening carrot, I made lunch out of more carrot, plus cucumber, corn, and potatoes. I wanted to really taste them - plain and unencumbered by utensils. Like I said, it was a primal moment - of particular food from a particular place. It brought to mind a quote from a book I'm reading - about the strengthening qualities of food from one's home place:
"The staple food of each locality still ties people to their land and their community today. Indians from Bangladesh to Tamil Nadu believe that the local qualities of the soil and the water are absorbed into the grain crop. When the grain is consumed it imparts these qualities to the population, giving them their strength. In Bangladesh, rice grown on village land is valued as more nutritious and more filling than rice bought at the market. Eating local-grown rice fills the villagers with the nature of their home and binds them to their community. Before setting out on a journey, a traveler is required to eat large amounts of village-grown rice, to fill him with the essences of home."
I'm guessing that rice, filled with the essence of home, has a name that everyone knows. And I know the food here also absorbs the local qualities of our soil and water and when it is consumed gives us our strength.
I went back to the market last week to learn the names in my minimalist lunch: "Diva" cucumbers, "Red Norland" potatoes. At Frog Holler, the woman I asked said that at the farm they call this variety "the candy of carrots." Its name is: "Nelson."