Cardoon: A Farm to Table Fail

The evolutionary success of our species is in part—a rather large part I suspect—due to the fact that Homo sapiens is an omnivore, meaning we’ll eat damn near everything, even one another. Still and all, a line must be drawn when options are available, and though we owe the brave soul to first eat oysters an everlasting debt, we should reserve only the merest pat of gratitude for the first to eat a thistle.

I have no truck with foods that are overly fussy, over-involved or overpriced—the latter particularly if they’re served for the sake of show—but I’m also adventurous in the kitchen (with mixed results) and since this year I’m growing cardoons, I had to take the plunge. A cardoon is basically a big-ass thistle (the Latin word for thistle is cardo), and cardoons have been grown as a foodstuff around the Mediterranean for millennia. I happen to be growing cardoon because it is a striking plant with silvery-gray serrated leaves up to four feet long growing from a deep root in a spiraling sprawl. Their appeal in the garden is architectural, though they do provide a great habitat for ladybugs, a definite plus for the tomatoes.

Also called an artichoke thistle, the flower bud of a cardoon can be eaten much like an artichoke, but cardoons are usually grown for the table due to the thick spines of their leaves which stripped of the leaf-ettes resemble celery stalks, and from what I could gather are prepared for the table rather much in the same way. Now, that cardoons look like and are cooked like celery should have given me a clue that they weren’t going to make a big impression on me, since celery is very much an incidental in my kitchen, a must-have for soups and stews, and raw with a dollop of pimento cheese on a cold plate, but otherwise not a vegetable I’d serve itself as a side.

When the sectioned cardoon stems were still tough as shoe-leather after a recommended 30-minute boiling, I even went so far as to put them in a gratin, reasoning that almost every damn thing tastes better with cheese. But after all my trouble, the cardoons were simply atrocious: tough, tasteless and utterly without appeal. I’ll be content to enjoy the beauty of the plant and think thrice before I bring it to the table again.

 

Crystal Wings

Disjoint wings, and unless you’re a compulsive chicken-stock person—trust me, I used to be one, take therapy—discard tips, deep-fry until lightly crisp, toss with sloshes of Crystal Hot Sauce and dashes of granulated garlic, then bake on a rack in a moderate (300) oven until dry and lightly crisp. These refrigerate well, but do not freeze.

Spanish Eggplant

You could call this a variation of eggplant Parmesan or you could call it a variation of moussaka but truth be told this method of preparing eggplant for the table—en casserole, with tomatoes, onions and peppers—has been a standard for centuries all over the Mediterranean, the distinction here being roasted red peppers, pimientos, sweet thick-skinned red peppers. This dish is fine right out of the oven, but best served cold as a side for grilled meats.

For the seasoning, use a mixture of dried herbs: three parts basil, two parts thyme, one part parsley and one part oregano. You might sniff and say, “Well, that’s just the same thing as that ‘Italian seasoning’ stuff they sell in the supermarket,” to which I would reply, “No, it is not, because the ratios are different; the supermarket blend has far too much oregano, which will make anything you use it in bitter, so there!”) Use plenty of fresh garlic; at least two large cloves. As to the cheese, you’re going to need a queso blanco though any soft unripened or semi-hard cheese—like a Monterey jack, just sayin’—will work quite well.

Peel two large eggplants and cut into thick slices. Brush these liberally with olive oil—you don’t have to use EVO, people, any good olive oil will do—and grill or broil until slightly blistered and soft. Sauté half a large or one small yellow onion with a sweet thin-walled pepper such as a banana or a poblano—you want about two cups of each, coarsely chopped—with the garlic. To this mixture, add a #300 can of whole tomatoes, quartered with juice and reduce by half. Season to taste—about two tablespoons, perhaps—with the herbal mixture along with a dash (or so) of crushed red peppers, layer two roasted and peeled red bell peppers—or six cherry peppers, if you have them—and eggplant with this mixture, top liberally with cheese and bake in a very hot oven until bubbling and cheese is lightly browned. It’s great with pita.

 

A Garden on the Corner

In everyone’s life there comes a time to keep a garden, and as a healthy middle-aged man with a nurturing spirit, this was mine. The only tools I had were determination and a small shovel.

It’s difficult to find a sunny spot for a garden in Belhaven, but I found one on the corner of Peachtree and Poplar. Year in and year out, the sun shines relentlessly for six to seven hours a day, and the corner lies to the south below a rise that shields it from blistering winter and buffeting summer winds. So I began planning a garden there on a patch of hard-baked soil on public property with a stump in the middle of it.

Surprisingly, having a stump on public property proved to be a plus; dealing with City Hall takes effort in any town, but in Jackson it takes courage tempered with arduous persistence and enduring patience. As it happened, during his brief interim administration in 2009, Mayor McLemore, in a visionary and generous spirit, issued an appeal for citizens to help make the city more attractive by planting gardens on waysides, an appeal to civic pride that perfectly fit my agenda. So I placed a call, and sure enough the city sent a crew; in hours the stump and most of the roots–I still find vestiges–were exhumed and ground into sawdust used to fill the hole left behind.

Then the shoveling began. It took weeks to get a good start because the soil was so hard-packed and big roots were still in place, but kept digging. I had to find soil where I could–don’t ask!–but slowly a garden began to take form, and almost a decade later is still growing on an L-shaped verge between a very busy intersection and a seldom-used parking lot.

On the eastern edge a sidewalk from the north once led to the corner, but its south end had long been covered when the parking lot was built many years ago. Still, since many people came to the corner down that walk, it was clear that I had to provide some way for pedestrians to walk through or around the garden, so I built two short walkways: one a southerly continuation of the old sidewalk that eventually became covered with silt and another shorter one constructed with flagstones and gravel, quite well-traveled, that leads west through the garden into the parking lot. I built four beds along the incline from crown of the hill with some old railroad ties that I found discarded beneath a bridge down the street and with concrete construction rubble that seems to be everywhere here, and a series of beds with brick edging along the southern border on either side of the entrance to the parking lot. When I told a visitor that I wanted to dig up the opposite corner and plant daylilies, he called me a benign blight, a left-handed compliment if I ever heard one.

Plants come solicited from friends and neighbors, some I find on my own; some are—more and more often—left on the purlieus of the garden for adoption, and occasionally I buy seed and sets at Hutto’s. The garden, like any other, has been a learning experience, an engine of maturation and discovery, finding out what will grow well and what won’t on my own more often than from others, learning the angles of sunlight, measuring the rain, all lessons in interacting with light and water and determining levels of care. In time, it has achieved balance and rhythm in step with my own long slow dance through the seasons.

After eight years the street corner has become a joy for me and others: In the spring, the parsley and mustard white and yellow, the iris raise alabaster and porphyry blossoms and the garlic, chives and onions begin breaking through the cool earth; early summer brings butterfly roses, echinacea, zinnias of red and gold, bee-grazed basils of every stripe, bright cosmos, small sweet tomatoes and a clump of papyrus that sways in afternoon rains; autum brings sunflowers that tower over marigolds drooped with butterflies, Clara Curtis spreads her pink bosom and the asters clustered around the sundial erupt in cornflower blue; kitchen greens bring color and provision through the dun and grey of winter before the narcissus tribe seeks the sun.

In time I will join those who have gone before me, but maybe after I go some will come to care for the corner, to hoe and sow, to give water when there is no rain, to keep at bay the grass, asphalt and sand.

Cobbler: A Clarification

Here on the brink of summer, when the markets and roadside stands are about to offer the finest peaches and blackberries in the world, it’s time to brush up on making a cobbler, in my less-than-humble opinion the best way to bring these fruits to the table.

No doubt most of you line a deep dish with a crust, fill it with stewed fruit, top it with another crust—likely one of those cute but fussy lattice types—and call it a cobbler. You can do that, and you would find yourself in agreement with most professional cooks, people who write cookbooks and other types of riff-raff who claim to know their way around a kitchen, but if you ask me—go ahead—this constitutes nothing more than a deep-dish pie. The dish I know of as a cobbler is made with stewed fruit, yes, but does not have a crust as such, meaning one that is made of cut rolled-out dough. My cobbler, instead, is made of stewed fruit and sweet dough made into dumplings, and those that rise to the top of the fruit during cooking brown, giving the dessert a wonderful pied (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) topping, but the most wonderful part is the mixture of fruit and sweet, spongy dumplings below the surface. In the  Midwest, where dowdy is not only endemic but pervasive, this is called a pan dowdy, and New Englanders, with characteristic lyricism, refer to it as a “slump” or a “grunt”.

The recipe is simple, and like most simple recipes, more procedure than ingredients. First stew four cups of fresh fruit in eight cups of simple syrup. Stone fruit, particularly peaches, and berries, particularly blackberries, make the best cobblers, though I had a pineapple cobbler that was wonderful, and I knew a lady who made an awesome cobbler like this out of canned fruit cocktail that was absolutely psychedelic.

For four cups of fresh fruit make six cups of simple syrup and flavor with a teaspoon vanilla; nutmeg is also a nice touch. Stew the fruit in the syrup just enough to infuse the syrup with its flavor, and while hot transfer to a deep baking dish. Make biscuit dough using sweet milk and sugar, knead lightly and roll out to about half an inch, cut into strips, drop by pieces into the hot fruit/syrup mixture and bake in hot (400) oven. Spoon syrup over the dough as it cools. If you don’t serve this with anything other than vanilla ice cream the devil will drag you to hell by your short hairs.

Roaring Tapioca

My sister Cindy was a beautiful woman, and when she was young competed in pageants. Cindy was graceful as well as one of the most informed, well-read people I’ve ever known, but though she was a world-class baton twirler and played passably a clarinet, singing and dancing simply weren’t her strong points.

Nonetheless for a county-level Miss Mississippi preliminary, my mother (a formidable woman who loved her children) decided that Cindy should forego her baton-twirling—which Momma considered totally déclassé—and instead dance to the title tune from the Broadway musical Thoroughly Modern Millie. Cindy practiced her heart out, but she placed first runner-up to a girl who belted out “Stand By Your Man” with such fury that the windows of the Calhoun City school gym rattled. (She also went to MSU; Cindy was enrolled at Ole Miss, and since three of the five judges were State fans, Mother declared that was the deciding factor in their judgement.)

As a result Cindy gave up competitions, and I inadvertently memorized the soundtrack to Thoroughly Modern Millie, including a tune called “The Tapioca”. For the past thirty years (or so) this song (“Join me in the Tapioca?”) was the closest I ever got to actually eating tapioca, since this pudding just isn’t something you typically find on the Southern sideboard. Consequently and moreover tapioca has always in my mind been associated flappers, Fitzgerald and the 1920s. But recently I’ve had a bee in my bonnet over tapioca, a dish I hadn’t thought about in any depth for over thirty years, one I had yet to even taste, and nothing else would do except for me to cook and eat it. Call it mental floss.

Now tapioca isn’t something you typically find in Southern supermarkets; oh, you might find containers of the pudding already made, but almost never the starch itself, usually sold as “pearls”. Tapioca pearls come in two sizes, large and small; the large pearls are about the size of a jeweler’s pearl, whereas the small pearls are the size of those candy sprinkles you’d buy to put on cakes and ice cream. Both are simply a processed form of cassava starch. Pearl tapioca is a common ingredient in South, East and Southeast Asian desserts such as falooda, kolak, sago soup, and in sweet drinks such as bubble tea, fruit slush and taho, so it probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to you all that the only place I could find it was at Mr. Chen’s up on I-55, my favorite shopping destination in the city. I can get anything from Mr. Chen.

Nobody and I do mean nobody cooks tapioca exactly the same way. Everybody soaks the pearls, but for different lengths of time; everybody uses milk for cooking, but everybody uses a different kind of milk; everybody uses eggs, but some use yolks only, some use whipped whites, some use whole eggs, and I read at least two recipes that used all three and called it Colchester pudding. The only thing everyone agreed on was that the pudding needed to be cooked at an even, high heat, but not boiled.

Me, I soaked a cup of large pearls in two cups of water overnight. In the morning they looked very much like cottage cheese. I put the drained tapioca in a slow cooker on high with four cups whole milk and one cup whole cream (you could of course use five cups half-and-half, but I just didn’t have any on hand). After two hours of occasional stirring, the tapioca had thickened considerably, so I beat a whole egg with three egg yolks, tempered it into the mixture by adding the hot tapioca to the eggs bit by bit until it could be added without curdling, cooked it for another half hour then sweetened with a half cup of sugar and flavored with two teaspoons vanilla. This procedure makes enough tapioca pudding—actually more a custard—for at least a dozen people. I served it with raspberry sauce, and at first taste felt as if I stood on the edge of a far-away bay staring at the light on a distant dock.

 

Hot Mustard

Many people serve a baked ham for Easter and with it mustard in degrees of heat and sweet. These confections are made in advance, best at least the night before, though always good to have on hand. This recipe is also good with any smoked meat, particularly turkey. Beat well three whole eggs, combine with a cup of Coleman’s dry mustard, a cup of herb vinegar—balsamic or tarragon—and a half cup of light brown sugar. Cook over low heat until thickened, chill and store. This preparation keeps quite well in a tightly sealed container.