Patrick mentioned in a recent post to the ELC blog that a part of what makes eating local special is the intensity of the flavors. This upped intensity makes me think of the difference in flavors between processed and fresh foods.
When I look at my experience with food over my lifetime, I have experienced the shift from processed-to-fresh twice. My motherwho grew up making meals for a huge familydescribed an arc in her cooking along the processed to fresh continuum over the course of my childhood. I can’t remember much canned food, since that period was pretty early, though waxed beans stick in my head. Of course we had Campbell’s soup and that sort of thing for lunches. Garlic was garlic salt, herbs were dried, butter was margarine. Olive oil wasn’t. Gradually more frozen vegetables showed up, instead of canned. Remember, of course, that this was Michigan in the seventies, before cheap gas and the impact of California-cuisine made trucked-in fresh vegetables standard in the winter. Then, increasingly, as her skills became more refined and her palette more sophisticated, we ate all fresh vegetables, fresh herbs, real butter, olive oil. My mom has always credited Julia Child for really opening her eyes culinarily. By the time I was a teenager, my mother was doing catering on the weekends.
So that was the first transition for me. Then I grew up and left home, and, like a good American, rebelled against everything I had learned. I ate processed food like it was going out of style (would that it were!). I regressed and ate spaghettios and franks; I ate things my mom would never serve, like Kraft mac & cheese; I tested out all the frozen “entrees;” and noshed my way through the fast-food chains and midwestern eateries. It wasn’t that I didn’t know how to cookI started cooking when I was in my early teens at homeit’s that I had decided that cooking wasn’t me.
It was actually not until my early thirties that I really returned to cooking with pleasure and enthusiasm. When I met Patrick he was a fast-learning fledgling culinary adventurer. One of the first meals he made me was an amazing Mexican stew, from Elizabeth Lambert Ortiz, her Pollo con Especiasspiced chickento which he had added various vegetables. It was rich and mysterious. I was nervous and wary. Then I was won over by its hearty deliciousness, and by the man who would serve me such wonder, made by his own hands.
Patrick and I embraced cooking (and quite a few pounds) together early in our relationship, exploring various ethnic cuisinesIndian and Mexican being our favorites. Later, on moving to the Bay Area, we were further influenced by the fresh-foods culture of northern California. After reading Fast Food Nation and deciding not to eat fast food or factory-farmed meat any longer we were nudged even further toward the fresh and the home-cooked, as the restaurants we plied in the Bay Area were not, generally, serving sustainably-raised meats. (We still miss the flavors of the amazing Mexican food stands. I am grateful that we experienced them before our “conversion”!)
And so, another arc from processed to fresh, whose end point I have still not discovered. And both times this arc has brought me to a more vivid appreciation for what I taste and ingest. Sometimes “intensity” feels like a term to describe “untutored” as when I experiment with spelt in my bread-baking! As we experiment with some new ingredient or cooking method I am brought to mind of what cooking for a family must have been like before the world’s foodstuffs were at our fingertips at our local stores. Heck, before there really were much in the way of cookbooks to even suggest some interesting variations on the same old salt pork stew or griddle cakes!
All of which brings me to the subject of this post: salad dressing. Yes, folks, all that was an introduction to a discussion of salad dressing.
Patrick and I have developed a certain division of labor in the kitchen. Some things we cook together, but certain things are always made by one or the other of us. Patrick, for example, makes the stocks, and the mayo. I always make the salad dressing.
Salad dressing, vinaigrette, more precisely, is something I learned at my mother’s elbow, starting as her “taster” and becoming the creator. Vinaigrette might just be the iconic food for me in that arc I described from processed to fresh. I have loved salad my whole life (to my mother’s delight), but in my preteen years that meant Wish Bone Italian dressing. I loved that dressing. I can still sharply visualize the little mysterious bits floating in the vinegar layer at the bottom of the bottle, beneath the top level of oil. I remember a driving trip to Torontowhen I was ten, maybeand learning that they didn’t have Italian dressing in Canada. I know it’s about too Midwest for words, but when I think about it, that symbolized cultural difference to me at the time. So I switched to the local favorite: French dressingsticky-sweet orange stuff in plastic packets or little plastic cups. I cannot remember the first time my mother served a vinaigrette she made herselfI’ll have to ask about that.
I love salad dressing because it is a thing that I know so well that I feel comfortable experimenting, and it is a generous condiment, easily embracing seasonal or newly-discovered ingredients.
Deb Madison is one of our favorite cookbook authors, as evidenced by our sticky, crinkly, cracked-spine version of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone. I have used and adapted a number of her dressings. One of my current favorite dressings is adapted from her Blue Cheese dressing. This is her recipe:
6T extra virgin olive oil
2T sour cream or yoghurt
5tsp sherry or aged red wine vinegar
3oz blue cheese such as Maytag, crumbled
1T snipped chives
salt & freshly ground black pepper
This evolved to my standard version:
2T sour cream (or yoghurt)
5T olive oil
1T Walnut oil
1T aged balsamic
2T white wine vinegar
1T red wine vinegar
3oz bleu cheese (crumbled)
minced tarragon and thyme
I look at the recipe I just transcribed and think, that’s just the kind of vague recipe that used to drive me nuts! “s&p”! How much salt and pepper?! How much tarragon and thyme? And now I would say, well, it depends on how haggard the tarragon and thyme plants are looking. Sometimes we’ve over-used the poor things and I use less, or scrounge for some other herb, or use none at all. Salt and pepper, yup, to taste. Our favorite blue right now is Rogue Creamery’s, but it definitely needs to be a crumbly blue, and I like a pretty strongly flavored one for this recipe. Deb’s choice of Maytag works well.
A note about assembly: I start with the s&p, sour cream, and vinegar, whisking all to a smooth consistency. Then I whisk in the oils gradually so I get a smooth emulsion. When it is blended to my satisfaction, I ditch the whisk, and mix in the blue cheese with a fork. If you use the whisk for the cheese, it will gather all the blue cheese within its tines and be a pain to clear out.
So, being in charge of salad dressing, when we embarked on the ELC, I was thrown into a mild panic. What was I to do about olive oil, about vinegar? After calming down and exploring a bit, I made my first mostly-local attempt:
2T cider vinegar
2T pear vinegar
2T walnut oil
3T sunflower oil
4T olive oil
2T sour cream
3 oz Rogue Valley Hazelnut smoked bleu cheese
tarragon & thyme
So, first the not local: walnut and olive oils, from California, salt from Utah, and pepper from somewhere far far away.
The cider vinegar is bulk from our co-op, and is probably local, but not for sure. I am using it preferentially, even though we’re not sure, because it could be made locally, as apples are plentiful here, and it seems important to learn to adjust our cooking to favor what can easily be produced in our locale. Someday, someone may develop the skills and experience to make something like aged balsamic here, but that will take a while. Meanwhile, I will learn to work with what we’ve got!
The asian pear vinegar is made by a Portland outfit, Blossom Vinegars, that we found at the farmer’s market. They make fruit and vegatable vinegars. The flavors are young and, yes, intense, but pretty good. We bought the Walla Walla and the Asian Pear varieties.
The sunflower oil is made by a very cool couple, Bruce and Molly, who live about a mile from us. (Their company name is Green Machine Biofuels, and Patrick asked if they did biodiesel. Apparently they had planned to initially, and then decided they didn’t want to go the route of being a fuel company.) When we asked them about where their seed stock came from, Molly said “Oh! What a good question!” and meant it. She knew, too. We got the sunflower seed oil, since it was sourced closerNorth Dakota. Their sesame seed came up from Mexico. They have not been able to find a closer provider of seed stock yet. We were pretty excited to find a locally pressed, organic, and domestically-grown oil, though, where the producers could identify the origin of the seed. On top of all that, it’s really good. Pricey, though. $15 for 350 ml. For that reason, we are using it judiciously, blended with less expensive oils.
The sour cream was Nancy’s, made in Eugene by Springfield Creamery. They source their milk from Northwest dairy co-op members, most of whom are within 50 miles of Eugene, which is 100 miles from usso mostly all the milk should be within our foodshed!
The tarragon and thyme come from our herb garden.
I served this on red leaf from the farmer’s market and roasted oregon hazelnuts. It came out prety well, the blue cheese softened the sharpness of the vinegars, but it was less subtle than I am used to. We had the same batch a couple days later (stays great in the fridge), and it had softened a bit, but it will require some development.
I made a second attempt at local dressing this week, this time to serve on a salad of romaine from our garden. Two heads that we planted in October survived various transplants and frosts and are well-sized for eating now. It was a lunch salad, topped with line-caught canned albacore tuna. The tuna was caught off Santa Cruz, not very local for us, but we bought the can in Oakland, so it was closer then! I crumbled some roasted hazelnuts on top, and served a couple slices of soft sheep’s milk cheese on the side of the plate.
The cheese was a new effort by Willamette Valley Cheese Company, a farmstead cheese maker. They also make a Brindisi we’ve been loving. The soft sheep’s cheese is lovely, and the only sheep cheese in Oregon so far. I really wish we could have sheep. And goats. And pigs.
Ah well, back to the dressing. Ok, this one was actually much more successful and simpler:
2T pear vinegar
2T sunflower oil
2T olive oil
I think the honey was the key. It softened the sharpness of the young vinegar. I also used less vinegar, and avoided the cider vinegar altogether.
I prepare this salad by mixing the dressing with the tuna, and placing the dressed tuna atop the undressed lettuce. Here I served it also with a bit of crunchy walnut toast from a loaf I made last month and froze. A perfect accompaniment, especially with a generous slathering of Noris butter. It made a super yummy and quite hearty lunch. You can read on the ELC blog about another tasty and local lunch we had recently.
Patrick has said that the ELC will surely change our foodways permanently, and I have to agree. I certainly wouldn’t want to learn about all these great local people, and then stop supporting them! It was amazing this weekend to go to the farmer’s market with a grocery list, to know who I was going to buy each item from, and to be greeted warmly and familiarly by all of them. We haven’t been to New Seasons (which is a great grocery store, but a chain, nonetheless) at all this month.