Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Cooking to Save the Planet: Turning Seasons, Sprouting Potatoes

Another in my series of postings about eating to save the earth (here)--cooking with readily available local ingredients that do not stress the food chain, cooking with what is on hand. As I've noted in my previous postings on this topic, the point of these discussions is not so much to provide recipes but to provoke thought about how readers might look at their own local areas and the food seasonally available in those areas, and cook with the earth in mind.

In this case, the "recipe" (such as it is) begins with a problem: what to do when your potatoes and onions begin, all at once, to sprout? I think this is a common challenge in many households where these workhorses of the larder are gathered in summer and stored through winter. There comes a point when winter is giving way to spring, in which both potatoes and onions begin to sprout. And it seems to happen all at once, to both.

When I noticed this happening last week in my kitchen, it occurred to me that the vegetables were actually signaling to me something positive: that this is a season, the cusp of winter turning to spring, when one can take advantage of the rush of old life to renew itself. Since I had also noticed enticing bunches of green Vidalia onions in the store last week--another late winter, early spring gift of the earth in this area--I decided to stage a meal focusing on winter potatoes and onions, with fresh green spring onions added.

And with a flourish: I think I've mentioned before that I routinely cook soup for a friend. In fact, on her birthday last year, I made a promise (my birthday gift to her) to provide her with a quart of fresh homemade soup each week. This is not a burden at all. We love soup and I keep it on hand all the time. But this arrangement makes cooking the soup even more of a joy, since I know that I am cooking it not only for ourselves but for others.

It happens that this friend has quite the story of a culinary adventure several years ago with her sister. Sister is, as with many scions of old branches of old local families, sometimes a bit on the margins--in a good way, you understand. The kind of way-out-there relative Southern families delight in having--and might as well delight in having, since we seem to breed them so readily.

On the occasion I'm recounting here, Sister and my friend were on a trip through the Amish country of Pennsylvania. Seeing the fields of corn made Sister ravenous for corn, so she pulled up at an Amish farmhouse with a sign about food for sale, rang the bell, and asked what was available.

Noticing bits of corn around the mouths of the children, she pointedly asked if they happened to have any cooked corn for sale. At which point--and probably a tad bit terrified by crazy Southern lady--the shy children went inside and came out with a bowl from the table, full of freshly picked corn on the cob. And the butter dish with a trough in the butter where the family had rolled each cob to butter it.

The angelic children then politely wrapped up the butter in wax paper, handed over their dinner, and off my friend and Sister rode, to find the first turn-off at which they could stop and devour the fresh buttered corn.

All of this is to say that I decided to add corn to this particular pot of soup just so that I could remind the friend with whom I'm sharing the soup about that story. With each batch of soup I give her, I also provide a recipe. This one will begin with, "Find a crazy lady who will terrify Amish children into turning over their dinner of corn to you." I intend to call the soup Amish Potato and Onion Soup.

So I took what I had, plus corn, and this is what happened. After carefully cleaning the green onions (which can hold grit), I chopped them fine (whites and greens) with one of the onions sprouting in my pantry, and slowly wilted these in butter, with a finely chopped rib of celery added. When that had cooked down, I added three tablespoons of flour, stirred it in carefully, and then began adding stock, mixing carefully so that the flour did not lump.

When the bottom of the pot had been well scraped and the pot filled about halfway with water (salt and pepper added to taste), I then added about five of the sprouting potatoes, peeled and cut into small cubes. I brought all to the boil with a handful of chopped parsley added, and then covered and simmered.

After the potatoes had cooked through, I turned off the heat and added several cups of milk with another knob of butter and a bit more flour worked into it, to thicken the soup more. At this point, I added the corn--two 16-ounce packages of frozen corn. I brought the pot to a boil again to help thicken and cook the flour, and then turned it off and added more fresh parsley and ground pepper.

And that was our meal, with good bread and cheese. And somehow a fitting meal on a cold, gray day at the end of winter, when the body longs for something green like the onion blades and parsley (spring), but something substantial as well, like potatoes and onions, milk and butter (winter). It's not a glitzy soup. It's as plain as daisies and clover. But it's as beautiful as those humble blooms we too often take for granted, while we pine for orchids.

And it would be spectacular, I think, with some dried porcini mushrooms added to provide depth to the stock and interest to the potatoes and onions. And hearty, with little drop dumplings added--something I think Amish cooks might be capable of doing. (And, of course, I'm writing about soup this morning because I'm avoiding the continuation of my reflections on Vatican II, which are too much like work, but which will follow.)