February 18, 2012

Blog the Fifth: Carrots Lemony

Left Flank to a Pork Chop Breaded & Broiled
(and a RED ready-to-hand)

Well, we’re still working on that weekday dinner from two blogs ago, of a pork chop breaded & broiled, flanked by broccoli all'aglio e olio, a.k.a., broccoli garlicy, and marinated carrots, to be here dubbed carrots lemony

Now in the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that not only are carrots lemony not a dish of my people, but I have introduced them into the family over the objections of my father.  Whenever anyone says how delicious the carrots are, my father may be relied upon to explain why they’re not.  He thinks they don’t taste like anything, just boiled.  Well, don’t you mind him, Gentle Reader, just let him talk.  I suspect that he would like the boiled carrots better if instead of a litte white wine vinegar with lemon I put a lot of Balsamic vinegar on them, but that would just give them the familiar taste satisfaction of his usual vinaigrette, at the expense of suppressing the flavor of carrot. 

What I like about this dish is that the restrained use of vinegar to season the carrots and the final spurt of lemon juice just before bringing them to table bring the carrot flavor unexpectedly into relief, brightened with refreshing lemoniness.  People often exclaim, “They’re so refreshing!”  The dressing of a boiled vegetable with olive oil and lemon juice has a special name in Italian, all’agro, which loosely translates as “sour”.  Well, “sweet and sour” sounds good in English, and “sour cherries” doesn’t sound bad, but “sour carrots” does.   Even “tart carrots” doesn’t quite cut it.  So I go for the fun epithet lemony.

But it’s only fun if the epithet follows the noun.  Don’t ruin my fun, Gentle Reader, by replacing my displaced modifier to its prosaic position: ‘lemony carrots’ is pedestrian.  Granted it’s of a pedantic variety, you should let me have my fun. At the risk of ruining the joke, let me explain it.  Such displacement of a word from its usual position is a turn of phrase called a hyperbaton in Rhetoric (the art of arranging words so as to please).  In English, a deferred adjective is sometimes called a Gallicism, because English often does so in imitation of French.  In French (and Italian, and Latin) it is common for the adjective to follow the noun; when we mimic their word order in English, it comes out sounding elevated, charming, or humorous.  Carrots lemony mimics the word order of carrota all’agro in Italian, and its recessive accents jingle the English words in humorous mimicry of the musical upbeat of such Italian phrases as all’agro and all’aglio e olio.  I figure there’s no way American English can take food or itself as seriously as Italian, so why not make fun out of it with some of our charm Americano?

It’s not only the lemoniness of carrots lemony that surprises the palate, it’s also the herbaceous aroma of raw garlic and the little bites of oregano and black pepper.  They don’t seem like natural companions to carrots, especially boiled ones, but they are.  It often expands an eater’s eyes and raises his brows when he tastes carrots lemony the first time, as if to say, who thought carrots could taste like this?  It’s a bit like a mild child who seems a tad dull on his own, but in the company of irritating ones suddenly seems deliciously sweet.  Sweet REDS like carrots, beets, or red peppers, need a great deal of spice when cooked (especially salt) or else they seem flaccid.  In carrots lemony, the tartness of lemon juice coupled with the pungency of black pepper and oregano make the mildly sweet carrot gain traction from the contrasts.

My people often capitalize on the native sweetness of carrots in a sauté of onion, carrot, and celery, to serve as a base to a principal food.  The sweetness in such a sauté comes from the carmelization of the sugars in the carrot and onion—my people don’t like to add sugar, we’d rather educe Nature’s.  So turning the usually serviceable carrot into a food of honor is surprising, even suspicious.  The first look carrots lemony get from a newcomer is often that of a diffidence which only magnifies the delight of them once tried.   I have a vegetarian friend who doesn’t like vegetables (crazy, huh?), and his vegetarian‑wife had to prod him several times to try the carrots—his confused delight bespoke a baby‑step taken toward gustatory adulthood.

I got the original of this recipe from Marcella Hazan, and I can’t remember if she says where she got it from.  Its use of oregano and raw garlic suggests southern lineage, but the boiling of a root vegetable for a main food sounds northern.  Also northern is the industriousness of whittling carrots down into bite-sized bits—such care for a root vegetable looks like industry making the best of indigence.  Lucky for us, however, the willingness in our own day of many a gentile mother to hand off a fistful of raw baby carrots as their daily recommended vegetable to those picky little eaters of hers ceaselessly running their circles in imitation of the electrons that constitute them creates market demand that reliably supplies the rest of us with a hill of bagged baby carrots at the supermarket, and often on sale.  If not for that, I would not make this dish, its convenience being for me a decisive complement to its humble charms.  

My choice of these carrots to complement the white meat and green vegetable reflects my people’s way of cooking by color.  We cook by color because by the grace of Nature’s singular election we can.  In the North of Europe, Nature is a stepmother stinting of her gifts and careless of her children’s welfare.  If not for human industry and economy (and Mediterranean imports), dinner would be poor, nasty, brutish, and short (likely solitary as well, the competition for survival making diffidence more likely than fellowship).  But on the south side of the Italian peninsula, Nature is a bountiful mother who provides her darlings with paradisal gardens in which the beautiful may be trusted to be good, and the good beautiful.  There, what delights the eye likewise pleases the palate and also nourishes the body.  If you but take joy in her variety, Nature sees to your nurture.  You don’t need a food pyramid to plan dinner.

There’s no avoiding it, Gentle Reader:  your plate is a palette, and you are an artist.  You can be a bad artist, to be sure, but you cannot not be an artist.  Say what you like, do as you please, your dinner plate will be staring you in the face, a kind of mirror of your soul.  You don’t want your soul to be beige, do you?  Then in cooking, take thought for color. 

The primary colors of things edible are the GREEN, the WHITE, and the RED.  Eat GREEN, RED & WHITE, and you’ll eat right, without too much talking about it.  Talk of health belongs in the doctor’s office or gym, not at the dinner table.  I have a friend who likes to tag onto her compliments of my dishes, “And it’s so healthy too!” knowing that I’ll scowl back, “So what?”  I hate conceptual eating.  Cooking and eating are about a grace of the present moment, incarnated at hand for savoring by sight, smell, and touch.  If you want to think, think with your tongue.  If you want to talk, talk about what’s before you.  Be where you’re at.  Attend:  God is speaking.

So my pork chop counts for the WHITE, my broccoli for the GREEN, and my carrots for the RED.  After variety of color, I seek variety of texture.  The primary elements of touch triangulate:  there’s the HOT & the COLD; the WET & the DRY; and then there’s the OILY.  My broiled meat joins the HOT & the DRY, and the sautéed vegetable the HOT & the OILY, so I choose carrots lemony for the COLD & the OILY.  Within this pleasing variety of contrariety run also continuities of theme and variation:  garlic both sautéed with the broccoli and raw with the carrots; olive oils both fried with garlic and fresh with lemon; one vegetable sautéed and the other boiled.

Carrots lemony are a great convenience, especially in winter, because the RED is often the hardest to get on the plate.  They keep well in the fridge for a week or two, ready‑to‑hand when you need a RED quick & easy.  This recipe is an atrophied specimen of Italian pickling.  Before the fridge came along, summer vegetables were preserved for winter use by first boiling them in water and vinegar (the pickling), drying and seasoning them, and then putting them up in jars covered with oil, sub olio (rather than in their pickling brine—now isn’t that genius?).  The oil smothers any despoiling bacteria; it also mellows the food.  My mother makes delicious eggplant sub olio when the eggplant is abundant in August, and my gentile friends love it with antipasto, or else mixed with sweet roasted red peppers for a vegetable side to a roasted meat.  It’s also my go-to sandwich-moisturizer.  Call this a trailer for a future blog.

These carrots lemony aren’t boiled with vinegar, however, and they won’t last too long, even though they’re stored under oil.  Given refrigeration, the oil is no longer strictly necessary, but there’s still that collateral benefit of imbuing the food with the delectability of olive oil.  Can’t go wrong with that, can we?  In fact, when I buy foods preserved in brine, such as olives, I often drain them, put them in a jar, and cover them with olive oil.  I then store them in a cabinet and they just get more and more delicious as they steep.  Plato’s Socrates says that every artist loves the work of his own hands—no surprise, then, that olives love olive oil. In the case of olives, I find that I can use the same olive oil for quite a long time:  I just stick my nose in the jar, and if it smells delicious, I keep feeding the jar new olives.  When the oil stops smelling delicious (and before it starts to smell bad), I change the oil once the remaining olives are used up. 

Isn’t it about time that we start  to making these baby carrots?  I like the fat ones. For a time, I favored the littler ones, on the conceit that they were more elegant, but one day when the fat ones were on sale, I tried them and saw that greater maturity gave greater flavor and their denser substance better satisfaction to the tooth—making me realize that I had succumbed to the gourmet vanity of confusing the delicate with the delicious.  Caveat edens!

So, I put a pot of water to boil, throwing in a tablespoon of salt, a half dozen black peppercorns, and some bay leaves (I wouldn’t object to your steaming them).  Meanwhile, I sort out the fattest babies from the rest and throw them in first, after the water comes to a rolling boil, to give them a head start; a minute or two later, the rest of the babies go in.  When carrot perfume begins to permeate the air, I start checking them for doneness, and as soon as a fork goes through a fat one with even resistance, they’re done.  They generally take around 10 minutes to boil to al dente, still offering a pleasurable resistance to the tooth, but without any hard core to stick in your teeth.

I have a wide sieve made for berries, which I love dearly, and I pour the carrots out onto it in a single layer.  While they’re still steaming, I shower them with salt (yes, more salt), great grindings of black pepper, and generous pinches of oregano. The steam transmutes into an aromatic cloud which I breathe deeply in.  Once the carrots stop steaming, I sprinkle them all over with vinegar—the original recipe calls for red-wine vinegar, but I’ll use white-wine vinegar for a brighter taste or white Balsamic for a sweeter taste—letting excess vinegar fall through the sieve.

Then I get a bowl and with the heel of my hand crush a garlic clove hard against the bottom of it, thereby loosening the peel and juicing the clove; pulling the peel away, I pull apart the smashed clove, and use the exposed halves to rub the bowl with garlic milk.  Then I pour out the carrots into the bowl.  Next comes olive oil.

Marcella’s recipe says to cover the carrots completely in extra virgin olive oil and let them steep for hours.  I recoil at this prodigality (after all, they’re only carrots), considering how expensive extra virgin olive oil is (even by the gallon), so I was very happy when I tried it once and thought the extra virgin taste overwhelmed the carrot taste.  The way I see it, if the taste of e.v.o.o. is what you want, put out a pretty little gourmet dish of extra virgin and let people dip bread into it, saving yourself any further trouble and expense.

When I steeped the carrots covered in regular olive oil, I liked the result better. But then I got this bright idea:  I very generously dress them with extra virgin olive oil and keep turning them over every so often all afternoon, using friction to marinate them.  If I cant’ be bothered, then after a thorough mixing in a generous dressing of extra virgin, I pour regular olive oil to cover them and leave them to steep; when time comes to serve them, I use a slotted spoon to get them to a serving bowl.  Either way, right before going to table, I give them a nice squirt of lemon juice, and taste them for tartness, salt and spice, or even a little extra drizzle of extra virgin, correcting as needed.

When it comes time to store uneaten babies to be ready-to-hand for another dinner or two, then I remove the smashed garlic pieces (which become too assertive over time for my taste), and store the carrots covered with regular olive oil.  I keep them in the fridge, because they don’t keep at room temperature.  When time comes to use them, I make sure to let them dechill to room temperature.  Then I take what I want with a slotted spoon, and, if in a generous mood, give them a fresh drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, and taste to see if they would like some more lemon juice or salt. 

More salt?  Yes, Gentle Reader, I can’t tell you where it goes, but leftover food often loses its saltiness.  If you tell me that it can be chemically proven that the same quantity of salt is in the food as at the start, that only tells me that the quality of saltiness is irreducible to the quantity of sodium chloride it happens to occupy.  If salt loses its savor, what else could salt the salt?  What’s the use, but to add some new salt, believe it or not.

Now for another matter unbelievable:  gentile eaters cannot be relied upon to know a garlic clove when they see one.  As I’ve said before, my people often leave in the dish pieces of garlic large enough to be seen and left uneaten.  Chomping on a garlic clove is a pleasure peculiar to only a few, for a raw garlic clove assaults an assayer with a bracing pungency and leaves in its wake an unsociable odor.  But even Gentiles who have been warned will manage to take one in, bite on it, be shocked, exclaim!, and—here’s the unbelievable part—not spit it out, but swallow it whole, wincing all the way.  Given the times, I advise you, Gentle Reader, to remove your garlic cloves before bringing your carrots lemony to a tableful of gentiles.

Carrots Lemony

* Boil baby carrots al dente in well salted water, with several peppercorns and a bay leaf. Drain, and while still steaming in the sieve, let them be seasoned with much salt, black pepper, and pinches of oregano.
* When the steaming ceases, sprinkle evenly all over with wine vinegar, allowing excess to drain through sieve.
* Crush a garlic clove hard against the bottom of a bowl, and use the halves to rub the bowl. Add carrots and very generously dress them with extra virgin olive oil. Flip them over and over to marinate. Let steep all afternoon. Either flip them every so often in the extra virgin olive oil, or else cover them with regular olive oil and leave them be (if you opt to cover, when time comes to serve, use a slotted spoon to remove them to the serving dish, leaving behind excess oil).
* Before serving, sprinkle with lemon juice; taste and correct for tartness, salt, and spice.