Sunday, October 31, 2010
Posted by Kate at 1:42 PM
Tonight we'll have our first serious frost. Temperatures forecast below freezing, so no ambiguity. October is the month of goodbyes to all the bounty of summer. The last vine-ripened tomato. The last eggplant. The last basil and parsley and tender sage. A last flurry of harvests, and a growing appreciation for the sturdy leeks and kale that will hang on a few more weeks through the early frosts. We draw in, rummage through the freezer for ingredients, turn our thoughts to the canning jars in the cellar, full of preserved spring and summer.
So today I gathered huge fistfuls of parsley. They will keep for a few more days in the refrigerator. You know this trick, don't you? Place them in a large drinking glass full of water, cover them with a plastic bag, and secure the bag with a rubber band. Really, they'll keep beautifully for about a week if they're cut fresh.
But I've also been longing to prepare a recipe I came across in Emelie Carles' book, A Life of Her Own. It's not a cookbook, but a sort of memoir, from the era before memoirs were fashionable to write and trivial to read. This book is sturdy, like the peasant woman who wrote it. Yes, she called herself and her neighbors peasants, and used the term matter-of-factly, with neither pride nor shame. This endeared her to me immediately. I like the word peasant, and feel an affinity for it in the sense of being tied to the land. I recommend the book to anyone interested in how people lived in a isolated mountain valley from the beginning to the middle of the 20th century.
In the Claree Valley, where Emilie Carles lived all her life, wild greens and herbs were available for the picking for more months out of the year than any cultivated crops. She sketched a simple soup made with an evenhanded mixture of many of these foraged foods, plus a bit of garlic, and potato or rice. It sounded far too good to resist. So I also gathered all the herbs and greens I could find today. Madame Carles stressed that the key was to balance all these green ingredients, so that no one flavor predominates in the soup.
"Wild" arugula - Though in fact it was something I planted deliberately once upon a time. Now it simply shows up all over the property.
Dandelion - Began reappearing in the cool fall weather after a summer hiatus.
Sage - Only the tiniest leaves now meet my fussy standards. The bigger ones have toughened up too much in the chill.
Nettles - A transplant put in before our long hot summer. Apparently thrives on utter neglect.
Chives - Because the recipe doesn't call for any onion, and how could I resist?
Parsley - Surely the backbone of any herb and potato soup.
Thyme - Two tiny sprigs of regular, plus one tiny sprig of lemon thyme.
Altogether my herbs and greens came to 100 grams, or 3.5 ounces. The parsley and chives were finely minced, the rest well diced. I started the soup with a generous hunk of butter to saute the minced garlic. I debated the authenticity of this fat however. Would an Alpine peasant more likely cook with lard, or butter? Lard seemed more likely to me, and I could have started the soup with some of my home cured lardo. But I didn't feel inclined that way today, so butter it was. Once the garlic had sizzled a bit, the finely minced parsley and chives went in to sizzle for a couple of minutes as well. The rest of the greens and herbs went in along with a double handful of our potatoes, cut up onto bite size pieces. I added a good pinch of kosher salt and several twists of white pepper.
I added just barely enough water to cover, wanting to test how much flavor the ingredients would give a simple water broth. There was always the possibility of adding some chicken stock later, if it needed a little sumpin' sumpin'. So keeping the liquid minimal at this stage was important to preserve that option. I let it simmer gently for 15 minutes and tasted. The broth was very flavorful, but I still thought the chicken stock would benefit it. I added 1 1/2 cups of that and another pinch of salt. This is probably an unforgivable deviation from authentic French low cuisine. But you know what? It's really fantastic! Green tasting, with a straightforward integrity, and yet also a complex interplay of flavors among the greens and herbs. And everything but the salt and pepper were produced right here.
This may well become a late October tradition on the homestead.