I love getting packages in the mail, especially food-related items. Ordering ingredients and kitchen tools is always fun, especially when I’ve forgotten I’d done so and they arrive like surprises, but it’s even more festive and exciting when people send me stuff out of the blue. It feels like an old-fashioned treat, like Christmas, no matter when it happens.
Last spring, for example, a friend who lives in London mailed me two china plates stamped “Manhattan Blue Plate Special” and a big bag of Guinness crisps, which are insanely good and greasy (and gluten-free). If I lived anywhere near where they were sold, I would eat them all the time, so it’s probably lucky I don’t. Last fall, my sister, who lives in Amsterdam, sent me a care package chockfull of treasures from a HEMA shopping spree, including little sake cups, an apron, chocolates, and dishtowels.
And last week, an old friend, a Brooklyn writer who has a house in Costa Rica, sent me a bag of dried black peppercorns from the “winter garden” he and his wife maintain down there. Their airy house, with a cozy wraparound veranda plus a roof with an amazing view, is perched on the side of a steep hill overlooking the Caribbean. Just up the hill behind it, a solid wall of unbroken, thick jungle apparently goes back all the way to Panama.
Many years ago, on my birthday, I sat on their roof veranda, looking out over the lush hillside and ocean while the sun set, drinking rum and eating turtle soup that had simmered all day on their stove. It was a guilty pleasure, but it was memorably delicious, rich and flavorful and tender, and I ate two bowls of it and craved it again when I woke up the next morning.
Another time, a group of us trooped into the jungle behind their house to shoot guns at targets. We got caught in a rainstorm so intense, it was like being in a lukewarm shower turned on full force. Water streamed into our eyes, drenched our faces and shoes. We stumbled back the way we came, but now our machete tracks were obscured by mud and battered leaves, so we got absolutely lost. The wall of vegetation around us was so dense, there was no gauging direction. Somehow, maybe just dumb luck, we found the way out, but there was a tricky half hour or so during which I imagined the many miles to Panama with more than a little nervousness.
Last week, safe and dry in my kitchen in Maine, I opened the double-wrapped package that had just thunked onto the entryway floor through the mail slot. I inhaled the fresh, strong, earthy smell of the peppercorns, instantly inspired to figure out what to do with them. I thought about steak au poivre, but I didn’t feel like a hunk of red meat just then; I wanted something lighter, but satisfying and filling.
And then my thoughts turned to Asian noodle soups. A while back, I learned to make pho from a Vietnamese cook who showed me how to toast a spice bouquet, then simmer it to make the broth. I decided to tinker with that spice combination to make a broth and serve the soup with bright and spicy ginger scallion sauce. For the soup ingredients, I decided on cod, baby bok choy, and shiitakes. I used thick Thai rice noodles, but if I could eat them, slippery, hearty udon noodles would be my first choice for this soup, the perfect combination with the firm fish and tender vegetables.
Fish Noodle Soup With Ginger Scallion Sauce
In a cast-iron skillet over high heat, toast the following spices for about 5 minutes: 5 crushed cardamom pods, 2 teaspoons of authentic homegrown Costa Rican peppercorns, 5 whole cloves, and 5 star anise. Add them to 6 cups of chicken broth in a stock pot along with sea salt to taste, 1 chopped hot pepper, 8 crushed cloves of garlic, a thumb-sized piece of ginger crushed with a meat tenderizer mallet, and a quartered yellow onion with the skin on. Bring the pot to a boil and simmer, covered, for about an hour.
While it bubbles away, make the ginger scallion sauce. In a Cuisinart, mince a thumb-sized piece plus a finger-sized piece (ouch) of ginger, stopping before it becomes a paste. Do the same with a roughly chopped bunch of scallions. Put the scallions and ginger into a big, tall-sided pot – the taller the better, because this is going to be a flash mini-volcano. Add plenty of salt and mix — it should taste just slightly too salty. Heat ½ cup peanut oil until it smokes. Pour the molten oil into the pot all at once, and stand back. When it calms down, stir well, let cool, and put into a serving bowl.
Meanwhile, wash and chop 3-4 heads of baby bok choy, separating whites from greens, and a box of shiitake mushrooms. Cut 1 1/4 pound of cod into bite-sized pieces.
Prepare a package of udon or rice noodles according to the directions on the package.
Pour the hot broth through a strainer into a wok over medium heat, adding couple of dollops of toasted sesame oil. Add the white parts of the baby bok choy and simmer for a few minutes, then add the shiitakes, the green parts, and the cod. Stir and simmer everything for a few more minutes till the fish is flaky and the vegetables are just soft.
Divide the noodles into 4 bowls and ladle the soup over them. Garnish with generous dollops of ginger scallion sauce.
Just as we were heading out to take our walk this morning, Tom Earle, the local farmer, came walking up the icy path across the yard to our front door, asking to tap the maple trees that line the driveway by the barn. We tagged along with him over to the barn, where his pickup truck was parked. He scrambled up into his truck bed to gather stacks of galvanized steel buckets. “Apparently now galvanized steel is no good for eating,” he said, “but I don’t know.” From the cab, he fetched a ball peen hammer, a battery-powered drill, a small metal tap, and a plastic spout.
He approached the nearest maple tree. We followed him, clambering over the hard icy packed snowdrift. They’re old, the trees here, with silvered, hoary bark, tall and shaggy.
He told us this is a good time for mapling now, cold nights and warmer days, when the sap, frozen in the roots all winter, thaws in the sun and rises hydraulically up the trunk and into the branches to feed the tree. “They have vacuum pumps now, the modern maplers, and even with the new machinery, they only get about 7 percent more than with these old methods. And that’s only 10, 20 percent of the tree’s sap. Some of them are planting maple trees a few feet apart and when they get high enough, they go through and whack off the tops and take out the sap that way.” He shook his head and laughed.
“Kind of like mountaintop removal mining,” I said, cringing a little as Dingo took a shit right by the front right wheel of Tom’s truck.
Tom politely ignored Dingo and considered the lower trunk. This one already had a mapling hole in it. “The hole always leaves a little bruise,” he said. “You don’t want to use an old hole.”
He walked around the trunk and stopped. “The sap is everywhere right now, but a good spot is usually under a branch.” He drilled a shallow hole a foot below the biggest low branch, then gently pocked in the metal tap with the hammer. “You can hear the sound change when it hits the sap.” He set the bucket’s handle into the hook in the tap so it was wedged securely just below it. A clear, thin drop welled and pinged into the bottom of the bucket. “The first drop,” he said, attaching the spout.
“I wonder who first thought to tap maple trees,” I said.
“The Indians didn’t have buckets, so they hollowed out tree trunks and set them under the spouts to collect sap,” he said. “And to sugar it off, because they didn’t have pots, they would drop hot rocks into the tree hollows. It’s 40 to 1, the ratio of sap to syrup. It takes two days in a pot with a good fire going. Imagine how long it took with hot rocks.”
“I wonder if animals like maple sap,” I said.
He laughed. “Everyone knows sugar,” he said. “I’ve got a terrible sweet tooth, myself, but we’ll have enough maple syrup left over to sell.” He invited us to visit his sugar hut later on, an invitation we accepted, and then off we went for our walk in the sudden springlike warmth. The dirt road had melted in rivulets and ice shards. The air temperature was less than 30 degrees, but the sun warmed everything up.
By the time we got back, less than an hour later, Tom had moved off to tap another copse of maples, and the trees lining the drive each had two buckets attached to their lower trunks.
It’s amazing to me, a former New Yorker who spent my entire post-school life in the city before I first came up here 5 years ago, to live in such close proximity to people who know how to DO shit, who’ve learned, and who practice, the old traditional ways. When my ex-husband and I renovated our 19th century row house in Greenpoint, we did most of the work ourselves, in part because there was no one to hire. Jon had worked for about 15 years after college as a building contractor, but when his joints gave out and he left that business, there was no one to hand it on to. All the young kids were now in I.T. and media.
Up here, this is not the case. The contractors who renovated our Portland house were our tenants’ best friends; finding them was the easiest thing in the world. I had been wanting to watch someone tap a maple tree, and he came walking up to our front door one warmish late-winter morning.
Sometimes I feel like all I have to do is ask, and I meet someone who has what I want. Last month in Portland, at the first meeting of our newly formed Scotch Club, which is exactly what it sounds like, I idly expressed a yearning to cook moose. It turned out that Bri, who lives two blocks away from us, had a freezer full that she wasn’t sure what to do with; her girlfriend’s father is a hunter.
“I’ll make you a deal,” I said. “If you give me some of that moose, I’ll cook it for the next Scotch Club meeting.”
When I went to her house to collect it, she handed me three packages of frozen meat marked “backstrap,” “New York sirloin,” and “stew meat.” I was so excited I could hardly contain myself. I took them straight home and thawed the packages in a pot of hot water. The meat was a deep ruby-purple. There was no fat on it. It smelled mineral-fresh, not gamey at all; I reserved all the liquid that pooled in the bags from thawing.
I had decided to bourguignon the hell out of the moose, so I used Ina Garten’s recipe, substituting moose for beef. I used plenty of thyme, butter, lardons, cognac, and an entire bottle of dry red wine.
That night’s Scotch club meeting began in the living room with cheese, crackers, and a tasting of the night’s first single malt, Glenfiddich, which we all pronounced smooth and tasty. Then we thronged into the kitchen and filled our plates with buttered fresh gluten-free fettucine topped with moose bourguignon and buttered peas, and alongside, a salad of herb mix and fennel with a strong vinaigrette. The moose meat was tender and savory and stalwart enough to sop up all the rest of the single malts that followed that night.