Some thoughts on Salt

I just finished reading “Salt: A World History” by Mark Kurlansky. Having started but never quite finished a few of his books including “Cod” and “A Basque History of the World,” it felt good to finally make it to the last page of this one.For me, reading this book was like a continuation of “Wild Fermentation” by Sandor Katz, another book that mixes history and ideas with recipes, and talks a lot about salt. I read “Wild Fermentation” about 4 years ago and began a fermentation kick that hasn’t really stopped since. I followed Sandor’s advice in that book to make my first batch of sauerkraut, measuring the cabbage, water, and salt very carefully. I was nervous that somehow, something would go wrong, and I remember setting aside a ridiculously large amount of time.

Today, having pickled many a cucumber, cabbage, pepper, garlic, and what have you, I realize how simple the process really is. Take vegetable, add salt and water. Cover. Wait. Eat.

The first thing that struck me when reading “Salt” was how incredibly old and widespread is the use of salt to preserve food. People have been pickling food and preserving meat for millennia. What’s amazing is how arcane and mysterious these techniques have become in such a short period of time. I’ve had my share of smoked salmon and other fish, but I’ve never even seen salt cod, which was a huge part of people’s diets and until recently. The use of salt to preserve food quickly became unnecessary for many people after the invention of the tin can and then refrigeration, two inventions which significantly changed the way people eat.

I probably won’t think about this every time I make sauerkraut (we’ve been ordering way too much cabbage at the place where I’m working now, I’m not a total kraut-fiend) but last time I thought how what I was doing was the exact same process that people have been using for thousands of years.

Another interesting part of the “Salt” story was how, there used to be hundreds of different kinds of salt, identified by where the salt was made and known by their different characteristics and impurities. Some were better for cooking, some for curing or preserving, etc. Different saltworks made salts of different qualities, and they had different values to a consumer. Now, there are basically two kinds of salt, kosher and iodized. Of course there are high-end salts like fleur de sel and whatnot also (produced by the same companies that make the cheap salt). A few months ago I was at a restaurant in Portland where they had a salt bar, where you could sample different kinds of salt. At the time I thought it was pretentious and didn’t pay much attention to it (the food was delicious and interesting though) but having read “Salt” I think I might give it a chance, since I think maybe what they were trying to do was recreate some of the diversity of salts that existed until only about 100 years ago or so (although I still think it’s a little pretentious).

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Not Any Old Corned Beef Sandwich




Not Any Old Corned Beef Sandwich

Originally uploaded by blixx

If, perhaps, when you were eating a corned beef sandwich, you suddenly realized that you had made almost the entire sandwich from scratch, including baking the bread, making the mayonnaise, making the sauerkraut, and brining and then cooking the corned beef, then maybe you would take a picture of it too.

Twelve Ways to Eat Chickpeas

subjatlasofpalestine-chickpeas.jpg

Is only one of the features in a new book “Subjective Atlas of Palestine,” designed by Annelys de Vet, in collaboration with Palestinian artists. From their release:

Sublime landscapes, tranquil urban scenes, frolicking children; who would associate these images with Palestine? All too often the Western media show the country’s gloomy side, and Palestinians as aggressors. It is this that makes identifying with them virtually impossible. If we are to relate to the Palestinians other images are needed, images seen from a cultural and more human vantage point.

The Dutch designer Annelys de Vet invited Palestinian artists, photographers and designers to map their country as they see it. Given their closeness to the subject, this has resulted in unconventional, very human impressions of the landscape and the architecture, the cuisine, the music and the poetry of thought and expression. The drawings, photographs, maps and narratives made for this atlas reveal individual life experiences, from preparing chickpeas to a manual on water pipe smoking, from historic dress to modern music. Pages containing humorous and caustic newspaper cartoons and invented Palestinian currency followed by colourful cultural diaries and moving letters from prisoners.

All in all, the contributions give an entirely different angle on a nation in occupied territory. In this subjective atlas it is the Palestinians themselves who show the disarming reverse side of the black-and-white image generally resorted to by the media.

While I think that sometimes culture is overly focused upon in order to divert attention away from political realities, this project doesn’t seem like it falls into that trap (just from the info on their website). Looking forward to reading this book.

(Thanks to Culibog for the tip).

A Day of Firsts

Yesterday I woke up on my day off at 7am so I could get on a bus to Lago Verde, which is a town about two hours from here, a few miles from the Argentine border. Lillian invited me along, and said a bunch of folks were going to play some soccer and hang out. Someone asked me if I wanted to play and I asked if it was like a town against town kind of thing, whether La Junta would be playing against Lago Verde, because although I don’t mind me some soccer, I’m pretty bad so I didn’t want to get into that. I was assured that it wasn’t like that. So I said sure, I’ll play some soccer and come along.

A few hours later, after some tea and sandwiches at the (no joke) sheriff’s house, I was invited to see the lake and visit one of my coworker’s family’s farm. As we walked by, they said, oh, why don’t you just ride the horses down there? Then a broken dialogue ensued, wherein I tried to explain that I had never ridden a horse and had no idea how to do that, I didn’t even know how to get on. So they laughed at me (people laugh at me a lot) and then told me to get on the horse. I discovered that riding a horse is not that hard, although if I made him go more than approximately 2 miles per hour, it kind of hurt the ‘undercarriage’ pretty bad (and for some reason in my subconscious I kept thinking that I should be wearing a seatbelt).

Right, so then we got back to the gym and it was soccer time. I was kind of nervous after I saw the younger kids play, because they could have smoked me and were wearing fancy La Junta jerseys. I was not exactly prepared to challenge the next town over on behalf of La Junta. But there was no getting out of it, and so they gave me the uniform and I ran around and I only hit the ball with my hand twice, which I think was two more times than everyone else combined. I could hear the whole crowd laugh every time I did something wrong (I think I may have told them that we don’t have soccer in the US to make up for my total lack of talent in that department). Later, I tried to challenge everyone there to table tennis (which I’m way better at than soccer).

To wrap up the day, we went to a hostel-type place and had a huge feast–tomato and onion salad, cucumbers, potatoes, then a true Chilean asado. They came around with a tray of beef, hot dogs, and sausage. Then they came around with the lamb. One of the guys there was pouring himself a glass of orange soda and beer, so in the spirit of trying new things, I gave that a shot too (it was not good at all). Quite a day.

Apricot Almond Danish

First Week

I spent Christmas with a family in La Junta. Lillian, the woman who keeps everything running smoothly around here by cleaning and helping in the kitchen, felt bad that I had nobody to spend Christmas with, so she invited me over to have dinner with her family. Since last year I had a Christmas dinner and we ate at about 2:30PM, I was a little worried when at around 8:30 she still hadn’t picked me up. I thought that maybe I had said that I was going to walk to their house, which would be bad since I didn’t know where it was. Lillian (at the head of the table in the pic below) came and picked me up, and then I sat around in their living room, since we didn’t start eating dinner until 10!

Dinner was delicious, there was a lot of great food including a salad that was a cross between coleslaw and guacamole, different kinds of salsa, and some meat. I made a lemon-poppy seed pound cake that was a hit.

A few hours and many glasses of wine later, I was surprised when they started to open presents, but I guess that’s how they do it down here. Many items were received, and one of the kids got an “MP34” player. I was stoked when Lillian handed me a beautiful handmade basket. I thought it was awesome that she even thought to get me anything, let alone spend time to make something handmade. At this point we had moved on to scotch and, my first real day of work being tomorrow, decided I had to go to bed. I got to sleep around 2, and the next day I heard they all went out dancing and didn’t get in until 4:30! It’s hard for me to picture where they would do that, in this town of 500 people, but hopefully there will be another holiday sometime and I’ll be able to go with them.

Then, of course, the guests arrived the next afternoon. I had been cooking and baking a lot, trying to stock up the kitchen before everyone arrived. We cooked up a storm this week and the days were long, but fun. We make breakfast, lunch, and dinner so I’m up at 6 and working until the kitchen is clean, which can be as late as 10. For breakfast there’s always a sweet dish, like coffeecake, as well as a hot dish, like pancakes or waffles. We also do eggs to order, bacon, and sausage. So for about an hour the kitchen turns into a short-order restaurant. Then we make and pack lunches that the guests eat on the river, and either take a break or start right into prepping dinner or things for tomorrow. For dinner, we’ve made some great stuff. One night we made homemade cheese-filled ravioli, which was delicious. We also served a fish of the region called Congrio with risotto and a roasted tomato sauce.

Last night was the Lamb Asado that some of you have heard about. It’s the guests’ last night, so it’s kind of a celebration. For appetizers I made thin-crust pizzas that were excellent. 1. Roasted tomato, spinach, and parmesan. 2. Salami, onion, and green olive. 3. Bacon, blue cheese and carmelized onion. 4. Green Pepper, red pepper, and onion. It was fun throwing around some pizzas and I’m looking forward to improving my pizza game over the next few months. The oven here has a stone bottom, so we roll the pizzas on Silpats and then cook them right on the stone, so the cheese browns on top and the crust gets crispy on the bottom.

Then we move down to the barbecue house, which is down a hill closer to the river, where Christian, the main administrator and manager after Frans and Anna, has been barbecuing a whole lamb and slowly basting it with Chimichurri sauce for the last several hours. There are plenty of salads on the table, grilled potatoes, fresh bread, and plenty of wine. And Crepes Suzette for dessert. All in all, a delicious end to the week.

Now I have a few days off before it all starts again next week…

Mi Casa

Here’s a picture of the house I live in now. It’s across a field from the La Junta lodge and about a 15 minute walk from town. There are two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a kitchen.