I was in the kitchen the other day making a 20-minute pasta lunch. The pan was sputtering; the magic was wafting through the air. My housemates gathered around my pan like dogs, nostrils pointing toward the source of the olfactory information.
“Zee smell ees amazeeng,” gushed Frenchie. “How you did make zis?”
There isn’t a simple answer to this question. It’s like asking how to build the attic. “Well, first you have to build the basement, then the first floor…”
Instead, I quoted Basho, the great Japanese haiku poet, who advised, “Seek not what the ancients had, but what they sought.”
In the context of food, Basho’s ancients sought to stash away enough to survive the winter in style. When hibernating food is brought back to life, smells will escape—intoxicating enough to make Rachel Ray drool like Pavlov’s she-dog. In Basho’s case, salted plums, persimmon vinegar, dried seaweed and fermented soybeans gave rise to one of the greatest cuisines on earth.
Japan may have had a centuries-long head start on its cuisine, but I’m catching up. I began work on my 20-minute pasta meal about a year and a half ago, when I planted the garlic harvested last August and stored in my garage since then (but using store-bought garlic, I could have made the meal in nine months, easy).
It started with pork fat from Ben and Julie’s pig in St. Ignatius. Bacon would have worked, but not as well as this—easily the creamiest, yummiest pig fat ever.
Garlic cloves, whole and unpeeled, were the first to enter the larded pan. They were soon joined by a frozen link of elk pepperoni that I traded for at a recent “swap meat.” I also added slices of freshly dug carrots, also traded for at the swap meat.
When the pepperoni softened enough, I sliced it thinly in the pan, allowing the browning bits to release the aroma of fennel seeds. But while the pepperoni was truly perfect for this preparation, most any non-mystery meat would have done, as long as it was nicely browned.
Into the pan I then crumbled a red New Mexico chili pepper that I pulled from a ristra purchased in Hatch, New Mexico (I go for edible souvenirs when I travel). But local peppers, dried or frozen, would have been fine. A minced onion—part of a 100-pound purchase from a local farmer last fall—followed my crumbled pepper into the pan.
While the contents mingled, I heated some salted water for some mostaccioli rigate pasta (Costa brand, Montana made with Montana wheat, $1 a pound at the Missoula Food Co-op).
When the pan ingredients began to dry out, meanwhile, I gave a pour of vinegar from a quart jar of pickled peppers, one of about 100 such jars I put up last September. I also tossed a few intact peppers into the pan, for fun—creating, along with the garlic cloves, a multi-varied culinary topography.
I seasoned my creation with salt and pepper, and, not wanting too much vinegar flavor, I added a half-cup of starchy pasta water to hydrate the sauce. Then I crumbled in some pistou, a French version of pesto composed of liquefied basil, salt, and olive oil. (I store it frozen in flat sheets and when I want to use some, I break off what I need and keep the rest in the freezer.)
After adding enough pistou to give a good basil flavor but not overwhelm the fennel, I gently stirred—just enough to scatter the pistou chunks but not disintegrate them. Then I added some canned oven-roasted tomato sauce, acquired at the swap meat (the trader said the sauce was Biga Bob Marshall’s recipe that I printed last summer). Once again, I stirred gently, swirling the melted pistou into the red sauce.
Then I smashed some raw garlic, the secret weapon of pasta, in a mortar and pestle. After draining my rigates I tossed them with butter (Lifeline Organic, from Victor), grated Parmesan, and my fresh garlic. At this point the pasta was delicious and ready to eat. But when it was combined with my chunky red and green sauce, the magic really happened.
Or, rather, when I topped the whole business with a dollop of homemade mayo (made from backyard eggs and a blend of California olive oil and Montola brand Montana-grown safflower oil), that’s when the magic really happened.
With so many elements of flavor in the sauce, each bite was like dressing up my little rigates in a different outfit. A clove of garlic with this bite, extra basil in the next. And anyone who thinks a little mayo on top is, well, wrong, has I’m quite sure never tried it.
If you want to learn more about growing garlic, pickling peppers, scoring at a swap meat, and making pistou, oven-roasted tomato sauce or homemade mayo—along with mayonnaise-ology in general—you can read my two cents by using the appropriate keywords in an archive search on the Independent’s web page.
Ask Ari: Swapping is sweet, but keep dirt out of meat
Q: Heya Chef Boy,
You inspired me to start a swap meat of sorts. The idea is to come together once a week or so and trade our excess produce, meats/dairy products and homemade goods (from breads to candles and soap). I’m wondering if you have any words of wisdom for us, such as basic rules, maybe swap meat set up or how to keep trading orderly. We are a diverse group of people and none of us are friends yet.
—Laura in Alaska
A: The short answer is to check out my column from last November, “The finer points of swap meat planning,” which you can find in the archives at www.missoulanews.com. But for those who don’t have the means to follow the above link, I’ll highlight a few salient points—my eight rules of happy swapping.
1. Don’t invite strangers or dirt bags to your swap meat. Preserved food can be dangerous if it’s not done carefully. So you only want people there who know what they are doing. This point is closely related to…
2. Let the host do the inviting. If people feel free to invite their friends, quality is difficult to control.
3. Begin by going around and giving each of the attendees the chance to introduce themselves and their trade items.
4. Your desire to snag items should be equaled by your desire that your trading partners enjoy what they get from you. In other words, a good trade should feel like mutual gift giving. Haggling is very much allowed, but with an aim toward fairness rather than winning.
5. Bring your best. Your desire to trade something should only be motivated by your excess in that department, rather than the desire to unload schwag.
6. Keep in touch with your trading partners; let them know how you liked their stuff.
7. The best gets traded first. You chill, you lose.
8. It has to be fun.
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