Flash in the Pan 

Two ways to resolve your abundance issues

When I want to store large amounts of basil, I don't make pesto. Instead, I prepare a bare bones mixture of pureed basil, olive oil and salt, which I freeze in jars. If I want to make pesto at a later date I can always add pine nuts, cheese, and garlic. But I can't remove those things from pesto if, in the middle of winter, I decide I want homegrown basil in my Thai coconut green curry.

By keeping it simple I keep my options open and minimize my time commitment—a good thing when there are so many other things to do.

"I have abundance issues," a farmer friend of mine in Montana confessed. Like many market farmers during the heart of harvest season, he almost always takes leftover produce home, even if he had a great market. In a perfect world he would preserve every scrap of leftover produce, freezing the green kale, broccoli, and beans, saucing or sun-drying his tomatoes, and pickling his peppers.

But in the real world, an abundance of distractions prevents that from happening. He gets sucked into an endless grind of restaurant deliveries, cooking dinner, fixing the tractor, and a "honey-do" list stretching all the way to town and back. Consequently, his chickens eat better than most people.

People like my farmer friend are why I often find myself prowling farmers markets near the closing bell, looking for growers with abundance issues like my friend's. If somebody has a lot of something I think I can work with, I'll ask how much for that whole box of basil, or the bushel of sweet corn. The basil will go into storage with salt and olive oil. I'll turn the corn into Pueblo Indian-style chicos.

I try to show up at market with at least $50. If it's a good market I'm like a sailor in a strip joint, and I don't ever want to see that cash again. Knowing that every last cent will get spent helps dull the pain of the individual transactions. Spending can be a joy if you know your farmer. But while I enjoy spending the money, I want to take home as much food as it can buy me.

The window will soon close on market basil, since the first frost will leave the leaves black and limp. Meanwhile, the basil plants are starting to flower. And once basil flowers, its market value drops and it often goes unharvested. This can result in rows of beautiful basil plants languishing in the fields, awaiting the mower. So if you're friendly with any basil growers, ask about the possibility of stopping by their farm and cleaning out their bolted patch for an extra bulky deal. Take your own bags.

What I do is similar to French pistou, the only difference being I skip the garlic, which I can always add fresh at a later date.

I pull the leaves and flowers off the stems, which are woody this time of year. By flowers I mean buds, but not the six-inch flower towers that will eventually form. Toss those with the stems. I wash and dry the leaves and buds, add half a cup of olive oil to the food processor, pack it loosely full with basil, and start whirring. (Use a mortar and pestle if you want old-school storage basil).

click to enlarge PHOTO BY ARI LEVAUX

Once the initial load of basil is reduced to green slurry, keep adding more leaves and flowers until the food processor has about two and a half cups of what looks like pesto. Add garlic if you wish, and add salt a little at a time to taste. Spoon it into containers and freeze them.

For centuries, people just mixed olive oil with mashed basil to preserve it. But now we know that preserving food in oil carries a botulism risk. That's why we freeze our oiled storage basil.

Chicos, dried kernels of sweet corn, practically store themselves once they're properly processed. No freezer or fancy canning techniques necessary.

Corn is expensive these days, thanks to corn ethanol's use as a gas additive, and commercial chicos are hard to come by this year.

There are many ways to make chicos, but unless you have a mud horno oven and New Mexico-caliber sunshine, I recommend the following method:

Pack whole ears of sweet corn like sardines into a baking pan. Cover with foil and bake three hours at 350. This kills enzymes and bacteria and halts the ripening process. It also produces a lot of fragrant smoke from the husks, which adds to the chicos' flavor.

Remove the ears from the oven and allow them to cool. Pull the husks back and use them to tie the ears together in pairs. Hang the paired ears on a clothesline or in some other well-ventilated location to finish drying. Alternatively, pull the husks off entirely and dry the ears on racks. If you wish, drape them with cheesecloth to deter the flies. If the weather is overcast and the drying is dragging, don't hesitate to remove the husks and finish the chicos in the oven at 200 for a few hours with the door cracked.

When the kernels taste like extra-chewy mini candy corns, they're almost ready. When you start breaking teeth, they're done. They're great in soups, with red chile, and baked with beans. Chicos can be stored on the ears but are usually rubbed off the cobs and stored in bags or jars.

A typical homemade chico will need about 15 minutes of cooking in high heat and humidity to rehydrate. You can cook them with rice, quinoa and other grains, or soak them in water and fry them with garlic and butter. Once you get the hang of cooking with chicos, you'll start seeing ways to use them in everything. The word chicos means "small ones," and indeed they shrivel up pretty good. But the sunny flavor packed in those golden kernels is muy grande.

Like Mediterranean-style basil in oil, New Mexican chicos are a simple food storage form that has contributed to the regional cuisine. Both recipes evolved thanks to seasonal periods of brief abundance, when massive quantities of food had to be processed into a form that could last months. If the ancient civilizations that created these delicacies could solve their abundance issues so tastefully, we can too.

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