Culinary memes die hard. Like baby carrots in the eighties and nineties – or the original fusion, which half a generation of chefs found to be their passion and pursued long after the ovine dining public had shifted its attention to the next thing, which if I remember correctly was $20 servings of mac ‘n cheese and meatloaf.
The current meme is the Chez Panisse triad: Local, Seasonal and Artisan with a side of Organic – an endless restatement of the obvious which is getting a bit old these days. ( You expect any restaurant that charges seventy dollars for perhaps fifteen bucks worth of groceries to serve good food, which in general will be seasonal and not have been in storage for months.) For my part I am pretty tired of hearing about seasonality and wish we could get on to whatever comes next, just so long as it tastes good.
There is, however, another kind of seasonality, which resides in us rather than the list of available groceries: Circadian rhythm. The drive to put seeds in the ground or law away stores according to time of year.
Bears curl up in caves. We make soup, regardless of the outside temperature or our awareness that you can also get great soup at the Easy Freezy or Whole Foods. When the sun begins getting up after we do, we start acting differently with food. At least I do.
I’ve been subject to culinary circadian fits since my first German winter and definitely since a Swedish year when the Sun give a short guest appearance every day, but they seem to be gaining on me. Even now, with blinding late autumn sun over San Francisco’s hills, I am behaving like a squirrel storing nuts for the winter or a hedgehog building a nest under leaves and stones.
Circadian rhythm, at least the culinary version, is an atavistic, visceral drive, an urge rising from the marrow and sweeping aside rational resolutions not to make bread or cookies this year – not to put up fruit. It commands metabolism and metabolism hijacks everything: insulation packs on like the shaggy coat on a winter horse. The same diet that stripped fat for seven months stalls, then goes into reverse. I crave fat, warm bread and jam. After months of never being able to get enough Caprese and watermelon salad with feta, every cell nags for pork or grilled cheese sandwiches.
Real nesting behavior sets in about the end of September. A freezer blissfully ignored for half a year demands to be cleaned out then filled again with baked peaches, corn kernels and baggies of stock for barley soup. Not baking requires an act of will. All this food will all be wonderful, but I was not going to do it this year. I made a promise to myself not to. But: Ten pounds of peeled early girls are baking down in the oven now for pizza or pasta, after I swore only to buy grapes at the farmers’ market. Butternut squash and apples for frozen packs of curry soup followed me home. As for the cookies I have definitely decided not to make, an order for ten pounds of peeled hazelnuts has already been placed.
This late summer cooking drive may be genetic – I remember my mother doing the same thing, flying out of her elegant working clothes and cooking down apricots and baking bread well into the night as the days shortened. The night before I was born, although she had no idea I was going to arrive the next day, she got up and baked a week’s worth of bread. Who says we aren’t connected to the earth’s rhythm – or the sun or the moon.
Everyone has some sort of seasonal circadian rhythm – I assume the culinary version is stronger in people who cook and who cook for quite a few years, although I would have no way of knowing the alternative. I know plenty of cooks who, although they are probably not aware of it, follow the pattern. So do you. They will say, “I didn’t intend to do this this year, but then …”. It’s the call of our ancestors telling us to get in the root vegetables or we won’t make it to spring.
Atavistic, by the way, means something like “throw back”. It’s usually used to describe things like tails on babies, but I figure circadian cooking is precisely that. Instinct over intellect.
About those baked tomatoes:
I used to can tomato sauce, but I was never comfortable with the thought that tomatoes can be sub acidic and thus carry some danger of botulism. Several years ago I decided to freeze them but needed to get rid of the water.
The answer is baking them. Simply peel the tomatoes by giving them a few minutes in boiling water, letting them cool and slipping off the skin – early girls are wonderful for this – and cut them up in a a roasting pan. Put them in the oven at about 375 to 400 F and let them cook for one to four hours, depending on how many you use. You needn’t stir them, but it will prevent the tops from getting caramelized. When the liquid has baked in, ie they no longer bubble, let them cool then put them on zip lock bags, which you lay flat on top of each other in the freezer. The reduced tomatoes will be sweet and intensely flavorful – perfect for pizza or sauces – allowing the five minute pasta. You can, of course,add herbs and garlic, but I generally leave that for later. If you just need a little of these concentrated tomatoes you simply break off a corner of the block by whacking the baggie against a counter and reseal the rest for later use. Note: If you pack all of the bags together in a larger bag, they will not develop freezer taste. (Baking soda in the freezer also prevents it).
You can do the same with any fruit. Baked peaches are velvety and have an intense flavor. They make fabulous sweet snacks or easy desserts (dash of something white and sweet on top, or not). They should be baked until the syrup that develops is brown but not black. I usually freeze three in a baggie, which also lies flat, so I can take them out individually.