Out of the Archives: "Green Mountain Pizza: In Search of Transcendental Pizza Along Vermont's Hippie Trail" (2011)

 
fig. a: green, Green Mountains

fig. a: green, Green Mountains

This article first appeared in the Montreal Gazette in September 2011. It was syndicated by PostMedia News not long afterwards, and although you can no longer find the article on the Gazette’s website, you can still find it on the Ottawa Citizen’s site.

At the time, I considered this article to be my modest contribution to the project of determining each and every one of America’s vast number of regional pizza styles initiated by Slice NY, Serious Eats, and others in the 2000s.

All three of the pizza/flatbread restaurants featured in this article are still thriving, and I stand by all of them. Since then, however, Vermont’s Hippie Pizza scene has continued to grow at an impressive rate. Many more recent establishments could be added to this list. It’s quite possible that a follow-up article is in order. But that will have to be for another time.

In the meantime, without any further ado…

For at least a decade now, North America has been swept up in a full-blown pizza revolution, one characterized by a cult of Neapolitan pizza and an almost fanatical concern with authenticity and Verace Pizza Napoletana accreditation, not to mention a considerable amount of boasting and posturing.

Meanwhile, pizza enthusiasts in Vermont have been quietly going about their business, developing a similarly passionate and characteristically unorthodox approach to the venerable pizza pie.

This is a state that has made "Keep Vermont Weird" a mantra, after all. These are people who pride themselves on marching to the beat of a different drummer.

One might call it Vermont's very own Quiet Revolution.

In spite of a vibrant movement that dates back at least 25 years, Vermont continues to fly under the radar of most pizza authorities. The explanation for this is simple. It has to do with the relative lack of concern Vermont's pizzaiolos have shown for Neapolitan articles of faith like tipo 00 flour, D.O.C. San Marzano tomatoes, and imported Italian ovens. It has to do with the fact that pizza in Vermont is not rigidly bound by a type of oven, a type of crust, or a shape.

Instead, Vermont's pizza pioneers have put their focus on sourcing top-calibre local ingredients - from farm and chef partnerships like the impressive Vermont Fresh Network, which unites farmers, artisanal producers and chefs in a common cause, and mills like Norwich, Vermont's, highly esteemed King Arthur Flour - and on using these ingredients in an ingenious manner.

They've also placed an emphasis on community. At its best, pizza in Vermont is less a style than a way of life. One that's guided by an innate belief in the power of transcendental pizza to bring people together, even in the most rural of locations.

In fact, this is one of the signature features of Green Mountain pizza. While the history of pizza has been very closely bound to the urban experience, many of Vermont's most outstanding pizza establishments are well off the beaten path.

In other words, not only are there great pies to be found in Vermont, but many of the best are found in the most bucolic of settings. For those with a taste for pizza and the great outdoors, this is road food at its finest.

There were surely precursors, but the modern Green Mountain pizza movement began in 1985, when George Schenk built his first woodburning oven out of field stones from his property and founded American Flatbread.

fig. b: clay oven, Murray Bay, QC, 1898

fig. b: clay oven, Murray Bay, QC, 1898

Bigger ovens followed, including a domed, earthen oven built in the style of the traditional bread ovens of Quebec, which has become American Flatbread's signature model. And by 1990, Schenk & company had established their flagship location on the historic Lareau Farm in Waitsfield, near Montpelier, Stowe and Sugarbush.

It was there, at this idyllic farmhouse setting in the Mad River Valley, that my partner and I had our first extraordinary experience of pizza in Vermont. I remember it vividly, for as we turned off Route 100 and entered Lareau Farm [which doubles as a comfortable inn], we found a veritable Midsummer Night's Dream before us. Tables were set up al fresco next to the farmhouse. Kids were running freely across the meadow. A fire was burning in the fire pit. And those who were waiting for a table were spread out across the vast deck, sipping wines and drinking craft beers, and taking in a perfect summer evening. As the sun began to set, fireflies came out. It took us a while to get a table (2½ hours!), but we didn't mind - we couldn't have been happier, or more relaxed.

Then we were seated at an outdoor table and our pizzas arrived, and the experience was taken to a whole other level. We'd never had a pizza named after an obscure evolutionary theory before, but when that beautifully blistered Punctuated Equilibrium arrived fully dressed with Kalamata olives, roasted sweet peppers, handmade Vermont goat's cheese, mozzarella, fresh rosemary, red onions and garlic, we were sold. The work of Stephen Jay Gould had never tasted so good. And our New Vermont Sausage Pie was an even bigger hit. Its combination of homemade maple-fennel sausage, sun-dried tomatoes, mushrooms and caramelized onions was positively lusty, and the maple syrup notes gave the pizza a real gout du terroir.

We left Lareau Farm in a state of bliss. We'd discovered Vermont hippie pizza at its finest and its effects were mind-expanding.

Glover is a Northeast Kingdom town best known for its associations with the Bread and Puppet Theater, a radical performance ensemble that developed a reputation for sharing bread with its audience in an act of communion. Just a couple of miles away, in West Glover, stands the Lake Parker Country Store, where, at the back of the store, past the displays of local organic produce, Vermont artisanal cheeses, locally sourced maple syrup and convenience store staples, you'll find the Parker Pie Company. There, another kind of communion has brought the local community together - one based on the twin pleasures of Vermont pizza and American craft beers.

Started five years ago by partners Ben Trevits and Cavan Meese, the Parker Pie Company was an instant sensation, a back-country treasure that locals guarded jealously. And with good reason. Parker Pie's pies are the product of a conventional electric pizza oven - not the imported wood-burning ovens preferred by pizza snobs - but they feature a crispy-chewy crust that borders on the sublime and contains a secret ingredient: maple syrup. (Meese's parents are maple syrup producers.)

fig. c: half & half: NEK Garden Style (l) + Green Mountain Special (r)

fig. c: half & half: NEK Garden Style (l) + Green Mountain Special (r)

No pizza captures the peculiar genius of the Parker Pie Company as powerfully as its Green Mountain Special, an inspired combination of wilted spinach, cheddar, red onion, crisp apple slices, and Vermont Smoke and Cure bacon. Here, you have it all: a perfect union of imagination and execution, an edible homage to the state that produced it, and a pizza that's so magical that it enters into your dream life.

Roughly 20 kilometres south of Burlington, in Charlotte, you'll suddenly find a painted roadside sign bearing an image of a pizza that looks suspiciously like a circular map of the world (with tomato sauce oceans and mozzarella continents) and bold lettering that reads "Pizza on Earth: Wood Oven Bakery." We slammed on the brakes and made a U-turn so that we could take a closer look.

The story of Jay Vogler, the founder of Pizza on Earth, contains so much of what makes the Vermont pizza scene so special. Trained first as a painter, then as a cook, he left New York 20 years ago and relocated his family to a farm in Charlotte, out of the conviction that farmers would be to the '90s what superstar chefs had been to the '80s. He and his wife ran their farm as a wholesale vegetable farm, then a CSA before the cooking bug and the chance purchase of a previously owned wood-burning oven got the better of him.

A decade later, you can gauge Vogler's success not only by the number of pizzas he sells on a typical Friday night (about 150), but also by the range of licence plates you find in his parking lot (Massachusetts, Connecticut, California, New York). And it's easy to understand why.

The combination of Vogler's specialty pizzas - like his Sausalito, with garlic sausage, chard, red onion, Parmesan, mozzarella and a dash of garlic oil; and his Spudnik, with bacon, sour cream and (you guessed it) thinly sliced potatoes - and the relaxed atmosphere of open-air, bring-yourown-bottle Champlain Valley dining is completely seductive.

Like Parker Pie and American Flatbread, Vogler insists on using Vermont flour (King Arthur) and locally sourced herbs and vegetables. And like the best of the Green Mountain pizzerias, Vogler creates some unusually creative and flavourful pizzas - pizzas that capture the spirit of Vermont, pizzas worth travelling for.

Coordinates:

American Flatbread

Lareau Farm, 46 Lareau Rd., Waitsfield, Vermont 1-802-496-8856 www.americanflatbread.com

Parker Pie Company

161 County Rd., West Glover, Vermont 1-802-525-3366 www.parkerpie.com

Pizza on Earth

1510 Hinesburg Rd., Charlotte, Vermont 1-802-425-2152 www.pizzaonearth.com

Where to stay:

Lareau Farm Inn, which is connected to the original American Flatbread in Waitsfield, is an absolute gem of an inn.
aj

Ceres Arises: A Cereal Narrative, pt. 1

I should start off by saying that my attachment to Ceres, the Roman wheat sheaf-wielding goddess of agriculture, began in London and not in Montpelier. That’s because I worked at a vegetarian café and bakery called Ceres on Portobello Road in my early twenties. The “grain shop,” as it was known, had begun as a macrobiotic pioneer back in the Hippy Era—one that looked something like this.

fig. a: Ceres of London

fig. a: Ceres of London

By the time I got there it was owned by a couple of crazy bon vivants and it had little to do with Zen. And in the time I knew it, Ceres was mostly a veggie take-out, with a decent pastry and bread program, and very close ties to the community.*

Anyway, I started off at Ceres as a replacement baker, but I stayed on as a kitchen hand and cook, and it was definitely the best job I held down during my two years in London. I wasn’t paid much, but I was paid under the table, and I got fed 2-3 meals every day that I worked there, so somehow I still managed to save money to go to shows, see films, and eventually even travel. And I still get incredibly nostalgic about the carry-out containers we used to pack full of brown rice, mac & cheese, fried tofu, veggie curry, sautéed mushrooms, stir-fried broccoli, “cheesy spuds,” and salads of all kinds, including their signature lemon-tahini pasta salad (based on a recipe from a famous veggie café that was located in Harlem in the sixties, or so I was told).

Years later, I can still remember the experience of visiting Montpelier, Vermont for the first time. It was such a tiny town (the population was about 7,000 at the time, but sometimes it felt even smaller than that), such a charming one, but the skyline was dominated by its rather impressive, if diminutive, Vermont State House, with its majestic golden dome. I’m sure I noticed the statue that adorned the dome the first time I laid eyes on it, but it took me years to realize who the statue represented. I’m sure I just assumed it was a statue of Ethan Allen,** or one of Vermont’s other founding fathers, but, in fact, it was Ceres (or, rather, Agriculture) who graced the dome. Wheat sheaf and all.

fig. b: Vermont State House, featuring Ceres, Montpelier, VT

fig. b: Vermont State House, featuring Ceres, Montpelier, VT

I never took a close look at this Ceres. I mostly just admired her from afar. So it was only in the last couple of years, when the word began to get around that Ceres needed to be replaced because she was literally falling apart at the seams, that I learned that she already was a replacement.

The original version of Ceres had been carved and erected by a Vermont artist named Larkin Goldsmith Mead. It was Mead’s first major success, and it established him as an in-demand sculptor—one who would have a long and prolific career in public art.***

In 1938, hasty arrangements were made to replace the original Ceres when it was discovered that Mead’s version was in an advanced state of deterioration. The contract for this Ceres was awarded to Dwight Dwinell, a State House employee who was close at hand and willing to take on the challenge. Dwinell was 87 years old at the time. He was also something of an amateur.

fig. c: portrait of the artist as a sad woman

fig. c: portrait of the artist as a sad woman

As it turns out, in spite of his relative inexperience, Dwinell’s version lasted roughly as long as Mead’s had, but when it became apparent that Ceres 2.0 needed to be replaced as well, an effort was made restore Ceres to her former neo-classical glory, and to make sure this version was built to last: 150 years, if at all possible.

This time it took two artists to recreate Ceres. One of them, Jerry Williams, created a 1/4 scale model based closely on Mead’s original design. The other, Chris Miller—a local stone mason and woodcarver—was the one tasked with carving the 15-foot version out of a block of mahogany (as opposed to the pine that Mead had used).

Miller is a gregarious guy, and a true local character, and one of the conditions he placed on his contract was that his workshop inside the Vermont Granite Museum in nearby Barre be open to the public throughout the carving process. He saw Ceres as being a “people’s artwork,” and, therefore, it was important to him that the people have access to her as she came to life, so to speak, and before she ascended to her summit for the next 150 years.

A little over a week ago, we received an invitation to join our friends M., R., and E. at the Vermont Granite Museum to pay Ceres a visit. Chris was going to be putting the finishing touches on Ceres—applying the final coats of protective white paint, and adding some gold-leaf details—as she was just under a week away from making her ascent. That this was a rare opportunity goes without saying. We jumped at the opportunity.

When we arrived at the museum, we could see that our friends had beaten us there. So we followed the signs to Ceres.

fig. d: “Ceres statue? Come in. Follow signs.”

fig. d: “Ceres statue? Come in. Follow signs.”

fig. e: “statue —>”

fig. e: “statue —>”

fig. f: “statue in here”

fig. f: “statue in here”

When we reached our destination, it was a little like we’d stepped into a cavernous medical theatre to witness some kind of strange operation.

The patient was there in all her splendour.

fig. g: Ceres at rest

fig. g: Ceres at rest

An artist/artisan/surgeon was at work.

fig. h: Chris at work

fig. h: Chris at work

Informative panels/collages had been set up nearby to help explain the history of Ceres, and of the current project.

fig. I: a brief visual history of Agriculture

fig. I: a brief visual history of Agriculture

Hoiy relics had been made available.

fig. j: authentic relics here!

fig. j: authentic relics here!

Fittingly, a crowd of pilgrims began to assemble.

fig. k: pilgrimage

fig. k: pilgrimage

And about an hour after we first arrived, we were lucky enough to witness Ceres being anointed with gold.

fig. l: enter the gilded age

fig. l: enter the gilded age

The application of gold-leaf details was pretty much the final step in the process of creating Ceres 3.0.

A little less than a week later, she took flight again, with a little help from some friends, and in front of a crowd of a few hundred onlookers who’d braved the unusually cold November temperatures to witness a resurrection, Ceres assumed the pedestal she will adorn for the foreseeable future.

fig. m: Ceres arisen!

fig. m: Ceres arisen!

Or as long as the Good Lord is willing, and the Winooski don’t rise.

Of course, we’re no fools. We know how these things are bound to end.

fig. n: all things must come to pass

fig. n: all things must come to pass

But, in the meantime, we feel confident that Ceres was built to stand the test of time. And that she’ll be able to communicate an important message or two to future generations.

aj

* At the time, Ceres also did a very brisk trade in Guarana, if you can remember that moment.

**Allen’s marble statue is actually located inside the State House.

***As it turns out, Ceres is a subject Mead would revisit some 45 years later, when he received a commission to design and carve another version of Ceres—”The Triumph of Ceres”—this time as part of a bas-relief group that would adorn the Agriculture Building at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

The Time is Now 1: Tomatoes

 

It’s rare that I get stopped in my tracks by a recipe these days, but this was one of those times.

fig. a:  veg lit

fig. a:  veg lit

I was browsing at our local bookstore in Montreal when I came across a book I hadn’t seen before:  Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy.  I thought, “Oh, cool.  Deborah Madison’s got a new cookbook out.”  But when I flipped the book over the price sticker indicated that it had been published in 2013.  “That’s strange,” I said to myself.  “I never noticed anything about this book when it came out.”  As it turned out, Michelle had never heard of it either.

Michelle and I read a number of food magazines.  We keep a pretty close eye on the latest cookbook releases, but here was a book that had totally slipped us by.  And this was not just any cookbook.  Here was a book that a) was written by one of the prominent cookbook authors of our time; b) was published by one of the top houses for cookbooks and food literature:  Ten Speed Press; c) features photographs by the dynamic duo of Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton, who are two of our absolute favourites, and among the very best in the business; and d) is book devoted to understanding, growing, and cooking vegetables (and features over “300 deliciously simple recipes”) that was released at a time when vegetable-centric and vegetable-forward cuisine was just beginning to sweep the food world.  Who knows?  Maybe we’d just missed all the hoopla.

Then I started to leaf through it, and I was immediately impressed by its encyclopedic take on the vegetable kingdom, it’s beautiful photographs and layout, its fresh, often imaginative, and highly tantalizing recipes, and its enormous value to both gardeners and cooks, and especially those of us who garden to cook.  The book breaks things down according to twelves families of vegetables:

The Carrot Family:  Some Basic Kitchen Vegetables and a Passel of Herbs

The Mint Family:  Square Stems and Fragrant Leaves

The Sunflower Family:  Some Rough Stuff from Out of Doors

The Knotweed Family:  Three Strong Personalities [sorrel, rhubarb, buckwheat]

The Cabbage Family:  The Sometimes Difficult Crucifers

The Nightshade Family:  The Sun Lovers

The Goosefoot and Amaranth Families:  Edible Weeds, Leaves, and Seeds

The (Former) Lily Family:  Onions and Asparagus

The Cucurbit Family:  The Sensual Squashes, Melons, and Gourds

The Grass Family:  Grains and Cereals

The Legume Family:  Peas and Beans

and The Morning Glory Family:  The Sweet Potato

Each chapter is as captivating and fascinating as the last, and, not surprisingly, Madison excels when it comes to establishing linkages across families, providing inspiration for how to successfully combine edible plants from different families, as well as from the realm of fruit.  [Note:  This cookbook is entirely vegetarian, and all the better for it.  For a book like this, which is so focused on gardening, meat-based recipes would just be a distraction.  Plus, there are plenty of other cookbooks that do that and do that well.]

And then I came across that recipe.  Actually, I noticed the photograph first. 

fig. b:  tomatoes & cream

fig. b:  tomatoes & cream

It was a perfectly composed overhead shot that was highly colourful and just a bit mysterious.  I wasn’t entirely sure what I was gazing upon, or what the recipe entailed, but it involved a beautiful array of heirloom tomatoes, and it looked good.  I scanned the opposite page.  “Comforting Tomatoes in Cream with Bread Crumbs and Smoked Salt.”  That’s what the recipe was called.  As I began to make my way through it, I was a bit stumped by what I was reading, and I was happy to see I wasn’t alone.  Madison begins her recipe by explaining its origins, and she, too, was stumped by it the first time she encountered it:

A friend once told me that her comfort food, and her only one at that, was a dish of canned tomatoes cooked in cream which she poured over toast.  I struck me as odd at the time, but I’m now in the same camp.  It’s a perfect indulgent lunch for a day when tomatoes are irresistible.

Of course, this being a book that’s all about growing your own—or at least acquainting yourself with your nearest farmer’s market, so you have access to a wide variety of vegetables at their peak of ripeness—Madison’s take on her friend’s comfort dish doesn’t involve canned tomatoes.  This is a dish to be made “when tomatoes are irresistible,” when field tomatoes are ripe, juicy, and plentiful.

Well, at the time I was reading this local field tomatoes were still nowhere to be found—it was late June, after all, and we live in a Northern zone—but I knew they’d be here soon, and, in case you haven’t noticed, that time is now.  

fig. c:  heirloom time

fig. c:  heirloom time

This recipe also calls for garlic and basil.  Again, the time is now.  Local hard-neck garlic is available again, and fresh, local basil is easy to find, if you’re not growing your own.

How did Madison update and improve her friend’s favourite comfort food?  How did she transform it into an ode to late-summer seasonality?  Let’s see…

Comforting Tomatoes in Cream with Bread Crumbs and Smoked Salt

Serves 1

4 tbsp heavy cream, preferably Vermont cream

1 clove garlic

1 fresh basil leaf

8 oz ripe tomatoes, preferably a mix of the ripest, tastiest heirloom varieties you can find

fresh bread crumbs toasted in olive oil until trip

smoked salt* and freshly ground pepper

Warm the cream with the garlic and basil in a small skillet over gentle heat.  When it comes to a boil, turn off the heat and steep while you prepare the tomatoes.

Bring a pot of water to a boil.  Score the tomatoes on the blossom end (the “bottom”), then drop them into boiling water for about 10 seconds.  Transfer them to a bowl of cold water to cool, then peel.  Cut the tomatoes into quarters if large, into halves if smaller.

Add the tomatoes to the pan, along with a generous pinch of smoked salt and some freshly ground black pepper.  Turn the heat back on and allow the cream to bubble over the tomatoes and mingle with their juices for 2 to 3 minutes.

Ladle into a bowl.  Adjust the seasoning, if need be.  Scatter the bread crumbs generously over the tomatoes.  Devour, making sure to have some delicious bread close at hand to sop up all the juices with afterwards.

[this recipe based very, very closely on a recipe by the same name that appears in Deborah Madison’s Vegetable Literacy]

It’s hard to explain just how good this dish is.  There’s a simplicity, and purity, and genius to it that’s breathtaking.  If you’re a true lover of fresh tomatoes at the height of season, this is the dish for you.  If you’re a true lover of fresh cream, all the better. 

If you’re still a little mystified by the combination, think of the pleasures of a fine rosé sauce, but one where both the tomatoes and the cream have more of an assertive presence.  Even better, think of the pleasures of eating a fine, ripe burrata—one that’s been allowed to come to temperature—with the ripest, freshest, most delicious tomatoes you can find, some torn basil leaves, and some freshly baked bread.  You know how you’re left with that delicious cream mingling with the tomato juices?  You know how good it tastes when you run a piece of crusty bread through there?  Is it all starting to make sense?

The first time we tasted Madison’s “Comforting Tomatoes” we were completely beside ourselves.  Maybe the two of us are just the ideal audience for this dish.  Maybe it was specifically the combination of our local, organic Vermont tomatoes with local, organic Vermont cream that made the difference (we had intentionally waited to make this recipe in Vermont, so that we had access to a pint of Kimball Brook heavy cream).  But this was the single best thing either of us had tasted in quite some time.  Madison describes it as a “perfect indulgent dish,” but I’m not sure I entirely agree.  It was, quite simply, a perfect dish.  It was one of those exceptional dishes that was entirely satisfying.  And, in fact, it was a dish that lingered with us for hours afterward, even after we’d had our main dish (which was definitely no slouch, either).  Even after we’d had dessert.

You’ve been warned.

aj

*  Don’t skip out on the smoked salt.  If you don’t smoke your own, look for Maldon smoked salt, which is a very fine product, indeed.

Out of the Archives 7: Tastes of Summer 1: AEB Superdawg Redux rev. ed.

 

The original version of this post first appeared in July 2013.  It appears here as part of an ongoing series that explores the back catalogue at "...an endless banquet" in search of timely classics.  Summertime is peak hot dog season at AEB.  We always have packs of our favourite hot dogs on-hand in case we need to prepare a simple lunch or dinner for a group--something that happens with some frequency at the Milk House in Vermont.  And since establishing a foothold in the Green Mountain State, our hot dog game has undergone a transformation.  Read all about it below...

That was then:

We'll take AEB Superdawgs pretty much any way we can get 'em.  But, let's face it, they're particularly good on a real hot dog bun, and if you happen to be passing through the Mid-Atlantic region sometime soon, you might want to keep your eyes open Martin's hot dog-style potato rolls.  They're easy to spot--they come in those distinctive neo-Fraktur Pennsylvania Dutch-style bags.

fig. a:  De Stijl

fig. a:  De Stijl

We swear by their classic potato rolls for hamburgers and chopped pork sandwiches, but their hot dog rolls are pretty choice, too.  I mean, just look at those dawgs!

fig. b:  double-dawgged

fig. b:  double-dawgged

Pictured:

Hebrew National kosher all-beef franks
finely chopped yellow onion (buried)
chopped cherry tomatoes
finely chopped half-sour pickles
pickled corn
Keen's hot mustard
Hellmann's mayonnaise
celery salt

Total prep time:  about 10-15 minutes.

And this is now:

Since we first ran this post a few years ago, lots has changed:  namely, we've been spending a lot more time in Vermont, and, consequently, our AEB Superdawgs have gotten Green Mountain-ized.  

Don't get me wrong, I still like good, old-fashioned hot dogs from Hebrew National, Vienna Beef, and other time-honoured producers in the East and Midwest, but I love some of the decidedly non-Kosher, humanely sourced, and artisanally produced hot dogs I can find in Vermont.  And the fact that potato rolls are abundant in Vermont is an added bonus.  Martin's potato rolls don't seem to travel east of Lake Champlain, but potato rolls from Vermont Bread Co. and others are a mainstay at local supermarkets, co-ops, and grocery stores.

Our two absolute favourite hot dogs these days are both bacon hot dogs:  Vermont Smoke & Cure's uncured bacon hot dogs and North Country Smokehouse's delicatessen franks.  North Country Smokehouse's home is in New Hampshire, but they're located just across the Connecticut River in Claremont, NH, and they're amazing line of bacons, hams, and sausages can be found widely in Vermont.  Vermont Smoke & Cure was founded in South Barre, VT in the early '60s, but moved to a larger, more modern production facility in Hinesburg, VT just a few years ago.  Both companies produce supremely good hot dogs.  Hot dogs that are juicy, snappy, and absolutely bursting with flavour (thank you, bacon!).  Hot dogs that'll bring a tear to a true hot dog lover's eye, as long as she or he can stand the thought of a bacon dog.

fig. c:  double bacon-dawgged

fig. c:  double bacon-dawgged

Pictured:

Vermont Smoke & Cure uncured bacon hot dogs
finely chopped vidalia onion (buried)
sauerkraut
relish
spicy mustard
Hellmann's mayonnaise

When it comes to preparing my AEB superdawgs, I go about doing so two different ways, depending on my mood and/or weather conditions.  I either fire up the Weber barbecue and grill them gently (both Vermont Smoke & Cure's bacon hot dogs and North Country's delicatessen franks are fully cooked, they just need to be heated before serving) over charcoal, or I put a pat of butter in a cast-iron skillet and sauté/roast them carefully.  

I also make sure to toast my potato rolls.  And I usually do so with a bit of butter in a skillet.

Either way, total prep time is short:  about 10-15 minutes, plus the time it takes to get your barbecue going, if you're using charcoal.

If you're passing through Vermont and you're looking to pick up some quality bacon hot dogs for yourself, good sources include Healthy Living (South Burlington), Onion River Co-op (Burlington), Hunger Mountain Co-op (Montpelier), Sterling Market (Johnson), and Hannaford Supermarkets (various locations).  While North Country's line of bacons, hams, and sausages are often in stock at these locations, their delicatessen franks are much harder to find--so you might have to pay them a visit in Claremont, or drop them a line.

Summer is definitely here, people (just feel that sun!).  Make the most of it.  Keep things simple, but, for the love of Dawg, keep 'em tasty.

aj

Apple Season, pt. 1: apples & chorizo

 
fig. a:  autumn still life, Vermont

fig. a:  autumn still life, Vermont

It may be better known for its dairy and its maple syrup, but if you're an apple lover--and I most definitely am*--Vermont stands out as a true Apple Paradise even in a region that's famed for its prodigious apple harvests (think Quebec, think New York, think Ontario).  

For a relatively small state, with a very small population, Vermont produces a lot of apples.  But even more impressive is the sheer variety of apples that are on offer at your local orchards, at your local farmers markets, and at your local co-ops.  Check out the Onion River Co-op (a.k.a., City Market) in Burlington, or the Hunger Mountain Co-op in Montpelier if you really want to see an astounding selection of apples.  Look for apples from Champlain Orchards or, better yet, Scott Farm, whose orchards are managed by a legendary orchardist named Zeke Goodband who hosts an annual Heirloom Apple Day every October over Columbus Day Weekend, drawing generously from the 110+ varieties (!) they produce.**

 Hunger Mountain Co-op alone carries upwards of 20 different varieties of Scott Farm heirlooms at this time of year, in addition to a wide selection of non-heirlooms, like McIntoshes, Macouns, and Paulareds.  Some of our favourites include Cox's Orange Pippin, Esopus Spitzenburg, Fameuse (the "famous" heirloom varietal of Quebec, and one that happens to be notoriously difficult to actually find in Quebec), Ashmead's Kernel, Northern Spy, and Belle de Boskoop, which may just be the ultimate apple for strudel and apple pie (Michelle certainly seems to think so these days).

fig. b:  apples of uncommon character

fig. b:  apples of uncommon character

And if you'd like some help making sense of this cornucopia (we certainly did), there's no better guide than Rowan Jacobsen's Apples of Uncommon Character:  123 Heirlooms, Modern Classics, and Little-Known Wonders (Bloomsbury, 2014).  As it turns out, Jacobsen lives in Washington County, Vermont, not far from our place, but we fell in love with his book before we knew that, and months before we actually got to know him and his family.  

On some level, Jacobsen is a product of Vermont's apple obsession, as is his book.  Jacobsen is an authority on the subject, and an amateur orchardist himself.  But he also had access to a wide range of local and regional expert (including Goodband) when he was researching this book, and he didn't have to venture far to find most of the 123 varieties that Apples of Uncommon Character features.  

In any case, Jacobsens's book is both fascinating and incredibly informative, and its categorizations (which varieties appear early?  which are the best for baking?  which make the tastiest cider?  which keep the best in your cellar? etc.) are terribly useful for people like us who use apples in a wide variety of preparations (pies and desserts, soups and savoury dishes, preserves and pickles, salads, etc.).  It's also beautifully written for a book that's essentially a field guide, not to mention lushly illustrated.  And if all that wasn't enough, it ends with 20 sweet and savoury recipes, many of which are of an uncommon character themselves.

fig. c:  the spy that came in from the cold

fig. c:  the spy that came in from the cold

One of our absolute favourites from this book is a recipe that works particularly well with a somewhat tart apple, like a Northern Spy.  It's Jacobsen's take on a classic dish from Asturia--Spain's famed cider-producing region--and one that is testament to the ages-old, but still passionate love affair between apples and pork:  Chorizo with Apples.  It only takes minutes to make, and it's insanely delicious.  The addition of apple cider, makes the end result "more apple than apple."  The combination of the warmth of the paprika, the sweetness of the apples and onions, the olive oil, and the pork fat makes for an utterly seductive sauce that you'll want to sop up every last drop of.

fig. d:  apple hearts sausage

fig. d:  apple hearts sausage

Chorizo with Apples

1 Tbsp olive oil

1 lb chorizo (preferably a high-quality Spanish version), cut into half-inch slices

1/2 onion, sliced

1 cup dry hard cider

1 apple (preferably something a little on the tart side, like a Northern Spy), cored and sliced

parsley for garnish

Heat oil in a skillet, add chorizo and sauté until brown. Turn and brown the other side.

Add onion and cider, cook 6 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Add apple and cook another 6 minutes, stirring, until sauce is thick.

Garnish with parsley and serve with a crusty loaf of bread, the better to sop up all that beautiful sauce with.  

This dish is a perfect fall appetizer, especially served with a crisp hard apple cider or a crisp white wine on a crisp autumn evening.  Lay it out with some sliced sourdough bread, a plate of mixed olives, and a small cheese plate, and your meal will be off to a fantastic start.

¡Salud!

aj

* At this time of year, when the apples are particularly fresh and crispy, it's not uncommon for me to eat 4 or 5 in a row after dinner, in addition to the 2 or 3 apples I might have at other times over the course of the day.  

** We were so blown away by the Scott Farm apples we tried last fall, that this spring we took a pruning and grafting workshop with Mr. Goodband in the very early spring, when southeastern Vermont was still blanketed in snow.  This being Vermont, not only was our workshop leader named Ezekiel "Zeke" Goodband, not only did he sport a beard worthy of the Old Testament, but his pruning and grafting lessons were delivered in the form of anti-capitalist parables.

fig. e:  Grafting by Goodband

fig. e:  Grafting by Goodband

Lo and behold, a few months later, our apple trees blossomed in a way they hadn't in years.

fig. f:  spring blossoms

fig. f:  spring blossoms

Southern Belles, Northern Climes

 
fig. a:  Nancy Hall & Co.

fig. a:  Nancy Hall & Co.

Of all the culinary finds that we’ve made over the last several months since we established a piedmont pied-à-terre in Northern Vermont—and they have been numerous—the one that’s had the most profound impact on me was the most unexpected one.  It also happened to be the humblest.  This fall, in Vermont, of all places, I rediscovered the sweet potato, and the circumstances were surprising to me.

First of all, after years of living in a relatively sweet potato-deprived area—namely, Quebec, just miles to the north, and just a border away—I found myself among people who were actually, genuinely passionate about sweet potatoes.  The kind of people who flock to the market stands that specialize in sweet potatoes and have strong opinions about how to select the right specimen.  The kind of people who trade sweet potato recipes with one another at the stand as they make their selections.*  

Secondly, I found myself confronted with the widest variety of sweet potatoes I’d ever encountered, which is somewhat remarkable given that I spent years and years south of the Mason-Dixon Line.  Sweet potatoes are appreciated all over North America, of course—especially around Thanksgiving—but New England isn’t exactly renown for its contributions to sweet potato culinaria.**  These Montpelier area farmers, however, were cultivating sweet potatoes in all different shapes and sizes, in colours ranging from bright yellow to dark purple to royal blue, and with varying flavour and textural qualities.  The varieties I encountered included everything from the Carolina Ruby, to the Japanese Yellow, the Japanese Purple, and the Hawaiian Blue, but the one that stole my heart was that seductress Nancy Hall, a comely tan-coloured sweet potato with lovely orange-yellow flesh--a true Southern belle.

fig. b:  Nancy Hall sweets

fig. b:  Nancy Hall sweets

In the end, I didn’t actually try that many types of sweet potatoes—once I found four or five that I loved (!), I stayed true to them (especially Nancy)—but Michelle can testify to the sheer number of sweet potatoes I consumed, as well as to the frequency with which I ate them.  She can also attest to the singularity of my sweet potato fever.  I like sweet potatoes in a number of soups and stews, but nine times out of ten I prepare them in the simplest manner possible:  baked.

fig. c:  baked garnet sweet potato 1:  before

fig. c:  baked garnet sweet potato 1:  before

Baked Sweet Potatoes

Preheat oven to 400º F.  Wash and dry your sweet potatoes.  Prick the sweet potatoes with a fork in a few places on one side, and one side only.  Place them on a heavy-duty sheet of aluminum foil (or a regular sheet of aluminum foil that’s been doubled).  Put the sweet potatoes (with the aluminum foil underneath) in the oven, and bake for 60-75 minutes.  The sweet potatoes should be emitting droplets of syrup from the perforations in their skin and they should be extremely tender.

Place on a plate, split with a knife, and slather with butter and a pinch of salt.  If you’re feeling lucky, add a dollop of sour cream, too.  Devour the sweet potato in two stages:  first, scrape out its flesh, savouring each and every bite; then, use your fork and knife to cut the skin into bite-sized pieces, and relish its deeply caramelized pleasures.

fig. d:  baked garnet sweet potato 2:  after

fig. d:  baked garnet sweet potato 2:  after

Of course, Vermont’s sweet potato season has been over for a while, but you can still find cellared organic sweet potatoes kicking and around from time to time, not to mention conventional garnet varieties imported from Down South, some of which are still quite excellent.

There’s truly nothing like the taste of a Grade A sweet potato—especially a locally grown,  organic one—when it’s been properly baked, bursting with syrup and luscious on the inside.  Every time I taste a really good one I’m reminded of a pivotal scene from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), a passage that, in my opinion, stands as one of the single greatest treatments of food in the history of literature.  The Nancy Hall is a sweet potato famed for its Proustian powers of suggestion, for its ability to conjure memories of fabled meals from one’s Southern childhood.  You can feel those powers in Ellison’s vivid prose.  And part of what makes the experience so profound for the narrator—the titular “invisible man”—is that he encounters these “yams”*** in the winter cold, on the snowy streets of Harlem—a quintessential rural Southern flavour relocated to the urban Northern context courtesy of the Great Migration.  When he does, they function as a balm at a particularly low point in his life, but they’re also a poignant reminder of the “invisible man’s” status in New York, and in America more generally.  The novel’s stirring and evocative treatment of race and class is captured here in full effect.  And if there’s an account of the essence of true street food that’s more beautifully written than this one, I haven’t encountered it.

I… walked along, becoming aware that I was muttering to myself again.  Then far down at the corner I saw an old man warming his hands against the sides of an odd-looking wagon, from which a stovepipe reeled off a thin spiral of smoke that drifted the odor of baking yams slowly to me, bring a stab of swift nostalgia.  I stopped as thought struck by a shot, deeply inhaling, remembering, my mind surging back, back.  At home we’d bake them in the hot coals of the fireplace, had carried them cold to school for lunch, munched them secretly, squeezing the sweet pulp from the soft peel as we hid from the teacher behind the largest book, the World’s Geography.  Yes, and we’d loved them candied, or baked in a cobbler, deep-fat fried in a pocket of dough, or roasted with pork and glazed with well-browned fat; had chewed them raw—yams and years ago.  More yams than years ago though the time seemed endlessly expanded, stretched thin as the spiralling smoke beyond all recall.

I moved again.  “Get yo’ hot, baked Carolina yam,” he called.  At the corner the old man, wrapped in an army overcoat, his feet covered with gunny sacks, his head in a knitted cap, was puttering with a stack of paper bags.  I saw a crude sign on the side of the wagon proclaiming YAMS, as I walked flush into the warmth thrown by the coals that glowed in a grate underneath.

“How much are your yams?” I said, suddenly hungry.

“They ten cents and they sweet,” he said, his voice quivering with age.  “These ain’t none of them binding ones neither.  These here is real, sweet yaller yams.  How many?”

“One,” I said.  “If they’re that good, one should be enough."

He gave me a searching glance.  There was a tear in the corner of his eye.  He chuckled and opened the door of the improvised oven, reaching gingerly with his gloved hand.  The yams, some bubbling with syrup, lay on a wire rack above the glowing coals that leaped to low blue flame when struck by the draft of air.  The flash of warmth set my face aglow as he removed one of the yams and shut the door.

“Here you are, suh,” he said, starting to put the yam into a bag.

“Never mind the bag.  I’m going to eat it.  Here…”

“Thanks.”  He took the dime.  “If that ain’t a sweet one, I’ll give you another one free of charge.”

I knew it was sweet before I broke it; bubbles of brown syrup had burst the skin.

“Go ahead and break it,” the old man said.  “Break it and I’ll give you some butter since you gon’ eat it right here.  Lots of folks take ‘em home.  They got their own butter at home.”

I broke it, seeing the sugary pulp steaming in the cold.

“Hold it over here,” he said.  He took a crock from a rack on the side of the wagon.  “Right here.”

I held it, watching him pour a spoonful of melted butter over the yam and the butter seeping in.

“Thanks.”

“You welcome.  And I’ll tell you something.”

“What’s that?” I said.

“If that ain’t the best eating you had in a long time, I give you your money back.”

“You don’t need to convince me,” I said.  “I can look at it and see it’s good.”  

“You right, but everything that looks good ain’t necessarily good,” he said.  “But these is.”

I took a bite, finding it as sweet and hot as any I’d ever had, and was overcome with such a surge of homesickness that I turned away to keep my control.  I walked along, munching the yam, just as suddenly overcome by an intense feeling of freedom—simply because I was eating while walking along the street.  It was exhilarating.  I no long had to worry about who saw me or about what was proper.  To hell with all that, and as sweet as the yam actually was, it became like nectar with the thought[…]

[…To] hell with being ashamed of what you liked.  No more of that for me.  I am what I am!  I wolfed down the yam and ran back to the old man and handed him twenty cents.  “Give me two more,” I said.

“Sho, all you want, long as I got ‘em.  I can see you a serious yam eater, young fellow.  You eating them right away?”

“As soon as you give them to me,” I said.

“You want ‘em buttered?”

“Please.”

“Sho, that way you can get the most out of ‘em.  Yessuh,” he said, handing over the yams, “I can see you one of these old-fashioned yam eaters.”

“They’re my birthmark,” I said.  “I yam what I am!”

[Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952), Chapter 13]

The wagon, the smoke, the coals, the skin, the syrup, the pulp, the butter, the steam, the street, the expertise, and the homesickness--it's all there.

Now, I’m positive I couldn’t make the same claim with any sense of validity--they're not my birthmark; neither of my grandmothers prepared them; my earliest recollections of sweet potatoes were part of the fairly typical Thanksgiving meals I experienced in childhood--but few foods provide me with as elemental a sense of pleasure as a baked sweet potato.  It’s like the old man said:  “If that ain’t the best eating you had in a long time, I give you your money back.”  I'm fortunate enough that I’ve been able to do quite a bit of good eating recently, but no dish was as simple, and none better.

aj

 

* This is not to disparage Montreal's vibrant food market culture.  There's no shortage of variety and no shortage of accompanying aficionados, it's just that sweet potatoes and sweet potato-philia are in short supply.

** For instance, they don’t appear a single time in Jonathan Norton Leonard’s American Cooking:  New England (1970), and they’re only featured in a few recipes in Evan and Judith Jones’s The L.L. Bean Book of New New England Cookery (1988) and are never given the spotlight the way other typical New England ingredients like apple cider (in all its forms), maple syrup, and corn are.  

*** Though sweet potatoes are often referred to as “yams” in North America, this is a case of mistaken identity.  As Alan Davidson explains, the terms are used to distinguish lighter-coloured, “firm” varieties of sweet potatoes from darker, “soft” ones:  “The flesh of the soft ones is apt to be orange, and that of the firm ones white or yellow.  In the USA the soft kind is sometimes called “yam;” a misnomer, as the true YAM is a different plant.”

From Apple Jam to Crabapple Jelly

We've been listening to George Harrison's All Things Must Pass a lot recently, including its largely improvisatory Apple Jam sides ("Out of the Blue"!).

fig. a:  apple jam

fig. a:  apple jam

But, when it comes to making tasty jams (or jellies, as the case may be) of our own, we've been focused on crabapples.

   fig. b:  crabapples

 fig. b:  crabapples

In part, that's because there's nothing quite like crabapple jelly:  that colour, that tartness, that natural set.  Most other jellies are either notoriously finicky, or they're just not as gorgeous.

But, mainly, it's because we've had access to a particularly fruitful crabapple tree--when the wild turkeys haven't been shaking it down, we've been free to harvest this tree to our hearts' delight.

   fig. c:  crabapple tree

 fig. c:  crabapple tree

   fig. d:  freshly picked crabapples

 fig. d:  freshly picked crabapples

At work, Michelle makes large quantities of crabapple jelly to serve with terrines, mousses, and pâtés.  With these crabapples, she makes small batches of jelly to spread on our toast.  Either way, the method is essentially the same.

Crabapple Jelly à la Michelle

Stem, clean and sort through the crabapples, removing any that are rotten.

Place in a medium/large pot, depending on how many apples you have.

Just barely cover with water.  You should be able to press down on them, getting the water to cover them when you do.

Cook for 20-25 minutes at a simmer until your crabapples are falling apart and fragrant.

Pour through a chinois and let drip.*

For every 10 parts juice, add 6-7 parts sugar, depending on the tartness of your crabapples.

Place the juice and sugar in an appropiately sized pot, bring to a simmer, and cook at a simmer until you reach the gel stage.

A drop of liquid should come off the spoon in a sheet rather than a droplet.

Place in sterilized jars and seal according to proper canning procedures. Or simply pour into any clean glass container and let set, then store in the fridge.   

Voilà!

* You can also use a jelly bag for this step, but Michelle prefers to use a chinois because it speeds up the process.

And, either way, the results are beautiful--to the eye, and to the palate.

fig. e:  crabapple jelly for breakfast 1

fig. e:  crabapple jelly for breakfast 1

fig. f:  crabapple jelly for breakfast 2

fig. f:  crabapple jelly for breakfast 2

Of course, it pays to have homemade bread on hand to enjoy your jelly with,

fig. g:   pain de campagne

fig. g:  pain de campagne

but that's another story.

Act fast:  crabapple season is already in full swing.

 

aj