Saturday, July 09, 2005

Deferred Gratification I

By and large, I like the here and now aspect of cooking (and eating). The most likely reason for this preference is my near complete inability to plan ahead, but I prefer to think that it is more of a reflection of a desire to live in the moment. This explains why Iron Chef is one of my favorite cooking shows and why I fantasize about receiving a market basket of ingredients and having to come up with a dinner in less than two hours. While we're pretending that I'm virtuous, let's say that it also reveals a love of the freshest ingredients. Surely that, rather than my inability to make a list, is why I'm always running to the supermarket at the last minute.

And it is certainly true that I most often cook without a specific recipe, though here again we could attribute that practice to an inability to leave well enough alone rather than to sound culinary instincts and great culinary skill, though I really do possess more than adequate quantities of both instinct and skill.

Putting foods by, therefore, is a practice that does not play to my strengths. It requires a great deal of patience and a fairly rigid conformity to recipes or at least to fairly stringent preparation procedures. If you put too much of something into the chicken, there are usually a number of ways to recover, and in the worst case, you've just ruined one dish. (I honestly can't remember the last time I made something that was really beyond saving. I know that when I was in high school, I made chocolate chip pancakes and layered them with American cheese. Surely there has been a more recent failure, but generally I make relatively few serious mistakes, and I recover well from the minor ones.) If you mess something up when you're preserving food, you could end up with botulism. Which is one of the very few occasions when saying, "Oh just try it; it won't kill you" is a big, fat lie.

Nonetheless, there is something fundamentally virtuous about making your own preserves, and it gives you a tremendous feeling of accomplishment. And the rules are really not that difficult to follow even when they are a bit of a nuisance. There is also a large range of consequences for failure from the aforementioned botulism down to mold and further down to just tasting bad. It is unlikely that I will ever want to can (and in this case, "can" means to put into jars; I don't know why, but it's what my mother and everyone of her generation said) green beans the way mom did (a hundred quarts a year, I reckon) because the process is fairly odious and involves a pressure canner, which seriously frightens me and is way too big and heavy to have around the kitchen, anyway. I can, however, handle a boiling water bath if need be. And some preparations are even easier.

Some homemade alcoholic beverages are among the easiest preserves to master. I don't mean making one's own beer or wine from grain or grape. I mean taking some wine or something stronger and turning it into something unusual and delicious. I believe that I wrote a few weeks ago about making some clementine ratafia, which, even now, is sitting in my cupboard, waiting for the requisite amount of time to pass and for me to make up my mind about whether I'll add more sugar. In some preserves the amount of sugar or salt is critical, but with the ratafia, it's just a question of how sweet I want it, and I reckon that I can always add more sugar later. And I very likely will since I believe the suggested amount is about three times what I put in.

A few weeks ago, I was rereading parts of The Cuisine of the Sun, and I happened upon a recipe for Vin de Noix, a homemade fortified wine made from green (i.e., unripe) walnuts, wine, eau de vie, sugar, and some other optional seasonings. I have always had a fascination for this sort of recipe (witness the ratafia), so I decided to try it out. But where, in Suburban Maryland, does one go about getting green walnuts. One doesn't, really. We don't really have English walnuts growing in the wild here, and I don't know of any place where I could collect some. What we have, in abundance, are black walnut trees, and while most of them don't appear to bear fruit on a regular basis, it is not difficult to find a tree that does. So a week ago, when I was driving home from Rehoboth, I stopped at the tree that I had seen on my way out and got about twenty green black walnuts.

There are actually many Vin de Noix recipes available online, though you will not find most of them if you search for "'vin de noix' recipe" because most of them are in French. If you search for "'vin de noix'", however, and if you read French reasonably well, you'll have plenty. In fact, you'll wish that you'd just done the first search so that you wouldn't have to make so many choices. I did find one (English language) site that opined that either immature black walnuts or immature pecans could be used in place of the usual walnuts, but the author seemed to be saying that just because. More scientific sites on the Internet told me that while the black walnut tree manufactures a toxin that is bad for many plants and some animals, the toxin is manufactured mainly in the roots and to a lesser extent in the leaves and branches, but not, presumably, the fruits. So it seems worth a try to me.

I adore black walnuts, though I have long since given up on collecting the mature ones myself since freeing them from their outer shells is impossible. At least it's impossible to me. My grandmother used to claim that you could put a bunch of the green blobs (when mature, the soft-but-tough outer shell is green, and the hard-but-crackable inner shell is black) into a bucket and then chop down into them with a shovel and eventually the outer parts would fall away, but I have tried it, and it didn't work for me. She also told me that some people used to just put them out in the road and drive over them to make the outer shell easier to remove, and other people backed her up on the story (my grandmother was a wonderful person, and she did have a good sense of humor, but it did not extend to trying to fool people, so I'm confident that people did actually drive over the black walnuts; I just figure that it was more out of anger than anything else), but at around that time, I started to see two-pound bags of black walnut nutmeats in Costco and decided that even if they weren't there in subsequent years, I would either find another source or simply do without. No nut is worth vehicular homicide.

Anyway, the particular recipe I'm using calls for forty walnuts that have been collected between June 24 (a French saint's day of some sort) and Bastille Day (July 14). The tree I found only gave up twenty black walnuts, but I figured that black walnuts have a stronger flavor than their English or French cousins. In any case, some of the French recipes call for fewer nuts. In either case, the standard for ripeness (or lack thereof, really) is that you should be able to pass a needle through the nut. I didn't try that, but I figured that if I could cut the nuts into quarters with my chef's knife, as the recipe instructs, they were sufficiently immature. Fortunately, that worked. Handling mature black walnuts will leave your hands dyed brown-green for a week or more. There is no such problem when handling immature black walnuts, and they have a smell that is entirely intoxicating.

As you can see, I didn't really bother with the most expensive of ingredients. I have had good luck with using boxed wine in other preparations (most notably my sangria, which causes grown men to weep with joy) and for cooking, and I find it generally quaffable as well, so I went with one that seemed good for the occasion. Some Vin de Noix recipes call for white, but most call for red, and red just makes more sense to me. The ingredients I used:

Twenty black walnuts
One liter Vodka
Twenty-four ounces white sugar
The zest of one lemon
Six whole cloves
One stick cinnamon
Five liters red wine

The hardest part of making the Vin de Noix turned out to be finding a two-gallon jar. I cannot help but think that finding two-gallon jars used to be easy, but it certainly is no longer so. I was out with L. last night, and I went into the Container Store, where I saw something plastic with a good snap down top that they were calling a 2.5 gallon barrel, but I rebelled at the idea of giving them twelve bucks for a big hunk of plastic. While I was considering buying it anyway, L. told me that Costco has the exact same thing, except that theirs is filled with pretzels. I am always up for a trip to Costco. As it happens, the pretzel barrel is not quite as nice, mostly because its lid is not really designed to keep in liquids, but it is nice enough, and it costs four bucks, and you get pretzels. I also bought some one-gallon Ziploc storage bags, which I needed anyway, and now three of them are sitting on my countertop with pretzels in them. I washed the container thoroughly, and then I was ready to go.

Because green black walnuts begin to turn yellow (and then brown) as soon as you cut them in halves (and then quarters), the first thing I did was dump the bottle of vodka into the bottom of the barrel so that I could put the walnuts in as I quartered them. (The picture you see here is what they look like after about ninety seconds of exposure to oxygen; don't let this happen to you. I apologize for the lack of focus, but look! pictures!) Quartering an immature black walnut is pretty easy, even when you have to do it twenty times. Cut it in half, then cut each half in half, then dump the four quarters into the vodka in the barrel. Repeat nineteen more times.

Add the sugar to the barrel. Remove the lemon zest with a vegetable peeler (or a zester, if your partner hasn't hid yours as part of his quest to demonstrate his dominance in the kitchen, as if THAT has any chance whatsoever of succeeding) and add that. Add the remaining ingredients. If your barrel/jar/whatever seals tightly, shake the whole mess to help the sugar start to dissolve. If not, just swirl it and do the best you can. Then stand back and enjoy this huge mass of Vin de Noix that you will have created after you wait somewhere from forty-five to ninety days.

As with wine color, nut number, and the amounts for every other ingredient, Vin de Noix recipes differ greatly on how long you need to store the proto-Vin de Noix before you can strain it and put it into smaller bottles. I'm going to wait at least two months, and then I'll taste mine and decide whether it needs more sugar. The recipe I started with called for a kilogram of sugar to five liters of wine and one liter of eau de vie, but, geez, that's over two pounds of sugar. I put in what I still think is a lot, but if I need more, I won't shrink from it. The lemon zest was my own idea, though some recipes do call for orange zest. Lemon might be a bit strong, but the zest of one lemon with all that wine, vodka, and sugar probably can't do too much harm. Ditto the six itty bitty cloves and the stick of cinnamon, but most of the recipes I saw called for fairly minute amounts of spices, when they called for any at all. A vanilla bean is a fairly common addition, but I don't have any around, so I didn't toss that in. I am a big fan of spiced wine, generally, but this is really not spiced wine, and I can mull plenty of wine around the holidays, so I didn't toss in any of the other things that I usually might have included.

The barrel of proto-Vin de Noix is now cooling its heels at the bottom of one of our pantry closets. Under normal circumstances, there is a good chance that I'd forget that it's there until a year or more hence, but I'm pretty sure that I'll be reminded by V. who will be demanding to know why I've seen fit to take up yet more room in our already overcrowded kitchen. I will perhaps tell him that it's retribution for his abandoning me yet again to go consulting, this time in Ethiopia. This will not be exactly true, and he won't exactly believe it, but I certainly did make plans to do the bulk of my preserving while he's out of the country. It is always easier to get forgiveness than permission.


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