Friday, August 3, 2007

Culinary Poverty

As I gather and dry herbs for the winter, I am reminded of my childhood days. My family didn't have a garden here, but my grandmother in the mid-west did. All of the cooking I ate and learned to cook was suspiciously lacking herbs- even parsley. So I did some investigating years back and I discovered some interesting facts about our country.
There has always been great international cooking available for the wealthy people. They could afford spices and chefs and baby vegetables and fresh herbs. But the bulk of our country was not wealthy. Many barely had enough plain food to eat. Many had to scavenge greens and roots from the sides of roads- even to eating young fern sprouts. And most of the spices had to be imported. The USA spent many years in isolation paying off various wars or avoiding wars. There wasn't much in the way of imported goods until after WW2. We even had a government plan once to be self-sufficient in the area of sugars by growing sugar beets and maple trees with government subsidies.
Cooking styles became very simplified- you cooked what you could grow and you grew the most calorie dense things you could. And after a couple of generations, the taste of herbs was forgotten. Cookbooks didn't teach them either. The ingredients were scarce or too expensive. Soon seeds and plants were unrecognizable except by the most wizened. And lately, herbs have become a symbol of ancient healing medicine men and witchcraft specialists.
I am not talking about strange foreign herbs like cardamom or ginger. I am talking about everyday type herbs like fennel, parsley, oregano and thyme. When I read through some of the old cookbooks, I am amazed at the few sparse references to seasonings, spices and herbs. If they were mentioned at all, they were 1/2 teaspoons of dried gray dust. So I broke with tradition and learned to cook with herbs and spices. Then I started growing fresh herbs and found the taste so remarkable that I can't use dried ones any more, unless I dried them.
I routinely toss a handful of dried oregano into a meatloaf. I chop cupfuls of parsley for my tabbouleh. I have fresh bay leaves and sage year round. I am now so spoiled that I can't imagine life without herbs and spices. So I am leaving a recipe here for those with fresh parsley and celery:

Tabbouleh Salad

1 cup Bulgar Wheat (dry)
1 1/2 Cups boiling water.
Soak Bulgar wheat in boiling water until soft and chewy (20 min.) Drain off excess water.
2 tomatoes , chopped
2 ribs celery with leaves, chopped
2 green onions, chopped with green parts
5 radishes, chopped (no greens)
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped
1 or 2 cucumbers, seeded and chopped
2 cups parsley, chopped fine
Dressing- 1/4 cup olive oil, 2 tablespoons lemon juice (or wine vinegar), salt and pepper to taste
Toss all ingredients together and chill one hour. Serve on a lettuce leaf.

Bulgar Wheat- you can make this at home if you can't find it in a store. Get sprouting wheat (whole raw wheat grains) and soak it in water for two days, changing the water once each day and night. Dry out the wheat grains and gently toast them in the oven on very low (200f) about 1/2 hour. Chop the grains in a blender just until they are well cracked but not powdered. Cook them in boiling water for about 10-15 minutes until soft but still separate. Drain and cool. Use immediately.

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