Some foods could travel East, but others are in your dreams


I FEEL THE need to check out the lineage of my vegetables, to save seeds and to expand my "ethnobotany." I have a hankering to eat Armenian cucumbers, Zebra tomatoes and sandwiches made with cured lamb and grilled bread.

I have visited California. Now that I am back home I want to continue living the Golden State lifestyle, or at least the slice of it that I experienced while spending a few days in the Napa Valley.

I was there on business, attending the annual meeting of the nation's eating press, the Association of Food Journalists. This is a group of food editors and writers that seems to organize its professional gatherings around two basic principles. First, you pay for everything you eat. Second, you eat like royalty.

After several days of what I would call "intensive professional development" in the Napa Valley, I came home with a few ideas of how I could inject some sunny California culinary practices into my partly cloudy life.

I started doing background checks of my vegetables. In California, the background checks that cause a stir are the ones concerning the lineage of garden vegetables, not the private lives of White House pass holders.

For instance, during a panel discussion on the resurgence of heirloom produce, I heard Craig Dremann of Redwood City (Calif.) Seed Co. proclaim the importance of growing vintage vegetables from seed. Such vegetables, he said, are descendants of plants that have reproduced the old-fashioned way -- by open pollination. No labs, no hybrids can be found in their pasts, he said.

These "heirloom" plants produce such distinctive-tasting crops that throughout the years folks have gone to the trouble of saving the seeds so they can replant them the next year, Dremann said. For him, a tomato like a Brandywine or a Yellow Pear is more than a pleasant mouthful. It is a link to history.

Dremann theorized that if everyone in America would plant their vegetable gardens with seeds saved from the previous year, people would stop moving from city to city.

I have a hard time envisioning the time when a guy would turn down a promotion to Poughkeepsie because the move would separate him from his vegetable garden. But I liked Dremman's enthusiasm about growing things, and I was grateful to him for adding the term "ethnobotany" to my vocabulary.

Ethnobotany, he said, refers to the customs people develop when they interact with the plant world. For instance, when you taste a type of zucchini that's new to you, you broaden your ethnobotany.

Another panelist, Wendy Krupnick of Shepherd's Garden Seeds in Felton, Calif., stood up for the flavor of hybrid vegetables. Like a sommelier rattling off favorite wines, she ticked off the names of top-performing tomatoes.

The Carmello hybrid has a loyal following, she said, and the Early Girls of Molino Creek have a flavor to die for. I was impressed. Back where I come, folks don't talk about tomatoes like that.

Some of the chefs I met in California seemed to be interested in the care and feeding of vegetables. One morning, while walking through the Robert Sinskey Vineyards, I saw a man working in the fields. From a distance I thought he was cultivating grapes, but up close I saw he was making compost for a vegetable garden.

The composter introduced himself as Vincent Nattress, chef of the Sinskey winery, and soon he introduced me to the vegetables in the garden. Among them were some Armenian cucumbers and some Green Zebra tomatoes. The cucumbers were curled, were longer and had a sweeter flavor than the cucumbers I grow in my Baltimore garden. The Zebra tomatoes, which get their name from their alternating green and gold stripes, had remarkable sweet and sour flavors.

The curled cucumbers and the striped tomatoes were growing in organic soil that had been trucked in from a farm that was noted for its compost, Nattress said.

The plants were watered by a sophisticated drip irrigation system, similar to the system used in part of the vineyard. Whenever a big dinner is scheduled at the Sinskey winery, Nattress uses produce from this garden.

Standing in the flourishing garden, I thought that I was going to grow Zebra tomatoes. That is what a visit to California can do to you. It can fill you with a sense of sunny optimism. It can make you think that, thanks to good weather and good irrigation, all things are possible.

The other day I considered trying to replicate a grilled focaccia and wild lamb sandwich I had had for lunch one glorious afternoon in California. I read over the recipe worked up by Roy Breiman, chef at Meadowood, a resort hotel in St. Helena, where the food group held its meetings.

Grilling the bread looked easy: Just brush it with olive oil and grill for about 2 minutes per side. Fixing the 4-pound leg of lamb, however, looked daunting. You don't cook it, you cure it for 20 days. For the first five days you brush it, every 12 hours, with a mixture of bay leaves, thyme, black peppercorns and sea salt. On the sixth day, you brush the coating off the lamb, remove the leg bone and tie the meat up with string. Then you let the lamb hang in a cool, dry place for 14 more days. On the 20th day, you slice the lamb and serve it, along with sliced mozzarella and sliced vine-ripened tomatoes, on the grilled bread that has been brushed with a white-wine vinaigrette.

Someday I might grow those open-pollinated, raised-from-seed, vine-ripened tomatoes that I ate in the Napa Valley. But as for spending 20 days to fix a leg of lamb, that I think falls into the category of California dreaming.

Pub Date: 9/29/96

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