LivingSmall 20: Truc

LivingSmall 20: Truc

Green Salt to Subvert Consumerism

Originally published at Substack: AUG 28, 2023

Close up of top of wide-mouth mason jar nearly full of finely chopped herbs, garlic, chiles and salt. To be used as a condiment.
Herbs, chiles, salt all in a jar

When I was in high school, we’d take the train in from the suburbs to spend the weekend with our mother, who had moved back to Chicago when we went to live with our dad. It was a weird time in a lot of ways, but what I loved about the train, what I’ve loved about trains in lots of places, is the glimpse we got into people’s backyards. There was one stretch of the Chicago and Northwestern line where we’d pass by small brick 2 story buildings that had major vegetable gardens in the back. Green from wall to wall in production quantities. These were not raised-bed gardens like the one I built a few years back, the sort of yuppie gardens of today — these were immigrant backyards where people were growing the tomatoes and peppers and eggplants and fig trees and grapevines of home. When Rosetta Constantino’s book, My Calabria came out decades later, I thought of those backyards. I was mesmerized by them, and for years, as I kicked around the American west, living in rentals without yards, growing tomatoes in pots and herbs in windowboxes, I dreamed of my own backyard full of food.

And so, when I finally bought my little house here in Montana, the first thing I did was reconfigure the existing 15 x 25 foot vegetable plot, which was pretty much just sunflowers and feral carrots when I moved in. At this point there have been three major garden bed rebuilds. During the same 20 years, the local food system has gotten way more varied and robust as well, which is wonderful. You can buy a lot of stuff locally now that you couldn’t when I got here — and so, this year, my garden is a delightfully chaotic mess, and because we had such a late spring, is mostly herbs and flowers.

I’m a big fan of broadcast sowing, which I did a lot of this spring as I was clearing out some old seed stock. There’s all sorts of nonsense out there. Lots of dill and parsley, a bunch of self-seeded fennel from last year, then borage, calendula, and nasturtium taking over everyplace else. I was wandering around watering things when I noticed a lone cilantro plant that had bolted.

I sowed a lot of cilantro seed this spring, but most of it seems to have been crowded out, which is too bad because if there’s anything I love it’s green coriander seeds. They’re delicious, and have the most satisfying pop when you bite one. Absentmindedly, I picked a couple of umbrels-worth and put them in a little dish in the kitchen. Later, I thought, what if I put them in the mortar and pestle with some herbs and chile and salt? I crushed them up, added a teensy bit of garlic, a lot of salt, and a couple of tiny chiles from the garden. It was a perfect hit of green and herb and heat.

Earlier this summer, I cut big bunches of tarragon, chives, dill and fennel fronds, sage, summer savory, and parsley to do a dry salt preserve. I chopped them all up, and spread them out on a sheet pan with salt, scrunched it all together and put it in the oven on the bread proof setting to dehydrate. I’ll use this herby salt all winter, on everything — it’s particularly great for salting a chicken.

But what about a wet salt, I thought? Olia Hercules, a cookbook writer I adore, described both the red and green salts of Georgia in her book Kaukasis. Salt-preserving herbs is nothing new. If you do a quick google a lot of things turn up including herbes salées, a traditional Quebeqois method of preservation, mostly, it appears, used in pea soups over the winter. What if I did that mix I made in a little dish, but did more of it, and stuck it in the fridge so I’ll have it in the dead of winter? We can get a lot of things here now, but I refuse to buy small herb bundles in plastic clamshells. For one thing, plastic clamshells. Fuck plastic.

These are the kinds of techniques I love — things that aren’t recipes, because they’re not standardized, but that nonetheless open up a space into which a person can experiment, and play around. A ‘truc” is a little trick, or sometimes the little morsel a cook keeps for themself. These are the things I find most fascinating, the things I scour cookbooks and food memoirs for.

I don’t want to learn how to make a recipe. Learning a recipe is a consumerist approach to cooking. Leaning on recipes keeps us hooked on external sources of validation. Leaning on recipes keeps us in that state where consumer capitalism wants us to be, always feeling that we’re lacking something, that we’re not quite right, that we can’t do it ourselves. It’s part of the Big Lie in which we all live, but, as my original tag line for this blog noted, we can subvert that big lie by learning to do things for ourselves, by experimenting in order to learn, for ourselves, what we actually like, rather than what we’ve been told to like.

This is the core impulse in my now 20 year project of learning how to cook and preserve and make the most out of what I have, right here. This is why I’ve looked to food writers like Patience Gray, or Elizabeth Luard, or Rosetta Costantino, or Olia Hercules — food writers who give you the thinking behind food practices, and who are interested in keeping alive ways of cooking that don’t rely on recipes. Pasta Grannies is another source for this kind of info. How does a woman in her 80s make the thing she’s always made with one paring knife, a rolling pin, and a regular kitchen fork? Those are the trucs I’m interested in.

If you don’t have an overgrown herb garden like I do this summer, I’m sure you can manage to buy too many herbs this time of year at your local farmer’s market — but the point is, don’t set out to use the herb combination I did — use what you have. For instance, the Georgian salts Olia Hercules describes all use a lot of fenungreek, which I don’t have, and which Himself really dislikes. I’m not making an authentic Georgian herb salt, I’m making a Montana backyard herb salt. Do the same. Use what’s good where you live.

To make my Montana herb salt, I stripped the lovely green coriander seeds off my one sweet plant, and then looked to see what else is good. Right now, there’s a lot of tarragon, chives, parsley, summer savory (I adore summer savory, more people should grow it), and fennel fronds. The dill is just setting seed so I cut a few heads that haven’t gone hard and brown yet, as well as a bunch of umbrellas of parsley flowers. My pepper plants are sort of limping along, but there’s a small hot variety I bought as starts that is really nice as a hot green pepper, so I cut a few of those, and a green cayenne. On the way back to the house, I cut a few sprigs of mint from the long border in the perennial bed.

I did get out the mortar and pestle, but it was clear I had way more herbs than I had time to lovingly crush by hand, so I brought out the Cuisinart. I rough chopped the herbs and chiles, added a couple of cloves of new garlic, and the zest of a lemon, and whizzed it all up. Then I added salt. What I wanted was a ratio that felt like damp sand. So I just added salt until it seemed right to me. I’m keeping them in the fridge, so I’m not too worried — and there’s definitely enough salt in there to keep it from molding. This isn’t going to be a ferment, although that’s also an interesting idea. Hmm. I did ferment a LOT of walking onions this spring (a particularly pungent green onion that came with the garden, and that I adore). Maybe lacto-fermented herbs? I’m plannning to do another batch of this when the fennel starts setting seed — green fennel seeds as the base? But a fermented batch? That might be interesting …

Jar of green salt and tub of Quark cheese in background. Foreground: blue and white plate with toast slices topped with quark, sliced tomatoes, and green salt.
Lunch: toast, quark, backyard tomatoes, and green salt.

So here’s lunch this afternoon. Toast with quark (which we can finally get here), backyard tomatoes, and green salt. It was delicious.

Over the years, at LivingSmall — here are a few posts I’ve written about making things with the herbs in my yard:

Playing with your food is fun.

Let’s stop being so aspirational and just start playing around more. Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don’t — but every time you try something, you learn something.

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