Sooty hands and Szechuan peppercorns in all their wrinkly, pink glory.
I’ve been working part time as a candymaker for the past couple of months. It’s a fun gig: I get to spend my Sundays stirring a giant copper cauldron of sugar, butter, spices, and nuts with a big wooden paddle. My childhood self would be proud. This weekend I was tasked with making the only product I hadn’t tried yet. I had no idea we’d saved the best for last.
I’ve heard about Szechuan peppercorns before. I’d imagined their flavor, described as a sort of numbing spice, to be so powerfully painful that it’d numb my whole face. That doesn’t sound pleasant, does it? Maybe it’s that the word ‘peppercorn’ sounds like something spicy, or just that the English language lacks a word for what really happens when you put one of these in your mouth. Either way, I had no idea what to expect from these little guys.
While I was measuring out spices for a few batches of Szechuan Peanuts (apparently also called ‘strange flavor peanuts’) I found myself sticking my nose into the bag of peppercorns and almost laughing. They are tremendously pungent and smell almost floral. I couldn’t get enough of their weird, sweet, sour, prickly, piney scent. Our resident chef asked me if I’d ever had one, and showed me how to pick the best ones to taste. I picked one out, and then chewed it carefully for about ten seconds, spitting out the woody remains when instructed.
Maybe the strangest part about these is that they don’t really taste like anything at all. At first it was like chewing a little flowery smelling twig. Then a few seconds after I spat it out the magic began. The tip of my tongue started tingling. My salivary glands went crazy. My mouth began to fill with intense salty, sour, citrusy, piney, and floral flavors. I think the citrus, pine, and flowery notes probably came from the peppercorn’s strong smell - taste is mostly smell after all. Although I tasted salt and sour, my impression was that the peppercorn itself wasn’t salty or sour at all. Rather, it seemed to me, it had done something wacky to all of the nerve endings in my mouth. The end of my tongue was tingling so much it almost felt like it was vibrating. I licked my lips and the feeling spread to them, too. My nerves had been duped into thinking there was something salty and sour and electric going on, even when there was nothing there. I drank some water and it felt carbonated. I ate some bread and couldn’t feel it on my tongue at all, though I could taste the jam I’d put on top. The flavors faded over a few minutes, and I was left with mild numbness for a few more. I looked this up on wikipedia later, and turns out I was right. The esteemed and awesome Harold McGee notes that Szechuan peppercorns “perhaps cause a kind of general neurological confusion.” My nerves were happy to be confused.
After having tasted one of these, it makes a lot more sense to me why they’re used with spicy foods to make the spice more palatable. With all the nerves in your tongue going haywire, there’s not much space left to feel the pain that serious capsaicin spiciness can cause. Instead, you get the flavor of the spice, along with the crazy floral, sour, and salty impression from the peppercorns, but the chile pepper induced pain is masked. Yum!
Well, it’s finally winter here. Sort of. It poured rain so hard last Thursday that I drove through a couple of small ponds in the road on my way across town. The sight of cars plunging into puddles up to their noses is always entertaining, although I was a bit afraid my little car would float away. And, of course, I wished that it were a blizzard instead. We’re alternating between chilly, clear days, and dreary, wet, unremittingly gray ones. In the city, people seem to think that commenting on the weather is pointless small talk, but maybe spending almost every day of the past year outside has made me a little more attentive to what’s going on out there.
That, and the fact that the ice on the lake is always worth looking at.
More Chicago Beauty.
The Fullerton beach is gorgeous on a baffling, 70 degree day in early December.
Chicago, you’re pretty great.
Sometimes I miss the mountains, the goats, the chickens, the tractors, the abundance of beautiful food, and all of the amazing people I’ve met in the past year. And then sometimes there are moments when the skyline looks like this over the river.
I slept in the hammock.
My friend in Maine also happens to live in one of the most amazing structures I’ve ever had the privilege of entering. Her house is a one room, wood stove heated, purple trimmed yurt. Before my visit the word ‘yurt’ didn’t really conjure up any gorgeous images for me.
A haphazard canvas tent?
A brightly colored building somewhere in Mongolia?
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect.
Turns out that a yurt can also be truly spectacular. This one looks sort of like a spaceship and one of these had a baby. Besides the giant front window, it’s got wood paneling on the walls, floor, and ceiling, and a little porthole of a skylight right in the center of the roof. The room is almost perfectly round, and the walls, including the front door, slope away from the floor at a pretty sharp angle. In order to open the heavy wooden door I had to use quite a bit of my own weight to tug on a rope tied to the handle. It was very Alice in Wonderland.
That coupled with the outhouse in the back, the lack of refrigeration, and the rainwater catchment system that trapped runoff from the roof to use for dishwashing, and I felt a little like I was in an alternate dimension. Perspective had certainly shifted a bit.
Once upon a time.
I visited a wonderful, amazingly hospitable friend on the coast of Maine. We did a bit of baking. Her oven is kind of an inspiration. It’s a beautiful wood burning brick oven that she built on a little trailer. A friend of hers constructed some countertops and a couple of cabinets on the trailer, so that she’ll have a bit of storage space when she takes her wood-fired-pizza-pop-up-cafe business on the road. The pizzas were great, but these tarts really took the cake.
I think summer’s over.
There have been a couple tip offs at this point. I left the goat farm, and Vermont, in August. After a little while spent swimming off the coast of Maine and visiting a few friends, I moved back to Chicago. I’ve been biking around the city, baking pizza, working on another farm, knitting scarves, drinking whiskey, and contemplating life ever since. And then a few nights ago it snowed. I guess it’s been a while.
Though I’ve left this blog dormant during this transition, I’m planning to start posting again. I think the title is still apt, given how often I bring up goats and farming in everyday life, but the content is going to change a little bit. There will be farm reminiscences and food adventures, but there will also be more about the wonders and oddities of urban life.
Okra flowers are pretty.
In my humble, non-southern opinion, Okra is kind of awful, but I respect any flower this gorgeous. Apparently so does that bug that I found sitting along the petals.