Oil, tea and pits: big ingredients in character-building

July 19, 2006|By ROB KASPER

Midsummer kitchen duties are hot, repetitive and slow. They also can build character. That is what I tell myself these days as I slowly whisk the olive oil into the vinaigrette. I chant it to myself as I wait, ice-filled glass in hand, for the tea to steep in the pot for 3 1/2 minutes. Then I say it again as I pit a mountain of sour cherries.

I have done these tasks often enough to know that they deliver payoffs. Delectable things come to those who wait. I know, for instance, that if you add the olive oil in scant batches, the vinaigrette thickens to deliver fine points of style and flavor that a hasty emulsion lacks.

I know, too, that to make a strong tea, the kind with enough backbone to stand up to the avalanche of ice, lemon and sugar that authentic iced tea requires, the hot tea must brew, undisturbed, for several minutes.

And experience has taught me that the drudgery of pitting sour cherries will be rewarded, some hours later, with one of summer's sweetest benefits, a homemade fruit pie. I recognize that if I had to perform these duties several times a day, or even every day, I probably would not have warm feelings for them. Because I pit sour cherries only once or twice a summer, it is easier to wax rhapsodic about the undertaking.

Lately, however, I had begun to appreciate another facet of languid manual labor. Namely, it slows me down. In this state of deceleration, thoughts happen.

So much of daily life is a multitask affair that when I crawl into a job that requires a simple, snaillike pace, I find it restorative, a mental tonic at sundown. When my hands are engaged in repetitive labor, my mind is freed to think. I am not talking about mental gymnastics, about spinning grand theories of the universe. Rather, it is a quieter, slower mental process, similar to floating down a stream on an inner tube.

When making the vinaigrette, I start to unwind as soon as I press the clove of garlic with the tines of the fork. I have made this recipe so many times that my movements are rote.

I mix the pressed garlic with 1 1/2 teaspoons of Dijon mustard and 2 tablespoons of red-wine vinegar. I pick up a whisk and move this trio of ingredients around the bottom of a bowl, then ever so slowly begin to add 1/2 cup of olive oil in increments.

I whisk. I watch and I think of the way raindrops merge with one another on the car windshield. That's the example Susan Watterson used to explain the process of emulsification during a class I took a year ago at L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda.

Technically, an emulsification binds two ingredients that normally do not combine smoothly. That description also reminds me of what household life was like when our kids were teenagers. About the only time we were together was during a big meal. As soon as the food was gone, the teenagers headed out the door for other adventures. The emulsification of family members dissolved after dessert.

The final step of making vinaigrette is to whisk in a little salt, sometimes 1/4 teaspoon, sometimes 1/2 teaspoon. Then I stand back to admire the consistency of my creation. Making good vinaigrette is not an earth-shattering feat, but it does give me a feeling of accomplishment and it certainly lifts a salad.

Making iced tea requires similar stores of patience. There are instant teas and bottled products. These iced teas simply do not taste the way iced tea should, at least to me.

Many families have recipes that pass from generation to generation. Iced tea is one of those recipes in my family. I fill the bottom of a pitcher with 1 cup of sugar, then toss in the juice and the rinds of a lemon.

I pour boiling water into a teapot loaded with four teabags and let the tea steep for 3 1/2 minutes. I pour the brewed tea into the pitcher, stir well and add mountains of ice. When the ice has stopped cracking, I pour the cooled tea into glasses filled with more ice.

Each time I make it I measure it, and myself, against the iced tea made by my mother, who taught me in this craft years ago. When I get the iced tea just right, when the tea and the sugar and the lemon are in harmony, I toast her memory.

Summer is also prime time for table labor, for sessions spent sitting at the kitchen table turning the fruits of the fields into a dish for supper. Sometimes the task is snapping green beans or peeling peaches. The other afternoon, it was pitting a pile of sour cherries.

I had bought the quart of sour cherries that morning at the farmers' market. I noticed that they were $1 a box cheaper than the same-size container of sweet cherries. Sweet cherries are snack food. Sour cherries have to be cooked and that, I guess, makes them less marketable.

I worked a deal with my wife. I would pit the cherries if she, the skilled piecrust maker, would put them in a pie. She agreed, and soon I was planted at the kitchen table, pitting the cherries while watching the soccer teams of Italy and France battle for the World Cup title.

Pitting cherries while watching televised soccer was a pretty pleasant way to while away the afternoon. About the only insight that came my way during this table-labor session was that after you look at enough cherry pits, they remind you, in a way, of the shaved heads of the soccer players. In keeping with the spirit of the game, I had several cherry pits "head-butt" each other.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

Podcasts featuring Rob Kasper are available at baltimoresun.com/kasper.

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