Discovering Produce

Here is an article I wrote that was published in the Santa Fe New Mexican yesterday.

An American Cook in Europe #2
by Christopher J Kolon
for the Santa Fe New Mexican

Discovering Produce

Wandering into the produce section of an American supermarket is like entering a virtual reality world. The real world, along with any acknowledgement of date or place, is left at the front door.

Watermelon in January? Asparagus in September? Why not? Grapes and cherries shipped 7,000 miles to the high desert. Who cares?

And everywhere there is the stunning perfection of the fruit and vegetables: hefty, purple eggplants; fist-sized, bright red tomatoes; enormous romaine; petite haricot verts; perfect peaches and plums. The list goes on and on.

Not so here. The produce section in the average Austrian supermarket is more a reflection of the season and the locality.

Don’t get me wrong. There are places here where you can buy out of season produce: big supermarkets almost indistinguishable from those in the States. There, in February, you can buy peaches from South Africa, strawberries from Egypt, avocados from Israel, and, yes, grapes from Chile.

But these markets are uncommon and, for us, prohibitively expensive.

Each of the three or four supermarkets in my neighborhood is currently featuring much the same winter fare: root vegetables, citrus, apples, hardy greens and, as the exception, zucchini. Oh, sure, you can occasionally find a head of butter lettuce, cherry tomatoes or hothouse cucumbers. But that’s about it.

After two months of this kind of produce shopping, the romance of eating seasonally has almost worn off.

Almost, but not quite. There still is enough variety and novelty here to keep me interested until the Spring produce starts coming in. Plus, I really like eating organic and our organic produce is strictly seasonal.

A larger share of farmland is devoted to organic agriculture in Austria than in any country of the world, save tiny Lichtenstein. Twelve percent of farmland here is organic. Organic produce is available in every supermarket and, in the case of strictly seasonal vegetables like root veggies and field greens, is often the only choice available. By the way, they label it “Bio” in Europe, not “organic.”

Our winter green salad consists of escarole, radicchio and feldsalat. Feldsalat is the German name for mache or lamb’s lettuce, valerianella locusta. Our wintry variety has a texture like spinach, with a mild lettuce-like flavor and deep green color. It is hardy, grows like a weed and is very inexpensive.

Blood oranges, another amazingly cheap item here, are just about over now. Most of ours come from Italy, a blush of crimson on their orange skins and ruby red flesh underneath. They are so inexpensive and bountiful that much of the crop is turned into juice. Supermarkets are filled with cartons of blood orange juice, and it is cheaper than regular orange juice, too!

Russet potatoes are hard to find here, but there are plenty of other small white and yellow potatoes. The varieties we eat most often are called Pintje and Sieglinde. They both have creamy yellow flesh like Yukon Golds, only Pintje is better for mashed potatoes while Sieglinde is wonderful fried.

I mentioned small potatoes. Well, that’s about the only kind available. Same with onions; there are no large onions, just small ones the size of plums. That can be really frustrating when you are peeling onions for soup. How I long for those massive Texas sweet onions or over-sized Spanish varieties available everywhere in the States. To me, small onions don’t taste any different than big ones. I’m petty; size does matter.

Most of the day-to-day produce here comes from Europe, and their farming industry doesn’t seem to be as standardized as ours. Things really vary in size and appearance. In Istanbul we saw leeks three feet long and cabbages the size of basketballs. And I mean the pro model basketballs, not the piddley kid ones.

There are lots of big, knobby horseradish and creamy white kohlrabi. Kohlrabi, (from the German, Kohl meaning cabbage and Rabi meaning turnip), has a long history in Europe and is ubiquitous in Austria during the winter months. It is found in every vegetable soup, cooked with peas and onions and even eaten raw. It has a sweet, turnipy flavor that mellows with long cooking.

Beets are small, as are carrots. Broccoli, eggplant, zucchini and cauliflower are indistinguishable from those in the States

Apples are small and ugly and taste wonderful. There are no Red Delicious apples here, thank God. I think those must have been concocted by Walt Disney and foisted off on an unsuspecting American public. Let me clue you in on a secret: they don’t taste good! Better you should put a nice picture of an apple up on a wall and eat a Braeburn or Gala. Or better yet, a Cox’s Orange Pippin. Only I’m not sure you can find that variety in New Mexico.

Eating a Cox’s Orange is like drinking really intense apple cider, only crunchier. The flavor is so concentrated and complex, it reminds me of the experience of drinking wine. Take a bite and there you have the taste of pears, plums, grass, loam, sunshine and, well, apple.

I think they are the jewels of the apple world. And during their season, you can buy this English variety all over Austria.

Well-stored apples are still pretty good now, so I am going to offer you one of the best apple dessert recipes I know: my wife’s Austrian apple cake. The cake is more like a pie, or better yet, a cross between the two. The ingredients are found in any kitchen and the recipe is super simple. I guarantee that it will become a favorite in your house; it’s that good.


Reingard’s Austrian Apple Cake

This recipe is rather freeform. You must remember the proportions of ingredients and the specific thickness of the dough and filling. Knowing that, you can make any size cake you want.

All purpose flour
Sweet cream butter
White or turbinado sugar
A pinch salt
Apples (Granny Smith, Braeburn, Galas, Pippins are all good. Delicious apples are too sweet.)

The proportion for the dough: 3 to 2 to 1, flour-butter-sugar, by weight. For example: 12 ounces flour, 8 ounces butter, 4 ounces sugar. This makes a nice family size cake.

Mix 3 parts (by weight) flour with 1 part sugar and a pinch of salt. Cut 2 parts cool butter into pieces and cut into flour mixture. Knead together well until the butter pieces disappear and the dough holds together. You can add a spoonful of yogurt or cream if you think the dough is too dry or a touch of flour if you think it is too wet. This dough is forgiving.

Grate two pounds or so of peeled apples. Don’t grate too finely or all you’ll get is juice. If the apples are really tart, you can add a little sugar. My wife rarely does.

Divide the dough into two pieces and roll one half out on parchment paper in a square to a thickness of ¼ inch. Don’t roll out too thin. Cover with grated apples to a thickness of about 1 1/2 inches. Sprinkle apples with cinnamon. You may add a few raisins if you want, it’s optional.

Roll out the other half of the dough on parchment paper to a thickness of ¼ inch. Turn dough over while placing on top of the apples. Peel parchment paper off and poke a few holes through the dough with a skewer.

You can pinch together the sides or leave them open; it doesn’t matter, it is just personal preference.

Bake on a cookie sheet at 355 degrees for about 30-35 minutes or until the dough turns brown and the apples soften.

The dough is basically a cookie dough and you can’t really ruin it by leaving it in the oven a little longer at a warming temperature if the apples need a little more time in the oven.

Reingard says the cake is better after a few hours or, even, the next day.

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