Oct 27, 2014

On Sunlight & Spices

I bought a daylight lamp for the first time. I bask in it's artificial light every morning, still in my groggy, grumpy state when it's best if I don't interact with humans. I've been using it for two weeks now and I have to say, it's making me feel a little better about heading into the dark tunnel of New England winter. Weirdly, I feel more like a species of plant than a person under the light—I feel it entering through the pores of my skin (even though it acts functionally through the eyes) creating some kind of useful sugar that feeds my heart.

 from an airplane over Pennsylvania last week

I remember interviewing a famous photographer when I was in high school for a school newspaper. His name was Galen Rowell and he died tragically in 2002 (the same year I graduated high school) so the fact that I got to meet and talk with him sits even more crystalline in my mind. When I asked him what was most important to him in his photography, he paused and just said:
"Everything is light."
Galen had a soft voice and an intensity that was magnetic; in saying this statement I felt as though I wanted to understand what he sees. Though I didn't have the chance, I've thought a lot about the interview since, and about this statement. It may not seem a very profound proclamation as much as an obvious one, but to a photographer it is certainly true, and to a farmer or gardener even more true. This was the connection he was aware of as an outdoor/nature photographer, and was the one that flicked a spark in my mind, making me realize not only how dependent we are on sunlight, but also how beautifully complex that relationship is.

In sitting by my artificial light every morning, I've also been musing on other ways in which we "receive" sunlight indirectly. For me, spices are a kind of sunlight. As the aromatic seeds or parts of plants, spices may act as high concentrations of communicable sunlight, aromatic compounds that have evolved in nature to give us pleasure, health and balance. Unlike food products, such as rice or dried beans that serve more as nourishment, spices serve as flavor, feeding us in a different way than starch or proteins, affecting our emotions as opposed to our physical bodies.

I grew up with a picture book called "Frederick" by Leo Lionni that remains one of my favorite books. In it, a community of mice are preparing for winter by gathering seeds to store as food - all except Frederick, more of a daydreamer, who sits still on a rock. When blamed by the other mice for not working to collect food he says, 
"I do work" said Frederick. "I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days."
That winter, when most of the food is eaten and the mice are all sitting around shivering in the cold rock cave feeling bored and depressed, Frederick surprises them with poetry about sunlight and colors, bringing back the light he had stored from summer.

close up of a flower at Paradenia Botanical Gardens, Sri Lanka

cardamom flower and pods, Sri Lanka

One of the reasons I believe spices have become such an integral part of the autumn and winter flavor palate (think everything from mulled cider to Starbucks' popular "PSL" or Pumpkin Spice Latté) is because they have become a injection of joy into the cld and darkening season.

Like Frederick's sun rays, spices shine through the dark and cold to bring light and warmth, flavors that carry positive associations of family, tradition and merry-making.

Since the upcoming holiday has a lot of people thinking about family, I thought I'd create a recipe that uses two spices who are sort of 'siblings' in the spice world: cardamom and ginger. While ginger is a rhizome (underground stem) that has a citrus-spicy-fizzy-fresh flavor to it, cardamom is a seed pod that has a sweet-spicy-earthy-camphor flavor to it. They work marvelously together, not just because they're related botanically (part of the Zingiberaceae family), but because the flavors layer well and combine happily with winter vegetables, bringing some sunlight into the root cellar, if you will.

Squash & Cardamom Gratin
Where béchamel traditionally calls for nutmeg, making it with cardamom is even better.
Try this one as a side dish for Thanksgiving - it's comforting and a little different.

1 large butternut squash, peeled and seeded
3" knob of fresh ginger, peeled
olive oil
parmesan cheese

For the béchamel:
4 TB butter
4 TB flour
3 cups whole milk
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
2 tsp salt to taste

Par-cook the squash:
Pre-heat the oven to 400 degrees F and line two baking sheets with parchment. Slice the squash into thin pieces and lay on the parchment in a single layer. Using a micro-plane or other fine grater, grate the fresh ginger over top the squash.  Lightly drizzle on olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Bake for 7 minutes or until the squash is a little soft but not cooked all the way. Remove from oven and let cool. (Keep the oven on)

Make the béchamel:
Place the butter in a small saucepan and heat over a low flame. Once the butter is melted, add the flour and using a whisk, blend the flour and butter until smooth, then cook until it's a golden brown, about 5 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the milk in a separate saucepan until just simmering, then turn down and slowly add the milk to the butter. Keep whisking until all the milk is added and the sauce is smooth and creamy, about 8-10 min. Add the cardamom and salt and set aside.

Make the gratin:
In a square casserole pan, begin by laying down a layer of sliced, par-cooked squash. Top with a few spoonfulls of béchamel, spreading evenly. Repeat the layering - squash, sauce, squash, sauce until all you've used all the squash. Top with a bit more sauce and some grated parmesan cheese and place in the hot oven for 30 min. To finish, place under the broiler to brown the cheese, about 3-4 minutes. 

1 comment:

  1. You and your words are pleasures and treasures, you little light saber! Ray and I especially loved this post, the vitamin D-heads that we are. We will try our hands at making vegan bechamel and let you know. Love and light to you, sister x x x x x x