The most elegant cooks I know are farmers. Not elegant in the overly stylish, white tablecloth sense. But rather, in the way a scientist uses the word when discussing an experiment that is so ingeniously simple and effective that it’s a thing of beauty.
For farmers, especially those on small, diverse vegetable farms that need many hands, elegance means feeding an army of hungry bodies without too much kitchen work or cleaning, while using as many free ingredients as possible. By "free," of course, we mean home-grown produce, fresh and full of flavor and vigor.
Over the course of a summer, a farm kitchen becomes a lab for the high-speed evolution of culinary elegance. Visitors bring their own recipes, which take up residence in hospitable kitchen ecosystems, like the one I walked into the other day.
I was there to learn about a salad called heirloom tomato juice, but first I had to get past a table laden with two steaming platters of rice noodles. They were tossed in chimichurri, thick as pesto, with scattered flecks of caramelized carrots and pieces of grilled fennel, broccoli and yellow squash.
"It was a way of getting rid of too much parsley," said my friend Josh Slotnick, a farmer and a Missoula County commissioner. Having spent time in the Peace Corps in Thailand, the commissioner knows his way around a fried noodle, but his true gift is latching onto great ways to prepare any vegetable, and optimizing what he learns to the farm kitchen.
Next to the noodles was a large bowl of romaine leaves, tossed with onions that had been soaked in salt water. The lettuce and onions were drizzled in olive oil and "cheap white vinegar." It had the fingerprint of a mutual farmer friend, and the commissioner confirmed it was indeed Luci Brieger's.
But I was there for the heirloom tomato juice, a salad that happens to be the most elegant way to drink an heirloom tomato.
The commissioner sliced an English cucumber, the long, slender kind we sometimes see wrapped in plastic. It has to be this and only this kind, he stressed. Not the cucumber-shaped slicers, even from his own farm, or the pointy picklers, no matter how crispy. None surrender their juices like an English.
The commissioner spoke of the mildly acidic liquid with a mix of reverence and fervor, his values having been fundamentally sculpted by the quest for this very elixir. Things that increase the juice, by definition, are good. Sodium included.
"I'm not shy with the salt," he said shaking copious amounts onto the chunked cukes. "People enjoy it. It makes things taste good. And it brings out the juice.”
Then he added thin slices of onion, emphasizing it must be a Walla-Walla, or similar sweet, spicy salad onion. He teased apart the thin rings in the bowl into a layer atop the cucumbers, and gave it a good stir. Then he added the tomatoes, in chunks about the size of a box of dental floss.
There is a little more leeway with the tomatoes. They should be heavy, ripe heirlooms. Cracked and ugly tomatoes are welcome, and the darker, the better, like the green collared Cherokee Black (pictured).
As this went on, family and farmhands wandered through the kitchen, ogling the growing spread. When the commissioner told them my purpose — heirloom tomato juice — they sighed wistfully. Surprisingly, they all declined to taste-test the commissioner's fresh batch, citing variations on the common theme of "I can't eat any more tomatoes right now." The commissioner nodded sympathetically, pointing to his lower lip. "I have a hole in my mouth, too.”
After weeks of rushing face-first into the tomato harvest, the acid was taking its toll on the help, even those low-acid heirloom varieties. Nothing says dog days of summer like tomato damage to your mouth.
When the three principal ingredients had been chopped and added to the bowl, the commissioner poured olive oil and balsamic, and stirred. "Let them hang out and get to know each other for a few minutes," he said.
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A moment later, he announced, "It's already making juice. I can see it coming up."
The cucumbers were sinking in a rising sea, so fast you could almost see it happening.
When the commissioner ran out to the greenhouse, I started gulping it down. The juices were thick but non-pulpy, softly tangy and salty, thoroughly satisfying and delicious, like drinkable gazpacho.
By then the tomatoes had all but vanished, as had the onions, leaving collapsed, fibrous remnants behind. The cucumbers remained, like bones in a pot of simmering stock, having already given their best stuff to the juice. Eat them anyway.
Heirloom Tomato Juice
Don't be afraid to double the recipe. Leftovers are A-OK.
2 English cucumbers, sliced into ½-inch rounds
¼ of a large sweet onion, thin sliced to an ⅛-inch or less
3 cups chopped heirloom tomatoes
1/2 cups olive oil
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon salt
Add the cucumbers to a bowl, along with two teaspoons of salt and the onions, teasing the layers apart into individual crescents. Toss. Add the tomatoes, oil and balsamic, and toss again. Taste, add the remainder of the salt if it needs it, and wait for the juices to flow. It won't be long.