Some of the best chefs I know are vegetable farmers, preparing their own produce in their home kitchens during the heat of summer. With a hungry crew grumbling in the fields, time is of the essence, but the rush won’t diminish the farm cook’s determination to serve fresh, high-quality produce at its absolute best.
Cooking for a large group, preferably with as much free food as possible from the farm, means a deluge of vegetables. It means lots of chopping. Nonetheless, most farm recipes come together quickly. There is enough to squash all appetites and leave the eaters nourished as well as satisfied. While preparing such meals, a farm cook can go head-to-head with any line cook. And the menu planning, recipe development, leftovers utilization, and inventory awareness required of a farm cook puts them on the level of an executive chef.
Cua Grogan is one such chef. A Montana farmer of Hmong descent, her ancestors came from the rugged hill country around Vietnam, China, Myanmar, Thailand and Laos. Her parents fought alongside the Americans in the war, where Hmong fighters specialized in rescuing downed pilots from the steep jungle.
When the war ended the U.S. government resettled the Hmong fighters and their families. Many chose to live in Montana, where the farming is good, the people are nice and the mountains remind them of home.
Most vegetable lovers have a special appreciation for herbs, and Cua is no exception. This time of year, she prepares “pepper,” a condiment that combines garlic, onion and herbs with Asian ingredients like fish sauce, Thai chili peppers and lemongrass — which Cua grows in a greenhouse and sells at the market. Any herbs can be used in Pepper, she says, including mint, basil, cilantro and parsley. As the season progresses, the lineup of ingredients in Pepper will change. In early summer she uses garlic scapes. In late summer, she uses fresh chilies rather than dried ones.
“We scoop Pepper onto whatever we are eating,” she told me. “Even plain rice.”
Cua then leaned in conspiratorially. “When I’m eating alone, I just mix Pepper with cucumber.” Sometimes, instead of mixing it in, she said, she slices the cucumber and scoops it up like chips and salsa.
I took a load of the requisite ingredients back to the lab, where I was able to confirm that Pepper goes marvelously with whatever you scoop it on. And, as promised, it makes the humblest bowl of rice taste like an exotic meal. Pepper is not very salty, but is full of strong flavors that interact with what you eat it with, making anything it touches more interesting.
Then I tried adding cucumbers, per Cua’s suggestion. It was a spectacular combination, and I can understand why somebody would want to hide away and eat it privately. The watery, crispy cucumber almost completes the Pepper experience. But I felt something was missing, to my taste. I wanted vinegar with my herbs and cucumbers. I wanted peppered pickles.
So, I added white wine vinegar. After a few minutes, they were amazing. The next day they were even better. Crisp, aromatic and refreshing, the whole family fell in love with these peppered pickles.
And moving forward, I’ll be prepping Pepper whenever I have fresh herbs. Adding it to your meal is a glorious way to eat.
Here is Cua’s recipe for Pepper. Scoop it onto whatever you are eating, and enjoy the aromatic whirlwind of flavor.
Serves a lot of people, unless one of them is Cua, who might just eat it all
2 stalks lemongrass
1 bunch basil
1 bunch cilantro
1 bunch mint
1 bunch parsley
1 bunch spring onions, white and green parts
5 garlic scapes, or 5 cloves of garlic
Crushed hot pepper flakes, to taste
2 tablespoons fish sauce
Mince all of the ingredients but the fish sauce. Stick to one ingredient at a time and keep chopping until it’s finely cut. The chopping can be an intimidating task, but it’s worth it. Combine the ingredients in a mixing bowl. Add the fish sauce. Taste. Add more if necessary. If you want it saltier, but have limited tolerance for fish sauce, then use salt.
If you want to make peppered pickles, you don’t need to mince the herbs as finely. A coarse chopping will be fine. Then add cucumbers, also chopped coarsely, and enough white wine vinegar to cover everything.
Alternatively, substitute yogurt for the vinegar, for a tangy, creamy, cooling snack with pizzazz aplenty.
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