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Happy 2010 Cape Cod Burn Season

January 22, 2010

Happy 2010 Burn Season

January 17, 2010

Friday marked the first day of brush burning season for Cape Cod, and it was almost unimaginably a “burn day” in Orleans, meaning permitted residents could touch off their piles of brush – that is, if the tinder wasn’t still covered with snow. In past years, snowy days were usually not burn days. As the firemen explained it, wet brush resulted in an inevitable increase in the use of accelerants to get the fire roaring. Many locals can recall days when it was customary to throw diesel fuel on a stack of brush to help set it off, but hopefully most of us now know better and have more respect for the fragile ecosystem we inhabit.

I pile brush all summer, after the first-of-May end of the burning season. If I have extra tarps, I will cover the piles and wait for the first burn day. Lately, with cord after cord of wood stacked in the yard for our winter’s home-heating, I have been short of tarps and hope the pile will dry out in time for burning. Recent history has proven good for drying time and bad for early burning, what with snow storms, rains and those frustrating low-ceiling days that seem to persist through much of the early part of burn season.

It has always troubled my barbarian brain to think that fire has been stolen from humans. There is a Native American fable about how man got his hands on fire, and it involved the use of our friend coyote, the trickster, who managed to trick the Gods into relinquishing their hold on that precious essence of barbeque. After all that, and after use of fire secured its role in countless examples of forward motion for the human species, we now find ourselves often denied that simple and essential tool.

While I wish we could burn with impunity throughout the Cape Cod s’mores season, which is summer for those of you who haven’t been to camp, I am more acutely aware of the dangers of burning than I once was. My uncle, Dave Hubbard, worked for the National Forest Service on the Six Rivers National Forest, which abuts and surrounds Redwood National Park in Northern California. Residents of the state of California are about as keyed in as you can get to the dangers of wildfire – they think about fire the same way Cape Codders think about hurricanes, remembering deadly conditions, heavy damage, and close calls.

A hurricane is usually tracked by Cape Codders as it is generated off the coast of Africa and strengthens as it moves over the warm waters of the Caribbean and turns northward and ravages the southern coast and heads toward our peninsula. A fire, on the other hand, can start in your neighbor’s back yard. Uncle Dave warned me that the Cape is primed for wildfire, pointing to the dry tinder everywhere in unmanaged woodlots and big backyards. Coupled with a lackadaisical attitude toward fire and general unpreparedness, the situation could be bad. I double-checked my hose and shovel arrangement after that conversation. I also paid more attention to the wind, as burn days can be cancelled by increasing winds. It is the permitted burner’s responsibility to extinguish their fires if the wind increases during the day. I believe the cut-off is 20 mph, but you’ll have to double-check that with your own fire department. Let’s just say if the sparks and burning bits start blowing into the woods, turn on the hose and call it a day.

When it comes to lack of fire, I really can’t complain. I have a gas grill, a charcoal grill, a woodstove, propane tank and burner, electric and gas ranges, matches, lighters, and all kinds of other ignitions. But there’s nothing like a raw, open brush fire to kindle the primitive spirit and mesmerize children and the inner-children of their parents and tall friends. Which brings me to another barbarian gripe; brush fires must be extinguished by 4 p.m. No ghost stories or oral traditions expressed over the crackle and glow of the fire allowed. The blaze has to be squelched just when it’s really getting good. The only way around these regulations is to have a “cooking fire”, which is identified by some piece of food being cooked on the coals or scorched by the flames. In these parts, that usually means a fire ring, and, although I won’t soon be parting with several hundred dollars to make my primitive soul happy, I have been collecting big stones for the past couple of years and will probably put some mortar to them soon.

Having food on the fire is something we can handle. I can’t resist using all those BTUs to make some food, even if it’s something as utterly simple as throwing potatoes on the coals. Those will be some of the best potatoes we cook, our palates biased by the poetry of smoke and labor. But it’s the baba ghanoush that I most deeply appreciate. You haven’t had baba until you’ve roasted it on the coals of a well-earned brush fire.

The smoky flavor and little charred bits of eggplant skin in a fresh batch of baba ghanoush add depth and flavor to  the dish, and the best way to get it is to burn that eggplant down until it looks like something you would never eat. A pair of tongs or deftly handled stick is needed to grasp the deflated mess out of the coals, and then the smoking lump of eggplant must cool before tahini and lemon and cumin and garlic go to work to make the most fabulous baba, and every year it is more wonderful than the last. What a scrumptious way to celebrate the first fire of the season and warm the appetite for the many more that will follow.

Baba Ghanoush
1 large or 2 small eggplants

1/4 cup of tahini, or to taste

3 cloves of garlic, minced

1/4 cup of lemon juice, or to taste

2 or 3 big pinches of cumin

salt to taste

2 Tbs extra virgin olive oil

2 Tbs fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped

Pita bread

Prick the eggplant all over with a skewer, knife or fork and deposit in hot coals. Roast until the skin blackens and puckers and looks charred. Let cool, then open the eggplant by slicing down its length with a knife. Scrape out the flesh and discard the skin or give it to your chickens. Place the flesh in a bowl.

Using a fork, mash the eggplant flesh into a paste. Add the tahini, garlic, lemon juice, and cumin and mix well. Season with salt, then adjust the tahini and lemon juice to taste.

Transfer to a serving bowl, if necessary, and smooth out the surface with a fork. Drizzle the olive oil on top and sprinkle with parsley. Serve with torn pita bread.

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