ALAN GUSSOW samples as he sketches . . . young leeks, bunching onions, parsley, snow peas, cherries, raspberries, tomatoes. Sometimes, "for inspiration," he says, he rubs sage, summer savory, lavender and lemon balm between his fingers.
Gussow is an environmental artist whose most recent paintings and drawings went on exhibit at the Hull Gallery on New Mexico Avenue yesterday. To a much greater extent even than a chef, Gussow's work is bound up with food. The garden in which he samples and paints makes up most of the front yard of the 1896 house in Congers, N.Y., that he and his wife, Joan, have been restoring since they bought it 20 years ago.
But Gussow not only draws imspiration from the garden, he works in it actively. For most of the year the couple's meals come largely from the fruits of that labor. Today what Alan paints is almost always involved with what is edible. What might once have been described as landscape painting in the most traditional sense has become something else. Gussow explained it in the foreward to a retrospective show held two years ago:
"My work has come closer to home. The images are prompted less by what I see and more by what I do. Where I saw a landscape I now sense a process and I am within that flow, not apart from it.
"Our vegetables grew and I made pictures of the plants. When we dug French intensive beds, I made drawings of the lofted earth. Gradually the world around the house drew me in.
"I came to know the garden plants as individuals. The garden wove its way deeply into my work."
This fall he carried the grow-them, paint-them, eat-them cycle one step further. "Last week while running around the lake, I found a whole cache of shaggy-mane mushrooms, the ultimate in inky caps, and picked some to cook. Two days later, on another run, there were more. I picked those, but instead of eating them I brought them up to the studio." Gussow explained that the mushrooms "digest themselves, turning in a matter of hours to a pool of ink. After making one rather large careful drawing of the cap, I suddenly felt like the mushroom was talking to me (no, I wasn't nibbling on it) and naturally I picked one up and began to make a drawing of the mushroom, using the mushroom's own ink. Hours later, and many drawings later, I began to press the mushrooms on slick paper, deliberately smudged outward and ended up with still another series of 'drawings,' looking like whole galaxies."
Gussow's intimate knowledge of his environment has broader implications. He is vice-president of Friends of the Earth and president of America the Beautiful Fund. He is also a "scenic assessor," one of the handful of experts testifying around the country about the effects, for instance, a power line will have on the scenery. "The environment," he says, "is not neutral. The world around us is not a backdrop. It's the place where we live and its quality and character affect us profoundly."
Gussow's wife is no less involved. Joan Dye Gussow is chairperson of the program in nutrition education at Columbia University Teachers College. She is one of the new wave of nutrition educators who teaches that the world is not only made up of finite resources, but it is all interconnected. In a recent interview she said: "There's no way we can control what we put in our bodies until we can do something about the environment. I think the issue of chemical pollution is emerging; people are beginning to understand that these things go through the food chain."
The Gussows have more control over what they eat than most people because of their garden. Small by conventional standards, 25 by 50 feet, plus some fruit trees and bush-bearing plants, it produces enough vegetables to feed the two Gussows, and assorted friends and children who visit on occasion, throughout the year. Its production is supplemented by the things they can't grow -- bananas, oranges, avocados -- and by grains, cheese, eggs and a small amount of meat. Meat, whether fish, poultry or beef, is a condiment in the Gussow household, not a staple.
"You can grow enough vegetables for two people with 10 minutes of work a day," Joan Gussow explained. Called by "a ridiculous name," bio-dynamic/French intensive gardening, it is a combination of two methods developed by an English horticulturist Allan Chadwick. The Bio-dynamic part is based on organic gardening, which emphasizes heavy use of compost. The French-intensive part comes from Parisian market gardeners who used to provide the city with fresh vegetables all winter by using manure from the carriage horses in the beds. The heat from the manure, which was retained by covering the beds, made it possible to grow vegetables even in the coldest weather. Chadwich's contribution is the "double digging," of the soil, digging two spades deep.
The gussows discovered the technique when they bought a book entitled "How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible in Less Space Than You Can Possibly Imagine."
The method involves intensive working of the soil, so much so that according to Joan, "you can sink your arm up to the elbow"; a lot of composting and planting of the entire surface. There are no rows between the plants so the plot must be small enough to reach the center of the bed from the side.
"Things are so close there aren't any weeds," Joan explained. "People don't really believe it, but we absolutely don't weed," she said.
The Gussows have already begun work on next year's garden, even as they continue to harvest from last year's. "We are still eating leeks, scallions and Egyptian onions," Joan said. And new crops of them start coming up in February. "We have very bad breath, but terrific cholesterol," she jokes.
"We are still eating the the Chinese cabbage. Alan picked the last of it two weeks ago. We had our last carrots shortly before Christmas." They had garden tomatoes for Christmas. Just before the first killing frost they picked the remaining green tomatoes allow them to ripen on a screen in a dark corner of the basement. Storage onions are braided and dried and placed in the attic, along with the butternut and melon squashes. They keep dry scallion tops and potatoes and a few Lady Godiva pumpkins, so-called because the seeds are hulless or "naked." There is "a freezer full" of pesto base, made by chopping fresh basil leaves and mixing it with olive oil and salt. The sauce is finished when it is served.
Next month the Gussows will start a number of plants in their basement, under their latest acquisition, and "pride and joy," a grow light. Each month some new vegetables are planted, others are harvested.
"I must tell you it gives me great pleasure to go out in the garden and pick something to eat," Joan says. "The taste is phenomenal. We are terribly spoiled. But the first thing Alan and I absolutely enjoy is working outdoors. People who don't have anything which gets them close to nature at some point are cut off from something very fundamental," she feels.
For Alan, she says, the garden is "not only pleasurable to work in, it's his subject matter. I think our only fights are about the garden because he gets so possesive about it."
In addition to the amazing commonality of interests, the Gussows' marriage is very late 20th century.He stays home and paints; she gets in her car each morning and goes to work. Now that she drives to Manhattan every day, a 40 minute ride along the Hudson River from their Rockland County home, Alan has taken over most of the house chores, including the cooking.
When Joan, who is 50, began to work a few years ago she used to leave the meals prepared so that her husband and children, neither of whom are at home any longer, would have something to eat. The typical working wife syndrome. But gradually, she said, Alan, who is 48, began to make chili and hamburgers. He started out with the theory that if its very hot it will all taste good, and according to Joan, "it worked. The kids said I never made zucchini taste like that. His favorite was peanut butter and chile."
Then next step was a wok. His wife says he brought to cooking "the same kind of color and subtle sense he brings to painting. Once he started, he developed his own kind of thing. He still doesn't know how to do conventional foods."
The role reversal, Joan says, "doesn't bother him. I love to come home at night and read the newspaper. It's not a problem. He is extremely secure."
He agrees, "I'm not troubled by Joan and she's not troubled by me."
Alan is secure enough to have examined how he cooks and developed some theories about it. "Our meals," he says, "are based on two principles: First we look to see what is available fresh in the vegetable garden (delaying the use of home frozen food as long as we can) and secondly, we tend to think in terms of 'flavor principles,' that is we think 'provencale' or 'Italian' or 'Greek' or 'Indian' or 'Mexican' or 'Chinese.' Therefore, what emerges is a combination of what is freshly available prepared according to some basic culinary theme or mis of themes." SUMMER SOUP AU PISTOU (6 servings) 8 cups water 1 1/2 tablespoons kosher salt 1 1/2 pounds zucchini and/or summer squash, sliced 1/2 inch thick 1 pound green beans, trimmed and cut in 1-inch pieces 1 can (15 ounces) fava or navy beans 1 cup elbow or shell macaroni Parmesan cheese, freshly grated For the pistou: 1 1/2 teaspoons minced garlic 1 teaspoon kosher salt 1/2 cup tightly packed finely chopped fresh basil leaves 2 tablespoon oil 4 ripe, unpeeled tomatoes In a large pot bring water to boil. Add salt, zucchini, green beans and fava beans. When mixture boils, reduce heat and simmer 12 minutes. Serve with pistou and parmesan cheese.
To make pistou, crush the chopped garlic and 1 teaspoon kosher salt with flat of knife and place in bowl. Add basil leaves, oil and tomatoes, which have been broken up. Stir.
Cook's notes: "This is very quick to prepare, under half an hour. It's a delicious way to use zucchini, but depends on the availability of fresh basil and summer-ripened tomatoes." WINTER CURRY (3 or 4 servings) 1 cup cubed sunchokes (Jerusalem artichokes) 1 cup peeled, cubed butternut squash 1 cup cut-up green beans 3 tablespoons oil 1 teaspoon cumin seeds 1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds 1 teaspoon turmeric 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper 1 cup plain yogurt 3/4 teaspoon salt
Wash sunchokes but do not peel. Cut into 1/2-inch cubes. Cut peeled squash into 3/4-inch cubes. Cut green beans into 1-to 1 1/2-inches pieces.
Warm oil in a frying pan but do not let it get too hot. Crush cumin and mustard seeds. Add spices to warm oil and heat for 2 to 3 minutes. Add salt, sunchokes and squash. Stir and cook until they begin to brown. Add 1/2-cup water; cover and simmer for 10 minutes. Check. If all water has been absorbed, add another 1/2 cup. Add green beans. Simmer for 8 to 10 minutes, stirring from time to time. Test piece of squash for doneness. When it is al dente , and when water has turned to a gravy-like consistency, add yogurt and heat for 15 minutes, stirring often.
This may be served over rice, accompanied by hot pita bread. With rice it will serve 5 or 6.
Cook's notes: "The green beans used in this recipe are frozen during the summer. The sunchokes are harvested beginning in October. The squash is harvested in September and stored in a cool, dry place for use throughout the winter and into spring. Sliced carrots may be substituted for the squash." TOMATO SAUCE FOR PASTA (Makes about 3 quarts) 12 medium to large tomatoes 1 cup green onions,including tops of 2 onions 2 green peppers, chopped (optional) 3 carrots, grated 6 ribs Swiss chard, diced (rhubarb chard preferred, celery may be substituted) 1/2 cup minced parsley 1/2 cup chopped fresh basil 2 cloves garlic, minced 3 tablespoons oil 2 teaspoons salt
Cut tomatoes into large pieces and cook over moderately high heat for 10 to 12 minutes, until soft. put through food mill to remove seeds and skins. reserve puree.
Put oil in tall, 8 quart, heavy duty pot; add garlic and onions. Saute for 5 minutes. Add Swiss chard ribs, carrots, and green peppers. Cook approximately 10 minutes. Add pureed tomatoes and salt; simmer for 100 minutes. Then add parsley and basil. cook additional 7 or 8 minutes.
Pack in containers with tight fitting lids (8 ounces will serve 2 people). Cool and freeze.
Gussow offers the following cook's notes: "By putting partially cooked tomatoes through the food mill, we get seeds and skins out quickly. Pureeing tomatoes this way allows an accelerated cooking process, retaining fresh flavor and nutritional quality. We try to keep cooking time to under 40 minutes.
"We use 'green' onions, actually Japanese bunching onions, allowing flavor and texture of both onions and chives in one vegetable.
"By grating carrots, body is added to the sauce, an old Bolognese trick.
"Flavor is improved by using Swiss chard instead of the traditional celery.
This year we grew ruby Swiss chard, which has intense red stems. It added additional color as well as flavor.
"We tend to use more basil and parsley than most comparable recipes, giving our sauce a greener look and more intense flavor.
"If you want meat flavor, dice up three or four slices of sugar-cured bacon and saute it before cooking onions and garlic.
"We prepare four ounces of uncooked pasta per person. The dish is served with grated parmesan and Pecorino Romano cheese."