New Year’s Resolutions

It’s a week for formulating New Years resolutions and I have two that stem from reading Ferran Adrià’s A Day at elBulli. Adrià is one of the main proponents of “molecular gastronomy” (though he rejects the term) a style of cooking that involves not just unusual ingredients, but the creation of entirely new forms of cooking. Think dry ice, freeze drying and culinary thoughtstylings such as “Spherification.” But back to my two resolutions which are:

1. Read, listen to and experience more divergent opinions. I checked out A Day at El Bulli from the library expecting to hate it. I’m all about quality ingredients (preferably homegrown) prepared in simple, traditional ways and will never attempt any of the ridiculous recipes included in this big picture book. That being said, I came away from thumbing through the book with an admiration for Adrià’s creativity even if I agree with Mrs. Homegrown description of the entrees looking like “dog vomit.”* It’s all too easy in the age of Google to succumb to “confirmation bias,” the errors that come with finding only what you’re looking for. While I wouldn’t buy a copy of A day at El Bulli, I’m glad a librarian chose it for the library and I’m happy I took the time to consider Adrià’s point of view even if I disagree.

2. Speaking of Adrià’s creativity–he spends half the year developing new methods in Barcelona and the other half the year working at the remote El Bulli. Making the time for creative thinking is essential, I believe. Even after co-writing two how-to books I find myself spending too much time answering emails and not enough time growing, tinkering and building things. Adrià has it right: if you don’t make that time for creativity it will fill up with unproductive duties. Of course Adrià has someone else to sort through the 2 million (no exaggeration) annual reservation requests.

* A clarifying note frome Mrs. Homegrown: I used the term dog vomit specifically in relation to their signature dishes based on flavor-infused foam. Many of their dishes are strikingly beautiful, art without doubt. But speaking as a dog owner, if you present me with a plate of chunks of food swimming in yellow foam, my mind is going one place and one place only. And when the foam is white instead of yellow, I’m thinking about spittle bugs, or pond life, or stinky beach foam. But you know…whatever turns your crank.

And speaking of those 2 million reservations, Mrs. Homegrown and I are taking a few days off to catch up with things–we’ll be back soon.

A Fast Bean Friday: Khichdi

Lame, lame, lame. I can’t even get it together to put up a picture. I’m just too crazy getting things together for the holidays. I suspect many of you are in a similar state. But I did want to post this, because I think you might want something wholesome and mild to eat over the next week, during your HRD (Holiday Recovery Period).

I learned about khichdi, a lentil and rice dish, very recently. Our friend Ari sent me a link to a basic recipe. It was nothing more than lentils, rice and cumin. I could not help but add some minced onion, but otherwise I followed this simple recipe and came out with something sort of bland but somehow extremely comforting and pleasant.

So I looked up khichdi, and discovered that it is an Indian comfort food–perhaps the Indian comfort food, if I can trust what I’ve read. Plain khichdi is baby’s first solid food. It’s also good for people with delicate stomachs. But it doesn’t have to be plain–it can be spiced up and elaborated with vegetables and toppings of ghee and yogurt. It’s the kind of food that college kids learn to cook when they first go off on their own. It’s the kind of food that each mom cooks a little different.

I’ve been playing with the basic formula, and it’s becoming one of our go-to “fast foods” around here. It cooks up in about a half hour, and you don’t even have to stand by the stove for that half hour. You just saute up the spices, add the rice, lentils chopped veggies and water, put a lid on the skillet and walk away. It’s also a great way to use up vegetable odds-and-ends. You can throw just about anything in there, and the great khichdi magic will make it all work, somehow or another.

I’m going to send you to this excellent post at One Hot Stove for the technique. It’s the best I found in all my research, and I’d just be copying them if I wrote it up here.

(ETA: I’ve been thinking about this over the holidays, and have decided to post the outline of the recipe here, just in case One Hot Stove ever closes up shop. I hate it when posts end up with dead links. I’d encourage you to read the One Hot Stove post if you have the option, because there’s more detail there, and a recipe for another dish called kahdi.  My recipe after the break –> )

Okay, khichdi is just rice, lentils and whatever spices and veggies you might have on hand cooked up into a pleasing mush in a skillet. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to get dictatorial about a recipe. It’s a technique.

This basic khichdi formula, as it lives in my head, is all you really have to remember–the rest is improvised:

The ratio of lentils to rice is 1:2, and the water is twice the measure of the rice and lentils.

For example, for two servings, I’d combine 1 cup of rice and 1/2 cup lentils. That’s 1 1/2 cups total of dry stuff. That means I’d need 3 cups of water.

The basic cooking methodology is to first rinse your lentils and rice, then lightly saute up the onion and spices in a deep frying pan. Then you dump in the lentils, rice and water–and veggies, if you’re using them– bring it all to a simmer, cover and cook on low for 1/2 hour.

(This is a recipe for white rice. Brown rice is better for the body, yes, but it does take longer to cook. Since khichidi is what we make when we’re starving and want food fast, we’ve been using white rice. If you use brown rice you’ll want to adjust the cooking time and water accordingly.) 

The details are where you get to swing. The details are both the vegetables and the spices. These you can add as you please.

Veggies:

This is your chance to use up whatever you have in your fridge, or those singleton veggies coming in from the garden, anything from chopped greens to peas to cauliflower…anything at all. Tomatoes, fresh or canned, are always a good addition. Pre-cooked, leftover vegetables would be fine, too. Chop it all up smallish. If you add lots of veggies, particularly the drier, root vegetable types, you’d want to add some more water to help them cook.

Spices:

It can be as spicy or mild as you like. I think whole cumin seed is a really important part of the flavor profile. I love the scent of whole cumin seed when it hits a hot pan, and it makes the rice fragrant. If you don’t have any whole cumin, I’d encourage you to hie off to the nearest ethnic market and get a goodly sized bag of it. Beyond that, it’s up to you, spice-wise. Salt and cumin only is a fine place to begin.

Still want more specifics? 


My procedure:

This is what I do, more or less. Say I’m making the two serving batch described above. I’d heat up a deep skillet, add a couple of tablespoons of oil and toss in:

1 small chopped onion, or 1/2 a big onion
Let that cook until translucent.

Then all at once, I add the spices, letting them heat just until they’re fragrant:

1 heaping teaspoon of whole cumin
1/2 teaspoon of turmeric
A big pinch of hot pepper flakes
Maybe a teaspoon of coriander seeds, since I’m into those lately
(One Hot Stove recommends garam masala, which I don’t have (yet), but you might.)

When the pleasing scent of roasting cumin starts rising from the pan, I add the lentils and rice and water. You don’t want to burn the spices.

Once the lentils, rice and water are in, I add maybe a half teaspoon of sea salt, stirring it into the slurry to distribute it evenly.

Next I’d add my veggies, if I have any. Anywhere from 1 to 3 cups, chopped. Sometimes we just have the lentils and rice, especially when we’re really tired and don’t feel like chopping. Or thinking.

Bring the whole mess to a simmer, then cover, turn the heat to low, and walk away for a half hour.

Come back to find dinner in a pan.  Scoop it up and serve with yogurt. Top with chopped parsley or cilantro, if you’re feeling fancy.

More Medlar Mania

We blogged about the medlar, a rare fruit that tastes kinda like perfumed apple butter, last week. We left out a few bits of medlar trivia and linkages.

First off that Caravaggio painting above, “Boy with a Basket of Fruit.” Please note the medlars:

In other breaking medlar news:

The fine folks at Winnetka Farms, responsible for this outbreak of medlar mania, have in-depth medlar factoids on their blog.

Graham Keegan, who went on the medlar harvest, shot some glamorous photos of us and, of course, the medlars:

Want to buy a medlar tree? Check out the selection at Raintree Nursery–enter “medlar” in the search thingy.

Anduhrew has a post on his blog about medlars, including Shakespeare’s shout-out to medlars in Romeo and Juliet.

And, lastly, CRFG Operative left a comment on our blog about growing medlars in San Diego with a warming about fire blight:

I was able to grow medlars down here in San Diego county with no problems. They were grafted on a pear tree and eventually fire blight killed the limbs they were on so I lost them. We are in a colder spot but still are only about 15 – 20 miles inland from the coast. If you have an existing pear tree you may want to graft medlar onto that so you don’t have to plant a whole tree to see if they will do well in your area. Make sure you sterilize pruning tools and grafting knives between cuts and do not share infected scion wood. This will help to control fire blight. If it does develop cut it out a couple of inches down into non-infected wood before it takes further hold.

Looking for a Hardware Store Interview Subject

Image from the new CLUI Morgan Cowles Archive

Hey all, I’m working on an article for the May issue of Urban Farm magazine on the subject of businesses to patronize before they disappear. One of those businesses is your local independent hardware store. If you either own or work at a hardware store and have opinions, I’d like to interview you. Send me an email at [email protected]. For the rest of you, if you have an opinion about the types of businesses I should profile leave a comment.

Video on Barefoot Running

This video, featuring Harvard professor Daniel Lieberman, is one of things that convinced me to take up barefoot running. I’m now up to 2.5 miles three days a week and I’ve been running barefoot for most of 2010 with no injuries. Now, off to get to get that gazelle for dinner . . .

Have any ideas? We’re rewriting the anniversary gift list

Okay, this has almost nothing to do with the post. But Anne, mentioned below, and her broody hen Big Wig, are fostering kittens. Yes, the hen sits on the kittens. You might die of the cuteness if you saw it. If you live in the LA area and need a fluffy, chicken-identified kitten, drop us a line.

Our neighbors Anne and Bill are about to have an anniversary. Anne was thinking about a gift for Bill and referenced the traditional anniversary gift list–you know, the inscrutable wood, paper, tin list, as well as the updated list which includes clocks and tablecloths–and was less than inspired. Instead, she’s thinking about taking a class that will be beneficial to Bill, and the relationship– a cooking class, perhaps. I hope I’m not spoiling any surprises! (She had other ideas, Bill…just in case you’re reading.)

Her instinct toward classes jives with an idea Erik and I have been kicking around for a while: that money should not be spent on objects, but on experiences.

We never regret money we shell out for experience, whether that be trips, workshops, lessons or strange adventures, while we often regret the acquisition of knickknacks and gadgets. Knowledge and experience are our most important possessions. They cannot be lost or broken. They form the stuff of our souls.

So we’re interested in rewriting the anniversary list in one or two ways, and would love it if you’d pitch in ideas for Anne and I to consider.

The first option is slightly more traditional. It would be a list of gift items, arranged per year, but we could try to rewrite it to be genuinely useful from a “homesteaders” point of view. I know I was just talking about the importance of experience, but we do need good tools in a functional household, and a list could be built around that.

The second option is the experience list. What sort of skills and knowledge make up a self-reliant household–and a good relationship? How would you prioritize that knowledge on a year by year time line? Can we think of 50?

And maybe there’s a third option–feel free to toss out anything you like.

The Barrier Method

Over the years we’ve lost countless plants to digging, chewing, trampling and sucking critters, mammals and insects both. We finally got smart. It makes sense to invest a little extra time and money to protect your crops and your livestock with physical barriers.

This practice started sort of piecemeal around here, with us only exerting ourselves over particularly problem-prone situations. Nowadays protection is standard for every bed we plant, for our seed starting boxes, and often for new perennials in the ground. The result is peace of mind, better results…and fewer gardening meltdowns from Erik (Squash Baby excepted).

We’ve written about all this before in various posts, but here’s some photos to give you an overview of some of the possibilities:

Our seedling trays are now contained within The Germinator ™: a large screened box. Prior to this invention, we arched chicken wire over our seedling trays to keep squirrels and loose chickens out.

All of our beds, whether raised or in the ground, are spanned with arches of wire which hold up aviary netting. The netting is held down around the edges with a variety of anchors, anything from bricks and boards to U shaped wire stakes. This keeps critters like digging skunks and birds out–but not insects.

Sometimes we cover our veg beds with a very light floating row cover (Agribon 15) instead of aviary netting. This not only keeps out critters, but also blocks many insects, particularly the cabbage worms that harass our brassica crops. It’s not pretty, but it keeps the plants pretty within. Heavier gauges of row covering can be used to ward off frost, or help jump start plants in cold weather.
Our chickens have a very secure coop. Connected to it is some extra play space, bounded by picket fence. This doesn’t protect the chickens from much, but they only use it during the day, when predators are few. It’s more to protect our garden from them. But I hope you can see the twine that stretches from picket to picket. These discourage the hens from flapping out of their run, and keeps hawks from swooping down on them.
We often protect newly planted perennials with circles of chicken wire staked to the ground. This young berry is protected from anything digging it up or stepping on it.  If I wanted to make sure critters couldn’t nibble on it, I’d pinch the top closed as well.

Medlar: The Best Fruit You’ve Never Heard Of

This week we were luck enough to tag along with Tara Kolla of Silver Lake Farms on a jaunt to the hills near Tehachapi to help harvest an allusive fruit called the medlar.  Erik and I were just extra hands–the plan was hatched between Tara and Craig Ruggless of Winnetka Farms. See, Craig has a place up in those hills, and just happened to know his neighbors had a little grove of medlars, and these neighbors agreed to sell them to Craig and Tara, provided Craig and Tara picked them. For us, it was a great excuse for a trip to the mountains with a bunch of friends for some laughs, fresh air and gorgeous fall scenery. Also along for the medlar hunt were Joseph Shuldiner and Graham Keegan. As a group we gathered 100 lbs of medlars in a couple of hours of easy work, which are going to be sold to foodies, rare fruit enthusiasts and perhaps some enterprising chefs at this weekend’s Santa Monica Farmers Market. There’s an article about medlars and this particular expedition in todays’s LA Times.

What is a medlar, you ask? It‘s Mespilus germanica, a small deciduous tree and member of the rose family. In fact, to me, medlar fruit look exactly like giant rosehips. The fruit is smallish, ranging from about 1 to 2 inches in diameter, and ranging in color from rosy rust to dusty brown.

Medlars are native to Southwestern Asia and Southeatsern Europe. They were enjoyed by the Greeks and Romans, doted on by Victorians and mentioned by Shakespeare. I believe they are still popular in their native lands, such as Iran and Turkey. However, they’re almost unknown in the U.S. today, primarily, I suspect, for two reasons. Reason #1 is that they have to be eaten when almost rotten–a process properly called “bletting”–similarly to how you have to wait for Hachiya persimmons to soften before you can eat them. This leads to reason #2, because medlars have to be eaten when bletted, they either have to be eaten right off the tree, or they have to be picked early, then put aside for a few weeks to blet. Then, when they’re finally bletted, they’re have to be eaten immediately. There’s not a huge window of edibility. This level of persnickety-ness just doesn’t jive with our industrial food distribution system.

Beyond that, when they’re ready to eat, they look like they’re ready for the compost heap–brown, squishy, a little wrinkly. It takes some getting used to–well, it takes about as long for you to eat your first one before you figure out rotten=darn good.  I’d describe them as tasting like really good apple butter. People will describe them as holding delicate notes of cinnamon, vanilla, cider, wine, etc. I don’t know about that–I just tasted really, really good apple butter, delivered to me in a convenient skin instead of on toast. The flesh even looks like apple butter. Of course, like all persnickety fruits, they have a few big seeds that you have to work around as well–sort of suck clean and spit out later. It’s worth it, though.
 
We can’t grow medlars here in Los Angeles–it’s too warm. Otherwise I’d plant one right now. Medlars need hot summers and cold, frosty winters. If you live in a place like that, I’d highly recommend you plant a medlar. It’s a small, attractive tree, topping out at about 10 feet, and can be kept bush size. The ones we were harvesting were only 4-6 feet high. They are not widely available, but Raintree Nursery has a selection here.

After the jump is a little photo gallery from our trip:


Craig sorting medlars in the grand countyside

Is this bletted? Tara giving the medlar an evaluating eye
Medlars have beautiful fall foliage, and the fruit remains on the tree after the leaves fall, which is quite striking


There’s me. I’m shaking a branch. We picked up good looking ground fall, gathered what would fall when the branches were given a gentle shake, and picked any fully bletted fruits off the tree. The rest wait for a second harvest. 
Graham, looking more stylin’ than me as he works.


Here’s Joseph. He’s writing a cookbook. Notice how the trees are kept small for easy picking.
All sorted. Getcha medlars here!

medlars to market