Is Kombucha Safe?

We love to ferment things, with one notable exception: kombucha. During the last kombucha craze, in the mid-90s, we picked up a “SCOBY” blob and dutifully fed it tea and sugar until we stumbled upon an article written by mycologist Paul Stamets, “The Manchurian Mushroom: My Adventures with “The Blob.” In that article Stamets tells a convoluted story of having a kombucha culture tested by a lab. He didn’t tell the lab what it was.The lab was very excited about the results on this mystery substance, and Stamets soon finds himself “sitting in a board room of a pharmaceutical company with lawyers and contracts discussing the particulars of patents, sub-licensing agreements, market territories, and dollars running into the millions—if FDA approval was granted for a novel drug.

Then the folks in the meeting turn to Stamets and ask him to reveal the identity of this culture:

I told them that, as best as we had been able to determine, from analyses by several independent mycologists, that the Blob was a polyculture of at least two yeasts and two bacteria, living synergistically.

The silence was deafening.

“Say what?”

Perplexed looks crossed their faces, soon followed by exasperated expressions of deep disappointment. Which of the organisms are producing the potentially novel antibiotic? Was it one or several? Was it one in response to the presence of another organism? Was it one in response to several organisms? The sheer numbers of permutations would complicate trials and given the FDA’s disposition, a polyculture is de facto contaminated.

The meeting was abruptly adjourned.

So kombucha does indeed have medicinal properties–including “novel antibiotic” properties– but therein lies the problem. Stamets concudes,

Those who might benefit from Kombucha need a credible and experienced professional who could best prescribe and administer it. I do not see the advantage of taking Kombucha by people in good health. Given the detrimental effects seen from prolonged exposure to antibiotics, the repeated, long term use of Kombucha may cause its own universe of problems. I wonder about those people who have adverse reactions to antibiotics? What about those with sensitivity to the microorganisms in Kombucha? I personally believe it is morally reprehensible to pass on this colony to sick or healthy friends when, to date, so little is known about its proper use. At present there are no credible, recent studies as to the safety or usefulness of Kombucha, despite decades of hype.

Stamets also expreses concern over contamination. A German study found three out of 32 samples of kombucha cultures taken from German households to be contaminated with Penicillium spp. and Candida albicans. While describing the contamination rate as “low” (nearly 1 out of 10 samples seems high to us) it goes on to recommended that immunosuppresed individuals buy commercial kombucha instead of making it at home. A literature review conducted by the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth in the UK concludes, “the largely undetermined benefits do not outweigh the documented risks of kombucha,” said risks including, “suspected liver damage, metabolic acidosis and cutaneous anthrax infections.”

We’re all for fermented foods, and support the home fermentation of classic pro-biotics like yogurt, sourdough and lacto fermented vegetables. The last thing we want is for people to get spooked away from home fermentation. But kombucha is different. The problem, as Stamets notes, is that kombucha’s sugar and tea medium is a kind of open house for cultures, some good, some bad. Yogurt, sourdough and salt brines are very selective mediums in which to ferment things. With komucha it’s much more of a crap shoot.

Basically, like Stamets, we’re intrigued with the notion of kombucha being tested as a medicine and used with care by both western medical types as well as herbalists. And even if we were guaranteed a pure culture and a solid methodology for keeping the culture uncontaminated, we’d still be too leery its antibiotic properties to consider it a casual beverage. So we just don’t do the kombucha thing.

Ramshackle Solid is on Etsy

Photo by Ramshackle Solid

Those of you who follow the goings on at Ramshackle Solid know they have a really simple, graceful way with crafts, and with making new and making do around their place. Now they’re selling some of their stuff. Their debut offering is a line of these super cute bamboo flatware caddies that you can take with you to school or the office or on a picnic. Say goodbye to nasty plastic utensils, and hello to good living.

We’re looking forward to seeing what comes next!

Check out the Ramshackle Solid Store at Etsy.

Appletastic Apple Cake

Here’s something easy and delicious for you to make this weekend. You might even have all the ingredients on hand.

It’s a light, flavorful, not-too-sweet cake which is comprised mostly of apples held together by an egg batter. I suppose you could think of it as an apple quiche. It’s very pleasing, and versitile, too–it would be a good addition to brunch, or an afternoon snack, or, if dressed up with ice cream or whipped cream, it would be a fine dessert. This morning, I ate the leftovers for breakfast.

The recipe comes from The Paris Cookbook, by Patricia Wells, which I’ve mentioned before.

The key to this recipe is good apples. The better the apple, the better the cake. Wells prefers acidic cooking apples for this recipe, recommending Cortland, Gala or Gravenstein. But she says sweeter cooking apples, like Jonagold, are good too. I used Fujis because that’s what I had on hand.

You’ll need:

Equipment:

A 9 inch springform baking pan. (These are pans with sides which open up and disengage from the bottom.)  If you don’t have one, you could make it in a regular round cake pan, or even a square one. It’s just that the final product is a little sticky, and the springform helps with a clean release. You’ll lose points for presentation if you have to dig it out of a regular pan, but it will still taste mighty good.

The cake batter:

1/2 cup flour
1/3 sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/3 cup whole milk

Apples, about 2 pounds worth. Wells says that’s about 4. I found it took 5 Fujis to add up to 2 lbs.

Peel and core the apples, cut them in half and slice the halves into thin slices.

The topping:

1/3 cup sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3 Tablespoons melted butter

Put it together:

Pre-heat the oven to 400 F.

Butter the pan heavily and set it aside.

In a big bowl, combine the batter ingredients in the order listed. The dry come first in the list. Fork or whisk them around to blend them before you add the liquids. I cleared a well in the dry ingredients,  added all the liquid ingredients (vanilla, eggs, oil, milk) into the well, then used the whisk to draw the  dry stuff into the liquid, bit by bit, until I had a nice smooth batter.  But really, this isn’t fussy cooking so I suspect you could just dump it all together at once and stir it up.

When the batter is smooth, add in the apple slices and toss until they’re coated.

Pour the this apple batter mix into the greased pan and sort of jiggle it around until the apples are all lying more or less flat.

Put it on the center rack of the 400 degree oven. Bake this until the top turns golden, and the batter doesn’t look liquid anymore. You should be able to touch the surface and not encounter wet batter. Wells calls this “fairly firm.”  She says this should take 25 minutes.  For me, it took 35 minutes, but my oven may not have been sufficiently preheated.

While you’re waiting for it to bake, mix together the topping ingredients in a small bowl and have that standing by.

After 25 minutes or so, when the cake reaches this dryish, fairly firm state described above, take it out of the oven and pour the topping over the surface, then put it back into the oven to finish.

Finishing takes about 10 minutes. What you’re waiting for is for the surface to turn a yummy deep golden brown, perhaps a little dark on the high points (like a well cooked quiche), and again, for the surface to dry and firm up.  When it’s not quite done you’ll still be able to see liquid bubbly stuff broiling away at top. When it’s ready, it will mostly dry up, and the cake will feel firm when pressed.

(Edit: Comments have helped me remember that while 10 minutes was the recipe’s rec’d time, it took longer for it to brown–more like 15. Don’t pay as much attention to the clock as to color, and the dryness of the surface.)

Take the cake out, let it cool for at least 10 minutes, then ease a knife all around the sides. The browned sides of this thing are my favorite part, so be careful to keep that crusty stuff intact. It also looks nice. After you finish loosening the edges, release the springform.

This cake is meant to be served at room temperature. Wells specified that it should be served in thin slices, but we didn’t really follow that advice. It’s more like we each took half.




What’s eating my cilantro?

Mrs. Homegrown here:

While we’re inviting questions, we’ve also got a question for you guys. What sort of critter likes to eat cilantro? I think it’s a critter, not a bug. There’s no sign of leaf damage, just nibbling the stems down. There’s no digging or other disturbance.

Whatever this critter is, it has a defined taste for cilantro, because the cilantro is interplanted with parsley and it never so much as touches the parsley, or anything else in the garden, for that matter. It just comes out at night and decimates the poor cilantro.

Ask Mr. and Mrs. Homegrown

The yodeling around here is non-stop. Photo by Elon Shoenholz

Hey Kids!

We thought it would be fun to find out what’s on your mind.

If you’ve got a question you’d like some advice on, this the place to ask. We’re best at answering questions about things like chickens, gardening, pickling and fixing bicycles. We’re not so great with questions regarding physics, Sanskrit translations or intellectual property law, but you’re welcome to ask nonetheless. If you have questions about us, our house, our garden, etc., we’d be happy to answer those, too.

Mr. Homegrown likes the widgets, so he’s putting one below that allows you to leave a voice message on the blog instead of a comment. I’m not really sure what the point of that is, but if you do it, you’ll make his day.

City of LA Shakes Down Community Gardens

The City of Los Angeles Department of Rec and Parks just announced fee increases for community garden plots. The rental of a 10 by 20 space will go from $25 to $120 a year. In the midst of an economic crisis, when the city should doing everything it can to encourage growing food in the city, we get this.

The good news is that, unlike national politics, we can make a difference by getting involved at a local level. I was alerted to this shortsighted fee increase by my friend Stephen Box who is running for city council in district 4. It’s about time that we got rid of the machine politicians that run Los Angeles and who oversee a vast and incompetent bureaucracy. It’s time for a change. If you live in district 4 vote for Stephen Box next March. If you live elsewhere, attend meetings, write letters and run for office.

Read Stephen Box’s editorial on community gardens here.

Seaweed, Salmon and Manzanita Cider

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I fell into temptation and bought Seaweed, Salmon and Manzanita Cider: A California Indian Feast at the Theodore Payne Foundation this week. I should know by now not to look around that book store. Like Ulysses, I should tie myself to the mast–pay for my native plants and get out. Somehow it never works.

Seaweed, Salmon is a pretty little book. Paperback, thin, but coffee table worthy, because it’s so interesting and at the same time, skimmable. A good gift book. It’s a loose collection of folklore, personal narrative, recipes and preparation tips for wild foods, well-illustrated with color photos. (It is not, however, a plant identification book.)

Yes, I’m on the California Indian/native plant train again (see my recent recommendations) but the wild foods discussed in this book are not exclusively Californian. It covers all sorts of common wild foods, like acorns, elderberries, and rosehips, as well as wild game. They discuss coastal foods like oysters and seaweed, as well as Southwest-specific foods, like yucca, agave, and our ever-prolific friend, the prickly pear.

What I like best about it are the personal stories, and after our turkey business last week, I’m drawn to the stories about hunting. There’s one arresting reminicence of how this man’s mother went into the woods alone with a gun, took down a big buck, dressed it and hauled half of it up a tree, carried the other half back to her camp, and treed that, too…and woke the next morning to find a mountain lion stalking the campsite. And I complain about picking pinfeathers out of turkey carcasses!

It’s worth a look. I just checked and found that it’s in the LA library system (doh!), so if you’re not in a spending mood, maybe you’ll find it at your library, too.

Winter Vegetable Gardening with Winnetka Farms

What the Winnetka Farms folks have done with a typical San Fernando Valley backyard is truly amazing. They’ll be sharing that knowledge by teaching a vegetable gardening class this Saturday December 4th from 9 am to 12 pm in Pasadena, CA. More info here. The class will conclude with a lunch of salad greens and homemade bread, all for $20. If you’re interested in vegetable gardening in Southern California I highly recommend this class.

Our Happy Foot/Sad Foot Sign

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Nothing about growing or making today–sorry to go off topic (Erik is wincing a bit as I post this), but I want to talk about our Foot.  It’s a very local sort of story, but isn’t localism what it’s all about?

The podiatrist’s sign above marks the entrance to our neighborhood. It charmed us the first time we saw it: It’s a foot–with feet!  And we immediately named it the Happy Foot/Sad Foot sign. Soon we learned that other people called it The Happy Foot/Sad Foot Sign as well. The name seemed predestined and universally applied, and it was recognizable enough that we could pinpoint our location off of Sunset Blvd. by saying, “You know the Happy Foot/Sad Foot sign?”

The Foot rotates slowly, unless it’s broken, which it often is of late. But when it’s rotating, you are always tempted to check out which side is facing you when you first come into sight of it.  A happy, smiling foot is portends a good day, or at least a general thumbs up from the universe. We’ve always thought so, and come to find out, many other people also practice this form of primitive divination.

It’s even immortalized in fiction. Our friend, Anne, resident of this same ‘hood, tipped us off that The Foot is featured in You Don’t Love Me Yet  by Jonathan Lethem (2008):

Lucinda’s view took in a three quarter’s slice of the sign as it turned in its vigil over Sunset Boulevard: happy foot and sad foot suspended in dialog forever. The two images presented not so much a one-or-the-other choice as an eternal marriage of opposites, the emblem of some ancient foot-based philosophical system. This was Lucinda’s oracle: once glance to pick out the sad or happy foot, and a coin was flipped, to legislate any decision she’d delegated to the foot god.

A quick Google search shows the Foot is acknowledged (it shows up in Flickr sets and odd comments here and there) but not famous, outside this locale. However, I was delighted to find an animation called Happy Foot vs. Sad Foot. Instead of seeing the Foot as a marriage of opposites, as Lethem does, the animator portrays the Feet as two characters engaged in an endless, existential binary feud. For Sad Foot, life will always suck, while Happy Foot will always gets his way. (Note in the comments for this animation that someone steps forward claiming to be the designer of the sign’s graphics.)

Lately we’ve been hearing that our neighborhood has been dubbed “HaFo SaFo” in tribute to The Foot. This isn’t as strange as it sounds, because our neighborhood is wedged between the villages of Silver Lake and Echo Park, but technically it belongs to neither. It’s real name is Edendale, but no one knows it by that name, even though Edendale was the home of the first motion picture studios. If we claim we live in Edendale, we get blank looks, so we’re forced to either assert our property value by claiming we live in Silver Lake, or our cool quotient, by claiming Echo Park. Usually we just mumble instead. Anyway, we predict that this HaFo SaFo business is going to stick, because it is so very silly and insidery.  I can’t find any HaFo SaFo mentions on Google yet, so you heard it first right here.

Do you all have special, beloved signs or divination systems local to the place you live? Share them!

ETA: One of out commenters points out there’s an Eels song dedicated to this sign, too, called Sad Foot Sign: Sad foot sign/Why you gotta taunt me this way?/The happy side is broken now/It’s gonna be an awful day