Eating In: The Biosphere Cookbook

This has to be one of the strangest cookbooks ever published, Eating in: From the Field to the Kitchen in Biosphere 2. Author Sally Silverstone was the food systems manager during the much hyped and ultimately disastrous Biosphere “mission” that began in 1991. Without falling down the rabbit hole of discussing what went wrong and why the Biosphere project became fodder for a Pauly Shore movie, I’d just point out the hubris of thinking that you can simulate mother nature in her infinite complexity.  Watch episode 2 of Adam Curtis’ All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace for more on that problem.

Philosophical quibbles aside, what’s interesting about this cookbook is that ambitious suburban homesteaders might be able to, like the Biospherians, source entire meals from the backyard and make use of the bare-bones recipes in this book. And don’t worry about having to grow your own cooking oils–the Biospherians had trouble with that and have thoughtfully skipped any deep fried items.

The Biosphere’s kitchen.

But let’s get to those recipes! For relaxing next the the shore of the Biosphere’s simulated ocean there’s “Beach Blanket Bean Burgers,” “Bean Balls in Cheese and Tomato Sauce” and “Banana Bean Stew.” For meat eaters there’s pork, chicken and tilapia but, as this is the Biosphere, you’ll have to do the slaughtering yourself. And for desert there’s “Biospherian Rice Pudding,” “Biospherian Baked Doughnuts” (made with potatoes) and “Banana Wine.”

Like Archdruid John Michael Greer, I find it hard to believe that the fantasy of orbiting space colonies that inspired the Biosphere seemed doable when I was a kid. It’s obviously time to revise those plans. I have a strong suspicion that in the future we’ll be “eating in” just like the Biospherians, except that our “in” will be good old terra firma.

Don’t store your cucumbers in the fridge

Image courtesy of UC Davis. Photographer: Don Edwards

Just in time for cucumber season, some news that surprises me. Did you know that you should store cucumbers at room temperature?

Credit for my enlightenment goes to UC Davis. (May I just say bless UC Davis for all the good it does?) In this case I’m referencing their department of Post Harvest Technology. According to them, cukes should be stored at room temperature. If you do feel the need to put them in the fridge, they can tolerate up to 3 days of cold storage if they are used soon as they are removed from the refrigerator.

Seems that cucumbers are susceptible to cold injury if held more than 3 days at temperatures lower than 50F/10C. Signs of cold injury are wateriness, pitting on the outside and accelerated decay

Another factoid: Cucumbers are sensitive to ethylene gas, which is put off by some ripening fruits and vegetables. So for longest storage, don’t keep your cukes near melons, tomatoes or bananas.

Tomatoes, peppers and eggplants are also damaged by cold, so keep these on your counter as well.  I’ve highlighted cucumbers in this post, because I think most people refrigerate them as a matter of course–I did, at least. Whereas its more common, I think, to leave tomatoes to ripen on the counter. If you want to read up on any particular fruit or veggie, see the fact sheets linked below.

UC Davis Fact Sheet on Cucumbers

Index of all their many fact sheets

“Storing Fresh Fruits and Vegetables for Better Taste” — a handy .pdf chart to print out and hang on your fridge.

Erik and Kelly to Speak at Stories Cafe This Saturday

Join us this Saturday June 23rd at 7:30 PM at Stories Books and Cafe in our own neighborhood of Echo Park for a lecture and book signing of our first book The Urban Homestead. We’ll share what’s going on around the Root Simple compound along with some tips and tricks. Looking forward to seeing some blog readers! Stories is located at 1716 West Sunset Blvd. in the beating heart of Echo Park, Los Angeles.

Four Ways to Preserve Prickly Pear Pads (Nopales)

For my final project in the Los Angeles Master Food Preserver Program I attempted to see how many ways I could preserve the abundant pads of the prickly pear cactus that grows in our front yard. Of course they are best fresh, but I like them so much that I wanted to see if I could preserve some for use later in the year. Incidentally, I prepare them fresh by first cutting them into strips and boiling them for five minutes to remove the mucilaginous texture. After boiling I pan fry them and serve them with eggs. It’s a meal that comes, except for the salt, entirely out of the yard. What follows are the methods I used to preserve those tasty pads.

Dehydrated
I removed the spines, cut the pads into 3/4 inch strips and boiled them for one minute. I then marinated them for ten minutes in soy sauce and dried them until brittle in an Excalibur dehydrator at 135º F for a couple of hours. Prepared this way they actually taste a bit like beef jerky. You definitely need to spice them–when dried plain they have a bit of a dirt note in terms of taste. Next year I plan on trying some more dried “nopalitos” with some different marinades.

Frozen
Once again, I removed the spines. cut them into strips and boiled them for one minute. I then packed them in to freezer bags. Freezing is the best method in terms of taste and nutrition. It’s easy and it works great.

Pickled
I used the this okra recipe from the National Center for Home Preservation for my pickled nopalitos. They turned out very tasty.

Pressure Canned
Prickly pear is sold canned both in water and with a small amount of vinegar.  Unfortunately there are no tested home canning recipes for pressure canned prickly pear pads (this needs to be rectified but is difficult in an era of reduced funding for Extension Services). I used a tested recipe for okra and consumed the product immediately as I don’t trust my own untested pressure canning recipes. The results were acceptable but not exciting–basically they tasted like canned vegetables and had a slightly mushy texture. If I had a tested recipe to work with, that used a small amount of vinegar, perhaps the processing time could be reduced, leading to a crisper result.

Lastly I should mention that I’ve dried and made jelly with the fruit in previous years. If you’ve got a favorite way to preserve the pads or fruit please leave a comment.

Picture Sundays: The Huddle Couch

“It’s a bed. It’s a couch. It’s a multi-functional piece of furniture for laid back lifestyles. The HuddleCouch® offers new possiblilites for entertainment and comfort.”

Believe it or not this ad is dated 1994. And apparently you have to wear a suit to enjoy your HuddleCouch. But the formal attire doesn’t stop this couch from being, “the most fun you can have on a couch or a bed. It’s a way of life!” Indeed.

Saturday Linkages: Talking Plants, Microbes, Groundcovers, Shaving Rituals

Maybe Prince Charles was right after all: British scientists reveal plants really do talk http://bit.ly/Lr30hj

Finally, A Map Of All The Microbes On Your Body http://n.pr/M2V5FQ
 
Groundcovers for gaps: http://ow.ly/1NEm0w

Unique Shaving & Grooming Rituals from History and Around the World | The Art of Manliness http://artofmanliness.com/2012/06/07/shaving-rituals/

Handlebar Bicycle Hanger Suspends Your Ride from the Wall | Designs & Ideas on Dornob http://dornob.com/handlebar-bicycle-hanger-suspends-your-ride-from-the-wall/

Hacking a vintage phone into an old VW minibus to use as a kids/driver intercom: http://boingboing.net/2012/06/09/hacking-a-vintage-phone-into-a.html 

Follow the Root Simple twitter feed for more linkages. 

The Very First Urban Homesteading Book

The urban homesteading shelf at your local bookstore, thanks to the great recession, sure has gotten crowded in recent years. There are many fine volumes now alongside our two books with a great diversity of authors opining on chicken coops, homemade soap and composting. This is a good thing–we need as many voices as possible.

But there’s nothing new here. On a serendipitous trip to the library last week I stumbled across what must be the very first urban homesteading book, Cato and Varro’s De Agri Cultura (On Agriculture) written around 160 BC. Well, it’s really more of a rural homesteading manual, but much of the advice seems familiar.

Looks like Cato the Elder forgot to use sunscreen.

Cato holds the farmer in high esteem,

And when they would praise a worthy man their praise took this form: “good husbandman, good farmer”; one so praised was thought to have received the greatest commendation.

The tips on how to site your rural homestead is exactly as I would suggest:

It should have a good climate, not subject to storms; the soil should be good, and naturally strong. If possible, it should lie at the foot of a mountain and face south; the situation should be healthful, there should be a good supply of laborers, it should be well watered, and near it there should be a flourishing town, or the sea, or a navigable stream, or a good and much traveled road.

Varro’s directions for building a chicken coop and run are pretty much what I followed, complete with netting to keep the hawks out. But I never thought of building a caretaker’s residence into the coop:

In addition there should be a large room for the caretaker to live in, so built that the surrounding walls may be entirely filled with hens’ nests, either built in the wall or firmly attached; for movement is harmful to a sitting hen.

Maybe this will be a new trend in big cities where chickens are hip. Half off the rent in return for living with the chickens!

Should you need to know the exact prayer to Janus, the right point to read the entrails and the precise number of employees you’ll need to run a vineyard, you’ll get that here too. But the best advice is probably this simple and timeless statement: “Be a good neighbor.”

Sun Boxes: A Solar Powered Public Art Project

It’s not often that my unused music degree intersects with the topic of this blog, but I got an email from Craig Colorusso describing a neat, solar powered public art project that he’s touring the US with called Sun Boxes. From the description on his website:

Sun Boxes are an environment to enter and exit at will. It’s comprised of twenty speakers operating independently, each powered by the sun via solar panels. There is a different loop set to play a guitar note in each box continuously. These guitar notes collectively make a Bb chord. Because the loops are different in length, once the piece begins they continually overlap and the piece slowly evolves over time.

You can find out more about the project at www.sun-boxes.com. Make sure to listen to the recording of the boxes–I could listen for hours–the sound is at once hypnotic and deeply relaxing.

Remember to Label Those Jars!

“Label, label, label!” This was one of the most important lessons I learned in my Master Food Preserver training. You’ll note, from the jars above, that I’m not very good about this. When were those jars canned and what’s in them? I have no idea. They were probably the result of some late night canning frenzy two years ago. At the time I probably thought to myself, “I’ll label them in the morning.”

Not only should the jars be labeled, but it would also have been nice to have some notes on the recipe I used and where the fruit was sourced from. To this end I’ve started a preservation diary in a useful program called Evernote.

Perhaps I should get a tattoo on my forearm that says, “Label, label, label.”

The Sacred Chickens of Ancient Rome

I stumbled on an odd historical anecdote last week: the use, by the ancient Romans, of sacred chickens as a form of divination. From the Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert:

Sacred chickens were chickens raised by priests in Roman times, and which were used for making auguries. Nothing significant was undertaken in the Senate or in the armies, without omens being drawn from the sacred chickens. The most common method of drawing these omens consisted in examining the manner in which the chickens dealt with grain that was presented to them. If they ate it avidly while stamping their feet and scattering it here and there, the augury was favorable; if they refused to eat and drink, the omen was bad and the undertaking for which it was consulted was abandoned. When there was a need to render this sort of divination favorable, the chickens were left in a cage for a certain amount of time without eating; after that the priests opened the cage and threw their feed to them.

I had hoped to be the first blogger to break the sacred chicken story, but a blogger named Elektra Tig beat me to it, telling the tale of a naval battle involving some sea-bound sacred chickens who delivered an unwanted prophesy. The naval commander, Publius Claudius Pulcher, refused to take no for an answer and had the sacred chickens tossed overboard saying, “Let them drink, since they won’t eat.”

Elektra Tig also found a drawing of a sacred chicken coop just in case some of you are looking for coopatecture inspiration:

Maybe some of us urban homesteader types can put together a flock of sacred chickens for the US senate. By Jove, it would probably work better than whatever means of projection they are currently using.

Update: Michael Pigneguy left a link on Facebook to a Smithsonian article with the following chicken divination anecdote:

A chicken bred for the demands of American supermarket shoppers presumably has lost whatever magical powers the breed once possessed. Western aid workers discovered this in Mali during a failed attempt to replace the scrawny native birds with imported Rhode Island Reds. According to tradition, the villagers divine the future by cutting the throat of a hen and then waiting to see in which direction the dying bird falls—left or right indicates a favorable response to the diviner’s question; straight forward means “no.” But the Rhode Island Red, weighted down by its disproportionately large breast, always fell straight forward, signifying nothing meaningful except the imminence of dinner.