Growing Artichokes on the Sly

Artichokes also provide shade for lazy cats

It is possible to grow vegetables around the grounds of an apartment building, especially if the landlord is neglectful. Often the biggest challenge you’ll face is the gardeners, who will weedwack everything to lawn level. If you can negotiate with them, or somehow put a protective barrier between your plants and the whirling cord of death, you can grow stuff.

Take this lovely artichoke. It was a sprout off of one of our own plants, which we gave to a friend who lives in a courtyard apartment. She tucked the sprout near a wall, between some permanent shrubs. It flourished through our wet winter–she says she didn’t give it any care at all. Now it’s way too big to weedwack, and covered with fat artichokes. It’s also such a magnificent plant that it looks like it belongs there. She’s harvested over forty chokes so far–that’s a lot of good eating!

We realize artichokes don’t grow everywhere, but investigate perennial food-bearing plants that grow well in your area. Check out the book Perennial Vegetables for inspiration. Herbs, like chives, are an easy place to start. Alternatively, consider tucking some annuals here and there among the landscaping. Garlic is a good bet. It blends easily into flower beds and grows with little care. (Of course, you’ll want to take note of whether your landlord is spraying the landscape with pesticides.)

And homeowners can use these same tips to integrate edibles with their existing, ornamental landscapes without alarming their neighbors or the HOA.

Pop Quiz Answer

The answer to yesterday’s pop quiz: as our friend Nic Sammond put it, “Your shelving was designed by Tokyo Electric Power?” Alas, I can’t pass the blame off on anyone but myself. When the big one hits, we’ll have a giant salsa bowl of pickles, jams and broken glass.

It’s well past time to install some bungee cords across the shelves.

And we’ll make our quizzes a little harder next time. 

Friday Pop Quiz

Our pantry. So what’s the main thing wrong with this picture? Hint–we’re in California. Leave a comment. We’ll provide an answer tomorrow.

Wish we could offer a prize, like an all expenses paid trip to Vernon, CA. But, alas, we have a tight budget here at Root Simple. You’ll get bragging rights.

No-Knead Artisinal Bread Part I

You can make a decent loaf of bread with one of the many popular no-knead recipes on the interwebs. With just a little bit more effort you can make a much better loaf of bread with a “levain” (or “sourdough starter” in less yuppiefied parlance).

For about ten years, I used to bake the loaf I blogged about here and put in our first book The Urban Homestead. Lately, however, I’ve completely changed the way I bake thanks to meeting Mark Stambler and Teresa Sitz of the Los Angeles Bread Bakers.

I’ll post a specific recipe once my method crystallizes a bit more. In the meantime, this is the general way I’ve been baking. All the mixing and first fermentation can take place in a plastic tub or large bowl.

1. The night before I mix my dough I take some starter, add flour and water to create the “levain”. Starter is made by mixing dough and water and letting nature do her thing. I’ll blog about the process in detail in a future post. Right now I’m working with a starter that has the consistency of bread dough, but I’m going to switch to a more liquid starter to avoid the dough messes in the kitchen that cause marital strife.

2. In the morning I mix the final dough, carefully measuring ingredients on a digital scale. While I use a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, I’m trying to wean myself of its use. Kneading, it turns out, is unnecessary labor and can be replaced by simply folding the dough a few times during the initial fermentation period.

3. After mixing the dough I let it rest for around 20 minutes to allow flour and water to integrate.

4. Following the rest period I mix in the salt.

5. The dough rises for 2 1/2 hours. During this first fermentation period I pour the wet sticky dough out onto a work surface every 50 minutes and quickly fold the dough in half two or three times.

6. At the end of the first rise I shape the dough into either a batard or a boule. At some point I’ll make a video on how to do this.

7. Once shaped, the boule or batard goes into the refrigerator covered with a floured piece of canvas, in the case of a batard, or plopped in a proofing basked in the case of a boule. The dough can stay in the fridge for 24 to 48 hours. During this second, slow, fermentation period the dough develops a more acidic, complex flavor, plus it allows for more flexibility in terms of your baking schedule. When you want a loaf, all you do is heat up the oven, pull the bread out of the fridge and toss it in the oven. There’s no need, it turns out, to bring the dough to room temperature before baking.

8. To get a decent crust in a home oven I recommend baking in a dutch oven as in the no-knead method. Pre-heat both dutch oven and stove, toss the loaf in the dutch oven and bake for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes remove the top of the dutch oven and continue baking until done (usually another 20 to 25 minutes).

A note on water: chlorine and chloramine inhibit starters. I have a carbon filter on our house water which I thought removed both chlorine and chloramine. However, I discovered that I got much better results when using bottled, distilled water. After pouring through multiple aquarium enthusiast internet forums (not particularly exciting when you don’t keep fish) I figured out that my cheap carbon filter removes some, but not all of the chloramine in our water supply. At some point I’ll do some tests to confirm this. In the meantime, I’ll stick with bottled water.

I should note that the road to bread baking nirvana is littered with hockey puck loaves and existential angst. Push through the wall of frustration and you emerge on the other side an alchemist, with the power to turn flour into loaves, lead into gold and Dan Brown into Shakespeare. Well, maybe not that last bit.

Photo Tour of the Root Simple Compound

New, as yet unnamed, kitten enjoying homebrew. Photo by Emily Ho for re-nest.

In case you’ve tired of the continuous coverage of Osama Bin Laden’s compound, how about a look at ours? Writer and photographer Emily Ho sure did a nice job putting together a photo tour of our crib over at re-nest in a post entitled “Kelly and Erik’s Urban Farm.”

Funny, when I look at our house I see all the work I have left to do, the chipped paint and broken concrete. Emily managed to capture the pretty stuff. Thanks should also go to Tara Kolla of Silver Lake Farms who helped us redesign the garden last fall.

In Seattle, Headed to Portland

Photo from bikejuju.com

Dig that tallbike, welded up by our host in Seattle Tom, a.k.a. “bikejuju” who has a blog at www.bikejuju.com. His wife Lyanda is the author of a book readers of this blog will enjoy, Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness. And they have the prettiest mixte I’ve ever seen in their living room.

This afternoon we head to Portland. Hope to see you at one of our appearances.

Tartine Bread

A whole wheat loaf fresh out of the oven at Tartine. It tastes as good as it looks.

As a bread baking geek I’ve set a goal of visiting the best bakeries in every town I’m in. Here in San Francisco, on our book tour, I had the privilege of waiting in the long line outside Tartine Bakery to buy a loaf of bread.

It was well worth the wait. Founded by Chad Robertson, Tartine specializes in naturally leavened breads with dark, thick crusts. Robertson’s technique involves moist doughs, no kneading and a long secondary fermentation in a refrigerator. Best of all, Robertson has adapted his methods for the home kitchen in a lavishly illustrated book Tartine Bread. Like the popular no-knead bread recipes circulating the interwebs, you bake your bread in a dutch oven, which simulates the steam injection of commercial ovens–the secret to a thick crust. But with naturally leavened breads such as the recipes in Tartine Bread, you get a much deeper flavor. Natural leavened breads, due to the higher acidity of natural leavens, also last a lot longer before going stale.

I agree with what Robertson says in the introduction to his book, that naturally leavened breads take only a little more effort than yeasted breads and yield much better results. When I return from our book tour I’ll share some other tips I’ve learned about how to bake naturally leavened bread.

Can you folks in Seattle and Portland suggest some good bakeries to visit? Leave a comment . . .

Till vs. No Till Poll Results

US Department of Energy

Our highly unscientific till vs. no-till poll results are in:

17% of you said you till
43% of you don’t till
23% of you double-dig
15% are undecided

Looks like most of you fall into the permacultural no-till camp.

For more information on no-till ag see the no-till section of our publisher Rodale’s website.

Meanwhile, we’re on our book tour of Northern California and the Pacific Northwest. Check out our schedule here and we hope to meet all you all!

Why We Travel By Train

Amtrak ain’t this grand, but it’s a lot better than flying! Photo via the Library of Congress.

We’re headed up to Northern California, Oregon and Washington to promote our new book Making It: Radical Home Ec for a Post-Consumer World. And, with the exception of the San Francisco to Seattle leg, we’re traveling by train. Why do this when it’s more expensive, time consuming and probably makes our dear publisher Rodale think we’re crazy?

One word: dignity. With train travel:

  • No porno-scanners or groping, i.e., no unconstitutional searches.
  • I can carry my multi-tool.
  • Leg room.
  • If I don’t like where I’m sitting I can move.
  • I can relax, sit at a table, read, work and write.

I could rant about the superiority of rail travel at length but Archdruid John Michal Greer sums it up better than I can in a blog post, “Too Much Energy?” No more flightmares for the Root Simple team!

See a list of our appearances here