Bean Fest, Episode 3: Bastardized Puerto Rican Beans


Mrs. Homegrown here:

It’s been a tough week here on the bean front. I had two beanfail incidents trying to come up with a recipe for this week. The first, an Armenian recipe for white beans, failed through no fault of its own but because the beans were hopelessly old. No matter how long I cooked them, they stayed crunchy, yet somehow also tasted overcooked. Shudder.

Meanwhile, I’d been obsessing on Cuban-style black beans, but fell into a deep well of confusion–as so commonly happens when trying to find practical info. on the interwebs. Vinegar, sherry or wine? Sugar–really? How much? When does the sofrito go in? Is pork truly optional?

Last night I set aside my Cuban plans in frustration and opened up Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian–a generally solid cooking resource. He had a recipe for black beans and rice cooked together in a pot in the oven. Intrigued, I gave it a try. I won’t disect the recipe here, but suffice it to say the results were perilously close to hippie slop. Erik thought it was not a bad recipe, just not one that can stand on its own. It was sort of like an extra hearty rice pilaf that perhaps wanted something big and savory to accompany it. We threw lots of Bulgarian feta on it and called it a night.

This morning I decided to try one more recipe for lunch, so I’d have something to post today. I’m glad I did, because it was super tasty. Hallelujah!!

It was sent in by one of our readers, John of Yome Sweet Yome. I’m glad he wrote in, because that way I discovered his blog. He and his partner I doing what I’ve always wanted to do: building their own house on a nice chunk of land in the beautiful Northwest. Go check it out. I think I might be doing some vicarious living via the blog reader for the next few months.

I like his voice, so I’m going to post the recipe as he sent it, rather than reshaping it into a more traditional recipe form, but I’ll add some of my own notes, and hope they’re more helpful than confusing.

John’s Bastardized Puerto Rican Beans

One of my favorite recipes is a bastardized version on a traditional Puerto Rican dish. It goes like so…

Start them nice and early in the day and invite friends over for dinner. Slow is the only way…. Everything tastes better with a heavy dose of expectation….

The bean does not humor any shortcuts. Soak (at least) overnight.
Start cooking pre-soaked beans in lightly salted water (or broth, if you’ve got it lying around and feel decadent). Give them a bit of a head start before you start the rest of the dish.

• I made this with black beans (though later he says he usually uses pintos or reds). My beans measured 1 cup unsoaked, and after overnight soaking, 2 cups. You’d probably want to use more beans than that, but this was all I had pre-soaked. I put them in a saucepan, covered them with water, about an inch over the top of the beans, brought them to a boil and then reduced them to a simmer. I didn’t salt the water, because I’m of the “salt toughens the skins” school. Do what thou wilt.

Finely chop up equal parts cilantro and parsley, stems and all. More than you think you’ll need. A good handful of each.
• He doesn’t mean a handful of chopped herbs–he means you should start with a big fat handful of stems. I used a full bunch of each, and it was not too much. See, you’re going to cook the beejezus out of them, so they’ll reduce. You need to start with lots. I really don’t think you can use too much.

Saute diced yellow onion in oil, or rendered bacon fat, should you be of the persuasion. When they get translucent, toss in a generous amount of chopped garlic and your parsley and cilantro.
• I used one big onion and 3 or 4 large cloves of garlic. And I’d keep that 1 onion to 1 cup of dried beans proportion if I made a bigger batch. I did all of my chopping in the food processor. I usually chop onions and stuff with a knife, but I was in a hurry. In retrospect, I think it was good that everything was chopped very fine. So if you’re knife chopping, put in that extra effort.

Cook until it turns somewhere between a hunter green and brown in color. Deglaze with white wine or stock.

• This made me laugh. Hunter green? I like that he was color specific because I am afraid of overcooking, so I tend to undercook. The herbs looked gorgeous when they hit the heat and turned bright green. That’s where I would stop cooking if left to my own devices. But I understood that deglazing means scraping yummy brown bits off the bottom of a pan, and that meant that the herbs had to cook toward brown. Or at least hunter green. What this all means is that you will have to attend your onion/garlic/herb mix over medium heat, stirring pretty frequently, as you watch the pretty herbs turn from bright green to dull green. The onions will become more golden, and the volume will shrink down. I didn’t take it to brown, but it was definitely drab by the time I called it quits. Sort of army green. I splashed white wine around the edges of the pan and stirred everything up to collect any caramelized bits. He says you can use stock to deglaze instead, but the wine really zings up the flavors. And the smell was heavenly.
Add some pureed tomato and mix until you have an applesauce-y consistency. Strain your beans and add them to the pan, adding just enough liquid keep them covered. Put the fire on low and let the whole shebang cook for a good long time, stirring it occasionally.


• Pureed tomato? hmmm… I wondered if he meant tomato paste. But I decided to throw some canned plum tomatoes in the food processor, since it was out anyway. I added about 1 cup of the resulting puree to the pan and mixed well. The result didn’t scream applesauce, but it was a festive red and green. And it was thick.

Then I strained the cooking water off the beans, combined them with the puree, add added enough veg stock to cover all of it, and returned it to a simmer.

My black beans must have been extra fresh, because after a half hour of cooking by themselves while I did the other stuff, they were already tender enough to eat. But I understood that this was supposed to be a long cooking recipe, that long simmering would allow the combined flavors to marry, so I let them cook on for about 30 or 35 minutes more, adding stock and stirring to make sure they didn’t burn. But I was starving and Erik was nosing around, so that was all the time they got. Still, it was gooooood. But there’s more instructions to come–salt and pepper make an appearance, as does sour cream….

This is usually where I throw a jalapeno or bell pepper on the fire and roast them for later.
• Oh yes–I scorched whole jalapenos in a cast iron pan while I cooked down the onions and stuff.
When the beans are cooked through, season with salt, pepper and cumin. Add your chopped up roasted peppers and serve over rice with a dollop of sour cream and call it Sofrito! Unless you’re serving it to a Puerto Rican, in which case don’t call it anything, and you didn’t get the recipe from me!

• Sorry John. Now the whole internet knows you’ve taken liberties with Puerto Rican cuisine. Good thing you live in some undisclosed woodland location!

So yes, toward the end I added plenty of salt and pepper and cumin, and for thrills another splash of white wine. I was cooking black beans, and I think they can taste kind of dull without the help of some acid. But other beans might not want all this wine.

I usually use red or pintos. For a twist, use chickpeas and add some diced potatoes and turmeric for a more middle eastern taste.
Hoorah!

• Hoorah is right. These are the kind of beans I love. Savory. Luscious with sour cream or yogurt. And they really weren’t hard to make at all. The long cooking of the onion, garlic and herbs at the beginning gives it a deep flavor underpinning that just doesn’t happen when you just sort of throw onions, beans and spices together and hope for the best. There’s a lesson to be learned there.

I only wish I’d made two or three times as much. 2 cups of soaked beans makes about enough to feed two hungry people. I wish I had leftovers, because I suspect it would have been better the next day.


It’s Official: Erik is Insane

Our parkway garden

It’s true. Erik has gone insane trying to protect his baby. His squash baby.

A little background:

We’ve long gardened in two raised beds in the parkway in front our house (the parkway being the space between the sidewalk and the street). This is officially city property, though we are responsible for maintaining it. It gets great morning light, so it’s a valuable growing space. It’s also fun to garden out in public, so we can talk to our neighbors and get all the fresh gossip, and show little kids what food looks when its growing.

The drawback to a public garden, of course, is that it is defenseless. This means that dogs and cats and sometimes people tromp through the beds, scattering freshly planted seeds and smashing delicate seedlings. If the plants survive, then they become subject to theft. Now, we don’t mind sharing food. The parkway isn’t really ours, after all, so we figure what grows down there is fair game. Generally we either grow things down there that are easy to share–like beans or cherry tomatoes–or things people aren’t likely to pilfer–like greens.

This all changed this year, because Erik decided to plant squash down there. Not just any squash, but this fantastical Italian winter squash called Lunga di Napoli. It’s a green skinned squash, rather like a butternut in shape and texture, except it can reach a meter in length.

At the time of planting, I did the wifely, “Honey, are you sure that’s a good idea?” thing. It’s just not a good idea to plant high-investment crops in the parkway. He assured me he knew it was a risk, but he wanted to try, and we didn’t have space to plant it anywhere else. “No big deal,” he said. Back then he was reasonable.

Since then, our parkway has turned into a dense jungle. *** Note: We love our tolerant neighbors!!!! *** There’s not only squash growing in those two small beds, there’s also scarlet runner beans, strangely hairy cucumbers, volunteer tomatoes and giant lamb’s quarters going to seed. The giant squash tendrils are spreading across our driveway and walk. Sure, it’s better to be lush than bare, but it looks crazy. Grey Gardens type crazy. In my more optimistic moments I think of it as a “food forest.” I tried to take pics, but it’s hard to capture the wildness of the space.

Very like the jungle swallowed the ruins of Palenque on the Yucatan peninsula, our Scarlet Runner bean long ago swamped its trellis.
Hairy cucumber and tiny tomatoes growing together. The beds have their moments of beauty.

Back to the squash. It only bore two fruits. Erik began to obsess over them as soon as they appeared. How would they ever live to maturity? He just knew a thief would take them at zucchini size, and then they’d never reach their potential. Suddenly, it was of utmost importance to him that these squash reach their full one meter length. I trembled with dread and ill foreboding.

The remaining Squash Baby, currently measuring 20 inches or so.

One morning the inevitable happened. Erik stomped into the house, crying, “The %$#$!*s took my squash! They took my squash!” The smaller of the two squashes was gone, picked long before its time. After a brief period of depression, which he spent either cursing the unjust nature of the universe or reiterating his desire to chop down all the trees in our backyard, so as to maximize secure growing space (which is not going to happen as long as I’m around!), Erik began to scheme.

And now, we are the proud proprietors of Garden Guantanamo. The remaining squash baby –and it really is baby sized, and growing fast–soon I will have to refer to it as the squash toddler–is wrapped in layers of chicken wire and spiked deep in the earth. But that was not enough. He’s also surrounded the entire parkway with a cordon of bright yellow rope (invoking police tape?) and most alarming of all, fashioned little signs that say “Warning: Experimental/Not For Human Consumption/No Es Comida” and staked them at 3 foot intervals on all sides.

Lousy pic of one of the signs, obscured by windblown lamb’s quarters.

I’ll admit I’ve put up my share of signs in my time (Keep Door Closed, Turn Off Lights, Don’t Eat the Cake in the Fridge, etc.). But age brings wisdom, and I’ve learned that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who read signs and those who don’t. And the great irony is that those who read signs don’t need the signs in the first place. And those who need the signs never, ever read them.

In other words, I don’t think the signs are going to work. And I’m dreading my neighbors asking me what’s experimental about our food.

In the meanwhile people, pray for Erik and his squash baby. And I’ll keep you updated.

Blue Garlic A-OK


Mrs. Homegrown here:

Note the lovely blue tinge of the garlic in my latest pickling adventure. Turns out that there’s a few reasons garlic might turn blue or green when prepared, but whatever the case, the coloring is harmless. What most likely happened here is that the garlic I used wasn’t fully dried, so it reacted with the vinegar in the pickling mix. I remember noting how moist the garlic cloves were as I worked with them that day.

If you want to read up more on this topic, and learn some of the science behind it (I’m too lazy to retype all the big words), check out this garlic fact sheet from What’s Cooking America. Scroll down to the bottom of the page.

By the way, the pickles I’m making are tourshi–Armenian pickles. If they work out, I’ll share the recipe.

Bean Fest, Episode 2: Falafel and Babaganoush Recipes

Welcome back to Bean Fest 2010, our ongoing celebration of the humble dried bean.

Last week we got a lot of great tips and hints in the comments. If you haven’t read those, I’d encourage you to take a peek. We also got a couple of recipes via email that we’re going to test out. Thanks, ya’ll! Again, if anyone has a favorite bean recipe, please send it this way ([email protected]).

One lesson to take away from last week is that beans do quite well in solar ovens, crockpots and the newer pressure cookers, and that if you eat a lot of beans, one of these devices would be a useful investment. I really wish I had any one of those items! We have a light, homemade solar cooker–as opposed to a more sturdy, enclosed solar oven–which is handy for grains, but really doesn’t have enough ooomph for consistent bean cooking. And we’re lacking in both space and money for new kitchen gadgets. So around here we’re stuck cooking beans on the stovetop. Seems everyone has their own bean cooking methodologies. This is mine, for what its worth:

  • Pre-soak beans for about 8 hours. Oversoaking can lead to mushy beans.
  • Rinse soaked beans and place in a heavy pot with 2 inches of water covering them. Simmer until done–however long that takes. Sometimes the bean gods are merciful, sometimes they are not. Never cook beans on a deadline. Cook them when you have plenty of time and other things to do around the kitchen.
  • Don’t salt ’til they’re almost done, because salt toughens the skins.

There seems to be a split in camps between people who a) cook the beans first, unseasoned, then incorporate them into a dish, b) throw onions & etc. into the water with the beans and let it all boil together, and c) people who do a saute of the onions & etc. at the bottom of the pan before adding the beans. I don’t know if any of these methods are better than the others, and admit to doing all three.

This Week’s Recipe: Falafel

The first lesson in food photography is not to consume your subject before you even get around to taking the picture. These few falafels were all we had left when we realized we needed to take a pic for this post.

I was thinking that a lot of people are just plain intimidated by cooking dried beans, so perhaps it would be fun to start out with a bean recipe that allows you to just skip all that trauma. Back in the day, Erik and I would sometimes make falafel out of that powdery stuff you buy in bulk bins. It tended to be salty and dry, but it was quick food. We were amazed to discover how easy it is to make real falafel–and how good the result is. Unlike bulk bin stuff, this falafel is moist and light and tender.

The secret is that it is made with raw chickpeas. They are soaked and ground up–but not cooked. This gives the falafel great texture and fresh flavor. You should not substitute canned or cooked beans in this recipe. If you do, the balls won’t hold together very well. If you must use canned beans, you’ll need to add some bread or cracker crumbs, and possibly even an egg, to create a dough which will hold together.

The other thing about this recipe is that it is very, very flexible. I’d encourage you to adapt this any way you think best.

We make this in our food processor. If you don’t have one, I’d suspect it could be done in batches in a mortar. If you don’t have a mortar and pestle, then you’d have to come up with some way to squish the beans. Perhaps in a bag with a rolling pin? The greens and the rest could be minced and stirred into the bean mash.

You’ll need:

(This quantity will make wraps for 4)

  • Dried chickpeas (aka garbanzos), 1 cup
  • Chopped greens/herbs: about 3 generous fistfuls. We usually use 2 handfuls of parsley and 1 handful of mint. But if we don’t have that, we improvise. Any flavorful green would work: mint, parsley, cilantro, chives, basil, flavorful wild potherbs, etc. Arugula works too, and even less flavorful greens, like spinach, will do in pinch.
  • Garlic, 2 or more cloves
  • Onion, about 1/2 of a reasonably sized onion, chopped (optional, could also be replaced with green onion)
  • Salt, about a teaspoon
  • Spices to taste. Here things get really individual. Spice as you please. We usually add about a teaspoon of cumin and a couple of big pinches of cayenne pepper.

Soak the beans for about 8 hours. You can put them out to soak at breakfast to make falafel for dinner. The one cup of beans will expand to 2 cups when soaked.

Toss the beans, garlic, onion, salt and spices into the food processor, along with a glug of olive oil. Whirl until you can’t see whole beans anymore. Add another glug of olive oil and all the greens. Let it whirl until the greens are cut down to speck size. The mix should be a pleasant spring green. Taste and add more salt or whatever you think necessary. Don’t mix it until it turns to smooth paste. Stop while it still has a little texture. Add olive oil to smooth it out, as necessary. When its done, it will be wet and light, but you should be able to easily roll the mix into balls.

At this point it would be fantastic if you could let the mix rest in the fridge for an hour or two for the flavors to blend and the mix to stiffen up, but you don’t have to.

Roll up a bunch of balls, or small patties, if you’re a patty person. We make balls that are smaller than golf balls. More like big gum balls. Or mountain state hail.

At this point you can deep fry or pan fry the balls. You could probably bake them, too, if you want to be righteously healthy, but we can’t advise you on time and temp.

We usually cook them via a method I call “half-assed deep frying.” Being somewhat too guilty minded (and cheap) to actually cook up a whole vat of hot oil and fry the falafel like a good falafel should be fried, I pour about a half inch of oil (I use grapeseed) into my littlest cast iron frying pan and heat that till it sizzles when I drop a bit of falafel mix into it. Then I put the balls in, about 5 or 6 at a time. The oil covers them about half way. When the bottoms are golden, I flip them and cook the other side. It doesn’t cost much oil. And while it doesn’t give that perfect crispness of true submersion deep frying, it tastes pretty darn good.

Serve your falafels wrapped in some sort of flat bread along with salad fixins, especially chopped tomatoes and onions. Good toppings include yogurt, tahini, hummus and baba ganoush.

Do you know how to make baba ganoush? Baba ganoush is eggplant spread, a close cousin to hummus, but lighter, and to my mind, better.

A Quick Baba Ganoush Recipe

All you need is eggplant, garlic, tahini , olive oil and lemon.

Take one huge eggplant or a few smaller ones, prick a few holes in them so they don’t explode and put them in a 400-450 degree oven on a baking sheet for about 45 minutes, or until they wrinkle and go flat on the bottom. Then cut them down the middle and scoop out the flesh into a mixing bowl. The skins could go to chickens, worms or compost.

From here, you could mix everything in a food processor or blender, or just use a fork if you don’t mind a more stringy texture. Even if I use power tools, I try to keep the baba ganoush a little lumpy. Stir in tahini to taste. To me, that means that if I have 2 cups of eggplant goop, I’d probably add 1/4 cup of tahini.

Mince up your garlic fine and stir that in next. How much garlic depends on how much bite you want the baba to have. 1 clove minimum, much more theoretically. Add salt to taste, and pepper, or hot pepper, if you like. Add a swirl of olive oil to give it some richness. The finishing touch is fresh lemon juice, and it’s an absolute must. Try adding about half a lemon’s worth of juice, see how that tastes, and go from there.

Baba ganoush tastes best if its allowed to chill for a couple of hours before serving. It’s pretty easy to whip up a batch of falafel mix and baba ganoush at the same time, and then put it all in the fridge until dinner time. Then it only takes a few minutes to fry up the falafel, and you’re good to go.

Figgy Rebuttal

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I had to register my disagreement with Mr. Homegrown’s Mission Fig vs. Kadota Fig post. Seems Erik decided to hold a taste test and invite only himself. The Kadota figs are certainly very good. But much of that goodness comes from their sweetness. They are sweet as honey, but not cloying. I respect that, but I don’t crave it. Unlike Erik, I don’t have a sweet tooth. Therefore, of the two I prefer the less sweet Black Mission figs–they’re figgier, for lack of a better word. So don’t go to bed thinking that you’re really missing out by not having one of them fancy Janice Kadota trees in your yard. They’re very good figs, but they’re not all that.

On miso, caffeine and the search for a morning brew



Mrs. Homegrown here:

I am a caffeine addict. Erik is too, though he doesn’t admit it. Actually, he was only a casual user until he met me, and then became habituated to the morning brew, and eventually graduated into the 3pm pick-me-up brew. In general, I think mild caffeine addiction is not very worrisome, and pretty much built into the fiber of America. However, my own addiction has always been demanding. And recently I had to go straight (long story) — which resulted in a full week of headaches and misery. But now I’m clean, and living in a much slower, less productive, somewhat dream-like reality. Is the world supposed to be this way??? Really?

Anyway, I’ve decided two things. One, that it is impossible that I should never again ingest caffeine. No more Turkish coffee? No more Thai iced coffee? Never again a Mexican Coke? No English Breakfast teas on a cold afternoon? No crisp iced tea with a nice lunch? Riiiiighht. It will have to come back into my life in some sort of managed way. (How’s that for addict thinking?)

But before I slide back into my habits, I’ve decided to stay entirely clean for a month to see how my head reacts. See, I get a lot of headaches, so much so that I’m a connoisseur of headaches, and I’m wondering if the vascular expansion roller coaster of caffeine consumption might not be very good for me. We’ll see.

All this brings me to the point of this post. I’m looking for interesting suggestions for hot beverages that I can drink in the morning which will ease my longing for the ritualized caffeine consumption.

I do not approve of any of the myriad fruit-flavored or otherwise flavored “herb” teas in the marketplace. I have my own mint, nettles and other herbs to make tea of, but thin herb tea is just plain depressing first thing in the morning. In the morning I want something substantial. I’m not afraid of the the bitter, the strange and the strong.

Do any of you know anything about chicory or the various bitter root brews? Those old-timey, war ration, hillbilly sort of brews? This is what I’m interested in pursuing. Let me know if you have any ideas or favorites.

What’s working for me so far is miso soup. It’s an important component of the traditional Japanese breakfast, and I can see why. Miso soup is big and interesting and hearty–somehow on par in terms of body satisfaction with a nice cup of coffee with milk. Of course, it’s crazy high in sodium, but it is rich in trace minerals, and if you use real paste (not dried mix) and don’t overcook it, you also get a dose of beneficial micro-organisms, because miso is a fermented product. I throw in a few strips of nori to give me something to chew on as I drink.

A few hints re: miso:

• Buy the pure paste, not the soup mix. Buy the paste in big bags at an Asian-foods supermarket. It is much cheaper than the little tubs sold in health food stores. After I open a bag I transfer it to a plastic yogurt tub and put it in the fridge. It keeps forever. There are different types of miso (red, white, brown…) Don’t let this confuse you. All are good. Just start somewhere and you’ll sort it out. I’m fond the red.

• Proper miso soup is made with the classic Japanese soup stock, dashi. You can make it with any stock you like, or do as I do in the mornings and just use water. It’s important not to simmer miso, because heat kills the beneficial critters in it. If you’re making a pot of soup, add the miso at the end, after you pull it off the heat. If you’re making it with hot water, take the kettle off heat before the boil, or let the water sit and cool some before using.

• I use about one rounded teaspoon of paste per coffee cup of water. This makes pretty strong drink, but I like that.

Big hint: when mixing miso paste into liquid, always dissolve the miso in a tiny bit of liquid first, and then add that solution to the larger volume of liquid. Otherwise you’ll never get the lumps out. For instance, I put a spoonful of paste at the bottom of the coffee cup, add a splash of water, mix that up until the lumps are gone, then add the rest of the water.

• You can make your own miso! Sandor Katz has instructions in Wild Fermentation. It actually doesn’t sound hard to do at all. You just cook up some beans and inoculate them, then store them in a crock. I’ve always wanted to try it, but miso needs to ferment for a year in a reasonably cool place. Living in SoCal without a cellar, I just don’t think I can give it the conditions it requires.

• You can make pickles using miso paste. I’m experimenting with that right now, and will report back.

Bean Fest Begins!

Photograph by Luisfi

Mrs. Homegrown here:

I’ve never figured out why sometimes the body craves junk food (e.g. salt and pepper ruffle chips dipped in sour cream with a side of home baked brownies) and other times it craves good food. But fortunately for my system, I’m craving good food now. I dream about fresh cooked beans, succulent greens and garlic laden pickles. The image above makes me salivate.

Yet…dried beans are also a bit of a mystery to me. A well-cooked pot of beans is a revelation: creamy, rich, flavorful. One of my most memorable meals ever was a simple plate of black beans over white rice. The black beans just happened to be spiced to perfection with some sort of rare cumin. It was delicious beyond describing. The cook had mastered the hidden art of beans. As homey and friendly as beans are, they can be tricky. Make a couple of misteps in cooking and you end up with bland hippie slop. These days I get it right more than I get it wrong, but I’m always looking to improve.

So I’m crowd-sourcing my bean quest. Let’s celebrate the humble bean and all its possibilities. Beans are the ultimate recessionary food, after all, and we’re all looking for ways to eat better and spend less. Every Friday from now through the end of September we’re going to be posting about beans.

What I’d like to hear from readers today is bean cooking tips–do you pre-soak or long cook? Do you cook in water or broth? When do you add salt? Which herbs pair best with which beans? What are your favorite beans to cook? What would you tell a newbie bean cooker? Who taught you how to cook dried beans?

Also, throughout this month we’ll be collecting and testing bean recipes to post on Fridays. If you have a favorite dried-bean-based recipe that you’d like to share, please send it in to our email address: [email protected] We’ll test it and post about it. We promise not to be mean! This isn’t Celebrity Bean Dish Slap-Down. This is group learning.

Let Bean Fest Begin!

The Pinnacle of Permaculture: Tending the Wild

Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California's Natural ResourcesBook review: Tending the Wild: Native American Knowledge and the Management of California’s Natural Resources by M. Kat Anderson, University of California Press, 2006

When the white man came to California, he found a verdant paradise: meadows thick with wildflowers and clover, stately groves of nut trees, abundant, healthy game and rivers full of fish. It was a land of endless bounty. The natives, often derogatorily called “Diggers” by the whites, seemed to live off this bounty in a lazy, hand-to-mouth sort of way.

Tending the Wild, a highly readable dissertation, takes this mythology apart. Anderson’s argument is that the native people of California were active stewards of the land.

Through coppicing, pruning, harrowing, sowing, weeding, burning, digging, thinning, and selective harvesting, they encouraged desired characteristics of individual plants, increased populations of useful plants, and altered the structures and compositions of plant communities. Regular burning of many types of vegetation across the state created better habitat for game, eliminated brush, minimized potential for catastrophic fires, and encouraged diversity of food crops. These harvest and management practices, on the whole, allowed for sustainable harvest of plants over centuries and possibly thousands of years.

Through extensive practical experience, the Indians had found a “middle way” between exploitation of the land and hands-off preservation of the land. They made use of the land, and in so doing, made the land better for all other creatures as well. They used resources, but managed to give back more. And in so doing, they shaped California.

“John Muir, celebrated environmentalist and founder of the Sierra Club, was an early proponent of the view and California landscape was a pristine wilderness before the arrival of the Europeans. Staring in awe at the lengthy visas of his beloved Yosemite Valley, or the extensive beds of golden and purple flowers in the Central Valley, Muir was eyeing what were really the fertile seed, bulb and green gathering grounds of the Miwok and Yokuts Indians, kept open and productive by centuries of carefully planned indigenous burning, harvesting and seed scattering.”

Our favorite idea to come out of this book is the notion that plants and animals need people. This is the philosophy of the Native American elders Anderson interviews. Rather as plants need birds to scatter their seeds, plants rely on humans to thin and prune them, protect them and spread them. The elders imagined an active, reciprocal relationship of use between humans, plants and animals. For them, “wilderness” is a pejorative term. When land is untended, it turns feral and declines. In a thriving land there is physical and spiritual intimacy between man, plants and animals.

All this is to say that California, at first European contact, was a garden–a garden that had been loved, tended and built up for generations. And the first settlers and explorers couldn’t see it. They saw a gift from God, one which they stripped bare in short order.

There is sadness in reading this, sadness in thinking of all that has been lost. But as Anderson contends, there is still a chance to preserve some of this knowledge. It lives on in the elders who remain whose grandparents remembered California before the gold rush. This book collects some of that knowledge, and talks about Indian management of certain species. While it cannot teach us everything, it provides a tantalizing vision of a non-exploitative yet productive relationship between man and nature, providing us a path for the future, if we can find the will to take it before it is too late.

Highly recommended read, especially for Californians, conservationists, gardeners, wild plant enthusiasts and those studying permaculture.

No garden space? Check this out

Follow this link to the Eastsider blog for a little profile piece on a man raising crops in a median strip. This is exactly what we should all be doing. Well, except maybe standing in traffic to water–if at all avoidable–but I do tip my hat to this intrepid fellow gardener.

There’s so much wasted space in this city. Yesterday Erik and I were walking down the sidewalk, admiring a flat stretch of dry, weedy ground betwixt sidewalk and street, 10 feet across and almost a block long, with perfect East-West sun exposure. We wondered how much food could be grown in that space. Probably enough to put veggies on the table of everyone living in the apartment building fronting that strip.

Taut-line knot

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Knot tying is a skill that’s long been on my to-acquire list. I’ve finally learned how to tie a fancy knot, and it’s pretty exciting. This won’t impress ex-Boy Scouts and hardcore knot wonks, but if your knot skills are pretty much limited to shoelaces (as mine were until today), you might enjoy learning this one.

The taut-line hitch is an adjustable knot. It slides to adjust tension, but stays where you put it. So cool! If you’ve ever struggled to tie a line between two objects–say a laundry line–only to have it sag morosely, you’ll get my excitement. It’s also a useful for staking out tents and tarps.

I’m not going to show you how to do it here, but I’m going to save you the trouble of squinting at lots of poorly drawn diagrams and unclear videos, by sharing the the video that did it for me, one offered by a joint called The Art of Manliness. Official disclaimer: I haven’t read that site, so I don’t know what their program is, but I must say, I do feel rather manly.

It’s actually a very easy knot, though until I found this set of instructions, the procedure baffled me. Apparently there’s a few variations of this knot, but this version does work.

ETA: One of our commenters brought up the advantages of variations of this knot. If you’re new to knots, as I am, I’d recommend you learn one variation of this knot, so you get the general gist of it planted in your brain, and then venture into the Wikipedia page on the Tautline Hitch to look at the variations. The one shown here is #1857. Also important, I learned from Wikipedia that these knots may not be secure when made with slippery synthetic rope.