New Project: Making Bitters

bitters

Our friend Emily Ho over at The Kitchn recently posted a good set of instructions on how to make homemade bitters. Bitters are made up of various aromatic substances tinctured in alcohol. These flavorings can be used to concoct fancy artisanal cocktails. True bitters are made with sharp, bitter herbs, like wormwood and dandelion–their original purpose was to stimulate digestion, and you’ll find them used often in appertifs. But the definition has widened to include all sorts of aromatic flavors, from resinous flavors, like pine, to sweet, mellow flavors like vanilla, to floral notes, like lavender.

Personally, I’m interested in creating an arsenal of interesting flavors to create sophisticated, adult-palette mocktails by using homemade bitters to add interesting flavor notes to drinks created with fruit juices, homemade syrups, teas and soda water. My first set, a few of which are in the photo above, are currently steeping. In future posts I’ll share the recipes I develop as I follow this path.

In the meanwhile, making your own bitters is really easy. You may be able to throw a few experiments together just using things you find in your spice cabinet. Since these are flavoring, not medicine, you don’t have to be as careful with the quantities and timing as you must be when tincturing herbs for medicine. Yet at the same time, it’s a great introduction to that essential herbalist’s craft. Read her post, and have fun!

How to Make Homemade Bitters: Cooking Lessons from The Kitchn.

DIY Funerals Part 2: Swine Composting

composting diagram

This image from “Composting for Mortality Disposition” by the Virginia Cooperative Extension. I have no idea what’s going on there, exactly–I meanm wouldn’t that pile be as big a house? — but I like that it looks like the  Noah’s Ark of Death.

In the comments on my last post, several people pointed out that farm animals are often composted. I did not know this!  I’m from the city, so there’s lots of stuff I don’t know. Like the difference between hay and straw. Anyway, this is exciting, because it brings me closer to being composted. (In my funereal fantasy world, at any rate)

One of the commenters, Raleigh Rancher, kindly sent along a link to Composting Swine Mortalities in Iowa, a publication of the Iowa State University Extension Program. Thank you, Raleigh!  What a trove of information! It has how-to’s, and a FAQ.

I also googled “swine composting” and found that there is in fact a ton of information out there, and most of it from respectable university extension services, not crazy DIYers like me.  And now  I truly am confused. If farm animals are getting composted all the time, and that compost is being spread on cropland, why can’t we be composted and put to good use?

Composting the Deceased/ My DIY Funeral Fantasies

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When I die, I want to return to the elements. In the best case scenario, I’ll be food. I mean, I suppose the bacteria get us all, unless we’re cremated, but I don’t want to be locked inside a coffin, with most of my potential nutrient value going to waste.  This obsession has led to several funeral fantasies, which I like share with Erik spontaneously, usually while we’re grocery shopping or something, much to his dismay. I think he’s pretty much praying statistics will hold true and he’ll predecease me.

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Who Wants Seconds? Winner Announced

WhoWantsSeconds_JennieCook

What a great response we’ve had on this one! Thank you all for entering, and thanks to Jennie for giving us this book to share with you all.

We’ve also enjoyed seeing how you all self-identify. Eating has become such a complex, even fraught activity. My grandmother would boggle at discussions like this, I suspect. I don’t think she even knew the word vegan.

Since we’ve heard from you all, we’ll share our preferences: We eat mostly vegetarian, but will eat meat if it comes from an impeccable source. Preferably we will actually know the farmer. This kind of meat is hard to come by and very expensive, so we eat it rarely–maybe six times a year. Though we eat dairy, we do our best to eat grass fed dairy, and mostly our own eggs, and this limits availability and raises costs as well, so many of our meals are actually vegan.

Okay! I know! Enough blathering. This morning we generated a number at random.org and counted down the comments until we got to our winner.

And the winner is….

Siri!

Congratulations, Siri!

We have Siri’s email address since she didn’t comment anonymously. We’ll be sending her an email right now, so we can exchange mailing information.  So look for our email, Siri!

Again, thank you all for entering!

Free Vermicomposting Workshop in Pasadena

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Some of you might remember that we advertised a free biodynamic composting workshop here a few weeks ago– and some of you may have even attended! It was great to meet Root Simple readers there.

Well, that was a great day, where lots of good connections were formed, and another great thing came out of it. It turned out that one of the participants, Don, is an expert worm wrangler. There was a lot of interest in worm composting at the workshop, so Don offered to teach us what he knows, for free.

The workshop is on Saturday, December 21st from 10-12. Sadly, Erik and I cannot attend on that day (and I’m bummed, because Don has some really interesting techniques to share), but we wanted to help publicize it. Don is not only teaching the class for free, but he’s also selling worm-kit-stuff and is donating the proceeds to support those affected by the recent typhoon in the Philippines.

Don’s announcement:

Free vermi-composting workshop provided by Don Martinez:
Hands-on learning; you get one gal of pure worm castings for your work; starter worm racks ($35), starter materials ($10/gal), 2 handfuls of worms in bedding ($20) also available.
Please RSVP Don Martinez at [email protected] for location
Also let me if you want a starter kit so I can order materials. 100% of proceeds from all items purchased will go to the Beta Epsilon/University of the Philippines relief project for Filipinos affected by the recent typhoon.
Class agenda and more details after the break:

New Phoebe Update/Question

Phoebe

UPDATE:  We called the vet and it seems her lethargy and odd behavior might be due to nausea, as well as just being freaked out. We’re treating the nausea and hopefully she’ll start eating and drinking and come back to herself. So we’re a little more relaxed around here. Thanks to all the people who commented!

Phoebe responded well to treatment at the vet–oxygen levels at normal, breathing eased–so she was released last night. This is the good news. The not-so-good news is that she’s been acting strangely since she got home. The moment we let her out of her crate we saw that she was not at 100%, which was disappointing, but not surprising after an overnight stay in a scary, brightly lit, vet office with a barking Yorkie as a roommate.

We’ve been keeping her in our room, so that the other two cats can’t harass her. I figure she feels threatened when her strength is down. I thought that maybe a long sleep would put her to rights, but she’s acting just the same this morning.   She’s moving slow, staring into space, doing odd things like hunkering down with her head over her water dish and just staying in that position, not drinking, not doing anything.  She doesn’t want to interact with us at all. Still, as far as I can tell, she’s not struggling to get enough air, like she was before.

My question is this: Do cats behave oddly after hospital stays? I’ve never had a cat do an overnight before, or undergo so much treatment. Do any of you have experience with this? I’m not sure if she’s ill, tired, just freaked out, (all three?) or maybe even angry with us. She’s given me a few baleful looks with those yellow eyes.

This behavior is worrisome to us because while we’re willing to do whatever we can to give her time,  we want her time to be good. And so far, it’s been really good time. But we don’t want to be instrumental in keeping her alive in a frail, zombie-like state. That’s no life for a cat.

An update on Phoebe

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A whole lot of animal lovers read Root Simple, and so we get a lot of inquires about how our special cat, Phoebe, is doing. Because we know so many people care–and at risk of making this a maudlin sick pet blog–we wanted to let you know she’s in the hospital tonight (Monday night) and will probably be there most of tomorrow. She started having trouble breathing today, and needs to spend some time in a box full of oxygen, while her genius veterinarian, Dr. Zimmerman, does some tests and re-jiggers her treatment program.

Phoebe is in heart failure–and has been for almost two years now. That’s a really good run for a cat born with a ridiculous handbag for a heart. We can’t hope for too much more. It is possible that her heart simply can’t function well enough any more to sustain her, but we’re hoping that an adjustment of her meds will buy her a few more good months, and we’ll be able to bring her home tomorrow night. We won’t know until tomorrow.

It’s hard to leave a pet behind in a vet’s office, even such a good vet. Poor Phoebe will be sleeping in big plexiglass box with oxygen inputs and hand-holes, like The Boy in the Plastic Bubble. But she was looking mightily pissed off instead of sickly by the time we left, which means she felt much more herself. And at least we know she won’t be suffering tonight, fighting for air.

Now we are home with our other two cats, Trout and Buck, collectively known as the boys. Compared to them, Phoebe is a silent shadow, the most invisible of cats. Yet tonight, the house seems quiet and empty, even though the boys are galloping around in circles like idiots, yowling, like they always do this time of night. Without us realizing it, Phoebe quietly filled up a big space in our house. It’s the same in our hearts.

Primitive Grain Storage Technique

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When thinking about technology, I like to play with the idea of what is the absolute minimum you need to get the job done.  This may be because I’m not very handy at building things, but yet have survivalist tendencies. So while I’m pretty sure I’ll never actually have any need for these skills, it’s fun to think about how I’d get by in a DIY world.

So I was delighted when I ran across this minimalist grain storage technique on the BBC documentary series, A History of Celtic Britain (2011), hosted by Neil Oliver of the Delicious Scottish Accent. (I am watching it on YouTube. Fingers crossed the BBC will not take it down before I finish it!)  I love this technique because while it is simple, it is far from stupid.

The technique is described by the Dave Freeman of the Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire, where they’ve been experimenting with grain storage iron-age style (c. 400 BCE.).  Turns out all you need to do is dig a pit in the soil. The pits they dug are circular, and look to be 2 or 3 feet in diameter, and maybe 3 or 4 feet deep.

So you may ask, how can you pour grain into a hole in the ground and expect it to keep? The secret is a clay cap on the top. In the screen grab below you can see the cap and some feet for scale:

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If you go to YouTube,  you can watch this sequence starting around 52:36, but what Freemen says is that when the grain goes in the pit and is sealed with a clay cap, the clay blocks out moisture, air and light. Moisture is still available at the sides and bottom of the pit, of course, especially as they are in green Hampshire.

The grain touching the sides of the pit sucks the moisture out of the soil at the edges, and uses it to attempt to germinate. The germination process sucks up oxygen and releases carbon dioxide, effectively clearing the chamber of oxygen. At that point, as Neil puts it, “Time stops.” Nothing can grow, nothing changes. The grain cache keeps for at least a year, perhaps two years, and provided a very handy safety backup for hard working iron age farmers. And some very basic appropriate tech for modern armchair survivalists to ponder.

Bad Forager: Mistaking Hemlock for Fennel

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Hemlock (courtesy of Wikimedia)

Hemlock (Conium maculatum) and fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) are in the same family, the Apiaceae or carrot family (which also includes dill and parsnips and chevril and cumin and anise and corriander and parsley and Queen Anne’s lace and more–a very nice family, all around). Hemlock and fennel share characteristics of that family, having those distinctive umbrella shaped flower clusters which beneficial insects adore, but otherwise they don’t look a whole lot alike.  They do grow to about the same size and have similar growth habits, which means they look sorta the same if you look at them with squinted eyes. But fennel foliage is thready, whereas hemlock leaves are triangle shaped and lacy. And fennel has yellow flowers while hemlock has white flowers. If you bruise a hemlock leaf or sniff a flower it smells kinda nasty, whereas all parts of the fennel taste and smell deliciously like anise/licorice.

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Fennel (courtesy of Wikimedia)

Really, all in all, it’s easy to tell them apart.

Except when they are all dried out.

When they’re all dried out, as they are here after a long, bitter summer which has left everything brown and gasping, they look a lot alike. They are both whittled down to nothing but tall brown flower stalks with a few seeds still clinging to the uppermost stems. In this state, they can look remarkably similar.

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Fennel or hemlock seeds? (photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

And so I was fooled while out on a food forage hike last week. It was grim pickings out there! Acorns seem to be the only thing left to eat in the wild until the rains come. I’d sampled something unpleasant which lingered on my tongue. I wanted to clear the taste and spotted what I thought was the remains of a fennel plant. I pinched off a couple of seeds and put them in my mouth. They didn’t taste like fennel. They didn’t taste like anything at all. So I think I spit them out. Maybe.

As I was in the midst of doing this, I said to our teacher, Pascal, “Here’s some fennel?” As I said it, I wasn’t entirely sure, because the seeds didn’t taste right.

He said, “That’s not fennel, that’s poison hemlock.”

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Free Biodynamic Composting Seminar in LA on November 16th

Image: Plan for Opportunity in Flickr.

Image: Jennifer Cowley in Flickr.

“Get perfect results without turning, fussing or worrying in 6 months!”

A Root Simple reader has turned us on to an excellent opportunity to learn about composting from a master of the art–for free!  We’ll be there.

And here’s the details:

Learn the Secrets of BioDynamic Composting from Jack McAndrews    

Recognized as one of America’s leading experts on biodynamic organic agriculture, Jack’s biodynamic composts have been the secret behind some of the most beautiful and healthiest gardens in Hollywood and on the Westside. And now you can learn how to create this black gold in your own backyard.

Maria C. Linder, Professor of Biochemistry at CalState Fullerton says, “There are very few people in the country with [Jack’s] experience and expertise… Bio-dynamic composting is more scientifically based than most and is by far the most impressive method I have encountered. Jack has studied the process for many years, and with the best Masters in the business.” (Excerpts from: http://bio-dynamic.info/).

Biodynamic compost is made with precise specifications and is a fundamental component of the biodynamic method of growing food. It recycles animal manures and organic wastes, stabilizes nitrogen, and builds soil humus to enhance soil health.

“This is recognized as the finest recipe for growing crops in the world,” claims Jack. “You don’t need any other fertilizer or pesticides. This form of agriculture is ahead of its time. It grows the best quality food known today.”

Come and be amazed at what you can grow!

The seminar will be 2 to 3 hours long, but feel free to come and stay however long you can