To each hen her own egg

Barnavelder Auricauna cross eggs

As of June we’ll have had our new hens for a year, and we’re very pleased with them. They’re unusual hybrids. They’re a cross between a Barnevelder, a pretty utility/show breed named after the Dutch town where it was developed, and the more popular Ameraucana.  We got them from our friends at Winnetka Farms, who raise Barnevelders and tried this cross as an experiment.

They’re very nice hens. Pretty. Mild-mannered. Quiet. There’s never any squabbling or pecking. And then are prolific layers of big eggs with big yolks. And here’s what’s interesting: Barnevelders lay brown eggs. Ameraucanas are known for their blue to green eggs. Our “Winnetkavelders” each lay a distinct color egg.

We posted about this when they started laying, but as the hens got older, their eggs became even more distinct, so I thought it worth another mention. All four hens look the identical, but their eggs are different, each expressing different aspects of their parentage. One is classic Barnevelder brown, one is speckled, one is light olive green and the other dark olive drab. The picture doesn’t capture the olives at all.

It’s useful to be able to associate each hen with her egg, so you know if there are any problems with her laying. Unfortunately, these four ladies look so much alike–and tend to visit the nesting box in pairs–so we haven’t been able to ID their eggs yet. Closer surveillance is required!

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How to make your soup wonderful: Wild food soup stock

nettle soup stock

We’ve mentioned urban foragers and foodie extraordinaires Pascal Baudard and Mia Wasilevic before. They not only forage food, but go on to make really good stuff with it. One of their websites is Urban Outdoor Skills, and I like to go there to check out a section called the Food Lab, where they talk about food products they’re experimenting with, and give how-to’s.

A few months ago Erik brought home a beautiful bouquet of nettles. I decided to try one of the Food Lab projects that intrigued me — Wild Food Soup Stock Preserved with Salt. This is no more than a bunch of finely chopped vegetables, herbs and greens (wild or not) mixed with plenty of salt to preserve it.  I made mine with onion, celery, parsley and those nettles. It makes a strong, salty paste that keeps well in the fridge. My first jar is almost finished, and I’ve been using it for months. It still looks good.

Pascal says this is a traditional European method of making instant soup stock, but instead of using it as a stock by itself, I’ve been using it as a finishing touch at the end of cooking up a pot of something.  It really helps at that tricky moment when you’re standing over your soup pot, spoon in hand, asking yourself, What does this soup need? Somehow it improves the flavor in a subtle, magical way–and in the meantime, garnishes the soup with tiny bright confetti flecks of green. Note that this stuff is super-salty–so I hold back on the salt until I add this, and then add more if necessary.

Citified Parched Corn

parched corn

Dried corn on the left, parched corn with peas and blueberries on right

I was thinking about trail food, and wishing for a portable snack which was not based on nuts and chocolate chips (though there’s nothing wrong with that!) or too sugary, like dried fruit or energy bars. Then I recalled parched corn.

Parched corn–dried corn which has been roasted–is one of those legendary Native American foods, like pemmican, which you hear about but don’t necessarily ever get to try. Parched corn is a lightweight, long-keeping, high-energy trail food. It can also be ground into flour and used in cooking. I have vague elementary school memories of claims that a warrior* could walk a whole day nourished on just a handful of parched corn.

(They did not mention that the warrior might be cranky at the end of the day–which I suspected might be the case. I’ve heard similar claims about Roman soldiers marching on handfuls of barley. Poor guys. But now that I’ve tried parched corn, I must admit that it is strangely filling. I managed to spoil my supper by doing too much tasting as I roasted the corn. So maybe the claim are real and–geek alert!– parched corn is our homegrown Lembas bread.)

Parched corn, being tasty and useful, was widely adopted by the Europeans who arrived here. So it was turned out to be the Official Snack Food of wagon trains and trappers and the like.

I went looking for a recipe and found my idea was hardly original. Preppers and outdoorstypes love their parched corn and there are plenty of recipes and tips out there. The only thing that I have to offer that is different is that this is a rather sissified, citified, consumerist version of parched corn.  And it is delicious. Chewy, sweet, a little salty… and most of all, corny.

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A Homemade Mattress?

Edmund_Dulac_-_Princess_and_pea

The Princess and the Pea by Edmund Dulac

This is the story of my life. I read about some old domestic technology or product that makes a lot of sense. Perhaps it is obsolete. Or perhaps it is only done/made in more enlightened countries. Nonetheless, I want it. So I have to make from scratch.

Yesterday we met a great couple, Renae and Dimitri. Renae mentioned she was thinking about making her own mattress. I was intrigued because just that morning I’d woken up with low back pain. Our mattress is worn out. We need a new one, but I’ve been dreading buying a new one. I don’t like the waste of it all: The ignoble dragging of the old mattress to the curb. The prospect of sleeping on a brand new construct of toxic foam and fire retardants–or opting for a less toxic but less comfortable futon.

So, when Renae said this, I was fascinated. I’d never considered making my own mattress.

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Book Review: An Everlasting Meal

Everlasting Meal Book Cover

An Everlasting Meal: Cooking with Economy and Grace, by Tamar Adler, is  a popular book. I had to wait in a queue of 40 people to get it from the library. So I suspect some (all?) of you have already read it. I know someone mentioned it in the comments lately. But I thought I’d mention it for others who, like me, are always the last to know what’s going on. The theme of the book is also on track with last week’s posts about cheap eating and beans.

Adler’s book is not a cookbook. It has recipes throughout, but its mission is more about imparting an attitude, a style, a way of thinking in the kitchen, than delivering recipes. In fact, the core of her message is that you don’t need a recipe to cook.

I was attracted to this book because it is reportedly inspired by M.F.K. Fisher’s book, How to Cook a Wolf, which is one of my favorites, and well worth checking out if you haven’t. Wolf is a wartime book about living well on very little. And An Everlasting Feast is indeed very Fishereque, both in form and tone.

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Beans 101 (Return of Bean Friday!)

bowl of cooked beans

Simple is good.

As a follow up to the “Dollar Supper” post,  this post is about is the simple act of making a pot of beans. I make beans about once a week, the goal being to always have beans in the fridge. For us, they’re an essential staple.

(Readers new to Root Simple should note that we’ve done a lot of posts about beans, and have gathered favorite bean recipes from our readers. So if you’re looking for recipes, look for the Bean Fest tag. Check the recipes tag, too.)

A pot of beans, I’d argue, is one of the keystones of cheap eating. A big pot of beans costs little, and can morph into many meals over the course of a week. This not only saves money, but it saves time. It rescues you from the dreaded “what’s for dinner?” question. Beans got your back.

Skeptical? Here are a few very simple dishes you can throw together if you’ve got cooked beans in the fridge:

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One Secret for Delicious Soup–A Parmesan Cheese Rind

Parmesan cheese rind

Our cats seem to sneak into every food related photo session.

This is simple, but it works so very well. If you use real Parmesan cheese, like Parmigiano-Reggiano, save those rock-hard rinds. They are magic flavor bombs. All you do is add them to soup or bean dishes. Add them at the start of cooking, because they need a good long while to soften up and release their flavor goodness.

They don’t make the dish taste cheesy, but rather add that elusive umami (rich, savory) character to the dish. I think it would be redundant to use the rind if you are already using meat or bacon fat or the like in your soup, but for vegetable-based dishes, it really adds a nice touch.

As to how much rind you should add, it’s kind of hard to say, since rinds vary in thickness. I don’t think it’s necessary to use a whole rind per pot–I usually break my rinds into two halves. The average chunk that goes in my pots is probably less than an inch high by maybe 3 inches long. It doesn’t really matter how much you use. Even a little will help, and there’s no such thing as too much.

I also like to eat chewy, softened rind when the cooking is done, and consider finding it a treasure hunt. Erik doesn’t understand the obsession–and I don’t want him to, because I want it all to myself.

I suspect other hard cheese rinds would work as well, but I haven’t tried it, because the Reggiano is such a staple around here, we can’t afford other hard cheeses!

Supper for a buck?

dinner for a buck

Recently someone asked me how much it cost us to make a loaf of no-knead bread. I had no idea, but was intrigued by the question, so I went home and did the math on the flour.

We buy our flour in bulk from fine company called Central Milling through the Los Angeles Bread Baker’s Club. A 50lb bag of general purpose flour costs $30.00. This works out less per pound than the cheap-0 flour at the supermarket. We actually go through so much flour that it works for us to buy in those quantities, but of course it is also possible to buy flour in bulk and split it with a friend or two.

A loaf of no-knead bread contains the following ingredients: 400 grams of flour, 300 grams of water,  1 1/2 teaspoons of sea salt and, depending on the recipe, either 1/4 teaspoon of active yeast or a bit of sourdough starter. I figured out the cost for the flour (bulk purchased from Central Milling) comes to 52 cents a loaf.

If I were a little more persistent, I could go on and figure out how many more pennies  the salt costs, and yeast or, alternatively, the small amount of extra flour needed for the sourdough starter. But how do you calculate starter costs, since it involves constant feeding over time? And what about energy costs to run the oven? Or the investment in the Dutch oven we use to bake the bread, amortized over time?  This way lies madness.

[Note: I have gone a little mad so I just figured out that there are 636 1/4 teaspoon measures in 1 pound of active dried yeast. 636 theoretical loaves. Problem is I don't know how exactly much we pay per pound of yeast.  We buy it in vacuum-packed 1 lb bags for about 4 or 5 dollars, I think. In any case, yeast costs are less than a penny a loaf.]

Suffice it to say our bread doesn’t cost much. 75 cents per loaf would be an overly generous estimation. And it’s crusty, chewy, beautiful and delicious. Here in LA, I would expect to pay $6.00 to $8.00 for a fresh loaf like this at an artisinal bakery. It’s even cheaper than crappy supermarket bread.

That same night–the night of the question and the math–we had a simple meal:  a loaf of this bread, a bowl of beans and a salad from the garden. It was really good and satisfying, and I realized, also very cheap.

Dried beans run about $1.50 a pound where we shop. One pound of dry beans makes about 6 cups of cooked beans. That’s a lot of food. I’m not going to try to do the math and add up the costs of the onion and herbs and olive oil I add to the beans. And I surely don’t have the patience to figure out the cost of the salad from our garden (do I have to figure in the mortgage?), but I do know that around this time of year I could forage a salad for free from the spring weeds.

But for the sake of a sensationalist headline, I’m ballparking our supper for two at about a dollar. It may have been more than a dollar when all the little things are added up–but I honestly think two dollars would be too much.

We had one thick slice of bread each, and roughly a cup of cooked beans per person–that’s 25 cents worth of beans for each of us. I’m just not figuring the cost of the salad because, 1) it was just a handful of leaves 2) I could forage it, and 3) plenty of the salad plants in our yard are volunteers anyway.

It sounds Spartan, but the beans were really good, silky and filling, and the salad had little flowers from our arugula and mustard plants. The bread sopped up the juice in the bottom of the bowl. It was enough. It was a good way to end the day–not too heavy, and easy to pull together. Cheap eating can be good eating.

I’m going to post about my most recent bean obsession soon –because as we all know, beans are the key to cheap eating– soon as I can remember to take pictures while I cook.

And believe me, I’m on Erik to do a bread-making video. It will come.

Failed Experiment: Bermuda Buttercup or Sour Grass (Oxalis pes-caprae) as Dye

The “dyed” t-shirt is on the left. The shirt on the right is a basic white tee. I could have achieved similar results by entropy alone.

Chalk this one up to the failures column. In an attempt to use Bermuda Buttercup (aka Sour Grass) and various mordants to dye a couple of white t-shirts yellow and green, I succeeded in dyeing both snowy white shirts a pale shade of …let’s call it ecru. Let’s not call it “grimy old t-shirt white.”

There was a moment last night when one shirt took on an extremely light, delicate yellow-green cast–and that was exciting– but the color came out when I hand washed and rinsed the shirts.

Perhaps it was a half-assed project all along. I had no burning reason to dye with Oxalis–except that it’s thick on the ground right now. Also, Oxalis is rich in oxalic acid, which is supposed to (cough) serve as a built in mordant, helping the plant dye to bind more easily to both plant and animal fibers. Oxalis theoretically yields tones ranging from lightest yellow to a sort of acid green, depending on which additional mordants you might use. Used straight, it was supposed to yield a very pale yellow.

So I thought, why not play with it and see what happens?

My only information source for this project was The Handbook of Natural Plant Dyes by Sasha Duerr. This, also, was a mistake. I usually use more sources when I start a project, but I felt lazy.

I don’t know if this is a flawed book or not–I’m not judging yet. It’s on probation. It’s a pretty book, and inspirational in that it makes you want to dye everything you can lay your hands on–hell it makes you want to raise your own sheep and spin your own yarn, so you can dip it in acorn, cabbage and fennel dye, sing some folk songs, dance a dance,  compost the solids and acidify your garden soil.with the spent dye.

It sent me into fantasies of living in some groovy Sonoma-Portlandish nirvana where my house is clean and has plaster walls and wood beams in the ceiling (the wood beams are always in the fantasy) and a fire in the grate. I’d watch the goats graze in the back yard while I cheerfully sip tea and knit something marvelous out of hand spun angora dyed with Oxalis.

(As opposed to the reality of me stumbling around our money pit of house in my exceedingly unnatural and ancient polar fleece robe, desperately searching for a chair to sit on that doesn’t hold a cat, so I can watch the LAPD stalking around the unoccupied house across the street, guns drawn, trying to nab arsonist squatters, without being in the line of fire. True story! Just happened!)

ANYWAY. Point is, the book did not serve me well in the matter of Burmuda Buttercup.

This is, therefore, an anti-project post. Following these steps will get you nowhere.

A more determined dyer or a better blogger might soldier on and find the correct answers and report them to you as a public service, but I’m sorry my friends.  I’m giving up on this one and will probably try onion skin next.

Read on if you dare.

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Wild Edible: Bermuda Buttercup (Oxalis pes-caprae )

Image courtesy of Wikipedia. Photo by MathKnight

It’s Bermuda buttercup season in Los Angeles. Burmuda buttercup, also known as sourgrass, soursop, African wood-sorrel and  many other names, is a member of the wood-sorrel family. It originated in the Cape region of South Africa and is now found all over California, parts of Australia and probably other places as well. Here, it comes with the rain and vanishes with the heat.

It’s a “weed” (Wikipedia describes it as a noxious weed and an invasive species) so if you look it up on the internet you’ll mostly find information on how to eradicate it. It’s true, it’s terribly persistent, because it spreads through underground bulbs. But I think its attractive–usually more attractive than whatever neglected patch of landscaping it has colonized. More importantly, it’s super tasty.

It packs a potent, lemony punch, like true sorrel, which makes it an excellent salad green, and that’s how I use it–raw, in salads. The leaves, stems and flowers are all tasty, but for salads I just use the flowers and leaves. They provide a bright, lemony note which is just wonderfully fresh and tasty with tender new lettuce–springtime in a bowl.

As its true name, Oxalis, indicates, it is high in oxalic acid (as are many more common greens, like spinach), and (mandatory warning) oxalic acid should not be consumed in enormous quantities or if your physician has warned against it for some reason. But its sour nature makes it unlikely that you could stomach enough to hurt you.

Give it a try if you haven’t yet. If this form of oxalis doesn’t grow near you, other edible wood sorrels– or naturalized true sorrel–might. Have a look around.

Note the structure: 3 hearts joined at the center, and the distinctive brown freckles on the leaves.

Oxalis pes-caprae has another use–as a dye. I’m experimenting with that this week, and will talk about the results in a future post.