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.

Kevin West’s Saving the Season

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I’m thinking of throwing out all my picking and preserving books. Why? Kevin West’s new book Saving the Season: A Cook’s Guide to Home Canning, Pickling, and Preserving blows all those other books out of the water bath.

Full disclosure here: I’ve tasted a lot of West’s jams. I teach a bread making class at the Institute of Domestic Technology. After my bread demo West does a jam making session and I stick around to watch and, hopefully, filtch an extra jar. Those West jams are coveted items around the Root Simple household.

What makes Saving the Season different from other preserving books is West’s masterful use of aromatics and alcohols. As he explains in the introduction, “My goal is for the supplemental flavor to be a faint suggestion–an extra something that you can’t quite put your finger on.” His quince jelly (that I just made) is flavored with a subtle hint of rose geranium. One of the strawberry jam recipes gets a splash of pinot noir. The pickled eggs (that I also made) is mixed with Sriracha. These additions enhance the essential qualities of the main ingredients rather than simply add flavor. It’s an approach that’s masterful and never gimmicky.

There’s also a few surprises. Did you know that you can pickle unripe stone fruit? West’s recipe for pickled green almonds doubles as a way to deal with fruit that needs to be thinned in the spring. And I now know what I can do with all that cardoon I have growing. Yes, you can pickle that.

If that weren’t enough, West has weaved together his recipes with erudite musings. Plato’s theory of forms is contrasted with Buddhism in an essay on kitchen prep that introduces a peach recipe. The grape jelly section is preceded by an analysis of a Nicolas Poussin’s painting. This is the only preservation book I’ve found myself reading for fun.

My threat to get rid of all my preserving books is not hyperbole. Saving the Season really is the definitive book on the subject of pickling and preserving.

West has a website, www.savingtheseason.com, where you can find recipes as well as info about speaking appearances (he’s also great speaker).

How to make your soup wonderful: Wild food soup stock

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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

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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.

Continue reading…

How to Freeze Food in Canning Jars

Canning jars are the best way I know to avoid using plastic when freezing foods. You’ll want to use wide mouthed canning jars like the one above, that come in pint and half pint sizes. Don’t use jars with shoulders–these jars will break due to the expansion that happens when food is frozen.

Kerr and Ball jars are marked with a freeze fill line that’s about an inch below the rim. Don’t put food you intend to freeze above this line.

Avoiding plastic lids is more difficult. Two piece Ball lids have a BPA coating (which, I’ve heard that they are considering phasing out). I suppose you could use a BPA-free Tattler lid, though I haven’t tried them. For freezing I use food grade plastic lids sold by Ball. Food is not in contact with the lid, so I’m not too concerned about the plastic, though I understand that some people won’t agree. At least the lids are more easily reused than ziplock bags. It looks like Ball now has BPA free lids.

But jars won’t work for freezing a pork chop–see an interesting thread on Chowhound about this issue that Root Simple reader Peter Shirley alerted me to. Long story short: home freezing is a product of the post WWII era of plastics and refrigeration, so there’s not a lot of alternatives other than the jar option and less than optimal aluminum foil and heavy paper. It’s hard to beat the moisture retaining and freezer burn excluding properties of plastics. The plastic-free meat freezing alternative is to bring back the corner butcher shop and buy fresh.

Freezing Meat With Freezer Paper

A good question came in on Friday’s post about freezing fruits and vegetables about how to freeze meat products without using plastic bags. I don’t know of a way to avoid plastic with meat products, but you can use freezer paper instead of ziplock bags. The University of Georgia Extension Service has a handy info sheet on how to wrap meat with freezer paper: Freezing Animal Products.

Correction: an earlier version of this post was entitled “How to Freeze Meat Without Using Plastic.” I had forgotten that freezer paper is coated with plastic. You can use glass canning jars to freeze (just don’t use a jar with a shoulder). While jars are a great way to freeze soups and stews, they are not suitable for cuts of meat. If you are aware of a way to freeze cuts of meat without plastic, please leave a comment.

How To Freeze Fruits and Vegetables

Photo by Flickr user leibolmai

Freezing foods is just about the most boring food preservation method. It’s also the easiest and best way to preserve nutrients. But, when it comes to freezing fresh vegetables from the garden there is one important step: blanching. Blanching slows down enzymatic activity that can deteriorate the quality of what you freeze. How much to blanch depends on the vegetable in question. Thankfully there’s a handy publication from Oregon State University, Freezing Fruits and Vegetables, that covers blanching times and many of the other particulars in freezing foods.

One thing not covered in that pamphlet is that some foods like berries, green beans, peas, diced onions, whole-kernel corn etc are more convenient to cook with if you can just pour them out of a freezer bag without having to break them out of a solid mass. To do this you’ll individually quick freeze IQF them. To IQF:

  1. Wash, blanch (veggies) and cool .
  2. Spread in one layer on a cookie sheet and place in the freezer for four to six hours.
  3. Pack in sealed containers or in freezer bags.
  4. Label with date to avoid freezer mystery bag phenomenon.

Now when the zombie apocalypse arrives and everything goes Beyond Thunderdome, freezing will not be the best option (unless, like Tina Turner, we figure out how to turn pig waste into propane to power our refrigerators). But I digress.

Nasturtium Powder

Around this time of year Nasturtium becomes a kind of massive monocrop in our yard. We’re always trying to figure out uses for it. Of course it does well in salads, both the greens and the flowers, and we’ve made capers of the pods. Also, the flowers make a particularly beautiful pesto. But this year, inspired by the culinary experiments of forager Pascal Baudar and his partner Mia Wasilevich (friend them in Facebook if you want a daily dose of foraging greatness) I decided to make a nasturtium powder. It’s simple:

  1. Dry the leaves. Here’s a fast way: take a bunch of nasturtium leaves and spread them in a single layer between two paper towels. Microwave for two minutes.  Or use more conventional methods. Just don’t let them get so dry they lose color. (Important note from Mrs. Homegrown: Careful with this microwave trick! It’s a new one for us. It worked perfectly for Erik when he dried a whole bunch of leaves, but today I tried to dry just one leaf, a celery leaf, as an experiment and it burst into flame after about 30 seconds. Scary!!!!! We think it success has to do with mass and moisture: lots of leaves, not just one.)
  2. Put the dried leaves in a spice mill or coffee grinder and pulse until ground.

Think of nasturtium dust as a kind of zombie apocalypse pepper replacement. Or as a salad dressing ingredient. It is surprisingly tasty–better than fresh nasturtium, and without that bite. It would be fantastic combined with a little good salt. We’re still trying to figure out exactly how to use this magic powder. We may just keep it on the table and sprinkle it on everything.

What do you like to use nasturtium for?

Food Storage as Art

Artist Jihyun Ryou’s work uses food storage techniques from the pre-refrigerator era in a way that’s both useful and beautiful. Her goal is to, “Try to bring your food in front of your eyes” to counteract that tendency we all have to make our refrigerators unintentional composters.

The techniques she demonstrates include:

  • Evaporation
  • Sand, both to keep vegetables vertical and to decrease humidity
  • Using the ethylene gas in apples to keep potatoes fresh

Ryou’s website is: www.savefoodfromthefridge.com

New National Center for Home Food Preservation Blog: Preserving Food at Home

Pumpkin leather. Image from the blog of the National Center for Home Food Preservation.

When I’ve got food preservation questions–about food safety or I need a reliable recipe–I go to the National Center for Home Food Preservation. The Center provides science based food preservation advice and is funded by the USDA.

They launched a blog in November, Preserving Food at Home that is now in my blog reader. Recent holiday-centric posts have covered tips on freezing leftovers, how to ship homemade foods and what to do with a pumpkin surplus as well as the dangers of pumpkin butter.

Home food preservation is very safe but, to be honest, I’ve been alarmed at a few of the questions I’ve received while interacting with the public as a Master Food Preserver. Preserving Food at Home is an important food safety resource and I’m looking forward to reading their weekly posts.

Do you have a favorite food preservation blog? Leave a comment . . .