Is Urban Homesteading Over With?


It seems that we’re back in a period of irrational exuberance. I know because I keep hearing about people lining up to buy crumbling 1,000 square foot bungalows in dodgy Los Angeles neighborhoods for $1,000,000. History tells us that during these periods folks ditch their chicken coops and vegetable gardens and head to the mall to shop.

I hope I’m wrong, that during our next economic bubble people will be more sensible. And the fundamentals have not changed, specifically the uncertain future of fossil fuels. I’m not trading my trips to the feed store for a shopping spree at Hot Topic anytime soon.

So I thought I’d plug a few search terms relating to urban homesteading into Google Trends to see what is going on. This is, of course, highly unscientific–Google Trends may just reflect media generated interest, not what people are actually doing. Here’s what I found:

Backyard Chickens

Many urban homesteading activities are seasonal–in spring people start searching for information on chickens and vegetable gardens, so you’ll see upward spikes towards the end of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Judging from the results on “backyard chickens,” it looks like that it’s a trend that is growing in popularity. Some of this activity may be related to legalization efforts, but I’d like to think that it reflects a growing dissatisfaction with our industrial agriculture system.

Gardening

It seems that searches for gardening of all kinds–I tried “vegetable gardening,” “vegetable seeds,” “rose pruning” and “lawn care,” are down. I think this may reflect a demographic shift–an older generation dying off. We need to get young people gardening!

Bread Baking

No wonder I can’t seem to offer enough bread baking classes.

Bicycles


Cycling is down, but I’m sure this reflects disenchantment with Lance Armstrong and professional cycling.

Searches for “bike commuting” are up slightly.

It’s inevitable that media interest in home ec topics will decline when the stock market is up. Just remember how quickly vegetable gardens and chicken coops were abandoned in the 1980s. But I have a good feeling that the lessons of the last few years will stick better than they did in the 1970s. What do you think?

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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Someone Please Buy Me a KoMo Grain Mill

KoMo Medium Mill

KoMo Medium Mill

So out of the hundreds of vendors I visited at the Natural Foods Expo I’m literally down to only one that I found interesting: KoMo grain mills. Being an avid fan of baking German style breads such as Volkornbrot, I almost fainted with excitement when I stepped up to the booth of Pleasant Hill Grain, who imports KoMo mills to the US.

KoMo’s products are designed by a German/Austrian team, Peter Koidl and Wolfgang Mock. Unlike cheaper grain mills that have metal grinders, Komo mills use a corundum/ceramic stones. This kind of material generates less heat and higher quality flour. KoMo makes quite a few models in varying capacities. Some are motorized and some are manual. They also make an interchangeable milling insert if you need to keep glutenous and non-glutenous products separate.

The salesperson showed me how easy it is to disassemble the mill for cleaning.  The two models I was considering were the KoMo Magic and the KoMo Medium Grain Mill. I got so excited that I had to use supernatural powers of resistance to keep the credit card from flying out of my wallet on the spot.

Komo's "FlicFloc Manual Flaker."

Komo’s “FlicFloc Manual Flaker.”

In addition to grain mills they also make a manual flaker, the “FlicFloc” with a striking, triangular design. For now, I’ll stick with my crapular $30 surplus store flaker. They also make a number of kitchen granaries that had me reaching for the credit card.

The only downside I can see to KoMo products is price. But these mills seem so well designed that I’m fairly certain they will long outlive cheaper mills. If you have one please leave a comment.

Thankfully there’s an entire youtube channel devoted to spinning KoMo grain mill porn. I’m cancelling my Netflix! And, sorry, but I have to note how much these mills look like a herma (NSFW!)

Is Bob’s Red Mill’s Farro Actually Spelt?

Bob's Red Mill's "Farro"

Spelt or farro?

Bob’s Red Mill has introduced a new product they are marketing as “farro,” identified on their website as Triticum spelta or . . . spelt. What’s going on here?

Three grains, emmer (Triticum dicoccum), spelt (Triticum spelta) and einkorn (riticum monococcum) are, according to Wikipedia, “sometimes (but not always) distinguished as farro medio, farro grande, and farro piccolo, respectively.” To add to the confusion spelt and einkorn, are also known as faricella, or “little farro” in Italian.

Confused? According to a 1997 article in the New York Times, “Farro, Italy’s Rustic Staple: The Little Grain That Could,” “true” farro is emmer (Triticum dicoccum) and considered superior to spelt.

The distinction between farro (Triticum dicoccum) and spelt (Triticum spelta) is important. Triticum dicoccum, has different genetics than Triticum spelta. Specifically Triticum dicoccum has four chromosomes, Triticum spelta has six. There are unproven theories that more chromosomes may equal more allergenic compounds. This is why there’s an interest in primitive wheats like Triticum dicoccum and einkorn (which has only two chromosomes). There are also important culinary distinctions between true farro and spelt. They taste and are prepared differently.

I’m not saying that spelt is bad. And Bob’s Red Mill is not making any health claims for their “farro.” None of these grains are gluten free. I’ve written Bob’s Red Mill for clarification about their “farro” and will include their response when I get one.

To learn more about why genetic distinctions between wheat varieties is important, watch this Extension Service webinar, “The “Ancient” Grains Einkorn, Emmer, and Spelt: What We Know and What We Need to Find Out.”

Update 3/9/2014: I spoke to a sales representative from Bob’s Red Mill who told me that their farro is spelt that has been scarified. Sorry Bob, but farro is not spelt.

New Health Food Trends at the Natural Products Food Expo West

Natural Products Expo

This weekend I attended, for or the second year in a row, the Natural Products Expo West. At this massive convention, health food, natural supplement and cosmetic concerns pitch their products to retailers.

And, again this year, I did a lot of intemperate sampling. For the sake of you, our dear readers, I ate every known power bar, sports beverage and processed soy/hemp/chia meat substitute so you won’t have to. It was the human equivalent of being a fois gras duck, except instead of corn pellets coming down the funnel it was all the snack items from a health food store. I washed this massive amount of food down with a hundred different “natural” beverages, all variations on a combination of hemp or soy flavored with the latest, obscure rain forest berry. I may never have to eat again.

The Rise of Quinoa

Natural Products Expo Bag Dump

Phoebe helps sort through all the quinoa swag.

The main theme of Natural Products West this year is the rise of gluten free products. Gluten intolerance is a problem for many people. One out of 131 people have Celiac diseases and a great many more probably have some sort of wheat allergy. However, someone tell me why we have to label products like tomato sauce and raw chicken as being “gluten free?”

Most new gluten free products, everything from pasta to crackers to power bars, use quinoa. The Natural Products Expo’s own trade publication noted that the exponential growth of quinoa consumption in the U.S. has created a situation in which the indigenous people of Peru can no longer afford their own staple food. Peruvians are now eating cheap, processed crap so that we can eat, well, cheap processed quinoa crap.

And if a health food product doesn’t contain quinoa, I can guarantee it will contain either coconuts or chia seeds. Neither of these two products are easy to grow in the U.S. so you can forget about supporting local producers.

Of the hundreds of booths I went past, most were peddling heavily processed junk foods with a “natural” label. And we wonder why the U.S. has an obesity epidemic?

The Ugly
The bizarre booth spectacle award goes to the weight lifting supplement producer that had a scantily clad nurse, an examination table and a ultrasound machine. Retail reps with pot bellies could have themselves oiled up and examined to find their “hidden abs” that would, presumably, be revealed through consumption of a whey powder supplement beverage.

The Good
The good news is that the handful of cool things I found more than made up for all those quinoa power bars. I’ll share those discoveries this week.

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!

Book Review: A Feast of Weeds by Luigi Ballerini

A Feast of Weeds by Luigi Ballerini

The evening a review copy of A Feast of Weeds: A Literary Guide to Foraging and Cooking Wild Edible Plants came in I couldn’t put it down. I chased Kelly and our guest Nancy Klehm around the house to read excerpts: on the obscene etymology of the Italian word for the Strawberry Tree (Arbutus unedo), on the history of Mallow (Malva parviflora). And who knew that Italians eat red poppy leaves?

Ballerini is a professor of Italian at the University of California, Los Angeles. But don’t worry, this is not a dry academic tome. Ballerini is erudite, witty, even bawdy at times. Ballerini’s book infuses foraging with history and meaning,

Gathering, cooking and reading seems like a triad of imperatives much more appetizing than the believing, obeying, and fighting through which one famous twentieth-century dictator tried to reduce Italy to idiocy (largely succeeding) and the buying, pretending not to know, and not giving a damn about others with which his political heirs pursue that same design.

Each chapter profiles a common foragable plant and includes a set of Italian style recipes for what to do with them such as spaghetti with nettles and purslane frittata. The wild plants Ballerini writes about are found in Italy, but most (minus capers, sadly) can be found all over North America. This is not a guide book–it assumes you already know how to identify the plants Ballerini is discussing.

I had one quibble with the chapter on prickly pear cactus–you do not need to peel the pads to eat them. This is an understandable mistake for an Italian to make. For some odd reason only the people of the New World eat the pads of prickly pear–in the Mediterranean and Middle-East, where the plant has been imported, only the fruit is consumed.

I’m looking forward to cooking up some of the recipes, which were contributed by Ada De Santis, who runs a farm on the Salentine peninsula of southern Puglia. Thanks to A Feast of Weeds, there will be many future evenings, “gathering, cooking and reading.”