How To Roast Coffee in a Hot Air Popcorn Popper

UPDATE 12/17/2012: My hot air popper died on me. See my new blog post on coffee roasting.

Roasting my own coffee has been one of the most satisfying and easy homesteading projects I’ve ever taken on. I look forward to my delicious, freshly roasted coffee every morning. Roasting your own coffee is so simple, I can’t believe that more people don’t do it.

Here’s how I do it:

1. Every couple of months I order green beans from Sweet Maria’s in Oakland. I’m particularly found of their eight pound sample pack. They choose the varieties–usually from multiple continents, carefully sourced and half the price of what they would cost roasted (if you could even find these interesting coffees). One of these days I’ll find a local source for green beans, but until that time I’m very happy with Sweet Maria’s.

2. I roast a couple of days supply of coffee maybe twice a week. I do it with a West Bend Air Crazy popcorn popper. Note that not all hot air poppers will work. Sweet Maria’s has a complete list of the right kind of hot air poppers here. One drawback is that you can only roast a small amount at a time–no more than a half cup. It takes about 6 minutes for the roast that I like. I keep the kitchen doors closed to prevent the smoke alarm in the hallway from going off. You would probably better get better results with a manual, hand-cranked popcorn popper such as the Jiffy Pop popcorn popper, but I like the convenience of the air popper. I just dump the beans in and in a few minutes I’m done. One drawback is that the West Bend popper is poorly constructed. Repeated use has sort of melted the top a bit. If you roast coffee with and air popper and have a better suggestion for a popper brand, please leave a comment. Despite the slightly deformed shape of my West Bend, it still works fine.

3. Once the roast is complete I dump the beans into a metal colander to cool them off. The beans out-gas CO2 for a few hours so after they cool they go into a 75¢ foil valve bag that Sweet Maria’s sells. I roast in the evening before going to bed. By morning the coffee is ready to use.

4. I make my coffee in a stainless steel French press. And, while I enjoy my fresh roasted coffee I’m also aware that it’s a bad habit. From a prepping perspective it would be much better not to be addicted to caffeine. But it sure is tasty!

How to Bake a Traditional German Rye Bread

In the interest of health, I’ve focused my bread baking obsession of late on 100% or near 100% whole rye sourdough loaves. I’ve used as my guide a nicely illustrated book How to Make Bread by Emmanuel Hadjiandreou. His specialty is just the sort of rustic German style breads I’ve always wanted to learn to bake. What I love in particular about his caraway rye sourdough loaf (pictured above) is the crust. Unlike most other breads you don’t slash it before tossing it in the oven. The goal is a kind of perfect imperfection–a hard, thick crust with as many fault lines as the state of California. And this is a bread that requires no kneading so you can easily fit it into a busy schedule.

Here’s how I make it (recipe based on Hadjiandreou’s caraway rye sourdough):

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What’s Your Personal Food Policy?

Tom’s got a policy. Do you?

The Thanksgiving holiday brings together an often incompatible assembly of  vegetarians, paleoterians, pescatearians, breatharians and folks who just don’t give a damn, to share a meal. While I’m sure many family gatherings pass without controversy, many of the readers of this blog probably end up in uncomfortable discussions about where our food comes from. It’s a holiday that provokes a consideration of what Mark Bittman calls our “personal food policy.”

The point Bittman makes about developing a personal food policy is that our choices at the dinner table make a difference. We all have to eat and we vote with our supermarket dollars. Just as our Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack helps craft our nation’s schizophrenic food policies, I thought the Thanksgiving holiday would be an appropriate moment to define my own personal food policy.

But as I started to write down my personal food policy I discovered so many contradictions and exceptions that I just stopped. My own personal food policy, when considered honestly, was almost as tangled as the USDA’s. Yes, sometimes we manage to grow all of our greens, but other times bugs/bad soil/forgetfulness in the garden sends us on a trip to our local discount Armenian supermarket. Other times we’re so busy that we pick up prepared crap at Trader Joes. And frankly, my personal food policy, started to sound a bit holier than thou. As Rumi says,

Spiritual arrogance is the ugliest of all things.
It’s like a day that’s cold and snowy,
and your clothes are wet too!

One issue, however, that over the years I’ve come to feel strongly about is factory raised meat. I just can’t eat it anymore. It used to be that, out of courtesy, I’d eat anything served to me when I’m a guest at another person’s house. I’m not sure I can still do this. As Michael Pollan says, “Were the walls of our meat industry to become transparent, literally or even figuratively, we would not long continue to raise, kill, and eat animals the way we do.” And those walls have become transparent to me. I’ll happily eat meat, but only if I know it was humanely raised or hunted.

So, dear Root Simple readers, what’s your personal food policy?

And, of course, Happy Thanksgiving to all.

How to Cook Broadleaf Plantain

The last plantain in our yard–the only one which survived the long, brutal summer without water. The winter rains, which are just beginning, will have plantain sprouting all over Southern California soon.

We’re big fans of foraging teacher Pascal Baudar. He approaches wild foods like no one else we know–as a gourmet experience. Combining Old World traditions, Native wisdom and a good deal of culinary invention, Pascal and his partner, chef Mia Wasilevich push foraged food to “the next level.” In fact, together they run a website called Transitional Gastronomy dedicated to just this idea.

If you want to learn how to make your foraged food delicious, go see Pascal and Mia. If you live around LA or are planning a visit you can hook up with them through MeetUp. And you should definitely check out Pascal’s foraging website, Urban Outdoor Skills. Both of their websites feature “food labs” which have some of the most inventive wild food recipes I’ve seen anywhere.

On a recent visit to Urban Outdoor Skills, I was very excited to find he’d developed a cooking technique for broadleaf plantain (Plantago major, the common weed, not the banana relative). Though I know plantain is very nutritious, it is also bitter and heavily veined, so I prefer to collect it as a medicinal herb. I infuse it into oil that I put into salves and creams and I use it as a fresh poultice on itchy bites and hives. But eating it? Meh. I’ll put baby leaves in a salad. Erik has sprinkled the leaves on pizzas--and I’ll eat anything on a pizza. The seeds can be collected and used in seedy applications. But all in all, the flavor and tough texture of plantain left me uninspired.

Trust Pascal to figure out how to cook the stuff. He boiled it, testing often, and found a sweet spot: the exact time it takes to boil out of the bitterness, but still leave the leaf intact. The short story: 3 minutes for young leaves and 5 for old ones, so 4 minutes works for a mixed batch. This makes a tender cooked green with an almost seaweed-like texture. Go to his site for all the details and an extra bonus: an Asian-style sauce to make this dish sing.

Sourdough Pancake Recipe

Yes, that’s a real children’s book from the 1970s.

A question came in as to what to do with extra sourdough starter. First off, check out the new way we feed our starter, which wastes a lot less flour.

But another answer is to use all that tangy delicious starter to make pancakes. For years we’ve used Nancy Silverton’s recipe. Basically, the starter fills in for the flour and milk used in standard pancake recipes. That’s all there is to it.

The only downside to the new way we feed our starter is that I don’t make these delicious sourdough pancakes anymore. You could, of course, still make them by building up more starter the night before.

But make sure that starter doesn’t get away or you may have to round up some kids to go chase it.

How To Make Hoshigaki (Dried Persimmons)

Hoshigaki image from Wikipedia

Hoshigaki are a Japanese delicacy made by, believe it or not, gently massaging persimmons while they air dry. I took a workshop this weekend taught by Laurence Hauben on how to make this remarkable fall treat. It’s persimmon season right now, so if you want to try this at home you better jump on it. While a lot can go wrong in the month it takes to make Hoschigaki, the process is not complicated.

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Root Simple Video Podcast Episode 1: How To Make a Sourdough Starter

Here’s the first in a series of Root Simple how-to videos. Look for them on the blog and, soon, on your mobile thingies. I started with a little edit on how to make a sourdough starter. And I take requests–if there’s a topic for a video you’d like to see just leave a comment. 

Making a sourdough starter is as simple as mixing flour and water. There’s no need for all the crazy things I’ve heard suggested: adding potatoes, grapes, yogurt and certainly not commercial yeast. And the yeast that makes sourdough happen is on the flour itself in far greater quantities than in the air.

After following the simple steps I demonstrate in this video you’ll end up with a small amount of starter that you use to “inoculate” a larger batch of starter to use in a bread recipe. Keep your starter at room temperature and feed every day. Alternately, you can put it in the fridge if you don’t want to feed it all the time. When you want to wake it up, take it out of the fridge and feed for a day or two before you bake with it.

You’ll never go back to commercial yeast once you get used to the taste of bread made with a sourdough starter.

You can download a copy of this video here.

The Best Raw Flax Cracker Recipe

I have to admit to not being a huge fan of the raw food movement. Now I think we should all eat some raw food, but many nutrients are accessible only through cooking. That being said, I like a few recipes that came out of the raw craze, especially flax crackers. My favorite flax cracker recipe is the onion cracker bread you can find here.

This easy to make recipe requires no pre-soaking or sprouting.  All you do is mix the ingredients (onions, flax seed, sunflower seeds, olive oil and agave syrup) in a bowl and spread it on a tray in your dehydrator.

The problem is that these crackers are so tasty they disappear within a day.

Do you have a favorite raw recipe? Leave a comment with a link!

Want to Make Bread? Get a Scale

Liquid measuring cup on left, dry on right. Get a scale for baking.

The current issue of Cooks Illustrated Magazine has an interesting test of the accuracy of liquid versus dry measuring cups. When measuring flour, the dry measuring cup was up to 13% off when compared to a scale. The liquid measuring cup was even worse–26% off.  When baking bread, even 13% could be the difference between a decent loaf and a hockey puck.

Surprisingly, measuring water wasn’t much better, even with the liquid cup, which was 10% off. The dry measuring cup was 23% off when measuring water. I’ve always felt a bit silly scaling water, but now I can see its importance.

For bread baking, I’ve been using an electronic scale for many years now and have had reasonably consistent results. Scaling helps me be consistent. Now if only our kitchen didn’t swing between broiling hot and drafty…