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.”

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.

Nasturtium Leaf Pesto

nasturtium flower pesto

Chicago artist and permaculturalist Nancy Klehm gave me this idea. Funny how it takes an out of town visitor to make you aware of a resource at your own home–right now our yard is choked with nasturtium and I’ve never made good use of the leaves. I have used the flowers for a pesto, but it’s kinda labor intensive. Nancy made a pesto with the leaves and I had to try my own version:

Nasturtium leaf pesto

2 fistfuls of nasturtium leaves
1 fistful of nuts–pistachios preferred but any will do
a half fistful of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
olive oil
salt
pepper

Roast nuts in a pan. Let them cool and add to a food processor with the nasturtium leaves, cheese, salt and pepper. Add olive oil as you pulse the processor. Process until smooth. Add to your favorite pasta or use as a dip. Garnish with a nasturtium flower.

Cooking Bread in a Dutch Oven and Alternative Steaming Techniques

breadinpot

Commercial bread ovens have a steam injection system. The steam keeps the surface of the dough supple so that dough can expand gracefully during baking. Jim Lahey’s popular no-knead bread recipe uses a dutch oven to emulate steam injection. The Dutch oven method seals in the moisture contained in the dough during the first half hour of baking. It works great and I cook all my bread this way.

screwedupbread1

That being said it can be tricky to plop a loaf of wet, sticky dough into a 475º F Dutch oven without either burning yourself or messing up the dough. I’ll note that even when I’ve screwed it up (like the loaf above) and the dough lands off center, the bread still turns out fine. It’s just an aesthetic issue.

Some other bakers have come up with variations on the Dutch oven technique. Chad Robertson, baker and author of Tartine Bread suggests using a cast iron combo cooker like the one below:

  combocooker

You use it upside down, putting the dough in the skillet rather than dropping it down in the pot. Then you stick the pot on top. I imagine that the handle is handy.

Someone in a bread class I was teaching suggested using a bread baking stone and simply inverting a pot or large roasting lid over the stone. As long as the lid or pot seals properly, this should work too.

Other folks use parchment paper and don’t do the inversion at all. I’m a bit skeptical, but haven’t tried this technique myself.

claychosce_

You can also buy a clay cloche, but they’re on the expensive side.

There are other steaming methods. I used to throw a shot glass of water in the oven–it just doesn’t work as well and, I’ve been told, can damage some ovens. I’ve also tried preheating  a roasting pan and then pouring water in it, but it doesn’t work as well as the Dutch oven. And I was really surprised to read about an elaborate steaming technique that involves a length of chain in a roasting pan described in the Bouchon Bakery Cookbook. Too much work!

For now I’m going to stick with my Dutch oven. Most of the time I manage to get the loaf into the pot and our kitchen is so small that we don’t have room for more gadgets.

If I’ve left out any steaming techniques or you have an opinion, please leave a comment . . .

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?

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.

Los Angeles Bread Bakers Blog

Just a short time after planting–a field of wheat sprouts in Los Angeles County.

The Los Angeles Bread Bakers, that I helped co-found along with Mark Stambler and Teresa Sitz, now has a blog: losangelesbreadbakers.blogspot.com. A big thanks to Saul Alpert-Abrams for putting it together and to Paul Morgan for blogging!

Paul has been writing about the wheat we helped plant at Maggie’s Farm in Agoura Hills, a suburb of Los Angeles on the western end of the county. It’s the second year that we’ve helped farmer Nathan Peitso with planting wheat. We got no crop last year due to either birds or not harvesting the wheat soon enough. We’re hoping for better luck this year.

Thanks largely to Mark Stambler, California has a cottage food law and Paul is also posting videos of a presentation that took place this weekend on how to get a cottage food permit in Los Angeles.

And if you’re in Southern California and interested in learning about bread baking and meeting other bread bakers feel free to join our meetup: http://www.meetup.com/Los-Angeles-Bread-Bakers/. LABB is for everyone–amateurs, pros and people who have never baked bread in their lives. If you’re not in SoCal start up your own bread meetup!