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 . . .

Hoshigaki Success!

I’d estimate that one out of ten new homesteading projects succeeds. Which is why I’m especially happy that the long process of drying persimmons the Japanese way (hoshigaki) has been a big success. The white powder that looks like mold is sugar in the fruit that has risen to the surface. The result is, incidentally, very different from drying persimmons in a dehydrator (which also tastes good but has a much firmer texture–hoshigaki has the texture of a gummy bear).

It took about a month. One observation is that the persimmons that got the most sun also developed the most “frosting”.

Hoshigaki sells for upwards of $35 a pound–I just saw some at a Japanese market and they did not look as good as the ones I made. This is definitely a project I’ll be repeating next year. They would make a great gift along with some green tea.

You can read our blog post on how to make Japanese dried persimmons (hoshigaki) here.

Note from Kelly:

I thought we should say something about flavor here. They are not as sweet as I thought they might be. Which is not to say they’re not sweet, they’re just not super-sweet. They have a sort of meaty richness to them–in a strange way, they remind me a little of Fig Newtons, minus that seedy texture. The sugar dusting (sucrose powder?) is very delicate and a bit floral. I can only taste it if I touch my tongue to it.

These are traditionally served with green tea, and I have to say that tradition nailed it–that’s a perfect combo of flavors. Other than eating them ceremonially with tea, they are a very nice dried fruit and can be used any way you usually use dried fruit.

Using a Whirley-Pop to Roast Coffee

Maybe not such a good idea to use an electric popcorn popper . . .

One of the perils of creating how-to books and blog posts is when one of your bits of advice blows up in your face after writing about it. Such is the case with my suggestion of roasting coffee in a hot air popcorn popper. Yesterday, my West Bend Air Crazy popcorn popper made good on the crazy in its name, started smoking and stopped working in the midst of coffee roasting.

In my guilt ridden imagination I can already see dolphins choking on the remains of my now useless West Bend Air Crazy. I can also imagine the letter from the West Bend legal team reminding me that I was using the air popper for something it was never designed to do. And then there’s the ire of West Bend’s Chinese factory workers cursing my privileged lifestyle. But worst of all is the wailing of wives and husbands angry that their partners had been suckered into the idea of roasting coffee at home with an air popper on the advice of some dumb blogger.

Let me make amends. My coffee geek friends use a manual, hand cranked stove top popcorn popper called the Whirley-Pop. Here’s why:

  • You can roast a much bigger batch.
  • You have more control over the roasting process (by regulating the heat on the stove).
  • No electronic parts, thus nothing to break down.
  • You can roast over a fire if your utilities go out. Having caffeine (if you’re the addicted sort) during a hurricane/earthquake/Mayan apocalypse is really important.
  • Root Simple is supposedly about “Low Tech Home Tech.” There ain’t nothing low tech about a plastic hot air popper.

There are a few disadvantages to the Whirley-Pop:

  • Not plug and play. You have to stand over the stove, regulate the heat and turn the crank.
  • Smoke can set off fire alarms–harder to take outside than the air popper.

My air popper might have lasted longer had I roasted coffee in it without the top on as one reader suggested. I could also have just ended up with a bad popper. Apologies to anyone who rushed out to get an air popper. Maybe it will work better than mine did.

At least with our high tech blog I can correct mistakes. It would be harder if Root Simple was a mimeographed newsletter–the Whirley-Pop of information delivery methods. But we’ll see what format the blog is in after this week’s Mayan apocalypse . . .

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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