Fermenting culture wih Sandor Katz

Katz chats up Master Food Preserver and author Kevin West

Last night Erik and I went to see a talk by fermentation guru Sandor Katz, hosted by the Environmental Changemakers. Being a huge Sandor Katz fangirl, I was thrilled to get a chance to see him in person. These days he’s sporting a charming 19th century mustache!

His first book, Wild Fermentation, was one of those really important, life-changing books for me. It might sound strange to say this about a book on pickling, but it opened my eyes in many ways. And it taught me how to do vegetable and salt ferments, which are the backbone of my pickling practice. The daikon pickles we wrote about in The Urban Homestead are due to Wild Fermentation.

Now he’s got a new book out, The Art of Fermentation, which I’ve got to get my hands on:

Here are some excerpts from my notes:

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Carlo Petrini and Slow Food: A Joyful Revolution

Slow Food founder Carlo Petrini gave the keynote address at the National Heirloom Exposition last Tuesday. For those of you who don’t know, the Slow Food movement began out of protests against a McDonald’s that was slated to open near the Spanish Steps in Rome in the 1980s. Slow Food has since grown into an international organization that promotes food biodiversity and traditional farming practices.

Petrini spoke eloquently and without notes through a translator. He called our food system “entropic,” adding that our agricultural system is, in fact, in a crisis of entropy.  When it takes 300 calories to produce 100 calories of food, according to Petrini, we clearly have a system headed towards collapse. When it comes to the health consequences our out of control food system, he noted the ironic fact that more money is spent on weight loss and obesity than buying food.

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Infinite Green Onions

Here’s a handy little tip. I’m pretty sure I heard it first from Mr. Jack Spirko:

Save the root ends of your green onions (aka scallions) — the parts you cut off when you’re cooking. Plant those, roots down, under about an inch of soil and they will generate new green onions. Keep this cycle going throughout your growing season and you should have an endless supply of green onions for your table. It’s much easier than starting from seed!

Green onions are shallow rooted, so work very well in pots. Also, they’re so unobtrusive and easy to grow that you can just tuck them here and there in your garden–anywhere that gets water–and forget about them until you need them.

Happy growing!

When It Gets Hot in Chicago: Make Tempeh!

Tempeh image from Wikipedia.

Today, a guest post from Nancy Klehm, writing to us from Chicago, in the midst of an epic drought and heat wave. Here’s Nancy:

A Drought of Inspiration

Until last week, we were at 12% of our normal precipitation for our eight month growing season. This, plus extreme temperatures, made us delirious when some humidity blew south from Canada and was sticky enough to grab ahold of some clouds and build them until they spilled rain. And yet, the GM soy is limp and the GM corn is dwarfed and tasseling weakly. The effects of which will impact all of us who shop and drive cars.

And frankly, we’ve been spoiled by the drought and heat – it’s always sunny and dry (just like L.A. and Phoenix!) no rain to spoil your bike ride, BBQ, or outdoor gardening. And the biggest benefit: No Mosquitos.

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California Homemade Food Act in Trouble

UPDATE:Good news! Governor Brown signed the bill into law yesterday, September 21, 2012.

The California Homemade Food Act, AB 1616 would make it legal to produce non-hazardous foods such as bread and jams in a home kitchen and sell them. The bill is sitting on Governor Brown’s desk awaiting his signature. Unfortunately, the bill is under attack by lobbyists who want to stop entrepreneurial opportunities for small businesses. The League of Cities is itself in league with these anti-small business lobbyists and sent out the following letter:

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A Prickly Pear Cocktail

In yesterday’s blog post I discussed how to juice prickly pear cactus fruit. Now, what to do with that juice. Thanks to Stephen Rudicel for improvising this recipe:

Prickly Pear Fruit Cocktail
1 part tequilla
2 parts prickly pear fruit juice
1/6 part lime juice
1/6 part Luxardo Maraschino Liqueur
Dash of bitters

Shake with ice and serve.

If you can think of a catchier name for this drink, feel free to comment.

How to Juice Prickly Pear Fruit

Joseph working the thrift-store mill

I always know it’s prickly pear fruit season when questions start coming in on a recipe I did for a prickly pear fruit jelly. Unfortunately, the mucilaginous and seedy texture of the fruit makes it difficult to work with. The only tested recipe I could find, for a prickly pear marmalade in the Ball Blue Book, says nothing about how to seed or juice the fruit.

With the assistance of two fellow Master Food Preservers, Pure Vegan author Joseph Shuldiner and restaurateur Stephen Rudicel, we tested two ways to juice prickly pear fruit: an electric juicer and two hand cranked food mills.The food mills worked the best.

We simply burned the spines off the fruit over a stove burner and quartered the fruit (no peeling necessary). Then we tossed them in the food mill, turned the handle and got lots of delicious juice. The electric juicer ground up the seeds which gave an off-flavor to the juice. The electric food mill was tough to clean. Pictured above is one of the food mills we tried, a simple model from a thrift store. We also used a Roma Food Mill, which worked even better but, of course, costs more money.

Joseph and Stephen, intent on The Cause

We intended to make jelly with our juice but Stephen suggested prickly pear juice cocktails. The rest of the afternoon was somewhat of a blur, but thankfully I was sober enough to write down the recipe. I’ll share that tomorrow.

What Mountaineering Accidents Can Teach Us About Food Preservation

Would you eat pickles made by these two?

Each year the American Alpine Club publishes a book detailing all the mountaineering accidents in North America. The club’s goal is simple, as they put it, “to help you learn from the mistakes of others.”

I’ve often thought that the same approach should be applied to many of the activities we love in the homesteading movement, especially food preservation. Now, I think that home food preservation is very safe. Indeed, it’s much healthier than eating commercially processed foods. But I find mistakes to be one of the best ways to learn. In the case of food preservation, like mountaineering, I’d prefer to learn from the mistakes of others rather than experience them myself.

As it turn out, food safety scientists do keep a close eye on, especially, botulism. With the increased popularity of home canning there have been a few botulism outbreaks in recent years. Botulism is very rare, but you definitely do not want to get a case of it (just read about the symptoms and treatment here if you don’t believe me). Periodically, the Center for Disease Control publishes a review of all the cases. The last one looked at botulism incidents between 1990 and 2000.

The CDC’s botulism review is informative. The majority of cases in the US are related to traditional meat fermentation practices of the Inuit in Alaska, compounded by the inappropriate use of modern materials such as plastic and glass. The leading cause of botulism in the lower 48 is, however, improper home canning. All incidents were low-acid foods, such as asparagus, canned without following proper procedures. I suspect most of these cases were people using a boiling water bath instead of a pressure canner. Other home cases involved storing low acid foods at room temperature (which is just plain dumb).

Four cases that stand out are related to storing garlic in oil at room temeprature. The National Center for Home Food Preservation now recommends the following if you want to preserve garlic in oil:

Garlic-in-oil should be made fresh and stored in the refrigerator at 40°F or lower for no more than 7 days. It may be frozen for long term storage for up to several months. Package in glass freezer jars or plastic freezer boxes, leaving ½-inch headspace. Label, date and freeze.

The take home from the botulism review is that the problem is rare and that home food preservation is very safe assuming you follow standard procedures, most notably using a pressure canner to can low acid foods. None, zero, zilch of the incidents were related to high acid foods such as jams and jellies.

Now go pickle something (and you won’t need a pressure canner to do that!).

What Do Microbes Have To Do With Homesteading?

So what are the activities that microbes make possible around the homestead? To name just four:

  • Fermentation
  • Beekeeping
  • Soil Fertility
  • Human beings

Pretty important stuff. In fact, new systems thinking, applied to our natural word, is demonstrating that things like human beings are really just symbiotic sacks of microbial life. An article in the Economist, “Microbes maketh man” discusses just how important microbes are to human health:

The traditional view is that a human body is a collection of 10 trillion cells which are themselves the products of 23,000 genes. If the revolutionaries are correct, these numbers radically underestimate the truth. For in the nooks and crannies of every human being, and especially in his or her guts, dwells the microbiome: 100 trillion bacteria of several hundred species bearing 3m non-human genes. The biological Robespierres believe these should count, too; that humans are not single organisms, but superorganisms made up of lots of smaller organisms working together.

Natural beekeeper Michael Bush has made the same argument about bees. Elaine Ingham has emphasized the importance of microbes in soil.

Mess with the complex interdependent relationships between microbes and people, soil etc. and you’re asking for trouble. This, for me, is the argument against things like GMOs, Miracle Grow or conventional chemical beekeeping. We don’t know enough, and probably never will know, how 100 trillion bacteria will react to our latest innovation. Best to be conservative when it comes to microbial life.

Looking forward to seeing more of this microbial paradigm shift in science.