Should Reuseable Bags Be Washed?

Root Simple’s stylish new norovirus shopping bag.

Kansas State University’s humorously named Barf Blog has been following the story of a norovirus outbreak related to a reusable grocery bag that sickened 13 members of a soccer team. Norovirus, incidentally, is the most common foodborne illness–when you get food poisoning or the “stomach flu,” odds are that it’s probably norovirus.

So should you wash your reusable bags to prevent norovirus? It’s probably a good idea but, according to Barf Blog, there’s not a lot of evidence about the question–just one study on the matter.

In fact it’s not clear if the bag in this 2010 incident was to blame or the fact that the bag, stuffed with food, spent some time on the floor of the bathroom where, “viral particles likely floated over from the toilet.” Yuck! No wonder the Barf Blog folks avoid potlucks.

So how do you dodge norovirus? Food safety professor Doug Powell, writing for Barf Blog has this list of factoids and suggestions:

1. Norovirus can spread infection through contact with surfaces and objects contaminated by aerosolized particles.
2. Noroviruses are highly contagious, even in low concentration, and the viruses spread efficiently from feces and vomit by direct and indirect contact.
3. Noroviruses are the leading cause of endemic diarrheal disease across all age groups, the leading cause of foodborne disease, and the cause of half of all gastroenteritis outbreaks worldwide.
4. Whenever possible, ill persons should use a separate bathroom to reduce the potential for spread of the virus. Notify family members or cleaning staff about the need for thorough disinfection of surfaces.

There goes my business plan for a combination bathroom/salad bar at the airport! But it does seem like washing hands should be a higher priority than washing reusable bags.

Using Kosher Salt for Making Pickles

Naive me, I purchased a box of Morton’s kosher salt for a pickling project. I thought that kosher salt lacks the anti-caking agents that cause cloudy and sediment filled jars of pickles. No blue ribbon for me at the county fair:

Morton salt has anti-caking agents. But I can follow them on Facebook (why I would want to do that would be the topic of another post). Diamond Salt, on the other hand does not have anti-caking agents:

So, when pickling, be careful selecting your kosher salt–some contain anti-caking agents, others do not.

Another precaution when using kosher salt in food preservation projects comes from the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension’s guide to Homemade Pickles and Relishes (pdf):

Kosher pure flaked salt requires special care if used for pickling. Flaked salt weighs less per volume than canning and pickling salt, so you need about 50 percent more—11⁄2 cups of flaked salt equals about 1 cup of canning and pickling salt. If you use kosher salt for fermented pickles, you must weigh out the proper amount.Weigh out 73⁄4 ounces (220 grams) of flaked salt, and you will have the equivalent of 1 cup of canning and pickling salt.

This same publication also notes how easy it is to find pickling salt and how hard it is to find kosher salt. It’s just the opposite here in Los Angeles.

So what kind of salt do you use for pickling and fermenting? What’s the easiest to find where you live?

See the University of Wisconsin’s other tested food preservation recipes here.

Loquat Leather Recipe

Our neighborhood is full of loquat (Eriobotrya japonica) trees. For years I’ve been trying to figure out a way to use them. Loquats, a warm climate relative of the apple tree, produce tons of fruit all at once that do not keep well fresh. Thus the need to preserve the fruit. Unfortunately, they are also a chore to process–small large seeds and skins that are difficult to peel. They also vary widely in quality, since many in the neighborhood are probably seeds planted by birds and squirrels rather than grafted specimens.

But at last, I’ve found a use for them that’s repetitively low-labor and yields a tasty result: loquat leather. Here’s the recipe I came up with:

2 cups loquats (no need to peel)
2 teaspoons lemon juice
2 teaspoons agave syrup
1 teaspoon triple sec

Remove seeds. Place loquats in a blender with the lemon juice, agave syrup and triple sec. Dehydrate at 135º until, as the Colorado Extension Service puts it, “translucent and slightly tacky to the touch, but easily peeled from the pan.”

Tips: Chef Ernie Miller suggested using a blender is rather than a food processor for this recipe. Also, try to spread the puree thicker towards the edges of the dehydrator sheet and you’ll get a more uniform result. Finally, the triple sec is optional, but some sort of flavor addition gives your fruit leather a more “adult” taste.

Fellow Master Food Preserver trainee Emily Ho is working on a loquat soda syrup and has also made some loquat jelly.

A Lacto Fermentation Kit Made With a Canning Jar

Chef Ernest Miller gave all of us in the Master Food Preserver class a very clever lacto-fermentation kit he designed and sells at the Farmer’s Kitchen in Hollywood. As a class, we’re all making a batch of sauerkraut.

Made out of a Le Parfait canning jar with a hole drilled in the lid to fit a fermentation lock, I already know this handy device will replace the large ceramic crock we have used in the past for pickle and kraut making. Chef Ernie’s clever fermenter has a number of nice features when compared to my crock:

  • The fermentation lock will mean fewer mold problems 
  • A small canning jar inside the fermenter keeps pickles below the brine level
  • Transparent glass will let me see what’s going on with the fermentation without having to open up the fermenter
  • Coming in a 3 liter and 1.5 liter size, these canning jar based fermenters will take up less space in the kitchen than my large ceramic crock

You can buy one of these kits and get a bite to eat at the Farmer’s Kitchen, a non-profit restaurant which supports nutrition education programs and job training for Hollywood’s low-income residents. You can also easily make one yourself.

Before we conclude with a shameless cute cat outtake from the lacto-fermenter photo session, take a moment to leave a comment on your favorite fermentation vessel.

How to Roast Your Own Coffee in a Stovetop Popcorn Maker

Thanks to the Institute for Domestic Technology, I learned roast my own coffee at home in a Whirley-Pop Stovetop Popcorn Popper. It’s a simple, if smokey, process.

You heat up the popper on your stove top over a medium/high heat and dump in 10 ounces of green coffee beans. The beans we used were ordered from Sweet Maria’s who carry a wide selection of high-end beans at inexpensive prices.

The only trick with the Whirley-Pop coffee roasting method is adjusting the stove burner. You’re shooting for “first crack,” the point when the beans pop kind of like popcorn. at around the 6 minute mark. Mine took a little bit longer on the first attempt, but after a few roasting sessions I’m sure I’d get the right burner setting. After first crack the beans quiet down for a few minutes. The next thing you’re listening for is the “second crack.” As soon as those beans start making noise again you dump them on a cookie tray to cool down. That’s really all there is to it. Sweet Maria’s has a pdf sheet with more detailed Whirley-Pop instructions as well as a review of other home roasting methods.

Our instructor at the Institute class, Ian Riley, suggested storing the beans at room temperature in a reusable valve bag (freshly roasted coffee beans out-gas CO2).

Unlike many home “artisinal” food methods (we probably need to retire the “a” word), home coffee roasting saves money and you get a much better product than store bought coffee.

Of course quitting coffee would also save money but you’ll have to ask Mrs. Root Simple about that one–I’m an addict.

If you’re in the LA area, you can take Ian Riley’s home coffee roasting class at the Institute for Domestic Technology. I also teach a no-knead bread class at the institute as part of Foodcrafting 101.

3 things to do with citrus peels

Waste not, want not! Our  recent post on Candied Grapefruit Peel yielded some interesting comments, and at the same time Erik made a discovery about citrus. Thus, three things to to do with your rinds:

Idea #1
Readers Terry and Barb both commented that they soak citrus peel in vinegar to make citrus infused vinegar to use for cleaning, and in Barb’s case, as a deodorant. This is an excellent idea. Infusing vinegar with cleansing/disinfecting herbs, like lavender or sage, is something I’ve known about for a long time, but don’t do, in practice. I’m too lazy. Instead, I scent my cleaning vinegar with essential oil. But we always have citrus peels laying around in piles, and the simplicity of the citrus idea is so a peeling that I had to try it. (ouch! stop throwing things!)

I filled one jar with orange peels and covered it with vinegar. After only a couple of days it started smelling really nice. Now it’s about a week old and doesn’t seem to be getting any more potent, so   I’m going to strain it off. In a second jar I’m trying an experimental blend of orange and thyme. Like citrus, thyme has excellent disinfectant qualities, but I’m not sure how its scent will blend with the orange.

I suspect our cleaning vinegar is going to smell like citrus from now on out.

UPDATE: I’ve been using orange-peel vinegar for a while now and the only drawback is that it is tinted yellow. If you spray a light surface and forget to wipe afterward, it will leave yellow stains behind. Not true stains–they wipe up easily even if they’re long dry. This isn’t a big problem because generally I am spraying and wiping, but once in a while I’ll find yellow droplets in spot I forgot to wipe.

This, of course, disqualifies this spray for carpet cleaning. (And plain vinegar spray is a great thing to use to clean up pet accidents on carpet.)

Speaking of pet accidents, I realized this first when I found a yellow spray at the base of our bathroom sink and immediately though young Trout had taken to spraying. Cryeth the cat: “O! Unfair! I never did such thing!”

Idea #2
A reader named Chile sent us this link to an old Cuban recipe for candying grapefruit pith. As you know, grapefruit pith can be quite thick. If you have some separate use for the peel or zest, you can cut the leftover pith into cubes and candy it with cinnamon. She says it’s really good!

Idea #3
Erik has learned that you can make pectin out of citrus rinds and membranes. Like apples, citrus is quite rich in pectin. This is a really good use for under-ripe, not so tasty oranges. Here’s a how to link: Wedliny Domowe. The same link also has instructions for making pectin from apples. It’s all about local sourcing, after all. An oddity of living where we do is that it is much easier to come by citrus than apples. At least for now.

On a related note, we also know that you can make clear, citrus flavored jelly by boiling organic citrus rinds in water, then straining off the solids. The resulting liquid is citrus-flavored and pectin-rich. Add sugar and you have citrus flavored jelly. It’s tasty, we’ve tried it. But unfortunately, we don’t have a recipe. If you happen to have a recipe, please share!

How to Store Canned Goods: Take the Screw Band Off!

Right in the center, wrong on the left. Bungee cord ’cause we’re in earthquake country.

Another quick tip from the Los Angeles Master Food Preservers: you should store your canned goods with the screw bands off. Why?

  • So you can clean underneath the band to prevent spoilage and bugs.
  • The screw band can create a false seal.
  • Leaving the screw bands on can cause corrosion. 

The only time to have the screw bands on is if you are transporting the jars. Otherwise, take them off!

Canning Citrus

Say you’ve got a huge citrus tree and want to can some of it without using a lot of sugar. The nice thing about citrus is that it’s so acidic you can water bath can it in its own juice, in just water or in a light sugar syrup. In our Master Food Preserver class we did a taste test of tangerine sections canned in a variety of liquids:

  • water
  • very light syrup (1/2 cup sugar per quart)
  • light syrup (1 cup sugar per quart)
  • medium syrup (1 3/4 cup sugar per quart)
  • heavy syrup (2 3/4 cups sugar per quart)
  • very heavy syrup (4 cups sugar per quart)
  • syrup with honey (one part sugar to one part honey in any of the ratios above)

The citrus preserved in just water was edible but not particularly good nor was it aesthetically pleasing. As much as I try to avoid sugar it does help the fruit hold its shape. The best formula for canning citrus in terms of flavor and aesthetics was, in my opinion, either the very light or light syrups.  I was not fond of the honey/sugar syrup as the honey tended to overwhelm the flavor of the fruit.

A home grapefruit canning experiment I tried at home went horribly wrong, but I’ll blog about that in another post. Let’s just say that if I had a big citrus tree I’d consider canning some of the harvest using a very light sugar syrup. It’s a decent way to get a shelf stable product with a lot less sugar than, say a marmalade or jelly. Another sugar-free alternative would be to dehydrate the fruit.

Directions for canning all kinds of fruit in syrup can be found on page 2-5 of the USDA’s Complete Guide to Home Canning which you can download for free here.

Mellow Yellow: How to Make Dandelion Wine

Today on Root Simple we welcome another guest post from our Midwest correspondent Nancy Klehm:

In the past week, we Midwesterners have experienced three hard frosts – killing back the growth, that emerged too early of my grapes and hardy kiwis and zapping peach blossoms. We will see if there is any fruit onset and if my vines recover.

Meanwhile, it is dandelion wine time!

I first tasted dandelion wine when I bought a bottle of it at a folksy gift shop in the Amana Colonies (yes, Amana of the appliance fame). I had wanted something to drink at my campsite that evening. When I opened the bottle, I anticipated something more magic than what met my tongue. It was cloying yellow syrupy stuff, which resembled soft drink concentrate. I poured it out next to my tent, returning it to the earth where she could compost it. I was sure that I’d never get close to it again.

That was fifteen years ago, and now I have been drinking dandelion wine for about two years. The new stuff is stuff I’ve made myself from dandelion blossoms gathered in Chicago. I’m happy to say that it is divine. I am sure now that the colonists actually keep the good stuff in their private cabinets.

Upon mentioning “dandelion wine”, Ray Bradbury usually comes to mind. However, after I heard a radio interview with him a few years back when he passionately made a case to colonize the moon so we can ditch this trashed planet and survive as a race, I got confused. Enough said.

So the point is, I am going to tell you how to make dandelion wine. I encourage you to do this because dandelions pop up everywhere and every place. They are nearly ubiquitous pioneers in our landscapes of disturbed and deprived soils. Consumed, they are a magnificent digestive, aiding the heath and cleansing of the kidneys and liver. Amongst vitamins A, B, C and D, they have a huge amount of potassium.

As a beyond-perfect diuretic, dandelion has so much potassium that when you digest the plant, no matter how much fluid you lose, your body actually experiences a net gain of the nutrient. In other words, folks – dandelion wine is one alcohol that actually helps your liver and kidneys! Generous, sweet, overlooked dandelion…

When you notice lawns and parks spotting yellow, it’s time to gather. The general rule of thumb is to collect one gallon of flowers for each gallon of wine you want to make.

Enjoy your wandering. People will think you quaintly eccentric for foraging blossoms on your hands and knees. Note: collect blossoms (without the stem) that have just opened and are out of the path of insecticides and pesticides.

So here’s how I make dandelion wine…

I pour one gallon boiling water over one gallon dandelion flowers in a large bowl. When the blossoms rise (wait about twenty-four to forty-eight hours), I strain the yellow liquid out, squeezing the remaining liquid out of the flowers, into a larger ceramic or glass bowl. I compost the spent flowers (thanks dandelion!).

Then I add juice and zest from four lemons and four oranges, and four pounds of sugar (4-4-4 = E.Z.). Okay, now here’s what I think is the best part: I float a piece of stale bread, sprinkled with bread yeast, in the mixture. This technique is used in Appalachian and some European recipes.

Then I toss a dishtowel over it so the mixture can both breathe and the crud floating around my house stays out. I continue stirring the wine several times a day until it stops fermenting. This takes about two weeks or so.

When I am certain it has stopped “working”, I strain, bottle and cork it up and bid it farewell until months later. In fact I wait until the winter solstice, when I can revisit that sunny spring day by drinking it in.

Everlasting Flower for Colds

Dried California Pearly Everlasting. The flowers are small, about the size of a buttons on a shirt collar.

Last summer I was happy to be able to take a class on native plant use taught by Cecilia Garcia and James Adams, co-authors of Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West. One of the many things I learned in this class was that the flowers of California Pearly Everlasting, Gnaphalium californicum, aka cudweed aka rabbit tobacco, are supposed to be good for colds.

I’ve not had a chance to try it until this week. I’ve only had one cold since last summer, and that one hit so fast and hard I just sort of gave up on doing anything but riding it out. The one I have this week is more of a typical head cold, and  a good chance for a field test. And I can say that I think they helped. But I’m not sure how.

My confusion is a result of memory vs. notes. I remember James saying he takes this tea instead of Day Quill whenever he has a cold. So, having the flowers on hand, I took the tea expecting it to act like cold medicine. Because the effects are so subtle (unlike cold capsules) I didn’t think my first cup was doing anything at all–until I realized I’d stopped sneezing and constantly blowing my nose. The relief lasted for a few hours. When I started feeling crappy again, I had another cup and the symptoms retreated again.  Over the course the first day I had 3 cups. The next day, I felt much better. My symptoms were less, though I did still feel “under siege” and retreated to bed early.

During the course of that day, I dug out my class notes and discovered that Cecilia said something different than what I remembered–she said that Everlasting is an immune stimulant, and when you have a cold you’re supposed to take one cup (one!) before bed for 4 nights. It has to be 4 cups over 4 nights, even if you feel better. No more, no less. So she’s using it more like Echinacea–not as a symptom relief.  Meanwhile, random internet searches affirm that it’s good for colds, but don’t say how.

Continue reading…