Happy Fornicalia!

Oven at Pompeii. Image: Wikipedia.

Oven at Pompeii. Image: Wikipedia.

Today (or roundabouts) the ancient Romans celebrated the festival of Fornicalia in tribute to Fornax, the goddess of the hearth and baking. And, yes indeed, it’s where we get the word “fornicate” — for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. It’s either because prostitutes used to operate out of bread oven-shaped basements in Rome, or because the “bun in the oven” euphemism is a very old one.

I’m celebrating Fornicalia by reading a book by Jeffrey Hamelman Bread:A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes that Mark Stambler, a gifted baker in my neighborhood, introduced me to recently. I’ll review the book in length later once I master the recipes. Until that time, Kelly will be hearing the good old fashioned Anglo-Saxon euphemism for “fornicate” coming out of the kitchen as I  battle with my proofing issues.So, happy Fornicalia! Go warm up your oven and bake something.

Zhengyalov Hats

A Zhengyalov hat (sometimes transliterated as “Jengyalov hat” is an Armenian flat bread stuffed with a surprising set of mostly foraged fillings which, according to this website, include, “spring onions, green garlic, coriander (lat. coriandrum), nettle (lat. urtica), chickweed (lat. cerastium), sorrel, capsella, mint and a special herb called either [sic] carmantyuc (kndzmdzuk).” It’s apparently a popular dish during lent and originates from the Karabakh region.

Our neighbors at Tularosa Farms dropped off two Zhengyalov hats that they found at a local Armenian market. They were quite delicious, though to eat one straight off the fire, as in the video above, must be a real treat.

I wish I could find a recipe in English. Leave a comment if you find one on the interwebs or in a cookbook. In the meantime, I’m just going to watch that video over and over.

More information on Zhengyalov hats and the cuisine of the Karabakh region here.

Dumpster Herb Score

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Scored big at Trader Joes yesterday. Love a good dumpster find, almost as much as finding good feral fruit.  It looks like they were clearing out their plants and flowers for Valentines Day, because out by the cardboard piles we found a grocery cart heaped full of wilted flowers and random potted mums. (Joes really needs to start a composting program, don’t you think?)

We sorted through the cart and found four potted herbs, only slightly distressed. One was a lemon balm, which I’ve wanted for some time. The others, I admit, I don’t really need (because I already have them), and don’t have any space for–but I’ll squeeze them in somehow. In this way, I’m like a crazy cat woman.

ETA: This morning two complimentary bits of information came in regarding TJ’s and composting. The first came in an email from our friend Anne, a Master Gardener. She tells us that: “Master gardeners encourages gardeners to arrange pick up times with TJ’s for plants. They will tell you when they are putting out the plants so you can get them. Lots of mg’s do this and bring them to various garden projects all around LA county.”

So that’s cool. And then in the comments there’s an anon comment from a TJs employee explaining the issues around composting for the stores, and giving some dumpster diving tips!

No Caffeine, No Migraines

Image courtesy of I Can Haz Cheezburger



Mrs. Homegrown here:

A while back I posted about my coffee addiction and search for coffee alternatives. Again, thank you so much for all of your suggestions–I’ve enjoyed them.

As nothing is more tedious than listening to other people rattle on about their health concerns, I’m going to try not to belabor this post. All I have is a simple message, and that is if you are a chronic migraine sufferer, you may want to consider cutting caffeine from your daily diet.

Of course this is hard to do, as most migraineurs live in an intimate tango with caffeine. All I have to say is that I’ve had migraines all my life, and they were becoming more frequent. My first impulse was to attribute them to other causes, but my gut told me to try caffeine. I tapered off caffeine over the course of a month, then went totally clean for a couple of weeks, after which I assumed I was “clean.” (That’s when I wrote that last post–in retrospect I’m amused by its cheery outlook. I was about to get slammed with true withdrawal)

You see, the headaches did not stop. They actually got worse. I wondered if my theory was wrong. And, of course, I really wanted caffeine whenever my head started hurting. That craving told me perhaps I was still in withdrawal. So I persevered, for perhaps two months of total abstinence and complete misery, and then the headaches stopped. Just stopped. It was like magic.

The lesson here is that it takes a long time for your body to adjust to the lack of caffeine, so you’ve got to be patient.

Since then, I’ve allowed a little caffeine back in my life. It seems important for me to not take it in the morning, because that’s where the habit is most strong, but I will have green tea or iced tea or decaf in the afternoon sometimes, and I get away with it. However, it is a slippery slope. While traveling this Christmas I got cocky and started playing with fire–drinking the straight java–and I ended up with my first migraine in a long time. That just served to confirm my theory. Overall, I’d say my migraines have been reduced by 80 or 90 percent.

Everyone is different, and migraines are a complex phenomena. This may not work for you, but it has worked well for me, so I just had to put it out there. As much as I loved my coffee, it wasn’t worth the pain.

The Making of a Great Olive Oil

Kelly admires the olives

Thanks to our good friend Dale Benson, Kelly and I got to see how a really high quality olive oil is made. Dale knows Matt Norelli, the wine and olive oil maker at Preston Vineyards of Dry Creek, an organic family farm near Healdsburg in Northern California. Matt was nice enough to let us watch the complicated olive oil machinery in action.

First the freshly picked olives go into a big hopper (above). They are then crushed and churned (below).

After the churning process (called malaxation) the pulpy olive mass goes into a high speed centrifuge:

Matt (left) Dale (right) with the centrifuge

At the end of all this machinery the oil pours out of a spigot and into a steel drum:

We all had the great privilege of tasting the freshly squeezed oil. I won’t soon forget that heavenly flavor. Matt told us that it takes around a ton of olives to make 25 to 30 gallons of oil. The olives come from a thousand trees that are tucked around the vineyards.

If you’re ever in Northern California the Preston Vineyard is well worth a visit. We got to taste a Barbera wine that they make–quite amazing. They also bake a delicious sourdough bread, keep a flock of laying hens and sell cured olives. And the scenery? Let’s just say it was difficult to come back to gritty Los Angeles.

Preston Vineyards website with visiting hours and map.

Lou Preston’s olive curing recipe (scroll down towards the bottom of the page).

A Fast Bean Friday: Khichdi

Lame, lame, lame. I can’t even get it together to put up a picture. I’m just too crazy getting things together for the holidays. I suspect many of you are in a similar state. But I did want to post this, because I think you might want something wholesome and mild to eat over the next week, during your HRD (Holiday Recovery Period).

I learned about khichdi, a lentil and rice dish, very recently. Our friend Ari sent me a link to a basic recipe. It was nothing more than lentils, rice and cumin. I could not help but add some minced onion, but otherwise I followed this simple recipe and came out with something sort of bland but somehow extremely comforting and pleasant.

So I looked up khichdi, and discovered that it is an Indian comfort food–perhaps the Indian comfort food, if I can trust what I’ve read. Plain khichdi is baby’s first solid food. It’s also good for people with delicate stomachs. But it doesn’t have to be plain–it can be spiced up and elaborated with vegetables and toppings of ghee and yogurt. It’s the kind of food that college kids learn to cook when they first go off on their own. It’s the kind of food that each mom cooks a little different.

I’ve been playing with the basic formula, and it’s becoming one of our go-to “fast foods” around here. It cooks up in about a half hour, and you don’t even have to stand by the stove for that half hour. You just saute up the spices, add the rice, lentils chopped veggies and water, put a lid on the skillet and walk away. It’s also a great way to use up vegetable odds-and-ends. You can throw just about anything in there, and the great khichdi magic will make it all work, somehow or another.

I’m going to send you to this excellent post at One Hot Stove for the technique. It’s the best I found in all my research, and I’d just be copying them if I wrote it up here.

(ETA: I’ve been thinking about this over the holidays, and have decided to post the outline of the recipe here, just in case One Hot Stove ever closes up shop. I hate it when posts end up with dead links. I’d encourage you to read the One Hot Stove post if you have the option, because there’s more detail there, and a recipe for another dish called kahdi.  My recipe after the break –> )

Okay, khichdi is just rice, lentils and whatever spices and veggies you might have on hand cooked up into a pleasing mush in a skillet. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to get dictatorial about a recipe. It’s a technique.

This basic khichdi formula, as it lives in my head, is all you really have to remember–the rest is improvised:

The ratio of lentils to rice is 1:2, and the water is twice the measure of the rice and lentils.

For example, for two servings, I’d combine 1 cup of rice and 1/2 cup lentils. That’s 1 1/2 cups total of dry stuff. That means I’d need 3 cups of water.

The basic cooking methodology is to first rinse your lentils and rice, then lightly saute up the onion and spices in a deep frying pan. Then you dump in the lentils, rice and water–and veggies, if you’re using them– bring it all to a simmer, cover and cook on low for 1/2 hour.

(This is a recipe for white rice. Brown rice is better for the body, yes, but it does take longer to cook. Since khichidi is what we make when we’re starving and want food fast, we’ve been using white rice. If you use brown rice you’ll want to adjust the cooking time and water accordingly.) 

The details are where you get to swing. The details are both the vegetables and the spices. These you can add as you please.

Veggies:

This is your chance to use up whatever you have in your fridge, or those singleton veggies coming in from the garden, anything from chopped greens to peas to cauliflower…anything at all. Tomatoes, fresh or canned, are always a good addition. Pre-cooked, leftover vegetables would be fine, too. Chop it all up smallish. If you add lots of veggies, particularly the drier, root vegetable types, you’d want to add some more water to help them cook.

Spices:

It can be as spicy or mild as you like. I think whole cumin seed is a really important part of the flavor profile. I love the scent of whole cumin seed when it hits a hot pan, and it makes the rice fragrant. If you don’t have any whole cumin, I’d encourage you to hie off to the nearest ethnic market and get a goodly sized bag of it. Beyond that, it’s up to you, spice-wise. Salt and cumin only is a fine place to begin.

Still want more specifics? 


My procedure:

This is what I do, more or less. Say I’m making the two serving batch described above. I’d heat up a deep skillet, add a couple of tablespoons of oil and toss in:

1 small chopped onion, or 1/2 a big onion
Let that cook until translucent.

Then all at once, I add the spices, letting them heat just until they’re fragrant:

1 heaping teaspoon of whole cumin
1/2 teaspoon of turmeric
A big pinch of hot pepper flakes
Maybe a teaspoon of coriander seeds, since I’m into those lately
(One Hot Stove recommends garam masala, which I don’t have (yet), but you might.)

When the pleasing scent of roasting cumin starts rising from the pan, I add the lentils and rice and water. You don’t want to burn the spices.

Once the lentils, rice and water are in, I add maybe a half teaspoon of sea salt, stirring it into the slurry to distribute it evenly.

Next I’d add my veggies, if I have any. Anywhere from 1 to 3 cups, chopped. Sometimes we just have the lentils and rice, especially when we’re really tired and don’t feel like chopping. Or thinking.

Bring the whole mess to a simmer, then cover, turn the heat to low, and walk away for a half hour.

Come back to find dinner in a pan.  Scoop it up and serve with yogurt. Top with chopped parsley or cilantro, if you’re feeling fancy.

More Medlar Mania

We blogged about the medlar, a rare fruit that tastes kinda like perfumed apple butter, last week. We left out a few bits of medlar trivia and linkages.

First off that Caravaggio painting above, “Boy with a Basket of Fruit.” Please note the medlars:

In other breaking medlar news:

The fine folks at Winnetka Farms, responsible for this outbreak of medlar mania, have in-depth medlar factoids on their blog.

Graham Keegan, who went on the medlar harvest, shot some glamorous photos of us and, of course, the medlars:

Want to buy a medlar tree? Check out the selection at Raintree Nursery–enter “medlar” in the search thingy.

Anduhrew has a post on his blog about medlars, including Shakespeare’s shout-out to medlars in Romeo and Juliet.

And, lastly, CRFG Operative left a comment on our blog about growing medlars in San Diego with a warming about fire blight:

I was able to grow medlars down here in San Diego county with no problems. They were grafted on a pear tree and eventually fire blight killed the limbs they were on so I lost them. We are in a colder spot but still are only about 15 – 20 miles inland from the coast. If you have an existing pear tree you may want to graft medlar onto that so you don’t have to plant a whole tree to see if they will do well in your area. Make sure you sterilize pruning tools and grafting knives between cuts and do not share infected scion wood. This will help to control fire blight. If it does develop cut it out a couple of inches down into non-infected wood before it takes further hold.

Medlar: The Best Fruit You’ve Never Heard Of

This week we were luck enough to tag along with Tara Kolla of Silver Lake Farms on a jaunt to the hills near Tehachapi to help harvest an allusive fruit called the medlar.  Erik and I were just extra hands–the plan was hatched between Tara and Craig Ruggless of Winnetka Farms. See, Craig has a place up in those hills, and just happened to know his neighbors had a little grove of medlars, and these neighbors agreed to sell them to Craig and Tara, provided Craig and Tara picked them. For us, it was a great excuse for a trip to the mountains with a bunch of friends for some laughs, fresh air and gorgeous fall scenery. Also along for the medlar hunt were Joseph Shuldiner and Graham Keegan. As a group we gathered 100 lbs of medlars in a couple of hours of easy work, which are going to be sold to foodies, rare fruit enthusiasts and perhaps some enterprising chefs at this weekend’s Santa Monica Farmers Market. There’s an article about medlars and this particular expedition in todays’s LA Times.

What is a medlar, you ask? It‘s Mespilus germanica, a small deciduous tree and member of the rose family. In fact, to me, medlar fruit look exactly like giant rosehips. The fruit is smallish, ranging from about 1 to 2 inches in diameter, and ranging in color from rosy rust to dusty brown.

Medlars are native to Southwestern Asia and Southeatsern Europe. They were enjoyed by the Greeks and Romans, doted on by Victorians and mentioned by Shakespeare. I believe they are still popular in their native lands, such as Iran and Turkey. However, they’re almost unknown in the U.S. today, primarily, I suspect, for two reasons. Reason #1 is that they have to be eaten when almost rotten–a process properly called “bletting”–similarly to how you have to wait for Hachiya persimmons to soften before you can eat them. This leads to reason #2, because medlars have to be eaten when bletted, they either have to be eaten right off the tree, or they have to be picked early, then put aside for a few weeks to blet. Then, when they’re finally bletted, they’re have to be eaten immediately. There’s not a huge window of edibility. This level of persnickety-ness just doesn’t jive with our industrial food distribution system.

Beyond that, when they’re ready to eat, they look like they’re ready for the compost heap–brown, squishy, a little wrinkly. It takes some getting used to–well, it takes about as long for you to eat your first one before you figure out rotten=darn good.  I’d describe them as tasting like really good apple butter. People will describe them as holding delicate notes of cinnamon, vanilla, cider, wine, etc. I don’t know about that–I just tasted really, really good apple butter, delivered to me in a convenient skin instead of on toast. The flesh even looks like apple butter. Of course, like all persnickety fruits, they have a few big seeds that you have to work around as well–sort of suck clean and spit out later. It’s worth it, though.
 
We can’t grow medlars here in Los Angeles–it’s too warm. Otherwise I’d plant one right now. Medlars need hot summers and cold, frosty winters. If you live in a place like that, I’d highly recommend you plant a medlar. It’s a small, attractive tree, topping out at about 10 feet, and can be kept bush size. The ones we were harvesting were only 4-6 feet high. They are not widely available, but Raintree Nursery has a selection here.

After the jump is a little photo gallery from our trip:


Craig sorting medlars in the grand countyside

Is this bletted? Tara giving the medlar an evaluating eye
Medlars have beautiful fall foliage, and the fruit remains on the tree after the leaves fall, which is quite striking


There’s me. I’m shaking a branch. We picked up good looking ground fall, gathered what would fall when the branches were given a gentle shake, and picked any fully bletted fruits off the tree. The rest wait for a second harvest. 
Graham, looking more stylin’ than me as he works.


Here’s Joseph. He’s writing a cookbook. Notice how the trees are kept small for easy picking.
All sorted. Getcha medlars here!

medlars to market

Return of Bean Friday! Chickpea, Pasta and Tomato Soup

This is the soup at day two, when the pasta started to fall apart. It was prettier day one, with all the pasta whole and springy. But you get the idea.

This one is a keeper. I had to share. We forget how good chickpeas (aka garbanzo beans) can be. They get relegated to hummus duty and not much else. This is a mistake. When cooked right, chickpeas take on a sweet creaminess that ought to make them the queen of beans.

This recipe highlights chickpeas, using them both whole and pureed to make a rich, surprisingly creamy soup flavored with tomato and the faint perfume of rosemary. It also is a very simple recipe, requiring only 3 major ingredients, no stock, and not much in the way of prep. It does take a while to cook, but very little of your time is spent in the kitchen.

I found this recipe in the very useful The Silver Spoon cookbook, where it’s called Pasta e Ceci alla Toscana. The quantity made by the recipe was pretty small, and when I make soup, I make a lot, so I doubled their quantities. This is my interpretation.

————

Allow three hours of cooking time

You need:

2 cups dried chickpeas. Please don’t use canned beans for this recipe–I don’t think it will work. I also doubt other types of beans would work quite as well.
1 28 oz. can of chopped tomatoes, or the equivalent fresh or home canned, chopped to spoon size if necessary.
8 oz. (approx.) of dried penne pasta, or any other shape pasta you prefer.
4 garlic cloves, peeled (and chopped if you don’t have a garlic press)
2 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
1 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
Olive oil
Salt & pepper
Fresh Parmesan for topping, optional

The recipe called for not only an overnight soak for the beans, but also for three hours of cooking time. That seemed like overkill. What I ended up doing was letting my two cups of dried beans soak on the counter for 2 or 3 hours, by which time they’d doubled in size.  I’m not sure if pre-soaking is necessary at all, really. The long cooking time may be necessary to get the beans silky enough. This will all be the subject of future experiments.

Put your (maybe) soaked beans in a big pot and cover them with about 8 cups of water. Bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 1 1/2 hours. At that point, scoop out about 2 cups of the beans (about half of the total) and a little of their liquid and puree them until smooth. Return the puree to the pot. (This step is the secret to the soup’s creaminess) Cover again, and cook for another 1 1/2 hours.

In the last half hour or so of cooking time, heat up a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a deep skillet. Using a garlic press, squeeze the garlic cloves into the oil (or added chopped garlic) and add the chopped herbs. Immediately add all of the tomatoes to the pan, including their juices. In my case, I just dumped in a 28 oz can of chopped tomatoes. Simmer this mix for about 15 minutes.

Add the cooked tomato mixture to the soup pot, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Return to a simmer.

Finally, add the dried pasta (the original recipe called for fresh tagliatelle, just fyi). I added about 8 oz. of penne pasta, because I thought the penne would look nice with the whole garbanzos. Cook until the pasta is al dente, about 15 more minutes.

Add more water at any time during the process if it’s starting to look too thick. This soup can be as thin or thick as you like it, really. 

When the pasta is ready, do any final adjustments with S & P. It’s amazing how little seasoning this soup needs.

Pour into bowls and dress with lots of fresh grated Parmesan, fresh ground pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. The cheese makes it extra rich and tasty, but you can also serve it vegan style.

——

I’d classify this soup as kid friendly, vegan friendly, and husband friendly. Erik really liked it, and he is often suspicious of soup–he just doesn’t think soup is real food. (I know! He a lunatic.) But the pasta in it fooled him into thinking it was more of a pasta dish than a measly bowl of soup. Win-win!

Is Kombucha Safe?

We love to ferment things, with one notable exception: kombucha. During the last kombucha craze, in the mid-90s, we picked up a “SCOBY” blob and dutifully fed it tea and sugar until we stumbled upon an article written by mycologist Paul Stamets, “The Manchurian Mushroom: My Adventures with “The Blob.” In that article Stamets tells a convoluted story of having a kombucha culture tested by a lab. He didn’t tell the lab what it was.The lab was very excited about the results on this mystery substance, and Stamets soon finds himself “sitting in a board room of a pharmaceutical company with lawyers and contracts discussing the particulars of patents, sub-licensing agreements, market territories, and dollars running into the millions—if FDA approval was granted for a novel drug.

Then the folks in the meeting turn to Stamets and ask him to reveal the identity of this culture:

I told them that, as best as we had been able to determine, from analyses by several independent mycologists, that the Blob was a polyculture of at least two yeasts and two bacteria, living synergistically.

The silence was deafening.

“Say what?”

Perplexed looks crossed their faces, soon followed by exasperated expressions of deep disappointment. Which of the organisms are producing the potentially novel antibiotic? Was it one or several? Was it one in response to the presence of another organism? Was it one in response to several organisms? The sheer numbers of permutations would complicate trials and given the FDA’s disposition, a polyculture is de facto contaminated.

The meeting was abruptly adjourned.

So kombucha does indeed have medicinal properties–including “novel antibiotic” properties– but therein lies the problem. Stamets concudes,

Those who might benefit from Kombucha need a credible and experienced professional who could best prescribe and administer it. I do not see the advantage of taking Kombucha by people in good health. Given the detrimental effects seen from prolonged exposure to antibiotics, the repeated, long term use of Kombucha may cause its own universe of problems. I wonder about those people who have adverse reactions to antibiotics? What about those with sensitivity to the microorganisms in Kombucha? I personally believe it is morally reprehensible to pass on this colony to sick or healthy friends when, to date, so little is known about its proper use. At present there are no credible, recent studies as to the safety or usefulness of Kombucha, despite decades of hype.

Stamets also expreses concern over contamination. A German study found three out of 32 samples of kombucha cultures taken from German households to be contaminated with Penicillium spp. and Candida albicans. While describing the contamination rate as “low” (nearly 1 out of 10 samples seems high to us) it goes on to recommended that immunosuppresed individuals buy commercial kombucha instead of making it at home. A literature review conducted by the Universities of Exeter and Plymouth in the UK concludes, “the largely undetermined benefits do not outweigh the documented risks of kombucha,” said risks including, “suspected liver damage, metabolic acidosis and cutaneous anthrax infections.”

We’re all for fermented foods, and support the home fermentation of classic pro-biotics like yogurt, sourdough and lacto fermented vegetables. The last thing we want is for people to get spooked away from home fermentation. But kombucha is different. The problem, as Stamets notes, is that kombucha’s sugar and tea medium is a kind of open house for cultures, some good, some bad. Yogurt, sourdough and salt brines are very selective mediums in which to ferment things. With komucha it’s much more of a crap shoot.

Basically, like Stamets, we’re intrigued with the notion of kombucha being tested as a medicine and used with care by both western medical types as well as herbalists. And even if we were guaranteed a pure culture and a solid methodology for keeping the culture uncontaminated, we’d still be too leery its antibiotic properties to consider it a casual beverage. So we just don’t do the kombucha thing.