Roundin’ up the Summer Urban Homesteading Disasters

Everyday loaf on the left, “charity” loaf on the right.

As we’ve noted in our books, part of the deal with this lifestyle is persevering through the inevitable disasters. Which means it’s time for a regular blog feature, the disaster roundup.  

Loafing Around
I agreed to bake a few baguettes for a charity function this evening. Problem #1 is that I can’t do baguettes in my small oven so I decided to do a shorter batard. Problem #2: for some reason, despite the fact that I measure my ingredients carefully with a digital scale, my dough turned out extra moist. Anticipating that the batards would stick to the peel as I put them in the oven, I decided to make round loaves in proofing baskets instead. Problem #3: the dough stuck to the proofing baskets and I ended up with edible, but aesthetically unappealing, loaves.

Moral: the more important the event the more likely disaster will strike.

Squashed
I’ve blogged about it before, but my attempt to grow winter squash (Marina di Chioggia) ended in disaster. The squash vines took up the majority of one of my few vegetable beds. I got only two squash, one that was consumed by racoons and the other that never fully matured before the vine crapped out. The immature squash was still edible, but bland.

Moral: winter squash just ain’t space efficient. Next year I’ll tuck it around other plants and trees rather than have it hog up space in my intensively planted veggie beds.

Luscious compost tomatoes.

Unintentional Gardening
I built a cold frame this spring so that I could get a head start on propagating my tomato seedlings. So guess which tomatoes did better: the ones I carefully propagated from seed and transplanted to richly amended vegetable beds, or the ones that sprouted randomly in compacted soil? You guessed it, the ones that grew on their own.

Moral: nature knows best when to start seeds and where to plant them than us homo sapiens. Maybe there is something to that permaculture thing . . . 

Our Hameau de la Reine
This summer the garden generally looked like hell. It thrives during our mild winter and spring then gets baked by the merciless Southern California sun at just about the time I start slacking off on my planting duties. Then the New York Times shows up and wants to do a photo spread about a month after stuff has quit blooming. This is when I usually come running in the house to complain to Mrs. Homegrown that the garden, “does not look like Versailles.”

Moral: take a class from someone who knows what they are doing, which is exactly what I’m up to starting next month. I vow that the garden will look like Marie Antoinette’s fake peasant village (the Hameau de la Reine) by next year. Then again, I say that every summer.

Garden Follies
Thinking the garden needed some ornamentation and not wanting to go the garden gnome route, I thought it would be a good idea to cast some Platonic solids in concrete–don’t ask me why–these things, “just come to me.” Mrs. Homegrown (using her Master of Fine Art superpowers) viewed this project with considerable skepticism. I successfully cast a tetrahedron and dodecahedron and stained them with iron sulfate and proudly placed them in the garden. They kinda worked but I have to agree with Mrs. Homegrown’s assessment that the scale is off–they look like the miniature Stonehenge in Spinal Tap.

Moral: trust the MFA in your household even if that MFA was in conceptual art. 

I could go on, but I’ve failed to document all of the disasters. Next, we’ll review what worked.

99¢ Store Proofing Basket

For years I’ve used a special wooden basket called a banneton to proof my round loaves of bread in. I’m teaching a bread baking class this weekend and needed a bunch of proofing baskets for the class. Bannetons are nice but expensive so I decided to try using a canvas lined proofing basket as a more economical alternative.

I got some metal bowls from my local 99¢ store. Wicker baskets or a plastic colander would also have worked, but the 8 inch metal bowls were the perfect size for the kind of bread I make. The canvas came from an art supply store, but a fabric store might also work. I’ve tried to use dish towels in the past, but I’ve found that canvas works better. Just make sure to flour the CRAP out of the canvas and never wash it, or your loaf will stick.

I sized the canvas so that I can fold it over the whole bowl to keep the dough from getting oxidized. New kitten “helped” with the fabric cutting.

When you’re ready to bake you just invert the bowl and dump the loaf out of the basket. I like the look of bread proofed in a canvas lined basket.

Stay tuned for my levain-based bread recipe in an upcoming issue of Urban Farm Magazine.

One way to salvage stale bread

Mrs. Homegrown here:

So I bought a baguette this week, which caused Mr. Homegrown to grumble with hurt indignation. His homemade bread is better than any store bought, it’s true–but he hadn’t baked in a few days, and I wanted to make caprese sandwiches. However, my plans went awry and the baguette went stale.  Oh, the shame on my head! Just where did we put out our supply of sackcloth and ashes?

However, tonight I salvaged the bread by making it into Melba toast (?) or rusks, maybe (?).  I have a fondness for hard, blandish cracker breads like this. You can pile an amazing amount of dip-like-substances on them, and as I’ve said, I could live on chips and dips.

I have to admit that for anyone who’s ever made croutons, this recipe is a little “Well, duh”– but, nonetheless:

All you have to do is slice the stale bread up into reasonably thin slices. Lord knows my slices vary in thickness quite a bit. Thinner is easier on the teeth.Very thin would be exquisitely crunchy, but mine are never very thin because I am both uncoordinated and lazy. Baguettes make perfect rounds, but you could chop up larger loaves into bite size squares.

 I like to make these out of bread so far gone it could not be sliced the next day. You know that thin line between salvageable and brick? That’s what this recipe is for. I think there are better things to do with only slightly dry bread–like making bread salad, for instance. See below.

Then I use a garlic press to add garlic juice to some olive oil–maybe one or two cloves to 1/3 cup? It doesn’t really matter, because this is a very loose process. I put the bread slices in a big bowl and drizzle the garlic oil over them and toss them about until it looks like all the slices have been well greased. This usually means I add some more olive oil. I like lots of oil, but I’m sure it would work fine with less. It would also work fine with no garlic.

Finally, I toss the greasy bread with lots of salt and pepper. And yes, of course, you could use all sorts of herbs and spices at this point. Whatever takes your fancy.

The bread goes on a cookie sheet into a 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes to a half hour. I’m not sure about the timing because I just check until they look done. “Done” means they’re brown, but not black, and have gone dry and hard as rocks.  Timing will vary by how stale the bread is when you begin, fresher bread taking longer. Thinner slices dry out faster than thicker ones.

Not so wild about melba toast? I don’t have tested recipes on hand, but google up “bread salad” or “panzanella.” This is basically just pieces of stale bread tossed with basil and tomatoes, lots of olive oil and a touch of vinegar. It can be jazzed up with cucumbers or olives or hard boiled eggs or whatever is on hand.

Also, I just saw this recipe for cold bread and tomato soup at the Awl. Haven’t tried it, but it looks interesting.

What do you do with your stale bread?

Help Us Choose a Grain Mill

At the Huasna Valley wheat farm I blogged about yesterday, they have a grain mill made by a company called All Grain Mills out of Utah. What the farmer liked about this company is that the mills they make have stone wheels instead of steel. Steel burrs can heat up and destroy the enzymes in the wheat. Furthermore these All Grain mills are considerably less expensive than other ones I’ve seen. I’d like to know if any of you readers have one of these All Grain Mills? If so, please leave a comment. I’m also interested in recommendations for other mills.

And I can’t help but comment on the aesthetics of the All Grain Mills. The company’s website is so bare-bones it’s almost hip (promising in my opinion when you’re looking for pre-interweb technology). And that fake wood paneling reminds me of my childhood:

Sonora Wheat at the Huasna Valley Farm

Ron Skinner

I had the great privilege this week of visiting the Huasna Valley Farm in California’s central coast run by Ron and Jenn Skinner whose visible joy is infectious. The Skinners grow Sonora wheat, an heirloom variety brought to the Southwest by the Spanish.

Sonora wheat is well suited to dry desert and Mediterranean climates. It produces a cream colored flour that was historically used for tortillas and posole. The Skinners served us some Sonora whole wheat biscuits that tasted as light as white flour but with a rich and complex flavor.

Jenn Skinner

To fight weeds (the big bugaboo of wheat farming) the Skinners plan on introducing Black Medic (Medicago lupulina) a leguminous plant that will fix nitrogen and out-compete unwanted weeds. The tall stalks of Sonora wheat will allow the medic to grow far below the seed heads. This is in contrast to conventional wheat farming with its short varieties and heavy reliance on herbicides. Norman Borlaug, the father of the “green revolution” used Sonora wheat to create Sonora 64, an early green revolution wheat. Ironically, as we face an uncertain energy future, we may have to go back to the original Sonora wheat as it performs better in organic circumstances and needs less water than modern wheat varieties.

Ron shows off the combine.

One of the challenges the Skinners faced in farming just a few acres of wheat was figuring out how to harvest it. Large industrial farms use enormous and very expensive combines. Small and medium sized combines simply aren’t manufactured anymore. Luckily the Skinners found a vintage Allis-Chalmers combine across the road which Ron and his son disassembled and rebuilt.

I bought twenty pounds of Sonora wheat flour and a few pounds of wheat berries and am really looking forward to baking with it. I might even grow my own mini-Sonora wheat field this winter (you plant it here in Southern California in January for harvest around the 4th of July.

For more information on Sonora wheat see:

The Huasna Valley Farm website, particularly their informative newsletters.

Sustainablegrains.org has a Sonora Wheat tortilla recipe.

Slow Food USA has a page on the history of Sonora wheat.

If you’re in the Los Angeles area, join the Los Angeles Bread Bakers to participate in farm visits, baking classes and oven building sessions.

And a special thanks to LABB member Joseph Shuldiner for arranging this trip!

Cornmeal Zucchini Pancakes

  
More things to do with zucchini!
Many of you know Rosalind Creasy, Queen of the Edible Landscape. If you don’t, look her up. She wrote Edible Landscaping, among others. It turns out that she’s not only an amazing gardener, one who makes colors and textures sing, who makes edible gardens more beautiful than any ornamental garden I’ve ever seen, but she cooks, too.  Darn her and her…her…competence!!!
Erik found her Recipes from the Garden at the library and brought it home. This is the first thing we’ve cooked from it, but we liked it a lot. These are savory pancakes that suit for breakfast, brunch, or even dinner. I imagine if you made them without the onions they could be served sweet, with syrup or jam, as a veggie-infused breakfast pancake. 
Note: She calls for yellow zucchini or summer squash, but we used green zucchini.
Cornmeal Zucchini Pancakes
1 1/4 cup cornmeal
3/4 cup all purpose flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 tablespoon of sugar
3/4 teaspoon salt
1 egg
1 cup of milk
2 tablespoons of vegetable oil
1 cup of grated zucchini, yellow or green, or yellow summer squash
3 tablespoons yellow bell pepper, diced fine (we skipped this)
3 tablespoons finely chopped onion
Salsa for serving, homemade or store-bought, optional. 
(We just chopped up some red onion and cherry tomatoes and called it salsa, but I think a fruity salsa (e.g. mango) would be really good with this.)
In a big bowl fork together the dry ingredients (the first list). In a smaller bowl mix the wet ingredients (the second list). Dump wet ingredients on top of the dry and mix just until incorporated–Creasy says “until barely moist.”
Cook these like any pancake: in a greased skillet over medium heat until they’re golden brown and the sides are firm. Keep the finished ones warm in the oven while you cook the rest.
They keep well in the fridge. I just ate one for breakfast after rewarming it in frying pan. Still tasty after 3 days!

Tassajara Cookbook

Mrs. Homegrown here:

A quick cookbook review for ya’ll. I’m having lots of fun with the Tassajara Cookbook which I have out from the library. So much fun that I’m considering buying it. Tassajara Zen Mountain Center is a Buddhist monestery here in California. This book is based on their famous bagged lunch offerings for their guests. This means it’s all picnic/finger food sort of stuff. This suits me fine because summer is here, and I like making meals that require chopping rather than cooking, and that keep well in the fridge.

I love the simplicity, the pure pleasure and endless variety, of chips n’ dips, bruschetta, tapas, mezza… I could live entirely on appetizers and finger foods. This is why I like this book so much. Mr. Homegrown is not as happy–he’s a more of a three-square meal a day sort of guy. But he’s surviving, because for now, in the heat, he’d rather scoop up pesto with crudités than break down and cook.

This book is vegetarian, with plenty o’ vegan recipes. It focuses very much on spreads, dips, pestos, tapenades, sandwich fillings–that sort of thing, as well as various composed salads. It also has a large cookie section, which I’ve not allowed myself to explore yet. The tone of the food is cheerfully high end California hippie: healthy, vibrant, and heavy on the nuts. (No, that’s not a California joke!).

I was surprised by all the haters at Amazon when I checked the reviews of this book. The primary objections are that it’s 1) all snacky stuff–to which I answer they should read the cover and 2) that it’s poorly edited–to which I answer it hasn’t bothered me yet. For instance, if the recipe says preheat the oven at the start, and then goes on to say something has to marinate for two hours before it bakes, I’m not going to blow a gasket. I’ll just hunker down and ponder my way out of that deeply confusing situation.

Which fruits and vegetables should I buy organic?

Want the rest? You’ll have to visit the site.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

My recent post about tomatoes reminded me that I needed to post this–I’ve been meaning to for a while.  The Environmental Working Group’s 2011 Shopping Guide has a listing of foods most contaminated with pesticides, and those least contaminated: the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen. Keeping this list in mind help you make choices as to where laying out the big bucks for organic–or growing your own–is going to make the most sense.

Tomatoes don’t appear on either short list, but they do appear as #34 on the EWG’s ranked list of 53 fruits and veggies, #1 being the most pesticide-laden (apples) and #53 being the least (onions). So tomatoes are sort of middling contaminated.

I should note the EWG wants to make it clear that you should not necessarily flee screaming from the Dirty Dozen. This is about awareness, and choices. From their FAQ:

  Should I stop eating celery or blueberries or other produce items on your Dirty Dozen list?

No, that has never been the Shopper’s Guide message. We would certainly recommend produce from our Dirty Dozen list in lieu of other, less-healthy foods or snacks, like fat-, sugar- or additive-laden processed products. But with the Shopper’s Guide you can have all the benefits of eating more produce while substantially reducing dietary exposure to pesticides.

Shop well, and prosper.