How to Make Soba Noodles

Last month I took an amazing class with author and chef Sonoko Sakai on how to make soba noodles by hand. She’s a great teacher and I managed to make a halfway decent couple of servings of noodles during the class.

Like many Japanese arts, soba making has a series of very precise steps. The recipe itself is simple (just buckwheat flour and water), though you do have to pay close attention to the temperature and humidity in the room. While it takes a soba master years to master the craft, you can make decent soba at home. My first attempt a week after the class wasn”t perfect, but I have a feeling I’ll get better with a little more practice. And I plan on making a lot of soba this summer.

Made of buckwheat, soba is gluten free, though beginners start with some all purpose flour added in to make it easier to roll out. Sakai has a couple of soba recipes on her website. There’s a basic one here that includes a nice series of photos showing the steps you go through to roll it out and cut it. She also has a beautiful soba recipe using matcha here.

Buckwheat flour for making soba is available in any Japanese market. The authentic Japanese flour we used in class is priced like cocaine and is not sold in the US. The buckwheat flour sold in Japanese markets in the states is grown in the US and will work just fine.

In Japan soba is made with a couple of exotic tools. There’s a long and thin rolling pin with no handles. They have a martial arts vibe:

Image from Worldwide-soba–they sell a soba making kit.

I was able to improvise one of these at home with a dowel from Home Depot.

There’s also a very expensive soba knife used to slice the folded dough:

And a soba cutting guide:

I substituted a small cutting board in my own kitchen. And my commitment to soba is not at the $1,000 level yet so there’s no fancy soba knife in our kitchen. At home I was able to make do with a regular kitchen knife, my improvised rolling pin and my homebrew soba cutting board.

While this is one of those activities best learned in person, yes, there is a series of youtube videos you could use to figure out how to make soba at home:

And, I do urge you to give it a try. The noodles we made in class were may times better than store bought soba. And, once you get the basic moves down, soba is quick to make, healthy and tasty.

If you live here in Los Angeles you can sign up for the Los Angeles Bread Makers Meetup group–we’re going to ask Sonoko to repeat the soba class and do an udon class as well. You can also contact her through her website to find out if she’s doing a workshop near you.

Return of Recipe Friday! Spicy Korean Tofu

Ummm…Our food stylist is on vacation! This was lunch today. It would look much better if the tofu sheets were reclining whole on snowy rice and artfully sprinkled with green.

We’ve been eating a lot of this lately. It’s Erik’s favorite meal these days, in fact. I make it for him whenever he’s grumpy and he perks right up. I like it too, and I especially like that it’s fast cooking and I usually have all the ingredients on hand, so it’s pretty effortless.

I know, I know–there’s a lot of tofu haters out there, but this is really good–if you like spicy food.

The key to this is Korean chili powder, called Gochutgaru. You just can’t substitute other pepper flakes. We always have this spice on hand because it’s critical for making kim chi. (If you like kim chi you’ll love this dish!)  If you have access to an Asian market, you’ll find Gochutgaru there. It’s sold in big bags and is pretty cheap. Look for bags full of fine red flakes with pictures of red peppers on the front.

Credit where credit is due: I’d eaten this style of tofu somewhere before and went looking for a recipe–and found one on the Blazing Hot Wok blog. This is an adaption of that, which was an adaptation from a cookbook, as I recall.


  • 1 package of firm tofu (Silken tofu works too, see instructions at the end)
  • A few scallions/green onions, maybe 5 or more, depending how much you like them, chopped into 2 inch pieces.
  • This is not cannon, but you could also throw in another veggie along with the green onions for variety. Lately I’ve been adding in a few chopped asparagus spears into the mix.


  • 3 Tablespoons of soy sauce
  • 3 Tablespoons water (equal amount to the soy sauce, however much you use)
  • 2 Tablespoons of Korean chili powder (This is a whole lot of spice, but we like it that way. You could use much less.)
  • 2-3 garlic cloves minced or pressed
  • 1 teaspoon of sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon of sesame oil
  • Maybe some wine if you have a bottle open. See instructions.


  • Toasted sesame seeds or peanuts for topping. Sesame is more traditional, but we really like peanuts with this.


1) Cut the tofu block in 1/4-1/3″ slices. Press some of the water out of it by laying the slices out on a fresh kitchen towel or paper towels, putting more toweling on top and pressing gently with your hands–or by leaving it there under a weighted plate while you do the rest of the prep. This is not absolutely necessary, but the dish will come out better if you do it.

2) Chop up your green onions.

3) Combine the sauce ingredients above in a bowl. Since I use so much chili powder, the sauce can be pretty thick. For that reason I like to dilute it with a splash of wine (of any color) or water.


Get out a big skillet. Heat a couple tablespoons of cooking oil in it and lay down the tofu slices. Cook them about 3 minutes each side over medium high heat, just so they’re nice and hot. Then add the green onions and cook a minute or two longer to soften them a bit.

Then add the sauce and cook it all together until the sauce simmers, tuning the tofu pieces so they get sauced on both sides. At that point it’s up to you to decide whether you want to cook the sauce down for a fairly dry presentation, or serve it right away while the texture is still “wet.” Either way it will be good.

Serve this over short-grained rice. Top with sesame seeds or peanuts if you’ve got ’em.

Silken Variation:

Silken Variation? Is that some sort of feminine product or a Kama Sutra position?

Anyway, if you’re a fan of silken tofu, as I am, you use that, too. You just do things in a different order. Heat up your skillet and add your green onion pieces and cook for a minute or so, then add the sauce and bring it to a simmer. Then add your silken tofu. Toss to cover with sauce then put a lid over the skillet, turn the heat down and let the tofu sort of steam/heat through gently. Takes about 5 minutes.

Home Food Preservation Resources

I’m honored to have been included in this year’s class of the Los Angeles Master Food Preservers, a program offered by our local extension service to train volunteers to teach food preservation in under-served communities. I thought I would share the textbook resources from the class as they are an excellent set of reference books for your homesteading library. And many are available for free online. Like all information from the extension service system, they are research based.

First off is So Easy to Preserve a large collection of recipes, everything from canning to dehydrating, all carefully tested and in line with current U.S. Department of Agriculture food safety recommendations. The book is put out by the University of Georgia’s Cooperative Extension.

We also will be using the Complete Guide to Home Canning, put out by the USDA and available for free online. Lastly, there’s the classic Ball Blue Book Guide to Preserving, a reliable introduction to the subject.

In addition to covering food safety issues, I like these carefully researched food preservation guides for their reliability. If I’m going to commit the time to doing a food preservation project I like a reasonable chance of success. While we learn from our mistakes, I’d prefer to have a few more jellies and a few less accidental “syrups”.

You can connect with the Los Angeles Master Food Preservers on Facebook and via their blog.

Top Tasting Tomato Varieties

Sakura Honey, image from the Master Gardeners of Frankly County

It’s the time of year to start figuring out what tomatoes to plant here in the northern hemisphere. How about using taste to decide? The Master Gardeners of Franklin County Pennsylvania do a taste test every year. Here’s the top ten from last year’s results:

1 Sakura Honey
2 Red Pearl
3 Five Star
4 Principe Borghese
5 Old Brooks
6 Arbason
7 Fabulous
8 Heritage Hybrid
9 Cherokee Green
10 SX 605

The top three (all grape varieties) are available from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. See the full results of the taste test here.

Also, if you’re still looking for inspiration, review the comments on our recent giveaway post. Folks left their favorites there, and their regions–it’s a treasure trove of climate-specific information. We should make a chart out of it our something. 

Link thanks to Ken Druse’s Real Dirt Podcast

Some Thoughts on Mead

I’ve had mixed success with making my own mead. One batch I made was OK and a few others tasted, as Mrs. Root Simple put it, “like a desperate white wine substitute for a zombie apocalypse.” Last year I attended a mead tasting put on by America’s first homebrew club the Maltose Falcons. Somehow I neglected to blog about it, so better late than never, here’s what I learned:

  • If you want decent mead you have to brew it yourself. We tasted a lot of homebrew meads along with commercial meads.  Many of the homebrew meads were excellent. All of the commercial meads tasted like camping fuel. I was, frankly, surprised that anyone would go to the trouble of labeling, distributing and selling some of the awful store bought meads we tasted. I tried yet another horrible commercial mead at the natural foods convention I blogged about on Monday.
  • In my opinion, the best homebrew meads at the tasting were carbonated. The carbonation helps accent the aroma of the honey that can sometime get lost in a flat mead. 
  • The best meads split the difference between dry and sweet. Too dry and you get that boring white wine taste. Too sweet and you’ve got cough syrup. Choosing the right yeast can strike that balance.
  • I’ve had good luck with a Narbonne Wine Yeast called Lalvin 71B-1122 Yeast.

  • I really enjoyed the orange blossom honey based mead my friend Steve Linsley made. Perhaps I’ll prod him for the recipe and post it here one of these days.  

Have you made mead? If so, how did it go? What kind of honey did you use? Have you tried the recipe in our book Making It?

Vital Farms: Pasture Raised, Organic Eggs at Whole Foods

Image from the Vital Farms blog.

Over the weekend I attended the Natural Products Expo West, a massive health food industry convention. Yes, indeed, Fabio was in attendance selling some sort of powdered supplement and I may have seen Ziggy Marley packing up his own bottles of “Coco’Mon” coconut oil. Such are the indignities one encounters on the downward arc of a career in reggae music or romance book cover modeling.

Out of the nearly 2,000 exhibitors of, frankly, health food store junk food, one stood out: Vital Farms, purveyors of eggs from pasture raised hens. The overwhelming majority of eggs in this country are laid by chickens crammed into small cages or, arguably worse, crammed into big sheds.  “Free range,” “cage free” and “organic,” mean absolutely nothing. What makes Vital Farms different is that the eggs they sell were laid by chickens who live outside, during the day, on pasture. Their spokesperson offered to let me tour the farms they contract with, something that, I doubt, any of the big egg producers would offer.

The Cornocopia Institute gives them a “five egg (exemplary)” rating, citing their rotational grazing methods, abstinence from the practice of beak trimming and year round outdoor access for the hens. Vital Farms contracts with several farms in Texas, Oklahoma and Georgia. Their eggs are available nationwide at Whole Foods and they have expanded into meat chickens.

Now, hopefully, I can recover from the spectral celebrity hallucinations induced by downing hundreds of free samples of things like pro-biotic frozen pizza (I’m not making this up) and caveman power bars. Perhaps a pasture raised egg omelet will wipe away my açaí berry hangover.

Thanks to Dale Benson for suggesting attending this event and for driving, spending a half hour finding a parking space and pointing out Ziggy Marley or someone who resembled Ziggy Marley packing up those bottles of coconut oil.

Cooking With Heritage Grains: Sonora Wheat Pasta

Once you start working with heritage grain varieties it’s hard to go back to the few choices in the flour aisle we have at most supermarkets. I managed to get my hands on some Sonora wheat a few months back and have been experimenting with it ever since. Traditionally used for tortillas, it’s also great for pancakes and bread. Yesterday I made pasta with Sonora wheat using a recipe by Whole Grain Connection founder Monica Spiller. You can find the recipe and others on

To make this eggless pasta, all you do is combine heated water, Sonora wheat and salt and run it through a pasta maker. The result? A pasta with a pleasing nutty flavor and a beautiful light brown color.

Rules for Eating Wheat

Antebellum-Style Graham Wheat Flour from the Anson Mills website

Much of the bad press surrounding wheat in recent years is well deserved. Wheat and grain allergies may be some of the most common allergies known to medicine. I strongly suspect that the cause for these allergies may be in the types of wheat we’re growing.

Let’s start with some history. Humans have eaten and tinkered with grain genetics for at least 30,000 years, well before the development of what we now call “agriculture”.  But with each change in wheat genetics came new, unexpected outcomes. Those changes greatly accelerated in the last one hundred and fifty years.

  • In the 19th century farmers moved away from growing soft wheat varieties and shifted to hard wheat, which performs better in mechanized roller mills. 
  • In the mid 20th century Norman Borlaug launched the green revolution by developing new wheat varieties.
  • And now, Monsanto and Bill Gates are anxious to bring us genetically modified wheat. 

The problem? When you make radical changes to a complex system such as wheat genetics you risk unforeseen consequences, what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “black swans”. The unforeseen consequences may be the large percentage of the population with wheat allergies. I’ll admit that this is a hunch of mine not based on any peer reviewed study. But scientists have identified at least 27 potential allergens in modern wheat and researchers are looking at simpler forms of ancient wheat such as Einkorn to see if they have fewer allergens.

So what can we do to prevent wheat based black swans? I think we need a wheat equivalent of Michael Pollan’s food rules, so here it goes:

  • Acknowledge our ignorance in the face of the great complexity of nature. Thus, we should be conservative when it comes to plant breeding. Saving seed and developing local varieties are a good thing. Genetic modification is probably a huge risk. 
  • Breed wheat for flavor and disease resistance not shipability and ease of mechanical harvesting.
  • Our markets should have at least as many flour varieties as flavors of soda.
  • We should be willing to pay a little more for a higher quality flour.
    • Eat whole grains rather than refined grains whenever possible. The nutrients and substances we remove from whole grains to make refined white flour may contain substances that prevent allergic reactions.
    • Support local farmers who are growing older forms of grain (soft wheat such as Sonora and ancient wheat such as Einkorn). If you can’t find something local, mail order your flour. 
    • Consider growing grain at home as part of a rotational strategy in your garden. See Lawns to Loaves for inspiration.

    One source for interesting flour by mail order:

    Anson Mills

    If any of you know of other sources for heritage flours (either brick and mortar or mail order) please leave a comment.

    Is Modern Wheat Killing Us?

    Wheat field, Froid, Montana, 1941. (Library of Congress image)

    It’s been a bad decade for grains. Between publicity about grain allergies and fads such as the Atkins and paleo diets, a lot of people are shunning wheat, rye and barley. At a panel discussion this weekend sponsored by Common Grains I heard Monica Spiller of the Whole Grain Connection and Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills make some compelling arguments that will forever change the way I see grain. It was, no exaggeration here, a paradigm shifting discussion. Some of the questions Spiller and Roberts raised:

    • Could modern hard wheat varieties, bred for the convenience of industrial agriculture, have the unintended consequence of increasing allergic reactions? Are older varieties healthier for us?
    • What have we lost in terms of flavor when we decreased the diversity of grain varieties?
    • Is sourdough bread a pro-biotic food? Could some of the allergy problems associated with bread be related to commercial yeast strains and the way commercial yeast processes sugar?

    I’ll spend the rest of this week taking a deeper look at these issues, including some practical suggestions about what we can do in our kitchens and gardens to bring back heritage grains.

    Is This Egg Good?

    From left: Very Fresh • Pretty Fresh • Bad • Cat

    When you’re wondering about the age of an egg, put it in glass of water.

    Really fresh eggs lie on the bottom the glass, flat. These are the eggs you want for poaching and other dishes where the egg is the star.

    If one end bobs up a bit, as does the middle egg above, the egg is older, but still good. The upward tilt can be more extreme than it is in this picture. In fact, the egg can even stand up straight, just so long as it is still sitting on the bottom of the glass. The egg in picture above is just a tiny bit past absolutely fresh, but still very suitable for egg dishes. If it were standing up a little more, I’d use it for baking or hard boiling. Indeed, older eggs are best for hard boiling, because fresh eggs are impossible to peel.

    What you don’t want to see is a floating egg. A floating egg is a bad egg. (Like a witch!) Old eggs float because the mass inside the egg decreases–dries out–over time, making it lighter. I personally don’t trust any floating egg, but I do know that other people draw a distinction between eggs that float low and eggs that float high, and only discard the high floaters. And I honor their courage.