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.

Appletastic Apple Cake

Here’s something easy and delicious for you to make this weekend. You might even have all the ingredients on hand.

It’s a light, flavorful, not-too-sweet cake which is comprised mostly of apples held together by an egg batter. I suppose you could think of it as an apple quiche. It’s very pleasing, and versitile, too–it would be a good addition to brunch, or an afternoon snack, or, if dressed up with ice cream or whipped cream, it would be a fine dessert. This morning, I ate the leftovers for breakfast.

The recipe comes from The Paris Cookbook, by Patricia Wells, which I’ve mentioned before.

The key to this recipe is good apples. The better the apple, the better the cake. Wells prefers acidic cooking apples for this recipe, recommending Cortland, Gala or Gravenstein. But she says sweeter cooking apples, like Jonagold, are good too. I used Fujis because that’s what I had on hand.

You’ll need:

Equipment:

A 9 inch springform baking pan. (These are pans with sides which open up and disengage from the bottom.)  If you don’t have one, you could make it in a regular round cake pan, or even a square one. It’s just that the final product is a little sticky, and the springform helps with a clean release. You’ll lose points for presentation if you have to dig it out of a regular pan, but it will still taste mighty good.

The cake batter:

1/2 cup flour
1/3 sugar
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/8 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/3 cup whole milk

Apples, about 2 pounds worth. Wells says that’s about 4. I found it took 5 Fujis to add up to 2 lbs.

Peel and core the apples, cut them in half and slice the halves into thin slices.

The topping:

1/3 cup sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten
3 Tablespoons melted butter

Put it together:

Pre-heat the oven to 400 F.

Butter the pan heavily and set it aside.

In a big bowl, combine the batter ingredients in the order listed. The dry come first in the list. Fork or whisk them around to blend them before you add the liquids. I cleared a well in the dry ingredients,  added all the liquid ingredients (vanilla, eggs, oil, milk) into the well, then used the whisk to draw the  dry stuff into the liquid, bit by bit, until I had a nice smooth batter.  But really, this isn’t fussy cooking so I suspect you could just dump it all together at once and stir it up.

When the batter is smooth, add in the apple slices and toss until they’re coated.

Pour the this apple batter mix into the greased pan and sort of jiggle it around until the apples are all lying more or less flat.

Put it on the center rack of the 400 degree oven. Bake this until the top turns golden, and the batter doesn’t look liquid anymore. You should be able to touch the surface and not encounter wet batter. Wells calls this “fairly firm.”  She says this should take 25 minutes.  For me, it took 35 minutes, but my oven may not have been sufficiently preheated.

While you’re waiting for it to bake, mix together the topping ingredients in a small bowl and have that standing by.

After 25 minutes or so, when the cake reaches this dryish, fairly firm state described above, take it out of the oven and pour the topping over the surface, then put it back into the oven to finish.

Finishing takes about 10 minutes. What you’re waiting for is for the surface to turn a yummy deep golden brown, perhaps a little dark on the high points (like a well cooked quiche), and again, for the surface to dry and firm up.  When it’s not quite done you’ll still be able to see liquid bubbly stuff broiling away at top. When it’s ready, it will mostly dry up, and the cake will feel firm when pressed.

(Edit: Comments have helped me remember that while 10 minutes was the recipe’s rec’d time, it took longer for it to brown–more like 15. Don’t pay as much attention to the clock as to color, and the dryness of the surface.)

Take the cake out, let it cool for at least 10 minutes, then ease a knife all around the sides. The browned sides of this thing are my favorite part, so be careful to keep that crusty stuff intact. It also looks nice. After you finish loosening the edges, release the springform.

This cake is meant to be served at room temperature. Wells specified that it should be served in thin slices, but we didn’t really follow that advice. It’s more like we each took half.




Slaughtering Turkeys for Thanksgiving

A noble Royal Palm tom. This photo by Kevin Saff. The rest are ours.

This post is not for everyone, so we’ve concealed most of it behind the jump. This week we helped our friend, Steve, slaughter and dress four turkeys for Thanksgiving. There will be pictures, so those of you who are interested can get some idea of what the process involves.

Steve is an especially conscious carnivore, because he raises and slaughters all the meat he eats, and he does this in a small back yard in Los Angeles. This means he does not eat a whole lot of meat.


He doesn’t have the time or space to put meat on his table every night, or even every week. Beyond those logistics, he also doesn’t have it in him to slaughter frequently, because the act is intense and emotionally draining. Though Steve is now well practiced in killing birds, he has not become callous about the act. He loves his birds–he raises chickens, ducks and turkeys with care, and does not take killing them lightly. Each kill is difficult for him, and he believes that it should remain so, always. He strives to remain open to the complex emotions that accompany the slaughter, instead of shunting them aside. This, he claims, is the hardest part. And that is why he is our teacher.

Erik and I first met Steve when we were researching our upcoming book. It’s a how-to book, and we wanted to include how-to slaughter a chicken instructions, and we wanted to present the most humane technique we could find. Homegrown Neighbor introduced us to Steve, and the day we met, we helped him kill three young roosters. Well, I’m not sure how much help we were, blundering around, green around the gills and frantically taking notes. I suppose we helped with the plucking.

When Steve invited us back for this Thanksgiving slaughter, we accepted. First, it’s just neighborly to help others with heavy tasks. “Many hands make light work” and all that. And we like hanging out with Steve. And we wondered if it would be easier the second time around. (It wasn’t.)

We had a fourth pair of hands, too–our friend, Christine. Christine is a meat eater who eats very little meat, who volunteered to help because she wanted to see and understand the process.

And in this Ominivore’s Dilemna sort of world, I suppose I should also define Erik’s and my stance on meat eating, so you’ll know where we’re coming from. Erik eats meat only when he knows it was well raised. Functionally that means he never eats meat. I’ve been a “fishatarian” since high school, and I eat fish only when I go out to restaurants, or when I go home, because the parentals don’t think they’re feeding me properly unless they serve me some sort of flesh. Erik eats fish when out, too. We never cook meat or fish at home.

However, lately we’ve been wondering about eating our own chickens. This notion will need its own post to explain, but suffice it to say that we returned to Steve’s driveway abattoir in part to evaluate whether or not we could do this at home–and also to continue our training.

***

Okay, so let’s get down to business. This is an overview of a turkey slaughter. I didn’t write this to be a how-to guide, just an orientation to the concepts. It’s slim on details, but big on pictures. We describe the chicken slaughter in more detail in our upcoming book, Making It, which comes out in the spring.

The first step is to collect the turkey, quiet it with gentle words and petting, and hang it by its feet. Birds don’t seem to mind hanging like this–they are remarkably calm at this stage. Ideally, they are just as calm all the way through.

You can see how pretty this turkey is. Steve raised his little flock from eggs. They’re a heritage breed called Royal Palm, a beautiful white bird with flashy black markings.

The next step is to slit the big veins on either side of the bird’s throat, just under the jaw. Steve prefers to use an extra sharp grafting knife–sort of a disposable scalpel. This time he used a brand new razor blade, which works, but isn’t as maneuverable.

There are many ways to kill a bird, but Steve researched them all and decided this quick, almost surgical opening of the veins is the least painful. It’s the kosher method without the rest of the kosher elements. It is not, however, the fastest method. For the human, it would be easier to lop off the bird’s head and walk away.  This method requires that Steve remain with the bird for its final minutes while it bleeds out.

This process doesn’t take long for chickens, but turkeys are bigger and tougher, and have more blood to drain. All the time, Steve sits by them, talking in a soft voice and holding the neck out stretched to facilitate bleeding.

They experience brain death shortly after the cuts, because blood is no longer traveling to the brain. The death of the body takes longer, and there are some reflexive flurries of wing flapping along the way.

Even though you know the flapping is automatic, it is hard to see. Christine, as a first timer, wept while she watched the first turkey die. There is a gravity and a pathos to this moment that you can only deny if you close down all your emotional organs.

I’m very moved by the spreading and flapping of the wings, which I think of as not blind reflex, but as the body’s last protests against death, against the great stillness. Witnessing it reminds me of my place on the wheel of life, and what I feel is mostly awe–awe and sadness for the loss of a beautiful, vibrant bird. The moment hits us all differently. It sends Erik’s mind back to melancholy memories of the deaths of our loved ones.

There is a justice to this. In order to to eat another life, to profit from that death, we have to embrace our own mortality. To me, this makes sense.

Neither Erik nor I have yet wielded the blade. I’m afraid of screwing up the cuts, and making the bird suffer. I’ve never been a fan of dilettante slaughtering. But next time we help Steve, I think I will try.

The next step is to immerse the bird in hot water to loosen the feathers. When Steve slaughters, he’s got a big pot heating on a propane burner standing by, heated to 158F.  The bird soaks for just a minute or two.  Here Erik is using a stick to hold the carcass beneath the water.

The smell of wet, dead poultry is…uh…distinct.

Next, plucking begins. The big feathers come out easiest, you just pull them out in the direction of growth. It’s the little pin feathers that will drive you crazy–more on that to come.

The good thing about plucking is that it quickly reduces the corpse to something that looks more like you’d see in the market.

 
Turkey feet are pretty amazing things:

The next step, for ease of cleaning, is to take off those amazing feet. Using a blade, Steve teases the joint apart with a blade. As you can see, they separate cleanly, leaving the classic drumstick behind.


Next comes evisceration. Birds have one hole for both excreting and egg laying–it’s called the vent, or the cloaca. It’s that little button structure you see in the picture below, just above the tail. The first step is to cut a careful circle around it. It will come out like a plug, and the intestines will slither out, attached behind it. Have a garbage can ready.

Next, you can enlarge that hole and reach in to pull out the other organs. In the photo below it looks like Steve and Christine cut a second hole–and I’m not sure why they did that, to tell the truth. I was off getting a breath of fresh air, because this part is the hardest for me.

I’d have to clean a lot more birds to be able to face this stage without gagging. It’s not the appearance or even the texture of the guts in my hands–I’m pretty sturdy about yucky things–it’s the smell. It hits me hard.

Christine, however, was a complete trooper and dove right in, and by the end of the day was gutting like a pro. She even sawed off a turkey head. At least one.  I think everyone who does this will discover both their strengths and their weaknesses, and the form these take might surprise you.

At any rate, the two holes you see above merged into one at some point. It doesn’t really matter, except aesthetically.

You can see above that the organs came out in neat sack. It may not always happen so neatly–you may have to fish around in the cavity to make sure you have everything. See the little green blotch? That’s the bile sack. This has to be removed and discarded carefully–you don’t want to spill bile on the meat.

Here’s one of four big fat livers Steve collected. We tossed them in a bowl and coated them with olive oil to help keep them fresh:

Our last step outdoors was chopping off the head. Of course this doesn’t have to be done last–it could be done at any point in the process.  Unfortunately I have no pics of that.
Finally, the carcasses go to the kitchen sink for detail work. I made that my job, so that I could cravenly avoid the stinky intestines. 
(I can’t help but see this as a Lynchian baby pool)
The first thing I did was wash eac carcass well under cold running water, rinsing out the cavities. Then I plugged the sink and immerse the birds in cold water–both to keep the flesh cool and to help with cleaning. 
After the first plucking, there are a lot of feather barbs left in the skin, some of them small feathers, others broken barbs. These all have to be plucked out of the skin one by one. Some are very resistant to extraction, and have to pried or squeezed out. Some have puss at the base–sort of like turkey zits–and these are particularly disgusting to pull. It’s tedious work, very detail oriented. I kept myself vigilant by imagining one of Steve’s family biting into a barb I’d left behind. But in the end, I found it rewarding. It appeals to my nature to put final order to things, and to clean until the water runs clear. (Out damned spot?)

When you’re done, you have turkeys that look like they came from the store–except they’re not grossly inflated through the breast.

While you could slaughter and eat on the same day, if you’re new to this it might be wise to slaughter the day before. Steve finds he doesn’t much want to have anything to do with poultry after slaughtering them for a day or so. So he brines his birds before cooking. It gives him a chance to recover, and makes the bird taste better, too.
Mr. Homegrown here: Allow me harangue for a moment. My guess is that if most Americans sitting down to Thanksgiving supper had to slaughter and eviscerate their own meat we’d have a lot more vegetarians. It’s a hell of a lot of work, both physical and emotional to do this. Even the meat eaters would be eating meat a lot less often.

Oatmeal: It’s Not Just for Breakfast Anymore

(we’ve really gotta get us a live-in food photographer)

Mrs. Homegrown Here:

Okay, this is one is a little weird.  I’ll tell you right off that Erik won’t eat this stuff (it just seems wrong to him), but I love it.

I’m exploring the world of savory oatmeal. I’m sure there are savory oatmeal recipes on the web, but I haven’t looked because I’m enjoying working without a map.

What I’m doing right now is making oatmeal with seaweed in it, inspired by both my love of Japanese style breakfasts, and half remembered things about the Irish eating dulse in their porridge. I don’t like sweet cereal, so this suits me fine in the morning–but I also like it for lunch or dinner.

What I do is start the oatmeal water boiling and toss in shreds of dried seaweed. I’ve been using roasted nori, the sushi sheets, and also the flavored nori strips, because that’s all I have on hand. But there’s a whole world of more interesting seaweeds to try–including dulse. Anyway, after I shred a lot nori in the water, I add a dash of tamari and a dash of soy sauce, then the oatmeal. And finally I stir in a big pat of butter. This doesn’t jive with the Japanese thing so well, but I find butter just takes the whole thing up a notch in terms of savory, unctuous goodness.

I think this would be spectacular with a little salmon on top. And I’m going to move forward and try adding things like mushrooms, or cooking the oatmeal with stock.

Do any of you make savory oatmeal?

How to Process Carob

Before. Photo by Bill Wheelock.

Our neighborhood has an abundance of carob (Ceratonia siliqua) trees that, around this time of year, drop thousands of pounds of pods. Now many of us may have unpleasant associations with carob as a 1970s era chocolate substitute, but the tree has a long history in the Middle East, where it’s used to make a tea, as a source of molasses, as a vegetable and as animal feed. The “locusts” that John the Baptist dined on were not insects but, instead, the pods of the carob tree.

After. Photo by Bill Wheelock.

In the Middle East carob has a reputation as a famine food. According to the carob article in Wikipedia the people of Malta ate carob pods and prickly pear fruit during WWII. How appropriate then that my neighbor Bill Wheelock, who just dehydrated a huge batch of my prickly pear fruit (and faced the thorny consequences), took on the onerous task of figuring out how to dry carob pods and process then into a powder using common kitchen appliances. He has authored a handy step by step guide on Instructables on how to process carob.

As a drought tolerant tree that produces hundreds of pounds of pods each year, Ceratonia siliqua definitely should be included in any food forestry plant list for of our Mediterranean climate. So if that quantitative easing thing doesn’t work out, at lease we’ll have the carob and prickly pear.

The Big Apple

Homegrown Neighbor gave us this gigantic apple as a gift. The smaller one is for scale, and it’s your typical smallish (i.e. not grocery store large) organic apple.

We suspect Monster Apple is not for eating, only for marveling. It’s a Gordon apple, grown at the esteemed Eco-Home here in Los Angeles. According to HN, the other apples on the tree were large, too, but this one was the daddy of them all.

Return of Bean Friday: Bean Broth or “Tuscan Crazy Water”

Yep, Bean Friday rears its head again–or is it Frugal Friday?

Whatever it is, I’ve got this thrifty idea for you. I read about in The Italian Country Table, by Lynn Rossetto Casper. We’ve had this book for years and years, and it has some really good recipes in it that have become standards in our house, along just with a couple of duds. I’d not paid attention to her entry on “Crazy Water” before, but by her introduction, I realized it was just the sort of thrifty cooking we’ve been focusing on here during Bean Fest. The only question for me was whether this recipe was a keeper or a dud, because it sounded pretty strange. The truth is it’s sort of in between.

According to Caspar, Tuscans like to cook beans with plenty of aromatics in lots of water, and then reserve that water as a broth. The bean broth is called Acqua Pazza, crazy water.

“This soup is a revelation” is how she opens the recipe. And later she claims it could be mistaken for chicken broth. That might be the problem–I was expecting twinkling lights and perhaps a chorus from a boys’ choir when I tasted it. What I got was a swallow of thin broth which tastes mostly like warm water when it first hits the tongue, but really does have a very nice, savory aftertaste. It’s delicate.

Caspar suggests serving it in bowls with croutons. I don’t have that much faith in it. But it is a decent vegetarian stock. It goes very well over rice, and I suspect it would be an excellent broth for cooking rice and other grains. I am fond of the waste-not, want-not philosophy behind it, and also the time saving angle. You can make a pot of beans for dinner, and end up with a supply of broth as a side benefit.

So now that all of those qualifications are done, this is how you make the broth:

First, you can’t use just any dried bean. Use light beans, like cannellini, pinto or borlotti. She particularly recommends chickpeas. I used pintos. Don’t use any dark or earthy bean, like black beans or black eyed peas. For fresh beans, she recommends cranberry beans or scarlet runners.

Basically you’re making a pot of beans with extra water. Simple stuff. I doubled her recipe, which only called for 1 cup of dried beans. I soaked 2 cups of dried pintos overnight. The next day I drained them and put them in a heavy pot and poured 2 inches of fresh water over them. To that water I added:

  • 8 fresh sage leaves
  • 6 good sized cloves of crushed garlic
  • 1 medium onion sliced in half and studded with 4 whole cloves

(Just fyi, her recipe calls for 8 sage leaves per 1 cup of dried beans. I chose not to double the sage.)

Throw these seasonings in with the beans. Bring the pot to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cover. Don’t stir. This is supposed to make the broth clear. (It didn’t really help in my case). Foam might appear on top of the water–it did for me, but it vanished by the end of the cooking time.

Simmer the beans on low, covered, until tender but not falling apart. My pintos cooked in only 30 minutes. A speed record! The plenitude of water means you don’t have to worry about sticking or burning.

At the very end, add salt and pepper.

Strain the broth from the beans. She notes that the Tuscans dress these beans at the table using salt, pepper, olive oil and maybe vinegar.  I tried it, and it’s fine. Solid. Not super exciting, but healthy and hearty. I served the beans over rice with some of the broth. Another possibility, maybe a better possibility, would be to reserve the beans for a higher purpose, like frijoles refritos, or hummus-like applications.

The broth doesn’t keep. You know how stinky beans can get when forgotten in the fridge. I don’t even want to know what might happen to this broth. So use it the next day, or freeze it for the next time you need stock.

I got about 6 cups of bean broth from this recipe.

Anyone done anything similar? Any advice?

Roasted Corn on the Cob – Indoors!

This is the actual corn, looking somewhat wan under the kitchen lights. It was actually very pretty. And tasty.

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Oh. Em. Gee.

Why have I never done this before? I suspect everyone else has, but if there are a few ignorant souls like myself out there, let me tell you a secret: cook your corn on the cob in the oven.

I knew about corn on the grill, of course. But when it came to indoor corn cooking, I only knew to boil or steam, like my mama and her mama before her.  But roasting is so much easier. There’s no prep, and after it’s cooked, the silk just slides right off. This is a blessed miracle, because picking bits of silk off of boiled corn was never my idea of fun. And the corn comes out sweet and moist, perfectly cooked in its own wrappings, with no effort at all.

Too bad corn season is almost over here, and probably completely over most everywhere else. Next summer is going to be the summer of roasted corn.

Roasted Corn on the Cob:

  1. Preheat your oven to 350ºF
  2. Chuck your un-shucked cobs in the oven, just as nature gives ‘em to you
  3. Roast 30 minutes

(30 minutes worked perfectly for me. You could peel back the husk and take a nibble taste test. I suspect there’s a wide latitude of done-ness, ranging from lightly steamed in the husk to heavily roasted/slightly caramelized, and all of it is good.)