Kevin West’s Saving the Season

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I’m thinking of throwing out all my picking and preserving books. Why? Kevin West’s new book Saving the Season: A Cook’s Guide to Home Canning, Pickling, and Preserving blows all those other books out of the water bath.

Full disclosure here: I’ve tasted a lot of West’s jams. I teach a bread making class at the Institute of Domestic Technology. After my bread demo West does a jam making session and I stick around to watch and, hopefully, filtch an extra jar. Those West jams are coveted items around the Root Simple household.

What makes Saving the Season different from other preserving books is West’s masterful use of aromatics and alcohols. As he explains in the introduction, “My goal is for the supplemental flavor to be a faint suggestion–an extra something that you can’t quite put your finger on.” His quince jelly (that I just made) is flavored with a subtle hint of rose geranium. One of the strawberry jam recipes gets a splash of pinot noir. The pickled eggs (that I also made) is mixed with Sriracha. These additions enhance the essential qualities of the main ingredients rather than simply add flavor. It’s an approach that’s masterful and never gimmicky.

There’s also a few surprises. Did you know that you can pickle unripe stone fruit? West’s recipe for pickled green almonds doubles as a way to deal with fruit that needs to be thinned in the spring. And I now know what I can do with all that cardoon I have growing. Yes, you can pickle that.

If that weren’t enough, West has weaved together his recipes with erudite musings. Plato’s theory of forms is contrasted with Buddhism in an essay on kitchen prep that introduces a peach recipe. The grape jelly section is preceded by an analysis of a Nicolas Poussin’s painting. This is the only preservation book I’ve found myself reading for fun.

My threat to get rid of all my preserving books is not hyperbole. Saving the Season really is the definitive book on the subject of pickling and preserving.

West has a website, www.savingtheseason.com, where you can find recipes as well as info about speaking appearances (he’s also great speaker).

The Lament of the Baker’s Wife

flour pile

This our flour collection, The Leaning Tower of Pizza.  Erik collects flour like Emelda Marcos collects shoes. The collection is  taking up a good deal of the floor space in our kitchen. Supposedly it will one day be moved to our garage–after the garage is remodeled–but waiting for the garage remodel is somewhat like waiting for Godot, or the Armageddon.

Speaking of which, if Armageddon does arrive, you know what that means? Pizza Party at Root Simple!!! Woot! We could feed the neighborhood for a month. Those are 50 lb bags. They are propped against 5 gallon buckets. A five gallon bucket holds about 30 pounds of flour. I think we’ve got at least 200 lbs of flour piled up here. And where will it all go eventually? Straight to my hips, sweetheart!

And I know I shouldn’t complain. “We have too much food!”  “There’s nowhere to put it!” “All this artisanal sourdough is making me fat!” Boo hoo. This the lament of the baker’s wife.

The Connection Between Human Health and Soil Health

What’s the connection between soil and human health? It’s an intriguing question that family physician and author Dr. Daphne Miller discusses in the lecture above and in her book Farmacology: What Innovative Family Farming Can Teach Us About Health and Healing. In the research for the book Miller visited farmers who, as she put it, “farm in the image of nature,” who approach the farm as a living organism.

While she cautioned that there is little research behind the connection between farming practices and health, she suspects that biodiversity on the farm may be an important factor in our well being. To back this idea up she cites:

  • Erika von Mutius, who found an intriguing connection between children who grew up on farms and their lack of asthma and allergies later in life.
  • Research that is taking an Integrated Pest Management approach to cancer, treating it as a symptom of a lack of internal biodiversity.
  • Studies that have shown the higher nutritional value of eggs from chickens raised on pasture.

It seems obvious that there’s a connection between the health of a farm and our own health. Biodiverse soils produce healthier, more nutritious food. And way too much of the food we eat comes from farms where the soil is treated as a sterile growing medium. As Miller notes, “We are the soil.”

The Genetic Diversity of Watermelons

Navaho Watermelon

Damn those supermarket watermelons! Every one I’ve bought this summer has been mealy, old and tasteless. Why? Yet again, the folks who sell us our food have decided to grow only a handful of the over 1,200 known varieties of watermelons.

The one pictured above is a Navaho watermelon I picked up at the National Heirloom Exposition. Note the vibrant (and tasty) red seeds. Navaho watermelons are sometimes called “winter melons” since they can be stored for a few months.

Another watermelon I tasted at the Exposition was a yellow fleshed variety called Orangeglo. It was probably the sweetest and tastiest watermelon I’ve ever eaten.

The problem with supermarket watermelons is not due to the seedless vs. seeded issue. Seedless watermelons are created with a complex genetic process you can read about here. What’s more relevant to taste is how early watermelons are picked, how long they’ve been sitting around and the limited varieties commercial growers plant.

The Heirloom Exposition eloquently demonstrated the benefits of genetic diversity with its watermelon display and tasting. And that diversity is something we can all address in our gardens, if we have one, by planting unusual seeds. You can bet I’m going to try growing watermelons in next summer’s straw bale garden.

What kinds of watermelons have you grown and what’s your favorite?

Sweet Potatoes for Breakfast

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Yesterday I talked about the worst breakfast ever. Today I’ll tell you about my new favorite breakfast.

Erik knows what he’s going to have for breakfast every day: Grape Nuts. He’s had Grape Nuts for breakfast pretty much every day since I’ve met him, excepting travel, special pancake-type breakfasts, or the occasional Grape Nut outage.

I’ve never been a fan of the cereal myself, since I learned as a child, much to my disappointment, that it contained neither grapes, nor nuts, but instead was composed out of tiny particles of cardboard.

I’m a restless breakfasteer.  I like variety. Typically I range between oatmeal, muesli, yogurt, toast or leftovers foraged from the fridge.

Lately, though, I’m very happy on this new kick of eating roasted sweet potatoes for breakfast. I chop up a bunch of yellow fleshed sweet potatoes (often called yams in the US, though yams are actually a different animal altogether), toss them in oil and salt and roast them in a hot oven until they begin to brown. (If you don’t ever roast sweet potatoes, give it a try. They are wonderful.)

A sheet full of sweet potatoes lasts me three or four days, which is about as long as I want to keep them in the fridge, and then I make a new batch. I just eat them straight out of the fridge in the morning. They are surprisingly good cold.

I eat them in this minimalist way, but of course you could heat them up. You could also toss them with nuts, or yogurt or raisins, or all three. I’ve thought about this, but never can be bothered to put in the extra effort.

(ETA 9/27/13: I’ve been eating the sweet potatoes with yogurt, fruit and nuts and it is really, really good. Sort of like eating a Thanksgiving sweet potato casserole for breakfast. The fact that didn’t have the wherewithal to crack open the yogurt container and the nut jar until very recently speaks to my deep lethargy on hot summer mornings. )

Why do I do this?

1) This breakfast suits my complete and utter lack of morning ambition. I scoop a cupful of these into a bowl and go and sulk in a corner, nibbling, until I wake up enough to face the world.

2) I’m trying to avoid processed carbs. And that’s hard when you’re married to the co-founder of the Los Angeles Bread Bakers Club. I could live on sourdough bread. I’ve resolved to ban toast from breakfast. Oatmeal and muesli aren’t overly processed, but I’m awful tired of them.

3) Sweet potatoes are a much vaunted “super food”. Primarily, they are incredibly rich in vitamin A and beta-carotene. So high, in fact, I wondered if I might OD on vitamin A from eating them daily. The answer is no. You cannot harm yourself from eating too many sweet potatoes. You can take too much A in pill form, or too much cod liver oil, and you can kill yourself outright eating Retinol packed polar bear liver (should you have that golden opportunity), but the worst the vegetable form can do is turn you vaguely orange ( a revertible condition) and eating 1 sweet potato a day is not going to do that.

Incidentally, fat makes some of sweet potato’s nutrients more accessible, so you have every excuse now to eat those babies with butter, or roast them in oil.

4) I like getting this big hit of nutrition first thing in the morning. It’s sort of like exercising in the morning — do it early and then you don’t have to think about it the rest of the day. I mean, you should think about it the rest of the day, but if my nutritional choices for the rest of the day turn out to be less than stellar (i.e. “Does ice cream count as lunch?”)  at least I had my sweet potatoes.

What do you eat for breakfast? (Restless as I am, I’ll probably be looking for new alternatives soon.) Do you eat the same breakfast every day, like Erik, or are you a wanderer, like me?