Pickled!

Picklefest 2008 was, no other way to put it, pickletastic. Thanks to Mark Frauenfelder for coming up with the idea, DJ Pickle for spinning the tunes, and the folks at Machine Project for hosting! We’re looking forward to Picklefest 2009.

To those who attended we wish you the best of luck with the pickle projects you took home. We forgot to tell you all not to be afraid of your pickles! We’re all a few generations away from the kind of lacto-fermented or brined pickles that we made yesterday. When we first tried doing this a few years ago we were afraid to eat the results. In fact, we should all be afraid not to eat lacto-fermented foods, as they provide beneficial microorganisms essential for our health. Lacto-fermentation does not lend itself to our industrialized food system, with its emphasis on cheap, shippable commodities, which is why these traditional types of pickles are rare outside of expensive health food stores.

For those of you who couldn’t make it or those of you who’d like to try some other fermentation projects, we strongly recommend picking up a copy of Sandor Ellix Katz’s book Wild Fermentation.

Picklefest 2008 at Machine Project, Los Angeles, Saturday September 20, 2008

In collaboration with Mark Frauenfelder of Dinosaurs and Robots and the fine folks at Machine Project, we’re proud to be a part of Picklefest 2008. We’ll be demonstrating how to lacto-ferment everything from cabbage to radishes. Come on down with your produce and jars at 1 p.m. More info here. And here’s some directions on how to lacto-ferment foods.

Urban Foraging with Nance Klehm

Via The Little Green People Show, a podcast with Chicago’s urban forager Nance Klehm:

“We’re not talking gardens or dumpster diving. This is a discussion of the riches that grow in our highway medians, city planters, backyards and rail lines. Expert forager, Nance Klehm, sheds light on the city’s bounty, from medicinal plants to tasty greens. Getting to know the foraging landscape takes some time and energy, but gives back in complex flavors and a better appreciation of plants, and it’s free. “

Listen to the podcast here.

What to do with all those hot peppers: Harissa!

Lyn, a reader in Canada with way too many hot peppers on hand, asked us what we thought we should do with them. We have the same problem here this year, an overabundance of very large, hot Italian Long Peppers. Thumbing through some recipe books we realized that we had all the ingredients to make Harissa, a spicy Moroccan condiment. The recipe is simple and quick. We cut open five of our hot peppers, discarded the seeds, and combined them in a food processor with:

1 tsp salt
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp caraway seeds
2 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp fresh mint
3 garlic cloves

Turn on the food processor and add enough olive oil to form a paste. That’s it. Harissa will last several weeks in the fridge or you can freeze it. You could also can it, but you’ll need a pressure canner as this is a low-acid food (even though it’s fiery).

And speaking of fiery, though we should know better (having once accidentally inhaled hot pepper seeds), we disregarded warnings about wearing rubber gloves when slicing the peppers. At the risk of providing too much information, a post Harissa making trip to the bathroom led to, shall we say, burning sensations for Señor Homegrown Evolution!

Burning sensations aside, Harissa is a very tasty and spicy addition to almost any meal, not just Moroccan dishes. We still have peppers to deal with, so our next project will be to experiment with pickling them. Readers–what’s your favorite way to deal with hot peppers?

Moldy Grapes!

We had a nice conversation with BoingBoing blogger and Make Magazine editor Mark Frauenfelder about how important mistakes are in the DIY life, so here’s two more recent blunders for ya’ll, courtesy of Mrs. Homegrown Evolution.

Recent failure #1: Inedible Pickled Grape Leaves

We have grape leaves. Lots of them. Our two table grape vines are a little hesitant to really bust out, but our native grape (Vitus californica) has taken over the entire south facing wall of our garden, and is threatening the neighbor’s house. The chickens like grape leaves, fortunately, so I have something to do with the prunings, but I wanted to do more.

I’m a big fan of dolmas, so thought I’d try to pickle some grape leaves. Skimming the internet for recipes, I saw, as usual, many contradictions [Mr. Homegrown's editorial note here--first mistake--internet recipes are notoriously unreliable. I know this because I've promulgated bad recipes myself!]. I found a recipe attributed to Sally Fallon which called for no pre-cooking at all, just pickling in whey and salt. I saw others that recommended pressure canning and I don’t have a pressure canner.

What I ended up doing was blanching the grape leaves before I pickled them, hoping that would soften them up some, but not so much that they would disintegrate when rolled. I was sure to only pick the youngest, freshest leaves.

I should have done a small test batch, but went nuts and filled a half-gallon jar with many rolled up bundles of leaves, and covered it in a brine and whey pickling solution. A week later I tasted the leaves. They looked right, they tasted right, but no matter how much I chewed, the leaves didn’t break down. I ended up with a mouthful of cud.

Now the question is whether wild grape leaves simply aren’t edible, or if I should try it again, and this time boil the beejeezus out them. I think I’ll do a beejeezus test run, and report back.

Has anyone out there done this successfully?

A second level of grape leaf failure:

While fermenting, a mold developed at the top of the jar, because a couple of the rolls crested the surface of the brine. One way to keep veggies below the brine is to weight them down somehow. In this case, I had a baggy full of salt water (salt water so that if it leaked, it wouldn’t dilute the brine) sitting at the top of the jar. But I didn’t pay attention to the jar during the fermentation, and a couple of the rolls popped up at the sides and mold set in––a kind of fluffy, spider-webby black mold that crept from the exposed bundles up the sides of the jar.

The lesson to be learned here is to pay some minimal amount of attention to your pickles while they’re fermenting. But notice, the mold didn’t keep me off trying the leaves. I just extracted the bad bundles, cleaned the sides of the jar, and sampled leaves that were not touched by mold.

By the way, I don’t always weight down my pickling veggies. For quick ferments, like the daikon radish pickles which I make all the time, I just turn the jar on end every day, sometimes more than once a day, for the 5 days or so it takes to pickle. I just leave them out where I can see them so I don’t forget to turn them. After they go in the fridge, mold doesn’t seem to be a problem. But for a longer ferment, like sauerkraut, you really do have to keep the food below the brine with weight.

Recent Failure #2: Moldy Chamomile Tea

We had a bumper crop of chamomile this year, due to generous volunteerism on its part. Several large plants sprung up in unlikely spots and thrived with no help at all. I harvested lots of the flowers so I could have chamomile tea in the cupboard until next spring.

The mistake I made in this case was not drying the flowers enough before I transferred them to a jar. I thought they were dry, but they weren’t, and they went off in storage. I noticed the flowers looked a little strangely colored, and one whiff in the jar told me all I needed to know. Mold had set in. A jar of chamomile should smell like heaven.

This was another pantry disappointment, similar to, but not nearly as devastating, or disgusting, as the loss of our sun-dried tomatoes to pantry moths.

Like the moldy grape leaves, this was really a matter of not paying attention. Mold in general is a certain sign of not paying attention. I am also guilty of rushing. Certainly, you don’t want to leave your drying herbs out for so long that they lose flavor. Storage in glass, in the dark, is essential for protecting those volatile oils, but the herbs really have to be crumbly dry before they go in jars.

By the way, the secret to a good chamomile harvest is constant picking. Don’t be afraid to pick the flowers. The more you pick, the faster it will make more flowers. Like, overnight. I swear. Just pinch the heads off. And you use the whole flower, dry or fresh, to make tea. If a little stem gets in there too, it’s not going to hurt anything.

Nettle Mania

“out of this nettle, danger, we grasp this flower, safety”
-Shakespeare, Henry IV, part 1, Act II Scene 3

Stinging nettles (Urtica dioica) are a common weed with a bad reputation–the plant has tiny spines that inject, as Wikipedia puts it, a “cocktail of poisons.” Miraculously when you boil the plant the spines lose their punch and you’re left with a tasty green consumed plain or incorporated in a number of dishes, from soups to ravioli, to the German cheese pictured above (thanks to Berlin corespondent Steve Rowell for the photo). When dried, the leaves make a damn good tea, with a rich, indescribable flavor. If that ain’t enough, nettles pack a powerhouse of vitamins, minerals, and are perhaps the vegetable with the highest protein content (10%).

At the risk of contradicting yesterday’s anti-media screed (After all, Marshall McLuhan once said, “If you don’t like that idea I’ve got others.”), we’ll end with some links to an obscure sub-genre of youtube videos, nettle torture stunts. Mrs. Homegrown could drone on about the psycho-sexual implications of these clips, but that would be fodder for another blog. In the meantime, thanks again to Steve Rowell, here’s some nettling to fill your evening hours: here, here and here (just three of what may be hundreds).

The New Urban Forager

On a hot, humid day along Houston’s Buffalo Bayou, in the shadow of four abandoned concrete silos, a maggot infested corpse of a pit bull lies splayed across a sheet of black plastic. Nearby, a pile of asphalt roofing material blocks the path I’m taking down to one of the most polluted waterways in Texas. Not a promising beginning to an urban food foraging expedition.
(Read the rest of our foraging essay via Reality Sandwich)

Mulberries

The Mulberry trees (Morus nigra) along Houston’s Buffalo Bayou are producing their delicious fruit. The picture above is an immature berry–this particular tree produces a dark purple berry when ready to eat. Some sources on the internets, as well as Delena Tull’s excellent book Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest warn against consuming the unripe fruit, claiming that doing so produces an unpleasant, mildly psychedelic experience. Apparently you throw up, fall on the ground and become convinced you’re going to croak. We wonder if this is a myth, like the story about boy scouts roasting hot dogs on Oleander sticks (yes, Oleander is very poisonous, but apparently the boy scout story is an urban legend).

We found the Mulberries sweet and delicious. It’s a fruit that doesn’t ship well, hence its absence in our crummy supermarkets.

Nopales Season

It’s nopales (the pads of the prickly pear cactus for you Yankees) season at the Homegrown Evolution compound. Our prickly pear has thrown off so many leaves that a neighbor dropped by last week to ask for some. We filled a bag for her and declined the dollar she offered us.

To cook up our nopales we use a simple recipe found in Delena Tull’s book, Edible and Useful Plants of Texas and the Southwest. First scrape off the spines with a knife and chop a pad (one pad per person). Boil for 10 minutes. Next, put 1/3 cup whole wheat flour, 2/3 cup cornmeal, 1 teaspoon chili powder, salt and pepper in a bag and shake with the boiled chopped nopales. Fry up in a pan and you’ve got a delicious side dish.

One of the charms of the prickly pear cactus, in addition to the food it provides, is its ability to survive drought and fend off pests. Sadly, it’s not as indestructible as it seems. The cactus moth, Cactoblastis cactorum was introduced into the Caribbean in the 1950s and has slowly worked its way to Florida and Mexico. It may soon reach Texas and California. The USDA is hoping to halt the spread by releasing sterile moths.

And speaking of Texas, for the next two weeks Homegrown Evolution will be in residence in Houston where it’s also nopales season. If we see any Cactoblastis cactorum, we’ll deal with them Texas style: