Kitchen Alchemy

“Those who believe civilization can be run according to different principles – humane, equitable, and collaborative ones – need to step forward now with concrete proposals and put ideals into practice.”

-Daniel Pinchbeck

A Homegrown Evolution reader quite rightly scolded us recently for not writing enough about what people in apartments who can’t keep gardens or chickens can do. It’s our contention that all of the activities profiled on this blog are a kind of alchemy, symbolic gestures that ultimately lead to the kind of societal transformations that Pinchbeck writes about. These symbolic gestures need not be over sized, nor do all of them require land. Cooking homemade meals from scratch, as often as possible, is just the kind of alchemy one can practice anywhere you’ve got food and a source of heat. And what is cooking anyways, but a form of alchemical transformation? As luck would have it, we’ve had a number of visitors to our humble casa in the past week, Pinchbeck included (read his thoughtful Prophet Motive columns here). Two other visitors are cookbook authors. All share a common vision of positive change through personal and household actions.

Ysanne Spevack moved to our neighborhood recently and has a really nice cooking website and blog at www.organicfoodee.com. That pumpkin bread she blogged about recently looks mighty tasty and we can’t wait to try her buckwheat recipes recently featured in the Los Angeles Times. She has written a number of books, specializing in cooking with organic ingredients.

We also got a visit from farmer and agriculturalist Shannon Hayes of New York’s Sap Bush Hollow Farm. She’s the author of two books on how to cook grass fed meat. Hayes is currently working on a book on what she calls “enlightened homemakers”, touching on the kind of societal transformation that can occur when we change the way we run our abodes.

Lastly, there’s a new online cooking school that has some mighty nice how-to videos and a free trial offer for 30 days. At Rouxbe.com we’ve learned a couple of nice tricks, our favorite being how the pros slice an onion. Very handy.

Now I’ve gotta stop blogging and make a pizza . . .

Fruitacular!

Noel Ramos, writing to correct an inaccuracy in my guava post (“Guayabas” is the word used all over Latin America for guava not “guyabas”) was nice enough to include this amazing photograph of some of the many kinds of fruit that you can grow in Florida: red bananas, sugar-apple, canistel, pink guayaba, dragon fruit and orange-flesh lemon.

Noel is the director of communications for Slow Food Miami, “an eco-gastronomic organization that supports a bio-diverse, sustainable food supply, local producers, heritage foodways and rediscovery of the pleasures of the table.” I hope the photo above will encourage readers in the Florida area to get involved with this organization which is working worldwide to fight the industrialization and fast foodization of what we eat. Not in Miami? Look for a local chapter via Slow Food USA.

Noel also has contributed articles to another remarkable group, the California Rare Fruit Growers which strives to preserve and explore the mind boggling biodiversity of fruit trees. And speaking of biodiversity take a look at Noel holding a Rollinia or Biriba, a fruit tree native to the Amazon region that also grows in Florida.

Some have described the taste of this fruit as like that of a lemon meringue pie.

Guyaba Guayabas (Psidium guajava)

Just last week I was spotting L.A. river blogger creekfreak while he bench pressed a whole bunch of weights (was it 300 pounds?) at our local YMCA. Between hefting all that poundage (we’re both getting ready for the inaugural L.A. River Adventure Race), the conversation turned to a productive guyaba fruit tree on the grounds of the L.A. Eco-village, where the creekmesiter’s crib is located.

Guyaba (Psidium guajava–”guyaba” is the Spanish Dutch word for “white guava”) is a small tree native to Central America. It’s one of around 60 species of guava and is also known as “apple guava” and “yellow guava”. According to the California Rare Fruit Growers, it can be propagated by seed or by air layering. The apple guava has a delicate tropical flavor, and according to creekfreak, some varieties have edible seeds. The fruit off creekfreak’s tree rots really quickly, so don’t look for him to be opening a booth at your local farmer’s market. The tree seems fairly drought tolerant, but more productive with water. Guava expert Leslie Landrum notes that the guava is a “weedy tree, a tree that likes disturbance. It likes to grow along roads and in pastures. Animals eat the fruit and spread the seeds around.”

It’s also a fruit so tasty that creekfreak occasionally has to chase off guyaba rustlers poaching specimens off his tree.

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).