The Mystery of the Zero-Irrigation Squash

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We can’t sit down until we eat our squash.

You guys might remember that last year our entire back yard was swamped with squash vines, as we were growing two types of large squash: Tromboncino and “Long of Naples”.  They were both tasty as juveniles, but our long wait for them to ripen was disappointing. Both were rather bland. Bland yet remarkably plenteous. We tried many things to make this stuff useful and/or tasting: pies, pickles, soups, but in the end we felt like we were always trying to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Though we had almost no rain this year, a couple of volunteer squash vines popped up out of the mulch near our raised beds, and we let them grow, because we wanted to eat the baby squash as we would zucchini–it’s good that way. We also didn’t think the vines would last very long without water. Well, they did. We couldn’t keep up with the baby squash (they’re so good at hiding) and ended up with a harvest of big, bland squash.

Again.

(The squash is a hybrid, by the way. They look like Tromboncino, but are bigger than the Tromboncinos we had last year. Squash cross-breed like crazy. Volunteers are rarely like their parents.)

I bring this up mostly because I am amazed how well this squash did without irrigation. And to be clear, that means they’ve had no water for months. The chairs in the picture above are holding over 100 lbs (45+ kilos) of food grown with zero water inputs! To top that, this was one of the healthiest squash plants we’ve ever “grown” or rather allowed to grow. How did that work? And more importantly, how can we make it happen again?

I have three thoughts:

1) Perfect timing. Volunteers know exactly when to come up. They’re rarely wrong. We humans schedule planting by when we finally buy our seeds and find time to trundle out into the garden. It’s not good enough. Masanobu Fukuoka had a good thought when he went out and just tossed seed all over the place and waited to see what grew. I really need to figure out how to work that man’s ideas into our garden. In times of stress and hard conditions, it seems best to turn to Nature as a teacher.

2) Mulch/compost basins may work well for some types of plants, and do a good job of retaining water. The area where the squash grew is the site of a huge hole which Erik dug out to harvest clay to make our oven. That pit has been filled with compost and the remains of last year’s straw bale beds, and topped with lots of mulch. The squash seems to really like this compost-y growing medium. We’ve not had many volunteers of other types, though, so I don’t think the appeal is universal. However, it may lead to hints of how to grow squash crops here successfully with little water.

3) Cheating. I do wonder if Mr. Squash stretched his roots under the nearest raised bed (about 2 feet/.5 meter away) and siphoned off some of the water. Certainly if I’d planted a seedling that far from the bed, and told it “Okay, you’re on your own. Just get what you need from that bed over yonder” that plant would never have made it. But volunteers are canny. And it may come down to timing. The squash might have used what little rain we had as a jump start, and got its roots over into the wet zone before the real heat set in.

Have you ever been amazed by a volunteer’s hardiness? Anyone from a dry place have any favorite squash/melon growing strategies?

2,000 Year Old Bread

A Root Simple reader sent me a link to this video from the British Museum showing a chef recreating a 2,000 thousand year old loaf of bread found in one of the ovens of Pompeii.

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Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Bread A Global History by William Rubel. Rubel puts forth a couple of theories about the history of bread. One, that there’s nothing new about white bread. The elites have been eating white bread for a long time. Ironically, healthier whole wheat breads tended to go to poor folks. Also he says that the Pompeian bread would most likely, as this chef proves, look and taste a lot like contemporary “artisinal” sourdoughs. In other words, the bread you buy at a fancy bakery like Tartine in San Francisco hasn’t changed much in 2,000 years.

The British Museum has helpfully provided a recipe should you want to make your own version of this bread.

Virtuosic Bread Shaping

This video proves that to learn a skill one must repeat it 10,000 times. That was the advice of a chef friend when I asked her how she learned to shape pizzas.

The bread being shaped here is called Markook, In Arabic, مرقوق، شراك. It’s a flatbread found throughout the Middle East (an Armenian friend who grew up in Lebanon told us about it). A casual Youtube search will reveal many different Markook shaping techniques. Here’s a pillow free version making the rounds on Facebook:

Back to learning a difficult skill. In the case of shaping dough it’s often best to practice with a sacrificial lump of flour and water that you’re not going to eat. It takes the pressure off and you’re free to try and try again. This applies, of course, to many other skills. Once you get the basic motion down, than it’s time to put some pressure on and try it for real.

Get Baking and Share the Loaves

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San Francisco baker Josey Baker, who is the best example of nominative determinism I know of, was in Los Angeles this week to share his enthusiasm for whole grain sourdough bread.

Enthusiasm is an understatement. Baker always has a big smile on his face and spent hours, at a bake-off and book signing at LA’s new mill Grist & Toll, answering questions and sharing his knowledge. Baker’s love for bread making is infectious. Catch that infection and you’ll go down a very deep and geeky vortex of hydration ratios and cold proofing sessions.

At a panel discussion on Monday, moderated by KCRW’s Evan Kleiman, Baker announced that he’s working on an Einkorn baguette, the bread geek equivalent of proposing a new route up K2 sans oxygen. At both events he dropped a lot of advice for home bakers that I thought I’d share:

  • The refrigerator is your friend. Do a long proof in the refrigerator. This deepens flavor, allows flexibility in your baking schedule and can help a hearth loaf hold its shape in the oven.
  • Are you beginner? Make your bread in a loaf pan. It’s a lot more forgiving than trying to shape a boule.
  • Use a tip sensitive thermometer to determine if your rye bread is done. Baker didn’t discuss the exact temp, but I shoot for 210°F. For wheat loaves let color be your guide–you want just short of burnt. Baker said that most beginning bakers don’t bake long enough.
  • To keep dough from sticking to your countertop use water instead of flour. Wet your hands too. This way you also won’t be incorporating more flour into your dough.
  • Whole wheat soaks up a lot of water. Your hydration ratio could hit 100% or more. Wet dough like this can be tough to handle which is why Baker’s recipes in the book are around 80%. As you get more experienced you can start working with more water in the dough.
  • Baker said that he often gives a loaf of whole wheat sourdough to people who come in his bakery and say that they can’t eat bread. He says they come back and say, “Holy s***, I can eat this bread!”

To pick up the basics of home baking I can’t say enough good things about Baker’s book, Josey Baker Bread. Baker’s previous job was in science education which makes him the perfect person to write a baking cookbook. The book is laid out to teach you all that you need to know about bread sequentially. You go from a simple yeasted bread up almost to the Einkorn baguette level.

As Josey Baker says, get baking and share the loaves!

Quick Tip: DIY Decaf Tea

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EDITED  8/6/2014

It appears we have been taken in by a popular Internet myth.  A reader comment  (Thanks, Laura!) brought alerted me to an excellent post on tea myths and includes findings from (apparently) the only two studies to every test this methodology of reducing caffeine levels in tea.  These show that the reduction from a short steeping would be more in the 9-20% range, as opposed to 80%. To achieve 80% the steep would have to be over 5 minutes. It’s an interesting article, worth a read–it also addresses the complex subject of how much caffeine black and green teas actually have.

I’m not sure if this is common knowledge or not– my acupuncturist told me about it years ago–but you can decaffeinate your own tea.

As someone who loves (loves loves) hot black milky tea, even in summer, but who no longer gets along well with caffeine, this is a very good thing. Commercially decaffeinated tea is indistinguishable from dishwater. The DIY version doesn’t taste as good as “real tea”–the undiluted kind– but it’s better than the store bought stuff.

An additional advantage is that you don’t have to stock two types of tea–one type becomes two, saving shelf space. Note that this works best with loose leaf tea, but can be used with bagged tea, too.

All you have to do is brew your tea as you normally would, but start counting as soon as you pour the hot water. After at least 30 seconds but no more than 1 minute you pour off all of what has brewed so far. And yes, that’s all the good stuff. But by doing so, you are pouring off about 80% of the caffeine. It’s sad, but being all headachey and jittery is sad too, so I do it. Then you top off the tea leaves with fresh hot water and start the brew again. This one you drink.

Commercially decaf tea is lower in caffeine than this homebrew–just to be clear.  According to the Mayo Clinic, one cup of commercial decaf black tea can contain anywhere from 0 to 12 mg of caffeine. A regular cup of black tea ranges from 14 to 70 mg.  With this DIY process, a 70 mg cup would be reduced to 14 mg. A cup of regular green tea ranges from 25 to 45 mg, and can be decaffeinated by this method as well.

010 Erica Strauss of Northwest Edible Life

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In episode 10 of the Root Simple Podcast, Kelly and I have a conversation with Erica Strauss, professional chef turned gardener and self described urban homesteading fanatic. Her voluminous and amazing blog Northwest Edible Life offers practical advice on a wide variety of topics: food preservation, gardening, keeping livestock in urban spaces, kitchen tips and home economic hacks. Some of the many topics we touch on in the interview include:

You can also find Erica on Facebook.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here.

008 Grind Your Own Flour With Erin Alderson

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On the eighth episode of the Root Simple Podcast we speak with Erin Alderson about milling your own flours at home. Erin is the author of The Homemade Flour Cookbook and blogs at naturallyella.com.

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In our conversation Erin mentions that she uses WonderMill Grain Mill.

We also discussed where to get unique grains.  Erin mentions a few sources in her book:

Bob’s Red Mill
Arrowhead Mills
Nuts Online
Jovial Foods (source for Einkorn)
Lundberg Family Farms

I’ll add that if you’re in the Los Angeles area you can buy flour and grain at Grist & Toll in Pasadena.

After my conversation with Erin I briefly mention my purchase of a flour mill, the KoMo Classic Mill.

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store and on Stitcher. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here

Grillin’ and Tempin’

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At the risk of concern trolling the Independence Day holiday here in the States, it’s worth repeating why I love tip sensitive digital thermometers (and why I have a reputation as a food safety tyrant at the Root Simple compound). Here’s some advice from the aptly named Barfblog:

Always use a meat thermometer, Powell says. With practice, people can learn to stick them in burgers without slicing the patties in half. “Pick the meat up with tongs and insert the thermometer sideways, or through the top,” Powell suggests. Beef hamburgers should reach 160 degrees to kill germs, says Benjamin Chapman, assistant professor of food safety at North Carolina State University and a food safety specialist at the North Carolina Cooperative Extension. Temperature matters far more than color when it comes to meat, Chapman says; even thoroughly browned burgers can harbor bugs. “I was not a popular person at a family cookout a few years back when I insisted we ‘temp’ the chicken as we grilled in the rain,” says Donald Schaffner, a professor and extension specialist at Rutgers University in New Jersey. “But nobody got sick.”

See the rest of the article for more summertime food safety fun.

006 The Secrets of Kimchi With Hae Jung Cho

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Our guest on the sixth episode of the Root Simple podcast is professional cook and Los Angeles County Master Food Preserver Hae Jung Cho. During the show Hae Jung walks you through the ingredients you’ll need for a basic kimchi as well as how to make it. You’ll find the recipes below.

Hae Jung showing off her special kimchi gloves.

Hae Jung showing off her special kimchi gloves.

Here are the two recipes she walks through on the podcast:

Poggi Kimchi (Whole Napa Cabbage Kimchi)

Diced Radish Kimchi (Kkakdugi)

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During the podcast, Hae Jung mentions a book that contains just about all you’d ever want to know about how to make the many different varieties of kimchi: Good Morning Kimchi

Kimchi Classes
Hae Jung will also be teaching two classes in Los Angeles in August. The first will be on Saturday, August 2, from 10 am to approximately 1 pm. Here’s the info:

Details of Kimchi Class:
The 3-hour class will be a hands-on experience where you will make two kinds of fermented kimchi – napa cabbage (poggi kimchi) and radish (kkakdugi) – and one quick pickle.  We will then share a light meal of rice, kimchi, soup and other side dishes.  You will leave the class with three containers of kimchi and pickles that you have made, printed recipes and the know-how to replicate the kimchi at home.  Class size is limited to eight people. Cost:  $75.

Koreatown Market Tour
In addition, Hae Jung is organizing a guided tour of supermarkets and specialty food shops in Koreatown on the following Saturday, August 9.  This tour is geared toward people who want to shop for and eat Korean food at home, especially helpful for those who want to shop for kimchi ingredients. Cost: $25.

To sign up for the classes email Hae Jung at: [email protected].

If you want to leave a question for the Root Simple Podcast please call (213) 537-2591 or send an email to [email protected]. The theme music is by Dr. Frankenstein. Additional music by Rho. A downloadable version of this podcast is here. You can subscribe to our podcast in the iTunes store. Note that it takes a few hours for the new episode to show up in iTunes.

Is Purslane the New Kale?

Purslane in a Greek salad. Image: Wikipedia.

Purslane in a Greek salad. Image: Wikipedia.

Salty, crunchy, nutritious and edible raw or cooked, purslane (Portulaca oleracea) could soon be ready for its fifteen minutes of vegetable fame. We planted some this year in our summer vegetable garden and I’ve used it in a lot of salads this week.

Purslane is a common weed in North America. We’d love to be able to forage it in the neighborhood but, for some reason, it only tends to appear in unappetizing locations: usually the gutter (I think it needs a bit more water than what falls naturally from the sky here). You can eat the whole plant: stems and leaves. It has a salty and slightly lemony flavor reminiscent of New Zealand spinach.

There’s always a huge bin of it at Super King, our local Armenian supermarket. In Armenia it’s gathered in the wild and used either raw in salads or lightly sauteed.

There’s even a World Cup tie-in. The color of the plant in South America is associated with green/white soccer uniforms.

Have you grown purslane? Foraged purslane? How do you like to eat it?