Primitive Grain Storage Technique

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 11.17.50 AM

When thinking about technology, I like to play with the idea of what is the absolute minimum you need to get the job done.  This may be because I’m not very handy at building things, but yet have survivalist tendencies. So while I’m pretty sure I’ll never actually have any need for these skills, it’s fun to think about how I’d get by in a DIY world.

So I was delighted when I ran across this minimalist grain storage technique on the BBC documentary series, A History of Celtic Britain (2011), hosted by Neil Oliver of the Delicious Scottish Accent. (I am watching it on YouTube. Fingers crossed the BBC will not take it down before I finish it!)  I love this technique because while it is simple, it is far from stupid.

The technique is described by the Dave Freeman of the Butser Ancient Farm in Hampshire, where they’ve been experimenting with grain storage iron-age style (c. 400 BCE.).  Turns out all you need to do is dig a pit in the soil. The pits they dug are circular, and look to be 2 or 3 feet in diameter, and maybe 3 or 4 feet deep.

So you may ask, how can you pour grain into a hole in the ground and expect it to keep? The secret is a clay cap on the top. In the screen grab below you can see the cap and some feet for scale:

Screen Shot 2013-11-02 at 10.39.12 AM

If you go to YouTube,  you can watch this sequence starting around 52:36, but what Freemen says is that when the grain goes in the pit and is sealed with a clay cap, the clay blocks out moisture, air and light. Moisture is still available at the sides and bottom of the pit, of course, especially as they are in green Hampshire.

The grain touching the sides of the pit sucks the moisture out of the soil at the edges, and uses it to attempt to germinate. The germination process sucks up oxygen and releases carbon dioxide, effectively clearing the chamber of oxygen. At that point, as Neil puts it, “Time stops.” Nothing can grow, nothing changes. The grain cache keeps for at least a year, perhaps two years, and provided a very handy safety backup for hard working iron age farmers. And some very basic appropriate tech for modern armchair survivalists to ponder.

Bad Forager: Mistaking Hemlock for Fennel

hemlock

Hemlock (courtesy of Wikimedia)

Hemlock (Conium maculatum) and fennel (Foeniculum vulgare) are in the same family, the Apiaceae or carrot family (which also includes dill and parsnips and chevril and cumin and anise and corriander and parsley and Queen Anne’s lace and more–a very nice family, all around). Hemlock and fennel share characteristics of that family, having those distinctive umbrella shaped flower clusters which beneficial insects adore, but otherwise they don’t look a whole lot alike.  They do grow to about the same size and have similar growth habits, which means they look sorta the same if you look at them with squinted eyes. But fennel foliage is thready, whereas hemlock leaves are triangle shaped and lacy. And fennel has yellow flowers while hemlock has white flowers. If you bruise a hemlock leaf or sniff a flower it smells kinda nasty, whereas all parts of the fennel taste and smell deliciously like anise/licorice.

330px-Foeniculum_vulgare_-_Köhler–s_Medizinal-Pflanzen-148

Fennel (courtesy of Wikimedia)

Really, all in all, it’s easy to tell them apart.

Except when they are all dried out.

When they’re all dried out, as they are here after a long, bitter summer which has left everything brown and gasping, they look a lot alike. They are both whittled down to nothing but tall brown flower stalks with a few seeds still clinging to the uppermost stems. In this state, they can look remarkably similar.

375px-Hemlockseeds

Fennel or hemlock seeds? (photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

And so I was fooled while out on a food forage hike last week. It was grim pickings out there! Acorns seem to be the only thing left to eat in the wild until the rains come. I’d sampled something unpleasant which lingered on my tongue. I wanted to clear the taste and spotted what I thought was the remains of a fennel plant. I pinched off a couple of seeds and put them in my mouth. They didn’t taste like fennel. They didn’t taste like anything at all. So I think I spit them out. Maybe.

As I was in the midst of doing this, I said to our teacher, Pascal, “Here’s some fennel?” As I said it, I wasn’t entirely sure, because the seeds didn’t taste right.

He said, “That’s not fennel, that’s poison hemlock.”

Continue reading…

Gourmet Foraging and Advanced Acorn Processing

acorns

It’s acorn season in Southern California. I’ve long been interested in acorns, knowing that they were the staple food of the native people who lived here, and I’ve gathered and processed them before. However, once I have the acorn meal, I’ve never known exactly what to do with it. It’s highly nutritious, but I thought (wrongly!) that it was somewhat bland, and all I could do was incorporate acorn meal into baked goods. This weekend, however, I’ve had my eyes opened to the possibilities, thanks to Pascal Baudar and Mia Wasilevich.

pascal and mia at a picnic table

Pascal and Mia putting out a spread: acorn sliders, acorn and tapioca pudding, red cabbage and red onion slaw with wild juniper berries, chocolate truffles infused with white sage and dusted with dehydrated raspberry powder, plum membrillo and beer hopped with yarrow. We were there to learn about acorns, but they fed us well!

Pascal and Mia are high caliber foragers and foodies.  Check out their sites, Urban Outdoor Skills and Transitional Gastronomy, and if you live in the Los Angeles area, you’ll definitely want to experience their forages and food workshops. Their Meetup groups are The Los Angeles Wild Food and Self-Reliance Group and Foraging Foodies LA.

It’s rare to find folks who combine deep food know-how with a love of wild foods. Too often wild foods are considered mere survival foods. Pascal and Mia are using them to develop a uniquely Californian cuisine. Just check out this gallery on Transitional Gastronomy to get a quick picture of what I’m talking about.

On Sunday, Erik and I attended their acorn processing workshop, where we learned some valuable tips regarding acorn processing, and were privileged to eat the finest vegetarian burgers we’ve ever tasted — sliders made with acorns.

acorn sliders

I’ve downed a lot of veggie burgers in my time, and I’ve come to think of them mostly as excuse to eat bread and condiments. I’ve never had a veggie burger good enough to eat on its own. The acorn burgers they treated us to were not just “good for veggie” but some of the tastiest food I’ve ever encountered.

It turns out that acorns have umami qualities, that savoriness that characterizes meat and mushrooms, along with a delicate sweetness. You just need to know how to bring it out.

Mia did say that acorns have unique qualities in how they hold and absorb moisture, so she’s been learning how to handle them. Like any new food, it takes a while to learn the ways of acorns, but it’s worth it.

Here’s a recipe from Mia’s Transitional Gastronomy site for acorn timbales. If you serve these on a bun, instead of in a pool of (amazing looking!) nettle veloute sauce, you will have the acorn burger I experienced this weekend.  Do be sure to note the part where she asks you to refrigerate the mix before cooking. She told us that if the mix doesn’t have time to set up, the patties will fall apart. The recipe doesn’t specify how long to chill, but I believe she said overnight. (You could also make a log of the mix and freeze it for later, like cookies.)

I’m going to forage some acorns of my own this week and see if I can replicate those sliders. In the meanwhile, after the jump  I’m going to share some processing tips that I picked up.

Let us know if any of you process acorns,  and if you have any tips or recipes!

Continue reading…

Starting a Sourdough Starter Talk at Artisinal LA

Final-ALA-Poster-664x1024

I’ll be doing a short talk at Artisinal LA this Sunday October 13th at 4pm on how to start a sourdough starter. Artisinal LA (yep, the “A” word) is a showcase of local small food vendors. In case you’re not in LA this is what I’ll be demonstrating:

Mark Stambler, who co-founded the LA Bread Bakers with me and Teresa Sitz, will also be doing a talk on baking bread at 4pm on Saturday.

Kevin West’s Saving the Season

saving-seasons_west_small

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

Ipomoea_batatas_006

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?

Review: Quaker Lower Sugar Instant Oatmeal

lowersugar

I prefer long cooked oatmeal when I’m at home, but we’ve always packed instant oatmeal with us when camping. I think the habit goes back to when Erik and I took epic backpacking trips, and food weight was a prime consideration. Now, camping is a more gentle endeavor–but the instant oatmeal has become a tradition, an easy no-brainer for sleepy grey mornings in the woods, even though its nutritional qualities are highly suspect.

While doing a quick shop for a recent camping trip, I was reaching for the usual box of oatmeal when I saw one next to it marked “lower sugar.”  In my extreme naivete, I said to myself, “That’s fantastic! They finally cut down the sugar! They could easily reduce the sugar by half and lose none of the flavor.”

Well, Quaker did reduce the sugar significantly (from 12 g. per serving to 4 g.), but they did so by adding sucralose, the artificial sweetener known as Splenda (and kicking up the sodium significantly).

The front of the box says nothing about artificial sweeteners. Diet foods will have a jaunty “With Splenda!” label, but this cereal apparently isn’t being marketed that way. The only indication that you’re dealing with a fake sugar product is in the list of ingredients, which I hadn’t checked. And that was a mistake, I know. When treading the dangerous waters of industrial foodstuffs, you really do have to bring your magnifying glass–and a chemical reference–and read the ingredients.

So I proceeded merrily to the woods, and to  breakfast the first morning, where my camping buddy and I discovered that our oatmeal tasted dreadfully synthetic and sweet, like Diet Coke, or toothpaste. There are few flavors in the world I dislike more than the taste of artificial sweeteners. The worst of it was that the sweetness persisted in the back of my mouth for hours. Fortunately, it was only a two day trip, and we were able to scrounge together random snack foods to eat for breakfast the second morning.

Soon after, I attended a nature class where we camped and the food was provided for us. The instructors had picked up a box of this stuff unwittingly, not even noticing the “lower sugar” label. They were horrified when I told them it had sucralose in it, and took it off the table.

This is why I’m blogging about this. I have a sneaking suspicion (call me crazy!) that most Root Simple readers don’t buy many processed foods, but if I can save any of you from being stuck in the woods with nothing to eat for breakfast but a box full of yuck, my job is done.

Incidentally, I checked the Amazon reviews of this product, and they are quite good. There was only one outraged fellow, who said basically what I’ve said here. Everyone else thought the product was just fantastic. I suspect that folks who consume fake sugars on a regular basis would find nothing objectionable in the flavor.