Primitive Grain Storage Technique

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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:

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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.

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!

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How to save tomato seed

tomato seeds rotting in water

Seeds fermenting in water. Not pretty, but pretty important! The jar got shaken up while walking it outside for its photo op., so it looks a little cloudy and messy. In your jar, you should see a layer of scum on top of the water.

I can’t believe we haven’t posted about this before–it seems like we have, but I can’t find the post if this is so. Perhaps we wrote about it in one of our books…the old brain is getting foggy.

It’s easy to save seed from your favorite tomatoes. Seed saving in general is actually a little tricky. You can’t just save the seed from any old vegetable in your garden and hope that it will yield plants like the parent. Cross-breeding is an issue. Professional seed savers use all sorts of sacks and screens and boxes to ensure that busy bees or flirtatious winds don’t make romance happen where it ought not. Otherwise you get acorn squash crossing with melons and who knows what not. It depends on the type of vegetable you want to save seed from–as well as what else you’re growing around it.

Tomatoes, however, are a pretty safe bet for seed saving. They are self-fertile, and the structure of their flowers makes cross pollination difficult. Our seed saving Bible, Seed to Seed, says that there are only three types of open pollinated tomatoes that you can’t save seed from (without putting them in isolation):

  1. Currant tomatoes (L. pimpinellifolium)
  2. The potato leaved varieties of L. lycopersicum
  3. Any fruit born from double blossoms on Beefsteak-type tomatoes. Double blossoms are prone to cross-pollination.  You can save seeds from fruit that came from a single blossom

Odd, but simple! You can basically save seed from almost any heirloom/open-pollinated variety you’re likely to  be growing. You cannot save seed from hybridized plants. These are the type you are most likely to find in the nursery–plants bred for performance, not seed saving. This would include popular breeds like Early Girl and Better Boy and Sun Golds.  If you’re not sure if your tomatoes are hybrids or not, just Google the name. The Internet is wonderful that way.

The process of saving tomato seed is simple. All you have to do is rot off the protective gel sack which surrounds each seed. This gel inhibits germination, keeping the seeds from germinating while still in the tomato. In nature, the gel rots off while the fallen tomato sits on the ground. Here, you will speed the process along with some water. In addition to removing the gel sack, this fermentation process also kills many seed-borne tomato diseases.

How to Save Tomato Seed

  1. Choose your best, tastiest tomatoes for seed saving.
  2. Scoop out the seed pulp and drop it into a jar. Or just squeeze a whole tomato over the jar.   It’s best to just squeeze cherry tomatoes. (You can use food processor, too, if you’re doing big batches.)
  3. Pour a little water over the pulp. It should cover the pulp by say, 2-3  inches or so.
  4. Cover the container and let it sit for a few days (3 days, roughly–weather makes a difference), until white or grey mold forms on the surface of the water. If you do a big batch, you will smell the rot. Don’t worry about it–just keep the dogs away! Watch for the mold to form and continue on to the next step. The mold may be impressively fuzzy, or it may just be a slight opaque slick on top of the water. Don’t let it sit in this state too long, or the seeds will start germinating in their bath.* If you’re in doubt as to whether it is ready, it’s ready. Far better to stop a little early than to let the seeds accidentally germinate.
  5. Pour off the moldy water, reserve the seeds.
  6. Add clean water back to the seeds and give the water a swirl. Let it settle. Any bad seeds will rise to the top. If they do, pour them off.
  7. Strain the seeds with a fine strainer (a teas strainer is fine for small batches) and spread them out to dry. They need to dry on something which will wick water away, because it is important that they dry quickly–otherwise they might germinate. Coffee filters work well, as do pieces of window screen, or paper plates. Tomato seeds stick to paper towels, so if you use those you may end up having to plant the seeds on their little bits of towel.
  8. Once they are bone dry, transfer to envelopes or glass jars for storage. Be sure to label!

*I just lost a batch to germination. I blame the heat. It didn’t seem like they’d be fermenting that long, but after I drained my seeds I saw the tiny little white nubbins poking out of the seeds. Now I have to begin again. This is one reason why you should not wait ’til your last tomato to think about saving seeds. Also, this is a reminder to keep a close eye on your projects!

ETA: We’ve had some comments from what I’ll call the Paper Towel School of seed saving, and I thought I’d amend this post to point out that another method is to just spread some tomato pulp on a paper towel and let it dry out. The seeds will stick to the towel, so you store the whole towel and when planting time comes next year, you tear the towel into tiny pieces and plant the pieces. This does save steps. The method described above is the Official Method, and the method I’ve always used. I’ve not tried the paper towel thing myself, but it seems sensible. However, as  I understand it, the fermentation process in the water bath method kills diseases, so it is considered good etiquette to put your seeds through this process if you plan to share them with others.

Also check out the comments for more on the mystery of cross-pollinating tomatoes!

Watering 101

standing water in a bed

This is watering 101. Those of you who have been gardening for a while have probably learned this the hard way. Those of you just starting out may find it helpful.

Soil lies.

It looks wet, but it’s bone dry a fraction of an inch beneath. Or it looks dry on the surface, but it’s actually quite wet below. Or it’s wet, but only for one inch down.

The only way to find out if you’ve watered your garden enough is to stick your hand into the soil and make sure. You can’t garden without getting your hands dirty.

This is one reason why one of the most common questions, “How much do I water?” is one of the hardest to answer. The answer will vary, depending on your soil, the weather, the method you use to water, how often you water, and what you’re growing. In the end, you just have to use your hands and your common sense to figure it out. There is no formula.

In the picture above, you see the surface of the soil in one of our raised beds. This is imported soil, the kind that comes in bags. It doesn’t hold water in pools like clay soil does, it doesn’t sink in fast as it would in sandy soil. It’s actually pretty tricky to water because it seems like it should sop up water well, but I think all the organic matter in it actually slows absorption.

At any rate, I’d been watering this bed for some time with a sprinkler hose, waving it back and forth until I got bored. The water sunk in at first, then started to pool on the surface, and the pool lasted for a long time. At this point, a beginner might think she’d watered enough, but I’ve been fooled often enough before.

I reached down into the bed and scraped at the soil. A fraction of an inch beneath the wettest area, the soil was still perfectly dry. That’s what I tried to capture in the picture below–see all that dry soil? It was just beneath the surface of the puddle.  I wasn’t done watering.

dry dirt under water

In general, you need to be sure that the soil in the bed is evenly moist.  Not soggy and soppy, not dry, but pleasantly moist and springy. Over-watering can be problem as much as under-watering. If you know your soil tends to hold water, it may pay to dig before you even start watering. You may find you don’t need to water at all.

In a regularly watered bed, the deeper you dig, the more retained moisture you are likely to find, but the first few inches dry out fast. Older, deeper rooted plants don’t mind this so much if the top dries out, because they can reach deep for water, but if you’re dealing with young or shallowly rooted plants, you have to be very careful with the first five inches or so. Don’t trust your eyes. Trust your hands.

Recycled Dish Scrubby

scrubbie

My dish washing accoutrements consist of cotton dish cloths–which steadily devolve lower and lower down the Rag Hierarchy as they age–and homemade scrubbies. I make my scrubbies out of net produce bags, as you can see above.

I know. I know. It’s stunning, isn’t it? A marvel of artisinal craftsmanship, if I don’t say so myself. I didn’t think anyone could top my scrubby until I ran across this:

scrubby

The folks at Mooberry Farm actually take the time to stack and fold their net bags into a rectangle, then they blanket stitch the sides together, and then crochet around the edges to make it extra cute.

Now that’s a stylish scrubby! Check it out.

I think I’m going to have to make one of these.

Why are the pockets on women’s clothing so lame?

trout sewing

Trout likes himself a sewing project. Especially one he can lay on. Or gnaw on.

What is with women’s clothing? Why are all of the pockets sized somewhere between tiny and non-existent?

There seems to be some misguided belief that women inherently carry lots of stuff, therefore must carry bags, therefore do not need pockets. This is false. Women carry bags because we have inadequate pockets, and we figure we may as well carry extra stuff–because why not? We have to carry the !&^%$  bag anyway. It’s a terrible cycle.

Another belief seems to be women don’t want pockets because they will bulk up the sleek lines of our fashions, making us look chunky through the hips. And it is true that form-fitting clothing does not leave room for bulky pockets. There are indeed occasions and outfits that call for a handbag. For instance, I am happy to carry a clutch when I shimmy into my black latex sheath for a special night in the dungeon, believe you me.

But what about jeans with fake back pockets and front pockets only as deep as your first knuckles?  Or what about business trousers with pockets too shallow to hold a phone? Or suit jackets sans any pockets at all. True confession: I have inner breast pocket envy. The inner breast pocket is the one of the most secure, useful pockets ever created, and yet they are scarce as hens teeth in women’s clothing. Whence this tyranny??

Or case in point: what about a casual jacket with motorcycle/military styling which promises a plenitude of pockets, only to disappoint?

jacket full

I found this jacket at a thrift store recently. I’d been wanting a light summer jacket, and was so excited to find one that fit that I bought it without checking the pockets for size and…genuineness. Is that a word? (FYI gentlemen readers: fake pockets run rife in women’s clothing.) I was lucky that all the pockets on this jacket are at least real.

But I was disappointed to discover that the lower pockets, with their promising, practical zipper closures, were only 3″ deep, rendering them impractical for carrying anything bigger than a tube of lip balm or maybe a little cash wrapped around a drivers license.

sad pockets

Ya call these pockets? Hang your head in shame, Ann Taylor LOFT.

I want to wear this jacket, so I decided to expand the pockets into usefulness.

Now, I’m no sewing maven. I hesitated even to post this because I am absolutely unqualified to teach anyone to sew. Rather than admitting I’m pretty much incompetent, I prefer to think of myself as a primitive or naive sewer. Sort of paleo. It’s all about the bone awls for me. Basically I can hem and mend things. I sew by hand because I can’t remember how to thread our old sewing machine.

I suspect the proper way to enlarge pockets is just to replace them entirely, but the stitchery and zipper closures on this particular pair of pockets intimidated me, so I decided to enbiggen them by simply adding fabric to the bottom of the existing pockets.

I should add here that any alterations shop (like the sort attached to dry cleaners) would replace pockets for you, and probably wouldn’t charge you all that much. But here it the Casa de Tightwad, any money is too much money.  This is what I decided to do. Imitate at your own peril.

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How do you care for cast iron?

19th century kitchen

They really knew how to rock cast iron in those days.

A couple of months ago I found an 8″ cast iron skillet on the sidewalk. It was a newer model pan, already seasoned, hardly used. One of my neighbors had apparently decided they didn’t like it, or need it.

I snatched that puppy up. Not that I need more cast iron–I have three skillets in varying sizes, and no room for another. But to me, cast iron is solid gold. So I gave it to a friend who didn’t have one, who’d never cooked in cast iron before.

Initially she seemed skeptical of the whole “no soap” thing, but now she has discovered how versatile a cast iron skillet is, and how it makes everything taste better. The precise selling point may have been the night she made apple crumble in it, a discovered the delightful crust of caramelized sugar that had formed on the bottom.

Now that it is her go-to pan for everything, she’s developed many questions about its care. Questions I don’t know if I can answer properly. This is what I told her, and it is all I know:

  • Never wash it with soap, just wipe it out with a damp cloth.
  • Never scrub it with a pad or scouring powder. If stuff is stuck to the bottom, soak it, then scrape the residue off  gently with the flat edge of a spatula.
  • If it looks dull, oil it.

I know there are whole web sites devoted to the care of cast iron, and these have competing doctrines, especially when it comes to the seasoning process. I don’t have the strength to sort out these arguments, so I just muddle on. “Good enough” is sort of my all-purpose mantra. But my friend has lots of questions. So I thought I’d throw this out to you all:

How do you care for your cast iron? What do you season it with? Where do you stand on the soap issue? How do you get stuck stuff out of the pan. How old is your pan? What’s the most useful piece you own?

Of course, I don’t mean that you have to answer every single one of those questions! But if you have any advice you’d give to a newbie cast iron owner, please do let us know.

Roasted Asparagus

This, believe it or not, is a cake! I found it at Sweetopolita, where she'll tell you how to make it.

This, believe it or not, is a cake! I found it at Sweetapolita, where she’ll tell you how to make it.

Erik’s aunt just called to ask me how I cook my asparagus, because she wants to make it for company tonight. It’s so easy to make perfect cooked asparagus that I forget that some people find it intimidating. Maybe that’s because of those dedicated asparagus cookers they sell, and associations with silver tongs and Hollandaise sauce and hotel brunches. Yet the truth is all you have to do is roast it.

Here’s a universal rule: everything tastes better roasted. Even vegetables. I can’t think of one vegetable that doesn’t roast nicely, and asparagus is one of my favorites. All vegetables are roasted the same way, basically, but here’s an asparagus specific recipe.

Roasted Asparagus

Pre-heat your oven to 400F (is that 200C?)

Trim the pale, woody ends off of the asparagus. Lay the asparagi down on a cookie sheet or in a baking dish–or hey, even a roasting pan!  Somewhere they can spread out in a single layer. Drizzle them with lots of olive oil, then get in there with your hands and toss and massage that oil in, so all the stalks are completely coated. Lay them back down in a single layer. Give them a generous salting and a grind of pepper and chuck the pan in the oven.

Roast for about 30 minutes at 400F until tender but still retaining a bit of spine. Fat stalks might take longer, skinny, less long.

  • You may like to push the time in the oven until the asparagus browns, if you like that roasty, almost-burnt flavor, like I do.
  • You can roast them with lemon slices on top, too, if you swing that way.
  • While they’re good hot, they’re also fine at room temperature, or even cold out of the fridge in salad-like applications.

The Upside Down Fire

This is how I make a campfire fire now. I used to use the teepee method, or some half-assed rendition of the teepee method, and I often had trouble with such fires. They required babying, rebuilding, etc., and they burned fast. This fire is built in the opposite direction: heavy stuff on the bottom, lighter stuff on top, tinder on the very top. Basically, the finished product looks like a bird’s nest sitting on a log cabin.

This style of fire is great because it takes care of itself–build it, light it, and get on with your other chores. It lasts a long time too, as it makes very efficient use of the wood. I’ve done this many times, and it works like a charm.

The video above is a little shaky, but the technique is clear. He’s building a big campground fire in a fire ring. It’s not necessary to use so much wood–the technique scales. Here’s a link to another video showing the same method with smaller sticks and a more bushcraft-y technique.I’d recommend watching both.

The only thing I’d add to the technique in the video above is that I would lay down a larger layer of thin sticks (the 1″-2″ diameter stuff) on top of the big logs. Somehow he pulls it off with remarkably little small stuff. I found that if I didn’t have a good supply of twigs and small branches on top, the big logs in the under layers didn’t catch fire fully.

In video #2 the fellow builds a complicated teepee structure on top with his twigs. I don’t think that’s necessary, either. I mean, it’s okay, but it seems like work. You can just pile lots of little stuff on top any which way and light it.

It’s like Goldilocks. I think the first guy has too little tinder, the second guy, too much. But to each, his own. You’ll find your own way–and you’ll love this fire.

ETA: I forgot to mention that a Vaseline soaked cotton ball or a lint firestarter or some pieces of fatwood or something similar can really help foolproof the fire. Just tuck the firestarter under the small stuff. Not at all necessary, but helpful if you’re a beginner, or if conditions are bad.

How to make your soup wonderful: Wild food soup stock

nettle soup stock

We’ve mentioned urban foragers and foodie extraordinaires Pascal Baudard and Mia Wasilevic before. They not only forage food, but go on to make really good stuff with it. One of their websites is Urban Outdoor Skills, and I like to go there to check out a section called the Food Lab, where they talk about food products they’re experimenting with, and give how-to’s.

A few months ago Erik brought home a beautiful bouquet of nettles. I decided to try one of the Food Lab projects that intrigued me — Wild Food Soup Stock Preserved with Salt. This is no more than a bunch of finely chopped vegetables, herbs and greens (wild or not) mixed with plenty of salt to preserve it.  I made mine with onion, celery, parsley and those nettles. It makes a strong, salty paste that keeps well in the fridge. My first jar is almost finished, and I’ve been using it for months. It still looks good.

Pascal says this is a traditional European method of making instant soup stock, but instead of using it as a stock by itself, I’ve been using it as a finishing touch at the end of cooking up a pot of something.  It really helps at that tricky moment when you’re standing over your soup pot, spoon in hand, asking yourself, What does this soup need? Somehow it improves the flavor in a subtle, magical way–and in the meantime, garnishes the soup with tiny bright confetti flecks of green. Note that this stuff is super-salty–so I hold back on the salt until I add this, and then add more if necessary.