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.

Citified Parched Corn

parched corn

Dried corn on the left, parched corn with peas and blueberries on right

I was thinking about trail food, and wishing for a portable snack which was not based on nuts and chocolate chips (though there’s nothing wrong with that!) or too sugary, like dried fruit or energy bars. Then I recalled parched corn.

Parched corn–dried corn which has been roasted–is one of those legendary Native American foods, like pemmican, which you hear about but don’t necessarily ever get to try. Parched corn is a lightweight, long-keeping, high-energy trail food. It can also be ground into flour and used in cooking. I have vague elementary school memories of claims that a warrior* could walk a whole day nourished on just a handful of parched corn.

(They did not mention that the warrior might be cranky at the end of the day–which I suspected might be the case. I’ve heard similar claims about Roman soldiers marching on handfuls of barley. Poor guys. But now that I’ve tried parched corn, I must admit that it is strangely filling. I managed to spoil my supper by doing too much tasting as I roasted the corn. So maybe the claim are real and–geek alert!– parched corn is our homegrown Lembas bread.)

Parched corn, being tasty and useful, was widely adopted by the Europeans who arrived here. So it was turned out to be the Official Snack Food of wagon trains and trappers and the like.

I went looking for a recipe and found my idea was hardly original. Preppers and outdoorstypes love their parched corn and there are plenty of recipes and tips out there. The only thing that I have to offer that is different is that this is a rather sissified, citified, consumerist version of parched corn.  And it is delicious. Chewy, sweet, a little salty… and most of all, corny.

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Arduino Homesteading Projects

Arduino Chicken Coop Controller

An Arduino-based chicken coop controller on Instructables.

At the risk of putting high tech in our low tech, I just took an introductory Arduino class at Crash Space along with the folks at Zapf Architectural Renderings.

An Arduino is a simple, low cost microcontroller thingy. It’s got a bunch of digital outputs, analog and digital inputs and a programmable microchip. You download a program onto the chip (either one you’ve written yourself or one of thousands of programs others have written) and then hook up electronics to the inputs and/or outputs. The Arduino can then be disconnected from your computer to run autonomously.

Aruduino Leonardo

You can get a nearly infinite number of devices, called “shields”, that plug into the Arduino–to give the device, for example, GPS or wireless capabilities. And there are vast libraries of programs for Arduinos–useful for non-programmers such as myself.

In the class we used the $24 Leonardo model of the Arduino, which is commonly used for prototyping. Once you figure out what inputs and outputs you need for your project you can get a cheaper Arduino with fewer features for use in, let’s say, your automatic chicken coop door opener.

I thought I’d compile a list of Arduino based project related to the “low-tech, home-tech” subjects covered on this blog. I’ll keep updating this list as I hear of more projects.

Chickens
Chicken coop controller

Gardening
Garden Bot (information about “an open source garden monitoring system). Includes links to other Arduino based gardening projects.
Gardening moisture sensor/watering controllers
An Arduino waterer that tweets!
DIY Hydroponics
Weather station

Homebrewing
Homebrewing Automation With Arduinos (Homebrewing.com article)
Arduino Controlled Homebrew Stir Plate
DIY UberFridge Controls Homebrewing Temperatures

Cooking
Sous-vide cooking
Kitchen Timer

Security
Garage door monitor
Arduino Security Hacks

Communications
Fun with a rotary phone!

Miscellaneous
Led candle (would look great in my hacked solar light)

And a shout out to the amazing bloggers at Holy Scrap, masters of using microcontrollers in clever low-tech ways. Follow their blog!

Please leave a comment with a link if you know of other projects that should be on this list.

Beans 101 (Return of Bean Friday!)

bowl of cooked beans

Simple is good.

As a follow up to the “Dollar Supper” post,  this post is about is the simple act of making a pot of beans. I make beans about once a week, the goal being to always have beans in the fridge. For us, they’re an essential staple.

(Readers new to Root Simple should note that we’ve done a lot of posts about beans, and have gathered favorite bean recipes from our readers. So if you’re looking for recipes, look for the Bean Fest tag. Check the recipes tag, too.)

A pot of beans, I’d argue, is one of the keystones of cheap eating. A big pot of beans costs little, and can morph into many meals over the course of a week. This not only saves money, but it saves time. It rescues you from the dreaded “what’s for dinner?” question. Beans got your back.

Skeptical? Here are a few very simple dishes you can throw together if you’ve got cooked beans in the fridge:

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One Secret for Delicious Soup–A Parmesan Cheese Rind

Parmesan cheese rind

Our cats seem to sneak into every food related photo session.

This is simple, but it works so very well. If you use real Parmesan cheese, like Parmigiano-Reggiano, save those rock-hard rinds. They are magic flavor bombs. All you do is add them to soup or bean dishes. Add them at the start of cooking, because they need a good long while to soften up and release their flavor goodness.

They don’t make the dish taste cheesy, but rather add that elusive umami (rich, savory) character to the dish. I think it would be redundant to use the rind if you are already using meat or bacon fat or the like in your soup, but for vegetable-based dishes, it really adds a nice touch.

As to how much rind you should add, it’s kind of hard to say, since rinds vary in thickness. I don’t think it’s necessary to use a whole rind per pot–I usually break my rinds into two halves. The average chunk that goes in my pots is probably less than an inch high by maybe 3 inches long. It doesn’t really matter how much you use. Even a little will help, and there’s no such thing as too much.

I also like to eat chewy, softened rind when the cooking is done, and consider finding it a treasure hunt. Erik doesn’t understand the obsession–and I don’t want him to, because I want it all to myself.

I suspect other hard cheese rinds would work as well, but I haven’t tried it, because the Reggiano is such a staple around here, we can’t afford other hard cheeses!

How To Manage a Compost Pile Using Temperature

compost temperature chart

I’ve always been confused about when to turn a compost pile. Some people suggest lots of turning while others don’t turn at all. I built a pile in December using a technique I learned from Will Bakx, soil scientist and operations manager of Sonoma Compost. Bakx recommends keeping the pile between 131° F (55° C) and 163°F (72°C) for a period of 15 days. The only time you turn is when the pile starts to dip below 131° F or to prevent the pile from going above 163°F.

The technique is simple–all you do is take the temperature once a day with a compost thermometer and write down the result on a calendar. The graph above is the result that I got from a pile made out of horse bedding, chicken manure from our hens, plant materials, straw and brew waste from a local brewery.

The red area on the chart is the thermophilic temperature range (135° -160° Fahrenheit). The dip you see at day 15 is the one time I turned the pile so that I could keep it in the thermophilic range. Using temperature as a clue to when to turn the pile has a number of advantages:

  • You can make sure that the pile does not get too hot. Above 160° F  you start to kill off the thermophilic bacteria that decompose your pile. To decrease temperature you turn and add more carbon material and water.
  • Washington State University recommends subjecting all of the pile to temperatures above 150° F to kill potential pathogens. I’m fairly certain that, with the turn I did at day 14, all of the pile got up to 150°F.
  • Weed seeds are killed above 130°F–another reason to watch temperature.
  • Failing to get high temperatures can be an indication of too much carbon or a lack of water. To correct, add more nitrogen and water and turn.
  • A loss of temperature could indicate that the pile is going anaerobic. The solution is to add more carbon material and turn.

Once the pile has had 15 complete days over 131° F you just let it sit. Compost is done when it is dark, smells like earth and you can’t recognize the original ingredients. It will likely be several months before it’s ready to use. I’ve found that I need to turn the pile periodically and add water after the initial thermophilic period due to our dry climate.

The mass of the pile is a factor as well–I’ve found that it needs to be a minimum of one cubic yard of material to start with. So I save and scavenge materials that I can use to build a pile all at once. The small trickle of kitchen scraps we generate each day goes into our worm bin.

Despite the geekery with using a compost thermometer, I’ve found that this method saves labor. Back breaking turning only happens when it’s necessary.

How to Freeze Food in Canning Jars

Canning jars are the best way I know to avoid using plastic when freezing foods. You’ll want to use wide mouthed canning jars like the one above, that come in pint and half pint sizes. Don’t use jars with shoulders–these jars will break due to the expansion that happens when food is frozen.

Kerr and Ball jars are marked with a freeze fill line that’s about an inch below the rim. Don’t put food you intend to freeze above this line.

Avoiding plastic lids is more difficult. Two piece Ball lids have a BPA coating (which, I’ve heard that they are considering phasing out). I suppose you could use a BPA-free Tattler lid, though I haven’t tried them. For freezing I use food grade plastic lids sold by Ball. Food is not in contact with the lid, so I’m not too concerned about the plastic, though I understand that some people won’t agree. At least the lids are more easily reused than ziplock bags. It looks like Ball now has BPA free lids.

But jars won’t work for freezing a pork chop–see an interesting thread on Chowhound about this issue that Root Simple reader Peter Shirley alerted me to. Long story short: home freezing is a product of the post WWII era of plastics and refrigeration, so there’s not a lot of alternatives other than the jar option and less than optimal aluminum foil and heavy paper. It’s hard to beat the moisture retaining and freezer burn excluding properties of plastics. The plastic-free meat freezing alternative is to bring back the corner butcher shop and buy fresh.