Project Update: The Carbonator

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A year ago on Valentine’s Day, Erik gave me a homebrew carbonator so that we could sparkle our own water at home. It’s a wonderfully industrial looking item, and sturdy as all heck. I’m pleased to say after a year of hard use, it’s still doing going strong and has become an indispensable part of our life.

It has saved the use of…gosh…I don’t know…at least 100 San Pellegrino/Gerolsteiner bottles over the course of the year. Back in the day, I bought a couple of bottles of mineral water on every shopping trip. That’s a two-fold savings: bottles kept out of the waste stream (recycled, yes, but still) and enough in cash savings to reimburse us for the carbonator–which cost around $150 in parts.

The best thing is that the CO2 tank lasted for 11 months of constant use (sparkling maybe two gallons a week) before needing a refill. And when we did refill it–down at the local homebrew shop–it cost all of twenty bucks. Twenty bucks, my friends. That is our sparkling water budget for the next year.

Happy as I am with the device itself, we could be doing better exploring its possibilities. We could be experimenting with adding minerals to the water to imitate famous mineral waters–there are recipes out there. We could also be experimenting with force carbonating other types of drinks, but for the most part we’ve been pretty content just drinking the water straight with a twist of lemon, or a splash of shrub. Maybe this year we’ll step up to the plate and get more experimental.

Erik’s how-to post about how to put one of these things together, and how to use it.

•  My initial post, in which I bubble over with excitement.

The Jerusalem Cookbook

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We are late to the Jerusalem party–it came out in 2012 to much acclaim. But maybe you are perpetually out of the loop, like we are. If so please know that we are in mad, passionate love with this cookbook. The authors are Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamim, London restauranteurs and the authors of Plenty and Plenty More. In Jerusalem, they explore the dynamic flavors and cross-cultural influences of their home city. Despite our de-cluttering efforts, this one is a keeper. I’m going to buy a copy when the library pries this copy out of my hands.

Our friend, Kazi, introduced us to Jerusalem. She hosted a wonderful dinner party last week and cooked all of the courses from this book. Now, Kazi is an expert cook, so I’m sure she doesn’t really need a book to put on an good spread, but she assured us that she was experimenting on us: she’d never tried any of the recipes before, and was cooking them straight out of the book as written. The meal was astounding. Of course, her beautiful presentation and the excellent company had much to do with it, but the recipes were consistently fresh and bright and complex without being fussy.

I find that I need a good cookbook every once in a while to inspire me in the kitchen–otherwise I fall into a morass of laziness and we end up eating burritos and “stuff on toast” night after night.  This one is doing the trick. I’m currently fantasizing about what I’ll cook next.

My highest compliment to this book is that I can honestly say I trust it 100%. I fiddle around with most recipes, doubling the spice, halving the sugar, questioning the baking time, etc. These I don’t. This book is well thought out and  tested. The recipes work. I’d highly recommend following them exactly as written.

Jerusalem covers all the bases, from appetizers to dessert. It has lots of meat and fish recipes, but it also has plenty of salad, vegetable, bean and grain recipes, so it’s friendly to both vegetarians and meat eaters. We’re mostly vegetarian, and we feel like we’ve only scratched the surface of the meatless offerings so far. Though there are a lot of veg recipes which use eggs, yogurt and cheese, there are also good vegan-friendly offerings.

To give you a feel for the book, these are the recipes we’ve enjoyed so far. All are excellent:

  • Swiss chard fritters (with feta and nutmeg)
  • Roasted cauliflower and hazelnut salad
  • Roasted butternut squash and red onion with tahini and za’atar
  • Acharuli khachapuri (pastry boats filled with soft cheese, topped with a baked egg)
  • Baby spinach salad with dates and almonds (…and fried pita! Erik declares this his new favorite salad ever)
  • Couscous with tomato and onion (cooked to have a crispy bottom)
  • Semolina, coconut and marmalade cake

Enjoy!

Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities

CTsample3Neither Al Gore nor the US Government invented the internet. The team behind the Whole Earth Catalog, published between 1968 and 1998 are the true inventors of our electro-global village. The Whole Earth Catalog was a thick book of crowd sourced reviews that, in terms of its content, felt a lot like a print version of what we used to call the World Wide Web.

Catalog editors included NoCal luminaries Stuart Brand, Kevin Kelly and Lloyd Kahn among many others. In addition to inventing the interwebs, they also managed to define the eclectic topics contained within the urban homesteading movement. A confession here: when it came time to write our two books, Kelly and I leafed through our old copy of the Whole Earth Catalog to make sure that we didn’t leave any topic out.

Kevin Kelly kept the Whole Earth Catalog ethos alive through his Cool Tools review website. That website has morphed back into print in the form of Cool Tools: A Catalog of Possibilities. This new book is just as addictive as the Whole Earth Catalog.

The gadgets, books, websites and ideas that qualify as Cool Tools are carefully chosen, useful and often inexpensive or free. Some things I picked up from thumbing through this book for just a week:

With both Cool Tools and the Whole Earth Catalog, there’s also a lot of stuff that fits into the fantasy category: fun to read about but I’ll probably never do. I’d include igloo making, boat living and camouflage here. But you never know . . .

And, thanks to Cool Tools editors Elon Shoenholz and Mark Frauenfelder, you’ll find a few Root Simple reviews tucked into Cool Tool’s 463 pages. And, yes, one of the first items mentioned in Cool Tools is a book on decuttering, perhaps as a caution to use Cool Tools as a guide to what is useful, not an invitation to collect stuff.

How many of you spent the 90s (or an earlier decade!) like I did, thumbing through an old copy of The Whole Earth Catalog?

On the documentary, Fed Up, and giving up sugar

Last week Erik and I and our friends John and Kendra went to see Fed Up, the new documentary about America’s messed up industrial food system.

Now, Root Simple readers know that the system is bad already. This is why we like to cook at home and grow some of our food when we can.  It’s good news that this film, with its celebrity backing and a publicity machine, may get the message out to people who need to hear it. But is there anything worthwhile in it for someone already trying to disconnect from the evils of the industrial food system?

Well, the message about sugar was news to me. Not that I ever thought that sugar was a health food, but this film lays out how very hard it is on our systems, how sugar, not fat, not lack of exercise, is behind rising obesity rates as well as the rise in type 2 diabetes and a host of related diseases–and most worrisome–how sugar is hidden in almost every prepared and packaged food on grocery store shelves, especially those marketed as healthy, low fat products.

They also describe sugar as an addictive substance, pointing out that given a choice, lab rats choose sugar over cocaine.

Call me a rat and give me a wheel. I’ve been off all sugar for 6 days now, and while the first couple of days were easy, the last few have been surprisingly hard. I’m twitchy and moody.

This surprises me, because I didn’t think I was that much of a sugar fiend to begin with. I don’t drink soda. Erik and I don’t keep cookies and ice cream around the house, and we don’t have dessert after dinner. Nor do we eat prepared foods loaded with hidden sugar. We don’t even drink fruit juice.* My sugar intake comes from just a few sources: a) almond croissants from the corner bakery (oh, how I want one right now!), 2) jam on toast, 3) squares of dark chocolate or the occasional salty caramel, 4) dried fruit* and 5) kettle corn.

Is that so bad? I miss it all. I want it back. Now.

And honestly, it’s not so bad. I’m doing this because lately I’ve felt a little out of control, as if I’m seeking sugar more often and more consistently, and eating more of it in a sitting. This fast has been a useful exercise in clarifying my relationship with sugar.

Anyway, as far as Fed Up goes, what it proved to me is what I already know: that you can’t trust the government to protect you from corporate interests, and that corporate interests are not our interests, and that if we want things done right, we have to do it ourselves. No new news, right?

And when I say we have to go DIY, I don’t only mean actions within our own homes, I also mean agitating for change from the grass roots level, whether that be fighting to get junk food out of your local school, to supporting bans on advertising sugar to children, to encouraging local farmers and farmers’ markets, because change is sure as heck not going to come from the top down.

Regarding sugar, Robert Lustig, an endocrinologist at UCSF and one of the primary talking heads from Fed Up has a long, science-filled lecture explaining exactly why sugar is so bad on YouTube. It’s called Sugar: The Bitter Truth. If you don’t need convincing about the food system as a whole, this may be more useful to you than Fed Up.

I’ll end the sugar fast in a few days. The American Heart Association recommends that adults limit their intake of sugar to between 6 teaspoons (for women) and 9 teaspoons (for men) a day. That sounds pretty sensible, and I’ll try to keep to that, or less, after the fast. But when you realize a 12 oz. can of Coke has 10 teaspoons of sugar, you know most of us get far more than that on a daily basis.

*Fruit, fruit juice and dried fruit:  This is a little confusing so I thought I’d add a note. According to Lustig, fruit juice is pure sugar, and is no different to your liver than a soda. He’s all for us eating fresh fruit because a whole piece of fresh fruit comes with fiber, and fiber slows the passage of the sugars through the system, and has its own benefits besides. Also, folks don’t tend to binge on fruit, because it’s filling, so it’s a safe treat. Dried fruit has the fiber, but it’s far too easy to eat a lot of it. I might eat one apricot in a sitting, but given a jar of dried apricots, I’ll eat six without blinking. That’s a lot of sugar! Lustig recommends dried fruit as an occasional treat.

Josey Baker Bread: One Bread Book to Rule Them All

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I’ve been teaching bread baking for a few years now through both the Institute of Domestic Technology and the Los Angeles Bread Bakers. When students ask what book they should get I have to hold up half a dozen. Not any more. Now I can send students to just one book: Josey Baker Bread.

The appropriately named Josey Baker (who used to work with another baker named Dave Miller–who mills his own flour, naturally) has written a perfect bread baking course in book form. Everything I’ve figured out about teaching how to bake is in here–start with a simple white bread, graduate to sourdough and then start baking with whole grain. Having trouble shaping a loaf? Bake in a loaf pan instead! Stretch and fold instead of kneading. Simulate a commercial bread oven by using a cast iron pot. And use a damn scale! There’s even the browned butter chocolate chip cookie trick I learned from a friend who owns a restaurant. Has Josey Baker wiretapped my phone?

The book is written in an amusing and breezy bro-speak. Here he is truth telling in the introduction to his scone recipe,

Most scones suck. Why do they suck? Because they’re dry as hell. Don’t act like you do’t know what I’m talking about! When was the last time you had a scone and didn’t say, “I don’t know, this is just a little dry for me.” Or maybe you haven’t even had a scone in a long time, because the last one you ate was so crappy. . . Are they healthy? No, they are not. But what the hell, exercise feels good, so eat as many as you want and then go ride your bike, baker.

darmmountainrye

My successful attempt at the Dark Mountain Rye recipe.

Speaking of healthy, I’ve been concentrating on the recipes in the sourdough-based whole grain section of the book. Like Baker, I believe that a lot of people self-diagnosing themselves as gluten intolerant might just be allergic to mass produced supermarket bread. Baker’s Dark Mountain Rye is an example of how whole grain bread should be made and it’s and easy to bake.

In addition to the conventional breads Baker covers, there’s an interesting method of baking pizza in a home oven, a gluten free loaf that I’m going to try and some simple pastries. I also like the flexibility Baker builds into the recipes. Many can either be baked in a loaf pan or shaped into a boule. And there’s always the option to retard the dough in the refrigerator to give more depth of flavor as well as flexibility in when to fire up the oven.

Josey Baker Bread will appeal to both beginners and experienced bakers. Finally the collective wisdom from the recent bread revolution is in one book. If you want healthy, good tasting bread in your household Josey Baker Bread is a great place to start.

Farmstead Egg Guide & Cookbook Giveaway

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You probably know Terry Golson from her addictive website hencam.com. We were lucky to meet Terry when she was on a book tour here in Los Angeles a few years ago. She’s got a new cookbook out, The Farmstead Egg Guide & CookbookThe book begins with a purchasing guide to eggs followed by a brief introduction to what’s involved in keeping chickens. Recipes–everything from omelettes to deserts–make up the majority of the book.

Terry is on a blog tour, and has dropped by Root Simple to share a recipe and give away a copy of The Farmstead Egg Guide & Cookbook. To win the book, all you have to do is leave a comment an this post. Tells us something about your own chickens, or tells us whether you’d ever consider keeping chickens. We’ll draw a winner at random.

Here’s one of the recipes from the book:

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Zucchini and Mint Frittata
Mint is not just for iced tea and garnishes on plates! Used in a frittata, it adds just the right savory and herbal note to the vegetables. A frittata can be finished in the oven, or it can be flipped over in the pan and finished on the stove. This recipe gives directions for the stovetop version, but you can also finish it in a hot oven as in the previous frittata recipes.

Makes 6 servings
3 tablespoons olive oil
½ cup sliced onion
1 red bell pepper, julienned
1 pound zucchini, sliced
8 large eggs
¼ cup grated Parmesan cheese
¼ cup chopped fresh mint
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1. Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a 10-inch heavy skillet. Sauté the onion and bell pepper until soft and golden. Take your time on this step to fully develop the sweet flavors of these vegetables. Stir in the zucchini and continue to cook over low heat until the edges begin to brown. Set aside in a bowl.

2. In another bowl, whisk together the eggs, 3 tablespoons of the Parmesan, the mint, salt, and pepper.

3. Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon olive oil in the skillet. Pour in the eggs and then distribute the vegetables on top. Cover and cook over medium-low heat for about 15 minutes, until the eggs are set but not yet firm on top. Several times while the eggs are cooking, take a flexible spatula and run it along the edge and under the frittata to make sure the eggs are not sticking to the pan.

4. Take the skillet off the heat. Put a dinner plate over it and flip the frittata onto the plate. Then slip the frittata back into the pan, now with the bottom side up. Top with the remaining 1 tablespoon Parmesan.

Cook for a few minutes more, until the eggs are fully cooked.

Salt Sugar Fat

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There are times I think this blog and the lifestyle it expounds come off as too extreme. But then I read a book like Michael Moss’ Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, and I begin to think it’s not extreme enough.

Salt Sugar Fat is a history of the marketing of junk foods. Moss’ sources are a mix of food scientists and disenchanted former food executives–most of whom, of course, are wealthy men with personal trainers who never eat the unhealthy foods they marketed.

These scientists and executives begin with a tactical advantage: we’re all hard wired to crave salt, sugar and fat. The more the better. Let’s be honest. It takes enormous willpower to resist that bowl of potato chips. I dove into a bowl of chips this weekend and probably consumed a week’s worth of salt and calories in one sitting.

Moss stops short of calling it a conspiracy but, in an interesting chapter, details the takeover of home economics associations by food industry representatives in the latte half of the 20th century. Lessons about cooking from scratch receded and were replaced by how to use cake mixes and shop for appliances.

But the primary focus of the book is how food industry has found ways to amplify our cravings. They’ve carefully calculated “bliss points,” the exact amount of unhealthy ingredients to add to a particular food to make us desire more. Moss quotes Kraft food CEO Geoffrey Bible,

The simple beauty of the Kraft General Food challenge is that everybody eats . . . This is the part of the new job I’m especially enjoying: The potential is at once limitless and incredibly daunting. The fascinating challenge is to discover unmet needs surrounding this behavior that has been with mankind since day one. Thee needs are there, waiting in the detritus of modern life to be excavated and defined as likely today to center around time or convenience as they are around taste, value or nutrition, and as likely to involve the subtleties of how, when why, or where people eat as much as what they eat. So that’s point number one. We don’t create demand. We excavate it. We prospect for it. We dig until we find it.

Bible is just rediscovering what Giodorno Bruno wrote about in his 1591 manual on manipulation, De Vinculis In Genere (On the binding forces in general–combined with his explorations of the art of memory this is what got Bruno in trouble–not his scientific endeavors). Bruno called manipulators like Bible, “soul hunters.”  Their tool is eros in the widest sense of that word: desire. They dig deep into our cravings and exploit them through the imagery of advertising. Combine abundant fossil fuel and government subsidies that make processed foods economical with advertising unhealthy food and you get a public health disaster.

Thankfully this is one of those issues we can all work on. We simply have to start cooking from scratch.

Book Review: The Urban Bestiary

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Humans in our culture operate under a rather crazed delusion that we are not a part of nature. We fight nature. We defend nature. We pack up our tents and visit nature. I am as susceptible to this delusion as anyone else, but I do try to remember that I am a creature of nature, living in a vast human habitat which exists as part of a web with the entire ecosystem. Remembering that I am not apart from nature sometimes requires a little mental judo–and some well chosen bedside reading.

Thus my recent reading has included books like Being Animal and What the Robin Knows (reviewed here) and most recently The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, author of the excellent Crow PlanetThe Urban Bestiary is an exploration of the intimate intersection of humans and other urban animals, such as coyotes and raccoons and opossums and squirrels.

In The Urban Bestiary, Haupt introduces us to our close neighbors, the animals which share our land, and sometimes even our homes. She gives us a naturalist’s overview of their behaviors, physiology and life cycles, interspersed with personal anecdotes and interviews with wildlife experts. The resulting animal portraits are as fresh and delicately drawn as watercolors.

The chapters cover:

Coyote • Mole • Raccoon • Opossum • Squirrel (and Rat) • Black Bear • Cougar • Birds  • Starling, House Sparrow, Pigeon • Chickadee • Crow • Hawk and Owl • Chicken • Tree • Human

The truth is we think we know all we need to know about these animals–these pests which overturn our garbage cans, scare off the native birds, eat our cats or scare the bejeezus out of us on the porch late at night–but we don’t, not really. We see what we want to see and understand very little.

This book goes a long way toward filling in that knowledge gap. And with knowledge comes understanding–and maybe even peace. With some understanding, we can appreciate  for the bits of wildness our animal neighbors bring into our lives. Haupt is not saying we should romanticize them–and am I- but rather that we can see them with a naturalist’s eye, enjoy encounters for what they teach us, and using our knowledge of an animal’s behavior, mitigate the conflicts that arise when our needs clash with theirs.

If there is anything controversial to be found in such a lovely book, it will be in this idea, which runs like a thread through the chapters. Haupt shows how common “solutions” to our backyard clashes are short sighted, and don’t even work, and offers alternate suggestions and strategies.

You see, if we kill or relocate an animal from our yard, a new one will simply move in to fill that niche. It’s a losing game. (And trapping and relocating is no kindness at all, believe you me.) Unless we plan to embark on a mass eradication program on a bison-like scale, the solutions lie with us, and our own behavior and attitudes.

Most of this is commonsensical, and not scientifically controversial. It is basically the practice of IPM (integrated pest management).  We can bring in our cats and small dogs at night. We can seal up our attics and basements. We can stop leaving pet food and garbage outdoors. We can build sturdy chicken coops. Name your pest, and there’s something we can change about our environment to make it less attractive to them. As they say, the best offense is a good defense. Beyond that, we can accept occasional messes, losses or frights as part of what it means for us to be alive, to be animals interacting with other animals in the world.

I’m writing this with a particular passion right now, because recently someone in our neighborhood (not our near neighbors, but our general area) hired a company to set snares for coyotes, and a video of a coyote thus strangled surfaced on a local news blog. I don’t doubt that those neighbors were driven by fear, or grief, to hire this trapper, but the death was so cruel and ultimately so pointless and stupid, given the number of coyotes in the area, and the incontrovertible forces which are driving them here, it made me very sad.

To be clear, The Urban Bestiary is not an no-kill polemic. I’ve perhaps put too much emphasis on the aspects of the book which focus on management and co-existence. The great majority of the book is about the animals themselves. Imagine you had a friend who was a naturalist who could explain the mysteries of the familiar yet unfamiliar wildlife which flit and shuffle through your backyard over a nice cup of coffee.  Someone who could offer you an introduction to their world, and a chance to see your own world in a new light. This would be that book.