Root Simple is 10 Years Old

The original Survive LA logo.

The original Survive LA logo.

Today, July 13th, is the tenth anniversary of our blog. In that time we’ve published 2,731 posts (and have abandoned drafts of 700 more!), numbers which are surprising even to us. Turns out that adage about a journey of a thousand miles starting with a single step is true.

We’d planned to do more to celebrate this milestone, but I’d be lying if I said this was a good week, or that I am in a celebratory mood. My elderly mom is not doing well and our lives are focused on caring for her. As a result, Kelly and I may not be doing much blogging in the next few weeks.

But I don’t want to let this anniversary pass without saying something. Writing this blog has been a tremendously positive experience. The subject matter we cover, a somewhat scattershot collection of the home arts and random opinions, somehow attracts very kind and talented readers, and it is your enthusiasm that makes us keep writing. We’ve been able to meet many of you in person and I hope to meet more of you someday.

A Short History of Root Simple
On the afternoon of July 13th 2006 I had a flash of inspiration. I realized that my disparate DIY interests could be gathered together into a blog. I felt like I had discovered a kind of unified field theory of home economics. That day I began the Survive LA blog that was later became Root Simple.

It took awhile to find our voice. Survive LA had a jokey, tongue-in-cheek prepper vibe. Some of my early posts make me cringe today. Coincidentally, I just found on my hard drive an incredibly embarrassing, downright offensive mission statement dating from the first few months of the blog that I wisely decided not to publish. Ultimately, I found it more productive to take our subject matter seriously and dispense with the posturing. It just takes a while to find your voice. Thankfully Kelly started contributing to the blog, and she’s a far better writer than I.

I should note that this blog had one false start: a blog about our parkway vegetable garden. That 2005 blog went to two posts before becoming an internet ghost site that I’ve lost the password to access and can’t delete it. The parkway itself is, ironically, still a work in progress. Our podcast, now in its 89th episode as of this week, also had two false starts but is going strong.

Much ink could be spilled on the influence on bloggers like us of events such as 9/11, Katrina, Y2K, climate change and the 2008 economic meltdown on this blog and others like it, but that will have to wait for another post or even a book.

Another blog post could be written on how Facebook has siphoned off readers from our blog and others like it. Hopefully we’ll all figure out a way to make the interwebs non-hierarchical again and send the Silicon Valley robber barons packing.

How the Books Happened
When this blog was young, Kelly and I went to a party at the house of the Jodie Willie and Adam Parfrey, independent and creative LA-based publishers. They read the blog after the party and commissioned a book from us, because we were covering territory which they wanted to include as part of their Process Media Self Reliance series. Unlike most publishers, Jodie and Adam are risk takers. We owe them a big debt of gratitude for taking a chance on two first time authors. The book that they commissioned, The Urban Homestead, published in 2008, went through many printings and is still selling copies.

After the success of the first book we got a lot of offers to write a sequel (or just another version of the same book for bigger publishers!). We ended up writing a how-to book for Rodale called Making It.

Thank You!
Root Simple is a group effort and there are many people to thank: our web designer Roman Jaster and our logo designer Eric Thomason. Caroline Clerc did the cute cartoons that adorn our masthead. And we thank our publishers Process Media and Rodale. We’ve also met many fine journalists after the book came out, such as Michael Tortorello who wrote a nice piece about us for the New York Times and Johnny Sanphillippo kindly made a video about us that went viral.

Most of all we thank you our dear readers for your support over the past ten years.

A note from Kelly:

Erik has said it all well, but I just wanted to add my thanks to his. Thank you, all of you, for your gracious and continual input, support and love. Somehow we’ve been blessed with an incredible community of readers and commenters, and we are so grateful for you all.










Saturday Tweets: Urine Tanned Leather, Grass Huts and Unpleasant Design

How to Roast Coffee in a Whirley Pop Popcorn Maker


Of all the nutty kitchen projects at the Root Simple compound, by far the simplest and most rewarding has been home coffee roasting. Why more people don’t roast their own is one of the great mysteries of home economics. I learned how to do it at a workshop put on by the Institute of Domestic Technology, but, with a little trial and error, you can figure it out on your own.

A hand-cranked wood stove top coffee roaster circa 1890-1910. Image: Wikipedia.

A hand-cranked wood stove top coffee roaster circa 1890-1910. Image: Wikipedia.

The History of Home Roasting
Up until the 20th century if you wanted coffee you had to roast it yourself. Folgers, did not exist yet. But by the end of WWII, the Man deemed that all of us should drink crappy, stale, industrialized brown swill, so along with Wonder Bread and Twinkies, we got bad canned coffee and folks forgot how to roast. Then, sometime in the 1990s, the Man gave us Starbucks and demanded that we go into debt drinking slightly better coffee. It’s time to rediscover home roasting.

Why Roast Your Own Coffee?
The main reason to roast your own is that coffee, once roasted, goes stale within a week. With your Whirley Pop you can roast just what you need for a week. Another reason is that you can get really high quality, fair trade green beans for half the price of roasted coffee. And, since you are doing the roasting you can control the flavor exactly to your liking.

Choosing a Method
There are four general ways to roast coffee: drum roasters, hot air popcorn poppers, stove-top popcorn poppers and just a plain skillet. Each method has pluses and minuses. I’ve tried hot air popcorn poppers and stove-top popcorn poppers (such as the Whirley-Pop pictured at the top of this post). Between the air popper and the stove-top popper, I prefer the stove-top popper because you have more control over the roast and the device itself is inexpensive and suited to this use. The air poppers, on the other hand, tend burn out quickly when used for coffee roasting. I’ve never tried roasting in just a skillet (a traditional method in Ethiopia, by the way) and I’ve never sprung for a drum roaster due to the expense and lack of counter space in our kitchen. The stove-top popper seems to me a good compromise between expense and control of the roast. The folks behind the Whirley Pop make a more durable stove-top popper that I might switch to if I have to replace my current popper.

Fitting a Whirley Pop With a Thermometer
For years I’ve used a plain old unmodified Whirley Pop with excellent results. But recently I drilled a hole in the top and fitted it with a short, pocket-sized candy thermometer so that I can follow the progress of the roast through temperature readings. I’ll do a post about how to install a thermometer in the future, but until that time, you can look at these directions on the Sweet Maria’s website.

Whirley Pop Coffee Roasting Procedure
Roasting coffee is pretty straightforward and is basically all about adjusting the heat on your burner so that you don’t either roast the beans too quickly or too slowly. It takes a few times to get the hang of it, and while installing a thermometer in your popper will definitely help, you can certainly do it without the thermometer–it will just take a little more practice to get the timing right. The following directions are based on the ones in Kenneth Davids’ book Home Coffee Roasting. One big-ass caveat: your results may vary depending on your stove. These directions work on our O’Keefe and Merritt with a diffuser over the burner. An electric stove or a professional stove will work but will be different. I just tested this recipe on a portable butane burner and got better results with these slightly different directions from Sweet Maria’s. The caveat out the way, here’s how I roast coffee:

  1. Set a gas stove burner on low or your electric stove on medium and pre-heat the Whirley Pop for a minute or two. On our old gas stove, I use a medium burner setting and a heat diffuser. While the Whirley Pop is pre-heating, make sure you’ve got a colander at arm’s length and ready to dump the beans in when they are done roasting. Pre-heat the Whirley Pop, regulating the burner so that the temperature steadies at 475°-500°F (246°-260°C) and then put the beans in. If you don’t have a thermometer, pre-heating will be a matter of guesswork, most likely a few minutes at a low burner setting. Take notes each time you roast, and you’ll get a good system down soon, even without a thermometer.
  2. Add no more than 8 ounces/226 grams–by weight–of beans to the popper. If you use more than that and the beans won’t roast evenly. You could add less and roast more often for fresher coffee but I’m too lazy for this.
  3. Start turning the crank. For the first few minutes nothing much will happen other than you standing around turning the crank. You have to crank continuously or the beans will roast unevenly. Occasionally reverse directions for a second to un-stick any beans that get caught under the stirring mechanism.
  4. Watch the temperature. If it dips below 325°F/162°C, adjust the burner. Your goal is to hit and maintain a temperature of 350° to 375° F (176°-190° C). Note that the temperature of the beans will actually be much higher since they are in contact with the bottom of the Whirley Pop. If you don’t have a thermometer this will be a matter of trial and error as well as paying attention to the browning of the beans and the smell of the roast.
  5. Several minutes into the roast the beans will begin to turn light brown. Your first major milepost is “first crack,” the moment when they start popping like popcorn (though not quite as loud). This will be likely be around the 9 minute mark.
  6. You could stop at first crack for a very light roast, but most people keep going, shooting for a darker roast. After first crack, start paying very close attention to the smell and color of the beans. If you keep roasting, around the 12 minute mark you’ll reach second crack, which is lower in volume and sounds like crinkling cellophane. When to dump the beans out of the roaster depends on what kind of roast you are shooting for. Keep reading.

When to pull the beans
Don’t become a slave to the thermometer. Your thermometer is just a guide to get you started. More important is to use your ears to listen for the crack of the beans, your noise to smell the smoke and your eyes to judge the color of the beans. After several attempts you’ll get a good idea for where you should set your burner. Some roasting aficionados will mark their stove knobs with a Sharpie to pinpoint the ideal setting.

For a very light roast (too light, for my taste): Pull the beans in the middle of the first crack.

For a medium breakfast type roast: Pull when the first crack has ended but before the second crack begins. The beans will be a medium-brown.

For a “full city” roast: Pull just as the second crack begins. Beans will be starting to really smoke at this point.

For a dark roast: Pull in the middle of the second crack when the smoke starts to get pungent. The beans will be dark brown.

For a French roast: pull as the second crack reaches its peak. Beans will be very dark and shiny.

Cooling the beans and removing chaff
As soon as you finish roasting you need to cool the beans down as quickly as possible. Pour them into a metal colander or bowl. I take them outside at this point and pour them repeatedly between a colander and a metal bowl. The chafe will drift away in the process You don’t have to remove all of the chaff, so don’t get to obsessive about it. Note: decaffeinated beans do not have chaff.

Storing beans
Put your roasted beans into a lidded container but don’t put the lid on too tight. The beans outgas a lot of CO2 for the first 12 hours and continue to put off CO2 for a few weeks. CO2 is your friend. It pushes out the oxygen that makes beans go stale. This is why you should get an inexpensive coffee container with a valve. Roasted beans keep for around six days before starting to lose flavor.

Store your green beans at room temperature, away from sunlight. They keep very well in their green state. The clock only starts ticking after you’ve roasted them.

What can go wrong
Not much can go wrong other than having the burner too high or too low or pulling the beans too soon or too late. After you roast a few times you’ll get a good idea about how high to set your burner and roughly how long it takes for the particular style of roast you like. I would say that my most common mistake has been to pull the beans too early leading to a grassy and more sour taste.

When I first started roasting coffee I was surprised at the diversity of beans available. Some are tiny and some are large. This will effect the length of the roast. If you’re the note taking type, I tip my hat to you. Notes will help you will get more consistent results.

Roasting is a smokey process and will set off your smoke alarms. I do my roasting inside but shut the door to the kitchen to prevent the smoke alarms throughout the house from going off. Some people do their roasting outside on the side burner of a barbecue.

Where to Get Green Coffee Beans
I’m a big fan of Oakland, California based Sweet Maria’s Coffee. They carefully source their coffee and have very reasonable prices even including shipping. You can also ask your local coffee roaster if they will sell you green beans.

I shot a video of how I roast coffee that I will post as soon as I can make some time for editing. For Angelinos, I’ll also note that Kelly and I will be doing a coffee roasting demo at the Natural History Museum this Friday July 8th. That’s tonight, so we hope to see you later!

Now get roasting!









Solar Oven Triumph: Fluffy Egg Strata


Yesterday I made the most delicious thing I’ve eaten in a long time, and I cooked it in our Solavore Sport solar oven.

It’s an egg strata. I’ve never made a strata before, so making one in a solar oven seemed a bit risky, but I was rich in eggs and stale bread and the sun was out, so I decided to try.

For those of you don’t know, an egg strata is a casserole-type dish, typically served at brunch, which is composed of bread, eggs, cheese, butter and milk. It is indeed a fat bomb. But you know what? Fat is not evil.

My inspiration for this experiment came from a post called Six Beginner Recipes for Solar Ovens on the Eartheasy blog.

strata2I wasn’t going to write out a recipe at all, instead referring you back to Eartheasy, but now that I think about it, I made some changes so that the strata would fit in the pot which comes with the Solavore Sport, so I’ll write that up at the end for folks who are interested. Before that, though, I want to talk about solar cooking in general.

To be honest, learning to use a solar oven is not very straightforward. In a way, it feels like learning how to cook all over again, but with the handicap of not knowing how long any dish should spend in the oven.

Imagine if back when you were making your first batch of cookies, your mom’s old Betty Crocker told you they would be done anywhere between one and four hours. Or perhaps the recipe would not even include a time or temperature recommendation, but just said the cookies would be done when they were done. Can you imagine your tears?

Welcome to solar cooking. Recipes are guidelines or even hints rather than instructions. You have to learn to judge the weather, the timing, the temperature and the type of food to determine how long a dish should cook, or indeed, if that particular dish should even be attempted that day.

For instance, we have still not had success in cooking a pot of beans in the solar oven (more on that in a future post)–but we do at least know that bean cooking is an all day venture.You have to get the pot in the oven early, and the sun has to be out all day. But other dishes may only need two to three hours of cooking. Morning cooking is more of a “sure thing” while starting a dish at noon is risky, but possible. You learn to plan accordingly.

Another learning curve is figuring out what kind of foods do well in a solar oven. Eggs, it turns out, really like solar ovens! This is logical, because eggs do well when cooked low and slow. (Have you ever tried the Eggs Francis Picabia recipe in the Alice B. Toklas Cookbook?) I think any kind of quiche/egg pie/strata type recipe will do well in a sun oven, and intend to explore this more.

The Eartheasy egg strata recipe was precise for a solar recipe–it said it should cook at 325 F for 60 to 90 minutes. My oven did not get to 325 F. Despite having solar reflectors on, it was operating at 250 F, so it took longer–2 hours and 40 minutes in total.


The egg soup from which this glory arose

These are my notes from the process. I find notes help prevent future mistakes. And I think this gives you a sense of what it is like to work with a solar oven.

9:30 AM- 10:30AM: Preheated the oven to 300. Pro-tip: preheating solar ovens is not absolutely necessary, but really helps speed things up. Meanwhile, the strata soaked in the fridge, which is very good for it.

10:30 AM: Strata in. Temperature dropped to 250 from opening door. The strata is in a black enamel pan with a lid. It is chilled. Reflectors and clips are on. Nothing else is cooking in there at the same time.

11:30 AM: Oops! Left it too long unattended while I screwed around on the internet. It got off center with the sun. That, combined with the coldness of the pot has dropped the oven temperature to 225 F. This is not a disaster–it just means the cooking has slowed down. As long as you keep the oven temp. above 180 F (82 C), the food is cooking and bacteria is not growing. I re-center it with the sun. (All this means is you look at the shadow of the oven. If you see a big shadow coming off one side, it’s not centered. You should see almost no shadow.) The temperature started climbing again as soon as I repositioned the oven.

12:30 PM: Two hours in, still 250 F. Don’t know what’s up with that, why I can’t get back to 300 F or above, but it is plenty hot enough to cook. I open up the oven and check progress inside the pot. It looks surprisingly good–the eggs have puffed up and it looks firm on top. I judge it to be almost but not quite done. I could have done a toothpick test, but was too lazy to go back in the house and get one.

1:10 PM: I check it again, and now it is gorgeous, definitely done. It has pulled away from the sides of the pot and gained a nice brown finish on top, which I did not think would happen. I had expected something more like a steamed pudding, frankly.

Unable to believe I had made something so pretty in a sun oven, I danced into the house carrying my prize in mitted hands. Unfortunately, Erik had gone off to deal with a plumbing emergency at his mom’s house, so did not get in on the strata lunch party.

Sad that Erik was missing this, but strangely happy in my primitive backbrain to have the whole thing to myself, I cut myself a huge slice. It was amazingly fluffy and light and decadently rich at the same time. I cut myself a second piece. And then a third. And then I made myself stop before I got sick. Do you know how when something is really good you just want to keep eating even though you know you are quite full? That was my relationship to this strata: disfunctional, yet beautiful.


Here she is in the oven at the 2 hr and 40 minute mark, ready to come out.

Solavore Sport Strata (based on the Eartheasy Strata)

Serves at least 4-6, more if you have other things to eat

The main adjustment I made to the Eartheasy recipe was in adding more eggs and milk, because the enamel pots which come with the Sport are pretty big, and I found that the original recipe’s quantities didn’t quite cover the bread. It’s normal to have some bread poking up out of the mix, like glaciers in an eggy sea, but you don’t want the bread left high and dry. If you’d prefer a more modest 5 egg recipe, follow the link.

Thankfully, our hens have been busy, so I have more eggs than I know what to do with!

One last note: I added a 1/2 cup or so of cooked asparagus because I had it on hand (that’s the green stuff in the pics) but I don’t think it added a lot to the dish, flavor-wise, and it got overcooked in the process. I suspect it would have been better if it had gone in raw. I’m not including it as a recipe ingredient.


• Fresh or stale bread, enough to cover the bottom of the cooking pot in two layers. Crusts are okay, they add texture–more crusts=more rustic. You can cut it up any way you want to make it work. There does not have to be complete coverage. I used two stale sandwich-sized sourdough rolls for mine.• 2-3 cups grated cheese. I used half good cheddar and half good Parmesan, because that was what was in the fridge.
• 2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
A couple of sprigs of fresh thyme (leaves stripped, stems discarded)
• 2 tablespoons melted butter, plus more for baking dish
• 8 large eggs
• 2.5- 3 cups milk (I kept topping it off so I kind of lost track of the exact quantity. Also, I used an equal mix of half n’ half and water because I didn’t have milk.)
• 1 teaspoon sea salt (This was a smidge too much, probably due to the Parmesan being salty. I’d use less next time, unless my cheeses were more mild.)
• 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper


You need one lidded cooking dish for solar cooking. I made this recipe in one of the 9″ round enamel pots which come with the Solavore Sport oven.


Start by greasing the pan with some butter.

Next cover the the bottom of the pan with one layer of bread. Sprinkle half of the the cheese over the bread. Lay down the second layer of bread and cover that with the rest of the cheese. As I said above, don’t sweat it if there are gaps between the bread slices, or if it overlaps. It’s all good.

Next beat all those eggs, then mix all the rest of the ingredients: the milk, the melted butter, the herbs, the salt n’ pepper.

Pour the egg mix over the bread. Let it soak in. The bread might float a bit before it takes enough water aboard to sink. You should have pretty good coverage of the bread. A little poking above the eggs is fine.

The bread needs time to soak so it really breaks down. The magical thing about strata is that the bread and egg and cheese meld into one, creating a magical new substance if given a chance. So give it an hour at least– or better, make it the night before you cook.

Cook this covered in a pre-heated solar oven. At temperatures above 300F it may cook in as little as 60 to 90 minutes. Around 250 F, it may take 2. 5 hours. Lower than that? Longer! Just keep it above 180 F. Look for the top to be firm and dry. Ideally it should brown a little and even pull away from the sides of the pan.

Variations: Of course you can add in vegetables or cooked breakfast meats like ham or bacon or sausage.  As per my note above, I found my cooked asparagus overcooked by the end, so more delicate veggies could probably start off raw.

As I was eating, I found myself fantasizing about a 70’s style “Mexican” strata with diced canned jalapenos mixed through it, served with salsa and heaven help us…sour cream. More fat! On reflection, I think this notion might be a an actual childhood memory. The ghost of brunches past.

I also think that a bit of Dijon mustard would have added a nice touch to the flavor, just a spoonful, stirred into the egg mix at the beginning (though not with the hypothetical jalapeno variation!). I’m going to try that next time.