The Kingdom of Bolinas

In Ernest Callenbach’s 1975 novel Ecotopia, Northern California, Oregon and Washington break away from the union to form their own highly groovy utopia. What Callenbach predicted may never have happened on such a big scale, but the small town of Bolinas, CA sure feels like it broke off from the rest of the country. Callenbach, in fact, featured Bolinas in the prequel to Ecotopia, Ecotopia Emerging.

Bolinas residents, famously, remove the turnoff signs on the highway on a regular basis, giving the town an independent vibe. One of the first things you see on approaching Bolinas is a series of picturesque organic farms, including Gospel Flat Farm which runs an honor stand along the road. When we visited they had some nice looking beets:

And a quirky mobile facility:

Bolinas also has a free store:

With its own unique signage:

And a multi-denominational alter thingy on the main drag:

With yet more creative signage:

The list of former residents reads like a who’s who of American art and poetry. It’s easy to see why. Bolinas has natural beauty, a good set of small businesses and all that fresh produce. It’s also the home of my favorite bloggers, publisher and author Lloyd Kahn

Kind of hard to find myself back in Los Angeles, the most un-Bolinas of cities!

Why My Poultry Waterer Kept Breaking

This is not a handle! How not to carry a poultry waterer.

After breaking two poultry waterers I finally figured out what I was doing wrong. Thanks to instructions that came with my third waterer I learned not to carry it by the outer handle. After filling the waterer you carry it with the inner handle as seen below:

The inner handle.

Using the outer handle with the waterer full puts stress on the metal and ultimately breaks the vacuum.

Our backyard “egganomics” took a hit–gotta account for those three waterers now!

A Favorite Tool: Canning Funnel

I heart my funnel

Mrs. Homegrown here:
If you are a home canner, you probably already have one of these and know how useful they are. If you don’t can, you might never have seen one before. I hadn’t before we started canning–and I don’t know how I lived so long without one. See, a canning funnel is just a wide mouthed funnel made to fit the mouths of canning jars. It allows you to quickly and efficiently ladle up hot food from the stove top into the jars. If you’re canning without one, heaven help you! Go get one! 
Even if you don’t can, you still need one. If, like me, you’re buying more dried goods and bulk foods, or drying herbs and vegetables, you probably use a lot of jars. Canning jars are an easy, efficient way to store food–far better than a cabinet full of random bags and boxes.You can see what you have and exactly how much you have. They line up in attractive rows. They’re also moth safe, if you’re using proper canning lids. I’m always transferring something or another into a jar–a bag of beans, a batch of dried mint, fresh yogurt–whatever. The canning funnel makes this a snap. Before I had one, I was either winging it and spilling a lot, or fashioning funnels out of newspaper. Life is just to short to chase beans around the kitchen. I use this thing every day.
Here’s a hint: If you have one of those little mesh tea strainers made to fit in the top of a tea pot (they always sell them in Asian markets), you’ll find it fits perfectly both into the funnel and into the mouth of a quart jar. Using one with your funnel, you can strain off tea, oil infusions, vinegar, etc. with no fuss or muss.

Garden Bench Ideas

I’ve been contemplating building a garden bench for our backyard so whenever I see a nice one I take a picture. The first example (above) resides in a nursery in Bolinas, California. Looks like one end is the ubiquitous cinder block and the other a pre-cast concrete pier. Add some driftwood (there’s a lot of it in Bolinas) and you’ve got a bench.

This arts n’ craftsy bench is in the San Francisco Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park. If I want to recreate this I’d have to pull out the router to do the fancy lettering. Would be kind of funny to offer naming rights to objects in our backyard, though.

Also in the Arboretum, this massive stone bench. Kinda hard to get those heavy stones up the steps to our house. It’s beautiful, but if I recreated it poorly I’d have an object that recalls the tiny Stonehenge gag in This is Spinal Tap. The amusing back story to many of the stones in the San Francisco Arboretum is that they came from a Medieval Spanish monastery that William Randolph Hearst bought and had disassembled, crated and shipped to California at great expense. A couple of fires destroyed the crates and markings and years of acrimonious debate on where to put Hearst’s monastery ended with many of the stones getting distributed around the park as benches and walls. Most went to the construction of a new abbey near Sacramento.

Really nice stonework here–a bench midway up a staircase on the Lands End trail overlooking the entrance to the bay. It’s the most beautiful place on the planet with a nice bench to enjoy the view. 

A bench at the Preston Winery, home of that olive oil I blogged about yesterday.

I don’t ‘think a short bench like any of these would work in our backyard. At home I’m either running around or completely horizontal. Perhaps some kind of lounge chair might work better or a really long bench with some cushions.Will have to consult with the boss . . .

The Making of a Great Olive Oil

Kelly admires the olives

Thanks to our good friend Dale Benson, Kelly and I got to see how a really high quality olive oil is made. Dale knows Matt Norelli, the wine and olive oil maker at Preston Vineyards of Dry Creek, an organic family farm near Healdsburg in Northern California. Matt was nice enough to let us watch the complicated olive oil machinery in action.

First the freshly picked olives go into a big hopper (above). They are then crushed and churned (below).

After the churning process (called malaxation) the pulpy olive mass goes into a high speed centrifuge:

Matt (left) Dale (right) with the centrifuge

At the end of all this machinery the oil pours out of a spigot and into a steel drum:

We all had the great privilege of tasting the freshly squeezed oil. I won’t soon forget that heavenly flavor. Matt told us that it takes around a ton of olives to make 25 to 30 gallons of oil. The olives come from a thousand trees that are tucked around the vineyards.

If you’re ever in Northern California the Preston Vineyard is well worth a visit. We got to taste a Barbera wine that they make–quite amazing. They also bake a delicious sourdough bread, keep a flock of laying hens and sell cured olives. And the scenery? Let’s just say it was difficult to come back to gritty Los Angeles.

Preston Vineyards website with visiting hours and map.

Lou Preston’s olive curing recipe (scroll down towards the bottom of the page).

New Year’s Resolutions

It’s a week for formulating New Years resolutions and I have two that stem from reading Ferran Adrià’s A Day at elBulli. Adrià is one of the main proponents of “molecular gastronomy” (though he rejects the term) a style of cooking that involves not just unusual ingredients, but the creation of entirely new forms of cooking. Think dry ice, freeze drying and culinary thoughtstylings such as “Spherification.” But back to my two resolutions which are:

1. Read, listen to and experience more divergent opinions. I checked out A Day at El Bulli from the library expecting to hate it. I’m all about quality ingredients (preferably homegrown) prepared in simple, traditional ways and will never attempt any of the ridiculous recipes included in this big picture book. That being said, I came away from thumbing through the book with an admiration for Adrià’s creativity even if I agree with Mrs. Homegrown description of the entrees looking like “dog vomit.”* It’s all too easy in the age of Google to succumb to “confirmation bias,” the errors that come with finding only what you’re looking for. While I wouldn’t buy a copy of A day at El Bulli, I’m glad a librarian chose it for the library and I’m happy I took the time to consider Adrià’s point of view even if I disagree.

2. Speaking of Adrià’s creativity–he spends half the year developing new methods in Barcelona and the other half the year working at the remote El Bulli. Making the time for creative thinking is essential, I believe. Even after co-writing two how-to books I find myself spending too much time answering emails and not enough time growing, tinkering and building things. Adrià has it right: if you don’t make that time for creativity it will fill up with unproductive duties. Of course Adrià has someone else to sort through the 2 million (no exaggeration) annual reservation requests.

* A clarifying note frome Mrs. Homegrown: I used the term dog vomit specifically in relation to their signature dishes based on flavor-infused foam. Many of their dishes are strikingly beautiful, art without doubt. But speaking as a dog owner, if you present me with a plate of chunks of food swimming in yellow foam, my mind is going one place and one place only. And when the foam is white instead of yellow, I’m thinking about spittle bugs, or pond life, or stinky beach foam. But you know…whatever turns your crank.

And speaking of those 2 million reservations, Mrs. Homegrown and I are taking a few days off to catch up with things–we’ll be back soon.

A Fast Bean Friday: Khichdi

Lame, lame, lame. I can’t even get it together to put up a picture. I’m just too crazy getting things together for the holidays. I suspect many of you are in a similar state. But I did want to post this, because I think you might want something wholesome and mild to eat over the next week, during your HRD (Holiday Recovery Period).

I learned about khichdi, a lentil and rice dish, very recently. Our friend Ari sent me a link to a basic recipe. It was nothing more than lentils, rice and cumin. I could not help but add some minced onion, but otherwise I followed this simple recipe and came out with something sort of bland but somehow extremely comforting and pleasant.

So I looked up khichdi, and discovered that it is an Indian comfort food–perhaps the Indian comfort food, if I can trust what I’ve read. Plain khichdi is baby’s first solid food. It’s also good for people with delicate stomachs. But it doesn’t have to be plain–it can be spiced up and elaborated with vegetables and toppings of ghee and yogurt. It’s the kind of food that college kids learn to cook when they first go off on their own. It’s the kind of food that each mom cooks a little different.

I’ve been playing with the basic formula, and it’s becoming one of our go-to “fast foods” around here. It cooks up in about a half hour, and you don’t even have to stand by the stove for that half hour. You just saute up the spices, add the rice, lentils chopped veggies and water, put a lid on the skillet and walk away. It’s also a great way to use up vegetable odds-and-ends. You can throw just about anything in there, and the great khichdi magic will make it all work, somehow or another.

I’m going to send you to this excellent post at One Hot Stove for the technique. It’s the best I found in all my research, and I’d just be copying them if I wrote it up here.

(ETA: I’ve been thinking about this over the holidays, and have decided to post the outline of the recipe here, just in case One Hot Stove ever closes up shop. I hate it when posts end up with dead links. I’d encourage you to read the One Hot Stove post if you have the option, because there’s more detail there, and a recipe for another dish called kahdi.  My recipe after the break –> )

Okay, khichdi is just rice, lentils and whatever spices and veggies you might have on hand cooked up into a pleasing mush in a skillet. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to get dictatorial about a recipe. It’s a technique.

This basic khichdi formula, as it lives in my head, is all you really have to remember–the rest is improvised:

The ratio of lentils to rice is 1:2, and the water is twice the measure of the rice and lentils.

For example, for two servings, I’d combine 1 cup of rice and 1/2 cup lentils. That’s 1 1/2 cups total of dry stuff. That means I’d need 3 cups of water.

The basic cooking methodology is to first rinse your lentils and rice, then lightly saute up the onion and spices in a deep frying pan. Then you dump in the lentils, rice and water–and veggies, if you’re using them– bring it all to a simmer, cover and cook on low for 1/2 hour.

(This is a recipe for white rice. Brown rice is better for the body, yes, but it does take longer to cook. Since khichidi is what we make when we’re starving and want food fast, we’ve been using white rice. If you use brown rice you’ll want to adjust the cooking time and water accordingly.) 

The details are where you get to swing. The details are both the vegetables and the spices. These you can add as you please.

Veggies:

This is your chance to use up whatever you have in your fridge, or those singleton veggies coming in from the garden, anything from chopped greens to peas to cauliflower…anything at all. Tomatoes, fresh or canned, are always a good addition. Pre-cooked, leftover vegetables would be fine, too. Chop it all up smallish. If you add lots of veggies, particularly the drier, root vegetable types, you’d want to add some more water to help them cook.

Spices:

It can be as spicy or mild as you like. I think whole cumin seed is a really important part of the flavor profile. I love the scent of whole cumin seed when it hits a hot pan, and it makes the rice fragrant. If you don’t have any whole cumin, I’d encourage you to hie off to the nearest ethnic market and get a goodly sized bag of it. Beyond that, it’s up to you, spice-wise. Salt and cumin only is a fine place to begin.

Still want more specifics? 


My procedure:

This is what I do, more or less. Say I’m making the two serving batch described above. I’d heat up a deep skillet, add a couple of tablespoons of oil and toss in:

1 small chopped onion, or 1/2 a big onion
Let that cook until translucent.

Then all at once, I add the spices, letting them heat just until they’re fragrant:

1 heaping teaspoon of whole cumin
1/2 teaspoon of turmeric
A big pinch of hot pepper flakes
Maybe a teaspoon of coriander seeds, since I’m into those lately
(One Hot Stove recommends garam masala, which I don’t have (yet), but you might.)

When the pleasing scent of roasting cumin starts rising from the pan, I add the lentils and rice and water. You don’t want to burn the spices.

Once the lentils, rice and water are in, I add maybe a half teaspoon of sea salt, stirring it into the slurry to distribute it evenly.

Next I’d add my veggies, if I have any. Anywhere from 1 to 3 cups, chopped. Sometimes we just have the lentils and rice, especially when we’re really tired and don’t feel like chopping. Or thinking.

Bring the whole mess to a simmer, then cover, turn the heat to low, and walk away for a half hour.

Come back to find dinner in a pan.  Scoop it up and serve with yogurt. Top with chopped parsley or cilantro, if you’re feeling fancy.

More Medlar Mania

We blogged about the medlar, a rare fruit that tastes kinda like perfumed apple butter, last week. We left out a few bits of medlar trivia and linkages.

First off that Caravaggio painting above, “Boy with a Basket of Fruit.” Please note the medlars:

In other breaking medlar news:

The fine folks at Winnetka Farms, responsible for this outbreak of medlar mania, have in-depth medlar factoids on their blog.

Graham Keegan, who went on the medlar harvest, shot some glamorous photos of us and, of course, the medlars:

Want to buy a medlar tree? Check out the selection at Raintree Nursery–enter “medlar” in the search thingy.

Anduhrew has a post on his blog about medlars, including Shakespeare’s shout-out to medlars in Romeo and Juliet.

And, lastly, CRFG Operative left a comment on our blog about growing medlars in San Diego with a warming about fire blight:

I was able to grow medlars down here in San Diego county with no problems. They were grafted on a pear tree and eventually fire blight killed the limbs they were on so I lost them. We are in a colder spot but still are only about 15 – 20 miles inland from the coast. If you have an existing pear tree you may want to graft medlar onto that so you don’t have to plant a whole tree to see if they will do well in your area. Make sure you sterilize pruning tools and grafting knives between cuts and do not share infected scion wood. This will help to control fire blight. If it does develop cut it out a couple of inches down into non-infected wood before it takes further hold.