Choosing the Perfect Tortilla Press

81oH3xJUE3L._SL1500_ When we moved into our house back in 1998, we used to frequent a neighborhood Mexican restaurant down the street. The decor in this place had accrued like barnacles over the many years it was in business: dusty paper flags, Dia de los Muertos trinkets, waiters with pompadours wearing toreador outfits, and mirrors, lots and lots of mirrors. When you had their stiff margaritas (the strongest in town) the room would spin. Combined with those mirrors, the effect was unintentionally psychedelic. The food? A commentator on a local blog that covered the restaurant’s recent closing described it as, “like ‘Taco Tuesday’ at an elementary school in Kansas.”

One of the many reasons the food at this place was substandard was the store bought tortillas they used. For some reasons, few Mexican restaurants here make their own tortillas. Tired of substandard Mexican fare, I resolved to make my own tortillas. Thus began Root Simple’s “Taco Tuesday.”

The first step was to find a tortilla press. I got a great tip from a library cookbook: get a cast iron tortilla press. Unlike the flimsy ones I found at our local market, a cast iron press will last several lifetimes. And their heft helps when it comes time to press the masa into discs. And I opted for the smaller, 6 1/2 inch press as small tortillas are used in authentic Mexican street food.

Making corn tortillas is much simpler than I expected. All you do is get masa harina (a limed corn flour), mix it roughly 50/50 with water and let the dough rest for a half hour to an hour. Next, you roll the masa into little 2 inch balls and press them between a plastic bag inserted into the tortilla press. The last step is to heat them on the stove for one minute on each side.

Making your own masa from scratch is much harder (I tried it once for tamales and found that it’s a job best outsourced). But you can bet I’ve bought my last supermarket corn tortilla. From now on they’ll be made in our own cast iron press.

Update: One of the members of the LA Bread Bakers, Gloria, put her vote in for the traditional wood press. Cooks Illustrated Magazine also recommends a wood press. Gloria also sent along the following video which shows how you can make your own wood tortilla press:

In the next edition of Taco Tuesday, I’ll describe what we’ve been serving in our tacos.

As Above, So Below

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Inspired by the response to my post on the need to keep our gardens dark, I decided to reclaim my childhood telescope from my mom’s garage and get it working again. It occurred to me that I haven’t looked up at the night sky in a long time. What a shame. This past week I’ve been thinking about how important it is to look up at the stars–just as important, I think, as staying in touch with the plants, insects and animals that make this earth a paradise.

The design of this telescope is called a Dobsonian, after its inventor John Dobson, who passed away earlier this year. Dobson’s life took an unusual trajectory. He went from being a self described “belligerent atheist” to a monk in the Vendanta society to co-founding the San Francisco Sidewalk Astronomers.  Most of his life was spent bringing the night sky to people around the world and teaching people how to make their own low-cost telescopes.

As a monk, Dobson could not afford expensive materials. He kept the design inexpensive by using a simple mount and cheap materials: wood and cardboard. My Dobsonian was made by the now defunct Coulter Optical Company out of particle board and a cardboard concrete form. Its large 13.1 inch mirror makes it perfect for looking at nebulas, galaxies and star clusters even in light polluted urban areas.

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Primitive astrophotography. I held my camera up to the eyepiece to get this photo of the moon last night.

I have to thank, in particular, Rob J of the San Jose Astronomical Association who sent some links about how to host a star party, how to host a school star party and inspired me to get the telescope out again.

Here’s some Dobson related resources:

Sidewalk Astronomers “We take telescopes TO the public – on street corners, public parks, in front of bookstores -wherever there are crowds of people.”

How to build a Dobsonian Telescope.

Have Telescopes Will Travel–a short film about John Dobson.

Ten Uses for Palm Fronds

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Like the sound of one hand clapping, one of the great unanswerable Zen koans of life in Los Angeles is, “what the hell do I do with all these palm fronds?” Those outside the few places on the earth these monsters grow will be amused to hear that great masses of the fronds drop (80 to 100 feet) in the slightest breeze. Disposing of them is a constant chore but, thankfully, there are a few things you can do with them.

Continue reading…

Saturday Linkages:

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The Japanese art of Furoshiki–a way of making packages with a reusable cloth. Via No Tech Magazine.

Zero waste shopping in Japan with Furoshiki: http://www.notechmagazine.com/2014/04/furoshiki-zero-waste-shopping-in-japan.html …

A solar powered grain grinder: http://www.notechmagazine.com/2014/04/solar-powered-grain-mill.html …

Bee Friendly Gardening In The Pacific Northwest http://www.nwedible.com/2014/04/bee-friendly-gardening.html …

Nesting for a baby with a small (carbon) footprint http://wp.me/p2SaWz-us 

GR takes on shade gardening: Full sun to part shade. Really? | Garden Rant http://gardenrant.com/2014/03/full-sun-to-part-shade-really.html …

How To Make and Freeze Guacamole http://www.nwedible.com/2014/03/make-freeze-guacamole.html …

Sleek Angle On a Community Garden Shed http://lloydkahn-ongoing.blogspot.com/2014/03/sleek-angle-on-community-garden-shed.html#.UzuV0Idkuj0.twitter …

Pop-Up Plaza Enhances Art Walk, Hints at What Could Be in Leimert http://la.streetsblog.org/2014/04/01/pop-up-plaza-enhances-art-walk-hints-at-what-could-be-in-leimert/#.UzuT7Zz9t1A.twitter …

The terminal stage of oil addiction: http://www.thenation.com/article/179113/we-are-now-terminal-stage-our-fossil-fuel-addiction …

Opting Out: An Introduction – Pacific Standard: The Science of Society http://www.psmag.com/navigation/nature-and-technology/opting-introduction-77049/#.Uzs9IwgcJoo.twitter …

How to host a star party: https://sites.google.com/site/aancsite/articles/host-a-starparty …

For these links and more, follow Root Simple on Twitter:

Quick Relief for Poison Oak

young poison oak

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I went camping in Poison Oak Central last week, and though I tried to be careful, I got a kiss on the back of the hand from our rakish woodland friend, Toxicodendron diversilobum (Pacific or Western Poison Oak).

It was, miraculously, the first time I’ve ever had poison oak. I don’t know how I’ve been so lucky so far.  I’ve heard that rubbing native mugwort on the skin can prevent/treat the rash, and I’ve done that a few times when I suspect I’ve brushed against some poison oak. (Mugwort almost always grows where the poison oak does.) Whether all these emergency poultices prevented anything or not is impossible to prove, because I’ve never contracted a rash until this time. I’ll keep doing it, though.

After avoiding the green bandit so long and so well, I was almost happy to get hit at last–in this mild way, mind you–because I was curious to see what the rash would look like and feel like. My exposure really was a kiss. It landed exactly where a gentleman would press his lips to a lady’s hand. Three watery blisters appeared on my knuckles after about 24 hours, accompanied by lots of general redness and itching.

First I poulticed with both mugwort and plantain, but that only worked so-so. Then I hied off to the internet and sifted through the many folk cures until I found one I liked from good ol’ Dr. Weil. He recommended running hot water over the rash, as hot as you can stand it. I don’t remember that he said how long you should do this, but I decided to do it as long as I could stand it, which in my case was probably a minute or so. He said the heat will cause the itching to flare temporarily, but then suppress the itching for hours, and speed healing as well.

Results? It worked like a charm for me. Of course, you want to be careful not to scald yourself and add insult to injury! But with that caveat aside, I definitely recommend giving it a try. I particularly liked that I could do the treatment before bed and fall asleep without itching, and be good until morning, when I’d do it again. All in all, once I discovered the hot water cure, I had bug bites which bothered me more, and lasted longer, than the poison oak rash.

What do you do for poison oak/poison ivy? And to anyone who has been lucky enough to run into both plants, is there a difference between the two in terms of the rash? Is one worse than the other? I’m only familiar with poison oak.

A New Reality

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We received an email from a casting agency searching for talent for a reality show where the participants will live on a remote farm, grow their own food and come up with their own method of governance.  The series will make use of the usual reality show plot device of having participants vote each other off the show. The agency wanted us to put out a casting call.

We won’t do that. I’m tired of stories that sow discord and hold up our lifestyle as something impossible to accomplish. The underlying message? Stay on that couch, don’t try to change the world, just buy the crap our advertisers sell. These type of realty shows are also a rigged version of the prisoner’s dilemma in which the cooperative option (what most people tend to choose in stressful situations) is not allowed.

We need to tell a different story. Bloggers in the urban homesteading movement can join together to cross-promote each other’s efforts. We can continue to offer an alternative through our writing, video, live webinars and, of course, face to face meetings.

I need to step up to the plate too. Years ago I worked as a video editor and cameraman at a university television station and at a PBS affiliate. I need to put everything aside and shoot some video! We don’t need the big networks and the “reality” they churn out. We can tell our own stories. Our narrative will be about people cooperating and sharing knowledge in order to make the world a better place.

If you blog and/or make videos about similar topics please leave a link in the comments.

And for some inspiration take a look at the videos in Kirsten Dirksen’s YouTube channel.

Food Preservation Disasters

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It’s ain’t 24/7 kittens and rainbows at the Root Simple compound. We do have our homesteading disasters. I was reminded of this after I emptied a box full of failed home preservation projects and contemplated a stinky trash can filled with a slurry of bad pickles and too-loose jams.

Of course you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet and, in the interest of learning from mistakes, I thought I’d review two lessons learned.

Not Using Tested Recipes
I vow to use tested recipes from trusted sources. Both for food safety reasons and culinary reasons, it’s a good idea to use trusted sources for home preservation projects. Some of the recipes I tried were from unfamiliar books and dubious websites. Some sources I’ve come to trust:

Between those two sources I’ve got just about all the recipes I need.

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One Ring to rule them all
When you’re done processing jars and they’ve cooled down, remove the screw bands. Why?

  • So you can clean underneath the band to prevent spoilage and bugs.
  • The screw band can create a false seal.
  • Leaving the screw bands on can cause corrosion.

That’s advice from our own blog and yet I failed, for some reason, to remove the bands on many of the jars I emptied. I found all three of the above problems as a result.

Have you had any epic food preservation disasters?

Root Simple’s Killer Colon Hydro-therapy Booth Coming Soon . . .

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Normally I’d have to come up with my own April Fool’s post for you.  Increasingly, however, I can’t do any better than the actual unedited pitches we receive in the Root Simple in-box, such as this “killer opportunity”:

Dear Colon Hydro-therapist Friends :-)

I wanted to share an opportunity! with you.  I’m going on tour and
I will be speaking about Raw Foods, cleansing and Super Foods.  I
always talk about the tremendous benefits of getting professional
colonics.  After every single event, numerous amounts of people are
asking how they can find a colon therapist.

There will be anywhere from 300 – 1200 people at each event.  We
are offering booths to Colon Therapists for $500 for the event.
It’s a killer opportunity to get life-long clients in an instant.

Wow, now that’s targeted marketing. How did they know that Kelly and I are ALL ABOUT colonics.  Not only are we Colon Therapist Friends looking for clients, we also have the cleanest colons in the West, thanks to our homemade colonic machine. It’s essentially a mash up of a five gallon bucket, a bunch of  homebrew tubing, and an old 7-setting garden hose sprayer. Video coming soon!

Maybe we can power our Prius with the waste products . . . 

Is Ham Radio Useful?

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The BaoFeng UV-5RE.

Last year I got my general and technician amateur radio licences thanks to an easy to learn memory trick. But when it comes to actually using a radio I don’t have a clue. To learn more I joined my local club and took part this last Friday in a contest, using the club’s equipment, to talk to Hams worldwide. The contest involved the quick exchange of call signs. One moment I’d be talking to Japan the next Slovenia, the Azores, Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico, New Zealand–the list of countries went on and on.

I spent three hours in the club’s radio room, located in the emergency communications center at the offices of a local hospital. It was fun, but the utility of the exercise was not immediately apparent. The cell phone system is a lot more robust than it used to be and you don’t need a licence to use a phone in an emergency.

I got home from the contest around 9 pm and as I began to make dinner the windows started rattling and the house began to roll. It was an earthquake. The cats panicked and ran under the couch. Since Ham radio was on my mind I instinctively grabbed my handheld radio and immediately heard the voices of other Hams discussing the earthquake. It was then that I realized how useful amateur radio could be. Not only did I get instant information about the earthquake, but I also had access to a network of people who could help me and my neighbors in a real emergency.

The cats? Not so useful. It took about a half hour for them to emerge from their hiding spaces.

In an emergency it’s a good idea to have a radio and know how to use it. And you don’t have to be a Ham to listen to Ham frequencies. Thanks to cheap imported electronics you can now get a radio that receives and transmits on Ham bands, works as a scanner and even transmits on FRS (family radio service) frequencies–all for $40–the BaoFeng UV-5RE. The Survival Podcast did a whole episode on radios you should have in an emergency and the BaoFeng features prominently in the pantheon of zombie apocalypse communications equipment discussed on that show. I can’t speak from experience about the BaoFeng as I have a Yaesu FT-60. But, combined with a battery operated AM/FM radio, the BaoFeng would make a nice addition to your emergency supplies.

Now if only I could teach the cats to tap out Morse code.