Keep a Rye Starter!

I took a pizza class at Josey Baker Bread in San Francisco this month and picked up a great tip from the instructor, JB pizza baker Caitlin (sorry did not get a last name!). She told us the bakery keeps a rye starter. This has two advantages: rye is more active so your starter will have a higher likelihood of success and you’ll always be ready to make a rye loaf. If you want a white or whole wheat dough all you have to do is add white or whole wheat flour and a spoonful of your rye starter.

I keep a small amount, like three tablespoons of starter on hand that I feed every day. When I want to make bread I do a build overnight and the next day I’ll have the quantity I need to bake a loaf or make pizza dough. This week I switched my starter over to rye using the small amount Caitlin gave us. I’m baking a loaf today and it’s rising like crazy.

As to the pizza we made in the class it was probably the best I’ve ever had. It’s a quirky pie: the secret is a dark, almost burnt crust brushed with garlic olive oil and sprinkled with Maldon salt. They keep the toppings simple as not to distract from the cracker-like sourdough crust. They have a pizza night at the bakery every Monday from 5 to 8 in case you don’t want to roll your own.

Hobnobbing With Home-Baked Hobnobs

I have a lazy and ridiculous fantasy of picking up cookbooks at the library and handing them off to a personal chef to cook from. That will not and should never happen. That doesn’t stop me from impulse checkouts when I’m near the Central Library’s exit. Such was the case when I picked up Milk Bar All About Cookies by Christina Tosi when I really should have check out something more healthy.

Using the excuse of having a friend over for drinks, I baked Tosi’s Chocolate Toffee Hobnobs, an improved version of the popular UK biscuit. I screwed up the toffee topping but substituted a chopped up Heath Bar. If I had to quibble I’d say the toffee making instructions could have been a bit more detailed. That said, this book will make you very popular around the holidays if not sooner. Most of the recipes, including the one for these Hobnobs, seem doable and a step above the usual cookie. A lot involve ironic takes on commercial products or make use of things like Ritz crackers and Cookie Crisp cereal.

You can find Tosi’s hobnob recipe online here. Now off to find a salad cookbook and take off a few pounds.

Too Good to Go?

Too Good to Go screenshots.

While I’ve attempted to curb my internet addiction by removing Instagram from my phone, one app continues its siren call: Too Good to Go.

Launched in 2020 Too Good to Go offers restaurants and grocery stores a way to sell meals and ingredients that have gone unsold or are near their expiration date. The app let’s you specify the distance you’re willing to travel to pick up your food. When you see something appealing you reserve and pre-pay. When you show up at the store you display a code on your phone and they hand you a bag of food. You don’t get to choose, so the bag is a surprise which adds to the addictiveness of this app. In our hipster neighborhood Too Good to Go’s offerings center around cafes, so you mostly get pastries and bread but you can also find vegan groceries and Armenian flat breads.

Until recently, we would eagerly await the daily time (4:20p.m.–haha) that the illustrious bakery Tartine would release their delicious breads and pastries at a steep discount for pickup the next day. Sadly they seem to no longer participate which is probably good thing considering my burgeoning pandemic gut.

Too Good to Go operates in the U.S., Europe and Australia. When we were in London last year I was tempted to use the service but Kelly found the idea of eating food that sat around the Paddington train station all day less than appetizing.

Quality varies depending on the restaurant or grocery store. The food from chain places I’ve found to be stale, pre-packaged and of low quality. But we’ve also had some excellent bagels, breads and pizza from some of the better participating restaurants in our neighborhood at amazingly low prices, generally somewhere between $4 and $6.

I do question if we have another tech company monetizing something that would otherwise have gone to, say, a food bank, a gleaning service like Food Forward or to employees. A worker at one of the bakeries assured me that this food would have ended up in the dumpster so, perhaps, Too Good to Go is at least a neutral service. Salvaging the food waste stream is a neighborhood organizing project waiting to happen that would be nice to take away form the tech people. That said, I don’t see my Too Good to Go addiction ending anytime soon.

If you’ve tried this app leave a comment with where you live and what you’ve found.

In the Zone

I went on a Los Angeles Mycological Society mushroom foray with Bat Vardeh of Foraging and Mushroom Hunting Women of SoCal, on the 9th way up in the Angeles Forest. It was the most gnomecore thing I’ve done in a long time.

We traversed an area dramatically altered by the Bobcat fire of 2020, giving our gnomecore revelries a bit of a post-apocalypse vibe. But amidst the destruction we found mushrooms that thrive in burn zones. The fire vaporized whole trees leaving nothing but a pit where roots used to be. In fact you could follow the negative space of those vaporized roots in the landscape. Within these crevices tiny mushrooms have started the work of transforming the burned remains of the forest into a new landscape.

One thing I learned on this walk is that children are the best mushroom hunters. One particularly enthusiastic kid found the first mushroom and consistently, throughout the day, found more and more. I think it’s because children don’t have the filters on sensory inputs that we adults have. They welcome sensory chaos and don’t yet have the fully formed defenses we adults have to filter, classify and, at worst, ignore the wonder around us.

We didn’t’ find any edible mushrooms, though morels pop up fleetingly in similar burn sites. But I’m happy to look at any mushroom and edibles are just the icing on the cake.

In addition to mushrooms, the fire revealed opportunities for an archeology of late capitalism. Here a Wizard Charcoal Lighter can from maybe the early 1970s washed down from the nearby Buckhorn campground.

And a vintage Pepsi can, also from the early 70s. If only the fungi could learn to metabolize these things but I’m afraid we’re stuck with them.

More on mushrooms in burn areas.

Seaweed Foraging

Kelly and I took a trip up to San Francisco over New Years to see relatives. While up there we were lucky enough to attend a seaweed foraging class with ForageSF that took place north of Bodega Bay.

Foraging for seaweed is a lot simpler than my recent, rekindled interest in edible mushrooms. In California there are no poisonous seaweeds, just ones that taste better than others. In this class we focused on Kombu, Laminaria setchellii a California version of the closely related seaweed that the Japanese harvest (Kombu is just the Japanese word for kelp). You can use Kombu in Japanese recipes, as a flavoring in soups and stews, as well as a substitute for Beano.

To conveniently harvest Kombu you need three things:

  • Unpolluted water
  • A rocky beach
  • Ultra-low tide (so called “negative” tide)

You also need to learn to distinguish between “true” Kombu (Laminaria setchellii) and “false” Kombu (Pterygophora californica). [Editors note: I’m not 100% sure of the scientific names in this post so please correct me if I’ve got this wrong] False Kombu looks like a palm frond and is tasteless. They both tend to grow together.

Responsible harvesting means cutting no more than a quarter of the leaf like structure of the Kombu, leaving around an inch at the base of the cut for the kelp to regrow.

Seaweed begins rotting almost immediately after harvesting so you’ll need to start the drying process immediately. Before drying you need to wash the seaweed. Purists do this in the ocean. We didn’t have time for this so we did it at home. The disadvantage is that fresh water will dissolve seaweed so you have to work quickly and start the drying immediately. Drying can be done in the sun, on a dashboard, in a dehydrator or in an oven at the lowest setting. As it was dark and cold by the time we got home we used Kelly’s step mom’s oven.

Our very small Kombu haul dried and ready to use.

You should only harvest what you have space and time to dry within 24 hours after harvesting–the sooner the better. It’s legal in California to harvest up to 10 pounds of seaweed for personal use without a permit but you’ll probably want to harvest considerably less than this as scampering over the rocks, hauling it all back and processing it is exhausting work. It would be easiest to divide duties between a group of people if possible.

Our choice of footwear,¬†loose fitting rubber boots used in construction work, was not up to the task. The best option would probably be a wetsuit. The water is cold, the rocks jagged, and you’ll want to also step around carefully so as not to kill starfish, anemone or one of the many other lifeforms that inhabit the shore.

In addition to Kombu we also encountered Bladderwrack Fucus distichus, the tips of which can be used in salads and a few other seaweeds. We hope to come back in the summer when you can find Nori.

The beach we were at also had enormous mussel beds. If I ever get around to attempting this I’ll blog about it but, from my initial research, mussel harvesting seems simple (leave a comment if you’ve done mussel or other shellfish harvesting). You just need a fishing license, a scale, a bucket and gloves. You’ll also need to check in with the state’s shellfish advisory website or hotline (1-800-553-4133) to avoid biotoxins that can be present in mussels at any time of the year but especially during the summer months. I should note that an unfortunate trend of irresponsible tide pool harvesting got going during the pandemic as reported by the LA Times.

Back to seaweed. Here’s a few resources:

California Native Plant Society article (pdf) on California Seaweeds
Fin + Forage Kelp Identification guide
A guide to brown seaweeds
The sea forager’s guide to the Northern California coast by Kirk Lombard and Leighton Kelly (has a short section on seaweed)
LA Times article on seaweed foraging in Southern California (I’ll note that I’ve heard conflicting information on whether SoCal beaches are too polluted to harvest seaweed)