Tuesday, January 30, 2007

pretzel logic

I love pretzels. As a kid, they were a treat that was allowed when we went somewhere special, because in general, they were coated with salt not sugar. I mean, they were practically health food! When we went to the fair or museum type thing, I would spot the pretzel cart first and start plotting a way to get over to it, making for damn sure that I was behaving good enough to get one into my hands once we got there. I liked the big ol' salt crystals stuck to that shiny yellow crust, and being able to self-administer some tangy mustard all over it. But really, it's that chewy dough.....

Last week, the monkey and I were up in Tilden Park, carving sine waves through the winter air with our bodies atop the various beasts of fantasy. While she was busy squeeling and kicking her legs up and down as we went around, something about the lingering popcorn smell in the building triggered me daydreaming. Before I knew it I was salivating, lost in my own childhood fantasy, imagining a big soft chewy pretzel in my hands while I recuperated from cramming my noggin' full of science fun at the Exploratorium in SF.

We got home and I started looking for pretzel recipes on the 'puter. I found at least a dozen out there, but none of them used sourdough. It wasn't an exhaustive search, but the statistics of the situation weren't looking likely of gaining any ground. They had other variations, but somehow the folks who have pretzel recipes out there are either not into using sourdough for a good reason, or out of ignorance. It was time to find out for myself. I fed my pet, set it out for the night, and went to bed thinking of some beery smelling dough, and just hankerin' to dream of big chewy, sourdoughy knots. They were out there somewhere.

I did up a somewhat "typical" dough, and after letting it rise once I punched it down, formed it into a largish rectangle and started cutting strips off of it. I gave each strip a gentle roll to round the edges some, and then things began getting knotty (sometimes, I just can't help myself, sorry).

As this was my first time making pretzels, my technique got better and better as I went. By the time I was nearly finished though, I was wanting to try a new shape, and I love bagels, so I just had to make a few. Also, I had settled on boiling my pretzels to really "set" the outside of them like bagels and having never made them before, figured that somehow making a bagel would help me gauge what was going on. This is somewhat ridiculous however; I had never made bagels either, so this is possibly some family remembrance through enjoying bagels at great grandma's house as a wee one, or its a hedge-your-bet type of maneuver engineered to up the odds of some sort of success should the primary experiment fail.

I boiled the now risen shapes for a bit on each side, and then placed them on a rack to cool a bit while my oven heated up. With the pretzels on their baking sheet I gave them an egg-white wash, sprinkled them with some chunky gray salt and popped 'em in. I peeked in at about ten minutes and they we're looking muy fantastico. Heaven was almost fully baked. In another few minutes we took them out, put them on a cooling rack, got out two plates, and no more than 30 or 40 seconds later we were going to town on them.

I had to take this photo fast as the only reason it was not being chewed already was because I demanded we get to the table first. Call me strict, but large salt crystals aren't too pleasant to step on when you walk around barefoot most of the time.

The monkey was still working on number one while I plowed on through two and three. They were chewy and moist, shiney and salty. I think it took me until the third one before I realized I hadn't even got the mustard out. If there is a good reason that sourdough wouldn't be suitable for this kind of pretzel, then it remains completely illusive to me.

By the time it came to take the fancy staged shot of the best looking specimens, I had only four left. What the hell am I TALKING about? As you can tell by the technical quality of the shots I usually post, I shoot them myself using a vintage 2.0 mega-pixel digital with a fixed optical lens, usually resulting in me taking a bunch of pics to get one that isn't blurry, lacking in focal depth completely, or unrepresentative of what was in the tiny screen. And that doesn't even address the lighting issues of living in a 1950's kitchen with one window, located four feet from the place next door.

Whew! Am I complaining or what? What I'm really trying to say is that as a complete amateur, with bad equipment, generally poor lighting and what I consider a VERY hit and miss eye, I'm a little embarassed with some of the stuff I post sometimes. And then I think of having been in therapy and how this isn't really about you is it? Then I post a shot that may not be entirely aesthetically pleasing, but sums up the experience. If others out there take photos qualifying for "food porn" then maybe my work would be more aptly called "food trade journal" or something else that just screams function rules over artistic beauty. I guess it was this type of thinking that has prompted me to start being better about writing a recipe and posting that alongside.

There they are: shiney, salty, golden and pretty much boring to look at. They might not be some fancy, 20 something step elaborate thing that leaves folks intrigued with the delicate combination of spice and stem, saying things like "this is so unbelievably tasty! Shit, I'd pay at least 30 bucks for that if it was on a menu somewhere." No this one is more like standard fare from those dreamy distant childhood memories. You know, where without any chemical interference you relished in kicking your legs while spinning round and round getting dizzy riding a wooden horse, while one of your parents was in the snack bar saying "A BUCK FIFTY? DO I LOOK LIKE I'M MADE OUT OF MONEY OR SOMETHING? HELL, I CAN MAKE THEM MYSELF FOR LESS THAN THAT!"

Only this parent does go home and make them himself..........

D's Sourdough Pretzels (A work in progress):

2/3 cup sourdough starter
1 cup warm water
3 cups bread flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 T sugar
1 T olive oil
1 t table salt
Coarse grained salt of choice (I was thinking some of those colorful artisanal hoity-toity salts might be fun to dress these up with and call them something like: Rinpoche's Karmic Knots or maybe Honua's Ono Salted Pahoehoe)

Mix starter, water, oil, flours and salt. Adjust flour until you have a nice ball of dough (keep it soft though). Knead until smooth and set aside to rise in a warm place (at least a few hours). Punch dough down, form into a big rectangle and begin cutting off strips to work with as individual pretzels. Give the pretzels your version of the "knot" and place to rise on parchment/waxed paper to rise. When fully risen (more or less doubled) lower carefully into a large pot of boiling water with baking soda dissolved in it (I saw a number of recipes that did this and it just felt right, so I used at least 1/2 a cup per 4 quarts of H2O). Turn over after about a minute and boil for another. Remove with the biggest slotted spoon-like thing you have and place on a rack to drain. I found that putting them back on the parchment at a slight angle from horizontal aided drainage. I arranged as many as I could on a perforated round pizza pan and carefully brushed them with an egg-white wash and immediately sprinkled them generously with coarse salt. They baked for about 12-13 minutes in a 450+ oven and looked toasty and yummy at that point.

I did not have any beer in the house, but I suspect that something dark and heady would compliment these quite nicely. But with today's beer prices, I guess I'll just have to try making some myself to go along with them sometime.....

Sunday, January 28, 2007

mas fuyu, por favor

Huh? What the hell is that a picture of you might ask? It is the inside of our worm bin, ready for a new batch of semi-rotted plant material (read: the inevitable fruit gone mushy or rank). If this were one of those photos where someone had drawn animation on top for that comic book-like effect, there would be a tiny message spelled out in individual coffee ground particles on the skin of some sweet potato that reads: NO MOR PURSIMNS! PLEEZE! or DON'T YA NED MOR COUGH-EE?

Two years ago, in a stupid decision (mine most likely) we put the worm bin outside so that it would not be a source of entertainment for our then rug-monkey. Problem was, red wigglers don't like it hot or cold. They prefer the ambient temps found in our local fog, and not much on either side of that. When we rescued them from their abusive outdoor conditions, the population in the bin had been reduced drastically. With them now safely inside, and with an injection of new annelid genetic stock, our "Wriggly Ranch" is now back on line, with a growing population when fed regularly. I'm back to feeding them about once every week or so, as they will only eat roughly their own body mass in food per day. If you "only" have a few hundred (500? who really knows, they're hard to count as you can imagine) then they are more fun than functional and it takes more than a few days for them to go through one day of compostable kitchen waste. They have their routine fare; coffee grounds, various peels and ends of things like potatoes; but I was afraid if I gave them persimmon again it might erupt in some bizarre protest. You see, after my last post, there were STILL 5 gooey fuyus on the counter, waiting for a purpose besides being fodder in the worm bin. I needed to try something new. No way around it, I'm going to ingest these frickin' fuyu if it kills me.

I went with the blended theme from last time as a base to start with. I was imagining something along the lines of a smoothie with fresh ground spices creating something reminicent of a chai tea, but with chocolate. I peeled the fuyus, plopped them in the blender and gave it a whirl. Mmmm, baby food. It was time to play spices. I had my lovely assistant to help me add and pulverize the spices that flowed out of the cabinet and into the mortar. I started with a few cardamom pods, peeling away the skins and mashing the seeds.

"What do we add next Daddy?" she asks, grabbing the pestle and clutching it in her hands. How about some cinnamon honey?


"What do we add next?" Some clove. THUMP, BASH BASH.

"And now Daddy?" Uh, how about a little ginger? The bottle gets turned past horizontal in her little paws, resulting in at least a full teaspoon dumped in. She begins shaking her head: "yeah, I like ginger, but not too much cause it's really really spicey." Not TOO much honey? Here let me have that bottle, thanks. SCRAAAAAAPE SCRAPE SCRAPE, THUMP.

"What's next?" Mmmm, black pepper. You know how to handle the peppermill, give it a few cranks over the mortar. SHICK SHICK SHIIIIICK SHICK.

The kitchen now smells like we're swimming in chai tea. Perfect. Now for some chocolate. I hand this to the monkey, counting on an ample addition of powder to our mix. FWUMPF!

SCORE! At least two heaping tablespoons of the chocolatl are now added. I look at the powder mix we have going, give it a whisk with a fork a few times and sample it by licking the tip of my finger and dabbing a taste on the end. The monkey, seeing this licks two full fingers and most of her palm, then begins to put her whole hand in the mortar for a fistfull of the concoction, until she looks up and sees my reaction. Thinking twice about the possibly forfeited spice grinding rights she now enjoys, she gives me a coy smile, dips her index finger in and says "I was just being silly."

It tasted nice and chai-ee, so I added some more chocolate (almost always a good decision, right?) and pondered how to mix it into the persimmon without it clumping. I drizzled some vanilla soy milk into it while the monkey whisked away. We poured the resulting syrup into the blender, added some sugar and hit play. It needed a bit more soy milk to get it circulating freely. When finished, I gave it a taste. Yummy? Well, not quite. It was a touch frothy in consistency, and along with the aromatic cardamom fumes it was somewhat hard to get down. I was about to ditch the couple cups in our compost bin outside, maybe even pour a bit in the worm bin for experiments sake. I thought about my options. Then I poured it into a few ceramic cups and put it in the freezer, intuiting that making it colder might somehow help while I thought some more.

A few hours later it dawned on me. Dilution is the solution to your polution (A joke saying I heard from my days working in the environmental field) We needed more mass, like at least 25% more. And of course, in the form of more chocolate and ginger. Scharffen Berger chunks, and diced crystalized ginger. Mmmmm. Talk about a no brainer though, I mean you could probably add this to cat turds and make it taste good (thanks JM).

With the proportions within my imagined parameters, and many bits of chocolate having "fallen" into my mouth, I removed the semi-frozen cement from the freezer and mixed in the aggregate. It looked good and promising, and a little nibble gave me hope that I had saved this free fruit from being recycled by the wigglers. Time would tell.

The following day, I tried it again, serving it up in one of those tiny little ramekins, embellished with some "theme" toppings. My first impression was that somehow I had managed to make a decent sorbet, that believe it or not, I would serve again, should anyone be brave enough to eat it once they are told the ingredients. I gave a bite to Aunty, knowing full well that persimmons aren't her thing, but wanting some feedback on the spicing from someone older than three.

"Whoa, chai! Damn D, that's a lot of cardamom......oh, okay, now there's the chocolate." What do you think, is it too much ginger?

"No. Cardamom though, yes."

So, I thought about my spice proportions, and figured that it might help if I wrote this one down, but adjusted the recipe to fit more of how it could have been altered for greater appreciation by others possibly infested with those pernicious, too soft to eat out of hand, persimmons.


4 cardamom pods
1 small cinnamon stick
4 whole cloves
2 t ground ginger
1 t black peppercorns
3 T chocolate powder (Scharffen Berger, just chocolate)
5 soft fuyu persimmon (very soft hachiya should work too, but maybe use 1 less as they tend to run bigger)
1/4 cup organic sugar
1/2 cup vanilla soy milk (substitute freely here)
1/4 cup diced crystallized ginger
1/2 cup coarse cut dark chocolate

Grind spices to a fine powder, add chocolate powder, mix well and taste. Feel free to add more chocolate, please. Mix whatever liquid you are using, a little at a time to the spice mixture until a runny syrup -like consistency is reached. Peel and seed (if necessary) the persimmons and puree in a blender. Add the spicey chocolate syrup, the sugar, and continue blending. Use more of the milky ingredient if needed to get the mixture circulating and smooth throughout. When thick enough to stick to the sides and certainly requiring a spatula for complete removal, transfer the mix into a bowl. Chop the chocolate into big chunks and the ginger into small ones and add. Mix thoroughly, then transfer into freezer safe containers (preferably serving sized) and let sit until firm. Serve. If its too hard for your liking, set it out for a minute and try it again later.

And yes, a disk of crystalized ginger and block of chocolate, sprinkled with chocolate shavings will make it taste even better.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

plentiful persimmons

Winter fruits. Good thing they last real long on the counter, in a cold house that is. We have had persimmons now for over a month, so when cousin Rohan dropped by and saw them (Bloody hell, is this another of your "biodegradation experiments?") he insisted that we take immediate action. He grabbed four of the softest, arranged them on a pillow and put them in the light in order to better contemplate our next order of business.

After a few moments of warming our faces in the sun, staring at the leathery looking orange skins and dried leaves, he announced "go clean out that mortar and pestle." I jumped to action moving toward the kitchen, allowing me to get most of the way out of earshot before he continued "I hope your arms are nice and rested cause its time for a workout!" After giving the mortar a cursory rinse, Rohan got down several bottles of whole dried spices, threw various amounts into the mortar and told me to get to work, while he arranged the rest of the ingredients on the counter and began outlining our plan. With my arms now numb with fatigue, he placed the ground mixture next to our produce and started giving directions. "Okay, now I'm gonna grind some almonds, so we can have a creamy component for our sauce......oh, and we're gonna need some dahl to go with this korma."

"Did you just say korma? But I thought we were doing something with these persimmons?"

"We are. Or will, that is."

I looked at our collection. Onions, garlic, tomato sauce, bell pepper, potato, rutabaga, mushrooms, and persimmons. I was struggling with just how this was going to come together when Rohan asked for a food processor. He peeled the fuyus, plopped them in the cuisinart and blended them to a bloody pulp (or so he said). With this done I chopped the onions and mushrooms and started cooking them in some olive oil over medium heat. When these were just starting to turn translucent, Rohan stirred in the spices and the kitchen came alive with aroma. With the sauteed mix looking sweet and just beginning to brown it was time for the fuyu fun.

We loaded on the tomato sauce and ground almonds while we were at it, adding a bit of veggie stock to get the right thickness for simmering without acting like a boiling mudpot. "Now we let these flavors meld together, for maybe two hours, while I enjoy your sourdough."

"And what shall I do?"

"Make us some dahl. I saw some leftover cilantro, an onion, and some oranges. I think you can make do with those. Oh, any chance you scored a used tandoori oven recently?"


"Then I guess I'll make this dough into pita instead......that is, providing you have a baking stone around here."

"Yeah, which one?

".......and an oven that it fits in."

Funny guy that Rohan.

I chopped the cilantro and sauteed it in a small pan with a small white onion. After five minutes of cooking, I squeezed an orange worth of juice into the pan and deglazed it, setting it aside until the lentils were boiling. The lentils were started in a mix of about 3/4 water to 1/4 veggie stock, so with the added onion mixture I was hoping they were tasty. Rohan asked how the sauce was looking. I thought it was still a little lumpy, maybe the almonds weren't ground finely enough or something. "Nothing a wee osterization can't fix now, hmm?" he suggested.

We blended it in batches until rather smooth. Now was time for the veggies we had leftover, and a block of tofu from the fridge. I cubed a potato, rutabaga and the tofu, then sliced up the carrots and bell pepper. With everthing added and simmering, we rolled out some dough balls, and put the stone in the oven, cranking it up to 500 degrees.

With the dahl done, the veggies in the fuyu korma tender, and the stone hot, Rohan baked some pocket pitas. I just couldn't help myself: "So Rohan, how is it you can make pita for this dish and still call it Indian."

"I never called it Indian my friend. Besides, like us eating seasonally I have to make do with what is currently available, and right now your home is lacking the proper oven for naan."

"Okay, I get it. And just because you had to bring it up again, you get to serve."

"Fair, bloody fair."

So eating it again, as lunch the next day with the monkey, I looked at my meal and laughed out loud. That cousin may be a pain sometimes, but I just love it when I'm part of one of his experiments in my kitchen. But I was left wondering, and I suppose I'll have to ask him next time, why it is he abhors all animal products in his food, yet freely and enthusiasticly uses the term bloody? What gives, it's not like he's from India, or any other former colony of England for that matter.

For now though, I'm thankful for getting some of those persimmons off of my counter, and for Rohan encouraging me to take them from the sweet side of my brain and place them firmly in the savory. Now in theory, I have twice as many opportunities for keeping them from sitting around for so bloody long.


Grind together the following:
1 T coriander
1 t cumin
6 cardamom pods
4 cloves
1 cinnamon stick
1 t black peppercorns
1 t turmeric
2 t ginger
2 t poppy seeds
1 t brown mustard seeds
When finished, toast for a few minutes in a dry pan and set aside.

3 onions (red, yellow, white)
5 large cloves garlic
6 baby portabellas
4 soft fuyu persimmon (I imagine Hachiya would also work as long as they are plenty soft)
1 cup tomato sauce
2 cups almonds
2-6 cups of veggie stock
Saute onions, mushrooms and garlic together. Add spices and cook until onions begin to brown. Skin the persimmons and puree. Grind almonds (blend, chop, whatever) and add to saute along with tomato sauce and persimmon goo. Adjust the consistency with some veggie stock and/or water. The almonds will "soak" up a bit of liquid and you may need to adjust the thickness in order to attain a nice, smooth simmer. No flop, flopping, or pflapt pfoothing, think Don Ho, think Tiny Bubbles, and you'll get what I mean. Cook this together for at least an hour and feel free to blend it further if it is not smooth enough for you. After desired mouthfeel is achieved, cube up whatever root veggies you have on hand, and tofu if you like and add, cooking at a low simmer until the veggies are tender. We used:
1 russet potato
1 rutabaga
1/2 lb carrots
1 bell pepper
1 lb tofu

BLOODY ORANGE DAHL (Is not actually orange in color please note)

1 cup pink lentils
1 small onion
1 small bunch cilantro
1 blood orange (Cara cara actually, not quite the same thing, but Rohan insisted)
5 cups water
2 cups veggie stock
Saute the onion and cilantro. Squeeze the orange juice and add. Remove from heat before all of the liquid has evaporated and set aside. Boil the liquids together and add lentils and onion/cilantro. Lower heat to a simmer, and cook uncovered, checking frequently until lentils are tender. Give them a slight mashing if you prefer, before serving (with that fresh chutney you have just for this occasion of course)


1/2 cup starter (active)
2 cups whole wheat flour
1 cup water
Combine these ingredients into a large bowl and leave covered for several hours in a warm place.
An hour before baking add:
1 t baking powder
1 t salt
1-2 cups more flour (as needed, 1/4 cup at a time) until dough is no longer sticky.
Separate into a dozen or so balls and set aside to rise for an hour. Put pizza stone (or similar baking stone, I use a 12x12 inch, unglazed paver I got at the tile store for 3 bucks) into the oven and heat to 500 degrees. Flatten the dough balls, a few at a time, and toss onto the heated stone. After a few minutes the "pita" will puff up, and are more or less done, you can flip it over to bake some more but it is not necessary. Place into a basket with a towel to keep warm and serve with large scoops of korma and dahl. Oh, and as Rohan always suggests, a nice hoppy beer. Cheers.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

.04 acres and a monkey

I'm feeling some pressure to provide more homegrown nourishment for my family, simply because it is getting bigger. Our monkey is growing up, way fast. "I'm HUNGRY dadda, maybe we can have some more lunch!" I've been thinking of her energy conversion powers as a wonder of nature. It makes me think: we need to find a way to run the planet off of kids. Yeah, that's the ticket! And no, I'm not talking child-labor, I'm talking about somehow harnessing the energy bursts some describe as screaming, or maybe rigging little magnets on them and having them slide repeatedly down a copper-coil tube (okay that would be child-labor) Focus now: or how about that dream of turning this untapped source of audible energy to work for us parents, who are usually the focal point for receiving such a release. I'm gonna need to provide more calories in the future to keep up with the energy absorption/emission curve.

We have limited garden space, on the north side of the house and in a yard that is only 15 feet deep. It contains a thick, black, expansive clay, that when we first started working it, contained tons of glass and gravel, with the occasional rusty nail and old toy. Two months ago we performed our largest "amendment" to the yard, but this does not make up for the fact that it only receives direct light for an hour in the morning and a few more in the afternoon. We do what we can with a few wine barrels placed out front that have served various functions over the past few years (including a staging area for things to be transplanted). We have them out front, facing south, where they get good light from sun-up till about mid-afternoon. So today the monkey and I took action and built a small planter box, to help expand out acreage if you can call such small increments. We brought it out back and rewarded ourselves with some pretty cheesecake for a job well (no, more like halfway) done. We'll get to that cheesecake later.

We filled the box with soil, and then began transplanting some of the spinach we had purchased from Berkeley Hort. While we were at it, we transplanted the beets seen here into the sunniest spot in the back yard, with hopes of at least beet pasta come late spring. The spinach would fill most of the new box, but we needed something else. Maybe with a streak of color, hardy, and certainly edible. "Hey let's go look out," I turned around and there they were:

The "Pot of Gold" container chard from last spring. I had planted it amongst the tomatoes last year, trying to fill in areas wherever I could with various seeds to see what worked. Turns out that in my yard, container chard stays a tiny little thing when it gets shaded out by tomatoes. But it is also hardy, for when I finally had the gumption to rip out the dying tomatoes, it was still its tiny little self, all four inches high and in about 8 or 9 places. I left it there, and a few weeks later it was twice as big. Well, this is certainly worthy of attention, so I took them out of the ground before the previously mentioned amendment by putting them in a container and in the sunniest spot in the backyard. Now they are thriving, and starting to really crowd their container. They needed thinning and would be a nice compliment to the spinach. I placed two plants at either end of our new planter and gave it a little pat-down. Now for the hard part: getting it upstairs and outside the window for living on the roof in the most direct light available.

Now our view of the elementary school across the street includes some greens for braising and salads. It is a small purchase of space, but we're hoping the rewards are great. Last year our attempts in the garden yielded a few tasty things, namely some peas and tomatoes, but really it had plenty of room for improvement. This year I have made a pledge to use our little bit of space in a fashion more befitting of its capabilites. We need more variety, more fecundity, out of our little space. With more use of our sunny roof, perhaps we can achieve such things.

Back to fecundity. And that bigger family remark. We are about halfway toward harvesting our "potato" crop. As with all tubers and subterranean veggies, this one will depend on the moon and other environmental factors as to the exact date it first sees the light. We're just hoping the arrival will go as smoothly as ours in late Nov, 2003. As seen by the in-utero headshot of "Pablo" (as the monkey calls her sibling), our potato has eyes, nose, lips and chin. Just as they should. Let us do the rain dance and pray for good spring weather. So far it's promising to be a bumper crop!

Oh yeah, and that cheesecake thing. You see, the one pictured at top, that we pre-emptively rewarded ourselves with, had some chevre in it, comprising about a third of the cream cheese component. I've been dying to try some goaty-goodness in a cheesecake for at least a year now, so this was a focus for this version. It had the typical (these days) sweet potato for body, color, and flavor, but I did go out on a new crusty limb and used ginger-zing granola and animal crackers for the bottom. It was tasty, but a little too goaty. I'm thinking, in the future, keep the goat on the savory side of the cheese.

And the reason all of these things spilled out of my mind, only to be put together in my dweeby little blog?


Monday, January 08, 2007

what's your favorite soup ?

Winter weather makes you want warming comfort foods. Soup has a long history of filling this requirement for many, and I am no exception. Winter is fully here, you have many root vegetables and things, and I think "Mmmmm, having soup enrobed in a thick white cover." When others are contemplating that steaming bowl, thinking of a nice fleecey coat or blanket to snuggle up with, I'm thinking of a cauldron of soup with a sort of fleece IN it, served with a thick blanket ON it. I love this time of year, and I prefer satiating my comfort needs by wearing my sheepy products on the inside, so I make up a huge pot of minestrone.

This recipe takes a little planning, and alot of time, but the results are.........well, according to my friend and family, most excellent. After feasting on it the first day, you are usually left with upwards of 5-6 quarts of leftovers, so the time invested will either stock your freezer or make you many friends. It is also easy on the pocketbook (considering the portions) to make because it contains beans, cabbage, potatoes, celery, onions, and parsley, simmered in chicken stock, butter, olive oil and grated romano for hours, then finished with a dollop of pesto and cooked some more. Twenty minutes before serving, I ladle a few quarts into another pot and add noodles. When finished, serve with copious quantities of more romano. Doesn't now sound like the perfect time for making it?

If you are lucky enough to have a nearby farmers market, you can get most of the produce needed this time of year. If you are shopping for the ingredients at the store, it will be easy to find the ingredients any time of year. So, this weekend, while Aunty and I wandered around the saturday berkeley farmers' market, I purchased the fresh produce I needed and asked her about her thoughts on alternate beans to use in the recipe. Aunty is five years older than I, and thus the keeper of this much more familial food knowledge, so I value her opinion highly. Also, if there is anyone in the world who is capable of detecting the slightist bit of ANYTHING in a particular dish, and capable of reporting on it accurately, the person in my life like this is my sister (the monkey's aunty, thus the title). She suggested using some heirloom beans she had in her cupboard, and we agreed to a swap of ingredients for finished product.

These beans were absolutely beautiful. They looked like little spotted horses or something, which was rather hilarious to me because the recipe calls for pintos in the basic version. They need to have a bath overnight, so I soaked these as soon as they entered the house, in preparation for their big day tomorrow. This is often the hardest step to making this soup, beacause the alternate (canned) will not give you the same results. I say this now, so please listen, SOAK YOUR OWN BEANS for this dish and you will be rewarded. I tried it the "other" way once, when I was young and stupid (in college). It was an immediate culinary lesson in "good things come to those who wait." I had at least 20 years of experience eating this soup, so the "canned" version tasted like......canned. It is quite possible that if you should ignore the warning, it would still turn out to be the best canned soup you ever had.

With the beans soaked, I rinse them and place them in an 8 quart pot with about two quarts of veggie stock. Then I assemble the rest of the ingredients to look at an optical illusion that is part of this dish (the first picture up top). Everytime I see the ingredients all laid out before me I think: "I'm gonna need a much larger pot than this one, just look at all this stuff!" But I have something called faith. Faith that comes from witnessing miracles. Faith that with only an inch or so of the pot sides still showing, I can add a whole cabbage into this soup. Okay, faith really that cabbage is just like the rest of the universe, made up of alot of space. The reality is that you do not just plop in the head of cabbage. Doing this, after chopping and adding everything else, would indeed displace enough volume to slosh over the sides. But sliced up fine, minced even, and added slowly in batches, you can indeed add the entire thing.

Put the butter and olive oil into the pot with the soaked beans and stock (in this case veggie) and start boiling on the stove. Chop the onions, celery, potatoes and parsley and add. Some garlic too if you feel like it (I did, and usually do). Now, time for a medium (15 ounce) can of diced tomatoes. Yes, I did say canned. Of critical importance here is the addition of that concentrated juice, so doing this imparts that tangy acid component needed here. Note: that is a medium can being added to an 8 quart pot. This is not at all a tomato based soup, like the one most americans associate with minestrone. You can substitute fresh tomatoes, but I highly recommend doing it with garden tomatoes from your yard and making sure to use all the juice. For making it the first time, use the can of diced tomatoes to calibrate for yourself what this does to the soup. Now, with all of the veggies except the cabbage added, add grated romano. And finally, slice and dice that cabbage, and add very carefully.......

Put it on a low simmer for at least three hours. The cabbage will disappear from sight, as will most of the potatoes and celery. When this has happenned, add the pesto and cook for another hour. While waiting for this last bit, and trying not to eat it before it is done, I recommend baking a nice sourdough loaf of something. Which of course means you just have to dip the bread into the soup, to do any final tasting adjustments, right?

This last time, I baked a loaf of olive bread, with olives that were the first harvested from the monkey's tree. She has a manzanillo olive growing at G&G's down in Reedley that had a first crop of 36 olives this past fall. It wasn't many, but certainly worth experimenting with. We cured them over the last few months and I used about a dozen of them in the dough. Very, very satisfying personally, because to me sourdough and olives are a match made in heaven. With both the sourdough and the olives coming from sources I had a part in producing, I was beside myself with the combination getting me one step closer to making it from 100% family sourced ingredients. And how about the cool lines on the bread from using my new brotformen I got for being a good boy this past year? Now I can make loaves that don't just taste respectable but have a recognizable form.

Round about 6:30pm, after sampling the soup with bread several times, I put some ravioli dough trimmings into a small pot of simmering minestrone. When this was finished, I grated a large bowl of romano and settled down to the first heaping bowl. Warm, oh yeah. Nourishing, brothy veggies, grassy herbs and yummy sheepy goodness, you bet. If any of this appeals to you, then get out your pen and paper, or click and drag, copy and paste, whatever it is. As far as I'm concerned, this is the best soup I make, at the best time of year for making it (seasonable availability and reason to make something else with beans, cabbage and potatoes) and is a staple in my family that dates back at least five generations on my father's side. If I didn't share this one, and now, I could not consider this blog at all realistic in its portrayal of what we eat, because we will be eating this one for the next week.

And since folks appreciate an actual recipe, and I have a desire in keeping my new friends interested, I offer this as a generic outline for making this soup.

1 lb of dried pinto, pink or cranberry beans
1-3 quarts of chicken stock
1/4 cup butter
1/4 cup olive oil
2 medium onions (yellow or white or both)
2-6 cloves of garlic (optional here, lighter on the garlic is more great grandmas style on this one)
6 or so stalks of celery (more if using smaller heart sections)
4-5 big white potatoes (russet, red or white, yukon gold)
1 bunch italian parsley
15 ounce can of stewed or diced tomatoes (fresh tomatoes will work too but make sure to use plenty of salt and include all juices - summertime is best for using fresh)
1/4 - 1/2 lb of Pecorino Romano
1 smallish green cabbage

Pesto fixings:
1 cup chopped basil
1 Tbsp - 1/4 cup pine nuts
salt and olive oil to taste

Soak beans overnight. Or for two nights (especially for the harder pintos) if you have the luxury time and memory to do so. Rinse and drain soaked beans and transfer to an 8 quart pot. Add water and chicken stock until at least a third full. Adjust salt according to how much stock you use. Bring to a boil. Add olive oil and butter. Add chopped onions, celery and garlic. Peel potatoes and dice to no bigger than a fingertip and add (note: DO NOT add actual fingertips.) Mince parsley and add. Add tomatoes and any juices possible. Add about a cup of grated romano. (if you are using a Microplane this may turn out to be closer to 2 cups; the pre-grating weight is 3-5 ounces regardless of grater used.) Cut main stem from cabbage, slice very thin and add (in batches as it will be hard to incorporate at this point.) Cook together, covered with occasional stirrings, at a simmer for a few hours. Add 1/4 - 1/2 cup of fresh pesto (go with more like 1/4 cup if using store bought), stir and simmer for at least another hour. Remove one meals worth to another pot, add tagliarini (egg fettucine will work fine) and cook until pasta is soft (soup is usually getting paste-like before adding pasta, so add some water to compensate for what the cooking will take, more for dried, less for fresh.) Serve with a fresh loaf of your favorite sourdough and copious quantities of grated romano. Oh yeah, just about any wine will go great with this.


Please let me know what you think if you make this one. The folks who I have given this recipe to refer to it simply as "the soup" then their eyes get glazed over as they manage a Homer-esque "Mmmmm, minestrone." If I had a dime for each individual person I have served this to and they enjoyed it, I would be a......well, at the very least 10 bucks richer, or about halfway on my way to making another batch.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

californio mac-n-cheese

Translation: I'm a Californio, and this is a version of mac-n-cheese inspired by the "local" items we had from two different farmers markets, plus what was in the pantry (TJ's whole wheat penne), and some chorizo (also local) that the monkey suggested we use, saying emphatically "yeah, mac-n-cheese with the meat daddy!" Consider yourself warned, this dish is of mixed ancestry. I'll explain in more detail a little later.....

Half-n-half, sage cheddar, cream cheese, penne (a macaroni product remember, and pictured here cooked to within minutes of done), chorizo sauteed with red and white onion, shitakes, and a few cloves of garlic. And for topping, sliced quarters of the leftover mushrooms and a few sprigs of fresh thyme. I heated the half-n-half and whisked in the now, very soft cream cheese. With these well blended I combined them with the penne into another mixing bowl and gave it a stir. Then I added the chorizo mix and finally the grated cheddar.

I poured the mixture into the oval dish, placing the mushroom pieces around the rim and the thyme sprigs in the middle. (I had steeped them in the half-n-half before adding the cream cheese, I almost forgot to mention.) With this complete, I placed it into a pre-heated 400 degree oven for 20 minutes. It was getting a touch brown, but still appeared juicy, so I turned down the heat (325) and left it in for around ten more minutes. It was nice and crispy on the top at this point, so I put it on a rack to cool for a bit and told the monkey that lunch was ready.

She took one look at it and requested milk. At this point I think she knows from experience that milk is one of the best things to extinguish the flames that accompany chorizo laden products becuse she picked at some of the noodles, and a few choice meat bits, declared "ooooh, that's spicey daddy" and commenced chugging her milk, afterwards excusing herself from the table to finish "camping out on our holiday" in her room.

Overall, I agree that this one was a little on the spicey side. As I'm sure a few of you know already, cream cheese may lend great flavor in this application, but without chemically binding it together with the rest of the ingredients, it is prone to turning into curdled bits during the baking, as it did in this case. The final outcome (in my humble, I ate half of it during the first seating kind of way) was thus summarized: fun flavors in a unique combination, but overall lacking in texture.

Is it worth sharing with the rest of the foodblogging community? Sure. Because the whole time I was preparing it, I was thinking of my family history. Of how my personal tastes reflect my bloodlines, not necessarily how I was fed as a child, and how spicing it up a bit is something I relish in doing. If food is anything beyond simple nourishment, as I'm sure many will agree, it is at the very least a way of sharing our past. With that said, if you want more explanation about the Californio thing read on......if not, I hope you enjoyed the post and find comfort in the fact that someone out there is putting together dishes that make sense to perhaps no one but themselves. And writing about them anyway.

And now for the rest of the story....

You see, my maternal grandma's name was Garner, one that can be traced to an English fellow who was part of a mutiny aboard a whaling ship in the mid 1820's off the So-Cal coast. This type of behavior was usually grounds for your captain to kill you, but if he didn't and instead manacled you and left you ashore, you were stuck wherever that may be. And so it was that my great, great, great grandfather found himself in "Alta California" in 1824, then part of the newly independent country of Mexico. He soon converted to Catholicism (baptized at Mission San Juan Bautista), married a local (herself a blend of native american and spanish ancestry), went on to become a prominent businessman and personal friend of many notable folks in early California around Monterey (he was the translator/secreatary for one of the first American Alcalde of California, Walter Colton) and was later killed in a raid by a local tribe, somewhere near the Fresno River, while he was making another killing of sorts: supplying early gold prospectors with provisions, and trying to find a source of the precious metal for himself.

It was learning about this ancestor and his progeny, that have made me pround of being a Californian with "roots" that pre-date statehood. I now have a better understanding of my place in modern American society as a Californio. So, being the scientist that I am, I started thinking about what else this meant. Although just about anyone would look at me and decribe me as a tall white male (a likeness toward Jesus I've been told several times, prompting my joking with it in an earlier posting), and it is true that my name is highly anglo, when it comes right down to it my basic cellular functioning carried out by my mitochondria were likely inherited from the indigenous population residing in California before European contact. Or in another scenario, it was inherited from a mestizo past, carried north from present day Mexico, and mingling with the former scenario, making it of indigenous origin still quite possible. How? While H was pregnant with the monkey we learned that although we inherit our DNA from both of our parents, a small portion of that, our mtDNA (if you didn't guess already, our mitochondrial DNA) is only handed down from our mothers. This fact allows modern geneticists to look at something with a set continuity in our genes, allowing them the ability to establish some deeper family genetics that is one of the key elements in our modern understanding of the distribution of peoples around the globe. It is this matrilinial genetics applied to my family that leads me to believe, through one way or another, that my mtDNA came across the Bering Land Bridge during the end of the Pleistocene. Geologically speaking this was only a few moments ago, but culturally speaking, a looooong damn time ago. As a geologist myself, I really dig this, and with the advances in genetics and the various genome mapping projects out there, I hope to confirm my hypothesis in the future.

The monkey and I sat down to this mornings breakfast of scrambled eggs with chorizo and homemade english muffins. I was struggling with how to best discuss this latest experiment. I looked at the muffin and thought about my wife's English and Scottish heritage. (Okay, so they really eat things more like crumpets, but we're in the right ballpark with the approximate size and shape.) I looked at the chorizo and eggs and thought about my own heritage (limiting it to the matrilineal for our purposes here), and it hit me. Our breakfast was in some bending of the imagination, representative of our kid, who ended up devouring all of the muffin and most, but not all of the chorizo flavored scrambled eggs. Yeah.....kind of like that whole thing about getting ALL of your mom's genes, but only most of your dad's. Our monkey is the product of the genetic union of paternal Californio genes and maternal British genes. Like Garner and his wife a long time ago, only backwards. With all of this in mind, the name came easy: californio mac-n-cheese.

Sorry guys, but what you were probably taught in school ain't quite right, because on a cellular level, you really are more like your mom than you are like your dad. It's really not that hard to imagine, if you consider how your being here speaks of a time when you lived in symbiosis within your mother, where having the same mitochodria was of critical importance to your miracle of being, according to modern theory.

Thanks Mom, for making me possible. And handing down some mtDNA that likes eating ALL of the chorizo on my plate, whether it is in scrambled eggs or put into less "conventional" things like mac-n-cheese.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

the monkey's mutinous minions

Time to be honest. I am a user of the local "day labor" scene. Today it came in the form of some strict herbivores, so when I proposed frying up the chorizo in the fridge, they gave me a bad time and reminded me that recently I have been using alot of animal products. I felt a little guilty, as it is a topic that I continue to struggle with and therefore attempt to keep it local and humanely raised. They acknowledged my efforts and pointed out that the crritters in question usually die as the end result of their labors. Hear, hear my homey quadrapeds.

Then they suggested that they all would feel alot better after they sampled one of the diminutive muffins from last night's labors. I thought hey, this gang of camelopardalis sure have some nerve....

I acquiesced and they sat down with their labor organizer. I know that the manipulation performed by toddlers is normal and all, part of learning, but this was a whole new level of sophistication. The monkey requested toast and "butter" while Momma Giraffe and Fae Fae's Cousin had theirs plain (plain my a__, they had 'em on the gold-rimmed china!) Fae Fae took another route and requested toast, "butter," a drizzle of my homemade ginger and cherry infused simple syrup, and a crank or two of fresh nutmeg. I was not aware that she had such a distinguished palatte, but being an herbivore and this being vegan, and after thinking about it a while I decided that she certainly had the upper hand in expertise.

While they were chowing down, I pulled out the chorizo, some mushrooms, and an onion for the upcoming mac-n-cheese-off. When the crew got wind of the aroma they rushed the kitchen and staged a sit-in, blocking access to the remaining burners. Even though their labor organizer is the one who suggested using chorizo in mac-n-cheese, she finds no difficulties in switching gears and showing some solidarity for her work crew. Ah the fickle minds of three year olds.

I know I live on the border of Berkeley, but isn't this a drastic measure to take when you are made of synthetic materials? I had to act fast, or I'd be reduced to doing work on the back left burner until they either starved or went up in flames. I couldn't handle the prospect of those grim outcomes so I did them up right. I'm such a softie.

So round two for them was served in the livingroom where the monkey requested. I guess they wanted to put their hoofs up on the coffee table, with the meal so graciously provided on the new serving platter from the MCC we received as a x-mas gift from Grandma G. (Thanks!)

I hope the next round of laborers aren't so testy..........

Monday, January 01, 2007

could you hand me the fire pliers?

So this one is a little random. I was straining my brain to come up with something to wrap up the year. What better than to talk about the final dessert and libations for 2006! But in order to introduce dessert, I must go back a few days, to a jonesing for ube that found the monkey and I at Oakland's Chinatown, after striking out at the farmers' market. I had discussed ube ice cream with Ading A over the x-mas holiday and I just HAD to have some. Of course, this wouldn't involve buying it, because I'm can be an extreme hardhead. I'm not one to let never-having-made-it-before be an excuse. With ice cream not part of my repertoire, I thought "how hard can it be?" I just had to make it from scratch. The monkey and I bought a few pounds of purple sweet potatoes (The grocer indicated that they were from California, but my Mandarin is a little rusty, and he was probably speaking Cantonese, so in retrospect they could actually be from Hawaii.) We brought the loot home and I immediately fired up the Wedgewood, putting a few in to bake.

Slathered with a buttery spread, hot out of the oven, the purple gems are incredible. I had to have one this way, to calibrate the taste buds for venturing into the unknown. During the violet tasting I looked up a few recipes for ube ice cream. It seems as though many people mix ube powder into vanilla ice cream to get the desired affect. Or maybe start from scratch, use good ingredients, yet don't use eggs or cream. I took these factors into account, consulted the back of a Straus pint of ice cream for a hierarchy of ingredients, decided on making a custard base, and went from there.

I started with great cream and milk products, organic sugar and vanilla extract, baked ube, and coconut cream (not pictured). I had scored some "super-jumbo" double yolked eggs at the SF Ferry Building Saturday Extravaganza that would be perfect for the job. And yes, there might be a touch of sarcasm there, the place is a total zoo, complete with wandering "donkeys" (another more polite word for what I'd like to call them) who are more than willing to point out that the ricotta here is not real because it is not made from sheeps cheese as it is in Italy. Huh? I'm not sure what the hell this guy in particular was really talking about but he was highly annoying in his candor. When he spoke his nose elevated a few degrees toward the sky, while the rest of his face remained intact in a mutton-chopped and soul-patched scowl that just didn't go with the balding pate. I almost had to point that out to him, when his partner interjected "yes dear, but we're not IN Italy." Thank you and note to self: look up the various ways ricotta is handled and treated when you get home. It made me wonder that some people must forget to leave their "foodie badge" at home and therefore wander the public places correcting folks with their vast store of knowledge, projecting to an audience that are not at all impressed, or interested. Sorry 'bout that, but that guy really annoyed me and I've been trying to let go of my encounter with him since. There, done.

I borrowed Big-Daddy J's ice cream maker on New Years Eve morning and started plotting my final dessert of the year. I blended the baked ube with the coconut cream and set aside to chill. I poured in a pint of cream and a pint of mixed half n half and milk. I heated this thoroughly and then separated the yolks and added them after tempering in another bowl. With this mixture hot, I added sugar and extract and heated until it began to thicken. Goal attained, I added the ube/coconut cream blend, whisked together gently, and set in the fridge to chill.

I brought the components over to our friends' home to blend before serving. There were three 3 year olds anticipating ice cream so I felt a little pressure. Our monkey decided that she would wait by the mixer for her portion, even after I told her it would take another 20 minutes. "Oh yeah, and then it will be done Daddy?" Yes honey, I'll let you know when it is done, I promise. She lingered a few more moments and then decided to trust me. With the ice cream to a soft serve stage, I turned off the machine and immediately had three lilliputians competing for who was first to give me their bowl. With the serving complete and the monkeys seated at the tiny table, I stood over and snapped a pic to document that it is possible to have all three at the table at the same time. Ah the power of the ube......

After much struggle, the little tykes were down for the count and it was time for the parents to get schnockered. My German sources tell me that this means nothing in the native tongue, except maybe a small regional variant that refers to a mosquito. With that clarified, we finished our wine and beer and grappa (not necessarily in that order) and got down to viewing the real attraction of the evening, the "fire pliers punch" as it translates.

This is an action photo of the flaming drink that my friend G-man has treated us to on a few occasions. It involves cheap dry red wine, spices, oranges, ridiculously high-octane rum (that would be 160 proof) and made specifically for this concoction, the sugar cone and the fire pliers, and of course, alot of fire. The object of this one is to first not kill yourself while preparing this libation. It is perhaps best to let an experienced and qualified German friend prepare it. With a willing fire tender, pour the red wine into a large pot with spices and cut up oranges. Heat this over a controlled flame or on the stove. With the wine hot, but not boiling, place the "fire pliers" on the top of the pot, install the sugar cone, pour rum into a large spoon or small ladle and carefully light (AWAY FROM THE BOTTLE PLEASE!) Now douse the sugar cone with the flaming rum. Remove the flaming spoon/ladle and when the flame is extinguished, refill with rum and pour over the flaming sugar cone. It will crackle and hiss, and as you continue dousing with rum, the sugar cooks and dissolves, draining into the (mulled really) wine. With each new introduction of rum, the flames reach higher toward the ceiling, threatening to catch your place on fire. No problem. It's a rental! I mean, it's New Years, let's get this conflagration going.

Well, we managed to not burn down the house. We rang in the new year warmed by the flames now inside of us. And let me warn you: when someone hands you the fire pliers the night before, you might find it difficult to jump out of bed the next morning to do............anything.

Happy New Year!