Sunday, December 28, 2008

biscotti making

Every x-mas, I make biscotti. Like, for at least the past ten years. It is a holiday ritual involving a good two days of labor, but one that yields the most satisfying of results. Biscotti, anise cookies, the ultimate cookie, call them what you will, they are my favorite cookie. Maybe you have not had the cookie I'm thinking about. Or you think you have, but are really imagining one of those rock hard biscotti-shaped things that ruin folks experience of the real deal. These, are the real deal, and if you have the hand and forearm strength to give them a try, I implore you to do so. You will be most pleased.

Unless you have access to a professional kitchen with an industrial mixer, you'll be making these completely by hand. In order for the dough to be the right consistency it must be extremely tough to mix. Try it in a Kitchen Aid or similar home kitchen model and by the time you have all the ingredients together, the motor will come to an abrupt stop. Really. (I strongly advise against even trying it, so please trust me here.) Using a wooden spoon yields similar results and chances are you'll break it if you insist on using it. This recipe is so old school that you don't even need a bowl to mix it all in. Think: pasta making where you add the eggs to a well in the flour already on the bread board. When all is thoroughly mixed, toss it in the fridge. Then, ideally, forget about it for anywhere between two and five days.

When you remember, (or have achieved aged dough perfection, however you choose to view it) remove it from the ice box and split it into thirds. If it is your first time attempting these, shape only one piece into a loaf for the first baking so you can see how the dough behaves, looking for how much rising and spreading the loaf will do and keeping it from browning too much. After the first baking, make sure to cool it until room temp on a rack. Now cut it at a slight angle with a thickness ranging from between 21/64ths to 29/64ths of an inch. Don't worry too much about precision here, after a few sheets of varying thicknesses you'll figure out the fine balance between enough strength and too thick. Place these pieces side down on the sheet, filling it most of the way. Now here comes the art of this cookie: bake them about 6-7 minutes per side, flipping them each time and rotating cookies and multiple sheets if needed to compensate for inconsistencies in your oven. Compensate for inconsistencies in your brain too I suppose. (If you've ever baked cookies in a late 1920's Wedgewood, or tried baking while using my brain, you know what I'm talking about.) Anyway, pay close attention, because burning cookies that are baked twice is easily 200% easier to do.

Oh, and back to that hand and forearm thing. If you've never made these, one batch is tough. If you end up liking the recipe and think about making even more, doubling it is nearly out of the question unless you have the enormous hands of an NBA center to achieve mixing the resulting, huge-tastic doughball. I recommend making one batch a day for successive days. (I do anywhere from two to four of these each year.) Making two batches in one day can be done if needed, but will result in certain hand fatigue, noticed primarily the following day when you reach for a doorknob or squeeze something in your fist. Or reach for your 8th cookie of the morning. Because, like the picture shows, there are always a broken few that need immediate gastric recycling.

So make sure you are nice and fortified before you attempt making these biscotti. Maybe do some carbo loading the day before. Come to think of it, this year I ate several of these sandwiches the couple days before embarking on my workout plan. I guess after years of making the cookies, I just do this naturally. I'm pretty sure the deep dish pizza I made was full of carbs. Overall though, it was a nice balanced snack with the cream cheese and salmon placed in the middle, panini style. Ahhhh, the things you have to do to achieve hand and forearm fitness.......


measure and set aside:
2T anise seeds
1 & 1/3c chopped walnuts

4 large eggs (let come to room temperature)

sift together 3 times:
5c all-purpose flour
1 & 2/3c granulated sugar
2t baking powder
1/2t salt

in a measuring cup combine together:
2/3c melted butter
1/3c salad oil (like safflower, canola, etc.)
2t anise extract
2t vanilla extract

make a well in the dry ingredients and add the (slightly beaten) eggs. mix with your hands until the egg is well incorporated then add the measuring cup of the remaining wet ingredients and mix until you need to rest. now make it even more difficult and painful, by adding the anise seeds and walnuts and mixing until they are nicely distributed. put into a large bowl and cover, then place in the fridge, at the very least overnight. from one to five days later, remove from the fridge and cut into thirds. shape one portion into a log. mash down with your hands into a low profile loaf, about 2 1/2 inches wide and nearly and inch tall. this will likely stretch most of the way across your cookie sheet (unless you are using a larger pan like a standard 1/2 sheet.) bake this loaf at 350 degrees for 25-30 minutes until it has risen some and turned a light golden color. remove from the oven and cool on a cookie sheet until it has reached room temperature. slice on a diagonal about 3/8ths inch thick and lay on their sides back on the cookie sheet. bake at 350 again, about 6-7 minutes per side, flipping each time. by the second flip (nearing 15 minutes) they should be about done. cool on a rack and then start eating. dip in coffee, dip in wine, ice cream, chocolate, chili, whatever pleases you. and make sure to admire those strong hands and popeye-like forearms you just worked on and think: "I don't need no stinkin' mixer!"

Friday, December 19, 2008

fist of the buddha

Ever cook with a citron? We'd had one on the counter for the past week and I've been having so much fun looking at it, I went out and got another. The next day I turned over the first and saw mold. Damn! I hacked it off and pondered what to do next. Well, I thought to myself, lemon is good to stuff into chicken, so citron ought to be nice. I had my first happy hen from Ted, and a more or less intact palm along with another few knuckles and a finger. The chicken has a big hole, something is going in it, the post writes itself.......

I smashed two garlic cloves and gave it a rub down, then put the chicky on a few spears of carrot to keep it off the pan a bit. I tossed some beet hunks in and splashed olive oil all over. Listening to and rubbing a dub, the beets gave the bird a rosie tint. Mouth was beginning to water. Shake a salt and pepper, 425 degree oven and we're rockin'. With an hour to go, we needed more roots, and veggies. The carrots are especially fabulous right about now, so I chucked 'em in with the usual 'taters, onions and mushrooms.

This bird had a nice crisp on the outside, and boy howdy was it tender. Ted wasn't kidding when he said it would be a real good bird. Like, damn, that is some good bird there, man. Roasting the veggies in the drippings is key to sublime tender hunks, and this time it was particularly true. Everything was infused with bird. Especially yummy bird. Oh yeah, and fist. Tasty buddha fist. Come on, you know you want to say it with me, nice and loud now: "Mmmmm, "fisted chicken," just like grandma used to make!"

Yep, just like that. Because, you know what? It's the holidays, the economy sucks, and hell, sometimes you just gotta be rude, crude and socially unattractive. Besides, I just wanted to say fisted chicken.

Monday, December 01, 2008

leftover week

Did you know that you don't need the tryptophan-laden bird in order to get a serious case of food coma on Turkey day? I didn't, but now do.

This year we honored the beast and had some faux-chicken sausages with some of the usual side dishes: mashed potatoes, candied yams, stuffing, and brussel sprouts. Even without loading the plate up a second time, the food coma set in and we nearly didn't get to dessert. Somehow, we managed. Then, despite no carcass, as usual, we had tons of leftovers. I say we should officially call the week after Thanksgiving leftover week, since chances have it, that's mostly what you'll be eating. So here goes: a look into this year's leftovers.

I started feeding the monkeys leftovers as soon as possible. The little dude is moving into hyperdrive with the utensil usage and gave cheesecake and brussel sprouts a go at the same time. He ate most of the sprouts, but every last speck of his cheesecake. Without any mess. Wasting none happens when you really, really like something, so I'll take that as a compliment and testament to his wanting more cheesecake in the future.

Yeah, speaking of cheesecake. I'm a fiend for them in case you don't know. But more specifically, the sweet potato kind. The addiction started a while back, before the blog. Then two years ago I made an orange colored one while recounting the original. Then last year, I found the right variety and we had a purple one. This year's had garnet yams again, as the purple variety of sweet potatoes were nowhere near the vibrancy of last years after cooking them. Oh well, just coat them in butter and brown sugar and eat them anyway.....aren't candied yams one of your favorites anyway?

But what I really loved the most from this year's leftover fest is that homemade stuffing, heated up and served with a gooey-yolked fried egg atop it, is damn close to heaven in a bowl. Especially if it's made with bread made the day before and toasted the morning of. Luckily we had a disproportionate amount of stuffing leftover this year, and eggs o' plenty. So, not only have I had this four mornings in a row, but unless someone comes and swipes the rest outta my fridge, I'll have my last hella delicious bowl of it tomorrow. There are still some candied yams (gone tonight I'm sure), some brussel sprouts (ditto), and mashed taters (uh, scratch that as writing this piece took too long). The last piece of cheesecake (it was a frickin' huge one) just might hang in there until tomorrow though.

Ahhhhh, the leftovers nearly done with and we're on to the next portion of the holiday season. Some folks mark it with counting down the days until x-mas, so to honor the tradition, we went and bought a couple of "advil calendars" this morning. You might know them by their better known name: advent calendars. I guess the bigger of our little heathens knows more about advil than she does about the advent, and being as though it has been a whole year since the daily chocolate dispensation occurred, it only seems normal she'd go with the more familiar sounding name. Considering we just survived really only the beginning of the holidays, maybe an advil calendar isn't such a bad idea.

Anyway, stay warm, enjoy the festivities, and may a homebrew be coming your way soon..........Happy December!

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

free teapot

This is definitely not a post about prop 8. Nor is it a post about how sad I am that prejudice is nearly law. This is not a post about the difficulties explaining to my daughter why suddenly some of the women she knows so well, who even helped guide her into this world, could now be criminals. Nope, this post is not about how ashamed you should be for voting for attempting to make your own bedroom policies the only ones allowed and same-sex marriage illegal. This is a post about my teapot.

What? I've never told you the story about my teapot? Oh, my, we need to remedy this immediately.

Here we have a photo of one of my favorite places. Death Valley. (I just had to show one of my favorite wildlife photos from there: the rare, north american gravel monkey seen in it's winter plumage.) Now, about 20 miles or so to the North is a high desert valley that contains one of life's enduring unwitnessed phenomena. The sliding stones of racetrack playa. It's way out there, like 30+ miles along a rutted gravel road that has the distinction of eating tires and undercarriages. It turns out that getting there you pass a place called teakettle junction. An intersection with the habit of having many teapots hanging from the sign erected there.

But remember, this is not a post about me crying, thinking about how if my partner and I would be criminals for having the family we do if we simply had the same genitalia. And it's most certainly not a post about how passing prop 8 would be taking a step backward in society. Let me be clear, this is a post about where to find a free source of teapots.

I'd read somewhere that the national park service has to remove the teapots periodically because they pile up so quickly. It's really an unlikely place for a trash-heap, being so far out and all, but folks just can't help themselves and like the romantic idea of their teapot rusting away out there. Well, according to the nps, littering is what its called when you leave stuff behind out in the wilderness. So a few years ago, I found myself there with the need of a new teapot and I saw a real beauty. No embossed message in memoriam of anyone, no conspicuous reason for having left it behind. I figured, hey, why not help out the rangers with a little clean up and take one home to, er.....uh, dispose of. Yeah, dispose of, like on my stove!

So please don't think this is a post about how narrow minded I think you are being if you voted for prop 8. And don't think I'm saying that maybe not today, but in the near future, we will look back at this and see how pathetic our society was being. And whatever you do, please don't think that I'm angry about this whole thing. Because I'm not. I'm fucking pissed. So focus, and read this post for what it is: a hint on where to get another teapot, should you need one.

Nice one, huh? Two years later and working good. So, since this wasn't a post about prop 8 at all, let me not say how heartbroken I am as a parent, failing to come up with a good answer for my kid's inquisitive mind. Nope, it wasn't a post about how while trying to explain that some people don't want families to be anything but a mommy and a daddy, I couldn't adequately answer her simple question:

"Why don't they like families?"

Really, it is that simple. Go ahead and hate your own family if you have to. But don't pass any legislation to make intolerance mandatory. And remember, as a desert hermit once said "everyone is entitled to their own opinion, even if it is wrong......."

Sunday, October 26, 2008


Yes, it is true. Sometimes, I use the dried stuff. There she is, my starter all hungry and cold, needing attention and a bite to eat. My familiar hand reaches past for the small balls in the jar on the next shelf up. Cold I tell you. I can't help but feel as though I am cheating.

Fidelity toward the sourdough aside, sometimes I want to taste a flour without even a hint of sour. Sure, you can do quick, warm fermentations and other things to lessen the development of the tang. This was not enough. I wanted fluffy, unhealthy tasting sandwich bread. We've had some nice flour coming our way in our grain CSA and it was time to play with some barley flour. I got to thinking along the lines of a barley wonderbread loaf. Turns out buttermilk barley bread satisfies the craving. It was so good, we did a repeat of this bread the following week, noshed through another and managed to stash a loaf in the freezer.

We have grains to go though, with part of the focus being learning new things about more stuff. (Nice technical ring to that one.) Along came kamut. Do you know it? Have you met? Well, if not, let me tell you it is deliciously nutty. I'd made a few Kamut baguettes the week before and they turned out nice and crunchy. I contemplated doing more. I thought maybe having a guest help me out would be nice, but then remembered how a few years ago the last guest swiped the bread and took His sweet time to leave me with a pathetic note to explain. Screw the guest thing. I figured if I pair kamut with cornmeal it would be all the more sweet and earthy. This screamed pizza dough. Or maybe, the monkeys were rowdy, I screamed and made pizza dough. Once again, I cheated and used the dried stuff.

It was time to work on the toppings and caramelizing onions are a great place to start. Being the Fall, and apple pears are on the counter next to the really, I did do this on purpose. Not to say it didn't help that the size and shape was correct. I've had pizza with pear on it before and just figured that caramelizing it before tossing it on the pie would be nice. Being an apple pear, not all squishy, I hoped it would hold up. These doing a slow, simmery, release the juices thingy, I went and pulled out more ingredients.

Next it was pesto time. Tonight, I could give a rat's ass about how local it was. Dammit I was having pine nuts and parmesan. Okay, so it's not entirely true as the basil, lemon and oil are from the market, but whatever. The pine nuts came from either Korea, Russia or Vietnam and the cheese was from, uh, let's see here.......Parma! Not even close to close on those last two but sometimes you just have to say f*%$ it.

Ahhhh, all the ingredients assembled. My favorite time in the pizza making process. I can pretend I didn't just spend three hours prepping everything while tending to the monkeys. I close my eyes and imagine I just came in and feel like making some pizza. Hey, sheeit look, fixings for a pizza pie! Crank on that oven and make sure to get the pizza tile nice and hot.....wait, what was that, you did already? Sheesh, how thoughtful! Well, since you have everything else taken care of, maybe I'll go pour us some beer.

Version 1.0 had a pesto foundation, caramelized onion/pear and fresh mozzarella, with sweet Italian sausage on half and sliced black olives on the other. Both monkeys were digging this one. Sweet, with meat. Go figure. There were no leftovers of this version. Luckily we prepped version 2.0 while this was in the oven or we probably would have just made the same thing. Next time.

Nope. Turns out our creativity was compromised by the last ingredients and we managed to make the same pizza, only with a tomato sauce as the base. Even with this simple difference, the taste was hugely different. I'd have to say I prefer the pesto combo considering the sweet onions and sausage involved. Maybe it was the nutty crust, but the flavors just seemed to work better together.

So, yes, loyal readers. It is sad but true, sometimes I cheat and use the dried stuff to lift my loaf. Please don't hate me.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

local apple cider

Yapple-dy dapple-dy it's that time of year again! Time to get out the juicer or cider press and get mashin'. Time to preserve some apples. You can sauce them, bake them, boil them and such, but why? Juice them, add some yeast and let it do most of the work. In about two months time you will be drinking one of the most satisfying refreshments to ever touch your lips, because whether your friends drink it or not, you made it. And should it suck, chances have it that some time "cellaring" might take care of the offensive character. I've heard some take a year or more. Well, call it beginners luck but my experiments last year, overall, tasted good right away and only got better. Wish I'd made more.........

Step one: Find a source of apples that need picking. Get a ladder. Or better yet find a friend with a ladder and an apple tree. Bring boxes, bags and buckets. Start picking. I recommend starting with at least a target size of between a three and five gallon batch. Use the rough guestimate of 5lbs of apples equals 1 quart of juice and pick an appropriate amount. (Thanks Paul!) Stop picking when either you have enough or realize that no one has gotten hurt. Remember to put the ladder away and promise to give your friend some cider when the time comes.

Step two: Load all the apples into the ride home. Looking at this now, I think I could have gotten it home on my bike, but I didn't know how many pounds I would pick (about 60 it turns out) so I brought the car. Please make sure to keep all apples securely fastened while driving home for in the case of an accident, well over two hundred fist sized pieces will be flying about the inside of your vehicle. I don't speak from experience, but I do have an active imagination and a deep appreciation for simple physics.

Step three: Juice the apples to a pulp. Or rather, separate the pulp from the juice. Grind them, mash them, spin them amongst countless blades, whatever method you use make sure to extract as much juice as you can. In this case, I filled a container with everything that came out of the juicer and let bouyancy and time do the work. It is amazing what just sitting around can accomplish. Choose the yeast you need that will get the job done.

Step four: Siphon the juice into a large, sterilized glass vessel and pitch your yeast. Affix a one way valve to the top to allow exhaust only. Place a more or less sterile liquid like whiskey into the air lock (and yourself should you care) and then give the contents a mix. Make sure to keep the experiment near 70 degrees until you see some vigorous bubbling and sure signs of fermentation. Make sure to not let monkeys pull the valve off of the container. Should this happen, immediately clean the valve and perhaps monkey and place (valve not monkey) onto the carboy again. Put in a higher location.

Step five: Keep the foamy goodness from coming out the air-lock. Or be prepared to keep cleaning up a sticky mess. Maintain the carboy at nice ambient home temps of around 65. Watch and wonder. Well, especially wonder since this is a lager yeast and I've yet to hear of someone trying such. Last year I used English ale yeast, this year I'm giving a California Common yeast a try. So far, so good, but we'll have to wait about a month before we do some bottling and have a better idea.

Give me a shout if any of this interests you and you have the time!

BOTTLING UPDATE (11/27/08): So, on Turkey day we tasted some from a bit that I stashed in a bottle right before fermentation shut down completely, with the hopes of some completely natural carbonation. The suspense was high as I cracked the seal, but a fine foamy effervescence was what greeted us. Nice crisp apple, but supremely dry. It was a fitting libation to start the thanksgiving feast, a common homemade cider, that was truly from this years local harvest. Thanks once again Paul. We will share one soon.....

And for the few homebrewers who might be wondering:

Does a California common yeast work well for making apple cider? Answer: yes. Very well in fact. Makes for a nice dry product, much like using a dry english ale yeast like Danstar's Windsor or Nottingham. A starting gravity of 1.058 took a month (like the other yeasts) and finished at 0.998, packing an alcohol content of near 8%! Now that, is a merry x-mas.......

Monday, October 13, 2008

gringo verde

This is my first year growing tomatillos. Being a relative of the tomato, they share many of the same attributes, but in what seems like a wilder form. I forget exactly how many we planted this year, but I think it was only four or so in the "box." Growing three to four feet tall, with an understory of lemon cucumbers, it became the green hedge we have out front. In July, they were a riot of blooms and paper bells, foretelling of a green salsa in my future.

I've been feeling a bit neglectful of my garden lately, and noticing tomatillos beginning to fall of the plants all on their own (I mean, it was mid-September by now) meant time for action. I brought the monkeys out front and we conducted a fruit raid.

Easily filling a gallon sized bowl, we brought the loot back in and took the skins off. I've learned that my elder monkey has a propensity for the tedium, and will gladly work on this task as I tend to the "lil' bruther." After a quick rinse to remove the remaining bits and pieces, and maybe, just maybe a bit of whatever the sticky, strange, not quite entirely oily feeling stuff on them is off, we tossed them in a roasting pan (whew, talk about a run-on!)

I haven't had much luck with growing peppers here in oaktown. I've tried, boy I have, sporadically, for like five years or so. I'm no Chilebrown. (Let me tell you, he's got such a peppery green thumb, that after the simple act of shaking hands with him, you better wash up before touching any sensitive membranes around your eyeballs.) Anyway, this year, once again I gave it a go. I forget which varieties they were, something compact, but mild for sure. Because of all this, I made sure to include the seeds in the salsa to extract any bit of heat they had.

I had a few onions from earlier in the year out in the back shed and I was hoping to use them. I had envisioned an all from the monkey ranch salsa. But no. They had started to rot on the inside after sprouting a bit. Damn. I used a big white onion on the counter and went from there. All mixed up and ready for roasting I had a laugh. I always enjoy the look of all the little green balls in a pan. It reminds me of those ball pits they have at amusement parks where you can "swim." Okay, maybe that comes from having a beer with this one, but, what the hell.

I gave the roasted mess a blend and then went and picked some cilantro to finish it off. After mincing and mixing in we chowed down on some chips. It was super tangy and puckery. Given that it was at least 3/4 tomatillos I wasn't too surprised. I made a mental note about growing these husky tomato relatives here: flavor is good despite small size of fruit. Combine this with the ease of growing them and we have a winner in my book.

I have a feeling, that after seeds get into the soil this year I'll be harvesting volunteers next year. Well, and the next, and so on and so forth. With any luck, all the way into the sweet with heat, chile verde sunset years of life.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

nana's hands

I don't remember my great grandmother's face nearly so much as her hands. I remember thinking they weren't much bigger than mine, but severely arthritic and bent. Somehow voluptuously so, with how her enormous knuckles joined by slim digits formed two hourglass shapes on each finger and one more on her thumbs. She passed away when I was in second grade, so my memory of nana is fading, not unlike looking at an old picture of her. One part is clear: her bony little fingers poking the surface of some focaccia over and over and over......

Nana's mother brought her to San Francisco from Genoa just after the turn of the century. Landing in the City at that time must have been a sight to behold. Her mother had helped bring babies into this world, no doubt having tough little hands full of tender loving. My nana learned through these hands, then taught her children, and so forth. Focaccia was but one of the foods handed down, but it holds the distinction as the only one I remember seeing nana make. Years later, seeing my grandma make focaccia reminded me how she poked the dough the same way and and how her mother must have taught her. I'd also notice how grandma's hands looked just like hers. Would I inherit these bony looking hands? I used to wonder.

Six years ago, my grandmother was not doing good. Being carried around everywhere by her husband was wearing on them both and she wasn't going to be around much longer. I had come for a visit to cook her some lunch and hopefully pick her brain about some recipes I could write down. I can't remember what I made, but afterwards I recall being on the back porch with afternoon light roasting me and just barely touching her, she was so thin. I asked her about crab cioppino and got a nice outline that was easy to transcribe. I asked about minestrone and got a similar rough outline. I looked at her gnarled fingers and then I asked about bread.
"It's easy."
"Yeah, like nana's focaccia?"
"So, how about ingredients grandma?"
"Eh, flour, water.........bread is easy dear, don't worry."
I looked down at my notebook


"You'll figure it out."

I don't think nana or grandma used sourdough for their leavening. No matter, because somewhere back in that line of knowledge, someone did, and someone else converted over to dried yeast. Besides, grandma's recipe said flour, water.
And so that, is where I start.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

hilgard branch rolls (high sierra sourdough loop part 3)

So, it's now been over a month since this trip ended, but I just had to finish it up so bear with me.......

Before leaving Lake Italy and starting our trip downstream toward Bear Creek via the Hilgard Branch, I mixed up another dough to ferment in the pack. I tossed in the remainder of my dried herbs, so in essence I made the same dough as the day before, but carried it with slightly different intentions. Rolls this time, with a bit of grated cheese on top, and flipped once in the pan to brown both sides. I just love herbed rolls and was dreaming of a fish or three to go with them.

Our path skirted many beautiful wet meadow-ettes and I had my first real encounter with a wild sierra onion. My BIL dug one up for show and tell. Tough to remove and hardy as hell, like everything else up here, it was purple stemmed and rather fragrant. Mmmmm onion. Next time a few of these might find their way onto a pizza.

Winding our way through the forest and brief meadow encounters, we finally hit the last big meadow before joining the JMT. Looking for a well worn campsite was not tough. Despite the low traffic volume of this trail, years of repetitive use steered us toward a clutch of trees not too far from the creek.

The first cast into the creek brought in the first minnow of the evening. A beautiful little Golden it was but too small for eating standards. Hooked through only the outer lip, it was easy to release without harm. We worked the creek up and down for the few hundred yards lined by meadow. A few more hook ups resulted in more tiny fish. More than content to eat what was on the menu, we rambled back to camp. Not exactly triumphant, but happy to confirm the presence of the mythical golden minnow.

The sun was setting, beginning to make everything glow with warm colored alpine light. Even the piles of crap all over the meadow began to like nice with the sun glinting on them. Camp was eager to get eating so we concentrated on the task at hand, looking up now and then to get another glimpse of the mountains all around us. Not sure if I was sighting Hilgard Mountain or Mount Hilgard, I worked on the rolls as a compliment to tonight's final feast of the trip.

Getting absolutely feasted upon by mosquitos (they were actually trying my cuticles and fingertips!) we stayed as covered as possible. Happy to spend another night out in the majestic Sierras, we endured. It reminded me of a Northwest Indian tribe folk story about how mosquitos came to being. A monster was eating people. When someone figured out a way to trick the monster and toss him into a fire with the hopes of killing him, the ashes from his body floated up into the air and became mosquitos. Well, that must have been one huge monster because the mosquitos here were out of control. It was truly time for the mosquito netting.

The herbed rolls ended up as compliment to a delicious meal by my SIL. Curried chicken and black lentils with toasted cashews and coconut served on a bed of rice with some dahl. Wow. The herbed rolls were good but should have been flattened in retrospect; trail naan. Next time I guess. I cracked open a bottle of hooch to celebrate our having a good time and the tasty food we all packed.

The next day we hiked the rest of the way out, heading North, then East, while thunderheads started booming above. Just a few thumps and a flash or two nearby, we saw a line marching toward the crest off to our North. Good thing we'd be back at the car tonight. With a hot meal and a cold beer ahead, we marched on and with the kindness of a stranger, scored a free ride for the last two miles to the car.

We spent the next night in Reedley, home of my in laws and an enormous amount of fresh produce. With golden ketchup being a big hit last year, we made sure to come home with a few golden romas. Well, more like several hundred, as it seems that a 5-gallon bucket fits quite a few. Looking forward to some canning adventures, I got to work beginning with an ingredient list.

Turns out that five gallons makes a hell of a lot of tomato sauce. Doubling a ketchup recipe was all I could manage without thinking it was way too much, so I tried my hand at a golden hot sauce. The ketchup is a tad on the runny side, but continued thickening of the tomato sauce would have further caramelized the sugar in the recipe and made it too dark. Oh well, turns out the golden ketchup isn't a hit with the elder monkey this year. I like it though, and a few jars will make nice presents. I think the hot sauce came out nice too, so overall I'm pleased with the results. Even if I'm the only one eating it on my corndog.

Hope you enjoyed this years backpacking adventure! I sure did. With any luck, I'll squeeze in two next year.......

Monday, September 01, 2008

local hop harvest

Here we are in the last week of August and the hops are looking good. I had started to tentatively pick a few, but being a newbie at this sort of thing, I wasn't exactly sure how to dry them and preserve their dank smelly goodness. I had plans for a "wet hopped" beer, but the overall haul would warrant some preservation. I needed guidance, someone to talk to about their experiences. I had dehydrated a sandwich bags worth and was itching to show them to someone else and find out what I need to know. I hatched a plan to bring them down to the Oak Barrel and rap with their attentive and informative staff. The monkeys and I were nearing our final lock down of the ranch before loading into the car when a hop angel came to our door.

"Hey, you the green thumb out front?"
"Uhhhh, I don't know about green, but, yeah, I'm an amateur gardener."
"Those are Cascade Hops, aren't they?"
"Yep, stretching over the garden, and Northern Brewer climbing the house."
"Well, I drive by all the time and finally decided to knock on your door to find out who's behind it and tell you they look great."
"Really? They do? Sweet! Uhhhh, wow, thanks!" then realizing that the information source I've been needing had arrived, "hey, can we head out front and I ask you some questions?"

The hop angel Jesse was more than kind with dispensing the knowledge I needed. I asked him a bunch of stuff and came away with some key info. First: start picking them, now. Second: dry them over a few days time where air circulates, and keep them in the shade. Second and a half: any bugginess or leaf mildew problem I see is within the range of normal for around here. Third: use them now, then in the spring trade rhizomes with others and help bring the knowledge of cultivating hops to the world.

That all sounded good. It was just what I needed to hear. I did a little happy dance and sent him home with a blueberry hefeweizen as a wet token of my appreciation. Then I started picking and drying.

The next day I was brewing up a batch of something big, red, extra malty, and ready to absorb a lot of hop character. I'm familiar with the taste of Cascade hops (think Sierra Nevada Pale Ale), so I wanted to use exclusively Northern Brewer for my first "all homegrown hops" brew. This way, I'd start acquainting myself with their flavor profile. All in the name of science of course.

With the wort chilling, waiting to come down to yeast pitching temps, I went out and harvested yet more hops. You see, I won't be the only one using my hops this week. I'm working on an art project that will use local produce from the city limits of Oakland, Berkeley and San Francisco. It turns out that the crazy twisted mess of hops in my yard are a wanted flavor. For the next exhibition, representing part of the beverage category, will be some beer by a local brewery. This will be "localized" even further by being dry hopped with a taste of oaktown. My little hip-hop neighborhood part. I am soooo excited to be part of this project and can't wait to see what the professionals can do with this years happy ending story from my garden.

So this past Thursday night, with 5 ounces of nefarious looking, homegrown dank green smelling hops, I went and paid a visit to the brewery. We bellied up to the bar and began talking to the bartender and asking for the brewer since we had some hops to drop off. He said we were expected and asked to see the hops. Pulling them from my bag, a distinctive aroma not unlike weed wafted up and around. As the two, nearly full gallon bags hit the bar, heads snapped up and started wondering about the produce being handed over. Now, feeling like some local street dealer (this is the corner of Haight and Masonic after all) and nervous as hell about handing over part of my first crop of hops (are they strong enough, too buggy, the right varieties) I had a few gulps of what sudsy goodness they have to offer and promptly settled down. After a tour downstairs to see where everything but the drinking happens, we came back up to have some delicious grub and another pint. Ending with a Dark Star Mild, I was feeling like I was somewhere in the drums/space combo before the start of the next set.

So, I'll know what the hops taste like in a little under two weeks. I'll be helping serve the beer at the art exhibit, and if this sounds like something you are interested in, check out the link above and make a point to drop on by.

Hope to see you there!

Monday, August 25, 2008

lake italy pizza (high sierra sourdough loop part 2)

There is something very soothing about making dough up in the thin mountain air. Kneading, pulling, folding and breathing slowly and deeply all the while. Up here the cadence really fits the view.
Yeah, its gotta be the view.

Then again maybe it was starting off the day by catching my first fish of the trip, then losing it trying to take a picture.
My first pure Golden! What a beautiful fish, I gotta get a picture!
Then reaching for the camera, the fish starts flipping about and is gone........Nothing like a good hearty laugh at yourself before that morning cup of joe.

This is the view looking down at the ingredients and supplies. Plain indeed as far a scenery, but you know, mise en place counts for something at 10,800+ and it is imperative we start at the beginning. From left to right, starting at the top I have: active starter in my 2 quart plastic dough can, BFM olive oil resting on a bagged mix of 3 parts bread flour to 1 part whole wheat, my water bottle, and the screw-on top for my dough can. Then in the non-stick we have a container of salt, one with a mix of dried garden herbs, and a borrowed wooden spoon.

After putting a cup or so of water in with the starter I added a few handfuls of flour and mixed it with the wooden spoon until it started clumping up. I flopped this out onto the pan and kneaded it for about five minutes while enjoying the morning sun on my mosquito bitten face. I covered the pan, then let the dough rest while I went and pumped some water for our accent of the pass. Coming back to the dough I added a few teaspoons of salt and about a tablespoon of herbs and then continued kneading for another 2-3 minutes. I oiled up the dough can and placed my herbed lump in.

Well above Upper Mills creek lake I had a peek at the dough while grabbing some more jerky from my pack. It was looking good and smelling even better. Had there been more humidity in the air I might have noticed the salivating. We were nearing 12,000 feet and I had just finished a dumb traverse. I was too high up a talus slope and needed to drop a bit to meet the "trail." Some day-hikers coming down from the pass indicated that it was easy, just make sure to "stay in the gut and head right up" which sounded easy enough. I wound back down to the bottom of the canyon and plotted my course.

The bouldering in the bottom of the route to the pass was straight forward. From pebbles to house size blocks, it was a doable maze indeed; pretty straight, with occasional jogs to the sides to avoid climbing something on all fours. At what seemed like the last flat area before a final pitch to the pass, we took another breather. Another check of the dough confirmed it's happiness. It was poofy and in need of a beating down. Based on this, I was guessing it must have been around 70-ish in my pack. Combined with the lower barometric pressure at this altitude not pushing down as much, the dough was rising even faster than it would at home. I was overcome with joy and the prospect of fluffy pizza dough tonight. I wanted a high altitude portrait.

With everyone caught up and resting it was time to assess our final climb for the day. I took my first real look at what lay ahead. I remember thinking those guys also said it wasn't too bad going up the final bit, that it even had a nice marked path, and the other side of the pass was easy! Like, cheaaaww! Pfffst! Right!

You have got to be fucking kidding! kept running through my mind as we stared up. Then two brave souls forged ahead as I stood and stared some more. After a few minutes they yelled that there were some cairns and a worn trail. They even said it wasn't too steep. I took another look and stared again in disbelief. I fished out my camera and took this picture to look at again later. Like maybe when I wasn't contemplating my sanity. You know what? You see that little black speck in the middle? It is not a hunk of basalt in an otherwise granitic landscape, no way. Nor is it a blackened tree trunk somehow way above timberline. Nope. It is a person, of sound mind and body heading uphill. Taking another look now it still looks daunting. However, should you go this way yourself, in August or later when the snow is all gone, and you have any experience going cross-country at such altitudes, you do indeed have a tame final bit on the North side of Gabbot pass.

The top was very flat and spilled over to the South in the beginnings of a green carpet set amongst stones. This soft green mat seemed to run at least halfway downslope in the direction we were going and my heart went a flutter. We easily had over a mile and a half to go to camp but it looked like we'd be there within the hour. Going a bit fast for my wobbly legs and big pack I only nearly ate it once. Well, okay maybe twice but tht's why they make walking sticks right?

Safely on the level near the East end of Lake Italy we set up camp. I checked the dough one more time and gave it another punch, then started working on the toppings. Using my backpackers cheese grater I shredded some dry jack. We boiled some water and I rehydrated some peppers, onions, mushrooms and tomatoes that I dried for the trip. Remembering we didn't use all of our pesto tube from two nights ago, my SIL offered the rest. The pizza was starting to sound, well, Italian at the very least. Salt encrusted and getting chewed on by a few mosquitos, I started constructing our first of two pizzas.

I didn't expect it to last long so I got a pre-baked picture right before tossing it in the "oven." The first one was a touch soft on the top but considering the location, this is easily forgiven. I have used this set up several times now and am most pleased with the results. I liken the results to: at home this pizza would be considered not crispy enough, but out here, it tastes like the best pizza ever.

Want some?

It was getting dark by the time number two was done. It came out more fully baked. My BIL got out the high country version of the ove glove and started cutting. Finishing off the last pieces coincided with the mosquitos calming down and the bats coming out. It was time for bed. It was also time for some tunes as I had a horrible Christopher Cross song in my head, doing that endless annoying loop thing since coming down from the pass. I had purchased my first iPod thingy before the trip and right now I felt like the smartest man alive to have it with me.

Climbing into my bag I funked out for a while with 8-string master guitarist Charlie Hunter now in my head. Somewhere in the smooth jazzy sounds I could make out squeeky little clicks and ticks of the bats flitting about only inches above my tent. It sounded like I was listening to music on vinyl instead of pure digital. I had another good hearty laugh, turned off the tunes and promptly fell asleep.

A few audible rock falls and subsequent sliding talus sounds during the night called me from a deep slumber. Looking out I realized I was deep in the moon shadow of one mountain, while looking out on the moonlit peaks all around. I looked around for the pass the dough came over and then drifted back out, happy I came along for the ride.