Saturday, April 26, 2008

wood fired pizza or corn in my cob

I've been dreaming of owning a wood fired oven for a long time. To me, it just seems like the ultimate marriage of simple technology and fantastic results. Besides, with all the home made bread we do around here, it seems inevitable that it would be high on my wish list. Over the past year I've done some reading on the subject to familiarize myself with the probability of building my own. I figure, I'm a do it yourselfer, right down to the doing it yourself part, so this past week I finally "got my ass in gear" and did something about it.

I started by making a willow frame to help shape my earthen oven. A few days previous, I trimmed the willow in the backyard, so I had ample material on hand. I stripped off a few switches and started weaving a basket of sorts. It reminded me of tying together sticks into an "x" way back in grade school and then weaving yarn around the sticks to give them strength. I repeated this procedure a few more times and added several sticks. When I was happy with the shape, I set it on the floor to let the kids have at it. I thought, if they don't destroy it after abusing it for an hour, then it just might be strong enough to support some mud on top of it.

When the willow was being trimmed, I also played with the various bricks we had in the backyard to envision a base for my oven. With the arrangement I felt would work best with the materials at hand (one of the biggest goals of the whole endeavor) I placed our willow basket on top. It appeared that the size would work nice. I scraped the nice topsoil from our garden and dug a hole in the nice clayey stuff at the bottom. Tossing the dirt into a wheel barrow along with a bucket of trimmed, leftover hay from last year, then adding some good old H20 and mixing thoroughly, we were ready for some construction.

The princess "Cobina" was on hand to bless the work. After mudding in the bottom bricks to keep them stable and in place I started working my way up. When the willow frame was reached, I covered it with some thick paper bags and newspaper and tried to tuck this in to keep it in place. The weight of the mud was pushing in and distorting the paper layer so I packed the void space with some small blocks of wood and a few bricks. I continued on my way up, and after reaching about two-thirds of the way to the top, began just slapping mud everywhere and concentrating on achieving a nice round shape.

After sitting overnight, I was anxious to see if it fared all right and had dried ever so slightly. All looked well, no slumping or distortion had occurred during the night, so I went ahead and cut access to the packing material and emptied it. I now had a pile of small blocks of peach wood that would be returned a few at a time to their former residence, though much, much hotter. After about 6 hours of flame, the outside of the oven was nearly completely dry to the touch. The inside was blistering hot, so I put a large tile over the entrance and went inside for an hour to see how it held heat.

When I came back out, there was still some heat, but not enough for baking some pizza. I tried one anyway, but the bottom was the only thing cooking rapidly. I took it out and re-lit a small fire on one side. After it was burning for about twenty minutes, I raked the coals over to the other side, swept up the ashes some and put in another pizza. This time, the bottom cooked nicely, but the side nearest the flame was getting burnt to a crisp. By pizza number three, I had the heat and rotation aspects worked out and started making some decent looking pies.

Well, there you have it: wood fired pizza from my cob oven. The sourdough cornmeal crust, carmelized onions, mushrooms and pesto were all locally sourced. The mud for the oven came from under my feet. Now that, is local.

So come on. If this looks intriguing to you, go do some reading and build one yourself. Really, they are quite easy. You play with sticks, dirt, water and hard can it be? In fact, while making the cob part I was thinking how it was like the adobe bricks and tiles we made as school children back in 4th grade at the Sonoma Mission while on a field trip. Simple technology, simple building materials, just give 'em a little knowledge and watch 'em go!

So, if you doubt your own abilities, then ask yourself: have you graduated 4th grade? Do you have some dirt in your backyard? Love wood fired pizza? Then get to work and make yourself a cob oven. Do it!

Saturday, April 19, 2008

stores well on counter

Ever have a butternut squash on your counter for a month before using it?

How about two months?


Four maybe?

If the answer is four then you win because I was tired of the one on mine after a mere 3 months of taking up space and collecting flour and other dust. Besides, it finally had a slightly puckered look around the stem end, so I put the steel to a big knife and did something about it. First stop: vegan calzone.

Start with the secret ingredient for super-hella bomb big taste, every time. Can you say carmelized onions? They act like sauce AND filling at the same time when forgoing the cheese. Add some thinly sliced mushrooms, a pinch of garam masala and some old-ass winter squash and you're in business! (Please bake on a pre-heated stone and make sure the dough or mushrooms aren't as old as the squash and this will come out great.....)

And now for the onion segue to our second stop.....

Why is it we only buy the bulby round part of the onion plant? Why don't we use more? Probably because we are no longer growing them regularly in our own yards. You see, when onions are getting big and mature, like a lot of other plants they wanna bloom. Since you're typically only after eating the bulb part, the bloom stem or "scape" is of no use and is generally cut off and discarded. I've seen garlic scapes bundled together and sold at the BFM, so why not use onion ones? Since we have twenty or so torpedo onions out front currently 'scaped, I figured it was time for a little experimenting. We ventured out and I hacked off a few while my daughter snapped the picture. Now, actually cooking with them. Hmmm, let's see.........

How about adding freshly chopped onion greens to pan browned beef and then smothering in a nice tomatillo sauce? Yeah, when I first thought of it, it sounded good to me too. It just had to happen. Now we're getting somewhere! Let's get on to the Second stop: butternut verde.

I looked at the remaining two-thirds of the ancient, now decapitated looking gourd. Grown and harvested by my father in-law back in October, sitting with it's own kind and some larger pumpkins in his barn on a wooden pallet for a few months, then transferred to my counter for another three, only then, or more really two days since I cut the stemmy portion off and used it.....(gasping for air) it was time to finish off this winter squash from hell.

Big, somewhat dry chunks of butternut went in beside our last little harvest of potatoes from the yard, pulled the week before. It made me very happy to be using up the rest of these foodstuffs before they turned to compost on the counter. I tasted the concoction and it needed adjusting, so I tossed in a touch of sugar to cut the acid and bitterness from the green sauce and let it begin simmering until all was nice and tender. I got my rice going and contemplated making a hollandaise sauce.

Well, maybe no sauce for the spears (as we'd had with our second round of asparagus this season) but plated up, I still think it looked good. More importantly though, the beef chile verde with butternut and potatoes had enough kick to accompany the homebrew IPA rather nicely.

Oh, and the squash from hell lives no more.......

Welp, I guess that's it, so remember, like, Everyday is Earth Day man!

Friday, April 04, 2008

march 35th

Some folks go wine tasting. I've done it before, and it can be fun and all, but this past weekend, my buddy N and myself decided to go beer tasting. It was to celebrate his b-day and for me, certainly serve as a mini daddy-needs-a-break-for-his-sanity trip. So last Saturday morning with bikes on the roof rack, we wandered on up to Anderson Valley and procured a camping spot in Philo to leave the car and gear behind at. At only about 5 miles away from the Anderson Valley Brewing Company (AVBC) in Boonville, and seeing the route while driving in, we were confident our plan would work. Taking only the essentials, we mounted our two-wheelers and rolled on over for a few pints before the tour. It was a splendid way to spend an afternoon.

The tour begins here, where the mashing of the malted barley and boiling of the wort happens. In this case, that means the big-ass, old-school, rescued from a defunct German Brewery, kind-of huge-normous copper kettles. Four in all. They gleamed. Rumor has it the head brewer came across these while on vacation. What a bitch to lug these babies through as a carry-on for the trip home huh? No, really though, it must have cost a fortune to dismantle and ship these babies from across an ocean and then a continent too, as well as reassemble them, but tasting the beer, I sure appreciate it. After this, it was all stainless steel tanks, frothing drums acting as blow-off valves, bottling equipment and quick-connect hoses. Pretty standard fare for a brewery these days. But the shiny copper was stunning and testament to a certain kind of commitment, and the folks running the show behind the bar were as kind and generous as it gets. This place is awesome.

Your ticket for the tour can be turned into cash toward merchandise at the gift shop. Since they have a disc-golf course on the property (30+ acre lot, not really typical of a micro-brewery) I applied mine toward a "putter." We grabbed a beer for the thirst we would work up walking through the calf-high grasses. The course was ours alone, the skies were mostly sunny, and maybe most importantly, I didn't lose my only disc. We made it to the tee for the 17th, when a small car appeared on the gravel road nearest us. It was the bartender.
"Oh, hey, I gotta lock up the front gate there fellas."
Thinking through the haze of a few beers, sunshine, and a full gut from the nice sandwiches we had earlier, it took a while to realize it was 6pm already and officially closing time.
"Sorry 'bout that one guys, but if you wanna come back tomorrow and finish up your round you can."
Like I said, kind and generous folk.
We walked the few hundred yards back to the front gate, and got back on our bikes, feeling quite refreshed from the physical activity and B-vitamin sports drinks. With our bearings figured out and sobriety check done, we pedaled our way back to camp for some further "tasting" of a few bottles from the cooler.

The following morning after catching a nice breakfast at a local cafe, we made our way down to Barney Flats. If you look at the map you'll see the area called Hendy Woods State Park. As witnessed here, there are at least a few trees that are really frickin' big. This tree ain't no Giant Sequoia from the Sierras, but it's probably a bit taller and still quite a specimen at some 12 feet in diameter. This place is worth checking out, as it is only part of a tiny bit of remaining virgin-growth coastal redwoods. It is but a taste of what probably filled most of the river banks around southern Mendocino County some 150 years ago. Tons and tons of thick, dark, spongy soiled redwood groves that just oozed clear water back into the goundwater table, supporting healthy salmon bearing streams, with big hogs for salmon.
Used to be, that is.
God damn, as a species we can really, really suck.


Sorry 'bout that tangent there. Caught me off guard too.

Anyway, I arrived home to Lemon curd, Irish soda bread and english muffins on the way. When these were all done, seeing the muffins made me think of it as a full wallet; that I have to do some shopping with some more muffin money soon. Before the night was over, everything just had to be tasted.
Mmmmm......lemon curd on soda bread. Who the hell am I kidding? I had gobs of it.
Mmmmm.....muffins. And heaps of marmalade. I'll take three. Sweet!

I love coming home!

Oh, and the weekend beer spoils? How's a new beer glass for them Belgian kinds and a new growler filled with one zany good double IPA.
Mmmmmmm, and a growler. That there is a 1/2 gallon of beer.

So, like, seeing that it has taken me 5 extra days to post this (after what is now last weekend) it would appear that it takes 3 days to consume this much beer and another 2 to get much anything done. 'Tis a nice way to suffer I suppose.........

So this year, today, on my calendar, it is officially March 35th, 2008. So in advance for tomorrow, April Fools!