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!