Saturday, October 4, 2014

One pot pasta comfort food or Un-recipe for pasta pottage

I've been in desperate need of comfort food lately, and when it comes to comfort food, there is nothing more soothing than pasta for me.

The trouble with pasta (aside from me eating too much) is that it's fussy.  Pasta wants specific timing, and water and sauce, and draining.  All of which requires my attention and additional dirty dishes.

As soon as I realized that it was possible, I set about finding a way to this recipe my own.  For starters, I cut down on the volume so that it's just enough to feed one hungry farmer.  I even started cooking it in the bowl I would eat it in - a special korean ceramic bowl specifically for cooking on the stove.

The beauty of this is that it's simple, doesn't mind being left cooking for an extra two hours, and of course, it's delicious.

My un-recipe for Pasta Pottage:

  1. Get a small handful of pasta from the cupboard and put it in the pot.  Add water so that all the pasta is covered.
  2. Go to the garden and fetch something that looks yummy.  Beans, tomatoes, whatever.  Chop them up and toss them in.
  3. Go to the cupboard and/or fridge and fetch something that looks yummy.  Sundry tomatoes, capers, olives, pre-cooked chickpeas or lentils, can tuna drained, leftover chicken breasts.  Chop it up and toss it in.
  4. Spice it up.  Salt.  Pepper.  Fresh or dry herbs.  A few drops of Spicy Rooster sauce. All of the above.  Whatever floats your boat.
  5. Put a lid on it.
  6. Cook on medium low for at least 20 minutes, or it comes to a boil and the pasta is tender.
  7. Add cheese.
  8. Mix it all up.
  9. Enjoy.
There you go, nine simple steps to delicious pasta.

It is an awful lot like an old fashioned pottage.  Only, unlike the pottage of old, this cooks up in as little as 20 minutes, not 6 hours.  Although, I have been known to leave it cooking for up to 3 hours.  The pasta is a bit mushy by then, but the flavour is great.

Affordable?  I think so.  Because I cram so much extra veg and stuff in the pot, I don't use much pasta.  Maybe a quarter cup at most.  And as for the additional ingredients, when I do the purely store bought stuff, I use two sundried tomatoes, half a teaspoon of capers, quarter teaspoon of chopped olives, and a few drops of spicy rooster.  Unless I have some other protein in it, I use about two tablespoons of cheese.  Somewhere between 50 cents and a dollar for a hearty meal.  Include leftovers and garden veg, replace some of the pasta with pre-cooked chickpeas, and the price plummets.  

Healthy?  That all depends on what gets tossed in the pot.  I use wholesome and simple ingredients, most of which were living plants just prior to cooking.  Of course I'm sure there is a way to make this unhealthy, but you would probably have to try really hard.  

I think this would be great for camping.  One dish, everything tossed in together: This really should be called pasta pottage.

How about allergy friendly?  A simple un-recipe like this is very simple to modify for dietary needs.  Chances are the pantry is already stocked with things you can eat, and probably also things you like to eat.  It's just a matter of going to the cupboard and finding something good.  By the way, pickles taste great in this for some weird reason - if you can find a pickle you can eat.

I think this is a fantastic dish for making use of local resources and therefore a great transitional food.  Of course when the balloon goes down, or up, or whatever they say, I imagine that dry pasta would be harder to come by as it's manufactured and shipped from far away.  But when that happens we can go back to the more traditional pottages of beans with a smattering of fresh pasta tossed in at serving time.


Thursday, July 31, 2014

Saving Seeds

This year I had the great joy to participate in the Victoria Seed Library.  The beginning of the growing season I choose 6 different seed kinds from their lovely list of things to grow, and received tiny envelopes with a pinch of seed in each.  The goal is to plant the seeds in the garden, nurture them, then select and save seeds from the best plants.

I'll save a few seeds for myself and in the case of dried beans and peas, a handful for a meal, then give the remaining seeds back to the library so they can share the seeds with people next year.

It's not only a lot of fun, but it's also a good reminder about how precarious our food future is and the importance of maintaining genetic diversity in our gardens.

The Seed Library is free to participate in, free workshops and free seeds.  The only thing you are obligated to do is to give back some of this years seeds and a record of how the plants grew, conditions, &c.

We have sandy soil that we augment heavily with manure and compost, a long dry summer, and a weak well.   So when I selected the plants worth keeping seeds from, I choose those that were most drought tolerant and good producers.

Here are some observations on the seeds I choose and how they grew on our farm.

Tangerine Marigold (which I suspect are actually Tangerine Gem Marigolds)

Tiny little flowers that smell like apple candy.  Grow in a bush formation about 8 inches high, and make a nice border.  I thought maybe I would use these for dyeing yarn, but given how tiny they are, not much hope of collecting enough for that.  However, they may make a good companion plant, as the insects seem to avoid them.  More research is needed, but yes, I think I'll grow these again next year.

Drought tolerance?  About 1/4 died from drought, but what did survive thrived!

I started these inside then planted them out in the garden when danger of frost had past.

Green Lentils

Moderate drought tolerance, but the number of pods that filled out was lower than I would prefer.  For the pods that did fill out, there was only one lentil per pod instead of the two there should have been.  I hope it was simply the lack of water and not a flaw of the plant that prevented the beans from forming.

Also, as the lower pods dried out, they started to split open and spit out their seeds, so I ended up harvesting the plants much earlier than I would have hoped.

Hutterite Soup Beans

These make really nice snacking beans as well as dry soup beans.  They do have a climbing tendency despite what the internet says.  The beans aren't ready yet, but when they are, I think I'll separate the ones that like to climb from the ones that prefer to bush.

I had a lot of trouble starting these seeds, though I think the soil was warm enough.  In the end, about half survived to reproduce.

Wild Cherry Bush Tomato

This has been an outstanding success.  Every single one of these seeds I planted grew, and my garden is overwhelmed by tiny tomatoes growing on massive bushes.  The most sturdy of tomato cages cannot contain this plant.  I had so many germinate that I started giving the extras away.

Funny thing is, the ones with the richest soil aren't growing as well as the ones with sandy loam.

Darlaine Pea - yellow soup pea

More drought tolerant than regular garden peas, these little gems taste delicious at different stages.  The shoots are delicate and sweet.  The young pods can be consumed whole like you would snow peas, the mature pods make great boiled peas and finally the dried peas... well they are just like yummy dry peas.


Didn't grow :( despite planting the seeds in different environments and time of year.  No seeds left.  Maybe the Library will accept bread poppy seeds instead.

All in all, it's been an enjoyable experience.  It's nice to be reminded that gardening is not a solitary act.

A strange dream about vegan and omnivore long term sustainability

I had a strange dream the other night that has been haunting my waking world.  I was living in this long term experiment where we had a small community and we had to survive with as low an environmental impact, and as self sufficiently as possible.  There were two teams, one who worked with animals and the other team lived a pure vegan life.  I was part of the first team but was for some reason giving lessons and advice to both teams.  It involved all sorts of people, historians, enthusiasts, ecologists, gardeners, and a transient student population.

In my dream, the goal of the study was to discover if it is possible to combine current day knowledge and to some extent technology with traditional methods and wisdom.  The aim is to supply a surplus of necessary resources (food, clothing, shelter, entertainment) while leaving the soil and overall environmental stability in a better state than when we started.

The other part of the experiment was to investigate if a Vegan way of life was actually ecologically friendly when compared with a similar community living the same lifestyle but also using and on occasion consuming animals.  Can a vegan live a nutritionally fulfilling diet on local resources alone?  How would a vegan cloth themselves in the winter if they can't depend on industrial fabrics made from plant pulp and petroleum?  Would the soil deteriorate without the addition of animal manure or would it thrive on compost alone?

The groups would meet weekly, talk about problems, observations, and questions of things that needed more in depth study.  For example testing the fertility of different soil management methods by careful record keeping, or testing the nutritional density of apples grown in a regular orchard, or in an orchard that had a herd of sheep grazing on it.  For those sorts of things, our academic counterparts would arrange lab work or perhaps research methods for solving a problem, or stuff like that.

It was a very precise dream with a strong structure to the experiment.

At one time in the dream, there was a great debate as to whether it was in agreement with vegan principles to use worm composting - the debate spread across the world and many university students and teachers wrote in with their opinions.  In the end, it was decided that worms confined in a bin were not whereas worms in a compost pile were fine.  For some reason undisclosed in my dream.

Originally, my dream memory tells me, it was suppose to last 4 years.  The first three years to build fertility in the soil, and by the end of the third year, be almost completely independent.

There were some interesting differences in the vegan vs the omnivore groups.  The vegan group had to grow extra acres of oil seed crop to use as fuel for their tractor, whereas the omnivore's could use cattle to pull the equipment.  For some reason horses weren't multipurpose enough for us.  The downside with the cattle was that we needed to grow extra feed for them during the winter.  However, something happened and the tractor the vegan group used broke down just at a vital point at some agricultural even - harvest or planting, or something vague.  It wouldn't be a dream worth remembering without obstacles to overcome.

And so the dream went.  The original four years, was expanded to six, then ten.  We built different houses out of local materials.  The vegans yurt was fantastic in the summer, but an utter failure for winter warmth.  However, they had super awesome luck with their cob construction and after a few years made one large house that they all lived in.  The omnivore's eventually had mostly yurt living spaces with wattle and daub communal buildings.  Both living arrangements had their advantages and disadvantages.

Although it was almost a contest between vegan and omnivore living, we did live side by side, and as the years progressed, the two communities came closer together, learning from each other, sharing resources when times were tough (to the chagrin of the professors managing the experiment).  We had become so independent, or perhaps codependent, that there was less and less desire to interact with the outside world.  The tidal influx of students participating in the study was sufficient for us to feel connected to life outside.  By year eight, it was a very pleasant rhythm.

But also, great inspiration to the world at large.  Academics built their reputations talking about our endeavours.  Political decisions were influenced by our accomplishments.  Even corporations took notice and started to make changes to the way they managed their resources.  As we produced so much excess food, other cities started to plan farming communities like ours to provide supplies for emergency situations.

But like I said, it was just a dream I had.

What a strange dream though.

I've been thinking for a while lately about how eco-friendly a vegan diet is.  Compared to the Western Diet, it's very good.  However, compared to my personal situation, I think that a vegan lifestyle would have a devastating impact on the environment.  But maybe I'm wrong.  Academics can make good arguments for both sides; science can confirm the validity of both opinions.  That leaves us with no way to discover the truth - unless we actually try it.

I've been trying it a little bit on the farm here in real life.  One of the gardens I grew flax in this year, I used animal manure on one half of the garden, and compost on the other.  Other than that, both halves received the same treatment.  However, the flax on the manure side grew a good foot and a half taller than the compost side.  One garden is not enough evidence.  That is why more practical research needs doing - not just reading reports, but actually having people living the life on a day to day basis.  I think it's a fantastic idea and I loved participating in the experiment in my dream.

As much as the world needs to know more about this kind of thing, I don't imagine there are enough people in the Western World up for this sort of a challenge.  Though I wish they were because I would jump at the opportunity in a heart beat.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Mystery Squash Becomes Pumpkin Bread Recipe - aka, Mystery Squash Bread Recipe

What to do when one's garden has become invaded by squash?  Make squash bread of course.  

There are these three plants, began innocently enough, tiny tender things, needing coaxing and care to begin their life in the soil.  I created pots from old newspaper and filled them with finely sifted soil.  Placed one seed carefully inside each pot and watered it with dedication.  When the moment was right, I dug a hole in the garden, not too big, but not too small, and pressed the tender shoot, pot and all, into the soil.  Covered it with a cold frame made from old windows, and with some words of encouragement, left it to fend for itself.

Well, perhaps I gave it a little too much encouragement.  Each plant sent out, at first one long searching vine, then another and another, until each one had produced over a dozen vines, climbing over fence and pea plant with equal enthusiasm.  June was scary!  The vines would grow over a foot a day, each morning I had to hack my way past over-enthusiastic squash, just to get into the garden.  Finally the vine growth seems to have reached the limit at just shy of 25 feet, the bright yellow blossoms are gone, replaced with splendid orange squash.

you can get an idea of how large these squash are

week old gosling named Chesnut
I'm guessing they are pumpkins.

After bumming around the internet for a few hours, I finally came across a squash recipe I liked: Savory Pumpkin Rosemary Bread.  The flavours in this recipe look really good, so I thought it would translate nicely to sourdough.  I started roasting the squash at midnight - the only time of day when the kitchen is cool enough to cook - and made pumpkin mush the next morning.  

Disaster struck when I got my sourdough starter out of the fridge - BLACK MOLD.  

I'm not hugely squeamish with mold, but when black mold happens I won't touch it.  Even if it isn't real black mold, just black colour mold, it's just not worth the risk.  

So sadness, my sourdough starters are all dead.

I blame myself, because I know during the summer the water in the well kills starters.  Something from one of our neighbours uphill from us seeps into the water table and devastates my cultures.  I suspect it's the time of year when swimming pools are emptied and cleaned.  From June through August, I always try to boil my water before using it in any culture that relies on bacteria.  But this year, we had a new filtration system installed, so I thought I could be lazy... sniffle... oh well.

Good thing I know how to make more starter, but that takes time and doesn't help me with all this squash/pumpkin mush.  So commercial yeast it is.

The recipe linked above looks fantastic, but relies heavily on mechanical devices to mix the dough.  I changed an ingredient or two, the method, the order of adding, timing, and even some of the ratios, so I'm going to post my version of this recipe for those of you who don't have a standing mixer or who enjoy kneading by hand.

mmm, pumpkin bread
sorry about the lighting, late night photos are not my strong suit

Mystery Squash Bread

The night before

at least 1 lb squash or pumpkin (without seeds)
olive oil
flour, whole wheat if you have it

  • Cut up the squash into 3 inch chunks - about that size, don't be fussy unless you want to.  Rub with oil and place on a roasting tray in the oven.  350F for about 30 min, or until it's mushy.  Remove from oven, and cover with a clean towel.  Leave on the counter overnight or until cool enough to handle.
  • In a small dish, make a poolish or biga by combining 2 cups of flour with a pinch of yeast and enough water to make it into a thin batter.  Cover with a cloth and leave on the counter overnight.  

Baking day

The roasted squash (or 2 cups canned squash mush)
The poolish from the night before
1 cup warm water
2 Tbs instant yeast
small drizzle honey
1Tbs sea salt
flour (I used all purpose, but next time I'll use a mix of 1 cup whole grain and the rest all purpose)
about 1 tsp fresh rosemary finely chopped, or 1/2 tsp dry
olive oil

  • Get your big bread bowl out and in it, combine the honey, yeast and warm water.
  • Scrape the squash off it's skin directly into a blender or blitzer.  And blend/blits until mush.  Alternately you could just mush it up with a fork.  I don't think there are any rules as to how lumpy or smooth your squash mush is.  
  • The yeast should be starting to work by now.  If not, leave it 5 min before continuing.
  • Next add the squash mush, poolish, and salt to the yeast water.  Mix together well.  
  • Add about one cup of flour (the whole grain if you are using it) to the mix, and mix.
  • Mix in about 1 handful of flour at a time, until you get the traditional shaggy mess that bread recipes always talk about.
  • Put your shaggy mess on a well floured countertop and take the bowl immediately to the sink and wash it.  Some people think this is an optional step and we should just get another bowl out of the cupboard, but there are good reasons for putting the effort in.  One, it lets your dough rest.  Two, the bowl is easier to clean now than later.  And three, you don't have to hear the person who does the dishes complain about how they love your bread but hate the mess it makes.
  • Dry the bowl with a clean cotton or linen towel (keep the towel to one side for covering the dough later) and pour a generous glug of olive oil in the now dry bowl.
  • Go back to your shaggy mess and knead it till it's smooth and elastic - about 2 to 10 min.  Shape your dough into a ball like shape, put it upside down in the bowl and get the top good and oily.  flip it right way up, and cover it with your cloth.  Leave it to rise until it's about double in size.  Usually under an hour. 
    • If this was sourdough bread, I would shape the loaves immediately after kneading it to give it a more rustic texture with probable air pockets.  But since we are using commercial yeast, I feel the taste isn't very good with a single rise.  Best to do the double rise thing even if it makes a softer bread.
    • Also, a lot of people recommend a damp cloth - I don't quite understand why they think this is a good idea.  It's such a short rise time, and if you were generous with the oil, then the slight dampness left on the towel from drying the bow is plenty.  The dough isn't going to dry out in an hour.  Besides, as the dampness on the cloth evaporates, it cools the dough.  This isn't what you really want when working with commercial yeast.  Long rise sourdoughs on the other hand... they love a cooler clime.  
      • But you know, it's your bread, do what you like.  I'm not going to come to your house and yell at you if you don't do things the way I say.  
  • When it's risen, punch it down.  Divide into two and shape into loaves.  Whatever shape you like - round with a cross on top, loaf pan, braided, pumpkin shape... whatever floats your boat.  Score the top of the loaf (if you like) to make it rise more evenly.  Cover again with the cloth and leave till double in size (about 20 min).  I do round loaves traditionally, so if you are doing something different you may need to adjust your cooking time.
  • I cooked mine at 425F for 45 min.  Next time I'll cook at 400F for about an hour as I didn't like the crust at the higher temp.  It's ready if it sounds hollow when knocked.  
  • Eat anytime after 10 min, or leave to cool 12 hours before putting in plastic bag.

Affordable?  If you wait till squash season, people will almost pay you to take their excess squash off their hands.  I imagine you could use just about any winter squash - maybe even summer squash, but probably have to either grate it or roast it differently.  You can make loads of pumpkin mush and freeze it in 2 cup servings.  You can use more or less pumpkin according to your tastes.  I think it would be really good with leftover lentils or other pulses.  In fact, forget about roasting squash specifically for this bread, use leftover squash from a family feast.

There's a decent nutritional value to this - but I'm going to hesitate pricing out the ingredients as I understand there is yet another bad harvest year for wheat (what's that? 6 years in a row now?) so expect the price to go up again this winter.  8 years ago a huge bag of flour was regularly on sale for $2.40, now it's never lower than $14.  You know things are bad when locally grown organic wheat berries are now cheaper than commercial flour.  

At the time of writing, this recipe is affordable.. but who knows what tomorrow will bring.

Vegi or fruit, either way squash is probably a healthy thing.  This is a good way to trick yourself into eating your veg - something I have to do often - by making a slightly sweet flavour bread that goes amazingly well with hummus or goat cheese.

How to make this Vegan Friendly: Replace the honey with a pinch of sugar.

I think this qualifies as a Transitional Food, not just because I'm cutting down on my oil dependence by using locally grown wheat, but also because pumpkins and squashes in general are one of the easiest things to grow.  Get the timing right, give them lots of water, and even the brownest of thumbs can look like they know what they are doing.    When we get back to a stage in society where the Victory Garden replaces the lawn, you need to realize that there are going to be a lot of squash.  Better learn how to cook it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Headcheese - it's the weirdest cheese of them all, and possibly the hardest to make

Headcheese tops my list of weirdest foodstuff ever.  It's basically a hog's head, boiled, the meat removed, then the broth boiled down to make a thick jelly.  That's it.  That's headcheese.  Weird!

If I'm so grossed out by headcheese, why did I decide to make it?  Not sure really, perhaps because I've never done it before.  Though the more I think about it, the more I realize I made headcheese because I couldn't stand the idea of waste.  More and more I feel it necessary to honour the animals we eat by using every part of them.  

A couple of weeks ago, my friends butchered their oinkers, and I went to help.  Lovingly raised, these little piggies had it good: A warm cooked breakfast every morning, massages, and I suspect even songs.  It's a real privilege to give thanks to such well cared for animals before they met their end.

Next comes the most disgusting thing I've ever done - so far.

I brought home the head.

For the next 6 hours, myself and The Captain experimented with different ways to remove the bristles from the skin.  We tried scalding, skinning, plucking, shaving, and in the end we settled for a small blow torch and scraping.  Wish we had started with that to begin with, as it would probably have taken only about an hour.

Next came the part where we saw the head in half so we can scoop out the brain.  We can probably leave the brain in there, though I suspect it would make the final cheese cloudy.  Also, I'm not brave enough to eat brain yet, so I felt we needed to get it out.  A hack saw with a blade designed to cut metal was the best tool we found.  But if you ever have a chance to buy your own hogshead, get the butcher to cut the skull in half for you -  parts of the skull were nearly 4 inches thick.

There are a lot of recipes out there for Head Cheese, some simple, some beyond complicated.  I opted for one in the middle.  The recipe is from In The Charcuterie bye Taylor Boetticher and Toponia Miller.  I'm not going to copy the recipe here as most libraries have this book.  Besides, if you are interested enough in working with meat to read this post, you really need your own copy.

One change I did make is to make the brine using only a small amount of boiling water, than top it up with cold water once the head was ready to go in the vat.  Then in the fridge it goes overnight.

After that, the head comes out of the brine and into the largest pot in the kitchen.  A word of advice for any other crazy people who want to try this - make certain you have a large enough pot before you start.

Boiled with some vegetables for a few hours, until the meat falls from the bones.  Meat is removed, broth is kept and simmered down to make a jelly.  Add some extra spice to the meat, and eventually meat and jelly are combined in a loaf tin to make... drum roll please... head cheese.

Best tool for removing the meat - fingers
just make certain it's cool enough first
Leave it in the fridge overnight to set.  Keeps most of a week in the fridge.

If, by some miracle I ever make this again, there will be changes.  First off, never again will I do this in the heat of the summer.  It takes up far too much space in the fridge, and waiting till almost midnight for the kitchen to be cool enough to work in, makes for a grumpy me.

The second change I would make is to change the ratio of meat to jelly.  I would use almost equal parts of both so that the head cheese holds together better.  For this attempt, I used about 80% meat and only 20% jelly.

The third change is to save the excess jelly in small frozen servings so I can add it to pasta water, soups, and just about anything that could do with a boost of flavour and nutrition.  There is a lot of books that claim meat jelly can do wonders for osteoarthritis, so I jump at any excuse to add bone broth or jelly to the diet.

Affordable?  The head was free, in fact, I only used about half the meat on it.  The jowls I froze for winter curing.  Spices, salts, &c. comes in at roughly $3.  The electrical bill on the other hand was up about $20, and we have cheap rates here.  This could easily have made double or triple the amount of headcheese if I had been brave enough to add more jelly.  Since this is so flavourful and a tiny bit of head cheese goes such a long way, I'm going to say yes, it's worth it.  If you have a woodstove, or some other way of cooking then yes, it can be quite affordable.

Healthy?  There is a lot of salt in this, but it is balanced out by not eating much at one time.  On the other hand, there are often great poetical treatise on how good bone jelly is for a person, so I'm going to say, yes, it's healthy in moderation.

I'm also going to add this under the label Transitional.  As in it is a good food skill to cultivate for that time in the future when oil is sparse and we are forced to rely on local resources.  It's a way of using every last part of the animal and what's more, it makes a little bit go a long way.