Forum Holitorium

Are You Teff Enough?

If I had to sum up what’s been happening in my kitchen in the past week, I wouldn’t even need a whole word – I could reduce it to the letter T. T for teff and T for tagine. T for tonight, when I ate homemade injera with chickpeas, Swiss chard, and onions pictured above. Injera is a traditional Ethiopian and Eritrean flatbread made of fermented teff flour. The flour is simply mixed with water and left to ferment a day or so. Fermentation happens quickly thanks to a yeast that lives on the grain. It’s then fried on one side like a pancake. When bubbles appear, the pan is covered until the top is done – no flipping anxiety required. TC and I were won over by the coffee stout smell of the injera. Though I recently discovered a good recipe for misir wat, a lentil stew served with injera that was a favorite in my college days, tonight’s topping materialized from the odds and ends in the fridge that needed to be used up.

Teff is poised to be the next you’ve-never-heard-of-me-but-I-don’t-have-gluten-and-am-super-nutritious food. With the exception of basmati rice, I only buy grains that are grown in Europe. I don’t eat quinoa because I don’t want to play a part in jacking up its price in South America so that people for whom it is a staple food can no longer afford it. The teff flour I cooked with was grown in Germany. That’s fewer food miles than the basmati rice.

Tagine cozy
But what’s that I see here? Is it a tagine cozy or a hat holder for my freshly knit linen sunhat that will protect me from the fierce rays of sunlight I hope to encounter next week at the shores of the Baltic Sea? Last weekend’s culinary experiment involved cooking with an authentic Moroccan glazed tagine, a gift from friends who took a road trip to Morocco. A tagine is cooked over low heat until the food is well stewed. The earthenware bottom and lid heat up and radiate warmth toward the ingredients from all directions. The vegetables get a good steam bath.

Set up

My Very First Tagine

Note: The tagine (base and lid) should be soaked in water for about an hour before being used, especially if you cook on a ceramic top stove like mine. Otherwise there is a risk it will spring. The bottom should be liberally doused in olive oil to season it.

1 onion, diced

2 garlic cloves, minced

1/2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp cumin seeds

1/4 tsp piment

2 Tbsp raisins

3 small zucchini, sliced

2 small heads of cauliflower, cut into florets, stems diced

1 cup cooked chickpeas

Heat the tagine base on low heat. Layer the bottom with olive oil. When it’s warm enough, sauté the onions and garlic for ten minutes. Add the spices and raisins and mix well. Add the rest of the ingredients. Put the lid on it and forget about it for an hour or two. Then peek to see how the cauliflower is doing…

Peekaboo

When everything smells good and is cooked as you like it, serve with the grain or pseudograin of your choice. We tried it with Austrian-grown amaranth.

So that’s the kitchen report. Moving from the vegetable to the animal kingdom, it’s been a good season for animal offspring in our vicinity. The birdfeeder-turned-nest of Parus major is so full of young birds chirping up a storm that the parents can’t really fit in anymore – they just stick their heads in and drop off juicy white caterpillars. It’s very loud when the door is open, but it’s a pleasant kind of loudness. Last week we also noticed that the spider hanging out on the ceiling above our dining room table has all her eight hands full too.

spider progeny

Spiders remind me of the goddess Athena, my favorite Greek goddess, and the children’s book Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, who is quoted as saying, “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve (or save) the world and a desire to enjoy (or savor) the world. This makes it hard to plan the day.” Hope you can improve or enjoy the world today – or both!

High Time to Get to Sea

Distant islands
The diagnosis of a mineral deficiency is not usually met with joy, but when my doctor said it was only a few hours to the sea and that he recommended I go as soon as possible, I dusted off my wish to walk the entire 12 km Lungomare, or seaside promenade, in Opatija, Croatia, and started looking for a hotel within walking distance of the Adriatic. I found the Hotel Opatija, where we slept well last weekend. It was clean and quiet, possessing all the decrepit charm of a former K. und K. hotel worn down by the Tito years. If you’re looking for the ex-Yugoslavian cousin of the Grand Budapest Hotel with an uninspired breakfast buffet set to Muzak, it’s your place, but I think next time we’ll opt to dish out the extra euros for a cushy wellness hotel even closer to the sea. The point was not, however, the hotel. Most of our time was spent strolling.

Lungomare

Opatija developed into a resort town in the late 19th century when it was still known as Abbazia, before being caught in the tug-of-war between national borders and ethnic groups pervading the 20th century. You could hop on the train in Vienna (or Graz, for that matter) and ride the Südbahn to the Adriatic without having to leave the Austro-Hungarian empire. In keeping with the history of this seaside resort, the majority of tourists today still appear to be German-speaking. Dating back to the 1880s, the Lungomare is sandwiched between the sea on one side and city parks and stately villas built by prestigious Viennese architects on the other. Many of the latter are now hotels; some are private residences. TC and I decided that we’d buy this one and fix it up if we had the money.

Our next villa

It wasn’t just the Austrians who previously flocked to the sea here. Russian literati including Anton Chekhov and Vladimir Nabokov spent time in Abbazia, the hometown of Leo Henryk Sternbach, the inventor of Valium. Traces of their presence can be found by the careful tourist. This bust of Chekhov can be found near the Kvarner Hotel, while a commemorative plaque to Sternbach graces his birthplace along one of the main thoroughfares.

Chekov

The weather was just beautiful and I was able to wear sandals for the first time this year. Spring is so slow in arriving in Austria and I’m still bundled up in Icelandic wool as I type these lines. What a relief to escape to a milder climate and get enough Vitamin D from the sun for a change. In a conversation last week, the topic came up of how great it is that if you just go three hours in any direction from Graz, you end up in an entirely different cultural and geographical landscape. Three and a half hours away to the south, the figs are already ripening on the trees.

Smokve

As you might expect, seafood is everywhere on the menu in Opatija. Specialities include cuttlefish risotto that leaves your lips and tongue black and fried scampi. For the vegetarian in your party, there’s a special traditional pasta called fuzi served with Istrian truffles and vegetable risotto, though if you are suffering from a recently discovered acute milk allergy, as I am at present, you have to be careful and avoid delicacies like sheep’s cheese from the island of Pag. The local white Malvazija wine is excellent, as is the red Teran. My big discovery, however, was blitva, or Istrian-style Swiss chard.

Istrian-style Swiss chard

500 g Swiss chard

500 g potatoes

3 garlic cloves, minced

Olive oil

Salt

Nutmeg

Peel and dice the potatoes. Cook for 10-15 minutes. In the meantime, wash the Swiss chard. Remove the stems and blanch the leaves in boiling water for 3-5 minutes. In a frying pan, sauté the garlic in olive oil. Add the chopped Swiss chard stems and sauté about 10 minutes. Add the cooked potatoes and blanched Swiss chard leaves to the garlic and stems. Season with grated nutmeg, salt, and pepper.

I’m guessing that the hoops in these skirts are not made of whalebone. All this contact with the sea and my current preoccupation with iodine has inspired me to reread Moby Dick, one of my favorite American novels. In Chapter 1, the narrator, Ishmael, explains his many reasons for deciding to join the crew of a whaling expedition, arguing that all humans have an innate fascination with the sea. I heartily agree.

Starting to read a book is like embarking on a voyage. I hope you have a good one at hand – or will have the opportunity to set off on a real trip soon. Good luck getting your ship ready to sail!

The sailor

Yellow Gold is Everywhere


Röhrli

It started yesterday as TC picked dandelions to make dandelion honey, a concoction of flowers infused in a sugar solution and then reduced to a syrup. It continued in the garter stitch with a lace border of my Beeswax scarf, started sometime in March and finished this afternoon. It culminated in the egg yolk bolstered hue of the Osterpinze, a sweet bread with Italian roots that is eaten in Styria at Easter. TC tried his hand at preparing one, jazzing up the classic recipe with anise seed and raisins doused in krupnik, a Polish honey vodka. The color of the hour: yellow gold.

Osterpinze

This weekend we have been working on what I call the Mindful Kitchen Project. After two and a half years of sharing a kitchen, it was time to go through all the shelves, drawers, and storage space and scrutinize each object. Is it useful? How often do we use it? Is there an obstacle to us using it? If so, how can it be removed? What I have found is that we have much more than we think we need, starting with pots and pans. In the past, multiple pots of the same size have encouraged sluggish dishwashing and more countertop clutter. We removed 5 pots and pans and still have 12 left. It looks shocking to see that in print since we only have four burners on our stove, but the 12 in question are of a variety of sizes and materials from the stainless steel soup pot to the cast-iron skillet to the pressure cooker. At least now they are stacked so that I can just open the drawer and grab what I need  in seconds without unstacking or searching for the right lid. Another factor to consider when deciding where to put things in the kitchen is how often they are needed. The items you use every day should be closest to the stove. We previously had a spice shelf within reach of the stove for quick access to seasonings – as well as a shelf full of spices in the pantry at the other end of the kitchen. Everything except two large jars of saffron and oregano (which I don’t use on a daily basis) is now housed on the shelf next to the stove. The new arrangement looks and feels great, though I’m sure we’ll still need to make some minor adjustments. It was a very satisfying weekend project to take a good look at the objects we have that allow us to create the tasty, nourishing food we call home cooking. Most have justified their existence and will continue to serve us well.

There’s still a little more yellow gold in the house, but not for long. We’ll burn the cat and rabbit beeswax candles this evening in the company of friends and polish off the Osterpinze along with some Easter eggs. If the deluge outside ever stops, perhaps we’ll make it up to the garden to harvest a horseradish root and grate a little to accompany the eggs. Hope you’re keeping dry and enjoying some tasty food – traditional or not.

Why Go against the Grain?


TC’s latest loaf made my mouth water. The joy of anticipating the taste of the first slice of bread from a freshly baked loaf has been commonplace for the past 10,000 years since the the ancestors of the wheat and spelt in this loaf were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent. I recently finished reading the book Am Anfang war das Korn (In the Beginning was the Grain) by geobotanist Hansjörg Küster. It tells the story of how the domestication of plants changed the course of human history. According to Küster, agriculture (a word that comes from Latin and means the cultivation of fields) is the central innovation of human history. The choice to cultivate certain plants with qualities we found desirable (including being able to be stored for longer periods of time) radically altered our whole way of life. Previously hunters and gatherers that moved around constantly in search of food, we decided to stay in one place and devote our efforts to tending a few special crops. Over time, we developed trade routes to obtain tasty things that didn’t grow where we lived. Our numbers grew with this stable source of food.

Since we need a combination of carbohydrates, fats, and protein to meet our nutritional needs, it should come as no surprise to learn that our ancestors in Southwest Asia who domesticated the founder crops, as they are called, chose plants that provide these three fundamental macronutrients: emmer wheat, einkorn wheat, and barley for carbohydrates; lentils, peas, and chickpeas for protein; flax for oil. With time, other plants joined the roster, diversifying our food portfolio: fruit-bearing trees such as olive, fig, and walnut; poppy seed, which was used not only as a spice but also for oil; grapes for wine. The list goes on and on, and at some point I stopped taking notes and realized that when this book comes out in paperback, I want to buy a copy to have as a reference because there is so much in it worth knowing. It boggles my mind how many people today demonize grains because they are full of carbohydrates (which we need to live). Knowing the history of our relationship to grains, it seems a bit uncivilized, this rejection.

Despite being a staunch supporter of a grain-based diet, I am not growing any on my balcony, which is full of herbs, fruit, flowers, and vegetables. All the perennials are thriving with the warm spring temperatures. As it is wont to do, the savory above has just exploded, and I am happy to see that the sage I transplanted into the big planter feels good in its new spot. My camomile, thyme, lemon verbena, lemon balm, mallow, mint, and rue are all doing well. It looks like the parsley seeds I sowed a few weeks back have started to germinate. The only loss has been my marjoram – and that was a case of neglect on my part, I’m sad to say.

As for our garden, the strategy this year is to make one big bed (2 by 6 meters), enclose it with a slug fence, divide it into three sections, take good care of that, and not feel guilty about what happens outside that fence. The big bed is nearly ready to go, and after a round of weeding I started planting orach or mountain spinach (Atriplex hortensis) and kale in the two sections that have already been cleared. Outside the garden gate was a box with free sage plants, so I took one and planted it outside the bed in a spot that gets lots of sun. TC has already planted a bunch of Jerusalem artichokes along the edge of the raspberry bushes. If you plant by the moon or are a biodynamic gardener, this week is a good time to sow seeds as the moon is waxing. We hope to get peas, radishes, carrots, beets, red onions, and turnips in the ground soon. It’s also time to start zucchini and squash inside. After all that work, I can hardly wait to taste the first ripe strawberry of the year. I have never seen as many blossoms on the strawberry plants as there are this year.

I hope your gardening plans for 2014 are coming along. Enjoy the longer days and savor the grain of your choice!

Da leid ich’s net länger zu Haus

What a better way to welcome the spring than with chives and Georg Kreisler? As the title of this entry states, I can’t stand staying at home any longer. It is so beautiful outside, and I have been taking many walks, listening to the birds warble with joy. TC and I are keeping our fingers crossed that there will soon be new neighbors in the birdhouse hung up on a nearby pine tree – safely out of reach of the neighborhood cats, of course. I have seen a few birds peeking in and checking it out, but there are no takers yet.

With all the warm weather and direct sunlight, the chives have shot up over the past week. I gave this plant a haircut, sprinkling its allium tresses on my walnut pasta lunch. Yum. I have been doing a lot of research on nutrition lately. There are so many do’s and don’ts, but one recommendation seemed pretty undogmatic and sensible: eat something green at lunch and dinner. That was easy to do yesterday, with chives for lunch and brussels sprouts with mâche salad for dinner.

Enjoy whatever green passes your way – and happy spring!

Ta Da: Tatin?

First the bad news: the enticing crust above was so hard that I was embarrassed that I was serving it to someone not a member of my household. A mixture of wheat flour, water, and sunflower seed oil, it was a pleasure to mix and roll out. Little did I suspect that it would be impossible to handle with a fork. After TC managed to saw it apart into wedges, we elected to eat it with our hands. Though dry and tough, our teeth were never threatened. By the sugar, sure, but not by the hardness. Now the good news: the topping was loaded with flavor and moisture.

This is how the topping evolved: 100g muscavado sugar in 4 Tbs of water, heated and whisked until it melted. I added four sliced apples and stirred five minutes until the apples were well covered and the syrup started to cling to the fruit. Then it was time to pour it into the tart pan.

The topping was then tucked into the oven for a forty minutes’ nap at 200°C, completely covered by the flippant crust. To my relief, transferring it to the serving plate was real simple. Some apples didn’t bond much to either the form or the top of the crust, leading me to think that perhaps the sugar wasn’t really caramelized. It was brown to begin with, so there were no clear visual cues except the thickening of the syrup.  Nonetheless: there you have it, folks: my very first Tarte Tatin!

Or was it? I own two cookbooks with recipes for Tarte Tatin, and the one I used does not call for butter. (Butter, however, was what I used to grease the tart pan because it is simply unparalleled for that kind of job. Amen.)  The second one does, and I’d now like to try that one out as well as the recipe provided at this very interesting website written by a Tarte Tatin fan, which includes butter as an essential ingredient.

Since a lot of ink has been spilled over TT, I want to underline that my interest in trying out other recipes for it is more to expand my repertoire of baking tricks than any reverence for this much talked about starlet of French cuisine. Despite having devoted a good decade of my life to French studies, I have never felt a great affinity for French cuisine, perhaps due to haute cuisine‘s addiction to meat. Instead, my motivation is to master a cooking technique, the art of caramelization, that I can go on to apply it to other foods like milk, onions, and pecans. And next time, of course, I’ll skip the sunflower seed oil for the house flour-butter-water crust recipe.

Have you had any adventures with caramelizing? Good luck in refining whatever culinary skill you’re currently working on!

Nature Sometimes Sears a Sapling

Sunday I left the house for the first time in five days. The respiratory junk plaguing me had finally started to subside. It felt like the weather would change soon, so TC and I took advantage of the morning sunshine to explore the field and forest near the garden, examining what the big ice storm of a few weeks ago had left in its wake. The trees have suffered the most. The last time I remember seeing so many trees down was in January 2007 after windstorm Kyrill. This time water, not air, was to blame.

A pair of figure skaters caught in a death spiral, these slim sylphs bend over backwards to kiss the earth. Closer to home, the sumac tree outside our living room window can also be numbered among the casualties, though it cracked right above the spot where our bird feeder is hung, so the birds didn’t miss a beat. Not everything we saw was doomed. We caught up with the horses that pasture next to the garden just as they were having brunch. They were incredibly intent on eating and almost done. We couldn’t see into the bottom of the buckets and could only speculate what was on the menu.

I already feel spring within me and am harnessing its power to start in on my spring cleaning. Instead of scrubbing things until they shine, I am sorting and weeding out what I have to make room for the new. So far I’ve tackled my recipe file, saying adios to recipes that will never be tried, and slimmed down my collection of knitting patterns. All my skeins of yarn have been inventoried and I have declared a five month moratorium on purchasing yarn. When all the yarn fits into the official white yarn storage box, I may buy more. The current state of affairs is that there are several bags full of half-started projects and wool yearning to be handled for the first time that are mainly (but not exclusively) dispersed throughout my wardrobe. It’s time to tame the wild sheep herding/hoarding instinct in me, I guess. Two steps have been taken in this direction.

Above is the cabled edge of a shawlette made of Portuguese wool hand-dyed with eucalyptus. Below is a scarf showcasing the dayflower pattern. Both have flown off the needles since my last post. The choice of complementary colors was purely coincidental.

The pantry is also being subject to spring cleaning, especially the grain section. A while ago I bought amaranth to try out a recipe that didn’t make much of an impression on my palate. Other foods on the shelf given the silent treatment in the majority of cookbooks I possess are millet flour, rice flour, and tapioca. Any suggestions about what to cook with these raw materials?

Year of the Equus Ferus Caballus

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In the beginning, I was here.

Then I was here.

And now I find myself here again: out of the polar vortex, into the snowdrift. No, there was no crash – it was a very smooth landing, in fact. The jet lag is gone and my affairs are in order as I ring in the Chinese New Year today. How, I’m not sure yet. It’s not anything I ever remember actively doing. There is no moon to howl at or dance under – it will be on the other side of the earth this evening when it gets dark. Which is soon, in fact. New moon, you know. Perhaps I’ll wear red to dinner, which if I am lucky may be Topfenknödel, or quark dumplings, and contemplate what awaits me in the year of the horse.

What awaits you, dear readers, is more regularly irregular posts about a wider range of topics than just food. For some time I have felt a bit constricted by my original intent to focus on food production. My interest in actively observing the outdoors and the change in seasons should already be apparent to the faithful reader, and you may have noticed that random pictures of knitting projects have started to crop up as well. I am going to shed the corset of a food blog and write more about whatever I feel like writing about at the moment I have the time and urge to write. (Which of course does not exclude food.) At its heart, blogging is like what taking a Polaroid used to be: a snapshot, never incredibly artistic in a grand way (the format didn’t allow for that), but more importantly an honest attempt to describe a fleeting moment in time. I am still sticking to my idea of composing as I go. This is freestyle writing, folks, all done in one sitting. No copy and paste (though the delete key gets a good workout).

The kitchen still remains one of my sancta, even though TC has been hogging much of the space to prepare slow-rise bread. He made the switch from store-bought yeast to home-grown sourdough (Saccharomyces mariaviridis, anyone?) mid-month, simply mixing apple and water in a bowl and letting the wild yeast in the air do their thing. Now he’s on the way to becoming a Meisterbäcker. I don’t profess to like bread but must confess I’ve been devouring it. Here’s a taste:

Hope you are also nurturing your talents . Good luck getting your sourdough starter (or whatever that represents for you) bubbling!

Winter Stillstice

It is getting colder. Frost coated the pine this morning. When TC hung up his homemade bird house this afternoon, a flock of titmice immediately descended upon the neighboring bush, each taking turns to dive in and nosh on the hemp seeds. They will be disappointed soon because we are leaving on a journey tomorrow and will not be able to fill the feeder for some time, but I’m sure they will do just fine without us.

Making sage and mugwort tea and nibbling on walnuts and cashews have been my principle activities in the kitchen in the past week. A foray into cooking with black radish has yet to yield any recipes of note. Hibernation is most delicious as the nights continue to grow longer. Soon, however, come the festivals of light and we will all inhale deeply again.

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Just three beeswax candles stand within the confines of spruce and fir branches cut from felled trees lying in the neighboring woods. We will be present for the lighting of a fourth at another latitude and longitude, and then will come gatherings with family and friends to welcome the return of the light.

Enjoy the turning of the year!

Having the Oranges


In the past month or so, I’ve started to crave the freshness of citrus. This is unusual. I’m not an orange juice drinker because it’s too acidic and I try to avoid citrus in winter because it is so cooling. Yet at the end of October, I bought a small jar of Italian bitter orange marmelade. What a revelation – tart and sweet, it helped wake me up and gave me a shot of energy the mornings I spread it on Dutch baby pancakes.

The bitter orange tree (Citrus aurantium) is an evergreen that grows throughout the countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. Orange flower water has found its way into the cuisines of this region, notably in baked sweets such as navettes or pompe à l’huile in Provence. Neroli oil extracted from its blossoms can be used to soothe the nervous system and improve digestion. Orange blossom tea is known for its relaxing, sedative properties and also has a reputation as an aphrodisiac.

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Looking out the window at the grey, I wondered what my strategy should be to face yet another day of rain, fog, and damp. I’m not depressed, I don’t have the blues. Instead, I have the oranges. I hereby declare this expression to mean to actively seek out all shades of orange to keep one’s spirits up and receive energy in the face of uninspiring weather. Yes, I yearn for a splash of color at a time when everything appears to be cloaked in various shades of concrete.

To start, I prepared myself a cup of orange blossom tea in a bright mug. A quick scan of the living room brought this skein of yarn – one of three – to my attention. Hand dyed with sorghum, this Portuguese wool is waiting patiently to become an object of delight to someone yet to be determined (perhaps even myself). Any thoughts on what it should become? Instead of reading its fortune from tea leaves, what do you see in the future of this ball of wool?

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Orange is the happiest color.” – Frank Sinatra

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