Forum Holitorium

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

The Leaves Have Left

Days turn to weeks. I have thought of this blog many times, tested recipes, half written entries in my head. Yet: silence.

As the wheel of the seasons steadily turns from fall to winter, it is time to bunker down, pull on a bulky wool sweater, prepare a pot of herbal tea, wrap yourself up in a blanket, and listen to yourself.

What was the harvest like? What has made me happy? What can I be thankful for? What is still unresolved? Where would I like to go? What do I need?

I relish this emptying out, this coming to a close. It is a period of rest to enjoy before everything revs up in spring and starts anew, a time to gather your strength and come to a still point.

A friend sent me a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke that complements the view out my window of naked walnut trees. Unsatisfied with several English translations I read, I translated it myself. Here is my version:

Autumn

The leaves are falling, falling as from afar, as if distant gardens in the heavens were wilting; they fall with a shake of their head.

And during the night, the heavy earth falls from all the stars into solitude.

We are all falling, This hand is falling. And look at others. It is in everything.

And yet there is One whose hands hold this falling with infinite gentleness.

Sometimes the grey becomes too much and color is necessary to revive sinking spirits: the red-orange of a butternut squash, the purple-red of cabbage accompanied by raisins and cinnamon, the deep green of lamb’s lettuce bathed in pumpkin seed oil, the dark blueberry-colored wool becoming the aforementioned bulky sweater. Here is one last image of the golden autumn, preserved in my new sweater. So warm, so fine, so cheer-inducing.

Harvesttide, or Saved by the Squash

Next Nachwuchs

Thursday was the Harvest Moon, the full moon nearest the autumnal equinox, a time when before the advent of electricity farmers took advantage of the light to keep on working in their fields. Saturday was the harvest festival party at the local farm that keeps us supplied with kale, melon, and other vegetable goodies. We followed a path of quotes laid out between the rows of vegetables, enjoying the view of the heart-shaped leaves of green manure buckwheat and of the bleating Krainer Steinschafe, a heritage breed of sheep. Then Sunday, the first day of fall, we cooked and ate our own harvest:

Butternut portrait
This is as local as it gets, from balcony to plate. Yes, I recently discovered a butternut squash growing between the wooden bench and the railing. This was my pet project of the gardening year: growing squash in containers. I had spent most of the summer fretting over our two squash plants. One was flourishing in its large IKEA-style plastic bag accommodation, while the other in the large concrete planter looked tired, faded, wilted, unable to summon up the necessary energy to blossom. Since it takes two squash to tango, I had given up hope of anything beyond beautiful blossoms on one plant. With the change in weather from incredibly hot and dry to cooler and rainy, fortune’s wheel turned, and blossoms started to appear on the plant in the concrete planter. It started to catch up to its companion. And then during a balcony clean-up action a little over a week ago, I discovered this:

Growing

Squash Pockets

For the crust:

200 g spelt flour

100 g chickpea flour

1 tsp salt

50 ml olive oil

125 ml cold water

Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl. Add the olive oil and incorporate into the dough. Add the water and stir/knead until you have a smooth dough. Let it rest in a covered bowl for at least 30 minutes.

For the filling:

Olive oil

1 onion, diced

One half of a butternut squash, grated

1 tsp cumin seeds

Freshly ground black pepper

Cayenne pepper

Sheep’s cheese, goat cheese, feta, ricotta (whatever kind and amount you prefer)

Sauté the onion in olive oil. Add the squash and cook until it is tender. Add the cumin, black pepper, and cayenne pepper. Remove from heat and add the cheese.

Separate the dough into six pieces. Roll each out into an oval. Place one sixth of the filling on half of the oval, leaving a space as wide as your thumb between the edge and the filling. With a wet finger, moisten this space (in theory this will help the two halves of the dough stick together and avoid filling spilling out and creating a mess on your baking sheet). Fold the other half of the oval over the filling. Roll up the sides and press down on them with a fork to seal the two halves of the dough together. With the fork tines, prick the top of the pocket a few times to make an escape route for steam.

Bake at 200°C for 20 minutes or until golden. Serve with the chutney of your choosing (we dug out a tiny jar medlar chutney left over from last year’s harvest) or a mixture of sour cream or yogurt and chives or another fresh herb.

pocket

There are many things that I am thankful for this harvesttide, but it’s the squash that best symbolizes the irrepressible life force that moves forward and flourishes given the opportunity. There are at least three more small squash growing on the two plants now. Even if it cools down before they fully mature, I’m content. What have you harvested this year that is worthy of celebration?

Kapuzinerkresse

Chestnut Weather

Sky and trees

The blue of the sky and the green of the walnut trees give no clue of the morning chill. As we approach the autumnal equinox, it gets more and more difficult to get up with the sun, which I missed at 6:40 AM today. About a week ago, the first signs appeared that my body is getting ready to move into hibernation modus. I don’t need to drag myself out of bed yet, but that will come soon enough. No more yogurt with honey and almond butter for breakfast, a luxury of the summer. My body needs warmth in the morning, and usually that means oatmeal with either stewed fruit or dried fruit.

Even with different fruit to add variety, oatmeal can get old very quickly, and it isn’t even winter yet.  An expedition through the pantry recovered a jar of chestnut flour that should be consumed by October of this year. Bingo. In fact, we’re at the start of the chestnut season. Time to visit the Castanea sativa trees in my neighborhood and guess when they will start dropping their prickly packaged fruit into my lap (and with luck not on my head). Soon the Maronibrater, or chestnut vendors, will be on every corner in town selling roasted chestnuts.

Native to Asia Minor and southern Europe, sweet chestnut trees are another tasty and nutritious legacy of the Romans and are found most frequently in wine producing areas. Medieval Renaissance woman Hildegard von Bingen prized chestnut along with fennel and spelt as the three top nourishing foods. The chestnut is good for the immune system and gives you strength. Sounds like the perfect food for a cool fall morning.

Ingredients

Chestnut Pudding

1/2 cup chestnut flour

1 cup water

1/2 Tbs raisins

1/2 Tbs pine nuts

Whisk together flour and water until there are no clumps. Add raisins and pine nuts and pour into a greased individual size baking dish.

Chestnut milk

Bake at 200°C/400°F for thirty minutes or longer until the top forms a crust that looks appetizing to you. When you break through the crust with your spoon, the mixture below should have been transformed into a pudding. Serves one.

Pudding!

With this warm breakfast in my belly, I should be able to get through my still quite long to-do list that has been keeping me away from blogging more often.

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