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Building a Sourdough Starter

My sourdough starter turned one last month.

This is the third or fourth starter I’ve made, and the only one to last longer than a few months.  So obviously I’m doing something right—but it took a few years of trial and error to get here. 

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Sourdough walnut loaves

Building a sourdough starter is easy; keeping it going is a little harder, especially if you don’t have time to bake every few days.  But once you’re attuned to all the variables that can make your starter too sour or not sour enough, too bubbly or not bubbly at all, you’ll wonder how you ever relied on commercial yeast to make bread.

There are several ways to build a sourdough starter, but the technique that I’ve settled on as the most reliable comes from Dan Lepard’s “The Handmade Loaf.”  He outlines a 5-day build that utilizes the natural yeasts found on fruit skins, the lactic bacteria in live-culture yogurt, and a little kick-start from rye flour:

Day 1:
1/4 C water at room temp.
2 t rye flour
2 t bread flour
2 t currants or raisins, organic (I’ve also used just-picked organic grapes to good effect)
2 t live culture yogurt

Mix all in a jar and leave at room temperature (68-72°) for 24 hours.

Day 2:
1/4 C water at room temp.
2 t rye flour
2 t bread flour

Stir in and leave at room temperature for 24 hours.

Day 3:
1/2 C water at room temp.
4 t bread flour
4 t rye flour

Stir in and leave at room temperature for 24 hours.

Day 4:
1/2 C water at room temperature
1 C bread flour

Remove 3/4 of the mixture and add the water.  Pour through a tea strainer to remove the raisins, then put back in the jar and stir in the flour.  Leave at room temperature for 24 hours.

Day 5 and onwards:
1/2 C water at room temperature
1 C bread flour

Remove 3/4 of the mixture before all feedings.

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Bubbly sourdough starter

What’s happening in your jar

Yeast are the first colonizers of your wild starter.  If you feed your starter at a high proportion and do not let it ferment very long (12-24 hours), your starter will have good lift but not much sour flavor.  Lactic bacteria move in second, and they are what gives your starter a sour flavor–though this can easily shift to vinegary if you’re not careful.  If this happens, you can generally save the starter by providing it frequent high proportion feedings, and holding it at a cooler temperature.  The more sour your starter, the less lift it generally has.

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Sourdough potato rosemary loaves

By high proportion feedings, I mean that you should remove almost all of the starter in the jar and replace it with a large amount of flour and water.  This helps to rebalance the yeast/bacteria community.

You can adjust the flour/water ratio to your preference; drier mixtures will ferment more slowly and will have more structure to hold in the yeast.  I typically feed at about a 1:1 ratio.

Storage

I keep my starter in a quart jar covered with a cloth napkin held in place with elastic.  You want to make sure you cover your starter with something permeable to the air so the wild yeasts can get in easily.  I find that my starter needs to be held at a fairly low room temperature to get the flavor and activity I’m looking for: generally no higher than 70 degrees.  In between uses, I keep it in the fridge, and always feed it freshly right before chilling it.  Take it out of the refrigerator several days before you want to use it and feed it at a high proportion daily for 2-3 days.

You can also hold your starter in the freezer during long hiatuses.  Be sure to transfer it into a freezer-safe container with enough room to expand.  Defrost at room temperature and start feeding immediately.  It may take a few weeks of regular feeding to build it back to the flavor you want, but have confidence that it will come back.

A word about flours

Different flours will change the taste and activity level of your starter.  Rye flour produces a very active starter.  This is a good way to jump-start your culture but also means you need to be more vigilant if you choose to feed exclusively with rye.

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Sourdough pancakes

You can make your starter 100% all-purpose flour, 100% whole wheat flour, 100% rye flour, or any combination–it just depends on what you’re going to put it in.  You can always transition your starter into a different flour type by primarily feeding it a different kind of flour for a few days.  If I’m feeding my starter white flour, I use bread flour, which has a higher gluten content than all-purpose flour.  This gives your starter, and hence your dough, a little more structure.

When building a starter for a rye bread, you may want to consider using bread flour, since rye has a much lower gluten content than wheat.  But if your goal is 100% rye bread, transition your starter with rye for a few days beforehand.

Now your turn…

Working with wild creatures is never easy, yeast and bacteria included.  Your starter may not always smell sweet and fresh.  Your bread will not always rise.  And that’s okay–that still happens to me.  It even happens in commercial artisan bakeries.  And every time it does happen, I learn a little more about time and temperature, and about patience and discipline, and my starter and I get a little better about communicating with each other.  Here’s to many more years of a beautiful relationship.

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Grape Focaccia

Grapes can change the world.

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When I was a little girl in Massachusetts, we didn’t eat grapes.  It had to do, I knew, with California, and the people there, and by association it had to do with my grandparents and cousins, and their neighbors and all the people they knew.  So even though every other kid at school had grapes in their lunch box and a bowl of grapes on the kitchen table at home, I didn’t mind being different and not eating grapes because I knew it was important to all of those people in California whom I cared about.

As I grew older, I came to understand that my family was participating in the United Farm Workers’ grape boycott to protest the use of toxic pesticides, which were dangerous to the health of farm workers and their families, most of whom were of Mexican, Filipino, or other Southeast Asian descent.  Union organizer César Chávez called the boycott the year I was born, and my mom responded, for which I will always be proud of her.

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That boycott was not ended by the UFW until 2000, and in those sixteen intervening years they succeeded in eliminating some of the most toxic pesticides from use in California’s grape fields.

In the year 2000, the farm I work for, Persephone Farm, was already certified organic.  The farmers market we sell at, Hollywood Farmers Market, was entering its fourth season.  It’s not much of a stretch to suggest that we wouldn’t be here, that this thriving culture of farmers markets every day of the week and farm-direct restaurant deliveries, of community-supported agriculture and Portland’s intense pride in what is locally-grown and locally-produced, wouldn’t exist if the UFW and other labor organizers of the 1960s and 1970s hadn’t shown consumers that we are active participants in our food system.

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I remember the thrill I felt when I first saw table grapes at the farmers market.  I shouldn’t have been surprised; Oregon’s wine industry has grown by leaps and bounds in the last decade, so it’s only natural for produce farmers to cash in on the same advantages of our terrain and climate.  Even so, grapes will always feel exotic and special to me, and every time I buy them my thoughts wander back up the supply chain to the hands that picked them, and I wonder whether they were healthy and well-paid, and whether their children will have the opportunities to educate themselves that I’ve had.

Today I am also thinking of other hands, of those of my mother and father, and how they have shaped me.  When they made the simple decision to stop buying grapes in 1984, they could never have known how that action would impress and influence their infant daughter.

You never know who’s paying attention.  All of our decisions ripple outwards and affect those around us, and we have the opportunity to model through our actions the world we are striving for.  By thoughtfully acting on our values, we can change the behavior of our friends, parents, children, coworkers—and together, we can change the world.

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I’ve reduced the sugar here since I like my sweet breads more bread than sweet; but if you want to go sweeter, top with an extra tablespoon of sugar before baking, and dust with confectioner’s sugar when out of the oven.

This focaccia’s slight tang made me yearn for an arugula salad and perhaps a mild blue cheese.

Grape Focaccia
Adapted from Ripe by Nigel Slater

2 ½ t active dry yeast
1 ½ C warm water, about 90°
1 T sugar
1 t salt
3 ¼ C bread flour
10 oz. red table grapes (about 1 1/2 C)
1 T sugar
2 T olive oil

In a large bowl, combine the yeast, water, and 1 T sugar.  Mix and let sit for 5 minutes.  Stir in the salt, and add the flour.  Mix with a wooden spoon then turn out onto a well-floured surface.  Knead about 5 minutes, or until the dough is smooth and elastic.  It will still feel slightly wet and sticky.  Form the dough into a ball, place in a floured bowl, cover with a towel, and leave in a warm place to double in size, about 1 hour.

Prepare a shallow baking pan, about 12” in diameter.  Punch down the dough to let out some of the gas, and turn out onto a floured surface.  Gently knead half the grapes into the dough.  I accomplished this by taking a handful at a time and folding the dough over the grapes, then kneading a few times to disperse them.  Spread the dough out in the baking pan and pat into a large rectangle.  If the dough keeps springing back, let it rest a few minutes before shaping.  Dimple the surface with your fingertips and scatter the remaining grapes on top.  Cover and return to a warm place to let rise.

Preheat oven to 425°.  When dough is almost doubled in size, sprinkle with olive oil and 1 T sugar.  Bake 35-40 minutes, or until top is puffed and golden.  Let cool 10 minutes before slicing; serve warm.

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Eggplant Zucchini Quiche with Roasted Pepper Gremolata

“I think we have all the essence of summer in our fridge,” I said to A earlier this week.  He was unimpressed, but I’ve spent the last several days musing on the almost sacred combination of eggplants, sweet peppers, corn, summer squash, and fresh herbs.

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I think we all have a dish or two that requires ingredients of such seasonality that we look forward to it all year, make it once or twice, and then before we know it the season is over.  For me, eggplants and red peppers are never around long enough.  I make the first baba ganoush of the summer with such fanfare that you’d think it were a much fancier and more complicated affair.  Before September is over each year, I roast a pile of red peppers, peel them, freeze them individually, and pack them away carefully into Ziploc bags to be doled out judiciously into winter’s stews and casseroles.

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But one of my goals for this year has been to not let any fruit or vegetable pass me by; to take note of each food’s coming and going, and to appreciate it fully while it is here.  So at the farmers market this past weekend, I was driven by forces stronger than myself to collect a rainbow of summer produce, not knowing towards what end.

It simply wouldn’t do to merely cook these vegetables individually throughout the week; a steamed ear of corn here, a sauteed zucchini there, a sprinkling of basil in a tomato salad.  No; a full and honest celebration of the late summer bounty required that the vegetables be married in one dish.  There were obvious choices: ratatouille, various summer vegetable tarts, with pesto or without.  But I wanted something a little out of the ordinary, and more importantly, something that didn’t rely on tomatoes, since A is, while not perhaps their nemesis, certainly not a fan.

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I settled on that most manly of dishes, the quiche.  A superbly crumbly crust of whole wheat and cornmeal provided a deep, nutty foundation for the tender eggplant and zucchini.  A hint of garlic and basil upped the summer quotient exponentially, merely suggesting pesto when combined with a dusting of Pecorino Romano.

For a brief moment I wondered if adding a garnish would be gilding the lily–then thankfully dispensed with that notion in favor of imitating nature.  If bell peppers, eggplant, and zucchini all ripen at the same time, alongside nodding stems of basil and parsley, then surely we are meant to eat them together.

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A gremolata is a chopped garnish with a base of lemon and parsley, and here I’ve relegated those flavors to the background and focused on the sweet acidity of roasted yellow and red peppers.  A spoonful of capers helps the gremolata cut through the rich quiche filling.  I think this would also pair wonderfully with a lightly flavored fish such as halibut, or spooned over some whole roasted tomatoes.  Just don’t try feeding one to A.

This crust is more delicate than a typical pie dough because it contains no white flour; the sharp edges on the cornmeal and the wheat bran inhibit gluten formation, which means the dough will tear more easily.  If pie dough makes you uncomfortable to begin with, use a traditional white flour recipe instead, like this one.

Eggplant Zucchini Quiche

Crust:
1/2 cup cornmeal
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 T cold butter, cubed
3-4 T ice water

Filling:
1 red onion, diced
1 small eggplant, diced
1 medium zucchini
1 clove garlic, minced
2 T chopped basil
1/3 C grated Pecorino Romano or Parmesan cheese
3 eggs
½ C whole milk
½ t salt
Pepper

Preheat oven to 375° and lightly oil a 9″ pie pan.

To make the crust, combine the cornmeal, whole wheat flour, and salt in a large bowl.  With a fork or pastry cutter, cut in butter until well mixed and crumbly.  Add ice water one tablespoonful at a time, using the fork to mix in.  The amount of water you need will vary depending on the absorbency of your cornmeal and flour.  When dough just comes together, pat into a disc, wrap in plastic, and chill at least 15 minutes.

On a lightly oiled surface, roll out the dough to ¼” thickness.  Carefully use the rolling pin to lift the dough onto the pie pan.  Press into the pan and patch any cracks with extra dough.  Finish the edges as you like; I tend to leave my savory pie crusts rustic and unfinished.

Bake the crust for 12-15 minutes to dry it out.  Make sure to remove it from the oven before the bottom begins to puff.

To make the filling, begin by sauteing the onions in a pan big enough to fit all the vegetables.  Start off with more oil than you would normally use, as the zucchini and eggplant will soak it up.  When the onions are softened, after about 5 minutes, add the eggplant, zucchini, and garlic.  Stir well to combine and saute until the vegetables are just tender.  Transfer to a mixing bowl and add the basil and half of the cheese.  Let cool slightly.

In a small bowl, combine the eggs, milk, salt, and pepper.  Spread the vegetable mixture evenly over the pie crust.  Pour the egg mixture over the vegetables and top with the remaining cheese.  Bake at 375° for 30-40 minutes, until top is golden and puffed.

Roasted Pepper Gremolata
1 small yellow bell pepper
1 small red bell pepper
Zest of 1 lemon, grated
1 T capers
2 t parsley, minced

Roast peppers over an open flame on the stovetop or under the broiler.  Turn occasionally to blacken and blister on all sides.  Once blackened and soft, place peppers in a plastic bag with a damp paper towel.  Seal the bag to let them steam.  When cool enough to handle, peel, core, and chop finely.

Combine chopped peppers with lemon zest, capers, and parsley in a small bowl, and serve a spoonful with each slice of quiche.

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Blueberry Rose Jam

July was a crazy month.  We traveled out of state and up mountains; saw the ocean and stood upon a 5000-foot peak; cycled the ríos of Los Angeles; watched friends wed by the sea.  For me it was also a month of meetings, whipping ideas around in the long hours of Portland’s summer sunshine, when things get done far more quickly than in the gloom of our rainy season.  And at the end of the month, four whole days off the grid, away from cell phones, Internet, and the world news.

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The farmers market is overflowing with summer produce: cascades of green, yellow, and purple beans beside piles of bright and shiny summer squash, tufts of basil beckoning with their aromatic greeting, the dizzying scent of peaches warming in the sun.  And yet amidst all the chaos, I have found myself unable to truly take pleasure in the bounty of Oregon’s summer.  Dinners in July were, I am ashamed to say, all too often an interruption, a chore that needed to be finished before I could move on to the next item on my to-do list.

August and September will be—must be—different.  The late summer harvest in Oregon is awe-inspiring—and since A and I do our best to eat seasonally and locally, we have a lot to do before the autumn rains come.  Freezing, dehydrating, fermenting, canning.  Pounds upon pounds of produce need to be processed in our kitchen in the next two months so that our winter fare consists of more than root vegetables and winter squash.

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Today, then, is both a resurrection and a kick-off.  After too much time away, I needed to reacquaint myself with my kitchen; needed to spend some time alone with my pots; needed to make something impractical and luxurious that would sustain us in the depths of the cold season, maybe not nutritionally but certainly emotionally.  And I needed to get used to the idea of spending Sunday mornings sweating over a cutting board or stove top, as we stock up for the lean days ahead.

This jam is the quintessence of those things.  I try not to make jam very often because I enjoy the process far more than I enjoy sugary spreads on my toast, and if I let myself go I end up with more jam and jelly than I can even give away.  But the blueberries in Oregon have been fat, sweet, and plentiful this year, so what better way to get in the mindset of putting food by than to start with something both practical and frivolous at the same time?

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I’ve fallen in love with the combination of rosewater and fruit.  When you open the bottle the scent is heady and almost overpowering, but just a touch adds a floral note that subtly deepens tart fruits like apricots and berries.  Blueberry jam just might be my favorite; I find its deep bluish-purple color more refined than the gaudy gem-like reds and pinks of other berries.  At the height of the season blueberries still tend to be a mixture of sweet and tart, but even with this balance I add lemon juice to help cut the sweetness.

I taught myself how to make jam six years ago, and the process has become meditative, almost second nature.  I don’t often create new recipes when I’m preserving; since you have to do it in quantity, it’s quite dangerous to not be certain you’ll like the outcome.  But today I felt confident.  I knew how the jam would taste before it had even come to a boil.  And I knew that there are few things quite as satisfying and invigorating as a line of jeweled Mason jars just out of the canner, testament to a good day’s work and a good omen for the future.

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You can find rosewater at many good grocery stores nowadays; or at Middle Eastern groceries.

I added a whole lemon, juiced, to the jam while it cooked to add a little natural pectin.  You can omit this step; the jam will still gel once the sugar reaches temperature.

Blueberry Rose Jam
3 lbs. blueberries (about 3 pints)
1 T rosewater
1 T lemon juice
1 lemon, tied in cheesecloth (optional)
4 C sugar

Wash and sort the berries and place in a large saucepan with the rosewater and lemon juice.  Place a small saucer in the freezer.  Place the berries over medium-low heat and mash with a potato masher.  Once mostly crushed, add the wrapped lemon and increase the heat to medium-high.  Bring to a boil and add the sugar.  Stir to melt and bring to a boil as quickly as possible.  Boil hard, stirring frequently, and then stirring constantly as the mixture cooks down.

When the liquid looks syrupy, remove from the heat and take the saucer from the freezer.  Spoon a little liquid onto the cold saucer and wait about 20 seconds.  When the jam has reached the gelling point, it will form a slight skin on the surface and when you draw a line in the liquid with your finger, the jam will not seep back to fill in the line you’ve made.  If the jam has not gelled, return to a boil and conduct the freezer test again every 5 minutes, removing the pot from the heat while you do.

Once the jam has gelled, ladle into clean, hot jars and either store in the refrigerator or process in a boiling-water bath canner (5 minutes for half-pints, 10 minutes for pints).  For more detailed instructions on canning jams and jellies, see the USDA’s Guide to Home Canning.

Yields about 7 half-pints.

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Mussel Harvesting – Or Why I Should Stick to Foraging for Plants

I was standing in the middle of the kitchen, in tears.  A stood by the sink watching helplessly, and a bit confused.  In the metal bowl on the counter, the mussel slowly pulled its ruffled pink edge back into its shell and clamped shut.  Nearby, a translucent barnacle licked the air, as if trying to determine what had brought about its drastic change in circumstance.

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The day before, early in the morning to catch the spring tide, we had ventured to a rocky point north of Lincoln City with John Kallas of Wild Food Adventures.  We were there to learn about seaweeds, but since mussels literally come with the territory, they were lucky enough to be on the agenda.

John first led us as far out on the rocks as the tide would allow.  We stood on a mat of brown and green seaweed, glistening in the early sun, warily eyeing the waves as they crashed behind John and surged up through the crevices around us.  I could hardly keep my eyes on him as he spoke; we were standing on level with the sea, and the waves over his shoulder seemed so close and were certainly taller than I.  I felt a stranger in this intertidal environment, surrounded by natural forces that ranged from the grand scale of the indifferent ocean to the tiny life that filled every nook and cranny: anemones, shore crabs, barnacles, and creatures I could neither see nor name.

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 As John spoke, lifting different seaweeds and passing pieces around for each of us to taste, this strange environment began to take on a semblance of order.  There’s a magical moment when you learn to identify something new, whether plants in a forest, vegetables at a farmers market, or spices at an ethnic grocery; in what was at first a confused jumble of meaningless colors and shapes, patterns begin to arise.  The green and brown around us took shape, became named: over there a clump of rockweed, here a feather boa flung out like a boot strap, and shimmering in that pool a leaf of iridaea.

We clambered about, gingerly trying to avoid slipping or falling up to our knees through a hole in the rock as John had done, hopping across watery channels that surged higher with each wave as the tide came in.  The rising water soon threatened to cut our group in half, leaving the stragglers stranded on a shifting piece of sand, so we finally moved inland and turned our attentions to the mussel colonies clustered atop every rock the high tide would reach.

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It was as if daintily clipping seaweeds from the rocky shore had merely whetted our appetite.  We set upon the mussels with vigor, which proved necessary to dig the creatures out of their tightly nested colonies.  As I triumphantly plucked a fine fat mussel from its perch, a movement caught my eye in the hole I had created.  Peering inside the hollow space between the mussels and rock, I could see tiny black shore crabs, scuttling away from the startling light.  We looked more closely and saw the teeming life built on this seemingly static habitat, and from then on slid our scissor blades into the cracks with a bit more trepidation.

With the north wind blowing and the waves crashing nearby, with the spring sun warming the sand and our salt-sprayed faces, we walked back down the beach with a new respect and understanding for the complexities of life in this marginal place.

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And yet, for all the new knowledge and perspective I had gained, there I stood, not 48 hours later, unable to go through with what I had begun.  I knew that it was too late; we had stripped them of all ability to survive.  The mussels were going to die.  It didn’t matter if I was the one to put them in the pot; they were still dying by my hand.

Sometimes you can know something quite rationally and clearly, but it doesn’t make a difference.  All my knowledge and rationality couldn’t stand up to the sight of one little mussel, opening its shell as if to speak, then curling back in on itself when it realized there was nothing more to be done.

I still plan to go back to the coast at those lowest of low tides, and clamber about on the rocks, hopping over watery channels and stepping around starfish.  But I’ll be the one daintily clipping seaweeds.

And thanks to A, we still had mussels for dinner.

And thanks to A, we still had mussels for dinner.

If you plan to harvest mussels, clams, or other shellfish in Oregon, you will need to purchase a shellfish license from the Department of Fish and Wildlife—and don’t forget to call the shellfish safety information hotline to find out if there has been a red tide or other toxins reported.

Seaweed stories still to come!

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