Eat Mendocino

2 women, 365 days, 3,878 square miles


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Baking pumpkin bread from scratch with mom’s recipe

Everyone wanted to know what we would eat when the year was over. We didn’t really know how to answer that question, or what to expect. The only way you can do something like what we’ve done is to give up on the alternative and stay singularly focused on the day and the meal directly in front of you. Instead of thinking about what we couldn’t have, we directed all of our energy on what we could discover, create, and improvise. This was necessary for survival, and also for joy and creativity. So, I began this year with a fridge and pantry stuffed with local food, and I could have easily glided into another week, month, or year with the same modus operandi. Not only that, but I have actually found it difficult to transition away from our food routine – which I didn’t exactly expect. The rhythm of living and eating this way has been grounding, cozy, and private, and I am emerging from it with a sense of being an alien from another food planet. During my first trip to the grocery store, I got so overwhelmed that I left without buying anything. I don’t love to cook – I love to eat. But, now I find a profound comfort in preparing food for myself. That said, I also have a lot of other things that I want and need to do in life, and look forward to having more time for life outside of food, once I adjust.

As it turns out, most of what I’ve eaten in the first few days of 2014 is basically what I was eating last week, with a few additions. Like bubbles in my water, and cinnamon and leavening agents in my baking. Today I baked pumpkin bread, and it was not totally gross at all! That’s because I uncharacteristically used a recipe this time. When I realized we could use baking powder & soda again, I excitedly texted my mom and asked for her pumpkin bread recipe, ASAP. I guess it was on my mind since ’tis the season and I had to watch everyone else eat loaves of it during Christmas. Of course, I still improvised a few things and used mostly local ingredients, but it was a baking success! One of the hallmarks of mom’s recipe is that the bread is super moist and yummy. I think you’ll love it.

I got the pumpkin for this one from Adam and Paula Gaska at Mendocino Organics in Redwood Valley. I roasted it and then pureed the pulp in the Vitamix to get the right consistency (sometimes you need to strain it if it’s super juicy). A tip on winter squash: Most farmers are sitting on more squash than they can store right now, and are feeding it to the pigs. If you want a good deal on winter squash, approach a farmer about purchasing larger quantities directly from them. You will get a much better price than at the store or the Farmers’ Market.

Fresh pumpkin puree

Mom’s Pumpkin Bread Recipe

1.5 cup & 2 Tbsp. flour  
(I used Red Fife wheat from Mendocino Grain Project, because that’s what I had)
1.5 cup sugar or substitute  
(I used honey to taste, much less than 1.5 cups – honey is ultra sweet in baking)

1 tsp. baking soda
.5 tsp. cinnamon
.5 tsp. nutmeg
1/3 cup water
.5 cup oil   (I would have used local butter if I’d had enough, instead used coconut oil)
2 eggs  
(I used local duck eggs only because I’m allergic to chicken eggs, but many people swear are the best for baking due to added loft)

Sift dry ingredients together.

Sifting the flour

I have never sifted anything, ever, so I asked mom if I had to and she said she always sifts, and I didn’t want to be the one to make this recipe look bad. I remembered I had bought a tiny vintage sifter at a thrift store because I thought it was cute, so I excavated my kitchen to find it.

Hello cinnamon!

I find following a recipe more tolerable when using heart-shaped measuring spoons. I think Mom got me these, too.

Beat all other ingredients in a separate bowl and then add all together.

Adding the wet ingredients for pumpkin bread

Honey trick: I heated up the coconut oil and then stirred the honey into that to make them both easier to mix in.

Bake at 350 degrees for approximately 40 minutes. Enjoy!

Mom's pumpkin bread

Since I don’t know anything about baking with leavening agents, I didn’t want to overfill the bread pan, so I also made some little cupcakes, and then froze most of them for a rainy day (a smart thing that I never do, but my mom does it all the time and it is her recipe afterall).

Pumpkin bread cupcakes


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Honey-poached quince & apple pie

It seems like Christmas is a time to wear ugly sweaters, celebrate the white elephant, and cook things you’ve never attempted before. I have done all of the above in the last week. In this episode of, “It might be totally gross,” I decided to bake a pie, against my better judgment. I am not a baker, and I really have no business making pie. But, I had some quince patiently waiting in my fridge forever that I had purchased from one of my favorite vendors at the Farmers’ Market and I wanted to do right by them and to honor Lillian Drinkwater’s beautiful hands. So, I set out to make pie.

Quince

I loosely followed this Honey-poached quince pie recipe, with a lot of adaptations. The main reason I am not a baker is that I categorically defy recipes, even when I’m not limited by the local parameters. In this case, I substituted honey for sugar, which was no problem, and added apples to the mix. The crust is where things didn’t exactly work out. I fear pie crust, and I decided to use some previously made tortilla dough to roll into a crust, rather than starting from scratch and dealing with diced butter, ice water and other delicate maneuvers. I don’t even own a rolling pin so I used a bottle of olive oil to roll it out.

Honey-poached quince apple pie

I think it would have worked out OK if I had had enough of the dough, but the amount was only sufficient for a very thin bottom crust, leaving the top exposed and the edges sparse. It smelled like a proper pie, but didn’t quite come out like a masterpiece. The thin crust got too crispy around the edges and I think it got too dry due to being topless.

I was planning to bring the pie to a White Elephant party, but I got too self-conscious at the last minute, so I left it in the car. It tasted pretty good based on my low baking standards, but it wasn’t anything to brag about. And then I got to eat it for breakfast for many days, topped with yogurt and honey so I guess it’s a success of sorts.

Quince & apple pie

A bigger success was the gift exchange at the party. My first gift was tiny bottles of Patron tequila (my fave) and Bulleit bourbon, and I unwrapped them with wide-eyed amazement at the existence of hard liquor and the realization that I could actually consume it in fewer days than I could count on my fingers. As white elephant parties go, this gift was of course stolen from me, despite my dramatic pleas. It was, ultimately, a happy ending. I scored some beautiful handmade beeswax candles from Carson & Bees, and then in a most un-Grinchlike act, the winner of the tequila gifted it to me!

Beeswax candles & tequila!

In the next installment I will share the wonderful adventures of making 100% local Christmas pozole in Santa Barbara with my family, with the assistance of my pug-niece, Lola.

Lola the pug-blogger

Merry merry to all!


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Gnocchi and friends

My dear friend Stephanie has been letting me crash at her place every so often- I gave up my rental house a month ago to save money… I have a big huge project in the works I need my pennies for! I’ve been staying at a beautiful friend’s farm, where another friend is helping me with my goats and letting me share the tiny, off-grid cabin.

But I work late nights too, so having friends in town is excellent.

Last night, we made gnocchi, and I was shocked by how good it was. Every other time it’s come out too dense, but it was like little potato pillows.

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First, we boiled potatoes until they were soft, shocked them in cold water and slipped off their skins. Then we mixed in about one and a half beaten eggs, and some salt, and just barely enough of Doug’s flour to hold it together. 1203131947

We rolled giant potato noodles. At this point I worried about how well it was holding together- that we’d activated the gluey starch in the potato, but it turned out great, so no worries.

1203131947c

We cut the giant potato noodle into bite sized chunks, and marked them with a fork. Much debate over proper technique ensued- an actual Italian was present who said the best thing to do is roll them off a fork, leaving a deep impression in the gnocchi. He ultimately decided that while that worked great for ricotta gnocchi, the potato gnocchi might fall apart if we rolled them that hard. So we stuck to squishing with the flat of the times. 1203131953a

Once they were all squished, we dunked them in simmering water a handful at a time. When they’re done, they float to the surface of the pot and can be skimmed out with a big ladle and dunked immediately in cold water to shock them. We then smothered them in an amazing all local herb sauce my friend Leu made, some Pennyroyal Boont’s Corners, and chunks of roasted winter squash. 1203132013a

It was pretty amazing. Its so nice to have friends on cold nights.

Loves,

-Gowan


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A recipe for vulnerability

We are in the final stretch of the year and when people ask how it’s going right now, my response is that these last three months may be the hardest yet, and on some levels I’m totally over it. It’s harvest season and, yes, food is abundantly available and we’ve gotten really good at sustaining ourselves. But, the life of a locavore isn’t simply about the season or the food supply.

Most of the things we do are relatively easy, such as these examples from the past week:

  • Overcoming my fear of canning and turning 30 pounds of tomatoes into sauce
  • Devising a fruit fly catcher to deal with the population boom due to the above
  • Making pickles & yogurt before the cucumbers and milk go bad
  • Figuring out how to extract salt from seawater
  • Finding the first wild mushrooms of the season
  • Even dealing with the “too many mothers” in our virtual kitchen who constantly assume that I am doing everything wrong and destined to get botulism.

Next week I’ll be harvesting bay nuts and corn and making corn tortillas from scratch with our friends at Mendocino Organics. As I’ve said many times before, no single undertaking is inherently difficult. Whatever we are making/doing usually just requires time, some basic equipment, and enough will to triumph over the lazies. I love making, foraging and problem-solving and this is all really fun (aside from the stress and fatigue) and I feel like a domestic ninja when things work out. Every single meal is an accomplishment, and the joy of working so hard for your survival is unparalleled.

The not-so-easy things:

The difficult part is integrating all of this into the rest of life and work, at a pace that is not built for living from scratch. Traveling for work last week I survived on nuts, cheese and apples for a few days when I didn’t have time to cook nor access to a kitchen. But it’s all doable, and with a little more planning and prep, I could have been well-fueled. Why wasn’t I? This gets to the core of it – I don’t want to. Not every day, not all the time. Not all by myself. And, I miss green tea and chocolate and tequila.

While living closer to the land and food has been tremendously grounding and empowering, it has also been isolating and lonely. When I signed up for this, I didn’t want to eat 3 meals a day by myself for 365 days. Community has been built through the project, but it has also been disruptive and alienating to have such an extreme diet that means I can’t eat at restaurants, meet people at a cafe for a hot beverage, or eat the food at a wedding or a birthday or go on a normal date. Sometimes I make dinner with/for other people, or bring my own food to group meals, but the food often feels like a barrier between me and the situation. It becomes the focus of conversation when sometimes I want to enjoy the warmth of other human bodies and connect about things beyond sustenance. I know, it’s also totally amazing to be so connected to food, and be talking about real food with people every day. That’s the point of this. On a more basic level, I am sick of cooking all the time, and I don’t always want to plan ahead or take so much responsibility for every darn thing I put in my mouth. Plus, I have been largely stranded in Mendocino for six months without a car, which makes connection and community exponentially more difficult in a rural area.

All said, limits are extremely revealing and the Eat Mendocino project (along with the near-death experience this year) has allowed me to take a big, deep look at my existence. And I think that all the “hard things” really come down to one hard thing, which is the hardest of all: being vulnerable. This year, more than ever before, has made me realize how much we need each other – as neighbors, friends, and links in the food chain. Communities were created around the food supply, and now, food exemplifies the disconnectedness of human society. We don’t need each other to survive. We don’t need to know where anything comes from, or where it ends up. We don’t need to plan ahead, we don’t need to get along. We can just go to the store and buy food from strangers. It’s convenient, and it’s cheap-ish, and it’s simple. But, the costs of our fossil-fueled culture of ease are enormous.

I watched this video today by one of my favorite speakers, Brené Brown, who has dedicated the last ten years to studying vulnerability. I want you to watch this video, all of you (and her other videos, they are fantastic). But, if you don’t here’s what she has to say about the ills of a society dominated by an avoidance of vulnerability:

“We numb vulnerability. Evidence of the numbing: We are the most addicted, we are the most medicated, obese and in-debt adult cohort in human history; we’re numbing. And this doesn’t even include busy-ness […] Because we just stay so busy that the truth of our lives can’t catch up.” – Brené Brown

I think she’s so right.

People often ask me, “What are your goals are with the project?” There is a compelling list of social, ecological, political and spiritual reasons behind our mammoth undertaking. But now, I simply say this:

My goal is for people to become more intimate with their food.

To me, it’s all about intimacy. Whatever this means, for whoever you are, wherever you are. It doesn’t have to mean eating local. It’s about slowing down and getting one giant step closer to your food, whether that means making dinner with your kids, cooking something from scratch for the first time, or buying too many strawberries or peaches and throwing some into the freezer to forget about them and rediscover them in a few months. It means doing something that you are afraid to do and not worrying about whether it works out, reading the labels and asking questions about the ingredients, or picking an apple from a tree. This is one thing we can do to un-numb ourselves.

To me, this greater intimacy is the direct path to awareness which ultimately leads to being more vulnerable in life, and with each other. On this path, how can we deal with our vulnerability, and lean into it (even when we’re tired, frustrated, or scared)? This is what Brené Brown advises:

1) Practice Gratitude

I have mad gratitude for every seed and hand that has fed me this year, and I will try to remember to say thank you daily – especially when I want to whine. I have never been so grateful for the gestures of others; there is simply no higher act of love than feeding me. Thank you to Sisterwife Elizabeth for making me this yummy dinner last week at the end of my big work trip. I would so marry you.

Dinner made by Elizabeth

Elizabeth also shares some really good advice about How to remember the good in a recent blog post, which boils down to writing down the compliments that people give you. When I want to numb, I need to remember the incredible things that strangers have said to me about how we have inspired them to think differently about their food; there is truly no greater compliment.

2) Honor Ordinary

It’s true, we often overlook the ordinary, waiting for the next big thing. When we get closer to our food, and really stop to taste it, an apple becomes extraordinary. By turning off our monkeyminds to notice the ordinary beauty in the world (like this beautiful golden chanterelle we picked yesterday) we get closer to what is always right before us.

Golden chanterelle

3) Fill Your Reservoir with Joy and Love

There are countless ways to fill up with the good stuff. Take the time to do that. For me, tonight, it was writing this post, and knowing some eyes out there would read it. Love to all. – S


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Getting it done: world’s easiest tomato sauce

In the words of Elizabeth, if there is only ONE THING that you are putting away for the winter, it should be tomatoes. Here’s her advice on how to get it done.

My Ukiah

When I research recipes for preserving food, I find so many refined options. And by refined, I mean complicated. They call for a long list of ingredients and a zillion steps. While I appreciate that these exist, and that people exist who like to make them (people that I wish would feed me their delicious creations), I’m just not that kind of cook. I like to take 50 lbs of tomatoes and turn it into 10 quarts of sauce in 2 hours.

I believe that these complex recipes overwhelm many people, making them feel like they couldn’t possibly put up cans of food worth eating. To those people, I have some refreshing news: NONE OF THAT COMPLEXITY MATTERS. Sure, you still have to follow the rules to safely preserve the food, but what’s inside those jars doesn’t have to take hours to prepare.

Ingredient lists are suggestions at best. I’m…

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Preserving Food, Part II: How to can everything

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The second installment by sisterwife Elizabeth, pictured here with me at the Mendocino County Fair this weekend. Because sometimes we are not in the kitchen and also, you are never too old to get your face/body painted.

 

Painted faces at the Mendocino County Fair

Preserving Food, Part II: Can It!

Canning is not as hard as people think it is. It can be time consuming depending on what you’re making, but it’s not a difficult process. I didn’t even start canning by myself until this year, but I already feel like a natural.

Last time, I wrote about making pickles. To make those pickles shelf-stable, follow these simple directions. (Not short, but simple.) Note that some foods are not safe to process in a water bath and need to be done in a pressure canner to be shelf-stable. Always check a recipe (or three) to find out if what you want to make is appropriate for the water bath method.

Equipment for Canning

You will need:

  • A big pot
  • A canning rack or something that fits in the bottom of your pot (a round roasting or cooling rack often works). This is to protect the jars from the bottom of the pot and reduce the possibility of them exploding.
  • Some Mason/canning jars (Ball, Kerr, Golden Harvest)
  • NEW canning lids (lids must be new or the seal might not form)
  • Rings to adhere the lid to the jar (can be old)
  • Jar tongs

Here’s how you do it. This applies to everything, not just pickles.

1)     Prepare a water bath. Take your biggest pot and fill it so that the jars will be covered by at least 1 inch of water. Put the canning rack in the bottom, cover, and bring to a boil.

2)     Put all your lids (not the rings) in a small saucepan with some water, and turn it to low heat. This loosens the rubber and helps form a better seal. These should sit in hot water for at least 10 minutes, but keep an eye on them – you don’t want them to boil.

3)     While the water is heating up, prepare the pickles. Note that many recipes instruct you to first boil the jars – you certainly can do this, but as long as the jars are clean it’s not necessary since they’ll be boiled (and therefore sterilized) momentarily. (There is some wisdom to the idea that hot jars are less likely to crack/explode in a boiling water bath, but often by the time I take my jars out of the hot water and fill them, they’re cold before I put them back in anyway.)

Canning marathon

4)     Once the jars are filled with goods and you’ve added the brine (see Part I), use a chopstick to try to dislodge any air pockets. Add more brine if necessary.

5)     Remove the lids from the saucepan (I have a little magnetic wand, but you can just drain them). VERY IMPORTANT: Before you put the lids on the jars, wipe the rims with a wet cloth. If there’s anything on the rim, it might prevent a seal. (Vinegar probably won’t mess it up, but sugar definitely will.)

6)     Place the lids on the just-wiped-clean rims, add the rings, and tighten until they’re on pretty well but not so tight that your grandma couldn’t get them off.

7)     Turn the heat on the water pot down so it stops boiling. This will help you not get burned.

8)     Using jar tongs, gently place the jars in the pot. It’s okay if the jars touch, but you don’t want them to be so crowded that they won’t be able to move a little under the boiling water. If you have more jars to can than room in the pot, just do a second round.

9)     Bring the heat back up to high, cover, and wait for it to boil again.

10)  Once the water is boiling, set the timer. Some recipes will tell you 10 minutes, some 15, some 20 – I usually do pickles for 15, but you can do a quick Google search for whatever vegetable you used to check the recommended time. (Fruit and bigger jars take longer.)

11)  When the time is up, remove the lid and turn off the heat. Leave the jars in there for 5-10 minutes (if you take them straight from boiling water to room temperature, the jars are more likely to break).

12)  Remove the jars using tongs. I always line them up on a towel on my counter. Wait for the delightful “ping!” noise that tells you a jar has sealed. (This sound never gets old.)

13)  A few hours later or the next day, press down on the tops of the jars. If they don’t bounce back, congratulations! You made shelf-stable food. Remove the rings and gently lift the jar off the counter a few inches by the edge of the lid just to make sure the seal is good. Store without the rings (so they don’t rust) in a cool, dark place. Conventional wisdom is that these are good for a year, but I’ve had 2-3 year old canned goods that were just fine. Always inspect newly opened jars with your eyes and nose when you open it. If it looks fine and smells fine, it’s fine. Do not open jars with bulging lids – this is a sign of botulism, which is very rare. This is a good resource for more on canning and food safety.

14)  If the lids do pop back when you press down, it’s ok! Just stick them in the fridge. There are many reasons a seal might not form, and none of them means the food is bad.

Mexican-style pickled carrots

If you have jars that break during the water bath, that’s a bummer but it’s not the end of the world. It happens sometimes, usually due to a scratch or other imperfection in the glass. It’s only ever happened to me once. All the other jars of food are still perfectly good, so remove them, let the rest of it cool, and then deal with it like you would any broken glass.

This might seem like a lot, and at first it IS a lot. Think of it like playing Risk or Settlers of Cataan or some other complicated board game. The first time, it’s better to play with someone who’s done it before. But after a few times, you know exactly how to play and probably even feel comfortable teaching others. Also like a board game, canning is a lot better with friends.

I’m happy to answer any questions you might have, and if you live in Mendocino county, come over any time for a lesson. I’ll also be teaching a canning class in Ukiah in September.

You can contact Elizabeth at her blog, My Ukiah.

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Preserving food, Part 1: How to make refrigerator pickles (no canning necessary)

The recipe below was graciously provided by my canning mentor and sisterwife Elizabeth, also author of the My Ukiah blog. I have been making another version of this recipe which involves lacto-fermenting the pickles before putting them in the refrigerator. Will share that soon. But for now, let’s start with the most basic of the basics (which is great if you’re afraid of canning, like I am). 

Preserving food doesn’t have to be hard. I recommend starting with pickles because:

1) They’re easy to prepare and hard to screw up

2) The brine is mostly vinegar so acid isn’t a problem

3) They’re delicious

4) You can pickle everything

First, pick your recipe. There are a million books and websites to choose from. The most important thing from a food safety perspective is having enough acid in there to prevent bacteria from growing, which is not a problem given that pickles are packed in brine. For non-pickle preserving, most fruits are naturally acidic enough, though surprisingly tomatoes are not. This is a pretty simple fix and most recipes tell you to add lemon juice.

Refrigerator full of pickles

Right now I have jars of pickled zucchini, carrots, beets, radishes, eggs, and yes, cucumbers in my fridge. You can skip the canning process by putting pickles right in your fridge. They don’t last as long and they aren’t great for carrots which benefit from being cooked, but they’re ideal for zucchini which do not like the heat (key ingredient when pickling zucchini: cumin). It also make for an extra crunchy cucumber pickle.

There are lots of variations on pickles, but here’s a basic recipe:

  • Whatever vegetable you’re pickling (or fruit, though I’ve made enough gross pickled fruit to shy away from it at this point)
  • Apple cider vinegar and water in a 1:1.25 ratio (many recipes call for 1:1 – it’s up to you).
  • About 1 tsp salt for every cup of vinegar. (Most recipes call for canning salt but I always use sea salt. Also, some call for up to 1 TBSP/cup, so use more if you like saltier foods.)
  • Whole peeled garlic cloves
  • A mixed pickling spice or any combination of bay leaves, mustard seeds, whole black peppercorns, whole allspice, coriander seeds, and dill seeds. (For sweeter pickles, you can also use cinnamon sticks and whole cloves, and add 1/3 C sugar to the brine for every 1 C vinegar, or more if you like really sweet things.) (NOTE: California laurel is a lot stronger than standard culinary bay, so use 1/3 to ½ of a leaf in each jar instead of a whole one.)

Combine the water, vinegar, and salt in a pot and bring to a simmer. Cut your vegetables however you want them (slices or spears, or even whole). Drop 1-2 cloves garlic plus the spices you want in the bottom of clean ½ pint, pint, or quart jars (I usually use pints and use 5-6 peppercorns, part of a bay leaf, and sprinklings of everything else). Pack your veggies in, including thin slices of onion if desired. Sometimes it’s easier to lay your jars on their sides and pack them horizontally. You want to leave about ½ inch of clearance between the top of your veggies and the top of the jar.

Once your jars are filled, pour the hot brine over them, leaving ¼ inch headspace at the top of the jar. I use a wide-mouth funnel so I don’t spill, but you could also transfer the brine to anything with a pour spout.

Refrigerator Pickles

Assuming these are refrigerator pickles, close them up with a lid and a ring and stick them in the fridge. Most pickles will be ready in 24 hours, but will continue to get better after a few days.

Zucchini refrigerator pickles

In the interest of CYA/safety, most recipes say pickles only keep for about a week in the fridge. That is ludicrous! Some pickles will keep for months. If you find that your pickles are getting too strong, simply dump out half the brine and replace it with water. (Same goes if it’s too salty.)

Tune in for Part II on how to actually can these suckers.