Eat Mendocino

2 women, 365 days, 3,878 square miles


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Rhapsody in Yogurt

I’m lucky for many reasons- I’m lucky to be surrounded by beautiful friends, I’m lucky to have such vibrant soil, (I run a wildly successful worm brothel and nightclub) I’m lucky to have the best partner imaginable, the best sisterwife, the best kid, the sweetest Bucket dog. I’m so blessed. And the foundation of all these blessings and mother hen of the collective Binky experience is my mom. No one could ask for a more supportive, thoughtful, lioness of a mother. And true to form, she wrote this blog in the middle of her busy schedule while she prepared to travel for a conference because she knows how busy I am in the week of our Earth day festival. Earth Day is really just a more expanded Mother’s Day, and since my mom is the collective mother of *all* the Binkies, read her words and let some real mama love wash over you.

-Gowan

Rhapsody in Yogurt

My girls will tell you that I am terrible with names, because it is true.  Rather than prolong the awkward pause caused when my mouth has to wait for my brain to catch up, I have taken to calling all of the beloved women in my life a generic “Binky.”  As the mamma of half the Eat Mendocino team (and honorary other-mamma of the other half), I sometimes have the great good fortune to sample to locavore genius of the Binkies.  Last week, one of the Binkies gifted me with a pint of freshly-made yogurt – perhaps from the same batch referenced in her blog entry on the subject.  Chuckling and muttering greedily, I hid the prized jar under my coat and scurried home, feeling like Fagan anticipating a particularly rich haul from the day’s pick-pocketing.

My husband and I ate the yogurt for Sunday breakfast with fresh, organic strawberries.  I opened the canning jar and surveyed the coveted treat that floated in a thin veil of whey with tiny, buttery flecks of clotted cream on top. It was the color of my grandmother’s flocked cotton bedspread – antique white.  As we dug in, bliss crossed our faces, and it was clear that this yogurt was superior to any manufactured product we had ever eaten – it was another food entirely.  To eat this yogurt required a pause, a reflection, a meditation.  I would go so far as to say that reverence was required.

Creamy and tart, at once delicate and corpulent, it married the berries and clung to them without feigning a blush.  There was a faint under-current of “cow-ness” to it, but not in a bad way – more as a tribute to the warm cow that had recently given it up for the cause.  It lent richness to the dish that I have never tasted in its poor, pasteurized cousins.

The pint disappeared in one sitting, leaving us fully satisfied and at peace.  It occurred to me that several cartons apiece of Yoplait would not have done the job of this gem in an old-school canning jar, made with love in a little oven by the sea.yogurt

Now, those who know me well will not be surprised that my rhapsody on a gift of homemade yogurt contains a political coda.  The longer I live the more intrinsic politics become in everything I observe.  Politics reflect our culture even as they drive it.  Our personal decisions become group mores that inform capitalism, which in turn builds machines designed to turn out dollars – machines that create unintended byproducts that carry consequences for all of us.  As the first-world agribusiness machine chews through the mono-cropped, genetically modified feed that will be given to our dairy cows along with plenty of antibiotics and rBHT, the sun looks on in horror.  Never before in the history of mankind have we laid waste the Earth so ferociously in order to feed all of us to bursting – and leave us malnourished.  We eat, and eat, and eat – and never before have we collectively been so tired, so fat, so diabetic, so neurotic.

Of course, we are only doing what we have been trained to do – we are part of the machine we have helped to create.  Just as seeds are tortured to make them pest-resistant and unable to reproduce themselves, so have our minds and bodies been tortured in the effort to make more and more dollars for the machine.  Our own basic human needs have been used against us.  Perhaps the only lesson I took away from my college marketing course was this astonishing factoid: the largest purchasers of psychological data and research are marketers.  That particularly insidious and heartless machine is designed to know more about us and our desires than we know about ourselves.

Processed foods are carefully engineered to light up the addiction centers in our brains.  The perfect balance of salt, fat, and sweet is carefully formulated to tickle the nodes that are hardwired to never be satisfied.  “Mouth feel” is a new area of extensive research and currently is considered an essential consideration for any new food product.  Don’t even get me started on packaging – the brain-blasting graphics and colors are designed to create the same primal response within us as observed in chickens trained to peck at a bright target for a pellet.

We have built a machine to please us without caring for us and fill us without nourishing us.  Worse yet, the chronic low-grade malnutrition has left us tired, fat, achy, isolated, and sad.  We have invented something other than food – something not-food, and we have over-tipped the scale until it is all that many of us can access.  The revitalization and even worse, the community, have gone out of food.  We sit alone in our cars at the drive-through, chewing and staring.

And that, friends, is why Eat Mendocino is going to save the world, and my precious Binkies are doing it.  Eat Mendocino is not the rod thrown into the gears of the machine; it is a dusty little chamomile plant blooming modestly beside the road, waiting to be noticed.  For those who do notice, it will help to restore our connection to the earth, to each other, and to our own spirits.  It is the only thing that can, and the Binkies are showing the way.  They would never say that about themselves, but then, that’s what mammas are for.

Am I implying that we all should drop out?  Shall we dismantle this machine at the expense of those who will be crushed by what tension is left in the springs?  Maybe those of us who are capable of doing so should consider it seriously, but the machine must be allowed to wind down slowly for those who are not and never will be so privileged.  If that is so, then the best we can do is to heed the friendly invitation of these young women: to do what we can, where we are, with what we have.  We can begin to identify those small things we can do in our sphere of control – a tomato plant, a duck in our garden rows.  The yogurt recipe seems entirely approachable to me.  Maybe I will try that soon. If nothing else, we can cast a kind eye upon the chamomile plant by the roadside.  Her tiny roots are creating cracks in the asphalt.

Happy Earth Day, my friends, with all my heart.


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How to make real yogurt

In the natural division of labor in our domestic pact, I make the yogurt and Gowan makes the cheese. It’s largely based on equipment: I have a gas oven, and she has a dehydrator. But, I like my job a lot. It might have something to do with a genetic predisposition to yogurt (I am Greek after all). But, I like the many steps to yogurt making and find the process grounding and meditative. And, now I will share all my secrets with you. The thing about making yogurt, and making most things really, is that none of it is very complicated. It just requires a few simple pieces of equipment and good timing. You can’t let the milk go bad, make sure you don’t run out of starter, and make the time to get it going and also be sure that you will be available to take it out many hours later. (I have ruined yogurt due to late night escapades…) So, it is really an act of being present more akin to meditation than cooking. But, maybe they are one and the same. Making yogurt is also a lesson in freedom.

There are lots of different ways to make yogurt. I’m not an expert, this is just the way I do it and I think it reliably makes damn good yogurt. Gowan agrees. Wild FermentationI learned from the book Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz – which is a fantastic resource for all things cultured and fermented. I don’t have a yogurt maker, but I’m not opposed to using them – I just don’t have one and don’t seem to need it. So here it is:

Equipment:

  • A sauce pan or small/medium soup pot – sized according to how much milk you have and yogurt you want to make
  • A gas oven – this is important for this method. If you don’t have a gas oven, you will need to find another way to incubate the yogurt at a steady temp (like a yogurt maker). Some people put it in a cooler, wrapped in towels, next to bottles of hot water. The oven is just easy and the temp seems to stay steady.
  • A candy thermometer
  • Whisk or rubber spatula
  • Mason jars – I like the wide mouth quart or pint sizes for yogurt making
  • Ice and a sink or large bowl for making an ice bath

Ingredients:

  • Cow Milk. We are lucky to have fresh milk right from the udder. You can use any kind of milk – store bought, Organic, rBGH free, but we strongly recommend using whole milk – always. I have ranted about the integrity of whole milk in another post, so I will not belabor this point here. It is possible to make yogurt with other kinds of milk, but cow is what we have, so that’s what we’re using right now. It’s true that all milk is breast milk, and we recommend getting as close to the breast as possible. It really will taste better.
  • A little bit of yogurt for starter – this can be from your last batch, or from the store, or from a friend (which is my favorite place to get it). You don’t need much, but we’ll get into that later.
  • That’s it!

Directions:

  1. Pour milk into saucepan, insert the candy thermometer and begin to heat on low to medium low. Stir frequently. Do NOT let the milk burn. That is your number one priority. I post up next to the stove and try not to leave it, because I burned it once and I will never let that happen again. Burnt milk = gross yogurt.
  2. Keep stirring diligently until you raise the temp of the milk to 180 degrees. Stirring keeps it from burning and keeps the temp even throughout the pan.
  3. Prepare an ice bath. Once the milk has reached desired temp, turn off the burner. Place the pan in the ice bath and allow the milk to cool to 110 degrees, stirring occasionally so it cools evenly as well.Yogurt in an ice bath
  4. Turn the oven on to the lowest setting for a few minutes while you complete the next step.
  5. Pour the cooled milk into the mason jars and then stir in the starter. Yogurt in jarsYou need way less starter than you think – only 1 tablespoon per quart. I learned this from one of my favorite cooking quotes of all time, found in Wild Fermentation and borrowed from the Joy of Cooking. (P.S. I just added Joy to our Wish List b/c I don’t actually own a copy which is unbelievable, yet true.) Ok, so this is why yogurt is all about freedom:

    “You may wonder why so little starter is used and think that a little more will produce a better result. It won’t. The bacillus, if crowded, gives a sour, watery product. But if the culture has sufficient ‘Lebensraum’ [German for ‘room to live’], it will be rich, mild, and creamy.”

  6. Turn off oven, and then place jars on oven rack for incubation. The oven will retain warmth from pre-heating it, and the pilot light will keep it warm enough for the cultures to get happy and do their thing. Try not to move the jars at all once incubation begins – it makes the yogurt unhappy.
  7. Leave yogurt in the oven for 8-12 hours, depending on desired thickness – or when you remember to take it out! I like to do this in the evening so that there is fresh yogurt in the morning – which is the best thing ever (and so that my oven isn’t occupied during the day).
  8. Remove and enjoy straight out of the jar! If you are Greek like me, or just have really good taste, you may want to strain your yogurt to make it even thicker. To strain it, you line a colander with cheesecloth and place in a bowl. Pour in the yogurt and let it sit in the fridge overnight. The whey will separate, making your yogurt even thicker, creamier and more delicious than it already was. Save the whey for other cooking uses. This is what I do when I have the patience to not eat it right away.


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The Magic of Milk

I don’t think I have opened the fridge and poured myself a glass of milk since I lived in my parents’ house. And even then, I do not remember this as a familiar action. I never loved the taste of store-bought milk, nor craved it. I found it thin & tasteless and didn’t believe it provided much nutritional value for me; I usually used almond milk for things requiring a milk-like substance. Until now. This month has transformed me into the girl who excitedly awaits milk deliveries with ardent anticipation. When the jar arrives, I excitedly open the lid and skim a spoonful of cream right off the top before putting it in the fridge. Oh, the cream! What most milk drinkers have been robbed of…. In my opinion, lowfat/reduced-fat milk is a nutritional hoax and an offense to our species. Milk is meant to be whole and thick and creamy – just like it comes out of the cow.

ButterI have gone through a milk metamorphosis; my culinary clock revolves around when the next jars of milk will arrive. Originally, we thought we would each consume 1/2 gallon of milk per week. Now we pick up milk 2 or 3 times a week and have been going through a few gallons between us! We, and I mean Gowan really, also severely underestimated our butter consumption and that problem has been resolved by upping our butter order to 1 pound/week – and that may not be enough. Milk and butter are like white gold and they are literally keeping us alive during the winter months. It’s not only keeping us alive; I believe that the enzyme rich unpasteurized fresh milk helped my recent ghastly thumb wound heal at superhero speed. A friend told me today that she has been making ghee with fresh butter and using the leftover milk solids as a skin ointment, which is healing chronic skin problems. I am a believer and this shouldn’t surprise me, but the simple magic of real food is continually astonishing.

What have we done with all this milk? During the first couple weeks, I was too busy to do much more than make creamy soup and simply drink it from the glass – which was a bizarrely satisfying novelty in its own right. In Month 1 we made yogurt, steamed milk, more yogurt, farmers’ cheese, and then strained yogurt – my Greek ancestors would approve and there is no turning back to runny yogurt.  In Month 2 we have introduced kefir and custard to the milk repertoire. And someday… cheesecake! Oh boy, I am going to eat 30 local cheesecakes to celebrate my 3oth birthday this year.

0205131844My new favorite nightcap is a steamed milk latte with honey, or infused with lavender flowers. Gowan has perfected a morning version with roasted bay nuts (pictured here). Natural divisions of milk labor have arisen. I make the yogurt and deliver 2 quarts to my sister-wife every week. (Confession of a locavore: one of my greatest joys is eating the skin that forms on the milk after cooling it for inoculation; there is something straight up primal and maternal about it.) Gowan makes the farmer’s cheese and the kefir. We are starting to develop rhythms somewhat more graceful and harmonious than a frantic scramble for calories.

Processing milk is a delicate thing. I remember when my organic gardening teacher told us that asparagus is a lifestyle indicator; you have to know that you’re going to be in a place for a few years before you benefit from your crop, and it requires special conditions; it is an investment for the future. I have always thought that I’ll know I’ve reached a new level in my life when I plant asparagus. Similarly, our milk makings are short-term lifestyle indicators; milk is just as sensitive and the feedback loop is immediate. We must be present and attentive, and well – responsible.

Farmer's CheeseYogurt requires heating and cooling milk to exacting temperatures and then keeping it steadily warm while the cultures do their magic for 8-12 hours. Keeping kefir grains alive requires daily washing and babysitting. I have ruined a batch of yogurt by not coming home one night, and another because the cultures went a little funky. All this milk has sort of turned us into soccer moms; I travel with a cooler and ice packs and I have to think about how all of my decisions may impact my milk cultures, plus my ability to eat tomorrow. It’s a lot of responsibility. When leaving town for a work trip last week, I had to load my entire kitchen into the car and be on the road before 7 am; not surprised to later find out that I had left for a 5 day trip without a single pair of underwear in my suitcase. But, my milk was safely packed and chilled. I have to say, I am beginning to get mad nostalgic about the days of the milk man (even though that was way before my time). If a modern day milk man started showing up on my doorstep every morning, I would probably fall in love with him.