Saturday, December 31, 2011

Pita bread

Now that I feel somewhat confident about making edible bread by hand at home (edible, not necessarily delicious!), I thought I'd expand my repertoire. My copy of Vegetarian Cooking (the vegetarian's Joy of cooking!) offers lovely recipes, and one of the ones I stumbled upon is pita bread. I had no idea it could be made at home.

Here's a simplified version:

1 1/2 cup warm water
2 1/4 tsp yeast
1 tsp agave/maple syrup/sugar (honey if you're ok with it)
1 3/4 tsp salt
2 T olive oil
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour (with flakes of bran in it)
2 cups all-purpose or bread flour

Mix water, yeast, and sweetener, stir, and let sit for 10 min. Oil another bowl.

Add salt and oil to yeast, then flour until smooth. Add rest of flour 1/2 cup at a time until incorporated, removing from bowl to knead. Knead until it's a smooth dough, not tacky. Place in the oiled bowl and turn to coat. Cover with a damp towel and set in a warm place (a kitchen window is good) for about an hour to double in size.

Punch dough down and separate into 10-15 balls. Separate balls and then cover with a towel about 15 min. Preheat oven to 475oF with pans inside.

Roll each piece into a circle less than 1/4 inch thick (that's pretty chubby, don't roll too thin! if you made 10 balls they should be about 8 inches across each). Don't stack the breads.

Carefully place as many pita rounds on the baking pans/sheets in the oven as you can and bake 3 minutes. They should start to puff. Remove and place  in a tray and cover with a towel, then put more in oven until they are all done.

*NOTE: mine didn't puff all the way but my yeast turned out to be old and I did roll them a bit too thin. Still, they are far more delicious than store-bought ones.

Serve warm (reheat in oven or microwave or gently on stovetop) with hummus, bean-dip, baba-ganoush, or any other dip.

To make pita chips, separate them into two layers, cut into triangles, sprinkle with oil and spices, and bake in the hot oven until crisp!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Cooking and JOTting

Despite being AWOL for unmentionable months, I have actually been doing bloggy things and following up on my JOTs (just one thing's). And now, my head hung in shame for not having posted for this long, I jump in, with apologies.

For example:
We made the above tree using recycled materials and various preschool-created ornaments. It's a floppy, soppy ode to all things crafty and eco-friendly :)

I spent an evening up until 2 viewing various crafty blogs (you know, jumping from one to the next to the next, list below) and making note of the projects I intend to do with my son (or make him watch). My friend Pippa suggested making up an Advent Calendar of projects, which we did for this month, and now we have a shoebox full of projects on slips for the coming months, one a day! This week, we have strung up all our holiday cards across the living room, made a Kwanzaa wreath in red and black and green from Little One's handprints, and put photos in old CD frames and taped them up around the house.

The list, for inspiration and lots of procrastination:

I have also been cooking up a few things, notably:

  • apples - once again transformed into jam and spicy pickle and applesauce (frozen into "popsicles")
  • lemons - again as marmalade, and as spicy pickle, and dried into...
  • herbal tea - a mix of rose petals and mint and hibiscus (a bit for color) is divine (Rose Mint), as are lavender and chamomile (Lavender Chamomile), or dried oranges and lemons and cloves and cinnamon (Orange Spice!)
  • halloween pumpkins - into bread, which is really cake, a recipe from my friend Janice
  • persimmon related items due to various Hachiya persimmon donations. I normally don't eat those, but turned out they are FANTASTIC sliced (while still hard) and dehydrated to near-crispness. They also make unbelievably soft and cloudy cookies and decent pancakes.
  • granola and yogurt - we have a routine now, a weekly granola batch. my little one is a good helper, thanks to the dishwasher.
  • cupcakes - I won't go there, but let's just say various tubs of sour cream (ie not vegan) are now transformed and in my freezer and awaiting mouths (anyone?)
  • bread - my breadmaker gave out earlier this year, so after I left town and came home to no more wild yeast, I bought a jar, and have been making handmade bread ever since. So much more reliable, and I can make it however I want. We made cinnamon rolls and loaves and dinner rolls and rosemary holiday bread. Loving it!

So there you have it. My end-of-the-year summary. Wishing you happy holidays and many more posts to come!

Thursday, May 05, 2011

JOT #17: go local, wherever you are

I do travel. In some future world where gasoline costs $100 a gallon and we get most of what we need locally, we won't travel nearly as much, but while I do, I like to get local goods wherever I go.

In India, I buy black nilgiri tea. In London, I bought earl grey. In Egypt, chamomile.

Sure, I buy other things. In India, it was sandalwood powder and homemade sweets and organic dals. Now here in San Diego, it's fresh guavas and mangoes and agave from nearby Mexico.

Many of these things I would never or only rarely buy at home, but travel is a chance to indulge in new and exciting local goods. When in Rome, do as the Romans do, and take back a bit of Rome with you!

What do you bring back from your travels?

Friday, April 15, 2011

JOT #16: herbs from seeds

When I was little, my grandmother would save carrot tops and soak them in water - the carrots would sprout roots and greens and grow, right in the kitchen. Then she taught me how I could get plants from coriander seeds, the tiny cilantro leaves peeking out, their fragrance intoxicating.

Since then I love the process of planting things I have in my pantry. Coriander seeds bring cilantro whenever the weather's a bit warm, perfect for Indian or Mexican food. Fenugreek brings methi, or fenugreek leaves, which make delicate greens to add in salads or saute on their own. Onion seeds yield onion greens. Even mustard seeds will grow.

I'm curious how fennel and cumin and others might grow, but you can try it at home: just plant 1/2-1 teaspoon of seeds an inch or so deep in a small pot of soil on your windowsill (a yogurt container with holes works). Place a plate under it to catch any drained water, and water it each day, just running over the tap until the soil is wet. Be patient. That's the hard part.

The reward is when you see that tiny sprout all of a sudden one day - two tiny cotyledons (the seed leaves) in bright green. They look like nothing you've seen. Suddenly there are not one but many. The two tiny leaves make way for a long stem that carries the "real" plant - deep fenugreek leaves, or spiky cilantro, or something else.

Check your pantry and try planting some. I'm always surprised what actually grows.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

JOT #15: tofu

I have long been wanting to make my own tofu. I get lovely firm tofu from HODO soybeanery at the farmer's market when I want it (aside from the silken, I can bring my own box to take it home), and there is always the great extra-firm Wildwood tofu (though plastic-wrapped) at the store. When I want medium, HODO almost always runs out of it, though, and I'm stuck with only silken or firm tofu, or I end up with much too much and waste it. Very sad.

So I'm happy to say I've finally made some tofu. It's silken (ish), and a small amount (what soymilk I had left), and has a slightly bitter aftertaste (I think I used too much coagulant). But it's a start, and I'm hopeful of being able to make it at home from now one, at least when I can't get it elsewhere. I used only 3 cups of soymilk, and used Epsom salts as a coagulant (they're cheap), which means the tofu has no calcium, so I may have to switch later! The recipe is adapted from here, which also includes photos and more details.


3-5 quarts soymilk (more = firmer tofu)
1/2-1 tbsp coagulant (nigari - calcium sulfate, or Epsom salts)
mesh strainer
muslin, preferably, or cheesecloth
container with holes (optional)
small, shaped container
plate that is smaller than strainer or holey container
heavy weight (a large can of tomatoes, or free weights, 5lbs or more)

Heat the soymilk to just below boiling. Avoid letting it boil (ideally, it should be above 180oF but below 210). Remove any skin that has formed. Turn off the heat or place on the very lowest heat, and add half the coagulant. Stir ONCE completely (and only!) with a large spoon, then let soymilk sit 10 minutes. If most has coagulated and the liquid is no longer white, turn heat off and continue. Otherwise repeat with the other half of the coagulant, stirring once and resting 10 minutes, until most of the milk has curdled.

In the meantime, place the strainer on a pot so that it sits above the bottom, and line with two layers of cheesecloth or muslin. Pour the curdled milk into the strainer and let the liquid drain, then lift up cloth and squeeze out most of the rest of the liquid. If you don't have a container with holes that will fit this amount of tofu, leave cloth in strainer, folding cloth over the tofu. Otherwise, place tofu inside the holey container, folding the cloth over the tofu so it lies flat.

Cover with a plate that doesn't touch the sides of the container or strainer, and weigh down with the weight. Leave 15 minutes for a softer tofu, or 30-45 minutes with a heavier weight for firmer. (I used 15 minutes with a glass bottle of chickpeas).

Remove tofu from cloth, and transfer to container. Cover with water and change water daily.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

JOT #14: jam and marmalade

I recently bought my first jar of jam in a few years - it's a hot sweet pepper made of local mixed berries with jalapenos, straight from the farmer's market. Yum.

Aside from that, we haven't had jam or marmalade from outside the house in quite a while. When apple season rolled around, I made a giant batch of apple jam, several jars. When friends had way too many lemons, I made marmalade. And with all those neighborly oranges, I've made a bitter-sweet orange marmalade. When thanksgiving rolls around, there are cranberries available, which make a delicious sweet-tart cranberry jam. Makes for plenty of sweet spreads.

Making jam needs a good half day per batch (which, for us, yields months, if not a year's, worth of jam). It's a bit time and work intensive, but modern devices like the food processor and other shortcuts make it easy. I also avoid the intense canning steps, because there's sugar in the jam, we use it fairly fast (or give it away for use), and store it in the fridge after opening. Someday I'd like to learn to can properly, complete with rubber lids and metal bands, but that will have to wait. For now, we can store our jam on the shelf and then in the fridge or freezer for a while before I have to make up a new batch, when another fruit comes into season.

These recipes are collected from various ones you'll find on the internet, adapted to all those different fruits you'll find, and made to be as little work as possible (I'm lazy!). The caveat: jam is really fruit and sugar, so it's not really a health food. Some day I'd like to make up a batch of freezer jam without adding any sugar, but not yet.

Lemon or Orange Marmalade
5lbs lemons or oranges (about 10 navels)
3 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups extra sugar (optional)

Juice the fruit and save 1/2 cup juice (drink or save or freeze the rest) and all the peels, being sure to discard any seeds. Run peels through food processor or slice into very thin strips. Place peels in saucepan and cover with water. Boil 10 minutes, or until softened, then drain. Rinse pan and return peels to pan. Add 1 1/2 cups water and sugar and simmer one hour uncovered, stirring, until thick and creamy. Add up to 1 1/2 cups extra sugar, to taste. Add 1/2 cup juice, stir to combine well, and let cool. Pour into sterilized jars almost to top (leaving less than 1/2 inch). Seal jars and invert until fully cooled. Once opened, store in fridge and use within a week.

Apple Jam - posted ages ago. Recipe here.

Cranberry Jam
cranberries (about 1 packet/ 1lb)
 1 1/2 cups sugar
juice of one lemon or orange

Rinse cranberries (if frozen, skip this step). Heat cranberries, adding a little water if necessary, and stir on low, mashing, until softened. Add sugar and continue to stir, partially covered in between, until well-mashed and thick. Add lemon juice (use orange juice for orange-cranberry flavor). Cool jam until warm, then pour into sterilized bottle leaving 1/2 inch room at the top. Close and invert bottle overnight. Store away from light upside down or open and refrigerate.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

JOT#13: margarine...and butter...and ghee...and cupcakes

Margarine, butter, and ghee are two separate items, but I'm lumping them because, after all, they're similar in purpose. The cupcakes? Just for fun.

After going vegan, I used real margarine for a short while, until the idea of that many trans-fats gave me chills. I deftly jumped on the Earth Balance bandwagon - trans-fat free, healthy spread that is vegan and organic. Win-win, right? But sadly, it, too, comes in a plastic tub. I was okay with oil for a while until an amazing cupcake recipe (see below) left me drooling and Earth Balance-free. Rather than shell out, cheapskate that I am, I tried a simple margarine recipe that is all over the internet. I improvised wildly and thought I'd failed until the lemon juice did its magic (you should see it!). It certainly isn't thick and stiff like the store-bought stuff, it tastes like the oil I used, and sometimes still separates, but it is way better than not having margarine, and is actually quite yummy on bread with my farmer's market "Sweet Heat" berry pepper jam.

To whit, worth a try. Here is the veganized version:

Vegan Margarine

1/2 cup non-dairy milk (I used soy, I suppose non-vegans could use regular)
1/2 cup oil (I used olive, probably better to use a light one)
1 tsp mustard seeds, crushed (or 1/2-1tsp dry mustard powder, or 1tsp lecithin)
1-2 tbsp lemon juice, or as needed
dash turmeric
salt to taste

Place soymilk in blender and pulse, then add oil and blend well until emulsified. Add mustard powder and tiny dash of turmeric for color, blend to mix. Add lemon juice and blend - it should become thick and creamy. Add salt, if desired, and blend again to mix well. Store in airtight container and refrigerate up to 3 weeks.

Butter (and buttermilk)

I store the cream from my Strauss Milk bottles in a little cup in the fridge, usually with a spoon stuck to it, unless my Little One licks it off first. After a while, I have a decent amount of cream, which I used to just boil into ghee (see below), which lasts indefinitely outside the fridge. But I'd never made fresh butter, much less cultured (unless you count the time we dressed up as pilgrims and churned butter in grade school), until my mother gave me courage. She told me how her grandmother used to keep it submerged in water, and she and her siblings would sneak some from time to time.

Also much easier than I thought, especially with the convenience of a blender. Here you go:

Leave 1/4-1/2 cup fresh cream out to soften.
Add 1-2 tbsp yogurt, preferably runny and stir well to combine thoroughly.
Leave cultured cream in oven or someplace warm for the day or overnight.
In the morning (or night), place cream in blender and add at least 2x volume cold water. Add 1-2 ice cubes if the weather is warm or your blender tends to heat up.
Blend by pulsing. As you blend, the butter will rise to the top and the liquid will become a light runny white.
Stop blending when the butter is a solid mass and no solids remain in the lower portion.
Separate the butter from the liquid with a slotted spoon and allow to drain, then store in an airtight container in the refrigerator.
The buttermilk can be used for baking, or as a drink with a dash of salt, asafoetida, and a few curry leaves.

[Edit: forgot the ghee! Recipe below:


Place softened butter in small saucepan.
Heat on VERY low heat (as low as possible) until butter melts
Continue to heat on low, and butter will come to a boil. There may be some scum forming at the top - skim it off. Allow the butter to boil until it is a bright golden color without stirring and being careful not to let it burn.
Remove from heat and let pot sit - the separated parts will settle to the bottom. Let cool no more than 15-20 minutes.
Pour off the liquid ghee into another container, straining. Store in a closed container at room temperature.
To use, you may wish to heat ghee briefly over a very low flame to melt. Serve with rice, idlis/chapatis, or for cooking. ]

Vegan Cupcakes

Ricekernel has wooed me to her site yet again with her vegan cupcakes. I had to try for myself. Now that I'm not buying all-purpose flour, I subbed the whole wheat flour. I used vegan sugar (powdered in the blender, ok, lazily), local olive oil (Big Paw). For the frosting, I used the vegan margarine! It was runny, so I omitted both the shortening and the soymilk - still hardened up nicely when chilled. The frosting recipe frosts LOTS of cupcakes, so I will be hiding the rest in the fridge.

I topped them with vegan chocolate chip eyes and a dry apple smile. They ARE ultimate. Happy!

Sunday, April 03, 2011

JOT #12: Apple cider vinegar

Once upon a time, I hardly ever used vinegar. Then I discovered its miraculous uses: dressing on salad (with oil of course), as a great hair rinse (in lieu of conditioner), for cleaning (with baking soda), and to add a kick to so many dishes.

Making vinegar at home is also a good way to save/use up/keep from spoiling foods and scraps that are just too good to waste. Case in point: a batch of fresh, homemade apple juice, which for some reason was never finished (forgotten in the back of the fridge). What to do? Make vinegar.

I've found that it's takes ages, but it's much simpler than I thought. The key to making vinegar is to let it have air at the right times. Liquids go through stages as they ferment: juice, wine/alcohol, and acid/vinegar.

To make apple cider vinegar, start with apple cider or juice. For fruits, chop the fruit and cover with water. Very sweet juice and fruits will yield better results. Make sure your cider/juice does not contain any additives and preferably isn't pasteurized. You may also wish to add sugar water instead of plain water to make fruit scrap vinegar instead, which is also faster.

Pour into a clean, sterilized glass jar, leaving an inch or two of room at the top. Close tightly and leave at room temperature for 6-8 weeks. Open periodically (weekly) to let CO2 escape. When your juice smells like strong vodka or wine, you're ready to move on.

Now leave the same jar covered but slightly open. You can leave the lid on loosely, or cover with a double layer of cheesecloth. You may wish to add "mother of vinegar" from store-bought vinegar, but this is not necessary. Keep it in a warm place but away from direct sunlight.

After a couple of weeks you'll see some stringy things that are the "mother of vinegar" made by the bacteria. Continue to allow it to ferment until you don't smell (or taste) any alcohol.

To prevent further fermenting or to make another batch, optionally filter out the mother of vinegar film from the vinegar.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

JOT #11: Yogurt

Growing up Indian, my mother used to make yogurt every week. She poured milk from the can, stirred it patiently on the stove, and waited until it cooled just enough to put her pinky in without scalding. Then she stirred in a tablespoon of the old yogurt culture, and let it sit on the counter (on warm days) or in the oven overnight. In the morning - thick yogurt, "hard curds" we called it, literally translated. It was rich and perfect for mixing into warm rice for dinner, one of our favorite meals back then.

My mother's yogurt culture (really a bacterial culture that grows in your milk and is what helps you digest your food in your stomach!) was so developed over the years, probably an ancient mix of strains of Lactobacillus that may have once consorted with dinosaurs. It never failed to magically transform milk, even skim milk, into yogurt.

After the development of my yuppie, get-anything-from-the-store lifestyle, making yogurt went by the wayside. I had forgotten that it was easy, and it seemed such a breeze to pick up yet another plastic tub of plain yogurt at the store. Until the tubs (see my pack-rat tendencies) started to pile up. Oh yeah, and I turned vegan.

Being vegan and craving yogurt is not a good combination, so I glommed onto my cherished Wildwood Yogurt. The perfect taste for yogurt rice, but full of things I do not have at home, and yes, it comes in plastic tubs. I've finally gone back to making my own, and I haven't seen a store-bought variety that is quite as nice as homemade, to my taste. It's also a great way to use up milk that is about to spoil and to get live cultures when your stomach is feeling a little blah.

So, here's my simple recipe for making yogurt at home. You can use a yogurt-maker at home if you like, but it should be fairly simple, especially now that the weather is warming up (at least around here).

Homemade Yogurt

milk, soymilk, or other non-dairy milk (any fat content is ok)
1-2tbsp yogurt culture from purchased or other yogurt containing "live, active cultures"
scarf or thick cloth
pot to heat milk (thick bottom)
glass, ceramic, or stainless steel container with lid that covers well or fits tightly (a casserole works)
can of food/soup or rock (optional)

Clean the container well - sterilize in dishwasher or pour boiling water over it.

Heat milk on the stove in pot or in ceramic or glass container in the microwave (ie a saucepan leaving room at the top or a ceramic container to 1 inch of the top). Heat to just boiling (milk will froth up - make sure it doesn't boil over. In my microwave, this is 12 minutes for a large bowl and 5 for a cereal bowl, longer on the stove). On the stove, stir continuously to prevent scalding.

Remove milk from heat and if in pot, transfer to container. let cool until warm but not hot (pinky inside will not burn, or you can measure to once it drops below 50oC/122oF). If in microwave, leave in container, otherwise transfer to container. Allow skin to form on top of yogurt.

Mix 1-2 tbsp yogurt with 2 tablespoons of unboiled milk until smooth and creamy. With a spoon, gently pull skin away from edge of container and pour yogurt culture into the space. Close container with lid tightly.  You may wish to weight it with something (a can of food, a rock, etc) to form a tighter seal.

Leave your yogurt on the counter overnight if it's warm, or in the oven (warm the oven briefly if it's cold) or any place warm. Wrap with a scarf or cloth to help keep it warm in colder temperatures. If not fully set by morning, remove from oven, set oven to lowest setting and leave until it reaches temperature. Open oven and replace container covered with scarf for a few more hours (up to the evening). Refrigeration can also convert a slightly runny yogurt into a thick, set curd.

If desired, pour off any liquid (it makes a good liquid for kneading dough) if desired. To make greek yogurt, place this yogurt into a cheesecloth and strain into another container. What remains is extra-thick, creamy yogurt. Sweeten as desired.

JOT #10: Granola

I am SO granola. Last year, we were in the throes of another grocery-store meltdown, when yet another trip to the store for Flax Pumpkin Seed Granola was in order after less than a week. The tiny boxes are among the most expensive at the store, and hold (for us) only about 4 bowls of cereal. Not sustainable.

Later, I found it in the bulk foods aisle, not quite as expensive but at least I could buy as much as I wanted. So there we went, until one day while cookbook-browsing (a fun activity, if you have a spare minute and are near one of your cookbooks), I came across the recipe for granola out of Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone (a book I highly recommend - covers all sorts of veggies and grains). This is my generic adaptation of this simple recipe, and I make up a batch every two weeks, or a half-batch weekly for a fraction of the cost of the store-bought variety. Nowadays, we only buy store granola when I'm feeling lazy or ill.

The funny thing is that nearly everything in this recipe is optional, so you could end up with just toasted grain, if you like that,or you could have flax-hemp-pumpkin-quinoa-cherry-chocolate-coconut granola, if that's what you're craving. Variations are noted at the end.

Here's also another fun granola recipe to try from my friend ricekernel.

yields 8 cups

6 cups any combination of rolled oats or flaked grain (kamut, spelt, barley) or toasted grain (quinoa, millet)
1 cup wheat germ (optional)
1 cup chopped nuts (optional)
1 cup raisins or chopped dried fruit (optional)
1/2-1tsp spices (I use 1tsp cinnamon, 1/2 tsp nutmeg, 1/2 tsp cardamom)
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup safflower, canola, or olive oil
3/4 cup maple syrup or honey

Pulse 2 cups of grain until crushed. Preheat oven to 300oF. Toss the dry ingredients except the raisins or fruit together. Add oil and sweetener and toss again to coat thoroughly. Spread mixture on two sheet pans and bake. Stir every 10-15 minutes until done, about 30-45 minutes. Remove from oven and add raisins or fruit. Let cool. The granola will become crunchy when fully cooled. Store in an airtight container.

Variations: The variations are endless. My general rule is to try to use what I have in the pantry.
  • Spices - besides cinnamon, nutmeg, and cardamom, you can use powdered ginger, allspice, vanilla or almond extract, cocoa powder, fennel seed powder, mace, even spicy cayenne for a kick! Start with 1/2 tsp or less before you commit.
  • Nuts and seeds - chopped walnuts and pecans, slivered almonds, crumbled peanuts, exotic nuts like brazilnuts, macadamias or hazelnuts, seeds like sunflower and pumpkin, sesame seeds, flax seeds, cashews, pistachios, hemp seeds, really anything goes. If you need to use salted nuts, leave out the salt in the recipe.
  • Grains - besides the standard oat flakes, you might find multigrain flakes in a bulk aisle, or flaked wheat, kamut, spelt, or barley. You can toast millet, pop amaranth, or rinse quinoa before adding, as well as adding puffed rice or rice flakes. Consider also adding some other cereal (o's or crisped rice or something else your family likes) to granola.
  • Fruits - using enough fruit, you can cut down on sweeteners. Try plump chopped medjool dates, pieces of dried apple, pear, papaya or apricot, banana chips, candied orange or lemon peel, dried berries or cherries, even pieces of fruit leather.
  • Sweeteners - a maple syrup is lovely, but you can use plain old sugar (white, brown, turbinado, or anything else), agave syrup (use less), honey, molasses, or even some flavored syrup you've forgotten. Cut the sugar in half if you like. Leaving it out is fine, too, but everyone might reach for the sugar bowl.
  • Oil - you can cut the oil in half or leave it out, as you wish, to make a fat-free version. Any kind of edible oil should be okay, but if you use butter, you may wish to store your granola in the fridge. Alternatively, use 1 cup pear or apple juice instead of oil (in addition to sweetener).
  • Yummies - coconut flakes, chocolate chips, peanut butter chips, even candy can turn your granola into a trail mix.
  • Wheat germ - it adds a good dose of protein and nutrients to your granola and also helps it clump nicely. You can also use wheat bran, oat bran, or rice bran. I like to powder some of my oats instead, which helps the clumping even without the wheat germ.
Let me know how yours goes!

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

JOT #9: Kale chips

What? Kale chips you say? Sounds disgusting, right? Kale, like collards, and turnip, and other such greens, is one of those things one does not usually associate with snacks. Until one visits one's local farmer's market.

I did, one day, and came across a free taste of a light, flaky, dangerously addictive green substance flecked with gold. "Kale chips," they announced, and charged me $7 for the yogurt-tub of the stuff. I felt I'd gotten a good deal, and went back next week for two more. My habit had increased to three a week when I decided I couldn't shell out $24 a week simply on a snack like this, healthy as it might be. But the Little One was also hooked, so I couldn't miss an opportunity for such a yummy good-for-you snack.

What IS kale anyway? Turns out it's a green leafy vegetable related to cabbage, full of antioxidants, beta-carotene, vitamin K, vitamin C, calcium, iron, and anti-cancer compounds (unless boiled). Can you say super-food?

Turns out organic kale is only $2 a bunch at the farmer's market, and with the help of my trusty dehydrator, I can make my own "chips" at home (an oven works, too). I've only tried the Goddess flavor, which is my favorite by far anyway, but they also make Cashew and Sweet Basil, which are also lovely. (I should note, the other advantage of making them at home is that you can make them as strong or mild as you want, and leave out anything you might not like. You can also hide them from your family so you can eat them in the middle of the night, not that I would ever do that.)

The recipe calls for curly kale, but you can use other types, including plain, if that's not available. Red russian is okay, but dinosaur kale gets a bit bitter (still tasty). The tahini I get is a bit runny so sometimes I avoid the water altogether.

[Edited: amounts a little off for two bunches. Modified.]
Goddess Kale Chips - recipe adapted from Chrissy at RawFoodTalk

2 bunches organic kale, preferably curly, broken into large pieces by hand
2/3 cup sesame tahini
¼ cup soy sauce or tamari
½ cup apple cider vinegar
½ cup water (as needed)
2 scallions, or 1/2 leek or 1/2 onion
1 clove garlic
1 lemon, juiced
¼ t. salt
¼ cup fresh parsley (oregano also works but adds a different flavor)

Tear the kale into large pieces, setting aside the stalks (use for soup stock!) and place the leaves in a large bowl. Combine all other ingredients in the blender until it forms a paste (add water as needed, or none). Pour dressing over kale and work into the leaves by hand. Be sure to get the kale into the crannies of the kale to cover well on both sides.

Place kale in a single layer on dehydrator sheets (use 2-4 trays) and dehydrate at least 4 hours (about 110oF). Rotate trays as needed. Alternatively, place in a single layer on a lined baking sheet and bake at 200oF 20-30 minutes, until fully crispy.

Store in an airtight container.

Other variations: if you want to avoid the tahini etc, try just soy sauce and lemon juice, and dry your chips. Still yummy. I've also used my dehydrator in my solar oven, so on a warm day, you could just let the kale dry out for a day or two.

Happy Snacking!

Friday, March 25, 2011

JOT #8: Soymilk

I notice this series is quickly turning into "things I've stopped buying," and this is another example. But isn't making things at home the most local you can be? I have the luxury of time, so I take the opportunity (and will share if bribed, with, say, fair trade chocolate or freedom from toddler boredom).

Being vegan, I drink a lot of non-dairy milk, and most of it is soymilk. For a while, I was buying things in milk cartons or tetrapaks, both of which are not recyclable in my area. Then I found out that Hodo Soy Beanery makes fresh unsweetened and sweetened non-GMO soymilk for sale at the farmer's market (fyi, they also make some great tofu and delicious and innovative soy-based products). It comes in plastic (non-returnable, though recyclable) bottles and was starting to add up, plus it was often not available and the tiny bottles never lasted me long. Unfortunately, no one makes soy milk in glass, to my knowledge.

I debated buying a soymilk-maker (yes, they exist!) but then found it wasn't as impossible as it seemed in my head. The soybeans are from Whole Foods or my local natural grocery store - organic, grown/processed in the US (all over, so I may never know where mine come from) and Canada.

Here's the recipe:
1 cup soybeans
12 cups water, plus more for rinsing
a pinch baking soda (optional)
mesh strainer
large saucepans

Soak soybeans in 6 cups of water overnight at room temperature. In the morning, knead the beans vigorously with your hands for a few minutes until the skins come loose (you don't have to remove them all) and rise to the top. Rinse beans in water, removing most of the skins.

Set up a mesh strainer over a saucepan or pasta pot and line with cheesecloth or other thin cloth. Grind beans with 6 cups of water (two times with 3 cups of water each works well), increasing speed until the puree is frothy. Pour the liquid into the strainer until only the froth and solids are left on top. Lift the cloth and use your hands to squeeze most of the rest of the liquid out (save the cloth with the soybean solids*). Gently boil the soymilk for 5-10 minutes and let cool. When fully cool, pour directly into a pitcher, or add salt/sweeteners as desired before storing. Use within a week.

*The soybean solids are called okara, and are almost as rich in protein and nutrients as soymilk or tofu. I add a half-cup to bread dough (steam first, makes it soft), or toast the okara and use in place of coconut in dishes. It also can be steamed, seasoned and served as a dish on its own. More ideas/recipes here.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

JOT #7: fruit trees

I've written about vegetable gardens, but nothing comes close to picking fruit right off the tree and eating it. I'm lucky to have a apple tree right in the backyard, which sends forth a volley of apples every fall (the first year, I didn't know what to do with all those apples and was giving them out like candy. Then I learned. More on that another time...). I also have a beautiful red plum tree that sends showers of small, tart plums into the neighbors' yard each summer.

I'm also lucky to have good neighbors with fruit trees of their own. The ones on the right have a prolific orange tree that has so many navels over the fall and winter and early spring that are tart and sweet and juicy that we marvel every year, then knock on their door for the ones we can't reach from our side (they never mind, and don't seem to eat many oranges). On the other side, a short but steady lemon tree I know is there to ask for a lemon when I so desperately need one.

Since then, we've been slowly planting fruit trees and bushes - a pomegranate here, a blueberry there, a mandarin in between, and nurturing them, fawning over them. We have yet to see any fruit, but we're optimistic!

If you don't have the space for your own fruit tree, try picking some off someone else's at a farm. We tried Buckley Cherries with great results (the last few are still tempting me in the freezer):

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

JOT #6: milk, and a surprising snack

WARNING: This is a double post.

I must have more free cooking time than usual because I'm posting on two separate topics.

The first - another just one thing I've switched to. Despite the fact that I'm a vegan, the vegetarians in my family, including the Little One, can go through two gallons a week. For a while, we had plenty of plastic going into our recycle bin, which made me frown. Then, a friend mentioned that a Marin County dairy farm sold milk in glass containers! Not only that, it had a lovely cream that rose to the top. You buy the milk in a half-gallon glass bottle with a hefty $1.50 deposit, which you get back when you return the bottle. It comes in whole, 2%, and fat-free. It's organic, pasteurized but not ultra-pasteurized, local, humane, and sustainable. Win-win.

But DH didn't take to it at first - after the cream was removed, too watery, he said. Too runny. Not nice. I bought the Little One whole milk in the bottle, and we stuck with a gallon of regular 2% organic milk in plastic bottles. This went on for a while, until I could take it no more. When LO was ready for 2%, I started buying four bottles of glass milk at my local grocery store and we've never looked back. DH likes it now, even the cream at the top sometimes, which I let LO lick from the spoon, serve on bread or crackers, or (usually) save up in the freezer to melt and clarify later as ghee, which keeps much longer.

You can get milk from Straus Family Creamery at Whole Foods or other natural groceries, or even get it home-delivered by the BayAreaMilkman. They make whole, 2%, and skim, and sell half-gallons, quarts, plus ice cream, yogurt and butter.

Ok, now on to part two, which involves a snack recipe and I haven't posted a recipe in a while, have I? Today we were looking for a snack. The bread is there, but we hate to dip into that if it's not a meal, and all out of crackers and cookies, I was looking for something crunchy but light and salty. A dig through the pantry turned up an unopened packet of seaweed or nori, waiting for the day I might make sushi again (I think the last time was in the 90s). I remembered my last Trader Joe's flyer - toasted seaweed with sea salt in a package for $1. Good deal, but not organic, and packaged, after all. I improvised, toasting the nori on the gas flame, and adding a sprinkle of gomaisho, with a drizzle of sesame oil. Light, airy, satisfying, addictive.

Toasted Nori

5 sheets nori or seaweed (pref. organic)
1-2 Tbsp sesame oil (vegetable ok, optional)
2-3 Tbsp gomaisho* or 1-2tsp sea salt
1/2-1 tsp red pepper flakes (optional)

Turn your electric or gas flame to the lowest setting. Hold the nori with tongs and lightly pass over the flame until it changes color. Be careful not to over-heat because nori burns easily. Let cool, then cut into strips and then rectangles about a 1/2 inch by 1 inch with scissors or kitchen shears (you can save any dust to sprinkle on rice).  Drizzle the pieces with oil, and sprinkle on gomaisho or salt and red pepper flakes, if using. Toss well and store in an airtight container.

*gomaisho is a Japanese condiment. From Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone: Toast 1/3 cup sesame seeds (black or white or a mix) until it starts to change color. Toss with 1 tsp salt. Store in the fridge and use on nori or mixed with rice, or even on oatmeal when you don't want sweetness.

Monday, March 21, 2011

JOT #5: Wheat

Few things are as ubiquitous these days as wheat (ask anyone who's allergic!). It's in bread, rolls, pasta, pita, tortillas, cake, cookies, crackers - pretty much anything that's a starchy carb staple, aside from rice and corn (and don't bet there's no wheat in there, either...). Well, if I was going to go local, I'd have to find some local wheat flour.

Imagine my surprise when my CSA farm, Full Belly, offered wheat flour as a special order! Turns out they've been growing ancient varieties of wheat called Sonora (a soft white winter wheat) and Federation (a less glutinous wheat good for pastries) and selling the flour. The history goes way back - before the time of Columbus, Europeans brought Sonora wheat over, and Native Americans. California used to be a major exporter of wheat before the days of "white flour," and Sonora and Federation wheat were hardy, disease-resistant wheats that didn't spoil when they traveled.

All that went away when enriching and refining of flour was developed, and all-purpose, bleached, oil-removed flour could travel across the world and be stored indefinitely without going bad. The farmers around here are helping turn that around - bringing back the protein and minerals to wheat, giving us organic, whole grains to cook with.

Full Belly sells wheat berries by the pound, Sonora, Federation, and a mix of the two in 10 lb bags. You can also get wheat from Eatwell Farm if you live in the east bay or San Francisco. Pie Ranch also sells whole wheat flour.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

JOT #4: A vegetable garden

A couple of years ago, my husband and I, eying the beautiful produce of our neighbors across the street, decided to put in a vegetable bed. We scoured salvage shops for redwood and had someone put together a 6 by 4 little box, which we completed with organic potting soil and compost from our backyard.

What went in? Oh, a random mix: three tomato plants, an eggplant seedling, and some bell and spicy peppers. We already had a drip irrigation system in place, thanks to the people who lived here before, so we just watched in awe as blooms appeared and fell, and were replaced by plump green tomatoes, shriveled peppers, and long chilies. Many of them made it to our table long before they reddened (fried green tomatoes were the first - sliced thick, and battered in cornflour and soymilk, dipped in breadcrumbs, and pan-fried until crisp. They were delicious on bread...), and we proudly announced that we had become successful gardeners.

But then, the eggplant never showed up. It bloomed, but the bloom withered and died. Someone told us it lacked calcium, another said it needed a mate, another it was overwatered. Whatever it was, it just stayed there, green and hardy, but never fruiting. We were upset and disappointed - had we been cheated at the nursery? Did we do something wrong? How we hated that plant - taunting us every day from the middle of the bed. Somehow it lasted through the winter, a veteran in the bed when baby tomato plants came and newbies like strawberries and broccoli made it to our yard. Eventually it faded away, never fruitful, and it was replaced by a younger, hardier plant that gave us a few chubby eggplants to saute.

We definitely have among the blacker thumbs, though we've been committed to staying away from fertilizers and additives (aside from compost), and have managed to be content with whatever we do get, whether it's a few succulent strawberries or just one hard-earned carrot. When the morsels of those delicacies make it to our mouths, we savor them, knowing it's our own sweat that we're eating.

We've learned one thing, though: gardening is like taking care of a child. You have to tend and nurture, and it brings you worry and fear, but it's an unconditional kind of love. You pour your blood and sweat and tears into it, never again have clean fingernails, and can't step out into the yard without a quick peek. There - a shoot. Oh look, another leaf, or - gasp! - a bite! a hole! a pest!. You wait and hope your tending brings forth a little something, but you are patient, and you won't hate it anymore if it doesn't bear fruit. But when it does, you cradle it like a baby, take a photo, display it on the counter - until it starts to shrivel and you can't bear to watch. Then you cut it, ripe and fresh, and everyone gets a tiny piece, which they taste like it's fine wine, head thrown back, eyes closed. Divine.

Oh yeah, if you're looking to start a garden, try a lovely, simple book from the library or a website like this. Better yet, ask a neighbor who has one!

Friday, March 18, 2011

JOT #3: Community supported agriculture

Way back when, I lived in the city. We never went to the farmer's market, but craved organic veggies. Then a guy left a flyer one day advertising a box fully of organic fruits and veggies delivered to your door weekly or every two weeks for $20. Since then, I've been hooked.

Community supported agriculture refers to a system in which a farm or group of farms/produce-providers get together and divide their harvest among people interested in receiving their produce and supporting their farm. In essence, it's like investing in a share of the farm, with the difference that you get vegetables and fruit instead of stock certificates. You support the work of these small farmers, and they box up what they harvest and divide among the investors.

In practice, it's fun. You pay either up front, or installments, or even by the box or week or month. You choose your share - a half box, full box, weekly, biweekly, etc. Then you pick up the box at the farmer's market, a dedicated location like someone's house or store, or pay a bit extra to have it delivered home. Some CSAs allow you to even choose to exclude certain produce or switch them out for something you do like. Others offer only-fruit boxes, salad boxes, veggie boxes. Some even offer milk and meat.

I have been getting mine ove rhte winter, and whenever I want a box, from Full Belly Farm (130 miles), which also offers special order items for its CSA customers (dried peaches, anyone?), and for the summer or when I'm not traveling, I use Hidden Villa, since it's really close (less travel = less pollution/energy-expended) and less expensive as well. I love the surprise of what is coming next week - and the challenge of cooking something with a new ingredient you've never seen before. I like knowing that this will be the last week of kale and that I will likely be getting zucchini for the next month in abundance. I like the little newsletters that offer new recipes and tell me what's happening at the farm, and the invitations to farm events for CSA members.

You can find out more about CSAs and find a CSA you like by going to Local Harvest.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

JOT #2: The farmer's market

Continuing the theme of going local, one of my favorite places is the farmer's market. We're lucky around here to have several:

Plus others in surrounding towns and cities. What I love about them? Shopping for local food with local ambience. There are plenty of options in the organic category, and most everyone else is pesticide-free (they'll tell you why they haven't yet been certified organic). I always know what's in season, simply because it's available (the rarities at the market are often suspect)! In addition to produce, you can get bread and baked goods, chocolate, nuts, juice, dips and spreads, healthy snacks, flowers and plants, cheese, olive oil, tofu and soymilk, jewelry, popcorn or corn on the cob, and so much more. The the street is blocked off to traffic so kids are safe, and they can happily munch fruit or freebies while you shop. There's music, balloon artists, and enough free samples to make you hungry for lunch right there (also available, with seating, and yummy).  It's a place to find out about local politics as well, because you'll likely be asked to sign a petition. You can ask where the farm is so you can shop as locally as you want, and the farmer may tell you other things you didn't know about the local geography, or farming in general. You can expand your cooking repertoire, because you'll meet someone who can tell you what you can do with rhubarb besides make pie, or what that strange-looking leathery leafy green is (dino kale). You can bargain a good deal on a box of tomatoes to freeze for the winter, and stand around trying eight flavors of sorbet one by one without getting the boot. Oh! And they only take cash, to help you stay on budget.

No wonder I love the farmer's market. You can find one near you at Local Harvest.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Just one thing

I'm taking some new turns, and one of them is to try to be more local and together and do one thing at a time. It's a tough task. However, along those lines, I'm aiming to do Just One Thing (JOT, for short) and I hope this will be the first of many, in lieu of eco-tips, and you can actually read about what I do, if you're at all inclined.

In searching for things local, I am starting with household staples. As a vegetarian family that eats a ton of (South) Indian food, we depend on rice. It's our go-to staple, and our rice cooker is like a member of the family. After years of having eating fragrant white Jasmine rice from Thailand, and various varieties of aged Indian rice, we tried brown rice from somewhere. Having tackled that switch, we knew we eventually had to go local. But how to find something that cooks up soft and small, but neither overly mushy nor tough, as suited to the South Asian palate?

The solution: Lundberg Farms. At 188 miles from my home, it's on the far edge of local, but they are in the business of making rice, and they sell a variety of organic and eco-farmed varieties (the principles of which were championed and founded by Masanobu Fukuoka of One Straw Revolution fame). We have tried their brown basmati (slow to cook and a little tough, but nutty and flavorful), short-grain brown (a little faster, can occasionally get mushy, but softer than the basmati), and are about to try the white jasmine (I'm excited to try the flavor).

While I'd love rice that's grown even closer, I'm happy with this. I order it in the large 25lb bags (that lasts us about 6 months), and even with shipping, it's a price that's better than the store.