Thursday, December 31, 2009

first year garden retrospective

Here are my retrospective notes on the first year of gardening. I'll keep it updated as more things occur to me.

Started way too late this year. This was a significant factor.

The drip irrigation system was a huge time saver and worked well with this quick-drying soil mix. However, it's also very easy to overwater. Need to be sure that the right drippers are used and properly dialed in.

Swiss chard in the greenhouse did very well. Five per square is a little tight but works. Even after our days-long hard freeze, which knocked down most of the stalks, it came right back and started producing new growth.

The low bird netting fence around the outdoor beds kept squirrels out. It's fragile, though. I saw some other types of net fencing at Home Depot that would work better.

Nylon net trellises worked great for vertical support of tomatoes and cucumbers.

The strawberry box moved into the greenhouse did pretty well compared to the box that stayed outside. Didn't get much production from these scrawny plants, though.

Transplanted basil did fine in the greenhouse.

Potato vine growth in the boxes was vigorous but the yield was good only near the bottom of the boxes, despite using late-harvest varieties. Were they overplanted? Should I have covered the vines to a greater or lesser degree as they grew? I think there's conflicting information about this technique. Need to do more research.

There were some rotten potatoes, probably due to overwatering and poor drainage beneath the boxes.

Dill is an aphid magnet. I suspect it may have kept aphids off some of the nearly plants. Can this be exploited?

Some of the hops had a lot more aphids than others. Why?

I started out pruning tomatoes to a single main stalk, but got out of the habit. At the end of August the cherry and Roma grape vines went berserk, especially after I got the irrigation system installed. I think I would have had better and earlier yield if I'd managed this carefully.

Lots of blossom end rot on tomatoes, particularly the Roma grapes. I think this improved once I fertilized but it was a little late.

Lots of blossom end rot on zucchini. It was much worse on one vine than another, and nearly total on the yellow zucchini.

Not have a single acorn squash grew beyond the size of a golf ball before falling off. Is this a nutrition problem?

Very heavy blossoming and initial fruiting on the lemon cucumbers, particularly the one I started in the greenhouse, but the vast majority fell off. Do these need hand pollination indoors? Is this a nutrition problem?

Some of the bell peppers, both indoors and out, produced a lot of flowers and small fruits that fell off. Do these need hand pollination indoors? Is this a nutrition problem?

Japanese eggplants kept falling off. I think fertilization fixed this.

Japanese eggplants were attacked by sow bugs or pill bugs.

Strawberries were attacked by sow bugs or pill bugs. Need to try to get them off the ground. Maybe use metal legs beneath the boxes?

Squirrels constantly harassed the strawberries and dug in the beds until I fenced them.

Beds to the west of the greenhouse do not get much sun, partly due to the bedroom balcony.

By the time of winter solstice the greenhouse is getting very little sun because of the house behind us. Permanent glazing should keep it pretty bright, though.

Very low pea production. Not only were they started late, I think they were way too sparsely planted. They did not grow vigorously even out front where they had a lot of sun, so I think there was a nutrition problem too.

Heavy and tall plants like peppers and dill tend to fall over in this loose soil mix.

Very high failure rate for strawberries from Irish Eyes.

Many of the blueberries and grapes Raintree sent were disappointing.

Radishes bolted immediately. We had very hot weather at the time.

Planted carrots much too heavily. They all seemed to germinate and it's hard to thin such a forest.

Oregano died quickly in the greenhouse. May have overwatered.

Looks like curly parsley can grow all winter in the greenhouse.

Leeks and green onions took a very long time to sprout in the greenhouse and never grew well.

I did not do a good job of thinning in general. In cases where I failed to thin beets they did not grow well. Same with lettuce mixes. Need to consistently use Mel's method of just snipping with scissors.

Basil started from seed in the greenhouse either never sprouted or took forever to grow.

It's pretty hard to train squash vines to climb the nylon netting, particularly against a wall.

Neither one of the Fuggle hop rhizomes sprouted. Lame.

I think the geraniums inside the greenhouse would have kept going for a long time if I'd continued watering. One still looks halfway decent, in fact.

Overwatering in the greenhouse led to a great deal of condensation, which dramatically affects light transmission. Humidity was probably much higher than it should have been on a lot of occasions. By the time the weather cooled I had serious mold problems, particularly on the tomatoes.

Despite the soccer net mounted in front of the grape arbor the grapes really took a beating. Think about putting up something larger.

Cilantro did not do well in the greenhouse. Not sure why; seems like the right conditions.

Parsleys planted from seed did not flourish in the greenhouse.

The collard greens and zucchini had quite a bit of powdery mildew.

Growing greens in the side bed beneath evergreens is problematic because of the sap that drips or mists from above. They either need to be covered or grown elsewhere.

The attempt to grow collards inverted in hanging planters was a failure. They want desperately to turn upward and grow right back where they came from. I think for anything to work this way it has to hang heavily.

Green beans never germinated. I think we had heavy rains after I planted them. Would have been better to transplant.

Had very mixed results with peppers, both indoors and out. Some were productive, some died. I think soil temperature is a big issue for getting peppers established.

Many of the Tall Telegraph cucumbers in the greenhouse fell off while small. Why?

Bok choi never grew large before bolting, both indoors and out.

The hops didn't produce anywhere near enough to be useful this first year, but hopefully they have built good root systems.

Potted mint in the greenhouse does well. Leaves stay compact. It's fairly dormant but still green at the end of December.

Things to research:
  • Potato box methods.
  • Companion plantings.
  • Do peppers need hand pollination in the greenhouse?
  • Do cucumbers need hand pollination in the greenhouse?
  • Gardening When It Counts has a lot of information on compost quality. Read it.
  • Growing oregano, cilantro, flat leaf parsley in the greenhouse.
  • ...
Things to do and do differently:
  • Try Coleman's idea (Four Season Harvest) of a twice-tempered climate.
  • Set up drip irrigation for hanging baskets.
  • Do some soil testing and proper fertilization. I don't think the Mel's Mix in fact had nearly everything that some of the plants wanted.
  • Don't buy strawberries from that Irish Eyes place again. Very high failure rate.
  • Think twice about buying by mail, generally, even when it's cheaper. Would have done better to pay a little more at Sky or Fred Meyer.
  • Choose plants that require less light for the beds west of the greenhouse.
  • Pay more attention to plant height and light requirements otherwise unwanted shading occurs.
  • The tomatoes in the center of the greenhouse took up a lot of space. Maybe use only the beds at the back? That's where the vines can use the most vertical space, too.
  • Manage water in the greenhouse more carefully.
  • Convert to permanent greenhouse glazing.
  • Use more vertical space in the greenhouse with hanging baskets.
  • Try diluted milk as a remedy for powdery mildew. See articles at,, and
  • Cut the butterfly bush back hard to let more light into the side bed.
  • Need to do a lot of indoor planting for transplantation this year. Think about whether to try this in the greenhouse with some supplemental heat.
  • Pay closer attention to temperature requirements when putting plants outdoors. Just because they are available at the nursery doesn't mean they should go in the ground.
  • Need to do a much better job of incremental planting so that crops are available continuously. Examples are radishes, carrots, lettuce.
  • Try a zig-zag climbing arrangement for the hops like Andy did on his garage.
  • ...

Saturday, December 26, 2009

no-knead cranberry-walnut bread

I used the Cooks Illustrated no-knead bread 2.0 recipe with the cranberry-pecan variant, substituting walnuts for pecans and adding a tablespoon of wheat gluten. The vinegar was a 7.0% white wine vinegar and the beer was my light ale. I used the bottom of the bottle thinking I might pick up some additional yeastiness.

The starter was in the bowl for about 16 hours, then spent the night in the refrigerator. I kneaded it while cold and then it rose for a few hours.

Turned out fine, and it's very pretty inside.

It seems a touch dry to me and I think I'd increase the cranberries and decrease the nuts next time. It makes very good toast.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

excellent no-knead olive rosemary bread

I thought an olive rosemary bread would be nice for Christmas Eve so I looked back over some previous efforts. (Hey, a year into this blogging business and it gratifying to find that it's as helpful a reference as I'd hoped.)

This almost no-knead loaf using the Cooks Illustrated method was great aside from the flattish shape. I went with something close to it, but drier in keeping with the original CI recipe:
  • 3 cups all purpose flour less 3 tablespoons
  • 3 tablespoons wheat gluten
  • 1.5 teaspoons salt
  • rounded 1/4 teaspoon rapid rise yeast
  • 1 cup plus 1 tablespoon water
  • 1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon goldenflower ale (homemade)
  • 2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar (homemade)
  • 1/2 cup chopped kalamata olives
  • 1 tablespoon dried rosemary, lightly crushed
Mixed this into a shaggy ball and covered at 13:00. Kneaded for 30 seconds at 8:30 the next morning, formed into a loaf, and put it onto parchment paper in a small skillet. It was easy to work and very resilient. Looked promising, though I should have used more flour to get a smoother exterior and permit more symmetric shaping. I was thinking that this one would be, shall we say, rustic.

It rose well over the next two hours, then went into the covered dutch oven preheated on the bottom rack to 500 degrees. Lowered to 425 and baked for 30 minutes covered and 20 uncovered to 206 degrees internal.

Holy guacamole señors y señoritas, it's gorgeous. I can see that the technique of forming the loaf by pulling the dough from several directions into the middle and then using that seam as the base worked perfectly. That has been too difficult to do with other no-knead doughs. Letting it rise in a smaller skillet also worked well. And it bounced or sprang or whatever you call it in the oven better than any other bread I've baked.

Now, two hours of sweet torment listening to it softly crackle into coolness.


It's superb. This is the closest thing to perfection to ever come out of my oven. The crust is spectacularly flaky and crisp, the crumb is chewy and stretchy and soft, and the flavor is heavenly. I'm about to dislocate one shoulder patting myself on the back and the other lunging for another piece.

I can tell that I used dried rosemary. There's no textural problem, but the flavor is clearly that of the dried herb. I'll use fresh next time. I wouldn't mind more olives, either.

Other than that I don't know how it could be any better. Well, I suppose it could be, but I am totally satisfied with this outcome. Outstanding ROI. I'll probably make another.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

meat grades and quality at various stores

While contemplating my Christmas dinner menu and looking at ad sheets I began wondering about quality differences between the beef sold under various store brands.

There's a thread at Chowhound in which someone states that Safeway as a corporation sells USDA Select, not Choice, and that the Rancher's Reserve label is ungraded but falls between Select and Choice. According to the Safeway site, "With Rancher's Reserve, you can feel confident you're serving the most premium, tender beef available anywhere". Here's an article in BEEF Magazine about the patented tenderness measurement and intervention processes used. It's quite interesting and makes a pretty convincing case for why you can indeed rely on this brand for tenderness. However, I'm not at all sure that the focus group results indicating tenderness to be the most important aspect of beef-eating satisfaction are representative of my views. If that electro-stimulated and mechanically-stretched strip steak is tender but lacks enough intramuscular fat to be juicy and flavorful, I'm not going to be satisfied. The USDA quality grading system may be unreliable with respect to tenderness but I suspect it's better for assuring flavor.

TOP Food & Drug carries the Five Star brand. The TOP web site says "Our USDA Choice Natural beef is tender, flavorful, and mouth-wateringly juicy. It is natural with no additives and skillfully crafted by our meat experts". I can't find anything else about it online. I haven't purchased much beef there.

QFC sells the Certified Angus Beef brand. It does not appear to be USDA graded but here's an explanation of where the brand fits in to the USDA scheme and the additional quality specifications they use. It looks like they use their own Prime label. I very rarely shop at QFC and don't think I've ever purchased it.

Costco carries USDA Choice at a minimum, and some Prime. I've generally been pleased with the Choice grade New York strips and ribeyes. Filet mignon and sirloin have been kind of hit-or-miss for me.

Whatever Fred Meyer sells is generally pretty crummy. I discover this anew every time I stupidly buy a steak there. I see that the "tender, juicy and oh, so savory" rib eye roast they are advertising is USDA Select. Mmm.

Central Market has a real butcher shop in the store. I haven't purchased much meat there. It looks like one of their brands is Country Natural Beef. This is an Oregon cooperative that, from the web site, appears to not suffer from some of the "natural" and "organic" nonsense described in The Omnivore's Dilemma.

I should undertake a more deliberate study of the options. I'm pretty pleased with Costco but shopping there is generally far too inconvenient for me to just run out and pick something up for dinner.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

second rye sourdough bread

I pulled the rye sourdough starter out of the refrigerator yesterday and fed it. Today I tried another rye sourdough recipe, at It uses yeast as well as sourdough, at least in the less-than-a-day variant.

It starts with a cup of starter, a cup and a half of rye flour, and a cup of water. This can be used immediately or allowed to do its thing and develop some sourness. I let it stand for six hours. It was lively and the volume increased significantly, but it wasn't particularly sour.

A cup of whole wheat flour, a cup and three fourths of all-purpose flour, salt, sugar, caraway seeds, and proofed yeast go in next. I kneaded for nine minutes. This dough was quite manageable; far less sticky and easier to handle than the previous attempt. As instructed, I added flour whenever it felt like it was reaching the point of adherence to something other than itself.

It rose for an hour and a half. I then punched it down, lightly kneaded, let it rise for another half hour.

This is the first time I've used the spray technique. For the first nine minutes at 425 degrees I sprayed every three minutes. It then spent another 25 minutes at 400.

Looked great! It rested for about half an hour while we had dinner. It was still warm, but irresistible. The boys and I sampled it.

Very nice, though not sour at all. In fact, I thought it had a faint sweetness from the whole wheat. Pillowy soft crumb, thin but crispy crust, and good rye and caraway flavors. I think this recipe is a winner. Next time I think I'll give the chef a good 24 hours and see if I can get some sourness.

2009-12-21 update: It's holding up really well. Made great sandwiches yesterday. Very nice with gruyere today.

Friday, December 18, 2009

stovetop versus hot air roasting test 1

I'm finally getting around to doing some controlled tests between hot air coffee roasting and stovetop popper roasting. For this test I used Sweet Maria's Moka Kadir blend.

Stovetop roasting was outdoors at about 50 degrees, high humidity, no wind. Hot air using the Poppery II was indoors at about 68 degrees. Beans started at room temperature in both cases.

I roasted 10 ounces in the stovtop roaster, ending up with 8.43 ounces. Temperature was 550+ at bean drop. I ran it hotter than usual, staying above 350 for the duration and climbing to around 450 at the end. It came out at 4:20 with heavy smoke and some beans well into second crack. This was a fast and uneven roast.

I roasted 5 ounces in the hot air popper, ending up with 4.2 ounces. I preheated the popper for a few minutes and agitated the beans for the first few minutes as well. By three minute it was fluidizing unassisted, with a few already very dark and others barely colored. It came out at 8:00 with moderate smoke, when I judged the color to be comparable. It was even, as usual for hot air.

The closeness of the final (proportionate) weights may be a good indicator of the average darkness being nearly identical.

Toss-cooled both outdoors. There's a nonlinear relationship between mass and cooling time; the smaller batch takes perhaps one fourth as long. I don't have a way to measure the internal bean temperature so don't know whether that's also a factor.

Stovetop results:

Hot air results:

Tasted after resting for a day, pulling single shots. The grind was a little fine (30+ seconds). The hot air beans were a touch slower.

The stovetop-roasted coffee's initial moderate acidity mellows into sweetness, some fruit. Can detect both the very dark and bright tones, probably due to variability in bean doneness. It has both a slightly underdone and a slightly overdone quality, but it's quite good. I think it will be better in a day but it's totally drinkable.

The air-roasted coffee produced much more crema and the espresso had a much stronger coffee aroma. The acidity stays on the tongue considerably longer, with the sweetness blending into it. There is less complexity in the flavors and it's just not as lively. More body. Also good, but I think I slightly prefer the stovetop variant.

For the next test I should slow down the stovetop roast and try to reduce the variability in darkness. This can be done by starting at a lower initial temperature, running at a lower gas setting, or using more beans. Weather is a factor, too. While my opinion is that some variation is actually desirable, being responsible for the more interesting flavors, a better comparison can be made if it is limited.

Overall, a pretty successful test. I'll happily drink both of these roasts straight, with milk, and as Americano.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

hard raspberry-pomegranate-apple cider, part 3

The raspberry-pomegranate-apple cider, bottled back in November, is really good. It has clarified beautifully, is nicely carbonated, and has lost its yeastiness. The flavors are well balanced. I didn't take any gravity measurements so I don't know the ABV but it has a surprising kick. I'd say it's in the 6% to 7% range.

I don't know that I'd be able to identify the non-apple fruit flavors without knowing the ingredients, but it definitely has a detectable touch of something different.

I should make something like this again. A puree of a couple of whole pomegranates per gallon of apple cider would probably be sufficient to dramatically affect both color and flavor.

I bottled this in the clear EZ-cap bottles that did not seal well when used for a previous ale. That must have been a usage error, as I've not had any trouble since then.

book wish list

This reference entry tracks the set of cooking, roasting, and brewing related books I'm interested in acquiring at any given time.

Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning: Traditional Techniques Using Salt, Oil, Sugar, Alcohol, Vinegar, Drying, Cold Storage, and Lactic Fermentation

Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners

Root Cellaring: Natural Cold Storage of Fruits and Vegetables

The Encyclopedia of Country Living: An Old Fashioned Recipe Book

Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking

The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs

The Homebrewer's Garden: How to Easily Grow, Prepare, and Use Your Own Hops, Malts, Brewing Herbs

Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink

Roast Chicken And Other Stories

Kitchen Mysteries: Revealing the Science of Cooking

Molecular Gastronomy: Exploring the Science of Flavor

Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking

Pure Flavor: 125 Fresh All-American Recipes from the Pacific Northwest

Cracking the Coconut: Classic Thai Home Cooking

I'm Just Here for More Food

Healthy Bread in Just Five Minutes a Day

The Complete Chile Pepper Book

Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition, and Craft of Live-Culture Foods

first rye sourdough a whacking great failure

Wanting to do something else with the home-grown rye sourdough starter I made for the kvas, I turned to this recipe for sourdough rye bread. Man, what a train wreck. I probably erred in not using bread flour, but I had none on hand.

The dough was unbelievably sticky. It was like trying to knead Liquid Nails. I don't think it reached the desired texture but I just couldn't spend more time on it. It remained kind of grainy. Cleaning my hands and the cutting board took nearly as long as kneading. I'm not sure whether I should have just kept plowing flour into it to achieve something workable.

It rose moderately, and for about six hours overall. However, because of the very slack dough the small loaves did not develop much height, and when I slashed them they instantly deflated, leaving me with two football-shaped hamburger buns. I baked on a hollow cookie sheet with corn meal rather than oil.

The crust was rough and decidedly ugly.

I figured I might as well try it hot, so I did. The strong rye and caraway flavors were pretty good, actually. It's about like a rye crisp cracker in flavor, with that kind of crackle when biting the crust, and a soft interior that combines nicely with the crunchiness. It is not terribly dense, defying my expectations for loaves that are less than two inches in height. There's no stretchiness to the crumb. It has no sourness when warm. It made really good toast the next morning, dressed with butter and peach jam. Still no sourness, though. I think the starter may be too young.

I guess it's tasty enough, aside from the aesthetics and awkward dimensions, that I'd try it again. If the dough can be made more manageable and the shape corrected then doubling or tripling the recipe might be worthwhile.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

book list

This reference entry will be maintained as a list of cooking, roasting, brewing, and general gastronomy books that I've either read or use as references. This initial partial post is so I can get it linked for future updating.


On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee is the cook's indispensable reference for food science. This is the 2004 update to the original 1984 edition. It describes the history and nature of all types of foods, as well as the transformation of those raw materials into finished products ranging from cheeses to breads to sauces to fermented drinks. It contains a chemistry primer.

I have not yet read it completely. It's a good random access book and every page delivers fascinating reading.

The Curious Cook: More Kitchen Science and Lore by Harold McGee...

The Barbecue Bible by Steven Raichlen offers BBQ techniques and recipes from around the world. It's not the only BBQ book you might want, but if you were limited to one this might be it. It is well organized and has the excellent feature of calling out in obvious fashion the prep time. I often find that I draw ideas from various regional recipes and end up with a fusion of some kind.

I'm Just Here for the Food: Food + Heat = Cooking by Alton Brown was my introduction to cooking as a science. As anyone who has seen Good Eats knows, Alton is entertaining and the book is loaded with techniques, food science, and some decent recipes. It's pretty poorly edited, though. Certainly a gateway to the works of McGee, whose works are much more technical but still quite accessible.

The New Best Recipe Cookbook from Cooks Illustrated magazine is an immense collection of recipes developed in the Cooks Illustrated test kitchens. It also includes much of the explanatory content that is found in the magazine.

Last Thanksgiving I got excellent results with the large turkey roasting technique (but used an Alton Brown brine rather than a Butterball). The discussion of how to make a good stuffing was also useful, and I liked the apple, onion, and bacon variation (though I overcooked mine).

The Gourmet Cookbook edited by Ruth Reichl is a huge collection of recipes from the late great Gourmet magazine. I've had good results. I do have a major usability complaint in that all of the titles are in a low-contrast shade of yellow that is very difficult to see.

French Cooking in Ten Minutes: Adapting to the Rhythm of Modern Life by Edouard de Pomiane is a fantastic little book. I've written a bit more about it here.

The Short-Cut Cook by Jacques Pepin has many elegant recipes that can be prepared quite quickly. The cold cucumber yogurt soup is one of my favorites. I've never been disappointed by a recipe in this book. (The Amazon link goes to a newer edition than mine.)


Home Coffee Roasting by Kenneth Davids is a good introduction to roasting. It covers roast styles, bean varieties, equipment, methods, and the like. It provides a sufficiently detailed look at the alternatives for home roasting that one can readily decide which to pursue. However, one then quickly discovers that there is much more to learn about that particular method than was exposed in the text, and that the author's experiences with a particular method may not be representative.


How To Brew: Everything You Need to Know to Brew Beer Right the First Time by John J Palmer was my first brewing book. I purchased it after reading online the writings that eventually grew to become this text. I think it is very good. It has a friendly organization that gets you started brewing right away, then in subsequent chapters delves into quite a bit of science and technique. I turn to it frequently as a reference. I have not tried any of the recipes.

general gastronomy

The Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten is one of the most entertaining books I've ever read. Steingarten is so funny, clever, and tenacious that when he turns his attention to a gastronomical pursuit the results are both hilarious and tremendously educational. It's worth rereading any time.

The introduction, in which he describes his personal program for overcoming a large number of food aversions, is fascinating.

It Must Have Been Something I Ate by Jeffrey Steingarten is essentially a second volume of The Man Who Ate Everything. Brilliant.

Are You Really Going to Eat That?: Reflections of a Culinary Thrill Seeker by Robb Walsh is a selection of essays on food and culture from around the world. It is part travelogue, part natural history, and part cookbook. Fascinating stuff.

The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan is a slightly uneven look at foods derived from industrial corn, pastoral grass, and the forest. It drags in places, but the basic idea is interesting and Pollan is a good writer. I find his thinking and the depth of his fact checking suspect in a couple of places, but I appreciate his willingness to express uncertainty as well.

The role of industrial corn in the American (and, increasingly, global) diet is probably the most politically and scientifically charged section. The degree to which human and livestock food should be engineered is a question laden with ecological, societal, and nutritional controversy. Even without contemplating those issues, the picture Pollan paints of our huge food industry being built almost entirely on commodity corn is startling (and a little long).

The section on grass farming is really interesting. It's largely about a farmer in Virginia who operates on the principle that if you manage your pastures and other natural resources properly you can produce impressive yields of beef, chicken, pork, rabbit, eggs, and just about anything else organically and without the use of factory farming methods. It also explores "big organic" and the reality that most organic produce is now being produced using industrial-scale methods that may not violate some set of organic standards but definitely violate the ill-defined notions most people have about how their organic produce, milk, meat, and eggs were made and delivered.

Hunting, gathering, and the ethics of eating meat are addressed in the final section. This part of the book covers some interesting material but aside from the ethical questions doesn't offer as deep or relevant an exploration of food as the earlier pages.

Overall, definitely worth reading.

The Pedant in the Kitchen by Julian Barnes is a brief and amusing biography of "a late-onset cook" who in the kitchen is "an anxious pedant" rather than an inspired free spirit. "I adhere," he says, "to gas marks and cooking times. I trust instruments rather than myself. I doubt I shall ever test whether a chunk of meat is done by prodding it with my forefinger. The only liberty I take with a recipe is to increase the quantity of an ingredient of which I particularly approve. That this is not an infallible precept was confirmed by an epically filthy dish I once made involving mackerel, Martini and breadcrumbs: the guests were more drunk than sated."

It is very funny stuff, and an intriguing look into the mind of someone with whom I may share some pedantic tendencies, thought generally not in the kitchen. Still, in the case of Nigel Slater's recipes I could appreciate some of the author's frustration. His discussion of various cookbook authors and what he finds objectionable or sublime is wonderful, and introduced me to Edouard de Pomiane (see above).

His rants are drily comical. "Being a great cook is one thing; being a decent cookery writer is quite another, ... 'Artists should have their tongues cut out,' Matisse once said, and the same - if even more metaphorically - applies to many chefs."

The Unprejudiced Palate: Classic Thoughts on Food and the Good Life by Angelo Pellegrini describes the author's childhood in Italy, his emigration to the United States, and his thoughts on growing, preparing, and eating food. Pellegrini settled in Seattle and was an English professor at the University of Washington. As he died in 1991 the majority of his time in this country was during what I suppose was the low ebb of American culinary culture. The love and respect for wholesome and simple food that was his heritage and avocation was desperately out of place in space and time. His writing is a reminder of how fortunate I am to have had my values develop in the context of home-grown and healthy food as a child, the abundant resources of the Pacific Northwest, and this period of culinary reawakening.

The Amazon link is to a newer edition. Mine has a great afterword by M.F.K. Fisher.

Gastronaut: Adventures in Food for the Romantic, the Foolhardy, and the Brave by Stefan Gates...

french cooking in ten minutes

Edouard de Pomiane and his 1930 book French Cooking in Ten Minutes OR Adapting to the Rhythm of Modern Life are mentioned by Julian Barnes in The Pedant in the Kitchen. It's discussed at some length, actually, and sounded delightful to me. I have now read the translation by Philip and Mary Hyman and have been trying some recipes. It is indeed a wonderful little book.

Pomiane was an eminent medical doctor and researcher at the Pasteur Institute, not a professional chef. He was very much a food scientist, though, referring to this field as gastrotechnology. He was a renowned cooking lecturer, teacher, and radio host. He wrote twenty-two books on the art. Judging from this brief volume he was as entertaining as he was concise, and as philosophical as he was scientific.

And it's not just a collection of ten minute dishes. He has entire multi-course luncheon and dinner menus that can be prepared in ten minutes or so by a well-organized cook. (Of course he does not include the time it takes to boil water or heat oil, and allows for one dish to be finishing while its predecessor is being consumed.)

Here's how it begins:
I dedicate this book to Madame X, asking for ten minutes of her kind attention.

Barnes mentions Tomato Soup as a dish that failed for him. It's the first one I tried. This is my paraphrase:
bring two cups of water to a boil
stir in a heaping tablespoon of tomato paste
stir in two tablespoons of finely ground semolina
salt the soup
boil for six minutes
stir in four tablespoons of heavy cream
I also added a sprinkle of tarragon. I didn't have any semolina so I ground couscous made of durum wheat. I suspect it wasn't ground finely enough, as the soup had the distinct texture of very small couscous. However, it was not an objectionable texture, it stayed in suspension, and the flavor was just fine. Just as good as any canned tomato soup I've ever had, really, and it probably cost ten cents!

I've also made the Alsatian Dumplings and Whiting Boiled in Court Bouillon. Rather than whiting fish I used striped pangasius fillets. The court bouillon was made with a bay leaf, white vinegar, curry power, ground nutmeg, black pepper, and salt. Topped with lemon butter and bread crumbs the fish was excellent. The boys loved the dumplings, which I finished with just butter, salt, and pepper.

This book is a treasure trove of simple recipes and efficient methods. Great fun.

first homemade kvas, part 1

For my first kvas I used the recipe that calls for rye sourdough starter that I found at
Here is a simple recipe for kvas in every way except time (preparation takes at least 5 days, though you don't have to be paying attention the whole time) but I imagine it will be very good. My wife just got a great cookbook called "Bread Matters" and I noticed the kvas recipe in it just a few days ago.

The (five) days before, prepare a rye production sourdough (recipe below).

450 grams rye bread
4 1/2 litres water
300 grams molasses
150 grams rye production sourdough
2 raisins per bottle

Cut the bread into small pieces and dry them out thoroughly, either in a warm place or in a low oven. Put them in a bucket of at least 5 litres capacity. Boil the water and pour in over the bread. Cover and leave until the temperature has dropped to about 35 degrees. Pour the mixture through a fine sieve into another bucket. Press the crumbly sludge very gently to release the last of the liquid, but do not squeeze it hard or too much sediment will fall in. Add the molasses to the warm liquid and mix thoroughly. Then mix in the rye sourdough and leave it in a warm place for twelve hours. In the morning, strain and pour into sterilized bottles, adding the two raisins per bottle. Seal the bottles and leave them in a cool place.

If after two days, the bottles have not carbonated, give them a shake and move them to a warm place to carbonate. Drink chilled, or use as the liquid for making soup such as borshch.

In order to make rye production sourdough, you first have to make rye sourdough starter.

To make a rye sourdough starter, start by mixing together 25 grams of rye flour and 50 grams of warm water; keep these in a warm place. The next day, add another 25 grams of rye flour and 50 grams of warm water. Again on day three, and again on day four; same proportions. Leave the mixture for one more day; now you have your rye sourdough starter.

Now, take 50 grams of the starter. Add 150 grams rye flour and 300 grams water. Mix together to form a sloppy mixture and leave for 12-24 hours. Now you have your rye production sourdough.

I started with 485 grams of fresh bread.

The bread dried to 371g. Broken open it was not really fully dry inside, but close. I failed to break it into small pieces to start with.

I combined the boiling water and bread and five hours later poured, strained, and added the molasses and starter.

The water tastes just like liquid rye bread. With molasses, the flavor is just what you'd expect.

The rye sourdough starter tastes startlingly like a Belgian ale! It's crazy!

I did not do anything to avoid aeration and didn't take any sanitization steps up to this point.

The next day I bottled, ending up with three full Martinelli's bottles (25 ounces, I think), plus maybe eight ounces of dregs. I cleaned and sanitized the bottles, funnel, and filter, but did not use any gear to prevent aeration during pouring.

It had certainly fermented and was quite lively on the tongue. The molasses is the predominant flavor and it's rather sweet. I would try making this with a different adjunct, and unless it becomes dryer in the bottle I would use less.

About an inch of sediment settled in the bottles. Two days later, I opened one. Ooooooh. Aaaaaah. All but about three ounces blasted forth like foam from a fire hose. It was quite magnificent in a dancing about the sink trying to keep the walls and ceiling dry sort of way. Needless to say, what remained was murky. It wasn't all that different in flavor or carbonation from when it went into the bottle. The boys didn't really like it. I thought it was OK for sipping but it's not what I'd call a refreshing beverage.

About a week ago I bought a two liter bottle of homemade kvas at European Foods. The proprietor told me to exercise caution when opening it. It was quite explosive, all right. Even the third and fourth openings caused it to release mighty blasts of CO2 and completely stir up the sediment. Hmm.

Well, crud. I'm going to leave the other two bottles alone for a while and think about how to better extract their contents. Mayhap extreme cold would help. At the very least I'll have to capture it and if it's not drinkable use it as a soup base or something.

auriferous espresso in the Poppery II

I tried five ounces of Sweet Maria's Auriferous Espresso blend in the Poppery II. This was an amount that I thought would work well, based on the first attempt at four and the second attempt at six ounces.

I let the popper preheat for a few minutes, and gave it a shake now and then during the early going since it was not fluidizing. The beans in this blend are generally larger than the beans in Moka Kadir; perhaps that's a factor. At ten minutes I pulled the plug, with it very audibly in second crack. Color is even. Final weight was 4.13 ounces.

There was enough smoke to set off the alarm, even though I was running the fan on the range hood. That did not happen last time; I was surprised.

After a couple of days rest, I'm pretty pleased. It's a touch dark but I don't detect any other flaws. I think I'm ready (on a day with slightly less revolting weather) to do some head-to-head comparisons between the Poppery II and the stovetop popper.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

second use of Poppery II

The Poppery II does work better with more beans. The first attempt was with four ounces of Moka Kadir; the second was with six. In eight and a half minutes it produced a glossy dark roast with plenty of smoke and cracking. Final weight was 4.87 ounces, or 86% of original weight. That's an interesting result. I usually see something closer to 80%.

The main problem is that while the beans are heaviest they aren't getting much agitation. It takes a few minutes before any degree of fluidization is evident. Some of the beans at the bottom were done very quickly. Giving it a shake now and then seems to help.

Tipping it back doesn't appear to be a good idea. It seems to interfere with the fluidization. A few beans do pop out when it's level, but not as many as I'd feared.

This roast ended up slightly uneven, but I think it will be better next time. Things to try:
  • no tilting
  • occasional manual agitation
  • five ounces
The immediately-pulled shots were an improvement. Lots of crema, though not the foaming torrent from the last roast. The under-roasted flavor is gone and the solvent notes are faint. It's still pretty bad, as experience suggests will be the case before resting for a couple of days, but I think it may turn out all right.

After resting for a day there was some improvement. It's darker than I usually take Moka Kadir, with a bit of char. Aroma is nice, with chocolate dominant.

Update: It's not improving. It's not producing good espresso at all, in fact. I wonder whether I just need to clean the espresso machine.

Update: Indeed. That thing was disgusting. It's now decalcified and every user-accessible component is spotless. Whisked out the grinder, too. Pulled shots pretty close to the ideal time/volume. The result is a much cleaner-tasting cup. My main objection is probably the darkness of the roast, which I think has destroyed some of the fruitiness that I've tasted in Moka Kadir in previous roasts.

    Sunday, December 6, 2009

    drying hot peppers

    I don't know what variety of hot pepper this is. Super chili said the tag at the nursery. Cone-shaped, green fruit turn orange then ripen to red. I pulled the plant from the greenhouse a week ago and the peppers have been drying since.

    They are quite hot! Probably destined for my sole consumption.

    Friday, December 4, 2009

    discovery of kvas

    Woot! It's bread in a glass! I was at the highly multicultural HT Oaktree Market and strolled past a pallet of big plastic bottles covered with Cyrillic letters, barley stalks, and a big bearded dude holding a wicker mug. There was some English, too: CLASSIC KVAS and UNIQUE OLD RECIPES. For $1.50 I wasn't about to pass that up, though I hadn't the faintest idea what it was.

    Turns out that Kvas is an ancient fermented beverage made of black or rye bread, and sometimes flavored with fruit. It has long been popular in eastern European countries. The alcohol content is very low.

    The recent history of Kvas is that the big soft drink makers have been trying to horn in on the action, leading to Kvas-like things that are mass produced and don't use traditional methods. What I bought is made in Ukraine by Danilo. The ingredients make it clear that this is one of those cola-like products: water, sugar, glucose-fructose syrup (I think that's high-fructose corn syrup, or perhaps derived from beets), carbon dioxide, and kvas concentrate based on rye malt. It is non-alcoholic.

    While it's surely not authentic, it perhaps gives me a reasonable idea of what a kvas might be like. It has a malty aroma, is moderately sweet, and is moderately carbonated. I quite like it. It's pretty highly caloric, at 86 calories per 8 ounces. That's basically like any sugary soda.

    I'm going to have to visit a European foods market and try to find a real kvas. And it looks easy enough to make it at home. Here are some recipes:

    Wednesday, December 2, 2009

    ginger beef wu-mu noodles

    I was scouting for interesting Asian stuff at the 99 Ranch and picked up a four pound box of Wu-Mu dry noodles for a few bucks. According to the ingredients list they are made of wheat flour, ice water, and salt. I couldn't find the ice water but perhaps I stored them incorrectly.

    Engrish is my third favorite language!
    Choiceness Grocery Nation Affirmation
    We are the first company in Taiwan producing dried instant noodles meeting the GMP standard and its quality management system is ISO approved. It is non-fried and no preservatives. The quality is health and satisfaction. You can set your mind at ease, because we can safeguard you expenditure.

    I love it. Seriously, I greatly appreciate localization efforts. I hope the enstructured word usement of my software offers the same level of entertainment to its international users.

    The noodles are great and cook in three minutes. I threw together a quick stir fry with leftover medium-rare strip steak, lots of fresh ginger, king oyster mushrooms, onion, sesame oil, soy sauce, fish sauce, and black vinegar. Worthy of being made again.

    Saturday, November 28, 2009

    last of the tomatoes, for real this time

    I cleaned out the greenhouse today, removing all the dead vines, fallen tomatoes, and other detritus. I'm running fans with the vents open to try to dry it out inside.

    I kept all of the tomatoes that weren't split or moldy. Plus, a surprise cucumber. Several pounds in all.

    I've been cooking with green tomatoes lately. For Thanksgiving I made a dish of sweet corn sauteed with green tomatoes, fresh jalapeño (still doing fine in the greenhouse), and roasted red peppers. Quite good!

    Sunday, November 22, 2009

    first attempt at roasting with a Poppery II

    I discovered another hot air popcorn popper at the thrift store and felt it worthy of the $3 investment. It's a Poppery II and is compact and quiet compared to the Popcorn Pumper.

    I immediately roasted four ounces of Moka Kadir. Interestingly, my results were almost identical to the first time I roasted in the Popcorn Pumper. After 15 minutes I shut it down, having produced almost no smoke, no sustained cracking, and at a much lighter roast than I would normally use.

    The result for the first shots I pulled were about as originally described. Under-roasted, solvent aftertaste, very little fruit or sweetness, and low aroma. After a day of rest the only change was that the sweetness may have developed a bit and the aroma was improved.

    An interesting effect was that the espresso was produced very quickly and with an absolute torrent of foaming crema. This behavior lessened slightly on the second day. I didn't experiment to see how far I'd have to reduce the grind in order to mitigate it, since four ounces (3.2 after roasting) is not much to play with. There may be some underextraction that would account for a bit of the flavor, but I don't think that's the main factor.

    I will try again with six ounces to see whether I can get results more like these. However, that quantity is going to be pretty close to jumping out of the top of the roasting chamber. I may need to tip it back slightly. This is a nicer piece of equipment to use, but at this point I don't know whether it can get the job done.

    Update: After a few days, no real change. It is not going to improve with age. This is just a bad roast.