My Menagerie

24 Sep

[From Rachel]

This morning, as I was sipping coffee (yes, I’m back to coffee, but just locally-roasted good stuff) with the ice-cream-freezer-bowl scrapings of a sweet potato-maple ice cream stirred in, it occurred to me how I live a very luxurious life.  It’s not the sort of luxury that might appeal to everyone, but I am able to eat gourmet foods with locally-sourced organic ingredients because I’ve taught myself how to make them in a way that it doesn’t cause too much stress on my life.  At first, some of these things were very time-consuming and challenging to learn, but the rewards kept me going.  So I thought I’d give a little inventory of the things that could cost me a lot of money that now are locally made in my Rochester, NY kitchen.  These “basic luxuries” allow me to up the amount of locally-made products to add to the arsenal of ingredients and meals you all may be getting accustomed to having in your diet: produce, dairy, jams, grains and beans.

Sourdough:  No, my sourdough is not as good as other bakers’ sourdoughs.  And you should totally absolutely support your local artisan bakers (I do too! I’m a huge fan of the Small World Bakery to the point that I’ve considered apprenticing with them, if I had the hours in the day).  However, I’m extremely proud of my sourdough.  Last summer, when living in Vermont, I decided I wanted to make my own sourdough.  Like most things I do, the whim turned into part of my very long list of things I now can’t live without (running, eating local, making the following list of foods. ) I heard it wasn’t too hard to do something basic.  Once I did it, I did not look back.  It’s not the only bread I make, but it’s the one that always raises eyebrows.  To catch wild yeast, which is the basis of any sourdough, you just put out a bowl of water and flour in a bowl and cover it with a damp clean cloth.  That’s IT!  No joke!  Unless you live in an unnaturally sterilized environment, you will find that in a few days something has passed through the cloth’s pores and started to digest your flour, making a beautiful bubbly and malty-smelling mixture.  This is a sourdough “mother” (aka starter) at its most basic.  Professional bakers, and home bakers with more motivation than yours truly, throw in fruit peels and other organic items with natural fermenting powers to add distinctive complex flavors to their sourdough.

Yeast cells of the mother culture bubbling away in appreciation.

No sourdough starter is ever the same, because it’s totally local to where the yeast was trapped!  That’s why San Francisco is famous for their sourdough, which has distinctive qualities and flavors.  I personally adore my Pownal-Rochester sourdough mother.  When I make a pita or other simple bread, I feel she gets jealous.  I have to take care of her by removing some of the starter every week (ok or every few weeks…) and adding some new flour and warm water.  Without fail, she bubbles up in appreciation.  I really should say that “they” bubble up in appreciation, since it’s many many many microscopic cells digesting the flour and creating gases that would provide leavening in a baked good.  I don’t use any dry yeast or baking powder/soda when I make my basic bread.

I’ve also found that they make killer bagels, english muffins and dairy-free chocolate cake.  Sure, it’s a little work to make your own bread, especially a several-step process with sourdough.  But you get used to it.  Why not trap your own yeast and give this a shot?  It’s so local, so luxurious.  For a wealth of information, check out King Arthur Flour’s Sourdough Primer.  Just make sure you take it easy on yourself when working with the starter and dough, it DOES get more simple when you do it a few times.  You’ll soon turn into an addict like me, always trying to give away the mother you have to remove to refresh the starter (pouring it down the sink seems like murder!).  Oh yeah, people WILL comment when they see that jar of mother in your fridge.

Even Lea is afraid of my fridge. That chocolate sauce calls my name, but I've only given in to its siren sounds once this month. The sourdough mother is on the top shelf to the right of the Red Jacket Orchards Cider. Also pictured: grapes from my CSA, bag of locally-grown and -milled flour, local veggies, dairy, oats, and the normal assortment of packed-up leftovers.

Soy Milk:  For locavore month, I started making my own soy milk.  I know this might cause some uproar, but soy is for me a very important part of my diet.  I don’t need to get into why, but doctors have recommended it, and I eat many forms of it.  I’m happy that there are a few local tofu/soy products companies, but none make soy milk.  I’ve made it before, back in Bolivia when I actually made my own tofu–no easy task when you consider that all water used (and the process uses plenty of water) must be sterilized by boiling (chlorinating water will destroy the milk or tofu).  So I knew I could do it here too.  The process starts with New York soybeans, obviously.  Fantastic that I can find different colors too–I ended up with black soybeans which give me a funny purple milk.  Maybe they have extra anthocyanins (also found in blue and dark red fruits) which are really good for you?  It just happened to be what was available when I stocked up for the month.  You soak the beans, then grind them up in boiling water, then boil that mixture for a few minutes, then strain and squeeze out the milk from the soybean grounds.

Purple soy milk hangs out with other (mostly local) friends for breakfast.

You can eat the leftover grounds, known as okara, by cooking them up with strongly-flavored veggies and sauces (they’re pretty bland on their own, and they MUST be cooked).  Then you boil the soy milk to deactivate some of the things that make raw soy not so good (there’s science, I’m abbreviating).  Inevitably, I pay really good attention until this last step, and soy milk is a sneaky beast…always boils over at the point when I step away from the stove to tend to whatever else is going on (sourdough, dinner, cat, etc.).  I’ll probably continue to make my own soy milk after this month, it’s way more cost-effective (enough beans to make at least 4 3.5-cup batches of milk cost about $4.50 at the co-op; 1 4-cup carton of organic plain soy milk containing some stabilizers and salt and made from far-away beans costs around $2 at my co-op.  That’s about half price and free of additives, made with local ingredients!).  But I’ll probably buy some too…I don’t always have the time.  You can buy fancy machines to make the stuff, but I am appliance-averse beyond my trusty stand mixer, kitchen scale, dehydrator and immersion blender.  I use a recipe by Madhur Jaffrey in this book.

Herbs:  I have my herbs from the garden that I’m saving from impending doom.  I’m actually mid-process potting them up to write this blog entry.  I think they call this procrastination.  By the time I post, they’ll be potted up.  Last winter I also had some squash and cucumber plants that I started indoors that grew a little too fast.  I realized I take much better care of food houseplants than ornamentals, and they are really pretty!  I’ll be doing this again too.  What’s more of a luxury ingredient than squash blossoms or fresh herbs in the middle of the winter?  I’m glad I have a big window and light, but that darn cat of mine is a serious indoor-garden pest!  I spend some time each morning moving the plants from their nighttime home of the bathroom (warm, cat-free) to the windowsill in my bedroom (can be cat-free, great south-facing window).  They do okay, and I get to tend a garden all year this way.  I know this was a featured mini-challenge this past week, so this is me encouraging you to find some starts for herbs (in your own or a neighbor’s garden, or even at a local farmer’s market) and bring them home.  Fresh rosemary goes really nicely on those stored potatoes come February, and have you ever tried thyme-roasted carrots and beets?  Luxury on a shoestring, and local to boot!

Garden pest acts like an angel for this picture. Rosemary, oregano, parsley and thyme will be transplanted into that window box.

Sprouts:  One of those often-mocked foods that “hippies” eat, sprouts add some serious body and gourmet feel to salads.  Depending on your taste, there are a range of seeds to sprout up and try.  For me, there’s also that joy in watching them grow.  Just like my potted herbs and plants, it adds that feeling of life to my indoor environment.  You can grow them all year round, if you just have a jar, or a bag, and a porous material.  Check out multiple options and instructions here.  Make absolutely sure your seeds are for sprouting (check out those natural foods stores) or that they are NOT treated with any pesticide.  Unfortunately, many seeds destined for the garden are coated with a pesticide, though the package should be well-marked and the pesticide coating has been dyed as a warning.

Kombucha:  Okay, this is the one that really freaks people out.  If you are a fan of Kombucha, you’re not freaked out.  Most people aren’t really aware of this stuff, though it’s gaining popularity.  If you’re interested in making your own, check out (or don’t…it’s kind of a silly-looking site that might turn you off) Kombucha Kamp.  I realized I was developing an expensive habit buying $3.50 (and recently saw prices up to $5 in Brooklyn, NY) bottles of this fermented tea.  Yet I was swayed by the taste and supposed health benefits of this stuff.  I can’t speak for whether my already healthy self got healthier from drinking this, but I like the flavor and the effervescence of it, and it makes me feel better just by making me happy.  I obtained a culture from Kristina last winter, and immediately fell in love with another living thing in my kitchen.

Cue music from black-and-white mad scientist film...my Kombucha working away in the cabinet.

It definitely looks freaky, but I love to make it, and find it takes even less care (besides making sure it’s free of contaminants and that it has some liquid) than sprouts, herbs or sourdough.  People say this Kombucha is more mild than the store-bought, but “in a good way.”  One more creature in my menagerie, making it myself is fun,  not so challenging, and allows me a luxury that’s locally made (it’s made with tea and cane sugar, so it’s not really a local food, but at least it’s not being shipped to my stores from afar).  I like to mix it with all-natural fruit juices (such as Red Jacket Orchards Lemon-Apple juice).

I know I’m not the only one out there that has a zoo in their apartment or house.  Don’t be scared or grossed out having a little pet culture of some sort–there is definitely a lot to be gained from a hobby like this.  And if it comes from your own kitchen, it’s pretty local, right?

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