Saturday, December 21, 2013

Muses and musings

[Part 1 and part 2]

Fortunately, my daughter did not have to depend solely on her workaholic-inclined parents to provide inspiration and role models for the slower-paced life she craves. This contemplative sphere is densely populated with writers, and although the journalist subspecies to which her parents belong have a natural habitat in the busy portion of that world, we share some of the same feeding grounds with the creative writers who get to spend more time thinking, so we are fortunate to introduce our Matilda to empathetic role models.

We also are blessed in northern Michigan to be immersed in a local culture that celebrates and supports writing. Our small downtown has several (yes, several -- that is not a typo) thriving independent bookstores, two of which are a short walk from our house and regularly bring in authors for signings and lectures. The occupational hazards and joys of writing are well-known to our children.

Matilda's most treasured muse is Stephanie, an ecologist and writer of exceptional skill who is my valued friend and comrade in community activism. Stephanie has shown kindnesses to my daughter that I could never repay in a lifetime. She has written Matilda letters, loaned books from her vast library and offered her house as a country retreat. (Among the highlights of Matilda's 17 years was a week the two of us spent housesitting for Stephanie, who at the time had a cat with a talent for bringing in live prey through the cat door. The week's visitors included a bird, a mouse and a baby bunny, all of which Matilda deftly captured and restored to the wild.)

I suspect one big factor in Matilda's affection for Stephanie is that Stephanie has always conversed with her as a peer, soliciting and respecting Matilda's opinions, never disregarding the input of a child. The two also have an easy rapport, which may be attributed to their shared introversion, keen intelligence and love of the natural world, as well as their proclivity for a contemplative pace. If Matilda spends significant chunks of time staring into space in Stephanie's presence, she will be praised, not censured.

Occasionally, Matilda has received such affirmations from a sage on a stage. One of the amenities of our book-loving town is the National Writers Series, which draws well-known authors to discuss their work before an audience of several hundred (also not a typo). My daughter has attended several of these events with me, and the writer who most inspired her was Maggie Stiefvater, author of several best-selling young adult novels.

In her appearance at the City Opera House last spring, Ms. Stiefvater was asked where and how she works. She rose from her chair and stretched on the floor of the Opera House stage in yoga corpse pose, staring at the ceiling and telling the audience that is how she spends the bulk of her working time. Matilda was sold! This was all the evidence she needed that writing was the correct path for her. (I can't avoid pointing out to Matilda that eventually even the novelist must put pen to paper, or fingers to keyboard.)

This brings me to the "well-rutted path" Ms. Stiefvater described in a TED Talk. [Really, I should link this video on the headline of this and the two previous blog posts to save you all the trouble of reading as Ms. Stiefvater captures this theme with eloquence and humor.] The achievement-focused path of Advanced Placement classes and extracurricular activities, so favored by striving families, is a reliable course for "success" defined as landing a respectable job that will afford consumer amenities. However, many of our artists, innovators, and creative agents of change did not find their way along this well-rutted path. I'm grateful for reminders that a C in high school physics does not foreshadow a future of crime or welfare dependency. It doesn't even preclude a career as a physicist! The results of any Google search combining bad high school grades and later success will provide solace to a parent with report card angst.

My crystal ball is fuzzy. I can't predict where the road less traveled will lead Matilda. In all likelihood, she will settle into an unremarkable adult existence, as most of us do, picking her way through the ordinary joys and disappointments of adulthood and defining happiness and success for herself. I know she will be guided by her own star; she insists on it.

But I won't be surprised if she does something extraordinary. Perhaps 30 years from now, I'll look back at this photo and wonder if she was sizing up the lawn of her future home.

Friday, December 20, 2013

A different beat

Among the many mixed messages our culture gives kids, the advice on conformity must be among the most confusing. Officially, we value individuality. We urge them to "think outside the box," "march to your own beat," "dare to be different," or in the words of Apple, "think different." When we seek to inspire, we praise non-conformity. But woe to the teen who takes this to heart!

In reality, the last thing many achievement-oriented parents want to encourage in their children is non-conformity, unless they define it as "getting a 4.0 when the rest of the class is below 3.8." Otherwise, parents are more likely to encourage their children to fit in by steering them to popular activities, clothing styles, entertainment choices and like-minded peer groups. 

she made her own Halloween costume
Even in my social circle, in which disdain of the "dominant culture" was a recurring theme back in the playgroup days, the acceptable box is only slightly more accommodating. Enlightened parents may celebrate some examples of coloring outside the lines, such as little boys in pink or a family's refusal to own a television set, but questions on academic attainment are usually confined to "how" or "where," rarely "if" or "why." Much debate may occur on whether little Zooby will fare better at Montessori, public, charter or home school, but the unquestioned assumption is that Zooby will go to college.

Let me be clear: I include myself among those parents. For most of the past two decades, I've approached my parenting role with the assumption that my two children would share similar views on how one should navigate life. While my favorite metaphor to describe my ideals was that I was a gardener nurturing seeds, not a potter shaping clay, in truth I behaved as if I were growing bonsai or topiary rather than wildflowers.

To escape my box, I needed a good teacher, and fortunately I had one in my daughter, the proverbial square peg who will not be pounded into a round hole. [I'll refer to her as "Matilda," in honor of her favorite childhood literary character.] Through strong non-violent resistance to most efforts to "school" her or train her to productivity, my Matilda has taught me to reassess my own notions of success and purpose in a more radical manner than I had previously experienced, even through my studies of voluntary simplicity.

I have learned that time spent staring at the ceiling may be the most valuable of all. This has been a difficult lesson to absorb after decades focused on perfecting my multitasking skills to the point that I almost can't read a book unless I'm simultaneously engaged in another activity. If I had been a student of the Harry Potter generation, I may have been nicknamed Hermione after J.K. Rowling's smarty-pants heroine who shifted time to take more classes. Watching my daughter sit for hours, doing nothing that I could detect, was puzzling, and for many years, a problem to fix. (I think I've read almost every advice site returned by a Google search on "gifted and unmotivated.")

The first clues that Matilda might be on to something emerged when I began to notice that some of my adult friends welcomed her company. Matilda has always, even as a toddler, generally preferred the society of adults and has accompanied me to activities and social engagements whenever permitted. My adult friends tolerated her society with equanimity, and as she grew into her teen years, their interactions evolved. No longer just a tagalong, she increasingly participated in the conversations, and I observed that adults seemed to enjoy and even elicit her contributions.

It finally dawned on me that Matilda's agile mind was far from idle during those countless hours spent staring at the ceiling. She was engaged in one of the activities most endangered in our crazy-busy culture: thinking. More specifically, sustained and critical thinking. Like Charles Darwin, my young naturalist needed time to sort and catalog her observations. I thought she was "doing nothing," but her mind was a hot oven, baking something new from the ingredients she had kneaded and left to rise. The result would much later be issued as a report, typically with a "did you notice" or "I figured something out" prologue, often to the astonishment of an adult unaware that teens thought about such things.

But most importantly, that "doing nothing" time was key to her well-being. When I let go of my beliefs of what should be happening and observed what was happening, I acknowledged that every single incident of discontent, meltdown or outright misery came on the heels of parental pressure to do something. If I just let her be, her inner butterfly emerged -- curious and ready to explore the world, vitally engaged with every interesting thing she encountered, and comfortable in her own beautifully unique skin.

Tomorrow: my muse's muses

Thursday, December 19, 2013


A busy friend shared a link recently to an essay by Tim Kreider about the tendency of many members of the U.S. middle class -- or, let's say more accurately, the "striver" class -- to exist in a state of frenetic activity, largely self-imposed. Being "crazy busy" at all times is a badge of honor and seems to represent the ideal for our culture, but the author makes a compelling case for the benefits of idleness.

the meditation cushion
I've been pondering his viewpoint and how I've been transitioning from a fill-every-waking-moment-productively mania to a slower rhythm where I can almost begin to imagine using the meditation cushion I purchased about 15 years ago but could never sit still quietly long enough to use.

Mr. Kreider's role as instigator of goof-off time has been filled in my life by my daughter. I suggested she also read his essay as I knew she would welcome an endorsement of the habits she has cultivated so diligently for herself. At 17, she is a paragon of the idle life and has quite forcefully resisted attempts from her parents or others to set her on anything resembling a striver path. No sports, no clubs, no summer classes or camps. She has exceptional academic ability, but high school classes leave her uninspired and she struggles just to complete each course, with little concern about her final grades. Consequently, the bus to Harvard will not be stopping here.

Incidentally, her favorite academic course of all time came from Harvard and may serve as an example of the benefits of idle time. A couple of summers ago, Harvard professor and author Michael Sandel appeared locally to promote his latest book. Disappointed at being unable to attend his seminar, I took to the internet to find out what I had missed and discovered his popular undergraduate course, Justice, was available for free online. I started watching his lectures, and my daughter, 15 at the time, peered over my shoulder. Soon, she was coming downstairs each morning asking, "Mom, can we watch another Harvard class?" Multiple choice tests may have left her cold, but she couldn't get enough of the ideas of Aristotle, Kant, Locke and Descartes.

See, when her active, agile, creative mind isn't burdened with the demands of school, my daughter is an intellectual sponge. She is drawn to ideas like a fruit fly to a glass of wine. I've become accustomed to her peering over my shoulder when I'm reading something novel or controversial, even if it's only anonymous internet users debating a local policy in the comments section of a media website. And, as she's a visual learner, if the information happens to be on something like YouTube, her antenna is keen enough that it will draw her out of her room and down the stairs to inquire, "what's that?"

[A brief note on the visual learning: her best year of "school" was 7th grade, when, as regular readers of this blog who are probably limited to my relatives will recall, we home schooled using a self-invented film-based curriculum.]

favorite activity for 17 years
When children are small, we cut them some slack on the productivity meters. That my three-year-old was content to spend hours arranging and rearranging her toy dinosaurs by size, type, color or texture instead of doing some Baby Einstein activity was of little concern. But once the high-stake high school years arrived and her peers were busy with theater productions, sports teams, debate club, violin lessons and volunteerism, I worried. What was to become of a child who spent so much time literally staring at the ceiling? What hope could she have of going to college without pages of extracurricular activities to include on her Common Application?

second favorite activity

I pushed. "You must participate in at least one activity at all times," I ordered as she began full-time high school. I enlisted my neighbors, and even the coach, to lobby her (unsuccessfully) to join the girls cross-country team. If I noticed her playing a game on her laptop in the evenings, I asked, "Don't you have homework?" I regularly checked her grades on the parent portal of the school website. "What's this? An A MINUS in Honors Biology? You can do better than that!"

Eventually, she pushed back, in a way that shifted my concern from her grades to her health. I had to acknowledge the parenting approach that worked so effectively with her older brother was not so good for her. I utilized my research skills, as well as some outside help, to learn what might best guide her to a motivated and productive adult life. But my greatest teacher turned out to be my daughter.

Tomorrow: Am I smarter than a slacker high school student? Short answer: no.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013


I should be 20 years younger and live in Brooklyn. Such is my devotion to DIY, or do-it-yourself. And, I should note, I was DIY before DIY was cool and before I knew there was a name for it.

Here is the latest addition to my ever-increasing collection of "hobbies":

beginner sewing machine

The motivation for this acquisition was, primarily, jeans. My petite daughter can never find jeans pants that don't need shortening. I've attempted alterations with a needle and thread, but my work is sloppy and often comes undone, and there she is again, walking on the unraveled hems of her jeans.

Yes, I know I could pay someone to take care of this, and if jeans were the only issue, I probably would find a seamstress. But there were also napkins.

I have a sad assortment of cloth napkins, most of which were given to me as wedding gifts. The wedding was almost 25 years ago, and nearly all of the napkins are white, so I'm sure you can imagine their current condition without photographic evidence. I would like to get new napkins, but I haven't seen any I love, and most new napkins seem extraordinarily overpriced for what is essentially just a square piece of cloth. I could make those if I had a sewing machine.

But ultimately it came down to the sweaters. A project in my long-standing textile hobby of knitting is nearly completion. This sweater will require finishing with a machine stitch before cutting the front piece. I could pay someone to stitch the seam, as I've done in the past, but I already wanted to make the napkins and hem the jeans, so I bought the sewing machine.

Since Friday, I've hemmed one pair of jeans and stitched a neat seam around a square piece of linen. I feel like I can manage the most basic elements of machine sewing on my own. But I think about how much better I could be, and the truly exciting things I could make, if perhaps I took a class. And then I start thinking about the cloth, and how I may not be able to find affordable fabrics I love, but of course, I could make my own fabric if I had a loom.

And that's where I metaphorically slap myself and come to my senses. I don't need a loom. I already have a spinning wheel gathering dust, and my knitting needles haven't been getting much of a workout lately. I'm baking bread, making yogurt, and now roasting my own coffee. I have plans to make wine and brew beer.

All of these things are fun to do, but a line must be drawn somewhere. Human societies have organized around divisions of labor for good reason. Specialization leads to mastery and efficiency, and few persons (with notable exceptions, such as Leonardo da Vinci) are able to achieve competence, let alone mastery, in more than one skilled craft.

Long ago I accepted the consequences of my decision to forego mastery on a professional level. I graduated from college and began my work in journalism with dreams of Pulitzers and other glories, but after a few years of 80-hour work weeks, I realized I wanted to experience other aspects of life more fully. So I jumped off the fast track. Well, to be more truthful, I ran so far from the tracks that I can't see one anymore.

Shortly before that jump, I had an opportunity to pursue a more specialized path. Due to some fairly strange circumstances considering I had no training or education in the area, I was offered a computer programming job, which would've paid more and, on the surface, seemed to have more potential in the booming tech environment. But my boss urged me to stay put, to be a generalist, an amalgamator. He predicted that if I did so, within a few years the guy who offered me the programming job would be reporting to me. Based on the eventual departmental reorganizations, I suspect if I hadn't jumped the track, his prophecy would have come true.

Generalists are the glue and the grease in a highly-specialized world. We need STEM majors, but we also need humanities graduates to craft the quilt that holds the pieces together.

Back to the sewing machine. I don't anticipate ever getting beyond the rank of beginner at sewing; however, I'm eager to acquire a basic skill to support my other interests. Some competence with sewn fabrics could improve my ability to create better knitted fabrics. I may find a thread to unite all of my hobbies and interests in a unique way. Regardless of outcome, learning to sew a little will be fun.

But I have to draw the DIY line somewhere, and I draw it with a loom on the other side. At least for now.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Winged things and Thanksgiving planning

My yard is white with the season's first light blanket of snow. Skies are gray and days are short, lulling me into hibernation-mode while relishing in the comforts of fleece and wool.

The town is a bit quieter as the fall color season dwindles to an end and snowbirds begin to make their escapes to warmer climes. Many winged creatures also have departed. [Any readers of this blog who are nature enthusiasts may enjoy a couple of short wildlife stories I recently wrote for Our Mississippi magazine, a good news piece on the recovery of trumpeter swans and a sadder brief on the struggles of the monarch butterfly, both on page 7.] 

Another winged creature takes its annual star turn on our tables later this month. Yes, turkey day is two weeks away. This is about the time I usually start planning my menu, and yesterday morning I decided to throw out most of my tried-and-true Thanksgiving recipes and just follow the menu in The New York Times

So, to any local people who read my Thanksgiving essay in the Oryana newsletter [last page], I'm probably not doing that this year, except for the corn maque choux and the madeira gravy. 

I like the NYT's suggestion to dry brine the turkey with a salt and herb rub. Thomas Keller's simple roast chicken recipe uses a similar preparation and it's always delicious. Bacon and mushrooms in the stuffing also sounds like an exciting addition. But the item on the menu that hooked me is David Tanis' spicy red pepper cranberry relish. I have to try that. And, I think I'll make all three pies.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Fall back to the hearth

Here in northern Michigan, those infamous gales of November are already howling. We enjoyed an extended summer, with sunny days and temperatures in the 70s just a couple of weeks ago, but now the skies are gray, the days are short and the frost is on the pumpkin every morning.

I have a cousin who lived in Hawaii for three years. When she returned to North Carolina, I asked if she was despondent to leave paradise. She said she was thrilled to be home, and not only because of family. Hawaii was beautiful, but perfect weather every day grew tiresome, and she missed the seasons.

I understand that now. So much in life is cyclical, circular, or spiral. Little is linear, save our progression from the womb to the grave, and even that is part of a larger cycle. Our bodies have their own circadian and seasonal rhythms, and the nature inside of us is drawn to the nature around us.

At this time of year, my nature is preparing for the long winter. Like a bear, I want to hibernate, or at least sleep more. I'm also more of a hermit than usual, preferring to be at home whenever possible, especially in the evenings.

In the kitchen, seasonal cooking becomes heartier, warmer, and starchier. Leafy greens decline as grains, legumes and root vegetables dominate the menu. Baking is a comfort again, and the aroma of fresh bread fills the house several times a week.

Continuing my obsession with all things Scandinavian, I explore the Danish concept of hygge, which can't be translated into English but is most often approximated as "cozy." This is the season of hygge at the 45th Parallel. Sunday night stew and bread, fireplaces burning in stores and restaurants, fleece pajamas, wool blankets, and (a modern twist) queuing up Netflix more often (I'm catching up on "Scandal" right now.)

Winter here is long and harsh and every year I dream of escaping it. I hate having to put on boots, coat, mittens, scarf and ice grippers just to go out for a walk. The short gray days bring on Seasonal Affective Disorder and I whine more. But when spring returns, all is forgotten, except the sense of fortitude at having survived another Michigan winter and the joy of once again celebrating long sunny days, green things, and a wider social circle (see "festivals").

As my fall gift to you, to help you create your own hygge, I leave you with my recipe for easy overnight bread. The quantities are all approximate. Don't worry too much about measuring; this bread is so forgiving, you can't really go wrong.

1.5 cups bread or all-purpose flour
1.5 cups whole grain flour of your choice (wheat, rye, spelt, or a combination)
.5 cup steel-cut oats
1/4 to 1/2 tsp dry yeast
2 tsps salt
2 Tbsps maple syrup or honey (optional)
2 Tbsps yogurt or buttermilk (optional)
about 2 cups water

Begin the night before you want to bake. Mix the dry ingredients in a bowl. I use a large Pyrex measuring bowl with a lid. You could mix the wet ingredients in another bowl if using the honey/yogurt before adding to the dry, or not. It really doesn't matter! Stir until you get a wet, thick batter. It should roughly resemble a cornbread or muffin batter -- you could pour or scoop it out but not knead it. I use a Danish wire whisk, which is one of the greatest baking tools ever.

Cover the bowl and let it sit at room temperature overnight. The next morning, the dough will have doubled and look very gassy and alive, with various bubbles across the surface. Scoop the contents into your greased loaf pan and set it in the warmest part of your kitchen to rise again for about an hour. Meanwhile, pre-heat your oven to 375F. When the dough has risen to about the top of the pan, put the pan in the oven and bake for 50 minutes or so, until it sounds slightly hollow when tapped.

It's that easy. If morning baking doesn't fit your schedule, you could mix the dough before work and bake in the evening. The timing may also depend on the temperature of your house. The warmer the environment, the less time needed for the microorganisms to do their thing.

Enjoy experimenting with this basic loaf, adding seeds and changing the flours, sweeteners or dairy. All it really requires is flour, water, a little bit of yeast, and some alone time. Hygge.

Friday, October 25, 2013


Sometime this summer, I got the idea that the next step in improving my coffee-making skills would be to roast the beans myself. I don't remember what came first, the idea or the website describing how to do this. Inspiration aside, I became aware of a method of home roasting coffee beans using an air popcorn popper, as described here.

Finally, two days ago, I tried it out. I picked up about a pound of green coffee beans at Higher Grounds (the splendid fair trade coffee roasting company in my town) -- enough for a few tries but not so much that I would regret the purchase if it didn't work out.

I loaded a scoop of green beans into the popcorn popper, flipped the switch, put a bowl under the chute for the chaff, and waited. I decided to go for the dark roast, and after 7 minutes I decided it was done. I poured the beans into a colander, tossed them around and inhaled the aroma.

Lovely! I think I got more of a medium roast than a dark.

The internet instructions recommended waiting 4 to 24 hours before brewing for the freshly-roasted beans to reach their best state; of course, I couldn't wait. I ground some beans immediately and brewed them in my French press. The resulting coffee was distinctive and had a flavor I can't describe. It was definitely coffee, but with a vibrant quality.

I stored the rest of the freshly-roasted beans in a tin for the next morning, expecting coffee nirvana. The morning coffee was excellent, but not noticeably different than the usual brew roasted by Higher Grounds.

Anyway, home roasting is easy, saves a couple of dollars a pound on coffee, and produces great results. I plan to continue, and I will always brew a pot immediately after roasting because regardless of what the experts say, that really-fresh-roasted taste is too good to forsake.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

No place like home

As a kid, whenever I watched The Wizard of Oz, I was always frustrated with Dorothy because I couldn't understand her crisis. She wanted to be somewhere over the rainbow, then her wish is granted and she wakes up in this magical, beautiful, exciting, exotic place. And immediately she wants to go back to drab Kansas. Why couldn't she just stay with the Munchkins? That's what I would've done.

In my younger years, I longed to travel to exotic places that would be more interesting than my native North Carolina, which could've been the twin sister to Dorothy's Kansas in my mind (far less evolved than James Taylor's). The older I get, the more I relate to the post-twister Dorothy, although home for me is now Michigan.

Traveling back from Montreal a couple of weeks ago, I wondered why we felt the need to go there at all. Sure, I knew the motivation: give our daughter the opportunity to practice French while having fun in a vibrant city we enjoyed visiting previously. But once there, I kept feeling as if practicing French was the only thing we were doing in Montreal that we couldn't be doing at home.
botanical bike culture

I'm not knocking Montreal by any means. It's a lovely city with a cycling infrastructure among the best in North America, and it has numerous pedestrian-only zones. Montreal's botanical gardens, or Jardin Botanique, are the finest I've ever seen and well worth a visit; we were fortunate to see the spectacular Mosaicultures Internationales exhibit.

But aside from bike and botanical culture, Montreal did not make me want to expatriate. Traverse City has more than enough charms to lure me back: music festivals, a film festival, beautiful lakes and rivers, farms, orchards, forests, dune climbs, craft breweries, wineries, cheese makers, sandy beaches, and the friendliest people this side of Minnesota.

And we have better food. Really. Admittedly, I didn't dine at the most famous Montreal restaurants as that was beyond our budget, but in the moderate and cheap price ranges, Traverse City has Montreal beat. Montreal's $14 burgers are no better than TC's $8 burgers. Montreal's poutine is tasty, but I prefer the dirty fries at the food truck in my neighborhood. Admittedly, Traverse City still lacks great Asian food, but I didn't find much better in Montreal. (I enjoy excellent Asian fare at bargain prices in the Twin Cities.)

We procured a dozen Montreal bagels on our way out of town, and those were interesting enough that I've looked up recipes to try making my own. But other baked goods in Montreal disappointed, especially the morning croissants, which were nowhere near the perfection of 9 Bean Rows'.

Once I read an essay, probably on voluntary simplicity, listing vacation as an unnecessary expense. If the place you live is so unpleasant that it must be vacated regularly, the author reasoned, perhaps you should consider living elsewhere. I recognize that travel offers many benefits beyond respite and recreation, but I appreciate living in a place so pleasant that I rarely wish to leave. Except in February.

I haven't decided to store my ruby slippers and stay home for good, but the older I get, the more I agree with Madeleine L'Engle, who wrote: "Maybe that's the best part of going away for a vacation -- coming home again."

Monday, August 19, 2013

Cantaloupe seeds

For all of my life, until today, I've been scooping the seeds and pulp from the center of the cantaloupe and discarding them before slicing the melon. I've never seen anyone do otherwise, even when I lived in North Carolina and had a grandmother in the neighborhood of the famous Ridgeway cantaloupes. I knew of no other use for the seeds than to feed the compost bin.

Silly me. If only I had had a Mexican auntie.

Last night, pondering what I might do with my farmer's market cantaloupe other than chunk it up and eat it, I started browsing my vast cookbook collection. In Gourmet Today I found a recipe for a cantaloupe cooler, or agua de melon, which uses only that middle stuff I had been scooping out.

As I'm on a quest to reduce and hopefully eliminate all food waste, the option of keeping the seedy stuff out of the compost bin was compelling.

So I scooped it into the blender container and added two cups of icy water:

After whizzing on high speed for about 30 seconds, I strained the results, although with a Vitamix there really wasn't anything to strain out.

The Gourmet recipe specified adding a half a cup of sugar to the blending process, but I'm trying to avoid sugar, so I sweetened it with several drops of stevia and added another cup of water to thin.

The final result:

I enjoyed a glass with my gazpacho, and I have three more servings of each in the fridge for future meals or snacks. Isn't summer fabulous?

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Japanese Pickles

I've been pickling all summer. More accurately: I've been fermenting things. So far, nothing has been ruined and it has all been tasty.

But in the past couple of days, I've tried a pickling technique that may become my next obsession because it is just that good.

Let me tell you about Japanese miso pickles.

I heard about this when I was catching up on Splendid Table podcasts during a long car ride from Montreal to Traverse City. Karen Solomon described the method enough to pique my interest, and after the CSA box arrived on Tuesday with another large patch of pickling cucumbers, I mixed up the miso paste and tried it out.

Because I'm always eager to minimize waste, I immediately decided to go with the pickling bed technique. It sounded strange: how would the cucumber slices pickle if they not only were not submerged in brine but were separated from this miso paste by a layer of cloth? I couldn't imagine, but I followed her instructions to see what would happen.

First, I cut two rectangles of cloth from an old (clean) thin dishcloth:

I mixed the miso with mirin and sake. I tossed the cucumber slices with a little kosher salt and set them in a strainer for about an hour:

I spread half of the miso mixture on the bottom of a small pyrex dish, covered it with one layer of cloth, arranged the cucumber slices in a single layer on top of the cloth, covered those with the other cloth, spread the rest of the miso on top of that, and waited.

I didn't wait very long because I was eager to find out what would happen. After the minimum recommended time (an hour), I peeled back the top cloth and pulled out one of the pickles.

Oh, yum! These may be my favorite pickles ever.

As I discovered, a brine seeps from the miso paste so the cucumbers are basically submerged in it. And removing them is as easy as rolling up the top cloth and lifting them out with a fork. Add more sliced cucumbers, roll the cloth back down and re-spread the top paste, and make another batch. This is awesome!

If you try this, you'll have to keep making more because each batch will disappear almost immediately.

After one batch, I sliced a baby eggplant and tried it in the pickling bed, but I didn't like it as much as the cucumbers. I plan to try carrots next.

I was so excited about this method that I downloaded the e-book so I can try other Japanese pickles. I'll report back on future experiments.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Announcing TC Fitness Pals!

Hey y'all, hope everyone's been having a pleasant summer.

My news today will be of interest primarily to those in Traverse City, but I'm hoping a few friends in other places will pop in from cyberspace occasionally.

I'm starting a small support group for friends interested in losing weight and eating well. The blog for the group is TC Fitness Pals and I've created a discussion group at MyFitnessPal. For local friends, I'm hoping we will meet weekly for delicious food and check-ins. I'll be cooking! Check the new blog for more info.

And for this blog, I'll be back shortly with some cookbook reviews. Stay tuned!

Friday, July 12, 2013

Waste not

For the past few weeks, I've been taking a course on food system sustainability from Coursera. Even though I fancy myself a knowledgeable eco-foodie person, I've learned I have more to learn about the environmental impact of feeding 6 billion humans.

This past week's topic was food waste. I've been mindful of this problem to some extent ever since my childhood when my mother harangued me about cleaning my plate out of respect for all the starving children in India. Now as a mother worrying about the college tuition bills, I'd rather not be scraping leftovers into the compost bin, so I've been trying to avoid cooking anything new until the previous thing is gone.

The lessons on food waste gave me a deeper understanding of the problem and the negative impacts beyond hunger and household economy. We read a Swedish study and this recent working paper published by the World Resources Institute. Some highlights:

* By weight, an estimated one-third of all food intended for human consumption never makes it into human stomachs. When converted into calories, this is about 24 percent of all food produced.

* In poor countries, food loss is the major problem. This is food that spoils, spills or undergoes an unintended reduction in quality before it reaches the consumer. Loss occurs closer to the farm due to limitations in infrastructure, storage, packaging or distribution.

* In richer countries, food waste is the bigger concern. Waste refers to food that is of good quality but does not get consumed because it is discarded, either before or after it has spoiled. This includes groceries purchased and thrown away, partially-eaten restaurant meals and expired foods removed from store shelves.

* Food waste at the consumption stage costs an annual average of $1,600 for a family of four in the United States.

* The food waste tally does not include overconsumption of calories, which would no doubt make the statistics even worse.

From a climate and environmental perspective, food lost or wasted represents a needless use of land, water, fertilizers, transportation and other impacts of food production. And food rotting in landfills produces methane, a greenhouse gas.

The working paper has many recommendations for reducing loss and waste at every point in the chain, and it highlights some schemes that have been successful. One innovative solution to tackle cafeteria waste came from Grand Valley State University in Michigan. From the report:
By eliminating trays, GVSU officials hoped to reduce the amount of food waste at its cafeterias, as well as reduce energy and water use associated with washing trays. Under this system, students could return to the cafeteria to take more food as desired, but were limited on each trip to the amount of food they could carry on a plate in their hands. ... After a successful pilot, GVSU permanently adopted the trayless system in the fall of 2007. The university found that after going trayless, the university was throwing away almost 13 metric tons of food less than in previous years―about 25 kg per person annually―and was conserving 117,000 liters of water per year. The system was also economically beneficial, saving the university about US$79,000 per year compared to a system using trays.
I encourage those who are interested in learning about food loss and waste to read or scan the working paper for more information. Among the resources recommended by the authors of the study, the one likely most helpful to the consumer is the initiative at Think.Eat.Save. From there I found a link to an extremely informative Australian website with many tips of reducing waste.

Restaurants can be challenging because so many serve large portions. How do we square our efforts to not overeat (Weight Watchers urges its members to quit the clean plate club) with a goal of not wasting food? Some things I've tried:

* If I know I won't eat something, I can ask the server to leave it off the plate. I don't always remember this. The other day I ordered a wrap, which came with tortilla chips, and I didn't want the chips. I offered them to my daughter, who didn't want them either, so in the end, I wrapped them in a paper napkin and brought them home, where my husband ate them later because he's like a vacuum for those things.

* When I plan to go out for dinner, I bring a lidded container from home for leftovers. This helps me avoid the restaurant's disposable take-out container. Often I'll pack away half of the meal before I even touch it. This will be lunch the next day, or when my son is home from college, a late-night snack for him.

* Unplanned meals away still often result in a disposable container. I'm thinking of investing in a collapsible container that I can keep in my bag.

As for my kitchen, I have a personal initiative this summer to minimize the edible materials that go into our compost pile. We're in the season of abundance with overflowing produce boxes from Meadowlark Farm, and I don't want to waste any of this goodness. I've always been pretty good about using the prime part of every item, but I've never managed to make use of every edible part. For example, when the beets come attached to their greens, sometimes I've let the greens wilt in the fridge. And usually, the carrot tops go directly into the compost pile.

But this summer I'm reaching new levels of culinary efficiency! I can best illustrate this with last week's fennel.

This is the fennel as it came out of the box:

In previous summers, I trimmed away the stalks and fronds and used only the bulb. Sometimes I might toss the fronds on the grill as a flavoring agent, but usually all but the white bulb went into the compost.

Last week, with the help of Deborah Madison's most excellent cooking guide Vegetable Literacy (if you don't have this yet, I urge you to get it), I managed to extract the nutrients from all parts of the plant before any trimmings went to compost. I made a fennel tea from some of the fronds (steep a handful of fronds in a cup or two of boiling water), a grilled fennel frond pesto from the rest, and a stock from the stalks (chop stalks and an onion and simmer in water). I used the stock in a soup I've been making every time I get fennel, the exceptionally delicious Chickpea, Tomato and Bread Soup from Yotam Ottolenghi's Plenty (another cookbook I highly recommend).

Fennel separated into parts

Fennel stock simmering (the purple things are kohlrabi stalks)

Strained fennel stock

Chickpea, tomato and bread soup

The adapted recipe:

1 large onion, sliced
1 medium fennel bulb, sliced
about 1/4 cup olive oil
1 large carrot, peeled, cut lengthways in half and sliced
3 celery stalks, sliced
1 tbsp tomato paste
1 cup white wine
one 14-oz can diced tomatoes (I use Muir Glen roasted)
1 tbsp chopped oregano
2 tbsp chopped parsley
1 tbsp fresh thyme leaves
2 bay leaves
2 tsp sugar
4.5 cups fennel stock
salt and pepper to taste
2 large slices stale sourdough bread
2.5 cups cooked chickpeas
4 tbsp pesto (basil, fennel fronds, or carrot top)

Preheat the oven to 350F. Sauté the onion and fennel in a little oil on medium heat for about 4 minutes. Add the carrot and celery and continue cooking for another 4 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for 1 minute. Add the wine and let it bubble away for another minute.
Ready to serve

Add the canned tomatoes with their juices, the herbs, sugar, fennel stock and some salt and pepper. Bring to the boil, then cover and simmer gently for about 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, break the bread into rough chunks, toss with 2 tablespoons of oil and some salt and scatter in a sheet pan. Bake for about 10 minutes, until thoroughly dry.

About 10 minutes before serving, place the chickpeas in a bowl and crush them a little with a potato masher. Add them to the soup and simmer for another 5 minutes. Add the toasted bread, stir well and cook for another 5 minutes. Taste for salt and pepper.

Ladle the soup into bowls. Spoon some pesto in the center, drizzle with olive oil and finish with freshly shredded basil if you have some.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Sadness and senselessness

Nearly a week ago, a couple of hours after the crowds dispersed following the jubilent fireworks celebration that marks the 4th of July in our neighborhood, horrific sounds awoke me and my husband: the squeal of tires, a thud and then plaintive screams. We jumped out of bed and raced to the window overlooking the street. My husband got there in time to see a dark truck turning the corner. He said the screams seemed to be coming from the truck.

Because revelers often make noises throughout the night after the city's fireworks show, and we didn't see any sign of an accident on the street, we questioned what we had heard. But no, we said to each other, those screams were not the sounds of joy or drunken exuberance. John went outside to look around. He saw neighbors across the street who had also heard the sounds. They decided to call 911 to report a possible abduction. Soon, a couple of neighbors who were walking home on foot noticed a bike in the street. The police arrived and on their way discovered the victim of what we now know was a brutal hit and run, lying about a block away where she had been dragged after becoming entangled with the vehicle.

We learned the next morning the cyclist, Kelly, who lived with her husband on the next block, had been killed by this craven act. She had been riding her bike home from work. The evidence suggests, and it is consistent with the sounds we heard, that the driver may have deliberately hit her.

Being the bleediest of bleedinghearts, I can never help feeling a sadness for all involved in a tragedy. Kelly and her loved ones, obviously, deserve and get the bulk of this grief. But as much as I want to see the perpetrator of this crime brought to justice, I can't help feeling a smidgen of grief for him (or her) as well. What kind of scarred life causes this level of inhumanity towards one's fellow creatures? I can only imagine it is a life that has never known love, and that makes me sad.

And I have sadness for all of us. How can we continue to tolerate such brokenness in our world? When will humans evolve to care for each other, each and every one? How can we move to a culture that celebrates love and life and has no tolerance for hatred and violence?

I don't have any answers. The only response I know to make today is to get on my bike and ride in solidarity with my community to honor Kelly.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Sriracha slaw and kimchi

With the increasing popularity of Community Supported Agriculture, some of the dozen or so readers of this blog may have a farm share box and currently be wondering what to do with all of those greens.

Here at the 45th parallel, local produce in June is pretty much limited to spinach, kale, lettuces, bok choy, various other mixed greens and a handful of tender roots, such as radishes and kohlrabi, accompanied by their greens. Last week's veggie box was so full of greens I couldn't get them all in the crisper drawers of the refrigerator.

So what to do?

Fortunately, greens tend to cook down to a fraction of their raw volume. That large bag of spinach looks like enough for at least 6 entrée-sized salads, but sauté it with a little garlic and onion and it becomes a side dish of 2-4 servings. Wash and tear the kale into chunks and dry it out in the oven for kale chips.

After a week of large salads and triage on most of the greens that easily rendered themselves to cooking, I was left the night before new box pick-up day with a gigantic head of bok choy. We wanted to try the new barbecue food truck in the neighborhood, so I thought a sriracha slaw might be a nice accompaniment.

I thinly sliced the bok choy and inspected the crisper drawers for other vegetables that could lend themselves to the enterprise. I shredded three carrots, a purple kohlrabi bulb and half of a red onion left over from something else.

I consulted the internet for some sriracha dressing ideas and made a blend based on what I had on hand.

Sriracha Slaw Dressing

1 Tbsp of ginger, peeled and coarsely chopped
3 cloves of garlic, peeled
1/3 cup natural peanut butter
juice of about 3 limes
2 Tbsps sugar
2 Tbsps Belgian framboise beer
2 Tbsps fish sauce
sriracha to taste

Mix all ingredients in a blender or food processor, or grate the ginger, press the garlic and whisk everything in a bowl. Toss with the shredded veggies and add salt and pepper to taste. Finally, if you happen to have it, a splash of lemongrass-mint vinegar is nice.

I want to emphasize that the list of ingredients is highly adaptable. I added the beer because it was in the fridge and I thought a little berry flavor would be nice. You could make this dressing with mayonnaise, sriracha and a touch of any complementary acid, such as rice or umeboshi vinegar, or just about any citrus juice.

the finished slaw

Don't toss the slaw with the dressing until you're ready to serve. A topping of chopped roasted peanuts would be very good with this, but I didn't have any.

I still had a huge amount of leftover would-be slaw. I've been trying to eat more fermented foods, so I decided to toss it all together and make kimchi using a modified version of this easy vegetarian recipe. I made a salt and water brine for the leftover veggies and let them soak while watching another silly episode of the Bachelorette (we all have our vices!) Two hours later, I drained the veggies, made a quick porridge of water and rice flour to add to the leftover sriracha dressing, and then tossed everything together. The colorful mixture is now enjoying a vacation under some weights in my sauerkraut crock. Hopefully it will all be good!

Monday, June 17, 2013

Teasanity, part 2

Today I invite you to explore tea in some of its lesser known forms, namely matcha, kombucha and laphet.


Tea is a substance that invites rituals.

The simplest and perhaps most common tea ritual for most Americans resembles that practiced by my in-laws every morning: heat a kettle, pour the hot water over the bag of Lipton in a mug, wait a couple of minutes, remove the bag, add a spoonful of sugar, and enjoy with toast and jam.

The Japanese, however, have taken the tea ritual to an art form. My knowledge of the elaborate tea ceremony is limited to reading about it, and I probably have a better chance of trying to stage a ceremony myself than I do of visiting Japan in the near future.

I could build this in the backyard:

Even if I never held a tea ceremony, it would be a terrific reading and writing nook.

The tea part of the ritual is easily accessible even in northern Michigan. Matcha, the powdered green tea used in the ceremony, is sold in specialty stores and online shops. Numerous retailers offer matcha starter sets with a bowl, a bamboo whisk and a tin of the powdered tea.

I add cooking grade matcha to smoothies. Numerous websites offer recipes featuring matcha, and you'll increasingly see it is an ingredient on restaurant menus.


A fermented beverage made from sweetened tea and a "scoby" of bacteria and yeast, kombucha is a drink of Chinese origin that apparently spread to Russia, and from there the rest of Europe, in the early 20th century. Adherents claim benefits ranging from weight loss to cancer cure; the mainstream medical community is skeptical.

Twenty years ago, kombucha was only available as a home-brew and generally required some old-fashioned networking (the kind that existed before the internet) to track down a scoby, or mother culture. Today kombucha can be purchased in the beverage section of your local health food store, where it has reached the level of a craze. But many people still choose to brew their own.

Finding recipes for kombucha is as easy as typing the name in a search engine. Getting the scoby is almost that easy. If you happen to be the kind of person whom other people suspect of brewing strange things at home, you'll likely be offered one from a friend or acquaintance. These things reproduce, so most kombucha brewers always have a "baby" to give away. I got mine from a neighbor who got it from her daughter's boyfriend.

Kombucha fermenting in a jar. Yeah, it looks nasty.
If your social circle doesn't include likely connections, mail-order cultures are available on the internet, even on Amazon. Kombucha experts say it may be possible occasionally to obtain a culture from a commercial beverage, such as the widely-available Synergy brand.

The fun of brewing kombucha is in the second fermentation for which you can add other flavorings and get creative. My neighbor blends cherry juice with her finished kombucha; I've been adding a little hibiscus tea to get a fizzy tart beverage that's more pleasing than the first ferment.


Finally, I'll mention a tea product that was unknown to me until about a week ago and now is at the top of the list of things I'm desperate to try.

I read about laphet in Sandor Katz' book, The Art of Fermentation, and was intrigued by the "explosion of flavor" he said he experienced when he first tasted these pickled tea leaves that are the basis of laphet thoke, a salad that is one of the signature dishes of Burma but nearly unknown in the United States.

Burma, or Myanmar, is slowly opening to tourism after decades as a closed society, so it is currently all the rage among adventurous travelers and foodies. Naomi Duguid's cookbook, Burma: Rivers of Flavor, was nominated for a 2013 James Beard award. And Anthony Bourdain traveled to Myanmar for the first episode of his new CNN show.

With all of this attention, one would expect laphet thoke to be popping up on all the trendy menus and home cooks finding laphet for sale across the interwebs. Not so. My initial research indicated I basically had three options if I wanted to sample this delicacy: travel to Burma, journey to San Francisco and wait in line for hours at the no-reservations Burma Superstar cafe, or mail-order laphet from London and make the salad myself.

My only planned travel is an August vacation to Montreal, so it occurred to me that Canada may have more lenient laphet importation policies and my whim to try this dish could be satisfied there. And yes, I discovered a new Burmese restaurant has opened in my favorite Montreal neighborhood!

But what happens if I become addicted to laphet thoke, as it seems has happened to so many customers of Burma Superstar? Sander Katz offered a possible method of obtaining a steady supply, as he mentioned in his book a friend is growing camellia sinensis on her Alabama farm to make her own laphet. I have relatives with southern gardens, and I've already started trying to persuade my siblings to plant tea shrubs. In the meantime, if anyone out there has a better idea, please leave a comment!

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Teasanity, part 1

I had no idea when I took Dr. Andrew Weil's advice to drink more tea that I would enter a world of connoisseurs and obsession.

Prior to consciously incorporating tea into my daily regimen a few months ago, I drank it irregularly, mostly when I wanted a hot, non-caloric beverage without the caffeine hit of coffee. My brews were split between herbal tisanes and green tea, generally from a bag. Occasionally I would steep a loose leaf tea, such as gunpowder, in one of my small Xiying pots.

Xiying pot
With the nagging suspicion, soon to be confirmed, that my tea-making skills could be improved, I embarked upon a research project. My education continues, but I'll share the highlights so far.

After water, tea is the most consumed beverage in the world. In the United States, it is mostly brewed from bags and served iced. But for tea connoisseurs, the variety of brews available from the camellia sinensis plant almost could be compared to the variety of wines produced from cultivars of vitis vinifera.

To begin, I knew that tea came in various hues -- black, green and white -- and that the colors had more to do with the production process than with appearance. I also knew that herbal teas were misnamed and should be called tisanes or infusions. However, I wanted to get past my superficial knowledge of tea, so I went to class.

Dozens of online tea sellers provide educational pages about tea, and books are available as well. But I only found one source that made me take a quiz at the end of each topic. TeaClass is a fun way to satisfy your inner geek while learning about the history and culture of tea, the varieties of processing, and of course, how to steep the perfect cuppa.

Brewing tea with a bag could not be simpler, which is why most tea in the United States is sold in bags. Grab a mug, fill it with hot water, drop in the bag and wait a couple of minutes.

Those interested in exploring the full diversity of tea will eventually seek out the loose leaf. For that, you'll need one more piece of equipment -- a strainer. Any fine mesh strainer will work, so you don't need to rush out and buy a tea strainer. You can brew a teaspoon of loose leaf tea in one cup and pour it through an all-purpose strainer into another cup.

If you discover you enjoy brewing loose leaf tea, you likely will want to buy a dedicated strainer. Nearly every store with even basic kitchen supplies will stock various tea balls and infusers, most priced less than $10. I have a couple of those, but I prefer to use a teapot with a made-to-fit infuser; it brews enough for two cups of tea, which is ideal because I'm usually sharing with my daughter. For one cup, I'll use one of my smaller Xiying pots.

Tea shops and online purveyors offer a dizzying array of brewing vessels, from traditional Japanese cast iron to contemporary glass beauties. And those on the go can find travel mugs with built-in infusers. Fans enthuse endlessly about their favorite teapots on dozens of online forums. Any non-toxic vessel that holds water will work; tea may even be steeped cold in the refrigerator. For an eco-friendly brew, fill a clean jar with water and the appropriate amount of tea and leave it out in the sun for a few hours.

What to brew? The options can be even more overwhelming. Any well-stocked supermarket will offer dozens of varieties of bagged teas in black and green, perhaps even white, some with added flavorings, as well as herbals to address a range of moods and conditions. Some groceries will stock a few tins of loose leaf tea, but specialty stores generally offer a larger selection of those. Online tea stores may stock hundreds -- yes, you read that right: hundreds -- of tea varieties.

I've purchased tea from both a local company and a downstate retailer that specialize in carefully selected organic teas. And recently, I enjoyed a visit to a shop that surely must have one of the largest inventories of tea anywhere: TeaSource, which has three storefront locations in the Twin Cities area as well as an online shop. Seriously, if you're ever in Minnesota, skip the Mall of America and go to TeaSource; the Gap is the same everywhere, but there are few places that can offer you a choice from more than 200 teas. I'm grateful for the online ordering because I can see my small sample of chocolate cream tea will not last until I return in September.

Coming next: taking tea out of the cup.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Local clothes

In recent months, I've noticed a few friends posting in social media about their projects to grow or raise fibers for making cloth. I've also had a vague awareness of efforts to create a local "fiber shed," a tweet yesterday from a friend who runs an eco-oriented non-profit caught my attention. Apparently, local fiber shed projects have advanced to the point of rustling up an inventory of who's making what.

This trend, if it continues, could do for clothing what localism has done for food. The local food movement is still young but has already succeeded in getting people to rethink their food choices to such an extent that giant corporations have been getting on the bandwagon, and debates on both the virtue and impact of local food have reached the mainstream. (I wrote about this a couple of years ago for the Oryana newsletter, but the only online version I could find is garbled).

Motivations for localizing our clothing and textile consumption abound. Ever since the industrial revolution transferred cloth production from homes to factories, the garment industry has been a focus of concern about wages and labor conditions. Factory tragedies continue, and consumer boycotts of companies associated with sweatshops seem to have little impact on curbing heinous practices.

Gandhi understood that political subjugation came from more than armies and sought to free his country from the British textile mills along with the Crown. He insisted on wearing only homespun cloth, which he promoted as a powerful act of political and economic independence. (My defunct knitting blog has more on this in the Feb. 3, 2005 entry, and a search of "Gandhi and spinning" will yield all you want to know).

As a knitter who has dabbled in spinning, weaving and dyeing, I'm a little skeptical that a local fiber movement will ever get the traction of local food, even though I would love to see it happen. The textiles industry has economies of scale that dwarf artisan fiber crafters. The cost differentials between industrial agricultural products and those of the small, mostly organic farms championed by the local foods movement is a pittance in comparison to the gap between, well, The Gap and your craft fair knitter.

A popular joke among knitters, bemoaning the high cost of quality yarn, is a tale of two friends perusing the sweaters in an exclusive clothing store, with one holding up the price tag: "Will you look at that? I could've knit this sweater for three times that price!" And this sentiment is in reference to commercial yarn; the hand-spun, hand-dyed yarn sometimes acquired from artisan spinners at fiber festivals is even more expensive. Conscientious consumers who can afford it may be willing to pay a 10 to 30 percent markup for organic food, but I doubt there are many who could afford to buy a hand-knit sweater from me if I wanted to value my time beyond 10 cents an hour.

The afghan in the photo on the right was crocheted with yarn produced entirely in the fiber shed in which I lived at the time I started the project. I purchased the skeins at Tierra Wools, an artisan cooperative in northern New Mexico. The fibers are from sheep -- including the endangered Navajo-Churro breed -- raised in the high mountain meadows surrounding Los Ojos and are spun and died in the cooperative's workshops. The yarn is magnificent. My family members fight over who gets to wrap up in this afghan, so warm and soft and lovely. It's not the only blanket in the house, but it's the most treasured. I can't estimate the cost or value; I know it contains between $200-$300 worth of yarn and probably hundreds of hours of my time.

Of course, a local fiber shed needn't have as its objective the hand-production of every item. We could make use of the best tools and processes of the industry with local inputs. An excellent example of small-scale use of machinery is the fiber processing service of Zeilinger Wool Company in Frankenmuth, Michigan. If you shear a sheep (or buy the fleece of one from a rancher or at a fiber fair), Zeilinger's will wash it, card it, and bundle it into ready-to-spin roving. After once attempting to wash and card a fleece by hand, I can testify that this service is so, so worth it. The non-spinner can also have Zeilinger's further process it into yarn and dye it. Perhaps if the local fiber shed movement catches fire, every community will have companies such as Zeilinger's; we already have a small one in the northwest lower Michigan area with Stonehenge Fiber Mill in East Jordan.

A local fiber movement could establish new regional identities expressed through localized fashion. Traditional costumes such as the kimono of Japan and the dirndl of the Alps may never regain common use, but I can envision a region being known for its blue clothes if it grows indigo, for example.

For a region to be self-sustaining in textiles, even with the judicious use of machinery and other industrial processes, I strongly suspect we will need to sharply reduce our consumption. We have externalized the costs of our cheap goods and lost our sense of relative values. A clothing locavore may need to be content with a minimal wardrobe, and by all means, learn to darn those socks! But while we're waiting for the marketplace of local fibers to fully emerge, I suggest hitting up the area thrift stores to at least avoid sending any more money to the Abercrombies of the world.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Of Mushrooms and Minnesota

Or two vaguely related topics joined together in one blog post.

Last week, following a couple of days of spring rain, I began plotting a bean patch in my backyard. Considering possibilities for a border, I remembered my failed shiitake logs and crossed the yard to relocate them. To my amazement, I found all 10 logs in fruit with mushrooms! This is a full two years after they were inoculated. I had given them up for dead, another crop snuffed out in my care.

Some of the logs, in fruit

I consulted a shiitake guide for advice on harvesting. The recommendation was to wait until the caps open and flare out, so I decided to leave them unmolested for a few more days. We were about to leave for St. Paul, Minnesota, to bring our son home for the summer break.

Thus begins the Minnesota part of this post. My son completed his freshman year at Macalester College, providing the occasion for our fourth visit in two years to the Twin Cities. I thank him for choosing a location that's such a delight to visit. Minneapolis and St. Paul offer urban amenities at bargain prices. Some of our favorite "cheap eats" are adjacent to the Macalester campus; we've had excellent Vietnamese lunches at Indochin on three of our four trips. Other neighborhood eateries we've enjoyed are the Khyber Pass, Pad Thai Grand, and Shish.

We made a repeat visit to Fika, which surely must be the best museum snack bar in the world. It is housed in the architecturally-impressive modern wing of the American Swedish Institute and features artfully-prepared contemporary Scandinavian food at museum cafe prices. I've become a bit obsessed with Scandinavian fare since our first visit there in November. I've not been able to successfully replicate the incredible golden beet and apple soup I enjoyed, but I did acquire an excellent healthy cookbook, the Nordic Diet, and I've registered for a Coursera class on the Nordic Diet.

The Twin Cities have a burgeoning reputation as a foodie area and we'll need many more visits to become even partially acquainted with the culinary offerings. Minneapolis is home to my favorite food broadcast, NPR's The Splendid Table.  Anthony Bourdain was appearing at a sold-out event with the Travel Channel's Andrew Zimmern, a Twin Cities resident, while we were in town.

At my son's college, food has an ecological focus (in addition to being tasty). The service is managed by Bon Appetit and strives to incorporate sustainable and humane farming, locally-raised food and health-conscious options. I wish campus food had been this good when I was in college!

At least two culinary luminaries have graduated from Macalester. Dave Miller, a California baker of organic bread, is featured in Michael Pollan's new book, Cooked (which is now my favorite Pollan book, an honor previously held by his Botany of Desire). And Louisa Shafia, author of the excellent Lucid Food, is getting rave reviews for her recent release, The New Persian Kitchen.

Which brings me back to the mushrooms (and soon, a recipe).

When we returned home, I checked the logs and was thrilled to see a shiitake explosion. Several had opened and were ready to harvest and of impressive size.

What to cook with my first batch of beauties? I consulted Lucid Food and found an Asian soup that looked promising. I substituted Japanese sweet potato for the rutabaga and tempeh for tofu and it was delicious.

Asian Shiitake Soup
(adapted from Lucid Food by Louisa Shafia

4 scallions
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, crushed or minced
1 large Japanese sweet potato, peeled and diced (about 3-4 cups)
1/2 teaspoon ground white pepper
2 star anise
Asian Shiitake Soup
3 tablespoons soy sauce or tamari
4 cups chicken stock
8 ounces tempeh
2 cups shiitake or other mushrooms, diced
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, minced
Toasted sesame oil (optional)
Chile flakes (optional)
Rice or other vinegar (optional)
Fresh cilantro (optional)

Thinly slice the scallion greens and set aside. Mince the scallion whites.

In a soup pot over medium-high heat, add 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Saute the scallion whites and garlic for 1 minute. Add the sweet potato, white pepper, star anise and 2 tablespoons of the soy sauce and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Pour in the stock and bring to a boil. Decrease the heat and simmer, covered, until the sweet potato is tender, about 20 minutes. Season to taste with salt.

Heat a skillet over medium heat and add the remaining olive oil. Fry the tempeh for 2 minutes on one side, then sprinkle a little salt over it, flip and cook for 1 minute more. Add the shiitakes, ginger and the remaining soy sauce and cook for 2 minutes, then remove from the heat.

To serve, ladle into bowls and add 1/2 cup of the tempeh mixture to each bowl. Garnish with any or all of the optional ingredients. I used Fustini's lemongrass-mint vinegar, which was excellent.