Sunday, September 20, 2015

A Taste for Travel

Many travelers, especially self-proclaimed 'foodies', visit new places to try on a different culture, a different cuisine. While I support and often even embrace that mentality, anyone with dietary restrictions understands how difficult that can be at times. The is particularly the case in countries where diets centre around meat or dairy. So at some point, any traveler following a restrictive diet voluntarily must ask his/her self what are the reasons for eating this way and could there be negative social implications by doing so. Because food is such a central part of our existence as humans, refusing a meal can offend a host, or you might diminish the experience of a place by avoiding a traditional regional dish. Perhaps now you might begin to grasp why, when presented a menu of vegan versions of 'typical' cuisine, I find it difficult to contain my joy and enthusiasm.

This past week I spent in Berlin, the capital of a country known for its love of sausage. While I'm not a huge fan of meat substitutes, I was feeling the deprivation when confronted with some cheesy spätzle (an egg noodle). Luckily, after late nights reporting on a tropical agriculture conference, I was able to tuck in on the last night. We went to an apparently more posh vegan restaurant, Viasko, where spätzle and flammkuchen, a flatbread usually with meats and cheeses, were on the menu. Though I doubt its complete authenticity, the food was tasty (if the service excruciatingly slow), and I felt like I walked away with at least a little taste of Germany.
But now I'm in Scotland, the land of sheep and haggis. Perhaps if I were in Edinburgh, but I am hiking the West Highland Way through and away from the big metropolises. That said, I've been pleasantly surprised by the options: stirfry at the first hostel, authentic Indian curry at this bunk house, but no veggie Scottish fare. I guess I must be satisfied with Scottish oatcakes and jam...
Amendment! My last night on the trail I supped at the Bothy Bar next where I stayed. Veggie haggis burger with chips and pickles on the menu, score!

Friday, September 11, 2015

Making Mud Pies...Grown-Up Style

Do you remember mud pie? Not the mass of soil and water that you would serve in the backyard, at tea parties with butterflies and snails. But that special treat your mom would make, layering chocolate pudding and crushed Oreos, with vibrantly coloured gummy worms emerging from the chocolate brown substrate. This was a favourite at birthday parties, where each guest could have her own 'dirt cup'. At some point desserts became sophisticated and classy, mixing flavors and aromas only a more refined palate would appreciate. Yet deep down I think many of us long for the childhood pleasure that comes with dressing up a simple dessert as something it's not.

While a mud pie is a far cry from the dynamic soil ecosystem it attempts to mimic, it is a strange homage to the roles and support functions of organisms beneath the ground. Worms play a decomposition function, breaking down leaf matter and aerating the soil profile as they 'worm' their way through. Things like bacteria make essential nutrients available to plants - such as fixing nitrogen in the atmosphere into a usable form. Fungi can extend root structures to help plants mine the soil for what they need, permeating minute books and crannies.

Now professing to be some semblance of an adult, I haven't ventured back quite to the point of the pleasures of yesteryear. However, in making a 'grown-up' (and vegan) version of the mud pie, I have somewhat intentionally brought together the vegetal and sweet (wc). Avocado and dark chocolate, both tropical agroforestry crops that require well-drained soil, form the base. Concentrated juice from boiled beet root creates an impressive burgundy colour in the marzipan beets. Another root crop that depends heavily on the composition of the soil, tiny carrots culled during thinning the allotment dot the cake crumb surface. 

Chocolate Garden Pie
1 pre-baked vegan pie crust

1 large ripe avocado
100 g dark (65%+) chocolate
1/3-1/2 cups unrefined sugar
1 tsp vanilla (optional)
1 tbs coconut oil (optional)
1/2 cup crumbled chocolate cake

1. Purée avocado and sugar until no lumps remain. Old school smashing with a fork will also work, but the consistency will be coarser.
2. Melt chocolate and oil, either over a double broiler or in the microwave for 1 minute then 30 second intervals. 
3. Pour chocolate into avocado purée and fold together with the vanilla. No green should be visible.
4. Fill the pie shell and then refrigerate at least overnight. Top with crumbs and any garden accoutrements you like. Worms (and spiders, etc.) are optional, but are a sign of a functioning agroecosystem!

Enjoy with a dollop of coconut whipped cream in a verdant place. 

*brought to you from a train!

Friday, September 4, 2015

Of Earth, Wind, and Fire

Identity is a funny thing. Of course there is no doubt in my mind that I'm a Seattleite, born and raised less than 30 miles from the city. Despite not really having lived there in the last decade (we'll just ignore the nearly a year of underemployment spent at my parents' house), I still hold to very strong perceptions developed through the eyes of my childhood self. The emphasis on weather is particularly apparent, and perhaps explains the ease with which I have settled into a country with a decided preoccupation with commenting and speculating on the weather. These ingrained notions that a gray, gloomy, drizzle dominates for a solid ten months of the year, with a brief respite of brilliantly sunny and yet not-too-warm summer days, provide sufficient fodder for heated discussion when reality deviates from the norm. And yet, regardless of our green inclinations, this also makes it difficult sometimes to grasp that we may be facing a 'new normal'.
These days, when I read in the news about the droughts and fires taking place on the west coast of the US, this is exactly what comes to mind. It is temperate and humid in Seattle, and every now and then there is a slightly drier year in which we can't set off fireworks on the 4th of July. But this just demonstrates how removed and romantic I have become about the weather in Washington. Spring and summer have been dry, and likely to remain so. More record-breaking, wild fires this summer have made news (even in the Guardian) as the largest in State history. These are not your controlled burns to manage dead and dried understory brush. Winds have helped fires to spread, making them more dangerous and difficult to control. Even the wettest part of Washington, the rainforest on the Olympic Penninsula, the place of absolutely soaked childhood memories, felt the heat and burned this summer.

But it is not just about precipation, which many see as the defining feature of the Pacific Northwest. This year was the warmest winter on record in Washington State. Yes, it rained; but because of above-freezing temperatures, by April 1st snowpack in the Cascades and the Olympics was 25% and 3% its normal level, respectively. Timing is everything, as the western US relies on snowmelt to fill reservoirs and replenish streams. Combine unusually low stored water and a lack of spring and summer rainfall, and that makes for a dangerous situation. Fires, for one, destroying vast swaths of forest, threatening homes, and affecting air quality. But also, reduced stream flow hinders the spawning of salmon (the other PNW icon) and puts pressure on an already threatened group of fish. And of course, our agricultural systems need water. A $2.5 trillion irrigated agriculture industry at risk, in fact.

Stay tuned next week: how to make a vegan 'mud' pie
But let's take a small-scale example. Some farmer friends wrote a really telling blog post on what water shortages mean for farms in a State that takes abundant water for granted. Usually able to rely on a 'high water table' and the local rivers, farmers face elevated costs associated with more intensive irrigation. Water is also a limiting factor in good establishment of seedlings, particularly young tender vegetablets. What this post also alluded to were the extended economic implications - absence from markets and inability to meet demand for CSAs and restaurants during this usually bountiful period. It is in the nature of farming to require flexibility, versatility, and the capacity to shift from year to year to meet variability. But at some point, longer term and more drastic innovation is required to respond to what very much seems like a new normal. 

While we're stuck with some level of climate impacts, I think what people are currently experiencing is making the necessity of mitigating actions even clearer. Perhaps wishful thinking. So I will conclude this post with a dash of hope, as we start to see a bit more emphasis, a bit more urgency, placed on the serious challenge that climate change presents for our current and future ways of life.

Read More: 
Water Resources - Washington Department of Ecology

Friday, August 28, 2015

Let Them Eat Bread

You may have figured I fell down a rabbit hole or got lost on the way to library. And while either of those things are likely to happen here in Oxford, I can sadly use neither as an excuse. Rather, it just so happens that the more work I have - the more looming deadlines, the more time spent sitting in front of a computer screen - the more I bake (and the less I apparently write on this blog). Friends know this to be the case, and often benefit from a plethora of carb-laden delights that one person should never (and yet, sometimes does) consume alone.

It's a strangely meditative and calming activity, which requires patience and planning. Operating literally by feel, it is also a very personal pasttime, one in which many of the bakers I know have strong opinions and preferences about process of kneading (or not), fermentation (how long), and composition (how hydrated). Luckily for you, I am not one of those people - though that might explain my bread-baking's inconsistent results. And I'm also not here to wax on the joy of baking, in spite of appearances to the contrary.

On a Skype not too long ago, my father (yes, I know you're reading this) commented on what a challenge it must be to make bread without a breadmaker or a stand mixer and breadhook. While surely those modern amenities facilitate and standardize the production of bread at home, they are by no means necessary. In fact, this comment made me pause, and reflect that actually people have made bread without mechanical aids and in much less optimal conditions for thousands of years. So of course this prompted the ensuing storm of Google searches. 

Now, many of you are familiar with baking using packets of dried yeast that you then activate in warm water with a pinch of sugar. But that 'invention' of packaged and ready to use yeast happened only in the last century and a half. Bakers have used the 'wild' yeast present in the air for much longer. Often referred to as a sourdough 'starter', the naturally occurring Saccharomyces species of yeast metabolize the sugars in grains to produce carbon dioxide and leaven the dough, while the presence of Lactobacillus bacteria create a distinctly sour flavour. Saccharomyces is also used for alcoholic fermentation in wine and beer; in fact, some theories have wine and beer as the first leavening agents in bread!

Bread is one of the foods that marks our species' transition from hunter-gatherers to agriculturalists over 10,000 years ago, initially the result of baking a porrige-like concoction of grain and water on hot stones. The flatbreads (think pita and corn tortillas) still form the basis of diets in many cultures, and must have developed independently in places as different as the arid Levant in the Middle East to the humid forests of South America. Then as far back as 6,000 years ago in the bread basket of ancient times, and likely by accident, that fateful mixing of yeast and ground grain results in a leavened loaf.

It's interesting to reflect on the evolution of this staple food over millennia. What is required of me today - mix flour, water, starter, and a bit of salt; let the dough sit for a day or so; and then preheat my oven and bake - is far less arduous than for my predecessors, even without an electric mixer. But I think perhaps less recognized and yet just as drastic is the change in substrate - from coarse whole grains ground with rocks to finely sifted milled flours. The clean white dust, which we call 'All-Purpose' in the US or 'Plain' here in the UK, bears little resemblance to its ancestors (and is of little use in baking a good loaf of bread). And perhaps for that very reason there seems to be a resurgence, even a rennaissance, of artisan baking of late - both in the home and as businesses. After tasting difference, it's not hard to understand why!

Read More: 
A Brief History of Bread - The History Channel
The Rise and Rise of Sourdough Bread - The Guardian
Bread and Women - The New Yorker
The History of Bread - The Science of Bread Making
The Story Behind a Load of Bread - Botham's of Whitby (artisan baker)
Yeast Fermentation and the Making of Beer and Wine - Nature Citables
What Makes Whole-Grain Bread So Hard to Bake? - Smithsonian
Sourdough Bread-Baking: The Levain - Chef Turned Soldier

Monday, June 29, 2015

Leap Second Post

This actually has very little or nothing to do with June 30th's 'leap second'. Rather, I am posting this really quickly since it has been ages. Don't worry, more substance will return when brain capacity returns post thesis! In the meantime, we can turn to tasty things. The more I have to do, the more I tend to bake. As an example, in the past three days I've baked a pie, a loaf of bread, and a pan of brownies. I'm also supposed to have a reasonable excuse for a draft thesis by Friday...

Anywho, these brownies turned out really fudgily fantastic, so now you too can procrastinate with tasty baked delights.
Not-In-The-Least Healthy, Time-Wasting Brownies
1/2 vegetable or melted coconut oil
1 heaping tbs peanut butter
1/4 cup almond milk
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 tsp sea salt
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup whole meal flour
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup chocolate chips (optional)

1. Whisk or use a fork to mix the first seven ingredients until everything is incorporated.
2. Fold in dry ingredients until the batter is smooth.
3. Pour into a small greased square brownie pan. Bake at 180C (375F) for 20-30 minutes, until the outside is firm to touch. Remove and allow to cool. Don't overbake!!!