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Saturday, September 30, 2006

Semi(Sentimental) Homemade

It was me, Hazel, and a trailor home full of the smell of cooked sauerkraut.

Hazel worked at a paper mill by day, drove a huge car, carried around a pack of cigarettes in a flashy, old lady cigarette case, smoked like a chimney, and by night practiced Country-Western electric slide guitar in her sewing room.

Oh, and she became the designated babysitter whenever my parents wanted a night to themselves.

I loved the days and nights I could stay with her. She had one of those old, gaudy, gold-painted Rain Lamps that were large, had a half-naked lady in the middle, and had wires that criss-crossed down around her while hot oil streamed at different speeds down to the bottom. It was a hot oil rain that mesmerized me for hours.

She also had a genuine German cuckcoo clock, and I would often stand on the top of her couch to get a better look at it; again, mesmerized for hours.

Out behind her trailer was a well covered up by a few flimsy wooden boards that a small child, like me, could easily fall down and become the nation's top news story for a week. I use to play by running and jumping over it because, even then, I loved the allure of danger.

Near the well was a small trailer full of board games, toys, records and other items that had belonged to her teenage daughter, Tess, who was killed in a car accident one night while out with her friends. Hazel kept the trailer full of Tess's clothes and possessions, since I guess she could never bear to part with them. I don't know – maybe she was waiting for the day Tess would come home, as if the years that had passed were just one long bad dream.

Wanna hear a ghost story?

Well, Mom later told me that one night, when we all were staying over at Hazel's, she was awakened by a presence at the side of the bed. When she opened her eyes, she saw Tess standing beside her, holding her hand.

I think I remember Mom saying that she felt at ease and peaceful, as if Tess was a good spirit, and not that nasty one who keeps crawling out of the well.

On the nights when it was just Hazel and I, we laughed a lot, particularly at the dancing or bad performances on Solid Gold with Marilyn McCoo. In between laughing, I sometimes helped her cook – mostly by stiring the sauerkraut that was heating up on the stovetop.

She got the biggest kick out of my love for sauerkraut. No child she had ever known, and few adults as well, loved sauerkraut, and I think perhaps she might have felt a little bit alone in the world because of it. So, we were instantly buddies.

Whenever I would leave, she always would say something to the effect of, "well, when I see you next I'll have a pot of sauerkraut waiting for you!"

And, you know what?

She did.

So, you see, this food, this stinky cabbage pickle that is reviled by so many (even Bruce hates it), is special to me. When you bite into it on your hot dog or Reuben or have it served with sausages al'Alsacienne, you may just be enjoying a salty, sour condiment or side. But when I bite into it, I think back and remember that person in my life who nurtured me, who loved to see me (and I her), who shared part of her life with me, and whom I will forever have a place in my heart for.


What took me so long to make my own sauerkraut from scratch (since I've never felt the urge to buy it canned), is anybody's guess, since it's so easy to prepare.

Most of the books I have on food preservation and pickling basically say the same thing.

Here's what I did:

First, I bought 2 heads of cabbage, whose leaves were unblemished and wrapped tight along the head. Together, they weighed 5 pounds. I left these to sit at room temperature for 24 hours.

Next, I washed, then cored, the cabbages and removed any bruised or wilted leaves. Working in small batches, I shredded the cabbage using the shredding blade on my Cuisinart. As I emptied them into the tupperware container (don't use metal) I would use to ferment them in, I salted the shredded cabbage with Morton's Canning/Pickling Salt, which you can buy at Safeway.

You could also use Kosher salt, but the crystals are much larger and don't distribute through the cabbage as well. You definitely don't want to use regular table or sea salt when pickling or preserving since they have additives or impurities that could hamper or ruin what you're trying to preserve/pickle. Instructions I found for salting the cabbage indicate that 3 tablespoons of salt are necessary for 5 pounds of cabbage. However, I salted as I went, eyeing the salt to cabbage ratio, and I ended up using slightly more than 3 tablespoons.

When fermenting food, such as cabbage, it's important to use just enough salt to prevent unwanted bacteria from forming, but not so much that the good bacteria (the ones that form lactic acid) can't reproduce. Once these good bacteria form and multiply, they create the aforementioned lactic acid, fostering an acidic environment that is hostile to harmful bacteria that can spoil your cabbage and/or make you sick.

Another thing: when fermenting or preserving or making sausages or making cheese: everything must be sterilyzed! Your cutting board, your crock/container, your measuring spoons, your chopping aparatus, etc. Be care of where you sit your knife. Wash your hands everytime you touch something not washed in hot soapy water or submerged in hot water. Paper towels come in handy; use them and not that dish towel that's been used the last 5 times you've washed dishes.

And please don't bleed into anything!

After salting the cabbage, it will begin to release its own liquid. Press down on the cabbage as you go and when you're finished, cover it with a plate (or other suitable device). If, when you press down on the plate, the liquid from the cabbage doesn't quite cover the plate, make a weak brine solution and pour it over just enough to cover.

Find something to weigh it down with. I used a plastic container filled with water to do the trick. Once you've weighed it down, cover it and let it sit somewhere cool where it will remain undisturbed by pesky children, nosey old people, and curious cats (no cat blogging, people).

I placed mine on top of our chest freezer - though not directly on top; I sat it on top of an empty, upside-down box. The ambient temperature of where I placed it is between 68 and 72 degrees Farenheit, which means it's fucking cold in my house all of the time.

Temperature is important when fermenting sauerkraut since the higher the temps, the quicker the fermentation process. The quicker the fermentation process, the likelihood of uninvited bacteria colonizing your sauerkraut and spoiling your batch. It also doesn't develop as tart of a sour flavor to it.

So, like with barbecue, you want to go slow and low. The ideal temperature is between 65 and 70, and at this temperature, it will take around 3 weeks to develop a good flavor.

I should warn you that, as it's fermenting, it smells awful. But don't let that fool you into thinking it's gone bad.

You can tell if it's gone bad if it has turned pink or if other types of mold begins to grow on it. Some white mold may grow on the top of the liquid and, if so, spoon it off with slotted spoon or a wire-mesh strainer. For the most part, that mold is harmless, but remove it anyway. As long as your sauerkraut stays submerged and away from oxygen, it shouldn't go bad.

Again, if it is too soft (it should retain some of it's crunch), slimy, or darker than it was before, it has spoiled. Carefully dispose of it (especially so that an animal can't get to it and get sick) and start over.

After 2 weeks, taste it. If you wish to stop the fermentation then, you can do so. In my experience, 3 weeks was optimal.

Now you have the option of storing it in a root cellar (the old-fashioned way), in the refrigerator, or by canning it.

Since I didn't want it taking up what precious little space I have in the fridge, I decided to can it. A lot of people, especially some health nuts, would prefer the first two options as opposed to the last method of storage, since canning the sauerkraut, while stopping the fermentation process, also kills the beneficial bacteria used to ferment it. This is the same bacteria (Lactobacillus) that's found in yogurt and which has been shown to aid gastrointestinal function.

Frankly, I eat a cup of yogurt a day, and that has to go in the fridge. The sauerkraut is getting canned.

Canning doesn't change the great flavor of sauekraut…much. It does mellow it out just a little, as well as softening it some.

To start, you will need some canning jars and brand-new lids.

I don't have any recommendations as far as jars and lids are concerned, other than using wide-mouth jars if you have them, and I think I end up using a mix of Ball and Kerr, which are generally the only two available anyway.

Once you've sterilyzed your jars and lids in hot, soapy water (and rinsed them of course), bring a large pot of water on the stove up to 125F degrees and hold there. For pint-sized jars, I'm using a 14 quart stock pot. Any kind of food thermometer should work well for indicating the temperature of the water – I used a large candy thermometer.

For now, you only want enough water in the pot to cover the jars half-way. Oh, and by the way, I don't have most of the necessary equipment used to can, so I've had to improvise or do without. But speaking from personal experience, you can can (?) without all of the gadgets and do-dahs.

Next, fill your jars with the sauerkraut, leaving about a ½" to ¼" of headspace near the top. If you're lucky enough to have sauerkraut juice leftover, fill the jars (but don't go over the headspace requirement I just mentioned) and save the rest. Aparently, some people like to drink the juice. You could, I suppose, use it as a starter culture for another batch of sauerkraut, which is probably the wisest use of any leftover liquid.

After you have filled the jars, place the lid on the top and screw down the ring, but don't tighten it. In fact, leave it just a little bit loose. The reason why is because canning seals on the lids by pushing out the air. If you've screw the lids on too tight, air won't escape and you may crack the jars.

Now place the sealed jars into the pot, fill the rest of the pot with hot water so that it covers the tops of the jars by 1", and bring the water to a boil. Where I live (less than 100 feet above sea level), the boiling point is 212F. Once your water has reached boiling point, set your timer for 20 minutes.

After boiling for 20 minutes, lift the jars, one at a time and without tipping, carefully from the water (I used a pair of tongs with a good grip on them). Set them on a cooling rack and let them cool down. As they do, you should hear a popping sound, which is the lid being sucked down due to the vacuum you've created in the jar.

Sometimes the lids don't do this right away, so don't worry if they haven't while they're still warm. However, if after completely cooled down your lids still pop up when you press down in the center of them, they didn't seal.

Not to worry though. You can try again, repeating the same process. Or you can store them in the fridge. If you are successful, you'll have a good supply of sauerkraut until next summer.

Although, I probably won't.

I've already gone through 2 of the 5 jars I made!

Next up: Veggie pickles...ok, ok. I know I said I would get to them this time, but aren't you tired of reading yet??


Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Semi(Legal) Homemade


Laura Ingalls!

You come on in this house right now before your Pa comes home from gettin' his wagonwheel fixed at the blacksmith!

I don't know about you, but Fall is becoming one of my favorite seasons to get my hippie, back-to-the-land, survivalist, frontier settler, Little House on the Prairie, foodie freak on. From curing to drying to pickling to smoking – it's all about taking Summer and making it last a little bit longer.

If you're successful, this can be the mostest funnest time of year to make things "homemade".

If you're not successful, you could die a horrible death from botulism – which, I've read, isn't fun at all.

Nevertheless, for what it's worth, Bruce and I have been doing our part curing olives for the last 3 years and, so far, no one's dead.


This year is no exception and last Sunday we got our hands dirty picking beautiful, large green olives from our semi-legal picking spot. Being citified, I have all kinds of romantic, idealistic images and notions when it comes to picking fruit off of a tree.

I envision myself picking olives (or peaches) wearing faded denim overalls, a blue-checked, gingham button-down shirt, and a cap, all while singing a Woodie Guthrie song. Five minutes later, a couple of bleeding scratches, dirt and dust in my face and hair, bugs crawling in my ears and nose, and Woodie Guthrie can go to hell.

The real payoff comes when the work is done, we're back in an air-conditioned car listening to Sufjan Stevens, and headed back to the land of steel canyons, latte sippers, and pigeon shit.

Olives during the lye bath

Curing green olives, while seemingly simple, is often a hit or miss operation, or at least it has been for us. Last year, just when I thought I had perfected the curing recipe, Bruce one upped me and made crisp and clean tasting olives. From his batch, we learned to reduced the amount of lye, extend the period of lye-soaking, and rinse and change the water often.

Pouring off the solution of lye that SUCKS the Oleuropein (bitter compound) out of the olive...suck, lye, suck!

We've also been lucky that the olives we've picked lately have been spared the extensive damage that can be caused by the olive fly, which by the way, wasn't a problem in California until recently.

As of this writing, we're still in the rinsing phase that lasts 7 days or longer. This is after the 16-hour lye bath at half of the strength I used previously.

Already, we've encountered a problem.

Today, the olives turned a dark, dark green – some of them almost black. We believe this happened because we left them out of the rinse water, twice, for 30 minutes at a time in between changes of fresh water. I seem to remember that last year I had a similar problem, but that they lightened over time (later on in the day, they lightened up some).

In freshly changed water

It's not unusual for green olives to turn black during the lye-curing process. In fact, this accident is what gave Americans the ubiquitous canned "black-ripe" California olive that is so pervasive in salad bars and pizza parlors across the U.S. The black-ripe olive is actually a firm, unripe green olive that has been lye-cured and then oxidized to turn black, while ferrous gluconate is added to retain its color.

A real black olive is a fully ripe one that has turned from green to purple to black throughout the season, is soft and oily, and generally used to make olive oil (and sometimes salt-cured table olives).

You may be wondering, "why lye-cure an olive when a water-cured/fermented or salt-cured one has more flavor?"

Well, that's a good question. In fact, I love Kalamata olives, which are cracked, water-cured, fermented olives that have had red wine vinegar added at the last stage. And actually, Bruce and I do make salt-cured black olives, known also as "Moroccan oil cured" olives, as well as fermenting lye-cured green olives (although, in hindsight, that didn't work as well as I thought it would). But lye-cured green olives have special characteristics of their own.

Contrary to some naysayers, lye-cured green olives aren't without flavor. In fact, on their own, their flavor is often described as buttery (perhaps due to the fat content of the olive) and mild. For those who like spicy or garlicky olives, lye-cured green olives are perfect candidates for infusing with peppers, garlic, vinegar, and other spices.

That's likely what we'll do with this batch we're making now, although I'll probably set some "unflavored" ones aside, since I like them the way they are. One day we'll try curing the green olives without lye, but for now we're keeping a container of Red Devil handy.

Next Post: Our favorite smelly cabbage dish - Liberty Cabbage?

No! Sauerkraut! Yum, yum, yum. And I'll show you how to can it!

Added bonus: Fermented veggie pickles!

Start puckering your lips...


Friday, September 22, 2006

Why I Don't Read Your Blog

I know I won't win any friends with this post, but here it goes anyway.

Lately I've been surfing the web looking for other food blogs of interest and what I've been finding, frankly, bores the crap out of me.

Food Porn Watch is a good resource for food blogs, however, there are those that I automatically skip over.

Basically, I skip over any food blog that has:

Kitchen or
Eating in the title.

I know this may be wrong on my part (because there are exceptions!) but, in my experience, boring, unoriginal titles usually equals boring and unoriginal writing.

Here are some food blog names (other than the ones I link to on the right hand side) that I spot which immediately piques my interest:

Milk and Cookies
Oswego Tea
'Ono Kine Grindz
I'm Mad and I Eat (ok, I know this breaks my rule)
A Hamburger Today

Long before I began this blog, I wrote, published, and produced various zines. I also cut my writing teeth in the zine culture of the 1990s. To me, a blog is a zine, just updated a bit. And to me, a catchy title says a lot.

If you still have a copy of one of my last zines, Rinky Dink, well...you've found me.

The other thing that makes me immediately click off a page:

Cat blogging.

Look, I have two great cats: Speedball and Argenta. They are cute and sweet and fiesty and I have a bazillion photos of them. In fact, I just took some yesterday. However, I'm not going to show you mine, if you promise not to show me yours.

Because cat blogging is stupid.

Especially on a food blog.

Currently, I'm waiting for someone to start a food blog on unusual foods and ingredients, like, say, horse. I am waiting for this person to name their blog "Tastes Like Chicken".

I would do it myself, but I've already bitten off more than I can chew, especially in the bad pun department.

See you later, alligator.


Sunday, September 10, 2006

Beach Bum

There are always things to do.

And there are always things to forget about. Like dusting. Or trying to find my tax information for the year 2004.

I was suppose to call Belinda last week so that she could mail me back the Bambi Lake book (I kinda don't want it anymore). And God knows when I'll ever get this video tape to Larrybob – he's so hard to pin down anyway.

I thank God I'm not rich, because then I wouldn't even go to work. As lame as work can be, at least it gets me out of the house. Though, lately, I'm feeling the symptoms of affluenza and the symptoms of povertitis both at the same time. It's like, I get paid more for doing less work than the average person (which only feeds into my boredom and proclivity to be lazy) yet between now and my next paycheck I only have $50 to my name.


For example, I've sat down at this computer or the one like it at work countless times in the last month or so. My fingers have hit every single key and my index finger has clicked both right and left to infinity. But none of those hits or clicks have brought me back to you, until now.

Instead, I've wasted copious amounts of time reading celebrity gossip and advice columnists and Little Britain wikiquotes and about shiites in Iraq and why the Old Order Amish have to build telephone booths far from their home.

A Laaadies Dress For A Laaady!

I've reverted to acting out bad, old habits like visiting a certain food-related message board that I end up hating and swearing off for something like the third time now. I've even resorted to looking at my Bulk mail inbox and getting excited about Friend Requests from insincere friend hoarders on MySpace.

My friend Tom immediately said "writer's block" when I mentioned that I hadn't posted in a while, and without much argument I concurred because, really, I didn't want to tell him the truth.

"No, it's just that I'm lazy...and it's my own fault."

I avoid writing for the very same reason I avoid doing the dishes. I love to cook, but I often hate doing the dishes. I'll do dishes only because they have to be done in order to cook – and the moldy plates issue - but I can't do them anymore without something to listen to/focus on, and if I listen once more to the soundtrack from the movie Xanadu I'm going to puke ELO, roller disco, and feather-backed hair all at once.


To sit down and write this means I have to go into the zone for a while and really, really think, and lately I haven't wanted to think. Or if I have, I wanted to save what little mental energy I have on other things, like "where am I" and "what am I doing" and "where do I see myself in 10 years".

You know, life stuff.


Last Friday was the third month anniversary of being sober, but none of the internal conflicts have gone away. They have calmed a bit, but I still have dreams about being drunk and sometimes I wake up surprised that I'm not hung over. Weird temptations have crept up, and I've been thinking about things like "should I or should I not smoke a cigar" and if I do, will it trigger something or open up the possibility of making excuses to do other things.

My emotional state has levelled out a little as well, although just yesterday, without thinking about the consequences, I told a police officer to his face that he was "a real asshole" and flipped him off. This, of course, had to have happened down the block from where I live, which meant I had to walk two blocks out of the way in the opposite direction so that he wouldn't know where to find me. I wouldn't put anything past a San Francisco cop, not in my neighborhood and not after Fajitagate.


Several times in the last month, I've thought hard about where I want to go with my career (as if I really had one). Several times I've settled on something, got really excited about it, got obsessed with it, and then saw it disintegrate before my eyes once I learned the details of it.

In the course of all of that, I think I've found a career path that I'll stay interested in and stick to. So far, I've made the first few steps towards achieving my goal. One of those steps is going back to school, or in this case community college. I didn't get into the class I needed this semester, but I was able to get into a Spanish class, which is something I've wanted to do for a long time.


I've also been on a diet, so Dive has also taken a hit in the last few weeks.

Nevertheless, the diet has worked pretty well and in the first 2 weeks I lost 12 pounds. I'm now into week 3, but I don't know how much I weigh since I asked Bruce to hide the scales from me.

I've tried not to become obsessive over the diet thing, but in order to be successful at it, I feel like you have to go a little nutty. Like, for the first two weeks, I couldn't eat bread, rice, fruit, and certain vegetables. That means that when I went to dinner at Frisson, I couldn't eat the potatoes that came underneath my 48 Hour Confit of Veal Breasts (since when do cattle have breasts?) or the mango-basil sorbet Bruce had for dessert which, judging from a small taste, was out of this world.

But that was my second hurdle.

My first hurdle was surviving Bruce's dad's 80 birthday party, which was the standard, large family dinner you might expect, complete with all of the pasta and potato and fruit salads and dinner rolls and so on and so on.

I managed that pretty well, mostly because there was plenty of tri-tip to go around. By the way, tri-tip is not on the list of acceptable foods.


It's safe to say that I'm not a true believer when it comes to the South Beach Diet. In fact, I would say that I'm pretty unlike the folks over at the South Beach Diet Forum, some of whom sound completely nutty and speak in cult-like buzzwords. I don't take the book literally, although, I obviously take it into consideration.

It's just that I have some problems with it; problems that I just can't ignore.

San Francisco has an area called South Beach, and while it nestles up to the Bay, it's not really a beach. Actually, if some idiot hadn't decided to call the area above Broadway and Columbus "North Beach", then some other idiot wouldn't have deducted that he lived in "South Beach".

The fact is, there's no beach in South Beach, San Francisco.

The South Beach Diet is, in essence, about food – about what we eat, how we eat, and how much we eat. But while this diet is about food, this book doesn't appear to be written for those who appreciate food. In other words, it wasn't written by and for foodies.

Not In The Book: Salad of Arugula, Soprassetta, Bulgarian Feta, Golden Heirloom Tomatoes, and Tangerine-scented Flowers

In each of its three phases, the diet favors complex carbs over simple carbs and unsaturated fats over saturated ones. Where it gets annoying is its list of acceptable foods and unacceptable foods. For example, cheeses like Cheddar, Mozzerella, Parmesan, and String Cheese are listed as "Foods To Enjoy". But what about fresh goat cheese from Harley Farms? Or aged goat cheese like Humboldt Fog? What about a sheep milk cheese like Manchego or Manouri?

Agatston would've been better off suggesting cheeses by the type of animal and how it's produced, rather than throwing out a bunch of generic cheeses. That yellow hunk of generic cheddar, made from cow's milk, is much higher in fat than an artisanal, aged goat cheese.

And really, "parmesan"? You mean that stuff that comes in the can made by Kraft (keep reading)? Think about how much that stuff is processed. Wouldn't you rather have freshly grated Vella Dry Jack or Parmigiano Regiano?

And, what the hell? A "dairy-free cream cheese substitute"? You mean like Tofutti? Oh, hell no. And besides, I really don't know about the health effects of all of these soy-derived substitutes. I'd much rather have a REAL cheese.

So, Doc, where's my Gruyere or Roquefort or Emmentaler?

In addition, Dr. Agatston recommends all sorts of food substitutes including "I Can't Believe It's Not Butter" (which contains trans-fats), Metamucil (instead of just more natural fiber), and "sugar substitutes" like Aspartame, which, although hasn't been proven to cause cancer, certainly has its fair share of respectable doctors and scientists who remain cautious and skeptical about its day-to-day, long-term use.

Besides the bad flavor of these artificial foods, isn't recommending these bizarre concoctions just contributing to same industry that has overprocessed natural foods into bland, and sometimes life-threatening, Frankenfoods? The same industry that produces the same junk food that makes us overweight and unhealthy?

You know, the same industry of which Kraft is a part of – Kraft who makes South Beach Diet frozen dinners – those boxes of unrecyclable paper, plastic, and processed, fast food?

Hasn't Dr. Agatston ever heard of "Fast Food Nation" or The Slow Food movement?

While I could go on about some of the contradictory aspects of the foods and recipes recommended in the book, as well as some of the omitted aspects that leave the reader clueless about simple things, such as portion sizes for varying individuals, the greatest problem I have with the book is the lack of citations.

Generally, when reading a specific claim someone has written, a claim not supported by tons of anecdotal evidence (unlike Bill O'Reilly having a thing for falafels and loofa sponges), I would expect to see footnotes and citations that reference where to back up these claims.

There are none in the South Beach Diet book, and nor is there an appendix.

In some respects, I don't even care that the book wasn't peer reviewed by others in the medical/scientific field. It's a diet book for chrissakes. But Agatston states many things as if they were well-known facts and alludes to studies which prove his point without telling us where to find these studies, who did them, when they were done, and who funded them.

I guess what matters is, in the end, did I lose weight? Yes. Some of advice in the South Beach Diet book is useful, especially about insulin resistance and "slow carbs".

Nevertheless, it's easy to guess that I would have lost weight anyhow, simply by not eating a high-in-fat breakfast sandwich in the morning, a bowl of hot and sour soup along with a huge plate of beef chow fun for lunch, several helpings of fish and chips (or half of a large pizza) for dinner, and a big bowl of ice cream afterwards.

Simply cutting some of those things out of my diet and reducing my portion sizes had drastically reduced my calorie count, so weight loss was inevitable.

Look, I guess I'm just a sucker like everyone else when it comes to quick fixes and marketing. That's why I bought the book, and the diet that comes with it. If the ends justify the means, buy the book and complain later (...I guess is what I'm trying to say here).

With that, I leave you where I left off – confused and conflicted as ever.