Wednesday, November 24, 2021

Thanksgiving Essentials - Brined Roast Turkey, Corn Bread Stuffing and Mushroom Gravy

A post from several years ago with recipes for the way we prepare the turkey, stuffing and gravy. This year we bought a 20 pound organic turkey to serve 16 people. With all the appetizers, sides, salads and the salmon we're making, that should be the perfect size.

Thanksgiving was my mother's favorite holiday. She loved the chance to have her family and friends seated around the table, catching up, telling stories, and eating favorite treats.

Most of the time I do the cooking since I work at home and because we have a kitchen the size of a New York closet. Thanksgiving is my wife's day and I happily step to the side, working as a sous chef, assisting her in executing a meal that usually serves between 15-20.

Even though Thanksgiving is a lot of work, the key is organization. Writing up a menu is the first step, then a shopping list, and finally a time-line for the day before Thanksgiving and the day of the meal.

Along with those first steps, we cover the bottom of the oven with aluminum foil so clean up after the meal is easier. Cleaning out the refrigerator makes room for the turkey after we pick it up from the grocery store and so there's space for all those delicious left-overs after the meal.

Besides shopping at the grocery store we visit our local farmers' market to pick up fresh vegetables for the sides dishes: beets, sweet potatoes, lettuce, celery, carrots, mushrooms, Brussels sprouts, corn, leeks, and onions.

But the most important part of the meal is the turkey and no turkey is complete without a great stuffing.

Corn Bread Stuffing with Sausages, Dried Apricots, and Pecans

Over the years my wife has developed a crowd-pleasing stuffing with a contrast of textures: soft (corn bread), spicy (sausage), chewy (dried apricots), and crunchy (pecans).

Yield: 15-20 servings

Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

2 boxes corn bread mix
3 celery stalks, washed, ends trimmed, leaves discarded
1 pound mushrooms, brown, shiitake, or portabella, washed, pat dried, finely chopped
2 medium yellow onions, peeled, ends removed, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
1 stick sweet butter
1 1/2 cups turkey or chicken stock
4 Italian style sweet sausages
1 cup dried apricots, finely chopped
1/2 cup pecans, roughly chopped
Sea salt and pepper

Method

Make the corn bread the night before and leave the pan on the counter so the corn bread dries out. Use any cornbread mix you like. My wife uses Jiffy. It's inexpensive and tastes great. The instructions are on the box.

Saute the sausages whole in a frying pan with a little olive oil until browned, remove, cut into bite-sized pieces, and set aside. Pour off the excess fat. Add the celery, mushrooms, onion, and garlic into the pan with the stick of butter and saute. Season with sea salt and pepper. Cook until lightly browned, then add stock and summer 15 minutes.

Cut the cornbread into chunks and crumble into a large mixing bowl. Add the apricots, pecans, and the saute. Stir well and set aside until you're ready to stuff the turkey.

Roast Turkey

The most difficult part about cooking a turkey is size. Even a 15 pound turkey is larger than any roast you'll ever cook, so it's important to have somebody around to help strong-arm the turkey.

The rule of thumb about cooking time is 15-20 minutes per pound at 325 degrees but there are so many variables, you can also use a roasting thermometer and, our preferred method, jiggle-the-leg and if it almost comes off, the turkey's done.

There's a lot of talk about whether to brine or not to brine. In the Los Angeles Times, Russ Parsons argued for what he calls a "dry" brine, which means salting the turkey inside and out, then wrapping it in a sealable bag and refrigerating it for one to two days.

To prepare your turkey, in addition to the roasting pan, you'll also need pliers. I'm amazed at the work it takes to remove the heavy plastic gizmo that holds the legs neatly in place. 

Yield: 20-25 servings

Time: 7-8 hours

Ingredients

1 turkey, 23-25 pounds
Olive oil
Sea salt and pepper

Method

Unwrap the turkey. Remove the packet with the liver, neck, heart, and giblet. Use a pair of pliers to remove the piece of wire that holds the legs. It can be a real pain to get the wire off. Wash the turkey inside and out. Pat dry on the outside.

Reserve the liver to make a turkey chopped liver. Put the neck, heart, and giblet into a large saucepan with a lot of water, at least five inches higher than the turkey pieces. Replenish whatever water boils off. Simmer for 2-3 hours or until the meat on the neck falls off if you touch it with a fork. Strain the stock and reserve to use for gravy. Pull the meat off the neck and save to make turkey soup. Use the giblets in the gravy.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.

The next step is easier with a friend. Drizzle olive oil on the outside of the turkey. Using your hands spread the oil over the entire bird, front and back. Sprinkle sea salt and black pepper inside the cavity and on the outside.

To put in the stuffing, either my wife or I holds the turkey upright and steady while the other loosely packs the stuffing inside the large cavity, one handful at a time.

Use 8-12 metal skewers and kitchen string to close the large cavity. Carefully turn the turkey over so you can put stuffing into the top area. Use 6-8 skewers and string to close that cavity.

Use any kind of roasting pan. Whether you use a disposable aluminum foil pan or an expensive stainless steel roasting pan from William Sonoma, the result will be the same. The important thing to remember is the pan must be at least 2" wider than the turkey, otherwise as the bird cooks, its juices will drip onto the bottom of your stove and make a mess. To insure that the turkey browns evenly, you'll need a wire rack.

Place the turkey on the rack, breast down and put into the oven. After 30 minutes, reduce the temperature to 350 degrees.

After that, every 30 minutes, baste the turkey with the fat that drips down into the pan. If the skin starts to brown too quickly, put an aluminum tent over the top.

After 3 hours, turn the turkey over. With a large bird this is easier said than done because now the turkey is not only heavy, it's very hot.

Another set of hands is a big help here. My wife and I have choreographed this crucial moment. I lift the roasting pan with the turkey out of the oven, placing it on the cutting board. Michelle stands at the ready with a pot holder in each hand. As I lift the rack with the turkey, she removes the pan. I flip the rack with the turkey onto the cutting board, having first put a kitchen towel along the edge to prevent juices from falling to the floor.

We pour all the juices and fat from the pan into a basting bowl, scrapping off the flavor bits on the bottom of the pan to make gravy.

The rack goes back into the pan. The turkey goes onto the rack, breast side up. After a good basting, the turkey goes back in the oven, covered with an aluminum foil tent.

As the turkey continues to cook, if the wing tips and drumstick ends brown too quickly, wrap them in aluminum foil.

Continue basting every 30 minutes. When the turkey is finished, remove from the oven and let rest 5 minutes.

Carve the turkey on a cutting board, removing the wings first, then the legs, thighs, and the breasts. Either place the pieces on the platter whole, to be carved at the table, or sliced for easy serving. Open the cavities and spoon out the stuffing.

Mushroom-Giblet Gravy

While the turkey is cooking, start the gravy.

Yield: 15-20 servings

Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

2 medium yellow onions, peeled, ends removed, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
1 turkey giblet, cooked, grizzle removed, finely chopped
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary, tarragon, or Italian parsley
1/2 pound mushrooms, brown, shiitake, or portabella, washed, finely chopped or sliced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups turkey stock
Sea salt and pepper

Method

Saute the giblet, onions, garlic, fresh herbs, and mushrooms until lightly browned. Add turkey stock and the flavor bits you scraped off the roasting pan, simmer and reduce by 1/3. Taste and adjust the flavors. If too salty, add more stock and a pat of sweet (unsalted) butter.

Reheat before serving.

Turkey Stock

When you're eating Thanksgiving dinner, odds are you aren't thinking about your next meal, but I am. Admittedly, it's a bit obsessive, but before I sit down to join the dinner, all the bones and scraps go into a large pot filled with water. By the time we're clearing the table, the stock is finished.

Turkey stock is rich and flavorful. Perfect for making soups, stews, and pasta sauce, and like chicken stock, freezes beautifully.

Yield: 15-20 servings

Time: 1 hour
Ingredients

1 turkey carcass, skin, scraps
Water

Method

Put the carcass into a large pot. If any of stuffing makes it into the pot, all the better for flavor and richness. Cover the bones with water. Simmer 1 hour. Strain and refrigerate. Pick the meat off the bones to use in a soup or stew.

The stock keeps in the freezer for six months.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

It's Never Too Soon to Think about Thanksgiving Left-Overs - Turkey Stew with Dumplings

To make Thanksgiving a success, a time line is essential. We started one last week. We planned the menu, which meant we could put together a shopping list. After I had visited my favorite markets, Super King Market (6501 San Fernando Road, Glendale Ca 91201) and the Santa Monica Whole Foods on Montana Avenue, I had what we need to make our feast.

Included on the time line was what comes next. After Thanksgiving comes Thanksgiving left-overs, which some in our family say is the best part of Thanksgiving.

Open faced sandwiches with turkey and my homemade turkey liver pate. Turkey soup made from the stock of Thanksgiving's bones and bits. And, my favorite, dumplings and turkey stew. The absolute best comfort food. 


The basics are straightforward. Cooked turkey meat. A handful of favorite vegetables. A cup of white flour. A bit of half and half. A cube of butter. Homemade turkey stock. A few seasonings.

Simmer. Cover. Uncover. Serve. Easy and delicious.

Homemade Turkey Stock

During Thanksgiving dinner, a large stock pot sits on the back of the stove. A steady flame brings the water to a slow-boil and, as I carve, I add bits of bones, skin and the parts we don't eat into the pot. As we share a feast, passing plates around the table, refilling wine glasses and looking with excitement at the dessert table, the stock pot does it work. Water becomes turkey stock and as the slow-boil does its work, the stock thickens and becomes lusciously nourishing.

When the liquid has been reduced by half, the flame is turned off so the stock can cool. A quick pass through a colander to remove the bones and bits and we have pure turkey stock. Allowed to cool to room temperature, the stock goes into the refrigerator in 16 ounce covered containers to allow for easy refrigeration or for freezing. 

Kept in the refrigerator, the stock is good for up to four days. Stored in the freezer, the stock will retain its qualities for up to six months. One tip, when you remove the frozen stock from the freezer, take off the lid and rinse the top of the frozen stock with water to remove any ice crystals, which can add an unpleasant flavor.

Another tip, use the left over meat and skin for your pet. Our son's dog, Fig, loves chopped up turkey meat and skin added to his daily bowl of prepared food. We freeze 6 ounce containers of the left over turkey so we can chop off pieces, defrost and give him a treat during the week.

Farm-to-Table Vegetables, Turkey and Dumplings

Use a good quality organic turkey and buy farmers market produce when available. 

If you have dried whole shiitake mushrooms, use them. They add a distinctive flavor, different from the delicate flavor of thinly sliced shiitakes.

Use vegetables you love. And lots of them. English peas. Squash rounds. Kabocha chunks. Roasted sweet potatoes. Green beans. Kale. Shredded cabbage. Chopped turnips. My preference is to tilt the balance towards the fresh produce, plating great mounds of vegetables with a leg and a wing or two pieces of breast.

The dish can be covered and served the next day or divided into smaller covered containers and frozen for up to three months.


Yield: 4 servings

Time to prep: 15 minutes (if you already have turkey stock as described above) or 1 hour (including time to make turkey stock)

Time to cook: 30 minutes

Total time: 45 minutes - 1 hour 30 minutes

Ingredients

4 cups cooked turkey meat, cut into quarter sized pieces, no bones
1 medium yellow onion, washed, ends trimmed, outer skin removed, cut into 1/2" pieces
1 cup green beans, washed, ends removed, cut into 1" long pieces
1 cup broccoli florets, washed and cut into 1" pieces or broccoli leaves, washed, shredded
2 cups shiitake mushrooms, washed, stem end trimmed, thinly sliced or 2 cups dried whole shiitake mushrooms, washed
1/4 cup Italian parsley, leaves only, washed, finely chopped
1 garlic, peeled, finely chopped (optional)
1/2 cup celery, washed, ends trimmed, cut into 1/2" pieces (optional)
4 cups homemade turkey stock, as described above
1 large carrot, washed, trimmed, peeled, cut into 1/2" thick rounds
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Pinch freshly ground black pepper
Pinch cayenne powder (optional)


Dumpling ingredients

1 cup all-purpose flour, white
2 tablespoons sweet (unsalted) butter, cut into fine bits
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
Pinch freshly ground black pepper
1 scallion, washed, ends trimmed, green and white parts finely chopped or 2 tablespoons Italian parsley, leaves only, washed, finely chopped (optional)
1/2-1/3 cup half and half, cream or whole milk


Directions

Turkey stock can be used when made fresh or when thawed after having been frozen, as described above.


In a mixing bowl, add flour, cut up butter, scallion (or Italian parsley), baking soda, sea salt and black pepper. Using a fork, mix well. Slowly add milk, stirring until thickened. The resulting mixture should be like thick batter. If the mixture is too runny, add a tablespoon of flour. Cover and set aside.


In a large pot, heat olive oil and sauté onions and garlic (optional) with oil until softened. Add cooked turkey and vegetables. Season with sea salt and freshly ground black pepper. Add turkey stock.  Stir and simmer 20 minutes.


To make the dumplings, use two soup spoons to create small rounds of dough. Drop each dumpling into the simmering liquid. Make room for each dumpling so they do not touch because they will expand as they cook. Use all the dumplings batter and cover.

Adjust the heat so the stock simmers but does not boil.

Cook 30 minutes and serve immediately. Place several dumplings into each bowl, adding a protein and a good helping of vegetables with several tablespoons of sauce.

Serve hot.

Saturday, November 20, 2021

Thanksgiving is Pickle Time

We planned a small Thanksgiving dinner for 2021. Then we added relatives and friends we wanted to join us. Now we have a large Thanksgiving dinner. We planned to eat indoors. Now we'll eat outside on the patio. We live in Pacific Palisades so "cold" here is 56-60 F enough to feel the chill, so we asked everyone to bring a coat and a sweater. 

We have much to be thankful for this 2021 Thanksgiving. We are thankful for our health, our family and our friends. We are thankful for the good things that have happened this year.

Along with these recipes, I send good thoughts and best wishes your way. For Thanksgiving and for the rest of 2021.

My mother loved Thanksgiving.

For her, Thanksgiving brought together friends and family in a celebration of life and food.  I came to share that love as my own family grew. 

The happy ritual for my wife and myself is everyone gathers early at 3PM so we can enjoy the light at the end of the day. Our small house fills with the musical rhythm of the front door opening and familiar voices greeting us as they add their dishes to the feast or flowers to brighten the dining room. 

While my wife keeps the group refreshed with beverages and appetizers, I am focused in the kitchen. Putting dishes in and out of the Wolf stove's large oven. Prepping salads and putting the finishing touches on the desserts. 

The main event is, of course, the turkey. Usually twenty-four pounds so I can send our sons to their homes with several days' worth of left-overs. 


All too often, I would have visitors in our closet-sized kitchen. I appreciated their desire to keep me company, but in such a small space and such a large menu, I'm best left to myself so I can pull baking trays from the hot oven without burning them or myself, sauté string beans with almonds in a giant carbon steel pan and stir the shiitake mushroom/pan drippings gravy. 


We loved how our home was filled with a friendly clamor as people caught up on the latest personal news, laughed and clinked glasses to celebrate what is best about our lives. That was what my mother loved and we did too.

This year the gathering will be outside on the patio, as it was in 2020, but this year, we will have many more family and friends. My mother would approve.

Homemade Pickles

Pickles are delicious anytime of the year. For Thanksgiving they are especially good. Their crunch and acidity counterbalances the deliciousness of gravy, mashed potatoes and roast turkey. 


For Thanksgiving I always make two kinds of pickles. Kosher dill pickles and Moroccan-style pickled vegetables. Kosher dills should be made a few days before served. Moroccan-style pickled vegetables should be made two weeks ahead. They will keep, sealed in a jar, refrigerated for as long as a year.


No doubt the people who made the first pickles thought they had made a mistake. Somebody accidentally forgot about some raw vegetables in a pot with an acid and salt. Surprise, surprise. A week later, the vegetables weren’t moldy, no bugs had eaten them and, deliciously, they had a nice crunch and tang. Thus was born, the pickle!

In the 1920s, my great-grandfather made pickles on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Grandmother Caroline used to tell stories about working in their little grocery store as a child. When customers would want pickles, she would hop off the counter and go out front to the pickle barrels and fish out the ones they wanted.

I never knew her parents. I never ate their pickles, but I must have brine in my veins because wherever I travel, I am always on the look out for pickles.


Moroccan pickled veggies

In Morocco at a cooking class in Marrakech at La Maison Arabe, Amaggie Wafa and Ayada Benijei taught us to make Berber bread, couscous with chicken and vegetables, chicken tagine with preserved lemons and clarified butter, tomato marmalade, eggplant-tomato salad and preserved vegetables.
The cooking class lasted four hours. The time it took to show us how to make preserved or pickled vegetables: five minutes.
To Wafa and Benijei, the process was so easy, there were no pickle recipes. A little of this, a little of that, throw the vegetables into a jar, shake it up, put it in a cupboard and in a week, voila, you have pickles.

Pickle recipes tip from Grandma

From my grandmother I learned that making kosher dill pickles was a little more complicated. In retrospect, I think that’s because pickling cukes are more prone to decay than are the carrots, parsnip, fennel and green beans used in Morocco.
Every Thanksgiving I make both.
Pickles are very personal. What one person loves might be too salty or vinegary to another. It may take you several tries before you settle on the mix of salt, vinegar and spices that suits your palate.

Garlic is usually added to brine. My grandmother didn't put garlic in hers and I don't put any in mine so I indicated garlic as optional.

Lower East Side Kosher Dill Pickles

When making kosher dill pickles keep in mind four very important steps:
1. Select pickling cukes, not salad cucumbers, and pick ones without blemishes or soft spots.
2. Taste the brine to confirm you like the balance of salt-to-vinegar. The flavor of the brine will approximate the flavor of the pickles.
3. Once the cukes are in the brine, they must be kept submerged in an open container.
4. When the pickles have achieved the degree of pickling you like, which could take three days to a week, store the pickles in the brine, seal and keep in a refrigerator where they will last for several weeks.
Ingredients
8 cups water
¼ cup kosher salt
1 cup white wine vinegar or yellow Iranian vinegar (my preference)
4 garlic cloves, skin removed, root end trimmed off, cut into thin strips (optional)
5 dried bay leaves
10 whole black peppercorns
10 whole mustard seeds
¼ teaspoon pepper flakes or 1 dried Sichuan pepper, split open
5 sprigs of fresh dill
5 pounds small pickling cucumbers, washed, stems removed, dried
Directions
1. In a non-reactive pot, heat the water and vinegar on a medium flame. When the water gently simmers, add the salt and stir to dissolve. Do not allow the water to boil.
2. Dip your finger in the brine, taste and adjust the flavor with a bit more salt, water or vinegar.
3. Place the garlic and spices in the bottom of a gallon glass or plastic container. Arrange the cucumbers inside.
4. Pour in the hot brine being careful to cover the cucumbers. Reserve 1 cup of brine.
5. To keep the cucumbers submerged in the brine, find a plastic cup that is not as wide as the mouth of the container. Place the reserved cup of brine into the plastic cup and put into the container to press down on the cucumbers.
6. Place the container in a dark, cool corner of the kitchen. Check daily to make sure the cucumbers are submerged. If the brine evaporates, use the reserved brine in the plastic cup, replenishing the liquid in the cup with water to weigh down the cukes.
7. After three days, remove one cucumber and sample. If you like your pickles crisp, that may be enough time. If they aren’t pickled enough for you, let them stay on the counter another few days.
8. When you like how they taste, remove the cup and seal the top. Refrigerate the container.

Moroccan Style Preserved Vegetables

In Morocco, virtually any vegetable can be preserved. In the class, we were shown green beans, fennel, parsnips and carrots. Experiment and see what you like, including asparagus, zucchini, beets, daikon, eggplant, daikon and broccoli.



For myself, over the years I have settled on onions, carrots, cauliflower florets and green cabbage. Recently I have been making celery hearts because every morning my wife juices a celery stalk to begin her day with a glass of healthy celery juice. That  makes me the beneficiary of a great many celery hearts, which I am making into delicious pickles. 
Whatever you try, prepare the vegetable by washing, peeling and cutting them into pieces similar in size, about a 1/4" except with the celery hearts. I leave the bottom of the hearts so they pickle as a stalk.
The fun thing about pickling is you can personalize your pickles, making them any way you like.

Save the pickling brine. It is delicious poured over warm Japanese rice or mixed with olive oil to make a salad dressing.
Ingredients
2 whole carrots, ends trimmed, washed, peeled, cut into rounds, ¼-inch thick

1 medium yellow onion, washed, root and stem ends removed, peeled, sliced lengthwise (root to stem) 1/4" slices
1 small whole green cabbage, washed, any brown outer leaves removed and discarded, cut in half, cut out core and reserve for soup, cut into 1/4" squares

1 small white cauliflower, washed, leaves removed (instructions below)
4 bay leaves
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
¼ teaspoon pepper flakes or 1 dried Sichuan pepper, split open, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1 garlic clove, skin removed, root end trimmed off, cut into thin strips (optional)
3 tablespoons kosher salt
1½ cups white wine or yellow Iranian vinegar
2 cups water
1 tablespoon olive oil
Directions
1. Sterilize two quart-sized glass or plastic containers.

2. Finalize the prep on the cauliflower by using a sharp pairing knife to create 1" long florets about 1/4" thick. Use the remaining stems for a stir fry or soup.


3. Toss the vegetables together to mix well in a large bowl.

4. Place the mixed vegetables into the two jars.

5. Add equal amounts of the aromatics to each jar.
6. Combine the kosher salt, water and vinegar. Mix well. Taste. If you find the mixture too acidic, slowly add water until you like the flavor. If not salty enough, add a small amount of kosher salt
7. Pour the water-vinegar mixture into the jars, making sure the liquid covers the vegetables. If more liquid is needed, make more brine and reserve any left over.

8. Top off each jar with equal amounts of olive oil.
9. Seal the jars and shake well to dissolve the salt and mix the aromatics.
10. Refrigerate. Wait one week and taste. Wait longer if they aren’t pickled enough. They will keep in the refrigerator for months.

     

Monday, August 9, 2021

When The Water Runs Out, Again: Farming In A Drought

Seven years ago I wrote a profile of James Birch. I met him at the Santa Monica Farmers Market. I was impressed by his hard work, determination and the quality of his produce. Since then, a great deal has happened in his life. He and his wife Dawn continue to work the farm, the delightfully named, Flora Bella Farms. 

What has changed is the rain. When I wrote the profile in 2014, California was in the grip of a drought. Since then, there have been years with rain and without. But once again, in 2021, California is struggling with an epic drought. The issues are similar to what they were in 2014, although the situation could prove to be worse, depending on....well, the rain.

I am reposting the profile because the issues are still very relevant. I was motivated to share the profile because an email went out July 23, 2021 from James and Dawn saying that because there was no water, there would be no crops to bring to the Wednesday Santa Monica Market:

"The farm depends on snow melt from the Sierra Nevada Mountains and there was no snow or rain this year.  We will keep you aware of our attempts  to find water and let you know when we will be back.  Until then be well and please do your part to help save our planet. Thanks, Dawn and James Birch"

Happily, today I received this email:

"Great News.  Flora Bella Farms is planning to return to the SMFM the beginning of October.  We will be bringing our greens, mustards and lettuces.  We look forward to returning;
Forever Optimistic, James and Dawn"

Here's the profile from 2014:

Much of the time when I'm at the farmers market I'm so intent on what I want to buy I'm focused on  the produce only noticing the farmers behind the flat tables loaded up with fresh leafy greens, stone fruit and root vegetables when I pay.

Flora Bella Farm holding pond 2001

Flora Bella Farm holding pond 2014

Years ago I hung out with one of the farmers at the Santa Monica Farmers Market because we were talking about doing a cookbook together (he would talk about the "farm," I would talk about the "table").








James Birch has a farm in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Fresno. The farm has a lovely name: Flora Bella Farm. But these days the farm has a problem. The area where he lives is called Three Rivers. Right now there are no rivers.

Flora Bella Farm 2014

I feel for James Birch. He is having a tough year. Sitting in the shade, his weather-beaten hands on his lap, he describes prepping his fields for the fall planting. Cutting furrows with his tractor, the blades kicked up thick, Dust Bowl clouds of powder-dry dirt that made it difficult to breathe. In the telling of his story he laughed, no doubt because in the third year of a devastating drought, a farmer needs a sense of humor.
Birch doesn’t complain. He grew up around farming. And farming is what he knows, so he’s not about to quit even if these past several years have been really hard.
Throughout the Western United States and especially in California, farmers have been dealing with a multiyear drought that shows no signs of ending. It’s gotten so bad, fertile fields have been taken out of production because there’s no water for irrigation. That means lower crop yields and higher prices for consumers.
The problem begins in the mountains. Within sight of Flora Bella Farm, the Sierra Nevada runs for hundreds of miles. The line of rugged peaks cuts along the eastern side of the state. The importance of the snowpack that collects on the Sierras for California’s agriculture cannot be overstated.
The farms around Birch in Tulare County north of Bakersfield depend on that water. After a buildup of snow during the winter, when the temperatures warm, the snow melts and collects in the Upper Kaweah Watershed, which feeds the north, middle and south forks of the Kaweah River, irrigating Birch’s fields. But again this year the snowpack was below normal. And that was bad news for Birch.

A hundred-year drought

A dozen years ago I visited Flora Bella Farm because Birch and I were working on a farm-to-kitchen cookbook with California-Mediterranean recipes. On that visit, Birch walked me to the river next to the farm. The cool water ran fast and clear and was several feet deep. Last week he emailed a photograph that showed the problem in the most graphic way.
Birch stands on a completely dry riverbed.
Old-timers tell Birch that the last time the rivers dried up was in 1906 when a cowboy said he rode across the main fork and his horse’s hooves didn’t get wet.
In 2012 and 2013, the drought was bad. Knowing 2014 would be no better, Birch came up with a plan. He began converting his above-ground sprinklers to a drip system. He enlarged his holding ponds and filled them to capacity. But the drought was worse than expected.

Three rivers, now no rivers

One by one the Kaweah River’s three tributaries dried up. And by mid-August he had used all the water in the ponds. In late September, the only water on the farm comes from a low volume well that supplies his home.
Without water, Birch doesn’t have a lot to bring to the farmers markets where he sells his produce. When I saw him recently at the Santa Monica Farmers Market, he had only potatoes, squash, olivesand grapes to sell. Around him the other farmers had their usual bounty on display. Why, I asked him, do they seem to be unaffected by the drought?
The answer was pretty simple. Birch relies entirely on the Sierras’ snowmelt to irrigate his crops. The other farms have allotments from the California Aqueduct, which transports water 500 miles south from the San Joaquin-Sacramento River Delta, or they have high-volume wells that pump groundwater from the vast aquifers, the water-bearing sandy soils that lie beneath many parts of California.
Birch does not have access to either the aqueduct or to groundwater. Because he is in the foothills of the Sierras, the aquifer is too deep for him to reach except at great expense. And, even if he had the money to dig a well, the water-drilling companies in the area have a two-year waiting list.
In the spring he knew the snowpack was below normal so he planted potatoes and squash early because they need less water and could be stored for months without damaging their quality. Hoping for the best, he also planted leafy crops.
After the rivers and his holding ponds dried up, the only water available was the low-volume house well. That was a tough moment. Whichever plants he didn’t water, died. “First it was the cucumbers, then the peppers, tomatillos, most of the squash, the greens, and then everything in the fields,” he said.
In the orchard, his mature fruit trees produce apricots, Santa Rosa and Golden Nectar plums, nectarines and sour cherries. He also has younger Mandarin orange, lemon and pomegranate trees. All the trees are stressed. He doles out the little bit of water he can from the house well. But ultimately he faces another difficult decision. If the river doesn’t start flowing soon, he’ll have to cut down the older trees and plant citrus trees, which use less water.

Between a rock and a hard place

Birch is preparing the next planting. In his greenhouse he is growing Swiss chard, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, chicory, collards, cabbage, artichokes, fennel and cardoon seedlings. Now they’re strong and ready to plant. His fields are tilled and planted with mustard, spinach, radishes, mizuna, arugula and kale seeds. If he gets these crops to market, he will do well.
But Birch is in a bind.
Both the seedlings and seeds need moisture to grow. Birch reads the weather forecasts hoping storms will give him the rain he needs. But he has another problem. Winter is coming. The temperatures will soon drop. If the rains are late and the plants aren’t mature enough before the frost comes, they won’t survive.

Looking to the future

The truth is nobody knows when or if the rains will come. If the drought continues, farmers who are currently unaffected will be impacted.
Farmers relying on the California Aqueduct will find their allocations curtailed or eliminated. That has already happened in parts of the San Joaquin Valley, one of California’s most important agricultural areas. In an extended drought, farmers whose water comes from wells will also be affected. Heavy use of the aquifer has caused a dramatic drop in the available groundwater.
To survive in a drier climate, farmers like Birch are pursuing conservation efforts.
Birch has applied for a federal grant from the Department of Agriculture’s NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) so he can switch completely from above-ground irrigation to an underground drip system.
To keep out the deer and squirrels that come down from the mountains looking for food and water, he built an 8-foot-tall fence. He planted a hedgerow of native flowering plants along the perimeter of the property to attract predatory insects to fight back infestations of aphids and mites, which eat the water-starved plants and carry destructive viruses.
In the best case scenario, if winter storms build up the snowpack in the Sierras., then the rivers will run as clear and deep as they have in the past, the aquifer will be replenished and Flora Bella Farm will be back to its former glory but this time needing less water than before.
And if the drought continues, Birch will be as ready as he can be.
Main photo: The cucumber fields at Flora Bella Farm in Three Rivers, Calif., during the 2014 drought. Credit: Dawn Birch

Thursday, July 1, 2021

Fourth of July is Back! Time to Picnic. Time to Pickle

Rockets exploding overhead. Sparklers in the darkness. Time to celebrate Independence Day. Time to gather together.

Last year we couldn't. This year we can. An amazing triumph of human will and science over a deadly disease. Thank you to all those who labored to care for us and those who created a way forward.

This year for us in Pacific Palisades, we will celebrate the past and our future with a picnic on the grass facing the high school. We'll have a pot luck dinner, see one another in person and catch up.

I'll make fried chicken a chef taught me in his kitchen and potato salad I learned from my mother. And, I will bring pickles made not with cukes but with elegantly long Persian cucumbers. For me, this is a newly modified recipe, midway between a classic Jewish dill pickle and Moroccan pickled vegetables.


Ready to eat after a day for a crisp pickle or in a week or two for a more mellow pickle-experience.

Pickles

No doubt the people who made the first pickles thought they had made a mistake. Somebody accidentally forgot about some raw vegetables in a pot with an acid and salt. Surprise, surprise. A week later, the vegetables weren’t moldy, no bugs had eaten them and, deliciously, they had a nice crunch and tang. Thus was born, the pickle!

In the 1920s, my great-grandfather made pickles on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Grandmother Caroline used to tell stories about working in their little grocery store as a child. When customers would want pickles, she would hop off the counter and go out front to the pickle barrels and fish out the ones they wanted.

I never knew her parents. I never ate their pickles, but I must have brine in my veins because wherever I travel, I am always on the look out for pickles.

Persian Cucumber, Carrot, Onion and Daikon Pickles

As with with things in life, the better the ingredients, the better the result. Use the best vegetables, you'll make a better pickle. Choose Persian cucumbers that are firm, unblemished, without any soft areas. Use carrots that have a sweet taste, the better to contrast with the vinegar and salt. 

For pickled onions, slice yellow onions the long way (from root to stem) into thin strips or buy Mexican onions that look like mature scallions with fat bulbs. Whole onions take a week to pickle. Onion strips pickle in a day.

Daikon pickles are a delight. Crisp and clean tasting.

Vinegar makes a difference. White, red, yellow, there are many different types of vinegars with as many results. I use white wine vinegar I find in Persian and Armenian grocery stores that is less acidic than white vinegar and doesn't color the vegetables as would red wine vinegar. For these pickles I don't use Japanese rice wine vinegar, but I think it would work as well.

Choose a glass jar tall enough for the Persian cucumbers to stand up. Wash the glass jar in a dish washer or with hot water and soap before using.

How much brine you need depends on the size of the jar. All the vegetables must be submerged in brine to avoid spoiling. Make extra brine to keep in a separate container. As vegetables are removed, add brine to cover. 

Only use Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt. Other kosher salts contain additives.

Before adding the brine to the vegetables, taste and adjust. You might like less salt or more vinegar than I do. 

Prep: 15 minutes

Serves: 6

Pickling Ingredients:

6 Persian cucumbers, washed, stems removed

2 large carrots, washed, ends trimmed, peeled, cut into 1 1/2" fat sticks

1 small daikon, washed, ends trimmed, peeled, cut into 1 1/2" fat sticks

1 small yellow onions, washed, ends trimmed, peeled, sliced thin from stem to root

Brine Ingredients - Adjust proportionally to the size of the glass jar

1 1/2 tablespoons Diamond Crystal Kosher Salt 

1/2 cup Yellow White Wine Persian Vinegar or Japanese Rice Wine Vinegar

2 cups water

1 teaspoon black pepper corns

1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds

A pinch hot pepper flakes

3 bay leaves

Directions:

Lay the glass jar on its side. 

Slide cucumbers into jar so they will stand up when the jar is placed upright. 

Add other vegetables.

Add aromatics.

Stir brine well and add until vegetables are completely submerged. Make certain you keep 1 cup of brine in a separate container to add later as the liquid level drops when you remove vegetables.



Thursday, April 22, 2021

If You Knew Ume, Like I Know Ume, Oh, Oh, It's Umeshu Time

When the blossoms on our peach tree bloom, I know it's spring time which means it's ume time. Prized in Asia and the Middle East, ume can be found in Persian, Kosher and Japanese markets. Eaten raw by some, ume are often dried and salted or, in the case of umeshu, used to flavor a neutral spirit like vodka or shōchū

If you love umeshu, Japanese plum wine, and you want to make your own, the race is on. Only available for three-four weeks in the spring, buy your ume soon or you will have to wait another year.

I first learned about umeshu from a supermarket news letter. Marukai, a Japanese market chain, with a store in West Los Angeles on Pico near Bundy, mails a magazine-style newsletter with the store's weekly specials. The opening article each month has an explainer about a particular Japanese food or cooking style.

The article described how to turn ume (Japanese plums) into umeshu (Japanese plum wine). The process was simple. Buy ume, wash them, pull out the little stems, place in a large glass jar, add Japanese rock sugar and a large bottle of vodka, put in a cool, dark place and come back in a year.

Now I was on the hunt for ume. I found them at Marukai, at Iranian markets and downtown at a farmers market near the Los Angeles Public Library Main Branch.


Because I had made Limoncello, the idea of waiting a year appealed to me. And the added benefit of putting out very little effort added to what seemed like fun.


When we visited Yabu, our favorite Japanese restaurant, I told the waitstaff that I was going to make umeshu. They loved the idea. It turned out, when they were growing up, umeshu was a liquor made by their grandmothers. 

When they yearned for a memory of home combined with a tasty cocktail, without grandmother's umeshu, they turned to store-bought umeshu. That did not compare to their childhood memories.

They also told me was that after the hard green ume spends at least a year bathing in the vodka, the hard green fruit would become sweetly edible.

Serving the fruit with the spirit is a nice touch. Kind of an alcoholic fruit punch. 

Umeshu or Japanese Plum Wine
Although frequently called plum wine, ume is actually more of a apricot than a plum and umeshu is a spirit, not a wine. 

Available in Japanese and Korean markets, ume are also sold in Kosher and Middle Eastern grocery stores. Armenians and Iranians eat the unripened plums raw but do not use them to prepare a liquor. In Asia, ume are also eaten preserved in salt and called umebsoshi in Japan. 
Sold at a premium price because of the short growing season in the spring, only use green, unripe fruit. Blemished ume should not be used.

Available large and small, I prefer ume that are quarter-sized rather than dime-sized.

Some recipes call for each ume to be punctured all over with an ice pick. Doing so, it is said, accelerates the infusion process. That is probably true, but punctured ume discolor and are not good to eat.

Mention umeshu to someone from Japan and invariably they will smile

Traditionally umeshu is made by grandmothers. In the spring when the plums appear in the markets, bright green and hard as rocks, the grandmothers buy up all they can find, place them in a large jar, add rock sugar and shōchū (similar in taste to vodka). The jar is placed under the sink and everyone waits a year until the plums soften and the shōchū has mellowed.

A good friend described visiting her mother in Tokyo and finding a kitchen cabinet filled with giant jars labeled the year the umeshu was bottled. I have to confess, my garage has bottles of umeshu going back five years now. Today I bottled my 2021 vintage!

When you make your umeshu, wait one year. to enjoy it. Once the infusion is ready to serve,  taste and, if the umeshu is too harsh, add a tablespoon of Japanese rock sugar, stir well and wait another month.

The longer you wait, the more the umeshu will become rounded and mellow in flavor.  
After at least a year in their sweetened, alcoholic bath, the ume can be eaten. I like to include them in the cocktail, either whole or cut off the pit, chopped up and added as a flavor garnish that can be eaten with a small spoon. In Japan, umeshu is served chilled, neat, or on the rocks or with a splash of carbonated water on ice.
Prep time: 10 minutes + one year
Yield: 2 quarts umeshu, 2 quarts macerated ume

Ingredients
2 pounds ume, washed, stems removed
1 pound Japanese rock sugar
1.75 l unflavored vodka, the most inexpensive you can find
Directions
1. Place the ume in a large bowl. Cover with water and let stand 2 hours. Drain, rinse and remove by hand any stems. Wash well a gallon glass jar with a lid.
2. Place ume into the jar.
3. Add rock sugar.
4. Pour in vodka. Stir well.
5. Cover.
6. Place in a dark, cool area where the jar will be undisturbed for at least one year.
7. Serve ice cold neat, with ice cubes, or with seltzer and (optional) with whole or chopped up ume as a garnish.  










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