Sunday, April 29, 2007

Liking the Lichen

I went to Sunol Regional Wilderness one recent Sunday to see the wildflowers, and ended up being most fascinated by the lichen that grows on rocks and trees. To be sure, there were a good number of wildflowers (lupine, shooting stars, popcorn flowers, fiddleneck), and also some other exciting nature experiences (an unidentified newt on the trail, a golden eagle on the wing).

Lichen is actually a symbiotic relationship between algae and fungus. The fungus provides structure and protection for the algae, which in turn creates food the fungi (and itself) through photosynthesis. Lichen come in several basic shapes: crustose, which hug the host surface; foliose, which appear to be layers; and fruticose, which look like little plants. Lichen's color is usually from the fungus body, but in the case of greenish-grey lichen, a combination of the fungus and chlorophyll provide the hue (humans have used lichen as a source of dye). Lichen are found just about everywhere, from the poles to the tropics, from dry, high mountains to deep, damp valleys.

Erosion is one of lichen's best skills. The fungus secretes acids that carve into the host rock to provide a better grip, and this also converts rock into soil (over a long period of time).

The Spanish moss that hangs from trees in the U.S. -- most famously in the Southern states -- is actually a lichen (Tillandsia usneoides), not a moss. Mosses are 100% plant. Speaking of moss, I'm reminded of a Simpsons episode (Das Bus) where the children are trapped on an island that turns into their own version of Lord of the Flies. At the end, Lisa finds how the pigs were able to survive on the island: by eating the moss that grew on rocks. Perhaps it was actually lichen, and the giant team of fact checkers didn't catch the mistake. In the Arctic, lichen are an important food source for many kinds of animals.

Some of the lichen patterns remind me of the paintings of Clyfford Still, one of the Abstract Expressionists. Take a look at 1948-C or 1950-A No. 2 in the Hirshhorn Museum on-line collection and see if you agree.

Below are some photos of lichen I took on the hike and a few that I shot near the Columbia River Highway in Oregon.

Lichen-covered tree branches

Two colors of crustose lichen on a boulder

A foliose lichen on a boulder

Grey and yellow foliose lichen on a boulder

Lichen and moss on a tree trunk, near the historic Columbia River Highway in Oregon

Chrysothrix candelaris lichen on a cliff face near Multnomah Falls, Oregon
(I know the species name because there was a sign nearby, not because of any lichen-identification skills)

Random link from the archive: Another Flourless Dessert: Torta Regina

Technorati tags: Nature

Monday, April 23, 2007

Odds and Ends -- Cauliflower Slabs, Wheat Berries, Brown Rice

Here are some recent odds and ends from my kitchen (or slabs, grains, and sprouts):

Slab of cauliflower
Perhaps it is some kind of return to my days of eating meat, or perhaps the colder than usual winter affected me, but for some reason the idea of cooking cauliflower in slabs has been attractive. It is an easy way to deal with cauliflower, and the large flat areas increase the probability of golden brown areas (thus unleashing the Maillard Reaction).

It's very simple to cook cauliflower in slab form: wash the cauliflower, then slice through the entire head to get 3/8" (~1.5 cm) thick slabs (or whatever thickness you desire). The slabs can be prepared in the oven (brushed with oil, sprinkled with salt and pepper and roasted at 400 or 450 F) or they can be cooked in a skillet (over medium heat).

Stir-fried bean sprouts and chives
When making Pim's pad Thai recipe, I always have leftover bean sprouts. Not having a lot of experience with them, all too often they rot in my refrigerator. But then I discovered a simple and delicious recipe in James Oseland's highly-regarded Cradle of Flavor. Basically, you briefly stir fry some shallots and garlic, then add bean sprouts and soy sauce, and finish the dish with a handful of garlic chives (a.k.a. Chinese chives, Allium tuberosum). I didn't think I would like the dish, but I was wrong. The sprouts have a lovely flavor and pleasing crunch.

Warm lentil and wheat berry salad
Ever since reading Jeffery Steingarten's piece in Vogue on the amazing healthfulness of whole grains (via Mighty Foods and then Gustiamo), I have been trying to eat more whole grains. The latest grain of interest is Full Belly Farms' organically grown wheat berries (the raw material for flour), and my latest experiment is a lentil and wheat berry salad. The wheat berries offer more texture than flavor, with a pleasant chewiness that contrasts to the mushiness of the lentils. Here's a rough sketch:

Remove any stones or foreign material from dried brown or green lentils, then rinse them. In a pot, combine the lentils, whole wheat berries, diced carrot, diced onion, and some herb sprigs (rosemary, thyme, parsley). I use a 5 to 1 ratio of lentils to wheat berries. Add water to cover by one or two inches. Cook until the wheat berries are tender, about 20-30 minutes. Drain away the liquid.

Add a splash of vinegar (I used sherry vinegar), a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, some capers, salt, and additional fresh herbs to taste.

Massa Organic Brown Rice
On a Saturday a few months ago, I noticed a new vendor at the Berkeley Farmers' Market, Massa Organics. His table had just one product: two pound bags of organic brown rice. The rice is grown near Chico, California, in the Sacramento River valley (about 190 miles away). A week later, I bought a bag.

My pantry always contains a variety of rices (latest census: basmati, jasmine, arborio, short grain, some Italian non-arborio rice, plain long grain), but no brown rice. Although I learned to cook using crunchy granola books like Laurel's Kitchen (my first cookbook purchase) and Moosewood, I was never really into brown rice. The main reason was that it took too long to cook, but another is that Indian food goes so perfectly with basmati rice, and a Thai curry pairs brilliantly with jasmine rice, and who has ever heard of a brown rice risotto?

Risotto aside, Massa Organics is making a convert of me. Sure, it takes three times longer than white rice, but it has an 'integrity' that white rice doesn't, a certain chewiness and richness of flavor.

(Note: I have no financial connection to Massa Organics. I just like their rice.)

Random link from the archive: Interview with John McPhee (September 2005)

Technorati tags: vegetarian : Food

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Battling Junk Mail

In honor of Earth Day 2007, some tips on battling junk mail:

It seems that mailboxes act as a magnet for junk mail. Unwanted catalogs, credit card offers, and other mailings waste paper, time, and could endanger your privacy if they fall into the wrong hands. Fortunately, there are some simple things you can do to reduce the flow of junk mail. The Bay Area Recycling Outreach Committee has a Stop Junk Mail kit that consists of several pre-addressed letters to direct mail clearinghouses (the Direct Marketers Association, for example) and an all-purpose form letter that can be used for catalog companies and other junk mailers. Although the program was put together by a Bay Area group, the form letters and links can be used by anyone in the U.S.

If you really want to stop junk mailers and don't mind paying a few dollars, the Greendimes company will actively work to reduce your junk mail for a small fee. Their service costs $3 per month (and includes a tree planting in your name) and promises to be more effective than the letters mentioned above. There are also several books available with detailed plans to stop junk mail, which can be found in bookstores or at on-line booksellers (searching for "junk mail" is a good way to find some of them.

Image Credit: Picture from Liam Quin's Pictures From Old Books Web site, via Compendium of Public-Domain Image Links by Nonpartisan at Daily Kos.

Random link from the archive: An Hourglass of Pollution: The Uneven Burdens of Trade (June 2006, at Eat Local Challenge)

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Wok-fried rice noodles

Wok-fried rice noodles are something that I make almost weekly. The dish doesn't require much list work -- I might grab a package of tofu at the grocery, whatever is in season at the Farmers' Market. Or I could use the vegetables in my refrigerator -- a bit of cauliflower, a carrot or two, 1/4 of a head of Chinese cabbage.

I am crazy about the fresh rice noodles that some Asian markets carry -- their texture is luscious and they soak up the flavors of the other ingredients -- but I typically use dried rice noodles because they are shelf stable. The dried rice noodles are sometimes labeled "rice stick," with widths denoted on the package as S (small), M (medium) and L (large). I use all three sizes, with my choice depending on my mood and the vegetables on hand.

A Method Evolution
For a long time I would cook the vegetables first, then add the noodles, and finally the sauce. The idea was to keep the pan moderately dry so the noodles could be cooked over very high heat and be seared a bit. Or I would try to cook the noodles by themselves in the wok over very high heat, add a bit of soy sauce, garlic and ginger at the end, then put the noodles in a warm oven while I cooked the vegetables. This "noodles first" method works well with fresh rice noodles, but not with dry noodles.

Recently I have been trying a new strategy based on Pim's ultra-comprehensive post on pad Thai. This strategy cooks the noodles with the sauce. But first I cook the vegetables. When the vegetables are just about ready, I splash a little sauce and transfer them to a bowl. Then I take the wok off the heat and carefully wipe the moisture from it (if there is any left). I return the wok to the burner (on high heat), add some oil, wait for the oil to heat up, then put in the noodles. After turning the noodles a few times, I add the sauce. I keep stirring to prevent sticking and allow even cooking. When the noodles are cooked, I might put in a beaten egg or two, let that cook, and then return the vegetables to the wok. A few turns to heat up everything and it's ready to serve.

Rice Noodles with Vegetables

The Noodles
8 oz. dried rice noodles (any size will work)

Soak the noodles in hot water for 30 minutes, then drain, rinse in cool water, and drain again.

The Vegetables and etc.
Prepare about 2 cups total, using the list below as a guide. Group the vegetables in bowls according to how long they take to cook or when they will be added to the wok (e.g., group 1: onions, shallots, garlic, ginger; group 2: carrots, broccoli stems, long beans; group 3: cabbage, mushrooms)

Cauliflower, chopped into florets
Broccoli, chopped into florets, stems peeled and chopped
Long beans or green beans, cut in 1 inch lengths
Carrots, halved or quartered, then in 1 inch pieces
Shiitake mushrooms, fresh if possible or dry ones soaked in hot water until soft then drained
White mushrooms, sliced or cut in odd shapes
Cabbage, green or napa, sliced thin
Spinach leaves
Shallots, chopped fine
Onion, chopped fine
Garlic, chopped fine
Ginger, grated or chopped fine
Fresh chilies, deseeded and chopped fine
8 oz. deep fried tofu, cut into bite-size pieces
Roasted peanuts, chopped
Fresh tomatoes cut in quarters or eighths
1-2 eggs, lightly beaten

The Sauce
A few tablespoons soy sauce
A few tablespoons water
A few teaspoons sugar (palm sugar is ideal)

Heat some oil in a wok over high heat. Just before the oil is smoking, add the first batch of vegetables (onion, shallots, garlic, ginger). Stir fry briefly, then add the next batch of vegetables (carrot, broccoli stems, cauliflower). Continue adding the vegetables in stages until they are all in the wok. Add about one-quarter of the sauce and stir a few times. Transfer to a metal or glass bowl.

Off the heat, carefully remove moisture and cooked bits from the wok. Return it to the heat (on high setting) and add some oil. Put the drained rice noodles in the wok, stir a few times, then pour in the sauce. Continue cooking, stirring constantly, until the noodles are fully cooked (you'll have to pull out a piece and try it to know).

If using eggs, push the noodles to one side of the wok, then pour in the eggs. Jostle the egg gently until it sets (you might need to turn down the heat slightly for this part), then mix it together with the noodles. Return the vegetables to the wok, then cook everything for a few minutes more, until the vegetables are hot.

Add 1 T. curry powder to the sauce
Add some mild red chili powder (e.g., ancho, pasilla)
Add a few tablespoons of chopped herbs at the end (e.g., Thai basil, cilantro, laksa leaf)
Use Pim's pad Thai sauce (palm sugar, soy sauce, and tamarind juice)
Replace tofu with tempeh, seitan, or TVP

Random link from the archive: Rhubarb-Strawberry Soup with Praline-coated Ice Cream
(March 2007)

Technorati tags: Vegetarian : Food

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Another Flourless Cake: Torta Regina

Emily Luchetti's "Torta Regina" is not photogenic (in my kitchen, anyway, with the lack of fancy china) but is so delicious and different that it deserves a post. It has only four main ingredients (chocolate, hazelnuts, eggs, sugar) and two flavorings (orange and lemon zest).

Although it is a "flourless cake," it is not at all like the archetypal gooey chocolate bomb. This one is light and has an interesting texture.

Luchetti recommends serving the cake with orange custard sauce and caramel or hazelnut ice cream. Epicurious has two recipes for custard sauce that could probably be flavored with a strip or two of orange zest (recipe one, recipe two).

Torta Regina
Adapted from Emily Luchetti's Classic Stars Desserts

5 1/2 oz. hazelnuts, toasted and skinned
5 1/2 oz. dark chocolate, chopped
1 teaspoon lemon zest
2 teaspoons orange zest
6 large eggs, separated
1/2 cup sugar (divided -- half for the yolks, half for the whites)

(Unit conversion page)

Line the bottom of a 9-inch cake pan with parchment paper.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Combine the hazelnuts, chocolate and zests in a food processor. Use pulses to grind the mixture to a fine powder.

Place the egg yolks and 1/4 cup sugar into the bowl of a mixer, with the whisk attached. Whip the mixture on high speed for about 3 minutes (probably longer with a hand-held mixer), until the volume of the egg-sugar mixture has increased a bit. Turn off the mixer and scrape down the sides of the bowl.

Set the mixer to low speed, and add the ground nut-chocolate mixture. The batter will be stiff. If you have only one bowl for your stand mixer, transfer the yolk-nut-chocolate mixture to a bowl big enough to hold the entire batter (the egg whites will added to the yolk-nut-chocolate mixture later on). Clean your mixing bowl very well (a tiny speck of fat can interfere with the egg white foam process, as explained thoroughly in McGee's On Food and Cooking).

Pour the egg whites into the clean mixing bowl. Use the whisk attachment, and whip on medium speed until frothy, then increase the speed to high and beat until soft peaks form. With the mixer running at high, gradually add the remaining 1/4 cup of sugar. Whip the mixture until stiff peaks form.

Fold one third of the egg whites into the yolk-nut-chocolate mixture to lighten it. Fold in half of the remaining egg whites, then fold in the rest. Transfer the batter to the prepared cake pan.

Bake the cake for about 25 minutes. A cake tester should come out clean when the cake is done. Cool the cake in the pan.

Random link from the archive: Whole Lemon Lemonade

Technorati tags: Baking : Food