Sunday, November 30, 2008

Wheat berry and mushroom soup

Photo of wheat harvest at Eatwell Farm, CaliforniaWheat harvest at Eatwell Farm, June 2008

When nights are long and cold, I often crave mushroom-barley soup. Thick, richly flavored, nutritious and texturally interesting, yet relatively easy to make. Although barley is what I have used in the past, lately wheat berries have been my grain of choice. Wheat berries are the whole grain kernels that can be milled into flour. Unmilled, they can be used like many other grains.

For one reason or another, several farms in Northern California -- Eatwell, Full Belly, and Massa -- have been growing wheat for the past few years. Some sell only the berries, while others sell milled whole wheat flour. I'm not sure why Massa and Full Belly grow wheat, but Eatwell Farm's decision to plant it was stimultated by their chickens. As I explained at Eat Local Challenge, the farmer realized the incongruity of claiming that his eggs were 'local' while buying imported organic chicken feed.

Using wheat berries instead of barley allows me to make this a fully local soup:
wheat berries from Full Belly Farm (Guinda, Yolo County); mushrooms from Solano Mushrooms (Vacaville, Solano County); onions and garlic from Riverdog Farm (Guinda, Yolo County); tomatoes from Woodleaf Farm (Oroville, Butte County); and herbs from the backyard.

You can probably adapt your favorite mushroom-barley soup recipe to use wheat berries -- but because wheat berries are a lot heartier than most barleys (especially the pearled variety), you'll most likely need to cook the soup longer than the recipe indicates. Or, if you don't have a favorite, below is a rough recipe for the soup that I make.

Recipe - Wheat Berry and Mushroom Soup

3/4 cup wheat berries
1 medium onion, minced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
3/4 pound white or brown mushrooms, chopped finely
1 cup diced tomatoes (fresh or from a can)
A few cups of water or vegetable stock
Herbs to taste - one or more of rosemary, thyme, marjoram, oregano
Salt and black pepper to taste

Rinse the wheat berries, place them in a heat proof bowl or a pan, then cover with boiling water. This will let them start cooking while you prepare the vegetables.

In a medium saucepan, cook the onion in a few tablespoons of oil (or butter) over medium heat until it is soft, stirring frequently about 5-7 minutes. Add the mushrooms. As they cook, they will release some of their liquid. Keep cooking, stirring often, until all of the liquid has been released, then cook for a few minutes more to lightly brown the mushrooms. (Sometimes I need to add extra oil during this process.) Add the garlic and cook for another minute.

Add the tomatoes, stock and wheat berries (and their soaking liquid) to the vegetables. Add the herbs, salt (about 1-2 teaspoons) and pepper. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to medium-low and cook, partly covered, until the wheat berries are tender.

Photo of wheat stalks at Eatwell Farm, CaliforniaStalks of wheat at Eatwell Farm

Random link from the archive: Mycology Lessons at the SF Food Bank

Technorati tags: vegetarian : Food

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Breeding ground: a visit to Luther Burbank's farm in Sebastapol

Photo of Luther Burbank's barn in Sebastapol, CaliforniaA few weeks ago, I visited Gold Ridge, Luther Burbank's experimental farm in Sebastopol while touring the wine country and counting the hours until our reservation at Ubuntu in Napa.

Luther Burbank may not be a household name, but his work touches almost everyone. Burbank (1849-1926) was a prolific breeder of fruits, vegetables, grasses and flowers. In his over 50 year career, he bred over 800 strains of plants, including the potato used in most fast food french fries (the Russet Burbank potato). He bred many other well-known plants, including the Santa Rosa plum, the July Elberta peach, and the Shasta daisy. Burbank also did a fair amount of selection work, in which he planted fruit varieties from other countries (like the Satsuma plum from Japan) to determine which was most suitable for the Northern California climate. (He is not, however, the namesake of Burbank, California. That honor goes to Dr. David Burbank, a dentist and real estate investor.)

I talked to Carl of Woodleaf Farm about Burbank at the S.F. Ferry Plaza market. Carl told me that although not many of Burbank's varieties are in use today — generally because they have been improved through further cross-breeding — his influence is tremendous because he taught generations of breeders. Among Carl's many varieties of peaches is Burbank's July Elberta (as well as the Fay Elberta, which is in the Slow Food Ark of Taste, the Kim Elberta, and the Gene Elberta).

It's a fairly small area, perhaps an acre or two, surrounded by an apartment complex. A reconstruction of his barn stands at the entry. A variety of important or interesting plants — most planted long after his death but a few dating back to Burbank's lifetime — are arranged along a trail with numbered signs that correspond to entries in a self-guided tour brochure.

Among the most interesting were the thornless blackberry and an attempt to create an orange that is hardy in cold climates.

The next photo shows the blackberry — note the smooth vines. The fruit, however, was inferior to standard blackberries, in my opinion.

Photo of thornless blackberry at Luther Burbank's farm in Sebastapol, California
The next photo shows unripe examples of the trifoliate orange hybrids (Poncirus trifoliata hybrids) that Burbank was investigating. The brochure states that his experiments were unsuccessful because the "[f]uzzy orange fruits have about the same size, hardness and juiciness as golf balls."

Photo of trifoliate orange hybrid at Luther Burbank's farm in Sebastapol, California
I have a few more photos posted in a Flickr photoset.

Random link from the archive: Temple Guardians in Thailand

Sunday, November 09, 2008

"Savoy, it wins you at a glance. Savoy, gives happy feet a chance to dance."

photo of savoy cabbage leaf from the martinhoward flickr collection[Updated below] 

Standard green and red cabbage are OK, I suppose, but the savoy variety is a vegetable that approaches the level of "exciting." It's good in a simple braise — started in melted butter in a medium-high uncovered pan, then cooked until tender over medium heat with a cover (just a few minutes) — but when baked with potatoes, brown butter, sage, leeks, cheese and buckwheat noodles it reaches the realm of exciting. Whether it "gives happy feet a chance to dance" is another matter (see below for an explanation of the post title).

I was reminded of savoy cabbage when I read an article about buckwheat in the Los Angeles Times food section. The article included a recipe for Pizzoccheri, an Italian baked casserole of hand-made buckwheat noodles, savoy cabbage, potatoes, and cheese. The recipe that I have been using for years is in The Greens Cookbook and is much simpler because it uses pre-made dried buckwheat noodles (like Japanese soba) and has additional flavor through the use of brown butter. It's a delicious combination, one of those hearty, complex dishes that is perfect for the cooler months. It reheats nicely, providing a few lunches in the following days. My adaption of the Greens recipe is below.

The headnote to the recipe in The Greens Cookbook states that the inspiration for the recipe came from a single line of Waverly Root's The Food of Italy." This is probably the line that they were thinking of (found using's look-inside feature): "A layer of the [buckwheat & white flour] dough, potatoes and leeks is then placed in a buttered oven dish, covered with a layer of grated cheese in melted butter, then with another layer of pasta, of cheese, and so on until the dish is full."

The title of this post comes from two lines in one of my favorite recordings, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong's "Stompin' at the Savoy" (on the 1957 album "Ella and Louis Again"). Not surprisingly, the savoy in that lyric does not refer to savoy cabbage. It's actually the Savoy Ballroom in Harlem, New York, which was the epicenter of the swing movement of the 1930s and 1940s in New York City. It also was the place where Ella Fitzgerald got her first big break, singing for the house band led by Chick Webb. Ken Burns' epic Jazz documentary has quite a bit about the Savoy Ballroom if you want to learn more. (I tried to find public domain photos of the SavoyBallroom or Chick Webb's band, but was unsuccessful. The best I could do was this photo of the Duke Ellington Band from 1943, taken by the remarkable Gordon Parks).

Update 1: I tried the recipe printed in the L.A. Times tonight (2/8/09). The pasta was not too hard to make — it was really sticky during the kneading, but rolled out beautifully. However, the instructions for heating the casserole after assembly need some serious revision. It says to put the casserole under the broiler for a few minutes after it is assembled to melt the cheese. I followed that instruction and everything but the top layer was cold when I served it. Using the broiler might work if you are able to take the vegetables and pasta directly from the boiling water to the casserole pan, but that's not so easy.   If you don't want to time everything perfectly, it would probably work to bake the casserole in the oven for 15 to 20 minutes, like in the Madison recipe shown below.

Update 2: Mark Bittman's had a recipe for Pizzoccheri in the New York Times.

Recipe: Buckwheat noodles baked with savoy cabbage, potatoes, cheese and brown butter
Adapted from "The Greens Cookbook," by Deborah Madison and Edward Espe Brown

For the brown butter:
1 stick of butter
4 large fresh sage leaves or 1/2 t. dried sage
1 garlic clove, sliced

For the casserole:
1 pound savoy cabbage, cored and cut into 1/2-inch squares
2 leeks, tender parts only, sliced in half, then in 1/8-inch strips
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 dry red chili, seeds removed and chopped roughly
4 fresh sage leaves, chopped, or 1/2 t. dried sage
4 medium potatoes, cut in 1/2-inch cubes
3/4 lb. buckwheat pasta (Japanese soba, for example)
4 ounces soft cheese like teleggio, teleme, or fresh mozzarella, sliced
1/2 cup parmesan cheese, grated
Salt and pepper

(Unit conversion page)

Make the brown butter: put the stick of butter, sliced garlic, and half of the sage in a small pan. Cook over low heat. When the garlic turns brown, remove it. Continue to cook until the butter turns golden brown and has a rich, nutty aroma. Strain through a double layer of cheesecloth and set aside.

Bring several quarts of water to boil to cook the potatoes and noodles (separately). Add salt. Cook the potatoes in the water until almost tender (they will be cooked further during the final baking), then fish them out of the water using a slotted spoon or other tool. Add the pasta and cook until almost al dente (they will soften further during the final baking), then drain and rinse in cool water. Shake off the excess water and return to the now-empty cooking pot (or a large bowl) and toss with half of the brown butter and half of the minced garlic.

Preheat the oven to 425 F. Butter a deep oven-safe glass or ceramic dish with about 1 1/2 to 2 quarts volume.

While the potatoes and noodles are cooking, saute the leeks, the remaining sage, and one minced clove of garlic in half of the brown butter. When the leeks are soft, add the cabbage and 1 t. salt and cook over medium low heat, covered, until the cabbage is tender, about 5 minutes. Add the potatoes and turn off the heat. Stir in the parmesan. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Assemble the casserole by layering half of the noodles, half of the vegetables, and two-thirds of the sliced cheese. Layer on the remaining pasta, the remaining cheese and finish with the vegetables.

Bake uncovered for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the casserole is heated through.

Photo of savoy cabbage leaf from martinhoward's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License. Photo of the Duke Ellington band from the Farm Security Administration - Office of War Information Photograph Collection (Library of Congress), call number LC-USW3- 023946-C.

Random link from the archive:
Technorati tags: Malaysia : Baking : Mexico : Japan : vegetarian : Food

Saturday, November 01, 2008

Good noise: the hummingbird chirp

Photo of hummingbird from ingridtaylar flickr collectionWhen I go on hikes in Bay Area parks, my ears are always open for the sounds of nature. One sound that stops me in my tracks is a sharp chirp, a sound that is typically repeated a few times with about ten seconds between.

The sound is a male Anna's hummingbird (Calypte anna) displaying his flying skills for a nearby female. During mating season, males perform high-speed dive bombing runs, in which they climb high into the sky (100 feet?), hover for a few seconds, then fly almost straight down at high speed, eventually pulling up to form a J-shaped trajectory, and making a loud 'chirp' sound at the bottom of the bombing run. It's quite an amazing experience to watch these tiny acrobats (This 47 kB WAV file contains the chirp).

Photo of hummingbirds from Southernpixel flickr collectionUntil last year, no one knew how such tiny birds could create such a loud sound. Two U.C. Berkeley researchers spent months in the field (the Albany Bulb) and the laboratory studying the birds, eventually discovering that the tail feathers are responsible for the sound: air passing over tail feathers cause them to vibrate like the reed in a woodwind instrument. The researchers confirmed this by capturing a hummingbird and trimming his tail — the manipulated feathers did not make a chirp.

The results were published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B (the full article is subscription only, but supplementary video and audio are available for free). Good overviews of the research can be found in UC Berkeley News and the San Francisco Chronicle.

For some visual pleasure, check out stunning photos of hummingbirds at National Geographic by Luis A. Mazariegos.

Image credits: Photo of single hummingbird from ingridtaylar's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License. Photo of two hummingbirds from Southernpixel's flickr collection, subject to a Creative Commons License.

Random link from the archive: Beans and ice for dessert: Ais Kachang in Singapore