Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Liquid Burdock

Back in June, I wrote about setting up garden infrastructure to grow burdock root (a.k.a. gobo, Arctium lappa) so that I could have a local source for recipes in Elizabeth Andoh's Kansha: Celebrating Japan's Vegan and Vegetarian Traditions (my review of the book is here.).  My plants seem to be doing well, with each one sprouting out several large leaves (whether the roots are growing is, however, unknown). On the off chance that I'm not in a Japanese food mood when the burdock are ready to harvest — and if I'm feeling very ambitious — I could follow the centuries-old traditions of using burdock in liquid refreshments.

My introduction to burdock drinks occurred many months ago at Il Cane Rosso in San Francisco's Ferry Building. On their reasonably large menu of non-alcoholic drinks was a soda from the UK-based Fentiman's company called “Dandelion & Burdock.” With odd-ball headline ingredients like those, I couldn't pass it up. But that night I also didn’t really enjoy it, as the flavor was too weird.  In recent months, however, I have come to like it quite a bit, enjoying its fruitiness (a good amount of cherry) and overall flavor profile — but not enjoying its price of over $10 for a four pack at Andronico’s.

Intrigued by this burdock and dandelion soda, I started rooting around on the internet to learn more.

Wikipedia was an early stop on the research journey, where I read that a dandelion and burdock drink was mentioned in documents written in the 13th century (the citation is Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologiae of 1274, but I haven’t seen the reference myself).  A few months later, at the Expo West trade show in Anaheim*, I asked a representative at the Fentiman's booth about burdock soda. Burdock might seem odd at first because we usually think of it as a vegetable, he said, but if we think of it like other roots such as sasparilla and ginger that are used to make drinks, it's not so unusual.

Next up was Google Books, a massive information source that is the result of Google digitizing thousands of books, old and new, across a range of topics.  Thanks to the highly usable search engine, I found some great information.

The Herbalist in the Kitchen by Gary Allen (2007), has this in the entry for "Common Dandelion: Taaraxacum officinale":
Dandelions have been used, in place of hops, in herbal beers. In Canada, dandelion stout was popular. In England, the roots of dandelion and burdock flavor a root-beer-like soft drink called, not surprisingly, Dandelion and Burdock.
Burdock and dandelion also make appearances in the medical literature of the late 19th century, as in the The Era Formulary. 5000 Formulas for Druggists (1893), where the ingredients appear in various recipes for “Blood Remedy” or “Blood Purifier.”

A much better find was the May 11, 1889 issue of Good Housekeeping, a periodical that is "Conducted in the Interests of the Higher Life of the Household."  Like today's magazine of the same name, the pages are filled with tips for better living, as well as poetry and short fiction.  What brought me to those pages was an article about summer beverages by Ada Marie Peck that included a few recipes using burdock and dandelion.

But before getting to recipes, I'd like to appreciate the first letter in the article, a delightful rendering of a W rising from a bowl like a wisp of steam (such creative initials appear all over the periodical):

Peck shares two recipes that use burdock and dandelion:
Hop Beer. 1.
For one barrel of beer, use one pound of hops and one-half pound each of ginger and allspice. Put in a keg and boil for half a day, then pour the liquid in a barrel or keg and add one gallon of molasses and a pint of good yeast.  It is improved by adding sarsaparilla, dandelion and burdock roots.  If these are used chop them and boil a long time to extract the strength, then add to the other ingredients.  This beer requires a beer-keg or barrel to hold it and it should stand for about two days before it is ready for use.  It is better to make a half barrel at a time.

Root Beer.
For one gallon – a handful of hops, some twigs of spruce, hemlock or cedar, a little sassafras; roots of various kinds – plantain [Ed. note:  plantago major?], burdock, dock [sorrel?], dandelion and sarsaparilla.  Boil and strain, add a spoonful of "ginger molasses" to make it pleasant, and a cupful of yeast.

These are way beyond my kitchen skills, and made even more difficult by the relative lack of detail.  So, for now anyway, I'll be getting my liquid burdock exclusively from Fentiman's.

Peck's article concludes with some intriguing recipes for “Soda Water” that seem to be bases for other drinks, as the high ratio of sugar to liquid implies:
Soda Water. 1.
Five ounces of tartaric acid [cream of tartar], one-half ounce of epsom salts [magnesium sulfate], two quarts of water, two pounds of sugar, the whites of four eggs, and two lemons.
Soda Water. 2.
One ounce of tartaric acid, one pound of sugar, one pint of boiling water, the white of one egg, two tablespoons of lemon, vanilla or pineapple [Ed. note: extract? juice?].  Stir the ingredients briskly, and put in a bottle.  Shake before using.  Two tablespoons are required for one glass, and a quarter of a teaspoonful of soda.  A teaspoonful of sweet cream to each glass is a great improvement.
The second one actually looks feasible, and might be worth a try someday.

* A write-up of my visit to the Expo West natural products trade show is over at the Ethicurean.

Random link from the archive: Komala's Vegetarian, Singapore

Monday, August 22, 2011

Chickens on the pasture - a tour of Marin Sun Farms, part 2

This is part 2 of a series on my tour of Marin Sun Farms.  Part 1 is here.

The Chickenfeed Chronicles
"If something is small or unimportant, especially money, it is chickenfeed," says the idiom collection at Using English. But at Marin Sun Farms – and many other chicken and egg operations, such as Nigel Walker’s EatWell Farm – chicken feed is anything but small or unimportant.  Instead, it stresses the operator financially and intellectually, and is a hot button for eaters.  While on my recent tour of the Marin Sun Farms’ Rogers Ranch in Point National Seashore, the tour group probably could have talked about chicken feed with Marin Sun Farms’ David Evans for hours.

Chicken feed is a complicated business because of genetically modified organisms (GMO), organic certification, the national commodity markets, and international trade. Soy and corn can be important components in chicken feed, but in the U.S. the vast majority of soy and corn are GMO varieties (USDA has a handy chart showing adoption of GMOs since 1996), a characteristic that is objectionable to many for multiple reasons. Consequently, the vast majority of the nation’s harvesting, storage, transportation and marketing resources are devoted to the GMO varieties, which makes organic or non-GMO products more expensive, as they don’t have economies of scale.  Although relatively cheaper supplies of organic feed can be purchased from China, Evans thought that transoceanic feed just doesn’t fit into a local foods movement (of course, most corn and soy comes from the Midwest, hardly a local source, but closer on a conceptual basis).  At EatWell Farm near Dixon, California, Nigel Walker has tried growing his own organically certified wheat as a source of ultra-local chicken feed (I wrote about this for Eat Local Challenge a while ago).  Evans has weighed all of the factors for Marin Sun Farms – practical, ecological, economic – and has settled on conventional feed for his operation, but is not particularly happy about the situation. I don’t know if anti-trust rules would allow for this, but some kind of buying cooperative for organic feed that was made up of chicken farmers might seem to be a way to drive down the costs of organic feed by harnessing some economies of scale.

On the Pasture
Marin Sun Farms raises chickens as egg layers and as meat birds, with the two varieties receiving significantly different treatment.  Evans credits Polyface Farm as the inspiration for his system of mobile chicken coops and broiler cages. (Polyface was made famous by Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma.  Learn more about Polyface in a post from Fit for Life and a segment from Eric Ripert's TV show, via Slow Food LA.)

Let’s start with the egg layers. The laying hens (and a few roosters) live in coops out on the pasture, roaming around freely during the day and roosting inside at night.  Guard dogs keep watch for coyotes and other threats (here’s a photo of the dogs as puppies from MissNatalie on Flickr).  Once a day, the Marin Sun Farm workers drag the houses a few dozen yards to the next spot of pasture, giving the chickens new pasture to explore for bugs, seeds and other chicken treats.  The hens end up getting about 15-20% of their nutrients from the pasture and their dropping fertilizes the pasture for future grazing.  Importantly, for those who care about animal welfare, the chickens get to be chickens, to revel in their ‘chickenness’ by choosing their own food, taking dust baths, flocking as they like.  These birds typically have a life span of about two years.

The broiler chickens have much less freedom than the laying hens, spending their first 5 weeks inside of different parts of a series of open-sided sheds and their last 3 weeks in large cages on pasture. Evans contended that the broiler breed (Cornish cross, a ‘modern’ fast-weight-gain variety) is less of an explorer and has more flocking tendencies than the laying hens, so that it wouldn’t make much sense to use the open-field laying hen system.  Like the laying-hen coops, the cages are moved every day to allow the birds to choose food from the pasture, resulting in about 10-15% of their diet being the grass, bugs, seeds and so forth that they pick out of the pasture.  Beyond giving the birds some choice in food and fresh pasture each day, Evans said that the practice greatly improves the flavor of the meat.

I still remember the excitement I felt when I read about Joel Salatin's farm in Omnivore's Dilemma  – the "egg mobiles," running cattle and chicken in sequence on his pastures.  It was a system that seemed to work with nature instead of against nature, as so many CAFOs do.  And so, it was rewarding to see a similar system – one that needs to account for California's distinct wet and dry seasons instead of Virginia's winters – at work at Marin Sun Farms, and to hear someone as passionate and knowledgeable as David Evans explain how the many moving pieces fit together.

Marin Sun Farms has been extensively covered in the media and blogosphere, including a piece by Bonnie Azab Powell at the Ethicurean, one by Stephanie Rosenbaum at Bay Area Bites, an article in the Winter 2009 issue of Edible San Francisco by Wayne Garcia, and a few articles on the Marin Sun Farms’ press page.

Random link from the archive: Okra Greens