Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A Milch Maid: Being Food

Nursing is pretty cool, like those dreams where you finally discover your latent magical powers. I've read enough fantasy novels that I have a lot of those dreams. Like this, say:

Now spin a silver thread of milk / And out of it a baby knit. / Then take the milken thread again / And mend your broken heart with it.

It's shimmeringly magical to watch my milk transform into a new person, a beautiful little sprout-in-the-snow, a bright-throated piper, up to his eyebrows in eyelashes. And how delightful that this small wild creature needs me! I am his habitat, I am the twig this bird has lit upon, and, indeed, this is the milk he came expecting.

There is the grunt work, though, fueling the magic. And "fuel" really is how I think about food these days. Staying fed is heavy work. It feels like I am always running out, and when I get something, I've barely cleared the dishes before there it is again: I'm hungry. If my own kitchen feels inadequate, restaurants are mostly hopeless. Such silly little morsels in the middles of big plates. Such tiny dabs of cheese on those greens. Moderation, mindfulness, kale salad--lols.

It's like this. I gained 25 pounds gestating. Then I lost 40 lactating, leaving me lighter than I have ever been at my adult height, and technically underweight. And it's the especially nice fat that's gone--the smoothing subcutaneous fat, the curvy gluteofemoral fat. I'm sharp, fibrous, aged. My baby likes chewing on my collarbones. Underwires scrape my ribs. Nothing is wrong--I checked, twice--and it does make sense. Nursing, especially nighttime nursing, suppresses estrogen and the subcutaneous fat it encourages. Then consider that I walk everywhere with a 25-pound weight on my back, a 25-pound weight who periodically siphons calories directly from my dwindling body, and it's easy to see how I wound up like this.

But I am eating like I have never eaten before. Every morning it's three eggs and a bowlful of porridge with heavy cream and maple syrup, dark chocolate, tea with more cream. I eat pot roasts and cheesecakes, hash browns fried in butter, pupusas under sour cream, sauerkraut, salsa, avocado. Salmon and miso, cornbread and blueberry jam, baked oysters, noodle-y bowls of beef tendon pho, steak, mashed potatoes, gravy. Heaping skillets of sautéed leeks and rutabagas, kettles of buttered kale, roasted squash, creamed turnips, lasagna. If it doesn't overflow my dinner plate, it's a garnish, not a salad.

That all sounds pretty good, but I'm so hungry that it gets weird, too. Sticky whole dates stuffed with butter and rolled in coconut. Canned sardines and rice. Cheese rice. Cold rice with cream. There's this feeling I got postpartum, where I felt sort of homesick and seasick and lost. Sometimes, now, in that frantic hour before dinner, when my toddler does not want to play with his wooden fruit or rummage through the recycling bin or unroll the parchment paper and crinkle it all up, but only wants to be up on my hip and watching what I'm doing, which is dangerous and requires two hands and needs to be done so I can eat it, then I get a little wave of that homesick feeling and it doesn't go away until we've sat down and eaten a deep and extensive meal. With sauces and butters and all. I don't know why snacks stop working then. No matter how much cheese or almonds or leftover oats or buttered dates I eat, I'm lonely and adrift until I anchor my unfamiliar body with serious food. Then the evening gets its glow back.

I hope I don't sound like I'm complaining. It's sort of hard to talk about bodies without either complaining or pseudo-complaining. But in fact, my baby has transformed me into his environment--a strange, unfamiliar environment--and I feel awesome. I've never been stronger. When I go walking without the child on my back, I feel uncomfortably light, like there isn't enough friction. It's just not the body I'm used to, and not what I expected (and yes, I know--name of the game).

Let's be clear. It was hard, too. Milk production is triggered by progesterone withdrawal, and I really hate progesterone withdrawal in normal everyday circumstances, let alone withdrawal from the glorious pregnant quantities of progesterone, orders of magnitude higher than at any other point in life. So I cried a lot, and I also cried because my baby's latch wasn't great and I'll tell you all about what that feels like if you're ever curious. But the crying was over by six weeks thanks to my great midwife/IBCLC, plus happy chemicals like theobromine and caffeine. Ever since then, nursing has been one of the nicer and easier and more magical things I do as a mother.

The picture up top is a spoonful of cream I made. I hate pumping milk. I haven't done very much of it because my milk has excess lipase, an enzyme which breaks down fat and makes my stored milk taste like dish soap after a few hours. But the other day the child took ill and wasn't nursing much, so I had to pump for relief. I stashed the milk in the fridge in case I thought of something to do with it (I mean, it always starts tasting like soap and I always wind up chucking it, but still, I have to give it a chance).

Anyway, a downright shocking amount of cream rose to the top. As toddlers eat more solids, drink more water, and nurse less frequently, a mother's body adjusts the milk recipe to be richer and more satisfying. I knew this, but to see it? What a marvel. Think of all that magical buttery cream my child is drinking! No wonder that last night while nursing to sleep, he paused to tell me it was "yummy." We've got ice cream on tap.

Tuesday, October 02, 2012

The Lost Arts of Hearth and Home, and Some Thoughts on Writing

It's out! Today is the official publication day of my second book, The Lost Arts of Hearth and Home. You can find it at the usual places, like your local bookseller or Amazon or Powell's. Now that I have two books out, it must not be a fluke. So I think I'll indulge myself and talk a little bit about what it feels like to write books.

Books are an odd, slow medium, not at all like essays or saying clever things at parties. There's a big gap between the audience and me. And things are rather messy on this side of the gap.

For starters, I'm a physically awkward writer--I pull on my mouth, walk to the kitchen for a sip of water, grimace at people outside my window, lean on my desk, prop up the other foot. I start to sweat as the creative adrenaline builds. I frown and squint, and say nonsense things to the cats. If people are around I become conscious of all these mannerisms and distract myself. This is why I'm no good at saying clever things at parties.

I work at a stand-up desk (a butcher block counter in the living room), which helps enormously. I suppose in my case it should be called a fidgeting desk, because standing still is not what I'm doing. When I'm tired of being upright, I do sit, but cross-legged or half-squatting on a bench. Sitting still makes me cold and tired, and I can't sit properly in a chair with my feet on the floor anyway, since all the blood runs out of my brain and into my feet. Low blood pressure.

I'm a slow writer, too. Mostly I edit. All the fidgeting helps me become sort of disembodied, helps me reach that abstract state where ideas get wrangled into words. Walking is perfect for this, and so is the opposite sensory deprivation of lying awake at night (as pregnant people do, before they discover that a chopped liver sandwich is the cure for insomnia). But in general, the effort and concentration of writing and editing are so exhausting that I often dread the work, and can't keep it up for more than a few hours at a time.

For months, as I work on the book, "the book" means awkward, ugly, sweaty solitude, and a general sense that I'm letting everyone down. Then it goes to the publisher, and they lay it out and design it and I feel slightly embarrassed about all the effort they're going to. Finally, after I've started to forget what I even wrote, "the book" pops into existence as a real book with covers and pages, and strangers read it and say things about it. If by chance they don't say, "What an awkward, ugly, sweaty book," I am rather surprised.

Today, the book is indeed out, and people are saying stuff about it. I read the very first stranger's comments on it yesterday, when I found out that Publishers Weekly called it "an utterly charming collection of recipes and how-tos for the 21st-century hipster homemaker," and then compared us to "postmodern Elizabeth Davids." That made me so happy! The gap between the audience and me must be flatteringly large.

You could almost think from this self-absorbed meta-writing that I'm making plays or novels. No. All this sweating and whatnot is just for straightforward instructional nonfiction, where for the most part I don't even have to second-guess the plot! I already know how the chutney is going to end. That's the other part of my job, and yes, I do know how lucky that makes me. I know how lucky the whole thing is, and what a gift it is to do the thing that makes me fidget most.

(Of course I feel obliged to add that I'm not a very good hipster, in case anyone wondered how I ought to be typecast. Also, I made no fewer than fifteen trips to the kitchen for water during the course of writing this.)

Monday, October 01, 2012

Grape Jam

A couple of hours from our home in West Virginia we had some friends with a vineyard. We used to drive over there--four mountain ranges between us--to make grape juice with them every year. Imagine a wine crush party, but with calico aprons and no booze. Anyway, our friends didn't grow wine grapes, or even standard table grapes, but the splendid dusty blue Concords and their kin.

And these Concords, derived from the wild grapes of North America, are the source of the canonical grape flavor. It's the flavor of the jelly in the classic PB&J, the flavor of purple grape juice, the flavor half-heartedly attempted in purple candies and sodas--and yet, we hardly ever sit down and eat Concord grapes. Concord types are too pungent, seedy, and tannic. They're inconvenient. (My preferred way to eat them is to squeeze the grape out of its skin and into my mouth, spit out the seeds, eat the sweet center, then suck the sweetness out of the skin and swallow it whole before it gets too bitter.) These are not the grapes to feed empresses reclining on divans. You won't find them imported from Argentina in April. 

After we permanently moved down from West Virginia, across those four mountain ranges, I worked on our friends' farm for years. Picking grapes was by far the nicest work on the farm. Picture two teenage girls with ass-length braids, clipping grapes from lush arbors at twilight, singing stupid songs about drunken sailors. The bleached-out glare of summer was gone, leaving the sky vivid blue again, and there were new people to fall in love with at school.

The seasons are subtler here in San Francisco, and the summer-fall transition is particularly unrecognizable. So what a delight when a friend stopped by and left me some Concord-type grapes! I dug up this recipe for grape jam from my grandmother's taped-together copy of The Mennonite Community Cookbook. This sort of continuity is crucial when reenacting lost seasons. I did, however, ruthlessly cut the sugar, as I do for all old jam recipes. It's still very, very sweet.

Grape jam is far less common than grape jelly. Since grapes are so seedy, you have to strain them anyway, so lots of people just make jelly while they're at it. The difference is that grape jam gets pressed through a strainer or food mill, making it cloudy and dark, whereas jelly is allowed to slowly filter through a jelly bag, making it lovely and clear. But when you mash the pulp, you get a very robust flavor and a much better yield, plus I imagine those cloudy particles have some small nutritional value.

Grape Jam

Adapted from The Mennonite Community Cookbook.

Wash 4 pounds of Concord-type grapes and pick them from the stems. You should have about 2.5 quarts.

Put the grapes in a large, heavy-bottomed pot, add half a cup of water, cover, and bring to a simmer. Let the grapes cook until they're quite soft; something like 20-30 minutes.

Mash the grapes through a food mill. You should now have about six cups of grape pulp. Return the pulp to the pot and add three cups of sugar. Bring to a boil, uncovered, over medium-high heat and cook down until thick enough that the jam runs from the spoon in one stream, rather than individual drips. This could take 20-35 minutes, depending on the dimensions of your pot and the power of the burner.

Pour into hot sterilized jars and cover. You can keep the jam refrigerated for a long while, or properly can it (5 minutes in a boiling water bath) so it's shelf-stable.

Makes 4-5 cups of jam.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Mysost: Caramelized Whey Cheese

I had some whey leftover from making Camembert, so today I took a tip from my co-author, Ken Albala. Slowly cooking down whey turns it into a concentrated caramelized cheese called mysost. And it's so, so delicious, even though I neglected it at a few key moments. (I allowed it to boil, which made ricotta, so it's grainy rather than smooth. I also let it burn a tiny bit during the last caramelization stages, so it has some brown flecks in it.)

Nonetheless, it is just ridiculously cheesy and fudgy, and would have been nearly effortless had I kept the heat low enough and paid attention when it started to thicken, like the recipe says. Ken calls it "precisely midway between candy and cheese," which is apt. Umami like mad. Be prepared to spend a long time scratching at the pot and licking the spoon. Even a tiny scraping of mysost will make you wiggle in delight.

From almost a gallon of whey, I got almost a cup of mysost. What an excellent space-efficient use for the jars of whey that wind up sitting around after making cheese!

Incidentally, the recipes for both Camembert and mysost appear in our new book, The Lost Arts of Hearth and Home, the very first advance copy of which just reached me today!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Gluten-Free Cheese Muffins

I have lately had occasion to experiment with gluten-free baking. Namely, the more pregnant I get, the more picky my stomach becomes. I'm not complaining; I've so far had a ridiculously easy pregnancy, so long as I figure out the rules and follow them.

Anyway, these muffins are a bit of a marvel: crusty, buttery, eggy, and all that, but somehow the cheese gives them a very gluten-like springiness and chewiness. It makes sense, I suppose, given that gluten has a texture like cooling melted cheese.

Gluten-Free Cheese Muffins

Preheat the oven to 375.

Mix together:
1.5 cups sweet white rice flour (Bob's Red Mill brand is what I've found)
1 cup fine cornmeal
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda

In a separate bowl, beat:
3 eggs

Then add:
3/4 cup water + 1 tablespoon of vinegar (or 3/4 cup whey, kefir, etc...)

2 tablespoons butter

4 oz. cheese (I used a sharp cheddar)

Stir everything together. It will seem like way too much cheese at first.

Then I take 3 tablespoons of butter and divide it between 9 muffin holes. I use a stoneware muffin pan with muffin holes that are 1.5" deep and 3" across at the top; adjust the number if yours are much different. Pop the pan in the preheated oven for a few minutes to melt the butter.

Scoop the muffin batter into the melted-butter-filled muffin holes. The batter will come up about level with the top of the pan.

Bake 30 minutes. Remove from the pan to cool.

The melted butter in the pan makes the muffins so nice and crusty! These would also be delicious with some fresh herbs minced in, like chives or rosemary.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Coffee and Tea Dying

I recently wound up buying a highlighter-pink tee shirt that was just too cheap to pass up. I can't be too picky given the demands my swelling belly has placed on my wardrobe. Not that highlighter pink is intrinsically bad, of course--it's just bad in proximity to me.

And I do have a few tricks up my sleeve for dealing with bad colors--tricks that broaden my options when cruising sale racks or thrift stores.

First I tried tea-staining it. This was moderately successful, but highlighter pink is very tenacious. So I raided my husband's supply of single-origin small-batch-roasted coffee beans. I only needed an ounce, which I ground and threw into a pot of boiling water. (Forgive me, Sightglass.)

I let that brew for a while, then brought up the heat again and added the shirt. Letting the shirt simmer in the acidic coffee for 30 minutes helped strip some of the pink dye, while the coffee itself added a shade of sepia. The end result was a very nice dusty rose color, far more palatable than highlighter pink.

The basic method is so wonderfully simple. You can even make a stronger brew and paint the tea or coffee directly onto surfaces, like lampshades or sneakers. And you can experiment to obtain other colors. A little turmeric with tea, for example, will get you yellow hues, and the skins of yellow onions give you reddish-orange colors. Whatever blend you use, you'll want some tannins from tea or coffee (or walnuts, or oak leaves?).

Friday, July 27, 2012

Homemade Tempeh

I have this plan to put up a whole bunch of fermented foods before the baby comes. Miso and sauerkraut are fast food, but nutritious, and won't crowd my miniature fridge or freezer. So I ordered some spores for miso-making, and then threw in some tempeh spores out of curiosity. Although fermented, tempeh must be eaten fresh, or frozen for later--so it's not exactly part of my brilliant baby preparation plan. Just a nice moldy project for a foggy summer day.

Also, I have Sandor Katz's phenomenal new fermentation tome, The Art of Fermentation, sitting on my desk. That is a book to make a person get up and tend some fungi, I'll tell you what. And I'm not just saying that because it's the first book in the history of the world to quote me. It's a wonder. More grimoire than cookbook.

Tempeh is the perfect introduction to mold-culturing, I've decided. Unlike miso, which requires a separate koji culturing process before its months-long cure, tempeh provides 36-hour gratification. It's barely more difficult than yogurt.

It's also delicious; a traditional fermented soy product with its own cheesy-nutty flavor, not trying to be meat or dairy or anything it's not. I followed Sandor's directions in tandem with the directions that came with my spores from GEM cultures.


The most difficult part of making tempeh is hulling the beans. Sandor explains that the hulls are too tough for the mold hyphae to penetrate. He suggests putting them through a grain mill on a setting just coarse enough to crack the beans. The other method is to remove the hulls manually after soaking, by vigorously rubbing the beans between your hands. This turned out to be a tremendous pain, and I should've just gotten out the grain mill.

Once you've cracked a pound of beans (2.5 cups before cracking), soak them in plenty of filtered water overnight or longer. The timing is easiest if you cook them in the afternoon or evening, so they can get through the first 12 hours of fermentation while you're asleep.

Rinse the soaked beans in a colander, put them a large pot, and cover with water two inches above the level of the beans. Bring to a boil, watching closely. When they boil, turn the heat down and set a timer for 40 minutes. Skim off the hulls as they float to the surface.

While they cook, prepare your fermenting dishes and incubation chamber. Choose glass or stainless steel pans--I used two glass bread pans and a pyrex casserole dish. They only need to be clean, not greased or anything. For my incubator, I put a 60-watt incandescent bulb on the end of an extension cord and ran it into the bottom of the oven. I placed a pie tin on the bottom shelf over the bulb to diffuse the heat a bit. You're aiming for 85 degrees. As the temperature came up, I tested various corners of the oven and adjusted the door, which I found needed to be cracked about 1/4 of an inch.

Get the spores ready, too. I mixed 1 teaspoon of spore powder with 1 tablespoon rice flour and 1 tablespoon brewer's yeast. The amount of spore powder you need depends on where you got it from--follow the package directions.

The beans will still be quite firm at the end of 40 minutes. Drain them in a colander, then spread them thinly on clean towels to cool and dry. You might turn a fan on them to hasten the drying process, as mine were cool long before they were dry.

Put the dried, cooled beans in a large mixing bowl and sprinkle half the spore mixture over top. Stir it in thoroughly, then sprinkle on the rest and stir it in. You want a very even distribution of spores. Pack the beans into an even, inch-high layer on the bottom of your fermentation vessels and cover securely with tinfoil. Poke holes an inch apart all over the tinfoil, and put the trays in your incubator.

Keep a close eye on the temperature in the incubator, so maintains a stable 85-90 degrees. Rotate the pans as necessary to avoid hotspots.

After twelve hours or so, you'll start to see some good mold growth.

Continue adjusting the temperature and rotating the pans as necessary. Watch out! Once the mold starts to get established, it will generate a heat of its own. It could easily overheat and cook itself to death. If you see the temperature start rising, remove your heat source and keep a close eye on the mold.

The tempeh is done when it's covered with an even, spongey layer of mold that tightly binds the beans together. In fact, it will even contract and pull away from the sides of the pan.

This pan of tempeh is perfectly done. You'll notice that the mold began to sporulate in the upper right. (The spores are gray-black.) I took a preggo nap towards the end of the fermentation time, and when I found this upon waking, I was a bit worried. My tempeh was perfect, however, and a little sporulation is a good sign that the tempeh is mature. Total fermentation time was 21 hours.

But look at the beads of condensation that fell onto the mold!

As soon as the tempeh is done, you need to halt fermentation as quickly as possible. Tempeh that you want to freeze needs to be wrapped and spread out in the freezer to chill as quickly as possible. Tempeh for eating fresh should be refrigerated, also spread out. If it cools too slowly, the mold will continue to grow and sporulate. Store tempeh wrapped in plastic. It will keep for just a few days in the refrigerator.

My favorite way to serve tempeh is to slice it and marinate it for a few minutes in some soy sauce. Then I gently fry it in butter until golden. You'll need to add more butter to the pan when you flip the tempeh slices, since they really sponge it up. I think it tastes like a grilled cheese sandwich.

Last night I also dressed it with a miso-lime-garlic sauce, which meant that I was eating fermented-soy-marinated fermented soy beans with fermented soy.