Ume preserves

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Ume “plums” (actually related to apricots) become available around this time for about a month.  There’s a rush to preserve them for snacks, seasoning, vinegar, wine, and spirits, and it’s associated with significant cultural celebrations in many parts of East Asia. I didn’t have time to put on a major festival, but did throw together an impromptu preservation party, inviting other ume enthusiasts to take advantage of the California ume co-op’s crop this year.

We made umeboshi and maeshu, and tasted vodka and shochu based maeshu thanks to some participating friends! The latter is simple: pack ume into a jar and douse with clear alcohol of 25% or higher proof.

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For salt-preserved ume, we layered ume in coarse sea salt and Vietnamese purple shiso or tia to, which will give it a mild clove and cinnamon-like flavor. There was no need for washing, which would remove helpful yeast, because the fruit was grown organically — so hard to find! I got salt from a Korean grocery store, and am very particular about the shape and source. I find fine and rock salt makes the whole thing too salty, while coarse salt plays both the role of increasing surface area contact between ume and salt and not introducing too much salt. Sea salt that hasn’t been iodized introduces minerals yet doesn’t kill beneficial bacterial cultures. Since us organizers Minh of Porridge and Puffs, Diep of Good Girl Dinette, and I are Vietnamese, we used tia to. Korean or Japanese purple shiso mainly gives it color but doesn’t impart a strong flavor, which we wanted.

Once the jar is packed full, it’s important to make sure the plums are covered in salt. The salt will extrude the ume’s juice, which preserves the fruit and prevents mold growth. There’s a tricky part beforehand when the fruit isn’t immersed yet and it’s tempting to press the fruit down. Doing so, however, bruises the fruit and can cause mold. Abrasions from the pressure against hard salt also introduce the possibility of contamination, though the young fruit develops a protective sap that can resist some bacteria. It’s hard to find completely straight jars to fit a full coverage surface on the ume, but Alexandra of GROW and Slow Food LA had a great suggestion of filling a bag with water and putting it on top to add pressure. You could also wash some rocks and stack them on top!

The jar can be left in the sun to expedite the process, but it increases the chance of water moisture and rot. I keep mine in a dark, cool place with consistent temperature, usually a corner of the house. My grandma puts it in a west-facing window, my aunt puts it in a north-facing window. We’ve each come out with good results, so I’m not sure if there’s a big difference. The sun probably expedites the process and maybe there are different times for cool and for sun. What do you do?

Once the ume is immersed by its own juices, about 2-3 weeks later, the fruit is taken out to sun dry for a few days or until the skin becomes a little tough. The salty juice is bottled and can be used as a vinegar or seasoning. Personally, I like mixing it with some honey, water, and ice for a refreshing beverage on hot days. The sun-dried ume goes back in the jar and can be eaten throughout the year. They can be left to dry further if making xi muoi (a bit in this June 2016 post).

I hope everyone’s creations turn out well!

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Forward Movement API crew!

Happy Mother’s Day!

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My love of bread was inherited from my mom. She loves bread so much that as a kid I called my mom “bread” in Vietnamese: “Banh mi!” It was our snack on the days she could pick me up from school, so I associate bread with the rare joy of spending time with my mom. She held multiple jobs at a time, so I’d see her for very short periods of time — in the morning as she made coffee and in the darkness of night between sleepy eyes when she’d kiss my cheek. My mom was an ESL teacher in the day and a hair stylist in the evenings, then head to night school. She fit in other jobs, rose pruning, floral design, clothing assembly piece work, so that I could have more food than what food stamps afford and so that I could learn more than what school offered. My mom sent me to piano lessons, which I knew were a strain on her not only because of the cost but also because of the time to drive me and to and fro. She never said anything of this effort, though I could see the tiredness in her face. She’d smile through that and would pass me a loaf of bread when she picked me up from lessons. I’d pull the VONS batard out of the white paper bag, tear the end off for my mom, and dig into the fluffy white center. That was our arrangement: she ate the outside and I ate the inside. If there was enough time before her salon client, we’d come home and dip the bread in Maggi with smashed Thai chilies. My mom would have to work before the loaf was finished, but I didn’t want to eat the rest without her. So I’d press my finger tip into the bottom of the bag to pick up the flakes and crumbs at the bottom to have a little more bread without depriving my mom.

This mother’s day weekend I had to decide between spending it with my mom or furthering the cause of healthful bread. Dave Miller asked me to work with him at the Santa Rosa roadshow stop this past weekend, which I resisted because I had made plans with my mom for the weekend. But, it was going to be his first roadshow and he’s doing the subsequent ones alone, so I agreed to join him Saturday morning.

As recompense, Dave brought two loaves of 100% Sonora wheat bread: one with “Mom” and one with “banh mi”. I sped south after market and arrived in San Diego Sunday to share these special loaves with my mom. Now, we get to eat crust and fluff down to the last crumb, together.

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Happy Mother’s Day to my mom, the smartest, wittiest, most talented and resilient person I know. And to all moms!

Farmers are Matchmakers

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From my National Young Farmers Coalition Heart and Grain post:

I keep searching for ground to grow on. Literally. I drive up and down California looking for a place to plant my grain, hoping to someday find a long-term lease or even purchase land. This past February, two farmers in Sonoma County offered to let me farm their fallow land, one six-acre plot and one three-acre plot. While I was excited for the opportunity, I was limited by my seed supply.

The seeds I need aren’t readily available. I grow heritage wheat and barley—Sonora, Spanish Spelt, Ethiopian Blue Tinge Emmer, and Wit Wolkering. These varieties have done well for thousands of years in regions with conditions similar to where I farm, but they aren’t available through commercial seed companies.

Commercial seeds are grown in controlled conditions to ensure their production, quality, and viability. They’re cultivated in arid landscapes and managed with herbicides, pesticides, and irrigation. That doesn’t match how I farm. I dry farm on the California coast, and I don’t apply any chemicals. A seed carries the memory of its upbringing, so it needs to be matched with the conditions it adapted to. Since I can’t rely on seed companies, I purchase seeds from a network of nearby farmers who grow with similar practices.

Farmers are matchmakers between land and seed. Each have their idiosyncrasies: land with its hot/cold temperament, weather systems, and dirt; seed with its hard exterior encasing a complex interior, rich with history. Sometimes there might not be a good match within the existing pool. There aren’t plenty of fish in the sea of heritage grain, so I started growing out and scaling up the varieties I need. To start, I requested a batch of seed from the USDA germplasm, and they gave me 25 seeds. I have one chance each year to grow them out.

Finding seed is only the first hurdle. It’s difficult to save pure seed stock because basic seed cleaning equipment doesn’t quite get it clean enough. The equipment separates seeds by size and shape, but sometimes unwanted weed seeds are the same size and shape. Another machine separates by density, and it costs $30,000. The most successful is the color sorter, which has an optic laser to identify color differences. Those machines are $300,000.

These costs are high for me and for many beginning farmers, but they’re essential for getting product to market. Seeing this common need, a few farmers and I began seeking and cooperatively acquiring equipment together. We scour Craigslist, inquire with equipment repair mechanics, and coordinate the transportation of equipment halfway across the country. So far, we still don’t have the right equipment to sort pure seed. I’m currently in search of a well-functioning, three- or four-screen air screen cleaner—let me know if you have one!

All this seed production takes time—years—and I need seed now. I hit up all my friends. “All I’ve got left is for seeding my field,” they said, understandably. I called friends outside California with different planting times and heard the same thing. It felt like begging for change to get fare for the last train!

I turned to someone who keeps some verified seed, and they said they’d get it to me, but their major reaction over a minor misunderstanding soured the deal. But what was my alternative? I looked at the UC Davis list and the Washington State list and found that most of their offerings were bred for regions unlike where I’m growing and were patented with limitations on seed saving and seed sales. I looked at longer lists from bigger companies, but all those were owned by Monsanto. I was stuck between doing business with a difficult person or with a megacorporation that is buying up the world’s genetics. I couldn’t believe I stood at this juncture, not just as a farmer, but as a member of the human race. How did we get to the point where our staple crops are in the hands of so few?

We know how, we know it’s a global problem, and we know we must undo the monopolization of life by re-democratizing seed. That requires collaboration, sharing, and reliance on each other. In that vein, I got back on the phone and called up friends and neighbors, asking for any bits that could be spared with the promise of returning seed to replenish their stock.

After much agonizing, driving between counties, and speed seed cleaning, I’m happy to say that all the fields are seeded, and this match-making season is closed.

Come again another day

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When I tell people I’m a farmer, they say, “You must be glad for all this rain!” I can see the delight in their face, and the Californian in me shares this gladness. I hold onto that feeling as I tell them, “No.”

It’s been shitty. Fall planted crops got flooded and the ground is still too wet to work for spring and soon to be unheard of summer plantings. What little spring planting has been done was so far delayed that we might not have much to harvest in the summer.

“But the fruit growers must be glad,” they say to get some optimistic news. Strawberry roots rotted, and the fruit trees carry little fruit. Rain interferes with the pollinators, pollinated, and trees. Bees can’t fly with wet wings, and if they made it to a flower the rain might have washed away the pollen. The residual moisture on the petals lead to rot that penetrates into the branches. My friend’s plum trees bare a few green orbs amidst softened, rotting branches.

The rain has been a relief for our ground water systems, which we’ll need when the heat returns. But we need the regularity and moderation that plants adapted to such that we might have grain, blossoms, and food. It should be dry by now and fields ready for harvest. Rain, rain, go away, please. Come again another day.