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.

First AB 1348 Win

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signal-2017-04-26-154018I’ve been working with farmers of color and farmer advocacy organizations to write and pass a bill in California to acknowledge the distinct experiences of minority farmers, or “socially disadvantaged farmers.” There’s a federal distinction, but with the new administration and their cutting of resources for farmers and people of color, we wanted to create a state definition.

The definition will hopefully make it easier in the future for California resources to be reserved for socially disadvantaged farmers. It won’t undo the violence, theft, and marginalization inflicted on farmers of color, but this is a start towards equity.

Today was a big first step in that direction. Assembly member Aguiar-Curry, Beth Smoker of PANNA, Javier Zamora of JSM Organics, and I stated our support for the bill to the California Assembly Agricultural Commission. They unanimously passed it!

Next step:  Assembly Appropriations Committee. San Diego friends, if you can spare the time, please call San Diego Assembly member Gonzalez Fletcher’s office to express your support. She’s the Chair of Appropriations, so our local voices have a state impact.

CUESA Talk: Cooperatives: Democratizing thr Food System

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Why are cooperatives relevant to the food system? Cooperatives exist based on the principle that if you are impacted by something and are affected by it, that you should have a say about it. Food impacts all of us. We need transparency, accountability, and shared ownership of our food.

Come hear about cooperatives in the food system On Monday, April 25th at the SF Ferry Building. Find out more by clicking the image.

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Mise en Place

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The winter rains set the stage for bountiful wild harvests this spring. 

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Sage, lemonade berry, and pineapple flowers

I stirred the lemonade berry in water and sprinkled sage flowers on top. The pineapple flowers made a nice topping on vanilla ice cream for a tropical and herbaceous flavor. Yum yum yum!

Before becoming a farmer, I was much more interested in harvesting from nature’s provisions. This fascination was incited during a walk with my mom when I was 5 years old. As we passed by a neighbor’s house, my mom stopped next to their front hedge. It looked like any old hedge, and only upon closer examination did I notice its green and red leaves, and clusters of tiny fuchsia-colored, apple-shaped berries. My mom plucked a few, wiped them, and handed one to me. “Watch out for the seed in the middle,” as she demonstrated biting into the fruit. The audible crunch from such a small fruit and pink juice on my mom’s lips made this berry every more mesmerizing. I slowly sliced off a piece with my front teeth to take note of minute developments of this curious encounter. Tangy, sweet, bright, yet followed by a slight astringency, this berry was not only delicious but MIND BLOWING. I suddenly realized that my surroundings are more complicated, more delicious than I thought, and I just needed to pay attention. Move aside, Willy Wonka, the whole world is edible!

From that point on, I viewed the world in a dichotomy: Food / Not Food. The obvious food items are in grocery stores, but then there’s everything else — flowers, leaves, berries, and delicate forms that don’t make it into formal establishments. I wanted to try everything, to  and figure out how to do it in a way that didn’t cause pain or death.

Well, the last part of that goal was added after a summer of living off of purely what the Sierra Nevada offers. I was 20 years old and at the height of militant environmental activism. I wanted to shed off industrial comforts, eat from nature, drink from streams, and live with minimal resources. I brought a knife, pot, tarp, rope, flashlight, Nalgene bottle, flint, and a Western Sierra Guide to Edible Plants. I was going to hike and forage through the mountains.

The feeling of being in the mountains
Is a dream of self-negation
To see the world without us
How it churns and blossoms
Without anyone looking on

The lakes in the deep back country are still, blue almost black, and engulf you in an otherworldly abyss when you dive in from the granite boulders above. Surfing on continuous thickets of manzanita bushes feels like walking in a world with weaker gravity, every step giving you a bounce. Berries and roots tasted dense with flavors and burst in flavor as though they were building up all these complexities for a moment to explode in your mouth. I fell in love with spring Douglas fir tips that taste like tropical makrut lime and the Sierras had a baby. Camas roots brought a sweetness to my diet of otherwise vegetal flavors. It seemed miraculous to me that these plants could find a perfect confluence of conditions to survive. It is a miracle, but one that slowly unfolds over time, life cycles, adaptations. Plants have come, gone, crossed with the intervention of geology, animals, humans. Some of my favorite things to eat weren’t endemic, but introduced by waves of different groups of people. Take that pineapple flower up top for example. It’s from South Africa when laborers were brought over during the Gold Rush. The mustard is an introduced annual. And so I came to understand the landscape as an interplay of nature and humans, or rather that we are one. My escape to nature turned out to be a lesson in human history.

I related to the plants as something from out of place but also adaptable and fitting, as humans have done. I hiked and harvested for weeks, enjoying new vistas, smelling new profiles, and tasted flavors wholly new to me. I felt my senses and thoughts fully engaged, but also my energy dwindling. My diet, while diverse, was not enough in quantity. I spent more and more time meditating so I could pass through times of hunger and would eat loads of miner’s lettuce. Then, I began to behave the way animals did: raid the camp sites. Sunday afternoons were smorgasborgs when campers emptied their bear tins and cabinets. They threw away many half-eaten protein and energy dense bars and camping specialty items that lasted me until the next set of weekend campers came. Feasting time!

It was in these moments of examining edibility of cucumbers and carrots that I came to appreciate human intervention in food production, aka farming. I understood why people traded the diversity of wild, yet rarer finds for a secure bounty of a narrower selection of foods. But along the way we’ve traded complex, sustainable ecosystems for controlled, homogeneous landscapes to grow a few foods owned by a few companies. It doesn’t need to be a trade off. We can still forage and feast. As stewards who are part of nature we can keep our diversity of food in a diversity of hands across a diversity of landscapes, be it in our forests, farms, or neighbors’ yards. 

Happy spring, happy harvesting!