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Pickled Watermelon Rinds

I like watching people test for good watermelons, because it makes them look crazy. I know this, because I do it, and people look at me like I’m crazy. I learned the knocking technique from an Israeli woman who claimed to be the ‘queen of vegetables’, who would bustle around the grocery store, knocking on watermelons until she’d delightedly find the right one (about which she’d then shout across the store in her loudest voice, deafening those around her and embarrassing those who were with her).

I started doing it tentatively, and then enthusiastically, and now I end up teaching a couple of people how to do it each time.

It’s easy. All you do is put the watermelon to your ear, and knock on it like you’re knocking on somebody’s door. Knock like it’s a business meeting, not your sleeping neighbour. And listen for a dull throb, not a high pitched ding. The dullest throb you find is the watermelon for you. And then teach somebody else how to do it, because they’ll be looking at  you like you’re crazy. Conversely, you could just start replying to said watermelon, and you might clear a space for yourself in the line…

Pickled watermelon rinds have caught my curiosity for a couple of years, but I was always too lazy to make them. Then, when I was visiting Butter in Boulder, we went to The Pinyon- one of the restaurants she forages for, and on their {gorgeous} menu were pickled watermelon rinds. So we ordered them, and I ate the entire jar, and fell asleep thinking about them. Most recipes for pickled rinds use just the white part, but at The Pinyon, they leave some of the flesh attached. And I tell ya, I’ll never do it any other way- having that little bit of deliciousness is crazy good, and it means you don’t need to specifically find a watermelon with big white rinds.

They’re easy to make. Ridiculously easy. And delicious. Ridiculously delicious. Crisp, tart, sweet, wateremelony. Great served with a rare steak and a glass of wine. Great in a sandwich with chicken and arugula. Great on their own or with cheddar when you’re wandering aimlessly into the kitchen in the afternoon trying to figure out what to do next.

Pickled Watermelon Rinds

1 large watermelon

2 cups cider vinegar

2 cups water

1 cup sugar

 

Using a vegetable peeler, peel the watermelon as best as you can. Cut it in half first (so it doesn’t roll all over the place) and go at it. For hard to peel parts you can use a paring knife, but try to use a peeler as much as possible so you get as much rind as possible.

Cut the half in half. Then, delicately, cut out the flesh, leaving about an inch of red flesh attached to the white rind. Then, slice the flesh-deprived quarters into 2-inch-wide strips. You’ll have a little triangle left over. Slice each of those strips into thin strips that are 2-inches long. I made all of mine about 2 milimeters wide, but you can go thinner than that if you prefer them less crunchy.

Now you have a pile of strips of watermelon rinds, stuff them into jars, however you want. You can be pretty about it or quick about it- I did some of both. The pretty ones have been given away, the quick ones are being devoured by the day…

Bring the water, cider and sugar to a boil. Remove from the heat, and start ladling the liquid into the jars filled with watermelon. The liquid must be boiling hot. Put the lids on- they should seal (if not, eat those ones first). Wait for them to cool, then refrigerate.

I’m sure you can pressure can these so that they’re shelf-stable but I figured we’d go through them all so fast it wasn’t entirely necessary. If giving them away as gifts, a little ‘please keep refrigerated’ label probably wouldn’t go amiss though.

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Wilderness

One of the things I love about Los Angeles is how close everything is. Within 5 ours of my house we have skiing, white water rafting, deserts, mountains (including the highest mountain in the continental US), ocean, lake, hot springs and goodness knows what else. Around LA alone there’s over 4,000,000 acres of hikeable wilderness, which gives me a lot of choice when it comes to picking where I want to go. Even better is that the majority of Angelenos seem to stick to two hiking trails- Runyon Canyon on the East side, and the Pali loop on the West. Which means that on quite a lot of days, even though I live in one of the biggest cities in the world, I have a place entirely to myself.

If you stay in the city, you’d have to look really hard to see that the seasons are changing, especially when we’re hit with 98 degree days in the middle of October. But if you get out, even a few miles out, you can’t help but notice the effect the hot, dry summer has had on everything, and notice that the ground is covered in leaves and acorns, and that the sun is lower, the light longer and the air has a bite to it that wasn’t there a few weeks ago. It’s much more subtle than the East coast fall colours. But I love that about deserty places- the subtlety of everything except the landscape itself.

Adorable little face poking through the branches!

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Palestinian Mousakhan: chicken with sumac, onions and pine nuts.

There’s something distinctly thrilling to me about coming home with a bag of things that I’ve gathered, and using them all the time. Maybe because it’s a throwback to something more primal? Maybe because it makes you feel more connected with nature? Maybe all of the above.

A few days ago, the weather finally cooled down enough to turn the oven on. After a taste of fall, a few days of rain, and a day with the heater on, the temperatures soared to 98 degrees with no breeze. Days were spent sitting around eating watermelon and ice cream, and complaining. There was lots of complaining. Finally the temperatures dropped and a cool breeze blew through LA. I hope this is it, but you can never tell around here.

With the temperatures lower, I finally made it out to gather some sumac. Commonly used as a kitchen spice in many parts of the Middle East, it’s relatively unused here. There seems to be a bit of misinformation about what types can be used- in one book I read last week it said to always use the stuff you can buy from Middle Eastern shops because American sumac is poisonous and tasteless- and this is false on both counts. Of course you can use store-bought stuff in a pinch, but I highly recommend going out for a walk and finding some wild American sumac. Not only do you know where it comes from, but it is seriously delicious stuff. Our local sumac gets all drippy with sour juices. I’ll nibble on them while I’m hiking- it helps so much with the dehydration that is common to us summer-heat-hikers.

This sumac chicken recipe is a major adaptation on something I read in The Foods of Israel Today by Joan Nathan. I was slightly nervous about the combination of sumac and cloves, but it’s actually beautiful. It tastes like I remember Israel tasting. The spices aren’t overwhelming, and the flavours mingle perfectly. I served it with yogurt (a raita-type thing with cucumbers chopped through it) and rice. It’d be delicious with couscous, or flatbreads or pita (which is what the original recipe said to serve it with).

If you’re interested, I’ve written about the medicinal properties of sumac (and other astringents) here.

 

Palestinian Mousakhan: Chicken with sumac, onions and pine nuts. 

serves 4

1/2 cup olive oil

2 large onions

3 cloves garlic

I chicken, in 4 pieces (2 breasts, 2 thighsandlegs)

1/2 cup pine nuts

2 tb pine nuts

2 1/2 tb ground sumac

1/8 tsp ground cloves

1/4 tsp ground coriander

stems of 1 bunch cilantro, tied with string

1/2 cup chicken stock

1/2 tsp salt

 

Method:

Place the onions, garlic and olive oil in a blender, and blend until a thick paste. Add the spices, then pour over the chicken, and leave to marinade for up to 24 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350.

In a tagine, or casserole dish, heat with a couple of tb of olive oil. Add the chicken, sauce and chicken stock. Pop the lid on and cook over medium heat for 25 minutes. Then remove the lid, sprinkle with pine nuts, and put in the oven for 15 minutes until the chicken is done. Sprinkle with chopped cilantro and serve over rice or with pita bread.

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Mexico memories

I am dead set on turning my back yard into a Mexican graveyard for my birthday party this year, so Jam and I went downtown to Olivera Street to find decorations. Called ‘El Pueblo de Los Angeles’, Olivera St is the OG LA. For a while, it WAS Los Angeles. Now it’s more like a mini Mexico tourist market with a whole bunch of imports. Except they’re really expensive imports. It might not seem so at first, but after going to Mexico City for some of this stuff, I was horrified at how expensive it all was! It’s kinda the same as how I feel whenever I see cheap imported Indian skirts. I’ve actually stormed out of a few shops shouting “I COULD’VE BOUGHT THIS FOR 200 RUPEES!” while bobbing my head ferociously. Honestly guys, world travel turns you into a hostile and fierce shopper…

 

Things that remind me of Mexico (and therefore make me happy): 

Coffee with cinnamon, cardamom and cream. 

Flan

Street tacos 

corn on the cob sprinkled with cayenne, lime juice, butter and salt

pineapple sprinkled with cayenne

Mexican hot chocolate

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Lobster Mushroom Spaghetti

These chanterelle pictures- they’re from last year. From one of my favourite spots that, after a few days of scoring great mushrooms was obviously someone elses’ spot too, as from that day on, no amount of searching would find me anything except overturned non-chanterelles. This year, I’ll be looking for a new spot. But that won’t be for another month or so. And until then, I was getting really jealous of everyone elses’ mushroom stories.

So I cheated. I went to WTF* and bought some lobsters. Lobster mushrooms are actually a mushroom that’s been eaten by a fungus. It’s weird and kinda awesome. If you eat it before the fungus takes it over then it’ll taste like ass (technical term). But afterwards, it turns bright orangey red** and tastes like lobster. Really truly, lobster. It’s the kind of thing that you don’t really want too many flavours to get in the way of. Two nights ago I did a simple sautee with garlic and apple cider, and last night I did the same thing but then added cream and stirred the whole lot into brown rice spaghetti.

Then I went and sat on the stoop, listened to Indian music, and watched the moody sun set over Los Angeles. The smell or rain on warm asphalt was still in the air from this afternoon. The clouds were electric against a bright purple sky. Tumultuous weather makes me happy.


Lobster mushroom spaghetti (which works for any fancy mushroom, really, including chanterelles (pictured))

1/2 lb mushrooms

2 tb olive oil

2 tb butter

1/4 cup chicken stock

1/2 cup apple cider (the alcoholic kind; the good kind)

1/4 cup cream

3 cloves garlic

1/2 tsp salt

 

Get a big pot of water boiling for the spaghetti. Once at a rolling boil, add 1/2 tb of salt and a bit of olive oil. Throw in the spaghetti and set the timer.

Chop the mushrooms into bite-sized chunks. In a heavy sauteeing pan, on medium heat, heat the butter and olive oil. Add the mushrooms and, after about 30 seconds, the chicken stock. Turn the heat to high. Sprinkle with salt. Cook, stirring kinda regularly, until the chicken stock is almost all evaporated, then pour in the cider. It’ll bubble and make nice smells through the kitchen. The mushrooms will be getting kinda soft. When the timer goes for the spaghetti, dump it all into a collander then turn the heat on the mushrooms down to medium again. When the cider is almost all evaporated, stir in the cream, then add the spaghetti. Stir, to coat everything, then serve.

 

*Whole Foods. Somehow it has become ‘whatthefuck’ in our household. Even the cat calls it that.

**I actually had a bit of a fit looking at this colour first hand. It’s the kind of colour that makes me want to rub whatever is that colour all over my face and roll around in it like some dogs roll around in poo.

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Black walnut pear tart

I’m almost embarrassed to admit that it took me days to recover from my road trip. Driving for a long time is irrationally exhausting. I  expected to get home, and get back to work. For about 4 of the 19 hours it took to get home from Colorado, I was writing lists in my head of all the things I’d do when I got home. Of course, the more bored and agitated I got sitting in the car, the more extravagant my lists got. By the time I got home, I had lists of things to make (black walnut crust, black walnut cream liqueur, black walnut henna, black walnut crusted somethingorother, black walnut soup), lists of things to do (write a book, buy a trailer to make future awesome road trips more fun, find funding to open a shop, move to Big Sur, beg my friends and family to send me to Nicaragua for the clinical training course thing that I want to do), lists of things to organise (my office. I won’t even show you pictures because it’s too embarrassing), lists of people to email, lists of… well you get the picture.

And you know, by the time I got home, I was so tired that I just hid my suitcase somewhere near the washing machine, took a shower, and crawled into bed. And didn’t emerge until Tuesday. When I promptly started at the top of my list: black walnut crust.

I’m beginning to think that the crust gene skips a generation. Of course, my evidence is limited to my own family, and I have jumped to grander conclusions based on less. But my grandma makes a damn good tart crust, and I, if I can say this about myself, do too. Mum, on the other hand, bakes the best challah this side of the Nile but is self-admittedly not the best pastry person.

You see, my theories are well researched. When somebody discovers the pastry gene in the future and there’s a Nobel prize in the running, I want it noted here and now that I THOUGHT OF IT FIRST.

And I really love a good tart. Fruit tarts, creamy tarts, savoury tarts, I really don’t care, as long as it has a stodgy crust and something to complement that stodgy crust. Enter black walnut.

The walnutty yet more complex and delicious than a walnut flavour is perfect in a crust. It’s firm, not as oily as a bag of rancid old nuts that you get at the store, and just different enough that it makes you pause while chewing to figure out what that extra deliciousness is. Don’t worry, nobody will be able to figure it out and you’ll be deemed the master of mystery ingredients for years to come.

I filled the crust with pear slices because it was what I had on hand (still to tired to actually leave the house; not too tired to bake). But really, given a chance I’d probably do something amazing like a goat cheesecake filling with balsamic glazed figs on top. Yeah, I think that’d be really nice. Though pears were really good, especially with a bit of custard underneath them.

On a side note, how sexy are these late summer/ early fall fruits? Pears (they look like a Nikki De Saint Phalle sculpture). Figs (I took a photo of a fig last year that looked exactly like a boob). Sharon fruit (or persimmons as you Americanos like to call them) just look vibrant and luscious and sexy. And apples, well isn’t that Eve’s fruit? I wanted to use a cross section of an apple as my KRA logo but all the feedback I got said it looked like a vagina and people might get the wrong impression. Hmph.

So… another question: What’s the sexiest fruit, in your opinion?

Black Walnut and Pear Tart

Crust:

Adapted from the Bouchon cookbook

2 cups black walnut pieces (you can substitute another nut if you’re unadventurous :P)

1/3 cup sugar

3 cups flour

8oz butter

1/2 tsp salt

1 egg, beaten

 

Creme anglaise:

1 cup cream

1 cup whole milk

1/3 cup sugar

1 tsp vanilla

3 egg yolks

2 whole eggs

 

and:

1/2 pear per mini tart.

 

Make the crust:

In a food processor, pulse the nuts until they’re in small pieces, then add the flour, salt, and sugar. Add the butter, cut into a few pieces, and pulse until it’s broken up into pea-sized pieces. Then add the egg and pulse in ten-second bursts until the sound changes and it thickens into one cohesive pastry-like lump. Turn out onto a floured surface, mold into a disc, wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350.

Peel the pears. Cut in half, cut the core out, and then slice lengthwise so that each half is sliced about 6 times.

Roll out the tart crust and press into mini tart pans. Lay the pears in each tart pan, about half a pear per tart. Sprinkle with sugar and bake for about 35 minutes, until the crust is golden brown and the pears look wilted.

 

Meanwhile make the creme anglaise:

Combine cream, milk, sugar and vanilla in a heavy bottomed saucepan, and bring to a simmer. Remove from the heat once the sugar is melted. In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs together. Then spoon about 1 cup of the hot milk into the eggs, whisking fast. Repeat, then pour the egg mixture back into the pan. Turn on a low heat, and, stirring constantly, heat up for about 10 minutes, or until the custard has thickened. Don’t overheat or it’ll curdle!

Pour it into a serving dish of some kind. When the tarts are ready, remove from the oven, plate and then drizzle with the custard.

 

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Traditions

When I started to write this post, I was sitting in Butter’s kitchen, with the smell of wild plums and sugar infusing the air. I was visiting her as part of a road trip that led me through New Mexico, to the Traditions in Western Herbalism Conference, then up to Northern Colorado for some mountain and foraging time, then back across the mountains and the desert to Los Angeles. 2355 miles in ten days or so. A zillion plants. Some of the most wonderful people I’ve had the opportunity to meet.

Driving through the Southwest is no great chore to me. I remember, a few years ago, when a Costa Rican friend came to visit and we went to Joshua Tree national park, and she was horrified. She said that everything looked so dead. That life, to her, is green and brightly coloured, and that the starkness of the desert made her feel funny. And quite honestly, after doing the drive from Utah to Vegas in late summer, I’d be inclined to agree if I didn’t have such a love of all places stark and craggy. I think about putting myself in the jungle and it makes me crazy. Like Rochester when he got to the Caribbean*. All that green, all that moisture, all that colour. I start slapping my arms imagining ghost insects and (not to be melodramatic or anything) I am pretty sure I’d die of some kind of exotic fever if I weren’t allowed to leave.

The conference was at Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico. A state described as the ‘Land of Enchantment’. It’s a good name for it. The second you cross the border from Arizona the scenery starts to change. Big dramatic mesas intersected by moody rivers rise up into startling blue skies. Then the late summer storms cut in, and what was bright blue five minutes before can be heaving with pent up energy. I drove through one storm that scared the crap out of me. The rain was coming down so hard, and the lightning striking so often that if I hadn’t been on a freeway with lots of other moving cars I’d have stopped right where I was to wait it out. But I couldn’t see the shoulder and couldn’t be sure that nobody would hit me (because they couldn’t see either) so I kept my eyes focused on the barest outline of the white stripe to my left and kept going.

I passed the continental divide. Which kind of blew my mind a little bit. Things like that often do. I stood there staring at the sign for a minute trying to figure out why there are no waterways that start East of there that flow to the Pacific but it was all too much for me so I ate some chocolate instead**.

I got to Ghost Ranch after dark. Made the mistake of trying to read for five minutes (*cough* I’m reading the Twilight series. This is embarrassing. What is more embarrassing is that I stomped around the house yesterday in a bad mood because Edward had the audacity to leave Bella and kept glaring at Jam like he’d done something seriously wrong.), finished my book, and then slept for 12 hours.

Ghost Ranch is stunningly beautiful. Crazy beautiful. Even more stunning than the scenery are the herb conference attendees. There’s something really nice about being surrounded by people who think absolutely nothing of you stopping to look at every shrub or munch things as you pick them off trees. About being around a group of people who, for better or worse, are following their calling (because, let’s face it, nobody gets into herbalism for the money). Some people are trying to make the world a better place, some are trying to help people, and some are (as Matt Wood so eloquently put it last year) ‘just in it for the plants’. It’s a non-pretentious group too. I can’t imagine many big conferences of any profession where the bigshot presenters are just as humble as the newbie learner. I think some of that has to do with the way it’s organised- Kiva and Wolf (the directors) made a choice to not let anyone put any letters after their names. They aren’t even allowed to use powerpoint. Not to devalue their experience, but to show that experience is what counts, not letters, or degrees or social status. And that’s the thing I like the most about it. Some of the teachers are licenced in some form or another, and some are proudly unlicensed. Some have been practicing for 30 odd years with no license at all. Taking away all the extraneous stuff makes the lectures more about experience and information, and it’s, in my opinion, a really great idea.

My favourite lecture turned out to be by Paul Bergner, on Herbs for the Spiritual Heart. To be honest, I wasn’t expecting to like it. I hate the word ‘spiritual’ and any reference to it. But in talking about formulas to enlighten the heart, to protect it, to centre it, Paul passed around formulas that we all tried. And I tell ya, looking at the 50-odd people in that classroom change a bit after taking each formula made me want to cry a little bit. I left that class feeling like I loved everyone and everything. Luckily it only lasted an hour.

Other great classes that I attended were 7song teaching how to put together a good formula. CoreyPine Shane on herbs for pain (GREAT class!). Ryan Drum went over some case studies from his 30 odd years as the sole healthcare practitioner on his little island. Case studies make me happy; they’re never boring and there’s always something interesting and new to learn from another person’s experience.

But there were so many other classes I wish I’d gone to. Kiva Rose taught on Southwest folk herbalism. Lisa Ganora taught on plant constituents. Linda Garcia did first aid courses for herbalists. Sean Donahue taught on asthma. Todd Caldecott (who has an excellent new book out) taught on ayurveda. I’d list them all but I fear I already lost most of you about four paragraphs ago so let it suffice to say that if you’re remotely interested in herbalism- not just as a clinical herbalist but as a person with a kitchen who wants to be able to help out friends and family when they come down with something- check out the TWHC website***.

I left with a heavy heart. It didn’t help that (I can’t believe I didn’t know this) one half of Colorado is flat, and that’s the half I was driving up. Did I ever mention that flat places scare me? They do. They make me panic right in the middle of my belly, it’s horrible. Take away the big craggy rocks and mountains and my palms start to itch and sweat and I keep looking for an exit that isn’t there. Anyway, going to stay with Butter was a really nice way to wind down. We spent every day out foraging. Picking wild plums and apples and black walnuts and more herbs than I can list in one paragraph. We went to Rocky National Park and listened to the elks bugle while a storm rolled in. We ate at one of the restaurants that she forages for and were treated like royalty. We had a cheesy picnic up on top of a mountain in what quickly became a snow storm. The rockies are stunning. Heartbreakingly so. And they smell of clean air and ponderosa pine.

And we made wine. Wild plums grow everywhere around where Butter lives, and we had gathered enough to fill a couple of boxes. I’ve been really into making boozy things lately- from liqueurs to beers (complete failure), but had never tried wine. But plum wine sounded good. And really, it’s not complicated. It sounds complicated because thinking of wine people with their bouquets and fancy meters reading levels of things and all kinds of chemical processes are just scary. But wine for home consumption isn’t scary at all.

Plum Wine: 

1 quart plums

1 1/2 cups sugar

yeast (if the plums aren’t covered in that white wild yeasty stuff)

water

 

Put the plums in a big bowl, and using your hands, start to squish the hell out of them. Think nice thoughts. When making boozes you can’t ever go wrong with fermenting nice thoughts. When thoroughly squished, add the sugar, then pour the lot into a jar that would be left half empty. Fill up the other half with filtered water.

Cover with a cloth and rubber band and allow to ferment in a dark corner for 22 days. Then strain, bottle, and leave it for a year, after which it’ll be ready to drink.
By the way, if you’ve made it this far, do you guys get like that about places? Some places that you love and feel great in and some places repel you like two magnets held the wrong way? I’m curious- what kind of places do you love? 

 

ps. I put more photos on facebook

*Have you read Wide Sargasso Sea? Jean Rhys wrote it in response to Jane Eyre- it’s a fascinating character study and makes you see a whole lot more about Bertha than originally meets the eye. And I much prefer it to gothic romance :).

**Really, I don’t get it. Does this go all the way to the equator? South of the equator to Tierra Del Fuego? Is this why the waves down there are so scary to sail in? Is there not a single stream that goes the other way? If I pour a big bucket of water down at the divide will half of it go one way and half another (I should’ve tried that)?

***I didn’t even mention the music: 3 fantastic bands. We danced all night on Saturday. See, it’s a weight loss conference too.

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Transitions. (and a giveaway)

(Autumn)

I’d like to say that Autumn happens just like that. That one day it’s summer and then one day it’s not. But it doesn’t work like that in Southern California, I don’t think. Three days ago I had to put the heating on for ten minutes when I woke up because my fingers wouldn’t work properly because it was so cold. Yesterday it was 95 degrees and I sat around [attractively] in my underwear drinking lemon water and whining [attractively].

It’s really easy to get a chill and get sick at this time of year, when it’s hot one day and cold the next, and there’s a breeze threatening to let its cold fingers creep down the back of your neck. The area at the bottom of your neck is an area where a whole bunch of acupuncture channels meet, and if a cold wind hits that spot, you can end up with a chill, or the flu, or EBOLA VIRUS. Just kidding about ebola.

Wearing a scarf helps you not get sick (and, in my opinion, looks kinda jaunty). As does having some kind of elderberry preparation at hand. Which brings me to the whole giveaway thing:

You might have noticed things changing a bit around here- new headers slipping in, new tabs up there, and a change in my ‘about me’ page. I’ve started an online business, where I sell my tinctures and salves and other little things that I make. Since it’s flu season, I’m giving away a flu kit, containing one elder elixir and one diaphoretic tea blend, in a nice little box with a bow on it.

To read more about them both, click HERE.

To enter, all you need to do is leave a comment below telling me what your favourite herb is (cooking, medicinal, whatever. In China they even use flying squirrel feces as a herb, so my requirements are pretty lax.).

Any extras aren’t necessary- I really hate giveaways where you have to sign up for a bunch of stuff- but since my business is little, I’d sure be grateful for the extra publicity.  So if you guys want to do any of the following, just leave extra comments for each one that you do:

 

1. Like Kings Road Apothecary on facebook.

2. Follow Kings Road Apothecary on twitter.

3. Sign up to follow the Kings Road Apothecary monthly (or so) newsletter.

4. Tell a friend, or post a link to the giveaway.

 

I’ll pick a winner at random on Monday at 5pm. 

Update: ERIN is the winner. Yay Erin!

I’m sharing this post at Fight Back Friday. 

 

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Aioli

It was my lovely brother Alex who pointed out that you cannot find good aioli in America. He pointed this out while filling our grocery cart with aioli, which is sold in little tubs for about a Euro apiece. I wondered how he’d ever go through it all, but it turns out that I underestimated the culinary genius of my little brother.

Which I should never do. This is the boy who, at age 8, demanded that mum pick up some Grand Marnier because he wanted to make crepes suzette for breakfast. Who at 9 made the best tiramisu north of Hadrian’s wall (and quite possibly south of it all the way until the Italian border). I’d just forgotten about this, ever since I visited him in college and he made me ‘pasta a la Alex’: a bowl full of fussili, drenched in canned marinara. You see why I forgot…

And it was only mid-way to Ibiza, when Alex disappeared below deck and re-appeared with a plate full of sandwiches that I started to realise that the whole ‘pasta a la Alex’ thing must have been a joke. A not-funny-to-anyone-but-him joke. An Altman joke. The kind of joke my dad would play when he’d cook us dinner, and we’d only realise halfway through eating it that he wasn’t eating any, and we’d get suspicious and look in the soup pot and find a sock and a banana peel floating there innocently… or like how I had friends over for a dinner party and only told them afterwards that they’d just eaten buffalo heart. Yep, pasta a la Alex was an Alex-ism. And boy, can my little brother cook.

Sandwich a la Alex is simple. You need good aioli. You need a nice crusty loaf of bread. Some nice prosciutto. And August tomatoes- August tomatoes are key because any other month of the year they’re just ok. It’s only in August that you (I?) wonder why people don’t write songs to the tomato, and start to compose your own while you’re (I’m?) doing the dishes. And that’s it. Four ingredients. Which brings me back to the grocery store, and aioli. It’s hard to find good aioli in America. The easiest way to find it is to make your own. And it’s really surprisingly simple. All you need is a blender or a mechanical whisk or some kind. Or if you’re brave and strong, a hand whisk, or even a fork. For the recipe, I turned to Elizabeth David, who always knows what to do when I don’t.


Aioli

From Elizabeth David. Serves, well, quite a lot. 

 

4 cloves garlic (fresh, not old and nasty and bitter)

juice of 1 lemon

1 tsp salt

1 1/2 cup olive oil

2 egg yolks.

 

If you have a blender, use it. If not then an electric whisk of some kind would do after mashing the garlic up really well. If not then I hope you have strong arms…

 

In a blender:

Throw in the garlic, lemon and salt. Blend until it’s completely pulverised, then add the egg yolks one at a time. Blend until it starts to thicken- this might be a couple of minutes, and you might have to scrape it down a lot- then start to add the olive oil, in a very thin stream. Keep stopping and scraping it down if you have to, and add oil until it won’t incorporate itself anymore (thin stream helps so you can stop it immediately after). Taste. Add more lemon juice or salt if you need to.

 

With a whisk or strong hand:

Make sure the garlic is completely pulverised then proceed as above. If you’re doing it by hand it might take quite a while to thicken. I’ve done this with whipping cream by gathering a group of unsuspecting people and handing it off for a few minutes at a time. If they get tired then insult their manhood and they’ll keep going…

 

Traditionally aioli is served with vegetables and bread for dipping. You can also use it to make an unconventional and seriously delicious tuna salad (you don’t need anything except tuna and aioli).


Sandwich a la Alex

1 chunk french bread

aioli

prosciutto

1 lovely ripe tomato

 

Cut the bread in half lengthways. Spread both sides thickly with aioli. On one side lay slices of tomatoes, and on the other lay a layer of prosciutto. Slap the two together and enjoy!

 

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Mequite biscotti

It was a hot desert summer day- the kind of day where you really don’t want to go outside between 9am and 5pm. The kind of day where having a regular day job in an air conditioned building doesn’t sound so bad after all. We were in Palm Springs, at Jam’s parents’ house, and it was late in the day so I decided to drive to a nearby trail that I hadn’t explored in years.


When I arrived, a lady was pacing back and forwards in front of her car. She looked worried. I asked her if she was ok, and she said that she was waiting for the police helicopter- her husband had fallen and hurt his leg up the trail. He had dragged himself for as far as he could but now he was out of water and couldn’t go any further. She had good reason to be worried, by the way- being stuck out in the desert with no water is no joke. Dehydration and heat exhaustion can happen so quickly you don’t even know it’s hit you, and if he wasn’t found soon he could possibly die. I thought for a minute then asked how far up he was: it would be dark in under 2 hours, and then it’d be impossible to see him from a helicopter. She said that he wasn’t very far up, so I grabbed an extra water bottle and set off at a jog.

Jogging up a mountain when it’s 100 degrees out is no joke. After a couple of miles I stopped for a rest and looked around me. The area was completely deserted. The light was pink and there were long shadows cast over the red rocks. The stark beauty of the desert really struck me in comparison to the direness of the situation: nature doesn’t give a damn, and it’s never more apparent than when somebody’s life is in danger. In a way it’s that cold beauty that draws me to it. It’s not nurturing in a loving way- not in the way a mother is to a child. No, it’s nurturing in a primal way, in that the earth feeds us and we feed the earth whether we feel it or not, or whether we understand it or not. Something about that rhythm that carries on regardless makes me happy. It’s the freedom of not mattering one bit that I like so much. Because in not mattering, there is nothing to weigh you down. No potential and no guilt, no past and no future, just this big impersonal moving organism that marches forwards, constantly evolving. In its chaos, it’s constant.

I heard a helicopter in the distance, getting closer, and I sat down on a big rock to watch. It looped back and forth, going further and further along the trail, and after about 20 minutes of circling, a loudspeaker said “we see you there sir”. I watched (which was SO COOL) as they lowered a someone down with a stretcher, and lifted the man to safety. And then I lay back on the rock and said “thank you”. To who or what, I don’t know. I just know that I was so relieved that he had been found and was safe.


I gathered some creosote and then set off down the mountain. As I walked back to the car, the worried woman stopped as she was driving off. He was ok. Seriously dehydrated and his leg was badly injured, but he’d be fine, and was on his way to the hospital. Then she looked at me strangely and said “Thank you. You didn’t need to do that.” And I said something about how I really didn’t do anything- I mean, I didn’t, as he would have been found and safe whether I was there or not. But as I got into the car to drive away I thought “Why was she surprised? How could I not have made an effort?” I mean, there was a man out there who could have died, and what if the police hadn’t arrived in time, or if they hadn’t found him? I don’t think it would have been possible for me to drive off not knowing if he was ok.


As I drove back towards the main road, I saw something out of the corner of my eye and slammed my foot on the brakes. Fancy cars don’t like it when you do this in the desert but I didn’t care. I was surrounded by mesquite bushes, and they were covered in pods. How I didn’t notice them on the way in is beyond me, but then if I’d noticed I might never have made it to the trail, and I wouldn’t have got to witness an air lift happen from super close and I wouldn’t have decided that I’d like to join search and rescue when I am able. In the twilight, I gathered as many pods as I could fit into my bag, and then went back to Jam’s parents’ house to take a shower.


Mesquite reminds me of the desert, with its nutty, sweet, malty taste. You can nibble on the pods alone, or grind them up to make flour. And for those of you who don’t live in the desert areas, you can buy mesquite flour at health food stores thanks to it being a favourite of raw foodists. I highly recommend it. You can replace up to 40% of the regular flour with mesquite, and it makes such a gorgeous difference, adding a complexity to baked goods that is really just, well, worth it. Worth the expense if you don’t have access to the trees, and worth the agony of running up a hill if you do.

 

A few notes:

If you’re making mesquite flour, depending on how sugary and resinous the pods are, you might have to grind them up a bit, then dehydrate the ground bits. I put them in the oven on its lowest setting for a couple of hours, then ground them some more. You can use a really good blender, or a grain mill, and I think Kitchen Aid has an attachment, though I have no idea how good it is because my blender doesn’t leave me wanting for anything. Then, just run it through a sieve to separate out the husky parts.

The pods themselves will keep for months in a big jar. The flour will keep for months too, though try and use it fresh because the flavour is richer.

It’s a useful thing to have on hand anyway, as it’s antimicrobial and astringent- great as an eye wash or for a damaged GI tract or for washing wounds- just make a strong tea with the powder.

 

Mesquite Biscotti

Adapted slightly from Dorie Greenspan’s almond biscotti recipe

 

1 cup flour (spelt is lovely, if you can tolerate the gluten in it)

1/2 cup mesquite flour

1/2 cup cornmeal

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

1/2 tsp salt

1 stick butter

2 eggs

1/2 tsp vanilla essence

2 oz bittersweet chocolate, chopped into pieces

3/4 cup sugar

 

Preheat oven to 350.

 

Mix together the dry ingredients- flours, cornmeal, baking powder and salt. Beat the butter and sugar until fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, and then the vanilla, and beat until smooth. Add the sugar, combine, and then the flour in 3 parts. Then stir in the chocolate.

 

Roll out into two log-shapes and bake for 15 minutes. Remove and allow to cool for at least 30 minutes (this step is important!). Then slice into biscotti shapes (about 3/4 inch thick) and stand up on the baking sheet. Bake at 350 for another 20 minutes, until golden brown.

 

Store in an airtight container. They’re good for about 5 days, if they last that long.