Basil Up!

If it's basil, it must be springtime! (photo by K. Budge)
If it’s basil, it must be springtime! (photo by K. Budge)

(A version of this piece originally appeared in
the Spring 2015 edition of the Solstice Green Directory)

By Katy Budge

A popular culinary herb throughout the world, Ocimum basilicum – aka basil has a long and intriguing history.

Native to India and cultivated there for over 5000 years, basil was considered sacred, a status that helped garner its “basilicum” moniker in the Western world. The word comes from the Greek, meaning “king” or “royal.” Throughout the years, basil was also used as a method of determining chastity, as a love token to place on the gravesites, as a way to clear your brain, or to make scorpions grow in your brain. Thankfully, these days, we know it as a wonderfully flavorful ingredient.

Belonging to the mint family, basil is a water lover that likes to stay wet. As such, the best way to grow it is in a pot with a generous saucer underneath so that the plant can actually sit in the water and soak up every last drop of that precious resource.

When harvesting your basil, make your snips low on the stalks, and right above where at least two leaves are branching out from the main stalk. Those will then grow into two separate stalks, which you can trim in the same way when they get bigger, and ensure that you’ll have basil throughout the growing year.

One of the most popular uses for basil is pesto. Make extra, spoon the remaining into ice cube trays, and pop it in the freezer so you’ll have it on hand for pasta, pizza, and bruschetta. If you leave out the cheese and even the pine nuts for freezing, it becomes an even more versatile dollop of delight — for pistou, salad dressings, marinades, etc. — and you can always add the cheese and nuts after it thaws.

San Francisco Treats

Whenever I go to a city, my cultural exploration always revolves around food, and recently I got to indulge that passion in San Francisco. There’s always a theme when my besties and I go out and about in this wonderful city (this time it revolved around SF Beer Week), but a continually underlying theme is also “old school” spots, especially those on the SF Heritage Legacy Bars & Restaurants list. This trip I got to visit a couple on that list, plus check off a couple more places I’ve been wanting to try for a while. Here’s a rundown!

swanoyster

Finally got to Swan Oyster Depot (a Legacy spot, founded in 1912), a tiny, tiny, 12-seat tiny spot on Polk Street on Nob Hill. It’s really just a countertop, and most days the line will snake out the door and down the block. We lucked out and only had to wait a few minutes – a minor miracle. Once you slide into your seat, you take a gander at the myriad menu boards on the wall and go from there. One of several guys will take your order—it’s a very casual operation—and when you’re though, you tell them what you had, they write it down on a napkin and tell you what you owe. We opted for some Kumamoto oysters, a cuppa chowder, bay shrimp cocktail and Anchor Steams. Yummy! Next time, going for the roasted crab.

 

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Speaking of crab … two words … Thanh Long. Also a Legacy spot, it was founded in 1971 and is considered the first Vietnamese restaurant in the city. There are no doubt plenty of tasty things to order on this menu, but we went straight for the roasted crab with garlic noodles, and did almost everybody else. You’ve gotta love a restaurant where most of the diners are wearing bibs and furiously licking their fingers. The crabs were roasted in butter, garlic, and secret spices, and were the biggest and meatiest I’ve ever seen. Yes, there was a lot of garlic going on … suffice it to say we were all safe from vampires that evening!

 

The Rebel Within (right) and a gougere.
The Rebel Within (right) and a gougere.

The Rebel Within is a savory muffin. Let me rephrase that … The Rebel Within is a savory muffin WITH A SOFT BOILED EGG IN IT! I’ve been eyeing this little gem from Craftsman & Wolves in the Mission for quite some time, but rarely get over to that part of town early enough. The bakery staff (whose baker/owner, William Werner, was just nominated for a James Beard Foundation Award) only makes 75 on weekdays and 140 on weekends, and once I found out how they make it, I can see why. I did finally prevail, however, and it was worth it, especially because the muffin batter also has crème fraiche, asiago, parmesan, scallions and sausage in it, and they give you a little vial of Tabasco salt to sprinkle on it! Oh, and the gougère was pretty darn yummy too.

missionchineseIf you didn’t know about Mission Chinese, you would scurry right past it. It’s located at what seems to be a rundown restaurant with a dingy yellow marquee that reads “Lung Shan Restaurant” on it. Chef/ower Danny Bowien (a twice nominated and once winner of a JBF “Rising Star Chef Award) has created an intriguing menu with such dishes as pork dumplings with pea tendrils, chicken wings with beef tripe, and hangar steak chow mein. We went for the beer-brined pickled Chinese cabbage with peanuts and the stir-fried pork jowl with radishes that still had their greens attached.

And to “tap” it all off … one of my favorite breweries!

A Lagunitas tap takeover at Zeitgeist!
A Lagunitas tap takeover at Zeitgeist!

No More K-Word Limes!

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I recently got an email from a food/wine/lifestyle company I freelance for, and was pretty shocked by its contents. Effective immediately, all writers and editors were to cease using the term “kaffir” – and that is the last time I will use it in this piece.

As many of you may know, that term refers to a type of lime typically used in Thai food, but it has also become an “it” flavor in everything from vodkas to spice rubs. However, what most people DON’T know is that this term is the derogatory, racist equivalent of the “N-word” in many parts of the world, especially Southern Africa!

Various reasons why this word came to be such a racial slur are explored in a piece by Slate’s L.V. Anderson. To paraphrase, the Arabic spelling of the word with one “f” originally referred to non-Muslims, but it evolved (devolved?) as a way for white colonists to derogatorily describe black Africans (but not any other people of color, for which other equally offensive words were devised). By the 20th century, the k-word – now spelled with the two “f”s — was a pretty powerful insult, and you can imagine how that ferocity must have escalated in the inflamed social context of apartheid South Africa.

That said, the K-word is to this day an acceptable and inoffensive description of a certain ethnicity of Sri Lankans, who proudly describe themselves as such. Botanical references to a k-word lime found in Sri Lanka date back to 1910, and there are references to a “caffre” lime in an 1888 book about the citrus of India and Ceylon. Technically, then, it’s probable that the original reference to the lime came about quite innocently … but, then again, so did a lot of words that offend people. “Cafre,” in fact, is still a derogatory word in Spanish, implying someone of low class who is rude, boorish, uncouth, savage, brutal … you get the idea.

Sticks and stones notwithstanding, words can indeed hurt, so whatever the origin of the name, it deserves to be sidelined.

So what, then, are we to call these limes? The newly accepted term seems to be “makrut lime.” Indeed, that’s the word used by the people of Southeast Asia whom arguably make the best use of the limes in their cuisines and cultures – particularly in Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam. While the very acidic juice is rarely used in food, the rind and especially the leaves are widely used, especially in curry pastes and tom yum (yummy!) soups.

Besides being a unique contribution to cuisine, the makrut lime proves to be a very versatile fruit for a number of other uses. The list includes: shampoo, cleanser/stain remover, deodorizer, and insecticide, as well as for medicinal purposes, dental hygiene, energizing aromatherapy, and beneficial digestion. The limes are even used in Cambodian religious services and most Thai families have a tree planted at the entrance of their property to ward off evil spirits.

So then, out with the K-word and in with the Makrut!

(And while we’re on the subject of name changes, and since it’s the start of the NFL season … yes, I am a lifelong fan of “the Washington team,” and yes, I think we need to change the name … or change the logo to a potato.)

— By Katy Budge

Gleaning Among the Ghosts

 

Stumped Avocado Trees
Stumped Avocado Trees

 

I’m involved with a local gleaning program, GleanSLO, and usually it’s a slam dunk win-win-win all the way around. The GleanSLO volunteers go to a property – either commercial or private, to glean leftover produce and take it to our local food bank. Hungry people get healthy food that would otherwise go to waste, the property owner gets a tax credit and the pleasure of knowing their produce went to a good cause, and we gleaners get some exercise and fresh air.

However, a glean in which I recently participated had a bittersweet and sobering edge. GleanSLO was contacted by an avocado grower in Morro Bay who was opting to “stump” his trees due to the extreme drought here in California (see graphic and link below). There was no longer sufficient water in the property to maintain the trees, and trucking in water (which some big commercial growers have resorted to doing) was too cost prohibitive for his small family-run operation.

By stumping, essentially cutting off all the top growth so that the trees are indeed stumps, the trees will go into a state of dormancy until they receive regular watering again. After all that foliage is cut off, the trunk is susceptible to sunburn, which will actually burn the trunk to such a degree that it will be too damaged to transport water up and down the tree. To prevent that sunburn, the trunk is literally whitewashed with paint.

It was into such a landscape that we arrived for the avocado glean. A once thriving and healthy orchard was now reduced to stark tree trunks jutting up from piles of lopped-off branches. It looked like a ghost army lined up, perhaps awaiting nightfall to they could rise off and be gone from this dry, crunchy landscape.

Nonetheless, amidst all those thousands of branches were thousands of undersized avocados, about the size of a racquetball. They were way too small to be marketable, but they were still very nutrient dense. As gleaners, our task was to comb through all those branches and rescue those little avos for the Food Bank. After two hours, the 40 of us had managed to glean 1,600 pounds of avocados. Subsequent gleans were and are scheduled, and to date, the property has yielded over 4,200 pounds of fruit.

As for the avocado grower … after stumping the trees, the best case scenario is that he will be able to harvest a crop again in three to four years. Realize though, that “best case” means if we get rain this coming fall and winter, and if we get enough of it.

Those are a couple really big “if”s, and they loom larger with each passing day.

 

“Since late July, roughly 58% of the state was considered to be experiencing an “exceptional” drought — the harshest on a five-level scale.” ~ LA Times

(The dark brown area in the map below indicates “exceptional drought” conditions. Pretty much right in the middle of it is the Salinas Valley, an agricultural area often referred to as “the salad bowl of the world.” Morro Bay is on the coast, about a third of the way up the state.)

Off with Your Heads, Pandalus platyceros!

Freshly caught spot prawns
Freshly caught spot prawns

I’d always been curious about spot prawns, the colorful wigglers I’d see from time to time in the live tank at Pier 46 Seafood Market in Templeton. They seemed at once so ethereal, so primitive, so delicate, and so … sharp!

Spot prawns, aka Pandalus platyceros, are technically shrimp, and not even prawns at all. That moniker comes from their reign as the largest member of the shrimp family — about 6-7″ long, though females can get up to 9″. The taste and texture are akin to lobster, only a bit more delicate, and they’re also listed as a “good choice” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch, which means they are a sustainable fishery.

Locally, spot prawns are associated with Santa Barbara, though they can be found from California up through Alaska. The season here is during spring and summer, so when the Facebook post went out from the market that they’d just gotten the first “batch” in, I decided to carpe prawn.

The first red flag went up when I asked the fish guy how to prepare them and he said his buddy just sucks the heads out and eats the rest raw. “Hmmm,” I thought. “Didn’t enjoy that approach with crawfish, so probably not going that route with these bigger beasts.” Then he added that you can cook them just as you normally would shrimp, so I felt better about the whole endeavor.

The second red flag went up when the fish market staff didn’t want to give me ice because it would kill the prawns. “Hmmm,” I thought. “Usually that’s what I depend on to numb Dungeness crabs before I back them. Does that then mean what I think it means?” I’ve cleaned shrimp before, but they’d always been dispatched and beheaded by the time I’d made their acquaintance.

Undeterred, I brought the four spot prawns immediately home, albeit flinching every time they flinched in their plastic bag on the passenger side floor. My reflexive flinching continued as I brought them in and put them in the sink. I was sure they were plotting their escape – cue the Annie Hall lobster scene. Yes, I was mildly on edge thanks to these not so shrimpy shrimp. I’m not proud of that, but at least give me credit for admitting it.

The third red flag went up when I started looking on the internet about how to deal with spot prawns and starting reading things like this:
“… unless you’ve grown up down south on the bayou where processing shrimp is second nature, catching and cleaning these alien-like critters can be a little intimidating.”
“It’s not for the squeamish, but it’s not difficult.”
“Watch out for the sharp telson on the tail, it can nick you when they start thrashing about.”
“WARNING:  THE FOLLOWING PICTURES MAY BE GRAPHIC IN NATURE, BUT ALAS, IT IS NATURE.” (And yes, it was in all caps)

I learned two main points in doing this research.

1) Spot prawns should be as fresh as possible when you cook them (or eat them raw), because once they die they excrete an enzyme from their heads that spreads through the body and starts to soften the meat. Well, that would explain the no ice protocol from the market.

2) In order to clean the prawns, you must first remove the heads by holding their head in one hand and the body in the other and giving a good twist. Actually, I take that back … FIRST, you have to PICK THEM UP! (Reference “flinching” above.)

Clearly, it was time to pull on the big girl pants and step up to the prawn. There was no way I was reaching into the bag to pick one up, but I managed to overcome that hurdle with the help of some kitchen tongs. Taking a deep breath, and I grabbed its body with one hand and slowly put down the tongs. Uttering only a little bit of high-pitched squealing, I grabbed the shrimp’s head with my other hand and twisted!

Darn if it didn’t go just like all those websites said it would, and once I’d snapped that first little head off I felt invincible! Good thing, because I still had three to go, but after that, it all came down to some garlic/ginger butter, white basmati rice and a nice crisp white Rhône.

Picking Flowers for the Food Bank?

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A few weeks ago, as the promise of much needed rain was teasing the Central Coast, a ripe opportunity arose for the Glean SLO program. John Rourke and Chris Freitas of San Luis Berry Farm had gotten as much of an organic strawberry harvest as they could before the rain would hit, so they invited a couple local groups, including Glean SLO, to pick as much from the fields as possible.

Gathering under steadily graying skies, we set out to fill as many plastic clamshells as we could. Several dozen gleaners of all ages were on hand, easily spanning at least three generations.

Compared to other crops, strawberries are relatively easy to pick in that you can just pinch the ripe fruit off with your fingers instead of having to use clippers. However, the plants are loooow to the ground, meaning you have to stoop, bend over, kneel, and/or sit to get yourself in position.

It is not a job I would want to have for eight-plus hours. It is not a job I would want to have for five-plus days a week. It is not a job I would want to have to depend upon for my livelihood.

It is a job that makes me appreciate being able to go into a store and buy strawberries. These gleans have a way of making one gain that sort of perspective.

My first 15 minutes of effort. I got faster, but not a whole lot faster!
My first 15 minutes of effort. I got faster, but not a whole lot faster!

However, a couple hours of picking strawberries is certainly doable. When you then multiply those hours by all the Glean SLO volunteers who were on hand, over 900 pounds of strawberries were harvested that afternoon, and those were then distributed to over 600 families in San Luis Obispo County via the Food Bank Coalition. Truly an example of what community cooperation can accomplish, of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts.

As the Glean SLO follow up email noted “One in six people in SLO County are ‘food insecure,’ often not knowing how they will get their next meal. Forty percent of the population (the Food Bank) feeds are children. Fruits and vegetables are typically the least accessible type of food for low-income families.”

The email went on to note that in 2013, nearly half of the food distributed at the Food Bank was fresh produce. Of that 205,000 pounds (and counting) was gleaned by the volunteers in the Glean SLO program. (Here’s another story about gleaning in the Central Valley; an effort to provide food for the very people that harvest much of the nation’s – arguably even the world’s – food.)

As fresh produce goes, strawberries are among the most nutritious foods we can eat. The WebMD website explains that their benefits include being high in fiber, low in calories, and free from fat and cholesterol. As such, they’re good for your heart, blood pressure, cholesterol. They’re also a good source of Vitamin C (eight strawberries have more than an orange) and other antioxidants, as well as potassium, iron and manganese.

Interestingly, strawberries aren’t really even berries. They’re a member of the rose family (Rosaceae), and the “berry” is actually the enlarged stem end of a flower. Who knew that we were picking flowers for the Food Bank?!

Favas: A Fav to Eat, But Not to Prepare

The bag of fresh beans and the resulting edible beans.
The bag of fresh beans and the resulting edible beans.

In the course of writing an article on a local CSA (Talley Farms’ Fresh Harvest, Arroyo Grande, CA), I ended up with a couple bags of freshly picked fava beans. I also ended up with a big dose of appreciation for any chefs and home cooks that serve these delectable broad beans on any sort of regular basis.

Fava beans are essentially the vegetable equivalent of Russian nesting dolls, except that the beans take FAR more effort to convince them to give up their mysteries. The person who figured out how to eat them was clearly nothing short of tenacious because favas are not a fast food. Like most beans, they need shelling as a first step, but that’s only the beginning. (I now think of favas as a communal food, with old women dressed in black gathered together in the courtyard and sharing time together, or several generations standing at a big table and catching up on the town’s gossip).

The beans grow into large fibrous pods that are not, repeat not edible, so let the shelling begin. You’ll end up with lima-shaped beans, which are not, repeat not edible, so they need to be blanched or steamed. After the outsides of those have loosened up, you gently shell them and unwrap the delicate little nuggets inside, which are very, repeat very edible. (Here’s a alternative that supposedly renders them akin to edamame, but I haven’t tried it. Let me know if you do.)

Shelled pods and the resulting "first" beans.
Shelled pods and the resulting “first” beans.
The final result!
The final result!

In short, though I would make them again myself, I’ve added fava beans to the list of things I will greatly, greatly appreciate when someone else serves them to me. Unless, of course that person is Hannibal Lecter! Yes, c’mon, you knew that was coming. Until fairly recently, that’s been the fava bean’s big claim to fame – co-starring with liver and “a nice Chanti” in one of the most gruesome, wince-provoking, food-and-wine pairings in cinema history.

Despite their stubbornness (or perhaps because of it?), fava beans are enjoying a good deal of American popularity of late, but it’s not their fault they’re just hitting their stride here. Food historians have placed them in ancient diets as far back as 6000 BC, and anyone traveling to Mediterranean countries (and many other parts of the world) will become immediately familiar with them. Reportedly, even Thomas Jefferson grew them in his Monticello gardens, but they never became popular stacked up against other easier-access New World beans.

Fava beans are far easier to grow than to prepare for eating, a characteristic that makes them a good crop for soil replenishment (as beans/legumes, they fix nitrogen) and even erosion control. Nutritionally, they’re low in things we should avoid, such as fat and sodium, but high in fiber, iron and protein. In fact, one website noted that their protein content has gained them the moniker “meat of the poor.”

Certainly these broad beans deserve a place at our tables, especially if you can use favas as an excuse to gather friends and/or family around and get them to help with the shelling!

Gleaning the County’s Bounty for the County’s Hungry

gleaners_webCome on, admit it. At some point in your life you’ve exuberantly purchased a six-pack (or two) of zucchini starts in the spring, and six months later your friends and neighbors are fearfully hiding from you because you’re always looking to pawn off zucchini the size of small canoes.

Examples of such overabundance exist wherever food is grown – from backyard gardens to large commercial scale operations. The sad fact is that much of that food goes entirely to waste, with some estimates putting the figure at one-third of all the food grown worldwide. True, some is loss to pests or other field conditions, but most is just left to rot because it’s not cosmetically up to par for market (consumers want perfect looking produce) or because the infrastructure is insufficient for getting it to market.

Enter the concept of gleaning. The verb “to glean” is typically applied to information or to agriculture. In the case of the latter, Merriam-Webster defines it as such: “to gather grain or other produce left by reapers,” “to pick up after a reaper,” “to strip (as a field) of the leavings of reapers.”

Basically then, gleaners are picking up leftovers, waste, what others don’t want and/or can’t harvest, and redistributing it to those in need. Think of it as the agricultural version of Robin Hood, without the rich/poor thing, the archery, and the tights. It’s a concept that has been steadily gaining worldwide steam, especially as we face not only the challenges of feeding people but also the challenges of dwindling natural resources.

In San Luis ObispoCounty, agriculture is a predominant industry, so it’s an avoidable given that there is food waste. Enter GleanSLO, a grassroots effort that started in 2010 as Backyard Harvest. Now operating under the auspices of the Food Bank Coalition of San Luis Obispo County, GleanSLO coordinates food growers willing to have their produce gleaned – whether private gardens or commercial operations – with volunteer gleaners. Once gleaned, the fresh produce is distributed via the Food Bank to needy county residents.

The success of the GleanSLO program is pretty impressive. In 2010, 22,000 pounds of food were harvested that would have otherwise gone to waste. In 2011, it was 37, 988 pounds. In 2012, 99,165 pounds. So far, just as of this writing in April 2013, 39,919 pounds of produce have been harvested and distributed to needy people in the community … my community.

I recently went on my first glean, and will definitely be doing it again. On a beautiful spring morning, I met up with the two GleanSLO coordinators and a handful of other volunteers (ranging from retired to grade school age) at an orchard in rural Nipomo. The property was set back on the hills, which afforded us all a stunning panoramic view of the coastline as we plucked, picked, and pulled 1,945 pounds of oranges over the next two hours.

Two hours. 1,945 pounds of fresh produce. Fresh air. Getting to see beautiful rural properties. Exercise. Meeting new people with community spirit. Helping to feed healthy food to hungry people. Doesn’t get much better than that!

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Get Your Bánh Mì On!

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Bánh mì! Where had you been all my life?

As much of a sandwich lover as I am, it’s surprising that I’d never heard of bánh mì (pronounced bun me) until a few years ago. Though specific ingredients can vary, this Vietnamese sandwich is typically made with grilled meat or tofu, cucumber, jalapeño, cilantro, pickled carrots, daikon radish, and a spread such as aioli or pâté on toasted crusty baguette-like bread. It’s got all the flavors and textures I love in one balanced bite: pickled, crunchy, spicy, chewy, brightness, and just enough richness.

This may seem like just a kitchen sink, everybody-in-the-pool mash-up, so what’s really at the heart of this traditional Vietnamese sandwich? I asked Alexandra Nguyen, owner of Lotus Asia’s Best restaurant in San Luis Obispo. (fyi — the online menu doesn’t yet list the bánh mì, and Lotus also makes a yummy rare beef phở.)

“If I have to decide, I would have to say that the bread is the essential element of bánh mì,” Nguyen said. “A light crispy baguette is essential for encasing the other ingredients without overshadowing them. The texture needs to be crispy (not hard) on the outside, but soft, light and airy on the inside.  If it is too toasted, chewy or is hard, it will be difficult to chew.  Flavor wise, it cannot be too sweet, too salty, too sour … a nice blend that gives the slight sweet savory taste. The Vietnamese baguette is commonly made with rice and wheat flour, which makes for an airy crumb.”

In fact, Nguyen feels the bread is so key to her bánh mì that she has it specially made for her by Edna’s Bakery in San Luis Obispo. The recipe (like many at Lotus) harkens back three generations to her grandmother’s busy food stand in Vietnam.

It’s worth pointing out that a typical French baguette doesn’t work for a spot on bánh mì due to the nuances that Nguyen has described. The exterior is too hard and the inside isn’t soft enough to envelope the ingredients, so they’ll probably all squish out when you take a bite. Then you’re left chewing and chewing mainly bread – certainly not the case with traditional bánh mi. I’ve actually had better luck at home using Mexican torta bread, but it still doesn’t quite get enough crunch on the crust.

Like many iconic cultural dishes, the bánh mì owes a nod to history. During the French colonial period in Vietnam which began in 1858 and lasted almost a century, French culinary markers such as baguettes, cornichon pickles, and rich pâtés were introduced. As these ingredients drifted through the years, the Vietnamese married them with the traditional flavors of their cuisine: spicy peppers, cucumber, cilantro, other pickled veggies, and bread increasingly made with the easier-to-get rice flour versus wheat flour.

The result is a happy match made in sandwich heaven, so go on, get your bánh mì on, and find out whether your favorite is thit nuong (grilled pork), ga nuong (grilled chicken), thich nuong (grilled beef) …