Saturday, 22 September 2012

Beetroot


Some families split over political parties or religious faith. Mine split over beets. Some relations insisted on having bowls of boiled beetroot at every major meal, while the beet-haters complained all the while. I joined the anti-beetroot faction in childhood after finding them bland and mealy, until in adulthood I discovered the many other things you could do with the vegetable.

Beets – or beetroots as they call them here – does very well in most temperate climates, growing large over the summer and often remaining intact and quite edible even through the winter. Every part of it is edible -- leaves, stalks and roots -- and it comes in many varieties beyond the familiar red: yellow, pink, even striped.  It makes good animal feed, sugar, wine, and a variety of dishes, including:

Savoury beetroot salad: In a large salad bowl, mix 20 ml of sesame oil and 20 ml of lemon juice, and add dashes of powdered ginger, cayenne pepper and light soy sauce. Chop up a fistful of chives, although scallions would also do – about 50g. Clean and grate a few medium-sized beetroots (500g) and add 100g of diced feta cheese. Mix the beetroot and cheese well and toss them with the sauce.

Beetroot leaves: Drizzle a bit of oil into a pan over medium heat, throw in a pat of butter and let it melt. Dice a large onion and stir it in. While the onion is sautéing, wash the leaves and chop them. 

When the onion pieces have turned golden brown, put the chopped leaves in the pan, pour in a cup of vegetable stock, and place a lid over the pan. Let it sautee for about five minutes or so and then check to see if it’s done. Add a sprinkling of lemon juice and a dash of paprika, or experiment with the spices you like. You could serve the leaves like spinach, as a side dish, or use it to fill a crepe or an omelette, or mix it with scrambled eggs.

Borscht: In this vegetarian version, first heat the oven to 250 degrees Centigrade. First peel about 500g of beetroots, slice them into cubes, drizzle a little olive oil over the cubes and toss them around until they are lightly coated in oil. Stretch aluminium foil over an oven tray, spread the cubed beetroot over the tray and put it in the oven for an hour.

While that is roasting, take a large pot and drizzle the bottom with oil and butter. Dice two large onions, put them in the pan and stir them around, and then do the same with about 100g of cabbage, three stalks of celery, two large carrots, and – just before the end – some garlic. Let them sautee until they are soft and lightly golden. Then pour in a litre of vegetable stock and add 10 ml of lemon juice, 10 ml of dark soy sauce and stir in. Finally, take the beetroots out of the oven and add them to the pot. 

I blitzed the soup with a mixer, but if you don’t have one you can just mash up the chunky bits. Then pour the borscht into bowls and put a dollop of sour cream in the middle, and sprinkle a bit of dill and chervil over the top.

There are all kinds of other possibilities. Try making beetroot chips instead of potato chips. Slice them thinly with a mandolin, cover them in oil, and set them on an oven pan until they become crisp, and then sprinkle them with seasoning and salt to make beetroot crisps.

You can make pink mashers by mixing beetroot mash with potatoes. You can cut your beetroots into cubes, put them around a chicken in a pan, and roast them in the oven. You can dry them in a dehydrator or solar oven, and keep in jars on the shelf until you need to make soup. Come up with your own possibilities and share them; beetroot makes a great crop for winter nights, and we should start using it to make things most people actually like.

Photo courtesy of Wikicommons,

Saturday, 15 September 2012

Yogurt


No matter how much “anti-bacterial” soap we use, we live surrounded by bacteria, flowing through a sea of them as we move through our lives. They fill our bodies as well, aside from our own cells; according to geneticist Steve Jones of University College London, you have ten times as many bacteria cells as you do your own. As he put it, “the proportion of your body … which consists of human cells is about one leg below the knee.” It’s their world, and we are the tenants.

Most, of course, are harmless, and some are deeply helpful; we couldn’t digest food very well unless our stomachs were filled with them, and some particularly beneficent types even prepare the food for us.

They turn cabbage into sauerkraut, wine into vinegar, cucumbers into pickles and flour and water into sourdough. Their most accomplished instrument in the orchestra, however, is milk. They turn cream into crème freche or sour cream, can turn the leftovers from butter-churning into buttermilk, make an amazing variety of soft and hard cheeses, and turn milk into yogurt.
One of a few types of bacteria eat lactose, the part of cow’s milk most ethnic groups find particularly difficult to digest, and turn this nutritious but problematic food to lactic acid, making it edible and giving yogurt its characteristic tang.

Middle Easterners made yogurt in ancient times, and Pliny the Elder mentioned it as used by the “barbarous nations” there, but Western Europeans were slow to adopt it, even though we treated bacteria with milk to make cheese. Even now, advertisements in my native USA long promoted it as a weight-loss product, and these days as a laxative.

The easiest way to make your own yogurt is to simply buy some natural, live-culture yogurt as a starter. “Live-culture” means it has some of the living bacteria – the “culture” – that transforms the milk. It takes some yogurt to make yogurt, but you multiply your investment with each batch, and since the bacteria are always multiplying, you have a constantly regenerating supply.

Put 500 ml of milk in a pot on the stove, and turn the heat on very low. Don’t let the milk come close to boiling – monitor it with a clean candy thermometer. Bring the temperature up to around 80 degrees centigrade, and then let it cool to around 40.

Then scoop in about 50 ml of natural, organic, live-culture yogurt as your starter and mix well – some people use only a few spoonfuls, but better to use too much than too little. You could stop here and get a runny batch, but we like to mix in a few scoops of powdered milk to thicken it.

Put the mixture into a plastic bowl, cover it and let it sit in a warm place overnight – we put it with our towels over our water heater – and in the morning, you have yogurt. It will keep for a couple of days at room temperature or a couple more in the fridge.

You can also purchase a yogurt pot, a simple container-within-a-container to make the process even more convenient. First you mix your ingredients together in the inner container, place it inside the outer container, and pour boiling water in between. Then you close and seal the outer container, and the heat keeps the ingredients warm through the night. In the morning, you can open the container and you have yogurt. 

We in Ireland, as in the UK and USA, tend to sweeten our yogurt with jam, but rather than pay extra money at the store for yogurt, try adding your own jam at home. Or, if you don’t want all that sugar, try mixing in whatever grows around you --- apples, pears, raspberries, blackberries or currants.  The naturally tart kind, however, makes a healthier salad dressing then oil, a healthier sandwich spread than butter or a healthier soup thickener then cream.

You can also strain your yogurt though cheesecloth overnight – we make cheesecloth into a bag, tie the bag to a broom handle, prop the broom handle between two chairs, so that the cheesecloth bag dangles in mid-air between the chairs. Then we put a bucket underneath the cheesecloth bag, and pour the yogurt into the bag. The liquids strain out overnight, leaving a soft and creamy cheese for use the next day.

Finally, I learned the other day that yogurt can still be made from milk that has gone sour, so that if your fridge went out during the last power outage and the milk has gone off, it doesn’t have to go to waste.

Photo: Yogurt made from said sour milk, going into my borscht. 

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Charcoal



Growing up I knew charcoal as the square, chemical-soaked briquettes people bought in bags and poured into the barbecue grill once a summer. Like so much else in our lives it came from a store, wrapped in plastic and pre-treated for shelf life, with no sense that it shared a name with something amazingly useful, which hundreds of generations had made themselves.

Charcoal is simply wood that has been burned without oxygen, either by being heated but sealed away from oxygen or, more commonly, setting it on fire and then cutting it off from the air, keeping the wood from burning completely into ash. Most other substances in the wood are driven off, leaving a porous shape of almost pure carbon, lightweight and easy to transport.

It can purify water by soaking up impurities, as in many kitchen sink filters, and treat poison victims when crushed and drunk in a fluid, and filter distilled alcohol before drinking.  It allows people to burn fires hotter than wood, enabling people to smelt iron or shape glass in a way that wood fires cannot. It can be added to soap for abrasion, crushed to make ink or paint or mixed with minerals to make gunpowder.

Perhaps the most surprising use, one that gained a burst of attention in recent years, involves trapping carbon from the atmosphere. Frequent readers of this blog might have already heard of this and can feel free to skip ahead a few paragraphs – but for the unfamiliar, I will recap the basics.

Farmers in Brazil have long known about the “black earth,” or terra preta, found over vast areas of the Amazon. In the last decade or two archaeologists have begun to realise that the terra preta was not a naturally occurring phenomenon, but had been cultivated over centuries, if not millennia. What’s more, they began to realise that much of the sparsely inhabited Amazon rainforest was once densely populated with humans, continually enriching the soil as they farmed.

Like many Stone Age societies, they burned land to clear it for farming or hunting, but unlike many others they turned some of the wood into charcoal and then worked it back into the soil, creating an unusually rich and fertile ground; according to a 2006 article in Nature, bio-char – the charcoal folded into the earth to make terra preta -- is three times richer in nitrogen and phosphorous than ordinary soil and 20 times richer in carbon.

This information might have remained a curiosity, part of the amazing new research in pre-Columbian natives, except for one thing: the same technique could work for us to offset carbon emissions. Burning plants may seem like a strange way to combat climate change, but merely charring wood into charcoal, rather than letting it burn away into ash, locks much of the wood’s carbon away in a stable form. 

According to researcher Bruno Glaser at the University of Bayreuth, Germany, a hectare of meter-deep terra preta can hold 250 tonnes of carbon, as opposed to 100 tonnes of carbon in unimproved soils. In addition, the bio-char itself increases soil fertility, which allows farmers to grow more plants, which allows more bio-char to be added to the soil. Johannes Lehman, author of Amazonian Dark Earths, claims that combining bio-char and bio-fuels could draw down 9.5 billion tones per year, equal to all our current fossil fuel emissions.

Whether or not such people are correct, the technique has drawn admirers like climate scientists James Lovelock and Tim Flannery. As I mentioned last week, climate change is hitting people around the world, yet we struggle to reduce our pollution even a little, and our goal of a zero-carbon world seems ever more hopeless. Bio-char, however, offers everyone a way to be, not just carbon-neutral, but carbon-negative, with almost no technology.   

What we don’t know, however, is whether such a technique would truly work for most people; what works in the Amazon rainforest does not apply everywhere. The redoubtable Albert Bates is experimenting with such techniques on his farm in Tennessee, and I have heard from other people doing the same. We would like to, but first we needed to learn how to make charcoal.


I tried three ways of making charcoal, with varying degrees of success. Since charcoal can be created when wood is inside a heated and sealed container, I put two metal buckets together, one upside-down and atop the other, and inside I placed one or more pieces of wood. The crack of space between the two buckets I plastered with clay, and around them I started a fire of some of our rotting lumber. (Never burn treated lumber for charcoal or even in a fireplace; it has chemicals that can be poisonous when inhaled, and I would not want to filter water through its charcoal.)

I tried to make small amounts of charcoal, one at a time, but it never worked. If the clay plaster held, the logs inside were merely signed, and if part of the plaster fell off – as happened more frequently – the fire caught inside until I was left with only a few small pieces of charcoal and a lot of ash.

For the second method I took a page from Waterford farmer and author John Seymour and dug a trench, lit a fire in it, tossed in some logs and covered it with corrugated iron sheeting. Then I packed the cracks tightly with clay and plants to seal in the oxygen, and uncovered it a few days later. This worked better, as I did get some charcoal out of it, but the amount was still tiny.

The best method, I found, was the one charcoal burners used from ancient times until just the last century. They made every sword and ploughshare possible, yet historians say they tended to be a reclusive lot, with their own jargon and secret tricks, spending much of their time sleeping rough in the woods like gypsies.

Trying to replicate their methods, I stacked logs in a triangular pattern and leaned more upright pieces of wood around them, until I had a small and dense ring of wood about a metre high. Then I filled the interior of the triangle with tinder and kindling – sawdust, mulch, twigs, anything that would light easily and create an intense heat that would burn the rest of the wood.

Then I covered the wood with recently-cleared weeds, spread clay over the weeds, and shovelled earth over those, until I had a mound open at the very top, with a “chimney” that looked down into the tinder-filled space between the logs. 

Next came the big moment – I lit a fire-starter and dropped it down the middle, and within moments had a raging fire inside the mound. I covered the top of the mound with strips of weeds and shovelled more earth on top – the weeds and roots served to block the entrance, so that I wasn’t simply shovelling loose earth into the hole and putting out the fire.

The result was a strangely smoking hill, and when it smoked too much when it cracked and too much oxygen got in. When a hole or crack formed, I plastered more mud and earth over that part – carefully, for the escaping steam can get quite hot – until the leak was stopped.

Two days later, I broke it open, and began fishing out the charcoal, and got about five kilos from an estimated 36 kilos of wood. Most text say the charcoal can be as much as 60 per cent of the wood by volume and 25 per cent by weight. I probably got less charcoal because I let it burn through the night; I had to spend part of the day building it and light it in the evening, as the constant threat of rain here meant I couldn’t leave it overnight. Charcoal-burners, though, were said to watch their mound for hours until the smoke turned from white to blue, indicating they were beginning to burn charcoal, before putting the fire out to maximise the amount of charcoal from a single burn.

With more careful measurements, amateur scientists around the world could try such techniques on some kind of fast-growing wood, like willow, and see if we could do with terra preta in temperate climates what Amazonian tribes did in the rainforest. On paper, it looks like it should work: willow can yield ten tonnes to the acre, the charcoal would retain a quarter of that mass of the wood, and should remain stable in the soil for decades while new tonnes are grown. All this, though, is theory, and we won’t know unless we experiment.
Even if we can’t offset emissions with terra preta, however, we can certainly use the charcoal for many other purposes. Once all industry, from metal to glass to gunpowder, came from this craft, and while I don’t believe we will return to such a medieval level any time soon, this is one craft I want to learn and pass down.

Top photo: One of the pieces we made.
Second photo: The remains of the bucket experiment. 
Third photo: The remains of the trench experiment.
Fourth photo: The log pile for the mound experiment. 
Fifth photo: The mound just after being lit. 
Sixth photo: The mound sealed on top and smoking. 
Seventh photo: The takings from the mound experiment, with a lemon for scale.
Eighth photo: My daughter helping me sort charcoal from the remains of the mound.