Sunday, November 29, 2015

Madam Brewski

A couple of months ago, over a couple of happy hour beers at Glen's, my buddy Josh was telling me about how he and his girlfriend were debating whether or not to host their annual persimmon festival.

"Excuse me? I adore persimmons! How have I not heard of this gathering before??" I spluttered, nearly knocking over my pint of porter. (Probably because I tend to have my head down and focused on teaching during the first few months of each school year, working to get the garden back in order and routines in place. Okay, fine.)

We began to brainstorm things we could make. Persimmon cupcakes... icecream... beer. Yes. Well, as it turned out, the festival never came to pass, but as recently as three weeks ago I remained fixated on the idea of persimmon beer. I happened to mention my idea to my friend Kate, who in turn got very excited, as she has just purchased some basic, used homebrewing equipment. And she had a couple of persimmon trees on her property. And hops -- fresh Cascade hops grown at nearby Wangari Gardens. (Hooray for uber local ingredients!) That settled it: it was time for me to eschew the pre-measured, scripted beer kits and strike out to create a new beer.

Okay, maybe I would see if there was some guide online.... Thankfully, there was. The next step was to gather the ingredients, which involved a series of emails and then trip to one of my favorite local breweries to pick up the remaining supplies: malt, yeast, barley, and a few other odds and ends. I suggested I could hand grind the malted grains at home -- I've had lots of practice grinding wheat into flour with hand-powered mills at school lately -- but the helpful gentleman at the 3 Stars brewshop pulverized a whole pound of grain for me in less than 5 seconds. Oooh. Maybe I need one of these:

Last Sunday afternoon, some of my favorite lady friends gathered to nibble, drink, catch up, and get a 5-gallon batch of persimmon ale started. First, we needed a pound of [persimmon] flesh. Kate got to work:

As the wort began to simmer, we sterilized equipment, nibbled on the persimmon peels, and mashed the pulp. Then it was time to add the malt:

Then we stirred in the persimmon pulp, cinnamon, and freshly grated nutmeg:

And then the hops:

As we were about to kick back and rest on our brewing laurels, the first kink in the plan arose: the wort chiller's end cap wouldn't fit onto my kitchen faucet. Must I revert to my rudimentary wort cooling methods of yesteryear? I wondered. Luckily, Farmer Kate had some irrigation equipment in her truck parked out front:

A bit of fiddling and we were back in business:

I'm going to skip over the splashy pouring of the cooled wort into the glass carboy in my bathtub -- nobody needs to see that -- but suffice to say Madam Brewski has been moved to a nice warm part of my apartment and has been bubbling away in my kitchen ever since:

Kind of looks like she has a bit of Polish heritage, no? Definitely Eastern European.... My people. And my brewing people were all about toasting and grinding the spent grain to make some Mexican wedding cakes to scarf as we finished the last of the beer in my fridge and patted ourselves on the back for a job well done. Check out Jessica presenting her delicious handiwork, mere moments before the vast majority of confection-sugar-dusted mouthfuls were devoured:

One more week til we transfer to the secondary fermenter, then another couple of weeks before bottling. Should have some finished persimmon ale ready right around my birthday. How nice....

Thursday, November 26, 2015

A season of thanks

Happy Thanksgiving, readers! As I get ready to head to my parents' place for this most delicious of national holidays, I have been reflecting on things that I am thankful for. Yes, I know I just ended that sentence with a preposition. One thing I am thankful for is readers who notice such things but are polite enough not to point them out. Ahem.

(For the record, I am not just writing as a means of avoiding the GIANT pile of dishes in my sink. I'm just giving the elves a chance to get started on them is all....)

I am so grateful to have a job that I love, work that allows me to teach what I believe is important, have fun, nourish others, be outside a lot (and in the kitchen even more), and get hugs from kids daily. I'm also grateful for collaborative colleagues, a supportive boss, and fantastic interns who make a pretty challenging job one I look forward to biking to every day.

Though I don't do it for the money or the fame, every so often, it's nice that there's a little acknowledgement of the work I'm doing from the upper muckety mucks. Check out this photo of a group of 5th graders accepting the 2015 Best School Garden Award downtown just a few weeks ago. Note the City Council and Farm to School peeps in attendance:

I am lucky to have a great family and a wonderful group of friends. Whether it's by inviting me out for dinner at a fun new spot in town, being a part of my crazy cooking adventures, patiently listening to an account of the latest failed attempt at romance -- Darn that cute vegan! I deserve better! I'm going to go make a batch of icecream! -- or brewing an experimental persimmon beer together on a chilly Sunday afternoon, you remind me that I am loved and valued.

What's that? Oh, there'll be a post on the beer soon, but meanwhile, here's a little preview of stage 1:

There are lots of other things for which I am grateful, of course -- a fantastic apartment and landlady, my health (arthritis notwithstanding), the ability to support myself, a well-stamped passport, my public library card, my steadfast Ollie, and many more things I meditate on from time to time. Sometimes I get caught up in what's wrong with my life, the world, people's parallel parking skills, etc. Who doesn't, right? But today,and most days, I am thankful for the things, big and small, that make my life joyful. In the immortal words of Phibby Williams, "At this moment, I am happy."

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

I love cheese

No, really, I just stopped by my favorite local cheese shop on my way home from work to have a glass of wine, say hello, and catch up on Slow Food stuff for a few minutes with the friendly owner, Gen. How was I to know that the final session of her 3-part chevre making class, beginning an hour from that very moment, was going to be a person short? She asked me to pinch hit for the student in absentia, and take home about three quarters of a pound of freshly made cheese for my troubles. (See, it can be nice to have an open social calendar, one uncluttered with numerous dinner dates with gentlemen callers. That would be a pain, right? Right? Have some more wine, Ibti....)

Before the other students arrived, Gen walked me through the final stages of chevre making that we would be undertaking tonight: unwrapping and weighing the hanging cheeses, then salting, flavoring, packing, and labeling them. We scrubbed in, donned our aprons and fashionable hairnets and got started:

Check out the sweet setup of flavor mix-ins: truffle salt, fresh parsley and dill from my school's garden (we cannot seem to consume enough of either herb in spite of copious use in numerous classes), lemon zest, spicy adobo peppers, cinnamon sugar, black pepper, and -- what came to be the agreed upon new favorite combination -- bacon, scallions, and finely grated cheddar.

Oh, the wine? Um, that was so that after we mixed up our cheeses we could try a few different pairings with the fresh chevre. Hey, I'm a food educator, I need to know which wines work well with which cheeses.

About an hour ago, Ollie and I headed home from Sona with three tasty new cheeses in our panniers:

I'm thinking some kind of baked potato something or other for Thanksgiving with that bacon chevre concoction. Yum, eh? I need to keep an eye out for future classes.

God help me if I become lactose intolerant some day, I will NOT be a happy camper.

Monday, November 2, 2015

The bitter truth

A few weekends ago, I signed up for my first medicinal herb class. Well, sort of. I mean, it did involve quite a lot of information about medicinal tinctures, but it also involved cocktails. One of my favorite people -- my yoga teacher, Tricia, who turns out to be an amazing herbalist -- was offering a class on making bitters at a nearby urban farm. It would be a chance to learn about the basic components, philosophy, and healing properties of bitters. Best of all, participants would have a chance to make our own batch of bitters to take home and age for a couple of weeks.

I learned, for example, that the whole point of bitters, medicinally speaking, is to aid with digestion. Not that I ever need an appetite stimulant -- for heaven's sake, a grumbling tummy is what gets me out of bed in the morning -- but if I did ever feel blase about food, I learned I'd just need to put a drop or two of bitters on my tongue and I'd be ready to eat. Or of course, I could mix it up in an aperetif, or a digestif. (And here I thought the French were just looking for ways to booze it up before and after dîner.)

I learned that there are three main categories of bitters: pure bitters (that are particularly good for digestive help, and are considered to have "cooling" properties), aromatic bitters (more gentle bitters associated with "warming"), and caminatives (the mildest category of the three, and the one that modern cocktail aficionados seem to gravitate towards). I love learning.

We learned about teas (boiling water + bittering agents) vs. tinctures (alcohol + bittering agents), and their approximate concentrations. We also got a primer on the most bitter of the bitters, made from something called gentian root -- which I thought sounded vaguely south Asian, but actually this root that takes around 7 years of growth before harvesting comes from the highlands of central Europe. We had a chance to taste sips of each different type of bitters, from dandelion root and orange peel teas to orange peel, gentian, and calamus tinctures. Wooh! I am disinclined to touch straight gentian tincture to my tongue again, though it would be good for April Fool's Day pranks or a double dog dare some day. Finally, we made our gentian tincture, which I later found out is the main ingredient in angostura bitters...which is conveniently a key ingredient in a rather famous cocktail. Maybe you've heard of an Old Fashioned?

After our discussion and tincture-making session at Common Good City Farm, it was time to walk to nearby El Camino, where Mick let us get up close and personal with many of the locally made bitters he uses in his expertly crafted cocktails. We sniffed lavender bitters, orange bitters, cardamom bitters, and more. Needless to say, 3 cocktails later, I was hooked. (I was also ready for a nap. I'm getting too old for day drinking....)

Though I am hardly an accomplished mixologist, I do like to add my own twist to things. In this case, it was actually my mom who suggested the modification to the classic Old Fashioned as I mixed up a set of trial cocktails for her and dad and I when they came over for dinner last night. Here, I offer you one of my new favorite cocktails:

The New Fashioned


  • 1 sugar cube
  • 3-4 drops homemade gentian root tincture*
  • 1 tsp water
  • ice cubes
  • 1 shot bourbon
  • 2 shots chilled tonic water
  • 1 maraschino cherry, plus a splash of its juice -- optional


Put a sugar cube in a sturdy tumbler, then squirt a few drops of your fancy homemade gentian root tincture onto it.

Sprinkle water over the cube, then use a spoon or pestle to muddle the cube at the bottom of the glass.

Toss in a handful of ice cubes, then add the remaining ingredients. Stir well. Enjoy!

*To make your own gentian tincture: Combine 1 part dried gentian root to 4 parts Everclear, age it for at least 2 weeks, then strain it. Kept sealed in a cool, dark place, your tincture will last for years. And trust me, you don't need to make much. I think the 25g gentian root + 100mL grain alcohol will last me a long, long time. Even with regular consumption of New Fashioneds.