Time Away

Hi friends and fellow revelers,

I have been out of the loophole a bit lately (tax time appropriate puns permitted?) due to unanticipated medical stuff.  As much s I hate hospitals, I’m sure glad they exist.  Will be posting again soon, with updates on the wild onion party in my front yard, prepping for spring planting, and the latest from my dirt pile which has now outgrown the compost bin out back and has an outpost in a nearby large container bin.  (Does anyone else hide their scrap pile when the exterminator comes around)?  All that and more soonish.  In the meantime, thanks for all your feedback and comments, and words of encouragement.

QUESTION:  What are you all doing to get ready for spring?  Any upturned dirt yet?  Any seedlings started inside?  How are your indoor plants holding up?  (My banana plants were looking a little ragged a couple weeks ago but seem to be recovering this dry indoor weather slowly.  I’m thinking they are just happier outside, and will perk up when I’m able to get them out there again.)  Go ahead … gimme the dirt!

I Would Pay For That: on Syria, the Super Bowl, and Survival

A note to my fellow revelers:  I woke up this morning thinking about a business idea I’m putting out there for the taking when current events worked their way out of my mind, where I must have been mulling them over in the past several days, and into this post.  It winds but if you bear with me, I hope you’ll agree it matters.

Business idea.

Watching the Superbowl and its just as widely watched commercials, a viewer could have no doubt the year we live in.  The build-up to 2012 as possibly the last year of the humankind has been great.  Now marketers are capitalizing on, while poking good fun at, the hype.  From Chevy’s “2012” commercial where those who survive the Apocalypse are, of course, those who were in their Silverados when it happened, to movie trailers feeding on schadenfreude and seizing the zeitgeist.  In the lineup are Marvel Comic’s The Avengers, which shows a scene whose celluloid vision is now overly familiar: a city destroyed, with cars overturned and smoke billowing from random corners of the screen, which in the next scene become firebombs roaring through a city’s narrow streets.  A voice over tells us, “The world has changed.”  Then there’s Battleship: another city street that in one moment is peaceful and calm while a family waits with bored and impatient faces to get through yet another typical big-city traffic jam, when out of the sky alien machinery comes crashing down like a giant pinball, overturning cars and sinking full highways in its path.   Ominous, machine-like heavy breathing segues into random sounds of destruction, hard rock and occasional digital bleeping to lay the soundtrack.  In the same opening tone of the Avengers trailer, we hear an official-sounding voice inform an apparently other official person, “We’re looking at an extinction-level event.”  And there you have it.  The preview to 2012.  Hollywood style.

But what’s the reality?  In two words: change hurts.  The globe has been going through growing pains, notably and obviously, beginning with last year’s Arab spring, where people in the Arab world banded together to overthrow dictators and protest human rights abuses and economic conditions.  It sparked an era where people across the globe are coming into their own as activists and change agents.  Next came the protests stateside starting in the fall and continuing as a still fledgling movement with its battle cries sounding out against inequality and injustice on an array of fronts from the economy to food production.  People everywhere, it seems, are waking up and saying, “I’m not gonna take it anymore.”  Fill in the blank, of course, for whatever your “it” may be.

While the bravado behind these movements is inspiring, and will likely provide a wealth of Hollywood fodder in the years ahead, as Syria is currently showing us, change invites resistance that, when tested, can become an all-out offensive.  NPR features an article today of the story of a former regime-backer, Younes Al-Yousef, who agreed wholeheartedly with the government that the protesters, or “terrorists,” were to blame for all the discord.  That was, until he saw the government he supported kill its own citizens to tamp out the protests, and witnessed himself, a former cameraman for a pro-government TV station, as a pawn in their unfair play.  He has since fled the country, and survives for now to tell another Syrian horror story.  I listened yesterday to a Skype interview on NPR of another citizen, Omar Shakir, a blogger and citizen journalist stuck in Syria and hiding out with no food and little electricity, hoping the killers simply will not get to him and his comrades.   The sound of gunfire is heard, as well as jokes being told between friends, for the purpose, he explains, to “encourage ourselves … so we can feel better.”  He describes rockets and Russian tanks and machine gun used against his fellow civilians.  The day before, the hospital was hit by a rocket.  He describes mass killing, and explains that every man in his town is wanted and will be killed.  He clearly understands this to include himself and his friends.

Where does this leave us — us, the viewer, the outsider, the consumers of hard-core media coverage and soft-core celluloid versions of our fears and nightmares (the former telling stories that have uncomfortably uncertain outcomes and the latter guaranteed to let us work out these anxieties and sleep easy at night).  It leaves me to do what I do best when I start to get overwhelmed with things I can’t control: reel the focus back to a micro level.  Ask myself if I am prepared for the unpredictable.  Ask myself if there is anything I can do to help my neighbor.  Which brings us back to the business idea.

If there were a service of a person who is well-versed in disaster preparation and recovery, I would pay that person for their wealth of knowledge and recommendations, and for doing some of the leg work on those preparations still unmade in this household.  We have water, for example, but no generator.  I have put off buying a generator (which, yes, I do think most households should have) because I am overwhelmed by the thought of doing the research on which is the most reasonable (economic, space-saving, reliable, and easy to use) generator to have.  This is just one example of why I would pay someone good money (and put money into our economy) to do the legwork for me.  My partner’s father does this type of work on a city-level.  There’s no reason we shouldn’t be ensuring at least a basic measure of preparedness in our own homes.

Now, what to do about Syria?  Like most of the rest of the world, I don’t know yet.  Cash isn’t flush right now and it doesn’t seem like throwing money at a problem as out of control as this is going to do much good at the moment.  If I thought it would do some good, though, I would do it.  My own brief research hasn’t turned up any reliable channels for getting relief to the Syrian people.  If anyone else has found otherwise, though, please let us know.

At least our government (one of the good ones – and, yes, I believe that but I’m not so foolish to think that that couldn’t change) is working with other governments to take a stance.  The U.S. has imposed increasingly stringent sanctions against Syria.  This week, the U.S. closed its embassy there.  Also this week, the U.S. joined the international community in condemning the tragedy unfolding in Syria.  China and Russia, in a move described by England as “incomprehensible and inexcusable,” vetoed the U.N. resolution against Syrian president Bashar al Assad.   Just days earlier, in backroom negotiations, the U.S and allies had dropped a demand for UN sanctions and an arms embargo against Syria in exchange for Russia’s support on the resolution.  Like a squabbling child who refuses to play nice even after making up, Russia is once again on the wrong side of the room.  Back in May 2011, Amnesty International asked for global help to the growing crisis in Syria.  In this Youtube clip, Salil Shetty, Secretary General, calls for the international community to refer Syria to the International Criminal Court, an arms embargo, an asset freeze, and for accountability, with only a weak response from governments across the globe.  Many individuals, however, had even by then expressed their support in petitions to protect peaceful protests in Syria.

While I, and others, are waiting and watching for what we can do to help, I am also trying, like others, to simply keep myself informed and help others be aware because surely someone who does not yet know about the depth and extent of the atrocities (recent estimates are 6000-7500 civilians murdered) just may be the person with the answer.

Farmers v. Monsanto

Our friend over at Red Garden Clogs recently went to a rally organize by Occupy Big Food and Food Democracy Now, and has the lowdown here. I wasn’t able to make it, but I’m glad we got the report from RGC, as well as some powerful snapshots of signs of the timeline of Monsanto, beginning with its founding in 1901 by a 30-year pharm veteran (yes, that’s pharmaceutical, NOT farm), to the development of Agent Orange (manufactured primarily by Monsanto) in the years 1939-45, which was used from 1961-1971 during the Vietnam War as part of Operation Ranch Hand, to today, when 81 transgenic crops have been approved by the FDA without a single request denied.

I have a friend, Larry (Sarge) Forrest who was the first African-American to serve in the elite Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (his story is only partly told in the book Six Silent Men) and, he tells me, an invitee to the Tuskegee Airmen Society, recently featured in George Lucas’s Red Tails (I saw it recently and highly recommend everyone reading this does too) since there was really no other place to put him and his friend who trained the mechanics who took care of the red tail planes that these honorable pilots flew. A skilled sniper, he was also a victim of Agent Orange and suffers its effects to this day.

There are so many reasons to be aware of what’s going on with food production today, from the obvious alarming ecological impact to honoring people who have fought the effects of irresponsible food production historically, and of course to try to reduce the number of people who suffer illness and death so that Big Food producers can increase their bottom line.

QUESTION: what are you doing to help bring attention to these issues or raise your own awareness of them?  Have your eating and buying habits changed in response to awareness of the issues surrounding Big Food production?  Do you have any recommendations how others can do the same?  Go ahead … gimme the dirt!

Mina Mina Semolina

At the well-timed advice of a fellow reveler, I endeavored to work in a little semolina, a flour often reserved for pasta. I loosely followed a recipe I found on cookistry.blogspot.com (semolina-flax-honey bread) but I used a warmed milk and honey wash about five minutes before the bread was done baking to get a slightly darker crust.

Semolina is made from durum wheat, and is said to lighten otherwise heavy (usually as with whole grain) breads. It’s mighty tasty in this loaf, and I’m sure I will rendezvous with it again soon.

UPDATE: for the first time, I’ve posted a recipe online (down there, below the picture).  Hope you enjoy!  Feedback invited (nay, begged for).  Although I have a whole host of helpful cookbooks I frequently refer to, more and more I find myself borrowing from several reliable sites online.  For that reason, it’s important to me to have a recipe that’s clear, accurate, and gives proper due.  Let me know if you try this recipe (or some version thereof), and if this can be tweaked/improved at all.

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Here was my version of this great recipe from Cookistry.com (bounteous site for various bread recipes and bread making techniques).  My changes were largely due to simply running out of time since I was baking in between life, and other things.

Dry Ingredients
2 cups bread flour
slightly less than 1 cup semolina flour
1 teaspoon salt
2 1/4 teaspoons instant (quick rise) yeast
2 tablespoons ground flax

Wet Ingredients
2 tablespoons honey 2 (the original recipe calls for crystals – the liquid honey did fine for my purposes)
1 tablespoon olive oil + enough to coat a bag for the dough to rise
1 cup cold water (spring water, if you have it)

The Washes and Toppings
Egg wash (one whole egg and one tablespoon cold water)
Flax seeds, for topping (I used blonde – cookistry.com has a photo with one-half light, the other dark)
Milk wash (milk, honey, olive oil)

1. The Dough

Set aside the egg wash and flax seeds.  Put all the other ingredients except the water together in a food processor.  With your food processor on, pour the cold water in as fast as the other ingredients will absorb it.  Keep the food processor going until it forms a ball and then about another half-minute after that.

Take your dough ball out, and briefly knead it on a clean, floured surface (it always matters to knead your own dough, even if it’s just long enough to give it that human touch).  Form it back into a ball.

2.  The Rise

Oil the bag and put your dough ball in it, turning it to coat before putting it in cold storage overnight.

After the requisite twelve hours (mine turned out to be closer to 20), take the bag out and let it sit until it comes to room temperature.  (This should only take a couple hours — because of intermittent tasks, mine rested for closer to four hours).

3.  The Score and Wash

Sprinkle a baking sheet with cornmeal, and set the oven to 350 degrees.  Knead the dough briefly on a clean, floured surface and form it into the desired shape.  Place it on the baking sheet, cover it lightly with plastic wrap, and let it rise until doubled, about another 40 minutes (yes, for me this was closer to an hour).

To score your bread, take a sharp, thin kitchen knife, and make any desired slashes.  The pros use a lame.  I don’t have one of those and my scoring is satisfactory for me.  Sharp small serrated knives, or even razor blades, will do the trick to score the bread so that you have created a tear in the bread and the heat of the oven doesn’t just pick the weakest point and tear there.  Cookistry didn’t call for this but I nearly always score mine.  Hearth breads like this one, baked on a sheet, not in a bread pan, call for scoring but it’s typically not necessary for bread pans.  I do it anyone, sheet or pan, because I like the way it looks, it gives the crust peaks and valleys (not quite for mouthfeel but more for mouth experience).

For the egg wash, with a fork, briskly stir together one egg and one tablespoon cold water.  Using a pastry brush, brush the egg wash all over the bread, trying not to let any of it drip/run down the sides or pool in the scored indentations.

Generously sprinkle light flax seeds all over the tops and sides.

4.  The Bake

Pop it in the oven.

For the milk wash, which gets applied 5-10 minutes before your bread is done (closer to ten minutes if you want a darker crust since the sugars in the milk and honey darken the crust)After about 30-35 minutes, apply the milk wash, which is just a little bit of milk (approx. 1/4 cup) with a touch of honey (I heat these together in the microwave).  Then drizzle a little olive oil on top.  Give it a quick stir, then use the pastry brush to apply it, keeping in mind that you will get a bit of browning if the milk wash meets the bread at the bottom of the pan.  The little bit of crunch that results from this can be a pleasant surprise (but of course if left in the oven too long, it’s called burnt).  Experiment a little, and see what you like.  When your loaf is done, let it cool on a rack.

5.  The Eat

I especially like this bread toasted but keep that in mind when you’re shaping it or it may not be toaster friendly.  Lovely warm or just plain as a breakfast treat with a touch of butter.  The crust has a subtly sweet flavor, nicely accentuated by the nuttiness of the flax seeds.

Enjoy!