Thursday, October 29, 2009

Florida Sel

Sea Salt has become this year's bacon. It's in everything now, from caramels to Campbell's soup. People are crazy about it and there are several varieties from several different seas, all with different properties, colors (there's even pink salt) and minerals which alter the salt's flavor. Some people believe that sea salt is a much healthier alternative to table salt, while others just like the taste and crunchy texture of sea salt. One of the best sea salts in the world comes from France and is called "Fleur de Sel" which means "Flower of Salt." I love that name. This is because I just love anything that sounds french and involves flowers. Fleur de Sel is expensive though. I brought some back from France and I've been conserving it for the past three years trying to make it last. Then I had an idea. I should make my own. Last summer when I read the book Plenty, I was fascinated, when at the end, the authors harvested their own sea salt. All they did was gather some seawater and boil it down until nothing but salt remained. I could do that! How hadn't I thought of that before? Surely it couldn't be that difficult and living a mile from the beach, I have access to as much seawater as I want. I began to have visions of salt harvesting. I planned to call it "Florida Sel." Get it? How can you not love that name? Come on! Admit how clever that is. I had to harvest my own sea salt.

The first step to harvesting your own sea salt is to go collect some seawater. This proved very easy for me. I went to the beach with a pitcher with a tight fitting lid. All you have to do is take the pitcher, wade into the water about thigh deep and scoop up some water. Ignore the stares of your fellow beach goers who think you're a crazy person. Pretend not to hear the child nearby asking his mother what that crazy lady is doing leaving the beach with a pitcher of seawater that she just took a picture of. Instead, take a moment to admire South Florida's beautiful beaches and thank the Universe for the generous resource that is our ocean.

The best way to transport a pitcher of seawater in a car is to rest the pitcher inside of a gigantic stock pot. I had imagined all sorts of disasters that involved soaking the floor of my car, but nothing transpired. The pot caught all of the spill-over. Just make sure you don't drive like a maniac. When transporting seawater in a pitcher inside of a stockpot it is best to drive as if you are ninety. On the way you should congratulate yourself heartily at how clever you are for thinking up the name "Florida Sel" and you should begin planning on giving big, tastefully packaged jars of your own, homemade sea salt to everyone you know for the holidays.

Before I made it home a friend called me and asked what I was doing. I said that I was making my own sea salt, to which my friend replied in horror:


She then proceeded to list terrible things like diseases, contaminants, tar and poop. If you have a friend like this, at this stage in the salt making processes, it is best to ignore her. After all, the water looks clear. But in all seriousness, if you're going to harvest your own sea salt you probably shouldn't do as I did and naively go to a public beach in the "Yachting Capital of the World." You should always make sure that the seawater you collect is clean. I decided to flagrantly ignore this precaution because DUH! Florida Sel, people. I did it for the name.

But concerned friends aside, the next step in making your own sea salt is to strain it and boil it. Read on to see how I made my own "Florida Sel"...

Florida Sel - The Strain

You have to make sure that your seawater is free of sand, sticks, sea creatures, krill or whatever is in seawater. I poured it from the pitcher I collected it in through a sieve lined with about four layers of cheesecloth. I have one of those sieves that hooks onto the edge of a pot or a bowl, so this made it easier. Make sure you don't skip this step because my cheesecloth caught some unidentifiable black specks. You don't want black specks in your salt. Once you've done this step, set the big pot of sea water on the stove, turn on the stove and wait for it to boil. You should also rinse and save the cheesecloth because it can't possibly get very dirty only having some seawater poured through it once.

Florida Sel - The Water Has to Go Somewhere

After about a half an hour, go check on the sea water which has been boiling exuberantly. Observe now that the sea water in the pot has not so much boiled away, but has instead just moved out of the pot and onto your ceiling and is now dripping on your kitchen floor. The sea water is also covering your microwave, entire stove top and your apartment now resembles a sauna. A salty sauna. It is now time to take protective measures because you remember the corrosive properties of salt water. Fashion a suit of armor for your microwave door with sheets of aluminum foil, Secure them with scotch tape because that's all you have, though the steam from the boiling pot will quickly cause these to wilt. Replace scotch tape every few minutes in a last ditch effort to save the finish of your microwave door. Consider for the first time that harvesting your own sea salt might not be as quaint, charming and earth-goddess of an activity as the books made it sound.

Florida Sel - The Explosion

After boiling for a little over an hour, your pot of sea water will suddenly explode and by explode I mean, literally. Explode. All over your kitchen. It will explode with such force that your cat will flee beneath your bed, her tail puffed in terror so that it resembles a squirrel's. You will have hot, salty water all over your entire, very small kitchen. It will not be pretty. Your ears will ring from the sound of the explosion. Carefully turn off the stove, avoiding the pot. Note that when you slide the pot off the burner, it will explode again. If you get the brilliant idea to pour the remaining, clearly volatile water into a bowl and put it in the microwave, it will explode in the microwave too, adding to the things in your kitchen that you will have to scrub. At this point, it is best to just give up, leave the water in the pot and go watch Access Hollywood.

Florida Sel - The Conclusion

Finally, once you've cleaned your kitchen, pour the remaining cloudy, explosive water into a glass bowl and let it sit beside your kitchen sink for a good two weeks until it finally evaporates, leaving a fine, glittering film of what has to be salt (or sewage crystals?). Glance at it with disdain each day as you wash dishes and finally, when it looks dry, use a spoon to scrape it out of the bowl and into a suitable container. For a gallon of seawater, a suitable sized container for holding your homemade, self-harvested sea salt would be a thimble. I only exaggerate slightly, folks. I measured it and I only got a tablespoon of salt from the gallon of water, which really doesn't seem all that efficient or cost effective at all. Or practical. So now I have this tablespoon of real Florida sea salt and I'm scared to even eat it because of the sewage, e coli, cruise ship fuel, industrial waste and all that mercury that somehow gets into fish. Also, I still haven't gotten all the salt crud off my stove top. Maybe I just need to move to the Puget Sound. Nah, I'd miss the mangoes.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Edible Garden Festival Pictures

Here are some shots from yesterday's Edible Garden Festival at Fairchild. Yes, teachers still get in for free with ID, so I was pretty happy about saving the 20$ admission fee. The afternoon was humid and partly sunny and this festival definitely lacked the heavy turnout that I despaired over at this past summer's Mango festival. I was pleased with the smaller crowds and easier parking. The festival itself was smaller though, with many of the same vendors as other festivals. There were quite a few good things to eat, a scarecrow display, clever bats fashioned from fallen palm bark, and several decorated pumpkins. I saw a box garden display (above), met some students who are creating a community garden on the University of Miami campus and bought a ton of fresh, local veggies at the Bee Heaven Farm booth. Best of all, I finally got to meet Margie, whom I've emailed with for a couple years and never met in person. I bought an unruly bouquet of callaloo, organic corn on the cob, crookneck squash and zucchini, a four pack of those addictive smoked eggs and a jar of Antidesma (maoberry) butter. They also had heirloom tomato seedlings and baby red choi for sale. Fairchild itself had a booth selling fruits and honey grown in its own edible garden. They had quite an interesting variety with two different kinds of avocado, tamarind pods, mamey, carambola and to my surprise, persimmons. I didn't know persimmons grew here. For some reason I associated persimmons with chilly climates. I know they're popular in the Midwest in the Fall and there were several wild persimmons growing in Delaware when I was growing up, but I've never seen persimmons down here. In all, the festival was small and pleasant and a good way to pick up some early harvests before CSA begins next month. It was the perfect, tropical style event to replace the corn mazes and cider mills of fall that so many Floridians long for this time of year. The Edible Garden Festival really made me excited for the first harvests and I left uplifted, feeling like celebrating the season as it manifests in the place where I live.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Fairchild Edible Garden Festival This Weekend!

Fairchild's Edible Garden Festival is this weekend and I can't wait. I've already gotten an email from Redland Organics letting me know that they will have produce, eggs, honey and seedlings for sale. You have to try the smoked eggs. They would make the best egg salad in the world. There will also be a display of the scarecrows from the scarecrow contest and several lectures, tours and demonstrations. I am beside myself with excitement and will be going on Saturday. I plan on doing some serious spending because they always have a ton of neat stuff to buy and because I am going to attempt a container garden on my parents' patio and want some heirloom tomato seedlings. The last time I tried that the stupid iguanas devoured my plants, so we'll see what happens this time. On one visit to Fairchild, they told me that teachers get in free with teacher ID cards, so keep that in mind. Hopefully it's still true. Here is the schedule of events where there is a five dollar off admission coupon that you can print out as well.

Friday, October 16, 2009

A Long Five Weeks..

It's only five weeks until my CSA shares from Redland Organics begin being delivered. I can not wait. I feel like a little kid waiting for Christmas. Being a member of a CSA though, is like getting to have Christmas every single week! Imagine this - every Saturday you go pick up a big box filled with fruits and veggies, all grown and harvested nearby and you never know what is going to be in the box! This excites me beyond belief. I love the element of surprise. It keeps me on my toes and it keeps me out of ruts of dull eating. It gets my imagination simmering and I definitely eat more nutritious meals because I have to use up what I've been given. The CSA makes me a better cook and much better eater and it forces me to try new things, which are usually items they don't sell in the grocery store. I'll be honest though. I don't always like everything I try and that's ok with me. Sometimes I'll find vegetables or fruits in the box that I can't stand. When that happens I either try new methods of preparation or I give them away. I can always find someone else who is happy to have my rejects and I enjoy being generous.

I just got an email from Redland Organics. Every season it seems they add more and more options. You can buy egg shares or honey shares. Two years ago I bought an egg share and every week I got four to six, lovely, bluish-greenish-grey or caramel colored eggs. I didn't buy the honey because I don't eat enough of it to justify that and one week I got a free jar of honey in my box anyway. It lasted me the whole season.

This year they're offering two new add-ons. You can buy a goat cheese share or a Mediterranean share. I think this is so exciting. If you buy the goat cheese share, every week you get a different kind of goat cheese, all made right here. I wonder if they have to call it "pet food." I say this because in the 90s I lived in another state and worked at a Waldorf school. There was a nearby Biodynamic farm that produced goat cheese, but for some reason it was illegal and they had to call it pet food, just like with the raw milk. We all ate it and didn't die. But I digress. I am considering the goat cheese share this year because I love goat cheese and I've been wanting to explore local cheese options to write about. We'll see how I can work it into my budget. I'd also like to mention that I tried the goat cheese at the Possum Trot brunch and I've been wishing I could get my hands on more of it ever since. The one we had there was kind of dry, mild and crumbly. It was harder than a feta with a more delicate taste. It was addictive.

This year you can also purchase a Mediterranean share as well. That means that every week you can get a Mediterranean salad like hummus, baba ghanoush etc. I think it's a great idea, but I'll opt out of that one. My family is partly Middle Eastern anyway, therefore I have this stuff coming out of my ears. You would not believe the vat of smoked eggplant my grandmother foisted on me the other day, so I clearly do not need to be purchasing something I already know how to make and have on hand already. But for people who are not related to my eggplant and tahina obsessed grandmother, the Mediterranean share is a good idea.

Uggh, did I say it was five weeks away? Hurry up and grow, plants!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Stone Crab Season 2009!

It's finally here and you know you've been waiting for it since May! Stone Crab Season begins today! I happen to love the mild, sweet taste of stone crabs. I think they taste fresh and light like the sea and many people I know are completely addicted to them in spite of their often exorbitant cost. Last year was a bad year for the stone crab industry so they were cheaper, but this year promises to be better for the crabbers, so I'm guessing the prices will continue to rise. You can read more about the subject in this article. The Miami New Times Short Order food blog also has an excellent and informative post which will tell you everything you always wanted to know about the crustaceans. Stone crabs are probably the most loved and best known Florida food so they're pretty easy to find in fish markets and restaurants. I usually purchase mine at the Fish Peddler East in Fort Lauderdale because the restaurants are so expensive. The Sun-Sentinel's Thursday food section also has an interesting article about the stone crabs at Trulucks.I was surprised to learn that the restaurant has its own fleet of crabbers over on the west coast. They'll start serving them tomorrow and according to the article Trulucks is running an All You Can Eat Stone Crab Special for $49.00 every Monday. I've never been to Trulucks, but a new location just opened up in the Fort Lauderdale Galleria, so I may have to give them a try soon. Also today, the venerable institution that started it all, Joe's Stone Crab, opens up for a new season.

A couple years ago I wrote a much longer, humorous essay all about Stone Crabs which was published in the book Hungry? Thirsty? Miami. I think the editor did a fantastic job on the book and I highly recommend it, and not just because I want you to read my Stone Crab essay.

If anyone has any suggestions about where to find the best, most reasonably priced Stone Crabs please let me know in the comments section.

Happy Cracking!

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Almost Time...

It's almost here! The Pompano Beach Green Market reopens for the season on Halloween, Saturday October 31st. I will definitely be there, although I have been in past years and I admit that I was a little disappointed. Do I even have to tell you why? Of course not. I've said it about 300 times before. Like many other farmer's markets in Florida, they sell the same things you can get at Publix, which are not local. But some stuff is local and I hope this year there will be even more products for sale that are grown around here. A friend of mine who has since moved away particularly liked one vendor - an Indian woman who grew several of the items she sold in her own yard. Of particular interest to me is her purslane. I've never had purslane and I hear it grows well here. My friend liked it. If you don't know what purslane is, well, neither do I. It's a type of green with thick leaves and yellow flowers, but beyond that I know little else. Hopefully she's growing it this year and it will find its way into a future post.

I wish Halloween would hurry up and get here already!

Here is the Pompano Beach Green Market's website with further information about the opening and how you can be a volunteer. Of course I considered volunteering, but I have enough stuff to do already that I can't get done, so one more thing would be too much. I'll be happy just shopping at the market instead of working there, although I'm sure volunteering would be a lovely experience.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Sour Oranges

My most interesting local find this week were some Florida grown Sour Oranges at Whole Foods. I was surprised to see them because citrus fruits don't come in season for approximately another two months, but these are different. Sour Oranges were new to me. Their mottled, orange and green camouflage-pattern rinds attracted my interest immediately. I picked one up and smelled it, finding the Sour Orange to be wonderfully fragrant. If you nick the peel with your fingernail you can smell the aromatic oils which will remind you of natural cleaning products. In fact, many of these scents really come from Sour Orange oil, so that makes a lot of sense. I bought some sour oranges, having no idea what to do with them, and came home to do a little research. Remember, my local eating project has a lot to do with expanding my picky palate. I want to try lots of new things.

Here's what I found out: Sour Oranges are so tart and acidic that you can't eat them. They have to be used like lemons and limes and sweetened depending on the recipe. I also found out that Sour Orange juice is the basis for Mojo, the quintessential Cuban marinade of which I am a gigantic fan. You can also make marmalade (but I'll wait for more calamondins this winter) and Sour Oranges can be used to make curd or pie filling (a la Key Lime). Truly, the last thing I need to eat is pie, so I'm opting for the savory route and plan to soon make a big batch of homemade Mojo, which I shall use to marinate grilled chicken. I am currently toying with ideas and when I make the Mojo I will post all about it. Besides not needing to eat pie, the main reason I decided to use the Sour Oranges for Mojo was that I wanted to not only highlight local fruit, I wanted to celebrate local culture (Cuban) because South Florida's diversity is part of what makes this part of the world such a fun and unusual place to live.

One thing I have to mention here is that if you look in the picture, the sign that Whole Foods has advertising the Sour Oranges is really ridiculous. It says something to the effect that local fruit is good for lunches or ready to go or some such nonsense. Someone who doesn't know what this fruit is would think it was like a regular orange and meant for eating out of hand. Imagine this person's utter horror when taking a bite! Sour Oranges are not good for lunchboxes Whole Foods. Not unless you want to play a dirty trick on someone.

Here is some more info on Sour Oranges.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Raw Milk and Whole Foods

A few weeks ago I was in the Boca Whole Foods scouting out local products. I was very surprised to find Raw Milk from Golden Fleece Dairy, located in Northern Florida. I had never seen raw milk sold in a grocery store before. Of course it was labeled as "pet food" with lots of winking and nodding involved. Apparently, because of safety and sanitation concerns, in Florida raw milk must be sold as "pet food" and not for human consumption, though I can not imagine who would use really expensive milk as a pet food. I mean, I know cats kind of like milk... Well anyway, everyone knows it's not really for pets. It annoys me that it's clearly for people, but just has to be called "pet food." I don't like when people use words deceptively, whether it's to subtly deceive consumers or to get around laws whether or not one believes those laws are fair. I just don't like words used in that way. I don't think just calling something by a different name truly changes its meaning. As an English teacher, I tell my students to always and only use words for the highest good. I don't think this qualifies. But anyway. That is not what this post is about. I just got off on a ranting tangent about semantics. This post is about local raw milk in Florida and how now, just a few weeks after I snapped the pictures above, Whole Foods has stopped selling it. And I didn't even get a chance to try it!

As of September 30th, Whole Foods stopped selling the raw milk. There is now a petition to get them to bring it back.

Clearly, the raw cow milk was very popular because when I was at the store, they were completely sold out of it. The raw goat's milk wasn't nearly as popular. Had there been some cow's milk, I would have bought and tried it. I don't like goat's milk, so I opted to save my $7.99.

Some people believe that raw milk is dangerous. Some people believe that pasteurized, commercially produced milk is equally as dangerous but in a different way. Some raw milk supporters attribute practically magical healing properties to the raw milk that is produced in a safe, clean environment. The debates about raw milk can get very heated and I have absolutely no desire to get involved in one with either side. I'd like to stay neutral here.

I will disclose two things though. First, I have consumed raw milk on a Biodynamic Farm in New York, some of which came from another Biodynamic Farm in Massachusetts. I lived to tell about it. At the same time that I lived to tell of the experience, I also did not experience any magical healing properties of the raw milk and I got the same upset stomach from it that I get from other milk, although everyone around me said it wouldn't aggravate any lactose intolerance. It did, however, taste spectacular because it was full of cream and lumps of butterfat. It was far superior in taste to any other milk I have ever had.

Second, my grandmother, her mother and siblings almost died from drinking raw milk and my grandmother has told me this story about three hundred times. I've told you that I come from some rugged farm folk. My grandmother, one of twelve siblings, was the daughter of a real sharecropper and grew up on farms. All they had to drink was raw milk. It was their way of life. There was no other option. One time the milk got contaminated, everyone drank it and everyone got sick. My great-grandmother lived only by a miracle. The cow even died from whatever it was. My grandmother informed me that this was not all that uncommon and that she knew of several children who got sick and/or died when she was growing up because the milk was bad. This however, was 80 years ago. These people were poor and uneducated. They didn't know about sanitation and they didn't have the same technology, medicines etc. that we have now. I can speculate that if raw milk comes from a knowledgable farmer who is meticulously clean and takes good care of his or her cows, that raw milk is a lot safer than what my grandmother grew up on. I will add though, that after everyone got better from the tainted milk, my grandmother never drank it again and that growing up, no one ever gave me milk.

I have never once, ever in my entire life, ever drank a glass of milk. To me, milk is an ingredient, not a beverage. I mix it in things. Lord knows, I eat plenty of dairy products. I live for cheese. I put half and half in my coffee and I really need to cut back on my ice cream intake. I just don't drink glasses of milk. Yuck. But deep down, I feel like I shouldn't be eating any dairy products, raw or pasteurized. I wish I could give up dairy. I probably won't because I like it so much, but I wish I could. When I think about it logically, it doesn't make sense to me that we'd need it in our diets. Why are humans drinking another animal's milk? I can't think of any other animals who drink another animal's milk (unless humans give it to them). I also can't think of any animals who drink milk as adults. So why do we even need it at all? Do we need it at all? I don't really know.

Here's what I think. I think you should make your own decision about what you want to eat and that it's not really anyone else's business. If you are against raw milk then don't drink it. If you feel like raw milk is the right choice for you, then you should sign the petition to bring it back to Whole Foods. If you are a vegan and don't drink milk at all, well...I'm a little jealous.

Here is an article about Whole Foods not selling raw milk anymore.

Here is the petition to bring it back if you are a supporter of raw milk.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Local Find of the Week - Calabaza or West Indian Pumpkin

It's officially October now and October means pumpkins. In temperate climates no October is complete without a visit to the pumpkin patch, but here we don't have pumpkin patches or Pumpkin U-Picks. No, we have a tent by the side of the road where some carnies sell pumpkins they've hauled down from Up North. Once the pumpkins run out they return with Christmas trees. In July they return and fill the very same tent with fireworks. Not exactly the pumpkin picking scene I remember from my childhood. Does that mean then that pumpkins don't grow here? Of course not. We have our own kind of pumpkin in the tropics and it's known as the Calabaza or West Indian pumpkin. It's my local find of the week.

I've never had it before, this Calabaza. Until today, I didn't even really know what it was, but now I'm quite familiar. The Calabaza is eaten all over the Caribbean in curries, soups, stews and sopped up with roti. It's shell is so tough that it's rarely sold whole. Instead you can find it like I did, hacked into easy to manage chunks. My Calabaza came from Whole Foods in Fort Lauderdale by way of Paradise Farms.

The hunk I purchased was very reasonably priced (I thought) at $1.21. It was large enough to serve about three people, I would say, or two very fanatical and starving ones. I really had no clue what to do with it. I'm not a huge pumpkin or squash eating fan. I like them in soups or the occasional Thanksgiving pie, but I'm not very enthusiastic beyond that. Normally I find the squash family to be grainy, stringy and bland. But still, I decided to give the Calabaza a try. I drizzled it with olive oil, sprinkled it with coarse salt and set it to roast. First I had the oven at 425 because I was making a pizza. Then I had to turn it down to 350 to bake a pan of brownies. The Calabaza didn't mind. In all, I cooked it a little over an hour, until a fork sunk in without putting up a big fight and the top had begun to caramelize nicely. Then I took it out and tried a bite. Wow!! This is no bitter acorn squash or disappointing sugar pumpkin. The Calabaza means business. Its flavor (it HAD flavor) was roasty, sweet and had some body to it. The Calabaza would make a mean local pumpkin pie or flan. I liked it plain though, but imagine how good it would be with a squiggle of saw palmetto honey and a scatter of crushed allspice berries. It would be impressive as an Autumn side dish. I think I'd like it mashed as a bed for some freshly caught, roasted fish too. I'm already thinking of a million uses for it. Jack 'o' Lantern though, is not one of them.

More information about the Calabaza or West Indian Pumpkin.