Sunday, September 25, 2016

Millet Production and Use

Photo of millet plants
Millet plants at UC Berkeley's Gill Tract
This is my second post about millet, a class of grains that doesn't get much attention.  The first post gave some background on millet and UC Berkeley's Millet Project, and can be found here: The Millet Project Looks at the Nutritious, Drought Tolerant, Gluten-Free Grains Called Millet.

After learning about the Millet Project, millet's attractive features, its history, and how people eat it, I wanted to find out more about this fascinating group of plants. Where is it grown? Who eats it?

Since this was an international question, I pointed my browser to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and found their statistical collection (FAOSTAT). (For domestic U.S. statistics, I usually start at the USDA Economic Research Service or National Agricultural Statistics Service).

Millet In Three Charts and One Map

In this age of globalization and homogenization, millet is one of a few staple foods that has a sharp geographical concentration:  it is the primary staple along the southern edge of the Sahara Desert. And with this concentration, millet is a minor grain on the world stage: in 2014, only 27 million tonnes were produced, compared with 741 million tonnes of rice, 729 million tonnes of wheat and 1,038 million tonnes of maize [1] (1 tonne = 1,000 kg = 2,200 pounds).

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Millet Project Looks at the Nutritious, Drought Tolerant, Gluten-Free Grains Called Millet

Photo of millet inflorescences at UC Berkeley's Gill Tract
Millet inflorescences at UC Berkeley's Gill Tract

I can get quite nerdy about ingredients (see my ingredients category), so when one of my newsletters told me about an upcoming event called The Millet Project at the nearby Gill Tract, I knew I did not want to miss it.

When I think of millet, I think about the pale yellow spherical grains I see at the health food store or in bird feed. But when an agricultural specialists think about millet, they think about a group of plant.  This was the first thing I learned at the event: millet describes a bunch of different plants, and it isn't a botanical term, but an agricultural one. Millets are annual grasses with small seeds, generally including the grain labelled millet in the U.S. and Europe (the proso variety, Panicum miliaceum), its close relatives (like Enchinocloa frumentacea,called shanwa in Japan), teff (Eragrostis tef, also spelled tef and t'ef,the staple grain in Ethiopia and Eritrea), and sorghum (great for making alcoholic beverages). The Millet Project has a page on millet taxonomy that includes photos of some varieties.

Although millet doesn't cross my mind often, if asked to stir up memories of millet, I actually have a few pretty strong ones: fun dinners with my graduate school housemates eating piles of injera and spicy stews at Ethiopia Restaurant on Telegraph in Berkeley, a delicious sorghum molasses gifted by a fellow food blogger, or a delicious millet-fortified bread baked by a housemate.

Thrills at the Millet Project

The Millet Project is an interdisciplinary research project at UC Berkeley that hopes to "establish a knowledge base about the feasibility of growing millets in Northern California, the drought tolerance of millet, and best-practice protocols for farmers on how to grow different types of millet."  The team is running experiments in Berkeley and working with farms across the state to get practical experience in California fields. Their 2015 research work is described in a post by undergraduate researcher Ramji K. Pasricha (super-short summary: at the Gill Tract in coastal Alameda County, pearl millet was more resilient to water stress than Japanese or foxtail millet).

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Visiting a Pear Orchard Triggers Interest in Fruit Crate Labels, Part 2

Southern Cross lemon fruit crate label from California Historical Society on Flickr Commons

This is part 2 of a 2-part series about fruit crate labels.  Part 1 is here.

"Accidental Artifacts"

In the excellent Pat Jacobsen's Millennium Guide to Fruit Crate Labels, the author calls fruit crate labels "accidental artifacts." It's a good description. They were never meant to be collected, put into price guides, or hung on a wall.  They were created to sell fruit, to build or maintain a brand, to be used to label a crate and then be discarded. Yet an active collector community has evolved, libraries build collections (some holdings in California libraries), and many websites and antique stores sell labels. They are actively sought by private and public collectors:  Jacobsen reports that in 1992 there were $250,000-300,000 in label sales (in 2016 dollars, that's $428,000-514,000, via BLS Inflation Calculator); individual collections have sold for $250,000 (early citrus labels) and $51,000 (Washington apple labels).

Most of the spare or obsolete labels were destroyed: tossed in the trash, burned, used as scratch pads in the packing house or at the farm. But some survived. They were forgotten in the back of warehouses; or saved by employees because they looked nice or for sentimental reasons; or saved as a record of who you worked for or with. Some design houses kept archives of their label work, or had boxes full of extra labels. Discoveries still occur now and then: a box in the loft of a packing house, packages in the bottom drawer of a dusty file cabinet, a file folder in an attic.

Monday, September 05, 2016

Visiting a Pear Orchard Triggers Interest in Fruit Crate Labels, Part 1

Label for LIFE brand pears from California Historical Society collection on Flickr Commons

(Disclosures: the farm tour was a pre-conference excursion arranged by the International Food Bloggers Conference. Although I paid to go on the excursion, it is possible that California Endive or the California Pear Board provided some subsidies to reduce participants' costs. In addition, I received a discount on the registration fee in exchange for writing three posts about my experiences at the conference.)

The second half of the farm excursion organized by the International Food Blogger Conference (IFBC) and California Pear Board was a visit to Stillwater Orchards, a pear farm in Courtland, California (the first half was California Endive Farms).

Photograph of bosc pears on a pear tree
Like most July days in the area, the skies were clear and the temperature was high. The sun was almost directly overhead, but shade could be found under some of the pear trees (which are generally not very tall to simplify harvest). The conference attendees had a chance to talk with the farmers about pear growing, followed by a delicious lunch beneath a 100+ year old sycamore tree that included a salad with pear and endive, and pear crisp. 

Seeing the Stillwater logo on the marketing material at the orchard (which must be many decades old), I started thinking about fruit crate labels — the labels that farmers and packers attached to their fruit crates before they were shipped to markets near and far. I had a bunch of questions:  Where did these labels come from? How long were they used? Who designed them?

Sunday, August 28, 2016

"Bobber's Regret": Becoming a Flapper Could Be Stressful

Not wanting to learn to take high-quality photos for my blog, I often rely on the vast collection of public domain or Creative Commons materials on the internet to illustrate my posts (and frankly, sometimes I think it's more fun to see a picture of a 1940s valentine with a squash and ear of corn than a wonderfully composed picture of a bowl of zucchini-corn soup).

I typically start at The Commons at Flickr which has been the source of many of my best finds (like the aforementioned valentine).  The Commons are a work in progress, as participating institutions have loaded a massive quantity of images to the site, often without having any useful information about the image — in some cases, they are hoping that visitors to the Commons will help identify and tag their materials. Consequently, what might seem to be a simple search will sometimes lead you to unexpected treasures.

"Bobber's Regret"

I was searching for something recently and none of the results were even close to what I wanted. But one of them caught my attention: an ad for piston rings in the Saturday Evening Post.  I clicked through and found my way to the magazine's cover page. It was striking: a teary-eyed young woman with a bob haircut gazing in a hand mirror. To her right we see the cause of her tears: a pile of her hair. She must have just finished the major haircut and is suffering from what I call "Bobber's Regret."

Bobber's Regret - Cover of Nov 6, 1920 Saturday Evening Post, illustration by Coles Phillips

Friday, August 19, 2016

Summery Pseudo Stew of Zucchini, Tomatillos and Corn

Valentine (ca. 1945) from Deseronto Archives
Summer produce won't be around much longer, so I've been eating summer specialties as much as possible. Last Sunday, my focus was zucchini, tomatillos and sweet corn, which I combined in a "pseudo stew." I'm calling it a "pseudo stew" because it was too liquid to eat on a plate, not thin enough to be a soup, but didn't quite feel like a stew.  I ate it with rice that week — I suspect that it could be a good filling for tacos, burritos, or quesadillas.

These days my cooking is a little unfocused, so it doesn't take much to get me moving into a certain direction.  The inspirations for the pseudo stew were a tweet from Simply Recipes about sauteed zucchini; a new carbon steel skillet that I purchased from Food52 that is naturally non-stick and loves high heat; and summer produce.

In the end, my pseudo stew came from the adaptation and merging of three recipes:

The basic idea was to make three simple preparations and combine them for the final dish: 1) broil tomatillos until soft, then puree with chipotle puree; 2) sear zucchini (adding garlic at the end); 3) pan roast sweet corn.

To be sure, a similar pseudo stew could be prepared with much less effort: simmer tomatillos in a little bit of water until soft, then puree with immersion blender; add zucchini, corn, chipotle puree, onions, garlic, and cook until the vegetables are tender; garnish and serve. This would certainly work, but the flavors wouldn't be as complex.

For the zucchini and corn, you'll get best results with a pan that can get very hot and is relatively non-stick (like carbon steel, a wok, or a cast iron skillet). The goal is to have a good amount of color on the vegetables.

Recipe:  Pseudo Stew with Zucchini, Tomatillos and Corn

6-8 small to medium zucchini
2 cloves garlic
3 ears sweet corn
2-3 cups (480-720 mL) whole tomatillos (about 15 medium)
1 t. (5 mL) or more chipotle chile puree (see note below)
1 t. (5 mL) salt
Chopped cilantro leaves
Toasted pumpkin seeds (optional)
Crumbled queso fresco or queso anejo (optional)

Prepare the tomatillos:  Turn on the broiler.  Peel the paper husks off of the tomatillos, wash them, and put them in a single layer in a broil-safe baking pan (use one with sides since there will be juices running).  Place under broiler. Broil until blackened on one side, then turn (different sized tomatillos cook at different rates, so you might need to turn them at different times, and remove them as they finish cooking).  Puree the chipotle chile puree and roasted tomatillos (and any juice that was exuded) in a blender or with an immersion blender.  Put the puree into bowl that will be large enough to hold the zucchini cooked in the next step.  Set aside.

Prepare the zucchini:  Choose a pan that can hold all of the zucchini, corn, and tomatillo puree, ideally one that can be used over high heat.  Cut the zucchini into bite-sized pieces — cut small zucchini in half lengthwise and cut into slices; cut larger ones in quarters lengthwise and cut into slices.  Mince the garlic.  Heat a pan over medium-high heat.  Add 1-2 tablespoons of oil.  Add the zucchini and saute, stirring frequently, until some of the pieces are browned, a few minutes.  Add the garlic, stir, cook for about 30 seconds. Scrape the cooked zucchini and garlic into the bowl with the tomatillo puree.  Add 1 teaspoon salt.  Stir to combine.

Prepare the corn: Clean the pan used to prepare the zucchini (or pull out another clean one).  Cut the kernels off the corn cobs, being sure to scrape the cobs with the back of the knife to extract as much corn as possible.  Heat a pan over medium-high heat.  Add 1-2 tablespoons of oil.  Add the corn and cook, stirring occasionally for a few minutes until the corn is cooked and browned in places.  Turn down the heat. 

Assemble:  Add the zucchini-tomatillo mixture to the corn.  Stir well, then simmer for a few minutes to meld the flavors. Adjust the salt as needed.

Serve and Garnish:  Serve with rice or tortillas.  Garnish with chopped cilantro, toasted pumpkin seeds and crumbled cheese (like queso fresco, queso anejo, or sharp cheddar).

Variations:  Pan-roast a few cloves of garlic, mince, and add to the tomatillos before pureeing. Saute some sliced onions with the zucchini.  Add minced raw or pan-roasted green chiles.  Add diced roasted poblano chilies.

Note: to make chipotle chile puree, buy a can of chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, open it, and put the contents in a blender or food processor. Process until smooth. For long term storage, wrap and freeze. The puree stays soft enough in the freezer so that you can easily slice off what you need. If you also keep tomato paste in the freezer, be sure to label the chipotle puree so you don't mix up tomato paste and chile puree.

Image Credits
Corn & squash valentine (ca. 1945) from the Deseronto Archives's Flickr collection, no known copyright restrictions. Photos of the evolution of fresh tomatillos to salsa by the author. 

Random link from the archive: Recipe: Flourless chocolate-almond cake

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Keeping an Open Mind about Insects and Other Sustainable Foods

(Disclosure: I received a discount on the registration fee in exchange for writing three posts about my experiences at the conference.)

One night, the beef tongues in Chef Cesar Cienfuegos' kitchen started speaking to him. They told him "There must be a better way, you need to start thinking differently."

It was a special night in the University of California, Davis (UCD) dining halls — one of the nights when the kitchens prepare an unusual entree that is featured in every dining hall. That night it was beef tongue ramen, with Dining Services preparing enough so that 3,500 bowls could be ladled out across campus. It required over 200 tongues (about 650 pounds in total), a quantity that led Cienfuegos to think, that just "one night, one meal, one recipe" uses so much animal flesh, there must be alternatives.

This story launched a presentation by Cienfuegos and co-presenter Ben Thomas (from the Community Alliance with Family Farming, who also has worked with UCD Dining Services) at the International Food Blogger Conference (IFBC) entitled "Why Insects are the Next Super Food that will Save the Planet - A Chef's Perspective".

Sustainability Concepts

Although the headline topic was insects, Cienfuegos and Thomas wanted to explore a range of food sustainability ideas that included these four concepts:
  • By products and "waste": An example of this is flour made from the remnants from wine grape pressing (the Whole Vine company is a nearby producer)
  • Low impact ingredients: insects are a prime example, as life cycle analysis shows that they produce protein with relatively low greenhouse gas emission and water use
  • Underutilized ingredients: "trash fish" (less marketed fish often caught with more desirable fish) and nopales (cactus paddles, which grow readily with little water in California and other arid places)
  • Positive impact ingredients: edible nitrogen fixing plants, edible cover crops like burdock (another example would be farmed oysters, which clean the water as they grow)