The Milkweed Diaries

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Monster Mash*

Earlier this week, my dear friend Pooma brought me a basket of gorgeous hot peppers -- a beautiful mix of several varieties of habañeros and jalapeños.

Above: some of the aforementioned habañeros plus the last Italian sweet frying pepper from my garden.

Locally-grown peppers are a rare commodity at the end of the dripping-wet summer we had in these parts, and an especially precious treasure now after the first frosts have hit.

I have for some time had a hankering to make homemade hot sauce, and these peppers presented the perfect opportunity.

When I started searching for recipes for hot sauce, I was delighted to discover that traditional sauces involve fermentation, of which (regular readers know) I am enamored. Fermentation is an old-timey way to preserve food, a creative craft that has been practiced in cultures throughout the world for thousands of years. I love fermentation, and have tried fermenting just about every vegetable you can imagine, and lots of other things too. I've added hot peppers to various ferments over the years, sometimes with extremely intense, mouth-scorching results, but I've never tried fermenting them alone.

Peppers and salt: all you need for a killer mash

It turns out that the most flavorful hot sauces are made from an aged pepper mash, which is just salted peppers fermented for a period of time from a few weeks to three or more YEARS. Then the mash can be used in small quantities for flavoring, or combined with vinegar to make hot sauce. Fermenting hot peppers seems like a good way to spread hot peppery joy throughout the year as well as a step on the path to superlative hot sauce, so I decided to give it a whirl.

It was surprisingly hard to find a recipe online that takes the hot-sauce maker all the way through the process from fresh peppers to fermented mash to the final sauce product. I did find a couple of posts from experienced mash makers here and here and some interesting variations on the basic mash (for instance, here's someone who uses kefir starter culture to innoculate his pepper mash with good results).

Since I have a good understanding of brine-pickling in general, and since making pepper mash seems to be a fairly straightforward brining process. Brine pickling is an ancient, low-tech preservation technique that uses no electricity and very minimal equipment and ingredients. You can read more about brining in earlier posts here and here and also at Sandor Katz's most excellent website, Grist also has a good summary article on brining, including pepper mash making.

Mash-making in progress

In any case, here is the recipe I culled from reading lots of summaries of the process. My mash is atypical because it is adds garlic to the ferment. We have lots of extra garlic from the garden right now, since we're planting our garlic for next year now and there are lots of leftover small cloves, and adding garlic is almost never a bad thing in my opinion.

Garlickey Hot Pepper Mash


For the mash:
  • 2 cups mixed hot peppers (I used green jalapeños; red, yellow, and chocolate habañeros; and one sweet red frying pepper)
  • 1/2 cup peeled whole garlic cloves
  • 1 Tbs fine- to medium- ground high-quality salt
  • 1 Tbs coarse-ground high-quality salt
For the sauce (6 weeks to 6 months later)
  • Raw apple cider vinegar to cut the mash to taste

  1. De-stem and de-seed the peppers. Be careful: this is serious business, because the seeds of hot peppers are really hot! You might want to wear gloves, and if you don't, scrub the heck out of your hands (I use dish soap, rubbing alcohol, and aloe vera to get the pepper sting out-I really should wear gloves) and do not touch your lips, nose, or any other sensitive parts after touching the insides of hot peppers.
  2. Throw the peppers and garlic in a food processor or chop by hand. I chopped mine, because I was making a small batch. Some people ferment the peppers whole, but I decided to ferment them without the seeds because I am not one of those people who seeks out crazy over-the-top hotness in my hot sauce.
  3. Mix in the regular-grind salt and stir or shake (easy to shake if you do it in a jar).
  4. Gently pour in filtered, room temperature water to cover. Make sure that all of the peppers and garlic are completely submerged in the brine.
  5. Cover with the coarse-grind salt.
  6. Wait and watch!
  7. Harvest the mash and make sauce by cutting with vinegar -- I haven't done this step yet, but will post when I do!
The mash in brine on day two.

*I must have heard the song Monster Mash hundreds of times throughout my childhood, always at this time of year, on record players of my elementary school classrooms, so I hope you'll forgive the gratuitious seasonal shoutout, dear reader.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Local Food and Climate Change: Every Day is Blog Action Day

To celebrate today's blog action day, I'm posting photos of our recent stint selling at the West Asheville farmers market (see below).

Decreasing your foodprint is a great small step that individual people and families can take to help slow climate change. But individual actions--low-impact eating and living, conserving energy and resources, consuming less, reducing your carbon footprint --are a drop in the bucket. These actions are inherently political, but they are not enough on their own.

In addition to individual action, the world needs our collective political action for immediate and large-scale change. I'm grateful for and impressed with's organizing work building power, raising awareness, and advocating for such change.

In nine days, on October 24, is holding an International Day of Climate Action. The organizers of Blog Action Day are also putting forward a petition urging President Obama to make the US a leader in solving the problem that we have led the world in creating. Add your signature here.

Individual choices like eating local food and large-scale political action like participating in 350's Day of Action are essential, but there's more: we must build new systems to replace the dysfunctional one that's caused the climate crisis in the first place. We need to build the lifeboats, create the world we want to live in, and set up alternate structures to replace the crumbling ones that have caused so much damage to the planet. Building local food systems is part of that creative work.

So here's to actions small and large. May the systems of life on planet be healed by all of our creative individual and collective acts. Including these very small ones:

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Stalking the Red Stalk, or: How I Learned to Love Celery

Some years back, I was stocking up on local produce at the downtown tailgate market when a strange thing happened. I bought some celery.

Although I am not a picky eater, there are a few things I have just never liked. Celery was always near the top of that short list. There were a few situations in which I found celery tolerable, maybe even necessary (making dressing at Thanksgiving time comes to mind), but for the most part, I shunned this humble vegetable.

For some reason--maybe it was nearing Thanksgiving, or maybe I was intrigued by the unusual appearance of this particular celery--I purchased a bunch of celery from farmer Anne Gaines. This celery looked almost nothing like the ubiquitous pale, watery celery we all know so well -- the stalks were slender, red, and downright beautiful. Enticed by their loveliness, and bolstered by Anne's encouragement, I decided to try some.

You can probably tell where this story is headed. Anne's red celery tasted nothing like any other celery I had ever tasted. Not only did I come to love this particular celery, but I began to look forward to the time of year when Anne would have it for sale, and eventually I started growing it myself.

For the past two years, we have grown both Red Stalk and heirloom green varieties, and celery has become a staple of my garden and kitchen.

I attribute the transformation of my relationship with celery to several factors. I want to share them here, not because I think the world cares about my personal relationship with celery, but because this small transformation seems to me somehow a microcosm of a wider process of transforming individual and cultural relationships to food.

First: This was the first time I had ever eaten celery that had not been wrapped in plastic and driven or flown from god-knows-where, becoming less and less fresh with every mile of transport.

Second: Red Stalk Celery is an heirloom variety, and as is often the case with heirlooms, it just tastes better than the typical agribuisness grocery store variety.

Third: I would never have discovered this heirloom variety if I had not been shopping for vegetables at the farmers market, and I bought it based on the recommendation of a farmer I trusted. This is how heirlooms are passed on, from one person's hands to the next, treasures shared and multiplied through webs of relationship. This is how food has been shared forever, until recently, when marketing and merchandising began to mediate our relationship with food, and we began to choose provisions for our kitchens largely without the benefit of individual relationships. Through my relationship with a farmer from whom I bought vegetables week after week, I came to appreciate a food that I would never have tried otherwise.

And finally: When I bought my first bunch of Red Stalk celery from Anne, I saw that there was literally more to celery than I had previously known -- there were more edible parts in the bunch of celery that I bought from Anne than in the chopped and packaged celery log I was used to. Namely: leaves! Celery is a leafy green! Who knew? When I started to grow celery myself, I found that cooking with the leaves was my favorite everyday use of celery--I found the flavor of the leaves less bitter and more earthy than the stalks.

As a sidenote: I also discovered by growing celery myself that pretty much all celery you see in the grocery store has been blanched -- grown in trenches and mounded to prevent the stalks from being exposed to sunlight. That is why standard celery is paler, milder, and more tender than the celery Anne was selling. There is nothing inherently wrong with blanching, and it is a low-tech, ancient technique. However, in the case of celery, it prevents the dark leafy greens from proliferating, and that is the part of the plant that I find most delicious and most useful.

Red Stalk celery is an 18th Century English heirloom with a very strong celery flavor -- it is great for cooking and seasoning, but not really meant to be eaten the way celery is commonly eaten in the US these days (that being on a tray full of unappetizing, dry, and chemical-laden raw vegetable morsels with ranch dressing on the side, or in large raw chunks coated with peanut butter). It's not really a snacking celery.

What it is great for is hearty fall soups, especially with onions. Coarsely chopped leaves and finely chopped stalks make dressing at Thanksgiving a transcendent experience, and for the past few years I have made large pots of soup stock with the greens and stalks to use throughout the winter. It can be harvested at any time from its very young days onward, and it can be harvested a stalk at a time, rather than pulling the whole bunch, which is useful since its flavor is so strong. I use the leaves, finely chopped, in potato salad and to season refrigerator pickled cucumbers.

Red Stalk celery is a beautiful, hearty plant in the garden. The stalks are not just red, but many shades of red and green, with hot pink streaks appearing frequently at the base of the bunch. Vegetables sporting hot pink flourishes get extra points with me.

Celery flourishes in cool fall weather, and can last through winter solstice or so here with light protection. We covered our celery bed with Reemay last year, and were able to have fresh celery for cooking on Christmas Day.

Seeds of Change sells seeds for Red Stalk Celery, and probably some other seed companies do too.

So here's to my now-beloved celery, and to trying new things. And to micro- and macro- transformation of our relationships to food!

Celery on Foodista: Celery on Foodista

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Potatoes Galore. . .

This morning I dug the last of our late potatoes, the German Butterballs. For readers who are not in Western NC, let me set the scene: the sky is that pure, clear, crisp blue that I have never seen anywhere but in the mountains of North Carolina on a clear fall day. There is an occassional breeze, and the temperature is holding steady at seventy degrees. The dogwood leaves are dark, dark red, and the red maples are just starting to turn a brilliant scarlet. In other words: its an absurdly beautiful, perfect fall day in the mountains.

I am reluctant to spend much time inside at all on a day like today, but I've been meaning to post about growing potatoes. Since I dug some this morning, and since we sold five varieties at the West Asheville market yesterday, it seems like a good time to talk taters.

Here are the potato varieties that we grew this year:


A very old heirloom grown by the people of the Makah Nation in the Pacific Northwest for at least 200 years. According to Makah lore, this potato was brought by Spanish explorers to the Neah Bay area of what is now Washington State.

This knobby, nutty variety was unknown outside the Makah culture until the 1980s, when it was introduced to the wider growing and eating public. It is still not widely cultivated, though Slow Food USA has partnered with the Makah nation to preserve and promote the variety (more here).

You can read more on Ozette at a very informative blog I recently discovered, Vegetables of Interest.

I am a sucker for a good heirloom story, and on top of its storied past, Ozette has a rich, distinctive taste and impressive productivity in the garden. We will be growing this variety again.


This just might be my favorite variety that we grew this year. I love everything about Huckleberry. It is productive, beautiful, tasty, and it has a great name. Huckleberry is pinky-red on the outside and stained with shades of light and dark pink inside.

Cutting open a Huckleberry potato is a delightful sensual experience--first there is the aesthetic pleasure of all of the pinks; then there is the buttery feeling of the knife slipping easily through Huckleberry's smooth, creamy flesh.

We had some incredible potatoes au gratin with Huckleberry potatoes, and they were heartily enjoyed roasted, baked, and in salads all summer long.

Purple Peruvian

Seed Savers Exchange describes this variety as "a treasured, traditional variety from the Andean Highlands."

Treasure is just the right word: harvesting Purple Peruvian potatoes is like discovering clusters of fat purple gemstones in your garden. At first hard to see when you're digging because of their dark color, these potatoes glow with an almost iridescent purple sheen once the dirt is polished off of them.

As if that's not enough: when you slice one open, the purple and white patterns almost look like a crystalline structure. They're so beautiful that it almost wouldn't matter to me what they taste like. But their flavor is excellent and they have a lovely creamy texture.

La Ratte

A French heirloom fingerling, La Ratte was extremely productive in our garden.

It looks, feels, and tastes buttery and smooth. The feeling of biting into one of these fingerlings baked is delightful.


Maris Piper

The jury is still out on Maris Piper in our household. We may try growing it again because less than perfect growing technique (we harvested too late) caused a fair amount of scab on this variety. It has a lovely flesh, though, and was fairly productive.

Rose Finn Apple

With a rosy exterior that is sometimes described as "blushed" and creamy yellow flesh, this is a very pretty potato, and has a distinct and delightful taste.

It's a rare and unusual variety, referred to by Abundant Life as a "precious heirloom." I love Rose Finns baked with a little butter or olive oil. We will grow them again.

Early Rose

An 1861 heirloom from Vermont, this potato is really only slightly rosy, with pinkish spots around the eyes. Early Rose is a good old fashioned standard potato. The Maine Potato Lady calls Early Rose "one of the founding potato varieties of this country." Apparently, Early Rose is the parent of many of the more common commercially available potato varieties. We found it to be a nice, basic, versatile potato. However, it is not keeping well compared to some other varieties, so I recommend growing Early Rose for eating within a month or so of harvest rather than using it as a storage potato.

All Red

This variety is the all-time favorite potato of one of my heroes, food historian, seed saver, and gardener extraordinaire William Woys Weaver (you can read Weaver's praise of and musings on All Red in his book, "100 Vegetables and Where They Came From" or online here). All Red, also known as Cranberry Red, is a fine variety--particularly enjoyable at the moment when you cut it open, the knife slicing through its buttery texture, and see the beautiful blushing pink color inside. We will grow All Red again.

Yukon Gold
We either ate or sold all of the Yukon Golds that we grew before I had time to take a picture. So I guess that tells you something.


Carola is a pretty white-skinned, yellow-fleshed potato that has made great soups and home fries this year. It was very popular at the tailgate market, perhaps because it has that familiar, standard potato look. It's a bit softer, creamier, and more thin-skinned than the typical baking potato, though. Carola's skin has a really nice crunch when eaten unpeeled in potato salad. The plants also produced a good quantity of nice new potatoes fairly early.

Digging Ozettes

We ordered all of our seed potatoes from Ronniger Potato Farm which carries a lot of heirloom varieties, and has decent prices for organic seed potatoes (especially compared to the outrageous prices that some outlets like Seeds of Change charge for organic seed potatoes). Eliot Coleman recommends Wood Prairie Farm out of Maine as his favorite source for organic seed potatoes, so we may order a few varieties from them this year.

So there you have the potato wrap-up...happy fall!

Potatoes on Foodista: Potato on Foodista

Friday, October 2, 2009

On the Gift Economy

Gift pears

Two things happened this week that made me pause in gratitude for my circle of friends and community.

I remember when I first heard of the concept of a "gift economy," and secretly thought to myself as I listened to the radical feminist explaining the idea: "Well, that's a bit far fetched. It's a nice idea in theory, but it would never really work in this society."

I was so very wrong! I feel so grateful to have spent the past ten years in a community--the city of Asheville--where generosity is alive and well, and the gift economy is everywhere you look.

So here are the two things that happened that reminded me to notice and be grateful for generosity.

One: I posted a request on Facebook for advice on where to buy an "EZ-up" canopy tent locally. We need a canopy tent for our booth at the West Asheville tailgate market, and I was having a hard time finding one to buy. Within two hours, I had received two offers of long-term loaner canopy tents from friends. Thanks Melissa and Marin! The same day, various folks offered loans and gifts of all kinds of things we need for our booth, thwarting our plans to buy things. Hurrah!

Gift quinces

Two: CF and I were running errands in town today, and in the course of our travels around West Asheville and downtown, we gleaned and were given all kinds of free food.

We happened to be passing by Shane's, so we made a quick stop to say hello. We left with unexpected gifts in the form of pattypan squash and perennials in need of homes.

At Paul and Jude's, we dropped off some (gift) bottles of elderberry mead and were invited to pick some Asian pears, which we did.

Then we stopped to say hey to Tim and Gecko and see if we could get some eggs from their chickens. They weren't home but had invited us earlier to pick our fill of quince fruit from their backyard, and the quinces were ripe, so we did. We left there with a box full of quince, after a short visit with the new baby chicks and broody hen.

On the way home, we stopped at the honor-system based Haw Creek Honey stand and bought a couple of gallons of honey for mead-making. Not quite the gift economy, but a delightfully trust-based element of the local economy here.

Gift pattypan.

I realized, reflecting on the gifts I received today, that the gift economy is a big part of my economic life. I shop at the Free Store at Warren Wilson College. Our house is built with all manner of salvaged materials, many of which were offered to us by people renovating or tearing down buildings. We have heated our home for the past few years with firewood and scrap wood given to us by various people we know. When I look around me at the things I own -- furniture, clothing, dishes, art, houseplants -- the vast majority came to me as gifts from friends and family. I give spontaneously with great frequency, and am given things spontaneously even more frequently.

Of course, I still pay for plenty of things with old-fashioned paper and plastic money, and barter a fair bit. One of our errands in town today was dropping off potatoes and garlic at Rain and Shannon's house as part of a trade for farm work that they did earlier this spring. But my dream economy is one based on spontaneous generosity. And I can see evidence of this economy all around me.

So here's to generosity, sharing, and the mundane daily process of creating the world we want to live in.