BY JESSICA PRENTICE
Jessica Prentice, Maggie Gosselin, and Sarah Klein created the Local Foods Wheel to help us all enjoy the freshest, tastiest, and most ecologically sound food choices month by month. Here are seven of Jessica’s seasonal favorites illustrated by Sarah Klein (sarahklein.com) with coloring by Maggie Gosselin. You can learn more about the Local Foods Wheel and the group’s other ventures at localfoodswheel.com.
What a treat to have fresh garbanzo beans showing up at our markets still in their shells. I’ve always loved garbanzos (aka chickpeas) whether they come to the kitchen dried or canned, and I’ve also discovered how delicious they are sprouted. But my attraction to garbanzos was recently renewed upon reading about the Greek island of Ikaria, where the inhabitants are famously long-lived and happy. Is it the sunshine, blue seas, and relaxed pace? Is it that people keep gardens and goats, drink teas made from wild herbs, and make their own wine, which they drink daily? Maybe it’s the strong sense of community despite a high unemployment rate. I’m guessing it’s all of that, but especially that they eat lots of legumes, like garbanzo beans, drenched in olive oil. I like to imagine myself as an octogenarian Ikarian enjoying a steaming bowl of simmered garbanzos with fennel, cherry tomatoes, and plenty of olive oil as I look out on the Aegean Sea and wash the meal down with a glass of homemade red wine.
I am a latecomer to loving fennel. For years I found its licorice-like flavor odd, but eventually realized that the sweetness is delightful when balanced by the acidic flavors of lemon, tomatoes, and vinegar, plus the salt of feta cheese and cured olives, and the satisfying fat of chicken broth and olive oil.
Cherry tomatoes are my harbinger of summer. When they appear in the farmers’ market, I know that soon there will be sweet corn, green beans, gypsy peppers, and slender eggplants. The best way to eat them is straight from the bush, but I love them in salads or cooked just until their skins burst. I’ll toss them into pasta with other summer vegetables and finish the dish with plenty of olive oil.
I’m lucky to have a relative who is a sport fisherman. Woody loves to fish for salmon. After he heard that we were interested in the eggs (which many local fishermen just discard), he brought us five skeins of beautiful, bright-pink salmon roe. We processed them immediately into caviar so we could enjoy them through weeks to come. We separated the eggs from the skein, soaked them in brine for 5 to 10 minutes, rinsed them, and then drained them overnight in the refrigerator. We also took some whole skeins of roe, salted them in brine, and smoked them in our backyard smoker. Both forms were absolutely delicious! I love to stuff them into half an avocado and then eat it all with a spoon.
A couple of years ago I started making water kefir. It’s said that the tibicos grains used to culture the beverage originated in Mexico on the pads of a cactus, but what’s certain is that the grains are a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (aka SCOBY) that’s similar to the SCOBY used to make kombucha or milk kefir. In a sweetened liquid, the grains will produce lactic acid, carbonation, and a minute amount of alcohol. Water kefir grains work quickly. Within 2 to 5 days you have a cultured base that can then be flavored with juice, fruit, herbal infusions, or other nourishing ingredients. I’ve flavored it in combinations of cranberry-apple, persimmon-lime, and chamomile-honey, and have also liked pomegranate, citrus, and tart cherry renditions. Elderberry kefir has some especially appealing properties.
I’m fascinated by cultures, both human and microbial.
I never tire of hearing about all the different ways human beings have come together to provide themselves with food, shelter, tools, beauty, language, story, and meaning. I also never tire of hearing about the world’s fermentation traditions and the myriad cultures that people have used to transform dairy products, honey, roots, saps, seeds, fruits, leaves, and meats into an endless variety of preserved food products. Recently, a staff member from Detroit brought some Finnish piimä cultures to our kitchen at Three Stone Hearth. It was right after we had run into some disappointing results with a few batches of crème fraîche, so we decided to try making piimä cream, which is similar to crème fraîche. The piima cultures are a specific community of lactic acid bacteria derived from the milk of cows that feed on the Scandinavian butterwort plant. Thick and delicious, it came out sweeter than either sour cream or crème fraîche, and I’d say it’s the perfect topping for summer’s fresh peaches, blueberries, raspberries, and figs. You can order the cultures online, or you can take a spoonful of piimä cream and add it to a cup of fresh cream, allowing it to culture at room temperature for 12 to 24 hours before you refrigerate it.
It was only very recently that I fell in love with elderberries, the fruit of the Sambucus genus of flowering bushes or small trees that grow throughout temperate and subtropical regions of the world. Our native California elderberries bear the Latin names Sambucus mexicana and melanocarpa. Both were tended by indigenous Californian communities, specifically the Yokuts, Miwok, and Mono, who ate the berries of Sambucus mexicana and also used the wood for making the drills they carried in their fire-making kits, as well as musical instruments, such as clapper sticks and flutes. I was interested to learn that Slovaks and Hungarians also make flutes from elderberry wood, and that the ancient peoples of England and Scandinavia believed that elderberry trees were protected by the Elder Mother (Hyldemoer in Danish): Woodsmen who wanted to harvest elder wood needed to ask her first. I’m not sure if this applied to harvesting berries, but it seems it could never hurt to ask the spirit of a plant before you harvest from it. One of the great lessons we can learn from California indigenous peoples is that conscious and respectful human action—burning, harvesting, pruning, scattering—can be of enormous benefit to wild communities of plants. In fact, some people would say that the plants want to be harvested and are sad when their gifts are passed over. And the elderberry fruit is a gift indeed. Black elderberry has been used as medicine for centuries. It’s easy and gratifying to make your own elderberry syrup, which is said to help boost immunity and stave off winter colds. I also love to make elderberry kefir so I can drink my medicine.
This nourishing and delightful beverage can be made with either fresh or dried elderberries. The recipe involves three stages: making a basic water kefir, making elderberry syrup, then blending the two parts. You’ll want to save the water kefir grains for your next batch. Some people assert that metal harms kefir grains, so store it in glass or plastic.
Basic Water Kefir
Water kefir can be flavored with almost any juice or whole fresh fruit, such as summer’s blueberries, peaches, plums, raspberries, or apricots.
¼ cup water kefir grains
½ cup sweetener (sucanat or rapadura sugar)
7½ cups filtered water
Place the sweetener in a pot with 2 cups of the water and bring to a simmer. Whisk in the sweetener to dissolve it and then add the remaining water and allow to cool until just warm to the touch.
Place the water kefir grains in a 2-quart Mason jar, then add the sweetened, cooled liquid. Screw on a regular or airlock lid. I use an airlock, which my partner Jake makes by drilling a ⅝-inch hole in the middle of a plastic Mason jar lid (available at hardware stores), fitting it with the smallest-size airlock plug (which we buy at Oak Barrel on San Pablo) and an airlock, which gets halfway filled with water. Using a clear glass jar allows you to watch the drink bubble and ferment as it cultures for 2 to 5 days in a warm place. Theoretically, the longer you culture your kefir, the more sugar is converted into lactic acid, but also into small amounts of alcohol.
This healing syrup is good to have around for cold season. For that purpose I add slices of ginger root, a cinnamon stick, and a few whole cloves as I’m simmering the elderberries.
1 cup fresh elderberries or ½ cup dried elderberries
2 cups filtered water
½ cup honey
Place the elderberries and water in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer. Cover and allow to cook over low heat for 30 to 45 minutes or until liquid has reduced significantly. Strain decoction into a measuring cup and allow to cool for about 15 minutes before you whisk in the honey.
Flavoring Water Kefir
Divide the elderberry syrup (or other flavoring) into 2 1-liter bottles. Then strain the kefir water into the bottles, dividing it evenly. Set aside the kefir grains to begin your next batch.
Add more water as necessary to fill the bottles to within ½ inch of the top. Screw on the lids tightly and allow to sit at room temperature for 12 to 24 hours. Refrigerate and drink within 5 days or so.