Artisan Producers, Cooking, Farming, Field Notes

How the OAEC Cookbook Also Teaches about Life

oaec cookbook

The Occidental Arts and Ecology Center (OAEC) folks have lived peacefully in an intentional community for nearly 25 years, co-owning some 80 acres of pristine growing grounds near the ocean. From this place of centering, they teach thousands of people how to farm and how to honor and preserve biodiversity.

They maintain, enlarge, and propagate a “mother garden” that contains a wild amount of biodiversity and offers a continuous food production cycle amid West County’s wild weather. They paint and hold Chauttauqua and even produced a cookbook.

All of which is to say that the OAEC community is pretty amazing. But there are some things that they do that you might be able to do, too. Like grow a garden. Like buy what you can’t grow from those who can. Like cook at home. Like remembering to smile.

These and other simple lessons are among the pleasures of the OAEC’s eponymous Cookbook (Chelsea Green; $40), a richly illustrated photo-heavy 416-page declaration of intent, process, and good ways to eat from the land — whatever your land might be.

Founded by seven friends in 1994 as the Sowing Circle intentional community and soon incorporated as a 501(c)3, the OAEC exemplifies the human interdependence that their innovative permaculture design work encourages in the plants and trees that surround them.

Hosting workshops and classes, retreats and day visits, the OAEC has a robust seasonal schedule, so the recipes in its cookbook are cleverly calibrated for either four to six people or 30 to 40 hungry folks.

They’re used to feeding a crowd, and an enduring and crowd-pleasing dish that visitors have come to expect is one of their epic salads.

Called the “biodiversity salad mix,” this collection of propagated and foraged foods changes with the seasons, as the cookbook deftly illustrates. Mother Garden biodiversity director Doug Gosling, in charge of the collective’s nightly salad, has such a wealth of options available that he sometimes picks solely for color palette.

In spring, it might contain tulip petals and broccoli leaves amid the myriad; in the summer, rose petals and celery flowers. While his salads always feature a lettuce or green of some type, the point being celebrated is that “salad” isn’t solely Romaine or iceberg glopped up with something from a bottle but rather, a living expression of what’s happening on the earth the very day you sit down to eat it — and that said eating should be fearless in its wandering and appetite for taste.

As pleasurable to simply read as it is to cook from, the OAEC Cookbook, primarily written by Olivia Rathbone but naturally contributed to by all members of the community, offers such wisdom as that chamomile will get bitter if boiled (and make you sleepy!); how best to cook cactus; that seed saving is a radical act; how to start your own sourdough; what the role of rosemary is in transforming whipped cream; that carnations taste of cloves; why lemon verbena is good with steamed rice; and how sometimes in the winter you are simply so very glad that all visitors have gone home and you’ve got the whole 80 acres to yourselves.

Join us on Thursday, March 15, when members of the OAEC are honored at a special Taste of Place dinner featuring recipes in their cookbook.

Farming, Field Notes

Saving Heritage Mexican Corn

Mexico corn

Corn has been a staple in the region now known as Mexico for some 11,000 years. It is more than a foodstuff; it is an entire way of life.

And, as with so much else in the modern world, it is a way of life that is dramatically changing.

Once home to some 60 so-called landrace corn varieties, that is — corn grown and adapted to particular areas and climates — Mexico has slowly Americanized its fields, favoring just a few varieties over the variations the elders once valued so highly.

Where corn once flourished in every state, it is now mostly grown in just three. Even NAFTA plays a role, introducing inexpensive American yellow corn to which consumers quickly adapted, abandoning the indigenous varieties with which they grew up.

With that eclipse in choice, so comes a change in taste and manner, and ultimately — a change in health, resulting in the diabetes and heart disease that marks the Western diet.

In addition to the impact on citizens’ health, losing heirloom varieties means losing taste. The taste that past generations knew, a taste that informed family recipes which no longer have the same flavor. Lore and knowledge have gone, too.

Several crusaders are working to restore Mexico’s rich maize legacy, including Rafael Mier, who has founded the nonprofit Organización de Tortilla de Maíz Mexican to educate his fellow countrymen about how to make more delicious tortillas.

The secret? Start with more delicious corn. Even in Mexico, most tortillas are made with water and a powdered mix called masa harina. The difference is like a pancake-mix pancake versus one made from scratch with freshly ground flour: Alike in name only.

Mier is an unlikely crusader, a businessman who one day three years ago thought to grow his own popcorn only to discover that there was no seed available near him. Nor was there any for sale the next state over. And so on. A simple desire to have freshly popped corn to snack on has led him to devote himself full-time to his nonprofit and resign his role as CFO to a business.

Thank goodness for that. Because corn is an endangered commodity in Mexico, home to the Mayan culture which believed that man was created of corn.

We grind heirloom corn at our Healdsburg store and purvey fresh polenta and cornmeal from it. We carry handsome, locally-made oak and walnut tortilla presses. We’ve invited restaurateur Natalie Goble to join us this month to demonstrate the easy art of making fresh masa. We’re interested in corn and preserving its important role in Western life. We hope that, the more you know, the more interested you will be, too. A very culture depends on it.

Artisan Producers, Chefs, Craftsmanship, Farming, Foodshed, Healdsburg, HomeFarm

Introducing the SHED Pantry Line

We’re excited to announce the launch of the SHED pantry line, featuring a proprietary collection of powders, salt blends, herbs and spices, preserves, pickles, and Shrub concentrates drawn from the best ingredients prepared just as we do in our Healdsburg café.

Coming to fruition under the direction of SHED chef Perry Hoffman, plans for the Pantry Line predate SHED and its café. SHED co-owner Cindy Daniel knew that she wanted to do this before our doors even opened.

“It’s always been a dream of Cindy’s and really, it just makes so much sense,” Perry says. “It really came from the concept of utilizing the pantry that we use to cook from in the café.”

SHED Powders

A distillation of flavor, the SHED powders are a unique finishing touch that pack a punch. Available in one-ounce bottles, they are the essential taste of the vegetables from which they’re made.

Dehydrated in our own kitchens and then pulverized before being mixed with Jacobsen Salt, these powders are intended to be used just before serving to add a strong note to your good fresh food.

“I’ve been using powders for 16 years,” Perry says. “The tradition really comes from fine dining. They’re amazing flavor enhancers. When you dehydrate produce, you concentrated the flavor of that element.”

Perry likes the Charred Eggplant Powder sprinkled atop a bowl of yogurt with fresh chopped mint. He mixes it into vinaigrettes, and hails it as his “love letter” to the baba ganoush dip he adored as a child.

The Tarragon Caper Powder is a nod to traditional French cuisine, adding a note of elegance perfect for using to finish sauces. “Capers and tarragon are two ingredients that are made for each other,” Perry says.

The Niçoise Olive Powder is purposefully not powdered entirely. “We leave this a bit chunkier and just smash them into little crumbles because we love those little bits of dried olives,” Perry says.

The Shiitake Mushroom Powder is a “flavor builder,” Perry says, referring to its role adding umami to any dish. “Add it to a little bit of chicken stock and soy sauce and you’ve got this amazing stock that will add flavor to anything. It’s all about intensifying flavors.”

One in every 100 Padron peppers is hot, so eating them has an element of chance. Dehydrating and then powdering them for our Padron Pepper Powder guarantees that its sweetness will be tempered by a bit of heat. “When you combine them,” Perry says, “you get an incredibly wonderful, earthy powder.”

The Smoked Onion Powder features sweet onions and adds a gorgeous element of onion flavor to everything it touches. “Mix it into sour cream,” Perry suggests, “and you have a dip.”

SHED Salt Blends

SHED’s blends use Jacobsen Salt as a base and add unusual flavors to create finishing salts you’ll always want to reach for.

An incredibly versatile and popular offering, Lemon Salt can be sprinkled liberally atop roasted potatoes and fish. For dessert, try a pinch with vanilla ice cream.

Utilizing an increasingly popular Japanese culinary herb, our Red Shiso Salt is perfect for bringing a fresh taste to a salad before serving or for sprinkling upon fish.

“As a chef, you have the opportunity to cook this way because you have Shiso and you have salt,” Perry explains. “Home cooks don’t necessarily have that option. This is a way of being able to capture those flavors in a jar and be close to the same outcome.”

Made for chicken and perfect for lamb, pork loin, and other roasts, the Rosemary and Wild Fennel Salt is, Perry says simply, “a natural love affair.”

Normally not one to play favorites, Perry confesses that his favorite of the new line is the Black Lime Salt, which has a distinctly Californian take on a traditional Middle Eastern flavor profile. Limes are salted and soaked before being dried and pulverized, bringing an intensity to this salt.

“The wonderful aromatic flavors of lime are very dominant, so this becomes a umami flavor enhancer,” Perry says. He suggests pairing the Black Lime Salt with the Shitake Powder for a umami powerhouse. “If you were to add those two to your broth, it would be very full-bodied.”

SHED Shrubs

A drinking vinegar born from the need to use all of the harvest, the Shrub has recently come back into favor. And thank goodness for that.

Shrubs are the centerpiece of the Fermentation Bar in our Healdsburg store and our flavors always change to match the season. This new collection of essential Shrub flavors is just the start; we’ll be certain to add more as the harvest wanes and new herbs, fruits, and flowers become available.

Available in 12-ounce bottles, SHED Shrub concentrates form the base for a refreshing non-alcoholic drink but can just as easily be made with Prosecco or other lightly bubbly wines.

Whether Quince, Apple, Beet, or Grape — each SHED Shrub concentrate is made from organic ingredients raised by farmers we know or even foraged by Chef Perry himself.

What’s more, his technique for creating this concentrate hasn’t change. For a few hundred years. “We do this just as they would have in the 1800s,” Perry says.

Preserves and Honey

Having fresh jam made with local fruit is a hallmark of the SHED café and our pantry. A devoted home cook, Cindy has always spent part of her summer putting up preserves. Now you can share in some of our good fortune and bounty. Each jar is made of pure organic or even foraged fruit set with cane sugar and a good squeeze of lemon juice. That’s all.

SHED honey is raised in Sonoma County by beekeepers who respect their hives and the hard-working insects inside of them. SHED subscribes to the idea that we don’t keep bees — the bees keep us, as one-third of all the food that we eat is made possible by pollinators.

Pickled Vegetables

Fermentation is a core value at SHED. “We pickle everything. It was so hard to even choose what to put in the jar,” Perry says.

Perry loves eggplant but it doesn’t pickle well, so he made a gorgeous chunky Roasted Eggplant Conserva from it. He encourages us to use it as a chutney. “Yogurt is the most wonderful platform for it,” he enthuses. “It’s such a match made in heaven.”

Packed like the Conserva in 13.5-ounce jars, our Pickled Carrots are flavored with dill leaves, jalapeños, and black peppercorns; the Pickled Turnips with bay leaf, beets, and garlic. Both of them are perfect additions to supper, laid out on a relish plate to contribute bite and interest to a simple meal.

Also jarred up for a pre-dinner pickle plate are our Pickled Shiitake Mushrooms, Roasted Eggplant Conserva, and Turmeric Pickled Turnips.

Herbs & Spices

With this Pantry line-up, SHED is also proud to release its own line of herbs and spices, adding traditional everyday spices like cinnamon to a line-up of offerings that include the Middle Eastern flavors of Harissa, Zahtar, and Vadouvan. We have other unusual mixes like Shichimi Togarashi, Japanese Curry Powder, and Chinese Five Spice. Our own line of Dukka is already a best-selling staple. We even have six kinds of peppercorn!

Just the Start

SHED’s Pantry line is an effort to preserve the peak flavors of the season by pickling, preserving, fermenting, smoking, and drying ingredients to make jams, pickles, shrubs, spice blends, and powders.  It’s an attempt to better tell the story of good farming, good cooking, and good eating.

“We want to take all of the behind-the-scenes things that we make and showcase them,” Perry says.

“There are so many things that we have to make to stock our own pantry. The powders are a perfect example of that.  We want to show what we make, and how we use these products to flavor and enhance our cooking,” he says.

“And how you might share in that.”

Cooking, Eat Good Food, Farming

Love the Lentil

We love the lentil for so many reasons. Nutritious, fast-cooking, delicious, and of service, lentils are a life-saving and utilitarian variety of legume that belongs to the pulse family. With the U.N. General Assembly having declared 2016 the International Year of Pulses, now seems like a dandy time to get to know the lentil just a little bit better.

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