Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Fresh Laundry

When my children were small – maybe 3 and 5 years old – I knew it was a good day when I had time to hang the laundry on the line. Instead of the rushed grab-and-throw from washer to drier, I would hitch the laundry basket onto my hip and with the children underfoot, go out to the clothesline to take advantage of the sun.

I had a miniature clothesline for the kids, low enough for them to reach. The idea was to include them in household chores when they still thought it was fun to be just like mommy – and I always felt it paid off in the long run, even though it took infinitely longer to get anything done when they were “helping.”

What I remember about laundry from my own childhood is running through fresh, crisp, white sheets that move just enough to make way for you as you run through them, ducking under or trailing fingers along their edges. I remember hot sunlight that smelled of summer, with a back scent of freshly cut grass. And later, I remember my mother saying how much she loved to watch the laundry "dance" on the line.

Even today, when there is only a dog underfoot, I like to break up the day with a little laundry time outdoors. Of course, I’m all for air drying my laundry to save energy – and money. But what I love most about it is the fresh air that wakens my senses twice: once while I’m hanging clothes, and again when I smell that line-dried scent of clothes and sheets that have absorbed sunlight and breezes from my backyard.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Baker Boy

On the Finca Montezumo (farm) near Puriscal, Costa Rica, neighbors gather around an outdoor, wood fired, earthen oven each week or two to bake. Usually on a Thursday.

I know this is because my son lived there for two months and pitched in, mixing dough and sliding loaves in and out of the oven. I imagine that this idyllic-sounding community event – baking bread together – began as an exercise in economy of scale but continues as a social event, as neighbors come and go, catching up on village gossip, sharing family news, knitting the community together through one of the world’s most basic foods: bread.

Although I didn’t get to experience the weekly baking sessions myself, Tyler brought them home, in a way, and we got to socialize, ourselves, over a miniature baking session in our own kitchen.

Tyler spent three months traveling in Central America, learning Spanish and working on organic farms (Montezumo is part of World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms). At the farm in Costa Rica, he helped plant and pick and roast coffee; make miel, a honey-like, molasses-like substance made from sugar cane; tend a tilapia pond; and bake bread. Flying back home, he managed to get a jar of sourdough starter past customs officials and then altitude changes that could have exploded gooey starter all over this luggage.

The starter is about four tablespoons of thick, white liquid that contains the magic ingredient, yeast – but not the baker’s yeast I’m more accustomed to in my more conventional breads. This yeast is naturally occurring, floating around in the air before it is captured in a soup of water and flour. Which means: the bread we made from Montezuma starter has the essence of the Costa Rican countryside in it, come home to our Takoma Park kitchen. The famous San Francisco sourdough was the same -- essence of San Francisco, shipped around the country. My friends in Floyd County, Virginia have a sourdough starter that they use in their distinctive Dogtown Pizza, making their pies indelibly local -- in fact, Dogtown was inspired during a community baking event much like the one at Montezuma, when neighbors gathered to bake in a backyard earthen oven.

The best part of making the Montezuma sourdough bread is that I got to learn from my son, who is a natural teacher – very patient. Watching his hands plow through the sticky bread dough made me realize how very capable he has become – learning from your (almost grown) kids is one of the best gifts of parenting. Ty also taught his sister and I how to make empanadas and pupusas – simple and delicious. But I’ll leave those recipes for another day.

Here is Ty’s recipe for sourdough bread.

The first step in making sourdough bread is to “feed” the starter, Tyler explains. Where does one get starter? I don’t know – I just lucked into this, thanks Ty!

Feeding the starter involves adding just enough flour and water, at just the right temperature, to bulk up the small amount you have to begin with: Tyler's detailed notes, labeled “Tricks with Bread,” explain that you should have one part starter to four parts flour and water. So, to feed the sourdough:
• Whisk in four parts water to (one part of) the starter. Be sure the water is 110 degrees Farenheit.
• Add 3 and 1/3-ish parts white flour and whisk until even.
• Leave out at room temperature, covered (we used a damp cloth) for 12-ish hours
• Add five more parts white flour, mix evenly. Put in frig.
“If there’s mold or something on top, just scrape it off and do the process like normal,” says Ty.

By the time I came in the kitchen it was already time to make the dough. Tyler was nonchalant about what I thought would be an all-day process – it’s easy to do this when you work at home, he told me, just do the steps between other tasks. Turns out it took us all morning, but it was great working with him and the end product was phenomenal -- totally worth the effort.

3 cups sourdough starter (see above)
4 cups water at 110 degrees F
5 cups white flour
5 cups whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon salt
½ cup oil
Note: flour measurements are inexact. You will probably add more during process

Mix water and starter evenly. Add everything else and mix evenly. If it’s too liquidy, add flour as needed. Better to do this now than later to keep the “gluten bonds” that will form later.
Leave for 15 minutes.
Knead for one minute, leave for four minutes. Repeat this process four times, for a total of 20 minutes.
Note: Kneading sourdough is very different from kneading other breads. You try not to break it at all, just scooping from below and folding over in a circle around the edges. It is VERY sticky.
Leave for 30 to 90 minutes, then knead one last time.
Leave for an hourish or more.
Form into round loaves. This must be done very carefully, again to preserve the gluten bonds: Tyler showed me how you gently lift the round of dough and tuck its outside edges under. This worked a whole lot better when we put a ton of flour on our hands, sprinkled it on the dough, and kept replenishing it. We rotated the round loaves as we tucked.
Place on a floured or cornmealed baking sheet and sprinkle with more flour on top. We covered the bread again at this point and let it rise, maybe 20 minutes -- though Ty says the rising time can vary.
Finally, time to bake. Bake it in as hot an oven as you can get – remember this went into a wood-burning oven, SUPER hot. I set my oven at 500 and watched it very carefully so it wouldn’t burn. It only took 10 minutes for the smallest loaf, 20 for the larger one. We got four loaves out of our batch. Ty says the high heat means it’ll have a moist inside and a crusty outside.

Buen provecha!

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Basket full of birds

I love the beauty of living, growing flowers hanging in colorful baskets from my front porch. But this spring, we had something even better.

We had a family of birds, nesting right in the flower basket.

First, my daughter and I watched as Mama sat for weeks, a serene mourning dove whose bright eyes kept watch each time we sat on the porch with her. Her nest was right above our heads, but she never stirred in our presence, steadfastly claiming her territory, protecting what we assumed were eggs hiding beneath her feathers.

After weeks and weeks of sitting – it seemed she never left the nest – I began to wonder if Mama might have lost her eggs. Maybe they had died, and she was sitting on perfectly shaped but now-vacant orbs? Maybe she was out of her mind with grief, continuing to sit despite her loss? We waited to find out. Meanwhile, my son came home from traveling in Central America – my own little family was back in the nest.

One day I noticed Mama bird had flown, and I thought perhaps that was the end of our front porch drama. I stood up on one of our chairs to peer into the nest.

There were no eggs. There were babies. Two shaggy, mussy-feathered babies sitting very, very still.

Later, Mama returned and we watched as the chicks nestled under her breast feathers, all but disappearing as she puffed herself up protectively. This continued for days, the babies taking up more and more space, growing at an unbelievable rate, the Mama flying off to forage for them and returning to the crowded nest.

And then one day the babies were gone. I found them sitting on a bench cushion under the nest, still scruffy but nearly as big as their Mama. It couldn’t have been more than two weeks that they’d gone from new discoveries tucked into the depths of the flower basket nest, to these gangly birds that reminded me first of toddlers, trying out their wings, and then of teenagers, on the verge of leaving home.

When I saw the babies in a nearby tree, then heard they’d been standing in my neighbor’s garden, I felt a pang of loss. Already? They were so young!

Then they were gone.

Mama came back. Did she miss her babies, hope they’d come home again? I empathized as my own kids talked about college and cooking school and how late they could stay out at night. But at least my babies were still around – the fledglings had disappeared entirely. Still, Mama sat quietly, as if waiting for them to return. Again, I thought she was perhaps addled in some way, out of her mind with grief.

Until I saw two fuzzy heads bump up under Mama’s breast. She’d had two new chicks.

This time around, I’ve noticed the Papa flying back and forth, feeding the babies, who poke and prod him around the throat and beak until he regurgitates whatever he’s gathered up in the garden for them. Today the whole family is balanced precariously in the basket, the babies so big their tails hang over the side, the adults trying to make themselves small to accommodate all those wings and feathers. Soon the nest will be empty again.

I can’t imagine what flowers I will plant when they are gone.