Wednesday, February 13, 2013


Well, I'm not sure I'll stick with this design, but it's definitely time for Isolated Foodie to get a fresh look. I'll keep playing with some options. Expect changes!

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Banh Minis

The Isolated Foodie has officially left Rain City and is now living, somewhere not very isolated and without an obvious nickname. I'll get back to you on that one. It was a long and frustrating move and I'm very glad that it's over and even gladder to be in a house with more counter space than I think I've ever had. Well, maybe the Desolationville kitchen had an equal amount of counter space, but I try to block out those seven long months as much as possible.

This kitchen is seeing a lot of new recipes and techniques because of Husband's New Year's resolution to become vegan. I am not particularly interested in becoming vegan, but happy to cut down on dairy and eggs, so I've promised five vegan dinners each week for now. It's been a long time since I bought silken tofu, but it's been a regular player so far this year.

But never mind all that. It's time now for me to mention yet again how much I love good Vietnamese food. I've mentioned it here and here, very specifically, with mentions in many other posts. In particular, I love those minimalist sandwiches known as bahn mi. Still the very best ones I've eaten come from Banh Mi So Number 1 in St. Louis, where we ate with friends on our drive from Rain City to wherever we are now. So, so good. 

I've been making them fairly regularly, although not frequently, over the past couple years. I do quick pickles of some veg (tonight, it was radishes, carrots, and jicama) and do some sort of cooked tofu (tonight, the pressed tofu was dipped in a lemon juice/toasted sesame oil baste and then dredged in nutritional yeast and corn starch before pan-frying).

Last time I made banh mi, there were a few bits of tofu left and not much bread, so Husband made an open faced banh mi on a single slice of baguette and christened it the banh mini. Oh so clever with the words is Husband. Little Girl has been losing teeth recently and has a hard time taking bites of anything that resists biting, so I made her some banh minis. There was leftover rice from our Chinese New Year dinner, though, so she didn't eat much of her thinly sliced bread. 

Her loss is your gain, because here is a picture of a delightful banh mini:

Her loss was also my gain, because I ate this as soon as the picture was taken. Yum! I love banh mi, no matter what size they are!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Salt From The Ocean (Part 2)

Eighty-two years ago, Mahatma Gandhi led Indians to the sea to make salt. They were protesting the British salt tax as a tangible, every day reminder of the British rule of India. All Indians were affected by the salt tax, with the burden falling heaviest on those who could least afford to pay. So Gandhi marched 240 miles to the ocean to make salt and by-pass the tax. The Salt March, or Salt Satyagraha, became emblematic of Gandhi's commitment to fighting British rule through non-violent civil disobedience, the path later followed by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement.

I did not make salt to avoid a tax or to take part in civil disobedience. (But it feels great to do something that Gandhi did and the Salt March is one of the big reasons I know that ordinary people can make salt out of ordinary ocean water.) I made salt to help a friend who is fighting a different fight. As I explained yesterday, Local Food Friend (LFF) is participating in a local food challenge with several other people. He is attempting to eat only food grown in our region. Why is this a fight, you ask? Eating locally is a great way to stick it to the Man, as Husband would say. In this case, the Man is the global corporate food system that promotes GMOs, feed lots, over-processed and over-packaged foods, and pushes sugar and corn syrup into every product known to humankind. Eating locally keeps your money in your local economy, supports your local farmers and food processors, minimizes the number of food miles your dinner travels to get to your plate, and tastes really great in the process. What's not to love?

One very key thing that is not produced here is salt. And really? Life without salt is just barely worth living. The "tastes really great" part of eating locally is not quite so bright and sunny without the world's favorite flavor enhancer. And so my local salt quest began with three zip lock bags of ocean.
As described yesterday, I tried two different methods for turning the Pacific Ocean water into salt. Most of the water was boiled last night to kill off any potentially-harmful biological nasties. This morning, I poured about a third of it into my large lasagna pan, which fits over two burners, and turned on a medium heat. When that was reduced by half, I added half the remaining water. Steam poured off the pan, but the water was almost never actually boiling (bubbling) because salt raises the boiling point of water, so the more concentrated the salt got, the higher the temperature needed to bring it to a boil.

Meanwhile, I had taken the rest of the water and partially frozen it. I explained why in yesterday's post, so just go ahead and read it already if you haven't yet. I removed an ice cap from this water three times, leaving just a cup and a half or so of water. After straining it, I brought it to a boil and within about 25 minutes, I had salt!!
Beautiful, fluffy, bright white salt. Most people warn that making your own salt will result in a brown or slightly grey salt. And that would have been fine. But that's not what I got. It's everything one would expect salt to be. It was only a couple tablespoons worth, but it was also not a lot of water. In hindsight, I think I probably should have just done one round of freezing. Freezing is good because it gets rid of a lot of water without using the energy required by the boiling method. (Of course, if you lived somewhere hot and sunny, a well-vented solar oven would really be the way to go.) I think that freezing three times meant that I was pulling out ice with a fairly high salt content by the end, which left me not much salt.

Shortly after I photographed the frozen salt, my other pan really started to come together. This is what I learned about making salt: it happens all of a sudden. I was watching my lasagna pan of water and it was water. Salty water if I tasted it, but very clearly, it was water. And it evaporated and evaporated and evaporated, and what was left in the pan was still just water. Until it suddenly wasn't. I looked one minute and it was a pan of not-quite boiling water. I looked the next and there was a salt crust forming on one half of the pan. And as I looked at it, I realized that it wasn't so much a salt crust as a salt puddle and it was spreading across the rest of the pan.
(Unfortunately, this is difficult to illustrate. My lasagna pan is white enamel. White salt doesn't really show up that well, even when the whole pan has a layer of salt crust. Such is life.)

I had to run to get to a meeting just about five minutes BEFORE I got to this point, so I had to abandon my salt in order to be only fashionably late. When I came back, I popped the pan in a 250 degree oven to finish drying it out. It worked like a charm and this was the result:
Another cup or so of beautiful, locally-sourced-and-produced salt. Those of you who have been reading Isolated Foodie long enough to remember how much I LOVE gathering wild foods might have an inkling of just how tickled I am that I made salt. I made salt! It's so awesome! All in all, there's almost a cup and a half of freshly-harvested, undomesticated, home-made salt for LFF. If he's careful, it should last the rest of the month. If not, he'll just have to wander down to the sea and make his own wild salt.

If he does (or if you'd like to give it a try), here's the method I would suggest based on my limited experience:
  1. For a cup of salt, gather up two gallons of ocean water. Try to collect it away from stream outlets, marine mammal hang-outs, inner harbors, and other potential sources of pollutants.
  2. Let the sand settle out for a few hours.
  3. Strain the water through coffee filters, cheesecloth, or a non-terry-cloth towel to remove additional grit or foreign objects.
  4. Freeze the water until there's a reasonably solid sheet of ice covering the top. Remove the ice.
  5. Bring the water to a hard boil for about 25 minutes to take care of biological contaminants.
  6. Strain the water again. Pour about a third into as large a pot as you can. You want to maximize surface area. Bring it to a low simmer and steam away until it's reduced by half. Add half the remaining water and do the same. Add the remaining water and reduce by half.
  7. At this point, keep a close eye on your water. Soon it will magically transform into salt. When the salt crust is completely covering the pan and there is little free water remaining, transfer the pan (if you can) to a 250 degree (F) oven for 15-30 minutes to dry out the salt. You might want to stir it around a few times. 
That's it! Not too hard, right? The freezing takes a little of the carbon footprint out of the process. I think I boiled the big batch for about 2.5 hours all told. Maybe a little more. That's quite a bit of energy for a cup of salt. (Although, really, how much energy is used to  process, package, and transport the cardboard box of kosher salt that's in my pantry? Given that the box had to be made and printed, along with the little metal pull-out spout, it represents a significant amount of energy.) No matter how much energy it took, I'm glad I did this for LFF. We're working on the details of the salt hand-off right now. I'm giving it to him in a lidded container, but this is the full beauty of both batches of salt:

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Wild Salt Drags The Isolated Foodie Back

Many months ago, I tried -- again -- to make an acceptable vegetarian substitute for corned beef. Husband's favorite food, after all, is the sandwich, and before he became a vegetarian, his favorite sandwich was the corned beef reuben. This time, I was attempting it with homemade seitan, which worked moderately well, but as it was my first attempt at seitan, things went wrong.

I next tried to make a Chinese BBQ pork style seitan, which worked better. I actually documented that whole process intending to return to writing on Isolated Foodie, but it never happened.

Now, I'm back. I've been working in my local food world intensely for the past couple years and some friends are in the midst of a pretty hard-core local food challenge: eat nothing but food grown in our region. Now, our region is a great place to grow cool weather crops year round, but it's a little lacking in some other departments. Grains, for instance, among other things. This morning I was talking with Local Food Friend (LFF) and he was bemoaning the lack of salt in his current local diet. Now, I am an unrepentant salt slut and I don't mind admitting that publicly. (Hence, the unrepentant part.) Giving up coffee, chocolate, most spices? I can do that for a month. But salt? Not a chance!

So, I said to LFF, couldn't you make your own salt? We live on the ocean's edge; plenty of salt water. Can you do that, he asked. My answer: Gandhi did it, so why not us?

My follow-up answer was to Google the heck out of this question. I read three different suggestions/opinions (here, here, and here) and since two of the three were reasonably positive, I decided to give it a try:
To that end, I waded into the chilly Pacific this afternoon armed with three gallon zip-lock bags to collect some liquid salt. It sat on the counter for a couple hours to let the sand settle to the bottom (which it did very nicely). I strained it through a flour-sack towel folded in quarters to get out more grit, pouring carefully to leave the sand in the bags. Two gallons are cooling in a stock pot now after having boiled for 25 minutes to kill off any harmful biological bits. Tomorrow, I'll evaporate that down in a big roasting pan bit by bit to get my salt. 

Another 2/3 of a gallon is in a bowl in the freezer. When I was involved in maple sugaring many moons ago, we would discard ice in sap collecting buckets because the sugar generally concentrated in the unfrozen part. I figure that salt's effect of lowering the freezing temperature of water should mean that I can concentrate the salt content by removing ice as it forms. That's my theory and I think it is worth a trial.

Once I've done a few rounds of freeze and discard, I'll boil the remainder to take care of biological hazards, strain it again, and then finish reducing through heat.

With any luck, by the end of the day tomorrow, I'll have some wild salt, freshly caught from the Pacific Ocean. And if I have luck, then LFF will also be in luck: he will not have to eat unsalted food for the next 24 days. Personally, I'd be close to suicidal by Day 17, so I'm really hoping this works. Keep your fingers crossed!