The Accidental Beekeeper, Pt. II

Between my business (which is still in business), my various creative and entrepreneurial pursuits, my art and music, my cooking and food blog — not to mention pandemic, three children at home requiring motivation, homework help and sustenance — I didn’t need another thing.

But the bees thought otherwise.

Olga and me in our bee suits (note: Mexican straw cowboy hat perched stylishly on top of my bee suit)

Considering our chicken coop and pig, terraced gardens that grow nothing but Swiss chard, and my general food nerd tendencies, I sorta fit the profile of someone who would be susceptible to bee keeping. Plus, we use a lot of honey at our house, and I rather like mead. But it sounded like a hassle — there were big boxes, the need to understand the complex societal structure and enigmatic behavior of bees, and goofy space suits to zip into. Oh, and the fact that on the rare occasion that I do get stung by a bee, the sting site swells up like a balloon and itches for three days.

Once, many years ago, I put an owl box in an oak tree off the bedroom deck in hopes of attracting an owl to chase away rodents. A tiny owl moved in for a week, but unable to attract a mate with his fervent hooting, departed. And a bee hive moved in. For several years, we watched the bees come and go, respecting each other’s personal space. Then one windy day, the hive fell. Angry bees swarmed like a buzzy cloud all over the property. Eventually they dispersed and we collected the honeycomb from the ground. It was remarkable to drizzle Greek yogurt with honey that came from bees outside your window.

Flash forward: seven or eight years, and another hive of bees had moved into a cavity in the siding of our house. As luck would have it, we had a new client who happened to be a beekeeper. I sought his advice, and he suggested outfitting a cardboard box with wire and lemongrass oil to lure the bees out of the hive and move them. I set up my box a little too near the hive, making the bees rather angry but fortunately suffering only one sting (resulting in a Popeye right arm), and waited. It sort of worked — at least some of the bees came out, swarming around a tree, and then flooding into the box. But the main colony was still in the wall, and now I had a box full of bees in addition to the hive. Which was not exactly the solution I’d been seeking.

Moving the box bees to their new home

I decided to consult with my friend Olga, who lives a few houses down. Olga is a stylish beekeeper — a fleek Russian who Instagrams curated photos of her beekeeping, her grapefruit-and-rosemary cocktails in Mason jars and her multicolored Martha Stewart-esque chicken eggs arranged in neat circles. The reward of a whiskey sour was enough to get her over with an empty hive box and two beekeeping suits. We social-distance drank and, our courage fortified, climbed into our bee suits.

It was both terrifying and interesting to walk into a cloud of bees. Olga gathered up the box while I sprayed the bees with sugar water to “calm them down.” It seemed to have more the opposite effect, as a swirl of angry buzzing clouded my vision. But I wasn’t getting stung.

“How do we get them into the hive box?” I said as we descended the property with the cardboard box toward a lonely patch of earth down by the chicken coop we had identified as a suitable spot for a new bee home.

“We’ll pour them,” Olga replied.

Pour them??” I gaped. “You can pour bees?”

Sure enough, while I opened the hive box, Olga tilted the cardboard box and the bees came pouring out — not unlike liquid — into their new home.

“That was stressful!” I said as we reclaimed the deck and stepped out of the white jumpsuits. It was time for another cocktail.

Where do things currently stand? Well, I now have bees in three places instead of one. But I also have a borrowed bee suit and patience. And the hope that one day in the bright future, my bees will all have relocated to the hive box at the far corner of the property, and we will be spooning fresh honey over our Greek yogurt and toasting with glasses of mead. Am I a fledgling beekeeper or merely a harassed homeowner? Too early to tell…

Stay tuned…

And if you’d like to read about our original misadventures in beekeeping, check out The Accidental Beekeepers.

Nixtamalnutrition

One of the most troubling aspects of home isolation is that it compels you to indulge your worst food-nerd impulses. I was lying in bed this morning thinking about actually making puff pastry, for example.

Unable to pop out on my various weekly forays to my favorite ethnic markets (“How is he sourcing green papaya without access to the Island Pacific Indonesian market!?” you’re probably wondering…), I find myself lurking about food websites, coveting assorted sundries but bristling at exorbitant shipping costs.

The marketers are smart. They have collected enough data on me to know exactly where and when to strike. So it was that I received an email from Anson Mills, my favorite artisanal grain mill (do you have a favorite artisanal grain mill!??) in South Carolina. There were lots of wonderful seasonal products they knew I needed. But none so essential to my current housebound predicament as dried hominy corn and calcium hydroxide (i.e. “lime”).

Among those food-nerd thresholds I had yet to cross was nixtamalization. I had just received, as a pandemic present to myself, Enrique Olvera’s new beautiful Phaidon cookbook, “Mi Casa Tu Casa,” in which the celebrated Mexican chef goes into some depth about the process of making masa, the cornmeal essential to tortillas. I had made homemade corn tortillas many times, but always with masa harina — pre-ground, instant corn dough produced in an industrial process with commercial corn. The product was always good, yet nothing — Olvera assured me — but a shadow of what you got with heirloom corn varieties produced in the traditional method. The eerily coincidental timing of the Anson Mills email (sucker) made me realize the time to take the nixtamal plunge was now.

It took a couple weeks for my Henry Moore varietal field-ripened corn and bag of lime to arrive. Soon the kitchen was filled with the comforting smell of corn steeping in burbling lime water. The next day, I summoned Flynn who helped with making masa balls and pressing them flat in the tortilla press. I had to overcome the technical obstacle of not having a fancy Molinito masa grinder, which was accomplished with the Vitamix and more water than is preferable — resulting in the need to add some masa harina after all to get the proper consistency. That night, we enjoyed spectacular Baja fish tacos and chile verde tacos, wrapped in our own deliciously rustic, corn-fragrant tortillas. A few days later, Flynn and I got in the kitchen and did it all over again.

I was now in deep. But there was further to go…

Enrique Olvera buys his hominy from Masienda — a company that has single-handedly rescued an array of nearly extinct heirloom corn varietals from Oaxaca and other points deepest Mexico. I went to masienda.com, and I didn’t stand a chance.

When I can get stacks of 50 decent, freshly made corn tortillas for $2 at the Vallarta market, is it really worth spending $13.50 plus $18 shipping and several days’ work to make my own stack of 30 heirloom varietal corn tortillas. What do you think?

Next stop: puff pastry.

Easter in Santorini

Sitting around all day for five weeks, watching my wife and kids walk back and forth, had me longing for travel. So I busted out a 1000-piece Santorini puzzle that had been sitting in the garage since two Christmases ago.

I spent part of my honeymoon in the Greek Isles. I still remember like it was this morning my first revelatory taste of fresh Greek yogurt with honey for breakfast (before Greek yogurt was even a “thing” here). Santorini is a lovely island, the classic vision of “Greek isle” with whitewashed, blue-domed buildings clinging to cliffsides. It’s designation in recent years as “Europe’s favorite vacation isle” apparently has it these days somewhat overrun with continental tourists. But it was reasonably quiet when we were there — we swilled the delicious local Assyrtiko white wine while eating octopus on a balcony cantilevered over the azure blue dolphin-filled sea. Now, hermetically sealed at home with my family, I dreamed of that long, wine-hazy afternoon on the other side of the world.

So I tried to figure out whether the small blue puzzle piece in my hand was Aegean water, a blue dome, or sky. And the next thing I knew, it was Easter.

In years past, when I have been able to dodge the going-to-the-in-laws-for-Easter bullet, I have made a Roman Easter feast. But that required ingredients I knew I didn’t have — fava beans, escarole, mortadella, leg of lamb — and wouldn’t be able to procure without a terrifying and perilous trip to the grocery store. So I decided to see what I had on hand and could build a themed Easter feast around. In the freezer was a lamb shank, a Greek strifti cheese pastry swirl, in the fridge a large knob of feta, and a garden full of oregano… And I was set!

Chard, green onions and oregano from the garden

My garden — two enclosed terraces built with high hopes and much fanfare many years ago — produces almost nothing. If I plant ten tomato plants, I get twelve tomatoes. It sits on a shaded hillside covered with acidic oak leaves, and though enclosed, is under constant siege by gophers, squirrels and birds. The one thing I have been able to grow there — prolifically — is Swiss chard. It is fortunate I like Swiss chard. And because our climate in the coastal mountains of Southern California closely resembles that of the Greek isles, we have no problem with oregano. In fact, our biggest problem is we sometimes have to fight the oregano back from taking over our property.

I spent a good part of post-basket-hunt Easter morning preparing a chard, oregano and feta torta — dough rolled paper thin and filled with cheese and fresh greens, brushed with olive oil and baked to a crisp. Then braised my lamb shank and skewered wine-and-garlic-soaked pork. And in the afternoon, I drank wine and made some fresh corn masa for tortillas just because. (My Anson Mills hominy order had arrived the day before.)

Greek Easter feast

The kids set the table and lit candles, I laid out the platters of food, and we had a delightfully civilized Easter dinner. With the flavor of lamb, oregano and wine on my palate, I could even close my eyes for a moment and be transported away to that taverna patio in the Aegean Sea.

And when that sensation wore off and the plates were cleared, it was back to my puzzle.

*    *    *

Greek garlic lamb shanks
serves 2

2 lamb shanks
2 large garlic cloves
I small sprig rosemary
1/4 cup olive oil
lemon wedge
salt & pepper

Cover lamb shanks in water in a pot, and bring to boil. Skim scum off the surface, add 1 tsp. salt, turn heat to medium-low and cover. Simmer for 2 hours. (Bonus! Broth can be used for su filindeu, a rare and wonderful type of Sardinian pasta.)

Remove shanks from broth, and reserve broth if you choose. As lamb shanks cool, place garlic, rosemary leaves (removed from sprig) and 1 tsp. salt in a mortar and pestle. Grind until smooth, then drizzle in olive oil, a little at a time, continuing grinding it in to emulsify. Squeeze lemon at the end and whip into aioli.

When shanks are cool, using your fingers or a pastry brush, cover shanks thoroughly with aioli.

Heat a grill to high heat. Grill shanks until golden, about 3-5 minutes per side, turning once.

Remove from heat and serve with more olive oil for drizzling.

There’s Food Out There — You Just Have to Look

I emerged from the bushes the other day onto the street where our neighbors, Brooke and Doug, were strolling by, looking somewhat taken aback by the man climbing out of the trees.

“Hello,” I said, holding two large white mushrooms.

“Wow, those are beautiful!” said Brooke. “What are they?”

.

“There are amanita ocreata — destroying angels. One of the deadliest mushrooms in the world.”

Her joyful face melted away, and she took a couple steps back. Now there is a great irony in the fact that a few hours later, she would be eating wild mushrooms that I picked.

“I did hear that you are an expert on wild mushrooms,” she said. I shrugged and said, “Sorta,” and somehow she still trusted me when I left a bag of chanterelles on the mailbox for them later that afternoon.

I had been running in the state park earlier that morning (back when that was still a thing), when something conspicuously orange caught me eye in the oak leaf duff deep in the middle of a huge patch of poison oak. I climbed down carefully through that ornery weed to have my suspicions confirmed — chanterelles! And a lot of them. (Hence my subsequent sharing with miscellaneous friends and neighbors.)

Southern California produces the world’s largest chanterelles (those years that are rainy enough for us to actually find them). A single mushroom can weigh two pounds, and feed a family of five (I only wish my children would learn to enjoy them…) Besides chanterelles and the carpet of live oak acorns on our property that could theoretically feed us for six months, there are many other things growing in our nearby fields and woods that are edible.

Miner’s lettuce

I once took a guided walk with a naturalist up in our state park, and he showed us many different edible foods (besides deer and rabbits) — there was the wild sage plant, whose flowers turned to chia seeds; another small plant was a wild buckwheat, whose seeds could presumably be collected, pounded and baked into some sort of breadlike something.

One of my favorite wild foods in our area is miner’s lettuce, a beautiful, delicate green that presents a lovely addition to a salad. Sometimes, when I am nerding out or doing an expensive dinner for a client, I will pick the little circular cups, and fill them with something exquisite and delicious — a mini salad, perhaps; or caviar.

Some people in other places have better wild foods than we do — the wild mushrooms at my mother’s house could make us a wealthy family if we ever set our minds to it. And I always covet the bounty of the Northwest — not just mushrooms, but fiddlehead ferns, wild ramps, berries of all kinds, oysters and salmon. But you get what you get, and you don’t get upset.

With prolific late winter rains in Southern California, the chanterelles have been abundant. I’ve seen friends and acquaintances posting photos of their catch on social media. The smart (i.e. cautious) have come to me for a positive ID. While there isn’t much you can mistake for a chanterelle if you know what you’re looking for, I do worry that people will become emboldened and go on to sample other mushrooms they find growing. Hopefully not the destroying angel. The morning I found the chanterelles in the park, I also discovered a large patch of what I was pretty sure was amanita velosa — the springtime amanita, supposedly one of the most delicious mushrooms. But with amanitas — the family of mushrooms containing the two most deadly specimens on earth — “pretty sure” isn’t good enough… even after 30 years hunting mushrooms, I’m wary of just about all amanitas.

I went out on the lower part of our property this morning to see if there might be any other mushrooms growing. I discovered several more beautiful snow white destroying angels, some russulas described by one of the mushroom books as “edible but insipid,” and some large agaricus — relatives of the common grocery store mushroom. These I was carrying home to attempt an identification when, emerging from the same cluster of bushes, I encountered another neighbor couple, Megan and Gregory, out on the street.

“Oooh! Those are beautiful!” said Megan. “Good for you for getting your own food!”

Agaricus

They were certainly beautiful. I was skeptical of their edibility, though — the telltale almond scent of the edible agaricus that grow near us was missing. But no worry — there was a pot of borscht on the stove back at the house, I’d done well on chanterelles already this year, and we weren’t yet at the stage where the pantry and fridge were running bare (there was even plenty of Ben & Jerry’s still in the freezer!). For now, foraging remained nothing more than just a lovely way to pass some pandemic time…

Life Under Self Quarantine

I was going through my phone deleting recent photos, when I noticed a troubling trend developing in the photos I’d been taking during the second half of March.

Whiskey sour

These were all photos I took in the afternoon when I was virtually toasting one friend or other. Fortunately they aren’t all from the same day.

You’ll be able to spot the theme.

 

Is anyone else having a similar experience?

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