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.

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?

Shopping in the Time of Coronavirus

Today, I went grocery shopping.

“Don’t touch anything!” my wife suggested helpfully as I left the house.

We weren’t in “need” of food, exactly — we could’ve easily lasted a month or more on the supplies in our amply stocked freezer, pantry and garage before even resorting to turning on the chickens and pig or trying to grind acorns. But the half-and-half was running low, we were almost out of kale… And I was getting cabin fever. (My nascent experiment as a home-schooler parent in danger of going horribly awry.) So it was time.

Eerily quiet at the expensive Bristol Farms

The world was strangely quiet, like driving around on early Christmas morning. I got to the local Ralph’s supermarket, where there was a line stretching across the parking lot (although people were maintaining 6 feet between one another). I turned to leave the parking lot to try somewhere else, before realizing that the line was moving fairly swiftly, and seeing a sign that said, “Only 50 family groups allowed in at a time. Help us maintain space between shoppers.” This seemed fairly sensible, and as I was in no particular hurry, I parked and queued up.

The spirit in the line was jovial, people making virus jokes whilst keeping proper distance from their potential infector beside them. Inside, the store was sparsely populated. It wasn’t quite Soviet bread line shopping — there was plenty of food to be had, although the selection was somewhat picked over. And if you were Italian, for example, and having a spaghetti jones, forget it. A man near the deli counter sneezed, and the store froze. He raised his hands defensively, like a bank robber caught in the act, people exhaled and carried on.

Figuring I would want to hunker down at home the next few days and watch what happened with the viral numbers, I planned to get in as much shopping as I could. My next stop was the Vallarta Mexican super mercado. Aside from limits on tortillas and the requisite empty toilet paper aisle, things seemed more or less normal. I grabbed some pork and Oaxaca cheese, loaded up on my limit of Sonora rustic tortillas and headed out.

It was a different scene at Trader Joe’s. Whether they were limiting the number of shoppers or simply overwhelmed I couldn’t tell, but the line stretched around the side of the building and off into the distance toward the Target. I didn’t even slow down. Instead, I would head for the Trader Joe’s in Calabasas, where the beautiful people live and don’t put up with queueing. Sure enough, I parked and walked right in. Like the Ralph’s, there was no pasta. But I got lettuce and the prized half-and-half, plus beer and whisky; and everything after that was icing on the cake. There was a strict limit on many items here as well.

Heroic checkers at the Calabasas Gelsons

“Is he allowed to get two of these?” the young clerk asked her supervisor. The supervisor glanced at my half-and-halfs, looked at me, and looked at her. “The limit is for milk. But if you don’t really need two…” They had me — the implied guilt of depriving another shopper of their half-and-half. I slumped and pushed the second carton toward the supervisor.

I had just exited the store when I realized I had forgotten cream cheese for my son’s bagels, and ran back in (thank goodness for no lines!). I approached a different clerk with my single purchase. “Hey,” the kid said, “Quit hoarding all our cream cheese!”

I will take a moment here to offer a shout out to the humble grocery store clerk. Who would’ve ever thought this part-time gig would be praised for its heroism? But here they are, handling much-handled goods, facing shopper after potentially-corona’ed shopper, and doing so with humor and grace. Most without health benefits or sick leave, should they become infected.

There would be two more markets en route as I began to wind my way back into the mountains. The first was the uber-fancy Bristol Farms, where the customers REALLY don’t put up with queueing. Inside it was a bit emptier than usual. A friendly grocer stocking a shelf in the dry goods aisle asked how it was going. “Pretty well,” I replied, “You?” “Barely holding it together,” he huffed before shuffling off — a refreshing bit of transparency, I thought.

I noticed as I waited for my shaved finocchiona salami that there hadn’t yet been a run on caviar. “Do you need some?” the deliman asked when he saw me looking at it. “Oh, not today,” I replied.

At the Gelson’s up the road, there were at least a few boxes of orrechiete and campanelle on the otherwise cleared-out pasta shelves. “Don’t they know how good these are!?” I thought to myself, as I snatched up my two-box limit and slipped out.

A light rain was falling as I wound my way along lonesome Highway 27 toward the sea, a brief moment of contemplative solitude before I returned to my role of chef, waiter, co-teacher and activity director back home, wondering how long this very strange interlude might last…

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