Tuesday, 18 December 2018

Sourdough Everything

Not that we take much notice of such things, but according to some guy in an old book, "man shall not live by bread alone".  To that I would add, "but if you had to live on bread alone, you would live a lot longer if that bread was sourdough bread".  Indeed most long lived ancient cultures developed some form of naturally fermented bread or pancake, of which some of our own personal favourites are Ethiopian injera, Indian dosas, traditional Mexican corn tortillas, and of course the whole gamut of traditional French breads.  Most people associate sourdough with the gold mining speculators of Alaska and North America, but it was the French immigrant bakers who took that idea over to the States in the first place. Way back when it was first discovered, you can imagine the sense of magic that would surround the process of turning simple bread and water into 'the staff of life'.  

My own personal sourdough journey started approximately 25 years ago, when an increasing interest in Macrobiotics and natural foods led me to try creating a starter of my own, and attempting to make naturally leavened (risen) bread.  I (Phil) can't remember where I got the recipe from, but I remember it being a bit complex, and trying to understand it correctly.  I don't think I did at the time.  Looking back I now see that my own starter was too small an amount, I did not 'feed' it enough, or regularly enough, and it soon died or appeared to.  I now know that it could have been revived with the addition of enough flour and water.  The bread that I baked with it was okay on the first try, disappointing on the second, and an inedible brick on the third.  That's where my experiments ended, I threw the lot in the bin, and didn't really think about it much until the more recent revival of 'Artisan Bakers' in the last 10 years or so.  Since then I have tried a fair few.  The depth of taste keeps me buying it over other bread.  I'd quite happily eat it just on its own when fresh, and that rich, slightly sour, nutty flavour increases the longer you chew.  It really is something to savour.

Now that it has become more popular again, the prices have risen much faster than the dough, and in an attempt to cash in on the trend every supermarket now sells at least one so called 'sourdough' loaf, or more accurately 'sourdough style' loaf.  The thing is they are not really true sourdoughs, but more often made quickly with sourdough flavourings added to fool you into thinking you are eating the real thing.  A true sourdough needs a bit of care and time, two things the supermarkets aren't that bothered about.  A true sourdough has only 3 ingredients; flour, water, and salt.  Any 'flour improving' is done by the action of time and fermentation on the dough.  With prices now around the £3-4 mark for a true sourdough loaf, and given the fact that nearly all shop-bought bread was starting to taste the same to me (bland), I started to think about having another go at baking my own sourdough bread.

Then (as with so many things that seem as though they were meant to be) one day around 6 months ago I was chatting to a friend at work, and he mentioned that he baked his own sourdough bread every week.  He kindly offered me some 'starter', and an instruction sheet that he got when he received his first batch of starter/ferment.  He has been keeping his ferment going for 7 years, and the people he got his off had been keeping theirs going for 25 years before that.  He 'feeds' and bakes his sourdough religiously, every week following the same basic recipe, and occasionally branching out into pizza bases.  I started off following his recipe with good results, so soon got the urge to 'sourdough-ize' other doughy delights.  Pizza bases quickly followed, then pitta breads, rolls, baguettes, rye bread, spelt, sesame and sunflower seed loaves, zatar flatbreads, and all manner of flour mixes in the search for the 'perfect loaf'.  Pretty much sourdough everything.  It's a search that may well be never ending as there are so many recipes and styles to try, and I have not bought bread from a shop since.

I am not going to include a definitive sourdough recipe in this blog as I am still experimenting myself, and there are so many factors involved that I don't want to get the blame if your bread does not turn out well!  Feel free to look up recipes online, source or make a good starter, and experiment.  There are also many classes that teach the process if you don't want to experiment on your own.  Baking sourdough can certainly seem daunting at first.  The type of flour you use, the consistency of your ferment, the temperature and amount of water you add, the temperature of the room you prove your dough in, the temperature of the oven, the time baking, whether you bake in a loaf tin or on a tray etc., can all influence the final product.  This can make the process seem more complicated than it actually is, but do not let this put you off. Simply put, you 'feed' your starter once a week with flour and water and put it back in the fridge.  For the loaf you add more flour, water, and salt to some ferment, you leave it to prove/rise for 12 to 24 hours, and you bake it.  Everything else is fine tuning.  You don't need any special tools or equipment.  If the old 'sourdoughs' could do it in a tent in the middle of an Alaskan winter, then it shouldn't be too much trouble for us with our modern conveniences.    

Then there are the many health benefits of sourdough bread.  In the fudge of popular thinking around health and diet some people have come to believe they are intolerant to gluten, a protein in wheat, even if they do not have a genuine health condition like Celiac disease or Crohns disease.  We have even been asked if we can eat wheat when we have told some people we are vegan, and served gluten-free pork sausages at one particularly clueless establishment (don't worry our expertise on vegan sausages enabled us to sniff them out as soon as they were put in front of us!).  Yet another plus about sourdough is that people who do have a sensitivity to wheat and have a problem eating regular bread may find they have no issues when eating a properly fermented sourdough bread.  

There may be other factors involved too, like sensitivity to chemical residues in non-organic flour, or sensitivity to the other chemicals added to bread like emulsifiers and preservatives, 'processing aids' (some of which are not vegan, or can be GMO), unspecified 'flavourings', and the eaters state of digestive health generally.  Ideally, sourdough should be made from organic flour, filtered or other pure water, and natural salt.  The reason for using organic flour is that the residues from fungicides in non-organic flours can also harm the bacteria in your ferment, and may even kill it off.  Plus, who would knowingly want to eat chemical residues?  

As the rise in popularity of natural and vegan food increases, and people become more aware of the impact their food choices have, there seems to be a parallel rising interest in the authenticity and origins of foods and other products. Perhaps people are finally starting to realise that cultures who have been quite happily living in harmony with the environment for hundreds if not thousands of years, may well 'know a thing or two' after all.  Technology has now brought us to a point of realising that some things in life are better without technological interference, or so called improvement. You may well be able to buy a fast food burger and be eating it 1 minute later, but what's the point if it is full of chemicals and is going to slowly kill you?  I'll take the time honoured approach thanks.  More people than ever are now making their own fermented pickles, drinks, and breads, and seeking to embrace a more natural balanced approach to life, and that can only be a good thing for us all.  Lets keep these traditions alive!

Sunday, 2 December 2018

Forage, Home, Light Fire, Bake, Wine, Eat

An unexpected break in wind and rain had us heading out on a late season mushroom forage, via an irresistible vegan cafe forage at our favourite Cornish Vegan first.  Along for the ride was BigBroVegan, aka he of the VeganLaptopLunchbox fame.  We'd promised ages ago to take him as an additional 'shroom hound, but a series of events had conspired to delay our joint foray so we were delighted that he could join us in our last minute decision to head out.  

On our desired list of ingredients were either Parasols or Agaricus Macrosporus, both chunky 'meaty' mushrooms suitable for our plans to include in tacos for our dinner later.  Suitably secured in our rattly but treasured wreck called Pug (our 256,000 mile Peugeot 306 who actually should have a whole blog to himself such has been his infamous life story!), BigBro was transported to our secret 'shrooming location.  We would have blindfolded him but here is a man of trust and substance proven over years of service to the cause (animals not mushrooms!).  We admit we were busking it this late in the mushroom season but the recent warmer and wetter weather had given us hope for our normally reliable patch.  Luck was on our side.  An initial find of a solitary Agaricus was followed by a plethora of mature Parasol groups.  We were pleased we hadn't led BigBro on a wild mushroom hunt of the goosey kind.

With bags full of 'shroomy goodness, a mizzly darkness starting to descend, and our need to retrieve Miles our camper van from our wonderfully eccentric mechanic on the north coast, we headed back, dropping off BigBro on the way.  With both our old automobilic treasures returned home, the fire was lit just as the Cornish mizzle set in good and 'propur'.  Dinner needed to be simple, easy, hearty, and obviously include our mushroom swag.  That is when the oven can become your best friend that quietly works whilst you sit in front of the roaring fire drinking a glass of vino tinto.  With a bit of oven shuffling and minimal prep, this is what we came up with.  You can put the sweet potato from the taco dish in at the same time as the first baking of the aubergines from the second dish, and then the two dishes can just be cooked along together.

Simples Wild Mushroom Tacos
This made 6 tacos.  You don't have to use wild mushrooms and Portabello mushrooms would be a good substitute (use the equivalent of about 10 as an idea of quantity as all mushrooms shrink when baked).

Halve a large sweet potato and bung it in the oven at about 200 degrees C.  Cook this until soft (other stuff from the second recipe can cook at the same time).  Once soft, scrape out the flesh, leaving the skin on the baking tray, and mash it in a bowl with some chipotle or mole paste to your level of desired spiciness.  Put the mixture back into the skins and let it cook a bit longer but don't let it dry out.

Meanwhile chunk up or thickly slice your mushrooms and put in a baking dish.  Dribble over some soya sauce to taste (we found a chipotle soya sauce which is good and went with the Mexican theme), some vegan Worcester sauce, some olive oil and a grind or two of black pepper.  Bake these in the oven (they won't take as long as the sweet potato though) stirring part way through.

When you are almost ready to eat, warm up the taco shells.  Slice up the potato halves to even out between the six tacos and squish gently into the bottom of each.  Top with mushrooms and a sprinkle of coriander.

Simples Aubergine Bake
We're greedy so this serves 2 very nicely thank you!

Slice 2 large aubergines into half inch thick rounds.  Oil up a bit and bake them at 200 degrees C until nicely soft and browned (about 20 minutes in our ancient oven).  You can bake these the same time as the sweet potato above.

Meanwhile, fry one large sliced onion until soft and then chuck in some minced garlic.  I used one clove but if Phil hadn't been watching, two would have been snuck in.  Once starting to brown, add a 400g can of chopped tomatoes, one tablespoon of tomato puree and a handful of torn fresh basil leaves (to taste), along with salt and pepper to season.  Let this sauce bubble away gently for 10 or 15 minutes.

Lightly oil a baking dish and put a layer of the baked aubergines in.  Top with a layer of the sauce.  Add a layer of your favourite vegan grated cheese.  Keep layering and finish with some cheese so you get a bubbly loveliness on top at the end once baked.  Pop the dish in the oven, again still 200 degrees C, for about 15-20 minutes but basically until it is all bubbly and lovely.

So there you go; serve the tacos and the aubergine bake with some fresh green salad, maybe a bit of avocado, some mayo and whatever else takes your fancy.