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I had my first potsticker at a place called the Combo Cafe.  It’s one of those places that’s probably got at least one twin in every city in America – simple, mostly fried westernized versions of chinese food, and yet it feels a little bit like stepping into a foreign country.  The bathrooms look as if they might have been cobbled together from an RV wrecking yard and one can only wonder if any governing agency has ever actually inspected or approved it for food service.  I haven’t been there in a number of years, though I’ve driven by it.  I’m happy to see it’s still there.

When I started cooking, much of it was simply trying to make things I’d eaten at restaurants.  I’m not sure if this is the right way to make a potsticker – it looks a bit different than the potstickers at the combo, but it tastes like one.  I’ve never done any sort of study of a recipe or tried to gain any insight as to the origin of them, and I don’t know if there’s a ‘standard’ for potstickers that I might be violating.  It doesn’t matter much to me in that respect.

I suppose you could compare it to, perhaps, a ravioli, where instead of pasta, a wonton skin wrapper encases a bit of filling.   I’m not sure either if there is some sort of ‘official’ filling – I’ve seen variations, and in this day and age, everyone has their own take on things.

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I cook these in two different steps – first I steam them.  I’ve got 2 bamboo steamer baskets lined with some parchment paper to keep the potstickers from sticking… This is step one.

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My filling begins with about a pound of ground pork.

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and about a 1/2 pound of shrimp.  I use raw, sometimes they’re not deveined, such as these…

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if that’s the case, peel them.

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and slit them along the back (outside).  the ‘vein’ is the lower intestine, packed with shrimp turds, which don’t taste really good.  I run mine under cold water to help remove these.

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I give them a rough mincing with a knife – you could whiz them in the food processor – but geez – are you that lazy?

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the next part of the filling is some ginger, garlic and green onion or scallions.  This is the Asian equivalent of the mirepoix in French cooking (carrot, celery, onion) – it’s a common back bone in many dishes.

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I mince the scallions with my knife, and use a microplane for the garlic and ginger – I’ve got about 2:1 ginger to garlic, and about the same amount of ginger/garlic to scallion.

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and finally, some grated carrot.

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I add a little bit (about a teaspoon) of both sesame oil and soy sauce for seasoning, and then begin mixing it.  You’ll want to mix this well, and for about 2 or 3 minutes, squeezing turning, squeezing again – you’ll know when you’re about close when the meat begins feeling somewhat tacky – it’s the essential step in making a good sausage.

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finally, I divide it up into balls.  20 is what fits in my steamer basket and the amount of filling, divided into 20ths, is about the perfect amount to fill a wrapper.  These are about 3/4 the size of a golf ball.

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These are my wrappers – you can find them, usually, in the freezer section of your grocery store.  Leave them out to thaw while you’re preparing the filling.  You can re-freeze the left-overs.

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My fabrication station, the mise-en-place…  I’ve got about 25 wrappers – usually one tears or isn’t cooperating – it’s better to have a couple extras instead of digging through the pouch for more.  Then I’ve got a single egg and about 2 tbsp water, whisked, for brushing onto the rim of the wrapper, and then my meat, already portioned out…

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I dip my finger in the egg and run it around the entire perimeter of the wonton wrapper, then place some filling in the middle.

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bring two opposite sides together and pinch.

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then the third…

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and then the fourth… You’ve just made a potsticker!

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only 19 more to go…

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I’ve found, and it’s usually the case with a lot of kitchen items, that my steamer baskets fit perfectly over my 3qt saucier – I put about 1 1/2qts of water in there and bring it to a scant boil, about medium heat.

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I steam these for 20 minutes – but at the halfway point, after 10 minutes, I rotate the baskets, so the bottom one is on the top and vice versa…

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The real magic of the potsticker, is having a sauce to dip it in…  I start wtih about 1 1/2 cups of rice wine vinegar…

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…and about 1/3 to 1/2 cup soy sauce…

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…some red pepper flakes, about 1 tbsp…

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…and about a tablespoon of sesame oil…  let it simmer on low heat while the potstickers are steaming.

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I’ve got a large, non-stick frying pan with about 1:3 ratio of sesame oil to olive oil.  Basically, I go one lap around the pan with the sesame oil, 3 with the olive oil – it gives me about 1/8 cover on the bottom… It’s heating on medium low heat…

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…which I fill with the steamed potstickers…  Yeah, I know – never crowd a pan – well, I just did…  It’s my kitchen, my rules – It’ll be fine – I’ve done it this way before…

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I’ve got my rice starting, and since I had the boiling water in the saucier, and ginger – I’m going to make some blanched carrots with ginger, finished with some butter… and my potsticker sauce is simmering on the back right burner…

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After a little while – depending on how hot your pan is – they’ll eventually get a nice brown and crispy bottom.  I’ve kept mine on a low heat so that the rice, and the carrots are all done about the same time…

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…my recipe – the way I work, under ideal conditions – I sit and map it all out…

trinity

I love things such as this, the essential little bits of flavor, the spine of things to come…

Perhaps it’s ironic or telling maybe, that America has no real ‘trinity’ of its own, no particular flavor.  No particular thing we start any dish with, a soup, a stew, or finish off a roasts drippings with…  Nothing we incorporate into most everything.  Nothing.  It’s a bit disappointing.  Even more disappointing is that our hallmark, as Americans, seems to be taking everything or anything and turning it into something sort of crass  – defiling it – at least in terms of culinary traditions.  Frankfurters, and handmade sausages turn into cheap and ugly hot dogs, eventually hijacked by vegetarians and made into tofu versions…  Cassoulet morphs into a crappy and unfulfilling can of ‘Pork and Beans’…  Days and weeks of preparation, living with ones food, has turned into meaningless and unmemorable 30 minute meals…

It’s fun to look at things in terms of the history, finding little nuggets of ingredients that flourished, that were common and abundant enough – cherished enough – that they become the basis for a cuisine.  I wonder about this – what the trinity of my own neighborhood, my own region is…

Maybe it just gets back to something larger – that seeing food, and history, is an insight into a certain wisdom that’s seemingly vanished from our world.  That learning isn’t so much about compiling facts, or finding ways of doing things, but perhaps, simply acquiring wisdom, temperance and a reverence for the common things…

Our new starter, Day six…  It’s been another 24 hours – I’ve been swirling it and keeping an eye on it, and nothing has really happened since yesterday… Since it obviously hasn’t peaked, it’s clear to me that I’ve been dividing it too much and too often as part of the refining process…

Instead of that; taking a little bit out, giving it a new place, and feeding it a lot, we’re going to focus on growing what’s here.  It’s just not keeping up with that pace quite yet… Hopefully, this will allow the yeast population to grow in ‘density’ throughout the whole mix, rather than culling it as we’ve been doing…

We’ll remove some starter, just to give us a little bit of space, and we’ll feed it some new flour and water, whisk it, and leave it to rest for about 6 hours…  then we’ll we do it again…  and again…  and again…

I’ll do that for about the next day or so, and see what happens with it…

…dumping out enough to give us some room for more…

…Some flour, a little bit of water, and a whisking…  Just like what we’ve been doing with the ‘backup’ copies…

…no need to worry about the lumps – they’ll trap a little bit of oxygen to help promote the yeast growth… Cover it, let it set in it’s spot, but come back soon … 

 

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I’m fairly certain this is not what the people who coined the term meant, though I don’t really follow what it means to be a proper ‘locavore’. To me it’s just another buzzword. Maybe I am one – or put to practice some theory, whatever it may be, after making a pizza with fresh calf testicles…

I know this is the sort of thing that could easily kill this whole blog – not that it’s worth a whole lot or that I did this to attract an audience. Admittedly, there are many other things I’ve been meaning to write about, want to write about. Yet, here this is… I always feel compelled to say whatever I’m really feeling or thinking, no matter how odd or out of place it is. Since there is no simple way to preface all this – what happened, what I took part in, what I ate, and why it mattered so much. I’ll just start by relaying some of the events.

I went to the family farm in Eastern Washington for a little get away. It was only meant to be a break from my daily routine, a change of scenery and most of all, to mow the lawn. When I pulled in after a 300 mile drive, Matt, our neighbor over there, was coming down the hill on his tractor with a bale of hay to feed his herd of Angus cattle. We talked, drank a beer, and in the course idle conversation, he mentioned it was about time to begin castrating some of the calves. Naturally, I asked him when he was planning on doing it. “Tomorrow. Maybe…”, he said. Curious, I told him I’d help in whatever way I could, hoping that he would do it – that I could see it – wondering if he did, would I, could I, did people really…. eat them? He left, I unloaded my car, and settled in for the night, not really knowing what, if anything, might happen. But I used my iPhone to see what I could find out about preparing testicles, in the event that they were fresh and available.

Aside from the usual ‘Rocky Mountain Oyster’ recipes, I didn’t find much. It’s amazing how you can go a whole life time fondling your own balls and not really know, intuitively, what to do with a pair that isn’t attached to you… I found references to a cookbook, “Cooking with Balls”, with a recipe for some sort of testicle pizza, among other things, that piqued my curiosity. While the recipe wasn’t anywhere online – the idea stuck in my head. I’d brought my bread starter, as I always do “just in case”, and making a pizza was a fairly comfortable proposition…

I woke up about 8, made a simple breakfast of peanut butter on focaccia bread and pondered the day in an unfamiliar, un-caffeinated haze. The silence, for me, is golden. You never know such tranquility in a city or suburb, waking up in a sleepy stupor, unknowing, yet totally able to enjoy it. Here, you listen to a chorus of birds and wind blowing across the winter wheat and alfalfa as you slowly regain consciousness. It’s hypnotic and beautiful. I could imagine easily slipping back into bed for a nap, if only to do it all over again. After sitting for while, though, I walk up the hill – part of the routine, I guess. I watched the clouds and sun, and after realizing it was still early in the day – a nice looking day – grabbed a bottle of water and a jacket and went off the other direction into town. It’s a 7 mile walk – out the long way on the gravel road, then through the residential part of town and over to the school. Then down the hill to Main Street, South to the grain elevators. I backtrack North, again on Main Street, then cutting over a block to the funeral parlor and on to the police station, where I finally go back up the hill. Eventually I get to the highway, walking the second to last mile weaving around barricades with cars coming at me from the next town at 55 mph. They almost always give a 2 fingered wave as they speed by…

I walk the final leg along the other end of the gravel road and as I round the gravel pit, I see Matt’s tractor. He’s getting the squeeze chutes aligned. I show up just in time, and though I still hadn’t had any coffee, I’m buzzing. I asked Matt if ‘it’ was happening, and he said maybe, if he can get the cows and calves separated. I ask him what I can do. At Matt’s direction, I’d work one of the gates on the barn while he shooes them along with a small whip and “HA!” and “Cow coming through!”.

Working the gate means keeping it open it for the running cows, closing it to calves, and keeping any of the cows from returning back through the barn. They came through, one and two at a time at a full trot and into the pasture suddenly stopping and turning to look at me, mooing loudly and eyeing me uncomfortably. Second to last was the bull – a huge, thundering and thick bastard that had a reputation for charging, often chasing Matt over fences. I knew I’d have to stand there with him in a pasture full of ‘his’ heifers waiting for one last cow to run through. Fun.

Eventually, we got the calves and cows in separate pastures. He went home to get his scalpels, and some iodine. I went inside, cleaned up and started making some dough, only really realizing then, that I was committed.

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He came back with a small army of helpers; father, wife, kids, a couple of friends. Castrating isn’t a singular affair. There are people stationed everywhere, working an array of gates and fence pieces. The first of the calves to come through were heifers – females – only getting ear tags. I got to work the ‘door’ of the chute, where the calf eventually exits. Finally, the first male came through and after his head and shoulders were secure, Matt instructs me to swing open the door. I do. In a single swift motion, the entire chute rotates sideways, laying the calf out perfectly on his side. His father, Pat, loops a lariat around the top leg, pulls it back and ties it in place. Matt grabs a scalpel and a pair of pliers. He snaps them onto the bottom of the scrotum and pulls it taught. The scalpel, in a quick ‘flit’ cuts it off. Matt then, massages along the top of the scrotum where it meets the belly, and a testicle emerges. He wraps his hands around it and gave a long, hard pull, removing testicle, vein and cords in single membranous mass. He tosses it into a bucket, held by his 5 and 6 year old daughters who giggle at the whole affair… The second one came, and complete, the chute rotates back, putting the calf back into an upright position. Released, the now steer, simply walks away, scrotum dripping slightly, free to wander the yard. Matt did five that day – I took two pairs, which the girls happily put into a small ziploc bag for me. I put them into the refrigerator and tried to figure out what I was really going to do with them.

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I mowed the lawn, went into town to buy some groceries – and after a few beers; the time had come to begin handling these for myself. I kneaded the dough – it didn’t need it, but it made me feel better. I got a pot of water boiling to blanch them. Most of the recipes I’d found had done this prior to doing anything else, so I thought I’d start there. Now, I only had to remove the ‘vein’ and the membrane…

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It’s thick and tough – a challenge for my sharpest knife – both to simply cut through, let alone sever. It’s a bigger challenge for my psyche. Seeing hairs and trimming away sinew to eventually expose a bare testicle you plan on somehow ingesting, making into food isn’t easier when you’ve spent better parts of your life living in suburbia, eating frozen pizza and KFC.

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The first one is the hardest, learning how to handle it, how much force to use, being careful not to cut myself at the same time… Thankfully, the final 3 come apart easily.

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I slide them off a paper plate and into the pot of boiling water and add a bay leaf. I wash my hands a take a break.

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After 10 minutes, they’re pretty well cooked. I only want to get them to the point I can take the last ‘skin’ off of them and have them hold their shape. I let them cool for a minute and slice them in half, finding they pop out easily like a bit of sausage meat coming out of it’s casing. It smells like sausage too – maybe a bit like a hot dog – nothing liver-y or gut-like to it – I taste it – and it’s mild – almost unremarkable if you didn’t think of what it was…

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I sliced them into little bits. I never thought I would catch myself thinking that I wished I had grabbed them all… But I did and really should have. There wasn’t quite enough…

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I’d also brought along a little bit of some cured pork belly – somewhere between a pancetta and un-smoked bacon… I sliced it up…

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…And browned it to add to the pizza…

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…I had a couple of opened bottles of wine laying around from last Christmas. Ironically, one of them was Dancing Bull Rioja… I simmered it down with some dried thyme and chopped garlic and stirred in a can of tomato paste for a sauce…

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…And finally I rolled out the dough. I used some Pecorino Romano, a sharp white cheddar cheese, and a green D’Anjou pear I sliced up, since I couldn’t find any fresh herbs. I topped that with the testicles and pork belly, then into a 425 oven for 20 minutes…

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… And amazingly, it’s really good… I wrap up a couple of slices when I’m done with dinner to take to the neighbors. They liked it, too…

Maybe the real profound thought I had over this whole affair is realizing how much cooking has changed me and what my life has become. Maybe it’s not a good admission that I was far better prepared, and eager, for making a pizza with testicles than I’ve been at handling anything else that life presents me lately. Realizing what a chaotic fog ‘regular’ life is now and just how inept I’ve become at making simple phone calls, holding conversations, thinking ahead, taking care of ‘normal’ things or even finding interest in them. I pack around wild yeast starters to prepare for the days ahead, a few knives, a means of creating fire, scout the surroundings for anything to turn into a meal… Those are victories and qualities I take pride in. Things I can command, a testament to being able to ‘live well’ no matter where I go…

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..Or, the unglamorous truth about why I quit going to they gym, started eating everything I wanted and eventually lost 115 lbs…

 

Of course it’s a strange story.  Like most things in my life, it’s the explaining that seems most difficult, because it’s really not much of a story. For me, it was just another one of those little ‘accidents’; something one day tips slightly different than the day before, seemingly nothing, yet  somehow it changed the course of my life.  It’s also the preface to the story of how I wound up in the kitchen in the first place.

 

Looking back on it now, the hardest part about changing your life in a simple but radical way, is being surrounded by people who think, or thought, they always knew you.  Especially when one of those people is yourself.  If you moved to a different city, adopting your ‘new’ outlook and acting accordingly, no one would think twice – it would be completely natural – they simply wouldn’t know different.  In the presence of friends, family, and your own self, it can be awkward as hell.

 

Even more difficult, is when these changes take place, wholesale and seemingly without reason.   If you have a heart attack, or rip out the seat of your tuxedo on your wedding day, or hit rock bottom due to drugs,  people understand why you’d change; it’s expected in fact – you’d be foolish not to.  They’ll applaud and encourage you to keep at it.  Without things such as this however, people are only left to wonder.   It’s ironic, really; we take it for granted that a lowly worm could somehow wake up one day as a butterfly, yet when something similar happens to one of us? – we can’t make sense of it.  But maybe we should.  The opportunities to change are right in front of us, all day, every day – a million small forks in roads leading somewhere else, sometimes better, sometimes worse.  But they’re the sort of thing you miss seeing when you’re trained to look at the world only one way.

 

My days leading up to it were nothing terrible, nor were they spectacular.  Just a long road of what can only be described as a greater fracturing of my life, and more questions about where all of it led.

 

I was working at home, and my career was actually at a place and point that I always hoped it would be.  And yet, for some reason it didn’t fulfill me…  Working out at the gym had become a kind of dead end too.  As a part of one of my ‘just curious to find out’ stunts, I become fascinated with seeing how strong I could get.  Over the course of a few years, channeling work related frustrations, a voracious appetite, and the genetic ability to gain weight easily, I found out.  But bench pressing 500+ pounds is only ‘really cool’ at the gym.  When you’re hovering around 300, and keeping an eye out for big and tall stores in the everyday world, somehow it loses it’s luster.  It takes all your energy, too.  Everyday tasks seem easy to put off when your body constantly aches, and tendons throb…  Meals for us usually began with a ping pong match of, “ what do you want for dinner?”… “I don’t know…. what do you want?” until finally hunger, desperation, and apathy decided for us;  maybe a bucket of fried chicken, some burgers, or tacos from a drive through – almost always eating out…

 

Maybe it’s the simple realization that you don’t really have any milestones left in front you – places and points in the course of life that give you reason to become something else – a graduation, a wedding, a new year in school.  After a certain point your life becomes, seemingly, set on cruise control, coursing towards more and more days like the endless string of the ones before it .  It’s like a script – small obligations to things that don’t tickle you – yet they’re ‘expected’ because it’s how everyone lives.  You pick up titles along the way which are meant to give you some definition in the world, a consolation prize indicating that you are ‘something’; Architect, Business Owner, Home Owner, DINK… but you find that in your own heart of hearts, these are merely suits you wear, roles you play, and not really who you are.   It’s a lonely thought, realizing your whole life is dedicated to being an actor in a play you don’t find particularly interesting.

 

It was a typical Sunday, mowing the lawn in early spring.  I was enjoying the smell of the cut grass thinking it would be fun to run through it barefoot and feel the same spontaneity and joy I used to know as a kid.  As usual, in moments alone, my mind eventually wandered around the litany of things I’d like to change, sincerely wanted to change, knew I ‘should’ change, hoping maybe it would lead me back to that person.  As the list grew, with no idea of how to begin tackling even one of these realistically, I laughed in half desperation, and thought, “what didn’t I want to change?  What’s worth keeping?”

 

And for the first time in my life things suddenly became clear – I didn’t have to care about the the things I wanted to change – I just became fixated on the small, short list of things I knew I would never change about myself.  The small handful of things that I would cling to with every fiber of my being, that I would never negotiate, compromise, or deny myself.  For the first time, I began building my life around the foundation of who I really was…

 

Our new starter, Day five.  It’s been about 24 hours now…  This is the sort of sight, that makes you realize how little you really control some things…  If I was the impatient, neurotic imbecile I once was, I might be tempted to just throw this out and walk away from the whole idea, but these days, things like this draw me in further…  This is a part of reaching that mutual understanding about things – You see it one day, off on some meteoric rise, blossoming into something, and the next day it seems almost dead…

It doesn’t smell totally fermented, and there’s almost no bubbles… I’m not sure if it’s risen and peaked, or if it’s not even really begun yet… Swirling it doesn’t seem to do much for it either…

I know it’s new environment doesn’t have all the residual sugars from the grapes, so that could be a big factor in the the intensity, or lack of it…  I’m going to do a little bit of an experiment and see what happens…

I’m actually going to dump out my ‘back-up’, because it looks the same as this one…  I’m going to pull a little bit of this out, and ‘refine’ it one more time.  I’m going to start watching a little bit more closely,  swirl it periodically to see what it’s doing, and see if there’s any new activity…   I’m not going to do anything to the main starter yet, just give it a swirl, and time to hang around a little bit more…

…dump out the old ‘backup’, clean the bowl and re-use, starting with some from the other bowl……

…I think you know the drill… 

…We’ll check back more often, swirling it around every few hours… 

 

 

Our new starter, Day four. It’s been about 24 hours now – and it looks like the sort of thing that might be useful someday… It’s starting to get a fairly good aroma to it as well, not just wine-y but a whole array of other smells as well. As you might have noticed, not only is time relative to the yeast, but using your senses, namely sight and smell, is important. You begin to develop a different means of knowing it, or understanding what’s going on. A couple words of caution; A starter that begins to turn pinkish-orange, or grey, or has an excessively cheese-y smell, should be tossed out…

 

Using sight and smell together, you can ascertain a lot of useful information without really measuring anything… It might look active, but not smell too different from the flour and water slurry it began as, so it should sit a while more… It might look active, smell ‘fermented’, so it’s probably at it’s peak… It might not look active, but smell really ‘fermented’, it’s probably peaked, and needs to be replenished before you do anything with it.

 

we’re going to repeat the step of refining again and again – at least 3 or 4 more times. Not only are we looking to keep letting the dominant strains multiply, but we’re going to pay more attention to how fast it comes to it’s peak, and how long it stays there. At some point, I may look at putting it in the refigerator to retard, or ‘hold’ the fermentation at a certain stage, depending on how this one behaves… but for now, we’ll be repeating what we did last time…

…dump out the old ‘backup’, clean the bowl and re-use…

…same drill as last time; lightly whisk the original, remove enough to fully cover the bottom of the bowl…

…feeding time…

…whisk the flour and starter together, then add warm water ‘til it becomes a thick, batter like consistency…

…feeding time for our new ‘backup’…

…same here, too; return both to their safe dark spot; check on it in about 12 hours…

Our new starter, Day three.  It’s apparent things have really taken off.  Visually, there’s a nice foamy layer across the whole surface, and it’s beginning to smell a lot different.  Wild yeast starters won’t smell like the traditional yeast you might be familiar with, because there are multiple strains, all doing their unique thing.  This one smells a little bit ‘wine-y’ with a bit of a sour note to it, but nothing too powerful yet.

Since fermentation is strong, we want to keep it going, as well as ‘refine’ it.  We’re going to give it a new home – at least a small bit, and we’re going to start a whole new ‘party’ over there…  The importance of this is to keep it with a constant supply of food, and to give the dominant strains a place to continue multiplying.  Since there’s always the chance that something might happen with the second version of this starter, I always keep the first one as well.  We’ll remove the grapes, add a little bit of flour and let it hang around, just in case.

…A bowl for our second venue, removing the grapes from the original…

…lightly whisk the original and remove about a 1/4 cup… no need to measure, just enough to fully cover the bottom of the bowl… 

…add about double or three times the amount of the starter in flour… 

…whisk the flour and starter together, then add warm water ‘til it becomes a thick, batter like consistency… 

…whisk in some flour to the old starter, about equal the amount you took out, add a bit of water to balance it out… 

…cover the new starter with some plastic wrap… 

…return both to their safe dark spot;  we’ll check on this in about 12 hours… 

 

Our new starter, Day two.  I looks like something might be on the verge of taking off…  Small bubbles around the perimeter of the bowl and around the grapes are the tell-tale sign of fermentation.  The yeasts feed on the sugars, and give off alcohol and carbon dioxide.  Some of the other things in there will begin to break down starches into acids…  It smells about the same.  We’ll check on it in a little while, and give it a gentle swirl every few hours now…

 

Our new starter, day one.  It looks like there’s some ‘separation anxiety’ going on, but it’s probably OK.  The flour will settle out a bit, and the water will take it’s natural place on top…

We’ll just look inside, and see if anything is going on yet…

… no visible yeast activity yet, and still smells like it did yesterday…

…give it a gentle swirl, cover it, and put it away ‘til tomorrow… 

Swirling will allow you to gently mix it.  At this point, we don’t want to contaminate it, even though we are slightly, just by opening it… don’t get out a spoon or a whisk or feel the need to get everything mixed up again…

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