agua fresca de la casa

Since moving to California, I’ve become intrigued with Mexican cuisine. There’s a simple explanation for this new obsession: The serious dearth of authentic Mexican food in my hometown. (Carlos and Murphy’s anyone?) Even upstate New York blew me away with its variety of south-of-the-border-style fare. It was there I learned the pleasure of the tostada, and tasted what God had in mind when he created burritos.

And then, along came Southern California, taking me gently by the hand and saying, “little Canadian—how much you still do not understand.”

Though my first taste of horchata came in New Mexico, my first time making it happened right here in my new coastal home. I’d subsequently tried the creamy beverage in a few different tacquerias (to different levels of satisfaction), and I wanted to learn how to make the nutty refresher the old-fashioned way.

Consulting a version that included mashed strawberries from The New York Times, I forged ahead, omitting the berries and the crushed almond topping. The chef who created the recipe grew up on Mexico City and had authored a few books on the national cuisine, so I figured my horchata was in good hands.

I blanched and peeled almonds. (Trust me, next time I’ll buy them already blanched!) I soaked rice and cinnamon sticks overnight. I pureed and added sweetened condensed milk, that miracle of the canned dairy world. I waited. And then I strained. And strained and strained and strained, watching as precious drips of delicious horchata fell into the pitcher below. So far, so good.

It turned out as good as I’d hoped, though as with all experiments, yielded some lessons and future adaptations. It was far better than the overly sweet, pre-mixed version found at many taco shops, but not quite as good as the one we’d had in New Mexico with shaved ice. Next time I’d find a way to get shaved or crushed ice into my drink. Also, I found the final product too sweet. (Shockingly, the original article says that if you want it even creamier, to add a second can of S.C.M!! Ummm, no thanks, I’m not training for an Ironman—yet.) To counteract this, I’d add an extra cup of regular or evaporated milk to the finished product to “water” it down just a bit.

My second agua fresca came about in a manner similar to the aforementioned milky nectar. I had ordered my first tamarindo in the very same New Mexico taco shop, and when I arrived in California, the tart drink was available everywhere. When I found a huge bag of fresh tamarind pods at North Park Produce (the place I was so lovingly mocked for my enthusiasm at tamales), I saw visions of icy glasses of tamarindo dancing in my head.

As I cracked open my first sticky-sweet tamarind pod, a substance I’d only ever seen before in jars and packets of paste, I was intrigued. The pod cracks and falls open easily between the pressure of your fingers, like a perfectly boiled egg. Beneath it, five or six hard beans, the color of dark chocolate, lie encased in a sticky, date-like substance. Holding all the beans together is a netting you must pry each pod from, as if it were a precious fish meant to feed 5,000.

Homemade tamarindo, as I’d soon find out, was no quick task. But I’d made it myself, standing over my tiny counter, in my tiny apartment just five blocks from the coast, freeing all that delicious paste from its netting and then cleaning it off each hard pod. I followed a random internet recipe loosely, using all the pods in the bag (instead of the prescribed 1/3 cup), and boiling them with a big pot of water and some sugar. I set it in the fridge to “steep” overnight, just like the horchata, before straining it through a sieve.

The process was therapeutic—I was alone. It was rewarding—the citrusy drink would last a week in my fridge, refreshing, especially mixed with some soda water and ice. The world of Mexican beverages, like the food, was just beginning to open before me.

Continue reading


My weekend was filled with firsts. My first smart phone arrived in the office mail late Friday, and I rode the metro home with the box tucked into my bag, excited to spend a homey evening in, importing and consolidating my contacts, and downloading free applications (I’m particularly excited by the ones from epicurious and public radio).

the brewery's offerings

I’ve always thought of myself as fairly un-technological,  and now here I am, an iPhone owner. My life is about to change dramatically.

On Saturday, I did my first D.C. yoga class, and later that day I brewed beer for the first time. Luckily I had my iPhone’s built-in camera to document the process. The quality of the pictures still isn’t up to snuff for fresh cracked pepper, but it will come in handy for those times I just want a record.

packed with people

And as you can see, the record was of the vertical sort. Apparently I didn’t realize my new gadget could take landscape as well as portrait, and here are all my pictures, lovingly rendered in vertical (instead of this blog’s usual horizontal). I laughed at myself when I uploaded them…the learning curve may only continue to steepen!

our working recipe

So after yoga downtown with my housemate, I biked the 13 rolling miles out to the industrial armpit of Alexandria to meet my new friend Rick. He’s the brewer for the church I’ve started attending—St. Mark’s on Capitol Hill. We were convening at Shenandoah Brewing Company, a brew-on-premise and brew-pub rolled into one.

bins of grain

I was expecting the inside to look like its surroundings—bare, soul-less, empty. But the door creaked open into a Willy Wonka factory of beer: cauldrons stewed and steamed away at the periphery of a room full of people. Long wooden tables were piled high with pretzels and chili, the merry makers clinking their pint glasses and getting louder with each passing minute. In other words, I was home. (I later found out that much of Shenandoah’s equipment is from Canada, so I was more home than I even knew.)

grinding our grain

Shenandoah is a special place. Couples, connoisseurs, and (apparently) church people alike come here to brew beer for their weddings, cellars, and in our case, congregations. First, we received our recipe (picture 3 above) for our “steam beer,” the afternoon’s project.  Then, we dipped into the stores of  grain to find our “caramel 60” and “Munich mix” or whatever it was that we needed. We hand-ground the grain into a bucket lined with a cloth filter: basically a giant tea bag.

tying up the "teabag"

Here, the guys are tying the tea bag closed so that it can be lowered into the steaming pot of “wort,” another grain mix that the brewery takes care of beforehand. When that was finished, we added a huge pitcher of sweetener: wort reduced down to a thick, honey-like syrup.

the brewing begins

I stirred the mix as Rick added the sweetener, using an old apple-sauce spoon from Pennsylvania. It was a rugged spoon fit for a Father Bear, and that’s precisely when the thrill of beer brewing hit me. Here I was, bent over the steaming broth of one of my favorite beverages (perhaps my favorite—this fact is still up for constant debate between Mark and I). It was a beautiful moment.

the old applesauce spoon

Next we added the hops. We’d selected two different strains (the names of which I’m now forgetting), distilled into rabbit-food-like pellets that smelled…well, like beer. The first round (“bittering hops”) goes in for 60 minutes, the second (“flavoring”) for 20, and the third (“finishing) for 10, equaling a 90-minute hopped beer when all is said and done.  The reason you do this is because you want the natural preservatives and the bitterness to equal out appropriately.

hops hops hops

My friend Rebecca picked me up for a movie before we could get to the yeasting (see the vials picture following) and the aerating (where the two brew masters push a barrel back and forth between them). After downing an IPA and a Stony Man oatmeal stout, however, I was ready to relax in front of George Clooney and Vera Farmiga’s collective sexiness.

the yeast vials

Go to Shenandoah. It’s worth the trip to the end of the blue line, or, if you have a bike, from the far-flung haunts of Hyattsville.

chocolate syrup you can believe in

There’s something so satisfying about making stuff. As a child of the 80s, boxes and packages of commercially-produced food formed part of my culinary landscape. Hamburger Helper was far from our family table, but the grocery store scene and the post-agrarian commuter town I grew up in did nothing to plant the DIY spirit.  I thought nothing of this situation until I hit my mid-20s, when people I admired started becoming more interested in what this thing called food is all about.

I’m not sure when it started. Maybe I realized it was cheaper to make stuff like granola, rather than buying boxes of the sugar-laced junk. Maybe it was in my early 20s, when I accepted the fact that I actually enjoyed baking and cooking. Maybe it was my first summer tending a garden, when I experienced that constant wonder at a planet that gives so much without asking for anything back.

Somewhere along the lines, I started caring what was in my food. And though there are people out there (some of them who read this blog) who believe that thinking about food diminishes the joy of eating, I’m not one of them. Food is both a pleasure and a necessity. It’s both an end in itself,  and a vehicle for nutrients. It can rollick the senses one day, and just get you by the next.

With the recent peanut butter contamination, people have been up in arms about food safety. And rightly so. Some have been indignant, some informative, others just plain hilarious:  Jon Stewart’s attempt last week to eat a Chinese toy-spinach-tomato-peanut-butter sandwich cracked me up more than his teeth.

It all got me thinking about turn-of -the-century hero Upton Sinclair, who in 1906 shook the U.S. with his novel exposing the horrors of the meatpacking industry. I’ll spare you the details, but Sinclair’s outrage led to that year’s passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act.

After following the pb story, I realized again how literal the term junk food truly is. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no sanitation freak. I’m still well after numerous dirt-flecked garden carrots and trips overseas without hand sanitizer. I’m not the only one who thinks it’s good for you, either. 

But rat hair, maggots, and mildew? No thanks. I’m not going to start making my own ketchup or anything, but the whole racket makes me want to keep as much food preparation under my control as I can. So what I don’t bleach my countertops every second day, at least I try to keep out the FDA’s allowable “30 or more fly eggs per 100 grams.” * 

In the meantime, I just wanted to be able to infuse some chocolate into my (neutrally flavored) protein shakes once in awhile. Is that too much for a triathlete to ask? Whisking in stright up cocoa left it lumpy, and every bottle at the store boasted high-fructose corn syrup as its first ingredient. I’ll take real sugar, thanks.  

So here it is, in all it’s pure, sweet, no-fat chocolately glory. Ready to spoon over commercially-made ice cream, stirred into factory-farmed milk, or into my favorite of the fake protein delivery systems. Isn’t being alive today such a wonderful paradox?

Bring 1½ cups water and 3 cups white sugar to a boil, stirring often. Reduce to medium and whisk in 1½ cups cocoa1 Tbsp vanilla extract¼ tsp salt, and 1 Tbsp honey (if the mixture starts to rise, simply take it off the element while you whisk). Whisk over medium heat until all solids have dissolved. Simmer until the mixture has thickened, strain (if you’re worried about chunks, mine seemed OK) and cool for a few minutes on the counter.

Pour into a squeeze bottle or jar and store in the fridge. Because of the high sugar content and lack of fat, the syrup should keep for at least 6 months. 

*U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). “The Food Defect Action Levels: Levels of natural or unavoidable defects in foods that present no health hazards for humans.”  FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Available here

sheri’s spiced cider

It’s that time of year again when a person just can’t have too many hot beverage options. Coffee first thing. A latte later with a friend. Rooibos in the afternoon. Earl Grey after dinner. To this repertoire of refreshment I’ve recently added a mug of sweet spiced cider before bed.

There are many varieties of cider. From the mulled wine you get in the streets of Munich to the sugary instant mixes you got at a gift exchange 5 years ago—each claims to impart that cozy wintery spirit we all crave. Just don’t make the mistake I did at 16 when I downed 5 mugs of the stuff, not able to tell it was alcoholic.

But there’s another kind, neither spiked with booze nor full of artificial, crystalized who-knows-what. This one has all the best of simplicity and perfect balance of spices. And how could it not? It’s the one I grew up on. Are not our tastebuds conditioned to think that our traditions taste best? 

This “recipe,” for I hesitate to call it that, is virtually foolproof. You get to decide what brand of juice to use and how much of each spice to add. It come together in under 5 minutes, and is the perfect thing to have on hand for unexpected guests.

It’s a little hard for me to feel cozy when it looks more dreary March outside than crisp December. But with a cup of this cider in my hands, I can go almost anywhere. One sip and I’m transported home.  

And in just two weeks, a train will take me where this humble cup of cheer cannot.

Continue reading

i want you: to drink kefir

If you’ve spent any time around me lately, you’ve heard me singing the praises of fermented foods. If you haven’t, then allow me to introduce you to kefir, the best thing to come my way since kombucha tea.

As fermentation teaches us, good things take time. And so too with this post. I’ve been trying to craft a really great one for this, my latest obsession. Finally I’ve shot enough photos and schemed enough ways to convince you to bring kefir into your home.

Whether or not I succeed, this is what I’ve got; I happen to think it’s good. Better than does a body good, good. I bring you kefir: beloved breakfast champion, superhero of lactose-intolerants, rescuer of milk + vinegar buttermilk substitutions. Apparently they’ve been doing it for years, and I’ve been stuck in the dark with plain old milk and yogurt laced with added sugar (and who knows what else).

Red Raspberry

Now that I’ve lured you in with the pink tart and tang of a fresh raspberry blend, I’ll show you how it’s done. There are TWO STEPS here. Got that? TWO STEPS. Try to follow the complicated procedure as best you can. Really, it’s very scientific:

obtain some kefir grains from a fellow fermentor*

put the grains into a jar of milk and let everyone hang out for a few hours

Contrary to making yogurt, kefir pretty much takes care of itself. I have tried making yogurt about four times, to no avail. I wanted it so badly, but it just wouldn’t happen: The first time, tasting like the pickles that had occupied the jar prior to it, the second time refusing to thicken. Despite tedious temperature testing and the more sophisticated hot-tub incubation method of the third go, the milk still wouldn’t yogurtize. I gave up, dejected, forced to live with mediocre milk lacking the happy bacteria I’d so earnestly sought.

And then, kefir arrived on my doorstep. My dear mother had heard my plea, and sent me a container of the grains via husband-on-Amtrak, as I had done only weeks prior (with a kombucha colony in a Nalgene bottle). It was all so old-fashioned, trading gifts like this through a handsome rail messenger. We both succeeded in bringing the other over to the world of fermented foods; “good milk,” as Alton Brown says, “gone bad.” Or as I say, “gone better.”

Orange Nectarine

Orange Nectarine

Properly pronounced “keh-fear,” this fermented milk drink comes to us via the Caucasus region, comprising the geographical areas of Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Southern parts of Russia, and North Eastern Turkey. It used to be made in animal skins and hung from doorways. Passersby would bump their heads against the bag, helping to keep the grains and milk well-mixed. In our house we keep it in a jar. We only bop our heads against it once in awhile, but it works out just fine.

Kefir is rapidly gaining on yogurt in popularity. (Go kefir, GO!) You can find it in grocery stores that have a good selection of health foods, but it’ll cost you about double that of yogurt. Now that I’ve got a never ending supply of the stuff, I’ve stopped buying yogurt altogether. It satisfies my craving, is much more versatile, contains even more healthful bacteria, and tastes like the champagne of smoothies.

best supporting actor . . . blueberry blend

Bannana-rific Blueberry

Lactose intolerant people benefit especially from consuming kefir. Why? Well, the yeast and bacteria in the grains survive by eating sugar. Guess what the sugar in milk is called? You got it: lactose. Being the only sugar those little guys can get their jaws on, they quickly gobble up all the lactose and leave a nice tangy product in its place. I’m not lactose intolerant, but apparently kefir (and its cousin yogurt) are more easily digested by such folks. See Alton Brown’s video for a cartoony lesson on the hows and whys.

Strawberry-Nectarine Blend

Strawberry-Nectarine Blend

Not only is kefir wonderful with all the above additions, quickly blended in with a convenient immersion blender, it makes a great buttermilk substitution. I mean, how often do we have buttermilk around, really. But kefir? In our house, all the time. Not only does it make wonderful smoothies, kefir can be used in creamy salad dressings, muffins, quick breads, buns, pancakes, waffles, and ice cream. Yup, you heard that right, and we deem it a success.

Have I hooked you yet?

The other day I was haranguing a friend we’d given kefir grains to turn his kitchen into a probiotic factory like ours. He told me to send him a photo of me, Uncle Sam style, and he’d make me an I WANT YOU TO MAKE KEFIR poster of my very own. I’ve got to get on that. When I do, I’ll post it next to Sammy here…

In the meantime, I’ve got a Mango Kefir Lassi on the kitchen counter with my name on it.

*Sites for finding kefir grains:

International Kefir Community

The Kefir Lady

Kefir Country


Review: Kind Coffee

On Friday I finished the first semester of my journalism masters, also known as bootcamp. The six week program is the SI Newhouse School of Public Communications’ way of welcome us into the world of reporting and story telling, and let me tell you, it lived up to its combative name. Thankfully, I was able to relate a few of my assignments to food.

Over the past month, I barely had time to EAT let alone cook and take pretty pictures for freshcrackedpepper. But I missed it. Instead of scheming and dreaming over farmer’s markets finds, I was churning out story after story on the happenings of Syracuse, whether real or fake. (Click the link to see a video presentation made of our disaster drill).

The one I am sharing with you today I am very proud of. To prepare us for the increasingly multimedia world of news, my team members and I were assigned these “soundslides.” (You’ll start to see more of them on news organizations’ websites.) We had two days, 9-5, to shoot, edit, interview, sound edit, compile and convert all our footage into this package. The topic was “a person with an unusual job,” and since Mark and I used to buy our coffee from this guy before we started roasting our own, I decided he might be a good subject. My team agreed, and here is what we produced. Enjoy!

distractions for the caffeinated

A weekend full of antics with the parents screeched to a halt at a calm sunny Monday. Today, Central New York traded its fiery attire in for a more modest costume of breezy, sit-on-the-porch-all-day comfort. The weekend’s heat wave might have left us withered, but it also coaxed out that summer feeling. Hence a Monday where it was worth getting up before 7, running 7.5 miles, browsing for a dress to wear to a July wedding, and an hour of porch-sitting on a street much quieter than ours.

Getting our replacement espresso machine (scroll down for photo) was a close second to the thrill of having my folks here for a few days. But even the thought of waking up to this beauty every morning isn’t amusing me lately as much as this video. Feast your eyes, feminists and coffee geeks alike:

As with many cultural and historical anecdotes, this video amused and disgusted me. It got me thinking about a conversation I had with friends over wine last week about wanting recognition and appreciation, and how food often provides that — whether we like it or not. Women’s rolls have changed, that is certain. But I have no trouble admitting to a compulsion to feed people I love and be praised for it. Is this not a universal desire for food-lovers, regardless of their sex? I happen to have a darling partner whose quest for the perfect cup of espresso directly benefits me. And I would never, ever think of treating him like this fictional husband treated his wife. Maybe I can just hope it wasn’t actually like that. (Was it?)

Her little cries of “gee,” and wanting to please others to the point of deprecation. Him calling the women at the office “girls.” Her squeals of delight when she finally gets his coffee “right.” The subtleties at the end of a promised reward for her job well done (wink wink, nudge nudge). Sigh. I’m not thinking we’ve got it all right these days either. I’m just thinking wow, they actually got away with that. What will future generations say about our commercials?

And for those of you who care, the latest addition to our colony:


all bottled up

My Kombucha is only 4 days away from sparkly refreshing goodness. The pH reading yesterday registered a healthy 3.0, tasting pretty darn good as well. It needs to be bottled for about 5 days however for it to develop its characteristic fizz, so now I just wait patiently. In the process I’m reminded of how much I like slow food; food, beverages, and whole cuisines that take time are the ultimate antidote to our processed-food craze.

Aren’t they pretty? Strangely, they remind me of the way gas is sold in West Africa — all lined up in variously shaped bottles on the roadside.

We don’t drink Arizona Iced tea, but bought a 12-pack yesterday just for the bottles. A strange reversal indeed; we bought the product for the part most people discard. But it was either that or rummaging around in recycling bins, and I just didn’t have the energy.

It was a really interesting thing to watch, this whole Kombucha thing. The big culture that I started out with in the vat eventually “produced” a new one on top. Some people call this new culture a “baby,” and it provides the basis for the “gift that keeps on giving” nature of the drink. Like sourdough, the culture just keeps going and going . . .

I’ll keep the posts coming about my trials and errors in Kombucha-land!

kombucha: the brew of champions

I first tasted kombucha (kom-boo-cha) tea at a dear friend’s house in Goshen, Indiana, a regular stopover on our Winnipeg – Syracuse jaunt. Our host possesses the kind of leisurely effervescence that makes our time together always feel too short. Last August while standing in her kitchen listening to the rain that had diligently journeyed with us across the Midwest, she burst in suddenly to ask, “have you guys heard of kombucha?

I had, but as is common with me, promptly forgotten about it. Maybe it had seemed like health store hype. But after lifting a glass of my friend’s brew to my lips and letting it fizz and bubble down my throat like an earthy hybrid of tea, beer and champagne, I was sure never to forget it again. But not without a brief moment of doubt:

It took me about eight months to find a suitable “mother” or SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast). I could have purchased one online, but like a sourdough starter or friendship bread, buying locally seemed part of the whole experience. I knew that if I was patient, someone in the Syracuse community would come through.

Yesterday I brought my baby home and left 6 liters of water to de-chlorinate for 24 hours (it evaporates off). Today I started the process of culturing my first, well, anything. Cultured as I may be, now I’ve got nothing on the kombucha fermenting away in my living room.

With some help from Wikipedia, I’ve patched together a briefer on kombucha for all parties: interested, incredulous, or somewhere in between. Kombucha works in a similar way to the old world process of making vinegar: sweetened tea is fermented by a solid mass of microorganisms called a “colony.”

The drink dates back to 250 BC China, where it was named the “Immortal Health Elixir,” for its ability to balance the spleen and stomach and aid in digestion. News of the beverage eventually reached Russia and Eastern Europe as tea became affordable for the average Joe (or Fyodor). The process of brewing kombucha was introduced in Russia and Ukraine at the end of the 1800s and became popular in the early 1900s. The kombucha culture is known locally as chayniy grib, and the drink itself is referred to as “tea kvass” or simply “kvass.”

I’ll keep the updates coming, but for now here’s the basic procedure:

1. De-cholrinate 6 liters of water by letting it sit for 12 hours.

2. Using 2 litres (8 cups) of your de-chlorinated water, make a strong, sweet tea: Boil water, then add 1/3 cup of black (fruit-flavored works well) and green loose tea. I usually throw in some dried hibiscus as well, for a nice rose tint. You can also steep dried berries in with the tea mixture. Experiment!  Stir in between 2.5 – 3 cups of white sugar (don’t use any other sweetener!) and stir until sugar is dissolved. Let the tea steep for 30 minutes.

3. Strain the strong tea into the rest of the de-cholrinated water (shown above).

4. Set the SCOBY safely aside in a bath of already fermented tea (shown above).

5. Let the tea-and-water mixture come to room temperature

6. Gently, and always with clean hands, place the SCOBY into the jar of fresh tea. Pour already-fermented kombucha into the jar (you’ll need about 10% of the final amount to be this “starter.”)

7. The SCOBY mother will either sink or rise, either is OK.

8. Cover with fine cheesecloth and set aside in location with good air-flow and medium light (no direct sunlight or dark closets).

9. Wait 2-3 weeks. Depending on the ambient temperature, the tea will ferment at different paces. Test the PH levels (most people like a tea of between 2.8-3 acidity) or scoop some out and taste to your liking. As time goes by, the PH will fall and the mixture will get more acidic and less sweet.

10. Repeat the process, saving some fermented tea to use as a starter in the next batch.


The Happy Herbalist, though not a well designed site, offers some really useful tips

WikiHow on Kombucha

A thorough article on the drink

He wrote the book

The New Homemaker likes it too

Taste before you culture