Tasting the earth
Finding new flavors in familiar foods
This is the free version of my newsletter. If you want to support my writing, please consider a paid subscription for yourself or a gift subscription for a friend.
You can also join me on Patreon, where you get the same benefits as my paid subscribers here.
If you can't afford the paid newsletter, but it would be an asset to you in your own culinary/writing/creative journey, please reach out and we'll figure something out!
If you've never smelled it, mountain mint smells like roses mixed with the planks of old hardwood floors, regularly cleaned and loved and holding a thousand stories. And of course, like mint. But it’s a mint grounded by an earthiness, one that's bright and hopeful and fresh, while rooted the taste and scent of the soil.
Mountain mint (Pycnanthemum virginianum) refers to many different mints, each with its own taste and aroma, but that earthiness balanced with bright coolness is something I experience with each of them. These plants smell like home to me, especially when dried into tea or made into a hydrosol (made by distilling herbs with water, rosewater being a famous example). Of course, using it fresh is the ideal, coarsely chopped and sprinkled on desserts, whisked into salad dressing, or mashed up with garlic and citrus as a marinade for kebab.
I love infusing mountain mint in oil too, but I find something interesting happens: The minty flavor stays, but it becomes almost one-dimensional. Gone are the rich, earthy notes that round out the bright zip of the mint. Left in its place is a mild, refreshing mint aroma. Delicious, to be sure, but changed.
Seasonal eating is rooted in a practice of eating and preserving what's growing now, but my mint experiments have raised a question for me: How do the flavors we coax out from one season and pull forward into the next might change over time? Or, in other words, how does the act of preserving something also ask us to engage in change?
One of my favorite new-to-me discoveries last year was coaxing umami out of shiso, which grows like a weed throughout my yard in late summer. Shiso (perilla frutescens) is indigenous to the Himalayas and Southeast Asia, later moving east to Japan and Korea, where it appears in many forms as a pickle, fresh garnish, and seasoning (it's also used in some cases to dye pickled ginger).
Working with shiso is a great example of using invasive plants in your area as a food source, but also a great example of how our choices in food preservation techniques change the flavor of the thing we're preserving. In addition to using them fresh, I like to pickle the leaves in rice wine vinegar and soy sauce, or salt pack the buds for a unique caper-like treat.
The salted buds, in particular, are fragrant and surprisingly savory, with a nice crunch to boot. When you find the umami in shiso, you lose the herb’s minty edge that we so often associate with the fresh leaves. But as forager Mallory O’Donnell said in a recent conversation with me, “that flavor is easy to find elsewhere.”
And it is: the mint family has over 7000 species, but each has its own unique flavor profile (for cultivated mints, think of the flavor difference between peppermint and spearmint), whose members can be found around the world. With all this variety, and the range of flavors we can elevate or nudge to the background depending on how we prepare them, we're offered a vast playground of possibility.
As someone who does my best as a 21st century city dweller to live close to the earth and in tune with the seasons, I'm often aware of the constancy and necessity of change. For a plant or animal to exist across seasons, it has to possess a certain hardiness or have access to whatever will help it survive (shelter, a temperate climate, etc.) I love watching the interplay between seasonal change and the natural world as each of us adapt to the changing seasons, our habits and bodies shifting to warming or cooling temperatures. Trees shoot out leaves each spring, but by fall their bodies have shifted course, dropping seeds and nuts to ensure a future generation, which become food for wildlife, whose bodies and habits also shift as the weather turns.
As modern humans, it can be easy for us to feel separate from the ecosystem we're a part of, but we still see that connection echoed in our food: Seasonal choices once made from necessity, now out of tradition, habit, and preference. Cold weather comfort food, heavy stews for example, would have been (and still are) made with dried beans and nuts, root veggies, and other things that can keep. But the food I want to eat in summer is fresh, ephemeral, juicy: Warm weather food speaks to the abundance that’s springing from the earth, needing little more than a dusting of sugar or a sprinkle of salt to make it shine.
Its ephemerality is part of the magic: a reminder that change is the one thing we're guaranteed. As I begin once again to eat through the long, warm Georgia summer, I'm tapping more deeply into the ways each choice I make in preserving my food alters the ultimate flavor I get from each ingredient. Incorporating wild foods into my diet has opened entire worlds of possibility on this front, but these alterations happen with our domesticated crops too: think sundried tomatoes versus fresh, or sauerkraut versus a head of cabbage.
I'm looking forward to exploring, as I do each year but perhaps with fresh eyes this year, how each preserve I make connects to change: Not only in its flavor and texture, but how it connects to the larger context of changing seasons. Are there certain preserves I reach for in certain weather? At certain times? And, does branching out and changing how I preserve each food and the flavors I pull out shift when I want to enjoy it? Food continues to capture my attention because it's as much about learning as about existing knowledge, and I'm curious to see what I'll learn this time.
I'll be leading workshops on storytelling through food in Alaska next month, including an event at the Anchorage Museum.
Details TBA, but if you're in the area please join me! Event details will be on my social media (@rootkitchens, @bookishjulia) and on their website.
I’m starting to plan my book tour for later this year, including a launch party here in Atlanta with some fermentation friends. If you have ideas for stops you’d like me to make, or want to host a talk, please reach out!
For paid subscribers, I've added a downloadable step-by-step fermentation workbook to our shared content library. As always, if you need the link, please let me know!
This year, I’m inviting readers to join me in brief vision journaling exercises each month to help us intentionally craft a meaningful and hopefully joyful 2022. You can learn more and see the year’s prompts here.
This month’s journaling prompt is:
What does health look like to me? How does it feel? What practices do I embody? How does having a healthy body translate to the rest of my life?
I've been pulling together playlists of cozy background sounds to have on during my writing practice, and to share with my writing clients.
I'm a longtime lover of Tree.fm, with recordings of forests around the world, but recently also learned about Cosy in Bed, with cozy ambient sounds also from around the world, streamed 24/7
I am a perennial fan of David Zilber's insights on the world, including this piece on inbetweeners.
Like our sonic landscape, the smell of our environment has changed over time. These researchers are looking to recreate scents of the past.
Saint Hildegard von Bingen is one of my favorite Medieval figures. This article has a recipe for her cookies of joy, and a profile of her work as an herbalist and mystic (among other things).
Thank you to Pat Willard for talking about my recent beer-related Unplated interviews in her newsletter, which sends along some enjoyable food-related tidbits each week.
I enjoyed this piece by Irina Dumitrescu, on the importance of thoughtful criticism in the world of writing.
And finally, this piece on the Ukrainian roots of modern wheat, and breadmaking, beautifully written by Amy Halloran.
Sunflower and Sesame Tasty Paste
I first learned about tasty pastes from Kirsten Shockey of The Fermentation School and Cheryl Paswater, and we made them together during the Preserving Abundance weekend several years ago. Sunflower and sesame tasty paste has become a standby in my kitchen, and you might remember a reference to it in my recent interview with Narinder Elizabeth Bazen, who loves cooking it into greens.
I'll vary how much sesame vs sunflower I'll add to a given batch depending what I want the final product to taste like. More sesame tends to be lighter in flavor and a tad creamier, while sunflower tends to be more sour and earthy. I tend to let this paste only ferment for 4 or 5 days, and ferment it in a jar that's got a bit of extra headroom because the mixture sometimes expands as it ferments.
1 c sesame seeds
1 c raw sunflower seeds
1- 1 1/2 tbsp sea salt
1 tbsp koji
-Combine your sesame and sunflower seeds, salt, and koji in a jar
-Add water just to cover, stir well to combine, and seal the lid tightly
-Check your ferment daily, pressing it down with a clean spoon to release any trapped air bubbles
-After 4 or 5 days, place in a blender or food processor and process to the consistency you'd like (I usually leave mine kind of chunky since I mix it in with sauteed and roasted veggie).
-Store your tasty paste in the fridge.